Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Writer's Workshop

I have been involved in a writer's workshop. We meet Tuesday nights, from 7 until past 10, and write and read our writing to each other. The leader of the group is a lifetime writer and teacher and she always has something good and intuitive to say about other's writing. I usually say nothing. I'm in the minority. I write and then read my writing and try to look interested. I take a tranquilizer, usually after the second writing exorcise so that the drug doesn't interfere with the quality of my writing. I don't have any problems with anxiety when I write, but when we are gathered as a group I suffer. I compare myself to other writers. I get dismissive. I get envious. In general, my wits are scattered and I'm lucky to be able to concentrate on whomever is reading their writing. It is best for everyone that I keep my mouth shut. Because what is going on in my head isn't pretty. Last night I realized that I feel like I am in competition with everyone else for best writer. I sit quietly, looking pretty, but on the inside I'm angry and driven and very isolated. How I wish I could just relax and enjoy the flavors of other people's minds.

We meet in a stain glass artist's home. It is eclectically decorated with many healthy plants and elegant, mis-matched furniture. They don't have much money but they have great taste. Interesting food is always provided at break time. Last night it was strawberry smoothies, watermelon slices, popcorn, and some kind of raw root with spices on it. I did not eat the root. It seemed too exotic. Next week we are meeting an hour earlier to share desserts and conversation. I am going to have to cook something. It will be our last workshop for the summer. The workshop begins again in the fall. I won't be going back.

Last night I gave the leader of the group, Jan, a ten page sample of my writing. She will correct it and offer both positive and negative criticism. It is a scene from my book. In the workshop all participants are under the obligation to only say positive things about one another's writing. But in the private submission the teacher will teach. I hope I learn something. I hope I'm not torn to shreds. I really tried my best. But I don't know what my best is. Deep down, my desire is to impress the teacher. I am prepared for my book not to succeed, but part of me naturally wishes very much for it to be a success.

I haven't been working that much lately on my book. I've had to go to Connecticut to help with my mother's rooming house once a week and do other sorts of obligations. Days that I have my writing workshop I don't write in the morning because I'm saving my creativity for the group. I can't afford exhausting myself creatively and then have nothing left. I must take my performances for this group pretty seriously. And then days that I have therapy I find that I am too wound up over therapy to write. My sessions anyway are usually scheduled for prime writing time. I have had the experience of exhausting myself writing and then arriving at my therapist's weak and sick with my mental illness. The illness always hits me hard after two or more hours of concentration. It feels nasty to try to match wits with the therapist when your brain is toothless. I like to arrive at my therapist's, like I arrive at the writer's workshop, in prime condition.

Recently I read Steven King's book "On Writing" and he emphasizes that he writes every day, no exceptions. I re-affirmed my commitment to writing after reading his book. My mother is coming home to Connecticut today, on a plane from California. My sister just had a little baby boy and my mother was there to help out. So now she can take care of her business. And the workshop ends next week. One of the ways I've been sneaking in writing is that I haven't been going to church. In fact, Sunday mornings my husband and I have been going swimming, and then I come home and write. Before we started swimming I would just write. Church is not as important to me as writing. And too, I like going swimming better than going to church. If I start having problems with depression then I will return to the church. But I'm afraid that I haven't formed any tight friendships there. I have genuine affection for some of the little old ladies who are bright in spirit. And these retired ladies are very kind to me. They understand that I'm a little different and a little fragile, but they make me feel really comfortable. The women my own age might smile at me, but we never have conversations. Part of this is my own fault, I don't know what to say to them. They are busy raising children, and most of them work. I just can't seem to make friends. I really am shy. Like my father. Under stress, I can make conversation just fine, but it takes effort. Conversation does not come naturally to me.

Tomorrow is the first day that I will return to the book in a while. I'm eager, but I'm not expecting too much. I have to become re-acquainted with the flow of the scene. It is the day after when I probably will be happiest with my writing. I see ahead of me five days of uninterrupted writing. It is a bounty of free time, and I'm so excited to see how far ahead I can push the story. Tonight I'm going to re-read my rough draft and get set in my mind the direction and territory I'm supposed to cover in this chapter.

Last night at the workshop two women declined to read their writing because what they had written was so personal, or painful, that they couldn't share it. I always force myself to read, even though, afterword I say to myself, "My God, what have you done?" I share the most private thoughts and experiences. I have no limits. All shame, all pain, all truth. Sometimes people laugh at what I've written. The laughter always surprises me. I don't try to be funny. Once, when I was in my early twenties, an older woman who read my writing said that I had "black humor". In this workshop they call it dry wit. I will admit, sometimes I poke fun at my husband. Or what is really funny is not what he does, but the relationship between us. I've been in the workshop before, but then I usually wrote about my father, now I notice that I write the most about my husband. I suppose this is a good transition. Living in the now instead of the past.

