Tag Archives: writing life

sometimes it takes the heart of a dragon

graffiti of a red heart with veins emerging; inside are the words Good morning, good morning. How’s this day where you are?

I manage to get up when the alarm first goes off before 5. I hit snooze, set the phone back down on the table, put my head back down on the pillow, but I was awake. These words pushing through me every waking: The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you — when did I stop listening?

Outside it’s still dark, the birds are still asleep.

Do I remember how to type this early, type to make my fingers work at just 5am? I’m working myself back toward this early morning schedule, this no one moving anywhere this schedule, this I am alone, free to let whatever words flow that want to, schedule.

The sound of the clock thick in my ears, the one I bought for my little office in the Flood building, the one that kept the pace for me there. That was 10 years ago. In ten years, I rose and fell and disappeared. That’s what it feels like.

I feel outside the thing that time makes of me.

I’ve been reading books in translation — Mexican, French, Brazilian, German — books written in in the 30s, 70s, 80s. What am I looking for except some distance from my own situation, the possibility that other kinds of writing can be acceptable, the possibility that my writing will be wanted somewhere. I’ve had a lot of rejection recently. Since before starting school, I wanted to crack the literary journal market, to try and figure it out. So I send the work out, into the ether, I send it via submittible or email, I study the submission guidelines, write up my brief cover letters, use the same mode and method that served me so well when I was mainly submitting to anthologies, but no one is biting. Rejection after rejection, all form letters, all impersonal, all no.

It’s part of the game, the business. It’s part of what you have to get good at as a so-called professional writer, Jen, is being rejected. I tell myself this over and over, the good parent in my head, the business woman or whatever, the thing that has to sing the song of making sense, but I still get stung, feel less-than, thought that the book being accepted by a publisher meant that something had changed. And of course it does mean that. But I’m still playing by he same rules as everybody else — the rules of subjectivity and vice.

I fill the teacup, I move the candle to obscure the growing light, to keep the room darker longer, I don’t want the morning to rise yet. I just now found the dark I’ve been looking for.

Outside the garden is blossoming, and I am learning its fertility and dead zones, its quiet places, the stuff it hides and how it dazzles. The birds find their way to our feeders and we are getting to know each other. Sophie plays chicken with the wild turkeys, with the jays and crows that want to steal her kibble, with the California towhees that hop around like enormous mice.

I read Helene Cixous’s Coming to Writing, I read Clarice Lispector, I read books originally conceived of in languages I cannot speak. The idea that different possibility erupts that way, the idea that the language creates room for the thought, that there are ways of expressing and thinking and conceiving of the world that I cannot even imagine because I am in only this one language, this solid English brain, and of course even in translation I miss so much.

The depression lifts, moves around, resettles itself within me differently, but while it’s standing up to shake itself off, I can dance a little, I can breathe, I can see things better. I have a little more energy, strength, and manage to send off another submission. Tell myself it will probably be rejected — sour grapes do their work for us sometimes, protecting us from hurt we expect is on the way. The Sun says no; brand-new, just-launching journals say no; Modern Love says no. Fiction, poems, essays get rejected. I send them out again. Sometimes right away, but rarely. Usually I have to tuck in and lick my wounds for awhile. Soak in the self-pity, in the sense that everyone else can get published, just not me, I am doing something wrong. I don’t have the right voice, the right message, the right whatever all the editors are looking for. I know it’s subjective, but seriously: if all the readers who look at a thing say no, is the universe trying to give you a larger objective message?

So then you tell yourself the stories about the impossibly successful books that had to be submitted 10, 20, 80 times. Take a deep breath, just keep going, send it out again.

I take the essays to workshop and am told, Send it out. This is done. I think, it’s been rejected so much, it must need more work. But the feedback is something else. Puffed up, I send it out to a new journal, the one that liked lyric work, experimental stuff, wants to see something new and exciting.  Then the pin in the balloon: No, thanks, we got so many exciting and interesting submissions, can’t give personal responses to them all, please don’t take this as a reflection on your work, good luck to you, la la la. I send the work out to anthologies, contests, judged by women writers I admire, whose work has inspired me, thinking that they will be able to see the thing in my work that those other (straight, white, male) editors have missed. That’s the ticket. More rejection. No, no, no.

I suppose the thing that’s in me right now is that rejection is fucking hard and disappointing and hurts. Every time it’s something personal, it’s something in me, that’s been denied or rejected, it’s something of me being turned back, that’s not worthy of appreciation.

Yes, I know that’s not true. Yes, I remember the rules: We are not our writing, the writing is a separate thing, we are worthy and loveable and good even when an editor says no to our work.

And even as my adult brain tells my writing brain all these truths, still I nurse the ache, and it takes time for the ache to abate enough that I’m ready to send this piece of writing out again.

Some people are able to do it differently. Some people are able to separate themselves from the work, from the writing, their worth from whether or not their words are accepted by anyone else. They have their systems, their lists of venues and publications, their stacks of addressed envelopes (or did, once upon a time, now it’s just an excel spreadsheet with editor’s names and email addresses), and when a piece is returned rejected, they turn right around, open the spreadsheet, make a note of the rejection, highlight the next line on the list, open a new email message and cop in and update the cove r letter, and send it out again. don’t’ let it lie on the desk, literally or metaphorically, gathering dust. Send it send it send it. let it find its way into the right hands.

When you are raised or spend any significant part of your life being groomed and trained to believe that others’ opinions of you are more important than your own, are the most important thing, this rejection part of the writing job is maybe a little more difficult.

It takes the heart of a dragon to do it–to be a writer. Fortunately, we trauma survivors are the epitome of dragon-hearted, we fire-breathing, scale-adorned and jewel-bedecked beings, and when I remember that, I snort a laugh that incinerates the most recent rejection note, then unfurl my wings and take off again. Sit down at the notebook, the keyboard again, write some more, send it off, one more try.

Thank you for those dragon’s wings you wear, for the words you sing as you soar above or whisper as you nestle in your cave. For all the words within you, I am grateful. 

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.