Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
Holiness and death. Everyone has something sacred and something to which they devote themselves, whether it be spiritual or just an iPhone, or self-improvement which I think is just a part of capitalism. But mainly I write about death, indirectly. That we die and our lives are small and insignificant and trivial but we feel them to be immensely important and singular, and so they are and we are. I can’t get over this conundrum and so I write about it because in writing all the weird feelings and thoughts can become significant or they gain voices and lives of their own and I take comfort in this. I take comfort in beauty… continue reading
I want to believe in winter’s magic, I really do, but it isn’t always magical for me. Yes, the frosted branches of morning trees present a certain mysticism that can get quickly squashed by the idea that pops with a robotic ding into my head: I should take a picture of that. The sliver of moon in the trees I saw this morning, made me think, I am the only one seeing this. The cold sniff of smoke as I move from the car to the house, the ache of just a glimpse of winter stars, the warmth of the fire. Yes, there is magic in those moments, those brief glimpses into eternity.
Why can’t I move through this season like anyone else? Why this grief that catches like broken ice in the gully of a river or what, the gullet of some creature… even better. What weird and melodramatic metaphor can I offer up from the self-effacing dungeon of despair. OK, it’s not that bad! Or is it?
My kids are out the window playing in the snow as the last of the light dusts out. I can hear the soft thrum of my husband’s radio upstairs where he works trimming hemp plants he harvested in October. Black beans and onions and garlic in a pot on the kitchen stove, something made, something done. I used to write poetry from January to May every winter. Here, spring doesn’t come until May. But it’s been years since that time.
I tell my husband I want to move. I tell him that the children are corrupted by X, Y, Z. I say I can’t take it anymore. It’s a broken record, the depression. He says, you will still feel these things even if you move, get a new job, fix X, Y, or Z. I grow angrier when he tells me these true things. I feel trapped. I know he is right. I just have to ride this out. But how?
It happens like this: first the feeling of malaise and discontent, then the story…. but what if, I don’t start in on the story, you know the one? The story of all the things that aren’t the way you’d like them to be? What if I refrained?
Running, I see a fat red tailed hawk swoop–why does it look so plump? Winter feathers? I hear the mechanical sounds of the neighbor’s farm, the scent of manure and grain–animals. I pass the stonebarn where last year’s lambs munch hay, their wool a dull white.
Up and down, back and forth, I move through this season with a mix of trepidation and unhinged determination. Here’s what I can offer you based on my experience (forty years!) coping with long winters…
My go-to strategies for surviving winter because, let’s face it, we still have several months to go!
Get outside. Everyday. Take a walk, take a jog, ski, snowshoe, window shop. We need 20 minutes of sunlight a day in order to get enough vit D and feel like our normal selves. Fresh air leads to fresh ideas and increases my mood 100%.
Drink tea. Find your favorite warming tea blends and stock up. Make a ritual of tea and relaxation. Rituals help us relax because our bodies create associations with activities that lead us to anticipate what comes next. Our bodies can learn that tea drinking leads to relaxation.
Heat up. Take a hot bath, sweat in the sauna, or sign up for hot yoga. Do you feel like your whole body is clenching? Heat loosens us up, releases tension, and helps us reconnect with our bodies. I stock up on bath salts and suds and get in there at the end of every day with my tea. I also use the sauna at my gym after workouts (it’s great motivation!). When in Minnesota, I try to get to my sister’s hot yoga shack as much as possible–who knew a shack could be such a luxury!
Plan cozy celebrations with your besties. Potlucks are the mainstay of Vermont winters. They used to include copious amounts of red wine, but now we seem to drink a lot of seltzer and apple cider. Celebrating with my best friends at low key, relaxed gatherings where there’s no pressure to create a fancy meal or host, helps me to feel connected and feeling connected to those we love is essential to our well-being.
Get Away! A long weekend in a different city, a couple of days in a cabin, skiing in the mountains, or, if you can, get to a hot beach for winter break. I love heading to NYC or Montreal to check out museums, see new art, walk around and find fun places to eat. If I could, I’d be headed south for at least a week of sunshine. Wherever you go, take it easy and keep your expectations low. Plan to wander with maybe only a dinner reservation in place (yikes! I can’t tell you how many friends find themselves hangry in Montreal with their loves and end up ruining their getaways!). You’ll be even happier to get back home to the comfort of your routines after a break!
This Month, I wrote a short essay for Cynthia Newberry Martin’s How We Spend Our Days blog. Give it a read here: A Day In January And follow her newsletter for more amazing writers writing about how they spend their days.
Join me Tuesday, February 11th at 6:30PM at the Brandon Library for a reading & conversation of Made Holy and The Essay Exhibits. I’ll be discussing creativity and spirituality as a form of healing from substance abuse disorder.
