This week please welcome Dr. Anna Leahy and her essay on the necessary components of the writing life...
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
Last May, my husband and I went to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s open house, where we saw the new Mars rover. The shiny vehicle is being assembled in a clean room, which we observed from the glassed-in gallery above. Spirit and Opportunity, previous Mars rovers, began their mission in 2003 and were expected to roam the surface of Mars for ninety Martian days (slightly longer than Earth days). Seven years later, these contraptions still send back data. Curiosity should launch late this year, with arrival on Mars in August 2012.
I’m interested in space exploration because I was born into the space race of the 1960s. But what also interests me is the names: Spirit, Opportunity, Curiosity. It strikes me that these are characteristics essential to my writing life.
If spirit is our animating force, consciousness, tendencies, then spirit defines the drive to write too. Pultizer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey, in her talk “Why I Write,” remarks, “It seems to me that all writers at some point must respond to a question posed either by themselves or someone else in order to answer, as Orwell did in his 1946 essay, ‘Why I Write.’” She calls on every writer to figure out where her spirit resides and what her goals are.
George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, claimed to know by age five or six that he’d be a writer. I could say the same about myself, for when I was that age, I hoarded paper, pulling sheets from my parents’ wastebasket. I sat beside my mother’s desk at home while she drafted the Illinois State Constitution. I would attempt to replicate cursive handwriting. The result looked more like Spirograph without the plastic pieces necessary to make patterns, but the drive to write pushed my pen along the paper.
If spirit is the urge to write and, perhaps, the focus, it doesn’t do much good without opportunity. For Virginia Woolf, opportunity meant “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Similarly, for me, opportunity is time—the time that must be carved out of or built into a week filled with teaching, meetings, and mundane tasks like laundry.
ABOVE: the author and her mother
I used to have the mindset that writing was reward for getting through the rest of my work. I put other obligations behind me before focusing on writing. That made a lot of sense at the time; this attitude made writing akin to vacation. But what happened was that writing came last. Send just one more email; grade just one more batch of essays. This mindset made it too easy to delay writing too long, and the pattern fueled strange resentments toward teaching and toward household chores I share with my husband. Now, instead, I prioritize writing time, even if that means I don’t vacuum for three weeks or I don’t check email before noon all month.
Opportunity is external too, but writers can’t wait for it to knock. Opportunity, like inspiration, must be invited habitually. I think of opportunity as a combination of circumstances that encourages success. My writing group is an opportunity; it helps me set production goals and talk about writing with other writers. Submitting work for publication is a chance to share my work with readers. An invitation for guest bloggers posted on SheWrites was a chance I hadn’t seen coming, hadn’t sought out, but welcomed nonetheless.
In wartime bombing runs, when a primary and secondary target can’t be bombed, the pilot and bombardier look for a target of opportunity. Putting aside the problematic use of war as context for this writing analogy, opportunity is sometimes unplanned, or born out of failure to reach what I thought was the goal. My husband and I never planned to move to California. Within weeks of our move, we saw a space shuttle land in the desert. This fall, our university helped us with a trip to Cape Canaveral for the penultimate space shuttle launch; I surprisingly had press credentials, and we talked with astronauts who walked on the Moon. And it turns out that Southern California weather helps prevent my migraines, a boon for writing.
Curiosity, though, remains the most important among these characteristics that invigorate my writing. Like the Mars rovers, curiosity is bigger, more complex, able to go farther no matter the terrain. One Saturday when my mother was away, years before we had cable, my father, sister, and I got caught up watching a macramé show on public television. Afterward, my father drove us to the hardware store to buy boards, twine, and pins. We spent the rest of the weekend tying knots, just to see how string worked and what we could make of it, which, as I recall, was a lopsided plant hanger.
Maybe curiosity doesn’t matter to all writers. Surely, it doesn’t matter if you don’t hone sentences too. But I can’t imagine how my ideas would emerge or how I would transform my thinking into sentences without the inclination toward inquiry. In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson writes, “encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do—the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.” Divergent interests give me sources for ideas, images, language, questions. Johnson goes on to discuss collisions: “Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you.”
Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity are rovers that have nothing to do with writing. Only, I’m interested in them as scientific exploration and as words. Somehow, when the deadline for this blog post approached, my ideas collided. Spirit, opportunity, and curiosity have everything to do with my writing life!
I hope the next rover is named Serendipity. Only irony rivals serendipity among powerful forces in the universe. And irony is usually most amusing when it happens to someone else.
ANNA’S BIO: I’m the author of the book Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize, and two poetry chapbooks. My poems appear regularly in literary journals, recently Barn Owl Review, Cream City Review, and The Laurel Review. I recently finished a novel manuscript called The Undone Years and am now working on a series of essays, one which will be featured in The Southern Review in 2011.
With my husband, I blog at Lofty Ambitions (http://loftyambitions.wordpress.com). We focus on aviation and spaceflight, science of the twentieth century (and beyond), and writing as a couple. Our regular posts appear every Wednesday, and guest posts appear every first and third Monday of the month. My website is www.amleahy.com.
I teach in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, where I direct Tabula Poetica and its annual fall reading series.