Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Life in 10 Minutes

Ten minutes is long enough to uproot your life, get caught in a storm, drink a cup of coffee, memorize a child's face, wash a sink full of dishes, recite wedding vows, fall in love with someone you shouldn't, eat a sandwich, remember a dream, call an old friend, sketch a figure model, read a chapter, listen to your favorite song, get on or off the train that will change the course of your life forever. Ten minutes is enough time to write something strange and beautiful and true without editing the strangeness and beauty and truth out of it. We all have ten minutes, many times a day, so it’s hard to come up with convincing excuses—even to our secret innermost selves—why we don’t. Ten minutes is everything we can't fit into a Facebook status, it’s slice of life, short-shorts, a Polaroid picture, a poem, a prayer.

What stories from your life can you write in 10 minutes?

Join me and writers from around the world as we write our lives, 10 minutes at a time.

Monday, March 9, 2015

10 Ways to Tell on Yourself

1. Tell everyone you meet that you're writing a book so that over the course of 20+ years of starting, stopping, starting over, throwing the whole thing out and starting again you'll feel accountable to the entire world and just keep going! Even when you're broke and everyone thinks you're insane!

2. Confess your deepest, most humiliating secrets to a sponsor in a 12 step recovery program because she promises that you will eventually stop destroying your life if you do. 

3. Practice writing the truth of your life in your most private journals, even when doing so forces you to relive in great detail certain episodes from your very recent Jerry Springer/Greek Tragedy past. 

4. Start actually sharing your stories, first in intimate groups of other writers and then in slightly more public forums, like, say first person columns on the internet. 

5. After 5 years of writing and teaching writing, when you are a) completely overwhelmed by all the stories you want to tell, b) blown away by the stories of your students and c) have recently been informed by a psychic that if you want to become an international bestseller you should launch a new website that will create the structure for your book, the answer's simple. Try everything else first. Feng Shui, essential oils, vision boards, diets, procrastination, bargaining, cleaning, pleading, self help books, prayer AND THEN launch your new website. Ask for help and be blown away by the quality and kindness of help you receive. Watch with wonder as your new site creatse the vessel you've been looking for to sail your writing and the writing of those around you for the last 10 or 30 years. Pinch yourself as it becomes something beautiful. Receive submissions that make you laugh, cry and praise Baby Jesus. Wonder what took you so long.

6. Feel like you are featured in the New York Times Book Review when the arts & culture editor from the local alternative weekly where you worked for years asks for an interview. As soon as he calls, forget everything you wanted to say but say some other things instead. Flush with pride when you appear in an article called Writing Flashes. Think, "at long last I know what Oprah feels like."  Check THAT one off your bucket list. 

7. FREAK OUT when you learn you won an award for which you will have to get your picture taken. Dry heave. Cry. Call all your friends. Listen as they talk you back from the brink. Have a good laugh when your husband says "well, maybe you could just stop thinking about yourself." HAHAHAHA! What a comedian! Pray that one day you can just stop thinking about yourself. In the meantime, take your pastor friend's advice. When the camera shoots, concentrate on what's inside instead of what's out. Pray that one day the two will come together and that you can just keep telling on yourself and asking for help until they do. 

8. At the award;s ceremony, stand on stage with women in heels and well known names, with make-up and money and prestige and feel your place as one of them, not better or worse, but as a woman devoted to her craft with both a lot of luck and a lot of determination, come hell or high water, rejection or failure or boils and frogs with sporadic health insurance and no guarantees, who has continued to tell on herself, to turn herself inside out, to search for her truth, one layer at a time. Cry as they call your name. Read your acceptance speech and feel, at least for that day that you wouldn't have one single thing about your life any other way.

9. Begin reading and transcribing 30+ journals no matter how badly you want to scream, sob, or make a large sacrifice to the Gods of Giving Up as you do. Keep reading even as you squirm from the discomfort of seeing yourself in black and white. Watch as the narrative arc, the internal structure, the plot line that carried you through- both your journals- and your life- begins to unfold. Recognize the incomparable beauty of the truth.

