from Rumors of Water: Chapters 2 and 3
Today my younger daughter Sonia is in need of direction, and despite wanting to be alone with my thoughts and my writing, I remind myself: I signed on for this when we decided to home educate our girls. I signed on for the questions, the need for suggestions, the challenges to my own creativity that have just now made me think to put my daughter on the porch with Julia Kasdorf.
Sonia’s cursive book is nowhere to be found. Where do these things go when I’m not looking? It could make me crazy if I let it. Maybe that’s why, in the absence of the cursive book, I give her a pencil, a notebook, and Kasdorf’s poem, “When Our Women Go Crazy.”
“Copy this in cursive,” I say.
“I can’t do Z’s,” she says back.
My heart-rate quickens, and I blink hard. I signed on for this. I signed on for this. I take her pencil and write the whole alphabet in cursive.
“Your F and your B look the same,” she observes.
When our women go crazy, says Julia’s poem, they keep asking… how will we eat? Who will cook? Will there be enough? The refrigerators of these crazy women are always immaculate and full, just as when these women are sane.
Who are these women? I am not like them. Sane or crazy, my refrigerator is always doing science experiments that involve organic vegetables trying to go back to their roots. Some of these vegetables even sprout roots before they become primordial soup fit for the compost pile.
I am not like these women. Or maybe I am. How will I write? Who will cook up fresh ideas? Will there be enough? I try to stack the day in my direction, make it immaculate and full.
“Do you like my poem?” Sonia comes in the back door and presses her notebook into my hands. “I’m hungry,” she says, then frowns about the frying pan being dirty, because she wants to make an egg. I do not remind her that the pan is dirty because she made an egg yesterday and neglected to clean up.
In the hands of my younger daughter, Julia’s poem has taken on a new shape. Most of the original line breaks are gone. Now the poem breaks where the page ends and it takes up a lot more space. Plurals have become singular. There are crossouts and inverted add-this-here carats where words were forgotten then later added. Sane has become something like rain, spelled sain.
Every piece of writing tries to go back to its roots. I should know this by now—so many essays under the bridge; three books, each of which I eventually fought the same identity battle with. A piece of writing knows what it wants and needs to be, but we get in the way. We want something serious to be funny, because we notice that funny writers are popular. We can write funny, we want to be popular, so we try to foist humor upon the work. It refuses. We want to be urbane; our writing wants to live in the country. We want a three-hundred-page treatise; our words want to be a brief offering on the subject. We want to write sophistication; the work reminds us, “You are currently living a life of dirty frying pans and letter F’s that look like B’s.”
Sonia reshaped the Kasdorf poem without thinking. Her essential self bubbled to the top. I don’t think she struggled with this.
So now I am musing. I should spell sane like sain too—let the unrestrained rain of my own life infuse my writing. Let the me-I-am-right-now simply be.
* * *
The basement is dark and musty. This is no surprise, as basements go. I transfer white clothes from the dryer to a broken plastic laundry basket, extricate the brights from the washing machine, dump too many darks into the freed-up space and notice that the garbage needs to be taken out.
How will I write? I know how books are supposed to be structured. When I publish other authors I’m careful to help them know what books should look like. Readers like a do-able book of about twelve to fifteen chapters. The chapters should all run about the same length. Readers like symmetry. Today the piano teacher canceled our lesson. She is sick. Tomorrow, at our home education co-op, we will need to substitute for a child who was supposed to be presenting about Outer Space. This weekend I had plans to write, but my younger daughter promised to help out at a Benefit Picnic. I made a super-spicy chili bean salad and it all got eaten.
Sometimes life has no symmetry.
I drag the slate blue garbage bin out to the curb. This bin was not my idea. It is too big for me to handle. I try to forget that. It’s just garbage, after all. My eye catches sight of something blue in the driveway. A small shell, only half. Must have been a robin’s egg. There is no bird, so I can’t prove this was a hatching. I pick up the shell and bring it into the house to show the girls.
“It’s a beautiful shell,” says Sonia. “So tiny,” says my older daughter Sara.
“Want to hear my story?” says Sonia cheerfully. She is already moving on to her own agenda.
“Sure,” I say.
The story is about a girl who is drawing a purple moth as large as a dragon. The moth has teeth and is holding something like spears. The girl is not paying attention in class, so she misses the lesson about the Space Race. But she has a purple moth to show for it.
Maybe the reason I have not been able to write in any sustained way is just this: I’ve been too stuck on what ought to be. I know what books look like, and the one I can write just now is more like a purple moth, half of a blue shell in the driveway, an afternoon needing to be rescheduled.
I consider my options. I can forget about writing another book. Nobody is going to fault me for not writing. Or I can make a chili bean salad of sorts, for a weekend that isn’t going my way.
All of my favorite writing books have their quirks. Why can’t mine have its quirks too? I suddenly remember Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It is structurally asymmetrical. The chapters are all different sizes. There are bunches of them, some as short as one or two pages. Some focus on philosophy, some on practice. If there is any symmetry at all, it is the symmetry of Natalie. She is in every chapter.
I ponder Natalie’s success. To heck with structural symmetry, I think. I am going to write this book. There will be a purple moth in every chapter. I am not sure whether it will have teeth, especially on cranky days. But it might drink ice water, infused with mint and rose petals from the garden.
This post is a reprint of chapters 2 and 3, from Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.
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