Category Archives: The Writing Life

Singing Your Own Voice

THE SUMMER I WAS 19, I lived in Manhattan for the first time in my life. I worked two jobs as I aspired to write my first plays. I was a bellhop at a mid- town hotel and a waiter in a restaurant around the corner.  My weekend shifts at the hotel had me working sixteen hours straight and then going directly to the restaurant at 8 Monday morning. So one day a week I worked 24 hours straight. You’re 19.  You’ll sleep when you’re dead, right?  Plus you figure you might have a story to tell 50 years later. But something better happened on one of those Monday mornings. 34th Street and Broadway is one of the busiest corners in the world. I stopped for a second outside Macy’s, struck by the surge of humanity rising up out of the subway station. It was like a human lava flow.  I found myself focused on their faces.  They were angry. Discouraged. Resigned, Numb. It was the first hour of the first day of the workweek and THAT was already how they felt.

Something clicked in my brain. It was my Scarlet O’Hara moment: –“As God is my witness I’ll never go hungry again?” I vowed to myself I would do everything possible to go through my life doing what made me happy for as long as I could. What made me happy was making people laugh.  Annoying people.  Surprising them.  Maybe challenging a belief or two.  In short…BEING A WRITER. In that moment I made my commitment, despite my untested, unproven abilities, to devote my life to discovering who the writer would be that I might become. Maybe I’d be a child prodigy.  Maybe I’d be the voice of my generation.

There is a huge difference, between writing purely for one’s own pleasure and writing as a profession. Your work becomes a commodity.  People who might pay for your wares consider in the same way a venture capitalist considers a small business proposal.  How do you negotiate the inherent conflict between contributing to the body of literature versus contributing to the Gross National Product?  Do you envision your writing life as your source of adult survival? Or as a respite from your source of adult survival?

I have to ask myself if I had known at the age of twenty, when I made the decision to commit my life to being a writer, that I would not become the voice of  my generation, that my best screenplay would be optioned for twenty successive years by production entities that including two Academy Award winning producers and three film studios but that it would never be made; that it would be included in a book of the Ten Best Unproduced Screenplays in Hollywood but the book would never come out, that I had made a decent living but would not be in the memorium they play at the Oscars, that I would be writing this account from the Hollywood Home for the Nearly Known?  If I had known all that, would I have gone to the trouble?

The answer came to me during a New Year’s Day party at the home of my mentor, Leonard Stern, (who wrote The Honeymooners and Mad Libs) and his wife Gloria. As a waiter I had served drinks to Leonard Bernstein and Bobby Kennedy, had my butt patted by Tennessee Williams, made Ethel Merman laugh so hard she spit out a mouthful of double vodka and diet 7-up. I had been tipped ten dollars for a cup of coffee by Maurice Chevalier, inadvertently short-changed James Earl Jones, and seen a stage and screen star known for her wholesomeness perform a sex act under a table, but on this day I had my first close celebrity encounter without wearing a side towel.

I happened to have been closest to the front door when the bell rang.  George Burns was still a kid at the time, a mere 86 years old. He had just played Oh, God in the movie. He was small and fragile. But there was an actual aura emanating from him. He glowed with a perfect acceptance of everything that was life. After the initial buzz of greetings wore down, I intercepted him as he crossed the room. “George,” I said, “Everyone here says they love you. But I… love you.” He grinned at me and kissed me on the cheek. He asked what I did and I said I was a writer. I braced for him to ask the question that everyone asks writers–what had I written that he had heard of ?  That was not his question. In his sweet gravelly voice he said, “Tell me kid, do you love what you do?”

Nobody had ever asked me that before.

“Yeah,” I said, when I realized that I did. “I do.”

“That’s good,” he said. He patted me on the shoulder, and leaving a sweet comet tail of cigar smoke in his wake, he headed across the room toward several attractive women.

How to Write a Novel in 6 Steps

1. Don’t write what you know. Start with what you don’t know, what you don’t understand. Pay attention to what compels you, what bothers and truly fascinates you.

2. Start to write about specific people. They live in a specific place at a specific time. You don’t think about those initial questions any more. You are semi-blind as you go forward. The world of the book takes you over. You write scenes and dialogue and descriptions. You learn how people talk, what diction they use, the cadence of their voices. When you watch something, you notice what they would notice. You surrender to it. You lead a double life, a triple life. Years go by. Words accumulate.

3. You read what you are writing, and you start to connect things. You notice repetitions that surprise you, mysterious recursions and variations on words, ideas, objects. The density excites you; what these connections mean unnerves you. You waver—this isn’t the novel you thought you were writing. You wanted to write a different book. What’s worse is that you know you are not even succeeding at writing this book that you don’t want to write. You ignore yourself. You keep going. How? You go back to the specific time, place, people, language. The more specific it is, the more fearless you are in engaging its odd eccentricity, the more purchase it has on what we understand and recognize as true in our own very different lives. The writer has to trust that we are all strange in our own way, but we remain recognizable humans. The closer you look at something, the more complicated it becomes. You settle for just getting the complication down, framing it, being brave about it. But now it is becoming more difficult. You must remember everything you have written, and you have less and less freedom.

