Authors Talk: Michelle Ross

Michelle RossToday we are pleased to feature author Michelle Ross as our Authors Talk series contributor. Michelle reads from and discusses her short story, “Stories People Tell.” She talks about how the story originated with a kind of confession of almost hitting a pedestrian with her car.

 

You can read Michelle’s piece, “Stories People Tell,” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review.

AWP Giveaway!

Superstition Review table at the AWP writers' conferenceThis weekend Superstition Review has a table at the AWP Writers’ conference in Washington DC. We have some really cool swag, including mugs, t-shirts, and notebooks we are raffling to convention-goers. If you’re at AWP this weekend and want to win, follow us on twitter @Superstitionrev and send us a tweet saying “Hello @superstitionrev from AWP.” Winners will be announced on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 4PM. Swing by the Superstition Review booth (501-T) to claim your prizes.

You can find out more about AWP here: https://www.awpwriter.org/

 

Guest Post, Barbara Crooker: A Room of My Own

Barbara's RoomFirst, let me tell you about the room I don’t have, the one at home. I’m the mother of a son with autism, now 32, and my work space is a corner of the dining room, where I can be at the computer and still see the short bus when it arrives. My “desk” is a book bag, highly portable. My actual books are in book cases scattered throughout the house. And my work day is fragmented, too—we have to provide transportation for him now that he’s out of school, plus there are household tasks, doctor appointments, trips to the gym. . . .I’ve got a yard full of perennials and a vegetable garden which need my attention. My work day is also rife with interruptions—the doorbell, the phone, my beloved husband wandering in to read me items from the newspaper (which I’ve already read). And there are the other parts of caregiving: making up med sets, running a behavior modification program, cooking gluten and dairy-free meals; in general, I “run” things— But I also try to engage in the written word, even if it’s just reading, every day. I find it a small miracle that I’ve actually written anything at all, even though at this point I’ve published close to 900 poems. . . .

 

So, every eighteen months, I try to go away to a colony, specifically The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts http://www.vcca.com/main/index.php, in Amherst, VA. It’s competitive; I don’t always get in, plus sometimes there are things “in real life” that make getting away impossible. But right now, here I am, in sweet Virginia, on a May morning; paradise restored. It’s nothing fancy; the studios are basic, austere, even, in a repurposed dairy farm. I believe my room formerly housed cows. The outside is cinder block; the floors are poured cement. But there’s a twin bed (you can sleep in your studio, but I prefer to walk back to the residence at night); a “distressed” (many writers have put butt to chair here) but comfortable leather arm chair and ottoman; a large desk, big enough to hold my printer, laptop, slant desk, and then some; two small tables; a book case; and two lamps. And four big windows with a view of the hedgerow, the dirt road that winds through the campus, a meadow of wild grasses and daisies, and the Blue Ridge Mountains stretching beyond.

 

Lately, I’ve been reading blogs about “how to keep going after the MFA,” which leave me puzzled. We’re writers; writers write. Or they construct manuscripts, which is going to be my primary task here, to put, not as Coleridge said, “Best words, best order” (his definition of a poem), but “best poem, best order” for two book length manuscripts. If I finish these projects, I plan to take a look at where the poems that don’t fit in either of these manuscripts are going, what the themes are, etc., with an eye to another book down the road. And I’d like to write some new poems, as well.

 

All these days, stretching out before me. It’s amazing, when you take food prep (planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning up afterward) out of the equation how many hours there are in a day. I could hardly wait to get here. I roll up my sleeves and begin.

 

Here’s a poem I wrote after a previous residency:

 

WRITERS’ COLONY

 

Wrapping up a residency, new work done,

car packed with poems, computer, books.

There’s a bluebird on the tree limb over my head,

white belly, orange throat, blue back.

His only job is to be beautiful.

For weeks here, there’s been nothing but work,

no jobs or families or domestic duties, not a pan

to wash or a meal to prepare. We have reverted

to childhood, trade items from our lunchboxes.

Play Truth or Dare at night. Put on plays,

read each other stories. On warm days,

we sit in the sun and drink lemonade.

