The sisterhood of the traveling chance


An interview with Shari MacDonald Strong

A couple of years ago, I shut my eyes and clicked the Send button to shoot a brand new piece of mine to Literary Mama. I’d been published before, but in my case, that little squeak seemed but a faint coda on the fabulously imagined career that had never quite materialized. I was a writer, but I was not yet a part of any community of writers, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance. I heard my little story swoosh into the brittle darkness where so many of my brave queries had disappeared. Shari MacDonald Strong, the creative nonfiction editor of the site, waited, oh, all of eight hours before she emailed me back with the message I still have: “This is beautiful. I love it. Let’s run it next month.”

Now that I look at those, her first beneficent words, I’m not surprised that such powerful collaborations come from this woman, the editor of the new anthology, The Maternal is Political. She gives fellow writers faith and love and chance. When I saw Shari a week ago, I asked if I could interview her for the blog. I want you to know her. Indeed, if you are serious about your writing, and all of you should be, you will want to know her. Here’s Shari about mothering, writing, editing and the great good chance we have right now to change the world. Change your own world by entering my giveaway at the end of this post. (I’ll give you every chance I can!)

As the creative nonfiction editor for Literary Mama, you “discover” many new women writers. How does reading, editing and supporting other writers affect your own writing?

The process of editing (among other things) makes me more aware of what I respond to as a reader, puts me more in tune with the magic and impact of a writer’s voice. It makes me feel more a part of the greater writing community, which nourishes me and gives me strength for my own writing.

When you assembled this book, whom did you envision as your reader?

It sounds egocentric, and possibly is, but I pictured myself and other women like me: women who care about the welfare of others, but aren’t sure how they, themselves, can make a difference during this frenzied, chaotic phase of life that is mothering. I pictured women who are making a difference in the world, and/or who want to make a difference, and women who want to learn what other mothers are focusing on, are managing to do. In the end, though, really, it’s for all of us who care about the world.

Where did the idea for this anthology come from? What is the first thing you did to act on the idea?

The title popped into my head one day, and I knew exactly what the book would be. I half-thought maybe it already existed somewhere. I come from a marketing background, so I immediately wrote up a proposal and started asking around, to find out if any writers I knew would be interested in participating. I got an agent. The book came out about 16 months after I got the idea. It was a concept that really wanted to be born, and it truly felt like the universe conspired to make it happen.

What are some of the ways this project evolved differently from what you had expected?

It came together faster than I expected, and the pieces I received were better than I ever could have hoped. I couldn’t be happier with the result. I also became friends with the contributors, and that has added a richness to my life that I absolutely cherish.

Do you believe words can change the world?

I’m counting on it.

How do you distinguish politics from partisanship?

Ha-ha! Hard to do. The Maternal Is Political is definitely left-leaning, no doubt because I am, and those topics in the book are the ones that spoke to me. I tried to pull in a couple of conservative voices, but those pieces fell through for one reason or another. The reality is, the lines between what’s political and what’s personal are blurred, and the lines between politics and partisanship are, too. What I see as political today I may view as partisan tomorrow. All I can do is listen to my conscience – my own, not the words of anyone else – and do what I can to help create a better world. That’s what it means to be appropriately, responsibly political, to me.

You have a book under your belt, a book with your name on the cover. Tell me what that feels like.

It doesn’t feel like it’s “mine.” I feel like I can brag about it like crazy, because I didn’t write most of it! I wrote the intro and one essay, and I got to work with some of the strongest writers I know of. Now that the book is out, I’ve participated in a few readings, and I’ve sat and listened to the writers read their work – or, alternately, I read the pieces at home, again and again (I never get tired of them) – and I just feel so, so proud of the work we’ve all done together. I feel like the most fortunate woman around. I really do think this book has the power to help change the world – maybe it will, if people find it and read it – and that gives me chills.

What advice do you have for mothers who write, want to write, or wish they’d written?

Get real and raw. No pat answers. Don’t wrap things up too neatly. Tap into universal truths with your own personal story. Get specific. Have fun. Do it, no matter what.

***

Now, here’s your chance: make a comment any time, many times, this week and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of the book. In return, you must review the book on your blog (I promise you Shari will be reading) and then pass along the chance by hosting your own giveaway to a reader/reviewer. Why all this? Simple. We only have a short time to give this world a better chance. And this is your chance to join the community.

Going nowhere and making good time


Since I could use a fist bump right about now, I’m going to announce that my running partner and I ran ten miles today. Ten miles, albeit the old lady way. We have managed to train away some of the huffing, puffing, cramps and crying that had me convinced at an earlier, cynical age three months ago that I would never run ten miles let alone one.

Running has become just about the one thing in my life that is satisfying my expectations, expectations being the kind of oversized load that triggers a 20-car, fog-bound pile-up around the next blind curve. Still, as a pastime, hitting the pavement provides me with a wide avenue of observations about myself and the world around me.