4. The specificity you are attempting extends to the structure and to the sentences. (For example, you notice that for photographs the convention is that we use the present tense; this is called the ongoing present. What does it mean that we write about photos, movies, and stories in the “ongoing present”? Do these things enable us to escape was-ness? Can they really enact an is-ness that is ongoing? Should you invent a new tense? Does the language we apply to memory work? Can you really write about not remembering? Can the language describe it or are there just terms for the indescribable that we agree on? And, hey, what’s with all these qualifiers? Why does she qualify her life? At this point you may find yourself curled in a little heap on the floor. Even the words “an” and “the” seem strange to you.) Somehow, despite your doubts, despite your belief that you are inadequate to the task, you keep going.

5. You become a structural engineer; you make sure that whatever you have put into motion has some logic, some internal order to it. You are cold, ruthless, pedantic even. Particularly if you have deviated at all from invisible mainstream realism, you have to make sure there is legibility, a consistency in your deviations. If you expect the reader to work it out, there has to be an “it” there.

6. Finally, the last phase: you resist. You resist explaining it all away. You resist making the structure too neat or schematic. You resist cleverness and easiness and sentimentality, but mostly you resist the temptation to take out the difficult parts, the weird things that make you feel really uncomfortable and fill you with dread. Those are the best parts! Your novel is troubled and deeply flawed, but it is what it is and don’t mess it up. Stop.

Packing: Writing on the Move

It’s evening and I’m packing for an early morning flight to New York City. Tomorrow I’ll join a large reading focusing on love and hope (something I need more than ever these days), then I’ll host a reading celebrating the work of the writer Rigoberto Gonzalez. I’m used to travel. I can even say I like it. Though, packing always stresses me out. I never know what to wear or what to bring. But I manage to do it because, well, because I have to. Somehow I have to pack, wake up before dawn, and get to where I’m going, and so I do it. This isn’t that unlike writing. It’s hard and you never feel like you’re getting it right, or doing it with finesse, but if you want to get somewhere, you do it anyway. You have to.

When I tell people I’m a writer—a poet at that—they often think of me tucked away in Emily Dickinson’s yellow house strenuously working on putting words together as if my life depended on it. But the truth is, almost 50% of my life is on the road. And because of that I’ve learned to write on the road and I learn to change the way I think of my time. It used to be that I thought of only the time I spend typing on the page as my writing time, now I think it’s all of it. Writing is all of this life. If I’m doing laundry, raking leaves, getting the car fixed, working on a deadline for magazines, or making an avocado sandwich, I’m still writing.

That’s not to say that it’s as important as putting the work in, bowing down to the desk and cranking out drafts, but life is still part of this art. Sometimes I think the travel actually helps with my writing, because I’m constantly allowing myself to be off-kilter, see a new view on the world, a new town, a different plane window. The contemporary writer today is a writer that’s on the move and multitasking. But, even though, all I want to do sometimes is write for hours in my green pajamas and read on the couch until I fall asleep, the travel keeps me engaged with the fact that all of these words serve a purpose. They are connected with real people outside of the walls of my brain and body.

I admit to craving a hermit life and my down time is often spent in glorious isolation eating pistachios, reading and writing, and going a little mad. But the readings and performances and gatherings mean something. Especially now, when the world feels so fractured and brutal, there’s something kind of spectacular about a group of people gathering to hear words, to be changed by them, to want to connect to something outside of themselves. On the road, in cities and small towns around the world, I get the honor of meeting people who aren’t writers, but readers. They come out to hear work and stay to chat not because they’re looking for writing advice, but because they love and buy books like others order and obsess over Netflix movies.

I guess what I saying is, sometimes it’s good to leave the house. Even when life feels really hard and the world feels like it’s something hostile and unwelcoming, it’s good to pack up your things, bring a book for the plane, maybe write a poem on a Delta Airlines cocktail napkin, and go somewhere where people are celebrating words. It’s part of the job as a writer. We get pack what we can on to the page and then pack ourselves into the world.

Along Stretches Of This River

We use words to build images. We put the words together in a particular order, and if we’re lucky, something happens other than the relaying of information. The reader takes those words and assembles and reassembles them in their mind. It’s the inseparable sensory experience we’re after (we being the writer and the reader).

In the town where I now live, there’s a river nearby. If I have a good day working, writing my way into a draft, I might set aside time to fish in the evening. It’s a small reward, this kind of escape. Recently, I’ve spotted osprey along stretches of this river. The enormous birds patrol in ovals overhead. One will eventually curl its wings under and fall into a dive, throwing huge talons, at the last second, into the water. If it’s lucky, it pulls out a fish.

