Tuesday, May 10, 2016

None of Us Will Have Enough Time

“I need a whole other life not to let this one go to waste.” 
Lera Auerbach, Excess of Being


In a recent interview with the poetry magazine jubliat, poet Lynn Xu was asked, "Why do poets want to publish? What part of the process or practice is publishing?" I love her response:

I don't know. I can't speak for everyone, but I think a lot of us publish because we want to be part of the history of reading, which is often a deeply private thing. 

[...] The book is at once made (the publishing model being one example, which includes the writer) and not made (it seems, so much of its life comes from the spontaneity of discovery, which is streamlined with one's life, where you happen to be, what you are doing, thinking, feeling, etc.)... As a child, it never occurred to me that books were made. They simply existed. And they belonged to everyone, no one. Their peculiar magic was that they seemed to exist at all times. 

To publish, maybe, is to borrow from this spontaneity of being. 


For the past few months, I've been thinking a lot about the place of publishing in our creative lives -- specifically, in my creative life. I've slowly come to realize that, without meaning to, for a long time -- since graduate school, it seems -- I've been living with this deeply held pressure to justify my creative work somehow, to make it fit into society's structure of money, business, productivity.

But art, by definition, does not fit into neat little boxes.

Maybe that is why it has been such a struggle for me at times to sit down at the computer and put in the writing time: I was trying too hard to cram my creative work into neat little boxes that could be packaged, commodified, sold. I've noticed that, for the past few years, I've muddled through long stretches of time when it feels like I am fighting my writing routine, thrashing against it, moaning to myself about how hard it is, and putting all sorts of pressure on myself. Sort of like a child who hates playing piano but his parents make him practice every day, so he practices for the exact amount of time he's supposed to -- not a minute more. In some slowly building way, writing has become something I have to do, and I lost sight of why I even want to do it in the first place.

Lynn Xu might say I lost my spontaneity of being. I lost track of that peculiar magic that links me to books, to communities, to other writers across time and space.

I found it again in the unlikeliest of places: Facebook.


I know, I know: Facebook is to a writer's productivity like sugar-and-caffeine-soaked soda is to a toddler's naptime. Not the most conducive. However, I was scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed the other day when I spotted a post by a writer acquaintance of mine. I met her at a conference years ago and, though we have not seen each other face-to-face since then, I have read and admired her work ever since. I especially remember how she treated me with such respect, even though I was the youngest faculty member by decades at this particular conference. She treated me like a peer, and I loved her for that. 

Her Facebook post was short and easy to scroll past, in the blur of cat snapshots and food snapshots and baby snapshots and election-related news articles. But something about it made me pause. What is she up to these days? I wondered, thinking perhaps this would be about a new piece being published somewhere, or one of her books winning another award. 

But no. In this post, just a few sentences long, she was saying goodbye. 

She explained that she had cancer and the tumors were steadily growing, outpacing her chemotherapy treatments, and that she was heading into hospice care soon. She stated, without a trace of self-pity, that she had enjoyed a rich and wonderful life and was grateful for all of the people and all of the love. She even apologized, writing that she knew everyone was hoping for better news.

I sat there, staring at my computer, utterly stunned and speechless and devastated.

This writer has published many beautiful and touching and important works during her time here. And yet, I am sure that she still has many more stories left inside her. Stories she won't have time to tell before her time runs out.

And in that moment, it struck me with force, like a punch in my gut: none of us will have enough time before our time runs out. 

photo credit: Dineshraj Goomany

I could live for a thousand years, and I know I would still die with stories left inside me, ideas germinating in my head, tales left to tell. 

For now, all I have is this day. This moment, here at my computer, translating the scattered thoughts in my head into words on this screen. This moment is all that I have guaranteed to me.

How valuable! How important! 

Why waste a single writing day? Why grumble and groan about how hard writing is? It doesn't matter if it's hard -- it is still a singular and precious gift. And I do not want to squander an hour that I could be writing with excuses and interruptions and chores. No longer. Not anymore.

It is a fact that I am going to die with stories left inside me. So until that comes to pass, it is my task, my journey, my calling, to let as many of the important stories out of me as possible. To share them with the world. To access the magical spontaneity of being that I am lucky to be a part of.


