Writing as a Practice

In my last post, the one where I discussed re-conceptualizing my writing practice in the wake of a long dry spell, I shared with you a little about how I’m learning to play the piano.

I described my process, which, as you may recall, consists of noodling around within the framework of a few chord patterns. I began, this past April, with three chords. I’ve added a few more, majors and minors, mostly, which I tend to play in a basic 1-4-5 progression. Nothing complicated.

I wasn’t intending to write more about learning to play the piano. But in fairness to the practice, I thought I might clarify a couple of points.

When I wrote that my studio friend, the one who showed me those first three chords, had unlocked the mystery of the keyboard for me, I was not implying that I somehow gained an instant understanding of that mystery. I haven’t. What my friend gave me was a decoder ring. It’s up to me to put it to use at the keyboard.

That is the practice.

I am, as I wrote, a rank beginner, which means I know almost nothing about this instrument. I’m delighted just to be playing with two hands, clumsy as they are. This is a thing! I sit down and play my few chords and I am blown away that I can do this. That I can play those chords with my left hand while I figure out a little melody with my right hand pleases the hell out of me.

That I can’t yet do the reverse, play chords with the right hand, and melody with the left, is just a function of how unskilled I am. How unpracticed. But I’m learning.

In that post I also wrote, with respect to learning the piano, that my goal was not to get better, but to play. I should clarify. It’s not that I don’t I want to get better. Of course I want to get better. I want to play melodies and chords with both hands, for pete’s sake. I want to improve.

It’s just not a goal.

In learning to play piano, I have no goal. What I have is a practice, a fluid and ongoing process. Unlike a goal, which is a fixed thing, an endpoint, something we can measure and measure ourselves against, a practice is simply what we do with intention. A practice is a path.

There is a time for goals, there are circumstances in which making goals makes sense. This is not that time for me. The only goal I want to embrace with any of my art, be it the music or the work on canvas or, yes, the writing, is the goal of maintaining a practice.

Paradox!

If you’re a regular visitor here, or intend to drop by again, please know that you can expect to see a few more of these process posts in the days and weeks to come, as I work out what it means to approach my writing as art. If reading about my writing journey interests you, I encourage you to return. If you’re bored by it and prefer the poetry or the cultural critiques, I encourage you to return, as well, since I suspect those are themes to which I will return, sooner or later, within the practice.

For now, I invite you to join me as I sit with this writing, noodle with it, maintain a connection to it, so that the words can begin to please the hell out of me — and perhaps you — once more.

Writing as Art

In a conversation with my meditation teacher this week I shared with him my concern that my meditation practice had somehow disrupted my writing practice, and it was pretty damned disconcerting.

It’s the words, I told him. They’re too hard. Not difficult, but fixed and certain and inflexible. I type them and they become lies right before my eyes. Nothing is as it seems. Especially words.

Perhaps I’d over-invested in the concept of impermanence to the detriment of my work. Or perhaps there was nothing more to say beyond, “Everything is changing, always.”

In early spring, when I was a couple months into my meditation practice and hadn’t written anything for weeks, I thought, It’s spring. All the fruit is hard right now. Nothing is ripe. Just abide. Then the weeks became months and spring became summer.

That’s a long time to wait for fruit to ripen.

My teacher sat with my concern for a moment. Then he said, “I’m not an artist, so I have no experience with this phenomenon. Let me consider it, and we can talk again.”

We parted, and I went off to ponder our conversation. Specifically, I went off to ponder his characterizing of writing as art. More specific still, to ponder the idea of my writing as art.

I don’t consider my writing to be art. The stuff I make on my easel is art, the music I play is art, but my writing is… something else. Oddly enough, the stuff I think of as my art hasn’t suffered from my meditation practice. It has, in curious fact, flourished.

Which led me to wonder what would happen if I considered the writing to be art.

Would I approach it differently? Would I experience it differently?

And if so, what would that approach, that experience, look like?  Feel like?

There’s a chance it would look and feel like this: Back in April, I was at a friend’s music studio, and there was a piano there. I mentioned I’d always wanted to learn to play, and she sat me down and showed me a few chords and how to find them up and down the keyboard. In a matter of minutes she had unlocked the mystery of the piano for me.

In the weeks since then I’ve spent long, uninterrupted stretches noodling around on my daughter’s old Casio keyboard, making piano music because now I can.

I have no piano agenda. There is no goal except to play. Which is to say, beyond the fact that the hands on the keys are mine, and the pleasure is mine, there is not a lot of “me” at stake in my piano-playing. I’m a rank beginner and I love it. I may be doing it all wrong and I don’t care. I can tell I’ve gotten better over time, but I’m not playing for the purpose of getting better. I’m just playing.