I do have the option of staying in this workshop when it starts again in September. I might need the comradery of artistic people. Some of the people are writing books, but none with the passion or commitment of my own writing. Last night Jan told us a story about a pupil who surpassed her. This woman was writing fiction in the workshops and Jan said she amazed everyone who listened to her. Eventually two major publishing houses got into a bidding war over her first novel and she sold it for a quarter of a million dollars. When she called Jan to tell her, Jan started crying with happiness. The way Jan told the story, it never entered her mind to be envious. Later, when Jan was preparing a book proposal of her own she asked this woman for her help.

I don't have anyone to help me write my book. I show no one (except my husband) my finished chapter's after I've written them. Once or twice I've read my therapist my writing, but he called me a diamond in the rough and I decided that I don't want to hear that. His daughter's a writer, just starting college, and he's over the moon over her. And he writes himself. He's working on a book of affirmations. I judge that what I'm writing about, mental illness, is too close to the field that my therapist's in. He isn't impartial. I don't even know if he's a good writer. Bottom line, I don't trust him. Maybe I should give him another chance. Maybe I should read to him what I've just submitted to Jan. It's a little bit of polished writing. But its subject matter is a staff person in a psychiatric hospital and I know that he's worked in a psychiatric hospital. My view point is very paranoid. He won't like a person in his line of work being bashed. This staff person turns out to be somewhat of a pervert.

I feel like I'm like King Midas. Except everything my mind touches turns to dirt instead of gold. My book is so dark I can't even explain it to people. Mental illness is hellish enough to make you want to kill yourself is the theme of my book. Nobody actually dies, but oh, they try.

After hearing Jan's story of a pupil's success I think that staying in the workshop might be good for me, even though I feel combative while I'm with other writers, and even though it takes up a chunk of my time. I could write mornings of the workshop, and then let the quality of my evening writing deteriorate. I think at least something would flow from my mind. Of course, the illness could be stronger than the creativity. I might not be in a position to amaze anymore. All that would be left would be a fellowship of writers, whose company, I would return to week after week. We are timed when we write, we have anywhere from 10 minutes to 35 minutes to write. I imagine sitting down and having an empty head. This is what I fear the most and it is not an unreasonable fear.

Do I have the courage, to fail in a writing exercise? To return to the workshop group after 20 minutes of writing with something that is not my best? Or to say, "I could think of nothing?" And just sit and listen to what other people have written? The time constraints pushes me to take some feature of my life and to write about it. I write from real life, all the time in group, and almost never fictionalize. It takes so much energy to invent, and inventing is not what come easiest to me. Revealing is what comes easiest. Telling what is true, and has really happened. I think because my book forces me to invent, I have a hard time during my morning sessions.

I don't feel like a creative person, no matter what I produce. And the fact that when I try to produce, I am able to produce doesn't quite impress me. I still don't feel like a creative person. Good God, Steven King is in his own little paradise when he writes! This keeps him coming back for more. I don't know what drives me. But it hurts to write. Except, perhaps, when I am in the flow. But I can only be in the flow for a short time, because of my mental illness.

There are grapes of goodness dangling over my head and I can't reach them.

Monday, July 19, 2010

A Violent Love

I came across a quote that spoke to me. It is by the tragedian Aeschylus (525-456) and as the author who quoted says, it intends to mean that the pain we suffer brings us wisdom.

that we must suffer, suffer into truth.
We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart
the pain of pain remembered comes again,
and we resist, but ripeness comes as well,
From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench
there comes a violent love.

What strikes me is the "pain of pain remembered" as though we are made of finer stuff than we can know, and that the REAL person is arrived at through a process, perhaps of pain, but that we remember ourselves into being. We existed before birth, we will exist after death. And the state in which we exist out of life, in a place beyond life, is beautiful, healthy, and good. Immortal we are more than we are when we are mortal. As mortals we are always striving to remember our immortal state.

Ever have that experience of doing something, and the nagging doubt that you did it wrong, and that you knew better? There is a center to everyone that is good and virtuous and it seems that we spend our entire lives trying to live closer and closer to this center. Well, not perhaps everyone. Some people's voyages, in an unexamined life takes them further and further away from the center to make foul mistakes, to be a burden in this world to others, a fountain of sorrow and hurt.

Today I went to the bank and next to me was an old man giving the bank teller a very hard time. I've had many nice transactions with this bank teller and I know that he is a sweet young man. But the old man was not influenced by the courtesy of the baby-faced bank teller, instead he mocked him, he hounded him and he acted like an cantankerous egoist who was in a rush, and had better, more important places to be. As I walked away I imaged taking the old man's arm and saying to him, "what is the matter with you, why are you so upset?" I just got the feeling that the bank transaction, that was so distasteful to the old man, was just a symptom of a life lived on the verge of misery. Nobody could be as mean as he was being and be happy.

