How are your stories shaping your life?

Posted on February 16, 2015 | Comment

During the year I was divorcing, I staggered from day to night to day with no joy, no sense of anticipation, no hope. I saw my not-yet-ex-husband as a villain. Our entire arrangement felt profoundly unfair, with the great majority of our family’s practical and financial responsibilities on my shoulders.

Then, one day on a dog walk, I saw a gaggle of geese lifting off together in their symmetry of belonging. As they left a glittering ripple over the still water reflecting their unison of flight, I understood that I had a choice. I decided that I did not need to admire my co-parent to be happy. Things between us did not need to be fair for me to be happy. I did not need to be well-rested to be happy. In fact, suddenly there were no contingencies that I could think of to happiness. This changed everything.

Whenever I started wandering off center into the stories that keep me hooked on rage and blame, I called myself back. Again. And again. And again. Each time, I told myself a new, more accurate story: I can be happy right now, no matter what’s happening my life. Until eventually I trusted with every cell in my body that no one can give or take my happiness. It is my deep well, my wealth. My morning sky, with room enough for all take-offs and landings.

The happier I got, the more my co-parent collaboration came into balance. I began to genuinely like Pete again and he began to enthusiastically step up in ways I could thoroughly appreciate. As it turned out, the dependencies were in reverse. I thought I needed certain circumstances to be happy. But it was happiness that made the ground of our family fertile for those circumstances to take hold.

As it turned out, changing my story changed everything: my feelings, my experience of my co-parent, and our entire family dynamic. And it inspired the launch of my Radical Divorce project, where I support parents in steering their stories toward the greater good of everyone in the family.

As writers, we are especially well equipped to tell and retell our stories until they are propelling us into the lives we want to live. Are there any inner narratives you are ready to let go? Or reinvent? What are your stories teaching you about who you are and how you intend to live?

A path toward living well: Tuesday, October 7

Posted on October 4, 2014 | Comment

In my adult life, I have had two parallel quests: writing well and living well. In the last decade, I have come to understand that these paths are inextricably intertwined. Such that writing well has actually revealed the path toward living well.

When my son and I were awake every two hours of every night for the first two and a half years of his life, it was my poetry practice that had prepared me to relax into my exhaustion, be present, pay attention, and even cherish the exquisite difficulty.

When the man I loved left me, each poem and essay I wrote helped me reach deeply into the epicenter of my grief, relax the grip of my  lesser emotions and eventually emerge into more inclusive truths and more expansive compassion.

I have come to believe that anyone who writes, whether it’s poems, essays, fiction, or even business writing, has the opportunity to cultivate courage and find their most authentic way forward. In my many years of teaching, coaching, and witnessing the trajectories of other writers, I see this principle at play everywhere.

I hope you’ll join us this Tuesday, October 7th, at the Willamette Writers monthly meeting, where I will discuss how the craft of writing can be a path of transformation. Together, we will reconsider the challenges, rejections and limitations that every writer faces as opportunities to grow more sure, strong and capable in life and in craft. We will explore how a commitment to writing well can be a powerful path toward living well.

A Path Toward Living Well with Sage Cohen
Tuesday, October 7th // 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:30)
Willamette Writers Monthly Meeting (October)
The Old Church
1422 SW 11th Avenue 
Portland, Oregon

Beginnings, Endings, and Everything In Between

Posted on May 8, 2014 | 4 Comments

powells May 6 1At last night’s launch of The Night, and the Rain, and the River short story anthology, editor Liz Prato was asked what makes a good ending. Liz explained that she teaches a craft class on ways to begin a story, but that each story needs to find its own ending. And she emphasized how difficult this can be.

I will hold myself up as an example of this difficulty. It was Liz who gently pointed out to me early on that the story I had submitted for this anthology didn’t quite end. I was exploring in this piece an unresolved dynamic between two people, and I wasn’t sure how to depict this lack of closure while actually closing the story. This is the beauty of a great editor. She can shout back friendly encouragement from a bit farther down the road and awaken you to the distance you have yet to travel.

As writers, we are tasked with the infinitely interesting task of deciding how to hand the story off to the reader to let them come to their own conclusions. And we need to leave them at a place that is resonant enough that they are compelled to do so.