10. Keep telling on yourself and asking for help. Ditto, repeat. Keep telling on yourself and asking for help. Doing this doesn't guarantee you will become perfect or that it will be easy or that you are home free, but I do believe, if keep doing this, you are well on your way. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

PROMPT: Right Now I Am

Stolen from a coffee shop in Prague, 1995; Rediscovered while de-cluttering my study, 2015.

PROMPT: Right Now I Am. At the beginning of every creative nonfiction writing class I teach, we start with the prompt, “Right Now I Am…” We write for 10 minutes- nonstop- until the timer goes off. This is our imperial and holy dumping ground. We slough off the week, the day, the hour before when we couldn’t find parking, when we fought with our mothers, when our hearts broke again, when we heard the song on the radio that made us think of home. We write to get current, to get centered, to arrive. We write to process our day and our week, as a chance to see what’s we’re thinking and feeling so we can move forward with what we want and leave the rest behind. We use this ten minutes as a fireman’s hose, cleaning out the crowded gutters of our thoughts, packed in tight with dirt and twigs and sticks and the abandoned mobile homes of birds who’ve long since moved out. We empty our minds onto the page and in so doing, generate the prompts for what we will write about next. Sometimes we write gorgeous perfectly timed essays that tie up succinctly with a bow when the timer goes off. But that’s not usually the case. Usually we come up with a raw, messy, incoherent string of unconnected thoughts that miraculously pave the way to what we didn’t even know we were thinking, what we didn’t even know we needed to uncover. Sometimes this leads to poems or short stories or blog posts or the beginnings of memoirs or novels. Sometimes it’s just about the process, the holy act of slowing down enough to move our hands across the page.

What follows is a sampling of my own writing from the four classes I taught this week, Monday through Thursday. I have edited lightly in my translation from journal to screen, condensing in a few places, reinterpreting in a couple of others. But by and large, what you see is what I wrote in class.  As part of my commitment to allow my writing to breathe rather than to bury it, to trust my voice rather than edit it down to one measly scratched out word after another, I offer it now to you.

What would follow if you wrote "Right Now I Am..." and kept your hand moving for the next ten minutes?


           Right now I am ready to pack it in, to quit, to hand in my final letter of resignation. Who needs another writer, anyway? There is just so much HBO. Plus, I’ve discovered the frozen dumpling aisle at Tan A. There are so many good shows and so many warm blankets. Wouldn’t it be nice to just enjoy life rather than constantly vomit it up and study the contents? Would I get bored in a few weeks? Would I im-or ex-plode from the complete and utter lack of self examination? Well, I’d like to find out. Sign me up. Let me rot in my own decadence. Wretched excess. That was my tagline in my late teens and early twenties, only then I was talking about men and cigarettes and velvet dresses and whiskey. Now it’s flannel pajamas and frozen pork dumplings with ginger sauce and Flight of the Concords streaming on HBO to Go.
What I’m saying is I’m afraid I’m capable of letting the beaurocracy and red tape of life blot out all of the meaning and joy, especially if it must be done without any more fancy cheese on a Monday morning when suddenly one must also wear pants. Why dear God, I ask, standing before a spreadsheet that unformatted itself once again, am I here? Is this all performance art? Can it possibly be enough, to write ten minutes at a time, twisting down through my soul and up out of my brain like a gigantic Q-Tip or those things that clean the spit out of tubas? I could roast on pleasure but I have to slow cook joy. I’m not sure if I’m still heading in the right direction or if my cows have all died in pasture. Tonight, I put the key back in the ignition.
What I’m saying is I must write to stave off a life of endless gluttony and sloth. Writing makes me quicker. It makes me start to answer my own questions. There is someone inside me who knows me so well but can only speak her mind when I pick up this pen. Wouldn’t it be nice to occasionally shut her up and turn the TV on instead? The true answer is, not for long. I would die of loneliness if I didn’t spend any time listening to the me inside of me.
Over the break we finished the floors and painted walls and I spent 3 intense, emotional, hard work days de-cluttering and cleaning out my study—photo albums, clothing, journals, stationery, knick-knacks, office supplies, CDs, cassette tapes, video cameras, a rat’s nest of random chords, filing cabinets packed with ten years of evidence that yes, we did pay the utility bill (eventually). I even got rid of a bag of bags! I hauled load after load to the Goodwill or the dump pile around back, the agony of separation only mildly less intense than the agony of togetherness. Since my room now has a floor smooth and clean enough for yoga and a window seat bare enough for my body and a candle, I have felt infinitely closer to my writing self, which is infinitely holier- and scarier- than before.  


