Sit for a While

I came home from my writing group feeling jazzed.  After struggling with a story revision, I’d decided to show the group twenty-five pages of new nonfiction. They loved it and told me, “This is what you should be writing.” Questions, too, but in general a big thumbs-up. I wanted to read everyone’s comments, but it was late, and I decided I’d look at the comments in the morning.

I woke early, started oatmeal, prayed, drank a cup of coffee. I pulled out the marked-up pages, placed them on the table.  Then, back in the kitchen, while slicing a banana onto my oatmeal, I thought of a line for the story revision. The narrator needs to do something icky, and I hadn’t figured out quite what. I’d jotted down ideas but hadn’t written any out.  Until I did – forced myself to write, word by word, what made me uneasy – I wouldn’t get anywhere. I’d keep circling, hovering, like a plane in holding pattern over the runway, not yet cleared for landing.

I am my own air-traffic control, I reminded myself. I can clear myself for landing at any time. So, back at the desk, I called up the revision.  I wrote a few words.  OK, time to read what my group wrote.

No.  Stay.  Finish the scene.

Any writer knows the pull of distractions.  Tile grout never looks as fascinating as when it provides relief from a tricky paragraph, a stuck-in-molasses scene.  Who hasn’t stepped away from the desk to scrub the tub or clean out the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator?

In her book Imaginative Writing, which I use in my Craft of Writing class, Janet Burroway quotes Ron Carlson.  Stay in the room.  He’s right, of course, but even within the room we can engage in an internal debate about what is (or should be) calling to us.  What do we call a distraction from one piece of writing to another?   When we’ve got four or five unfinished projects at once, and we zip from one to other — not so much like a plane circling but like a dragonfly alighting on one lily pad after another?

At some point, of course, I have to choose the revision or the nonfiction and stick with it.  Maybe now is just a peripatetic phase, a time when my unconscious – working overtime at the enormity of other changes in my life – needs a break from being harnessed into any one focus.  Or maybe I’m just good at rationalizing a blip in productivity, at edging away from commitment to the page when I’m making a commitment to another person in marriage.

A few months ago, my fiancé and I met after my afternoon class. “Want to sit?” he asked, gesturing toward a bench in the sunshine, near an old oak on the Berkeley campus.

“Sure,” I said, thinking, For a minute.  Then we need to choose a movie, plan our evening, figure out dinner. 

He had in mind a different kind of sitting. Staying, really, for longer than I ever would have done so alone. We watched a feisty terrier disobey his owner. We felt the sun on our skin. I lay with my head on his lap. We held hands. For thirty, forty minutes. Then we got up, walked down Telegraph Avenue past the jewelry vendors, the head shops, the tie-dyed onesies for sale. We went into Moe’s and browsed books, then crossed the street to Caffè Med, where we drank latte and talked about alcoholism, addiction, depression.

Downer? Not at all.  Sitting on the bench and strolling down Telegraph Avenue opened into confidences, intimacy, discovery.  We’d have found our way around to the topic at some point, sure, but for me the takeaway lesson came in staying in the moment.

And that morning with the story revision and the comments dueling for my attention?  I kept writing the scene, every few moments glancing over at the pile of marked-up manuscripts from the previous night’s group.  Had sneaking time away from what I’d intended to do freed me up in the revision?  Or had I just woken with a good idea whose time was ripe?  I want to know the answer because I want to find the magic trick.

When really, I’ve known it all along.  It may not be magic, but it usually works.  Stay put.  Sit for a while.  Follow the hunch.

Just as soon as I call the caterer.

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About lindseycrittenden

Lindsey Crittenden is the author of two published books: THE WATER WILL HOLD YOU: A SKEPTIC LEARNS TO PRAY (Harmony Books, 2007) and THE VIEW FROM BELOW, a collection of short stories (Midlist Press, 1999). Her personal essays and articles – on topics such as prayer, the pitfalls of too much California sunshine, and visiting a group of lifers at San Quentin – have appeared in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine, Image, Real Simple, Bon Appétit, East Bay Express, Health, and Best American Spiritual Writing. Her fiction has won national awards and has appeared in Glimmer Train, Bellingham Review, Quarterly West, and other publications. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, she graduated from UC Berkeley, moved to New York City as soon as she could, and returned to California for grad school. While in the graduate creative writing program at UC Davis, she discovered (much to her surprise) the fun of teaching. She lives in San Francisco and teaches at UC Berkeley Extension. She has completed a novel, and is writing new short stories and a (very early stages) nonfiction exploration of spirituality & sex.
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6 Responses to Sit for a While

  1. C says:

    centering prayer and sitting quietly for long stretches whether the mind is quiet or not and if you must be busy there is the work of the contemplative spiral, the walk into the wilderness of being and the joy of being alive. thanks for reminding me of long talks in cafe med.

  2. Thanks, C, for reminding me that it’s all the joy of being alive. All of it, even when it feels more antsy than joyful. Here’s to more long talks in Caffe Med

  3. I do find that sometimes I do my best writing while walking in the woods or cleaning out the vegetable drawer. The mindless activity seems to preoccupy the part of my brain that gets in the way of deeper thought. I think this technique works best on a writing challenge that I have thought about and thought about very consciously for a while. Then the walk in the woods or the cleaning project lets my brain relax and discover the obvious…. What I’m describing here is not procrastination, however. If I’m supposed to be at my writing desk, that’s where I need to be. This kind of “writing” seems to take place during actual “time off” time, not during scheduled writing time.

    • Yes. So much of our work does happen when we’re focused elsewhere. Like you, Barbara, I find this happens after I’ve already done a lot of thinking on a topic or problem. THen, I turn away from it and do “non writing” and the surprise gift comes. Keep that pen handy.

  4. Hmmmm. My name is Barbara Falconer Newhall. Barbara Barbara is a defunct website that I can’t entirely erase. The WWW never forgets! That is my elbow in that picture, however. And Manhattan in the background. My real web site is http://BarbaraFalconerNewhall.com.

  5. Meghan Ward says:

    How I wish there were a magic trick! But I, too, do my best writing when I take some quiet time to just sit at my computer (sitting on a bench watching the world go by would be that much better, and something we don’t do nearly often enough). My favorite form of distraction is what I’m doing right now – blogging and reading blogs. Time for me to get back to my own revision. (And congratulations on the great feedback on your new nonfiction pages!)

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