What’s to love?

Valentine’s Day in Wyoming: A Sackett’s Market special

Last year on Valentine’s Day my husband took me out for a meal. We hired a sitter and walked downtown in the cold.  I carried high heels in my bag and changed from sensible snow boots in the restaurant’s glass entryway.  The bar was busy and the restaurant tables were full.   We sipped beers and exchanged gifts.  My husband handed me a velvet jewelry box and I glanced over my shoulder to see who was looking.  I imagined patrons watching us and being sickened by the Valentine’s cheesiness.  I wanted to scream: “We’re not just celebrating this stupid Hallmark holiday; I swear!”  I opened the little box without rolling my eyes and promptly proceeded to lose one of the delicate, purple stones.

Apparently it’s trendy to hate Valentine’s Day.  Wonky celebrities like Ashton Kutcher denounce February 14th and call for “365 days of romance.”  In Massachusetts, haters can buy “break-up banana splits” and “bloody heart pizzas.”  Hollywood’s romantic comedy machine even turned out a feature film called “I Hate Valentine’s Day.”    The Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Calendar in 1969.  Though the true history of the valentine is hazy at best, the celebration of romantic love endures.  At least on some level.

Americans have sent handmade Valentines since the early 18th century and this year we will spend an average of $126.00 on red and pink packages.  The red and pink makes me cringe. I won’t wear heart-shaped jewelry and in my world fuzzy white teddy bears share brain space with waterboarding and Disney World.  But here’s the kicker – I got married on Valentine’s Day.  The date was an unhappy accident (we needed a three day weekend), but it has proven to be a lesson in serendipity.  My husband likes to consider the annual onslaught of sappy sweets his personal anniversary reminder – there is little chance he’ll miss the milestone.   And I have grown to love the irony of celebrating on the most commercial of holidays.

Valentine’s Day highlights the occasional and crazy intersection of popular culture and the human condition.  Once every year, Hallmark promises to make romance simple: chocolates and cards and red balloons.  We want love to be simple and unburdened.  We want romance to be sparkly and to smell like roses.   We work hard at the illusion; buying gifts and convincing ourselves that romantic gestures will make up for time and energy. But in reality it is complicated.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is good, but difficult.  His collection “Letters to a Young Poet” asserts that “for one human being to love another…is perhaps the most difficult task…the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”  The kind of love that Rilke points to is sometimes hidden, slow to accommodate change, and often frustrating.  It is the dark shadow of romance, reliant on the determined, thinking side of our brains.  Like literature’s romantic irony, this sort of love is more rational than emotional, more about “calculation” than “sentiment,” and on Valentine’s Day this love is quiet and reflective (Handwerk).  It is not teddy bears and chocolate boxes, but rather tears and subtle laughter.  For me, it is children and diapers and commitment.  It is in-laws and Turkey dinner, eulogies and theme parks.  It is the quiet space between wakefulness and deep sleep: the space where you know the sound of dreams and the silence of conflict.  It is endurance and careful consideration.  It is love worth celebrating amid chaos – even amid consumer chaos.

– S

Yellow Legal Pads and # 2 Pencils

I hate it when someone asks me if I write every day, if I have a special desk, pencil, pen, or whatever. I hate it partly because I don’t.  I don’t write every day, unless one includes Facebook posts, grocery lists or e-mails. I don’t really care about where I am or what pencil or pen I am using. I don’t get excited by the idea that Hemingway used yellow legal pads and number 2 pencils. I am not really a big believer in writing rituals.

However, if I have to answer this question, I usually mumble something about the fact that poems exist everywhere, (which they do), and we just have to be open to letting them find us. This kind of “writing mysticism” does not satisfy the most literal of my questioners, but it generally gets me off the hook, and I can go talk about something more interesting, like the book I am reading at the moment, or the extraordinary moment with a student.

It’s not that I don’t think about process. I do, but I think that in the end one can have all the great rituals one wants and still not produce anything noteworthy. Rituals can also be used as an excuse. “I couldn’t find my special pen” or “something came up during my writing time” or whatever. Those comments are exactly what they sound like, excuses.