No one tells us to clean up our rooms or our prose.

We write more and more. Whole forests have died

for our work. Each day, we are closer to capturing

beauty, though it flies out of reach.

I’d like to sit here forever, on the Pasternak bench,

and try to decide which is lovelier, the pink

dogwood or the white, write a few

more lines, watch the high white clouds scroll

on a brilliant blue sky, stay until

the sticky little leaves unfurl

to an audience of waving hands.

I’d like to sit here,

until the cows come home,

or Mother calls us in.

published in New Works Review, 2004

Guest Post, Eric Maroney: Loneliness, as Discipline

Eric MaroneyWhen I started to become serious about writing as an experience that fully engaged every faculty, feeling, and inclination, I quickly realized that I must spend a great deal of my time alone.

Only in the stillness of loneliness can true writing take place.  On the surface of things, this appears counter-intuitive, as fiction writers write about people.  They chronicle loves, hates, struggles, victories, dreams.  Fiction’s subject matter is people as much as geology’s is stones.  Yet I have found that at the deepest level, writing must take place in solitude, with the mind keenly focused on only one, narrow task.

So how are these two impulses reconciled?  The fiction writer uses human reality as her template for art, yet she must frequently emerge, break free, and do what is demanded of her in the world.  Reality and its demands take the writer away from the solitude necessary to create art.  This is the high wire act of writing, and most writers fall off:  the world intrudes too heavily on their private space, and crushes writing and all its demands.

So writers must insist on time alone, for it is the backbone of successful writing. Only by securing solitude, guarding it, and cultivating it, does it become possible to navigate this often rewarding, sometimes disheartening enterprise.

The writer must sit alone and work with words, sentences, paragraphs, pages.  No one can help.   There must only be the writer and the world he is creating with his imagination.  Even if it seems sometimes unfaithful and as hard to manage as the very flow of human life itself, his imagination can only be harnessed in solitude.

It takes intense concentration to coordinate the different elements of the physical act of writing, the control and guidance of the imagination, and the discipline to continue to work beyond fatigue, struggle and boredom.  And through this, the writer must keep the world away.  This is the absolute key to make writing inviolable.  In order to have its own life, the work must be held up above the swarm of life.

But then comes an unnerving moment when the solitary stage of writing must conclude, and the writer must set about to conquer a different but just as difficult challenge: she must let the world in.  Eventually, that writing before her must be read by someone else.  Hopefully, this will be a sympathetic soul with precious distance from her work, providing the most helpful of advice: what works and what doesn’t — what rings true and what sounds hollow.  This seems simple, but is really a complex gift given to the writer. With good criticism, a writer can feel like a lens has been lifted that didn’t seem cloudy until it was removed, and now she has been given a wide open window to see through the eyes of another.

Then the writer is alone again, and struggling with the work once more.   Reading, cutting, writing, the work is still her work, but subtly less so.  The spell is already broken.  Once read by even one person, the intimacy of the writer and his work slackens.  The coolness of redaction demands distance.  The writer can now often edit the story at the cluttered kitchen table, with kids playing in the next room.

After repeated performances of this ritual, the writing is transformed into a more public object, and pulls away from its creator.  The work must stand on its own legs, and in order to do that, the writer must stop supporting it, having already begun to let it go step by step and stage by stage.

And if the writer is lucky, and the work is so self-sufficient that it leaves him or her (or you) one day for the solidity of a published form, the circle is complete: the writing is then part of the very world the writer fought against to bring it into existence.  At that point the loneliness the writer shared with the writing is truly gone, and the work, having been encouraged to leave its author’s protective wall of solitude, seems to walk away, as the writer seeks out loneliness again.

Guest Blog Post, Elane Johnson: For the LOVE of the Language

Elane with FrappuccinoAs many writers know, we have to get a “real job” in order to keep those Strawberries & Crème Frappuccinos ® coming because those things ain’t cheap, and my thighs aren’t going to get fatter all by themselves. Wait a minute. That’s clearly not true. The longer I sit here doing jack, the more thunderous my thighs become. But I digress.

