Unreliable Narrator

“When you’re from somewhere else, you think there’s a promise to California. I don’t know if it’s some cellular thing–like your ancestors in the wagon train only made it as far as Ohio and you’re completing the journey–or it’s the Beach Boys or the Beat poets or Baywatch.” from Pretty by Jillian Lauren

This epigraph is my favorite quote from this book I’ve been reading all week. It’s the quote I copied into my journal because it’s something I wished I had written. When I return to my time living in California, I’ll use these sentences. Nothing disappointed me more than California. So true. Gorgeous, that quote.

I discovered this author by listening to a writer’s podcast somebody told me she loved. And that I should consider going to one of the podcaster’s retreats. I looked up the retreats online and they cost 10k. Sans your airfare and lodging. As I listened to this person who was truly trying to give me advice, I thought “Ten grand. Sure. Just like that. For a week. How do I start a business like that?” This is usually how my mind starts to work when I see somebody making a living–a fine living at truly–off of something I think is overpriced and somewhat of a scam. Somehow if you have the phrase “life coach” somewhere in your bio, for instance, you have the keys to the kingdom as an entrepreneur these days it seems. More power to you. I judge you not. I’m jealous.

Reading this book, as well as commenting on the work of a few others, has me thinking about the level of truth in memoir. Pretty is the redemption memoir of a junkie stripper who found her way in the world, and she uses this lovely refrain where she repeats a phrase that seems religious, like a prayer, throughout the book. No spoilers from me. She shares a story of her life through the words of an untrustworthy narrator–my favorite–her memory. Midway through the book, I discovered something I wrote last year is going to be anthologized by our local celebration, Whatcom Reads. It’s my first publication in five years. Five years. Five years. Like the Bowie song. You know you hear it. Well, I suppose I had a short piece in a local bike zine a year ago, but it’s not in digital form and I agreed to not be attributed. Totally love that little story because of the editor’s work.

So you know. Five years ago ferda print. Felt like a big deal I even sent it in, really, I didn’t expect that it would get chosen. I’m honestly quite shocked. Maybe they didn’t get enough submissions. Hard to say.

Part of the whole let’s-read-together-as-a-community is a reading at the local indie bookstore where I used to work, and that feels pretty wonderful. Magic. I was as an employee there in the late 90s and I was a waitress in the adjacent restaurant before that. It’s where I got used to presenting in front of people by introducing authors. I was that person who read the author’s bio, made sure the microphone worked, refilled the toilet paper in the bathroom, and reminded everyone in the audience the author’s books were for sale. This anthology I will read from isn’t for sale, and there will be free copies at the public libraries in town. It’s wonderful. Spectacular. Fully amazing.

It’s pretty truth-y. Not at all the truth.

Here’s the thing. Here’s the hill I die on alone among some writers.

Non-fiction and memoir? They are all fiction.

I think all book genres are the smoke and mirrors created by sales and marketing folks. Where a book belongs on a shelf is decided by the market. Where you can sell a book to people who will buy it. Even libraries aren’t the holy spaces devoid of the market forces of capitalism. Algorithms of the digital market prove my point. Whether you like it or not.

Yes, non-fiction, I know, can have historical references. Sure. Footnotes and citations people can verify. Cross-references. Ideas you can look up. It’s what we have decided to believe is true as writers. What is true to publish. Ask any historian and they will tell you why we tell the stories we tell.

And yes, I know, the word memoir is French in origin. A denotation for the word memory (masculine, mémoire). It’s what we have decided, as writers, to be the story. The narrative. The memory. The thing. In memoir, your only citations and footnotes are the details you choose to remember and put in print. And it’s the thing that is always based on a true story. Look close. The phrase based on is not the same as the verb is. We are all unreliable narrators. Of our own stories.

I’m a little obsessed with memoir for reasons I can’t explain, but I do know that once I tell the story of this book I’m working on, I can let my brain go into the realm of novels. Fiction. Until then, what I’m writing is based on a true story.

This piece that will appear in the local anthology is a scaled down, slightly embellished chapter of my book, and it’s origin is from my darkest place in 2019. I decided to toy with the saddest memories and feelings just to see how awful, brutal, and sad I could sound. Like a game. Some people play video games or fantasy football; I play with the words. I didn’t think about what it would be like for it to get published and what it will be like to read it aloud. What it will be like for strangers and friends who might read it, and think, “Faaaawwwwwk. Whoa. Hole. Lee. Shit. That’s heavy.”

I can’t reprint it here until it’s been published, and then I get the rights back (the licensing I did consider, that’s my jam), so let me write here about what influenced me.

At the time that I wrote this soon-to-be-published (!) piece that’s me/not me, I was reeling from reading Nothing Good Can Come From This by Kristi Coulter. Her epigraph, from the start, made me sit on the floor in Powell’s bookstore and start reading. I turned the page and saw this:

photo attribution: c’est moi

I sat there for an hour. And read. I stayed up most of the night in my hotel and read the rest. Then I looked her up online and read what I could there.

In this book, she contextualizes her problems with drinking and her trials and tribulations with men with details about Paul Westerberg’s life, the lead singer of The Replacements. A band, I believe, that would (should) have been just as big as REM in the 80s had those dudes not struggled with the drink as much as they did. One of my favorite bands. They should have blown INXS, to cite a much lesser successful band of the era, off the fucking charts. A textbook rock-n-roll tragedy.

Coulter’s book slayed me. It’s so brutal. Honest. Funny. Hard to read at times. Sad. I wanted to see if I could do something like that while I was sorting out my own relationship with alcohol. Could I sit with what I was going through with my own questions about drinking–what I’ve nicknamed my Party Girl–and write like Coulter? (tl;dr No.)

So I decided to try. For fun. I wrote the chapter titled “True North.” It’s the chapter that will appear in this local anthology, and it’s written in the saddest voice I could muster. I poured every once of depression I could feel into that submission. Like I channeled every sad version of myself. My selves. As I revised, I thought to myself, How can I make this harder to read? What more can I say to tell the saddest story about breaking up with alcohol? How can I write the saddest love story gone wrong using this topic? Can I scale down 4,000 words into 2,000 and not lose the story? What, inside me, to quote The Replacements, is achin’ to be?

When I clicked submit, I felt like I lost twenty pounds. I have, in fact, lost 23 pounds since I’ve stopped drinking, so you know, there is some literal and figurative truth there. After clicking submit, I listened to Within Your Reach, danced around my office, and promptly went on to the next thing. Felt so light. Fuck it. Why not? That light feeling. The clarity. I remember feeling joyous that I’m back in the game of submitting my work for publication. And now, faced with the reality that this story is going to be out there, I’ll have to own it.

I’ll have to look people in the eye and assure them that I am indeed satisfied. And that writing is just sometimes you being me while I’ll be you.

Can’t hardly wait.

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The Kind of People Who Leave Dirt on the Floor

A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming. ~Barbarella

When I was a little girl, maybe no more than ten, I remember telling my dad I wanted to be a hairdresser when I grew up. He cut me off before I could even explain how much I loved being at the hair salon. Before I could even tell him how glamorous I thought it was to be with other women all day at work. Before I could even say why I thought they were having fun. Before I could even say what I wanted to be. He snapped. 

“No. You don’t.”

He turned to look at me while he was driving. I didn’t meet his eyes. 

“You want to do something with your brain. Why would you want to spend your time with a bunch of women gossiping. C’mon. That’s bullshit. What else do you want to be, kid? Think.”

I was a bit awestruck by his tone. He was serious. Sounded a bit pissed off. Disappointed. This was a man who routinely confused me by telling me to not throw like a girl and that if I ate onions it would put hair on my chest. He clearly confused himself sometimes, I think, because he knew what to say to a son. A daughter was a bit confusing, I’m sure. As a child, I remember twisting and contorting my head the way that a dog does when it doesn’t understand something or when it hears an odd sound. Was throwing like a girl bad? I hated onions so why should I care about hair on my chest? 

Years later when I was in college listening to one of my professors going off the rails with rage about “gender as a social construction,” I wondered what her dad said to her when she was a kid. If he said anything to her at all.  

What did I want to be? My little brain spun. I had just watched the movie Legal Eagles, and I thought about the love story of Debra Winger and Robert Redford that blossomed in between the exciting court drama. So I said, “I’d like to be a lawyer.” My dad looked pleased. I had no idea what that meant, but being a lawyer looked like it helped you attract men from a bygone era who liked women in business suits.

At that time, I had never seen a woman in a business suit in real life, and it stunned me. Winger’s character wore her suit like a uniform. All the women I knew wore the aprons of early morning grocery bakers or those of house cleaners. Women I knew did the work of nine-to-five jobs that they hated, and Winger not only had a cool job, she had snagged the Sundance Kid. Hot damn. Being a lawyer looked great. 

It shocks me now to think about how easy it was to say you could become something–anything–and somebody would believe you. We give children such latitude for creativity about their futures, and as adults, we watch those options shrink and become restricted by time and money. My dad looked pleased that I went from attending beauty school to studying for the LSAT in less than minutes. Totally realistic career arc.

He praised me with a “Good kid” look, and like a great dad, he kept it to himself if he had any doubts that I could ever follow that lawerly path. Nodded as if I was a woman who was destined to go to college. To law school. Nodded as if I wouldn’t be the next woman in the family who wore an apron everyday to work. 

That question of what I wanted to be.

I carried that question for years. It sat on my chest for all of my teenage years, and then that it parked itself on my chest as my twenties loomed around the corner. Nothing felt quite right until I set eyes on a trail crew. 

That. I want to be that, I thought. 

The trail crew were the first group of people that I witnessed who worked outdoors who weren’t part of a chain gang or doing community service. These eight people walked into my life as the trail crew at Yellowstone Park. I had no idea that such a job existed. That people could be happy with the work they are doing. Enjoying your job. It was a cosmic boom in the universe for me. 

The day I walked into the tourist welcome center and saw this crew, I was wearing my park-issued kitchen apron. A sous chef after her shift.

The Welcome Center was where tourists bought souvenirs and gathered information from rangers. It was a crossroads where people from all over stopped to rest and spend some time indoors. I loved making daily errands to mail letters or postcards to my friends back home, or to buy stamps. Being around the travellers felt really exotic and there were people from all over the world who visited the park. The Welcome Center was a much needed break from the relentless interactions of employee dorm life where no part of your life was private. Having been an only child, I didn’t know how to share living spaces with other people. Living in a building with strangers, including very attractive boys from California, was overwhelming at times. The Welcome Center was a great place to people watch.

On the day I discovered the trailcrew I remember thinking that I had never seen so much gear in one place. They were chatting and packing things in small plastic bags like first aid and trail mix. One man, who was impossibly fit with arms that showed muscles I had never seen on a dude who wasn’t a football player, walked around taking inventory. Another woman with equally sculpted arms, was counting tent stakes. Who are these people? I remember thinking. And how do I become like them? Where are they going? How do you get that job?

It was love at first sight. 

I asked the cashier, a woman from Illinois who lived on the same floor as me, who they were. Without a beat, she rolled her eyes and spat, “Fucking trailcrew, man. I always have to sweep twice after they leave because they get dirt and peanuts everywhere. You know what fucking maniacs management can be about food on the floor. Don’t people come to Yellowstone to see the wild life? Surely they can enjoy a fucking field mouse eating up the shit these hippie fuckers leave on the floor. Management is bullshit about the mess they make.” 

Just then we watched two trail crew dudes spill half a pack of M&Ms and peanuts on the floor, and my dorm mate exhaled loudly.

“They say there aren’t any wolves in Yellowstone. They haven’t seen how these fuckers live. So gross. The kind of people that leave dirt on the floor.” She shook her head slowly.

For every once of rage and contempt that she felt for them, I found myself falling in love. Who were they? What do they do? I noticed that they were wearing the same ridiculous name tags that they made all Yellowstone employees wear. Your name and your home state were in large letters next to the logo of Old Faithful, and you had to wear it one inch above your heart. I spent the entire summer explaining to people that my last name was not Georgia, and that I lived in Atlanta. I would count to three, and listen to them say how shocked they were that I didn’t have a southern accent. I’d then suffer through some anecdote about Jimmy Carter (fans or critics), Gone with the Wind (yes, I had been to Margaret Mitchell’s house), or Ted Turner (can you believe he’s dating Hanoi Jane). 

I’d suffer through these conversations with The Tourons, as we affectionately called the people who could get us fired by complaining to our managers, who wore the blue pins with white letters. There were fewer of them, and they all had wear black pants and white shirts. This was the George Bush The First era, and young people had no rights and nobody gave a fuck about your thoughts or seeing you. Listening to older people say stupid banal shit was just part of the job. Your only duty was to tell them not to go near the bison or the elk. 

These trailcrew people, however, seemed like the escaped living among The Tourons. They were heading into the woods and getting paid for it. Totally blew my mind. Once you hiked three miles away from any trailhead, you lost 80% of the Touron population, and the ones you did see were people you wanted to meet. I did a test once with a small group we met in the backcountry, and I mentioned Ted Turner dating Jane Fonda. Without a beat, one of them quoted Barbarella and another shared how much they loved her in Barefoot in the Park. Didn’t say a word about Ted Turner.

My People. 

attribution

These trailcrew people with their strong arms and tans were on the same payroll as me? It blew my mind. I remember seeing a list of jobs where you needed a college degree or Wilderness First Aid training, and I did not check those boxes when I applied for a summer job. I stuck to the jobs where you had to wear an apron. 

“What do they do?” I asked my cashier friend.

“They fix the trails and shit and load up their boots with mud to leave it all over my floor. When they aren’t making a mess on my fucking floor, they’re cutting down trees that block the trails. Then must eat all the food that they haven’t spilled on the floor. Fucking hippy pigs.”

We watched a guy shovel a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth and a third of them fell on the floor. He shoveled more into his mouth and didn’t bother picking up what he dropped.

“For fucks sake,” the cashier said.

I knew I wasn’t going to get a good answer from her, so I decided to do my own research. I told her goodbye, and I took a seat on the government issue couch by the fire. I watched one of the girls use her bandana to wipe the sweat off her hairy armpit, and then she rolled it up to pull back her hair. Genius!

These people in that lobby cracked a whole new world open to me. I watched them put on their packs and file out the door in single file with their eyes on the mountains ahead. 

That, I decided right then and there, was living. 

***

This is a draft that I have in the works of a book chapter. It’s not finished, or really even edited. But it’s done enough for today. A little writerly celebration after a great week of finishing a project at the jobby job, beginning another, and getting a bunch done for bike hobby job. Getting these 1790 words down is a miracle.

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Storm Chaser

This past weekend I stayed in a very rustic cabin on Camano Island during a power outage caused by a wind storm. The power went out when I got there at 6pm on Friday, and it didn’t come on again until the morning on Sunday. My goal with going there was to work on my book, so the lack of electricity was amazing. I had brought my Jetboil, warm clothes, food, two sleeping bags, headlamp, and candles, so I had everything that I needed to survive without electricity.

On Saturday morning, as the high-tide set in, the water rose as the wind howled. About an hour close to high-tide, two rangers stopped by the let me know when high-tide was approaching. They wanted to check in on the “the storm chaser.” I laughed. Apparently I was the only person who had not gone to the community lodge where they had a fire and a generator going, so they were curious how I was doing. A storm chaser! The heat of the lodge would have been nice, but I was completely happy with my own private shelter. I told the rangers I just had reservations for this weekend. The storm was a coincidence. “I’m not a storm chaser. I’m working on my book,” I said. The older ranger smiled at me, and the other one told me to get my belongings off the floor, and that they might need to evacuate me in twenty minutes.

They left me be but I got dressed in my rain gear just in case I did have to evacuate, and I packed up my things that I’d be bummed to leave behind should a flood occur. I kept a close eye on the rising waters from the front window of the cabin. This island is protected by another island to the west, so I got the impression that the tide waters don’t usually rise that high. Several people got clapped by waves as they tried to get closer to the ocean.

photo credit c’est moi, Cama Beach

Don’t turn your back on the sea. Indeed. I watched it all afternoon from my writing table. The spray washed on to my porch leaking water through the front door, but they had a little mop for me to use, and I felt like I was on board a small boat instead of a wooden 19030s era state park cabin. The wind didn’t stop for 34 hours. The gusts blew at the front door so hard I had to keep it locked so it would stay shut.

My plan had been to hike on Saturday when writing and reading words had become too much. Nope. I had wanted to check out the trails near my cabin, but the trees were blowing so hard. Occasionally you’d see big branches setting sail in the wind. The trees were like that clip at the beginning of Twin Peaks.

