Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Word Mantras

Every so often, usually around Mother’s Day, lists are circulated which detail the extensive duties filled by anyone with the job title “Mom.” Housekeeper, Chauffeur, Chef, Teacher, EMT, Janitor, etc.—the point being, mothers fill many shoes, on the daily. And it occurred to me that people who choose writing are often expected to master a variety of roles as well. Apart from the artistic requirements of the job (too extensive to get into here), a writer is also Administrator, Secretary, Public Relations, Marketer, and much more. But I think the most challenging expectation for a writer (and mother, for that matter) is to be her own best counsel and at more dire times, her own therapist.
The peaks and valleys of the writing life are relentless. Small victories followed by demoralizations; any bit of burgeoning confidence soon squashed by doubt. At least that’s how it seems sometimes. Lately, I’ve been grappling with uncertainty. I started a novel for NaNoWriMo last November but have lost the spark. I can’t decide what it’s about, or remember why I started it in the first place. I’m not sure if I’m writing it for myself, or whether my motivations are murky with outside influences. I can’t determine whether it’s worth pursuing.
Outside factors press in, as always. I’m distracted by other, non-writing things. I can’t focus, can’t find time. I wallow. And then, as we writers always do, I began to undertake the long process of picking myself up, dusting myself off, and rebuilding my mental stamina for another round. Basically, I’ve been giving myself therapy. Okay, well really, I’ve been avoiding that damn novel and once in a while, giving it a think until my brain starts to hurt. In the meantime, I’ve been reading and reading. My balm. My respite.
I read Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels and for several weeks and almost 2000 pages, let myself get lost in another time and place. Books can do that! my therapist self reminded my despondent self. As I pondered the purpose of writing anything at all, this essay claimed “the purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair.” This seemed like a good litmus test, my therapist self said, should I decide to dive back into that abandoned novel. I mulled this over for days. And when I read a novel that surprised, delighted, and joyfully embraced language, sentence by sentence, (my review here), my therapist self suggested that I break things down to basics.
Words, words, words. For some time, I had been obsessing about the word despair. Sitting at the veterinarian’s office, an injured dog came in—panting, head tilted, unsteady on his feet—and I thought: “despair!” In a parking lot, a woman shrieked in anger when someone took her parking spot—and I thought: “despair!” An old man trudged along the sidewalk, mumbling to himself—surely, “despair!” Often, I recalled that Thoreau quote about countless lives of quiet desperation and thought: “Yes, despair!” It was everywhere. I was invoking it and inviting it.
Then I found this poem by Wendell Berry, a sun beam that broke through my despair-filled cloud cover.
I began to fixate on another word: resolute.
From the Latin resolutus, past participle of resolvere (loosen, release, disperse). First known use: 1533. Synonyms: bent, bound, hell-bent, purposeful, determined, set.


Each version has a crisp, decisive sound, an accented syllable to signify purpose. I highly recommend finding the audio pronunciation online and playing it over and over, when you tire of saying it to yourself.

“It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move on to better things.” –Theodore Roosevelt

“To a resolute mind, wishing to do is the first step toward doing. But if we do not wish to do a thing it becomes impossible.” –Robert Southey

“There is nothing in this world which a resolute man, who exerts himself, cannot attain.” –Somadeva

First and most basic job tile an author must take on: Craftsman or Artist, whichever you prefer. Keep it simple, my life coach/therapist self says. And so I return, once again, to the basics: stories, sentences, words. Resolute. Try saying it a few times, try imagining it on a page, the determined black lines and curves of it. Resolute. It’s a great word.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka