How Not to Be a Neurotic Writer

033I spent the last few days on “writers retreat” with my critique partners Laura Bickle and Marcella Burnard. Laura treated us to a cabin in the Hocking Hills and took us on her favorite hikes to these amazing nooks and grottoes. It was so lovely. There’s something about all that pure water springing through rock crevices that’s magical, too. It felt purifying and inspiring.

The reason I put “writers retreat” in quotation marks is because we are all writers and we did retreat – no cell service or internet – we didn’t actually write all that much.

We talked about it. A lot.

And normally I’m a proponent of the “don’t talk about it, just do it” school of Getting Your Writing Done, but this was a chance for us to hash out all our Thoughts on career, peers and gossip. It was more like a corporate retreat. What have we done and where are we going?

My favorite moment: when Laura referred to my career “strategy.” Yeah. Like I planned this.

Among our topics of gossip were the inevitable rehashes of the various colleagues who’ve flamed out for various reasons. The ones who inexplicably posted highly inadvisable rants to blogs. The ones who burned bridges with publishing houses for no apparently better reason than because they had a barrel of lighter fluid handy. The neurotic divas who threw fits in bookstores or at conventions. Talking about the Great Cautionary Tales is fun, especially while drinking wine in the hot tub while fireflies dart about, but it’s also useful. There’s an unfortunate tendency for writers to be nutbags. Almost like it goes with the job. But I just don’t believe that has to be the case.

Extract the lesson from these tales, please.

That’s often what stories do – they illustrate lessons for us. Often the message speaks to a deeper part of ourselves. In fact, the best stories work that way.

In thinking about the whole concept of “I’m an artist and therefore neurotic” concept, I started thinking about the hero’s journey. There’s the classic tale of journeying to another world to bring back the prize. This “other” place – the underworld, dreamworld, faerie, what have you – is equivalent to the subconscious. Wherever we believe our stories come from, it feels like a journey to get them. We metaphorically travel to this other landscape – not the world of traffic lights and alarm clocks – to connect to the creative principle.

(You can call it the muse or the subconscious or the Great Storyteller or whatever – I don’t think it matters.)

In the stories, the dreamworld follows different rules, but the hero who survives, who triumphs, is the one who is pure of heart. She’s the one who can face herself in the mirror and accept who she truly is. It takes discipline, self-knowledge and brutal clarity to journey to the dreamworld and bring back the prize.

When the hero triumphs, she travels the night-dark sea, returns with the magic elixir, neatly bottled and labeled, turns it into her editor ON TIME and saves the village. Much rejoicing.

The others? They can make it to the dreamworld all right, but return in a shambles. The vial of the elixir she went to obtain is half-full, the hero is drenched with the stuff, the label has fallen off. She’s weeks late and stumbles into the village that burned long ago, wondering what the hell happened.

I explained this idea to Laura and she nodded sagely. “This,” she said, “is why Douglas Adams said the most important tool is a towel. We need the towel to soak up all that extra subconscious water, so we don’t drown in it.”

Very wise, my writer friend.

She’s right. We balance our creative journeys with practicality. Being neurotic or crazy or an unbalanced diva is never okay. Yes – journey to the dreamworld. But keep your objectives in mind. Bottle the elixir, wipe off the bottle and get back to the village in time.

Be your own hero.

Smoke in the Valley



There was a controlled burn yesterday in the Santa Fe National Forest. We could see smoke billowing up to the east of us all day. They’re good here, though – they put up highway signs and send tweets telling us that’s the case. Over night, the smoke all settled down into the valley.

It smells like a campfire today. Only without the marshmallows.

I’ve been having different dreams the last couple of nights. Unusual images. Monday night I dreamed that David and I were driving over a bridge, the kind of high, arching white ones that span the waters between the mainland and barrier islands. David was driving. I looked down to see that there were whales teeming in the water below. Great blue whales, hundreds of them. They raised their heads out of the water, splashed their tails, rubbed noses, feeding and frolicking. David asked me if I wanted to pull over to take pictures and I said yes. As I was walking back to the car to change lenses (I know – look at me, even dreaming about changing lenses now!) I saw David talking to our daughter Lauren, her guy Damion and our grandson, Tobiah. I was surprised to see them there, to see there were tons of people there now, and Lauren said, oh yes, people were coming from all over to see the whales, such an extraordinary event.

Last night, the dream seemed more like my usual quest dream. I think we were running around saving kidnapped people. There were Russians involved and a maximum security prison. Your dreams are like this, too, right? Anyway, at the end of the dream, David reached into his bag and pulled out this enormous black frog. From this drawing you should conclude that, yes, my MS Paint skills suck, and that it looked like no real frog on earth. It was glossy and turgid, like one of those balloons you can get at the grocery store.

The frog looked unhappy, so I told David to put it in the sink and fill the basin with water. The frog lay submerged in the water, watching us with crystal blue eyes and smiling.

Yes. Frogs can smile. Especially the big, black ones.

At any rate, I’m taking this as things welling up from my subconscious. Amazing creatures, joyfulness and restoration, emerging from dark and hidden places.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Though I’m willing to entertain other interpretations?