Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

Give The Best In You To Others

Merry Christmas to All Letter in Vintage Red TypewriterThe front porch and steps of the old house were painted institutional grey. A swing holding two teenaged girls hung from the beams. They swung back and forth, the beam creaking under their weight, the thump of shoes catching and then pushing them back again. The watched me walk to the door. No smiles. “Hi,” I said, a little too perky. No response. My hand found the screen door and pulled it open, lump in my throat and “oh my God what have I gotten myself into” in my heart. Today was my first class at “Attention Homes of Boulder.”

I was a writing student at Naropa University, a Buddhist inspired school, deeply rooted in the traditions of meditation, creative expression and service to others. Attention Homes was the service to others part and it was for a class on community outreach. As a student of writing, I was expected to give back what I was getting to my community. Short of writing a letter to someone, I had no idea what that meant. Still, I had come up with my pitch to teach a class in poetry at Attention Homes. And did I mention that I had no experience in teaching and that my poetry sucked?

For twelve weeks, I would come to this place and gather the teenaged girls who lived here around the dining room table and find a way to get them to write the longings of their heart. That sounds prettier on the page than the experience. It was like learning to be the teen whisperer. The girls at Attention Homes were tougher than anyone should ever have to be, and had seen and experienced more in their young lives than most of us do in a long life. They were the stats that didn’t look that great on the graph. I was met each week by bored faces who wanted to kick my ass to the curb. Then one class, we wrote about our mothers. It wasn’t intended. It was just a happy accident that caused lines of memories and longings to pour forth onto the page, because what united us was that we all had a mother. I was too clueless to realize that these tough kids missed their moms. And I had wanted to separate myself from them. They were the students over there and I was the teacher over here. The day we wrote about our moms, there was just one of us, and it was the beginning of my understanding how we are all connected by our stories.

I finished my twelve weeks with a small book: a comb bound, copied at the corner store, typed by me, book of poetry that was beautiful. Talk about self-publishing! Each of the girls got three copies and each of them talked excitedly about what they had made and who they would give it to. Give away what you are getting. I never forgot that class or those girls.

Today I woke up to an email from Michael Larsen, the director of the San Fransisco Writers Conference. He had sent two lists. The first list was about all the things you do as a writer. The second list was about how you can give it away. In the spirit of the season of giving, I am passing the list on to you. As writers we all want to be read and that’s a good thing. But as writers, we all have a lot that we can give to our communities that goes far beyond the writing or publishing of a book.  May your days be merry and bright and may all of your Christmases inspire you to write. (Now you can see why I say my poetry sucks!–thankfully I write prose. ) Here is Michael’s list:

Here’s how to share your gifts during the holidays and the rest of the year. You can:

Write your own greetings cards by hand and use stamps to mail them

Write a letter to share your year

Write letters for those who can’t

Read books to those who can’t

Teach reading and writing

Mentor writers

Write a memoir to share your life and create a legacy

Share your knowledge with a blog, interviews, podcasts, webinars, and talks

Support groups that give books to people in need

Ask libraries, literacy groups, and charities how you can help

Join a book club

Share your passion for the value of books, reading, and writing

Encourage other writers and writer’s organizations to help

Help organize events to support your goals

Give new or used books as gifts

The more you share your gifts, the greater your gift for sharing becomes. Give the best in you to others, and you will receive more than you give.

Michael Larsen, Co-Director
The 13th San Francisco Writers Conference & Open Enrollment Classes

Happy Holidays everyone. See you in the blogosphere in the new year!iStock_000004610770_Small


Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

A La Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I remember—my first class with Bobbie Louise Hawkins, how she did timed writing and sang Natalie Goldberg’s praises. We wrote for 10 minutes in notebooks in a day before laptops were part of the college scene in a day before the inanity of Facebook and Tweeting. We were a small rag-tag bunch of wanna-be writers who huddled in cold classrooms, four or six of us at a time, accountable to one another for our participation in classes so small that if someone dropped out of the dialogue, there was a lull and we all jumped down their throat for it later.

We spent Friday evenings at Penny Lane, chain smoking and drinking coffee, notebooks in front of us. We applauded for the people that got up and read their poetry, offering support while scrutinizing the words and how they were strung together.

When I was graduated, Bobbie Louise gave me a copy of “Writing Down the Bones,” with the inscription, “I expect great things from you.” I lost contact with her when life intervened. I interviewed Allen Ginsberg before he died for a small paper in Aspen. I wrote a couple of short stories for the Aspen Writer’s conference and then I went about the business of being a wife and nesting, coming eventually to partner my husband in business. I felt like I had let Bobbie Louise down. There were no great things coming from me.

