Oct 24 2013

Roommates and Writers

My roommate has been writing a lot.

Jeff and I first connected through Ultimate, when I guilted him into helping me coach the team at the middle school where we were both English teachers.  We became friends when we decided to critique each others’ writing.  We grew closer still when we went through simultaneous divorces, and our friendship was fully realized by a serendipitous lease in Austin’s Zilker neighborhood.

As I begrudgingly weeded our front yard the other night, Jeff made his way to the coffee shop down the street, laptop tucked under his arm.  He finished his latest work-in-progress this summer, and he’s been hard at work revising and marketing the first manuscript that he shared with me several years ago.

I wake at 6:00am every day to the smell of Jeff’s coffee brewing on the stove, and I know that when I take my dog out he’ll be cuddled up under a blanket, his face illuminated by the comforting glow of his computer screen.  He spent the better part of these last two summers pouring over his WIPs in our tiny kitchen, poised next to our driveway’s shaded window.

I admire Jeff’s talent; his diligence; his work ethic and discipline.  I respect (and sometimes envy) his whole-hearted commitment and naked desire.

Sometimes I feel guilty; mildly dwarfed by his determination; ashamed of my own writerly neglect.  I feel inclined to justify my scattered mind and my busy schedule.

And so it is that I’m forced to consider what I want.  I mean…What I really want.

It wasn’t so long ago that I resigned from my teaching job specifically to write full-time, only to step right back into a new position at a new school.  I was self-conscious then, too.  A bit reluctant to take what felt like a step backward – like I’d chickened out; copped out; failed before I’d even really tried.

I’m surrounded by die-hard, all-out, whatever-it-takes artists, and I’m awed by their loyalty their craft.  But I’m realizing that’s not who I am.  The cold, hard truth is that I don’t have the stomach or the discipline for constant struggle.  I’d make a crummy starving artist.  I don’t have extravagant tastes, but I do like the routine of a steady job and the reliability of a paycheck.  I use – and appreciate – health benefits and collegial community.

And perhaps most importantly, I’ve realized that writing is just one of the many puzzle pieces that I carefully fit into place in my life.  It fills a very significant need in me.  Would I love to get published?  Has that always been a dream of mine?  Of course.  But I don’t need that bullet on my resume to feel like a writer.  Every time someone tells me that they read my blog, I’m struck by surprise and joy.  Because I write for myself, and I forget that it’s public.  For better or for worse, I write for the love.  And for me it isn’t about how many people I reach, it’s about reaching anyone at all.

So while I’m inspired by Jeff’s surge in productivity, and I’m happy for him that he’s found such a palpable groove, he and I are different people.  We’re different writers.

And for me, right now, THIS is enough.


Jul 21 2012

Revisionist Summer

I have Writer’s Block.

I know it’s a cliché, but call it whatever you want.  It applies.

I’m typically one of those writers who prefers to spit out word after word and never look back.  I kinda hate editing and revising.  I like to stir up new ideas, attack my keyboard voraciously, and then sigh with frustrated discontent when I realize that it needs – you know – more work.  I’d so much rather just write something new!  So I usually do.

A friend once called me “prolific”.  Well, not right now. 

As a teacher/writer, I generally savor the long days of summer because they mean a wealth of Writing Time that I don’t get during the school year.  Alas, this summer has been dry.  (And I can’t help but observe that Austin’s been seeing a lot of rain lately.  How obnoxiously ironic.) 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been trying.  A lot.  A few weeks ago I disregarded my Friday night plans to stay in and “finish a chapter” that I’d been working on.  And I did!  I stayed in…and tried…and deleted word after stunted word.  I’ve begun countless blog posts, only to find that everything feels self-indulgent and trite.  (A lot like this, actually.)  I have plenty of maybe-good ideas, but nothing is what I want it to be.  It comes across simple and lame; disconnected and meandering.  Half-baked.

And again, that’s unusual for me.  I generally weave stories without judgment or reason.  I just GO. 

