Boundaries, Binders and Bravery

Earlier this month, I met with the fabulous Frances McCue who, among many things, is a writer, co-founder of Seattle’s Richard Hugo House and a self-described arts instigator. The most impactful facilitator of my Artist Trust EDGE experience in 2012, Frances inspired me to think more expansively about my creative life by describing the interlocking layers of her own. What I learned in EDGE has proved seminal to the development of my writing practice, which has, in turn, caused me to consider the world differently.

As we sat down, she drew a large sheet of white butcher paper over the café table and used it to visually map the notes of our conversation. Listening to her assess my writing practice, I was surprised and relieved when she summed up what I’ve been struggling to describe for months – namely that my work is about making writing and the creative process visible. She wrote it down and circled it, and it has been on my mind ever since.

In the meantime, I’ve been working on an essay about A Novel Performance, an experience that revealed and turned many things inside-out in ways I couldn’t anticipate. After spending a month on the third floor, I look at the role of the public library differently, as well as its architecture; I approach my creative process with fresh intentions and, I hope, those who saw the installation are thinking about writers and the value of their work in new ways, too. I’ll be sending that essay around this month, and hope to be able to share news of its publication.

Looking back at my proposal to 4Culture, I see a determined naiveté, which is how all proposed art projects appear upon later review. (Or, maybe it’s just me.) You can never truly conceive of the mountain you’ve set before yourself when you’re dreaming up an idea, or the ways in which you will change during and after the climb. Maybe this is a good thing, for we probably wouldn’t undertake these projects if we knew what would they call on us to do, or how they would irrevocably change us.

Even when we invite change, we still want to direct our own self-development. Yet, in order to evolve in any situation, we must face things outside of our control, learn to adapt goals and expectations, and innovate when what we desire or depend on –the so-called constant– does not materialize as we’ve dreamed. We put ourselves into creative risk again and again because we know we cannot relinquish control any other way. Last year, if someone told me to spend a month in a public building that I didn’t like where strangers could watch me write on a big screen with nothing more between us than three feet of air and a stanchion rope, I would have said they were nuts.

Thinking about the openness and quality of light in the Central Library’s Living Room, my own living room for the month of November, gives me a sensory metaphor for the way I’m approaching the new year. For all of my literary achievements in 2014, including (finally!) publication of a short story, my focus remained heavily on building infrastructure and understanding process – a lot of inward-facing stuff. In certain sense, A Novel Performance was a coming-out party, as if my writing practice was an origami cootie catcher and I was able, at last, to unfold and unfold and unfold, and lay the whole thing open.

Many things feel this way to me now: my home life and friendships, travel, the topics I’m planning to write about and, in a way, the world. I came out of NaNoWriMo with several new ideas that I can’t wait to begin, and one older piece to tie up; as always, finding time outside of work is the greatest challenge. Still, every time I begin to grouse, I consider what I achieved only a month ago. If I could write 70,000 words in 27 days, how might I leverage those lessons into a more grounded regular practice? One of my new year’s goals is to finish one piece a month, whether flash fiction, essay or short fiction. (Last year, I completed five.)

Part of what I learned was how to filter the less important stuff. Obviously, NaNoWriMo is an extreme experience intended to be transitory, but it taught me how to identify the attention-gobbling minutiae. Day to day, I press myself to choose: what’s more important, writing or ____? A bike ride or an evening with friends often wins because health and relationships are deeply important to me, and part of the greater joy of living.

That’s how I look at opportunities now: will ____ feed my understanding or love of being alive? Will it make someone else’s life better? Will this activity give me exercise or rest? Does it feed me in some way – mentally, physically, spiritually? When it’s done, will I feel happy or satisfied in some way, or will I wish that I would have better spent those precious hours, which I’ll never get back? It’s easy to go on auto-pilot when we’re tired, so I find myself constantly remembering to stay present enough to ask: which things are part of my overall master plan? The ones that pass the test usually do two things: enhance inner joy and provide some sort of creative inspiration.

The last bit is the biggest learning I think I’ll do in my lifetime (still working on it) – namely that, when you’re in creative flow, almost any experience can be an opportunity for growth. The ones that aren’t –mindless video games, for instance– must go. (Except Scrabble. That’s kind of educational, right?)

Another plan for the new year is to let go of fear as a driving force. How many of our decisions are based on apprehension of a negative outcome? We despise it, but fear is very familiar to us and humans do nothing so well as cling to the pain we know. We stay in jobs we dislike because they provide financial security or we maintain ill-fitting relationships for fear of loneliness or loss of a future boon. For its cloak of supposed benefits, fear is crushing to the artistic spirit. It’s almost impossible to create something when you’re focused on mitigating potential disaster, loss or disappointment. It’s hard to break free of this mentality, but I will continue to ask myself each day: how does being afraid of ____ really serve me?

With that, I’ve decided that my theme for 2015 is breaking boundaries. This spring, I will attend BinderCon in Los Angeles, an inspirational symposium for women writers. (If you’re curious about the name, it’s a response to Mitt Romney’s phrase, I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.”) I’ll also be creating content for a multi-media installation called Ugly Me, which opens at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery in July. Its ultimate expression will likely surprise me, but for now, I’m planning to explore identity and self-worth through the medium of the selfie. Stay tuned.

The writing projects I have planned are starting to make a strange kind of sense, too. I realized that I have enough material for the foundation of a short story collection about women who don’t play by the rules. These characters don’t misbehave for the sake of misbehaving, but instead show us something about ourselves – what we struggle with as we age, how our relationships become complex and how, in order to win (if there is such a thing as winning) we are asked to trade unthinkable things. These ladies are primed to break out of the binder, too.

At the dawn of 2014, I felt non-plussed for some reason; I didn’t even make resolutions. Me, the list-maker. Good things happened, but it was a hard year. Perhaps it’s the week of crystal clear bluebird skies that we’re having in Seattle now, but I feel genuinely excited about 2015. Brave and saucy, even. Not just about fun things like traveling to Australia for the first time or riding my new bike around Lake Washington (I’ll make it some day), but about good things blossoming for all my friends and loved ones. We’re in this together, and it’s going to be amazing.

Back in 2010 when I got serious about writing, my aim was about creating something good; underneath, I was afraid of failing. Today, thanks to EDGE, Frances and a collective of mentors, my practice is about exploring and creating things that I can’t yet conceive of, and letting them become what they will. Welcome, 2015.

