After you’ve broken

If I am learning anything from my long journey toward becoming a writer, it has something to do with kindness.

Oh, sure, there’s courage and honesty and creative word-smithing. Those seem important. Discipline, scalpel-sharp critical thinking, dogged commitment. Yup. Lucky breaks, too, and putting in your time and learning how to get by with less. But really, at the very bottom of it, I find it’s kindness that is the most essential to continuing forward.

I’m not talking about empty kindness, easy kindness, the stuff of courtesy and politeness. Real kindness. The undeserved, the unbidden, the unworthy, the unending. And I’m talking about being kind to yourself.

I nearly broke myself last winter when I was kicking my own ass in a brightly lit apartment thousands of miles and an ocean away from home. I was working on my first book-length manuscript, demanding myself to write at least 1000 words a day and a chapter a week for twelve weeks. I was demanding myself to write the best book ever written, the best adventure story, the best gay marriage story. I was demanding myself to write a story that could change the world, that would subvert and surprise and give and give. I was writing a story that could save my relationship with my siblings and could teach my parents. It was a story that was true and right. I was demanding perfection.

Meanwhile, I was physically ill. I was depressed. I was pretty sure I was an egocentric hack. I went spiraling down a vortex of doubt feeding fear feeding frustration feeding doubt. I survived the vortex.

Some folks don’t.

Six months later, thanks to a friend’s suggestion and an editor’s selection, I found myself sitting in a circle of writers seeking our stories together at the incomparable Summer Fishtrap workshop in eastern Oregon. Across the circle sat Luis Alberto Urrea, who told of his own doubt-fear-frustration-doubt vortex that led him to the edge of everything. He survived. And returned to the world of the living with the gorgeous epic The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

If you survive the vortex does not mean you will produce a gorgeous epic. Nor am I saying you must go through the vortex in order to produce brilliance. But I do believe that to tell a great story you must be willing to face the truth of things, and you very well may balk in the face of that truth. And if you balk, it very well may be kindness which allows you to escape with your life and your story.

Later that same week of Fishtrap, the poet Kim Stafford explained to us how his father, the poet William Stafford, wrote. I find it the daily expression of writerly-kindness-to-self:

1) Write the date.
2) Write boring prose.
3) Write into an aphorism or koan – a self-contained observation or idea
4) write the thing.

Kim made us practice his father’s technique. This is what I wrote that day:

7/9/14

Today is Wednesday. I had a harder time waking this morning than yesterday. I didn’t hear as many birds and I am not sure if there actually were fewer birds or if I just couldn’t or didn’t hear them today. No hummingbirds yet today. Or dippers.

I’m wondering as always about the good that will come out of this. This is writing church, but I distrust all churches. I like to believe that this mistrust is not because I believe I do not deserve the sanctuary, but because I doubt the truth of sanctuary in the first place. Or if not truth, then usefulness. Though the use is obvious to be kind to oneself. To be kind to yourself means being kind to everything you know about yourself. Being kind to the ugliness. To be kind to the fear, to be kind to the doubts, the anger, the endless river of voices. These are my voices and every other voice I have ever heard.

Give me the strength to survive this, the going out, the falling. And give me the strength to still be kind, long after I’ve broken against the bedrock.

And then I wrote the thing:

To the Writer

Never tell the names
of the smallest gods whirring
behind your ears, but do not
swat them either, cursing

be kind to everything you know
about yourself, even your doubt
even your hate
even your own death

be kind long after you have
leaped, after you have
fallen, after you have broken against bedrock


Applications are open until December 15th for 2015 Summer Fishtrap Fellowships and Scholarships.

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That Music

I’d meant to read this poem at the Fab Planet summit but ran out of time. Fortunately, there’s always time for a good poem here at andtheuniverse:


“That Music”
W.S. Merwin

By the time I came to hear about it
I was assured that there was no such thing
no it was one more in the long trailing
troupe of figures that had been believed but
had never existed no it had not
resounded in the dark at the beginning
no among the stars there was no singing
then or later no ringing single note
threaded the great absences no echoing
of space in space no there was no calling
along the lights anywhere no it was not
in the choiring of water in the saying
of a name it was not living or warning
through the thrush of dusk or the wren of morning


This is resistance: hearing that which we are told to deny. This is hope: that the thrush and the wren will sing their own songs (regardless of the script thrust upon them). This is joy: to fill the darkness and light alike with song.

This poem can be found in Merwin’s gorgeous Migration: New & Selected Poems.

Also: I’m still searching for photo credit. If you recognize this image, please help me out!

Forgotten Dreams

From the second row of the upper balcony, Pete and I were not afforded a view of the stage unless we stood up.  Fortunately, everyone was standing or leaning in close to the low rail beyond which opened the grand space of Peon Contreras.

The concert hall is one of the oldest in the Americas, built near the heart of the ancient city center of Merida.  The Mayas lived in this city long before the Spanish came and forced them to tear down their white limestone temples and reassemble the stones into cathedrals and palaces and theaters.

We first began attending the Merida Symphony thanks to our new expat-friend Deborah, who plays the violin with them.  We bought the cheap seats because we’re cheap, but as we kept climbing up the circling stone steps, my wonder rose in my chest.  How big was this place?  How grand?  When we opened the doors to our balcony chamber, I went dizzy.   The flying dome.  The floating crystal chandelier.  The heads of the audience on the floor like carefully-arranged pebbles. The space!

Deborah brought us in.  We joined her and the other musicians at the side-alley Italian cafe after the concert.  We went on dates for drinks and dancing.  One of the best was the night she met us after we saw Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams at the outdoor art cine and cafe, La68.  Our heads swirled with the revelations of the cave artists speaking to us from 30,000 years in the past.  We snuck in late to a government-sponsored free concert in Peon Contreras of the visiting Guanajuato Symphony culminating in the heart-skipping performance of an operatic soprano soloist.  Then we took the long warm walk to Blue Namu, the gay bar where we witnessed the most spectacular especatulo of our young lives.  We gather together and watch shadows dance.

Tonight we are here for Verdí.  The Symphony has assembled 150 people to string and blow and sing.  We can barely see the feet of the bass singers hiding in the back rafters of the stage.

I’ve always loved the moment of the tuning, when the prinicipal plays the A.  It’s when we can’t judge, we can’t weigh our expectations against reality.  It’s just this anticipation and sense of purpose.

What is that purpose?  Isn’t it strange that people gather together like we do to share our music?  We all want the waves to wash over us together.   This is what it seemed to me, as I stood behind the line of people crowding against the rail of the upper balcony, as the Symphony crescendoed and wailed.  I swore I felt the whole place shaking.  And I watched the faces watching the stage.  The light of the stage lights glowed upon them.  The curve of their bodies matched the scallop of the balcony.  I felt as though all we ever want is to be closer to the light and the sound of this thing we share.  I loved us, the symphony, the audience, the curved line that did not bother with formality, that did not stay rigidly in our seats.  We bent toward the center of it as though we were gathering around a fire surrounded by night.