Tag Archives: tomales bay workshops

(nablopomo #10) ready for the story they want to tell through me

graffiti of Ganesh, the elephant-head god.Good morning! I’m here again this morning in the chilly dark — it’s time for fuzzy pajama, warm and thick socks, putting the hood up on the hoodie while I’m writing. In the mirror across from me, I look a little like a monk. A sweatshirt-hooded San Francisco monk. There’s a Ganesha batik hanging on the wall just behind me, so in the mirror, there’s Ganesha’s eyes, and then below, there’s my bent head, face lit blue by the computer screen, everything else dark.

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After yesterday’s endless post, I’m going to keep today’s shorter. This morning I finally got back to my novel, put in 1500 words, a good re-entry. It was the first time I’d opened the file since returning from the Tomales Bay workshops. I said I came back charged to do more work with my book, and that’s true — I also came back a bit overwhelmed with how much work/rewriting/going deeper there is ahead of me. It wasn’t a surprise to me, but I got to touch it while I was there, touch the time and effort that was going to be involved in returning to some of the pieces of the novel I’ve already written and opening them up, pushing further in, letting the stories and scenes fall out. The pace, the storytelling: I have to slow it all down. This scares me, too. I like to push it all out, fast, shove the words past you, whether on the page on at the mic, and then maybe you hear one or two things that really stay but there’s not a lot of time for interrogation, for a thorough inspection. What I got at Tomales, what my writing got, was a thorough inspection. These 12 smart, strong women writers told me what I needed to hear: slow down, show us more, let us be in it. (They also said: we care about these characters, we want to read more. That‘s a pretty great thing to hear.) Over the last couple of weeks since getting back, I’ve felt overly confident about my book, and then terrible about it, and I haven’t been able to get back into the story — I’ve been scared.

The book, at this point, is entirely comprised of morning writes, the freewriting that I do first thing after I wake up. Sometimes in the morning I can get deep into story, but often I sketch out what’s happening, stay more in the telling than showing. During this morning’s write, I thought more about the feedback that we gave each other in that big meeting room at Tomales, the one with tables laid out in a square and windows all around looking out at Monterey pine and hills — over and over we said, show us more here; don’t tell us how we’re supposed to be feeling about the scene — show us the details, let us feel how your character is feeling through her/their actions, movements, what their face or body does, how they eat, how they sound, how they smell. Give us all that story and scene, and then trust us to understand without your having to spell it all out for us. Trust your writing to do that work.

Doesn’t it sound straightforward? But it’s so hard to go slow. This morning I pushed into a scene, dialogue and interaction, that I could easily have dispatched with in a couple of lines of expository prose: and then they talked and it was hard. I could have told myself, while I was writing, I’ll come back to this and explain more. But instead, today, I practiced the showing.

It feels good to be back to these women. I like them, and don’t like them, and am looking forward to writing with them again, now that I can practice being more open with and to the story they want to tell through me.

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Today’s nablopomo prompt from BlogHer is: What is your secret (or not-so-secret) passion? This is a guest prompt from Jean Kwok.

(Hey! I won one of the BlogHer weekly prizes — books from Penguin. That’s pretty great!)

This would be a great list-making prompt: take a few minutes and jot down your passions (or your character’s passions), both the ones that everyone knows about and the ones that you keep to yourself. Let yourself choose one of these and describe it to us —

My list might look like this: writing, reading, experimental cooking — and then I’d get stuck for awhile and look around the room. What else am I passionate about? Tall shoes? Yes. Being present with people sharing their words, engaging and believing in the power of their voices? Yes. Honesty around sexual trauma and sexual healing? Ok, sure. Any other hobbies or hidden things, Jen? Not much. In that way, I’m kind of boring.

I’m passionate about the beauty of queer folks. Am I passionate about the Midwest That feels almost like a contradiction in terms; midwesterners (maybe I should say white, protestant midwesterners) are uncomfortable with too much passion.

I’m a passionate romantic, which has it’s positives and negatives. The Mr. knows about these. I’ve been passionate, too, about survival. I’ve been passionate about drinking, had a love affair with alcohol that has shifted in recent years, and that’s ok with me.

