Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sabbatical Days Ahead

The most amazing thing is about to happen. I have graded my last paper, responded to my last discussion board, created my last Excel spreadsheet for eight entire months. Two hundred forty days.

Please pause for a minute and twenty-seven seconds of really happy (OK, projecting!) dancing animals:

This semester has been better than spring semester, where I think part of my problem came from teaching summer school and not getting any break at all from teaching for five semesters. Not this year. Fall semester, aside from the new math, pie chart graphs, and strange Edu-Speak I found myself uttering in meetings with high-level administration, has been much better. I have been busier, but the students have been better, kinder, and more interested in learning.

I have some plans - lots of travel - Vegas, San Francisco, Chicago, Taos, New York, Massachusetts and North Carolina. I have writing goals. Reading goals. (I'm shooting to read fifty novels. We'll see!) I  finished a draft of a novel I've been working on for five years in November, and I plan to finish two more on sabbatical which are currently languishing at the magic 30,000 word stopping place. I am working on a teaching and writing project with my friend Cain Carroll. I am feeling very full - like I've been gathering and gathering and gathering for many years and now can harvest some of that bounty.

OK, pause for one more dance. Monkeys! Irish jigs! Computer-generated animation ...

But here's the real thing: I am at a place in my life where I understand what this means. I understand that this time off, with pay and good health may never come again. I understand that it doesn't ever come for many people, and that I am, frankly, profoundly lucky. I'm not a better person than others. I'm not smarter, more talented, more deserving. I've been dealt a good set of cards and the older I get the more I see the randomness of that deck and the more gratitude I feel for not only the most basic of things (food, shelter, health), but for a life which provides the opportunities for me to do the best I can with the deck I have.

I understand what is important to me and I understand how to best use this time to sow the seeds for the next decade of my writing career. I wouldn't have known this ten years ago. I wouldn't have been far enough along in my study of the craft of writing. I wouldn't have done so much work with my body - with yoga, with food choices, with meditation. There's more - always more to learn, to let go of, to move deeper into. But I know how to use this time so that I don't find myself on August 15 saying, "Oh my, I haven't done anything." This is a winning lottery ticket, and I'm going to spend it on the things that help me do the work I do in this life (write, teach) better.

I'll also probably get a new refrigerator. I expect the hot water heater to go at any minute. But I'm going to dream deeper than I've ever dreamed. I'm going to unpack the metaphoric basement and see what I've gathered and where it's supposed to go. I'm going to learn more about writing than I know now, and I'm going to stretch. I'm also going to have unexpected things happen. I'm going to leave space for wonder, space for surprises, and space for magic.

Thank you, Yavapai College, for this time, for this gift. I'll be back.

But not until August 15.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Basement Cat Writes a Novel

The things that people want to know about writing are things that writers can't tell them. Not because we don't want to or because we're stingy or mean, but because we can't. Not won't. Can't. The things we can tell you about writing, we do. Here's how to write decent dialogue. Here's why a bundle of adverbs are not your best bet. Here's how story works. This is a driving question. This is how to build tension. These are tools that can make a character come to life. Those things are craft concepts and we teach them all the time. We write books about them. We use their vocabulary in classes and critique groups and we improve people's writing by practicing them. But all the craft practice in the world will not make art. Craft practice enhances art, but it doesn't create it.

I thought I would describe the novel writing process as it seems to work for me. This still isn't going to tell you how to make art, and it is not The Way To Write A Novel, but maybe it'll tell you something.

1 - 18 months:

A novel is coming. I feel it first, like an after taste. Then I hear it -- the sounds of its winds, its waters, the crackle of its fire. I start to see pieces. A leaf, a shutter, a piece of sidewalk. I don't know what any of this means, but I pay attention.  A character starts to talk -- usually only one, and I don't know what to do with him or her. But I listen.

I go about my life. I work. I go to yoga. I drink red wine. I buy shoes. While all this is happening, Basement Cat is busy gathering souls for my very own basement in my belly. Basement Cat gathers books, sounds, CDs, plants, ideas, grief, questions, resentments, anger, tenderness, people (living and dead ones), television shows, and knick knacks. I don't know why he's gathering what he's gathering, but I have learned to trust him (and loan him the money to buy what he needs). These things, some literal and some metaphoric, get stored under black Basement Cat sheets. I feel the basement filling up. I literally feel this in my shoulders. I feel my dreams changing. My choice of reading material changes. My handwriting changes. I start researching things I never thought about before. My throat gets more full and more full and more full until finally it can't hold the door to the basement closed. I have to go down there and move things up the stairs.

18 - 24 months:

I don't know what to bring up, so I usually start with the lightest things, the things easiest to identify. Those get me started. I write about them. I listen to them, but they're not real. They're the early drafts. They run out of steam and I have to go back down in the basement and bring up heavier things, dustier things, louder things. Rarely are those the right things either, but I'm getting closer. Sometimes I arrange them in the wrong order in the upstairs. Sometimes I'm closer to right. Usually by this point, which is about draft number four or five, I see the thing that the book is about and it is too dang heavy and too dang old to pull up those stairs. I might get hurt. I might break my ankle. I might not be able to get rid of it once I haul it up the stairs. So I'll mess around with the things I've already pulled up the stairs but I know they're not the right things yet. They're the almost-right thing, and almost-right can be quite seductive.

24 - 36 months:

"Bah! Fine, Basement Cat!" I'll say, after rearranging the wrong things too long. "I will bring it up." Basement Cat is not paying attention to me. He is out gathering for the next book, which explains why more than once characters from a current book turn out to be making an early appearance for a different book. Basement cat is a trickster like that. Sometimes Basement Cat is just gone, and I have no idea where he went or if he'll be back or if I just wrote the last story I'll ever write. I forget that Basement Cat is a member of the Teamsters and has to take mandatory breaks. One day I'll remember this.

By this time, I know what it is. I know what's under the black Basement Cat sheet in the corner of the basement. Sometimes I argue with it. "No, not about that. I'm not writing about that (again, or still, or for the first time)." But it wins. It always wins because my body simply cannot hold it. And when I finally drag that crazy thing up the stairs and pull the sheet off of it, it sings. And I have a book.

I have this book not because I'm special, but because I listen to what Basement Cat is doing, and then I tell his stories. That's what I do. I write things down that I hear, that I notice, and that have been living in my basement-belly. I show up for this frequently, or else Basement Cat will get angry and start giving me stomach aches and back aches. He's vengeful like that, which I can understand because he did do all that work out gathering things for the basement while I was off having a pizza or seeing Phantom of the Opera.

In the LOLcat world, Basement Cat steals souls. Basement Cat never stole my soul. He always had it. From the very first story I wrote in kindergarten, Basement Cat was watching. My novels seem to take me about three years. They swim around in my basement-belly, knocking into things, clearing out the spiders and the rust, until they burst out like a geyser. I've learned this over the last twenty-five years of treating writing seriously. I've learned about the furniture, and the gathering, and Basement Cat's relentless search for things to bring back from the hunt. My job is to cull through those things. Keep. Store. Release. Keep. Store. Release. That's how I write books. I sift through what seems to be garbage until I find the life still beating underneath too many sock monkeys and the books on the Louisiana Bayou, and then I breathe the life I find into sentences. I can't say any more than that. I just don't know.

