Posts Tagged ‘Writer’s Life’

starting to change

January 5th, 2018    -    46 Comments

This morning I went into the backyard and took this photo of the Japanese maple, which is just now starting to change color. You might look at it and think, isn’t that lovely, and it is, but the color change used to take place in early November. The old calendar is obsolete.

This is my daughter’s final semester of high school. In the fall, she will be moving to New York to start college. I don’t know any more than that. I don’t know what will happen then or after. It’s not my life. I might have pretended I wasn’t obsessed with the future for these last 18 years or so, but that was a lie. Before our children leave home we have a pretty clear idea of what we expect to happen the next day, week, month and year. We’re all in. But now the future has finally escaped my grasp, leaving my hands ready for—ready for what?

A new year always brings with it the drive for change and renewal, but this one seems pointed straight at my keister. Everywhere I turn I see the message: What will you do with your days? What will you try now? What is it time for? How far will you go?

My friend Mary Trunk has a new documentary project, Muscle Memory. A former dancer and choreographer, she reunited with her college dance buddies after 30 years and filmed them learning new dance steps while they talked about how they’d changed since their glory days. Were they still willing to take risks, create, and discover new things about themselves? I find the answers mesmerizing.

Muscle Memory #1 from Mary Trunk on Vimeo.

A few months ago my daughter asked me the very question lurking around these margins. “What will you do after I leave?” She beamed her electric smile at me, buzzing with her approaching freedom. I shrugged. “You could write a book about raising a teenage daughter!,” she said. She was trying to help, and she meant it. She was giving me her permission. It was a kick, a jump, a start. Let’s see how far I’m willing to take it.


Maia Duerr has written a handy new book right up this alley, Work That Matters, a wise and realistic step-by-step guide to finding a livelihood that you love. If the questions on my mind are the questions on your mind, this book can start you off in the right direction. Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win a brand-new copy and a brand-new you.

10 books for serious readers*

December 13th, 2016    -    9 Comments

*And the people who love them anyway.

Ten notable books I’ve read and reviewed on Goodreads this year. Literary gifts for the serious reader in your life, which might be you!

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. Enter the anonymity of Lucia Berlin, who must have written her stories between addiction and abuse, poverty and pregnancy, romance and rehab, all manner of disaster and distress, a writer who writes without reader or acclaim, beyond rescue, from a motive so pure that it renders her posthumous words startling and brilliant. You will learn everything about Lucia in these stories, no truth too precious to hide, and afterwards you will hunger for more. She is a writer’s writer, which means she is a reader’s writer—hard knuckled, plainspoken—a cleaning woman’s cleaning woman. High praise.

All the Living by C.E. Morgan. Epically tender and exquisitely wrought: hard love on dry ground.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. I loved this quietly lustrous book, just as I loved the movie, so faithfully rendered. A reminder that modest lives now scarcely remembered—those of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—entailed profound risk, loss, hope and courage.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. A down-deep revelation of what a family silently imparts to itself. This will make you wonder how your impact—the stings, the slights, the oversights, and misperceptions—will reverberate long after your last breath. I took it personally, and could not put it down.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Quietly thunderous where words don’t reach.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Don’t even bother wondering what this book is about. It is not a story. It is a diagnosis. Yes, it was hard to love at first. But Franzen has once again astonished by taking on our culture’s big lies and crimes, mapping the DNA of our delusions: the rage for privacy amid the lust for fame; our worship of truth and appetite for lies; deep, personal isolation and alienation in a world of false connectedness; the noble ideals of art and equality hiding the ugly animal ferocity of our killer instincts. As in The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen drills down until we see that the big things that seem beyond mere mortal intervention—irreducible trends, events and technologies, history itself—reflect the small intimacies of our relationships. Left with only the unrelenting pain of this modern life, he comes down on the side of love, which, after all, is why we read. PS Anyone who wonders who killed America must read this book.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I feel obliged to tell you you’re not going to like this book. You may never read it and if you start you might not finish it. It is strange and not like any other piece of contemporary fiction I’ve ever read. It is about the ultimate journey we take in our life—our life—and the destination that lies ahead. We forget where the future will deliver us, just as we forget where we’ve been. And all along we embellish our story with myths and fantasies, history, fear, vague memory and conflicts so intense that we obscure altogether the absolute reality we dare not face. And yet, on this one-way journey, there is no turning back or getting around, no short cut, no other ending. The river flows. No knights can save us, no magic, no miracles, no medicine, no prayers. Finally, on the last page, we remember, and we go on alone to the other shore. What a curiously brave undertaking, Mr. Ishiguro. Even if this wasn’t your intention, we can’t avoid the truth when we find it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Speechless.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix. A wicked romp. Loved it.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The young neurosurgeon is ambitious and accomplished, a fascinating person whose early death from cancer is sad and unfair. But the most poignant passage in this autobiography does not arrive until the last paragraph, when he is well past memoir, beyond eloquence and intention, when he writes with simple, aching truth about the joy he finds with his newborn daughter. It’s a reminder of what most of us never see or know until the end: that there is nothing worth having that isn’t already here. And then, because that last paragraph is the first and last of its kind—incomparably pure and true—you know how life stops. In the middle of everything, just like that. Oh, to have a little more time to appreciate.


