Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Growing Great Writing: Trash, Time, and Turning

We aren't running everything, not even the writing we do.
~Natalie Goldberg

Here’s what I was up to this summer when I wasn’t planning weddings or revising novels. We bought and assembled an 8 by 12 foot greenhouse. I started every single plant from seed. We had 10 cubic yards of dirt hauled in, then shoveled it ourselves into raised beds. A little rain, a little sunshine, and presto: I’ve been harvesting daily for the last several weeks.

We’re not big fans of pesticides, so our little garden is organic. That means compost. We’d already been making it on a small scale, as a way of cutting back on trash that gets hauled to the landfill, and we’d already had the fun of watching steam pour from the pile as it worked its magic. Now we’ve got two compost piles going, and we’re more serious about our process. You can get really serious about composting: calculating ratios of green to brown, brewing up compost tea, adding worms in a little condo-style set-up.

Fundamentally, though, composting is a simple, natural process that requires only trash, time, and turning. From Natalie Goldberg I first heard composting used as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s a good one. The best insights in our work often come only with time, and they often grow from bits and pieces of our experiences that we’d meant to throw out.

When we’re in the middle of a situation, we don’t have the perspective to write well about it. Goldberg quotes Hemingway, who wrote about Michigan from a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan,” he said.

Goldberg describes turning as she sees it in her students: “They are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way.”

About two years back, I took a little inventory of the “trash” in my life, experiences I took for granted along with some I’d rather forget. One: my mother wrote me a letter saying I’d never see her again. Another: I enthusiastically turned from agnostic to deeply religious, then lost a good chunk of what I thought I believed in.

These were difficult, painful experiences. As they happened, I couldn’t write about them in any sort of meaningful way. But time does its work. Though I expect I’ll never fully understand them, I eventually gained enough perspective to begin writing about them.

Then came the turning. I drafted part of a novel – I called it Cold Spell - about a woman who discovers the mother who walked out of her life. More time, and more turning, and the novel, still called Cold Spell, turned out to be about a woman obsessed with a glacier. The tension still involves mothers and daughters, with faith and doubt also playing heavily.

Another project began when I hiked the Chilkoot Trail. It was a great experience, not trash at all, but I tried to write about it too soon. Years later, my thoughts got their legs. I zeroed in on Kate Carmack, an Indian who for a season packed loads for white men over the trail; she went on to marry – and got dumped by - the man who claimed first rights to Klondike gold. More sifting and turning, and I’ve got the first narrative nonfiction to fully explore the gold rush from the perspective of women and Indians:  Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.

Trash, turning, and time – as with gardens, that’s where most good writing comes from. Hang onto the bits and pieces of your life that seem so common as not to matter. Discard no experience. Discount nothing. Allow time to do its work. Turn your thoughts over once in awhile, even (or especially) the ones you believed were most fixed. One day you’ll find them steaming, rich material for a bountiful harvest.

The literary equivalent of worms? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Try This: Little writing exercises are embedded throughout Writing Down the Bones, many of them grounded (sorry!) in the act of composting. Here’s one: “Learn to write about the ordinary. Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of. Keep adding to it. Promise yourself, before you leave the earth, to mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, short story, newspaper article.”

Check This Out: There’s a special place in my heart for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Right after reading it for a workshop I was taking, I drafted the manuscript that became my first published novel. It’s a classic text on process that frees up the way we think about writing.