Long Live Basement Cat!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Warning: Math Ahead

When I was in tenth grade, I wrote of a feud between the Scalene Triangle Family and the Equilateral Triangle Family. They were arguing over who had the biggest angle. I wrote this not in an English class, but in a Geometry class. I was undone by math. I was never great at it, but once math moved from two apples plus two bananas equals four pieces of fruit, I felt betrayed because I could no longer see what math was doing. This is ironic because I can read a story or a poem and I almost never take things literally, yet in math, I wanted the literal. Once I could no longer touch math with my hands, it disappeared (and don't even get me started on the insanity that are imaginary numbers). Yet I can out-metaphor anyone in writing. It's interesting to be overskilled in the same general idea in one application and woefully underskilled in a different application.

Today, I observed a colleague as part of our Peer Review mentoring program. She was teaching her first developmental English class. This is the class where students end up who are at lower than 8th grade reading level. This is the class where the students have many more problems than just low reading skills. This is the class where the students are terrified of school. They've been called stupid. They've long ago given up on school as a place for growth. Watching my colleague teach this group today, I realized part of why I love teaching at the developmental level. I love language so much, and even though I don't always convince all of them to feel the same way, I want the students to leave the class not hating sentences and books. I want them to feel like freedom is in those paragraphs, not prison. I wish there had been a math class for me with a teacher like that -- someone who loved math so much that she or he couldn't stand the fact that there were people with math anxiety out there, people who didn't see the beauty in the language of integers. And that teacher had the patience and huge heart to sit with all of us who didn't understand until we at least no longer cried. I watched these developmental students stare at the blank computer screen, frozen. Most of them were trying to do what was assigned. I could empathize with this.

I have many new responsibilities this year at work, and one of them seems to involve statistics and spreadsheets and some strange thing called a Pearson coefficient. There are people on campus here who live in the buildings of the Highly Paid who generate this data and distribute it and then require us to analyze it, make predictions, and make action plans based on numbers that I don't know how to read. I've had trouble sleeping this week, waking up in the middle of the night worrying that I'm going to make an arithmetic error (which I always do) that will somehow negate my program. I worry that my inability to make sense of numbers will adversely affect my program. If people believe so much in the data and I make an incorrect data calculation (which I always do) then what? I feel my chest contract, my stomach shut down. I printed out fifteen pages of Excel spreadsheet data on my program -- coefficients, (what really IS that?) graphs, pie charts, areas in red ink that tell me this is BAD data. Areas in green ink that tell me this is GOOD data. It has been sending me back to middle school. I look at it and I freeze. I do not know how to move.

I want to shout, "Look at all these letters from students! Look at how many have gotten into MFA programs! Look at how many have softened their hearts!" But I can't measure that last one, and it's the most important.

I walked across the quad yesterday to the math and science building. It's a scary place, filled with skulls, cadavers, labs full of chemicals, poison symbols on doors, and way way too many graphing calculators. It smells like formaldehyde. Math faculty live on the lower level and science faculty live on the upper level. Alright, I said to myself. I am 43 years old. There are at least seven faculty members who are my friends and who happen to teach math. Alright. I will slay this math demon. So I went to talk to one of them and felt the tears. Good lord, did I mention I'm 43 years old? I am terrified of math. I didn't know how deep the fear ran. I went to the faculty member who teaches developmental math. He and his wife are friends of mine. She owns one of my favorite coffee shops and she also is afraid of math, so I thought he would be safe. He can obviously talk to non-math people.

"Just call me and I'll come to your office and I'll help you build a spreadsheet," he said, as if I just asked him to do the easiest thing on the planet.

"Doesn't that terrify you?"

He laughed. "Piece of cake."

"OK, but is this a big deal? I don't even know how to ask the questions. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

"Piece of cake."

"What the hell is a Pearson coefficient?"

"What was yours?"


"That's good."

"But what is it?"

"It doesn't matter."

"But they talk about it a lot."

"They do. Don't worry."


"Call me."

Another student was waiting outside his office, book clutched to her chest. She went into his office, next to the Dr. Spock cardboard cut out and the poster "Math is Power." I have a similar poster about stories, and my cardboard cut out is of Johnny Depp. I slept better last night, though I still haven't figured out how to turn in my report with my synthesized data. I tried to fill in my average class size, which is below the college's required program average class size of 15, yet all my program's classes are capped at 15 because we have to read 50 pages of student writing and, gosh, we just can't use a scantron like some fields which Shall Not Be Named. It's bad that my class size is below 15 (yes, even though the caps are 15, so to get an average class size of 15, we'd have to have no drops, no withdrawals, and no failing grades. Even I can do that math.)

I tried to type in the number of my average class size that the Highly Paid Numbers People gave me of 13.2. The form turned red. NOT A VALID INTEGER, it said. Fine then. You gave me the number. If that's not valid, I'll round up because UP is positive and DOWN is negative. 14 is better than 13. An academic year average of 14, with class capacities of only 15, tell me that we ROCK. Maybe I should finish this on Monday when I'm not yelling at a form.

What does this have to do with teaching writing? I have absolutely no idea. How does this strengthen my program? I have no idea. How does this help me cultivate greater empathy in my students and a deeper respect for their own narratives and those of others? I have no idea. I'll fill out my form. It doesn't matter.

But maybe math could be an ally. One person's change affects all those around her. One person's deepening compassion affects his community. I think that's called geometric progression. I'm probably wrong about that. But I'm not wrong in believing that it matters.

Friday, September 2, 2011

I Remember When

Please watch the video above before reading any farther. :-) Mr. Neil Diamond and the unbelievable Barbra Streisand. Take a breath. Remember the 70s fondly. If it made you cry, that's OK. It makes me cry every time I hear it. This time, it made me cry to watch it because of the relationship I saw on stage between the performers. (I know they were performing, but that's fine.)

Writers. Pay attention. This song is a novel. Each character reveals something about the other character through his and her own lines. Each part in this duet enhances the other, and together, we get the whole story of the relationship. There's more sexual and emotional tension between those two on that stage than in many contemporary novels. Yes, the lyrics are melodramatic and probably wouldn't work in a novel verbatim, but look again at the video. The backstory is standing behind each of them. It's the backstory that is not directly revealed that is propelling the narrative of the song. It's the backstory that makes them three, not two, dimensional characters. And it's the multilayered conflict in each character that draws the emotion out of the reader. The specific details of the relationship ground the listener in that song. We don't hear "It makes me so sad that we're breaking up." We get the list of what we'll miss when the relationship is over, the list of what the relationship taught  us, and then we get the image that's the title of the song -- "you don't bring me flowers anymore." This image touches each listener who's been in a relationship that slowly begins to transition apart. The action is a negative (not bringing as opposed to bringing). The line speaks of the absence of everything. This is why the song still holds power.

In my classes' writing I see lots of actual sex. Lots of violence. Lots of intrigue and espionage and snarky banter. Lots of convoluted plots. Medieval settings. Torture chambers. Alternate realities and crazy space robots. My intellect might be excited by it for a minute, but I'll forget it soon enough.

What I don't see enough of, and students, if you're reading, I'm begging you, make me feel something ... let me see actual people (or space robots) actually losing something that matters to both of them. No one wins. No one loses. They both are scarred and changed. You don't have to crush a skull with an anvil to make a reader care. Sneak in underneath the reader's armor with actual emotion and they won't know what hit them.

When I read a book where the characters actually make me feel something, I will remember them forever. The most recent book to do this for me was Boy's Life by Robert R McCammon. It had been a long time since a book got me like they used to when I was the age when Barbra and Neil were singing to one another. And it felt. So. Good. Felt. I didn't think -- wow, what a genius plot. Wow, what a complicated world. What fascinating aerospace details. I felt like a human, not a downloader of information when I finished Boy's Life. I felt real. And after I finished crying when that book was over, I was so grateful to Mr. McCammon for giving it all to the story so that readers could feel something authentic. It's harder to do than to create a sterile world or a space robot. It means you have to risk feeling something to write something that evokes emotion. You have to risk vulnerability and ridicule for standing without your masks. But when you read an author who risks it all, you take that story into your cells. You hold it and make it yours. It lives and lives and lives. If you want to write about space robots, make them feel something. And then take something away from them and watch them struggle. Break their little robot hearts again and again and again.

