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Thursday, July 8, 2010

automatic

Years ago, when I was just starting to write seriously—probably the first year of my MFA program—I remember saying to a friend that writing helped me slow down.

“How so?” she asked.

“Well, instead of inhaling a bowl of strawberries, I have to stop and think about how I would describe the taste and the texture if I were to write about eating strawberries. So as I think about describing the life I’m living, I’m actually pausing to notice the little things I do each day.”

She thought that made sense.

But it doesn’t seem to work that way anymore. Instead of slowing me down and making me more in-the-moment, I spend so much time writing in my head as I’m living my life, that I’m rarely actually in the moment. I’m always a step ahead of myself, turning an experience or thought into a blog post, or making a mental note about something that might, someday, turn into an essay.

There is a funny essay, “Not Another Word,” by Gillian Kendall in the latest Sun that has to do with this very thing. (You can read part of it here.) Kendall goes off to a silent yoga and meditation retreat and plans to spend most of the retreat writing and thinking about writing. But she quickly realizes that the silent part of the retreat excludes reading and writing. She ignores this rule and continues to jot things down in her notebook, but she finally decides to try to stop writing for a few days.

Her big worry is that if she doesn’t write something down, it will be lost. But one of the teachers at the retreat suggests that her wanting to write all the time has become automatic. Kendall responds:

My puffed-up heart deflated at the truth-prick of his word, automatic, and I started crying again. My main activity in the world, the thing I considered most important about myself, had become mindless, reflexive, compulsive. I felt embarrassed — and enlightened.

Mindless, reflexive, compulsive. Is she describing me?

I’ve been up north at my mom’s cabin for the past week and a half, and I’ve had limited computer time (and very limited on-line time). I consciously took three full days off work—no class prep or e-mailing or work on the revision.

Instead, I stared at the tree-lined shore across the lake, glowing with bright evening sun. I ran (slowly, carefully) down the road, under a wide blue sky, past the grazing horses and the field of dairy cows. I floated in the inner tube with my girls. I drank wine on the pontoon.

And I feel refreshed. I’m thinking more thoughtfully about the memoir. I’m waking up in the morning with ideas about chapter structure and scenes that still need to be written. I’ve even started reading again after a little slump.

Maybe taking a little break every once in a while is what I need in order to keep my writing fresh, in order to keep it from feeling automatic and compulsive. Maybe I’ll even get to the point again where it will slow me down rather than speed me up. Maybe.

10 comments:

Andrea said...

I totally do that too...narrate my every move inside my head to make it fit a blog post, or essay or whatever. It's exhausting. And not very mindful. Wah...I let my Sun subscription expire because I had a pile of back issues going back to September that I haven't had a chance to read...sounds like a good essay, though!

cath c said...

the cabin time sounds blissful! i've been very kind to my manuscript lately since i finished the first draft last summer. i am curently tearing it aaprt and putting it back together in the second draft (which really is 512th or so draft if i'm honest about it).

when i say i am being kind, i am being kind to my *process* of needing to let go of what i previously worked on so hard and was so committed to for so long that really does need to change to serve the story better.

I am mostly only working on these heavy plate tectonic shifts when my writing group meets every couple of weeks. the rest of the time, i mourn the cuts, and grow to love the rewrites and paragraph and chapter shuffles.

maybe that's where you are, too. needing the quiet in between to open yourself to your manuscript's needed changes.

of course, i am still trying to enter a blog a day and feel like i narrate my life and writing process. in fact i wrote about that same thing today to post tomorrow.

Peg said...

I liked your comment about reading again, after a slump. It made me realize I'm in a reading slump too! Would love to hear what's on your reading list these days.

Mummy mania said...

I think it's like everything - it can get too routine and a break will help bring fresh light to it. I spend all day, every day with my girls - and we get on great. But every so often their dad takes them off for th day and we are so excited to see each other and I feel rejuvenated. Same with writng - I'm currently in that intense deadline-approaching stage, but already looking forward to having a break from my head!

Angela said...

I was just telling a blogger friend about your blog. Then I sat down and read this post. WHAT a God-send! I've been feeling very guilty about taking so much writing time off this summer to be 'in the moments' with my children. Feel like a loser who doesn't REALLY want to be a writer. I've just taken a deep breath and given myself permission to live my life, writing breaks and all. Thank you.

kate hopper said...

Andrea, I know--it IS exhausting! And I also think it's challenging to keep up with magazines. I get three printed magazines: Brain, Child, The Sun, and the Smithsonian. Sometimes it takes me a while to get through them, but I try to keep one in my purse for those moments I'm in a waiting room or in line.

Cath, it sounds like you're making wonderful progress on your revision. I'm amazed that you're doing that as well as a blog post a day!

Peg, I just finished Debra Gwartney's Live Through This, and it was amazing. I'm going to post an interview with her in the next few weeks. I also have a couple of novels on my shelf, but I haven't decided which one to read next.

Mummy Mania, I think that's exactly right. We always need a break, whether we're parenting or writing or heading to the office every day.

Angela, thanks so much for reading and passing on my blog! Enjoy your moments with your children this summer. I think those moments help fuel our writing brains!

6512 and growing said...

Awesome post. I so totally relate. I'm such a good, efficient writer in my head. It all changes when I sit down in front of the computer.

I LOVED that Gillian Kendall essay in the sun. One of my all time favorites.

unfinishedportraitofsam said...

oh, my god, Kate--this is well-timed! i had a strange experience a couple of weeks ago when i was in a state park, bicycling with my in-laws, at the same time as two little boys were drowning in the river where we were biking. on our way back, we sort of bicycled into the thick of the search. i was stunned at how strongly my emotions responded to the event (not least because i was a lifeguard, and it's hard to escape those "what if i had been in this spot only a little earlier" questions), and even more stunned when, as we were pedaling home, in the midst of my emotions, i thought: "how would i write about this?" and began thinking through this "story." i burst into tears when i pulled my bike into the driveway and saw my husband, and i can tell you i wasn't just crying for the little boys--i was definitely crying in shame for my own reaction. a little heavier than what you're describing here, but it was a sobering moment for me.

Life As I Know It said...

I find that I am writing in my head, a built in commentary of my life, if you will, while I'm driving or waiting or playing a mindless game of candyland. You are right...it keeps us out of the moment when we are trying to fully experience and describe the moment.
Trying to slow down is good. Succeeding at slowing down is better.

Anonymous said...

I find that I edit in my head as others speak! Can't really be listening to what they are saying if I'm doing that, but I can't seem to stop it.