Habits, New and Old

Photo by Nick Spang

Photo by Nick Spang

While it is, apparently, a myth that habits take 21 days to form, I do feel a little bereft now that I’ve moved my furniture and my writing practice from the Central Library back to my own living room. I didn’t realize until today the many ways that this newly adopted theatrical sequence helped me become a better writer. Most days, I would travel up the escalator from Fourth Avenue, time that I used to get my head in the game. The ride to Level 3 was long enough to switch mental modes: I’m no longer at work. I’m here to write. I would check in with David in security, if he was on duty. I would stop to talk with Linda, Andrea, Misha or David at the information desk, if they were free — just a minute of banter before someone inevitably came by to ask about a book. I moved on, finding my key card in the zippered pocket of my purse. I swiped it across the red scanner to gain access to the back-of-house space where I stowed my coat and purse in a locker. Sometimes I ran a comb through my hair or ate a protein bar if I was in between meals — whatever was needed to be presentable or fortified for the task at hand. By the time I emerged from the black door and ducked under the stanchion rope onto the small stage, I was in character. My brain was ready to pick up where I had left off the day before. I took out my laptop and plugged in the power first, then the cord to the large monitor behind me. I booted up. I turned on music by Yo-Yo Ma, Tomo Nakayama or Todo Es to further clear the chatter from my head. These small rituals were like stations of the cross; I completed each of them, in order, before I began to write. Like all brief but intense experiences, spending a month as a novelist-in-residence at the library was transformative; it was difficult to quit cold turkey. For one, I miss my new librarian friends, but I also long for the accountability that came with showing up to write every day. (If you are ever looking for motivation, I recommend posting your writing schedule on a public calendar.) It also meant that my writing time was protected. For two or three –or sometimes six or seven– hours a day, my job was to focus only on writing. Yes, I can still write at home, and I can set daily word goals. Yes, NaNoWriMo is not a realistic pace that I can maintain long-term. My average daily word count in November was 2,600 words, which is a lot on top of a full-time job — or at least, it’s a lot for me. Still, of the many lessons I learned, one is that I am a slow writer in private practice. Typically, it takes me three to four weeks to write the first draft of a single short story (say, 5,000 to 10,000 words.) At the library, I was creating content in days that would have otherwise taken a month. When I write in normal life, I often edit as I go, which adds a drag coefficient that is not possible to sustain when you’re attempting to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Still, NaNoWriMo made me question whether I wish to continue working the same way. For, as painful as it was to lay down sentence after sentence without going back to smooth and polish them, I faced the reality that early editing is a means of procrastination for me. It also makes for uneven work. Some writers fear the blank page, but I fear the ugly first draft, so I take a long time to complete things (even blog posts like this) because I’m constantly refining the early parts before the piece is finished. I write as if I’m rolling out dough, starting over and over in the same place. Over-editing aside, I have spent the past week reveling in the ability to write without hesitation, since no one is watching me. A Novel Performance proved that the observer effect is indeed real (the act of observation changes the phenomenon or subject being observed.) I often froze up when writing romantic or emotionally complex scenes with a crowd of people standing three feet away, their eyes poised on the screen just about my head waiting… waiting… for something brilliant to appear. I found it difficult to experiment before an audience; I didn’t feel like I had the creative space to write something that I might not keep. When those moments arose, I channeled my inner Jo Ann Beard, composing, editing and re-composing sentences in my mind before typing them on screen. Slowly. Very slowly. This may be fine for Ms. Beard, but it turns out that I am the type of writer who thinks by writing rather than one who writes by thinking. For those who geek out on statistics, here’s a fun fact: it took me 20 days to write 50,000 words and only another 7 to reach 70,355 (the library was closed on Veterans Day and Thanksgiving; the final day of writing took place on November 29.) That means I was averaging 2,500 words a day in the first three weeks of the installation, but I actually increased my productivity in the last week to 2,905 words a day. Everyone kept asking if I was tired or ready to be finished, and I suppose that I said yes, but I would follow that with a disclaimer: even in the thick of it, I had not run out of ideas, and I was always eager to return to the couch. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write, and the more ideas for other stories kept bursting into mind. Kamikaze writing (my term for this approach) was like learning a new sport: the first few weeks, your body is fatigued and full of fits and starts as it begins to understand how to work in a new way, however you soon get in a groove that somehow creates new energy from the effort. After that, you can go farther faster (or stronger longer) seemingly without end. During NaNoWriMo, I didn’t stop to plot or track my daily word average, but seeing the numbers after the fact substantiates the consistent flow of energy I felt, despite my creativity coming under unusual, intense and ongoing demand. No breaks. Just write. And I did. Since finishing, many people have asked questions I can’t answer fully: what happens next with the book? When will they see it in print? What am I working on now? Will I do NaNoWriMo again? An easy response to the first is that the book goes into a drawer for an indeterminate amount of time. My main squeeze, who stayed up late last night to finish it, gave “The Year of the Tiger” a thumbs-up as worthy for more work, so it passed an early test. It also means a hell of a lot more time and effort, and a residency or two in order to complete it. Only now do I begin to see the licking hell fires that my novelist friends have resigned themselves to; they are the ones who answer this question with, Well, I just finished my fourth revision… Their plight, now my own, makes me shudder. Yet, I must acknowledge that this is my second attempt to turn these ideas into a book. Part of my proposal for A Novel Performance was to examine the role of failure in literary art, as this current draft is actually the result of failure. The story was vastly different in 2012 when it was fodder for a memoir, so I have effectively written it over from the beginning two times — and much more work is needed. (I took what I learned from the first version as fuel for a completely fictitious cast of characters.) While I don’t imagine that my third draft will be a complete re-write, my hesitance in answering this question comes from knowing how much I’ll have to revise, which is a lot. Most novelists I know spend five to ten years on a novel; I’m still in year three — or year one, depending upon how you look at it. So, when will you see it in print? When (and if) it’s ever ready. This summer at the Tin House summer workshop, I asked literary agent Meredith Kaffel about the right time to approach an agent with a manuscript. I should add that I didn’t just ask this question, I asked tentatively. Meredith has an incredible presence — she appears seasoned beyond her years and presents the assured beauty of an Orange is the New Black-era Laura Prepon, her dark brown hair drawn to a long side braid, thick-framed glasses that make her eyes appear large and wise, bold red lipstick that contrasts with her pale skin. I posed the question and she immediately responded, “You’ll know when it’s ready.” She’s correct. The more I write, the more I know when my work is ready — and if I have to ask, it’s not. When you’re starting out as a writer, you look for validation, and so you send things to editors and agents before they should be sent, and they are summarily rejected. I’m still shopping a piece that I completed years ago when I had just returned to writing; it’s an essay about my father that I totally believe in, but I can’t seem to place it. In 2009, I submitted it to one magazine –The Sun– which was very optimistic. After waiting six months only to receive a hard-copy rejection, I didn’t do anything with it until 2013 when I gave it a spit-shine and started sending it out in earnest. It’s still looking for a home. If I rewrote that essay today as a more mature artist, it would turn out differently; this may be what I have to do if I really want to get it published. And thus begins my answer to the question of what I’m working on now. One major initiative is adapting NaNo lessons into my daily writing practice. For starters, I will take writing as seriously as I take my job and defend my writing time. I will show up ready to write and not wait until the mood strikes. I will not fear or attempt to avoid the messy work; I will get the first draft down sentence by sentence and edit later. I will not save up ideas in my mind, as if obsessively replaying their potential will somehow make them better. I will write outlines (perish the thought!) and perhaps even organize and rearrange the order of a piece before writing it. I will not fear that my creativity will dry up from overuse. Post-novel, I’m digging into several short pieces: an essay about my experience in the library, a short story about a wrongly-fired woman seeking revenge, a flash fiction piece about love and regret, and a series of linked prose poems about beauty and self-image. This last effort is part of a multi-media installation titled “Ugly Me,” which will open in July 2015 at the Jack Straw Cultural Center in the U-District. I’m also part of Project Home Poem, a temporary literary art installation led by artist Perri Howard for the new Northgate Sound Transit Station. Then, there is the matter of this novel. I’m applying for grants and residencies… we’ll see how it goes. As for NaNoWriMo, it depends on what’s cooking next fall. It is no easy thing to write 50,000 words in a month, whether you’re doing it in public or not. In fact, the latter is more difficult, I think, as the joys and pains are private, and so is the motivation. I feel unbelievably fortunate to come away from NaNoWriMo with not only the first draft of a novel, but new friendships, a keener sense of the role that our library and librarians play in the community, and many newly-formed habits –and a more confident artistic voice– that I hope will grow stronger with time. Finally, my deepest gratitude to the library staff who made me feel inspired, welcome and safe every day; to 4Culture for their support of this project; Paul Constant of The Stranger and Rachel Belle of KIRO FM for their thoughtful coverage of A Novel Performance; Seattle Public Library for hosting me as a novelist-in-residence so that I could create this work; Nick Spang for his beautiful documentation; Jeff Sandler, whose assistance in relocating my living room was invaluable — and to my friends who supported me in countless ways over the past five months, especially those who took time to show up at the library. THANK YOU.


Based on my encounters for the past two weeks, I know the first question lingering in your mind, so let’s get that out of the way: 39,212 words total. That’s an average of 2,614 words a day. Or, for those who think in page count, it’s 73 single-spaced pages written in 12-point font — and, as I confirmed for a middle schooler determined to note (loudly), “You’re not indenting!” – no, I don’t indent.

To his teacher, whom he surely told the following Monday that the writer in the library doesn’t indent her work (so he shouldn’t have to, either): I’ve very, very sorry. I should have said that, when I prepare manuscripts to send to editors, or anyone other than me who will read it, I do indent paragraphs. My deepest apologies.

Two weeks of writing a novel at the Central Library have brought many unexpected interactions like this. (Who knew that a pack of pre-teen boys would call me out on page formatting?) This Thursday, two girls, perhaps seven or eight years old, were gathered at the edge of the stanchions that rope off my living room from that of the library. Their arms linked, best friends obviously, they were incredibly courteous as they observed me, a strange adult lingering in captivity inside the ropes. Next to me, a large sign with pink lettering poses the question, “What is she doing?” as if to warn children about the dangers of my particular species. The girls snapped photos, but hesitated in taking one of the explanatory postcards, probably because they thought the cards were meant for adults.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them shimmy with excitement, then skip over to their parents who urged them to return to me. They were so cute, their noses twitching with curiosity, that I couldn’t resist removing my headphones to engage with them when they reappeared at the edge of the platform. “What’s the name of your book?” they whispered shyly, when I removed my headphones.

“The Year of the Tiger,” I said.

“That is so cool!” they squealed, before running away.

Was it? I was flattered, as it’s a working title, and kids are notorious for saying what they think, especially when something stinks. What I did think was so cool was that kids under 10 thought that seeing a real-live writer was interesting. After all, I’m sitting on a couch typing away at my laptop… it’s not like I’m throwing paint or devouring my tamer. But it’s a reaction that I hoped would happen —that young people, especially young women, would see this installation and be inspired, hopefully to go home and write— still, you never know how an idea will play out in real life.

Despite being an avid reader and writer all my life, the first time I saw a “real” writer was in my late twenties. It was David Sedaris, and he was reading, not writing. (He’s so small! I thought, although my nosebleed seats at Benaroya didn’t help.) I remember marveling at his talent and his nasal voice, wondering along with everyone else how he did it: how did he made us laugh one minute and utter the collective sound Aaaaah in the next? It was magic, the same way that my other favorite authors had the power to spellbind me with their work, seemingly instantaneously and with little effort as I turned the page. Surely, this talent came naturally and effortlessly; this is what they were meant to do in life.

