A Tale of Cataclysmic Stagnation

I just clicked on a blog post for writers wherein the author listed the most popular books to read if you want to write. Scrolling the article, my mind responded to each suggestion as follows:

Got it

Read it

Hated it

Loved it

Borrowed it

Just bought it. Returned it.

Then I wondered, when did my inner dialogue begin to sound like Grumpy Cat (God rest his soul)?

Last night I was sitting in the chair where I sit and think quietly, one of my favorite things to do. This is an activity completely different from meditation, wherein one tries not to think, utilizing all manner of tools and techniques to invoke the serenity of the infinite within the confines of the human condition. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

That is not what I do when I sit and think quietly to myself. I stare at a wall and ruminate. I allow the flotsam of past failures to froth the edges of my mind like filth and foam on a shoreline. I tilt my head and remember an idea I once had and quickly forgot, resolving to write it down so I’ll remember this time. I don’t write it down, I forget it again. It must not have been that good of an idea.

Last night, whilst sitting and thinking quietly to myself, I remembered a day in the fourth grade, upon which I hear my favorite and most loathed sentences within one directive; “Class, we’re going to do a creative writing exercise.” Oh yes! Thank you Mrs. Glisten! “And we’re going to break up into small groups of four.” Also Mrs. Glisten, go f*ck yourself.

The fact  that I remember that teacher’s name and the kid who ruined my school year should give you ample information about the fourth grade. Kerry, long silky black hair and chipmunk cheeks that are not as endearing as the chubby nut cubbies adorning the visage of her rodent counterpart. Her eyes are so dark brown they are black and she has an earnest expression that won her the title of Hall Monitor. I imagined her taking the special hall monitor sash home each night and ironing it before lovingly hanging it on the coat hook beside her monogrammed book bag.

Just to get you up to speed, I didn’t have anything monogrammed, my cheeks weren’t chubby – I was just fat, and I was the kid the Hall Monitor monitored being late to class because even in the fourth grade I didn’t do mornings.

Alas, she was one of three other kids in my “small group” writing exercise. We turn our desks to make a large square with two pairs of children facing each other over the hieroglyphic-like carvings in the pseudo wood surface beneath our open notebooks. I am ready. I’ve dealt with PE, science, dehydration, the indignities of math including the insult of fractions I may never get over, an inedible lunch and a remarkably delicious juice box containing no less than ten percent fruit juice. I have earned this moment.

The school store sold those mechanical pencils with the stacks of re-loadable lead so there is always a sharp point. I relish the clear, smooth lined paper and the glittery cylinder of the pencil gleaming in my plump hand. I am already thinking something in a rain forest setting, as I look at the white board and regard the brainstorming outline with dubious curiosity. I’m not sure it’s going to be helpful, but the assignment is kinda based on using it, so there is that.

I am not kidding, it looked almost exactly like this:Image result for bubble outline brainstorming

Seriously, where did Mrs. Glisten find a brainstorming map on the internet in 1990?

I do not remember the other kids in our group. I think they were boys and participated at the level Kerry and I were willing to allow had we not gotten ourselves locked in a cataclysmic stalemate. You see, I think a rain forest would be a great setting for our story and she has become stricken with writer’s block. She is holding her head in her hands. Her rosy lips, shaped like two skis leaning against each other under her nose, pout in such a way that begs for drool. Her black eyes glisten as she stares at the page beneath her. This is the first time I have ever seen a person go into a trance.

I’m like, “Whaaat?” If you know me in real life, you should know the face you might recognize as accompanying this question has not changed since I was in the fourth grade.

“I have writer’s block.”

My ears go back. “What?” The “t’ is hard now, like I staunched the flow of more words behind it.

“I have it. I can’t think of anything. I’m blocked.” You know, you must be a writer to have writer’s block. The little smart ass, showing us all what a good writer she is with her block, before we even have a chance to begin our story.

“Well, I thought of opening our story in a rain forest…” I thump my unmarred eraser on the blank page.

All for naught my friend. Kerry is so committed to this writer’s block that she stares at her paper the entire time and the boys act scared, like this is one of those feminine hysterics they heard about in the opening monologue on The Arsenio Hall Show.

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in the fourth grade. I actually wanted to write as soon as I knew that there are people whose job is to compose those things I loved so much; books. On this day in the fourth grade, I learned I do not suffer fools well (unless, clearly, I am dating one) and that my well for bullshit must have dried completely up back in the first grade when Mrs. Jordan made a great big stinking deal about differentiating the enunciation between “pin” and “pen”. I can still hear her, god bless her Yankee heart, every time one of us chillen from Alabama said “piyun”. I think she should have been grateful we could differentiate between a pen and a Q-tip… but I digress.

