Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—Goofing Off

Bat Abbe

I tend to be a little, uh, serious about my life. I take everything "to heart" as they say, a phrase that really nails it: the world worms its way inside to the center of me. So, I'm a taskmaster, never quite satisfied, even when I've done my best. I cross one thing off my to-do list, and immediately search out another.

At the same time, people always tell me they love my laugh. I laugh easily and heartily at anything remotely amusing.

Laughing Brenda and Serious Brenda need to have a little heart-to-heart talk. These two women need to get some coffee, try to be friends. I think they'd get along quite well. Together, they could write a book called The Fine Art of Goofing Off. 


Last week I went on a mini writing retreat with my friends Nancy and Rae-Ellen. While they sat at the dining table typing away, I lounged on the couch and made comments from the peanut gallery. I read my book. I knit a scarf. I stared out the window. I ate copious amounts of chocolate.  

When they took a break, we fooled around with Photo Booth on Nancy's iPad.

Nancy says: "The result of writing too much"
We laughed so hard. We laughed and laughed until our stomachs hurt. We couldn't stop laughing. There was something about seeing ourselves so twisted and unarmed. I won't even tell you how many pictures we took, and how many times we looked at them and just shrieked with laughter each time.

And then they went back to the dining table. Nancy finished writing her novel. Rae Ellen made headway on new work. Somehow I crossed four writing-related tasks off my list with ease.

The poet William Stafford has said that the cure for writer's block is to lower one's standards. This might be the cure for life as well. And we can sometime put everything in (twisted) perspective with a little goofiness, some unrestrained laughter.

What's your favorite way of goofing off?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Funny Friday: Cat Yoga!

Pure awesome....

Practice Thursday—The Yoga of Clutter

"Three Rules of Work:
Out of clutter find simplicity;
From discord find harmony;
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."
—Albert Einstein

Somehow I’ve come into possession of a large supply of paper clips. I find them everywhere: in the washing machine, in the vacuum cleaner, in the silverware drawer. There’s always several in my jacket pockets. As a writer, teacher, and editor I put myself in the way of paper clips all the time, but there seems to be something unnatural in the way they stick to me this way (I once even found a paper clip neatly attached to the hem of my good trousers).

The paper clip deluge came into stark relief recently when I cleaned out a feral drawer. After excavating layer by layer, I came across a  strata of paper clips a good inch thick: big clips, teeny clips, binder clips, and pink clips. I tried to collect them up in one fell swoop, but they resisted, kept scattering in all directions. The dust on them felt sticky, almost like soot.

I would never have even approached this awful drawer on my own. But I had two professional organizers in the house, a team from a company called "Organized at Last" (yes, dear reader, it had come to this....). I hired them to help me deal with what I’d come to call my “room of shame”: the 2nd bedroom, overflowing with ancient files, used books, out-of-season clothes, broken speakers, chargers to things that don’t even exist anymore, dog crates: everything that couldn’t seem to find a place elsewhere. That room was making me grumpy. I knew I had to do something.

The organizing ladies dove in cheerfully, in their spotless blue aprons. They  boxed up papers and books, coached me as I cleaned out that horrifying desk drawer: how’s it going in there? they chirped, but by that time I was speechless, buried in an avalanche of paper clips intended to hold things together.

The ladies got me through it. They held open a plastic bag while I dumped in the paper clips. They hauled out over-sized furniture into the carport. They grouped “like with like,” and by the time the women were done, I felt as though  the room were really breathing for the first time in ten years. This company’s motto is “Experience Clarity,” and it’s true; I felt like I could now breathe easier—freed from the weight of all those unruly things.

For about a month, I felt in control: I bought a new white desk for the room, filed the mail when it came, kept the surfaces cleared. I had new floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into the nook and organized them by genre. I framed the many broadsides I’ve collected over the years and hung them by the bookshelves, so that I could be reminded my business is words. My business is organizing words into clean patterns and shapes.

But gradually disorder crept back in. First one stack of mail on the desk. A couple of files pulled out and not put back. Recycling overflowing its box. A jacket I wanted to give away; a pair of boots that were never comfortable. Even the rug seemed to rumple itself, refused to lie flat. And because of this, the rest of the house began to follow suit: dog leashes hanging over the back of the chair; the dishes go undone one night and breed. Impatience is what does it: moving too quickly from one thing to the next.

Time behaves like this too. I start with all good intention to organize, to set aside dedicated times for writing, for exercise, for teaching prep, for internet—but before too long those boundaries blur, and I’m doing twelve things at once, and none of them well, none of them with the presence of mind I desire.  