I continue to believe that literary art is indeed so mystical because we never watch as it’s conjured. Even I secretly suspect that other writers possess a far superior ability to my own because — *poof!* their book is born onto a shelf seemingly from the ether, and I didn’t have to spend hours editing it. (Prolific authors such as Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates only affirm my suspicions.) One day, a thick tome appears in the library and our discovery and consumption of its ideas happens as swiftly as the book was penned, we believe. Or, we don’t even stop to consider the work that went into it because we’re already bugging the librarian for her next recommendation.

Growing up, I didn’t have relationships with writers. For one, there were no writers in our surburban community, or if there were, my parents weren’t connected to them. My family consumed mostly read mass-market fiction, and those writers, like Anne Rice, Stephen King or Clive Cussler, lived far away. In high school, the writers whose work we read were dead (well, mostly) or likewise far removed; back then, even if they were alive, there was no internet that we could search for them on. I studied English Medieval Literature in college, so the authors I read were way dead. The person who created the work, and the work itself, were two very separate entities.

It wasn’t until the last five years that I’ve read contemporary authors who I could actually connect with in real life. Of course, it can be equally daunting to hear masters like Jo Ann Beard say that she lays down her work sentence by sentence, and that she doesn’t edit it once it’s written because, “If the sentence wasn’t perfect when I wrote it, I wouldn’t put it down.” (She went on to say that she tirelessly works and re-works sentences in her head line by line before she writes them, in case this sounds easy. If I tried to work this way, I’d never write a thing.) But to hear her explain her process and gain a sliver of insight into what it takes for her to write makes me read her work differently. It makes me read it slower, in fact.

As uncomfortable as it is to sit beneath a large screen where anyone can read what I’m writing [in its most naked, unpolished form], the transparency of A Novel Performance is the main reason for doing it. I love the questions I’m asked because they’re not always easy to answer. Having to explain what I do, how I do it and why (sometimes I have to think hard about that) is helping me to define my own process in explicit ways that I might not have come to on my own.

Some questions are easy: How long does it take for a writer to compose 39,212 words? (So far, about 60 hours.) Someone asked, do you erase? (Yes. You can watch me go back and forth over a line a couple times if it doesn’t feel quite right, although I can’t linger on any one part.) How do you know what happens next? (I created a very high-level outline that I’m using as a guide, but I’ve gone off-road a couple of times already.) After two weeks, are you tired of writing? (Fatigued, but not tired. The well may not be as deep from day to day, but it gets filled.)

People have asked if I’m crazy (yes, maybe) and where the furniture came from (it’s really mine; I bought the couch from Dania years ago and refinished the little side table myself. My boyfriend sorely misses his rug and lamp.)

My favorite question so far, though, came in passing from a woman pulling a large piece of luggage to the elevators across from me. She paused to take in the scene: a woman curled up by herself on a couch with her shoes off, a laptop teetering on top of her knees, surrounded by house plants and two red velvet pillows. She snorted and asked the room, quite loudly, ”Why you so special?!”

Every day when I arrive at the library to re-enact this scene, knowing that, even as an emerging writer I’m being supported to create art –to do the one thing in life that I feel made to do– I stop to ask myself that very same question.

What Is She Doing?

Day one of "A Novel Performance" at the Central Library in downtown Seattle

Day one of “A Novel Performance” at the Central Library in downtown Seattle

The title question is perhaps best answered when accompanied by another: “Are writers really introverts — or do we seek to shroud our craft in mystique?” And perhaps a third redux version: “What the #$%^ am I doing?”

In addition to providing a rich palette of human diversity, the first day of writing a novel in the Central Library surely tested my inner introvert. In the hours after building a stage upon which rests a scene from my living room –yes, in the middle of the library– I was finally faced with answering a question I’ve been dodging for months: Can I actually do this? As a first-time WriMo (someone who attempts the NaNoWriMo challenge) had I had bitten off more than I could chew?

Over the last few months, I’ve studied all the NaNoWriMo tips, deciding that I was somewhere in between a Planner and a Pantser. In reality, I skew more towards the latter, despite my planner nature in all things non-literary. Two weeks ago, under great duress, I wrote a chapter outline and composed half-hearted character sketches for only two principal characters. The whole set-up process felt false to me — how am I supposed to know who these characters are and exactly what they’ll do until I start writing them? My framework for this novel rests lightly on several trips I’ve made in the past few years, so I have a general sense of where my characters are headed… but trying to nail everything down ahead of time — I just couldn’t do it. After all, I was the young woman in design school who filled in her sketch book at the end of the quarter, the night before it was due.

Besides, the physical component of A Novel Performance and all of its moving parts, from van rental and signage design and production to approvals and installation, has kept me sufficiently distracted since July. For someone avoiding the moment where she has to face the task she’s taken on, this was convenient.

For those first few minutes, I sat, waiting. My fingers trembled as I started with the easy parts: title and chapter heading. I knew that the story would open in New Zealand, so I pictured what the beaches are like in November — blustery, wild, pristine. A few words trickled out. Starting with the first chapter, my heroine immediately departed from the script that I had given her. This was exciting if not a little terrifying. How was I -er, she- doing this? I realized that we were deepening the opening of the story together far beyond the initial framework I had set, but it was a good departure. I kept working. Slowly. At several points, people stopped to read the screen behind me; they observed sentence by sentence form (nothing like having a small crowd of people watch you misspell the word privilege three times…) Over the course of the afternoon, I tried to tap into the flow that always feels so easy at home, but it didn’t happen, not exactly. In between paragraphs, I kept asking myself: can I return day after day to do this?

This morning, I used our extra fall-back hour to document yesterday’s work. The prose isn’t beautiful yet, but I can see a portal, albeit a small one, opening up into a new world. This is encouraging. It is hard not to edit, something that I enjoy far more than banging out rough drafts, but that’s also part of the NaNoWriMo challenge: if you’re going to hit 50,000 words in a month, you can’t go back — only forward.

As I prepare to head back to the library today, I continue to ask myself why I’m doing this. Underneath the obvious –I want to produce a novel– there is something else: as artists, we need community. Writer Richard Hugo, for whom Seattle’s beloved Richard Hugo House is named, put it best: Writing is hard and writers need help. Within the word help, I see the words connection, relationships and support.

Sometimes, watching someone do something a little crazy is all a person needs to feel emboldened to take on a challenge in her own life. This week, Tina Hoggatt at 4Culture invited me to write a blog post about A Novel Performance which allowed me to revisit this question –why am I doing this?– and reaffirm my quest. Indeed, writing is hard, but thanks to everyone who has already voiced support, be it on Twitter or in person, I can feel the strength of the writing community behind me. Support is what writers of all levels need. My profound thanks to 4Culture and Seattle Public Library for supporting A Novel Performance — and to everyone who I will meet along the way.

For more on the origins of A Novel Performance, read the 4Culture blog post here.


As a dying hurricane flings gusty winds at Seattle, and with them, tree limbs, power lines and a pantheon of multi-colored leaves, everything feels off-kilter. Daylight savings time is about to fall back, autumn has us wriggling in her damp, chilly grasp, and Renée Zellweger is sporting a new face that no one can stop tweeting about. This last turn has emerged between the paparazzi’s cooing over George Clooney’s long-awaited wedding, something I admittedly find irresistible to read about in People.

To the media, I think it mattered little that it was any one particular bride, though she seems lovely, intelligent and spirited, but only that someone, anyone, finally, presented a complete enough package (in Clooney’s eyes, at least) that he might commit. (While it may be true love, my cynicism says that Clooney is a betting man, and at 53, he sees the wisdom of leaving the singles scene on a high note.)

About Zellweger, the host of blog posts, op-eds and commentaries blowing through the media recall the red, yellow and orange leaves cascading outside my window like giant Technicolor snowflakes. Some writers insist that it’s no one’s business what a person does with her face while others use her plastic surgery to lambaste society, suggesting that Zellweger, under emotional pressure to remain beautiful, succumbed to what she believes we demand of her. If she doesn’t, she won’t get work in Hollywood, some say. Certain journalists criticize her for being weak, some take pot shots at both the publishers and readers of magazines for perpetuating the cult of impossible youthfulness, and yet others see Zellweger’s actions as a strike for feminism, both pro and con. A piece in the New York Times sums up what I believe is at the heart of this disturbance, no matter the point of view: “Ms. Zellweger looks beautiful but she does not look like Ms. Zellweger.”

We come to believe that we know a person based on labels: her name, appearance and attire, what she eats and reads, where she lives and works, the vehicle she drives (or doesn’t), her associates, and certainly, her words and beliefs. Over time, we amass enough data points that, as a collective, appear to form a definition of identity. Zellweger’s transformation shows how much we rely on sensory information as a definition of character, but it also shows that these definitions are by no means stable, and that no one views herself the same way that she is perceived by others.