 

A real job. That’s where I was. There are many careers for which a writer would be a good fit, but just because we would be good at something doesn’t mean we should do it. Sure. I’d be the most celebrated WalMart manager south of Canada, but then I’d have to come home and self-flagellate at night to atone for the murder of my brain cells. So most writers without a multi-volume book deal about zombies coming of age during the apocalypse do that thing we do, which is teach.

 

I’ve many, many years of teaching under my tight belt, and there have been thrills and laughter and heart-warmth and breakthroughs and achievements and success and enormous paychecks that compensated me well for the services I’ve provided. Except for that last part. That’s bullshit. Anyone who teaches knows. Teachers—even those with an M.F.A. in creative writing—get paid squat to impart our wordsmith’s knowledge to hordes of students who may or may not capitalize the personal pronoun I. Yet we continue because A) We love our language and its beauty. B) We care about the success of our students. And C) Those Frappuccinos ain’t going to buy themselves.

 

The English language—while it is the most difficult of all the languages in the world to learn because of its plethora of rules and exceptions and integration of foreign words—thrills me with its lyrical malleability. My father and I played games with grammar all my young life so that I came to appreciate the ways in which a writer may play with the poetry of English. And my own children have blossomed in the linguistic soil their grandfather tilled. My younger daughter delights in learning and sharing new words. She recently dropped this one on me: Apricity. The word sounds lovely, and its meaning slays me. It is a perfect example of how the English language proffers just the right word for any instance. In this case, “the warmth of the sun in winter.” Isn’t that just breathtaking?

 

I rushed to the window that morning—the first of which in weeks the sun had finally burned through the snow-thick clouds—to luxuriate in the apricity.

 

Yes, yes. I know it’s an obsolete word and that we’ve moved on to such accepted terms as homie and vajazzle, for God’s sake, but still. Our language is a living entity, forever evolving (or devolving, it appears). But thank goodness our language throws back some of the “new” words that end up in its net, such as the words some of my students create because they learn primarily through hearing instead of reading. The most common, of course, is should of. Because those two words sound just like should’ve, it’s an oft-made error that makes me want to poke out my eyes with dull sticks. In the last week of grading papers, I’ve come across mind bottling and world wind romance. Lord, help me, but what the hell?

 

Aberrations like these are an affront to writers-who-must-be-teachers-in-order-to-eat everywhere! We poor, struggling souls toil like cats in a sandbox in our attempts to improve the writing skills of our charges. But c’mon! There is no excuse for college students NOT to capitalize I or to think that pit bulls have a “killer instant in them” or that “taking something for granite” means anything! The least that our students can do is to read, read, read excellent models of our language so that they can experience and emulate the right way to write (not the “rite way to wright”). And bringing us a Strawberries and Crème Frappuccino once in a while couldn’t hurt either.

Guest Blog Post, George Estreich: Americano

George Estreich, poet and author of "The Shape of the Eye"

George Estreich, poet and author of “The Shape of the Eye”

In July of 2008, the year I lived in Melbourne with my family, Starbucks responded to the economic crisis by shuttering hundreds of stores worldwide. In the letters section of The Age, Melbourne’s newspaper of record, the event registered as a triumph over an uncouth invader:

 

Good riddance, Starbucks, take your awful coffee and go back to the rat hole you came from.

            Matt Smith, Beaumaris.

 

And (huffily), under the headline “A win for good taste”:

 

Finally, the Australian public has resisted the temptation to mimic and Americanise our lives, by rejecting the Starbucks coffee model. When you consider that the average good (Italian) coffee outlet in Melbourne will charge roughly $3 for a great coffee that will be brought to your table in a china cup, why on earth would people want to pay roughly double for an average coffee, often with a fancy name, in a cardboard cup, that you have to line up for, with no service?

We are to be congratulated.

            Steven Rose, Caulfield

*

            Seven months earlier, as we prepared to leave Oregon for my wife’s sabbatical year, I’d sworn never to visit an Australian Starbucks. Why travel to a new shore, then turn your back on the continent? Why open new vistas, then shut your eyes? At the same time, I hadn’t sworn off coffee, which I need in order to avoid headaches, write clearly, and stabilize my moods. But after we arrived in Melbourne, I could not find coffee anywhere. It was only one of a long list of absences, including familiar faces, Mexican food, and rain. (To move from the Pacific Northwest in winter to a Victorian summer, from a dank, rainy perma-twilight to a surfeit of sun, is as dramatic a shift as you can make in the First World.)

I ventured into non-corporate coffee shops on Chapel Street and Swanston Street and Glenferrie Road, ready with my colorful Australian money, and asked for a cup of coffee.

What kind of coffee?

            Well…coffee.

            (Delicately.) Espresso, macchiato, cappuccino…?

Drip coffee, at least outside Starbucks, does not exist in Melbourne. The closest thing to it is what Starbucks calls “Americano,” and what Australians call a “long black.” Sometimes you can get coffee made with a French press. Once, in a Gloria Jean’s, I ordered the French Press Coffee of the Day. From the hasty conference behind the counter, I gathered that the Coffee of the Day flavor would have to be identified, and the French press would have to be located and dusted off. Eventually something smelling of burned hazelnuts appeared in a paper cup.

The brief, confused conversations I had with baristas, in early January, seemed part of a seamless web of disorientation and confusion. It included the black light that evidently flashed on above my head whenever I opened my mouth, or the awkward tack-left-tack-right stutter-step that happened every ten steps on crowded city sidewalks, where we had to remember to walk on the left side. It is, I suppose, that disorientation that we went there to find, in order to recover from it.

The absence of coffee felt like the absence of a personal history. I had grown up with the smell of burned coffee in a two-stage aluminum pot (you poured boiling water in the top, and it sank through a perforated basket full of Maxwell House grounds, producing a dark ichor, whose liquid remainder thickened and burned above a low flame all Saturday morning); I had drunk gallons of watery diner refills as a teenager, while out late avoiding the house; for years after I was married, I made double-strength Folger’s in the Braun coffeemaker given as a wedding gift; and then I learned, after moving to the Pacific Northwest, that coffee was not only too precious for free refills, but that it had its own vocabulary of aroma and taste and provenance, like wine for the productive. As a newcomer to Cascadia, I came to have preferences. When at home, I drank fair-trade organic French Roast Sumatra delivered to the local food co-op by bicycle, though none of these qualities were as important to me as its raw strength. I like coffee, I like the taste of it, and I prefer it to be fairly traded, but the truth is that it’s always been about the milligrams. Which is how I came to spend hundreds of dollars a year at Starbucks for something I once thought too bitter to consume.

Writers need rituals, a way to make the world recede. Over the years in the Northwest, writing in Starbucks had become my ritual, the habit that enclosed the habit. I’d park myself by an outlet, plug in the laptop, and write for most of the morning. It was comfortable—that carefully crafted “third space,” neither home nor work, was a good fit for a writer without a job—and over the years, as the price of a grande house ticked upward, the comfort began to feel necessary. That third space is designed to be ignored, to be pleasant, unobtrusive, a dependable nowhere. Glancing around, I saw that most other customers were living in third spaces of their own, texting, surfing the net, looking at Windows or out through windows. I was no different; an unfinished manuscript is a third space too. You spend hours there, or years, but you don’t live there, and you hope to leave as soon as you can.

In Melbourne, ignoring our surroundings was not an option. The least detail demanded attention. Which tram do we take? Where can I find coffee? Why does that big cemetery have a banner announcing a website? What does “Bob’s your uncle” mean? In response, we kept our eyes and ears open, asked questions, and reconstituted a version of home. In our beige rented apartment, we slept on mattresses on the floor and covered cardboard boxes with fabric to make nightstands. Our desk was a card table in a corner of the living/dining area. We didn’t own a car; we got around on trams and commuter trains, which not only made us feel virtuous, but also made the rare car ride seem futuristic in its velocity. I joked about selling carbon credits to friends with SUVs, but our plane flights to, from, and within the continent ensured that our carbon footprint was probably less dainty than thunderous. From the atmosphere’s perspective, we were stomping around in clown shoes.

We had translated our life into Australian, and like Australian English, it was both comprehensible and different in every syllable. We had debit cards (called “EFTPOS”), cell phones (“mobiles”), my daughters attended school (in uniforms), my wife worked in a lab (but did not teach), and I cooked, hung out with the kids after school, and revised my manuscript (but not in Starbucks).

*

            Whenever I told anyone we were moving to Australia, I was quick to note that we were lucky. We were lucky. I was determined to make the best of that luck, so I began to drink coffee that was good (Italian). I developed a taste for cappuccino.

The presence of cappuccino, macchiato, espresso et al in Melbourne is not the result of a corporate marketing plan. Nor is it a recent trend. Coffee that is good (Italian) exists in Melbourne because Melbourne has Italians, who migrated to Australia and brought their coffee with them. Melbourne is often described as a “cosmopolitan” or “European” city, and in coffee is the bitter essence of that Europeanness. This, perhaps, is the source of the Melbournian reaction to Starbucks: with its ridiculous names, its grandes and ventis and Frappuccinos, the stores were one more visible reminder of Americans taking over and ruining everything authentic and good.

Leaving friends and family for a year is hard; adjusting to a new culture is hard; uncertainty, in general, is hard. Learning to drink cappuccino is easy. It is possibly the easiest expatriate adjustment on record. In Mr. Tulk (the cafe at the State Library, named for its first librarian); in Brown’s, the bakery/cafe I’d go to with my daughters every Thursday after school; at a shivery outdoor picnic table at the Collingwood Children’s Farm; in a dozen other places I walked into because I’d read about them, or just because I was curious, I learned, somehow, to cope. The cappuccino was good.

            It was always gone too soon. The bladder-straining Grande Paper Vat was now a memory, and the quality of Australian coffee (excellent) and the quantity (less than ginormous) were instructive. I was reading a lot of Michael Pollan in those days, and the cappuccino seemed part of a sensibly Australian approach to food. The portions were reasonable, not huge. Even at McDonald’s—I hadn’t sworn off McDonald’s, a practical parent never surrenders a useful bribe–a large soda was maybe sixteen ounces, not thirty-two. Also, the refills weren’t free. The middle of Australia is spinifex-filled desert, not corn, so you also paid for packets of ketchup, and for soda refills. From across the equator, I was coming to see America as the Land of Free-Flowing Corn Syrup, where you could have as much as you wanted of whatever was profoundly bad for you.

Now and then, walking up Swanston Street to the State Library, I’d pass the open door of Starbucks. It smelled exactly like home. But then, so did the Lush, which smelled exactly like its counterpart in Portland; and, for that matter, so did the McDonald’s (“Macca’s”), or the Burger King (“Hungry Jack’s”). All seemed to have drilled a pipeline of memory from Australia to America, and whenever the fragrance of Chicken McNuggets or Pike Place Roast wafted out on refrigerated air, I experienced a swell of false nostalgia. Of course, it was not place I remembered, but displacement, a familiar nowhere, precise, predictable, franchised. I walked on.

The cappuccino did come in a china cup. You sat and drank it, and when it was gone, you left. In an American Starbucks, customers tend to either rush off with to-go cups or loiter for hours over laptops. In Australia, these extremes were harder to find. To-go cups were unusual, and we never saw anyone with coffee on a tram. In these practices were an echo of teatime, which in Theresa’s lab was mandatory. No conversation about work allowed. No drinking tea at your desk. You stop what you’re doing and have tea. It was one of the many reminders that though Australia and the United States had their origins in a single empire, they were traveling on very different vectors.

The cappuccino was very, very good. It was good (Italian); it was good (Australian); it was good (Melbournian). But it was, emphatically, not American.

