“The good lines come unbidden”

In a week like this–in this week–it’s hard to think about writing, and then the news of Leonard Cohen’s passing.

This morning, Advice to Writers sent out this quote:

“I can’t discard anything unless I finish it. So I have to finish the verses that I discard. So it takes a long time. I have to finish it to know whether it deserves to survive in the song. So in that sense, all the songs take a long time. And although the good lines come unbidden, they’re anticipated. And the anticipation involves a patient application to the enterprise.”


One of the most formative songs of my youth was Suzanne.

Thank you, Mr. Cohen, for your music and for the reminder–in writing and in so much more.

Jhumpa Lahiri on more than one voice

I love hearing writers talk about writing, so I was excited to learn that today NPR was running interview with Jhumpa Lahiri. In the interview, she talks about her new book, In Other Words, which she wrote in Italian.

In the interview, she talks about writing in another language (one kind of voice). When asks why she would trade her previous (and successful) voice for a new one, she replies:

“Well, I’ve always been searching to arrive at a certain voice that will probably elude me forever; in fact, it will. So it’s the search for that voice, that for me, drives the whole thing forward.”

I appreciated that answer, because the interviewer seemed to question why she didn’t do the same thing over and over again.

About the voice, she goes on to say:

“I just want it to be true, and I want it to be strong, and I want it to be pure. But these are lofty ideals, and language is a very messy thing; it’s a very complicated thing. And that’s why I say that that voice is an illusion, it’s an ideal that I’m moving toward. You know, the closer you get, the farther away it gets. But I think, isn’t that the point of creativity, to keep searching?”

Indeed. You can read more excerpts or listen to the full interview with Jhumpa Lahiri on npr.org.


Goals, habits, resolutions & revolutions

I like resolutions–whether it’s the beginning of the year, the season, the month, or the week–even the morning. For me, a resolution is an ongoing, continually renewed commitment. The habits I want to start or stop.

I might have goals for the year, one-time things to accomplish. Those are different–and last year, I did better at them.

The habits are for me the hard ones. Last summer, I started a new system for those, and it’s helped.

I print out (on paper!) a blank calendar for the month. Then I pull out my colored pencils and write down the things I want to do or not do daily, using a different color for each. Next comes the fun part: Every success gets a star for its color. The stars are a kind of reward, and a way of being accountable. I can look at a day or week and see how I’m doing. I can see what I’ve missed, what I need to work more on. If I have a day with only one star, it isn’t the end of the world. It’s a map saying that I’ve wandered off course. (Ooh, calendar as map.)

When the month is done, I look at what went well, what didn’t, and what I want to work on or pay attention to during the next month. It might be the same, or it might change. I start over. I renew my commitment.

But I mentioned revolutions. In the much wider community sense, we have more opportunities to foster healing and be better in the world, and here are five New Year’s revolutions.

How can you grow your life, your art? How can you change the world?

Work, identity, and what you know

The other day, my sister-in-law observed that often the work we do is a big part of our identity–how we see and feel about ourselves. I thought about that, and I realized that a big part of my work identity has been showing up and working hard. More than the specific job title or project, I’ve been the person who gets up every day, Monday through Friday, and goes to work. That’s been a part of who I am.

That reminded me of Donald Hall’s book Life Work, in which he writes that work is necessary for all of us. He talks about his mother sewing and canning even though she didn’t need to–in her generation, she could go to the store. She “worked out of habit’s necessity not out of necessity’s habit.” I thought about my distant cousin who, while an invalid, made intricate, gossamer-thin doilies. Exquisite handwork. Not essential to the household, but necessary for her, giving her a way to contribute.

I also thought about Hall’s grandfather–his trick of luring the cows back to the barn with millet or a sweet grass. He had a lifetime of knowledge and he used it. Good work means using what we know to do things, to get things done, a kind of creativity.

Thinking about knowledge led me to Sarah Kay’s TED talk, the part where she talks about finding 10 things that you know to be true or should have learned by now.

I pare it down and change it to 3 things about me that I know are true.

1. Words are my medium. I love to read–to enter different worlds, or to learn new things, or both at the same time. I love to write–and I need to write poetry. I learned that during September’s novel experiment. Four weeks in, I had to take a break and work on poems. I haven’t tried to take a month off from reading poetry, and I don’t intend to.

2. I like to solve problems and puzzles. That was the satisfying part about writing help. I didn’t think I was saving the world, but I hoped I was making someone’s day go a little easier.

3. I like to learn new things. As much as I love a routine, it’s true that every good job I’ve had began as something new to me (my only previous experience being my work with words).

4. (Bonus) Little dogs make me smile.

These days, my work is to look for a job, to write poems, to finish those last 3,000 words of my novel’s first draft. I show up.

And today I was called “the official poet laureate” of the vegetable stand. Not bad.

What’s your best work, and what are you working on now?