Monday, December 6, 2010

The Holiday Sweater

Everybody in my extended family has a different religion and a different last name. In many ways our motley crew exemplifies the American melting pot, but in other ways we are as unique as the raw baby cocoanut pies with dehydrated seed crusts my mother makes as a holiday treat. We are rife with divorce, remarriage, step-siblings (who have their own step-siblings), in-laws, half-relations and hyphenated last names.

I was raised every other week between a New Age Jewish mother and a once-upon-a-time Methodist father who were both creative in their religious approach. For every Christmas tree of my youth, there was an equal or better Hanukkah bush. I received gifts on both the eight little nights and the one big day. Mid-December meant fried latkes and gold covered gilt, but also Yule logs, eggnog and fruit cake. As a child, the mish-mashed holidays were separated by whatever distance my parents were living apart at the time. I told my friends that I was “half Jewish,” a segment of the population once rare but now growing by leaps and bounds. Because lately the Chosen Few have chosen to marry around.

I, myself, married a Southern Baptist. Our thrift store menorah is displayed right next to our Dollar Store Nativity Scene. One of our ornaments says “Baby’s First Hanukkah.” We string lights across our roof, but I try to limit the color selection to blue and white. Someday, my blonde, blue-eyed son will just as confused as me, but for now he doesn’t distinguish his gifts from the cardboard box they came in.

Still, no matter how schizophrenic our house looks around the holidays, there is nothing like receiving a Christmas sweater from my mother-in-law to set off the identity crisis I’ve only barely managed to keep at bay. Yes, I quoted the Book of Ruth “For wherever you go, I shall go” passage in a pre-wedding letter to her, but I was referencing the Old Testament. I so badly wanted to be the perfect daughter-in-law that untying the white satin bow atop the red and green plaid paper to discover a delicate black knit sweater tastefully embroidered with a deep red flower caused me actual agony.

My own mother’s gifts have always been wrapped in the story of how cheaply she managed to find them. “What a bargain, this one!.... the best little yard sale… oy, my barter club!” But unlike the teddy-bear-spinning-a-dreidel socks from my mother that scream “ironic-kitsch!” my mother in law’s gift was simply too elegant, too understated, too real for me to consider wearing. I worried. Could wearing a sweater endorsing one religion cancel out the other? Does a proclamation of Christmas across my chest make me less Jewish? And, most importantly, can I don a poinsettia and still consider myself “cool?” To leave the house in my mother-in-laws gift felt like a more serious commitment than actually marrying her son. I thanked her profusely and then took the sweater home to hold hostage in my closet.

Finally, in a holiday tradition I can live with, re-gifting, I found the poinsettia sweater a happy home. I did not reconcile all of my feelings about how best to blend blood with the holidays, but I did answer one question. Am I the kind of person that can pull off a holiday sweater? No, I am not. But I am the kind of person that will warmly embrace you while you wear yours, whatever religion- or lack thereof- is embroidered across the front.

Belle Magazine, Dec-Jan 2011
Image borrowed from

Monday, November 15, 2010

Almost Alternative: Navigating the murky terrain between the bohemian and the bourgeois

Being self-employed has a long list of pros and cons, so to tip the scales in the favor of eating regularly, last spring, I acquired myself a mentor. A spit-fire writer in her early seventies, she dishes out equal parts encouragement and criticism, never mincing words although she says she’s like a priest—confessions exit her head as quickly as they enter it.

Recently she called to tell me that she’d finished reading my manuscript.

“You’re a real talent, Valley,” she said, “but the question is, what are you going to do with it? You need discipline! Reading your writing is like racing through a museum with too many paintings on the walls. You need to slow down.” Essentially she was saying that I had something readable that needed to be entirely rewritten. I felt my spirit soar and then flop as it always done when my as yet unrealized potential is held up for inspection.

But instead of balking, I listened. You can’t just pick up a mentor on special at Martin’s. They are hard won. In fact, I feel I deserve special recognition just for having one. A reference to our working relationship really beefs up my self-esteem and my resume, a few short lines after “Waffle House Waitress” and “Food Lion Coupon Distributor.” She went on to quote Gustave Flaubert, who said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

“Get boring, girl!” she said.

