Posted on | May 16, 2013 | 7 Comments
I wonder which came first: the fairy tale or the human yearning for happily ever after? As a child, I remember being perplexed when the stories of love averted ended right at the first kiss. How did those people manage to get along after they sorted out all of the rags-to-riches, unfit shoes, unconscious-in-a-forest-of-dwarves and the other dramas that made the elusive prince so compelling and seemingly all-powerful?
Ron Koertge’s Cinderella’s Diary offers an amusing glimpse into what “ever after” might actually be like once the glass slipper settles and the party guests go home.
I remember in my early years worshipping the poets and writers I loved to such an extreme that they seemed more mythological than human. Publishing a book in this paradigm was more like a magic spell through which the girl scrubbing cat vomit out of the carpet somehow becomes the kind of person worthy of — what? Love? Existence? It seemed that somehow the approval of others (via my name on the spine of a book) would make me a different, better kind of person.
I was wrong.
As it turns out, I was the same old me once I’d written my first book — just a far more exhausted and terrified version of me. (An introvert who’d always written purely for my own satisfaction, suddenly, I had to face the fear of people actually reading what I’d written and having opinions about my work that were entirely out of my hands.)
The report from the post-publication trenches seems to be universal: Having completed the herculean task of writing a book, there is generally the post-partum emptiness of no-longer-writing followed by the rest-of-your-life commitment to marketing the book. There’s more cat vomit to be scrubbed, bills to be paid, and so on. Spoiler alert: Happily Ever After as we may have imagined it never arrives.
So, what’s the point of all this writing and publishing if it doesn’t get us to the right ball and chosen by the perfect prince?
As I see it, the real sweet spot in the writing life is Happily Ever During. What makes the writing life worthwhile is the way in which staying fiercely committed to our work lets us inherit ourselves. When we are engaged in writing, there are no princes or balls necessary. Everything we need is happening right there on the page, moving through our fingers. Our entire universe is contained and complete. There is no need to be pining for some fantasy state of being, some pinnacle of accomplishment that we imagine to be an improvement on the ecstasies of wrestling with language in the here and now.
Happily Ever After is fantasy. And fantasies can be fun, but you can’t plant a garden in them. Even if you get exactly what you thought would make your life perfect, chances are good that your happiness is not as dependent on such an outcome as you might think.
Happily Ever During is reality. And you get to decide, moment-by-moment, how it’s all going to go down. And every unexpected harvest will be your own.
Posted on | May 10, 2013 | 9 Comments
In 2007, I felt my time in Portland was complete. I planned two trips to places I felt called to — Grass Valley, CA and Maine — to investigate relocation. In Grass Valley, I met a woman who modeled for me something I needed to understand about love. And in Maine, I walked into a house I’ve been dreaming about my entire life.
I set off on these journeys thinking I needed to move. But what I actually needed was to meet that woman and enter that house. The impulse to move brought movement to my life that in the end did not require taking permanent leave.
It just occurred to me that something similar happened to me with Sadie, the cat I loved and fed but did not know. I felt such a powerful connection to this cat because she called me back to something powerful in myself. At the time, it seemed that I was being called to find more expansive ways to be of service to animals. And while that truth remains, Sadie had much more to teach me than that.
After a year of feeding Sadie in my ex-husband’s parking lot, our family orbit changed. I was no longer driving to and from that apartment building twice a day, and in my no-margin life, could not figure out how I’d continue driving across town to care for this cat. So I did what any exhausted single mother of one four-year-old, three cats and a dog would do–I brought Sadie home.
My practice of coaxing Sadie to safety now continues from her private suite in the building behind my house–from where I hope to someday integrate her into our household. Twice every day, I reassure her, sing to her, feed her, leave trails of treats, scoop her litter and try to help this terrified, abandoned cat remember what safety is, what trust is, to feel the possibility that there is a place (this place) where she can sink into receiving. Invite her to return to the ease of being a cat who is secure in her place in this world.
It became obvious to me pretty quickly that Sadie and I had some similar issues. And that returning to trust was going to be a trail of treats that we we’d be traveling awkwardly together.
The day it seemed clear that Sadie was secure and centered enough in her space to start traveling into the yard without getting too terrified or disoriented to return, I started calling around to find someone to cut a cat door into the side of the building. The man who arrived at my front door the next day seemed to be already wired right into my central nervous system. I became electric as he crossed the threshold. Every receptor I had stretched in his direction for a scent, a word, the sound of his voice, the private world of his eyes.
Three years beyond believing I might possibly appreciate or desire the company of a man again, I woke out of my slumber. And it was my love and care of Sadie that somehow broke the spell and brought this man to my door.
So, while I haven’t started an animal sanctuary or veterinary foundation (yet) or found other ways to follow the song of my soul that Sadie stirred in me, I trusted this north star to lead me deeper into who I am. As this courageous cat pushed the door of my heart open, my own return to vulnerability became more possible. Somehow, because I was willing to pay attention to one terrified and alone cat, I am relearning the wilderness of my heart.
When we let ourselves be led, there is alchemy. When we allow ourselves to receive, there is healing. When we allow ourselves to give, we travel deeper into the truth of who we are. And when we follow the signs and end up somewhere completely different than we ever imagined, that’s when life really starts to get interesting.
How have you followed the song of your soul into uncharted territory, and what are you learning as you go?
Posted on | May 8, 2013 | 9 Comments
Success means different things to each of us at each stage of our writing life. Early in my poetry writing days, just showing a poem to someone was triumph–and that took me a decade. In later years, standing up in front of an audience to read my poems (and surviving) became my measure of success.
Because writing was as natural to me as breathing back then, I didn’t need to set goals about writing itself. But my terror of making my inner world “outer” was so extreme, all of my “success” energy was around talking down fear. To this day, I still work with my fear of visibility in my ever-increasing public life. It took years to settle into telling the truth on my various blogs. In fact, social media has stretched my visibility fears and related success standards in some pretty interesting directions.
In different life chapters and varying seasons of my writing career, the success standards have been quite different. I wanted dual careers, with enough space in my professional life for my unpaid writing. I wanted to write and publish books. I wanted give back to writers by teaching, coaching, editing. Then I wanted to write less so I had more time for my new family. Then I wanted to write poems as transportation through my divorce. And so on. Each of these desires and goals had its own success standard baked in—some internal (showing up at the page at some incredibly inconvenient times), some external (being willing to stand in “expert” shoes, flaws and all).
A common pitfall for writers is to focus so much on a long-term goal that we forget to define the success road-markers along the way. For example, it’s wonderful to intend to be a famous novelist and hold that big sun up over your journey. And it’s even more wonderful if you have an idea what you intend your next success to be along the way. Maybe it’s showing up at your writing desk two hours a day, or taking that class that’s going to help you better understand character development, or saying no to someone you’re in the habit of saying yes to. I think all of us need a mix of those “someday” and “right now” success benchmarks to keep us striving and also satisfied with what we are able to accomplish in any given moment.
I think of it like this: Each time a success becomes built in as practice, it’s time to set your sights on the next one. And there’s no rule about timing for this. As I mentioned, I’ve spent decades on a few of my own. You’ll discover your own speed bumps and open roads as you go. It doesn’t matter what anyone else around you is doing, or at what speed.
The tricky thing about pursuing success over the long arc of a writing life is the layers of who we are and who we have been that are always reshuffling. Chances are good that all of us are living at least in part by success standards that we have outgrown, that someone else has set for us or that we have unreasonably imposed on ourselves. Can you think of one such example?
When I took a very demanding agency writing job last January, I declared my creative writing life “dormant.” Because I tend to be quite driven, it was a huge deal to step away from my many active projects (including this blog) and let it all rest as I tended other parts of my life that needed my TLC more. For me, aspiring to nothing in particular in my writing life has been one of the most important and soul-saving successes I’ve experienced yet.
Pace yourself. Honor yourself. Be willing to define and redefine success from moment to moment, week to week, year to year. It’s your writing life. You get to make it work the way you want it to work. What does success mean to you today, and how do you intend to keep moving in that direction?
Posted on | April 29, 2013 | 6 Comments
My son begins to notice other kids
have one home with two parents in it.
We are driving and he wants to know
why Daddy can’t live with us.
The oil tanker is all mirror.
It returns us stretched wide
to ourselves. I never wanted
to be moving forward in all
directions at once, but here
we are, inverted, the reverse
view centered within what lies ahead.
I tell him mommies and daddies
are better parents when they are happy.
That his parents are happier as friends.
But he is happier when we are all together.
California poppies freckle the medians,
mouths open, the way I once
swallowed California whole
from my small curb of youth.
He cannot know yet and I cannot
tell him that no energy is lost
when a family disbands and disorders.
His missing father and mother are road signs
for the everywhere he is and will be.
Because love is unaltered by mistake.
Not a drop is ever wasted.
Posted on | April 21, 2013 | No Comments
When the name of an event reaches like a sliver of light through the cracked-open door of my heart, I follow where I am led. This is how I came to attend the reading launching alive at the center, a poetry collection from Ooligan Press featuring contemporary poems from the pacific northwest.
