A Slow Pleasure

In his column in today’s New York Times, Timothy Egan laments the continued dwindling of the average attention span. Apparently, it’s gone from twelve seconds in 2000 to a measly eight seconds. At least, it has amongst Canadians, according to a study he mentions, but let’s assume that the results are at least fairly generalizable. “Generalizable.” I think it took me more than eight seconds to think of and write that word, which makes me feel better about myself, but that’s beside the point.

Or maybe it’s not.

After confessing to being addicted to the real-time/anytime news and instant virtual “connection” that our pocket screens offer, Egan writes that gardening and deep reading are activities that manage to break him free and slow him down.

Reading his column, I thought about what slows me down, too. Reading certainly does. Hiking does, too. But perhaps more than anything, writing settles my mind into a slower, more contemplative rhythm. And, reading Egan’s piece, it occurred to me that this luxurious slowness is one of the things I love most about putting words on a page.

As quickly as my thoughts might fly while writing, I can only type or handwrite so fast. And often, my thoughts don’t come so quickly, at least not for long. I don’t find rapid production sustainable when writing. Instead, I settle into a deliberate pace, so different from what’s offered on social media or news sites or demanded of me in my job or shuttling the kids to their activities. When I write, I take the time to mull over words and sentences and think hard about scenes and dialogue and the feelings and sensations I want to evoke in readers. I slow down. I breathe. I close my eyes and pull up mental pictures, and then I try to re-create those on the page with mere words so that readers might see them, too. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t, but always, I enjoy the attempt.

Like sleeping (which we Americans don’t do nearly enough), might the activities that turn us away from the screaming stream of non-stop information be just what we need to recharge and recover our bearings? I think so. After writing, the harried feeling that I so often experience is gone, swept away by a slow pleasure that is pleasurable in no small part because of its very slowness.

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News of the Day

Happy May Day, everyone! Just a quick post to bring you up to speed on some news. For the past several months, I’ve been writing for a local journal, the Crazy Wisdom Journal. Published by a wonderful local book shop, it comes out in print locally (free in lots of Ann Arbor shops and offices) and also online. My latest piece is called “Fishing for Papa,” a meditation on parenting and my grandfather, all by way of fishing with my kids – something that my grandfather taught me how to do. For me, passing on his lessons to them proved to be about much more than just fishing.

My previous piece in the journal is called “The Quiet Season.” Some of you might recognize that title from this blog post, but the version in the journal is reorganized and substantially expanded. I know you’re all missing winter already, so check it out. OK, I admit that the winter reference might seem a bit sick to some of you who live, as I do, in the Realm of the Polar Vortex. Please forgive me.

I am working on another essay for the fall issue of the journal and should also have a brief sidebar article in there profiling a local craft beer retail outlet. In the future, I’m likely going to write a feature story on the local craft beer scene for the journal. It’ll feel like a return to my beer-blogging roots. Stay tuned.

Last and possibly least, I’ve launched a new website related to my writing and editing work. I’ll update it whenever I have news, so please check in periodically for updates. It also has a contact page should you wish to send me a note.

If you want to take a look at anything mentioned above, just click on the links. I’d be honored and grateful.

Thanks for reading, and cheers!

Making Stuff Up

Writing fiction and finding myself, or is it the other way round?

Indiana Jones: “I’m going after that truck.”
Sallah: “How?”
Indiana Jones: “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When I was a kid, up through middle school and into high school, I wrote a lot. Short pieces. Long pieces. Articles for the school paper. Stuff for classes. Stuff just for me. Some was fiction, some was not. Most of the fiction I wrote at the time was short stories, but when I was about fifteen I completed a sci-fi novel that went on for over 250 pages and took up at least five 5 1/4-inch floppy disks that I backed up obsessively, worried that my beloved documents would one day disappear — which, sadly, they have. That book was great fun to write. Back then, I was able to make stuff up, and it seemed like I didn’t have to do much to make that happen. Ideas came; stories came; I just wrote them down and tried to make what was written mirror what I was thinking as well as I could.

I was lucky to go to a middle and high school that taught writing in an inviting, conscientious, thorough manner, and I thrived there. In ninth grade English, we spent some time studying mystery novels, and I fell in love with noir classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. I loved the terse language, the grit, and the human mess of those stories. My teacher assigned us to write a short mystery story, and I cranked out a little noir piece of my own. I don’t remember anything more about it, but I do remember that my teacher wrote only one thing on my paper: “You should be a writer.” I glowed and thought to myself, “Yes! That is all I have ever wanted to be.” I felt understood and encouraged. Her words fit with who I thought I was.

In 10th and 11th grade, my English teacher drilled us in sentence structure and challenged us with literary analysis. She had written a book on grammar and usage, akin to Strunk and White, and she made absolutely sure we knew our way around a sentence. My writing improved. I loved that teacher, and I was lucky to have her for two years right before she left the school for new adventures. As a junior, I joined the student newspaper, which was a serious thing at my high school, and learned new ways of researching and telling and editing stories.