I agreed that I would try, but getting more boring than I already am is a task. All of the bohemian types I once knew, like me, now have dental insurance and mortgages. Well, that’s not entirely true. One friend is living in a corner of an abandoned warehouse, another sends me emails about her skinny dipping expeditions in Sierra Leone. But by and large the ramblin’ fever with which I used to burn has been watered down.

While there are many ways that I do live on the edge (I actually don’t have dental insurance), I am, for all intents and tax purposes a wife and a mother living in the suburbs. This is a set of facts I often find difficult to accept, much like Steve Martin who refused to believe he was anything other than a small black boy in “The Jerk.” My once bleached, dreaded hair now gets conditioned and blow-dryed. Sensible crocs have replaced the combat boots and fishnet stockings of yore. I can almost say that I am now more comfortable blending in than sticking out.

To enhance the boringness of my life I could stop going to all night dance parties- but oh, wait, I already did that- twelve years ago when I also stopped hopping from state to state, man to man, etc. But what I could really do, that would have an actual impact on the quality of my artistic life, is not say yes when I mean no. I could silence the phone and disconnect the internet when I’ve carved out time to write. I could make a schedule, adhering to it when it’s the last thing on God’s green earth I want to do. I could slough off the outdated belief that being creative means being haphazard and wild. Because being boring and being disciplined are two entirely different beasts; beasts that must be slain politely and with decorum, in the manner of the bourgeois.

From Belle, November 2010.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Circuitous Route

I seem to be a fan of the circuitous route, even when I try my hardest to adhere to the straight and narrow. Last week for example, I drove back from Petersburg to Richmond via 95 South, 295 North and Route 895--- a highway I didn't previously know existed but whose $2.75 toll plaza moved the term "highway robbery" to the forefront of my vocabulary. Getting home from the county dump continues to mystify me, even though I am perfectly capable of driving directly there when the piles in the backyard are adequate. My father once invented the term "spatial relations dyslexia" especially for me, but I am now trying to use this handicap of perspective to my advantage. Going at things sideways can be far more effective and far more interesting, especially when applied to packing, or art.

I forget the least stuff when I leave my suitcase (or canvas sack, really) in the corner of the bedroom for a 24-48 period of time and then throw something in it every time I walk past. Likewise, leaving word documents up on the screen and throwing words or phrases at them offhandedly doesn't give me that dreaded or (equally bad) overly ambitious feeling of Sitting Down to Write. And too, the books and movies that have left the strongest impression on my psyche never make it from Point A to Point B without scooping up and inspecting C-Z first.

"Out of Sheer Rage," Geoff Dyer's book about D.H. Lawrence is composed almost entirely of asides, completely brilliant in their neuroses. Ross McElwee's documentary "Sherman's March" is everything Sherman, but more importantly, everything but.

I admire linear thinkers, but if I am on the path to becoming one, it is via the most indirect route possible.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Who cares what I have to say?

I haven’t quite answered this question yet, but when memoirist, Phyllis Theroux, hired me to archive 30 years worth of her personal essays, I considered it differently. The beauty and humor with which she writes about cockroaches, having a conversation with an elderly prostitute, not wanting to take out the trash, watching a snake eat a frog, raising three kids on her own and the life of a writer exemplifies the very idea of finding the universal within the personal. Alongside the columns indicating which articles had yet been scanned and filed, I was tempted to create a column for which articles made me laugh, cry or get goose bumps, most of which did all three. Phyllis has an impressive resume- The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Jim Lehrer Newshour, several amazing books, etc. - but even more impressive is her ability to hook the details of her life into the tapestry of the bigger picture.