Writers. Give me that. Readers. Demand that. All the information in the world will never evoke a tear, never open a single heart. When information makes you sad it's because of the story you attach to the data, not the data. Writers. Go under the facts. Under the conventions. Under the structure and find the quivering chrysalis of possibility.

Write from there. And remember to breathe.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Home Improvement Part 3: In Which Laraine Marvels at How Much Fur Cats Make

It all started with knobs. We were wandering through Cost Plus one afternoon and they had drawers of funky knobs for drawers. I thought - hey! A home improvement project I (read: Keith) can do all by myself (himself). I bought funky knobs and Keith put them on the two bedroom closets that had vintage 1970s handles. Then, the upstairs bedroom screen had to get fixed. The cats had, over the seven years I've been here, been diligently trying to make their way out of the well-furnished and well-stocked Plato's Cave that has been their home. True Value Hardware rescreened it and suddenly the floodgates opened. This is not my house anymore. Since I do live here, the next right thing to do was to make it my house again.

Everyone is gone now. The men with tools that make lots of noise. Their coolers of water and sandwiches. Their paint-stained radio tuned to classic rock. It's just me and the cats and we're trying hard to figure out who we are in this space.

Did you know that when these amazing men with tools come and lay down flooring, they actually vacuum and clean the cement floor underneath? They even shop-vacced in the walls between the baseboards. Even the walls!! Now, the cats make fur tumbleweeds every day. Sometimes they even play with them like balls of yarn. I can pick them up and put them in the garbage (the fur, not the cats) and the floor is clean. The fur to make a thousand cats must have been in that old carpet. When they pulled out the refrigerator to lay the floor, the cardboard it rolled over collected enough fur for six coats. How do they make that much fur? Maybe the purring is actually a machine generating fur. 

I've always moved like this. I seem to not be doing much of anything (sometimes for years) and then all of a sudden the earth opens up and I completely step out of everything I used to be and move into something new in a matter of weeks. A big explosion of fire like a volcano eruption after years of simmering under the surface. I've always worked this way. Quiet, quiet, quiet ... Ka-BOW!

I'm turning 43 on Friday. Last night I went for a walk in the dark. The Milky Way painted the sky a haze. Bats darted against the street lights and bullfrogs sang by the Hassayampa Golf Course. I remembered how my dad taught me to ride a bike in the parking lot of Idlewild Elementary School in Charlotte. I had training wheels on the bike and then I had his hands on the frame and then he let go, but I didn't know it because he kept moving beside the bike. I was riding on my own, but I thought I was supported. When he stopped and I rode on my own there was a moment of terror when I thought I'd fall, but I didn't. My father is long dead. My mother lives in Phoenix. But they always run beside me, whether I'm reflooring the house, walking through Vancouver, or writing alone in the library. They gave me a foundation. Real wood. Solid structure. A safe place to sleep. And because of that, I know how to make places like that for myself.

This year I am writing a different sort of fiction. I'm moving into a different place with my art and with my teaching. My house has space. The wind blows from front to back through the new security doors. It will not blow me over. It will not chase me out. I know how to stand solid. I know how to ride, and I know how to breathe.

Creating a life is like creating a novel. At first, the Polaroid image is just an impression. Then, we add details. People. Things. Experiences. And over time, the concrete images emerge. The story of a life. Sometimes it seems like there's nothing in the picture and then when we blink, the entire photo has emerged.

Front garden (we're trying sunflowers!)

New security door on front

Backyard garden

New security door - backyard

front door/living room - oak lamin

living room

living room & giant cat tree

Dining Room (such that it is)

Entry way to hall


kitchen floor

upstairs bathroom (towel is wet, not stained!)

new vinyl for upstairs bathroom

Friday, July 22, 2011

Home Remodeling Part 2: In which Laraine lauds the work of professionals

More than a few times, when I tell people I'm a writer or a writing teacher, I'll hear "I always wanted to write a book," or "I'm going to take a few weeks off work and write my story," or some semblance of that comment. I usually smile, but I'm gritting my teeth inside. Not because they want to write or tell their stories, but because they don't understand that there's a serious amount of work, craft, skill, and talent involved in writing. Yes, you might can sit down and write 10,000 words in a weekend, but that's not where it ends. That's not even close to the end. I say it every semester: You've got to respect the art. Respect the writing.

This is true with home improvement projects as well. Yes, Home Depot has the same supplies as the professionals. Yes, I can buy them cheaper there. Yes, I can watch a few do-it-yourself videos on YouTube and think that I am certainly capable of doing that. But the wealth of what I don't know because it's not what I do is stunning. This home improvement project had a variety of problems that aren't apparently uncommon, but would have stopped me from finishing, or at least finishing correctly. I will spend years on a manuscript, but not a hands-on project. We've all got our gifts. Acceptance is part of maturity. Ha.

Here's just a few of the things I learned during Professional Home Improvement Week.

1) Holes in the drywall. Professionals can patch walls and have them not look like wadded up tissue paper.

2) Strange wires that go nowhere. Professionals know how to cut them and not electrocute themselves or burn the house down.

3) Floors that are not level and would cause the new laminate flooring to crack. I would not have known that would be a problem, would not have known how to even measure it, and certainly would not have known how to fix it. Professionals mix things in big buckets, pour them onto floors and whistle. They have this big metal thing called a level that they place on the floor to check. Hmm.

4) Water damage to the bathroom ceiling from a roof leak three years ago. See # 1.

5) Masking and edging when painting. It's one thing to paint a wall a solid color. It's another thing to edge it. I lose patience. Good is good enough. I get tired, frustrated, and usually have the wrong kind of paint. Professionals know how to edge. They know what kind of paint to buy. They are not deterred.

6) Drywall that has come away from the stairs leaving gaps in the wall that the carpet won't fill. See #1.

7) Quartz crystals growing in my concrete floor in the kitchen. Did you know that quartz grows? Did you know that if quartz is in cement (it's not supposed to be) it will, over time, grow and crack your floor. Professionals know this, and are not fazed. They dig it out, sand it down, fill it in and finish laying your floor while you watch television. And oh yeah, they whistle.

8) Ladders. Simple. Professionals have the right ladders. And they're not afraid to step on them.

9) Fretsaws. Circle saws. Scary power saws on tables that make sparks when they cut through your floors. Yep. Pros have these. They even have the goggles.

10) Math. OK, I could probably have learned how to do the math at one point, but my math-window has closed. Pros. They can do math. And guess what. When you're calculating gallons of paint and how to cut the laminate so it all gets used and fits in the house, you're using math. And it matters.

11) Wallpaper from many decades ago that has apparently woven itself into the drywall. This delightfully patterned wallpaper was located behind a bathroom mirror we took down so we can put up new vanities when they're done. There may not be an app for this, but there's a chemical for it, and professionals have it.

12) "Hey, Laraine!" shouts the painter. "Come look at this." Never. Ever. What. You. Want. To. Hear. "For some reason, you don't actually have a wall here. Just a few pieces of cardboard." We're looking at the 'wall' where the awful paneling used to be. "You want we should make this a wall?"

Yes, you beautiful beautiful people. I want we should make this a wall.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Home Remodeling Part 1: In which Laraine realizes that foundation trumps accessories

House-Falling-Apart-Kitteh Dreams of New Colors

Before I moved from Phoenix, I had new ceramic tile and carpet put in my house. I only got to enjoy them a year before I sold the house and moved to Prescott, and while I haven't missed a single thing about Phoenix, I have missed my floors.

I've lived in my townhome here for seven years now, on carpet that I am sure was original (1981), with light tan paneling (ugh) in the living room and neon yellow vinyl in the bathrooms that I have kept covered with decorative accessory rugs because I can't bear its neon-ness. I have lived with non-functioning baseboard heaters, a doorbell that is falling off the wall (again circa 1981), and a thermostat for the non-functioning baseboard heaters that, upon removal, was apparently merely decorative. Perhaps I missed the fad of decorative thermostats. Maybe it was from the same time the tan paneling apparently worked. The baseboards for the paneling, by the way, turned out to be styrofoam coated with tan paper. Yep.

I have spent a lot of time this summer in two of the greatest cities: Vancouver and New York. (San Francisco - I'm coming soon! I promise!) I can't get enough of cities. I love the neon and the trains and the people and the languages and the ability to have octopus at 2 am (not that I've availed myself of that, but I know people who have, and just being somewhere that is possible is enough). I love the dreams of a city. The sky shadowed by buildings. A life as vibrant under the ground as above the ground. It's harder for me to live in a small town, especially in the desert where the sky is so freakin' big and the trees are so freakin' short, but there are good things here too, not the least of which is an international airport only 90 miles away and the very slim chance of hurricanes or volcanic eruptions.

I will be 43 in a few weeks. There are things I hope to not ever have to do again. I don't want to work a half-dozen jobs to make $20 grand a year. I don't want to commute for hours every day to a job. I don't want to be in a cubicle from 8 - 5. I don't want to have to grant-grab and sell myself at every turn to teach workshops that pay in T-shirts and bottled water and sweet thank-you notes from haggard bookstore owners. Borders is closing and liquidating everything by September. The avenues through which I sell my books are coming apart at the foundation. There are transitions happening everywhere. Things are falling apart so new things can be built. It's exciting. Unsettling.

I can't pretend that 43 isn't the middle of my life (if it's not already past that). I can't pretend that I have not made choices that have opened some doors while closing others. As I re-examine my life, I keep returning to two things: writing and freedom. I feel good about my writing since moving to Prescott, and I feel even better about my freedom since moving here. My job provides the most freedom I can imagine. Yes, we have to do things. Yes, we have to show up at certain times. But we're not chained to the desk, and, dare I say, summer and winter breaks make up for just about anything the semester can throw at us. The college went through a huge transition last semester and next year will be full of challenges trying to implement the changes. I will be on sabbatical for the second half of the coming year, focusing on deepening my own work. My foundation. What other job lets you do that and keep your health insurance? I have several books I'm working on, and an exciting partnership with my friend Cain Carroll to teach together and write a book in the coming year. (More details soon!)

So I decided I have to invest in my structural roots. Today is Day 2 of the home remodeling project. It's really more of a face lift. No walls are moving around. No plumbing coming out of the walls. But it's a big deal, and as I took apart my house so it can be reassembled, I could see into every corner. Every baseboard. Every hole in the drywall that needs to be patched. I can put my eye up to the gaping hole in the wall where the doorbell was and see inside the walls. How cool is that? I can stand on the actual concrete foundation and watch it being turbo-cleaned and prepped for the flooring. Today, they have to fix the floor. It is not level, so the floor won't float. There's some magic thing they can do to level it out. (Yes, mom, another instance where math matters.) Tomorrow, they'll lay the oak laminate and finish the carpet and the bathroom vinyl. Then, the painters come and replace the baseboards, take down the tan paneling, patch the gaping holes, sand the walls and paint them green (and other colors). The cabinet doors and drawers come out to be sanded and repainted. The hood over the stove will suddenly become the color of nickel. Poof! The screen doors will come off and new security doors go on so I can keep the doors open and let more air run through the house. The fluorescent lighting will come down and track lighting go up. (I may be almost 43, but under full-spectrum lighting, I daresay I don't look a day over 39...)

They've stripped my house down to its essence. Its foundation boards peek under the drywall like feet. They are stable and thick. The concrete is cool and solid. The edges square. I know these things now. In a few days, I will be able to walk on new floors. By the end of next week, this will be a different townhome. I am not the person I was when I moved to Prescott. I have made a life here, and even though I need to leave it and go play in the cities of the world, it's important to invest in a solid structure. A place to lay my head that is safe, full of love (and a few cats), and full of enough freedom to keep growing, deepening, and creating. I don't write well when my life is in chaos. I don't write well when I'm worried about income. And I don't write well living in someone else's skin. Phoenix, even with good floors, was never my skin. For the first time in my life, I will have a home that, inside and out, reflects who I have become, and has enough space for who I will be.

I'll post finished pictures when it's done.

Monday, May 9, 2011

PTSD: Post-Traumatic Semester Disorder

My mother tells me a story of a time before my sister was born. I would have been around two, and we were at the playground. I was on the slide, when a boy came along and pushed me off, giving me a bruise. I think my mother tells this story because she thought my response was so unusual.

"You didn't cry. You just asked why someone would do that."

I called her before writing this blog because I wanted to make sure it wasn't a story about my sister, or a story I made up. "No, it happened to you," she said. "Your sister would have pushed back."

She would have. My little sister ruled the school bus. I tried to slip in and out of the bus without anyone noticing me at all.

I remember the name of every bully in my life. That's not healthy, I know, but it's true. The girl who lived down the street from me, whose house was full of puppies, who tormented me on the walk to the bus stop every day in elementary school. In middle school, a group of girls took me on as a personal mission to be mean to. A boy spit on me, on purpose, from the monkey bars. In the classroom, when the teacher would leave, the girls stole my journals, read out loud from them, tossed them across the room.

I never said anything. They were bigger. Stronger. And what would I say? I didn't understand why they did what they were doing. I didn't know how to fight anyone, and I just thought if I became invisible enough, they would go away.

But I stewed, and as I've grown into my own life, I find that bullying is the one thing I can't seem to tolerate -- something I still haven't found the appropriate response to. Students can say or do just about anything, but when they bully me or someone else, I go back to the 5th grade in my body. Back to those girls who scared me so much I couldn't sleep. Back to my father saying, "You've just got to wait them out." My sister who probably would have just punched back.

This semester, I had the perfect storm of students in one of my on-line classes. The personal bullying began from the very first day. Before I'd even logged in on the first day of class, there was a slew of personal attacks about the course, the textbooks, the deadlines. I did what I did in middle school. My heart beat too fast. My stomach hurt. My shoulder screwed itself up into my jaw. Why are they doing this? What did I do that caused this to happen? So I hesitated, which is what bullies wait for, and I couldn't regain footing in the class the entire semester. I lost sleep for fifteen weeks over this class, these people. I'm used to frustrated students, but this was different. I couldn't shake them out of me. I couldn't reframe their posts for them and try and ease them out of their attacks into a more receptive place in the class. I tried for almost ten weeks before I went to my dean and told her I cannot keep responding to these people. I feel like I'm being shot at every time I offer feedback, every time I try and point out a craft concept. I'm not a new teacher. I've been at this almost twenty years. I know my subject matter and I know a great deal about how to work with various types of people, but this time, I was only ten years old.  I felt like I was going to cry all the time, and I experienced the same feelings as I did in the 5th grade every time I checked my work e-mail or logged into that class. I was afraid to log in.

