The house we moved into in November once had stunning perennial gardens. After two seasons of neglect while the house was on the market, the flowering plants are so overgrown with weeds that it is hard to tell what’s there. It’s both a chore and an adventure to tear away the weeds, day after day, to discover the beauties underneath and allow them to flourish.
What else works this way? Cleaning out an old attic, perhaps. Ninety percent of what’s there can be thrown away, letting the delight of a forgotten childhood toy or an ancestor’s journal emerge from the dust.
While some writers refine and polish as they go, others of us generate a first draft that resembles an overgrown garden. Proposing “shitty first drafts” to avoid perfectionist paralysis, Anne Lamott wrote, “you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place.” Shaping or weeding is a separate, later series of tasks to expose the good stuff to sunlight. Tearing away the ungainly excess is both a chore and an adventure.
How would you finish the sentence, “I wish I had more—”? After basic needs are met, many people say they’d like more time. Me too. Life is too full for all I want to do.
What would “enough time” look like? More hours in a day, more weeks in a month, a longer lifespan? When I juggled job, family, and volunteerism, my fantasy was of six extra hours a day that belonged only to me. If everyone else received the same extra hours, nothing would change. Earth would just rotate more slowly on its axis. A longer orbit around the sun might make for more days in a year but I doubt it would satisfy my craving for time.
These days when I beg the universe for more time, it may mean I want clearer priorities, or fewer obligations, or higher energy, or looser deadlines. If you could wave a magic wand to give you enough time, what exactly would you be asking for?
Writing about local history brings together three of my passions: place, story, and language. So I was more than delighted at the Council for Wisconsin Writers awards banquet on Saturday to see Milwaukee historian John Gurda receive this year’s CWW Major Achievement award.
“I believe in the power of shared stories to shape communities,” Gurda said. “What I’ve always loved about history is how it explains how we got here.” Since 1972, he has written twenty-one books about Milwaukee and has no plans to stop. Milwaukee Public Television based a five-hour documentary on his The Making of Milwaukee.
Someone once asked him if being a writer ever felt lonely. “A large part of me wants to be left alone,” he said. Most writing is solitary work. It was a rare treat on Saturday to be in a room full of people brought together by their love of writing.
Other Wisconsin writers recognized at the CWW banquet for outstanding work published in 2016 include Catherine Jague, David Southward, Carolyn Kott Washburne, Liz Wyckoff, Rachel Davidson Leigh, Particia Skalka, and Paula Dáil.
Years ago, hearing that I was writing fiction, a friend asked if it was autobiographical.
“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s about Gypsies in eastern Europe in the early 1400s.”
My friend laughed. “Guess not.”
In fact my narrative of a girl’s childhood with her big brother, her encounter with new environments, and her growth into womanhood was replete with autobiography. So is my current late medieval mystery, shaped by memories of sojourns in a predominantly male milieu and an expatriate community far from home.
How but through experience do we know the workings of the human heart? The incongruous behaviors that erupt out of fear, resentment, loneliness, or grief? The relationships of lovers, friends, and rivals? The smell of wet soil, the taste of salted fish, the sensation of wind on the face? Isn’t it all autobiographical?
Last week I took a personal spiritual retreat. For me that means a day or more away from routines and obligations, with a lot of walking, a lot of journaling, and a lot of solitude. The retreats that help me most begin with an intention. This one was about trust. One a few years ago was about self apart from roles and responsibilities.
Intentions are different from goals. In writing fiction, each scene is said to start with a goal the character sets out to accomplish. Achievable in the future, measurable and external, the goal creates urgency and suspense. It’s a set-up for success or failure that keeps the reader reading.
Intentions are deeper, quieter things. They involve awareness, focus, and purpose in the present. Why am I choosing to do this now? Getting distracted isn’t failure but a nudge to refocus. Intentions may shift but can’t be checked off on a to-do list.
Goals have their place. They can motivate one to push oneself or meet agreed timetables. Some people claim to thrive on urgency and suspense. My goal with this blog is to post a short entry every Monday, come what may. My intentions are to connect with you the reader, to hone my writing, and to add a steady rhythm to a writing life of mostly longer-term projects.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.