Desert Sandstorm and Writer’s Block

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face.
You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”  —Eleanor Roosevelt

            Photo:  John Haslam  foxypar4

I have been dealing with writer’s block lately, like so many writers do.  Sometimes I think creativity is like a grain of sand in the middle of the desert.  When all is calm, the grains sit there storing up energy.  Then the winds begin, stirring up the grains, and creativity comes to life as the grains move and re-form, taking on new shapes in new places.  I’m telling myself that at this time the grains of sand in my own personal desert are at rest, but soon the energy will burst forth on the wings of the wind and I’ll be able to write again.

For several summers I attended the International Women’s Writing Guild’s summer conference at Skidmore where I took classes from other women writers who had successful careers and had published novels or poetry or drama or memoir.  The best class I took was from Alice Orr.  She presented great lessons in writing, but her best advice was to write for at least an hour every day, without ever taking a day off.  I took her advice because I had been working on a young adult novel for many months but it wasn’t finished.  When the session ended, I went home, bought a special pen and grid notebooks, and set to work for an hour every night.  I was teaching at the time and it wasn’t easy, but I finished the novel only because she taught me how.

I wish I had her in front of me now, nudging me into writing daily.  Sometimes I try to convince myself that I am working at writing because I am thinking about what to write or thinking about what is wrong with something  I have already written.  I read blogs and am awed by those writers who blog daily.  How do they do that, I wonder.  How does that happen?  Their discipline and drive and creativity convince me even more of my own inadequacy.  The thing about writing, however, is that it is very addictive.  It’s not like one can really give it up.  But calm does settle over the desert until the stormy winds start up and ideas are born.  I’m waiting today in the stillness.

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Rainfall During a Storm

It’s ironic how life can get in the way of writing when life is the inspiration for writing.  A recent visit from my daughters, son-in-law, and two granddaughters interrupted in a pleasant way my moments at the computer struggling for words.   We went to the races and the park, strolled down Broadway in Saratoga and did some shopping, ate lunches and dinners together, and played, all of which planted within me ideas for future writing.  And now back at the computer, back at my frequent struggles with my blog, I long for those moments with my family.

I wonder how some writers do it, that daily schedule of writing, that morning cup of coffee and those hours pulling from within words that often change before making it onto the page.  I wonder how they stop the incessant chatter in the mind.  I wonder how they corral the emotions—the fear, the loneliness, the anger—into a story or a poem or an essay that can connect to another human being in any meaningful way.

In the early hours of the morning, in that dream-like state just before full consciousness, the words come to me but begin to morph even before I can reach for a pen and paper.  An hour or two later, I can sit at the computer all morning without being able to pull it all together.

When I was a child, like so many children then and today, a favorite activity for me occurred after a heavy rainstorm when rivulets ran along curbs and I could build a dam with sticks and stones to stop the flow.  The dam didn’t last long.  Soon the strength of the water pulled at the structure and the small river flowed again.  Maybe writing is a little like that.  A dam forms but at some point the words are so strong, they push onward past the blockade.  Maybe it’s the strength of one’s emotions that does it.  When you think about great writers, especially the Romantic poets, but really so many others, it’s not possible to choose, you realize how they used their emotions to propel the words.  And it’s often not the case that those emotions are joyful.  I don’t think they have to be, and so I am told, quite frequently in fact, that my writing is often sad.  Maybe Sylvia Plath once was filled with joy.  I think she was.  But things go wrong and sadness and grief can take residence in words and end up on a page that may or may not ever be read by someone else.

So breaks occur in my writing, whether in my blog, or in my poetry journals, or in the novels I work on that I am never completely satisfied with.  I look forward to those interruptions in writing like the childhood dams built to stop flowing water, because I know that behind them will come the words forced on by emotions created by events in life, or people, or nature, and it’s all very inevitable like rainfall during a storm.

Violin Virtuoso

The taut white lines of the bow moved along the strings on the violin, creating a clarity of sound that dispersed into the warm, sultry summer air.  Feeling flowed along the lines and slipped gently from the edges, swirling in tonal patterns, entering porous cells of skinny arms of rapt young listeners, their arms jangling with circles of gold.   It merged with all the chaos of emotional webs inside and one, only one,  broke through into freedom–complete joy.

His eyes were shut, dark lashes touching faint pouches under bottom lids.  A shock of gray hair arched down over one eyebrow and moved nearly imperceptively in the slight movement of air.  He wasn’t present in the room, adrift somewhere in the swirling notes surrounding him.  He was tall and thin but energy, soft energy, flowed from within to the tips of his fingers, and his body swayed slightly left to right and back again.  He was in the midst of creation, and we were the fortunate witnesses to his magic.

