Old habits, new resolve

Source: The New York Public Library digital collections

It’s one week into 2016 and already my old habits nibble at the edge of my new resolve despite extraordinary effort to the contrary. But this isn’t an essay about failing, or falling short or even self-recrimination.

Instead it’s a piece about hope. And intention. And turning back to the things that bring my life joy and fulfillment, curiosity and comfort.

How do I want to spend my days? What work, aside from the daily business of living, brings meaning to my life, enhances it, rewards my passions and in some small way – or dare I dream a larger, more significant one – contributes to someone else’s life, enhances their point of view or opinion, maybe offers a new perspective that might make someone consider something in a different way?

I think often about what I want this space to be. Like most writers, I love to read about process, and daily routines and time management tips that I’m sure will make me more productive and, yes, PUBLISHED. I’ve had some success: an essay here, my most popular post here, my own magazine of which I’m extremely proud. I belong to a writing group, whose members are friends and whose input and advice I value more and more as we continue to travel our writing paths. I’m also a huge fan of Story Studio Chicago, a welcoming home for writers whose instructors encourage, guide and push when necessary, and who provide validation that our work matters.

Yes, writing takes a community but ultimately it’s the act of one – one woman, alone at her keyboard or with a pen and a sheet of blank paper – that brings the words forth. It’s knowing the solitary thrill of writing that one perfect phrase, of explaining how I felt at that one singular moment, of telling the story precisely, exactly the way I want.

That moment of knowing that yes, I got it right, is the zen of creating. It’s why we all keep writing, even after months or years of not doing it but thinking about it all the time until one day you’re watching The Thin Red Line on Starz and checking Twitter, and the music Terrence Malick chose to underscore his movie draws you to Pages and the blank screen and you start writing again. And you decide you want to keep writing and not give up because how could you? What else would I do?

Stories matter, the real ones and the made-up ones and all the ones in between. That’s where I want to be, creating them and sharing them, and that’s my hope for this new year. I promise to keep writing and I hope you keep reading. I’ll do both, and let’s share what we discover along the way.

Notebook vs journal: What’s in a name?

Crickets (the iPhone kind) wake me up at 5:30 every weekday morning. When they chirp I reach over and shut the alarm off for 15 minutes, then drag myself out of bed and head downstairs to make coffee. I wait, pour myself a cup, then walk into my office and sit at my desk. I take a sip, open the 99-cent composition notebook (black and white cover, college-ruled) and uncap a Pilot Precise V5 fine point marker. Finding my place in the notebook, I skip one line from the previous entry, note the date and time, set the alarm on my phone for 30 minutes (crickets again), and start writing.

As I write I try not to think about what I’m scribbling down, or anything really. I don’t check my messages first, nor my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I may throw a load of laundry in the dryer while the coffee brews, if my kids need something before they leave for school, but in the almost-two years since I decided to start my days with a writing session, I’ve become quite good at thinking about nothing until I sit down to write.

It’s a relief, actually. I like starting my day with nothing.

For the most part, I adhere to Natalie Goldberg’s advice from Writing Down the Bones: Don’t think, just write. Don’t stop, just let it flow. Try not to cross anything out, don’t correct misspellings, and for heaven’s sake, do not edit. The goal is stream-of-consciousness writing as a path to deeper truth.

It’s Goldberg’s assertion, among so many other writers and writing teachers, that a daily writing practice yields benefits when you come to the page seriously and with intention. It’s the same idea as Julie Cameron, who promotes morning pages in her book, The Artist’s Way, and it’s profoundly simple: When you clear out the cobwebs, you reach a deeper creative level.

But what if your writing isn’t all that deep, or even all that interesting? When I first started writing morning pages I was resolute and oh, so profound – pages of descriptions of sunrises, what chirping birds sound like, the thump of the newspaper as it hits the concrete driveway, a beam of light illuminating my handwritten page. I experimented with imagery and metaphor, worked from prompts, described my neighbors’ houses, imagined where the man across the street went at 5:45 in the morning as he backed out of his driveway wearing his pajamas. Really.

