This week I am painting the carport.
We all write differently, or course–we need different spaces and prompts and inspiration; different schedules and routines and tools set our words free. For me, I can say to myself, “Tonight I am going to WRITE from 7 until 9. I’m going to take over the dining room table, kick everyone out, and I’m going to put together a blog post, an essay to submit to that contest, and see if I can’t tease out a structure for another chapter of that long-languishing fantasy novel.”
Then I clear away the distractions and shoo away the family, and pull the IPad up to the side of the table, flex my fingers…and fail. My mind, full of monkeys when I try to meditate, is now a silent chamber, a blank, dull slate.
The next thing I know, I am checking email, texting buddies, and getting a rag to wipe the bookshelf I just noticed is horribly, unbearably dusty.
Writing has not gotten done.
There I am on a ladder in the car port, which we are painting a bright clean white so we can turn it into an outdoor dining room in the pleasant summer months. I am brushing in the edges I missed with the roller, and words are tumbling in my brain. I’m thinking about painting, and how Mark, the son of a sailor, and I, the descendant of generations of cabinet-makers, look at the process so differently. (Mark says, “Slap it on! Get it done!” I say, “Time and finesse, my friend; time and finesse.” We agree, Mark and I, on many, if not most, things. On the process of painting, however, we will never reach consensus.)
And I’m thinking of the houses we lived in when I was a child, after a catastrophic financial turn caused my parents to sell the family home. After that, we tried out a series of rentals, and in each one, we would get the tarps out and clean the brushes, load the rollers, crack open cans of paint, make the walls fresh and new and OURS. And the rental would go from being impersonal to becoming home…if only for a temporary respite.
And I’m thinking that painting has big meaning for me. It says ‘home’ and ‘transformation.’ This is a topic, I think, for a blog post.
When I take a break, I grab my notebook and jot down all these thoughts.
Painting–hands busy, mind free to roam.
Walking does that for me, too. The other day, on my regular ramble, I started thinking about the book I’m reading: a biography of Shirley Jackson, who wrote “The Lottery,” among many, many other things. Some of Jackson’s writing, so eerily psychological, scares the horse hockey out of me. Then she has books about her family, fun-loving stories of warm and rambunctious children in a rambling old country home–Life Among the Savages, she called her first book in this style. Such different approaches…but I realize,–and Ruth Franklin, the author of the biography, backs me up,–that much of Jackson’s writing is about the topic of home.
In her scary works, the hero is always searching for home, trying to find home, rebelling because the person who should have provided that refuge hasn’t done so. The chill often comes when the protagonist is lost, at sea, unable to find her way home. In her memoir writing, Jackson celebrates the glorious chaos of home and the funny precocity of kids.
I process all this as I’m walking, swinging my arms, blaring Leonard Cohen on my ancient IPod, and when I get home I grab the notebook again, and I write down thoughts about ‘home.’ That, I think, is the essay topic I’ve been searching for.
And now I have STUFF to work with. When I clear the decks, and I pull the IPad toward me, my thoughts have been shaken loose, the notebook is a guide and a goad, and I have no trouble dancing the keyboard, pouring out the words.
We all, of course, have to find the writing prompts and places that work for us–we need to discover our styles and the supporting environments and the effective tools. For me, I know now, my best ‘writing’ takes place when my hands are busy, when I’m far away from a keyboard, when my mind, unpressured, can range and organize and uncover thoughts and memories that have been buried in the dredge.
Activity–that’s my tool. And a cheap mottled notebook at hand to write down my thoughts.
Maybe, if you’re sitting at the keyboard and the muse has left the building, it’s time for you to go, too. Tackle a project. Take a walk. Pop the cork that holds the words back, and let them flow…then chase them home and pin them down in your writer’s notebook.