Sunday, August 17, 2008

Something is Always Happening

I thought there might be no good GC content in my current liminality, my last few days in Boston before my move back to California. I'm nearly moved out, staying in my sister's guest room, spending nearly every waking hour packing, cleaning, carrying boxes, trying to decide what to do with that Andy Warhol banana-split-bowl-set I bought at the art museum and never used.

It would be easy to think of this as in-between time, when "nothing" is happening. It would be normal to not count it as part of the creative, interesting life I'm supposed to be leading. But this is the real challenge: can I see opportunity for meaning and art in the middle of all this chaos and detritus? I'm not sitting on a cruise ship in Alaska, or watching 100 Rowe kids dance together, or eating wild boar at a tiny restaurant in Toscana. In one week I'll be on my way to Burning Man, where more peak experiences will present themselves, and I'm tempted to hibernate--on all levels-- until then. No one will notice if I drop out for a week...

But even artists have to take out the trash, and I'm reminded of a book I read in college called "Peace is Every Step" in which Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the meditative joy of doing dishes. I was shocked at the possibility that I could stop hating the white noise of my life. I thought there would always be the daily activities I was annoyed by, and was hurrying to finish, so that I could get to the good stuff. I still struggle with boredom and impatience when I feel the important moments are taking too long to come.

However, I've been on a campaign to change this. I'm using my time more wisely. I think of all my hours as worthwhile, precious, and opportunities for making something.

Last week in New York, my friend Greg, who directs one of the camps at Rowe and is a professional trumpet player, did a gig at a tiny club called Little Branch in the West Village. The place was like a speakeasy, with no sign, a swanky underground bar, and a very fancy cocktail menu that reminded me of dreams I used to have about being Marilyn Monroe. I was there with a group of people (hi Pippi, Rob, Jonah!) who have this easy way of enacting the kind of wide-awake-ness I'm trying to describe. They are funny people, and a lot of our conversation is grounded in jokes-- jokes that are collaborative, brilliant, emotionally honest, more about discovery and thinking of brand new ways to see everything than the kind of competitive sarcasm I see around me most often. It doesn't take much to inspire me to play, but it takes some real ingenuity to make me laugh that hard. We danced in a late-night pizza place, played a game we invented called "Where Does Poop Go?" (for which I offer no explanation or description) that left me gasping for air in between guffaws. We had a four-person sleepover in a studio apartment. I'm so grateful for it, in the middle of these weeks of transition. Every activity (food, getting a cab, music, walking, stopping at Bloomingdale's to try on hats) was an opportunity to make something new out of our time. I was infused with energy, even after returning to the thunderstorms-and-piles-of-crap-to-sort-through that is my current experience of Boston.

This second piece of the change is that when the time for necessary "boring" activity comes, I've started treating it differently. I don't allow myself to sink into frustrated inattention when waiting in lines, sitting in traffic, etc. When I have to do slow or menial tasks, I add something to them--attentive listening to great music, a "thinking project" (which is when I pick something in my life that feels unresolved, a passage from a tough text I've read, a move I've just seen, and think only about that for a few minutes), a body-check in or stretching, or take notes. There is no point at which "nothing" is happening.

"Nothing" is actually so rare I'm not sure I've ever experienced it. Whenever I'm asked what I'm doing and I'm tempted to say "nothing," I have to decide if I'm doing some kind of restorative resting, or if I'm not paying enough attention to the world. There's nothing wrong with rest when I need it--but it turns out I need much less than I thought. And real rest is very far from "nothing," it's an act of self-love and vulnerability. Good rest brings dreams. Good rest opens up space for new ideas. Good rest heals. Good rest keeps me from depression, helpless exhaustion, apathy.

I always tell my students to work at pushing themselves out of passive movie-viewing into active, critical viewing. I tell them to read with pens in their hands. At the very end of a semester when they're used to my constant reminders, I tell them what I REALLY believe, which is that everything, including laundry, taxes, packing to move, taking walks, watching Olympics, talking in funny voices, and on and on, all deserve that careful attention and reflection. Some activities, like the zipline (read Eat, Sleep, Zip!), demand total presence, and reflection has to happen afterward--but it's the engagement, and commitment to engagement that counts. Engagement is excitement. It's times like right now, when the pieces of inspiration aren't flying into me from brand new channels, when the details of my daily life are cheap coffee and dust bunnies and packing tape, that I feel the true necessity of my and other people's creativity. We're all on a team here.

