Must I Write?

This post is my participation in the writing contest “You Are Enough: Your Calling Your Storyhosted by Positive Writer.

“This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.” -from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

Must I write? How else to explain my frantic scribbling on a legal pad as I sat next to my husband’s hospital bed while he slept?

“I don’t know how you do that,” he said, eyes suddenly open. Ashamed, I stopped writing mid-sentence. What kind of wife writes while her husband lay recovering from heart stent surgery?

“I’m sorry, I was working on my column that’s due tomorrow. I can work on it later.” I was shoving the pad into a tote bag when his hand on my arm stopped me.

“No. I meant I don’t know how you can write like that; filling pages with words so effortlessly. You have such talent.”

“It’s what I do. I write.” He nodded. It spoke volumes of my husband that he could even begin to understand the pull of the pen when few non-writers do.

Though I’d wanted to be a writer since childhood, it wasn’t until I’d given birth to my fourth child and abandoned the pursuit of a master’s degree that I attempted writing for publication. In the ensuing years I gave birth to four more children and began homeschooling. As an outlet for my creative energy, I turned to my childhood pleasure of putting pen to paper, maintaining a semblance of self amid the selfless act of intense mothering.

baby on backFor the next twenty-five years I honed the craft, working it around mothering; getting up before sunrise every morning to squeeze in an hour of wordplay. When an infant fell asleep in the car, I’d pull over to the curb and scrawl in a notebook I carried in my purse. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet and compose while toddlers splashed in the bathtub. I’d eagerly volunteer for child bedside duty so I could finish up an essay by the dim glow of a nightlight.

Hours after my husband David’s cancer diagnosis in 2006 I pondered how I’d go about writing about it. How else to bear the possibility of losing my life’s partner but through writing? I blogged my way through my mother’s lung cancer treatment four years later. In the months following her death, starkly awakened to my own mortality, I made the decision to take my writing seriously. That winter, I embarked on what would become one of the most creative periods of my life up to that point.

My husband would offer to watch the kids, hand me a mug of hot tea and shoo me out the door to Mom’s empty house, my private writing retreat. There, I found the solitude and silence I’d craved for so many years. I accomplished more writing in those three months than I had in the previous three years, grief the impetus to taking my writing seriously, the legacy of a creative mother my muse.

my writing retreatEven after the sale of the house, the creative fire that had been ignited in me continued to flame. By early 2012, I’d begun teaching coupon workshops, writing a weekly newspaper column, and obtained a literary agent who pitched my ethnographic research on the cultural phenomenon of extreme couponing. My husband reveled in all of it, driving me to presentations to claim a seat in the back of the room. During my first scheduled workshop, as I worked the room animatedly, my glance landed on David. My breath caught in my throat at the look of utter adoration on his face.

“I loved seeing you that way,” he commented on the way home. “You come alive in front of an audience. You’re flying.” David had become the wind beneath my wings. I reminded him I couldn’t do any of it without him.

And then, I had to.

Less than two weeks following that hospital bed encounter in March 2012, my beloved died in his sleep. The next morning, fingers thick with grief, I penned one of the most difficult pieces of writing I’d ever done; my husband’s obituary.

It would have been easy to give up the writing, workshops and public speaking. Instead, remembering the look on his face and those words at the hospital, my writing took on a frantic pace, borne of pain and a renewed determination. A corner of the couch became a paper nest. I’d sit for hours, surrounded by piles of papers and books. I journaled, blogged, wrote essays, polished one manuscript, and began another. Seven months after David’s death I signed a contract for the book that had been his idea. By the time it was released in 2013, my eight-year-old grandson was dying too; losing a three-year battle with cancer.

barnes nobleI’ll never forget that July day, standing in front of a Barnes & Noble window display of my book. I felt nothing, numb with cumulative grief. In the ensuing six years, I’d sign five more contracts, becoming less anesthetized with each book’s release.

In February 2017 I revisited my muse through notebooks and a memory book Mom had left behind. I read letters she’d written me, marveling at how her words and wise advice could still inspire me, years after her death. I flipped through scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings about her art and photos of the various woodcarvings and paintings she’d completed, realizing anew that nothing had stopped her from creating. Nothing. Not raising ten children, poverty, or the death of my father.

mom woodcarverJust as nothing would stop me from writing. I began another book, chronicling that legacy of creativity. In it, I demonstrate how we are all built to create, whether through painting, gardening, music, or like me, as a wordsmith.

Must I write?
I’ve built my life around it.

 

What about you? Is writing your calling? Do you have a story about your writing? I hear it all the time in the writing workshops I teach. “I don’t have time.” “I’m not good enough to be published.” The reasons, the excuses, the self-doubts. If you have it in you to write, don’t let anything stop you. I didn’t. That’s one of the messages in Positive Writer Bryan Hutchinson’s new book “Serious Writers Never Quit.” serious writers

Facing the Fear of Creating

God is all over my next book. How could I write about creativity without talking about The Creator? But more than just writing about God, I’ve begun each and every writing and editing session with prayer, asking for discernment, inspiration, and the words He wants me to share. I’ve been in awe of the ways he has showed up. Recently, however, he asked me to do something I wasn’t sure I was capable of.

