The wild rumpus

I saw Stephen Elliott read tonight. He read a lot of beautiful words, one after the other. He read from The Adderall Diaries and the screenplay-in-progress for Happy Baby, a film based on his novel of the same name. I wish I could remember the delicate and abrupt way the words turned. But instead I remember this: sitting in the front row watching him describe what it meant to write nonfiction.

"When you're in your twenties, you are so worried what everyone else thinks about you," he said. "When you're in your thirties, you don't care what they think. When you're in your forties, you realize they were never thinking about you at all."

I've heard versions of this over the years, from teachers, writers, friends. But tonight I heard it differently. I thought of how much I long not only for the impulse to write, but the knowledge that I have something actual to say. I spend my days reading and re-reading and editing and revising technical texts that have the practical strength to make things happen, the same way a recipe writer jots down precise instructions for other chefs to follow. But when it comes time to write my own things, to spoon up my own emotional grit, I keep feeling like I'm coming up empty.

I know why it's happening, too. It is the obsession that writers sometimes have that someone is already looking over your shoulder, that each word must impress, that an idea must be fully formed before it is worth, well, anything. When I was a teenager, I'd sneak into my parents' den to write on our family computer, and anytime someone opened the door, I'd growl. They'd never be there to snoop; half the time they wouldn't even notice I was writing until I'd snapped in my chair. That's the great paradox about writing; nobody cares that you are a writer until you have written, and why shouldn't they? Few people are as impressed by someone training for a marathon as they are by someone who has just completed one, in record time, no less.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that all I seem to write about these days is how much I want to write.

It's similar to the desire for immersion. You want to understand the words, the cultural cues, the accents, the subtlety of exchange, before you can even conjugate the verbs. The only way to learn is to let yourself be helpless; to hang in limbo, not knowing if what you're saying is absolute crap, or culturally insensitive, or idiotic, or just plain unintelligible, until the day comes that you actually stop thinking about the words themselves, and instead you focus on the meaning behind them.

And that is what I learned (or, rather, learned again) from Stephen Elliott.

The gospel of stories

"When he was a small boy his father at bedtime told him the great wonder tales of the East, told them and re-told them and re-made them and re-invented them in his own way--the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, stories told against death to prove the ability of stories to civilize and overcome even the most murderous of tyrants; and the animal fables of the Panchatantra; and the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara, the 'Ocean of the Streams of Story,' the immense story-lake created in Kashmir where his ancestors had been born; and the tales of mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama and the Adventures of Hatim Tai...To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no "real" genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father's, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in return. Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away."

--Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie

Passion and pianos

One of the people I admire most in my life is my grandmother Saralee, who became a fine pianist at a very young age, which earned her a scholarship to Julliard in the early 1940s. This is a woman who was devoted to her husband and two children, but was also so driven to plan her life around the piano. She's almost 90 and she still practices almost every day, running those arthritic fingers up and down the keys as if the very sound of music could feed the hungry, as if the perfect sonata or the most elegant concerto could achieve as much or more as the CEO of a corporation or a doctor in an emergency room. When she plays, the stakes are always that high. She respects music the way others respect business--the way many respect money. She acknowledges that no matter how many times she plays a piece, it could always sound different; it could always sound better.

I sense that many artists feel this way about their craft. I go through periods when all I want to do is write. It's not enough to write; I have to really write--I have to write as if what I'm doing is as worthy of time and attention as any other professional task. As if this were why I got up, why I commute, why I stay inside, why I put other things off. I have to feel an absence when I'm not writing, as if every day something doesn't get written I'm staring at a piano that hasn't been played. These are the stakes of not writing. Not writing is akin to not caring - something that feels very dangerous.

This begs the question, then, how does one transfer passion? Is it transferable? Or is that the wrong question entirely?

I don't know yet, but until I do, that will be the question that gets me up every day.

Night walks

I took a walk tonight under the moon. For the first time in as many months as I can remember, I did not take my iPod or my cell phone. The cicadas were humming, the grasshoppers chirping. I have always loved the sounds of a summer night. I had forgotten about them.

