Saturday, March 21, 2009

Direct Experience

Thanks, LOLcats, for the wealth of blog topics you deliver to my Google reader every day!

So, what's up with Matrix Cat, and what does it have to do with writing?

Matrix Cat is very wise -- you might go so far as to call him Master Matrix Cat, or MMC. MMC peers out at you from behind what appears to be a screen. He is able to see all of you, but you are only able to see fragments of him. MMC is taunting you, really, with his vast awareness and cuteness and fluffiness, and he knows you just want to reach your hand through the screen and touch him.

He knows you will want this because you are human and you want to grasp at shiny cute things (publishing, getting an agent, getting on Oprah). When you try to put your hand through the screen to touch wise MMC, he will jump just out of your reach. He will then lick his paws and wash his face and you will believe, "Oh, I was so close! Here's what I'll do to touch MMC next time. I'll..." and a plan will formulate, and along with the plan, an obsession will follow. You will become obsessed with touching MMC, because when you do, all will be revealed. And of course, once all is revealed, you will be whole, complete, and perfectly happy.

Notice the "if/then" thinking? If only I have this, then I will be .... Sound familiar to anyone? If only I could get an agent, then I'd be a real writer. If only my agent would sell something, then I'd be a real writer. If only my book would get on the NY Times bestseller list, then I'd be happy. Once I'm happy, then I can do ... Once I have XYZ, then I can write. Harumph.

Well, wise MMC is not only wise, but a trickster. Each time you leap farther to catch him, he will jump a millimeter too far away to touch. He will purr loudly. He will look directly at you. Nay! He will speak directly to your soul! He will call you, meow at you, need you. (He needs me! He needs me!) He will watch you let all the rest of your life fall away as you focus on the reaching. He will watch your relationships crumble, your money savvy vanish, your weight balloon or shrink, your addictions dance, your writing (I'm sorry -- were you supposed to be writing? Was this whole thing about the writing?) lying dead beside you.

Here's your new mantra: What Would Wise Master Matrix Cat Do? Make up a bracelet -- WWWMMCD. Go chase that one awhile. It's an illusion too.

Try this one: What IS Wise Master Matrix Cat Doing? WIWMMCD. Ah, wise MMC is showing you your cage. Wise MMC is showing you your patterns. Your obsessions. Wise MMC is watching you burn yourself out chasing illusion.

There is no wise Master Matrix Cat. There is only the Matrix.

There is no thinking about, planning about, talking about, analyzing about writing. Writing is writing. The rest is the chase. Sometimes you have to wear yourself out chasing before you slow down enough to sink into the direct experience of writing. Chasing isn't good or bad. Chasing is just chasing.

However, when you do stop running after your own tail, wise Master Matrix Cat will come sit on your lap.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ghost Gifts

Dad came to visit today, just after I finished putting on my mascara. I turned away from the mirror and there he was in the hallway by all the family photographs. He held out a healthy warm arm. "Care to dance?"

I slid my fingers between his. "Been away awhile."

"Lots to do."

His right palm pressed into the small of my back as we waltzed, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3. His left hand held my right in the air and I twirled and when I finished spinning, he was still there. I pressed my hands onto his chest and felt the beating of his life in my palms.

"I thought you had gone too far," I said. "I thought you'd never come back again. I haven't seen you in years."

"You have too many cats."

"Should have let me bring our first cat in the house."

"Cats belong outside."

I gulp in air, afraid to exhale and blow him back to wherever he came from. But I have to, and I do, and he is still here.

1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.

"I believed in your life before you were born," he whispered. "Your mother and I. We believed in you before we ever saw you."

1-2-3. 1-2-3. 1-2-3.

He was solid today, not a see-through whisper of a man. He was warm and full of healthy bones and blood. I wanted to lay my head on his shoulder, but I knew I couldn't do that. He wasn't really there. He wasn't really there.

My cheekbone hit his collarbone, bone to bone. My nose touched his neck which smelled alive. I let my shoulders fall away from my ears and I wrapped my arms around his body and there was substance in the space between my hands and chest. I traced the outline of his face, his smile, his eyes the only part of him that shone too bright, the only part of him that would have told me:

This is my father, but this is not my father. This is his body, but his heart is not contained by "father." Not contained by "Glenn Herring." Not contained at all, and so it shines cobalt blue light out through his eyes so I will know he is more than he had ever imagined he could be.

"When did you learn how to dance?" he asked.

"When I learned how to grieve," I said.

"When did you learn how to write?"

"When I learned how to be silent."

