Monday, November 29, 2010

So You Want to Write a Novel





If only I wrote this, but I didn't. But I could have. And at this time of the semester when I have heard everything (& I mean everything) about how easy writing is, how anyone can do it, why grammar doesn't matter (there are editors, silly girl!), why reading is dying, why there's no craft involved in writing, no work involved, no revision, no discipline (it's creative after all) ... how I want to be allowed to say, as this poor teacher in the video says, "I wish I could kill you and get away with it."

But I can't say it.

So, for all of you who are teaching writing, this is for you. And for all of you who are writing, this is for you.

And for those of you who are my students who do get it (and I know who you are, and I think you do too...) thank you. It's because of you that I can stand the rest of it. If you know why the phrase "fiction novel" is hilarious, thank you. If you know why this dear young writer is delusional, thank you. If you understand why phoning agents is hilarious, why "I've been living my life, not wasting my time reading" is hilarious, why "but my idea is a guaranteed bestseller", why the emphasis on "my work is copyrighted" is hilarious, and why "but I'm the talent" is hilarious, thank you, thank you, thank you. Come back to my class anytime. We'll work it.

And to whomever put this video together, thank you for saying everything that my overworked, end of the semester internal censor must stop cold at my teeth.

I'll see you on Oprah. :-) (that's hilarious too...)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

In Defense of Fiction


Something has happened. Somewhere along the line, imagination has become a bad word. Reading stories that are not "true" has become a waste of time, something one does while waiting for a root canal, or because one is in a literature class being force-fed novels. There are so many "true" books out there, why read fiction?

I hear this from my students (keep in mind, these are students who want to be writers). The gifts of a story, a piece of fiction, have gotten lost in the labyrinth of information and data and statistics that have become the ways in which we measure the success of our lives. I simply cannot tell you how this breaks my heart. Data never makes me cry (well, maybe in frustration). Information may tell me which train to take and what corner to stand on to catch that next bus, but it won't make meaning of my journey. The meaning comes from the filters. From the point of view, from the characters, from the false starts, the connections, the disconnections, the revisioning, and most important of all, the reflection.

The characters from my childhood fictions (Ramona the Pest, Harriet the Spy, Betsey, Tacy and Tibb, Paddington the Bear, the Velveteen Rabbit) are as much a part of my family as my literal family. Toni Morrison's stunning character Beloved, Shug Avery in Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, John Grimes from James Baldwin's Go Tell It On the Mountain, Rosa in Alma Luz Villanueva's The Ultraviolet Sky -- these characters, these people, (and thousands more) showed me something about myself. They showed me something of the world, of a different way of living, of unexamined possibilities.

Data did not tell me I could be a writer (though my childhood test scores showed that.) Harriet the Spy told me that. Data did not tell me I could move out of Phoenix, but Rose in The Ultraviolet Sky did. I don't know how to show my students how much fiction matters. The obsession with 'truth' in world filled, at best, with 'truthiness', is puzzling to me.

I fear that we are losing the people underneath all our knowledge.

I fear that we are losing empathy in our desire to be right.

I fear that we are losing compassion in a rush to be first.

What if we stopped dividing into true/not true and just told stories? What if, by "just" telling stories, we learned to listen rather than argue? And what if, in the middle of all of that, we heard one another rather than distilled each other's words down to the lowest common denominator?

Even I cringe at the Pollyanna-ish nature of that paragraph. (But Pollyanna, of course, was a fiction). But I am going to continue to shout it out because I cannot bear the thought of a world without stories. I cannot imagine who I would have been without them.

Read them. Write them. Tell them. Nurture them. Buy them. Make up characters and dance with them. Create storylines and inhabit them. It is imagination that will free us. It is imagination that will open doors.

This image below is from Phillip Toledano's website Days With My Father. The website is a gorgeous photo essay of the final days of his father's life. His dad had Alzheimer's and died at 99 years old. The photo essay opens with the death of Phillip's mother, Helene. His father doesn't understand where Helene has gone, and it's tearing both of them apart for Phillip to keep saying day after day, "She died, dad. Mom died."  So, Phillip told him that she had gone to Paris, which seemed to help them both. A fiction. A truth. Please go take a look at Phillip's website. It ends with this note that his father had written to Helene (who had already died, of course, but was, to him, happily in Paris).

Now tell me again why fiction doesn't matter. Why only the literal truth (whatever that is) will save us. Tell me again why we communicate best in zeros, ones, and pie charts.

Tell me again, but please, tell it to me in story, the language of my heart, the only language of love.

Monday, October 18, 2010

So long, Ma Bell; it's been fun


There comes a time in every relationship when we must say farewell, good-bye, adieu, go away, so long, get out the back, Jack, get a new plan, Stan.

That's what I've done. Qwest could not provide me with the same service and the same pricing as Verizon. By disconnecting the land line and adding a data plan to my already existent cell phone plan, I still saved almost fifty dollars a month. This understanding falls within my basic math skills. We haven't had a raise in three years. Voila. $600 raise. A trip to San Francisco. Basic math.

I'm traveling more, driving more, flying more, and generally getting lost more, so I wanted Google maps. The Blackberry scared me. The iPhone wasn't yet available on Verizon. So, I got a Droid (and it was free, thanks again Verizon, new every two plan). I was on my way to the 21st century.

But then I realized I'd have to cancel my land line, for real. I remembered getting my first phone in my name in Phoenix in 1987. Arrival, baby. Adulthood. A phone. Keep in mind, I also remember busy signals and phones that were attached to the wall with a curly cord and answering machines that were actual machines that were housed in your house, not in the great voice mail void of the airwaves. My land line has messages on it -- a message from my friend Jeffrey when he was in the hospital before he died. Birthday songs. The first message Keith ever left me. They all had to go.

I put off calling Qwest. I didn't know how to break it to them. We'd been together almost twenty-five years. Would they be sad? Actually, they were.

"Can I ask why you're canceling your service today, Ms. Herring?"

"I'm moving entirely mobile."

The sigh. I hope there are boxes of Oreos and cartons of Haagen Daz in the Qwest offices. "If you'd ever like to come back ..."

Yes. We can still be friends.


The new phone arrived overnight. We took it out of the box and stared at it. We couldn't figure out how to slide open the keyboard. We couldn't figure out how to install the battery. We turned it on and it made a lot of noises. A little green droid that looks like Gazoo, the space alien from the Flinstones, popped up and wanted to talk. The pamphlet they sent with the phone was in English and Spanish, with only a few pages of truly helpful hints. We could request a manual, or download one (377 pages) from the website. Gazoo/Droid wanted me to input my google account information. Then, it wanted me to type in the letters I saw as a security measure. They were in 4 point font.

"Can you see this?" I asked Keith.

We squinted in the kitchen at the phone. "No."

I tried punching in what I thought I saw. Gazoo/Droid was sorry that we were not communicating and tried a new set of letters and numbers. I tried again. Gazoo/Droid was still sorry that we were not communicating.

By accident, I touched the screen and it got bigger. Who knew?

Gazoo/Droid was pleased that we were now communicating, and it would begin downloading everything I've ever done on the web, on e-mail, or in the darkness of my own room.


Gazoo/Droid tried to be friendly, but he really assumed a base line of knowledge that I did not have. How do you quit an application? Why does it need to run MySpace all the time? (Ever) Why does it need constant YouTube updates? Why does it have suggestions for me on what I might want to buy in the Droid Marketplace? Why do I actually want to buy anything in the Droid Marketplace? I just want to talk on the phone, find the hotel, and maybe call a cab from time to time.

"I'm afraid of the phone," I said. "It just does things without me telling it to do anything."

It beeps, burps, rings, buzzes, snorts, and jiggles. These sounds probably mean something.

"Call me," I said to Keith.

The phone beeped and the screen flashed. I couldn't figure out how to answer it before it went to voice mail. "Huh. Try again."

