Oct 08

The Oddity of One's Own New Book

This has happened before. Something is printed and I see only its imperfections. But slowly I become proud that exists at all.

The Woman Who Values Herself is about 90 percent of what I envisioned when I set out to print a pocket-sized book of 31 affirmations for women, each illustrated with a line drawing by Sheila Kennedy. I suspect it is just as a grown child is always about 90 percent of what a parent hoped for. And of course the parent dwells on the 10 percent. What's right:
  • sizewomanwhovalues2inches
  • cover color (love the green! There is no name for such a green!)
  • most of the drawings
  • the fact that this book exists at all
  • the kindness shown to me by all the blurb contributors
  • that this is Sheila's first book and she's thrilled and she should be, she is awesome
  • that this book might be of help or comfort to somebody somewhere someday
  • pricing ($10; thank God I asked for advice!)
What's wrong:
  • They didn't add one of my corrections
  • The paper is thick and I'd hoped it would be opaque, but it's not
  • The back cover with its three colors looks better to me than the front with its two colors
  • They didn't vertically center the blurbs on the back; I mean, it's okay but it's not perfect!
  • Yes, the spine is 1/4 inch wide just as I wanted, and admittedly it is the thinnest possible size for a perfect (glued) binding, but it drives me wild when the microscopic printing on some of them is off by a millionth of an inch
That said, it is time to start getting proud of it, just as a parent finally becomes proud of simply having passed along the gift of life.
Sep 29

The Writer's Hangover

Writing 13 hours a day indoors during this oppressively hot summer and enjoying it, I knew it was technically unhealthy not to do anything else, so decided to drive 500 miles for a trip north to get out, take a break, cool off and see family. Started up through Illinois and for the first two hours could not stay awake. Stopped for coffee, stopped for lunch with coffee, stopped at a rest stop for 40 minutes and did jumping jacks and yoga, and stopped at another rest stop and splashed and slapped my face and lay down on a stone bench gazing up at fizzing summer trees, thinking, What's the matter? Illinois I-55 is not a challenging drive, it's a long straight line!

Then it occured to me that driving is a linear, objective task, a left-brain task, and for weeks I'd been waltzing in a right-brain ballroom of swirling words and limitless inner pictures and ideas. Even taking daily walks, very early or very late in the day, I didn't "do" straight lines; mostly I took gorgeous photos of gorgeous summer butterflies and wildflowers, and did only the barest minimum of anything else. Too swirly even to follow a DVD; Lost in Translation sat on the top of the player for three months and when I watched it, it made no sense. House was a wreck. I tried to construct and sew a simple skirt: disaster, thrown in trash. Presence in one place meant absence in another. Then I wondered if it was just the way things are for writers. Most of us have had a writing hangover. Binge on writing and you get a skull-buster of a writing hangover. It's not a joke; it can really impair you.

The problem was the transition from one type of task to another, and given one day and one night I got better at making the switch. I read an article that said it would have helped to do crosswords, Sudoku, or math problems. But I'd really like to live the high life in that right brain all the time.
May 05

Showered with Jewels

Proof that great ideas DO often strike in the shower! A news brief in the June 2007 Ladies Home Journal quotes recent research: "'Our skin is designed to naturally administer the right proportions of molecules to have a beneficial, stimulating effect on our thinking,' explains Frank Rice, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience. . ." Credit your endorphins -- the stuff that gives you your natural highs, like those you get from exercising or massage. Or maybe from hugs. I read somewhere that for maximum creativity, you need 12 hugs a day.

What's a few wet footprints on the carpet compared to inspiration? Each gift of sudden inspiration comes only once, to only one person. You don't want to lose it. Even Emily Dickinson thought, " 'Twill keep," but it won't -- and you don't want to have to say along with her, ruefully, "The Gem was gone -- /And now, an Amethyst remembrance/ Is all I own."* Get out of the shower, out of bed, or pull over the car, and write down that idea or first line. I do, even if it's a bother. My personal research says that you have two or three minutes before the gift turns to vapor. (Writers do receive other gifts -- such as book ideas -- that are less perishable.)

To be an artist is to be a channel or gateway for creative power. Enjoy your appointment to the welcoming committee!

*"I held a Jewel in my fingers--" (#245)
Apr 05

Why Katie Couric Didn't Wash

The journalism people take seriously nowadays comes from ordinary folks acting as journalists, posting videos and opinions, and the trick to their success is that they are unencumbered by a corporation's bottom line or the strictures imposed on the news by advertisers. They might be crazy but at least nobody controls what they do. When I worked on a dailly newspaper I was not allowed to cover a strike at Boston's biggest department store because it was a major advertiser. Everyone in town knew about the strike but the paper pretended it wasn't happening. My paper didn't even like reporters even to leave the office because they thought maybe we'd go to some bar and party, or otherwise stick it to the man. It's kind of hard to do good community journalism when you aren't allowed out of the building. We gathered information by phone or rewrote press releases and printed them as news. This was immoral. We had become journalists to serve the citizenry with trustworthy information. We had been trained to be personally accountable to the truth. We resented being treated as inmates and became cynical about the profession we had loved.

You can't have good solid serious journalism without journalists who love what they do and take it seriously and don't have to be people-pleasers. They must have freedom. The newspaper editorial was invented specifically so the suits would have their space to vent. Now they use the news to vent and we have what's disparagingly called "the media", very obviously brokers and spin doctors, and if nobody wants to read newspapers anymore or watch TV's nightly news, it's no mystery as to why.

Despite the serious, prizewinning work she had done as a journalist, America's former sweetheart Katie Couric was not taken seriously as a nightly news anchor and after five years -- granted, an era where nightly network news is no longer important -- is on her way out. It isn't her femaleness (although the cuteness she used to stay on top at Today works against her now). She's just no good at being stuck in front of a camera with nothing else to do, nowhere else to put her energy but her voice and determined facial expression, no one to argue with. It's the dullest, most "figurehead" of the high-visibility jobs. She's a journalist who wasn't creating, wasn't writing, wasn't free except to do the occasional special or interview (such as with Sarah Palin). It gave Couric a discomfited, even constipated expression. Who wants to watch that?
Mar 28

They Don't Want You to Write

Am haunted by the women who sought me out after Saturday's talk at "Celebrating Women Over 50." I'd said that as new writers they should expect overt and covert opposition, especially when they seek solitude -- because the woman who shuts herself away to do art threatens those who think she "should be" a voluntary slave to her family, friends, job, house. I had said, "They're just jealous," because in an hour I couldn't to explain everything about it: that "It's not that they want you to care for THEM. It's that they can't stand seeing YOU taking care of YOURSELF." There'a discussion about exactly this in the book The Artist's Way (pp. 198-200). Author Julia Cameron calls such relatives and friends "Wet Blankets." I recommended writers' groups for support. But opposition should have been the topic of the whole workshop. It hit a major nerve.

One woman described her husband getting nervous and suddenly needing her when she tried to shut her door to write. "What would happen if I called HIM at work and told him to come home immediately and take care of MY emotional needs?" she asked. Of course, short of illness or death in the family he would tell her to take a flyer, and rightly so. Another woman described her husband's verbal abuse. It was classic:

1. Horrible verbal abuse occurs regardless of the seriousness of "what's wrong." (Crooked miniblind is as enraging as a wrecked car or an IRS audit.)
2. The abuser denies that it is abuse.
3. The abuser declares that if anything, the abused is the abusive and crazy one.
4. Verbal abuse never occurs in the presence of witnesses (except children, whose testimony is easily discredited).
5. The abuser denies that abuse occurred, even when there is proof, such as a recording.
6. To others the abuser is affable and reasonable and socially is the better-liked of the pair.

To anyone out there with this problem, let me save you five or ten years of trying to fix it: There is NO cure short of separation.

The people to hang out with, live with, be with, as you begin to write, are the people who support your efforts, and if you haven't got them at home, join a writers' group.
Feb 21

How Embarrassed I Am, Part I

Every writer has an embarrassment or two somewhere -- the first few publications, things we were so proud of that never should have seen the light of day. My first published short story was about a lesbian rejected by her family. The next was about an African-American woman who loved the blues and Hollywood musicals. I knew nothing about either situation including musicals but figured hey, it's fiction, I can make up what I want, right? Can't I? It's a free country! In my teens I put extra swearwords into a short story after I won a prize for it and got to read it aloud to a roomful of fellow students. Several years later I witnessed another young writer doing the same, and felt about 50 percent better, although my embarrassment is still such that 35 years later I will not attend class reunions. And what a firebrand I was, writing editorials for the student paper, so much so that I got taken to the woodshed by the faculty advisor. All I can say is: Wow, I had nuts! It was the 1970s! The first poet I ever saw was Nikki Giovanni, who wrote about cleaning her gun, for Chrissakes. I was reading feminist poetry in The Hand that Cradles the Rock and Mountain Moving Day. I don't recall that I ever read any short fiction before producing my own.