So lovely, this northwest. But I don’t like the wind. It’s been an exceptionally windy winter. Ready for that shit to end any day now.

I spent Saturday at my small table overlooking the tempest organizing and revising my book. It was such a gift. Just me. The only people I talked to were the rangers. And one dog that had escaped their owners. Magic.

For this post, I want to share a few things that helped me create a system of revision for the handful of readers who are writers themselves. Look at me! Instead of bitching about what I’m not doing, I’m going to share something that’s working. I’m always so surprised that anybody reads this bloggy much less follows these posts. Thank you.

Here’s what I did on that windy Saturday and frigid Sunday morning:

1] I read all of my printed chapters. I don’t print very often, but I was glad I had the analog version during the storm. Also, your cell phone flashlight rested on top of a lamp shade works quite swell to diffuse light. I slowly edited by hand. I had a limited battery on my laptop, and there was no way I was going up the lodge to power up my laptop. I used my Magic Machine very sparingly. The way you would have if the ink ribbon was dying on your typewriter. (I’m old).

2] Then I reread chapter by chapter, and I fixed all of my mistakes. Or all the ones I could see. I used my pen to hold the sentence line by line.

3] I then reread the digital pages looking for places where I could replace “that” or other repetitions and other horrid phrases that plague my writing. I tried to edit down for fewer words.

4] I looked at each chapter after this process and I answered the following questions: 

  • What is working?
  • Where is the theme of this chapter?
  • How can I summarize a needs of this chapter?
  • How does this connect to my book?

I replaced all of the drafts with just the first pages of the essays/chapters. I used dividers in a three-ring notebook. I then made three piles of papers. One for recycling that was about three inches tall. One with pages of notes, scenes, and blatherings for another book that I’m not ready to write. And one for general notes about writing that I’ve kept since last spring.

Am I ready to summarize what the book is about? Do I have a blurb? No. Am I sure it’s a memoir or a collection of essays? Nope. Here’s what I can say. My overall project with this book is a love letter to Yellowstone National Park. I worked two summers as a park employee in 1992 and 1993, and it was the right job at the right time of my life. Those jobs changed everything for me. I also want to share how I became a backpacker, and why I love that sport so much. So I think there is story to tell. A history, of sorts, that I would want to read.

Here are the chapter titles that I have so far:

  1. What the Shoulders Can Bear
  2. On and Off the Trail
  3. The Kind of People Who Leave Dirt on the Floor
  4. Gear Lust
  5. The Great Eye Infection
  6. Rain is Not An Emergency
  7. A Tent of One’s Own
  8. True North
  9. Our Backpack, Ourselves
  10. Dear Young One

Each chapter connects to one of the Ten Essentials, but I’m not sure which chapter aligns with which. I’m hoping that framework will teach readers a bit of what I’ve learned over the years. Truthfully, I have written this book bit by bit over the years, and to finally have it all in one place feels amazing. Like I have a foundation to actually write this, finish it, and then I can start writing something else. I can’t really explain why this story feels this way to me. Why I can’t let it go. It’s like when people explain their remorse for “The One who got away.” Like love that didn’t work out that you think of from to time to time.

When I finished this process for all ten chapters, I reread a note from a reader about one of the chapters where I write a letter to my younger self (Dear Young One). The reader shared that I should do the same thing only I should write to my future self. Share words of wisdom with her, the reader said.

That doesn’t feel like an option to me because I don’t know who she is–this future self. What can I possibly say to her when I don’t know who she is? I tried to follow this advice and write something as a conclusion to this writing retreat in the blowzy wind.

My letter was one sentence.

I wrote you this book. 

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Twelve Things & #AmWriting

It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the windows to the view outside. ~Heather Havrilesky

I’ve shifted my focus a bit on the social media since the start of the year just as an experiment, and so far I’m learning that “Literary Twitter” and “Bike Twitter” can be just as mean and ranty as the other networks and communities I know. The TwitterRobot reminded me to celebrate my anniversary on their platform which I joined–truthfully–begrudgingly to fulfill an EdTech graduate assignment. It made me laugh to remember how my classmates spent SO long talking about creating a “clever handle” to help “brand you in your personal learning network.” Barf me out, I remember thinking and I typed the @, my first name, and my last name, and went back to reading the New York Times. Assignment done.

I’ve made a lot of incredible friends and connections with that platform, but the mood and tone has changed a bit since I’ve started reading and sharing. I won’t quit you, Twitterz, because sometimes people share amazing things that I wouldn’t see elsewhere. The serendipity of the things you can learn and discover keep me coming back. Even if it’s the megaphone of horror and rage most days. I love, for example, this post from Porochista Khakpour: How To Be a Writer and How To Stay A Writer. 

Her blog inspired me to write my own version of her twelve ideas on how to be and stay a writer, so here goes. What follows is not as charming as what she wrote, so be sure to read her post first.

Don’t Hate People

I really laughed at this one. Yes! Recently, as in this Wednesday, I realized that one of the reasons I’m significantly happier these days is because of how little I talk with other people now that my job has changed. I thought about my last jobby job, and how I would take a few phone calls on the first ring to protect a thin-skinned colleague. I was her manager, after all, so when certain names came across the caller ID, I answered quickly even though technically it wasn’t my job. It was easier to face the hot mess on the other line than it was to deal with the hot-mess-after-the-call with an upset direct report. I remember saying to this direct report, “You just have to imagine that this awful person’s dog really hates them. Like she comes home from work and the dog runs in the other direction. When she’s mid-rant, imagine that her cat purposely misses the litterbox because it hates her.” This cracked us up even though it’s totally crude, and I’m not sure I mentored that person out of being overly sensitive, but really, I see now how this reacting to one-hot-mess-to-the-next-hot-mess wears you down. It’s impossible to write on days like that. 

Persistence

If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that persisting is exhausting. It helps tune you up for long-term endurance, which is the real test of existence. In fact, writing this post helps me realize that most of what I really enjoy doing is about endurance. Somebody introduced me at a public event for my volunteer work, and they mentioned how I work for a start-up, help manage a non-profit, and I race cyclocross, so, this person said, “she must love suffering.” People laughed. The ability to suffer the longest—to endure–you have to see this as a gift. Persistence is a gift.

Talent

This one is a hard one, and I love Porochista’s response–she is a teacher after all. Since I’m not in the role of making a living teaching writers, I’ll say it. I think some people are naturally talented with some genres more than others. Let’s say, for instance, you have a creative idea that brushes up against the status quo and challenges what everyone is cozy with. If you can persist and endure to create that new idea, then you have talent. Some writers can make a forty word sentence feel like a haiku. Some writers just stop you cold with their sentences. Few people have it, and that’s okay. There’s a difference between those who really have to try and those who are naturally blessed, gifted, talented–however you want to see it. Same goes with writing.

Luck

This is fucking everything and I’ll die on this hill no matter what you tell me. You can sell me all the platitudes of being able to “build your personal brand” and “beefing up your CV” or my personal favorite seeing yourself being worthy of success and I know in my heart and soul you’re a liar. And truthfully, maybe this naiveté makes you a happier person, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t. Luck is everything. Who you know. Who sees you. Who helps you. Which side of the tracks of you were born on. All of that magic that we lazily sometimes call “privilege” is a complex menu of circumstance and luck. My grandmother used to say that if “you didn’t have bad luck, you wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Preach! When you do have luck, I believe, then it’s up to you to help others who do not have as much as you. If you don’t, you’re a selfish asshole. There is luck that you can create for others. Let’s face it. Any word that is a noun and a verb is complicated.

Hard Work

Now this makes sense to me. Khakpour describes people who write everyday and those that do not. Some people believe that you have to write everyday to BE a writer, but it doesn’t always work out that way for me. Like today. I had every intention of writing the entire morning, and I got completely sucked into the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The structure of the book is so great the way she weaves three perspectives together and part of the story takes place in Atlanta, a city where I lived for nine years. Two characters bonded over a misunderstood line of my favorite Prince song, and I laughed so hard. Totally hooked to read the whole damn thing. One of the characters brought up how, when they were kids, they thought the Prince line was “I want to be the only one you cook for.” Brilliant, that whole scene.

