Are you renovating your writing?

Clouds move swiftly across a gorgeous blue sky on this winter morning as I sit at my computer. It’s a distraction from the noise going on all around me – contractors doing all manner of work in the process of making major renovations to my home. It’s the first time I’ve had work like this done, so I am new to the disruptions, changes, and general chaos of living out of boxes, and living with boxes. In fact, there are boxes everywhere: in the living room, in the bedrooms, even in the bathroom.

 

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Photo by Laurie Shaw on Pexels.com

 

 

It’s also a process that, for the moment, is painful (mostly because my ears are struggling to withstand the assault of all the banging, drilling, and hammering). But it’s useful to think about renovations because they are so similar to the editing and revision process of writing.

I’ve read somewhere that when editing, writers should “murder their darlings”. All the beautiful lines, elegant phrases we constructed, or that came to us as if through some magic genii are often the very ones that we have to sacrifice in order for our piece to make sense.

For instance, in order to prep our house for the renovations, we had to get rid of things we once valued. Some of those things were easy to dispose of, but some of them were a little more challenging, and required a bit of a KonMari approach.

Of course, with writing, we don’t really have to throw everything out. We can save those “darlings” for another piece, another time. But for the short term, we have to move them out of the way so that the writing can take the shape it needs to – so that the writing can breathe.

I know that the renovations in my home won’t last forever. Eventually the work will be completed, the contractors will leave, and the modifications will allow us to have greater flexibility in our lives. In other words, we’ll be able to live and breathe in our home, in a way we couldn’t before.

As I struggle to work on my writing during this renovation process, I think I’ll turn to editing some work that needs sharpening. And yes, I’m prepared to sacrifice some of my “darlings”. What will you renovate?

Community

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While I was growing up and imagining my future life as a writer, I had the image, like many people, of the lone writer in her garret. I imagined myself up in a large room at the top of a house, papers everywhere. The room would be cold, so I would have to wrap myself up in a blanket, and there would probably be dried-out cups of tea and coffee all around — the warm fuel both for my body and my writing. No doubt this imagined writer’s garret came to me from movies and stories I’d read about famous people like Marie Curie and Beethoven, studying and working alone in their rooms, producing works of sheer genius.

Yet in the midst of all my imagined hardship as a future writer, I saw myself as happy in that space. I would be happy because I was alone, doing what I loved to do best: write.

Now that I’m carving a landscape out for myself as a poet and a writer, I realize how adorably romantic, naïve, and laughable my younger self’s image of the writing life actually was. Writing is obviously a solitary act, but one of the most wonderful things about being a writer is finding a community of like-minded people.

Being part of a writing community — whether in a casual setting in someone’s home, or as part of a more organized group that meets monthly — is a writer’s lifeline. Sharing work with other writers, hearing different perspectives, or discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a given writing practice all work to inspire, support, encourage, and better our abilities and lives as writers.

I’m fortunate that I have a number of writers in my life with whom I can share my work, writing issues, and the like. Being part of several writing communities has inspired me to write in new ways, and to take risks I might not otherwise have. And I love that I can discuss my writing process with others who share in the writing life. What a far cry from the image of a writer I had developed for myself as a youth!

So, as we continue to move through the holiday season, I’m thinking about community, and what a gift it is to be part of one. If you haven’t already become part of a writing community, there are several out there (see list at the end of this post. Several of these sites have lists of their own). And to my fellow writers and poets within the communities I’m a part of, many thanks for another great year, and best wishes for a fabulous and productive 2019!

Writing communities:

The Ontario Poetry Society   http://www.theontariopoetrysociety.ca/

Writers’ Community of York Region  https://wcyork.ca/

Writers’ Community of Durham https://wcdr.ca/wcdr/

Writers’ Community of Simcoe  https://www.facebook.com/simcoewriters/

Brooklin Poetry Society  https://brooklinpoetrysociety.com

 

 

 

Patience

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The other day, I picked up the second volume of Marcel Proust’s, In search of lost time. It is probably my third attempt to read Within a Budding Grove. My previous forays were failures because I didn’t have the time, or couldn’t feel connected to the volume somehow, or, or…. well, something always seemed to get in the way. I didn’t have this problem about ten years ago when I read Swann’s Way, the first volume in the magnum opus. In fact, I was so enamoured with the volume, I couldn’t put it down, couldn’t detach from it at all. I lived and breathed it.

