Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Report From The Writing Front

You may have noted, dear reader, that my postings have become more infrequent, disappearing entirely over the last 6 months. Partly I felt that the terrain of blogging had changed and the 16 hours or more I put into an essay were reaping diminishing returns. Or I had changed and people weren't reading my essays as much now that they were more personal. Or they had migrated to FaceBook where snippets of personal news are easier to digest. FaceBook had also become my go-to platform for it offered more interaction, more discussion about issues that were germane to my contacts without me having to create the whole discussion through my essays. 

I have also been wondering what I had to show for all my efforts as a writer. Archiving the essays online didn't have quite the same sense of accomplishment as a book. My essays I feared might not have shelf life given that they were compelling because they were happening to me in real time and had the freshness of letters. Things might look less relevant over the long haul. I had also in the past loved to report on new adventures I was undertaking, sometimes going to an event just to write about it, but this last year I have repeated events so no longer had something new to report. 

There had also been physical adventures like falling off my Xootr (push scooter) and having to get 7 stitches on my chin. After which I realized I was exhausting myself. I had become strong and overconfident doing too much too fast having joined an outrigger canoe club (hoping to meet women) which required weekly practice in the bay just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Spectacular, but very windy that week. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I've never been the competitive type and this team were hard driving champions. The practice boosted my muscle strength then proceeded to wear me out, plus it was an hours drive each way to get to the boat yard.

In falling off my Xootr, the hard rubber of the wheels slipped out from under me in the light misty rain just as I was leaving home for a networking meeting. Luckily I fall well and didn't break any bones by sticking out my hand and insisting that the earth stop coming at me. I gave credit to my weekly karate class where I have trained non-competitively for over 20 years (for the rigors of old age I see now). But the road was hard and rough when I slammed against it not like the mat in our dojo. I picked myself up and (without getting any blood on my clothes) drove myself to the emergency room, proud to have done so. A huge bruise welled up on my thigh and weeks of sessions with my chiropractor ensued to put my hip joint at ease again. 

I cut down on excessive self-propelled mobile jaunts. I quit the canoe club and dating. I had made friends dating, but serious dating was a slow business. Nobody had time to just hang out anymore; women were holding up a list of wants and don't wants, searching for the right person to mesh with their complicated lives and mine was no different.

And finally the things that were happening of interest in my life involved family members so were not my stories to tell. Suffice to say that my mother had become a snow bird living half the year with her new boyfriend in a gated community on a golf course near Palm Springs. My good friend Dave had moved to Oregon with his mother depriving me of regular lunch dates. Others had retired becoming busier. My own household with Catherine and her brother remained stable. Catherine and I get along better now that we are not "together" together. We go to movies, share meals and keep house like old pros, but we don't plan the future or talk about it in more than general terms. This makes life spacious with time.

Current news of my life had been my bread and butter as a blogger, but now I was drawn to other subjects. The parts of my life that still lay submerged like the two thirds of the proverbial iceberg. The parts that happened before the internet, before our daily sharing of details with our 'contacts', our virtual village. What was I missing by ignoring this dark past? 

I had often thought about writing another book and had been looking for a topic, but nothing seemed worthwhile for the amount of effort books seem to take. (My last book had taken 10 years to write.) I saw time differently now that I placed upon it an hourly fee as a freelance professional organizer. What could I possibly write (want to write) that would be worth my hourly rate payable at time of service? 

A Book Beckons

Last year I had a reunion with my now dispersed writer's group. The writer's group that had so lovingly helped me in the writing of Diamonds In My Pocket when we met monthly to read our work together. We had not met in 10 years, but in the weekend we spent together in a remote beach house by the sea, I remembered the value of a writing life. The literary aspirations and lofty goals of a book, the satisfaction of leaving a legacy. So over lunch on the ride home I told a handful of my writing pals my dilemma of time versus book value.

Connie who had found satisfaction in the writing of books above even the raising of her children was the natural leader of our group and spoke first. 

"Your dilemma is that you were raised to expect an inheritance which never came," she said referring to my Thai family history. Connie knew about these things; her entire writing life had been supported by an ample trust fund from her family's orchards in Southern California. It was generous of her to point that out about my life. That as a writer I had had to put most of my effort into supporting myself. 

