Teaching Writing for the Love of It: Everyday Magic, Day 841

Tom McAfee years before I met him
Tom McAfee years before I met him

Believe me, I wasn’t a good poet when I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. I don’t say this to be falsely humble: I wrote poems with lines like, “you are the rose to my thorns,” and like many 20-21-year olds, I focused on dramatizing my already off-the-charts feelings about relationships, trees, skies, and birds. If someone actually sat me down in 1979 and told me that, based on what I was currently writing, I obviously wasn’t cut to be a writer, I would have been devastated. Lucky for me, I had some great writing teachers, especially the late Tom McAfee, a Alabama-born aging alcoholic with a heart made half of vodka, half of gold, who would meet his poetry students in the Tiger Hotel bar to show us the kindness and craft and writing and teaching.

I’ve also had my share of teachers who didn’t give me the time of the day because I wasn’t one of the two top students in the class. One teacher screamed at me when, having to present a poet we loved, I talked about a poet he hated. Others led classes as hazing rituals, punishing and pushing out anyone who wasn’t man enough to take brutal deconstruction of his/her writing. I may have learned about the importance of precise images and active verb tense in such classes, but I didn’t learn much about what it takes to write.

On the other side, for the last 29 years, I’ve taught college-level creative writing at the University Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, and especially at Goddard College. I’ve also facilitated dozens of community writing workshops, retreats, intensives, and online classes, working with populations as diverse as Latina women and girls in Kansas City, to all bioregional organizers in an ecovillage. I’ve worked with a group of 10-year-olds and 84-year-olds in western Kansas, a dozen men in my living room, people living with serious illness at Turning Point, low-income women of color at a housing authority, and conference-goers exploring mythology and ecology through writing. To be honest, I find little difference between the most advanced college-level study and newbie writers in a senior center when it comes to what matters to the writers: to write in their own original and powerful voice using their best words to give voice to what brings their lives the greatest meaning and vitality.

In the last few days, the interwebs have been abuzz over a former MFA teacher’s tirade about the very “real” writers he taught, and how bored he was having to work with other students. Such an attitude is elitist, scornful, and potentially damaging when it comes to helping writers write, whether they’re in the world’s top MFA programs or in a small town coffee shop, trying to put their life’s strongest stories into words. It’s also the opposite of worthy buy cialis tablet teaching.

Teaching writing is a form of love, and like all real love, it’s fueled by listening, staying curious, and learning together. There’s a lot to talk about too — the craft of good writing in service of what’s on tap to be written and who’s writing it, traditions and trends and possibilities that help writers expand their relationship with language, and the process of making something out of nothing (as Steve Martin says about one of his novels, “I did pretty good, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank pages”).  The best teachers hold the space for people to learn to trust themselves as writers enough to take healthy creative risks, clear away distractions and ideas of what they think the writing should be, and listen carefully to what the writing wants to be. As a teacher, I talk a blue streak about craft, genres, other writers, and revision, but I also try to help students go further in their life-long development of their own best critical perspective on how to write and revise.

Both writing and teaching writing takes great discernment: feeling out what’s possible at the edge of what we know, dwelling all the time in not-knowing. It’s a little like divining for water, which also takes perseverance, patience, a return to the ground of our imagination, and a good dose of gumption. Sometimes the writing is astonishing, and sometimes the writer is priming the pump for something better in the future. Always, it takes courage and work to get something on the page, and that deserves respect, especially from people who teach writing.

I’ve witnessed so many writers over the years who, like me, didn’t seem to write anything particularly special at first, and then, over time and often in the container of an intelligent and compassionate community, found their way to poems, stories, novels, memoirs, plays and songs that knocked my socks off. At Goddard, I’ve had the honor of working with so many students over so many years who such strong things — spiritual memoirs about circling back to childhood visitations, mixed genre poetry and prose about thriving after surviving great abuse, speculative fiction about parallel universes, and collections of songs about overcoming oppression. In community workshops, I’ve sat breathlessly in circles around tables of varying sizes while someone read a poem about loving so deeply and looking so clearly at life with late-stage cancer. Through online classes, I’ve been dazzled by how communities of writers, who have never met in person, give each generous clear-seeing and inspiration while sharing their first sestina or most recent chapter.

Good writing is not in the hands of a few chosen by self-proclaimed judges of what’s worthy. Whether you started writing your first poem this morning or if you just finished your final story, writing is your birthright. Don’t let anyone tell you anything different.

The Things of a Life: Everyday Magic, Day 831

One of the photos his daughters found
One of the photos his daughters found

The shortest day of the year included taking apart, packing, hauling away and other redistributing the things that compose a life, in this case, the life of our friend Jerry. Yesterday, a bunch of Jerry’s friends, his daughters and their husbands all squeezed ourselves into his tiny apartment to point at, ask about, and then shift or lift lots of boxes, furniture, small appliances, photography supplies, shoes, books, clothing and more.

