This piece originally appeared in the online journal Lunch Ticket on September 12, 2014:
Sitting under a café umbrella recently, sipping iced tea with an MFA colleague, the conversation naturally, unsurprisingly, turned to writing. We’re both in our second semester of graduate school. As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, I’m “Creative Nonfiction.” It’s a fact which never ceases to amuse my fiancé who takes it as an existential statement. My tea-sipping friend is “Fiction,” which amuses my fiancé even more.
Regardless of fictive or nonfictive embodiment, my friend and I both agree that the monthly packets we are required to submit to our MFA mentors are very real. Troublingly so. My most recent packet of twenty creative writing pages and two book annotations was due to my mentor in mid-August. For two days afterwards I celebrated its completion by not writing a single word (status updates and margin notes inBehind the Beautiful Forevers, of course, aside). On the third day I intended to get back to writing, but—nearly a week earlier than expected—I received my mentor’s return email: a detailed letter, in-line track change comments, and lecture notes on a particular topic she suggested I study.
I was paralyzed for a full week afterward.
Could. Not. Write. Anything.
I sat with my friend at the outdoor café during that time. It was one of those blazing hot Saturday afternoons when everything melts: ice in our drinks, lipstick in my purse, ego. We sat together, pulling our sweat-soaked shirts away from our backs, fanning cigarette smoke from the table next to ours. Inside the café, the A.C. was on full blast but the room was crowded with chatter, and she and I both had some things to get off our chests. She, too, had a hard time getting back to work after sending off her last packet.
“I’m afraid of criticism,” she said.
It was powerful to hear her express what I had been feeling. Of course criticism—particularly at the hands of a knowledgeable and supportive mentor—is meant to be helpful. Indeed, it’s a primary element of why we both came to this program: to receive critical feedback about our work. But the fear we associate with criticism is attached, I think, to shame. Shame that the basket we’ve put our eggs in is full of holes. Shame that we will fail. Shame that there is a right and wrong to writing and that, ultimately, it is just beyond our personal abilities to get it right. Fear that we are not capable of stepping into our highest creative self.
My friend’s reflection of my own fears was enough to remind me of a time, years ago, when I had not allowed my fears to stop me.
After years of studying classical music, sometime in college I ended up with an acoustic guitar and a book of folk songs. Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, etc. I had been raised on these songs by a guitar-strumming dad. My first concerts were folk festivals where my parents spread a blanket and we picnicked on my mom’s cold fried chicken and berry pies. The folk songs in the book hit a deeply personal spot from my earliest childhood memories. It was a place that classical music, as much as I loved it, had never tapped. The book was a doorway, and when I walked through it, I walked away from classical music, stepped onto a path of songs, and, shortly, started writing my own. Right away came the desire to sing for others. A moment later, my stomach clenched with fright.
Stage fright, like fear of criticism, can be debilitating. It can also be exhilarating. I’m not a fan of roller coasters, but I wonder if the draw to them is similar. Do coaster-lovers shake in fear? Do they wonder if they can handle it? Do they get a rush from the courage it takes to ride? This is what it feels like, for me, when I send in my mentor packets. I silently beg, as I hit send, that my mentor’s feedback will be enough to kindly push my edge, an edge just shy of disablement.
Often, to work out fears that arise in my new(ish) writing endeavors, I look back to my life in music. How did I overcome my life-long stage fright so that I could pursue my love of singing and songwriting?
I showed up.
Back then, I was up against all these same fears of failure and shame, but my desire to get better at my craft was larger than my fears. I knew the only way to improve was to do it. Perform. As much as possible. The solution? I joined the busking world. I didn’t have to wait for a club booker to let me in the door. I could pull up a piece of sidewalk and play every night, which I did throughout summer and fall until my fingers froze, and then again the following spring. There was a good community in my Boston busking world days—Amanda Palmer, Guster, Mary Lou Lord, and many others who passed through for a week or for years—but also, I learned to stand up in front of an audience. I learned to show up against my fears.
After a few hours at the café, our iced teas were finished, our conversation spent, our backs sweaty. I drove my friend several blocks to where she had parked.
“I made something for you,” she said as she unlocked her car. From the backseat she pulled out a pale green cotton bag with two wide shoulder straps and a red and white swath of cloth down the center. I can’t sew at all, but I appreciate the craft. Her stitches were perfect. The muted colors were imbued with my friend’s gentle spirit. The kindness was almost overwhelming. Fingering the stitches of my friend’s gift, I remembered something an old teacher used to say: How you do one thing is how you do everything.
