Posted on | November 18, 2013 | No Comments
I live with a 10-year old German Shepherd mix named Hamachi. A large dog with a large mouth, Machi gets mouthy when she’s very excited. At walk time, for example, she will have a friendly nosh on anything in reach–my ankles, her leash, my butt–while yowling and leaping around.
Years ago, I learned to intercept this behavior by giving Machi a job to do when she is excited. Now she has a stuffed monkey that we keep by the door. When it’s walk time, I say in my firm voice, “Bite the monkey, Machi,” and that’s exactly what she does. All of her enthusiasm is channelled into biting and shaking that monkey. So I can get myself dressed for the outdoors without fear of friendly fire.
When I turned 44 this week, I asked myself what I know now that I didn’t know earlier in my life. The answer came immediately and simply: I know how to get out of my own way. In teaching Machi to bite the monkey, it appears I have learned to do the same. I think this might be the absolute most important life strategy. Because though there are certainly plenty of obstacles “out there” in the world, we can make things so much harder for ourselves by creating a whole range of obstacles “in here.” Our behaviors and our attitudes are often our greatest limitations. The good news is that we are in charge of these. And as we learn to make different choices, our range of possibilities can dramatically expand.
Some of my “bite the monkey” practices over the years have included: Making detailed schedules that I may or may not follow — primarily because it gives me the illusion of control and order — and also because it helps me see that there actually IS enough time to make all of my goals happen. I make detailed to-do lists for similar reasons. When I find myself thinking self-defeating thoughts, I will often write them down so I can see clearly what stories have power over me. Often, I will make two columns–the first of which says “I once believed” and the second says “Now I believe.” Here I might rejigger, “I am not perfect enough to ever publish anything,” to say instead: “I will do my best, and I will let editors/publishers decide if my work is worth publishing.” I will also let myself bounce around on social media for a good 10-15 minutes when I first sit down at my desk, because it lets me spin out some of my nervous energy before settling down to real work.
For me, biting the monkey means finding a way to satisfy the rebellious or fearful or inexperienced/undeveloped part of me with some meaningful activity that lets me keep the rest of my energy focused on my forward momentum.
How do you bite the monkey? What strategies work to get you beyond your own interference—and a bit closer to your goals?
Posted on | October 14, 2013 | 8 Comments
After my panel at Wordstock last Sunday, I had a conversation with a writer that touched on some themes we all struggle with in some way. This particular writer was feeling uncertain about how much time she had left on earth and therefore panicked about how much writing might go undone.
I have such compassion for this writer, and for all of us. We all stand with the enormity of the unwritten at our backs as we blaze our small glimmer of words onto the page in the small allotment of hours we are given–or we take–in these wildly unpredictable lives we live. I think of this tension as a kind of chiaroscuro–the unwritten as negative space giving shape to the words that come forward in the light of our writing. We need both the shadow and the light to find our way.
A few years ago when I decided to give up a business I had spent 15 years building and become an employee at a marketing agency, my agreement with myself was that my creative writing life would go on hold. All of it. The teaching, the blogging, the authoring of books, the poem writing. This felt in a way like telling my heart to stop beating. But I looked at it as a kind of hibernation–a wintering of a part of my life so that I’d have my resources available for another primary part. My priorities were very clear. I let go.
Which brings me to the Queen of Wands–the card I am almost always presented with when I pull tarot cards. We pull the Queen of Wands to teach us about transformation. Her story is one of shedding selves. With each wave of reclaimed self, the Queen of Wands changes hair color and companion animal. She goes from blond to brunette to redhead and is accompanied by panther then cougar then tiger. When she makes her final crossing of identity, her companion animal can not change with her. She must leave it behind to remind her of where she’s been, that when we embrace the new, we must let go of the old.
