Stories are Everywhere

I’ve been sitting here, staring at that blinking cursor and blank white screen trying to figure out what to write about. Do I write a piece of prose, a bit of nonfiction or fiction, do I write a poem about a tree? There are millions of ideas that float across my mind and like a school of fish they slip past quickly before I’ve had any chance to grab even one. Stories are out there and stories are within, the trick is to start digging away and just write what you see and damn the consequences.

Stories come from our everyday experiences, those seemingly small moments that we don't think are very important but when we begin to unpack them we see something of ourselves. Yesterday I had one such experience, a connection made with a man named George. George has been hanging out in our church yard, using the picnic table to have his breakfast and coffee. George is one of those characters that seem to gravitate toward the church. They are lost, lost in the world, lost in society and lost within themselves. He’s not a dangerous person, he’s not unintelligent, he’s just lost. That is something many people just can't wrap their heads around, that here is a man, who is educated, seems smart and yet can’t seem to find his way. Yet, here he is, struggling. In his mind, in his lostness, he is wrestling with God in his own wilderness. The spiritual struggle some of us go through as we seek our place in this craziness called life.

George and I have now spoken several times and with each conversation another layer of his complex personality is exposed. That he was married, that he was a lawyer, that he had gotten involved with a fundamentalist religious group, and with their blessing went over to Europe to begin a ministry of house churches. Along the way he lost his purpose, he lost his wife and children to divorce and he may have even lost his connection to family and friends.

I sit here, a conduit to God’s grace, a conduit that is in itself flawed by my humanity. I sit and listen, I can offer no quick fix, no special prayers, or some magical incantation, I’m not a Shaman or a mystic, I’m just the person God created me to be. There are stories to be told, to be written down and shared. Stories of our common humanity, of our need for one another, not just when things are going great, but also when we are traveling along a darkened path. Life is a struggle and for some, like George, it is a greater struggle. That is why we need to share these stories because if I were to I be honest, if we were to be honest, there is a bit of George in all of us, that small, scared child who fears what is under the bed or the monsters lurking in the dark closet. Our lives are connected in that mystery we Christians call the Incarnation, the Divine Presence of the Word which called us into being out of the dust.

Maybe that’s why I’m writing this piece, because there are moments when it is easy to get oneself lost. I know there have been those moments, when the darkness of my own mind has overwhelmed me and I found myself struggling to find the path. I don’t believe there is not one human being alive who has not faced their own dark night of the soul, who have wondered about the choices they made and the consequences of those choices.

I read something yesterday stating that what anyone writes is not something original, but mainly a reworking of age old stories. Stories of love, of death, of growing up and coming of age. We all have those stories in the deep well of our memories and it is my task to dip into that well and draw upon those deep waters. Some of the water will be sweet and fresh, and some will be brackish, but it all comes from the same well.

I can say with complete confidence that I am no genius. I struggle with my grammar, I’m unsure of punctuation and word usage, but at least I’m willing to expose these thoughts to the world. Creating anything, whether it is a piece of art, a poem, a story, even a life, requires taking a risk. It’s all too easy to sit on social media posting someone else’s words, it’s something else to post your own. Maybe it is because in taking a moment to try and see the world through the eyes of another, I have been granted a gift and that gift is these words that I write.

Writers Block or Not

I can’t really call it “writers block” since I just read a litany of quotes that deny the existence of such a malaise, for instance:

“I don’t believe in writer’s block or waiting for inspiration. If you’re a writer, you sit down and write.”

– Elmore Leonard

“I haven’t had trouble with writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly. My first drafts are filled with lurching, clichéd writing, outright flailing around. Writing that doesn’t have a good voice or any voice. But then there will be good moments. It seems writer’s block is often a dislike of writing badly and waiting for writing better to happen.”

– Jennifer Egan

“All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?”

– Philip Pullman

“I’ve often said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; the problem is idea block. When I find myself frozen — whether I’m working on a brief passage in a novel or brainstorming about an entire book — it’s usually because I’m trying to shoehorn an idea into the passage or story where it has no place.”

– Jeffery Deaver
“Writer’s block is a luxury most people with deadlines don’t have.”

– Diane Ackerman

“Lower your standards and keep going.”

William Stafford

I love the last one from William Stafford mainly because, I can’t lower my standards much more than I have already. Then again, what are my standards? That’s a good question and one I’ve never given much thought. Sure, I would love to write that one great piece or that one great novel or poem, but do I really have the stuff, the inner smarts, to write like that? No matter what some may say, I believe that the really great writers have a skill that us mere mortals do not. Somewhere in the genes, in that magical mix that makes us human beings, the great writers got something else, a bonus gene that allows them to see the world through different lenses. Sure, many of us can describe a sunrise or sunset, a forest full of tall pines or the view of the ocean from atop a mountain, but can we see what’s underneath, the glimmer on the glass, the undulating waves, the various shades of green that fluctuate as the shadows of the clouds pass over the distant scene.

