Words to live by


“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing”
— Benjamin Franklin


Another e-worthy note. So simple, so difficult. But then again, “We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us;” (Rilke).

What it takes to write

In her piece for the New Yorker titled, “How I get to write,” Roxanna Robinson describes the precious, sacred morning time between the end of sleep and the beginning of writing. The time — or more precisely, the space, the gap in the day when remnants of slumber still linger before the day’s demands become all-consuming.

I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

The “fine membrane” of the previous night is one I want to stay with for longer than I usually am able to, save during breaks and time away — that is to say, physically away. While I don’t agree with all of what she writes (i.e., I love breakfast and, when I allow myself to indulge, truly enjoy the taste of coffee) —

I go down the hall into the kitchen. I don’t like breakfast, but it’s necessary to get through it in order to get to coffee.

I drink instant because I don’t care how it tastes, all I want is the kick. And I don’t want to wait for perking or dripping.

— I do have a deep appreciation for her articulation of the importance of undisturbed times to delve deeply into the gossamer hints of thought that require space to germinate and sprout.

So I don’t read the news or listen to it. Nor do I make a single phone call, not even to find out if the plumber is actually coming that day to fix the sink, which he has failed to do now for five days in a row. One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.

The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands.

Being awake and ready for writing and being awake in order to be social are two utterly different things. My family knows this well…


Still more daily routines of writers were made available recently by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org:

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

including, Ernest Hemingway:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Maya Angelou:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.

Don DeLillo:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.

William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Anaïs Nin:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

and, for E, the wise musings of Benjamin Franklin — seen here in this graphically organized daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule

and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to sleep so that I can get up and write.


There aren’t even crickets chirping inside my head — that’s how bad this spell of writer’s block is. The frustrating thing about writer’s block isn’t that the words don’t come forth. It’s that they are too scared to even exist in the same realm as your consciousness, too frightened to complete the transfer from notion to discernable thought. Because if you can’t think them, then you can’t assess what you have just thought or mentally composed as absolute crap. I know what Anne Lamott says about “shitty first drafts” — it’s the advice I have passed on to students and friends and colleagues. “Just write” I say, knowing full well that sometimes there are no words and that even if the words do some, they might be complete, well, you know… How does one “not take things so seriously” while also attending meaningfully to the many little fires that may crop up during the day. Can one be existential while also being engaged? Or perhaps the better question to ask whether it is possible to be engaged without a certain amount of detachment? It is, after all, just some writing or, in Lamott’s friend’s words “just a bit of cake.” (See excerpts from Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Instructions on writing and life below and you’ll see what I mean — don’t read it for answers; just commiserate and go back to work.)

The trick, it seems, is to recognize that you’re stuck and move on. Accept the denial, so to speak, and allow yourself to transition into a better headspace. It’s the unstuck-ing that is especially challenging. To date, I’ve tried my usual standards: long walks, cooking, television, reading, napping, and even laundry. Nothing has quite done the trick. This tells me two things: I really do need ongoing dialogue with actual humans to get me through this stuck-ness, and I might need to try an approach that doesn’t come naturally to me: just sucking it up and barging through the stuck wall.

Here I go…

(And if you’re still stuck, might I suggest some math)


perfect day with a side of fleeting bird

This is the sky above me as I attempt some writing at a local cafe. As the words are not flowing, I am allowing myself some creative procrastination that has come in the form of several unsent tweets, responding to overdue emails, and taking a minute to read again a few lines of an essay I just learned of by Italo Calvino. There may be a previous post that mentioned Amelie Rorty’s essay “The Ethics of Reading” in which she urges readers to consider the “author’s house” when reading the author’s words — to ask questions of the architecture of an author’s idea chambers, their histories and spatio-temporal connections. In a similar vein, Calvino, in the essay “Why Read the Classics?” very plainly, very transparently delineates his thinking about what has long been a contentious idea: classics. Or, more precisely, *the* classics.