That day I wrote something about a rain forest; there was a monkey and a unicorn and I wrote about the sky. I remember Mrs. Glisten taught me a new word that day, vast. It was a more interesting, more writerly, word than the one I’d used. I liked it. I allowed the boys some input and Kerry shrank and withered beneath the weight of her writer’s block. As always, I was just glad when the school day finally ended and I could get on with my life.

I do not have writer’s block. I have had moments in which self-doubt stalled work so dramatically there are still skid marks across my laptop from the speed with which my story came to a halt, but that’s just getting too much in my own head. I have ideas, but implementing them isn’t my strong suite. This, I believe, is genetic; I’m working on it. If I were a smart cookie, I’d do some writing practice a la Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones. I’d go for a walk, I’d write anyway, if I may borrow from the now famous advice of Stephen King, “Writing equals ass in chair.” Sometimes I just stare at the wall. Eventually I make my way back.

Of all the books on writing I have read, some of which were pretty good, those are the two bits of advice that help me the most, and not just in the realm of writing. You must practice writing with the same focus, and mad devotion that you approach spiritual practice (Natalie Goldberg) and you must show up for it every single day (Stephen King).

These authors are nothing alike, as far as I can tell. I don’t actually even read Stephen King’s work aside from his book, On Writing (as far as horror goes, I’m more of an Ann Rice girl myself, but to my knowledge she never wrote a book for writers). Their success doesn’t look the same, either. But they are both unquestionably professional writers, which by my estimation means that writing is their only job – my litmus for success BTW. Writer’s block be damned.

 

 

 

 

No Show November – On The Other Side of the Up-Side-Down

I like to get into the Halloween spirit just like any other witchy thirty something, but wanted to watch something besides Hocus Pocus for the hundredth time. Just because I watched every single Saw movie doesn’t mean I like them. I prefer a whimsical Halloween; I like my Halloween movies to have a certain amount of glitter, humor, romance (Practical Magic, anyone?) or be old enough to be considered a classic – Carrie.

Netflix has been telling me for a year that I need to watch Stranger Things, but I wouldn’t listen. I was too caught up in The Adventures of Merlin and Frasier reruns to take a gamble on something new. That, and the preview for it looked like a spin-off of TheTwilight Zone and X Files, neither of which I like to watch after dark or alone.

Well, about two weeks ago, smack dab in the middle of October, I took a chance on episode one of Stanger Things. Oh, goodbye forever! I felt myself getting sucked into the television like that kid in Poltergeist. The first night I watched three episodes.

I am not a t.v. person on the regular. I have been known to quit dating a guy whose idea of a good time was watching the director’s cut with extras and cast interviews. I hate that. That’ll damn the relationship like Akasha and her vampire offspring in Queen of the Damned.  Boy, bye!

After two nights of Stranger Things season one, I dreamed I was in Atlanta desperately trying to find an Eckerd Drugs because I needed a special make-up kit. In this dream, I faced all manner of dangers, a monster I never actually saw, a dark alley and a Walgreens, but no Eckerd Drugs, which was a popular pharmacy in the eighties.

After I woke up and figured out I was at home and still without the much coveted make-up bag, I resolved I’d give myself a few days away from Stranger Things. That night while I was watching episode seven, I gave up. A week later I was driving home from work and saw a man walking his dog and the first thought that came to mind was “Demigorgon” (for those of you not bitten by this venus fly trap, that’s the name of the show’s monster). I was in deep.

By the time season two was released on October 27th I did manage to go to work, but beyond coming home and feeding myself, that’s about it. I watched three episodes unapologetically. Y’all I went off the rails with this show like at Thanksgiving when I have the pumpkin, pecan and sweet potato pie all on the same plate and look around waiting on someone to say something. I went off the rails like on my birthday when I get out the soup tureen so I have a bowl big enough for my cake plus ice cream.

During this haze of consumption I felt conflicted, not unlike when my sister and I would get our hands on the newest season of True Blood on DVD and succumb to the hilarity, humanity and gore that show produced. I’d think of all the things I ought to be doing, like knotting that super amazing jade mala I put on yellow cord, for instance, or doing something – anything – with the third draft of my novel.

I just didn’t feel conflicted enough to do anything about it. Finally, by the seventh episode of season two, I convinced myself that this show is so good it’s like doing research on good story telling and that binge watching it is, in fact, going to help my writing career. Yeah, I had it that bad.

Now I’ve seen every single episode and am content and satiated with a subtle longing for more – exactly what I hope to offer my readers one day, so maybe it was good for my writing career, like studying character development in Witches of Eastwick. 