Everywhere I have ever lived, I have taken night walks. There's something about seeing a city settle, noticing the way shadows gather on lawns, watching the gradation of grey to black in everything from roses to decaying lawnmowers. It seems that every street has its pattern: for each house with its lights off, its shutters drawn, there is another with the doors left tidily open, the TV on, the fan whirring. I love walking past rooms where you can tell something has just been interrupted. I'd like to think it's a form of literary voyeurism; there's nothing like walking in to a story right when a secret gets revealed.

I only walked four blocks, but in that time and space I saw houses that looked like people, their porches worn into wan smiles, their turrets climbing like pigtails. I saw a young black man sitting on a stoop smoking a cigarette in front of a beautiful old restored home. I saw a woman washing dishes. I saw a lava lamp illuminating a store window. I saw trees bigger than I remember them being. I noticed the lean of telephone poles. I passed an elderly Asian man who looked like he was just getting off work. I heard the light rail pass.

I thought about all the things I did today; all the tasks completed, all the food eaten, all the information consumed, all the emails written, all the phone calls made. So much accomplished, and yet it wasn't until I went outside, alone, after the sun went down, that I felt really awake. Really myself. It was both the best and worst feeling, knowing that there are so many stories floating around me, so many things to notice, and regretting the fact that I must have missed so many already, because for some reason it felt more important to plug into someone else's virtual world.

In Fuengirola, I walked for a very different reason. I walked at night because, quite frankly, there was nothing else to do. I walked on Saturday mornings, often going to the end of the Paseo Maritimo before I realized that I'd walked clear out of our little town and to the boundaries - and eventually limits - of the next town over. I'd walk and I'd listen and I'd watch all these people moving, shifting, interacting around me. I spent a lot of time following the beach. I got lost in suburban side streets. Once I got lost in a neighborhood because I recognized a street name from my own barrio - just to realize that the next town over had a street of the same name. These walks furthered that loss of self that comes with leaving where you're from. I wanted to walk into another language. I wanted it to feel clean. I wanted to lay down on the sand and soak it all in. For several weeks, this was how I spent my leisure time.

I realized tonight that when I turn off my iPod, when I silence my cell phone, when I really listen to what's going on around me, the words are already there. I can feel them forming in my temples. There are still so many things to say, and so many ways to say them. There's time to get it all down. I just have to remember to listen.

On faith and future

I’ve read a lot about the difference between educators who identify either as “a writer who teaches” or “a teacher who writes.” I have wavered on that line for so long, not really wanting to choose, because to me they are complementary skills, like fiction and nonfiction. The challenge for me has always been time and space. How do I value my time as writer? As a teacher? What is the best way to develop as both?

I found much comfort in Don Murray’s words. Two weeks into the Invitational Summer Institute at the San Jose Area Writing Project, Ryan and I drove up to the Eastern Sierra to camp out for his birthday. I was a ball of worry. I did not know how to adapt my ideas for my presentation. I had committed to teach at a summer camp for children but was in desperate need for a mental vacation. I was still waiting to hear back about a potential full-time writing gig, one I that both excited and worried me, because I knew that by accepting this job, I would not have the time or space to teach. I could tell Ryan was tired of hearing me worry, so I opened up Don Murray’s book and searched for a passage to read aloud. As luck would have it, I opened to this paragraph, entitled “Faith”:

“Hardest of all for me. Faith that I can write, that I have something to say, that I can find out what it is, that I can make it clear to me, to a reader, that I can write so that the reader is not aware of the writer, but the meaning.

Faith enough not to read what is written until the entire draft is done and then not to compare it to what it might have been or what others have done, but to listen to the writing, to see in it its own meaning, its own form, to hear its own voice. Faith enough to stand out there all alone and invite the lightning.”
-- Murray 84-85

I’m not a strong believer in epiphanies - more often than not, they are moments that confirm a secret fear or desire, one that lay hidden within us all along. I suppose epiphanies are less the moments themselves and more the strike that starts the lightning. We were driving through Los Banos and I found myself clutching this book, learning, once again, that no matter what I decide to do, I get to be the one that decides. I have a book I want to finish, so I’ll work on it bit by bit until I can share it with my readers, and then I’ll work on it rewrite it and revise it and rework it until it something I can feel proud sharing. I have exercise and health goals, so I’ll do my best to make time for running and eating well. I value my friends and family, so I’ll try to find time for both. I want to learn so much - how to teach, how to design websites, how to draw, how to speak other languages, eventually, how to parent - and so I’ll simply have to trust that these are things that I’ll learn, in time.