Inn of the Seventh Ray, Topanga Canyon

Inn of the Seventh Ray

The beauty of a drive on the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu can easily dissolve a day’s worth of frustration as long as you can handle the traffic and not be too distracted by the surf pounding the beaches where surfing is a way of life.  Still a better place to relax lies just west of Los Angeles in the Santa Monica Mountains between Malibu on the west and Pacific Palisades on the east.

You can take a trip back to a nostalgic time by driving up into Topanga Canyon with its eclectic mixture of hippie vibes, homes of folk musicians, artists, and faith healers, and small stores and restaurants.  The drive itself is an unforgettable trip into the past, but the best part of Topanga is an organic food restaurant called Inn of the Seventh Ray.

The setting is rumored to have been a private retreat for Aimee Semple McPherson during the 1930’s.  Later it was the location of Topanga’s first church, and then it deteriorated into a garage, gas station, and junk yard until it was finally transformed into a restaurant.

My first trip there was about seven years ago when my daughter and her fiancé lived in Santa Monica.  Since then, dinner at the Inn of the Seventh Ray has become a tradition whenever a special occasion occurs and we are in Los Angeles.  The canyon road is both scenic and treacherous with a number of sharp hairpin turns.   Then you turn off the main road and drive to an area that truly deserves the description of magical.  You park at the top of the canyon and descend a long, spiral staircase built into the rock.  The outdoor tables are set up at varying levels and are surrounded by flower gardens, fountains, statuary, shimmery sheer white curtains, and tiny white lights set up among the trees, all creating private areas for dining and romance.  At the bottom level tables are set up next to the creek where the gurgling of the water and night sounds provide their own kind of peace.  Heat lamps warm you on cool evenings year round.  There is also an indoor eating area with a fireplace. The dinner is almost an afterthought.  Artistry creates the flavors and arrangement of the food on the plate, all organic, healthy yet satisfying.

After dinner the thing to do is visit the New Age gift shop at the entrance to the restaurant.   The Spiral Staircase features New Age CDs, an eclectic mixture of books about angels, spirituality, astrology, and health, hand-crafted jewelry, crystals, toys and gifts for children, and much more.  I have never been able to leave the restaurant without purchasing something that could later bring back that sense of peace I associate with Topanga Canyon.

A visit to the Inn of the Seventh Ray can be as relaxing as a weekend retreat.   If you go to Los Angeles, find time to take the drive up the canyon, stop at dusk to eat dinner, browse the gift shop and take home a gift just for you, bask in the peace there, and take it with you until next time.

AngelDance

One impossible task as a teacher was always how to teach students to write poetry.  The best moments always came from the student who did not think he or she could write poetry and then by the end of class had a completed poem.  Sometimes the student would exclaim,  “I wrote a poem!  I never wrote a poem before.  I didn’t know I could write a poem!”

Students who struggle with writing poetry have a mistaken idea that there is a magic formula to writing a poem.  It has to rhyme.  It has to be about nature or something “girly”.  The key, I told them, is words on paper, images, a new way of looking at the world that no one else has ever seen. Never sacrifice meaning for the rhyme, I would tell them over and over because the rhyme is what they knew.  We would use rhyming dictionaries to search for just the right rhyme, and those dictionaries became the most used book in writing class.   I always wrote with my students, and inevitably I would end up with a poem.  The poems I liked the best were the ones I wrote in the middle of the night, and those poems from class filled notebooks over the years,  so no doubt some of those will appear here.

The following poem I wrote  on 9/11/2001.  On 9/11 teaching classes in any formal sense ended and shock filled our hearts as we turned on the television and watched events unfolding   This year 9/11 will mark the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack.  I have to admit that I have a slight obsession with angels.  I’ll write more about that later, but on 9/11 the image of angels became the focus of my poem  “AngelDance.”

AngelDance

Into the sinister silence of the night
A lone angel tiptoes above the ashes.
Lit by the ephemeral rays from above
She moves through the refuse
Stepping over black metal angled askew
Evil heavy upon the earth.

She rises gently with the wind
Touches sooty hands
Lifts drooping shoulders
Silences anguished cries
And fills hearts with hope
To soften a grief too great to name.

She dances in a rhythm
That is dirge-like, somber yet serene
Turning, arms uplifted in a pirouette of pain.
She never questions her task
As she moves gracefully through the rubble
In a world of a thousand cries.

The wind quickens to lift her up
Yet she lingers, reluctant to leave,
Uncertain of her success.
She gathers what she can in the circle of her arms,
Leaving behind God’s strength and his love.
Angel tears spilling into the arch of her body,
She finishes her dance of hope
and floats up between the silvery stars
Into the eternal blackness
To the expectant golden glow beyond.

–September 11, 2001

© Barbara Flass 2001.