There’s something very tender, surprising, and even familiar about going through the things of someone’s whole life. I spent a long time in the bathroom, packing up bandages, thermometers, unused aspirin and matches (to take to live at my house); sheets, cleaning products, and spray adhesive (to donate); and occasionally special tokens (a ring that was perhaps Jerry’s wedding ring for his last marriage, to give to his daughters). What the family wants time to consider goes to a storage unit. All else either went home with one or another of us, to the Social Service League or recycling (did that man never throw away a box?), or to the trash.

What this looked like was people carrying out shelves and office chairs, bags and boxes, piles of well-read or never-read magazines, all of us dancing past each other in the apartment or backing up in the hallway. In Jerry’s kitchen, I found myself a pot and pan, and drank a bottle of water from his refrigerator, thinking about how it might feel to bring his stuff home to my kitchen, where I cooked up lots of meals for him over the years. I also found, a day after my blender died, a new blender, likely hardly used, among Jerry’s stuff. Carrying it and a scratchy pink wool blanket to my car, I imagined Jerry among us, divvying up his stuff. “You want this?” I might ask, holding up three wooden plates. He would shrug, gesture for me to take them, and tell me that he’s not going to need it anymore, which is practical but also very sad.

Besides discovering that Jerry’s propensity for buying high quality stuff and avoiding junk applied to most of his possessions (and not just his work clothes and cameras), I happened buy generic cialis 10 mg upon many notes he wrote himself. In the middle of the biggest piles of neatly-organized clutter (including saving much of his mail for a long time), his daughter held up a note about the value of decluttering. On the back of a pharmacy receipt, he wrote about seeing a flock of geese. Two calendars I took him so I could use them for collage were actually filled with his writing, listing all his plans, crossing out what he didn’t end up doing, and writing notes in the margins. He wrote on the bottom on one page, “I am going to live to age 98,” which he obviously missed by 35 years. I had no idea that he was dealing with so many health issues, often listed in the daily squares of the calendar, or that he recorded his daily weight, probably trying to encourage his slight body to put on more pounds.

Within a little over an hour, thanks to the work of over a dozen people with assorted vehicles – from compact cars with roomy hatchbacks to trailers – everything was carried out but what will move to the storage unit. It felt strange to be done so quickly when his place had previously been stuffed with so many objects holding within so many stories: all the unused framing supplies for his photographs, books on computer programs and the wisdom of the Native American grandmothers group he followed, photo albums from when his kids were young and guides to the rivers of Kansas, dress shoes hardly worn and hiking shoes well-loved. I realize he’s not there anymore, and that he doesn’t live in his things, but his things do convey the layers of his life.

Wherever he is, I know he’s traveling light and free. I wish him great joy, love, and homecoming as I sit here with one of his hair ties holding my wet hair off my neck. Soon I’ll do some cooking for our Hanukkah party, using some of his things in lieu of having him show up, as he’s done for many years, always late but smiling, ready to hug me in my kitchen in the middle of the the press of friends and friendship.

Getting Into the Swim of Life: Everyday Magic, Day 712

Strangely enough, jumping into a pool and doing laps has topped my list of what I feel like doing at any given moment, even surpassing the yearning for dark chocolate. I wake up and wonder if I might go swimming today. Or I stop whatever I’m doing mid-afternoon and head to the pool (keeping a bathing suit and towel in the car at all times is one of the best decisions I’ve made in ages). Or after dinner, I walk out to car to pluck out my bathing suit, put it on, and head back into town.

I only do breast stroke, a version I improvise on of sidestroke, and a kind of backstroke I hardly ever see in the world (kind of like breast stroke on my bath). I’ve never gotten the hang of crawl without inhaling water up my nose. Whatever I do instead barely gets me across the water, but it’s enough. Enough floating and moving forward. Enough immersing my face in the cool water and then rising up to take in the clouds and trees. Enough room in the lap lane to move slowly back and forth, steady for 30-40 minutes (the length of time it takes me to do 12-15 laps).

There are a lot of difficult challenges out of my control lately from the Kansas state government to one of my workplaces. I’ve been at several memorial services within the last week, not to mention landing back at the beginning of finding some ways for my new writing to reach publication. One of the cars needs work, and it could be expensive, and Shay the dog keeps scattering banana peels from the compost on the kitchen floor. But when I drop myself into the water and start moving, I’m enveloped in the motion of peace, which is why I’m ending this post to tug my bathing suit into place so I can head back to the pool

Malchuyot: A Rosh Hashana Reflection on Surrender, Life’s Imagination and Who’s In Charge: Everyday Magic, Day 627

I was asked to speak to one of three themes central to Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). The themes basically are sovereignty, memory and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). I gave this talk this morning at the Lawrence Jewish Community Congregation on Malchuyot (sovereignty), my little exploration in four parts.

