Passions of the writer


One of the great pleasures of being a writer is the ability to indulge our passions.  Most adults in modern society are expected to take on an area or two of mastery, with a few amateur areas of interest, and that’s that. 

Look around.  The neighbors on the left: he’s mastered accounting, and has an amateur pleasure in golf, the Grateful Dead, and his collection of toy cars.  She’s an ER nurse who knows everything there is to know about trauma, and she spends her free time puttering with her astonishing cottage garden and reading Regencies.  Long ago, he wanted to be a racecar driver, and for a brief, heady time when he was twenty, he followed the Dead around the country.  She visited England as a young girl and longs to return, and she considered studying history, but her mother wanted her to be sensible.

You, on the other hand, are a dabbler.  A jack-of-all-trades.  It sounds so immature, doesn’t it? A grown-up figures out how to focus instead of running from this to that all the time.  And look at you! You love ER medicine and watching surgeries on television and could have been a physician, but you also love pool tournaments and could have been a contender on the stick circuit.  You surely have the largest collection of something (I’ll put my Black Plague memorabilia up against yours any day).  You love water gardens and know how they work, including how to pour the concrete for the piping options.  You have an amateur’s talent for fine dance and an appreciation for a painter from the seventeenth century that no one has ever heard of.  You can pick out exotic fruits and know the names of all the pastas and recognize obscure castles and tidbits of slang from another language.  You’ve a large collection of things you hope to explore, too: maybe travel through Egypt on a camel or fashions in the 1910s.

Writers never give up an old passion for a new one.  We’re mental magpies, gathering new obsessions and passions to add to the existing ones. 

And yet, as time goes by, we can become like our neighbors—experts at one thing (say, ghost stories), amateurs at a couple of others (how-to craft articles, the odd time travel) and then leave the rest alone.  It’s often success that does it, too.  We settle in to be grownup writers, productive and focused.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with productive, focused work. Trouble is, the brain of a writer is a fine, bright thing, and it needs feeding.  It needs passions to keep itself awake and moving. Unfortunately, daily life and the pressure of producing can sometimes leave the writers brain a bit dulled.  I have seen this in myself sometimes lately.   I was shopping one afternoon in Santa Fe, browsing the shops without much interest, and a part of me—probably Hilary—leapt up and said, “What’s wrong with you? Look at all this! Remember when this would have set you alive with yearning and hunger and dreams?”  A few weeks later, I was in the local library for the first time and saw…. remembered….passion. 

We are our passions.  Our work can only be real and true if we’re tapped into them.  I don’t know what it is that sometimes makes me put away my foolish exuberances, tamp down on my delights, try to act like a forty-something mother instead of a ardent dreamer.  It just happens every now and then.

And every now and then, I wake up again.

This morning, I am listening to Spanish guitar—two pieces, Asturias, by Albeniz, and Juegos Prohibidos.  One is melancholy and sweet and yearning, the other dramatically passionate.  Even after thousands of times, if I happen to hear one of them unexpectedly, I can find myself with tears of joy in my eyes.  There are many pieces of music that can bring joy to my eyes, a fact I’ve learned to hide since it seems to make others extremely uncomfortable.  Sometimes, it will steal on me before I have a chance, as while watching the movie Brassed Off with a friend last week, and in one scene, the band plays such a rousing rendition of The William Tell Overture (I know, I know, serious music fans sometimes think it’s corny, but I also like Vivaldi (a lot) so that should tell you something) that I had to sit forward suddenly, thinking, that non-thought of pleasure that make music so especially delightful for those of us who are often driven to articulate every thought that crosses our minds, every experience we’ve ever had, every….everything. 

In Spanish guitar, what I hear is yearning.  Love.  Big dreams. Passion. These particular pieces are on a CD I put together as a soundtrack for a book (The Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue, who really don’t look anything like those charming 30-somethings on the cover) I wrote last year, about a woman who finds herself by reconnecting to her love for Spanish.  I can hear bits and pieces of the book as I listen, but that’s not why I want to hear it this morning.  It’s because I was reading Spanish poetry over the weekend, and then saw Il Postino last night (about Pablo Neruda) and then this morning, I happened to hear Joan Baez singing Pajarillo Barranqueno, and I remembered how much I like writing to Spanish guitar. 

But the truth is, I love Spanish guitar so much is because listening to Astrurias makes me think of a young man named Tim.  I do not think of him consciously, or at least not often, but the spirit of him.  He was a dashing guitarist who was legendary in his small Colorado town because he went to Julliard, a name we said as if it was “Oz.”  He was gangly and longhaired and gentle, and much too old for me—22 to my 15—but I was smitten beyond all reason. I don’t even remember why he came to my attention, only that it was the first time I’d been in love, and oh, I was!  He came into my grandfather’s gas station with his friends. He was connected to my young uncle in some way, and they all whispered stories of his tragic accident—he’d lost parts of two fingers on his left hand in a summer construction job, which ended his music future.  When he came into the station, I could not speak for the yearning in my throat, though he was kind to me. 