While I was wondering what in the hell I am going to do with my life now that I’ve seen all the episodes, contemplating even getting back to relative normality, I considered the looming NaNoWriMo fast approaching. “National Novel Writing Month” is the entire month of November where writers are challenged to compose a fifty thousand word masterpiece in thirty days.

I have no intention of hopping on the NaNoWriMo bandwagon this year, I have enough problems of my own right now with the third draft of a very not bad novel looking forlornly from the corner of my big ‘ole desk. I don’t need the drama of two novels fighting, it would be like Freddy Versus Jason around here!

NaNoWriMo did give me an idea, though more related to No Shave November; by the way, this year I’m participating. By mid-month it’ll look like I’m wearing cashmere leggings.

No Show November is a challenge to not watch a show any night of the week. No new shows, nothing hot off the press from Netflix, nothing I’ve got on DVD, not even the news. This also includes YouTube, Instagram videos and infomercials unless you must watch any of the above specifically for work or study. For instance, if Sahdia teaches the hagala shimmy in belly dance class and I manage to forget how to do it before I get all the way home, then bet your bum I’m going to find it on YouTube, however, this does not mean I’m supposed to watch two hours of Belly Dance Superstars Live at the Pyramids.

So I’m going to start No Show November today. The idea of this might make you feel kinda tense. It does me, too. I like to have the television on, even if it’s on the radio station. When I knot malas, I sometimes like to have it on a Disney movie, depending on the vibe I’m working on. I like to watch a program with dinner. This challenge might have to be amended along the way, but I am curious what the first week will be like. I don’t want to feel like my novel is, in fact, the never ending story, so I’m going to use all my free time from No Show November to see if I can finish this incarnation and at least get to draft four. I’ll periodically remind myself this isn’t forever but just a little mental detox.

Wish me luck and join me if you want to. If you do, I’d like to know how it goes for you and in what you would like to invest your new found free time. Good Luck. The challenge starts now!

 

Vintage Word

If you have not read Night Circus yet, I suggest you put your tablet down and go buy it. Get yourself a nice paperback copy, it feels nice in the hands. Be sure and clear your calendar, you’re not going to be available for a while. When you’re finished, come on back.

I was so enamored with the book that I looked up the author, who is almost as interesting as her work (would that someone would say that about me one day!) and her website does not disappoint. I am curious about authors who have crossed the rainbow bridge into the world of publishing, and in particular the author of Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern.

Because she is a good person, she has a page on her website for aspiring writers. You see, she was an unknown who was published by cold calling agents and editors (le sigh). I’ll have what she’s having, thankyouverymuch. I figure she knows what she’s talking about, even if she is a fly by the seat of your acrobat leotard kinda girl.

In her post on writing she says that she writes on a program called Scrivener. Well, obviously I need that, too. Right? But I have written on Microsoft Word for so long that it stands to reason it’s best not to waste time teaching old dogs new tricks, or more accurately, a sassy nearly middle aged cat who isn’t interested in learning anything new.

I pecked and searched my way through quite a lot of my first draft before my computer broke. It wasn’t sudden, either. I got to watch it wither and wilt with periodic spasms and death rattles. Damn the machine! I was in a frenzy to save this long drawn out document that may one day be my retirement from all of the jobs (except the ones I love, and I’ll leave it up to you to guess which ones they are).

I go get myself a new computer with no little whining about having to learn a new operating system. The worst part, I think, is getting accustomed to the new keyboard. It never feels just right until all of the sudden it does. When that moment arrives, good luck if you have to change again; old dogs and all.

I saved my stuff online with great displeasure. I am dubious of online storage things. My precious work, the words over which I labored and have not yet brought to conclusion, what if it ends up in the wrong hands? What if it is pirated? What if it is somehow spoiled or abducted by sand fleas and made to perform in small tents?

Then it occurred to me that I have plenty of content I put on the internet on purpose and very few people read it. I can’t drive traffic to my blog, and I’m worried someone is gonna go and pirate something I’ve written? Are they somehow going to go and get famous with work I can’t hock for free? Doubtful.

So, I started writing on a word processing program and I actually finished the first draft. I wasn’t happy about the way the word processing program felt, much like the new keyboard. The program didn’t have formatting up to my nearly professional standards (standards which I only discovered moments before my previous computer ceased its operations). This online writing program felt hollow and I knew it was a short term relationship, not unlike a passionate and combustible love affair.

Today that manuscript and how to proceed has rattled around in my mind. How to enter the next phase of editing? The Apollo phase, I like to call it. My nerves can’t take another moment of this online program, it’s too blank and generic. The obvious answer is to do what Erin Morgenstern did – write on Scrivener.

