Diving into the Darkness

As a creative, I look for windows into the human psyche wherever I can find them. I listen to conversations in the booth behind me at my local coffee shop (I know. Bad). I watch interesting documentaries on Netflix, pay attention to the lyrics in folk songs, read essays and poems, and watch indie films.

Almost more than anything else, I listen to podcasts.

Podcasts have an advantage over other forms of media because I can consume them while I’m running or washing dishes. I’ve written before about how well-chosen episodes stay with me for days, even weeks, after I’ve listened to them. They send my mind down new paths and bring fresh insight into old problems. All of this helps me craft better stories.

Recently, though, I’ve had to call it quits on one of my favorite genres–true crime.

The problem is I get into the habit of binge listening to one horrific incident after another. I’m riveted by them, but my spirit sinks with each gory detail. I notice I don’t feel like going for my afternoon run or talking to my kids when I’m on a listening jag. Worse, I dream about crime and often waking up groggy and disoriented. Finally, I start obsessing about how God sees all the wickedness people commit against one other, and how he could stop it but often doesn’t. At least not in this life.

I’m left lethargic and on edge.

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So, yesterday, I went to my playlist and deleted my crime shows. I sort-of hated to do it because, as I’ve (also) mentioned before, I’m waiting to hear back about the status of my novel, and listening keeps my mind off things, at least for 30 minutes at a time. No amount of distraction is worth the emotional darkness, though. I’m simply going to have to find another way to survive, and, hopefully, to stay productive and present.

How about you? What do you do to pass the time when you’re in a season of waiting? How much darkness is too much?

On Choosing the Blue Cord

My family and I just got back from a short vacation in the mountains where we celebrated my in-laws’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Fifty years is longer than I’ve been alive. It’s more than twice as long as my husband and I have been married. My in-laws make marriage look easy, though I know from 19 years’ experience it’s anything but.

I’m lucky. I have a deep friendship with my husband. We met in college and became inseparable in fairly short order, partly because we shared a major and partly because we just “clicked.” According to statistics, we have an advantage in seeing our marriage through to the end. After all, we married without a ton of debt. Our parents have stayed married to their spouses. We share household and childrearing responsibilities. We bend and flex for each other’s careers. Most importantly, we share a common religious faith.

Still, it’s hard to stay married, sometimes. Even for us.

As I stood on the back porch of our mountain cabin, I noticed two saplings tied together by a blue cord. They pressed against it in opposite directions, clearly wanting to grow apart, but someone had made sure they couldn’t. The blue cord holds them together no matter how hard the wind blows or how their own intertwined roots might cramp them.

Me, too, little trees. Me, too.

We choose our own cords, I thought. My in-laws chose theirs, and fifty years later, we are all better for their dogged determination not to untie themselves when things (inevitably) got hard.

I hope my children will say the same about my husband and me someday.

Surviving the Social Life

Am I allowed to say something that’s already been said a million times?

Okay. The internet is mean. Social media, at least. Twitter specifically. I’ve only dipped my toe in the social whirlpool in the last couple of months. Even then, I only did it because you know what “they” say: you have to be searchable to survive.

I can’t even call it a love/hate relationship cuz there’s no love.

Most of my interactions have been pleasant enough, up to this point, because I’ve worked hard to keep them that way. But today I felt the Twitter wind in my face when I least expected it. I’m not cut out for this kind of anonymous conflict (and, to be clear, I didn’t court it with thoughtless or mean words. I asked a follow-up question on someone’s post). I’m not a troll, but I was treated like one. The whole exchange left me confused and sad.

It’s one thing to develop a thick skin because I’m sending my manuscript out to publishers who might not understand it or (worse) ignore it. That kind of toughness makes professional sense, though it’s not easy to cultivate. It’s another thing to try and change my personality.

Today left me wondering if social media toughness is something I need or want to develop. And let’s say I can’t. Then what? Do I avoid the whole scene altogether? Is that publishing suicide?

What I know is this: writing is extremely important to me. But so is emotional wellness. I want to be published. But I also want to feel safe.

I continue to wonder if both things are possible.

On Living This Moment Well (And the One After That)

My agent just sent my manuscript to three big publishers. Now there’s nothing for me to do but to continue my daily life, to not allow my thoughts to burn in a fire of what-if’s since I’m not promised tomorrow–or even 2:30 this afternoon. I want to wait well, though, so far, I am not successful.

My sister brought this beautiful Wendell Berry poem to my attention. For me, it sums up the struggle of being a human ruled by time.

“From the Crest”

I am trying to teach my mind
to bear the long, slow growth
of the fields, and to sing
of its passing while it waits.

The farm must be made a form,
endlessly bringing together
heaven and earth, light
and rain building back again
the shapes and actions of the ground.

Wendell Berry, Collected Poems (San Francisco: North Point, 1985), 190-91.

I would like to cool my mind, to accept the good gifts God gives me in the time He chooses to give them, or, maybe, to accept the withholding of them. I would like to teach my mind to bear long, slow growth, both today and tomorrow (if I’m still here).

Love > Art

My sister blew in to town this week. She’s one of my best friends, and I’m always happy when I get to see her. At the same time, I got my manuscript back from my agent. She had some ideas about things I should tweak to make my story stronger. Also, she wants me to up my mileage on social media (not something that comes naturally to me).

In other words, I have work to do.

But my sister lives hours away, and I don’t get to see her and my nieces and nephew very often. I don’t want to miss a minute with them.

