Writing

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.

 

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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.

 

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A Writing Reminder – Courtesy of Wendell Berry

Is there a neat process for writing?  Something that could fit into a daily routine and be crossed off a to-do list?  I heard that ‘serious’ writers make time to write, sitting at the desk and honing their craft day after day.  So, wanting to be a ‘serious’ writer, this was my goal for the new semester. Wake up, write for two hours, edit, share it.

However, the last five weeks has shown this isn’t a panacea for solving writing roadblocks.  Maybe such a practice has worked for others and I should just keep on trying.  Yet, as I’ve tried to develop a regular practice, the time spent writing has dropped significantly and the heart of the content is slowly leaking away.  All I’m doing is trying to get a product out – and I’ve lost sight of the product.

It’s time to regroup.  To remind myself that writing comes not from a mechanical process alone, but out of the living of life.  Wendell Berry’s poem “How To Be a Poet” brings me back to this place.  Tomorrow morning I’ll return to the desk, bringing with me the sacred places I’ve encountered and the stories within them.

But for now, I’ll rest in this reminder and go for a walk outside.  Anyone want to join in?

How To Be a Poet
(to remind myself)
 
i
 
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any readers
who like your poems,
doubt their judgment.
 
ii   
 
Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   
 
iii   
 
Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

 

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The Writing Life – Solitary or Communal?

What a solitary journey the writing life can be.  We create alone.  Only we as individuals can put pen to paper or fingers to keys to share the ideas that are in our minds.  We need time away from everything and everyone to reach the deep waters of creativity within.  Consider the image of a writer with well-worn clothes and crumpled paper at his feet, furiously working in an empty garret.  Or, within the walls of a beach house on an island looking out at the sea, typing away on the novel that has been welling up within her for years.

But do we have to be alone?  When working on individual projects it is necessary to spend time apart from others – sometimes many hours.  However, that does not mean that we are by ourselves.  We are surrounded by many who have gone before us – authors, teachers, family, or friends.  They are part of the community that has shaped and continues to shape us.  I can’t sit down to write without feeling a sense of the joy of reading.  That little girl who loved to hear her mother read books before bed is grown, but the comfort of those stories and of the people who shared them with me continues.

Walden Pond

In addition, as I write I am in the worlds of Jane Eyre and Heidi, Walden Pond and the Bible.  Books have and continue to be an essential part of my being.  I am drawn to the words and to the characters.  Sometimes I remember the plots and settings as if I had lived them.  I can return to them intentionally.  Along with their works, authors’ lives influence me as I learn about their inspirations, practices, and trials.  They are all part of this creative community.

Then there are those who are actively part of my writing today: teachers, writing groups, readers of blogs.  We sharpen each other’s art as we see how ideas play among a group.  To be honest, I’ve been reluctant to engage with such a community.  It’s safe to keep writing for myself and only dream about sending it into the world.  However, I’m more and more aware that writing is not only about putting words on a page in solitude.  It is also about engaging others with those words – and engaging with the words of others. The small writing group I’m involved with keeps me honest, provides thoughtful encouragement, and keeps me writing.  Through this blog I’m learning that there may be even more who are part of this community and who can hone this work.

Ultimately, that lone artist image isn’t so ideal or even true.  Writing and other creative endeavors do not need to be solitary practices. Why should they be?  The ultimate creator – God – created the earth in community as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and continues to even involve his ultimate creation, humanity, in this project.

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Words of Writing Encouragement

I’ve made many new resolutions to change my writing habits this past year: waking up early, committing to blog twice a week, and seeking out places of writing and reading. Still I fight the practice.  It’s easy to put it on the back burner for the day as I stay in bed for another hour, prioritize other activities, and even find myself wondering what to write.  If everything else in my life aligns for the day, then I will write.  Otherwise, it may or may not happen.

Even though I have this adversarial relationship to writing, I go to bed feeling something is missing if I don’t take time for it.  A deep desire exists to express myself and the world around me through words.  Part of my problem is hearing my inner self and others saying that writing is just a hobby, it’s not important.  However, recently several words about writing have encouraged me to take it seriously again.

