This is totally, offensively, utterly, audaciously, fabulously, ugly me

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In the fall of 2013, I was hanging out with Tammie when her daughter, Lissa, showed me a distortion camera app on her mother’s phone. She mugged for the camera, her ridiculous faces made even goofier by the camera’s distortion lenses, then passed it over to me, a moment I now equate with opening a can of juicy worms.

Normally, I run from cameras. I’ve long hated my own image and all the flaws I can detect in it; before then, I had never even used the feature on my own smartphone that would allow me to produce the selfies I saw popping up across social media. No way, no how. But, this was different. I made stretched alien heads with my own image, then blockheads, pinheads and swirlies. I was addicted. I downloaded the app and began trading images with Tammie and another friend, Kim — the more distorted and ugly, the better.

About a week later, it occurred to me that, for the first time since I could remember, I didn’t mind having my photograph taken. It was more than that, though — I didn’t mind having truly godawful ugly shots taken, and I actually reveled in sharing them. What was this about?

That fall, I began peeling the onion. Maybe it was about how I felt inside more so than how I looked outside. Yeah, it was about growing up feeling like an ugly nerd, something that had never left my sense of identity even after I transformed from a duckling into something swan-ish. I was pretty sure this was it, so I made a proposal to Jack Straw that October to create a multi-media installation called UGLY ME about beauty and self-worth that was based on distorted selfies. In March of 2014, my proposal was selected with one caveat: they asked me to compose original works rather than selecting works by other authors to read as the audio component of the installation. Okay, fine.

Since then, I’ve watched other artists stage installations on selfies and celebrities publish books about them. I’ve seen friends and strangers post their own selfies on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and blogs, but nowhere did I see people sharing on a personal level about the relationship of one’s self-image with her worth, identity and value the way that I wanted to. Still, I struggled to express myself in the poems I was writing. I felt like what I wanted to say was just out of reach; I just couldn’t get there on my own.

Seattle poet Jeanine Walker, who agreed to give me poetry counseling, caught on immediately. When we met to review my work, she said, “I like where you’re going conceptually, but –if you don’t mind me saying– I think you’re hiding behind these poems. These need to be personal; I want to see more of you in them.” She was right: even when I thought I was revealing everything, I was still hiding. After that, I started writing loud and embarrassing poems, poems that delved into my childhood, poems about the effects of the fashion industry on my sense of beauty, poems about being silenced, poems that touched on many reasons why I look at my own image today and feel shame and worthlessness. Reading them aloud, I realized that these were naked poems, and I became nervous then about recording them.

At the end of May 2015, I worked with Christine Brown, an actress who gave me voice coaching, and Tom Stiles of Jack Straw, the sound engineer who recorded and mixed my readings. It was scary and exciting to be in the recording booth again, sharing not on paper but out loud in front of two warm but professional acquaintances admissions that I would even hesitate to divulge to friends. At different points, Christine had tears in her eyes, as did I; I tried to hide my wavering voice as we recorded. A week later, Tom sent me the digital files: there they were, my naked poems that made me feel so shy I could barely listen to them.

Yet, in the weeks since, I have felt exhilarated — so empowered, in fact, that when I had to have my photograph taken for work, I channeled that feeling of being safe in the studio with Tom and Christine, and I didn’t flinch or cringe the way I normally do when sitting for a photo. And guess what: the picture actually turned out great.

I’ve been peeling this onion for decades, and only now can I see how I’ve been dragging myself down all these years. One thing I’ve concluded is that it starts young and words matter; children indeed live what they learn and what they hear — they process and internalize external feedback all the time. The self-image we create as children becomes a deeply entrenched basis of self-understanding as adults; it’s so ingrained that we can pick apart all the good of ourselves without knowing that we’re even doing it, until we know no other way to live. (Ever seen Amy Schumer’s video of women who can’t take a compliment?)

Next Friday, on July 10, UGLY ME opens at Jack Straw New Media Gallery at 7 pm. There will also be an artist talk on July 31 at 7 pm. This installation is two years in the making, but looking back, I think that time was necessary. I am trying not to have expectations — there are still many things to pull together — but I do have hopes.

I hope that you can join me for the opening or the artist talk.
I hope that you will bring your own selfies that you will pin to the wall.
I hope that you will laugh and get enjoyment out of what is intended to be silly.
I hope that you will take something away from this that softens your heart to yourself and those you love and care about.

Click Jack Straw for more info.

Neuroplasticity

I’ve been thinking lately that our minds are the greatest trick we pull on ourselves. Isn’t it amazing that we can have  similar physical experiences and yet perceive them quite differently because of the minds we bring? Two people go on a hike the day after a rain storm; one person cannot stop pointing out the color of the leaves, the warmth of the sun, all the birds tweeting while the other complains that the fallen leaves are slippery, the trail is all uphill, it’s muggy and she wore the wrong clothes, and yeah, a robin or whatever—won’t those #@$% birds shut up?!  (Seriously, I’ve grown since then.)

Truth is a pernicious knot, entwined somewhere between what’s physical versus mental and what we perceive versus what others perceive. It’s not so much a single thread to untie as a strategy for making peace with conflicting input, the goal being the middle way. In the end, truth is not about reaching definitive answers as much as agreeing on what we’re willing to believe.

The word willing is key. Ideas come and go, but to change a belief, particularly an old one, is hard. We have to work to fill in the grooves of our brains before we can decide to dig new trenches in other directions. Think of a story that you tell about yourself again and again. Each time you share it, you further embed the memory, enhancing it with modified details over time – you build the myth of your own experience as you go. The root story remains the same but becomes more dramatic, and the more you tell it, the more you believe, this is how it actually happened. Whether victim, bystander, hero or criminal, you become captive to the self-image you create.