Calvino writes about the moments when we first and then again engage in the reading of a classic, acknowledging not only that who we are shapes our readings, but also that in no way can everyone read everything “classical” and still keep current with the present moment’s goings-on. (Just today someone tweeted about Toni Morrison’s new book “Home” and I thought, “she has another one out? I haven’t finished all of the others!”) In his enumerated essay, Calvino writes:

4) Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

5) Every reading of a classic is in fact a rereading.

Voyage and discovery, the very art of getting lost and happily giving oneself over to the experience of reading — does that happen in our writing? He cleverly leaves open the question of what is a classic, saying only, “If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school.” (except at school… sigh.)

Anne Lamott attempts to suggest something about this sense of discovery but it seems her words center more on the reading than the writing (in this excerpt at least):

“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They depen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”

Oh, I see — when we assume postures as writers, we might potentially evoke singing on a boat caught in a storm, our words may be the ones to catalyze spontaneous clapping amidst the absurdity of life. It’s so simple: we must be readers when we write.

W.G. Sebald’s writing, which I have occasionally referenced here and which were the inspiration for Grant Gee’s film “Patience (After Sebald)”, is described in Gee’s film by the artist Tacita Dean in this way: “You don’t care you’re being led nowhere because you learn so much along the way.” Could there be any higher praise for one’s writing?

Well, I seem to say to myself on occasion, these are all good ideas to keep in mind. But can one hope to evoke laughter or inspire a jig in the midst of life when the text is a grant proposal and the reviewers are… well… reviewers, cut of the same cloth, perhaps, as those who have stripped schools of toe-tapping, silly clapping, garden path sentences and textual journeys of the unbelievable variety?

deep into the grey

Flakes of snow and easily melting ice that fell three times this past week have been replaced by ordinary raindrops that have taken up the precipitation mantle and fall in an unsteady pattern from the heavens. It’s easy to be romanced by the fluffy stuff, especially when your micro-flat is well stocked with the staples and other key necessary munitions of weather-preparedness — sweet treats — and you have little need to venture outside. And while I’m often irritated by rainfall, because it dares to fall whenever I have a hankering to wear sandals or some other article of clothing or footwear that provides adequate protection from the wet stuff, the heavily blanketed skies that look ever-ready to purge their water stores induce in me a sense of pity so that when it occasionally rains here I’m hardly bothered. Out of these overcast skies emerges a nuanced canvas of greys, taupes, tans, sands, slates, and even more hues often grouped together under the category of “grey” or “greyish brown.” Against such a canvas, the occasions of color outside of this spectrum seem to beckon with greater urgency. The orange life jackets and life preservers gathered on a dock awaiting enthusiastically the next Thames boat cruise group; hints of violet and pumpkin in a sea of black and grey overcoats; the shiny silver buckle on a modern briefcase glistens as its owner rushes home from work, or perhaps work from home.

Hungerford Bridge
Hungerford Bridge
Morning rush
Morning rush at Temple Underground
Meeting of the minds
Meeting of the minds on Waterloo Bridge

It is perhaps why occasional blue skies in London feel magical and other-wordly — a sort of meteorological explication of what Mick Jagger croons almost patronizingly: “You can’t always get what you want.” But perhaps we might take another riff on the Stones and wonder whether what we think we want is sometimes hampered by the limitations of our own imagination. And thus how might we feed our minds so that the boundaries of our imaginations are actually limitless and do not, instead, fall into some sort of assessable, easily discernable rubric? And, lest we forget the rest of Jagger’s helpful advice: “But if you try sometimes/You just might find you get what you need.”

How, then, can we see the color in greys? And perhaps see grey as colorful itself?

a wednesday

weather: cloudy with a threat of rain
alertness: on the precipice of emerging out of jetlaggy haze
agenda: hang out, eat well, be amused, and learn new tricks

yesterday was spent largely in the company of my aunt and uncle who live just outside of the city. i dare not call it a suburb for fear of evoking images of sprawl, vast amounts of ill-used space, strip malls, and an endless supply of sport utility vehicles. no, this is a lovely little town where they have lived for close to 40 years, in the same house, which was just an image in a photograph for most of my childhood. (another favorite photo featured by older cousin dressed in his school uniform, which included bright red knee socks, standing begrudgingly next to the front door.)

