A Creative Compost {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 18}

More than half of the trees have lost their leaves. My green pepper plants have shriveled up and fallen over. The newest tomatoes have suffered frost bite. The veggies have grown through drought and flood in this hearty stew of compost and peat and vermiculite, but now it’s time to clear out the garden and put away the shovels and shears.

But even as the plants give way to the season, there is potential in the slow and still. The garden extras, the piles of crunchy leaves, the scraps from the kitchen, if I allow them the space, they’ll come together and create a whole new substance.

While your notebook is tucked in a drawer and you are resting from your work, something is happening in that stillness. When you pick up someone else’s book, when you sit face to face with the good people in your life, when you venture out of your writing world into fresh contexts, borrowed thoughts mingle with the ones already written.

Onto the heap of our drafted ideas, we throw new clippings and scraps. Sometimes inspiration will come from talking directly about your idea (though I wouldn’t do too much of that or you may lose some of your steam!), but most often it will come in surprising forms, the cast offs from listening to a stirring sermon or someone’s take on a current events issue or a family struggle.

All these apple peels, blades of grass, egg shells, used tea leaves, pine needles, these textures and flavors of all sorts come together and sit a while. Then ideas turn over one another and heat up like compost in the bin.

Maybe your essay or blog post or short story feels stuck. You shove it in the drawer and wonder if it should stay. But bring yourself into a new context and see what happens.

Maybe you’ll be like the man in the 1960s who left a failure of a project at work over the weekend. He turned out the light and locked the lab door on this new formula for glue, one so weak that the pages barely stuck together.

But in the choir loft on Sunday, amid the reverb of soprano, alto, tenor and bass, he looked down at the hymnal with his makeshift bookmarks, torn pieces of paper falling all around like confetti. He scrambled that morning to reopen the page for the choir number, but he’d never have to do that again.

Weak glue? Paper that barely sticks? A hymnal sprawled open letting plain paper fly? All these problems came together to give him the perfect idea for a hymnal marker, one that would stick but wouldn’t tear the page when removed.

In this moment of synergy, in this completely different context, a place of rejuvenation, the man’s subconscious did the work for him and the idea for the Post-It Note was born.

We refine our writing when we enter new contexts, engage in conversation, or soak in the words of a treasured author, even with our own story put away out of sight.

I had written a draft for my Gift from the Sea series detailing my night swim in the luminescent waters off of the islands of Thailand when I set my own writing aside to do some reading. As I came across the words of a fellow blogger through a link-up, I read some punch in the chest quotes from Surprised by Joy, a book I’d been wanting to read for quite awhile. I grinned when I came upon the shelf at the bookstore. The spine of Lewis’ memoir stretched tall, just four books down from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s classic written in the same year, these two works sitting together in a picture of synergy. Joy sneaks up on us, they both said in their own way. And my story agreed.

On the small scale of a blog post, the ideas compost in a matter of hours or days. When it comes to larger stories in creative non-fiction and novel writing, we can expect a much longer process. I mulled over the theme of Dress of Many Colors for more than five years before I felt the story was ready for dedicated writing. And even now as I’ve taken a break from it, the ideas continue to react to my everyday experience.

Whatever the nature of our work, when we venture out of its bounds, we let ideas commingle, we stir them up and let them sit again. We put the happy process on repeat and soon the pile turns dark and earthy, each ingredient becoming part of the whole until we can’t tell one idea from another, all of them blending into one rich compost, the boost our story needs to flourish.

{Are you getting out enough? Are you listening enough in conversation? Are you reading enough? How have you experienced the synergy of ideas in a current or past project?}

This is Day 18 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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Time Capsule {Gift from the Sea Re-opened…and Giveaway Winner!}

From The Dress of Many Colors, by Darcy Wiley:

“Help,” Libby mouthed toward Clarence, too late to catch his eye. She pressed her lips between her teeth. Should she try and break free? This was so much so soon, Paul wrapping his arms around her like they were going steady.

But then a familiar shape came into focus. There at the chipping layers of McBride’s Bluff, Libby’s eyes lingered on a segment of rock, a memory of the sea that had once covered the place. Where had it all gone, those immeasurable liters that once buried the ground she would walk on, the cliffs she would climb?

Water was still drawn to the place. Every spring the river recalled the legend of that ancient ocean, rising high along rock faces, seeping into brick buildings, saturating soil. Just a few months earlier, the river had again broken its boundaries and crept up to that very spot. She remembered paddling the canoe past it.

“What’s on your mind?” Paul whispered hot in her ear.

She moved through his arms like she was swinging a gate open and sped to the rock face, a landing place where she could stand firmly in the tide of Paul’s sudden affection. He jogged forward, reached out and captured her hand in his and rested the tips of his fingers in between her knuckles, like little ships in port. Just as quickly, she worked her hand out of his and pointed at the work of art in front of them.