So, years after my initial failed attempts at reading volume two,  I decided it was about time I return to Proust, to À la recherche du temps perdu, to patience.

Patience means slowing down and waiting. It means letting the words of a novel or poem sink into your consciousness. It’s a process of immersion, of allowing the story to direct you where it wants to go, where it wants to take you. And in this day and age, part of that process means letting go – of the cellphone, the TV, the dog barking in the distance — of all the distractions that keep us from engaging with the words on the page, and with our thoughts. Immersing ourselves in a book means observing how its words wash over us, how the reading process unfolds over time, for as long as it takes for us to feel immersed.

And that process requires patience.

Like reading, our writing too, requires patience. We must be patient with ourselves as we work out the tangles of our manuscripts and writing projects, especially against the backdrop of our very busy lives. The late Louise De Salvo wrote about the importance of taking our time, of having patience with ourselves as writers in her book, The Art of Slow Writing. De Salvo pointed out that many writers have taken years to produce works of art, and that time gives us distance and perspective on our work.

I was saddened to read about Dr. De Salvo’s passing this October 31st, but perhaps it’s no accident that I reference her work while writing here about patience. And perhaps it’s also no accident that, as a reader, the book I’ve chosen to return to, and the book that requires me to have patience, is Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.

As I proceed through the remainder of November and my journey to recapture lost reading (if not lost time), I’ll reflect on the importance of patience, both as a reader and as a writer. I wonder if you will too?

Architecture

I’ve been thinking about architecture lately.  Maybe it’s because I read my poem, “Ex-house” recently at the launch of The Banister (Niagara Poetry Anthology). It’s a poem that uses architectural metaphors to explore the breakdown of a relationship.  For instance, the poem’s first line begins with “I am exploring architecture”. This line sets the tone and image for what follows so that lines like: “I am carving to see daylight” take on symbolic meaning within the context of the poem’s dominant image and theme.

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels.com

But I’m thinking of (or exploring) architecture differently here — not in the ways we tear down existing structures, and wander painfully through the ruins of past relationships or events — but in the ways that we structure our lives, especially our writing lives.

As writers, we are constantly building fictional worlds, or attempting to assemble in meaningful ways the truths of our actual, lived worlds. As builders of these imagined or actual worlds, how do we assemble our structures? What kinds of practices do we use to scaffold the work so that our poems, stories, novels don’t fall apart? What are the elements that keep our selves and our work glued together so that the frame doesn’t lean, the bricks adhere to the mortar, and eventually, our building will stand independently?

We each have our own way of dealing with these kinds of questions, and this includes the way we structure our writing time. How do we organize our lives so that writing becomes a routine, daily practice? Are we 5am writers? Or part of the late-night writing club? And what effect do these writing practices, these writing scaffolds have on our lives, our personal relationships, our families?

I’ve been asking myself these questions as I’ve been struggling to juggle work, family, a new relationship, running a poetry organization, oh, and maintaining my own writing practice and focus. And at least for me, the answer so far has been architecture. If I build a reliable, functional, and well-organized structure with excellent foundations, then I know the other parts of my building will stand. And part of this building relies on the various communities of writers I am so privileged to be a part of, and that have been such a support.

So, although my poem has been published, I guess I’m still exploring architecture, albeit in new ways. What metaphors will you explore in your work and writing practice?

 

 

Writers and lovers

Summer is a good time to think about love. Who doesn’t love sunshine, long days, and warm nights spent strolling through city streets, or sitting out on a balcony or deck, just enjoying the weather? And summer is the perfect time to discover a new romance, even if that romance is with a really good book you’ve been itching to read.

