My youngest son turns four this March; lately I’ve been dogged by a familiar anxiety involving the manuscript sitting on my desk. A thick, rough, core manuscript (started over ten years ago) I haven’t had the urge or the tenacity to face while sleep-deprived (the expectation: a poem a week, sure, perhaps even a short essay or two, but nothing longer).
Even having the time to notice the anxiety means I’ve the time to return to the larger manuscript. I’m trying to shake lethargy…as I prepare to go back in.
And I’m battling the Grip of the Actual—that malady of clinging to the metaphors, images, synchronicities of the events of the past exactly as they descended in my life. Shouldn’t I master fiction first? I asked my friend Mary (author of the memoir The Rooms of Heaven: A Story of Love, Death, Grief and the Afterlife). She understood the impulse to use the buffer of fiction, but added that she hadn’t had much luck morphing memoir into fiction.
Yet these procrastinations masquerading as thoughts persist: Am I lazy if I don’t take the time to master fiction, or science fiction? Yes, if I side with one of my writer heroines, Ursula K. LeGuin. In “Dragons are one of the truths about us,” she writes, “The imagination can transfigure the dark matter of life. And in many personal essays and autobiographies, that’s what I begin to miss, to crave, is transfiguration. To recognize our shared, familiar misery is not enough. I want to recognize something I never saw before. I want the vision to leap out at me, terrible and blazing,--the fire of transfiguring imagination. I want the true dragons… p. 268” (from the wave in the mind). I love that line: To recognize our shared, familiar misery is not enough…
And yet, it seems we write what we want to write. One afternoon last month, sitting around in a Santa Cruz living room with two couples my husband and I adore, I asked the question: What, if I cared about what the market would bear, should I write about next? Six votes for sex, and one-a-piece for vampires, ghosts, the plight of water, the economy, the worldwide balance of power, schizophrenia, mental health, education, and health. But here a month later, I’ve not started a story on any of the above.
And so the marauding “shoulds” continue: should I write short stories to practice writing a novel? Shouldn’t I write at least two novels? So I’ve the distance to return to the core manuscript in its current un-nameable form (poetry smattered personal essay meets graphic memoir storyboard) and tell it from the perfect point of view? Or should I stick with the fairytale? You always know where you stand (bad guys are powerful and evil, good guys are poor and kind). And the unfortunate hero or heroine comes with fatal flaws, some common-sense block or predisposition to thinking the best of others…which is the case with most of us ambling through our childhoods.
In Courageous Dreaming: How Shamans Dream the World into Being, Alberto Villoldo reminds us there are “three fairy tales that become core scripts for our bad dreams...
1. The story of Kind Midas, which turns into the nightmare titled, “I Don’t Have Enough”, 2. The story of the Lion King, which turns into the nightmare titled, “I’m too Old and My Time Has Passed, or 3. The story of Cinderalla, which turns into the nightmare titled, “I’m Too Wounded to Have Power. (p. 38).” Over the years, I’ve learned the cellular sensation of power from the instances of turning to fight the stalker; now in my waking life as a writer, I could stand to take Villoldo’s challenge to channel that power as I grapple with The Manuscript.
A successful memoir, I learned this week, blossoms around the right question the author sets out to answer. In an article titled, “The Mother Memoir: Protecting Our Children From Ourselves” (Nov/Dec 09 Poets and Writers Magazine) Debra Gwartney discusses the process of writing Live Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Lives. Gwartney learns from an instructor that her “memoir’s query was not…Why did my daughters leave me? That would solicit a story that tried to explain [my daughters] while protecting and defending me. Instead the question I had to answer as a memoirist was this: Who is the woman whose daughters would leave her?” Gwartney mentions the ten years it took for her to write and rewrite her book. What strength, bravery, and persistence to allow her work to ripen.
Which leaves me nowhere to go, but to the next couple steps: 1. ferret out the right question to answer. 2. Trust that the self I’m falling down the rabbit hole after will have the thigh muscles (thick as bergamot) to climb back out. I’m afraid, but when has that stopped any of us writers. When fear looms, the wrong self sits at the helm (with some fixed,“The End,” in mind). I also know once I start, the other self takes over, who discovers “The And”, a much broader perspective arrived at by mucking through the morning’s hours of raw writing…
should I be willing….
to begin again.
Shaman, Healer, Sage by Alberto Villoldo, PhD (with practical exercises). Also by this author: The Four Insights, Dance of the Four Winds (with Erik Jendresen), and Yoga, Power, and Spirit.
Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, by Debra Gwartney.