I haven’t read my friend’s writing, not yet. Nor has she yet read mine. But I am certain that when the day comes for us to exchange not just our trepidations but our art, we will find in each other’s writing the level of courage, commitment, and care that we bring to our other arts and crafts. As with everything, sometimes fear stops us for a few days or a week. But always, every time, our desire to do this—to explore questions, share stories, to write—leads us through the turnstile and back onto the ride.
This piece originally appeared in the online journal Lunch Ticket on August 8, 2014:
This one’s going to start out with some family folklore. Bear with me.
When I was a wee little one, so the story goes, I sat in my crib with a secret smile but nary a hint to my parents of a new talent I was budding. Once left alone, door shut, no adults around to observe, I worked on my latest and greatest feat (drum roll): standing.
(Impressive, I know.)
My folks in those days were young, first-time parents. Perhaps later, once my little brother came along, when schedules got tight with multiple jobs, my school, his teething, when the marriage began to fray in postpartum depression and thinner wallets, frozen winter pipes and, later, spring thaw ceiling leaks—perhaps then they were too busy for surreptitious observations.
But in that first year of new parenthood, my folks would put their fingers to their lips and tip-toe to the doorway of my room, sneaking peeks at baby-me through the cracked door. If I suspected an audience, I feigned interest in toys or toes. Once my observers disappeared, I’d pull on the crib rail, stretch my legs, and rise to stand. Parents back? Oopsie daisy, back on my bottom. I preferred to hone my talent in private.
I’ve mastered standing (you’ll be happy to know), but over the years, essentially not much changed. I close the door when I change my clothes; I do not sing in the shower unless the house is empty; I do not dare send out a piece of writing until it has been pressed through the ringer, the type is dried, the wrinkles ironed, the seams darned.
Enter the blogosphere.
Blogging is immediate, fast, furious. Unlike a laborious five-year tome, the quickness means our words can be pertinent to current trends without delay or restraint from publishing industry gatekeepers. A platform to stand on and a microphone to hold? Oh yes, for us writers, blogging is seductive.
But, I am sure you can relate: so many of us writers are introverts. Perhaps also a tad bit perfectionist. I am the twelve-month first-draft kinda gal. I weigh each phrase, shift punctuation, and hide my pages from anyone but my mentor. In the world of performance, I’m a fan of rehearsals. Improv? Not so much. The nature of blogging is in direct opposition to a ruminative nature.
And yet, I am here blogging, and perhaps you relate to this also: it’s the tension of the opposites. There’s the way we do things normally, and our desire to grow beyond those bounds. There’s something—isn’t there?—about stretching out of a comfort zone.
Despite myself, in the years since my first Blogger account, through Tumblr, WordPress,Weebly, andLunch Ticket, I’ve grown affectionate towards blogging. Thoughts quicken by the effort of it. In brainstorming topics, the creativity gears are oiled. Words come faster, and not just on the page. The mind sharpens.
Blogging is the opposite of perfecting a five-year novel in private. Blogging is typed and pushed live. Hello, world! There is no conservative safety here as with the single-reader letter, so blogging infuses the writer with deeper courage—perhaps the deepest courage there is, which is to speak up, speak out. If standing in a crib beyond the watchful eyes of others is the way I have always preferred to master my arts, blogging is the practice of forced growth, embracing imperfections, releasing control. Flaws and all.
Perhaps most powerful of all, though, blogging breaks the traditional one-way narrative barrier: readers also have a platform and a mic. Sometimes the comment threads are meager, but other times they light up with an electricity of their own. Such a lonely endeavor, writing. The courage and connectivity of blogging fortifies our literary community. Blogging opens the one-way street of writing to two-way traffic.
So: writers, readers, let’s connect. Do you have a blog? Share your link in a comment below.
This post appeared in the online journal Lunch Ticket on June 27, 2014:
They say cardio is the first to go, which I suppose explains last evening's huffing and puffing through my first run since the day before residency began. Normally I'm a runner - around 25 miles a week - but last night it was hard to tell. Each step on the asphalt was foreign. My lungs were weak. Despite what the passing cars may have seen, I was the Stay Puft Marshmallow man.
