Taking Stock: The Janus Factor

The old year passes. The new one slips into place. The creative mind and the practical one juggle for position on the rim of tomorrow. I stand on the brink of the unknown, contemplating the void before me. Do I step back from the edge or leap forward? My choice balances between what has been and what will be. Unable to resist the pull of temporal gravity, I shuffle closer, breathless, wondering, and stare into the face of the Janus Factor.

You remember that ancient god, the two-headed coin, the backward glance fused to the brow-furrowed squint into the future? I’m well acquainted with this deity. As a writer, I have no real choice in the matter. My past accomplishments, documented by publication or rejection (plenty of those to call upon when ego threatens) drag at my heels. Future works hang like ripe fruit just beyond my outstretched hand. Borrowing a sports term, I teeter on the cusp of go-hard or go-home.

Among the multiple files on my computer are two serious contributors to my Janus factor: the first is a list of submissions, documented by date and cost and result. Each year going back to the true beginning of my writing career, that calendar day I realized if you send nothing out, nothing will happen, I have compiled proof that I’m not a dilettante at this writing business. I’m a serious practicioner of the art. The NO responses to submissions outnumber the YESes, but the pages prove my commitment.

The second crucial file is my idea box. It brims with titles and first lines and final paragraphs, bits and pieces of creativity awaiting a forever-home. They repose in unquiet lines, anxious, impatient, more than eager for their turn on the page.

Here, at the beginning of another year, I am caught between prior work and future production, between published pieces and works-in-progress.The looking-forward profile on my Janus coin trembles with nervous energy. “Get on with it,” the head advises. “Time passes.” The backward-facing silhouette sighs over past success, lost opportunity and the weight of daily living that gobbles time, prevents progress. Both counsel me to continue the quest. Auld lang syne might sound good on New Year’s Eve, but Carpe diem is best for tomorrow. Happy Writing Year!

A Gardener’s Guide to Writing (part I)

Sorting through the need-to-be-shredded pile of papers in my loft library, a never-ending story in itself, I encounter the bazillion tiny scraps of ideas I’ve penned along the trajectory of my daily life. On napkins. On memo pads. Across post-it notes. Embroidered along the margins of conference handouts. All those instant flights of fancy that I just know will make a great story…someday. Feeding the whine of the machine that turns old bills into thin ribbons of recyclable material, I catch myself rescuing my jottings from its jaws, uncertain as to their potential but unwilling to let them go. Like a gardener collecting heirloom seeds, I gather these words for my own private seed bank. Outside, spring rain patters on the roof, reminding me that what washes away today returns through the roots of the garden tomorrow. Cycle of life, indeed.

Across my desk sprawl the innocent kernels of story. I save up contest forms and conference invites like a gardener planning for her next crop. Not every pip becomes a seedling. Some fall away, unable to flourish in the rocky ground I offer them. More wither from inattention. Too many voices, too little time. A few simply fail to thrive, their chance at fruition overshadowed by more vigorous and sturdy tales. But, oh, those wanton scribblings enrich my writer’s soil. Tucked away in folders, typed into my idea file, they become my writer’s compost. Dozing in the dark, churned and heated by the weight of reflection, those ideas ferment and mingle. I turn them occasionally, water with questions and add new bits. And then, wondrous indeed, I watch the shoots push their way through the ground. All that mental prep yields such surprising bounty, if only I have patience enough.

How do you tend your writer’s garden?

Tea and grAttitude – 2015

My internal clock ticks off the last minute of sleep and, bingo, I’m awake. Others in my birth family share this early-riser phenomenon. No matter how late we stay up, the need to rise at dawn is overpowering. Padding through the silent house, I try a little socks slide on the hardwood, channel my inner child and greet Eos with joy. Then the ritual takes over.