The ability to alter or remap our own neural pathways, which scientists call neuroplasticity, is how we change our behavior, emotions and thinking, yet rewiring our belief-habits takes energy, awareness and the desire for change. We must be open-minded and aware that there are other truths besides those we believe. Humans are good at solving problems but not always at identifying the root cause(s) within ourselves, and even then we can be trapped in self-deceit. This leads my current investigation, namely the interrelationship between beauty, self-image and value – mental constructs that most of us struggle with at some point in our lives.

Humming between these beliefs is the stress of cognitive dissonance: my brain is trying to reconcile the idea of myself today (generally positive) with the many selves of my past, notably those whose shortcomings I felt ashamed about, the veracity of which can also be debated. While I may have left behind an awkward physical appearance or shaky self-opinion as I’ve grown, the struggles of living in the same skin with the same neural pathways runs deep. Whether physical, emotional or mental, the question I keep asking myself when I experience self-doubt is, Is this true of me today?

Awareness is key in challenging those voices from the past that turn us into battered people. When facing down old patterns of thinking, we must demand of ourselves a strict accounting, namely the acknowledgment that we are no longer in prison. Simply noting that I am the only one holding myself to this ideology is a powerful, scary thought. It makes me realize how conditioned I am to flinch at an anticipated strike that has stopped coming long ago, one partially brought on by me accepting what others said. If I am to change, I must accept new responsibilities: I must agree to take part in building and accepting the person I am today, which takes much more work.

As I investigate, I’m also coming up with some surprising (to me) underpinnings for this sense of unworthiness. I’m learning that the link between confidence and appearance actually springs from a deep-seated voice that has told me most of my life that I am less than in some way – less smart, capable, talented, creative, athletic, etc. Before I can change my beliefs and my self-perception, I have to understand what they are and where they originate. This is where my latest project begins.

In 2013, I proposed an multi-media installation called Ugly Me to Jack Straw after taking a bunch of distorted selfies with my friend, Tammie, and her daughter, Lissa, using a camera app on Tammie’s phone. Normally, I’m the first person to run away when someone breaks out a camera, but I actually had fun making myself look ugly. The fact that I was not only taking these godawful photos but sending them to Tammie and others was inexplicable. I mean, really, what the heck was I doing? It started off as an inquiry into the duality of inner and outer beauty and ugliness.

At first, I concluded it was about control, power and freedom a la Dorian Gray. Distorted selfies are ridiculous and fun, a sort of pressure valve that allows us to release our pretense of serious self-image as a mark of stature or worth. In the installation, I will juxtapose my own distorted selfies with large-scale typographic collages of fashion photography – the same pervasive media that encourages us to think (and believe) that we need to be hairless, glossy, tall and smooth in order to be beautiful. (What are we, seals?)

This is all well and good—and very much about the external; it is the easy part, if there is one. The deeper aspect to the installation are the audio recordings. Writing these pieces has been the real exploration. To that end, I’ve invited outside critique which has revealed that, even when it feels like I’m digging deep (self-deceit) I am still circling the issue on a conceptual level. I needed someone to push me into really answering my own question –why do I feel physical aversion to my own image?— in order to go deeper into my own uncomfortable experience. And it’s very uncomfortable. In fact, it was only by following that discomfort that I was able to break through my writer’s block and start making better stuff.

The details will emerge in the exhibition, which opens in exactly two months on July 10 at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery (yep, this is a teaser) but I wanted to share some of what I’m learning through this process. As I alluded in my previous post, I am realizing how early the devaluing of my self-worth started (“somewhere between six and sixteen”), which actually had less to do with my appearance and more with consistently being stripped of a voice and a sense of self-determination. Chalk some of it up to regressive parenting, but the bigger context was the social norms of how girls are expected act and what culture and society allows them to do and say.

I should add that I’m focusing on women here because that is my personal experience, but also because both sexes cling to a double-standard that is deeply ingrained. The seemingly simple and unalienable right to speak without fear of rebuke or recourse is something that we do not have cross-culturally; we’ve been talking and writing about this for millennia, from Sappho to Sheryl Sandberg, but women around the world are still fighting for agency. While some are successful in breaking through, it is not without struggle. These norms play into our collective sense of what we believe is possible and “acceptable” for women in life.

This idea of voice as a key component of self-image, particularly for women, wasn’t on my radar in 2013, nor was it on my mind in February 2015 when I began writing the prose poetry that I’ll record in a few weeks. It wasn’t even something I considered integral when I proposed the idea to Jack Straw, even though the pairing of audio recording with visual art is the main purpose of the New Media Gallery. I knew it subliminally but it was so far down in the trenches that I couldn’t know it on a conscious level. Again, awareness is key.

That’s why we must take the time to reflect on, examine and –most importantly– share our voices, not to complain but to create opportunities of learning for others. Within our human potential we have the power to explore discomfort without crumbling, to risk revealing ourselves, and we must. Maybe it’s one of the benefits of entering middle age, but my anthem lately is, We cannot remain quiet. I keep coming back to BinderCon and 99U  – What does our culture and the world lose when women’s voices go silent? – and what might we gain if we harness the courage and encouragement to speak?

I’ll admit that I’m nervous about getting emotionally naked in the dark—reading confessional poems and a posting bunch of ugly pictures of myself for the public to see—but the burden already feels a little lighter simply for the idea of sharing it. I think this installation is making me a little more neuroplastic, and I hope that others feel the same way when they experience it. (Spoiler alert: Ugly Me will invite you to post your own photos and confessions, so break out those selfie sticks.)