Give the gift of books that change lives. My publisher New World Library is offering a special discount of 50% off all titles, including Paradise in Plain Sight and Hand Wash Cold, until 12/21 (plus free shipping in the US on orders of $35 or more!) Simply enter the code “HOLIDAY” at checkout.

shoveling gutters

February 22nd, 2015    -    11 Comments

18335467I’m biding my time today until the sun is higher in the sky, the air warms a bit, and I can get out and clean the rain gutters. This is a chore that stands in for all the snow shoveling that might go on where you live. It is a solitary job. No one but me notices that it is time to do it. No one but me will do it. It does not diminish me. On the contrary, cleaning the gutters will give me power and purpose, direction and rhythm: spiritual guidance that doesn’t come when I spend the day merely thinking about what I could be doing, say, tomorrow.

My dear and sensitive friend Katrina Kenison recently sent me a marvelous book, out of the blue, which is what makes something a gift, descending like a bird into your hand from who-knows-where, a memoir by Mary Rose O’Reilley, a poet and author hitherto unknown to me, who once apprenticed herself to a sheep farm. Going to work every day in a barn made no sense in a literal way, her lofty mind knowing nothing about sheep or lambing or castration or shearing or sudden virulent sickness and death, any of the activities that make up the muddy substance of a sheep farm. Perhaps she had an inkling that the experience would spiritually ground her, rescue her from the reaches of her poetic inclinations, and it did. The farm rescued her, and reading about it rescued me too.

I haul the ladder from the garage and put on oversized gloves. I always start by using a trowel to dig out the gutters but before long I’ll pitch the gloves and tool because they don’t quite get at the depth of the matter, the sweet oozing muck, the marriage of last summer’s dust, wind-brittled leaves and December’s forgotten rain. You have to use your hands.

Sometimes, to tell you the truth, I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel greatly alone and sad. Especially these days, I have to remind myself that I keep company with the earth and sky, and that I alone mother the myriad things in-between. That I am a farmer and a friend, and still an apprentice at both. I have to come back to this wholesome earth and shepherd myself in the best way I can. That’s about the time a gift arrives, and I am saved.

The ladder is shaky because at no spot around this house, which sits on a mountain, is the ground level. I’m not afraid. This old path is muddy, but my aim is straight, and maybe I’ll see a bird.

Going out now.

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a voice in the night

December 14th, 2014    -    57 Comments

41Jec+cLZXLMomma Zen is now available as an audiobook, read by me. Here’s a chance to win a free copy for yourself or a friend.

I can’t remember writing this book. I can’t remember what I wrote. But I can remember the moment when I began to write. I had never written in my own name before. The moment of birth went like this:

Me to my husband: I need a laptop!
Him: Okay.
Me: I need to go away and write!
Him: Okay.
Me: I’m going to write a book!
Him Okay.

The labor, as all labors, continued for quite a long time after, in every kind of circumstance. It was years before I had a sense of what I had done and, more to the point, who had done it. I can see that Momma Zen is not really like the books I’ve written since. One reason is that it reflects my maturity as a Zen student, mother, and writer at the time, which were all three nil. I used to wonder how in the world I had pulled it off. Now I think I know.

