Tag Archives: workshop write

learning to listen to different forms of success

MissionFishes-711504Good morning, good morning. The sun outside is bright egg yolk orange, just over the Oakland hills. How is the morning finding you today?

I have been thinking a lot about success and failure these days. I’ve been caught up quite a lot in comparing myself to others who are more successful, according to our American standards: folks who have high-paying jobs, folks who own houses, folks who are able to travel wherever and whenever they want, folks who have money and access and what I assume is a kind of ease. Do you do this to yourself, too?

Here’s what came of this rumination at this week’s Meridian Writers group on Wednesday morning:

She has failed to grow up and become a successful business person. Every month she gets a magazine in the mail. It comes from the alumni association of her undergraduate college. Against anything that’s good for her, every month she brings this magazine into her house, sits down with it, flips it open to look at the faces of alumni who are achieving. Making names for themselves. Successful. Here are the politicians, the scientists, the social entrepreneurs, the designers, the computer programmers, the movie and television producers, the hedge fund managers, the actors. The writers. Every month she scans the list of books published recently by other alumni. she hopes not to see the name of someone she knows. She hopes none of these now-published writes graduated after her. If they are older than she is, she’s a little easier on herself: she still has time. She scans the personal essay section, to which she has once again failed to submit her own piece, the story she’s imagined sending to them for five years. Every month she undertakes this self-flagellation, looking at the faces of former classmates who now head law firms, run major organizations, made millions of dollars selling their ideas to Silicon Valley. She tortures herself with the faces of the just-graduated, the young-and-up-&-coming who already warrant press coverage for their achievements. Every month she reminds herself that she is a failure.

No matter that she runs her own small boutique business that succeeds well enough to allow her to pay her rent most months. No matter that she has a life full of color and laughter, morning sunlight, a cat who curls next to her on the couch and purrs while she writes in her journal. No matter she knows — somewhere inside — that she has enough, so much more than many: a safe home, a full refrigerator, lights and water and heat that turn on when she wants them to. She has a small garden plot in the community garden down the road where she can dig her fingers in soil, where she tends the fat hands of chard, tall cosmos and hollyhocks and borage and lavender and salvia, tends tomato and broccolini and a small thicket of herbs. Never mind the pots of basil and feverfew on her windowsill, the chickadees and house finches and goldfinches that visit the bird feeder she’s hung from the bottlebrush tree just outside the window near her kitchen table (which is also her office, also her desk).

They never tell her own particular kind of success story int he alumni magazine — about the thousands of students who left the college grounds and did not become standouts in their fields, at least not in the headshot-press release- TED talk- thought leader kind of way. Instead, some of those folks went out to craft small and beautiful lives that tendriled through the communities in which they settled, made home and family, or didn’t, figured out how to survive during the days or months or years when getting out of bed took all the energy they had to spare. They grew to know themselves well, if they succeeded at staying alive, and learned to listen to different forms of success: the kind that goes unreported except in poems, in novels, in glances with strangers across the subway on a chilly February morning.

It’s so easy to compare ourselves to others and come up short, negating the beauty and power in our own lives in the process. There’s an image that cycles through the desktop photos I keep on my computer. It reads: Comparison is the thief of joy (attributed to Franklin Roosevelt). I keep it there because I have to constantly step outside the compulsion to compare myself negatively to others — why are they succeeding when I am not? (Meanwhile, I never tried to succeed at what they are doing, which doesn’t stop me from beating myself up anyway for “failing”!)

Yesterday I thought, It makes about as much sense for me to compare myself negatively to those who went out and worked in the corporate sector or got law degrees or became programmers at Apple or Microsoft or Google as it does for me to compare a fish to a dog and then call the fish a failure because it can’t run on land and chase a ball.

Albert Einstein is supposed to have said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” That’s what I mean.

I have had (am having!) an artist’s life. A successful artist’s life — by no one else’s standards but mine.  What an extraordinary thing to be able to say. I may not be as successful yet as I’d like to be as an artist, but I have absolutely succeeded in creating an artist’s life. When given the choice between money and time, I have chosen time — almost always. And so, rather than being caught behind a desk doing someone else’s work, I have been out wandering, watching the world, reading books, talking to cats and birds and city squirrels, putting my feet in the surf on a weekday morning. And I have written in cafes all over Northern New England, Omaha, San Francisco and Oakland. None of that time has been wasted. Not even the many years spent just trying to let it make sense that I was alive and had control over my own life, when something in me had believed my stepfather when he’d told me I’d never get away from him.