my aunt met us at one of the gates to kew gardens, the well known botanical gardens just a stone’s throw from their home. thus our visit began with a walk and conversation and occasional discussion about various types of holly — was i the only one who assumed all holly was the same? — and the installation of the japanese garden a decade earlier and a few choice bits about the history of the gardens. we spoke about our respective experiences returning to french class after significant time had passed since our introductions to the language; this among the various other things we discussed stood out to me as a hallmark of what it means to continue to live and be present in the world. both my aunt and uncle are retired for more than a few years now and they lead lives that, to the occasional observer, are full of experiences in which they continue to place themselves as learner. and perhaps this is key.

the rest of the day progressed much like most other days i’ve spent with them. afternoon tea and homemade german pastries, talking for hours around the table — in the summer it might have been some snacks alongside a pimms and peach nectar cocktail, my uncle’s specialty, while seated outside in my aunt’s meticulous (but unfussy) garden — followed by a tour of their recent travels as told through the informative yet uncluttered photobooks that my aunt creates after each trip, then more conversation, some dinner prep, and then more conversation over dinner. while there, i snapped this photo of a painting that hangs near the entrance to their kitchen that captured much of what i feel when i’m visiting their home, and even just in their presence — unhurried but purposeful:

i also learned the following two food tricks:
a) you can cook rice from scratch in the microwave. again, am i the only one who didn’t know this? either way, good news for me because i have yet to figure out the indecipherable cooktop in my micro-kitchen (exhibit a below)

b) a simple pumpkin sautee (with some tomatoes — canned or fresh — popped mustard seeds, green chilies, and a handful of spices) that is easily frozen can be transformed, upon defrosting on the stove in a saucepan over low heat, into a saucy concoction that can accompany rice and various other grains with the smallest addition of yogurt.  (i definitely need to tell my friend at little brooklyn kitchen about these choice tips!)

unhurried but purposeful. to aim for that will be my goal these next few months, and longer if i can remember to remember.

unsolicited sound advice (from the internet, not yours truly!)

It isn’t clear whether the universe is trying to communicate something of importance to the earth’s inhabitants*, but the delivery of multimodal missives and messages that have flitted across my various inboxes, feeds, and walls reverberate with a degree of measured urgency. Thus, in the spirit of the coming new year and sharing the wisdom, I’ve collected a few of them here.

1. A straightforward, no-nonsense, slightly admonishing-toned list of 30 Things to Stop Doing to Yourself (via the blog: Marc and Angel Hack Life: Practical Tips for Productive Living). Among their recommendations:

Stop trying to hold onto the past. – You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one.

Stop wasting time explaining yourself to others. – Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it anyway.  Just do what you know in your heart is right.

Stop being ungrateful. – No matter how good or bad you have it, wake up each day thankful for your life.  Someone somewhere else is desperately fighting for theirs.  Instead of thinking about what you’re missing, try thinking about what you have that everyone else is missing.

2. A reminder to have compassion because We’re All Doing the Best We Can (via HuffPost)

3. Philosophy brought to life in The Cave (An Adaptation of Plato’s Allegory in Clay) — made me revisit an earlier post about shadows and looking. Well worth the 3.4 minutes it takes to watch & listen to the clip.

4. Advice in the form of a questionnaire that Vanity Fair claims is in the style of Proust and his contemporaries and responses to which may be quite revealing of one’s true character (if such a thing really exists). These questions were posed to the President and First Lady by Barbara Walters in a recent tv interview, resulting in some odd moments. A preview of a few of the questions:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • On what occasion do you lie?
  • When and where were you happiest?

More than enough to ruminate on as 2012 approaches….