When I finally agree that I no longer need to hold all this heavy shit by myself in the dark, the journey will get easier, but it is a journey and I acknowledge that it will happen in stages. This week, for instance, I was notified that an essay that I wrote in 2009 is going to be published next month in Bird’s Thumb. In a stroke of timing, “Shifting Gears” is very much about all of this — silence, self-worth and knowing when to walk away from the prisons we make. Re-reading this piece made me realize that, while I had outside influence, my struggle with value is a story I’ve told myself over and over until it became my truth, if an undesirable one.

After sending materials to the editor, I was faced with this old thinking, flinching when she wrote back, “We’ve received your (adorable, by the way) and your bio.” My friend, Nick, had to take hundreds of photos in order to find the one I feel good about using in promotional materials. That flinch of embarrassment reminded me that my perception of my own outsides (and inner value) is different from what other people perceive; it also made me really want to let go of this old, scarred habit.

When I think about neuroplasticity, I imagine gum tissue after a tooth is extracted: first, there’s a raw, open pit where something used to be, but eventually it is replaced by healthy pink tissue ready for new implanting. I can imagine poking at the deep grooves as they repair, like running one’s tongue over the hole where something is missing and healing at the same time. It takes time, but eventually one day it’s possible to start anew.

To that end, I replied to the editor’s email, “Aw shucks, thanks,” and left it at that.

Active Voice

In the past 35 days, I’ve done something that I’ve never done before—twice, actually. At the end of March I attended BinderCon in Los Angeles, a symposium to empower women and gender non‑conforming writers, and I just returned from 99U in New York, an annual gathering focused around actionable insights that help creative people push ideas forward.

What’s different is that I attended these conferences on my own dime and, despite their divergent focus and audiences, I found a common pulse: namely, the responsibility of voice and the power, and price, of silence. On Friday, the founder of Black Girls Code told us that, when polled, 50% of elementary school girls indicated an interest in computer science, but when asked again in high school, the number fell to less than two percent. “What happens to girls between elementary school and high school?” she asked.

Two days before, I posed a eerily similar question while writing one of a series of poems for my latest project, a multi-media installation called Ugly Me that will open at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery in July. These poems have revealed how deep my relationship with silence goes, and particularly how it relates to my sense of value and self-worth. Now I see that this project and these struggles are what drove me to BinderCon and 99U, and more pointedly, why I felt strongly enough to pay for them out of pocket. The lines from that poem go:

something happened off camera between six and sixteen
a tree falling in the forest, no one to hear it, not exactly
breaking in increments
no one recorded or remembered or heard
except me.

Silence has played a debilitating role in my life, I realize, and when I say silence, I mean the kind where a person doesn’t speak for or about what she truly believes in, mainly out of fear. In all honesty, the other reason I paid for 99U with my own money is that I didn’t want to have to make a case for it at work. The person who oversees my department likes to tell me who I am (Gabi, you are very linear) and I didn’t want to struggle, yet again, to insist that I am creative, too, and thus, deserve to attend this conference. Instead, I used vacation days and personal funds, both of which I am thankful and fortunate enough to have.

My silence is a problem, though. Both BinderCon and 99U have helped me see that when I avoid conflict, there is a greater loss. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood opened BinderCon by talking about swagger. “Swagger is something you need in this industry. Talent—and swagger—are genderless.” Five hundred women held a collective breath when she said that. As girls, most of us were not conditioned for swagger; we were encouraged to be nice, polite, well-behaved, obedient, “good” and, of course, quiet.

During the conference, we learned that approximately 90% of op-eds printed in mainstream media are written by men, something The Op-Ed Project addresses. Surprisingly, when the founders studied the phenomenon, they found that it wasn’t gatekeepers eliminating women’s submissions per se but that only about 10% of the submitters were women. The dilemma became less about the suppression of women’s writing (in this instance) and more about why women’s voices were not surfacing in the first place. Some of it comes down to encouragement and education, but beneath that is a lack of belief that our opinions are important enough and deserving of submission. Some people might call that swagger.

BinderCon challenged us to think about our role as leaders who can model the way. Our visibility—voice—is the only path to change. As one speaker noted,

The more we say it, the more we get to say it.

When we don’t experience women’s voices in media, film, fiction, comedy, etc. we believe that they don’t belong there or that they’re not interested; similarly, when we don’t see women in tech, we think there’s not a place for them there, either. After BinderCon, I talked with one of our owners about DigiPen, which offers degrees in programming, game design and computer science and engineering. When I expressed a lack of personal interest in participating in the program, his response was, “Yeah, it’s really more of a guy thing.”

Instead of countering his thinking, I sputtered and said something like, “Just because it’s true for me doesn’t mean it’s true for all women.” Rather than debate the validity of his point, I walked away in disgust. Maybe it’s because he is my boss, or that I didn’t have the hard data to prove it, but I felt uncomfortable saying, No, that’s not true, and here’s why. Rather than face confrontation, I walked away, silent.

At 99U, technologist guru Anil Dash challenged us to ask who it is behind the technology we use. He pointed out a major blind spot in game and app credit in particular which, unlike liner notes or movie credits, don’t list individual makers. Who are these people? What do they believe in? What about diversity in tech? Whose voices are dictating the conversation, and how can we have transparency when there is no visibility, period?

Within his question was a nod to the lack of women and minorities in the tech and venture capital world, all quite similar to what we heard at BinderCon, which offered panels like, “The Only Girl in the Writers Room.” Essentially, what is the cost to us as a society when these voices are invisible?

Yet, even when we do give voice, there’s a price that comes with speaking, particularly for women. In some countries, speaking begets abuse, imprisonment and death; in others, we are fired, socially shunned or harassed. A few weeks after BinderCon, a friend and I watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus sexual assault by Amy Ziering, a BinderCon panelist. When I tweeted my support of the film, an internet troll immediately upbraided my praise with a hook: “if you’re into feminist mythology.”