As fate would have it, my grandfather found a classical guitar in an abandoned car he towed off the highway.  The young man offered to give me lessons.  My grandfather, not knowing the depth of my passion, cheerfully offered to pay.   I did not exactly wish to turn them down, but I knew how it would be.  My heart stuck in my throat for an hour once a week.  And what if his hand strayed over mine!  I would faint, I knew it.

Somehow, though, I did it.  We became friends of a sort, my love fed like an underground stream on those long afternoons.  He must have known, I think now, and yet he was quite perfectly gentle, kind.  He told me things no one else in my world could know—things about music and New York and his life. Sometimes his hand touched mine, and I nearly did swoon.  At summer’s end, I returned home, and the lessons ended. 

Fifteen has  fickle heart, so when the lessons stopped as school began, I forgot him and fell in love with someone else, but the memory of buttered afternoons, carefully chaperoned by my grandmother clanking pans in the kitchen, remains.  Not his face, or his poor, wounded hand which I found so tragic, but the sound of the guitar, swelling like a dance, and my own heart, swollen twelve times its normal size with unrequited longing.   I fell in love with him, and with guitar, with music. 

Words, you see, were too weak to express my feelings. Only that Malaguena or Asturias could possibly express the layering levels of passion I felt for my teacher, and I made up my mind: music was the thing to which I would devote my life. I had studied already—clarinet for a brief moment, then cello for quite awhile, and choir for years and years and years.  (I wanted to be a soprano because they always got the solos and the attention, but my voice ever grew huskier and I was doomed to be alto and backrow my entire career). 

The trouble was, as deeply and passionately as I loved music (and still do), I discovered that my love outstripped my meager talents.  So now I weep when the music is beautiful.  And I write about music and musicians—a doomed Georgian composer, a blue guitarist who lost his fingers in an accident (hmmm, wonder where that came from?), another blues singer who ruined her life.  I sometimes chuckle over how much material I’ve wrung from a string of classical guitar lessons over a two month period decades ago.   

Music, whether I play or love, is one of my great passions, born that buttery summer when I understood its power.  It has given me some of my best books, this love.  Since I can’t produce the music itself, I use what I have to put music on the page, express my love for it in some other way. It’s a through-line. We all have them, usually a few of them.  In addition to music, my books have through lines about survival and Spanish and the meeting place between cultures. A friend of mine, Christie Ridgway, writes about lost fathers and California and our need to keep up appearances.  Although she probably doesn’t express it this way in her head, she’s passionate about the dynamics of ego and how that functions to keep people functioning. 

We fall in love with ideas, times, peoples, themes, dreams.  Indulging those affairs—long or short–is one of the great pleasures of a writing life.  We must make room for it.

The other night, I finished my pages for the day (yes, it’s going a little better this week, thanks) and decided I deserved a reward.  I wandered down to the new library, just opened after a year of major construction and redesign.  It was just before sunset on a Colorado November day.   

Something about the weather or the time of day or year, or maybe all three, made me feel a bit melancholy, and I felt a yawning quiet inside of me, that quiet of being emptied out of thought or plans, all of it gone into the work.   The new library seemed just the right idea to nourish the quiet my brain yearned for, a simple treat that wouldn’t be much of a challenge.  I’d just wander around, check out the arrangement, come back home and have supper. 

I should have known better.  There I was walking up to the library I’ve visited a thousand times, where I spent so much time as a student and then a young writer and a young mother.  It was where I ran when I was desperate for time alone, for a little space of something in my head besides meal planning, budgets, juggling writing time and family time and all the things that go along with all those tasks.   

I’m not sure when I let the library habit slide away.  For awhile, I had so much trouble taking books back on time that I ran up a stupidly huge fine and didn’t let myself check books out.  I think that’s what started it.   Whatever it was, it had been ages and ages since I’d been to the library, and it was a delight.

A delight, I tell you.  First of all, the new building was brilliantly designed, inside and out.  I wandered through the various floors, exploring the new set-up, the views through the windows-the Sangre De Cristos to the south and west, Pikes Peak and the Front Range to the north, the mountains vividly blue in the fading day.  For awhile, sunset poured through the windows, streaks of red and pink blazing through windows designed to show us just such a beauty.   

I admired the children’s section, then the periodicals, then climbed the stairs (vertigo dancing with me on suspended stairs and glass all around) and entered the adult collection.  Of course I had to see how many of my own books were there, and it was a satisfyingly large number.  One copy of a novel about the city is even set aside in the reserved section—not to be checked out.  Cool.  I wandered on, admired the dizzying number of videos now available, and DVDs. 

And then, I headed for non-fiction.  Quiet there on a Wednesday evening.  I needed to familiarize myself with the new order, so I just wandered up and down the stacks, nodding.  And there, suddenly, where old passions whispering around me like the ghosts of old lovers. 

How I loved things!  So many of them!

Here, in this stretch, is my passion for the middle ages.  I brushed my fingers over the spines, A Distant Mirror, Life in a Medieval Village, Cantor’s wonderful Medieval Lives, and I thought of the taste that drove me, night after night, to come down to these quiet stacks and read, and read, and read, trying to figure out how to resurrect it for myself, for readers, to share this drunken emotion with readers: here is my middle ages! What do you think?