I interviewed a dozen “Creative Sparks” for this book; real people doing real things to incorporate creativity into their very real (and busy) lives. Among those creatives: a yoga instructor, two professors from my alma mater, a woman who’d waited nearly fifty years to submit her beautiful poetry, my brother who picked up woodworking tools he’d inherited from our mother to begin carving in midlife, and a nephew who always knew what he wanted to be and never gave up the pursuit of it, not even through grueling cancer treatment.

As I worked on final edits a month ago, it became clear to me that there was to be one more “creative spark,” an artist whose work I was personally drawn to. Not only that, I was to actually create the type of art this person practiced. My publisher didn’t tell me to do this, nor did the editor request it.  We were so close to completing the first edits, they wouldn’t have dared. We’d moved things around, deleted over-used words and phrases, and heavily edited entire sections of the manuscript.  No one insisted I face my own fear of failure by attempting an art form I’d never done before. In fact, the editor gave me an easy “out” when I mentioned my uneasiness about taking on an art project so close to deadline. She insisted it wasn’t necessary for me to create anything more than an additional creative spark profile.

But the prompting from the Holy Spirit was as real as the fear of the unknown and the possibility of failure. What if I messed up or destroyed precious pieces of memorabilia by undertaking an art form I knew nothing about?

It dawned on me then— that is exactly what I ask readers of my book to do—open up their minds to creative possibilities, try new things, and allow for the possibility of failure, all in the name of discovering their true nature, their God-given potential, the creative self within them. How dare I suggest something I was not willing to do myself? I knew that I must do it.  I needed to step outside of my comfort zone and create a mixed media piece.

Perhaps it’s the former dumpster-diving coupon queen in me that accounts for my attraction to mixed media art, with tiny bits and pieces of “trash” incorporated into a work of art. Maybe it is because I have lost so many pieces of my own life through the deaths of mother, husband and grandson in the space of three years. Whatever the reason, I considered the art form I’d seen displayed on the walls of Upcycle Dubuque, a unique and innovative creative reuse store that displays the work of local artisans.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen Allison Poster’s art. I’d seen it displayed at Inspire Café two years before. Fitting, considering I was there to speak about the legacy of creativity, my mother’s art, and the creativity that resides within each one of us.  When I noticed the beautiful art on the walls, I moved closer to study the mixed media pieces, something deep within me resonating with the images of butterflies, angels, trees, and hummingbirds on old mirrors and windows, and a framed image of a hauntingly sad girl in a birdcage. I was fascinated by the artist’s use of broken and crushed glass, bits and pieces of old jewelry, and repurposed old frames. I snapped a photo, shared it with my daughter, picked up a business card, and messaged the artist to tell her how beautiful I found her art. We agreed to meet in person someday. That someday had come.

Not only did Allison agree to be my final “Creative Spark,” she offered to help me with the creation that was fast taking shape in my mind, a piece directly correlated with the theme of the book, in memory of my creative mother. I’d use small things of Mom’s that were hidden away in drawers, where I never saw them. I sorted through a box of her holy medals and discovered a broken rosary with a blue cross that represented her deep Catholic faith. I’d add newspaper clippings about Mom, pieces of a pillowcase she’d embroidered, and the last chalk pastel drawing that remained on her easel after her death. Then there was the yellow rose painting I’d done at age 16, the same age my youngest daughter is now. I’d sat next to Mom in her workroom as I’d painted it. What better way to immortalize the “magic pencil” I’d found in my mother’s empty house than to include it? I’d ordered hundreds of similar pencils on eBay to give away when I did presentations on creativity, but remained fearful of losing the original. Everything included in the final product had meaning for me, including the words I chose from a vintage poetry book about mothers, the small wooden oval with crosses created by my brother, and the tiny glass owl my son Michael created in the very workroom where Mom and I had sat working in companionable silence forty-five years prior.

mixed media

I smile every time I look at my mixed media memory canvas, which is often. It hangs on the wall near my writing chair. No longer fearful, I’m looking forward to creating a similar piece in honor of my husband.

Not long after I finished this piece, I met with a new friend who’d lost his wife the year before. I realized as he talked how often he used the word “can’t” or the phrase “never” in our conversation. I suddenly realized there was more to my creation than I’d imagined. I asked him if he’d seen the photo of the art piece I created to represent my book’s theme. What I said next was as much for myself as it was for him, and readers of my book who have lost someone important to them:

“That’s what our life is like; little bits and broken pieces. Everything we went through and experienced up until the moment our beloved took their last breath. There are ugly moments we’d rather not remember and beautiful ones. There are precious memories. There is a pattern to our life that has made us who we are. Your life is a mixed media collage. Whatever you add to the collage from this point forward is up to you. You can keep moving those broken parts around. You can add similar pieces. That is your comfort zone, and there is nothing wrong with that. But God might have something more for you. God’s plans for you are so much bigger than you can imagine. He can use you in so many ways if you let him. You can grow in him and share in the masterpiece he wants to make of your life’s collage.”

mixed media close-up