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Practice

Practice

Blue linen jacket with three pockets, hanging on a door.
My Monty Don Jacket

I hit a writerly speed bump the past couple of weeks. This happens. I’ve made a lot of progress on this book project since New Years, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. There’s a shape I can see. There are several new essays that need honing, and some older ones that need reworking, and it feels like a narrative trajectory is shaping up. I’ve been sending things out, and a couple of them have caught, and a few have come back and for the first time in years that process does not feel life or death, does not feel like a referendum on my ability to do this thing. But about two weeks ago, I hit a blank. There just wasn’t anything in the tank. This too, used to freak me out, but now, I know not to fight it, know that when I find myself looking at the cursor, or dicking around on Twitter too much, that means it’s time to go do something else for a while.

So I’ve been out in the garden getting that up and running for the year. There are greens and onions and parsley all coming up already. In the front, the bulbs I planted last fall are blooming, and the cherry trees are getting ready to burst into blossom, and I’m starting to see some seedlings sprouting from the buckets of wildflower and poppy seeds I’ve strewn out there. And I’ve been reading fiction again! I’ve been tearing through Maggie O’Farrell’s novels (while I wait for Hamnet to come out in paperback because I read it on the kindle, and I want to read it in my hands). And sewing. A lot of it is utility sewing — more pants (I have a pants template that is easy, fits my odd bod, and only takes a couple of hours to run up), and a couple of simple long skirts. But I also made a jacket. The Merchant and Mills Foreman Jacket. It’s a menswear pattern, but I made it in a lovely soft robin’s-egg blue linen, and I love it. I told my bestie that I’d made the Monty Don jacket of my dreams and she said “It’s a garden show! Not fashion!” But really, that’s my favorite look — rumpled, comfortable, lots of pockets. So now I have my much shortened Monty Don jacket in soft blue, and a bunch of new pants and long skirts in brown and olive linen, and I’m ready for spring.

The past couple of years it’s people talking and writing about making art who have been the most useful when I get stuck. I think its because of the way contemporary art has shifted it’s focus from the object, to the practice. I haven’t sold a book in decades, and I really only publish a couple of pieces a year, so my production of literary objects is … sparse. But I write, and make things and garden pretty much every day. If I have a practice, this is it. The Talk Art podcast, for instance, is a joy. Driving down valley to walk the dog I listen to Russell Tovey and Robert Diament talking to artists about what they make, and how they make it, and what they want to make. It’s very joyful, and manages to almost never be about the commerce of art.

It’s always been the commerce side of writing that I’ve found impossible. I got paid so little for my first book that it was very very clear that I was not going to be able to make any kind of a living as a writer. And I sold it to a big publisher. When Patrick died three years after my novel had come out, I was about half way through a new novel, which I abandoned. It was about horse people and class, and my grandmother and in that moment of crisis it seemed absolutely dead, and meaningless, and I put it away. It seemed clear to me that I was going to have to write about the experience of losing him, of losing a second brother as an adult after we’d survived the death of our toddler brother as children. Patrick and I had been dining out for years on stories about our family, about the bad behavior of both of our parents, and at that point, in the early 2000s, the misery memoir was just gaining steam. People were telling me this might be the time, the time for that story. But I was such a wreck, and couldn’t see any trajectory at all.

We used to have a little film festival during the winter on Sunday afternoons, and that winter after Patrick died, the Andy Goldsworthy movie, Rivers and Tides, came to town. Goldsworthy went out every day to make something, and he didn’t know what he was going to make until he did it. There’s a point in the movie where he sort of bellows that at his wife (in a funny way, not in an art monster way). And he made things that essentially could not be sold. Icicles stuck together that then melted. Leaves pinned together with thorns, and suspended from twigs that eventually showered down upon his head. Rocks piled in shapes. That they couldn’t be sold brought me a real kind of joy. That he was just out there making things. For a while I had this Goldsworthy-inspired practice where I pulled a slip of paper with a topic on it out of a jar every day, and wrote about it. I wasn’t striving for a particular word count. And if it was too painful a topic, I put it back for another day. It was a really useful practice that year, when I was so sad, and missed my brother so much, and was tasked with rebuilding myself as someone who didn’t have siblings, someone alone. I generated a lot of content that way, content I’ve used over the years in various forms.

I’ve written some other things since then, but I keep coming back to the idea of writing that memoir. It became a sort of white whale. I need to write the memoir. I need to get it out of the way. After a really great workshop with Alexander Chee a couple of summers ago, I came home and wrote out the whole narrative of the trauma that was losing Patrick. It’s not bad. I got it down, and said the things I needed to say. But it’s still not the book I want to write — in part, because of the commerce aspect. Just as I was so panicked about clearing up Patrick’s so-called estate all those years ago, just as I recoiled at the prospect of having to sell all his belongings in the street, I discovered in the process of writing that material out that I don’t want to sell our story, don’t want to have to go on the road and answer questions about it.

And it’s fine! I wrote it all. I found that out. It was great practice.

All that work was not for nought. I have all that content, and a lot of it is coming into these essays that I do want to write — essays about grief and climate change, trauma on the private and planetary level, gardens and land art and representation and the practices by which we save our own lives, and perhaps, by sharing them, teach other folks how to save their lives as well. Essays about what it means, as my old Beloit College prof John Wyatt used to say, to live a good life.

Practice. It takes a lot of practice.

Back to Work …

Back to Work …

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Five weeks ago I had reconstructive surgery on my left ankle, and I thought that being laid up would be sort of useful. That I’d get a lot of work done. I’d read books! I’d get back to the one I’m writing! I’d knit (I did knit …).

The truth is that I seem to have spent most of the past five weeks fucking around on the internet. And complaining about not being able to do anything. I got nothing useful done.

And so, I finally had to face up to the fact that I needed a new planning regime. I have not been using my 3 days off work productively, and as one does, I’ve been watching good ideas float off into the ether, and things I meant to write about drift off, happily unmolested by my attempts to corral them into meaning.

So I pulled out the planner again, and went back to a method that’s worked for me in the past. It’s nothing fancy — just identifying at the beginning of each year, month, and week what you intend to accomplish, then keeping track of the steps you take to make those things happen. And re-evaluating at the beginning of each week and month. Basic stuff. Keeping on track stuff. Making yourself account for your time so that if you do do something as ridiculous as spend an entire afternoon following rabbits down Twitter holes (or looking at knitting on Instagram) you at least have to own up to it.

We’re just about at the vernal equinox, which I think of as a sort of new year, so here’s to resolutions, and to getting more things accomplished, and to breaking loose from my drifty, pleasant, but ultimately unproductive state …

Change of Direction

Change of Direction

As you might have noticed, blogging has slowed to a trickle here at LivingSmall. For the next few months, I’m going to be prioritizing some other projects, including the new novel I’m working on. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like I had a viable writing project, and now that I seem to have the employment/paying the bills thing sorted out, I need to put my writing energies into that project.

Blogging won’t stop altogether, but it’ll be sporadic. Thanks for being patient everyone …

Practice of the Wild, Video

Practice of the Wild, Video


I’m lucky enough to have gotten to know both Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison over the years — I studied with Gary at UC Davis where we were also both involved in the Art of the Wild workshops at Squaw Valley, and Harrison, well, we have a bunch of friends in common, and he’s a neighbor here in Livingston. I actually first met Harrison when he came to Davis to do a reading and to visit Gary. Snyder was teaching a course in Zen and Chinese, Japanese and American poetry — it was one of those courses where several professors sat in, including Alan Williamson who used to gently chide us when we turned the Romantic poets into straw men for our arguments. Harrison came to visit, and then years later, when we ran into one another again here in Livingston, it’s that class that still stands out. That one course was worth all those years in grad school, all the hassle and pain and even the thousands of dollars I’m still paying off.

One reason Harrison came to Davis that spring was that he and Gary have been corresponding since 1965, about Zen, and poetry, and all the rest of it. Will Hearst had them down to his spectacular chunk of the California coastline and filmed them pretty much just walking around and talking to one another. The movie’s available on Amazon now, and it’s only $19 dollars, so I went ahead and bought a copy. And while I wish they’d gotten a little more of both writers’ humor in to the piece, it’s well worth investing in a copy if you’re interested in Zen, or the California school of poetry, or the challenges of representing nature in the written word, or Harrison or Snyder.

What Happens When You Invite Writers To Dinner

What Happens When You Invite Writers To Dinner

So I have a new writing project — it’s in the tiny larval stages so I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I’m working on a murder mystery. One of my dearest friends here in town is Maryanne Vollers, author of the amazing books Ghosts of Mississippi: The Murder of Medgar Evers, the Trials of Byron De La Beckwith, and the Haunting of the New South and Lone Wolf: Eric Rudolph: Murder, Myth, and the Pursuit of an American Outlaw. We were both at a dinner party last night, and Maryanne arrived with a big bag of books for me. There we were like a couple of kids, cackling and pulling out books like Evil: An Investigation and Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologistout of the bag. “This one’s really great,” Maryanne said handing me Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. While the non-writer dinner guests were sort of appalled, for the most part, this is Livingston, where not only is the cackling of writers in the corners of parties perfectly normal, but where you can count on your friends to have a stash of books on the psychology of murder that they’ll loan you. I love my weird little town.