When I found a way to leave the door of the story ajar for the reader to stand in its last beams of escaping light, the entire story settled into itself. This is that moment I write for–to stumble into a kind of alignment when the language and emotion and narrative all transcend their individual labors and for a brief moment sing.

But maybe even more importantly, I write to keep myself company in those moments, years and decades where nothing sings.

Stories, poems and essays have been my greatest teachers in cultivating a deep appreciation for the mysteries we will never penetrate. It is literature that sends its lifeboats out into the abyss of not-knowing. It is writing that gives us the illusion that we are getting some traction there. It is words that cushion our fall.

There is no grace like meeting oneself on the page. On the podium. Tracking the story to its end. Letting the great, eternal middle of our writing lives be resplendent in messes. Then coming together to honor the current of story that runs through each one of us on its way to the great waters.



Whoever you are, no matter how lonely

Posted on April 21, 2014 | 1 Comment

A few months ago, I created an outdoor altar otherwise known as a poetry box. Here I make the most intimate and important offering I know how to make to the world: poems.

poetry box smallI started on the week of his 100th birthday by showcasing William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” a poem I have been living by since my 20’s. Next, at my son’s insistence, I shared one of my own poems, “Dear Reed Canyon,” in which my in-utero son appears. Since then, week by week, I’ve groped around for what I felt readers might need. Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying” was gobbled up. Kaylin Haught’s “God Says Yes to Me” flew off the virtual shelf. And this week,  Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese” seemed to quench a thirst the people of my neighborhood were having. In a few days, every copy offered was gone.

By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, you can hold a poem in your hands and find yourself held by something more certain than fact. You can be welcomed as you are, in the incomprehensible soft animal of your body. A single poem can transform the way we feel, the way we think, the truths we live by. This is why, in celebration of National Poetry Month, I’m hosting The Alchemy of Poetry, a reading featuring some of the most extraordinary poets and people I know: Sara Guest, Christopher Luna, John Morrison, Toni Partington, and Penelope Scambly Schott. We will each share poems we’ve written and read that have changed us. If you’re in the Portland, Oregon area, we hope you’ll join us—and share yours at the open mic to follow. 

What poems do you live by? How do they announce your place in the family of things?


Pigeons under the eaves

Posted on March 28, 2014 | Comment

At each elbow, I am flanked by cats as I sit propped on pillows in bed. Alongside the base of my bed, my beloved old dog lies facing out toward anything she might need to defend us from. On her dog bed, a cat curled tight into the dog-made center dent.

Sleep has been so difficult for me in recent years. And sometimes, simply taking in the imagery of my fuzzy companions at rest helps soften me for sleep.

Above my head and out of reach, another family is settling into its own silences on the other side of my wall, under the eaves of my roof. Scrap by scrap, two pigeons have entwined their sleep with  mine, their hopes with mine, their future with mine.

In my mid-20’s while living in New York City, I fell in love with pigeons. Some might argue that this was because, during the only two pet-free years of my adult life, pigeons were the only creatures available to me to love. But I think what it is for me is this: pigeons seem to have defined the standard for making the best of what comes. A pigeon can make a life of sidewalk and tar, after all. They are willing live on our scraps. To make rainbows of oil. And isn’t this what the writer does?

Pigeons remind me that you can take the worn out tatters of anything and weave it into something new and extraordinary. And this skill can change the world. By nurturing one small thing and giving it flight. Even when no one is telling you that you are special, or noticing you at all.

There is beauty in this world that only you can bring forward. Pigeons are born knowing this, and they go about their ordinary bird lives without fanfare, certain they belong, distilling experience to nest when the time comes. You can, too.

What kind of nest are you weaving? Who will tuck in with you there? What future are you warming up to liftoff under that sure and powerful wing?

My body settles into its innate belonging in this chorus of bodies curling up inside a blanket of night. Under the eaves, we sleep.



Listen To Your Mother on May 11

Posted on March 6, 2014 | 1 Comment

On May 11, Listen To Your Mother will be “giving motherhood a microphone” through a series of live stage readings in 32 cities nationwide in celebration of Mother’s Day.

