Monday, March 2, 2015

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train


1)      I just finished reading Paula Hawkins suspenseful novel, The Girl on the Train.  It’s a twisted engaging story set in the suburbs of London.  The story jumps between the points of view of three different women coping with different challenges (mostly, their own unhappiness).   And of course, murder.  Hawkins crafts suspense well.  Her book makes the argument that romantic relationships become dysfunctional when dysfunctional people get involved and don’t take responsibility for their personal happiness—don’t grow together.  I felt a bit down after I finished reading the book.  Mainly because it rang so true—how broken we can sometimes feel in the modern world.  How alienated.  And how the pain we’ve experienced in our lives can make us victimize ourselves and victimize others.  The book doesn’t offer any solutions to this predicament.  It just seems to suggest that this is how things are—that being alive can be a lonely and bitter experience.  As a struggling optimist, I wish the book had included some sense of hope or beauty.  Even the ugliness lacked luminosity.  Still I loved the book’s writing, it’s urgency.  Although no solution was offered, I finished the book thinking…I want to promote healing in the world...I do not want to end up like these people.
2)      Fun Fact:  Did you know that when coffee was first introduced in Western Europe, the Pope at the time labeled the beverage, “Satan’s drink”?

Monday, February 16, 2015

7 things I'm passionate about this month


Valentine's Day is a celebration of love.  I am grateful for the smart, funny, and generous people in my life who support me every day.  And although Valentine's Day is mainly about celebrating love in relationships, I also like to think of the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate one's personal passions.  So here are seven things I'm passionate about this month:

1) Reading Kara Candito's new poetry collection, Spectator.  The poems are spectacular and something to feast on.

2) Watching old classic movies.  This past week I saw Dr. Zhivago & Jane Eyre (the Orson Welles version).  There's something comforting about losing oneself in a sweeping epic.

3) Participating in a female lit book club.  Last week I went to my second meeting, and I felt inspired by the convivial gathering of women.

4) See's chocolate.  I got a box for Valentine's Day, and I was reminded that the things to cherish in life are often the pleasures small.  If there was a World Cup of chocolate, I would definitely be on team See's Candies.

5) Applying Rumi's poetry to my life.  I went to Rumi's Cafe the other day with a friend, and the owner of the coffee shop came by our table and presented me with a collection of Rumi's poems.  He asked me to turn to a page at random and listen to the advice I found there.  The page I turned to talked about letting go of what people think.  It also advised surrendering to love.

6)  Coffee.  Drinking it, reading about it, taking pictures of cups.  I drink my daily does with a dash of French Vanilla, but I'd like to find a new signature cafe drink (like mocha or latte) to order when I'm feeling fancy.

7) Minimalism.  I'm passionate about creating a life that is simple, light, and spirited.  There is always something to do (chores to complete and lessons to plan).  But I'm trying to simplify everything--from teaching to writing to living.  I believe less is definitely more.

Monday, February 9, 2015

three things


1) I threw out over fifty books this past week, and now one of my bookshelves is completely empty.  I still have dozens of books at home and in my classroom at school, but it seemed like a big deal to purge this time around.  I got rid of so much, and the feeling has been both liberating and confounding.  I have realized that it takes a lot to let go of things because books, like clothes or articles of jewelry, evoke our connection to different time periods in our lives, and in giving these things away, we give away parts of ourselves.  I mean, the memories are still inside us.  But the anchor is gone.  And it's a poignant reminder of how all we really have is the present moment.  In the present moment, I am working on a story.  And at times I resist the impulse because it feels like too much work.  In life, it's so easy to get stuck.  Here we are, moving along, and then suddenly every step feels uphill.  So it's natural to want to take a break or turn around.  It's hard to keep walking.  But I guess it's easier to walk if you have fewer things to carry.  This is why, despite the sense of absence, I'm glad I got rid of those books.