Lately, I have been feeling so much freer in my writing. I am trying to distance myself from publishing and worrying about readers or the future. Instead, I am sinking all of my energy into the process. For me, I am learning, the work itself is what is sustaining. The work itself is what matters. 

Rather than "clocking in" at my writing desk each day, now I sit down at my computer because I want to hang out with my characters for a bit. I want to listen to what they have to tell me, to discover what they have to share with me -- and to unpack the beatings of my own heart, too. 

I write for myself, and also for all the other writers who are no longer able to write. 

I write because I am part of a creative tradition, and that is a truly glorious gift. 

I write because these words, words that I wring out of my soul and onto the page one by one, slowly and steadily and joyfully and angrily and fiercely and rapidly and tiredly and passionately... these words are my legacy. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Writing Lessons from a Maxed-Out Yoga Class

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently moved to a new apartment. Habits researcher and author Gretchen Rubin writes, in her book Better than Before, that an excellent time to adopt new habits is when undergoing a shift or change in your life: a break-up, a new relationship, a new job, a home renovation, etc. Moving to a new place, it turns out, is actually the #1 time to successfully adopt new habits! So I leaped upon the opportunity to try cementing some new healthy habits that I had been wanting to fully integrate into my life.

Image source
One of these habits is going to bed earlier, so I can wake up earlier feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the day. Another is to focus on simplicity; I did a huge purge of clutter and papers before I moved, and I want to keep these nonessentials from slowly re-accumulating in my life, as they so often do. Also, I now begin every morning with two big glasses of water and a green smoothie. I try to write at least a couple hundred words on my creative work-in-progress each morning before I even check my email or work on projects for other people. And I am trying to set in stone a regular routine of going to the gym.

I belonged to a gym close by where I used to live, and I would go there fairly regularly, but it was never something I especially looked forward to. I could never figure out why. It was a nice gym, with lots of classes available and fancy amenities. I realize now that I did not fully feel comfortable there; the atmosphere was a bit competitive and intense, and I prefer my gym time to be low-key and low-stress. This new gym I joined by my new apartment is much less fancy, but much more my vibe: like me, the people who go there seem friendly, a little rag-tag, and much more interested in exercising for good health than for looks.

One of my favorite classes is a Monday morning gentle yoga class. The instructor is funny and upbeat, and the class always flies by and is the perfect way to ease into my week.

Lots of other people must think so, too, because the class is pretty much always filled to capacity. Classes work on a first-come, first-serve basis; when you arrive at the gym, you can ask for a pass to get into the class, and if they have any more available the person working the front desk will hand a pass to you. If not, you're out of luck!

Photo cred: tricsr4kidz, Flickr Creative Commons
One week, I was a little late getting out of bed and, even thought I arrived to the gym ten minutes before class was scheduled to begin, they were all out of passes. Rats! I thought, but it was not a big deal. I stashed my yoga mat in the locker room and worked out on the elliptical machine instead.

When I was leaving, about twenty minutes before the class was scheduled to end, another woman was standing by the front desk holding a yoga mat of her own. She spotted my yoga mat and summoned me over. "Were you kicked out of the class, too?" she asked.

"Well, I wasn't kicked out... there just wasn't enough room when I arrived."

This woman shook her head angrily. "It's not fair! They should have two classes! I got here at the time the class was supposed to start, and I wasn't able to get into the class! They kicked me out! It's not fair!" She was like a toddler having a tantrum, blaming everyone else but herself for her predicament.

The manager behind the front desk met my eyes with a helpless expression. I realized this other yogi had probably been angrily complaining to her for the past half hour. And now she was trying to get me to gang up on the manager about the completely fair gym policy.

"It was my fault," I said, shrugging. "I should have gotten here earlier. But I still had a great workout anyway!" And then I smiled at the manager and headed out the door. I could still hear the other woman sputtering.

This woman, with her countless loud excuses, reminded me of someone familiar: my writing self, at times. Or more accurately: my non-writing self. For as much as I want to spend my days writing up a storm, on a minute-by-minute level it often feels like writing is the last thing I want to be doing. Because writing is so often difficult! It requires so much thinking and feeling, so much honesty and bravery, and so much willingness to fail, to deal with uncertainty, to feel like you have utterly no idea if what you are creating is going to ever come together at all. Yes, it is scary and exhausting to, as Red Smith famously said, sit down at a typewriter (or computer or notebook), open your veins, and bleed.

