Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mandatory End-of-the-Year Blog Post




According to the gazillion blog feeds I check every day, I should be doing a year-end post -- a top ten best books, worst books, best films, best moments, worst moments -- pick the list. I should be listing it. I'm not gonna make a list, though. Just like I'm not gonna use Twitter (see earlier blog post!)

I'll say this:

Thank you to those of you who read this blog, whether you comment or not, lurk or linger. I am grateful for a readership.

Tomorrow is a new opportunity, but not because it is January 1, a randomly assigned, illusory "fixed" moment in the constantly moving river of time. Each moment presents you with an opportunity to let go of something you don't need. See something you haven't noticed. Love someone all over again. Turn your soft gazes inward and say, wow, small intestines -- you've been rocking the house for 40 years! Keep up the good work! Take a picture of the first quarter moon. Wiggle your right pinky toe. Click your heels together and go somewhere. Enjoy a cup of real hot chocolate. Don't stack yourselves up against the weight of resolutions that are destined to crush you. Instead, open your eyes. Hold your gaze on what is beloved to you. Hold your gifts in your hands and find ways to use them to help others.

Open your eyes and just say, wow. That is more than enough for a life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

I'm Listening



Twas the night after Solstice
And all through the townhouse
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a mouse.

The notebooks were hung
By the chimney with care
In hopes that Big Mama Muse
Soon would be there.

The kitties were nestled
All snug in my bed
While visions of novels
Salsa-danced in their heads.

______________

Not to worry. I won't continue turning a bad poem into an even worse one, even in the winter darkness. Snow is everywhere. It's in places where it shouldn't be and places where it should. In Prescott, snow is still on the ground from last week's storm. The heavy gray clouds are dropping lower over Thumb Butte as I write this. More snow tonight.

One of my favorite things about teaching is the time off. :-) Seriously. But if I had my way, I'd teach in the spring and summer, and take off during the fall and winter. I love the darkness, the yin time, the shedding of the old so the new can burst forth. I'd just as soon be inside when the sun shines brightest.

Solstice is a time of change. It's a time to listen. To let the distractions fall away. To be quiet, still, and connect with what is important inside of you. The winter is my time for listening. I try to stay open for the characters to come and visit. I try to leave milk and cookies by the metaphoric fireplace so they'll stay awhile and sustain me during the semester. I look for the ghosts in the bare tree branches. Who's still here from another time? Who just showed up, looking for a voice? Who is stuck, scared, and waiting?

Beginning a new novel is kind of like e-harmony for the spirit-world. Who's a perfect match for me? Who can help me mine my own darkness? Who can I help to release? Who can help release me? Sometimes I get a match the first time out. Sometimes there are bad dates, false starts, a hundred pages going nowhere. I get frantic sometimes. Panicked when I can't hear the voices. Fearful there will come a day when I can't hear them. When I get frantic, my head gets loud, and I try to quiet it down with distractions -- e-mail, internet shopping, telephone conversations. Of course, that only feeds the chaos. I am intensely lonely when I don't have the ghosts with me. No matter what is going on in my life, if I have a gaggle of ghosts following me around, I feel connected. I know I'm part of something I don't yet understand. I know that once again, I have shown up and the characters have shown up. But it's hard to remember that during the waiting phase.

Anybody out there hanging onto the alligator juniper outside my door want to come inside? I've got a Newman's Own oreo cookie and a glass of organic milk. Hunker down and stay awhile with me.

Please. I'm listening.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Night at the Roman Forum






for Jeffrey


My friend has lost his bones.

First, they collapsed out from under him,
the marrow pulled from their centers with needles.
Next, they compressed.
His spine, once a stretched slinky,
became a huddled mass of vertebrae
rubbing against each other for heat.

We love bones, my friend and I.
We love all things skeletal.
We hold Day of the Dead celebrations together.
We dance costumed down Market Street in San Francisco
on a full-moon-Halloween.
We love ghosts, and on my fourth-to-last visit
with him before he lost his bones
we pressed against each other on the sofa,
watching the armoire which bumped and opened
by itself.
Of course, what else?
A ghost.

The package arrived this week from San Francisco,
not even three months
since he died,
my name written in his handwriting,
a combination of lower and upper case letters
on a tiny white label
on the back of framed artwork of the Roman Forum at night,
a place where our bones had held each other.

We visited the Capuchin crypt off the Piazza Barberini where monks
made sculpture
from the bones of one another.
We stood in darkness looking at the insides of our own bodies,
absorbing the inscription at the last crypt:

Quello che voi siete noi eravamo,
quello che noi siamo voi sarete.


My friend has lost his bones.

The cancer ate them from the
inside out, leaving
only a piece of artwork
of a shared memory
to haunt my spine.

As I am now,
he once was.
As he is now,
I soon will be.


My friend has lost his bones.

Today, I use my fingers to squeeze
My femur.
My shin.
My wrist.
My skull.

Today, my bones still dance, and next year,
on the Day of the Dead,
I hope my friend's bones will find me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cat Wants OUT




I am a wanderer. I want to gnaw my own leg out of the steel trap of my life every six weeks or so and go somewhere else. I have fantasies of having enough money to just pile the cats and the laptop into the car and take off, letting road turn into road until the routine I've carved out for myself dissolves.

My mother, in true Lutheran fashion, raised me to be responsible. To be worried about having enough money, enough food, enough to do. She raised me to be self-reliant. Her voice doesn't allow me to call into work when I'm sick (really sick, not faking sick). Her voice gets me up in the dark to grade papers (stacks upon stacks of them) so I can return them quickly. Her voice would be impossible to outrun on a road trip.

I am aware enough, also because of her voice, to know that I will not quit my job and take off for the hinterlands. I will not cash out my bank account and take a whirlwind road trip. I will not forgo the illusion of stability for the illusion of freedom. I know freedom needs a structure. I know, frankly, that freedom needs money. But I have to go somewhere, and if I don't go somewhere soon I'll be in the leg-gnawing stage.

I love Prescott, the tiny mountain town where I live. But it is not home, and it is not a place where I can stay day in and day out, year in and year out, without atrophying. Best I can tell, I have two homes -- North Carolina and San Francisco. Not surprising -- a rural home and an urban home. My dad was the product of rural North Carolina, my mother of Brooklyn, NY. Both factions duke it out inside my body, especially after a few months of being in Prescott.

I am beginning to dream of San Francisco nightly. I can see the cracks on the sidewalks on Geary Street. I hear the clanging of the trolleys on Market, the percussion of trash cans in Union Square. I physically need the anonymity of getting on the train and hurtling under ground to a different place. I need to be crushed up against overcoats and ipods and messenger bags during rush hour. I need to see the steel landscape of a city press its fingers to the clouds. I need the self-reliance of the urban environment. The spontaneous art on convenience store walls. The needled men curled into themselves in parks. The stimulation of the voices, the neon, the loneliness, and the humanity. These things are like water to me, and right now, I am dehydrated.

Conversely, the rolling green hills of North Carolina make me cry. The dogwoods and the azaleas and the dotting of crosses, even though I don't believe in them, live inside me. The brick houses with wooden shutters. The tiny creeks that meander throughout the state. The cardinals. The orange birds. The green snakes. This land pulls the fleshy landscape of my body back, ever and always back. North Carolina has claimed my body. San Francisco my heart.

I live most days on this edge -- half of me pulled west and half of me pulled east. I joke about driving up I-17 to I-40 and turning left (or possibly turning right) and following it to the end of the road. Most of the time, this tension is OK. I have a good life here, an easier life than I would likely have in either San Francisco or North Carolina, and besides, what good is a writer if she's not feeling exiled?

But today, this week, the end of the semester blessedly in sight, I feel the howling growing stronger. My Lutheran obligations of work will be gone for a few weeks. I can disappear. Get moving. Get out. Get going while you can. See everything you can see before you can't. Experience everything -- sunrise on the east coast to sunset on the west coast.

Go, Laraine. Go.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Why It Matters




This week has brought much upheaval in publishing. Houghton Mifflin instituted an acquisitions freeze on all new properties except children's books. (Can you say YA anyone?) Pensions have been frozen in several large publishers. Editors have been sent packing. Salaries frozen. (Was I the only one who noticed the overuse of the word 'frozen' as we approach winter?) Long standing independent booksellers closed their doors. Newer publishing houses have ceased to exist. It's been a busy November. It's almost too much for me to read my daily Publisher's Weekly and MediaBistro blogs. Too much information.

Rather than bury my head in the sand, I take this opportunity to be even more vigilant with my work. I need to take even more ownership of my writing career. Where can I present? What areas can I position my work in that I haven't thought of? What audiences do I currently have access to? And then, of course, what is in me to write at this moment?

Turns out, lots of things in lots of areas. (That's all the info you're getting on that!)