“See this?” she formed a frame with her thumbs and index fingers. Paul lifted his discarded hand and pressed his finger into the grooves of a tiny fossil, the armor of a little sea creature etched into the stone tablet of history, an imprint preserved from the long-ago dream of a time before the water was shallow enough for the place to be called Shoals.

“The Great Flood,” he said.

She forced out a breath and locked in on the tube in Paul’s hand. “Are you planning on fixing something?” she asked.

“Oh, this? You ever seen a time capsule?” The tube did look a little like the thing the President had buried in the ground at the World’s Fair a few years back. It was a man’s form of a Mason jar, a way to capture the moment, freeze it in time, preserve it for a future generation to relish. She pictured the glass and shimmery Cupaloy. That and its tapered ends left the 7-foot capsule looking less like something in the kitchen pantry and more like something in the nation’s armory. Libby nodded at Paul.

“Seems a lot of people around here are searching for treasure,” Paul motioned to Clarence’s contraption, a hefty box connected to a long pole connected to a disc that looked like a film reel, “What do you say we bury a bit of our own?” Something solid bounced off the ends of the tube as he shook it back and forth. And when he placed the pipe into the rocky soil near the metal detector, the machine cheeped and squealed.

What you read above is an excerpt from a novel that I’ve been working on for years. The chapters in themselves are like little time capsules that keep a bit of my style, philosophy and skill level just as they were at the time I wrote the words. Every time I go back to the drafts, I find something that needs editing. The written word, whether kept in a computer file, or printed on real paper and bound with a spine, or shared out in the blogosphere, has a way of capturing a slice of the author’s life at that very moment. And when we re-open our own works, we find how much we ourselves have changed.

Through this, I can relate even in a small way with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s feelings on re-opening her time capsule, her bestselling memoir of her time in Captiva. In her afterword, written twenty years after initial publication, she shares her astonishment that her book of essays has indeed resonated with so many women and also that she could be so naive about the state of women’s rights and quality of life in 1955.

After reading the list of Mrs. Lindbergh’s domestic duties in chapter 2, my friend Julie commented, “AML claimed that her husband was more of a feminist than she was (Winters, 2006, p. 74). However, I don’t see “equality” written on these pages!” When re-opening her book twenty years later, it seems the author agreed that the work for women’s equality was nowhere near complete in 1955: “I realize in hindsight and humility how great and how many were–and are–the victories still to be won.”

She went on to write of how she admired her daughters and other young women who were “better mothers than I was…and the admitted equals of their husbands in intelligence and initiative.” Yet, through this reading, I remember reflecting on the role of fathers in that very generation, my parents’ generation, and chuckling at how disconnected many of them were from domestic work and the often tedious care of children. I even commented that “part of the reason it took me so long to say ‘yes’ to marriage was my fear of having to be the sole person in charge of” those things.

I agree with Tristi’s comment: “As I look at my own life, I see the benefits of my husband as an involved father, doing things men were unheard of doing in those days (changing diapers). It’s nice to have the freedom to have a girls’ night out or even be able to embrace some time alone and know he’ll be willing to stay home with the kids.”

A big part of the emphasis on teamwork, I believe, has come from women being willing to communicate needs and desires to their husbands. Like AML wrote, “They are airing their problems, discovering themselves and comparing their experiences. More important, they are beginning to talk to men, openly and honestly, often arguing and challenging, but at last trying to explain what they felt could never be explained…. And men, to their great credit, for the most part are listening and, I believe, understanding more than we ever expected.”

I admire my mother for her tireless efforts in taking care of four children as a stay-at-home mom whose work never seemed to be done, and in view of all that, I admire her for carving out time for her own creative passions like writing stories, playing piano, or painting landscapes. I know her long commitment to exploring and practicing her talents helped her through the empty nester phase “when a mother alone is left, the lone hub of a wheel, with no other lives revolving about her” and helped her “come to terms with [herself] not only in a new stage of life but in a new role.” And her commitment to those pursuits as a young mother is an inspiration to me as I experiment with how to enjoy and work hard at my own calling to motherhood and to creative writing.

Our art, our music, our words, they all capture this moment in time and keep it for future generations, or our future selves. I am thankful Anne Morrow Lindbergh captured her thoughts for us, even if there were things she would have changed when looking back.

{I’ve had such a fun summer with these weekly getaways in the pages of Gift from the Sea. Sifting through these words with you all has brought in new friends and allowed me to grow closer with some wonderful women I already knew. Thank you to Kerry, Tristi, Julie, Amber and others who commented so thoughtfully over the course of our summer book club…and thank you to those of you who chimed in toward the end. Out of 162 eligible comments in our Souvenirs from the Sea Giveaway, the winner chosen at random was #135…Kerry!!! She has been such a faithful part of the discussion from week to week and I’m so glad she’ll get to enjoy these souvenirs from our time together. Be sure to swing over to her blog and get to know her a bit. She’s a breath of fresh air.}