I’ve been tagged by my dear friend Marilyn Bousquin at Writing Women’s Lives on the Writing Process Blog Tour. Here is her most excellent post on her process, written intimately, as if the two of us are chatting over a cup of coffee about how and why we write.
But I’m not in a coffee shop. I’m at the Loretto Center atop a windy hill just outside of Denver. No longer in the flatlands of Ohio, I find that I, and my writing voice, have shifted landscapes. It is a peaceful place here, where strangers receive hospitality without questions, dogma, requirements, signed contracts. I’ve only been here a day, but my body and mind have already quickly settled into a different flow, a gentler one moving much more slowly than the traffic on the nearby buzzing highway. I know I’m settling in here because I’m noticing, seeing everything around me with curious eyes—from the flash of white wing-tipped magpies to this morning’s warm, hard-boiled egg with its pea-green, overcooked yolk. Here, I feel the blue skies, the bone-warming sunshine, and the deep presence of the mountains to the west.
And today, I just can’t bring myself to write about my writing process within a neat numerical format, responding 1-2-3-4 to the posed questions as other bloggers have done. Neither can I bring myself to answer the questions directly: 1) What am I working on? 2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? 3) Why do I write what I do? 4) How does my writing process work?
So, here’s my response:
I must begin at the entrance to the labyrinth on the grounds here. This particular labyrinth is a maze of winding red pavers, a sea of encircling rings, a path winding around a circular center. To those new to walking a labyrinth, or writing a book, the simple goal would seem to be this: reach the center, finish the damn book. Though noble, getting to the center or to that accomplishment or that writing prize is never what either writing or walking a labyrinth is solely meant to achieve. Rather, the reward is the walk, the journey itself.
This morning I begin, slowly one step at a time, one word at a time, my mind distracted by many things, many words, many thoughts flying in and out. I try to focus on each paver my foot touches, breathing in, right foot down and left foot up, and then breathing out, left foot down, right up. Keep breathing. Keep walking. Yet the words and thoughts peck at my bones, my brain and refuse to be quieted by my breath. So I listen to them, until they remind me of a memory, an event, an idea, until I must find out why they’re in my head, persistently pecking, just like the nearby woodpecker trying to drill into a metal lamppost, the crazy bird. Making such a racket that I have to turn and see just what is creating all the fuss.
And so I sit down and begin to write, one word, one sentence, one step at a time, for at least sixty minutes, longer than it takes me to walk this labyrinth today. Yet I need the boundary of time, like these encircling rings, to make my brain realize I’m not joyriding here. I mean business. Each sentence becomes another ring. And just like the labyrinth, some sentences take me closer to the center of what the writing is about and some take me further away. I may think I’m almost done; I can see the end right there, when suddenly the path takes a sharp turn to the right, away from its center, and I must follow it, even though it seems to take me further from the thing I think I have come to say. I must trust where the path, the steps, the words, the journey, the writing will lead.
Today I think about this book I’ve been working on forever, a memoir about two children being traumatized in a sexual way, an event forever directing each of us—a boy from the 16th century and me, a ten-year-old girl—onto paths we probably wouldn’t have chosen. I have a finished a shitty draft, still, one with a beginning, middle, and end. Yet, the pages are littered like these labyrinth pavers with goose poop, decaying pine needles, slippery sand. I find myself needing to sweep it clean, to get down on my hands and knees and scrub until my fingers are raw. I find myself needing to lay new pavers, new chapters, perhaps blaze a new path, a new story thread, finding healing metaphors in unlikely places, like a Good Friday service, a Brownie camera, a 16th century painting of a castrato—that sexually traumatized, castrated boy. Like that woodpecker drilling divots on that metal lamp post, I’m drawn to drill into and write about pain, about wounded surfaces and bodies, about wounds that others and I have experienced. I write about that moment when we realize the futility of keeping the events of our past a secret, and suddenly begin to make a big racket so loud that others will see us, so that we might be seen, so that we might help other wounded people realize they are never alone. That there is always hope.
The breeze trembles, and my mind and feet shift from my book to an essay I’m working on as I continue to walk, one step at a time when I’m suddenly confused. The path seems to be taking me closer to the center and the way to finish this essay, but then I realize I’m moving further away from it all, and I fear I am on the wrong path, that I will never reach the center, that this essay is muddied in meaning, that the metaphor is misleading.
Only after a few years of writing can I now recognize this confused place as revising territory. And what can one do, but to just keep walking and writing, or just walking and not writing, to maybe not write and perhaps just notice there is more goose poop that needs revised, or that there is a small pine branch now blocking a path I will have to make clear, or that there are, my God, shadows creating a sudden chill in the air, even darkness. How do I move through this?
Suddenly, a small thing quivers in the grass between the circles of red pavers catching my gaze. I bend over for a closer look. It’s a tiny, frail white feather fluttering with the morning breeze. Easily missed, ignored, walked over. Did it come from the breast of a magpie, the tail of that woodpecker, the wing of an angel? Who knows where such gifts come from? It’s like the sentence that comes to me while I’m driving my car, or folding clothes, or standing at the sink washing dishes. It just appears. And so I latch onto it, hold it gently between my fingers, this muse leading me to the next sentence or a deeper meaning.
Now, having wound myself on this path continually moving inward even when it feels like I am moving outward, I reach the center of the labyrinth. But is a “final” essay ever finished? I walk around its edges. Here, too, I notice there is still a bit of goose poop, yet the circle is mostly clean, the essay mostly polished. For this moment, it’s good enough.
I prepare to walk out of the labyrinth the same way I have arrived at its center, one step at a time. Perhaps the essay, too, is ready to be sent out, ready to be pushed out of its creative nest and into the world. Regardless, neither of us are the same when we began a few moments ago at the labyrinth entrance; both our inner landscapes have changed, and for this, a writer can only be grateful.
And if you’re itching to find other bloggers and their writing processes, do a search on #writingprocess and you’ll find many, many wonderful posts!
Thanks so very much for reading!
Ginny, posting from the Loretto Center, Littleton, CO