When the artist, the writer, finally publishes her book, the one that’s well-received, gets recognized, gets her that interview on Fresh Air, we look back at all the time she spent not making money, all the time she spent writing and paying for groceries with her credit card, and call it not wasted time but time becoming an artist, becoming the writer she was meant to be. Until that happens, though, her life looks a lot like ours (we who are not among the literary elite, or even the well-published): we make decisions others can’t understand. We write instead of going to parties. We go to bed early instead of going out with friends because we want to have those early morning hours for our writing. We write on our lunch breaks instead of networking like our coworkers do, the ones who want to stay with the company, the ones who want to rise in the ranks. We don’t care about the ranks — at least not the ones at the company.

We write because we want eventually to publish and see our names on the spines of those objects that have been beloved to us since before we could speak: the books read to us by parents or sisters or aunts or cousins, the books we took into our own hands as soon as we could. Those not trying to live our sort of life, or too afraid to do so, may not understand us. There are those comparing themselves to us, too, and coming up short in their own eyes, though it’s hard for us (at least for me) to believe that.

It’s easy to get invested in the story of failure. Today I’m working to look through other eyes, to step outside the ring of comparison (where I always get pummeled on the ropes), and remember that, as a fish, I’m doing just fine.

 

NaBloPoMo #15: I get clean by writing it

Today’s post comes from the Fearless Words writing group — our prompt came from the group itself: how do we get clean?

How do you get clean? You know — inside? How do you begin to release that sense that you are dirty, soiled, smeared with someone else’s stain?

We took about 8 minutes — and this is what came for me (with only small edits):

I get clean by writing it. I take the stories out of my body and let the page hold them, too. And I get clean by crying. So many buckets and buckets of ears, a sea full. a world full. I cry because crying is what brings the body back to itself. Cry and dance and sweat and move the damp through the body’s pores and the toxins are flooded out. They say that every seven years, every one of the body’s cells has replaced itself. One day I realized that this means that he has never touched the skin I’m in now. I have sloughed and shed the places he put his body against or into mine — I have sloughed him. I get clean by getting messy, by telling the truth, surrounding myself with a love that never thought me dirty in the first place.

NaBloPoMo #14: you always believed we could have something more

Today’s post is brought to you by last Saturday’s Dirty Words Sacramento writing group. For our introductory prompt, I read aloud the C.P. Cavafy poem entitled “Body, Remember,” which begins with the line, “Body, remember not only how much you were loved…”

We had ten minutes. Here’s what came for me:

Body, remember how hard it used to be? Remember the armor we wore and the disappointment? Remember the long hours spread open and aching, trying trying trying for release that wouldn’t come? Remember the tension in knees and thighs, how you hardened against the memory, against the loss? Remember how we worked together, one orgasm at a time, to untether you from your pain? Remember how you wanted something easy, how you imagined that someday sex would leave you not spent and sobbing and sorrowful but delighted and laughing and free?  Remember how we thought that was impossible, remember how we thought history, the memory of old hands, unwanted touch, unasked-for experience would always be a skin we lived inside of, something we would have sex through forever? Remember. But in spite of that centering and sorrow, you didn’t quit, body. You always believed we could have something more — or maybe simply something else — sex that didn’t feel like a battleground or a crime scene, sex that instead simply (simply?) felt like connection and opening, power and joy. We are getting there, body, you and I, to a sex that can be free. We stayed on this long road for all these years and never would you let me put sex down, even when I wanted to, remember? And now — now — maybe I am beginning to understand why.

NaBloPoMo #12: why I write

This write is from a Write Whole group last summer — this was an introductory write, designed to get our pens moving and our hands loosened up. The prompt was “Why I write,” and this is what came for me in those 8 minutes. This one took a turn midway through that surprised me, but that’s not at all uncommon during these writes:

I write to put teeth back in it — teeth and knives and nails. I write to find the shape of my fist, the smile of my backhand, I write to find a shape for the violence that has no outlet anywhere else, for the violence that contours throat and belly, for the violence that crafted the trajectory of my whole adulthood. I write to find a container for the rage, trace the edge of the blade.

