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March 2013

Time Wasting Experiment

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I came across this wonderful project the other day. From 2009 to 2012, Portland-artist Alyson Provax tracked time that she felt was wasted, and memorialized each moment on a letterpress card.

I love the way she documents our habits of self-sabotage and distraction in a gentle non-judgmental way.

(4 minutes writing this blog, delaying a manuscript edit…)

This Story is Full of Holes

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On the eve of my marriage, in August 1998, my father gave me a beautiful lacquer box with a black and white photo inside. It showed my father from behind peering out over a lunar landscape. Written on the back were the words:

This is a very historic photo of a time of horror and happiness. In September 1969 I traveled from Hanoi to the border with the South — the first television correspondent to do so. What I saw no one in the West at first believed, countryside bombed so totally that it looked like the craters of the Moon. When I returned to Hanoi (traveling at night to hide from the bombing), I vowed I’d do a television history of Vietnam some day to “repair” the damage. That same day in Hanoi I received wonderful news that forever altered my life: a telegram from Mummy saying you were on your way!

My husband thought it was a lovely but strange wedding gift. On the one hand, there was the photo — black marks of bomb impacts on the ground. On the other hand, there was the refined lacquer container, subtly inlaid with mother of pearl, a reminder of my father’s simple and exquisite taste. Devastation and beauty. Horror and happiness. After years of observing my father, however, I didn’t see it as strange at all. Intense maybe, but not — in the out-of-character sort of way — strange.

In the months and years after our wedding, I kept going back to that box. It seemed, in that manner of certain keepsakes, to offer some basic truth: life is a paradox, a combination of contrasting elements.

Do we not all have a box somewhere? The box that goes by different names — identity, the past, childhood — but which speaks to our emotional inheritance?

(Click here to read the full blog post.)

Image: Garden at Westminster Cathedral, London, created from bomb crater, 1942.

Writing Demons

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Demons. We all have them. Here are some of mine:

Pride in Efficiency
This may sound strange but I have to remind myself to be bad at what I don’t want to do (i.e. laundry, other people’s work.)

Lazy Defensiveness

The Myth of Natural Talent
Writing does not come naturally to me. It takes intense effort. If I channelled the same effort into any other field, I might be an epidemiologist or a rocket scientist by now.

Moments of Disenchantment
It’s inevitable for me to experience a kind of bottoming-out as I work on a book. I’m not talking about the big crises of confidence, which may lead a person to ask: Who am I? Why write? Does God exist? I’m referring to the other kind, the smaller crises I have all the time, those moments of negative epiphany when I start putting the story I’ve been carrying around in my head (the scenes that seemed so profound and beautiful) onto the page and I feel heartbroken because it’s so unbelievably terrible.

An acquaintance of mine who wrote a book on screenplay writing calls this “waking up outside the castle.” For me, moments of disenchantment happen several times throughout the course of a project. (My sense of connection to the story may be temporarily lost, my former passion and enthusiasm wanes, the drawbridge lifts…) The hardest thing is to keep going when all what I want to do is press delete and look through the want ads. (If the feeling persists, sometimes I do press delete, but that’s another issue.)

A final demon: Equilibrium
Happiness, disappointment, triumph, defeat, I cannot count the number of times I’ve experienced the whole gamut in a day. The challenge is to embrace disequilibrium, remembering that all of it—the whole tempestuous writing life, with all its fickle crests and troughs—is something chosen and ultimately loved.

(Image: “German Husband and Wife Team Perform a Dramatic Tightrope Cycling Act” by Achille Beltrame.)