This is how it always is: God gives me little opportunities to choose the most important thing in any given moment. Sometimes I choose the wrong thing. Sometimes I’m selfish or short-sighted. But this week I chose my sister, and I’m not sorry. It doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about my manuscript the whole time she’s been here because I sure as heck have. It just means I’ve been able to see things more clearly this time. I’ve been able to focus on what’s most valuable right now.

Writing is important, but people are more important. No amount of writing about people can make up for not actually loving them. So I chose the real characters in my life. And I chose to live a story instead of write one. This week, anyway.

The End.

When Everyone Wins

I teach creative writing at an education co-op my teenagers attend. I don’t love teaching. I do it because it means I don’t have to pay my kids’ tuition. But it’s offered more benefits than free classes, it turns out.

I hate colored pencils.

I’ve leveled up in my writing this year. Part of that is likely due to better discipline in my daily writing habits and partly to attending what I call the School of Revision. But I’ve come to believe it’s also due to grading the creative writing assignments I’ve given my students. I’ve had to explain to them how to make their stories better, how to write with more nuance and subtlety, how not to resort to stereotypes and cliches. I’ve had to figure how to say things so they make sense to kids who haven’t read endless craft books like I have. It’s helped me pay better attention to my own writing weaknesses and capitalize on my strengths.

I don’t know why this comes as a surprise–because it’s not like I haven’t heard that teaching is learning. Maybe it’s because I assume things are true for other people but might not be true for me. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m just feeling humbled and thankful that I grew in my craft while I was busy helping others. Win/win.

On Inching Forward

Today I signed with the literary agent I’d been hoping to partner with. She warned me my manuscript would need work, that I’d have to be open-minded and teachable in continuing to shape it. I’m nervous about what I don’t know, but I told her I believe in my story–and I believe in hard work. So here’s to the next stage in the process.

I need this button.

Writing (and Living) on Purpose

Those who know me well know I’m a little crazy for Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. I’m reading a new biography of her life and work, and I’m struck by how single-minded she was about calling her creative vision into reality. She didn’t allow herself to be distracted by things of lesser importance. She didn’t mess around with drugs and experimental living. She understood what she wanted to get across, and she realized the only way to accomplish her writing goals was by being disciplined in her daily habits. O’ Connor destroys the cliche of the tortured, vice-addicted artist. She proves sober people can produce excellent work, too.

And another thing: O’Connor believed in giving herself the time to get her writing right. She worked and reworked her genre-busting novel Wise Blood several times before publishing it–both listening to, and rejecting, criticism of it at various stages. She allowed herself to work slowly and meticulously until she was satisfied with what she’d produced. As a writer living in a culture that glorifies instant success, I’m heartened when I retrace her literary steps. I’m reminded that dedication to good writing means ignoring the push to produce more and move faster.

Clarity of vision, personal discipline, and perseverance may not be sexy, but Flannery O’Connor’s short life prove that they are the keys to producing something of value while living according to one’s values. Whatever else one might say about her, she lived and wrote on purpose. That’s what I want to do, too.

On Shutting Up

I’m a talker, as my family can tell you. As a kid, I forced my younger sisters to be cohosts in my homemade talkshows (full productions, mind you, with commercials and teasers). When I wasn’t hunched in front of a tape recorder, I was cobbling together plays and giving myself the most lines or putting my Barbies between a rock and a hard place and making them talk their way out.

Oh! And I’ve always loved a good argument. I distinctly remember insisting to my mother that one thousand is greater than one million (she closed her eyes before I’d finished).

More words than bangs, even.

This kid has some thoughts to share.

Fast forward to now. While I (mostly) know how to curb my verbal enthusiasm as an adult, I still love a good debate. Or  an impassioned monologue. Or a play. I listen to an ever-increasing line-up of podcasts and dream of hosting my own someday. I explain my teenagers to death. I give my husband the backstory.

Increasingly, though, I’m convinced that the way to be a good human (and storyteller) is to be a good listener.

Of course, listening to other people carries some risk. I might hear something I don’t like, for instance. I might have to give up an opportunity to argue my point or to correct someone’s misunderstanding. I might feel uncomfortable, for crying out loud.

But it’s the only way to grow in empathy. And to become a better listener, one needs to practice. I figure it’s a skill like anything else, and one of the ways I’m developing it is by reading voices different from my own and attempting to understand where they’re coming from. It feels less intimidating than sitting across from someone and staring into her eyes while she pours her heart out (though I’m trying to do that, too). Yes, I think reading is helping me listen better. I think it is. I hope. (You can ask my teenagers).

What about you? Are you a good listener? Do you seek out perspectives different from your own and try to understand them?

Ride This One Out

I came across this poem today (thanks, Rod Dreher). I’m trying to ride out some specific things in my tiny world, so it seems especially apt. Maybe it comforts you, too?

white and black moon with black skies and body of water photography during night time
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Ride This One Out

Ride this one out, as you have done before.
Batten down what can be battened. Reef
What can be reefed, avoid the white sea-shore,
Do not expect a rescue or relief.

Endurance is its own kind of relief.
The other ships are sinking. You must be
Hope’s light for them, the north star of belief,
Time’s substitute for lost eternity.

And so resist the onslaught of sad thoughts,
That useless, wavering activity
Of mind stretched to its raveled uttermost.
Resist the hopeless cries, the grim reports.
Resist the landsman’s way, to hate the sea.
And hold on for the final sunlit coast.

Frederick Turner