“To do writing practice is to ultimately deal with your whole life.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones
I’m not sure people understand how much a small-farm life depends — completely, utterly, wholly — on creativity. Or how quickly it collapses in the absence of it. I’m not sure even I understood it before.
I’ve been trying to come up with a metaphor for the peculiar feeling I’ve been inhabiting for nearly two years now. As long as I have been settled, however unnervingly, in this space I have tried to describe it. For me. For The Man. For you. For the sake of the practice of writing which I have missed so dearly but have also been completely and utterly paralyzed away from. Periodically throughout this time I’ve had bursts of creative energy, and I’ve continued the kind of quiet behind-the-scenes contract writing and communications work I’ve always done, of course; bills must be paid. But never once have I felt the flow to which I had become accustomed. Never once did I sit down here, nestled up to the old wooden library table that was once my Grandpa’s and then my Mom’s and finally now mine, and feel the familiar slide into the rhythm of storytelling.
I’ve tried everything. I’ve written with the honey-colored table top as buried in unfinished business and unfiled paperwork as I am. I’ve written with it freshly straightened, cleaned, barren and beautiful and minimalist to its bones. I’ve constructed and demolished and re-constructed offerings to the artistic muses on its surface, just beneath the righthand corner of my computer monitor; teetering black stones The Man and I gathered along the Lake Michigan shore more than a decade ago atop one another in elaborate towers of nostalgia. I’ve lit candles and burned incense and re-arranged knick-knacks. I’ve switched to the lap top and taken it outside, to a coffee house, to the barn. I’ve walked first, before a word has been written. I’ve walked mid-sentence when I wasn’t sure which word should come next. I’ve walked at three in the morning, after staring at a blinking cursor on an empty page for hours. I’ve forced the words onto the page and hated every single one of them. I’ve tried taking pictures first and then writing about them, and writing with a picture I wanted to take later in mind. I’ve written while drinking a steaming mug of vanilla caramel chai, a bright white coffee cup of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a tall sweaty glass of iced black tea, a fizzy coke in a can, a glass bottle, a mason jar filled with ice, and a perfectly poured glass of my favorite red wine. I’ve tried to write with a Border Collie on my feet and under my feet, and — much to their chagrin — with all the dogs locked out of the office. I’ve written with a barn kitten curled asleep in my lap and immediately after kicking all of the barn cats out of the house because “they’re barn cats! They don’t belong in the house let alone on the counter! GET THEM OUT NOW!” None of it has worked.
But then the other day I plucked my copy of Writing Down the Bones off the shelf beside my desk and carried it outside for what has become my own little nightly ritual of reading and thinking beneath the stars. (That too began as a hope for a returned ability to write, but then morphed into a practice both unto and for the sake of itself; a story for another time.) For a book that’s been on my shelf since at least 2008, this one is embarrassingly pristine. I don’t think I’ve ever read it all the way through. I distinctly remember thinking it a bit superfluous when I picked it up on recommendation from another writer all those years ago. “Good heavens, lady! Just write!” Of course, at the time I was blissfully unaware that nearly a decade later I would be the one desperately in need of the solace and the advice of a lovely Zen teacher out of Taos. Now, I’ve been scarfing it down ever since.
Later in the book Goldberg writes about “a pile of spiral notebooks about five feet high,” that she began writing in sometime around 1977. (She penned Writing Down The Bones in the mid 80’s so it would have been a little less than a decade later at this point.) She wants to throw them out, but a neighbor convinces her otherwise. Instead she piles them on the neighbor’s doorstep before leaving to teach a workshop in Nebraska. Upon her arrival back home the neighbor stops by to talk about the notebooks, which she’d been reading since Goldberg left them nearly a week earlier, “If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything.” The neighbor tells her that the main thing she saw in the notebooks was a breathtaking persistence. “I saw that you kept on writing even when you said, ‘I must be nuts to do this,'” Goldberg quotes her, and then goes on to explain her philosophy on writing practice further: “When you begin to write this way — right out of your own mind — you might have to be willing to write junk for five years, because we have accumulated it over many more than that and have been gladly avoiding it in ourselves. We have to look at our own inertia, insecurities, self-hate, and fear that, in truth, we have nothing valuable to say… [but when you finally do] it is very stable. You are not running from anything. You can have a sense of artistic security. If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you. Besides, those voices are merely guardians and demons protecting the real treasure, the first thoughts of the mind.”
It’s funny how we put things like this out of our mind. I had forgotten how this began — this blog, this farm, this very life of mine — as a writing practice. Or I had at the least taken it for granted. I too have filled years worth of spiral notebooks and the digital equivalent of them. Most have been destroyed now, but some still live on those same book shelves and others in these very archives. All of them were filled with the drivel of the mind and I never gave it much of a second thought. On this I agree with Goldberg once more, I don’t mind people reading my poor writing alongside my better work. I don’t mind them seeing me for who I am. We all want to be seen and accepted in a manifestation that is whole and true. It’s a verification of being human. What I mind is that somewhere along the way I thought, perhaps, that I no longer needed the practice. I had done it once, after all and so when I came back I expected to be able to jump back into writing as if I had never left. But that’s not how it works. That’s now how it’s worked for me. If I’m to come back fully, perhaps I have to embrace what “fully” entailed; most essentially the practice, the dealing ultimately with the whole of life. Even when it’s messy and I don’t have anything valuable to say. And in so doing, perhaps there will even be a metaphor for where I’ve been in the meantime.