Though others in the group had had to work too, most could go home from their job and devote their off hours to writing without having to worry about the security of their job hanging on their off hour skills. Skills in marketing which also required writing and sending out a newsletter, say, to flag down customers. The repetition required to tout my services as an unequivocal benefit to the customer in myriad ways was just not my style. I did it sparsely knowing full well that if I devoted even half the effort I put into those essays I would have enough customers to put aside my insecurities (or at least know I had tried). The happy result was that sometimes the essays themselves would flag down a rare customer or two who appreciated the lengths at which I was willing to reveal myself. (One had even downloaded my book to read because she could not find anything else about me.)

Two of our writers did have the self-marketing piece of it to contend with at some time in their lives. Helen had made her living as a potter selling mugs and salad bowls at craft fairs. She had also been raised by a painter who had been intentionally supported by her mother working a job outside of the home. (David Park whose work is now hung in SFMOMA and the Legion of Honor.) Her entire upbringing had wrestled with the dilemma of funding the life of an artist. An upbringing that also informed her that an artist had intrinsic value just in the work he/she did even though it didn't necessarily pay the bills. Her book about her father was a huge contribution to these values. Helen spoke her answer to my question with thoughtful intention.

"Choose a topic that will sustain you in the writing of it to the very end," she said. I let this sink in. Let the perspective of it push my mind around to the value of writing and its intrinsic ability to sustain me as a writer. A perspective that put aside even the needs of a reader who may or may not care about what topic I chose. I had once felt that my readers needed the information I was so able to explain, because this information had changed my life in some incremental or significant way that had led to lifestyle changes that they too might benefit from. 

Information like this was now more easily passed around on FaceBook and Twitter through articles that other people wrote which might include references, graphs, charts and the opinions of professionals. Viewers would comment and start a dialog that was pertinent to their lives within the context of their virtual village of contacts. There was still room for the personal essay, but somehow not quite as compelling. I could post a picture with a short caption to let people know what I was up to in a fraction of the time, but not everybody was on Facebook. And some, bless them, preferred a written narrative.

Choosing a topic that would sustain me to the very end was a refreshing perspective. At first I addressed it pragmatically and thought I might like to compile a book of recipes for my personal reference for all the clever eco-minded household things I had made like my fire starter tea bags which were dried tea bags drenched in wax melted in my solar oven. And my baking soda hygiene regime which had virtually eliminated store bought sundries from my bathroom. Not to mention the unique design of my urine diverting portable composting toilet. 

Connie had published a book of recipes called The Muse of Menus. We had all been proud of this book because it was the first one of many our group had published. It was enjoyable and accessible and bore the mark of Connie's unassuming literary style. A straight forward book with an unambiguous premise to hand down her family stories to her descendants. My collection of recipes evoked more questions. I wasn't handing down a family legacy; I was compiling a certain philosophical attitude about a life that had veered off the mainstream so much I had neglected to have a family to hand down to. 

It struck me that it wasn't so much the recipes that were interesting, but why one would want to do all these alternative things in the first place. Because, apart from my tea bag fire starters, plenty of others were demonstrating the making of these off-grid ideas on Youtube and Pinterest. What was missing from these online offerings was an overarching narrative, a story that would tell of a paradigm shift underway carried out by those who were living it. Now there was a topic I could imagine delving into.

A Door Opens

As it happens when I become interested in a direction something or someone comes along to offer support. I had over the last two years been studying a spiritual path guided by the archetypes of the Tarot which I accessed through Shamanic journeying. (And no, I have not shared this story because the writing of it would make it into something else altogether which would cease to help me, but you can ask about it). My Tarot teacher Pamela had also decided to write her memoir and was creating a group of like minded writers to provide structure and support. 

I had already attended Pamela's workshop on publishing where she had pointed out that the same technology that had brought huge changes to the music industry was rapidly changing the book publishing industry. Via print-on-demand technology authors could now publish their own books for the same cost per book as large publishing houses. To be sure such means meant a much smaller audience, but what did it matter? Books do not as a rule make authors a living. They were the back room sales of many an entrepreneur on the lecture circuit who made their living doing what they wrote about. Some of these books were a marketing project on steroids, but the ones of substance were a container for their methods and knowledge, a sign of passion and commitment. A book gave the author authority on a topic much as a  Ph.D would, opening doors to more opportunities and more writing. It appeared that just as blogging had made publishing my essays so easy the same was now true of book publishing.