"When did you learn how to love?"

"When I learned how to let go."

We separate until only our hands are clasped. Don't stay away so long next time, I want to say, but I don't. I breathe. And rather than vanishing, as he's done in the past, he turns, slides his fingers away from mine, and turns toward the stairs.

"I am always dancing with you, sugar."

And as he walked slowly down the stairs and out the door, leaving the space in my house warm and beating and full, I pulled my hands onto my belly, breathed into my bones, and whispered, "Thank you."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

When You Catch Writer's Block On the Side of the Road, Kill It

I know, I know, you're already mad at me and I haven't even said anything. But isn't the kitty cute? And isn't it just even a little bit funny?

I'm working up my notes for The Writing Warrior (manuscript deadline October 15!), and I'm trying to locate the heart of the book. I do this not by thinking about what the heart could be, but by writing about what I think I want to write about, which inevitably points out the flaws in my thinking and points me in the direction I need to be writing. I thought it would be a fun use of the blog to chronicle some of the writing process -- the starts and stops and detours.

This semester, my students have been very resistant to practice. Perhaps because it's spring and they want to be dancing in fields of poppies. Perhaps because they are worried about their futures. Perhaps because they are simply not ready to commit to writing. There's no judgment on that. Writing is serious business.

I've had students complain to me that they aren't writing enough, and when I ask them if they're writing, they say, "Well, no..." Hmmm. Good thing I got these fancy shmancy degrees to diagnose the problem there. :-) Writing begets writing. There's no other way to write but to write. There are no tricks, though there are plenty of diversions. One of the things I hope to show in The Writing Warrior is that any structure someone provides you for writing, or any structure you create yourself, is only as beneficial as your ability to work freely within it. It's only as beneficial as your ability to stay centered and focused. The structure or the concept doesn't make the writing work. Your discipline and practice and flexibility make the writing work. When a structure of any kind (relationship, job, religion, writing, city) becomes a prison, it's time to move.

Now, what writing practice does is it illuminates each writer's personal "stuff", for lack of an appropriate blog word. It yanks out into the open everything that writer has been trying not to look at. And so the writer goes away. This is normal behavior, but a book about writing, or a class about writing, can't address the nuts and bolts (yes, here's the way to punctuate dialogue) without addressing the real reason writing is hard. It holds up a mirror to your own demons. It dares you to look, and dares you further to write about it, and then dares you even further to share it publicly. Yeah, is it too late to change majors to something safer like Pyrotechnics in the Middle East?

Writing practice brings up your limitations. This is a gift, not a problem. Awareness creates softness and compassion. Illusion creates fear and contraction. The more you know about what you do and why you think and feel the way you do, the more room you have to make authentic decisions. Writing practice shows you your belief systems about yourself, your family, your world. It shows you where you need to be right and where you feel invisible. Gifts, gifts, gifts.

One of my favorite books is If You Meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon Kopp. What he means, of course, is on your quest to self-knowledge, anything that gets in your way toward true self-intimacy, needs to go. Even if that something is a revered deity. Get it out of your way. It's a symbol, it's the finger pointing at the moon, it's representative of an endless search. You don't need it.

At the Tucson Festival of Books last weekend, I came across When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda. Hilarious book.

So, lest you think I hate adjectives and all manifestations of God/dess, let me reassure you that I don't. I have been known to use an adjective or two, and right now my office displays a statue of Buddha, Ganesh, Kali, the Venus of Willendorf, a yin/yang symbol and a cross.

One of the exercises I give my first year creative writing students is to write a passage describing a person they know without using any adjectives or adverbs. The intent is not to wipe adjectives and adverbs off the face of the earth, but rather to show the student that very often they cloud the image of the noun. They get in the way of the reader seeing what is really there. As Ben Yagoda says, adjectives are often used by lazy writers "who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun."

Writers get in the way of their own writing because they don't yet know that the writing is where they are. There is no where to go. No writing that will unlock the secret code to fame and fortune. No writing that will bring about world peace. But what writing will do is open the writer's heart. It will bring forth her sorrows and her joys, her secrets and her lies. It will bring these out, and once in daylight, they will vanish and she will find she has space in her body, in her mind, and in her heart. And as one writer opens to herself, she brings that changed being into the world and into her contact with others. She has no attachment to whether others change or not, no attachment to whether they write or don't; she simply is, and in that 'is-ness' she is the noun, nothing in the way of all that beauty.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

To Be Loved and Eaten

The image above is the tattooed chest of one of my novel writing students. The line is from Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days. We read the novel in class this semester. I've taught the book three times. Three times most of the students hate it.

