Propagating philodendrons, resisting "striving," and a free writing workshop...
What's On My Mind This Month
The windowsill in my kitchen has a western exposure and gets so much great sun. We moved into this house in June, and since then I’ve been lining the windowsills with philodendron cuttings in old Topo Chico bottles. It doesn’t take much time to snip a stem from one of the plants in my office and stick it into a bottle—and then over the next few weeks the roots start growing.
It feels like a miracle: one plant turns into two or three or four. It doesn’t cost anything, and there’s no drama about it. No effort. The conditions are right, so you can trust that growth will happen.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been a striver, working overtime to keep people happy and get stuff done. I’m most comfortable when I’m buried deep in a task, working against a deadline to crank out a project with a clear goal. That energy has served me well in a lot of areas, but hasn't really been helpful when it comes to my creative work.
For years, I started stories and essays and put them aside the minute they failed to meet the initial vision I had for them. No matter how much I wrote or published, I always felt like I was doing it wrong—I was too slow, lazy, or not creative enough. I tried to muscle my way through, setting ambitious deadlines and beating myself up when I didn’t meet them, but that usually didn’t work either.
Looking back, some of my favorite things I’ve written—like this essay—came into being only when I abandoned “striving” and worked in a totally different way:
Starting with images and scenes instead of ideas
Writing to discover instead of just relaying a story I already had in my head
Giving myself the space and time to play and explore
We live in a culture that prioritizes quick wins. Too often, we focus on the result instead of the process. We get frustrated when things take longer than we feel they should, or when our first effort fails short. We ignore the fact that messiness and failure are critical parts of the creative process. Writing takes endless patience and a lot of faith, and once you stop judging yourself and instead commit to creating the conditions that can sustain your writing practice, it can also feel like the most natural thing in the world.
This Sunday, while my husband and son are going to see Cats, I’m hosting a free 90-minute online writing workshop called Growing Your Memoir. I'll be talking about different ways of approaching the writing process (including some tips I've stolen from writers like Elizabeth Strout and José Olivarez), and ways to manage the anxiety that so often comes with starting such a personal project. We’ll also do a few generative writing exercises.
We have a terrific group of writers signed up so far. All are welcome, so please share the sign-up link with anyone who might be interested.
New Column: I've just started a monthly "Craft Club" column for Catapult in which I'm interviewing a diverse set of a contemporary writers about the craft choices they made while working on a single short story, essay, or poem. Each of the pieces we discuss is available online so that folks can read along each month. In the first installment, I interviewed Frances Lefokwitz about her wonderful essay "Survivor" from The Sun.
November 8th Talk at Rice University: I'll be at Rice in early November talking about "Research as Creative Process." If you're in Houston, I'd love to see you! More info here.
My visit last month to Smith Point Hawk Watch was amazing. Our guide was the master birder Glenn Olsen, who surprised me so much when he told me that he'd read my book. We hung out on the watch tower and saw hundreds of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, thirteen species of raptors (including merlins, kestrels, falcons, and hawks), and tons of other birds. Then we went traipsing through some very damp and mosquito-filled woods, where we saw a Great Horned Owl getting harassed by a Northern Harrier, a kettle of Mississippi Kites, a lone warbler, and some gorgeous Swallow-tailed Kites. Next month I'm joining Glenn for his sparrow identification class at Houston Audubon and we'll be doing a field trip to a TBA destination--I'm hoping it's Big Thicket.