The Monkey Mind and Reese’s Peanut Butter Hearts: It’s All Writing

I’m not writing a dissertation, so you might wonder why I recently picked up a book called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker at the library. Of course it was the word “writing” that drew me. What kept me interested was its intriguing, fresh writing tips.

A few months ago I had the marvelous opportunity to teach a writing class at my church. When I surveyed the participants, I discovered they were there for many different reasons. “That’s okay — writing is writing, in many respects,” I said. Reading this book confirms this for me, because Bolker’s tips ring true to me, even though I am primarily a fiction writer.

May I recommend chapter six, “Interruptions from Outside and Inside”? Here she asks the reader to take a hard look at what is really outside of our control when it comes to writing. We all know about those “interruptions” such as social media and those fascinating, emailed newsletters that we just have to read right now. And don’t get me started on Pinterest!

She references an essay by Anne Tyler that I’d like to hunt down called “Still Just Writing.” Even though I haven’t read it, I can imagine (because I adore Tyler’s writing) what it says. I wonder if she’s been questioned about the legitimacy of her work as I currently have. I’ve been accused of being unemployed because I made the leap to full-time writing. Yesterday I ended up working thirteen hours with only a brief break or two. Unemployed? Hardly.

That is not to say that I don’t fall prey to those interruptions that others do: mail (I love all mail, email or snail), a phone call (although I try not to answer the phone while I’m working), and emails. So many wonderful emails to answer!

If you need a kick in the rear, Bolker will do that. She recounts the story of an advisee she had who was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Bolker told her that was no excuse for not finishing her dissertation, and the woman did! Tough love, but someone’s got to do it.

While it’s not the same, my last semester in the MFA program I attended I had the opportunity to present a novel for a novel-writing workshop led by an idol of mine. I quickly signed up for it, only to realize that the “novel” I had been working on was not what I wanted to present to her. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I didn’t want to waste it on something that was not the best, the truest writing I had in me. So.

So I decided that I would write a first draft of this newest novel (thankfully the subject of the novel called to me at this very time…not sure I believe in coincidence) in, oh, less than eight months.

I wrote in a dreamlike state, writing until my wrists ached. I think my maximum page count FOR ONE DAY was twenty three pages. This novel burned in me; this opportunity was truly that special to me.

I lost weight. I taught in a trance. I quit going places or hanging out much with friends. Our house became, shall we say, pleasantly cluttered as I struggled to do the most important things — dishes, laundry, cooking. My husband helped out as much as he could, but he was working long hours too.

The only thing I didn’t let go was my exercise regime. Most days. But that’s because that’s brain fuel for me. Yeah, yeah, I’ve told this before, but I just can’t believe I did it. I finished that draft. And a second. I am currently on the third draft and am still as excited about it as I was when I began.

I think Bolker would approve.

For me, perhaps the most meaningful section of Bolker’s book comes in her utter acceptance of an individual’s writing process. She suggests not fighting the monkey mind that wanders off, but to work with it. To either keep a list of those “I should” tasks that pop up, or to write what you’re thinking, no matter how off target it seems to be, and you might be surprised to see the connections your mind is trying to make.

What a relief! So my mind (which ping pongs) is okay? In fact, those thoughts that seem wildly out of line with my writing might actually be my mind’s way of trying to classify its thoughts? Monumental! I can’t tell you how freeing that validation is. She’s saying we should trust our minds! Yes, even our monkey minds.

She suggests “…instead of trying to push it out of your mind, try writing whatever is in your head”. She believes if you do this enough, useful patterns will emerge and themes. I love the idea that everything about us is connected and helpful. (I’d like to believe that my irrational fondness for Reese’s peanut butter hearts — or Reese’s pb anything — is not a weakness but helps make my writing better. Wait. I think we call that rationalization.)

Bolker teasingly jokes that the best equipment for a writer is a bucket of glue and a chair. Many others agree that all you have to do is show up. Regularly. (I’m ripping someone off, but who?)

If you’re not writing a dissertation, there are chapters such as “Your Advisor” that you can safely skip. I confess to doing just that. But if you need to feel better about yourself and your unique writing process, give this book a read. Who knows — maybe you’ll end up wanting to write a dissertation, even if you never do.

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Published, but not in a “flash”!

When I first became a student with the Spalding MFA in Creative Writing program, I quickly became enamored of flash fiction. It seemed to fit my terse, plain style, and I liked that there was no room in it for over explaining.

About my writing: I had never really written a short story until I took a creative writing course during my second round of college. Before then I had plunged right in and written two pretty bad novels. What made me think I could write a novel, I don’t know. I like to call those early efforts starter novels.

Once I discovered flash fiction I wrote maybe three stories. One of them turned into a novel which shrank to a novella. One of them was accused of being poetry(!) during a Spalding workshop. The third is a piece called “Drinking Ghosts.” I read it at our local university’s poetry reading a few years ago. (It’s not poetry. It’s not! It was just the shortest piece I had available.)

I have spent maybe three years sending “Drinking Ghosts” out to various publications. I have, alas, expanded it at the request of readers who thought I didn’t say enough. I have mentioned that darn fork three times, and yes, specified that it was plastic, lol. (I personally liked the ambiguity of the piece as it was, but maybe that’s just me.) One editor asked me just what that woman was doing alone in the office. Uh, has she never been asked to “hold down the fort”?

While in Italy with Spalding’s program I spent some early morning hours before a computer in a darkened room sending that blessed story out, sure at core there was something in it to be heard.

So when I was notified today that Yahoo accepted this story for publication, I was elated. It’s not a perfect flash fiction piece (re-reading it makes me wish I had tightened it back up), but it’s mine, and, thanks be, it has finally been published. Check one more thing off my writing goals list.

What’s that, you’d like to read it? Please do, here: http://voices.yahoo.com/drinking-ghosts-flash-fiction-12490386.html

Feel free to comment, either here or at Yahoo. Or both!:-) halloween2011_crop

“Swift” Speaking by The President of Ireland

michael d higgins

When our daughter was young, Barry would often read aloud to her. He once read an excerpt from “Gulliver’s Travels” and she giggled incessantly upon realizing what “making water” meant, bright child that she was. The next few hours found her laughing and repeating the phrase. I’m not entirely sure that’s what we wanted her to most remember (Or repeat. In front of her grandparents!), but she has never forgotten it.

While in Ireland recently, we were offered the opportunity to attend the Swift Satire Festival in Trim. It was a pleasure made doubly so by the President of Ireland who is not only a leader, but a scholar, giving the festival’s inaugural address.

The president spoke eloquently and with fervor about Swift, a man who had also been the dean of a local church in Trim, a town more recently distinguished for having the castle used in the movie Braveheart. (Pictures to come.)

Higgins ended his speech with a word to writers, one I shared today with my students, and one I take to heart:

“Without the engagement and passion of people, without the raised voice of the intellectual and the poet, without the willingness to engage in public discourse at the price of personal risk, without the willingness of the powerful and the well connected to feel such a thorn or scruple as will impel them to disturb the composure of their class and peers and go on to champion the cause of the marginalised and the excluded, we will not have a society which is worthy of the support and allegiance of all of the citizens.”

At the conclusion of his speech he shook hands with a few of his listeners. My husband and I were happily among those. Sad to say, our hands were too occupied to use our camera to record the event. But what’s the chance we’ll ever forget it, anyway?