Wordless

“What are you sitting there for?” Lyle asked from the doorway.

“I’m thinking,” Vern said without looking up.

“Thinking. About what?”

“Writing.”

“You’re thinking about writing.” Lyle said walking into the room and peering at the computer screen.

“Yes.”

“There aren’t any words on there.”

“I know.”

“Are they going to write themselves?”

“I hope so.”

“They’re off to a slow start.”

“Listen, how about you go pour me a whiskey. I think that’d help the little bastards start flowing from my fingertips like they oughta be doing.”

“Seems to me that could get in the way.”

“Well, you let me worry about that. I think a little whiskey would be like putting some WD-40 on a hinge right about now.”

Lyle lumbered off muttering about ice and the cost of a proper bottle. Vern continued to stare at his hands, willing the words to spring forth, like a snake getting charmed out of its basket, words rising out of the dark to electrify the page.

The clock ticked and the cat began chewing on something in the corner of the room.

“Cut that out, Buster! Ssssssss!”

It was always the hissing sound that got the cat to pay attention.

Lyle stood in the doorway. “What was all that?”

“Cat’s into something.”

“That little bastard knocked my pill jar off the counter today. He better not be getting into that bottle.”

“What was in it?”

“My blood pressure medicine.”

“Christ! If he gets into that, we’ve got a dead cat on our hands!”

“If we don’t find that bottle, we’ll have a dead Lyle on our hands. I can’t be running around without my medicine.”

“For crying out loud. Don’t you think we should be looking for the damn pill jar?”

“I was going to talk to you about it, but then you were sitting there staring off with that look on your face, like you were in mourning or something.”

“Would you please shut up and look for the damn pills? Vern said, setting the laptop on his side table and lowering himself to look under the chair.

I’ve changed my mind

I’ve changed my mind  about this whole writing thing. If you’re going to grasp for straws out of thin air, why not become a trapeze artist? My god, imagine the freedom of flying barely tethered, the excitement, the swallow back your stomach, heart in your ears excitement. In all likelihood there would be clowns, however, same as everywhere with their predictable shenanigans and big shoe shuffle.

Grasping for straws now mind you, wouldn’t being a farmer yield more results? Also, too, there would the the cycle—so satisfying—the tilling, planting, weed & water, harvest of it. There would be Friday night Bingo! & bean suppers at the Grange Hall. Do country folk still sup at the Grange? Is there a Halloween fun house with spaghetti for worms, jello for brains & pudding for something unspeakable?

Well, there’s always Miss America or an accordionist, or a kick boxer or a spy—finding the needle in the hay instead of the usual straw detail.

Perhaps, rather than write I’ll develop anorexia nervosa and fade invisibly away or I could hitch hike to Alaska and work on a fishing boat, piling fish guts around my ankles for hours and days.

Perhaps then I would have something to write about. Perhaps then. Perhaps.

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?

NaPoWriMo!

stone

Nothing causes the sound of crickets on my FaceBook page faster than the mention of poetry. It’s amazing! I can ask for volunteers to read a short story and get a few takers (and it’s more words! more time! more reading!), but read a poem? Everyone puts her or his head down, backs away from my post & the room quietly fades to black. Cue the crickets.

I don’t really consider myself a poet, although I have worked and worried a few verses that were respectable enough. But here it is, National Poetry Writing Month (get the blog title?) and here I am, not blogging often enough. Also, I am in my very last class before graduating and it happens to be a poetry class! (Coincidentally, my very first class in the program was a poetry workshop, which seems like poetic justice, no?)

The Project: A poem a day for a month!

Here’s what poet and publisher Maureen Thorson, the founder of this project, says of NaPoWriMo:

Be open to the possibilities. The point isn’t to turn out a fully formed sonnet each day — although if anyone wants to try, I’m not going to discourage them! The point is to just get something down on the page without worrying about doing it “right.” Many people, including published poets, avoid writing because their inner editor keeps saying, “oh, that’s not good” or “you’re not taking this seriously.” But then you end up writing nothing at all.

I’d suggest that people “let go” of any preconceived notions of what poems have to look like or be about. A poem can rhyme, or not. It can be in a traditional form, or not. It can be about something like love or death, or . . . it could be about how much you like the smell of new erasers. Again, this project is more about getting words down than on making sure they’re perfect. You can always edit later — like in May!

So, please don’t leave me here all alone. I’ll try not to hurt you. I promise!