I’m reading this amazing book: This Is My Body by Cameron Dezen Hammon “In this memoir of faith and faltering, musician Cameron Dezen Hammon, a Jew-ish New Yorker, finds herself searching for love, meaning―a sign. She’s led to Coney Island, where during a lightning storm, she is baptized in the murky waters of the Atlantic by a group of ragtag converts. After years of trying to make a name for herself as an artist, she follows her boyfriend and new God to Houston, Texas, the heart of American evangelical subculture. Her job at a suburban megachurch there has her performing on stage before crowds, awash in lights and smoke, yet grappling with outdated gender expectations―look pretty but not too pretty, young but not too young―and ultimately her identity as both a believer and feminist.”
It’s funny how the end of the year suddenly seems daunting because it’s supposed to mark something big. Last night was the final full moon of the decade. This year marked the end of a decade for me as well. So perhaps it is a big ending for me.
The end of my thirties, which began with marriage in the Spring of 2010 and saw my graduation from an MFA in creative writing program, the birth of my two sons, the writing of my first book, first teaching job, first marathon, and probably a lot of other first I can’t think of.
Last night we gathered in the community room at the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury where I read from Made Holy, lead the group in a walking meditation around the Essay Exhibits artwork and writing currently on display at the library, and spoke with artists Sarah Ashe and Fran Bull.
Both are immensely talented artists and creative people. It was with a tender admiration that I asked them about their work, why they said yes to The Essay Exhibits and how art can change the world. Can it? I think their work can and does. I think creation, bringing into existence what is previously only a ghost in one’s mind–image, light, color, song, idea–is the radical center of our holiness.
These are holy days, high holidays, and the end of the darkness.
I feel most taken up by the light, most called to a place of humble acceptance, a place of love.
I also dig the story of Jesus’ birth in the manger, the message of salvation that he brings to the world, and the lighting of the Hanukkah candles, the menorah, to symbolize the miracle in the temple and the faith of a people in their God. I have always love Christmas trees–lights!
But the force of materialism is at its most powerful this time of year. While I love our little shops in Middlebury, adore The Vermont Book Shop, and strolling across the bridge with an oat milk latte in hand, consumerism isn’t where it’s at for me.
But consumerism reminds me that it is through our spiritual selves that we are fed, made whole, filled with light, set free, or whatever your way of saying it is.
There is a tender inward turning that occurs in the north where light and darkness do not maintain equilibrium. We are called to slow down and snuggle into bed early. Our bodies grow drowsy and for a while we resist the cold by staying inside, lighting fires and candles or Christmas tree lights to keep us.
In the new year as the light begins to grow again, I become more engaged in outside activities again. But it’s this small moment of darkness in which we most need to pause.
Last night at the reading, a small group of people (20 or so) gathered and I sat in a chair and read two essays with intense commitment and deep emotion, which is the only way I know how to read and which takes a lot of energy for me. My husband wept, as he usually does, and I kept looking at him, my true north–focus and anchor.
I was surprised each time I looked up to see people still looking at me, still engaged in my words, and not their cell phones. We were connected in this moment of offering. Here, I give you this gift; here, I receive it. There is nothing more powerful to us than this connection, unfettered by money.
I have started and abandoned this December letter half a dozen times in these past weeks, not certain of what to say.
These are merely reminders to myself. But perhaps you need them too. Just remember why we make celebrations, why we gather, why we give offerings to each other–small trinkets of our affections. They are meant to signify our love and nothing more because what can really mean more than that?
Go out into this cold night of long darkness and seek the stars. I often stand for half a minute looking up into the clear sky on my walk from car to home. It’s just a tiny glimpse of the stars, but I think how I want to get bundled up and come out here and lay down on the earth and let the stars come alive. Let this be the gift I give myself. Let me remember how short it is, how quickly it goes, how beautiful the world.
For a few weeks now I have been working with some fabulous writers on a panel proposal for next year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio. Before this, in preparation for a job interview lesson I was to teach, I had returned to Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric and while I re-read it I began to think about how I could create a panel on the White Imagination, which is what I have been working on. In many ways, whites do not understand what this constitutes because we can’t always see it. It is the water we swim in as fish. The struggle for even well-meaning, white allies who want to address racism in our nation, is the internal discomfort and fear that our whiteness, when called forth for examination, creates in us. We want to wiggle out of it. We want to “but” our way through it. We want to point our finger at other “bad” whites. But not ourselves. We don’t want to be white anymore, not during this examination.