The ocean. Ok, that’s easy. And the puppy. Can you be passionate about a dog? Is that allowed? City walking is a passion. Ethiopian food. See, sit with it for a moment, and the truth of us starts to flow out.

What about your list? Which one would you write about today? Remember, you don’t have to show the list or the writing to anyone — this is just for you, first and foremost.

Thanks for your passions, all of them, even the scary ones. Thanks for the ways you let your passions shift and grow, take up room in your body and then move through as your attachment to them fades. Thank you, every day, for your words.

Tomales, Report Two

Got to bed closer to my right time last night, but still waking up early was hard today — in my bedroom, we got lots of serenading from the snoozed alarm. How’s the morning where you are? Still quiet? Deep blue? Opening?

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Remember: Next month, I get to spend a bunch of good time up in the Davis/Sacramento area — come and join me! Over the second weekend, I’ll be facilitating two day-long workshops, Reclaiming Our Erotic Story and Write Whole: Survivors Write, both hosted by AWA Sacramento/Sutterwriters (visit their site for more info and to register). On November 15, 4pm, I get to talk about erotic writing as liberatory practice at UC Davis as a part of their Conversations with Writers series.

Also! On Nov 12, 7:30pm, there will be a book launch for The Healing Art of Writing: Volume One. The launch reading and celebration will be held at Open Secret Book Store on C Street, San Rafael, CA. I have an excerpt in this book from a memoir/fiction piece called sistersister. I’m figuring out if I can make it to San Rafael when the workshop ends at 5 in Sacto — I’d love to be there for the reading. It’s going to be a fantastic event.

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I think part of me, of my writing self, is still up in Tomales, looking around for time to write, time to settle into the words that describe what just happened. A number of folks from my workshop group, I think, are in the same sort of head-heart space, holding all that just got broken open in us and working, now, to figure out what to do with all that gorgeous mess, how to fit it into our lives, or how to shift our lives to hold the places where we’ve grown.

In a comment to the previous post, alexn wrote:

Learning about writing seems to be  just a small part of the experience of attending a workshop like this. It seems so much more about learning about myself as a writer.   It’s the sort of thing the will be settling in me for weeks, months maybe.

I nodded along with alexn, reading this: although I did get a lot about writing practice and craft from the five days at Tomales (including learning about the associative voice and, over and over, visceral experience/examples of show don’t tell), the deeper stuff that’s looking for words/integration now is the part about who I am as a writer in my life — that is, the space that writing practice and work has in my life, and how much I want to grow that space. Let me see how I can write about it now, five days after coming home.

What I met, at the conference, was another part of who I want to be in the world, both in myself and in others: someone who regularly and consistently engages with writing on multiple levels, the blogging and first drafts, yes, please, and then, also, the next part: the editing, the revising, the deeper work of finding the true voice of a piece and working to let it out. That’s a part of my writing life I don’t engage often enough. The part that publishes, yes, and the part that gets to talk with other people about deep and arcane aspects of craft and the experience of a writer.

Also: I felt (I think this is one of the biggest pieces for me) the space that I want/need to  be able to get into some of my writing projects — over the course of those five days, I touched a life practice that could truly be centered around writing, and that sort of bodily experience effects and shapes visioning, helps me to feel that it would be possible to have that sort of life more consistently, away from writing retreat — I mean, in my real life.

I came home with some powerful clarity about what I need as a writer, and with some encouragement to be ferocious in naming and claiming that space. We’re clearing out some clutter, reshaping spaces — cleaning off the desk, getting rid of these piles of paper that sit for weeks until I file them or recycle. Just do it now. Rethink a decorating strategy that’s about letting framed photos lie flat on tabletops — how do you want to honor your space? With dust and clutter, or with some room to breathe, room to let ideas and images grow?

Clearing away all the piles and mess is just one part, though, the easier part. The harder part is owning what I really want for this one wild and precious life, and devoting myself to it with fierce compassion — if you are a writer, I learn over and over at spaces like Tomales, you must take the time you need to write. Others won’t give it to you. There will always be more demands. You will sacrifice in order to own this part of yourself. Sacrifice joyfully. Parents at the workshop, including Dorothy Allison and Kwame Dawes, talked about the necessity of the parent-writer to embrace benign neglect in order to make space for their writing.

