While the stress is away, the mice will play

You can’t imagine (or if you’re a student, maybe you can!) the difference I feel this week now that all my classes are over.

Teaching is like a never-ending debt: there is always one more paper to grade, email to answer, Powerpoint to tweak, or handout to print. I was always looking ahead to the next class, next assignment, next exam. I guess it’s like that with most jobs, but for a while now I’ve been wishing for a job I can leave at the office, rather than take to bed with me. And I don’t mean that I was thinking about it in my sleep (although I was; some nights I took Gravol so I could stop teaching in my dreams), but I actually took my work to bed. Between the dictionary, textbooks, laptop, and student papers spread across the bed, there was barely room for my husband!  (And that’s a shame because, even after 10 PM, he still uses more complete sentences than my students’ papers.) I envied him for being able to do his work from 8:30-4:30 and then come home and read or think whatever he wanted to, for getting paid for every hour he works, and for getting coffee breaks with people who keep him sane. (Not that he needs help. I do. When I spend too many hour alone with student essays and lecture notes, I start talking to myself and I don’t like what she says.)

Without the pressure of the classroom, the ideas for my blogs are coming faster than I could get them down! I’ve always felt more creative in the summer; I thought it was the weather. (In Manitoba, everybody emerges from a low grade depression in April.) I didn’t realize it was the change in my internal barometer, not the meteorologists’ that made the difference. But even with the end of the college year, for the past three years I haven’t had complete relief because I was always mentally (emotionally?) preparing for the next new course the following year. Now that I’m taking a year off teaching, I have nothing to do but write!

Of course, I am starting two new (writing!) positions next week, so I will owe a “debt” of work to a new employer. But I’ll be paying in words, rather than in grades and Powerpoints, so I’m not worried! Certainly not about copy editing. I’m a little nervous about the historical research position, mostly because it’s so vague. (“Find all the human interest stories in the development of the Stewardship Ministries department of the MB Conference. Oh, but first you need to figure out who all the humans are that have those stories.” I have not doubts that once I find the humans, I’ll be able to draw the stories out of them–that’s what I do best.)

It’s made me realize that the best thing I can do for myself as a writer, is to relax (play, rest, trust) as a human being.

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I think they’re friendly mice

The idea to write about friendly mice, both in my fictional story (see my first post), which at this point responds to the title “Daisy,” and in this blog, came from C. S. Lewis’ allegory The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. I’m a big Lewis fan, in part because in the ’92 Providence College production of LWW I played the part of “the bear.” (You don’t remember him? He’s very key to the action, especially at the end, as one of the Witch’s stone statues.) When the great lion Aslan lies dead on the Stone Table, Lucy and Susan remove his muzzle and then discuss the horrid cords the Witches has used to bind Narnia’s King:

“I wonder could we untie him as well?” said Susan presently. But the enemies, out of pure spitefulness, had drawn the cords so tight that the girls could make nothing of the knots…

…At last Lucy noticed two other things. One was that the sky on the east side of the hill was a little less dark than it had been an hour ago. The other was some tiny movements going on in the grass at her feet. At first she took no interest in this. What did it matter? Nothing mattered now! But at last she saw that whatever-it-was had begun to move up the upright stones of the Stone Table. And now whatever-they-were were moving about on Aslan’s body. She peered closer. They were little grey things.

“Ugh!” said Susan from the other side of the Table. “How beastly! There are horrid little mice crawling over him. Go away, you little beasts.” And she raised her hand to frighten them away.

“Wait!” said Lucy, who had been looking at them more closely still. “Can you see what they’re doing?” Both girls bent down and stared.

“I do believe–” said Susan. “But how queer! They’re nibbling away at the cords!”

“That’s what I thought,” said Lucy. “I think they’re friendly mice.”

Friendly mice. We all need them when the Enemy’s knots pull too tight. But it wasn’t the mice that raised Aslan to life; that took the power of the Emperor beyond the Sea. God has created resources, and placed them within me and in my world, that help me break free and grow strong. But only he can give me the life and the power to access them.

I need prayer, but I don’t think of it as one of my mice. Prayer is the way I connect with my Creator. Prayer is the way he tells me what my bonds are made of and the way I tell him, I’m ready: send in the mice! Prayer is what makes me ready and helps me endure their gnawing.

Sometimes what looks like a “horrid little beast” is a blessing in disguise.

Mouse #2: intentionality

I don’t believe when we put good things out into the universe that we’ll necessarily get good things back.  It’s a beautiful Oprah-ism, but unfortunately our war-torn, poverty-stricken world proves her wrong. Many people just don’t have access to the good things they wish for. But I am convinced that when we hope, we’re more ready to recognize and receive gifts when they come.

When I decided to start this blog, it was a choice to write more, to announce to myself and the world that this writer was ready to get serious, willing to fight for words, able to jump into new challenges, and open to opportunities.

And one came. I was just hired for a one year term as a part time copy editor for one of my favorite national Christian magazines, the M. B. Herald. Grant, much of the job will be spent searching for that misplaced comma, rather than a hunting for the perfect story. (Unlike teaching, I won’t have the stress of deciding how many marks to dock for the comma when I find it!) But there will be opportunities to be creative: in writing and revising assignments and team conversations about layout and theme. And placing myself in an ink-scented environment can only help waken the writing urges.