The first time I heard "M.F.A.; My Fat Ass" was at a closing event at the end of last term where the graduating students spoke a few words reflecting on their journey through the program and, particularly, how they fared in the final semester. A fiction writer with a lighthearted countenance and an admittedly soft middle offered the above definition of the degree he would be awarded the following day. His cohorts chuckled in agreement.
That's all I remember about him, but it struck a chord, and I made a silent note-to-self. We writers do, after all, sit a lot.
But just like writing, exercise has been a savior for me. We could get into self-image and how women are depicted in the mass media, we could even get into childhood issues--blah blah blah--but the fact is, what's done is done. I am a woman in this culture, with this upbringing, with this mind chatter. The antidote has been physical activity. Running, yoga, cycling, hiking -- whatever it is, the mind chatter changes from This body is not good enough to Damn, I am grateful for this body. Physical movement quiets my mind chatter. Every time I hear "M.F.A. = My Fat Ass", I cringe.
Admittedly, during the 10-day residency our schedules are tight. A single day at residency looks like this: hour commute, followed by an hour blogging, two in seminar, a (seated) lunch, another seminar, a workshop, perhaps dinner, and a two hour evening reading with four graduating student writers and one featured guest writer. Then the commute back home. Nine days of it. Thirty miles driving. My body moved barely an inch.
I’m not whining though – the residency rocks – but what about the other five months of Project Period? For me at least, at times of my life when I’ve been particularly sedentary, it’s more of outlook than schedule. There are a ton of myths about being an artist. And just like the media's image of women, I have at times bought into those wonky narratives. Hook, line, sinker.
* * *
Myth #1: Poor artists.
Ten years ago I was in another graduate program. (Some people buy cars; I collect almae matres.) Berklee College of Music gave me some scholarship money; I packed my bags. Instead of finding $75 for a soft-shell guitar bag, I bolted industrial-strength straps made to move pianos onto my hard-shell case and carried the weight on my back like a tortoise. Instead of picking up a long, warm coat for the Boston winter, I shivered in my leather motorcycle jacket, which was just long enough to assist the freezing rain in sliding down my back and soaking my jeans from belt to boots. I was broke. Adamantly broke.
Myth #2: Starving artists.
At Berklee, dinner was usually rice and beans; breakfast was rice pudding from the leftovers. My roommate and I split $200 for food each month. The mono-nutrient diet upset my belly and my energy was low but when I caught my roommate spending $2 for a slice of pizza between classes -- 1% of our food budget for the month on one meal -- I nearly slid into a rage. I stomped home and sulked over another Tabasco-doused rice bowl.
Myth #3: You need to suffer for your art.
I walked two miles to Berklee each day, through the snow, uphill both ways, barefoot. Okay, it’s a bit hyperbolic, but you get the gist. Each day my shoulders were burdened with instruments like my body was a pack mule. Every day that damn guitar case tried to kill me.
Myth #4: Talent is innate and "making it" is a concept only available to a privileged few.
All my classmates were rockstars or the offspring of rockstars. Talented. Beautiful. On their way to successful careers doing exactly what they were born to do. I, on the other hand, was a folk-singing daughter from a very normal family. I wasn't a prodigy, nor were my parents. My pedigree, I believed, would be my ultimate handicap.
Not surprisingly, despite graduating with honors, then signing, recording, and touring, the way I burned out was less like a Bacchanalian feast of cocaine and backstage groupies, and more like a balloon flying through the air, coming untied, and simply dropping to the ground, useless, spent.
It took me years to realize I had done it to myself: I had bought the myths.
* * *
Things are winding down here in low-residencyland. Those of us not graduating have already disappeared into an online world called Project Period. During the next five months we will strain to stay connected through Sunday check-ins, monthly reading conferences, Facebook groups, occasional coffee dates for the locals, and, most celebrated, through online magazines and literary journals where, hopefully, we'll see our colleagues' bylines. Writing is a solitary activity, but the residency stokes a warm campfire. The re-entry back to day jobs and family life is welcomed, but strange. Mostly, it is a welcome return to normalcy.
I’m looking forward to reconnecting with my family, catching up on sleep, eating a simple meal at home. Basically, finding balance between mind, body, and spirit.
And at the top of my to-do list is exercise. Over the past eight days, my thighs have become a wee bit bigger. My belly is somewhat more rotund. And oh, my hips, my hips, my hips. Thankfully, the mind chatter hasn’t started, but I’m not going to wait for it. I don’t buy into the artists myths anymore. It’s possible to live the creative life as an artist and the balanced life of a healthy human. Even as we make time to write, eat, sleep, we must make time to care for our physical bodies. They carry us through this creative life. They are the only true vehicle we’ll ever have.