2) I'm having poetry writing cravings.  At times, I think, I want to chuck my story aside and just write poem after poem without the burden of crafting a cohesive narrative.  I want to meander through a forest.  I want to find a metaphoric way to connect my spleen to the sunset.  Prose, from the point of view of poetry, seems to lack something sacred.  Yet it feels good to be working on fiction and building a world.

3)  Cyanide or a snake venom?

Monday, February 2, 2015

9 things I did this week to feed my creativity


I'm at work on a book.  It's a psychologically dark story, and I'm about 100 pages in, which is both daunting and exciting.  I love diving into the task of writing with a cup of coffee in hand.  But writing alone is not enough to keep the novice at the keyboard.  I need to feed the impulse by doing things that are not writing.

Here's a list of ten ways I fed my creativity this past week:

1) Baked a blueberry lemon pound cake.  I want to write about characters who love to cook (and eat) sweet things.  Cooking helps me stay grounded and reminds me that in order to create something successful, I have to balance the right ingredients.
2) Gave the story I'm writing a twist by including some historical detail.  I have realized fiction is a space to give voice to my obsessions and better understand them.  It's also a way to learn and teach.
3) Talked to a friend of mine who's a journalist, who gave me some feedback on how crime reporting works.  I am interested in talking to people in various fields to deepen the characters and situations in my story.
4) Watched the movie, Chocolat, on iTunes.  When I see things that inspire me, I wonder, how would I describe them in fiction?  Sometimes it helps to think cinematically.
5) Posted a pic of my green typewriter on instagram.  I realized that we can all use writing totems, so I'm going to keep this typewriter on my desk.  Maybe I'll even give it a name.
6) Listened to a cafe country music mix on spotify.  Listening to music is like reading poetry.  I hope my subconscious picks up the rhythm of the sounds and words I hear, so I may develop a better ear for writing.
7) Realized I want to color.  I'm no good at drawing, and if I have any potential, I've hardly tapped into it.  But coloring is a way to get creative without thinking to much about content.  It's also a good way to focus on something while I think out plot complications in my story.
8) Made my students free write about their encounters with "strangeness."  I love the word strangeness. And sometimes my lesson plans help me sort out the elements of fiction.  A lot of creative writing is about making the familiar strange, and the strange, familiar.
9) Watched football.  The Superbowl didn't end as I'd hoped, but as I watched the game on Sunday, I paid attention to the different ways players attempted to win or deal with their emotions:  some got lucky, some used strategy, and some tried to instigate other players.  Maybe writing is an act where we compete as well--but with ourselves (our own insecurities, fears, and laziness).  Sometimes we have to employ different strategies to stay on task.

Monday, January 26, 2015

7 epiphanies I had this week


1)  I want to read the love letters of great men:  Watching Sex & the City, the movie part one, I had the idea this week that I want to read the love letters of great men (and/or women).  I think this would be romantic & instructive.  And maybe it would inspire me to write more letters.  Also, it's almost Valentine's Day, so this is the time to read a letter.  Amazon sells a book inspired by the film, and I'm on the verge of ordering it.

2) Plotting:  At some point while writing a fictional story, you have to stop and reflect on what you're actually writing about and where you're going with your characters.  I mean seriously.  Who are these people?  What are their flaws?  What do they eat for breakfast?  I've been avoiding this, but now I'm ready to do this.  Going to draft a storyboard this week.

3) The profound effect of the right new purse:  I bought a brand name purse this week inspired by the character in my story.  I mean, I was channeling her when I bought the bag and I was channeling me when I created her.  There's something so satisfying about carrying a well-made bag that speaks to some magical part inside of you.

4) Baking is alchemy:  I baked chocolate cupcakes last weekend and topped them with home-made whipped cream.  I want to bake a blueberry lemon pound cake this week.  Baking is akin to dancing & therapy.

5) Kindness:  Cultivating it--first toward yourself and then toward others--is the true essence of self-confidence.

6) Walking with Music:  I started taking walks around my neighborhood again after the holiday hiatus, and I've been carrying my cell and headphones with me, listening to an album as I take a stroll.  My boyfriend said it's good to give each walk a soundtrack, and I liked that description.  This week I'm hoping to listen to some country music.

7) Decluttering makes you more stylish:  I love love *love* the feeling of throwing out something I don't need (or donating it when appropriate).  Somehow, it makes me feel chic, like I know who I am.  A year and a half ago, I trimmed my closet by half and started the task of rebuilding.  I want to do part two of this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

why read & write and fiction??


I've joined a women's book club, and last week we met at a cafe in the Valley to discuss Courtney Maum's, I'm Having So Much Fun Here Without You.  Courtney Maum's novel is set in Paris and is a light meditation on marriage, art, and an adult's journey toward maturity. 

A few years ago we started a book club in my family, and it lasted for about four book cycles.  I liked the experience of sitting down with other people to discuss a book.  The conversations would start with the novel and end up somewhere else.  The same thing happened in my women's book club meeting on Wednesday.  We discussed the book, and then we talked about the issues the book brought up.  Although I enjoyed reading Maum's novel, the experience of talking to others about it was more fun.  There were women of different age groups and personalities represented in the book club.  By discussing the book with other people, I was able to clarify my own thoughts on the work.

Reading this book made me think romantically about the art of storytelling.  The goal of a book is to dramatize a world and make it relevant for the reader.  So why read and write novels when movies do the same and require less effort?  There are several reasons I still keep reading books:  I've always found the world of fiction to be a reminder that our lives are both mysterious and magical.  I gain solace by reading fiction, and I find the investment worthwhile.  I enjoy co-creating a book with an author by picturing the characters in my mind (rather than having them presented to me in a film).  I like the spell a good description can cast on me.  Reading a book affirms my faith in things while making me question my easy assumptions.

As a high school English teacher, I frequently encounter students who question the purpose of reading. I try and sell my book-o-philia like I'm selling a car.  I think my job title should be "Used Book Salesperson."  That's really what I do.  And sometimes I wonder if it really matters all that much if a kid goes on to college without knowing Shakespeare or Shelley.  Einstein said that "Imagination is more important than knowledge" and while I agree that our imaginations are where it's at, sometimes it's easier to dwell on fact.  And it can be satisfying to learn know things, to get concrete answers to questions.

Maybe a worthwhile novel is not just the psychological exploration of characters and their motivations--but a place to inform the reader about something as well...a historical event or historical figure.  Maybe tell them about the history of the invention of something.

It's up to contemporary writers to keep fiction relevant
and fresh.  I'll keep that in mind as I work on my story.

Monday, January 12, 2015

finding the time and energy to write


Sometimes it's hard to find time to write!  Also, the energy.  (There, I've said it.  And now I feel better.)

Last week, I decided to start journaling again, and it felt good.  I wrote a couple of entries in a Buddhism inspired notebook.  I listened to Eckhart Tolle's, The Power of Now, on my drive to work.  Breathe, breathe, breathe, I reminded myself.  Tolle's voice opined:  Your thoughts are not you.  But once the semester gets going, the weeks fill up, and I become my thoughts.  Grading and lesson planning take precedence.  Lately, I sit down to write in the afternoons with a mind racing with the chores I need to get done--the students I still need to email back.  And then I'd rather write a poem or a song praising the sunset.  My mind chants: resist, resist, resist.

Someone might suggest I wake up early to tackle fiction writing, get my allotted thirty minutes done in the morning.  But I find this challenging as well because I wake up around 6:30am, and then I begin the 45 minute commute to work soon after.  When I'm tired, it feels like there are not enough hours in the day.  When I wake up, I need a spacious hour to settle into writing, with my cup of coffee in hand, and some instrumental music to keep me company.

Maybe 30 minutes a day is sometimes too much?  Maybe on the weeks I feel tired and zonked, I can make it 15.  Or even 10.  And maybe I need to think more carefully about who, in particular, I'm writing for.  And maybe I should find a writing mentor, even if it's just someone's twitter page to follow.  I think a daily commitment to a project is important.  That much I'm willing to hold on to.  But the creative process, at times, requires some flexibility.