Several actions must occur before I can move on with the day. Graycie, the cat who adopted us, follows me to the pantry. When I give the command, she sits, favors me with a nose-bump kiss and receives her treats for the day. If I forget (trust me – I try never to forget), she  torments me with leg rubs until I give her just enough cheezy tidbits to meet her requirements. Then, unless I have demanding or pre-emptive chores or appointments, I fill her water dish, consider my breakfast options (should I eat pre-writing or post?) and sprint upstairs to my writing space. Surrounded by the approving stares of authors young and old, I run my hand along the spines of my books. I pause to give a mental fistbump to my Jeremiah Healy bobblehead – part of the prize for winning the mystery contest named after him. Receiving his ghostly thumbs-up, I perch on the edge of my chair and put in my words for the day. No part of me complains. I am lighter than air and twice as exuberant. This is my passion. This is my joy.

When light fills the sky and the story takes a break, I return to the kitchen for tea and gratitude. Mine. For the gift of a new day, the grace of a fresh twenty-four, the chance to make the moment count. Many of my friends keep journals, recording faithfully the emotions and events of their days. I’ve tried to be a journaler. This endeavor always begins well but ends badly. I misplace the notebook. I forget to make an entry. I lose track of the date. Not that I don’t have a shelf of said volumes, most half-filled, bulging with notes or ticket stubs or cards attesting to my statement that I really did attend an Eagles’ concert, did once have a drink at Senor Frog’s, did meet Elizabeth Strout the year before she won the Pulitzer for Olive Kittredge. Now, see, I’m digressing, distracted by memories and thoroughly unable to maintain that intense journal frown.

Instead, I plug in my internal memory bank, still my restless muscles and listen for the voice of a character to tell me where we’re going this morning. I eat, and drink and return to that special internal place that calls me to account. Perhaps your space needs music or movement, but my writing thrives best in the quiet nest of dusk and tea and words, accompanied by the grateful beating of my writer’s heart.

Of Carnage and Compassion and Common Sense

Tis the holiday season. Amid all the preparations, we reel from the ongoing attacks by people intent upon forcing their way of worship onto the greater mass of humanity. The awful events from around the globe – Beirut, Paris, Afghanistan, California – regale us with images that haunt our dreams and create fear in our hearts. Reacting to that fear, some among us advocate for policies that will throw us back into history, force us to retreat from our empathy and understanding into bigotry and hate. I am reminded of the story of the First Christmas, when a Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph, sought shelter, and the promise of the coming birth of their son evoked a similar response.

King Herod, fooled by the magi regarding the birth of the child long prophesied, “ordered the massacre of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and its environs, making his calculations on the basis of the date he had learned from the astrologers.” (Matt. 16, The New American Bible) And so it came to pass that slaughter of the innocents marked the flight of that family into Egypt. Our Christian history, intimately connected to that of the Jewish people, acknowledged in the ongoing history of Islam, presents us with a Christmas horror story that is echoed in the awful events we witness today. Fear, it seems, is always with us. What, then, can we do with this tendency to act upon that fear, this knee-jerk response that sees us flinging away our belief in the fundamental rights of others and espousing actions that we have vowed never to repeat: internment, religious testing, torture, war?

The three great western religions have, at their core, very similar tenets: do good works, care for others, atone for your sins, worship. Especially during this holiday season, those things which we have in common ought to be stronger than the differences that separate us. Think of the use of food as a gesture of hospitality and respect, light as a beacon in the darkness, gifts as a tangible way to show how we care for others. Compassion for others is a hallmark of God/Jehovah/Allah’s presence in our hearts and in our lives. Whatever explanation you choose to follow on your own spiritual path, the similarities are so much stronger than the differences.

As a mother and a grandmother, an educator and a writer, I long for one clear explanation for the horror of a massacre like the one in San Bernardino. There is no place in my heart to explain how a mother and father abandon their six-month old child to a grandmother’s care while they murder co-workers, friends, fellow inhabitants of this fragile earth we share. I cannot understand strapping a bomb to my chest and blowing myself up to harm innocents shopping or eating or simply living their common, solid lives. I cannot imagine stabbing a starnger on the street as a way to draw attention to my hatred. No God I seek, no prophet or messiah, would promote carnage for its own sake. Somewhere in this vast mine field of conflicting fanaticisms there must be a moment when even the most radical of warriors sees the light, when the blood already spilled becomes enough, when the spark of wonder and curiosity that informs the human soul prevails over destruction and death. This is my prayer…that the carnage stop, that compassion rule and that common sense reassert itself as we work together to bring this current crusade to an end. For it is a crusade – of light against darkness, of good against evil, of truth against deceit.