On my writing desk I have a postcard propped on the lamp: a serene Thai Buddha head, surrounded by the floating words: Calm, Clear, Happy Mind. I’d love to call the organizing ladies back, have them lay hands on my mind— clear it out, box up all those dusty regrets, those heavy memories, those clattering paperclips of doubt and fear. I’d like to tag them with the labelmaker just in case I happen to need them again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Breaking News! Second Edition of Tell it Slant

It's here! The brand new, revised, updated, 2nd Edition of Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.

Which, lucky for you, means an opportunity for another giveaway!

You can enter to receive a free signed copy of this edition by leaving a comment below or on my Facebook page by Feb. 29 (leap year: take a chance!). I'll choose one winner at random on my birthday, March 1 (I love giving away presents on my birthday.)


I thought you might be interested in the collaborative process that led to this most recent incarnation of the textbook.

In 2002, just a couple of years after I joined the faculty at Western Washington University, my colleague Suzanne Paola and I realized together that no really comprehensive textbooks existed for creative nonfiction writing. Great anthologies, yes. Writing instruction, no. So, being who we are, we said: "let's write it."

We really didn't know each other well at the time, which many people said would be a recipe for disaster. But we worked so well together that the book got written in a year, and a deep friendship developed too.  We each had different areas of expertise to bring to the endeavor, and we both loved good food as a fuel for writing.

This is the first edition of the textbook, which included an anthology. It quickly became a favorite for many teachers of creative nonfiction, so we decided to revise it to create a trade edition as well, geared to the general public. A year later this book was born: without the anthology and with some new material.

Last year, we heard from one of our readers that the textbook edition had gone out of print. "Really?" we exclaimed. "No one told us." But our agent checked and it was true. McGraw-Hill, for reasons that remain mysterious, allowed the textbook edition to go out of print, leaving many creative nonfiction teachers stranded. We received many messages pleading for something to take its place.

Since the trade edition was still quite popular (and remained in print), we decided to update and revise it to reflect new trends in creative nonfiction, and to create resources so the book could easily be adapted to the classroom. 

We added a chapter devoted to publishing, and we bolstered existing chapters with sections on blogging, the radio essay, hypermedia, multimedia, ethnographic research and current controversies in creative nonfiction. We moved things around a bit. We wrote a new Preface. We included two essays of our own as sample readings in the book, and the publisher is creating a website where we'll have extra readings and sample syllabi for using the book for both creative nonfiction and composition courses.

We're very excited about this new edition, and we'll be showing it off at the AWP conference in Chicago, March 1-3. If you're there, come by the Bellingham Review table in the Book Fair to say hello! We'll have sample syllabi and other goodies to give away.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—Sleep

13 Ways to Know You Need to Get More Sleep

1. Your dog nags you. Whines urgently in her throat. Come to bed, come to bed. 

2. You find yourself saying, aloud, in a minute, just a minute. You keep tapping keys on your computer, your face washed in blue light.

3. One minute turns into ten turns into an hour and another. You’re searching for something but you don’t know what. So many voices out there, demanding your attention, so many things that can be done. The lure of websites that promise, just one more, this next page will solve everything, but you don’t even remember what you traveled here to solve.

4. By the time you do wrench yourself away, you feel wounded and confused, as if a little bit of your brain has literally torn away, shreds of it sticking to the screen.

5. You feel confused by the state of your house. Somehow, in the hours you spent online, the pile of dishes in the sink has grown, the trash has overflowed, clothes have strewn themselves on the bedroom floor. How did this happen?

6. You find yourself in front of the refrigerator, holding open the door, with no earthly idea why you’re there. You go to wash the dishes, but find yourself eating a bowl of cereal instead. And now you’re sitting in front of the television, watching a re-run of “The New Girl.”

7. You want to be a New Girl.

8. When you finally make it to bed, your dog looks up at you, her face a familiar mix of adoration and accusation. It’s a face that says, oh, you again, how kind of you to join us. A face that says grumpily, Where have you been?

9. Admit nothing. Just shove her over to her side of the bed. You’ve done this every night for years, but every night she acts as though it’s an affront. She sighs. She’s very disappointed in you.
You know things are bad when you’ve disappointed your dog.

10. Promise you’ll do better from now on. You’ll practice good “sleep hygiene” (as your doctor puts it); you’ll brush your teeth, drink a cup of herbal tea, turn off all screens hours before bedtime. You’ll do your yoga breathing. You’ll stretch a little, put on lavender-scented moisturizer, think only good thoughts. You’ll keep a tidy little dream journal by your bed, pen at the ready.