The phone flashed directions. SLIDE RIGHT TO UNLOCK! Press GREEN BUTTON to answer! (I could hear the underlying "you moron" underneath the words.)

"Hello?"

"Hello," he said.

We stood three feet apart talking to each other on the phone. "How do you hang up?"

PRESS RED BUTTON TO END CALL (you moron).

Fine.

It's been a week. Today, Qwest officially packed up the last of its clothes and left the house. I don't know where it'll go. I hope it'll be happy, find someone it can make a relationship work with. It wasn't Qwest, it was me.

I put away the actual phones with cords today. I wrapped them in plastic bags and stored them in the laundry room just in case Qwest maybe wanted to come back, just for a quickie, just for the good old days, just for one last farewell.

Friday, September 24, 2010

2 x 3 = 5



Math.

See the poor kitty up there? This was me, staring at the green-covered algebra I book in ninth grade. It was me again in algebra 2. And then, three years later, in college algebra. See the poor kitty's answer? That was always my problem. The answers I came up with didn't necessarily fit the problem, though they were viable solutions. Does not this kitty's response make more sense? Do you not want to ask the kitty, "Dude! What were you thinking? There are ways of preventing an excess of kittens!"

I passed geometry by grace alone. The teacher knew I had no chance at any career involving numbers. I wrote the breathtaking saga of the Isosceles Triangle Family and its adventures through the land of Proofs and Puzzles. Do I see a Scalene Triangle lurking in the bushes? Get back, nave! Back to your own land of Scales! Equilateral Triangles were not very interesting story subjects, precisely because they were so even-keeled. No drama. No conflicted innards to delve into. They were the Switzerland of the triangle world, so unless you're hiding money in a Swiss bank account, there's not much left to do with them in a story. Every geometry test resulted in one more chapter in the Isosceles Triangle Family saga. Now that I've been a teacher for more years than I care to think about, I like to think that while this poor shmuck, the geometry teacher by day, baseball coach by night, was pouring his fourth glass of whiskey on another lonely Saturday night, he got a little laugh.

Last night, by a bizarre set of circumstances, I had a graphing calculator in my hands. A Texas Instruments 83, to be exact. It's a frightening piece of equipment, but for the record, it's not nearly as cute or as cool as an iPad. I suppose it does things that matter somehow. Lines. Slopes. Tangents. I tried to draw a kitty on it, but I couldn't figure out how to turn it on. Just holding a calculator like that brought me back to high school. My Texas Instruments calculator had a red display, and the most exciting thing I could do with it was type in 4377, turn the calculator upside down to spell 'hell'. To this day, I cannot punch in the numbers correctly in an arithmetic sequence. If you're doing division, which one goes in first? It's never the one you think. I figured out that if I ended up with a staggering decimal number with no end in sight, I probably need to reverse the way I put the numbers in. I'm adaptable.

2 x 3 = 5 was the mistake that followed me throughout my brief and fiery relationship with math. I do actually know that 2 x 3 = 6, but somehow, when I had to show my work in equations, that was the mistake I always made. One number off shouldn't make that much difference. But, in the inflexible world of math, it does. In came real numbers, imaginary numbers, x, y, and z axes, parabolas, (why??) and lots and lots of random letters, like Campbell's alphabet soup, suddenly dancing through the math books. As I've gotten older, I have more respect for math, but I have no concept of what it really is, what it can do, and why we need it. They had me when two apples and three apples equaled five apples. But once two apples plus the coefficient of x minus pi (not chocolate) and three apples equaled x - n + 4, I was onto a new romance deep in the hallowed halls of literature. The roots of my innumeracy are so deep in the earth no one can untangle them.

It drives me crazy when educated people misuse its and it's. Yet, I have two master's degrees and I have the mathematical literacy of an average third grader. All my classes have grading scales in multiples of ten. Every class has a total of 100 points -- no more, no less. I am a big fan of 10, and I don't see how expanding much beyond anything that can be wrapped in the big wide belly of a 10 would make my life easier. If it can't be done on my calculator with the REALLY BIG numbers and five functions only, then I don't really need to do it.

Here's a page from the TI-83 manual's attempts to help you understand what it can do:

A small forest of 4,000 trees is under a new forestry plan. Each year 20 percent of the trees will be harvested and 1,000 new trees will be planted. Will the forest eventually disappear? Will the forest size stabilize? If so, in how many years and with how many trees?
 

1. Press MODE. Press down-arrow, down-arrow, down-arrow, right-arrow, right-arrow, right-arrow ENTER to select Seq graphing mode.
 

2. Press 2nd (FORMAT) and select Time axes format and ExprOn format if necessary.

3. Press Y=. .If the graph-style icon is not(dot), press | |, press ENTER until (dot) is displayed, and then press ~ ~.
 

4. Press MATH~3 to select iPart( (integerpart) because only whole trees are harvested. After each annual harvest, 80 percent (.80) of the trees remain.

Press . 8 2nd (u) (() X,T 0, n) - 1 ) to define the number of trees after each harvest. Press + 1000 ) to define the new trees. Press † 4000 to define the number of trees at the beginning of the program.
 

5. Press WINDOW 0 to set nMin=0. Press down arrow 50 to set nMax=50. nMin and nMax evaluate forest size over 50 years. Set the other window variables.

PlotStart=1    Xmin=0             Ymin=0

PlotStep=1    Xmax=50           Ymax=6000
                      Xscl=10             Yscl=1000
 

6. Press TRACE. Tracing begins at nMin(thestart of the forestry plan). Press ~ to trace the sequence year by year. The sequence is displayed at the top of the screen. The values for n (number of years), X (X=n, because n is plotted on the x-axis), and Y (tree count) are displayed at the bottom. When will the forest stabilize? With how many trees?

(some symbols didn't translate into blog text ... not that I understand what they are...)

Here's my answer, courtesy of Mr. Theodore Geisel (Dr. Suess).

  • "Mister!" he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
    "I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.
    I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
    ,
    And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs" --
    He was very upset as he shouted and puffed --
    "What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"
  • I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees,
    Which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please;
    But I also speak for the brown Barbaloots,
    Who frolicked and played in their Barbaloot suits,
    Happily eating Truffula fruits.
    Now, since you've chopped the trees to the ground
    There's not enough Truffula fruit to go 'round!
    And my poor Barbaloots are all feeling the crummies
    Because they have gas, and no food, in their tummies.
  • Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
    nothing is going to get better. It's not.
  • Catch! calls the Once-ler.
    He lets something fall.
    It's a Truffula Seed.
    It's the last one of all!
    You're in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
    And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
    Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care.
    Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
    Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
    Then the Lorax
    and all of his friends
    may come back.
  • Now all that was left 'neath the bad-smelling sky
    was my big empty factory...
    the Lorax...
    and I.
    The Lorax said nothing
    just gave me a glance. Just gave me a very sad, sad backward glance.
    He lifted himself by the seat of his pants and I'll never forget the grim look on his face
    as he hoisted himself and took leave of this place through a hole in the smog without leaving a trace
    and all that the Lorax left here in this mess was a small pile of rocks with one word.
    UNLESS


Q4U:

If a faculty member is forced to attend 2.3 meetings per week, at a total of 3.5 hours of time, when she has 17.8 hours of student work to read and respond to, would it make more sense for her to travel to work by train or by bicycle or to go to the mall?

Not so hard, is it? 4377.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Helpful Hints For Your Weekend


Keith bought a new Toyota last weekend. We spent many a fun hour reading the owner's manual. The result are these tidbits for your weekend fun.

Toyota is not responsible for injury or death resulting from not following directions.

When napping in your vehicle, remember to turn your engine off.

Keep limbs within the vehicle at all times.

Caution: Coffee may be hot. Use extreme caution when enjoying this beverage.

Do not drive while drinking a beverage of any sort. Sudden stops and changes in traffic patterns may cause you to spill.  (In the unlikely event of a change in cabin pressure, please put the oxygen mask on yourself before assisting others.)

