Teresa Sundmark: Tricky Writing

sometimes have a hard time sitting down to write, but I’ve found a few tricks
to help get me going.

My first
trick is taking notes.

When I sit
down to write I worry about sounding good for an audience. You know, the audience. The people who will read
my words and judge whether or not I’m making any sense or sounding smart or
saying anything remotely interesting.

But when I’m
just taking notes, I am not worried about my audience. Subsequently, anything
interesting I have to say first shows up in my notes.

taking is where I ask questions and search for answers. It’s where I’m honest.
Usually when I’m honest, I realize that my initial thoughts are just precursors
to bigger, more compelling ideas that are lurking on the other side of the
topic I had set out to write about.

Recently I
sat down to write about old time music—playing it, the culture of it, the
festivals I’ve attended and the people I’ve met along the way. I didn’t know
where to start, so I began by taking notes. I asked questions: How did learning
to play fiddle change me? What do I find so appealing about the music and
everything that goes along with it? What are my favorite tunes, and why are
they my favorites? All the notes I took in my attempt to answer those questions
led me to my religious upbringing—more specifically to Pentecostalism.

I didn’t
see that coming, but now more intriguing questions are surfacing. There is more
depth, more potential to my work than what I’d anticipated.

taking allows me to write informally alongside a subject. It allows for
unexpected diversions. I’m reminded of the times I needed to have a serious
conversation with one or the other of my teenaged children. Sitting them down
at the kitchen table to talk about a specific issue usually ended in either a
yelling match or a lot of eye rolling and frustration. Our discussions were
always more productive in a less formal setting. Driving was good, so was
walking. Something about spending time alongside each other was less
threatening than facing each other head on, and more often than not I was
surprised at how open they were to talking when they didn’t have to look me in
the eye.  

It’s true
that note taking isn’t separate from writing, that in fact it’s just a part of
the process. Calling it something other than writing is just part of the game I
play to get myself to put words on a page. But it works.

What other
games do I play in order to get work done? I ground myself in the present moment.

As I’m
writing this, my two black lab/muts are running around the house tackling each
other. There is a fire in the woodstove that’s in danger of going out and
feeding it is going to require heading out to the woodshed and splitting a few
rounds. I have a down blanket on my lap, though, so I can put off the trip
outside for a little while longer. The low-angle, February sun is streaming
through my window and I’m looking out at Kachemak Bay. The water is choppy but
the sky is blue and clear. The only thing resembling a cloud is the snow
blowing sideways off of Sadie Peak.

Looking at
this view, I think about my neighbor whose memorial service I’m going to attend
this afternoon. He and his wife homesteaded this piece of property that my
husband and I have called home for the past eighteen years. His view for over
fifty years was this same view that I’m enjoying right now. When I think about
it though, the view is never the same from one moment to the next. It’s why I
keep looking and taking photos and more photos. Unlike the people who live
here, the view never gets old.

Writing is
a little like my view that way, I approach it from a similar angle almost every
time I sit down, but it surprises me with where it leads. It helps me untangle
ideas. It unleashes stories I didn’t know were harbored inside me. It sparks my

Today for
example, I thought I was going to write about the tricks I use to get my
writing started, but all of these things—the way fiddle music connects me to
spirit, the way one day teenagers are rolling their eyes at you and the next
day they’re gone, the way hardy homesteaders grow frail over time—these beautiful
and heartbreaking bits of life bubbled up from somewhere.

Teresa Sundmark lives in Homer, Alaska. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UAA. Her work has been featured in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim and is forthcoming in Stoneboat Journal. She blogs intermittently at loftyminded.com.

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