So I’ve spent the better part of my summer, instead, on the “work” part of being a writer.  (Some writers may disagree with me, arguing that editing and revision aren’t work; or that the act of creation is just as challenging.  That’s fine.  That’s fair.  Not the case for me.)

So what was I saying?  Oh yeah.  Work.  Blech.

I’ve been pouring over words that I wrote years ago, digging back into them with new eyes.  I’ve been outlining and planning.  I’ve been picking apart paragraphs, rearranging, taking stock.  I’ve written a couple query letters and researched editors.  I’ve been the businesswoman.  I’ve even dug into my true teacher-writer brain to draft a reading guide for a friend’s anthology.

I’m not sure about the cause of this Writing Desert.  Maybe it’s because I live down the street from the park and I want to play all the time.  Or my roommate and his excellent conversation skills.  Or the new boyfriend I just want to kiss every second, or the Ultimate team I captain and play for, or having cable TV again, or the new cookbook that I’ve been tabbing through page-by-page…

But here I am.  What would normally be a productive, idea-heavy, wordcounting few months for me have actually resulted in more paring down.  More revision and criticism.  More cutting, pasting, and re-working. 

Which isn’t what I’d expected, but it’s okay.  I guess.  I mean, there’s always winter break … Right?


Feb 7 2012

Loneliness is an Art

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Sarah (a.k.a. “Slev”) prefaced her gchat message.  “But I thought you might appreciate this.”  And then she attached a link. 

I braced myself.  Hmm. 

Take it the wrong way?  What a loaded way to introduce a little YouTube video!  Would it be something illicit that I shouldn’t open at work?  Was I on the verge of learning more about Slev than I ever hoped to know?  Something that, perhaps, she believed we had in common?

Sarah moved to Austin this summer, and I already felt like I knew her through a network too complicated to explain here.  (Let’s just say that it involves one of my college professors, Sarah’s roommate, and a former Austin Ultimate player who now resides in Richmond.  Yeah, it’s that kind of tangled web.  In a good way.)

But such is the nature of our friendship.  Just days after her arrival, she and I traveled to Houston together for an Ultimate tournament, and there was never a dull moment in our conversation.  I already felt like I’d known her for years.  (Or, at least, a few solid months!)  Despite being roughly ten years my junior, she had insight about [my] life well beyond her age.  I was impressed…and appreciative.

So in truth, I wasn’t worried about her link.  In fact, I anticipated that it would be thoughtful and unique.  Which it was:

HOW TO BE ALONE

How to be Alone.  Such a basic message, like a  …For Dummies  book.  Things that few of us would ever consider, like dancing publicly when you don’t have a date or a friend, broken down into terms we can understand and identify.  Interesting.

But it isn’t the simple element of the piece that interests me – the idea of starting with small practices of being alone, like visiting libraries and coffee shops.  It’s the directness.  The artist’s conviction that there is beauty in aloneness.  Which, of course, there is.  But not when you’re idly checking Facebook on your phone, or tearing through recordings on your DVR.  The true magic of being by yourself comes when you embrace the moments; you take stock and look inward, appreciating who and where you are.  Celebrating it, even. 

 

“Lonely is a freedom that breathes easy and weightless, and lonely is healing if you make it.”

Sometimes we just need permission.  We need someone to say that there’s wonder in the ugliness; meaning in the emptiness.  Here, it’s almost as if the speaker is making it okay to be not only alone, but lonely; to savor the sweet agony of time with no one but yourself.  She makes it less painful and more empowering; tells you to find strength in the dark and hollow places of your heart. 

Darkness may be the absence of light, but it’s also filled with glorious shadows and complicated hieroglyphics hidden on the cave walls.  You just have to find a new way to illuminate them; to look without seeing.

It is frightening to envision being alone forever.  Even the most contentedly single people I know have expressed that fear to me (much to my surprise).  But it’s far scarier to be lonely in a room full of ‘friends’ or sitting at the dinner table with the faux company of an empty relationship.  To be happily – or least comfortably – alone is the best of both worlds.  To consider yourself company enough.  In fact, that may be the highest form of self-love.