(Please note, however, that in the middle of the sentence above, about focus and sacrifice, I stopped to help the puppy find her rope bone in the dark apartment. So, take from that what you will.)

There’s more: the desire for the deep quiet at Tomales, multileveled. Over the course of those five days, I was away from media, both traditional and social: no tv, no facebook, very little email. Talk about breathing room. What if my life were situated such that I had to work to access those things, those media, rather than working to clear open space in my head and life to write? Just imagine the ripple effects of such a shift.

So in the midst of planning for next year’s workshops (Bayview Writers in Tiburon and San Rafael, Dive Deep project/manuscript workshop in San Francisco, Write Whole in San Francisco, Declaring Our Erotic in SF, Writing the Flood in SF and Oakland, and, hopefully, a couple of online workshops as well — yowza) — wait, I lost track of what it was I wanted to say. You see the need for big space? What was it — in the midst, oh yes, in the midst of planning all this, I’m thinking about how I can get back to Tomales Bay for regular retreats, deep writing space, big openness and quiet in head and heart, as well as outside.

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A prompt for today: Find a candle and light it — be silent for a moment, watching the flame; if you’re doing this on a work break, sit quiet for a moment and imagine a candle. Notice the sound, the scent. Notice what associations you have with candle, with quiet, with flame. Notice what voices begin to rise up, even if it’s your to-do list. Begin to write from whatever arises during the time you spend with the candle. Give yourself 10 minutes, and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

Thank you, always, for the ways that you burn. Thank you for your deep light. Thank you for your words.

Tomales, report one

Van Gogh's starry night as graffiti

Oakland, I’m holding you in my heart and bones this morning.

Good mornin’ good mornin’ — the foghorns are going where I am; the streetcleaners, no, the garbagefolks are just coming around to collect the recycling. Those are the noises outside my window just now, that metallic sound of mash into maw, that long and hollow bassoony note. What’s it sound like where you are?

It’s hard to get back into my writing schedule, after a week away. Most nights at Tomales I stayed up until 10 or later, and woke up about 6. I’d get up and shower, then get to the breakfast (dining) hall between 6:30 and 7, and there I’d write and do my homework for that morning’s workshop. It got in my body, that schedule, that kind of writing time, that sort of focus: days spent reading and talking about writing. We did only a bit of writing in workshop; Dorothy Allison gave us prompts on the morning of the third and fourth days, and that was fantastic — we wrote together and then read around our writing, not giving one another feedback, just receiving one another’s words.

I blogged for you on the second morning, but then the WordPress iphone app ate my blog, and then I was too frustrated to rewrite it, so I left the blogging for home.

There’s a bubbly noise coming from outside; I think it’s a couple of women walking by, headed to the club/gym down the road. At first it sounds hyena-like, then almost electronic. I’m not quite back in this world, I don’t think.

I want to tell you everything. I want you to be able to go to this workshop, to be there, to have this writing space for yourself. Here’s what I can give you — these were some highlights:

