To calm my nerves and prep my mind for my performance tonight as part of the Los Angeles Lit Crawl, I invited my office colleagues into the pool room for a noontime 10-minute flash concert. It's actually the mail room, but a few years ago the company painted the walls Persian blue, put in new carpet, and installed a pool table and video game console. I'll deliver a song and a short story, I told them, and added that their presence would be a great service to me, as I haven’t performed in front of an audience in quite some time. It's actually been years since I've stood on stage and performed one of my songs. The invitation came from my hope to ease today's tension of what has been the duality throughout my life. On one side, my desire to sing, tell stories, and connect with an audience. On the other, nothing scares me more.
When: Today at Noon for 10 minutes
Where: The Pool Room
What: A Quick Practice Run of Tonight’s Song & Story
Who: Me and You
Why: Because, hey, it’s the entertainment business
My earliest memories of singing are a collage: bath-time duos with my guitar-strumming dad; "Tomorrow" at the top of my lungs from the balcony at a Broadway show of Annie and, later, from the balcony of my grandparents' highrise; and, in Hebrew at my Jewish summer camp, "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair." Sometime between baths and camp, I learned shame and fear of being shamed. I internalized a philosophy that, at its essence, suggested that anything less than perfection was unworthy. Society? Parents? My own nature? Who is to say where I learned it. Stage fright is a bully. But I have songs and stories in my heart, and I am certain that if I don't answer their call, the incessant knocking will drive me mad.
The anxiety was never as bad in orchestra and small chamber groups. I played classical and renaissance music from a young age through my mid-twenties, and frequently sat as first-chair in the college and community groups. In orchestra and wind ensembles, inevitably a solo line popped up here or there. I'd fret over those measures for minutes before they came, but I loved the sound of my singular clarinet soaring over the other winds and strings. Sitting in my formal black and white attire, I could be heard and not seen. When the momentary solo faded back into the wash of music, my nervousness calmed. I was just a vessel for the music amid the other players and a clutter of music stands.
In my last year of college, I won a prestigious competition hosted annually by my university's music department. As the winner, I would be the featured soloist at the spring orchestra concert in an orchestral piece of my choosing: the Weber Concertino for Clarinet. Even more than the honor of winning, as soloist I had, for the first time, the opportunity to perform alongside an orchestra. Whereas in the past I'd only had piano accompaniment, for this I rehearsed alone and, later, in the concert hall with the full orchestra.
In the throes of stage fright, I can never think clearly. I rehearse to perfection beforehand, in the hopes that in the moment I will be able to deliver a large fraction of that excellence. But rehearsal is not fear-proof. On the day of a performance, my stomach churns for hours, my legs feel numb. On stage, I sweat, I shake, I forget how to do the very thing I have practiced to flawlessness. But I fake it in the hopes that one day I will make it without fright.
Unsurprisingly, as the days led up to the concerto performance, I was a wreck of jitters. I knew the concerto competition concert would be the most well-attended of the year. My parents and grandparents, none of whom later attended my college graduation, all flew in. A few days before the concert, I confessed my nervousness to my mentor, Sarah Mead, a beautiful viola da gamba player who had introduced me to Early Music my first semester and nurtured me through all four years like no one ever had. Sarah and I had both skipped grades in elementary school, and bonded over the lifelong sense that we'd missed some essential lesson only taught that particular year. She introduced me to the beautiful music books of the renaissance, with their four lines of music facing the four outer edges so that a family could sit around a table after dinner and play music together. Sarah knew I loved a challenge, and whenever our Early Music ensemble called for a new instrument, she gave me the task of learning: recorders, harp, krumhorns, flutes. Later, after I graduated, I couldn't bear to leave Sarah, so I continued to commute to campus for weekly rehearsals, until I finally moved away.
The week of the concerto performance, Sarah told me about the first time her son Patrick played piano for an audience. He was around seven, and he was to play a solo piece as part of the university's celebration of composer and music department founder, Irving Fine. Sarah had worried about his nerves, but when she woke Patrick on the morning of the celebration, he sat up in bed with wide eyes and big grin. "Mommy," he said, "today's the day I get to play my song for everyone."
That Sunday, while the orchestra played through the first half of the program, I sat in the green room smoothing my dress and repeating Patrick's words. "Today's the day I get to play my song for everyone." I thought over and over, my fingers shaking on my clarinet keys as I ran through arpeggios, my empty stomach clenching. "Today's the day I get to play my song." I heard the applause and walked onto stage. "Today's the day." I nodded to the conductor and he lifted his arms for the string opening.
I am tempted to write more, to tell you how I wet the reed, how my first note rang in the hall, how playful the theme and variations felt tripping off my fingers, how the orchestra buoyed me, how the cadenza I'd written for the near-end felt like a braiding of my own music with Weber's. I am tempted, but I can't, because I don't remember any of it. I only remember feeling a profound sense of shame at the end. Nothing terrible had happened -- I didn't forget a line, my clarinet didn't squeak -- but I remember afterwards wanting to hide from the family and friends waiting in the hallway with bouquets in their arms. For years after that concert, I hid my accomplishment -- the competition, the performance -- convinced that I'd not deserved the recognition. Perhaps that year the competition had been slim. Perhaps I, a far cry from the winners of years past and future, was only the best they had that year. It should have been a glorious moment, a capstone to years of practice and study. But all I could think was that I'd had one chance for perfection, and I had not achieved it. Not long after, I packed away my clarinet.
Meanwhile, sometime in college I started writing and singing songs. I wanted so badly for someone to listen, so after college I met my fright head on. I wanted to capture Patrick's joy at sharing something that he loved with others. Following the footsteps of my juggler boyfriend, I bought a busking permit at the Cambridge city hall and every weekend plugged my two-input amp into a car battery, laid out my guitar case for tips, and played for passersby in Harvard Square. When the air turned cold in early October, I donned a winter coat and fingerless gloves. When the Head of the Charles tourists left town, I turned to open mics at Club Passim, the Kendall Cafe, and other songwriter venues that have since closed. Over the years, I pulled together a band, I recorded, I toured. Stage fright still gnawed, but I fought it with a combination of coca cola and gin, and the frequency of performing forced my anxiety into a tenuous remission. And then, ten years ago, I stopped performing almost entirely, and stage fright became a thing I know about myself but didn't have to face on a daily basis. The songs no longer wanted singing, so I no longer needed a stage. My guitar joined my clarinet, and though I occasionally I strummed some chords, for the past ten years I've not felt any great urge to perform.
Until now. I woke this morning with wide eyes and a smile. I cannot explain this excitement: I haven't felt it in years. My hands are shaking, and my stomach is churning, my legs are numb, and I'm afraid that despite my practice, I won't be perfect. But beyond all fear, tonight is the night I get to play my song, tonight is the night I get to read my story.
Me in the pool room:
"Trust in the synergy of the things that are coming together, and don't fret about the rest." – Amy Sage Webb
My AULA creative writing pedagogy mentor, Amy Sage Webb, said the above last December in an exciting seminar I attended during that particular MFA residency. They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears; in that moment, I knew I would enroll in the Post-MFA Program in Creative Writing Pedagogy just to have the opportunity to study with Amy, who is also Co-Director of Creative Writing at Emporia State University in Kansas. What I didn't realize at the time was that it was a two-for-one deal with co-mentor, Tammy Lechner, a teacher and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist - talk about synergy. Since mid-June, with Amy and Tammy and my small Post-MFA cohort comprised of six other writer-teachers, I've been in constant discussion about what makes a great teacher, what the best college teachers do to create engaging and stimulating learning environments, and how to bring these macro-ideas into the composition and creative writing classroom. We've discussing questions about authority, gender issues, learning theory, teaching philosophies, how to evaluate creative work, what higher education politics mean to our budding careers in academia, and how to develop learning objectives that foster discipline-related intellectual growth alongside personal growth in our students.
Concurrently, I opted in for a double-wammy of enrolling in a Post-MFA Professional Development semester focused on book coaching and online creative writing pedagogy. With author and teacher Kate Maruyama, and writer and pedagogy specialist, Curt Duffy, alongside guidance from Amy and Tammy, I've been developing a community online writing course to teach later this autumn. The course idea comes from something I've been fired up about lately: weird writing structures, a/k/a lyric essay, a/k/a where poetry and prose meet. The course is meant to inspire first drafts of new work for seasoned and new writers alike, and will explore non-traditional forms to find inspiration from the mundane moments of every day. Since the course will be in feast-centered November, with my lifelong interest in cooking and food I couldn't resist adding a little twist. The course is called "Feasting on Form: Noodling Around with Experimental Creative Nonfiction." That whole month (the course is 4 weeks), we'll explore bite-sized ideas taken from grocery lists to lonely snacks to shared meals -- all ripe for narrative discovery -- and share brief essays that we write inspired by these moments. I believe some students will leave the class with solid drafts close to submission-ready for literary journals.
I’ve frequently thought of Amy's words about synergy since receiving my MFA degree in June. As I query literary agents for my memoir, continue to lead the editorial team on Lunch Ticket, work through my Post-MFA courses, occasionally squeak out a new essay or a few words in my novel-in-progress, and plan the yoga and creativity retreat in January, I could wonder if my head-down work ethic blinds me to the viability of making a professional career of writing and teaching. After all, one agent who recently turned me down wrote, “I really like your writing—I really do!... but, I’ll be honest with you, I’ve had the shittiest time placing memoir lately.” But after repeating the synergy mantra since December, it comes unbidden now, and I truly believe it. I’m not fretting very much. I trust in the synergy of the things that are coming together – the retreat! My studies! My writing! It all feels too good to fret about. And in any case, I’m having fun.
The other night, my writing group gathered for our twice-monthly meeting at my house. We've been meeting together for more than a year. Lately, my increased pedagogy coursework leaves little time for creative writing, so I depend on these friends to keep me accountable to my artistic side. This week I only had three pages of new work for them to read, but they were three pages I wouldn't have written otherwise. Inspired by my group’s feedback, I’ve already redrafted the piece and shipped it off to a literary contest.
Before we settled into the meeting, one writer in the group confessed to me about feeling concerned about her future job prospects. She's about ten years younger but we've shared some similar life paths through music, writing, communal living, and honest day jobs. She asked me about the coursework I've been doing. Will it guarantee a job, she wanted to know. How can I answer that, after my strange career life: a touring musician, a chef, a photographer, an artist model, a newsstand clerk, an administrative assistant, a yoga teacher, a production supervisor at a music label? How do you answer a question like that in today's gig economy in which universities depend on adjunct faculty the same way for-profit companies avoid benefit payouts with outsourced consultants?
