Stuff I Hear Myself Say on Panels

I just got back from the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, where for some odd reason the weather was much cooler and much rainier than here in Columbus, Ohio. So much for my plans to enjoy some hot, sunny days. That’s all right. Sometimes it’s better for a writer to delay his or her gratification.

I was on a panel yesterday about balancing work, life, and writing, and, as always, when I’m on a panel (surely this doesn’t just happen to me?), I heard myself saying things with a voice of certainty, when really I wasn’t certain at all. This is the way it usually goes for me. My Libra scales, seeking balance, cause me to see too many sides to the same question. I’m more of a person who wonders about certain things, hoping that the uncertainty of wondering might lead to considerations otherwise not possible, but I almost always fall victim to that panel persona of the one who knows exactly what he’s talking about. People in the audience are asking questions, after all, and we panel members are the ones who are supposed to know the answers.

The truth, though, is that sometimes I say something on a panel and later start to wonder exactly what I meant. I start to question whether I had any right to say what I did. I start to question, and I think audience members should do the same. They should interrogate the answers of the panelists, trying to see if those answers have any validity, knowing, of course that any answer from a panel member might make perfect sense for one person in the audience and still be bad advice for someone else.

So yesterday in the midst of a conversation about the importance of carving out blocks of time for writing and staying obsessed with a project so you can’t help but bring it to completion, I found myself saying that sometimes life gives us opportunities to rest and for the writer that can be a good thing because time away from a project can allow it to evolve in ways that it might not if we’re forcing ourselves to keep slogging along. Leaving the project alone for a while can give the unconscious parts of our minds a chance to do some work with the material in the same way that we work on our lives through our night dreams. The result, once we return to the writing, is usually something we’re more deeply attached to, moving through it now the way the dreamer does, by instinct, rather than woodenly trying to understand something through the logical parts of our brains. Simply put, we sometimes feel the material more deeply because we give ourselves permission to forget it.

Lordy Magordy! What kind of an enabler am I, telling people it’s okay not to write? The older I get, though, the slower I become with my writing projects. It’s not that I’ve lost my passion for the craft; it’s just that I’m more at ease with being patient, letting something steep, waiting longer for completion, hoping that the rests I take might in the end result create something thicker, more textured, more resonant. By the same token, I understand the importance of rest to make my writing seem fresh to me. Words, words, words: a lifetime of words. How easy it is to start to rely on the same tricks. When I was a younger writer, I could feel like everything I wrote was something I was making anew. Now, in what I’ll call my more mature years, I sometimes crave rest and silence. They help me see my material with new eyes. A good writing day can be spent daydreaming in my chair with no words put on the page.  I feel, then, the same way I feel when I wake from a dream in the morning, like I have one foot in my real life and one still in that dream world. That’s how writing feels to me when it’s going really well, a happy blend of the conscious and the unconscious. More and more, I’m starting to see the importance of rest for keeping me in that place from which my freshest writing comes.

Do I still have books I want to write? Absolutely. To write them the way they deserve to be written, though, I’m willing to wait, to give them time to deepen. I have a novel in progress now that I’ve barely touched since my stroke last September. I’ve worked on essays instead. But now the season seems right for that novel. I find myself waking up with thoughts of it on my mind. I hear it calling to me. I hear it telling me I’m ready.





  1. Susan Cushman on May 6, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    I’m loving this… you will notice on my blog post today about that very panel that I didn’t mention your comment on rest. Not that I was mentally taking you to task or questioning it, but it just didn’t resonate with me as much as your other comments. Maybe this is why: although I’m at a chronological age where maybe I should be eager to rest and let things simmer more slowly, I’m a late-starter as a writer. So the adolescent writer in me balks at such advice, while the sometimes weary older woman I’m becoming should probably listen up. Although River’s words about how we’re all dying so we better WRITE hit me with more immediacy! Good words. And you were a GREAT contribution to the conference, Lee. Thanks for coming!

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      Thanks for everything you did for me at the conference, Susan. I was a latecomer, too. I published my first book when I was 40, and I’ve always felt like I had to hurry and make up for lost time. Nothing like a stroke to get me to slow down and look outside the self and learn the patience I need in order to make my work thicker. I understand completely what you mean when you refer to that adolescent voice. I have that voice, too. Take good care, Susan. You’re a gem!

  2. Jim Cihlar on May 6, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Wise advice, as always. I wish for you all the time to write all the books in you–including maybe another short story collection!?

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Jim, I’ve got a story collection ready to go; it’s just a matter of when the right time might be to let it go out into the world for all those crazy reasons like sales records and the way they affect a publisher’s willingness to publish a new novel from me.

  3. Alexis Paige on May 6, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    As someone who was in audience at that panel, I didn’t hear enabling, and believe I always look for it; it’s one of my gifts. I heard give yourself time to percolate, let the ideas and the work steep in your unconscious. I have been reading Jung and we hear what we want to hear sometimes (or maybe what we need to hear), but what I took away from your remarks was that the writer should give him or herself permission not only to work on the writing, but to let the writing work upon him/ her. And it really resonated, especially with longer projects, when puzzling out problems can take time.