On the drive home just after midnight last night, we spotted a large tree downed by the storm, not yet understanding that the tree had taken down the power in our neighborhood. We pulled up to our parking garage, pressing the button for the gate to no effect. Idling in the driveway, we were told by a man walking his dog that the building had lost power, so we parked on the street and navigated our footpath home by the flashlight app of my iPhone. The streets and buildings were eerily dark, the wind whipping wildly about. With each step, I anticipated cry of hounds in the distance. As we approached home, I felt relieved to see the red glow of the digital lock on the back gate, which meant that we could gain access to our building, but the hallways and stairs were completely dark. It felt like we were the lone survivors of an apocalypse.

Our apartment held an unearthly quiet in the darkness –true darkness– and, for some reason, I expected to find people inside looting our things. What would I do? There was so little that I’d fight for besides life and love; if they wanted my clothes or the red decorative bowl I bought at Pier One ten years ago, they could have it. But my unease, thankfully unfounded, wasn’t really about being robbed. It came from a change in my sensory perception of a place I’ve come to know well. Remove the visual means with which I encounter my home –extinguish the light– and I begin to question its definition as a safe retreat. Fear creeps in. I begin to wonder if there is any place in the world that is truly safe. On the outside, a homeless man shuffles by and looks up at my building, a new apartment complex, as a lush fortress, secure against theft and the wild weather. Which of us is right?

Earlier that evening, I paused in the powder room to look at my face in the mirror. I thought of Zellweger’s surgery and doubted that I would ever consider doing the same. Perhaps that’s because my forehead is still mainly unlined and the crepe paper creases beneath my eyes are superficial, but it’s also because I’ve always pictured myself on the edges. My self-perception of the figure I cut in the world is a quiet and blurry one, maybe even elusive –I don’t believe that I lead with my looks– but this is not necessarily how others perceive me. Whose perception is true?

As a concept, point-of-view has taken center stage as I prepare for National Novel Writing Month, which begins next Saturday, November 1. On that day, and for the 29 thereafter, I’ll appear in the Central Library downtown as I attempt to pen 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30. After a major snag this week, I realized that my perception of what I’m about to do –write a novel as public performance– no longer appears to me as a feat of writing, but one of art installation. This process of planning, designing and implementing A Novel Performance has not been easy, nor has it been as enjoyable as I thought it would be. With a story, I can create, demolish or remodel a given world as I wish it to appear, but in the physical world, I am powerless without the consensus and approval of others. (One might suggest that what I don’t enjoy is the lack of absolute control, or at least, the perception of it…) Nevertheless, as November 1 nears, I must shift my focus once again, this time from installation back writing. Whether I am actually able to effect change in that world is yet another question of perception. Who’s story is it? Who is in control? The performance begins…

Perhaps after all this, Zellweger’s physical appearance is now aligned with a self-perception that she’s long held inside. We squawk about how different she looks, but in her mind, she finally looks right. She’s as relieved about her reflection as the rest of us are about Clooney’s nuptials, sighing as if we are exhausted matchmakers. (At last, we’ve married him off!) At once, the skies clear and turn blue, the winds draw back the carpet of leaves from the sidewalks and we get the opportunity to reassess the world around us, which we believe that we can know.

This week, amidst the swirling leaves and celebrity upheavals, my eye doctor gave me toric contact lenses to try. The visual haloes I’ve become used to, caused by astigmatism, have disappeared. Every word I read appears crisp in ways that words never have before in my left eye. Is this how vision is meant to be, only I didn’t know it? Until now, everything has appeared with a blurry aura that seemed to belong there. This is what sight was for me until a clear circle of plastic, thinned at the top and bottom, changed everything. Now, I’m forced to ask how accurately any of us envision anything, including ourselves.

Last night after dinner, six of us gathered in our friends’ living room to let a homemade Greek meal settle along with the wine we had just enjoyed. As a group, we daydreamed in a way that felt like the dinner parties of my mid-twenties: we talked exuberantly about future plans, what we hoped we’d become, the adventures we hoped to have, places that we wanted to see. Peppered with laugher, our conversation was energetic, full of promise, like the last amber sunset before the blue-gray rain clouds of fall set in.

Spontaneously, one friend said, “When I think about you, the first thing that comes to mind is a writer,” to which another agreed. I paused. This is something I’ve tried to make happen my whole life, in spite of every title I’ve held that has not contained the word writer. As they spent the next minute agreeing with this assessment, I wondered how long my self-perception has been outdated. When had I achieved this? That’s the thing about setting your eyes on a goal, be it beauty, marriage or accomplishment; your vision can become so obscured that you don’t realize when you’ve arrived at the very destination you set out for. You have to look up from the trail markers every once in a while to assess your actual location, and it may look different than it once appeared from far away.

Often, we only know that change has occurred in our lives when someone else alerts us to it — Zellweger looks different and somehow I’ve become a writer. Just because we’re on the inside doesn’t mean that we know everything about who we are or all that we’re capable of. We can look up, down and out, but it is sometimes hard to see clearly within. With that, it’s time to get down to business.

By all means, if you’re near the library next month, please stop by and sit with me a spell; writing implements encouraged but not required. (See A Novel Performance for hours.) If you’d like to talk about writing, stop by on Mondays when I’ll be hosting conversations from 5 to 6 pm in the Chocolati Cafe on Level 3. In the spirit of my friend’s generous and timely observation, the sign next to me will read, “The Writer is IN.”


Today is one of those fall Sundays in Seattle that I live for: the sky is bright white with a thick cover of clouds, and with all the windows open, it’s about 65 degrees inside. I am bundled up in my sweats on my couch with my favorite sage green throw wrapped around my feet, which are deliciously cold from the breeze spilling in. My laptop is propped on my knees and occasionally, I pause to take a sip of tea and look out the window. This is very much the sight that visitors to Seattle Central Library will see in November this year.

Thanks in part to an award by 4Culture, I will install a recreation of my creative space (in this case, my living room) on Level 3 of the public library as part of a performance art installation in which I plan to write a minimum of 50,000 words in a month, a challenge also known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo.) The idea began when I realized that, as an English lit major, I had only ever studied the work of dead people in school. We were never able to talk to the creators of the works we read; we could only guess at their process by reading intercepted letters or through anecdotes and hearsay about their lives.

In my journey as a writer, I’ve struggled for mentors as much as I’ve wrestled with developing and understanding my own writing process, especially of late. Meeting contemporary authors at places like Hugo House and the Tin House Summer Workshop has emboldened my hunger for connection. Yet, as a creative discipline, writers are often secretive or reclusive, bemoaning their loneliness at the same time as they encourage misanthropy and, in my opinion, an undervaluing of our craft. My installation, called A Novel Performance, is a way of challenging writers, including myself, to move beyond all of this — to reach out to others by showing what we do.

(Side note: I hope you stop by starting November 1 or follow on Twitter where I’ll be tweeting about the experience at #LiveNovelist. For more info, click on A Novel Performance.)

I say this as a lead-in to what’s come to mind lately, and that is ritual. I once maintained a weekly habit of blogging, often starting a post on my couch on Sunday mornings and publishing at my favorite coffee shop. When I began this blog in 2010, I wrote and edited directly in the WordPress page editor. Today, I no longer post weekly. I rarely go to Caffe Fiore since I moved — and, in fact, don’t go to coffee shops anymore to write. I compose posts in a word processor to perfect them before I paste them into WordPress. Over time, my ritual has changed with my shifting lifestyle, and now today, I question the benefit — both the steps of the ritual and well as its end result. I’ve become complacent and comfortable. The ritual of blogging no longer has the same impact, except for a regular deadline.

These questions of purpose, result and significance have become important as I try to encapsulate how and what I do in order to explain it to others. For me, writing starts with so many mundane factors, like the fact that I require a couch or any other non-desk-like setting in order to write. Ambient noise is okay, but not music, conversation or television. I struggle with large type and I really can’t write productively in double-spaced text (I need to see large swaths for context), so my work typically begins as single-spaced text in 10-point font in paragraphs without indents separated by a single line break. Or, if I’m working in my field notebook, then it’s all by hand in eerily parallel lines on a blank (and unlined) page.

What any of this actually has to do with my writing process, I can’t say. These obsessive/compulsive control factors are different for everyone, yet they do exist, and maybe that’s enough to justify their importance in my process. Only when I stop to examine them do I realize that there are many other nuances that go along with writing that, on the surface, have absolutely nothing to do with craft. Yet, when everything is in place, I can sit for hours with my brain in another world and, if left undisturbed, the sun can go down and I can become very hungry without rising to do a thing about it. Being in the groove feeds me in another way, and it’s only when a story or essay feels a certain degree of settled –or, settled enough for a particular evening– that I can leave my work without feeling interrupted.

This brings me back to the purpose of ritual. In yoga, we practice a sequential physical exercise in order to calm the mind, similar to ritualistic practices to ease anxiety. A systematic repetition of behaviors can quell and neutralize excitement while other rituals actually build energy. Think of the holiday progression from Halloween to Thanksgiving to Christmas when you were a child: a certain buzz arose during mid-October as everyone wanted to know what costume you’d wear for Halloween, then fall foods like sweet potatoes, stews and pies would appear, then it was time to watch football games, parade floats and eat a gargantuan meal at the end of November. By Hanukkah and Christmas, the frenzy of December was dizzying. Like the ancient Greeks who celebrated the states of ekstatis and enthusiasmos with wild dancing, rituals can be a means of exciting and altering one’s state of creative consciousness.

