composting the details

While avoiding writing today, I found a book on my shelf from the eighties called “Writing Down the Bones.” My copy is yellowed and studded with bookmarks–receipts, clothing tags, and the business card of a Californian sculptor. It’s not really my copy, but my grandma’s, and the book’s history only adds to its mystique.

Hundreds of books are around that tell how to avoid bad writing. Here is one that tells how to create good writing. What a pleasant surprise.

The quiet of nap time is precious. When my baby sinks into solid afternoon sleep, I often freeze, unsure which venture to pursue. Today I resolved to write, but when no subject sprang to mind, I started flipping through “Writing Down the Bones.” I liked its cursive script and cover image showing a black pool of spilled ink dotted with stars.

I know this approach rarely works. It’s far too easy to spend an hour casting about for writing wisdom in lieu of actually writing. This time, however, I read something that helped make sense of my scribblings.

In the section titled “Composting,” Natalie Goldberg writes:

It takes a while for our experience to sift through our consciousness. For instance, it is hard to write about being in love in the midst of a mad love affair. We have no perspective. All we can say is, “I’m madly in love,” over and over again. It is also hard to write about a city we just moved to; it’s not yet in our body. We don’t know our new home, even if we can drive to the drugstore without getting lost. We have not lived through three winters there or seen the ducks leave in fall and return to the lakes in spring.

Hemingway wrote about Michigan while sitting in a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.”

This is true of writing about new motherhood while in the midst of it. Everything is fresh, compelling, but there is no perspective. I’m rarely more than a room away from Clara. I yearn to write about this baby, source of great inspirationjoywonder, but as soon as she’s asleep, the coffee’s hot, and the room is quiet–I have nothing to say. I don’t know what it all means. I’m trying to write about Paris in Paris.

Our senses by themselves are dumb. They take in experience, but they need the richness of sifting for a while through our consciousness and through our whole bodies. I call this “composting.”

Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories. But this does not come all at once. It takes time. Continue to turn over and over the organic details of your life until some of them fall through the garbage of discursive thoughts to the solid ground of black soil.

It’s not just new motherhood. When I try to write about anything that friends say belongs in a book, the obvious writing material, I sit intimidated and wordless before the page. I write differently; I write scared, leaning on clichés to parse big emotions. After a few painful minutes or hours, I delete everything, annoyed at the vast gulf between what I want to say and what I can say.

I’m better off sticking to details. Like that old joke: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Tiny sensory details have always seemed both accessible and vital to me, as if my life in some way depended upon this collecting of a few of the moments that make up a day or a few of the characteristics that make up a person.

I can’t ignore that tug, to get something on the page. Each moment, especially on these precious baby-full days, is as flighty and ephemeral as the monarchs I’ve seen fluttering high outside my window, gone before I’ve had time to really look. With a notebook and pen I can trap something of these days under glass, examine them more closely.

“Often I will stab many times at something I want to say,” Goldberg writes. She spent months attempting to write of her father’s death. One day, finally, “all the disparate things I had to say were suddenly fused with energy and unity– a bright red tulip shot out of the compost.”

I can’t write about “motherhood,” full stop, right now. It’s perfectly sufficient to record something of my daughter’s sticky, chubby hands, something of her delight at crawling in the grass, something about the strains and surprises and messes that make up these days.

I can take ten minutes a day. Over months or years, I can stab many times in the general vicinity of what I want to say. In time, surely, disparate details will fuse and something bright and lovely will rise out of this compost.

One thought on “composting the details

  1. So that explains why I tend to write about Paris that much!
    What a wonderful image : “Our bodies are garbage heaps: we collect experience, and from the decomposition of the thrown-out eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and old steak bones of our minds come nitrogen, heat, and very fertile soil. Out of this fertile soil bloom our poems and stories.” You need your stories to become compost before you can use them in any productive way. .. What a fabulous process…
    And I understand completely what you mean when you mention “clichés”. It is not necessarily, the lack of ideas or subject to write about which can leave you frustrated facing a white page.

    But still, your two last posts were rich and personal. For that reason, the readers of your blog can rejoice in your trip back to the States. It inspired you it seems…


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