*Yes, I’m procrastinating — blogging even as one of those pesky, year-end deadlines looms large.

good tidings and good intentions

woody guthrie‘s new year’s resolutions (via @boingboing)

woody guthrie's 1942 new year's resolutions

i especially love the sketches made to emphasize the resolutions — see for example next to #31, the outstretched hug and kiss (Smack!) to the world on the bottom right.  and #15 — “Learn People Better” — couldn’t we all use a lesson in that?


the jeering joys of subletting

Subletting is a strange proposition and in many way not unlike the act of making recommendations, except perhaps the onus of responsibility is even more severe on you who wishes to let another make your (temporary) home theirs (temporarily). Yes, you tell the potential subletter, this is a great place to live! And you mean it. Yet, even you know that no place is perfect. The radiator makes an occasional clanging noise that you have started incorporating into your winter time dreams, and the extreme dryness during the cold months is something you address with a few extra cups of water throughout the day and via the purchase of an elephant shaped, kiddie humidifier. But these become relatively minor hiccups as you travel along your daily path because you accept that in order to go about your business (of writing, teaching, fieldwork, office hours, exercise – mental and physical – shopping, cooking, laundry, correspondence, paying bills, reading, living), you must be willing to accommodate some imperfections that come as part of the package of living in an old, pre-war, constantly-under-some-kind-of-construction/repair building. What you get in return for your bending ways is a relatively comfortable abode, close proximity to friends (even if it is sometimes a bit too close to students and colleagues), a few steps from your institution and thus the ability to leave your house just minutes for before a meeting. This, for the procrastinator and unintentional-multitasker, is a truly priceless feature.

So when one receives a notice from said subletter that highlights a flaw or an issue that arises — that might have arisen had you been living there, as well, but chose this moment to rear its ugly head — you can’t help but feel especially peeved. At whom is this aggravation-wrapped-in-annoyance directed? The messenger? The building maintenance director and crew who received notice from you about potential issues several months ago? Yourself for thinking that subletting would be a worry-free experience? A little from each column seems most likely.

Another response might be the philosophical, in the vein of impermanence — that is, this situation will also pass. An apartment or house or plot of land or country is never permanently a single person’s to own, and we are only caretakers until the next person comes along. But is this point enough to assuage the immediate urgency of someone living situation? Perhaps not.

So with little that I can do while literally on the road, I simply await response to a few SOS’s I’ve planted in the email ether. And I blog. And contemplate advice to give the various parties in charge — because a little experience can make one feel (however rightly or wrongly) like quite the expert. It might be time for a reread of an earlier post about… what was it, patience?

serenity now…

(and following a promised nanowrimo update, the moving chronicles part 2: i forgot i’m the homeowner and there’s no one else to blame in philly… sigh…)

a little self-help

…on patience

Patience is also a form of action.
— Auguste Rodin

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
— Rilke

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

i especially like this one:

Have patience with all things, but chiefly have patience with yourself.
— St. Francis de Sales

…and a helpful note on impatience

There art two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness.
— Franz Kafka

preparing to write a novel*

today i begin my second attempt at nanowrimo, although i’d like to consider this the real first attempt thereby rendering last year’s effort — in which i didn’t even produce 10% of the 60,000 words nanowrimo’ers are meant to aim for by month’s end — the pilot go around. i’m not sure if it’s because i “do” academic research that i tend to talk in stages — pilot, year 1, etc. — or if i gravitated toward longterm, multi-phase studies because of this latent tendency to organize time into phases and stages. nevertheless, today begins year 1 of the great nanowrimo adventure!

here’s what i’m doing or have done to prepare:

– telling people im nanowrimo-ing — apparently peer pressure is still the most effective kind
– committing to a steady early morning writing block free from other inter/online forces — i’ll have to start this tomorrow and hope that i can channel some of that good, early morning writing energy to kick things off this afternoon
– saying no. to everything. else. this will feel especially good after i clear the following off of my plate: 2 article reviews, 1 tenure review letter, a cadre of job rec letters — i am to be free of these by week’s end, after which my answer to all the rest for the duration of this month at least will be no, niet, non, nein, nope, sorry.
– freeing myself from the self-critical, editing monster that only reduces productivity. she can wait until december…
– keeping paper and an extra word processing document open and on hand at all times in case this novel writing stimulates ideas for either of the books im really supposed to be working on.
– making jottings and timelines for the characters that loudly wormed their way into my time at the silent meditation retreat — incredibly fascinating how difficult it continues to be to take what seem like crystal clear ideas from the ether of the mind to pixels on the screen.
– incorporating new routes into my daily walks — im already stimulated by the world around me. i might as well put this otherwise distracting quality to good use!