Alive at the center: that is what these past, few months have been for me. A waking from a long slumber. A return to what is wild in me. A song lifting from skin and bone. The reading was harmony to my melody. For two hours, a chorus of poems washed over me, spoken by many of my most cherished poets: Paulann Petersen, John Morrison, Emily Kendal Frey, Judith Barrington, Cecelia Hagen, John Sibley Williams, Leah Stenson and many more. Seated and standing throughout the room were dozens of beloved poet friends I have been communing with throughout this past decade.
I was reminded as I listened that poetry is that alive place at my center I have been coming home to for thirty years. No one can take it away from me. It needs no one’s approval or participation. It is simply my own, protected wilderness that I am not likely to ever understand completely or articulate correctly. Which is why I am drawn to the pilgrimage of poems, and to the other travelers barefoot and astonished along the dusty road that we walk together and yet alone. I will spend my life trying to solve what can not be solved in words, trusting this path to take me deeper into that alive place at the center.
What kind of event might call you back to who you are and what you love? What makes you feel alive at the center, and how does your writing take you there?
Posted on | April 17, 2013 | 9 Comments
These last three months have been a comedy of error in which everything imaginable in my life has broken. When it started raining into my bedroom, I discovered my roof needed to be replaced. My front and back doors fell apart, my blog got repeatedly hacked and corrupted, multiple faucets started leaking–you get the picture.
I have lived long enough to appreciate the opportunities that breakdowns bring. My dear friend Drew wrote a song in our 20′s that I’ve been singing ever since with a line that said, “Some things must be broken just to get them open / and now something new is slipping in through the cracks.” Another of my favorite philosophers, Leonard Cohen, sings, “There is a crack / a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” All of that to say, when the structures that hold us break, we have new opportunities for illumination. When things fall apart, we have a fresh chance to consciously and creatively put it all back together again.
This is why I write: to make mosaics of the shards. To craft a thing of beauty out of the last life that didn’t hold. To soak in that surprise breakthrough of light that can be reached only through our most tender places.
The truth is, whatever is not working right now in your writing life could very likely be the crucible through which you find your next foothold. Every wrong choice gets us closer to knowing what’s right. Every broken part holds deep wisdom about how to open. I am wishing all of us the courage to stand by what is crumbling, allowing and honoring the rightful departures. Then listening as those empty spaces send up the words that show us, in time, where we’re headed next.
Posted on | April 15, 2013 | 4 Comments
When I returned Noe
to the earth and she sent
her staccato of sweetness up
into the unending sky,
I was not yearning
for more than I was given.
Then the blueberries got
to chattering all along
the lattice of the deck and
you rose from your empty
decade, your margin of darkness
to reach a bracken arm in.
Volunteer is what they call it
when a plant chooses you.
I did not know how to be chosen.
You showed me how the husk
of an old life becomes a chorus.
You showed me how receiving
can be as simple as holding
up my empty hands.
Posted on | October 22, 2012 | 5 Comments
I circle you as time circles history
first with one dog, then two, then one.
We accept each other’s changes.
The salmon flash through, fighting
for their lives. The nutria are trapped
with apples and sent away.
Your waters rush and pool, rush and pool.
By the stepped rocks, Henry loved to drop his ball
then retrieve it where it bubbled up downstream.
The whole canyon was painted with his joy then.
Today, sun breaks through your canopy and skips
along the surface of things. Morning placid as a poem
not yet traveled, its mirror face undisturbed.
The geese sing their chorus of wings
The toads whisper what toads know.
I walk the perimeter I am allowed where
days before my son was born, a spider
once bit my neck. Spider, weaver of fate.
This is how we are blessed. What hurts us
also heals us. The ancient heron lifts
its improbable wings and enters
the plain welcome of sky.
Posted on | October 17, 2012 | No Comments
An interesting series of questions at my Wordstock workshop on Sunday got me thinking about how asking for help—and making that help useful—is an art unto itself in the writing life. I’d like to offer some guidelines that I hope will invite the best possible support for your work and your process.
Pay attention to the feedback and support that are most useful
Let’s say you’re in a writing group, and you’re getting conflicting feedback from various members of the group. Your job is to start recognizing whose suggestions work best for you. Of all the contrasting feedback, what feels right? Who in the group seems to understand what you’re trying to accomplish? When you experiment with adapting feedback in your work, what is most useful? When you log these insights over time, you start to understand who your true brain trust is, so you can really focus on how their insights help you grow.