Because the shad are running (as the locals say) osprey in this town are eating well. When I finally wade out into the river to cast, I pause. Across the sky, osprey spin and drift. Then they fall, crashing their bodies into the current. One can make a peaceful day of watching such meticulous activity, though if the shad could talk, they might respectfully disagree.

This river is sometimes clear, other times opaque. Inside it, things are alive. Mornings I wake and try to write, to build at least one engaging image out of words, and in the evenings, when I walk a section of the river past the fall line, I shuffle slowly into the current. I’ll false cast until, eventually, a long stretch of floating line will land on the rippled surface. The clear leader attached with a nail knot at the end sinks first. I let the line swing into a dead drift. If I’m lucky, I’ll feel the hit and lift up. If I’m luckier, the hook will set and the line will jolt into life.

Here’s my reason for even mentioning the river at all:  The other day, I caught a shad. Three red scratches, all evenly spaced apart, ran from the fish’s silver middle to the lavender ridge near its tail. I’ve been trying to shake this image, but I can’t. I keep seeing it in my mind. I keep thinking about the story it implies.

The red scratches were fresh talon marks. It was this single image that implied part of another story, one that had nothing to do with me. An osprey must have dropped the fish. I held the same shad. It was a strange sensation, this quick connection to other things. Like the speaker in Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem, I let the fish go.

But the image has stayed with me.

Locals here have shared that during the shad run, it’s not uncommon for fish to fall from the sky. You can drive to the grocery store and find them flopping in empty parking spaces, others dropping onto windshields of moving cars. I know that back on the river the osprey spin and drift in widening ovals. They search for what’s alive. They’re not the only ones.

LITERARY ACTIVISM AND THE WRITING LIFE

In a world fraught with political tensions and daily life and death matters, can our stories really make a difference?

I had never been to a protest until two years ago; I went with friends to the Occupy March in Oakland. For the longest time, I was afraid of going to jail or of being deported so I avoided marches and protests and basically very large crowds. Even after I became a US citizen, I was still very concerned about safety and deportation. And even when I wrote my second novel, A Small Gathering of Bones, I didn’t think of it as a protest or activist literature, I just wanted to write about my friend that had died of AIDS. This was a childhood friend I had grown up with in Jamaica, and in the eighties, we both moved with our families to the US. Not long after he arrived he contracted HIV, which was very rampant in the US in the eighties. He was 26 when he died.

What really struck me was how his family had abandoned him after they found out he was gay. None of them was at his funeral, only his few friends. In fact, his mother had refused to see him during the terrible interlude of his illness once she found out he was gay. And to this day, in my mind, this is the real cause of Ian’s death, not the disease that devastated him at the end that crippled and emaciated him, but the heartbreak, the disappointment, the rejection from the very person he loved most. This was a man who was the life of every party, he was kind and friendly and loving, he had a great big heart, he was a terrific dancer, a flamboyant dresser and his folks were Christian and upstanding and the minute they found out he was gay and was ill, they cut him off. And that to me is what killed him.

Incensed by what seemed to me as such a terrible injustice I started the novel on the train on the way home from his funeral. I didn’t know then it was a novel, I just had to write about it, I didn’t know how else to process all of this, how to make sense of something that was so terrible.  I needed to understand the nature of the deep homophobia that runs rampant in our Jamaican society, and the oppressive nature of our religion that was turning us into unfeeling human beings, turning us into killers. I needed to write about all the gay people I knew who had had to move through the world silent and invisible, the ones who were dying, and dead.

I completed the novel for my MFA thesis. I wrote it from the point of view of the gay minister, Dale, for he must’ve been the most conflicted person of all, I thought, loving God, having a deep spiritual relationship with God yet living everyday amongst people who could so easily turn against him, persecute him, if they knew, and what was his life like holding this tension, this silence, everyday, everyday of his life. I was curious about his particular battle with his faith and his sexuality. His pain had to be so private, so invisible. His anguish haunted me.

Of course, after I wrote the book I got terrified. What am I doing? Who is going to read this? What if they come after me, or ban the book, or what if when I go home to the Caribbean, I am assaulted. The total opposite happened of course. The book was well received and was well reviewed, because ultimately the work was ground breaking. In a country where gay people were often persecuted, though quite rare now, the novel celebrated open gay male relationships, portrayed a community of gay men and women creating supportive networks for their friends who were dying of AIDS and rejected by family; and it highlighted the homophobia so prevalent in Jamaica society and in the church. I didn’t say that Christianity or religion was bad, but I showed how particular readings and interpretation of the bible created suffering for gay people. I didn’t say straight people were bad, I simply showed countless images of gay people loving each other and themselves. And I tried to make the novel really beautiful. I remember my graduate advisor saying to me, if you’re going to write about AIDS and about people suffering, then make it like a beautiful painting so that it will also be uplifting and strong

When the book came out I gave a reading at an AIDS center in London. Many of the men at the center were Caribbean. And after my reading they began weeping. They had never seen their lives, their relationships portrayed positively, they said. In literature and in life, they were often scorned and humiliated and beaten up and abandoned. But this book was transforming how they saw themselves portrayed in literature, no longer as monsters and freaks, but as real people struggling with the real challenges of spirituality and relationships and illness and love.