It is illegal to drive while drinking an alcoholic beverage or while intoxicated. Doing this may result in injury, death, or imprisonment.

Do not drive with the parking brake on.

Familiarize yourself with the location of the pedals. Use your right foot to depress the accelerator. (Note: We have fixed the spontaneous acceleration problem. No worries.) Use your left foot to depress the brake. Do not attempt to drive if you are unfamiliar with your left and right feet and their assigned pedals.

When driving in inclement weather, use caution. Failure to do so may result in injury or death.

If vehicle catches on fire, exit the vehicle promptly.

Toyota is not responsible for injury or death resulting from not exiting the vehicle in case of fire.

Do not drive this vehicle into standing water. Do not attempt to drive this vehicle into the ocean.  Doing this will void the warranty.

Use only unleaded gas. Failure to do so will damage the engine, void the warranty, and possibly result in injury or death.

Your vehicle is equipped with front and side airbags. Do not place children in the front seat. Doing this may result in injury or death. Toyota is not responsible for this.

Remember, Kohl's cash is not legal tender and may not be used for making payments on this vehicle.

This vehicle is not a toy. Only licensed operators may legally drive this vehicle. Toyota is not responsible for accidents, injuries, or deaths caused by unlicensed drivers.

If you are passing more people than are passing you, you are driving too fast.

Toyota is not responsible for that either.

We value your business. Please enjoy this Starbuck's coupon.

But not while driving. We are not responsible. (See page 13)

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Rip the Page!



I'd like to welcome another Shambhala author to the blog today! Karen Benke's new book Rip the Page: Adventures in Creative Writing has been released this week. 

A mutual friend put Karen and me in touch. She was kind enough to send me a copy of her new book. Although the intended audience is the 8 - 12 year old set, I think the book would help any writer. Most of my teaching experience is with adults. Adults often have trouble playing. They forget the importance of being a beginner, and they can often be afraid that they're running out of time and thus have to "get it all right" the first time. This will stifle creativity quicker than an assessment plan.

Karen's book is filled with experiments in language. She encourages the reader to "rip the page" from the book (another way of breaking a boundary and getting past a block). She uses well known poets and writers such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Soto, Lemony Snicket and Avi to help guide the young (and young at heart) writer on their journey. I intend to use some of the exercises in my college classes this fall -- especially when the class starts trying to think too much! For adults, the exercises could serve as jump-starts and ways to help get you out of your patterned way of thinking. Children will find these activities speak to their inner magic. Karen sees this magic in writers (of any age) and encourages that relationship to surface.

The back cover states: "This is your journal for inward-bound adventures." I love the phrase "inward-bound." Karen clearly understands that writing is first a way of deeply communicating with the self. She intuitively understands the importance of play. Of experimenting. Of seeing what works and what doesn't without a "right" or "wrong" distinction. I see many adults lose this important part of the writing process. When I worked as a writer-in-residence in the Phoenix area school system, I saw children losing this natural approach to writing very early on in their education.

If you're a teacher of writing to any age group, a parent hoping to foster a child's love of language, or a writer who hasn't gotten too serious with herself, do your soul a favor and pick up Rip the Page! Don't be afraid to play!

Karen shared her thoughts on some questions I posed.

1) What are some of the inhibitors you see adults placing on their writing that you don't see children doing? 


Many of the adults I work with in writing relationships—a few call me
their their coach—are already convinced when they sit down next to me
that their writing has to be improved upon, fixed, made better by
someone other than themselves. There’s A LOT of duality that goes on at
first. There’s also a lot of apologizing and explaining. It can be
painful. Nervousness and a sense of anxiety, coupled with a critic
that’s well fed and vocal are what join many adults at the writing
table. I know this picture well . I’ve had a similar picture. So we
spend time untangling the creative child-like side of their minds with
the big, bad, red pencilled critic. We also use many of the writing
experiments and word tickets I’ve created to use with my playful second
graders on up to the too-cool-for-school sixth and seventh graders. Play
really is the anecdote…and pretty soon they are eager to read the best
poem of their life too the minute they walk through the door.

2) What are some things the kids have taught you about writing?

Kids have been my toughest, kindest, most playful, and encouraging
teachers. They teach me about trust and how to never let fear stop me
from writing and sharing what it is I most need to say. There was this
girl from one of my third grade workshops last spring who really let her
imagination rip down the page during our workshops. I invited her to
read at the annual Poetry Month reading at BookPassage, a wonderful
bookstore in the next town over. The annual CPITS Student Reading is a
big deal and is always well attended, often with over 100+ people and
standing room only. I even get nervous standing up there introducing
these star student-poets! Anyway, this little girl with her hair in
barrettes and a hint of blue eye shadow got up to the podium when her
name was called, then turned to me and said, “Wow, I’m really scared.”
She then proceeded to adjust the microphone, smooth out her poem, and
open her voice and her life to the crowd anyway. She’s my perfect
example of what Pema Chodron calls a person who is intimate with their fear.



3) From reading your bio on your website, it seems like you're balancing family, work and writing. Can you share any insights into how you structure your life to make space for everything that is important to you?

Oh, when I think of all the time I wasted prior to getting married
and becoming a mother. Now that I don’t have the luxury of what I had
then, one thing that has helped me prioritize is a nine year yoga
practice. It has helped me in more ways than I can name. Taking 90
minutes a few times a week and practicing sticking my soul to my skin
has allowed me to breath out all the un-needed thoughts and
how-am-I-ever-going-to-fit-it-all-in-today-worries, and truly create a
space where time spreads out and I feel this sense of calm abiding and
am able for longer stretches to remain in the no where else. That said,
I also have a very supportive partner who I “tag team” with. Both my
husband and son will say, “go to yoga; you’ll feel better.” Plus yoga
just makes me nicer person, to myself and to my family. And when I’m
nicer, I’m happier. And more creative…and can figure out ways to write
at baseball games when my son’s sitting on the bench and make sue of
those minutes in the pick-up line after school, etc.

4) When did you claim "writer" for yourself? In my experience, it takes people a long time to acknowledge that they are writers -- especially if they haven't published yet. 


I love that verb “claim.” I claimed the word “writer” for myself with
a simple practice given to me at a workshop in Taos, New Mexico by one
of my early teachers, Natalie Goldberg. This was in the nineties, and
Natalie told a room full of us to spend time saying out loud to five or
so people we encountered over the course of day, a week, “I’m a writer,”
when we introduced ourselves. The whole week, every time I said it, I
felt like an imposter. I hadn’t published anything yet; this was the
trap my mind had set for itself…I could ONLY call myself the “W” word if
I had a publication credit. Then, shortly after that workshop, while I
was in graduate school, I had a prose poem published in an anthology
called WHERE THE HEART IS. I remember sitting in my boyfriend’s car
outside of A CLEAN WELL LIGHTED PLACE FOR BOOKS and crying. He thought I
didn’t like the book, but I was crying for that girl whose name came at
the end of the poem who had been a writer for so long.
 
5)  Tell me about your cat. Anyone with a cat is clearly a fabulous human being.

Clive is a great wisdom being. He was abandoned on the streets of
Sacramento five years ago. A local woman in my county rescues cats from
Sacramento—since they euthanize them there—and brings them to a clinic
in San Rafael. My son had been asking for a marmalade-colored cat named
Gladys for months, so when my husband found a photo of a cat posted on
this woman’s website, he asked our son if a grey and white cat named
Clive would be OK. Well, Clive turned out to be more than OK. He is has
a huge personality and is scary smart. People who come to my house for
gatherings have been known to spend a fair amount of the evening hanging
out with Clive. Friends email me to ask after him. He’s that kind of
cat. He will greet you at the gate after a long day; spoon you until you
fall asleep. He hasn’t yet perfected the art of opening the back door
for himself, but when he stands on his hind legs, his front paws reach
the doorknob. Clive really holds the sacred space of our house. He’s a
younger brother to my son, and a muse to me. In fact, he sat to the
right of my keyboard for much of the time I wrote RIP THE PAGE! He’s
outside in the garden doing his morning meditation right now or else
he’d come thank you himself for devoting an entire question to him.

