Happy new year! May 2021 be gentle and kind to you, as it wipes the mess of 2020 from its shoes.
Reading my novel-in-progress, I found this bit, and I like it so thought I’d share. Completely torn from context but so what.
“In the silence, there are actually heaps to hear. Train your ears. Slow your breath until you glean what’s left. What’s been missing. The exhalation. Feel your shoulders drop. Everything you’ve been ignoring during The Disaster hasn’t disappeared. Even if it’s in the river and snagged on a rock, been taken captive, or submerged in mud, it’s still there, still out there somewhere. Maybe sleeping, maybe waiting. Maybe it’s only the bones. Maybe the next thing that happens is: whatever’s waiting wakes up.”
It’s fascinating to read through the pages of a novel I began writing in 2004 (that’s not a typo)…fascinating seeing how the “now” me filters through and makes sense of it…very strange. Like when Owl meets himself on the stairs in Arnold Lobel’s excellent book,Owl At Home. (“There must be a way,” said Owl, “to be upstairs and to be downstairs at the same time.”) I hope my next novel will take a shorter span of years, which may yield a psychically simpler writing process, I think? But this bit is new-er and informed by my fascination with embodiment, trauma, resilience, holding many things at once…etc.
(STAY TUNED because I will have some good news to share in the not too too distant future…)
If we are human, there is sure to be grief in our past, present, or future. We can deny or try to avoid this fact, but to me it seems better to prepare and find helpful resources.
My friend Laraine Herring has written (and illustrated!) The Grief Forest, a beautiful and necessary book, really a container for process and feelings, and a light along the path through grief. A picture book intended for all ages, this book is a gift to the world: beautiful, deeply resonant, and reassuring.
2020 has brought me and us plenty of reasons to grieve. I’m so grateful to Laraine for manifested a book that will help lighten the burden.
What works best, as a way in? The idea, or the image?
The problem with THINKING (about IDEAS) in your HEAD.
(This is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop in March of 2018.)
How many times have you heard others (or yourself) say or think, “I can’t think of anything to write!” Lynda Barry talks about why thinking isn’t the way to get anywhere. Moving away from having to think of an IDEA to write about, toward accessing what she calls the IMAGE WORLD. She makes a distinction between the top of the brain and the back of the mind (where the images live). (If you don’t know about Lynda Barry, look her up! The book SYLLABUS is a great resource, as are her TED talks and YouTube exercise videos.)
In a college class I was teaching in 2018, I noticed how this tension works itself out when I used a prompt from Nick Bantock’s THE TRICKSTER’S HAT and asked students to write a list of “unusual” things that have happened to them. I saw them engage in the act of not-writing: they got caught on thinking WHAT IS UNUSUAL? And that question (and the judgment built into the tag of “unusual”) engaged a less-helpful part of their brains. It led me to gather more evidence about what I have experienced: THINKING is kind of a problem, actually, when we’re trying to start from scratch, and come up with the stuff to write about. At least it’s a problem for me. Put another way—THINKING (in that way) doesn’t help start or sustain the flow state I want and need when I am writing.
Another example: In 2016 when I was WRITING THE UNTHINKABLE with Lynda Barry at the Omega Institute, the rule was that we were to draw our daily self-portraits (2 minute index card drawing of ourselves in various scenarios) and introduce our portraits to our neighbors (let the index card self portraits meet each other). On Thursday, Lynda asked us to draw ourselves dancing. We did so. I held my card up to the card of the person next to me, and she said something like “oh, I love how you…” (whatever she said escapes me now) and I FELT THE OXYGEN LEAVE THE ROOM. Just because this well-intentioned human next to me made specific comments about what I drew! I always think about that when I teach, and when I write.
The thing seems to be how to keep the most possible oxygen in the room, in the practice, to sustain the process of creation.
When we’re going to write, we have to move from stagnation and stillness—from the cold state of not-writing. What often stops me is the inner critic. I think the inner critic is connected to that thinking part of the brain.
