The Writer’s Life, post-graduate musing

I’m a planner. Before I got my degree from Holy Names University’s graduate writing program, I developed a strategy to keep writing without the obligation (and well-planned syllabi) of my courses. My greatest fears included post-graduate inertia, the paralyzing expectations of great writing (immediate, constant, without end), the inability to allow dirty dishes to sit while the commitment to writing was honored, etc. etc. etc. Any activity that is not required to survive or or that is not achieved while slumped on the couch can be difficult to perform regularly…at least at my house! Clearly, I needed a plan.

Step 1: take a class at the Writing Salon taught by Elaine Beale (my classmate Damian Barnes told me she was wonderful & he was right!) Since I took that class, I’ve actually been writing in the notebook I carry around for that purpose. Elaine provided us with a bibliography to inspire the creative muse and from that, I’ve been working with A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves. It is wonderful. As they say, if you don’t use it, you lose it. The counterpart of that pithy adage is: the more you look, the more you see. With fresh eyes, the world is a more interesting place. Writing makes me feel engaged and reflective about the people or situations that I encounter.

Step 2: develop a nurturing, engaging, stimulating, fun writing community. I’m at the beginning of this journey. I struck up a friendship a few months ago with a fellow Alameda blogger, Alice Lewis, who is developing her writer’s confidence and voice, too. I joined the California Writers Club (check’s in the mail!), a group devoted to writing and the writer’s life, with regular events and groups to support the work. I need to add more pieces to this puzzle, but I’m uncertain what’s next.

Step 3: research literary magazines with the intention to Get Published! I realize it’s the goal of many (perhaps far more worthy) writers, but a girl’s gotta dream!

I wonder how other people pursue their dreams. What’s your strategy or process?

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Your Hair *Is* Your Personality

Last night I had dinner with a friend. When she arrived, she sported a freshly shaven head. My happiness at seeing her was matched by surprise and trepidation, as she’s mentioned having medical issues several times recently. Thankfully she is bald by her own hand and the reasons are complicated, like she is, as most of us are when you really get to the heart it.

My friend is on a journey–a spiritual, physical, psychological journey. She is paring away what is extraneous, purifying, eliminating the inessential to get to what has value, to see things from a new vantage point. How do people look at me? Am I the person that they see or believe they see? What is beauty, femininity, health? How do we make the right choices for our life and living?

Coincidentally (if there is such a thing as coincidence), I came to our dinner date from a doctor’s appointment. For more than thirty minutes, I had sat in my paper gown waiting for my doctor (who I respect & am very happy to have on my health team). The 20-something woman with the appointment before mine (who I’d seen walk by in tears) got some bad health news. My doctor, quite rightly, made the time to talk with her. Waiting didn’t seem like much to ask, given that perspective.

We are our bodies, our hair is (or isn’t) an indicator of our personalities and we are so much more than any of it. We are complicated creatures, the depths of which may never be guessed by a cursory assessment. I got a needed reminder of the importance of compassion. We humans may need it like we need air: breathe it in and breathe it out.

Morning

Dodging sprinklers that green grass,

I cross the street, scanning for traffic.

Half a block down, a cat-sized mound

dots the center line. Two crows argue

above in the trees. Cars zip

between me and the mound,

which ruffles black in tires’ breeze–

One car, two pass. Contemplation

from the ground and above.

Not cat nor crow, but a wig

animated in abandon. We nod,

continue with our ways.

 

 

Year of the Snake and the Rejuvenation of the Blog

How does one dust off a blog site and fire it up again? Inspired by the Chinese Year of the Snake, I suppose one could wriggle out of the old skin with the new epidermal layer ready for business: a radical yet commonplace act of rejuvenation.

In the months since the last blog, I’ve asked myself, “What is the point of writing?”

The answer that seems most true is that writing is a way to think aloud about an image or idea. I have found that when I don’t sit down to explore and write about a character, image, or phrase, they start to gather and linger outside my door, demanding my attention when I try to go about my business. “Hey lady, can I talk to you for a minute?” The crow that perches itself on the garage roof cawing at my window for days. The image of a young girl delivering newspapers in the almost-dawn hours, her breath and her vulnerable self hovering just before her as she walks down the road. They wait like ghosts and I can’t get past them.

These images become a worry stone in my pocket that I fuss over. I don’t get very far, because my mind fusses over what it knows, again and again. When I sit to write it out, I find the nuance, the “catch” at the heart of the thing. The writing gives me space to approach, examine, and pause.

This blog was the brain child of my friend Donna. She, Michael and I were having dinner (a horrible dinner) on New Years Eve 2012, when we all agreed to start blogging. One blog emerged from the agreement, this one. Since then Donna has cajoled, encouraged, pushed and prodded me on, not even content when I was writing semi regularly. “More,” she said. “Write more.”

Donna_RamenUnderground_2.16.13

As Ann Lamott said about writing in a recent-ish article in salon.com, “…just do it. No one cares if you write or not, so you have to.”

There is a Jim-sized Hole in the Heart of Things

Where does one start when writing about a friend who has died? It’s hard to know. So I’m starting with his death, hardly the beginning nor the end.

I met Jim Julin through my friend Sue, or at least I think that’s how it went. I met several people who I thought had Friend Potential when I moved to Rockford, Illinois. Turned out they were all friends with each other and called themselves the Foster Family. It’s a tight, but open group bonded together by love & respect, unhampered by bullshit so far as I can tell, blessed with a love of food, art, bonfires & revelry. Jim was at the center of this group in many ways.

Jim seemed to be at the center of many circles, which may have had something to do with mass. Jim was a big man, so it seemed energetically appropriate that he would be the denser star at the center of our various solar systems, with all the people who loved him orbiting in some established proximity to his radiance.

I feel fortunate that I visited Rockford recently. Before going, I sent an email out to a few of “the group” hoping they’d gather at Octane, a favorite downtown spot where one could often find Jim in the evening. He had a seat at the bar, close to the door, so he was the first person you’d see if he was there—a welcoming presence.  I followed up with Jim individually, because I hadn’t heard from him. Here’s the way that went:

 “Hey Jim! Will I see you on Friday?

“Indeed”

It turns out that will be the last email exchange I’ll ever have with Jim. While on the one hand it feels inadequate in its brevity, given its posthumous importance. On the other hand, it is absolutely perfect. It’s Jim in a nutshell.

Within ten days of that email exchange, we learned that Jim had gone into the hospital for one thing, but after surgery the doctors determined he was full of cancer and had days, if lucky, to live. He was in such bad shape that the doctors put him into a medical coma and, according to my sources, did not know if he would ever wake.

Jim did wake and was surrounded by a crowd of family and chosen family, his community of friends. His friends brought wine, Fosters, stories, music and love. They filled his room and his final days. They helped his beloved sister Chris deal with the unthinkable. If nothing else, Jim Julin knew to the very bottom of his soul that he was loved, celebrated, and honored.

One of the things that I come back to is that I wish I had savored more conversation with Jim the last time I saw him. I have not yet outgrown the naïve, or maybe optimistic, belief that there will always be a next time, that our paths will cross again, that life is long. I need to do better in savoring the moments, even as I scramble to “get it all done.” What is most important to the heart and soul must be prioritized, as much as possible.

Life may not have gone exactly the way Jim would have wanted. There was a time I know that he longed for female companionship and regretted the lack of it in his life. But he also loved life more than almost anyone I know. He seemed amused and pleased by all of it and all of us on some level. What a great operating philosophy or way of life.

Jim marked a place in the community and it had the feeling of Home. It’s hard to imagine the sudden loss of that, but here we are.

See you on the other side, Jim. It will be one hell of a party when we all catch up with you.

Photo credit: Nels Akerlund Photography

Clichés come in all shapes and sizes!

After a year and a half of relative diligence, I have submitted my final project for review. If it is approved, I will soon have earned a Master’s degree in Holy Names University’s writing program. Hot diggity!

I can’t get over the relief!

Nonetheless, I plan to continue developing this writing to see if I can get some or all of it published. Because the last thing I want to do is send my fledgling literary endeavor into the world before it’s ready for objective review, I have solicited critical feedback. I value both positive and negative feedback and have been fortunate to find readers willing to give both!

It must be said, despite one’s best intentions, negative reaction can sting. One of the most difficult criticisms I received was that my treatment of a character was condescending and the dialog involving her was clichéd. My heart! My pain at the criticism was made more acute by my fondness for this character.

Flummoxed, I couldn’t process the feedback. I finally asked another reader, who has been unfailingly thoughtful in her feedback, to help me understand the criticism. (Or the shocking accusation, if one were feeling sensitive…) In the end, I hope my edits addressed the criticisms while staying true to the heart of the story. I think they did.

Clichéd phrases were red inked on more than one occasion in this collection of stories. There were also times when language or phrasing was correct in the geographical context of the stories, but was too far outside the readers’ frames of reference. It was too authentic to be acceptable; it was disruptive to the story. In the end, everything must serve the story.

There is something about the juxtaposition between that which is too familiar and that which is too foreign that has come to intrigue me.

I wonder if you find yourself unintentionally using clichés in your writing or speech?

Conversely, have you had the experience of referring to something “universal,” only to find the audience doesn’t share your familiarity with the image, phrase or event?

What makes a hero?

Since I started blogging, I’ve noticed that there are times when “themes” emerge in the public discourse or in the small circles through which I move. Themes are great for blogs, so my antennae are on alert for these gold nuggets. I’ve recently had cause to think about people acting heroically, in part because of this man:

Last week Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker ran into a burning building to save a woman who lives in his neighborhood, which I think is amazing. I mean, who (besides our everyday hero, the Firefighter) has the fortitude to run into a burning building? Talk about serving the public…

In thinking about heroism, I recalled a moment of personal cowardice to put things into perspective. Although, there are times in my life when I have done The Right Thing, I haven’t always played my A game… When I first left Maine at the tender age of 23, I lived in Santa Cruz for a couple of years. My grandmother June came to visit me and we went out on the Wharf, where we were amazed to see a pelican perched.

As we stood a few yards from it, snapping pictures and marveling, it took flight, straight at us! I shrieked and hid behind my grandmother, who was in her 70s at the time. We had a good laugh about it all, but it was a moment for me. I had a little chat with myself:  You don’t jump behind Gram, you jump in front of her. Got it? Good.

My March 6 post was about seeing a young man in a restaurant perform the Heimlich Maneuver on one of his dining companions. When I first realized what was happening, he was doing it without success and he began to panic. He stopped and asked the people in the room for help. My husband stood beside him and calmly told him he was doing the right thing and to keep doing it. He resumed his efforts and a moment later his friend was gasping for air.

Sometimes being heroic takes a team. In the above case, being heroic meant doing what is needed–an active role for some, a supporting role for others. And just because you are the right person at the right time doesn’t mean you know how: you may be the one who figures it out.

Can you think of some everyday or extraordinary heroism that you’ve seen recently? What does heroism look like to you?