Rip the Page! Adventures in Creative Writing is available now from Shambhala/Trumpeter Books. Find out more about Karen at her website.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Just A Sweet Transvestite

Tim Curry, as Dr. Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

I have a black and white photograph of Tim Curry as Dr. F-N-F, dressed as above, on my wall in front of my computer. I am now days away from being forty-two years old and this man, dressed this way, singing in that voice that oozes everything, still gets me. I put the photo on my wall because this character was all id. He did what he wanted, when he wanted, and he was glorious and fabulous doing it. He worked those heels and he worked a room, and when he moved, everybody watched him. When I feel stuck in my writing, or feel afraid to take a risk or tackle a particular subject matter, I look over at Dr. F, and I ask myself, "What would Frank N Furter do?" And the next step becomes clear.

In high school, I would go over to my friend Diane's house. We'd dress up over there in our fish nets and make up and drive over to Camelview Theaters to see the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Sometimes we performed in the stage show. I was Magenta, once in awhile Janet. My friend Diane got to be Frank N Furter sometimes. She had the oozing down. We threw rice, squirted water guns, and we all waited with antici ..... pation (have to see the movie to get that one) for Frank N Furter to come down the elevator stomping his platform heels. When he threw open that elevator door, surveyed Brad and Janet, and claimed his space, we all knew, even if we didn't know we knew, that this was sex. I was not a Rocky Horror virgin, but I was a virgin-virgin, and still, I knew that whatever he was when he opened that metal elevator door was what I wanted -- perhaps not in a marriage partner -- but I wanted to find that place inside me that could exude that energy. I wanted to know how to ooze and I lived for the twenty seconds a week when I could watch him stand fully in himself and sing. I practiced singing the song. Tried to practice the walk (OK, the strut). Dr. Frank N Furter never fell down. In six inch heels. 

Frank N Furter is not your best friend. He's not going to co-sign a loan for you. He's not going to show up on time and he's not going to be there when you're crying. He's not going to babysit for you, let you borrow the car, or let you for even one second look more fabulous in your heels than he does in his.

But honey, in 1985 when I was sixteen, I'd have followed him anywhere. A few years ago, I bought the movie (yes, pretty much just for the "I'm Just A Sweet Transvestite" song). I didn't think it would hold up. I figured my year with Rocky Horror was a moment, like so many, that are everything when you're in them, and nothing moments later. But when I was decades away from sixteen and I watched him throw open that elevator door, I still felt that yowza. I'd still jump on that man's, um, motorcycle and I know perfectly well he's going nowhere good. He's freedom. He's risk-taking. He's dangerous and he's unapologetic for who he is.

I don't use Frank N Furter as a role model for my friendships, but on days when it's me and my writing and I'm tempted to go safe, tempted to say, "can't write that -- too graphic, too sad, too angry, too fill-in-the-blank," I look over at Frank N Furter, hands on hips, defiant in his garter belt, mouth painted red and open. 

WWFNFD? Damn straight. Write it down. Stand behind it. Own it 100%. No apologies. No baby steps. No skirting around the truth. Own it. 

And for that, I'll love him forever. :-)


The seventeen seconds that started it all. Mom, you probably don't want to watch.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Reflections from New York

Some of my students: Writing Warriors! **

I spent July 4 - 9 teaching at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. This was the third summer I taught a workshop there.  (I'm the one kneeling on the cushion next to the monkey. You can see the wrap around my foot). As is the way of things, I fell down the steps after yoga on the Thursday night before I was scheduled to leave.  It was really a damn fine yoga class, too. My shoulder didn't hurt for the whole ninety minutes. I wasn't resisting the sweat and the heat of the studio. I felt ready to go to New York, open to listen to what the class would tell me.

Splat. Apparently I was resisting the stairs.

Now, I'm not a person who falls. I am not a person who runs, stands on my head, jogs, hikes, moves particularly quickly, or otherwise engages in high-risk behavior that might cause me to fall. Imagine my shock as I find myself lying on the gravel parking lot behind the yoga studio. No blood. Good. No bone sticking out. Even better. Fine. I'm fine. I'm a Southern Finn. I'm always fine.

Hmm. Ankle's hot. Swollen. Hurts. OK, hurts a lot. Still no blood. Still no bone. Ice, ibuprofen and a bandage-wrap and away we go with a 48.5 pound suitcase into JFK. Onto Airtrain to the subway. Onto the E train and off in Queens to visit some friends for a few days before heading to Rhinebeck. Can't really go up and down the stairs, especially not with a 48.5 pound suitcase. My fabulous friend meets me at the stop and carries my suitcase over the turnstile. (You should have seen it -- chivalry, darlings, is not dead). He gives me more ibuprofen and a pillow for my foot. He draws me a map to get to Herald Square and the next day I hobble forth into Manhattan (3 stops) and promptly find a seat in the new green folding chairs NY city has placed in the middle of the street in a few intersections. 

What New York City looks like when you're sitting down in a cool green chair 
watching everybody else scurrying around


Aha. Insight. I hurt my ankle so that I could not spend money in the shopping capital of the world. Gotta love bold-faced irony. I waddle down to Union Square and sit on a bench and watch everyone else seeing the city over their Blackberries and iPhones. I feel a little insecure with my phone-that's-just-a-phone, so I keep it hidden. I watch the sidewalk chalk artists and listen to a relatively awful band. I watch the squirrels jump from trash can to trash can. I am in the middle of the middle of New York City and I really can only sit and watch it all. How perfect.

My fabulous friend Rick and his fabulous cat Truman, 
who only sort of came to love me by the time I left (but I know he misses me now!)

The temperatures begin to climb on the day I left Queens. My friend once again carries my suitcase (which has remained 48.5 pounds because I was thwarted in shopping-nirvana) over the turnstile and onto the E train and into the Port Authority and down two flights of stairs into the center of the earth where the Greyhounds and Trailways buses lurk. If I could have erected a statue to him in Central Park I would have done so that day. I promise the next time I visit I will be able to walk.

It's hot. I'm early because I'm always early. Finns are fine and early. A Trailways driver comes over and sits next to me. "You're the yoga writing lady," he says. 

"I am," I say, realizing this is why I'm early in the dungeon of the Port Authority.

"I recognized you from last year."

He proceeds to talk to me about yoga philosophy. About Jung and Joseph Campbell. About meditation and Paramahansa Yogananda and the trappings of a spiritual path. "It's all fascinating," he says, "but it's not real. It's all stories. You the only one you got to listen to to figure it out. You got to always make sure you're hearing what's inside you. Of course, that ain't all that either."

A New York City unintelligible announcement comes over the loudspeaker. He understands it. "Gotta get to the bus," he says. "I like to go to the fifth floor of the library in Manhattan. Not too many people up there. I read everything." He points to his skull. "I read everything and then I let it go." He stands up and shakes my hand. "See you next year, yoga lady. Teach them how to let it all go."

And that becomes the focus for the week. The temperatures hit 100 degrees. The humidity slaps us silly. My non-air conditioned room only has hot water in the shower (not even kidding). I walk over two miles a day from the cabin to the dining hall to the classroom. My ankle hurts, but it's OK. I walk slow enough to see a garter snake, slow enough to watch the groundhogs, slow enough to see the flowers. 

My class shows up ready to let it go. I don't have to do anything but listen and make a space. They are more ready than they know, and as we shake and dance and write and talk, they know less and feel more. They know less and write more. They move from brains to belly and surprise themselves. They don't surprise me. I know the bus driver's words are true: You the only one you got to listen to to figure it out. They don't need me. They need the space, the silence, and for the moment, the illusion that they need me, but by the time we pack it up on Friday, they've shattered that illusion all on their own and are ready, fierce, and breathing.  