The holographic image of my creation hung there in the aisle with me, a film in red and blue, edged with gilt.   I adored that period so very much, falling in love, dreaming in velvet and lutes, so much passion that when I first saw an illuminated manuscript page at a museum in Denver, I had to duck my head, embarrassed at my tears of longing and gratitude. 

I still love the middle ages, or in my case, it narrowed to the first half of the 14th century. I still enjoy visiting, immersing, falling into the pages someone else has created.  A fragment of song or a line of poetry can carry me off and I’m lost in it once again.  Not the way you sit down to have a civilized lunch with an old boyfriend, but as if you’ve fallen right into bed with them.

Smiling to myself, I wandered on a little further, and there was another love, another time, another drunken rush of hungry devouring.  There is my World War II period, triggered by the war tales of an old black man who’d been sent to Italy out of the deep South—and I wandered down the aisle with my breath in my throat, thinking of my collection of D-Day statistics (there was an obsession all by itself!), the letters from home, and London stories that did turn into a book I have not published.  It was a bit ahead of its time when I wrote it, and I say that without modesty.   It simply couldn’t have been published then.  I don’t know that it ever will be, but that doesn’t make the passion I spent on it any less valid. 

I turned a corner, and laughed.  Here is my disaster period: earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes; ah, and another–obsession of obsessions–Titanic.  Which reminds me of another angle of our passions: there is a tendency to limit ourselves to falling in love with things we might be able to use in our work, and that’s a foolish economy.  I could not possibly use Titanic or write anything fresh or new about it, but boy did the girls and I have a good time finding out every detail we could, just for the sheer pleasure of understanding some new thing that had previously escaped our notice.  (For the record, no one in my family will speak the words D-Day, Black Death, or Titanic in my presence.  I’m sure there are such subjects your own relatives and compatriots avoid.  There’s that geek thing again.)

There they all were, piled up around me in those lovely stacks,  my obsessions and passions:  cultures, countries, time periods, ideas.  Herbs, greenhouses, midwifery; Atlantis and ancient Egypt and Merlin the magician.  Ancient Ireland and Celtic folktales. Ghosts, reincarnation, spiritualism.  Rocks, jewels, gems.  Ah, and here—yes! Joy!—here are diseases:  black plague, tuberculosis, the 1918 influenza epidemic.

What are some of yours? Have you thought about them lately, your old lovers and passions? Which ones still call you into bed with them?  Have you given them any time lately, just for the pleasure of it? 

And what new ones are calling to you?  I stumbled on one quite by accident—World War I.  I’ve been trying for months to not indulge it, after wandering into the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh last spring.  I’ve seen a thousand war memorials, I was raised in a military town, I dislike war and don’t want to think about it (especially at the moment).  But the girls don’t seem to care.  I turned a corner in that memorial and entered the area with the WWI dead, and I don’t know if it was the sheer numbers or the drama of the area or what, but it slammed me so hard I couldn’t speak for a half hour, and it haunted me terribly.  Then I happened to see Lawrence of Arabia, and my heart was plucked again.  And then…it sounds so silly, but I saw an episode of a British comedy, The Black Adder, an episode about World War I soldiers.  The characters had to go above ground, and they died.  It was quietly done, with a fade to black, then the modern day fields where the trenches once were dug.  I was absolutely demolished. 

I’m stuck, I know it.  It’s quite likely there isn’t much to be done with it in terms of a novel, but I decided I’m going to indulge it anyway, for the pleasure of learning, feeding my brain, for the delight of discovery.  Perhaps the girls will figure it out, and the drive to share something of the world, to say, “did you know about this? and isn’t it tragic, and what did we learn?” will show up somewhere after all.

That’s partly what we’re doing with our passions, too, of course, trying to communicate them to others.  Have you ever noticed that Spanish guitar sounds exactly like you feel at fifteen when you’ve first fallen in love?  Did you know that fashion is a way of protecting ourselves? This is what I have observed about small communities and how they function—is it like your observations?

These passions of ours are what make our novels unique and rich.  The fact that we can indulge them is also one of the great gifts of the writing life.  Go ahead—let free a reckless hunger, an ardent yearning, a delighted curiosity.  Ride an elephant, listen to some piece of music you haven’t heard in awhile, open the shutters and see what spirit climbs into sleep with you and whisper in your dreams. 

What is a passion you have left behind, or one that’s tugging at your heart now?  What happens when you write about that?

(Originally published in Novelist’s Ink Newsletter)

4 thoughts on “Passions of the writer

  1. HB

    mmmm. this is lovely. I couldn’t have said it better but feel the same way (with different passions of course altho I was very much in love with the middle ages after Green Darkness).

  2. What a beautiful piece. For a passionate book of Neruda’s poetry, may I suggest City Lights’ “The Essential Neruda”?

    Paz, pan, flores, y amor
    Mark Eisner

  3. Thanks for posting the link. I love Neruda. Madly. Last night, I had to take out a copy of his poems and read some of them.

  4. Gabrielle

    I’m going to have to print this one out and savor it. Writing has brought so many passions to my life, and I love when I rediscover one. I just love that there’s room for so many more. We never have to stop.

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