Sunday, August 31, 2014

Why This Blog?

“Why write?” ––Question posed by Don Rothman, former director of the Central California Writing Project, in the first minutes of its annual summer institute.

One day, without warning, all thirteen of the blog entries I’d posted over the course of a year, disappeared. On the one hand, it hardly mattered. I mostly had no idea who actually read them.

Overtime, though, I’d gained about 6,000 page views. A very small sum in internet-land but a meaningful number for me. Plus, every now and again, a dear friend would send a sweet message regarding something I’d written, and that became reason enough to keep posting.

I chose the site because it required membership of its commenters. I found this feature immensely attractive. When I started my blog, I was afraid of appearing foolish. If some anonymous someone let me know that through faulty reasoning, a self-pitying tone, or an embarrassing grammar or usage error I'd displeased them, I might stop writing all together, and I didn’t want to stop.

Still, in my more than tens years of writing for newspapers and magazines, I’d felt the keen pleasures of audience. Getting one, via the small literary journals where I sent my work, was more difficult than I had anticipated upon enrolling in a prestigious program for writers. Now that I’d earned my MFA, and lost the close and careful feedback of my advisers and peers, I began to feel if I didn’t engage an audience somewhere, the urge to write might vanish all together.

I was doing other difficult things too: dealing with the deaths of beloved family members, teaching at a rural community college, and trying to learn tango. It helped to be writing about each of them.

Plus, in writing a blog, I was able to be my own editor, which meant I could write in the nearly undisciplined manner I had always wanted to. As I’d grown older, I’d become wary of certainties and attracted to contradictory ideas, things that meant more than one thing at a time, or perhaps nothing at all. Also, I took pleasure in tangents, especially if the language arising was lively and full of mystery.

In my blogs, I let a lot go: clarity; causation; sometimes sense. I, who had once been a journalist where every piece was required to have a singular idea and be free of digression, allowed myself to experiment and play.

Then, just then––when my blog became a certain kind of space––one that held my ideas in a small but public manner, one that I could sometimes look upon when bored––well, it disappeared. Without notice. Without indication it had ever even existed.

The writer’s collective that hosted it closed shop, apparently warning no one. In place of its familiar home page, it posted a note hinting it might be possible to access old content via a spotty web archive and let the world know its domain name was up for sale.

The common statement is to post on-line with caution, for what we post will never disappear. But my work did, and it felt strange and mysterious that it had. I was reminded, all over again: in the end, nothing remains unchanged from one moment to the next, even things that seem most permanent.

Alas, I wasn’t ready to let my blog go. Instead, I’ve reconstructed it here, and look forward to posting new entries soon.

Why this blog?  To push against loss, I think, or to try and reclaim it with another name. Call it change, perhaps, or movement. I write this blog to connect with my fellows and to, I hope, really hope, celebrate those changes, that movement, the transition between one thing and the next. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014


“All the variety, charm, and beauty of life are made up of light and shade.”––Leo Tolstoy Anna Karenina

During a writing retreat with my friend the poet I became entranced by her hands. Her fingers fluttered in the air like small birds as she spoke of poetry and politics and our work as teachers and writers. It was the first time since the birth of her son two years earlier that we’d spent significant time alone, and we celebrated in the old manner with cocktails and conversation. 

The poet is petite, and maybe because of this and the fact that she grew up in a large family, she commands space with notable mastery. The gesturing hands increase her dynamism and charm, but until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much I enjoyed watching them.

As I sipped my martini the hands of another––a young woman's––flashed through my mind. She attends meetings with me, meetings where we talk about trauma and healing. Like the poet, the meeting woman’s hands are small, but their movement can sometimes mimic a stroke victim’s as she talks about life’s upsets, part palsied and part divine gestures of an Indian goddess. 

The poet momentarily twisted her wrists in a similar manner, and I was overcome by an extended sense of warmth for the younger woman via the warmth I already held for my friend––a connection of unexpected, even delightful, association.

