Writing Down the Knowns

June 25, 2021 § 3 Comments

By Krista Varela Posell

Before the pandemic, I hadn’t published anything in three years. I don’t even think I even finished writing a single essay that entire time. I had not one but two book manuscripts that had stalled out. Major life events kept me from writing regularly: my mother’s dementia diagnosis, the death of my first dog, and a significant transition in my marriage. I kept telling myself, “you are just living the life you’ll write about later”—though that did little to assuage the guilt I felt thinking I should be more disciplined if I wanted to call myself a writer. 

When California’s shelter in place orders went into effect last March, I decided to use the shakeup in my routine as an opportunity to jumpstart my writing practice. For inspiration, I turned to Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a frequently recommended book on craft and one that had been sitting on my shelf for over a year after I found it on clearance in a bookstore. 

I committed to reading a chapter a day, which amounted to just a few pages, to get myself to think about writing. Looking at the table of contents—65 chapters including the introduction—I thought, I won’t even finish this before life goes back to normal. It seemed like a productive and pleasurable way to pass the time. As of this writing, 423 days since I started working from home, I could have read the book several times over.

I established a morning ritual: sitting at my desk to read, then writing down a line or two that captured my eye. I followed up with journaling, trying to capture the strangeness of daily life in an unprecedented time. “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical,” Goldberg writes. “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded.”

And so, I did my best to record the details, filling almost an entire notebook in six months. Many pages served as to-do lists. I became obsessed with keeping straight the basic tasks I had to accomplish to get through the day: “Put out the trash bins. Repot the plants. Weed the backyard. Hang up the laundry. Return book to the library.” Writing down any task became the first step in being able to complete it. If it wasn’t on the page (short of eating and bathing) it wouldn’t get done, disappearing in my brain amongst the riptide of constant anxiety.

As the pandemic pressed on and it became evident that we would still be living in this reality far longer after I finished Writing Down the Bones, my motivation for reading evaporated. The book was meant to serve as a time marker, a source of optimism. But one of the rewards for finishing it—going back to “regular” life— was no longer there. Even something as small and manageable as a single chapter felt too overwhelming.

After taking a break for a few weeks, the chapter I returned to began, “When you are not writing, you are a writer too,” as though Natalie Goldberg knew that was exactly what I needed to hear to get going again. These words reinforced what I wanted to believe during those years I hadn’t been writing but wasn’t comfortable enough to embrace until now.

I’ve tried to do my future self a favor to document as much as possible when I have the energy for it. In between my lists, I’ve kept other notes, unfiltered raw thoughts of what I don’t want to forget about this past year, mostly frenetic musings on loneliness and angst:

June 5th: “It’s hard to know what to even write. Black people are dying.”

August 20th: “I can’t feel excited about turning 30 when I’m feeling so anxious about just surviving.”

December 22nd: “I’m still feeling an all-encompassing restlessness that makes it so hard to get through the day. I’ve never felt so much animosity toward just having to exist.”

Having to be gentle with myself for all the complicated feelings arising during the most stressful time in recent history, I’ve let go of the idea of a daily practice, of sitting down at the same time and space to write every day, for good. Even Goldberg acknowledges the importance of cutting yourself some slack, of making sure you don’t become too rigid in your routine: “Just stay in touch underneath with your commitment for this wild, silly, and wonderful writing practice. Always stay friendly towards it.”

And yet, for the sporadic fluctuations to my process, I had more victories in 2020 than I had in the three years prior combined. All that journaling eventually began rendering itself into actual essays, some that I managed to publish throughout the year. I also started a blog and got my first paid byline. Writing finally feels like it has a regular place in my life in a way that it hasn’t since I was in grad school. And by regular, I mean one that doesn’t feel so tenuous if I can’t manage to do the thing for a week or two.

I still don’t write every day, but the biggest difference is, I no longer feel guilty about it. We are living in a pandemic, after all. I spent years wringing my hands over whether to call myself a writer, feeling like it’s a title I don’t deserve. Now, it’s an identity I comfortably inhabit, one that is pliable and forgiving of the circumstances of life. When I’m not sure where to start, I simply write down the knowns, the truths of what I’m experiencing: “It’s your life, begin from it.”

I haven’t finished reading Writing Down the Bones yet either. Instead of rushing toward the end to move on to something else, I’ve chosen to savor it like a decadent dessert I come back to when I need a little pick-me-up. Over thirty years later, it feels as though Goldberg is still speaking directly to our present: “In the middle of the world, make one positive step,” she writes, “In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write. Just write. Just write.”
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Krista Varela Posell (she/they) is a queer Latina writer living in San Francisco. Her essays have been published or are forthcoming in The Bold Italic, GO Mag, Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Krista earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California and is co-creator of the community blog Poly in Place.