I keep teaching it because the way the text frustrates the readers challenges their belief systems. It challenges the way they see the world and the way they believe the world ought to be. I put up with the whining and moaning and crying over the book because it's, well, just that good. Cunningham, using the words of Walt Whitman's "Specimen Days", weaves a three-part narrative that flies in the face of conventional narrative structure. But more than that, it directly addresses human hope, human apathy, and the forces of industrial and technological changes we've thrust upon the earth. It has the courage to hold up a mirror to us and show us the impermanence of our world. It places meaning squarely in the present moment, not in a hoped-for-perhaps-maybe-one-day heaven in the clouds. It calls to account a responsibility for your own life. Right here. Right now.

Yes, I do understand why it challenges people. I do understand why Specimen Days didn't receive the status of his Pulitzer Prize winning The Hours. It is simply too challenging. It pulls you into the book and forces you to examine the way in which you read -- the way in which you experience and expect narrative to unfold -- the way in which you believe society works, or should work. It challenges the narrative you've written around God or no-God, technology or no-technology, hope or no-hope.

The line my student tattooed on his body comes from the first section, "In the Machine." This section takes place at the end of the 19th century and the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in America. The climax of that section occurs during a garment factory fire, reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. One woman poised to jump from the flames communicates to Lucas (the protagonist): “God is a holy machine that loves us so fiercely, so perfectly he devours us, all of us. It is what we’re here for, to be loved and eaten.”

When my student came to class and showed off his tattoo, many people in the class couldn't understand why he would do that. They couldn't understand what he understood about the story -- and certainly not what he embraced enough about it to permanently mark it on his flesh.

I wanted to cry when I saw it. Not just because a student responded so positively to a text I'd chosen (though that alone was cause for celebration), but because of the line he picked. He selected the heart of the book. The heart of Walt Whitman. For me, the imperfect, broken, bleeding, healing, regenerating heart of humanity.

Live fiercely. Live now. Love fiercely. Love now. And when it's time to go somewhere else, surrender your flesh so that it nourishes another creature. We are no more nor less than the blades of grass. No more no less than any other creation. The least we can do, after all our fierce loving, fierce consuming, and fierce living, is give something back to the beautiful earth, ensuring ultimately, life everlasting.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New eyes

Got some new spectacles today. They even have little lions etched into the sides of them. :-) I tried to take a picture of that, but they looked more like creepy skeleton heads than cool lions, so I opted not to share!

When I put them on, I remembered putting on my first pair of glasses when I was seven. I didn't know what I hadn't been seeing until that first pair went on and leaves and blades of grass and clouds with shapes appeared. I'm a 34-year veteran of glasses now. I began wearing contact lenses in eighth grade. I had to wear the hard ones because of my astigmatism. Many painful panicked moments occurred when I popped them out of my eyes only to have them bounce and land somewhere on the carpet. When gas permeable lenses became available for astigmatism, I thought nothing could be any better! But then, sigh, Toric lenses became available, and I have worn those for the past ten years or so.

Since my eyewear runs upwards of $800-$1000 if I buy both glasses and contacts, I put off the optometrist's visit as long as possible. I always wore contacts primarily, so I skimped on the glasses as much as I could. Alas, as I inch above forty years old, my eyes are no longer terribly excited to be on the computer ten hours a day in contact lenses. I'm not seeing as well, and every once in awhile things are cloudy. So, I went to the optometrist a few weeks ago. I bought both glasses and (omg!) disposable contact lenses. Apparently, they now make disposable lenses for people who can't see! Those aren't in yet, but my eyeglasses arrived today. (Never can I be the "we'll have your lenses ready in a hour girl!") This time, I didn't skimp on them. I got the frames I wanted. I paid the price of a small computer for the fabulously-super-light-weight plastic. I got the UV coating. The scotch guard. The anti-glare. The everything.

You get what you pay for --- at least with glasses. I put them on and they didn't feel like I was wearing anything. Now, those of you who don't wear glasses, or who have a reasonable prescription, may not know how awful it is to wear glasses all the time that are falling down your nose, affecting your peripheral vision, pinching the back of your ears and fogging up all the time. It's awful. These were not awful. These were amazing. I drove home with them on (in the middle of the day, in Arizona) -- no glare, no sun issues, no reflection. I haven't taken them off yet. Oh yeah -- and I actually see better!

Which brings me to the more serious part of the blog ...

Keith and I went to Tucson this past weekend for the Tucson Festival of Books. I gave a presentation and held a mini Q&A session. The festival was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed chatting with people about writing.

But Tucson itself has a sticky hold on me. I went to college at the University of Arizona, which was the site of the festival. I lived there in the three years immediately following my dad's death. I wanted Tucson to be everything, but it wasn't. I wanted Tucson to make it so dad hadn't died, but it couldn't. I wanted Tucson to allow me to slip out of my old life and make a completely new one, but it didn't.

Each time I return to Tucson, I wander around looking for myself. I feel like I've left parts of myself there. This trip was no different. Being back on the U of A campus again brought back the orange blossom smells of grief. Much of the campus looks completely different from the way it looked in 1987. But the old stalwart Modern Languages Building, where I spent the majority of my time, looks the same. Even the bathrooms have the same yellow and brown tiny tile from the 1960s. The signage in the breezeway is still the same white stick on letters style. The shadows that dance inside the breezeway still recognized me.

We snuck around the building, reading bulletin boards and looking up familiar names of professors. A few still remained. (I corrected an apostrophe error on a sign on the door of the chair of the graduate school -- I couldn't help myself. The English department! Sigh.) We walked up and down the mall. One of the workshops I attended was in the old chemistry building. Not much changed in there either. (Except the chemistry department had a nice new state of the art hermetically sealed bar code entry only building next door to the vintage chemistry building, whereas the modern languages building had ... just the modern languages building.)

I thought about how much was on campus then that has vanished entirely. The clock tower. Gentle Ben's. Space to walk around in. And then I thought about why I could never find the parts of myself that I left in Tucson whenever I visited. And then... new eyes.

I moved to Tucson with only part of myself. I had nothing of myself to leave here. When I lived in Tucson, I was the ghost. I didn't fracture in Tucson. I arrived fractured. Now, when I visit, I can't pick up the part of me that's been wandering the streets because only a spectre walked them. She has to keep walking the streets because that's what ghosts do. I can't pick her back up and bring her to Prescott with me. I can't even do more than almost touch her as I walk down 4th Avenue. I feel her, and I see her, but she lives there. Maybe not for always. I don't know. But for now, all I can do is honor her -- the little nineteen year old girl-shell who came to Tucson with no skin. The little nineteen year old girl-shell who had enough of something to start everything over. Who had enough grief to channel into rage which became at last motion and now stillness. The little nineteen year old girl-shell who showed me that there is nothing I can not survive. Nothing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


I have good news! Yesterday, Shambhala made an offer on my book THE WRITING WARRIOR. The book is a follow up, of sorts, to Writing Begins with the Breath. You know -- sort of but different. :-) I don't yet have a publication date, but I'll definitely let you know. I'm thrilled to be working with Shambhala again, and I'm ecstatic to have sold a book in this challenging market.

I thought it might be helpful to those of you who are writers who read the blog to outline the very long path this project went through before finding a home.

In 2006, I sold Writing Begins with the Breath to Shambhala based only on a proposal. I wrote the draft in about six months. After several drafts and edits, it found a life in print in the fall of 2007. The contract I signed had a 'right of first refusal' clause in it. That means that the next property I had to sell, Shambhala has the right to look at it and refuse it first.

My agent and I submitted a novel. It was a long shot, since Shambhala is not known for fiction, but we tried. The editor liked it. Asked for revisions. I provided them. We waited. We made more revisions. We waited. The editor took it to the editorial board, but she couldn't convince them to buy it. This process alone took almost 9 months.

We then submitted a memoir. I submitted a proposal first and received input from the editor. I wrote furiously and fiercely. (Great adverbs, huh?) I tried to do too many things with the book -- make it both a writing book and a memoir. Didn't work. No focus. Shambhala didn't want it. We then sent the memoir to other houses. One editor wrote back right away with the kind of thing a writer wants to hear ... "I almost missed my train stop! I couldn't stop reading." Ahhh... a writer's dream. Alas, the editorial board at her house apparently could stop reading. No sale.

I began working on a few different novels, including some young adult ideas. I have a proposal under consideration for a textbook with Pearson/Longman. I wait.

My agent and I began submitting those novels around. I went to teach back east at the Omega Institute in June and at Kripalu in January. I studied more yoga. I studied Taoism. I kept writing and kept not-writing. I kept teaching. After my workshop at Kripalu, I knew I had a new book concept. I wrote it up, wrote some sample chapters, and sent it to Shambhala. The editor sent it back. Too "x.y.z." Not enough "a.b.c." My agent and I talked about it. I thought about it. I started over. We submitted it again. We received an e-mail from the editor. She likes it. She's taking it to the editorial board. It'll be two weeks.