Then I got bored and started what I’ll call my feelings phase. Our oldest child will start college in the fall, a fact which spawned dozens of pages about applications, acceptance and rejection, chick-out-of-the-nest emotions, did we do a good job as parents.

There’s also a lot in there about resolutions: a new year, the start of a new month, Sundays and Mondays. I wrote down goals, created schedules, and plotted my days by the hour. The more schedules I wrote, the more bored I was. I questioned whether I was writing with intention or just keeping a diary; whether what I wrote was worth anything, or if it was a trivial hobby.

When I first found myself floundering I decided to take a break from morning writing, but after a couple of days I read through an old notebook and to my surprise found that some of the writing wasn’t half-bad. A word or sentence jarred something in my mind and I picked up the Precise V5, flipped to the next blank page, and started writing again. Almost two years later I still do the same thing when I get stuck, and without fail I feel better, like my day has righted itself.

Whether you share your writing notebooks or keep them private is up to you. But for this practice, I’ve found that the best audience is yourself.

Recommended reading

A regular Monday feature highlighting an excerpt from the past weekend’s reading:

“They took care of each other during the day, but at night they went to the ruins of their own houses. Each had found a corner to sleep in shielded on one side by a wall and the other by sticks and thatch. They struggled to find sleep on the mats that separated their bodies from the earth. The tattered blankets couldn’t warm their old bones. But they were home, where they knew exactly which tree the first sunrays would pierce through, a signal for God to connect with humans, every day. They had to be in their homeland for that—one could, if possible, hear God only through the words of one’s own land.”

From Radiance of Tomorrow, a novel by Ishmael Beah. Also recommended: A Long Way Gone, Beah’s memoir of growing up as a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

The Notebook(s)

This isn’t the notebook I’m talking about but look, it’s Ryan Gosling.

I keep a writing notebook, thanks in part to a lifetime of journaling but mostly as a new habit I started after reading Natalie Goldberg’s fantastic book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. (If you haven’t read it, please stop now and order it from your local bookstore or download it to your Kindle. It’s a little new-agey but one of the very best books on writing and creativity I’ve ever read.)

Goldberg recommends writers commit to daily writing practice – a timed session of free writing every day. So I bought a few composition notebooks from Office Depot and found a good writing pen (the Pilot Precise V5, which writes like butter and doesn’t have the shorter ink supply I find in Sharpies), and now most days between 5:30 and 6:30 in the morning I sit at my desk and write for 30 minutes about whatever is in my head. This is not profound writing, nor is it particularly good. In fact, a lot of it is whiny, self-indulgent and laughable. No one will see it, I think, other than me.

These writing notebooks came to mind recently as I listened to David Finkel speak at the Power of Narrative Conference at Boston University. Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter and National Enterprise Editor of The Washington Post, wrote The Good Soldiers, a book about one of the first Army infantry units to be deployed to Iraq in 2007 as part of George W. Bush’s surge strategy. Finkel embedded with the soldiers in Baghdad for several months during their tour, and his award-winning book is an honest, painful and accurate portrayal of modern war.

During his tour, Finkel recorded everything in reporter’s notebooks, transcribing interviews, recording dialogue, and writing descriptions of rooms, places, clothing, colors, smells – any detail he could remember that might be useful to the story later. He filled dozens of them, but when he returned home and began to write his book, he knew how to handle the volume of information he’d collected.

“I’m a methodical reporter, so I indexed every notebook before I even started writing,” he said.

In the index, Finkel carefully listed every scene, character and detail so that he could find and refer to the information more easily as he wrote the book. The indexes helped him to link the narrative and expand a story that covered 15 months; without them, Finkel said, he wouldn’t have been able to write the book the way he wanted.

