Tag Archives: practice

It’s been a year + …

… since I’ve posted a blog. My silence due to a combination of overwhelm logistically, personally, professionally, with a dollop of self-doubt on all fronts.

My last post, about being kind to ourselves and giving ourselves permission to disengage from situations and individuals that damage us, received an ugly anonymous response (I don’t allow anonymous and/or hate-full comments). Since then, I’ve heard that some experience my reflections about my difficult experiences as “white woman tears” and thus not worth considering.

And I bought into that. I thought: I’m a person of privileged social, economic and educational class. I don’t really suffer. I don’t have anything to offer to the unfolding bedlam. I put my head down, finished my MFA, quit blogging here, and prioritized family and personal matters.

That withdrawal put me back in a headset that I’ll call “juvenile,” reflecting that stage of development when we have inklings of our gifts, but not much mastery over them, or power in the world.

Reading Women

As when I was an actual juvenile, chronologically, I’ve spent a lot of this withdrawal reading. Muriel Spark and Zora Neale Hurston and Mavis Gallant; Deborah Levy and Penelope Fitzgerald and Zadie Smith. All writers who happened to be women, all writing despite bedlam of various degrees, all writers who tell Truth and truth.

I’ve been reminded by their Truth and truth that it’s not what others think that’s important, it’s the showing-up-and-writing that’s important. Maybe my stories will be meaningful, maybe they won’t; maybe they’ll be beautiful, maybe they won’t. But it’s not for me to say: it’s for me to write and publish.

Why have I needed to go through this cycle of self-doubt and -awareness, again? I don’t know. I wish it didn’t suck up so much of my time. But it has, and so far as I can tell, there’s nothing to be gained by lamenting what has been.

So I’m taking my own advice and sitting down and writing. Trusting the stories will show up if I do. Remembering these words from Alexandra Stoddard (note hole at the top: I’ve pinned this card to many bulletin boards in front of many writing desks):

Slow down calm down

May it be so.

Craft Matters: Timing is everything. Or is it?

We whirl through our days amidst commitments internally- and externally-imposed; some weeks we have to squeeze in our writing while waiting for the doctor, the oil change, the vet and yes that is my upcoming week.

But today I read this terrific post by Noa Kageyama, whose equally terrific blog, The Bulletproof Musician, frequently addresses matters of effective practice and discipline that applies to all of us aiming for artistry. This one looks at a study that examined how efficient learning is when it’s done at night rather than in the morning.

Don’t mess with my morning mojo, my writing muse whispered. You can’t write after three in the afternoon! I will not watch the sunset with you! 

No matter how gorgeous the sunset, my muse thinks evenings are Not a Good Time to Write. I'm going to see if she's right.

No matter how gorgeous the sunset, my muse thinks evenings are Not a Good Time to Write. Is she right?

 But the *evidence* shows that people learn and remember their learning more efficiently and effectively if they tackle it in the evening, go to bed, and then practice again in the morning. Huh. Is my muse really so special that she will be exempt from evidence-based research? Actually, is this really about my muse, that elusive spark of inspiration, or is this about the simple learning and practicing of craft?

I think it’s the latter. If I want to get the compound-complex sentence down cold (my current craft focus, inspired by David Foster Wallace’s jaw-dropping application of basic grammatical tenets), I need to learn its form and practice it.

Although I’d like to think I’m very special, I suspect that I’m no more special than anyone else when it comes to my grey matter. So based on Kageyama’s post, I am going to ignore my muse and set up some evening craft reading-learning-practicing exercise sessions for myself, followed by next-morning follow-up craft reading-learning-practicing exercise sessions.

I’ll let you know how it goes in about a month–and if you have any experiences with how you’ve learned specific writing craft, tell us all about it in comments below!

Meditating on driftwood: intolerance and the #BLM-Sanders kerfuffle.

I signed up for a workshop with Jeffrey Davis at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference this past July. He uses mindfulness practices to smooth transitions between our multiple selves (writer/mother/wife/friend/asylum resident).

