Wednesday, November 14, 2012

revising a life

Just back from a particularly sweaty walk in my West Portland neighborhood. I often go on these make-it-up-as-I-go-along quests when I'm feeling the metal edges of the hamster wheel too acutely.

This was a five-miler, lots of up and down, and at the end, as I turned up my street, I ran into a neighbor lady out on her own sojourn. A woman who I'd just heard was recovering from breast cancer. She looked lovely in her white knit cap and scarf. Alive, the way only a scrape with cancer can propel a person into aliveness. She was taking a little post-chemo constitutional, and I flagged her down.

Her son is a year ahead of mine in school, so we chatted about freshman year and the local high school and the things that are most important to 14-yr-old boys.

Ah, life. The seasons, the trajectory, the misfires and mayhem. You just never know, right? One day you're thinking you should give that gluten free diet another chance, or hm, maybe go somewhere warm for spring break. The quotidian, "Gee, what should I make for supper." Next day your husband gets hit by a trolley. Which leads me to my little cardio-epiphany on today's slog.

It had to do with God. Really, apropos of nothing, after cresting a particular muddy hill clotted with wet leaves, the idea of God as a writer of the Big Narrative crystallized. What if God was writing a book, and the default for this book was to have each character follow his or her well-worn arc in service to the grand trope. Behave in ways that were consistent with the narrative, because God is under contract to produce a certain type of book. Thinking some more about this, the oft-spoke term "Let go and let God" came to mind, and I had a visceral reaction to it. A roiling rejection of the notion that a person should break their particular stranglehold on something and let the chips fall where they may, as opposed to, say, giving God a little smack. A little, "WTF, Dude (sorry, God will always be a dude in my mind), I'm not down with the plan."

 Did I just swear at God? *Turns around to see if a lightning bolt is on its way through the window*

Heresy aside, what if, instead of believing in a power greater than oneself as the platitude offers, people began to embrace the highest power--the God--inside themselves.What if people were encouraged to stray from the prescribed path in service to their own narrative?

That's when Malala came to mind. Malala, the current face of courage and rebellion. The girl who, with everything stacked against her, continues to write her own narrative, embracing that fire within, bucking the tide.

I was thinking that how the long-sufferers of the world, those chronically complaining that the wrong people keep coming into their lives, and that their jobs suck, and that they can't get no, hey, hey, hey, that those folks are often the ones who invoke God's will when it comes to dealing with their chronic misfortunes. What if those people took the pen from God's hand, just once, and revised the section of the narrative in which they get fucked over, yet again. (Writers know about this. We hear our characters staging revolts all the time. On the page for me today, in fact, my character smacked me upside the head and declared, I'm not doing that. Thus the need for the walk.)

But in terms of staring down the alpha--having the hubris, the audacity, to grow the balls to make the scary decisions, to Malala your way to your dream come-what-may, I'm for it.

What would you be willing to throw away for the dream?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

brooklyn castle

Last week I took my schoolteacher husband to see this documentary about a Title 1 public school in Brooklyn nationally recognized for its chess team. Really, I just wanted to have a date with the hub--you know when you get that urge to hold your guy's hand in the dark? It was one of those.

Kirk has been having a really crappy year at school. His district is operating on a skeleton budget, and over the summer the administrators played Pick Up Sticks with the staff in a desperate attempt to balance a totally out-of-whack fiscal situation. You know, the "cliff" everyone's talking about. He has over 40 kids in a few classes. He's teaching a grade he hasn't taught since his practicum days some 35 years ago while grade school teachers have been transferred to high schools faced with subjects they are ill-equipped to teach. I could go on and on, but I'm going to stop there, because this isn't a rant. No, it's a love note.

What makes Brooklyn Castle such a satisfying film has to do with the humanity that pours out of kids and teachers on the screen. The documentary covers more than a year at the school, and follows several students through the ups and downs of competition and the realities of an economy where social programs and education are perennially on the chopping block.

 The filmmaker does a masterful job of bringing out the kids as they really are. Capturing the essence and spectrum of adolescence. The hopes. Pitfalls. Fear of failure. And the backdrop of dedicated teachers and administrators pushing that rock uphill during a perilous time in our economy makes the movie all the more stunning.

Kirk and I both teared up. Sitting there in an audience of four, quietly holding hands and rooting for these kids, for the school. And what a week to be watching such a film, right? The hurricane. The election. So much at stake.

The common denominator of the last seven days, I think, is love. When human beings work together, striving to accomplish that thing just outside the grasp, it's infectious.

What has inspired you lately?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Thursday, November 01, 2012


  Greetings from your resident naysayer and spoilsport. Today is November 1st. Day of the Dead AND day one of the 2012 NaNoWriMo blitz. Coincidence? I think not.

Don't get me wrong, I have been a fan of the writing bootcamp, and think it can be instrumental in getting a project off the ground. I've done it. It was an interesting experience, and I got a lot of pages written. Where are those pages now, you ask? On a long crashed hard drive--but the kernel of my project morphed into something that ultimately survived.

The best part of the experience for me was the connection element. I had a few buddies, and at the end of each session we'd trade our final paragraphs of the day. I looked forward to them sparkling down in my inbox, and was eager to share my own, so that kept me motivated and accountable.

That said, I do have reservations about NaNoWriMo. Or, I should say, one GINORMOUS reservation, and that is, the experience can lead to the absolute opposite outcome for writers. Instead of fueling production, it can be one more distraction. E.g. checking in on all your fellow WriMos to see how many words they've written, or spending additional time blogging, responding to blog posts and tweeting about word count, or lack thereof. Even locating the widget you want and backending it onto your blog sidebar can take as much time as writing four pages.

Can you say sink hole?

In the last four years, since my foray, writing communities have bubbled up all over the place. Social media and its ubiquitous, meteoric presence can be another full time job on its own, so with the addition of WriMoVille, you're taking minutes away from writing time. And who has minutes, right?

A few months ago, I wrote a novel in 70 days. A novel that, according to my agent, was in pretty good shape. The final draft took another three weeks, and now it's out to editors, so it's not that I'm a killjoy regarding butt-in-the-seat. For me, it's all about focus. I had to do less things instead of more things to get those 60K words down (and those were the keeper words--double that for rough draft). I had to be strict about my time on social media and extra curriculars and the sorts of communication enticements dangled before me.

I do like the idea of setting goals though, and I think what's most important about the idea of National Novel Writers' Month is figuring out what's the right goal for you. Maybe it's three chapters you work hard to polish. Maybe it's shitting out that initial lump of coal. Maybe it is, indeed, simply connecting with a writing community. My bit of caution, as a dyed-in-the-wool non rule-follower, is to make your WriMo experience particular to your goals as a writer. Don't get sucked in by the numbers unless that's what's important to you as a writer. In other words, make your own rules!

So tell me, writers, what do you wish for writing selves this month?