As the kick-off of my installation nears, I realize how frenzied and erratic I have become in both my writing practice and my preparation for it. I’ve let the world enter my sacred space and transform it with the same to-do lists and rules that measure my non-writing life into equal amounts of duty, responsibility and limits. These things are not the same as rigor, which is important in an artistic practice — they are soul-killing weeds that have sprung up in my garden over the summer. I have forgotten to nourish the soil that makes writing possible. I’ve become too busy for a ritual whose result is deeply important to me.

There is no turning back from the tasks ahead, and I’m not suggesting that I want to, but I do want to make A Novel Performance into a dividing line. It will mark the end of five years of a certain kind of practice that has served me in its time. What happens over the course of November is an experiment. It will test the means and methods I have established to date, and from it, I will form a hypothesis about how I’d like to shape my writing future.

What do we really need to blossom? What is extra? What pushes us out of our comfort zones, just a little, and helps us reach new places we didn’t think we were capable of finding? What should we remember? What should we let go? What brings us pleasure? What makes us lazy? What do we need to feed ourselves every day? What is so important that it’s worth sacrificing for? These are questions a ritualist asks as she creates a new space to test, research, reflect and play.

That’s what ritual is for, in my mind — not a place of dogma or religion, or a means of withdrawing from stimulus — but a space where the spirit is free to join and create, whether with the body, the arts, materials or the mind. A safe place that allows us to jump higher, break things and fall down without dying, to spill paint on the floor, sing off-key, run down the wrong path. It must be someplace firm and soft, nurturing yet stimulating, a place that emboldens us to meet the challenges we fear. For some of us, this place also includes a plush couch and a warm throw.

Can We Talk?

If last summer was the season of shoulder, this summer was the season of the glute. Each year, I learn more about how the human body functions via injury and physical therapy, so when it was time, once again, for PT in June, thus began the summer of 2014.

Like a team of sled dogs on meth, it seems my enthusiastic hamstrings have been first to volunteer for tasks that other muscles –larger muscles– should have done over the years. Hearty little things, it took four decades before I burned one out, but they should have known better. What were they thinking taking on the work of my glutes who rested back like regal pillows all these years?

My hams worked so diligently, so quietly, that I never noticed, only enjoyed the forward propulsion they provided. The poor dears were martyrs, really, suffering in silence yet begrudging every request I made. Oh, she wants to walk faster now? We’ll show her! A half marathon? Fine! Swimming?! You know, no one else down here is lifting a fiber, but if she wants power, we’ll give it to her! We’re struggling, but don’t mind us!

Even if my hamstrings had raised an early alarm, I probably would have powered through any twinges that limited my exercise. Aches are something to be worked through, strengthened. We’re accustomed to a certain baseline of fitness, after all, which we imagine will be ours always; it’s surprising when our bodies change, since they do so gradually. Our minds resist altering long-held expectations of health and fitness (or even lack thereof) because we believe we’re the same today as we were ten, twenty, thirty years ago.

And so, an ache arose this spring that I couldn’t quite place. For months, I treated it with massage, thinking it was a pulled muscle, but the pain increased to an unbearable state. I couldn’t move my leg, let alone squat to pick something up or even get out of bed, without discomfort. After all was revealed –acute hamstring tendonitis– my glutes, who should have been doing more work, and I had it out. You’re the biggest muscle in the body and you just laid there? This whole time I thought we were working together, but you were faking?!

During the first session, my PT asked me to fire one glute muscle by itself, but it just sat there in its sweat pants licking the potato chip grease from its fingers. I turned to gaze back at it, but it shrugged and took a nap. “Normal people can do this?” I asked, willing each cheek to move independently without calling on any other muscles. She nodded, gravely. “We have some work to do.”

How could this be? After all the squats, stairs, walking uphill… how could I have been so deceived? All this time, it was my hamstrings taking the brunt of the load while my lazy glutes fanned themselves and ate bon-bons? They had been hiding back there all this time like stowaways in the trunk, knowing that I wouldn’t go looking unless I was quite determined to find them — and that, as it turns out, would take years.

Rehabbing this part of my body made me think about all the things that we subconsciously turn off or buffer in our lives. We grow calluses and blisters in response to friction and pain, but they don’t cease the mortification to our bodies, just insulate us as we solider on. We grow cynical or emotionally distant in the face of break-ups, finances or losing loved ones, but that doesn’t stop the challenges from coming or help us meet them as they pile up. As embodied beings, our instinctual response to stress is to shrink, harden or redistribute effort in the hopes of avoiding suffering. We trick ourselves into believing that we’ve conquered challenges or that they’ve gone away when what we’re really doing is avoiding and deferring pain.

This is the most true of stress. We power through a tough work week then go to yoga only realize that we’re strung tighter than guitar wire, hunched over and mentally frazzled. We’ve told ourselves a story that we’re fit and resilient; instead, we’re burning through our physical and mental resources because we’re too numb to realize what’s happening. We’ve shut off our awareness to our own bodies. Then, one day, something small occurs and the house of cards falls under a light breeze. Stunned, we wonder why.

The human body is both highly intelligent and quite lazy. It strives for efficiency, so we must constantly challenge it in new ways, otherwise it adapts and relaxes under routine demands. Rather than calling upon every muscle to collaborate on a task, it learns to draw upon the few most willing and easily accessible to carry the load while the others rest. This was the year that my hamstrings were bucking for best actress, best supporting actress, best screenplay and best director at the same time my glutes took a sabbatical. Rather than becoming more fit from all my (ahem, over) training, I had unwitting created a cause for injury.

The cure? My glutes had to attend summer school. Everyone else was splashing at the pool while they stayed inside doing clamshell extensions, Romanian deadlifts, bound squats and bridge poses so that I could understand what it felt like when they were actually working. When a sensation has been absent long enough, or never there, it’s like discovering a new part of your body. As hikes and long walks resurfaced in my exercise regime, I found I wasn’t able to move as quickly as I did when powered by the fan boats that were my hamstrings, but I did move more steadily. My entire body felt more engaged; I could even sense the connection from my big toes all the way into my deep core muscles. This ability to not just look but feel these relationships body allowed me to explore my body’s function and sense its weaknesses more deeply.

As atrophied as my glutes were, my core was as well. It was deceiving how many stability-based yoga poses I could execute yet, when asked to do something different, like lower both heels to the floor in boat pose, I had almost no strength. I had to face how hidden, weak and unused much of my core was, even after decades of exercise. So often we call upon our extremities to do much of the work –they’re accessible and willing– that it’s easy to forget the very center of our beings, which is where real power, poise and health come from.

Our cores are so much more than muscles, though. They contain the central column of energy that weaves together our mental, physical and emotional systems. Our souls, or whatever you may call the forces that animate us, thrive deep within the center of these three. Think of someone you really love and you feel a warm, effervescent glow inside. When you press their body to yours –you hug your child, your lover, your dog– you can feel the same elixir stirring in them. Our cores are made to recognize and respond to each other, but when they are damaged, we shield them from the world, and even from ourselves.

With the deaths of Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of comedy as it relates to our cores and how we view ourselves. After news of Williams’ passing, I listened to several interviews that touched on his struggle with addiction. I suppose I knew or heard about this over the years, but in comparison with his larger-than-life talent, it seemed like a footnote, or at least, predictable for someone in the entertainment business and thus, regrettably dismissible. He struggled, he conquered, he moved on.

But he didn’t. This is the lie we tell ourselves. Listen to him here, gracious and wildly funny as always, but beneath the quips, he’s tired. There’s something happening beneath the surface of his words that he’s not acknowledging, and neither do we; it’s enough for us to absorb the richness of his thoughts and wry perspective.

This interview made me question how I wrestle with challenges in my own life. How often do I cover over pain with jokes that cushion whatever tender spot has come up? Humor doesn’t make the root cause of the pain go away, but everyone feels good for a minute, including me, laughing at my lazy glutes or what a bad swimmer I am. When I want to distract someone from asking about what’s really going on with me, I’ll get us both laughing until we move onto the next task. As with physical injury, I don’t pause for a rest or to really consider where it came from and how to heal it; there isn’t time, and so I move on.

The key to comedy is self-deprication, and Robin Williams knew this deeply. Similar to memoir, if you want to be a successful comic, you must throw yourself under the bus first — then you peel yourself off the asphalt, poke yourself in the eye, drop a hammer on your foot and do it again. Few have achieved this as masterfully as Williams or Joan Rivers. It took her death to remind me that she went deeper into her core than most comedians do, poking at tender places to bring joy to others. She made fun of her own looks, her physique, her femininity, menopause–anything and everything to connect with her audience, especially women.

There are blue comics and then there is Joan Rivers, real as you want to get, banned from The Tonight Show for 26 years. By the time I was coming of age in the 80s, I knew her more for her fashion commentary than the performances she gave in the 60s and 70s (there was no You Tube back then, kids.) As I did just weeks before when Williams died, I took time to watch some of her clips to remind myself of what the world lost.