Suffice it to say, I don’t usually come at my writing from this perspective. My writing seldom feels like play. It almost always has a goal, a raison d’ etre that supersedes the simple act of writing, and that goal is usually serious. I write for some purpose.

Maybe the lesson here is that I don’t need to. Maybe that’s what’s getting in the way.

Can you relate to this idea? Even if you’re not an artist, can you relate to the concept of playing just to play? My meditation teacher may not be an artist, but I know he goes on long bicycle rides on the weekends. When he’s out on his bike, I suspect he isn’t riding to get to the end of the ride. He’s riding to ride.

Can we write for the same reason, for the joy of wading deep into the clear, cold river of words?

It’s the infinite game, is it not?

Anyway, I don’t know if this attempt to reconsider my writing as art will help me to do the work. I do know that I never think about my sessions at the piano or in the studio in terms of getting the work done, whereas I often think of my writing in exactly those terms. Maybe as a first step, I can stop doing that, and see what happens.

Scratch

What do you do when the thing you’ve been doing doesn’t work for you anymore? If it ever worked at all. This is what I’m wondering.

I like the word “scratch.” It’s a noun: what the cat will give you when you annoy her. It’s a verb: what you do to get relief from an itch. It’s a slang term for money. It connotes beginnings and basics, as in starting from scratch, and baking from scratch.

I was making up a little recipe book the other day, a gift for a friend. A couple of the recipes I included require a food processor, and it occurred to me to wonder, does she have one of those? Another one calls for an immersion blender. Hello?

Even in recipes there is privilege, there are assumptions.

I have a food processor, an immersion blender. So I’m not starting from scratch, per sé. But I am leaving a work situation that has pulled me for the past two years down a path of depletion. The predictable end is less a bang than a whimper. My finances are exhausted, my energy is spent.

That’s another word that resonates: spent.

I wrestle with the fallacy of sunk costs. Also called throwing good money after bad, and, in gambling circles, chasing your losses. It refers to the often-inexplicable human tendency to keep on keeping on, even when every indicator says you really need to not do this anymore.

(cf. climate change; also, bad romance.)

So I’m not going to do it anymore, that job that doesn’t work, that never really worked except in my Palace of Magical Thinking.

Now I’m in the other part of the castle, the less lovely part, where it’s a bit damp and full of shadow and uncomfortably close to starting from scratch, and I’m not liking it so much.

Still, I have two books that are approaching completion. One is a new poetry collection, tentatively titled The Breakup Poems and Other Attempts to Address This Ridiculously Dysfunctional Life (jk, sort of). The other is a book about my coffeehouse, the one I started when I first moved to the Midwest. I’m calling that one Mud River, which is the name of my publishing company, which was itself named after the little newsletter I used to print (on paper! c’est vrai!) when I ran that coffeehouse.

All my life’s a circle. Harry Chapin said that.

If you’d like to help me get these books across the finish line, you can make a donation to the Fund to Keep the Poet Fed, for which I will be most grateful. You can also leave a comment on this post, which is nourishing in its own right.

Thank you.

We Do What We Do

I have a friend who takes to the woods each morning with her camera. She photographs insects and snakeskin and dew on spiderwebs, orange daylilies opening themselves to the world, fiddleheads unfurling, bones of a long-dead creature disintegrating under a canopy of cottonwoods and bramble. Every day there are new things to see.

I have no skill with a camera.

I write poems.

I hear the birds in the elm across the yard, a conclave, starlings and mockingbirds and cardinals and finches. The rattling hum of cicadas and the baritone murmur of a barge on the river, passing by. Some days the birds have a lot to say. Some days they don’t. I try to get it down, either way.

In the space between my kitchen window and the outside screen a spider has amassed an impressive collection of dead bodies wrapped in silk, suspended by threads invisible except in a certain light, morning light. My coffee goes cold in my cup as I watch her move her parcels from one part of her web to another, grouping them like sculpture, to what purpose I can only guess.

I don’t drink much. But I love this song all the same. We do what we do. Fish swim, birds fly. My friend takes lovely photos. I write poems. And you?

It’s Very You

I sent a copy of Beautiful Terrible World to my mother. Today she called to tell me what she thought of it.

“It sounds like you. You always did care about the environment, and you never liked war. The one about the school shooter was sad. I laughed at the line about not liking ballroom dancing because you didn’t want some boy to push you around. It’s very you.”

Best. Review. Ever.

This is My Radio Voice

I hung out on the radio for a bit last month with my buddy and local npr-affiliate show host John Gibson, talking about Beautiful Terrible World and reading a couple poems from it. You’ll find me in the last 10 or 12 minutes or so of the hour.

The big celeb of the show that day was author Brian Kimberling, whose book Snapper was just released in paperback. He gets more time than I do, which is only right, but I do think I have the better radio voice.

Beautiful Terrible World is available in print and ebook. (No audiobook yet. But I’m thinking about it…)