That said, the previous week has had its share of ups:  I saw the Foo Fighters in concert at the Forum on Saturday, and it made me want to shake my head.  I baked two vanilla cupcakes, and felt I successfully handled the challenge of making less.  I started to connect with that voice inside, behind the messiness of things, that keeps saying, you're doing okay...let go.

Monday, January 5, 2015

villains in fiction


The story I’ve been working on the past few months is getting darker than I’d anticipated, and at first I felt guilty about this.  I mean, if I’m going to follow a character around for dozens of pages, I want her to be someone worth rooting for.  I want the antagonist to be fearsome, but not so heinous that a reader might question the author’s sanity for inventing him.  And yet it feels natural to let my characters expose their weaknesses & flaws.  The darker they get, the more engaged I become in the task of writing them.

I’ve read that Stephen King routinely gets letters from readers who are outraged by the villains in his books.  This sort of negative fan mail disturbs me.  I respect King for letting the monsters of his imagination speak.  Moreover, Jung believed that it was important to confront the “shadow” side of our minds because it encourages personal growth.  As a reader and a writer, I couldn’t agree more.   

Writing a villain is more challenging than writing a protagonist.  The protagonist may be flawed, but there are limits to her behavior.  She generally operates from the standpoint of good and is usually the victim.  The villain, on the other hand, must be human enough to be relatable, and perverse enough to do the unthinkable.  A villain is a more complex character than a protagonist because he has more creative freedom.  And to make him real, the writer must put herself in the villain’s mind.

When I was in college I wrote an essay in my philosophy class that argued human beings are essentially evil.  If I had to write the same essay again today, I’d argue that human beings are essentially good—but we have to reckon with our dark sides. We all have demons that manifest in the form of greed, obsession, jealousy or pride.  And for most of us fiction alone provides a playground where these demons may safely come alive.

And of course I’m still struggling with this.  How to write a credible villain?  How to test what the protagonist is made of?  How to keep things real?  I keep asking myself, am I being honest?  Am I being authentic?  Am I letting these characters speak their truth?  Edgar J. Mohn said that “A lie has speed, but truth has endurance.”  This is applicable to both life and art.  I make it a priority to be honest to others, but in the act of writing fiction, telling the truth is more complex because it involves unmasking the lies we tell ourselves. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

spilling coffee on a new rug

Monday 12/29/2014

So this past August, I decided to try my hand at writing fiction again.  In 2009, when I got the PEN USA Emerging Voices fellowship in poetry, I immersed myself in line breaks and rhyme.  To protect my development as a poet, I decided not to write in another genre.  I would just work on poems.  And most of the time, I didn't want to write anything else.  But last year, when I got the urge to write fiction, I wasn't sure how to respond.  I talked myself out of it.  Sometimes I'd type up a few pages of story, and then I'd delete the document because I wasn't ready to commit to prose.  I conducted google searches on phrases like, "writers who write in multiple genres", and I consulted loved ones for advice.  I pondered my feelings about writing while driving or cooking.  I journaled about it.

Then in August I spoke to a writing coach named Rebecca T. Dickson on the suggestion of my boyfriend, who had come across her webpage online.  Talking to her inspired me to give fiction writing another shot.  I told her the truth:  how I'd attempted to write a novel in my late twenties, a book which had taken me several years to complete.  Once I'd finished it, I'd sent it out to a few agents, and when it got rejected, I didn't feel motivated to revise it much.  One of the reasons I wasn't motivated is because deep down I knew the book lacked something important.  Don't get me wrong:  there were elements of it I loved, but it was too thematically driven.  I had a point to make and I used the characters to make a point rather than braving the journey of writing an authentic story.  My characters were affable and accessible, but they weren't entirely honest.  Books have themes, and as a writer, I think it's important to reflect on the "so what" of your work.  But the story comes first, this task of building a world that's not always "pretty."  My first book was too "pretty."  It had characters, plot, setting, and conflict--but it didn't brave ugliness.  I've been better at confessing the truth in poetry.

