This week, Jack Straw published a podcast interview conversation between me and University of Washington professor and novelist Shawn Wong, who curated the Jack Straw Writers Program the year I participated. It felt like a homecoming to sit across the table from Shawn in the same studio in which we recorded an interview about my then-current project, a collection of essays titled Hidden City Diaries, which this blog is named after. This time, we discussed UGLY ME, my recent installation at the Jack Straw New Media Gallery.

What a difference three years makes, and yet, a common thread runs through it all. At the end of my Jack Straw year in 2012, I had completed a collection of essays only to conclude that my work was too personal and probably best kept to myself, at least in its present form. It didn’t go to waste, though.

Last November, I used those essays as source material to write a novel called The Year of the Tiger during NaNoWriMo, a feat I attempted to complete in public via a large screen set up at Seattle’s Central Library. By month’s end, I had written over 70,000 words — a full first draft of my first-ever novel. A few weeks ago, Linda Johns, one of the librarians who advocated for my project, wrote about A Novel Performance in Alki, the Washington Library Association Journal. Linda’s words took me back to that feeling of fear and exhilaration I experienced each day when I came to the library to write, knowing that strangers would be standing just a few feet away, watching as I fixed random words from my brain and experiences from those essays into something legible, tangible and –I dare say– real.

Now we just had to convince Frank that a high-traffic area in a public library was the place for her to bare her writing soul.

Each day when I plugged in my computer and began to type, I had a flash of remembering; I felt the same butterflies when I got on stage to perform my work during my Jack Straw year. Washington State Poet Laureate Elizabeth Austen, who gave us performance training, had taught us to greet that feeling with a sense of welcome, acknowledging that the butterflies and elevated heartbeat were signs that we were ready to perform.

As 2015 comes to a close and I begin dreaming about my next project, I’m grateful to have a break in which to reflect on the work that has come before and see how the pieces weave together. As I do so, I sense that feeling again — the shaky anticipation of stumbling onto something new. I find myself craving it. Each initiative, whether pure writing or experiential installation, is a progression in a growing body of work that I couldn’t anticipate just a few years ago. It’s is what gets me up every day: the chance to experiment on my own terms and, hopefully, make something that touches others on an emotional level.

As someone who did not grow up knowing professional artists or writers, this understanding of how an art practice begins and develops, or how obsessions can feed and expand a person’s work, is all new to me. Coming into this knowledge, hands out fumbling like a person in the dark, makes me look at other artists’ work from a different perspective. For the first time, I’m beginning to feel into what’s next for my own work with more intentionality and become excited about the unknown, the process.

In one way, it never feels like there is enough time to do any of it –to dream, think, brainstorm, create, write, build, promote, reflect, conclude, report– but when I look back and see what determination (and obsession) make possible, I have no doubt that another link in the chain is not far off. Making art is like exercise; you need alternating periods of exertion and recovery. This is recovery. Exertion lays in wait.

For now, winter approaches and it’s time to hunker down, rest and enjoy catching up on what everyone else is putting into the world. I hope you’re able to do the same.


Raft of the Medusa (Part 1) by Frank Stella
on show at The Whitney Museum of American Art.


On this day five years ago, I was preparing to return to Seattle from a two-month residency in Italy. It was a time of many firsts: the first time I had taken an extended leave from work since I was sixteen and the first time I had lived outside of the United States and spoken a language other than English in day-to-day life. It was the first time I had found the inspiration to write a book-length work and the first time that I had actually written anything long enough to be called a book.

At 36, it was also the first time that I felt I had created something with artistic integrity.

That last note is what made the day’s transition more bitter than sweet. As I packed my belongings, I was surprised to realize how deeply I dreaded returning home. In two sun-drenched months of finding my creative way, doing what I wanted to do in the time I wanted to do it –telling the stories that I felt I was born to tell– the idea of my once-beloved Seattle had become the opposite of home. It was no longer a nest but a cage full of soul-quashing rules. At that moment, I knew I couldn’t go back to living the way I had, and yet, my old life awaited for me to resume it — empty apartment, workplace duties and all.

Amidst this, I could feel the strains of a new self being birthed; here it was, the beginnings of the creative life I had always wanted crowning in Italy, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Excited as I was for its arrival, I wondered how this newborn outlook would survive back in the chilly, gray daylight back home. As I rolled my clothes like crepes and tucked them inside my tattered-but-trusty purple suitcase, I fought the call of the clattering din and lively chatter from Campo dei Fiori below. The sounds drifted up through the large open windows, promising fun and delight if only I’d stray from my task for a moment. That, I realized, is what I had become afraid of in my grown-up life back home: letting go and having fun.

I don’t use the word fun trivially. Growing up, fun did not merely represent enjoyment; to my parents, fun was equivalent to goofing off, meaning that having fun or playing was a waste of time. Fun came with a heavy hint of disapproval. Who knows whether it was America’s Puritanical roots, the pressures of the modern workplace, my mother’s immigrant family’s dream of New World success, my father’s Germanic blood (work makes worth), or even my membership in gloomy Gen-X, but the idea that fun was actually valuable and necessary to life and art, had been bred out of me. That ideology is what I didn’t want to return to.

For someone who has always wanted to be a writer, you’d think doing what I love would be easy, but early in my childhood, my parents categorized writing as fun. This label and its shadow definition affected both the way I saw writing but also how I viewed work. I intuited that fun and writing were not as valuable as work and, consequently, that work was serious and, in order to be taken seriously, one’s work could not include fun.

Last night at dinner, a friend told a story about her artistic sibling who, at a very young age, regularly called the family into his room to view his newest paintings. After allowing them a moment to absorb the work, he would fold his arms and urge them to, “Praise me!” We all laughed at the retelling of his bald demand, but it got me thinking about the agency he was creating for himself by demanding recognition, deserved or not. Somewhere, somehow, between the ages of birth and eight, he had exerted his will as a creator and leveraged the tacit and implicit support of his family to help further his craft. What he did was fun but it was also work. It is no surprise that this man has grown up to be a professional artist.

This is why I sometimes wonder if I’ve joined the creative path too late. What happens when a person only begins to discover the power of fun in her work (and her life), or the capacity and freedom she has to create art, in her fourth decade? Is there enough time to assimilate the education I’ve missed out on as a youngster? How do I maintain fortitude against constant acknowledgement at my workplace for being organized and “linear” rather than creative? The phrase “If only I had started earlier…” is a spiderweb I brush away at every day.

Today, when I talk with MFA grads, I kick myself for not knowing in my twenties how grad school might have opened up a more fulfilling career path and writing practice for me. Similarly, when I read Joan Didion or Richard Hugo and realize that the kind of writing I do has historic precedents (hello, Civita di Bagnoregio, you Triggering Town), I wonder what else I’m unaware of. Am I simply an unwitting product of their work, which I can and do absorb by merely living in the current day? Would it make a difference in my work if I was formally educated in established movements that I could draw energy from, or collectives that might help me understand what kind of writer I am and want to be? Is it better to stumble onto all of this by myself, however slowly, however messily, without someone pointing the way? I go through cycles of discovery, delight and frustration as I happen upon theories and writers who are new to me, whose work lends insight into my practice, which I didn’t know how to ask for or seek out. I am thrilled to find clues that resonate, then afraid of what else I am missing or will never discover, and then thrilled again that the world is full of so many things to know and never know.

In spite of the self-initiated art projects and the work I’ve written since returning from Italy, I don’t yet know how to make the leap between what I do for a few hours a week (also known as fun) and the bulk of my life experience. Creativity is not a race –I know this– but it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a sense of loss for the time I’ve spent dutifully carrying out someone else’s notion of success. Perhaps more critical is that I’m not sure how to stop doing it, day and again, try as though I might. It’s what I’m programmed to do and I do it well. This rubs me raw.

When I returned home in October 2010, I discovered that the path I had bushwhacked to find my creativity had simultaneously jeopardized my job. My employer at the time hadn’t taken kindly to me leaving for two months but, more to the point, the new outlook that I returned with shattered my previously-held definition of what was really important. Success was no longer about job titles or rank, things that others could grant to me, but about freedom, agency and voice — things I could only achieve on my own. And I knew, with a sense of profound joy and sadness, that once I had eaten this apple I could never return to the land of not-knowing. That is why I say, with deep affection and gratitude, that living in Civita for two months ultimately ruined my life.

This morning when I sat down to write, it occurred to me that I am in another time of creative transition, only I can’t point to a residency or singular experience as the catalyst. There are several, I think. The Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland. BinderCon in Los Angeles. The AROHO retreat in New Mexico and our class’s pilgrimage in search of red. A writing workshop on shame by Alyssa Nutting at Hugo House. Elizabeth Gilbert’s lecture on creativity. Writing a novel last November in Seattle Central Library. Writing and recording poems on ugliness and self-worth at Jack Straw. A long-distance friendship and correspondence with my writerly friend, Jen.

There are books, too —All the Light We Cannot See, The Triggering Town, Fun Home, Excavation, The Faraway Nearby— and two volumes on how to celebrate Jewish holidays. By happenstance, I’ve recently paired The Beauty, a book of poems by Jane Hirshfield (thanks, Jen!) with Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis as my nightly reading these days. When read together, the length and cadence of the short works play off of each other in surprising ways, yielding some of those aforementioned juicy clues about writing. Davis’s dream accounts and seemingly simple two-line stories play off of Hirshfield’s finely wrought poems in a companionable dialogue that enriches both works — and, together, teach me things that I wouldn’t have arrived at on my own.