But the bigger question, and one that I've heard over and over in classes this semester, is why write now? No one's buying. No one's reading. No one's working. Yeah, well, whatever. I don't mean that flippantly. I just mean ... whatever. You can't control any of those things. Let it go. Now. Ask yourselves why you read (because of course if you want to write, you must read). Think about the times in your life when books really mattered. I don't mean sort of. I don't mean the books you were assigned to read that you ended up loving. But when was a book everything in a particular moment? That's who you must keep writing for.

For me, books were everything most of my childhood. Not just sort of anything. Everything. The library was the most magical place of all, and when we had a Scholastic Book Fair at school and I was given $5 to purchase a book, wow, the heavens parted. I read during recess when everyone else was slamming each other with dodge balls. I read in class when everyone else was finishing the assignment. I read in the cafeteria when everyone else found their cliques. I never found one. I never found the cool lunch table or got picked for a kickball game. But I found everything that has ever mattered to me within the pages of a book. No hyperbole. Everything that has ever mattered to me I found in a book. I either found it first in a book so I could recognize it in the world, or I saw it in the world and had it verified in a book. Stories hold me up.

What was it for you? Why did reading matter to you? That's the answer for why writing matters. Yes, when Barnes & Noble sales are plummeting, when Borders loses its line of credit, and when amazon.com is threatening to take all our royalties away, you still must write for that little boy or girl.

Write directly into the heart of the moment when reading changed you. Writing matters. Stories matter. You have a gift and a desire to tell a story. Rather than be fearful of what you might not be able to accomplish, instead be grateful for the gifts of language. Don't let the fear of the distribution (or not) of those stories get in the way of the telling. Your burdens will become greater by remaining silent. Perhaps especially in economic times like these.

Write what you were given to write and let the rest go.

This Thanksgiving, consider giving thanks to that little girl or boy who first found the joys of books. Welcome him or her back into your life. Let him or her guide your hand across the clean first page of a new story. Speak directly to your heart. Your heart before it first got broken. Your heart before it knew of suffering. Your heart before it knew that no matter how much you might want something, you may never have it. That heart knows the peace in silence and space. That heart knows the dance of words into sentences into paragraphs into lives. That heart doesn't know about the economic collapse. Or the wars. Or illness. That heart is just open.

My wish for you this Thanksgiving is that you visit that heart. Look at it with soft eyes. Then pick up your pens and write.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Warning: I'm About to Sound Really OLD




Dear Technology Gurus/Gods/Goddesses/Masters/Mistresses/Dominatrixes:

Stop already. Please. I was with you on the Macintosh computer. I was with you when Mac launched its fabulous OSX system. I was with you with high speed internet (which I don't think is a series of tubes, honest). I was with you with RSS feed (which, I admit, a friend had to explain to me -- but he was right! He was!) I was with you on cell phones, and I was really with you on GPS because I can't find my way out of my driveway without a map (written in English, not pictures, please). I love YouTube and iTunes, and I even surrendered to Facebook, and was glad I did because it helped me connect with friends of my late friend Jeffrey.

But really. Twitter? Really. Now I know you're just sitting around up there in Guru-Heaven toying with us like marionettes. Maybe having a conversation (or should I say convo) among yourselves.

"Let's make this silly tweety-twitter-bird program for them! They can talk about their day to day moments!"

"They won't do something this lame. Why do they need to know Billy brushed his teeth?"

"They don't need to know it, but they'll think they need to know it. Trust me. They will. We'll call it something cool, and we'll get all the cool people to do it and start talking about it. They'll sign up faster than Ted Stevens can say 'NO!'."

"You think?"

"It worked for flat screen TVs and SUVs didn't it?"

"Why, yes! It did!"

"And it'll work for Twitter. The name alone will do it. It's great branding. We'll put a cute little bird in the graphic and they'll be all over it."

"I get it! Yes, yes! We'll tell them they can connect with people better. We'll tell them that by knowing the inane details of their friends' lives (oh! Marc is running late!) (oh! Suzy just dropped the dog off at the groomer!) (oh! Joseph is off to another meeting!) (oh! Kathy is watering the plants!) They'll feel like they've got real friends! Real, fleshy, smelly, laughing, crying friends. They'll take up any possible space in their lives for silence with twittering. Then they'll lament the lack of silence."

"So then what ..."

"They'll Twitter and text and maybe watch a YouTube clip all at the same time!"

"By George! It's a winner!"

And on and on ye gods will go, playing with us mortals from the branches of your twitter-bird trees.

Enough people I respect have told me I need a Twitter presence. I believed these people about blogs, and they were right. I believed them with cell phones, and they were right. But no one needs to know my cat threw up today. (Ooops!) I shouldn't waste blog space telling you that. I should Twitter it. If I would Twitter. But I won't. I don't care if they're right. I don't care that John Lithgow now Twitters about his latest Broadway production. I don't care. Really, Technology Gods, I'm putting my cyber-foot down.

And here's why.

I've lived alone almost my entire adult life. I enjoy solitude. I enjoy my own company. I enjoy the space in my brain when I sit and meditate, or do yoga stretches, or just lie on the bed with the cats. I also enjoy people. The fleshy, smelly, laughing, crying kind much more than the cyber-kind. I know cyber-friends are sometimes necessary, and indeed, we can connect on certain levels with these types of friends. I know that when our fleshy friends live in other parts of the world, the cyber-world helps maintain that connection. I do, Technology Gods, I do, I do. (See, I'm blogging! I have three e-mail accounts! I even check them!)

But my mind is cluttered enough without the clutter of others' lives. It's cluttered enough without feeling obligated to follow someone else's chatter (uh, twittering). I only have so much time in a day.

I'm tired of reading student discussion board postings written entirely in text-speak. I'm tired of reading student stories where they cannot develop an idea or follow a thread (gee, perhaps because they're limited to corresponding in 140 characters on Twitter?) Oh, I know, I'm old. I'm 40. I don't get it. Things are different. People thought Elvis was going to bring about the end of the world.

But Elvis didn't bring about the end of Western Civilization. And Twitter probably won't either. Sigh. I'm a fossil with a flair-y wardrobe. Sigh. Twitter and the things we've twittered will outlive us all.

I love stories. I love language. And I do want to connect with people. And I'm willing to read a post longer than 140 characters if the author has thoughtfully presented his or her ideas. I'm willing to have a phone conversation (even a land line one!) with a fleshy friend. And I love going out of my house, away from my computer, into the sunny world of fleshy people. I love to have coffee with them, or alone in the presence of them. I'm not ready for my world to consist only of zeros and ones.

Please, Technology Gods. Enough. You've won.

Give us a fighting chance to find our own voices among all the senseless twitter.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Ghosts of Writings Past

I've been thinking a lot this week about where our writing comes from and where it goes. I have been thinking about the characters feeling trapped within the pages of a book -- bound, as it were, by the spine, crushed by the cover. Dead until a reader cracks the spine and breaks the chains, allowing for the merging of her imagination with the lives of the characters. Maybe there's a connection. Maybe there isn't. Inevitably, the book must close, the characters sprawled and pressed flat like dried flowers.

As writers, we give the gift of impermanence to our readers. We allow them to step into a world for a few hours or a few weeks, then step out, changed. We allow them to practice loving fully the people who dance in the sentences. We give them the practice of letting them go. Each novel a reader enters in to teaches detachment.

Each novel we write gives us these same gifts. We open our lungs, livers, spleens and listen to who speaks to us. We notice the ache in our femur and stop to talk to whoever is stuck there. We loosen our jaws to speak what we have been afraid to speak, or unwilling to speak. We relax our wrists, position our fingers over the home row keys, breathe in and exhale out with the sound of stories. We listen more deeply when we begin to get in the way. We find ourselves writing things we didn't know we felt, things we didn't know were possible. These characters, once awakened, swirl in our dreams. They influence our outward behavior, our interests, our hobbies. They pull us into unexpected shops or towns. We follow because it is what we who write do.

And then, these relationships, longer perhaps than many of our "human" ones, dissolve. They have spoken what they have to say. We have listened to what we can hear. We have built the bridge of letters between them and the rest of the world. What happens to them is no longer a part of our lives. We detach from them, or perhaps more accurately, they detach from us and we wander a bit lost for awhile missing them, wondering why we are missing them, wondering why they didn't want to stay longer. We haunt our own hallways searching for them.

But then, if we have practiced detachment, a new tickle appears at the base of our spines. A sudden obsession with peaches, or the Industrial Revolution, or ant colonies. We follow the breadcrumbs until the sound cracks through the surface once again and our fingers sing.