This is supposed to be gentle and kind. This is supposed to be pacifist and non-violent. The editors and censors and worriers jump in quick — justify yourself, they say. Clean up that mess you’re about to make.

I write because I’m not supposed to tell his stories — or, later, his. Because I carry the bilge of a broken marriage still burnt and straining in my muscles, the years of someone else’s terror released as control and — what do I say — shame into my body, my love, still slick down all my tender insides, still shaping every new voice I hear.  [redacted] What I really want to say is I still don’t have all the words for those years of loss, nor access to what joy I believe was true between us. The rage doesn’t end just because I moved out of his bedroom — in fact, it wasn’t until I left that those true flames of sorrow and loss were truly allowed to blossom.

NaBloPoMo #10: She did fight back

Again, I’m sharing a prompt and a write from a Fearless Words group meeting. For this exercise, we first wrote for three minutes from each of the following phrases: I remember / I don’t remember / I wish I remembered / I wish I didn’t remember…  then we took 8 more minutes to write about anything we wanted.

Here’s what came up for me:

I remember sitting slow on the back porch. I remember there was no back porch. I remember the concrete of the back patio, the smell of the yew hedge that separated the patio from mom’s garden, and how ugly those hedges were. I remember felling lost most of the time, and feeling broken and wanting to be really lost and not knowing how to run away. I remember when I understood I shouldn’t write anything real in my journals because he might read them —

She doesn’t remember exactly how it started or how old she was or where her body was or what the word “started” means when it comes to something like this, like his being in charge of her skin, her movements, her thoughts. She doesn’t remember when her mother lost her voice or when her mother stopped standing up for herself. She doesn’t remember forgetting how to breathing and learning to split her mind away from itself, learning to think two or more thoughts at one time — nor can she remember not being able to do that.

I wish I remembered those things. I wish I had concrete details, facts and numbers, time and date stamps, supportive documentation, ways to enumerate the step-by-step of his escalation. I want want to look back and point, stand with the young self I was and say, Look, there. That’s when it happened. That’s when he took over. That’s the moment when everything changed. You weren’t crazy. You were right. I wish I remembered all the ways I stood up for myself, the ways I tried to tell mom what he was doing, the ways I tried to escape, so I could tell the self who did those things, congratulations. And also, thank you.

I wish I didn’t remember everything he taught my body. I wish my body didn’t remember those long hours of lessons, the phrasings and indoctrinations. I wish my body could shed itself of that muscle memory, especially after all these years. I wish I didn’t remember how he taught me to shame myself, to blame myself or my sister, how he taught me I was at least (at least!) partly to blame. I wish I didn’t remember how he looked, what he smelled like, and how he cried.

What I remember now comes from the stories I have written and shared, what I remember rises out of the stories I tell myself. I wonder about allowing myself to remember my own resistance, how I pushed back at him and fought, that 15, 16, 17 year old girl in physical altercations with her 40-something stepfather , how I battled hm physically and in front of my mother and sister, how I forced him to show them, over and over, who he really was. This was a telling, one more telling, one more that my mother refused to acknowledge. I remember pushing his limits of what could and could not be said when my mother was present, I remember risking his wrath if only she could hear me, would understand what he was doing to her daughters right under her nose. She was not able to hear me — this is the way I save her now. I say that she could not hear me — not that she would not. And, of course, my body resisted — in her very musculature. I tell myself these stories to counteract the other stories, the ones I rehearse so easily, too often, that I simply capitulated, gave in, and never asked for help, never told. These are not true stories, and I want to honor the girl I was enough to tell her whole truth, with all its layers and mess. She did fight back. She fought like hell, and eventually she fought our way free.

NaBloPoMo #9: from echo and hope and worry

Another of the prompts we used during the AI writing group I offered for Sade Huron’s class was the classic poem “Where I’m from” by George Ella Lyon. I’ve used this prompt repeatedly (as have many, many other facilitators), and it never fails to bring  a new spin on the introductory autobiography — rather than telling simple facts about the who/what/where/when of our histories, we get into sensory detail and metaphor.

