I’ve been a fan of Artists’ Tea since moving to Joshua Tree, California, 3 years ago, and I am thrilled to be the guest artist on Sunday, Feb 16, 2020. Join me in this exquisite setting for a free talk about how I seek metaphorical connections to find a “way in” to writing creative nonfiction, particularly the personal narrative. Participants will have an opportunity to produce a short written piece that they may, if they wish, share with the group. If you’re in or anywhere near Joshua Tree, I hope you’ll meet us at Cap Rock.
In Joshua Tree, California, we have a community lecture series called “Teddy” Talks, a take on the famous TED talks. They’re held at Beatnik Lounge, an art space and JT’s unofficial community center. This month I appeared with two other authors, Rose Baldwin and Gabriel Hart. We had a blast. The crowd was kind and interested, the conversation stimulating. My talk was titled: Rejecting the Rules and Criticism that Derail Writers. The subject is dear to me. I also discussed both my novel Not On Fire, Only Dying and my brand-new, flash fiction chapbook, Swap / Meet.
So if you have fifteen minutes for my two cents, click below.
Sometimes I wonder if I have the face of a woman who needs help. I am frequently offered advice. I do ask lots of questions, and I can see how that might seem, to some, like I want answers. Probably I’m just being polite. Or I’m after your stories. I want to get you talking so I can watch. I want to hear what you don’t tell me. Keep talking. I’m not listening, but I am.
Now, days before my 50th birthday, I look in the mirror and see a face with deepening lines, silver hair, and eyes that have seen love and marriages and travel and motherhood and shitty jobs and rescued animals and exhilarating art and my own writing published and grief and failure and a second, solo, cross-country move that finally convinced me I might be kind of a badass. I see the face of a woman who has a word or two of advice to GIVE, in fact.
Not that you asked. So go ahead and ignore me. Or listen for what I don’t say.
Lighten Up, Francis. Humor is a survival skill, especially in dark times like these we’ve lived since November 2016. Some of us can’t stay afloat without it. Humorlessness is tiresome. It does not prove your commitment to the resistance. In fact, since humor disarms and draws others in, it can be a useful tool. Not everything is a fight to prove your position is the correct one. Life is hard and brief, so maybe just crack a smile. It’s good for you, and the rest of us, too.
I Would Prefer Not To. It’s okay to say NO, and you don’t even have to come up with an excuse. NO to going to that thing you dread. NO to small talk with that acquaintance you don’t trust. NO to gatherings where you’re expected to play an old role. NO to staying where it’s safe but not happy. You deserve joy in every shade of the spectrum: comfort, safety, friendship, support, bonding, duty, desire, lust. And everything in between. Move towards joy, always. Move away from anything less.
It’s Going To Be A Beautiful Wall. You’re the architect of your life. Get your hands on those blueprints ASAP. Construct your present, add on, renovate, tear it down to sticks and start over. Point yourself in the direction of a future you’d like, but understand it’s like a note added to a dinner reservation: “Quiet table by the window, please.” We regret to inform you that requests are not guaranteed. However old you are, you’ve been hearing it all your life—how things should be done. What you ought to do, and in what order. How you must behave. Has it occurred to you that it might be bullshit? You have one chance to experience life. Take a big bite, a wide view. Be a good enough friend to yourself to build and fortify your boundaries. Make them beautiful—opaque, if not transparent. Sturdy.
People Are Strange When You’re A Stranger. It’s not wrong just because it’s unfamiliar to you. We all have a different way of being in the world. Notice your resistance—when you feel defensive, you’re bumping up against one of those “shoulds” you were taught and maybe believed. Breathe, listen. You, too, can live any damn way you please.
Ten years ago this month, I stopped working. By then I was a Senior Book Buyer for the wholesaler Baker & Taylor. My coworkers were wonderful and I received an education in the art and science of book buying and selling. I watched publishing change and keep changing. I was a single mom working full time and, now, as a married mother who does not report into an office every day, I can tell you: those years were harder.
“What do you do?” That’s now my least favorite question. I no longer have a title. I don’t have an easy answer.
Well, I’m a mom.
I work at home.
I don’t work outside the home.
I’m a writer.
I’m trying to be a writer.
(“Stay At Home Mom” is like nails on a chalkboard for me. In my ears it is patronizing and inaccurate. I have yet to come up with anything better.)
I deliver whatever answer I can manage apologetically, uncomfortably. Then I’m sorry for that, too. I feel, each time, as if I must explain myself, my lack of a “real” job.
And yet a job is often the least interesting thing about a person. What I want to know is:
Who are you?
What’s important to you?
What do you pour your heart and sweat into, regardless of whether you’re paid?
In the last ten years, I raised a remarkable child. I worked hard to lay a good foundation, and I work still, even as my son assumes control of his own life. I always thought raising a good human being was a gift to the future, as important as any contribution. I’m glad I took the time I needed to do it right.
In those years I also wrote and published a variety of short fiction, creative nonfiction, reviews, and multimedia work. I discovered a vibrant and supportive online community and took on volunteer editorial positions. I wrote what became my novel Not On Fire, Only Dying. I scribbled sentences even as the school bus rounded the corner. I remained grateful for this gift, this privilege of time. I worked all day, and then my son came home from school and I worked some more. Like every mom does.
What do I do? I’m a writer. Only now, at 47, my son halfway through high school, and my debut novel forthcoming, do I feel entitled to claim that. Although I always knew it. In my gut, ears, eyes. My voice might lower when I say it, but I’m not apologizing. I’m not uncomfortable.
I’m trying not to be uncomfortable. That’s also what I do. Just ask.