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 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.