I believe in hard work. If luck is an intangible thing that you can’t control, then hard work is The Thing that you can trust. It’s The Thing that makes you tired at the end of the day. The engine that helps you stay motivated. The Thing that keeps you getting after it. (If you are unfamiliar with that Prince song, you should listen to it. Pure soul funk on that guitar. May he rest in peace.)

attribution

Vision

I can see it. I can smell it. I can feel the book in my hand. Seeing the book in my mind and in my imagination is easy. Getting the thing done has proven to be the challenge. I just completed another 10,000 this month (woot!), so I’m feeling like I’m at a good place to stop and spend some serious time revising. I have one more chapter to write, and then I’m going through the whole thing page by page. Bird by fucking bird. I made it to 40,000 words this morning despite Jones’ novel, and my hour-long discussion of that Prince song with my Mister. He had never heard it. Wut! He’s not much of a fan, and I’m sure if he was shocked that I knew all the words. We have these momenets, where he’s like “How the hell do you know all of the words to this song?” and I’m like, “Where were you in the [enter year/decade here].” I sometimes marvel how we grew up in two very different parts of America.

Writer Friends

I have a lot of friends who read and journal and write, but I’ve struggled in this department–keeping up with my actual we-care-to-publish-our-work writer friends. Keeping up with a lot of my friends, really, is sometimes a challenge. Tryna be better in 2020.  

Make Up Your Own Rules

This has been one of the most liberating things for me, and I’ve written so much about this that I should prolly create a tag on this blog. Over the last ten years, I’ve stopped caring about the grammars, the semantics, the rules, whether I sound smart or not, and if my sentences make sense. On my free time, that is. On the clock, I care quite a bit.

One of the hardest parts of the class-like group that I’ve been involved with this past year has been commenting on other people’s work. It feels like grading. Ugh. Sigh. Deep breath. It’s a reminder of how much I burned out on teaching because of all the grading. I’m struggling with the commenting-on-other’s-people’s work part. I owe three people four months of comments on their work, and I just really can’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t know that working on other people’s writing would be part of this gig. I missed that part of instructions until it was too late. It’s all done in March, so I’m gonna really think about whether a community of writers is what I need. Dunno. Last post I was feeling it. Today? Maybe I’m just grouchy.

Revision

Sigh. This is entirely hard for me. I loathe editing my own work sometimes, and other times I love it. The word revision means to see again, and it’s a way to polish up what you’ve created. It’s necessary, but so hard. I know some writers who just sit down, bust it all out, and they never revise a damn thing. They never make a mistake. Words just flow beautifully and it is all gorgeous.

What gets left behind in the editing process can become something else entirely someday, and I’m embracing that constant sifting and sorting of words and stories.

Warm Up

I love this, and I agree. I do this when I when I workout, and I think of my journal as warming up. Though truly, I’m fine sometimes with warming up and warming up and warming up so much that I never actually get started. This past year was learning about this tendency of mine and being honest with myself about why I never really got started. But that’s a story for another day.

Read out loud

This is really hard to do when you live a small space with another person. I love my little condo ski chalet, but it’s not a place where you can pace and read out loud like the wonderful huge house we used to rent up by Lake Whatcom. Gosh, I loved that house. Me and the Mister had our own offices, and a gigantic sprawling yard. Someday I’ll have that space again (hopefully), and until I do, I’ll keep riding my bike or running and thinking about my writing. Reading aloud on the regular just isn’t possible right now.

Be Wealthy

I really laughed out loud at this one. Yes. YES! And I think this is a smart way of accepting the reality of a soul-craft like writing. It’s not going to pay the bills. Some of the writing I do does pay the bills, so like oh my frickin’ gosh that’s a miracle, and I know a small select group of people make a fine living as writers. I once accepted a gift certificate for a pair of pants in exchange for an article, and I remember thinking, “My writing is putting clothes on my legs but not food on the table.”

The most important question that I learned to say this past year after a stint of writing is: “How does this connect with my book?”

Sometimes what I’m writing doesn’t connect at all to that project. Yes. Sometimes it’s so spot-on. Sometimes it pure drivel. Sometimes it’s the same story told differently. Sometimes it’s another book brewing. This is a really lovely way of seeing for me. A helpful revision of my perspective.

Before I suit up, and go for a run, (too rainy and winny for the bike) I want to take a minute to reflect on where I am with this process. Maybe this is a wish for a bit of luck.

If I have twice the words that I have now this time next year, then I’ll be in good shape with finishing with this book. I’ll have a manuscript.

After reviewing my notes, I think my best process is to capture the early hours of the morning for just my writing. Before the work. Before looking at my phone. Maybe each week it changes, but I have to figure it out at least four days a week. At least. Four days a week, I’ll prioritize being a writer in the early morning. Three days a week, I’ll prioritize being a bike rider/racer-in-training. Both make me extraordinarily happy, and both are extremely hard. Lucky me.

For now, this quote:

Being an artist means: not number and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward that summer may not come. It does come. But it comes to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and cast. ~Rilke

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Stretching Into Change

One stranger who understands your experience exactly will do for you what hundreds of close friends and family who don’t understand cannot. It is the necessary palliative for the pain of stretching into change. It is the cool glass of water in hell. ~Laura McKowen

In my last post, I mentioned that I’m working on a book, and I’ve been avoiding writing about this project here because I’m not sure if I can do it. I suffer with all the known unknowns of this process, but the more I talk with other writers, the more I realize this feeling of “I might really suck at this” is pretty normal. I can’t see the forest for the trees because I haven’t been sure which forest I’m in for a very long time. Seeing 2019 to a close has helped me learn a few things about myself and my process as a writer. Here are a few things that I’m taking from 2019.

Being An Undergrad Didn’t Help Me

Contrary to what I dreamed about with going to college, it didn’t help me become a writer. Not one bit. Really. I did fall in love with the idea of being a teacher, so that was productive, and in my most naive moments, I thought I’d become a college professor who lived the life of the mind while writing the next great American novel during my sabbaticals. So cute, right? Would I advise a young person who wants to be a writer to skip college these days? No. I think everyone deserves an affordable college education who wants one. But let me tell ya, if you are filthy fucking rich and never have to worry about money ever again, take that gap year or five, write like crazy while you’re on the road and read and meet interesting people and then choose your college. But yes, go. If you’re poor, then yes, go immediately to your local community college and then try to transfer to the best school that pays most of your way. You’ll need that credential to find The Jobby Job that keeps you fed and living in doors in order to write. Don’t take private loans and floss everyday, Young One.

Being a Graduate Student (Twice, FFS!) Didn’t Help Me

This was another lie that I believed for almost a decade. If I could only find the right graduate program, I’d become a writer. In order to live the life of the mind as a college professor (hardee har har), you need to earn a masters degree or a PhD, I believed, and yes, that’s true, but again, unless you’re filthy fucking rich and never have to worry about money for the rest of your life, take a gap year or five between undergrad and grad school again (why not?), and then choose your grad school wisely. If you’re poor, skip that PhD. Definitely skip the MFA. Floss everyday for damn sure. Unless you have a full-ride and you never ever ever have to get into debt to be grad student, do it, Poor One. Telling people that you’re not that kind of doctor your whole life is confusing and hard. Just try to find a job you love.

Graduate school twice (gulp) taught me how to read All The Things. I’ve always loved reading, and I’ve had a public library card since I’ve been a kid (thanks, Mom!). Reading for graduate school taught me how to read, write, and dish it up for the professors and the people who publish academic work and for an audience who might be interested in my brain and it taught me you can write a run-on sentence and it can qualify as “creative writing” (see what I did?). Conceptual and technical writing is a skill, and one that takes years to hone. A lifetime.

Was it all worth it for the job that I have now? You bet. My last three gigs wouldn’t have happened without that Twice Grad School Experiment, and I’m grateful. So thankful. 

But it didn’t help me become a writer. 

attribution

Creative Writing Classes Didn’t Help Me

Hell is other people, and I’m pretty Sartre wrote that while sitting in a room with a bunch of poets competing for resources like fellowships, teaching assistantships, publications, and grants. Did I ever hate creative writing classes, the few that I took! Good grief, those sensitive souls. I’d listen to them in class and I sat wanting to peel off my skin. I’d work so hard to stop my eyes from rolling (this was really hard, I didn’t want to anger the teacher) while they complained about our reading assignments because it took away time from their writing. OMFG Who are you people? I would think. I wanted yell, “Get over yourself! Nobody fucking cares! You’re not that special or interesting. Really!” I quietly died inside every time a teacher wrote to tell me that I had book inside me on my assignments. Each time I would drink myself blind-to-blackout as I read those well-meaning and lovely comments from teachers. They were trying to show me a map to a destination I could not find on my own. 

Write Drunk, Edit Sober

This was the biggest lie I told myself. I hugged this truth so hard it sprouted leaves and grew around me like kudzu until I disappeared. I drank and wrote in bars, hotel rooms, hotel bars, airports, restaurants, cafes. Any place where I could type and somebody would walk by and bring me another. I relished in the fact that I wasn’t that waitress anymore, and I wrote and wrote. Then I would stop, sometime around the third drink, and I’d watch the waitresses and remember how much I seethed with rage when I did that job. I’d feel that anger all again, and it became more vines of kudzu. And the next thing I knew, the drink was gone, and I hadn’t written any words. The cursor would blink as I said, “Sure, I’d love another drink.” 

And the next day, I reread what I wrote, and it was total shit. Complete garbage. Like so fucking bad you wouldn’t think that I had gone to college much less completed several years of graduate school. I’d repeat the same stories that I thought I wanted to tell, or I’d jump off a cliff and rage my brains out about whatever-the-thing-was-that-made-me-angry-that-day. Shit nobody wants to read.

I had to work so hard to edit what I did write during those “writing sessions,” that I would just start all over. 

I’ll write about this more another day. Not today.

So what does work? What is working?

Low-to-No-Commitment Classes

I started last year to dabble with community-education classes, and the minute that teacher bored me, I started to write in class. Rude, I know. I used that time to just draft my thoughts. Normally, I’d sit there thinking of a million ways I could help the teacher improve, but instead I focused on me and my story. I also signed up for this class-like group, and I’ve committed to nine months of this process with meeting with other people about my writing. It’s been super-hard. My job can be very unpredictable, I have big responsibilities with my volunteer work sometimes, and sometimes at the end of the day, I’ve got nothing left in the tank. Luckily, the people in this program are generous, kind, and gracious even though I feel like a shitty student and a really awful participant. But I’m writing. And writing. And forgiving myself for not being the best student I can be. I clocked another 10k of words since I last published here, and I can see my second book way in the distance. So it’s working.

Talking To Writerly People Who Aren’t My Friends

This isn’t to say that my friends aren’t super-helpful and brilliant because they are. But they also know me and my bullshit too well. Or they lived alongside me during the stories that I’m writing, and they have their own versions that I want to ask them about when I hit the editing part of this process. So I don’t talk about it a whole lot. These new writer-strangers in my life (who are becoming friends as a result of this group) are really invested in themselves and their own stories, so they are an empathetic ear. The only thing we have time for is our writing, so that’s all we talk about. Writing. Reading. They are also giving me hope by their sharing their own processes and struggles. It’s one of the most surprising experiences for me. 

Chatting Up a Person Who Is Coach-Like

I’m working with a coach-like person, and I’ll write more about this another time, but man, oh man, is she dissecting my work in ways that blow my mind. She’s younger than me, and she’s in the process of discovering her talents as an editor while writing her own book. She’s fucking brilliant. I’ve worked with a lot of editors and my work always gets better in the hands of somebody else. It’s one of the core principles that I love about Open education (the remixing and revising) so the editor-writer relationship is really important to me. When the right editor has my words in her hands, that’s where things get really amazing. 

Reading A Shit-Ton

Last year, I filled a lot of non-work hours by reading books. More than usual. I set out to read a book a week, and then I did that sometime around August, so I changed the goal to 75. Then I hit 85 books on New Year’s Eve. Thank goodness for libraries and used books and e-Books that you can check-out from the library. After every book, I wrote something about that book. Not a book review, though sometimes I did. 

Dissing All The Writerly Advice

I love books about creativity and I’ll slurp up any memoir you lay in front of me from writers, but I really detest this new-ish strand of advance that tells you that you have to have platform (FFS), a “why” and that helps you “brand yourself” and “market” to your following. The advice that tells you that unless you have over 10,000 “friends” on Facebook that you’ll never get a book deal. Welp. Fuck all that. Maybe that’s true. I’m just not going to chase that path. I love what brings me a paycheck and that whole business of trying to influence your market (so exhausting) with your brand as writer (so gross) gives me the same feeling as being in those Creative Writing classes (ugh). If you use the word “Influencer” in earnest within ten feet of me, I inwardly start to hope I can spontaneously combust and disappear.

Quick side-note: I reserve the right to change my mind about this advice above if a book deal should ever come down the pike, but I’m just not going to worry about building an audience while I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing. I do what I do on social media and it’s enough for me.

I’m A Writer. Who Knew?

I told a bunch of teachers this week who were very overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving their traditional textbooks that they should just worry about their own houses and then they can worry about their neighbors and their city and their states and the country and the world later. Just focus on your students. I asked them to write about the one thing that their students struggle to learn—not what they struggle to teach—what their students struggle to learn. Boy, did they write. It was an experiment, and I think the teachers got something out of it. We returned to their answers as they explored courses and resources. I totally dug it.

As I stood at the podium while they wrote, I realized that my biggest struggle with becoming a writer is feeling comfortable saying that I am a writer. I’ve struggled with saying I’m writer because I don’t really know what that means. But if I focus on my own house–this little room of my own that Ginny Woolf taught me to care about–then that’s it. That’s it. So simple. You just have to sit down and do the work. Yes.

A writing teacher shared this easy advice recently: Words becomes sentences. Sentences become paragraphs. Paragraphs become scenes. Scenes become chapters. Chapters become books.

And I believe this. I see this with my own work. That’s the change I’m stretching into.

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12 Posts Complete: A Memoir

I promised myself I would post monthly, and I’m happy to report that I will meet that goal when I click publish today. This post will be short (for me) because I’m still on my break from the social, the digital, and all The Things. In other words, I’m on holiday! Like a real vacation, y’all.

I’m taking a break from the digital interwebz and the social because a major part of the cyclocross season is still happening in Europe, and I follow too many cycling things to filter out the news of the races. The Christmas Block, as they call it in cyclocross cycles, has been super fun to watch this year. What an amazing season for women’s field, and for every boring race that the men’s field busts out (one guy predictably crushes everyone), the women duke it out in spectacular fashion that’s been exciting to watch. The Dutch ladies are so inspiring, and we have a few Americans spicing it up too. I love that silly sport so much, and if I can’t be in Belgium this time of year (someday), then I’m going to watch as much of it as I can on the telly. It would be even better if I understood Dutch, but I don’t, so the races with English commentary are a treat.

Speaking of cross, I’ve had my best cyclocross season to date, and I’ve worked my way back to my 2012 era fitness. It feels like a miracle. My current love for stroopwafels notwithstanding; I will race cross-country in four weeks. My last CX race of the season, I did a double-header, meaning I raced twice in one day. I jumped into the single-speed race and got my ass kicked, but it was truly awesome to be on the course with the women’s elite field. The second race of the day was my actual category, and I started off feeling amazing and then suffered to the end. I only got lapped by the top ladies, so that was a major success for me. Like made me giggly-proud of this middle-age beefy bod of mine! Two bikes, two kits, two pre-race meals, two preps for everything–so fancy! Ah, much to report about this season, but I need to get on with the night’s travels to my snowshoe adventures. Or will it be soak-shoe since the rain has not stopped and it’s so warm? Whatevs. I’ll still be in the mountains for two more days.

The holiday season has been swell, thanks for asking. I love this time of year even though it seems like everyone likes to bitch about it. Me and the mister kinda lay low and disappear into this amazing ritual of ours where we turn into complete hermits. We spent some time at a cabin in the mountains and it didn’t snow until the last night so we read by the fire, ate, drank coffee, spent time in the hot tub, talked about our books, took naps, and watched cyclocross. Totally dreamy.

Back in July when I booked this vacay, we were going to dust off the snowboards and rip it up in the snowy trees. And then it started raining. And raining. And raining. And raining. Since it snowed a bit on the last day, winter did stop by, truly. On the way home I hit some black ice that tested my wintery conditions driving skills, so you know, I got some fun in the mountains. My ninja skills behind the wheels kept us safe, mind you. Winter fun? Mission somewhat complete. Dust still collects on my magic Burton board.

