Beats the Alternative

In these contentious times, it’s easy to slide into focusing on what’s wrong with the world instead of what’s right with it, what’s missing rather than what’s present, the hurt others inflict while ignoring their capacity for compassion. So much seems to ride on perspective, which is fueled by attitude, which is shaped by awareness. I have to keep reminding myself to get to know someone on a personal level, hear their stories, see how they walk through their day, before asking about their political or religious leanings.

Easy to say, a challenge to do, especially in these times of binary thinking. The culture at large keeps channeling us toward judgement, which may feel satisfying on one level — superiority is an addictive emotion — but ultimately eats away at our souls.

I fail regularly, of course, in my drive to stay unequivocally openminded. But if I have one characteristic that sustains me, it’s persistence. Day after day it brings me back to the keyboard to write, and to my work-in-progress life — another form of revision. I keep on keeping on. Because, after all, what’s the alternative?

As Ron Padgett says in his poem, Excerpts from “How to be Perfect”: “Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel even older. Which is depressing.”

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In the Same Breath

Valentine’s Day has come and gone. For many it was filled with joy and gratitude, and celebrations of love (which often include chocolate). But for others it was a holiday they are all too glad to have in the rearview mirror, as it was just another reminder of an empty space, loss, and grief. How we perceive is governed by the lens through which we view, which in turn is forged by personal history.

For me Valentine’s Day is both. I am extremely fortunate to be in a relationship that has lasted over 46 years and is getting stronger all the time, so yesterday was filled with joy and celebration (and yes, chocolate). But February 14th is also the anniversary of my dad’s death, and so it is tinged with loss and sorrow. Polar opposite emotions, both in the same breath.

As a writer, I want to remember that what seems paradoxical in life often isn’t, and try to create characters that are complex and authentic.

As a human being, I want to honor that complexity in everyone, no matter who they are or what their personal history may be. It’s a Valentine’s gift of compassion I can give any day of the year.

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A Tree is Not a Forest

From Peter Wohlleben, forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees:

“A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old.”

Maybe we, as a species, can learn something from the plant kingdom?

Maybe we, as writers, can make a special point to nurture one another. We each grow taller when we all grow together.

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The Future

Starting in the summer of 2011, I have had the great privilege to serve on the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, low-residency MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. After 16 straight semesters, I decided to take a Leave of Absence.

The time off from teaching has been . . . complicated. I miss the students, faculty, and staff. And I even miss the ten-day residency — kinda, sorta, ish. (I’m an introvert and so find the beautiful chaos exhausting.)

That being said, I’m loving the extra bandwidth. Initially, I used a lot of that elbow room to catch up on outdoorsy adventures. (I didn’t realize what a deficit I’d built up.) And along with the trail running, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, rock climbing, and mountain biking, I ramped up my writing, too.

Lo and behold, as if on some sort of auto-pilot, the writing-ramping has continued ever since. I can’t remember that last time I felt this engaged in my work. I’ve finally finished my YA (again), and will be sending it out in the next couple of weeks. Next up is a nearly completed middle grade novel, another YA, and at least two picture books. Zoom!

All of this has given me a great deal of pause. I’ve spent hours on trail runs and hikes, thinking about my future. I’ve gotten left-brained about it, too, and made several lists: “What I’ve Accomplished at VCFA,” “What I’ve Fallen Short On,” “Pros and Cons of Staying vs Retiring,” etc. I feel I’ve been a good teacher, and have always given the students the 110% they deserve. I also feel I’ve been a good learner, and have reaped tons from all the lectures I’ve listened to, workshops I’ve been part of, readings I’ve heard, packets I’ve responded to. There is no better way to really comprehend something than to teach it. I feel so much more educated than I did when I joined the faculty. I’m rebooted, and totally stoked to charge ahead. The question is: Charge where, and how?

It wasn’t until I saw the email from the program director in my inbox titled “Teaching Plans” that I realized I needed to stop sitting on the fence and make a decision. I’m an optimist, and assume I’ll be able to continue writing as long as I live. But I can count. Bottom line: I’m no spring chicken. As much as I love teaching, I have to admit that I’m just not smart enough to do a good job with it and get lots of writing done. And getting lots of writing done has become #1 on my professional priority list. A fantastic job has been done of bringing on new faculty that are young, dynamic, stellar, and who, together with the rock-star lineup of veterans, will continue to elevate the program. It’s time for me to step aside and cede the podium. I am not signing off permanently. I’ve been generously offered the opportunity to sit “on the bench,” from which I can jump back in the game if the stars align and point in that direction. In the meantime, I’m on “extended hiatus.” Now, back to my writing . . .

P.S. Whether on the bench or in the game, I will always, ALWAYS, be a huge fan, and an advocate for VCFA! Writers, if you want to exponentially up your writing, apply today!

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The Hover Theory of Writing

“Running is flying.” So says Paul E. Richardson in his book of the same title. He backs up the assertion by pointing out what photos and slo-mo video confirm: “When you walk, one foot is always on the ground. When you run, most the time you are actually airborne . . . 76% of the time. So don’t think of it as a 10-mile run. Think of it as 7 miles of flying.”

As a trail runner, I find this math appealing, even if it doesn’t make the 7 miles and 1,000+ foot elevation gain to the top of Dimple Hill any easier. “No worries,” I can say to my sweaty, gasping, lead-legged self, “you’ve got wings on your feet!”

But could I also apply the same math to my writing? For every second a finger is actually pushing a key down, are there three or so in which they are flying?

No, not flying. How about . . . hovering? Yeah, that’s the word — hovering. I’m guessing that even with the complexity of ten fingers factored in, the majority of the time most of my digits are hovering over the keys. Sure, hovering because they are not needed for the creation of a particular word — “no, Z, you are not invited to the redundant baby shower.” But more often hovering because I am thinking about what I want to say next. Hovering while I consider how I want to say it. Hovering as I make sure I know why. Hovering while I ponder nuances. Or just hovering while I wait for my mind to un-blank. Lots of hovering.

So running is flying, and writing is hovering? What do you think? Anyone up for doing a scientific collection and analysis of data to prove or disprove my Hover Theory of Writing? I’m waiting, fingers poised . . .

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A Luminous Presence

I was already a huge fan of Toni Morrison. Her writing is raw, powerful, and at the same time beautiful. Now — after watching the documentary TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM — wow. I don’t toss the word “hero” around much, but she is one to me. Through her stories, she will always be a luminous presence in the world.

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What to read?

People joke about “so many books, so little time.” You can even buy a t-shirt with the phrase splashed across the front. But it’s true — there are so many books, and for me, who just turned 68 . . . well, I can do math. And so I find myself increasingly wanting to read very selectively, and only the books that will push me the most as a writer, and as a person. How do you decide what to read, or what to skip?

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