Wednesday, February 07, 2007

specific gravity.

Ok...let's face it. I'm not going to get any more writing done tonight so I might as well just take a break and blog. I think it's kinda funny that I take a break from writing to write. hmmmm....what does that say about me?

Well, according to my interpretation, it means that I'm taking my thesis writing much too seriously and if I approached it in the same way that I approach this blog, then I would have been done months, no, years ago. (But I've tried that...and it's not as easy as it sounds.)

I have to admit, it hasn't been going well. I've been dedicated though (too bad they don't hand out diplomas for dedication). I have successfully hibernated for the past 3 days, only taking breaks for walking Anu, half of a movie, and dinner at a Chinese restaurant with my ever-loving husband. In the past three days I've written roughly 4 or 5 pages. Half of that is usable material. And the other half is...well? It might make for a good place to start another day...or it might be met by a slow death in the files of Microsoft Word. Only time will tell.

Today, as Anu and I walked in the woods, my boots creaked in the snow. We were alone and it was quiet and, as I followed the snow-packed path, I was reminded of a word that I learned in India: pugdandi. It means “path.” But it is not just any path. It is a path made by feet. It is a path of need.

I've been thinking about that word, pugdandi, ever since it came to me as I looked at the cold, white path stretching out in front of me. The sun was so bright that the world felt bleached. For a moment, my vision felt clearer.

I went home and convinced myself to do a freewrite. I used to make my students do this to get them loosened up. And when things get tough, I try to take my own advice. I wrote the word "Pugdandi" at the top of the page and then I started to write. The first sentence out of the end of my pen was: "I think what a pugdandi is, for me, is a path that leads me to writing."

For months now I have been trying to tell the story of my encounter with India. But it’s too huge. I don’t know where to begin and I don’t know where to end. Don't get me wrong--I work from small moments. I know that I can't write it all at once and so I try to take it just one little piece, one little detail at a time. I have struggled and cried and, more times than I dare count, I have wanted to give up on it. But, despite my struggles, I keep returning to it. I don’t know why, except that I can’t leave it alone. India and her stories are in my blood and in my bones. She has coiled herself so deeply into my being that I cannot separate myself from her.

I have walked back and forth so many times between my memories and my writing that I have worn my own path. It has become a path of need. One that, no matter how difficult it has been, I cannot seem to walk away from.

Lately I've been pulling books off of the shelf like a girl might pull clothes out of her closet when she can't find anything to wear. I keep looking for something in all those books, but I know it's not there. What I'm looking for is inside of me. What I'm looking for hasn't been written yet. Eventually my desk got piled so high with all of these books that I finally had to do some mental house-cleaning and put them away. In the process, I ran across a book that we were required to purchase for a Creative Nonfiction class: Writing the Australian Crawl by William Stafford. I've never liked the book but, for some reason, have held onto it anyway. It's old and dusty and water stained.

I couldn't remember what I disliked about it so much, but out of curiousity I opened it up at random and started to read. This is what I found:
Just as any reasonable person who looks at water, and passes a hand through it, can see that it would not hold a person up; so it is the judgement of commonsense people that reliance on the weak material of students' experiences cannot possibly sustain a work of literature. But swimmers know that if they relax on the water it will prove to be miraculously buoyant; and writers know that a succession of little strokes on the material nearest them--without any prejudgments about the specific gravity of the topic or the reasonableness of their expectations--will result in creative progress. Writers are persons who write; swimmers are (and from teaching a child I know how hard it is to persuade a reasonable person of this)--swimmers are persons who relax in the water, let their heads go down, and reach out with ease and confidence.
My god. I've been so goddamned tense, it's a wonder that I didn't drown a long time ago. I didn't find anything else in the whole book that I liked. But that paragraph spoke to me.

It's the same story over and over again. I sit down to write this blog post and I'm miraculously able to do it in one breath. When I sit down to work on my thesis, it may take me 12 hours or two months to write the same amount of material. This feeling of tension is a very real sensation. My words and my sentences get constipated. I feel a tight knot form in my stomach.