that’s it for now. oh, and write 2,000 words a day. this is what the folks at nanowrimo recommend. i suspect that the entries on this blog will also be more heavily writing focused in the weeks to come, and as i find interesting sites and such, i’ll be sure to share for general enjoyment by all.  the first such resource was actually sent to me by my dear sister, who herself is having a bit of a renaissance and who i might have convinced to join me in the ‘wrimo journey:

Prepping for NaNoWriMo 2011 — by Sara Toole Miller

*once again an asterisk is necessary because to declare that one (I) is writing a novel feels much too daunting to accept full responsibility for, thus i am grateful for the distance from accountability that the asterisk provides.

writing lives

  • 3 musketeers bars and the hypnotic bass beat of “every breath you take”
  • new year’s eve and an evening of cole porter tunes
  • a good book and ready access to google and wikipedia for the all important insta-reference searches
  • fresh mozzarella and tomato with basil
  • heck, any melange of tomato, cheese, and grain-based substrate (tortillas, crusty baguette, magical bread that a nearby cafe brings in from a bakery in germantown)
  • year-round ceiling fan and a thick blanket
  • slightly runny eggs and toasted multigrain bread with raspberry jam
  • sparkling conversation and hot tea with honey
  • ice cream and ice water

with one exception, i still indulge in all of these combinations of things/foods/experiences with regularity. i’ve long been fascinated by how things combine — not just foods and ideas, certainly those are elevated on my radar, but also items of clothing (as worn by others mostly and less on me), gestures, images, people, furniture, sounds… more recently, as perhaps recent posts might suggest, the determinism that accompanies some combinations continues to hold my attention, especially as they become entrenched in our social consciousness and can come to have a profound impact on daily actions and interactions as combinations become labels become intractable indictments — but that is not the point of this post. i’m not yet sure what the point is, but i know that for the moment, i want to focus on something other than the social ills of labeling and categorizing and stuart hall’s multimedia treatise on race and the insidiousness of an ethos of “matter out of place.”

there is another combination that i have long enjoyed that has been absent in the pop culture landscape for over twelve years now, and that is the pairing of gene siskel and roger ebert. this may seem like an odd segue to the original odd couple of movie review and film criticism royalty, but the atlantic’s recent article about a new book by the prolific roger ebert, life itself, brought back my memories of watching the two men bickering on the movie balcony stage set. in an earlier post i quoted from an everlasting meal in which tamar adler makes a simple observation: we all need a little seasoning to be most ourselves. and even though ebert is astute and critical and witty on his own, i enjoy thinking about how siskel coaxed out of his balcony buddy some musings and observations that might have gone unnoticed, unsaid, or a different direction altogether. ebert said as much in an interview last year. (how many more examples of learning as social do we need before schools listen? sigh…)

but that is not the point of this post, either. it is, i think, found in a quote that the atlantic excerpted from life itself in which roger ebert is reflecting on being asked to review the film persona:

On writing about “impenetrable” art“In 1967, new in my job at the Sun-Times, I walked into the Clark Theater and saw Persona. I didn’t have a clue how to write about it. I began with a simply description: ‘At first the screen is black. Then, very slowly, an area of dark grey transforms the screen into blinding white. This is light projected through film onto the screen, the first basic principle of the movies. The light flickers and jumps around, finally resolving itself into a crude cartoon of a fat lady.’ And so on. I was discovering a method that would work with impenetrable films: Focus on what you saw and how it affected you. Don’t fake it.”

those last two lines sound like they are shouting to everyone who has ever attempted to utter or pen a single word. how can we write truthfully? that isn’t to say that we don’t embellish or invent or imagine fantastic tales of impossibility, but, like the pair note in clip about back to the future 2 to which i linked, how might retain in our writing perhaps a nugget of that which offers moments of connection and a glimpse of recognition for the reader. they ought to talk more about writing alienation (read: boring your readers!) and less about the five paragraph essay (which can certainly induce writing alienation). how do we move from faking it — in our letters to family, cover letters for jobs, personal statements for tenure, field notes academic articles, policy statements that are filled with assumptions and pairings to which even the most attila-the-hunnish among us wouldn’t adhere — to writing as offering, writing as work in the world.