Big and small, these constant messages that women are crazy, hysterical or talking out of turn support a mythology of us-and-them. Strangely, we as a culture, meaning all of us, all genders, buy into it. The feeling of being held down by this ideology, even just socially, is maddening. I’ve witnessed professional meetings in which women share ideas that are shrugged off only to be reiterated by men and lauded moments later; rarely does anyone point this out, and certainly not the speaker herself. We remain silent because calling attention to our contributions or a point of inequality isn’t seen as polite or acceptable behavior—for women. Perhaps this is why at both 99U and BinderCon they opened the conference by saying that each of us had a right to be there.

After years of attending professional conferences, I finally felt like I could be myself in these spaces. Maybe their assurances helped, but it was also because I registered as a human being and not as a representative; I had a sense of agency and voice. A poet-friend, the fabulous Jeanine Waker of The Drop Shadows, who is critiquing my poems for Ugly Me, made a point just before I took off for 99U. She said that she wanted to see more of me in the works, that the ideas were interesting but too general — that I was, in effect, hiding in the poems. I laughed because I’ve struggled with this all my life. I think I’m being clear about my intentions but I’m not. One of the 99U presenters who spoke on communication, trust and building community reminded us, “You are harder to understand than you think.”

How true. And it means that we have to try even harder. 99U reminded us that consensus is stronger when it arises out of conflict; results are better when we drive toward meaning rather than avoiding discomfort. A comic book artist named Kelly Sue DeConnick with bitchin’ hair dyed red-pink support this during the final session, Changing the World. She told us, tongue-in-cheek, that her method of change revolves around making people as uncomfortable as possible. Lead with your heart and seek discomfort yourself, these are two hallmarks of her practice. Vulnerability leads to the authentic voice that we seek in our art —the movies and books that touch us, teach us empathy, make us look at the world differently— this is why they speak to us, but this is also what creates risk and sets up conflict.

As artists, we have to overcome the fear of attack. Yes, we are putting ourselves out there with our real thoughts, feelings and experiences so that humanity can feast on and sometimes disembowel them. Inevitably, there will be haters and trolls or simply people who are threatened by our personal truths and try to hold them, and us, down. In the words of Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men (or women) do nothing.” Today’s the Lives column in the New York Times Magazine features Gabriel González, the creator of Crudo Ecuador, who describes the threats and intimidation he and his family have received as a result of of satrical memes on his website. Right now, his voice is silenced for the sake of their safety; again, fear and silence go hand in hand.

There is speaking our experience and then there is speaking out about our experience; far too often, we fail on the latter for fear of loss, harm, consequences and conflict. Two weeks ago, someone at my firm joked that a female colleague and I should use our feminine wiles to get secrets out of a competitor at an upcoming conference. I quipped, “Fair warning that this is going in my blog,” to which he held up his hands and said he was only kidding. I believe he was and, despite the comment, I also believe he respects me as a professional. Yet, would he say this to a male colleague, even in jest? And now, what do I do with this exchange? I could keep it to myself or make a point of noting that even now, in a liberal nation, city and state, and within a progressive organization, that these subliminal beliefs about what women are good for are institutionalized to a very deep degree. We need to talk about it, to daylight even casual exchanges like this. Yet, I hesitate doing it for fear that this could damage someone — him, me, our workplace, etc. That said, how many times has this happened and gone unmentioned? Even if the consequences feel risky, isn’t it worth speaking out? Isn’t the alternative –more of the same– is actually the greater risk?

Another poem in Ugly Me seeks to find where this encouragement of silence began in my own life:

Seven words:
children should be seen and not heard
tug at my sleeve
demand to know where I get off
thinking I’m worthy to speak

In a house where I was constantly told to shut up, I could write whatever I wanted; in writing, I was free, thus my love of writing was born. What started out as obsessive journaling growing up has become about more than the recording of my personal, navel-gazing injustice. It’s taken me decades to figure out my purpose as a writer, namely that I want to replace the obedient cardboard cut-outs and blow-up dolls we see scattered throughout literary and mainstream fiction with rich, complex female characters who embody the universal struggles in a distinctive way. I’m not interested in writing stories for women, rather I want to write about great women. I want to give readers new and different options to consider when they think about women in the world; I want to use voice, rather than silence, to achieve that.

In the studio of my mind, I have agency and voice and the freedom to explore. Still, though I feel like I can say and focus on what truly interests me, I have to work hard not to hide behind the lines. I invite outside critique of my work to help me move past my own subliminal pre-set of goodness and politeness; if they win, I’ll never make anything worthwhile. Like DeConnick said, I’m here to make myself —and everyone else— as uncomfortable as I can, and that takes effort, but it’s worth it.

In her session at 99U, The Crossroads of Should and Must, Elle Luna noted that should and must is a choice we are asked to make again and again in our lives; the more we choose should and the less we choose must, the more conflicted we feel. For me, silence feels like a should. When I refrain from expressing myself, a sense of constriction, of physically being held down, wraps my body in tight, prickly anger. A voice says that, if I want to be perceived as easy to work with or remain in someone’s good graces, I should let the moment pass without a fuss. It’s the adult version of children should be seen and not heard.

Must, on the other hand, can feel cathartic, but it’s not easy. There is no road map to must, no promises or assurances; sometimes must involves loss, and even if it’s loss of something that no longer serves us, it’s  always the harder choice. Must is unexplored territory, thrilling in its foreignness, ultimately more rewarding for the boon of learning it brings, yet just as daunting because we are conditioned by our programming to respond to the shadow of should. We pretty much know what happens with should, and as the saying goes, the devil you know…

I could go on sharing what I learned from BinderCon and 99U but I’ll close by encouraging you to do something that you feel in your heart that you must do. Go mountain biking with your daughter. Paint something with your brother. Go outside. Meet a teacher or friend, someone you respect and learn from, for an in-person experience. Tell someone that you love him or admire her, particularly if you’ve never said it or they’re not expecting it. Lend your support, encourage someone’s heart when you see them struggling. Do something —anything— that scares you if only to show a younger version of you that it can be done and that failing is okay, too. Show them by your actions that trying is winning.