Among the countless reasons writing matters, this is the most important to me. It is impermanent. It shows us how to move with ease from one chapter of our lives to another. It is practice for our ultimate transition. It is the embodiment, on the recycled flesh of trees, of what is most beautiful, most holy, and most possible within us. Open the book covers wide and let my characters move. Open the book covers wide and let your hearts and minds expand. Open the book covers wide and step back with awe and gratitude for the part of all of us that creates, that risks, and that ultimately, bids us a most fond and joyous farewell.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Keep Going, America - Yes, You Can




To say I can't stop myself from crying over last night's hard-fought victory is an understatement. The tears come in waves. Some are simply relief from holding the tension for almost two years -- the day-in day-out fear that America still wasn't ready to let go of the Old White Male paradigm. Four years ago, I could hardly go to work after Kerry lost. I wasn't that thrilled with Kerry. I just truly couldn't believe that a majority of the American people couldn't see the destructive and divisive politics of the Bush-Cheney administration. I couldn't believe that many people liked an us-them mentality. I mean, honestly, it doesn't feel very good to be put in boxes like that -- to be demonized, whether you're on the left or right, straight or gay, Christian or not. Here comes Obama who clearly doesn't need the boxes. Wow.

This morning I was afraid to turn on the radio and hear they took Obama's win back. I was afraid someone had shot him already. I was just afraid. When I listened to John McCain's gracious concession speech, I thought - wow, if he'd have campaigned like that (and of course didn't choose Sarah Palin) he might have had a chance. He was kind, compassionate, thoughtful and forward thinking. Hope is indeed audacious.

I thought of my grandmother, who would be I think mortified by a black man in the White House. I thought of the upheavals over forced integration by busing that I went through as a child in Charlotte. I thought of our neighbors who built a fence between their house and ours because we sold our home to a black couple in 1981.

The Onion, in its usual fabulous form, wrote this today:

"After emerging victorious from one of the most pivotal elections in history, president-elect Barack Obama will assume the role of commander in chief on Jan. 20, shattering a racial barrier the United States is, at long last, shitty enough to overcome."

Is that what happened? We finally collapsed enough to let go of a little bit of our entrenched racism? We finally collapsed enough to let go of our need to legislate one faith's morality at the expense of the rest of the population? I don't know what happened. I know that this is a turning point in America on so many levels. He has brought an involvement in the political process back to the people. He has energized young voters. He has energized minority voters (who, note to America, aren't so much minority anymore). He has done what "couldn't be done."

Which brings me to something we still need to do. Arizona passed Prop 102 yesterday. The happy tears that came with an Obama win were mixed with the sadness that I live in a state that feels the need to legislate discrimination. Prop 102 requires a constitutional amendment declaring that marriage is between a man and a woman. I checked Prop 8 in California as soon as I woke up this morning. I'm even more deeply saddened that Prop 8 is passing there. Prop 8 will undo the legalization of gay marriage that California enacted a few months ago.

In last night's coverage, reporters were quick to point out that in 1961, when Obama was born, his parents, a black father and a white mother, could not live legally as man and wife in 16 states. Discrimination may wear a different hat today, but it's still with us.

The picture at the top of the blog is of my friend Dex and his husband Paul after they got legally married earlier this year in San Francisco. Dex is the man without the glasses. It breaks my heart that he may now be forced to launch a court challenge to his lawful marriage. It breaks my heart that some people think love is gender-based. If we take an honest look inside ourselves, many of us may find that we have attractions to both genders. We may be more strongly attracted to one gender over another, but the human body contains both masculine and feminine qualities - Shiva and Shakti -- so that we may find balance.

Twenty-one years ago, on the night my father died, I called Dex to come sit with me at the hospital. He did, and his presence that night helped my own grieving process. We are rarely in the same state at the same time, but I will always love him for those few hours we sat in the dark in the presence of death. He is now fortunate enough in this challenging life to have found a man he loves deeply enough to share a life with. To think that if he were dying, or his husband were dying, that they might be kept apart from each other in the hospital at that most sacred of times, turns my tears of joy for an Obama victory into from the bottom of my heart sadness for him and for millions of Americans who don't fit the mold of an old testament myth. How can I stand as proud of an American as I would like to be after last night, if he and his husband are not afforded the same rights I am? How can it be OK that we are legislating discrimination? It can't be. We are not done.

We are a larger people than a single book. We are many faiths, and no faith. But under all the boxes, we are humans -- beautiful, fragile humans. We must meet each other in that place. In the words of Rumi,

There is a field beyond right and wrong.
I will meet you there.


This is where Obama is trying to go. He is opening the door to explore underneath our false selves and constructions of identity. He is opening the door for us to look at the illusion of America so we can find an America with a living heart. And for as many people who resisted releasing their labels, more showed up yesterday and said, "I'm ready to meet you there."

So I do hope (audaciously?) that I will soon see a time when people look back on the blatant discrimination against the GLBT community with horror. I hope that very soon their marriages will be honored. We have come a long way since 1961. Interracial marriage is now legal. It's rarely noticed. We will truly have made progress when we don't have to qualify "gay" marriage. We will just say married. And we will know that that word means, "I have found someone I love who loves me. I have found someone to be my friend."

We're not there yet, America. Keep going. We're on the precipice of true change. I didn't dare hope that Obama could win. Each month that passed, I felt the tickling of that hope, but pushed it back. It's too dangerous to hope. Things have always been "that way." The Old White Guys have always been in charge. The old testament religion has always been the way. But that tickling got stronger, and stronger, and stronger, and today feels like coming up for that first gasp of oxygen after being under water for 200 years.

Keep going America. Yes you can.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Things I'm Remembering




Since returning from North Carolina in August, I've been obsessed with Young Adult literature. This is a genre I never thought I'd find myself in, primarily because I really don't like to be around kids. I like them in small doses, like a glass of wine, but it's really easy to fall down the slippery slope of kid-dom from which I need a week of solitude and silence to recover. It's nothing personal. I didn't even like kids when I was a kid.

When I was desperately trying to make a living in Phoenix as an adjunct professor, I was forced to apply for artist-in-the-schools grants to make ends meet. Nobody works harder than elementary and secondary education instructors. Nobody. I continue to want to bow at their feet when I see them. They have to be at work at 7 am for bus duty. They have to clean up vomit. They have to deal with parents. They have to turn in curriculum to a mysterious M.Ed. in a corner office whose never set foot in a classroom. They have to teach to a standardized test. They have to pay for their own school supplies. It was shocking to me to walk into Phoenix schools and see what these teachers were willing to do for $25,000. They are far far better creatures than I, and should be given all the tax breaks, all the benefits, and a 50K raise for starters. They work on their feet. They have to talk at a loud outside voice all day. They have to show up evenings for band concerts and parent teacher conferences. They have to sit in meetings and figure out learning outcomes. Saints.

To that end, when I would go into their classrooms, they were often very excited to get off their feet for the 50 minutes I talked about poetry to their 3rd grade class. They were even more excited to leave the classroom to go to the bathroom (yes, they can't do that because they can't leave their students unattended). Saints, I tell you.

I spent two years as an artist-in-the-schools, and although I hope never to have to do that again, I learned a lot. The biggest thing I learned is that kids love to read if you let them. They hate to read if you tell them what they have to read and what it's supposed to mean. They don't need help making up stories. Their imaginations are on full-tilt-boogie all the time. We just need to get out of their way.

I have been breathing a deep, delightful sigh during the last four years which have not involved working with children in any way. I'm thrilled with the college life. I love my students (none of whom can have their parents call me to complain about something) and I love talking about books with them. I have no 7 am bus duty, and no No Child Left Behind. Working with adults has shown me that a love of reading comes most often from an early childhood love of books.

When I wrote The Boy In the Walls over the summer, I wasn't really sure I had any idea what I was doing. I still don't like kids. But I began to remember something most unexpected. I remembered how vital books were to me as a kid. I read dozens, literally, a week. We were at the library every few days. My favorite days at school were the book fairs where we got to take home a brand new book. I escaped into books when my dad got sick, and I dove even further into them when we moved to Arizona. I didn't have many friends, especially not in grade school and junior high. Books were everything to me. Absolutely everything. I don't know what I would have become without them.

So I realized I didn't have to want a gaggle of kids around to write for them. I just had to remember what it was like to be one. Being in my childhood home again this summer kickstarted those memories. I reread some of my favorite childhood books. I went to the bookstore and bought contemporary YA books. My writing partner, Gayle, sold a YA book and began sending me more and more YA work to read.

What was this genre?

Well, it's the fastest growing genre in fiction today. It's the most open to experimental work, and it loves magical realism and fantasy. It loves bookish narrators. It loves gawkiness and trouble, and it addresses real issues (in spite of the attempts at censorship). It has a strong narrative voice and it shows kids figuring things out on their own without helicopter parents or multiple choice questions. It treats kids like people, not like kids. It doesn't hide things from them or couch truths with morality. There's an idea. Give a kid credit for his or her own brain. Give a kid a chance to problem solve. A chance to mess things up. An opportunity to see him or herself reflected in literature. There's some powerful work.

I'm remembering what books meant to me. Why I love to read. Why I wanted to write. What a cool audience to write for then. I know them, even if I can't play Guitar Hero or text message. I know what it feels like to be on the outside. That's what I need to access. The trappings change from generation to generation, but the heart of the stories stays the same. Talk to them, not at them. Let them uncover their own beauty. Let them learn to love to read by giving them books that matter, not books that have cleared so many levels of curriculum approval that they contain nothing that matters to anyone, and so are safe, and dull, and kill any spark of imagination that might be blooming. Let them think.