My green monkey friend Keezel surrounded by the offerings from the class. **

On Friday, I'm ready to go home. I'm ready for air conditioning and I'm ready for meat. And maybe a little wine.  Delta Airlines, however, was not ready for me to go home. I find myself with a choice of being stuck in Newburgh overnight or stuck in Detroit overnight. I've spent the night on the floor of the Detroit airport before, so I opt for Newburgh. Delta Airlines apologizes, but they will not pay for a hotel because they are not responsible for the weather. It is indeed hard to argue with that statement, so I do not.

(Note to airlines: Why are all your hubs in areas of the country where there are always weather issues? Not sometimes weather. Not maybe weather. Always weather. All four seasons. All the time. Thunder. Lightning. Blizzards. Ice. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Just a question.)

One of my students is also stranded. We decide to get our bags back and go to the Hilton and have meat and wine and conversation (oh yes, and air conditioning, and a shower with water pressure, and a bed with memory-foam and 500 thread count sheets and THREE pillows). We eat our meat and drink our wine and talk for hours until it is time to go to bed. 

My airport shuttle will be leaving at 4:45 a.m. With any luck, I'll be back in Phoenix by lunchtime with far more gifts than my still-only-48.5-pound suitcase (take that, airline weight limits!) can hold. 


Me at the Hilton, Newburgh, NY, July 2010 **

**Photo credits to Writing Warrior Kathleen Schmieder
Check out her website

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Gayle Brandeis: Guest Blogger, author of Delta Girls




Today, I'm pleased to welcome Gayle Brandeis as a guest blogger. Gayle has a new novel, Delta Girls, out today from Ballantine. Gayle and I met in graduate school, and we have gone on to become one another's early readers. Those of you who write know what an essential, and special, relationship this is. Both Gayle and I have novels out this summer that we helped one another with, and we wanted to not only share our work with you, but share some of our relationship with you. I wish all of you writers such a gift. Without further delay, please welcome Gayle!

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My novel Delta Girls marks a period of real flux in my life. In the two and a half years between the time I started writing the novel and the time it was released, I found myself with a different agent, a different editor (a series of three editors total for the book) and, most surprisingly, a different husband. It’s amazing to me how much can happen within a short span of time. In a recent four month period alone, I gave birth, lost my mom to suicide, bought and started renovating a house and lost my mother in law to a sudden heart attack. One constant through all of this intense, life-altering change has been my amazing friend and first reader, Laraine Herring.

I met Laraine when we were getting our MFAs in Creative Writing at Antioch University. I was immediately wowed by Laraine’s deep talent, her honesty and wisdom and absolute commitment to writing and its power to change the world. After graduation, we started sharing our writing on a monthly basis; this has been such a touchstone for me, such a gift. Laraine and I get each other’s work in a way that is so beautiful to me, so rare; sometimes it almost feels as if we’re the same person—we both love writing about writing and the body, and we approach language and voice in a similar way, so reading her work almost feels like reading my own, but with more clarity (and it teaches me to see my own work more clearly, as well). After taking some time off due to life chaos, we are reviving our work sharing this month, and I am so excited to have the gift of her eyes on my work again (and the gift of her incredible writing in my eyes.)

Laraine helped me find my way into Delta Girls (originally titled Pears.) I was a bit gun shy when I started writing the book; my editor at Ballantine had just rejected my novel, My Life with the Lincolns, which I had thought would fulfill my contract there, and I was given a year to write a new novel. (It’s helpful to remember that sometimes good things come from rejection—My Life with the Lincolns ended up getting published as a novel for young readers by Henry Holt, plus I probably wouldn’t have written Delta Girls otherwise, and now they’ve both found their way into the world around the same time. I love that both Laraine and I each have two new books out this year.) Because I was still stinging from the rejection and scared that whatever I wrote next would get rejected, too, I could only write in fits and starts. The first draft of Delta Girls was composed of chapters that were only a page or two each, almost like little prose poems, all I found I was able to write at the moment.

The book (which was inspired by a combination of dreams, breaking news and a friend’s stories about growing up on a pear farm) explores two alternating, but eventually intersecting, story lines—we follow Izzy, an itinerant farm worker, and her 9 year old daughter, who land at an organic pear farm in the Sacramento Delta, and Karen, an Olympics-hopeful pairs figure skater as she gets increasingly involved with her new bad boy skating partner. The back and forth rhythm was pretty extreme at first, one or two pages with Izzy, then one or two pages with Karen, and so forth. Laraine helped me see how this format could cause the reader whiplash, and didn’t give the reader a chance to sink deeply enough into either character’s story—just as she was starting to care about one of the characters, the focus shifted. Thanks to her notes, I was able to consolidate some of these micro chapters into longer blocks of narrative and create a better flow for the reader. Laraine also helped me see where some of my characters were a bit two dimensional, a bit cartoonish. I couldn’t stop smiling when I shared a new draft after I had worked hard to flesh the characters out and she wrote something like “Yay! They’re all a people now!” There were a few sentences that I particularly enjoyed writing, metaphors that surprised me as they came out of my fingers, and I was thrilled when Laraine made special note of them. The book is so much stronger and richer than it would have been without her touch. My whole life is so much stronger and richer for having her in it. I tend to be a fairly solitary person, but the writing life can still be a bit isolating; what an expansive, affirming experience it is to share the path with someone who both knows the terrain and is eager to explore uncharted ground. Laraine keeps me humble, keeps me honest, and makes me braver than I ever would have been on my own.
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Gayle is giving away a signed copy of Delta Blues. Please tell us about your favorite (or least favorite) rejection story in the comment section of this blog. Please make sure there's a way for me to contact you to get your information to Gayle for your book. We'll select a winner at random.

For more free books, click over to Gayle's blog for my guest post on our relationship and writing my novel. I'm giving away a free, signed copy of my novel, Ghost Swamp Blues, through her site. Simply post in the comment section at Gayle's blog what haunts you. A winner will be chosen at random.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Guest Blogs, Give aways, and Gardening




This weekend we cleared out the garden in the front and back of the house of the plants who didn't survive our unusually cold and wet winter. I bought lots of lavender, some delphiniums, some sage, and a lot of annuals and on Saturday evening after the sun dropped behind the trees, we planted and watered and waited. It was hard to pull up the plants that died. I kept wanting them to come back. Maybe next week they'll bloom, I would think. Maybe just one more day and they'll be OK. After all, the ones that are blooming now looked pretty darn dead a few weeks ago. But it was time. As we were working in the garden, I thought about how much gardening is like writing, especially longer works like novels. You never really know what's going to work. You just plant. You wait. You water. You nurture. You prune away what isn't taking. You leave yourself open for surprises (this spring, my yard was filled unexpectedly with daffodils and tulips that no one I know planted). You trust that things are working underneath the soil that you cannot see. And so you watch and show up and let go. You re-remember that you can't determine how it's all going to work. And when things bloom, every time, you bow your head and say, "thank you."

On to new and exciting things:

I guest blogged today over on Lisa Romeo's website about the creation of Ghost Swamp Blues. Go check it out, and check out the rest of her blog as well. Lisa's forte is creative non-fiction and she offers a wealth of information on her blog. There's an opportunity for you to comment on her blog to be entered to win a free, autographed copy of Ghost Swamp Blues. All you have to do is post a comment on her blog by June 19. I'll also be stopping by her blog from time to time in the next few weeks to answer any questions you might have about the book.

To that end, if you find you have any questions about any of my books, about craft, about publishing, etc, please leave those questions in the comments of the blog or you can e-mail me. I'll be using this blog once a month to answer some of your questions. I might even do a vlog, depending on what the question is.

