New Year (Let’s Try This Again)

Here I am on my second-to-last day, about to cross the finish line. Just one more post to go!

I’m afraid I’ve made it sound like the blog itself is ending–it’s not! I’ll be posting here weekly, and I hope you’ll keeping reading. The last two weeks my posts have been thin, and it felt like I was fizzling out. Between the post-holiday blues and a long stretch of sickness, it was all I could do to come up with a few words each day. That’s just how some days go. But that biopsy I had was benign. I’m on day 3 of no sugar/no starch, my brain fog has cleared, and I have more energy. It feels like my new year is finally beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about organizing (one of my biggest challenges) and housekeeping aspects of the blog. I should probably create some sections and perhaps house this 365-project under one of those sections, as novelist Cynthia Newberry Martin at Catching Days did with hers. For anyone who’s joined me later in this project, Catching Days is one of my favorite places on the internet, a beautifully curated literary site that offers endless inspiration to writers. I happened upon Catching Days as Cynthia was finishing her own 365 project, and it was the exact inspiration and guidance I needed at that moment. I was surprised and delighted when Cynthia followed me through those first days and months offering feedback and encouragement, a gift from a professional writer to an aspiring one.

Catching Days hosts a series called How We Spend Our Days that features a different writer each month and an essay about how they spend a typical writing day. I’ve finally had a chance to read the January’s writer, the poet Sawnie Morris. It’s a meditative start to the new year that’s returned me to a place of noticing. After having been away from my writing practice (evenings at the library, etc) for the last month or so, these words really resonated.

“The next day and the next, I force myself to get up and go directly to my studio, to the desk. I’ve been away for months now and the only way back is to ruthlessly dedicate myself. The effort is awkward, but I am starting to catch the faint scent of liberation, which is to say, I will disappear and only the writing will be left.”

I also loved Morris’s description of her husband thinking through the process of painting, assessing where the work was in that moment and the blind, gut-level path every artist has to follow toward completion.

“For several seconds, his mind is in the painting’s landscape and I can see that he is worried and alone in the snowfall of its forest, at the same time that he is fully awake and betting on his instincts to find the way out.”

 

(Post 364 of 365)

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Process: 33/365

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Has anyone watched Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued? I’ve been listening to the songs and watching clips, but finally sat down to watch the full documentary last night. In the summer of 1967 Bob Dylan disappears to a pink house in West Saugerties, New York to recover from a motorcycle accident, escape the grind of touring, and just kick around. It ends up being the most prolific songwriting time of his life. Sometimes Dylan writes longhand, sometimes on a typewriter. One of his buddies, a fellow musician, says, he’d write these letters everyday and never send them. I’ve never seen someone write so many letters to himself.

Dylan and his crew record over a hundred songs in the basement of Big Pink. Some rise to the surface as huge hits, “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” But most of the songs are never heard again. There’s a bootleg called Great White Wonder that appears in ’69, and then Capitol Records releases 16 songs in ’75 called The Basement Tapes album.

Almost fifty years later, T Bone Burnett gets a message from Dylan’s publisher that a box of lyrics has been found, all handwritten. Dylan okays their release, and T Bone brings together Rhiannon Giddens, Elvis Costello, Taylor Goldsmith, Jim James, and Marcus Mumford to develop the lyrics into songs and record an album in two short weeks. The documentary follows their creative process, how they coax the songs into being. Costello comes in as Costello. Goldsmith and James do a lot of work ahead of time, have some songs figured out.

Mumford and Giddens struggle the most. Mumford admits to relying on the collaborative dynamic, the magic that happens when you’re all in a room riffing on a tune. Eventually he goes off alone to work on a song so he can bring something whole to the table. He says he’s not used to writing like this, cutting an album in just two weeks. Normally it takes him six months to write a single song. He talks about feeling insecure – though more secure than he would’ve felt two years ago – and questions whether insecurity is essential to making art. We see the artist mid process, hitting those notes that aren’t yet the right ones, trying to find his way there. When they all get back into the studio – pow – Mumford blows the lid off with “Kansas City”. I can’t stop listening to that song. And I love you dear / but just how long / can I keep singing the same old song?

Rhiannon Giddens. Let’s just pause here and give her a nod for being the only woman in the studio, sticking to her guns and letting her voice rise and resound above those noisy male egos. She’s trying to draw out “Lost On The River”, but it’s eluding her. The guys try to collaborate, adding big rhythm, louder bass. She cuts them off again and again. It’s not working. They’re not hearing what she’s after. Eventually they call it quits. You watch her go through the evolution of persistence and doubt and frustration. She comes close to just letting the song go. But Mumford stays with her. He can hear what she’s trying to do. He encourages her. Let’s keep working this out. And Giddens says, it makes such a difference when someone believes in you. So they keep after it and they keep after it, and Giddens coaxes that song into being. Her version. The one she could hear rising up inside her.