Since this past August, I've been working on fiction, and I've been trying my best to let the characters do their  thing.  I've written 30 minutes a day for the past four months, and that's pretty much what I do every day.  So far, I've managed to complete 90 pages of story.  I'm still writing poetry (averaging about a poem a week), and the urge to write poetry has ironically improved with writing fiction. I feel the two complement each other well.  Before I began working on this story, I was channeling my narrative impulses into poetry, and it was interfering with my work.  Now I realize the two work different parts of the brain, and engaging in both keeps things in check.  At times it's daunting, and working on fiction has challenged a world view I've kept sacred for many years:  that it's better to write in one genre and make it your home.  But what I'm learning is that rigorous honesty is more important than rigorous devotion to one genre.  Whether in prose or poetry, you can't keep a character from spilling coffee on a new rug.  If your characters are real, they are bound to surprise you and disappoint you--you may even get frustrated by them.     

Thursday, December 4, 2014

butterfly dream


The hands on my wristwatch stopped working yesterday.  I didn’t mind so much because it was raining.  I thought of Kafka, and then I felt kind of guilty for thinking about Kafka. I mean, you have to be kind of pretentious to think about Kafka. So I bought a maple vegan donut at Whole Foods and ate it in my car.  This made me feel less la-di-da and more like The Dude.  The rain pouring hard, I thought, I want to watch The Big Lebowski.  But The Dude was really a detective, and detectives, in most cases, are Sherlockian existentialists. High brow, low brow.  Often there’s a unibrow.  I read this morning that Hershey’s chocolate syrup will be substituting sugar for high fructose corn syrup.  The Buddha wouldn’t lift an eyebrow.  He invented the word ‘impermanence.’  But maybe Kafka would be relieved.  Damn.  Another vegan donut.  I had a revenge dream the other night, and I felt empowered by it.  Confucius and Gandhi criticized vengeance, but I have to say I see the poetry of getting even.  What I mean is, karma.  What I mean is, justice.  I become Chuang Tzu, coasting the Butterfly Dream.  This is my baser reason for writing:  to experience the tit for tat in a dream, so no one is harmed.  When I craft stories, each character is myself—even the villain.  When I take revenge, my inner Cinderella steps up to my inner step-sister.  Kafka reminds me to make my characters suffer.  The Dude reminds me to keep things strange.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

after reading margaret atwood's "bread"


Imagine a pen.  Not the fancy kind, like the ones you see in the hands of CEO's.  Nor a simple ballpoint in a student's hand.  I'm talking about a calligraphy pen with a silver tip.  The kind you imagine Shakespeare would have used to write sonnets about the sky.  It's a lightweight pen that feels cold to the touch.  When you grip it, you feel capable of writing essays that will endure.  You don't have to imagine it.  It's right there in your hands.  The pen you found in your father's desk drawer, the one that blew dust when you opened it because no one had touched it for a while.

Imagine a castle.  Now imagine a pen.  It's black and sturdy, with a classic design.  You use it to draw a castle, the kind you'd find in northern Scotland where there are ghost sightings.  You imagine your hand as a specter's hand.  You like pretending you're not yourself when you're creating something.  You'd prefer to be invisible, a phantom in someone else's mind.  You draw the motte carefully, you sketch in the keep.  You want this castle to be bold.  Something haunting, from a dream.  

Imagine a wedding.  By the entrance to the ballroom there's a white notebook where guests have been asked to sign congratulatory messages.  Your thoughts are cloudy.  The last few weeks, you have been drifting through the world without meeting anybody at the eyes.  You don't like it when you become aware of the absence of magic.  You lift the calligraphy pen, write "Best Wishes" into the notebook.  But your words are a platitude, an act of conformity.  You'd rather be on a train headed to nowhere than amid this crowd of well dressed strangers.