We have to get moving. We have to start by NOT getting stopped.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful and generous glimpse into a young writer’s emergence, where family and sense of place both act as characters in the story. I hope you will read it. Two poems that really stood out to me:
On p. 80:
miss bell and the marchers
They look like regular people visiting our neighbor Miss Bell, foil-covered dishes held out in front of them as they arrive some in pairs, some alone, some just little kids holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just an evening gathering. Maybe church people heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds closed, the people fill their dinner places with food, their glasses with sweet tea and gather to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you on that line! Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing she can do, knows that people fighting need full bellies to think and safe places to gather. She knows the white lady isn’t the only one who’s watching, listening, waiting, to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’ glasses filled, adds more corn bread and potato salad to their places, stands in the kitchen ready to slice lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls her uniform from the closet, she prays, God, please give me and those people marching another day.
And this beautifully embodied gift on p. 217:
It’s easier to make up stories than it is to write them down. When I speak, the words come pouring out of me. The story wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair, crosses one leg over the other, says, Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on. But as I bend over my composition notebook, only my name comes quickly. Each letter, neatly printed between the pale blue lines. Then white space and air and me wondering, How do I spell introduce? Trying again and again until there is nothing but pink bits of eraser and a hole now where a story should be.
Practice and sustain creativity in community, artistic, academic, and private settings. Meld mindfulness and a sense of play to re-envision creative work, reveal and heal the relationship with the inner critic, and gain access to joy.
I’d be thrilled to design something specific for you, or your:
If you are local and weather permits, we can meet outside with masks and physical distancing. Or I can work with your in-person group via Zoom. (Learn more on my workshop page.)
And follow the blog to be informed about upcoming Zoom workshop dates!
My short story “Your House, Any House. That House” was published in Crooked Houses, a new anthology from Egaeus Press. The story was heavily inspired by the house in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where I grew up, which was burned down by the fire department (as an exercise) when the Village expanded Gaunt Park. (I am also writing a memoir about that house.)
The first printing of Crooked Houses sold out immediately, but the press plans a reprint in January 2021. It’s a great table of contents, and I’m honored to have my story included.
There are ways of saying things, making phrases and sentences that could not be any more succinct or perfect. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I read it. When I consider the brilliance of Mireya Vela’s writing in her memoir, Vestiges of Courage, I marvel at her ability to work with a gratifyingly tight linguistic economy. In the memoir, Mireya exposes the toxicity and spirit/mind/body assaults women are expected to endure, and boils it down to the bone, illuminating the lived truth. Her act of peeling back, her lack of veil and refusal to bullshit carries incredible power. There is no time for waste, she seems to say. You just have to speak the truth.
For instance, on page 24:
“Women are trained into this type of acceptance:
‘Kiss your relatives.’
‘Hug creepy Uncle Manny.’
‘Don’t be uppity. You’re rude. Go sit on Uncle Joe’s lap.’
‘Uncle Manny gave you a gift. Show proper gratitude.’
‘Liar. He didn’t touch you. That’s your imagination. Why are you always such a drama queen, looking for attention?’
Whittle down the women. Take off all the rough edges till they are smooth and fit into the palms of men.”
And it’s beautiful how she writes about the armature of memory…on page 132:
“Sometimes I see people I know aren’t there. This has been happening since I went into therapy four years ago and I unhooked the memories from their anchors.
Memories float. No matter what you do, whoever you were 15 years ago can float to the surface to haunt you. It doesn’t matter if you are ready or if you are walking back to your classroom.”
And finally, she offers affirmation about the pain and necessity of healing. On page 134:
“I don’t talk to my psychiatrist about the people I see. I know she’ll heavily medicate me. I strongly suspect this is post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem with PTSD is that it prefers to unsettle you just as you feel you are moving beyond those memories. When you feel strong, the memories appear, waiting for resolution.