There is a sense of the magical, of wonder and desire that some people can easily write about. Love in it’s infinite ways of being, how it feels in the deepest parts of our souls, how just to look at one’s beloved brings a depth of feelings right into the core of who we are. No wonder we say, they are broken-hearted, for love can and does not only break a heart, it shatters the fragile flesh.

There I go again, off on a tangent not at all sure how I got to this point when the point was about writers block and my own style. Maybe, and this is a big maybe, it’s really not a block but a more of a drought. Ideas, ones you thought would make for a great story, once written down seem flat, dead and rather silly. Yet, each day I try to write, something. A small piece, a bit of poetry, micropoetry, something that forces me to dig below the surface and mine the richness that is waiting to be exposed to the light of day. That is if all I discover is a vein of fools gold, it looks all bright and beautiful but upon inspection and retrospection is found to be worthless. As I write this, I’m thinking, isn’t this all part of writing and wanting to write, the self doubt, the fear and wondering if what is written is any good?

I’m sure that most of this sounds familiar to many who have read some of my stuff, it’s become my theme and maybe my vocation. It allows me to express my doubts, fears and inadequacies and put it out there for all to see and read. I also hope that by voicing my own lack of confidence that it might just help someone, who has more talent, to go ahead and write that one piece that has been rattling around in their head for so long. As for me, I’ll continue throwing out the words that I see with my minds eye. I will continue to write knowing that I tend to jump from one thing to another in the most haphazard of ways and really, isn’t that the reason to write?

Lincoln Woods in the ’60’s

It was the annual trip

down to Lincoln Woods

where my dad and uncles

would stand over one of those outdoor grills

chanting their version of the fire song

wondering if they needed more lighter fluid while

watching and waiting for the charcoal 

to finally be hot enough 

to cook the burgers and franks

while another group played horseshoes

the clanging of the shoes against the metal poles

the cheers as someone got a ringer

the moans when a shot knocked it off

while my cousins and I would all run around

out in the fields playing ball or tag or hide and seek

getting bug bites and sunburns

and not stopping to notice

while ma and my various aunts 

would sit under the shade of the oak tree

all wearing the same style summer dress

talking about that one relative

who somehow seemed to be in trouble

it wasn’t until years later 

I understood what trouble meant

realizing that I was once trouble

Letting Go and Learning

 What is it that I’m trying to say? It’s the question I ask every time I sit down and begin to write, what do I want to say and why say it? Maybe every writer goes through this angst, questioning their writing, wondering if it makes sense and if it’s any good. As I continue in my own quest to find my voice, these questions arise more and more as I grind away at my keyboard. It’s a case of the flying monkeys swooping in then scattering all my thoughts like they scattered the poor Scarecrows body. My first thought is over there, my second one over there and my main one is way over there. So it’s always an attempt to take my scattered, messed up thoughts and try to corral them into one place where they can be managed.  

Of course I say this knowing full well that I will never manage these thoughts anymore than I will be able to wrangle a herd of cats in a calm and cohesive manner. The introverted brain, my brain in particular, tends to shift from one thought to the other and never will the two thoughts meet. Not only will they not meet, they won’t even look like they came from the same unstructured mind that bred them in the first place. It’s a wonder that I can even get out my simple little blog never mind write a full blown memoir or story. 

 At some point, I need to find that place, the one that lies deep within, and drill away exposing the riches that lie beneath as well as that vein of fools gold that we all seem to have an abundance. You know, not everything is pretty, not every thought is pure and not every word is golden, yet everything is precious. My memories, our memories, are the libraries we carry with us each and every day. They are the repository of our histories and the way we interpret our surroundings. Sure, one day some historian will slog through the blogs, the Facebook postings, the Twitter feeds, other social media to try and figure out what we were thinking and doing. What will they find? Hopefully they will find our humanity. They will see that we did indeed try to make our world a better place, that we tried to set aside our differences to create a space for every human being. Yes, I know that is a fantasy, given the rhetoric we hear and the negativity of our social media feeds, but somewhere, within all of this crap, lies our better nature. 

 Today, I wrote a poem about my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Toro, who I remember as an autocratic, mean spirited, old lady who seemed to delight in torturing me. All I can remember is her face, dark and foreboding, looking down on me, calling me a liar and sending home notes to my mother telling her of my seedy crimes. Already I was marked and it was then that I learned that not every person, not every adult was nice, honest or kind. It was then I began to build that shell, the one that would protect me from the slings and arrows of words used to hurt. It’s my memory, it’s my history and it’s part of what has formed the person I am today. Without knowing it, Mrs. Toro began laying the foundation of my own journey into writing not realizing that one day she herself would become a topic, a memory, a history that I will mine and drill for all it’s worth.

 These bits and pieces, these stories, all distorted by time and space and by my own imperfect vision, make up what I write today. It’s cutting through, right into the marrow of life, sucking on the richness that lies there, and using it, writing it, telling that story. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry or prose, I tell what I know and in these words a part of myself is revealed, and in a way healed. The shell, so carefully constructed and maintained, is slowly if not painfully being pealed back and now I’m at the time in my life where I feel that I’m ready to tell the tale.