I was going to say how I can't forgive myself my premature publications and missteps, but realized that writers grow up in public, more so, than say, business or pre-med majors. There is still every chance that a fire will consume the archives. I wonder how it'll be for the young writers growing up online. I sure am glad there was no Internet when I was 19.
Feb 10

Mental Monsters - Vanquished

How creative is the art of worrying! A largely baseless concern was filling up every corner of my mind, like poison gas, with worry and fictive worst-case scenarios, making me feel both jittery and paralyzed. My options at these times are 1) petition God, the Tarot, horoscopes or therapists for answers and peace, 2) take a pill, 3) make myself write the Absolute Truth about the concern. Often the resulting draft is an accumulation of put-downs, childish rage, obscenities and rudeness, and if it has potential I try pounding it into shape. If it's a poem I may impose a form on it. I took one such draft and turned it into four-line stanzas of two couplets each, and every stanza had to mention the name "Richard" (a pseudonym for the real name) or a derivative thereof (such as "Keith Richards"). This took all evening. Now that it's polished and disciplined, I lick my chops with delight when I read it.

Baseless worry and catastrophizing are byproducts of a creative mind, so artists often suffer from these mental monsters, which are made up of backed-up, souring creativity. If such a thing is bothering you, write the absolute Truth about it.  No one has to see it. Or you may want everyone to see it.

Jan 22

I Remember This Girl I Hated

"Mickey," as she called herself (her name was Vivian) just loved to be wide-eyed and creative and stoned, and wear Danskins, and play with her food if someone was watching, and hang scarves from her apartment ceiling, and so forth. This was years ago; if it were today, she'd be designing slow-moving, psychedelic websites. She thought that although I said I was a writer, I was not creative. I lacked a cute haircut, a creative job. I wasn't taking a class in American Sign Language, lived in a basement I didn't bother to decorate.

I said creativity was not a feeling, or at least not necessarily a feeling. Writers create one step at a time, word after word after word, sentence following sentence. Creativity, yes, but sort of through a funnel. Plus some research and training.

She found this distasteful and made a childlike face, wrinkling her nose. If I had been five and not twenty-five, in return I would have stuck my tongue out.

Stoners, fake Buddhists, parlor pinks, and scarf-twirlers -- there they are, shelved in the past, where they stay, and where they belong.
Jan 22

Go Easy On Yourself

I've been fiercely disciplined lately. I'd love to go easy on myself today. So:

I will think highly of myself and my accomplishments. In fact I will list them.

I will finish a piece or leave it unfinished, as I please.

I won't wish I were another writer. I'm who I am, and I'm where I'm at. World, you can just deal with it.

I won't wish I had been born with an Anglo surname. I won't notice that the new issue of Natural Bridge, #17, features six "emerging writers" from around the U.S. Their surnames are: Boyle, Garrett, Fenton, Williams, Kohler, and Merrifield. (This issue was edited by John Dalton, who is a nice guy.)

Just for today, I'll puke up a draft of something new, maybe even something totally "out there," without caring how good it is and where I will publish it and how people may shun me when it's published. I may write as badly as I want, or as badly as I can. (Fun.) How about a poem about a dragon and a princess...
Jan 22


Whenever I read an excellent book I envy the writer. At least momentarily. I think, Gee -- what a mind that author must have. What creativity and perception! What inventiveness, what mastery of the form! Why, it's better than anything I could ever --

STOPPPPPP right there!

There are two cures for writers' envy.

1. Write your own stuff.

2. Decide that whatever that person wrote, you wrote. For example, I admire poet Lucia Perillo. I envy her talent and MacArthur grant. My envy might keep me from writing my own poems ("Oh, what's the use; she's doing it so much better!"). Instead, I tell myself, just for now -- (and I don't tell anyone else) -- "I wrote those poems. We are all one, so I wrote those poems too. And that means I can write more of them."

That way, Ms. Perillo's work becomes my inspiration, not my despair.
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