I’ve been thinking about love as I’ve been re-reading Natalie Goldberg’s seminal book, Writing Down the Bones. In the section entitled, “Writing is a Communal Act”, Goldberg asserts “Writers are great lovers”. Of course, this sentence is intentionally deceptive. Goldberg claims that writers are lovers because we “fall in love with other writers”. And that is true. Writers are readers, and as readers, we fall in love with the books we read. And, as Goldberg makes clear, falling in love with a particular book is important because it teaches us about the art of writing itself.

So I began to wonder: whose work am I in love with? I compiled a list of poets that I adore: Pablo Neruda, Leonard Cohen, Marge Piercy, Alden Nowlan, and Raymond Souster, to name a few. I love the energy and grit of the words, textures, and subjects of Neruda and Piercy’s poetry. I love that both poets are not afraid to deal with messy subjects in their writing. I love the images and control in the work of Souster, the wild imagination of Nowlan, and the uncluttered yet powerful rhymes of Cohen.

Reading the work of these poets is like having a conversation with a good friend, a mentor, or with someone who has piqued a new desire in you that you are only just waking up to. As Goldberg states, “writing is not just writing. It is also having a relationship with other writers”. And, as I discovered not too long ago, our relationships with the writers we adore can be long and enduring.

For instance, I first fell in love with Raymond Souster’s poetry in high school. About two years ago, I began writing a poem about aging. I realized I had Souster’s words in the back of my mind, so I went and dug out his work.  Sure enough, there was Souster’s six-line poem, “The Six-Quart Basket”, that had been occupying space in my subconscious:

The six-quart basket

one side gone

half the handle torn off

 

sits in the centre of the lawn

and slowly fills up

with the white fruits of the snow.

(reprinted in: 15 Canadian Poets x2, ed. Gary Geddes, 1990)

 

Somehow, after a span of at least twenty-five years, these words stayed with me. The simplicity of the language, combined with the potency of the image had endured. Using Souster’s poem as a starting point, I reworked my own poem into one that referred back to the original. My poem, “Drift, after Souster’s ‘The Six-Quart Basket’“, ended up being published in The Banister. (You can read the poem here: https://brooklinpoetrysociety.com/poetry-by-renee-m-sgroi/)

So what does this have to do with love? It proves Goldberg’s point: writers really are great lovers. What I learned from Souster’s poem was to pay attention to detail, to the importance of the image, and to allow the words to draw a portrait in straight-forward, simple language. And clearly, that is something that I love.

As I take along my bag of books to my favourite summer reading spot and explore the work of contemporary Canadian poets such as Canisia Lubrin and Billy-Ray Belcourt, I look forward to falling in love with the work of these current poets, and learning from them. As you go through your own summer reading list, I challenge you to ask yourself: who will you fall in love with this summer? And what will you learn from your romance?

June, on balance

I decided that after an unexpected two-month hiatus from blogging (yes, life!), it’d be worth spending some time meditating on what it means to find balance. How do we, as writers, find time to write when juggling full-time jobs, parenting and family obligations, volunteer work in our communities, and a plethora of other demands on our time that may invade our lives and prevent us from setting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard?

In her book, The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life, Julia Cameron talks about “The Time Lie”. She writes that “One of the biggest myths around writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time”. Like Cameron, most of us probably don’t have those great tracts of time available to us. We have to write while trying to make the best of what she calls “a patchwork quilt” of time that is available to us.

For me, part of that patchwork requires discipline, and a belief in the power of writing first thing in the morning. Those of us who prefer this kind of approach may already be part of the #5amwritersclub, which allows us to commiserate on our steely determination (or craziness) as we haul ourselves out of bed to write.

I think a related part of that patchwork is commitment. According to Louise DeSalvo in her book, The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, writers should have “no excuses”. DeSalvo points to two memoirs she keeps on her shelf: one written by an author in prison (with barely any paper on which to write at all), and the other written secretly by a marine during WWII (even though this was not permitted). DeSalvo uses these memoirs as examples of people writing in extremely difficult circumstances, who were so committed to what they were witnessing and experiencing, that they forced themselves to write, no matter what. As a result, DeSalvo allows herself no excuse when it comes to the work of committing to her own writing, and she urges her readers to do the same.