Another favorite part of the quote I discovered (probably a fragment of something much longer) is the phrase "violent love". The God I know has given me a mind that is present and robust at times but at times is very fatigued and distant. I am crippled. I am wounded. This is no different from saying I am mentally ill. It was of great interest to me that in this book I'm reading (Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God") there was a reference to the Greek divine craftsman, Hephaestus, who was a cripple. Their highest artist, the artist who all artists saw as a prototype, was a cripple. I find this intriguing. In a book I read about 15 years ago I remember the thesis statement that most creative people are in good mental health. But the Greeks recognized that something in the artistic mind is often flawed, for their Gods were after all manifestations of the forces of the unconscious mind.

One year several years ago, while my husband and I were vacationing in Maine, we happened to be at a restaurant when a famous painter and his entourage arrived. The painter was Andrew Wyeth's son, Jamie Wyeth and he was dressed in a tuxedo jacket. How he was dressed was a little eccentric, but being an artist who was close friends with the likes of the Kennedys (he painted president Kennedy when he was only 17) and Andy Warhol, he is the sort who can make up rules about style and life as he chooses. I asked my husband what he saw in the man's aura. "It is bright and very large" my husband said "but it has cracks in it". Having a cracked aura means that there is something slightly wrong with your brain. We haven't quite defined what the crack means (places where the light of the aura is absent) but it is associated with some type of dysfunction. When I am very sick with my mental illness cracks will appear in my aura, but happily, this is not the normal state for me. It astonished me that someone with so much force of personality (the man exudes this, I watched as he shook hands with several people he already knew at the restaurant) and such enormous creative talent could be flawed. But so be it, his aura was flawed. He is unlike most people who you will meet walking down the street who do not have cracked auras. To my mind Jamie Wyeth, like his father, is the term artist as one would define artist. A great man, a great talent. But to someone who is sensitive to the condition of the soul, like my husband, that night a hurt was revealed. Jamie has a slight crippling of the mind.

I think creative types are special recipients for God's violent love. The term to my sensitivity is almost a contradiction, like Shakespeare's oxymoron "angelic fiend". How does one love violently? It is most certainly benevolence mixed with pain. It is tonic that will do you good and cure your ills but tastes terrible. It certainly answers the question of why bad things happen to good people, or why there must be natural and unnatural disasters, like the earthquake in Haiti and the poisoning of the Gulf ocean by the BP oil spill. God loves with a slap and a hug. Wake up and be comforted.

That the Christian messiah Jesus had to die at a young age on the cross, a horribly painful death, is an example of God's violent love. "Life isn't fair", is a statement that some fundamentalist Christians would discourage you from believing. "there must be a cause" they say. They name the cause the devil or some sin of mankind, but God's hand acts in only clear cut ways, no ambivalence. There is vengeance and there is forgiveness. God turns away from man, or God rewards with abundance. Or, as it seems in the church I attend, God's love is steadfast and perfect, it is only you who do the turning away from or turning toward.

It was a pagan who envisioned our condition on earth as a case of having been loved violently. And it was a pagan who saw that a person is like an onion, with layers needed to be peeled away to discover what was always present.

I feel that in me is a greater person that I have yet to meet. The longer I live, I pray, the more I'll meet of her. I don't know yet how to incorporate this quote into my life as a Christian, but I must do so, because the quote seems so true to my experience.

I cannot believe that mental illness does not carry with it meaning and purpose. Or at least, in order to live with it, you must give it some sort of value which is not negative.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Leo Tolstoy

I am reading Anna Karenina for the third time in my life. Never have I read it before with such open eyes.

The chapter breaks are marvelous. They are quick. They make so much sense to me. I am patterning the chapter breaks in my own book after what I am learning from Tolstoy's art.

I haven't been blogging. My life seems so full, there is no time for it. Or else I do not wish to do it and over exhaust myself. Last week either I was doing errands (for the Church, for my mental illness peer support group, or going to have a yearly physical) and I was in and out of the car and distracted, or else I was in bed and focused, working on my book and exhausted after putting in an average of two hours per day. There are days that are lost - these are the days when I have to spend time with family or else do errands, and there are days that are found - when I get to work on my book.

Last Thursday in particular I wrote a new section of my book and the story was so tight and vivid that the next day I changed little. It had come to me whole and solid. But the consequence of a blessing from above! When my husband came home from work I told him that I was exhausted and could not attend that evening's women's spirit group at Church. But I wanted to go for our evening walk, I wanted the exercise. And I did bow out of group and instead go for a walk. We ending up at the Pizza Parlor we favor and I had two, count them, two glasses of wine. And unheard of amount for me. It was partly to take the edge off my exhaustion from writing, partly to celebrate the existence of having a good writing session, and partly to celebrate my husband's four day holiday from work.

