Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Writing Life – A Reflection

What does a writing life look like?  Most of the time a person of my ilk wants to be handed a list of 10 things to do to be a writer – knowing that doing these things will lead to a published book.  In school if I followed the teacher’s instructions I would receive an A and eventually I would graduate.  At work I could list goals, work towards them, and get a raise.  Success came via pretty clear roads.  However, with writing, as with most things, I’m beginning to see that this isn’t reality.

Annie Dillard expresses this very idea in her book, The Writing Life, by providing a view into her life of writing. Several reviews I read on Amazon were critical of the book because it did not contain that step-by-step guide.  As if by reading enough books on writing one can actually write.  Even though I may find a sense of comfort from those type of books, a sense that I’m doing something to further my writing project, I’m actually just putting off the real work.

Instead of providing a fool-proof system, Dillard pulls her readers out of their comfortable pictures of writing – just as she pulled her readers out of a romantic image of nature in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  Within these pages we are accosted not with images of writing at a desk overlooking a scenic lake – but of needing to find a place in a library where no outside experiences will intrude. Or, a cabin or tool shed where only the essential items are present – and sometimes absent, like heat.  For Dillard, “Appealing work places are to be avoided.”  She closes herself off from potential distractions in order to practice a great discipline of focused composing.  Yet, this is an element of her writing story, not something she claims is necessary for everyone.

Most importantly she shows that a writing life is a life first.  It’s not about being holed away and creating an alternative world – that can come later.  Instead it’s about living in this world and writing out of that living.  She emphasizes that “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.  What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.  A schedule defends from chaos and whim” (32).  A writer does not wait for something to happen, but lives into the story.  I’m reminded of Donald Miller’s book A Thousand Miles in a Million Years later that explores what it is to live a better story.  As far as a road map to living a better story – it’s basically doing it, not following a list of instructions.

Dillard even pulls apart the tried and true method of planning to write – working towards a well conceived vision.  The vision of a piece of work is not what the final work will be or even an outline to complete.  It is a way to start, though, through the very act of writing, the vision itself may never fully be realized.   The material elements of paper, pen, screen and keyboard serve to limit, or change,that vision.  Words elicit other words.  Sentences, paragraphs, and pages evolve.

I’m not sure if I go along with Dillard’s spartan view of writing space.  Though, for me, maybe a seat belt may be in order to keep me sitting long enough to write deeply.  However, I’m with her in her call to living.  This book does not provide a path to writing success – go and find a spartan room and write.  Instead what the life in this book provides is a call to a waking life because “we still and always want waking”.

“There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by.”

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Ask for the Ancient Paths

IMG010Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls. – Jeremiah 6:16

Have you ever wondered where all our inner turmoil gets us?

As I look back over my journal entries from last year I am struck by how much complaining and critiquing they contain.  Nothing major or incisive about the world – just a general negative picture of daily life.  I didn’t get enough sleep.  I didn’t want to work.  I felt hemmed in.  For the most part I saw life as something to get through to reach the a few times of rest.  I wanted it to be different, but I struggled to see how.

Trying to honestly assess my life, I fell into a spiral of complaining.  It started because I was frustrated by an underlying and nagging discontent. If I pinpointed where and what was holding me back from the job I wanted, from writing, from building friendships, I could get rid of it and go on with life.  Yet, my reflections had the opposite outcome.  Instead of making me more free, these complaints became the reality of my life.  It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I needed an external prophet to point to the way out of this turmoil.  Words of God from the prophet Jeremiah speak of such a new path.

  • Stand by the roads and look

I’ve got to get out and look, not inside myself, but to the ways out there. Some are roads I’ve walked on; others have been trod by friends, family, other pilgrims.  The point is I’ve got to go out.

  •  Ask for the ancient paths, where the way is good

I need to ask, not strike out on my own to try to fix, to create a story that will work.  Instead, the Lord is calling his people to ask him for these roads.  He will guide as he did Abraham, Ruth, Nehemiah, and many others.

  •  Walk in it and find rest for your souls.

Finally, I need to walk along these paths.  Not sit and fret about why I can’t, or give excuses.  It’s time to go, and in the going with God, find the rest that I can’t create myself.

I’ve been doing it all wrong.  I’ve struggled to create the road and then do the walking – all on my own.  I also haven’t taken the time to stand and look.  What I thought was a year of honest looking, wasn’t.  At least it wasn’t the right kind of looking.  Instead of getting out and seeing where God had lain the roads for me, I stayed inside and dreamt about the comfort of remaining within.  Safe.  Secure.  I tried to put together the perfect story and plan for life.  Again, by myself.  And along the way I stopped looking at the roads and became comfortable in the ditch.

Overall, last year wasn’t terrible.  There were quite a few highlights – conversations with friends, travels to authors’ homes, new ministry opportunities.  As I consider what was different about the life-giving times, I realize that in those moments I was looking outside of myself, standing by the roads and taking time to consider the ancient paths.

And, yes, every once in awhile, actually walking.

It’s time to change to use these moments as my models, instead of the endless complaining.  Instead of focusing on what’s not working and what I don’t like, it’s time to get out.  To look at the roads, to pray to see those ancient paths, and to walk in the good ways more often.  I have it on good authority that Someone will be with me as I do so.

Categories: Journey Living | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Desk with a New View

Taking a cue from the homes, and specifically the desks of other authors, this past fall I placed one of my desks in front of a window.  Now, instead of looking into the walls of the house, I am looking outside, beyond the safe, and at times muddled, world I’ve created for myself.  Through this window, the world around me is starting to come into focus.