Yet even as I continued to write, my dream of writing professionally was slipping away. It was too unreliable. It wasn’t safe. What if I failed? Safety was valued in my family. Professionalism of a certain kind was valued — a safe, preferably prestigious professionalism. It’s not that the messages were so explicit. Rather, they spanned generations and were transmitted in life choices, family stories, and side remarks, and those beliefs became my own.

I have been in safe professions for a long time now, first as a psychologist and then as a lawyer. I have taught and practiced in both fields and currently teach in a law school clinical program. In the course of my education, teaching, research, and practice, I learned a great deal about technical writing, and I published academic articles. For many years, I wrote little else.

I’ve been privileged to do interesting, meaningful work that genuinely helps people, and I’ve been lucky to do that work with wonderful colleagues. What told me something was wrong was that I still felt stuck and unfulfilled. I was in danger of descending into the doldrums and losing the energy I needed to do my work well and to be happy. I felt irritable and, sometimes, depressed, even as my work went very well by any objective measure.

So I spent some time — well, a lot of time — listening to myself. I would sit in a quiet place, or walk in nature, or go for a bike ride, and listen. I would talk to my wife, and she and I would listen together. What I eventually heard, when I finally let myself hear it, was that I needed to write, that there was a yearning in me that hadn’t been fulfilled in a long time.

I started writing again. Yet for many months after I heeded this call, it didn’t seem that any stories would come, so I wrote short essays for my blog. In writing those, I sorted out some things about my family, my sense of the world, what I most love to do, and where I fit in. Eventually, a colleague and I started a writing group — it’s just we two, over beers, exchanging short stories and essays and fragments that we noodle around with. Every couple or few weeks, when we meet, I like to have something new for him to read. It’s driven me to put words to paper regularly.

In response, the floodgates opened, and stories started peeking around the corners of my mind. I’d spot them as distant, fleeting visions, like seeing someone skulking in an alley and slipping out of sight, but then some decided to come out into the open, inch closer to me, and stay awhile. Many started as fragments of scenes or dialogue or character, and then some of those grew beyond fragments. I started to write fiction again, and in doing so, I welcomed back a part of myself that I’ve missed.

As my stories have grown, I’ve been enjoying my job more, in no small part because it no longer bears the burden of my identity being built upon it. Instead, my sense of identity has become more about what I most enjoy doing and my values, which includes things like giving myself the space and time to be creative and being fully present for my wife and kids. My job, on the other hand, is what I do each day to help clients, teach students, and make a living. This letting go has made me better at my work. I haven’t let go of the need to work hard at it and do it to the best of my ability. Instead, I’ve sorted out what my job actually means to me. It has an important place in my life, but it’s not as prominent a place as it once had. And what I’ve found is a greater ability to focus in my work on what my students need from me in order to grow and achieve while helping our clients.

Meeting my better self, a younger, more creative, more free and loving and whimsical self, has been powerful and liberating. My wife has noticed. My kids have noticed. Friends and other family have noticed. I feel an ease and new sense of energy that shows. In those alleyways of my mind where the story ideas were hiding, I’ve found what is truest about myself, even though I’m making stuff up.

Dry spells

A dry spell in writing makes you feel oddly empty and full at the same time. Empty in the sense that you feel like there’s just nothing in you to write down. Full in the sense that you feel bloated and clogged, full of scraps of writing, little bits here and there, fits and starts, but nothing that will come to fruition. It all just backs up and remains unsatisfying. In the long dry spell that I’ve had since this past winter, I’ve started several blog posts. Some got to full length, nearly complete, yet with every single one, I’ve decided that it wasn’t good enough to post. Each failed to capture what I meant to say, and each went straight into the bin. Perhaps one or more will get resurrected at some point when I figure out how to change it in just the right way.

Winter, which was real and long this year unlike last, gave way to a rainy spring, and as is common here in Ann Arbor, spring has suddenly tripped into summer. The semester ended, I said goodbye to my students, welcomed summer interns to the clinic, and got them up and running on cases. My case load is smaller than it’s been in nearly five years, thanks to some well-timed case closures, and I have an opportunity to get some academic research and writing done. I’m glad about that, yet I’ve worried that my writing energies will be taken up by academic papers, leaving nothing for other writing efforts. Today, though, I realized that writing feeds more writing. It doesn’t have to be the case that in doing my academic work, I’ll somehow drain the reservoir. When I was working regularly on The Hopping Mind for a couple of months before the winter blahs set in – and in looking back, I think that’s exactly what happened – I found myself more productive at work as well. Writing at home and writing at work complemented each other and set the juices flowing. The Canadian author Robertson Davies was a full-time journalist for much of his life, all the while writing prolifically outside of work, and he noted how each energized the other.

While I don’t have much interest in “how to” books about writing, their authors generally maintain that if you want to write, just keep doing it regularly. It’s a process that feeds itself.

They make a good point.