“The conversations you get in by sitting alone on benches might’ve never happened had you not been there by yourself.”

When you remove the fear of being alone, you access opportunity and joy in all kinds of unexpected and inspiring ways.  You see things that you may not have noticed before, like the wisdom of a stranger or the kindness of a new friend; the pleasure of dancing by yourself or the release of sitting on the back porch with a cup of tea (or a beer, for that matter) to watch the squirrels scamper across the yard. 

Being a writer requires time alone.  Even when I’m with a group of people gathered specifically to write, I’m more productive when I set aside time for quiet, solitary craft. 

“Maybe being a writer, you just can’t worry about other people’s needs right now,” my friend Dallas said to me this summer.  I tend to be a bit of a Mama Bird, taking care of others and worrying about them incessantly.  But Dallas is right.  I need to know how to be alone, and sometimes that means actively choosing graceful isolation.  They (those writerly folks, that is) say that ‘God is in the details’.  Maybe that’s just another way of saying that he/she is found within; something you need to coax out to play now and then. 

 

“If your heart is bleeding, make the best of it.  There is heat in freezing.  Be a testament.”

My heart has been bleeding quite a bit lately.  For myself, for others.  For the gorgeous, acute pain of love and loss and change.  I had a lot of time alone this summer, and I was making the most of the mess.  The blood was pouring over my hands and into my writing like the rain after a Texas draught.  But I’ve been pretty crowded lately – in classrooms filled with middle schoolers, at workouts with groups of girls, at shows teeming with people and at meetings piled high with discussion and action items.  And I’m grateful for these communities, these flashes of insight and these wonderful muses.  But the moments that I’ve had to myself (sitting beside my Christmas tree, curled up in the covers of my bed, bent over a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning) I’ve turned to my journal or my laptop for company.  Does that count as being alone?  Does my art make me, somehow, less lonely?

I have to believe that it doesn’t.  I have to believe that it’s my art “needs practice,” and that I should “stop neglecting it”.  My writing isn’t my friend, it’s me

Although maybe those two things are, in fact, one and the same.


Jan 12 2012

#writingislikelife

Last night a new reader joked that my blog depresses her.  “Please write an upbeat (albeit fake) post!” she requested.  And I’m nothing if not accommodating to new fans.

Especially since, in looking back over the last six or seven months, I realize that my writing has adopted a somewhat intense tone.  And sure, I’m intense sometimes.  I’m stormy and occasionally grumpy and now and then I get angry or sad.  But I’m also pretty goofy, really.  I go to happy hours with big groups of girls where we tell dirty jokes (or true, dirty stories) and make friends with the bartenders.  I play wiffle ball and ultimate and my favorite thing in yoga is handstands.  I have a huge sweet tooth that makes it impossible to resist chocolate and very sugary coffee.  I teach middle school and write young adult fiction largely because, in my heart, I’m a big kid who still giggles at bathroom humor.  This is, actually, who I am a lot of the time.  Where did this always-serious girl come from? 

While the trappings and realities of this grown-up life do have the potential to bring me down at times, I would hazard to say that I’m usually quite up.  So here it is – my first (deliberately) “upbeat” post of 2012!

***

Some time ago a good friend tweeted, “Writing is like life:  Transitions are rough and conclusions are hard.”  I’m pretty sure that I proved part of this assessment when I transitioned from potty-talk to being a grown-up.  Awkward and clunky, indeed!  Transitions are rough.

But we didn’t need my poor writing to know that Allison is quite right (and not only because this wise observation emerged from the veritable hell inside her Dissertation-Writing-Closet-of-Death).  Allow me, if you will, to expound on a few more writing/life parallels…

On Paragraphing and Structure:  Sure, it’s nice when things are neat and organized, and you can separate your ideas into clear and concise groupings of 5-7 sentences.  But when the dog is tearing the stuffing out of her new chew toy, and you have 150 essays to grade, and you’re searching for a reasonably-priced bridesmaid dress, and you’re querying literary agents and paying bills at the same desk, and your mom keeps emailing you about buying a condo, and you’re between gym memberships, and all you really really want to do is watch that new episode of Glee…well, who can stay organized all the time?  Isn’t it easier to just allow things to be a little helter-skelter?  To let work overlap into your personal life?  To make the professional personal in your writing?  To grade papers at teacher happy hours?  (Well, maybe not that last bit…) 

Verb Tense (in)Consistency:  I can’t compartmentalize!  The past bleeds into the present, and sometimes gets confused with the future.  And irregular verbs?  Forget about it.

