>The (Sometimes Lonely) Journeys of Poets, Pilgrims and Writers

>It’s been almost two years since I dove into this writer’s life with serious abandon. It was October, in 2006, when I met Cassandra King, Lee Smith, and Beth Ann Fennelly at the Southern Festival of Books here in Memphis. Each of them inspired me—some by their personal interest and encouragement, others by their contributions to panels and interviews during the weekend, others by the treasures I discovered, purchased, took home and devoured, their books. Within three months I had drafted a novel. And although that first book is on a shelf, waiting for major reconstruction at some point in the future, the writing of it propelled me into this writer’s life that is at times exhilarating (like when the words come flowing from my pen with passion and speed, or when an editor emails to say she’s going to publish another one of my essays, or when a faculty member at a writer’s workshop compliments my work) and at other times discouraging (like when the words that come flowing from my pen, slowly, are boring, even to me, or when I receive yet another rejection email from a potential agent) or disparaging (like when I find myself listening to the “watchers”—the negative voices saying you can’t do that or what will people think) or, just lonely, like I felt a good bit this last week.

Yes, I know I complain a lot about not having enough uninterrupted, personal, private time for writing. So this last week, I found it. And I drafted seventeen pages of the book I’m working on, which is a lot for me, for one week. But it was a dark week. I’ve been depressed a lot lately, but I tried to let the dark side fuel my work instead of suppressing it, and at the end of the day, it felt good to be moving forward.

A friend and fellow writer (she’s a poet and an artist) shared an essay with me this week called “Of Power and Time” by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver. It’s from her book, Blue Pastures. You can read more of the essay here. Another friend had shared Oliver’s book of poetry, White Pine, with me this spring, so when two friends, both soulful women, share the same treasure with me, I usually pay attention. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone.

Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart—to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just a often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

What a great reminder that it’s not just outside factors, and people, who interrupt the writer at work, it’s our own inner noises. This isn’t just true of writing, other serious pursuits require silence. Take prayer, for example. When my children still lived at home and I would complain that I couldn’t find a quiet time to pray, then suddenly they’re all gone and I’ve got nothing stopping me from standing at my icon corner, all noises off, and entering into diligent and meaningful prayer first thing in the morning. There are no school lunches to prepare, no carpools to drive, and my husband gets his own breakfast. So what do I do? I sleep an extra hour, then get up and immediately jump into a day of busy activities, and sometimes slots for writing, but often without that precious spiritual food I craved when the house was full of noises—that time of prayer.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about that struggle in her wonderful book, Eat, Pray, Love, which I’ve only read half of so far and planned to wait and do a full review here when I’m finished, but I’ll go ahead and share this one quote. She’s writing about her struggle to be still, to learn to meditate and pray:

Like most humanoids, I am burdened with what the Buddhists call the “monkey mind”—the thoughts that swing from limb to limb, stopping only to scratch themselves, spit and howl. From the distant past to the unknowable future, my mind swings wildly through time, touching on dozens of ideas a minute, unharnessed and undisciplined.

Later Gilbert explains how the heart helps the mind:

The other day a monk told me, “The resting place of the mind is the heart. The only thing the mind hears all day is clanging bells and noise and argument, and all it wants is quietude. The only place the mind will ever find peace is inside the silence of the heart. That’s where you need to go.”

Virginia Woolf discusses on this struggle in her book, A Room of One’s Own :

…the mind of an artist, in order to achieve the prodigious effort of freeing whole and entire the work that is in him, must be incandescent…. There must be no obstacle in it, no foreign matter unconsumed.

Gilbert paid attention to Woolf, mentioning her in Eat, Pray, Love:

Virginia Woolf wrote, “Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.” On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where “all is correct.” But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, “all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.” Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous.

So here I am. Monkey-mind working. The shadow of the sword to be crossed, the perilous existence to be lived. The loneliness and solitude to be embraced. The privacy and courage to be found. And then maybe, just maybe, the words will become art and the prayer will bring peace. Here’s to the next seventeen pages, and to a week lived with the mind in the heart.

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