What could I do next time? Why isn't there a clear college policy on on-line behavior? Am I just supposed to feel poked and attacked several times a week just because it's my job? I don't think it's my job to be bullied, and I'm not in the 5th grade, and I am actually the one in the pseudo-power position in this circumstance. I started talking to other professors. What would you do with this? How would you have handled it? What can I do differently?

So I've made a course policy and a video on tone in the academic setting for next semester that probably won't change anything, but made me feel somewhat more empowered. I have some sample responses from other faculty that I can use right away if this happens again. But what I've really learned is that I still feel the shock and the disbelief that I felt in middle school when facing a bully. Did I make the right choice in the 5th grade not to hit back? I don't know. I didn't choose not to hit back out of any noble non-violence ideas. It just seemed stupid. They were bigger. I would lose. They would break my glasses and then I couldn't read.

Tomorrow is the last day of the semester. One particular student was the worst. Student X did not turn in the largest assignment of the semester. S/He had, in spite of being a bully, been earning an A because s/he was a very good writer. When s/he missed the assignment, at first I was thrilled. "Gotcha. Now you're not going to pass. Ha." But every day I waited for the e-mail. The reason it was my fault that s/he missed the deadline. That I have to take the paper. I still was stomach-aching anxious to log in to work.

Today there was a note that was not laced with the caustic tone I'd been reading all semester. The note explained what had happened, asked me if s/he could make up the packet. I don't know if the reason is true. This time in the semester we hear every reason under the sun for why things didn't happen on time. I don't want to read the paper. I want to post grades tomorrow. At first, my response was, "Should have been nicer to me, b---h." But that response, even reframed appropriately for office correspondence, didn't feel right. I actually do believe the reason given in the e-mail. I am in the position of power here. I have a no late work policy. I could have said no. It's too late. Too bad so sad, nanner nanner nanner. I win. It would have been backed up all the way to the top of administration. It's in the syllabus. I could win.

I walked around the building and came back to the computer. I responded that s/he had been earning an A up until that point. I responded that I would not include the points for that paper in the final grade calculation, so the grade will be what had been earned up until that point. I wished him/her a good summer, and I pressed send.

And then I cried a little, and I felt the shaking up in my body. I felt the hand loosen around my heart, and I felt my shoulder release a little. I don't know if that was the right decision. But as soon as I pressed send and felt the tightening shift, I knew it was the decision that was going to allow me to walk away.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Please! Stop asking for my opinion!

Warning: Rant Ahead.

When I was in college, no one asked me for feedback. On anything. On anyone. This was not in the age of dinosaurs. This was in the late 80s. No one asked me if the chairs were comfortable. If the instructor was pleasant and accommodated my unique learning style. If I felt the assignments were fair. If I felt the instructor were qualified. No one asked.

No one should have.

When I was employed in my first "real" job, no one asked me for feedback. On anything. On anyone. How did I like the new restructuring? Do I feel secure? Do I want a blankey?

In the past week, I have been asked for my feedback from the following sources:

Travelocity: Would I please rate my booking experience?
My Dentist: Would I please rate my teeth cleaning experience?
The IT department at my college: Would I please rate my Help Desk Experience?
Every single commerce situation I've had in the past week: Survey on the receipts from: Bookmans, Fry's, CVS, Texaco. would love to know how I'm enjoying my Kindle. (Ha, ha, I'm not going to tell them!)
YouTube wants to know how I like my channel.
Google Apps wants to know if I'm satisfied with the upgrades.
Yahoo!Mail wants feedback on its Beta Mail program.
My tax accountant: Would I please comment on my experience with my taxes?
My VISA card: How do I like the new allocation of points?
My employer: Would I please provide feedback on my immediate supervisor?
My recent Netflix InstantView: How did I like the movie?
My MFA alma mater: How has my MFA served me?
My MA alma mater: What would I like to see college X doing moving forward?

I'm convinced SurveyMonkey is a sign of the apocalypse. Except I don't think there is an apocalypse (wait: Why has no one asked me my opinion on how likely I think the world is going to end in my lifetime? hmmm... conspiracy theories abound.)

I don't fill out these surveys, no matter how much I love monkeys. And I do love monkeys.

My fabulous Keezel at the Omega Institute in July, 2010

If I have an opinion on something that I think might be somewhat educated and somewhat helpful, I may share that opinion privately with the institution or individual involved. But I rarely do even this because ... um ... my opinion doesn't really matter.

Am I satisfied with my teeth cleaning experience? Well, what were my expectations of that teeth cleaning experience? Were they reasonable or were they what I wanted rather than what I might have needed? Why can't it be enough just to have my teeth cleaned? If the dentist stabs me in the gum with a sharp tool, I promise I'll say something. Otherwise, just please clean my teeth. Were the heavens supposed to crack open? Should I have expected a Hallelujah chorus when she put the bite wings in for the X-rays? Did they serve me wine and cheese? Please. It's the dentist.

How did I like my recent car's tune-up experience? Well, actually, I would have preferred if you'd have used Bay 3 for the work as my car really is sensitive to north-facing windows. I also think the tool boxes should have been in red instead of that sad metal color, and I would have really liked it if my mechanic looked like Johnny Depp. What can I tell you about tuning up a car? Nothing. Because I. Don't. Know. How. To. Tune. Up. A. Car. If the mechanic slashed my tires, poured oil in the gas tank, and drained and forgot to refill the radiator, I promise I'll say something.

It's no wonder our students think their opinion matters above all else. That we are there to serve them slavishly and attend to their every need in the way in which they (at the ripe old age of 17-1/2) believe the class and the material should be delivered. In the past week, I've had to give out surveys to my students for assessment purposes. I hate doing this, but I have to (and then I get to give the school feedback on my assessment plan participation). The school also sends out a general student satisfaction survey this week. This is not training people well for a world that, although it may ask increasingly frequently for their opinion, doesn't really want it. But worse than that, it's training them that their opinion on things about which they are not qualified to have an opinion, matters.

It doesn't help that our college's advertising campaign (which thankfully was terminated this year in a positive spin on the budget cuts) had billboards that said: Yavapai College. We're there for you. Like your dog.

I wish I was kidding on that ad campaign. I'm not using even the slightest bit of hyperbole.

If my professor never comes to class, leers at all the girls, and spends more time on his iPad than talking to us, I promise I'll say something. Other than that -- it's his class. If it doesn't work for me, I can leave. 

Too much idle chatter. Too much idle speech. Too much data collection.

And here's the other thing: I am not entitled to the exact experience I may hope for. If I am in a classroom of thirty people, I am part of a group. There is a group need that outweighs my personal needs. (Gosh, I hate that instructor because she uses the red dry-erase marker. Gosh, I wish he didn't spend so much time explaining polynomials to the 90% of the class who doesn't understand them and instead focused his energies entirely on me. Me-me-me. I-I-I. This is my experience, therefore it must be as I have predetermined it must be -- otherwise it was (fill in the generalization word: stupid, useless, a waste of time, dumb, boring) Stop. Please.

I am qualified to have an opinion on two things: writing and teaching. There is nothing else in my life that I have the education or experience in to offer an intelligent, helpful, opinion. Oh sure, I'm human, so I have opinions on all kinds of things. But they're based on nothing but personal preference, personal fears, personal everything -- so they don't need to be made public.

What does it mean that I "like" a certain item? Not one useful thing. It means I buy chocolate instead of vanilla, but that doesn't mean vanilla is bad or wrong or stupid or misguided. What right have I to keep vanilla from those who love it?

When you feel like you need to share your opinion something, ask yourself the following:

- Is it truthful?
- Is it necessary?
- Is it something that will unify rather than divide?
- Is it kind?

Aim for 4 out of 4 before you press "send".

