Contrary to most representations in popular culture, southern California does get cold in the winter. These days, there's frost on my car in the morning, and at night I sit by the faux fireplace in our apartment and enjoy the illusion of flames ignited by the simple click of a button. What a change from the early autumn nights my husband and I spent barbequing on our patio. And lately, I've been reading more and writing less. In fact, my writing routine has grown more sporadic. I seem content to lie on my sofa and read book after book. I have also been drinking scores of black tea. All in all, this winter has given me a glimpse of what my proclivities and ambitions might amount to during my retirement.
But then again, I have retired in the present, in a sense, from the work of writing. I write poetry mainly, but beyond scribbling out the odd poem and blog post, I am not doing the hard work of revision, organization, and imagining new projects these days. I seem to be hibernating from my work. I'm picking up mysteries and poetry anthologies for the long read. In fact, I crave to read. All day long at work, I'm thinking about it. This is odd, because usually when I pine for escape at my job, it's doing some writing that I'm after. Usually, I'm itching to pick up my pen and let my ideas loose. This sudden shift for me from writing to reading is quite interesting. The rest of the year, it's my reading life I make secondary.
And maybe this isn't the first time this has happened to me during winter. If I look back, I can see how most years during this season I feel the call of the book supersedes the lure of the pen. People often refer to summer as the time to read, and during the sunny months magazines and newspapers inundate us with book ideas for beach reads and transatlantic travels. From a young age, we are taught to associate summer with freedom and freedom means time to relax. And what better way to let go than to escape into a long book? However, I've often found that summer is my period to be creatively prolific. It's when I tend to be more motivated to generate work and meditate on profound questions like the rationale behind line breaks in poetry. It's when I meditate on political writing questions, like what do we do about the fact that there's a dearth of words that rhyme with cinnamon?
During winter, I feel neither stern nor political about writing. My muse seems to drift behind the clouds. Instead a different, jocular, almost indolent muse appears. She inspires me to let go of my work. Her presence reminds me of my insatiable thirst for imagery, conflict, mystery, and hyberbole--but that in the work of other writers, not my own. In winter, my writer self almost becomes a ghost hovering in some distant chamber of my imagination. And strangely, I am grateful for this transformation. I read then neither out of ambition nor envy, but for the limitless pleasure of the page. I read out of my greedy love for the world's stories--an interest that I've sustained since childhood and hope never to lose. It is liberating and soothing to enter such a reading space. To return.
In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg uses several zen analogies to explore the writing life. One of her key ideas is that writers should frequently tap into beginner's mind, something we automatically do whenever we attempt to write something new. She encourages writers to freewrite in their journals and embrace their "first draft" writing as a way of unleashing creative potential. And while I believe in the wisdom of this suggestion, I personally feel that I am most free as a writer in the act of reading other people's books. When I read, without an agenda or a goal, but for pure enjoyment of the page, I enter a mind that precedes beginner's mind. I go to the source behind the source.
Winter for me is about listening to other writers. It's about escaping into the glorious temple of books, so come the warmer months, I am rested and rejuvenated--motivated to reach for my pen--look for that other muse.