But what happens when all the discipline you’ve built for yourself goes out the window? What happens when life intervenes so much that somehow both your discipline and your commitment are disrupted?

You start again.

And that is exactly where I find myself now at the start of June. Starting again. So here I am , re-committing to my discipline, to my writing practice, and to blogging. And while life has thrown me a few curve balls the past couple of months, I nevertheless managed to edit a poetry anthology, and am pleased to announce the publication of Written Tenfold (published by the Poetry Friendly Press), which I compiled and edited on behalf of the Brooklin Poetry Society.

So, as I continue to meditate on the art of finding time to write through the beautiful month of June, I don’t pretend to have a slick and easy answer, or a downloadable guide on how to adequately squeeze in all of our commitments and still find time to write. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe there is no one perfect answer for everyone. Maybe we each have to carve out our own paths in order to find balance. How will you carve out yours?

 

Birds, barbecues, and beginning again…

The birds are at it again. March has barely begun, and the birds (I think they are European starlings) seem to have returned early. And they’ve decided for the third or fourth year in a row that they are going to build a nest in my barbecue.

I’ve looked up this phenomenon online. I am not the only homeowner to experience the birds-building-nest-in-barbecue, and that is a relief, to some small degree. From my online reading, I’ve learned that of course, it makes sense to want to build a nest in a warm and sheltered environment that, especially when said barbecue has only recently been vacated by humans who have grilled something there making it extra toasty and a great place to start a family.

But, equally of course, the whole thing annoys me. I’m terrified of opening the barbecue lid while the birds are busy at work building (has anyone seen Alfred Hitchcock?). So I’m always tentative when I have to clean it out. I’m also disgusted by the thought of whatever bacteria the birds may have left behind on the grill – they don’t seem to differentiate their pooping grounds from their nesting ones. And lastly, I’m reminded by my ten year old child that birds need a place to build a nest, so I am very conscious (and guilty) of the fact that I am somehow interfering in nature’s larger plans.

Yet it is my barbecue, to which I remind my child that if she prefers her hamburgers grilled rather than soggily fried in a pan, I have to address the bird problem. And so I do. And it is at that moment, when I gingerly lift the barbecue lid, that I am amazed by the birds and their ingenuity and tenacity. There are sticks in there, bits of mud, leaves. I can clean out the barbecue, scrub the whole thing down, put it back together, close the lid and call it a day. And then I will find the next day, the birds have simply gone back and done the same thing all over again. Once, they had even rebuilt their nest overnight so that it was larger than the day before.

So what do birds and barbecues have to do with writing? Persistence. In the field of writing, as with so many artistic endeavours, it’s easy to get knocked down by a rejection letter (or several). Our ability to give up on a project because it isn’t working, because we don’t feel “in the right headspace”, or motivated enough to continue can readily take us off our intended course, and lead us to incomplete works, or worse, the loss of the desire to write at all. I think all artistic people go through such phases. Perhaps at times we need to allow ourselves fallow time, to reconnect with ourselves, our inspiration. But at some point, we have to be like the birds. We have to be tenacious. We have to decide for ourselves that, yes, we will not give up.

When I think about those birds in my barbecue, I’m pretty sure they’re not asking themselves if their nest is good enough. They’re not concerned if the nest is the best nest they’ve ever built. They’re just concerned that they get into that protected space and that they build the foundations for their progeny. And when they face adversity from their human foe (in this case, namely me), they don’t give up, and just build and rebuild again. Until, of course, I leave the lid open and make the barbecue a less desirable space for hosting bird nests. But then they just go build somewhere else.

My thoughts for this March blog and the hopeful approach of spring are to be persistent, to rely on one’s own tenacity. These are the skills that allow writing to proceed and to achieve success. And, like the birds, who somehow manage to return from their winter vacation down south with a flight path that leads them directly to my barbecue, it’s persistence and tenacity that will lead a writer’s work to its rightful home. So where will you build your nest?