And perhaps the greatest irony here is that I felt so validated when reading Murray’s reflection on his own wavering faith. These are things we all feel - Anne Lamott certainly has, Hemingway likely did (they say he wrote the ending of one of his novels something like 38 times?), teachers seem to. But what I’ve learned about teachers this summer, at least the ones I’ve met, is that the commitment to their students is stronger than any fleeting insecurity. Perhaps it is comparable to the commitment writers feel to the page, but I don’t know if it is. A page doesn’t talk back to you or endure standardized exams. Perhaps this could explain how my greatest fear as a teacher was facing a room full of empty, expressionless faces. How could you know what you were doing had an impact?

You don’t - just the way I don’t know where my writing will take me, if anywhere, but it’s the pleasure in the process that keeps the words coming.

On graduation

I have this theory that words are cyclical, that all periods of serious production are followed by their necessary blank slates, that white noise that fills the gap between projects. I can't help thinking of all the unnecessary words in the world - the slogans, the cliches, the maxims, the polite repartee, the conversational habits of the universe - and wondering if as writers our job is to sieve it all down, sort it all out, until the only words that are left are the ones that matter most. The ones we've really got to earn.

I defended my master's thesis last week. I ended up turning in five stories that follow the same characters on the southern coast of Spain, four other stories (linked in theme but not in character/setting), and a working draft of the 100 word story project. It totals about 140 pages and feels like a promising but unwieldy baby, this beautiful yet messy monster that hasn't yet discovered the true source of its power. All of this, and still I feel the need to winnow, to pare it down, to find its roots. It is an exciting feeling. One I hope to fuel as the years go by and the characters grow with me.

My goal now is to produce another four or five stories set in Spain, to improve the narrative voice, diction and cultural cues to the point where I could structure a novel in linked stories. I hope to work on this manuscript for the next year (or more, whatever it needs, honestly) and then to apply to fellowships and work residencies abroad, where I could more fully delve into the voices of expats abroad - the voices I still remember but can't fully imitate.

Beyond that, the future is as endless and bizarre as this wide net of words. My defense was early; I still have four more weeks of grading, homework, planning, filing. I will soon be moving back to the Bay Area, where, for the first time in more than three years, I will be living in the same zip code as my boyfriend. I have been applying for jobs like crazy - teaching jobs, writing jobs, school jobs, anything that involves writing and people and environments where I can really throw myself into creative projects. This week sparked the first of several graduations - the air is ripe with the angst and excitement of programs ending, chapters closing. Sometimes I hate nostalgia, though I give into it with such ease. I have started contributing to Fictionade, a new subscription-based e-magazine, which shows great promise.

This weekend we drove down to Santa Barbara (my alma mater) for a friend's wedding. I still remember the fog of that final spring - how anticlimactic it all was, the moisture in the air until mid-May, when the beach was suddenly overtaken by the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds. It was the hottest I'd ever known Santa Barbara to be; in those final weeks of college I remember going to bed with a wet wash cloth across my forehead, watching the shadows on my yellow co-op wall as the heat trapped us indoors. The climate was telling us something. Move along now, it said. You've done what you came here to do. Go find other things to do, other places to be.

I can only imagine what heat Davis promises me, in these last few weeks. The messages are louder this year, but maybe that's because this time I'm really listening.

On submission

I submitted my master's thesis on Friday, all 140+ pages of short stories and flash fiction. Hence the radio silence.

Note, too, the word "submit." As if handing it over were akin to bowing in submission, prostrating with your manuscript beneath you, making yourself smaller than it. I made the mistake of celebrating before it was time, running down the hall as soon as I'd slid those crisp bound pages into my three readers' mailboxes, chanting, "I turned it in! I turned it in!" To which our program administrator said, not unkindly, "Ah, yes, but they haven't read it yet, have they?"

