Monday, April 24, 2017

Ordinary life

Sometimes there is way too much to do, the day crowded with all the little chores like renewing prescriptions and buying a new railpass and packing a lunch and weeding the junk mail. It's amazing how much time we spend doing such things, and generally we don't consider them worth writing about. There are exceptions--Sinclair Lewis, Marilyn French, and Laura Ingalls Wilder all managed to weave ordinary daily chores into compelling narratives--but mostly we think of "living" as the stuff we do in between all the tedious humble tasks. 

Yet mindfulness is about living in every moment, and I keep pausing to savor even the ordinary, the humdrum. To find what's precious here and now, whether it's worth writing about or not.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The daily walk

I may or may not have mentioned my daily walk, and how vital it is to my writing and my life in general.

On days when I go to my day job, I walk to and from the train station. On other days, I can manage a few miles.

I go rain or shine, wind or snow. (About the only weather that keeps me indoors is ice. I won't walk during a thunderstorm either, but those usually pass quickly.) I long ago learned that waiting for the perfect weather means rarely walking, so I take the weather as it comes. 

It's a break in the day. It ensures I get out into the world and get some exercise and remind myself what season it is. It's meditative (if I'm alone) or social (if I'm walking with others). 

Sometimes I consciously work on a story problem, or try to think up a title, or otherwise focus on writing. Sometimes I don't intentionally think about a story, but ideas will pop into my mind as I walk. Often I come home with a new scene or a new understanding of an existing scene.

Writers often sleep on story problems; many times I've heard that they wake up with great ideas. This doesn't really work for me, but walking does. Yet even without the bonus of the occasional story idea, I would still walk daily. It is, simply, nourishing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


So far, 2017 is proving to be a year of change--in the larger world as well as in my own little world. And it looks as if more changes may lie ahead. (I can't quite tell yet--and uncertainty is another feature of 2017.) 

I've generally not been a fan of change nor uncertainty. I'm still not the most spontaneous, roll-with-it person around, although I'm maybe a bit more flexible than I used to be. 

With change comes new possibilities. In the past, I always had trouble believing that the new ones would be better than the old possibilities. In reality, there's usually a mix of better and worse. Some of the best things in my life came after I'd let go of earlier circumstances.

When I write, I can make things come out the way I want them to, or at least the way I think they should have. Although even there, I find surprises. In life, I just hold my breath and turn the corner and see what's there.

Friday, April 14, 2017

On memoir

I've been reading a lot of memoir lately--in fact, for a while. I love it for its focus on some part of life, its recounting of true stories but through a particular filter, or by focusing on a particular theme or topic. Dani Shapiro's Devotion focuses on spirituality. Pat Conroy's My Losing Season is about teamwork and family and loss. Joan Didion's Blue Nights zeroes in on mortality. And of course I am oversimplifying; these books are about much more. But they don't try to cover every aspect of a life in one volume.

I'm currently reading Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast, which I discovered through an interview of Doty in Creative Nonfiction. I could say this book is about the loss of a lover; I could say it is about terminal illness, it is about AIDS, it is about survival. It is about the homes we make and the friends we make (and lose). It's about recovery, community, dogs, the ocean. Those are some of the topics it covers, but the story is more than that; the spell it casts is indescribable.

I suppose memoir is mostly a gateway for me. A gateway into lives I've never lived and worlds I've never seen--but also into recognition, the sense that some of what we feel and think about the world is shared by others.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Not really rambling

If one doesn't outline, one writes "by the seat of the pants," discovering the story through the first draft rather than through pre-draft planning. I tend to write fiction this way, using outlines more for nonfiction. But I find that even this rambling seat-of-the-pants method is not truly random--not for me, at least. The story I'm building is not really without a blueprint. I don't have the concrete, written blueprint that an outliner has, but as I write I sense myself moving toward something; the story assumes a shape that seems somehow destined. The blueprint exists in my mind, just one level below consciousness, I suppose. I may not see the whole story at once, but I find it one scene at a time.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Letting go

If I could've given advice to my younger self, one thing I would say is, "Don't hang onto so many things; don't acquire so much. It will only weigh you down." 

I've reached a point in my life when I am much more willing to let things go. In the past couple of years, I think I have released more than I've acquired, reversing a lifelong trend of increasing accumulation. But I have more to do.

It isn't just material possessions that I tend to hang onto. I have always found good-byes difficult. Every job, apartment, relationship--even if I really wanted to move on, there was always at least a pang of regret in there somewhere. Heck, when I closed a bank account that I'd had for 25 years (through multiple mergers and name changes on the bank's part), it was bittersweet. That was the first account I'd opened upon moving back to Philadelphia and settling in at my first post-university full-time job.

Maybe it was just that part of my life, my younger self, that I didn't want to abandon. Because in reality, I had no real "relationship" with that bank. They were paying me almost no interest, and they had just instituted new fees that meant I would be losing money by keeping an account there. Despite the commercials they continually run about how they're all about people, I was just a set of numbers to them. 

And I moved on, and I'm fine. But it just shows how far I travel emotionally when I let anything go. Everything in this world is temporary, but that is one of the hardest ideas to accept.