Resistance as Writer’s Aide

Swiss flag, 1

As part of my writerly reading, I began a book that I think will be important: Victoria Nelson’s On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity.

From the beginning, Ms. Nelson presents resistance as a positive thing, to be explored for what it wants to tells us: [The] inability to write means that the unconscious self is vetoing the program demanded by the conscious ego.” [italics hers]

I remember participating in NaNoWriMo in 2012 in order to finish a full draft of my historical middle grade novel. (The goal of National Novel Writing Month is to write 50,000 words of a novel during the thirty days of November. This time (I’d participated in the challenge once before), I decided to advance my work-in-progress rather than write something new. Who says you can’t adjust rules to suit real needs?)

I’d written a chunk of my novel already, and knew a lot about the plot and what I still had to write. But I didn’t know the ending. I plunged in anyway, figuring that the end would grow clearer as I approached it. I’d lay track right before the train got there, as it were.

So I wrote my 50,000 November words. Things went so well—my story advanced, my train moved along—that I continued “laying track” well into December. Then story and train came to an absolute halt. It wasn’t that the holidays derailed me. I just still didn’t know my story’s resolution.

This is what Victoria Nelson says about the resistance I experienced then, the resistance that most writers, most creators, likely will experience at times:

“Trying to muscle our way past resistance doesn’t work either. Picture the unconscious as being a bit like Switzerland, a tough little country with well-defined frontiers and apparently unlimited fiscal reserves. Invasions, coups, don’t get past the border. Responding correctly to a writer’s block means not forcing an entry but opening civilized diplomatic relations with an autonomous state that has clearly demonstrated it can’t be coerced. This is a painstaking process of human negotiation that may take a long, long time.”

It did for me. My novel sat there for more than a year, though I poked it now and then. Things got moving again when I took up another challenge, participating in a novel-revision workshop for which I needed to have a finished novel. Oh, it was hard. At times the train inched up steep, narrow inclines. At times it wanted to fall off wide curves. But the train made it into the station. The difference? In the meantime, iron ore had been mined, smelted, molded. I now knew the story’s end. Getting the train there took work, but the long, previous resistance had prepared the way for it.

What about you? Where are you stuck, and what do you think the resistance wants to tell you? Or what valuable lessons have you learned, as you opened civilized diplomatic relations with yourself during past resistances?

train arriving in station

This Reader’s Bookshelf – 1

stacked shelves

“So many books, so little time,” defines me.

Here’s a list of my in-progress and intended reading, right now. It’s not everything waiting on my shelves, by any means, or even everything I have checked out from the library. Just what’s by my bed right now…

Selected Poems, W. H. Auden
Selected Poems of Ezra Pound

Noah’s Flood: The New Scientific Discoveries About the Event That Changed the World – William Ryan & Walter Pittman
God’s Universe – Owen Gingerich

A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning & Life – Nancy Peacock
Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distractions, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life – Bonnie Friedman
[I just found a few writing books, including these, in a thrift shop]

Your Knight in Shining Armor – P. B. Wilson [for a class through my church]
Lessons of Lifelong Intimacy – Michael Gurian [I’m not married, but live in hope]

My Neighbors, the Billy Grahams – Betty Frist
Footprints of a Pilgrim – Ruth Bell Graham

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World – Cal Newport
Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love – David Sturt

My stacks, and HOPE, are high. But where to find TIME for them all?



Danger: Life-Changing Reading Ahead!

signposts, past - future

Maybe, after most of what you read, of novels or poems, you walk away unchanged. Sure, great scenes or lovely lines may stay in your mind, but overall, the reading was just a pleasant diversion.

And that’s alright. Most of my own “literary” (as opposed to “practical”) reading has been like that too. But then there are the oeuvres which, if only in some small way, changed the course of my life.

My great love of travel was born partly by reading Jules Verne novels as a child.

In high school, after reading Ayn Rand’s We the Living, I went to the Art and Music Department of the Beverly Hills Public Library, where I worked, to learn if Kira’s “Song of Broken Glass” really existed. This was before the Internet became prevalent, and we didn’t find it. But that search was a small part in that librarian’s eventually becoming my friend Stefan.

At Bryn Mawr College, I chose to take Physics for my lab science requirement—and not Geology, which most English majors took—not just to be contrarian,  but also influenced by a character in Eloise Jarvis McGraw’s novel Greensleeves.

And then there was William Butler Yeats. Starting my last year of high school, I read his poem, “A Deep Sworn Vow:”

“Others, because you did not keep
That deep-sworn vow, have been friends of mine:
Yet always, when I look death in the face,
When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
Or when I grow excited with wine,
Suddenly I meet your face.”

It was love at first read. I was smitten. I continued to read Yeats, and a bit of other Irish poetry. Because I fell in love with Yeats’ poetry, I spent the summer before starting at Bryn Mawr in Ireland. There, in Galway, sometime during the June Bank Holiday weekend, I became a Christian for myself. I knew about God from having grown up in a Christian family. So maybe, possibly, I’d have taken this big step elsewhere, at another time. But I always remember that I made the most important decision of my life in Ireland. And what prompted my being there in the first place was a small poem by Yeats.