This array of emotions–shame, guilt, fear, humiliation, mild discomfort–leads to and perpetuates our blindness. Our unwillingness to sit silently and listen. The irony, of course, is that people of color have to live in this feeling of discomfort every day. A woman of color never knows who might consciously or unconsciously judge her, misrepresent her, slight her in hopes of creating intimacy, ask her to join as a representation of her “race,” expect her to be certain ways, speak a certain way, and so on. The irony is that as white people we can’t tolerate discomfort and yet we not only perpetuate discomfort, but we–our very whiteness–uphold the institution of white supremacy in our country that has determined it’s okay to kill, cage, and destroy bodies of color. This is the hard truth of our whiteness. The truth we keep pushing away because it feels bad, it really does. We don’t want it to be this way. And yet it is.
I will say this. My ignorance is vast but I continue to work on the issue of whiteness and to work towards dismantling the white imagination because it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable that one and three black men will be imprisoned in this country while only one in eighteen white men will go to jail; it’s unacceptable that our police are legally allowed to kill/ lynch Americans of color; it’s unacceptable that every week we have new shootings aimed at minority groups in our country because radicalized white supremacists continue to terrorize our nation, their power unchecked, their crimes not considered a reflection of all whites but an anomaly of concentrated hatred.
But all of this should be obvious. What isn’t obvious is that whiteness and white supremacy is upheld and proliferated by the white imagination, which limits the identity and the narratives of people of color to only those in relation to whiteness and stereotypes — always in relation to the dominance of whiteness. For example, the story of a woman of color overcoming/ coping with racism, the story of a Begali woman in relation to her cultural identity, the story of a Native American as living on a reservation, in poverty, drunk, and so on. These narratives are prized over narratives that might go in other directions, say, discussing an interest in sculpture, a novel about a haunted swimming pool, a collection of interviews of women artists or a history of farming, and so on. That’s not what white publishers want (that’s not what sells?). They want a story in which the identity of oppression is held up and examined and we get to see that despite all this terrible hardship the individual is able to find the beauty in their life and the good in people, or whatever. (This is not to say that those narratives aren’t important, but they are not the only narratives.)
Why do we want these narratives? I suspect that they make whites feel better about their whiteness and the consequences of oppression. We think, see, they’re okay, they overcame so much. What a victory! I suspect too, that we want to examine the “other” under the microscope of oppression. There is something thrilling in the voyeurism of hardship and pain.
Aisha Sabatini Sloan, in her keynote at NonfictionNOW, Iceland 2017, titled “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” discusses the way her MFA program pushed her away from her original scholarly and creative interests into writing narratives that fit the white imagination. She didn’t feel like she could write for black readers. She explains what happened to her writing: All of the overtures that are made to “explain” the experience of being a minority are tiny coded signals that the reader is presumably unfamiliar with this experience. And the reader who doesn’t have to guess at that reality can feel those signals as a distancing. In some cases, these are teeny, tiny gestures. But the reality is, even the smallest of those gestures can feel huge.
These words carry a certain sorrow, perhaps, that she was pushed to write in a way that would distance a reader like herself. Sloan wondered where her work might have gone if she hadn’t felt this pressure to conform and had been able to pursue her passion projects. If she had not been forced into the small box of the white imaginaire. Luckily, she has returned to that former self and is pursing the projects and work that she feels inspired by.
What I return to as a white woman, an American, a writer and activist, is the need to sit in discomfort and not attempt to slough it off on other white people. To point a finger at the actual racist. To deny my part in it. I say this because just as people of color are forced to represent their otherness, white people represent the life of racism in this country. There is no way around this in our current moment.
The fact of the white body is supremacy. The fact of the white body is oppression. The fact of the white body is violence and death. The fact of the white body is erasure of all others that don’t bare sameness.
Rankine writes: because white men can’t/ police their imagination/ black people are dying
What imagination does she mean? The one that fears the black body his culture has created as a figure onto which the white imagination has projected all it’s ugliness. Just think for one moment about the way black men were turned into rapists to be feared by white women (and lynched by white men) when in fact it was white men, slave owners, with the most egregious history of rape of Black female slaves.
But that isn’t what this is about. This is about learning to listen, to absorb, to feel, to hear, to read about, to know with great familiarity the legacy of whiteness that a white body carries. And then, brick by brick, to dismantle your own imagination. To find your own way through this history that unless we come to recognize, to know with great intimacy and vulnerability, we will continue to pass on. Trust me, when I tell you (with great love) that it is your own work to do.
How’s your writing practice? Have you set writing goals for the year, month, or week? This post offers practical ideas and advice for writers who are working on strengthening their practice or trying to get back into one. Remember, everything takes time; be kind to yourself, relax, and celebrate the work you’ve already done. Happy writing!