Gourmet Bites the Dust

Gourmet Bites the Dust

Wow. This was a surprise to me somehow — Gourmet Magazine is closing. My first job out of college was repackaging Gourmet Magazine content into the first few volumes of Best of Gourmet and Gourmet’s Best Desserts (we also did other titles for Conde Nast). I’ll never forget going through the bound volumes of Gourmet Magazines — my task was to xerox every dessert recipe that had ever appeared, cut it out, and tape it onto a sheet of paper. These were the old days, when we did things on paper, and when type came back from teh typesetter and was glued to mechanical boards with wax. That was my other primary task, running big black portfolios of mechanical boards from our office on East 21st Street up to the Conde Nast building, then over to the Gourmet offices so they could be signed off on.

The Gourmet Magazine offices were like another world. This was 1985-87 and there were grown women wearing kilts and knee socks and those weird scarfy things women wore tied around their necks as some sort of business tie substitute. It was like a prep school or sorority gone slightly elderly, and slightly odd.

But I learned a lot, not only about food and cooking, but about how a recipe should look on the page, how it should work, and the importance of testing to make sure it worked.

It just seems a shame. Gourmet has a long history, and if nothing else, it’s a record of the remarkable changes in American attitudes toward food and travel over the past 70 years. And they published some wonderful writers. I’ll never forget bursting into tears over Christmas break one year when I read that before she’d died, Laurie Colwin had finished a year’s worth of columns, and the magazine planned to run them all. I’m so sad I’ll never have the chance to pitch them now …

Unemployment, Week One

Unemployment, Week One

So far, so good on the unemployment thing. While it’s never ideal to be the one voted off the island, I find I don’t miss the job at all — I miss the people I worked with, but I don’t miss being chained to my desk from eight in the morning until six at night; I don’t miss the anxiety of thinking someone might send you an instant message while you were getting a cup of tea and then decide you’re slacking; I don’t miss being treated as an incompetent by my manager, and I’m beginning to get over the numbness that has been plagueing my right arm and shoulder for the past couple of months.

This week, frankly, I’ve been sleeping a lot. This feels a lot like the summer after I finished my Phd exams, when I slept, read plotty, unchallenging books (that summer it was the Raj Quartet, this summer it’s the Inspector Montalbano mysteries by Andrea Camelleri), and just went into recovery mode.

The first thing I did last week was to re-organize my office. Out went the big desk that was too high, and which I think was a major contributing factor to the arm numbness. Up from the basement came the ugly-but-comfy armchair and the tilty table from Levengers (really great when I have to type in quotes from books for the new freelance gig). Also up from the basement came my wee desk from Target — when I took the finials off the bottom of the legs, it’s exactly the right midget height for me to sit in a chair with my feet on the floor and type. I pulled out my old corkboard and tacked a few note cards with article ideas up, and purged all the stuff from my office bookshelves that I’m not going to need anymore. A vase of flowers from the garden, and I’m set. A new office for a new era.

I also managed to get a lot of things done that I’ve been working too much to address. I got the snow tires off my car (well, it did snow in June, but not that much). I washed my kitchen floor. I weeded the vegetable garden, picked the peas and the favas and planted some endives for fall. I rebuilt the chicken coop (a proper post on that later) so the chickens can’t get out.  Chuck and I went for a 10 mile hike. I went up to my Milk Lady’s farm and relocated the rooster (he’s cock of the walk in the hen house apparently — very much the new guy in town and loving it) and bought some hens from her. I went big-grocery shopping and went to Costco and got some acupuncture for the bad shoulder. I took the dogs swimming in the Yellowstone and then for a short hike (Owen’s robo-leg held up great). I got my hair cut.

And yesterday I finally got back to my new office, finished up one freelance project, got started on another, and figured out how to re-write the opening section of the novel I now have no excuse for not finishing. A week off was delightful, but now I can hear the clock ticking. I have six months to figure out this next part. Six months to finish my novel, and drum up enough freelance projects to keep the little ark afloat. Six months minus one week, and counting …