These past five months I've been honored to serve on a literary journal - Lunch Ticket - as Blog Editor. This week, in particular, I am reflecting on how special the writer/editor relationship is, how much I've learned in this role, and how appreciative I am that my writers have been so willing to work with me (and each other) in this way. It is beautiful and humbling work.
All artists know the ego-challenge of handing their creation to someone who intends to review it with a critical eye. An editor searches for missing commas, redundant phrases, and awkward wording, but they're also reading closely to be sure all the sentences *belong*. Sometimes the opening line doesn't grab. Sometimes the last line is lukewarm. No matter how much time a writer has spent crafting it, sometimes an entire paragraph is simply in the wrong essay, the first page just a throat-clearing, a warm-up to get the ink and thoughts flowing.
It's the editor's job to find these things, but not in the spirit of scorn or scolding. We are all flawed, and no one can know, without another's eyes on it, if the intent was successfully executed. We work in the privacy of our email exchanges and discussions in the hopes that by the time the piece is published, it is the best it can be. Both positions--writer and editor--feel vulnerable because both are invested in the work of helping the living-breathing-baby-creation-essay-story birth its way into the world.
On the editor's side of it, working with writers of all different personalities and experience, I sometimes forget how fragile my own spirit gets when I'm in the writer's chair. And when I'm in the writer's chair, I sometimes forget what an honor it is that someone has spent so much time and thought reviewing my work. Neither chair is easy on the ego. It's hard to look at a work of art or writing -- really, someone's inner world becoming external -- with the mindset that it can very possibly be polished. And yet, this is the art and the craft.
To say it not as an adjective/noun, but as a gerund/verb: growing pains. It is a spiritual journey of evolution, one essay at a time.
The other day, while running errands and thinking of Lovember, I passed Vendome, a local wine and liquor shop. Vendome is a few blocks from my house and I drive by every time I head to Trader Joe's, but I've only stopped in once or twice. This shop is interesting because set up inside is a little grass-roofed wine bar. Call me sheltered, but I have never seen another liquor store with a tasting room. I'm not a wine connoisseur - far from it - and have been curious to try out some tastings. As I drove by, I took note of the tasting hours.
Did I explain Lovember? I'm courting my man. Lovember is my dedication this month to take things more slowly. Savor time. Be more mindful in some areas of my life. Lend attention to my love for Darby. Like so many things, if a relationship is to flourish, it must be nurtured. Darby, his love for me, and our relationship together are some of the greatest gifts of my lifetime. Thankfully, I appreciate what I have while I have it, but to paraphrase Hafiz, the one regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I did not kiss my sweet man enough. We've had a busy few months. Now that we're in the savoring, slower, mindful month of Lovember, what better time for a wine tasting? On Sunday, I asked Darby out on a date.
We were the first ones to arrive for the tasting that evening, so for a while we had Smiley, Vendome's Sunday wine enthusiast, to ourselves. He put Miles Davis on the stereo, and as he poured told us stories about his life. Sip, talk, sip, talk. We were having a marvelous time, but I won't bore you with a play-by-play. Actually, after trying eight or ten wines, I don't know if I could. However, I do remember one moment in particular. Darby and I were sitting back, tasting the best Rhone of the evening. We were deep into Kind Of Blue. I eavesdropped on Smiley and some of the other tasters discussing Panama hats. Is there a word for the appreciation of being able to appreciate something?
I bet the French, a culture so steeped in wine, have a word for this. Miles Davis on the speakers, good wine, listening to Smiley's stories and having no need to tell my own.... In my younger days I don't think it would have felt poignant, but lately everything shows its layers, complex and beautiful. If youth is a smile, adulthood is the laugh lines that reveal a person's history. Another regret I do not want to have when I get to the end of my life is that I didn't smile enough. Perhaps it's from the slowing down of Lovember. Lately I have been rejoicing in time.
Recently, Darby and I sat together enjoying a rare Saturday moment when both kids were settled in with friends and didn't need to be picked up for another hour. The conversation paused for a breath.
"Do you know how beautiful you are?" he said, looking at me from across the table.
When Darby tells me I'm beautiful, I listen. I take it in when he compliments me. I press his words into my being like leaves between the pages of a book. I want to hold them for later, but I also want to interrupt the other narrative - the negative one, the one that says I am always on the verge of failure. I've been practicing to linger on the good stuff, and let the critical mind-chatter roll away. Lately I've noticed he tells me I'm beautiful more frequently.
"Am I imagining it?" I asked him.
"No," he smiled. "You're not. It used to trigger you when I said so. You'd resist it. Now you seem to take it in."
Trigger. Nearly thirty years ago I was riding in the car with my mom through our neighborhood, when we paused at an intersection.
"Mom, do you think I'm pretty?" I asked. I was perhaps ten or eleven.
It was a hard question to ask. At its root, the question is really, Am I likable? Am I worthy? Am I enough for the life that I want? Will life be good to me? Will it open to me, revealing treasures like love and appreciation and comfort? So much hinged on her answer to my simple question. I'm sure every kid wonders this kind of thing.
"Your mother is so beautiful," teachers and sales clerks said to me all the time. It was true. She was in the prime of her beauty just as I was beginning to wonder about my own. She was 5'8" and wore 3" heels. Her eye shadow was purple, her lipstick red, and she got her nails manicured every two weeks by Violet who had two daughters in my school. The answer should have been fast and easy. Yes, you are pretty, she should have said.
"Ana is pretty," she began. Ana was Violet's daughter, and indeed one of the prettiest girls in my grade. "So is Risa," she said, mentioning another girl I was close with. "You?" She paused. "I would say you are more striking."
I didn't know what that meant. I still don't. That day in the car, though, I was fairly certain of one thing: striking wasn't pretty. And if I wasn't pretty, could I still be likable, worthy, and all the rest? It felt like my life hinged on this one question.
I can imagine now how this conversation might seem from her standpoint. In all the years she was told she was beautiful, my mother was also a voracious reader. She was a baby boomer dissident. She was a latent academic who, despite dropping out of high school has now earned her PhD. She got married young, had me soon after, and offset her career aspirations. I was a bright kid with my life still ahead of me. There would be limitless career options looming after college. Perhaps she thought striking was a greater compliment than the commonplace pretty. Perhaps she thought it would keep me safe from making the choices she made. Maybe it was a feminist decision.
As that scene in the car passed through my mind, I knew what Darby was talking about. Trigger. It used to be, when he'd say "You're beautiful", I would brush it off. I didn't know what to do with it. I'd laugh or shrug or make some self-disparaging remark. I couldn't decide if he was saying it out of obligation, or if he really thought I was. Of course now I see how ridiculous that is. After all, the man and I fell head over heels in love. To me, his is the most beautiful face on the planet. I imagine he feels the same about me. But he would tell me I am beautiful and it would stump me every time.
When we live under the spell of not-good-enough, we don its cloak. We hope it's invisible to others, but when someone truly loves us, they see all the layers, and they know that beneath the stories is the true self. They see youth and wrinkles, and the beauty of time. They see our successes and our struggles. 2009 was a good year. 2008 not so much. They see how far we've come, and what it took to get here. They know the tattered edges of not-good-enough, and do what they can to fray it more.
That Saturday I looked at Darby sitting across from me. I didn't know it until the other night, but he has been stealthily tugging at the holes of my cloak. It's a strange thing to realize that sometimes the best way to show love is to hold back. He's older than me by thirteen years. He knows better how to bide time. I'm learning.
At Vendome's on Sunday, as Miles Davis was replaced by Traffic, I let the 2009 wine roll over my tongue. I turned to Darby and said, "I just love being an adult." I was trying to say how much I appreciated everything about that moment, including all the years that came before. Shot through that, I also appreciated my ability to appreciate it. That's the best way I knew how to say it.
This morning, as we were laying in bed listening to the morning awaken outside our bedroom door, I think he may have expressed it better.
"Do you think," he asked, "there's a month of Lovecember too?"
I was taken off my yoga mat the other day mid-class to find my phone and jot down a note. My mat was rolled out in the front row at the far end of the studio room, the furthest I could be from the cubbies where we students stash our belongings. As everyone else lifted up into a warrior pose, I crossed in front of twenty or thirty mats to dig out my iPhone. I couldn't have been more distracting. One of the practices of yoga is clearing thoughts from the mind, but I didn't want to risk losing this one.
That was Sunday, and now it's the middle of the week. In these between days I've felt a tightening, like a bag I keep cinching closed. I've distracted myself with snacks and articles and jewelry designer websites, but like a kitten scratching at the bedroom door for breakfast, as much as I try to go back to sleep, the idea still lingers. There are other ideas too -- integration, which is something I've been thinking a lot about, and Lovember, which is an idea/project/mindfulness practice that I am embarking on this month -- and I'd rather write about them. Alas, Sunday's yoga interruption is the one caught in the bottle neck. Nothing else can come out until this one does. Here, then, is my attempt at loosening this bag, at softening around the idea I've tried to tie shut, at releasing some of the lurking darkness.
There was a viral youtube video that went around a few years ago. It first emerged in 2007. Perhaps you saw it? It was an experiment arranged by the Washington Post for one of the world's most talented violinists, Joshua Bell, to perform incognito during rush hour in a Washington D.C. train station. For one day, the virtuoso was virtually unknown. Spoiler alert: he was mostly ignored.
For here I'm a tad more interested in what happened on Sunday (but you should really read this excellent Washington Post piece about what happened that day in the train station). My sweetheart Darby teaches the yoga class. He's a well-loved teacher, and it's a popular class. Throughout a regular Sunday there is laughter, some groaning, a few f*bombs, a lot of sweat, and occasional cathartic weeping. A sense of camaraderie has developed among the students. We are all human, we are all perfectly imperfect, the class seems to say in a collective sigh. Sundays are less about silent meditation and more joyful celebration.
On this particular day, as we moved through prasarita padottanasana (wide legged forward fold) and some standing twists, Darby talked about awareness. He mentioned the recent Banksy stunt in NYC in which the elusive graffiti artist set up a stall near Central Park and sold (via an unknown gentleman) authentic Banksy prints for $60 - and had only three buyers. Oh, whoops. Spoiler alert.
Darby was pretty much asking us to wonder, how often do we rush by things of beauty, interest, poignancy? How much do we miss? He also mentioned the Joshua Bell experiment. As various articles about this ask, "If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?"
Well, that's a good discussion, if you're considering the viewpoint of the passersby. In fact, more often than not, we are the passersby. But what about when you're the busker?
In fact, this conversation on Sunday hit home because I was the busker. In the mid/late '90s I stood with my guitar on the gusty train platforms and sidewalks of Harvard Square, offering my art to anyone who had the time.
Much like the Joshua Bell event, my busking was also an experiment. I loved writing music. I loved singing. What I didn't like was the gut-wrenching, finger-numbing, throat-tightening anxiety that gripped me every time I stepped on to a stage. I wanted to love performing, and the best way to do it, I thought, was to perform as much as possible. I bought an amp with two inputs for voice and guitar, a boat battery to power the amp, and a bright red dolly to lug it all out to the street in a compact package on wheels.
The good times were when it wasn't too cold, and someone sat down on the sidewalk to listen, say a kind word, or put money in my guitar case. More than fifteen years later I still recall the night a man handed me one hundred dollars - five twenties, actually - and told me to record my songs, and the afternoon one of my local idols, folksinger Catie Curtis, stopped to listen for a few songs. There were times of encouragement, but mostly it was a practice of ignoring being ignored. Joshua Bell and I have at least this in common. When I look back on those busking days, I remember a few people resting nearby to listen, but I mostly remember the passersby.
Until this week, I had almost forgotten that getting over stage fright had been my main reason for the busking. As it turns out, my experiment mostly worked. The anxiety never entirely went away, but it certainly lessened. Yoga helped with the rest. But until this writing, when I've thought back on those busking years, I've mostly remembered them through the lens of failure. It would take a heart of steel to overlook the hundreds of people who never knowledge the music. That's what gripped me the other day in yoga. In addition to Banksy and Bell, Darby mentioned another incident of an overlooked artist: the band U2.
Years and years ago, before U2 was known by anybody here, a friend of Darby's shot a few photos of them. They were performing live at a club in Dallas as the act between wet t-shirt contests. Unlike Banksy and Bell, they were not famous at that time. Maybe they were ignored because they were unknown, or because the club patrons were only there for the other shows. Possibly they were ignored because they weren't any good. The point, I realized, is that it doesn't really matter. What matters is that they didn't stop there. The band didn't let past failures be the measure of their future success.
This is what I had walk across the yoga studio to write down: Do not base the possibility of future success on the memory of past failures. Too often I look at my past in an attempt to predict my future. After all, we are the only case study any of us really have. More often than not, I consider something a failure if it didn't meet the high expectations (and generally short time frames) I set myself. I've looked back instead of forward. I put lack of success on a pedestal and declared it The End instead of resting it on the side of the road and continuing the journey. Too many times, I've rubbernecked disasters instead of keeping my eye on the road.
So here we are. November 1. This is going to be an interesting month. For a long time now I've been looking forward and setting measurable goals. I did get into the MFA program. I did finish the marathon under five hours. I did book the gigs. This month of November I've renamed Lovember. I'm dedicating it to a different sort of growth, one with no measures. There's going to be a lot less rushing around, because Lovember is not about check lists. Lovember is about kindness. Joy. It is about showering the man I love with love, and writing because I love to write.
This Lovember I am keeping my eye on the things I hold at the center of my heart's bullseye, and not letting past failures be anything other than one lens through which to look at history.
I've been trying to write for the past four hours and all I've got are scattered thoughts and jumbled sentences. It's after 1pm now and I bargained with myself hours ago that I would go out for a run just as soon as I wrote something worthwhile on the page. I got nothin'.
Some days are like this, all the great writers say. They say, just show up. While you're waiting for inspiration, inspiration waits for you so be at your desk, they say, everyday, pen in hand. You've got to write to clear a pathway for the gems. The only way to learn how to write is to write.
Anne Lamott, so often comforting to me, your birds do not comfort me today.
People tend to look at successful writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter. But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated.
Okay fine. But sometimes I feel like I spend my whole life just clearing pathways. I wonder, where are the gems. On days like today I wonder if there are any in me.
Today I've been hacking through the woods once again, trying to get somewhere. I hope against proof that I will emerge through these blogs, journals, letters, and stories with something worthy of standing dog-eared and tattered on a bookshelf in a stranger's home. I'm not sure why I want this.
What I do know is that long after "lights out", I used to lay with a book at my bedroom door, halfway into the glow of the hallway light, halfway in darkness. If I heard footsteps on the stairs, I'd scramble back to bed. The story was worth the risk. I feel like this is where I am again today, halfway in the light, halfway in the dark. The light is my spark of determination to find some narrative in my own life. The darkness is my doubt, ready to scamper back to bed at any creak.
#70 -- revise "Odessa" (story)
The fact that Odessa is #70 does not mean it almost slipped away. Like the kitten who is right now meowing at my feet, it has been calling my attention for years. I jotted the first ideas of Odessa down in 2006 while sitting on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, after 6 months of playing honky tonks and coffee shops across the country with my band. Of all the places we went, there was something about the folks I met on our one night in Odessa that tugged at me. These past years I've just kept circling around it like a satellite, never touching it but never leaving it alone.
This was the year, I decided, that I would open the files of my memory and write about that night. I don't usually show up everyday for anything, but in March I started showing up everyday at the same time every morning for Odessa, writing for hours. I surprised myself with my commitment, but then, that's pretty much what this whole list has been about. As I wrote I'd send sections to Darby to keep myself accountable. When the first draft was finally done sometime in May, I wept. It'd taken six years and the urging of The List to get me back into that one night in West Texas.
Odessa was 9350 words.
I re-read and revised countless times. I summoned my courage to ask Darby for his feedback, and then re-read and revised again. Darby was the perfect editor, pulling my own themes out and reflecting them back to me so that I could hone and clarify. When I felt I was ready, I tested the waters one at a time, asking my friends to be honest but gentle in their feedback. As each one read and responded, I'd dig back in, spit and polish. I checked off #70 in June.
#72 -- send Odessa (story) out for publication
#72 was exciting. I found a deadline for the Narration literary journal contest for emerging writers, circled it in red, and set that as the cutoff to my revising. I needed an end-date to what had become near-obsessive analysis of every phase in the story. The day came and off Odessa went, along with a brief bio and prayer to the wind. It felt like my kid's first day of kindergarten.
#73 -- get 10 rejections for Odessa (story)
Well, Narration sent me a nice note of rejection. They didn't use the "R" word, in fact the letter was quite pleasant about how my story Odessa "does not meet our needs at this time". #73, despite how comparatively little time it demands, is the hard one. Definitely the hard one.
Last year I read this story about Kathryn Stockett who took 5 years and received 60 rejections for her novel The Help. Of course we all know what a blockbuster hit the movie became, and the novel itself was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 100 weeks. When I finally got around to reading it - about 6 months after the rest of America -- I found The Help to be a beautifully written novel.
So, with Kathryn Stockett's 60 rejections in mind I created #73. As of this writing, I've still only sent Odessa out exactly one time -- to Narration. If I can find the courage, nine more rejections will keep me sending it out at least through the end of 2012. Where is my lionhearted determination now?
I am reminded of this David Whyte poem:
I want to write about faith,
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,
faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last curving and impossible
sliver of light before the final darkness.
But I have no faith myself
I refuse it even the smallest entry.
Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.
-- David Whyte
I don't have the pluck to receive 10 letters of "your story does not meet our needs". But maybe this little blog entry, this baring of my fears, will be the quiet strength that I need to send Odessa out again.
by Arielle Silver
There is nothing pretty on the cracked four-lane blacktop
between Abilene and Odessa. Once you cross over Route 83 and
leave the Abilene city limits, for three endless hours it’s
wide open country, bone dry and spotted with prickly brush. We
left central Texas with its antique stores and population
signs of under 500, and traded it for the oil pumps and jagged
terrain of Big Bend Country. The low rumble of hot air blew
over the windshield as lonely tumbleweeds tangled in barbed
wire fences along the side of the road. For as far as we
could see, it was open grassland, occasional rust bucket
carlots, and countless oil pumpjacks rocking in the heat like
thirsty birds sucking deep from the earth.
I’d never been to oil country before, but I traveled
those West Texas roads in the dog days of the oil wars.
Schools held bake sales to support the troops, and the other
drifters we met at truck stops along the way grumbled at $4 a
gallon. We stopped for water refills and to stretch our legs,
but my traveling companions and I rarely pumped any gas. Our
tour van had been running on the filtered oil from Chinese
food restaurants and doughnut shops since last autumn in New
England. We drove the Vegmobile, our black vegetable oil-fueled
Chevy van, along I-20 with the other travelers making
their way across the West Texas summer....
This is a little video shot by a friend in '06, just after I got back to Boston from my cross-country travels. It's funny to me to see my baby face cheeks. How much my face has changed in six years! But why not? It feels like my whole life has changed along with it. Six years ago I would never have guessed about even the tiniest aspects of my life now. Anyway, if you care to see the cheeks and a little ditty at the end, here I'm telling about one man we met that night in Odessa - "Mr. Handlebar".