On Writing P3

"Sheltering the Creative Spirit"

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Taos, New Mexico USA




                                      The Essence of a Good Muse

                                    Barbara Waters


                The secret of good writing lies in two words: elbow grease.  Using elbow grease, an archaic slang term from my youth, indicates hard work is being done.  But what exactly is this lubricant that keeps the elbow limber enough to keep the writing hand moving through thick and thin?  What is its chief ingredient?  Is it commitment?  Intention?  Starvation?  Obsession?  Possession?  Seldom is it inspiration.  Yet at each of our writing workshops, at least one unpublished participant has insisted, “That may be your way, but I write only when I am inspired.”

                Many of my friends are this way.  They write voluminous letters matching their flowery journal entries -- when they feel like writing.  When they feel like it, they are geniuses at expressing themselves on the Internet, where they’re never at a loss for words. They do accumulate a great mass of words this way.  At some point, though, they become overwhelmed by all these luscious words and cannot wean themselves away from a single one.  Then comes a wakeup call -- usually a milestone birthday,  sometimes a change in health -- or imminent poverty.  It triggers the insight, “Say, I could be doing much more with these gems.  They should be published!”  

                This is a crucial time when self-discipline is needed.  Most authors maintain momentum by writing on a daily basis.  And it is self-discipline, in my opinion, that keeps our writing hands moving through thick and thin.  It is the main requirement for setting down deft words in the first place, and for achieving the best results possible.  In most cases, it is also closely intertwined with the need to weed out words, to wean them from an everloving parent.  Self-discipline is the essence of that lubricant called elbow grease.   

                Having lived with a noted author, I use him as an example of  good writing practices.  From the start of our intimate twenty-five-year relationship, Frank Waters was an extremely disciplined writer. Come hell, high water, or holidays, every morning he sat at his beloved Olivetti typewriter and slowly sharpened his ebony pencil with a pocketknife while waiting for one of his muses to show up.  If she didn’t, he dug in alone.  On the morning of our wedding, I bought my bridal bouquet and washed our laundry at the laundromat.  He wrote.  During this special writing time, which decreased in later years to about two hours daily, Frank focused only on his work.  Ruefully he observed,  “When I finally looked up from my typewriter, all my wives were gone!”  

                After a fashion, this exodus eventually included me.  Our happy marriage endured.  But if I wasn’t teaching, I was often to be found writing in our guest room, a bothersome habit that Frank did not appreciate.  He may occasionally have regretted setting such a good example.  

                In London’s Guardian newspaper on July 9, 1999, Susan Greenhill wrote that she perceives an author’s creative output as dependent upon a supportive mate.  A mate like herself, she implies, shoulders the couple’s everyday problems alone, “which allows the writer to work unencumbered by the trivialities of life, such as organising the household and paying the bills.”                    

                For this reason, if “a mate” chooses to become a writer, he or she needs even more self-discipline than the established writing partner.  It requires added discipline to put menial chores on the back burner as much as possible, or to delegate, which is the more daunting task.  Besides trying to delegate a few chores to the writing partner, I’d advise hiring someone else to type the partner’s manuscripts.  Eliminating this backbreaker will make a vast difference in the caliber of one’s creativity.  Such typing is often a thankless job.  

                Frank’s sister, who died in 1969, had typed even more of his manuscripts than I did in the late seventies and eighties.  “Did Naomi edit, too?” I asked.  “Of course not,” he said.  “She didn’t have a creative bone in her body.”  

                Never forget this discipline of weeding out unnecessary words during the editing process.  It took my breath away to watch Frank blacken entire sentences -- even paragraphs -- full of his golden words.  Once out of his creative right brain and back into his logical left brain used for editing, he didn’t consider these words golden at all.  Nevertheless, he saw most writers’ surviving words as magic, and as “golden coins of the realm.”  

                John Nichols helped to teach me the same weeding lesson that Waters and Hemingway were hammering home.  Frederick Ramey, executive editor of MacMurray and Beck, felt that John’s fine foreword to my book Celebrating the Coyote was a bit wordy in places.  Talk about blasphemy -- a famous author like Nichols too “wordy?”  