We were doing 5-minute writes, and here’s what came up for me:

I’m from echo and hope and worry. Take home that longing. I’m from red brick dust and the smell of old cows and dice and scrub canyon and loss. I’m from cottonwood and gas lamp and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the smell I imagined my grandfather lived in when he was a little boy in a sod house, his bedroom with his parents dug deep into the ground. Stop running, stop running. I’m from cornfield and wheat grass and monarch butterflies kept tight in the moonshine, no, the moon flower, no, the marsh grass, no, the milkweed, and fluttering, hollow and cherry, on the front grill of my father’s 1972 vw bus.

NaBloPoMo #6: she didn’t quit

For this write (the second for this week’s Fearless Words group), because we’d been talking about ways we reclaim our bodies, I invited us to write to a prompt from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Two Countries” – Skin had hope. That’s what skin does.

We took about 10 minutes. Here’s what came for me:

I have been looking back at old journals recently, reading the self I was at 29 when my ex-wife and I had just lost a child and I, only five years out of my stepfather’s abuse and control and mental manipulation, was trying to do everything right — mourn right, partner right, be an adult right, study right, show up right. The self that shows up in those old journals is hard to read — she feels self-centered, whiny, repetitive, closed. I get embarrassed for her, for me — my god, did I really sound like that? And then I pull back, remember all she was carrying, all she was grieving, all the healing she hadn’t even begun to be able to consider doing yet. And then I am grateful for that 29-year old self. For showing up, day after day, putting one foot in front of the other, one word in front of the other. For continuing to have hope. For continuing to desire, even when she had every single reason in anybody’s logical world to quit desiring and just sit still and stop. She had earned the fucking right to quit, and she didn’t.

Naomi Shihab Nye wrote, “Skin had hope. That’s what skin does.” That 29 year old woman, with all her confusion and loss, her struggle to be in her body ever at all, she had hope. Ridiculous hope. Her skin, even, had hope. even while she wrote over and over, What good is this doing? What’s the use of any of this work? — still, she listened to her hungers and she followed them. She got me here now, skin still hungry and hopeful, able to feel accept kindness and love.

NaBloPoMo #5: Call the calling off off

Today’s prompt comes from last month’s Writing the Flood. I used Autumn in New York as the prompt (Ella and Louis can always get something going).

We had about 20 minutes, and this is what I wrote:

My brother-in-law does a great Louis Armstrong.  At almost any opportunity, this young Italian guy from Buffalo, NY, will deepen his voice to as froggy as it gets and bets out verses from some song or another — if he were here now, listening to this prompt, he’d be singing along, voice craggy, not making fun, just channeling. But it makes my sister laugh, delighted, and so he keeps on doing it.

On the night before their wedding, my sister and mom and I were all at my sister’s apartment, finishing up all of the everything that got left to the last minute to do. We made favors, put batteries into the forever candles, and cut mint green and persimmon Gerber daisies into the right size for center pieces, bouquets and boutonnieres, then bound up each small bunch and tied them with wire and then ribbon and tucked them in buckets of water in the refrigerator, which got filled like a florist’s case before the night was over. It was close to midnight, or after, and my sister was in hear hysterics. Each time she got frustrated with the bouquet and favor creation process she would run into the office, where her soon-to-be-husband was working on his own wedding projects, and say, Are you doing the playlist? You said you’d do the playlist. And we have to rehearse the dance! And after he nodded and reassured her that everything would get done, she’d come aback to tie up a bouquet and cry, This is why I didn’t want to wait to do this all at the last minute!

We three women, who have so much history and ache and persistent hope among us, were doing pretty well, considering the hour and the fact that we were barely going to get any sleep, and my sister needed to do something on the computer but she couldn’t because her sweetheart was using it to do whatever he was doing — something important for the wedding, he said — but it didn’t look like that to her and anyway he was supposed to be working on the playlist — and when are we going to practice our first dance?

We took a break from our bouquet-making, fingers raw and pink, and all went into the office. i stood back by the door, anxious, certain that they were going to start fighting soon — but then my sister’s fiancé stood up from the desk chair and took her hand. Both barefoot in faded denim, with faces lined with worry and longing, they stood together in the middle of the small room, and we were soon surrounded by the voices of Louis and Ella, bickering back and forth about tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto, and let’s call the whole thing off. This, I soon found out, was their song. Right away, Ryan sang along with Louis, even doing the trumpet bits, while guiding my sister across the carpet, suddenly rehearsing. She leaned into him, moved her feet with his, and laughed and laughed and laughed. In that moment, nobody else existed for them, and I could see who she was marrying: a man who understood her this way, who was industrious and light, who could encourage her to turn away from the doorstep of panic and anxiety — the place that has been her home in the aftermath of her trauma — and ease back to the joy always just within reach.