That turned out to be an important turning point for me. I understood for the first time the visceral impact a story can have on an individual and how it can transform the way they see themselves. Having experienced it myself in books by other writers, I knew intellectually that this was possible. But it was different to hear that my book was doing this, it was mirroring back to them the sacredness of their lives.

My life changed that evening. It was as if in that moment I truly became a writer or really understood what it meant to be a writer–something about the interplay between personal pain and its connection to the suffering of others, something about artistic expression, healing, and the benefits shared by others. After that I was only interested in writing about things that mattered. That book turned me into a socially conscious being and that awareness and the responsibility that comes with it have underscored my work ever since. Now I want my stories to not only change lives but to save them. I want my stories to raise large social, political and spiritual questions that provoke thought, challenge beliefs, help people deal with the complexities of their lives and help people through devastation. I want my books to insert new ways of thinking into national conversations and provide myriad perspectives. I want them to be a serum, an antidote to people’s pain.

Audre Lorde has a beautiful quote about desire, longing and social change. She says, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change.”

But like many of you I wrestle with the question–is writing enough?

Shouldn’t we out there marching and protesting? If we aggravate some country with our military action and they turn around and retaliate and take us out, what good are our stories? Don’t we need to do something faster, more explosive, and with a big splash. Writing is too slow, it’s too internal, it’s too …

But I also know that when we write we are also carrying out quiet and deliberate moments of resistance. Every day that we are pushing past judgments into more nuanced observations, turning stereotypes into more realistic portrayals, and paying attention to the unconscious assumptions and biases in ourselves and in our work, we are actually protesting, we are challenging ourselves and each other. Teaching students how to bring conscious awareness to the challenges in their lives, helps them to write with more clarity and honesty because they become available to themselves and every person with whom they come into contact and that is important work. Alice Walker says, “the responsibility of the artist is to see and to be that expression in the culture that permits every one else to see.”  And she also says, after you’ve done that work in your poems and your novels and your paintings and your music, don’t be afraid to go and stand in line with your protest sign, the work of transforming ourselves and those around us is unending. Writing is good, and marching too is good.

Here are some things I have learned about being an activist writer.

You have to be brave. You have to take risks. You have to love what you are writing about so fiercely you’re willing to walk through your own fears and put yourself at risk to write about it and share it with the world.

You also have to bring to the work, to your life, the way of tenderness. This is a concept coined by Buddhist nun Zenju Earthlyn Manuel who is also an activist. This was the name that was given to her by her teacher. Zenju means complete tenderness. And I was very inspired by Zenju as a way to move through the world especially in these times. And I’ll share some of her main points and my reflections on them and why tenderness might be a useful activist strategy especially in literature

Zenju says that: “The way of tenderness is a way of experiencing life with utmost honesty; A way of experiencing life without distortions or manipulations.”  To me this means that you are awake to everything you see, you do not shield your eyes from the injustice or the suffering around you, whatever it is, you do not shy from it, deny it, manipulate or distort it so it makes YOU feel better about yourself. You face everything and you write it honestly.

“The way of tenderness means laying bare your conditioning.”  To me this means acknowledging that you are a product of the stories and myths of our cultures, that your imagination is not free, it is tethered to those stories we have heard all our lives, stories that value some people and devalue others, we all know what those stories are, they are the stuff of our unconsciousness and the way of tenderness is to acknowledge that our imaginary is not free of misogyny or racism or homophobia or classism or hatred or fear. And so, when we write we should write with great curiosity and also with humility.

“The way of tenderness is void of hatred for oneself and for others.”  And so, for all of us, it is an ongoing journey of self-exploration.

“The way of tenderness comes when life has broken you down into a pile of despair or when rage has consumed every limb of your body.”

“The way of tenderness is the heartfelt acknowledgement of difference, it does not deny what is unique or similar among us, it embraces everything that is different and it affirms life. It does not kill. It is social action.”

Of course, by this point many of you are probably wondering–how can you be tender and at the same time be safe and strong?  How can you meet disrespect or disregard of life with tenderness? How can you be tender when there is terrible injustice, when you are being spat upon, or shot at, how can you be tender when there is war?