These are my mother’s words, after she died, reaching beyond time and space to console me in my darkest hours. When I read these words I see her and feel her; when I hear them I am her. How comforting her voice in the dark, reminding me that I am not alone. Now, how comforting my voice in the dark, reminding you that you are not alone.

Bring yourself into the fold by leaving a comment on this post. I will be awarding several free copies of the new audiobook to commenters next Sunday, the darkest night of the year.

my spectacular failure

September 8th, 2014    -    4 Comments

This week I’ll be going into a recording studio to tape the audiobook of Momma Zen. This is a welcome and unexpected chance to put my speaking voice to my writer’s “voice.” The occasion reminds me of this passage in the book about the eternal power of voice:

“In the cozy darkness, tucking in my three-year-old, I ask her what she loves best. ‘Your voice,’ she says, dreamily. She is halfway dreaming, when answers are undefiled. I am reassured. It will change a bit, weaken and grow old. And then she will hear it in herself: a song without words, a lyric beyond language, a smile, a laugh, a moment’s silent consolation. It will always come back because it never leaves. I know that voice.” — Momma Zen

I’ll be sure and let you know when the Audible book is ready so you can hear my voice in my own voice and share it with those inclined to listen.

In my work and practice, I’m continually exploring the intuitive voice within us, the voice that speaks a truth we know before we know it. Earlier this year I had a videochat with my friend, artist and writer Christine Mason Miller about the mysteries of voice, the peculiar humiliations of a writer’s life, the organic uncertainty of the creative process, and redefining professional success (which in my case looks like spectacular failure). If you wish to write or try to write — or if you harbor any artistic or professional aspirations for that matter — our conversation might be helpful. What I say applies to any expectation or ideal we cherish and it might just be something you need to hear today.

The video was included in a comprehensive e-course Christine put together for aspiring authors called “The Conscious Booksmith.” The six-week course will be offered again in January, and if you’d like to get more information about it, sign up here. It’s worth it.

In the meantime, you can watch us talk about success and failure right here and now. (If you’re reading this post in your email and don’t see the video, click on the headline and you’ll be taken to the blog.)


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July 15th, 2014    -    8 Comments


A remarkable thing—the opportunity to meet after millions of ages.

In 1989 I met the prolific literary genius, Larry McMurtry. It’s hard for me to believe that now because it’s not entirely true.

That year I was working for an old-style businessman’s club in downtown Houston that had declined in favor. To be sure, what we in Texas call “the good old boy’s club” never, ever falls out of favor or privilege, but its clubrooms do. This one had peaked along with white-gloved waiters and dark wood paneling. My job was to fill it again.

So we asked Larry McMurtry to come and speak. Today you might wonder why a crowd of oilmen would rally for a literary type like McMurtry, and the answer is, not because of a book. It was because of TV. Lonesome Dove, the irresistible miniseries made from McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western, had aired on television for four nights in February 1989 and no one alive had missed it. You can bet no one on the club roster wanted to miss a night with the storyteller, and so the event was sold out.

McMurtry brought some books with him. Unfortunately, they weren’t Lonesome Dove. They were the hardcover editions of Anything for Billy, his new novel about Billy the Kid that was far more resistible. He gave a talk. Perhaps it was about his life or his craft. I don’t recall one word of it, except what he didn’t say about Lonesome Dove. He didn’t say anything about Lonesome Dove, but after awhile he asked for questions. Every question was about the miniseries.

No one in the audience gave one hoot about Larry McMurtry, although they thought they did. They were interested in Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, the characters Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Each questioner had an intimate relationship with the story. What did Larry think would happen to these characters next, if, and when? These fans had worked out future plot lines, and they offered them to inspire the writer toward a sequel. At some frustrated point, McMurtry told them that he had written Lonesome Dove a long time ago. It was old and over. He wasn’t thinking about it at all.

I was a PR counselor at the time, and I thought he was in serious need of PR counseling. The most successful night in the revival of the club was a rank failure.

There was a table set up in the foyer with stacks of the new hardcover, and McMurtry sat there after to sign books. I bought one. There were a lot left over. The club members hadn’t much appreciated the change in subject. This McMurtry fellow was kind of rude and full of himself.

