Creating the Judgment-Free Zone

morningPages
Standard

A year ago I decided to write morning pages. I’d read a blog post that guaranteed my writing would change if I started this simple practice. The post recommended writing three pages a day, front and back, handwritten. No cross-outs. No going back and fixing what you’ve written. I added one more rule for myself: I couldn’t write about what I planned to do (in other words, no “I need to remember to write that post for my She Writes blog.”) Everything else was permitted.

I’ll admit to picking out a really tiny journal to make sure that I would make my goal. And while another must-do for the magic formula was to write these three pages first thing in the morning before doing anything else, as the mother of three children and two cats, that would never be a realistic goal unless I was away on a writing retreat. My compromise was that the writing had to happen sometime between when waking and sleeping and it had to be done before I began my “real” writing—the work that I am consciously shaping and revising.

Usually new writing habits are difficult to integrate but once I realized that my writing didn’t have to be coherent, topical, or even legible, the practice was surprisingly easy to incorporate.

I wrote every day, three pages front and back, except on Christmas (I only managed a page and a half). After a year I’d filled up sixteen journals.

“What do you get out of this?” a friend gently asked.

It took me a moment to figure out the answer.

Sometimes I mull over a question or theme that I’ll write about during my actual writing time. (How did my husband react when they told him our newborn babies would need surgery? What does it feel like to dance on stage?) Even though I never refer back to my journal, just jotting down stream-of-consciousness thoughts helps me organize them later.

Sometimes I play with ideas that I’d never tackle seriously. Like science fiction worlds in which aliens invade our bodies and give us the ability to go back in time. For example, back to November 8th. It’s mostly silly stuff. But the point isn’t to write compelling fiction. The point is to write three pages front and back.

Some of my sentences aren’t even grammatically correct because I’ve started writing before the thought is fully formed. That’s okay. I keep writing. Or I start over mid-sentence without correcting. The point isn’t to write well. The point is to write.

And while sometimes I do find a turn of phrase that I’ll use later or conjure up a poignant memory, the biggest advantage is that for three pages, I write without hesitation or second-guessing.

There are other pieces that I write, revise, and incorporate feedback. For example, my memoir SPINNING: Choreography for Coming Home, which I’ll self-publish in the fall through Moxie Road Productions, just went out to a seventh pair of eyes.

But my daily three pages are a 100% judgment-free zone. It’s not writing that will ever be evaluated or improved. It’s like my version of a sand painting.

It’s completely freeing to write knowing that the goal isn’t to be better. The goal is simply to do. As long as I write my three pages, mission accomplished.

Spinning the Story

Version 2
Standard

The first time I wrote about the NICU (other than in emails to family and friends), it was for the NICU Testimonial binder in the Alta Bates Family Lounge. I knew I was writing for other preemie parents and so I squeezed every silver lining out of our three-month NICU stay. The way I spun the story, you’d think we had spent that time in a hotel, not a hospital.

I emphasized the friendships we’d made with the nurses, doctors, social workers, security guards and parking attendants. When I talked about the birth of my micro-preemie twins, I gave just the facts: born at 25 weeks and four days, weighing just over a pound and a half apiece. I didn’t talk about how I tried to find strength through stoicism and its polar opposite, bad jokes.

The NICU staff had offered a lifeline of support to my husband and me, much more support than I’d received thee years earlier when my full-term daughter had been born, I insisted.

The more I wrote, the more I shared my words with others. I submitted my essays to online magazines and writing conferences. At my first writing workshop, I proudly presented an essay outlining how I coped with micro-preemie twins who needed around-the-clock care for their first months of life.

“We want to see you be emotionally vulnerable,” chorused the writers in my group. To them, my words were an essay that needed to be shaped and sculpted to fit and hit certain storytelling marks.

But for me, it was my life. I couldn’t admit that I was emotionally vulnerable. That would mean acknowledging how small and fragile my babies had been. It would mean facing the long list of ailments and disabilities that my babies could have had—or might still have. At a year-and-a-half old, my twins still had developmental delays. Just thinking about it felt like a pitch-black fist grabbing at my gut.