Family, home, paychecks.
Heartbeat, breath, sweat.
Body, mind, spirit.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I'll meet you there.
Jelaluddin Rumi - 13th century
Middle school is full of toxic pre-teens. I know most of them are ultimately good people trying to work out their confused pre-teen crap, but it can be painful. You'd think that by graduate school toxic personalities would have softened, or at least melted into a puddle of nothing worthwhile, left by the dump behind the cafeteria. You'd think those personalities certainly wouldn't find their way into a program, at least not one like a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. You'd think that life would have thrown them enough curveballs to show them that a pattern of burning bridges, of writing publicly about petty personality judgments, of attempting to skewer the very community -- the MFA program, the greater literary community , etc -- that is in place to bolster us all up will not come to any good.
My oldest stepdaughter finished middle school a few weeks ago. I dare say, if she didn't finally learn quadratic equations, didn't run the P.E. mile in under 9 minutes, didn't memorize how to build a major triad or find the relative minor, I hope she learned how to walk away from drama llamas.
Looking back on my own middle school years, I can hardly recall my own experiences with this. I had forgotten, I suppose, how cruel kids can be. No doubt my super bright, super cool, super gorgeous middle schooler was only attacked out of jealousy. Hell, if I were a middle schooler with her, she's the girl I'd want to be. But still, at thirteen how can she have this perspective? Even with her graceful confidence, how can she know, truly, how awesome she is? She's got thirteen years of life on this planet, eight years of school under her belt.
Over the past three years, whenever she came home burning in the shame of careless words, stewing in anger at the latest antics of the mean girls, teary about shifting social groups, we tried to remind her that the only one who can truly assassinate her character is herself. We taught her to know her center, to know herself, to not worry about the negative energy others might try to pull her into. We tried to help her temper her fire, rise above, stand in the beauty of her own true nature. As her father says, Take the high road. There's less traffic up there anyway.
And yet, there are some who manage to squeeze past the middle school graduation stage, manage to squeak through high school, college, perhaps employment. Perhaps they land, with a particularly wicked pen, in an MFA program in creative writing. There are some who carry their toxicity with them through their life, and I imagine that these particular people must find some benefit along the way. Perhaps they are of the camp that any attention -- even negative -- is good. Perhaps they think that they are honing their craft by dwelling on dark emotions. Perhaps they think that there is a place for them in this world.
And perhaps, standing with colleagues at an MFA gathering, drinks in hand, schmoozing among their classmates, they believe that their fellow writers are unaware of their online blog posts. Perhaps they believe their classmates do not mind, or that they might even applaud the way they suck camaraderie out of a room. Maybe they believe there is a volley that can ensue: they throw toxic waste from their blog, and the writer who has been lambasted then throws toxic waste from their blog, back and forth like a tennis match. Perhaps they believe this is a way to make friends.
And yet they are wrong.
They are wrong because we have all been to middle school, and all of us (except this type) have learned that toxic waste dumps are no place to hang out. We all (except, of course, the drama llamas) choose to spend our lives being inspired, building community, focused on our work, finding writers who we admire, and reading their work.
We choose to be the bolsters, because we trust the process and know that when we lift up others, others lift up us. We choose the high road, above the muck of people who prefer to wallow in waste.
We find that despite the fact we are all on this road – the high road--, it does not feel crowded. There’s spaciousness. The path is clear because we are moving forward, helping each other along the way. And truly, the view from up here, at times, can simply take your breath away.
I feel human again, a state I much prefer to the walking zombie version of myself that I've embodied the past two days. Sadly, though, to refind myself I had to miss last night's readings. These nightly events are a highlight of the residency, a time to listen to my colleagues' and some faculty work and match names with faces, but my Monday meltdown had run into Tuesday and classmates were beginning to ask if I was feeling sick. I wasn't, but I desperately needed rest. Ten hours in my darkened bedroom of sleeping/waking/sleeping seems to have been just the medication I needed. Today: bright eyed, bushy tailed, so to speak.
Despite my exhaustion, though, my mind has been clear. Like last term, my experience this time is that I am becoming a better writer by just being here at the residency. (Whether that is reflected in these rushed early morning posts is another story.) Even in seminars more geared to other genres -- Monday I sat in on Janet Fitch's seminar about dialog in fiction -- I am absolutely deepening my understanding of things I already do well and/or issues that come up in my writing that have not felt authentic. Authenticity, it seems, is perhaps the number one key to good writing.