I'm remembering why I do what I do, and I'm remembering it by touching my childhood again and realizing it is still inside me, no matter how many theses I've written on books, nothing compares to the books themselves. The original primary sources for a life. Harriet the Spy. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Little House on the Prairie. Betsy, Tacy and Tibb. A Wrinkle in Time. Ramona the Pest. My primary sources. How cool is that?

I've spent the last month or so rewriting a novel I finished six years ago. I wrote it for an adult audience, but I've rewritten it for YA. My 15 years of teaching writing have shown me what was wrong with the novel as an adult novel. I didn't have a story -- I had a series of ideas and very cool sentences. Kids demand the story. What happened? Why? And then what? Why?

Will it sell now? I can't know. It's a much stronger novel though, now, and it addresses the same dark issues I was addressing with adults - racism, religious fanaticism, secrecy and silence. Here's chapter 1 from GHOST SWAMP BLUES. rewritten for older teens. This is Roberta du Bois, 18 year old mistress of Idyllic Grove Rice Plantation in 1859.

The sun was unusually hot for October on that morning in 1859 when I walked into Snaky Swamp, just south of our rice plantation in Alderman, North Carolina, wearing nothing but my pink feathered hat. The water was thick as wool and it clung to my skin like a net. Moccasins swam near me, skirting the top of the water, their eyes and fangs cracking the surface. I wiggled my toes in the soft mud of the swamp floor until the weight of the marshland was too much and my toes stopped moving. I walked forward into the swamp until my legs stopped lifting and I fell forward, my cheek hitting the water with a slap before sinking sinking into the blanket of algae and mosses, branches and vines, their tentacles covering my nostrils, wrapping my jaw tightly closed, my teeth fitted perfectly together until my skin fell away in clumps for the fish.

On the day of my death, my husband, Jonathon du Bois, ordered one of his slaves, my half sister Claudia, whipped. The overseer poured salt onto her open back and I screamed from the silence of the marsh. Claudia’s eyes rolled in her skull and her tongue dripped saliva onto the earth.

On the day of my death, talk of an uprising was beginning. A man named Douglass was going to be the next Moses. Jonathon believed it and took to craziness. Our plantation, our rice fields, our livelihood, depended entirely on the men and women who worked it. Depended entirely on that human property of ours, bought and paid for with United States currency, now sweating under the Carolina sun.

Idyllic Grove Rice Plantation as I knew it has long since returned to dust. It’s me who’s still around. Poking in and around the tall pines, crunching my feet over the dried pinecones just enough to make you jump. Me who drips clear water down the hallway, my nakedness shivering in the air. The house that’s there now, in the very spot where our big house used to be, is a five-room clapboard with a black shingled roof. The property has been divided and divided and divided until nobody knows who owned what or whom or even why much anymore. The clapboard house is on about a hundred acres of woods and bottom lands, bordered to the west by Snaky Swamp.

The folks who live there, Maggie and Hannah Green, keep a really nice garden in the back by the septic tank. They grow corn and tomatoes and butter beans and even okra. The soil is gray, loose sand that washes away when the hurricanes come. There are shells here now, brought from trips to Wrightsville Beach, and a rusted green chair out by the back steps that sometimes shelters a white cat. It’s been almost one hundred and twenty years, and to people driving by in their motorcars on the new paved street, everything is as it should be. Beautiful land, a carpet of pine needles and leaves, a quiet house overlooking the water. Idyllic.

But I still smell the broken bodies and bloody hearts. I press myself into the walls of this clapboard house and the vibrations are there still and again, still and again. When I dissolve through the walls into their living room with the single square of gray carpet in front of the fireplace, I see not Maggie and Hannah moving about, but the others. The shadow figures draped in blue with empty eye sockets and twisted fingers. The little girls, dancing in white flowing dresses.

Ring around the rosies
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!


The men, backs arched forward, arms over their heads swaying like reeds beside the swamp. The grinding sound of the wagon wheels plodding through the wet clay earth. The mosquitoes, big as big toes, swarming around the algae coated water. All of this I see, through eyes that never close. All of this wraps around my mind like satin ribbon, one layer at a time.

When I walked into Snaky Swamp I fully expected that would be the end of it. At least the end of it for Roberta du Bois, daughter of Thomas Saunders, wife of Jonathon du Bois, mistress of Idyllic Grove rice plantation. I had no idea it would just be the beginning of my story. Time looped around me, caught me in its square knot, and held me tight. Held me here. Watching all of this madness unfolding in front of me, unwinding like snakeskin, dragging everyone along.

I see others like me walking this property. It is an odd place though. I see them. They see me. But most of us can’t speak to one another. We can’t touch each other. We can only pass by, feel the coolness from each other’s paths, see the wildness in each other’s eyes. The only ones I can talk to are the ones directly connected to my own sorrows, and sometimes all I want is for them to go on back to their own sadness and leave me be.

On the day that I walked into Snaky Swamp, I was eighteen years old. I had been married less than six months. I had no noble intentions. I wasn’t protesting the plight of the Negroes. I wasn’t lamenting my own role in the Southern society of oppression. I wasn’t even mourning my own wretched marriage. It was the four girls, really, who called me into the water. The swamp sirens.

Ring around the rosies.
Pocket full of posies.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down!

Over and over that rhyme. The little girls. Two white, golden hair flying around them like capes. Two black, hair full and wild on their heads as they spun in endless circles on the other side of the swamp.

Roberta! Play with us!
Oh, yes! Roberta, come dance with us!
Over here! Over here!
We’ll wait for you!
Come! Just a little bit closer!


The little girls played on the sand bar in the middle of the swamp. You can’t see it anymore, but it was right over there where the pier ends now. They danced and danced. They came to my room and danced on the ceiling, carrying vines and pine knots. They danced in my dreams, bound together at the waist with snakes.

When we were little girls, Claudia and I used to dance with these four spirits. We both saw them, and when the six of us played together, we laughed as loud as the Carolina parakeets. Now I only see glimpses of them in the trees. A bit of a dark ankle. A strand of blonde hair entangled in a branch. A square of indigo fabric. A whisper in my ear when the ospreys take flight.

I have walked these acres for over a century trying to come up with the best way to tell my story to you. How to describe to you the slaves? The way it was for a white woman then? How to say these things to you without preaching, without being condescending, without telling you what to feel? The only solution I have come up with is just to tell you, and to hope that in the telling I can reach some truth.

Perhaps the facts are wrong. Perhaps they never existed at all. It has been a long time. I am left with memory, unreliable in the best of times. I can only tell you what I know and how all this is wrapped up with Maggie and her daughter Hannah Green and Gabriel Wilson and Jay Transom and the mad boy Tommy Green in the crazy house up in Mecklenburg County. I can only hope you trust me enough to believe that what I’m telling you is truth.

Friday, October 24, 2008

I Always Knew it Never Got Any Better than San Francisco




When I was doing my second masters degree, I read more journal articles and scientific studies on the grieving process than I ever knew existed. I learned that during "healthy" mourning, a vast majority of grievers will experience some sort of dream that helps the griever feel more at peace with the loss of their loved one. A "healthy" time frame for experiencing such dreams varies based on the depth and complication of the relationship with the deceased, but sometime between two weeks and six months from the date of death is within "normal" range. Last night, I had that dream about Jeffrey. To put this in perspective, I didn't experience a dream like this about my father until 8 years past his death.

We were in San Francisco. Jeffrey was well and bouncing around in his usual way, very excited to show me his new apartment. When he was alive, he lived in an apartment at 207 Gough Street. In my dream, he was moving just down the street to 111 Gough Street. He was very happy, carrying a cardboard box filled with his most precious things. To my eyes, the box was empty, but he carried it on his shoulder as if it were overflowing with books.

111 Gough Street was a big glass structure. He buzzed us in with an electronic key card. When we got inside, he said he could go on up because he'd signed a lease for the apartment. If you hadn't signed a lease yet, you could only go inside once you passed through a very elaborate security system. At the security checkpoint, I had to leave my purse with my wallet and my ID and I had to leave my shoes and proceed barefoot onto a train. The train took me to a maze of escalators. Jeffrey and I were constantly on parallel escalators. He'd be going up while I was going down. Then, I'd try to find the right escalator so I could follow him and we'd end up passing each other again in the opposite direction.

"Come on! Hurry!" he said. "I want you to know where my door is so you can find me."

But we never could get on the same escalator. Finally, we decided to just meet at the Farmer's Market for breakfast. The Farmer's Market was also located inside 111 Gough Street. I got to the Farmer's Market without an ID or shoes. The sun was yellow and bright. There were pumpkins, squash, apples and homemade breads. Lots of people milled around by the tables eating. I couldn't find Jeffrey, and I knew then that I wouldn't.