here’s another choice nugget from ebert, who has suffered through thyroid cancer that left him literally unable to speak audibly with his voice, but as he writing continues to demonstrate, he continues to talk with his audience:

On why writing matters to him now“What’s sad about not eating is the experience, whether at a family reunion or at midnight by yourself in a greasy spoon under the L tracks. The loss of dining, not the loss of food. Unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments, and memories I miss. I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to start reciting poetry on a moment’s notice. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why writing has become so important to me. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.”

ebert’s reflections remind me of andre aciman — another writer like w.g. sebald whose words literally transport you to another world with a quiet steadiness, at once gentle and jarring descriptions, astute yet painful allegory –who seems to practice as well as embody this studied and steady ethos of being present in one’s writing, trusting one’s memory, moving simply through ideas (but not necessarily without complexity of relationships between those ideas) — recalling one’s first memory of lavender for example (see this video of aciman on writing, the lavender reference is at the 4′ minute mark). i think perhaps what these and many other writers, whose writing is available in the form of published texts as well as blogs and interviews, overwhelmingly advocate is a practice of writing itself as a start to writing. just write.* even if it’s crap. even if what you write on sunday is long gone by the time you write a conclusion on friday. of this anne lamott’s musing in bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life are particularly insightful:

You begin to string words together like beads to tell a story. You are desperate to communicate, to edify or entertain, to preserve moments of grace or joy or transcendence, to make real or imagined events come alive. But you cannot will this to happen. It is a matter of persistence and faith and hard work. So you might as well go ahead and get started.

in the ever present and ongoing existential crisis quandary in which i find myself, i wonder if perhaps there are other questions we might ask of ourselves and one another (instead of the ones we often pose to kids and derivatives of which we ask during polite cocktail part small talk: What do you do? Where do you work? Where do you live?):  how did you write your life today? which page of your story did you work on this afternoon? with whom are you spending time? with whose words and ideas and actions do you resonate, disagree, find joy? how are you living your life?
(i know, i know: i’m not getting invited to any parties any time soon. but i swear i like to wax on about my collection of boots and latest teen angst tv discoveries, too!)

ebert’s implication that what may be more important than the actual writing is where and to whom the writing may take you is a lovely and fulfilling thought. [insert flood of memories of reading and writing and conversations about readings and writings here…] and so perhaps ebert’s title is apt as suggestive of another lasting combination:

writing and life, itself.

*despite this recent spurt of obsessive blogging, writing the lives of others — which encompasses a great deal of my writing todo list — continues to paralyze especially as the desire to write justly and without freezing the dynamic realities of people’s life narratives rings loudly in my ears. and so perhaps writing this post and reading ebert’s book is an attempt to take some of that good advice myself.

writers un-block – the magic of rilke

with rilke nearby, it is hard to remain for very long in a state of writers block. that is, that which you need to write may not get written but that which you are compelled to put down in words may emerge from you. or perhaps that is the type of fanciful, giving over of oneself to the word that comes from repeated readings of this poet’s musings. in particular, i enjoy returning every so often to his collection of letters* written in response to a younger poet — rilke only in his late 20s when he begins this correspondence, yet wise beyond his years — that i carry with me always in my everyday bag. it’s there, in the back zipper pocket, greeting me occasionally and remind me that it’s there. waiting. patiently.

i am moved to think of letter 1 today because my blog meanderings led me to this blog in which the author makes a note in her about page that she writes because she must. need and must. what do we need? what must we do? are these the same? what’s the difference?

the following is from letter 1, and i’ve highlighted in bold the phrases and words that stood out to me in this latest reading — always new, never the same, just as fresh as the first time, but different.

“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”

*the letters have been translated from german to english, so there are slight variations in the english text depending on the source.