Listening to the comments of my colleagues brought me back to the NICU, the way I’d been 18 months earlier, standing over my twins’ isolettes, watching the numbers flicker on the monitors. Wondering if the boys would stabilize by themselves or if they’d trigger the alarm. Never sure what the long-term impact of their prematurity would be. Before I knew it, I was sobbing in front of twelve people, who, just a week earlier, had been total strangers.

“I’m sorry,” I sobbed, chewing on my lip. “I just realized that the NICU was really scary.”

“Of course it was,” said the workshop leader, a novelist who herself had had a baby in the NICU.

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking around in a daze. From time to time I would remember a certain detail—the cinnamon smell of the soap in the family lounge, the teddy bear magnets with all the babies’ names on them, the hum of the breast pump—and it would take me right back to the NICU.

And then a curious thing happened. I began to notice sounds around me. Birds chirping, crisp footsteps, the whistle of wind. It was as if to block out the gravity of the NICU, my brain had stopped listening to the world around me.

From then on, when I wrote about the NICU, I added what I saw to how I felt. Now, in addition to describing the nurses who had carefully arranged tubes and wires so I could hold my babies skin-to-skin, I also recalled my nervousness and my doubts. When I found just the right words to describe my memories, the fist in my gut would loosen. Being honest with my feeling and being authentic in my writing was actually a comfort, like those pastel blue scent dolls I used to put in the boys’ isolettes.

Seven years later I still bite my lip when I think about those early days. My stomach still flips to think about the texture of their skin, so thin and papery or their squawky cries when I had to put them back in their beds. But I also think about the moments before the cries—the warmth of their tummies, the smell of baby boy in the whorls of their hair, their tiny fingers clasping mine—and the images dance together to complete a picture of hope, fear, uncertainty, and love.

Metaphor or Advice?

Standard

img_0687At the beginning of the month I went to the Holy Grail of women’s writing residencies: Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island. I leave three weeks later (plane takes me home tomorrow). I have managed to stay off of social media (unless you count joining Instagram and friending five of the women I have gotten to know during my stay).

Everything they say about radical hospitality is true. I started out in Willow cottage but roof repair necessitated a move to the Meadow House, and here, in the quiet of my loft desk, I have completed a draft of my next book. I have read books—plural! I have walked around the lagoon and talked to bunnies and slugs. I have discovered quite a bit about the silence of the mind and untapped potential of an unscheduled day.

I have learned how to build a fire. I have discovered that I make terrible coffee. I have also discovered that I will drink terrible coffee if it means not having to leave the cottage.

Here’s some other stuff I’ve learned. Is writing advice or is it metaphor? You be the judge.

 

You don’t have to stay on the path in order to find your way.

Sometimes a fire doesn’t burn until you leave it alone.

The red thermos holds three cups of coffee.

Take time to feed the llamas.

Take baths. Take naps. Take walks. Take the cookie jar if you are hosting.

When you step on a ladder from a lofty height, don’t look down.
When you are climbing the ladder, don’t look down.
When you are descending, it doesn’t matter so much
if you are looking up or looking down.
It only matters that you have a firm footing.

Not every recipe is in the cookbook.

The puffy llama doesn’t want the fruit you have to offer her.
She just wants to snort at you.
Don’t take it personally.
The other llama is not so picky.

Fire needs to breathe to live.
Sometimes kindling and a little air is enough to reignite the flame.

Hedgebrook is the place where you fall out of your routine
in order to fall into a rhythm.

Big flames don’t always carry a lot of heat and they burnt out quickly.
Those orange-hot embers, on the other hand, will cause other logs to catch fire
And will keep you warm through the night.

You don’t have to finish everything on your plate.
You can even throw it away.
After all, making yourself eat more than you can handle is also a waste.

Don’t pay attention to the smoke.
Well, sometimes you should pay attention to the smoke.
Especially if you left a towel on the wood stove.

Sometimes the flowers you cut bloom.
Sometimes they die right away.
Sometimes they have bugs.
Dead flowers have their own picturesque beauty.
Buggy ones—less so.