  • Five days listening to Dorothy Allison talk about writing practice and about the necessity to honor and accept our true nature as writers (fierce, hungry, generous, selfish, competitive, gorgeous) — that first meeting, on Wednesday afternoon, when we all gathered around a circle of tables and met each other, I was so desperate and scared and hungry, I thought I might crack open like a brittle husk right there at the desk and fall into pieces that could be blown away, but after a good cry that night deep in the shadows of the woods around campus, I was a bit more solid the next morning, Thursday, when my piece was going to be one of the ones we workshopped.
  • Workshopping with eleven powerful women writers and learning craft and possibility by diving deep into each of our writing samples.
  • Kwame DawespoetryJon Davis‘ poetry — Dorothy Allison‘s prose — Fenton Johnson‘s essay/prose about faith and truth and possibility — Danzy Senna‘s short stories — Ben Percy‘s suspense and characters (and yes, I’ll say it, his voice) — Melinda Moustakis‘ short stories; we got to hear each of the faculty read from their work and talk about their craft, their thoughts about voice in particular; what a gift that was, to get to soak in all this possibility. (Go check out all of their work — powerful, powerful writers.)
  • Talking with both Danzy Senna and Dorothy Allison at the table the first night at dinner; you can’t imagine how nervous I was — I’m amazed I was able to open my mouth to speak at all. (These two wrote books that sing to and inspire me as a writer and as a reader; Senna wrote Caucasia, which is the book of hers I return to most often, and you know what Dorothy Allison wrote.)
  • Two craft talks (three, if you count, too, Kwame Dawes’ q&a) — the craft talk is a chance to hear what established and skilled writers have to say about some particular aspect of the writing process or writing life, and can be technical or philosophical, and often ends up being both and more.
  • Stargazing one night with two of the women in my workshop — when we were too-full-to-overflowing, we took one night for ourselves, away from more readings, more words, more input; we had one small flashlight and walked up into the bayside darkness, up a small hill (watching out for deer) and lay ourselves out on a small concrete slab (remnants of maybe an old building, or some underground workings that we could only see the tops of), turned off the flashlight, turned on a bit of music, and just stared up at the enormous, aching sky; we let ourselves throb with all we were trying to take into our bodies over the course of the workshop. At one point, we could hear the coyotes having a party in the distance, and at least one owl came to join us overhead.
  • Quail running around in burbly clumps, all over campus.
  • The towering, top-heavy Monterey pine.
  • Feeling so jealous of some of the writers in my workshop group when I read their writing (“damnit, why can’t/didn’t I write like that?”), and then allowing myself to open up, learn from them, connect with them.
  • The gorgeous open mic, with the voices of so many of the women in my own workshop group, and many others, and how we all got to cheer for and celebrate one another.
  • The cracking open that happens in me, every time I put myself in a space similar to this, where I know I need to learn something important, know I need to let other people in — how, every time, I resist it, I assure myself I’m going to stay closed and tight and quiet, and then I can’t, and I cry for awhile, and then I let the new good stuff in. (That’s not very specific, I know, and someday I’ll figure out how to write about the embodied sense of that experience.)

There’s more, but it’s getting late, and the puppy’s going to need to go out. She’s learned to paw and scratch at us when she wants something — where does she learn these things? I’ll share at least one of the prompts we got from Dorothy (Dorothy, I said, just using her first name, like we’re all familiar and stuff), probably both — but for now, the prompt is this:

What’s your ideal writing space and/or practice look like? Give yourself 10 minutes, or even 7, set a timer, and write — dream big. Let yourself live into that space and that practice; tell me what it smells like there in your space, what it feels like.

Thank you for your persistence, your love of words, your love of other people who love words. Thank you for your wild abandon, how you live so close, still, to that little kid who just wanted to put word against word. Thank you, now, for those words.

what matters most

graffiti -- tampon with angel wings and a haloGood morning, grey & rainy — happy Summer-in-the-Bay-Area. It looks like a good day to get some inside work done, like maybe book proposals.

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One of the things I love about being closer to San Francisco now is being able to get 89.5 KPOO on the radio again. Tuesday mornings with JJ on the Radio & old-school soul music makes me feel like I’m home, reminds me of being in my little studio back near the Panhandle, the first apartment I ever lived in on my own, trying to figure out who I was going to be… (Please note: I’m still trying to figure out who I’m going to be — )

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Last night, or early this morning, I dreamed about being home, back in Omaha. My sister was there, too, and so was he. We were at that house on 57th St, we had to clean, we wanted to get out before he got home, but once we left to go to some appointment over near 60th and Dodge, we still had to contact him to pick us up. My sister still knew how to contact him. She didn’t remember anything in the city, though — we had to get something to eat, and we were in some building that looked down over the area. A Schlotzsky’s had moved into the space where some fancy restaurant used to be there on Dodge — I said, Look, Schlotzsky’s! Remember them? Sandwiches? We’d first gone to Schlotzsky’s during visitations with dad, way back when. She didn’t remember them, wasn’t interested. I touched her head, smoothed her hair, like maybe a mother would.

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This is maybe a morning of non sequiturs, though it also feels like a morning to dive deep into something and live there for awhile. Outside, it’s actually raining. That’s so rare here in the Bay Area, at least outside of rainy season. Usually we just get very very thick fog, fog so thick it drips and droops.

