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I’ve spent the past 11 hours hanging with my kiddo: homework and eating waffles at the coffee shop, warming up lunches, engaging in a “conversation for play” about the “tricks for touching boa constrictor” and the “tricks for getting yourself killed by a boa constricted” (turns out these “tricks” are direct opposites), cooking dinner, watching The Incredibles (again), hosting an ice cream cone topped with a thin mint & strawberry birthday for his stuffed fox named Sweetheart (who makes kissing noises when you press its tummy). And now he’s taking his first bath of the week. And all I want to do is listen to Joan Baez’ Diamonds & Rust and sit on the floor alone and stare into the spaces between the shelves and the cracks in tongue-in-groove hardwood floors and maybe scratch out a line or two about this one time I played this record and this thing happened that feels relevant and accessible tonight but… he’s feeling lonely and keeps calling out for me to read him a book. While he’s in the tub. Side A, Track One. I go into the candle lit bathroom and stall.
“Ten minutes,” I say, “then I’ll read to you.”
I resettle into my spot on the living room floor next to the turntable. Baez sings,
You’ve had to hide sometimes, but now you’re all right
And it’s good to see your smiling face tonight
and I want her to be singing those words to herself and I wish my mom was here singing with me and not thousands of miles away on a tiny island surrounded by the sea because it’s her birthday.
The fade starts and my words start to connect to my senses and memories and there is rattle and jangle as my roommate unlocks the front door. Third song starts and my son starts calling out again, high-pitched in his pleas, begging.
I read him Runaway Bunny, a short book about a little bunny who wants to run away but no matter what he imagines, his mother finds a way to follow and find and direct him.
“That’s my favorite,” he tells me, when I turn the page to the little bunny as a sailboat, his mama bunny as the wind.
“Because his ears are so funny when they pop into sails?” I ask.
“Yeah, and because it’s so cute. And the mama bunny is the most beautiful, with her ears back, and her eyes, and her fluffy tail.” His voice is that slow and deep sing-song voice kids get when they remember something as sad. He looks harder, focuses his eyes into something I can’t see.
“She’s like a cloud though, and wind doesn’t come from the clouds.”
I’m teaching a class this winter at the Hugo House in Seattle! Classes run Wednesday evenings from 7 – 9pm, February 25 – April 1.
There are days when we sit down to write and nothing comes. In this hands-on generative class, we’ll use a series of writing prompts to generate ideas and get our pens or fingers moving. Over the course of the class, as the exercises uncover hidden ideas and surprising connections, we’ll refine our focus and develop the our explorations into structured finished pieces. We’ll look at a few examples of how to structure these kinds of essays and stories from short nonfiction and fiction for inspiration. Class may include a peer workshop of drafts.
Good for prose, and poetry too!
Registration opens on December 9th for members, and the 16th for the general public. You can get to the registration here, and see a funny picture of me.
YOU CAN GET A PREVIEW OF MY CLASS, AND TAKE SOME OTHER GREAT SESSIONS, AT THE UPCOMING WRITE-O-RAMA, THIS SATURDAY (12/6)! A FULL DAY OF GENERATIVE FUN AND ARM-CRAMPING GOODNESS. CHECK IT OUT: http://hugohouse.org/classes/write-o-rama/
Feel free to email me if you’d like a reminder email once registration opens: samantha [dot] updegrave [at] gmail [dot] com.
The week before last was fantastic. First, there was my birthday, and I left work early to read A Visitor for Bear to my son’s K/1 class. All 15 of their squirmy bodies went super still when I sat down and opened the book (expect my son, who wanted to snuggle and see the pictures while I read). That night my big sister made us all a home cooked meal and an Italian cake. I even got to stay late and drink more wine, while my partner took the kiddo home and they read birthday books in my honor at bedtime.
A couple days later, Sarah Alisabeth Fox launched her first book — Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West — into the world with a stellar reading at Elliott Bay Books. Fox is both a historian and a folklorist, and spent eight years talking to uranium affected people from the Four Corners region of the American West and collecting their stories, as well as pouring through archives, epidemiological studies, and declassified government documents. The result is a stunning book that holds facts, “official fictions,” and folktale-like stories of Downwinders side by side. I reviewed this book in High Country News in September (you can read it here), and interviewed Fox last month about writing as an act of witness, and how collecting these stories changed her (not sure where that conversation will end up yet, but I’ll let you know). Listening to Fox at her first reading, in front of 100+ people, was incredible, but my favorite moment was when someone in the audience asked her how she described her book and work to her 4-year old son.
“People wanted to make a really big shooter so that other people would be really nice to them, and it made a lot of people sick.”
He then climbed under the table, where he hung out for almost the entire Q&A, occasionally rising up to stroke her leg or hip. Because kids are totally unprofessional like that, which is why we love them, right?
Seeing them up there together, leg rubbing and all, reminded me that being a mama is a pretty awesome role to have. Reading Downwind, I was struck by the early activism of mothers — women who were housewives or maybe less educated as their urban counterparts, devout in their religions and patriotism. They tended their families, their communities, the sick and the dying. They made maps of diseases and deaths. They struggled with their own illnesses, the deaths of the children. I often feel that becoming a mom has radicalized me in some ways, but it’s hard to put into words. Some of the stories in this book struck that chord, and while I still haven’t been able to fully articulate my feelings, I connected with that element. I’m grateful that a mother has brought these stories together in a book that attempts to weave varied versions of history into something that gives credit to people’s lived experiences, and holds their stories as valid and important in understanding our shared history.
Here Now. I make my bed. I’ve slept diagonally again, and pull off the blankets and sheets to straighten them all. The squeak of my weight on the ladder from the loft is the only sound. I open the shrine while the water works on its slow boil. I fill the seven bowls with water from a jug, careful not to spill as I let the water rise all the way to the top. This is an offering, even if it’s more work it’s better not to be stingy. I arrange them near the front edge of glass, the edge where the glass angles downward. Between them I leave only enough space for a grain of rice. I don’t know if this is really how it’s supposed to be done, but I remember one time my friend Seth said that’s what he heard. I miss him this morning, living now in Boston and rarely visiting. He’s the sangha in my heart. He also told me that taking Refuge everyday changed his life, and even though he and I took the vow during the same ceremony some years ago, I’ve never done the Refuge practice daily. But I’m doing here, now, at this little cabin in the woods. The kettle is too full and boils over, the lid loose from the pressure, water rushing out of an artery in pulses, spilling between the counter and the mini-fridge, pooling on the red marmoleum floor, under the electric skillet. I move the fridge, wipe the counter, the floor. