Tuesday, February 12, 2008


This morning we stare at each other, my work and I. The winter weather has broken, likely only for a blink, but this week it's in the 60s and the ice and snow is melting and pouring into the creekbeds that have been dry for months. I am easily 50% feline, and can stare down the best of 'em. But I can't outstare my work. Today it's so close I feel I can reach out and snatch it up with one hand, and I want to. I want to grab it and keep it tight so I don't have to keep wondering about it. But instead I watch it watching me. I try (ah, so foolish!) to figure out what it's thinking. What it wants me to do.

My brain is beginning to swim with topic sentences, basic grammar, and the beginnings of student stories. Yesterday I spent two class periods working on paragraphs with my developmental students. What detail can we add here to make this memory more vivid? Can you see how we've got two separate thoughts here, joined only by a comma? Let's look at chapter 16 in the book - Run on Sentences. Do you see how your topic sentence is about how cell phones have changed in the past five years, but what you've written about is why you love your cell phone? It's a slippery slope once we reach this point in the semester. I adore teaching, but I find myself stuffed with 90 different minds -- 90 different ways of thinking -- and it grows harder to hear myself. I don't know any writers who teach writing full-time who don't struggle with this every semester. Practice emptying out before going to work. Empty out after work. That's why I go to yoga classes after work. They create a break from 90 minds and return me to my own.

Today, the work glitters. It's a beautiful mirage -- Las Vegas like -- all glitz and facades. But Vegas lights mask the heartbeat of Nevada. I see shimmering covers for the book. I see glowing reviews. But I open the book and I see emptiness. I even think I hear laughter. What are you doing? What are you thinking? You're not even remotely ready to go where I want you to go, it says. Not even close. But there's all that sparkly red and purple glitter. There's the seduction of the writing itself. The "I love you-go away" push pull of the process that slams us, addicts all, up against its walls.

"What do you most not want to say?" It shouts. "Go on! Coward!"

I open my mouth. Nothing. I decide to click over to Zappos.com and look at expensive shoes. I click back. It's still waiting. What do you most not want to say? I feel it, whatever that answer is, banging against my ribs, pushing up underneath my tongue. I sneeze and cough today. It is beginning to move. It is beginning to eke out, letter by letter.

What do I most not want to say? Ha. Guess you better read the book.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Things I'm learning while writing a memoir

So. This memoir journey has been unlike any other writing project I've ever worked on. Part of it is I have no idea what I'm doing. The other part of it is -- yeah, I have no idea what I'm doing. Compound that with worrying about what someone else might want or hope the book to be in order to buy it, and you've got a combination for turbo-block.

This weekend I held a workshop on Writing Begins with the Breath. It was good practice working with "real" people on all the activities in the book. I was, as usual, surprised by what came through me in the group. I never know what I'm going to say when I teach. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes I say something worthwhile. Sometimes I say something that surprises me. I probably did all three yesterday, but I definitely surprised myself. However, I surprised myself in a way that is absolutely embarrassing. I let myself be fully in the meditation and movement pieces we did in the class and I realized (here's the embarrassing part) that they actually work. And, I realized that my movement practice and my meditation practice know far more than I do. Yes, yes, I did already "know" that -- but it seems to be something that I keep needing to re-remember. The other part that surprised me was something I said. "Compassion creates softness, which creates openness in the writing. Judgment creates contraction, which creates a block in the writing." This was one of those surreal moments where the entire group of students scribbles furiously in their notebooks and someone asks me to repeat what I said (ha!) I actually wanted to write it down myself because I'd never written it down before, and I'd never thought about writing in exactly those phrases before, and something about it showed me that I have been judging my memoir from the very first inkling of conception. I've been trying to pigeonhole it for someone else. I've been trying to write something that is only semi-vulnerable because I'm realizing how freakazoid-y it is to have work out in the world that people are actually reading. My ego is checking in fast and furious -- no, sugar, don't you even go there. Na-ah, no way, no how. True to my Extreme Leo Nature, I have been pushing and pushing and forcing and forcing this project. I do, actually, know better. And I would have told any student telling me this story to do exactly what I haven't been doing. I always know what to tell someone else. (Don't we all?)

Another surprising (to me) thing I said yesterday was about chasing thoughts. We were talking about monkey mind and the distractions it sends us on, and I thought about chasing a cat around the house to put it in a cat carrier to take it to the vet. If you've ever tried to do that, I don't have to say anything more. You can't catch a cat that doesn't want to be caught. And you sure as heck can't put a cat in a cat carrier that doesn't want to go in it -- at least not without more than a few scars. If you stop chasing the cat and sit down in the living room and wait, odds are the cat will come out in search of you. Ah. And big duh! That's what happens with the voice and direction of a book. When you stop figuring out what it needs to be and where it needs to go and just listen to it, it may crawl out from under the couch and chat with you. It's the only shot you've got as a writer. Otherwise, you're in an antagonistic relationship with the work, and, well, that really doesn't work.

