Writing Down the Bones

This week I rotated from library to internet café to the hammock in my compact backyard carrying my laptop bag filled with notes, laptop, candy, and my electrolyte-filled water bottle, desperate to utilize My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! by Jeffrey Alan Schechhter to identify a new skill for me–plotting. I am a “pantser” by nature, allowing myself to be drawn wherever the river of my imagination took me for the story I wrote at the time. But if I have learned anything in the last year is that I despise stagnation. If I’m not learning and growing, then I am not doing right by my life.

However, because of life’s inevitable trials I have found it difficult to work and read and be a wife, mother, daughter, and more. So, when a friend recommended I watch Brene Brown on Netflix I did. I watched until two a.m. and the next day I re-watched it with my husband. Then we dove into her TED talks. Brene talks about shaming and vulnerability, but also the beauty of getting into the boxing ring of life and fighting the battle. Yes, we will fail. It is part of life. It is how we grow, how we blossom into who we can become. But not if we don’t climb in the ring in the first place.

Over the years, I’ve trained myself to believe that if parenthood and adulthood wasn’t hard than I wasn’t doing it right. So when life threw chaos my way I was ready for it. Adulthood=Chaos, right? After listening to Brene tell her story of growth and opening up to vulnerability I had an epiphany of my own. I’d trained myself to equate adulthood to chaos without leaving room for living and for joy.

When I visited my counselor last week I spilled my guts about how guilty I felt whenever I picked up a book to read; that there was always something more important I should be working on instead. She asked me if I would feel guilty being away from my kids if I got a full-time office job instead of writing from home. At the time I said, “Yes.”

But, now . . . “No.” Because working a full-time job would be being responsible and helping to provide for my family. I feel guilty about writing because it is fun. I love it. It is my therapy and a huge passion of mine. Give up writing and I would feel as if someone had sucked out my ability to breathe out. I can still breathe in, I need oxygen after all. But I wouldn’t ever feel that sense of release and relief that comes from letting it all out.

Halfway through this week I was thrilled that I’d successfully utilized My Story Can Beat Up Your Story! to plot out a short story. Yes, I used a screen writing book to plot a piece of fiction that will inevitably be 5000 words or less. Why is this insane? Because there are 44 plot points Schechter utilizes to create a three-dimensional story. If I poured 44 plot points into 5000 words my stories waist would balloon up until it exploded. But I had a plot for the first time ever, instead of flying by the seat of my pants. So, I sat down to write, figuring that I would hack and slash during revisions. My accountability group was concerned, but I told them I was in the ring, I was learning something new, and that knowledge was pulling me out of the swampy mire I had slowly sunk into over the years.

I was excited to write again. In fact, I was so excited I was going to complete the first draft by Saturday night. It wasn’t too extreme of an expectation, but if I should recall anything it is that life tends to throw curveballs the moment I step up to the plate. I’d intended to devour Donald Maas’ super book on emotions in fiction writing to up my game on a twist on a myth about the Superstition Mountain in Arizona, but the book has vanished as if my laptop bag suddenly morphed into Mary Poppins’ infamous carpet bag. Fine. . . curveball. I stepped up to the plate anyway and went to the library after dinner last and took a big chunk out of Act 1’s butt. But, as soon as I started to dive into Act 2 my computer froze up.

Another curveball? Okay. I’ve got this. I took it as an opportunity to go home, spend time with the family, and get to work with a fresh mind this morning. However, the moment I stepped into the backyard, laptop in hand, and sat down in my office-hammock the heavens opened and rains descended. I felt like I was being mocked at every move. I tried looking for the emotion book again with no luck. Finally, I grabbed a very old copy of Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg which I’ve held on since my second year of college 23-ish years ago, stomped outside in the now sunny sky, and opened a page at random. This is what hit me like a baseball to the head when I read her chapter titled The Power of Detail:

“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We wake in the morning, buy yellow cheese, and hope we have enough to pay for it. At the same instant we have these magnificent hearts really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let if be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn’t matter.

“Yad Vashem, a memorial for the Holocaust, is in Jerusalem. It has a whole library that catlogues the names of the six million martyrs. Not only did the library have their names, it also had where they lives, were born, anything that could be found out about them. These people existed and they mattered. Yad Vashem, a matter of fact, actually means ‘memorial to the name.’ It was not nameless masses that were slaughtered; they were human beings.

“Likewise, in Washington, D.C., there is the Vietnam memorial. There are fifty thousand names listed–middle names too–of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Real human beings with names were killed and their breaths moved out of this world. There was the name of Donald Miller, my second-grade friend who drew tanks, soldiers, and ships in the margins of all his math papers. Seeing names makes us remember. A name is what we carry all of our life, and we respond to its call in a classroom, its pronunciation at a graduation, or to our name whispered in the night.

“It is important to say the names of who we are, the names of the places we have lived, and to write the details of our lives. ‘I lived on Coal Street in Albuqerque next to a garage and carried paper bags of grocerceries down Lead Avenue. One person had planted beets early that spring, and I watched their red/green leaves grow.’

“We have lived, our moments are important. That is what it is to be a writer; to be the carrier of details that make up history, to care about the orange booths in the coffee shop in Owatonna.

“Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life: the water glasses, the Kemp’s half-and-half, the ketchup on the counter. It is not a writer’s task to say, “It is dumb to live in a small town or to eat in a café when you can eat macrobiotic at home.” Our task is to say holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist–the real truth of who we are: several pounds overweight, the gray, cold street outside, the Christmas tinsel in the showcase, the Jewish writer in the orange booth across from her blond friend who has black children. We must become writers who accept things as they are, come to love the details, and step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.” – Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, pages 43-44.

My goal as a writer, now, today, is to give a voice to those little chinks in my armor that have worn thin with time and strain until they are near broken. I will share the dark as well as the light, the joy and the pain. And the world will know that I exist that my journey will never end.

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