Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Washing Those Harpies Right Out of My Hair

(This was my guest post at Write Stuff last Saturday)
My personal nemesis is perfectionism. My Moby Dick if you will--tho it is more like a swarm of harpies than a great white whale and they didn’t abscond with any of my limbs nor wreak any other havoc upon my physical being, nor do they hide themselves in the deep abyss of either ocean or sky, playing a diabolical hide-and-seek game. I wish! If they would but remove themselves to the underbelly of the clouds, I could possibly let the grating of their incessant berating be subsumed by the susurrus of wind and rain or the white noise of an off-air TV station. But no! They must hover and fly about my face so that I feel their hot, foul breath on my eyelids as their screeches fill the interstices of my eardrums with scorn-fed laughter and they fill all the bandwidth of my brain with invective.

I’ve been plagued by these hell-spawned haranguers since as far back as my memories go, since well before kindergarten, well before I could either read or write. They disrupt many areas of my life but none so much as writing. My Mom tells the story of my earliest adventures with crayon and paper around a year old. She says that I was the only baby or toddler she ever witnessed who never scribbled. I drew little circles about the size of dimes. They weren’t perfect circles--some weren’t closed and those that were often sported a tail or two where the line met itself, like small stemmed fruit, but they resembled grapes more than they did cherries. I’ve seen these early efforts--and effort is the precise word for them as they exude a miasma of intensity and focus and unmet expectations. Mom remembers how I would point at these marks one by one uttering a syllable or two of baby-babble. So resembling the way she read to me by pointing at the words in my storybooks as she spoke them, she is sure I was trying to tell a story. If that is true, then I’ve been a storyteller since before I could walk, let alone talk. But I suspect that I was scolding the fruits of my labor, giving voice to the harpies already nesting in my curls and shaking their sharp-nailed fingers at my nose.

My memories of the physical task of writing begin at around age three. I was still drawing those circles but I was also carefully copying alphabet letters and even short words off of whatever nearby source presented itself. But this was still more like drawing than writing. I was about four when I started writing letters to my grandparents by copying the words my mother had carefully written down as I composed the sentences aloud. It would take me a few minutes to compose those several sentences, my mother a few minutes longer to produce a clean copy, correctly formatted and punctuated but it would take me hours to produce the finished letter. I still remember those efforts--the painstaking drawing of each letter, the oh-so-disobedient pencil, the erasures that left smears, the starting over, and over and over. My first memory of writer’s cramp is from this time. My first conscious memory of having stories to tell comes from about this same time too. But I could never seem to coordinate the act of imagining the story with the mechanics of making marks on the paper. By the time I got a handful of words on the page, the fragile images and sound-track of the story would have been shredded by the dread harpies claws and gnashing teeth.

Once I taught myself to type at age eleven, I was able to hold those howling harridans at bay long enough to get whole paragraphs on the page and I would build my stories or essays one sentence or paragraph at a time like laying bricks. But it was impossible to proceed to the next sentence or paragraph or page as long as I perceived any imperfections. If I needed to insert words or phrases or make corrections, I would have to start the page over even knowing that the threads of the story might vanish by the time I got back to where I left off. This made it so tempting to just sit and stare at the pristine white page in the typewriter’s carriage, letting the story play out on it like a movie screen. This is what ‘writer’s block’ was for me. It was never about having nothing to say, no story to tell or no ideas. No, those hovered about my head like flocks of butterflies. But their delicate wings could not survive in the searing gusts generated by those leather-winged fiends.

It was about the time that I was introduced to word-processors that I came to understand that there were two distinct tasks involved that I had been conflating: creation and communication. Creation is chaos unfolding into complex beauty and it is messy. Communication must adhere to rules of order agreed upon by a community so that individual minds can be understood by one another. Carelessness and flouting of the rules increases the chance of misunderstanding. There may have been a story behind my carefully inscribed circles, but if so, I was the only one who knew the language, the grammar, the punctuation and that knowledge probably did not survive my next nap. So there was no communication, no sharing, no meeting of the minds and hearts that the best stories can conduce.