I'm also thrilled to announce the launch of my updated and redesigned website. Please check it out. Huge thanks to my friends at The Concentrium for their talent, time and generosity of spirit.

And finally, last week, I learned the basics of the FLIP camera and made some very amateur vlogs on some of the concepts in The Writing Warrior. Shambhala had asked me to demonstrate some of the exercises, and I did my best (all alone in a room with a camera that doesn't move and has limited editing functions). I'll get a little better, but probably not much. The intention is to help clarify some of the concepts I talk about in the book. I will also use the vlog to talk about some craft components and also answer some of your questions. Check it out on my YouTube channel. Feel free to subscribe!

I look forward to reading your questions!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

It's the Crack that Lets the Light In


We all know no human looks like that woman (or the striped kitty) on the magazine cover, right? But what is perfect? What is it measured against? If perfection means completion, then, as the yogis say, everything is perfect. The perfection lies in the thing's completion, not in its flawlessness.

When we were in San Francisco, I discovered a chest wrinkle. Yes. Bow your heads. For Christmas, Keith bought me a magnifying bathroom mirror (8X magnification!). Some things just weren't meant to be seen. Good thing my eyes don't see well enough to catch everything that mirror does.

 Salvadore Dali, 1955

My right side of my body is bigger than my left -- the arm is longer, the leg is longer, the foot is longer, the eye is bigger, even the hair on the right side of my head fluffs better. Somehow, all together, I look like a human woman, and fortunately, human eyeballs don't magnify everything eight times. But, if you break me apart into right foot and left foot, eyeball with astigmatism, eyeball without, tooth #26, tongue, vertebrae, on and on and on, you'll get a pile of parts. Could be a woman. Could be a robot. Could be a monkey.

I did the mandatory read-through of Ghost Swamp Blues now that the real book is in my real hands (yes, I held it in my right hand). And of course, I found the errors. Six professional people read through the manuscript. I proofed it four times between March and April. Still. Errors. Nothing major. No big engine replacement. Nothing heinous like a whole different novel showing up on page 50 just to see if you're really reading. Just some errors. I knew they would be there. They always are. Every book I've got has errors. I keep a list, and when the magic "next printing" occurs, we can fix them. The errors don't alter the story. They don't make you scratch your head for days, but they're there. And of course, the six professional people didn't see them, so every other reader on the planet will see them. It's the unwritten law of the universe.

Still, the story is a whole, not a letter, not a page break, not a spine, or a bio, or an italicized word. The story is Lillian and Hannah and Roberta and Gabriel and the Four Sirens. The story is North Carolina. The story is a ghost story, a redemption story, a surrender story, a regret story. All these imaginary folks had the courtesy to get together in my heart for a decade. We duked it out. Lived together. Ate together. Slept together. Fought together. Ten years. Still, they hung out in the trees, in the swamp, in the old house by the creek.

I read the last sentence of the novel, for the four thousandth time (only a little hyperbole), with my fifth cup of coffee (no hyperbole) this afternoon at the Raven Cafe. I had been making my obligatory list of the typos. But I read that last sentence, for the four thousandth time, and those imaginary folks still sat at the table with me. I put the book down and looked at them.

"You did good, sugar," said Lillian.

"Wash it away now! Wash it away!" said Number One.

"It's in the river now!" said Number Three.

"It's that darkness," said Gabriel. "It's that darkness you brought into the light. Darkness can't get out without a crack. Until darkness gets out it can't go no place. Can't go away if it's trapped."

"We're all put together now," said Roberta. "You can move on along."

Hannah, too cool to say anything, smiled over the rim of her double-mocha-skim-latte.

I bussed my table, gathered my book and my notebook, and walked out into the bright Arizona afternoon.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Selling and Salvation


And, um, I have this novel, and, um, do ya wanna buy it? Maybe please maybe please maybe? It's really good. You'll like it. Promise.

No one ever goes out with the person who's wishy washy. Does he like me? Does he really like me? You'll like me, I know you will. I'll be whatever you want. Ick. No one likes that. That person never gets a date, and that person will probably never make a sale.

The promotion phase of the book biz is hard for me. I'm not a good self-promoter. I feel like I need a bath after each dive into Facebook or e-mail I send. Not that I am not genuinely interested in getting the book out to readers. Not that I feel like I'm spamming strangers or hawking a bad product, but, well, I don't know what. I know it's absurd to believe that just because it's published it'll get read. People have to know about it, but when is it bragging and when is it simply conveying information?

"Here's my daughter, the most beautiful, brilliant, talented person you'll ever meet. Don't you want to take her out for dinner?"  (too much!)

Or..

"This is my daughter." (information only)
_________________________

"Here's my novel. It's the most breathtakingly achingly painfully gorgeous piece of writing you'll ever read. Don'tcha want it?" (too much!)

Or...

"My new novel is out." (information only)

I try not to do the former. Like most writers, I'm not sure what I even think about the book now that it's a book and not a word file anymore. I already see things I want to change, chapters I want to cut, lines I want to rewrite. I do know that's always the way. It's part of being an evolving writer. It's part of being able to say, "I did the best I could, but that best will be different today because everything is different today" and I have to be alright with that.

I'm finding that self-promotion is a lot like writing. It takes awhile to find your voice with it. It takes awhile to find the rhythm (yes, carry books in your car, slip it into conversation (but only once!), update your FB pages, yes, yes) It takes awhile to find peace with it too. You have to let go of the myth that the publisher will do this for you. That's a hard one. If I wanted to go into sales, I would have. But I'm not in that Dan Brown-world.

The first creative writing class I ever taught at Phoenix College came as a surprise. I hadn't finished my MFA yet. I hadn't taught anything where people paid actual money. The program director called. The instructor bailed. Could I teach it? It started in two days. So I said yes, because of all the faults I may have, saying yes when opportunity falls in my lap is not one of them. I was terrified I wouldn't have anything to say. I overprepped. I over-everythinged. But I soon learned that teaching is less about knowing and more about being. If I was authentic in what I said, I could say things that made no sense and be given the chance to restate or explain or retract. If I was fake, over-confident, or arrogant in my delivery, no one would feel safe with me. No one would trust anything I said.

You may have heard this saying: When you get to the end zone, act like you've been there before. 

I try to do that, and pretty soon, I'm not acting, I am in the end zone, and I'm making it my own experience. So I have this novel out now. That's my football, and I can stand still or I can run with it.

Here's an excerpt.

You can buy it anywhere books are sold. You can buy it from me. Send me your e-mail through the comments section and I'll tell you how to do that. If you're in Phoenix, I'm coming to Changing Hands in Tempe on August 13 at 7 pm to do a reading. You can buy the book there and support the fabulous independent bookstore that Changing Hands is. I'm also doing a writing workshop from 2 - 5 on August 14. You'll need to preregister for that through Changing Hands. The workshop costs $35.

I promise I will not be using every blog post to promote. But today, I'm in the end zone, and I've got to run.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream


There's no place like San Francisco.

