Posted on May 8, 2014 | Comment
At 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.
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.
I 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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
LIVE WRITING WORKSHOP SERIES
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.
JUST A FEW DAYS LEFT TO REGISTER!
Tuesdays: March 4, 11, 18, 25 // 6:45 – 9:00 p.m.
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.
2342 SE Ankeny Street
Portland, OR 97214
PROSE READING AND CHAT
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
POWELL’S BOOK LAUNCH EVENT
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
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.
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.
Posted on February 14, 2014 | Comment
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 receiving
could be as simple as holding
up my empty hands.
* * * * *
A Valentine’s Day reprise
Posted on February 13, 2014 | 3 Comments
The day after I shared my top 10 tips for micro writing, I met the poster person for this very triumph.
Mantu Joshi wrote to tell me that he came upon my book The Productive Writer at the airport, read it in one sitting, and by the time he landed became convinced not only that he had a book to write, but that he would be able to find a way to write it—despite the incredible demands of parenting two special-needs children.
And that is exactly what Mantu Joshi did. For two hours a week, for two years, he wrote The Resilient Parent—a collection of heart-expanding essays that speak courageously and generously of his own discoveries and insights about how to survive and thrive while raising children with special needs.
As the fates would have it, Mantu lives in the same city that I do. And his book launch reading was on a night when my child was with his father. I attended.
Mantu’s event was a reading and a benediction in one. There I experienced a man using language to transmute the greatest vulnerabilities and terrors of the human condition to grace. I do not have a child with special needs, but I am a parent. And I am a human. I wept through most of the reading, awed by the opportunities we have to steer our thoughts, feelings and our lives with the stories we choose to tell.
Clearly, I was not alone in my need for this book-length benediction. Within a few weeks of publishing, The Resilient Parent is already in the top 65 in the Kindle special needs category. This is a book that is already changing lives. Expanding hearts. Saving families. It is a book for parents of children with special needs, and it is a book for anyone who has struggled to find his or her balance amidst extremely strenuous circumstances.
Two hours a week, passion, purpose, and permission. These were the raw ingredients Mantu spun to gold. How will you change the world in just two hours a week?
* * * * *
If you’d like a little extra support creating and sustaining momentum in your writing life and you live in the Portland, Oregon area, join us for the Finding Your Stride workshop! 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.keep looking »