A male gospel quartet performed on a makeshift platform in the middle of the Farmer's Market. Both Jeffrey and I love blues and old spirituals. I decided to get some bread and wait a little longer for Jeffrey. The quartet began to sing "Lonesome Valley."

You got to go to the lonesome valley
You got to go there by yourself
Nobody else can go for you
You got to go there by yourself
Oh, you got to ask the Lord's forgiveness
Nobody else can ask him for you
You got to go to the lonesome valley
You got to go there by yourself
Nobody else, nobody else can go for you
You got to go there by yourself



Ain't that just the truth?

May we meet again one day in the Bay, my friend.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What's it all about anyway?




"If you're really listening, if you're awake to the poignant beauty of the
world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its
purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold ever-more
wonders."

—Andrew Harvey, The Return of the Mother

Most of my creative writing classes are hitting the big R word in the next few weeks. Revision. Dum, dum, dum, dum ... DUM!!! Some students handle this better than others, but students who are new to creative writing, and new to writing as a process rather than a product, often have a very difficult time handling the idea and stages of revision. You all know the cliche -- real writers revise. It's one of those cliches that's a cliche because it's true. But revision in creative writing isn't like it was for your English classes. You don't just go in and do what the teacher said to do in her red ink and call it a day. That's lazy at its best, disrespectful to your work at its worst.

I ask a lot of my students, and I ask a lot of myself as an instructor and a writer. I know I'm asking them to lay it all on the line and then chuck it and lay it on the line again, and again, and again. I understand the resistance to it. I understand the need to feel like you can be "done" with something. But in truth, you're not ever done with the writing process. There's a point where you cut it off, but we can continue to go deeper with every draft.

Nothing begins to break down the sneaky edges of the ego like the writing process. Let it happen. Let yourself be opened over and over again, as far and as deep and as wide as you can go. Many of my students start off as closed as a fist. They are afraid. They've been hurt. They've been "red inked" to death in English classes in school. They want to please (but whom, they're not quite sure). They want to write (though perhaps they don't yet know why). There's something inside them that keeps calling them to the page, and it's that something, which manifests differently for every writer, where we need to make and maintain contact.

Here are some thoughts on revision that may be helpful.

1) Accept that you cannot see your work clearly. All writers have "readers" -- friends in a writing group, colleagues, agents, etc -- we need them like we need oxygen. The more you write and the more you read, the better you'll be able to see your work, but there will always be blind spots because you're looking at it through your own beautifully tinted eyeballs.

2) Accept the necessary detachment from the work. Just because you wrote it doesn't make it precious or priceless or perfect. You just wrote it. Let that be enough. Over time and practice, you may come to believe that the fact that you wrote it really is enough, and that is far more than you thought it could be. No good, no bad, just what it is. Everything you write -- everything -- brings you closer to the next place. No words are wasted. No attempts are worthless. You wrote it. It is that, and nothing more. Yet, see how that is everything?

3) Think of early drafts (like, say, the first five or so) as scattering seeds. You throw a handful of seeds into a hole in the earth and you wait. You don't really know what you put in the ground yet. You don't know what will be able to grow compatibly, or what will have to be pruned out and planted somewhere else. You've got to let things grow a little bit before you can see what's up.

4) Hard part here: WAIT. Imagine some buffed up cop saying (or maybe Johnny Depp), "Back away from the manuscript, ma'am. Just back away now!" To go back to my seed analogy, what happens after you throw the seeds into the earth? You've got to water them and then wait. Sometimes we have to wait two whole seasons to see what pops out of the ground. Yeah, really, writing is like that. I'm currently going back to a project I wrote seven years ago. The time for it is now. Yeah, really, writing is like that.

5) After you wait awhile, read it again. Not with an eye for tearing it apart, but with an ear for listening with compassion to what you were trying to say. One of my favorite teachers told me to use "teabag listening." He was talking about letting the tea steep for awhile and then over time, listening (tasting) to what flavors surfaced. Be gentle here. Don't be manic with your work or with yourself. Let your work speak to you while you turn off your critic/editor/shame-based voice (whatever your baggage is from other classes or groups or family) and nod and say thank you. Don't listen to your work with a knife at its throat. How much do you think it'll actually say to you that way?

6) Now, if you've listened well and authentically, you might now notice that you threw a seed for a pine tree in the same hole as a seed for a strawberry plant and a seed for a sunflower. What are the odds all three arcs of a story can co-exist in the same hole in the ground? Pretty slim. So which one is fighting for survival? Which one desperately wants you to hear it? I don't know the answer for any individual, but I know a key to a writer finding it out is to ask this question: which one did I not know was there? You might do well to remember that the plant (yes, I'm going to extend this metaphor all the way through) which is bullying the other plants may not be the one you really need to write about. The loudest isn't always the most powerful.

7) Start again. Yes. Again. Dig a new hole (clean piece of paper, empty computer file) and scatter a different handful of seeds again. Maybe this time 75% of them are the sunflower seeds and only a few are oak trees or eggplants. Wait some more. Maybe you'll wait as long as the last time, maybe not. But wait. Let things settle and integrate and assemble without you constantly hacking at the roots.

8) What blooms now?

Get the picture? All throughout this process, you're reading. You're still writing. There's no rule that says thou must only work on one thing at a time. You're reading, and did I mention, you're reading?

Revision teaches you a lot about yourself. I encourage you as you begin your revisions to observe your own behavior. Observe it with the same non-knife-wielding compassion that you are listening to your work. Notice something, and say, "Hmmm. Look at that." If it's not working for you, stop doing it. But don't shame yourself about it. We're all beautifully flawed. As Leonard Cohen says, "It is the crack that lets the light in." If you're tearing yourself up inside and causing suffering to yourself, well, stop. Ask yourself why you're causing yourself pain. The answer might surprise you. Over time, you'll clear out the gutwrenching resistances of revision, and you'll find the absolute freedom and joy in re-envisioning a piece of writing. You'll know that you can toss those pages because more will come. You'll know that nothing is wasted. But it takes time to know these things in your body, and if you're doing this for the first time in your life, expect the suffering. I offer these things to you in the hopes that you can shorten your period of suffering and move more quickly into the freedom of the process. We as writers can resist this stage or we can embrace it. The act itself (the revision) is neutral. Our reaction to it shapes everything.

Revision teaches a lot, indeed. But the biggest thing it will teach you is: Are you a writer? And if it turns out you're not, no big deal. There are lots of glorious things to do in this world that don't involve so much solitude and ink. Approach everything with openness. Where there's resistance, there's struggle. Where there's struggle, there's conflict. Go back to that voice I mentioned earlier that's compelling you to put something on paper. What does it have to tell you? My guess is, it's that you're a writer.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Reflections on Writing a YA Novel





I have finished revising The Boy in the Walls, my first young adult novel. This writing process has been different for a number of reasons.

1) I actually had a story from the beginning. For those of you who know me, I'm usually pretty story-challenged. I am extraordinary at characterization -- not so much with the actual story. When I begin a book, I know nothing about it. I perhaps have a voice, or a bit of a music piece, or some other sound, but not much else. I follow the sound and see where it goes. I had a sound this time too -- the line "I can't feel!" spoken by the boy in the walls. But I knew who he was, why he was there, and what his role in the story was.

2) I actually had a fully-arrived protagonist, fourteen-year old Dee Hamilton. In any other kind of writing situation I would have questioned this fiercely. I would tell my students to question it. But I remember Annie Dillard in The Writing Life talk about sometimes getting something in one fell swoop and knowing enough to just fall on your knees before the writing goddess and say thank you, recognizing you'll likely never get that again. I think I've been on my knees throughout this whole process. Thank you, Writing Goddess.

3) I actually had a story arc, not just a story. I had a yearning. A driving question. Tension. Multiple characters and a historical component (the polio epidemic in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s). I'm still shaking my head at this one. Maybe I'm learning more than I think I'm learning after writing for 25 years. Maybe I'm learning more from teaching than I think I'm learning after 15 years. Regardless, thank you, Writing Goddess.

I have always believed that authentic writing emerges when the author is in harmony with his or her surroundings -- meaning, the author is open to what is available to him or her at that time. The writer, fully awake, is dedicated to knowing and not knowing. I've got that right at the top of my blog pages all the time.

As I've posted here, I took a trip back to North Carolina this summer. The general arc of the trip was planned, but I picked up a lot of unexpected things. I learned my aunt jumped up and down outside the hospital room my dad was in when he had polio. She was trying to see inside the window because she wasn't allowed in. Visiting with my aunt showed me how lonely she was as a result of Dad's illness. His disease took precedence, and she was left in the cold. I learned that although I don't recall too many pleasant experiences with my own grandmother, and Dad certainly never gave me any, my aunt talked about how afraid my grandmother was that Dad would die from the polio, and how she devoted everything to him, to the point of smothering. What my Dad perceived as controlling, my aunt perceived as loving too much. Fabulous insight.

I visited my childhood home in Charlotte at a time I had not originally planned to see it, and because of that, I was allowed inside to touch things. I touched the doorknob of my father's closet and I felt the energy charge. I left the house with a book. An entire book. And I was ill and lethargic and heavy with it for six weeks until it emerged.