Burning your manuscript as kindling is fun, but newspaper is more effective.

Even Hedgebrook makes chocolate chips cookies
from the recipe on the back of the Nestle Tollhouse bag.

Vito isn’t making it up—you really can see Mt. Rainier on a clear day.
It will shine there a hundred miles away, iridescent pink and glowing.
And once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
You can see its outline in the clouds.
You can feel that it’s there.
This is how you will be when you leave this place.
What you need is already inside of you.
Even if you don’t believe it.

P.S. Don’t kill Gloria Steinem’s spiders.

W is for Writer’s Block

Standard

WWhen April 26th rolled around I didn’t have a blog post ready because I was exhausted. The book launch, the parties (oh! the parties!), Easter and visiting family had squeezed out all my words and by the time we got to “W” I had nothing left.

And though I kept writing and working on my book project, I just couldn’t bring myself to go back and finish those four letters in the A-Z Blog Challenge.

But last week, in an impromptu meeting with some Write On Mamas during which we talked about platform-building, I made some goals for myself. One of which was to finish these last four letters. That and figure out my purpose in the blogosphere.

This morning it dawned on me that part of what I enjoy about writing my book is that the audience is so far away. Just as when I was on stage—the audience is waaaaaaaaaaay out there. They have no real input. They react, sure. But that’s at the end. After you’ve done all the work. Most importantly, you are under no obligation to respond to their response.

But a blog is a dialogue. People comment (or worse! Nobody comments!) and a good blogger responds to these comments. I don’t mind the dialogue that happens on Facebook. In fact, that’s what I love about Facebook. But then, the big difference there is that I know who I am talking to. It’s a friend. Not that I don’t mind responding to a commenter who is also a stranger. But if feels sort of fake. Particularly through the A-Z challenge, which is meant to drive traffic to your site and guide you to other blogs—more and more I just felt like I was commenting for the sake of leaving a comment and not because I had something meaningful to say.

Then I felt like I was following all these blogs for the sake of having followed them, because that’s how you build a platform, right? Like adding to the din instead of focusing on a message.

So I stopped blogging.

U is for Unwanted

Standard

UI have an entire collection of unwanted words. Paragraphs that are lovely out of context, but just don’t fit in the essay I’m working on. Or maybe they’re too complicated to fix.

So I post them on my other blog, the one that posts to Facebook but to which one cannot subscribe, the one that’s just for getting stuff out there. And they sit. “Adopted Darlings” I call them, a play on the misattributed quotes that encourages writers to murder what they love.

It works for me. The unwanted words get a home and a tag. By themselves they’re like clouds that float by. The kind that seem to serve no purpose.

R is for Raccoon

Standard

RA little story from back when I’d use writing prompts  to write about a gang of raccoons. Prompts are in bold.

What are we going to do about all this noise?” said Mama Raccoon.

“Who cares?” said Papa Raccoon. “I hope the crash woke up those pricks. Who leaves rotting wood around just waiting to break under the weight of a guest?”

“Ow,” said Baby Raccoon.

“Well, at least let’s call for backup,” said Mama Raccoon.

And Papa Raccoon tweeted to the Raccoon Hooligans of the Outer Sunset. “Come help us stir things up.” He tried to add the address and cross street, but it went over 140 characters. He switched it to “place with the old poodles.”

The Hooligans must have been in the neighborhood because they tumbled into the yard within the half hour.

“Holy shit!” said Rocky Raccoon.

“Criminittly!” said Ricky Raccoon.

“Duuuuuuude,” said Icky Raccoon, who was stoned from eating some leftover pot brownies he’d found in a composting bin on 48th and Ochoa.

Rocky shook his head.

“What happened?” he asked, looking at the clutter of driftwood on the back porch.

“Well, we was crossin’ over this doorway here when Baby Raccoon plum crashed down to the ground. We thinks these shit heads rigged something up on purpose.”

“Honey, don’t swear.” Mama Raccoon nudged her husband, who returned her look with a hard gaze that said, “Dear, these are the Hooligans. We must speak their language if we are to earn their respect.”

Mama Raccoon must have understood Papa Raccoon’s telepathic message because she fell silent.