One summer a few years ago, I used to go down to the Mississippi River with my dogs and a few friends to go swimming. We had to drive way back into the woods down old logging roads to get there. But, once there, it was always quiet and peaceful. The river was fairly narrow, but deep. The bottom was sandy and there was a current. I'd go there every day after work and was always tired and tense from the day's stresses. But then I'd dive into the river somewhere upstream and float on my back all the way down to the rope swing. Then I'd get out and do it all over again. In the water, I'd let my arms float outward. Relaxed, absolutely relaxed, I would look up into the sky. I felt like I was floating with the clouds. And I was.

I keep returning to writing like my life depends on it. And, in a way, I guess it does. But I picked up too many insecurities while in grad school. If I could do anything, I would sit down and write as though I were swimming. I would forget about gravity. I would set aside expectations.

The funny thing is...that's what I'm doing right now. I guess it's just a matter of letting go.

Next week I will be starting Finding Water and I've already decided what I'm going to do on my first artist's date. Yep, you guessed it--I'm going swimming.


Kristine said...

You are amazing. Such insight.
Don't worry - all of the words are there just waiting for their moment to reveal themselves.
Yesterday I tried to come up with an outline for a big paper I am working on. Nothing came. In fact, I felt like my brain was dumped out somewhere. Nothing at all came to mind with regard to this paper's topic. I searched online for information and could not find anything that seemed to make sense. Then I gave up. This morning I woke up to sound of my own voice. I was talking in my sleep. When I sat up, waking up, I realized I was talking about my paper. I suddenly had all of the thoughts I needed for an outline so I quickly grabbed some paper and filled up a binder sheet with what I consider a rough outline.
Just hang in. I know it will come. You are going great.

martha said...

and morning pages.....we float on them

Laura said...

I'm going to return to your words when I need a lifeboat in my own writing water...! They're beautiful and so genuine, so true that sometimes I think your thesis should be made of your thoughts on the creative process--- You have a million theses in you, though, I think!

Leah said...

(((Hugs))) to you, beautiful girl. perhaps in your days of hibernation, you could take a day to give yourself permission to write nothing but crap. one long morning pages type of exercise on india perhaps. perhaps poems on india would help break things up or abstract paintings would help the words come?

it's true that it's all inside you. and the words will come in their time. You are exactly where you need to be. xoxoxo

Spiky Zora Jones said...

Hey Jessie, wonderful post. My English professor used to say...anything goes, so go for it. A funny man and a very good teacher. He was so relaxed and that eased the weight. Like he said. "It's only a potato chip." Then he tossed it in his mouth. The crunch was heard even to the back of the class.

Where to begin? He would say. "At the begining." Where do I end? "At the end where you have finished telling your story." Write...tell me your story. I was a freshman in high school.

I've been sick going on two weeks now and I can't seem to shake it. This weekend is my hibernation, I think. Good luck on the T and remember, it's only a potato chip.

BTW...pugdandi. a wonderful word. Isn't it fab, swimmining in rivers.

Paula said...

Thanks for the welcome and the inspiration. :)

Sending you a bit of summer breeze.

Anonymous said...

I sooo know what you mean about feeling tension when you write...that warning bell, coiled heart feeling. Today I was nursing Madam and dozing off a bit, when I had the strangest sensation of a professor leading his class, talking about my writing--writing I have not done yet. I decided it was my mind's way of lending authority and giving me some ideas at the same time.

This was such a beautiful post--I know you have it in you. I KNOW you do, chhota behen.

deirdre said...

Oh, Jessie, I needed this today. I'm a terrible swimmer, but I love to float, could do it for hours if my toes didn't get so wrinkly. Writing has been difficult for me lately and I'm not sure why. "I work from small moments" - that resonates for me, makes me know I don't have to write everything that's crowding my head and heart.

This is a beautfiul piece and truly reads like a long, relaxed swim.

paris parfait said...

I loved this post, Jessie. So much to think about. I'm glad you're finding your path, no matter what roads may diverge in the wood. xo

Amber said...

Jessie, if you do just let go and float like you do here, you are sure to do just fine. Because this is wonderful! Beautiful insight. And I think the truth for so many of us.
I would love to read what you have to tell about your time in India. So just ease up on yourself, and write it as if you were in your blog.