What I also wanted to write about:
Why are the women's beach volleyball uniforms so much more revealing than the men's? Why couldn't the announcers stop talking about the female teammates embracing each other? What does the lyric "eleven angels of mercy sighin' over that black hole in the sun" mean? What would happen to my identity if I got rid of most of my objects? Why do I have such a hard time recycling old drafts of stories and novel chapters, after I've made revisions? What's the reason/cure/meaning of that particular amnesia that sweeps over Bostonians in the summer, when they think the winters "aren't so bad?" What does it mean for our culture that our news media is allowed to ask stupid questions like "You just lost/won the race by one one-hundredth of a second. How do you feel?" Do people who play jazz think more creatively about everything else? Are there any good texts on how and why we came up with the concept of "cool"?

Friday, August 8, 2008

I'm Converted. Writing Retreats Work.

I returned from Alaska to the reality of my impending move to California. There are many, many piles of STUFF to look at, make decisions about, pack tightly in shippable boxes...and I knew that I was going to get no writing done in the noise.

So I escaped, back to Rowe, for 2 and a half days. I brought one pair of pants and my laptop. Senior High Camp was happening, so I stayed mostly incognito. My goal: either finish what feels like a full draft of the novel, or get the manuscript up to 75,000 words. I did both! On the first day! I got more work done on my novel in those two days than in two months prior.

I've always had a little scorn for "Writer's Retreats." The main reason is that I have this impression that they are the selfish, expensive, last-ditch effort on the part of people who want to write, but don't have a daily practice. If there's no commitment to writing, there's not going to be some sudden upsurge of brilliance after three days in a cabin. "REAL" writers shouldn't need them. I didn't even know I was prejudiced until I decided to take some time away from everything to work on the novel, and felt shy and silly. Like I was buying into some myth that going into the woods will fix a block.

Now, I'm totally converted. I have a writing practice, a writing career, a writing life. I don't feel at all shy about calling myself "a writer" when people ask what I do. And like I said, I got more done in those two days than I had in the months prior, which means something special was happening in those days, and I think I know what it was.

There are three parts. Part one was that I successfully cut down on my distractions. I couldn't get online on my laptop for the most part, so when I sat down to work, it was only to work. I was alone for hours at a time with no cell phone and no piles of mail. Totally obvious. But somehow I thought I was a pillar of discipline and had never truly considered how distractable I am.

Part two was that I had an incredible amount of social support, built into my being there. I told everyone the reason I was visiting was to write, so when friends at Rowe took breaks from running camp they would ask me how my writing was going. I was getting checked on every few hours, totally unexpectedly, by people I care a great deal about, and that was surprisingly motivating. Because there is such a high value placed on creativity in that community, the air was filled with stories of the brilliance of the camp, and I think creativity works by osmosis, if you're deliberately permeable. Their great work helped me do great work. The legend of the lonely writer, who works best shut in a tower, just doesn't apply here. I'd prefer to be at a picnic table outside, with people all around doing projects, planning games, and occasionally patting my shoulders. At every mealtime someone I hadn't seen yet would come up and hug me. I had a perfect balance of silence and company.

Part three was a slightly more complicated abstract process of making my book feel more real by taking it somewhere new. I've worked on it mostly in Boston. I've done some writing in Los Angeles, where the novel is set. I've done some work on the cruise ship in Alaska. Each time I take the manuscript to a new setting, and try to re-enter the world of my characters, I have to ground their world even more carefully. I'm noticing new things in my own environment, and that leads me to think about new details of my fictional environment. Writing from Rowe, an isolated rural place, somehow turned the volume up on my reflections about being in an urban environment. I thought differently about the Los Angeles in my novel, being so far from it. I noticed how hard it is to eat alone all the time when you're in a city, as I ate family style in camp. I remembered a lot of noises I wasn't hearing--the distant horns and unfamiliar voices outside my old Hollywood apartment were replaced by thunderstorms outside Rowe's Farmhouse. I thought about how many pairs of shoes my characters needed to wear, because I was wearing the same ones for three days.

The grand sense of relief and the thrill of accomplishment hit me on Tuesday night, when a group of friends, some excitingly new and some with dear history, met me in the "smoker's tent." I'd brought a tin of fancy bourbon vanilla cigars for the occasion, and we had a hilarious fifteen minutes puffing away together in celebration. It was one of the more touching, silly, and fulfilling mini-parties I've ever attended. I felt surrounded by support and wished that everyone I know would both (1) start and finish big creative projects and (2) have a crew of chums like mine to help them along. Earlier in the day, I'd gone adventuring with two of them, to an enchanted swimming spot called Tannery Falls. We scrambled down a long set of wood plank stairs and muddy trail to a secret, shaded waterfall that looked about five stories high. The water was freezing. We got in! It was glorious! I ceremoniously dunked myself and proclaimed a new phase beginning. Then we cruised back to camp in time for dinner, wide awake and happy. I even got work done after that.

Now I sink back into revision, into the transition of moving back to California, into preparations for Burning Man, into the next, the next, the next.