Recorded in 1967 on the Ed Sullivan Show, the first clip was stunningly relevant to life today, 47 years later. What struck me was not how depressing it is that dating, especially from the female perspective, has changed so little from the 1960s, but how well-pointed Rivers’ humor about it was and is. Her comments speak to an existential struggle related to the value of women in our society — a struggle that is little more resolved since then. Yet, it’s possible to listen to Joan Rivers and know that we are not alone, that someone else is paying attention; she sheds light on what many women experience. The power of her comedy comes from a central place of strength, offering not just laughter but connection.

Nothing with Joan was taboo. Over her career, she flogged every part of her body, her looks, her lifestyle, her intelligence. Similarly to Williams, she did this by accessing places that are often hidden or weak, places we are loathe to explore. Yet, she was able to turn on her emotional core muscles and make them work hard, work together. She offered up herself as sacrifice, not from a means of distraction or displaced shame, but strength.

Without a mother or grandmother to turn to as I get older, I often find myself searching for mentors of their ilk as I age. When I watch reels of Joan and her daughter, Melissa, I see something extraordinary happen between them, the kind of spark I imagine that I would have with my mother if she were still alive. They share a tenderness and sharp honesty that goes beyond a familial bond. It’s a master and her apprentice at work, the former encouraging the latter to follow in the honored tradition of the craft while making it her own using her own unique strengths. This is something missing in my own life, I realize: a safe place to test theories of how our bodies work and what happens to them over time, which is distinct between genders. I’m beginning to understand why women form coteries as they age, if only to discuss –and freely laugh about– such things in the closed company of those who can empathize.

Watch how she engages the audience on the show that got her banned, praising women as she abases herself. We trust her because she acutely pursues her own flaws, yet she uses the harsh light of her reflection to encourage us to go easier on ourselves and each other. No one –not our coaches or even our detractors– is ever as hard on us as we are on ourselves. We cover over what feels ugly and weak with the facade of material success, camouflaging ourselves with careers or spouses, community stature or finances, even our looks, to obscure our hidden weaknesses. They fade deep inside but don’t go away; we forget they’re there until we’re called upon to address them, often at the point of injury.

I feel blessed to have witnessed and learned from Rivers and Williams, who brought so much of themselves into their work. While I enjoy an occasional lampoon where people talk from their butts or throw wrenches at someone’s head, there is no substitute for the deep and true humor that these two masters gifted us with. They made careers of reaching into dark places that are inaccessible to most of us on a given day, sporting the wisdom and fortitude to examine what they discovered and the nerve to share what they found. All this for the purpose of tickling that same spot deep inside us and, I do believe, assuring us that we are not alone.

Every time they made us laugh, they helped us see that someone could know and understand all of the things we hold inside — and still love us anyway. The ride always felt perilous because their observations were so dead-on, but we kept coming back because it was based in truth. Especially with Williams, who could get at the soul through surprising channels of insight, I always felt like I needed a seat belt. His gentle personality is what made his humor that much more powerful. Audiences trusted him to take them to the brink of discomfort because they knew he wouldn’t abandon them there.

As summer comes to a close and my physical form continues to organize itself beyond the bounds of anything I can control or predict, my approach is to listen more than I ever have. I’m meeting a new version of myself in the body I have today; it’s not bad, just different. From my head and heart to my deep core, I’m capable of much more than I ever thought or tried to do before. The knowledge of one’s potential only comes with time, I think.

Upon releasing me from treatment, my PT underlined the importance of allowing my body to rest, noting that this–not just physical training–is how to build strength. And so I’ll continue to seek the places inside that I have overlooked all these years and find ways of getting my parts to work together instead of apart, and I will make time for rest, maybe even an afternoon nap and, most especially, I’ll make a point to stop and laugh at it all.


Warning: this week’s blog post, a comedic romp into the realm of the sadly under-utilized gluteous maximus muscle, is now interrupted by thoughts of a more serious nature. If you tuned in for laughs, check back in a week or two. The bit that I’m prepared to write on the modern American rump is going to be killer.

And now for something completely different.

A couple of weeks ago, I read Zeroing in on the Female Traveler in The New York Times. On the surface, it was a breezy report of the latest trend –packages marketed to solo female travelers– but the messages lurking underneath made my hackles burst into flames. Since The New York Times decided not to publish my op-ed in reaction to that article, I thought I’d share a few thoughts here. I’d love to hear your comments and reactions as well.

To start, the article reports on Womanhood Redefined, a campaign by the Westin New York Grand Central described as a “personal journey with a rejuvenating getaway” intended for female travelers like me, a childless woman traveling alone. From $234 a night, the package includes dietary and exercise consultation, discounted yoga, a white tea candle and a copy of Melanie Notkin’s book, “Otherhood: Modern Women Finding a New Kind of Happiness,” which inspired the package. (Other packages like this are now popping up elsewhere.)

There was something about that white tea candle that sent me over the edge. Must vacations for women consist of the same relentless self-improvement and zen-seeking that litters our daily lives? And, if women like me are truly other, how will sequestering ourselves and burning candles help us discover new territory? Maureen O’Brien, director of sales and marketing for the Westin, comments that everybody knows “somebody that we love or care about that this book speaks to,” as if we others are intrinsically broken, damaged and unhappy—in need of reconditioning. She might have ended the sentence with, “Bless their hearts.”

I should note here that the first time I traveled alone was eight years ago. My friends were busy starting families, and there was no telling when I’d find a companion, so off I went. I wanted to see the world and realized that if I waited for the right guy (or any guy) I would miss out on a lot of living. This sounds brave, but this doesn’t mean that I was necessarily comfortable with traveling alone. Newly divorced, I was still getting used to eating and even grocery shopping alone; looking back, this was a good struggle. I’m glad that no one convinced me that I’d channel my inner Special Lady by staying at the Westin, because I would have missed the point of getting out there in the first place.

After reading this article, I realized that I’ve been taught to fear being alone all my life. (Hence, setting my couch aflame with the fire of a thousands suns.) From childhood to college and marriage, I had never lived alone. When I was first divorced, I felt self-conscious about embodying the stereotype of a divorced woman even though, deep down, I was having fun. Still, at the grocery store, I found myself putting thoughts into the check-out lady’s head, That poor, single gal shopping for one… when all she was thinking about was the end of her shift. And, more importantly, I had nothing to be ashamed of.

Our lives are populated by both implicit and explicit messages that suggest women should not be alone. From mothers who raised us on constant rapist alert to well-intentioned friends fixing us up with any and every single man they know to the news media and entertainment industry who bombard us with cautionary statistics that make terrorist encounters seem like a viable, and perhaps the only way, to meet guys, the message is:

Alone is failure, alone is dangerous and alone is other. Don’t let this happen to you.

For every campaign that encourages women to shelter up in a posh hotel or believe that candles, exercise and diet is the way to redefine womanhood—or that women need redefining in the first place—we’re taking a step backward. Women don’t need to be saved. We don’t need to be meditated into compliance. These messages are elusive and therefore dangerous; they’re so commonplace, we don’t think to question them — they simply are. They convince both men and women alike that women are in constant need of fixing, tending and protecting.

Why was I afraid to travel, eat and shop alone at age 32? Why was I loathe to be singled out as single in public? Because a lifetime of messages reinforced the idea that my so-called otherness made me a target.

First, we must stop relegating single and childless women into a separate caste. (I hate to even write the word ‘childless’ as if this somehow means that’s we’re lacking, but what other word is there, child-free?) Point being, when half of females of child-bearing age today are actually childless, as the article states, we are no longer other. Yet, there is more.

As women, if we cannot see when we’re pulling the wool over our own eyes, who will? The article’s veneer of empowerment (“I love that people in the industry are thinking about the idea that we’re not all families and couples,” says Bella DePaulo) ignores the suggestion that follows: women travelers should be considering “female-only floors, mother-daughter escapes, and shopping vacations.” Campaigns like this reinforce the notion that women are only safe with other women, and that our interests are limited to shopping, weight loss and pampering. They replace our curiosity and resourcefulness with terry cloth robes and calorie counters.

After many solo trips, traveling alone has become a sanctuary for me. It provides time for reflection and independence, but it also lets me listen to everything that’s happening around me. When given the opportunity to close my mouth and open my mind, I become more aware of the world. Getting lost in a new city, something the old me was once afraid of, has actually helped me find myself anew. Traveling alone has sparked my fascination with the world; my solo adventures have deeply inspired my creative process and expression, launching this blog, a book of essays and a winning travel writing submission.

At a time when young women are kidnapped and brutalized for seeking education and enlightenment, we cannot let even trite campaigns like Womanhood Redefined go unchallenged. They contribute to a landslide that we’re perpetually digging out from, one that proves that the world is too dangerous for women to roam free. We must be present in numbers. We must dare to be visible, and we must encourage others to do the same. No matter how hard-won our self-reliance is, it must be fed with constant positive vigilance.

