Spinning like Rumi: Confessions from a Writing Coach about an Unsettled Life

When our bodies and minds are in motion, writing can be difficult

And I've been in motion the entire spring, summer, and fall -- to galleries and tea houses in Santa Fe, to the Heard Museum and Gila River in Phoenix, to conference centers and family gatherings in Oklahoma, to the piers and missions and merry-go-rounds of Santa Barbara where I celebrated my sister's 60th birthday, to the mountains of Wyoming and the high sagebrush country of Nevada, to the forests and grasslands of South Dakota's Black Hills.  

Then to the canyons of Utah, then to the dust bowl panhandle of Oklahoma, then flying over the river I'd just floated to land among the palm trees of San Diego.  

When this fall arrived, I was exhausted and yearned to sink my energy back into the roots of home.

But it was not the traveling that exhausted me.  It was not having time to absorb and ingest the experiences, as if I were a vessel filled with swirling sensations that had never had time to settle to the bottom of the glass.  I had written barely a word in months of traveling and teaching.

The famous 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, whose son founded the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, wrote thousands of poems.  Many of them he created while dancing.  A scribe followed on his spinning heels and transcribed them onto parchment.

Imagine!  A personal scribe to follow us wherever we go, writing down our every uttered thought, capturing our epiphanies the moment they occur like nets flung over a flutter of butterflies whose wings have just unfurled.  

What luxury!  To commit our body and mind to each experience with such devotion of the senses that we stay entirely engaged in the moment without feeling the need to stop, interpret, or filter the experience through the sieve of intellect.  To stay totally conscious to the experience!

But how then do we capture the experience for posterity's sake?  How do we journal after the experience and still capture the immediacy of the moment, rather than a reflection on the moment?  How can we make our writing as adventurous and immediate as our travels?

"Adventure is what you see out there in the landscape," says Craig Childs, an author who is always on the move.  "It's you, out there in the world."  He also says, "I'm not really a purpose-driven traveler.  I just want to get into the middle of it."

This Oklahoma college saddle bronc rider was in and out of the middle of "it" so quickly, he hardly had time to remember being in the saddle.  But I'll bet he relived every moment of it when he rinsed the arena dirt from his mouth, and for the next 48 hours as his aching bones and sore muscles recalled the experience at a cellular level.  

Writing is an odd duck.  It is conceived through experience yet born of contemplation.  It is often about something that has already happened, yet written with the intent to fool the reader into believing that it is happening right now.  Good writing is moving what our cells know onto the page so the readers can know it too.

The few notes I did jot down these last few months are scattered about in three different journals, and in various files on my computer.  They are as disorganized as the flurry of memories that have yet to settle down in the rampant waters of my mind.  

"We are literally carrying stories within us," author and professor John Calderazzo tells his writing students at Colorado State University.  And of course, we are.  Like the land carries the rivers.  

The Gila River (pictured) used to naturally flow through the area that is now Phoenix and was, in some places, 5-6 miles wide.  It was the lifeblood of the Pima and Maricopa tribes.  In the late 1800s it was damned, causing devastating starvation.  But the stories of the people did not die, and 118 years later the Gila River Indian Community won back their rights to the river and the ecosystem of the river is once again thriving.  

If I'm lucky, when I settle down and start browsing through my notes, I'll rediscover the flow of energy that can turn my travels into stories.  It is this flow, this forward movement of energy, that I must recreate if my memories are to become more than nostalgia.  And it will be through the senses that I bring these memories to life -- through remembering each scent and sight, each touch and taste and sound -- like merry-go-round music with notes that rise and fall in unison with the prancing horses and bubbling laughter of a sister who has ridden beside me all my life.  


Spence said…
Yes, the unsettled life makes for good stories but for those who live like a Whirling Dervish, having to keep journals and notes, so difficult to settle down and find a way to recapture the essence of the experience, to recreate that flow of energy on paper!
Page Lambert said…
It is the writers challenge, Spence, absolutely. I'm determined to live with more intention - more attention toward each decision I make about how I spend my time, including time to settle down, and settle in.
Anonymous said…
Having done much the same whoosh of traveling these past 8 months, you've captured my unsettledness perfectly! I'm filled to the brim with unprocessed, swirling events & emotions in an almost ungovernable mix of experience. Let's see where this river's onrush brings us ... the calm banks of a delta or the roiling tidal sea. I hope to make my way toward a more balanced journey...
Page Lambert said…
Julie, I love the idea of a calm delta - let's envision that, rather than the roiling tidal sea! Let's share a glass of cyber wine and toast to a more balanced journey!
Gail Storey said…
This is something I struggle with a lot--slowing down enough to thoroughly absorb the experiences I throw myself into. I'm always on to the next adventure even as I'm assimilating and writing about the previous. I agree that keeping notes on the fly (as I did on waterproof paper while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail) gives a writer something to start with when recollecting in the proverbial tranquility! Great post, Page.
Page Lambert said…
Gail, your Pacific Crest Trail journey, and journaling, is such a great story - and yes, even if we are keeping notes "on the fly," if we capture the sensations they will lead us back to the evocative moments. Looking forward to our CAL event in a few weeks!
Julie Weston said…
Nice blog. It mirrored how I've been feeling about a waaay too active summer and fall. I still have some traveling to do, but can settle in soon. I'll think of what you wrote when I can settle into my own writing. thanks.

Thanks, Julie. This seems to be the summer theme -- too busy. I just read a beautiful poem by Thomas Barrett about stillness. Perhaps that should be our theme for the winter. Stillness....
Dan Kennedy said…
"Conceived through experience yet born of contemplation." That's about as succinct as you're going to get!

Writing born on the road and done intentionally makes the writer pay attention: to what and who is passing by, plus the writer's own opinions and feelings, made all the more stark for happeing in the wild, i.e., not at home.

In my late 20's I was a vagabond for two years and wrote letters--this was many years ago!--to my friends and family as I went. Then, in 2003, the dog and I rolled out of Seattle with no more in mind than meandering. Five months and 18,000 miles later, we were home with three notebooks filled with observations that eventually became 25 essays about the journey.

I did send a few emails while I was traveling and I remember the first line of the first note: "We all need a witness to our lives, and you'll be mine."

One last thing. The road, especially when travelled alone (or with a dog!) can open you up to meeting others you'd never connect with otherwise. You may recall, Page, that's how we met in the library in the town where you were living one hail-infested Wyoming afternoon. That opened a lovely time of getting to know each other and meeting a friend of yours, Rocky, I believe. The open road can, if we let it, open us up.
Page Lambert said…
Dan, what a fabulous comment! I like your vagabond anecdote and especially like the first line of your first note: "We all need a witness to our lives..." Yes, it was indeed your yen for travel that led you to the library in Sundance, Wyoming, that hail-infested afternoon. Open road, open heart. All the best to you!
Anonymous said…
Page, I love the pictures you have posted along with your wonderful blog. Do you find that sometimes a picture really is worth a 1,000 words when it comes to propping up the memory of an event? I think it was Anne Lamott who suggested viewing a scene of story through a "one-inch" picture frame, seeing the details of just that little piece, but really seeing it intimately.
That unsettled feeling of traveling you described, really hit home, all that business of busyness, that I have found keeps it hard to really apply the right intention, that it masks the work my heart is meant to undertake. I've found one small blessing in a lagging economy, and that is that the company I work for has cut back drastically on travel and so I am home and trying to slow down enough to listen to the world creak on its axle. A winter of stillness sounds perfect.
Thank you always for sharing your thoughts that stir up my own.
Page Lambert said…
Karen, thank you for sharing the Anne Lamott idea of viewing a scene through "a one-inch" picture frame. I love how that concept leads a writer, and the reader, into each intimate physical detail. And I love your "winter of stillness." Perhaps that should be our mantra for the next several months!

Linda Paul said…
Page, I just read "Writing Life" in a borrowed copy of Sojourns (what a wonderful publication!). Your raised some provocative issues about writing and exploring internal landscapes. I could use the article as a self guided writing seminar.

I agree with Dan Kennedy's observation that traveling solo opens us up to encounters of an unexpected but often delightful kind. I find that solo travel allows me to explore not only the external landscape but the internal as well. No matter what fine company I have, I'm distracted by the presence of others. Going it alone almost forces me to experience the journey deeply and more completely. And being a lone traveler makes me more accesible to meeting people along the way. I feel as if I'm traveling in a protective cocoon or bubble when I'm part of a group or couple.
Page Lambert said…
Linda, glad you found a copy of Sojourns and read "Writing Life." I'm using it as the centerpiece for the seminar I'm teaching this Saturday. It's such a beautiful publication. And yes, so true what you say about both traveling alone, and traveling in a group. I guess, as they say on the river, it's all good!
matt Sweeney said…
I am always in the moment, it seems that I am running from work to the river to cast flies to rising fishing in the dying hours of the day, or to a 100 yards of grass marked in to ten yard sections, to show boys how the lessons of life play out on a football field.
I am always fully engaged, but never have the time or dexterity to capture the essence of how an Isley scotch is the perfect complement to a wood fire, especially with a few friends after a day on the water with a fly rod, or more importantly, detailing how a disorganized group of boys developed a passion for a sport where their dependence on each other is the key factor of their success.
I have tried keeping a journal, but am physically and mentally spent at the end of the day, and with the rising sun am off to a new adventure which, while I know I should capture, risk becoming a spectator if I do. Any help you could offer to someone committed to arriving at the gates of St Peter battered, scraped and bruised but knowing that they squeezed every last bit of essence from life, would be greatly appreciated!
A scribe seems like the perfect solution, but I would probably insist they partake of the fun.
Matt Sweeney
Page Lambert said…
Hi Matt. What a great comment. I couldn't help but wonder how long it took you to write it (I say that with a smile).

A young Lakota student once said to me, "Writers don't live life, they just pretend they live life." Wow. That set me on my heels. So I understand your concern about becoming a spectator.

I've also known two men - one a poet, one a fly fishing businessman (my father)- who both carried 3"x5" index cards in their pockets for jotting down words, quick thoughts, flashes of sensory perceptions (images, smells, sounds, tastes) - anything that resonated. The poet might pick up a card from 5 years earlier and what he had jotted down would trigger what was important about the experience and a poem would form itself. My father might end up writing an article, or the chapter in a book, based on what he had scribbled on that card 5 years earlier.

I also know a writer (me) who experienced an epiphany one day that helped her realize that writers who experience things AS WRITERS view each engaged moment through a more "story like" lens. We learn to recognize that each adventure is a story unfolding.

The best writers (not me) don't have to take an experience and sit down and make a story out of it - they experience it AS STORY.

Hmmmm, your question is such a good one, and the concern shared by many, that I might devote another blog post to it.

Thanks, Matt!

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