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.

 

 

All works are equal

I’m not going to throw my hat into the ring of commentary-on-Ferguson. I’m not going to think about how there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I in regards to random violence. I’m not going to imagine the pain of Brown’s parents. I’m not going to listen to the estimates of when the elephant will become extinct (most likely in my lifetime. I’m broaching 50, so you can do the math).

I am going to remember that I asked Priscilla Long, in regards to her Work Inventory, why she didn’t note where her pieces are published. Because, she said,I have a body of work I want to do, and it doesn’t matter where it’s published. All works are equal.

All works are equal.

I am going to remember the giggle I couldn’t suppress while waiting to board airplanes this summer, when the gate agents called the “first class/priority” passengers to come through their priority boarding area. Which means those passengers walk over a rubber-backed 3×5′ piece of polyester carpet atop the regular carpet, to the left of the “boarding area” sign. They walk over this piece of carpet and they get to sit down first and they get to sit in seats that are a bit wider and if the plane blows up or disappears they get to lose their lives. Just like everyone else.

All works are equal.

I am going to reflect that on the day Captain Byers died in Iraq, my local obituary page held death notices for Catherine Cupp, Alma Frey, Goldie Gearhart, Lillian McClean and James May. I am going to assume that each person left behind a “to do” list, an unrequited love or two, and others who will remember their frown, their laugh, their bad puns.

All works are equal.

I am going remember that Michael Brown’s status as a young black man headed for college is a distraction from our disgrace.

All works are equal.

I’m going remember that the effect an essay, poem, screenplay, or novel has on any one person is as much, if not more, about the person reading than the work itself.

All works are equal.

I’m going to work today.

 

 

To write, perchance to produce?

World Cup Cafe

World Cup Cafe

I returned to Taos for the third consecutive year last week, for the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference. It’s a highlight of my year. It’s a highlight because it’s in the desert southwest; because its attendees are, to a one, interesting, informed, and intriguing; because it’s an excellent “reset” button for my writerly self; because it’s near Taos’s World Cup Cafe; because the World Cup Cafe serves a mocha borgia; because I feel like a brilliant writer after a mocha borgia; because when I fell like a brilliant writer I am a more productive writer.

Productive writer. An abstract concept that toddled into my thinking three years ago when I first read Prisicilla Long’s must-have-if-you’re-a-writer book, The Writer’s Portable Mentor – an abstract concept that steadied itself and began walking, sure-footed, during the time I worked with her (for the second time) at the Taos conference this year.

Prisicilla Long's book ...

Prisicilla Long’s book …

Long, like Macklemore, notes that the greats aren’t born great. They’re great because they paint/write/practice a LOT. Long suggests writers make a “list of works,” an inventory to track their pieces’ completion dates, where they’ve been sent, and when they’ve been accepted. In The Writer’s Portable Mentor, she says,

The list allows you to see the work you’ve done and it signifies respect for work done. It allows you to track your yearly production. It allows you to find any given piece to take up again. The list gives you a practice that you now share with those high-achieving creators who do quantify their works. (Georgia O’Keefe, 2.045 objects; Edouard Manet, 450 oil paintings among other works; the American painter Alice Neel, about 3,000 works; dare we mention Picasso? — 26,000 works; the remarkable short-story writer Edith Pearlman has published, according to her website, more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction. That of course, does not tell us how many works Pearlman has composed.

I have a modest list of works that has grown incrementally for the past three years. And I do mean incrementally, because I haven’t been able to focus on more than one writing activity each day: if I’m generating a new short story, that generative free writing takes all my writing time. Ditto editing and conceptualizing.

But this year, for the first time, I managed two, sometimes three, types of daily writing during the conference: generative, editorial, and conceptual. And I did this because I told myself, per Long’s advice, that I only had to do it for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes, for five days, yielded a found poem, an improved short story, and several roughed out story concepts.

I’m sure this capacity was enhanced by the total absence of my Domestic Goddess responsibilities, Engineer Hubby, our two sons, the dogs, the cat and that pesky groundhog in the backyard — a lot of my writing is done while it appears I’m daydreaming, and there’s no daydreaming time in my Real Life. Nonetheless: I’ve managed the 15 minute practice every single day, for a week, so I know I can make progress on several fronts simultaneously.

Here’s to slow, steady and productive. May it be so.

I’m not myself when I’m not at home. For which I am grateful.

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

Fresco from Spanish Romanesque church

I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Spain for family vacation this June, the latter four in Madrid, a Big City with the expected hordes of tourists like ourselves, and the Prado, and churros, and late-night dining at outdoor tables. Madrid was hot, but “it’s a dry heat,” said the tour guide.

I will testify: it was a dry heat. So dry that toweling off after a shower was hardly necessary. So dry that I bought an extra tube of body lotion and depleted it. So dry that my curly hair didn’t curl.