For every women who is afraid to travel on her own, our world grows smaller; our art and culture suffer. For every woman who hesitates to live on her own terms, fearing that she will be ostracized or penalized for her choices, we lose the freedom that generations fought for. We should not apologize for having children or not, for marrying or not, for being alone—or not.

Womanhood Redefined seems like a small thing to kvetch about, and maybe it is, but it’s one tile amongst many that make a giant mosaic. All women, regardless of marital or family status, must demand more than spa packages as a means of defining and understanding themselves. More than that, we need to shout, Hell no! when shit like this comes our way; we shouldn’t let it slide. When I tweeted my indignation about the concept of otherhood, namely a protest at how the travel marketing industry was going to profit from selling women the illusion of self-discovery, the author of Otherhood immediately defended her work. At first, I wondered if I had been too hot-headed and reactionary, then a fellow Tweep pointed out how many like-spirited comments the article had received.

Every trip doesn’t need to be a episode of Survivor or The Amazing Race (hell, I like to chill by the beach as much as the next person), but I do believe that we should seek to leave our comfort zones, at least a little, whenever we travel. We should model the way for others as much as ourselves; it pays off, but this stuff takes effort. We can’t sit back and let others figure everything out for us, including the way we rediscover or refine our definitions of womanhood, self-worth and humanity.

In the end, I believe that travel is our solitary hope as a species, for only when the foreign becomes less strange can we truly develop empathy. Sequestering ourselves in hotels, fretting about body fat does nothing for our minds or our compassion, let alone our self-esteem. We must challenge and encourage each other to risk meeting people where they’re at, whether it’s Nashville or Nairobi. We can’t wait. We must do it now, even if it means going it alone for a time.

Finally, to that end, we can not afford to consider anyone as other anymore. This goes for men and women, East Texas and the Middle East, it goes for the town of Ferguson and wherever you’re reading this. We must be united as a people.

It will take each of us speaking up, loudly, no matter who boos, hisses or tweets in response. We will surely encounter rooms where giving voice to these ideas isn’t popular (especially since so many of us should be at home being domestic.) It will take time and courage. It will be frightening, even. Like traveling alone, we cannot let our apprehension hold us back from experiencing and fighting for the world and our place in it. Let’s say it together: we are not other, and when we are not other, we are also not alone.

Until this happens, I’ll light a white tea candle and hope for change. Funny, I always seem to have extras.

This One Time At Writers Camp

Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.
—WH Auden

During a recent Pacific Northwest heat wave, two hundred writers gathered nightly in a woodsy outdoor auditorium at Reed College to hear readings by some of the nation’s most prominent authors of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. After full days of craft lectures, panel discussions and workshops, we shifted uncomfortably on the wooden benches, buzzing with excitement until writers like Jo Ann Beard, Joy Williams, Nick Flynn, Ann Hood, Mat Johnson and Anthony Doerr took the stage. The night that Tony read, my short fiction workshop sat close to the podium to cheer him on. I glanced over their faces as we hooted and hollered like carefree children, thinking, We’re at summer camp and I’m actually having fun.

Last week, when co-workers asked about my so-called vacation, I struggled to describe my time at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland. We began each day at eight am in the cafeteria, followed by a lecture at nine, workshop at ten, lunch at 12:30 then craft talks at two and three. Participant readings began each afternoon at four followed by dinner at six, faculty readings from eight to nine-thirty and cocktail receptions interspersed between. We worked our literary asses off, and it was my most transformative experience as a writer yet, but the question hung: Was it really a vacation?

Typical vacations do not involve taking notes, nor do they involve quotes by T.S. Eliot and Joan Didion. Vacations generally do not revolve around topics such as plot or narrative voice. Phrases like point of view, rising action and objective correlative are rarely uttered on vacation and, when employed as it is here, people usually don’t feel shame at using passive voice while they’re on holiday. However, if one’s time away involves a couple hundred nerdy writers (is the modifier nerdy even necessary?), all of this is not only possible but quite certain.

(For some of us, like my short fiction workshop clan, it’s also heaven.)

Led by Tony Doerr, as we came to know him, my ten-person cohort became as close as bunkmates. Hailing from Washington, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Oregon, Texas, Arizona and Idaho, we began as strangers but established trust quickly. I found myself sharing every meal with them which, as someone who needs time for quiet reflection, surprised me. Though we varied in age, education, careers, sexual orientation, ethnic background, family situation and lifestyle, we kept returning to each other again and again, learning each other’s personal stories in addition to the ones we critiqued each morning on the page.

Editor Rob Spillman opened the conference by welcoming us to the Tin House family where, soon after, I came to think of my fiction workshop as my literary family. Bonding experiences like these don’t occur often in adult life, so I marked each gathering with quiet thanks for what I knew was a rare opportunity. My so-called vacation began to reveal what is missing in my writerly life in Seattle, namely a connection with peers on a craft level.

From the start of Tin House, I felt a particular kinship with Jen, who hailed from Vermont. She is practical and straightforward in all the wonderful ways that New Englanders are known for, and equally as generous, insightful and kind. She’s the type of person you could rely on for an extra cup of sugar as easily as a tire iron, if you needed one or the other — and she would have both.

We sat next to each other often, sharing news of the men in our lives and plunging into the conundrum of the work-a-day world outside of the conference—the one we knew was waiting for us, the one we hoped to greet forever altered after this experience. Fueled with inspiration from the faculty readings one night, we parted in front of her dorm, two campers heading back to their cabins to write until lights out, and I thought with both joy and ennui, Why does my new friend have to live all the way in Vermont?

The spark of adult friendship is a lot like a crush. You wonder if the other person thinks you are as cool as you think she is. You don’t want to appear overeager. You reveal personal things that you wouldn’t normally share, at least not without a cocktail. Then, without having to ask, she does the same. On parting, you trade notes that detail the attributes you found lovely about each other, and the flower of friendship blooms. As you hug goodbye, you wonder when and if you’ll get to laugh with each other in person again.

I ask: was it just a vacation?

During my one-on-one consultation with Tony Doerr, we ostensibly met to discuss my short story, but our conversation turned instead to my two lives: my work life, which funded my Tin House experience, and my writerly life, just beginning to bud. The stress and demands of the former leave little time and energy for the latter, something many writers struggle with. When I described how I squeeze in a precious few hours of writing each week between the many hours of non-creative work, Tony shook his head. “I just don’t know how you do it. I could never do that.”

At that moment, something fractured in me for decades broke open. Ten sharp and funny new friends, a deep awe of the gifted artists around me, the shock of truly being seen by someone I admire… Tin House was becoming bigger than I had imagined.

By the end of the week, the temperature cooled and my heart felt more open than ever. I decided to sit out on the second-floor porch of my rented apartment to write Tony a letter, thanking him for his wise counsel and spot-on feedback on my story. Our mini-MFA workshop was coming to a close, and I vowed to change my artistic practice upon returning to Seattle. As I stepped onto the porch, I pulled the door closed —just a smidge— to keep flies from infiltrating the apartment. When I heard the lock click home, my pupils shrank to the size of pin holes before widening into saucers.

I knew instantly what I had done.

oh jesus oh god what do i do i mean what do i do they arent home oh my god my phones inside inside my phones inside holy shit im stuck out here can i jump down no i cant jump down jump down are you crazy who jumps down off of a second floor balcony maybe i can hit the door hit the door hit the door hit the door what else break the window with what besides if i break the window how much will it cost

My heart galloping like a stallion, the door handle grew immense in my vision, that damned silver knob blocking out everything else. What do I do? What do I do? I realized that I was repeating this phrase aloud like a mantra with breathless refrains of Should I break the window? The only response was cheerful birdsong. There was no one on the street, not that they could have helped me, as the front door was locked. I always lock the front door when I come home.

I broke off the silver clip from my pen and attempted unsuccessfully to pick the lock with it. Then I threw myself at the door over and over and over, a series of dull thuds that rattled the frame and bruised my wrist. If I was the protagonist of my short story, I would have kicked the door in. (She’s kind of a bad ass.) Suddenly, I remembered that there was WiFi. My phone was locked inside, but I had my laptop, so I emailed my airbnb host, who was on a vacation of own. Thankfully, unlike me, he was checking messages. His neighbor let me in with a spare key shortly thereafter.

On top of all that had transpired that week, I was panicked from being trapped and relieved from being freed. The more I considered how I felt—deductively paralyzed with fear—I began to wonder how long I was actually trapped on that balcony. In a way, I had been cornered there since high school when my parents urged me to study science rather than writing because writers never made any money. Or maybe it was after college; I had changed majors from molecular and cellular biology to English lit, but there were no jobs for lit majors in Tucson that paid enough to cover my student loans. After I began my career, there was always a reason that writing wasn’t a full-time priority—money, relationships, time, energy. These were excuses. Reasonable excuses, perhaps, but one by one, I exchanged my dream for cars, possessions, a house and a retirement fund.

As I concluded the gushy thank you note to Tony, this time tucked safely inside the apartment, it occurred to me that Tin House was a second opportunity to make the right choices.