So, it was two weeks. And then it was a yes.

The process for this book was actually fairly fast -- approximately 18 months. It'll likely be another 18-24 months before there's a book in my hand (and hopefully yours!)

The message: Persevere. Rewrite. Rethink. Re-vision. Be open. Don't attach to an outcome. Don't attach to a vision for the book. Someone else might have a better way. Listen. Remain true to what is authentic and let the rest go. Always have multiple projects. You never know.

Some other shameless self-promotion news:

I will be appearing on Saturday, March 14 at 2:30 at the Tucson Festival of Books. I'm doing a workshop and discussion called THE ZEN OF CREATIVE WRITING. Come on out and visit. It's going to be an amazing weekend. Everything is free! Even the parking! How can you go wrong?

End Shameless Self-Promotion.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

National Grammar Day

March 4 is National Grammar (not grammer) Day!

What are your plans for fighting the forces of grammatical evil and terrorism that assault us every day at threat level red?

May I suggest a few things:

Visit the National Grammar Day website. You'll see a playlist of songs called Bad Grammar Hall of Fame. Guess who's (that's who's not whose!) featured? Bob Dylan's Lay, Lady, Lay. Come on. You know why that's wrong. Right? :-)

Join SPOGG! Yeah, did you know there was a Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar? America rocks.

SPOGG's website is for people who crave good, clean English — sentences cast well and punctuated correctly. It's about clarity. And who knows how many of the world's huge problems could be solved if we had a little more of that?


Understand that travel is challenging for those of us who care about English usage. I consider myself a Defender of the English Language. A DEL! :-)

Billboards, newspapers and advertisements constantly present incorrect statements. We DELs do understand that English is evolving. We understand that the rules of 19th century textbooks no longer apply. We can even, from time to time, accept text talk in a paper for one of our English classes (but only if we're really in a good mood!)

Here are some things that haven't changed:

your and you're

I want your wardrobe.
You're a stuck up grammar snob.

it's and its

It's going to snow today.
Pick up the shovel by its handle.

(I was on the PBS site yesterday, and they misused its. PBS! I had to close out the browser window and weep.)

would have and could have

Never should thou write would of or could of. If that was right, then the contraction would be would'f. Yeah. Goofy.

CDs for plural, not CD's

If it were CD's, the writer would mean belonging to the CD. Example: I love that CD's artwork. In this sentence, the word artwork is referring back to the CD, indicating that it belongs to (possessive) the CD.

Example: Will you go stock the CDs? Here, we mean more than one CD. No apostrophe.

And while I'm on the apostrophe: Whoever told you that you add an apostrophe whenever you encounter a word ending in s is wrong. Wrong. So wrong.

Example: Cat's for sale.

This could be right, if the author was intending to say: The cat is for sale. But more than likely, the author meant more than one cat was for sale. This, in principle (not principal) is silly because everyone knows there are more than enough free cats in the world.

balled and bawled

I never knew the confusion around this one until I started teaching and my sweet eighteen year olds wrote stories in which the female protagonist is crying (balling). Makes you laugh on a Saturday afternoon.

These are my pet peeves. Every card carrying member of SPOGG has his or her (that's his or her, not their because the subject is singular not plural) own grammar-nazi tendencies. If you're one of our students, beware and be wary. We do have a sense of humor. And we understand there are simple typographical errors. And yes, we understand that sentence fragments and run-ons sometimes contribute to style, especially in creative writing.

But trust me. If you don't know how to use the language, you'll never be able to use the language in an original way. You'll always imitate. Understand how to construct a variety of sentences with modifiers in the right place. For example:

Slipping on the banana peel, her purse flew out of Susie's hand. Wrong! (And funny. Here's where our sense of humor comes in handy!)

Susie's purse flew out of her hand after she slipped on the banana peel. Right! And not as funny.

Creative writing doesn't mean cultivating a blatant disregard for the rules of punctuation. Creative writing doesn't give you free reign (not rain) to use and abuse sentence structures and commas. (May I one (not won) day meet the curriculum developer who taught a boatload of students to put (not putt) commas wherever a student feels a need for a pause. It won't (not wont) be pretty.)

This is your language. Bend it. Play with it. Love it. Few things are more amazing than a human's ability to use language to communicate. But when we don't follow the basic rules of grammar, we don't communicate as well as we could. And then we're (not were) left with Bushisms. Don't we know where that got us?

Happy Grammar Day! Your nation needs you!