1. King of Kings, or the Fire That Makes the Circle

In traditional scripture about Malchuyot, we revisit God’s sovereignty in the metaphor of king of kings, which portrays God as made in our image, or at least in our medieval, male, hierarchal image. I turn to another metaphor: God as the fire we circle around. You can’t stand in the center of the fire and understand fully what the fire is without causing yourself great harm. But you can stand beside it, feel the warmth, see the light, witness the nature of fire: powerful, ever-changing, a wisp of the smallest flame or a blazing roar.

Whether we talk of the king of kings or the fire, we draw on metaphor. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson writes of both poetry and the holy. We cozy up to what’s beyond our grasp, largely invisible, diverse and infinite by telling this truth slant, which in Judaism manifests in many names for God: Lord, Holy One, Hashem, Adonai, El, Avinu, Yaway, Shekinah, Elokim, Creator of the Universe, I-am-that-I-am. God is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” as Dylan Thomas writes: the sudden wind that shakes the cedar, the red sky backlighting my husband in the field, the rain in the middle of the night, the lightning strike from cloud in the diagonal distance to pond before us, the laughter on the phone that snaps me out of my mind’s trap, the rolling surface of ocean holding up the boat, the sky, the unfolding weather. God is the fire in the breath within and around us.

Whoever or whatever God is — and even whether we believe in God, any variations of the holy one, or not — this fire makes a circle of us, right now, right here.

2. Who’s in Charge?

We Jews excel at making things happen. If we’re going to be control freaks, we’re going to be effective control freaks, which makes it harder to surrender, and see how the curtain between us and the actual world is often our thoughts and our thinking. I confess to be a control freak (at least in my crunchy exterior), yet I also know, increasingly as I get older, how little control I have, how even my best thinking, at its more expansive, only catches a microscopic sliver of good and bad, and to quote Sufi poem Rumi, what lies in the field beyond good and bad.

“Life has more imagination than we do,” my friend Shelley told me 15 years ago when she and her then-partner, two very white women in central Vermont and their adopted one-year-old African-American daughter, came home to a voice on their answering machine that asked, “Do you want the brother?” Their daughter’s biological parents had another baby. While Shelley’s partner balked, saying, “We’re too old, too tired, and we don’t know price for cialis 10mg anything about boys,” Shelley just took her partner’s face between her hands and said, “Don’t you think we have enough room in our hearts?” Flash forward to now: Shelley’s daughter and son are now teens.

Life did and does have so much more imagination than we do, so why wouldn’t we want to surrender to a wiser, more creative force?

3. Surrender, Dorothy!

That’s what the witch sky-wrote on the big, open sky, and Dorothy did eventually surrender, not to the witch, but, after the last balloon of hope vanished over the horizon, to having no control. She had to break her heart open to discover what power she did have: the power to go home. Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, writes:

The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs. To stay with that shakiness — to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge — that is the path of true awakening.

Chodron adds that human beings are wired to want ground under our feet, but life is groundless: unpredictable, chaotic, mysterious, as hard to catch as wind.

Surrender on the High Holidays is both an individual and collective act of faith: we pray, chant, sing, dwell and eat at the same convergence of time and geography. We use this space to cultivate awareness of life beyond our plans or hardened hearts. We let ourselves break, a little or a lot, open to not knowing. Someone or something else is driving the bus, and the sky unfolding us across our lives is vast, beautiful, changing. Surrender.

4. “Please Let the Power of Hashem Increase”

Malchuyot, at its heart, asks, please, to let the power of Hashem increase, explains Reb Zalman, who adds that only through awe and love do we give our prayers wings. He says, “It’s not enough that we pray in our prayers, ‘Write us into this or that book,’ if we are not writing our own qvittel/note for ourselves,” evaluating our year and turning our lives toward holiness and uprightness. Rabbi Nachman of Bretzletalks about the mutuality of longing: us for God and visa-versa, and how Malchuyot calls on us to acknowledge this longing at the core of life.

I do a lot of writing workshops with people living with serious illness: chronic, overwhelming pain they can only escape for small stretches; late cancer diagnoses that leave them only a season or two left without knowing for sure; and progressive neurological diseases that vanish their ability to walk, write, speak. I love facilitating these workshops because the veil is gone. What matters most is what remains: the yearning to live, the love that survives us, and the the courage to go on. To me, this is what it means to let the power of Hashem increase.

