Vital

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir, Slipstream. I love British authors because of the way they speak, the words they use, the sound of their sentences. We have a language in common, and yet the way they use it sounds so much better. I wouldn’t call myself an Anglophile on any other day, but I wallow like a happy hippo in her writing. (Rosamunde Pilcher is another good one, and from the same era).

What’s fascinating to me is how unformed Elizabeth was as an adult, how uncertain. She grew up largely uneducated and very naive in a family with stiff-upper-lip syndrome, who had trouble acknowledging talents or encouraging accomplishments and expected nothing more from her than to marry well and maybe learn to type (she came of age during World War II when everyone was trying to do his or her part). As a result, she literally had no idea who she was or what direction to take in life. She did not know what floated her proverbial boat. So she tried acting, she got married to someone she didn’t love and had a child she was totally ill-equipped to care for, and eventually decided she wanted to write, mostly because ideas for novels and plays and stories kept cropping up in her head and there was nothing to do but write them down. She spent much of her early writing days without discipline, fitting it in between her many odd jobs to pay the bills and her many failed love affairs. Her art suffered. But it never went away, and she realized, eventually, that she owed something to it.

Her art—her writing—saved her. It gave her reason to grow up. It gave her license to learn a thing or two about herself, and to turn all the swirling doubts and insecurities and bewildering experiences into something tangible that could be shared in a cathartic way with the world.

Which leads me, oddly enough, to George W. Bush (former president, that is, though he was never my president). Politics aside and the past over and done with, I now see, as many of you probably have, that he’s been doing a lot of painting. People want to critique it, of course, maybe even have some laughs at his expense. Others may think it’s pretty amazing that a world leader of such un-sophistication had it in him. But me? It makes me smile. I mean truly smile, like I’m looking upon a kid from the sticks going off to Juilliard to study music.

Clearly I don’t know him, and I can’t say for certain, but my guess is that in practicing his craft and painting all those portraits, he has changed. Opened. I imagine him in a light-filled studio at home, swiping a brush across a rough canvas to capture the shadow of a jaw. Perhaps he looks upward and outward these days. Perhaps he feels the beating of his own heart, sees new colors in the world. Perhaps he wonders more than he speaks.

My favorite stories are the ones about problems and failures. On The Writers Room and in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, co-creators of HBO’s series The Game of Thrones, talk about when they showed the finished pilot episode to a room full of trusted friends. When it was over, someone said, “You’ve got a massive problem,” and the ever-conscientious D.B. Weiss, who must have been a good student in his days, scrawled across the page of his notepad, “Massive problem.” They were embarrassed, of course. They were just trying to follow a jolt of inspiration and make a good show; they didn’t know how it would be received, and certainly didn’t expect that kind of reaction to it. Ultimately they had to re-shoot the pilot, fill in the holes, re-think, re-do. Now look what it’s turned into.

Their art was not without tangles and exposed wiring. Their art did not come out of the womb perfect and shiny and baby-soft. But it was their art, nevertheless, and they learned from it and by it…and eventually the rest of the world got to soak in its mastery. They now get to wake up every day with an inch more of gumption, of commitment to the story’s final scene. Their art keeps them honest.

Art. There should be a tagline: “Makes you grow.”

It’s a Mystery

So I’ve been gone for awhile.

I will try for a graceful re-entry, but I’m not exactly sure how to do that, so bear with me.

Maybe I can start by explaining something:

I’ve had a wary relationship with this blog since I started it several years ago. It’s actually more difficult for me to seek the spotlight now than it ever was. But even as our fame-hungry culture makes me cringe, I still give in to moments of self-fascination.

Personal hang-ups and contradictions aside, writing is a lone venture, and unless you want to write only for yourself (by all means a worthy thing), you kind of need people to read your work. Hence, you experiment. You stay open to ideas. You start up a blog because someone told you to. Then you might leave it all behind for awhile until you can re-evaluate (like I did).

About three or four months ago I needed to make a decision. Do I scrap the blog and focus on just writing my books? Or do I consider the writing impulse within me as an indication that it can—indeed should—be shared in more than one way?

After two conversations—a serendipitous one with a kind stranger and an emotional one with an old friend—the answer began to materialize. Then a third conversation happened, with myself, and it went like this:

Me: “I don’t like my blog.”

Other Me: “Why?”

Me: “I didn’t write anything good. It all seemed so pointless.”

Other Me: “Are you sure about that? Go back and look.”

Me: “I really don’t like sharing myself in this way. It feels fake. There are nine million other blogs out there with people doing the same damn thing. This is all so stupid. I just want to write books.”

Other Me: “Stop distracting yourself with drivel. Did you go back and look? Go back and look.”

Me: “OK, fine. Geez.”

I did go back and look. That’s partly how I found out that I’ve changed and grown a bit. The motivations I had back then were inclined toward the superficial (how does this make me look?), but also the tentative (do I have permission to even call myself a writer?). I wasn’t convinced, but I wanted everyone else to be.

And yet, I found that I loved the girl who was writing back then. I loved her words. I loved what was making her tick. I loved what she had discovered and was eager to talk about. I loved that she took a chance despite trepidation. I loved that she set down a few rough, raw stones on the path upon which I still find myself walking.

Ultimately I decided that whatever the vehicle, whatever the outcome, I accept the gift of writing I’ve been given, and therefore I accept its challenges both to my persona and my soul.

So. How will it go from here?

If I may borrow the wise words of Philip Henslowe in Shakespeare in Love: “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

Blind Inspiration

I didn’t really know what blind inspiration was – when it came to writing – until I went through a break-up that changed my life.  And part of why my life changed is because I wrote myself out of the darkness.  In doing this, I re-wrote the story.  I took the characters whom I knew well and shifted their paths, found their reasons to grow and move forward on the pages.  I didn’t fully realize what I’d done until after I’d done it.

I’m looking for that same inspiration again.  I have an idea for a third novel and have done some preliminary research.  But I’m waiting for that hook into my soul.  You know, you fellow writers:  the reason why some of us carry around a notebook ready to jot down an idea…the reason why some of us like to sit in a room full of people, content to be in silence so that we can just observe.  My friends have started asking me, “Am I going to be a character in your next book?”  The answer is always “no.”  You won’t be a character, but your alter-ego might.

Of course, if you’re a jellyfish, a 30-something architect from Portland, a young man married to a Hollywood starlet, an eight-year-old boy, or a small-town teenager (wait, there are seven of you) – to name a few – then you’re already in.

But I’m open to new ideas.  If you can be the hook to my soul, then let me know.

Gleam Together

I have a friend in television — a broadcaster — who has that cool rhythmic flourish down when he writes his stories.  I have another friend who used to turn out one witty results summary after another for our office football pool.  Even my friend who got her Ph.D. must have injected — after many cups of coffee and a staredown with a pile of notes — a certain style into her dissertation. 

And with any of these people, with anyone who picks up the pen with the intention to craft a fine, sparkling sentence, it comes to this:  that feeling you get of familiarity and honor when you read another’s work.  From a former dancer’s perspective, it’s like when you watch another dancer do seven pirouettes and then stop on a dime, a gleam in her eye to match the gleam in your own.

It’s that place without ego, when all competition ceases.  It’s that moment when the sharing of words is greater than anything else.  No matter how innocuous and unassuming, nor how large and encompassing those words are, we stop and grin and gleam together.

Love it.