April 1

Bag of compost in hand, intent on quick deposit,

and hasty retreat from the green bin’s rotting stink,

I am stopped short by the lemon tree prima donna,

A songbird crooning its dusky love refrain

that leaves me longing at the top of the stairs.

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.”

What’s your story?

Narrative. I’ve been thinking about it lately, because I’m taking a narrative workshop that starts this week.In particular, I’ve been thinking about personal narratives.

I had the occasion to shop for a new laptop last month. I asked my recently-retired boss Vance to join me. He’s a Mac user, a math whiz and all-around good guy, so it seemed like a reasonable plan. I worked with Vance for almost 5 years and became familiar with the way he operates. He recognized limitations, challenges or hardships faced by the public schools with which we worked, but he always, invariably,  saw the growth, possibilities and promise of the professionals who were working within those systems.

When we went to the Mac store, I could see Vance looking around, noticing the way business was being conducted. He was impressed by the young man who helped me through my decision process and the information he was able to provide. And then Vance did what he Vance does, he created a narrative of development, hope, progress, and potential that he took with him when he left the store. We joined other GEAR UP folks for dinner and he had that story to tell–the story of how amazing young people are, how technology is changing the world, enabling us to do many complex tasks effortlessly.

It got me thinking about narrative. I mean, a less positive or enlightened person could have told the story of being dragged to the Mac Store as a journey to hell with a woman half-crazed with fear because her PC was dying. Not that Vance knew anyone like that, I am simply making an example of a purely hypothetical, contrasting narrative.

Inspired by the subject, I consulted our friend Wikipedia and discovered another way of thinking about narrative: as a psychological process of creating a sense of personal or cultural identity. There is one school of thought that asserts that the breakdown of a coherent or positive narrative may play a role in the development of mental disorder. Fascinating!

The psychological definition made me think about my Dad. Although he, to my knowledge, was never diagnosed as having depression, I’d really surprised if he couldn’t have been. My Dad’s narrative was the black to Vance’s white. His went something like, “I’ll never get ahead, never have anything. All I do is work, work, work with nothing to show for it. You kids are all grown up and I don’t even know you.” Ouch.

I wonder what his life might have been like if he could have let go of his heavy-hearted narrative. I wonder if he could have re-written the story of his life, if not gaining a few years before his sudden death at 59, then perhaps in making those too-few years a celebration of something that brought him a feeling of hopefulness about this world. Would even a small bit of everyday hopefulness, like the anticipation of seeing the sun rise over his favorite maple tree or the thorough enjoyment of warm oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, have been enough to heal his heart?

It’s worth contemplating, both as a writer going into a character whose narrative may define a story and as a human trying to live authentically, consciously, productively and positively.

Do you have a personal narrative? What is it? Or what do you want it to be?

Cosmic Curveball

I had the occasion to travel to Los Angeles for work twice in the month of June. It isn’t generally a difficult journey: a ten minute drive to the airport, a one-hour flight, twenty minute cab ride & Voila! Destination reached. Of course, that’s if there are no problems along the way.

The trip early in June had me toying with the idea of adding a Rant category to the blog.

Somewhat sheepishly I confess that I have been complimented on my ability to rant on the page. I am sheepish, because I wonder: is this really an accomplishment? Perhaps it is simply my birthright.

My father was known for his ability to Rant AND Rave. I think the combination of these two distinct art forms takes the genre over the top. Rant, ok. Rave if you must. But rant AND rave? Whoa there, big fella.

It was my early June taxi experience that made the rant seem like a viable and appropriate addition to the blog. I did write a mini rant, which you can find in my review of the Burbank Bob Hope Airport. The experience described in that review was really only the beginning, because after the heinous taxicab assignment, the man driving our cab was lost, so very lost. He made navigational decisions that added almost $10 to our tab, all the while an iPhone was charging on the dashboard. (They have GPS, ya know.) My patient suggestions were ignored. Very lucky that my Jedi training in self-control was effective on this day, he was.

I felt certain that wielding my bloggity pen as a proverbial sword was appropriate and the rant was in! Finally, a blog category! How I lack them and how I long for a category. It was then that, of course, the cosmic pitcher threw me a curveball.

I got a ride from the most excellent cab driver of all time.

Not only did he know how to get from point A to B without excessive prompting (a quality that I’ll not soon take for granted), but amazingly, he seemed to actually enjoy what he was doing for employment! Do bear in mind that we were in Los Angeles (home of the freeway parking lot) and on “The 5” (mother of all freeway parking lots).