Teachers and parents: Try this yourself or with your children/students:  Write a free-verse poem using present tense verbs.  Don’t rhyme it.  Tell a story of something in nature you have seen, a single, emotional moment in time.  Use a thesaurus to replace common, everyday words, especially the verbs.  Work on adding alliteration, words in a series that start with the same sound (for example, “sl” or “t”). 

Getting Words on Paper

I wrote my first story when I was eight years old.  I remember that it was about a family of bears, but I don’t remember the plot.  My mother was so proud of me that she took the story in to work to show her co-workers.  I think it was the fact that I had done something that made my mother proud that meant more to me than the idea that I had created a story at that age.

From that time on I continued to write—in high school and college, after marriage and kids, stories and poetry that I wrote and tucked into folders found only after retirement.  Most were incomplete, some were not very good, a few had potential if only I could remember where the plot was going.  By the time I was in my fifties, I had completed a young adult novel and then in my sixties a memoir about sisters, my sister and me, coping with the challenges of breast cancer, an experience that ended well for only one of us.

I have always had folders full of poetry. When I was a teacher, I wrote a poem every Christmas for colleagues who had become lifelong friends.  The poems came in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, and at first I did not keep a journal and pen next to the bed.  I soon learned how necessary that was.  The way the brain works fascinates me.  Why is it that thoughts come so easily sometimes but then can’t be transferred onto paper, even a few minutes after the thought has come?  I write entire lines of poetry and when I go to put them on paper, some words, some great rhymes, have already gone, disappeared somewhere, still within the brain?

Those Christmas poems I wrote would often be connected to an experience I had, and I would write a prose paragraph to go along with the poem.  Then the real problem began.  I needed a gift to match the poem.  The first poem I wrote rhymed and was about stars and the heavens and our mortality.  The gift was a star ornament, the easiest gift to get.  One year I wrote about a trip driving back to New York from Arizona at Christmas time, coming down the mountains in Las Cruces, New Mexico at night, the valley sparkling with lights, like diamonds falling from the sky.  I can be fairly certain the gift that year did not contain diamonds.  One year I wrote about a lighthouse at Christmas, explaining in the prose paragraph that went with the poem that my father loved lighthouses, my father who had just died that year, and the gift was a lighthouse ornament, not as easy to find as one might expect.  Some of my poems rhymed, some did not.  Sometimes I wrote both rhymed and unrhymed versions and then struggled to decide which was best.  I scoured the stores for wrapping paper that would match the poem and the gift, angels and lighthouses and stars.   All of these poems came to me in the middle of the night or early in the morning.  My husband soon got used to the light suddenly coming on, and the sound of my pen scratching words frantically on to paper, trying so hard to recapture what had just moments before sounded absolutely perfect but no longer was.

This early morning creativity does not happen every morning, a very good thing.  But when it does, I struggle to put on the light and write it all down.  I can convince myself that if I repeat the lines over and over again in my head, that when I do finally get up and maybe even after breakfast and some coffee, I will be able to write it down almost exactly the way it occurred within my brain.  I have noticed that when this happens, I am actually forming the words in my mouth, tongue moving against teeth and palate and speaking without speech.  Is that how it is for everyone, I wonder? Is that the way all thought becomes speech, and if we don’t actually speak the words, they melt into the mouth and go away?

I have a friend, a very intelligent math and science teacher I taught with for twenty-one years, who has lost her ability to speak clearly after a terrible fall that caused extreme head trauma.  One of her best and worst traits is a stubbornness that often gets her into trouble but which has also enabled her to survive some pretty challenging times in her life.  She did not think it was necessary to go the hospital after the fall, and it was a week later that a friend noticed she was unable to speak clearly.  She ended up in intensive care in the hospital, suffering from a slow bleed in the brain.  Weeks later she is still struggling to say the right words.   She has made great progress, but when I visit her, I wonder what is happening inside her brain.  I wonder if words are forming in correct order in the brain but she can’t organize them into speech or are the thoughts all jumbled inside even before she tries to speak?  She cries out, “I hate this!” and I am sad and terrified for her.  What if her intelligent thoughts stay inside of her forever?

I know only vaguely how my own brain functions or does not at times.  I try in those early morning hours to memorize the thoughts that come to me and later write them down.  Or I immediately grab a pen and paper and write frantically what I can retrieve, and it is never as good in written form as when it is still inside my head.   I can’t imagine what is locked inside the head of a patient with Alzheimer’s or someone who has had a stroke, like Dick Clark who years after his stroke still struggles to speak clearly.

I won’t complain about those words inside of my brain that never make it to the page.  I know that they could be retrieved in some form and make sense, although that’s not to say they will ever be considered great words in great writing.  But when I visit my friend, I am ever-so-grateful that I am capable of those scratchings on paper in the middle of the night, no matter how good or bad they are.