            Right now I am shockingly nervous, even more so than the first night of Jewish cotillion when Roxanne’s mom got us perms and I was taller than all the boys except for Ezra who later went to Harvard and became a lawyer and now of course we’re Facebook friends. Why am I so nervous? I’m first-date nervous or aa nervous as the time I posed naked for a painter and on the way home bought a Family Sized bag of BBQ potato chips. How much of it did I eat? The whole thing? I’m more nervous than at the gallery show when I hung naked on the wall, not just for one person, but several dozen and here it is: because in that case I could see just what they were seeing. In this case I cannot. Am I the terrified first grader who got cobwebs in her hair standing against the brick wall at recess or the twenty-something who had to walk the line and recite the alphabet backwards even though I only had two screwdrivers, officer, I swear. How many did I really have? Six? Eight? The whole bar? It was always too many and never enough. Or, am I the woman who has begun to befriend pastors and priests, to speak her truth above a whisper? Am I nervous because I forget what I know, even what I can’t un-know, what was born in my marrow? Maybe because unzipping words can be more intimate than unzipping dresses and there is no way to rely on yesterday’s ambition, yesterday’s bravado. Red cheeked and trembling, I wish I were cocksure.


Right now I am thinking that a shower is a baptism and Planter’s Peanuts are communion and this English Breakfast tea must be the blood of Jesus because I sure am feeling born again. A little bit of energy has returned to the corpse that rolled out of bed this morning thirty minutes past the alarm, missing the boat on morning ritual once again. In AA they tell you that you can start your day over any time, so today starts again now, though the fire that chased me here has gone out. Not to say I can’t start a little fire of my own in a Kroger Sandalwood candle but the burned down house I wrote my way through so madly has been rebuilt and now I just want to live in it.  I’ve been fantasizing about never writing again but I know that fantasy, like every other fantasy, is unsustainable. The “I’d Be Happier Just Living Not Writing” fantasy. It’s like saying “No, really, I don’t need to lift my legs anymore, I’m fine just sitting here, completely immobilized.” And at first it is but then the pins and needles set in and you’re considering amputation when all you have to do is stand up on your own two feet. So I write and the fire inside fans, not wildly, but enough.
As I contemplate a more regular writing schedule, the “What Ifs” are battling the “I Can’ts” at a standoff with the “Who Cares” and “Why Would Yous” and all of the other combatants on the Isle of Complacency. I am betwixt and between on my travels to the Land of Commitment. What if I fail? What if I mortify myself? The already answered questions resurrect again from the dead. You’ll look a fool. You’re just like an obese alcoholic at an AA meeting the gym the first week of January and then by week two, POOF! You’ve evaporated.


Right now I feel like I’ve woken up in my tent alone after a long, hard, dreary night to a bright, clear morning with a galaxy’s worth of blue sky and with a big ball of rising sun. And while I am thrilled for the break in the weather and the clear view of the footpath ahead, I’m equally terrified it will all be blown the fuck away. Because weather is fickle like that. Surprise! Tornadoes, monsoons, avalanches, depression, reality, ugly men and weak, watery decaf in the forecast ahead. Oh God, NO! I have to soak up everything good and right and true I can get my greedy hands on RIGHT NOW, carpe-fucking-diem, because yes, this too shall pass. The perfect weather I woke up to is a re-dedication to my writing process, a commitment at a deeper level to the writer who has lived a million years inside of me, sometimes an honored guest, sometimes a hostage tied up, starved and gagged in the basement. Why hello beautiful, brilliant, brave writer woman I said to myself this morning (although I didn’t really say it, I wrote it) and I felt so free! So righteous! So ready to launch and be brave and take all the risks and write all the things. And then nothing actually happened other than breakfast and a little tiny visit to my dear old friends in the land of doubt. “HAHAHAHA!” they said. “This will never last! You have HBO and frozen dumplings! COME BACK TO US!”  But my hand has touched closely on the pulse of something real, something burning, this commitment. Are you all in? I ask. Are you willing to go deeper with no guarantees, at no matter what the cost? Now all that’s left is to pray. And write. And pray some more. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Warts and Awards