This program is confusing as hell. I’ve tried to learn it in the past and concluded it must be an operator error. There are sticky notes, cork board applications, there are even little digital push pins where you can hang your ideas and stuff. In the event you, Reader, and I have met in real life you know that I only have so much tolerance for fancy technologically advanced stuff and by my estimation there isn’t much more advanced stuff than digital pushpins and internet cork boards unless we’re talking intergalactic travel, in which case that might be more advanced.

I went running back to Microsoft Word. I’m not sure why I waited for so long. It came pre-installed but not activated on this new PC. Maybe I was trying to be different, technologically advanced or a good protege of Erin Morgenstern. But I just now put Word on my computer; it is offline and pretty much just the same as it was on my old, long lost computer. I swear even my keyboard feels better with my characters dancing around on a familiar word processor, not that my characters dance much. I will tell you that they don’t do too much yoga, either. I add this because folks are sometimes under the impression that I must be writing some sort of treatise on yoga or other advanced spirituality themed work of inspirational aphorisms.

Nope. It’s fiction and it’s ready to get the second draft treatment. I feel like someone should start the Rocky theme song. Ding. Ding.

Jaded Primitive

I am doing a Mary Oliver sadhana (practice). I totally made it up, but I like it. I like Mary Oliver.

I remember being in class with Laura at Dragonfly Yoga Studies, where I did my 200 hour yoga teacher training. I was one of my first few classes with her in late October before the January training began. Class was hard and intense and I believed that if ever there was a human who could help me become an effective yoga teacher, it was Laura.

I felt insulated and regimented in the hour and fifteen minute class, in which she played no music or tried much of anything fancy, just deep and real instruction. I learned to lean into the discipline of the practice and found satiation there, even with the open wound I carried around with me, my heart still tender from a loss.

She read a poem as we went into savasana, which Mukunda Stiles calls relaxation and absorption pose. Typically known as corpse pose, I stretched out on my back and felt the heaviness of my body rest into the Earth. I felt wrung out from the practice, but also lustrous on the inside like I had been polished in some important way.

The poem she read, In Blackwater Woods, tore through me like a million tiny stallions breaking free of their pens. I had never heard of Mary Oliver before that poem cut channels to my heart from the hard rock shaped by life….

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment…

I felt myself crumbling a little bit when she enchanted the poem over us. Then she began to chant some mantra I had never heard in my years of self-study. It rang through the room and burst through my eyes. She walked around smearing essential oil on our heads like a priestess anointing initiates.

…Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.

I remember the feeling of her fingers, coated with lavender essential oil, pass through the tracks of my tears. I needed this poem and the poet, too, who took me to the edge of lying down and allowed me to bow deeply to my heart.

It is six years later and I have learned that Mary Oliver is one of the unofficial poets of the yoga community. New teachers come along, fresh like I was when Laura held me in her voice, and are smitten by the imagery of this artist’s work. I began to feel like a cliche, at once moved by something that is old hat to the disenfranchised. I watch new teachers make the same discoveries and wonder how I didn’t see myself, silly and new, falling in love. I sometimes feel the rigormortis of cynicism stiffen my mind that rested so easily in corpse pose those years ago.

The Mary Oliver practice is one I devised to brighten my practice of writing and mindfulness. Her work is one of the mysteries, nature and something primitive the mind isn’t advanced enough to understand. Her poetry silences thoughts not unlike Rumi or Ramprasad, but different.

Since my perspective of teaching yoga has changed in the last few months and so has my perception of my other work, like writing. I finished a longer work of fiction which I am allowing to “rest” as Stephen King suggests in his book “On Writing”. Six weeks is the minimum length of time one should step away from the story before attacking it for the second draft.

I’d just gotten my legs back under me to finish this book, which has absolutely nothing to do with yoga, by the way. I’d hate to lose momentum, especially since it’s so damn hard to gain through the discouragement and loneliness of writing.

The Mary Oliver practice consists of writing a poem a day for 40 days. The poem is inspired by something I encounter that lends itself to a feeling, memory or insight. When you see the moon, dear reader, what do you see in your inner landscape, illuminated? When the band of merry raccoons dance around the pool, who are you reminded of? Make a poem out of this.

A poem a day doesn’t sound like a lot, but try it. It is an art of discipline and creativity which are the ingredients necessary for gaining and maintaining momentum, both of which are necessary for spiritual practice as well as artistic endeavors.

If you would like to practice with me I would love to see some of your work – post your poetry in the comments if you’d like to share. If poetry, observation and writing practice bordering on Zen aren’t your thing, you might like to participate in NaNoWriMo with me this year… but more on that later.

In Blackwater Woods

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

–Mary Oliver (American Primitive, 1983)