There are no rules for having a writing practice. However, I once read the following advice on writing from a very successful novelist: Get to your desk immediately upon waking and begin writing immediately. If you drink coffee, brew it the night before and have it ready in a thermos at your desk. I couldn’t get past the coffee part, which is why I remember the advice at all — I cannot be expected to write without a fresh, hot cup! This famous novelist believed that the closer we were to the liminal state of our dreams, the greater our access to creativity. There’s a lot to be said about getting creative, but most writers understand that it’s simply the act of writing that gets you to the spaces of creative insight and not the other way around. So my first bit of advice about your writing practice is this:
Put in the time: You’ve got to put in the work of writing in order to become a better writer. This may seem obvious but many of us simply do not put in the hours because our lives are busy and full. We have children, jobs, partners, homes, pets, dinners to make, vacations to plan, businesses to run, groceries to buy and so on. The reality is that we can and do make time for the things that are important to us. So, to start, keep track of how many hours you spend writing a week. Decide if this is the right amount for you or whether you can put in more. I can promise you one thing: the more you write the better you write.
How Important Is It? Writing isn’t easy, so you have to ask yourself: Do I need and want to do this? Actually, the question we often pose is, will I be able to live with myself if I quit writing? If the answer is yes, well, then congratulations, you’re lucky. I know for the casual writer this seems silly or even disheartening, but for those of us who’ve been at it for a while it makes total sense. You’ve taken breaks, you’ve put your projects aside, you’ve moved on to new things, you’ve changed jobs, but you keep coming back to it: writing. To be an artist in this world, one that rarely values art beyond financial gain, requires a willingness to sacrifice: time, money, energy. So, the choice is yours but know that it is a choice that you’re making and a sacrifice. I find the rewards worth it but I always remind myself that I’m free to move on.
So, if you’ve decided that you’re a writer or you want to write (because I know many of you are afraid to call yourselves writers even though that’s what you are), my next suggestion is to make a writing schedule. After you track how many hours you write a week, decide what is reasonable for your schedule. It may only be three hours a week or it may be twenty or thirty. But keeping a schedule is essential for reaching a goal. Regular writing is essential for reaching a goal. There are two ways to do this: First, you can commit to a number of hours per week and fit them in when convenient. However, the second and preferred method, is to schedule the hours so that you can be sure to get them in. Block them out in your planner; write them down on the calendar. But get them in. Pretend, if you will, that you’re training for a marathon and in order to complete the big race you need to get your hours in. Or pretend you’re getting paid for them. Just get them done! Oh, and PS, you’re not going to enjoy every minute of it. But if you keep your butt in your seat and write, you will get to where you need to go (great advice from Anne Lamott, see her classic, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
Set a timer: When it’s writing time I suggest you set a timer and focus solely on your work. If the timer’s going then you are less likely to drift over to email and social media and fall into the black hole. Try thirty minutes to start–make it short and manageable. Take a break and if you’re feeling good try another thirty. Staying focused works.
Give your work time: Certain essays have taken me years to complete. Others were written in a fever over the course of weeks. I once completed a short story for an anthology in four days. I was alone and grieving the death of a beloved auntie and the story just came out. A friend of mine insists that some poems take an entire lifetime. Perhaps that story took my whole life to write and it was only then that I was ready to create it. Yet, most of my work has taken years, so give your work time. Never ever ever finish revising a draft of something and send it out in the same day. On the other hand, Annie Dillard writes that if you spend too much time away from your work, the project will die out. She likens writing a book to stoking a fire. If you leave it for too long it goes out. I have about three cold, burnt out novels to date, and countless other writings.
Avoid Perfectionism at all costs: There is a great Brain Pickings on this topic, which I highly recommend. But the gist is that if you’re trying to be perfect you’re not going to create anything. You must allow yourself the space to write crap… and lots of it. Get messy, write crap, follow your instincts even if they make no sense in the moment. Creativity is about making connections where none exist and bringing to light new ways of seeing, being, and therefore existing. Perfectionism, it’s said, is the highest form of self hatred — so ditch it!
Keep the Faith: Being a writer is a lot like being a profit wandering through the wilderness. Yes, there’s help out there but it is your vision and your individuality that matters. What you have to offer is your specific, intimate understanding of the world– There’s only one you! That’s the one we want to understand; the mind we’d love to access. And while writing is a solitary endeavor, it’s your friendships and connection to other writers and writing that will keep you going. My readers (two people) have kept me going for years. Without them I have no one to bounce ideas off of, to get feedback from, to share stories, and to kvetch with. Building up this community is essential to your success. And remember, success is mostly about whether or not you’re practicing as opposed to your publications. It takes courage to keep going. Here’s a lovely piece on Keeping the Faith.
Finally, create the right space. OK, I will admit that I’m writing this at my local coffee shop and that most of my writing occurs in bed; however, we need a space that feels right to us. Writer Dani Shapiro has written that she spent two years in her favorite chair writing her memoir Inheritance. She had an office but she couldn’t bring herself to go there. A former teacher of mine told me he can only write in his bedroom with the blinds drawn. Others seek out beautiful spaces, a room with a view, and so on. But essentially, what you need is a place to be alone (the coffee shop counts!) and feel comfortable.
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