Yesterday, however, was less about craft and more about other aspects in a writers life. The day was filled with seminars on agents, developmental and copy editing, and literary citizenship. The latter was and is, to me, deeply interesting. I've previously written here about one of my MFA colleagues -- Allie Marini Batts -- and I want to properly celebrate her both as a writer and as a champion for vibrant literary communities. She is so prolific in her writing, and so passionate about wholeheartedly participating in the community, that it is difficult to know what link to provide. Here is a start.
Allie is receiving her degree this term, and as a graduating student presented a twenty minute lecture at this residency. She could have discussed any aspect of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction writing, but, not surprisingly, instead delivered a passionate and well-prepared lecture on the imperative need, if we are to be writers in the world, for us all to read, buy, and promote other writers. We need to write, yes, but we need, desperately, to read. To encourage others. To connect. The act of writing is a solitary activity, but writing is not a one-way relationship. A writer needs readers. Readers need writers.
Like in issues of craft, I believe authenticity is also the number one key to good literary citizenship. We must read what we like to read. Connect with other authors with whom we feel a connection. Frequent bookstores that we love. This is not high school, and there is no room for ego in a discussion of authentic relationships.
We must applaud writing that moves us, send out links to our friends when we are touched, write letters of support to authors whose essays strike us in one way or another. In this day of online communication and social networking, we must go beyond our isolated laptop. While reading writers that we admire, we ourselves improve. And by reaching out to them, we begin to weave a web of interconnection of support, encouragement, growth.
Yesterday, when I went to see Brad Kessler, my mentor from last Project Period, he put down his sandwich, opened his arms wide, shrugged his shoulders -- "Tunafish sandwich" -- and gave me a hug. We sat for some minutes - ten? twenty? I gave him homemade thin mints, a small token of appreciation for the time and thought he devoted to my writing this past semester. We discussed my upcoming term, potential topics for the five-page critical paper I'll need to write in the coming months, and which mentor might be good for me in this next Project Period.
How do I say this without sounding inappropriate, without innuendo? Much of last night, I dreamt of Brad. The dreams were filled with other people, and also food -- we were to make a meal or have a celebration or something. I was a student, and through my dreams I was trying to find him, trying to find some time to learn from him. I trailed him into the kitchen, I offered to help chop. Isn't this strange though? I myself am a cook; people come to me for lessons. Not so say I am an expert at all things food, but isn't it a strange setting for this dream?
And yet, food is nourishment. I cook to offer comfort or love to others. I am not a true culinary artist, despite the pride I take in my cakes and pies. They are just stand-ins for my need to show love in a way that feels appropriate toward strangers, toward acquaintances, toward friends.
I saw Brad last night at the evening's readings. He was there with the featured reader, White Oleander author Janet Fitch. At the end of the night I introduced him to Darby whom he has heard a lot about through my writing and weekly check-ins. It's strange to have so many people shake hands in introduction to Darby with a look of familiarity in their eyes, but that is the kind of writer I am: I write about the personal because I have this gut instinct that within our specific experiences there are universal connections.
So when my mentor met Darby last night in person for the first time, there was a two-way look of recognition -- both have heard a lot of each other, and yet how strange! I have barely spent more than a few hours in the same room with Brad, and we have rarely spoken about anything outside of my writing. We creative non-fiction writers are odd folk. How few conversations we have with each other, and yet how much we know about each other's lives and interior experiences.
My dreams last night were also about chasing. I was trying to find Brad, trying to get in the same space as him, trying to learn from him. I woke with an aching desire for the semester and this relationship to continue. Let me be clear: these are not romantic notions. I am easily able to separate admiration and desire, and Brad is an exquisite writer, an insightful teacher, and a kind person. But, I have true affection for him and it saddens me to move on. There is still so much I want to learn from him. Yet the way this program is designed, each term we have a new mentor.
One thing I know about myself is that I get terribly attached. There are childhood experiences, of course, that I am sure created this trait. But, this is how I am, so remind me of it in six months when I am dreaming of cooking meals with my next mentor.