This was meant as a preamble for sharing the methods I learned over the last twenty years to tame those harassing harpies, to wash them right out of my hair and transmogrify them into feather-winged angels playing harps and wearing circlets of butterflies in their hair. But I’ve run out of space and time so I am going to leave you with the little poem I wrote in the late eighties--about the time that I made the breakthrough described above:


Crucify the Critic

To write and not worry if all is spelled right,
To write and not think of the good and the bad of it,
To write and not judge, neither budge
A finger to backspace or erase,
Thinking only of white space,
Fingers flying like birds, to fill it with words-
With thoughts sublime or absurd,
With plots simple or complex,
With dreams shallow or deep,
With observations, inspirations, aspirations,
To make someone-if only me-laugh or weep,
To make their brows perplex,
To slake their verbal thirst
For soothing nouns and zesty verbs.
Wandering solitary in thicketed woods,
Wooing amid airy leaf-lace that enchanting face,
That muse, unnamed, neglected, un-embraced, until
That harassing harpy who begrudges-even sabotages-
The art of it, is banished from the heart of it.
So crucify the critic writer, and write!

(c) 1988 by Joy Renee

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Write Stuff

I guest-blogged at Write Stuff today--Saturday. It is another riff about those harrassing harpies of perfectionism but its a little more put together than the average one I spill out here. I will probably cross-post it here later--in a day or two--but I want to encourage you to go check out Karen's new community blog for writers. It features some good writing, helpful tips for writers and inspring insight about the writng process.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Free Press on Chopping Block?

Kevin Drum sees an ominous import to the governments espionage charges against the two AIPAC lobbyists accused of receiving classified information from Pentagon analyst, Lawrence Franklin, and then passing that info on “to persons not entitled to receive it.” It is the broadness of the charge that concerns Drum and should concern any journalist and any champion of transparency in government. For a common sense definition of espionage amounts to passing information with potential to harm the U.S. interests to a foreign entity, as the defendants did when the shared ‘scuttlebutt’ with their clients at the Israeli embassy. But by using the generic phrase, ‘persons not entitled’ this administration seems to be attempting to set a president that can be applied more broadly. Think Sy Hersh. Think Daniel Ellsberg. Think bloggers!

Well, we seem to have one thing going for us. The judge hearing the case, conservative, Reagan era T. S. Ellis III, has expressed deep discomfort with the governments premise here and says that he regards the 1st amendment issue as “central to this case and important.”

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Thursday, April 06, 2006

Elder Caregivers Deserve More Respect

After most of four days and all of three nights on high alert even while sleeping, I was too weary to see straight after returning home Tuesday afternoon from sitting with my husband’s grandmother over the weekend. My sleep was accompanied by the static and hum from a baby monitor that erupted several times per night with the sounds of wheezing and coughing as Grandma struggled for breath. But other than the fact that it deprived me of the rest I needed to be prepared for the next day, the nights were easy. Because at least I knew where she was and was fairly sure she was going to stay there until at least dawn.

I could even stay fairly relaxed until after Grandma had her coffee in the morning. But for the rest of the day, I had to stay very alert to her every move as she was impulsive and sneaky and careless. Just like a toddler. But toddlers have yet to be autonomous adults. Grandma may no longer have the wherewithal to be autonomous but she has the experience of having been and she continues to act as if…

And I haven’t the heart to abuse her sense of dignity any more than absolutely necessary to preserve her health and life. So I had to be sneaky and alert and proactive. I had to watch her from around corners. I had to couch my offers of help as questions that appeared to give her options she didn’t really have. I had to try to anticipate her needs so she wouldn’t try to do for herself things that endangered her.

