“What are you doing? Writing a book?” Asks the bartender.
“Actually, yes, I am,” I respond with a smile. If they don’t move immediately away, I supply a brief synopsis of the plot or the characters.
“Oh,” he says before moving down the bar to serve another patron. I’m sure he’s seen and heard just about everything, but filling drink orders or cleaning glasses, in his mind, is far removed from writing a couple hundred pages.
A few years ago, when I took my first creative writing class from a local community college, we were suppose to keep a journal. When we were out at various places or at family functions, we were invited to write down impressions. That could be anything from descriptions to actions to pieces of conversation. I had trouble keeping up with my journal because what I observed stuck with me, especially if it was significant enough that I spent an extra moment seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, or smelling the experience and locked it away. But I don’t think I have used any of those details in my stories. Could be all those snapshots of sense stimulation are still filed neatly in my brain. Somewhere. . .
Before I took that first class, I attended a creativity workshop in New York City. We sketched people we saw, the place settings in a restaurant, the bottles behind the bar, a sign on a building, and then we made up stories about them. (This actually became a short story, “Iron City”, that I completed for the class. Since then, it continues to pop up in my mind as a trilogy.) I’m not much of a sketch artist, (or sculptor or painter, but I digress), but one thing it did do for me is open the flood gates that I had firmly locked for the better part of my life. Sure, I could hand in a nice essay for an English class, write an engaging book report, maybe even a thought-provoking case study on a student, and, of course, my yearly letters, but I never let myself just write. Excuses abounded, such as, “I have no time,” or “I don’t know what to write,” or, “No one would want to read this anyway.” (There are a great many people in the creativity community that believe if you don’t share what you have, you are robbing the world of you magnificence.) This workshop changed that. It gave me permission to be creative every day. It is amazing how much we just don’t give ourselves permission to do, such as laugh, spontaneously order pizza for dinner, shop at a thrift store, have a glass of wine on a Wednesday night. And write.
A friend of mine and fellow educator, who helped edit my first manuscript, told me, “I’d rather do twenty pages from a math book than have to write a paragraph!” Conversely, I can’t count the number of times, while at a conference and riding in a hotel elevator, I was asked what conference I was attending. When I mentioned that I was a math teacher, inveribly, my elevator partners would say, “Oh! I was never very good at math!” Was my friend and elevator buddies never given the opportunity to understand the mechanics of each discipline? Was there a less-than-enthusiastic teacher that sucked the wind from their sails? Or, have they not given themselves permission to write a paragraph or poem, or graph some linear equations? Right or wrong has no place if creativity is about freedom and expression and permission to be all of who you are.
As we introduced ourselves at this workshop in New York, I was fascinated with people’s life stories. One woman was from Africa, where she used to be an investigation veterinarian. If a village lost its crops due to a herd of elephants, she was called out to check the footprints and the dung piles. If they belonged to an elephant, the village was given aide. Another man had traveled most of the globe as a photojournalist for National Geographic. Could you imagine being a page in his journal? Another was a housewife of fifty years, married to a military man of high rank. She had the opportunity to entertain foreign royalty, and had raised four children who were in the Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, public defendent in a large city, and a teacher in East LA. She was there to get ideas on how to write a memoir of her mother. I think she needs to write her own! Is it just me, or is it when we hear the incredible, exciting life stories of others, that we’re hooked? Don’t we ask questions, wanting to know what happened next, how they felt about it? And yet, when it comes to our own stories, we don’t think they are much worth writing about, let alone inviting others to read them.
I practice my focus and concentration by writing in busy public places. I drop beneath the chatter and clinking of dishes to the storyline I’m working on, then come up for air, look around, maybe order dessert, then dive back under the pictures and the words in my mind. The bartenders, and my friend, can’t imagine writing a book. I can’t fathom testing dung to see if it belongs to a stampeding elephant herd (I would love to try it, but how does one distinguish it from, say, giraffe droppings? The size? And how many governement forms need to be filled out before they get the food they need?). Yet these are stories that should be recorded. Have you given yourself permission to describe the last time you were on a roller coaster, or Thanksgiving dinner in 1999, or what a hummingbird looks like in flight? What about that soft voice, the one that is very quiet, like the whisper of fairy wings as she flutters around the rusted, unused lock holding back your creativity? Have you heard it? Will you heed it?
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” A poem or paragraph or memoir begins with one word. And then another. And another. We can only write from where we are. Occasionally, as I write, I leave nuggets of wisdom on Twitter, or a thought about my books on Facebook. If you haven’t read my novels, the first couple of chapters are now available on my web site for free www.myjoyenterprises.com See where I come from, then close your eyes and listen, and I’ll bet you’ll hear echoes of your own journey.