“Let’s get even!” shouted Ricky. He was the hothead of the group. “Where’s that old dog?”

“Not so fast, Ricky,” said Rocky. “Don’t underestimate that dog. He may be old, but he’s got bad air, that fellow. Blind you with his farts, he will.”

Sometimes Rocky spoke like Yoda when he was trying to manage the Hooligans.

“Well we gotta do something quick like. I just got a tweet from the Ass Kicker Raccoons of Richmond.”

What were you doing in the 80’s?” Icky had shared some of the pot brownies with the rest of the gang. They were reminiscing in the shadow of the silvery moon. It had been a productive night. They had knocked over a table on 48th, grabbed some grub from some trashcans on Lawton, and frightened some lost tourists who’d ridden the N Judah to the end of the line.

Now they sat around the cinders of a beach bonfire. The Ass Kickers had joined them and Delilah, the meanest she-raccoon this side of Virginia, had put some weed on what was left of the fire. Not bad for a Thursday night.

“In the 80’s…” Rocky leaned back on his haunches. His voice grew nostalgic. “My grandpappy worked this neighborhood in the Inner Richmond. Near Lake and 9th. There was this one house with a German shepherd and a pit bull. The German shepherd was mean. She’d guard her territory. But the pit bull—they called her ‘Pinky’—was kind of sweet. She was one of those confused domesticated dogs. Those were the days when there was a Zim’s every twenty blocks. Great fried zucchini sticks. And Super Subs. Remember Super Subs on 20th and Geary? They mispainted the sign and it read ‘Suba’ instead of ‘Subs?’ That was a great place, too. The Alexandria was kickin’. Always popcorn out back and the kids who worked the sanitation shift were always too stoned to close the dumpsters outside. That was a great time.”

“Dude. You’re only six years old. You don’t know nothin’ ‘bout the 80’s. You don’t even remember Web 1.0,” said Delilah.

“Well, neither do you,” Rocky said, a little too defensively.

Q is for Questionnaire

Standard

The idea to have a questionnaire in the anthology came indirectly from my sister-in-law.Q

Ten years ago my parents retired as teachers. Between the two of them they had taught high school English for about seventy years. My sister-in-law sought to contact as many former students as possible (no small feat, as Facebook had not been invented yet) and asked them to write letters to their former teacher. We put the letters into a binder for my parents and presented it to them at their retirement party.

I thought I knew this side of our parents—nurturing teachers whose students would visit after graduation, even coming to the house for dinner. But I didn’t know the scope, the breadth and depth of the effect my parents had on their students that was so clearly remembered so many years later. Some former students had gone on to be English teachers themselves. A few even became writers like my father—citing him as their initial inspiration.

Later that summer, Matt and I were getting married and since everyone offers wedding advice to young, unmarried couples whether solicited or not, I thought I’d give our guests an official forum through which to dispense their wisdom. Our questionnaire asked married couples simple information such as where and when they’d gotten married as well as asking them to reflect on the best parts of the ceremony, reception, and honeymoon.

We learned that one aunt and uncle were married in Chicago the day after Kennedy’s assassination and that another had been married for 47 years—nonconsecutive. We learned that my brother was not the only groom to loose his wedding band on his honeymoon.

The responses were arranged into a reading for the ceremony. Totally recommend it for the next time you get married.

So picture this—the Editorial Group is at Bittersweet and we’re looking through our manuscript. It’s good. We like it. It’s a little short but more than short it feels incomplete. We’ve got a great thing going with the group. It’s special, but in a way that should be ordinary. So many of us shared similar struggles when we sat down to write or as we sent our writing into the world. Similar, yet unique.

We thought, why not ask our contributors, “What keeps you in the chair? What makes it difficult to prioritize writing? What’s the biggest surprise you’ve had?”

I can’t tell you the answers, of course, that would be cheating. You’ll just have to buy the book to find out for yourself.

(Plug, plug, shameless plug.)

E is for Epositary

Standard

EYou know, you can only write so many blog posts before you start making up words. I probably should have buried this lead and let you believe that “epositary” was an actual word meaning “to eposit in an official capacity, as in The new epositary brought a stinky lunch bag to the cafeteria.