There is no lesson plan or structured output for any of this except the writing itself — no clear objective ahead but also, and for the first time, no obvious barriers, either. The work is the work and it is as big and fun as I can let it be. This is why I apply for residencies, grants and fellowships, so that I can make more room for art in my life. When people ask me how I carve out time and energy to write and to apply for all of these things, I struggle to explain. It is, in fact, not work for me but fun, and I lose time while doing it, like falling through the wardrobe into a new and fascinating world. I forget that what sounds like fun to me sounds like work to them.

This weekend, a friend commented that, during a recent vacation to Tuscany, she took time off of writing because her days were so busy with sightseeing, resting and eating. Someone commented that the break must have been welcome, perhaps even a time of creative recharge, especially given the beautiful setting.

In response, my friend wrinkled her nose, shrugged and said, “Any day that I don’t write I feel kind of angry and bunched up inside.” I know exactly how she feels.


“Walk until you reach the color red.”

Last week, nine women writers were offered this quest during the A Room of Her Own (AROHO) retreat at Ghost Ranch as part of Bhanu Kapil’s master class, Write Yourself Out of One Life and Into Another. When offered the option, hers was top of my list, partly because of the title and a sense that it was time for my writing life to change, and partly from her photo. It sounds convenient to state this after the fact, but there was something about her visage that made me think she would guide me somewhere.

The thing is, I didn’t get into her class, which booked up instantly. It was only through a cancellation that I was able to join her and a cohort of eight women writers on a series of pilgrimages we shared throughout the week. When Tracey wrote to say that room had opened up in Bhanu’s class, it felt like something askew came into alignment.

What would you do if a stranger told you to walk until you reached the color red? Would you scoff? Would you take up the quest? Would you stop at the first bit of russet you found, perhaps a discarded potato chip bag? A flower? How would you know when you had arrived?

In the high desert of New Mexico, there is more natural red in the landscape than you can imagine—red clay, red dirt roads, red mesas, red canyons—and there is also gold. Bhanu pointed to the linkage between red and gold, which blend into each other and carry a similar magic; we explored this by bringing offerings to our second class in those hues. We made a collective pyre of found flowers, stones, sand, plastic. I contributed a red rock and a golden New Zealand coin that I was surprised to find, months later, still in my bag, like it had hung around for this purpose.

More and more, I’ve come to believe that one’s tools and experiences arise at the precise time they’re needed; we’re armed to meet challenges we cannot yet perceive, if only we can see the resources at hand—our elusive ruby slippers. (See? More red.) Sometimes, we miss the subtle connection between use and opportunity, or maybe what we want and what we need are two different things; we do not always have the perspective to understand the significance of people, events and coincidences at the time we encounter them. They are simply there, or we long for ones who aren’t, witless as to their true purpose in our lives.

Spending a week with 130 women in all stages of spiritual development, not to mention writing craft, is like standing in front of a brilliantly-lit backstage makeup mirror in which you compare yourself to them on every scale: talent, ingenuity, humor, grace, creativity, beauty, audacity, kindness. For every line of her work that someone reads, you might feel many things: utter awe at her genius, envy that it isn’t yours, shame that you’ll never be as good, joy at feeling a true chord struck in your heart, and extreme pride that such a kick-ass sentence came from a woman writer.

I hadn’t even known that I was searching for all this (or that it would be waiting for me) when I showed up, nervous and not knowing a soul, in the Albuquerque airport. That first night, there was a reception in the Agape Worship Center where I watched so many women greet each other with celebration and longing; these returning alumnae drew together like sisters. Would I really feel that way about anyone there, and would they feel it for me? After a few minutes of chatty din, I wondered if I should call it a night. It was overwhelming, all these voices. Just as I was about to set down my drink and leave, I struck up a conversation with two women who were also lingering at the edge of the open doors, Nancy and Sarah. We were each drawn there by the fresh air and the quiet of the night sky, a little pause from the bright exuberance, and that’s where another pilgrimage began.

Walk until you reach the color red.

That line holds magic for me now, something that I don’t know if I can or even want to fully unpack yet. Nine women walked alone to define it for ourselves and returned each day to write and talk about our journeys. Each of us took a different path to different places; each discovered and wrote something different in response to it. What held the pilgrimages together was our individual faith in intuition (“you’ll know when you’ve reached the red”) and our collective support of each other. In the course of a week, we pilgrims allowed ourselves to feel deeply in response to each person’s account and we trusted Bhanu to guide us. Together, we laughed. We cried. We created rituals. We sang. We played in the river. We made offerings. We shouted into the wind. Imagine a time in your life when you would do all of that with nine strangers.

