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.

 

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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.


20. Illegitimi Non-Carborundum

01/11/2018

Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, was the book that sparked my literary/artistic ambition to the point of making a rock-solid commitment to completing and publishing my book. Before that, I was just working on it quietly, privately, as a maybe-someday-author. But after that, I took the pledge, literally, out loud to myself one night before I went to sleep. I told God I would do it.

Well, lots of never-published-authors do that. That was important, but still safe. Then I read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and it resonated with my own life and mistakes, the circus-characters of my family and my expatriated state of Texas. (Her town in The Liars Club is a disguised Port Arthur Texas, where Janis Joplin was born and her troubled lonesome soul never really escaped from.) I went to hear Karr in one of those interview/conversations at an old hall at UC Berkeley, and that clinched it for me.

I had been genuinely writing my book, but still on the down-low. Anybody can do that. I realized that I had to take the leap into the abyss. I had to become A Writer, publicly, brazenly, and make myself emotionally bare-ass-naked to the world. OMG. From that moment, things started to change. The lens shifted, somewhere out in the universe a gear clicked, and it was scary as hell. Now I was no longer invisible; anybody could take a shot at me.

I took a few hits. I said ouch. But I had served eight years as a line firefighter a decade before, where I’d learned how to take a hit, get up quick, and get back on-task. But this was different. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t bad reviews that stung, I didn’t get so many of those. What I got was, strangely, entirely unexpected subtle but discernible bad vibes from other writers. Veiled snarkyness.

We writers are a jealous lot. Hypersensitive and neurotically vulnerable, most of us. Perhaps it’s this artist’s temperament that enables us to receive profound meaning and God-sent talents of expression, that also makes us easy victims to insecurities and self-doubts. Sometimes we fall into something less than our truest and best selves.

Lately I’ve been learning and practicing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. (It does take practice, like a foreign language.) It works like this:  When you feel yourself being snagged and pulled down by an emotion like jealousy, self-doubt, fear (the worst one) or any negative feeling, first, just notice it. Notice how it makes you feel bad/ uncomfortable/ unhappy, and you don’t like that. The action to take to change this circumstance is simple but effective. Admit it to yourself, (yes, I’m feeling like this) and then Let the feeling go. Push it away, and go on to something else you do like.

Easier said than done of course. So I devised a trick upon myself. (You could try it if you like, it might work for you.) I say, out loud, right in the middle of the feeling, “I don’t need this.” And then I visualize myself picking it up with two fingers, (like something nasty) putting it into a plain white business-size envelope, securely sealing the flap, and dropping it into the trash. Done.

I actually do feel noticeably better, lighter, and I feel like a real smarty-pants for so cleverly handling myself and refusing the annoying aggravation. I smile a smug little smile, think to myself, I win. And I go back to work.

The truth of the matter is that in the expression of the gift that has been given to you, no one else’s opinion matters as much as yours.  Every day remind yourself. Recognize, (“re-know”) and commit to this truth: This person may be either trying to help you, or hurt you. It doesn’t matter which, because nobody else can tell you how to be your best you, nobody else knows. You will find the answer inside yourself if you keep on seeking it. Everything else is not “the truth,” it’s an opinion. A perception. A different perspective. These can often be useful and valuable, as long as you don’t forget that they are not necessarily the truth.

When you get a disappointing response to a heartfelt endeavor, the problem is not that there’s anything about you that someone else should or could fix, the problem is that they didn’t know this. What they don’t know, as well as what they think, actually can’t hurt you unless you choose to let it. Don’t choose to let it. Don’t give in to doubts, misunderstandings, or insecure jealousies, and never give them squatters-rights in your mind. Get a big box of plain white #10 business envelopes…
(and be sure to empty the trash every day.)


19. How To Learn How

12/30/2017

When I was much younger than I am now, I wanted to become a firefighter.* Never mind why – it’s a long story. I was small compared to the male firefighter Wanna-Bes I was competing with. I went to the gym and pumped a whole lot of iron and didn’t get much bigger but I got  hecka-strong. (It took a while.) I applied at every fire department hiring opportunity that came up and took the tests. First is the written – easy enough if you study hard. (You should study really hard.) Next, if you pass the written, you get to take the physical agility test. I failed the physical agility tests of first three departments I tried for, at first by a mile, and then by inches, and finally by 2/10 of a second. I went back to the gym. I applied at more fire departments and took more tests. I failed another one. Maybe two. I forget now. Once I passed, It didn’t matter, I would pass some more…

I had to fail, to learn how. I had never encountered those kinds of challenges, or even those kinds of objects, lifting and carrying heavy rolls of fire-hose, climbing the 100-foot aerial ladder, dragging the 160-pound dummy through the tunnel. (At first I only weighed 115 pounds myself.) Very early I learned two Essential Truths, and I’ll share them with you in a minute.

There are wonderful things you can learn from Brooks, that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. But there are some things you cannot learn that way. You can’t learn how to play home-run baseball…   out of a book. You can’t learn how to downhill ski… out of a book. And you can’t learn how to be a firefighter and perform the skills a firefighter must do extremely well, very quickly, and absolutely reliably… out of a book. Here comes one of those Essential Truths I mentioned. (You may want to take notes.)

Essential Truth #1: The only way to learn how to do it is to do it.

Take downhill skiing, for example. The first day when you go out to the bunny hill with awkward boots and slats for feet, what’s going to happen? Right! You fall on your butt. Not once, but many times. And there will be people around who will see you fall on your butt. Little kids will laugh. Some adults will smile smugly. Others will be annoyed because you’re messing up the good snow with your sit-splats, besides getting in everybody’s way. “She shouldn’t even be here! She doesn’t know how to ski at all.”

The next day, you will again fall on your butt in front of everybody. A lot. But probably you will be doing a little bit better, and there will be thrilling moments when just for short distances, you get it, and miraculously, it works. It feels like flying! Your heart, for sure, is flying. Now when you fall, you get up quicker, you want some more of that good feeling.

By the third or fourth day,  your spirits soar more times, for longer moments, right before each time you crash clumsily again. But now you will be up more time than down, and though not exactly smoothly or elegantly, you are skiing!

We must expect the same from our writing.  In the beginning, it’s the beginning. While the first levels of success in skiing may take a few days, writing more likely will take a few years. We’re learning how to express our gift. For every great writer, there was a beginning. Thus, Essential Truth #1 about writing: The only way you can learn how to do it is to do it. But don’t take my word for it, try it yourself. Oh, and the skiing is fun too.

Essential Truth #2: Failure is a necessary part of the process.

Falling down is one of the first things we do in life. It is necessary, inherent, and valuable. Failure is how we learn what to do and what not to do. There is no other way.

Besides, we never learn as much from success as we do from failure. Therefore, allow yourself this. Expect to not be a brilliant writer right away. Expect a cartload of disappointments and possibly humiliations along the way. These do not prove you are un-brilliant. They only mark a serious commitment to the truest and best expression of whatever is your unique personal gift. It will be different from most people. Most people live their whole lives without expressing their truth, not because they don’t have any gifts, but because they don’t have the enormous courage it takes to do it.

Don’t be one of those. Fly down the hill, again and again. Fall on your butt with determination, and with embarrassed, wounded, but unconquerable pride, Get up.  Fall down. Get up, keep going. You can do this,  if you want it bad enough. Because if writing is truly your path, you will do it.
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*I did become a firefighter and served eight years with Alameda County OES Fire Department as a line firefighter and officer.
ofcr me w2w

 


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