I am not entitled to enjoy or 'like' or have fun in every experience that makes up my life. Who said that education was supposed to be entertainment? Why am I supposed to enjoy my trip to the OBGYN? I'm just supposed to do it.

Sometimes in life, we're just supposed to do things. Some of them will be hard. Some unpleasant.

Dear Ms. Herring,

We are sorry for your recent loss of (Contact: First Name, Last Name).

Thank you for using Funeral Service X. We strive to provide you everything you need at this very difficult time. To help us serve you and others better, please take a few minutes to fill out this survey about our service.

What could we have done to make your experience with us better?

Bring back Contact: First Name, Last Name.

And stop distilling every experience in my life down to a scale of 1- 5.

My life is bigger than that.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Elvis and Me

Last night, we saw Robert Shaw and the Lonely Street Band's Tribute to Young Elvis at the Elk's Theater. I'm a sucker for Elvis. Any Elvis -- young Elvis, old Elvis, hot Elvis, not-so-hot Elvis, gospel Elvis, rock and roll Elvis, blues Elvis, ballad Elvis, bad actor Elvis, soldier Elvis, Las Vegas Elvis, Elvis in a tortilla...

Elvis died the year after my dad got sick. Our house had every Elvis LP imaginable. My sister and I would stand on the top of the itchy yellow and black sofa, jump rope microphones in our hands, teddy bears near by, singing "Teddy Bear", tossing the bears to the ceiling at the finale. The first time I heard him sing "Old Shep" I cried. When Elvis died, I was 9. My dad had almost died the year before. Our whole lives had been turned upside down. In the south, Elvis walked hand in hand with Jesus. The King Could Not Die. But he did, and in the way of things, a decade later, my dad did too. Elvis was 42; my dad was 46.

I'm 42 now, and at the event last night, I was one of the youngest people there. The man sitting next to me wore a silver snap-button shirt, the final three buttons open because his belly had exceeded the width of the fabric. In front of me, women my mother's age joined hands, singing with Robert Shaw. When Robert sang "It's Now or Never", the man next to me, who was there alone, whispered, "I played that a million times."

The audience screamed for young Mr. Shaw. Screamed. Women using walkers. Women with mastectomies. Women with thinning, beehived hair. Women stood for young Mr. Shaw. Women with grandchildren. Dead husbands. Dead children. They stood and they screamed and they stomped and they danced, leaping for the teddy bear he threw to the audience. Grandmothers. Great grandmothers. Screaming. Stomping. Dancing.

Mr. Shaw did an Ed Sullivan imitation. The audience laughed. They'd watched the show when it aired. To hell with censorship, said young Mr. Shaw, and commenced the wiggle.


Swollen ankles dissolved into lacy bobby socks. Orthopedic shoes tip-toed into saddle shoes. The women's eyes were sparkling -- with tears, with love, with memory.

"I know there's some men out there," said young Mr. Shaw. "Just can't hear you."

The man next to me hooted, exposed belly wiggling.

I was twenty to thirty years younger than most of the audience. I knew all the songs. I hadn't played the 45s in my bedroom over and over or written letters to him when he was serving in Germany or cried when he married Priscilla, but Elvis was the soundtrack of my childhood as it was the soundtrack to their adolescence and young adulthood. Elvis made it OK. Elvis gave the sense of hope when there wasn't any; the sense of rhythm to a stiffening people; and he offered faith. Whether you believed or not, you believed when Elvis sang that gospel. No matter what else happened in his life, no matter how sick he got, when he slipped into music, he transported himself and everyone with him. He was living art.

After my dad's first heart attack, he spent some time talking to men at the Salvation Army. He brought Elvis' gospel LPs and played "Peace in the Valley" and tried to convince everyone that it was possible.  Over time, it became less possible, and we moved away from the South, from Elvis, from who we were before Elvis died. Elvis may have lived on, grown stronger perhaps, in death, but it didn't work that way for my dad. Each year that passes brings fewer people who ever met my dad, ever knew him, ever loved him.

Last night, hundreds of us stood for young Mr. Shaw, many of us crying, for the gift of two hours suspended in time. For a spit of a second, we were all who we were when we first heard the sounds. We had not yet had our hearts broken and our bodies injured. We had not yet left friends behind, watched neighborhoods disintegrate, spent days in Hospice saying good-bye. We were girls and we were boys with the fire of all the world in front of us. 

Perhaps now, because we have been marked, wrinkled, divorced, denied, loved, spurned, broken, built back up, perhaps now we could listen to young Mr. Shaw and see the beauty of the fleeting moment of youth. What we thought would never leave, leaves. This is true of everything. And when you really know that in your bones, you see that spark, that hip swivel, that sneer; you hear the seduction of the guitar's strings, and you pay attention to it. You know it's precious and primal and if there is anything divine in the world, it is in that spark. You look around the audience at the men with faraway eyes, the women with open mouths -- this group of people that you know differs as much as people can differ on religion and politics -- but they are standing up together. They are clapping together. We are young. We are young. We may have nothing else in common but we have Elvis and his promise of passion and desire and kindness.

We are young.
We are old.
We are beautiful and we are screaming together, not at each other.

The power of art brings that out and lets the rest fall away under our dancing feet.

Viva, viva, us all.

The video below is "young" Elvis singing "King Creole".

The video below is the "old" Elvis singing "How Great Thou Art". 

Monday, April 11, 2011

When Expectations Collide with Reality ... it ain't pretty

 "All artists are willing to suffer for their work. But why are so few prepared
to learn to draw?"- Banksy

It's April in academia. The birds are singing. The snow is still falling. The flowers are blooming (and freezing). And yes, as usual, it's the month of dead and dying family members from the sweet mouths of our students. If you've got a kid in college, be careful when you start the car. But most of all, April is the month when students' expectations crash and burn in the pyre of self-loathing and (perish the thought) work.

Here's what happens. The semester has almost ended (yes, yay, jumping in the halls, dancing in the streets, please oh please be over) and the students, those who do care and who have been coming to class and who have been learning and struggling, come face to face with the truth of: I haven't "gotten it" yet.

They think writing is something one can "get" in fifteen weeks. Nay, sooner, since they have been writing for 20, 30, 40, 50 years by this point. How hard is it to arrange words? They had visions of where they would be by now, and although those who've shown up and participated have indeed made lots of progress, it doesn't look like what they thought it would.

It never does. The tricky net of expectations has strangled many before them and will strangle many more after them. A semester is such an arbitrary amount of time, and it is such an insignificant amount of time in a life, that it seems impossible that we can teach anything at all of substance in a 15 week period. The art of writing is not a 15 week program. Yes, you can learn some things about craft in 15 weeks. Yes, you can read some forms of literature you might never have looked at before, and yes, you can stick your toes into the snake-infested swamp of revision. But you may find at the end of the semester you feel like you're in a worse place than you were when you started.

You're not. You're just beginning to realize what you don't know and what you didn't even know to ask about. You're just starting to see the ways literature can be written and read. You're just starting to see that writing is not a task ... it is a path. And for some of you, that ain't what you signed up for.

I get it. I really do. You're accustomed to outcomes and measurable skill sets. You're a bright person. You should be able to "get" this. Writers know that writing is a lifelong pursuit. That there is no one-day epiphany that solves every story you'll ever write. Each story is a teacher. Each poem a Zen master. Writing one story well guarantees nothing for any future story. Writing one story poorly does not sentence you to a life of bad writing.

If I had all the time in the world to teach writing in the way I truly felt was best, and if I had only students who were sincere in their educational pursuits, we would begin with the sentence, and we would not leave the sentence until we understood the nuance of the comma, the position of the verb. I haven't figured out any practical way to teach like this. Writers must come up with every aspect of the work first before learning the craft. To only address theory without practice is to spin and spin and spin. So instead, we write drafts and we talk about them and only after many years of writing practice do most writers come to realize the value of word choices, sentence structures, and paragraph lengths. The subtlety of rhythm contained within the way an author puts a sentence together. The places where the author left space for the reader to breathe. These things appear second nature when you read, but they are the result of thought and commitment on the part of the writer.

Students, if you're serious about "being a writer", remember these things:

- You will always be a beginner.

- There will always be people "better" than you.

- You will always be alone with the blank page. No one can be there with you. Figure out how to be OK with that.

- Take time away from writing. You can't produce twenty-four hours a day. 

- Remember the joy and sense of play that first brought you to language. If you lose that, you're adrift.

- Study sentences. Study grammar. Look at books critically through the lens of a writer, rather than a reader. Start to get out of your own way when reading. It doesn't matter whether you like or don't like the work. Look at how the work was put together. That'll give you insight into craft.

- Practice detachment from your writing. The tighter you attach to it and to your construct of what it means, the less chance you have of truly developing it into something that can breathe on its own.

- There's no mastery - just deeper and deeper questioning.  The more open you are to the questions, the more ease your writing practice will provide. If you attach and hold tight to wanting to know things and figure everything out, eventually you'll exhaust yourself. There's no figuring out. There's just experiencing and observing.

As you walk the path with your writing, hold its hand loosely. Notice the wind and the earth beneath you, and let this observation be enough.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

E-Readers and E-Kitties and E-Thoughts and E-gads

At first it was a little like admitting to a crack addiction. (Not that I've ever had a crack addiction, Employer Who Might Read This Blog). I'm a writer. I love books. I love bookstores. I understand that we authors don't make anything to speak of from our work. I understand that bookstores are in trouble. But I also am a part of the 21st century, and if I do nothing else in this world well, I sit and watch with the best of 'em.

I watched the music industry decide that people would always buy music in music stores. (How's that Tower Records stock doin' for ya?) Then I watched the music industry decide that only the pre-packaged monster acts would be supported. Then I watched the people who make the music tell them where they can take their studios. At first it was expensive and nearly impossible to make your own CD. Not so anymore. At first, it was nearly impossible to distribute that CD (um, cassette) unless you were affiliated with said Studio. Not so anymore.

And so I watched the publishing industry pretend like this transition has not happened to the music industry. They don't know what to do now, so they seem to be doing a combination of nothing and trying to negotiate higher e-book prices. But amazon beat them to the table and consumers aren't going to pay what the publishers want. Welcome to free enterprise -- you know, that class you had to take in 12th grade? Well, this is how it works. Anyone download an i-tunes song for $5.99? Didn't think so. The world saunters on. E-readers abound. E-books abound. The times, they are a-changin'. 

Is this good for writers? Ultimately, I think so. Right now, it's a giant clusterf&*$(. But it'll shift away from that and people will wonder why they fought it so hard. The Authors Guild is negotiating for greater royalties for e-books. Will it happen? Don't know. But if I want to upload my new book straight to Kindle all on my own, can I do it? Yep. Is this freedom resulting in a lot of crappy e-books? Yep. But that'll shift around too. Gone to an art fair lately? There's a wide range of talent in the world. Literature is no exception.

So back to the crack addiction that I never had. 

I used to read ALL THE TIME. I had books with me everywhere. And then, this pesky thing called a job showed up in my life, and that job involved continuous reading of student work for weeks on end. Last thing I wanted to do was read. Ever. Again. And really, the last thing I wanted to do was read on a computer or screen device since I did that all day long.

Enter e-ink.

Enter devices that were designed to be like a book. A device that dissolves into the background and lets the story come to the forefront. I didn't think it was possible. Books smell good. They have pretty covers. I can walk past my bookshelves at home and say hello to all my friends. Enter Whitney Houston singing "I Will Always Love You." 

I will. Always.

But I have not been reading because my eyes are tired. I am at that over-forty place where the eyes start doing their own things. Reading glasses help, but not much. My eyes still tear up by the end of the day. Reading hurts them. It's really hard to read a book one page a day. 

So under cover of darkness, cloaked in black, I went to Best Buy to touch the Kindle. I went to Barnes and Noble to touch the Nook. And then, making sure no one saw me, I bought the Kindle. I took it home. I downloaded a book. And ...

I read it. 

Easily. No burning eyes. No tearing up. No headaches. I can make the font as big as I want. I can read it in sunlight. I can read it in bed. I can hold it at any angle and read. No glare. 

My e-reader has given me back reading. I have downloaded and finished reading more books in the last six months than the previous six years. True, they're not on my shelf. But they're in my body now, which, at least from my  perspective as a writer, is exactly where I want my books to be in my readers. I don't want them holding up knick knacks on shelves. I want my books read. 

My Kindle helps me read more. As a writer, what could be more important? I don't care how you read my work. I don't care if it's scratched out on tree branches or sent up in smoke signals. Hardcover, paperback, e-book (Sony, Nook, Kindle, Kobo, iPad), audiobook. I don't care. But I want it read.

Books come to life when a reader enters the dream of the story. It doesn't matter what the door looks like. The more accessible and the more variety of doors we can offer as the transoms to our stories, the better chance we have of dancing in the dark with our readers, the better chance we have of our characters continuing to breathe.

I didn't want to do it. But I did, and because I did, I'm dreaming with other authors. I've got other characters in my body. I've got other stories in my cells. I got reading back.

So apparently, what I Will Always Love is stories, not the physical package of a book. 

I didn't think it would be so easy to say good-bye, but it was. I didn't think it would be so easy to say good-bye to my '77 AMC Spirit that I drove in college, but it was. I didn't think it would be so easy to get rid of my land line, but it was. I didn't think it would be so easy to transition from an in-class instructor to a primarily on-line instructor, but it was.

I still feel a little disloyal, but it's passing quickly. Books want to be read too. They're only dead trees until someone opens the cover. It doesn't matter whether the cover is paper or a switch. 

Just read.



Those of us who make the stories are grateful.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Magical Thinking, Reinvention, Shopping and Writing

Here's how I know I'm a writer.

I'm a world-class clothing shopper. Some might call it an addiction, but that's such a nasty word. I don't buy everything. I don't have a compelling urge to buy flatware, or furniture, or cars. But I adore clothes. I love the possibilities of clothing. I've been thinking about this a lot this week as I did my spring cleaning. I was delighted to only have single-digit bags to give away, rather than the 40 plus bags of two summers ago. Whew! Addiction, um, enjoyable fun activity, in reasonable check.

I'm giving away a lot of really great things. Items I loved, most of them still fit (whew, again - weight has not fluctuated 40 pounds in two years). There's nothing wrong with most of them.  I don't wear out my clothes because I simply don't wear them enough to do it. But about every five days, there's a pull to a clothing store that goes off inside. Perhaps this is located where my non-existent biological clock is supposed to be. (Whew, again - much rather have the clothing-shopping clock than the biological clock). If I had kids, I'd have to buy them clothes, which would substantially cut into the amount of clothing I could buy for, um, me, and frankly, I like to think I'm subsidizing the Goodwill shoppers of the world with some pretty fabulous, good quality clothing once a year. (Here's where the fabulous magical thinking part starts to occur.)

I don't think of clothing as a need. I think of clothing as art. So to that end, I'm continually creating and re-creating the canvas. Some people apparently only need five shirts and five pairs of pants. I simply do not understand how that is possible. Kind of like calculus.

But here's how the writing figures in ...

I find myself in a store. Oh, the sparkle! Oh, the mannequins with their fabulously accessorized outfits and really extraordinarily toned arms! Oh, the shoes! And here's where I fall into magic .... I could have the life of the woman who can wear that dress. I could have the feet that could run in those pointy stilettos. I could have the waist that could wear that bracelet as a belt. I could be in Central Park with that silk scarf and that fuschia bag. Oh yes, oh yes, I can.

So then (and here's the important step) I take the dress off the rack. My size is not there. My size is never there on THOSE dresses -- the ones that you see on the skinny mannequins and the Styles section of the New York Times. But, I've fallen so deeply into the wonder of magical thinking that I believe that I may perhaps suddenly have become a size 8 (the largest size, of course, on the rack of THOSE dresses). This is America. Anything is possible. I hold it next to me and some sort of bizarre quantum occurrence happens when I see myself in a mirror holding the dress next to me and I believe that the body I see in the mirror will fit into that dress with room to spare. It's miraculous. Maybe I should take the size 6 too.

Into the dressing room I go, and I've often wondered if there are still security cameras in dressing rooms because the show must be hilarious all day long.  I step into the dress. It's not going to go above my knees. I can tell just by stepping in it. Of course, I knew that before I pulled it off the rack -- the only size 8s I have are feet -- but you know, it's America and anything is possible. 

I could be the woman who wears this dress if I ...

- eat only broccoli and quinoa for the next three weeks
- run to work
- grade papers while running on the treadmill
- run to work with the kettlebell (go up the stairs twice)
- replace my DNA with Natalie Portman's

Excellent. Sold. The most logical of all these thoughts is the DNA replacement. Surely, that's covered under the health insurance plan.

Then it goes home. It's beautiful. I am on my way to Central Park. I am on my way to the National Book Awards. It goes in the closet. The dream is so complete, so full of possibility.

And then the next day, sigh, I remember my beautiful dream, my walk in the park with a parasol, perhaps, and an accessory cat, and I look in the mirror where at least my feet are still a size 8, and I gather the receipt and the dress and the imaginary accessory cat, and go back to the store.

But for a day, I believed it was possible. And that is the place you must get to in your fiction. You must believe 100% in the impossible. In magic. In this world you are creating and these people you are listening to. You must believe it. You can't think it's a joke. You can't think you're kidding yourself. Total immersion. Gotta go there.

But then, you've also got to be able to look at that draft and be realistic about it. What is actually working? What will never work? What was what you wanted to work, rather than what the story wanted? (Ah, the biggie!) In other words, the next day, you've got to be woman enough to take things back to the store, but still, the next time you sit down to write, immerse yourself once again in magic.

Friday, March 11, 2011

How Cursing Became Part of Common Speech

I've been bracing myself for two weeks. I knew I'd have to call. You know who. The BANK. I have to call because the BANK's website is designed by monkeys on steroids. I have to call because I pay my homeowner's insurance myself, rather than have it paid from my mortgage escrow account and apparently this is a concept too difficult to handle on line from THE BIGGEST BANK IN THE F-ING WORLD.

OK. Breathe in. Breathe out. Coffee - two cups. BANK website open. Insurance company website open. Homeowner's policy pulled up. Numbers-a-plenty. Social security card. Property zip code. Mother's maiden name. First school. First best friend. Most annoying customer service center -- oh, wait, that's not an approved security question.

Every March I have to do this. Every March the BANK thinks I have let my homeowner's policy lapse and feels compelled to send me a letter indicating that they will be buying a policy for me and charging me for it. I've never moved my homeowner's policy. I've been with the same insurance carrier for almost twenty years. They automatically renew my policy every year. Funny, how they never seem to forget to automatically deduct the payment from my account -- the account at the same BANK that holds my mortgage.

I would love to renew this policy on the BANK's website, but it is not capable of understanding that I pay the premium myself. But just because it feels like spring today and the daffodils are starting to pop through the frozen earth, I thought I'd try. You know. Just in case. Like today could be the day when the world gives out free chocolate ice cream. Sigh. Today had no free chocolate ice cream.

Coffee. Third cup. OK. Dial. Hello Automated-Female-Person with False Human Inflection.

How can I help you today? Please press or say 1 for account services, 2 for payment services. 


Which account can I help you with? Please press or say 1 for checking, 2 for savings, 3 for mortgage, 4 for credit card.


Thank you. (She's very jolly now) Please enter the last four digits of your social security number followed by the pound sign.


Thank you. Please speak your mother's maiden name.

($*))#((  (How do people who do not know their mother's maiden names manage their daily lives?)

Thank you. Please confirm the zip code of the property you are calling about.


Thank you. How may I assist you today? Please press or say 1 for property insurance, 2 for ....


Thank you. What would you like to do? Please press or say 1 for change or renew policy, 2 for...


Thank you. 

(Here's where we're going to have a problem. I know this Fake Human can't help because I've tried it before. The Fake Human wants to pay my homeowner's insurance from escrow. She's extremely rigid. She could benefit from deep breathing.)

I'd like to speak to a representative.

I'm sorry? I thought I heard you say, (dramatic pause) "I'd like to speak to a representative."


There are many things I can help you with. Frequently, there is a long wait to speak with a customer service representative.

I'd like to speak to a representative.

I'm sorry? I thought I heard you say, "I'd like to speak to a representative." (she's pissed now)


I am capable of providing a wide range of services. Let's begin again. How may I help you? Please press or say 1 for ...

I'd like to speak to a (deep breath, don't swear at the Fake Human) representative.

Did you say you would like to speak to a representative? Please press or say 1 for yes ...


She doesn't even say good-bye. There's a double beep, during which time I am sure she has disconnected me. Within the untenable wait of twenty entire seconds, I am greeted by a gentleman who assures me that customer service is very important to him. How can he help me?

I need to renew my homeowner's policy.

May I have the last four digits of your social security number?

(Refer to conversation with Fake Human for the next series of questions)

Thank you, Ms. Herring. How may I assist you today?

I need to renew my homeowner's policy.

You can do that at www.

Actually, I can't because I pay my premium myself.

Pause. Can I put you on hold, Ms. Herring?

OK. You said you pay your premium yourself? Do you mean you write the insurance company a check?

No. I mean they deduct my payment automatically from my checking account in your bank. You can pull it up. For the last seven years.

Pause. Can I put  you on hold, Ms. Herring?

OK. Thanks for holding. You're trying to tell me that your insurance premium is not paid from the escrow account, but that you pay it yourself.


So, you don't forget to pay it?

No. You can check yourself in my checking account in your BIGGESTBANKINTHEF-INGWORLD bank.

Pause. OK. How do you remember to pay it?

I don't have to remember. The insurance company remembers.

May I have the insurance company's number please?


And the policy number?


What is the premium?

$ &&()

Is that even or are there cents?

It's even.

So we'll send a check to the insurance company from the escrow account.

No. I have already paid the premium.

Pause. Can I put you on hold, Ms. Herring?

OK. So you actually pay the premium yourself.


OK. That is OK. I am sure that is OK.

It's been OK for seven  years.

OK. I am sure that is OK. Let me just ... OK. So, you're all updated, Ms. Herring. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Can you put a note in my account that I pay my premium so I don't have to go through this next year?

Next year you can use to update your policy.

No, I can't.

Oh, right. Because you pay your own premium.


That's very unusual.

OK. So can you put a note in my file?

I'm sorry. There's no field for that. Is there anything else I can help you with?


Thank you for calling BIGGESTBANKINTHEF-INGWORLD. Again, my name is $*(*. Please have a pleasant day.

Until next March ...