8th Grade Creativity Award, 1989
Theresa Pollak Award, 2014

Warts and Awards: One is an embarrassing blemish and the other makes you feel  really special. But which is which?

Winning an award is wonderful and horrible, amazing and awkward. It makes you consider all of the awards you have not gotten that your friends, neighbors, colleagues and other people who are better/prettier/richer/smarter than you have. It makes you wonder if you actually deserve the award you did receive or if you're really a skilled fraud that has managed to fool everyone in an elaborate game of make believe. My son illustrated it this way: "You didn't get an award mom, you got a WART!" And actually I have had a whole lot more of those. Not only did I recently have to ask the Kroger pharmacist where the wart remover medication was after not so subtley scouring the entire store without success, a few days later I accidentally applied it as chapstick. 

So, while I am truly honored to have received a Pollak I'm probably going to have to wring my hands over it a little while longer, vacillating between feeling like the best person who ever lived and the worst. In the meantime, I'll try to remember what the hell I was up to in 8th Grade that landed me the magnificent trophy I recently unearthed in the shed, pictured above. I sure was creative at being a hormonal, angst ridden brand new teenager who announced to her mother she was ready to get her own apartment but couldn't apply eyeliner to the correct part of her face. Personally, I think I should win an award for winning two awards exactly 25 years apart.

Monday night I received the beautiful drawing with my name on it (above) after delivering the acceptance speech (below) that got me surprisingly choked up. Because as I prepared for my two minutes of fame the amount of love, support, belief, encouragement, collaboration and connection I've experienced and received in the last 2.5 decades is definitely something to celebrate. And I won't be going to the pharmacy to try to get it removed, further embarrassing myself in the process, anytime soon. 

Thank you so much to the nominators, judges and Richmond Magazine for the honor of this award. I must admit, my first thought after receiving the initial email from Harry letting me know I’d been selected to receive a Pollak, was Holy Expletive! Look at me! I am the Explective Expletive! Followed closely by “Geeez, too bad for Richmond Magazine...they must be pretty hard up to scrape out the bottom of the barrel like this” but that train of thought shows a lot more about how my brain works than the nature of the Pollak Awards.  Because the truth is some truly amazing and beautiful things have been happening in the Richmond writing scene for people of all ages, not because of me but alongside me. The Writing Room, Richmond Young Writers and the adult creative nonfiction workshops and retreats wouldn’t begin to be possible on my steam or sweat or imagination alone. There’s an embarrassment of people I’d like to thank individually and collectively for helping me create and sustain a small but rich pocket of the writing world here in my hometown. My beloved Richmond Young Writers partner Bird Cox (with a shout out to her new baby Ferris who threw up on my shoulder just this morning), my husband Stan who can do everything I can’t do and loves me anyway, my son Henry who redefines creativity for me every day, my rock steady bohemian parents and far flung family, my above average looking friends with high IQs, the writing, reading and bookstore community in Richmond at large and Ward Tefft and Chop Suey books in particular and last but not least Richmond Magazine for never failing to select inspired content- even- or especially when I’m a part of it. Thank you all.

And thank you to Harry Kollatz, Jr. for the beautiful article in Richmond Magazine. I can now cross "being compared to a Tom Robbins' heroine" off my bucket list.

