Friday, January 25, 2008

On ghosts and voices

Annie Dillard, in THE WRITING LIFE, says, "A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all." I came across this passage while prepping for one of my spring classes. She goes on to say, "There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain..."

So, what do I think of? I think of my ghosts. I had a really good conversation on Wednesday with my editor. She is extremely practical, as I may have mentioned in earlier posts! One of the comments she made about my 100+ pages I'd sent her was that she didn't connect as much with the "supernatural" parts of the story. I can buy that. Not everyone is crazy. But I have also been searching for a way into this project.I am sick to death of rehashing dad's story and death over and over. The material feels not just done, but overcooked. I can't generate enthusiasm to work it through one more time because I've worked it through ... like 1000 times, and in another book already, and in two years of therapy, and then in two years of doing grief counseling for others, and then in... You get the picture.

The longer I write and teach writing, the less I know about it. I do think I know, at least today, that if a writer knows too much about the subject matter, the writing will self destruct. If the writer has a clear trajectory, then all she's doing is filling in the blanks. She's not exploring anymore -- either internally or externally. Over the past several years I've been putting together an essay collection called GHOST GATHERING. I haven't been able to really figure out what it is, but the thing that keeps pulling me back to it is the ghosts. Here's the concept from my original proposal:

Uncovering the Unseen Fingerprints of a Life

Ghost Gathering: Uncovering the Unseen Fingerprints of a Life is a book length collection of narrative creative non-fiction exploring the question of how the things we’ve hidden, the secrets we’ve kept, the relationships we haven’t chosen, and the things we have or have not said, shape the lives we have today. This book is for anyone who has wondered about why the unselected lives we all carry with us continue to haunt us, and how those lives both reinforce and dismantle the life we currently call our “real” one.

The life which is dying is existing right here now and is grateful. – Zen wisdom

Our lives contain glimpses in every room of paths we might have taken, a flash of hope for what could be or could have been, a recording of regrets that plays out over and over again – a skip in the DVD of our lives. How can we live with these multiple lives, multiple scenarios, and then claim we have only a single life? How many different ways do we gather the ghosts that shape our lives?

We are all formed by our secrets, hidden desires, sorrows and hopes. These intangibles make us human. We become three-dimensional only when we can recognize and integrate the things we keep in the shadows of our private minds. The residue of our discarded lives and untaken opportunities is part of the glue that holds us together and keeps us whole.

This collection of creative non-fiction studies the precarious relationship between our beliefs and the facts of our lives, the world of mystery and the world of realism, and examines the idea that the human condition cannot be explored in totality without acknowledging the dimensions of our existences that cannot be quantified, dissected, or assessed.

So, it seems to me that Between Skins is an extension of this concept. When I thought about my editor's comments, I kept coming back to, "But that's how I see the world!" And then, when I thought deeper, "That's why I became a writer." If I didn't hear the voices, if I didn't see the ghosts, I wouldn't be writing.

Keith gave me a title suggestion of: BODY OF WORK: Voices from a writer's life. Maybe GHOST GATHERING is the title for it. I don't know. I think of possession, obsession, concession -- the tricks of storytelling. I think of how much of my life falls in the unseen place, and how often I need to go there to do what I am put here to do. Then I think of how early I knew this to be true. I remember my first ghost. My first voice. So I think ... here's a way into a memoir. A writer's relationship with her ghosts. With her voices. How her characters have invaded her, befriended her, abandoned her, and how the relationships with those characters have shaped her "real" story. This is something I haven't explored in words yet, so there's juice. It's something I haven't rehashed a thousand times. It's something I would want to know about if I read a memoir of another writer. How does she live with writing? What does it do to her? What doesn't it do?

Talking with my editor made me realize how much artists see the world differently than others. I don't see any difference between a seen world and an unseen world. They're both here. All the time. It's always been that way for me. It's a reality check (ha!) to realize that most people don't think like that. Jennifer told me to write from a place of authenticity and send her more when I had more. Find the question of the book. Then write to find the answer. My father was one of my first voices and then he became one of my ghosts. But there are so many more. Some I see only once a year or so, waiting for their time to talk. One I've seen since before I could talk. I don't know what she's about. I wrote a little about her in BONE DANCE. Necahual, my bone woman, showed up there in an altered form.

What is my work?

There is more than lines and angles. There's a world of spirals, going up and going down. There's a world of pulsing energy. Each of us sees different parts of it. Keith sees some of it in the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon isn't one of my places. I see it in redwoods and water. If all of us not only looked at the world with soft eyes, but felt safe enough to share what they saw, what a picture of mama earth we'd have.

This way of seeing the world is what I have to share.It's the thing only I love. The thing that makes sense only to me. The thing that makes me ... me.

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