Posts Tagged ‘Writing Life’

What page are you on?

July 15th, 2008    -    12 Comments


It’s my daughter asking.

Page 3, I say.
Page 5, she snorts.

We’re sitting in a booth at Whole Foods. She’s dabbling in her deli peas and corn; I’m hunched over eight ounces of criminally expensive Greek salad. We’ve just cracked the spine on some new paperbacks. The bag of store-bought books; the $13 lunch; I’ve blown the top off an ordinary Tuesday, and all because I have work to do.

I have an inconceivable bit of writing ahead of me; an iron bull that baits my measly mosquito, an abandoned well with no way in, up or around; so naturally I want to eat. And read. And it’s a safe bet that something will come out of all this ingestion, eventually.

What page now?
Page 8.

Page 11,
she snarfs.

I had thought to just look into the window at the bookstore next door, the bookstore where I read on the 26th, to see if they’d set up a display like they said they would. But my daughter cannot merely peer through the plate glass of a place like this. She shoots inside. And me? I’m in a following mind. I pick up three books within three minutes, suddenly starving for someone else’s cooking. Guiltily, I tell her to find one, then two, then three books for herself.

My own book
is there like they said it would be. Stacks displayed bravely at the entrance, stacks undisturbed on the shelf, snow white and untouched, where they will remain, unless you and all your best friends and in-laws, even the ones you don’t like, come and save me next Saturday.

I have an idea! Let’s have a reading competition, she cheers.
Okay.
The first one who reaches page 22 wins!

I’m delighted now, by her invention and enthusiasm, saved by the starting bell of the only test at hand. It’s a test that reminds me once again that I only win by losing. So I give up, and she wins! We pack up our pages and walk over to Rite Aid where I buy her some press-on nails.

It’s hard to complain about a day like this, but I’ve got so much practice.

It’s a sign

July 13th, 2008    -    2 Comments


The random answer is in hand. The winner of last week’s giveaway of the autographed copy of The Maternal is Political is Jen Lee. Thanks to everyone for your eagerness to witness, chronicle and make a change. Keep at it. And here on the Cheerio, I never seem to run out of things to share, so enter again when the next chance appears.

A gift, a charm, a fortune

July 10th, 2008    -    18 Comments


It was supposed to be about 115 degrees today but it wasn’t. I’d heard a rumble about it for days. But this morning I shivered under the covers. Outside, a morning breeze danced on my bare arms. I figured it would all ignite at mid-day, but by evening we had a cloak of clouds and a tease of sprinkles. This is the kind of thing I take as a gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, it will do.

A little respite, you see, an oasis in the crossing. I just finished a tough writing gig that had me on my knees for weeks, inching forward through the drifts, making up words about a topic so suffocatingly arid, so dense and intense, that it could only be called “work.” I burrowed into the clattering bones of it this afternoon, wrote a little bit more and shocked myself by being done. A gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, it will do.

We knew it was dying, one of those troublesome turtles that required so much coddling care that I couldn’t help but come to love it. It had stopped growing, stopped eating, stopped moving and then tonight Daddy pronounced it dead. “Mommy,” my daughter called, “Can you light some incense?” She adorned the burial box. My husband turned the earth. She placed a stone and I said the chant. A gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, it will do.

For Jupiter, my good turtle

***
Please remember to leave a comment to enter my giveaway of The Maternal is Political. A gift, a charm, a fortune. Lacking any other kind, won’t it do?

The sisterhood of the traveling chance

July 7th, 2008    -    32 Comments


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.

The air in the room

July 1st, 2008    -    11 Comments


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.

The school for citizens has created one more

June 25th, 2008    -    13 Comments


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

June 23rd, 2008    -    16 Comments


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

June 20th, 2008    -    12 Comments


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).

Early and often

June 2nd, 2008    -    8 Comments


More of my excerpt from the new anthology, The Maternal is Political. Go back here to read the first installment.

I was not, I thought, unduly anxious about my daughter’s educational prospects. I was not among those employing literacy tutors for my three-year-old. I did not use an Excel spreadsheet to track the application process to private kindergartens. I did not angle playdates with the grandchildren of private-school directors. I did not donate a wad of money to the schools at the top of my wish list. I did not even make a list. I simply believed that one day, when the luminous sheen of my daughter’s wonderfulness was made known, something fantastic would happen.

“Who’s John Kerry?” she asked one day, seemingly out of the blue. It was not out of the blue, but rather right out of the red, white, and blue bumper sticker on the SUV in the preschool parking lot. She pointed to it and revealed that, while I wasn’t looking, she had begun to read. It seemed early, the reading, and early too, the electioneering, although I happily took both signs as foretelling a fabulous outcome.

I had been crushed by the presidential election of 2000. Heartbroken, enraged, and then quietly, insistently, optimistic again. Four years was unimaginable, but four more was entirely impossible. Not with truth on our side. Not with smart money. Not with the Internet. And so I found myself doing what I’d never done before, not in my more than twenty years of informed and, sometimes, impassioned voting. I took the phone calls. I made the phone calls. I sent tens of dollars. I sent hundreds of dollars. I walked the precinct. I wore the button. I slapped on the bumper sticker, then saw the stickers everywhere, and not just in the parking lot of our high-priced, progressive preschool. Democratic values were alive and never wealthier, it seemed. The republic would be saved.

We took our daughter to the polls on election day of 2004. And what seemed to matter most going in—truthfulness, courage, effort, and ideals—mattered nothing in the end. One measly vote in one dinky town in one irrelevant state didn’t count for much. The republic was not only broken, it was no longer ours to fix.

“Have we ever voted for someone who won?” My daughter’s response reflected her brief life history of losing, 0 for 2, in presidential contests, but the dejection was universal. We had come to the irretrievable end of hope. And the loss, we realized, was truly hers.

***
To continue reading. To continue listening. To be continued.

My bus

May 28th, 2008    -    6 Comments


School’s out for many of you. But for some, it’s always just beginning.

I always knew where it would lead.

As we cruised down the street on the morning commute to nursery school, my two-year-old would pipe up from the back seat whenever the yellow bus rumbled into view.

“My bus, my bus!”

“That’s right,” I would carefully rejoin, “A bus,” affirming the noun, but not yet the pronoun, not the possession, not the slightest quiver of possibility that the public school just down the street would one day be hers. Years before the question of schools could reasonably be raised, I already felt the fluttering clutch of resistance to her baby-talk claim.

Which school for my daughter? I waffled. Haven’t a clue, I’d think. Never given it a thought, I’d shrug, although I’d given plenty of thought to how brilliant her future would be. How bountiful her birthright. How predestined her success. Although my husband and I were public school progeny, those were different times in different places with different kinds of parents, we thought. Our parents had neither the privilege nor the need for a choice.

Our school district was as underfunded as any and especially ill-favored by those with a chance of escaping it. Decades earlier, forced busing had decimated enrollments. As incomes and property values rose, the middle class that had once populated neighborhood schools was nowhere to be found. Sixty-three private schools educated more than one-third of all children in the district. Competition for admission was severe; tuitions were stratospheric. But for parents like us, parents who could pinch and scrimp their way to having a choice, there seemed to be no other choice.

This was the state of education in our country. This was the state of our country, in which the newly elite lived in fear of being left behind with the mass of others we had falsely promised to never leave behind. This was the road the yellow bus traveled twice a day: hauling mostly Hispanic kids to and from the apartment buildings that rimmed the industrial fringe of our suburb; collecting them on the littered streets at frosty dawns and delivering them to our quaint hometown school in our million-dollar neighborhood, made empty by a herd of us heading the other way.

***
To continue reading. To continue listening. To be continued.

The doormat of your life

May 22nd, 2008    -    24 Comments


One last thing my dog showed me.

Before the accident, Molly and I had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on the home front. I’d leave the backdoor propped open and she’d wander out to do her business, whatever that was, and I stayed inside to do mine, whatever that was. The stipulations of her rehab now require mutual engagement. I have to decode her wags and whines to judge the likely outcome, the redeeming value, of a bothersome excursion.