My regular route has me crossing a busy intersection during morning commute, an intersection with eight timed signals for through-traffic and turns. The consternation is palpable at this spot as the engines belch and fume about the interruption in their all-important progress. The traffic experts have been here. The science is on display. In place of the benign illuminated hand that once invited walkers to venture forth – We come in peace! – the crossing light now pairs a hunched stalker with a flashing countdown of seconds remaining before the defenseless few are smacked back to where they came from.

Can you believe it? In this hurry-up world, they even want the pedestrians to tailgate! In these last, poisoned days of our planet, they want the people on foot, the innocents who are truly doing no harm, to get out of the way already!

Now it may just be the peculiarity of the hour and the carbon monoxide, or the pulsing love croons of serial seducer John Mayer in my iPod (I’d run anywhere he told me to), but when I see the flashing countdown of seconds left to me in this crossing, when I see this laughably unjust incrimination, it makes me smile. I find myself trotting across the intersection with a grin on my face. I make it my wholehearted practice to smile at the gauntlet of grim drivers I pass. I peer through their tinted shields into their dead faces. I want to make contact, you see. I want them to respond. I want them to see the first, and perhaps, the last happy person they will see today. I want them to be happy too.

I know, I know. We all think we’re going somewhere. But on these mornings, in a sudden gush of giddy bliss, I bet I’m the only one who realizes how free and easy it feels to be going nowhere. Fast.

Small town fourth

Because what’s the 4th without a small town? Happy independence, friends.




Asking for it

It’s amazing what happens when you ask.

GG’s Birthday List:
Acoustic guitar
Dachsund puppy
New smaller DVD player
Ears pierced
World peace
Room re-arranged
Bunk bed with sofa
Pink room
Wii

And what doesn’t.

What are you asking for right now?

The air in the room


This weekend I completed a particular rite of passage for writers, a rite – like a hip replacement or coronary bypass – that can be performed many times in your literary life. A reading. A bookstore reading. As I’ve been threatening for weeks, I showed up at Vroman’s in Pasadena, a grand old bastion of book nooking, to share the air with two fellow contributors and the irrepressible editor of the new anthology, The Maternal is Political. Bookstore readings are, ahem, interesting. No less an authority than my own publisher has told me that readings are an ineffective technique for selling books. Of course, most techniques for selling books are ineffective, and publishers can be quite expert at them. But absent any other technique, we do them. We surrender to readings the way we surrender solid ground and common sense to the Boeing 737, acting perfectly normal, sipping cranberry juice through a straw, as though a measly seat belt and lumpy head rest could keep us intact and aloft in an ocean of violently unpredictable air.

Writing, like most art, is fascinating for its insistence that we not only suffer in solitary silence, but that we suffer again in public silence. We bleed onto the page and then, still scarred, we bleed into the open air. And you know, it can be gruesome but it really does heal better that way.

Okay, spoiler alert. The evening was wondrous, and not entirely for the reasons you might guess.

Readings can go one of two ways, north or south, but usually they go south. People don’t come to readings, or at least not as many as you pray for. This can happen with really good writers, too, not only with we lesser gods. The talented and illustriously best-selling novelist Darin Strauss has been blogging about his own book turbulence lately, and I was delighted to see that just a couple nights before us, he had only four people show up to hear him in the very space we filled quite nicely, thank you. I was delighted, I tell you, because I can sympathize with a giant like Strauss when he has four people show up, but not when he has 104, or 204, which is probably the size of the audience he’s been reading to since.

We had more than four. They were not the four people who made a point of telling me they were coming. They were not the 40 or so who received my plea and made an even more conspicuous point of not telling me they were coming. My daughter’s piano teacher came, which tells you everything about why my daughter loves piano. My folk from the neighborhood book club came. Readers and near-readers and next-door readers came. They were the perfect audience of friends and family and even passersby who heard the call and caught the drift and saw the light and surrounded us in the polite stillness, the geometric kindness, of simple listening.

They heard the passion and purpose of Shari MacDonald Strong. They witnessed the delicate bloom of the brazenly tender Gayle Brandeis. They saw through the open eye of world-witness Mona Gable. They heard the irreverent rant of some very un-zenlike Zen. And by mere receipt of this, by their generously open ears and patient gaze, our audience completed the most magical feat, made the most intimate exchange: they heard the words, they shared the air, and made it, for one hour, a sanctuary.

Then, a bunch of us girls went out for Mexican food and we laughed and laughed and laughed.

***
Good lord, I’m about to do it again.

Over my head

If I tried too hard to understand it, I might miss the view.
From a hand-drawn sign taped to my daughter’s bedroom door.