Usually, I find it is especially difficult to begin. To climb back into whatever I am working on. To bridge the gap between the shining potential of the idea in my head and the stark lines of words marching imperfectly across the page. And the act of beginning is often when my excuse-laden self pops up and brightly says:

Oh, you can't possibly write today! Look how beautiful and sunny it is outside! You don't want to waste a day like this. Go make a picnic! Go for a hike! Now, now, now!

Oh, look how rainy and dreary it is outside. Why don't you curl up with that new novel you've been wanting to read? Reading a couple chapters will be good for inspiration. Go on, just for a bit. ... Oh, why not read for a bit longer? Reading is important for writing, after all.

Oh no, you woke up late! You're completely behind schedule! No time to write today!

Oh, you woke up early! Aren't you feeling a little groggy still? Why not get a jump on some other projects, and you can come back to your creative writing once your cup of Earl Grey has kicked in?  

Shouldn't you clean the bathroom? Wash the dishes? Put in a load of laundry? Vacuum the carpet? Your desk is looking quite messy -- probably best to organize it first, before you start writing.

Don't you have a little headache? Your back is feeling kind of sore? Maybe you're getting sick. You should go back to bed. You should rest. Is that a pain in your gut? Maybe you should eat something. Drink something. Go put on the tea kettle. Go make a sandwich. 

Oh, and you should definitely check your email and your cell phone! Can't miss any messages! It could be something important!

Does this sound familiar? I've grown to recognize the sabotaging excuse-monster in my head for what she is: afraid. She doesn't want to sit in the discomfort. She doesn't want to risk failure. And so she tries to veer me off course. And, on those days (thankfully, becoming rarer and rarer) when I give in and I don't get the writing done, and I feel guilty and angry for not writing, she always pops up on those days, too. She is filled with those same excuses for why I did not put time into my most meaningful work. She always wants to blame everything else in the world but my own decisions. She is like the other woman who did not get a pass for yoga class.

She has taught me: only by taking responsibility for my own actions, can I change them. Only by recognizing when I am making excuses can I put the brakes on the excuse-train. And only by truthfully assessing my old habits can I build new, better habits.

In a recent podcast with Arch Street Press, Dr. Douglass Jackson, founder of Project C.U.R.E., says, "Figure out what gets you so excited that it gets you up out of bed, puts your feet on the floor, and you just can't wait to get back to it."

Writing has always been that something to me. Now, my habits are reflecting this, too.

Ever since that week when I was too late to get a pass, I arrive to yoga class half an hour early. That early, I always am able to get a pass. I walk into the yoga room and lay out my mat on the smooth wooden floor. I have my pick of places in the room. And then I go ride the exercise bike or run on the elliptical machine until it is time for class to begin. Instead of feeling guilty and upset, I feel empowered.

I think that is one of the best ways to feel in our creative lives and our work lives and our personal lives and our whole lives: empowered.

And the best part of all? It is in our power, every single day, to create that feeling for ourselves.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Reading My Mind Through The Words of Others

{Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt}
Dylan Thomas said, “The blank page is where I read my mind.” Additionally, as writers—and, indeed, as people—we can learn and grow a great deal by reading the minds of others. In the forthcoming months on this blog, I will be posting about a few books that have taught me a great deal.

From The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, I have learned that a story can be as short as a paragraph, yet still feel complete and connect with the reader in a deep, visceral way. Davis’s piece “The Sock” is one of the most emotionally stunning stories I have read, even though it is only two pages long. Part of what makes it so affecting is that the crux of the piece hinges on a description of a sock—something so ordinary and even a bit distasteful. Who wants to read a vivid description of a smelly, sweaty sock? Yet this is precisely what gives the sock its power as an object: it is so utterly personal, like underwear but without the sexual connotation. The main character is a divorced woman and the sock is used to characterize her ex-husband. Even more poignantly, the sock provides a glimpse into their relationship, as the woman remembers the countless times she had picked up her husband’s socks in all their years together. The juxtaposition is striking; she intimately knows how he takes off his socks while reading in bed (she describes his feet resting together “like two halves of fruit”) and yet now they are living separate lives, and he is married to a different woman.

In this story and others, I like that Davis doesn’t spell everything out for the reader; questions about her characters linger afterward. Often after finishing one of her stories, I immediately want to go back and read the story again. Even months after reading "The Sock," the main character has stayed with me. In my experience, the best stories are like that; they stick with you long after the book has been closed and put back on the shelf. 

Other stories that have stayed with me are those in the beautiful book a picture is worth…(Arch Street Press). The words of these sixteen young adults are incredibly poignant, honest, and filled with raw emotion. I am most struck by their mature insights and deep reflections on their lives, both the joyful and painful memories.

Betania captures the mingling of excitement and frustration that comes with artistic expression: “Just a couple of days ago, a professor from New York came and she taught photography and how to tell stories through pictures. … [She] got the school to provide us with cameras and she took my classmates and me out to our community to capture pictures. I loved the program and you really get to see that anything can be picture-perfect and everything is beautiful in its own little way. It made me see my community differently and I appreciate her for that. I didn’t like my pictures; at the moment that I captured the photos I thought they were amazing but then when I saw everyone else’s, I lost all hope in my pictures” (pg. 95). I think every artist has felt that sinking tug towards “the comparison trap”—you feel delighted with your work initially, but then at some point your internal critic takes over and suddenly it seems that everyone in the world is more artistically gifted than you are. I wish I could tell Betania: your photographs are perfect because they were created by the one-and-only you! 

Ashley’s story of resilience and strength is incredibly moving. She describes cutting the word “crazy” into her arm after being bullied in school and being made to feel like an outcast. She describes moving from town to town, school to school, and battling depression: “I was simply a shell in my own life: looking pleasant on the outside but empty inside. All I wanted was for someone to come up to me and tell me that they knew exactly what I was going through and how I felt. I wanted them to tell me that they had a solution, but that didn’t happen. Why didn’t anybody just ask me how I was or how I felt?” (pg. 24). A common theme that runs through many stories in the book is a yearning for care and compassion. In this way, the book expands into not simply narratives about what it is like to be a young person in the world today, but rather what is means to be human. For this is a crucial aspect of our common humanity: wanting to be loved and seen and heard and understood.

{image credit}
Eventually, Ashley manages to reach out for help and begins to make more connections at school. She writes she has “come to realize that things always get better. Everyone has to go through hard times, some harder than others, but in time cloudy skies will clear away.”

 Hope for the writer, and hope for the reader, too.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Unpacking Boxes + Developing Characters

Last month, I moved into a new apartment. Moving made me appreciate many things anew, such as how each room its own unique space with its own special function and purpose -- and yet, the individual rooms meld wonderfully into a whole space. A home. To me, this parallels the way a successful story or novel melds individual elements -- characters, place, theme, tone -- into a wonderfully whole, cohesive piece.

I have been dreaming about this move for a while. It is a big new leap for me, and an exciting step forward in my relationship. I am “living in an atmosphere of growth” -- one of the main keys to happiness that researcher Gretchen Rubin writes about in her book The Happiness Project. Every day when I come home and fit my key into the lock, a tiny thrill passes through me to realize: I live here now.

And then I open my front door. And I remember that, as exciting and beautiful and necessary as moving forward is, it is also messy. Moving is hard work. Moving is boxes and boxes and boxes to unpack and sort through and put away. Changing, growing, building means re-examining every single one of those things we are carrying through this life with us and asking ourselves whether it still serves us. Whether it is worth holding onto. Or whether it is perhaps time to let go. 

Yes, in order to fully embrace all the bright potential of the future, we must loosen our grip on the past. On the way things have always been done. On our preconceived notions and expectations. Change, even positive change, is chaotic and uncomfortable and a little bit scary. The best way to overcome our fears is to embrace them. How do we embrace change? By being creatively open to new ideas.

From one of my many boxes, I unearthed notes I had jotted down during the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference two years ago. These notes are from a session about developing the emotional lives of our characters.