As the season unwinds, I wish for all of you peace, as I wish it for myself and my family and for the world. Can we not start now, today, to make such a wish reality?

Of Coyotes and Creativity: Nurturing Your Wild Side

The howls erupt around 9:30 p.m., shattering the quiet, moon-dark night. At first only a rumor, they swiftly crescendo, filling Beck Park with primal music. Drawn by the increasing urgency of the calls, I step onto the porch and listen, shaking with my own primitive knowledge that what sings out there is wild and dangerous and poses a threat. Then, abruptly, like a spigot turned off, the song ceases. In the ensuing stillness, my heart resumes a normal beat.

What ritual have I just observed? Perhaps this was an autumnal call to worship, a nature song acknowledging their kind. Maybe they were sharing the wild night rhythms of their pack. Or maybe they had just brought down a deer and the feast required a celebratory howl. Whatever drew them to the frenzy, the resulting chorus reminds me that the wild is only a heartbeat away.

Each artist finds her own path to that deep well of creative howling. For me, it is proximity to the natural world that draws out the elements of story. Daily walks through the very fields where the coyotes rampaged last night allow me to touch the beating heart of our earth. As I wander past the undergrowth beside the stream, my boots slipping over dew-drenched grasses or crunching leaves, I imagine those feral eyes following my path, evaluating my food quotient, judging me as dangerous or fair game. The unknown scurries among the tangles of underbrush, the caws from the treetops, the occasional leap of a deer from the brush warn me of the wildness lying in wait among the hills.

I embrace the danger. My mind clears itself of clutter, returning to a purer state where there is only me and the natural world. Following this, my own ritual path on the way to that deepest portion of my soul, I look, listen and open myself to the creative mood.

Your writing path may not follow this wilderness walk. Perhaps your ideas arrive best surrounded by the comfort of coffee, the chatter of the masses, the industrial grinding of mechanical gears. So be it. But if you have not yet discovered a way to turn on your own spigot of creativity, I recommend the solitary path through forest and field. Find your own space where the wild awaits, ready to draw us into an embrace, and the creative juice is waiting to be imbibed. You may find your own howling chorus needs only the nudge of nature to unleash its fury.

A Hole in My Head, Part 2: Of Risks and Rewards

Sometimes I think I already have a hole in my head. That’s old-fashioned slang that refers to something that nobody needs or wants…and some days, when I must sit down and write my stories, I think I have  a hole in my head. After all, who cares? Who cares that I closet myself with my books and my computer and the hours fly by while I’m polishing paragraphs or etching essays or streamlining stories. If I journey into memoir, I risk exposing the tender flesh of memory, the raw dark corners of my soul. If I stick with fiction, I risk crafting a work no one will ever see. Rejection, you see, lurks like Dora’s foxy Swiper, behind every bush and tree. Do I need this grief?

I’m not comfortable being a gambler. Las Vegas exerts no hold on me. Casinos don’t compete for my hard-earned dollars. The most I’m willing to risk is a scratch-off in the Christmas stocking or a lottery ticket shared with friends when the jackpot reaches seductive heights. So what compels me to spend hours, days, months, years creating and crafting a piece that may or may not achieve publication? Risk there is, more than enough to carve out a queasy space in the pit of my stomach. Reward, not so much. An occasional journal will pay for my work. They might send me a few offer author copies. If an agent takes me on, I’ll be looking at an extended revision period with no promise an editor will spring for the novel at the end of that time. So, what gives? In an attempt to answer that question, I’ve made a list. Of course you have, my friends chortle. Isn’t that what you always do? Sigh. I acknowledge that, indeed, all those little pieces of paper with columns of ideas, wisps of conversation and acres of chapter changes do belong to me. Thus, the list.