I felt no need to mention it to my writing companion. My pleasure was a private one. It was a quick, perhaps even strange, experience of another’s beauty, seemingly too small, distinct, and personal to share. It was the recognition of a beauty that existed independently of aesthetic standards we normally associate with women’s hands: the length of fingers, smooth, unblemished skin, a perception about their gentleness and restraint. In that moment, my friend’s hands were beautiful to me because they were familiar, and I had apprehended their familiarity with fresh surprise.

As it turned out, my writing that weekend, was all about pain that arises from delaying happiness until we attain some standard of physical beauty that mostly exists outside ourselves. I was filling out a survey for Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton's book project Women in Clothes, and the questions provoked much thought. 

I’ve waited patiently to become beautiful my whole life, mostly believing it will arrive once my belly no longer spills over my jeans or perhaps I begin aging in reverse. That my slender friend, who is petite and younger than me by eight long years, could possibly feel something similar would have been unbelievable to me before our retreat, which was why the conversation on our way home stunned me.

The poet began speaking of a ring she and her partner had chosen for a wedding they might one day actually plan. As the couple is frugal, she wasn't sure a ring was even for her. Yes, it was something she'd been thinking about for more than a year. Still, she went back and forth about the whys and why not of it all. “You know,” she said holding out her left hand, studying it with at it with a sharp, appraising gaze, “it doesn’t make much sense to buy a beautiful ring for such stubby fingers.”

That even my pretty friend, a woman with lovely gesturing hands, hands that have provided years of visual pleasure and even a kind of associative solace in meetings that are sometimes difficult to attend, that even she did not feel at peace with such a powerful and important part of her physical being––it seemed so obviously, I don’t know––wrong!

None us should live like that. Not one minute more should we think about some wrong part of ourselves, a part that is only wrong because of our faulty perceptions, a lunacy that separates us again and again from our fellows. Not one minute more should we think we are not loveable until some part of ourselves is righted, and then compensate for perceived flaws by hiding any part of ourselves away in shame.

We cannot be privy to the things in us which allow others to experience joy, but it is just as likely to be those parts that cause us pain as those parts with which we are already in peace.

Like me, like you, my friend is already loved, and it is from this love that we must each begin to account for ourselves. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Freewriting (Twenty-Seven Approaches to One Great Thing)

“Lower standards. Let the writing begin!”––Mary Lastra, Writer and Teacher

I was first introduced to the benefits of a rigorous, disciplined approach to freewriting by Peter Elbow in his book Everyone Can Write. Though freewriting, in fact, is the most undisciplined and least rigorous way to approach a blank page.

After all, at its most basic, a freewrite only requires that one keep moving the pen––no struggling to stay on topic, no trying to make sense, no slowing down to think about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Gifts will emerge (I promise) if only our focus is kept from a preferred outcome or the burden of making sense.

The glorious promise of a freewrite, which is especially helpful whenever one feels stuck, is that it is always better to have something on a page than nothing. Something is always better than a blank white screen.

Rituals and rules are one way to occupy a mind anxious to be done writing before writing has even begun. So though freewriting may be well described as undisciplined, a close honing to its “rules” are nevertheless required. Carefully cultivate an inner sense that its sacred rituals must never be violated.

Here they are:
  • Agree on time limit for writing and steadfastly keep to it, say, 10, 15, 20, or 30 minutes.
  • Like athletes, one must train for the longer sessions.
  • No talking during a freewrite; maintain sacred silence, which builds writerly energy in a room.
  • When more than one writer is present, each person draws from the energy of others and contributes to it too.
  • For some writers, music also helps, and thus it is allowed as long as it is not distracting to those who require silence.
  • Write fast, faster than you can think.
  • Keep the pen moving no matter what. Write your name over and over again, the last line, a grocery list, the phrase, “This sucks. This sucks. This sucks…”––whatever it takes.
  • First thoughts, best thoughts!
  • Be willing to be surprised.
  • Don’t plan.
  • Don’t try to make sense or stay on topic.
  • You are NOT the boss of what you write; your pen is the boss. Follow it where it takes you.
  • Likewise a writing prompt is not the boss; you must follow your pen above all else.
  • Say yes! Say yes to the pen! Or the sound of your fingers tapping at keys.
  • No worrying about grammar, spelling, or punctuation.
  • You can’t do it wrong.
  • No reading back. No crossing out. No erasing.
  • When freewriting, you are more like an athlete, hoping for a physical sensation of flow, that tangible connection between the muscles in your hand, your writing arm and the wisdom that lies in the rest of your body––the place ideas and memories reside before drifting upward to the mind.
  • That said, it is not necessary to fall into flow. Physical and/or emotional discomfort is no sign you’re doing it wrong.
  • Keep going.
  • Don’t rely on the mind.
  • Breathe.
  • Say you are feeling a bit nauseous or over exposed, keep going.
  • 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
  • Begin and end with the soft ringing of a good meditation bowl.
  • “Lower standards,” as Lastra says, and begin writing.
  • Then, keep writing.

