On the importance of faking it

Two of my writing pals (w.p.s) are therapists, and we recently explored the reasons we’re not-writing some of our stories. Primarily because we don’t want to upset people who are still alive. We played with ideas for pseudonyms, or name withheld, as is done for some of the “Readers Write” pieces in The SunThen w.p. 1 shared that a former client had published an article wherein my w.p.’s therapeutic advice was quoted — anonymously. At least it was accurate, she said. Sometimes, she continued, clients credit me with advice I know I wouldn’t have given.

Perhaps all of us have had that experience: someone tells a story wherein we play a role, and their version of the story puts words in our mouths or jitterbugging on our dance moves, words and jitterbugging we either have no recollection of, or that we feel very confident we would neither have spoken nor danced.

I’ve experienced this a couple of times: once with a fellow mother who says I told her daughter (5 y.o., dressed up as a princess and wasn’t she *beautiful!*) it’s inner beauty that counts (sounds like me, have no memory of saying it); another time with a colleague who tells me that at the end of a group meeting where we were expressing gratitudes, I stated that I was grateful for birth control (OK, well, maybe I would have said that, but not at that particular meeting!).

So I’ve had enough opportunities to learn that the truism about not knowing how we’re affecting other people is, in fact, true. But the week before Christmas, I forgot this. My sons were sleeping late that week, and playing video games and raiding the fridge and generally having a Fine Time Of It (well, the 17 y.o. had basketball practice most mornings, but still!), and on this particular morning, I was sweating over the details of boxing up cookies for the relatives. And I wasn’t being very calm or polite or zen-y, I was muttering under my breath and then I was squawking in what I know is an unpleasant-to-hear tone. Perhaps my decibels increased.

Hank guarding some guy

The 17 y.o. (white jersey) guarding some guy.

At which point the 17 y.o. came in from basketball practice, assessed the situation and took a shower before tackling cello practice. After cello, he and his sweetie headed out for their own Xmas fun, driving to see some spectacular lights in Bedford County. Then they went out for a nice dinner and he texted they’d be home by 11. And he was. But his girlfriend, god bless her, had driven him home because when he went to get in his car, he sort of stumbled and he was dizzy and he felt sick.

Turns out he’d taken a shoulder/knee combo to the head in basketball practice. That he didn’t remember it, only remembered sitting on the floor with people around him. That he took himself out of practice for the rest of the practice. That his coach had called him mid-afternoon to see how he was doing. He’s already had two concussions, so he had a pretty good idea that this was, likely, another one. A third one. The one that his doctor and his parents have said will mean he has to stop playing basketball.

But when I’d grumpily, perfunctorily asked, how was practice, he’d said fine. Because he’d already heard me grumping in the kitchen and who wants to deal with a grumpy mother who’s said if you get another concussion you can’t play contact sports anymore? No one wants to deal with a grumpy mama, grumpy anyone. I don’t. But I was so caught up in my own angst about the packages I foreclosed even the remote possibility that he might have mentioned something about his concussion* when he returned from practice. I have now Officially Learned My Lesson. The temporary relief that grumping provides me is not worth its cost: it closes off communication, interaction, engagement, connection. So now, even when I am grumpy I am trying to behave, if not cheerfully, at least neutrally. (Note: I do not always succeed.) And here’s the connection to writing: even when I don’t feel like writing, I am trying to behave as if I’m a writer, because if I don’t, I close off all those same opportunities: communication, interaction, engagement, connection).

15 minutes is all it takesSo I set my timer for fifteen minutes and I uncap my pen, lay out my paper (sometimes I have to light a candle and make tea because some days, when I feel really grumpy, it is HARD to begin writing) and then I hit “start” on the timer and I write. Sometimes I write all the reasons I am not a writer. Sometimes I doodle. Sometimes I draft dialogue or make a list of questions for my piece. Sometimes I bitch and moan about groceries, laundry yadda yadda yadda. And more often than not, I continue after the timer’s ding, finishing the dialogue or thinking about the answers to the questions or looking up a word or, on the really good days, writing all the way through to the end of a piece. Or revising a paragraph or two of a piece in progress. There is much to be said for fake it ’til you make it.

