Friday, March 28, 2008

Gathering Ghosts

The Writing Goddess has one hell of a sense of humor.

I received wonderful news earlier this week that Writing Begins with the Breath has sold almost 6000 copies in the first six months of sales. It hasn't even entered the academic market yet. A sample book mailing of 500 books were sent to all instructors who used Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg) as an adopted text this fall with hopes of course adoptions for spring 08 and fall 08. I received this news with a note from Jenn, my editor at Shambhala. They want to have another writing book.

I've avoided this ever since Breath came out. It is too easy to get pigeonholed -- to get branded as a certain kind of author and never find your way out again. It's also way too difficult to get published at all these days, and with literary fiction readership and lists shrinking, I am not at all interested in turning down another contract. But what to say?

Those of you who've been following this blog know I've been struggling with this memoir, as well as a novel, for the past six months. It's always such a challenge to find the writing space during a teaching semester. This time after spring break is always particularly bad. We're all tired -- the students want out; the teachers want out -- and the onslaught of student work pours down in April. To add a writing book on top of all of this means at least another year out on the novel. I'll be 41 then! Yike. This is not the instant gratification business.

I asked my classes this week what they'd like to see in a writing book. I wanted to know what they haven't found in a book and/or what they found valuable in my classes that they'd like to see expanded on. If any of you reading this have any suggestions on what would be interesting to you, please post a reply, or e-mail me.

As I've been mulling things over this week, I think some of what I've been trying to force into a memoir might be more about writing. I think Breath is personal, but it maintains some distance that wouldn't be found in a memoir. I would like to get more personal with a next book, but maybe not being chained to a narrative arc required in memoir might be just what I need.

Here's where I think I'm strong:

- Voice
- Helping people find/access what's already inside them
- Vulnerability -- demonstrating it in my work so others can find it in themselves
- Creating connections between my experiences & the reader's experiences

I think my background in counseling & grief work lends a unique dimension to what I bring as a teacher as well as a writer. I also think the way stories come to me is unique (though variations are extremely common among writers). I think the ghost angle, which is such a part of who I am, is a part of how I "see", which is directly connected to how I write.

I've come up with this:


This narrows the focus of what I've been struggling with in the memoir and would allow for me to explore specific areas of what makes a writer a writer. This also allows for an open ended book in terms of genre, which I think is very important for a broader audience, and it would not be a didactic kind of textbook. I want to express myself more personally than I did in Breath, and I think a series of essays/chapters exploring who we are & why we do what we do would be valuable to other writers and would be a topic I haven't yet exhausted in my own life. It likely would also be valuable to people who aren't writers, as I've found Breath to be valuable to people who have no desire to write based on the feedback I've received from people who are using it in women's groups, church groups, etc... I hadn't anticipated that broad of an audience when we began.

I'd like to flesh this out into a proposal. Do any of you have any thoughts? They would be most welcome.

Thank you!

With Ears to Hear

I have been asked to lead a women's writing circle next Thursday for a woman who is dying of a rare form of cancer which has lodged in her sacrum. She's undergoing a final operation in two weeks which will remove her right leg and her pelvis. There is a 15% success rate with this surgery. One of my yoga teachers is part of this women's circle. She called on Monday and asked if I'd come. The woman has asked to have writing re-introduced to her life, and she wants to write with women. I said of course I'd come, and I've been spending much of this week figuring out what on earth I'll do.

My "always have a plan B" self is desperate to plan out 2 hours of activities. But there's another part of me that is whispering, "Don't plan anything. Just go there." The woman cannot sit on the floor. She cannot do many movements. She has colostomy bags and IV drips and oxygen. But she wants to write. I think I need to hold a space for listening, and then let the women write. I can bring a series of prompts, but I'm not clear that's the right direction. My first instinct when I heard about her condition was to focus on the belly. She's going to have very little belly left in two weeks. Her cancer is lodged in her root chakra. It's in her seat of groundedness; it's in her home of creativity. The woman who invited me to come said her friend is not wanting yet to work with approaching death. She wants to work with life.

