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.

What Is She Doing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Talk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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