Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why I am a writer

My friend Nancy asked me yesterday in an email, "What is it that makes you want to write, that removes writer's block, that gets the creative stream flowing for you?" I see that as a 3-part question. Here's my answer.

I am the middle child, the only girl, bookended by two boys in a family that prized males. I have strong memories of my brothers shouting to be heard over each other, but when I  tried to put in my 2 cents, my parents would scold me. "Be quiet, or "Stop being so loud." I remember at least once saying (probably whining) to my mother, "Stone and Mark are being loud. Why aren't you saying anything to them?" We were in West Texas at my grandmother's breakfast table eating bacon and eggs, and biscuits and cream gravy. My brothers, ages 10 and 5 at the time, and I were having some kind of competition to show who had the fullest tummy by sticking out our bellies and each of us claiming victory. Mother answered, "They're boys." The subtext was loud and  clear even to a 6-year-old. Boys are going to be heard even if they have to shout, and they should shout to be heard because, as my mother so succinctly put it, "they're boys."  I got very quiet.

Over the years, though, I still tried to say what was on my mind or in my heart. But I'd get excited and my voice would rise several octaves, which must have threatened everyone's peace because I'd get the order: "Lower your voice!" Those three words used to paint scarlet blotches of shame across my face. Truth is, they still do. I may be in my 60s, but if you tell me to lower my vice, no matter what the reason, I become a red-faced 6-year-old. Therapy helped me understand why, but my body's response is visceral not intellectual. Is it any wonder I started writing when I was in grade school?

I write today because I want to matter. I want to be heard. I need to give voice to what I know, to what I believe, to what I dream, to what I imagine, to what I know for sure and what I'm still wondering about. I write to get your attention. Can you hear me?

Writer's block comes when I'm not sure where I'm going.  I feel like I'm stuttering and stammering, unsure of my direction, writing off the map. I'm afraid my writing looks messy and unfocused and you'll think I'm illiterate if you read it. But writer's block goes away as soon as I remind myself that writing IS messy. False starts, side trails, backtracks, do-overs, trivialities, banalities--they're all part of the stew that stirs the story. The messiness is part of the process, probably the most important part, to tell the truth. But its' not the part that goes public. It's similar to when an artist mixes paint. You're not privy to that. Only when the colors are bended to the artist's satisfaction, whether Pollock or Thomas Kincaid, do you get to view the painting. So I remind myself that writing is organically messy, and I delve into my subconscious like a child digging into finger paints and  my writer's block dissolves like sugar in the rain.

My friend and writing mentor Karleen Koen talks about "the flow." If I show up and do the work, there'll come those moments when I get into the flow. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation or any of that stuff, she advises. So I've learned to go with the flow and capture the words that bring life to the story, grammar be damned. Editing can show up later, but right now, it's me and my creative muse riding the rapids.

What keeps the creative stream flowing is two-fold: giving up myself to the process (see above) and being a voracious reader. I loooooove to read. My house is filled with hardbound and paperback books; my iPad is filled with electronic editions. I enjoy getting inside other writers' minds, seeing how they think, imagine, create. They show me, by example, how to describe a setting, turn a phrase, twist a plot and blow people's minds. They are my tribe, and I learn the art of storytelling on the pages within their books. I only have to remind myself, sometimes over and over and over again, that I'm reading the finished piece and not the messiness they embraced to get there. They inspire me, they encourage me, and they show me that writing is more lasting than the echo of young boys shouting.