It’s the first writing workshop I’ve attended that blew the lid off my creativity (others have deepened and expanded my craft but not touched the how of my writing). Characters came faster, deeper and easier. My capacity to notice details expanded tenfold. (“It’s like a drug cabinet that is all in your brain.”) My understanding of my own process has resulted in the longest consistent stretch of daily writing practice I’ve ever experienced (as in, six out of seven days in the weeks since the conference, all while visiting friends, traveling, picking kids up from camp, going on family vacation, and getting kids ready for school).

Taos Mountain in the afternoon ...

Taos Mountain in the afternoon …

A colleague also participated in the Taos conference. Her afternoon workshop was in the same room as my morning one. And her workshop leader disparaged the driftwood that our morning workshop left in the center of the table. “This is disgusting, what is this, take it away, I didn’t bring that,” are all words my colleague reported her afternoon leader saying. Many of the other workshop participants, my colleague reported, “followed the leader” and joined in the disparagement, suggesting graffiti on the driftwood, etcetera.

Several years ago I would have been offended and upset. This year, I felt only sadness that fellow writers — aspiring and established, teacher and students  — engaged in this dismissive diminishment.

We cannot know what will work for another writer. For another human being.

And so when I heard that some #Black Lives Matter people took the microphone away from Bernie Sanders, I thought, well, maybe that’s not so bad.

Maybe it’s time to say: we’re going to do it differently. We’re not going to cede the microphone. We’re going to meditate on driftwood.

Maybe it is time for us white folk to sit down and shut up and listen. 

Maybe it is time to consider that meditating on driftwood could yield powerful stories.

Maybe powerful stories will lead to powerful actions.

Maybe powerful actions will expand our souls.

Maybe expanded souls would have room to hold the world’s simultaneous realities: our own experiences are true and the (different) experiences of others are equally true.

Maybe if we could hold the world’s simultaneous realities, we would also begin to transform our small scared parts, the parts so terrified of other that we would rather dismiss other than struggle to remain open.

May it be so.

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.

Mama’s mocha



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.



Curled up and reading …

Old aquifer

Old aquifer (Photo credit: SomeHoosier)

This month, I have spent many hours reading when I could have been writing. I have decided to think of this as a recharge of the creative aquifer rather than as procrastination. One of the books I read, The Art of Procrastination by John Perry (here’s an essay version of it) pointed out that delaying action often reveals that circumstances would have changed — and changed such that the work one originally set out to do would have been for naught. So waiting can lead to greater efficiency.

With that in mind, I have been waiting for my recharged aquifer to bubble up with a brilliant idea. Or any idea.

Pink nail polish.

Pink nail polish. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I have been waiting I have been spending 15 minutes a day on a “one good sentence” — a practice from Verlyn Klinkenborg that is slowly unearthing stories about my grandmothers and their nail polish or lack thereof.

I do not paint my fingernails, ever, anymore, though I spent the better part of years 13 through 19 supporting Revlon’s production of elegant little bottles containing “candy cane red” and “pink angel wings” glossy polish. My toes still receive occasional attention from paid professionals who not only can see where they’re applying polish, but also have those fancy jetted footbaths that I pay to dunk my tootsies into.

As a teenager, painting my nails was an all-afternoon activity, usually a Saturday afternoon before a date. I’d douse a cotton ball in foul-smelling, acetone-based polish remover and rub last week’s polish off, file my tips, apply a base coat, wait for it to dry, apply the colored coat, perhaps twice, again waiting for it to dry between coats, and then seal it all off with a “top coat” that was always guaranteed to be un-chippable but that chipped within 48 hours.

English: Stephen King signature.