In five days, we:

- experienced camping in Union Square (our hotel's bed was more like a bedroll, slanted, and with pointy springs, and if Keith and I were obese, we couldn't have fit in the room together)
- heard dozens of languages on a single bus ride
- saw amazing silk embroidery art at the Asian Arts Center in Chinatown
- ate and ate and ate and even drank one meal (which was not as bad it sounds -- we just ate too much in the middle of the day and ended the evening with only a glass of wine and a piece of sourdough bread at the wharf)
- race/walked 2 miles from Castro and Market to Powell and Sutter to catch a play at 8 pm (the buses were too full and weren't stopping and the underground was down). I can apparently do 2 miles in 30 minutes. Take that, marathon-running people! Funny, how I can walk and walk and walk on concrete, but put me in anything that even appears like "the wild" (like an overgrown park, perhaps) and I can't walk 30 feet.
- browsed bookstores with cats who live in them
- walked past the con men and the homeless -- often not the same thing
- saw a man typing on a Remington in front of Ben and Jerry's on the corner of Haight and Ashbury. Name your price, name your subject, and he'll type a poem.
- saw more ads for the iPad than ads for Starbucks
- saw a man walking down the street with a live chicken on his head
- went to Ocean Beach and froze in the sunlight
- had dinner with two fabulous friends (and when we couldn't identify some of the food on the menu, they had both iPad and iPhone options for us to look up the food) Oh, how I want an iP.... stop it! Stop it!
- saw hundreds of people trying to get to the Civic Center on Saturday night in tuxes and gowns for the annual Black and White Ball (and without Muni service it was fascinating to see how fast those women (and some of the men!) can go in those heels)
- watched the ferries depart from the Ferry Building as the fog fell at dusk
- were serenaded one morning by a man singing "This Little Light of Mine" on the sidewalk beneath our hotel/campsite
- saw too many accessory dogs and nowhere near enough cats
- ate dinner at 10:30 the night of the Infamous Two Mile Walk. In Prescott, your only dining choice at 10:30 at night would be Denny's. In San Francisco, well, it hadn't even gotten started yet.
- used the fire escape as a refrigerator because, yes, the hotel/campsite did not have a mini-fridge

What is it about San Francisco?

Perhaps it's because we get to the City on BART and leave on BART, so we have to emerge from underneath the earth to be in San Francisco, and then descend back into the earth to return to our "regular" world. That makes everything mythical from the first steps. Perhaps because so much is happening every millisecond, we are forced to forget the regular world and must adapt immediately to this extraordinary world. Perhaps because the City feels real -- the light with the dark, the creativity with the destruction, the abundance with the scarcity -- nothing feels hidden away. We can't forget that there are 6 billion other worlds. We can't slip into complacency without a lot of effort (or substances).

The City keeps pulling you back to it. Back to the concrete and the earthquakes and the crack pipes and the uber-chic-vegan-gluten-free-sushi-places. It pulls you back to all the possibilities available to you. It pulls you out of routine, out of predictability, out of stagnation.

You have to move, but even if you hop on the wrong bus, another one will be around eventually to bring you back. How's that for magic? Click your heels, baby. You had it all along.

Powell Street BART/MUNI station

Keezel and I at Ocean Beach

Poignant end-of-movie scene (cue Bette Midler song) where Girl and Monkey look out at Vastness of Ocean and discover Important Truth about Self and World and Impermanence. 
San Francisco, you are the Wind Beneath My Wings.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Next Stop: San Francisco!


Tomorrow, we're leaving for San Francisco. Every time I go there, I think of the opening scene from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (Harper Perennial 1978). (...) indicates text deleted for purposes of the blog.

Mary Ann Singleton was twenty-five years old when she saw San Francisco for the first time. She came to the city alone for an eight-day vacation. On the fifth night, she drank three Irish Coffees at the Buena Vista, realized that her mood ring was blue, and decided to phone her mother in Cleveland.

'Hi mom, it's me."
(...)
"Mom, I want you to do me a favor."
(...)
"I want you to call Mr. Lassiter and tell him I won't be in on Monday morning."
(...)
"I'm not coming home."
Silence.
Her mother began to cry. "You won't come back. I just know it."
"Mom. Please. I will. I promise."
"But...you won't be...the same!"
"No. I hope not."

I've only got one class on campus next semester. The rest are on line. It's a brave new world. "Hello? Yavapai College? I won't be in on August 16. You can reach me during my virtual office hours. Make sure your messages are in .rtf or .pdf format. Thanks!"

Perhaps I would have been gutsier at twenty-five. Still, it's nice to think about.

We will go to the ocean, watch the people, pay a homeless man for a poem, listen to how we are living in sin from the street corner preachers, hug a baby seal for a cause that exists only in San Francisco, buy a piece of turquoise from the vendors on Market Street, go watch a play that involves no sound, admire the costumes in the windows and on the people, visit friends, remember friends who are dead, trip on the earthquake pressed sidewalks, hear the voice of the Muni announcer, wish I had an iphone, stand in front of City Lights Bookstore and listen for Ferlinghetti, count the number of honest-to-goodness books people are reading on the train, watch men playing drums on the corner of Geary and Powell, pay too much for a cheeseburger, pay too little for a hug.

I will listen for my characters, who have been stuck in San Francisco for (in my world) five years. In the book, they've been there a lifetime and more. I will let the clang of the trolley chase the ghosts away and ring in new ones. I will wish Jeffrey were still alive so I could give him a copy of my novel because he read it first, nearly nine years ago. I will be glad my friend Dex is there, and that we will have time for dinner together, and I will be glad I am able to travel, able to walk the hilly streets, able to pay my own way.

I will return to Arizona to market my books, start another one, try to let the last semester slip away. I will water my plants, go to my yoga classes, drink coffee at The Raven, laugh with my girlfriends, and then pack up for New York in a few weeks, grateful again that I am able to travel, walk the hilly streets, pay my own way.

"Hello?  Yavapai College? Thanks for direct deposit. I'll bring you back a flower for your hair."

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Midlife Mid Career Writing Advice


So far, for me, midlife (big assumption that this is where I am -- 82 is looking younger all the time!) has been about getting rid of stuff -- whether that stuff is 3-dimensional or emotional or psychological. It's been about accepting that what worked in my twenties (everything from types of food to exercise routines to types of relationships) doesn't necessarily work in my forties. Joseph Campbell said that midlife was about reaching the top of the ladder, only to realize that the ladder was up against the wrong wall. I realized my ladder was up against the wrong wall before mid-life. What's been a slower revelation are the transitions within a writing life and within a writing process as I age.

I was struck this year by the youth in my writing classes. Their fiery energy. Their certainty that there will always be another story, more time, more imagination. Their general lack of interest in revision, in craft, in process. Their drafts were disposable. Their experiments conducted without commitment. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Compared to my students who are farther along in years than I who are afraid to let anything go, afraid to start, afraid to stop, afraid to create things that aren't perfect, they are a breath of fresh air. My older students are constantly aware that time is not on their side. My younger students think time will always be in service to them. It's an interesting dichotomy to have in the classroom -- the dance between "there will always be tomorrow" and "there may never be another time". The two sides are good for each other, and for me, standing not just in the front of the classroom, but in the middle of these two extremes. The edges help frame my perspective, help me realize what to let go of, caution me against the rigidity that could come next. I am in the middle of the duel between reckless and afraid.

I remember the writer's ego of my younger days. Part of that ego came because I am a good writer. The other part came from believing good was good enough, and that my good-enough would never be challenged. I remember doing just what my students do -- scratching out a draft right before the due date, never looking at the comments from my teachers, believing (sounding surprisingly like that part of me that believes I will be the one human not to die) that I was just not understood by the teacher or the group. I know this place when I see it in my students, and I know it has to run its course. I know that of my 100 students a semester, 5 are serious, fewer than that will make writing their lives.

I remember the urgency to say everything in one play, one story, one poem. The need to shout my perspective from the rooftops and slam the door on those who didn't share it. I remember how angry I was to realize that I had a degree in literature and had only been required to read the works of two women (Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf). I remember the power of the 1st person narrative, and how impossible it seemed (and how ridiculous) to write from any other point of view.

But something shifted. Shouting only made my throat raw. Being attached to how I was perceived and how others perceived things caused nothing but suffering. First person morphed into third person as a primary point of view choice -- perhaps as I morphed from a person whose eye was "I" into a person who could see a larger community, a larger world besides my own skin. The girl who wrote decent drafts in one sitting began to write slower, began to listen for a long time before she even put a word on the page. The girl who had always loved the ease with which the words had come began to notice that the words that came the easiest were not usually the right words. She began to understand the adage "only real writers revise" and began to look not just at the big picture, but at each word in the sentence, the placement of each comma. Her respect for writing grew as her need to be seen within it waned. And then she realized this, which stopped her heart:

The first draft is not a badly executed solution to the problem of the narrative. A first draft is, at its best, a scratching out of the problem itself. The first draft (yes, all 300 pages of it) if you're lucky, will show you the question of the narrative. It will contain signposts for you as you begin to do the rest of the work. It will contain clues. But it is not the solution. It is the submission of the question.

