Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

Un-Doing Days

In Classes, Craft, General, Musings on July 12, 2011 at 4:54 am

It wasn’t long ago that I purposely set my alarm clock for5:30 a.m.every morning, slipped out of bed before the sun rose, and sank my toes into the slightly scratchy carpet of our then-apartment with a cup of coffee and readiness to write. The darkness, the slither of silence, the burnt chicory smell of good java—these things were my company as I took special time for myself before my “real work” several hours into daylight later.

Those were my “doing days” as I’m thinking of them now. I wrote so early because once my colleagues and clients awoke there’d be emails to exchange and the mounting pressure of “must-get-it-all-done” riding hard on my spine. In my doing days I was so proud of how much I did—writing freelance articles, a book, a novel, editing manuscripts, recording book reviews–in such quantities that I’d sometimes look at my “to-do” board with a feeling of terror, wonder at how I would get it all done, and if working for myself was folly or fortune. The higher and tighter my shoulders by the end of the day, the greater the sign that I’d somehow measured up, that I was capable of carrying a load so heavy without fail.

Once I became pregnant I was amused and annoyed by the most ethereal sense of distraction that came over me—my mind flitted wherever it pleased and could barely be reined in, a flying creature with barely any mass. I was tired, so so tired all the time, and could not roll out of bed so early, and if I did, I’d sit staring at the blank page wondering what I thought I had to say. At the time it was infuriating, but now I look back and see my body beginning to help me make a shift that would change the shape of my days forever. For a spacy mind was the least of the changes having my son would bring.

 Three years into my son’s life, the map of my working life looks like a seismograph. From doing almost nothing for the first three months of his life, to rallying back around to writing a novel in his nap hours, to putting him in nearly-full time daycare only to feel the familiar pains of a body that is doing too much…I have begun to circle around to this new place and time. These are un-doing days.

Today, I sat at the top of a man-made rainforest, where blue butterflies the size of my palm circulated with what looked like a brash certainty in their freedom. If I stood still long enough, they skimmed the top of my head, grazed a cheek, teased my eyelashes. The heat of the building, the chatter of tourists–none of it bothered me. I was completely enchanted by their flight. I realized, I could sit here for hours and do nothing but watch them fly. And in that seemed the crux of the lesson I am beginning to learn, and which I hope my readers will take to heart too: there is value in stillness, in rest, in observation.

I am undoing old habits of working too hard and too long. I am taking more time off, and spending more moments relishing my son’s short-lived youth. There are fewer achievements, shiny and hot with effort, to hold up on a platter over my head, and yet, there are deeper seams to tap now, both creatively and in my work, roads that I have refused to take out of fear of letting go, stopping.

And how does this play out here? Everything is going to change now. You’ll see a new website very soon, with this blog integrated in it.  I’m going to be teaching more–stay tuned for some new twists on my classes that will allow for more interaction–and doing less of other things. In a nutshell, my new goal and direction is to write, and to thus bring to all of you the lessons and experimentation and thoughts on craft that I, myself, am continually integrating into my own work.

 Come, un-do with me.

Strong Wind

In Mothers and Writing, Musings on June 13, 2011 at 4:19 am

This post keeps unfurling in my mind, I catch a glimpse of it, and then it’s gone, like the tail of a garden snake slithering away in tall grass. I think: I will start by telling the story of my brother’s graduation from college yesterday, about the many tiny little things that “went wrong” because I was in something of a rush–a rush to get there, a rush to make it to the ceremony on time, and a rush to get back to my husband and son who were not feeling well at home. I think: I will find a way to make it funny that the end result of that mad 24 hours–after dodging drunk grads (and being hit by one on skateboard) in the Animal House like neighborhood of his vicininty, and listening to wide-eyed speeches in which diem was carped and futures were full-wattage,  is a kink in my neck so bad I cannot turn my head fully to either side and a case of the hiccups…

And then I see a different tail and it is this: Me, standing at the sink, washing dishes. My wonderful husband, sensing my gloom, asking me how I am.  With a sensation in my chest as though a fist is trying to squeeze water out of my heart I say, “I’m tired of myself…of my own thoughts…my patterns.” I quickly reassure him that this doesn’ t mean anything dire–I have never been to a place so dark I wanted to end it. But I do want to end certain habits I have, and lately, more than ever, they are waking up like dragons at every turn, and I walk around in a cage of self-imposed limitations.

