Thursday, November 6, 2014

these posts are my scraps

A week or two ago I finished a heartbreaker of a book. Those are always the hardest to follow, so I waited on what I should read next. Some kind of presence nudged me to a book I've had on my shelf for a few years, one I bought at a used bookstore because I'd heard good things about it, and there it was, gently loved and only $7. It's called The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers. I'd been thinking about this book a lot over the past few months, but it's one about writing and I try to be careful about these books because they can lead to procrastination without a whole lot learned.

But this book is renewing my confidence in books about writing. Every chapter is exactly what I need to hear to the very hour. Last week, for example, I had been revising an essay in which my former housemates are mentioned. As a courtesy, I'd been planning to send them the essay to read before I submitted it, but as I got closer to finishing it, I became more and more anxious about having them read it. I made a few last changes and sent it off, hoping I'd explained myself well enough in my emails to them. Then I drove home from the coffee shop where I'd been working and finished reading the chapter called The Wicked Child, which is really about the risks of writing about your tribe, your community, your family. This essay wasn't about them per se, but it involved my time living with them, which makes it about us. The author had a bunch of helpful admonitions for me, many of which I'm still chewing on. This one sticks out:

I can't think of a risker business than writing. Not only because so few succeed in conventional terms, with publication and some payment, but because it almost certainly requires banishment. First, there is the literal act of removing oneself, of choosing solitude. Then there is the psychological separation, holding oneself apart. And finally, the potential rejection of friends and family, critics and publishers... But you cannot censor yourself; successful writing never comes about through half-measures.

More on that another time - maybe. What I really wanted to write about is what she starts with, which is answering the question about why one should write. She calls the chapter The Ambivalent Writer. She's an editor, so she knows how many of us are just that. Most of her advice is reminiscent of Rilke (a la "must I write?') but in modern and straightforward terms, and taking it a step further to encourage us to unearth not just an obsession to write but what our obsessions compel us to write. Finding form and subject is like finding a mate, she writes. "You really have to search, and you can't compromise -- unless you can compromise, in which case your misery will be of a different variety." She writes about honoring the forms and subjects that invade our dreams and diaries, of mining the scraps of what we write, and of listening to the voices that keep calling to be written.

As you might gather from my erratic posting, I struggle with knowing what to write about. That's part of the reason my job works well for me -- they tell me what to write about, and usually I'm able to do it with some enthusiasm. Though let me tell you that they day they took me off Urology as one of my designated programs, I was a happy woman. Even that tells me something -- I enjoy writing about my organization's efforts to address spiritual or emotional challenges and support patients beyond the bedside, or studies about how cancer affects large populations of people, or the disease's impact on women. Sorry men, my writing heart is not beating for your prostates, not now anyway.

But something I'm hopeful about is that some of the most random or messy posts here could still be useful because they can point to write I notice and what calls to me. They tell me what I care or notice enough to write about. They are my scraps that I can mine.

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