Space

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When the cat comes to claim it, you know you’ve created a good spot.

It’s been an unusual week around here. I started substitute teaching on Thursday, and for the first time since my daughter was born, I dashed out the door unaccompanied and drove to work in the quiet car listening to NPR morning news. The work days were great, and by each day’s end I had a feeling akin to thirst for my child. To hold her and swing her in the air and drink in her laughter. The change in routine has recalibrated my energy level and sense of gratitude, and not just in a blanket I’m-so-thankful kind of way, but in very specific ways that only actual experience can impart.

In other small but significant happenings, today I graduated from writing at the dining table to writing at an actual desk. This has been nagging at me for a while, less the desk and more the space, in particular the wall. I realized I need more than my Excel spreadsheets. I need a place to stick post-its with deadlines, ideas, and pitches. I need to hang up my Dear Sugar poster and May Sarton’s “Now I Become Myself.” I need to spread out, claim a space of my own, give the work room to grow.

Now I Become Myself

May Sarton

Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

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Mother-Writer

There is a thought that’s repeated in my head over the last year like a mantra: “I write because of and in spite of my daughter.”

At this time last year, her just-turned-two-year-old self was small enough to fit in the cradle of my legs folded indian-style, nursing while my hands typed. That was my method of buying time to write in the beginning. I know I felt touched-out and drained, and the recurring sentence fragment in my brain was, “To think a clear a thought.” But I can only see it now through a rose-haze, those little hands, the newness of language, the cure-all comfort of breastfeeding. In fact, at the start of this project, I had never spent an entire day away from my baby. Not until Day 32.

Shhhhh.

Do you hear that?

QUIET.

Not the temporary quiet of sleeping baby. Not the little old lady from Goodnight Moon whispering hush. I’m talking husband with toddler taking a day trip across state lines to visit grandparents quiet. Blue sky almost-spring sunshine fed cats asleep in windows quiet. Alone in the house for a good big stretch of day quiet.

Drink. That. In.

This has not happened since I’ve become a mother. A whole entire day alone. I couldn’t relinquish her to the world for the span of an entire day until today. I know how bonkers that sounds. But it’s the truth. It took so long for the miracle of her to arrive, my life’s sole mission became protectress. It was nothing I planned and everything I had to be.

I’m glad I trapped that moment on the page. That version of me, now gone. Are we like snakes molting minute-to-minute or Matryoshka dolls, former selves stacked within us to be cracked open again and again?

When I was pregnant, a friend told me, when a baby is born, a mother is born too. I heard “mother”–that part I understood–but I didn’t quite hear “born.” I couldn’t grasp the way an entirely new version of myself would be born. Or the mysterious way those former versions of me would show up. My daughter reignited my desire to write, to be true to myself. And at the same time, she made it so darn difficult for me to take up the task of writing. To think a clear thought. But for all the essays lamenting the incompatibility of motherhood and writing, I think they pair well, the push-pull, the toggle. Because of and in spite of. What better training is there for a creative pursuit than motherhood? Motherhood, that supremely creative act, that exhausting slog. What else could have taught me to dig so deep?

(Post 363 of 365)

 

Reflections

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This morning a gentle snow fell. Chris brewed coffee. And the brain fog from this cold began to lift.

It’s been one of those weeks when this 365 project has felt challenging. Challenging, but not impossible. Life never fails to get in the way. But if you carve a path for yourself, you’ll eventually create a smooth groove, one that allows you to stay the course even when other forces attempt to push you in a different direction.

Committing to this year-long daily practice has been life-altering in big and small ways. One of the things I learned very quickly was that fear will rise up again and again, and there is no choice but to walk through it. I had to contend with my fear of being seen, my imposter syndrome, and my self-doubt with every step, from writing to submitting to publishing to promoting. Every step was an act of courage. Until courage became habit. And the fear piped down.

I began the project with no real idea where it would go. I had planned nothing beyond putting words on the page and hitting publish every day. That alone felt daunting enough. I hadn’t planned to take writing classes or give a reading or attend a professional conference. I didn’t know I would spend those first months writing and revising one essay, a strange process that came out like a prose puzzle. I spent so many nights at the library trying to figure out how to piece it together. When an editor asked to publish it, I was beyond thrilled. My secret goal was to get a piece published before my birthday, and somehow that little dream came true. But I hadn’t anticipated how publishing a personal essay would make me feel exposed and raw, how it would make me want to tuck myself into a dark closet for a couple of weeks. Nor was I able to anticipate how moving it would be to receive emails from women struggling with the same challenge. Women who shared their stories with me. Women who told me I’d given them hope. Looking back, there was so much contained within the experience of a single essay.

2016 was a year of learning and growth and connection. I feel rooted in myself. I feel strong.

A few of the highlights: I turned 40! (Holy wow, still getting used to that number.) Brain,Child Magazine named me New Voice of the Year and invited me to become a contributing blogger, a dream come true. I saw Roxane Gay speak in NYC. I grew my first garden in our new backyard (and wrote and published an essay about it). I attended my first professional writers conference. I weaned my toddler. I voted for our first female president with my mother and my daughter by my side. I had my first poem published.

This year was big. How do I top it? How do I keep up the momentum? My mind spiraled toward a hundred different goals and dreams. I couldn’t focus. Then on New Year’s Day, a nasty cold virus took the wind right out of my sails. I had no choice but to pause. Be still. Let my mind drift. The word that came to me was tethered, a word that’s come up a lot over the course of this year. Daily practice has kept me tethered to myself, to my art, to consciousness. This project will end, but I want to stay tethered in the new year. Shortly after, I received an email saying I’d been accepted into a writing course I’d forgotten I had applied to during the holiday mayhem. And there it was, an opportunity tying me from one year to the next.

For writers involved in a daily practice or considering one, there’s a terrific article up at Brevity today, The Power of Listening to What Your Practice Demands. I’m also thrilled to announce that my writer/author-friend Rachel‘s newest book Writer’s Boot Camp, A 30-Day Crash Course to Total Writing Fitness has just hit bookstores. I ordered my copy today. I can’t think of a better way to kick off a new year of writing!

(Post 353 of 365)

 

No Need

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According to Anne Lamott, “December is traditionally a bad month for writing.” And I’m inclined to agree. I’ve had to surrender to life lately because it is so very full. The Christmas countdown is on, and I’m doing my annual scramble, though with less anxiety than usual. I’ve let the Christmas cards fall to the wayside this year because something’s got to give. I’m working on some special gifts for my parents, and that’s where my energy is going, to these quieter, more important projects. Writing–even these mundane, surface-y posts–helps me focus, identify priorities amidst the competing swirl. My output here is not so grand or deep. It’s more about the practice of staring at the blank page and getting the words down, constructing sentences, following a thought, discovering what comes next. It’s an inward looking. This morning I scribbled this Virginia Woolf quote into my notebook, a mantra for the hectic month: “No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself.”

(Post 327 of 365)

Homestretch

I’ve been feeling this feeling, an anxious what-next sort of feeling as this project nears the end. After I write this post, I only have 47 left to go. You’d think I’d feel relieved–and part of me does–but I’ve also gotten used to it. I’ve worn deep ruts in the road, and the tires roll right in. I think about the writer I was, the person I was, when this project began, and I can say unequivocally that I’ve changed. I am rooted in myself. When I’m seeking an answer, I know I have to search within. That’s something you can give lip service to, but it’s another thing to do the work, that internal search, to practice self-trust. I’ve spent so much of my life searching for answers outside myself when I had only to pick up a pen. And I did. I wrote. Again and again. But I abandoned it again and again. This time I dug in. Stubborn and unrelenting. On the days I wanted to quit, the days it felt too hard, I had to find ways to push through. Ultimately, I had to change my life in order to accommodate the writing. That was the part that never caught traction before. I dropped artistic pursuits because I couldn’t justify them and/or because they became difficult. The changing, the act of assessing my life and figuring out how to make room for my writing, is perhaps the most interesting part of the project for me. I stopped having a glass or two of wine in the evening. I reclaimed those evenings and I reclaimed scraps of morning and nap time and often said to hell with dinner and jumped in the car to head to the library the minute my husband got home. Adjusting my habits hasn’t been easy on my little family. Throughout the process I’ve been wracked with guilt for not giving my whole self over to them, for stealing so much time, and unpaid time to boot. I mean, who do I think I am? I’ve questioned whether it’s been the best thing for my daughter. It makes me a less-available mother. It also makes me a less-available spouse. Tonight there was a half-opened bottle of wine on the kitchen counter leftover from my best friend who visited on Wednesday night. I’d taken it out of the refrigerator to make room for water bottles and orange juice. My husband saw it and said, “Oh wow, you’re having wine tonight?” He sounded excited. I explained I was just making room in the fridge. He sighed. “Are you disappointed?” I asked him. “Eh, I just thought you were actually going to relax,” he said smiling. I guess I really haven’t been much fun. Maybe not since the last time I had a glass of wine, back in June at my birthday party. And before that, not since sometime in early March when I realized that even one glass of wine cut into my writing time. I’ve been operating like someone on a mission. Because I am. And it’s true, I don’t relax. I mean, today I did yoga, so that was something. And on Wednesday, when my friend visited after I got my daughter to sleep, and we chatted by the fire, that was a lovely time and a potent elixir for all my anxiety. I talk a good self-care game, but it’s often a struggle. And right now, it’s a Saturday night at 9:30 p.m. and I’m writing and my husband is upstairs snoring. He fell asleep putting our daughter to bed. There’s lullaby music playing. The last log on the fire just dropped into the embers. I should probably wake him. We should hang out. Relax. But I’m going to keep writing. Because the thing I wanted to say, the thing I’ve been thinking about as this project wraps, are the guideposts that led me to the project to begin with, among them the women I’ve come to think of as my literary godmothers. Cheryl Strayed, for one. I wrote about her in the beginning, and highlighted her in my first post, when I felt like I needed to be official about things and have a premise for the project, back when I still felt obligated to explain myself. Cheryl Strayed and her beautiful book WILD. Cheryl Strayed writing from her guts. Cheryl Strayed who hiked into the wilderness alone. Cheryl Strayed who stripped herself of her surname and claimed her own identity. Cheryl Strayed who bet on herself. Again and again and again and again. Cheryl Strayed’s melodic voice on Dear Sugar, her inhibition, her feminism, her Midwestern charm, and her advice: “to write like a motherfucker.”

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn’t collapse in a heap of “I could have been better than this” and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

And maybe I’m anxious about the project ending because I’m really just beginning to find my footing, my voice, my truth. I’m only now beginning to get free of the trap of what I thought this thing was supposed to be. I’m only just now digging up my courage to tell you all the things I want to say. Have I ever really explained the way my daughter cracked me open to my core and revealed my truest self, my feminism, my fearlessness? Have I yet written the words that I write because of and in spite of my daughter? I’ve had to trust that all the time I steal in order to write ultimately makes me a better person, better thinker, better writer, better mother. That this best version of myself, deeply flawed though it may be, is my greatest offering.

(Post 318 of 365)

Recovering Hope

My dear writer-readers, I know so many of us have been struggling to write through the election fallout as we continue to witness the incomprehensible at our nation’s highest level. We’re coping with fears for the future. Real fears. The loss of civil liberties, healthcare, and medicare, a rise in hate crimes, the possible dismantling of public education, total disregard for the environment and the health of the planet, and on and on. How do we recover our voices? How do we continue to hold hope? Ultimately the answer is to show up to the page, that transformative, thoughtful place that allows us to access the deepest parts of ourselves. One of the most inspiring reads I’ve come across recently is NTOZAKE SHANGE: ON A BRILLIANT BALANCE OF ANGER AND POETRY, which also speaks to sharing, community, and collaboration.

Zaki always knew who she was talking to and who she was singing for: her peers, her sisters, her community. She always understood that creative writing is enmeshed in a community. Her mind was not focused on literary critics or the commercial publishing establishment. To say that she did not see writing as a professional career is not quite right; rather she always thought poetry was like making music, something you did with your friends to celebrate being alive.

So from the beginning Zaki’s efforts were almost always in collaboration—with other writers, with musicians, with artists, with dancers, with actors. Her body of work is more collaborative than any other writer I know. It’s the community again, a community of artists and friends that grounds and surrounds her work and locates it in its historical specificity. And that specificity in Zaki’s case meant being a woman and being Black in the America of the 1960s, a situation that demanded political involvement. The women’s movement had already taught us that the personal is political—and if you happened to be a woman, if you happened to be black in this society at this time, the personal was intensely political and politics, the politics of oppression and resistance was inescapable. And oppression generates anger, or more precisely outrage, which is anger at injustice, which can be a great danger to the poet or artist. For, while outrage can be an enormously powerful motivator of political action, it holds the danger of corroding the creative spirit.

But anger was required if you were a black woman poet who found herself in a deeply racist and misogynist society, and in the 1950s and 60s that was pretty much the case with America. And anger is hard for the poet who, as Auden says, sings songs of praise of what is. It’s hard to sing if you’re angry.

What always impressed me about Zaki’s work was that she was able to keep that just anger hot and alive, but she also knew how to keep it properly focused, to keep it in check and not to let it consume her entire being. “Combat breath” she calls it in one of her essays. Mastering the anger rather than being mastered by it, she could go on being essentially—even quintessentially—a poet, one who celebrates the impact of the live moment as it bursts into language and song.

(Post 317 of 365)

 

 

Make Something, Anything

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First, put down your phone. Forget the torrent of bad news on Twitter, the cabinet of deplorables. Forget that the car died and the auto shop resurrected it and then it died again. Sit down on the floor with your child and build something. She will knock it over. Keep building. The cat will plop himself in the middle. Build around him. Realize you’re out of diapers, but have a bag of pull-ups. Coax the potty-resistant toddler to the potty. Make it fun! Get some books. Cajole, cheer. Be gentle. Set the timer to 15 minutes with a delightful ring called “Twinkle.” Think, positive associations. Think, be inventive! Remember that you have drinking straws in a drawer in the kitchen. Create a game, a magic trick. Can you make the water disappear by drinking from the straw? Cajole. Cheer! Per toddler’s request, slice half an apple. Renew your commitment to limited screen time. Declare a meaningless warning, only 15 more minutes of Caillou. Note the Twinkle timer. Use a joyful voice to announce, it’s time! Drag the limp-limbed toddler by her arms while she cries, then laughs, and eventually sits on the potty. Read more books. Make it fun! What animal likes apples? The horse, yes, the horse! Note the dust and hair collecting on the floor behind the sink. Get the bottle of diluted bleach, get down on your hands and knees, and scrub the floor. There, an accomplishment. Make a potty chart with stickers. Turn off Caillou and endure a 10-minute tantrum. Bring the felt board into the living room. Coax. Cajole. Try to sit at the table for a moment and write (ha!). Try the make-water-disappear-with-a-straw magic trick again. Coax. Cajole. Breathe. Sit in front of the felt board and pull out the tree-shaped piece of felt. Place a red circle near the tree and claim it’s an apple. Watch the toddler grab it and declare, No, it’s not an apple! It’s a red circle. Acquiesce with a sigh. You have no argument. Twinkle timer. Coax. Cajole. Find a new book to read. Please stop touching your bottom. Try to keep the edge from your voice. Be gentle. Admire your freshly bleached bathroom. Note the sun rising higher in the sky. It’s 9:00 a.m. You’ve been at this for 2 hours, eight 15-minute increments. Note this is how big things are accomplished, in tiny increments. Endurance is key. Your husband returns home from running errands and takes the toddler for a walk. You sit down to write this. You are interrupted by the friend delivering a cord of wood. By the toddler home from the walk, demanding TV. You swallow frustration. You accept that there will forever be forces running counter to your mission. You wonder why you bother. But deep down, you know it counts. You renew your commitment to remain Twitter-free, news-free for 24 hours. Mental health is key. You will stop consuming. Start creating. You will make something, anything.

(Post 304 of 365)

Doing the Imperfect Work

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I haven’t found my way back into the Flash Nano groove, but I’m saving the prompts to work with when I’m ready. There are a few writers in the group who’ve fallen behind and/or dropped off. Others are going strong, even firing out submissions of new pieces as they create them. I find this fascinating, the rapid pace and the confidence to send work out into the world almost immediately.

I sit on my writing for a long time–maybe too long. Recently, a writer/editor-friend was quick to call out my perfectionism after critiquing one of my pieces. She declared the work ready for publication. I’m always surprised to be associated with perfectionism because I feel so very flawed. Of course, that’s the perfectionist’s trap, always striving, rarely accepting that anything is ready or exactly right or ever good enough.

Perfection stymies. It halts. Writing, and especially daily blogging, is an exercise against that inertia. There are twelve hours in a day, and within them, I must cobble together some sentences. I must try to make sense of things. It’s a small act that propels me forward. I cultivate momentum.

Daily blogging leaves a trail, evidence of all the days the words don’t come easily, ideas fall flat, time runs short, motivation flags. But accepting imperfection means the thing you want to build gets built. Where there was air, now stands a structure. Perhaps just a series of rickety steps. With time and practice you become a better builder, you inch closer to the dream of becoming a master craftswoman.

Lorrie Moore says, “I don’t go back and look at my early work, because the last time I did, many years ago, it left me cringing. If one publishes, then one is creating a public record of learning to write.”

I’m certain I’ve talked about the trap of perfectionism more than once over these last 302 days, but it’s a lesson I have to learn again and again. So, dear reader, if you’re like me, too often caught in the trap, fear not the publish button nor the Submittable page. Keep writing. Keep floating your words out into the world. Offer something up today. I promise I will, too.

(Post 302 of 365)

 

 

The Story Is The Thing

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Photo credit: Lucia Berlin

I’ve been thinking a lot about nonfiction vs. fiction. My stories always begin from an experience, a thread of conversation, a feeling I can’t quite pin down. The unresolved. The uncomfortable. The stuff of life. My life. I am not a magician who pulls coins from thin air, nor rabbits from hats. I find the fiction as I go. I bump up against a boundary and cut a hole in the wall and then shove a bookcase in front of it so none will be the wiser. This is where I find my writing going. A hybrid form.

The thing is, it’s nothing new.

At the start of this blog project, the universe answered back in mysterious, synchronistic waves. Out of nowhere, an old friend from art school (now a literary agent) sent me a book. An old hardcover book of short stories, A Manuel for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin. I’ve carried it around like a bible ever since. I refer to it when my own writing feels stalled, when I’m looking for a way back in. Berlin is a masterful storyteller, a vivid painter, a prose poet with an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue. Lydia Davis says it better: “Lucia Berlin’s stories are electric, they buzz and crackle as the live wires touch. And in response, the reader’s mind, too, beguiled, enraptured, comes alive, all synapses firing. This is the way we like to be, when we’re reading–using our brains, feeling our hearts beat.”

The book is a work of fiction, but many of the stories are lifted straight from Berlin’s life. Others are entirely made up.

From the forward by Lydia Davis:

Lucia Berlin based many of her stories on events in her own life. One of her sons said, after her death, “Ma wrote true stories, not necessarily autobiographical, but close enough for horseshoes.”

Although people talk, as though it were a new thing, about the form of fiction known in France as auto-fiction (“self-fiction”), the narration of one’s own life, lifted almost unchanged from the reality, selected and judiciously, artfully told, Lucia Berlin has been doing this, or a version of this, as far as I can see, from the beginning, back in the 1960s. Her son went on to say, “Our family stories and memories have been slowly reshaped, embellished, and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.”

Perhaps this is the answer to my navigational fatigue, to always remember the story is the thing. 

(Post 289 of 365)

Taking Root

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Some days I don’t know why I write at all. That’s the trick of daily writing (or daily anything-that’s-challenging): you skip the “why” and you take the action, you show up, you write the words. You understand the time it takes for a thing to take root, deep in the earth, a tangle of spidery threads reaching toward water. You feel yourself growing both downward and upward, part of you anchored in the dark, the other part rising toward the light. It takes time and concentrated effort. In the end, maybe you are just a tree. Except I never use “just” when speaking of trees.

November is full of terrific writing energy. I’ve discovered my Flash Nano practice falls under #NaNoRebels, which feels about right. Rachel is practicing the real-deal 50K-word NaNoWriMo. And Tara Borin is participating in NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). I’m working from daily prompts from Nancy Stohlman and Meg Pokrass. I like the option of choosing between two prompts, whichever gets the pen moving first. As I near the end of my year-long daily writing journey, the energy bump of camaraderie feels great. I encourage everyone to give it a try, regardless of whether you consider yourself a “writer.” The discoveries are likely to surprise you.

For an extra boost this morning, visit Nancy Peacock’s blog Marginalia and read her post Free Advice:

Write. Write all the time, even when it is not a project for publication. Write badly. Write just because. Don’t listen to advice from strangers. They are all strangers. Know yourself. Know your work. Know your characters. Listen only to the invisible people in the room. Don’t try to sound smart. Prove nothing to nobody. Make some friends – real friends who are willing to listen to your fears, (although you will not be calling it fear at the time) without judgement. Have friends who can hold up a mirror to show you just how fierce you really are. Grow fangs and claws and wear your heart on your sleeve. Dumb down so that everything is new. Be an expert in nothing. Always begin. Appreciate tree frogs, and rescue them when they get caught between the shutters and the wall. Take walks in the dark. Give money away. Let your stories breathe without publication. Let them breathe with publication. Love senselessly and enthusiastically. Write down everything that crazy fucker at the laundromat said to you. Describe hands. Watch bracelets jangle down wrists as wine glasses are hoisted. Look into people’s eyes. Don’t look into people’s eyes. Visit with snails. Visit the dead. Stand with one hand on the tombstone of the infant daughter and the other on the tombstone of her parents and feel the current. Turn off the TV. Don’t listen to the news. Pay your bills. Live cheap. Work a job that has nothing to do with art. Drive a car with a lot of bumper stickers on it that contradict each other. Have an identity crisis. Quit and start again.

(Post 288 of 365)