Most importantly, please speak. If you remain silent about a great idea for fear of rejection or about injustice for fear of punishment, ask yourself why — is the threat real? Is the risk of your silence more than the reward of your voice? Better yet, when the opportunity arises, consider it a responsibility. You have a unique voice, something truly distinct to give the world: your story, your human experience.

If each of us remains silent, eventually everyone will.

Into the Light

You know how I often allude to the writing I’m doing outside of this blog? And how, in the same breath, I lament that I can’t share it here because that would negate my ability to publish it elsewhere?

Dear readers, I’m incredibly excited to share news that a piece I worked on for most of 2014 was accepted by Works (of Fiction) in Progress Journal and -best of all- you can actually read it. What I love about this particular publication is that they include author interviews so that you can get some backstory (I love backstory, as you’ll read) about their work, the piece they submitted and their creative practice.

My short story, Into the Light, was inspired by a neighbor who moved in upstairs from me in my old place. (To place a finer point on it, he was the reason I moved out.) We had some unsavory interactions that prompted me to wonder how he had come to such a state in life. It didn’t take long for a story idea to arise about two neighbors who come to grapple with each other as they work out some existential crises; what happened after that surprised even me. You can read the story here and the interview here.

I hope to share other pieces with you when I can and, one day, the full collection in book form. Thank you, as always, for reading and for your support!

Hello, Stranger

Two and a half weeks is long enough for everything to go strange. When I returned home last night, our apartment smelled like a hotel room: crisply musty in a way that says no one has stayed there for long. There were no cooking smells or the lingering odor of sandalwood incense. I set down my bags and scanned the furnishings that seemed familiar. It was clean, everything put away. A place in waiting. It smelled like the hotels and motor courts that we had been staying in, the aroma of humanity atomized and intermingled into a bland ozone by industrial vacuums, and so, for a second, I had to reassure myself that I was really home.

Yes, my green sofa was as soft as I left it, and the refrigerator as bare. I picked through the monolithic stack of mail to find new issues of The New Yorker and The Paris Review; so much for catching up on back issues during my trip. A rejection letter from Jentel assured me that, though they were sorry to disappoint a serious writer like me, their Panel of Reviewers rated my work favorably. I smiled and wondered how many other writers received the same message.

I noticed then that the clocks were wrong. Daylight savings had happened while I was away; my apartment was an overlooked pocket of the past. Days and time made little sense to my tired mind anyway. I left Queenstown on a 2:40 pm flight on Saturday, March 14, transiting through Sydney on a 5:30 pm flight and landing in Los Angeles at 12:55 pm on March 14 again. I arrived in Seattle later that evening, still March 14, around 7 pm. I had traveled thousands of miles only to have gone backwards in time.

It was summer in Oceania, so I hadn’t brought a coat, but it was only crisp, not cold or rainy, so I took light rail rather than a taxi. Maybe I wanted to savor the idea of the stack of mail that awaited. Maybe I was too cheap for the $55 cab ride. As we pulled away from SeaTac, a group of four teenagers began to blast rap from their phones. They paused the music at each stop to see if transit security might be waiting to board, then proceeded to fill our car with a battering cloud of fuck, nigger and bitch all the way to Westlake Station.

Compared to this, my strange-smelling apartment was eerily quiet, too quiet to sleep. I put on a movie and rifled through catalogues and bills. I logged in the literary rejections that waited in my inbox. And the letter. Past eleven, I finished the final pages of The Boys in the Boat and read a chapter of How to See Yourself As You Really Are. In it, the Dalai Lama suggests that we should let go of our belief in inherent existence. In my current state, detached and overstimulated, I tended to agree, so I turned off the light and finally drifted off to sleep.

I was surprised to wake past nine. I had been dreaming of work, of running around trying to complete an impossible task that no one was able to assist me with. My scattered attempts seemed to take forever and I kept remarking my surprise that the owner had not yet emerged from the conference room demanding results. The dream melted into the blurry shapes of my bedroom. I roused in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager, a heavy wakefulness that aimed to pull me back down under the current of a thick, dark, black-green sleep. You can’t spend the whole day in bed, a voice murmured from somewhere. Sluggishly, I rose.

The Sunday New York Times, the main reason for rising, wasn’t waiting outside. Maybe this really wasn’t my apartment. Maybe I wasn’t really here. Maybe my soul was still working its way across the Tasman Sea or the Pacific Ocean. They say that it takes three days for your soul to re-inhabit your body after air travel. Today, this feels true.

Back upstairs, I walked to the window only to notice flowering trees in the courtyard that I’ve not seen before. Dogwoods, or maybe flowering cherry trees. We moved in during the middle of summer, so I had yet to see them blossom. What a strange thing not to recognize the plants outside of one’s home, another measure in my theory that I am only a passing visitor.

There was no cream for tea or coffee. What was left in the container, hardly anything, was chunky. There was no breakfast food or milk for cereal, but I wan’t hungry anyway. I retired to the sofa to read the paper online, but only the juiciest bits: the book review, Sunday review, travel, style sections. I missed the grit of pulp and ink between my fingers.