What is writing but listening? What is writing but going deeper inward and listening to the small voice inside you that is still wanting to be heard? Writing doesn't come from outside the self. It comes from the part of you that will still remain if you lose a leg, a reproductive system, a pelvis. It's the part of you that will still have something to say on days you cannot talk or even chew solid food. And it's the part of you that will blow out when you take your final exhale, but not one moment sooner.

I'm grateful for this opportunity. I will show up on Thursday and listen. And then we will sit, hands on bellies, for as long as it takes until the voices speak. And then we'll write.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Searching for Bobby Fischer

I roam the streets of Tucson looking for her.

I obsessively drive past the apartment where I used to live with N. I drive through the U of A campus -- where the only familiar landmark now is the clocktower. I pass by Greasy Tony's where I ate too many meatball subs with girlfriends from my African-American lit class. And I stop and wander 4th Avenue -- the funky arts district with the coolest feminist bookstore in the state of AZ. Antigone's. Though it's moved from one corner of the street to the other in the 20 years since I lived in Tucson, it's still the same blue-walled safe space.

There's the tie-die shops. The Hippie Gypsy, where I spent way too much money on a Janis Joplin T-shirt to help bring me back into my novel. The Blue Willow Cafe (which, to be fair, is not on 4th Avenue, but on Campbell & Grant), where I used to go on Saturday mornings for breakfast and wonder why I was living in a place where the sun shone 350 days of the year.

Yesterday, I did these things again -- a solitary breakfast at Blue Willow, where this time I read The Tucson Weekly and saw that WRITING BEGINS WITH THE BREATH was their #10 bestseller that week. (I almost choked on my pinto bean burrito). I debated going back to 4th Avenue or to return to I-10 and head home. It's been a very long week. I gassed up at a Chevron on Prince and Campbell and sat for ten minutes trying to convince myself that I didn't need to spend the $200 I would surely spend if I went back to 4th Avenue. But I went back anyway. And yes, I contributed to the local economy in a way that would please the current administration.

I left Tucson in a rush in 1988. I didn't even stay for my graduation. I had finally broken up with N and just wanted to start over again far far away. I ripped myself away from Tucson, but I left a piece of my flesh there, wandering 4th Avenue, wondering what happened to the Goodwill where she bought her first used couch. I left her hanging out in the Modern Languages Building on the U of A campus hoping to hear something she missed while she was fighting N, and fighting the grief over her father's death.

I catch glimpses of her sometimes, in fitting room mirrors in the vintage shops where I spent weekends. She doesn't have as many wrinkles as I do now. She also doesn't have as much hair!

I walk past The Coyote Wore Sideburns, a hair salon that is still exactly where it was in 1988, where I went to shave my head after leaving N. My hair then was long; mid-back. "Get rid of it," I said to the heavily tattoed woman.

"What's his name?" she said.

I told her.

"We'll get you back," she said. And in less than ten minutes, my head held only a peach fuzz of hair. I didn't let it grow long again for 19 years.

When I visit Tucson, I feel her breathing. I chase her, but when I get close enough to touch her shoulder, she disappears into the fierce morning light. I can't quite bring myself to leave without her, but I can't stay long enough to find her. So I get back in the car and head west again, following the train tracks. She has to wander, I guess, and I have to go looking for her.

Maybe one day she'll forgive me for leaving her, and maybe one day I'll forgive her for staying.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Perpendicular Universe

I was invited to Thatcher, Arizona to conduct a workshop and reading at the local college. For the princely sum of $500, I loaded up my car with books and headed southeast for a 500 mile round trip. I knew Thatcher was rural. I knew it was a mining town. Here’s what I didn’t know:

Christ, Copper and Cattle. The hand printed sign marked the entrance to Thatcher. I’d just come through the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, where the odds of getting run off the road by an overloaded Ford pick up were greater than the chance of rain in March. I’d eaten lunch in Globe at an under construction Jack-in-the-Box. The screams of the mountains that had been cut and re-cut by Phelps-Dodge echoed off the empty tar shacks and singlewides with plastic windows that had littered the winding road. I’d been itching to get out of Prescott, my tiny mountain town of 20,000. I’ve been waking up to dreams of San Francisco (as I do whenever it’s been more than three months since I’ve stood on Market street waiting for a bus.) I want to see a play (besides Oklahoma). I want to go to a concert beyond the limitations of 6th grade band. I want to go to an art museum.