11. Instead, you fall into a fitful sleep, exhausted, as though you’ve been in a fight.

12. Your sleeping mind skims the surface, like a search engine, lighting here and there, dwelling in the places that get the most hits. You can’t settle. You wake too early, more tired than before.

13. You look over at your dog, who sleeps with her eyes open. She sees you but doesn’t see you. Her legs twitch. She chases something in her dreams.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Funny Friday— I ♥ Ellen, Part Two


Practice Thursday—Baby Pictures!

Fair warning: this post is just an excuse to thumb through old pictures. 

But who can resist that face? The big eyes, the spit curl, the chubby wrists propping up that double chin? This kid looks very happy to be in the world. She's eager to see everything; and everything, so far, has been delightful.

Or maybe not. The world can shift in an instant; who knows what will happen next? (by the way, that's the same look I have on my face right about this point in the quarter...)

This kid likes Maryjanes. She likes that olive tree. She likes the sidewalk leading up to her front door, the way it turns so precisely. She tap dances up that sidewalk. She loves the person taking the picture. She loves her dress, and probably twirled in front of the mirror.

She loves trees. She loves that car. She loves her house. She loves  suspenders. She thinks she looks awesome.

She likes red shoes. She likes pink sweaters. She likes the grass. She loves her brothers. She feels protected. Safe. Right where she belongs.

She likes wearing sweatshirts at the beach. She loves the feeling of opposites: warm sand, cool air.

She becomes kind of a dork in high school. She loves books. She loves long hair. She tries out for school plays. But it's not so easy to be in love with the world anymore. It's not so easy to feel safe. It's not so easy to know right where you belong. It's not so easy to think you look awesome.

That's when writing begins.

When she writes, this girl kind of loves everything the way she did as a child, even the not-so-beautiful things. In writing, she can remember Maryjanes and red Keds and beaches and station wagons. But she can also write about what's happening right now, and the what's-happening-right-now begins to make sense.

Or not. It doesn't really matter. Because when she writes she's eager to see everything. When she writes, she knows where she belongs. When she writes, she pretty happy to be in the world just as it is.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sabbatical Sunday—Golden Feet

As some of you know, I used to be a massage therapist ( a loooooong time ago). And my favorite part of massage, both as a giver and receiver, was the feet. The feet hold a map to the entire body. You can give a full body massage just by paying careful attention to every aspect of the foot: the arch, the heel, each toe, and the teeny connective spaces in between. 

So when my friend Nancy suggested we have a "day of feet" on Saturday, naturally my response was an unqualified YES. Given our schedules, the day o' feet turned into an hour o' feet, but when it comes to feet, that's all you really need.

I went to my Saturday morning yoga class (I came this close to going back to bed instead, but my better self prevailed), then walked over to Brandywine to meet Nancy for lunch. Food, as you may have noticed from previous posts, plays a BIG role in any of my attempts at relaxation.

Then we walked over to Golden Foot Massage for a deluxe foot massage.

Dear reader, I admit it: I was scared. From the outside, the place looked like a shady, run-down massage parlor. Cryptic diagrams printed on newsprint covered the door, so you couldn't see inside. I kept recalling a particularly horrific scene from The Amazing Race (yes, sigh, I'm addicted to The Amazing Race), where contestants had to endure a brutal Chinese reflexology treatment before getting the next clue; they all screamed and writhed in pain.

But at our Golden Foot, a smiling Chinese man greeted us and led us to our chairs. He seemed ecstatic to see us. 

He  placed our feet in wooden buckets of warm water, and reclined the chairs, covered us with blue blankets to let us steep. 

After a while his wife appeared, also smiling, and then the two of them zoomed in on us to start their tandem massage. Nancy's masseuse slapped vigorously at her soles. My torturer flicked every toe, pressed her fingers deep into all the tender places. 

And then I started to laugh. Through the pain, bubbles of laughter. Giggles that turned to guffaws. Laughter that picked me up and set me back down lighter than I was before.

I thought of Buddha's footprint: when the Buddha achieved enlightenment, his feet become embellished with wisdom. When he rose and began to walk, his foot impressed itself in the stone where he stepped.

The footprint became a symbol of both the Buddha's presence and absence in this world. 

Maybe we don't need the whole Buddha; sometimes just the footprint will do. 

As our pummeling came to an end, our benefactors lifted our legs and let them drop, lifted them and dropped, in tandem, until we became limp and giggly. We drank some green rice tea. I wiggled my toes, reluctant to put on my smelly old socks, because my feet—and all of me—now felt so golden.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The winner!