After spending 24 hours with the part of my family where I have always felt like a buoy bobbing in a strange sea, a sea I am both intimately part of, and alien to, I return home to the family I have carved out for myself–my husband and son–feeling weighted down. My body hurts. My heart is heavy…I am having the most profound urge to be a child again, to be mothered. For someone to gather me up in their arms, lay me down in a soft bed, tickle my back, smooth out the wrinkles of night, sing me sweet songs and tell me everything is okay. But of course, this is my job. There is a runny nose, and bumped knees to tend. A boy who misses his mama after she was gone overnight.

Then, the blog post splits, it’s a rare two-headed beast, staring at me with four beady eyes before it’s off into dark underbrush again. “Remember,” it says in a sibliant snaky voice, “the family friend/astrologer telling who told you years ago: ‘There are many addictions, including the addiction to doing too much. You have this tendency, be careful.'” At the time I thought, “No, all this ‘doing’ is just ambition, drive…it’s good, it means I get things done. I’m never idle.”  But tonight as my spine feels like an iron rod bending unerringly toward the ground beneath a freight train; after a day where I watched myself tap dance to make unnecessary things happen from afar; after trying so carefully to only do and say that which would not cause conflict, or the least amount, where I worried and fretted my spine into this knot (the kind that tethers Titanic-sized ships to their ports)…I wonder how wrong I am. I wonder what happens when the doing is undone. What comes up from that dark, quiet place? Am I brave enough to find out?

I wonder what it’s like to be a person who doesn’t rush. Who doesn’t try to please everyone in a 3 mile radius–even when the pleasing is really only a stop-gap for my own anxiety.

I wonder what it would be like not to bounce from thing to thing hourly, moment by moment, shifting, twisting, contorting.

I wonder what it’s like to simply say: I need this. I can’t do that. I feel this way about it.

And not worry that everything will fall apart.

My wise friend  Amy said to me: “Pick your lead horse, and let the others run astray.” She meant: let there be priorities, like health and children. Worry over those. Let the rest of them fall where they may.

My other wise friend Alegra said, and I am paraphrasing: “Let go of the illusion that you are always in control.”

I catch the original thought for this post in my hand. It’s no snake, not even a worm. It’s the cord I use to bind myself to these false ideas. It’s thin, and mauve-colored, its end trying to dance on the breeze. I’m just waiting on a strong wind.

A Great Good Place

In Musings on April 7, 2011 at 7:57 pm

One of my favorite places to bring my netbook and work when I’m tired of being the house-bound freelancer is my local independent bookstore, BookSmart. When my husband and I moved to our “new” town 5.5 years ago, knowing nobody, after six months of isolated work-from-home and no social life, I took a part-time job at Booksmart to stave off a desperate lonlieness. (In the photo, that’s me in the blue to the right, and one of the owners, Cinda, to the left in the black t-shirt and long hair).

Not only did working there assuage the hollow feeling of being temporarily friendless, I quickly saw that BookSmart was a hub for the community—a resource for teachers, a respite for tired moms who could let their wild toddlers run rampant in the toys while they combed through the recommendations; a meeting place for retired ladies and singles to have coffee; a place for teens to hang out without causing chaos; and more, of course.  It seemed so essential to the people who came on a regular basis, and myself.  Am I just a special breed of bookstore lover, shaped by a childhood in which my single father took me weekly—sometimes several times a week—to one of three bookstores in our Marin county home? I can still vividly remember the mold-and-ink smell of the used bookstore, BookSmith, in San Anselmo, can still orient myself to the far left corner, up one brown-carpet covered step and to the right of the bathroom, where he stocked the hard-cover Nancy Drew mysteries I was allowed to purchase.  Do I just have a special place in my heart for these shops?

Then I think back on a big topic of conversation floating around in my liberal arts major back in college in the 90s, that of a “third place”—neither work nor home—where people can go, in fact NEED to go to fulfill other social and personal needs; “anchors” of community life  that “facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction…” as posited by Ray Oldenberg in his book The Great Good Place.   Independent bookstores—notorious for being peopled with eccentric, down-to-earth folks and funky little cafes—are classic third places that fulfill a need, one that is enhanced by the presence of all that knowledge, stored between paper covers, hovering just in arm’s reach.

As accepting as I am about the inevitability of digital publishing, of the slimming reality of print books, I have to admit that if the rise of digital publishing signals the end of my most favorite third place, it will be with great mourning.

What’s your favorite third place?

Abandon the Bloodless Pursuit…

In Musings, Publishing on March 23, 2011 at 3:41 pm

 Here’s a question you don’t hear asked often in today’s writing/publishing climate: What if the only end result of writing was to tell a wonderful story to an audience? And what if that “audience” was as small as a circle of a dozen friends, or a social group, or a family gathering? Would you still write?