English: Stephen King signature. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I now look back on those afternoons as wasted time. I could have been practicing my writing, accumulating rejections like Stephen King, who shares in his marvelous book, On Writing, that he hammered a coffin nail into his wall at a tender age (14? 15?), leaving the majority of it exposed, and hung all his rejection slips from it. He had filled one and a half such nails before receiving a note from an editor who was willing to work with him on a piece — not a flat-out acceptance, if I remember correctly, but a “this has enough promise” acceptance. If I had done that perhaps I’d have more published by now. And my nails and lungs would not have been exposed to the now-we-know-they-cause-cancer fumes of those pretty red and pink bottles and that polish remover.

Twenty-twenty hindsight, an annoyingly true truism.

But I obviously didn’t have the ambition King did. I didn’t do write and submit aggressively when I was in my teens, or my twenties, or my thirties. I picked up a bit in my early forties, but now I’m creeping up on fifty and panicking that my remaining brain cells won’t be up to the discipline of creativity, even tho’ I’ve finally figured out what I need to “practice” a writing discipline.

Furthermore, one of my light-a-fire-under-my-writing-butt techniques, eavesdropping in coffeeshops, wasn’t working for me: I’ve not been hearing very well for a couple of years, and now this seems to be getting in the way of my writing. So early in January  I went to an audiologist for a hearing test. Result: the mechanics of my ears are just fine. Better than average. My problem is that my brainstem, the part of the brain that processes sound, and separates different frequencies from each other, is beginning to decay. Damn!


PICEANCE BASIN, SEMI-ARID RANGE LAND – NARA – 552551 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And as I moped about, post-hearing-test, my writing moped, too. Oh, poor us, woe is we. I am a dry patch of arid land upon which no creative blossom shall ever spring forth. Etcetera.

The difference this time is that seventy-two hours into my despair-fest, I realized: I have been here before. It is January. I have been blue in January for the past four years. I should just shut up, read some books and wait for February.

Tomorrow is February first, and I am happy to report that altho’ my brainstem is no longer able to separate the hiss of the milk frother at Bollo’s from the urgently-spoken-but-two-tables-down details of a night of misguided passion, the aquifer beneath my arid land has been recharged by my all-out feasting on books. As Nick Hornby says,

“Books are, let’s face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form had to offer, then books would win pretty much every time.”
(from  The Polysyllabic Spree: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man’s Struggle With the Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought and the Books He’s Been Meaning to Read)

And so to my desk, for lo! decaying brainstem or not, books have recharged my aquifer. Here are some of the words that rained on my arid land:

“The stewardess had disappeared and the passengers began a slow liturgical wail.” — Joy Williams, Dimmer (a short story)

“In mid-mass at the point where the sermon is delivered, the young priest walks to the lectern and reads announcements. He reads them badly. His voice is high and blunted by feedback. He syllabicates the names of the recently deceased and sounds like speech recognition software. In him the congregates see either the future of religion or a confirmation of the wisdom of clerical celibacy. Imagine, they think, if he had children. Picture the IQs.” — J.T. Barbarese, “Politics” Poetry, July/August 2012.

“The ending is a tragedy in miniature, but it is flicked away, like a cigarette, and life drifts on.” — Anthony Lane, “Critics Notebook” The New Yorker, Aug. 27, 2012

“India vs. Pakistan is a cricket match for any fan of sport. The rivalry is unmatched. I do not have an equation. but I can tell you watching India vs. Pakistan is the nearest thing we have to watching a gentleman’s nuclear war where one side fires a missile it explodes there’s a huge mushroom cloud a lot of people die and then it is the turn of the other side.” — Paul Kavanagh, “Cricket” in AnnalemmaIssue Nine.

Practice makes better, not perfect.

Marshall Rosenberg developed a communication practice called Nonviolent Communication (NVC) or Compassionate Communication in the 1960s when he was working with the civil rights movement.

Threads at Turku handicraft museum

A dozen of my neighbors, including Engineer Hubby and me, have joined a nonviolent communication “practice group” led by the capable and passionate teacher Pat Bevans (who is also a visual artist). She has told us, numerous times, that it will take years for compassionate communication practics to become reflexive rather than a process we have to consciously remind ourselves to do. Nonetheless I am already noticing incrementally seismic shifts in how I regard my boys, Engineer Hubby, and friends. And these are, for me, tied with several threads to my writing practice.