May it be so.

* he recovered quickly and we are consulting neurologists about the risks of continuing to play basketball. He is playing now — scoring in the double digits sometimes — and he loves it. We are wrestling with: getting out of bed and walking out the door has inherent risks and if you love an activity deeply, do you stop doing it because of the risk? Do you take up cross-country or golf only to get a concussion when you trip on the trail or an errant ball bounces into you? Or to ruin your knees, hips, shoulders? No easy answers here and curses upon our limited human experience of time and life as a single linear event without the possibility of testing different paths.

The power of words …

… and cartoons. I mark the passage of our 12 (twelve, a dozen) French writers, cartoonists, satirists, and fellow humans.

 

Distraction in action

So it’s Happy New Year! And time for a Fresh Start! And Evaluation of the Year Gone By! And Setting of Resolutions! And playing with distractions, like, do I need a coffee grinder that will grind beans fine enough for espresso! Because I cannot figure out the ending of my short story! And I am in despair!

I’ve been worrying that my brain is falling, albeit gradually and gracefully, off the rails, because the ending of this particular story is slippery; I cannot storyboard it, outline it, image-board it. It glimmers in the corner of my eye and then swims away into dark waters, flicking its tail saucily. When this happens, I imagine my brain plummeting, down, down, down, from one of those dramatic high trestle bridges over a roiling river, icy and filled with mysterious silver-green fish.

Even as part of me feels terror at this fall, another part of me is wondering where such bridges exist, and do the rivers they span have silver-green fish and what would that color be called, anyway, and what would those fish be named and who named them?

And then the timer dings and again I have not gotten anywhere on the story ending. I have generated a list of questions that goes with my other lists of questions and ideas and concepts and free-writes and interesting imagery, stacks of lists tall enough to serve as trestle-bridge supports. Wobbly and unorganized and occasionally coffee-stained supports, but enough to get a steam-engine of a story across the gorge if I could focus on my writing.

Lack of writing focus has been balanced out by my focus on reading in December, however. I spent several hours at the end of 2014 immersed in Gordon Peerman’s book, Blessed Relief: What Christians can learn from Buddhists about Suffering. I don’t identify with either faith, but I relate to suffering.

I’m suffering, I say, as the story-ending vanishes again. I’m suffering, I say, as the timer dings and I have failed, AGAIN, to focus on my writing. I’m not really suffering, I say, as I read the newspaper. I’m suffering with privilege, I say, but it’s not real suffering. I should do some real suffering.

Peerman’s book provided me with a useful perspective on this hilarious-viewed-from-a-distance mindset, particularly with the Five Remembrances practice Thich Nhat Hanh shared in The Blooming of a Lotus. Peerman writes

The intention of this practice is to help you wake up to the significance of this moment, the impermanence of possessions and plans, and the significance of the actions you choose.

The five remembrances themselves are about aging, illness, death, loss, and the results of our actions; for me, they are a mindful articulation about “accepting that which we cannot change,” an adage so overused that it feels watered-down.

Watered-down, downstream, fluid, shape-shifting water, water that roils and dances, water that retains the power to erode granite, to reshape the earth’s contours, to shelter fish, to catch anything that falls from the heavens. Water that runs to the sea. Water that will bear my weight, float me forward.

If I allow myself to float on that water, then my precarious trestle of ideas, my angst-filled train engine of a brain, my inability to catch the glimmering fishtail of my story’s end — all these bits, all I say to myself about how these bits are making me suffer  — they settle, they quiet, they slow. The train puffs to a halt on the bridge and I peer out the window at the river below and crack the window and breathe that crisp river air and the fish jump and sparkle and perhaps my traveling companion knows their name, and then I pick up my pen and return to my notebook, and I am immersed in the writing and when the train moves again its movement is gentle enough to be unnoticeable. Gentle enough, but powerful enough, too. It is enough, what I have. Whether or not I find The Ending to This Story: it is enough. There will be another bridge of ideas over another river, or there won’t. But right here, right now: this is enough. I have enough.