IMG_2334Let’s begin by simply looking.  What is outside?  It’s a pretty typical suburban street.  Concrete road with sidewalks.  Single-detached houses across the street and to either side.  Small front yards broken up with driveways.  Trees planted in front yards.  Today the landscaping looks rather sparse with a light dusting of snow – it’s January.  A few leaves are still on the lawns, while several stubbornly cling to the trees.  A gentle wind blows the rose bushes and ice is in the bird bath.

But as I look beyond I see other things.  An American flag flies from a house across the street, a newspaper blows down the roadway, and a few Christmas decorations are waiting to be put away for another year.  Cars are parked on the road and in driveways.  Children are indoors getting ready for school.

I also see a cracked driveway.  On this driveway an ambulance once pulled away to take my father to hospice.  That was the last time he left the home. But I also see a driveway that continues to welcome family and guests.  Sometimes this piece of concrete also serves as a stage for my nieces’ play and chalk art in the summer.

There are many stories on this street – and I know very few.  Usually when I’m looking for stories, I’m eager to get in my car and drive to places with more character.  A city coffee shop, a college campus.  But this lack of “character” doesn’t have to do with the street, but with the fact that I haven’t opened my eyes to what is in front of me.

  • To enjoy the gardens around each house
  • To pray for the children on the street
  • To say hi to the neighbor next door

The simple act of looking out the window is freeing me from the knotted ponderings of looking inward.  I’m seeing opportunities where I had assumed there was nothing worthwhile, both on this street and beyond.

I moved this desk to actively make a change in my life.  To stop waiting for a perfect place to live and write, and to claim this place for now.  Looking out of the window, I know I also need to make this space my community, not merely a way station.  I could continue to wait for that apartment in the city or that cottage down a lane – places where I have dreamt of taking up the great story of my life.  But if I can’t see that story here, it’s likely I’d miss it in those places as well.

This looking takes a bit of courage.  It’s likely the story will be different than what I had planned.  But it will be a lived story, not only a dream.

 

Categories: Writing | 1 Comment

Writing Desks: Inspiration for a Reluctant Writer

 Def: Desk.  A piece of furniture with a flat surface, often made of wood, at which a person can write or do other work.

Over the years of visiting literary homes, I’ve always been drawn to the rooms and desks where authors wrote. Though the kitchens provide insight into their daily lives and the doorways elicit images of people who visited, the desks and studies are the highlights of the tour.  This is where the authors penned or typed their words.  Where the impetus to create became incarnate.  Where . . .

It would be easy to go on and on about high-minded ideals of the creative work that took place at these pieces of furniture and in these rooms.  In reality, I’m drawn to them because I find it so difficult to stay at my desk.  It’s the discipline of writing that attracts me.  So in the spirit of desiring to sit at my desk in this new year, here’s a look at a few of the desks that have inspired me.

  • The latest desk I stood near was the lap desk of Jane Austen in the British Library.  From one perspective, it was just a simple box of wood with a lid.  Inside were pens, ink, and paper.  However, from another viewpoint, it was the place where Austen recorded her observations of society, shared her trenchant humor, and, unknowingly, created the sources of many well-loved films and mini-series.  All this within carefully wrought stories that continue to draw people into her world.
  •  Though I’ve seen many desks, I always return to the first desk I remember, that of Louisa May Alcott.  In her second story bedroom at Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, there’s a built-in desk at the window that overlooks the Lexington Road.  Here she penned Little Women and other novels, while she saw the daily traffic walking and riding before her.  Sitting at her desk gave her one view onto the world that she eventually shared through her novels.
  • IMG006At Monks House, the final home of Virginia Woolf, there is a wonderfully cozy sitting room and library.  However, this is not where she did most of her writing.  Instead, her work desk was in a re-purposed shed in the garden.  In this small space, her desk looks out upon the gardens and the Sussex Downs.  Here she had that “room of her own” in which to leave behind the stories in her daily life and focus on her task at hand – exploring new avenues to express the consciousness of her characters.
  • In Jean Stratton-Porter’s offices at her two Indiana homes, she placed the desks in the middle of the room, interrupting traffic flow from one door to another.  But her focus was not on movement, but on vision.  She wanted to sit at her desk and see out of the house in all directions.  The environment was vital to her work and in this place she brought together narrative and nature.
  • Earlier this year, spending time at C. S. Lewis’s home, the Kilns, near Oxford, England, I didn’t get a chance to see his actual desk which is in a museum. Instead, a desk from that period was in the common room looking out the window to the rose garden.  Even though I didn’t see the actual desk, I was struck by this one of many spaces where he wrote.  This was a place of writing in the midst of life and community.

Each of these writers had different practices, different desks, different rooms.  Still each desk and room represented the place where they put the ideas in their minds into physical form.  In each of these homes I didn’t realize a mystical transfer of inspiration.  Instead, I was encouraged that these authors, too, needed to be disciplined in their writing.  Austen kept writing while people came in and out of the sitting room; Alcott worked tirelessly on her novels, writing in what she described as a vortex; and Lewis spent hours answering letters even though he did not enjoy it.  They didn’t run from the blank page but were drawn to it, or at least stayed in front of it.

As I begin a new year and a new resolution to write, these and many more desks inspire me to sit down at my desk.  Not recreating their space, but creating one of my own.

 

Categories: Literary Pilgrimages, Writing | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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