My pilgrimage began in the labyrinth but I quickly diverted to the Kitchen Mesa trail. I was, after all, impelled by Clarice Lispector‘s passage from Água Viva, read aloud by Bhanu: “derangement” was to be my watchword as I searched for a “mad, mad harmony.” The concentric order of the labyrinth would not do, I realized, so I de-ranged across the river which had seen a flash flood only a week before. Once across, I found a dusty red clay path leading through cactus and scrub into a field of scattered white quartz—brilliant, glittering jewels against the red earth. Imagine the shards sewn haphazardly here and there, as if someone had clocked a giant in the mouth and he spat his broken teeth across the desert.

I squatted to pick up one of the craggy white rocks. When I stood, a little light-headed, the giant stone mesa, striped in gold and red, suddenly rose before me like a cathedral. As Bhanu had instructed, I raised my hands and made a pivoting motion, as if I was a human divining rod for red. It turns out, the field at the mesa’s feet was a mass burial ground for flocks of sleek, carnivorous Coelophysis dinosaurs.

The next day, as I recounted the details of this journey and read aloud what I had written in response it, Bhanu reminded us to compare what we found on our pilgrimages with the mandalas we had drawn during our first gathering. I shivered when I pulled mine out of the notebook. I had drawn a church-like structure very much like the mesa I walked to (I had called it a “stone cathedral” without thinking twice) topped with three winged creatures (“I don’t know what these are,” I said when asked to explain the three figures in my drawing that first day, “they’re not birds, but something like that”—they looked like the dinosaurs); the sun in my mandala was tucked behind a tree (which, in reality, stood inexplicably atop the mesa) and there was a path to the doorway of the structure that led into it, very much like the trail that leads into the large opening of the mesa’s rock face.

Practical magic? I did no research on Ghost Ranch prior to visiting, nor had I known about the dinosaurs, the mesas or the trails. (Silly, really, when you think about it, but busy-ness had me strapped.) I had done no research on Bhanu, either (also silly) but Sarah had taken a class with her in an MFA program. As she, Nancy and I chatted on that first night, Sarah remarked that Bhanu was the type of teacher who led her students to surprising places, pathways that she herself might not even be aware she was lighting, which proved true enough. Later that week, I bought a copy of Bhanu’s book, “A Vertical Interrogation of Strangers,” and surprised myself by weeping as I asked her to sign it, thanking her for our work together that had so changed my life.

Walk until you reach the color red.

On our last night at Ghost Ranch, I said to Sarah and Nancy that I wanted to do some sort of ritual to celebrate and mark our meeting. My mind reeled with ideas of a midnight desert walk or a ritual at the river, something meaningful and memorable—then I realized we were already there: we were standing at the edge of the Arts Center building as the music and conversation thumped inside. We stood in a trio just outside the door as the rain pitter-pattered down as we had that first night when we met. Somehow, knowing that we could always find each other there was enough.

The past week has gone by with very little magic (easy to miss all the wonderful coincidences  day-to-day, isn’t it? They’re there, if only I’d look…) except for the connection I feel with Nancy in upstate New York and Sarah in Denver. Just knowing that they are out there, that all of the women of AROHO are out there—that this past week has given new direction to the writer I want to be, and that we as AROHO women, particularly my trio, will remain linked—that does feel magical. Transformative. Red.

This morning, I woke to the strangest Seattle air in memory. It was filled with fire-haze and summer clouds, a blanket of alien yellow-pink gray that reminded me of the heavy August skies of New Orleans after a thunderstorm—red skies in the morning, sailor take warning. The sun’s shape was perceptible beyond the cloud/haze layer, a red-gold burst that singed my rods and cones. It was like looking at a sanguine eclipse, so bright it made my eyes tear. Walk until you reach the color red, I thought. I had just learned only an hour before that a loved one of mine is dying. It was like the sunrise knew it, too. Tomorrow, I’ll follow the sun south to see him, drive until I reach the color red.

I couldn’t put into words until now that feeling when I looked up and saw the mesa looming before, a giant stone cathedral streaked with gold and red. I could feel the power of the experience—a throbbing in my throat like the moment before you’re about to kiss someone you’ve developed a mountainous crush on—but I couldn’t name what I felt. This morning, I realized that it’s the color of your heart as it’s breaking—that flowing red-gold, warm and awful and complicated, a sign that you have found love, that it has found you, that it, like everything else is temporary and permanent at the same time.

Walk until you reach the color red…

That’s the start of Bhanu’s inscription to me in her book, the beginning of the next leg of my journey to a destination that will only be revealed when I arrive. And tomorrow, I will go and honor my friend and everything he means to me, a love that no one else on this planet can duplicate, because that’s how love works, each one unique, each one red and gold. One day’s travel there and back and I’ll return changed, yet I’ll appear to others to be very much the same. And I will follow the red, the love, the trail, the mad, mad harmony into whatever happens next, and I hope, by god, that I learn to recognize the companions and resources that I carry with me when and as I need them.

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


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.


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!