Do you have a good reason to go outside, Molly? I test her intent as she tap dances her enthusiasm.

Lately, she has no good reason at all.

Because the sun is shining.

Because the earth is warm.

Because the grass is thick.

Because she is alive.

This is a line of argument that I do not practice. I hardly do anything for no good reason at all. Last week she led me outside by leash, and I followed, impatient for her to find the right spot as only a dog’s nose knows. But she had no business being outside. She simply plopped onto the lush carpet of mondo, letting the day’s radiance soak her sun-starved coat.

Amused, I took the time to gaze up through the canopy of maple leaves. Then I saw the painted birdhouse we hung five years ago when I felt interminably housebound with a three-year-old.


The project, like most of my projects, was a way to relieve my confinement. But there is really no part of life that is confined, no part that is just a tiresome interlude to be tolerated, or a penance to be endured, because life doesn’t come in parts. Every moment is your whole life.

In faded strokes I’d lettered under the portal it still says “Enter.”


Make yourself at home. Cross the threshold. Enter your life.

Dogs, birds, babies, everything, everywhere, all the time shows you how.

***

And if you’ve read this far, read a little farther still and see what I found in the laundry basket. It will take me forever to get it washed, dried, folded and put on the shelf.

Good dog

May 18th, 2008    -    11 Comments


The author and Zen teacher Lin Jensen wrote a book entitled “Bad Dog!” I haven’t read it although now I want to, since Lin let me read an advance copy of his forthcoming book, “Together Under One Roof.” You will want to run out and fetch that book too as soon as it’s out. You will want to want to run and fetch and sit and stay with everything Lin writes from now on, as I do, because I have a hint of what he writes about in “Bad Dog!”

And that is that there is no such thing as a Bad Dog. Mercy me, there is no such thing.

This is what I have been learning so vividly in my relatively brief yet eventful tenure as a dog owner, in my slightly longer stint as a mother, in my considerable experience as a wife, on the bumpy road as a daughter, and even in those storied stretches when I’ve been bad at any and all of those things.

If you’ve been traveling here with me for a spell you know that Molly, our dog, came to us from my father’s house, after his death, after all other recourses failed, on good authority that if not yet altogether bad, she was probably difficult, quirky, nervous, untrained and prone to peeing on the carpet. Including his last, humiliating debilitation, those were the very things we would have said about my Dad.

Molly is none of those things, or maybe all of those things, but we just can’t tell anymore. We can’t tell because she’s such a damn Good Dog.

Her goodness was revealed to me in little bits, like milkbones, until Molly went and had herself a bad accident in March. It was the kind of accident that turns your day and night inside out for a good long while, topples your every notion of what a dog could and should do (and what you’d like to do yourself), rattles all that loose and shakes it silly.

She ruptured her ACL, the ligament behind the knee, repairable by a fabulously expensive surgery. She spent four days in the hospital and then came home with a list of post-op instructions that knocked the last bit of sense out of me. She was to be completely confined in a crate for two months, hoisted for weeks via a sling when hauled out expectantly to pee and poop, noosed for 14 days in an Elizabethan collar (a gross misnomer for its indignity) and kept painfree. I look at this list now and it doesn’t seem outrageous enough. It doesn’t seem like the list that left me deranged. We are now six weeks into the stretch, she and I, six weeks when we’ve never been closer or more dependent, and I can only say that I’m smiling now, my eyes flooding with love and appreciation, because she is such a Good Dog.

I’m dedicating this week to Molly so I can show you all the tricks she’s teaching me.

Hand wash cold

May 9th, 2008    -    4 Comments


A reprise, because somebody somewhere knows what this means.

I recently ordered a set of samue. Samue is a style of street clothing for Zen monks. This tiny piece of printed rice paper came tucked into the garment. I have no idea what it says, and for that very reason, I find it quite charming.

I imagine it could be laundry instructions. Maybe it says “Inspected by No. 12.”

It reminds me that, with only a change in perspective, the most ordinary things take on inexpressible beauty.

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