But Amy Sage Webb’s words come back to me. I need to remember to share them with my writing group. “Trust," Amy says. By its nature, trust is about the unknowable, the uncertain. Trust is about things just out of sight, just beyond the bend, though not as far away as, perhaps, faith.
Trust reminds me of the E.L. Doctorow quote, "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." When I’m stuck midway through a chapter of my novel and start fretting about where it might be heading, I think back to this quote. But it helps me even more when I lift my head from my school work. “Trust in the synergy of the things that are coming together.” The road is beneath the tires, I can see as far as November to the month-long writing course, and as far as January to the yoga and creativity retreat. Ten years ago, I didn’t have this kind of trust that things will work out fine, but perhaps, more than anything, that’s what the decade has taught me.
This time next year? I have no idea. But I’m not fretting. Where we put our attention is how we define our reality. And like I said, I’m having fun.
A writer friend of mine recently shared a video about self-publishing. In the tumult of a changing literary industry, among writers, traditional publishing versus self-publishing is a constant conversation.
Having not yet completed even writing a full-length manuscript for publication-consideration, perhaps my two-cents is a little premature. Yet, as a former (and possibly future) recording and touring musician, I would encourage any writer to think critically when considering whether self-publishing is the way to go for their own work. I applaud those who, now or later, answer "yes" to that question. I imagine it's a brave and exciting path into new territory, particularly if the endeavor is successful. But I would argue, based on my career as an independent recording artist, that there are compelling reasons to forgo the independence, and spend the time and effort seeking agent and publishing house representation.
While these questions of self- or traditional-publishing are relatively new to the literary world, they have been going on in the music industry for a while. In the seven years between the recording of my first album and ending my last tour, I recorded, promoted, and toured without help from a major record label. The first album was on my own LionsRoar Records, and the other two were with a small, wonderful Boston-based label called Passion Records. The benefit of working independently was that, from an artistic perspective, I retained all control of my music. I still hold 100% of both writer and publishing shares of the copyright, and no one ever sent one of my songs to the chopping block. Of course, as an old music business teacher once told me, 100% of nothing is still nothing. In fact, after all the recording, promotion, and tour expenses, 100% ownership came to less than nothing. It turns out, credit card statements don't stop when the tour ends.
As a musician without the distribution, radio-influence, clout, or marketing campaigns of a major label, I lived in a van with my band, drove from small venue to small venue, sold discs from the edge of the stage, slept wherever I could score a spot. Sometimes it was in a relative's spare bedroom, many times at club-owners' houses, a time or two with "fans" a/k/a strangers we met during the soundcheck, occasionally in the bartender's cigarette smoke-filled living room, and once, in Milwaukee, on the beer-soaked carpet of the very club we had played earlier that evening.
That was the touring. Weekends, holidays, vacation time, and, in the last year, when we mustered the courage to quit our jobs and go out full time. The recording was another matter. It was done after-hours, in the tired times between full time jobs and school. I learned Photoshop so I could design the CD covers. I learned how to make press kits, and stopped at the post office on my way home to mail them to radio, magazines, and venues.
What I am saying is that being an independent artist trying to make a viable career is ridiculously hard work. Every independent artist is inventing their own wheel. While I wouldn't trade my life experiences for the world, I wouldn't do it again. It's a 20-something game, not a 30- or 40- or (holy crap) 50-something game. If songwriting was the art I loved, it was also the thing that got squeezed out between radio promotion campaigns, all the waiting between soundcheck and load out, and the long drive home. The whole endeavor of being an independent artist means a lot of hustling for a little money and, more importantly, a small listening audience.
The question is, is the goal to be published or to be read? As a songwriter, I wanted to be heard, but for a long time confused this with wanting to simply perform and record. It took a long time before I realized that there is a difference. As writers, do we want to be published? Or read?
We're all just figuring it out, one song, one word, one piece of advice from a trusted source at a time. Unless you're in line for medical school, there is generally no one path to achieving a professional goal.
But it seems that emerging writers who are not celebrities, who are not already established authors, or who do not already have a wide fanbase of readers, probably don't have the marketing power and industry wits comparable to even a small publishing house. I'm not saying it can't be done. I believe everything can be done. But from here, of the two very difficult paths to gaining readership, the self-publishing path looks to be the harder one.
Of course I haven't gotten that far yet. I'm just beginning the second draft of my book-length manuscript. But right now, from the safety of my desk which is beautifully free of rejection letters, I believe the time and energy we invest in querying literary agents and mailing out manuscripts is a worthwhile investment. If we can't get our books read by prospective agents, we'll have an even harder time getting them read by reviewers and the general public. The point of the initial gatekeepers is so that, once they accept us, they represent us to the next level of gatekeepers. Each rejection we receive from an agent is an invitation for possible revision of our work, hopefully strengthening it as we go.
