26. In Defense of Editors

08/17/2018

Editors are a bloodless lot. Ink runs in their veins. Like street paramedics, firefighters, and ER caregivers, the editors are the people whose job is not always lovely work, but it’s the work that must be done to save the savable lives. I spent 25 years in the emergency service and rescue professions, and people often asked me how I could do this, when it was obviously something that’s hard to do. It occurs to me now, that editors might be asked the same question.

I have done a little bit of editing and I have some very modest skills in that, but I’ve got to say, as people have said to me about what I do – “I wouldn’t want that job! It’s not my cup of tea.” The truth of the matter is, life tends to call us each to some path or other, and provides us with the skills and tools and temperament we need for it. If we have the courage to do that thing we’re called to do, even though it’s not always easy or fun, we will be good at it. If we do something else, either because it seems easier or because other people tell us we should, we never are as good at life itself as we could be.

Momentary digresion:  Expunge the word “should” from your vocabulary permanently. Strike-through it any/every time it pops up, and you will find that all of your thorniest decisions become astonishingly clearer and easier.

The editor’s calling is very different from mine, which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable for me. It’s the perspective I can’t see by myself. It’s the reason my editor battles me, to make my work the best it can be. What we are doing, what we are creating, depends on us both.

Dear editor: I hate you and I love you, because for better or for worse, you are my partner on the fire-line and in the trenches, and I know this.

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25. What Writers Do

07/09/2018

I wanted to bring something with me to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in August to put on the “consignment table,” where workshop leaders and attendees can put out a few of their books for sale. I looked through my  small personal catalog of works and decided to take a book of poetry called A Space Between Rains, and maybe a little chapbook titled Inchworms.

The chapbook was something I had sort-of thrown together in 2014 as a birthday gift for a writer friend, and never expected to publish. Besides writing, my friend was a full-time student and working part-time too, a very busy young man. His thank you, a few days later, was the best compliment I’ve ever received as a writer. He said, “I didn’t have time to read it, so I decided to just read one story. And then I read the whole book, cover to cover.”

So this year, searching for something “good enough” for the conference, I came back to it. Since then, more stories and poems have been added, and it has morphed into a viable book, with a cover blurb that says: “a lively little flea-market of a book…” A true definition of a chapbook, surely. There are stories that are blithe and happy, but also some that are deeper and dark.

This is not intended to be brilliant literature. Its essence is sometimes sweet and funny, often philosophical between the lines, and wiser than it seems. The title story is about a little girl, three years old, observing and describing an inchworm, a tiny green creature she finds in the chicken yard that is her backyard in North Carolina. She tells us about it, sharing her love of it with us. One page long, the story is simply a very young mind discovering the life around her. In later pages as she grows and sees more, the stories and poems do too. That’s it. That’s all it is.

This morning I realized that this is what we are all doing as writers, no matter what genre. We are observing life, discovering events and meanings, always more intimately, more vastly, and more truly, and we are inspired – no, compelled — to share what we have discovered. We want to shout from the mountaintop: “Wow – Look at this! This is Who We Are! This is what Life Is! Isn’t it marvelous? Isn’t it terrible? Wonderful, painful, joyous, profound, magnificent? To BE here and be alive, discovering it all?”

That’s what writers do. And somewhere hidden in a deep  place the world can’t pry into, we know that this is what we came here to do: to discover life and share it by telling it. With or without worldly recognition or reward, we write.

 


23. Query Letters and Cowboy Boots

05/07/2018

As I write my book, along the way I’m putting together the necessary “query letter” for potential agents/publishers– the first level of approach/sales-pitch to get published. I scribble bits of ideas that come to me at odd times. Today sitting in my little neighborhood church in Oakland, I was not thinking about the book and certainly not the query letter, when a new segment of “my readership” suggested itself:  Gay men…
and everyone else who has a sensibility that’s strong but gentle and vulnerable, who probably has had to be on guard for most of their lives, even ashamed, lest that gentleness at their center might be found out, rejected, or abused.

Though this will certainly be catalogued as a “women’s” book,  the fact of the matter is, all of us struggle to fit Who We Are  into What The World Expects of us instead, and usually demands from us. That’s one of the themes of the book of course, and truth be told, we all spend most of our lives trying to understand who we are, and then find the courage to dare to genuinely be that. The greatest obstacles are the deeply-embedded lies we were taught about ourselves when we were children, either by people who should have loved us but didn’t, or more often by people who did, and lied because they loved us, and wanted to protect us from life.

The book is about a skinny little girl who loves horses and fire engines. She gets repeatedly told by the big people “You can’t have that, you can’t do that, you can’t be that” (about these and most of the things she wants) because you’re a girl. And what’s worse, there is the powerful unspoken mandate: “You shouldn’t want those things,” (because) girls don’t.