I ask myself this question more and more as I watch the illusion of a “big payout” in the publishing world glimmer as though in a distant galaxy, winking in and out of clarity. Big Name Writers are walking away from Big Money at Big Publishers to sell directly to the people, and,  thanks to the rise of the e-reader, the little people are publishing themselves. (Hopefully, everyone engaging in an act of publication is taking great care to hone their words, to *care* about what they write, too. Because it matters, even if it’s only a circle of 12–more on that soon).

And while the little girl in me who dreamed of being her generation’s Louisa May Alcott has a few moments of disappointment or sorrow at this collapse of the old model, more and more now I’m feeling excited. Why? Because I see it as an opportunity for writers to get back in touch with what really matters about writing: Writing as a Path, with a capital P, and also a Practice. Not writing to get rich, or writing to become famous, but writing to apprentice oneself to a meaningful craft because it expands one’s own heart, soul an sense of purpose in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I think writers should be well-paid for their art, just as I think teachers and healers and others of that ilk should be. Every time I meet a writer who lives on the fruits of his or her labor, I thrill inside that there is another one!  But it has taken me a long time to realize that the writing has to give as much to the writer as it does to the reader, and that soulless, bloodless pursuit of publication probably does more harm than good.

And not to empty a cache of easy cliches, but I believe Joseph Campbell’s statement that if you “follow your bliss” the doors open, the money flows, and more importantly, happiness.

What would it be like if you wrote because it made you feel worthy, bigger, and joyful?

How to Talk Yourself Off The Ledge of Creative Despair

In Craft, Musings on January 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

I’m standing up on a ledge that barely has enough room for my feet. Every micro-inch of movement kicks grains of pebbles down into a roaring abyss of traffic and noise. I got myself up here, but how will I get down? People I trust and love are standing just outside my line of sight, promising me that it will all be okay if I only listen, take their hands and trust, but I am frozen in place, with terror. What if I don’t make it?

This is the metaphor for the place I get to in my darkest moments of doubt about my writing. The ledge. Different things can send me up there: sometimes it’s feedback I’ve heard a thousand times hitting the “I don’t want to!” temper tantrum place inside me. Sometimes it’s missing the precious blank morning hours of solitude that I had to write in before my son was born. Sometimes it’s the latest news about the publishing industry, or the feeling that the “destination” I’m aiming at with my writing is just so damn far away and that I don’t have the stamina to get there. And every time it comes with the same thought: I am a fraud. Who am I to teach others about writing when I can’t even do it myself? Am I doomed to be the one who sees what must be done, but never the one to do it?

Thankfully, I can tell you the answer is no. When I was up on the ledge most recently, the wind chilling my face, the exhaust burning acrid in my throat, I wasn’t so sure either, but I got down. Here is my recipe for taking yourself down off the ledge when you think you might not otherwise make it:

1. Write it Out: The only way I make any headway is to first discover what I am going through. The only way I know how to do this, is to write about it. Journal, stream of consciousness, morning pages–whatever method you have that works for you, make sure you know what it is. You might think it’s one thing: you received a rejection, let’s say. When, upon writing, you discover it’s that you were rejected by a publication you didn’t really want to be published in…or in my case, I went to the place of: “I am just mediocre,” only to realize what it was really about was: “I don’t have the luxury of time I once had in which to work as hard as I know I have to work.” (ironically this is the very theme about which I want to be writing, balancing work and art, motherhood and writing…)

2. Feel it. Before you move on to step three, I find that if you can just give yourself a tiny bit of alone time to feel the grief or frustration, rage or disappointment, you will be on a much faster track to getting rid of it.

3. Talk it Out: After I know what’s troubling me, I have found that this artist’s despair gets lodged in the body, tugging down the emotions and the attitude with it, and that I must almost literally extract it from my physical person. The way I do this best is to talk about it, let it be witnessed, shine the light of other people’s wisdom, gentleness and kindness on it, purge it from me.

4. Walk it Off: After you get a witness to your pain, someone who can simply validate what you’re going through and offer gentleness, nothing like a good old fashioned walk, or yoga hour, or any kind of exercise…this will further help you to extract it from your body, where it leads to illness and fatigue and eating bad things.