                “It’s like looking a gift horse in the mouth,” I gasped in disbelief.  “If you’re dissatisfied, you tell him.  I’m grateful for what he’s done.”  

                After John had taken the suggestion and tightened his foreword, he wrote me, “Editors no longer bother me.  When they’re good like this one, their suggestions always improve a piece of writing.”  

                I learned from Frank to fight with editors for one’s own words.  Late in life, for example, he revised The Woman at Otowi Crossing, in part to eliminate the earlier editorial meddling of others. To his everlasting regret, he had also let himself be talked out of titling his first book The Lizard Woman, which became Fever Pitch.  He never let this happen again.  And he saw to it that its 1984 reprint bore his preferred title.  Fred Ramey wanted to rename my own first book Mourning the Coyote.  We stuck with my title, to everyone’s eventual satisfaction.  Nonetheless, this publication process did teach me that compromise works best.  

                To my surprise Fred insisted that the book was mostly about me.  This upset me since it had been written as a tribute to Frank and for me to feel close to him again.  Wherever he could, Fred wanted to cut out parts about Frank in order to focus on me.  The biggest challenge occurred in my middle three chapters, which were exclusively about Frank, his family, and his 1966 Ford Galaxie -- an extension of himself, he’d always said.  

                 “I don’t know what we’re going to do with these,” Fred commented.  “I suggest we just get rid of them entirely.”  

                 Instantly, from God knows where, the solution sprang to my lips.  “I’m not getting rid of them entirely,” I said.  “What I will do is consolidate the three into one ten- page biographical chapter set within a visit I made to Frank’s hometown a year after his death in 1995.”  

                This chapter, “Troops,” turned out to be one of the best-written in the book, and again everyone ended up happy -- including Frank’s spirit, I’m sure.  Fred now had me as the focus of action; and I got to include Frank’s background, written concisely and more sparingly.  

                Never would I have the audacity to try writing a “companion book” to one of Frank’s books.  A local reviewer more than once has mistakenly pinpointed this as one of my purposes for writing Celebrating the Coyote.  MacMurray and Beck, not I, made companions of our books.   

                 I did have several purposes -- too many purposes, in fact -- for writing my book. Whatever may be wrong with it stems from having so many purposes: to honor Frank; to publicize his work; to provide accurate information for a future, authorized biography of him; to help myself and others through the grieving process; to describe our healing landscape in Arroyo Seco.                                                                                               

                 Just as writing a companion book to Frank’s last book, Of Time and Change, was never my intent, neither Frank nor I intended to write a memoir.  When mine was written much later than his, it was meant to be mainly about him.  He had included too little of himself for his book truly to be called a memoir, as it now is designated. We had thought that this book of essays would be published long before his death, while I was working on a different book.  

                Instead, in 1997 MacMurray acquired our two manuscripts together, termed them both “memoirs,” and gave our books matching covers.  This approach seemed to work best for them, and I had little say in this part of the process.  When it comes to publishers and editors, if you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em.  

                When it comes to reviewers, beware!  As Frank did, ignore them as much as you can.  You need thick armor to repel their subtle and not-so-subtle slings and arrows.  Their complimentary reviews can be ego-inflating.  And they’re always getting things screwed up.  What you learn about most is them.  

                These arduous editing and post-editing processes take much of the pleasure out of getting a book published.  In retrospect, and despite the hard work, it’s the actual writing of a book that gives one the most satisfaction.  The beginning of this process, Frank thought, was having “something to write about.”  In my opinion, the first step is writing about what you know.  

                Frank’s reversal of these two precepts caused him some dissatisfaction initially.  At age twenty-two he left Colorado Springs, his hometown, to escape the poverty of his family and to find “something to write about.”  He found it in the California desert near the border of  Mexico.  And so he wrote Fever Pitch, or The Lizard Woman, about this stunning desert.  He was never satisfied with his first book, however; he didn’t really know the desert and its inhabitants.  He then began a novel about a bordertown similar to Mexicali, which he was coming to know; some years later he finished this book, naming it The Yogi of Cockroach Court.  

                In the meantime, he had realized at last that what he really knew was Colorado Springs and his family.  Before finishing Yogi, he returned to Colorado and wrote a series of books about his family.  This thinly disguised autobiography, in the form of three novels, satisfied him and anchored him to writing as a lifetime career.  Much later he consolidated his trilogy into one novel called Pike’s Peak.  

                Write to please yourself, not others, when you’re writing about those you know.  You never will please all of them.  “Be kind,” advises a local author.  I’d amend that to “Be as kind as possible, considering you’re not writing to please others.”  You never can be kind enough to suit all those about whom you write.  It took one friend two months to get past the fourth page of my book.  Although I was describing the tragic death of my husband on this page, all she cared about was my dazed flashback to when her family had chipped the Indian bowl that would contain his ashes.  A sculptor friend was unhappy because I edited out his age and the working challenges he faced while carving Frank’s memorial stone.  An ex-friend became “outraged” and “enraged” when I disagreed in print with her mistaken belief that she is in part the woman at Otowi Crossing.  I had thought she was pleased enough with imagining herself as Frank’s first wife in China during another lifetime.  

                Factions gave Frank similar problems after he wrote The Book of the Hopi, The Man Who Killed the Deer, and The Woman at Otowi Crossing.  In the first instance, one Hopi faction revered the book; another constantly denigrated it.  Similarly, two Taos Indian factions formed opposite opinions of Deer, just as two Anglo factions in Taos formed opposite opinions about Otowi.  Its woman protagonist bore some resemblance to a real woman given an entirely different fictionalized dimension by Frank than that idealized by her actual friends.  Writers need shoulders broad enough to row upstream against the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon in order to cope with all these ex-friends, friends, fans, factions, relatives, reviewers, editors, publicists, publishers, lawyers, agents, distributors, and booksellers.  

                As Mario Vargas Llosa has observed, “What’s certain is that literature does not solve problems --instead it creates them -- and rather than happy, it makes people more apt to be unhappy.”  

                Structure is another important element of writing.  I have chosen a chronological structure, basically, and interwoven it with flashbacks.  This allows me and my subject matter to be fragmented -- grasping at any straw -- during the first third of my book, as happens during the grief process.  During the next third, certain energies -- such as happy memories -- work to pull me and the book’s content back together into some semblance of order.  And in the final third, nature’s cosmic energies transform everything into a greater, integrated whole.  Essentially, mine is not a book about grieving, but that metaphor did help to establish overall structure.  

                “Style is the man himself,” it has been said.  What is your preferred writing style? Is it you?  Frank advised, “Keep it simple.  And if he writes honestly from the heart, [an author’s] work will eventually come to light.  An invisible and inaudible communication between the written lines will  be established with the reader.  This is the mysterious secret of all art.”  Ernest Hemingway strove for simple words used in the “right combination.”  I strive for the simple, combined with a natural and spontaneous effect rooted in honesty and spiced with wry humor.  It surprises me that most reviewers have commented on my “honest” writing.  To Frank, honesty was a basic tenet of writing, as it is to many other authors, including myself.  My friend Mary Courter says, “I feel as if you’re right here with me when I’m reading your book.  It sounds exactly like you, Barbara.”                                                                                    

                  Frank used to say, “I wish I could write like that!  So natural-sounding and easy- going.”  Of course, he never said anything negative about anyone’s writing, so his comments weren’t as helpful to me as the personal example he set.  Sounding natural in tightened language is not easy.  Somewhat like doing a jigsaw puzzle, all writing is a matter of moving the right words around until they fit the right places suiting a writer’s purpose.  Some puzzles are harder than others.  I’d rank the natural effect as medium-hard to achieve, since you gravitate toward what you do best.  Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn greatly influenced me toward this natural-sounding style where action, description, dialogue, and hidden introspection are equal, while nature balances and purifies.  I have taught Twain’s novel many times; it stands up to each rereading.  Hemingway claimed that all great modern American literature stems from this one book.  

                Nature, the cosmic, the unconscious, and silence are my muses, as they were for Frank.  A book could be written on these four.  To paraphrase myself, contact with certain hot spots of energy in nature expands one’s writing energy.  For me, one of these spaces lies next to our house in the Sacred Aspen Grove containing Frank’s memorial -- a granite boulder and chair.  Contact with other masses of healthy trees usually produces similar results, as does contact with good water, especially the ocean.  Or the earth in general.  

                Frank specifically initiated reciprocal energy with the sun.  I prefer the moon. Exchanging energies with the universe, the infinite, is the point here.  Silence leads one into the universe as well as into the unconscious.  Tuning in to the infinite results in renewal of all sorts and a truer perspective of our finite, everyday selves.  Achieving this takes solitude and a certain degree of near primitive silence.  Too few of us allow ourselves the luxury of lonely communion when “our inner mind hears the choir of invisible forces,” as sculptor Malvina Hoffman expressed it.  Snowy days, in particular, make this happen for me.  I am not a cafe writer.  Being snowed in gives me blissful, uninterrupted writing days when “invisible forces” can be heard as clearly as is allowed.  

                We organized the Frank Waters Foundation in 1993 to preserve our bit of wilderness land so others might share the strong spirit of place that Frank and I have experienced.  The motto of our nonprofiit organization is  “Sheltering the Creative Spirit.”  We do this literally by encouraging creative persons to work on projects here for two months at a time from April through October.   Inspirational writing, art, and music workshops further this creative process during the summer and fall, as does the Frank Waters Southwest Writing Award.                                                                                                                                                       The majority of residents have tuned into the “invisible forces” and produced fine work.  Our only disappointments have been one flatlander, one social butterfly, and a poet allergic to the erotic aroma of New Mexico’s pungent sage.  It is said by oldtimers that Taos Sacred Mountain across from us spits out those who are not “pure of heart,” not attuned to this area’s heightened vibrations.  Here vibrations are discernibly higher than those we sensed in Tucson, for instance.  Dedicated writers can practice their craft almost anywhere, but some places impart more of a jump-start to creativity than do other places. Wallace Stegner may have been inspired by just such a piece of land as our fifteen acres when he wrote that saved land is valuable no matter how few people come to know it each year.  “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”  

                Besides making contact with the deeper collective unconscious through nature, before going to sleep at night one can alert other levels of the unconscious to one’s writing needs and intent for the next day.  Frank’s The Man Who Killed the Deer almost wrote itself from the unconscious in this fashion, he said.  Writers usually do not receive such clear-cut assistance.  If sought out, though, the assistance is there, particularly if grasped soon after waking when that cosmic “choir” still is whispering.  A bonus connected with this inner contact and growing awareness is simultaneous outer contact with matching happenings that enrich one’s writing.  Jung termed this phenomenon “synchronicity.”  It is neither mere “coincidence” nor “New Age belief,” as a reviewer of my book stated.   To broaden sales potential, in their catalog MacMurray and Beck classified Celebrating the Coyote under four categories, which included “New Age.”  From my aged vantage point, being thought of as a “New Age” believer is almost as amusing as it is annoying.  

                Hemingway was right about journalism teaching one the discipline of writing.  By meeting deadlines, writers are forced to put aside the luxury of writer’s block and get to work.  I keep one jump ahead of the monster by getting up earlier than it does and  having a journalism degree.  The house needs to be in order -- not necessarily clean, the animals and myself fed, the woodstoves fired up.  Then I jump into the writing quagmire, often as not still in my granny nightgown and bare feet. When I emerge, the dogs will be yapping for more food, the cat crying piteously, the horses neighing, my feet freezing, the fires out, and the house looking like a paper cyclone has struck.  

