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!

Long Time, Longer Journey: A Groundhog in Training

The season’s blessings approach this winter of my discontent and I, steeped in the release of my latest novel and deep into the draft of my next venture, have rarely looked up from the keyboard. Yes, I’ve been ‘away’ for a while. The nightmare in November, otherwise known as the election, has sapped my will to post. How to reconcile the angst in a way that followers of both political persuasions can accept? Still, I carry on, hiking the fields, staring at the pond, drawing sustenance from the earth. Perhaps that is as it should be. I have borrowed from the groundhog playbook and settled into my winter den well before the weather shifts into gear.

There is value in withdrawing from stridency. Solitude begets calmness, increases fortitude, nurtures commitment. I make, and break, a vow to cut off contact with social media, arguing that a wound constantly bothered will refuse to scab and heal. The best of comments on the small screen are marred by the worst of attacks by smaller minds. But then here comes December, sneaking up behind to kick my sorry ass into a new dimension.

The holidays – Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and others that fill this calendar month – beckon, not with consumeristic glee but with candles and cookies and prayer. That advent wreath on your table, that menorah in the dining room, that kwanzaa flame reminding me of virtues tested and found strong, shake their fiery fingers and whisper, “There is goodness in the world. Find it. Feed it. Carry it like an ember in the pocket of your soul.”

The road goes on forever, Bilbo Baggins said, and I am one more pilgrim trudging down the path. I’ll hunker down, draw within, fatten up for the journey to come, the rivers to ford, the battles to engage. I would like you to travel with me. Here, take my hand. After the clouds, the sun will shine.

How I Lost My Voice…And Found It Again

The day, the hour, the moment muteness descended on my writing voice crouches in the deepest corner of my heart, waiting to pounce at unexpected times. As my son’s birthday, May 27, approaches, I feel the memory uncurling, preparing to leap, determined to remind me that wounds can be dressed but some scars never heal.

Dayton Children’s Hospital, September, 1973. 11:00 a.m. A doctor I do not know explodes from his office, lifts my three-month old infant from my grasp and swings him in the air. My baby does his frog imitation, arms and legs flopping loosely, muscles limp.

“Mrs. Irvin.” The doctor frowns down at me. “You have every reason to be worried about this child.” Snap. The trajectory of my life swerves off course. My plan to raise a perfect family and write perfect stories jumps the tracks. My construct of the future collapses. I am strangled by a diagnosis so devastating, I can’t be certain I will ever speak, let alone write, again.  My son is profoundly retarded.

Profoundly, as in stunted growth, cerebral palsied limbs, a skull that fused too soon. At my side, my two-year old daughter stands, puzzled and shaky, as the tears run down my face. That day I join a subterranean society of families with children like mine. We are apart from the norm, engaged in a battle that we are destined to lose. There are few cures, limited options, pity but little empathy. After all, damaged offspring remind us all of vengeful Furies, Olympian punishment.  No matter how well I cared for myself and my child, disaster struck. When I step into this underground realm, a journey begins that will sear my soul. Writing is a luxury I no longer have time, strength or energy to pursue.

My husband and I roll the genetic dice. A third child is born, a second perfect daughter. The economic exigencies of caring for our son propel me to the workplace. I return to teaching, but my writing voice remains in lock down.  I scribble poems on napkins, story ideas on the margins of old letters. My random bursts of inspiration die in my throat. No tales emerge. I send out no submissions. Twenty years pass. In August of 1992, Scott passes away after an unsuccessful operation. My precious child is gone, my voice resting among his ashes.

One day a brochure for the Ohio Writing Project based at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, lands in my school mailbox. Proposal: Teachers as writers. Deep inside me, in that dungeon of abandoned desire, a spark ignites. I sign up for the course. I drive an hour and a half each day for six weeks to learn that I am not without talent. I fill a notebook with required writings. The concrete lid of my tomb cracks, slides free.

The following summer I scrape up money to attend the Antioch Writers Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’ve heard good things about the instructors. They offer afternoon critique sessions. Feedback for my work. Do I dare to open my narrative mouth? Now, finally, there can be only one answer. Yes.

I was mute, unable to free myself from sorrow until I found a way to grow beyond that trauma. The teachers at OWP and AWW believed in me. Their mentoring restored my voice to me. Since those two key events, I have published stories online and in print magazines and journals across the US, in Canada and in the UK. Last fall my first novel was published. My story is a poster: it is never too late to realize a dream. As long as one person believes in your voice, you can learn to sing.

Advice is usually worthless. We each follow the demands of our inner guide. But should you ask me how to find your voice, I would suggest you start with a course or a workshop where you can explore your creativity, find mentors to nurture you and meet fellow writers to encourage you as you open your heart.

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 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.

Heads Or Tails: Choosing to Stay in the Moment

The steamy days and cool nights of August whisper that football is coming. Practice fields echo with the rumble of young men wearing cleats, helmets and shoulder pads as they struggle through two-a-days and learn new play routes. Newspapers devote a significant amount of daily sports coverage to the antics of players, on and off the field. August stretches closer to September. Suddenly it’s game time. Then the choosing starts.

Each contest begins with a coin toss. Heads or tails. Kick or receive. With the wind or against it. A coach or a quarterback orders up a play and the seesaw battle for success erupts. The simple act of choosing a run or a pass may lead to victory or defeat. This game of football is all about choice. So is writing. So is life.

Writers, accept the handoff. Spy an opening. Head downfield. This passion for shaping words into meaning compels us, like a fire in the blood, a curse, an undeniable need. Gearing up for my battle with story, I decide on the game plan, select the narrator, the plot, the setting, the pace. My opponent is the fuzzy creative, that stew pot of voices clamoring to be shaped  into coherence. Each sentence becomes a choice. Each paragraph demands a direction. Often the end line is unclear. Going ten yards is a slog through any number of linemen just waiting to stop my progress: time, family commitments, health worries, jobs, time. On the football field, a sack, an interception, a score by the opposing team can end your game. In writing, all those obstacles do is send me back to the huddle. Time to come up with a new plan. I’m always in the act of decision.

Life presents us with the same metaphor. More unexpected moments that threaten to derail the choices we have made, propel us on a different course. If football is not the metaphor for all, perhaps Bob Seger’s country/bluesy angst will do: we are ever moving forward and “running against the wind.” If we stop, resistance builds. If we fade into old memories, live too much on past hurts or regret, we miss the moment, lose the momentum, let the other ‘team’ take charge.

Every moment offers us a choice: to be fully present. Each of us is the quarterback for our own writing, our own life. We have the responsibility to read the play, adapt, adjust, try an end run or power our way up the middle. Keep moving. Keep the pen or the cursor skipping across the page. Keep our legs and our hearts pumping against the turbulence that life sends our way. Do not allow fear – of failure, of death – to stop our progress. If life tosses you a football, tuck it close to your heart  and run with it.

P.S. For those who sent positive thoughts re my brain surgery, all went well and recovery is underway. Thank you.