Angel Talk

August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments

A guest post by Melissa Ballard:

I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.

Translation: I’m checking Facebook.

I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.

“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”

“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”

She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”

“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”

Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”

“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”

“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”

“Well, right now, I’m composting.”

Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”

“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”

Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”

Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”

I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.

It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.

I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”

Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”

I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.

“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”

Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.

Perhaps I imagined her.

As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:

Forget expectations.

Just write.

And, finally, I do.

_______________________________________________

Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at https://melissaballardsite.wordpress.com/

NaNoWriMo: On Getting Out of Your Own Way

October 31, 2016 § 5 Comments

Guest blogger Sarah Sennott Cyr reflects on the opening of NaNoWriMo (for novelists, but nonfiction writers have been known to ride along):

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Sarah Sennott Cyr

Natalie Goldberg calls it monkey mind. Steven Pressfield labels it resistance. Elizabeth Gilbert describes it as fear. Regardless of the name, the concept is the same: it’s the thing that stands in the way for so many of us wanting to accomplish a writing goal. It’s why only a small percentage of the predicted 500,000 people who sign up for NaNoWriMo – which begins tomorrow – will nail the 50,000 word count by November 30.

The idea relates to creative pursuits – writing, painting, sculpting – but it can be applied to any self-motivated endeavor, like losing weight or launching a business. It’s the voice inside you that casts doubt on your ability to execute your dreams. It makes excuses – so convincing at times – to block you from putting the necessary time and effort into accomplishing a goal. You know the voice. You need more sleep. Come on, just hit the snooze button. Sound familiar?

“Most of us have two lives,” writes Steven Pressfield in The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. “The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.”

Maybe you thought you were alone in your struggle. I know I did. I seriously thought I had some rare disorder – inherited from my mother, of course – that kept me spinning out anytime I set my eyes on a big life goal. But when I began seeing this pattern where creative giants were pointing out this apparently not-so-rare disorder, it dawned on me. I’m not alone. (In fact, yay! I’m in the company of brilliance.) And the empowering part: I have the ability to get out of my own way.

What drives us to self-sabotage? To give up on the novel we’ve written halfway, the memoir we so desperately want to write. Fear. “Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome,” writes Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. “This is all totally natural and human. It’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with.”

At the heart of what she teaches, both in books and workshops, Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) arms writers with some of the most effective tools I’ve come across to address fear and doubt. Her rules for writing practice give a structure to follow that organically burns through any resistance. Set a timer for ten minutes. Keep the pen going. Write first thoughts. No editor or critic. Go for the jugular; if it’s scary, dive in.

Goldberg labels our fear monkey mind, borrowing a concept from Buddhism. (Her 40-plus years of Zen Buddhism practice are the backbone to the writing style she teaches.) Goldberg envisions monkey mind physically living in the right hand corner of her forehead. “Finally what happens is, we shut up and we listen to this monkey mind as though it were God and we let it run our lives,” says Goldberg in the audio book she co-authored with Dosho Port, Zen Howl. “We have this true heart that wants to write and instead this little mechanism that follows us around, we listen to and it keeps us from what we want to do in our life.”

To combat monkey mind, Goldberg has created the sweetheart, a voice that lives in the opposite corner of her forehead that encourages her anytime monkey mind starts acting up. “She says, it’s OK, keep going, sweetheart. Finish and then you can have your cheese sandwich.” A spin off from Goldberg’s imagery, I give my monkey a banana anytime I sit down to write. That’ll keep her busy.

Of all the authors I’ve read who touch upon this subject, from Goldberg to Gilbert and everyone in between, there’s a theme that runs through the solutions they propose. Work. Discipline. Applied effort. It’s by getting your butt to your desk – or wherever you write – at whatever time you’ve allotted and sticking to that commitment, over and over and over again. No excuses. OK, if your daughter needs stitches, bring her to the emergency room. But bring your notebook with you. The fun part? When you do this, you’re rewarded with that magical feeling of divine inspiration. Not every day, but often. Somerset Maugham once said, “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

So what are you doing reading this article, and what am I doing writing it? Go write.

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Sarah Sennott Cyr’s work has been published in Newsweek, The Boston Globe, Cosmopolitan and ARTnews. Two years ago, Cyr began a writing practice inspired by Natalie Goldberg. She now leads workshops based on this practice for writers, artists, and others.

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