Tag Archives: writing

The Way Story Lives in Us

There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery. The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.                                                                      A. Powell Davies

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I posted this quote recently here in this spot.  I posted it as I do all my quotes, because it captured my heart when I read it, so I wanted to pass it on.  But on the day it sprang to new life on my website, I found myself pausing over it again.  Not just admiring the words, the thought.  Not just wanting to pass them on as “true.”  But wanting to name the truth in my own life.

No mystery greater than our own mystery.

Every piece of fiction I have ever written has come out of “a thought [I] cannot quite think.”

I start with an idea that captures my imagination.  There has to be struggle embedded in the idea.  There is no story, at least in the traditional western sense of story, without struggle.  But I start with something I pluck from the air or from a newspaper story or from something that happened to me when I was a kid just because it seems interesting.  And if the idea is truly interesting to me, other ideas begin to fly to it, like iron filings to a magnet.  It builds.  And builds.

I never ask myself why I’m thinking of writing this particular story.  Asking why would be a bit like slicing open a cat to see what makes her purr.  I just keep turning the idea in my mind.  And if it truly belongs to me—it keeps growing.

But I still don’t know what makes it my story.  I just sit down and write it.

Sometimes I don’t know why I wrote this particular story until reviewers and readers begin to talk to me about it, to tell me what my words mean to them.  And then, at last, I can say . . . “Oh!  Of course!”  Sometimes I begin to understand as I reach my story’s conclusion.  (And interestingly enough, I always know where my story will end before I write the first word, but still it’s the writing of it that reveals its truth to me.)

My story becomes “the thought that lives in [me] without [my] being able to think it.”  Which is precisely why I am compelled to bring it into the world as a story.

I wonder sometimes, have always wondered, whether someday I will no longer need to cloak my unknown self in story.  Is it possible to become so transparent to myself that I won’t be compelled to search out my own mystery this way?

But then A. Powell Davis also said, “The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”

“That is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning.”

“And the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”

Where have I ever heard a deeper, truer expression of the way story lives in us?

A work in progress

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In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.

Steven King

On Growing Older . . . Old

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Why is “older” an acceptable word and “old” almost forbidden?

To answer my own question, I suppose it’s because we’re all growing older, even the four-year-old next door.  But old . . . at least in this youth-driven society, old smacks of incompetence, of irrelevance.  Even worse, old smacks of that truly obscene-to-us word . . . death.

I am approaching my birthday this month.  It won’t be a “big” dividable-by-five birthday, but still one that feels significant for the number it stands close to.  In a week I will be 79.

Can you name the number?

Forty didn’t trouble me a bit.  I had a friend, somewhat older than I, who, when I turned forty, said, “Forty is such a fine age.  It’s the first number you reach that has any authority, but you still feel so young.”  And she was right!  I sailed into 40 feeling mature, confident . . . and still young.

Sixty-five slipped past without much fanfare.  As a working writer I wasn’t facing retirement, after all.  Moreover, I could sign up for Social Security, and for the self-employed that is no small thing.  I’d been paying in, both the employee and the employer side, for a long time, and at last it was going to come back to me.  Given the difficulty and expense of buying health insurance that isn’t handed down through an employer, being able to get Medicare was an even bigger deal.  (I will never understand the flap in this country about “socialized medicine.”  That’s what Medicare is, and it works!  It works better than any other pay-for-care system offered in this backward country.)

When I turned seventy my daughter threw me a big party . . . at my request, I should add.  It was a lovely party, and it exhausted me.  Mostly it reminded me that I’ve never liked parties.

“I won’t ask you to do that again,” I said.

She, who has always been a loving and willing daughter, said, “Good!”

But this is 79!  And yes, I might as well name the number.  Eighty is a very short hop, skip and hobble down the road!

For the first time I find myself facing changes in my body that I know I don’t have the power to fix.  Not that I’ve given up trying.  I walk vigorously two or three times a day.  I do Pilates three times a week.  I stretch and I meditate and I eat healthfully and I practice excellent sleep hygiene.  Actually, my sleep hygiene is better and more reliable than my sleep. But my body continues on its ever-so-predictable downward trajectory.

From time to time, bits fall off.

And my mind?  That’s harder to define and even harder to talk about.  I can still produce a workable manuscript.  I can still offer a useful critique of someone else’s manuscript, too.  But I find myself too often going back to the refrigerator to locate the eggs I’ve just set out on the counter or struggling in the evening to remember some detail of what I’ve done that morning.

My omelets still please the palate, though, and I’ve shown up wherever I was expected to be in the morning and done whatever I said I would do.

Arriving at a place called old in this culture is a matter for some amazement.  Who is ever prepared?  After all, old has never been something to aspire to . . . despite the alternative.  A friend said recently, “I went from wolf whistles to invisibility in a heartbeat.”  And I went from “cutting-edge” to “veteran author” in the same incomprehensibly short time.

I find I want more than anything else to use these years I’ve been gifted, however many or few they may be.  I want to use them to deepen my acceptance of my own life, blunders and accomplishments all.  I want to use them to enrich the peace my presence brings into a room.

I want to use these years to live.  Not just to move through my days stacking accomplishments, one on top of another. I have enough of those.  We all have enough of those.

I want to use these years to breathe, deeply and mindfully.  And now, being old, I want use these final years to be grateful for every, every breath.

There is no need to be afraid of death

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There is no need to be afraid of death. It is not the end of the physical body that should worry us. Rather, our concern must be to live while we’re alive – to release our inner selves from the spiritual death that comes with living behind a façade designed to conform to external definitions of who and what we are. Every individual human being born on this earth has the capacity to become a unique and special person unlike any who has ever existed before or will ever exist again… When you live as if you’ll live forever, it becomes too easy to postpone the things you know that you must do. You live your life in preparation for tomorrow or in remembrance of yesterday, and meanwhile, each day is lost. In contrast, when you fully understand that each day you awaken could be the last you have, you take the time that day to grow, to become more of who you really are, to reach out to other human beings.
                                                                                                 Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Knowing My Own Mind

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There are times when I don’t know my own mind.  Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.

Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.

Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel.  I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity.  It did, and I read it eagerly.

I was disappointed.  Deeply.

It wasn’t that the novel was badly written.  This author isn’t capable of bad writing.  It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply.  And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.

I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book.  This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent.  (Once burned.)  This novel was . . . okay.  But I wasn’t in love.  I had been in love with her early novels.  Besotted, really.

Now another book is out.  In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.

And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel.  The okay one.  And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.

Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me.  Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?

As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering.  Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?

When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice.  Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second.  When that happens, I usually trust the second reading.  And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.

Is nothing in my mind solid, certain?  Are my opinions based on anything except emotion?  Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?

When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments.  How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?

When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility.  My opinion will impact another person’s work.  And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood?  What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?

The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work.  Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at.  Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.

I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence.  If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow.  (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.)  When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.

How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.

Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.

It’s a scary thought!