There probably isn't a better way to describe what it's like, trying to write. The obsession with new characters, new stories, new projects - the precision of revision, the frenzy of rethinking, rewriting, the careful, plodding way that stories develop over time - and then, once you submit it, letting the documents loose into that vacuous wide open ether, who's to say that what it is you've sweat over, labored over, alternately loved and hated, is anything of substance?

I suppose, I guess, one's thesis committee.

Not that I'm nervous or anything. Or anxious or terrified or secretly suspecting that, in one week's time, they'll gather me and my friends and my family all in one little stuffy room, then ask me to drop the sheets one by one out of a third story window, underscoring, yet again, the fruitlessness of it all, this prodding, obsessive need to play with words.

But then there are nights like last Friday, when I was lucky enough to see one of my pieces (from the dratted thesis) performed by a wonderful actor, Benjamin Ismail, at Stories on Stage in Sacramento. I was especially encouraged to hear the amazing "The Art of Fiction" by Lindsey Crittenden, a successful writer who graduated from this very same program a while back. I was so nervous, thinking and rethinking and obsessing over all the edits I should have made before this thing made the light of day, all the scenes that should have been shorter, all the lines that could have done more, earned more. And then a funny thing happened. He started reading and he found things in the story that I didn't know were there. He found voices where I wasn't sure there were any, and little moments of poignancy or humor that I didn't necessarily plant or plan.

So maybe we get both kinds of moments - those ever-present occasions to kneel, to submit, to let all our work vaporize into the atmosphere, and those rare times when someone reads our work back to us and we get to stop, breathe, and think, hey, maybe there is value in all this.

Maybe there is and maybe there isn't - until then I'll just have to keep submitting.

one hundred story #28: workshop

It’s a relationship of subordination, one poet says to another. She—the speaker – expresses guilt, see, and he—the listener—demands something. Money, maybe, sex. No, says another student, what we have here is a special form of tenderness. What throws me, says the teacher, is the penguin—what’s he doing here? What do you mean, he? Asks another. The writer, the guilty one, stays quiet, her icebox hidden. They are blind to her visible parts but still they spear her to the page. She considers prostration in all its poetic forms, though her wings stay close to her chest.

Is writing itself creative nonfiction?

Adam Haslett at Napa Valley College, July 2011

This summer, I learned to read again.

It's amazing how long I tried to write without really trying to read. Though perhaps that's just it--I didn't want to feel like I had to try. I missed the pleasure of simply falling in, absorbing language and character and story without having to dissect any of it. What made the difference? Adam Haslett, Dorothy Allison, Michelle Huneven, Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Maggie Nelson, Jim Shepard, Major Jackson--I got to see them read. Watching Almond describe hapless actors, listening to Allison bellow the most beautiful curses, sitting in the room while Jackson conveyed mood and tone and history in a series of careful phrases; it was electric. It reminded me of reading in my parents' cars, even after sunset, when I'd keep my finger on the page until we passed the next stoplight, because it was all so urgent. This was life, distilled in a way that made the world more real, thrilling, wonderful or tragic.

I've attended two conferences in the past month, studied writing on and off for years, worked at various institutions and stopped and started various projects. I needed a reminder that reading and writing are acts of pleasure, that maybe good stories and poems don't always beg deconstruction, that perhaps the best books are the ones that remind us of who we are. There are so many reasons not to write, and even more not to read--there's enough content floating through the universe that is digestible in visual and auditory form, what's the point of relying simply on words? And perhaps the scariest question of all: if our writing is not immediately marketable, or can't promise any financial gain, is it worth the time and energy?

I see this question in terms of its fiction and non-fiction: if the answer is yes, writing is always worth it, regardless of what we earn and what we spend, then we are telling one of the "writing market"'s greatest fictions--that if we believe in ourselves, eventually we'll be recognized. If the answer is no, that good writing reflects raw talent and there's a specific formula for achieving success, then we lose the opportunity to risk originality. I veer from one pole to the other, encouraged by the positive feedback of one teacher while reeling in the amount of work it will take to make any singular story passable or (maybe) publishable. This is all work that I enjoy doing, but I know that the minute I leave grad school, this is all work that I cannot afford to do full-time.