If one is lucky, humility soon replaces arrogance as a writer ages. Where is that fire? She might wonder. Where is the certainty? Was she no longer a writer? But like the rest of her life, the fire has ceased to rage and begun a more steady, constant pulse. And the certainty, well, now she knows there never was such a thing. And the purpose of that first draft becomes the seeking of the question, rather than the attempt to answer it. And because the fire has ceased to blaze out of control, it can become the fuel for the long journey of the novel.

Is youth wasted on the young? No way. My forty-one year old body can not sustain that anger or that energy. My forty-one year old body wants to watch and stretch and drink water with lemon. My forty-one year old body is interested in new writing questions, in the third person point of view, and in building a bridge instead of a wall. And if someone had told my twenty-year old body this, I would have dismissed it, if I'd have even heard it. So when I stand in front of my class of twenty and sixty year olds, I try to channel youth's blaze, use it to fan the waning heat of the others, and keep myself hydrated, flexible, and silent.

Friday, May 14, 2010

I Just Joined Twitter; I am Going to Hell


On Facebook today, my friend, the novelist Mary Sojourner wrote, "There's an old story about how you can put a frog in water, start to heat it. The frog will adapt and adapt till it can't anymore and dies. I suspect we are all frogs."

She was writing about indie bookstores and e-books and all the chaotic upending changes going on at break-neck speed in the current publishing climate. She and I have talked at length about the world we're writing in, asking the question, "What happens when no one values the stories anymore?" What happens to those of us who only need pen and paper and a readership, but understand that the world we are living in requires we do and be more. E-books will be interactive! Outtakes? Bad drafts? False starts? Characters who didn't make the cut? Where do we draw the line? A new generation of young writers first learned to read and write on a computer. It's a different world, and no one knows who will emerge on top in this new world order.

My friend and I have spoken about the power of Facebook. As an author, you ignore it at your peril. People find you there. They ask you questions, and yes, they buy your books. You are not a multi-millionaire. You are not the Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling of the publishing world. You do not get your phone calls returned, even from the smallest of writing conferences. You must find your own way through the brush to your readers. The field is very crowded and noisy. Do you join in the din and try to shout louder? Or do you remain silent and believe in the "If I write it they will come" mantra. You do know better than that. They won't. But you also know that if everyone is shouting, no one is hearing.

I am lucky. I have two books coming out this summer. My novel, Ghost Swamp Blues, comes out on June 1. The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice comes out on August 10. I have spoken to the publicists. We have lists -- they will do X, I will do Y. Where do I have friends where I might stay on tours? (If there were tours.) What conferences would I like to participate in? Am I willing to Skype with book groups? (Yes) Will I build a Facebook page for each book? (Yes). Will I blog regularly and continue to build my platform? (Yes) Will I launch a YouTube station with videos on the writing exercises and other writerly topics? (Yes) Will I offer to guest blog? (Yes) Will I send books to book-review bloggers? Will I give books away on my own site? Give my time away? Coach people with their own writing for free? Will I do all this for the possibility -- only the possibility -- of my books reaching an audience? And will I do all this while I maintain my full-time job (because much of the costs of book publicity come from my own pocket, "Sorry, Laraine, we just don't have the money ... ") which involves teaching writing to 100 students each semester, and by the way, Laraine, what's your next book? Will you send us your next proposal? What are you working on now?

Since I posted final grades on Tuesday, I have done the following:
- reviewed and edited press releases for both books
- followed up with the publicists
- developed lists of newspapers, book groups, and reviewers
- scripted four YouTube videos to shoot this month
- began writing a database of newsletters so I can stay in contact with readers
- organized lists of people who are preordering books from me
- rewrote the copy for my website re-design, which will launch on June 1 as well
- added content to my Facebook pages for the two books
- contacted several venues where I would like to present a workshop or reading
- followed up with Pearson/Longman on a creative writing textbook proposal we began working on this year
- joined Twitter   @laraineherring

Prior to posting grades, I have done the following:
- created a teaching schedule for the next academic year that is primarily on-line so I can re-organize and reclaim some of my time and energy
- spoke to my supervisor and received approval to begin the application process for a sabbatical for 2012

What have I not done?

Real Writing.

To My Students: If you want this life (and make no mistake, I do want this life), be ready to work it. If you have to have a day job, then you have to have a day job. You will then have three full-time jobs -- the writing one, the marketing one, and the one with the check attached to it. You will have to find your own way into the pot of boiling water, your own method of adapting. No one can adapt for you. No one can tell you which way is the right way. You have to jump in, and then you have to know when to jump out.

All I ever wanted to do in this life is write stories. This is the time in which I am writing them. I can't change the time I'm living in. I can only continue to know that I must push back to keep the space I need for the Real Writing. I must continue to say no. Continue to set boundaries. Continue to do what I am here to do. I was born knowing my answer to the cliched deathbed question -- I will not wish I had spent more time grading papers. I will not wish I had spent more time outside. I will not wish I had had children or a dog or a church. I will only wish I had read more, had written more, because that is who I am. I have always known that, and I have always felt profoundly grateful for that.

So in this world, this time, this place -- I am a writer. And to do that, I have to do other things. I was given the talent and the tools. The assembly is left up to me. So, dare I say, tweet me, follow me on FB, check out the new website when it's launched, read my book, read the books of others, write to the authors (we're kind of lonely out here), share books, share stories, and write them down because the creation of such gifts are sacred, and even if the delivery method is rooted in zeros and ones, the story is still the reason for the method. Without the stories, we are empty.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

To sleep, perchance to dream


Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream

The hospital room is narrow, more like a veterinarian's office than a surgical theater. Light pours in through a triangular skylight. There is not enough room for anything more than the single bed where my aunt lies, head bald from months of chemotherapy. There is not enough room, but still we are there, my dad and I at the foot of the bed.

He is enormous, in this moment, my father, and it is natural that we are standing there together though he has been dead 23 years. He watches his sister on the bed, her eyelids fluttering. She is only sleeping right now. The surgeon enters and the room with no room makes space for him. He is an African-American man wearing a frayed straw hat.

"Sam," I say, although I have never seen Sam.

Sam worked on my great-grandparents' farm in South Carolina. My dad and his sister played with Sam against their parents' wishes. "Sam was always good to me," my father said before he was 23 years dead. "Especially after I had polio."

Sam and my enormous dad look at each other. Sam nods, says something I don't hear, and leaves. Dad takes the anesthesia mask and places it over his sister's mouth and nose. I hadn't noticed he'd moved away from me. He is now at the head of the bed and I am now alone at the foot. My aunt's chest stops rising and falling and my enormous father becomes a young boy. His sister becomes a young girl. He runs, no limp, and she chases him, catches him, and they fall against the hospital wall which collapses into the thick woods behind their childhood home. The little girl and the little boy hold hands and skip into the woods as if they were going berry picking.

I can't move through the wall that became the woods. I am anchored in the tiny hospital room. Sam appears from  behind a tree and the little girl and the little boy run to him and he holds them and the wall becomes wall again and I can no longer see where they are, where they are going, my enormous father who has been dead 23 years, my aunt, who is, on this side of the wall, not yet dead but moving closer, and Sam, who I have never known on this side of things.

The monitor in the small hospital room beeps steadily. I am at the foot of the bed near the feet of my aunt. I touch them and they are not yet cold, but the wind is coming. I touch the wall. It does not move. My own breath comes through the earth, my feet, my belly, my lungs. My own breath, for now, still rooted on this side of the tenuous wall that holds us all.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream.