Wild Greens Ring in the New Year

Long years after my great-aunt Nora and great-grandaddy Herman passed, a patch of greens grew wild behind their duplex houses, inherited by my mother. The collards showed up earnestly, in broad clusters of green, some summers a little tattered for the sun’s wear.

In the back of my mind, for a few years now, I’ve rolled an image-memory again and again of this old greens patch. We writers tend to do this—carry images, memories, ideas in us until we can find words or page to root them. We carry them with us for miles in our everyday lives, waiting for them to mature, to land, to live somewhere outside us.

“Mama, what’s this growing?” Always, in my memory, Mama asks Granma about the wild patch of greens growing.

In some memories Granma picks a few leaves to carry home, a few blocks down the road. In other memories, Granma doesn’t pick the greens. Either way, she stands there musing about the leaves, her hands on her hips, pocketbook hanging from her left wrist, sunlight pouring through the triangles between the sides of her body and her arms. The light is warm orange, glowing with L.A.’s afternoon haze.

Flowering  Hon Tsai Tai Greens

Flowering Hon Tsai Tai surrounded by Swiss Chard and Cauliflower. © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

“Nora and Daddy’s greens.” Granma bends over, rubs the leaves of the wild-growing collard plant between her fingers. Always, in all the memories, Granma identifies the plant as aunt Nora and great-grandaddy’s greens.

I’m not sure which memory is right, or if they both hold pieces of the truth. It is likely the memory loop has been chopped, reordered in the miles I’ve traveled with it.

A few things I am sure of—it was the middle of summer; Granma, Mama, and I were standing in the backyard of Mama’s house waiting for Papa (my grandfather) to finish his remodeling work for the day. He had just pulled all the walls and floors down off the back house, exposing the old wooden beams. These houses, moved just a few miles from their original foundation to make way for L.A.’s 110 freeway, had been in the family for decades. Once aunt Nora and Grandaddy’s houses, now they were Mama’s houses. Granma would tell us aunt Nora bought each house for a dollar; the only real cost was moving them through the city and putting them on land.

When I notice I’m carrying an image-memory I mull and ruminate, in an effort to guide it to the page. How do I honor this, why do I hold and carry it, how do I want this memory-image to live outside of me? I push myself to find the memory’s purpose in my life.

These years, aunt Nora, great-grandaddy, Granma long gone, I walk my own garden, tending our food, observing what’s wild-growing, what the bees are feeding on, where the aphids, cabbage loopers, or slugs have migrated, looking for what’s ready to harvest. I come from many generations of farmers—Grandaddy and Big Mama were sharecroppers in Tennessee when Granma was growing up, and all generations before them were farmers. When my family migrated west, and settled in California, they brought their gardens, their ways of growing and raising food. I’ve come to believe my blood is green.

Red Giant Mustard Greens

Red Giant Mustard Greens © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

In fall, Red Giant mustard greens grow wild in my garden; they are stately, regal, growing tall well into the deep heat of our inland summers. In August they rest till October. They are everything their name implies—giant and violet-red and green. Along the leaves’ edges, they scallop and fold in grooves and hills, often causing the older leaves to curl inward, as if the mustard greens are hugging wind. Its ribs are loud, neon green, stunning against its moody, sensual merlot skin. Its under-skin, the side beneath the burgundy mounds, is covered in a complex pattern of maroon veins on broccoli-green skin. When pricked with a nail, the leaves smell of fresh cabbage and broccoli—slightly sweet, hints of sulfur, but nothing speaks of their raw, peppery bite.

I’ve come to believe gardens hold a piece of our souls in the soil. When we toil, we spill sweat, spit, blood, our energy and intentions into the ground; we give ourselves over to the work and life of Nature, and in return, she feeds us. I like to imagine Nature takes what we offer of ourselves and adorns what grows with those pieces of us. It’s how I’ve started to understand a part of my purpose in Nature’s cycle.

Is writing not like a garden? We toil ourselves over the page, spilling sweat, blood, tears, our energy and intentions into our stories, poems, memoirs. We deliver ourselves, our lives to the page, and in return, she feeds us. She adorns what readers read with pieces of us, they feed, and in a twist of synergy, for a time we writers and readers become one. Not unlike us gardeners becoming one with our food, and us consumers becoming one with our meals.

New Year Greens Harvest

New Year’s Harvest (Mustard, Kale, and Collard Greens)                     © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

Thursday I picked greens from my garden—collards, kale, mustards, and turnips for our New Year’s dinner. Granma kept with tradition making black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and yams for New Year’s, so I do too. Keeping both her and tradition alive. The peas symbolize luck, the greens bring money, the cornbread represents gold, and the sweet yams are for love and health.

My garden, like my food and writing, tells you who I am. Traditional, thoughtful, yet wild around the edges, colorful and soulful. I carry Granma, my people, and a touch of the south in my mouth. Like Granma I muse over collard and mustard leaves in the sun. Like great-aunt Nora, and great-grandaddy I grow wild greens.

While picking greens yesterday I began to get a sense where the image of aunt Nora and great-grandaddy’s wild green patch lives—in my own garden and kitchen. As I go through the process, yearly, of tending what grows, feeding my family recipes passed down generations, I’m also feeding them story and history of who we are. And, these stories matter. My image-memory will become story, passed on, but it will also become a way of living in harmony with the land, of eating close to Nature, of culture and tradition, too. It will become a way for my children to understand who they are, how they relate to Nature, and the generations that have come before them.

New Year Harvest

New Year’s Harvest (Nero di Toscano/Lacinato Kale, Giant Red Mustard Greens, Green Lance Kale Florets, Collard Greens, Herbs–Rosemary, Mexican Oregano, and Thyme.)   © 2015 Kiandra Jimenez

New Year’s Day is steeped with legend, tradition, and history. It is like the pricked mustard leaf. With bravado we bring it in amongst loud neon signs, merlot nights. Everything is slightly sweet, crisp in the midnight air, hints of bitterness may linger if the passing year was particularly difficult, but nothing in the falling confetti speaks of the bites next year will hold. We are none the wiser of how we’ll grow or fail, if we’ll surrender or stiffen, if we’ll soar or resist success—however we define it.

But, what we do know is who we are, who we’ve been, and who we want to become. We know this by the stories we tell, the image-memories we carry around with us, for miles over our lifetime. Who are we? Who are we a part of? How do we honor their lives, our lives? And, how can we live outside of our own skin?

My answer is Nature, story, food, and family folktales and lore; what’s your answer?

 

New Year’s Black Eyed Peas, or Hoppin’ John

 1 lb. black eyed peas, soaked overnight

1 medium, mild onion (or 3 stalks of celery), diced

1 bell pepper, diced (red or green—I prefer red, but green is traditional)

1 lb. of bacon (turkey or pork), cut into pieces (you can substitute a couple of ham hocks, or a smoked turkey leg for the bacon, but you don’t need both bacon and hocks/smoked turkey)

1 qt. of broth (chicken or vegetable), plus extra water

1 piece of Kombu* (optional)

1 clove of garlic (optional)

Salt and Pepper, to taste

1. The day before you plan to eat your peas, sort through the peas, pulling out any rocks, debris, or bad peas. Cover peas with cold water in a large bowl, cover, and soak overnight. In the morning, drain the water from the peas, and rinse well under cool water. Set aside to drain.

2. While the peas are draining, cook bacon pieces over medium-high heat until they release oil. If you are using turkey bacon, you may have to add a bit of oil to the pan. About halfway through cooking, add the onions (or celery) and peppers, cooking them till they are soft, and onions are translucent. Add the garlic, if using, turn down the heat to make sure it does not brown. Alternatively, if you are not using bacon, put a little oil in the pot and sweat the vegetables in the same manner.

3. When the vegetables are done, add the peas, Kombu, ham hock or smoked turkey (if you are using them), and stock to the pot. Add extra water to fill the pot to desired consistency. If you like your peas soupy, add extra water, if you prefer them thicker, less water. Make sure there is lots of water, as some of the water will cook off.

4. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover, turn the heat down to medium-low and let the beans simmer until soft, about 1 – 1 ½ hours**, stirring from time to time. Season peas with salt and pepper to taste, about halfway through cooking, and again at serving, if necessary.

Serve over rice, with a side of greens, candied yams, cornbread, and a protein of your choice.

 

Vegetarian/Vegan New Year’s Black Eyed Peas or Hoppin’ John:

To make vegan, omit the meat and proceed with recipe, using vegetable stock. To deepen the flavor, add hickory liquid smoke, and soy sauce/tamari/liquid aminos to the stock about thirty minutes into cooking. Additional flavor and texture can be added with imitation bacon bits.

*Kombu is a sea green you can find in natural stores, or online. It helps to tenderize the beans, aid digestion by minimizing gas, and seasons the broth with an umami, savory flavor. It is salty like the sea, high in minerals, but lacks any fishy flavors. This isn’t traditional, but it does enhance the recipe, in my opinion.

**I’ve found cooking time can vary widely, depending on the age of the peas. Begin checking at about an hour in, and every fifteen minutes until done.

Getting It Write

imagesSince I was young I have always imagined myself a writer. I have journals that date back to third grade. I have copies of my stories published in the elementary school paper. I wrote my first novel when I was 10. I have pages upon pages of loose-leaf papers covered with poems or stories in various boxes. One of my biggest influences was a book I read when I was 9 or 10, I Married Adventure by Osa Johnson. The book was thick and big and the cover had brown and beige zebra stripes. It was my grandmother’s and she kept it at our camp in the Adirondacks. Every summer I re-read it and imagined my life as an adventurer and writer like Osa. I wanted to write a book like that.

I still do. I have several drafts of work, recording and explaining the different phases of my life and my various interests. One thing I hear writers say over and over to each other and themselves is that, “we are interested in everything.” This is certainly a true statement for me. I am interested in everything and it takes tremendous effort to stay focused. I have been trying for years to find the perfect combination of a job that gives me time to write daily, is somewhat fulfilling, and still contributes to the support of my family. I have had to start over more than once.

A few years ago, I was able to take a sabbatical from work that turned into a much longer period of unemployment. During this time, I went from a 1000 words per day writing practice to a strict 2000 words per day. I joined different writers groups with different focuses. I attended writing classes and conferences. I read as much as possible. I started to venture out. I read my work in public. I sent out query letters. I sent submissions for contests and journals. I decided to take writing even more seriously and applied to the Antioch MFA program in Creative Writing. I started in June of this year.

A week after being accepted into Antioch, I was offered my first paid job as a writer. It seemed like a dream come true. A friend from one of my writing groups, based on the year’s worth of my work she had read, recommended me to her company; the company wanted to add creative writers to their pool of test item writers for the Common Core Standards. The material the group was producing was a little dry and they thought a creative writer might be able to help. This type of job was part of my vision. I had created this situation:  a job that paid well, offered flexible hours, that I could do from anywhere, and that would still leave time to work on my own projects.

Within a few weeks, however, it became a nightmare combination. What I hadn’t planned for—and didn’t know—is that the content would be so rigid and complicated that it was like explaining calculus in Chinese to students who only spoke Latin—and I have none of these skills. Furthermore, tension quickly developed between my former friend/boss and me, and we stopped speaking. All of our communication was through email, and even that was indirect and infrequent. I had almost no guidance. She didn’t tell me I had been laid off and I didn’t know until two weeks after the fact, when I received an email from another employee in the company that the project had gone over budget.

At first, I felt like a failure. When am I ever going to find a job where I can write but also leaves room for my own creative writing?

After a few days of subsiding tension, I realized my original visualization of the perfect balance had lacked some details. As I clarified my dream, I started to feel happy again. I felt energized. I want more than just time for writing; I want the feeling of creativity.

I actually like working with other people. Maybe my dream job is more along the lines of a sitcom team rather than a Common Core Standards item writing team working to ruin some 9th grader’s life. Or, maybe I should just write for myself, and stop trying to combine it with making a living. Of course, I would be forever grateful if one of my collections were to be accepted by a publisher and praised by Oprah and I was sent on a wild world tour like Cheryl Strayed.

But in the meantime, I feel good. The steps I am taking are steps to take myself more seriously as a writer, and because of that, my dreams are becoming more and more real.

 

 

 

“The Journey” Into the New Year

As I write this blog post, I’m sitting, tired, in front of my laptop, thinking about residency and how soon it will be coming to an end—just in time for Christmas and the New Year. Reflecting back on this year with its ups and downs, I cannot help but feel a sense of blessing to just be able to write. Most people in my cohort cannot believe that at one point in my life I was unbearably scared of reading in front of a crowd of people. I had convinced myself that I would not be able to complete an MFA degree because of the public speaking it entailed.