Advanced freewriting rules (courtesy writing teacher Ruth Danon of New York University):
  • Rule number one: Follow the rule.
  • Rule number two: Break the rule when you need to.

Thursday, August 28, 2014


“It’s important you spend time making sure your ‘weakest’ students feel most welcome.”––Andy Couturier, author of Writing Open the Mind and A Different Kind of Luxury

Teaching can be a lonely job. In any given California Community College writing classroom there are about 30 students but only one teacher.

Like many instructors, I am a shy person, and teaching requires great acts of extroversion, so the thought of a new semester, used to feel me with dread

To walk into an English classroom on the first day, is to walk into a room of people on edge. For many, writing is the source of much anxiety. Students in a typical writing classroom have already experienced all sorts of small shames, tiny cruelties, and large misunderstanding when it comes to sharing their work with others––the dismissive, “I don’t get it” or even worse, “It’s good” that comes from a parent or friend. Their most heartfelt confessions on a page returned with the teacher’s bright red marks and failing grades.

And then comes you––the new one––a focal point of all those bad memories and fear. For me, there is loneliness in it, not the power some faculty experience.

A few years ago though I met a fantastic writing teacher, Andy Couturier, of the Opening. He offered a different sort of training, one based on a lot of experimentation, game playing, and an explicit building of community and ritual within the classroom.

Among the many wise words he shared were those in the epigraph that opens this post.

He deepened my understanding of classroom community. In my early years of teaching, I had gotten it wrong. Back then I built classroom community for me, hoping to find my own comfort as my students gained theirs. Instead of walking into a room of dread, the hope was I could walk into a room of smiles.

Andy offered another angle. After all, as the “teacher” I’m the only person in the room charged with making the others feel welcome. My own comfort is beside the point. Such vulnerability comes with the job; it’s unnatural to expect students to like me. Though pleasant when they do, their liking me shouldn’t be necessary in the performance of my role.

Oddly, this knowledge has freed me to become more explicit and direct in providing students with a bigger welcome. I both model it for them, and ask for their participation in creating a welcoming environment for each other.

This has changed my classrooms in profound ways.

“Weakest” student is a relative term and fluid too. It may mean poorest writer, but it may also mean shyest student, or most afraid, or student with the heaviest accent, or the one with under-developed social skills, a learning disability, or toughest facade.

Instead of accepting that I probably won’t be hearing a lot from that kind of student, maybe even feeling relief that the student in the corner eating his boogers won’t be asking a lot from me with his questions or comments, I now zero in on him. Making sure by deed, tone, and words he knows he is included–-and not only included but is invited even prodded to actively participate.

I take time to open a classroom to all questions and contributions, even if they come at an inopportune time, ensuring no other student will laugh or feel she has a right to lose patience with the whispering English language learner in the back. At many points in my writing classroom, content is not our focus; community is.

Earlier in my career, I would have thought engaging a “weak” student would invite laughter from others, so I was somehow protecting the shy or the silent by not demanding they share their ideas. After all, mockery is often how fearful people gain comfort, and I didn’t want to embarrass anyone or put them on the spot.

Instead, I have been surprised. The more time taken to demonstrate how “weak” students are just as welcome as “strong” ones, the more I find my classrooms become much warmer, adventurous, exciting spaces for all, me included! 

In each of us is the capacity for weakness as well as the capacity for strength, and when an environment is created that narrows the distinction, everyone gets brave. In my experience, that's when learning really begins.