Meanwhile, though, I am full of appreciation for the past six months' opportunity to work with Brad. Even this morning, as my dreams were shaking off, I had a realization from our conversation over the tuna sandwich yesterday. I am suddenly clear on the topic for my five-page critical paper. He's given me gifts of self-awareness and craft-polish that are my constant keyboard companions, and I suppose my task now is to take them with me on the next part of my journey here, with me as I travel with a new mentor/companion.
This post originally appeared in Lunch Ticket on June 12, 2014: http://lunchticket.org/stories-share/
Survivor (as in “Eye of the Tiger”) is to play a free show in Los Angeles later this summer. I stumbled upon this exciting news the other day while browsing Thrillist LA’s list of (they say) every free outdoor concert in LA. It was mid-afternoon, June gloom burned off, the sky clear blue, the asphalt in the parking lot outside my office softening at a warm 90-something degrees.
Meanwhile, I sat shivering inside at my desk as I do every afternoon, clutching a mug of jasmine tea and wrapped in my sweater against the AC which blasts like we’re all penguins here and the company means to keep us happy with native habitat temperature.
With numb fingers, I jotted down the date of the show and pulled up YouTube for a dance party down memory lane. My favorite Survivor song is still, as it has been for nearly thirty years, “The Search Is Over.” I cranked the volume. My shoulders swayed. I softly sang along. When the tune ended five minutes later, I found a YouTube mix channel to keep me grooving in my cushioned ergonomic-knock-off chair all afternoon. Survivor led to Journey, led to Heart, to Foreigner. It was a totally ‘80s dance party. I want to know what love is, I want you to show me.
And then my boss popped his head into my office.
“Having a flashback?” he asked, leaning on the door jamb.
“You can blame Steven,” I replied.
Steven was my first crush. He was smart, cute, a grade ahead of me, and his family’s house was up the street from mine. Maybe because we were heading in the same direction, or maybe because I was younger and someone asked him to ensure I arrived safely, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that Steven walked me home from camp every afternoon the summer before fifth grade. I was a little awkward. I hadn’t yet learned how to be cool in close proximity to a crush. I yearned for the ease of conversation like in pre-school days, before we all differentiated into genders with crush-worthy eyes and unreasonable desires. I longed for a third party to break the ice. Nevermind. I got something better: a song.
Steven had a lovely voice. On the winding hills of West Lake Shore Drive, in our Velcro high tops, wet bathing suits hanging from our backpacks, my pony tail swinging, lips red and sticky from the afternoon’s Italian Ices, Steven a shoulder’s width away, he began to sing.
How can I convince you what you see is real
Who am I to blame you for doubting what you feel
I was always reachin’, you were just a girl I knew
I took for granted the friend I have in you
I spent the summer memorizing the words to the song he said was his favorite, and wondering if there was a secret message he was trying to relay to me through them. The next year I discovered Duran Duran and bought my very first cassette--a-ha—at the mall with some allowance money. Of course I listened to the Beatles, and I had been singing Simon and Garfunkel with my dad since forever. But that summer before fifth grade I was blissfully between kid and tween. Steven was my first crush; Survivor my first band. The story of that summer is embedded in the track. The Search Is Over.
I was living for a dream, loving for a moment
Taking on the world, that was just my style
Now I look into your eyes, I can see forever
The search is over, you were with me all the while
“See?” I said to my boss after telling him the story. “You can blame Steven for the dance party.”
“Music and scents,” he said. “They always bring me back.” Joan Jett began to rock the computer speakers. My boss told me about Amanda and the first band he loved.
There’s a little movie of long ago that springs into our minds when we hear a song or smell something familiar. We all have these stories that bang around in our chests, waiting to be tapped with the right reminder. Every event in our lives is recorded in the proverbial black box. Once retold to another, it sparks a memory in the listener whose own story then flutters against his ribs. Look at Humans of New York, or listen to the recordings at StoryCorps. It doesn’t take long to feel blessed to hear the narrative people share. To feel honored to be witness to their stories. To feel connected.
Recently, I found myself in a Facebook crossfire between strangers linked through a mutual friend. The strangers were from different states, different times of the friend’s life, and on opposing sides of the political battlefield. Seventy-five comments later, the conversation jumped to another thread like wildfire leaping a fence. The ammunition built as more strangers united by the single friend took sides. Useless clichés and commonplace platitudes were thrown back and forth. Each side barely listened to the others’ shibboleth.