Diction (a.k.a., Word Choice) = Trouble:  Ah, the moments when we realize that we’ve just said something (unknowingly) uncouth, and everyone quietly scratches their heads in uncomfortable silence.  Damn, those times when we misuse a word, or say exactly the thing that everyone else is avoiding.  Sometimes, word choice is everything.  Speaking of which, should I quit while I’m ahead?  Or should I have quit three paragraphs ago?  Is it already too late?  Oh, man…Stop…writing…Colleen…   

Punctuation is Inconsistent and Confusing:  Those little dashes and marks, the curls and dots…they can be so baffling.  And they change everything.  They dictate meaning as much as the words themselves.  Sometimes they appear completely arbitrary and unpredictable.  And they raise so many questions.  Does this sentence require a question mark or an exclamation point?  Where the hell do the quotation marks go at the end of that statement?  When and how does one utilize parentheses?  (Seriously, I really don’t know.  And I totally over-use them.)  And can someone please explain the semi-colon, for godsake? 

Yes, writing is like life, Allison.  Glorious and joyful, tragic and complicated, filled with beauty and ugliness.  And that’s not phony at all.


Aug 20 2011

I Should Be Working, But I’m Writing

I should be working in my classroom, but I’m taking a short break to write.  There’s just no getting around it right now; I need to write.  Now. 

One of my new colleagues just told me that I look stressed today, and I am.  The anxiety is creeping in.  It’s been a busy, busy week.  I’m at a new school, and with that comes a whole new level of beginning-of-the-year chaos.  I spent the entire summer racing from one thing to the next, but I always made time to write, because my time was my own.  And with that commitment, I managed a level of equilibrium during a time of transition and challenge. 

So here it is—my commitment to write, even when my time isn’t “my own.”

Last night I got home from dinner at around 9:15, and Holly scolded me for missing my “curfew” by fifteen minutes.  She and Frances were just about to start a movie, and the smell of freshly popped popcorn hung in the air.  I had so many other things to do—shower, clean my room, go to sleep at a reasonable hour, for that matter—but I abandoned them all to sit with the girls and half-watch a half-decent rental.  The pair was curled up on Hannah’s new couch, their feet dangling on the futon mattress (which is on the floor because we haven’t put together the frame yet).  Holly’s dog, Fly, lay at their feet, and Marley quickly jumped up into my lap for snuggles.  Hannah got home shortly after that, with takeout for Holly since she’d poached her leftover lasagna from the fridge earlier that day.   As the movie wore on I sipped on wine, Fran answered quiz questions for her Ultimate team’s bonding activity the next day, and Holly migrated to the futon to spoon with Fly. 

At the end of this crazy week, it was such a welcome release to sit and giggle with girlfriends.  The house is filled with mismatched furniture, and the unassembled futon frame pieces greet you right when you walk in the door.  My bedroom looks like it’s been ran-sacked by fiending junkies looking for cash in the pockets of all of my clothes.    (I really should put away some clothes eventually…)  The bathroom doesn’t have a curtain on the window yet, and my cooler is still sitting outside the door to Holly’s room.  But those things are all temporary.  (And really, what isn’t?)  It still feels like home.  And on a Friday night at the end of a long, emotional, harrowing week, that’s all I wanted.  I’m learning that in this crazy life, we have to appreciate those moments of peace and comfort whenever we get them.    

So there you have it.  My short writing break.  It’s messy, it’s disjointed, it’s impromptu…but here’s to Making the Time, right?  I feel better already.


