“Our actual ultimate root is in our humanity, not in our personal genealogy.”
–Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
“Our actual ultimate root is in our humanity, not in our personal genealogy.”
–Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
For a week now, I’ve been waking up around 5am. Sitting to meditate for a few minutes, letting the dog out back to pee and then sneaking out front to go for a walk alone around my neighborhood. Not walking, mind you–this is not exercise. Sometimes I go in flip flops. Sometimes I go without a bra. I’m taking a noticing walk. To hear the birds. To feel the surprising breeze; in a few hours, it will hit 100 degrees and I could suffer heat stroke in the car ride to Target, say. When I get back, I write in my notebook at the kitchen table and look up the names of plants in a book I got at the library. I read poetry. Am thrilled by lines like these:
“How is it, such wealthy redemption/ in a fence post, a rusting stove?…On the earth, feet receive direct knowledge… Cattle raise their heads–they are listeners,/ as I become the deepest listener/ where there is least to hear.” — Naomi Shihab Nye, from At Otto’s Place (in Words Under the Words)
Eventually, my children wake up and come down for a bowl of cereal. I make my bed. Let the dog in. His walk will come later. In the evening, when it’s cool again.
I’ve tried at various points in my life to wake up early like this. But usually the effort is shrouded in anxiety. I’m waking up to exercise or to write. To be productive. It doesn’t last. Now I’m just doing it to live. I’m waking up to pay attention. There are no real rules. Just a pattern I like. And for once it feels sustainable.
I began last week after realizing how unhappy I’d been feeling. It was strange, because there was no real reason for it. Life is good, overall. My usual anxieties—money & relationships—are fine. Great, even. I’ve been writing daily. Feeling healthy. So what, then? Why did I feel like I was being dragged through my life rather than in conscious control of it? I’m still not entirely sure. But I happened upon this post about habits, which led me to this podcast featuring the poet Mary Oliver, whom I adore. And she inspired me to take back noticing. To not let the fact that I live in a scorching desert trick me into never going outside. Into not “let[ting] the soft animal of [my] body love what it loves.”
Every morning presents some miracle: a hummingbird scooping her head to feed on the red yucca. Enormous black bees swarming the blooming desert candle. Today, a hairpin among the sidewalk’s fallen pine needles.
The hour of fulfillment is buried in years of patience.” –Mary Oliver
I’ve been unsettled by several things of late: the number of women in my online courses who identify 50 Shades of Grey as their favorite book, for example. Or the fact that I was ID’ed at Target for buying Elmer’s Rubber Cement Glue. Apparently you have to be over 18 to get your hands on that stuff. Probably some kind of #huffresponsibly campaign. Who knew? And then there’s good old Seasonal Affective Disorder, sapping the energy I normally reserve for things like making my kids’ lunches or putting on a bra. Guys, I’m S.A.D.
But then today I had the emotional energy to do some laundry. Broad City is back on television. I meditated this morning. Spontaneously (somewhat irresponsibly?) booked a spring break beach condo that allows dogs. And after a week of avoidance, I’m going to actually work on my novel today. In other words, the Groundhog was wrong. Spring is coming early this year.
This is an embarrassing writing selfie I took last year at an outdoor café in Cambridge. It’s part of my process, which goes something like this: Sit down to write, get up and make tea. Sit down to write, check my email real quick. Sit down to write, take a selfie of myself pretending to write. Surprisingly, after a long string of days like this, I actually manage to get an entire narrative down on the page.
But I’m going out of order. I volunteered to follow Audrey Camp on the Writing Process Blog Tour. Audrey is my Postmasters Podcast co-host, a phenomenally poetic essayist/fiction writer, and basically one of my favorite friends of all time. You can read her process post here. So:
What am I working on?
Short stories. I’m writing new ones and revising old ones and trying to imagine them fitting together in some kind of collection. This fall when I hit the alone-time jackpot and both my daughters head off to school, I plan on revising a novel I drafted last year about a young girl with epilepsy growing up in rural Montana.
How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Mostly, I just pillage material from stories my mom tells me. And since I can safely assume no one else is listening to my mom’s stories, it makes mine different. (Love you, Mom!)
Why do I write what I do?
Pam Houston, in her book A Little More About Me, says: “There is only one story of our lives and we tell it over and over again, in a thousand different disguises, whether we know it or not.” So I guess I’m just getting that story out.
How does your writing process work?
As I mentioned at the outset, I’m a distracted writer. It’s difficult for me to write that necessarily terrible first draft. To convince myself to not give up writing entirely and learn to make scented soaps to sell at the farmer’s market instead. But if I keep showing up at the notebook or the computer, despite my many tea & toast breaks, something very satisfying emerges—usually a year or so later, but it emerges. I send it out to a million journals to see if someone will publish it, give myself the day off, and then it’s right back to that beautifully painful beginning.
Up next on the tour:
Yasmin Ramirez at And Then…
Sarah Shaffer at Everything Rhymes,
& my lovely poet-friend, Andrea Beltran.
Last October, at the all-male Priesthood session of the Mormon church’s General Conference, a group of 200 women stood in line to ask admission; one by one, they were turned away. This time, the church has anticipated the group—releasing an official letter asking them to keep their “protests” outside the walls of Temple Square. Religious blogger Jana Riess effectively sums up my feelings on the matter here. In my view, these women are not picketing protesters, but fellow-Mormons respectfully asking for more. In a few weeks, they will quietly stand at the door and knock again, knowing they will be turned away. Think of that for a moment. These women are courageous, regardless of one’s position on the issue. And for my part, I admire & support them.
For me, this is the face of the Ordain Women movement:
When I look at this photo I think: what if despite precedence and patriarchy, the usher at the door last October would have instead opened it? Would have instead simply said: Yes. Come in. You are welcome here.
Wouldn’t that have been beautiful?
*This photo popped up in a search in connection with the Exponent blog, though I couldn’t find exact image attribution.
My husband took our girls to his parents’ place last Friday and I spent the weekend alone—reading, writing, watching really great films I knew Dave wouldn’t want to see (Her and Before Midnight, both of which I’m still thinking about days later).
Sunday morning, I was feeling energized and adventurous and decided to take a walk along a nearby trail I kept hearing about. I followed the signs to the place, parked, and then spent 20 minutes looking for the trailhead. I couldn’t find it. I had no one to ask. There was no one around to cooly follow. Dave wasn’t answering his phone. Google searches failed me.
The map near the parking lot inferred that I need only step forward to begin. But there was no where to step. It was one of those moments where I felt like the world’s dumbest person. Across the arroyo, on a wide and straight road leading to a water tank, I saw a retired couple walking their four dogs. And, determined to walk somewhere, I drove across and began up the hill, thinking that all dummies like me are destined for the old-people paths. Still, it was a nice enough walk. And a while later, I saw a biker in a neon yellow shirt crossing ahead. The paths—the one I had wanted and the one I was on—intersected. I followed the former back down and finally found the trailhead.*
I’m a believer in life’s intersections.
*For the record, the trail began on an unmarked dirt path next to a water tower that very much gave off a “no trespassing” vibe. So, not the world’s dumbest person. At least, that’s what I tell myself.
Write every day. Duh. Of course I mean to write every day—I always mean to. But usually, I don’t. Usually, I delude myself into believing that my guilt for not writing somehow counts as partial writing credit. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t).
The other day, though, I read this anecdote about Jerry Seinfeld telling an up-and-coming comic to mark off on a yearly calendar each day he composes jokes so that he could see his chain of progress. His advice, put simply: “Then just don’t break the chain.” For whatever reason (probably something to do with my insatiable urge to check things off, thereby giving my life the illusion of quantifiable meaning), this triggered a serious response in me.
I printed off a yearly calendar and decided to write 1000 words every day. So far, my chain of X’s is unbroken. I’m on day 21. Most of it isn’t pretty. I mean, this stuff is in for some serious revision. But the words are there. Existing in the world. And every day I know what lies ahead of me. I’m not sure if it’s the chain or the word count, but I’m onto a very healthy compulsion here.
I don’t like subscribing to magazines because they end up piling up on the back of my toilet (and sometimes falling into it), unread. And I can’t bring myself to throw them out because they look an awful lot like books and throwing away books is evil and I’m typically too disorganized to donate them to the library and also, there’s the chance that I might one day read an article in one of these magazines. Usually I never do, but there’s the chance.
Last night, I took advantage of such a chance. In the bath. Sometimes, for 30-min increments, my life is really heavenly.
Anyway, I read the recent Writer’s Chronicle interview of Joan Wickersham. She had so much wisdom to offer. And now I want to read her new novel The News from Spain, which I had heard good things about and already wanted to read, but now I really want to read it.
I’ll leave you with some of her sage writer-parent wisdom, for those of you who, like me, rarely get around to reading magazines:
“I’m glad I had two [children], but you know that cliché about doing it all? I think you can do it all, but you just have to do it sequentially. I wish I had understood that when I was younger. I spent a lot of time beating myself up about not writing. I wish I had just accepted that that’s how it is right now. It won’t always be that way.”
My friend, Audrey, and I came up with a brilliant idea: Let’s pretend we haven’t graduated our MFA program by interviewing every awesome writer we know.
So far, so good. Check it out!
We are living in an era of screen addiction and capitalist pornography. As a species, we are squandering the exalted gifts of consciousness, losing our capacity to pay attention, to imagine the suffering of others. You are a part of all this. It involves you. This is the hard labor we’re trying to perform: convincing strangers to translate our specks of ink into stories capable of generating rescue.
–Steve Almond, This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey
I’m pretty sure the only way to get a copy of this book is to pay Steve Almond cash for it. So my advice is to track him down immediately. You won’t be sorry.
I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly. Sometimes, when I am empty, when words don’t come, when I find I haven’t written a single sentence after scribbling whole pages, bogged down in a swamp of despair, hating myself and blaming myself for this demented pride that makes me pant after a chimera. A quarter of an hour later, everything has changed; my heart is pounding with joy.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about one of my first mentors, Diane Freund (pronounced Friend), who died of brain cancer in 2010. And I guess I want other people to think about her, too. So, here she is.
My dear friend, Robbie, introduced us at a small writing conference in Southeast Arizona, where Diane was a frequent presenter. I wasn’t actually attending the full conference that year. I’d had a baby the week before and had slipped away for an hour or so to hear Diane speak.
Later, she agreed to work with me on my novel, offering what turned out to be two years of invaluable critique and encouragement. Her own first novel, Four Corners—the frightening, beautifully-written story of a young girl’s life after her mother is admitted to a mental hospital—won the Pirate’s Alley/Falkner Prize but was ultimately overshadowed by the events of September 11, 2001, four days prior to the book’s publication.
Still, Four Corners eventually aided her in receiving an NEA fellowship. When I wrote to offer congratulations, she gave me this:
This was the third time over the course of six years that I’d applied. When I was denied the grant in 2005, it came on the same day that I was diagnosed with cancer, so it seemed especially hard to receive that news. Now I realize that it wouldn’t have been a good time. I was sick and heart sick. This is just to say that I know how hard it is to be passed over, but you must persist against all odds. I am certain that with your incredible talent, you’ll one day be recognized for your achievements, that the stars will align just so, over your house.
During our first interaction, moments after we’d only just met, she gave me a book—a guide to writing poetry. A gift. She made me feel important. Special; of course, this was her true gift—she made everyone feel special.
At her memorial service, a familiar gathering inside a Bisbee restaurant, I looked around at her friends: a group of poets and artists and activists, each one hunted out from beneath the rocks of this remote small-town cluster in the desert. Diane’s power was drawing out beauty from every well.
*To donate to the Diane E. Freund Memorial Writing Celebration Fund—offering financial assistance to writers unable to afford the referenced writing conference—click here and specify Diane’s name in the donation scholarship space.
Outside Porter Station on my way to AWP.
A week filled with blizzards, books, and the best kind of friends!