Chop Wood, Carry Water

My desk sits facing a blank wall in the corner of my bedroom, squeezed in next to the wardrobe.  The view is behind me.  To my left is a wall.  To my right is a wall and two interior windows that let in light and let me glance at the weather outside beyond through the kitchen windows, but don’t distract me with a view.

I’ve tried having my desk under a window, facing the view, but it’s not conducive to work.  Other people are fine with this, but for me, daydreaming and working are two different things.  They are both a part of writing, but they don’t belong together.  One needs attention and the other needs leisure.  Neither works well with guilt, which combined they produce.  Guilt doesn’t belong at my writing desk.

Creating my writing practice though is not just a matter of space.  Facing the blank page alone can be daunting.  That’s why I’ve sought out several teachers, whom I look upon as friends in my mind.

Holly Lisle teaches a novel writing course that I’m enrolled in.  I have a couple of her other courses too.  They are hands on and practical, and she knows what she’s talking about.  I’m working my way through them.  She teaches everything through from getting your first ideas down to sending things off to editors and how to format your manuscript and market yourself as a writer.  There’s an online community that I’m a part of too.

Sometimes though, that’s too structured for me.  I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to my learning anyway – I like to take snatch and grabs from a lot of sources with a main diet that suits the majority of my needs.

Natalie Goldberg was my first teacher, whose book “Wild Mind” I discovered age 25.  Her exercises are also practical and hands on, but she is also a zen buddhist, and her methods approach writing from an entirely different corner.  She does not tell you how to structure your writing, or how to go about putting together a proposal, like Holly does.  She talks about the underneath stuff – the business of having a writer’s life, and the philosophy and heart that that takes.  She talks about courage, and about your wild writing self.  She’s the Clarissa Pinkola Estes of the writing world.  I dip into her for refreshment – she’s like a drink from a clear stream on a hot day.

But I’ve got another teacher too.  I found her in my early 30’s, and her exercises too, are practical and hands on.  She teaches a mix of getting anything down and structuring your writing, all the way through to revising.  Kate Grenville’s methods are exciting because she teaches how to get all those crappy little fragments that don’t seem to go anywhere and to put them together in such a way that you actually start to build a story out of the ‘preoccupations’ of your mind.  In a way she marries the methods of the other two.  I’m currently in love with her style.

Having the help of published authors who have worked out their craft and generously shared it with us is invaluable.  You need a mentor.  Some people just sit down and write, and I have too, but no artist ever has lived or worked in isolation, and every writer or other artist that I’ve ever read about or known has had a peer group or a mentor of some sort to guide them.

I have my three, each with their own wisdom and style to impart, which serves the majority of my needs, and occasionally I dally in other corners and pick up odds and ends here and there.

So with these two things, my teachers and my little corner of the room without a view, I’m establishing my writing practice, one day at a time, one word at a time.

The Zen Buddhists have a saying –

                      Before enlightenment,

                                      chop wood, carry water.  

                       After enlightenment,

                                       chop wood, carry water.

– it could be about writing really.

But I also like this one from Friedrich Nietzche –

When you stare for long into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you.

I think he was onto something.  Which is why we need to ground ourselves in the simple act of writing, of chopping wood and carrying water – for writing is a long gaze into the abyss.  Our practice is our rope, our rudder, our anchor.

Sitting at my desk, I buckle myself in.  Tapping on the keys I ask, where to today?  With my teachers’ guidance the questions, “Where are we going?  Have you seen this before?  Is this normal? Am I crazy?” receive a smile.

They take my hand and we stare a bit longer into that eternal void.


About talesbytink

I've lived various lives in various places but have been a writer at heart the whole time. The experiences of being other things in other lands and times can only make my writing richer. I have no regrets about the road travelled. There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.
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