I saw my old writing group again for a poetry reading at Waverley Writer's a longstanding monthly event at the Palo Alto Friends meeting house where two of our poets were featured readers that night. Over dinner I told Helen I had found my book topic and told the group I was joining a new writing group. They were a trifle dubious about the credentials of my new teacher despite my stating her former status as a Stanford professor of anthropology and author of many books on Tarot. The Tarot piece sounded suspiciously New Agey to them; New Age books being a notorious genre for bad writing.

"I hope you won't let your good writing fall," said Connie.

"No I will raise up the standards of the group," I promised. I wanted to work with Pamela not because of her literary credentials, but because she set me on fire. Her enthusiasm was contagious and her cosmic sense of purpose rubbed off on me and bolstered the smallest effort into a life work.

The five women meeting in Pamela's cheerful living room were not veteran writers, but as we learned about story structure beginning with the call to adventure and ending with the transformation of the hero, I was not so worried about good writing; I was wrestling with finding what underlying theme would hold my story together.

The Muddy Middle

I had followed a trail of hand built furniture searching for my first build and found myself in that murky territory of a self before I knew who I was or had potential to be; those early college years. College being nothing like what I had expected, it was not a pleasant remembrance. In fact it was downright unpleasant. Unlike the territory of my first book which gave me back Thailand and all the warmth of my childhood memories that healed my homesickness, the territory of this book was cold hearted and uglier than the Brutalist architecture of my college campus. But the act of looking at this time was changing and shaping the narrative as I grew compassion for myself. There was revealed a glimmer of a self that would not be broken. And this act of memory transformation was a healing elixir in itself. So I was hooked. Writing a book filled the voids in my life and was better company than a relationship I realized.

I searched for an underlying theme that might run through this territory, a unifying framework and, finding none, attempted to work backward from the end of the book, but that was even worse. How was I to know what was the end? I picked another part of my life to explore that included my passion for building, but then it sounded like an entirely different book. I reported back to Pamela's writing group and they weren't getting anywhere either except for one member who had run with her second story to write a screenplay. A cross cultural, bi-racial lesbian coming of age love story set in Geneva. Totally hot in the telling of it for she wrote beautifully with a classic literary style that was unmarred by puritanical self hatred. We all urged her to make it into a movie.

I did not want to write a lesbian coming of age love story though it was my favorite kind of love story. I wanted to write about making stuff. Was there a story in the making of stuff? It wasn't exactly a genre. But there were lots of themes—self-reliance, sustainability, purpose, creativity, collaboration. How these elements had motivated me, how the people I met inspired me, all those places I had been where I learned something. There was also a hint of some underlying psychological imprint linked to my past that I was seeking to rectify. Somewhere in there I knew was a story that would sustain me to the end. Unravel for me the source of my weirdness.

I was in what our memoir writing textbook called The Muddy Middle. Committed but with no end in sight. Too far in to back out. Searching for every available angle. Fretting about its future much as one would a new relationship. 

No idea how long I'll be here so I thought I'd offer an update to my extended family of real-time readers. You who share my journey so that I might have company. Next month I will be in Thailand for another mud hut building event where I hope to garner further perspective or at least some more Facebook friends like so many barnacles on a long ocean voyage. 

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At 4:36 AM, Blogger Ann said...

Thank you for writing this article. I have enjoyed reading your work for years. I actually found your work on the Energy Bulletin. Oddly, or maybe not, I was thinking of you just before I checked my own rather neglected blog and lo here is this new piece. Your view of the world is inspiring and well written. Take care and I hope to read about the mud hut building!

At 7:16 AM, Blogger AK said...

Thank-you for coming by Ann. I am so glad to hear that you have been a reader for all these years and have serendipitously checked in again. Indeed I think we are all connected in these serendipitous ways by our own trajectories crisscrossing.


At 2:48 PM, Blogger Ann said...

It's my pleasure. Yes, I wonder about these random seeming encounters.


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