I learned a lot more about polio than I knew before, and I felt for the first time how lonely Dad must have felt trapped in an iron lung, and how angry he must have felt with the paralysis. In the novel, Dee's father kills himself. I already knew this when my friend Jeffrey killed himself, rather than face the certain death of multiple myeloma. Grieving for Jeffrey and feeling the unique emotions around a suicide helped me understand Dee, my protagonist, more. I already knew that the father in the novel killed himself because he had post-polio syndrome. Virtually all of the first round survivors of polio contracted post-polio syndrome if they lived long enough. My dad had it, and was, perhaps, fortunate enough to have a heart attack before he ended up flat on his back, unable to move again. In the novel, the father chooses suicide. When Jeffrey died, one of my thoughts as a writer was, wow, J, look at what you gave me to work with. Since Jeffrey was a writer, he would have understood.

Perhaps the biggest shift in this process for me has been beginning to address mother-daughter relationships instead of father-daughter ones. Although the inciting incident in the book is Dee's father's suicide, and the gist of the book is the aftermath of that, the heart of the book is the different ways in which Dee and her mother grieve, and it's about their estrangement and attempts to come back together again. Well, Writing Goddess, it's about time. It should be no big surprise, my mother and I grieve very differently. I have felt abandoned by that difference, even though I intellectually understand it. Through the novel, I have an opportunity to try and recreate it and change the ending a little. I sent the book to her today. She'll read it. Bless her heart; she reads everything I write.

I have always thought I became a writer because of Dad's illness and death. Those things gave me my grist for a lifetime. But I learned how to be a writer because of my mother. Every day, she showed up. Every day, she made sure we had food and clothes and our homework done. Every day, even though we grieve differently, she stayed. These are the things it takes to be a writer. Showing up every day, especially on the days we least want to. Taking everything as it comes and remaining steadfast. My father gave me content and my mother gave me her unique brand of secular Lutheranism. Get up. Get it done. Rest. Get up. Get it done. Rest. This is the path of a novelist. What a lucky writer I am -- each parent's half made a whole.

The manuscript went out this afternoon to several editors who'd requested the full manuscript after seeing the summary and first fifty pages. Wish me luck. The young adult market is the only fiction market expanding.

Here's the summary, (for your temptation!) which is usually the hardest thing to write when you write a novel. Funny, it's easier when you actually have a story. :-)

Laraine Herring
The Boy in the Walls
Summary
YA novel – approximately 40,000 words

Fourteen-year-old Dee Hamilton is hearing voices. Not voices, exactly, but a single voice in the wall of her bedroom. It's the summer before her freshman year of high school, seven years from the day she came home to find her father, who had long suffered with polio, had killed himself. Now, her mother, at her wits end, wants to move them 2000 miles across the country, from North Carolina to Arizona, to Start Over. Dee is afraid to leave the house because if she leaves, her father won’t know where to find her.

The house she lives in has been in her dad's family for three generations. Her father spent much of his childhood trapped by polio in his bedroom, which has become Dee's bedroom. When her grandparents died, they passed the house to him. The house is more important to Dee than anything in the world, and now it's talking to her louder than ever before. Even after Dee moves to Arizona, she hears the house calling her.

Instead of starting high school in Tucson, Dee boards a Greyhound and heads back east to Wilmington to rescue the boy in the walls. Once she is back in her old house, her aunt, the crazy "bat lady", Marydolores, who lives alone in the big house next door, begins coming over to chat. First she brings food. Then she brings pictures and bits of information about her father's polio and his life before he met her mom. Dee begins to see a part of her father she never knew before, and begins to understand a little bit of the isolation he must have felt as a young boy with polio, living in an iron lung and then stuck inside his house for five years.

Marydolores and the boy in the wall pull Dee deep into her father's past, and as a result of exploring his past, she begins to examine her own. As Dee understands some of her father's anger, she's able to access her own anger at her father's decision to kill himself. When she allows herself to get angry, she finally begins to feel again. Once Dee is able to let her feelings move, the boy in the wall, who is her own projection of her father's pain, is able to go to sleep, allowing Dee to begin the next phase of her life.

The Boy in the Walls is a book about complicated mourning, attachment, home, and the journey we all must take to find an identity separate from family.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Edge of Everything




The day before our division meeting this week, my dean asked me if I would prepare a short presentation on how I'm surviving five preps this semester. I said I would, but had to point out the irony in being asked to prep something else to talk about the challenges of prepping. Say that five times fast.

The hardest part of prepping this semester has been keeping all the texts straight. I'm teaching eleven different books. I have lists taped to my computer of what chapter I need to read in what book by what date in order to be prepared for the students. It's OK. I've taught more in a semester than five classes. Frankly, I'm grateful to have a job.

This week, one of my classes was studying The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. It is a drop-dead gorgeous book, and the timing couldn't have been better. Before we even opened the first day's discussion, several students were already wiping their eyes. My friend Jeffrey had died the previous week and I had thought about postponing the discussion. But what better time to talk about a book about grieving than while I'm grieving?

I love to talk about grief because no one talks about it, and it occurred to me this week in class that I have felt abandoned in many ways because so few will talk about grief with me. So few can bear an open-ended conversation where nothing is fixed or changed -- where emotion just hangs in the air like fog. Where do you find people who will just sit with you while you breathe and not try to fix you or figure out what's wrong or help you move on?

Well, we start to create them in writing and literature classes. Someone writes about their experience from a place of absolute vulnerability. Someone reads the book and then has the courage to talk about their own grief, which opens the space for someone else to talk about their grief, which opens up still more space. Soon, the room is empty and at last we can be real people -- not mothers, daughters, teachers, professionals -- just people. Grief eviscerates us, and when we can face one another with our organs dangling in the air and our bones whiter than our teeth, we can be as present in life as the sparrows.

Literature creates space.

This is Banned Books Week. It's a week of economic turmoil. A week of frightening statistics and unemployment figures and a huge bail out plan that no one understands. Publishing is in crisis (again) and (again) we fear that no one is reading books. Times like these up-end us. They can call into question why we do what we do -- and why we don't do what we don't do. Questioning is good. It leads to self-examination and to growth. But, to quote Natalie Goldberg, "Don't get tossed away." Don't become so unrooted that you succumb to fear. The pull of the pen across the paper in your singular gorgeous hand will root you. As each letter unfolds into the next, you cannot help but be present in the writing. Your writing will show you what is next.

Transitions are required for the next event to occur. It's never been any different than this. When something passes away, something else is born. Attachment to what is passing from our grasp will create suffering. Let go.

A former student of mine, Clint Van Winkle, contacted me earlier this month about his new memoir, Soft Spots: A Marine's Memoir of Combat and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I remember Clint very well. He was a student of mine in Phoenix, and had just returned from Iraq when I met him. His publisher sent me an advanced readers' copy and I read the book in a single evening this week. He wrote so authentically about his experiences in Iraq, about his experiences with his own shadow, his own deep deep darkness, that even though I have never, and hope to never, be in a combat situation, I could connect to my own deep deep darkness through the expression of his pain, self-loathing, and trauma. It is a raw book to read. No rah-rah America. No goddamn America. Clint just cut open America and cut open the Marines and the war in Iraq and his own wounded heart and gave it to us between the covers of his book. There is no greater gift.

Literature creates space. Inside us and around us. The more things fall apart, the greater the reconstruction will be. When you are afraid, return to your pen, your breath, your body that for this moment is working perfectly. When you are most afraid, find your path in language. When all around you are holding their breath, release yours.

Stay steady, no matter what rages around you. Stay grounded in your stories. Your poems. Your alive-ness. The time will come when you are not alive on this planet. Make space now, so that your transition will be effortless, just a stroke of your pen from one line to the next.

Space.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Jeffrey's final performance

This is the final piece of Shark Bites. I included some of the text in my earlier blog today. This was part of the benefit Jeffrey wrote and performed in to raise money for his medical expenses. This performance was just a few months ago.

Shark Bites: The Butterfly Effect

As he says, we are out of time.

A most extraordinary man has died (no not David Foster Wallace)



And though this man may be having drinks with David Foster Wallace now, it's more likely he's toasting with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. And, I hope with all my heart the next world is kinder to him than this one was.

I met Jeffrey Hartgraves in 1990, just after I finished my undergraduate work at U of A. We met at Playwright's Workshop Theatre in downtown Phoenix, and from that moment on, became writing friends, then friend-friends, and ultimately, he and I became each other's muse, each other's confidante, and each other's best cheerleader in our writing and creative work. I have never met another man as funny, as spontaneously wicked and brilliant, and I have never met another man who felt quite as deeply the isolation of existence. He was ungodly talented -- directing, acting, writing, visual art -- he really could do it all exceptionally well. I don't know if he ever believed in how talented he was, or if he ever realized, truly, that he was loved by so many people. His heart had been wounded young, and he walked through life with that ache.

