Monday, June 29, 2009

Domestic Vision Quest

A big PSHAW to those of you who think you need the great outdoors and bright sun and bugs and no indoor plumbing or showers to have a vision quest. Pshaw. You can do it in your very own home! All the elements are there, and you can go to the bathroom indoors and take a shower whenever you get too icki-fied.

Here's how it starts. You go to see your teacher and friend (you remember the one -- the one who somehow convinced you to eat quinoa and barley and swing a 27 pound iron kettle bell around your house) to talk about bizarre happenings in your body. Turns out, all you needed was to get more white fish to balance out the orange fish in your living room. :-)

Seriously, your teacher comes over to your house and politely doesn't mention the pile of shoes in the living room (there was nowhere else for them to go!). He spends several hours in deep contemplation at the state of your house. You suddenly see your house as someone else might (as opposed to the "well, it was so much WORSE when you lived in Phoenix" lens.) You realize that indeed your house is choking, and that's really a shame because you love your house, and it probably doesn't know how much you love it since, well, you've been strangling it.

He tells you that you've lost 30% of your body mass in the past two years. Your house needs to lose at least that much. He tells you to imagine that the house is shaking. What would it get rid of? He tells you to look at each space in the house (yes, corners, drawers, and that Dark Place Where No One Knows What Lives There) and ask it if it can breathe. Take out what needs to go for that space to breathe. He leaves you with incense and a promise that he and his wife will come back and help you create a space outside the house as well. (You are She Who Kills All Things Green and know you can't manage that part alone).

You, being you, having remained stuck, suddenly erupt with a fire in the belly and spew out everything that's clogging the pathways. You work for 4-1/2 days straight. You haul car load after car load off to the dump or Goodwill or the battered women's shelter. You make piles of things for friends. You give things to Keith's children. You burn burn burn for three hours in your backyard chiminea journals from high school and college. You burn your therapy notes. Your therapy art work. Your notes and letters and pictures from things that don't matter. You find bank statements from banks that don't exist (and didn't exist long before this year of The Dead Bank). You find mortgage papers from a house you actually never owned (this one's a mystery still).

You touch every book. Every article of clothing. You try on every garment you own. If it doesn't fit, it goes in the bag. If it's too big it goes away (you're not going to be that size again). If it's too small, it goes away (you were actually never that size). You sort your jewelry by color and pass on what others might like. You pare down your scarf collection from oh, say, a hundred, to thirty.

Time loses meaning. You don't know if it's Friday or Sunday. You eat when you're hungry. You take a shower when the dirt and old energy is too much to keep holding. You become loopy from lack of sleep and your internal censor vanishes as you babble. You wonder who will emerge from this journey.

You hit the proverbial wall on Saturday when you enter your office. This room has (had) things in boxes you just carried from apartment to apartment in Phoenix, to your house in Phoenix, and then to your house in Prescott without opening them. You know (or you think you know) what's in them. You open them and you find something different from what you expected. You thought you'd find your younger self and that you'd want to keep her. Instead, you found the baggage of your younger self, and you realize you don't need that. Your younger self is not in the boxes. She is inside you, and she whispers, "Yeah, it's been 25 years. It's done." And you know it's done, and though you cry, you also dance. You give thanks.

You find pictures of yourself looking like you never remembered you looked. You find transcripts and letters of recommendation and handouts from every class you ever taught before everything went electronic. You find expired medications and cosmetics.

Empty space used to scare you before you felt what space felt like in your body. An empty wall used to feel like fingers scratching on a chalkboard. This is not true anymore. You now know every single thing that's in your house. Down to the silverware and socks.

You call your teacher and tell him to bring it on. There's room for the next thing.

(Side Note on Soundtracks: I chose a station I created called "I Will Survive". It played disco hits from the 70s and 80s. The thump thump and familiarity of the songs helped keep me moving. Do NOT choose a soundtrack of, say, Leonard Cohen. You'll end up drinking yourself to death and pushing everything back in the closet.)

Some sample pictures:

The living room.

The corner of the living room towards the kitchen.

The corner of the living room going up the stairs.

The bedroom closet!!

My desk with my fabulous Mac.

The corner of my office.

And finally, the bottle of wine Keith and I will share tonight at the Thai House.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Natural Talent

It happens every semester. The student creeps up to you in the very last breath of your office hour. Or she waits until the rest of the class has gathered up their backpacks and water bottles. Sometimes he's shy. Sometimes she's bold. Sometimes he poses it as a challenge. Sometimes more of a prayer.

"Do I have any talent?"

For a writing teacher, this question is the equivalent of being asked to reveal state secrets to the Taliban. And, fortunately, I've honed my Special Forces resistance skills over the years to where I can keep a poker face and provide the only answer that is ethical. "I can't answer that."

The reason the poker face is needed is because I'm still a human being. The students I work with present a wide range of abilities. I have personal tastes that I try to keep out of the classroom, but are still a part of how I see literature.

I'm convinced people ask the question because they want to be validated. My job is not to validate. My job is to help my students grow as writers. Think about it. The last time you asked someone if your butt looked fat in those jeans, did you really want them to say "actually, yes it does." Likely not.