I think about this now because of the perils of offering myself online, as I do here, or through my books, and recognizing the rare significance of meeting one another for real. I think about this because of media that disguises writing to oneself as writing to another and the digital repartee that passes for speech. I think about this because I have presented myself on the page as a kind of soul sister but show up in the flesh as a taskmaster. Because I have told three volumes of personal stories but limit my in-person talks to the practice of silence. It can seem kind of rude, like I’m changing the subject.

In researching this post, I’ve learned that Anything for Billy is considered one of McMurtry’s standalone books, meaning that it isn’t part of a thematic series. I surely saw that for myself all those years ago, the author standing by himself in a room of 400, no one seeing, no one hearing, no one caring, that lonesome night I didn’t meet Larry McMurtry.

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finding you in France

May 22nd, 2012    -    50 Comments

Somewhere in the deep trench of what I call my “first life,” a friend gave me the book, A Year in Provence. The happy misadventures of an English novelist and his wife in the French countryside was a megaseller. It went on to spawn a TV miniseries, several sequels and the undying flattery of imitators—an entire genre of nonfiction pretenders that persists to this day. You know, books like A Year of Doing This, A Year of Doing That. They appeal to us because we all want to ditch our lives and end up somewhere other than a ditch. Makes for pleasant tripping, if only in our dreams.

My friend inscribed the book with ebullience, “Savor the taste of life!” She clearly knew something I didn’t, like why in the world you would ever use an exclamation point.

These were the days when I didn’t make time to read books or take trips and couldn’t conceive that life had a taste other than the bone-dry dread of worry, work, hurry, and sleeplessness. My life had no flavor because I had no appetite for it. Eventually, of course, I turned myself around, and glory be.

It only takes a flutter of your lids to open your eyes to a wider world.

First, I nibbled books like the one I’d been given. Then I took my first trip to France. (It wasn’t fancy, just four days piggybacking on my roommate’s airline buddy pass, sleeping on a stranger’s floor, eating on the streets. In other words, it was heaven.) I learned, and I’m learning still, that life has many flavors, not all savored, and not all sweet. I don’t live in France, but my plate is full. I’m never hungry, and I don’t want for more.

I’ve just finished a delicious book along these lines, Finding Me in France. Here’s why I liked it. Bobbi French (real name) wasn’t another writer with a book meme. She was a stressed out psychiatrist with a terribly important life in Halifax who did the unthinkable: she sat back, wised up and clocked out, selling nearly everything to give herself a flying start at saving her own life. Her infectious memoir, drawn from her hilarious blog, recounts the comedic first year of living (with her agreeably nimble husband) in a medieval town in Burgundy. It sounds fancy, but it’s not. It’s humble and endearing. She fumbles with the language, the customs, the personal hygiene, and the plumbing. Her new life required, as all heavens do, a face-first landing in a ditch or two. Interesting strangers put roofs over her very tall head and floors under her bad back; she ends up overeating quite nicely on the streets.

You can taste it all through her scrumptious stories and sumptuous photos. The taste is fresh and original: the freedom to find yourself.

Everyone has reasons to love France, but Bobbi gives you the best reason to love the French: herself, even if she’s really Canadian. I fell in love with this book. I’m giving away my coffee-stained pristine copy (each page turned only once!) at random, on Friday, to a lucky traveler who leaves a comment on this post. If you’ve been looking for something to bite into, come and get your life! This means you.

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returning the gift

October 4th, 2010    -    68 Comments

Between the giver, the receiver and the gift there is no separation – Maezumi Roshi

The world can seem stingy, competitive and cruel. Or it can seem generous, welcoming and kind. A single gift can make the difference, and it always comes back to us. The gift we offer is the same gift we receive. Like the coffee we put into our cup, what we pour out is what we drink in: all of it an inseparable extension of our own hand.

The world I share with author Katrina Kenison is welcoming and kind, because she is, and she brings that out in me. It does me no good to bemoan how rare this quality is in any of the realms I occupy. Cups look empty until we fill them again.

In Katrina’s two books, Mitten Strings for God, and The Gift of an Ordinary Day, she welcomes us into a world infused with natural wisdom. She is the kind of mother we all are, aiming to change her family life for the better amid the inevitable undertow of change itself. She doesn’t pretend to know how. She doesn’t make any self-satisfied assessments. She simply follows her instincts into blind curves and doubt. Settle into the pages of her memoirs and what spills out is the fullness in every mother’s wistful heart. read more

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