I’m so excited to be reading in Portland’s inaugural event with an all-star cast of 12 women exploring the hilarity, heartbreak and humility of motherhood. (Much to my own mother’s disappointment, the stories are not necessarily literally about how we have listened to our mothers.)

Come join us in the mommy mosh pit on May 11, 2014 at 2 p.m., won’t you? Tickets are going fast. Get yours at Alberta Rose Theatre online


Cupid hits an artery

Posted on March 5, 2014 | 5 Comments

This is what the index card that fell out of my notebook said.

Four words, and I was transported to a weekend four years ago that was a pivot point in my life. Now, I think of that time as my poetry colonic. For two days straight on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I purged poem after poem of my dead marriage onto the page. It was my birthday. Two months after my husband had moved out of the house. I was in that no-coherence cellular soup when the caterpillar has not yet reorganized into butterfly. And poems were my cocoon.

I was standing in front of a class teaching last night when the little yellow, weathered card presented itself with this incarnation of me. As I wobbled for a moment, I marveled at the alchemy of words. That a single phrase can be a portal to another time and place. A time capsule. Transportation. That a single page of writing can alchemize poison into medicine. That a scatter of words can organize a broken heart back into a person again.

Poetry has taught me how to think, how to navigate emotion, how to write, and how to live. This is why I am so fanatical about supporting your writing practice. Because writing is the best company I’ve ever found in the mosh pit of the heart—and in the trenches of life. The discipline of striving to align words with truths is the most powerful doorway I’ve ever walked through. And before walking through, I’ve spent thrilling, anguished decades fumbling with the key at the threshold.

Maybe the most difficult thing to understand in the early years of writing is that the high point of the writing life may be just there: before we get that key in the lock. Moments or days or years before we cross over to that imagined arrival point. It is the striving that refines us as humans and writers. And every so-called arrival is just another foothold into the mystery. We may pause an extra beat to take in the view, pat ourselves on the back, and feel the gratitude for how hard we’ve worked. And then it’s time for the next step. And the next.

When cupid hits an artery, we can simply write it down. And see what words come after that. We can trust the words as companions. They don’t have to be perfect or even good. They just have to land on the page, as we land in our lives. One foot, one word, after the other.

This is what makes a writing life.


Literary love for Portlanders

Posted on March 1, 2014 | 2 Comments

Poetry, productivity, prose, oh my. I’d love for you to join me at an upcoming event in Portland.

Finding Your Stride: How to Build Momentum in Your Writing Life // with Sage Cohen, Christi Krug and guest Laura Stanfill
Three literary leaders offer their most effective tools and strategies to help you find balance and move toward your goals. You’ll get practical support and encouraging guidance to gain unstoppable momentum.
Tuesdays: March 4, 11, 18, 25 // 6:45 – 9:00 p.m.
Rouse Portland
2512 SE Gladstone Street
Portland, OR 97202
Learn more and register

Ink Noise Review
I’ll be reading with the luminous M, Dave Jarecki, Kristin Berger, and more.
Sunday, March 16 // 7:00 p.m.
Jade Lounge

2342 SE Ankeny Street
Portland, OR 97214

Wildfire Wednesday with Sage Cohen
Help me investigate how writing can be transportation through transformation. Hosted by the magical Christi Krug. Followed by an open mic.
Wednesday, March 26 // 7:00 p.m.
Cascade Park Community Library

600 NE 136th Avenue
Vancouver, Washington 98684

Launch celebration of The Night, and the Rain, and the River short story anthology from Forest Avenue Press

As part of a very special celebration of a very special anthology, I’ll be reading with contributors Scott Sparling, Joanna Rose and Margaret Malone.
Tuesday, May 6 // 7:00 p.m.
Powell’s City of Books
1005 W Burnside Street
Portland, OR 97209

Are you making enough mistakes?

Posted on February 25, 2014 | 4 Comments

It was a 5-star review of The Productive Writer. The reviewer had clearly appreciated and benefited from the book. She spent a paragraph saying so. And then she dedicated the second half of the review to venting about a typo that displeased her.

This fascinated me. Because I have come to see that one particular typo, repeated multiple times throughout the book, as a badge of honor. I tell myself, “I wrote a book! Yup, there were mistakes. Mistakes happen when humans make things. This is part of the beauty of it all. And, gosh darn it—I WROTE A BOOK!”

