The Memoir and the Amaryllis

This is the second year my daughter-in-law gave me an amaryllis for Christmas. Maybe you got one too. They come all packaged up in a pretty box—a disk of potting soil, a large amaryllis bulb and a pot to grow it in.

I followed the directions on the box, soaked the potting soil in water until it filled the pot then planted the bulb, pointy side down, and set the pot on my kitchen table where, each morning, I sit with my coffee and my notebooks and write.

These days I’m deep inside writing a memoir based on an around-the-world trip I took many years ago, after my husband died. I’m writing the notebook draft first, going to the blank page each morning and hoping to get down two or three or four pages. (Some mornings I settle for one.) It’s slow going. I think I might get discouraged at how long it’s taking me to get this first draft done, except for the amaryllis.

For several mornings after I first planted the bulb I’d lean over the plant, coffee cup in hand, and examine it to see if anything had started growing yet. Nothing… nothing… nothing… until one day: voila! a tiny sprout of green showed itself. I was giddy with delight. Of course, all along things were going on underground: roots were digging deeper, finding their way. It’s like this with the writing: nothing… nothing… nothing… and then, one morning, voila! just like that: meaning appears and I experience the same giddiness. But before that cracking open of meaning can happen, there must be the digging deep, the work of finding the way.

Each of these winter mornings since planting the Amaryllis, I go through the same routine: examine the plant and rotate it toward the light, then light my candle, get out my notebook and pen, and settle in to write.

Slowly, day by January and February day, the plant grew, leaves took shape, embryonic buds emerged. And day by day, in my notebook, the story grew, sentences took shape, paragraphs emerged. The Amaryllis and the memoir, both in the process of transforming.

Naturally, the cycle of the Amaryllis much shorter than the cycle of making a memoir, or a novel, or any long piece of writing. It will reach full bloom long before the memoir is complete. But for both, it’s still a matter of turning toward the light, digging deep, and allowing the process to shape what wants to emerge. Each must take as long as it takes.








Images as Inspiration

I’m knee-deep in a new book based on my Wild Women Writing Workshop, and just as I’ve done with other projects, I’m using visual images to inspire me.

In this case, I stripped the bulletin board above my writing space of its mini-collages of characters in my novel (the novel has been put in drawer until I finish this project), and filled the space with images of women—some mini-reproductions of famous art, a couple of greeting card images, random clips from magazines, a few postcards, even a picture of me taken way back when I was a Wild Woman apprentice. I included some mementos, a few pins, a Chinese fan, and a wooden bracelet.

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Why Write by Hand?

This Glittering WorldI attended a book party for T. Greenwood’s new novel, This Glittering World, Saturday night at The Ink Spot. She read the first chapter and I knew when I got home, I’d dive right into the book, I was that caught up in the story. But being the kind of insecure writer that I am, on the drive home I fell into the icky-sticky place of comparing my rough draft of a messy first chapter with Tammy’s beautifully written, compelling, published first chapter. (This is a mistake. Don’t do it. )

After a few agonizing, self-conscious miles, I remembered a conversation Tammy I had a couple of weeks previously at the Annual Local Authors celebration hosted by the San Diego Public Library. A group of us were carrying on about our “process” as we writers tend to do when we get together (I have to leave the house to write; I have to have my Pilot Precise V7, fine point, blue ink; I can’t write a word without my bowl of dried cranberries . . . you probably have your own rites and rituals), and Tammy mentioned that she always writes her first drafts by hand.

“The computer makes it look so neat,” she said. “First drafts are way too messy to look that neat.”

I’m gleeful! A talented, prodigious writer like T. Greenwood who’s published six novels and written a couple more that are stuffed away in a drawer—she writes by hand, too!

People who know me know I’m an outspoken proponent of the write-by-hand method of getting those first raw words on the page. I write about it in my books, encourage it in my writing practice groups, and request students in my classes to at least try a week of writing by hand during our time together.

I take a lot of heat for this.

Why? is a question that inevitably comes up during interviews about writing practice, Why? my students invariably ask in our first class. Why? compulsive NaNoWriMo writers wonder, keyboards clacking. Because, I say, and quote a famous writer whose endorsement of writing-by-hand I scoured from the hundreds of articles and interviews I researched for just such verification. (John Updike, Pablo Neruda, Spalding Gray, bell hooks, Anne Tyler, Clive Barker, William Styron, Paul Auster, Richard Hugo, and now T. Greenwood, to name a few.)

So again, why write by hand? (from A Writer’s Book of Days)

  • Writing is a physical act; you should do it with your body.
  • Writing by hand is sensual; it allows you to feel the movement of pen against paper.
  • You can feel your heart beat when you write by hand; sometimes you can feel the pulse in your fingers. This gives rhythm to your writing.
  • Writing by hand allows you to write with your breath.
  • When you write by hand you slow down enough to write only some of your thoughts. In writing practice, more is not necessarily better.
  • You are more connected to your feelings when you write by hand.
  • Handwriting is alive.
  • You are in control when you write by hand (no low battery, malfunction, save command, or crash can interrupt you).
  • You can write anywhere when you write by hand.

I tell you, you’ll be amazed at what you discover when you write by hand and you might be surprised at how little you edit when you put pen to page instead of fingers to keyboard.

Just for the record, I do sometimes write directly on the computer, this blog post for example, and most of my nonfiction work. But when I want to get out of my own way and let the Muse have her way with me . . . it’s pen in hand, hand to page.

Future post: More about comparing our work to others’ and why it’s such a trap.