Guest Blogger Christine Walker:
In the house where my husband and I live, there is a room we call the “library.” Books overflow the shelves. Along the walls, five bookcases contain hundreds of volumes stacked top to bottom, back to front, overhanging the edges. One shelf holds books by authors I know—friends, teachers, and teachers who became friends. More books are piled on the floor and in bags, but our local public library stopped taking donations because of the pandemic. The disarray — books, bags, file boxes needing to be sorted — mirrors my emotions. I need to make sense of this room and so much else in my life.
I’ve come looking for a paperback recommended for my zoom book group. I joined the group a year ago, on March 25th, 2020, two weeks after our county shut down for Covid on March 13th. That was the day my husband and I cancelled the memorial celebration we had scheduled for the 15th. The celebration was to be in honor of our 31-year-old son, who had passed away in early January. I didn’t intend to write about his death in this post, but I’ve come to know the truth of these lines from W.S. Merwin: “Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.”
The zoom book group, meeting once a month on a Friday, has been a bright spot in a brutal year. Books provide solace and inspiration—reading them, talking about them, and having them on the shelves. As disorganized as my books appear, they are not a burden. They are touchstones in a time of no touching. How many other people are feeling this way? I google for recent headlines. AP News declares: “Publishing saw upheaval in 2020, but ‘books are resilient.’” The Guardian shouts: “Book sales defy pandemic to hit eight-year high.” Yahoo Finance testifies to “America’s love for books and reading habits” with stats from iDashboards: “Sales in the print book market increased 8% in 2020.”
This upbeat news for writers and readers brings me to my topic question: “Why write?” I can’t address “Why write?” without considering “Why read?” They are conjoined, like twins. I read to understand, feel more deeply, experience more widely, and walk in someone else’s shoes. I read to learn what I don’t know, remind myself of what I believe, question those beliefs, and see the world from other viewpoints. I write for the same reasons.
For all of my adult life, I’ve written in sketchbook journals about painting, creative process, and all else. I write professionally for clients as a creative consultant. But I didn’t identify myself as a writer until the publication of my first book, “A Painter’s Garden: Cultivating the Creative Life.” The book sprouted in 1995 as a letter to a friend who gave me a rose bush; it grew out of a desire to reclaim my joy after a challenging year, one very different from 2020; it branched from my journals into a nonfiction narrative chronicling my life as an artist, novice gardener, and mother of the young, exuberant, and beautiful boy who was our son, Quinn. After the book’s publication in October 1997, I wrote a short story that became longer and longer—soon a novel. I completed that novel and another manuscript and began a new one inspired by the diaries that my paternal grandmother kept during the Great Depression. I am grateful that she left a trace of her life through which I can experience the arduous and wonderfully happy times of my father’s family. I set the novel in 1932 and titled it “Tap Dancing at the Bluebird Buffet.”
My second published book, “Wooleycat’s Musical Theater,” which I illustrated and co-wrote with my husband came out in 2003. It had its inception years earlier in the songs that Dennis and I wrote during a challenging time of disappointments in our attempts to become parents. Our siblings and friends were growing their families, so we created music for our nephews, nieces, and friends’ children. The songs went out into the world in 1986 and Quinn was born in 1988. He was our greatest joy.
I entered a graduate writing program in 2004, completed a third novel as my thesis, and received an MFA in Writing and Literature in Fiction in 2006. Following graduation, I focused on revising the three completed novel manuscripts, as well as painting, creative consulting, and teaching. The story begun from my grandmother’s diaries beckoned me, and I made intermittent progress.
Five years ago, I evolved “Tap Dancing at the Bluebird Buffet” to take place in 1932, 1960, and 2016, ending on the eve of the election of our first woman President, Hillary Clinton. That didn’t work out the way I’d hoped. I put the book aside. In late autumn of 2019, I was again working on the novel. I was unsure of how I would end it, just as I was unsure of how I would accomplish all of my ambitions in art, creative consulting, and writing in the coming year. During that first week of January 2020, I wrote resolutions and affirmations, feeling energized and full of promise, visualizing what might be.
Losing Quinn was a tragedy beyond imagining. In the aftermath of his death, I tried working on the novel. I didn’t know how to re-enter it, nor could I manage the mental acrobatics involved in constructing a novel. I was in disarray, depleted, despairing. Grief fogged my brain. Although I know how to craft fiction, I couldn’t organize my notes, much less sustain an interest in my imagined characters and story.