Words of covenant.  Walter Wangerin, Jr. talks about his relationship to writing – and subsequently the readers – as a covenant.  This is not an insignificant word.  It reflects a serious intention related to writing.  An ethical response to this work.  It’s a bond of trust with the writer and herself, her writing, her readers.  A voice in me whispers that maybe Wangerin can get away with this because he’s a real, published writer.  But does that make my work any less respectable?  Probably the first person who needs to take my writing seriously is me.

Words of spiritual practice.  Often I have thought about writing as a spiritual practice.  I journal during my quiet times and find myself in a cathedral recording thoughts about God’s work in my life.  However, I’m learning that the content or place of the writing doesn’t necessarily make it more or less spiritual.  As we see Jesus as God incarnate – that mysterious intersection of God and human, spirit and material – we can catch a glimpse of what spiritual writing may be.  Not writing that is only about spiritual topics, but writing that comes out of an ever more incarnationally lived life.

Words of platform.  Suggestions related to getting published may not at first seem the best way to be inspired to write.  Often such things can even squelch creativity.  Yet, concrete ideas to develop a more focused means of getting my work to others is helping me to develop that writing self.  So often I allow the random currents of life to dictate what I write – or not write.  A little bit here, a little bit there.  Constructing a platform (or maybe a canoe) can help me ride these currents better and even provide a better way for readers to understand what’s coming.

These words of covenant, spiritual discipline, and platform, along with others connecting writing to play and as a means of forming and sharing stories are starting to pull me out of bed and to the computer, one day, one hour at a time.

What words and prompts get you to write?

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Meeting the Ugly Reality of Writing in Graduate School – and Beyond

Many graduate students step into the world of research because of a sincere interest in a topic and the belief that their work will forge new paths in their respective fields.   Though such a drive may prompt people to start the pursuit of a doctoral degree, it can often subvert the creation of that final piece of doctoral work – the dissertation.

When the ideal in our heads doesn’t readily make it to the sheet or screen it becomes easy to wait – wait until we’ve read one more article, talked to one more expert, put together one more outline.  But we eventually face the inevitable and must write something – and it never looks as good on paper as it does in our imagination.  So, we wait longer.  If we find the right process, everything will go smoothly.  Maybe it just needs a few more days, weeks, or months to age and then it will come out all right.  Like a perfect bottle of wine.

In her article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Herrmann (My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Dissertation) brings us back to reality and the mess that research is.  She emphasizes that it’s much easier to edit a terrible dissertation than it is to edit a nonexistent perfect one.  Obvious, yes.  However, in the midst of wanting to develop that ideal dissertation it’s easy to forget and difficult to accept this common sense statement.  Meeting this reality brings students to a humbling awareness about academic work. Our best efforts many times begin with an ugly draft.  Yet, in the process of writing, and discussing with others, this ugliness is transformed.

In this journey we come to see that writing is not merely a means to share our well-defined ideas with others; the process of writing actually provides insight into the research itself.  Our initial efforts might include a series of outlines – maybe some in colored pencil or with a images drawn throughout – to help pull the pieces together.  They may include a bunch of free writes that explore ideas and questions we want to test.  Maybe some writings are responses to readings – not in a formal essay, but in the words of a casual conversation.  These meanderings eventually come together to take shape in  cohesive paragraphs, sections, and even chapters.

Maybe some people can accomplish such work in a more linear fashion (and several comments to the referenced article indicate this – just write, create an outline, etc.), but many students I encounter take the more round about way.  However, these writings are more than a means to get started.  Just like serendipitous side-trips on vacations, they can take us to places we would have never gone if we would have stayed on the original path – or followed the first outline.

My own experience of putting together a dissertation wasn’t very pretty most of the time. Spurts of writing here and there eventually came together – and then apart.  The disdain for sitting at a desk grew so severe at times that I had to leave, and almost trick myself into writing by doing so in parks, libraries, and museums.  At times I laid out the drafts on the floor, trying to determine a reasonable narrative to help explain the research on the pages and still in my head.  Then, as I was drafting yet a new version, insights emerged or questions arose.  Eventually it came together – and the side-trips often became the heart of the final product.

Now this formally ugly dissertation is starting a new journey into a book.  Again I’m fighting the desire to have a finished piece of writing immediately.  So, I’m doing a lot of waiting.  But Herrmann’s article encourages my post-dissertation self that it’s time to take these writings and start drafting a terrible, no good, horrible very bad book.  It’s time to go.

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Writing Time

Okay, I give in.  Time to write won’t just appear in the middle of a day providing uninterrupted moments to reflect and even edit.  I don’t see anyone ushering me into a quiet writing space equipped with desk, computer, paper and pens with the admonition and permission to write.  At least it hasn’t happened yet.  And, since the days I live through recently are often scheduled to the extreme – plans to meet up with people, events to shop for, copies to make, activities to prepare, and meetings to attend – I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

So, unintentionally, writing time has slipped from my week.  I include it on every day’s to-do list, but I often fulfill that with a quick 10 minute review of a page or fast write.  Nothing that takes too much time or pain.  Yet, if I want to write, I’ll have to regularly put myself through this practice, developing ideas, writing them down, editing, and getting them ready to share through blog posts, essays, and even a book.  I don’t think anyone will be offering to do the other work for me so that I will have time to write, either.  No, I’ll need to make some adjustments myself.

If I’m going to write, I need just to write and spend the time that it takes to do it well.  Do I continue my same old pattern, a couple of hours in the midst of the weekly rush, or begin a new one, an hour or two at the beginning of my days when my mind is a bit more clear?  It’s not difficult to see which of these options may work better.  But it’s difficult to follow through.  Waking at this time is not fun.  It’s so easy to return to the warmth of the covers and hide in the world of my dreams.  Still, on the first day that I tried this new practice, though an hour later than planned, I already felt better.  I wasn’t fighting to write, but making it a priority and even having fun.

Who knows what may come of this new practice?  I’ll definitely be more actively engaged in forming ideas and remembering, developing ideas to share with others, and creating content in the midst of a usually crazy schedule.  Even if this new practice merely helps me to be more present each day, the time will be well worth it.

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Ideas in Place

Sitting at a desk in front of a blank computer screen or piece of paper – that is the image of the writer beginning to work.  Ready to dump creativity onto a blank canvas.  But how often does that really happen?  Yes, writers need to develop a discipline to sit down and write.  I’m doing that at the moment.  But sometimes this needs to take place away from our normal environment in order to engage new creativity muscles.

Many years ago, in what seems another life, I had the opportunity to spend a day at an unusual idea generating site – the Eureka! Ranch.  Before arriving, I thought we would be in yet another office space, walls lined with newsprint ready for a day of brainstorming.  However, when we drove into the parking lot it was immediately apparent that this place would be different.  We were not entering an office complex, but parking in front of an actual ranch house – complete with full-length front porch.  Once inside the doors color, sound, and images were everywhere. Our facilitators used a multitude of games, pictures, and conversations to help to generate ideas beyond those that we already held.  It was not only about getting down what’s inside, but providing an environment that nurtures more.

As writers we’re not creating the next great toy or tool or program that needs to fit in with the marketing expectations of the public.  Writing is a solitary activity, except for times of feedback from friends and editors.  Yet, we too are creating a product that will have an audience.  We are looking for new ideas that will connect with other people while still being true to our individual strengths and interests.  What external stimuli help you to make these connections?  For me it’s often a place – especially places that put me in other stories.

When I wrote my comprehensive exams for a masters degree in English I left the campus of Xavier University.  In ten minutes I was in Cincinnati’s Eden Park sitting on the lawn with bluebooks and pen in hand.  Being able to look up and see the sun and gaze at the gardens was so different than sitting at a formica desk under fluorescent lights.  I don’t know if I wrote anything more insightful in this place, but my spirit sure was different.  I didn’t freeze up when I encountered a difficult question and I felt that I was in the midst of serious play – even during a timed exam.

Later, while working on ideas for papers during my doctoral studies and finally a dissertation, I again went outside – on walks, to museums, and even across the country.  At times I would just sit at home in front of the computer, willing ideas to come.  I would also force myself to write and put words on the page – often very uninspired.  But when I allowed myself to go out, something would snap inside and I would picture a new way of putting together the ideas.  At some point in the process I would have to sit and compose, edit, and rewrite, and rewrite.  However, mixing up the places where I did these things made a difference.

Where do you need to go to create?  To the park down the street, the desk in the midst of bulging library shelves, or even overseas.  Places between your current life and the one you envision.  Places where you walk in, take a large breath, and relax.

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