Five Things I Wish I Could Say To Every Teacher

These ideas are half-baked, from the heart, and written from the perspective of a former teacher. My context is higher-education, mainly community colleges and regional publics, but there are some tips, I hope that apply to all educators.

Here goes.

Number One: Congratulations! You just earned a certificate, no let’s call it a masters degree, in Crisis Management. Your professional development for 2020? Done! And it’s only March. Look at you! You’re an expert in contingency planning, strategic communications, and emergency management. Put that on your CV under SKILLS. If you want a certificate, I’ll make one for you and send it to in the mail. Want an endorsement on LinkedIn? I’m your girl. Think that should be a badge somewhere? I’ll have to sew you one because I haven’t seen a space where digital badges mean anything to anyone other than tech people. But really, cheers to you! I wish I could take credit for this idea, but it’s from a bestie who has been on the front lines (and I hate war-speak) at the big R1 down the street from me. I’m so worried about you, girl, but I love this idea. Like we could go Oprah-style with this. You get certificate! And you get an endorsement! Everybody gets a masters degree!

Here’s the credential: Crisis Management, Expert, Higher Education in 2020.

Number Two: Life is coming at us quick. To use a cliché. You are probably the most exhausted that you’ve ever been. And all you can do is your best. It’s been a “roller coaster” is the phrase I hear over and over again. I’m with you. I can’t sleep. I’ve cried everyday for almost three weeks. I had some personal shit go down before All This, and I really struggle with things I can’t solve. Really struggle. I like to find the workaround. The answers. The easiest way. And these past few weeks, I’ve been faced with problems I can’t solve. All I can do is my best. All I can do is my best.

I’ve said this repeatedly to myself, so I’ll say it to you, dear one.

All you can do is your best.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Number Three: It’s okay to mourn the temporary loss of the modality you love. The students you no longer see. The classroom you no longer have. The best medium you might have with your students right now is email or phone, and I think the best you can do is tell those students why you love to teach your course.

Don’t worry about All The Other Things, just tell your students why love to teach them.

Encourage them to tell you what they liked learning.

If they complain, thank them for sharing. They are most likely going through a lot so you might face a rate your professor type rating in your inbox. Don’t take it personally. You’re doing the best you can. Tell them you care about them. Tell them that being a college student is hard. And it’s harder now.

Number Four: Everything that I did well as a teacher completely died when I switched from being a face-to-face teacher to an online teacher. Everything. I once did a webinar on My Decade of Mistakes, and I said in 2015, “Everything I did well was killed by the online environment.” (It’s on the YouTubes if you want to listen. It might be dated, but I remember loving that presentation).

Let me explain because I eventually fell in love with the digital space, but it wasn’t easy.

And it certainly would not have happened over spring break.

As a teacher, I love to tell jokes, facilitate a debate, and tell stories. Loved it. I could read a room full of students and switch my approach based on their furrowed eyebrows and body language. I scrapped more lesson plans than I could count to “meet students where they were” (as we say). I had my students do presentations to teach one another. Group work. All of that was hard to mimic–impossible at first–in an online class. It took me years to figure it out, and I still miss face-to-face teaching to this day, but I believe in different modalities and their potential for some students.

All you can do is your best.

What you are about to do does not have a playbook, a quick start guide, a one-pager, a pamphlet, or any clear directions on what to do. So let me repeat. We can curate all the best advice (and I’ve done that) but really, all you can do is your best.

I work with general education teachers, so I have some solutions for you if you are interested, but I want you to know that this switching of modalities–this pivot–this–we’re going to call it today–will be hard. But you’re smart. You have so much to offer. You know this is unprecedented, and hey, you just got a fancy new degree in Crisis Management, so you’re killing it. I might be able to make it easier on you. All my channels are open to you.

Number Five: Take care of yourself. It’s been deeply troubling to me that none of my peers in higher education have heard this from their leadership. I’m not blaming anyone here, these are hard times in higher education. Every executive person in my organization has said this to their teams. I’m so fortunate, so let me say this to you.

Take care of yourself.

If you have kids, be there for them just as much as you want to be there for your students. Tell your students that you are homeschooling three children while your spouse tries to figure out how to work remotely for the first time.

Here’s an announcement you can have (CC BY 4.0). Customize it for your life:

Dear students, I want you to know that I care about you, and we’re all going to get through this together. I’ll be working with my children from 8:00am-12:00pm today, and I’ll respond to your questions and emails from 1:00pm-5:00pm. Please help one another right now by responding to one another, and I appreciate your understanding and patience with me learning new technologies. You’re all doing amazing.

Did you note I scheduled you a break? Take it. Stare at the wall. Have a good cry. Talk to your dog. Color with your children, and make sure your spouse takes a break too. If you are alone, and I know there are many of you, respond to me. Find a network. Call somebody you love. Forgive yourself for not achieving typical levels of productivity.

“Productivity” is what we make it right now.

Okay, I need to go to work now. The jobby job awaits. And I’ll close with one more thing. A reminder, dear educator/staff/admin/hourly-employee/adjunct who cares about students:

All you can do is your best.

Posted in All The Things | 3 Comments

This Machine Killed My Inner-Fascist

Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make it simple. ~Woody Guthrie

On March 5, which already feels like two months ago, I shared something that surprised me when it came out of my mouth, and I started this blog post.

I said: This year (2019) I dealt with my inner-perfectionist, the side of me that is prone to procrastination, and my saga with drinking excessively. Three traits, it turns out, that never helped me as a writer. Or as a person really.

I’m not sure where this confession came from, but it’s all I can think about this morning. I’ll write a little bit about that here before I log-in to the fresh horrors of the world. Forgive me if you think the time is off to blog. Originally I had a section where I talked about my horror that a young friend didn’t know the reference of “This machine kills fascists” but now doesn’t feel like the time to pick apart generational differences.

I read one of my chapters that I edited down to be a short story aloud a few Sundays ago. A week later the president of my country called my governor “a snake” for trying to save lives. Life has been consistently challenging since then. More so than usual.

But let me tell you a story.

I didn’t invite my friends or my husband to join me at that reading. The Mister had plans all of his own that day, and I’m sure if I had told him that it was important to me that he was there, he would have rearranged his plans. Instead I went alone. I rode my commuter bike, said hello to somebody I knew on the way there, and as the event got started, two of my former colleagues took seats in the row ahead of me. I recognized a half dozen people from around town. Familiar people that I don’t know personally. A knitter sat down next me, and she obsessively checked her phone to look at her pattern. Every row, she’d picked up her phone and set it down to knit and purl. 

After about ten rows, she settled into knit two, purl two, knit two, purl two. Stopped looking at her phone. I watched her hands and her needles. It took everything I had not to pull books off the shelf next to me in the reading gallery and thumb through them as other people read their poems, stories, and essays. Forcing myself to listen took so much willpower when there were a million distractions. Two weeks later, my brain feels like a broken version of Tweetdeck. New phrases like “social distancing” and “panic shopping” and “pivot online” loop in my mind. 

I honestly don’t even know that I’ll have the focus to finish this post, but I need something that feels normal as my bank closes, my friends lose their jobs, my friends with kids face a new challenge of how to work and homeschool, my library closes, and there are too many horrors to list as I think of people who are much less fortunate than I am on a normal work day. 

So I’ll just finish this point. I’ll just finish this. This.

This confession about my wicked inner-perfectionist and the part of me that is a procrastinating daydreamer are really one and the same. A frustrating mix of two forces. What appears to be hindering the other is really a constant reaction. A call and response. Part of this sharing session in my class was a recognition and a reflection to create closure to a time spent with other people. Most of the time was remote. An online class that used several platforms for remote connection. It’s part of the work of this group to honor and respect the stories of others, and I learned a tremendous amount about myself during this time.

The hardest part of making three deadlines a month was showing up to admit when I hadn’t finished something. 

I always put my work first, so there were months, I had to be that student who didn’t complete the assignment. Super hard for me. I care a great deal about the work I do, so I feel like I have my priorities straight, but it’s hard when you feel like you fail at everything. 

Some observations of what I learned during that class:

Weird Generosity: I gave away one of my grandmother’s best sayings because I recognized an uncle in a story as somebody I have known. When I read her description of this character, my skin crawled. Here’s the saying from my paternal grandmother who always spoke her mind. Here are the sentences: “He’s a crook. A son-of-a-bitch. He’d steal Jesus off the cross and go back for the nails.”

Dread: I sat with this feeling every time I had to respond to one writer. I dreaded reading her story each month because I knew the ending. Her suffering weighed a ton and I didn’t have the energy to hold it most days. 

The Emerald City: One story reminded of a Seattle that no longer exists. (Before all of this horror, mind you). The same tentacles of Seattle’s gentrification are (were) finding its way to where I live. But I have to admit, I like the little duck pond and the fountain they built near my condo. A few days ago, I ran away some rage along the new trail around this little fake pond, and I placed in the top ten women on Strava. That made me laugh. I’m two seconds off of one of my bike teammates who was probably running at talking pace. It was probably her warm-up pace (but I’m coming for you).

