Poetry, persimmons and my inner battle

Live human conversation is happening in my dining room. In this time of Covid it’s as soothing to me as listening to a symphony.

My son’s friend Emilio is visiting. He has come to build a tower desktop computer with my son TJ. The two of them have spread out the parts on the dining room table and are carefully assembling parts and screwing pieces together. They talk about their online school experience, attempts at working out and living at home.

Emilio says he hasn’t been out of the house since March. His mom has mandated that he sees no one. She hasn’t even allowed him to order his favorite fast food, for fear it might pass on the virus. I guess she relented today, knowing his computer is an important hobby.

I have a few errands to run, but I’m reluctant to leave this hum of conversation. I’ve been battling anxiety and my whole world is calibrated toward the goal of being less anxious. Even doing errands has become difficult. Can they just wait? Do I really need to return the wrong-size slippers I bought at CVS? Do I need to buy those noodles at Costco? Last time I went to Costco a loud alarm went off at the register and I was barely able to cope.

Writing, on the other hand, and this listening to human words, is a refuge. The physical act of putting words on paper or a screen is calming. It’s as automatic as driving a car, but even more immersive. To get lost in writing, to become absorbed with words and meanings and sounds, offers solace. How strongly I want to get lost! I want to escape my own troublesome thoughts.

Poetry has been perhaps the best escape for me lately. On several sleepless nights I’ve sat in bed with my notebook circling over a few lines of poetry, playing with different combinations of words and syllables. Poetry demands that every word, every morpheme, count. It’s writing at its most pared down and concise.

Some people think poetry is serious and stuffy and complicated. This is not true. A lot of poetry can be playful. Just look at a Billy Collins poem or many haikus. Many times a haiku will carry an ironic meaning. For example, the other day I wrote:

on the back fence
morning glories
open all day

I was trying to play with the idea that although these flowers have the word “morning,” their wide purple blooms are actually open all day. I have a view of them outside my kitchen window and all day long hummingbirds and butterflies flit around the flowers gathering nectar.

I also wrote:

deep orange persimmons
“let them ripen, be patient”
says my neighbor

This captures a brief conversation with my neighbor the other day when I walked by her tree and she was picking persimmons. She gave me a few, still shiny and hard, and told me to let them ripen on the counter. They were like getting gold. According to my neighbor the squirrels often get to the persimmons before she can pick them.

Poetry is all about detail. It’s often about the senses. It’s about noticing and recording the noticings. For example, I might notice the feel of the jagged jigsaw puzzle pieces in my hand or the ooze of an egg I’m cooking as I crack it into the pan. All of those textures are fodder for poems.

I’ve learned that managing anxiety is also about details. One strategy is paying attention to breathing. I learned about breath prayer this summer when I participated in a virtual Camino pilgrimage. The guide I listened to instructed us to pick one phrase to say as we inhaled and another to say when we exhaled. I picked “Come Lord Jesus” on inhaling and “fill me with your love” on exhaling. I find it centering and relaxing.

***

It’s now a few days later and election night has come and gone. Biden has won and makes a wonderful speech, talking about unity and healing. For a short time I feel hopeful and elated. But still my anxiety, coupled with depression now–the sister of anxiety–continues. Writing has become difficult. I struggle to put words together. I fear that this one thing that helps me has been taken away. Still, I return to poetry, remembering a conversation with my son.

Miguel mentioned the other day that he had discovered William Carlos Williams, a poet from the last century. I am curious about this poet and do some Googling. It turns out he and Ezra Pound were part of the Imagism movement of the early 20th century, which featured “precision of images and clear, sharp language.” His poem about a wheelbarrow (below) has been frequently quoted. It is a brief, haiku-like poem, superficially about a wheelbarrow. Is there a deeper meaning?

XXII
from Spring and All (1923)
[1]

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Technically, this poem features a lot of enjambment, which is incomplete syntax at the end of a line. You have to jump to the next line to finish the thought. The effect of enjambment is to slow the reader down, almost to a meditative level.