Phyllis is a disciplined and prolific writer-- two adjectives anyone living a creative life aspires for-- but what I admire about her writing most is its deeper exploration and hence, elevation of common occurrences. Domestic life is not insignificant. Time spent on a train talking to a stranger does not simply vanish. Phyllis holds a magnifying glass to her eye, turning that ragged shard of glass into a prism. Rather than offering you a glass of water she leads you down the rocky, exquisite path to the ocean where she got it from. Luckily for the rest of us, Phyllis Theroux lives- and writes- an examined life. Luckily for my scanner, but sadly for my eager, endless appetite for her work, the files are complete.

Visit Phyllis Theroux's website, here.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Blog this blog!

I am as terrible at blogging as I am at exercise, meditation, folding linen napkins into origami swans and everything else that requires repetition, routine and discipline. Oh well. It's OK. My sporadic nature leaves room for surprise. Or, as my dad likes to say: "Indecision is the key to flexibility."

That's what I tell myself, anyway. Here are a few other things I told myself on my last cottage sitting expedition, where I had three blissful days to write, sun, drink espresso and lounge. Of course, I had the secret mission of accomplishing a whole hell of a lot (write a book), but I couldn't tell myself that directly: it would have been FAR too intimidating. So, as soon as I arrived at that idyllic cottage in the woods, I made a list of 100 things to calm myself down, to sweet talk myself, to sneak up on writing stealthily, through the back door.

1. I don't have to accomplish anything in these three days. This is for my spirit, not my bottom line. If I get lonely or scared or bored, that's OK. If I don't know what to do next, that's OK. If I get freaked out or depressed, that's OK.

2. I'm not getting a grade or a paycheck for my time here. This is not pass/fail. It is just time, to do with as I please.

3. It's really not possible to waste time, right? I'm allowed to spend my time anyway I choose. I can sit in this chair for ten minutes and stare at that tree. I might go inside and flip through the bathroom reading material. That's OK. Right?

4. If I do sit down to write it's OK if I write the wrong thing. Terrible, God-awful things. All manner of shit. It's OK. Obviously, it needed to be said by someone.

5. 34 really isn't that old. It's really quite young, actually. Even if I have taxes and a mortgage and a husband a son, I'm a fucking spring chicken.

6. It's OK if I decide to draw something and it's terrible. There are no yardsticks out here to measure myself against anyone else.

7. I am a very good person. It's OK if I don't type a publishable word on my trip out here. Or ever again. Sometimes, I contribute to society. I have gorgeous eyes and skin. Soft hands. (Often)curly hair. Great curves. Tapered fingers. I have a long neck.

8. I just realized that I like to peel and eat oranges like a wild animal.

9. That laptop in there is horrifying. The files in it are horrifying. It's quite alright if I avoid it like the Black Plague the entire time I'm here, at this gorgeous quiet cabin, perfect for anyone who actually wants to write.

10. I really like dilapidated buildings and outhouses, peeling paint, rotting infrastructures and old wooden spools used as tables like this one I'm writing on now.

11. Lists are very satisfying and reassuring. 1-2-3. Check, check, check. No right or wrong. No need for editing. No revision.

12. My fears and insecurities and shortcomings are not really worse than anyone else's. I'm OK. I'm normal. Hell, the hole in my soul is just as big as the next guy's!

13. No coffee pot, so I'm going to attempt to make my first espresso in 14 years. I melded my last espresso maker together on a stove top in Italy.

14. My greatest fear is not of my lack, but of my power. Attributed to both Marianne Williamson and Nelson Mandela.

15. My other greatest fear is that I'll be deemed unworthy. By people I find unworthy! Emotionally handicapped vindictive narcissists.

16. Actually my greatest fear is that I'll fuck up the espresso.

17. Hot damn, it's delicious! Of course, now I'm ruined for my own lesser coffee. Oh well. That's OK. Coffee's coffee.

18. It's OK that I have an addictive personality. There's room enough in this world, hell, even in Virginia for an addictive personality like mine. More than enough room! Speaking of more, more coffee.

19. It's OK if I bore the living hell out of myself. It's OK if I'm not Anne Lamott or Elizabeth Gilbert or Dorothy Parker or Anna Akhmatova. I have great lips! What did TB say? They'd be sexy if he didn't know me. A-Hole. I do have nice lips. And I have published a few things.