At the risk of seeming weirdly obsessed with my hair, let me note that for better and for worse, while I was growing up (my formative years!) the reactions of strangers and friends to my unruly curls heightened my already-extreme self-consciousness of adolescence to a point of mild hysteria about the frizzes — I didn’t see another caucasian person with hair like mine ’til I was 25 years old.

But I digress: my hair changed, dramatically, in the dry heat of Madrid. I’ve been to deserts, lived in one for three months during a field study program, but never had it go so straight. By the afternoon, it dangled, limp and disinterested, into my eyes. Obscuring my view of Spanish men society.

While stumbling about thus blinded, I nonetheless caught glimpses of the locals talking, eating and drinking on a wildly different schedule from my American one. They have a light breakfast of espresso and maybe a pastry, because they were up late the night before. They work a bit (those lucky enough to be employed — Spain’s unemployment rate hovers around 25%), have another espresso and snack at 11, then break at two for lunch and/or siesta. They return to work from 4-7 PM, and eat dinner after that. Itty-bitty toddlers stroll with their parents until 10 or 11 in the evening; those without children head to clubs or bars. As my 16 y.o. put it, “up late at night, nap in the afternoon: this is a great schedule for a teenager, Mom!”

I’d read the guidebooks about Spain before going and knew what to expect. Being in and amongst that daily routine, however, was like standing next to the speakers at a live concert instead of listening through earbuds. Anyone who’s traveled or lived in a non-American country has probably shared this experience.

At the risk of stating the obvious, watching myself slip into a different lifestyle, be it for only a few days and only during vacation, I tiptoed into my brain’s quiet little side room of “what if.” What if I’d been born in a country less hell-bent on self-improvement and less interested in acquiring stuff? What if my hair hadn’t been that big a deal during those formative years?!

Grandma's espresso cup

Grandma’s espresso cup

I’m old enough now, and enough at peace with my life, to indulge in speculation without triggering regret that will in turn trigger life-choices-analysis-paralysis. Thus, I noted in my journal those elements of Spain that nurtured me. Some are vacation-dependent: It’s easy to manage siesta time without daily life, simple to stay out late when the dogs don’t need to be walked. But I found a short, doable ritual to bring home, too.

In the morning now, I sit in quiet with a (teeny tiny) cup of scalding-hot espresso, without reading the paper, listening to the news, or even reading a book. Just sipping, tasting, and swallowing. It takes five minutes (10-12 if you include espresso-making, which is not as snooty-patooty as it sounds and does NOT have to cost a thousand dollars for a snooty-patooty machine!). I use my Gramma’s pretty espresso cup. I stir in a scant spoonful of sugar. I finish, rinse the cup and spoon and I’m done.

Perhaps this is a ridiculously small new habit; perhaps if I had been born into a different time and place I would be weirdly obsessed about a non-hair aspect of my physical self; perhaps if I weren’t born into this time and place and culture I’d never travel and never know the difference ANYway so what does it matter?

Gaudi's church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church. I bet he had espresso every morning.

I believe it matters to be taken out of our normal routines and shown different approaches to everything because we are so interestingly, almost infinitely different. Because it’s fun.

Because when we are reminded that our habits are creations of time and space and place and not, in fact, Deep Truths, the door of possibilities is cracked just that little bit wider. You never know when that bit-wider is going to let in a big amazing don’t-know-what-it-is-yet that will blow the door off its hinges and change everything.

Here’s to paying attention to small actions every day, and opening ourselves up. Here’s to doing so in our writing, too. May it be so.

 

Perennials are the plants that come back every year. Unless they don’t.

This (in)famous explanation of perennial versus annual plants is one that I stumbled across about ten years ago, when I was gung-ho for gardening. It’s accurate: several perennials I carefully placed in the ground at fall planting time have showed nary a slender stem of themselves aboveground the following spring. Maybe the groundhogs ate the bulbs, maybe there was too much rain and the roots rotted in the damp soil. A more-experienced, faithful gardener could probably posit a few other reasons and make an educated guess about which was the most likely culprit.

But I’ve discovered that focusing on writing is not compatible with gung-ho gardening: each demands attention to detail at a level that precludes the other. So the rhubarb flowered before I harvested it, and the black-eyed Susans are running amok over the thinly-mulched paths, and the foxglove is begging to be divided.  My only gardening indulgence thus far was on Mother’s Day, when I requested a gift of labor from my sons and Engineer Hubby. We cleared a grassy bed and put in tomatoes, basil, and tomatillos. That’s gonna be it for the year. I swear. I will not procrastinate by weeding. I will not avoid the blank page by deadheading any flowers. I will not wander in the garden humming a song of despair about my lack of productivity.

Yeah, I don’t believe me either.

Purple petunias, in need of deadheading.

