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Archive for June, 2009

Why I Write

I’ve made my living as a writer for more than 30 years. I’ve been on the staff of a wire service, newspaper and university, and I’ve freelanced twice, yet making money is the least of my motivations for putting pen to paper.

I write to figure myself out. I write to understand people and society. I write to make sounds, smells, touch, emotions, sights, meanings more vivid.

All of those motivations were in play when I wrote “I Claim the Title of Widow.” When I started the essay I knew two things: I wanted to try selling it to a market that would only take 1,000 words, and I had a feeling. I couldn’t yet put that feeling into words. I just knew in my gut that what I felt about the death of my love was deep and thoroughly confused.

So I sat down and wrote 10,000 jumbled words. I jumped from topic to topic, image to image. I interrupted myself in mid-thought and sped back to an idea I’d started and abandoned 500 words before. When I finished what could only laughingly be called a draft, I still had no idea what I meant.

Because I could only submit 1,000 words, I had to figure it out. Everyday for 30 days, I sat down and rewrote. Some days I didn’t get all the way through the mass of words, but other days I did. As time passed, both the essay and my feelings began to make sense. Honestly, though, I didn’t finally figure myself out until I wrote the last line.

After sitting on an editor’s desk for 18 months, the essay was published in Ms. Magazine. Publication was great, and the check was sweet. But neither meant half as much as the instant I reached that last word and realized what had been missing from my grief.

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I have developed what may be a bad habit: I keep turning down jobs. In the last year, I’ve turned down three offers and decided against applying for one position that had a great salary and magnificent benefits. That job was only 10 minutes from my house.

If he were alive, my father would be appalled. Actually, I’m kind of appalled at myself, given that I’m turning my back on secure income in the middle of the Great Recession. But every time I picture myself walking into an office, my stomach lurches and my palms slick with sweat.

It’s not impossible to work full time and write on the side. Thousands of people have done it. Great writers have done it, and great novels have been written under those late-night, bleary-eyed circumstances. But at this point in my life, taking a five-day-a-week job would feel like taking a stake in the heart.

I’ve done the work-all-day, write-sometime shuffle, but for the last two years I’ve had the freedom to write full time. To meet the mortgage payment, I sometimes work on projects that aren’t close to my heart. Even with that limitation, though, I have more freedom to write what and how I want, than I’ve ever had before.

And then, of course, there’s another reason why I’m staying on the freelance roller coaster: By risking my bank account and my retirement, I’ve forced myself to try everything I was afraid to try in the past. Because so much is at stake, I can’t afford to be hemmed in by fear or hesitation.

I approach every publication I used to shy away from. I force myself to write essays that used to seem too hard. I push forward on book proposals that used to be too daunting. To do otherwise is to risk failure and a busted bank account.

My path isn’t for everyone. When my son was little, I worked a regular job to provide him with security. When my debt was high, I went to the office 8 to 5, budgeted like mad and built up my savings.

But these days I’m blessed with freedom.

Is this lifestyle scary? Absolutely. Could I be forced into a job or bankruptcy? You bet. Do I feel like my current path is worth all the risks? Oh yeah.

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Don’t Write

The topic of my first post on a blog about the glories of writing might seem a bit odd, but I want to talk about the glories of not writing.

The dream of being a writer can be mesmerizing. When I taught at Michigan State University, I met students who seemed more enamored with the idea of living the dream, than with the actual act of writing. I also met many students who were miserable when they wrote.

I love writing. For me, writing is the pursuit of my right livelihood. I think I’ve attempted to chuck the writing life half a dozen times. At various moments, I’ve been disgusted by my uncertain income. At other times, I’ve been frantic over my uncertain abilities. But I’ve never been able to let go of writing because to do so would be to cut out a part of myself.

Writing, though, isn’t right livelihood for everyone, and there’s no shame in that. Being a writer doesn’t make me better than you. If you write and decide that you don’t like it, that’s more than OK, that’s wonderful. One’s right livelihood is about choosing yourself — not society’s daydream about a particular occupation.

So here’s my thought for the day: If you feel awful when you write, if you can’t find any aspect of the process pleasing, then don’t do it.

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A fellow writer I know issued this invitation: “You are invited to participate in researching the wisdom oftrees by asking trees questions and emailing me (vashtiasart@yahoo.com) the questions and answers. 002_TreeGirl_FSome people just look at a tree, others sit at the base of its trunk, others imagine the tree is enormous and they are inside it to ask the question. Whatever works. Please TREES in the subject box, and include the questioner’s first name, age if a child, type of tree if know, city and state or country, and permission to publish the info. Please extend this invitation to anyone you like. Perhaps you know a teacher who’d like to offer this project to students. It would be wonderful to get info. from all over the planet. Thanks. I am awed and inspired by the answers to questions asked so far. Love and blessings, Vashti.”

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Summer is the time when I usually dive into my writing full-force-frontal, trying to get as much done as possible between semesters although my kids are home from college or junior or senior high school, the animals need extra attention (and lots of expensive flea treatment), it’s hotter than hell, the ticks and chiggers are especially fierce where I live, the garden is overgrown almost overnight because of the monsoon, and I have a craving for banana splits and long afternoons watching movies in my basement. Yet I do write in the summers, and I find it often very luscious. Surprisingly, I recently realized that the big projects that I traveled to writing retreats to do over the last five or so years, leaving it all behind but the computer screen for a week or two, aren’t the books that are actually getting published. Rather, the books I’ve been working on in cracks between everything else are the ones now coming to print.

Still, the impluse in me to write for long periods of time during the hottest months — to sit in coffee shops downing iced tea and typing like a maniac — comes back to roost, and I’m thrilled to follow it off cliffs or into valleys, across deserts or up steep hills to whatever writing wants to come, writing for the sheer thrill of flying my hands across the keyboard and watching the letters form, the stories unfold, the sentences catch my breath.

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