It’s your turn. What’s something you read—poem, novel, or play—that affected the course of your life?


Don’t Try. DO.

A killer whale jumping out of the water.
A killer whale jumping out of the water.

Through my library and Overdrive, I’m reading Amy Sutherland‘s book, What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage: Lessons for People from Animals and Their Trainers. Don’t freak out. As I see it, Amy Sutherland’s point is to acknowledge and reinforce the things we appreciate in others and ignore the things we don’t. Enjoy the positives, stop focusing on the negatives. Wouldn’t this make most relationships better?

From her book, I’m also learning something that applies to my writing and other tasks in my life. Don’t try. DO. This is what Amy writes when she observed a trainer and the beluga whale who almost got on a scale:

“The beluga had given it a shot, but the trainer’s whistle [part of the whale’s reward] was silent. Not a single fish was tossed. To a trainer, trying does not count–only doing.

Why not? Because the trainer wanted the whale on the scale. That’s, as a trainer would say, the criterion. If the trainer had tooted and pitched the beluga a herring in the pool, he would reinforce the whale’s trying to get on the scale. It doesn’t matter if the whale tried in earnest or made a lazy, half-hearted attempt. Either way it’s still just trying.” [bold emphasis mine]

So what does this mean for me? Don’t INTEND to write, but let it be crowded out by everything that shows up in my day. Don’t ALMOST finish a blog post. Soldier on, finish and post it, even if it takes more time than I’d expected, or I have to leave some priceless pearl for another time. Don’t do NOTHING towards organizing my room, just because there’s so much to do. Do something, because little somethings add up.

What about you? Where will you DO something, rather than just trying, today? We can. Let’s root for each other.



Stand Often for Health

1914 Pegasus & Bellerophon

You know that advice, to get up from your work regularly and stretch?

But in deepest flow, the body’s needs become immaterial. The night might have grown quiet as you catch your third wind, your bladder be near bursting, food something you meant to have hours ago… Yet you keep working. The one thing that matters is the present vision, the scene unrolling before you. Your mind is beyond clear. The pen skips on the page, fingers dance on keys.

You’d stand up if the angel’s trump sounded the end of time. But to stretch? Fuggedaboudit. When things fall into place, who cares about well-being?

I’m all for flow. When Pegasus shows up, I too ride him as long as I can. I limp back to my body, attend to it as to an importuning acquaintance, only when the Muses’ friend departs.

And yet. And yet…

On normal days, getting up, moving often, is something I want to start doing more. Recently I dipped into Staying Sharp: 9 Keys for a Youthful Brain Through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom, by Henry Emmons, MD, and David Alter, PhD. The authors reference Dr. Joan Vernikos, at one time Director of NASA’s Life Sciences Division, charged with keeping astronauts healthy.

Here’s what they say on page 71:

“We need to constantly interact with gravity and engage our large postural muscles to maintain healthy functional movement, muscle tone, and flexibility. The simplest way to do that is to stand up from a sitting position. That’s really all there is to it—just stand up! You don’t need to keep standing. You just need to stand up frequently.

The key is not how MANY TIMES you stand up, but rather how OFTEN you stand up over the whole course of your day. It is far more beneficial, Dr. Vernikos says, to stand once every few minutes throughout the day than it is to stand up many times in quick succession. Doing thirty squats in a row may seem more worthwhile because it feels like EXERCISE, but you get far more benefit by standing up thirty times spread out over the course of the day.” [bold emphasis mine]

Isn’t that fascinating? There’s an argument for having my drinking water, or papers I need, away from my desk, and finding more reasons to periodically stand up.

And maybe, over time, I can even train the Muses’ friend to continue beating his wings while I stand, now and again, for the well-being of that pesky friend, my body.


Poetry Reading and William Stafford Archive

rainy night

These last few days, I read poems by:

-Dylan Thomas (listened to some, too)
-William Stafford
-and Robert Frost (including some of his pages-long ones)

I learned that it’s a good idea to note the titles of poems I liked or otherwise want to revisit, and perhaps a pertinent line or note about why. Otherwise, given that I’m reading poems out of order, in books that aren’t even mine—how will I find again the poems that resonated with me?

I learned, too, that there is a William Stafford archive, in which you can see manuscript pages, and listen to readings, of his poems. Here’s one I liked:

Mouse Night: One of Our Games – from Stories That Could Be True

We heard thunder. Nothing great—on high
ground rain began. Who ran through
that rain? I shrank, a fieldmouse, when
the thunder came—under grass with bombs
of water scything stems. My tremendous
father cowered: “Lions rushing make
that sound,” he said; “we’ll be brain-washed
for sure if head-size chunks of water hit us.
Duck and cover! It takes a man
to be a mouse this night,” he said.