I was once the kind of writer who would have not forgiven myself for that typo. For any typo. When I was that kind of writer—an imaginary perfect writer—I did not send my work out for fear of a flaw. In fact, I did not share it with anyone, ever. What if my writing was no good? What if other people didn’t like it? What if, heaven forbid, there were a typo?

I remember the day when I made a decision that changed my writing life forever. I decided that good enough was good enough. That perfection was not the point. That sharing writing that mattered to me was the point. Connecting with other humans was what it was all about. And if people judged me for work that was imperfect, so be it.

This attitude was brutally tested when circumstance had me proofing my first book two weeks after my son was born. Having been awake for three weeks solid, I could barely focus on the page, let alone proof coherently. I remember sitting with that giant sheaf of printed paper in front of me, infant in my arms, and sobbing until my mother in law came and gently led me away from the table where I was trying to work.

Needless to say, I missed dozens of typos in that book. Maybe more. But who’s counting? In that giant, hormonal and sleepless tornado of bookbirth and childbirth in tandem, I did what I could. And mistakes were made.

And I wouldn’t trade those mistakes for the world. Because they are place markers of how I cut my teeth in my wobbly new incarnation as an author. They were born of the passion to bring forward the best I had to give to poets. They were stones on my path.

Have you made any mistake doozies lately? If so, I applaud you! Let’s celebrate them here together! If you haven’t, I dare you to put more skin in the game. Because without mistakes, you’re missing some very important vistas. Every misstep gives you a foothold into growth, compassion, and greater clarity about what you want and how to get there. Getting it wrong is the foundation on which getting it right is built.

* * * * *

There’s still time to transform mistakes into momentum in your writing life! Register today for the Finding Your Stride workshop in Portland, Oregon—starting March 4! Let’s make 2014 your most potent writing year yet! I’ll be teaching with literary goddesses Christi Krug and Laura Stanfill! Learn more and register. 

What is your writing identity?

Posted on February 22, 2014 | 6 Comments

When we are clear about who we are as writers—what we write, and for whom—we can create more coherently and productively. The tricky part is that people evolve. Life stages and life events shape us. The words we read and write transform us. And the company we keep mirrors us in ways that influence our path.

For many years, I thought of my creative writing and marketing writing as two entirely separate enterprises. Because they were. And I thought of my lifelong pursuit of personal evolution as something having nothing to do with my writing life. Even though writing was always my primary transportation through healing toward growth and clarity and authenticity.

Now, 30 years after I started writing poems in my pink suburban bedroom. 20 years after I started writing professionally. 44 years after my journey on earth began. My sense of myself as a writer and a human has coalesced. I can see and appreciate how writing poems makes me a more strategic business communicator. I can see how being a fiercely loyal friend makes me the kind of teacher that keeps people focused on their greatest potential. And I have committed to writing in service to others seeking transportation through transformation.

I have come to accept that the writing life is expansive enough to hold my many refractions, and that these all add up to the whole of what I have to give. Today, I see my writing (and teaching) identity like this:

Stories are the currency of life and business. I want to help you tell your stories in the ways that best achieve your goals. Whether you want to sell more, write better, or heal well, I can help you write the words that take you there.

The going wisdom for writers is: specialize. And as useful as it is to hone in on a specialty or two, this kind of focus runs the risk of missing the big picture of who we are as people and writers. Is your writing identity expansive enough to include all of you? Is there some dimension of your life that is always accompanied by writing that you aren’t inclined to think of as a “legitimate” part of your writing life? Are you living and writing by an idea of who you are that could use a bit of updating?

I invite you to sum up your writing life in three sentences right now. Then share them with us right here in the comments. Declaring who you are as a writer is alchemical. Knowing where you’re headed and what makes your engine go can make you unstoppable.

* * * * *

If you’d like a little extra support clarifying your writing identity—and leveraging this clarity to sustain momentum in your writing life–join us for the Finding Your Stride workshop in Portland, Oregon! Christi Krug, guest Laura Stanfill and I will be sharing our best strategies to help you make 2014 your most potent writing year yet! Classes start March 4. Learn more and register. 

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