Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, October 4, 2019
One of my favorite quotes of all time is actually from Ernest Hemingway: “The hardest thing about writing [or painting, for that matter] is that first you have to clean the refrigerator.” Brilliant.
Because for some of us, before doing anything that requires use of the creative side of the brain, we are doomed to procrastinate before settling. Compulsively, we begin to clear things out, do the obvious, fiddle, fidget, organize, flail and sometimes, even fail at flailing. Eventually, we rationalize that even if we’re not attending to things creative, well, at least our refrigerators are getting cleaner. (Unless the goal is a clean fridge, in which case maybe the writing or painting has a fighting chance.) Finally, we are able to come in for a landing in the present moment, shelves clean, excuses lean, hands quietly by our sides. Now what?
Much has been written about the creative process and many of us are fascinated by how other people do it. Whether they write in the early morning or late at night, longhand or computer, cloistered away in a closet or in a cabin or in another country. Whether they believe in sacred spaces, whether they are creatures habit and even superstition, whether they are okay with all the bad writing just because it’s movement and a way forward. How they build their characters, what inspires them, how they feel about coffee or tea, their devices on or off, their pets in or out, and, of course, the most useful thing of all: what’s really not helpful at all, ever. Perversely, the other hardest part about writing is reading about how other people do it.
During the span of years I was trying to write novels, especially, it was fascinating to me that others might not have this experience of procrastination and difficulty in writing. That it did not feel to them that 90 percent of it was pushing a boulder up a hill all for the satisfaction of that ten percent that was shoving the thing back down and then standing there to watch it gather force and slam into its final resting place.
Not to mention what you have to do to the boulder as it sits there atop the hill — all the chiseling away at it, the knocking off of large chunks, the puttying of cracks, then trashing a whole lot more of it and paring that part down even more and then more chiseling, trashing, and refining. That’s what it was like for me: roll the rock up, chisel away for hundreds of hours, and then shove it down — and my stories were lightweight romances, not tragedies! How did people do it for the big and brilliant stuff? How did they come out of life experience or writing programs, even, writing compulsively, or just spilling it out? How had writing gotten so good? Was there a secret I was missing, some technique? What were they teaching in those programs?
Years ago at a writing conference in town, a woman author of two distinct flavors of genre fiction said that with one series she simply channeled the words. Received them. “Really?” I thought, eyes narrowing, suddenly interested in everything about her, including the idea that she might be lying. Not that I didn’t believe in channeling information; but she had pitched herself as a writer, not a channel. A channel didn’t need to clean the refrigerator, as far as I was aware.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of refrigerator cleaning. Vacuuming the onions skins out of the vegetable bins (a personal technique that satisfies in every way), and toothbrushing the gunk from the freezer drawers. Trying to figure out the polishing of the stainless steel for the umpteenth time. Because even if it’s painting and not writing, it’s the same story for me — of groping my way to whatever moment will lead me up the studio steps again. What will it be this time, sister, I ask myself. Will it be something from the natural world like the light on the mountains or a flame-lit aspen that suddenly looks so beautiful I can’t stand it? Will it be some kind of loving gesture aimed at me, or an ego boost (I’m not proud)? Will it be a sign, like a feather landing just so, or another person’s mind-blowing poem or painting? Will it be a micro-moment surrender into the now?
Eventually, there’s a trick I use to get myself out from the hard blue light of the refrigerator appliance bulb: I pretend I’m actually smarter than I am and lecture myself. It’ all process, I say, every inch of it, even groping and flailing and sucking the onion skins out. So stop thinking so much. Pick up an onion skin and stare at it, because that’s where it all begins every time. Yeah.
Then all I have to do is be smarter than I am and listen.