No Boundaries

Annie Dillard in The Writing Life has these lines: One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time…. give it, give it all, give it now…. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

Yesterday, Burlington was the city of blooming trees, countless petals strewn over lawns and car rooftops. The fragrance of freshly-turned bark mulch reminded me of playing beneath the neighbors’ rhododendrons when I was a little girl, and how wide and endlessly wonderful the world appeared then. As if everywhere I walked, something new and marvelously unexpected would emerge, like the word biodegradable, strong and full of magic possibilities.

At the end of a sultry day, I drove my little silver car home beneath charcoal-smudged clouds, through raindrops one-by-one illuminated by sunlight.

One flowering fruit tree alone would have been stupendous. I traveled from the lake through the wide valley, deep into the mountains, and arrived home where the apple tree before our house had opened its white and crimson-hearted blossoms while I was absent. The girls sprawled on the porch, waiting for me.

On the rain-sprinkled earth, we stood talking, inhaling the sweetly scented sonata of opening petal, damp dirt, ruby-throated hummingbird: summer’s largesse.

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Raw Material

My younger daughter lay on the couch all day yesterday with a bad cold; since she was a little girl, her response to sickness or misery has been quiet, a pulling into herself. Her sister rises up and fights.

Neither good nor bad, each girl arrived in this world with a distinctive personality emerging even as a young child.

When they were younger, I made a failed attempt to conceal what I believed were the harder realities – grave illness or betrayal. The truth, really, was that I didn’t want to hold those things; how little credit I gave to the children, and to resilience itself. Mistakenly, I believed resilience was a well that be tapped dry, rather than, like creativity, a bottomless collective spring.

I alone could never drink it dry.

Our writing is a living portrait of ourselves….. Write for the sheer pleasure we take in doing it, but also for the knowledge that it might just shift this world of ours a little. It is, after all, a beautiful and strange and furious place. Literature reminds us that life is not already written down. There are still infinite possibilities. Make from your confrontation with despair a tiny little margin of beauty. The more you choose to see, the more you will see. In the end, the only things worth doing are the things that might possibly break your heart. Rage on.

Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer

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Kid Chat

The May my younger daughter was born, rain fell every day, from May 1 to May 31. At the beginning of June, cornfields sprouted shoots of green, and the summer turned sweltering. We are yet in the rainy phase. Everyday, my daughter, now nearly 12, claims the apple tree leaves unfold their leaves noticeably wider. Fragrant blossoms and pollination are imminent. This girl changes, too, on the tender cusp of childhood and adolescence, past the why stage of toddlerhood and wondering at the pieces and people in her life.

The other morning, she asked about a church’s billboard sign: Jesus was a low-wage worker. She asked what Jesus did; I answered he was a carpenter, not a low-wage job in our town. Then what does the sign-writer mean? We wonder, who’s telling this story, anyway? The story of Jesus? The story of our town?

Then we were at her tiny school, the handful of graduating sixth graders wild about their trip to Maine, nearly trembling with excitement. On my way to work, I stopped again at that sign, pondering its existential statement. Rain fell lightly, and I sank my fingers into the church lawn’s soil, glad to see grass for the first time this year, long as my fingers.

….art and ideas come out of the passion and torment of experience; it is impossible to have a real relationship to the first if one’s aim is to be protected from the second.

– James Baldwin

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Hardwick, Vermont

 

Soil Writing Exercise

In a writing workshop I attended years ago, a professor grilled another student about a field she had recently driven by. What emotion did the field evoke in you? Older than me and not a close friend, the student was a woman I admired. A single mother, she was simultaneously brassy, insecure, funny.

The professor kept asking questions: Any moon or starlight? Rock piles? Did a river or trees border any edge?

The woman paused and finally said one word: sad. The emptiness of the harrowed up field evoked a sense of waste. The conversation might have ended there, but the professor pushed a little further, probing, and the woman said she thought the sorrowful emptiness was just one long snapshot of the field’s story.

That evening, we were not in our usual seminar room, clumped awkwardly instead in a half circle of chairs with writing desks attached. The overhead fluorescent lights made the windowless room uglier than it needed to be.

Every now and then, I find myself wondering what happened to this woman, and which way her story bent.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. Not only what they had for breakfast this morning, but what they wanted to have for breakfast.

– Colum McCann

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A Handful of Words

Recently, on a freezing afternoon, I was late to a workshop for writing a grant, in an attempt to keep funding my second novel endeavor. Either because I live where parking is usually not a problem, or because I don’t think ahead, I arrived with about a heartbeat to spare, but then couldn’t find parking, and ended up running in my clunky boots and parka a few blocks.

The workshop was held in a dance studio that was hardly heated, and all of crowded around tables in our sweaters and coats and hand-knitted hats. Mainly painters, the other attendees ranged from a young man who seemed to have just rolled out of the sack to elderly folks who asked a lot of good questions. Although I didn’t linger, I knew these were my tenor of people – not all that well-coiffed, intense enough about their passion to seek out sitting for a few cold hours in a shabby end of Burlington.

To get through the first cut, I’ll need to write four paragraphs. I sat there, in my sweater with the unraveling cuffs, and thought, That’s it? Four paragraphs? While the painters asked questions about matting, I started scribbling my answer. Be specific. Be profound. Articulate why literature matters. And, for God’s sake, don’t be afraid of four paragraphs.

Check back in May and see if I’m weeping….

Perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who, I believe, hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than do men. There are many reasons why women’s voices and visions are not more widely represented today in creative fields. Some of that exclusion is due to regular old misogyny, but it’s also true that—all too often—women are the ones holding themselves back from participating in the first place.

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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Hazen Union, Hardwick, Vermont

Where We Are Now

Falling snow is the main feature of these days, so marvelously beautiful no one complains. Usually by this time of winter, grousing is general, but we’ve had so little snow this year –almost none the winter before – and this snow is exquisitely lacy.

Tomorrow morning, with a long drive ahead of me, I might be crabbing a different song, but now, tonight, stepping out into the warm, snow-suffused twilight after work, it’s all good. Pile up; shroud this world in loveliness.

Secret truths… are the lifeblood of a writer. Your memories and your secrets… if you’re going to call yourself a writer, you need to stick your hand in the mire up to the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder, and drag out your deepest, most private truth.

Claire Fuller, Swimming Lessons

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Woodbury, Vermont