Or maybe it could mean “one who states the obvious as in, The old epositary told the new epositary ‘Holy shit! That’s a stinky lunch!’

Maybe it’s an ancient Roman senator.
The epositary dropped his toga by the gladiator’s stinky lunch bag.

Or a chess position.
When you make the knight an epositary of the queen, checkmate is certain.

Maybe it’s a place for stinky lunches.
Please put all smelly refuse in the epositary in the back of the cafeteria.

That’s all I got, folks. Here’s hoping that F is a better day. Now what starts with “F?”

B is for Bittersweet

Standard

BIf we were to chart my writing in Set Theory, there would be the set of all things written at Bittersweet Cafe and the set of all things not written at Bittersweet Cafe.

I suppose you could also chart my writing in terms of the set of all things written in Mary’s living room and the set of all things not written at Mary’s living room. But I have known Bittersweet longer than I have known Mary. Maybe that will be my “M” post.

I’m not sure how any writing is accomplished without the aid of chocolate, which is far easier to come by than your own office at a chocolate cafe. (As a matter of fact, I am writing this in an airplane—in February, as it turns out, instead of April, which is not the point and yet I’m going to leave that in anyway—where I am happily typing away and eating chocolate.)

I’ve heard that writers (as well as eccentric actors) often didn’t have phones but instead could only be contacted through the telephone at their pub of choice. OK—I made up the part about “often didn’t have phones,” but doesn’t that sound about right? Back when all the writers were drunk white guys who didn’t want to go home. You know, the Jacks: Jack London, Jack Kerouac, Jack Handey.

I always order a spicy hot chocolate. If it’s morning, I’ll order granola and yogurt to go with it. In the afternoon, I’ll take a tea cake. If it’s a Friday, chances are Mary and Joanne are there, too, eating chocolate gluten-free zucchini bread. If it’s a Tuesday, I’m at the other location, where I can get steel-cut oatmeal with dried coconut and cranberries.

Wednesday afternoon I’m with Chiara and she gets the smallest drop of hot chocolate allowed by her hypocritical mother (poured into a demitasse cup usually saved for shots of espresso).

The day of the week also tells you what I’m working on. On Tuesdays I meet with Rachel and write about the twins. On Wednesdays Chiara I work on the next installment of Violet and Ruby. If it’s Friday I’m working on the anthology with Mary and Joanne and if it’s any other day, I’m obviously working on my addiction to chocolate.

A is for Anthology

Standard

AThe other night I had a dream. Someone from our writing group said to me, “I think I have an essay for the anthology. Is it too late to contribute?” In the dream I said, “It’s not too late at all!”

And then a dragon with a head that looked just like me came over and bit off the head of the person who’d told the other person, “Yes.”

I have no idea what that could mean.

The idea to put together an anthology came from the desire to kill a flock of birds with a single stone. Our writing group had just reformed with a new name and a new yet-to-be-determined home.

It would be nice to have a project that pulled the group together, I thought.

Many of our members were writing overviews or bios or applying for grants and wrote about the stories behind their memoirs or novels. The stories were riveting.

I want to read a whole book of these! I thought.

And of course, our members who were writing memoirs and novels were also building platforms.

Publishing a book is daunting, I thought. Wouldn’t it be great if we pooled our work?

So I said, “We should self-publish an anthology.”

That was two years ago. I realize now that what I really said was, “I’m going put together an anthology! And I’m going to bug all y’all until it happens.”

The moral of the story is that you need to be careful what you propose. You might end up with 29 essays and 25 contributors, a fabulous foreword from Kate Hopper, the gentle-but-anal copyediting services of Cary Tennis (that was weird to type but I suppose that all that is anal might as well be gentle, too). You might end up with a really close editorial team. Your writing might get a lot better from reading the writing of others’. You might learn about publishing industry and Kirkus reviews and how to read the fine print at Amazon.

And you might end up with dreams that you could still do a little bit better.

Look for our book Mamas Write, out soon available for purchase at a website near you.