*

            Reading the letters to The Age—“good riddance, Starbucks”–I experienced an odd flicker of patriotism. Since arriving from the Superpower Rat Hole I was born to, I had been bumping up against my foreignness. I was the one with the accent. I was, for better or worse, the representative of a clueless superpower. And while I found, as many have, that Australians are extraordinarily generous and kind and open, there was also a sort of unexpected ironic reserve, a skepticism, not accurately represented in the commercials for Outback Steakhouse. No one ever told us to go back to the rat hole we came from, but Theresa, at work, was asked in all seriousness if she carried a handgun back home, and I was asked more than once (in a tone of hopeful absolution) if I might perhaps be from Canada.

Because we made friends over the year, because we attended school plays and soccer games and visited places like Merimbula, where American tourists rarely go, we came to see that this attitude was far from rigid. Australians always seemed happy to be proved wrong about Americans. We were not necessarily assumed to be gun-toting, Palin-supporting, Frappuccino-swilling rats, but there was a tone of relief when we turned out not to be. This relief became general in Australia at about 2:30 p.m. on November 4th, when it became clear that America would have a President who was black and Democratic–and a Vice-President who was not Alaskan–and from that day on until we left in late December, the mood was palpably different. There was hope for us, after all. On the day Obama was elected, Laura’s bus driver was in tears, she was so happy, and Theresa’s lab stopped work for the afternoon. Instead of teatime, they had champagne.

*

            Five years later, I feel less inspired than disappointed. The hopes attending Obama’s arrival don’t change the facts of climate. We live in the Anthropocene now, and one peculiar fact of our manmade era is that it is all too comprehensible. Ice melts, the temperature goes up, the species go extinct, the birds’ ranges alter, and the CO2 continues to accumulate. We know what we need to know, and we know that we know it. To have this kind of awareness is to feel less certain about ordinary life. Its solidity shimmers, as if seen through the fumes rising from a gas can. We are compromised Zen masters, enlightened but culpable: the world is impermanent, and it’s all our fault.

To live in Victoria in 2008 was to feel large-scale climate change, in a way western Oregon does not usually allow. Though the blazing heat wave that welcomed us to Melbourne was weather, the eleven-year drought in Victoria was something else again. By the time we arrived, that drought was simply the new normal. The climate had changed. The signs were everywhere, in water restrictions, in the black pipes sticking up from the bases of trees, in patchy cricket grounds, in news reports about irrigation conflicts and the Murray River turning to acid. On February 7, 2009, about a month after we got back home, days of record temperatures and wind prepared the way for the Black Saturday bushfires. Marysville, northeast of Melbourne, was completely incinerated. Thirty-four people died in Marysville alone, one hundred and seventy-three altogether. The smoke cloud was visible from space.

We’d driven through Marysville on our way to Healesville Animal Sanctuary, where my younger daughter, who’d once been terrified by a wallaby hopping through a campsite in New South Wales, successfully petted a kangaroo. I remembered Marysville as one of dozens of tidy, friendly Australian towns, with an Australia Post, an op shop (thrift store: “op” is short for “opportunity”), a few restaurants, a few stores for tourists. Online, you can find photos before and after the fire. The photos before the event correspond to memory, the photos after do not. The aerial photos show an apocalyptic plat map. At ground level, it seems as if color itself has been burned away. Our connection to the tragedy is so slight, it is almost obscene to mention it, except that disasters of that scale are becoming more likely as the world warms, and our chances of escaping them, or avoiding them by travel, are decreasing.

We live in the shadow of unimaginable numbers, the sum of our routines. We drive to Starbucks, because it is raining; we fly to Australia, because we want a change; we take the tram to the State Library and sit in the Australiana Room, the light filtering from a high window, because we want to write about a life. These acts consume energy, and while individually trivial, they are significant in the aggregate. Tim Flannery, the Australian scientist and author of The Weather Makers, explains the “telekinetic” nature of the atmosphere: wherever the carbon comes from, it quickly distributes throughout the system. Whether it’s the black Land Rover wedging itself into a Chadstone Shopping Centre parking space, the hunter green Outback pulling up to a Trader Joe’s, or the Prius in the Starbucks drive-through, each of us contributes our parts per million. Our routines produce the crisis, but the crisis also threatens our routines.