I could feel the joy radiating off this man. At first, I thought maybe I was a little, I don’t know, crazy for thinking he was so darn happy. But then he came right out & said (unprompted) something to the effect of, “You know the most important thing to me right now? Getting you where you need to be. I love doing this. Getting you there safe, so you can do what you need to do is all I need in this moment. I love this.”

How about that? Think about the power of doing that which you do, however great or humble, with that philosophical wind in your sails. What could not be accomplished?

He changed my day and he changed my blog: the rant can wait.

Have you been thrown a cosmic curveball lately? What did it look like? Did it change your direction, if only for a moment?

Salty or Sweet?

Doesn’t it seem like we get asked a lot of This or That questions? For example:  Do you prefer cats or dogs? Are you a spontaneous/right brain person or a logical/left brain person? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Active or passive? San Franciscans: Do you prefer fog or sun?

Dichotomies abound!

This line of questioning is a conundrum for me, because I am rarely This or That. I prefer food that has at least two things going on, like spicy/sweet or bitter/sweet. I’m an extroverted introvert. I’m a doer that thinks, while my husband is a thinker who does.

I experience a similar This/That aversion regarding fields of study. A lifetime lover of the word, particularly the written word, I have pursued studies and positions that involve communications in a variety of formats. But there also lurks in my heart a love of earth science. My recent writing has somewhat unconsciously given both loves a place to bask in the sunlight.

Before submitting my Master’s writing project to the university library, I am looking at it with fresh eyes. I’m thinking about my writing process and noticing where the words shimmer, as opposed to getting the reader from here to there. The poetry comes into my writing when the sanctity of nature is explored.

The Piscataquis River is an important presence that runs through this body of writing. The fictional characters live in communities along the nonfictional river in Maine.

Giving the river presence and voice helps me step into the writing with a spirit of reverence. Immersion into the river-as-character creates a ripple effect that deepens my exploration of the surrounding characters. Humans are complex, human interactions much more so, and doing them justice is hard work.  Honoring the natural world is how I can float into more challenging, deeper writing.

Intersections are rich for this very reason. They are places where what we know gets to interact with something less familiar or comfortable. Where things that were once distinct can co-mingle and evolve.

I was puzzling about dichotomies and intersections of seeming divergent interests, when some illustrative images fell into my lap. Don’t you love it when that happens?

Art & Science, as related to the Midnight Heron, found within twenty feet of each other on a recent walk:

Examples of a science-inspired art can be found on Bernie Peyton’s website. He’s a wildlife biologist who creates amazing paper sculptures inspired by the animals he has studied.

My friend Bob McCauley is a gifted and respected painter who finds inspiration from the natural world. Bob’s work was described by Poet Laureate Billy Collins as “realism that is haunting and full of ambiguity.” Rather than using words, Bob paints thoughtful, beautiful metaphors.
It is a rich intersection.

Celebrations and Compelling Proposals

Happy Birthday, Golden Gate Bridge! Doesn’t the bridge seem like a fixture? It’s hard to fathom a time when it wasn’t there. The Golden Gate turned 75, which sounded old until I realized it’s a few years shy of twice my age. Ehem. Nonetheless we celebrated the old girl with a lot of shared love, admiration and a brilliant fireworks display.

There was more than one occasion to raise a glass in acknowledgement of an undertaking this week. I received an interesting proposal. Not from the handsome devil pictured above, but from two of the people for whom I work.

Penny Edgert, who wrote the California GEAR UP grant proposal and is our Principal Investigator (among many other roles and titles)  hatched this plan: to write about the life of Lynn Baranco and the Baranco family, as an exploration of the impact of civil rights and education on one Bay Area family.

The man who hired me, Lynn Baranco, started his career in his father’s shoe shine shop in the 1950s. The first of his family to go to college, he eventually landed at Cal (University of California at Berkeley) where he worked for many years starting with Upward Bound and serving as Special Assistant to the Chancellor and as the Director of Student Recruitment.

Lynn has lived a charmed life and there is a lot of great material to work with. He’s a natural story-teller with a ready sense of humor and a booming laugh; you know when he enters the building.

Penny and Lynn are Characters in every sense of the word. They’ve known each other for just about 40 years, so there is a lot of shared material! I’ll probably never get to hear it all, but I’ll be hearing a lot. They have asked me to help them write Lynn’s memoir. I’m thrilled to be asked and hope that I’m up to the task. It will be a fun project no matter how you slice it.

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?