“Who says?” She demands, to no avail. Again and again she asks, “Why not?” and gets no reasonable answer. “Those things are for boys,” they say. What the child hears clearly is: Who you are is not okay. It’s not okay to want what you want.

It’s a big fat lie, and somewhere in every child’s heart we know this, but what can we do? We’re just a kid. Some of the same lies are passed along for generations, always  when we’re young and vulnerable and trusting, newly-learning about what life’s supposed to be. By words or actions, many of us were informed, “You shouldn’t be who you are, and it’s wrong to want to be.”  If you’re a boy, you’ve got to like baseball, not art or music or poetry. If you’re a girl, you must like dolls and dresses and tea-sets, not horses and fire engines.

I remember with crystal clarity, the day my brother got cowboy boots. I got all excited and asked, “Ooooh! Do I get some cowboy boots too?” My parents laughed and said, “Oh no honey, cowboy boots are for boys. You can have some pretty ballet slippers…”

I was four years old. “Ballet slippers?” I was stunned. “WHO wants THAT?” I begged for cowboy boots too. It didn’t do any good. Even now I can still feel the ache and sting of being so terribly wronged and cheated. I pleaded, in my own defense, “I couldn’t help it that I was born a girl! I didn’t get to choose!”

For the next decade I was a closet-tomboy, sneaking out to climb trees and roofs and fire-escapes and gallop around the neighborhood pretending I was a racehorse. Eventually I grew up and turned out straight, which made things easier, especially in Texas in the 1950’s and 60’s. I learned to “act like a lady” and I obeyed the rules. I married and worked two jobs, the telephone company and a department store, to put my young husband through graduate school. I was a good wife. I spent the 4 1/2 loneliest years of my life like that, until finally I realized that I had no Life, and I had no Self. I was living in his shadow, and whoever I used to be had gotten lost somewhere in the dark. Not his fault– we both played the roles we were brought up to play. This works sometimes for some people. Not this time, not for me.

Leaving was hard. It felt like more than a failure, it felt like a death, but I knew it had to happen. I got a divorce. I took my life back. I bought myself a pair of cowboy boots.


22. Good Writing / Bad Writing

04/24/2018

I love going to readings at local bookstores, like Diesel on College Avenue, Berkeley. Often there are great people there. The guy who wrote Kite Runner was there, with his wife and son. Maxine Hong Kingston read there, and the godfather of Poetry Flash, Richard Silberg is a regular. One week it was a guy who had a good opening chapter which he read, so I bought the book. The rest of the book turned out to be a rather corny contrived 1950s detective story, crammed with gratuitous violence and cardboard characters, seeded with bits of jargon and dialogue he must have picked up from reading old True Detective magazines. The book was dreadfully boring (to me, with my own tastes and prejudices) so I skipped ahead looking for something interesting. I got all the way to the end of the book without finding that. Hmmmmm… As writers, we are prone to getting so deeply immersed in “our thing” that we forget there is someone else to consider – the reader. 

You could tell that the writer loved his ending, reveling in his own brilliance. It was a long, drawn-out, TV-style scene of meaningless violence, clumsily written in slow motion. (Hey, here’s a thought: When ya write about violence, dontcha think maybe the writing should be sharp, fast-moving, or in other words, violent?) When you slow it down and do a close-up of every punch, every gory detail, and every button on the detective’s overcoat sleeve, it has no power. I would hate to have to write a newspaper literary review for something like this, and have to say “The plot was glacier-like, and the characters had no flesh, no bones and no heartbeat.”

(Okay, that’s awfully harsh, girl. Who died and made you the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Committee?) I actually have no experience or expertise in book reviewing, only that tired old basic principle I heard so many times when I was a young artist: “I don’t know much about art, (literature, music, fill in the blank: _________ ) but I know what I like.” 

Many thoughts this morning about writers and writing, and about how many books get published that are definitely not literature. The publishing business is not about literature, it’s about selling books, and schlock sells better than art or literature. In a group I once frequented, the teacher/leader had two published books. I only recently got around to reading one of them, the most recent one. (It wasn’t in the pubic library so I stalled around for years.) The book wasn’t very good. In fact I was shocked at how weak and unimaginative the first page was. (I’m no expert about professional writing or publishing, but I do know, Ya gotta have something pretty good on the first page, or else nobody’s gonna turn it over and read the second page.)