The lucky recipient, chosen at random, of my one-month anniversary present is........


Keating, send me your mailing address and I'll get that book off to you.

And to the rest of you lovely people, thank you for being here.

Funny Friday—I ♥ Ellen

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Practice Thursday—Revision

Abbe overseeing the revision

When I bought my little house 10 years ago, I thought I'd be content with it forever. Sure it needed a little sprucing up (new wiring, new furnace, new bathroom tile; I just closed my eyes as I wrote out all the checks), but since this was my very first house, I didn't quite realize you can change things. I mean, REALLY change things.

You can cut a hole in a perfectly good roof and put in a skylight. You can tear out that sink you hated and put in a slick new one. You can demolish an entire wall, build a new foundation, add a room where none existed.

I revised my house about two years ago. I added a dining room, a laundry room, a deck—but the whole process started with subtraction. I needed to cut down an old Rainier cherry tree (and, being me, I had to write all about it in my essay "The Burden of Bearing Fruit"), which opened up a new space for wonderful things to happen.

It wasn't pretty though. First I had to assess, with a cold eye, the way things stood.
Old kitchen nook. Not very attractive. Still, I loved that picture window.

Then I had to have a vision. I had to imagine. I had to imagine the  new space. Imagined French doors. Imagined shade trees. Imagined the perfect, contented self standing on the deck.

Then I had to collaborate. I had to hire people who knew more than I did. Men who gently revised my vision to something more manageable. I had to cry sometimes. I had to wring my hands.

Then the demolition. The letting go. The unearthing of  ugly.Things became pretty ragged for a while.

a house without siding looks pretty pitiful

But my contractor, Dave, remained cheerful.
always smiling, even when I whined

I had to keep revising my vision, my expectations. I had to stop worrying. I had to make decisions quickly. I had to let the rooms grow the way they needed to grow. I had to get used to the mess.

this became the new normal

And eventually—after many small revisions to the plan; after many months and thousands of dollars over the estimate—the new rooms settled into place.

everything got bigger, even rooms we hadn't touched

Dave did a lot of detail work that made the new rooms seamless with the old.

No French doors, but perfect all the same
And I LOVE this revised house. I even came to love the process, and started looking around for other things to do. I painted three more rooms. I had new bookshelves built into my office. I bought new bedroom furniture. It started feeling a little addictive, this itch to revise.

{okay, here's the writerly segue; you knew it was coming!}

I've always loved revision in writing. To me, this is the fun part, after you've done the hard labor of creating something out of nothing. I've learned that the quickest way to revise is NOT to stand in judgment of the writing, but to revel in opportunity: what can you subtract? what can you add? What kind of elegant solution comes out of these calculations? I find that in revision I can focus much longer and with much more joy than I can in the original writing itself.

And now I want to practice efficient revision all the time. In my teaching. In my yoga practice. In my relationships. I'll still revel in my visions of how things can be (we must always start with a vision, after all.) But I want to learn more fully that revision does not stem from failure. On the contrary, revision is the creative mind working at its best.

Revision sees what can be done, and does it. Revision doesn't mind the mess, knowing that's where the real beauty resides. Revision allows a more accurate and authentic life (and story) to unfold.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

We interrupt regular programming....

Today, I'm hanging out over at Midge Raymond's wonderful writing blog, Remembering English, giving away a little "sneak preview" of my forthcoming book, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. It's my first guest blog!

Midge and I met when we both had books coming out from Eastern Washington University Press—mine, Blessing of the Animals; hers, Forgetting English. We read together at the "Getlit!" conference in Eastern Washington (in a church, no less, standing at the pulpit!) and it was really "friends at first sight."

Since then, we've kept in touch, supporting one another in our writing endeavors. She now runs, with her husband, Ashland Creek Press, where they do noble work, such as publishing new authors and adopting old typewriters.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

My one-month anniversary! And you might get a present....

So, dear reader, I've been blogging for exactly a month now, and it's been grand.

I want to celebrate with you!

I'll be giving away a signed copy of my latest book, Listening Against the Stone, to some lucky person who comments on this post. 

You can leave a comment here from now until Feb. 10, and then I'll choose the winner at random. The comment can be as simple as: "Here I am!"

Thank you for reading!

Sabbatical Sunday—Take off the blinders

Some weeks, like this one, I feel like I'm walking around with blinders on. My gaze narrows down to what's right in front of me, and my neck becomes rigid with effort, my breathing shallow. Since much of my work takes place on screens these days, this gaze gets narrower and narrower, so even when I'm not in front of the screen, I feel cut off from the wider world that surrounds me—head down, just plowing through. 