One of the first NVC exercises we undertook was to pretend we were video cameras, and describe interactions in minute, precise detail. Not “she smiled” but “the corners of her mouth lifted and her teeth were visible.” Rather than “he snapped at me,” we struggled to convey how, exactly, he spoke: more quickly than he normally would, with a slightly louder voice? Using only short words?

I nodded knowingly as Pat explained the exercise, thinking, oh, this will be easy! It’s like sitting in a coffeeshop and painting a word picture of a fellow caffeine-imbiber, from the color of their shoe soles to their coif’s careful arrangement or lack thereof.

A chicken coop.

The many chickens of humility ... Image via Wikipedia

I’m sure you know what happened next. That’s right. The proverb “pride goeth before a fall” came to roost at my chicken coop.

At our next meeting, when invited to share any observations in front of my fellow students, I floundered (in my head) to find neutral, expressive words that conveyed the incredible disrespect Engineer Hubby showed me by having left the soup-covered spoon atop the countertop OVERNIGHT, YET AGAIN. When I had to put it in purely descriptive terms, it seemed that I was, uh, perhaps overreacting.

Toast, toasted

“I walked into the kitchen at 7 AM and there was a spoon with dried tomato soup on it resting on the countertop, three inches to the east of the kitchen sink.” Doesn’t really sound that bad, does it? Nope. Perhaps because … it’s not that bad. It’s a First World Problem, as my friends and I remind ourselves when we kvetch about our coffee being not quite hot enough. I mean, really. It’s right up there with the Amazon toaster reviewer who gave a toaster three stars because “when toasting only one slice, the side of the bread that faces the interior doesn’t get as brown as the side facing the toaster’s exterior.” I choked on my (lukewarm) coffee when I read that one, partly in self-recognition.

Here’s how it connects to writing for me: the difficult, uncomfortable exercise of describing situations in factual terms, especially those that fill me to overflowing with emotion, has a remarkably calming effect. When I am calm, I respond to those situations much more creatively (eg, not yelling at Engineer Hubby). But!, I’m realizing I’m willing to do this difficult, uncomfortable work only because of the deep emotional connection I have with aforementioned spouse. Without powerful emotions, in other words, I am unwilling to do the work to become less emotional-but-more-effective.  As with writing.

It can feel nigh impossible to find the words to convey the image in my head of my latest character – but I’m willing to walk in those uncomfortable shoes through the slippery crap of my chicken coop because I care about my stories.

Most of us, I’ll hazard, have a passion – be it a community of two or twenty, an art that’s private or public, an avocation or a vocation – which rouses in us such deep feeling that we are called to honor it in whatever way we can. These ways can be small (coffee with Engineer Hubby once a week, during the DAY when we’re both awake), or medium (sitting before the blank page and picking up the pen no matter what), or large (a complex problem which, when solved, gives such profound satisfaction we seek out the next problem. And the next.). We ignore our craving to “get better at” these things at our peril (see my previous post with the citation re: the nonwriting writer = monster courting insanity).

And to improve, we MUST practice. Effective practice, as Geoff Colin states in Talent is Overrated occurs at the boundary between what is difficult-but-doable for us, and what is too difficult (attempting it results in frustration, not improvement).

Effective practice requires us to assess ourselves, our capacities and resources, with a calm and objective eye – which is not complacency! If a video camera recorded our efforts, what would it see? Fifteen minutes of writing followed by 10 minutes of web surfing? Will that help me manifest my stories? Where can I do better?

English: A besom broom

Image via Wikipedia

Another lovely aspect of NVC is its inclusion of a “broom and dustpan” approach to mistakes. When we mess up, we go back and clean up. Forgive ourselves, and others. Try again.

But first we must make the effort. That which makes our hearts beat fastest deserves the calmest nurturing we are capable of.

I, for one, am stocking up on brooms and dustpans.