I might be a snob-reader, it certainly could be justifiably argued. I tend to be too critical, of myself and others. But is there really much point in putting pen to paper for stuff like that?  Unless you do it to make money… well, after all, that is a necessity in this world, to pay the rent, and writing is an honest profession, mostly.  So I admit, shamefully, that I’m a snob (or something equally wormlike) in my tough standards for writing. In my defense, I’m as hard on myself as I am on anyone else. Anyway, I have put the group-leaders’s book into my goodwill collection box. Somebody will love it.

Which brought me to the bottom line of what I think is true.  Whether you write for an audience, or for the benefit of humankind, or simply write for your own pleasure, writing is expression, which is always a good thing. It’s a natural thing, like the wordless songs babies sing in their cribs in the morning that wake you up with a a laugh.  It’s not exactly music… or is it?


18. Write On

09/29/2017

I’m still looking for a beta reader or two. I never imagined they would be so hard to find. A few  friends began to read the book, but when they got to the hard parts, they just stopped. Admittedly, this book is not for every casual beach-reader, it’s not a romance, Sci-Fi  or a fairytale. It’s true, and there are parts of it that are dark, where people do things that are not kind, and things happen that are ugly.

But no soul is ugly. This is a deep lesson. It’s the one I learned in my years as a caregiver in a hospital emergency room. That’s where every kind and level of human life comes together in one place, sooner or later. To see the Soul  in some of these— lifelong drunks and drug addicts in rain-and-urine-soaked clothes with lice and cockroaches living on their bodies, and the stench was horrible – it was nearly impossible. But what the a 13th-century Persian poet Rumi said  is still true:

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.” 

And these wretched remnants of humanity I served and fed and cared for, I finally learned, were the Bodhisattva who have come to teach us what not to choose.

So I write on, as writers do, it’s what we do because we must. Today I still have a ton of work to do and it all seems so impossible. There are times when it flows, but sometimes it’s like turning the crank on the old steel hand-operated meatgrinder my Greek grandmother used, part of the necessary work to prepare the marvelous spaghetti sauce that only she could make.


17. Writing From the Inside

08/11/2017

What I’m writing is a memoir but has become something of an epistle of faith. When I look across my history and the history of my family from the outside now, I see patterns and meanings I didn’t see when I was looking from the inside out. I’m not leading, I am led. It is being written like a letter not from my usual ego view, but more as if spoken from some inner voice, seen by inner eyes, uncontrived and unplanned. Whatever comes to me that rings true and real, I write it down. If it has value, it will stay. If it is meaningless or useless, it will be discarded. These things take care of themselves. All of my poetry came this way – as gifts of grace, never as the product of conscious effort, craft, or intention. I trust the soundless voice that speaks, much more than I trust my own limited and confused intellect.

When I was in my twenties, an artist and a fledgling poet, I said to God “Make me your instrument.” Maybe God will finally do that, or maybe that’s the One who placed the desire there to begin with. Either way, the prayer has not really changed much, for I have learned and relearned: by myself I can do nothing of real importance or significance, but when I’m driven to the page by that unnamed voice, something clear and clean and beautiful emerges into the light of ordinary day. In that moment, the ordinariness, the stories, the simple truths of life become what they have always been, but unseen: they become sacred. My response to this can only be awe, wonder, and gratefulness.


#16 About Writing Your Memoir

06/21/2017

Angelou quote.png
I always tell people, “Everyone should do this.” But with the caveat that you probably should not do it until you’re at least 50 years old, because you might not be able to handle it.

It’s no small deal. Telling your truth honestly and earnestly means time-travel, not just remembering. Being a disembodied observer looking down impartially like a sacred voyeur. You will see things you never saw– about your life, yourself, and the people along your path– truths and revelations you could not have seen with your younger eyes.

This will be painful. It will also be healing. Old wounds you didn’t realize you had will open right before your eyes, and bleed and leak other nasty stuff you never realized was in there. That’s the bad news. The good news is, you will see other things too, that you didn’t notice before: the beauty of yourself and other “imperfect” souls in your story. I promise you, you’ll be astonished, and quite possibly overcome with love and respect for that stumbling, blundering, courageous innocent that you really were.

Emotional wounds,  big and small, are like abscesses, scarred over with guilt and denial. When opened again in a clean place with a good light, they have the opportunity to drain their poisons and finally heal. We all have old wounds, many from our earliest years on earth, because they go with the life-path. A big part of the adventure of life is about managing them, rather than just allowing them to manage you. This takes a mature observer, an experienced blunderer, a sympathetic listener.  This is the heart of my book.

Writing a memoir forces us to re-open the time again, to look at ourselves and others in our story with mercy and compassion that puts whatever regret or guilt we have been carrying into a truer perspective. We can honestly forgive, and be forgiven.


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