Lovely right? Too bad it’s rock-hard-icy “Cascade Concrete” dammit. Photo Credit: C’est moi.

Okay, so what to post here? Where is The Thing?

Dunno. I was going to complete one of my many unfinished blog posts and I’m not inspired to do that. I thought about reflecting on my Intentions for 2019 and I don’t really feel like doing that either. I thought about writing about the 32,731 words that I have for the book I’m writing (omfg!), but I’m not ready to talk about that. Yet. Plus, I’m behind on a bunch of personal-volunteer-type-shit that I thought I’d have done by now BUT because of the lazy-by-the-fire-reading-books-hippy-book-nerdfest-scene that I mentioned above, that ain’t happnen’ either. Nope.

I also started to look through my journal for quality quotes that I could write about, and you guessed it, I’m feeling awfully Bartleby here–I’d prefer not to. Ah, 2019, the year I figured out that the one book I’ve been obsessing about is actually three different books. Three. Different. Books. FFS.

More on that in 2020.

I did, however, find one quote that made me laugh hard at myself. And really, this is what my blog and most of what I do on social media is for–to laugh–at myself. I took the time to copy the following quote in my journal at one point this year as I researched creativity. For some reason, this quote from all of the 85 books I read this year is the one I’m going to leave you with. Because I can. Because it makes me laugh. Because it’s so true. This quote from noted philosopher, Mike Tyson.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Au revoir 2019.

Posted in cyclocross, Writing The Thing | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Photos & A Thousand Words

I’ve been noodling on whether or not to post this, and I’m waking up this morning to the feeling that this post is nothing compared to the everyday challenges I faced as a writing teacher. I’ve been going through old files this week, and I’m reflecting on how much of the students’ lives you see through their writing. I’m often haunted by students from my past that I know didn’t make it because of the harsh realities that most community college students face–so much depends upon which side of the tracks you born on.

Let me tell you a story about a photo.

On the morning that I took the photo that Amanda Coolidge used in her recent keynote, I was sitting in a coffee shop trying to build myself up with the confidence for the day. I had just paid a visit to my parents—people who sacrificed everything to make my life better–it’s always so hard to say goodbye. I was thinking about how they have a difficult time explaining what I do, and to be honest, I struggle to describe this work to people outside of higher education. The jargon of higher education isn’t always easy when you are a first-generation college graduate. Our story is hard to share. 

The day before I took this photo I spent 8 hours in a vendor hall right across a publisher doing focus groups. In the vendor hall, employees of other companies used the language and the research of my colleagues, and they gave Starbucks card after Starbucks card to faculty who shared their opinions about their new pricing structure. Their new day one access. Their new concern for students who could not afford their textbooks.  

Another company a row over was doing similar work, using the same dialogue, and they were angering faculty. It was one of those conferences where they have a passport for a raffle, and every twenty or so minutes, somebody would come up to me with strong opinions using the phrase “You People.” Everyone feels better after they say this phrase. It’s my job to stand there and listen to the outrage. I wasn’t the only table who heard these comments. You People. You People.

Prior to this work I do, I never went to the vendor hall as a faulty member, except, that is, for the “free drinks and food” (paid for by the companies who sponsored the conference, mind you). I avoided eye contact with the sales people, and I never in a million years would have shared my opinions and outrage. I saw them as people who needed to pay their bills. Just like me. Just like me when I was a bartender, a cocktail waitress, cashier, or an adjunct. Just like me in a capitalistic society where nothing is free. I thought it more polite to be quiet, and nibble on my cheese and crackers and talk with my friends. I thought it more effective to organize and do work that undermines their business model. I thought it more effective to help students and faculty the best way that I could. Sharing my strong opinions with them felt like talking into the wind. You People. You People.

That day, the day of the chalkboard photo, it was my job to be in the vendor hall, and I was honestly thrilled to talk with most faculty and administrators. I get to meet a lot of cool people even if this isn’t my favorite venue to do so. In that space, however, I represent the work so many wonderful people who truly care about students. People who care about adjuncts. Teaching. Learning. During the vendor hall gigs, I will gladly sup on a good sauce of spicy campus politics with you. Dish it up! I’m listening. I’ll take an extra side of faculty rage at administrators (and vice versa), please. Give me a dessert of innovative policy topped with administrative creativity, and I’m in heaven. Share a side of adjunct woes, and data-driven work that helps their labor conditions? I’m in love. I’m all ears. Tell me how the shit gets done to help students and teachers, and I’m yours (academic terminology emphasis, mine).

In the best case scenario, this work is pure joy. In the worst case scenario, it’s like bartending, and you are stuck behind the table and have to serve everyone and listen to everything. You People. You People.

That photo that Amanda remixed was taken on a day where I roamed the streets after work searching for part of my youth that no longer exists. Atlanta, like most cities, has been revised and remixed into a more sanitized version of what it once was. Whole neighborhoods were displaced for the 1996 Olympics. Many spots around the downtown area that I remember as a teenager are gone.

What I remember as “home” does not exist. Although truthfully, I never felt like I belonged there, and towards the end of my teenage years I counted the minutes until I could leave that city. It never felt like home to me.

The only place that looked familiar was underground. Five Points Marta Station.
attribution

Quick digression: Have you see those last twenty minutes of “The Deuce” where Vincent walks the streets of modern day Times Square? That’s perhaps one of the most brilliant twenty minutes of the prestige shows on HBO, by the way (paraphrasing my Mister). I got weepy when Paul, the bartender/bath house owner, who asks the best question of the show summarizing the challenges of gentrification: Where will The People live? (Looking at you, Seattle).

Where was I? Oh, right. Feeling seen, as it’s popular to say these days. And Amanda’s amazing keynote. Like Amanda, I’ve struggled to belong. Still. Always. Her story, albeit incredibly different than my own, resonated with me. The Where I’m From Question isn’t easy. Explaining What I Do For A Living can be even harder.

In the talk where I co-presented at this same conference, I said, for some of you, I represent the villain in this work, and I know I will never win you over, and that’s fine. A few years ago, a wise sage shared with me that this work is A Big Tent, and I didn’t quite know what that meant then because I only knew my work, my people, my community. I was pretty naive, honestly. I’ve learned a lot since then. This work, I have learned, is indeed A Big Tent, and I think there is room for a lot of ideas. You may not—and that’s fine too— I’ll adopt the quote that helped me that last week in October from my colleague: You do you, Boo. 

I wanted to present on this topic because I was asked by a dear friend whom I respect and love dearly to join her. Some of my best conversations about teaching are with her! When she shared that she didn’t want to do this talk alone, I wanted to support that vulnerability. That’s what we do in my corner of the tent, mind you, we support one another when we’re vulnerable. And let me tell you, I have felt more vulnerable in 2019 than any year of my life (a story for another time). I felt honored that somebody I respect asked me to present with her—back in April, mind you. I felt like I could support her ideas and share my mistakes. Wholeheartedly. Authentically. And I could learn some new ideas to build on some old ideas.

I presented not to people who knew any of the insider baseball or to those who openly criticize the work that I do. I was there to reach people who are new to this so that they could learn from my mistakes. Just as I have learned from others. 

I don’t remember all of what I said, and as people kept trying to walk into the door, and I looked around at several people in the room who are my heroes, research citations in old papers, friends, collaborators, colleagues, strangers, my boss. I overshared. I said things I wished I hadn’t. I kept a smile on my face. I felt joy listening to my friend talk about this really good idea. This really good idea. For You People. For me. For Everyone. 

What did I hope to get across? I wanted to share that this work is not sustained by rage and anger though it was the flint that started the fire for me. I’ve learned over time that it cannot sustain the passion for my work. I need a short list of things. Hope. Positivity. Joy. Kindness. Heroes are people. Villains are people. Victims are people. I highly recommend that you read the article, that is, if you are one of the lucky few with access to this database. I had to read a shared copy because I do not have access to these journal databases.

A few people on Twitter—that pretty hate machine—shared that they need that anger in response to what was shared about my talk. And I get that. I’ll stand by that bonfire as your guest from to time to time. I get it.

What are the origins of my anger? In the talk, I admitted my deep class resentments (why was I born on this side of the tracks and not you?), my shame of debt we carry for our educations (how else could we have done it?), and the horror of burning out as an adjunct teacher (I loved teaching but those labor conditions crushed my soul). 

The spectre of the imposter syndrome rose up next to me about the doctorate that I thought I’d have by now while standing in front of people who have that D and R in front of their names.  

All of those feelings came from a deep dark place that I’m trying to forget. Trying to forgive. Trying to accept. Trying. 

I used to lift my fist to the heavens shouting “may the bridges we burn light the way” and I loved snarking and sassing my way to some sort of leadership style. Those wishful fires dim the more I learn from faculty who feel deeply frustrated by their current choices. Their current work conditions. Their current state of teaching. The current state of learning.

I shared that one leader advised me that we do this work “one coffin at a time” and I loved that quote for many years. Loved it. Some people in the room knew exactly who said this to me and laughed. Others looked horrified. Others learned a new quote that they will take back to their corner of the tent. 

Almost ten years later, those people (You People) are still alive. Those that retired have come back as adjuncts. The coffins are empty. This work has not grown in those places. But I’m hopeful.

Rage and anger? The flint that started the fire for me. Truly. Those flames dim over time as I walked from workshops with teachers who love their students but have to use materials and outcomes mandated by the accreditation process. On the way to my rental car, I pass by community college students who are clearly living out their cars. The rage and anger does not disappear, it’s just not the emotion that can sustain my work. For me. 

Rage and anger is not how I can start my day. Everyday. As I try to consult with administrators who believe in The Commons yet receive 3% of their budget from the state. As I try to help a leader who has left this work to facilitate a food pantries for students. As I try to help a lead who is no longer supported by her institution to do this work.  

Over time, as I have had the privilege to visit over a 100 colleges and attend many conferences in 18 states to speak about this work, I have found that I can’t walk into a room full of curious people and tell people to “burn it all down” because that doesn’t work. I have the privilege of getting on a plane and going someplace else. Whereas the people I work with have to stay there. They need solutions, ideas, support, and empathy.  

I have since openly-licensed the photo I took because I meant to do it before her talk, and I forgot. It’s done now. Ready for the reuse.

This is the story I wanted to tell you about a photo.

Posted in Conferences | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Red Pencil

“Always allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind” ~Maria Popova

In a creative writing class, a teacher once told us a story about Raymond Carver who was a legend for reading his published works with a red pencil in his hand. He’d revise his published hard-bound work in front of a live audience.

The words, she said, are never perfect.

Instead of feeling inspired by that anecdote, I remember feeling endless despair. I put my hands to my head and caught the scent of the bleached bar rag from the waitress shift I had just completed. I wondered if I was making a colossal mistake with my life. I remember trying to stop myself from crying because my teacher was this incredible strong feminist. My self-debt glowed like a heat lamp in my chest. Tears gathered, but I could not look weak in front a teacher I was trying to impress. Those women did not cry.

The idea that you’d never be happy with what you wrote—that a great wordsmith and master of scenes like Carver was never pleased–was not what I needed to hear as a student. Fuck, I thought, how will I ever be happy with what I’m producing? I reread sentences of his that I loved from “Cathedral” searching for areas of that he may have deemed worthy of improvement.

Carver wrote these lines with a red pencil in hand:

In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God.

You’ve got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand? 

I’m doomed, I thought. We didn’t have that mind-blowing-up-emoji back then, and I could have used it because I was out of words.

Years later, I reread my journal from that era, and I now see something completely different when I imagine him at the lectern with a red pencil in hand reading to a live audience. Carver had it all figured out really, but I wasn’t ready for that image of a professional writer never being satisfied.

Back then, my self-made misery as a young person eventually contributed to what I thought I could be and what I could do. What I wanted to do. To be. 

My teacher was laying down some real wisdom about writing, and I picked up something completely different than what she intended at the time.

And now I’m ready for that message. I pick up that red pencil (although it’s mostly in the digital form) every day.

The words, I know, are never perfect.

P.S. If you attended my preso with my dear friend, Quill West, I want to express gratitude for your willingness to listen to us share our mistakes and thoughts. I will write about this another time, but for now, I need to post my October blog so that I make my self-imposed deadline of monthly bloggy during 2020.

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Striving

“The real risk is not changing. I have to feel like I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” ~John Coltrane

Last weekend my bike team put on our second annual all women and girls mountain bike race, and I overheard a woman say to her friend, I’ll strive to do better next year.

She smiled, hugged it out with her friend, and rung the cowbell that we gave participants as their finishing medals. She had no idea that I was in earshot, that I am the captain of the team (lucky me), and that I had one of the biggest meltdowns in recent history five months ago with the thought of putting on this race.

I woke up one morning in early June, and I just lost it. I felt really overwhelmed by everything I had going on at the time. My plate felt so full I had a hard time prioritizing my time. I felt like that spinning rainbow circle on your computer screen.

Work-wise I was going through another phase where we hired people to do the work that I enjoyed doing, and I took up residence in Panic Town that I was going to be discovered as a complete useless hack. It’s amazing to help hire people who are way more skilled than you, for the record, and really one of these days, I think I will write about the ups and downs and JoyfulTerror ™ of being part of a growing organization. In short, you have to learn how survive hour to hour. Get used to feeling like a yo-yo. Make yourself useful day by day to whomever may need you. Pretend like you have it all together with most people. Melt down on people you trust. Ignore all feelings that you suck at everything. Thanks for reading the first draft of my TedTalk.

Personal-life-wise: I had said yes to too many things. Gawddammit. Again. How many times do I have to learn this? The volunteer work that I had signed up for felt like I was letting people down all the time, and nothing was going smoothly. I felt like I was a disaster at everything. That Yo-Yo feeling at work that I mentioned above? My personal life felt like a bunch of tangled strings.

Writerly-wise: I just wanted to be left the fuck alone to write. And read. And then write some more. I could feel this story coming together in my mind and I had no time to chase it. No time to think about it because of the Yo-Yo and the Tangled Strings. This lack of time and focus was making me grouchy AF.

That morning when I admitted that I had to focus more on the Yo-Yo so I had to cut some Tangled Strings, I drafted an email to the team stating that I couldn’t help put on this race, and really if it were up to me, I would cancel our plans. I wasn’t sure we could pull it off. I typed that email from a super dark place.

Within minutes, maybe even seconds, women on my team responded with phrases like “I can do” and “I can help” and “I’d love to” and “Sign me up for.” As I watched those emails roll in, I realized I should have just asked for help rather than saying that I had to bag out. Saying that I couldn’t do something was easier than asking for help.

Did you catch that?

How many times have I abandoned the hard work of dealing with difficulty because it’s easier to walk away than it is to ask for help? Asking for help means you’re weak. Asking for help means you’re not good enough. Asking for help means you don’t know what you’re doing.

When I overheard that woman say, I’ll strive to do better next year, I felt ten thousand rainbows in my heart. Hearing that declaration also filled me with shame when I thought about how I almost walked away from helping put on this amazing event. I let the rainbows chase away the shame.

I’ll strive to do better next year.

Thank goodness for all of those team mates of mine who said “I can do” and “I can help” and “I’d love to” and “Sign me up for.” That’s really the spirit of teamwork and collaboration. What being a team is all about. Why I volunteer for this hobby job.

What that racer felt is what we’re trying to build with our mission statement. We want more women to race. That racer’s mind was already on next year! What she’ll strive to do. Who she’ll strive to be. Everyone on my bike team believes that racing with other women builds the confidence that we all need in a culture where it is very hard to maintain that feeling. You need those “I can do this” moments to keep your chin up with confidence so you can get through The Yo-Yo Times and The Times of all Tangled Strings.

Racing, I believe, has a spot for every type of woman. You want to be serious a killer who trains year-round? You’re in. You want to wear glitter, dress up in a costume, and compete for the most whiskey shots consumed during the race? You’re in. You want to be solid mid-pack and have fun with your friends? You’re in. You want to race with your daughter? You’re both in.

We can all strive. Together.

Here’s the thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about asking for help and what that means to all the teaching and learning. As I was scrolling through the stream of things on the interwebs, this list of Coltrane quotes came through, and I chose the one for my epigraph because it sums up the rut I was in a few months ago. He captures the real spirit of how I hope to live my life:

It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of strive is 1] to devote serious effort or energy and 2] to struggle in opposition. It’s interesting to me that this word has a history from the French verb estriver meaning “to quarrel” and some synonyms listed are attempt, try, and essay. Sometimes I quarrel with myself as I attempt to try to write an essay.

 I will strive to do better next year.

That statement has inspired me so much. It’s had me glowing for days. I’m so honored that my team helped make this race happen. Want one more favorite story?

One of the junior girls waited for all of her friends to catch up to her on one of the hill climbs. You know, it was a race, and you don’t technically wait for anyone. She didn’t want to ride the rest of the trails without her friends. I thought about how rare it must be to just ride with your little gurlfrens with no adults. It must be rad! How much I love that story. We don’t deserve little girls, this world.

Photo Credit: Kari Bodnarchuk Wright

Speaking of striving–I’m up to almost 20,000 words with my book, and I’m still in awe that I’m doing it. Like I’m really writing a book. It might suck times to Sunday, but I’m doing it. One of my readers told me she thought it was working, and so what did I do to celebrate? Completely panicked and started writing something else. I’ve decided to enter a local call for writing, and focus on a short piece. Just to clear my brain from the positive feedback. The submission calls for 1500 words, so the 5,541 words that I wrote might need some, uh, editing.

This publication accepted my work in 2012, so I might get rejected to make room for a new writer. We’ll see. I love the spirit of community reads program and the events that go along with it. I also loved the book–To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivy–and inhaled it in a weekend. I picked it up first because of her name–Éowyn–she has the name of the character with my second favorite quote in Lord of the Rings: “I am no man!”

Quick Trip To Dork Town:

My all-time favorite Tolkien quote is when Galadriel says:

And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Fucking badass, man. Little Frodo almost greased his shorts when she busted out that feminist edict, right? So great. Elfin feminist rage? Me fucking too, yo.

Okay, I’m clearly losing it. Where was I? Right. Trying to get my monthly post done while trying to make some point. Let me just end it here with another beautiful set of words from The Love Supreme wizard.

One positive thought produces millions of positive vibrations.

Yes.

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As A Writer

This week has been incredibly interesting for me, as a writer. For years, I have to admit, I’ve made fun of the phase “as a writer” because it always sounds so over-the-top. So touchy-feeling. So confident. It’s like giving yourself a title when it’s really up to others to name you. As a writer. You sound a little pretentious. A little like you might stick your little pinky up as you sip your tea. A bit like you take yourself a bit too seriously. If you’ve ever started a sentence with the clause, “Reading this as a writer,” I probably tuned out the rest of what you said in that sentence.

But I’m learning these days that maybe I have it all wrong. As a writer.

I’m learning to think of myself this way, and this week I hit a word count of over 11,000 words on one idea.

Words are becoming my friend instead this avenue of self-despair and pure self-sabotage. These 11,000 words are nothing new. Writing that much isn’t that hard. Give me a rainy morning and fuckton of coffee and watch me go. But these 11,000 words are magic because they are about one focused idea that is all somewhat organized into a story. For the first time, I have a stack of papers that actually has some heft that feels a lot like the makings of a book. About one idea. As a writer.

Two of my favorite bloggers, Kate Bowles and David Wiley, also posted bloggy blogs this week, and I’m still mulling over their finer points. In an ideal world, I’d add to the conversation that they both have started, but in order for me to stay on track with my hobby job project, I want to express my gratitude that they’re putting words out there for me to read. The right words at the right time means so much, that connection of story and thoughts. That’s what keeps me in the blog space. What I still return to Twitter for. Why I scroll through Instagram.

Kate summarized for me in her last post as a reader, the beautiful hard personal question of “Why write?”

Indeed.

I always admire the way that Kate can braid together three threads while presenting another question to consider. A true teacher. As a writer. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “I prefer not to.” What those words mean after a day of writing for work. How there are sometimes no words left. As a writer.

And Wiley’s bloggy blog is a history lesson about what is possible and how we get there in blog-essay form. What a word artist. What a teacher. Some days I feel that if Montaigne were alive in the blog era he’d essay it up to answer the question: Que sais-je? As a writer.

Both bloggers are not only teaching, they are writing what they know with an audience. The audience of self. And others who may read. And that’s everything to me.

As a writer.

This past weekend I went to my very first writing retreat with about 12 other people, and I completely dug being a student for a weekend. It was our first meeting after almost three months of purely online interaction. And I’m floating from such a lovely weekend, and extra special love to my friend Tami for cooking me mother fucking delicious dinners, letting me sleep in my van in your driveway, and for the extra time writing on your deck. Magical weekend. As a writer.

During the retreat there was a lot of information about other people’s stories, the physical way that writing helps people work through trauma. And I had an epiphany about “the market” of the type of book I’m trying to write (not that I’ll ever sell it, but whatevs). Here’s why I’ve been filled with despair about this story I want to tell (for years), and how much I’ve struggled with the title “writer” (for years).

Much of what I want to write about will never appeal to a mass market. Here’s why I don’t think I fit into the Oprah-ication of the Memoir Zeitgeist. Quick list.

1] I’ve never had sex with anyone that I didn’t want to.

2] I’ve never been a drug addict,

and 3] my family’s Good People.

Sounds like a fucking country song. You know, life’s kinda worked out for me. I’m not that wounded, and I’m incredibly lucky compared to others. And I suppose I write in that spirit that Monsieur Montaigne intended, only I’d add the work “fuck.” Que sais-je, faaaawwwwk?

Trying to tell a story in the written form requires a lot patience and practice. I said most of these chapters in bars over the years. Or I’ve confessed standing around campfires. But I’m committed to doing this. To writing this book.

I really like the nine-month writing program that I’ve joined (come hell or high water) and I adore the people who are involved, and by golly their stories and motivations are really a joy to hear.  I had the privilege of people really examining my story piece by piece this weekend, and listening to hot mess of words in the mouths of others was so productive to me. I listened to the video of what I said (with mild horror) and how others summarized it this morning, and I loved it. Every minute.

Here’s the thing.

What I struggle with, as a writer, is the genre of confessional memoir. Memoirs are marketed for their drama, trauma, and sad as fuck denouement. I mean, who doesn’t love the last words of person who struggled and lost with suicide. You sick bitches! Who doesn’t a story about how love blows everyone apart? Pass the popcorn! Who doesn’t love a story about somebody’s life falling apart? On pre-order from the bookstore! Who doesn’t love a redemption story about how one recovers from [enter shitty thing that humans do to another here]? Sign me up.

My denouement isn’t that earth shattering. I would like to teach people something. Maybe make them laugh. With me. At me. I don’t care. As a writer.

You know, my little bildungsroman of a young woman compared to the stories of true sadness and horror just doesn’t fit the zeitgeist, man. Fuck it. I’m still going to write it. C’est denouement be damned.

The added writing retreat bonus was I got a peek at how one of these retreats work. Would love love love to teach something like that, y’all. Holyhotdamn. The whole experience reminded of when I taught Saturday classes that met from 9:00-3:20pm. Those were long days of composition classes where the students did online work during the week and then we met face-to-face. The class was specifically for career adults who worked weird shifts, and every single one of my students wanted to be there. Very rare experience as a community college teacher, mind you. I loved that class. That summer the college grounds crew hired a herd of goats to eat up the blackberries on the hillside. My class and I were on Goat Watch all summer. It was awesome.

Also time in a workshop setting without a computer lab was fascinating to me. It’s been ages since I was in a learning environment without a computer, and it was odd to write so much by hand. Analog. I missed my magic machine. Typed like a banshee once I was back to it.

I was asked to repeat “I Stood For” as a writer and I said the following. It was a little touchy-feely, but it was a retreat after all. Totally got with the program.

Here’s how the scribe heard me, and she wrote these words in my journal:

  • I’m telling a story that I’ve wanted to tell
  • A woman who learns about backpacking, so it’s about being a woman, but for anyone
  • Humor
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Teaching others from these mistakes
  • Brave
  • Trying to relate to her through story
  • Taking time to write
  • Taking time to connect with others
  • Trying to do something I’ve always wanted to do
  • Trying to be the writer I’ve always wanted to be
  • Life as a writer
  • Life
  • Time as a writer

So that’s what I’m working on. Why, I don’t know, but it’s something I love doing. Scoping out the entire journey of my narrator is really fun—the narrator is already a bit unreliable there, eh? She has a terrible memory, drank a bit too much at times, and forgets names. Flawed. Imperfect. Becoming.

As Flaubert says about his narrator in Madame Bovary so shall I:

C’est moi. 

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