Be specific when you ask for help or feedback
Maybe your mom tells you everything you write is great and your wife points out only the flaws. Or, everyone in your writing group is being too “nice” and you’d like them to be more “critical.” Or vice-versa. If what’s happening today isn’t working for you, experiment with telling your readers / editors / collaborators exactly what you want from them. “Mom, I’d like you to point out three examples of scenes that could be better developed,” or “Writing group, it would be great if we could start by focusing on what is most successful in this piece of writing.” If you find that the people or groups you turn to for feedback are not able to provide the kind of support you’d prefer, you can always keep exploring other readers or groups until you find the right fit.
Don’t rush to show your work; wait until you feel ready
One of the most common mistakes I see writers make is sharing their work and inviting critical commentary before they are truly ready. Feedback can be most painful and confusing when we’ve not yet grounded ourselves in our own writing practice and our own sense of ourselves as writers. I wrote poems for a decade before sharing my writing. Even then, it was difficult to engage in dialogue about them. It took probably another decade of engaging in critique of my work that I started to really get a feel for how to best use that feedback. There’s no hurry to get your work in front of people. If you try it and it doesn’t feel like it’s serving your work, take some time before you try it again.
If it sounds wrong or feels wrong, or simply doesn’t work for you, it probably is wrong
No matter who the “expert” is, or how smart their suggestions may seem, if they don’t work for you, move on. It’s easy to get tangled up in advice that isn’t suited for who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. If at first you don’t succeed, simply move on and try another way.
It’s ok not to know
Maybe you don’t know what you want or need from your writing community or teachers. No problem. That’s the place where we all start. Just pay attention to what moves you forward and what holds you back as you go. When someone challenges an image you’ve crafted, does it compel you to write it better, or does it make you want to hide under your desk for a week? There is no right or wrong way in the writing life—there is only your way. And your job as a writer is to find out what that is and cultivate it to the best of your ability. You’re likely to go through different phases where your needs change. If you’re listening for what works, not-knowing can lead you to your most fertile insights and truths.
* * * * *
P.S. The Oregonian News Network just featured an interview with me that discusses blogging, Wordstock, an audience of one, and why I think Portland is the best writing community on earth!
Posted on | October 13, 2012 | 11 Comments
I love a cat I do not know. Our shared context: the parking lot where she lives, circling the apartment building where my son lives some of the time with his father, and where I twice-daily leave and then collect my car in the complicated dance of co-parenting, school transport and work commute.
I barely registered her as I raced from car to bus and back again until the day I saw a small tail flicking out of the dumpster. When I understood, suddenly, this cat was no one’s cat, she came into focus. I filled a giant tupperware full of dry cat food and packed it in my car with a small plastic bowl. The next morning, my small ritual of feeding began. Within a few days, the cat I do not know was running to our agreed-upon spot when she heard the sound of my car. She’d cower in the recess of a bush and wait until I had moved a safe distance away before eating.
I named the cat I do now know Sadie. Her tattered ears and sky-yellow eyes say that beneath the surface of her distrust, she could be convinced. When I wrote it down, I saw that Sadie’s name was nearly my name. Both of us orbiting the periphery of a home where we do not belong.
A month or so into our ritual, I realized that watching Sadie eat was the absolute happiest moment of my day. A few days later, she was not there to greet me. Nor was she there the day after. Her food was untouched and bloated with rain. On that second day of no-Sadie, I cried all the way home. Sadie who I couldn’t protect or save. The next morning, she met me at our appointed time to eat her breakfast.
My happiness and grief about Sadie got my attention. I was awakened to what I have always known about myself but rarely take time to acknowledge: my greatest heart-openings and heart-aches are directly tied to the welfare of animals—specifically cats and dogs. I had to admit that my soul has a calling I have not yet lived into with a force that matches my desire. I steeped in this knowing for a few weeks, asking myself how my no-margin life could accommodate more service to animals beyond the four who live in my home and the one I feed in a parking lot.
As I steeped, I was invited to an event hosted by a colleague at an animal charity for whom I’ve done some writing. Then out of the blue, the woman I adore who serves rice and beans at my favorite food cart mentioned that her mother founded my very favorite animal sanctuary—one I’ve fantasized about moving to many times throughout my life. When I realized that I have a connection at a local animal shelter, ad campaigns I could write for them started flashing through my dreams. It was clear that just giving my attention to this abiding passion of mine was surfacing friends and colleagues and possibilities. But even more importantly, I noticed that my willingness to give the ache that Sadie signified my full attention was bringing me a layer deeper into the truth of who I am, to the core strength of my soul.
Who or what is your Sadie? Is there a small tail flicking in some unobserved corner of your life? Is your soul sending you messages you’ve been too busy or stubborn to receive? What could happen if you gave those untrusting eyes of your soul’s deep desire your full attention, maybe a bit of food, and then followed with interest where it led you?keep looking »