Photo Credit: Sarah Walor, Richmond Magazine, October 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

A Welcome Address to Young Writers


If you are a writer you may, once or twice before, have had a thought like this:

Writing sucks. I suck. My writing sucks. It’s too hard. I will be judged. I will be made fun of. If I write the truth I will be ex-communicated, disowned. If I write everyone will KNOW. Besides, everything has already been written before. Who cares what I have to say? Do I even care what I have to say? What’s the point? What can I DO with my writing? I’d rather be reading. Or eating. Or picking my nose. I’d rather be making money, even 10 cents an hour scrubbing vomit off the floor. I need to update Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Ellio. Only my mom will ever read what I write and she will only compliment it because that is in her job requirement as my mother. I don’t want to live a lonely miserable life and die a lonely miserable death. I don’t want FAILED WRITER inscribed on my tombstone.

If you have ever had any version or iteration of these thoughts…CONGRATULATIONS! You are a writer. And the amazing thing is, just as you have the power to use words to convince yourself of all the reasons why you shouldn’t write you also have the power to use words to remind yourself of all the reasons why you should.

I write because I want to find out what I think, how I feel, why I believe and who I am underneath the makeup and the clothing and the skin. I write because writing is the best revenge and the best way around goodbye. I write because it’s is a vehicle for feelings that didn’t want to take the train. Writing is talking in a more colorful version of black and white. I write because it’s the grown up version of passing notes. I write because I’m tone deaf and I can’t sing but I want to be heard.

I write because I’ve found that even the littlest, weirdest, most obscure thought in my head, once written down, is somehow universal. I am my own scientific laboratory, testing ground, petri dish, experiment, lab rat, not only for how I feel but for how others feel, too. I am the universal I, the big and little me, the hole in the donut and the whole donut, perfect in my imperfection, unique just like everyone else. I write to fit in and I write to stand out. Like Lord Byron says, if I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad. I write to feel better and to feel anything at all, good, bad, beautiful, horrible and so on, forever. 

Here are some answers to the question Why Do You Write? by 2014 Richmond Young Writers, ages 12-16:

I write because my pen holds the secrets of the universe.
I write because I don’t always like the endings of books.
I write because I don’t always remember everything.
I write because it’s a beautiful distraction from reality.
I write because it helps me express what spoken words can’t.
I write to bring characters to life.
I write to get things out of my head.
I write because I am capable of having an infinite number of ideas.
I write because no matter what else happens in my life, writing is always there.
I write because there are words flowing through my veins pleading to get out.
I write because I am the person I want to be when I write.
I write so I can see the world through someone else’s eyes.
I write because I am so manyy different people and so many different stories.
I write to give the voices somewhere to go.
I write because I cannot yet see a whole new universe.
I write so I can move everything from the tallest mountain to the tiniest speck.
I write because I can create and control an entire world.
I write because I like being able to go back and see how I used to think.
I write because it's a way to express myself when I don't feel like talking. 
I write because I feel like I'll explode if I don't pour my words out on paper.
I write to expose evils and celebrate the beautiful.
I write to share what I know and ask others what I don't.
I write because I can immerse myself in a different world. 
I write because writing helps me remember that there's life beyond high school and technicolor dreams beyond the black and white world.
I write to let my feelings out, even the ones I don't know are in me. 
I write to find a way to face emotions. 
I write because murder is illegal.
I write to make people understand why I am the way I am.

Why do you write? What does writing do for you? What can you leave on the page that you don’t want to take with you? What do you bring to the page that you didn’t even know you had? 

And now, for a small inspirational game of Mad Libs (as completed by the young writers of the October 18, 2014 Ad-lib/ Mad-lib/ Surrealism Workshop)