This is not to imply that those of us who choose the traditional route won't undertake marketing efforts. We will. Twitter. Facebook. Instagram. Reddit. Tumblr. Oy. That's another popular conversation/lament among writers. But it won't be a solo effort as in that of a self-published writer. The publishing house will effort on our behalf. The gatekeepers beyond our reach might be reached. And from where I sit-- which is across the room from my guitar, a stack of left over tour posters peeking out from under the coffee table for the kids' art projects--the support of an agent and a publishing house looks glorious.
This piece first appeared in Lunch Ticket on June 5, 2015
When my brother was little, his bedroom was a minefield of broken things. He took stuff apart, wanted to see how it worked. Toy cars, radios. He was just as happy with hand-me-down junk from our grandparents’ basement as he was with something new from the store. It all had the same dismantling fate. Beware, bare feet. Bits of Hot Wheels in the plush carpet awaited a trespasser’s vulnerable step. The greatest gift to our family was a huge denim bag that closed with a bright red drawstring and, when fully opened, was laid flat in a gigantic circle. With the bag spread out on his floor like a round tablecloth, my brother could work happily for hours, and then our mom would cinch up the drawstring and stuff it in the closet. Easy clean-up and foot-friendly floors.
There’s a debate in the literary world about the merits of attending an MFA program versus simply experiencing life and writing. (Here’s the book, a Slate piece, a New Yorker piece, New York Times,Salon, and a personal essay series on the topic at Zoetic Press.) I find the whole discussion fascinating, and it’s worthwhile not because there’s any right or wrong way to hone a craft, to develop an art, or to live a life, but because the robust discussion is like my brother’s parts-strewn bedroom floor. Working writers are taking apart their experiences, holding magnifying glasses to their lives, and offering advice to emerging writers. How did they build their writing life? Where did they learn to do what they do? What experiences gave the best bang for the buck? How do they make a living? What path do they recommend?
So far, my eighteen months in AULA’s low-residency MFA program have been deeply gratifying. But, in my time here I’ve found a third path that offers invaluable experience for an emerging writer. If we’re talking about bang-to-buck ratio, hands down, the advice I’d give to any writer is the advice Antioch’s MFA program director, Steve Heller, offered to me in my first term when I came to his office and asked what I should be doing to support my interests in writing and teaching: find a literary journal, volunteer to do whatever needs doing.
I’ve been serving on Lunch Ticket since a few months after that conversation, and do not intend to exit soon. I have found that the main qualities I seek in the MFA program—to develop as a writer, to develop skills and credentials for professional growth, and to connect with a community of writers—are deepened by serving on this journal. Lately I’ve been trying to sort out the reasons why. Here are a few:
Develop as a writer. Like my brother with his toys, being a writer means taking things apart, trying to figure out how they work, or why they don’t. As a reader for the Creative Nonfiction submissions that come in, I’m always unscrewing sentences, holding a magnifying glass to the bits, shining a flashlight on myself, on my attention, on my reactions. While reading, I map the structure of a piece, take note of the style, voice, story. I discern levels of polish, and whether a piece feels complete, or if it still needs work. Reading for a journal is much different from reading already-published work. It offers the opportunity to read pieces from writers across a broad spectrum of skill and artistry. Much like how yoga is good cross-training for a runner, reading submissions is good cross-training for a writer. There’s as much to learn from pieces that don’t work as from pieces that do.
Develop skills for professional growth. Like every shiny toy car that my brother dismantled, publications have a lot of moving parts. They’re all nuts and bolts on the inside, full of web pages and publishing schedules. I could have paid for a WordPress class, but being on the Blog team has provided hands-on learning. Being a reader on the CNF team has meant learning how to write clear analysis of a piece to back up my opinion of it, and to effectively discuss submissions with my co-editor and our assistant. Working with the copyeditors, and copyediting the Blog, has meant a sharper eye to typos, formatting, and grammatical issues. Being Blog Editor has helped me hone my developmental editing skills while working with the wonderfully varied voices of my fellow bloggers.
Connect with a community of writers. Most literary journals are built and staffed just like Lunch Ticket—with writers. We all know the solo journey of writing, the lonesome company of sitting with our thoughts. Being part of a journal means having a lifeline to people grappling with their own solo paths. Here at Lunch Ticket, everyone struggles with time, how to balance art and life, how to write authentically, how to get over fears. We check in with each other, and every person on Lunch Ticketknows the hesitancy of a submissions button, the hope of an acceptance, the sting of rejection. We read each other’s work when it’s published, and share the links with our other communities. Corresponding primarily through email, half a year usually goes by before we see each other face-to-face. Still, we are connected, and we bolster our individual writing journeys through our shared work on the journal.
Perhaps one of the most emotionally valuable benefits I’ve found is that working on a journal puts rejection in perspective. I imagine most journals want as many submissions as possible. We do too. Generally, the higher the quantity, the higher the quality. And yet the volume of submissions can be humbling. So many to read. And then I find an essay that floors me. I know the whole pile was so worth it just to find this one piece. I vote to publish it with a resounding YES, only to be countered by another reader’s tepid “hmmm.” We discuss it, and every time I am reminded that, when it comes to reading personal essays or poems or stories, there is no such thing as objectivity. What hits me with its beauty struck another as overwrought. Or my co-reader reminds me that we just accepted another similarly-themed piece a week ago. Sometimes, simple timing plays into the mix. So, too, does basic space limitation. We send the rejection letter, hoping that our careful wording buoys the writer more than it stings her ego. We are all that writer. We want to be buoyed up with hope, at least enough to send us back on that lonesome journey of sitting with our thoughts, writing them down, and sending them out.
My little brother’s all grown up now. Like most older sisters, I am constantly shocked at how much taller he is than me. Who knows where that bag with the drawstring ended up. I imagine it was passed on to another kid when my brother outgrew it. I am tickled by the thought that now, decades later, the bag might be spread on some kid’s bedroom floor, holding all the components of a toy car so that after she tears it apart, it can be put back together. This is what I’m hoping for myself also, from my time atLunch Ticket. That this opportunity to unscrew other writers’ sentences helps me put together my own. That learning the nuts and bolts of this journal gives me courage to submit to others. And that long after I receive my MFA diploma, Lunch Ticket stays cinched together, continuing the community of writers, because we buoy each other up.
This piece first appeared as a guest blog post on Alana Saltz's website (May 29, 2015)
Memories. It’s so easy to lose them in the tangle of time. But how do we write without them? Even fiction writers rely on the truth of experience for their stories. The weight of a body, the shame of slight—how could we ever write about these experiences, either our own or our characters’, without remembering those moments ourselves?
A common story: a man, a stranger, recently reached out to me on Facebook. I didn’t recognize his face or the abbreviated nickname, but our list of mutual childhood friends was extensive. I tried to crack the mystery of this grown man whose features triggered no memory. Someone had tagged him in a middle school picture, the composite type with the principal and homeroom teacher stacked among individual portraits of the students. The photos were each enveloped in a thick white border, every face hemmed in and separated from the others as if this group of twenty humans, these kids who saw each other every morning, were complete strangers.
I recognized only a few of the students. A boy, bottom row, became high school valediction. One above later enlisted in the military and then built his family in the Philippines. Below, a girl who someone has told me walked through the fire of heroin and somehow emerged unscathed. Another girl, center, moved into town and then away in a quicker succession than my own family.
The man, the stranger, is there in the composite photo. In boy-form, he has a sweet face that Ialmost remembered. A day and night later, I finally made the connection. I recalled the old unabbreviated name of that rambunctious kid whose day-old beard now shadows the Facebook profile. I believe we had first met in summer camp, and then, later, were in Hebrew School together. We must have been eight or nine when we met. Look us now, jobs, kids, ex-spouses. We’re all growed up.
As I find moments of recollection in my hazy memories of him—a boy who could barely stay seated, who broke ranks in our single-file lines, who was rowdy but friendly, and mischievous as a trickster—I find memories of me. Little blinks of details among wide swaths of mood.
There’s the nail polish I painted on at the bus stop and removed as soon as I got home from school. It was brown, the one color I thought my mother wouldn’t notice missing among her bottles of fuscias and reds. I’d have rathered pink, but thieves can’t be choosy, and even brown was still polish, a thing I wasn’t permitted but so desperately wanted. There’s the milk shake I purchased nearly every day from the middle school cafeteria. I was afraid it would make me fat,make me fat being the phrase I learned from countless sources, and seemed to be everyone’s worst fear. I didn’t develop the discipline for starvation until high school, and in eighth grade they had vanilla and chocolate on alternating days, colored green for St. Patrick’s Day and orange for Halloween. I sipped them till my throat froze and the guilt, or was it shame, slinked off for another day.
There was the nose-wrinkling frog dissection in biology that was, for me in middle school, ever-so-slightly more fascinating than disgusting; the show tunes medley we played for the band concert in cents-off accidental harmony; the drowsy speeches during the eighth grade graduation ceremony, only memorable because someone called my name to come to the stage for an award, and the boy sitting beside me elbowed me awake.
In these days since reconnecting with my old classmate, I find myself looking at my own photos, and wondering about memories. Where do those of my younger self reside? How do they influence me now? Do I take pink polish, or do I still steal off with my second choice, just a hint of what I truly desire? Do I still battle conflicts between shake-like desires and disordered popular opinion? Do I hear the middle school clarinet pitches in the squeal of the Amtrak brakes? Do I ever catch a hint of that particular formaldehyde-laced biology classroom?
Half of writing is remembering. Our memories tie us to our senses and feelings, to the very essence of being human. The internal drumbeat of emotional experience. The waft of sensory input. Somehow, the two dimensions of a word on a page expands this physical life beyond the limits of here and now.
A stranger who reached out on Facebook connected my adult self to the child I used to be, but writing brought me to my mother’s nail polish shelf, the middle school cafeteria, the cacophony of trumpets and clarinets. Sometimes it feels like the present and the past are cents-off accidental harmony. Information from the past combined with writing in the present helps to reveal through-melodies. Memory is the touchstone for a full human moment on the page.
I recently gathered with a small group of friends to watch a documentary that was made two years ago about our friend Renee in her final months of life. Nine chairs were arranged in a half-circle to transform the Santa Monica office lobby where we met into a theater. On the lobby’s granite welcome desk by the basket of teabags, paper cups, and hot water kettle was a box of tissues. A serene painting of watery blues and greens was taken down so the wall behind it could be used as a projection screen. While we waited for two latecomers, someone passed around homemade doughnuts. We did not talk about Renee. Later, when the nine of us sat dabbing our eyes in the projection’s glow, I kept staring at the mounting hook we’d left in the wall. Here she was, two years after cancer, with a thirty pound picture hanger in her forehead. I wondered what she’d think of the memories we’d hung on her.
Renee lived with an open curiosity about other cultures and their methods of healing, and she gambled with her life to find out if they’d work. She lost, in the end, which means we all lost. By the time she started chemotherapy, her cancer was advanced, and from then on everything was a cocktail of radiation, chemo, medical marijuana, and, later, morphine. Despite this, when I think about Renee what I remember most immediately isn’t the cancer or the treatments, but her gratefulness and grace, and how I learned that a person can move through life and death—both—with a sense of wonder, and with fierce kindness. Even in the last months, she was concerned about others. But how are YOU? she would ask, interrupting the cancer talk. After she lost her hair, before she dyed it platinum and skulked cancer-chic across a fashion runway for the last time, she told me, Just before I was diagnosed, I had been looking for a new teacher. I believe that is why I have cancer. Yoga, meditation, nutrition—I studied them all deeply. It was time for me to find a new teacher.
The day before the nine of us sat together in that still lobby to watch a filmmaker’s collage of our friend, the most powerful earthquake in the region’s recent memory rocked Nepal. The wreckages from the quake, the aftershocks, the avalanches, and the difficulty of aid deliverance to isolated villages has the current death count near six thousand expected to rise beyond ten thousand. The horror of the news quickly filed itself neatly in my mind among other mass-horrors wreaked by the intersection of Mother Nature and human development: Hurricane Katrina, Haiti’s earthquake, Japan’s earthquake and tsunami; and those wrought by civil unrest: the Arab Spring, Central African Republic, too many to name.
At the risk of sounding ignorant, or worse, uncaring, that I group these events in a lump shows how little I truly know about them. So far, living here on the San Andreas Fault System for the past nine years, I am precariously privileged. I feel concern, sympathy, and worry for the people caught in these traumatic events, but my heart yearns for something more specific. Large numbers like “six thousand” awe me with their hugeness, but they are almost beyond my grasp. Thinking about villages like Langtang, which was entirely wiped out in the Nepal earthquake, is as unfathomable as the Hubble telescope photos of galaxies.
While watching the documentary interviews of Renee’s younger sister Rita, I realized that the particularness of individual stories is what helps my heart comprehend not just pain and suffering, but love and yearning, care and concern, desire, fear, hope. Even as relief efforts excavate through rubble and seek to reach remote areas, it is the tragedy of a singular person that I knew that has me tearing more tissues from the box. On the drive home after watching Renee’s documentary, I wondered if there was a young woman in Nepal whose body was fighting the same cancer at the moment the fault lines shifted. Was there a younger sister caring for her when the earth gave way? Had someone been praying for a new spiritual guide, and is now marveling with regret, Be careful what you wish for?
Lately I’ve been reading submissions for Lunch Ticket’s creative nonfiction team. It’s an honor to do this work. I believe there’s no greater teacher for a writer than the written word, and what I learn from the pieces I read is priceless. One thing I’ve noticed is that many very good submissions that we ultimately reject fall into two camps: the first tell a particular story about a particular person, the second tell a general story about an idea. Both often contain beautiful prose, delightful imagery, good intention. What many essays miss, however, is a recognition that the reader aspires to connect with the writer.
The essays in the first camp share the writer’s personal experience. They are often a memory of an experience, or a tribute to a loved one. I understand the need to write these stories down. I want to write about Renee, to document her, to preserve her. And yet, few readers of Lunch Ticket knew Renee; few will truly care to read my tribute. If I want an audience of anonymous strangers to read a story about Renee, I need to create a connection from my heart to the readers’. Renee is a person whom I loved, but just as she reached beyond the situation of her illness to find a deeper meaning, I need to write beyond my love for her to find a connection with you.
The essays in the second camp simply don’t get specific enough for the reader’s heart to truly comprehend. I heard this morning that a fifteen-year-old boy was found alive after being trapped for five days under rubble in Kathmandu. His face is in the paper; he could be my fourteen-year-old daughter’s classmate. He has a name—Pemba Tamang—, he worked at the hotel whose rubble he was buried in for those five days, he ate ghee to survive. I don’t mean to be dismissive or crass, but Pemba Tamang means more to me than the six thousand others. Already, with only three facts about the boy and a photo of his face, I worry for him, I care for his well-being, I wonder about his future and how these events will shape him, I think about his family. I have to remind myself that I don’t know him at all. I feel I already do.
There’s a strange alchemy that occurs when a writer tells a story in such a way that a reader can relate. If the devil’s in the details, the heart is too. Through a balance of detailed writing in exposition and scene, a good essay can bridge the chasm between strangers. The onus for building this connection is on the writer. It is the details of the writer’s specific circumstance, and the writer’s introspection about it, that creates the gold of creative nonfiction.
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.
This piece first appeared in Lunch Ticket on February 20, 2015:
Things look different from here, on the step/parent side of life. Every day the light shifts and something else is illuminated. Sometimes I write about my kids to understand what shifted, where the shadows now fall on the world, and what the light has revealed of my heart. However, this is not an essay about those light and shadowy things. It is about when the people we love and care for end up in the stories we write. It is an essay about the translation of thoughts to words. It is about the intersection of truth and compassion.
Even in our native tongue, everything is an act of translation. Against all odds, we seek to bridge the gap of different life experiences, varied perspectives, divergent opinions, particular regional understandings, distinct cultural affiliations, restricted vocabulary, limited linguilism. Our individual differences are never-ending. It is a wonder we can communicate with each other at all, so we practice the art of translating our inner world into outer expression. We write our thoughts, striving to convey precise meaning. We hope that our intention is successful despite the probability that something will slip through the cracks. There are, after all, so many cracks between the conception of a thought and the delivery of a sentence.
We seek to bridge the gap that lies between us, so we sit in a quiet room alone with a laptop or a stack of papers, or on a porch with crows cawing from the neighborhood-laced telephone wires, or in a café with the hissing milk-frother, the droning espresso machine, and the latest Damien Rice playing from the speakers. We mumble to ourselves, group letters and words together, rearrange them, erase, rewrite, start over. We stare into space with glazed eyes, the outlines of everything fuzzy, our ears deaf to the song refrain and the voices that drift through the semi-permeable edges of our thoughts.
We are desperate to make sense of things. We must write, because the very act deepens our understanding of the chasms we seek to bridge. We explore and excavate with whatever tool we can find—garden shovel, fingers, cutlery, lover, children, parents—and keep digging through the superficial layers until we hit solid bedrock. Until we hit clarity. Until we find true self-understanding.
I’ve been writing for a few years, maybe three, about my kids. They are not twins, but my two girls came into my life at the exact same moment, six years ago, just after the Thanksgiving pie. It was abrupt, joyful, strange, and like most births, painful. They say there’s no way for a first-time parent to prepare; I found this to be true. It is also true that with every birth of something, there is a death of something else. Don’t misunderstand: I love my girls, and I love my life. Still, I need to understand being an adult in this world, and being a parent from a stepmother’s perspective. I need to know myself in the light of that role. Writing illuminates.
We parents and stepparents need to read other parents’ and stepparents’ narratives to help us through our own, but I’ve often wondered–do we have the right to write about our kids? Like so many other aspects of kids’ lives, they have little say in what we do, what we write. They are busy trying to make their own sense of the world, and have no voice to give consent to their place in our essays. As adult writers we have insight, but that insight is not necessarily a perspective the kids agree with. Even if they did, the kids do not necessarily want the details of their lives to be exposed to an audience of readers. But our capricious kids do not necessarily NOT want the stories shared either.
Earlier this week, writer Andrea Jarrell explored her own thoughts on this topic in her Washington Post essay on writing about kids. In it she asked, “Why do I think my parents are fair game for my work, but I draw the line with my children?” Although Jarrell has chosen not to write about her kids for reasons she states in her essay, her question has led me to the opposite conclusion.
Parents and guardians. Every day, with our best judgment, we make a million decisions weighing the kids’ needs and our own. We sign field trip permission slips. Medical authorization forms. Roller rink liability contracts. Oatmeal or Frosted Flakes? Bedtime early or late? Bath on Tuesday or Wednesday? Cell phone or no phone? Playdate or homework? We weigh the kids’ priorities against our own, and approve a Redbox rental of Frozen so we can finish an essay, an hour of games on the iPad so we can figure out ACA health insurance, a bartered cup of frozen yogurt for a quiet afternoon of income tax expense sheets.
I write about the kids, but really I write about myself trying to make sense of where I stand now: in the kitchen with my ten-year-old making brownies as a Valentine’s gift for her teacher, or behind the camera taking photos of my fourteen-year-old whose boyfriend just pinned a corsage on her wrist for the Winter Formal, or at the barn next to the girls’ mother because on Sundays the riding lesson is the location for the hand-off that happens every-other-day between households.
From this grown-up ground is where I write about my kids. Here, truth and compassion stand side-by-side. Digging for my own truth, my own self-understanding, I want the words I write to be as loving as every decision I make about my girls. There is a Tibetan prayer that I’ve said for years as part of my yoga practice. If I have a guiding light as I translate my inner world into words for others to read, this is it:
May I be at peace.
May my heart remain open.
May I know the beauty of my own true nature.
May I be healed.
May I be a source of healing in the world.
After the essays and stories and books are all written, I hope that my thoughts have been translated precisely. It is a long, long road from one heart to another. There are so many fault lines to cross. I always want my daughters to feel that the stories they’ve been a part of are honest, good, necessary, and loving.
This piece first appeared in the literary journal Lunch Ticket on 23 January 2015:
When my fifth-grader returned home Saturday after a week at Outdoor Science School, she brought a twine necklace strung with acorns and colorful beads, an endless stream of facts about the natural world on the mountain, and several riddles she learned from her counselors. Her week at OSS was the first time she’d been away from home, and so when she ran into the house she was overflowing with excitement about her first trip. The cabins (top bunk!); her meals (dessert every day!); the animals (baby frogs and a corn snake!); the owl pellet she dissected (a mouse skull and a shrew bone!). All day, until she was tucked into her bed and finally lulled to sleep by the tap-tap-tap of raindrops against the window pane, the house was filled with her lispy, delighted, never-ending anecdotes.
I try to be an involved parent. I try to ask the kids engaging questions, encourage them to dig deeper into the events of their day, reflect back to them what they say so they can hear it for themselves, and then allow them to enhance or revise or elaborate. But on Saturday, juggling good parent practices with my overwhelming stack of spring semester work? Let’s just say that while she happily shared her OSS adventures, I alternated between listening and musing on the phrase “what you resist persists.” Open on the table in front of me lay Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I had resisted it since high school.
That I have not ever read this slim volume is a bit hard to justify. It takes a day to read, and afterwards not much space on the bookshelf. It’s available for free online in pdf format. Most importantly, though, for an MFA candidate with an affinity toward writing, teaching, and editing, it’s an essential tool that cannot be ignored. Eliminate three out of those four--MFA candidate, writer, teacher, editor--and it is still necessary. When I recently began serving as Blog Editor here at Lunch Ticket, I realized I cannot continue to ride on my grammar and copyediting intuition. I need the vocabulary to explain my editorial suggestions. I need clear reasoning for my choices. I need cold, hard, plain, simple, black and white—Strunk and White--guidance.
Dry, right? Elements of Style, though, is not as much about boring rules as it is intelligent advice. All writers of any genre need to craft clear, effective, engaging, bold sentences. Whether novelist, memoirist, or blogger, not having a handle on these tips is a liability.
In E.B. White’s introduction, he quotes from Strunk’s principle #17 (omit needless words):
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
“That every word tell,” I reread several times. It is a compelling statement. With the drawing and machinery comparisons, it hits home. Unnecessary words and unfocused structure are part of the first-draft process, but a discerning reader can tell a first draft from a polished piece. First drafts hem and haw. They clear their throats and hesitate over ideas. They meander. A discerning reader—an editor, say—may wade through, but a non-discerning reader won’t spend the time traversing rough spots to mine the gems. They will simply move on to another story. Strunk and White’s statement is, in four words, an argument for careful revision. The Elements of Style provides the writer a checklist for that process.
The book begins with basic punctuation and grammar rules that any writer should inherently know, followed by a list of composition principles I wish every blogger, essayist, reporter, memoirist, novelist--even Facebook poster, dare I suggest—would consider. Structure of the parts, and of the whole. Clarity of expression. Parallel construction of ideas. Economy of words. Verb tense agreement.
While I scratched notes into the margins, my kid bounced off the couch.
“Do you like riddles?” she asked, stopping her dance mid-twirl, arms spread out wide. At ten, truly, all the world’s a stage.
She is an effervescent joy to our family. She has super powers, has been writing a book since third grade, and has well-timed, absurdist humor. It seems, while she has watched her older sister navigate teenage dramas, she dug her heels into childhood, determined to hang on to simple pleasures until life insists on the inevitable next phase. I can’t say if it’s her jokes or her giggles, but at least once a week we all--even the teenager--end up laughing till we’re in tears.
Here’s one of the riddles she brought home from OSS:
Q: One night, a king and a queen went into a castle. The next day, three people came out. What happened?
A: One knight, a king, and a queen went into a castle. Obviously, the homophone is the key. Night/Knight.
Half-listening to her and half-studying Strunk and White led me to consider this riddle from a craft perspective, and I found two other tricks within it that are meant to confound the listener. Sleight of hand is a puzzler’s prized tool, and a riddle’s only goal is to hide an answer in plain sight. When this teaser is spoken aloud, you can almost hear the lack of comma between “a king and a queen”. A serial comma, as I inserted in the answer above, further helps to reveal the three people who emerged from the castle.
The most cunning tricks, though, are the most subtle. As I turned this teaser over, a topic covered in Part II of The Elements of Style came to mind. This is a principle Strunk and White call “express coordinate ideas in similar form.” They write:
This principle, that of parallel construction, requires that expressions similar in content and function be outwardly similar. The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.
Exactly contrary to Strunk and White, this riddle utilizes non-parallel structure to help mask its solution.One k/night is followed by a king and a queen. This use of non-parallel structure is meant to trick the listener.
Until now I’d never dissected a riddle. I suppose if you are a riddler, you might consider using non-parallel structure as a tool to disguise the solution. For other writers, however, our goal is not to confound the reader, but to write as clearly as possible. We puzzle in our process so there is no confusion in our final manuscript. We should always strive to give a reader the clearest expression of our thoughts. For parallel structure, we would write one knight, one king, and one queen or a knight, a king, and a queen. Parallel structure. Clarity of expression. Concise writing.
As my joyful kid twirled her way through the afternoon, and I made my way through The Elements of Style, I found myself siding with past teachers who once waved their copy of this book to the class. Anne Lamott writes in Bird by Bird, “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” She goes on:
You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something--anything--down on paper… [But] the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.
Another joke from OSS:
The present, the past, and the future walk into a bar. It was tense.
With all those mixed tenses hanging out together, I am sure it was. Luckily, this and other things are covered in a beautifully quick read: The Elements of Style.
What, you don’t have a copy? Get a copy here (or wherever you like to get books), or download a pdf version here.
This post originally appeared in the journal Lunch Ticket on December 12, 2014: http://lunchticket.org/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 blood--they are my stepdaughters--I 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 power--super power, if you will--of 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.