So today I had the most glorious gift of an entire afternoon at Wild Iris (the coffee shop by the now-flowing Granite Creek) to write. This is a weekend without yoga training, and, (the last one for twelve weeks) a weekend without student papers to read. I had two cups of coffee. Spoke to three friends who came in. Talked with Julie, the owner, about this funky clothing store in Jerome. And then I started to get glimpses of something. I started to melt. I got, in my body, (thank you uttanasana) that I have to love it all -- and, since this is a memoir -- I've got to love me. All of me. The me that lived with a monster for two years. The me who over-intellectualizes. The me who focuses on achievement and doing. The me who can't actually remember living on this earth without the company of ghosts. The me who is still secretly afraid she's going to hell because she can't accept Jesus Christ as her personal savior, Amen. The me who made my father cry. The me who hasn't yet really learned how to be intimate. This me -- who needs to write about the most intimate relationship she has ever had -- her relationship with language and with ghosts -- regardless of what marketing departments may say.

Writing is the ultimate act of surrender, and the first to kneel before it is my ego.The next step is still shrouded. There's something here wrapped up in barbed wire. There's something I need to say because I can't seem to let this go and return to my novel. I know there's something simmering. But I've gotta love myself first, and that may be the biggest challenge of all. If writing doesn't induce a state of love, then why bother? When I look back on my past work, that's what happened. I learned to love a little more. With each book, I learned to open a little more. This time I know even less about what I'm doing. Even less about what matters. I've been closing and contracting around it.

So here's the ultimate irony of the weekend -- writing does, indeed, begin with the breath. Harumph.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The Gift

I've been reading Bret Lott's memoir BEFORE WE GET STARTED:A Practical Memoir of a Writer's Life. I went amazon-searching last week to see what sorts of memoirs were out there by writers about writing -- not about the craft of writing, but about actually writing. May Sarton's journals. Anais Nin, of course. (What would we do without Nin?) Books with advice for the writing life in its practicalities, but not very much about the relationship between writer and writing. This is the most intimate relationship in my life. It is my first relationship, and will likely be my last.

I'm enjoying Lott's work. In the current unfolding of the publishing industry, it's interesting to hear a white guy talk about being told (literally) by his editor about his novel (this is after the Oprah-driven success of his novel JEWEL) that everything about his book was perfect except for the fact that he was a white, middle class man. I laughed out loud. It really brought home the irrationality of the publishing industry today. You can fill in that "white, middle class man" with whatever group you like. There's usually only one 'hot' group at a time in the biz. It's pretty much always the time for white middle class women if you want to write romance. If you don't ... well, I've considered taking on a surname of Mendez, al Hassid, White Buffalo, Tran, Yu, Okigawa ... you get the picture. Problem is, I can't predict which one will be the way to go.

Lott also talks about trying to sell his literary mystery (again, this is after the JEWEL success) and how his success became his hindrance because the marketers felt they couldn't market the book to a mystery-reading audience because he'd established himself as 'literary'. So, he sent it out with a nome de plume, and had it picked up by a publisher of mysteries. When they found out who he really was, they (the marketers) decided they should actually use his real name because there was already a cache around it. This took two years of his life, to end up with his own name with his own book. Novel idea. :-) Heaven forbid we, as writers, take a step outside of what we've always done and try to do something different. Once the brand has been established successfully, the golden handcuffs snap on. I'm not sure yet if his book is comforting me or discouraging me. It is, at the very least, normalizing my experience.

In one of my creative writing classes yesterday, we talked as a group about the ways our work comes to us. One young man has visions of places. One woman, who has never even been to the south, hears Southern women. One woman receives an idea in dreams, always on a platter of food. I love this discussion and I usually begin every semester with it. I want the students to know they're OK. I want them to know that however they relate to this unrelate-able thing, that they're OK. That they've made it this far without having that beaten out of them, metaphorically or otherwise, is something worth celebrating. My students inspired me yesterday, as they often do. Their relationship to language and story is different from mine, but the same. Their eagerness to dive into it, and (yes, I must admit) their youth, is intoxicating. This class has a group of uber-smart late teenagers. I love that age when they're danger-smart. I remember when I was danger-smart and young. They sit together in a row of five. I know high school more than sucked for most of them. Many of them are just socially awkward enough to have suffered at the hands of the power-cliques. But they explode when they're allowed to talk about this relationship they have with their work. They couldn't stop talking.

Ah, I thought. This is perhaps the beginning of wherever I'm taking BETWEEN SKINS. What can it matter which nationality is the writer du jour? There's nothing that can be done about it. What does matter is the work. What does matter is these students and their eagerness to dive into it, even as practicalities have begun to weigh on them. What does matter is that writers who write hear things, see things, touch things that others don't or can't. What does matter is that we keep fighting for the voices -- our voices, not the voices of the marketers, or the publishers, or the critics. And not our voices as the authoritative author -- the voices we've been given the privilege of hearing. They are what matters. We are only a conduit for them. They are who we serve.

The role of the artist is becoming more radical in these times. Let's embrace that role rather than fight it. Let's do what we do, because if we don't, we will find only ourselves dying. Marketers won't find themselves sick because they don't pick a certain book for the next cycle. But we will. We will find ourselves sick in myriads of ways if we do not do what we have been gifted to do. The gift is ours, and the only ones who can use it are us. Don't let anyone tell you your gift isn't the right one for the moment. It's the only one you have. Move into it and embrace it. I don't know if you'll find a publisher or an agent. I don't know if your book will get remaindered before it even sees the light of day. I don't know if I'll ever get another contract.

But that isn't the gift. The gift isn't: Thou shalt be published always.

The gift is: Thou shalt write.