Intrinsic Rewards:

#1. Joy. One of my friends who is attempting to write about her own life experiences asked me, in the midst of her struggle to stay focused, how I return day after day to the writing. I do it, I say, because the anticipation of sitting at my computer and ‘wording’ it lights a small fire inside me. I burn with the warmth of that fire, anxious to immerse myself in the words. That is not to discount the moments when the writing itself brings pain and discomfort. That, too, is a property of fire.

#2. Possibility. In the act of creation, of bringing characters and situations to life, I experience a profound belief in the possible, in the magical, in the power of words to make us fully alive. And I imagine success for my work. Which acquires, after it leaves my hands, a life journey of its own. Fly, little story, fly, fly, fly!

#3. Satisfaction. Whether the story remains in my folder of unpublished works or soars into its own orbit, I have completed the race. Each piece is polished and labeled and waiting, not for Godot, but for some lesser god to claim it as his or her own. If only one person finds pleasure in the reading, I am content.

#4. The Paradox of Pleasure/Pain. In the moment of creating, revising, editing, submitting, I am torn between the contentment of completion and the fear of failure. And in that moment I feel most keenly alive, aware of all the paths the story may take, acutely attuned to the risks I am taking.

I may not place my money on the table or slip a coin into a slot. I’m not betting the farm or losing the house. I’m gambling with the only coin I have to lose. I’m venturing my words, my stories, my self-esteem, my belief in my own ability. Risky business, this writing game. When it comes to publication, the odds are stacked against me. The house wins most of the time. But, oh those sweet rewards when acceptance rides the email and my story finds a home.

So, I plug the hole in my head where fear resides, stifle the inner censor, banish the boo bird who insists I’m a loser. I type away, betting that this story will be the big winner. That the reward is worth the risk. That pain and pleasure and satisfaction and possibility and joy make the ride worth it.

Of Beginnings and Endings and All in Between

The sun crosses the screened-in porch in long southerly slants. In the pond, ice forms small swirls, the pull of freeze and thaw evident as the temperature plays tag with the water. Six deer bound into view, stopping long enough to eat a snack and check the rear for predators. And the meadow, once full of tall grasses and wildflowers, lies spreadeagled and naked across the horizon.

My boots crunch and squish as I wander. Straining to see beyond the obvious, I listen to the land whisper its dark mysteries. Here, where the thin skin of nature reveals its beating heart, the old year slips away. A new one waits, sleeping all around me.

I walk and I take stock…where I was, where I am, where I will be. Ending and beginning and everything in between.

The wonder of this season embraces me. Despite the bustle and noise of groceries and malls, I sense within a still, small kernel of peace. I can bid 2014 adieu, albeit it with mixed feelings. There have been so many blessings. New students. New friends. A new house. A new grandson. So much joy in watching our daughters and sons-in-law and grandchildren grow.

There have also been more challenges than I anticipated. Pain has become a frequent visitor. Shots of cortisone in both wrists to combat sinotenovitis and carpal tunnel. Double vision and scleritis, side effects of my treatments for hemifacial spasms. Which leads to highway multiplex: images of six lanes instead of three. Signs that jump and wriggle when I squint at them. Two doctors have suggested, with some seriousness, that I wear an eye patch. Aargh! Pirate Jan at your bleeping service. So annoying. Sometimes frightening. I face the limitations of age and wear and tear on my body. Yet these issues pale when compared to my friends who are coping with blindness and Parkinson’s and kidney disease. Who am I to complain of such petty inconveniences when they deal with true difficulties?

I walk and I take stock…who I was, who I am, who I will be.

What great act will I perform? What small kindness? Whom will I comfort in this new year? The chance to renew, to start fresh, to make a difference gives me courage. The opportunity to be of use to those I love and to those I admire, to expand my own knowledge and contribute to growth excites me.

I walk and I compose, form characters and dialogue and narrative and description. I savor the past year’s publications and anticipate the new year’s possibilities. The past stays put but the future is mobile. Beneath my feet, next spring’s grasses sleep, the wildflowers nap inside their hulls. Like them, I take my time, enjoying the passing of one season to another.

Walking. Taking stock. Offering benediction.

With every hope that your endings will be smooth, your beginnings wild and happy and your in-between peaceful and full of joy.