5. Educate Yourself: So often I get stuck in know-it-all mode. Because I teach writing and write about writing, I must know all there is to know, and therefore be a failure when I can’t do it myself. That’s when it’s time to take a class. I signed up for a class I’ve wanted to take for ages, finally giving it to myself. Or, if you find yourself in the opposite situation, where you feel like you don’t know anything, sometimes the best thing you can do is pick a focus, just one thing to work on, and take a class, go to a lecture, a writing conference, or even just pick up a book, rather than trying to take on the whole thing at once.

6. Back on the Horse: Finally, the only way you’ll make any forward progress, is to come back to the painful source and start again. Whether it’s revisiting feedback on a piece, starting something fresh, switching projects, if you don’t come back, you are, in essence, stuck on the ledge, with the night bearing down, cold and lonely upon you. And that’s just no fun at all.

A Year of Spaciousness

In General, Musings on January 3, 2011 at 5:02 am

 I will not begin the New Year with an apology for my lack of posting. Instead I will begin it with a sense of gratitude that my life is so full, and yes, occasionally overly-full such that I can’t even take the time to post a blog.

My writing partner and friend, Becca Lawton, and I are declaring 2011 the Year of Spaciousness. I suppose this might conjure running along vast open spaces like beaches or wild meadows–and it certainly can. But to us it means setting up our lives to be able to include all the important things, without pushing those things to the wayside, or letting stress and overwhelm rule the day. We want our lives to be big, billowing with creativity, family time, various regimens of health and writing and socializing that feed us. 

To make a spacious life means to decide what is important and what can wait. To ask, at the end of my life, will I say “I wish I’d done more of x…” Or hopefully: “I’m so glad I made time for”…making shadow puppets and playdough sculptures with my son; staring into my husband’s eyes over coffee or lunch, just the two of us; writing in messy, wild bursts, and then burnishing those words to a powerful, potent gleam; testing the edges of the amazing vessel of a body we’re all given, seeing how strong and fit I can make it; spending time with people who make me laugh and nod, and feel so far from alone.

So in my year of spaciousness I intend not to care a whole lot about bottom lines and the desolate predictions of the publishing industry. I will work hard, but not so hard I neglect my family or my health. I will joyfully tend to my writing with care and craft, and I will choose events and people that are the real life equivalent of an wide, open, inviting shoreline crashing up against a vast and powerful ocean.

Will you join me?

Betwixt Finger Spams and Crushing Despair…a purpose

In Craft, Musings on November 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm

This year’s National Novel Writing Month has drummed up more ire than usual, more cries of complaint and annoyance from established writers who apparently see the act of several hundred thousand people trying to write 50,000 words in one month somehow threatening or personally offensive, as if these less-than-stellar manuscripts are going to glut the way for the “good” writers who are working so hard to get published.  (And no, I’m not linking to these rants; they don’t deserve that).

 I read these various diatribes and thought: where’d all these fearful curmudgeons come from?  The “established” writers, the “serious” writers (of which there are many participating in Nanowrimo) will continue to be established and serious. They will write every day of the year, they will revise until their work stands up and sings Opera while juggling flaming swords and chewing gum. The only difference in November, as far as I can tell, is that several hundred thousand people aren’t watching TV, playing their X-boxes, or being slaves to their iPads nearly as often. And maybe a handful of these people are also discovering that the voices/family/social pressures/small elves that live in their heads, which have kept them from realizing and or working on their talent, are full of crap and that they should give more energy to this endeavor. Or maybe some people will realize that writing is fun, and a good thing to remember to teach your kids to do so they don’t grow up into mindless zombies who can only speak in text-ism gibberish. All of that seems like an inherently good thing to me.

I’m almost 35K into my project. And yes, most of it is unusable dreck that would make anyone question the MFA I received in literature/writing. So what’s the point, you say, other than unbridled creativity? I’ve actually discovered some benefit from slamming out words without a whole lot of direction. I’ve  got the bones of a really good novel in here somewhere. Yes, they’ve been dismembered and scattered as though by a large carnivore across a wild landscape, but I know what they are and how to retrieve them. I’ve got characters who are cock-eyed and unrealized, but I know exactly what self-help program they’re going to need to make them come to life. In other words, I got to the place in less than a month that it usually takes me three to four times that long to arrive at. All the scenes will need to be rewritten, and a whole lot more of them, too, but they add up to a different kind of outline, one that breathes, one where I can see the props and the sets and hear the chatter of the actors as I walk through it, imagining the show I’m going to put on, and know pretty well how it needs to play out. And that was totally worth the finger spasms and gluteal cramps, the dry-eyed exhaustion and giddy sense of self-importance followed by crushing despair that comes with writing fiction at such a rapid pace.