I will miss teaching (and expect I will do it again in the future) but the  decision to apply for the editorial position wasn’t a struggle. The choice was already made. I will write. (And edit: misused apostrophes beware!)

Mouse #1: Risk

I went for ice cream yesterday, and, miracle of miracles, decided my flavour in under a minute. Actually I decided it would be a frozen yogurt flurry mixed with chocolate; I let my husband choose the size and brand: Reese, Skor, or Crispy Crunch. I’m glad he picked Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Large.

Choosing quickly and giving up control to others–that’s a big deal for me. I’ve realized that fear holds me back–fear of criticism, in particular. Sometimes I have to step out without knowing all the implications ahead of time. This blog is a risk: I’m sharing my writing hang-ups and anyone can read it, comment on it, and criticize it. I took another risk and made the blog I started years ago (new-ange.blogspot.com) searchable online.  I also shifted that blog–renamed Plaiditudes–from being all about me (mom, wife, writer, Bible professor) to focusing on disability issues. Both of my brothers have a genetic developmental disability called Fragile X Syndrome and both my children struggle with ADHD, anxiety, and social skills.  It’s a risk because there are many people who don’t think these “so called disorders” exist, or they have a million reasons why the parents are to blame and how we’re supposed to fix it. Will people think differently about me? About my children?

On the other hand, if I share my experience, maybe someone going through their own child’s diagnosis won’t feel so alone. And if I share what I’ve experienced, I’ll have something to write about–something that’s important to me and flows straight from my heart. (Flows, not drips!)

I decided it’s worth the risk.

And next time I’m having the cookie dough.

So what’s the problem?

I want to be myself, but I think I’m trying too hard.

I’m afraid of criticism. I’m afraid of disappointing myself. Afraid to let go and let creativity flow. Perfectionist. Frozen. Blocked.

I want to write. I do write: articles about other people, by asking questions, piecing together facts, rearranging quotes. I chip away around others’ ideas till only the story sculpture remains. I like my sculptures. But I want to pick my own colours, boldly approach the blank canvas, and paint with words.

When I was a teenager I filled notebooks with poems, journal entries, and short stories. I’d wake up (even if I hadn’t been sleeping) to a line of music and in ten minutes would have a page of meter and metaphor, internal rhyme…and peace. The last time I felt words slip out of me–no pushing–was when I wrote a song in College. My boyfriend, a music major who liked to embarrass me by serenading in Italian outside my dorm window, came up with piano accompaniment, and we sang it together in church.

Annie Dillard says that some writers who get stuck write the alphabet or old nursery rhymes over and over until a new line comes. Perhaps this time Mother Hubbard finds a Kitkat or one of the three pigs learns karate. One writer always retypes everything he wrote the day before and hopes he doesn’t stop when he gets to the end. The idea is just to write something, because nothing comes from nothing (as Maria von Trapp would say), but something always leads to something else. My theory is that if I write about the fact that I can’t write, and why I can’t write, and how I could write if…I’ll be writing again.

And if I press past my fears as a writer, maybe I’ll dream up more than a work of fiction; perhaps I’ll live freer in my own story too.

Let the gnawing begin

I started writing a work of fiction a couple years ago. Along with the warm compulsion to escape to beaches, cottages, and campfires, I only get the urge to enter my imaginary world of words when the snow melts and the spring sun makes cubist artwork on my living room floor. That’s why it’s only 20 pages. (I clicked “double-space” today so I feel very proud of the way it’s grown already this spring.)

One of the lines my main character thinks (it’s a very internal narrative) gave me the idea for a new blog:

Lena thinks, “I wish I could get drunk.” She never has. Of course, she wouldn’t drink now, not with the baby. But she imagines how it would feel to be out of control. To call a million mice to gnaw apart the packing strings that hold her life together so tight and see what falls out. To open her hands and let whatever frightening thing is waiting run free.

(Don’t tell my essay-writing students, but in fiction I let my characters think in sentence fragments. No doubt an editor would make me complete most of them; for now, it’s my way to let my grammatical hair down.)

No, I don’t want to blog about getting drunk. For one thing, I’ve never had enough wine or beer at one time to get drunk. For another, “drunk” smells too much like awkward teenage bonfire parties with pushy boys, crazy stunts involving hay bales, and peeing crablike in the grass because the girl who thought of the party is too scared to let us to go inside to use the washroom and wake her parents, but you secretly wish they’d awaken and send everyone home. Not that I’ve been there.

I want to blog about mice.

Not the ones that dart across the doorways in church basements like spirits–one knows not where they come from or where they go (but probably in the cutlery trays). Just thinking about them makes me wish for high stools and body armour.

I want to blog about the “mice” who will gnaw away the cords around me. I don’t need one million, just one for each year I’ve been alive (or how long I will be alive by July, Lord willing). I’m not sure who these mice are yet. And I can’t guarantee that they will be easy to catch, or that they’ll be pretty, or that I won’t occasionally wish for body armour to protect me from the pain of freedom.

The only thing I can guarantee is that they won’t widdle in the cutlery.