Whatever or whoever is in charge, we’ve always had the power within us to surrender, and return home. Now that we’re gathered around the fire together, don’t you think we have enough room in our hearts?

A Day in the Life of the Book Biz: Everyday Magic, Day 605

People outside the book biz often have a notion that once the book comes out, your big work is done, but for most of us who write or publish — whether you’re published by a teeny tiny press that puts out one book every three years, or by a mega-publishers that puts out one book every three hours — the reality is unrecognizable from the reputation.

For the last three months, to help get The Divorce Girl out into the world, I’ve sent out hundreds of emails and called dozens and dozens of phone numbers, as had my publisher at Ice Cube Press, to set up readings, blog tour stops, reviews and the like. Sometimes people respond. Sometimes they don’t. Often, success takes multiple attempts and catching someone at the perfect conjunction of venus and the moon, political poll reports in the paper juxtaposed with jazz music in the background, and the humidity dropping three percentage points within the hour. Or just a lot of work.

At the same time, this lot of work can devour every iota of time, energy and common sense, and there have been days when I look up from the computer, put down my phone that’s almost out of juice, and stare outside, thinking, “Where the heck am I?” A moment later, it comes to me, “Planet earth. Oh, yeah, I remember this.”

A typical day in the life of promoting a book might include:

  • Four emails before breakfast to possible venues for readings in a city I’ll only drive to (on my own dime) if more than zero people would turn out for a reading and I can bundle this trip with another that I’m still waiting to hear final date information on.
  • A warm phone call from a friend with a daughter in Lincoln, Nebraska about a phone from another friend setting up a reading.
  • Sipping coffee while researching synagogues, art centers and libraries in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
  • Two messages sent to leads on Facebook.
  • Six phone messages left at various places that might be interested in hosting a reading, or at least that I think could possibly and maybe be interested.
  • A phone call returned from a place I figured didn’t want me after weeks of no response, and now, O Happy Day, they do!
  • An inordinate amount of time, while eating a banana, trying to find who to contact at a big library, only to discover there is only one phone number with three options (all about checking out or returning books, or library hours) and no information on who plans events.
  • Is it time for lunch yet? No, but the dogs want out.
  • Over two hours writing a proposal for a writing workshop while trying to figure out the workshop’s “outcomes.”
  • Writing to my publisher to see what he’s found out about places he’s researching while the cat keeps walking across my keyboard.
  • My cat and me checking what my kids have posted on Facebook lately. Letting dogs back in.
  • Puzzling over my calendar at regular intervals, and returning frequently to mapquest (I like the classic.mapquest.com) to figure distances. Is it feasible to drive from Des Moines, IA to Salina, KS one morning in time to give a workshop and talk without getting wiped out? I’m afraid not, so onto Plan B, C, D and eventually Plan S.
  • Letting the dogs out.
  • Hearing back from my publisher who is still waiting on W, X, Y & Z while I wait on F, G H and I.
  • Checking Facebook to see what my peeps are up to. Oh, look, a kitten!
  • Letting the dog back in. Oh my god, it’s 100 degrees already.
  • Composing two other emails about potential readings while my dog pants loudly at my side.
  • Researching a new site for a blog tour stop by reading through the blog’s book reviews, “About Me” page and review policy, then composing an email to the blogger only to discover now I can’t find his/her/their email address.
  • Lunch! Did I forget lunch? It’s 2:30 p.m., and I’m going to die if I don’t eat now, so it’s off to the kitchen, only to discover Daniel ate the leftover stir-fry and finished off the tortillas. I end up toasting the last piece of bread (after finding out the dog ate most of the loaf) with peanut butter and jelly. I find half a cup of coffee and almond milk from breakfast that I forgot to finish too.
  • Letting the dogs out.
  • Answering two emails, getting various responses to other emails that so-and-so is on vacation and won’t be back until mid-August, and reaching out to yet another potential venue.
  • Letting the dogs back in.
  • Making inquiries for a reading in January. Winter. What will that be like?
  • Finding a cartoon on Facebook about how dogs and cats play spin-the-bottle: the cat thinks furiously as she spins, “Not the dog, not the dog.” I find this so funny that I laugh until I cry.
  • Opening the front door, wondering why I feel like I’m in front of a blast furnace, and looking at the thermometer: 106.
  • Getting in the car, driving to town, signing a box of my books at The Raven, then wandering through the grocery store with no idea what foods I need to replenish until I see them on the shelves.

By the end of the day, when Ken comes home and asks what I did today, all I can say is, “I found this great cartoon about dogs, cats and spin-the-bottle.” I can’t remember much else by this point, only that whatever I did, I’ll do some of it again tomorrow.