Jeffrey's creative resume is extensive. When he moved from Phoenix to San Francisco in 1994, his life exploded. He worked in the theatre. He wrote. He performed. He directed. He won awards. He was always in a show, always writing a show, always excited about language and books and art. We would read each other passages over the phone -- poetry, prose -- anything that moved us. We sat in cafes together (Momi Toby's in San Francisco) and wrote and wrote and wrote. We wrote plays together and gave readings together.

We went to Italy together in 1999 and held hands while fireworks exploded over the canals in Venice on New Year's Eve. Everyone in Italy thought we were married. (It was a bit much for them to imagine a gay man and a woman traveling together, perhaps!) We loved beauty, and through each other, we saw more beauty than we could see alone. We walked through the ruins of Pompeii and pet the cats in the Colliseum. We froze in a castle in Rome and stood in awe, for likely the same reasons, under the statue of David.

He was lonely, as we all are, and I watched him from my home in AZ move in and out of his lifelong battle with alcohol. I watched him search for companionship and an intellectual and artistic equal. I went to visit him a lot after he moved to San Francisco. Sometimes the visits were perfection -- filled with avante garde theatre, a single glass of wine, Italian food, and literature. Sometimes he drank too much and I left feeling like I could not go back until he got that piece of his life under control. But I always went back, and he didn't always drink, and I knew he wasn't ready to give it up. Always, we wrote and always we talked about art. There is no one else who filled that part we both played in each other's lives.

In 2005, Jeffrey was diagnosed with bone cancer. He endured excruciating chemotherapy. He started going to a counselor. He slowly began writing and producing a show about his illness -- Shark Bytes -- which was produced earlier this year to raise money for him. He had gone into remission for a time. Then, he had to undergo an 18 week chemotherapy bout over the summer. He hoped he would be done for a time. He had a show planned in Los Angeles. He was working on a book, MY CANCER CIRCUS. He was trying to get more freelance copywriting so he could earn some income.

Three weeks ago, right around his 47th birthday, he found out he was out of remission. He did not tell anyone. I've spent most of this morning on the phone with half of San Francisco trying to fill in the gaps of the story. He told no one. He retreated into himself, into his darkness and his fear of dying and his fear of pain and his utter frustration that his life was not working out like he had planned. I know this script. This was my father's.

He didn't tell anyone. He pushed his friends away. He called me at 1 in the morning a few weeks ago. I didn't answer the phone because I assumed he was drunk, and I'd had more than enough drunk middle of the night conversations with him. I planned to call him later, but I didn't. He called around the time he would have found out about his cancer's return. He didn't leave a message. Was he going to tell me? I don't know.

He'd told me many times over the last few years that he was not going through chemo again. The last three weeks he drank more than any of his friends had ever seen. He became violent, something he had never done. He trashed his apartment. It may seem inappropriate to say these things about a man who has died. If you knew him, you'd know it would be OK. When at his best, he never failed to tell it like it is.

No one knew why he was so angry so suddenly. He died in the night, alone in the apartment. The final coroner's report will come out this afternoon. The blood alcohol level was off the charts. There were pills. There was, I am sure from all my years of loving this man, the decision not to face a different, slower, perhaps more painful death. It doesn't matter what the coroner's report says. He exercised his right to script his own exit stage left.

But I am so sorry he spent his last weeks so angry. I am so sorry I did not answer the phone. And I am so sorry he did not get to have the life he felt was his.

Several years ago, when he was first diagnosed, he told me he was giving me his laptop and his writing when he died. We joked about it, but he wasn't joking. He was methodically going through his things and his life so he would be prepared and not leave people in a lurch. One of his good friends was charged with power of attorney. Everything has been in place for several years.

I will be getting a laptop and his writing. What else will come with that, I don't know.

I am angry that he drank. I am angry that he got sick, and I am angry that he is dead. I loved him fiercely, and already I feel the wind blowing through the place in my life where he lived.

Here's a piece from his play, SHARK BYTES:

I dreamed that I met God. She was sitting on a rather uncomfortable looking rock and she was blowing soap bubbles. That's all. No lightning. No throne. Nobody in sheets with harps. No cherubs or pearly gates. An empty field, a rock, and a little girl blowing soap bubbles. Soon the air was thick with floating rainbow bulbs, gliding and merging into bubble-clumps or falling and bursting on the pointed tips of emerald green grass.

Then it happened. It started small and grew like a wave of sound. Millions of tiny voices all at once. Each bubble had a voice, a spirit, which was rejoicing or laughing or crying. Some floated higher or lower, never seeming to touch the ground. Some were caught in the whirl and wake of others as they passed. Some though, fell straight from the hand of God, and filled with the same breath of creation, fell to a sharp, bursting end.

God's voice in my head said, "Choose the most beautiful."

I can't do that. They're all the same. I mean some reflect different colors and lights and some are different sizes. Some last longer, but they're all ...

"Choose," she said. "Which one should I not have made? Choose the good bubble from the bad bubble. Or choose, if they should all follow the same course, which one it should be. Would they be more wonderful if they all floated single file to the very same end? Or is there perfection in this chaos?"

________________________


I hope, my friend, that there is indeed a place like this, and that we will sit and blow soap bubbles and play word games and write scenes and love each other, still.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Anniversaries




Today is the 21st anniversary of my dad's death. If he were alive, he would be 67. Last year I crossed the threshold of "I've lived longer without him than with him" that seems to be a milestone of the grieving journey.

Today is a beautiful day. The clouds are a slate gray edged with white. They fluff past my office window hinting at moisture. It's going to be about 80 degrees. It was hot the day he died in Phoenix. 100 +. We bought chocolate milkshakes at the Burger King on Peoria Avenue on the way home from the hospital. I then stopped eating for months.

Today, I am no more sad than I am every day. No day passes without that whisper of regret that I cannot call him, that he will never meet Keith, that he will never read a single one of my books. But I no longer expect that every time the phone rings, he'll be on the other end. I don't see him in passing cars anymore. I don't hear his voice, even when I try desperately to do so.

Twenty-one years is a long time gone.

Sometimes I wonder if I ever knew him at all -- if I just made him up, or if every single memory I have of him has been constructed in the framework of what I would have liked, rather than what actually happened. I can no longer remember at all. This year, I've written a tremendous amount about him, and my current YA novel is also working through his story in a different way. Yesterday, my agent called. There's a bite from New York on the YA book. Wow. That was fast. Of course, a bite doesn't mean a purchase, as I experience over and over again. But a bite feels good. His story continues to connect with others.

Today, as I write this in my townhome, watching the clouds change, I look at a picture of me, Dad, his parents, and his sister at the dinner table in our home in Wilmington. It was my 15th birthday. Only his sister and I are left. His sister is 76. In the picture, Dad is sitting in front of an oval mirror, so I can see both the front and back of his head. His moving forward and his moving away.

Is there a single thing I have written that did not come about as a result of his illness and his death? I don't know that there is.

The picture at the top is of dad and me in about 1969. I remember that book, and I remember that couch, and I remember the sound of his voice on the top of my head as he read to me over and over and over throughout my childhood. He whispered stories to me before I knew of language.

What does it mean to be a father? I can never know. I know what it means to be a daughter, though, and a writer, and I know that no matter what transpired during his life with us -- the things I remember, the things I don't remember, and the things I have made up -- what is solid in me is language. Is stories. Is the power of marks on a page to open up our hearts and connect us to something larger than ourselves. This has never faltered, even when I stopped eating. Even when I stopped crying. Even when I could never stop.

Today, when I think about what I would say to him on this day he dissolved into whatever is next, I would say, "You did great. Thank you. I am well."

Rest in peace, daddy.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Resistance is Futile

So, any Borgs out there who remember that tagline from Star Trek? That's been the theme of the end of my week as well as the path out of my four week illness.

There's nothing like having a teacher who can point out the circles of your own thoughts. Everybody needs someone like this. Just like all of us as writers need someone else to see our work and help us move it to the next level.

On Tuesday, I went to see Cain, frustrated and angry that I was still sick after four weeks – that I still had little energy – that I had no interest in doing anything – and that, damnit, I should be able to just get through it and be done.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: Blah, blah, blah, blah, integrate, blah, blah, coughing, blah, blah.

Cain: More.

Me: Blah, blah, blah things fighting inside of me, blah blah North Carolina, blah, blah house.

Cain: More.

Me: Blah, bleck, bleck, blah, inner child, frightened, blah, blah.

Cain: Not reality.

Me: Huh?

Cain: More.

Me: Blah, blah, energy, book, crying, can't, blah, blah.

Cain: (nodding serenely)

Me: Huh?

Cain: Tell me about the book.

Me: Young adult, Dee, got the whole book from our visit to my house in North Carolina, energy transmission, blah, blah, scared.

Cain: More.

Me: I'm afraid if I write this book, if I go back to visit the place in myself when I was seven and Dad got sick ... I'm afraid I'll get stuck. I got stuck for 20 years.