Purple petunias, in need of deadheading.

Besides, as Dr. Noa Kageyama notes in his blog post “Pride Yourself on Your Work Ethic? Why You Might be More of a Slacker than You Think,” forcing ourselves to sit down and “practice” when we really really really wanna take a nap or a walk or drink a cappuccino may be counterproductive — we’re not working efficiently or effectively when we’re tired, or dispirited, or hungry. That said, today I really really really didn’t wanna sit down and write. I wanted to, well, weed the garden and deadhead the purple petunias.

Discerning whether or not my resistance is grounded in a real need for rest, or not, is the tricky part. The most effective tool for discernment, for me, is writing. The type of writing I intend to burn before I die. Whiney, self-indulgent, wallow-in-my-first-world-problems writing. But here’s the thing. It works. When I put my whiney self into words, on paper, then they become just words. Words that I can re-read after the second cup of tea, words that I can then consider and compare to my now-cleared heart and head.

Today, I smiled at my words of angst — they were eerily similar to my angst as a younger woman, when I was parenting younger children, when 45 minutes to write was the highlight of the week. I hadn’t noticed, before I whined into my journal, that although I still feel I don’t have *quite* enough hours in the day, I have many, many more hours than I once did — and that I am doing much, much more writing than I did then. That the sense of “not enough” was based in my own choices to add (writing) work to my plate. How fascinating that I nonetheless was telling myself I didn’t have enough. Is that inherent to me as a human being: whatever we get we want more? Or is that unique to just me, the individual? Or a subset of humans, all of us sharing a delusion about time, energy and capacity?

I decided I don’t need to answer those particular questions today. Today, it is enough to notice that the stories I’m telling myself are perennials – they come back year after year. And to know that today, I can plant a different story. A big bushy annual that will shade out the perennial. Or I could dig up that tiresome perennial and relegate it to the compost bin.

Ah, the joy and power of words and overused metaphors. Onward to the blank page!

The Origami Penis

Disclaimer: there will be hardly any origami, and no male genitalia available for viewing or download in this post.

Origami fun

The “origami penis” phrase arose in a meeting of the New River Writers Project, when one of our members mentioned that his life is “too boring to blog about.”

No, some of us countered, your life is  not boring. Tell us about your eccentric clients! (I shall only reveal that he is a handsome fella of a certain age whose living demands he have extensive public contact. Not literal contact. Get your mind out of the gutter!)

The blog would have to be anonymous of course, someone added. You couldn’t reveal where you actually live. That’s true, he nodded. He paused. “I could call it the Handyman of Love,” he said.

Vulnerable

Vulnerable (Photo credit: S.H.CHOW)

We howled and moved on to the critiques, one of which was for a writer who’s hesitant about starting a blog without having at least a dozen posts ready to go. Another member joked that she didn’t really want to know what anyone else thought and would she have to receive comments on her blog? It was at this point that I slipped into writerly observation mode.

Ten of us were circled around a table; we all have stories in various stages of “polish” and professionalism; we write for a variety of reasons; we range in age from under-thirty to over-sixty.

But the humor within which we conceal-revealed our concerns led me to guess that we all share a worry that maybe we’re not unique enough, not literary enough, not funny enough, not interesting enough. Is this because we’re not in NYC? Because we don’t have MFAs from prestigious writing programs? Why do we think our lives don’t meet the “interesting-enough” criteria?

Spinning Tanoura

Spinning Tanoura (Photo credit: puthoOr photOgraphy)

Robert Boswell noted, in the Taos workshop I reference here, that writers must steal ruthlessly from their own lives. Writing is an ever-spinning dance: between arrogance (sitting down and writing my stories is worth the time and energy and money!), and humility (if I want anyone to read my stories, I need critiques of my drafts). Sometimes the whirl makes me dizzy. I am a Goddess! vs. I am a sh*t-shoveler in the lowest circle of hell. And who am I to tell anyone else what they should or shouldn’t do?

I’m betting this is not a surprise to anyone who undertakes a creative endeavor. And as I write this, I’m thinking sheesh, so WHAT, everyone knows this, shut up already.

connection

But the responses I receive to my words surprise and humble me, and that’s the thing: when we don’t share our creative acts, we don’t know what connections we’ve missed.  The what-ifs are infinite. Every kind word suppressed because I felt self-conscious, every deleted phrase, every un-remarked-upon link between X and Y: each of these might have opened a whole other path to venture down. Not necessarily a better path, or a worse path, but certainly one with more connection.

Why do we shy away from those connections? I have found that people, on the whole, tend toward decency and kindness. Those who don’t are great “testimony” for our writerly selves. Tell your stories!

That fellow-writer with a boring life? He speculated about making origami penises as part of a handyman of love business and sent us all into a borderline-hysterical orbit of giggling. He inspired my words here. Connections galore!