But there were some things I could not pre-empt. Grandma has one over-riding obsession and that is her dog Spot. She wants to know where Spot is every minute. She is constantly calling to her and if she doesn’t get a quick enough response will go looking for her. Even to the point of going outside! She got all the way outside once while I was sitting just three feet from the door she exited.


I thought she was just going to call to Spot again as she had ten minutes earlier when she found Spot on the front porch and coaxed her inside. But Spot had made a circuit around the room as Grandma made her way back to her chair and then as soon as Grandma had sat back down that dog headed straight for her doggie door on the back porch. Grandma had called and called until her asthma had kicked up and she’d had to stop to use her breathing machine. As soon as her breathing was under control she headed straight for that front door again. I heard that door open but I assumed it was just a repeat of before. But when I heard silence instead of the calling of Spot’s name, I turned to look and there was Grandma’s walker standing alone in front of the closed door.

She also obsesses about Spot having food in her bowl. No matter how many times I assure her there is, she keeps going to look and if the amount doesn’t suit her she adds another full scoop--a day’s serving. She did that three times that I witnessed on a single day. This is one of the tasks that is dangerous for her as bending down to the floor risks a fall or wrenching her back again.

The thing I dreaded most happened on the first night as we were heading for bed. Grandma fell. But it was slow motion and amounted to an abrupt sitting down onto the floor and not a tumble. She was attempting to stand up from her recliner while pulling her walker towards her all the while giving me instructions about shutting down the living room for the night--be sure the lights are all out, and the TV is off, and turn down the heater and lock the doors. And she seemed to want me to start doing these things immediately. I used poor judgment on my part in eagerly complying. Especially in turning off the lights. I am nearly helpless myself without lights!

I was across the room when I saw her shadow swaying. Spot and the walker were between me and her so there was no way to get to her in time. By the time I did reach her she was already scrambling over onto her knees and pulling herself up by the seat of the rocking recliner. She ignored my pleas to stay put until we were sure she was OK. I’m alright. I’m alright. She kept repeating until she had kicked her asthma into high gear again. It was another forty-five minutes before she was settled in bed and breathing comfortably. It took me another two hours after that before I was calm enough to doze off. Then, not an hour after the last time I saw the time on the clock, I was awakened by the sounds of another asthma spell coming over the baby monitor. And that was just the first night.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

May be away for a few days

Was trying to get a substantial essay ready to post this morning but I’m not going to make it. And now I am probably not going to be able to post again until next Tuesday night. I am committed to spending the next several days sitting with my husbands frail, 91 year old grandma while my in-laws take their annual trek to the coast. I don’t know what, if any, opportunity to get online I will have. I hope to use some of the time there to write and continue with the major revamp of my sidebar so that I will have plenty to post here in the days after I get back.. But my attention has to be primarily on Grandma as she is impulsive and forgets there are things she can’t do unaided anymore. I have to keep a close eye on her and try to anticipate what she needs so she doesn’t try to do it herself if it endangers her. She has had several bad falls in the past six months and I dread her having one on my watch.

I’ve also had to switch my hours back to days for this so it should be interesting switching back again Tuesday night. Grandma is an early riser and early to bed and I have to shut myself in the other bedroom after she goes to bed or else her dog, Spot, will stay with me and Grandma will keep getting out of bed to come wheedle Spot to come back with her. I am taking my laptop with me which gives me plenty to do in both work and entertainment once I am shut up in the bedroom. Last spring and summer when I spent every Saturday with her so the family could go to the races all I had was books and sewing. Which was plenty but I ached for the keyboard because the previous racing season I got to be on the family PC from 3pm on Saturday until people started getting up Sunday morning about seven or eight--if I could last that marathon which I often did. Got a lot done that year. This weekend I’m taking DVDs with me to play on the laptop. And books of course. And my sewing because Grandma is always interested in what I am working on and asks about it even when I don’t bring it with me. But I will have to be strict with myself about the temptation to stay up all night because I have to be awake with the sun to get Grandma’s breakfast and coffee or else she will try to do it herself.

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