For many of us, when faced with a threat, whether real or imagined, we tend to have either one of two reactions, the body prepares itself to fight the threat or it prepares to flee the situation. In both cases the same symptoms occur, the heart races, jaws clench, body sweats, pupils dilate, digestion slows down, in fact the entire body shuts down, including the heart. In this heightened state of fear, there is no place for an alternative, or creative or thoughtful response to the threat, whether real or perceived. There is only the terror coursing through our bodies. But there is another way. What if we could retrain our bodies to respond differently to threat? It does not mean that fiery emotions would simply disappear, and that rage wouldn’t still blaze through or that the body wouldn’t begin its parasympathetic gestures, or that we should have a spiritual bypass and behave as if what is happening isn’t happening. But what if we could become more adept at letting intense feelings roar through us without always reacting to them in the predictable ways? This takes practice of course. But what other outcome might await us out of that place of non-reaction? What new possibility, what creative outcome, what third way might emerge if we took many more deep breaths and waited, if we found ways to self soothe so we can continue to stay curious, and open, in the face of fear or threat or insult? How might that shift the outcome not only for us, but also for the person doing the attacking or throwing the insult?

During the Civil Rights Movements, Martin Luther King Jr. chose only the most seasoned peace activists to walk the frontlines of his civil rights marches. Only those that were courageous, had self-control, were willing to die, and could also hold a high vibration of unconditional love and tenderness and calm and utter surrender were allowed to face the rabid dogs, the fire hoses, police brutality and bystanders shouting the worst forms of fury and vitriol at them. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”  It is important to note that MLK Jr.’s non-violent approach was not only religious, it was also very practical. Studies show that nonviolent resistance is more likely to persuade others to join their cause, thus enjoying mass participation, it is more likely to diminish the legitimacy and hence the power of the opponent, sometimes even winning over the opponent to understanding new ways of creating cooperation and community, and it is more likely to employ flexible tactics.

So how can we be tender and at the same time be strong? When we recognize that with practice we can learn how to face injustice with an open heart, and in many cases, with our broken hearts.

We cannot let the voices of hatred and fear be the loudest voices we hear. Now more than ever before, we need your poems and stories that are full of their truth and their power and their connection to our hearts. We need your poems and stories that will lead us in a way that is clear and direct and clean. We need your commitment to non-violent protests. We need your daily commitment to keeping your hearts open, and to stand ground as peacemakers. As you change, you also change the world. And so, it is important to do your personal work so that you can create more spaciousness and freedom and joy in your life. Because all this you will bring into your writing, into your stories, into the structure of your sentences, into the themes you choose, the vibration of your consciousness, and this in turn can change the world.

WHAT TO QUARRY

I’ve heard that writing well is less a function of how many words you know and more about how you use them. I’d like to add that, for me, it also has to do with the words I find. I’ve spent many years looking for the right words, poking around in books and attics, old Moon hot-rod catalogues or over the measuring table at the Jo Ann Fabric store. These explorations are based on the assumption I might discover words to help me fashion a text, as Annie Dillard says, for whatever fragmentary images or anecdotes or memories that surface for their own mysterious reasons. Besides, I’ve always liked to wander, ever since I was kid exploring the woods of Hamlin Park or the interior of a car engine or wondering about my family’s history, even more curious after my grandmother admonished me for being nosy. “It’s not for you to know,” she said, a rebuke and invitation at the same time. The words are out there.

Each memoir or poem, for me, starts off as indecipherable, messy, maybe even amorphous but still as a place to wander. I’m thinking of Richard Hugo’s essay “Writing Off the Subject,” in which he explains how the triggering subject “causes” the poem to be written and the generated subject is discovered in the writing process. In the discovered words? I wonder. I’m thinking of a day in early spring a long time ago, when my friend Bob and I took his twin daughters and my daughter to an abandoned limestone quarry at Cedar Bluff, IA. The sun was out though the wind was brisk as we climbed down into the quarry pit, the ice still thick enough to hold us, the limestone walls sheer. Once below the edge, we walked out onto the ice, and the air lay still. There in the quiet emptiness of the quarry ice, I found a maple leaf that had taken up the sun’s radiant energy and sunk a half a foot into the ice, leaving behind an icy emptiness in the shape of a maple leaf.

And for that emptiness within the limestone emptiness around us, I imagined that I would leave an emptiness one day in my daughter’s life. Ah, I thought, here’s a subject. I tried to find language to address the leaf, the maple leaf silhouette in ice, the girls who had gathered weeds and wild mint and sat on limestone blocks, in a quarry beside the Cedar River, where a ruined bridge had fallen around its limestone abutments, their blocks cut from this very ground. But that useless bridge was as far as I got. I didn’t know what else to say. Richard Hugo might have suggested that I move from my triggering subject to using words for the sake of their sound. Often when my writing process skids to a stop, which it often does, then it’s time, as Auden says, “to hang around words and listen to what they say.”  Read then write, a poet friend says, and after my asking what might be discovered about quarries, the library gave me “wedge and feather” for the method of breaking off blocks, feathers the two steel sleeves dropped into holes drilled along one edge of the limestone block, a steel wedge centered between each set.  Then five men with sledgehammers strike the wedges at once to fracture the block free. Such a delicate metaphor for violent action—fascinating but not quite right, I thought. I had stood in the middle of a quarry taking a picture of three little girls sitting on a one-ton block of limestone, little girls who kicked their legs and held wild mint in their hands, the mint square-stemmed my friend Bob reminded me. The rectangular quarry had “faces” a book said. The limestone itself was “good dimension stone.” The block these girls were sitting on was cut from “the parent ledge.” Right then I knew where I might turn and follow. The words suggested I wasn’t going to leave an emptiness in my daughter’s life; no, she would leave an emptiness in mine. A grown woman inevitably; a little girl in memory and imagination. Then a warm summer day came to mind as fathers watched from the edge of a quarry, waiting for their young girls to break the surface and shake their hair free from those clean lines, their perfect, unmarked faces.

This is what the words I found said to me.

Loving Our Work and Letting it Go

One morning many years ago, I phoned a writer friend and asked if she would take a look at a manuscript I’d recently completed, one that I was particularly fond of. I guess you could call it a crush. Yes, I had a crush on my manuscript. (If you’re a writer, you probably know how this feels—the initial surge of passion, however incestuous, for your own work.) It’s a great feeling, but it passes. Especially after, say, three revisions, which is what the manuscript had survived. My friend is a tough but fair critic, and I knew she would give me an honest assessment. “Sure,” she said. “But I’ll be gone most of the day. Just drop it through the mail slot.”

Within an hour, I’d arrived at her front porch. As I lifted the lid on the mail slot and started to slide the envelope through, I heard a deep growl, then another, and felt something grab the other end of the envelope. Instinctively I grabbed back, setting into motion a back-and-forth, territorial tussle that lasted for several seconds, until a bark from the other side of the door brought me back to what was left of my senses. Of course—my friend’s dog! I let go, the manuscript was yanked through the slot, and suddenly everything was quiet except for the faint click-click of the dog’s nails as he retreated down the hall.

Nearly three decades later, that response remains the swiftest—and definitely most passionate—response to a manuscript that I’ve ever received. Never had a reader or editor been more eager for my work! And though the manuscript was destined never to see the literary light of day (it was too deeply flawed) I still hold great affection for the unpublished work and continue to believe that the teeth marks and the muddy pawprints were signs of unabashed acceptance. I like to imagine the dog carrying the manuscript, in his expectant, drooling mouth, to his plaid bed, where he curls up beside it, paws it adoringly, and proceeds to lose himself in a doggy version of John Gardner’s “fictional dream.”

Such are the kinds of fantasies I conjure to keep up my writer’s spirits on days when (let’s just say) another manuscript is returned from yet another editor. For we writers must keep our spirits up—it is our responsibility to ourselves and to our work. We are, after all, our own first responders. If we don’t continue to believe in our work and to accept it, who will?

Truth be told, I have enjoyed my share of acceptances. Perhaps more than my share. But, like most writers who are in it for the long haul, I’ve also had plenty of experience with what we typically name “rejection.” (More on that word later.) Rejection hurts. It can make you do strange things, things that under normal situations you would never do. Scream. Slam doors. Sob. Shake your fist at the ceiling. Gather all the profanities you’ve been saving and aim them at the editor, the journal, the agent, the publisher. (And these are the more healthy reactions.) On really bad days, you may curse your work, compare it to the work of others, swear to never write again—I mean, who needs this kind of pain, right?

That is what rejection can do to you. Which is why, several years ago, I decided to reject “rejection.” The word felt too personal, smacking of love affairs gone wrong, Dear Jane letters, the perennial cold shoulder. Why not rename it? (We are writers, after all. Naming is our thing.) So I pulled out my folder marked “Rejections” and marked through the word. Then, in bright green marker, I wrote “Free to send out again.” I can’t tell you how good this change felt, and continues to feel, each time a manuscript is declined. The work is free! The editor has released it from bondage. “Thank God you’re home,” I think. “I’ve missed you.”

The feeling doesn’t last long. Just long enough to send me back to the desk, either to re-see, re-feel, and re-think the piece or to decide to send it back out into the world. Here is where I always hesitate, imagining the worst possible scenario. Who knows what force awaits (growling) behind the mail slot or the internet portal, or into whose rough paws my offering will fall? As Eudora Welty noted, once a piece of writing leaves our hands it becomes, like a mailed letter, closer in distance to its recipient than to its sender.

Eudora was right, of course. As long as we hold our work close and refuse to let it go, it remains safely in our control. But once we release it, it no longer belongs solely to us. Our beloved object is now, literally, out of our hands; I guess that’s why we call it “submitting.” We yield whatever power we have to someone or something else. Like writing, submitting is a form of surrender. We hit the “send” button and the reply comes back: “We have received your submission.” If that doesn’t make you cower in humility, you are a stronger person than I am.

“Parting from a work of art is a skill,” wrote Anne Truitt in Prospect: The Journal of an Artist. A skill? Perhaps. But maybe it is more than that. Maybe parting from our work is an art in itself, as necessary to our creative process as the drafting, imagining, revising, and reimagining. At some point, we must separate ourselves from the work and let it go its own way. If we don’t, if we hang on too tightly, we won’t be free to write the next piece, and the next, and the next. And isn’t that what we all want?

Stubbornness and Luck

At age 14, I wrote my first poem—an awful sequence of rhyming couplets that I originally began in a half-baked attempt to convince a schoolmate to leave the guy she was sleeping with and resume dating my bleak, virginal self. Aside from yielding a horrible poem, and aside from drawing no response at all from the former girlfriend whom I cherished, the writing and revision process, during the few days I labored over the ridiculous drafts, changed me permanently.

Even though the actual lines and sentences ended up being hogwash in each iteration, my commitment to sitting down with paper and pen for multiple sessions was a crucial contradiction to the types of behaviors in which society expected me to partake. The future plans most of my friends and I had—plans we had inherited from our factory city’s terse mantras/parameters—were to keep developing our jump-shots and our sprinting speed, to earn athletic scholarships to any college willing to sniff us, or to try and stay felony-free until we could slide from high school into pension-crowned jobs at the Jeep and Chrysler plants where many of our kin and community members toiled.

I composed and revised that paltry first poem in the Burger King two blocks from where I lived. Those days, half of the dining area bore signage proclaiming “SMOKING”. I ordered fries, took my tray to a window table, lit one of my Newport 100s, and commenced to poem making. The importance of the experience resided mainly in the surrounding, intricate details. The restaurant was not busy, and the people working a shift moved about their stations and assignments with an earned ease. It was winter; the evening’s final angles of sunlight came through the glass and gave a forthright grace to my menthol smoke. The long dispenser of fountain sodas whirred, sometimes rumbling while generating or resettling interior stocks of ice.  A couple of times, I noticed other patrons looking at me with a slight disorientation that broke quickly into glancing elsewhere and giving me back my relative privacy. These strangers affirmed the new space, peace, and purpose into which I had wandered.

Right now, 24 years removed from that first poem, I’m typing all this into a laptop while I sit—again before a window—at a coffee shop in the core of a sizeable, mid-American city. This time around, there are three strangers nearest me. Two of them are handsome, well-cologned men no older than 35. Overhearing everything, I ascertain that they have met to hash out (with the aid of matching iPads I assume their workplace has provided) some intricate protocol of sales-driven communique they must soon unfold into emails and calls aimed at a sector of their clientele whom they designate as, “high risk, high reward.”

Conversely, the other person seated close is alone, likely in her 30s, and she’s reading a thick, hardcover book of prose that looks to be borrowed from the university library about 10 blocks from here. In my periphery, one of her hands slowly sweeps across the new page just after she turns it—a gesture that can conjure a brief wind shifting an elm bough among the edge of a public park.

The coworking men are now talking in raised tones, which carry competitiveness and perhaps a fearful bitterness. The woman reading has finished her iced coffee, and she has begun chewing each partially melted cube.

The writing life is stubbornness and luck, enough of each to make ourselves available for receiving the essential vibrations the world and its people tirelessly generate. For me, the production rate of good drafts is less engulfing than presenting myself consistently as a patient witness to whatever and whoever are in proximity. Even if the folks at this café begin to bore or sour me, I’m going to glance out onto the sidewalk—pedestrians in the midst of a modest, April day. Even if none of the passersby gives me a bit of transferable emotion, my attention will find a puddle near the curb that quivers every time another vehicle hurries toward someplace that must be worthy of perceiving.

On Listening

I’ve been thinking about the community we create in workshop every week, coming together as strangers meeting for the first time, and undertaking the tasks of listening, of turning a critical eye to the work, of sharing ideas, inspiring each other and creating an environment that is nurturing and intellectually stimulating.  I’ve also been thinking about what it would mean to intentionally bring some of these skills back to the places where we live and work and how they might effectively transform our relationships.

I would like to focus on listening, as listening seems to me an integral part of everything we do in workshop: our writing, our reading, our editing, our ability to give and receive feedback and all the ways we communicate and learn.

Unlike hearing which is passive, listening is purposeful; it is focused. It requires effort, conscious awareness, stillness, mindfulness, and concentration.  When we listen our friends feel as if we care about them. When we listen we are curious and interested and empathic and loving. Listening is a way of being in the world that is sensitive to all aspects of our experience, external, internal and contextual.

When we write we are listening. We often choose a quiet place free from noise and interruptions and close the door. We still the thinking, chattering mind and slowly tune inward. We sit, our bodies like giant ears, waiting for the sound under all things to burp into consciousness.  This kind of full-bodied listening provides spaciousness for the work to show up without pressure, for the work to be.

When we create characters we are listening.  We are putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, we are embodying them fully, we are attempting to understand what they feel and to say what they know, in this sense, listening involves empathy which involves the heart.