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      Alexis, thanks so much for your astute distillation of what I was saying, I particularly like how you put it when you say the writer needs to work on the writing while also letting the writing work on him/her. Yes! I’m so glad that we got to meet, and I wish you all the best as you move along your writer’s journey.

  4. Alexis Paige on May 6, 2013 at 7:53 pm

    As someone who was in audience at that panel, I didn’t hear enabling, and believe me I always look for it; it’s one of my gifts. I heard give yourself time to percolate, let the ideas and work steep in your unconscious. I have been reading Jung and we hear what we want to hear sometimes (or maybe what we need to hear), but what I took away from your remarks was that the writer should give him or herself permission not only to work on the writing, but to let the writing work upon him/ her. And it really resonated, especially with longer projects, when puzzling out problems can take time. Still, I love this title!

  5. Nina Gaby on May 7, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Like Susan and Alexis, I was also in the audience caught between the arguments…at 62 I gotta write fast, at 62 I understand the value of percolation. After all, my best stories have been composting for 50 odd years now. In the here and now, the practical 62 year old sits for 40 hours a week with other people’s stories, multitasking as I swim in the murkiness of other’s unconscious as I do my psychiatric evaluations, crossing my stiff little fingers that what I hear will lie fallow and enrich my next writing day. My “take away” from your comments and the comments of all your cohorts on Sunday was the very wise reminder that “rest” needs to punctuate “obsession.”

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm

      Nina, I love how you put it: that rest needs to punctuate obsession. Yes, that’s it exactly! Thanks so much for making this comment. May you and your work continue to thrive.

    • Nancy Owen Nelson on May 31, 2013 at 10:22 am

      Thank you, Nina, for your remarks. I think a life of experiences can be percolating for a long time (for those of us who have been full time teachers or other professionals) until the time comes to craft the stories.

  6. Amy Wright on May 7, 2013 at 10:25 am

    I appreciate this idea very much, Lee. I thought of several things when you mentioned it on the panel. One is Barbara Holland’s essay “Naps,” in which she talks about the creative power of taking literal rests and as a counter to the puritanical work ethic that so often privileges doing something rather than the nothing required for percolation–and, as you say, steeping.

    I also thought of the importance of silence you mentioned. The things we discover never arise from that chatter of old thoughts hashing it out, but from the physical space we allow into our minds with quiet.

    Thank you for your voice and for listening in on that voice so that others might arise too within it.

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2013 at 4:11 pm

      Amy, thanks so much for mentioning Barbara Holland’s “Naps.” I love what you say about allowing a physical space through quiet. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I wish you all the best with your work.

  7. Susan Schepens on May 7, 2013 at 11:21 am

    I think of bread rising, paint drying before the next layer, and napping as important part of work.
    I thank you for your leadership of our group at the CNF conference in Oxford.
    I learned so much from you and the other groups members.

    • Lee Martin on May 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm

      Susan, I like your analogies. Very apt! It was a privilege to teach that workshop, and I’m so glad that I got to know you and your work. All best wishes as you move forward.

  8. Jessica Handler on May 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm

    I was relieved to hear you say that a writer needs time to rest. I needed to hear that, and from you, whom I take seriously. I’ve long believed that even if we’re not actively writing, as in pen to paper, fingers to laptop, we can permit ourselves a level of engagement with our work, recognizing that it’s all around us. That’s rest, to me.

    So many apt images in the responses; bread rising, percolation, steeping. Recharging creative batteries, too.

    A privilege to be on the conference faculty with you. And to allow myself a few days of rest.

  9. Lee Martin on May 8, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    Jessica, you’re so right about the engagement with the work that takes place away from it. It truly is all around us. Have a wonderful summer, my friend.

  10. Louise Julig on May 13, 2013 at 12:23 am

    Lee, I appreciated your presence on the panel discussions so much. It is good for those of us just starting out to be reminded that we need to be gentle with ourselves as well as disciplined, that art does not come from pushing all the time but from rest and reflection as well. Thanks for so eloquently being that reminder. I hope to cross paths with you again at a future conference.

    • Lee Martin on May 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

      Many thanks for you comment, Louise. You’re so right that we need to strike that delicate balance between being gentle with ourselves and also being disciplined. I think a lot of good writing gets done in those contemplative moments of rest. Keep doing the good work, my friend.

  11. Nancy Owen Nelson on May 31, 2013 at 10:23 am

    Lee, I join the voices above who were present in the panel. I, too, found your comment about rest very reinforcing and helpful….a way to understand that writing isn’t always just the page–pen or computer–but a mind/spirit practice.

    Thank you!

    • Lee Martin on June 4, 2013 at 5:18 pm

      Hello, Nancy. Thanks so much for your comment. As you say in another comment, that time for percolation is important.

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