Somehow, deep inside of me I felt that if I gave up on my dreams of becoming a writer it would be wrong. Yet, at one point I did, which made me feel like I had betrayed myself. I moped around, traveled a bit, felt lost as to what I wanted to do with my life. When all of these things and more did not work, I ended up enrolling in a children’s poetry fundraiser. It was happening all over San Francisco in order to raise money to throw a literary event in El Salvador’s main library with the writer Manlio Argueta. I fell deep into a cause that I felt passionate about. I was working one day when a friend asked me if I was ready to start reading my poetry aloud at different venues. This would be a way to attract more people to our events and perhaps donate money. I immediately looked up with a blank expression on my face. This was a test from God, the universe, fate, whatever you want to call it, to see if I was really the chickenshit I had believed I had become or if I had the cojones to follow my dreams. I replied with a hesitant “Okay,” and dreaded the idea of reading such personal work out loud.

Then I remembered a poem that I had read a long time ago by Mary Oliver called The Journey. I had read it when I was twenty and was no longer happy being a physiology major. I  needed to change my major fast before I drowned in a sea of facts and unrealistic expectations. The poem read:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
And you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

That poem had saved my life when I was twenty, and I did change my major from physiology to psychology. That poem saved me again when it gave me the courage to read my poems out loud in the different venues in San Francisco, and now that poem gives me satisfaction. A comforting satisfaction because exploring the house we have rented for this residency, I came across this poem simply taped to the side of the refrigerator door. And now I know, I am certain, that I am on the right path as I enter into my third semester. I am looking forward to what the new year will continue to bring.

From Where We Stand

Last night over dinner, after a discussion with our ninth-grader about some challenges she’s grappling with in her personal life, our fifth-grader suddenly asked, “What’s your super power?”

I glanced over to her smiling, mischievous face. One of our fifth-grader’s own super powers is the ability to bring levity to difficult moments.  She flipped open a sketch book as I thought of our ninth-graders’ worries and wondered if the fifth-grader’s super power will withstand her own impending adolescence.

“Here,” she said, clicking her mechanical pencil for more lead. “I’ll tell you the choices.”

In shaky cursive she wrote a list. Water, Fire, Magic, Weather, Nature.

“Nature means you can talk with animals,” she explained. This is another super power of our fifth-grader. At the barn where she takes riding lessons, she is a veritable Dr. Doolittle. She’s a calming presence among the horses, miniature donkeys, cats, goats, and dogs. There’s even a llama named Ginger who comes when she calls.

Our ninth-grader leaned on the table to get a closer look at the list. “I’m fire. Definitely fire.”

I exhaled a laugh. Even our ninth-grader chuckled. It’s true, she is fiery. Language has never been a shortcoming for either girl, but our ninth-grader’s eyes easily flash with lightning and her tongue lashes quickly when she senses an attack on her ego or an injustice in her world. Though these girls are not related to me by bloodthey are my stepdaughtersI remember being exactly like our ninth-grader in this regard when I was her age.

“I’ll tell you the characteristics that go with fire,” the fifth-grader said. In a professorial voice, she cheerfully wrote the words on her sketch pad as she spoke. “Fire:  Angry. Destructive. Fighting. EVILLLLL!!!!!” She giggled with mock terror.

Our ninth-grader nodded, “Yep. That’s me. Definitely fire.” Her face was neutral, as if this latest trouble had finally doused her fight, and a bit sleepy because it had been a long Monday.

“I’m water,” I volunteered. “I can drink enough water to save a city from a flood. I could’ve saved New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.” I don’t know when I started with the water thing, but it’s been at least since high school that I’ve carried some wherever I go. I only buy purses if they can hold a bottle, and panic a little if there’s no place to refill.

“Katrina!” The fifth grader cried with excitement. “That’s her superpower too!”

Suddenly I realized what we were talking about. These are the superpowers of the main protagonist and her all-female posse in the book our fifth-grader has been writing and illustrating since third grade. The book was inspired by a game she and her friends used to play at recess. They don’t play it anymore, but recently she informed me that she’s on the second draft of the story.

Sitting at the table with the girls, I was suddenly struck by the present moment, and how the three of us held such different awareness of it. The fifth-grader will do almost anything to keep a positive atmosphere. The ninth-grader is invested in protecting her point-of-view. I am mostly interested in doing whatever I can to help these kids navigate their early years so that they grow to be the best version of themselves.

As the conversation shifted back to the ninth-grader’s recent challenge, I asked a question here and there, partly to help me understand the events, but mostly to help her clarify them for herself. Right now, of course, it is the end of the world. She struggles because she doesn’t quite know who she is becoming, and has no perspective of the process. At fourteen she’d like all the gates open so she can rush forward, but she has no idea what she’s rushing to. As parents, we try to monitor the gate, regulate the speed, and pull her back in when things are going too far and too fast.

The last time I participated in conversations like these, I was the teenager. The beauty of being on the parent side is that time has bestowed perspective. On the cusp of forty I have, at the very least, the wisdom to listen and question, and the experience to consider perspectives other than the limited teenage point-of-view.

Lately I’ve been reading essays-in-progress. Some of them are from the Lunch Ticket submission box, others from my colleagues in the MFA program, some from friends who have asked for my feedback. Many of us writers use the page to explore events of our past, and childhood and early adulthood are particularly rich mines. What I’ve noticed as I read through these works-in-progress is that many pieces limit themselves in perspective, despite the wisdom and intelligence of the writer.  I imagine that these writers have carried their pain of long-ago events for so many years that they believe the catharsis will come from simply writing their story down. The fact is, we are all the recipient of time’s gift of perspective. Perspective is the powersuper power, if you willof being a writer.

As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. While my ninth-grader wallows in her somber thoughts, I, long past those teenage years, can see the hole she’s digging for herself. I can see the holes I dug for myself at that age. As a writer, thinking back to my own childhood events, it is much more healing—and as a reader, light-years more interesting–to go beyond the teenage perspective.

As I read these essays-in-progress I sometimes find myself silently begging the author, “What do you, the narrator, think of this now?” Instead of using the pen to only relive childhood events, insert adult insight into those baffling, emotionally-wrought experiences. Let the grown-up wisdom comingle with teenage emotions.

As 13th century German theologian Meister Eckhart wrote, “A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart… Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”

Know what power I wish I had at fourteen? The power to simultaneously hold both the child experience and the adult perspective. Alas, that comes with age. But after living these years, why, when writing our own stories, would any writer eschew this great power?

The pen is perhaps the most powerful tool any of us has. How can we communicate or enact change in the world if we cede our own self-understanding? Go ahead, write down those untamed childhood experiences, but lasso them with the perspective of time. When we read your insights, we too transform. Tell me your story of then, from where you stand now.

perspectivequotes

 

Express Yourself

Henri François Riesener

I gave a girl goose bumps today. She was blow-drying my hair, and she asked me what I did for a living. When I told her I teach memoir, personal essay, and blogging courses, she shivered.

“I am very sensitive, and I have felt like I need to write down my feelings and tell my story,” she said.

“Writing is certainly cathartic. I believe everyone should write whether they intend to make it public or keep it private.”

“Wow, I feel as if I was supposed to meet you today,” she said with a huge smile.

I wished I had my glasses on so could read her tattoo that was on her shoulder. It was in black script on the front of her shoulder blade. Her shirt was draped, so the tattoo was clearly visible, and I imagined it was perhaps a quote or a line from a poem.

We exchanged emails, and I hoped that she was serious about her interest in writing. Many times have I met someone who longs to write, but their fear usually stops them from putting one word on the page. Fears can range from lack of confidence about having anything important to say, to the fear that they do not have mastery of the proper mechanics to craft an essay.

In Robert Pendiscio’s article, “How Self Expression Damaged My Students,” (Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 2012) he wrote: Let me hasten to add that there should be no war between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics. It’s not an either/or proposition. Kids are more likely to become engaged, thoughtful writers if they feel comfortable and competent with language.

I believe that taking the step to express yourself through writing is paramount. If you are worried you do not have a strong understanding of craft, you can certainly learn by reading, by working with a copyeditor, or by enrolling in a writing course.

Lucy Calkins, Founding Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote: When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship, and grammar. 

I do hope the young girl from the salon takes my class next month. Whether she was an English major who never pursued her writing or a person who lacks all the grammar and writing craft needed to construct a well-written piece, she will begin the journey of self-expression. I guarantee it will be a journey worth taking.

My Goal on the Page

This week’s post is by poet and guest blogger Adrian Ernesto Cepeda.

Although some might disagree, in my mind, sports and poetry are synonymous. There was nothing like Magic Johnson making a behind-the-back bounce pass during the heyday of Lakers ‘Showtime’ or seeing David Beckham perfectly bend a free kick into a goal. As a writer, I take my cues and work ethic not only from famous scribes and poets, but also from the highest caliber of athletes. Only the best train and practice every day to become the greatest in their sport. I take this into consideration every time I sit in my writing chair. To me, working on drafts is equivalent to a basketball player shooting hoops for practice. I know some drafts are not going to be perfect, just like not every shot is going to go through the net, but that doesn’t mean I don’t shoot the ball. My creative mindset has been inspired by my love of sports. My passion on the page is equal to an athlete’s passion on the field and court.

Being a poet who’s often lazy, though, I’ve had to find creative ways to motivate myself to write. What works for me, as a sports fan, are rewards. If there’s a game on TV, I have to work for the match I want to watch. Before the game starts, I write. Sometimes I am so into my poems that I keep writing—and by the time I look at the TV the game is half over. There will always be another game, but if I neglect the muse, there may not be another poem. Writing always wins out in the end.

Of all sports, futbol is my absolute favorite. Even my wife realizes soccer is my love and my mistress. I always say she knows where to find me: in front of the TV set, dressed in my favorite team’s kit, ready for the romance on the field to begin with a whistle and a sensual kick of the ball.

This summer I read one of the best books ever written about my favorite sport: Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow. This author knows how it feels to be in love with this beautiful game. No one has ever described a score in soccer so perfectly and eloquently as Galeano does in Soccer in Sun and Shadow:

“The goal is soccer’s orgasm. And like orgasms, goals have become less frequent occurrences in modern life.”

I can relate to Galeano’s description. I remember watching this year’s World Cup. My wife can attest: when John Brooks scored in the 80th minute of the match for the United States, I yelled out the loudest barbaric yawp. Our neighbors could’ve sworn we were having sex in our apartment. Since goals are a rarity in huge international matches, to experience a win is sometimes like climaxing in bed.

Soccer is a fever. Once the common sports fan catches it, s/he can never extinguish the passionate love for this beautiful game. No one has ever described the joy of watching soccer like Eduardo Galeano:

“The excitement unleashed whenever the white bullet makes the net ripple might appear mysterious or crazy, but remember, the miracle does not happen often. The goal, even if it be a little one, is always a gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooal in the throat of the commentators. A “do” sung from the chest that […] breaks free of the earth and flies through the air.”

Some of you are probably wondering why sports—and more specifically soccer—are my creative motivations. As a poet, the passionate concentration these players exude on the grassy pitch mirrors the dedication I experience when writing poems.  I want to work as hard as these athletes do in their sport. A victory for me is feeling that aura of exhaustion after finishing a poem, like the perspiration an athlete feels after the final whistle. It’s more than a game to me. In my mind, to be the best in your own field, whether it be in soccer, painting, or writing, you must give your craft that same devotion. My own goal will shine like trophies. They are collected between lines on my page.

 

APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup Ghana US

photo by Ricardo Mazalan—AP

The Reasons We Write

There are different reasons why people write. For some of us it is therapeutic, for others it is just for the pure love of shaping words and making them flow onto a page like a poem. For others it is about getting a message across or creating a magical place that only the imagination can conjure. The beauty about writing, like any art, is that there really is no right or wrong. We all do it for various reasons and the reasons vary like blades of grass in a field. I believe though that there is strength in looking deep inside for the real reason why we want to write. Knowing why we want to write can make our stories more powerful and can buoy us back up when they get rejected.

There are also reasons of why we think we must write which might be different than why we must write. The reasons why we think we must write are always logical and are ideas brought up by the mind. The must write ideas are usually illogical ones that just sometimes come to the surface like a newborn spring burbling up to the earth. That is the story that you shouldn’t stop yourself from writing because it is coming from some unconscious part of yourself. The story might not even make sense at first, and it might not even come out as a story, it might come out as a poem, a drawing, an idea but the important part is to get it down on paper.

In writing down what is born of our hearts not only helps with what might become a novel, but, essentially jotting down these little bouts of inspiration might help us notice a pattern. In this pattern may lay the real reason of why we write—which might be different than why we thought.

When I started my MFA at Antioch Los Angeles two semesters ago I thought I knew why I wanted to write. I thought I wrote decent poetry and had a couple of ideas for some novels and I wanted to become a better writer. Little did I know the real reason why I wanted to write, what moved me, what made me feel passionate enough to rewrite and rewrite the same novel again until I was satisfied with at least a good part of it. What it means to toil in front of the computer for weeks and not see your friends and family. All because you need to finish a certain section and have fallen in love with your characters.

Thanks to writing down what comes to my fingers from my heart instead of my head I noticed what drives me to write. What drives me is the need to tell dying stories. History has a tendency to tell the victor’s side at first and it’s not until the oppressed have the courage to begin to recount their experiences that history starts to rewrite itself. These are powerful stories that deserve to be heard and recorded. And for that I am willing to stay up countless hours. Whether these narrations come from inside of me or by keeping an ear out for a good story that otherwise might have gone unperceived because it was too insignificant to be noticed in the first place.

The Two I’s

Back in September, in the midst of a submission deluge for our upcoming Winter/Spring issue (out next month), our fair blog posted a piece On The Importance of Following Submission Guidelines. I know you read it, because afterwards there were far fewer single-spaced, comic sans, 10-pt. font essays in our CNF pile. Still, quite a few submissions, meticulously crafted I am sure, included personal disclosures we have specifically requested be left off. This never ceased to cause a few face-palms here in the reading room. Dear friends, please, do not ruin your beautiful essays and stories by revealing your identity—LT reads blind by choice.

Yet, by and large, y’all did a nice job with the submission guidelines. I hate to admit it, but honestly, at the belly of the bulge, none of us wants to have our submissions rejected because the reader’s eyes are too tired to battle single-spacing. And yet, readers’ eyes do tire.

Now, our submission window has closed. I’m on the copyediting team also, and so am currently re-reading the CNF and Diana Woods Memorial essays that we accepted for publication. I am giddy with excitement about releasing these beautiful pieces out into the world for more readers. Also, as I peruse these works for errant typos and the evil two-spaces-after-a-period that we LTers disdain, I am reflecting on what particular qualities pushed these particular essays into our thumbs-up pile.

So what is it about these particular essays?

[First, let me reiterate: I am not talking about fiction or YA. Currently, I only read for Lunch Ticket’s CNF section and the DWM prize.]

In personal essay and memoir, of course there is an “I.” In fact, there are two: there is the I of the past, and the I of the future. The past I is the one in the situation described in the essay; the present I is that of the narrator. In personal essay, the narrator is the writer.

The stellar essays in our submissions box recognized that the present-I—the voice of the narrator—is the one that truly harnesses an essay’s power and vitality. As readers, this is generally the one that keeps us reading. Why? Because the narrator is wise. A good narrator makes the personal story of the writer into a universal story for the reader.

The marginalia I most often noted on a thumbs-down essay was this: that the story was surely interesting to the writer, but needed more reflection and exposition to make it interesting to the reader. Don’t be afraid, I wanted to note, to let the narrator delve into self-inquiry. We readers want this, because your self-inquiry becomes our self-inquiry. We are terribly interested in ourselves. In the end, this is why we read. To better understand ourselves.

Is this confusing? Philip Lopate, author, media critic, and Columbia University professor of writing, says this:

“In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self.”

The past-I, caught in the moment of the situation, is likely unprepared for whatever conflict arose, and reacts in the spur of the moment. However, the present-I, the narrator, has the wisdom of now, the power of reflection. Hindsight’s 20-20, right?

Use this power, Lopate urges. He goes on to say, in fact, that this double perspective is an obligatory aspect of memoir/personal essay. Not only that, he says, but “this second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity.”

Take a sip of your coffee. Swallow. It’s worth lingering over his wording here—“an opportunity.” When Lopate says “opportunity,” he is calling attention to the very act of writing, and the way this very act changes the writer. Writing personal essay should be a revelatory process. Lopate says we must let it be that. We must allow the intelligent, wise present-I narrator emerge, because personal essay and memoir writing is a journey of exploration.

It is this very exploration, this very struggle, that makes writing vital, not just to the writer, but to the readership. This is the bridge between the inner life and the rest of humanity.

After all, when we send out our work for publication, isn’t this what we hope for? Connection? Recognition? Doesn’t our heart warm when a stranger’s words leap from the page or the screen, and we suddenly feel that, yes, someone, understands?

 

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Time to Write

Last night I woke up at 3:30 AM in a panic.

“I’m never going to finish my memoir!” I thought. Toss, turn, fluff the pillow.

“I’m never going make money as a writer.” Toss, kick, throw off the blanket.

“I’m never going to be able to pay back my student loans.” Flip onto stomach, flip onto back, look for the blanket.

This scenario repeated itself until 6:30 AM. Three hours of anxiety. Three hours I could have spent writing my memoir!

My mantra for the past three months has been, “I never have time to write.” My mentors and colleagues preach that I must “make” time. Some days I chisel out a few writing hours, but most of those days the precious hours evaporate without a word added to my half-written manuscript. There is the seduction of dirty laundry, unmade beds, unwashed floors, unclean bathrooms. There is the friend I haven’t spoken to in over a year that I need to call right now. There is the call I owe my mother from a week ago. There are the family vacation arrangements for 2016. There are “thank you” cards to write from my son’s birthday party four months ago, grocery shopping because I used the last egg three days ago. I need to make yet another phone call to the IRS to clear up their dumb mistake. I have a dentist appointment I already rescheduled twice. I promised to do volunteer work at the middle-school. I must buy a shower present for someone I don’t even really know. And yes, let’s not forget those flowers that need watering that are probably already dead from neglect. Last but not least, there are all those Facebook posts I need to “like” and all those quizzes I need to take.

The plain truth is, I don’t have any time for writing because I think of writing as another job I have to do. However, if I tell myself, I can quit writing that feels like I’m telling myself I can quit breathing. There is no quitting. I have to do it. But when?

Danie Ware, author of the science fiction story Echo Rising, wrote an article for Writer’s Digest. She gave tips on how moms, and everyone else can find time to write. One of her suggestions was to master the art of “snap-writing.” She says, if you only have twenty minutes between jobs, it is all time, and it all matters. Use it.

So tonight when I wake up at 3:30 in the morning, instead of contemplating my dismal future, while rolling around, and punching my pillow; I will sit up and be thankful. I will be thankful that I have three silent hours to write. I will walk downstairs to my office, turn on the computer, and start typing. When 6:30 comes around, I will have several pages written. I can then move along to pressing matters like filling empty sock drawers, buying belated birthday gifts, and answering ten questions that will determine what classic movie my life represents—perhaps, Groundhog Day.

Bookstores Closing

When I travel I usually like to go into random stores and peruse through strange things I really don’t need. My top priority though is always to check out the local bookstores and see what goodies I can walk away with and I’m sure to check out the staff picks. Somehow I believe that if I am able to connect with the bookstore perhaps, just perhaps, I’ll be able to live there. No bookstore equals me not being able to live there, ever. Unfortunately, though, lots of independent, and now even the chain bookstores, are having to close their doors, and with that part of the heart of the community is lost.

This reminds me of a time when I went to see Sherman Alexie speak at the San Francisco War Memorial (which seemed more like a stand up comedy show). He asked, no, he begged us to stop buying books online and to support our local bookstores. That is why, until recently, he had not allowed his books to sell as ebooks. Going into the topic of whether you like ebooks or an actual paper book is another topic by itself and really comes down to preference. But I do agree with Sherman Alexie, and since that day I have made an effort to always buy my books at the bookstores I love. Even when the price and comfort of getting books dropped off at my door seems tempting, I still buy them at bookstores.

Now, one of the older bookstores that has been around since 1971 in San Francisco is struggling to stay open. Modern Times Bookstore would be a loss, not just for the community but to all San Francisco’s residents and the tourists that visit us every year, because Modern Times Bookstore is unique in what they sell. They are known to sell books published by small presses, books on politics, feminist books, they even have a sexuality and gender section, and a lot of writings on or by Latinos. I believe they are the only bookstore in San Francisco that holds a monthly book club on books written exclusively in Spanish. Well, more to come in a future post on this little bookstore with a big heart.

So, if you are traveling to San Francisco, let me leave you with a list of bookstores that you can checkout.

1.) Modern Times Bookstore Collective

2919 24th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

2.) Green Apple Books

506 Clement Street

San Francisco, CA 94118

3.) Alley Cat Books

3036 24th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

4.) City Lights Booksellers and Publishers

261 Columbus Avenue

San Francisco, CA 94133

5.) Dog Eared Books

900 Valencia Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

A Wine Bar, the Blues, and the Reasons We Read

I am a nighttime reader. I turn pages till my eyes glaze, my fingers lose their grip, and my sweetheart moves my book to his nightstand. I find it there under a ray of sun while dressing for work the next morning, no recollection of his kindness or the last two pages. Beside my bed are three piles of books: books to read soon, books to read immediately, and books I have recently read but am not yet ready to put away. On his side of the bed are three piles as well: books read but not yet shelved, books he wants to read, and books I offer from one of my own piles with an earnest “you should read this” which he kindly takes and moves to his nightstand.

Lately I have been wondering, why is it we read? Not just why I read or you read and he reads, but “we” as in all human beings. I am not thinking of instruction manuals, I am thinking of books, essays, stories, poems. And I mean truly “we” as in all human beings, not just “we” as in writers. If we had no craft to hone, we would still read.

The question I am not asking is Why do we write? You and I—we have been writing since that first little blue diary with the lock on the side. Or was yours a classic composition notebook? Weren’t we both inspired by The Diary of Anne Frank? Or maybe you, like my youngest stepdaughter, began writing down stories inspired by fourth grade recess games. Even when we stopped journaling sometime in the years between Anne Frank and the New York Times’ Modern Love column, we eventually started again. Maybe it was The Artist’s Way morning pages. Maybe it was self-therapy over a divorce. I don’t have to ask the question because we know why we write. We write because the process of unloading our stories onto a page relieves us of their burden. We write because if we didn’t, we might die under their weight. We write because another story wants room to emerge. We write because through writing we live more completely.

But why do we read?

Recently some classmates and I were discussing a New York Times bestseller of narrow focus—The Wild Trees, a work of narrative nonfiction about Giant Redwoods and people who climb them. As you can imagine in a book about climbing trees, there were long passages about botany and climbing technique. In other words, not (to me) fascinating topics.  But, many times throughout the narrative I found myself thoroughly engaged. My classmates and I shared this experience, which, in and of itself, was one of the most intriguing parts of the book. I found myself reading closer to understand why our small group of readers—comprised of both tree lovers and (gasp!) non-lovers—so enjoyed this book.

Since The Wild Trees, my classmates and I have moved on to other discussions, but I still find myself considering this question.  What took The Wild Trees from being a story that the author was interested to write to a story I was interested to read?

The fact is, none of us would have picked up The Wild Trees if it were a botany textbook, and as writers, this is worth remembering. As readers of creative non-fiction, we desire more than white and black information. We want connection, and that comes in the grey areas of emotion. The author threw in tree-canopy-sex and a few scenes of oh-no-is-he-gonna-die, but there were other truly memorable moments in the narrative. Suspense and personal details enmeshed in the nitty-gritty botany made The Wild Trees a compelling book instead of a science lesson to make my head explode. Sure, we come to writing because there is a story that we want/need to tell, but we cannot forget our readers. In The Wild Trees, the author brought in universal human emotions of fear, love, anger, courage—from the man who did not survive his fall, the man who did, the sex in the branches, the anger, the swamp leeches, and rodents of unusual size. Those bits grabbed all of us in the story. Those are the parts that bridged the gap between a story that Preston wanted to write and a story we all wanted to read.

Tonight, faced with a lonely house and a deadline to meet, I’ve ventured out in search of an amiable writing locale. Between a café and a wine bar, I am now nursing a glass at the latter on a bet that the wine bar would be a little less raucous. I was right: there are five patrons including me, and a bartender. Acoustic blues is wafting sultry and gritty through the speakers, steel strings bending under a slide, aching voices bending under heartache. I can’t hear the lyrics, but I know from the vocalist’s cries that this music is deeply personal, and also poignantly universal. Blues is an emotion we all understand. It touches across generations, across state lines. Desire for what we once had, yearning for something not yet found, sadness for what was lost. It’s all in the music.

I am a nighttime reader, but a daylight writer. Even in a windowless room, I am alert and productive, somehow inherently aware of the sun shining in hot blasts outdoors. The sun is setting earlier now, however. Already the hour is not late, but a half moon hangs in the dark sky. The air, finally, breathes a promise of fall. Sunday night, and suddenly I am in the evening alone, but it is too early to retire with a book. So, like the five patrons here, I came out to join the world.

I’ve brought my laptop to the bar. I intend to write, which is always a deeply personal experience, but tonight, even as I type, I sit amid the company of others. The bluesy guitar in the speakers and the conversation at the bar remind me that we can sing and write and drink by ourselves. We all do it often enough. But aren’t we drawn out to the world from our lonely houses? Don’t we listen to the cries of others through music? And don’t we, after all, read because there is a world beyond our own personal stories? In the end we want to know we are not alone.

 

©2014 Arielle Silver

©2014 Arielle Silver

On the Importance of Following Submission Guidelines

Here at Lunch Ticket, we pride ourselves on encouraging emerging writers. It’s part of our social justice mission: we’re looking for pieces that tell new stories, written by authors who are underrepresented in the professional literary world. If you submit to Lunch Ticket, you’ll receive a note that tells you how much we look forward to reading your work, and if we eventually decline your piece, you’ll receive a rejection notice that recognizes how much effort you put into writing and submitting that story. The submission-rejection-submission cycle is often a discouraging process, and we respect any writer who perseveres enough to send his or her work out into the world.

However, respect is a two-way street. We can tell when writers haven’t respected us enough to read and follow our submission guidelines. If you’ve submitted a piece that doesn’t adhere to Lunch Ticket’s guidelines, we’ll give you another chance to resubmit that piece properly—mistakes happen, after all—but not every literary magazine is so forgiving. And rightly so: improperly submitted pieces waste everyone’s time.

Most importantly for you as a writer, submitting a piece that doesn’t follow a journal’s guidelines won’t help your story make it out of the slush pile. Simply put, it’s not professional, and since we folks who edit literary journals are usually writers ourselves—at Lunch Ticket, we’re all MFA students and alumni—we tend to think of writing as a career, not a hobby.

If you want your story to have a better shot at acceptance, ask yourself these questions before you hit that submit button:

Is my piece really and truly ready? If you’re submitting a first or second draft, then the answer is most likely no. If you’re the only person who’s read it—if you haven’t received any outside critiques of your work yet—then again, the answer is most likely no. Good writing takes patience. George Saunders spent years on some of the stories in Tenth of December, coming back to them month after month until he got them right. While your pieces may not take years to perfect, you shouldn’t rush to submit the minute you type The End.

Is my piece a good fit for this publication? Not every story jibes with the ethos and style of every literary journal out there. Be selective in your submissions: know which journals prefer experimental work, which prefer magical realism, which prefer literary submissions, and which are devoted to genre. (If those terms I just listed are unfamiliar to you, then you’re probably not ready to submit—you have some research ahead of you.) Lunch Ticket, for example, prefers pieces that support social justice. No matter how well-written your piece is, if it’s misogynist, racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or hateful in any way, we won’t accept it.

How can you tell which publications match your story best? Read. Pick up individual copies of print journals at your local bookstore, or split a subscription with a friend. Buy a copy of whichever annual Best of anthology interests you the most, and see which journals are publishing your favorites. There are also plenty of free online literary journals featuring great content, Lunch Ticket included. If you don’t read the journals you submit to, then they probably won’t accept your work.

Is my piece in an acceptable, professional format? Standard submission format is Times New Roman font, size 12, double-spaced and with one-inch margins. The concept of “creative writing” does not extend to creative use of font type, font size, or formatting style, because fancy fonts and non-standard formatting make stories difficult to read—that’s why professionally published books and magazines feature similar typefaces.

Again, this goes back to thinking of your writing efforts as a career rather than a hobby. Would you send your boss a memo written in Comic Sans or Papyrus? (You may laugh, but we’ve received both here at Lunch Ticket.) If our editorial eyes can’t handle your story’s appearance, we’ll reject your work by the end of page one.

Does my piece follow submission guidelines? This is not a one-size-fits-all situation: not all literary journals have the same submission guidelines. At Lunch Ticket, we read blind, and so our guidelines state that no identifying information should be visible on your submission. Most journals’ guidelines—ours included—are helpfully posted on their websites, usually under a section titled “Submission Guidelines.” These guidelines are readily available. There’s no excuse for you not to follow them. And if the idea of different guidelines irks you so much that you can’t be bothered to read what journals require in a submission, then the world of literary professionals is probably not for you.

Now that that’s out of the way, we can move on to the fun part: reading your work. Have you walked your piece through this checklist? Is your story a professionally formatted, guideline-following masterpiece that’ll knock our socks off with its magnificent language, narrative arc, and character development? Excellent. Submit it to Lunch Ticket. We’d love to read it.

Related reading: The post Glitter Pen 2014, at the Lunch Ticket blog.

Taking Care of Yourself

Maybe it is because it’s the middle of the semester for us MFAs or maybe it’s because the summer is ending and the fall equinox is about to begin and with anything new, change is inevitable. Whatever it is, it’s happening all around me and now it’s happened to me: stress, sickness, and bad moods seem to be abound. That’s why it is so important—no, it is essential that we learn how to take care of ourselves.

You know, it’s like when you are planning to go on a big trip, and you make a long list of all the things that will be indispensable to you for the big adventure you are about to undergo. So is getting an MFA (or any BIG project or decision), in a way. I would say one of the necessities that should come first on that list is How To Take Care Of Yourself So You Don’t Lose It. By this I mean you should really consider who would take care of you when you get sick, what is crucial for you to attend socially, what you can skip (time is money), and what are healthy ways you can release stress.

If you are still not convinced that taking care of yourself is important, I’m talking to you now, that person who takes care of everyone else first and puts themselves last. Think of it this way, an MFA is like climbing a really big mountain, not a hill, a big ass mountain. It may look like a hill to you in the beginning because you think, Oh, it’s so nice, I get to read books I like as part of school now, oh, and I get to write anything I want, this will be great! No! Step away from that delusional thought. Don’t get me wrong it’ll be the best decision you ever made, but if you really value being an artist, it will also be the hardest thing you have ever done. Because it hurts to be told to do something over and over again (about 20 times), it hurts to be told to scratch out that whole chapter you just knew was awesome and original, and it hurts that people still think you have it easy because they think you hang around in your pajamas at home just, you know, writing.

I’m writing this now because I bring hope. I don’t want to see anyone that has ever had big dreams and is now in the middle of achieving them get stuck halfway up the mountain. Especially because there are a couple of things that have helped me these last couple of days to deal with my heap of work and stress:

1) Healthy food is a must, or else you will eventually fall sick. Surround yourself with people that take care of you through food.

2) Do some sort of exercise alone. When you are running or walking, or doing yoga, you are strengthening your core and learning to breathe.

3) Learn to say no. You can’t be everywhere and do everything.

4) Hang out with people that make you forget you were stressed. Laughing helps.

5) Learning to delegate tasks is a must. You can’t do everything, and most people are willing to help.

6) Spend some time alone.

*This is extra: it helps to have a crazy dog or cat.

Hope that helps and I wish everyone luck this semester!

The Courage it Takes

Sitting under a café umbrella recently, sipping iced tea with an MFA colleague, the conversation naturally, unsurprisingly, turned to writing. We’re both in our second semester of graduate school. As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’m “Creative Nonfiction.” It’s a fact which never ceases to amuse my fiancé who takes it as an existential statement. My tea-sipping friend is “Fiction,” which amuses my fiancé even more.

Regardless of fictive or nonfictive embodiment, my friend and I both agree that the monthly packets we are required to submit to our MFA mentors are very real. Troublingly so. My most recent packet of twenty creative writing pages and two book annotations was due to my mentor in mid-August. For two days afterwards I celebrated its completion by not writing a single word (status updates and margin notes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, of course, aside). On the third day I intended to get back to writing, but—nearly a week earlier than expected—I received my mentor’s return email: a detailed letter, in-line track change comments, and lecture notes on a particular topic she suggested I study.

I was paralyzed for a full week afterward.

Could. Not. Write. Anything.

I sat with my friend at the outdoor café during that time. It was one of those blazing hot Saturday afternoons when everything melts: ice in our drinks, lipstick in my purse, ego. We sat together, pulling our sweat-soaked shirts away from our backs, fanning cigarette smoke from the table next to ours. Inside the café, the A.C. was on full blast but the room was crowded with chatter, and she and I both had some things to get off our chests. She, too, had a hard time getting back to work after sending off her last packet.

“I’m afraid of criticism,” she said.

It was powerful to hear her express what I had been feeling. Of course criticism—particularly at the hands of a knowledgeable and supportive mentor—is meant to be helpful. Indeed, it’s a primary element of why we both came to this program: to receive critical feedback about our work. But the fear we associate with criticism is attached, I think, to shame. Shame that the basket we’ve put our eggs in is full of holes. Shame that we will fail. Shame that there is a right and wrong to writing and that, ultimately, it is just beyond our personal abilities to get it right. Fear that we are not capable of stepping into our highest creative self.

My friend’s reflection of my own fears was enough to remind me of a time, years ago, when I had not allowed my fears to stop me.

After years of studying classical music, sometime in college I ended up with an acoustic guitar and a book of folk songs. Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, etc. I had been raised on these songs by a guitar-strumming dad. My first concerts were folk festivals where my parents spread a blanket and we picnicked on my mom’s cold fried chicken and berry pies. The folk songs in the book hit a deeply personal spot from my earliest childhood memories. It was a place that classical music, as much as I loved it, had never tapped. The book was a doorway, and when I walked through it, I walked away from classical music, stepped onto a path of songs, and, shortly, started writing my own. Right away came the desire to sing for others. A moment later, my stomach clenched with fright.

Stage fright, like fear of criticism, can be debilitating. It can also be exhilarating. I’m not a fan of roller coasters, but I wonder if the draw to them is similar. Do coaster-lovers shake in fear? Do they wonder if they can handle it? Do they get a rush from the courage it takes to ride? This is what it feels like, for me, when I send in my mentor packets. I silently beg, as I hit send, that my mentor’s feedback will be enough to kindly push my edge, an edge just shy of disablement.

Often, to work out fears that arise in my new(ish) writing endeavors, I look back to my life in music. How did I overcome my life-long stage fright so that I could pursue my love of singing and songwriting?

I showed up.

Back then, I was up against all these same fears of failure and shame, but my desire to get better at my craft was larger than my fears. I knew the only way to improve was to do it. Perform. As much as possible. The solution? I joined the busking world. I didn’t have to wait for a club booker to let me in the door. I could pull up a piece of sidewalk and play every night, which I did throughout summer and fall until my fingers froze, and then again the following spring. There was a good community in my Boston busking world days—Amanda Palmer, Guster, Mary Lou Lord, and many others who passed through for a week or for years—but also, I learned to stand up in front of an audience. I learned to show up against my fears.

After a few hours at the café, our iced teas were finished, our conversation spent, our backs sweaty. I drove my friend several blocks to where she had parked.

“I made something for you,” she said as she unlocked her car. From the backseat she pulled out a pale green cotton bag with two wide shoulder straps and a red and white swath of cloth down the center. I can’t sew at all, but I appreciate the craft. Her stitches were perfect. The muted colors were imbued with my friend’s gentle spirit. The kindness was almost overwhelming. Fingering the stitches of my friend’s gift, I remembered something an old teacher used to say: How you do one thing is how you do everything.

I haven’t read my friend’s writing, not yet. Nor has she yet read mine. But I am certain that when the day comes for us to exchange not just our trepidations but our art, we will find in each other’s writing the level of courage, commitment, and care that we bring to our other arts and crafts. As with everything, sometimes fear stops us for a few days or a week. But always, every time, our desire to do this—to explore questions, share stories, to write—leads us through the turnstile and back onto the ride.

 

Grant Snider, an illustrator and cartoonist, draws the New York Times weekly online strip “Incidental Comics.” image from:  http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/14/books/review/12snider.html?_r=3&

Grant Snider, an illustrator and cartoonist, draws the New York Times weekly online strip “Incidental Comics.”
image from:
http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/14/books/review/12snider.html?_r=3&

 

Bad Grammar

Let’s face it: many of us were spaced out during grade school English classes. I know I was more concerned if I had pizza stuck in my braces after lunch than whether or not I knew what an “unclear antecedent” was.

Now, we all have a Grammar Nazi in our lives. I’m talking about the people who are perhaps teachers, or mentors, or friends, or colleagues, who can’t help but correct any grammar mistake you make.

I came upon GN’s when I began my MFA program in Creative Writing. If a Grammar Nazi would correct a misused semicolon, I would graciously smile and thank them, even though their faces displayed disgust; I am not exaggerating. People who make grammatical errors are the worst scum of the earth—according to the GN’s. Because of this ugly behavior, I decided to ignore them, and hire an editor. Editors are mostly nice GN’s, if they are getting paid. They gently tell you that you keep putting a comma after the word “but,” instead of before. However, there are always those damn exceptions to the rules.

Lately, I have been siding with the GN’s because they have many valid points, and I am running out of money for the editors.

For example:
1) A writer should have command of how to correctly punctuate because, well, they are writers!
2) They should want their words to come across as clearly as they intended. A misplaced word or incorrect punctuation mark can change the meaning of your work.
3) If you call yourself a writer, then have the correct tools. An electrician would not show up at your house with a fork instead of a screwdriver. Not only would he look stupid, but someone might get hurt.
4) When a writer works on revisions, how can he revise if he doesn’t know what needs revising?

And now, even though I still believe the idea and the message in a piece of creative writing are of the utmost importance, I see the value in investing in a book like The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, or, at the very least, Grammar for Dummies. Nevertheless, I want to thank the GN’s because I no longer mistake “then” for “than,” or write “effect” when I mean “affect,” or forget it’s a contraction when I write “your” and mean “you’re.”

By the way, an “unclear antecedent” is a noun that existed before, but now you are replacing it with a pronoun, and you are not being clear about it. Clear about the noun, that is. Here is an example of an unclear antecedent: He said he liked it, but my editor wanted to clarify a few things. Who is he? It is unclear. If it is the editor, then write: The editor liked it, but he asked me to clarify a few things.

My editor asked me to clarify if I agreed that a writer must care about grammar. Yes, I agreed, a writer must care. However, if you are a Grammar Nazi, and you correct a fellow writer’s bad grammar, be nice. Would you, please? We had enough trauma and suffering during middle school.

there-their-theyre-peanuts

http://koshersamurai.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/there-their-theyre-peanuts.jpg

 

Being Different

 

10609431_10152784527564305_7726241773674406253_nSometimes it is hard to be bicultural. Add to the challenges if you marry someone else that is from a completely different part of the world. Recently my husband and I traveled to Costa Rica and it was difficult to explain to everyone we met where we were from. I can only imagine once we have children how many looks, comments, and questions they’ll get. When I was there I wondered whether I should say I was Salvadorian (even though I never grew up there) because of my parents, or if I should I say I was from San Francisco, because that is where I grew up. And then there is my husband who could pass for Latino. Yet, there is something about him that wouldn’t fool some Latinos, who would instantly know he’s from another continent—he’s really from India. So we just decided that next time someone asks us where we were from we’ll just say planet Earth. The crazy thing is that the more the years pass and both of our families get closer, and we travel, we realize that our common language is love and an open mind.

Since my husband also has an MFA, and is in the creative field, we noticed that differences can actually be stimulating, invigorating, even. Sometimes institutions and narrow-minded families spew fear into the world, which is wrong because they are advocating that being different is a bad thing. I personally feel that being different is actually a good thing for stimulating the mind. In our singularities lies our fuel for both of our creative professions. We bathe in the bliss of our differences and celebrate our commonalities. See, we figure the more similar we are, the more boring it can be for two crafty souls. There are things I don’t know that he can teach me, and there are things he doesn’t know that I can teach him.

As a writer, it’s like an endless flow of creative energy! The brain can be a knowledge-fed machine, and being bicultural definitely feeds the monster with new information constantly. There is your family, and then there is where you grew up, and then there is your new family. Each place, each person contains so many stories, so many experiences and each place contains so much history. For a writer that’s got to be really cool! The aspects are endless.

And so my writer friends, I will leave you with a beautiful excerpt I read from Elite Daily on what smart people do:

It’s very easy to close our minds off from a learning experience due to the nature of the person delivering the material. However, an alternate perspective from an unfamiliar source can be a lot more interesting than annoying if you get past the natural urge to judge. Smart people are open minded.

They appreciate the value of other people’s opinions and do not let what they don’t know about a certain person hinder their ability to be thought provoking or amusing at the least. Smart people want every sort of interaction to be a learning experience, which is why they focus on the topic being discussed and its relationship with the entire outside world, not just with the person they are discussing it with.1

Excerpt from: http://elitedaily.com/money/entrepreneurship/5-smart-people-2/

The Sense of Smell

photo-14As a writer we are constantly looking for ways to describe things. We are always consumed with the inevitable questions of how phrases sound, if sentences flow, if we are getting to the point. Always trying to get good sentence that will get our readers intrigued, but there is the power of the senses. One of the best lessons I have learned from the MFA program at Antioch University LA came from Nalo Hopkinson, who said, “Don’t just describe things: make your reader feel as they are eating, living, breathing this life you are telling them about.”

As a writer I will admit that sometimes I overuse my sense of touch and sight. Always saying things such as “and it felt cold and looked metallic.” While sentences such as these are needed and necessary, we must not forget our other three senses.

This past month in my mentor group, one of the discussion questions that came up had to do with our senses. We had just finished reading The Golden Compass, and my classmate asked how Pullman had been able to draw us into his world-building through the senses. Of course I said something like “The daemon she carried with her all the time,” (you have to read it to know what a daemon is) but she responded by saying that for her it was the sense of smell. This made me think a lot about how Pullman had indeed accomplished such a description of scenes that were essential to the story, but not by describing or telling us how something felt to the touch, since it was not necessary. He did it with his nose, because we already know what a fish frying looks like, even tastes like, so there’s no need to describe how it looked or tasted. We already know what a fire looks like and so there’s need to describe it, but to remember the smell of it. Ah, now that instantly takes us to a place of comfort and warmth when we see warm fires, frying fish, families, the smell of smokeleaf. He guides our imagination in a very elegant way, and the rest is up to our creativity.

As I write this from my vacation spot, my sense of smell is rudely awakened in a good way. When I step off the plane into a hot tropical country, such as Costa Rica, I remember my nose. The wet earth, the cool mist on top of a mountain, the humidity that you can only guess brings out the smell in everything from the flowers to the rancid fruit on the ground. And the ocean? Well, for that, my writer friends, I suggest you take a little trip to the ocean and blindfold yourself for a while. Sit there and don’t think, just feel and smell.

Spring Will No Longer Be Silent

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Michael Brown died on my birthday.∗

No peace.

No justice.

 

 

 

We have been here before:

 

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Huckleberry Finn

by

Mark Twain

 

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Native Son

By

Richard Wright

 

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To Kill A Mockingbird

By

Harper Lee

 

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Beloved

By

Toni Morrison

 

 

And…

Now What?

To what do we turn today to make sense of what’s going on? I used to be one of those Luddites who thought that if it wasn’t written down on paper, then it wasn’t revolutionary, that it wouldn’t stand the test of time. The aforementioned books are all revolutionary, they have all advanced the conversation about race in America, and they have all been banned for it (which we have already talked about).

However…

I think we need to recognize that the conversation has moved online and just Like Twain, Lee, or Morrison, we have no idea what is going to stand the test of time, or what is going to resonate through history. I have this crazy conclusion that social media has turned into the most immediate permanent art we have to describe what is going on in our world.

Because…

We witnessed the Arab Spring.

We saw what the internet is now capable of:

And few people saw that coming.

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Revolution

 

 

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While the revolution will not be televised, it will be on Twitter and Facebook.

 In some ways, the world and all its peoples are writing the biggest book ever on what it looks like to live in a pluralistic society. The next great novel is the archives of Twitter and Facebook. I don’t think I ever fully grasped just how permanent that is going to be.

Twitter can not be stopped:

#IfTheyGunnedMeDown

 

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So far, hundreds of people have done a Stitchpic of two photo options the media could use if they, too, were gunned down. This hashtag has only been around (as I write this) less than a day and 433 people have submitted pics, but they have been retweeted thousands of times. It is only getting bigger.

After Trayvon Martin, a guy named Bob Seay said this about the “Internet Phenomenon” of the “I am Trayvon Martin” hashtag. What is interesting to look at is that while he rejects the idea of a hashtag that does not describe him personally, his Facebook post, I would go so far to call it his piece of art, went on to be liked 126,483 times and it was ultimately shared 54,000 times. His rejection went viral. And that is one white guy saying what happened was not OK.

Trayvon Martin

Michael Brown’s death reminds me that there is great art out there about this exact problem we are having today. In these times, we need to turn to that art and listen to the conversation that we have been trying to have in this country. His death also reminds me that what is happening in Ferguson is my problem, too. Michael and I are forever linked in my mind. Every year that I get older, he will always be 18 and that is not OK.

Roxane Gay, over at The Guardian had this to say about what is happening in Ferguson. Her thesis was simple, that it is time for more than just words. Roxane Gay said this near the end of the article:

“Our good intentions and social networks won’t change the situation. Our pithy comments about how we are now,  finally, like the rest of the world won’t change the situation.”

I would beg to differ on some of her argument. I think that words have weight, I think they have a critical mass, and we have seen what happens when the threshold is reached in the rest of the world. I think it is through this new social media that we can try and change our system of elections, something that would go a long way to creating change.

We also need to remember that our police are a reflection of us as we elect our sheriffs and vote on the allotment of money that goes into militarizing our police. They need to be included in the conversation, and not excluded by acts of vilification, because change won’t come from that.

 

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And, we need to remember mothers because we all have them and they bear the brunt of a lost child. This is Mike’s mother.

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I just don’t think he would have liked it if the revolution was violent.

 

Martin Luther King Jr.

And we shouldn’t let him down. I mean, can you imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. could have done on Twitter?

 

 

∗ Michael Brown died August 9th and my birthday is the 10th, turns out I am just bad at social media.

The Seduction of the Blog

This one’s going to start out with some family folklore. Bear with me.

When I was a wee little one, so the story goes, I sat in my crib with a secret smile but nary a hint to my parents of a new talent I was budding. Once left alone, door shut, no adults around to observe, I worked on my latest and greatest feat (drum roll): standing.

(Impressive, I know.)

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http://www.onekind.org/uploads/a-z/az_giraffe1.jpg

My folks in those days were young, first-time parents. Perhaps later, once my little brother came along, when schedules got tight with multiple jobs, my school, his teething, when the marriage began to fray in postpartum depression and thinner wallets, frozen winter pipes and, later, spring thaw ceiling leaks—perhaps then they were too busy for surreptitious observations.

But in that first year of new parenthood, my folks would put their fingers to their lips and tip-toe to the doorway of my room, sneaking peeks at baby-me through the cracked door. If I suspected an audience, I feigned interest in toys or toes. Once my observers disappeared, I’d pull on the crib rail, stretch my legs, and rise to stand. Parents back? Oopsie daisy, back on my bottom. I preferred to hone my talent in private.

I’ve mastered standing (you’ll be happy to know), but over the years, essentially not much changed. I close the door when I change my clothes; I do not sing in the shower unless the house is empty; I do not dare send out a piece of writing until it has been pressed through the ringer, the type is dried, the wrinkles ironed, the seams darned.

Enter the blogosphere.

image from: mustafahacalaki/Getty

image from: mustafahacalaki/Getty

Blogging is immediate, fast, furious. Unlike a laborious five-year tome, the quickness means our words can be pertinent to current trends without delay or restraint from publishing industry gatekeepers. A platform to stand on and a microphone to hold? Oh yes, for us writers, blogging is seductive.

But, I am sure you can relate: so many of us writers are introverts. Perhaps also a tad bit perfectionist. I am the twelve-month first-draft kinda gal. I weigh each phrase, shift punctuation, and hide my pages from anyone but my mentor. In the world of performance, I’m a fan of rehearsals. Improv? Not so much. The nature of blogging is in direct opposition to a ruminative nature.

And yet, I am here blogging, and perhaps you relate to this also: it’s the tension of the opposites. There’s the way we do things normally, and our desire to grow beyond those bounds. There’s something—isn’t there?—about stretching out of a comfort zone.

image from: http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbfmg8sZ2D1rg1280o1_1280.jpg

image from: http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbfmg8sZ2D1rg1280o1_1280.jpg

Despite myself, in the years since my first Blogger account, through Tumblr, WordPress,Weebly, and Lunch Ticket, I’ve grown affectionate towards blogging. Thoughts quicken by the effort of it. In brainstorming topics, the creativity gears are oiled. Words come faster, and not just on the page. The mind sharpens.

Blogging is the opposite of perfecting a five-year novel in private. Blogging is typed and pushed live. Hello, world! There is no conservative safety here as with the single-reader letter, so blogging infuses the writer with deeper courage—perhaps the deepest courage there is, which is to speak up, speak out. If standing in a crib beyond the watchful eyes of others is the way I have always preferred to master my arts, blogging is the practice of forced growth, embracing imperfections, releasing control. Flaws and all.

Perhaps most powerful of all, though, blogging breaks the traditional one-way narrative barrier: readers also have a platform and a mic. Sometimes the comment threads are meager, but other times they light up with an electricity of their own. Such a lonely endeavor, writing. The courage and connectivity of blogging fortifies our literary community. Blogging opens the one-way street of writing to two-way traffic.

image from: http://www.edudemic.com/reasons-you-should-start-blogging/

image from: http://www.edudemic.com/reasons-you-should-start-blogging/

So: writers, readers, let’s connect. Do you have a blog? We want to read it. Share your link in a comment below.

A State of Mind: Embracing the Process of Essay Writing

Last week I traveled from Los Angeles to Montana, and while I peered out the window watching the landscape change from state to state, I realized the journey was much like writing an essay.

When I begin a new essay, my mind is a jumble. Things are moving this way and that way. I head towards something, but I can easily exit. I have a destination, but in the beginning, I can’t even find the starting position. It’s the same with the Southern California freeway systems. They head toward every direction. There are on-ramps, off-ramps, slow downs, and accidents. When the freeway is finally moving, I feel as if you might make it to my destination.

As the traffic in my mind clears, I begin to see the road which is flat in the first draft, but it is moving forward and that’s what’s important. I drive through the barren desert but again, I’m still headed towards something. By the time I leave California my first draft is finished. I read it, and realize now I can shape it into something literary. This is the fun part. I’m now in Las Vegas, Nevada—it’s play time!

The second draft is where I do most of my editing. It is rough in the beginning and similar to the landscape of my next state, Arizona. There are rocky areas yet I can see their beauty unfold. I’ll change my verbs and make them more interesting. I’ll move paragraphs around and direct my readers to my main idea. And as I keep driving forward, I get closer and closer to my destination. At the end of the second draft I am ready to have someone look at it; a mentor, a colleague, or editor can now see what I can’t see.

When I leave the desert geography of Southern California, colors surface in Arizona, and Utah. New shades of red, orange, and pink give way. When writing, this is what I get from having my work viewed through another set of eyes; my eyes are now open to see new colors.

Idaho is where the life of the essay begins its labor towards birth. Idaho offers some of the most challenging landscapes in America: numerous mountain ranges, canyons, and forests. Here I climb. Here I make my way through the terrain and trees. When I come through in Montana, the essay is born. Montana means mountain in Spanish. I have climbed the mountain. The essay is complete. I have scaled its terrain. The essay is now ready to bear witness, after moving from state to state. It’s a process, but the process is worth waiting for, so embrace it fully, it works.

Let’s Judge Your Book By The Cover

Hello, fellow scribblers!

It’s been a while!

 We need to talk about titles. We had a grand total of 350 submissions for fiction for our last issue of Lunch Ticket. That means that I read 350 titles that mostly made me yawn.

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****** Trigger Warning ******

I am using the following titles for educational purposes. This in no way reflects the talent of the author for reasons that I hope to explain.

And so,

here is a sample:

“Love, Cody”

“Conditionals”

“Dust”

“Selfie”

“Question and Answers”

“Jury Duty”

“Real Estate”

“Orientation Week”

“1968”

“Shiny Objects”

“Black, Blue”

“Hole In The Wall”

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The list goes on and on. The fact that this problem is so prevalent seems to indicate that the importance of the title is undervalued. We have accepted one or two titles above so, again, it is not a problem of talent on behalf of the author.

For full disclosure for educational purposes, here is a list of some of my titles:

“The Baby Whisperer”

“Dear Timmy”

“Activities Daily Living”

“Nothing Said, Nothing Heard”

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 If so many of us are writing underwhelming titles, then we need to change that. Let me help you! Because I’ve been thinking about these things.

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There are many thoughts about what makes a good title. Some people say in order to be commercial it should three words long, should be clever like a play on words, and/or it should make a statement about the human condition.

Well, that all seems terribly complicated to me, and I don’t really understand what that means.

Let’s start with looking at some titles of stories that have stood the test of time. I think one of the factors contributing to their longevity is the fact that the the title is weird enough to draw us in, and profound enough to make us reflect back on them when we are done.

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J.D. Salinger’s timeless short story entitled “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” is one of the most perfect story titles ever, as is “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor.” Let’s really take a look at these two titles.

“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” achieves many things in five words. As a reader we are first caught by the word “bananafish” because we wonder what, exactly, that is. And then we look at the whole thing and wonder what he means by “a perfect day.”

So, as a reader, we are sucked in because we want to know what this is all about. We read the story and find out what a bananfish is and we learn that it really was a perfect day. However, after reading it and looking back on the title we realize that it was a perfect day not just because it was beautiful, but because Seymour decided to kill himself that day, and had planned for it to be the perfect day all along.

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With “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” we, as readers, do the same thing again. We pause over the incongruous word squalor. We wonder to ourselves who would wish someone love and squalor? Why would you wish anyone, let alone a little girl, love and squalor? So, we again read the story to see why someone would do that. We are rewarded with a story about a soldier who almost loses his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s if it wasn’t for the promise he made to a girl he barely knows to write to her after the war. He is so fond of her that he makes sure to add her favorite word: squalor.

We can now start to see Salinger’s trick with titles. He likes to throw a janky word into the mix that will become apparent if you read the story. Squalor, bannafish, etc. It draws us in as readers, but we get a pay off for reading the story and reflecting back on the title because we are now in on the pun, or, rather we are now just as clever as the author.

That is one way to make a good title.

Now let’s look at Lydia Davis, a prodigious author of short stories.

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“How W.H. Auden Spends the Night at a Friend’s house”

“In A House Besieged”

“Cockroaches in Autumn”

“Foucault and Pencil”

“Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman”

While she also has a list of banal titles like “The Mouse,” “The Memory,” or “Selfish,” they are usually titled as such for a reason.

So, what can we learn from this master of short stories? I think the answer to that is to be playful. With regards to both Davis and Salinger, there is a hint of playfulness in their titles.

With Davis, the playfulness in more prevalent in “Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman.” The intrigue comes from the order of the words. We as readers wonder why Marie Curie is such an honorable woman. Why is it worded the way it is?

With “W.H. Auden,” we wonder why is it important the way he spends the night—is it not how the rest of us would do it?

What Davis does really well is invitation: she invites us to read on because she bates us with a clever yet playful invitation through the title.

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Now let’s look at David Foster Wallace, who was always playful and profound with his titles:

“A Radically Condensed History of Postindustrial Life”

“On His Deathbed, Holding Your hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon”

“Suicide as a Sort of Present”

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What I hope is starting to become obvious is that really successful writers spend a lot of time on their titles. There is a polish that comes from spending some time on the title that I hadn’t realized before. I have now gone back to some of my short stories and tried to spend some time thinking about what I want people to get out of story, or the feeling I was trying to evoke, and wrote a title to that end. I was surprised at how it made my story seem more sophisticated.

When I go back and look at these titles by the authors mentioned above, I see that the title has more to do with theme than it does with plot. So, I think we should all spend more time thinking about the themes of our stories and writing a title toward that end instead of the plot.

Be a great author and judge your story by the title, and if the title is pretty good, chances are the story will be, too!

Meeting Author & Illustrator Yuyi Morales

Last month just before residency at Antioch University I was paying my late fees at the public library’s website, when I came across the main page announcing New York Times Best Seller author/illustrator Yuyi Morales. Since I’m specializing in Writing for Young People, I got excited. When I saw that she was Latina, I got even more excited! And then when I saw that she not only wrote her latest book Niño Wrestles The World but also illustrated her book, I thought this is just crazy! I got to go see her speak. She was going to be speaking that night as a guest of the 18th annual Effie Lee Morris Lecture and the title of the lecture was “Creating Children’s Books: An Immigrant’s Story.”

I flipped through my planner, and I was thrilled to see that I had nothing planned for that night. So, I went and as she started to speak I realized I was meant to be there. As a writer I sometimes question if I’m a good enough writer. She took all my doubts away that afternoon because it’s not about if you are good, it’s about are you willing to stick with it to get good and are you willing to face your fears. Niño Wrestles The World is a children’s book exactly about that: facing your fears. She started by saying that when you write for children you don’t realize but everything you do as a child comes back to you in the creative process as an adult. Where she came from was a land of much color, magic, and endless stories from her family, despite living in poverty. Later she became engaged to an American, who lived in Mexico, and she explains that they had just had a child and wanted to come visit his parents who lived in the states, so she applied under the fiancé’s visa since she couldn’t get a tourist visa. She and her fiancé thought they would just be able to stay for a couple of weeks, and then they would be able to go back to Mexico, but the law said she had to stay for at least six months. She was devastated. Her fiancé went back to sell their things, they lost their jobs, and her family could not even come visit her and the newborn baby.

Her fiancé got a job, and they lived with her future in-laws for a while. She said she became a bit depressed, and she didn’t even speak English. Then her mother-in-law introduced her to the library. She had never seen so many beautiful, colorful, hardbound children’s books, and they were free to take home for a while! The library became her refuge, and the books became her and her baby’s best friends. She learned English through reading children’s books, and she thought to herself why can’t I make a book like this myself?

She did not have the financial resources or the time to go back to learn professionally, and so she said, “The cool thing about the library is that it has books that can teach you how to do exactly what you are looking for.” And that’s what she did. She taught herself to draw, to paint, to create. She explored different mediums, and year after year her English improved. Her baby grew, so she had a little extra time while he went to school, and her illustrations also improved. She joined a writing group (who she still keeps in touch with), and she also joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. SCBWI offered a grant one year, and her writer friends pushed her to apply. She sent in her illustrations and her story. She won.

I think she didn’t win that day she won the grant, or the day her first book got published, or even the day her last book went on the New York Times Best Seller list. She won the day she decided she was going to do something about her new circumstances and never gave up. Yuyi’s tips as an illustrator and writer were perseverance, practice everyday, use free resources that are available to you, and find yourself a good writer’s group.

Sometimes I think we do not give ourselves enough credit for how amazing we truly are. We go about our regular days juggling multiple activities that we wonder—how did we even finish our to do list? Crazier yet is when people have a lot on their plates and face difficult challenges that everyday, average people, do not have to face. I admire people who despite challenges never give up hope, never give up on their dreams, and work hard to achieve them, hardly complaining because they call themselves lucky just to be alive and create.

Say My Name, Say My Name

Years ago, when I first met the girls who are now my stepdaughters, and when we were still getting used to each other’s company, I invited them to call me by the nickname my family has always used: Ari. “Arielle” felt a little cumbersome for five-year-old Shiloh’s lisp, and too formal for nine-year-old Rose’s warm welcome. It was the holiday season, just after Thanksgiving. I had been dating their dad since the summer, but we’d wanted to know we were a sure thing before getting the kids involved. Now, the girls, their dad, and I were driving out to the Los Angeles Arboretum for a drizzly afternoon walk through the trees, and our first outing all together.

“Ari. Arrrrriiiiii. Ari, Ari.” The girls both tried out my new name, bouncing it between each other, rolling it over their tongues. Rose twisted it into a lyrical phrase. She sing-songed my name as the gray day slid past the car windows, her eyes the same as the sky.

Little Shiloh, in her pink princess car seat, new to the written word and steeping in Seussisms, stretched my name through phonics and blended it into rhymes.

“Ari. Bari, gari, tari. Artie, marty, farty,” (giggles from the backseat), “artie, artAY, parTAY…” Shiloh babbled on and my nickname swayed and morphed as the girls got comfortable with it, and with me.

As we pulled into the Arboretum parking lot, the girls settled on a chant—“ArtAY, ArtAY, ArtAY likes to parTAY.” We all sang as we stuffed clementines and water bottles into a backpack, skipping off to see the peacocks. By the time we drove home a few hours later, weary and hungry for dinner, I had been renamed. From that day on, I was Artá. (Of course the spelling, with the accent, came later.)

I recently read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This was my first reading of the memoir, and while my fingers are crossed that your repertoire is better, in the event you haven’t read it, I’ll give you this: it is a coming-of-age story that explores, among other themes, self-identity and personal dignity in a racist and male-dominated world.

I remembered the day my stepdaughters named me Artá while reading through Chapter 16. In this chapter, Angelou is ten years old. Her family “had owned the only Negro general merchandise store since the turn of the century.” Although they were one of the wealthiest in her Alabama town, for a short while she worked for a white woman, Mrs. Cullinan, to learn “the finer touches around the home, like setting a table with real silver.”

Angelou’s mentor at the Cullinan’s house was Miss Glory, a cook whose family had worked for the Cullinans since their days in slavery. Miss Glory’s mother-given name was Hallelujah, but Mrs. Cullinan renamed her Glory. Likewise, Mrs. Cullinan refused to call Angelou by her given name Marguerite. “That’s too long,” Mrs. Cullinan said. “She’s Mary from now on.”

As writers, we communicate a great deal to our readers by the names our characters give each other. What they call each other speaks volumes about their relationships. Mrs. Cullinan’s character and values were revealed by Angelou’s anecdote about the names. In Chapter 16 she showed, perhaps especially to those of us who primarily write creative nonfiction, how we can deepen a reader’s insight into a story by the way our characters are named by us and how they name each other.

When Shiloh and Rose named me Artá on a cloudy day all those years ago, they indicated their insight that I was going to be close in their lives, and that they welcomed me in. By accepting my name of their choosing, I indicated my respect for them, my willingness to let them call some shots in an otherwise adult-driven world.

Names—particularly, giving a name to someone—is a powerful thing. It indicates ownership: mothers name their children; lovers name their sweethearts; children name their dolls. When Mrs. Cullinan renamed Hallelujah “Miss Glory,” she proclaimed her undisputed hierarchy. When she renamed Marguerite “Mary,” she did so to insult and disregard Angelou’s self-identity. When the girls named me, they indicated—perhaps subconsciously—that they affectionately welcomed me into their world.

As Maya Angelou said, “We belong someplace. The day we are given a name we are also given a place which no one but we can fill.”

i-know-why-the-caged-bird-sings

When Dependence is a Good Thing

On July 4th,1776, thirteen colonies declared independence from Great Britain and later formed the United States of America. Independence Day is now a federal holiday in the United States.

Independence is a tricky state of being for it can be a good thing or a bad thing. Writing is an independent profession, but for many of us, we are better served not to be “too” independent. When involved in a writing community, we can share our writing and receive valuable feedback. It’s vital that we practice decorum while writing to all audiences. Being part of a diverse group of writers can help each of us find those blind spots that may happen when we are autonomous.

Over the last two years, I’ve been working on my MFA in Creative Writing. During that time, I was part of a multifarious group of writers and had the opportunity to workshop my writing. It was a luxury. It was a luxury because I realized I can’t go back to being an independent lone writer in a room: I need my tribe. Whenever I’m about to submit a new piece of writing to an editor, there is a pause.

DO NOT PUSH SEND. DON’T DO IT. DON’T DO IT.

There are instances when I can’t help myself. I push send without seeking feedback. I’m stubborn at times. I don’t want to hear I need to write another revision. Sometimes I want to be the Lone Ranger of Writing.

But, being independent won’t serve me as a writer, for if I do publish a piece as the Lone Ranger, who will celebrate with me? I don’t want to be the person who sets off their own fireworks with no one witnessing.

Today, I am writing alone in my office wondering if this piece has any blind spots. Before publishing, I will not just cross my fingers, and I will not just hope that I didn’t write anything off-putting, incorrect, or plain dumb. I will depend on my writing community, and ask: “Hey writer friends, how does this look to you? Am I being a jerk here, or does this ring true to all of you? And, by the way, if you don’t have any plans on the 4th, come on over to my BBQ. We are having a variety of burgers: meat, veggie, dairy-free, soy-free, and gluten-free. Significant others and dependents are welcome!”

MFA and the Myths of Being an Artist

They say cardio is the first to go, which I suppose explains last evening’s huffing and puffing through my first run since the day before residency began. Normally I’m a runner—around 25 miles a week—but last night it was hard to tell. Each step on the asphalt was foreign. My lungs were weak. Despite what the passing cars may have seen, I was the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.

The first time I heard “M.F.A.; My Fat Ass” was at a closing event at the end of last term where the graduating students spoke a few words reflecting on their journey through the program and, particularly, how they fared in the final semester. A fiction writer with a lighthearted countenance and an admittedly soft middle offered the above definition of the degree he would be awarded the following day. His cohorts chuckled in agreement.

That’s all I remember about him, but it struck a chord, and I made a silent note-to-self. We writers do, after all, sit a lot.

But just like writing, exercise has been a savior for me. We could get into self-image and how women are depicted in the mass media, we could even get into childhood issues—blah blah blah—but the fact is, what’s done is done. I am a woman in this culture, with this upbringing, with this mind chatter. The antidote has been physical activity. Running, yoga, cycling, hiking—whatever it is, the mind chatter changes from This body is not good enough to Damn, I am grateful for this body. Physical movement quiets my mind chatter. Every time I hear “M.F.A. = My Fat Ass,” I cringe.

Admittedly, during the 10-day residency our schedules are tight. A single day at residency looks like this: hour commute, followed by an hour blogging, two in seminar, a (seated) lunch, another seminar, a workshop, perhaps dinner, and a two hour evening reading with four graduating student writers and one featured guest writer. Then the commute back home. Nine days of it. Thirty miles driving. My body moved barely an inch.

I’m not whining though—the residency rocks—but what about the other five months of Project Period? For me at least, at times of my life when I’ve been particularly sedentary, it’s more of outlook than schedule. There are a ton of myths about being an artist. And just like the media’s image of women, I have at times bought into those wonky narratives. Hook, line, sinker.

*     *     *

Myth #1: Poor artists.

Ten years ago I was in another graduate program. (Some people buy cars; I collect almae matres.) Berklee College of Music gave me some scholarship money; I packed my bags. Instead of finding $75 for a soft-shell guitar bag, I bolted industrial-strength straps made to move pianos onto my hard-shell case and carried the weight on my back like a tortoise. Instead of picking up a long, warm coat for the Boston winter, I shivered in my leather motorcycle jacket, which was just long enough to assist the freezing rain in sliding down my back and soaking my jeans from belt to boots. I was broke. Adamantly broke.

Myth #2: Starving artists.

At Berklee, dinner was usually rice and beans; breakfast was rice pudding from the leftovers. My roommate and I split $200 for food each month. The mono-nutrient diet upset my belly and my energy was low, but when I caught my roommate spending $2 for a slice of pizza between classes—1% of our food budget for the month on one meal—I nearly slid into a rage. I stomped home and sulked over another Tabasco-doused rice bowl.

Myth #3: You need to suffer for your art.

I walked two miles to Berklee each day, through the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot. Okay, it’s a bit hyperbolic, but you get the gist. Each day my shoulders were burdened with instruments like my body was a pack mule.  Every day that damn guitar case tried to kill me.

Myth #4: Talent is innate, and “making it” is a concept only available to a privileged few.

All my classmates were rockstars or the offspring of rockstars. Talented. Beautiful. On their way to successful careers doing exactly what they were born to do. I, on the other hand, was a folk-singing daughter from a very normal family. I wasn’t a prodigy, nor were my parents. My pedigree, I believed, would be my ultimate handicap.

Not surprisingly, despite graduating with honors, then signing, recording, and touring, the way I burned out was less like a Bacchanalian feast of cocaine and backstage groupies, and more like a balloon flying through the air, coming untied, and simply dropping to the ground, useless, spent.

It took me years to realize I had done it to myself: I had bought the myths.

*     *     *

Things are winding down here in low-residencyland. Those of us not graduating have already disappeared into an online world called Project Period. During the next five months we will strain to stay connected through Sunday check-ins, monthly reading conferences, Facebook groups, occasional coffee dates for the locals, and, most celebrated, through online magazines and literary journals where, hopefully, we’ll see our colleagues’ bylines. Writing is a solitary activity, but the residency stokes a warm campfire. The re-entry back to day jobs and family life is welcomed, but strange. Mostly, it is a welcome return to normalcy.

I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my family, catching up on sleep, eating a simple meal at home. Basically, finding balance between mind, body, and spirit.

And at the top of my to-do list is exercise. Over the past eight days, my thighs have become a wee bit bigger. My belly is somewhat more rotund. And oh, my hips, my hips, my hips. Thankfully, the mind chatter hasn’t started, but I’m not going to wait for it. I don’t buy into the artists myths anymore. It’s possible to live the creative life as an artist and the balanced life of a healthy human. Even as we make time to write, eat, sleep, we must make time to care for our physical bodies. They carry us through this creative life. They are the only true vehicle we’ll ever have.

Family, home, paychecks.
Heartbeat, breath, sweat.

Body, mind, spirit.

The Stories We Share

Survivor (as in “Eye of the Tiger”) is to play a free show in Los Angeles later this summer. I stumbled upon this exciting news the other day while browsing Thrillist LA’s list of (they say) every free outdoor concert in LA. It was mid-afternoon, June gloom burned off, the sky clear blue, the asphalt in the parking lot outside my office softening at a warm 90-something degrees.

Meanwhile, I sat shivering inside at my desk as I do every afternoon, clutching a mug of jasmine tea and wrapped in my sweater against the AC which blasts like we’re all penguins here and the company means to keep us happy with native habitat temperature.

With numb fingers, I jotted down the date of the show and pulled up YouTube for a dance party down memory lane. My favorite Survivor song is still, as it has been for nearly thirty years, “The Search Is Over.” I cranked the volume. My shoulders swayed. I softly sang along. When the tune ended five minutes later, I found a YouTube mix channel to keep me grooving in my cushioned ergonomic-knock-off chair all afternoon. Survivor led to Journey, led to Heart, to Foreigner. It was a totally ‘80s dance party. I want to know what love is, I want you to show me.

And then my boss popped his head into my office.

“Having a flashback?” he asked, leaning on the door jamb.

“You can blame Steven,” I replied.

 

Steven was my first crush. He was smart, cute, a grade ahead of me, and his family’s house was up the street from mine. Maybe because we were heading in the same direction, or maybe because I was younger and someone asked him to ensure I arrived safely, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that Steven walked me home from camp every afternoon the summer before fifth grade. I was a little awkward. I hadn’t yet learned how to be cool in close proximity to a crush. I yearned for the ease of conversation like in pre-school days, before we all differentiated into genders with crush-worthy eyes and unreasonable desires. I longed for a third party to break the ice. Nevermind. I got something better: a song.

Steven had a lovely voice. On the winding hills of West Lake Shore Drive, in our Velcro high tops, wet bathing suits hanging from our backpacks, my pony tail swinging, lips red and sticky from the afternoon’s Italian Ices, Steven a shoulder’s width away, he began to sing.

How can I convince you what you see is real
Who am I to blame you for doubting what you feel
I was always reachin’, you were just a girl I knew
I took for granted the friend I have in you

I spent the summer memorizing the words to the song he said was his favorite, and wondering if there was a secret message he was trying to relay to me through them. The next year I discovered Duran Duran and bought my very first cassette—a-ha—at the mall with some allowance money. Of course I listened to the Beatles, and I had been singing Simon and Garfunkel with my dad since forever. But that summer before fifth grade I was blissfully between kid and tween. Steven was my first crush; Survivor my first band. The story of that summer is embedded in the track. The Search Is Over.

I was living for a dream, loving for a moment
Taking on the world, that was just my style
Now I look into your eyes, I can see forever
The search is over, you were with me all the while

 

“See?” I said to my boss after telling him the story. “You can blame Steven for the dance party.”

“Music and scents,” he said. “They always bring me back.” Joan Jett began to rock the computer speakers. My boss told me about Amanda and the first band he loved.
There’s a little movie of long ago that springs into our minds when we hear a song or smell something familiar. We all have these stories that bang around in our chests, waiting to be tapped with the right reminder. Every event in our lives is recorded in the proverbial black box. Once retold to another, it sparks a memory in the listener whose own story then flutters against his ribs. Look at Humans of New York, or listen to the recordings at StoryCorps. It doesn’t take long to feel blessed to hear the narrative people share. To feel honored to be witness to their stories. To feel connected.

 

Recently, I found myself in a Facebook crossfire between strangers linked through a mutual friend. The strangers were from different states, different times of the friend’s life, and on opposing sides of the political battlefield. Seventy-five comments later, the conversation jumped to another thread like wildfire leaping a fence. The ammunition built as more strangers united by the single friend took sides. Useless clichés and commonplace platitudes were thrown back and forth. Each side barely listened to the others’ shibboleth.

We have to have these debates. Our evolution depends on it, and the vitriol is part of the passion. But rhetoric aside, beneath the politics and other dividing lines, don’t we all have the fluttering wings of stories yearning to release? Beyond the hierarchy of supervisors and employees, doesn’t the whiff of Thanksgiving dinner or the bridge of a song recall some elemental, specific, human experience that we each once had? And aren’t they all, despite the nuanced differences, essentially the same? Love. Sadness. Awe.

Our humanity is not expressed in politics, but in the narratives of our lives. Humans have shared them with one another since time began. Songs and storytelling have existed in wealth and desperation, from the beginning of history to the present day, in every corner of the globe. The common ground of our shared human experiences is the thread that stitches us together, despite our egos, our dogmas, our fears.

If there’s any hope for humanity—not the species, but the spirit—it is here: in the tales of first loves; in the songs that lift our spirits; in the emotions we all know. And in the stories we share.

Bookstore

My favorite Boston bookstoremy singular favorite in a city purportedly abounding with more bookstores per square mile than any other—is like a reversed Narnia wardrobe. When I think of it, there’s a wide glowing window display and thirty minutes disappearing faster than a J.P. Licks frappe. Those thirty minutes would be, of course, window-browsing moments. Step inside Harvard Book Store and delightful minutes in the shop would translate to hours gone by in the outside world.

In my thirteen years as a Bostonian, I often bathed in the warm glow of the Boston Book Store display. Nothing fancy: no bells, whistles, or tourist traps splayed with the university logo. Just a series of windows along the Mass Ave. sidewalk set with new releases, best sellers, and staff picks. Curious portals to new worlds and ideas.

Despite the adage, I found cover art mattered. So did font. A book in the window with an interesting cover could pull me through the heavy front door into the stacks. If I didn’t have more than a few minutes on my slushy commute, I’d scrawl titles in my journal. Middlesex. Me Talk Pretty One Day. The Lovely Bones. Often, I did find minutes to spare for an inside browse around current titles. A jaunt downstairs to the used collection. I’d wander around a bit until a cozy section seduced me, and there loosen my scarf, unbutton my coat, let my bag fall to the floor. Sometimes I stood propped against a bookcase as my eyes scanned the spines. Many times I’d tuck away in a corner, fold myself small on the floor, limbs piled together, so other patrons could step over me while I travelled through narratives of other lives, other eras.

Time slipped by in those visits. In the face of books and stories, the universe felt endlessly expansive. But, eventually my stomach would rumble and my feet start begging to get out of those damn boots. In the last few minutes I’d stop at my touchstone, Fiction – W: every visit I was sure to check the Jeanette Winterson shelf. I don’t know why I did, but because of her I discovered other writers nearby: Sarah Waters. Alice Walker. Jeannette Walls. Ah, the beauty of a bookstore.

All over Cambridge and Boston were independent book and music shops alike, and cafes to sit and read. The streets were lined with shops offering respite from the cold. Shelves stacked with imagined worlds to warm the soul. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, amid a culture of people who loved books, music, and cafés.

Meanwhile, Starbucks had arrived. Up and down Mass Ave., independent cafes—along with their weekly open mics—began to close down. Napster showed up, and record shops shuttered. Even through this shift, bookstores remained, and I remained oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industries taking place across the rest of the country. Despite the intellectual colonization that was streamlining America’s interests, Boston’s book and literary culture thrived.

Sometime in the mid-aughties, I left New England. I had a combination of bitter cold weariness, dark days depression, and an itch for something new. Barely sure where Los Angeles was in the general scope of “southern California,” I headed west. On the way, my best friend called from San Francisco.

“I can’t wait to hear you tell me how much you love February,” she said.

Sure enough, two months into SoCal living, I texted her from Santa Monica. It was February. The sun was hot on my shoulders. I was barefoot on the beach. I was smitten with the Golden State.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight years now. I love this town, and I love February—I’ll shout it from the Hollywood Hills. (I probably have.) There’s inspiration tucked into every side alley. Songs and stories in every guest house. I could write through the endless summer about all the things I adore about this town. But oh, I do so miss those Boston bookstores.

Here in L.A. I understand why people leap to Amazon. I understand the one-stop-shop online easy-peasy lemon squeezy la-dee-da. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s practical.

One Friday evening last autumn I had a hankering for a particular book. I skipped out on a yoga class to hit the library before it closed, but I didn’t check the listed hours and ended up standing alone in the library parking lot staring at the locked entrance. That night I drove the streets of North Hollywood, Burbank, and Studio City, searching for a place to buy my book. The one shop I knew about was open, but on their Barnes & Noble shelves I couldn’t find what I wanted. To reclaim the fruitless evening, I called a friend and the night ended with margaritas. The next day I clicked to Amazon.

Now, to be fair, Los Angeles does have bookstores, and a few excellent ones at that. The problem is like good wine, which I try to stay away from it since I can’t afford to be ruined by good taste: Boston spoiled me. Bookstores were part of my daily commute. The city provided independently curated collections every half block. They seduced me even when I had no thought of books in mind.

Here in L.A., bookstores are destinations to drive to. Events for which I need to clear my calendar. In Los Angeles I never just happen upon a bookstore. I am never seduced.

I suppose this is a call to action. Bookstores in Los Angeles—and perhaps in your town as well—are not just going to set up shop on the broken sidewalk next to our parking meters. They’re coy. They sit in out-of-the-way spots and wait for us to find them.

But you remember, don’t you, the way time used to slip as your eyes scanned the spines? The way you stumbled upon new authors because you, like me, had a touchstone in Fiction – W. How you heard your name calling from the covers and the fonts laid out near the front entryway under the bold sign “New Releases”?

As it turns out, there is one bookstore near my house. I sometimes bike past The Illiad on my way to yoga. A few months ago, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, crooked my head to one side, and read every spine in search of the titles on my semester reading list. It is a used bookstore, and scented with that familiar mustiness of old pages. There are stacks in disarray at the front desk which is attended by delightfully unkempt introverts.

I’ve always been torn about buying used books and CDs: no payment for the writer, for the artist. And yet: it is a bookstore. Bookstore means unbuttoning my coat and laying down my bag. It means walking through the Narnia wardrobe and losing myself, unintended, in an ever-expanding universe. In this world of virtual shops and productive shopping, The Illiad is a heaven of exploration and hidden treasures.

In the end, I found all but five of the books on my list. For the rest I used the Amazon gift card I received over the holidays. This is the way I intend to do it for now on—local, independent bookstore first, even if it is inconvenient or a little out of the way; independent online retailer second—many brick and mortar stores, including the Harvard Book Store, are also online retailers; Amazon as a last resort.

After all, as writers and book lovers, it is not enough to have a stack of tomes next to the bed. We must support our literary culture, and at the very least, find and support one place of book lover refuge nearby. Because some nights are for margaritas. But some are for books.

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Forgotten Places

Lately I have been feeling a little sad, concerned about the future of San Francisco. I consider myself very lucky to live in a place that has always been considered a hot spot for the liberal, the arts, museums, and endless good coffee, teas, poetry, and music. After all Lawrence Ferlinghetti considers it his city. But recently powerful new players are moving in and the not so well off are seeing themselves leave the city they love. As a writer I am becoming apprehensive because although I may not live in San Francisco forever, I will always consider it to be my most precious of muses.

Any artist can tell you that inspiration can come from anywhere but what makes an artist an artist is taking the strange, the forgotten, the insignificant and creating something new with it. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I want to escape the smell of piss on the sidewalk, the people pushing me on the subway without saying “excuse me” and the guys asking me for change on every corner of downtown. There are times when I’m overwhelmed with my own life and these nuances of the city don’t help at all. Even drained at times, creatively wise. That is when I know it is time to take a vacation, if I can afford it at the time.

But it is when I’m on these vacations that I suddenly realize that there is no place like home and then I start missing the fog that lulls me to sleep, my meet ups with friends at my favorite tea lounge, my ripe plantains that I can only get in the Mission that just happens to be right across the street from one of my favorite older book stores in town.

And then I start to think of forgotten places. How our environment as artists have such a big influence on how we talktherefore how we write, the smells, the kinds of interactions we have on an everyday basis, the architecture that surrounds us, the good and the ugly and how both qualities inspire us to write. Maybe that’s the beauty about being a writerthe ability to see ugliness in beauty and beauty in the ugly.

You might say c’est la vie, but I say when you see your talented musician friends facing eviction, your favorite bookstores shut down, and all the mom and pop restaurants, including the boutiques where they know your name, close down, it makes me disheartened and angry. For there are places hidden, out of sight, maybe even a little covered in mud, mundane looking from the outside. And how many places like this have we passed by thinking it was nothing more? Never taking the time to look deeper, to open the door that might perhaps lead to a new taste of food? A new experience that may lead to a new poem?

I don’t want these mom and pop places in San Francisco to become secret doors or passageways covered in ivy, rotting away, telling us that a long time ago someone cared enough to build them, but have been long forgotten for better things, current things, things that take your time away from being curious.

Creativity can be a fickle companion at times because we have all felt as if we exhausted it. Maybe when in reality we have simply just stopped being curious. Curiosity comes from the different, from the offbeat, from the variant, not from the trending, from being and looking like everyone else. This is what alarms me. For in San Francisco you can have one corner selling mangos, and next, you might have a biker bar, and down the street there’s the knitting club, all while you are drinking South African wine and listening to Tito Puentes playing his Latin jazz.

Perhaps it is your lucky day wherever you live and you will stop riding your bicycle or car, and you will look at something that has caught your eye, and you will tilt your head, will hear it speak to you, and approach it with caution. Today might be your moment to discover something forgotten or on the verge of becoming extinct.

 

The Sad Eyes of Virginia Woolf, by Debbie Styer 2013

B-B-B-Bennie, the Muppets, and Virginia Woolf

A few months ago, I caught myself on a Saturday evening at the dining room table while the kidlets watched Season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had emerged from some noodling on my guitar, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in time for that Sunday’s MFA reading conference on the book.

Somewhere in Woolf’s incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into “Bennie and the Jets.” A choir of Muppets echoed him every time he said “Bennie.”

“Bennie,” Elton sang in unblemished, un-effected falsetto.

“Bennie! Bennie! Bennie!” the Muppets sang in muppetly ragtag fashion.

My attention shifted from the book to the showhow could it not?and then the scene changed.  The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculously unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star’s next act: “The greatest talent in the history of the universeElton John WAHHHHHHHH!”.

The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on “Good-bye Yellow Brick Road.” Animal on drums. Dr. Teeth on keys. Janis on guitar. Zoot on sax. Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses. And he was so young! Elton is thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.

What is the point, I wondered. The Muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that had seemed divinely inspired that morning and suddenly, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Amateur. Sophomoric.

And meanwhile Virginia Woolf lay open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty’s forward is the second copy I’d bought that month. The pages were yellowed, underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I could distinguish my scribbles from hers, I preferred this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. My MFA program is making me picky about publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration.  I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout January with the book in my hands and drool on the pages, unsure if it was the writing or the font that always put me out.

Since twelfth grade I’ve half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have several times seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn’t get it, didn’t get her. I simply couldn’t get through a Woolf book. If not for this particular requirement for the reading conference, I would have waded into To the Lighthouse. And for this reasonTHANK GOODNESS for required reading.

After three days with my new Harcourt edition, To the Lighthouse illuminated Woolf’s genius. Perhaps in my earlier years I was simply not ready for her. Woolf writes through external events and her characters’ internal experience with inspiring deft. Her fluidity is like water undulating through cavernous rock. What is the point? I again wondered. How does any writer step up to her bar?

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf captures the mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling of them through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves. She catches each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that so nimbly expresses characters’ subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate. Intimidating, actually.

And so I found myself wallowing in that same question I had with Elton JohnWhat is the point?and just before I smothered with despair, Woolf sealed the deal and entirely endeared herself to me. As I lamented that I would never be the writer she was, Woolf turned her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist.

For this I must show you with her own words:
…before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn’t this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, saying she couldn’t create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them. 

…Then, (Ah! this “Then” is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her…, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. 

So, at the encouragement of Woolf (and despite my own doubts), I’ve continued. The MFA reading conference came and went, and in the months since To the Lighthouse I have continued to move through my self-doubts. I imagine this dance with doubt will be a long process. Perhaps a lifetime. But if Woolf wrote about artistic doubt through her character Lily, she must have experienced it first-hand herself. If she and I have that much in common, then I can hope we also share a gift for language arts.

Recently, I began work on a creative non-fiction piece about a difficult topic. By its nature, there’s an internal journey of questions seeking answers. Although the seeking is (I hope) a fascinating exploration, I want my future reader to stay rooted in the external world of the story’s setting. The books laid upon the dining room table. The kidlets in the living room singing along with The Muppets. My story is a delicate dance of internal and external experience, a writing skill I am just beginning to explore. So where I was once intimidated, and later comforted, by Woolf, now, as my hand steadies, she is my teacher in craft. To the creative process and the honing of skills I say this: bring on Elton and the Electric Mayhem band. There is room for countless songs on this stage.