Character questions: 
- What does this character love more than anything else in the world? 
- What would hurt this character more than anything else in the world? 

You need to believe that the story can surprise you. Think about what you know about the story and go in the opposite direction. If you can surprise yourself, then you can surprise the reader. If you do the work of place and character, then the story can surprise you.

I love this idea of being surprised by the story, and not by a cheap gimmick or trying to play a trick on the reader; rather, being surprised by the story because you have done the real work of developing your characters and walking around spaces with them. In other words, you have unpacked their boxes. And there might be a box or two way over in the corner, or hidden in the back of their closet, that will surprise you in a genuine, authentic way. That is the type of discovery I aim for in my writing.

In his masterful book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberation the Creative Soul, author David Castro spends a whole chapter delving into human emotional motivation. Not only is this insightful information for us as people existing in a complex society, it is also very helpful to think about when developing characters:

"Emotion deeply informs motivation; strong emotional intensity provides the energy for action. Weak intensity manifests as low energy, producing ineffective or meaningless responses. Individuals and teams may learn to mask their emotions, expressing feeling only through movement toward what they desire and away from what they detest. In some cultures, direct displays of emotion are not common and may be viewed as wasted opportunities for action. Expressions such as 'Don't get mad, get even' and 'Still waters run deep' exemplify this recognition that powerful emotional responses may remain hidden while they animate action from beneath the surface." -- pgs. 155-156
What great questions to ask yourself -- and to ask of your characters! I'll add them to my jotted-down list from above:

Character questions: 
- What does this character love more than anything else in the world? 
- What would hurt this character more than anything else in the world? 
- What hidden emotions animate or amplify this character's actions?
- On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being a robot and 10 being dramatic fireworks) what is the baseline emotional intensity of your character?

By asking these questions, we get to know our characters on a deeper level. We have a blueprint for them as individuals that we can carry throughout our journey with them. When we develop the emotional lives of our characters, they become whole, flawed, nuanced, authentic human beings. In short, they become REAL.

Now... time for me to head back to unpacking. Like so many worthwhile activities in life, moving is hard work -- but it is good work, too. The only way for us to deepen and expand as people -- and the only way for us to grow as writers -- is to keep moving forward. To keep unpacking our boxes. To keep using our creative imaginations to explore the rooms in this diverse, lovingly rooted, marvelous world we share together.

Friday, January 29, 2016

My Thoughts About Writing, Revising, and Finding Your Genre

One of my guided writing mentees recently sent me a list of terrific interview questions, and she gave me permission to share them, and my answers, with you! I hope these thoughts might be useful or motivating. I would love to hear your comments and answers to these questions below! 

You can also read my thoughts on teaching creative writing here.

My writing desk

When you are writing, do you think about the age differences of your readers? If so, do you have to change anything to make it more age appropriate? 

Usually, I do not think about the age differences of my readers when I am writing the first draft of my story. I prefer to let the story flow out of me as it feels most natural, and not to think too much about ANYBODY reading it -- that sometimes causes me to worry and freeze up and get writers' block. Revising is when I think about my intended audience and the possible ages of my readers. Since I do not write horror or crime novels, I have never really had to worry about inappropriate violence or anything like that. In my latest novel, I did go back through and scale back some of the adult language and sexuality, since the book is intended for a teenage audience.

Was there a teacher in the past that inspired/pushed you to write, or did writing just come naturally? 

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful teachers who have been SO supportive of my writing over the years! I would say my answer to your question is both -- I was inspired by teachers, AND writing came naturally to me. It’s funny, but looking back it’s difficult for me to remember a time before I loved to write! I learned to read when I was four years old, and I gobbled up books. Like many kids, I made up stories; I was compelled to write my stories down. I think this was largely due to my dad being a writer. Every night, my parents would read me bedtime stories, and every morning I would come downstairs and see my dad writing. As a result, I was very aware that someone had written the books I so loved to read. And I decided that I wanted to be someone who writes books for other people to enjoy.

My dad remains the first person who reads my work. His feedback and encouragement are invaluable. I remember when I was little, he would let me type out stories on his computer once he had filed his column for the day -- how special that was! Also, when I was in the first and second grade I was lucky to have an amazing teacher, Diane Sather, who encouraged my love for writing. I remember she had me read one of my stories to the class. I got such a burst of joy from sharing what I had written with others. It never crossed my mind to just write for myself.

