Attacus Atlas & Other Inventions: Distracts, Distracting, Distractions

Morning comes whether you set the alarm or not.” – Ursula K. LeGuin

Well, I’m in the thick of the stew now, aren’t I? I’m trying to expel 50,000 words from my brain onto the page by the end of the month for NaNoWriMo and trying hard not to be sucked in to the countdown until the Midterm Elections.

By the time you read this, if you read this, We The People will be waiting in line to vote, watching people on TV waiting in line to vote, hearing disturbing stories about voter purges and gerrymandering, calling family and friends and basically waiting another twelve to fifteen hours to view the results of state and local elections all across the United States. And then discussing the elections results for weeks if not months to come. The current administration is trying to pump up its nationalistic base and distract the nation from its own problems with Russian collusion in the 2016 elections by jailing migrant children, for example, and sending up to fifteen-thousand troops to the US-Mexico border to potentially shoot Honduran (and other Central/South American) refugees seeking asylum.

Every day I fight the urge to binge watch the news, and spend every waking minute poring over The New York Times online. I used to be a reporter, eons ago. Now, I’m a poet and photographer – and a debut author whose novel is coming out in early February. I distract myself from the TV and the newspapers by setting the timer on my phone or the microwave, by a reward system: If I write x, then y amount of screen time

I am trying to finish my second novel. It’s the novel I should have finished in 2010, and would have too, if armed agents from the Georgia state police hadn’t raided my house (and me) at gunpoint. Among other things, my computer was confiscated. My husband was racially profiled and targeted by his former employer, which led to the raid and a host of other problems. He was publicly shamed, fired from his protected academic job, he was arrested on bogus charges and spent a day in jail, our family was threatened and we were forced to leave our home and move across the country.

It took six and a half years before the false accusations against my husband were dismissed by a state judge in Georgia and we were free. Yet the majority of our belongings have not been returned to us. Two years since the charges dismissed  – no apology either.

Talk about distractions, though. Those six and a half years were riddled with distractions from the writing life: first we needed to get legal help for my husband. I had to take care of our family.  I wanted to go on the offensive, and let the community know what had happened even though at the time we didn’t know why. But our legal team advised us to turn the other cheek, to not embarrass the other side. There are few things more painful than silence and invisibility, than the feeling that your words do not matter, your life is worth less than your neighbor’s all because of the color of your skin. I’d felt this invisibility for a long time, but the events of 2010 crystallized this feeling in a more permanent and pervasive way.

It took me three years to convince the lawyers I could create a website for the family, a place to catalogue all the documents we were acquiring that proved my husband’s innocence, a place to catalogue all the bad acts — and lies his previous employers had told. By the time April 2013 had rolled around, we had uprooted our young children and relocated, we had various stress-induced health problems, we were tired of people telling us “You should have known better” and “you must have done something wrong.”

And then the NYT came along, publishing the first of three stories, in November 2013.  Still, our family’s health problems got worse, and I had to distract myself from all the doom and gloom. Just a few minutes each day – to reclaim a little bit of my life, to push the away the sadness and anger caused by the events of 2010.

For healing, I turned to art, to photography, to writing – mostly poems at first, then finally reimagining the story that would become The Atlas of Reds and Blues. My #artaday is almost at the seven and a half year mark, and in 2017, Finishing Line Press published two poetry chapbooks of mine. My novel will come out in February 2019, thanks to Counterpoint Press. I’m deeply grateful.

There will always be distractions, big and small. The dishes will pile up, the laundry will pile up too. There are always meals to cook and children to take care of. But if you don’t take the ten-to-fifteen minutes out for yourself every day, to do something for yourself, then what’s the point? Writing is a solitary act, and only other writers and creative people can fully understand that when you’re making your art, those are moments of profound joy.

The world is not set up to understand or celebrate artists, and there are distractions everywhere. You owe no one but yourself. You owe it to your own dreams to chip away at the daunting tasks of completing a big writing or art project. Turn off the TV and power down the phone, and have a seat in front of your writing utensils, whether it’s a pen and paper or a computer. It takes roughly three weeks to solidify a habit, and there are about three weeks left of NaNoWriMo. Try it: 1,667 words a day for a month. Think of the book you’ve been dreaming of writing — and start chipping away.

I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink. Because you’re always on borrowed time. None of your favorite writers, let alone your own personal self, sits down in the morning and just feels great about the work ahead of them. No one sits down and feels like a million dollars. People sit down and go into either fugue states or into this highly aerobicized sort of up-down thing.” — Anne Lamott, on writing.

Works to consider this week: The Poet’s Companion by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio, Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin, Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli.

An excerpt from the novel I lost in 2010, Shadow Gardens, was recently published by Crab Orchard Review. My poem “Secant” found a home in Winter Tangerine.

Class book: The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

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Devi Laskar

Poet, photographer, soccer mom, VONA & TheOpEdProject alum, Columbia MFA, former reporter, debut novelist!

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