I don’t dare to compare my writing notebooks to Finkel’s reporting volumes, but the idea of indexing these journals was an a-ha moment. So I started with my first month’s writing, and grabbing a pencil and a blank sheet of paper, read and recorded topics, characters and ideas. I found that in September, for example, I’d spent a lot of time describing what was outside my window, so I wrote the heading “OTW” and listed page numbers. I did the same thing in October, so it too has an OTW listing. Reading through the notebooks I rediscovered character sketches, remembered ideas from a seminar I’d attended, recalled the name of a photographer whose work reminded me of my novel, and found a lot of prompts that I either finished or didn’t. I even wrote about dreams I’d had that I hope no one reads, for several reasons. (Ha!)

The process of indexing this free writing serves two purposes: It helps to corral information and herd stray thoughts; and it offers easier access to ideas that on days when the writing’s going slowly, or the next project isn’t forthcoming, might hopefully inspire the muse. Indexing is worth doing for those reasons alone, which is something I’m sure Natalie Goldberg would appreciate.


Hockey Heartbreak and Friday Night Lights

Image via bleacherreport.com
Image: NBC, via bleacherreport.com

The United States women’s Olympic hockey team lost the gold medal game to Canada yesterday, giving up a two-goal lead with less than two minutes left in the third period, and the winning goal a little over halfway into overtime.

It was heartbreaking, even more so than today’s loss by the US men’s team to Canada in the semifinals. While I’m sure Patrick Kane and the rest of the American team isn’t happy, there is some consolation : They’ll be back on NHL ice in a few days, and in the hunt to win the Stanley Cup. For women’s captain Meghan Duggan and the rest of her teammates, however, there is no Stanley Cup equivalent for women’s hockey, at least in terms of audience and experience. Olympic gold is the biggest and most prestigious prize they can win.

In an interview before yesterday’s game on NBC, National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman was asked whether the NHL might start a women’s hockey league, as the National Basketball Association did with the WNBA. Bettman smiled at the question and said no, the league had hired consultants to look into it but hockey isn’t nearly as far along as basketball is in terms of supporting a professional women’s league.

Maybe. But I believe as with anything, you’re only as ready as you want to be, and based on the number of girls and women who play hockey at the elite levels, and the quality of play these athletes demonstrated at the Sochi Olympics (and before), it seems to me that an original six women’s professional team system wouldn’t be too hard to start. Here are some other options: a women’s stadium series, like the NHL is doing this winter. Maybe women’s exhibition games during NHL All Star weekend, or a women’s playoff before or during the Stanley Cup tournament. Possibly host a series of women’s all-star games to attract attention and interest in a new league.

As the mother of a boy and a girl, both of whom participate in sports, I realize that my baseball player has a longer potential career than my softball player, and certainly more opportunity down the road than his sister does in gymnastics. Given the limited number of college and professional opportunities for women, even with Title IX, it makes the work ethic these women have all the more admirable, especially given that many of them play well into their 30s, some of them after pregnancy and childbirth, without the promise of a big payday. What’s the payoff, other than pure love of the sport? Making it to the pros is a one-in-a-million shot in any sport, and there’s plenty of disappointment for 98 percent of the boys and young men who dream of a professional athletic career. But for women, there’s hardly anything to dream about other than they can try again at the next Olympics, see you in four years.

All of this Olympics talk brings to mind a book I picked up recently, which while it doesn’t deal with women’s sports, does talk about the all-or-nothing, against-all-odds world of high school athletics.

Friday_Nights_LightsFriday Night Lights is a book by H.G. Bissinger, a former editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer who quit his job and moved his family to Odessa, Texas for one year to follow the fortunes of the Permian Panthers, a top-ranked Texas high school football team. These high school players hardly face the likelihood of a post-high school football career, and sadly, the town doesn’t aspire to much else, either. It’s a fascinating story of the outsized pressure on athletes that hints at the broader win-at-all-costs mentality of sports at the elite level. It’s also a great read.

Sunday best

Author Gary Shteyngart, in today’s New York Times Book Review:

“It’s so nice to turn the pages of a real printed book with a small, sweet creature like my son, Johnny, by my side. I’m reminded of my father reading to me as a child, my head against his chest, letting the heavy Russian words thump in my ears. I only hope I generated the same kind of megawatt warmth against his skin as my son does against mine.”