How long does it usually take for you to revise your writing or do you just write it and send it off? 

I ALWAYS revise my writing! I think writing without revising would be like trying to play a sport with your shoes untied. You should use every tool in your writers toolbox to make your writing the best it can be! I like to set aside my rough drafts for a few weeks or even a month, so then I can come back and read it with "fresh eyes" and an open perspective. Often I immediately find changes I wish to make, on the word level and on the bigger plot level -- phrasing that sounds awkward, scenes that need to be further developed, actions that don't make much sense. And just one round of revision is never enough. For example, with my most recent novel, I revised it at least seven or eight times -- all 300 pages! -- and it morphed into a whole new book compared to the rough draft. I spent about one year writing the first draft and two years revising it. Sometimes writers start off not liking the revision process very much, but revising has become something I truly enjoy! It is your chance to make your work better and better, to see the world and characters really come alive. I think rough drafts are when you (or, I should say, when I, because all writers are different and I am just drawing from my own experience) sketch out my ideas with rough lines, and the revising process is when everything gets filled in and becomes real.

Do you write in more than one genre? 

Yes, I write both fiction and nonfiction. I would say my "home genre" (where I feel most comfortable and gravitate to most often) is realistic fiction, and more specifically YA realistic fiction. I write short stories for adults as well, and sometimes my fiction crosses over into the magical/fantastical realm. For nonfiction, I most often write short essays about personal experiences I have had, and I also write journalistic articles for magazines and websites. This might entail interviewing people and doing research, which can be a fun break from exploring my own mind and thoughts. When I was younger, I used to write poetry, but I do not write in that genre much anymore.

How did you discover what genre you are best at writing? 

Hmmm... good question! I'm not exactly sure how I knew what I was "best" at writing; I think I simply focused on what genre I enjoyed the most and felt most natural to me. I wrote in that genre the most, and the more you write, the better you become! I also think each idea you have or project you embark on has its own form and genre that feels most natural to the idea itself. For example, sometimes I do not realize I am writing a fantasy story until something magical enters the page -- and it feels like a surprise to me as much as to the reader, but it also feels RIGHT, like it just fits, and I realize that story wants to be magical/fantasy. I just need to listen to the genre of each project instead of trying to force it into a box of my own design. One final thing I would say about this is not to worry about forcing YOURSELF into a "genre box" either -- you are free to write in all different genres and all varieties of projects! Write what you feel excited and passionate about. That is the most important thing.

Do you enjoy teaching other people how to write? 

Oh, yes! It is one of my favorite things. I especially enjoy teaching writing camp and working with talented young writers like you who have a passion for writing and really love writing to begin with. That is my favorite environment to teach in. I have also taught writing to students (for example, as a guest speaker/teacher, a private tutor, and a college writing instructor at Purdue University) who don't really care about writing or want to write. In that arena, my goal as a teacher is to help them see the profound importance of writing and how becoming a better communicator will help them in any field they choose to go into. With all my students, my ultimate aim is to increase their confidence and joy as writers. Teaching writing helps me remember the magic and wonder of the creative process, and my students often inspire me with their enthusiasm and hard work! Also, teaching keeps me honest with my own writing practices. If I am telling students to find at least fifteen minutes to write every day, then I had better be practicing the same advice myself and writing every day, too! :)

Monday, January 11, 2016

Opening Your Eyes to the Newness in the Familiar

"Hey, can we go for a walk now? I'm ready!"

One thing I love about going home for the holidays to visit my parents is that it feels, in a way, like I get to briefly remove myself from time. Many things about my usual routine are shaken up in the best way possible. Instead of feeling pressured by my typical to-do list and errands, I woke up in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by cozy and comforting knick-knacks. Instead of driving around town to tutor students in the afternoons, I lounged on the couch with a thick novel, chatted with my parents, and visited my grandfather who lives down the street. I helped my mother cook dinner, played board games with my brother, went out to the downtown Irish pub with my dad, and met up with old friends at the local coffee shop we used to frequent in high school. I spent time reflecting on the year that had passed, and dreaming about the year to come.

Perhaps my favorite “vacation routine” when I am home visiting my parents is taking our boxer dog Murray for his morning and evening walks around the neighborhood. Every day we would walk the same loop, yet every day I would notice new, startling details:
  • A small bird strutting jauntily across the street, like a band leader in a parade.
  • Sprinklers watering a front yard of dead grass.
  • A toddler shrieking with glee, running in circles in a driveway as her mother watched with a tired smile, raising a hand to us in greeting as we walked by.
  • Bushes laden with bright red berries.
  • A father and son playing catch in the park.

So many rich and beautiful details that it would be so easy to miss, if you were not paying attention and looking for them. And indeed, we would pass many other morning walkers on their phones or listening to music, rushing ahead with a glazed look in their eyes.

Meanwhile, every single day, Murray exuberantly sniffed at plants and lampposts and studied the sidewalk like it was a brand-new territory to explore -- even though it was the exact same path he had taken the day before, and the month before that, and the year before that. Perhaps he is on to what it means to be a writer: mining the same inner territory, day after day after day, for new sparks of joy and wonder.

Now, when I feel creatively blocked or when I am out of ideas or when the writing just doesn't seem to be going anywhere fruitful, I think of Murray's excited daily exploration. He is a reminder for me that being a writer is not so much about coming up with some totally new, never-before-seen-or-done IDEA. Rather, I like to follow acclaimed author Pam Houston's advice (from a wonderful talk I was fortunate to attend at a writers conference) and think of myself more as an observer, seeking out the extraordinary in the ordinary.


As Lera Auerbach writes in her wise, magical book of aphorisms and musings Excess of Being: "These thoughts have occurred to many people and for a very long time. I just happened to write them down."

Here's to a sparkling new year filled with open eyes, even -- perhaps most importantly -- in our familiar, everyday surroundings and routines. Here's to being world-class observers. Here's to writing it down.

And, Murray would like to add: here's to lots and lots and walks.

All tuckered out after a long walk.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Unlock Creative Potential by Asking, "What If...?"

Last month, the new Broadway musical If/Then came to San Francisco, and one Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I took the BART train into the city to see it. Legendary vocal powerhouse Idina Menzel is the star of the show, which in itself was enough to convince us to buy tickets—but I was also intrigued by the premise of the story.

The central question that winds its way throughout the entirety of If/Then is “What if…?” The musical explores the two divergent paths a woman’s life might take based on a single decision made at the show’s beginning: whether she goes to a concert with one friend, or to a political demonstration with a different friend. It might seem like a small decision, and yet the two paths veering off from this one everyday, spur-of-the-moment choice lead her in altogether different life directions.

In real life, of course, we have of way of knowing “what if…?” We make our choices, and life takes us where it will. We deal with the consequences of our actions, large and small, the good and the bad.

However, this question of “what if…?” is something that drives me as a writer. Numerous story ideas have been sparked to life when I observe something in the world around me and ask myself, “What if..?” Another version of this question is, “What would it be like to be that person, to go through that experience, to feel those emotions, to live that life?” Asking the question, “What if…?” unlocks our imaginations, and thus also fuels our empathy and understanding for others. And that, I believe, is the central purpose of reading, writing, and creating art: fostering empathy and connection among human beings past, present and future.

By asking, “What if…?” you can also spur your creativity by challenging yourself to stretch as a writer and try something new. For example, asking myself, “What if I tried telling a story in reverse chronology, from the end to the beginning?” sparked an idea for the unique braided-narrative structure of my latest novel.

In the beautiful and thought-provoking book a picture is worth... (Arch Street Press) young people tell their own stories in their own words. Woven into their narratives is the implicit question, "What if...?" Their futures are wide-open roads brimming with possibility. You can feel the energy behind this "What if?" question when reading this book. As the young writers reflect insightfully and powerfully on their past experiences, we can't help but wonder -- with hope and excitement -- what is next for each of these brave, strong young people.

I loved this chapter epigraph midway through the book, a quote by Paulo Freire:

"For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other." 
In other words: "What if...?" Let us all continue to ask and dream and create with this question guiding us through our imaginative lives.