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