We have to have these debates. Our evolution depends on it, and the vitriol is part of the passion. But rhetoric aside, beneath the politics and other dividing lines, don’t we all have the fluttering wings of stories yearning to release? Beyond the hierarchy of supervisors and employees, doesn’t the whiff of Thanksgiving dinner or the bridge of a song recall some elemental, specific, human experience that we each once had? And aren’t they all, despite the nuanced differences, essentially the same? Love. Sadness. Awe.
Our humanity is not expressed in politics, but in the narratives of our lives. Humans have shared them with one another since time began. Songs and storytelling have existed in wealth and desperation, from the beginning of history to the present day, in every corner of the globe. The common ground of our shared human experiences is the thread that stitches us together, despite our egos, our dogmas, our fears.
If there’s any hope for humanity—not the species, but the spirit—it is here: in the tales of first loves; in the songs that lift our spirits; in the emotions we all know. And in the stories we share.
Today I am full of doubt.
Now, in the black and white font of this site you might take pity on me, or feel bored with this typical and on-going issue, or not care either way. The latter I cannot help, but regarding the pity, don't give my mind-chatter any moment of compassion. I'd rather it not be fueled by any attention whatsoever. The moment you engage, it's off to the races.
I've heard mind-chatter described like a television channel or radio station, but I don't agree. Those boxes can be changed or turned off at will. You can turn down the volume. Walk out of the room.
Mind-chatter is more like an eight-year old kid. Do you happen to have one around? If not, I'll tell you - they are on constant chatter. They bounce from topic to topic. They talk like drunks. The moment you open a book to read, they lay on top of it. They climb on the back of the couch, let Cheerios lay where they fall, and leave the box of crayons spilled across the couch even though they've moved on to choreographing a dance. They ask questions, and then shift gears the moment you try to answer. They are hungry, starving, and hate the casserole you've made. And did they tell you about the game they played at school? Yes? Okay, let them tell you again. There is no inner dialog for an eight-year-old that does not, without filter, become the outer dialog.
Like the eight-year-old, the mind will chatter. Like the heart will beat, the lungs will breathe, the inner psyche will run on and on with an endless stream of story-line. The main difference between the heart and the mind is that while the heart beats regardless of the attention you bestow upon its actions, the mind wants attention and will try any and every way to gain it.
"I am beautiful" is, apparently, not interesting dialog. There's no inner turmoil in that, no engagement, no drama. It turns out that simple love stories won't do. A thought like "I am beautiful" is tossed out as soon as it arises. But give me soap operas and I'll be hooked all afternoon.
When I sit down to write, as I have done today, all I think is "I am boring", "I cannot do this thing", and "why bother trying - someone else can do it better". In light of my recent readings of Herman Melville and Virginia Woolf, it is so easy to go there. Their books are extraordinary, and so that's where my mind-chatter goes. Like the eight-year-old, the mind wants attention. It will use every trick in the book to get it.
I texted Darby a few minutes ago:
Me: "afraid to write. afraid of being boring or having poor judgment or telling a pointless story."
him: "i totally understand. what you write might be all of those things... or not. you just gotta write. it's not your last piece. nothing rides on it. some hits some misses. and brooke just brought over some yummy donut creation. if you write, you can have some..."
I'm not above coercion, or anything doughnut related, but what I would give for useful mind-chatter. How about something helpful like "ah, this is how we will develop the structure". I mean, shouldn't my mind and I be on the same team? A good-natured chat like, "hey, Arielle, there's a cool simile - come on, try it out" would be very welcome.
So I've been thinking - practice makes perfect, right? Well, it seems I've perfected saying to myself things I would never think to say to someone else. Sure, I make mind-quieting meditation a regular practice in my life. That has helped me calm down, be present, let go. But today I'm starting a new practice. This one is not a practice of quieting the mind - it's a practice of writing my own script. I'm going to start small - just as I did with the mind-quieting meditation six years ago. Two minutes. Two minutes by the clock of meditating on a new mantra, in plain, simple English.
I am talented.
I am extraordinary.
I have a talent for storytelling.
I have a way with words that the world wants to hear - through stories, through songs, through teaching.
I need more stories like these chattering away in my mind, so I am going to start practicing them today. After all, I am a writer, aren't I?
Hi ho, it's me here, a/k/a "Sick As A Dog", writing to you from a miraculously upright position. Granted, I can tend toward the dramatic, but I'm a little p.o.'ed that the cold everyone has gotten this winter has hit me TWICE. This, without even one airplane trip or snowstorm.