I read Mrs. Dalloway and am now completely enamored with Virginia Woolf. I must have tried to read her work when I was younger and could not appreciate it. But it is a magnificent book, one that I can learn a lot from. I predict that a year from now I will re-read Mrs. Dalloway.

My husband highly recommended "My Friend Flicka" and the two books in the series that came after it. I was a bit bewildered why I was reading this book, since I am not in love with horses, although I like to ride and took lessons as a teenager. However, the end of the book came together with so much pressure that I was loath to stop reading it. I can't make heads or tails of my reaction to the book. It isn't writing that is glorious and sophisticated like Mrs. Dalloway. Its crafted nicely. No,it is crafted expertly. But still, "My Friend Flicka" is crafted. And it is a safe book. The good guys are thick in it. The trouble is misty in it, although, what looms in the ending is somebody's death. What looms in the middle of it is whether or not the favored little horse is "loco" or not. Family love is thick in it throughout, although, it is a family with stresses and strains and banishment's, little banishment's from one another's good graces. My husband's copy was very old, the glue came undone on me and a section of pages lifted out. But my husband swears that the book has lasted and is still in print, still beloved. What every author wishes for the future of their book.

Before Flicka I read "A Color Purple". Noble book, emotional book. Some parts, especially the dialogue, seem to come to you like one long dream. A dreamy book. An inspired book. Not like Anna Karenina where everything is tight and polished and socially glossy. Tolstoy is restrained, elegantly dressed while Alice Walker is a woman walking around with no bra on and the back of her skirt tucked up under her panties.

Today I worked on character development in my chapter. I think I've got a chapter, beginning, middle and end and it is a Tolstoy chapter. Gave a staff person in the psychiatric hospital a physical description. Had made him talk before but never gave him a look for the reader. That it matches the physical description of a man I ate lunch with yesterday makes no difference, there is only the physical description and none of the character of the man I ate lunch with copied. But I need a look, and his look came to me. Use what you know I guess.

The chapter should wind up being about 17 to 20 pages long, and this is double spaced. I suppose in a book it would be about ten pages long. I'm copying Tolstoy for my chapters, in terms of how much I cram in them. I have in the past written a 65 page chapter, and this, obviously, doesn't work. In my computer do you know how many chapters I have? For all the writing on this book? Five chapters. This represents five days in the life of my main character. Of course within these five folders are segments, or the real chapters. As the book stands, in my computer, the book is an enormous mess. But I have patience. Everything will be gone over and over and re-written. A mess now is not a flaw later. All flaws can be smoothed over. All I need is time. I'm 42 and I'm planning to be at this for the next several years. No, messes now don't bother me. And I think, I'm in good health. Have to go for a blood test an mammogram to complete my physical. But I anticipate that I will be found in good health. God is going to grant me the time on earth I need to finish my book.

Nobody in school ever gave me a single lesson in how to construct a chapter so I have to learn on my own, through trial and error. Last night and today I realized the Tolstoy lesson. And I've only begun the book. But my eyes are peeled wide open. Flicka and Purple didn't teach me any lessons about how to construct a book, other than to suggest that you better supply a great ending. But something about what I was writing, and what I was currently reading, came together in my head today. And so I got something new, something that clicked, about the rhythm of a chapter. In Mrs. Dalloway there are no chapters, only line breaks. Oh, how Woolf goes in and out of character's heads! So lovely. So invasive. As a writer, I love invasive. Shine the light on all sorts of minds. In my book I've got only a firm handle on three character's minds, even then, I don't think until I re-write shall I learn exactly what I've got.

The heat of the day has put all my loved ones to sleep. My husband is lightly snoring next to me in bed, with a fan aimed directly at his foot, and through extension, down the length of his body. I get a little breeze on one arm. I don't care, I figure that I'm stronger than my husband. I can suffer in the heat and not complain. He can't suffer without complaining. So it is best that he not even suffer. My cat is stretched out in the open window, on the fat sill, trying to catch a breeze going in and out of the room. Don't know where the dog and the other cat are but all is quiet. They are preserving their strength. I close my eyes and feel a moment of complete peace. A summer day, in the middle of it, and a holiday. And oh, my husband made me blueberry pancakes for lunch! Tomorrow I'll diet. But today the skirt band is elastic and it doesn't matter how big my stomach is. A true, running through all, holiday.

I'm going to go back to reading Anna Karenina. Then, just before it gets dark, I'll pin up my hair and hopefully go for a walk for exercise. Tomorrow we are going to a store after I do my morning writing session. I need to buy some more perfume, I'm all out. Tomorrow will be busy. But today, we are all just drifting.