This is how art gets made. Sometimes it arrives fast, all coming together with the wave of an orchestral magic wand. But most times you’re trudging through, groping around with your arms outstretched. You can hear it, you know it’s there, but you have to solve the mystery of bringing it into being. You know it’s possible. You’ve done this before. You’ve been doing it for years. But still. You get frustrated, wonder if what you’re hearing is real, wonder if it’s even worth it. And then a voice reaches you, keep going, sweet pea, it is so worth it. Another artist, fellow conjurer, urges you on. And it makes all the difference. A massive thanks to the writer Cynthia Newberry Martin for hearing my music, inspiring me with your writing, encouraging me on this leg of the journey, and for the mention on Catching Days this week. Thank you to the writer Rachel Federman at Last American Childhood for keeping me in conversation with thoughtful comments and the beautiful writing on your blog. And thank you to a dear offline writer and other friends who read along and send me messages. I’d thought a lot about doing this project in a notebook, working quietly in a vacuum. It’s scary to be in process out loud, letting people hear all those off-key notes as you struggle to find the song.

That’s how the writing comes through for me, like a song, a galloping rhythm, a halting tone. Story comes in like a wisp, a thread to an idea. There is never a story that shows up whole or characters who knock at my door. It arrives as sound, a song I have to figure out how to sing. I listen for it. The galloping. And then I have to catch it, coax it. These thoughts on process might be the most cohesive writing I accomplished on Saturday, that quiet day I had all to myself. I’d imagined immensities, but it didn’t quite go that way. When my family arrived home at 3:30 in the afternoon, I didn’t have a twenty page manuscript to wave at them. But the sun was shining and it almost felt like spring. We headed out for a walk to the beach. Along the way, Isabella found a cattail in the grass. She raised it up, an orchestral magic wand, as if in tribute to the day, as if she could hear music.

 

Do-over: 23/365

I get pulled back into dreams. Wish I could rewrite the past. Get a do-over for certain years. Today I actually thought, time machine. And I have to keep going back to the Joy Castro quote I first saw here, “There is no way back. We can only dream our way forward.”

I think I’m pretty freaked out about turning forty.

Talking Myself Into It: 1/365

I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, but I’ve always found a way to talk myself out of it. That’s what I do: I talk myself out of things. Rarely do I ever talk myself into things anymore. In my twenties, I was impulsive. I moved across the country on a whim. I flew halfway around the world with barely a plan. I’m still not much for planning, but I’ve become a second-guesser. I weigh and measure, deliberate and ruminate. Hesitate. Procrastinate.

This year is different. January 11th, my daughter’s birthday, marked two years of motherhood for me. And in five months, I will turn forty. These numbers feel significant. I feel an urgency, a desire to move forward – even if I don’t know where I’m going.

The year after I gave birth, I couldn’t read or write. I had to re-learn how to drive a car. New motherhood was all-consuming and self-annihilating. It still burns through my energy and time, and at night I’m left wondering where the long, long day went. Long days, quick years of wanting to drink in every drop of my daughter competing with my increasing desire for just a little autonomy, not letting my dreams escape me in the whir of playing, potty-training, singing, tantrums, breastfeeding, the discovery and wonder, the mundane, the minutiae, and the trying so hard to get every single thing right.

I’ve emerged from these first transformative years of motherhood like someone who’s gone abroad and been immersed in a new country, a new way of seeing and speaking and being, only to return home and find things strange, the strangeness that comes from a dramatic shift in perspective. I feel foreign to myself. I’m not always sure exactly who I am or what I believe. I fumble in conversation. I have notebooks full of scattered thoughts and unfinished essays. I feel untethered from myself, adrift.

This project is an attempt to capture who I am now. One true thing about me, every day for 365 days. A daily practice to stay connected to myself and to my writing. During those sleepless months of my daughter’s infancy, my mother would encourage naps, repeating my grandmother’s wisdom, “sleep begets sleep.” I believe the same is true for most things in life, especially writing. Writing begets writing.

I’ve tried talking myself out of it again and again, but signposts keep pointing me back to this project. Mostly the words of other writers and artists. My inner self-critic nips at my heels, but I run toward the words that amplify my spirit.

I’ve had a peripheral awareness of the 365 project trend, but wasn’t really interested until I read this. These small but daily projects yielded surprising results, like career shifts and opportunities, increased self-awareness, and connection to others. I knew my project would be writing, but I couldn’t decide on my subject until I stumbled onto the beautiful and inspiring Catching Days, where the writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has reached the end of  365 True Things. This project felt like just the right amount of scary-and-challenging-but-manageable. Then there was the live taping of Dear Sugar in Cambridge that I dreamed of attending but didn’t, and the amazing performance by Amanda Palmer, who also happened to be 8-weeks postpartum and breastfeeding her son on stage. And finally, this passage from Patti Smith’s M Train gave me the perfect image for the project and the blog title.

We seek to stay present, even as the ghosts attempt to draw us away. Our father manning the loom of eternal return. Our mother wandering toward paradise, releasing the thread. In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all. We imagine a house, a rectangle of hope. A room with a single bed with a pale coverlet, a few precious books, a stamp album. Walls papered in faded floral fall away and burst as a newborn meadow speckled with sun and a stream emptying into a greater stream where a small boat awaits with two glowing oars and one blue sail.

I should mention it took me over a week to write this single post, and just as I was about to hit “publish” this morning, my daughter climbed into my lap to nurse and smacked her head against my coffee cup, which poured all over my keyboard and killed half the keys, so I’m finishing this up on my mom’s computer. Daily posting already presents an adventure. A messy beginning, but in the spirit of discovery and connection, I will float my words out into the world.