 In Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, I learned that to write one must be willing to deal with those shitty first drafts, to go through a process of just doing it, vomiting words onto a page and then basically killing some of those words to create your story. I’m not sure I’m there yet. My introversion is my security blanket and like Linus I’m loath to let it go for fear of what will happen. So each word, each sentence is a slow, painful process of letting go and learning.

Third Grade Teacher

Her voice was hot,

a heat that blistered

the fragile skin

deep into the dermis

where it festers 

to this day

as I sit here,

wondering

if I would ever live

to know the truth

of what I’m to become,

long since burned

on that day

slowly emerging

from the blackened depths,

reaching out

a tentative hand

that will heal the burn

that runs deep.

My 800 Words

 So, I started watching this Australian show on Acorn, the Brit equivalent of Netflix, about a guy whose wife has died and he moves himself and his kids to a small town in New Zealand. Called 800 Words, it centers on their new life and on his vocation as a writer, a cute show and I’m sure we will continue to watch it but what struck me was the way it treated writing. Now, I’m sure there are writers out there who can just sit down in front of their laptops and the words just spill out in perfect order and symmetry but for myself that’s not the case. In this show, the main character, a writer, does just that, sits at his laptop speaking as he writes with little or no editing. The reason the show is called 800 Words, is that is the title of the column he writes for a newspaper, as he limits his subject to just 800 words.  

When I write, it takes time and I’m constantly editing my work to the point of being a bit overly anal about it. Every word, every sentence, I try to make perfect and this coming from an English class failure. It’s not in my nature just to sit down and write straight out and if I do I’m consumed by doubts and fears that what I’ve written is just pure shit. Lately, I’ve tried my hand at poetry and that seems to go along okay, I’m no where near being a good poet since I have no idea what I’m doing, but it has caused me to reflect on my own style.
 Right now, I’ve got several pieces, of fiction and nonfiction all in various stages of the process. My problem is procrastination, my mind is a turbine of words and thoughts as I try to write, so much so that I tend to get lost in the spinning blades. The only editing the author in this show did was to eliminate one word to make his 800 word limit, I wish it was that easy. Here I am at over 300 words watching the word count meter ticking up as I write, having no idea where I’m going with all of this. 

 Am I a writer? That’s a good question and one I continually ask myself. Eson Kim, one of the instructors at Grub Street in Boston, has been most encouraging when it comes to what I have written, but then that little voice of doubt creeps in saying, “That’s her job. To make you think you can write, after all you’re paying for the privilege of indulging in your fantasy of being the next Hemingway.” Yes, I do have fantasies of being a decent writer, then I wonder if I have the discipline and smarts to be one. Writing daily so many words, tying each paragraph together, developing characters with some depth, the kind of people easily identifiable by the readers who come upon my hieroglyphics. 

 I know I have a story to tell, it may not be the rags to riches fare, or about lifting oneself from the depths of poverty, despair or some other great tragedy, but there is a story to be told. Is there an audience that will read what I write? Is that really the question I need to ask, is that the only reason to write to find an audience, to be published? It was Eugene Peterson, a writer and minister who I admire, who wrote that he writes because of a deep need to do so, whether or not he has any readers is not the point. I guess that being an Episcopal priest and a person of faith, I should just allow myself enough slack to write and let the words fall where they may. Whether it is poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction, memoir or just my own reflections on what I hear and see going on, I need to write. 

 Too much is bubbling up inside and like a volcano where the magma has been building up over years, the lava of words just need to be released. It may be messy, incomplete, full of nonsense or just plain nonsensical, but these are my words and my thoughts. 

 So I will plug along, slowly like the tortoise, I’m too old to compete with the young guns out there but each day I will challenge myself to write. Maybe this will eventually become my version of the 800 words. Not a daily write but maybe an occasional reflection on what I see in the world around me. For those of you who have volunteered to ride along on this train, beware, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. My word count is now 795, time to stop writing. 

Apple Pie Lesson

Ma could bake,

pies, bread, English muffins

the smell of her baking, incense

to my nose as I walked in

on a cold fall day

as the first frosts appeared.

The kitchen was warm

as she stood there

pulling out another batch

of freshly baked cookies.

Shortly after my marriage

I needed to learn

how to make an apple pie

with crust made from scratch

so I went to her, flour in hand

show me how, don’t do, show

I asked and we went step by step.

Measuring flour, cutting in shortening

rolling out the dough, placing in pie pan

slicing apples, just right, not too thin

cinnamon, sugar, a little flour

mixing them in the apples

then placing the mix into the shell

covering it all with rolled out dough

she showed how to crimp the edges

just using a basic fork, a quick wash

then into the oven it went.

Now as I stand in my own kitchen

on a late fall afternoon

with the air crisp and cool

and leaves falling on the ground

I go through the motions 

she taught me long ago

as I cut in the shortening

roll out the dough, prepare the apples

the scent of it all baking

the incense of my youth returned.