Writing is hard work. Writing something sustained like a novel is even harder work. Raymond Carver once said that he wrote short stories because he didn’t have the long stretches of sustained time that he needed to write a novel. I have often said the same thing about why I wrote only poetry for so long. I could get a poem down, maybe only a beginning of a poem down, between picking up the kids and making dinner and grading papers. There’s no way that I could have written a novel during those years when I had children at home. I remember once, after I had driven to Havre, Montana, and back for an educational conference, I knew I would write poem about the way that the road dips down to each river on that drive. I wrote the names of the rivers on a napkin, and it floated around my kitchen for several weeks before I actually got the poem written. My daughter, then about 10, said, “I wondered what that list of rivers was for.”

In the last three weeks, I have written two poems. I don’t even remember now the circumstances for the first one, but the inspiration for the second came from a conversation with a colleague at the end of a long Friday afternoon meeting.  Even now, when my kids are grown and off in their own lives, if I insisted on all the writing rituals, I would never write anything. I teach full-time. I often feel like I am either  grading papers, attending committee meetings or preparing for class. If I depended on ritual, I would never write at all. I write in and among all the rest. I have still managed to get two books published, two novels and many essays written. But they get written on scraps of paper, on different computers, at different desks.

I will concede that there are moments when I am “obsessed.”  A few years ago, I sat down at the computer one evening, typed a paragraph, read it to a friend, and then kept going. I didn’t even know the narrator’s name for about the first 10 pages. I finished that novel in six weeks. I was compelled to spend every spare minute on it. I woke up one Saturday morning and pulled my computer into my lap and told my husband that I was working. He said, “You are obsessed” and I answered, “Yes” and kept writing.   I taught a night class that semester, and, one evening, I had left my main characters in a very cold river when I had to leave home to go to the college in the evening. I was freezing all night and finally told my class I had to get home to get those kids out of the river.  I think that’s a little obsessive and odd. I know it sounded odd to some of my students. Luckily, they were forgiving.

But those obsessive moments are rare. For me, writing happens in the odd spaces. It happens on a Saturday morning. It happens at my desk at school, or at the kitchen table at home, I don’t need rituals.  I know that the moment when a poem finds me will happen without any tricks or rituals I might create.  The poem will find me, rather than the other way around.



In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami claims that most of what he knows about writing fiction he learned from running every day.  Murakami is both a renowned novelist – he’s been called one of the world’s greatest living writers – and an accomplished distance runner.  Murakami runs nearly forty miles a week.  He never takes more than one day off from exercise. He ran his first marathon, in Athens – in July.  And Murakami insists that pushing his body to its physical limits is essential to his creative ability. Without running – long and hard – Murakami couldn’t, or maybe wouldn’t, write.

I am a slow runner.  But I am steady and my dog pulls me up the hills.  For me running has become like brushing my teeth – an essential habit that isn’t always fun but at its best becomes a mindless, preventative activity.  I wake early most mornings, force myself into sneakers and an orange traffic vest while my old, brown dog bounces in circles at my feet.  The first two miles of my morning shlog are painful.  The dog pulls at his lead and I jerk back reflexively.  I tug my ski beanie down and pull my neck gaiter tight, leaving just enough room to see the icy trail under my feet. I curse the darkness and the wind.  I hate myself for getting up and the dog for his enthusiasm.

Haruki Murakami argues that the creation of stories forces writers to confront the “toxin that lies deep down in all humanity.”  In many cases this altogether human danger lies adjacent to our most creative ideas.  We must dig and fight and struggle in order to create our best stories.  Murakami reminds writers that we need our strength.  This is difficult and “unhealthy” work. And so he runs upwards of 2000 miles a year – to build his strength.

There is great energy to be found by pushing yourself physically.  My runs teach me about endurance and dedication.  I find hidden energy and purpose on the backside of gravel coulees and along windswept game trails.  I’ve learned how to close my mind to all but the essential sounds of life: breathing, moving, pumping.  And this in turn teaches me about telling stories.  Writers must find dedication and endurance.  We must close our minds to all but the essential sounds of a story.  We must dig and fight and struggle to tell the truth. Murakami points to a basic and primary connection between the physical and the creative.

By mile three, I’m writing.  I sift through memories and brainstorm beginnings.  I plan careful prose on downhills and compose workaday correspondence on gradual inclines.  Big hills are quiet space.  I suck air and think only of my footfalls and a shortening, scrappy stride. But at the top of my favorite hills, I feel good – sort of hyperaware and supercharged. Words and images flood my tired body.  I have new ideas.   My runs give me the energy and strength to confront Murakami’s human “toxins.”

– S