20. It's OK if I never use that laptop again and get carpel tunnel syndrome out here scribbling in my journal. Thumb cramps! A hazard of my trade.

21. My desire to be left alone is tempered only by my craving for people.

22. I'm finally of an age where I've learned how to pack, but I'm still learning how to leave a place like I found it.

23. Actually, some people love me with a vast and astounding intensity. Take Henry for example. He wants me ALL THE TIME.

24. All those places I've been still live inside me, even in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia.

25. There are so many, many things I know absolutely nothing about. Not even enough to be dangerous. Geography? I can't find north on a compass. History? Dance? Art? Music? Politics? Science? Forget it. I don't even know most of the things I'm supposed to know in my own supposed field.

26. Not to mention everything else I know nothing about.

27. My impulse is almost always to talk rather than to write. I'd like to be a professional talker. I'll even practice talking meditation.

28. All of the apples and oranges and carrots I've been eating make me feel like a horse. I want some meat. Chicken. Cheeseburgers. Pork chops. Bacon. A big juicy BLT.

29. The bad news is I don't know how to write about this year without horrifying everyone.

30. The good news is I have a chapter outline.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Motel X, Cabin Y

We all know about the importance of a room of one's own.

Well, I have that- and don't get me wrong- I THANK MY LUCKY STARS FOR IT EVERY DAY- but it does little to infiltrate the boundary-less qualities of motherhood, wifehood, workhood, etc., all of which have little regard for the sturdiest of blueprints or shut doors. And since I've always been a big fan of moving (that is until I stopped completely) I do what I can to create an altogether geographically removed location of my own.

This can be hard when my time is pressed and my budget is zero, but not, thank God, impossible. This past Hannukah I received a $50 Visa card and within minutes to the day, I used it to book a motel room on West Broad. It was less than two miles from my house, so I had to plan everything I wished to accomplish with my 3 pm to 11 am getaway in the less than 6 minute drive. A whole lot of too much- is what I wanted- but I was delighted to give it a try.

I have stayed in some nice hotels in my day, quite by accident, but this one topped them all. The less than glamorous online reviews only made it all the more appealing. "Seedy" someone said. "More a place for lover's trysts than business meetings." Oh boy! Never had I been able to wake up with such an excellent view of the Auto Zone, not to mention the Waffle House where I worked my first job at 16- hired by Bubba Hicks(I sh*t you not); slinging coffee with Doris who smoked through her traech.

Also, I'd invited a girlfriend with similar hopes of accomplishing everything and nothing to join me. I figured she'd keep me on track and off, equally desirable aspirations. We met, on the dot of check-in, laptops and plentiful snacks in tow, giddy with our alone togetherness.

Amazingly, we got work done. We banged around ideas and started stories. We edited. We brainstormed. We ate and we slept. We made repeat trips to the lobby for refills of watery coffee, but that counted as exercise. And even the bad coffee was good: the high water content enabled us to drink three or four times as much. It was luxurious. It was exotic. It was productive. Of course check-out came way too soon. Luckily, I had the long, stop-light ridden two mile drive home to reflect on the thrill of my recent uninterrupted accomplishment.

And also, to begin to dream about my next getaway. No more Visa giftcards have fallen in my lap, but a small miracle has. I have been asked to Cabin Sit for a new friend while she is away for several days on business. Several Days. Several long, empty, rural, (good) coffee-filled days. I might miss the light/noise/air pollution of suburban shopping Hell, but I think I'll manage.

Cabin Y, ready or not, here I come.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

short stack

I am a big fan of short fiction.

As a counselor at a creative writing summer camp, I taught a flash fiction elective I called the Daisy Duke. (Also 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover and Candle Making with Leonard Cohen. What were these kids, 12? Geez.)

