This summer, I served as a visiting writer/manuscript consultant at Rosemont College’s MFA retreat. I have visited many schools and universities throughout the world, and I have to say, Rosemont is my favorite school I’ve ever been to, partially because I get to sleep in a haunted mansion while I’m there, but also because I love its faculty and students. The program director, Carla Spataro, is passionate and innovative, and she and her cohorts have created a thing of literary beauty on that little Catholic campus in Philadelphia.
While I was there, Carla conducted a series of film interviews for the college’s Writers and Readers series, each of them an hour long. (If you haven’t seen mine, it’s because I chose to wear a tight, red shirt to my interview and looked like a sausage. I don’t like to share interviews where I resemble processed meats, as I am a vain, vain creature. Also, the camera person did not shoot the footage from above. He instead shot it head on, which made me look fat. Yes, I know they taught him special filming stuff in film school, and yes, the footage is lovely, if you aren’t worried about me looking chubby. But I don’t care about lighting and angles and all that. I care about not looking fat. If I ever get rich and famous, I will be fine with the paparazzi following me around to my dentist appointments and proctology exams, as long as they shoot me from above. I always try to tell my friends, “Jesus loves us best when we take our pictures from up.” No one listens. But I digress.)
During that interview, and almost every interview I have conducted since Beauty of the Broken and Siren Song came out, I was asked about my writing process. It’s always a tough question for me to answer because the truth is, I don’t really have a writing process. I’m not a process kind of girl. I hate doing things the same way two days in a row. If I get stuck in the same town for more than a week, I will start to go stir crazy. If you tell me I have to show up the same place every single day, and do the same damn stuff, I will start to fantasize about offing myself.
As luck would have it, my interview was conducted the day after the amazing fiction writer and memoirist, Curtis Smith, was interviewed. Curt had a beautiful answer to the process question, as he was disciplined process incarnate. Every day, he woke up at 5:12 and ran for 46.9 minutes, after which he sat down to write for 3.26 hours, requiring of himself that he produce at least 11.4 pages of prose a day. (I’m exaggerating, but Curt was truly the epitome of process.) After he described his process, he read from his latest book Communion, and the writing was so masterful, tender, and thought-provoking, I decided I was a hack who needed to implement a process immediately.
The next morning, I set my alarm for 5:12. When it went off the first time, I hit snooze. When it went off the second time, I threw it. Eventually I rolled out of bed to hold my student consultations and give my interview. I unfortunately wore a red shirt. (Wear black, people. Black is where it’s at.)
When asked the process question, I talked about dancing at concerts and then driving several hundred miles to let the inspiration I’d absorbed gestate, then stopping at rest stops to sit at picnic tables and write whatever the hell came out. I talked about scribbling chapters in airports and writing poems in porta-potties at music festivals. In short, I don’t think I said one word that helped the audience understand how to implement my process even a little.
I felt mildly bummed about that, but the interview wasn’t a total wash. I was asked what my favorite word in the world was, and instead of saying something smart, I said something true, which was “Roger,” (referring to Roger Clyne) which turned into a very funny, weird, TMI section of the interview.
During the rest of the retreat, the students spent a good deal of time looking up pictures of Roger and swooning, so I felt my interview wasn’t completely wasted. One night when we were all sitting around drinking during a thunder storm, they started to chant “Roger” like a mantra and decided to start a campaign to get the Rosemont sign replaced with a picture of Roger walking on water. I’m not sure how the campaign is going. I guess I’ll find out when I go back next summer. Miraculously, they invited me back, even though one of the students was overheard saying, “I just want to talk to Tawni about penises again.” I am nothing if not a consummate professional.
Anyway, this morning, I was responding to another interview, and I bumped into the dreaded process question again. I thought, I have got to come up with a way to answer this question that is:
- doesn’t mention penises.
The truth is, I write a hell of a lot, even though I don’t have a process. I may write more than anyone I know. I don’t force myself to do it. I do it for the same reason I eat cookies and pick my nose. I like it. It feels good at the time. I don’t have a work ethic. I have a play ethic. I believe my body and my heart are smart. I believe they can tell me exactly what I need when I need it, if I will only listen. So if my heart says, “I don’t want to write today. I want to hike,” I let it. And because I’m so nice to my heart, it responds by thinking writing is fun, something we never have to do, and it asks if we can do it pretty often. Almost every day. Sometimes, for long periods of time, all day, every day.