May it be so for your stories, too.

Ice, Water, Steam

The ghost of Christmas (gifts) past

When I was a freshman band geek in high school, a *senior* band geek asked me out. He was a trumpeter, no less, which as every band geek knows, means sexy cut-up, just like percussionist means understated dry wit. I was over the moon.

And then it was Christmas and time to identify and acquire the Perfect Gift. At that time, needlepoint was trendy and most of us girl band geeks traveled with tidy little bags containing three-strand yarn and mesh with various per-square-inch holes. We stabbed that mesh with our dull-tipped needles, colorful trailing yarn pulled taut to make pillows and ornaments and picture frames and belts. Yes, belts. The preppier the better. Argyle patterns were in, and plaid. ‘Nuff said.

The trumpeter made it clear he wanted a belt for Christmas. By mid-December, I was a needlepointing ninny.

Despite my quick flautist fingers, however, when I took the piece to the shop to be finished — I wasn’t skilled enough to affix the leather backing — I was too late for it to be finished by Christmas.

Despair! Gnashing of teeth! Etcetera!

Then my mom suggested I make him a little card explaining the belt would be done by New Year’s, and bake him brownies so he could fatten up in the meantime.

Perfect! Funny! Etcetera!

I made the brownies, I hand-lettered the little card, I wrapped the brownies in wax paper and I packed them in a foil-lined box and I presented it on Christmas Eve.

Trumpeter opened the box, read the note and said, “oh.”

I explained, in case it wasn’t clear, that the brownies were to fatten him up. Wasn’t that funny?

No. It wasn’t funny.

This was the first death knell of that teen romance. Even then, submerged in teen-girl-preppy-culture, I had a nascent hunch that the tedious stitching of a needlepoint belt for a societally-dictated, consumer-driven celebration of a holy man’s life was not a path I would find spiritually, morally, or ethically satisfying. My hunch has proven accurate.

And I have a sneaking suspicion, based on my life-long, do-it-at-the-last-minute time “management” style, that I could have started on the belt a bit sooner, and had it finished in time for Christmas. I have a sneaking suspicion that all other reasons aside, my boyfriend wanted to know that I’d cared enough about him to make the effort to get my present for him done on time. I have a sneaking suspicion his disappointment was warranted.

The best gifts are the ones that connect us to others, by speaking to the recipient in a language they understand. Like ice cubes:

We have a family friend who loves ice in her drinks, and since we don’t have an automatic ice-maker, several days before she arrives, I start freezing ice cubes. I empty and re-fill the trays several times, so we have a goodly supply. Last time she visited she thanked me, acknowledging that having enough ice for her (many!) drinks requires me to think and act ahead of time, and she felt loved, knowing that I was thinking about taking care of her need in that way. Knowing that we hold enough space in another’s heart and mind to be considered even when we’re absent is powerful.

So this year I’m aiming for gifts that are the equivalent of a full box of ice cubes. Gifts that let others know I notice them, and delight in them, and appreciate them.

This requires consideration, planning ahead, forethought. It’s like writing an essay or a short story or a blog post: first I notice, then I ponder, then I write, then I rewrite, then I share. I’m noticing and thinking about my sons, and my husband, and my friends. I’m making a few things, buying a few things, writing a few things down for “essay” gifts. I’m trying to be timely this year, so my family and friends know that they hold spaces in my heart that I honor and attend to — that they are important enough to come first, not put off ’til the last minute.

May it be so.*

*And if it may not be so, may my brownies provide sufficient occupation until my gifts are completed.

Helloooo, Bagels! Or, I want it all.

When we moved from Boston to Blacksburg, 20+ years ago, I had a “quality of life” checklist. It included access to the New York Times and a particular brand of chocolate. Both were available at that time; tellingly, a daily NYT is no longer available (tho’ Sundays edition is) but the sheer variety of chocolate available now has increased by a factor of ten. You can get organic, you can get fair trade, you can get single-source, you can get flavors: cocoa nibs, burnt caramel, candied bacon. Quality of life indeed!

