Doris will be my fourteenth published work, but now I’m once more a raw upstart, a woman daring to intrude into the magic kingdom of creativity, where there are no dirty socks on the floor, no sinks full of food-caked dishes. There is only the terrifying other of the empty page; I write my first drafts by hand, with an ink pen that inevitably leaks, staining my right middle finger. When I see that stain in the midst of other activities and preoccupations, I know I have begun.
Routine helps. The steady practice of writing at a certain time, every day, sick or well, tired or energetic, distracted by family or financial worries, humbled by the steady recognition that no one out there, friend, foe or acquaintance, gives a damn—this is the secret at the center of the work.
There is one other reliable aid, at this stage, and it’s not the innumerable books of advice that we writers regularly put out.
No. It’s a writing group.
I teach one.
I belong to one.
And while the one I teach happens only a few blocks from my house, the one I attend requires me to drive a couple of hours each way and usually to spend the night at my favorite B&B to avoid driving home late and groggy.
Both groups are equally helpful in spurring me to begin the next book. Partly, it’s simply being regularly in the company of people who care about words, who have stories to tell, and who dig out hours in overly-busy lives to write and to perfect their technique. No one is a professional writer. No one expects to make any money from writing. But they go on.
In my class, one woman is putting together a diary for her adopted daughter, so she’ll know something about the years before she arrived. Here it’s a question of what to include, and what to leave out, which will change as the daughter grows older. And, as we all know, it’s the “inappropriate” that most interests others, whether offspring or strangers, the cringe-making need to get down on our hands and knees and peer under the tables and sofas that are the visible and acceptable facts of life.
Writing about ourselves means revealing secrets. That’s why I call my class “When Words Really Matter.”
Another of my students is describing her passionate relationship with her mother, even trying to imagine what this woman went through when her daughter was born. Here the issue is to avoid sentimentality, particularly difficult since glowing accounts of a mother-daughter love are so rare. Readers seem to enjoy and expect cat fights.
Another student is constructing an authorized biography of a sports figure. I have difficulty imagining how anything authorized can contain more than a grain of truth, especially when the source of information is a widow. We all try to remember only the best. Here, the challenge is to avoid nostalgia.
My most interesting student is also the only man. He has engaged deeply with the life that boils on the other side of our southern border, traveling regularly to Juarez, Mexico, to assist with food distribution. During his work, he has come to know a street preacher, a former felon, who has put together what he calls, in Spanish, the Madhouse in the Desert. This bare-bones facility is run by the people who live there; there are no therapists, although a psychiatrist visits once in a while to adjust medications. The way to get well is to work. And so all the work of running the place is done by those who would normally only be allowed medication, therapy, and a great deal of idleness and boredom.
The scene I loved most is of the washing of the blankets. They are dumped into a big vat of soap and water and then one person puts on boots, jumps in, and tramples them clean…
I try, and we all try, to escape the suffocation of subjectivity—for we are all in one form or another writing about ourselves—through a vivid connection with the “real” world. Here it is, in boots trampling wet blankets.
Today I’ll drive up to Taos for my first meeting there with a group of writers, organized two years ago by the extraordinary teacher and writer, Bonnie Lee Black, who now lives in Mexico. Whether we can develop the discipline and the focus to make the group work without Bonnie, I don’t yet know. I’ll find out this afternoon.