Some critics thought Williams wrote this poem when he was treating a dying patient (he was a doctor) and he looked out the window and saw this scene. The toy wheelbarrow belonged to the little girl he was treating. Williams scribbled these lines on his prescription pad. Later this theory was debunked, but I like the idea. I want to believe that a poet’s radar is always on, ready to compose poems, even when engaged in another activity. Maybe that’s why Mary Oliver recommended that poets always carry a notebook, to quickly write down their inspirations. I can picture Mary, walking at the Cape Cod seashore, with notebook in hand.

Here’s a haiku I quickly wrote this afternoon after a walk. It follows traditional haiku rules of five syllables in the first line, seven in the second and five in the third.

turtles on the log
brown shells absorb midday sun
walk around the lake

The 5-7-5 rule is often broken in published haiku. I like the rule, as it sets some parameters in writing. Next time I’ll try some enjambment. What are some of your favorite poems?

I received more persimmons the other day. They seem almost a fall poem in themselves, with their smooth orange skin. There are two types of persimmons, ones that have a round bottom and ones that have a pointy bottom. My neighbor gave me the pointy-end kind that need to ripen before you eat them. Then you scoop out the flesh and eat the soft, gooey insides. My friend gave me the round kind. You can slice these like an apple and eat them alone or in a salad. The texture is almost like a pear. I will savor these persimmons. In my state of struggle I need all the beauty I can find.

What St. Teresa is teaching me about the new year

I’m giving myself an hour or two to write this morning. As with a lot of my writing, I don’t know where this will go. But today seems significant. It’s the last day of the year; tomorrow is a new decade. It seems right to pause, to linger over my coffee and enjoy a bit of solitude before tonight’s festivities. Continue reading

Word by word with my writing coach

I didn’t think working with a writing coach would be all that challenging. I thought I’d get inside tips on where to submit, general writing advice and editing that would garner quick results—lots of published pieces. How hard can this be?, I thought. I’ve been writing a blog for several years and I feel ready to put my work out there to other publications. Continue reading

Getting past writer’s block and other thoughts on writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writer’s block. Since deciding to be more disciplined about writing, I’ve suffered my share of this. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, staring at a blank screen and waiting for the words to come. You know lots of people experience it, but at that moment, when you face it, you feel like the only person in the world who is stuck. You feel isolated. It’s a lonely feeling.

I used to only write when I felt inspired, when I already had an idea forming and I could just sit down and let the words flow. Now, though, I make myself write everyday, whether I feel inspired or not. Often I do have a kernel of an idea. But many times, I freeze up. I can’t develop the kernel. I don’t have enough to say. I switch topics or simply stare at what I’ve got and think for a long time.

Sometimes I avoid the discomfort of writer’s block by avoiding writing altogether. I’m pretty good at that. Today, for instance, I found all sorts of things to do instead of sit at my desk. I started a load of laundry. I picked up the house. I noticed my bowl of lemons and remembered the recipe my sister-in-law gave me to make preserved lemons. I hunted for the old recipe and made a shopping list. I finally sat down at my desk and answered some e-mails. Then I got hungry. I had to eat. How could I use up the asparagus and noodles in my refrigerator? I threw them together on the stove with some cherry tomatoes, smoked salmon and butter sauce. I was feeling like I had accomplished a lot—but I hadn’t written a word.

When I first decided to write more I cut back on my hours at work and pledged to dedicate that time to writing. Surely I would be churning out lots of great pieces! Instead I ran into a wall of writer’s block. I was trying to write was about my recent travels to Guatemala. It had been life changing and full of adventure but I discovered I couldn’t convey the experience the way I wanted and I was frustrated. After two weeks of tweaking, I had written an accurate summary of the trip but something was missing. I was so concerned in getting the big picture right that I forgot some of the rich details—the taste of the juicy mangos the village women gave us, the bump of the bus ride, and the odd juxtaposition of so many things, like the villagers’ cellphones hanging from their handmade woven belts. I would write the piece differently now—and maybe I will.