Aquatic Center
of what I like and love

Love
TV
Acting
Movies
Friendship
Art
Dogs

Like
Turtles
Tests
Friends
Pink
Blue
Fish

We don’t ever have anybody spend the night


I lapped up the Vanity Fair piece on Angelina Jolie a week or so ago on a beach read, aroused by all the things she tells us she would do and never do, all the kisses she would never tell, how she lives a life of such abundant self selection, the names, the nationalities, the dominions, the husbands and the other women’s husbands, the ideologies and armbands, the provocations, the missions, the flights, the media chase and the white-knuckle escapes that always trigger the chase. Malibu, France, Prague, New Orleans and bitty Smithville, Texas, the whole world falls in full occupation to the nannies and tutors, the Gulfstream refugees that camp and decamp, the multicultural staff, the Vietnamese nanny, and the sweet Congolese Belgian lady and the girl from the States who is so good at art programs, the bodyguarded birthday parties and black Mercedes Happy Meals, the appetites, the sex, the lips, the body art, the tease always the tease of radical normal, the normal so normal that it proves the high-priced architecture, the elaborate construction and reconstruction, the punch list and the circus foreman who keeps the colossus standing, and then she says something about where she draws the line on hired help, something that echoes back a whole week later to this morning, while I’m chopping fruit and feeding the dog in my stinky sweats and I hear her say,

“We don’t ever have anybody spend the night.”

The school for citizens has created one more


This is where our short saga of school choice ends but of course it hasn’t ended. This is where the bus stops, but it hasn’t really stopped. This is America, where we are each equally endowed with the audacity to keep going – to build a country and then rebuild it again. This is the conclusion to my essay from “The Maternal is Political”, which is available for personal inscription and indelible gratitude (for coming out on a lonely Saturday night) right here.

The night my husband and I made our school choice, it wasn’t even a choice. We looked at the letters from the fine private schools inviting our daughter inside. We knew their curriculum was excellent, but it no longer seemed good enough. We knew what they offered was valuable, but it no longer seemed worth it. Still smarting from our disillusionment with our own government, we resolved to live, really live, the values that were no longer so self-evident. We would save our money and invest our daughter in democracy. The bus, after all, was hers.

We would need to be attentive and involved, but we would be doing that no matter where she went to school. We would need to enrich her education with extras, but this way, we still had enough in every paycheck to afford them. We would need to trust people of all stripes and believe in the ability of each person to reach the stars.

We would need to be brave, but we could: We were born in the home of the brave.

On the first day of kindergarten, my daughter’s teacher stood before an array of beautiful faces. She spoke loudly to reach the pack of teary parents spectating at the back of the room.

“Our job is to create citizens,” she declared, and turned to face the flag.

That morning, I placed my hand over my heart and spoke the old pledge with newfound allegiance. The school for citizens had created one more.

* * *

Saturday, June 28, 5 p.m.
Vroman’s Bookstore
695 E. Colorado Blvd.
Pasadena
Reading and signing with Mona Gable, Gayle Brandeis, Shari MacDonald Strong and me.

Drive far, come early, sit close and laugh often.
And if not, at least listen to me tell you again why motherhood is your writing practice.

The wheels of the bus


Yes, I still want you to listen to the podcast on motherhood and writing. But in the meantime, here is one more installment of my essay entitled “My Bus” from the new anthology, “The Maternal is Political.” I’ll be joining a trio of writers more accomplished than me at a reading and signing of the book this Saturday at 5 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. Here’s how to find the first and second excerpts of the essay online.

It is understandable that in our colossal engine of American enterprise, every aspect of life has been reduced to a sales transaction. Everything is a product, every product is a brand, and every brand is a shiny bauble of marketing assembled by campaigners more clever than we.

So it was uncomfortably obvious to us, while my husband and I toured private schools, that we were the customers, and we were there to be sold something. We were being sold an educational philosophy. We were being sold a community. We were being sold social values. We were being sold security. We were being sold success. We were being sold a different kind of world, fabricated out of kids who looked alike and parents who thought alike. We were being sold on the most ambitious and fearful part of ourselves. It seemed phony and even un-American.

Of course, it wasn’t un-American in the least. It was the dark and corruptible soul of America. We whispered to one another as we paraded the pristine hallways, “Where are the schools like the ones we went to?” We might as well have been asking, “Where is the country like the one we grew up in?”

In our newly cynical view, all the assurances of product excellence and consumer protection seemed disingenuous when applied to education. We were aimless and unconvinced as the decision deadline approached.

Then our daughter took the wheel.

After three years of schlepping 16 miles roundtrip to a fancy preschool, pushing on even farther to the rarely accomplished playdate, and routinely crossing multiple city limits to attend a birthday party, my daughter staged a mini-revolt. “Where are my friends?” she wailed on one particularly woeful weekend, stuck in the wonkish company of dear old mom and dad. Looking up, we saw her point. We had gone hunting for her brilliant future, and we’d overlooked her front yard. We’d been chasing her birthright and had ignored her birthplace. This was where she lived. This was her world. This was where she wanted to belong. Where were her friends? We scheduled a visit to the public school down the block.