I am not the Talent Police, nor am I the Talent Judge. I don't think anyone can be. Relax, though. Talent isn't the crystal ball of writing. Perseverance, a commitment to learning the craft, writing writing writing writing writing, studying grammar, reading reading reading reading reading -- these things can make a writer successful. I can't even tell you with certainty whether or not a piece can be published. So much of publishing is changing and out of our control that we can't possibly say with definitive authority -- no, it'll never make it. Or, yes! It's a bestseller. No one knows these things. Please don't ask us. Ask questions such as, "Who can I read more of to learn more about plot?" or "What are some of the different ways I could have approached that character conflict?" or "Where do you think the work fell into cliche?" Ask concrete developmental questions about your work. We can answer those. The work will improve. And the rest will go where it will go.

I think of talent as the magic bean. All of us got a handful of magic beans, but none of us got the same assortment of magic beans. All of these magic beans were not programmed to sprout at the same time. Sometimes they lie dormant until the circumstances arise for them to bloom. Sometimes they are nurtured from early childhood. Some people publish a book in their early twenties. Others not until their eighties. Everyone didn't get the same set of circumstances, so talent cannot be measured in an Excel spreadsheet. Talent can't be ranked, quantified, or implanted.

I also know that since all people are not given equal gifts that all people cannot accomplish the exact same things. No matter how much I want to be a blues singer, it just ain't happening in this life. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy music and singing, but it means the open mic or karaoke night is as far as I'm going to get with my musical ability.

Some people do have more writing talent than others. (Dare I say it? It's like porn -- you can't define it but you know it when you see it.) If you're in my class, I'll never ever tell you whether I think you're talented enough because I only see part of the picture. I can't know enough to tell you what you want (or don't want) to hear. I don't know how badly you want it. I will tell you if individual sentences, or stories, or poems sing. I will tell you how to make a piece stronger.

But only you know when the door of your reality opens and you realize that you can enjoy singing (or writing, or dancing, or swimming) your entire life, but you'll never be a professional. Remember the joy comes in the value of the relationship you have with your art form. Don't lose sight of that joy comparing yourself to the writing of others.

Do your own writing. Study. Read. Read. Read. Write. Read. Push yourself. Don't get complacent (oh, I already know how to write dialogue) -- I'll bet there's something new you could learn. There's something new all of us can learn. Be a constant student whether you're in class or not. Be in service to your art. Listen to it. Walk with it. That's the relationship that will get you wherever you and your writing are supposed to end up in this crazy world.

But talent? Don't worry about it. Your job is to use the magic beans you've been given to the best of your ability. Don't waste them comparing your beans to everyone else's beans. Your commitment is to your growth with your art. Nothing more and nothing less is required of you.

You may never be able to string together clauses like Faulkner, but that's OK. We've had one Faulkner. What is it that you can do?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Attachment and Aversion

My natural tendency is to avoid change. If left to my own devices, I will find ways to work within situations that are blatantly unworkable (like 25 years of living in Phoenix) rather than run the risk of doing something different. I want friendships to stay the same. I want the places where I lived to stay the same. I want my job to stay the same. I even want my phone number to stay the same. My dad wrote birthday letters to us every year, and in one of mine he wrote that I resisted change more than anyone he'd ever known. I was eleven.

It seems also that my natural tendency is toward worst-case scenario. Yes, today's situation might be less than ideal, but we better not do anything about it because it could be much much worse. When we first moved to Phoenix, our family attended a free program at the Glendale library about personalities. I was a melancholic. Yes. At twelve. (Many fine writers, I went on to research, were also melancholic. So there.)

I am working on the "attachment and aversion" chapter in The Writing Warrior, and my first thought about those concepts is, yeah, well, so? Although I know they're the twin sisters of suffering, I still stomp my feet in defiance of the reality of change.

When I was very young, I had a baby blanket that I loved. I slept with it. Carried it around the house. I had planned to take it to school when I started kindergarten, and I remember telling mom I was going to have it at my wedding. What I loved most about the blanket was its smell. I don't remember that it smelled dirty -- it just smelled like me -- which likely was dirty if I'd had the blanket four years.

One day, mom told me she was going to wash the blanket and she gave me a new blanket. The new blanket wasn't the same as the old blanket. It was thicker, a different shade of white, and it didn't have the fraying ribbon edge that I loved to rub between my fingers. It turned out mom hadn't planned to wash the blanket. She threw it away and I guess hoped I wouldn't notice. To be fair, mom and I hadn't known each other long enough for her to know I noticed everything -- but more importantly, she couldn't have known yet that once I loved something, I loved it forever. One blanket can't be replaced with another blanket. Not no way. Not no how.

I don't remember how I found out, but I know she ended up getting my blanket back out of the trash. I'm sure there was loud screaming and stomping of feet. I'm sure she thought it was time I got rid of the baby blanket. I'm sure she was right.

But I'm sure of this too. At 40 and ten months, I've still got that blanket in my nightstand.