Hello Bagel is on South Main Street, a few doors down from the Vintage Cellar.

Hello Bagel is on South Main Street, a few doors down from the Vintage Cellar.

However, until this past Monday, there was no decent bagel shop in Blacksburg. There was a spot about ten years ago that folded. There are frozen options. There’s a supplier that comes to the farmer’s market and the local food coops.

So when I heard about the “soft” opening of Hello Bagel, I set my alarm for 6:15 and I stumbled to the car in the dark and I drove ‘cross town and I paid for still-warm bagels and a cup of coffee and lo, it was almost a religious experience. It certainly restored my faith in the virtue of rising early.

And here’s the rub, for me: the only reason Blacksburg now boasts a bagel shop is that this small town ain’t so small anymore. (When we arrived in ’92, I could get anywhere in town in 10 minutes, tops. Today, I plan on twenty, or thirty if I want to be able to walk into my meeting instead of run (yes, big-city dwellers, I realize that’s not a “real” commute). I miss the small town I moved to.)

BUT: if there weren’t so many people here, the writing workshops I’m offering (another shameless plug: The Joyful Quill) wouldn’t have enough participants to come alive. The writers’ groups I work with would have no new faces.

And those those who live in Real Cities will point out: uh, you do live in a small town. They’re right, of course. And so am I. Blacksburg is small. It used to be smaller. And it’s smaller than it (probably) will be in ten years.

Holding both these perceptions without denying the accuracy of either one acknowledging that more than one thing may be “true.” This is uncomfortable: we want Our Way to be the Right Way. If Other Ways are equally valid, then what does that make me? Wrong? I don’t want to be wrong!

A colleague recently shared an observation of me as “too worried with what other people may think.” I can’t argue. More often than not, in any given group of people, I am more interested than others in considering the possible ways my actions, or the actions of my group, may be perceived.

And don’t the Great Writers ignore what others think? Wield a machete through the thicket of conventional writing? What if Virginia Woolf had done nothing but worried about what people thought of her work? No Mrs. Dalloway? Perish the thought!

But I’m not aiming for Great Writer status. I’m aiming for sustaining my self through my writing. I’m aiming for connecting through well-crafted stories. I’m aiming for providing a writing space where people leave feeling *more* like writing than when they arrived. I’m aiming for accepting people where they are as writers, not labeling some “good” and the rest “bad.” *

I want it all: a town where I can get a terrific bagel and arrive ten minutes later at my writing group, with said bagel still warm, its schmear of cream cheese a little melty.

Bagel flavors galore!

Bagel flavors galore!

I’m not gonna get it all. I am gonna enjoy sitting in the middle of it all, noticing the contradictions inherent in my big small town, in writing with and against conventions, in considering what others may think, and deciding if and when to cast it aside.

There’s a lotta bagel flavors out there. I’m gonna try them all.

*I can hear the critics thrashing and gnashing: but some writing IS better than others! There are so “right” and “wrong” ways to write! And I agree: for publication, you betcha there are standards. I also note that standards deemed James Joyce’s Ulysses obscene. Standards pilloried Kate Chopin for The Awakening. We want it both ways but that’s a tough row to hoe: be a Great Writer that ignores standards AND adhere to the conventionally-accepted “right” and “wrong” ways of writing or your work won’t see the light of day, and your career will be kaput. I’m all about figuring out what we want to say and saying it to the best of our ability but hey: eyes wide open, folks. Every rant is not genius, today’s anointed geniuses may be tomorrow’s remainders, and every unpublished, half-way decent writer who keeps getting up early, making coffee, and setting their thoughts down, on anonymous paper in an anonymous house in an anonymous life — they are countless. I don’t know how to fit them into this paragraph. But I honor their attention to their writerly selves.

 

Shameless self-promotion: reading

Tomorrow, Thursday October 9th, I’ll be one of six readers in a virtual reading hosted by the magazine Under the Gum Tree in honor of their third anniversary. Details below; the piece I’ll share is a “flash” creative nonfiction piece titled After. It’s based on writing about my mom’s journals that I did for a Priscilla Long workshop in 2012. Whee!