When we are reading a manuscript, we are also listening.  We are leaning into the page and noticing continuity and interruption. We are tracking for content and tone and voice and intent and we are also tuning in to struggle and frustration. We are looking for murmurs and gasps and moans and utterances, and for ahas. We are listening to appreciate and to savor and to bask.  We are listening to laugh, to learn, and to grow even more curious.

When we edit we are reading quietly and out loud and tuning into the things not said, the things hidden, the things silenced. We are noticing chatter and jargon and fluff, and all our darlings, which we must kill.

In workshop though, listening can be more challenging, especially if your manuscript is being critiqued.  Still, we must stay open and curious, we can’t interrupt or shut down the discussion to protect the work, or protect ourselves, even though we feel judged and misunderstood and vulnerable and exposed. How can we listen if we don’t agree, if we are in conflict about the way the material is being handled or with what is being said?  How can we listen without the need to defend? How can we listen when our jaws are tight, our breath is constricted and our heart is breaking? But this is the practice of the workshop.  We must sit in the discomfort if we want to improve and develop as writers. And that is the practice of life when we face difficulty.  Instead of turning away from our differences and our conflicts, what if we turned toward each other instead, and allow ourselves to sit in the hot seat of our discomfort, our uncertainties, our upsetness?

In workshop and in life, when we are in the hot seat, we must first of all, breathe. Yes. Take huge deep relaxing breaths from the bottom of our bellies. We must find ways to calm or regulate the emotions that are roiling inside us.  We must figure out ways to self-sooth as this can melt us back into ourselves. We have to remember our favorite paths for walking and how the grass feels under our toes. Or how it feels when our dogs lick our faces, or the stillness of the afternoon when we are fly-fishing. We have to find ways to calm the flood of anger and humiliation. We have to remember those things our kids say that make us laugh. We may even have to detach a little and remember that even though our classmate is saying this is a bad sentence, she is not saying you are a bad person. She is simply saying the prose is a little flat, you can liven it up by adding more details, changing the rhythm or cutting out the extra adverbs.  In fact we can even ask her to clarify, to be more specific. Even though workshop can feel like the end of the world. It isn’t.  There is always an hour from now. There is always tomorrow.

And so in the real world when we are confronted by our loved ones and co-workers who are saying things that we don’t believe are true, or who hold different political ideas and social values or they are telling us how selfish we are in relationship, how we take and take and give so little back, and each time they open their mouths and say things like – Climate change is fake news, or we need to get rid of abortion rights – you want to give them the finger, walk away, slam the door, hang up the phone.  Because all you can think of are the fires raging through California and the super storms flooding cities all over the country, islands that are disappearing, the million things you do that your girlfriend or boyfriend doesn’t give you credit for. And as they are talking and talking all you want is for them to just disappear right in front of your eyes.

But what if you could practice deep listening in this moment?  What if you took as many breaths as you needed until you were calm enough to bring yourself into your heart? What if you turned to them with curiosity instead of walking away? What if with as much patience and compassion for yourself as you could muster, you could say to them, tell me more, please explain? And what if with an open and relaxed face, and an undefended posture, you could extend to this loved one or this stranger who is making you crazy right now, the same kind of empathy you bring to your characters, a willingness to know all sides of their story. What if you listened in this way that says – though my ideas or my needs are important it’s not necessary to bring them up now? What if you could put aside the urge to fix or judge or disagree, and just tune in instead, in this full-bodied way that attempts to acknowledge the value of what’s been said and trusting that whatever they say, it is coming from someplace deep in their experience?

We don’t have to agree with the other person.  We don’t have to believe them. We don’t have to fix anything. In our attentive listening, we are simply saying – I understand what you are saying and how you feel about it; I’m not judging you.  I am simply here fully present to what you are saying and feeling.

On account of what they are saying, we may encounter the unexpected, which might expand our worldview.  Or maybe not.  But your listening gives the other person an opportunity to feel seen, to feel heard, to feel respected and to feel valued.  And when they feel that way, it is often easier for them to listen to you as you voice your own opposing perspectives.

Deep Listening can often lead to right speech and right action. We must listen before we act. We must not slouch in our efforts to fight for climate and food and housing justice. We must not slouch in our efforts to fight for racial and gender and wage justice.  When worshippers at synagogues and black churches and mosques are killed we must act. When lawmakers turn back progress for women and people of color and workers we must act.  And we must also listen. We must find out why they are killing us in our places of workshop?  Why are they killing us in our schools? Why are they poisoning our food and our water?  Why they are taking away our rights? And we must listen below the sound bites and between the lines and under the surfaces and beyond the fluff.  We must listen to their emotions where the truth often lies. We must find out. We must know.  Otherwise we will not be able to solve or heal the problems that ail us.  It is only by listening that we can take the next right step toward our evolution.

Every conflict invites an opportunity for understanding.  But we must be willing to turn toward the other, invite dialogue, stay and stay in the hot seat, with as much self-compassion as we can muster, until it cools, until we cool, because there is immense victory in listening and there is reverence too.