Thursday, November 09, 2006

Gorgeous day, but short. Woke to orange glow of sunrise through curtains. I went back to the pool and swam last night, too late, and slept fitfully. Getting into shape is an art, with timing, food, sleep, creative work, everything, to be managed creatively all around it.

I met with one of my New College students today, a lovely young woman in a cafe. "Do you write every day?" she asked me. "Religiously?"

"Well, um, actually...no."

She works a full-time job and gets up every morning at 6 to write. And her stuff is good. I'm impressed. I've been turning over a few ideas for personal essays and/or short stories in my head for months and not quite getting to them, and while a lot of poems have been written recently, there are even more ideas for poems that have not yet seen paper.

It isn't as if I think I have all the time in the world, either. One of the things that compels me to too-early submissions of not-ready-for-prime-time work is the fear that I'll be in a terrible car accident/plane crash/terrorist attack and my latest opus magnus will never see the light of day.

But no, I had to admit, I don't sit down and work at it religiously every day. The only thing I've got going for me is a kind of steady, snail's pace, keeping on keeping on thing. I'm a tortoise not a hare, and definitely not a disciplined monastic either. Yet, when the saddle is on and I've got a firm chompdown on the bit, I just keep going until the thing is done, come hell or high water.

When we were trying to get in shape two years ago, my friend Marci MADE me buy this book by Oprah's trainer, Bob Greene, in which he outlined this draconian regime of gym visits, squats, thrusts, weights, and jogging. Because I have no backbone, I plunked down the $20.00 for it, even though I knew I would never follow the program. Marci signed up for some kind of athletic bootcamp, where they made her do all kinds of terrible things like push-ups. She loved it, dropped ten pounds, got muscular, injured herself, and put the weight back on.

I slopwly and carefully swam a few more laps every day. It took me all summer but by the end of four or five months I too had lost ten pounds and was fit, muscular and fantastic. Then just as slowly, I reduced the frequency of my swims, ate a bit more, and imperceptibly at first, the ten pounds crept back onto me as well.

The moral: you're going to be dealing with those same ten pounds the rest of your life. This should be your worst problem.

And: everyone has their own style of attack. One is not essentially better than the other.

And: as they say in AA; "Keep coming back, it works!"

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I went to the bookstore today to look for used quilting books to help me in my Gee's Bend quilt project. I found some old books on quilting, some with very beautiful pictures of quilts in them, but nothing that inspired me like the Gee's Bend work did. The quilts in these books were too tidy, their edges too meticulous, the stitches too invisible.

I liked the rawness of the Gee's bend quilts, their surprising color combinations, the wabi-sabi aesthetic of them. ("Wabi-sabi" is a Japanese term for art that is huimble, made with an awareness of the basic transience of all material phenomena, of simple materials, almost disappearing back into the earth from whence it came.)

I know I lack the technical skill to make a perfect polished quilt, but I'm not interested in it anyway; those quilts are already being made, by millions of industrious, talented quiltmakers all over the world. What I loved was the personality of the Gee's Bend quilts, and I don't know if I can do that myself, but I will try.

I want the same in my writing; plenty of people are smarter than me, have better vocabularies, more technical skill. I want something else, something simple and almost rough or awkward-feeling, but true. And the more technical polish I acquire (it's hard to avoid it, just in the course of reading and writing, and refining and wanting to be published,) the harder it is to preserve that essential simplicity. Teaching kids helps. They do it naturally--pair a breathtaking simile with a mundane observation. They're not afraid to be awkward because they don't know how it "should" be. And so they achieve authenticity, which is the most beautiful thing of all.

Out of all the literary influences I've absorbed over these past 40 years of being a passionate reader and writer, I hope the most pervasive has been the voices of elementary school poets.

2 comments:

Alison Clement said...

That's so true, Alison! Sometimes I look back my writing from years ago and wonder what's happening to me. Although technically not as good, there is something in it-- awkwardness, you call it, and that seems like the right word-- that's honest and stronger and just better than what I write now.

Alison said...

Thanks, Alison, how great to hear from you! I've always enjoyed your work in The Sun, and thought we had a lot in common--besides our name!