Seeing green
Morning Prayer

The Writing Life

Hillside 1

From "How Can You Create Fiction When Reality Comes to Call?" by Carolyn Chute (author of The Beans of Egypt, Maine):

"This is a very personal and uplifting story of my life as a writer. I will include intimate confessions. The following is a typical day in my life.

"Eyes open up. Birds singing outside window. Oh, yes, and there is the husband. X-rated stuff happens. (Delete details.)

"Must go out with dogs. They have a dog door and a half-acre fenced in with trees and a little brook, but that isn't good enough. ... No, they have to have me go with them, so we can be a pack together.

"Typewriter with page 1,994 of novel screams from another room: I WANT YOU.

Hillside 2

"I am scrambling to get dressed because the dogs are waiting at the foot of the stairs for the pack thing, which hasn't happened yet. They are hopping up and down. These are Scottish terriers with short legs, big heads, beady eyes and beards, and when I look at them, I melt and will do anything they want.

"But at this moment I am still scrambling to get dressed, and the typewriter is starting to really scream and kind of whimper from the other room. A truck pulls up in the yard, a member of our political group, one of those working-class politics groups you hear so much about.

"Bang! Bang! Bang! This is knuckles knocking on door.

"Dogs charge the door.

"Cuckoo clock coo coos six times.

Hillside 3

"Husband is now scrambling to get dressed.

"Phone does not ring. Its bell is broken. It never rings. Thank heavens.

"Typewriter is starting to gasp and moan.

"All dressed, I race down the attic stairs and the pack is racing around, the dogs throwing themselves at the door behind which the guest stands.

"The dishes heaped in the sink make no sound. No screams. No barking. But they have one of those profound presences. I am a person who can't teach writing or make a living in any public way, as I get confused when interrupted or overstimulated. In a classroom or crowded room, I all but blank out.

"So my only income is from novels. This should explain the absence of dishwasher, clothes dryer, running hot water, electricity in all rooms, health insurance and other such luxuries. The Scotties we got through friends. So don't go rolling your eyes about those 'expensive Scotties.'

"Husband opens front door for guest, as I head out the back door with the pack.

"Pack does its thing, racing around, checking chipmunk holes, sniffing guest's truck to see what the news is from the outside world. It is a beautiful morning, and everything smells sweet.

Hillside 4

"Returning to the house, I close dogs in another room, so they won't bother the guest, who is sitting in a rocking chair with tea and telling about how upset he is with the latest bad thing the corporations and government (same thing) have done to us. (I will delete all his words here in order to keep this an uplifting and cheery article.)

"Upstairs the typewriter is squealing and howling...."

Hillside 5

Eventually Chute's house quiets down.

"By the time there are 10 coo coos, guest has left," she writes. "Dogs are lying around on the rockers. Husband has gone to town for the mail.

"I finish hanging the laundry and go up to the typewriter and sit there, holding my head trying to quiet my head. You see, I can't just switch from life mode to writer mode. Usually it takes three days to get into the writer mode. Three days of quiet non-life mode, lots of coffee and no interruptions.

"Writing is like meditation or going into an ESP trance, or prayer. Like dreaming. You are tapping into your unconscious. To be fully conscious and alert, with life banging and popping and cuckooing all around, you are not going to find your way to your subconscious, which is a place of complete submission. Complete submission.

"I open my eyes. I look at the page. I type a couple of lines. Pop! The 'n' breaks off the daisy wheel.

"These daisy wheels are $30 apiece! My old well-made typewriter had one daisy wheel, which lasted 11 years. But this is a new typewriter. The cheesy typewriters they make now use three daisy wheels a day. My mind abandons writer mode. I am now in crisis mode again....

Hillside 6

"U.P.S. truck pulls up. Dogs hurtle out the dog door into their pen and throw selves against the fence wire to show the U.P.S. man what will happen to him if he comes in the house. I run downstairs and out, so I can sign for the packages. Eight galleys from eight publishers wanting eight blurbs. Blurbs are those little positive-sounding quotes on the backs of books. I am not much of a reader. No time. It takes me two to six months to read a book, so these guys are definitely barking up the wrong tree.

"U.P.S. truck heads out and down the long dirt road and away.

"I start back up the attic stairs to the gasping weeping typewriter, and husband arrives home with mail. Three more galleys in the mail, plus 20 letters and cards, most of which are urgent, or at least requiring a letter in return. Not many bills. Just our one huge mortgage on the house that we had to take out in order to eat.

"Clock coo coos."

And so Chute's writing day goes on, and no writing is actually done.

Hillside 7

To read Chute's essay in full, go here. It's pretty funny, in a rueful kind of way, since most of us have had those kinds of days -- even writers who switch from life mode to writing mode more easily. And keep in mind that the piece was published back in 1999, before email exploded and the internet became such a ubiquitous attention-breaker.

For myself, I keep returning to this quote by Saul Bellow, which I've written on the wall close to my writing desk:

"I feel that art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos. A stillness which characterizes prayer, too, and the eye of the storm. I think that art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.”

Hillside 8Words: The passage above is from an essay published in The New York Times (September 27, 1999). The poem in the picture captions is from Earful of Cider (August 2011). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Early morning on Nattadon Hill.

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