Abbe kept reminding me, though. She looked at me balefully, whined and sighed. She put her head on her paws and looked up at me through her lashes. I kept trying to mollify her, said, yes, we'll take a good walk, I promise. The word walk perked up her ears; the word promise drooped them again, since promises—in this house—so often are not kept. 

But this time I was good to my word; it just took me a while. Yesterday—one of those sunny February days that convinces you winter has fled—I put on my walking shoes, put Abbe in the car, and drove to Hovander park, 15 minutes north of Bellingham. Here Abbe can run off leash, and I can look up to remember where I am. 

This is where I am. And this is what I can remember, even when my life seems to close in, to become dim and gritty. I can take off the blinders anytime I want (they're not glued to my head, after all, and I'm the one who put them there in the first place!)

(photo by Nancy Canyon)

This is what Abbe looks like at Hovander Park, one of her favorite places in the world. She smiles with her whole body. Her coat gleams. She stands on the trail, head up, nose sniffing the air, then gallops across the field in pursuit of something invisible. 

There's always the siren call of the to-do list, the whine of the oppressed self who chooses crankiness over walking shoes, depression over a breath of fresh air. But for me, everything really can change in an instant, with that slight nod of the head toward the sky. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Practice Thursday—The yoga of writing

The first time I went on a writing retreat, I had no idea what I was doing. And get this: I went for two months! I arrived at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, in the winter of '94, with my clunky Mac Classic in tow, a box of books, a sack full of travel journals, and lots of big ideas about writing.

I soon found out, rather painfully, that big ideas about writing often lead you nowhere. Those big ideas sit in the middle of the room, daring you to write something good. Something good and something long. They glower at you. They grumble and complain. They make you hungry just an hour after breakfast. They give you a whopping headache. They make you look at the clock and wonder if anyone would notice if you just headed home, say, 7 weeks early.

The cottage had a padded windowseat, a sleeping loft, a tiny woodstove, and a long desk by a window that looked into the woods. The cooks brought your lunch to you in a basket and tiptoed away. You could bicycle to Useless Bay, take long walks there accompanied by sandpipers. You could lose yourself at Useless Bay, and find yourself, and wander every which way in between. You could feel what it was like to be perfectly useless.

The pure beauty and generosity of the place made you extremely grateful and, if you're a neurotic like me, extremely guilty. What had I done to deserve such beneficence?

But though I spent much of my time at Hedgebrook fighting off my own demons, I did write my first major braided essay there: "Basha Leah", an essay that is wholly dependent on the space that grew in me during that time. It's a lyric piece that told me, gently, that I had to give up my "big ideas" and pay attention to small details instead. It told me to sit still, to wait. It demanded that I simply be quiet.

Back then (sorry kids, here's grandma going on about the "good ol' days again....), you really had to dive into yourself on a writing retreat. There were very few distractions--no email, no internet, only a pay phone in the woodshed. You didn't get much mail because you wouldn't be there for long. You had yourself, and your other self, and maybe another self for company during the day (a tiresome group at best....),so you looked forward with inordinate glee to conversation with other writers at the farm table at dinner. Sometimes you wandered into the kitchen early, asked if you could chop a carrot or two, just so you could feel productive at something.


I've been on many, many writing retreats since then, but the nature of retreats for me has changed gradually over the years. They've grown shorter, for one thing (thank god), and I often now go on writing retreat with a friend, at a place called The Whiteley Center where we fall into an easy routine, supporting one another in our work. I'm finding that I no longer need to see writing as a purely solitary act; in fact, I can get too mired in myself.

And now it's rare to find a writing retreat where wi-fi is not on tap.
I resisted this for a long time, stubbornly trying to maintain inner quiet, but I always succumb. I think this sense of being constantly connected has changed what I write—I don't really know if I could write an essay like "Basha Leah" again—but new forms emerge when I do a dance with technology rather than try to wrestle it to the ground.

For instance, the last time I was at Whiteley, I stayed for a mere five days (I now can't be away from this face for long). --------------------->

And in that time, I ended up writing an essay called "36 Holes", and I wrote it almost entirely while glued to the internet. I was watching a live video feed of the rescue of the Chilean miners who had been trapped underground for months. I watched, I cried, I wrote, I watched some more. I couldn't tear myself away from the internet, so I allowed the internet to tear into me.

Something new was forged in those five days: a peace treaty, perhaps, an inching toward a truce. I'm still working on it—in my writing life and "regular" life—trying to find some kind of balance between outward and inward connection.

What about you? How do you write in a connected world?