There, in the porticoed walls of an 80-year-old building, on a rolling lawn under leafy grandfather trees, amok with hundreds of ordinary urchins, awash with the inimitable aromas of dirt, disinfectant, and cafeteria lunch was the school like the schools we remembered. The hallways were a little scruffy. The classrooms were bustling. The teachers were educators. The parents were participants. The kids were just neighborhood kids. The money was scarce, but the opportunity was wide open and free.

We were reminded, once again, that this was the best our country could offer. It was the best our country had ever offered. And we had turned out okay.

What she said: Listen to the Mojo Mom podcast


Earlier this week I had a conversation with Amy Tiemann, author of Mojo Mom and the upcoming, updated Mojo Mom. Amy has been a steady guide and influence for me. She was an early supporter of my work. She brings a scientist’s mind, a seeker’s eye and a mother’s heart to her work as a writer and commentator on the issues that matter most to women. And what’s more, she does something about it! She turned our conversation into a podcast and I hope you’ll listen to it here. You can do it even without an iPod, and heck, you might even win one in Amy’s giveaway.

We talked about writing. What we write, how we write, when we write and why we write. Or not! I had mentioned to Amy that, of all the questions I get at book readings or talks, a whole lot are about writing. From my perspective, questions about writing aren’t really about writing. They are about ourselves and who we are, and what unbounded greatness we have within us if only we dare to find out. This matter of writing, of writing about writing, about doubt and desire and devotion to writing, is the stuff I read daily. Because I read you. And you. And you. And you.

And when I do that I find myself multiplied many times over. I find the tenderness and uncertainty, the dedication and the courage, that leaves me nodding in wonder and recognition, repeating numbly, “Oh, yeah! What she said.”

Inspired by what she did, I’ve recently expanded my blogroll with the new feature that shows the continuous feed from your posts. Here you’ll find longtime friends and new ones too. I will expand this list regularly. If you aim to write, I aim to read. Let’s give this to each other: a continuous loop of live listening so that you as a writer know that somewhere, someone is nodding in soulful solidarity, muttering the three-word thumb’s up that only we can give: “What she said.”

Listen in right here. And know that I’m speaking to you.

***
How perfect that this post comes on my mother’s birthday. I’m still listening deeply to what she said (and to what she didn’t).

Summer cut


And like that, school’s out.
Time packs up its fractional interest,
its dewey decimals
and skips out of this slow motion town.
The hair, the shoes, the smudgy silver lunchkit are
suddenly so
last year.
The endless days might seem to stretch
but not one
not even one
will keep its shape.
Who can refuse to enjoy the view?

Wake up and start coloring


From time to time something happens to remind me there is a buddha in the backseat. And then I realize there is one in the front seat too.

“Mommy, has the world always been in color?” she asked.

Hmmm. That’s a good question. It’s been in color for as long as I’ve been around.

“Same here,” she said.

***
What she said: There’s still time to cast in on the BlogHer tag line voting in which your correspondent, kmiller, is contending. And if you’re telling me that you can’t vote because you can’t register because you don’t have a blog, this could well be your invitation to start one.

252 ways to complicate your life


I can remember years ago when a certain magazine debuted. I was kind of stumped. Four hundred glossy pages of advice and ads on how to live a simple life? Twelve times a year? I could think of one way to really simplify that. And in that spirit, I offer this post so that you can have the sheer pleasure of ignoring it.

Simplifying your life? It’s not so simple, according to these 18 ways.

Feeling productive? Phooey. Why not kill time reading these 8 ways to save time.

Need to exercise? Wait! First build up your motivation these 31 ways.

Losing weight? Don’t start without digesting these 80 ways to lose weight.

Going on vacation? Don’t leave the house before you read the 7 sites you must check out before checking out.

Making a decision? Don’t do that! Just decide to read 13 ways to make a decision.

Getting stressed? Stress even more over these 6 ways to de-stress.

Watch too much TV? Surf these 9 ways to go back and watch some more.

Exhausted by all the advice? Stay awake even longer reading these 10 tips on how to sleep.

Still breathing? Hold your breath until you read these 5 reasons to monitor your breathing.

Are you even still alive? Take your pulse with this easy 39-point checklist on how to live.

Feeling better? What a waste! Think hard about the 8 reasons not to be an optimist.

Have I shot myself in the foot with these good-natured jabs? Wish I’d consulted these 10 simple ways to keep from messing up my life.

Now what should I title this post? Wise up and read how to lure readers by palming off useless information, time-wasters, drivel and common sense in 8 compelling ways.

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