The danced and sang and laughed and held each other; my sister appeared to relax. Of course, as soon as the song was done, she asked him, But you are doing the playlist, though, right? And he was. The next day, after a small ceremony by a quiet pond in the middle of the valley outside of Los Angeles, at a reception where no alcohol was served in honor of the bride and groom’s sobriety, as well as that of more than half of the attendees, the floor was packed with jubilant dancers, after the just-married couple, now in gown and tuxedo, replayed for the gathered crowed what my mother and I had witnessed the night before. Better call the calling off off.

NaBloPoMo #4: you were not yet afraid of the world

This is another write from our Fearless Words group. For our prompt, we used Pat Schneider’s brief visualization, “In this one you are…” Imagine a photograph, and begin writing by describing the picture, starting with the phrase, “in this one you are…”

We had 8 minutes. This is what I wrote:

In this one you are that wild-haired girl with the square head who drapes herself over a birthday cake, sticking your tongue out, 3 or 4 years old, ready to sink your teeth into your mom’s homemade vanilla frosting and the yellow cake underneath. You were all energy and action and curiosity, such an enormous personality all through your childhood — your father could hardly recognize you when you got back in touch with him at age 21 and called yourself introverted. What? He said. You? And who knows — maybe no one could go through what you did and not land on the other side needing a lot of time a lone to sort out your own thoughts and feelings.

It used to be you said aloud whatever was in your head, almost any thought or feeling, even if no one was around, you talked to your many imaginary friends, to your dolls Rebecca and Jenny, to the muppets on Sesame Street, to your books, to your baby sister, to your mom who was so angry and scared and lonely, to your dad who was so distant and lost, you were all voice then. Words were some of your best friends. You were not afraid of the world yet — you had no reason to be. You kept your mouth open, stuck your tongue out, and tasted. I feel you in me still, so hungry and curious, unashamed, easy to laughter, open to the world. I bring you with me when I go into the garden, hike through the redwoods, let minnows nibble on my ankles, learn anything new. I am still so grateful for you.

NaBloPoMo #3: rewriting the broken story

(All right, November — I see your challenge. No problem. So we won’t do a post every day this month. But we’ll still have 30 posts. So there.)

Last night at Fearless Words, for our first prompt, we created a list of myths and stories that get told about survivors (for example, that we are weak, asking for it, too needy, too emotional, not strong enough to just get over it, brave and strong all the time, not good enough, dirty, stupid, and so on…) Then we talked back to those messages —

We had fifteen minutes. Here’s what I wrote:

Survivor is a story, one we create ourselves, one we buy into or not, one we step into or out of, just like woman is a story, or any other identity label is a story. Our culture tells us what “survivor” means, and if we don’t look like the porcelain victim doll that gets held up as an example, then maybe we are not that thing after all. Survivors are broken and brave, ruined and victims and always at least partially to blame for their abuse — right? Isn’t that what they say?

But that gets underneath my skin, tears at me, sets my teeth on edge — especially the language of broken, damaged, ruined. I hear those words for us all the time, from outside of our communities (Law & Order: SVU anyone?) and from inside, too — we internalize what they are saying about us. We take on all the parts of their story about us because we so badly want to belong. But I don’t believe we are ruined or stained or broken. I do not believe that our souls got warped or that we are somehow made wrong by someone else’s acts of violence and violation.

(And anyway, why does that story not penetrate the rapist, the violator? How come they are not called broken? Ruined? Untouchable? What if the script got flipped?)

We are called broken because once we were property — and a raped female (child or grown) was less valuable on the marriage market. Our literal commercial value dropped once we ere no longer virginal — and so we were ruined, and someone else’s action against us caused us to be punished.

We are not broken. Our souls were not murdered. We ached and felt lost and scared and were not protected the way we needed to be. We may have even felt like part of us died when we were violated — but we did not die. We lived, whole and human and resilient and strong and terrified and lost and in need (as all humans are in need) and weak (as all humans are sometimes weak) and stuck and then not stuck and then stuck again and then…

Our whole selves, even the most hurt parts, persist in us. We are not broken. We did not die. We live.