When it came time to clean up, I forgot which way our shower handle went. Nearly every day for the past few weeks was a different shower, a different handle. Ah, yes, hot is up. Afterwards, my fingers fidgeted to locate the little on/off switch above the outlet so that I could power my hair dryer, but there wasn’t one. My American outlet with American voltage won’t give you a serious shock, and my American hair dryer will dry hair in under ten minutes. After applying my American flat iron, I began to look something like myself again.

Three flights in twenty-four hours sucked the moisture from my skin, so I slathered on eye cream and moisturizer, but left the make up off. While visiting Angela in Melbourne, I was still in polite society, and with that comes foundation, concealer, powder, bronzer, blush, eye shadow and mascara. In New Zealand, we were mainly in motor camps, the beach, the mountains, the car. I was the only one who even needed a bathroom outlet, the only one who had more than a single toiletry bag, the only one who had makeup to not put on. One morning, Michael whispered, “Are you okay? What happened to your eyes?” We realized it was the dark circles that I normally cover up.

No makeup, no polite society. I’m still on vacation, if only the final hours. In my drawers, I find clothing that is appropriate for the rain outside. Soft things, black things, things that cover whole arms and legs. I look inside my closet and feel the heaviness of my suitcase; all those clothes I don’t wear, I want to bag them up and give them away. They feel ponderous and unnecessary. What I need to live is less than I brought with me, far less than what I have here.

I am confused at the traffic circle on the way to the store. For the past few weeks, I cringed against drivers turning into what would be oncoming traffic only to find that my instincts were incorrect. Today, I start to turn my wheels left at the traffic circle until I see the driver on the opposite side turn to the right, and so I mirror him with a shudder. Right, turn right, I remind myself. I panic then, wondering what side of the street I had been driving on when coming down 15th. I can’t remember.

Trader Joe’s doesn’t have sultanas, they have raisins. They have mounds of robust Pink Ladies compared to the gnarled crab apples in New Zealand. I can’t remember if I get the raisin bread with pecans at this store or QFC, but I can’t find it on the shelves, so I assume that it must be QFC. Everything looks strange. A few items have been through rebranding while I was away, and so the contents of my cart appears different than I expected it to; I wonder, yet again, if I am really home. The checker is nice and chatty, comments on the rain. Says that my vacation is her dream trip.

Back at the apartment, I unpack groceries and my suitcase. Start the wash. I can’t recall which things were or weren’t cleaned again after they hung on Angela’s line in Australia, so I throw it all in. I should be hungry, but I’m not. In place of hunger, I find parts of myself that have expanded from the excesses of travel, namely drinking beer each night of our road trip through the South Island. Funny, I didn’t even consider buying beer at the store, though I am thirsty for one at the thought of it. I pat down the new lumpy parts of myself and remember the Times article from this morning that said how damaging “fat talk” is, so I say nothing out loud.

A foreigner abroad, at home, in my body, a stranger to this silent apartment that I’m not sure is mine. No beer, no lamb, no people saying heaps when they mean lots or dear when they mean expensive. No one will ask what we’ll have for tea tonight because informal evening meals are not dinner or supper in New Zealand, rather they are tea. Dinner means a meal in a nice restaurant, but I will have neither because I am in America. Maybe I will fix a big salad, something that New Zealand seems not to have discovered yet. I unpack the rest of my things, the Panadol I bought in Australia because they don’t have Advil, the Strepcil cough lozenges I bought in New Zealand to fight my hacking cough. I pour a glass of cold, fizzy water to drink, which our Kiwi friends avoided in favor of tap, as the cost of bottled water, like all foodstuffs there, is very dear.

For now, it’s back to the sofa to finish the thick book I picked up at the Queenstown airport. Normally, I’d avoid such a bulky thing (who has the time?), but the luxury of reading genre fiction is too delicious to resist. The voice from this morning suggests that there are lists to be made, neglected stories and essays to return to, tasks to be accomplished before the work week begins. On second thought, if I really am a guest here, a traveler still on holiday, perhaps I’ll wait. Maybe I’ll wake up somewhere else tomorrow.

Five

When I was seven or eight, my parents bought me a Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia that spanned the top shelf of my bookcase. Since they never went to college, and there was no doubt in their minds that I would, they tried to fortify my childhood with tools they thought I’d need for success, such as an expansive encyclopedia.

Looking back, a lack of experience in academia and the white collar world was the basis of their sometimes misinformed decisions: they thought that, by giving me the very things and experiences they didn’t have growing up in the fifties and sixties, I would be a high achiever in the eighties and nineties. To a point, they were correct, in that my upbringing goosed me into capitalizing on what they offered, and so I made from it all that I could. And I’m grateful for their scrimping and working out deals with my grandmother so that I could have weekly piano lessons and, later, my own instruments to practice with at home. Music, as much as reading and writing, was integral to my developing mind.

I didn’t get everything I wanted, of course. They couldn’t afford many things, like sending me to Washington, DC, for the class trip in high school. I was one of a few students who stayed back in Phoenix with an angry cloud over her head while everyone else toured the nation’s capitol. My parents considered the trip a luxury and relegated travel to the category of fun rather than learning and, thus, not essential to my future achievement. My parents as I knew them were not big travelers, although my mom kept several scrapbooks from the journeys she took before she met my father. After she died, I realized that she had quite a bit of wanderlust, though that’s not how we lived as a family. Maybe that’s what drove me, in part, to want to travel throughout my life, to do the things that she wasn’t able to do, to extend her legacy.

This morning, I was thinking of those Funk & Wagnalls volumes when I went to search for the significance of the number five. If you wanted to research something in 1981 and didn’t have a dictionary or encyclopedia, you were stuck. You could go to the library if it was open, or ask friends and family who likely didn’t have the answers either, but there was no truly exhaustive resource of easily accessible information. Sadly, I rarely cracked the volumes of my encyclopedia, as the entries were either too brief to be helpful or what I was searching for wasn’t listed. (Sorry, Funk & Wagnalls.)