In college, I wrote a series of one page stories that as a collection won some sort of prize. Really, though, the titles were more memorable than the prose, most of which I no longer have anyway. Although I struggle more with naming stuff now than I used to, here's a short list of some ancient stories I pulled out of ye-olde file, just for fun:

Little Pig
Manuel Noriega, Manuel Noriega
Friends of the Devil
Girl in Love With Life
When Angels Fight With Poison Ivy
Yellow Popcorn, Yellow Bathrooms and Dreams of Wyoming
Southern Comfort
Invisible Witches and the History of My Name
God Made the Train Tracks When He Was Sleeping
An Exodus in Drowning
The Lips of a Loose Woman
The Whore You Could Never Afford
It's Surprisingly Sweet!
A Shotgun and a Bitch
An Exodus in Drowning
Royal Suburban Girl
Trash Fire
Deliver Me
Love is a Vehicle Like Any Other
The Land of Milk and Honey
Table of Contents
Pretty Little Head

Nowadays, I think these titles are more valuable, to me at least, than any sort of explanation or "story" that may have followed. That's why I am also a big fan of FaceBook status updates. How I love to write just ONE SENTENCE and feel as though I've accomplished something for the day. All that could possibly follow would be dull drudgery (read: writing my book).

In the same vein, last summer I was introduced to the concept of the "6 word memoir" by my friend Anne Soffee, who has written 2 actual memoirs. That are captivating from first word to last, thank God for her, me and everyone, but not every writer is so lucky to have that much good stuff to say. 6 word memoirs, first introduced by Smith Magazine, have made a HUGE splash and I can see why. They are pithy, fun and inject a sense of accomplishment without the accompanying sense of getting chased down, wrung out and hung up like longer prose seem to do.

So naturally I've introduced 6 word memoirs to a few of the creative writing classes I'm teaching to kids at local schools. And they are....AWESOME. From "I am getting an ugly hat" to "Blastoff! Blastoff! Blastoff! Getting boring" to "Get out of my face, dummy" to "Love is my fate, yours too" to "I represent America, and cheese pizza," I am proud of these kids, and a little jealous. They don't worry about whether or not their writing is publishable, or even good, really. They just squeeze out that fresh joy of what they want to say on the page. Ta-da! There I am, in sentence form: newly practiced cursive etched out in #2 on wide-rule paper. Me.

A lesson I will learn from them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Talk Is Cheap

My good friend Darren, a fine and many times published poet gives this advice: "Save it for the page."

My good friend Slash, a storyteller, performer, comedian and writer advises against revealing your ideas before you have actually executed them.

Sound advice, yes. Practical, wise. Advice I am guilty of betraying on a daily basis.

The other day I was at a gathering of creatives who were discussing the difference between extroverted and introverted artists. It seems clear to me that the introverted artist has the advantage. As far as actually producing ANYTHING worth a goddamn.

That is why I am considering pursuing a line of work in Talking rather than Writing.

Please, let's discuss this idea until it is a bloody pulp. Let's hash it out and grind it into the seventh layer of Hell. Let's meet at the coffee shop to talk about it until there's nothing left.

Another friend- a screenwriter and freelance writer working on her first novel-has a fantasy in which she becomes a dental hygienist who wears Victoria Sweatshirts with lots of bling. I share this fantasy with her. It is so lovely, so alluring, so...easy. So impossible.

How nice it would be to go to bed each night without the nagging, ripping feeling that there is still work to be done. Deep, hard, intense creative work. That won't let me rest until it's over and out and framed and complete. A tangled, gnarled web of thoughts and ideas that have to be expressed in just the right way. The write way. The write, elusive way that requires time and space. Not answering the phone or the door. Keeping my body pinned to the chair, my pen to the page, one lip sealed against the other.

Unfortunately, so far, I have not been to keep my own secrets. To shut it down. To quiet myself. For more than a few hours at a time, anyway. That's why I like to write short short stories. Daisy Duke stories. One page per week. One sentence per day. It's tough though, when I get a book idea. Especially a few book ideas. Ideas that sound fantastic. To talk about. To outline. To graph. Honestly, right now I have some really great chapter titles. Outstanding. Pithy. But they are lonely without their chapters. Naked. And as hard and as I try to drown them out, I can't make them shut up.