I present this not as a surprise, nor as a tragedy, but simply as an example of how we as writers tell ourselves stories in order to sit down and write our own. Some people (Allison, Haslett, Almond, etc.) do it so well, we tend to forget they were ever anyone else except those well-spoken professionals behind the microphone. I can't help wondering if at some point they had to distinguish between the fictions and nonfictions in their own lives from those they figured out how to depict on the page.

Either way, I'm so glad they reminded me that reading is fun--a truth that keeps us all writing.

Lemony Snicket: how to make things happen

Tonight Daniel Handler (also known as Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Misfortune Events fame) spoke on campus. This man is irreverent, brilliant, strange, and opinionated on the topics of story, plot, and honesty in literature. My understanding of him as a writer comes less from his popular children's books, and more from his novel Adverbs, which many argue is actually a collection of love stories. His prose is familiar both with itself and (it claims) with you as a reader. He often acknowledges his narrators, perhaps to beat us all to the punch, or to further the story in a way he finds interesting, or to add a finer, more textured experimental layer to the story.

I realized as he was speaking that he's exactly the inverse of the writer that often pops out of me, and maybe that's why I find him so easy to admire. He drew a diagram of the way he often imagines his characters intersecting, focusing less on their individual characteristics than the incidences that make them collide. His prose is often fast, funny, and furious; although it is clear that writing so clean can only be the product of laborious effort (he said that his first draft of Adverbs was 1000 pages long), he made it clear that developing full characters is only interesting when they operate in a plot- and problem-studded universe. Often when I try to write fiction, I get so absorbed in the very concept of a person, and his or her psychology, and the place in which he or she resides, that I have to weed out and around the outline of who they are in order to see the story at hand. There comes a time when being so conscious of character, and how he or she would react in any given situation, actually inhibits the writer from furthering an invented universe.

Handler quoted a fan letter that complimented him by saying, "I enjoy your books. I am always curious when things happen." He underscored the simplicity of that statement, and how the more interesting parts of our own lives, the parts worth retelling, are not morality tales or formulaic episodes, but rather the honest, bizarre and unexpected moments that arise when stuff happens.

When stuff happens. His great magic trick as a writer is knowing instinctively what "stuff" is worth happening, and what is worth leaving behind. I hope one day to understand that maneuver myself.

one hundred word story #6

"You give me homework," he said, "and I give you homework. And that's how we do school." She dreamed big and assigned him the moon. "Too far, silly," he said. Fine, then: she assigned him the coral reef. "Too deep." All right, she said. Catch a Bengal tiger. “Too dangerous. Here, let me show you.” He gave her a notebook and a pencil and a seat under a willow tree. “Write what you want to learn,” he said. She mapped the night sky with imaginary constellations. “Write something real,” he growled. “Something real,” she wrote. He disappeared. She continued writing.

Revista EOI Fuengirola: International Magazine That You Should Read

credit: EOI Fuengirola

Marta Moreno is pretty much one of the best teachers I have ever met. We met in 2006 when I was working as a bilingual educational assistant at en elementary school in La Cala de Mijas, Spain. Marta teaches English at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas in Fuengirola--just across the street from the apartment where I lived. Once a week, my American friends and I would join her for a bilingual "teatro" club with several of her Spanish students who were in her English classes. Marta organized these classes on her own time with the help of Amy Nickerson, a fellow American who, like me, had come to Spain as part of a national bilingualism-in-the-schools project. Each week we'd perform little skits in English and Spanish, in part just for kicks, and in part to engage that language part of our brain that was still transitioning from English to Spanish.

Marta and I often talked about writers and artists we liked in various languages, and by the end of the year she had become a wonderful friend and resource. This year, she emailed me to say that she and her class at the EOI were making an international magazine. She was asking around her international friends to see if we would contribute a short piece about the cities where we lived. I passed her along some notes about San Francisco, along with some photos. Today she emailed me to share the results of their year of hard work, and it is really well done:

Whether you speak English, Spanish, German or French -- whether you're an armchair traveler or a Trotemundos (Globetrotter), you'll love the work they've done.

Y a Marta y su clase de escritores, disenadores y artistas: bien hecho!