A Thanksgiving Lament: How can anyone possibly focus when the house smells this good?

I’m sure I’d be writing something witty or poignant except that I can’t stop thinking about those artery-clogging potatoes in the oven.

I’m thankful for so much. Friends, family, readers, good books, music, walks up my small mountain, cranberry sage stuffing.

My cup truly runneth over, except for writing ideas, which I still have to claw from a big box of nothing I keep next to my blank screen.

Thought I might drag something out between stuffing the bird and stuffing myself, but I’d rather hang out with my loved ones.

And rescue the wine from the freezer.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Things I’m Not Writing About

Just like on the previous fourteen days, I have been flailing around for a writing idea again today. As an added incentive, I told myself I couldn’t eat lunch until I post, which means I am getting ridiculously hungry and increasingly desperate.

So I have turned to a list of suggested writing prompts for assistance. Here’s sampling:

“Do you enjoy growing old or do you fight against it?”

No. I do not want to write about that. Does anyone? Perhaps yogis or saints.

Next up, “If you could permanently get rid of one worry, which one would it be?” You know what? Cataloguing and weighing each worry–starting with growing old, of course–has set off a mild anxiety attack. Thanks a lot, people.

Though it didn’t spawn ideas, this one did cheer me out of my funk: “You’re a Nigerian prince with millions in the bank but you can’t access it without an American co-signer. To your surprise and disappointment, nobody will help you transfer the money.”

Most promising at first read: “What is the one appliance that you can’t live without?” Easy: the toaster. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to add to that besides the fact that toast is the most fabulous, most perfect food in the universe, unless you have run out of butter, and then…why bother?

Sadly, in the midst of my search, guess what appeared on the right side of my screen?

Dang.
Dang. This felt personal.

Hm. Must be time to put this post out of its misery. Kudos to you for slogging through it. Any suggestions for getting unstuck are indeed welcome.

Black Hole

From NASA's
From NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

I am staring at the page wondering: where are all of my ideas?

Over the weekend, I spent an embarrassing number of hours dragging a short story out of my “creative well.”

I had to beat it into a recognizable shape, and stretch it to meet guidelines and parameters. It was neither a graceful process, nor a painless one.

The story is not horrible; with a little fine-tuning I might like it.

What’s horrible is the black hole left behind–the fear that it was the very last idea I will hatch.

Fortunately, I can always write about writer’s block.

Bird by Bird

A different bird.
A different bird.                                                                                            ©2012 Beret Olsen

I was up half the night for reasons unbeknownst to me, then startled early from my sliver of sleep by the odd thumps of an imaginary intruder. Heart pounding, I dismissed my fears, forcing myself to lie still as a board for another forty-five minutes.

Today, bleary-eyed and unproductive, I parceled 15 minutes to close my eyes and breathe. My plan? To reboot and arise again, convincing myself I felt refreshed and clearheaded. But the second my head touched the pillow, the strangest sound curdled in my cat’s throat. Next thing I knew, a flailing blob of black fur hurled itself across the room and a small bird began dive-bombing my eyes. Swell.

Clearly a moment of zen was out of the question. Instead, I heaved myself back into a vertical position and set about finding the bird. I had to get that creature out of the house before the cat disemboweled it on the bed.

The weird thing was, I couldn’t find it. The cat was no help, either. She was just as perplexed as I was.

How long are you supposed to look for a trapped bird?

Eventually I gave up and settled back in front of the computer to knock out some work.

After five minutes of relative peace, there was a little scrambling sound, followed by something hopping on my foot.

You might imagine that the problem was now solved–bird located!–except it can be quite a production to convince a bird to try the open door rather than flying into shelving units and closed windows. It’s like trying to shepherd a drunk friend out of a party, and they keep curling up on a pile of shoes or wandering off into a closet.

