On Writing and Not Writing

Documenting progress. Contemplating stalemates.

2015 was going to be “the year”. The year for intentional, inspirational, experiential travel. (So many “als”.) And writing. The travel would inspire the writing. Each quarter, I planned to attend a writer’s conference or spiritual retreat to advance the connection between all of the stuff floating around in my head, and the words inked on a page.

A shaky first start. That’s what I’ll call 2015. This blog was launched in late 2014 so I’ll chalk that up as a win. And I did take a few trips to let my soul steep in¬†creativity this year, hearing artists speak in Nashville and Chicago. Finally, I did a little writing. A little.

Everyone says to just write. If you’re going to write, you need to write. Anne Lamott says it in Bird by Bird. Stephen King says it in On Writing. And Dan Vaillancourt said it plainly to my face in 2013, with his humble yet firm East Coast cadence. Dan’s a professor and runs the Walker House Inn in Mineral Point, a haven for anyone hoping to translate creativity into active beauty. Because he’s a professor, Dan can just dole out that sort of wisdom.

James Rhodes, though. He was the biggest kick in the teeth for me this year. His presentation at STORY Conference in Nashville in October resembled Mister Toad’s Wild Ride….in all the good ways. He had a loose agenda, integrated tangents and curse words like the necessary accessories they are, and never once lost my attention. Here’s what he said… If you think of great stuff but don’t do anything with it, you’re not creative, you just have a good imagination. Ouch. Noted, Sir James, noted.

What else did I pursue as an ingredient in my recipe for creation? Music.

Concerts were a mainstay over the past 12 months. Langhorne Slim. Lil Rev. Charlie Parr. Holy Sheboygan. Todd Snider. The Wood Brothers. John Prine. Tim Grimm. Horseshoes and Handgrenades. The unexpected performance by (and subsequent obsession with) Abigail Washburn.

Musical performances may seem inconsequential. And they felt more indulgent than any other activity over the course of the year. But. But Shauna Niequist put my love (and need) for live music into perspective for me.

Here’s what she said… If you are a maker of any kind, consume art like a starving person. #ShaunaNiequist

So the concerts I attended weren’t just entertainment. Music fed my creativity. Hearing the story behind the songs led me to a place of drawing up from the well the stories that were living in me.

Not only does the music kick up narrative, but the art of my fellow human beings leads me to life discoveries. One discovery in particular was quite powerful, providing direction to my aimless wandering out into writerdom.

On a brisk evening in mid November, my husband and I drove up the peninsula to see folk singer Tim Grimm perform in a little inn just off the lake. Yes, that is as great as it sounds. Twinkle lights ushered us northward and a warm breeze blew dried leaves across the pavement upon our arrival.

I’ve followed Tim’s music for over ten years. Never before had I known him to perform in Wisconsin. And now, I was sitting ten feet from him in an audience of 50, under low lights and a low ceiling. Two stories from that night brought my purpose for writing into focus. Like that metal steampunk device at the eye doctor.

In one story, Tim reflected on discovering a book of pioneer tales written by his friend. He brought the book to his songwriters group. The group was faced with the self-inflicted proposition of choosing a tale from the book and creating a song about it. From that, Tim’s song Celia Rose was born. The sordid tale of a girl whose mind didn’t work correctly. When told her parents were the limiting factor to her pursuit of the man she loved, she poisoned and killed them. Not only did this actually happen in Ohio, but someone chose to record the legend. And another artist sang about it. As a result of the songs these writers created, that book of pioneer tales was bought back into print again and a little more life was breathed into history.

Over 100 years later, Tim encountered another American tale. He connected with a fellow Indiana farmer to purchase hay. As they loaded Tim’s truck up with the bales, the older farmer unloaded his life story. Upon her retirement, the farmer’s wife had left him. Help was hard to find, so he was faced with the painful truth that the horses and land needed to be sold. All he ever knew to be right and true was dwindling to nothing in his twilight years. Tim was compelled to retell that man’s story. He captured it in the ballad So It Goes. As the folk singer told this story in Door County that night, it was evident that he couldn’t have NOT shared this man’s life. He was given a gift through the farmer’s story, and his inclination was to share it. I see this as paying homage to his elder. To the shared human experience.

In short, I have learned that this is a thing. This is my thing. This art of listening to peoples’ stories and turning oral history into written history. I can do this. I can do this because, for starters, I’m available for the telling. I am hungry for little else, save the stories of my sisters and brothers. By catching glimpses of the universe through a million other sets of eyes, I can gather a more comprehensive portrait of our world.

In addition, I believe that when people tell their stories, the sentiment can gain or lose momentum. Sometimes our stories are burdens, filled with pain and repeating their damage with each recollection. Once that story is told, out loud, to someone else, its power is depleted. Then there are the great stories that no one has yet bothered to mine. My mother’s stories of working nights in a canning factory, birthing 10 children and coming close to meeting Liberace when she escaped to Chicago as a teenager. A 75 year old now, she brushes off these stories like dust from a shelf, shrugging off their value and questioning my interest in the details. When I encounter these memoirs and draw people back in to their past, I am met with great surprise. The lot of us are completely unaware that we even have a story to tell. Because there is no story without a listener. And there are so very few listeners to serve as tellers.

So many voices echo with the need to tell and hear the stories. Utah Phillips’ lyrics from an old scratchy record my father used to play come to mind…
“Let me sing to you all those songs I know…the telling takes me home.
Come along with me to some places that I’ve been. Where people all look back and they still remember when…”

Vintage tray for my writing pens, a gift from my dear artist friend Loris

So I lift my pen to 2016 and the stories to be told and retold on this canvas. In this next year, may curiousity and wonderment reign, capturing stories untold.