This morning I’d like to be wandering through the Haight with my notebook, my scarf and small gloves. I’d like to order a large cup of strong French Roast decaf that comes in a big wide mug, then go settle into a corner, open my notebook and write while watching the city people go by. KPOO could be on  the walkman, coming through my headphones. Let’s go back a few years now. Let’s cream the words out onto the page. Let’s make them, let them be, chewy, dense, unstrainable. Let’s let our morning get filled with the joy of arms moving, words thrilling through our fingers, new understandings emerging from the page.

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I’m a bit astounded and so very grateful to everyone who has donated so that I will be able to attend the Tomales Bay Workshops this fall — it’s been less than a week, and already we’re more than a third of the way there, almost half-way! Let me tell you a secret — this is the first writing workshop I’ve applied to, the first writing-related program I’ve done since college. Thanks to you all, I was able to put down the deposit.

16 years ago, I was lying on the rough carpeting in the tiny office that was all mine as the Tech Support person for ValleyNet ISP. The blinds were pulled and the door was locked. I hid out in there a lot. I was sobbing after finishing the last page of Bastard out of Carolina.

Now, finally, I’m going to get to work on my own story with the author who helped me do that work, get to that place of release and transformation.

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We used this prompt last night at the Write Whole workshop –we created short lists of body parts, and then prepended the phrase What maters most is, leaving us with a bunch of declarative statements we’d have to make some sense of: What matters most is a hand. We took 20 minutes for our write — you could do anywhere from 10-20, if you’d like!

Here’s my write in response to this prompt:

What matters most is this blood, 27 years of bleeding, the dark red funk, that iron rush — would it have filled a bathtub yet if we’d left it to its own, this body’s own, devices? Let’s say we squeezed out 27 years of obs and Always pads, wrung out the jeans and skirts and underpants stained, collected the remnants left in toilets or run down the shower drain? If I looked back at my human biology book, I’m sure I could do the math: some number of tablespoons every month multiplied by 12 months by 27 years probably doesn’t equal an Olympic-sized swimming pool but it did equal sheer power once upon a time

For years in my adolescence I was irregular, never knowing when I was going to bleed, couldn’t read any signs, just went from zero to stained my new white painter’s pants damnit, and in the middle of band practice too. I felt inept not being regular, wrong, like I was out of sync with nature, the earth, the moon. Women were supposed to all be connected, in rhythm, at ease with their tides. But here I was, could go a month with no blood, six weeks, then trickle then wham — I didn’t get regular til he put me on the pill at 16.

But let’s pay attention to the wisdom in these bodies — he stayed away when she was bleeding, didn’t want the smell to stain his hands or fingers (or moustache, I’m sorry) and so he would leave her be when she ran rust red into cotton, when she lay dormant with cramps — and because it could happen at any time, it was an excuse at any time. Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters — this was not a dumb body. This body knew wreckage was the only way to survive.

What matters most is the blood pooling, caught and captured, inside the panties of half the women at work or on the bus, the women you pass by on King street, the tidy tourists, the natty hipsters, the fancy Marina girls, all of us walking around clotted and clogged for a week out of every month because we want to pretend like we’re normal, like we’re boys, I mean — boys who don’t bleed. Can you envision this city, these stained sidewalks laced with blood that didn’t pour out of a wound, if women could bleed freely? Go back to all that clean blood — let’s not get into HazMat reality right now, let’s consider a society where women didn’t have to pretend like we weren’t women, where each of us could have our bodies and acknowledge just what was going on in those bodies — if we could make te monthly blood visible, maybe too we make the fibro pain visible, the cramps visible, the not-bleeding visible, the hormones cycling visible — maybe our reality gets pinched back out of the hands of people who would turn it into farce and joke. Maybe all that good red fertilizes our parks, tears open asphalt and concrete, drizzles trails down all kinds of legs and we are ok with our peculiar humanness — we are ok with the truth of our stains, our release, our relinquishing, the deep way our bodies know how to cleanse.

Thank you for the ways you honor what matters most to you, to those you love, even in deep and quite and unspoken ways. Thank you always for your writing and your words.