A few minutes on Wikipedia reminded me that five is many things. The Torah contains five books and there are five pillars of Islam. A perfect fifth is the most consonant harmony and there are five lines on a music staff. There are five basic tastes. We have five fingers and five toes each on our hands and feet. There’s the five-second rule for dropped food. No. 5 is the name of an iconic fragrance by Coco Chanel (my mother’s favorite, actually.) Five is the number of Supreme Court justices necessary to render a majority decision. Starfish have five limbs. The Jackson Five and the Dave Clark Five. Five elements. Pentagrams. Iambic pentameter. Maroon 5. Interstate 5. Quintuplets. A strong and clear radio signal is described as five-by-five.

Though it was not listed on Wikipedia, as of March 1, 2015, this blog will turn five.

I’m writing now because I will be traveling during the anniversary, which is fitting since travel was the purpose for starting this blog five years ago. In March 2010, I was preparing to live in Italy on a two-month fellowship and I wanted to publicly document my work. Since then, my blog has provided a platform for several projects and investigations which now happen to number five: CivitaVeritas, Mushroom Farm, Hidden City Diaries (for which the site is named), A Novel Performance and, this summer, Ugly Me. The tone and content has changed over the years to match the need at hand, and so I’m grateful that my readers have stuck around from one iteration to the next. As a blogger who began with zero followers, the fact that the site will reach 20,000 views by March 1 indicates that something good has happened between then and now.

So, what will occur in the next five?

I have some ideas. I may document the work of a collective of young Seattle architects working Gordon Matta-Clark-style on artistic interventions in urban homes slated for demolition. Last weekend, I scouted their newest site just across from Pratt Park. It took me back five years to the apartment I was living in whose creaky floorboards reminded me that seven decades of human life had taken place there. I love the idea of cataloging and investigating the ways that the human essence imprints itself on a built place, and how people in future generations interpret and overlay their own marks.

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There is also the documentation of Ugly Me, an immersive multi-media installation that will debut at Jack Straw Cultural Center’s New Media Gallery this summer. This spring, I’ll be writing new work and spending time in the recording studio, in addition to cutting out thousands of figures from fashion magazines. (If you’re bored, stop by and take up an extra set of scissors.) Will it be prose poetry? A series of flash fiction? A literary collage? Time (which is ticking…gulp) will soon tell.

Back to my parents, I’ve also been thinking about legacy. (This is what people do when they hit their forties, right?) What good am I doing for the world and the generations coming after me? Can my work have a positive impact on the human experience today? To that end, I’m considering starting a literary magazine that creates a platform for new and emerging talent in literary art and beyond. (Go ahead, tell me that I’m crazy.) All this to say that, while I have an inkling of what the future holds, I’m leaving room for new things to take up residence where they will. Maybe this blog won’t really be a blog at some point — it’ll be something else.

As an only child with no children, I also think about the things that probably won’t happen, like the catalog of experiences that I would offer to my own children, if I had them: we would travel abroad and immerse ourselves in other cultures; we would go to museums, readings and gallery openings; we would read progressive literary works and listen to a wide range of music; we would spend time hiking, skiing and camping and learn to love the outdoors; we would grow our own food and make homemade edibles from kombucha to bread, pickles and tomato sauce; we’d read the Economist and listen to NPR non-stop so that we were well-informed global citizens. We would not eat iceberg lettuce or go to shooting ranges or staying inside air-conditioned houses all day watching television and reading pulp fiction except maybe once in a while for fun.

Of course, I’d be at least a little wrong in whatever I picked to enrich their lives; advice given is never so much about others as it is ourselves. Every time I add to this catalogue, I realize all that I still want to do and experience in my own life, and much if it comes back to that first item and the reason for this blog: travel.

In five years of journeys, my greatest learnings always track back to temperance and empathy, which is frightening since the more I understand the more I realize I have yet to know. In my blog and journals, this topic is threaded through everything, though they say that it is actually literary fiction that teaches empathy. I’d argue that travel, particularly international journeys, creates a similar effect by stripping us of the power of the familiar. Never as when we are abroad in truly foreign places from our home can we appreciate kindness (of others) and suffering (our own.) If we remain open while in transit, travel helps us become better citizens of the human race.

I’d also assert that the spokes of empathy touch on blogging, too. In the modern world, a blog is a place where everyday people share intimate ideas and experiences with strangers while examining and questioning their beliefs as a means of forging personal connection and self-knowledge.* We appeal to the humanity in others by revealing the human in ourselves.

And so, here begins a new era. Thank you for the thoughts, empathy and humanity that you’ve shared with me over the past five years. I look forward to what’s to come.

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* Okay, not blogs dedicated to revealing naked celebrity photos, but many other ones.

There Is Not a Tiger Chasing Me

Yesterday in yoga class, Claudette turned our attention to the band of midsection at the small of our backs (often called kidney loop) which people tend to squinch when feeling stressed. Under pressure, this area becomes screwed down and hardened; when asked to breathe into it, I was surprised how much tension I was holding, even at rest. One way of easing the strain is to look down the front of one’s body and “puff out” this section; it’s a way of assuring ourselves that we are not under attack or, as Claudette put it, “There is not a tiger chasing me.”

When she said this, we tittered —our day-to-day pressures seemed like nothing in comparison with the mortal dangers of our primordial tiger-fleeing ancestors— yet the idea of easing this sense of constant, radical pressure has stuck with me all weekend. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my own reaction to stress.