Thatcher is flat farmland under the gaze of the snow covered San Carlos mountains. I pass two Angus cattle farms before turning into the college. The buildings are new and beautiful – brick with huge glass windows. The grass is green. The clock tower honors the veterans of Thatcher. I enter Building 16, the Academic Building, and am faced with my own image on a flier advertising the events today. The inside of the building is carpeted (yes, a college is carpeted). It’s clean. The bathroom is immaculate. Gold-tinted fixtures. Pink, deep sinks. Soft light. A school shouldn’t be this clean, no matter how new the building is. Spooky clean.

I go to the second floor to meet S, the woman who brought me in. Her office reminds me of my own – too many books, too many posters. Her skirt is six inches above the knee on legs I immediately wanted as my own. “I get shit for this all the time,” she says. I like her right away. “You want some coffee?” I nod. “Great! I’ll have to get the coffee pot. I hide it.”

I’m introduced to M, another faculty member. She touches the sleeve of my shirt. “At least you wore long sleeves,” she says, then touches my ankles. “Possibly they’ll believe the special underwear can be concealed by your pants.” I think she’s joking. She is, sort of. She’s one of the cool ones. She’s been in trouble for teaching M. Butterfly in her literature classes.

S is quick to let me know who is OK and who isn’t. “I’m the reason they’ve got a coffee pot at all,” she says, flashing a wicked smile.

The pervasive Mormonism is beginning to sink in. I knew Thatcher was rural. I didn’t know it was Mormon-run. “You don’t know the half of it,” S tells me, and proceeds to chronicle events that rival Big Love. I’m thinking of my reading that evening. Helen, my protagonist, is standing on the edge of Golden Gate Park in 1967, realizing, after hearing the wailing of Janis Joplin, that she doesn’t need her husband, Frank, and doesn’t need the baby she’s carrying. She’s standing on the edge of Golden Gate Park realizing she doesn’t need the myth.

“It’s good for them,” S says. “Shock them out of their worldview.”

“I’m not sure about the workshop,” I say. “I’m asking people to do some woo-woo things.”

“Woo-woo is great,” she says. “Levitate and chant all hour if you want. You’ll still get paid.” I begin to see that I may be able to do what she is unable to do because of her job, her circumstances, her plans for her own future. She’s a single, smart, non-Mormon woman. She’s got to be careful.

We swallow the last of our contraband legal stimulant drink, and head to room 269. They come in wearing white pinafores. They are blonde. They are white. They are demure. The women/girls watch me and I feel like a circus performer. My nose ring feels four inches thick. I start to talk to them about yoga, careful to use only English, no Sanskrit. I ask them to focus on their breathing. Lift their shoulders to their ears. Massage their temples. Release their jaws. I talk to them about meditation. About emptying the mind before deep writing occurs. I talk to them about the importance of listening to the voice inside you, not the voice outside you. They write. Some of them refuse to do the breathing or the movement. But they all write. One exceptionally blonde girl, about 18, wearing a pink blouse and long white cotton dress, doesn’t take her eyes off me the entire ninety minutes. I worry I have a huge piece of lettuce on my front teeth.

At dinner, I realize S is a sister. She has traveled all around the world. At her house, she shows me a picture of her with an African medicine man, dripping cow’s head behind them. She has two beautiful dogs and a cat, and she loves them fully. I want to pluck S out of here and take her somewhere – anywhere. I feel her dying. I remember it in myself.

The evening reading is full with three classes that were required to be there. In the front row, however, are two lesbians. One of whom does graphic art for the college. The other is her partner, and a spitting image of k.d. lang. I will read for them. I hardly look up from the pages. I move into the novel, feeling Helen around me. I am in Golden Gate Park in 1967, and I am rejecting the myth. The front row is with me. They gasp. They laugh. They blink tears of recognition. The rest of the audience is polite (of course), but when it is over, they don’t move. The applause comes after a pregnant pause. They don’t ask questions. The two lesbians ask question after question after question, and we end up talking for an hour after the reading ends. The students hurry to leave, taking an extra cup of pink punch on the way out the door.

“Thank you for being real,” one of them says.