Thursday, October 9 at 6 p.m. PDT (9 PM EDT)

It will be broadcast live online via Google Hangouts and that means you can watch from anywhere with an Internet connection. Just click on this link:

http://underthegumtree.us2.list-manage.com/track/click?u=d092cccd976e0c27416b6175a&id=ad36d7a8fd&e=bf3a6ed342

If you’re able to make it, please let the editor, Janna Marlies Maron, know–she will be hosting the event and would love to give you a shout out. You can let her know by emailing her at info@underthegumtree.com, or let her know on twitter at either @justjanna or @undergumtree.

Mama’s mocha

Bollo's!

Bollo’s!

It is no secret that my favorite coffeeshop is Bollo’s. It’s my favorite for lots of different reasons: its long, narrow floor plan (I can hide at a back table for productivity, or sit up front for socializing — half the town, the interesting half, comes into Bollo’s). It’s my favorite because of their oat fudge bars, and the music (staff-chosen and thus never-the-same, and never canned), and the scattering of magazines (Food and Wine, Good Housekeeping, Gourmet, Traveler) and the long church pews that run down the western wall, and the exposed brick and the fragrance that floats from the back, of baking bread and Thursday there’s danish and Friday’s  cinnamon rolls are the size of a toddler’s head. Mostly it’s my favorite because the mocha is a teensy bit different, every time I order it.

Starbucks and other chains pride themselves on providing customers the same experience no matter where they are. A Starbucks mocha in Middlebury should be the same as a Starbucks mocha in Miami. And for the most part, it is. And I love all my mocha brethren, hallelujah.

But in Bollo’s, depending on who’s behind the counter pulling espresso shots, I know I’ll get a subtly different drink. When it’s Yasmin, it’s perfectly bittersweet. When it’s Felicia, it’s perfectly balanced. When it’s Renee, it’s perfectly hot. Each of their mochas is perfectly perfect.

Tea, magazines ...

Tea, magazines …

Mochas are on my mind because the latest Poets & Writers has all sorts of information about MFA programs, and in my brief perusal of its articles and advertisements, I found myself thinking: the vocabulary used to market these programs could be the basis for an excellent drinking game. How many pages before we see the word deepen? Or inspired, supportive, strengthen, world-renowned, community, or distinguished? We’ll be tipsy before we get past the table of contents, and buying total strangers a morning-after mocha by page 33. It strikes me that creative writing degrees — or at least the marketing for them  — are like a Starbucks mocha: excellent basic product but the same product, everywhere.

I have a nagging suspicion that the marketing is, in part, aimed at people who write but don’t feel they can claim the title of writer because they lack an MFA. And/or because they’re not published. And/or because they have no desire to be published [gasp] — they’re writing for themselves or their families, so they’re not “really” writers. The list of reasons these folks aren’t writers is pretty long. If they have published but they aren’t famous, they’re not writers. If they have published but they don’t make any money at it, they’re not writers. If they don’t want to publish, it’s just a little thing I dabble with …. If they “just” keep a journal, they’re not writers.

But what else to call someone who writes, who writes for their own reasons, who writes to discern their reasons, to name, to mourn, to celebrate, to untangle?

A writer is someone who writes.

In many ways, it doesn’t matter what brings us to the page or empty screen, or who will read those words. If we lay our words down across that blank expanse, whether we leave a faint trail of our selves, or a swath of trampled ferns, we’re claiming our place in the world, giving shape to our lives as writers.

Now, if we want your words to resonate with an audience beyond ourselves or our families, we’ll probably have to work on the craft of writing — and there’s lots of good books for that, and non-MFA-affiliated groups. And MFA programs. Steve Almond has a lot to say about why MFA programs are a good thing.

Writing is not a Starbucks mocha. It’s a personality-infused, slightly-different-every-time-but-perfect-every-time mocha. It’s what we make of it, not what anyone else tells us we should make of it.

back of bollo'sWrite if you love to write. Do with it what you want.

Make your very own mocha.