In December, work was so hectic that my right eye began to twitch one Monday and didn’t stop until Friday — when my team and I completed yet another major deadline. In late January on the Thursday of a particularly brutal week, the worst in months, I felt a tightness strap across my chest, radiating just above my heart. Thankfully, it turned out to be a strained muscle. My massage therapist asked if I had been having tension headaches, too, as the scalene and trapezius were pulled tight from my back around to the front of my breast bone where I had been feeling tightness. My entire upper body was clenched over, like I was preparing for the impact of a head-on collision.

The thing is, my stress is not so different from that of others. We’re all being pushed to the brink these days. If I had a dime for every friend and co-worker who has joked about trading their job for that of a barista, I could retire. What seems different for me though, both personally and at this moment in my life, is my inability to go further. Usually, I can take added fire to the flame, in fact, a younger version of me preferred pressure because conquering it made me feel like a rock star, but lately, I feel like a live wire stripped of its casing. My work is never finished per se, there is just more and more; it’s like Lucy’s conveyor belt of chocolates, only they are not sweet confections but live grenades with the pins pulled.

So, am I fleeing a tiger in hot pursuit—or is it just me? No one else but me is squinching my insides like a damp dish rag. No one but me takes everything I do with a bottomless chasm of solemn commitment and grasping perfection. No one but me can decide how to approach life, whatever it brings; since I’m able to weather other stressors like bad traffic just fine, who else can I look to but myself in managing my work stress?

In addition to puffing out my mid-section and repeating the mantra, There is not a tiger chasing me, two small but beautiful bits of freedom came together this weekend. Aside from pondering stress, inversions are something else that I’ve been considering, particularly since we were working on them with Claudette in the fall. Handstands, for one, have always scared me, though I was able to do them with a spotter (albeit shakily) in the past. I never had confidence in my form, though. After my shoulder injury two summers ago, I haven’t had the strength or confidence to kick up, even with help.

One day after class, when I was feeling a little low for chickening out of inversions, I got to thinking about the state of my core. We had been targeting those muscles in order to prepare for the inversions, which gave me plenty of new exercises to add to my daily regime. What was missing was not only strength, which builds with practice, but the muscle memory of what to do with it. Though I had probably heard it fifty times before, when Claudette spoke about the link between our core and our legs –and the fact that getting up and over (basically pulling off a pike pose) was the hardest part of kicking up– something clicked for me. I was afraid of offering myself up into the unknown.

I wholeheartedly believe in the link between one’s physical core muscles and one’s mental state of being — the confidence, equipoise and centered kindness that is possible when we’re strong and nurtured in body and spirit. Without this, life is painful chaos, full of mishaps, bad luck and tragedy, no matter what the physical actuality of our circumstances. When we’re not at peace inside, we’re not at peace outside. And so, I began to wonder: might there be a link between the strength necessary to complete an inversion and my inner fortitude? Could I reduce the inflammation of my resting state, by convincing myself that there was, in fact, not a tiger chasing me?

I began to work on inversions at home. I decided to start with headstands since they seemed less scary. At home, there is a spot in my bedroom with two walls relatively close; I figured that I could start by walking up the wall into the headstand so that I could get comfortable over time with the feeling my body inverted. Plus, I could work on building my back and core strength so that when it was time to kick up, I would feel better knowing where I was headed.  (Disclaimer: this took a while.)

But, see, there is this thing about faith. It’s the reason I hesitate when faced with downhill ski slopes (okay, I’ve skied three times, but still) or kicking up into inversions. It’s also the reason that the pressure at work is finally getting to me after all these years: the pain conjured from the fear of falling and failing has become big and powerful. After decades of battle, my approach is to survey the field for everything that might go wrong — an effective strategy in pre-planning and mitigating risk, but one that restricts creativity and freedom. This is why work has come to feel like work. My eye twitching and chest pulled tight, I’m questioning if this is how I want to continue approaching life. Considering the totality of all consequences and squinching my insides against them before they arrive is taking a physical toll on my body, yet what should be even more concerning is the effect on my mind.

After this Saturday’s class, with my midsection puffed-out, plump and full of ease (There is not a tiger chasing me), I walked into my bedroom and closed the door. I curled my right hand into a fist and wrapped my left around it, placing my forearms on the floor, then stretched up and back into dolphin pose. I walked my feet in, feeling my pelvis curl up into a pike and the column of shoulder blades, back muscles and core turn on. There is not a tiger chasing me, I thought, and realized that my top leg was going to work like a lever and the bottom kicking leg was going to give me power. I had to trust that the wall would be there to hold me and that my core would keep me from toppling over.

The lure of inversions, other than that they look cool, is that all the blood rushes to one’s head and a feeling of happy drunkenness ensures after the pose is over. The world feels like a good place, perhaps because you’ve changed the way that you look at it, if only for a few seconds.

My second little freedom of 2015 was pulling off a 17-mile bike ride up some very steep inclines from my apartment to Matthews Beach Park (also known as my fourth bikie since I started riding again after 20 years.) My first freedom was kicking up into headstands on my own, which I attempted again after the ride. My legs were tired, but I wanted to assure myself that my learning hadn’t disappeared. I stayed up for several seconds, long enough to feel my muscles remember, and thudded back to Earth. Satisfied, I flung myself on the couch to rest, making the mistake of glancing at work email in between tasks; upon reading one message in particular, I felt my insides wring tight. At that moment (Is there a tiger chasing me?) I knew I was at risk of losing the hard-won, physically exhaustive harmony of a two-and-a-half-hour bike ride.

Then, I made a choice: I remembered all the things that my body helped my mind to understand this weekend, and I began to write. Like everything, there’s muscle memory associated with letting go; practice and faith go hand-in-hand. For now, I’ve found my mantra, which I can apply when I feel the world begin to slip upside down. With practice, maybe someday, I’ll invite that big kitty inside for a saucer of milk.

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.

Halfway

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.