“I don’t know how you can do it,” the other one says. “But it’s beautiful.”

So this is why I came. This is why I traveled 500 miles for $500. Being in service to the work doesn’t always come with instructions. It doesn’t always feel like it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t always feel like it makes a difference. But those women hugged me – real, full body hugs – after the reading, and when I got in the car with S we both knew that it mattered to them that I had come. Maybe another woman in the audience will realize that she doesn’t need a man to be complete. Maybe another woman will realize that there is more out there in the world for her than babies. Maybe a man will realize there’s more for him than Christ, Cattle, and Copper. I’ll never know. And that’s the ultimate detachment. The gifts of the work are never fully known. That’s exactly as it should be. The work isn’t mine. It belongs to something much larger than I can understand. It belongs to the earth, and maybe it’s more important to bring it to people who would never find it than to preach to the choir. I need the choir, but maybe it’s the others who need me.

The yellow haze over Mesa is a beautiful sight. I cruise into the familiarity of fluorescence and fast food, grateful for the insanity I am comfortable with. I may never return to Thatcher in this lifetime, but I am a better woman for having been.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Ramming into Truth

The last month has drowned me in student work. It's a hazard of the job -- one I know is there, yet always find shocking, like that first step into a sunny 20 degree afternoon. I caught the crud for about ten days, and tried to keep myself healthy, keep a yoga practice going, keep up with the onslaught of student stories and novel chapters and essays, and yes, write. Or, to be more honest, think about writing. A lot.

I do love to teach, so one of my favorite distractions is looking through texts and planning how to use them in a classroom. I love finding new approaches. I love reading new exercises, and I love especially seeing how other writers have handled the writer's dilemma of teaching creative writing while trying to actually write creative writing. I'm on my way to about 1000 miles of driving in the next five days to pimp the book at different schools and bookstores. I take these trips with the illusion that I'll write in the hotel room, or when I stop for lunch, but I know better. It's a different part of my brain -- the teacher, promoter, schmoozer -- than the writer part. Both are necessary, but I haven't yet figured out how to comfortably combine them in a single body. So I spend a spring break that could be used writing, promoting. But ya gotta, or else you don't have another book. So you gas up at $3.25/gallon and hope you remember to keep track of the mileage for 2008 taxes.

I have, however, been ghost writing. Ghost wrestling. Realizing that to write about ghosts as a white girl -- and not even a European white girl, but a gen-yoo-ine American white girl, in a white girl's culture that dismisses ghosts outright -- is akin to standing in front of the National Geological Society and screaming, "The earth is flat!" Alas. Chinese literature contains ghosts-a-plenty. Native American literature. African American literature. Japanese, Korean, Thai, Hindu, Indian, Spanish, Mexican, Cuban -- the list goes on and on. What happened to the white people ghosts? I laugh, of course, because they're right here, in the same places as everyone else's ghosts. We pay a high spiritual price as a culture for poo-pooing them. Since I know that we white folks have our ghosts, I have decided to form a movement -- call it maybe White People See Freaky Shit Too -- or What's the Difference 'Tween Your Jesus and My Ghost -- but those don't fit well on bumper stickers or T-shirts.

So I press on into the ghosts, and as I do, I realize that I have to write a memoir in fiction. I just can't tell the truth in the way the world currently sees truth. My truth is a layer of lace. My truth is a discordant harmonium. My truth holds its eyes open without blinking long enough for the edges around "solid" objects to blur. So, my newest approach (and if you've been reading these all along, you know this may well not be the last one) to this ridiculous memoir project, is to turn it into a novel -- a "Based on Actual Events" event. The truth takes my voice. It hardens the edges of my paragraphs until they feel like they could be part of a composition text. The truth steals my magic. I have to show that I can write the truth and still create the world I live in convincingly enough for people who work in tall East Coast buildings (even buildings whose elevators don't stop on a 13th floor). I have to pretend I'm not me, so you'll believe I'm me. I have to create a character of myself and pull you in with her voice (yes, mine, but you'll think it's hers). You'll feel safer in her world of ghosts than mine. And when the ghosts speak through me (her), you'll hear the same words tickling the base of your own throat, holding open your eyes just a few blinks too long.