Cain: (more nodding)

Me: Can I go there and come back?

Cain: You're not the same person you were then.

Me: Yeah.

Cain: So how could it be the same? You're resisting what you've been given. Of course you're going to feel like shit. You're fighting what the universe has given you. I've noticed it only gives us just enough rope to play with. The time always comes when it tells you exactly where you need to go.

Me: Yeah.

Cain: So I can't think of a more powerful example of attraction then the way you were pulled back into your house in North Carolina. You say you got the whole book in one swoop.

Me: Like two seconds. I touched a doorknob.

Cain: The whole download.

Me:The whole thing.

Cain: So we're always given exactly what we need in the exact way we need it to be able to do the work. If you hadn't gotten the whole book at once you might not be willing to do the work because you wouldn't trust you'd be able to get back from that place. If you'd have gotten it twenty years from now you might be too far along to get back to being seven. It's always perfect.

Me: Blah, blah.

Whatever.

There was more, but it's not relevant to this post.

Suffice to say, within hours my congestion was gone. Suffice to say the book is almost finished in such a short time (a whole book in four weeks?) Draft, I'll say for sure, but nonetheless, a book.

Whatever.
Blah, blah.
Resistance is futile.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Exploding with Something

It's Sunday afternoon and it's raining once again. Hard cold drops that crush new flowers. The thunder is heavy; the voice of an old man who hasn't spoken in years. I am between skins. I have been sick for almost five weeks. My appetite has declined to barely two meals a day. My energy level is some days 2/3 of what it used to be, some days 1/2. I've been to see my teacher, Cain, and we've done extensive body work. We've pushed through "new old" crap that continues to resurface. My beautiful friend and massage therapist gave me Thieves oil to mix with water and drink. Each day I feel better, and each day I feel more out of sorts.

I would be more concerned about this if I didn't know what it was. I know exactly what this is. What I don't know is how long it will take to work through it, or what will be waiting on the other side. Yesterday, I conducted a day long workshop with my favorite students from Phoenix. I was thrilled to work with them, and I am so proud (as close to mama-proud as I'll probably ever be) of their work as writers and their work with each other. But I found myself watching myself talk to them about qi gong, about food choices, about shaking, shaking, shaking until the patterns of stagnation fall away. I am using energy to teach with that is coming from a storehouse of energy, not from the flow of each moment. I am rebuilding myself, cell by cell. Right now, I fit in neither place.

I am shaking. Shaking, shaking, shaking. Whenever I think I have shaken it all free, there is more. I've been shaking for almost a year now on a daily basis. When I first started shaking, I was fierce and angry, hissing at everyone, impatient and passive aggressive. Then I became sad, and then, after a month or so, I felt clean. I felt empty -- I felt that there was space inside me for each day rather than each day having to compete for space in such a crowded place.

I know what this is. I have only cried once since we got back from North Carolina. I need more space for it. I don't have a weekend free again until Halloween. It's always this way when the semester starts, but somehow this time I am unready, or unwilling, to be at work completely. I will go. No one but the very observant will know I'm not there 100%. My bones are tired. My eyes are dry, but my body is full of water -- I'm a tidal wave that hasn't struck land yet.

I am working on a young adult novel now -- The Boy in the Walls -- that literally flowed into me when we were in my childhood house in North Carolina. I think I let it go. I am wrong. There is more. I think I let it go. I am wrong. There is still more. Still another book. Still another little girl to reach out to and welcome back home. If the energy in our Charlotte house had been a wall of water, I would have drowned. As such, I stood in the middle of it and let it move through me, dislodging memories and dreams that I had indeed forgotten -- and the ones I had not forgotten I have tried for thirty years to erase.

I remember my dad, almost dead, in the hospital. I remember an acidic smell on his body once he was back home with us. I remember a bed set up in the living room because he couldn't lie down. I remember looking out the window in my bedroom for hour and years while everything changed, and I felt in August of this year, the shock of the shutting down that occurred in 1976. I remember the freezing in my body. One of the participants in my workshop yesterday talked about freezing to not be seen. I could relate completely. I thought of the bunny about to be caught -- how it freezes, heart beating faster than its breathing can keep up. How I know how that feels. How I know what happens when the heart beats faster than the breath.

When I went to visit Cain a few weeks ago for internal organ massage, he released my diaphragm. I had pulled it back up into my body after being in our house and I couldn't figure out how to release it on my own. Once I could breathe again, I began to feel better. But there is more to move. There is more of the girl I have hidden swimming in my veins.

Today, I watch the rain and feel the tension in the air as the water comes. I drink my tridosha tea and am grateful for my home, my job, my body. Grateful for the awareness and the space to notice what is waking up. Grateful to have my writing. Until whatever is sleeping wakes up, I am out of balance. I am too tired and too awake. Too hungry and too full. Too indifferent and too concerned.

Integration is bumpy. It takes an awful lot of shaking to dislodge a storyline that has been the foundation of my life.

Much easier,to pretend that everything is fine. But even when I tried to tell myself that everything was fine, I knew, in that way that you know before you learn to lie, that I was lying. Much easier to not keep pushing further, further, further, until I find the root of it all and cut it away.

But truth, slippery as newly-caught fish, always shimmers under the unrelenting gaze.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Spiral Dance

Novelist Ursula K. Le Guin decries the linear perspective that dominates
modern storytelling. She says it's "like an arrow, starting here and going
straight there and THOK! hitting its mark." Furthermore, she complains,
plots are usually advanced through conflict, as if interesting action can't
possibly arise from any other catalyst.

Rob Brezny included that gem in his weekly Free Will Astrology e-mail. This week, though I'm still feeling less than myself, I did manage to teach a little bit in between serving as tech support for 85 students and coughing too much. I've got a heavy load this semester. Five different creative writing classes. We always have to teach five classes a semester, but five different ones makes for an interesting juggling act.

This week we started doing some in-class writing at last, and I began the inevitable and constant work of helping the students look inward with ruthless scrutiny and ruthless compassion. Much of what I teach is not about writing in a linear way (though I dress it up nicely so it looks like the learning outcomes) :-). Most of what I do is guide students into their lifetime journey of self-exploration. Until they look inside themselves and find themselves shocked and awed, in despair and in love with what they see, they will not be able to create believable worlds on the page.

I walk around the classroom and listen to their disclaimers of their work. Before they'll even share what they wrote, they tear it down. New work is as fragile as an antique teacup. New work must be allowed to breathe and speak before it is shaped by the craftsperson. One student mentioned that she wanted to develop a more sacred relationship to her writing. I rarely hear that during the first few weeks, but by the end of a semester with me, very few people believe writing is anything but a sacred relationship. We're off to a great start so far.

Le Guin's statement hits at the heart of my philosophy on writing. Yes, plot is a causal relationship, but the structure of a story or a book can be anything but linear and expected. This may follow that in "real life", but in narrative we have the luxury of the manipulation of time and space. But wait. Does this follow that in "real life"? Or do we just perceive that it does? Pearl S. Buck says, "One faces the future with one's past." We look ahead to what we can be and do based on where we have been and what we have done. So even "real life" is not as directly causal as it appears on the surface. This follows that because of that and that and that ... or ... because that and that and that did NOT occur, this did. It's not a line. Remove a section within a line and you've still got a line. Remove a piece of a spiral and the whole pattern changes.

I teach to the odd mix within a classroom of people who want to be writers but don't read and people who are never without a book in their hands. A mix of 18 - 80 year olds. A mix of tastes -- romance writers, mystery writers, action story writers, literary fiction, horror, young adult -- all within a single class. A different series of causal events brought each of these warriors to the page and to the classroom. They love their writing and I love them because of it. I love their struggles and their frustrations. I love their false starts and their successful lines and paragraphs. I love most of all their warrior spirits that bring them over and over and over to the page. They are why I teach. There is no greater joy to a teacher than a student who takes his or her work seriously.

Whether my students publish or not, writing a novel or a story and following it through revisions, critique sessions, self-doubts, false praise, and finally that cutting, compassionate eye from within will change them forever. The world is a better place with each story written. Every time a writer takes a risk with her or his work, they give themselves the ability to take more risks in their "regular" lives. The way they approach their writing is the way they will approach their lives. Discipline and compassion cannot be turned on and off. Once the switch is flipped, they cannot go back to the way they were before.

When I look back on my life, I do not see it as a journey from point A to point B. I see it in defining moments. I see it in overlapping memories and overlapping relationships. I see it in a merging between what happened and what I wanted to have happened and what I have subsequently told myself happened. And I hope, when I am reflecting on my life for the final time, I will see the pattern I have written.

My pattern will not be a line that stretches from birth to death. My pattern will be a series of spirals, of turning in and back and around and forward. My pattern will dance, even as I spin away.

This is my sincerest wish for my students. When you look back on your lives, may your patterns spin and twist and meander. May the ending be the only possible conclusion to the work you've done. May you close your eyes and whisper, "It is perfect," and spin away.