Later, I found myself ruminating on the frequent appearance of birds. They are everywhere for me these days. I hear them mentioned in a turn of phrase, a discussion of Halloween costumes, or see one staring at me while I eat breakfast. Two surfed on the hood of my car for a block or two after I stopped for coffee recently. I suppose I shouldn’t mention that the bird pictured above was killed in a brutal showdown in my bedroom and then hidden by my triumphant feline friend. I didn’t find that poor soul for a few weeks. And that’s not all. Almost every book I have read in the past few months has featured birds…including:

  • Little Bird of Heaven–Joyce Carol Oates
  • The Goldfinch–Donna Tartt (Not finished. No spoilers!)
  • Ocean at the End of the Lane–Neil Gaiman
  • Bird by Bird–Anne Lamott
  • Imperfect Birds–Anne Lamott

Even Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh, had a chapter about a parrot that I read and reread repeatedly throughout the summer. And on my book list to read next? When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams. I swear. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I also read Gone Girl, which has no significant bird that I recall).

If they were all crows, I would assume something terrible were about to befall me. I’m hoping I attract birds for a more benign reason. Perhaps I smell like a flower, or a heap of birdseed.

In any event, it’s time to get a feeder and a bell for the cat.

What am I doing here?

From www.images.sodahead.com
From http://www.images.sodahead.com

I don’t remember why I started a blog.

I don’t even really know why I need to write. I just know that when I don’t, I get cranky.

When I do write, I feel fabulous–whether I end up posting or not. So why don’t I simply dump my thoughts in a journal and stick it on the shelf? Continue reading What am I doing here?

Medicine Head

From www.farm3.staticflickr.com
From http://www.farm3.staticflickr.com…Oh, how I wish I had taken this photograph myself.

My brain is lodged in the trash compactor,

unmoved by children’s Tylenol.

I stare, glassy-eyed, at a blank and patronizing screen

wondering

will I ever coax this contraption to do my bidding?

Saliva snags the back of my gullet, and travels like a barbed mouse through a snake.

Thick rivers of mucus dislodge all thought from rational moorings

and press angrily against the inside of my face.

One more attempt to form a sentence and I’ll erupt–

Vesuvius-style–

without Pliny to document my self-destruction.

My Sincere Gratitude + (special bonus!) My Dribble Cup of Fear

@a long, long time ago   Beret Olsen
@2003   Beret Olsen

I have no idea how it happened.

Somehow a lovely story wrangler named Michelle stumbled across my essay about sleeping in the hallway.

I find myself wondering: what are the odds? And I marvel a little at the sheer luck of it. I must have posted my essay on the right day, at the right time, on a topic she found interesting. I must have put just the right tags on it.

But what has been truly astonishing was that all of a sudden a whole community of writers appeared, and I realized that we are not on our own out here in cyberspace at all. I feel immense gratitude that you have taken the time to read my words and relate them to your own lives, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading your work as well.

Thank you.

Unfortunately, the inevitable has happened: I got stage fright. I am TERRIFIED to write anything at all.  I’m not typing away in a room by myself anymore, because now I know I am not alone. Someone might see if I have a crap day or make a poor word choice. Someone might judge my grammar errors as harshly as I would theirs. Mostly kidding.

Perhaps most paralyzing of all is the thought that I might not be able to write something worthwhile again before you all lose interest and wander off. Shoot, what if I never write something I like as well again?

Fortunately, someone showed me this quote from John Steinbeck when he was beginning to write The Grapes of Wrath:

“I don’t know whether I could write a decent book now,” he said. “That is the greatest fear of all. I’m working at it but I can’t tell. Something is poisoned in me. You pages—ten of you—you are the dribble cup—you are the cloth to wipe up the vomit. Maybe I can get these fears and disgusts on you and then burn you up. Then maybe I won’t be so haunted. I have to pretend it’s that way anyhow.”

I include this quote not because I am putting myself in his league, but because fear and writing seem to go hand in hand for many of us, no matter who we are, or what we have previously accomplished. But THAT IS NOT AN EXCUSE TO STOP. Imagine if Steinbeck had caved to his self-doubt and neglected to finish his novel. What a loss.

Thankfully, we don’t have to write The Grapes; that’s already been done. But we DO have something to say and a remarkably friendly forum in which to say it.

Well, it looks like I just wrote a whole post about not being able to write a post. Hope that is out of my system, now; that I can ‘burn these pages’ and move on to other topics. Come to think of it, you might be hoping the same thing. Now go write something awesome.

Why I drive like Mr. Magoo, and how that might help me finish my book before I’m dead

**An apology to those of you who accidentally got this yesterday. I guess I blog a little like Mr. Magoo, too.

I was recently explaining to a friend why I have trouble getting much writing done.

I described the runway approach I use to build momentum: collecting my thoughts…exercising to clear my head…I need a full stomach, a glass of water, and my phone nearby, set to vibrate. I like my work area to be clean and organized. In fact, it’s best if the whole house is clean and organized, the bills paid, meal planning done, and groceries in the fridge, so there’s no lingering ‘to do’ list hanging over my head.

I wish I were exaggerating.

I need a writing soundtrack. Headphones are best, with familiar music rambling like an old friend inside my head. I like to drift in and out of a song without it snagging my attention.

Once I actually sit down and face the computer, I usually need to write a healthy chunk of crap before I can access the good stuff. Then, after the initial spew, I need about three or four solid hours of uninterrupted time to make any measurable progress.

As I was describing this process, it suddenly struck me how absurd it all was. Sure, who wouldn’t write best under those circumstances? The problem is that they occur simultaneously maybe once a year; the remainder of the time, I just wish I were seriously writing. I might squeeze out a blog post now and then, but when is The Book going to happen?

Here’s my revelation:  I simply can’t wait for the stars to align to produce the perfect writing conditions; if I do, I won’t finish my book until long after I’m dead.

I need to write now, regardless of the circumstances (or, for that matter, the litany of mental obstacles listed previously).

And I’ll bet it’s possible.

After all, I drive best when I’m well-rested, well-fed, and alone in the car, listening to my favorite music. But, I don’t wait to go places until I meet all of the aforementioned conditions. If I need to be somewhere, I go. If I need to get my loved ones around, I do. I take small people to school and to the doctor and the dentist. I fill up with gas and get a few things for dinner. Maybe I parked in the sun so I have to hold the steering wheel with some slightly used tissues I found under the seat. Maybe the playdate gets carsick and I can’t find a plastic bag. No matter. If I need to drive, I drive. Never mind that I have to crank Today’s Hits in order for my two lovely children to refrain from bickering or throwing something at the driver. Shoot, I even have to drive when there is bickering and throwing. I have to drive when people are crying or asking questions like ‘what is god?’ I have to drive when I’m in a bad mood, when I’m sick, and when I’ve been so busy that I’ve forgotten to eat a meal or two. When I need to be somewhere, I go–no matter what is happening in and around me. It might not be graceful. I might careen a bit like Mr. Magoo, but I can get there.

IT’S THE SAME WITH WRITING OR MAKING ART OR PARENTING OR HAVING IMPORTANT CONVERSATIONS OR ANYTHING AT ALL. If we wait for the perfect set of circumstances, we will miss our opportunity completely. End of story.

Why I am not out Shooting Fabulous Photographs

A few years ago, I wrote a list of all the reasons that I was not out taking photographs. Here are fifty-five of them, pretty much intact. Few things have changed, though I did finally graduate and purchase a digital camera. Now technological issues hinder me more than the cost of film, and–since my father stopped driving–I worry about his health instead.

It is terribly disappointing to discover that I still sabotage myself in exactly the same ways. Self-awareness may be the first step, but it’s obviously not the only step necessary to get out of my own way and MAKE STUFF.

I dedicate this list to Larry Sultan, a teacher of such power, insight, and humor that I will be forever grateful for that one short semester I sat in his class.