3 Tips to Starve the Tantrum (or the Critic)

In Craft, Fiction Writing, Musings on October 11, 2010 at 1:52 pm

My toddler is having a tantrum on my lap as I type. To even write these sentences is an act of utmost focus–I must ignore his keening cries, his little arms flailing at me, trying to push my hands off the keyboard. My husband and I have invested in a new strategy for tantrums that I realize is very much a metaphor for how to deal with the variety of critics that live in all writers: take the attention away. Ignore it. Starve the tantrum.

There are hundreds of “toddlers” far more vicious in my own mind who pound their fists in fits of temper and destroy the furniture in their bid to convince me I am a terrible person, not to mention writer. They are just as powerful as the real thing, if not worse, because they are responsible for the vast number of times I give up on something, resist revision, let overwhelm take me under, and worse, decide that all my years of writing are for nothing and that I’ve been fooling myself.

These voices are infants, they haven’t been properly disciplined, in fact I’ve let them run rampant in my mind, so just as with an acting out child, ultimately I am to blame. And that means that I can start somewhere.

Will you join me in my new strategy for inner critics and demons, all those ways we stop ourselves from being productive?

Do. Not. Engage.

Walk it out. When you hear the voice shrieking at you, discouraging you, suggesting there is no point to what you do: walk away. Literally. Get up and walk away from whatever you’re trying to do. Refresh your coffee. Walk around the block. Do jumping jacks.

Stream it out. Then, come back to your desk or favorite chair, but rather than picking back up the project you were having the inner fit about, pick up a notebook or journal and just write it all out. Stream it out onto the page so that it isn’t stuck inside your head. Or email a good friend who knows how to help you laugh at these wailing creatures in your brain.

Laugh it out. My favorite strategy to quell the wailing beast is to read or watch something funny. An Onion book or article comes highly recommended. David Sedaris essays. SNL clips. Whatever does it for you.

In Fiction Writing, General, Musings on October 9, 2010 at 7:56 pm

It seems the perfect season to write about demons as skulls, ghosts and wicked pumpkins are slowly arising all over town. Even with another week of Indian Summer–temps in the 80s–there’s a crisp, whispery edge to the wind, and the light does not linger as long.

It’s the season of writing demons for me. The season in which I question the purpose and necessity of writing. The season in which I look at whatever I have produced in the year and wonder what it is all for. No matter how successful I have been, how much praise or validation I’ve received, come October, when many cultures believe the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest, death starts to crowd the edges of my certainty, and my writing rises up around me like paper ghosts, moaning their unknowable fates.

 Sometimes I can channel the darkness into the writing. Other times it means I need to percolate and wait for the post-holiday tsunami that almost inevitably follows around the New Year.  Mainly, I’m learning that there’s no point in fighting it. My psyche goes underground. My sense of purpose becomes buried as if in a mountain of fallen leaves. It’s a season of reading and taking in, a season of teaching and helping keep others afloat.

What does Fall mean to your writing?


If you want an autumnal writing jumpstart, Fiction’s Magic Ingredient begins October 18.

Going Fallow

In Craft, Musings on September 22, 2010 at 10:38 pm

It happens. Despite all my best intentions, despite baby ideas crowding out the corners of my subconscious, sometimes I just don’t write. I write in my head, in my dreams, even in conversation, but the words just don’t make it to the page. And I feel ashamed. Like “not a real writer” when this goes on, even though I know that the time will come when the urge to write will be like the running of the bulls inside me and nothing will be able to stand in its path. Whole drafts get written when I feel like that. In between, there is doubt, there is asking questions about my purpose and my talent, and wondering if perhaps sticking to teaching is not the best path after all.

I like to think that every writer needs this downtime between projects, so when I feel this way I avoid reading interviews with people like T.C. Boyle and Jodi Picoult who never take a day off, who don’t believe in slacking or fallow time. During these times I pretend those people don’t exist. During these times I acknowledge that maybe there is something in the very chill of Fall that’s shaking summer out of our hair that is responsible for my urge to go downward, inward, away. The light disspates, the blooming things shrivel up, nature herself demands a contraction. Is it strange that my muse might also hibernate?

So that’s where I am now, inside a contraction, in the root vegetable of my creative self, waiting for the transition to settle, after which I can crawl out into the mulch, inhale the tangy earth-scent of this time of year, crunch around in the dried leaves that will coat my lawn in about two minutes, and see what dark creatures I’ve brought up from underground with me this time.