As the Dark Season closes: Breakthrough tip for the week of 12/18/2017

We are steadily moved – without our own effort or volition –  toward the shortest day and  longest night. Those of us who have opened ourselves to the natural cycles of the world may find ourselves with less energy – which is a delicate way of writing that we may feel fuckin’ depressed, and though we know that writing in any form is a way through anything, we may avoid it.

The New York Times ran an obituary of the writer, Bette Howland today. Check out her wonderful intelligent face.  She was more than once depressed enough to try to kill herself with an overdose of pills. The Times doesn’t tell us in which season she made the attempt. It does say that she was staying in Saul Bellow’s apartment in Chicago – I lived in Chicago. I remember hunting for light throughout those gray wet winters. And I know too well how easily I succumb to an intimate connection in which the balance of power is not in my favor – and the guaranteed consequences of my give-away.

Here is part of Bettte Howland’s obituary, not so much focused on her depression – though I am tempted to wonder how much was caused by her connection with the ostensibly more powerful Mr. Bellow – but on his advice to her as a writer and depressive.


    …Ms. Howland was making her way toward becoming a writer. In 1961 she met Bellow at a writers conference on Staten Island, and the letters her son found in a safe deposit box begin that year.

“I want to see you do well,” Bellow, who was 22 years older, wrote her in August 1961. “I believe in fact that you can go as far as you like in writing.”

But as a single mother with two young sons, she struggled, and in 1968 — while staying in Bellow’s Chicago apartment while he was traveling — she took an overdose of pills, a suicide attempt that resulted in her temporary confinement to a psychiatric ward.

“As for writing (your writing!),” Bellow wrote her in July 1968, around the time of the overdose, “I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.”

It was advice she apparently took to heart. Her first book,  “W-3” — named for the psychiatric wing of a Chicago hospital — was about the suicide attempt and its aftermath. It was published in 1974.

“For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin — real life,” she wrote. “But there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business; time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life could begin. At last it had dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.”

I invite you to reflect on all of the above – and send us the writing which emerges.


Thank you, anonymous writer for responding to last week’s BTW on The Contract:  I create this contract with my writing. Space. I will provide a comfortable and safe space to write. This space may be my desk but it’s not limited to this location. Time. My minimum commitment is daily morning pages. Three full notebook pages, each morning in the dark.

“But these are minor details,” Writing places its hand on the conference room table. “We’ve had this for years. You don’t listen. I don’t know why I’m here at all.”
“Ahem. Okay. What are your demands? This is a negotiation.”
Writing sighs, leans in and looks at me. Not pity in its eyes but a tired compassion. “We’ve been here before. Time is running out. No, this isn’t a negotiation. I would give you everything and you take only the thinnest slice of it. That’s not negotiation. That’s a dam.”
I straighten up but feel myself fold inside. “Then what do you want from me?”
Writing says nothing for a long time. As if it has gone dormant. Have I scared it away? Did I ever really understand what it was trying to give me?
“Open the flood gates,” it says.
“I didn’t say that!” Writing says. “I would never speak in cliches! Plus, this isn’t the writing that you’re meant to do. You see me. You seem me all too clearly and that’s what you write about. But you don’t listen. You don’t listen to me at all and that’s why we’re here. I need to be heard. You need to be open. Show up. Open up and listen. That’s the contract. The pens, the notebooks, the schedule, the submissions, the computer, the contacts, the resubmissions…all comes after you listen. So, that’s what I came to the table to give you. That’s why I’m here. Show up. Open up. Listen. Then write.”
I drum my fingers. It sounds simple. I’m trying to figure out the catch. I think back to Mary’s questions. How do I renew the contract? How do I honor it? I’ve already marred the simplicity of what Writing said by adding “then write.” But isn’t that what I’m here for?
“Process,” Writing says. “Focus on process. That’s my gift to you. Anyone can get to product. To produce. But my strength is process. That’s what I am. That’s why I never dry up, block out, get bloated or too lean. That’s why my energy is strong and I continue to flow. Find my way around if something is in the way, use it or infuse it with what I have to say, evening rhyming in this moment. I am the infinity. I am the circle that returns again and again and flows forward at the same time. I am the flow. Process. Product end. Product demands the next product. You’ll have to come to grips with that someday. But I’ll tell you this because the coffee’s cold and I’m nearing the end of the page. Product is easy when you connect with process. Show up. Open up. Listen up. No, just listen. That’s the deal. Do those three things and I will give you everything. Show up. Open up. Listen. Renew daily. Honor each day. Show up. Open up. Listen.”
With that the room disappeared.

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