On the upside, my office was closed for the long President's Day weekend and I had no other official plans, so after getting through the idea that no, I would not be running eleven miles around Griffith Park, and no, I would not frolic along the mulch-y Mount Baldy riverside trails with Darby, I felt no guilt about tucking into bed for two days. I am convinced that yoga speeds recovery time, helping as it does to circulate the blood, breath, sweat, and lymphatic fluids through the body, so I did manage to roll out my mat each day. The first day wasn't pretty, but I got 'er down. The second day I was strong and a tad bit more flexible. Tonight's practice will (fingers crossed) cure me entirely.
The other upside of being sick is that between naps I had no energy for anything but reading. My next MFA mentor-group reading conference (think "online book club for writing craft nerds") is on Moby Dick, and while I've got a ton still to do in our whale of a book (hehe...), I've been dying to finish William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways first.
The reason for Blue Highways is that it's a journey book, and I've been on-and-off at work on a piece (short story? book length?) about my time on the road with my band. In Heat-Moon's own words, "I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected." He was philosophical. In 2006 I simply packed myself, my then-husband (aka, the drummer), a bass player, and a bunch of instruments into a van fueled on vegetable oil so we could play some gigs.
As it turns out, Heat-Moon was also way more self-aware than I was. And more patient. What I felt in Alabama after a few weeks took him till Minnesota on page 284: "Before I left home, I had told someone that part of my purpose for the trip was to be inconvenienced so I might see what would come from dislocation and disrupted custom. Answer: sever irritability."
On our tour, my bandmates and I were tethered to each other, the gig calendar, and a map. We slept mainly on people's floors, sometimes their extra beds, a handful of times in motels, and once on a bar room floor after the club closed for the night (WI). There was one waterbed (PA), two laundromat gigs (CA and TX), more vegetable oil fuel than we could stow (GA), fried peanuts (also GA), a cowboy reporter with purple boots (TX), a hookah bar in an airplane hangar (NC), a martini named after me (OR), three shows in Manhattan (NY and KS), and an ex-brothel (AR). We went through two sets of tires, one windshield, and countless gallons of vegetable oil. I was charmed by Kansas, smitten with Texas, adored Ashland, and wanted to love New Hope, PA but had a nervous breakdown instead. In the end, I crossed from Atlantic to Pacific twice and Pacific to Atlantic once. The last A-to-P was sans bass player - we left him in Virginia without so much as a hug good-bye. Being on the road is tough, but it was a true journey in many ways.
And although my then-husband is now remarried-with-child and settled back on the east coast, I'm a born-again California girl. Just yesterday, despite my cold, I said to Darby, "You know, whatever hardship comes along, there's always the fact that we live in beautiful California." He agreed.
Incidentally, in my current state I have learned that I am not actually sick as in "sick as a dog". This phrase apparently has its origins in the fact that dogs will eat anything and as a result become sick to their stomachs. Nor am I "sick as a parrot", as the British say, which is also more like the stomach flu due to seafaring parrots' taste for the rotting fruit aboard sailing ships. Nor am I "under the weather", a phrase also supposedly taken from the sea, for the sick were sent to the more stable below-deck rooms to ease their suffering. (For your information - and note to myself - my brief research revealed that many of the feelin' illin' idioms come from sea travel. This reinforces my aversion to vacation cruises.)
What I am is simply tired, congested, head-achy, and sneezy. I can't find a single cute idiom for it. Given these forthright symptoms, you'd think I might find a suitable over-the-counter remedy, however neither Dayquil nor Sudafed have helped my condition. I am open to your suggestions. For now, as much as possible, I'm resting, reading, and yoga-ing. Also, for whatever reason, I have been craving tapioca pudding, and so have indulged to my satisfaction.
"Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more."
- From Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
One man hobo band scratching his whisky-ed words at the microphone.
He's thumping at his suitcase for a kick
And got a jangly tambo for the snare,
Dirty, bluesy ax with f-holes a hundred-fifty years older than his jeans
And a Gibson humbucker rattling against his side.
As he claws at the strings like a gritty freight train coming down the tracks,
I find myself thinking:
If only I had his voice, if only I had his groove.
But I only have the things I have,
Which includes no whisky, and no grime.
Not to mention I'm asleep by ten most nights.
I can only hope that the world needs us both,
And everyone else as well.
Call it faith or blindness, either way I don't know what else to do,
So I'll keep writing my little words, and sing when I can.