I’m realizing more and more that good writing takes time. All creative work involves patience and attention. Meanwhile, other kinds of work bring more instant rewards—and that’s alluring. I worked at a bookstore for almost three years. I enjoyed helping customers find the book they wanted so desperately they couldn’t even wait for Amazon to deliver it. Either that or they came specifically to support their local bookstore. Then I would ring up their sale. I loved working the cash register. I always felt like a kid who was playing store, as though I was handling fake money. I enjoyed shelving new books fresh out of the box. I even enjoyed gift wrapping books, from carefully measuring out the paper from our big roll to affixing ribbons and a gold sticker. At the end of my shift, I saw tangible results. With writing, I don’t always get to see a neatly wrapped package at the end of the day. I’m learning to be satisfied with that.

The most challenging thing about the kind of writing I’m doing is that nobody is the boss but me. I have to set my own goals. Only I know if I’ve wasted time surfing the internet or shopping online or reorganizing my closets. I’ve crossed paths with many creative types this past year and one thing I know for sure is that this work involves discipline. You have to show up and submit to the process, anticipating that writer’s block or lack of inertia is all part of it.

For me discipline involves a bit of hocus-pocus. I once knew a woman writing her dissertation who wore a special hat whenever she sat down to write. I don’t have a hat but instead I set up a schedule and an inviting space. I try to sit down to write at the same time everyday. I keep a notebook with two to-do lists: one with my writing goals and one with my other tasks. I tell myself I can’t work on those other tasks until after I write. Various rituals encourage this: hot coffee at my desk, a clean workspace and a pad of lined paper for jotting notes. I try my hardest to protect this time. Most days this works; other times it doesn’t.

I marvel at writers like Mark Twain who could write eight or ten hours a day with barely an interruption. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to that point—I’m not even sure I want that. What I have discovered though, is that writing leads to more writing. Many writers talk about how they feel a compulsion to write every day. They can’t live without it. The more I write, the more I understand that. Writer’s block aside, the writing process is an exciting experience of discovery. You discover new ideas you didn’t even know you had or had never formally stated. That can be intoxicating. That’s what keeps me coming back for more.

I recently read writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” She proposes that ideas live in the universe independently of humans. An idea might decide to visit you at a certain juncture in your life and if you are ready for it, you can work with it. If you’re not ready, it will find another “home.” She illustrates this with a story about how she once tried to write a book about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert worked on the book for several years but got sidelined by personal issues and put the project aside. Then Gilbert met writer Ann Patchett. After getting to know each other, Gilbert eventually learned that Patchett was working on a new novel. And what is the novel about? It’s a novel about a woman from Minnesota who goes to the Amazon jungle to uncover a mystery. It’s also a love story. Gilbert is astounded to learn that her idea had migrated to Patchett! Patchett’s book became the bestselling novel “State of Wonder.”

I’m not sure I fully believe Gilbert’s idea that ideas are independent. But I’d like to. It adds to the mystery of this whole process. It also reinforces the concept that we are all intertwined and connected in powerful ways that we can’t even see. Our experiences and interactions with others become like an elixir we can spill out on the page. Our words, in turn, then influence the next person that reads them and we never quite know the outcome.

Creative work demands not only discipline, but courage. I need to believe that I have something important to say. I have something original to add to the large body of material already out there. Writer’s block often creeps in when I’m feeling doubtful and shy. I need to look writer’s block in the face and say, “I don’t believe you. I’m going to write anyway. This may not be a masterpiece, but it’s good enough.”

How do you face creative blocks? I’m always eager to hear how other writers or creative types work and think. Where do you get inspiration? How do you stay disciplined? Do you talk to other writers? Do you talk to yourself? For me the process, in all its meandering mysterious ways, is almost as interesting as the product itself.

When I worked at the bookstore, I always enjoyed hearing famous writers come in and talk about their writing process. None of them said it was easy. I take heart, knowing even the best struggle and have their good days and bad days. I know that all of this is part of the larger process, a process I’m only beginning to understand.