Joining the Friday zoom book group helped. In March of 2020, I couldn’t write a novel, but I could read one for discussion with a group of kind, interesting, and intelligent women. My friend Vicki, who invited me into the group, asked if I also wanted to have weekly talks with her about our novels in progress. The book group gave me renewed structure around my own teaching and learning philosophy of “read to write books” and heartened me to that purpose. The novel talks were an added boost. I started writing again on “Tap Dancing.” Hopefully, I would write a book that I wanted to read and that the women in the book group would eventually enjoy reading too.
By May, in deep grief over missing my son, I was also feeling renewed by reading and talking about books. Though isolated due to Covid, I was painting, taking walks with Dennis, and enjoying the spring season. Every day, sometimes several times a day, I’d pull up on my computer desktop a photo of Quinn and talk to him. I felt bereft of him, and writing the novel only took me further away to a time and place that didn’t include him. One day, it occurred to me to change a main character in the novel to embody many of my son’s characteristics: the way he moved, spoke, and laughed; his philosophies, strengths, and vulnerabilities. My Kip character is of another era and background. He is not Quinn, but I’ve given him some of Quinn’s essence. Now while writing the novel, I can spend time with my son through Kip. I have regained an ability to focus my thinking and juggle the elements of fiction.
Reimagining the story with a character informed by my son charged the novel with new life and intention. I am writing to learn about love and forgiveness, dancing and longevity, memory and time. I am writing because the story I’ve created is a place to go unlike any other available to me. I am writing because I would like to hold this book in my hands one day, read excerpts aloud at book events, and place it on my shelf, along with books I love written by authors who have give me reasons to write and read. The reasons to write become lessons for Writing Resilient. Here are just a few:
Lesson: Write to discover.
Ask questions of yourself and others. Seek to discover and understand. Put disparate thoughts and observations together. Let free associations reveal new meanings. Revise and revise to discover more.
Lesson: Write to remember.
Write and draw in journals, diaries, or on paper that can be collected into a notebook or box. This writing is not for publication, though it could be. Leave a trace of your life, your thoughts, how today looks and feels. It’s a compost pile, fertile and rich.
Lesson: Write to read.
Throughout good times and bad—wars, pandemics, economic depression, crises—people read and write books. If there isn’t a book that satisfies you now, maybe it’s because the one you want to read is within you. If it’s also one that you want to write, then begin.
Lesson: Write to thank.
Write a letter. Thank someone for his or her gift. Speaking to a specific someone helps you to establish your voice. Be grateful. Discover what you’re grateful for and why. Discover what’s missing.
Lesson: Write to leap.
The word resilient comes from the Latin “Resilire”—to leap back. “Resilience” means “capable of returning to an original shape or position, as after having been compressed.” Being resilient is being tensile—capable of being stretched or extended.
Francis Weller, a psychotherapist, author, and soul activist says, “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and be stretched large by them.”
I have a photo of my son in mid-leap across stones along a Sonoma coast beach. I imagine that somewhere in the great beyond he is leaping among the stars. I direct the character in my novel to leap with buoyance and grace. I write to feel alive and remember the joy.
Christine Walker is a visual artist, writer, strategic visioning facilitator, and teacher whose guiding principle for fruitful creative process is: “Artful vision. Heartfelt action.” She has an MFA in Writing and Literature in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars and an MA in Creative Arts Interdisciplinary from San Francisco State. She is the author and artist of “A Painter’s Garden: Cultivating the Creative Life,” a memoir on creative process illustrated by her paintings, and the co-author and illustrator of “Wooleycat’s Musical Theater,” a children’s book with song CD. She writes novels and short stories and teaches writing through her frameworks “Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery” and “Read to Write Books,” which are inspired by careful reading of masterful authors.
Christine Walker will facilitate two free “Writing Resilient” Workshops.
During these Zoom Forums, Christine will talk about “Masterful Ways to Transform Our Stories: The ones we’re writing, the ones we’re living.”
Two Saturdays: March 20 and March 27, 10 am to 12 noon, Pacific Time.
The Zoom URL is on the Writers Forum page of The Write Spot.
There is no registration nor sign-ups for Writers Forum.
Christine Walker’s website, blog, and more:
Blog: Exploring fiction craft for writers and readers
Online course: Writing Fiction: 9 Ways to Mastery
YouTube channel: Moments of Mastery videos on writing and creativity