Once upon a time there was an (ADJECTIVE) spicy child named (PLANET) Venus who wanted with all her heart to grow up to be a (PROFESSION) sewage worker, just like her favorite character and role model, (CHARACTER IN A BOOK) Darren Sharp. Even though she had to study (SUBJECT IN SCHOOL) math, (VEGETABLE) children, (PART OF SPEECH) prepositions, (MADE UP WORD) wockets and (SOMETHING HORRIBLE) mothers they read every (NOUN) dragon they could and practiced (VERB) skating whenever they had a spare moment. Even though lots of (ADJECTIVE NOUNS) slimy windows told her it wasn’t practical and she’d never make any (NOUN) racicoriphalatiroisous, she did it anyway. But then while it was (WEIRD WEATHER) cloudy with a chance of meatballs, (SOMETHING WEIRD) life happened. A (IMAGINARY CREATURE) jackal penguin appeared out of the sky just like in the movie (MOVIE) Princess Bride and began to dance and sing (SONG) Never Gonna Give You Up as if what she was doing mattered more than anything else in the entire (PLACE) library. At that moment Venus had an epiphany and began to (VERB) smell. Who cares what anyone else thought or said, even if they said (COMMON PHRASE) it’s raining men, Venus could still follow her dreams. She ended up writing (NUMBER) Pi (GENRE) horror steam punk even though she felt (EMOTION) curious and (EMOTIONagitated. It didn’t matter because she listened to her (BODY PART) belly fat. She was so happy to have created an original (ART FORM) swordsmanship that she yelled (SOUND EFFECTeekcjreohwaerhohwheowed all the way home!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Shack Martha Stewart

The other night when I got home from teaching, ready for bed and bad TV, my husband started to sand the kitchen ceiling. From my position under the covers I could see white specks of sheet rock begin to coat the pots and pans hanging from their hooks, the stove top and burners (minus the one that had caught on fire that we’d thrown into the back yard the night before), the baskets of apples my son and I had picked at the orchard, the cat food, the coffee maker and every other conceivable surface within 100 feet, including Stan himself.

I got up for a bowl of store-brand granola with expensive organic whole milk (which I will not be entering in the food journal I stopped keeping last Friday) and padded across the plywood floor we let our son draw on with a sharpie until we get our REAL floor- that mythical unicorn of bourgeois renovation I’ve heard plenty about but am not sure will ever actually materialize. My footprints were visible behind me as if I had just tracked across a pristine sandy beach on a tropical island. I poured my granola, resolved not to say a word and pretended instead that we live in the out of doors. On a beach. In a snowstorm. God forbid I impede progress.

Because our house—like our mental health and our marriage—is nothing if not a work in progress. The front porch, living room, backyard, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and tool shed all under different states of construction. Merge this with my thwarted longing to craft, an allergic reaction to cleaning, a deep inner desire to hostess and an almost primal urge to feed people and make them feel at home—even in a home in which I feel at turns like a queen and the beggar on her knees outside the castle.

Recently, in one of my 12 step groups, I sobbed, “I want to get it all together but I just can’t! Everything is such a mess. I feel like Shack Martha Stewart!” A friend suggested I start a new line of items for the home available exclusively at the Dollar Store. I-Tried-to-Clean-But-Couldn’t-Air-Freshener. Too-Bad-We-Only-Have-Four-Places-To-Sit Placemats. Whoops!-I-Burnt-the-Hell-Out of -Dinner-After Dinner-Mints. I could even make Turn Your Hovel into a Home DYI video based on scavenger hunts through the attic for art to hang on the walls and the arrangement of potted plants almost guaranteed not to die. Truly, they do wonders. We named ours Plant A, Plant B and Bob.

Because I don't want my shame and confusion about how to run a home and be a mother while having a full-time life and a slew of creative projects stop me from ever letting anyone into the house again, I feel I should go ahead and set the record straight now.

If we invite you over you may have to sit on the arm of the ratty leather couch we found a few year's ago. You may get snagged by a booby trap and fall into the dungeon with the child-sized spider crickets. I might serve you the plastic baggie of poop brownies I inadvertently invented 4th of July 2013. Nothing you see will match, is probably second hand and may even be broken. If I apologize for the state of our house I am breaking my New Year's Resolution to stop apologizing for the state of our house. Because more than likely you did not come over to be awed by my ability to mop. Chances are you are more interested in connection and conversation than a shellac of cleanliness. It could be that you like strong coffee in a mismatched mug even if chaos and clutter reign around us. I just have to keep remembering that.