Blogging: exercise for the mind

I never thought I’d write a blog. I didn’t even know exactly what a blog was 10 years ago. Many people didn’t–the art of blogging is relatively new. It didn’t really become a phenomenon until the late ‘90s, spurred on by a Swarthmore college student who kept an online diary starting in 1994. Now, it seems, lots of people have blogs. My friend Bruce has one, my friend Kathy occasionally writes one and even my son has a vlog of sorts, (that’s a video log in case you didn’t know and his videos are fantastic!) https://www.youtube.com/user/migueldelaveaga

I write a blog for the same reason some people run. It is cathartic. It lets me exercise my mind, discover new paths (of thought) and make contact with the outer world. I don’t always know where a given topic will lead me or what memories or hopes it may stir. That is the exciting part. Writing is a process of discovery and I always discover something new.

Sometimes writing a blog is tough, especially if you want to be consistent. Like the runner who must push herself to get out there, I don’t always feel inspired. Last week, for instance, I sat down with the intention to write something about Christmas. I wanted to explore why it was that the Christmas season inched along as a child and was full of waiting and anticipation, whereas it seems to fly by faster and faster each year as an adult. I couldn’t get past the first paragraph however. I kept thinking of the tragic shootings in San Bernadino and the craziness of the world. My thoughts on Christmas felt trite and inconsequential. My heart felt heavy.

To make myself feel better I wrote a Christmas letter instead of a blog post. I felt relieved to write a straightforward letter of news and updates on the family rather than face a more philosophical topic. And I did feel better afterwards. I had focused on joyful things and had a few moments of respite from the awful news of the day. Blogging could wait.

Like many things in life, I entered the world of blogging in a roundabout way. About six years ago I took a class called “Writing Your Personal Journey,” through a local non-profit Christian organization called New College Berkeley. The class focused on writing short personal essays on broad topics that incorporated spirituality, like “heart and soul” or “celebrations.” Each week we wrote essays and read them aloud to the class. For me, the process rekindled my love of writing, which had been dormant for a long time. I ended up taking the class three times and by the second time through I realized I wanted to share my writing more broadly, so I started posting my essays in blog format. It was easy enough to start, with the structure of a weekly class. The challenge is to maintain that rhythm, to keep a routine.

Many people seem to have set routines when they write. They always write at the same time of day or in the same place or with the same cup of tea. I know a woman who would put on a certain hat each time she sat down to write in order to demarcate her time—to signal, now is the time to write!

I don’t have a strict routine. Maybe I should. For now though, the time varies (morning, afternoon or evening), the place varies (home or café) and the process varies (quick or slow). Sometimes I have an idea that’s been burning for several weeks and I know more or less what I want to say. Other times I come up with an idea on the spot and invent as I go. Sometimes I finish in an hour; other times it might take several days. In all cases, there is a physical component. Just like the runner who feels the endorphins flow through her body, I feel pleasure and contentment in the physical act of typing words and seeing them come together on the screen. This is what keeps me going.

Sometimes I wonder if one day I’ll run out of ideas. I’ve started keeping a list of ideas in a notebook, just in case. So far, I haven’t used any of those ideas. Partly it’s because daily life supplies ideas and partly it’s because the ideas I’ve written down are a bit involved and entail interviews or research. One idea, for instance, is to research just how many resources (i.e. trees) were wasted on the latest 536-page catalog from Restoration Hardware. Another idea is interviewing some friends who are 50+ on their second-half-of-life careers. I think, when I get really get serious about blogging, I’ll work on this list.

I wonder if I’ll still be writing this blog 10 years from now. It’s hard to imagine what life will be like then or what I’ll be writing about. I do hope the world will be a more peaceful place. In the meantime, I am inspired by the many writers, like Natalie Goldberg or Mary Oliver, who keep going well into their later years. In that sense, writing is a tímeless activity. It keeps you young and alert. You are always looking for the next great topic and the discovery that comes from writing about it.