*

            When we came back to America, I decided to buy a new coffeemaker. Even after two weeks back in the States, it seemed as if the year abroad was already dissolving. We blinked and returned to the same house, in the same Northwest winter, except our children’s friends were suddenly taller. We stepped outside the bubble for a year, and the bubble welcomed us back. It was eerie: I felt too settled in, as if the trip had not happened. As if some part of me, altered by the trip abroad, refused to root and flourish. Perhaps that dislocation was my way of honoring the fact of the year away.

So I drove to the Fred Meyer store and bought a new Black and Decker coffeemaker, which, when I plugged it in and filled the filter basket with fresh-ground bicycle-delivered organic beans, produced four cups of watery swill. I drove back and returned it, then drove to the ARC on 10th and Beca and found a used Mr. Coffee brand coffeemaker/cappuccino maker for eight dollars. It was so old, its instruction manual did not even list a website. The manual was precisely written, by someone who clearly cared about espresso (the proper grind was “like salt, or sand”); but strikingly, it was written, in English, and not composed of generic, globalization-friendly icons. (These are handy, if you want to sell an appliance in eighty different countries; but they are limited. You can show someone a generic hand filling a carafe with water; you can demonstrate the concept of “plugging in”; you can show not doing something, or rudimentary concepts like “hot” or “shocky” or “ouch”; but you cannot, without words, demonstrate the proper fineness of an espresso grind.)

It took awhile to get the cappuccino maker part to work, but it works. The coffeemaker part works too, but most mornings I make cappuccino; it reminds me of another home. As for Starbucks, I don’t go there as much as I used to. The book I was writing is done, and it’s quieter at my desk.

Guest Blog Post, Courtney Mauk: The Space Between

Mauk photo 1Confession: This is the first thing I’ve written in over three weeks.

In the past I might have gotten depressed over a lull in my work, but I’ve come to understand that these quiet moments (a more gentle and accurate term than lazy or uninspired) can be as essential to the writing process as those “butt in the chair” days.

Sometimes lulls are due to outside demands—after all, none of us are writers only and occasionally other responsibilities can, and should, take priority. At other times lulls are self-imposed, a clearing out of the system. Recently I had a student who threw herself into the creation of a character, entering that beautiful, agonizing manic state where she could not stop thinking about, and as, her character. When she finished her story, she felt she should get started on the next one, but thinking about other characters felt like a betrayal. She needed to take time off in order to say good-bye, reset, and begin again.

My current lull hasn’t been entirely circumstantial, nor entirely by choice. After spending five feverish months working on the first draft of a novel, I sent it off to my group of trusted readers with the intention of using the weeks before meeting with them on revising short stories. But we meet tonight, and those story files have remained closed. Unlike my student, I didn’t feel like I was betraying anyone. Inspiration just never struck—maybe I could have forced it, but I didn’t feel inclined to try. Instead I used the hours I usually spend writing in the park, reading a book that had been in my to-be-read pile for far too long and taking occasional breaks to watch the people sitting near me, the others rushing past. Another morning I wandered around one of my favorite parts of the city and bought the season’s first strawberries at the farmers market (those berries made me so happy, I texted my husband immediately and used more than my allotted exclamation points). One afternoon I walked through an area I’d never explored before, even though it runs right into my neighborhood, and reveled in its gritty beauty. I left my cellphone at home and paid no attention to the time. As I walked, I found myself taking deep breaths; I went way beyond the point where I thought I would turn back.

A lull doesn’t have to be a source of frustration or guilt; it isn’t a void, whether it lasts days, weeks, months, or even years. What it means is you’ve take a moment to step outside your own head and live your life. For writers, imagination is our greatest resource; we are compelled by the worlds we create and that’s why we struggle so to capture them in words. But every now and again, it can be helpful to step away from the computer screen, close the notebook, get your butt out of the chair, and look around, to let your imagination reset, open, and begin again.

My yoga teacher encourages us to observe the space between our breaths. It takes a conscious effort to notice and appreciate something so unconscious. But that space is there—that stillness, as essential as the inhale and the exhale, holding us and letting us go on living.

You can learn more about Courtney at her website: www.courtneymauk.com