Our week closed fittingly with Tony’s lecture about creating a sense of two-placedness in our work. He talked about the way in which great stories unite a dream place and a physical place, the sense of a unique and distinct here contrasted with the world we know outside. The stories that we hold dear bear this feeling of sehnsucht, as the Germans call it—a yearning for that which overwhelms, a longed-for place.

I’m not sure that Tony actually said this, but upon rereading my notes, I found a line that I keep returning to: We’re forever happy when caught between places we cannot reach. During Tin House I realized that this middle space is my opportunity; the foundation for what will happen with my writerly life is in my hands right now, here, in this yet-to-be defined middle place. I have choices.

I can keep doing what I’m doing, attending classes occasionally and submitting work.

I can decide that the writing life is too much to manage and simply revert to being a reader and occasional blogger.

Or, I can wade into a new realm between worlds. Rather than charging ahead with task lists, I can explore this unfamiliar territory deeply and intentionally, step by step with a flashlight. I can throw away the rules, fall and even fail, without resisting or accepting failure or fear as ends. This is a foreign road.

George Saunders once advised, “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.” On my first day at Tin House, I tittered at the endless quotes bandied about by my fellow writers, but by the end I realized that this is how one hones a philosophy. Wise words help us codify what we believe, and from them, we clarify the questions we want to explore.

On the last day, after the craft lessons, readings and cocktails were over, I finally understood the deeper question driving the core of my own writing practice. In my notebook I wrote, How can we bear to go on investing in this life and each other, knowing that we’re all terminal patients? A lifetime in the making, this question underlies all that I do — something I couldn’t see until I found a way to step out of the comfortable obscurity of darkness and into a hopeful yet daunting new light.

During a panel discussion, Joy Williams urged us to savagely dismantle what we believe. This is just what happened for me, though I didn’t go into Tin House with that intent; essentially, I thought I’d come out with a stronger network and an edge for fiction writing. Instead, in the space of seven days, I razed my unwitting architecture of belief to the ground. Now that I’ve returned, forever changed, my task is to rebuild on this newly cured foundation.

I heard recently that the mark of a good vacation is forgetting your passwords when you log in at home. There’s something to that in the very word vacation. A vacation is an extended period of recreation spent away from home or while traveling, but it is also defined as the action of leaving a place or state that one previously had occupied. We place ourselves in the path of transformation when we go on holiday, knowing that leaving the bounds of the familiar opens us up emotionally, spiritually and creatively.

We must let go–leave behind our cathetic objects and empty the vessels of our minds before new ideas can take the place of old ones.
 Perhaps the mark of a good vacation isn’t so much an emptying as it is a catharsis, a release and relief from the used-up thoughts and beliefs that held us down in the past.

I suppose when you put it that way, I would say that my vacation was great. Thanks for asking.

Tin House short fiction workshop with Anthony Doerr (photo by David Anderson)

Tin House short fiction workshop with Anthony Doerr (photo by David Anderson)


With regard to weathering change, I’ve received more advice in the past few weeks than ever before. Major life shifts –birthdays that end in zero, moving households, entering or leaving significant relationships– invite these pearls from friends who hope to save us a little pain. This advice-giving is part of a human tradition that links us as a species and keeps us alive from generation to generation. The admonitions may change over the centuries, but the legacy of knowledge is meant to help us flourish and perpetuate. It can also soften us. Even the most crusty creature can summon a hardship he or she faced and, from that, offer a balm to ease the discomfort of transition for others.

Yet, we share the stories of our battle scars (and wrinkles) knowing that we can’t truly alleviate someone else’s pain. It’s a necessary result from surviving rites of passage, which are essentially circumstances that we are unprepared for: our spouse leaves us, we begin a new job, we move to a new city, we age, we start families, a car sideswipes us as we bicycle home, we face serious illness. It’s not only how we get through these periods of acute change or adversity that’s important; it’s the way we learn to recover and ultimately how we adapt our lives thereafter based on what we learned.

How we cope with change is, in a sense, more critical to our wellness than simply surviving it, for it paves the path of the future. We can opt to ignore or deny it; we can choose to power through it without pausing to open ourselves to sensation. None of these dissolves the pain, nor do they cure the affliction, but instead shroud it in obscurity and thus perpetuate it.

A week past my fortieth birthday, my burgeoning sack of life wisdom runneth over. Add to that the stress of moving and combining households, which comes with deeply systemic life interruption. Each daily pattern that once was, from bus routes and exercise to shopping, dining and sleeping is different and, on some level, uncomfortable. When I mentioned this to a friend, bemoaning my inability to sleep due to unforeseen airplane and environmental noise that come with my new apartment, she offered the notion that adjustment to any major life change requires 1,000 days. The first year is simply finding one’s way, she explained, the second, you start getting into the groove, the third, you know the terrain instinctively.

Three years?! It rings true to a degree, but counting down time is something I try not to do anymore; it makes long periods seem unbearably longer and robs the short ones of their magic. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, but I can’t see toiling with my current challenges for that long, even though I know that things change minute by minute in imperceptibly small ways, even when it seems like they don’t.

Eventually, my body will adapt to the thundering airplanes above and the lapping fountain below. I’ll sleep through the night without fans or white noise or the collection of earplugs that currently litters my nightstand. I’ll find a means of exercising without going to a gym, as I have for the last eight years. I’ll adjust my transit schedule and extracurricular activities to accommodate work and living with another human being. I’ll learn to share my space until I no longer identify things as mine or yours. I will not notice when a sense of familiarity or comfort descends around any of these behaviors; instead, one day, one by one they’ll feel better, good, maybe even great. Of course, by then, other departures will be underway.

How any of us moves through change –the way we incorporate coping mechanisms into habit– dictates the quality of our life experience. We will either incorporate patterns that work, or we will inhabit our lives with circumstances that are ultimately distasteful, even as we insist on wanting harmony. While the disposition we bring is entirely up to us –circumstances by themselves are inert, it’s our human mind that assigns them values of good or bad– I would assert that humans subconsciously attract disruption and chaos simply because we’re comfortable with and even addicted to pain, especially the unexamined kind. Stepping back to understand change and how it affects us is key to adaptation — the very gift our friends offer when they share their perspective on everything from love and career to turning forty. These may not be universal truths, but they offer newfound perspectives for consideration.

This is where Bonnie’s 1,000 days comes in, which to me is more about allotting oneself the time to understand change and examine one’s response and adaptation to that change, measure by measure. If I were to extoll advice to someone else right now, it would be the importance of stopping for a few minutes every day –really stopping, no lists, no computers, no tasks, no music or TV– to consider how precious these periods of monumental change really are. 1,000 days. If we knew we’d only get a few of these periods in a lifetime, would we change the choices we make in the small minutes that comprise them, which slip by unnoticed?

My birthday came and went without much observation on my part, so frenzied was I about putting my life on a cross-town truck. I only paused that evening at dinner with friends to consider the threshold I am passing through…and then I moved on to climbing the next mountain. My new wisdom asks that I adapt my behavior: I will stop being too busy to actively participate in my own life.

Today was the first day of the week-long Tin House Summer Writers Workshop in Portland during which a couple hundred writers from across the nation will engage in lectures and interactive sessions where we will share advice and critique with one another. I have a choice: I can breeze through this week as I have been, eyes already on the next task, or I can focus my participation. Each day, I can make a point to appreciate this experience, knowing that it’s once in a lifetime: I may return, but this particular cohort will never come together again. In these few precious minutes, about 10,000 of them, all of us will change constantly and rapidly as writers and as people.

To that end, I can finally share with you the short story that brought me here. (It was the writing sample that accompanied my Tin House application.) Told through the lens of an Gen-X female, my story, “Pas de Deux” was inspired by generational workplace struggles that I witnessed. The main character’s refusal to relinquish the fleeting promise of youth for the role of mentorship is something that many of us are unprepared for; we fear letting go who we were for the [older] people we’ve become, and so cling to our former identities — in some cases vehemently.

“Pas de Deux” was accepted by New Lit Salon Press to an anthology called Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness, a collection that examines intersecting issues that affect the mental health of women, from physicality and sexuality to race, class and motherhood. Filled with spine-tingling tales of women breaking down boundaries that society insists we shouldn’t, the anthology speaks to gender dynamics that are starting to mean more to me than they ever have now that I’m of a certain age.

Because women generally refrain from physical confrontation, our warfare plays out through social manipulation and passive-aggressive behavior. This story wipes the slate clean, granting the central character all the aggressions she might care to exercise, and more. I can’t say that it ends well for anyone, but the choices these characters made have helped me look with new eyes on certain challenges in my own life, and I hope that they help others do the same.

In the end, the question of how we traverse and emerge from change, crossing the threshold from our past selves to the present, is the question of how we want to live. Is it only a choice between conquering or being conquered, sinking or swimming, leaning in or giving up, or is there a third, more elusive option —growth and progression— if we’re patient enough to discover it?

If you’re interested in reading “Pas de Deux” and other fine tales of madness, you can purchase Behind the Yellow Wallpaper in print and digital editions. It might make you think twice the next time you believe you know someone… including yourself.

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness

Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness