Summer Writing Colony: Part 1
Greetings from my Summer Writing Colony. I love it here, and I am getting stuff done and surprising myself. Won’t you join me? It’s free, and you can attend from exactly where you are. It doesn’t matter whether your job or family can spare you—you can join!
Let me explain. There I was, salivating over writing workshops, conferences, and colonies listed in Poets and Writers and The Writer’s Chronicle. But this summer I don’t really have cash to attend, nor can I get away from family responsibilities, or add another flight onto my schedule.
Then I saw a line from one of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project calendars:
“Put yourself in Creativity Boot Camp: Tackle a project in an intense, concentrated way, and push yourself to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.”
I returned to my magazines with new eyes. If I could design my own retreat, what exactly would it look like? Soon I was cutting and pasting ads until I had created my ideal Summer Writing Colony poster. “Weekly Intensives,” I promised myself, in an atmosphere that would be “Supportive, Yet Demanding.”
Most of my energy in this colony session will go into reading, writing, and completing supportive, yet demanding weekly assignments. But I will also experience literary field trips, arts and crafts sessions, lectures from brilliant guest speakers, and daily meditation and soul guidance. And this place happens to feature delicious food and fun physical workouts. It’s kind of a spa retreat and writing boot camp all rolled into one. At home.
Over the next six or seven weeks I’ll break down the menu so you can implement YOUR OWN writing colony schedule as an honorary member.
Your assignment for this week: Buy or borrow a writing magazine that inspires you. Read your writing source this week and take notes about what you want to do on your next four to six weekly intensives.
See if you can do some cutting, taping, and designs to create your OWN poster of intention for this summer—or make one online on Pinterest. What do you want to accomplish this summer? What does your ideal retreat look like? Let me know!
Go to Part 2
Let's do athletics!
I found this ebullient young man in the 1900 edition of University of California, Berkeley's Blue and Gold yearbook. It seemed right to post him on this first day of the World Cup in Brazil.
I'm studying this time period for my new book, as-yet publicly unnamed.
Beast might be a good name.
There I was, in the California Room leafing through the yearbook when I stumbled across evidence that my Great-Uncle Ernst had been secretary and treasurer of the Chess Club that year. They had trounced Stanford. He was likely a sophomore.
That year (according to Richard Schwartz’ wonderful book, Berkeley 1900), the Berkeley campus was pretty much a vast field with only a couple of buildings. The extremely wealthy philanthropist, Mrs. Phoebe Hearst, was deep in planning sessions with a celebrated French architect to lay out the campus.
I am a grateful UCB alumna. When I attended in the early 1980s, I had no idea that my ancestors had been there before me. I ate Top Dog wieners and bought used Signet editions of Shakespeare at Mo’s Books, biked to The Cheese Board, and dodged shady characters on Telegraph Avenue.
But the Berkeley and Oakland back then still had a number of oaks, dairy farms, quail, and goats; somehow I see goats in my vision of Great Uncle Ernst getting to class.
"When You're Eighteen"
This is the outside of Oakland's amazing Cathedral of Christ the Light. When I wandered inside and meditated for a little while, I remembered how my own spiritual pilgrimage began.
My early childhood Sunday mornings were spent reading the funnies while the grown-ups padded around in robes, drinking coffee, perhaps cleaning the aquarium or getting sun in the garden. The only intimations of religion I remember were from television: Sidney Poitier visiting some stubborn nuns and building their church, and Sally Field as the disarming Flying Nun.
Then, around age ten, I detoured one day from walking home from school (my house key on a string around my neck) and headed instead to old grey St. Bridget's a block away. They didn't lock their doors then. I slipped inside and sat down in a pew, awed and excited. My solitary experience that day was of sweet silence, light through colored windows, the faint smell of sweat and incense. I asked my father that night if I could be a Catholic.
Dad, embracing Unitarian and Humanist fellowships after a Jewish and Christian Scientist childhood, managed to hide his surprise. "You can be baptized anything you want," he said firmly. "Once you are eighteen."
Suddenly, becoming baptized seemed tremendously important to me. Dad showed me a book called "The Church Down the Street." "Look at all these religions you can choose from," he said, leafing through the chapters. Baptist. Jew. Muslim. Buddhist. "I recommend you study them before you make up your mind." My work was cut out for me.
Over the next seven years, I attended a session of Catholic summer camp and two years of Jewish summer camp; six months of Wednesday night youth group at my Mormon friend's church; yoga and meditation classes at the stuffy top-floor studio of the Iyengar Yoga Institute; zen meditation at Green Gulch; informal but thorough lessons in Wicca and Tarot reading from friends; services and summer family camp with Unitarians, and some quiet time sitting with Friends. Oh, and a ten week course in Episcopalian history.
As I turned eighteen, I had the usual mix of blustery bravado and intense shyness, idealism and cynicism. I was living with a boyfriend by then, waitressing, writing poetry. Dad mentioned that he was worried about me-- so many young people were flocking to the Hare Krishnas, to Jim Jones, to Reverend Sun Moon. "No way, Dad," I said. I had already proven to myself that, with my freethinking ideas, I did not fit in anywhere.
The previous summer, I had baptized myself by a splashing snow-melt stream in the high Tuolomne Meadows. The bright sun was nearly swallowed in vast blue sky, and the banks of the stream were a riot of Indian paintbrush and purple lupine.
Let it Spring!
Gee, it's good to be back. I've missed you!
Over the past sixty days I've laid the groundwork for the new book (more on that in upcoming posts), and now it's time to lift my head and look around. Who brought all these blooming flowers to Campbell?
Tonight I'm heading for downtown San Jose to a launch party for Reed Magazine, the oldest literary journal west of the Mississippi. Aside from the joy of hanging out at the hip, laid-back Blackbird Tavern for a few hours, I'm really looking forward to meeting some old schoolmates and beloved professors from San Jose State University. I might get to see one friend whose flash fiction is gracing a huge number of journals online and in print. And I hope to see another friend who knows how authors should approach book tours.
I'm officiating at a whole new crop of weddings, too, which I love. That's given me a chance to think about more wedding-related ideas to share with you. See you next week.
Data Collection and Awe
Floods of information and inspiration poured forth from the AWP conference in Seattle. Thousands and thousands of writers congregated with editors, publishers, poets, teachers, and students. I recognized my tribe.
In packed rooms I scribbled notes as speakers addressed subtleties in spiritual writing, researching historical novels, nature essays, regional poetry. One night I heard Eva Saulitis, a marine biologist, teacher, writer, and poet (and beekeeper), describe long, cold months observing orca whales. She described how the boredom, the waiting, the emptiness were aspects of imagination, precursors of her work. The work, she said, came from the intersection of “data collection and awe.”
I arrived home with so much to think about. My craft and direction were reconfirmed. I found leads to publish work. I made friends, growing a community that suddenly spans the globe. I heard new models of writing and carted home pages of notes toward the New Book, skills in Twitter, goals for blogging, and a writing schedule to try out. And enough literary magazines to pull my shoulder out of whack.
It was an overabundance. I swam in it for three weeks after the conference.
* * *
Neighborhood crows flap heavier these days because their beaks are filled with sticks. They are building nests, of course, as I build scaffolding for my new book.
“Pairs function as highly synchronized teams, building large, stick-based nests, carefully lining them with fine rootlets or hair.” (Marzluff and Angell, In the Company of Crows and Ravens.)
An initial web of ladders and planks give workers safe access to transform all parts of a structure. For a book, scaffolding might include an outline, a timeline, a narrative arc plotted on a whiteboard or paper. I also build a schedule on paper and in Google. The schedule must include walks, library research, fieldwork, and snacks of music, books, drawing, museum visits.
“Crows take a great deal of time choosing the sticks they want to use in the construction of their nests.” (Haupt, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom From the Urban Wilderness.)
The scaffold also serves to protects the act of writing itself, because life is so full with family, other work, events, friends. I keep re-learning that limits must be set.
“The crow’s nest is a remarkably intricate piece of work, belying both the rough exterior of the structure and the bulkiness of its creators.” (Haupt)
At this time, it's better for me to dwell inside the book for several days or weeks at a time, listening to echoes and characters, without forced interruptions to broadcast content. See you in a few weeks.
Travel with no baggage
This week I'll join more than 12,000 other writers and editors, professors, agents and students at an extravaganza called AWP. It's my first one.
I'll bring a small rolling bag and a black daypack to carry snacks, my itinerary, aspirin, some old sweaters, and empty journals. But that's my toolkit, not baggage.
The things I will NOT be lugging around (and I was certain that I would):
There is, in fact, very little on the horizon. As though the Universe is sweeping everything from my path, with Infinite Love, and telling me to get to work on the art right under my nose.
I feel so untethered. Tomorrow I head north, and plan to go in a state of quiescent listening!
On the 20th Day of Christmas. . .
Did you receive holiday cards this year? Are they still around? If you haven’t tossed them yet, here's a meditation exercise that I recently gleaned from a friend's back issue of Spirituality and Health Magazine.*
Up until this year, I’ve put cards up on a mantel, or on a large ribbon, and then at the end of the Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year season, it was a little sad to just toss those pretty cards into the recycle bin. Sometimes I cut out new gift tags from the fronts. But what I am about to share goes beyond recycling.
Save those cards in a basket or bowl. Then, in January, after all the bustle has calmed down and your routines are back, find a few minutes to deliberately put your hand in the bowl and draw out a few cards. Look at just the first one. Spend time really seeing the front, examining the artwork, enjoying the colors and all the careful work that the artist put into it. Then read the printed greeting.
Now, if the sender wrote something in it, read what he or she said, and concentrate on the signature. Close your eyes for a few moments and picture that person, maybe that family, in your mind’s eye. Send affection and wishes for their peace and health in the New Year. Thank them, in your thoughts, for sending you the card.
When the meditation feels complete, you can release the card (feel free to save some for bookmarks or gift tags). With luck, you might be dipping into your cards a little at a time through the next couple of months.
I can scarcely overstate the powerful effect of this meditation. During my first handful of cards, I remembered far-flung loved ones, carefully read their news, pondered the ancient stories portrayed on the card fronts, and even wrote an overdue letter in response. I was also inspired, by one, to visit the UNICEF site and purchase my cards for next season. Even more, as I read the cards I felt my heart growing larger, lighter, and warmer. Closing my eyes over the last card, I felt briefly connected to a larger, energizing galaxy of goodwill.
I love how The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin talks about maximizing your happiness. Happiness is an inside job, right? Sometimes a wonderful event just flits right by and is swallowed up again—but we, and only we, have the power to make it something more. We can anticipate an event or a treat, we can participate in it, and then we can remember it, perhaps retell it. Multiple joys from one event!
This holiday card meditation is a way to turn bits of ephemeral paper and glitter into active happiness. It keeps our little lights shining through the next wintry months.
*"Praying My Greeting Cards" by Sister Karen Zielinski, OSF, in Nov-Dec 2010.
The Slowest Arc
On my way to a Saturday morning study group, I idle at the red light on Winchester. My car faces south toward Los Gatos. My mind is as neutral as my engine. To my right two small silver cars arrive side by side, almost pushing each other out of the way to make their respective turns. The farther car begins to rise, like a gleaming helium balloon, and continues to rise until it is over the nearer car. High in the air it arcs and rolls in a slow, elegant spiral, almost pausing, then plummets on its head on the asphalt in the middle of Winchester.
Now I understand the phrase, “scarcely believe my eyes.” The car does not move. I must assume this has happened, not in a waking dream, but in the world. I pull my car over, park, and stumble out to help. It is immediately apparent that I will not be able to open the crushed door, and other people begin to form around the car, so I turn back with shaking hands to find my cell phone. 911 brings forth a busy signal. I try it again, again, again, and five times, the busy signal. At nine on a Saturday morning. But others also hold their cell phones, more beginning to arrive from a nearby café, and one woman appears to be talking, so she has gotten through.
Nothing moves inside the car. The morning sky remains blue. The street remains quiet. The driver of that car was in a hurry. What was he, if it was a he, heading toward? Was he coming home from a late night? Was he eager to get to the gym? How did he not see the orange plastic barriers, temporary barriers, to his right, surrounded by neon cones? His mind was preoccupied.
He assumed that everything around him would run smoothly so he could think his thoughts unmolested, as we always assume. So much of our lives must run smoothly. Hot water cascades from the shower head. Drivers stay in their lanes. An e-mail is sent and arrives at its destination. For the most part. He assumed that it would not affect the course of his day if he gave into a momentary feeling of impatience by stepping on the accelerator. We do it all the time.
People gather around the driver’s side as a police siren grows louder and its lights appear down the street. No one else is on the passenger side to see what I see next. The flattened, upside-down door opens and two legs emerge, tangled in a black seat belt strap. The feet, in white running shoes, touch the ground. Then all is still again. My feet move toward the car.
It is a man. This morning he put on faded blue jeans and white shoes. He had been impatient to get somewhere. He meant to go left, or perhaps right. The front tire of his car found contact with the lowest part of an orange plastic barrier, the thinnest edge of the wedge, and obeying the laws of physics, the tire followed its natural path up the vertical slope of the barrier. The tire, the vector, had no choice. The car was perhaps surprised to find itself aloft, so high and quiet against the blue sky of a Saturday morning, perhaps nothing in its manufacture had prepared these tons of metal and glass to float, to float for a full second before the earth pulled it to herself with decisive arms.
After a moment, I saw the man emerge, his eyes wide, hand to his white cheek while speaking to the police officer. Had he died I might not be able to describe to you that terrible beauty, that silver car following its path into the air, that arc, that nautilus, that whorl of your soft hair, that silent curve against the morning blue that haunts me even now.
Persimmons and postage stamps
What makes you feel wealthy? I don’t mean measuring the size of your bank account, but the wealth of having enough, the feeling that as long as I have this, I’m OK.
One recent emblem of abundance for me has been having a bowl of coral-gold persimmons on my table. Especially when they come from a neighbor’s tree -- they can be expensive in the market! When I see the bowl, I know that I can have a sweet, luscious snack every day if I feel like it, and it will be good for me. The color just makes me smile.
I did not know how to eat fuyu persimmons until my friend, Jocelyn, modeled the proper fuyu eating stance. We were having a discussion and I watched as she took a persimmon and a small, sharp knife. She simply carved slices off the persimmon and handed one to me. I was shocked at how good it tasted. The other kind, the Hachiya pictured here, might need a long time to ripen into jelly, and can be eaten with a spoon.
Here is the other thing that makes me feel ready to take on the world: I realize how old-fashioned I will sound, but I feel wealthy when I can carry postage stamps in my wallet. Especially those with brilliant pictures on them of dancers or musicians, or wise men and women of history, or flowers. I know I can mail anything on the spur of the moment—an urgent bill perhaps, but more importantly, a fan letter or a thank-you note.
I hated it as a child when my Mom made me sit and write thank-you notes after Christmas and birthdays, but now I'm glad she did; years of experience have taught me how simple it is to jot a note, find the address, add a stamp, and pop it into the mailbox. You never know what a huge impact a little letter in the mail can make.
As I came to realize how many authors work in a vacuum of silence, just like me, and how their books get published to a little fanfare and then get swallowed up by even greater silence, I realized that fan letters are as important as thank you notes. It was a little intimidating, writing to the first author I admired, but I am so glad I did. She sent me a brief reply on a postcard that showed a watercolor painting of a French bakery. Nourishing indeed!
I think stamps mean so much to me because of times in the past when I was traveling and did not have the money to eat more than once every couple of days. I really wanted to send a letter to my family, but did not have the postage, let alone enough to place an international call.
So yes, my wallet contains two sleeves of stamps. And I have clean, warm socks on my feet. I feel like a million dollars, and I think I’ll go eat a persimmon.
Going away to come home
I am packing up my woolly long-sleeved things and getting ready to head down the Pacific Coast to take a five day workshop around spiritual practices.
See this photo? That’s what I’ll be looking at, unless Divine Humor sends fog and rain instead.
I’m trying not to interfere with life’s grand unfolding by inserting expectations about how it will be. Still, I am giddy with excitement. A retreat! And not a silent retreat, and not a retreat where I have to sit much longer than an hour. My desperate needs to move and talk would make me a lousy Trappist.
Why this now? I think I am hoping to bring something home in my pocket. I want to bring home a more solid prayer-and-meditation practice.
When I worked in a corporate environment the regular hours lent themselves better to a daily practice. But in grad school, writing another book and attending meetings upon meetings, Monday looks nothing like Tuesday. Last week is different from this week, and in several weeks the schedule will change again.
In this environment, attaching practices to a specific hour is a misguided venture. I take heart from swaying grasses on the sides of a swift river. The stems bend to wind and water and it doesn't matter; their roots hold firm.
I know by now that I like to split the practice itself into two parts. The rhythm two parts is both restful and productive. There’s the beginning of the day, where the essential action is to connect to my power source. It doesn’t have to be fancy. But I do have to be willing and active about it.
The second part might be called, “How did I do?” In remembering the day I get a chance to relive all the good parts--that's double the joy! And I can ask for help around the not-so-good. Without this afternoon/evening part, I’m on permanent forward thrust without a rudder.
And would it hurt to add a couple of sun salutations every day?
Maybe a stronger, more solid yet easily portable practice will emerge from this workshop, maybe it won't. At least I've spent some time thinking about my intention for going, and later this evening, if I remember to remember, I'll get to relive that little piece of joy.