Perhaps, this is a form of self-delusion. I know me. I’m rebellious to the core. My heartbeat pounds out the notes to “We’re Not Gonna Take It” 24/7. (I’m right. I’m free. I’ll fight. You’ll see. Mo fos.) I hate being told what to do. If you want me not to do something, try ordering me to do it. I will do everything but the thing you just told me to do. I don’t like being owned either. Try to own me, and I will run so fast the hounds can’t catch me. (That’s a line from a song my daddy used to listen to. And yes, I can end my sentences with prepositions now. Merriam Webster Dictionary said so on Facebook yesterday. I guess I let Merriam Webster tell me what to do.) But if you make me think something is my idea? Well, then. Aren’t I just full of brilliant ideas? Let’s do it! So I have worked very hard to trick myself into thinking that writing every day is something I want to do. (Maybe I shouldn’t let myself read this blog. What if I figure out my own tricks and stop responding?)
When I travel, every time I see a dandelion, I blow it and make a wish. Each little seed that flies off into forever carries my wish with it, maybe to someone or something who can help me. Each seed is a chance for my wish to come true.
I think of the things I write as dandelion seeds. Some people want to dig neat rows and then carefully sow their wheat seeds, which is perfect for them. I admire the hell out of people like Curt who create and flourish in a climate of disciplined structure. But it’s not me. It will never be me. I’m not sure I’ll ever have a good answer to the process question, but still, I’m content with my own random, whimsical way of being. I’m content with producing a seed of something that is nothing more than a pretty weed, and then blowing it into the wind. Because the truth is, I love having a writing career, but I didn’t really need one. What I really needed was a life. My writing is just a strand in the rich tapestry of my miraculous, temporary existence on this inexplicable blue ball whirling through space. I don’t want my art to turn into a chore. I want it to stay part of the magic. Because I’m going to die someday. My seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, years are precious. And in a few years, two or two hundred, no one will give a shit about the stuff I wrote. The only thing that really matters is this precious gift called life. I want to make it count by living it in a way that is joyful and true to my being.
So if I write a poem today, that was a few seeds. If I write a line, that was one. If I write a chapter, well damn if I didn’t write a whole dandelion worth of seeds. I submit my work the same way. A poem here. An essay there. I figure even though I don’t have a work ethic, I am producing things, albeit haphazardly. I’ve got all these seeds blowing around. Sure, some of them will die. But some of them are bound to come up at some point. Seeds grow. That’s what they were born to do.
A few years ago, when I was submitting novels to agents, I submitted my work to this awesome guy I met while teaching at a writer’s conference in Mexico. His name was Andy Ross. I met him by a donkey we have since named Kismet, and I kinda just knew he was “the one” in the agent sense of the word. Nothing had come of the other seeds I’d blown to other agents out there, but sure enough, when I blew a few seed’s Andy’s way, one took root, and a book called Beauty of the Broken happened. All it takes is one seed to make a miracle happen. (My miracle: http://www.amazon.com/Beauty-Broken-Tawni-Waters/dp/1481407112)
So at the end of the day, if I can say, “I planted a seed today,” even if it was just one, I’m content. Hell, even if it was just none, I’m content. Life is more than selling things and winning awards. Actually, those things aren’t life. Those things are things that happen because of what you did while you were living. I don’t want my life to be a race. I want it to be a joy. When I die, I want to see all my dandelion seeds whirling in the air around my head, whispering about the days I blew them into the wind. That one will remember sitting in the coffee shop with me in Nebraska, and those ones will say things about the way the ocean looked while I wrote them.
And at the end of the day, whether my seeds take root or get lost somewhere in the stratosphere, at least I was there in the moments that gave birth to them. At least I lived.
P.S. In the interest of inspiring you to fight for your right to party (I may be mixing my musical metaphors here), I give you “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the EXTENDED version. As I mentioned, my little sparkly, rebellious heart pounds in time to this song. Don’t take it, kids. Fight the powers that be. Stick it to the man.
P.S.S. My daddy listened to this song all the time when I was kid. It’s where I got the “ran so fast the hounds couldn’t catch ’em” line. It’s called “The Battle of New Orleans.” I got my MFA at the University of New Orleans. Coincidence? I think not. Ok, maybe it’s a coincidence. Yeah, it’s totally a coincidence.
P.S.S.S. Merriam Webster giving me permission to end my sentences with prepositions.