                First, I write by hand at Frank’s big rough-hewn writing table with a view of our aspens and a popular birdfeeder.  Later I turn to a laptop computer -- a godsend for revision work -- with no view.  Sometimes I write snuggled close to the kitchen woodstove, whose acrid-sweet perfume soon fires up all my senses.                                                                              

                  Frank, too, did his writing immediately after a good breakfast, but fully clothed.  Poor eyesight forced him to sit at his writing table with his back to the light and trees.  Unlike many writers, he did not require a stimulating view to inspire him.  During the winter of 1976 when he rented an apartment in Tucson where I taught, it startled me to find him typing before a blank wall each day.  Originally, he had written only by hand with a red Parker fountain pen.  His sister burned all those handwritten manuscripts except one.  In 1956 he bought his Olivetti portable typewriter and used it ever after.  He taught himself to type with two fingers of each hand and had a heavy touch, which the Olivetti demanded.  His hands were surprisingly clumsy and impatient when it came to repairs and mundane matters.  The computer and Frank would never have become compadres, had he ever deigned to look at one.  

                It is difficult to pull away from the siren song of writing.  It ensnares the mind and holds one captive, away from other responsibilities.  Proofreading and light editing help to ease a writer from the depths of the creative right brain, but it takes strenuous physical activity to break its stranglehold.  Woodchopping frees me the fastest, as it did Frank.  Horseback riding and outdoor sports help.  Waxing floors, washing windows, and shoveling manure can be resorted to, if necessary.  Socializing does it for some, perhaps in more moderation than Hemingway chose.  

                “When socializing after writing,” Frank advised, “keep it to yourself.  Spill all your story and it loses its energy.  Back at the typewriter you have no story.”  

                “Oh, I don’t know about that,” John Nichols argues.  “At an eastern college I attended, wherever he went this guy named Alex ran off at the mouth about the fantastic epic he was going to write.  On and on he’d go, detail after detail about this great family saga he was working on.  It wore you out listening to him.  Well, to everyone’s surprise one day he finished it.  He called it Roots. 

                  All writers I’ve known or read about do agree upon one fact: they need to “fill up the well” again after a draining day of writing.  Socializing and just plain living help to refill this psychic well.  Traditionally, reading the renewing words of others has refilled  the most wells.  Frank was a great reader, as am I.  We’ve never had television in our Taos home, which helps.  And we both read widely from childhood onward.  Frank’s father, who died when his son was twelve, had given the boy a small leather notebook in which to record titles of all the books he read.  His grandfather owned an extensive metaphysical library that fascinated the thirteen-year-old after he moved into his grandparents’ home.  These important resources helped to develop Frank’s innate writing ability, which was impacted by his desire to become someone other than a poor person from the wrong side of the tracks.  He did this by playing to his greatest strength: writing.  To relax his mind in later life, he consumed mysteries.  He decided that Agatha Christie, though dated, was the best mystery writer after all due to her adroit plots and character development, her rich descriptions and settings.  Frank said he wasn’t “clever enough” to write a mystery himself.

                  For reading more books than any of my peers during fall semester, at age eight I got to hang the most paper ornaments on the Christmas tree of our public library in Brookfield, Illinois.  Each bore my name beneath the title of a book I’d read.  It was a heady honor.  Nowdays, I habitually read four or five books at once on every subject.  Seldom are they mysteries, which bring out a lack of character in me: one of the first things I do is peek at their endings. 

                  Save heavy left-brain editing and rewriting for rainy days when your creative brain is a sieve.  If it is congenitally that way, take up rafting instead.  Writing is a lot more work, and not half so thrilling -- unless you develop writermaniacus, an acute condition. It is best then to kiss the Blarney Stone; impale your rejection slips on a five-foot silver spike as Jack London did; and ceaselessly chant the writer’s mystic mantra, “elbow grease, elbow grease, elbow grease.  Such devotion has its reward.  St. Peter is sure to greet you at the golden gate with a red Parker fountain pen and a fervent plea for that pearl beyond price, your autograph.

  (This article first appeared in The Salt Journal, January/February, 2000,  Volume 2/Number 2.)

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