I continued to keep spiral notebooks of writing but after awhile the writing became less and less.

Somewhere near the intersection of 60 and holy crap, I rediscovered the me that sat at Penny Lane listening to poetry; the me that went to student films at the art center and I pulled out those spiral notebooks only to discover that I had actually written a lot more than I thought in the years when I wasn’t writing. I began again in earnest. Timed Writing, new Natalie Goldberg books because now she had been writing about and teaching writing for 20 years. And I started giving away what was in my heart. That was a big part of my education at Naropa: community service with whatever you talent skill or ability was. So I started teaching creative writing in the jail at Jefferson County where I discovered that you couldn’t help anyone.

I remember learning that you can inspire and cajole. You can suggest and teach, but ultimately whether or not someone takes your help is on them and you are not part of that story. There was a young woman—Jessica. She had spent a year at Jeffco jail for meth use. She had energy and enthusiasm and I thought I could help her. I wanted to help her. I set up contacts at Naropa for her to call when she got out. I emailed Natalie Goldberg and told her about my student and Natalie arranged for a scholarship to a writer’s workshop. When I knew Jessica was getting out, I gave her a copy of “Writing Down the Bones,” with the inscription similar to Bobbie’s.

She never called anyone and three months later she was back at Jeffco. Naropa had become a place for trust fund babies and gone were the days of starving student writers who wore their angst like proud badges of courage. Jessica may never have found any comfort there.

I remember that I write because I love it. Sometimes I remember that it’s a discipline and other times I remember that it is a compelling inspiration. Still other times I remember that it is the doorway into my examined life, a painting with words that portrays who I have been, who I am and who I am still becoming.

Posted in Comedy, Tragedy and What the F...?

I Write My Life

writingOccasionally, I teach a creative writing class. I teach off the beaten path in dark corners that don’t get too many visitors—homes for seniors, halfway houses and jails. The stories in these places are less polite than the stories you get from a class at your local community colleges. I teach in these places because writing has helped me to better understand and accept myself, so I share the process in hopes that it may help someone in this way too. Writing is how I make sense of who I am and what I’ve lived. Writing is the talent that I give as service.

Aside from a few newspaper articles and a couple of magazine pieces (I wrote a piece for Quilter’s Magazine once) and few big blogs like Care2, I am not a widely published or famous writer. I write because I am a writer, one of what I imagine to be millions who get up each day and scale a white screen or blank page, looking for the right turn of phrase to convey the story, the life within life. I blog a couple of times a week, because it just feels right to see a finished piece that you are willing to put out there. It’s a risk. The more authentic a writer you become, the more you risk.

I knew a man when I was in my 20’s– Murray Schisgal. He wrote a whimsical book: “Days and Nights of a French Horn Player.” He went with me to an acting class that I was taking. On the drive home he gave me a great piece of advice. He said “don’t worry about whether people like your work or not. You should worry about whether or not they remember you.” I write to leave something of myself, just the way the Sumerians did.  The written word is the story of being human.  We live in a time when literacy has never been higher and in spite of inane tweets and texts, there are those of us who want to tell the human story in complete sentences.  Please God let me be remembered for half-way decent descriptions!

Jessica was a student of mine at The Jefferson County Detention Center. She was eighteen and landed herself in jail for over-using, abusing and in general screwing up her life with meth. She was so pretty, so young. Armed with Jesus and G.E. D. she always sat close to me, beyond excited about discovering Emily Dickinson and May Sarton. She wrote strong, haunting poems about the sensory experience of meth, longing essays about “getting it right,” and I so believed that she would. When I knew she was being released, I left a Natalie Goldberg book for her.  I penned a note of encouragement and gave her list of resources—a contact at Naropa’s Writing program, a lead on a writer’s workshop that would give her a scholarship. But she never called anyone. I heard months later that she was back at Jefferson County and sent her regards. The system slithered and coiled itself tightly around her. Drugs lulled her into submission. Now she belonged to them and I learned the sad song of “you cannot save anyone,” you can only give what you’ve got and the rest is just the rest.

I read books about writing. I look for ways to deepen and keep it real. Some mornings I think about Jessica and I wonder where she is and I am afraid to know. I sit in my warm little house, with my nice cup of tea, caffeine being the only thing that I am addicted to. I write my life on a laptop and I look for where my story connects to others. I was connected to Jessica. We both longed to get it right. We both wanted to leave something that asked to be remembered.