I distill the Queen of Wands’ story (and all of ours) to this one simple truth: Sometimes we have to leave a tiger behind. This is what the courageous writing life demands of us. We will not get it all done. We will not end up the person or writer we thought we were becoming. We will lose hair and friends along the way. We will accept what comes. We will release what is leaving. And we will write our small flicker of light into that darkness because it is what we are here to do.
I can feel that tiger pacing the water’s edge, the Queen’s hair blowing back in the wind.
This summer I quit my job, resumed my business, and committed to a new path of writing and teaching work that is taking me deeper than I have ever traveled.
I miss the tiger. I bless the tiger. I trust it to its destiny, and myself to mine. I write.
Posted on | September 29, 2013 | No Comments
Hello! It’s been a while. I hope this finds you doing great! Over here, it seems I’ve been between skins forever. And at long last, I am emerging from the chrysalis. I have a few upcoming events that I wanted to let you know about. And a range of poems, essays and interviews to share. Soon I’ll be revealing details about several new learning experiences starting early in 2014. I can’t wait to start learning with you again. What are you most excited about in your writing life these days? I’d love to hear.
Sunday, October 6, 2013 // 1:00 to 2:00 p.m.
Writing Guides: Help and Inspiration for Your Journey
Panel with the magnificent Christi Krug and Laura Stanfill
Sunday, October 13, 2013 // 5:00 p.m.
Rattle Reading Series
Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse
1010 Foothill Boulevard
La Canada, CA 91011
“How to Increase Your Odds of Publication” and “Why Poets Need Platforms” in Poet’s Market 2014
“How to Pray” in Rattle #41 single parents issue, Fall 2013
“Sadness is Boring” in Virginia Quarterly Review, July 2013
“Dear Luna,” in Stirring: A Literary Collection, May 2013
“Make More Time for Your Writing”, in Writer’s Digest, April 2013
Two articles and the poem “Dear Fritz Guest House,” in Poet’s Market 2013
“Repurposing Writing for Platform and Profit” in Writer’s Market 2013
Posted on | May 25, 2013 | 18 Comments
I’m a leaper. For better or worse (often for worse), I trust my instincts completely, and when my gut say leap, there I am–groundless, in love with whatever it is I’ve given myself over to in that moment, and on my way to quickly and indelibly finding out if that thing loves me back.
There are times when I’ve felt ashamed of this. When I’ve made terrible choices that have hurt me, come to conclusions that perhaps I would not have made if walking or crawling instead of leaping. I’ve envied the slow deciders. The cautious and careful. The reasonable. Surely, they didn’t get up on stage to sing and screw it all up. Or take the wrong job. Or marry the wrong guy and end up alone with a two year old. Surely, they don’t follow their intuition all over creation just to land back home where they started. The slow movers must certainly arrive somewhere significant and well planned, mustn’t they?
In the last few months, I’ve taken a new position on my leaping tendencies. I’ve decided to accept that this is the way I am. It doesn’t really matter where the slow movers net out, because this is not my speed and it’s not the way I’m going to move through life, no matter how much I might appreciate its advantages.
For better or for worse, my passions are huge, my movements are often big, and I trust this way of being because it is my most natural way. My job, as a leaper, is to also accept that risks are, well, risky. The net may or may not appear when I am in full-throttle forward. I could beat myself up about the fact that I’m free-falling in unknown territory, or I can do what I can to cultivate my landing skills.
For me, the mandatory landing skills are: gratitude, forgiveness, reckoning, and recommitment. Freedom is my primary value, and courage is the transportation of my choosing. If I am willing to make mistakes, get hurt, look stupid, disappoint myself and others, I will be liberated to love and give and aspire and try and fail.
The older I get, the more I wonder if the net is even the right thing to be wishing for. When we are moving at the speed that is most true for us, we will live into the opportunities and learn the lessons that are most aligned with who we are. Every landing is the one that we needed, no matter how clumsy or difficult or ecstatic it might be.
Posted on | May 16, 2013 | 11 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 | 11 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.keep looking »