One Book, Two Book: After completing this course, I realize I have a second or third book. One about teaching and learning. The other about teacher burnout. I can’t seem to tell one story without bringing up another. There have been so many things said about teachers that have sent my fingers to the keyboard this past week, but I can’t share that story. It doesn’t do me any good. Rather than type and respond, I made myself walk up and down our stairs every time I saw something that pissed me off. I logged an extra 15,000k of steps that day, and I kept a lot to myself. 

Resistance Learner: During this class, I revisited some stories that I love thinking about, but I’ve resisted others. One of the readers shared that she sees me as a “resistance learner.” She understood how I thought, she shared, because she’s the same way as a thinker. Apparently I had said, “I’ll have to think about that” quite a bit when people asked me to share more. Though I don’t remember saying this phrase often, but if I’m honest, that is my go-to response, when I think something is a bad idea.

Rejection: I revisited a rejected story, revised it, and people really liked it. They asked a lot of questions. Wanted more details. Became incredibly interested in one of the characters. They laughed at the shenanigans of the narrator (c’est moi) and her hiking partner.

I wrote that story in 2010, I reread the initial rejection from an editor who later apologized to me for the way his response may have sounded. He had been drinking, he said, when he sent that email and it was inappropriate. I didn’t say I accepted his apology nor did I acknowledge that he had sent it. I deleted the email, and I didn’t write anything of worth for almost two years. I now know how to deal with these critics. I know how to deflect asshole comments and move on.

But back then, it broke me.

I’ve thought a lot about the things I should have said to him, but really, all I ever came back is the retort, “You know, I’ve written emails and letters while drunk that I regret too, but I never clicked sent nor did I lick the stamp to the envelope because I try to not be an asshole.” 

In the sober light of day, those words never looked like a good idea. They never help anything. The best thing to do is move. Write more words. Try to essay through it.

Time With My Magic Machine: Making the time to write, I shared with my class, was the biggest accomplishment of these last months. I don’t schedule the time because I don’t want to deal with the shaming notifications of my phone, but I do set an alarm each morning. I have one alarm for when I wake up, and the another to remind me write for at least 30 minutes Monday through Friday (like today).

On the weekends, I’m super-selfish with my mornings and I work for hours before I do whatever it is that is the second highlight of the weekend like riding my bike, running, or whatever. I’ve let go of joining bike rides where people want to start out early in the morning so they can do other things on the weekend. Me and the mister agree on this, so we end up riding together or with others who like a late start.

Two Saturdays ago, we had one of the nicest days we’ve had in awhile, and the route was a bit busy with people walking dogs. It was almost warm. My first bike ride without a neck gaiter in months. On one of the climbs, I took a chance on a wheel lift to get up a bridge. A wheel lift looks effortless and you may not even know that’s a skill of sorts if you don’t ride bikes. It requires a bit of timing with a kick of the pedals while lifting your handle bars to pull your front wheel up. This prevents slamming your front tire into something that might cause a flat. It’s like a mini wheelie, and it’s taken me years to figure out how to do these.

I’m not always that great at them, especially on an uphill trail. This particular wheel lift was onto a wooden bridge where one year ago I crashed. Hard. Wooden bridges are a great idea for tributaries over water, but seven months out of the year they are either treacherous with rain or slippery mold.

North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River
attribution

This past Saturday, I tried a wheel lift again on a smaller bridge than the photo above, and as I felt my front tire sliding, I hit the brakes, unclicked from pedal, and caught myself with my left foot. 

Nice save, lady,” I heard.

I looked up to see a super fit trail runner. She pumped her fist and nodded her appreciation. It was a good save and I didn’t yell FUCK!, I thought. Who dis!

A small victory witnessed by a stranger. Bellingham suddenly has a whole population of trail runners who appear where nobody but cyclists used to go ten years ago. Parts of the woods where I used to never see people, there are now runners. 

“Thanks,” I said to her. We smiled at one another. I kept pedaling thinking it was nice to have somebody witness something I committed to. Something that I finished and kept going. Something that somebody else knew was hard and had the empathy to recognize that. Something that somebody else witnessed as a personal challenge. Something I failed attempted but I succeeded by accomplishing the save.

Something very human.

This is the feeling that I’m taking into my work day today, and I wish you the same.

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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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