Instead, I go to my therapist. The words spill out of my mouth with trepidation.
‘Is it men?’ she asks.
‘Yes. How did you know?’ I say.
‘It’s out of the corner of your eye?’ she says.
‘Do they look like the men who hurt you?’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘That’s common with people who have had sexual abuse. I’m sorry,’ she says.
‘I’m not crazy?’
‘No,’ she says, ‘You are just healing.’
‘Healing feels awful. Why am I doing this to myself? I just want it to stop.’
‘Because,’ she says, ‘you want something better for your children.’
‘Yes. Yes, I do.’
But for a moment, I think about quitting. Why do they call it healing when it feels like being ripped open?”
We need to do this work; we need something better for our children. We need more books with the inside of the human showing. We need more writers who can cut through bullshit, use deft strokes to arrange the words so that they accumulate to tell the truth. I am grateful for the act of humanity that Mireya Vela did in writing this book.
This summer solstice, I’m elated to announce that my essay “Hot Thing #2 (2:30am)” was published in the inaugural issue of HAGS ON FIRE! Thrilled for the conflagration of sisterhood alongside Alma Luz Villanueva, Elaine Gale, Gayle Brandeis, Amy Buchwald, Michaela Carter, Amy Roost, Bridget Kelley-Lossada, Bella Mahaya Carter, Robin Harwick Jenny Forrester, Jude Walsh, and Barb Buckner Suarez…
…HAGS ON FIRE is a sparkly new literary zine featuring “Unapologetically embodied writing about menopause—minus the patriarchy.” (Extreme gratitude to Laraine Herring for noticing such a place was lacking in the world, and for manifesting HAGS ON FIRE.)
Please consider sending your work to HAGS ON FIRE! “We are specifically looking for work to feature from BIPOC folks, neurodivergent folks, non cis-het folks, and folks with physical disabilities.”
I am writing in support of declaring racism a public health crisis. It is a health crisis everywhere. Naming is important.
YS is a white-heavy town. We like to think of ourselves as part of the solution. But are we really part of the solution, yet? Even (maybe especially) in “progressive” places like this, (we) white people need to do real work–toil–not just giving lip service–to dismantle racism and white supremacy. Kindness is not enough. I know we humans are all at different stages in the process (internally and externally) of the walk toward true equality, and I think that calling racism a health crisis is a reasonable early step.
And: it’s just a start.
We have years of work to do, in our bodies and in our communities. Listen well. Listen well. White people need to listen before talking, and do what we can. Every day we can do more. Do what we can, inside and outside ourselves.
I hope this will be the real start of real change. I am committed to doing what I can. I hope the YS leadership will, too.
I encourage you to read this important book: My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem (read more and order it here: https://www.resmaa.com/books/). Resmaa Menakem writes about the trauma that racism inflicts upon bodies, specifically Black, white, and police bodies. We Americans (yes, even in YS) all carry racial trauma in our bodies, and until we work through and resolve that terrible condition, we won’t have real, lasting change, in YS or anywhere.
What a beautiful opportunity we have right now.
It’s going to be the most worthwhile work we can do in our lifetimes.
The U.S. stands at a moment of opportunity to make real and lasting change. We must work to dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy. You feel it, the momentum. I can tell that you feel it as I watch you speaking. As a white person of great privilege, as you journey toward the election and beyond, please make sure that you are listening carefully and thoroughly to people of color. Make sure that your circle of close advisors includes people of color, specifically Black Americans. Listen well. Listen well. Do what you can. Do what you can inside yourself, and outside yourself.
You stand to bring humanity back into the White House. I hope you will.
Please read this really, really important book: My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem (read more and order it here: https://www.resmaa.com/books/). Resmaa Menakem writes about the trauma that racism inflicts upon bodies, specifically Black, white, and police bodies. We Americans all carry racial trauma in our bodies, and until we work through and resolve that terrible condition, we won’t have real, lasting change.