Finishing The Thing

Bovary is not exactly racing along: two pages in a week! Sometimes I am so discouraged I could jump out a window. ~Gustav Flaubert

Last weekend, the mister and I went on a hot date to the public library. We went out to brunch, went for a walk in the rain, and then hit the stacks in the downtown branch. As I stood at the computer looking up books to check-out, I overheard a librarian talking to a man who looked really irritated. He looked a bit like Ginsburg who hadn’t trimmed his beard since 1981.

I didn’t catch all the details, but I did hear the librarian say, very calmly: “It seemed like you two were about to fight, so I don’t think you should sit by him today.”

To which the surly bearded man said, “Not my fault he didn’t like what I had to say. Mother Fucker needed to hear that shit tho!”

I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing. Hero! That’s exactly it. When a buddha-like yogi talks about how we can’t control others, we can only control our reaction to them, we see it as gospel. We see it as truth. Wisdom. I prefer the honesty of the Ginsburg truth teller using the free library internet.

Recently, a reader of my work told me she didn’t like the use of “we” in my writing because she “doesn’t feel that way and I shouldn’t impose my worldview on her by using we.” For fuck’s sake. “I don’t feel that way, so I felt excluded,” she wanted to remind me. (Heard it the first time, but okay, continue). We (ha) use to call it the royal “We” but now that we (ha) live in an era where even the royals don’t want to be royal, I think we can agree that this word choice might be annoying to some readers. True. For some purists, one should never use “we” and I get it, but I wasn’t imposing my worldview. K. Thanks. Bye.

I think what’s going on is I’m totally done with this sharing-my-work-for-feedback-thing for a bit. Next week, I graduate from this program I signed up for almost a year ago, and I’m really thrilled to take a break. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so glad I’ve done this program, and I absolutely love the people I’ve met, but I need a break. Ready for it. Here for it. I’ve given up time with my friends to make space for this, and it’s time for holiday from it all. Do I have a book ready to put into the world? No, but it’s shaping up nicely into something I love working on. I now schedule time to write, and I stick to it, so I accomplished one of my goals. What does finished look like? We shall see.

I don’t write a whole lot (nor do I really talk about) my mister’s struggle with his dissertation. His fancy-dancy-R1 program has changed their rules for what qualifies as a “finished” dissertation recently, and I have very strong opinions I will save. Nobody cares. In order to help him get to the finish line, I’ve rented him a sweet little tiny ocean view cabin so he can squirrel away for a week as a present for his birthday. My little cabin experience inspired him, and I do think there is some wisdom in an ascetic solo life away from everyone and everything. I’ll join him for his last night, and if I dig the space, I’ll rent it too.

Photo by Julia Joppien on Unsplash

This week, I read John Acuff’s Finished: Give Yourself the Gift of Done (checked out from the library). It is a snappy little book written with a southerner’s sense of humor with reflections at the end of each chapter to help you sort out how to finish a project. To help you sort out what might be a barrier.

Here’s what I copied in my journal as worthwhile advice:

  1. Find three relationships you need to pause
  2. Lose perfectionism
  3. Dial back your goals
  4. Make the thing fun
  5. Collect data
  6. Figure out where you work best
  7. Decide on a timeline

Okay, while reading this book and discussing dissertations with my mister and my friend/colleague, who has struggled for different reasons with being All But Dissertation, I finished my third course for my project at work. As I described what I had done for a colleague who is presenting on this work as I write (bless you, sweet soul), I realized that I’ve only just begun. To live. White laces and promises. A kiss for luck and we’re on our way. (We’ve only begun). Okay, wait. These are lyrics from The Carpenters.

Quick digression. The made for TV movie about Karen Carpenter’s anorexia destroyed me as a young girl. Shit haunted me. I mean, she had this beautiful voice. Killer hair. Bitchin’ clothes. She could play the drums. A brother to rock out with. She was on The Muppets. I could not understand for the life of me how and why she could let herself die like that.

Years later, when I met women who struggled with this eating disorder, I got it. Shit still haunts me. Makes me sad. Recently I shared my ongoing woes with my teeth, and a woman said, “All of my mom’s friends who are your age are totally losing their teeth from…you know.” She looked empathetic. Sad for me. Pity.

I asked, “What do you mean?” I was still reeling from her loose reference of “my mom’s friends.” When did I become that old?

“Oh, like, when you make yourself throw up. The acid. You know. It hurts your teeth. You’re not the only one your age,” she said.

Whoa, I said. My teeth issues are hereditary. And I should have flossed more. I can trace this back to what my mom struggled with. Possibly her mom. And so on. Genes, not the horrific pressure to look a certain way.

We changed the topic of conversation. Totally awkward. So sad.

Where was I? Right.

Finishing The Thing.

Yes, I’m going to start working on a new course on Monday, but I have decided (with help from others) what I can finish-for-now and what I/we can return to later. And I’m pretty excited about that at the ol’ jobby job these days, so I’m going to bring a bit of that joy into this hobby job project too.

I started to think about the word “finished” and what it means so I looked it up. And according to Merriam Webster’s definition, I’m working in the transitive form of the verb. As in, I’m writing more today about finishing the thing instead of actually working on the thing.

But this is a nice break to think about something else. When I think about the various French terms associated with the word finish (that I remember), we–WE–can think about finish as an action (terminer) or as a thing (le fin) or as an ending (la fin). In my epigraph above, I quoted Flaubert because it made me laugh.

Here’s another Bovary quote that I love, so you know, we can finish this post and move on with our day.

Accustomed to the the calm aspects of things, she turned, instead, toward the more tumultuous. She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery on when it grew up here and there among ruins.

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Like A Pentimento

It’s like finding that the sky and the sun are always there and that it’s the storms and the clouds that come and go. ~Pema Chödrön

Lately I’ve been reading my old work journals. I keep my writing about work and what I call my writing separate in two notebooks though there are times when the two overlap. Part of what I love about reading these old journals is I can reflect on where I am with where I want to be. These words also allow me to see the long game. As I read I have a conversation with the ideas in my head. “Yes, this will work again. I can use this. No, this is still a bad idea. No. Yes. Maybe. Not this. Never again.” Each sentence feels like painting over the same painting over again. A canvas I can’t seem to finish and say, “Yes. This is done.”

This time three years ago, I was really struggling with the feelings of finally getting what I wanted and learning that it wasn’t what I wanted at all. The palpable disappointment of thinking that I wanted to travel for work for a living. That this would be the thing that would finally make me happy. Being on the road. Traveling for a living. Seeing new places. I got to try on that hat for three years, and I can say that at the end of it, I didn’t thrive the way I thought I would. Sure, if I was asked to do it again, I will. I would. Never say never. Again. This is the first month of February in ten years where I haven’t traveled at all for work. My commute is walking upstairs. It’s magic.

In one of my work journals, I reread my thoughts from when I spent one weekend on the road in between work gigs where I got to spend some time in a town as a tourist. In hindsight, I should have spent more time writing. I should have sat my arse down in the coolest coffee shop and wrote. Instead I walked for miles around a town I had never been to. I wandered for hours during the town’s peak off-season. I decided to stay at a hotel where they were renovating the pool (warned their website), and the hotel clerk asked me if I wanted an ocean view. She said could put me on the top floor. Her manager overheard her offer, and walked over to let me that they were renovating the pool, so maybe I would prefer a suite that looked in the other direction. I’m sure he saw that I was fancy work traveler with gold status. He looked worried.

It’s not a great look for us. We can only do this work, you must understand, when there are no tourists, he said.

No, I said, that’s fine. I’d love an ocean view. I won’t look down. 

When I settled into the suite, I sent my husband a text that this place was bigger than most apartments that I had lived in, including the studio that I shared with him when we first moved in together. I opened the sliding glass door and the sound of the ocean filled the room. It was warm. Humid. Balmy. Not my usual climate. I left the screen door open the entire time I was there just to hear the ocean nonstop. I live four miles from the ocean, technically speaking, but my home is near a calm bay. From a distance it looks like a lake. The sound of the open ocean, the waves, always feel special.  

Now when I look back at those journal entries, I see so many struggles that I still have. Wishes yet to be fulfilled. Some ideas, thankfully, are becoming reality. Some dreams are coming true. 

This past weekend, I sat down with the 40,072 words I have for my book and I scaled it back to 25,000. That’s almost 70 pages my husband reminded me when I shared with him what I had worked on in between cleaning our condo. He gets the hell out of my way when I get into one of these states, and it’s really quite lovely. I think in his mind he enjoys the fruits of my frenetic busyness. A very clean bathtub. A more extravagant dinner than what we might have during the week (though he usually does most of the cooking).

In between letting the cleaner attack the shower grout and waiting for my dough to rise, I cut words and moved them into a document that will serve as holding pen for The Next Thing. Usually this act would have floored me. This act of admitting that these words aren’t working. For some reason, this time, putting words away feels like I’m keeping a secret. A story for another time. A revision that is true in the sense of seeing again. It’s okay.

I decided to scale down a few scenes, and really focus on having an arc for each story. This isn’t going to be a linear memoir (this happened because of this and that happened because of this), and I’m in love with this organization. This framework. This idea. I want to write a collection of essays, and it’s going to be focused on the early years of my love for backpacking. There is a gap between the time that I discovered this thing that I love and the years where I finally went back to college and figured things out a bit. The gap between the years I thought I was one thing but I was really another. This gap of time is another story. Maybe not as interesting.

This week also marks an experience with two editors that has me celebrating how I am handling All The Things these days. This perspective is hard to describe. I can’t take the word “adulting” seriously–it’s a word that the-younger-than-the-millenials use–a word that I just can’t adopt. One of those nouns that I just can’t make a verb. Maybe it’s the latchkey kid in me who does not remember a time when I didn’t think like an adult.

I can’t really describe the feeling but I suppose it’s something like acceptance. Grace. For example, one reader pointed out how many times I used the words “just” and “that,” and how it annoyed the shit out of her. Just like that (hee hee), I used Control+F, and I realized I had used those words a lot. Sometimes, as my New Englander husband likes to point out, I’ve never really lost the way that Southerners speak and write. Being born a Yinzer who then moved to the South created a baseline of confusing vocabulary that I’ve never been able to lose. Slang, poor English (or is it the English of the poor?) and repetition plague my writing. I know this. This reader’s feedback was really good, and rather than feeling like I’m sort of a loser for using those extraneous words so much, I promised myself to find them later and just edit them out. That’s that. 

I’m seeing this process a bit like painting. One brush stroke at a time. The same canvas. Just painted over and over again.

attribution

Another reader edited something I wrote for the jobby job so much, it’s barely mine anymore. It’s amazing to see the transformation of my ideas, really. Ten years ago seeing an edit like this would have paralyzed me for months. Given that I had already turned in a much edited version from my first draft, it was astonishing to see the final cut. That’s a funny phrase–the final cut–a description of an era gone by when a film editor would actually cut the film. In our digital era, there is a point where, in a Google document, say, there can be many red and green letters of edits. In the end, when you click “accept” there are very few original black letters left. What remains is still my idea and my work, but the story sounds so different. Much better really! 

These two experiences made me think a lot about the relationship of the writer and the editor. I once took a class where we read all of Toni Morrison’s and Isabel Allende’s novels, and I read an interview with Morrison, who shared that her books are what they are because of her editor.

What becomes good enough is because of the edit. The final cut. The last stroke of paint on the canvas. Yes. I get this. The words become yours and not yours. In the truest sense, when they are in the hands of the reader, they become ours. 

A collection of words over time that become like a pentimento. Of memory. Of time. Of an era.

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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.

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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.

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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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