Roughly Half of the Reasons Why I Am Not Out Shooting Fabulous Photographs Right Now

  1. I was up last night worrying about the shoot.
  2. The light is not right.
  3. I cannot figure out the spot meter.
  4. The camera is wobbly on the tripod.
  5. I do not have a light tight place to load sheet film.
  6. I do not know what to take a picture of.
  7. I suspect that I am not really a photographer.
  8. I need a snack.
  9. If I don’t try too hard, then I have an excuse later if nothing comes out well.
  10. I think I might be getting sick.
  11. I am panicked about finances.
  12. I need to pay the bills.
  13. I was up last night because the cat was making a ruckus.
  14. My professional life is in the toilet.
  15. I still haven’t finished unpacking the boxes from my move four years ago.
  16. I am perplexed that Alan Ernst has not responded to my emails.
  17. I am worried about my father’s driving.
  18. I can’t find my checkbook.
  19. The zone system does not speak to me.
  20. I need a few things from the store.
  21. I should really call my mother.
  22. No matter what I think of, someone has done it well already.
  23. I am not sure what to do about the gophers.
  24. I just thought of a great status update that I don’t want to waste.
  25. I need to read a little theory to situate myself.
  26. I should probably head out early in case traffic is bad on the bridge.
  27. I haven’t finished my homework.
  28. I need to pick a celebrity doppelganger for my facebook profile.
  29. I missed the light for today.
  30. When was my last dental appointment?
  31. I feel a little queasy.
  32. I haven’t finished my thank you notes.
  33. It’s hard to think straight when the place is a mess.
  34. I am afraid of disappointing myself.
  35. I am afraid of disappointing Larry.
  36. I am too wound up to concentrate.
  37. I accidentally unwound too much.
  38. I should really make travel arrangements for the holidays.
  39. I think I forgot my brother’s birthday.
  40. I feel guilty spending so much money on film.
  41. And developing.
  42. And paper.
  43. Maybe I should do a little research on digital cameras.
  44. Was that my phone?
  45. I feel guilty spending time at art school while my kids are off growing up somewhere else.
  46. A little yoga would really clear my head.
  47. I’m almost out of cat litter.
  48. My pants are too snug to be comfortable.
  49. I need to update my resume.
  50. I can’t concentrate with the kids running amok.
  51. Now that they are in bed, I am too tired.
  52. I need to reorganize my negatives.
  53. I am worried that my parents are going to die.
  54. I can’t find all of the equipment I need when I need it.
  55. I probably don’t have enough time now to really get a good start.

5 topics I’m afraid to write about

My unabridged list is too long and unwieldy to share–even with myself–but after a minimal amount of thinking, here are five topics I’m afraid to write about:

1.  This one.

Seriously.  Anytime I sit down and stare at a blank page, I am terrified.  What if this time, NOTHING COMES OUT?  It could happen.  It happened yesterday, as a matter of fact, and there is absolutely no guarantee that today will be any different.

2.  Things I don’t know much about.

This is an alarmingly large category.  I really wish I had started a blog a few years ago when I knew everything.

3.  Really Big Topics.

Some people seem to get a thrill from tackling the big topics:  abortion, gun control, peace in the Middle East, that sort of thing.  Not me.  The other day, Scott Berkun prompted us Daily Post-ers to write about capital punishment, and that was the beginning of my writer’s block.  It’s not that I don’t have an opinion.  I do, and maybe that is all that’s necessary to start spewing, but I am always second-guessing myself.  These debates have been raging for decades; what could I possibly add to the conversation that would turn the tide?

4.  Cats.

As topic for any sort of discourse, pets dwell at the bottom of the barrel–right on top of the weather.  I used to read Jon Carrell on a regular basis back when I had a two-hour commute, and every time he wrote a column on his cat I thought, “This poor guy had no idea what to write today.”  On the other hand, I enjoy reading posts about pets when they are particularly amusing and well-written, and I do have quite a few seriously deranged pet stories once I screw up the courage.  You may be dubious.  Here’s something to whet your palate:  Guess which dead pet I allowed my five-year-old to sleep with?

5.  Love.

This is a freaking intense topic.  And complicated.  Jim Goldberg made me create a book about love one time and it was absolute garbage.  An embarrassment.  Probably the worst thing I’ve ever written and photographed.  I think it is nearly impossible to try to capture love without seeming annoying or cloying.  Or cynical.  Love has been watered down for the masses into a Hallmark-y mess.  Love is not just the doey-eyed rantings of horny teenagers.  But still, I am a great believer.  And I am thankful that there are books out there like The Year of Magical Thinking and The Age of Grief that start to get it right.  I’m just not ready for the big time yet.