Aug 1 2011

In the Looking Glass

On Friday I went to a book release and signing party with my sassy and savvy friend, AllisonBookPeople is already one of my favorite Austin spots, and even though I haven’t read any of Amanda Eyre Ward’s work (yet, anyway) I was looking forward to the event.  And not just because they were serving free St. Arnold’s beer, sweet tea vodka, and empanadas!

They began the reading with an announcement from the Austin Bat Cave — a non-profit that works to inspire creative writing and expression in Austin area youth and provide a platform for their work.  A friend and colleague of mine, Matt, has worked directly with the Bat Cave in the past, so I was already familiar with their philosophy and the tremendous things that they do.  I also knew that some of my former students had been a part of some Bat Cave projects, and I was excited to hear about their recent anthology of music, lyrics, and visual art.

Before Amanda read an excerpt from her latest novel, Close Your Eyes, a representative from The Bat Cave announced the winner of Austin’s Young Literary Light Contest, who then stepped up behind the mic to read three of her original poems.  It was a packed house, and I can only imagine how nervous this teenage girl must have been, looking out at the sea of adult faces.  She began by saying that she was uncomfortable with public speaking, but of course she read with poise and confidence, her voice steady and calm.

As I listened, I felt like I was stepping back in time.  Looking in a mirror, even.  (Though I doubt my writing was as poignant and insightful as hers!)  I remembered the fearlessness that comes with youth.  When I was her age, I didn’t balk at going to open mic readings at Fire Water café in Northampton and sharing my work in front of brooding college students and struggling bohemian writers of Western Massachusetts.  I recalled slam poetry competitions in college, and the times that I spent pacing my dorm room as I hammered out a beat in my words.  I remembered sending off short stories to magazines and shrugging off the rejection letters.  But most of all, I remembered not worrying over what people would think.  I just wanted them to hear me.

I know that this young writer is half my age, yet I still (inexplicably) feel like a teenager most of the time.  And not in a bad way.  How much has really changed for me?  Well, everything…and yet nothing at all.  I live in a different part of the country; I have three more degrees to my name; I’ve garnered the experience of more romantic relationships, more athletic enterprises, more travel.  I’ve grown and changed from the myriad of amazing and enriching people who’ve come in and out of my life.  But I don’t, in fact, feel that different.  I’m still a writer, which is what I knew myself to be when I was a naïve sixteen-year-old.  In my heart of hearts, at the core of who I am, I still think in poetry and prose.  I still hear words as lyrics.  As music.  As perfect, meaningful packages.  And more than anything else in the world, I just want to be heard.

I’m thankful to this teenage writer, this girl who reminded me of how near and far I’ve come.  And how much road there is yet to travel.


Jul 27 2011

Prologue: Let it Burn

I write a lot of poetry, but I rarely share it or attempt to publish it.  Recently, though, I read a poem to a writing group.  As I listened to myself, I realized that the work just felt like prose.  My partners agreed, and it even occurred to me that it sounded like an intriguing prologue for one of my new projects. 

So here it is.  The would-be poem that became prose that may be a prologue.  Hope you like it.

 

Heartbreak should always come with locked doors, burned bridges, and houses flooded with tears.  It should come with a hurricane, a tsunami, a tornado.  A certain natural disaster that destroys everything that came before, so that we have no choice but to rebuild.

What do we do with whispers of endings?  With those quiet, muted, drawn-out masterpieces of stolen life and art?  Where do we put the remnants when they don’t fit neatly into boxes and dark closets?  Or when we still want to gaze mournfully at what’s left behind?

Yes, this is why endings should always be permanent — black ink on white paper, a scar from the kindergarten playground, a tattoo deep under the skin.

This is how we repair, how we build up, how we reconstruct the bruised and battered components of a heart.  Of a life.

But here I sit, the cremains of an ending still warm in my brown hands.  The sun is bright on my face, and I smell summer.  But I breathe in the ash and bone and sinew and muscle of what we were, willing it—crying for it—to breathe along with me.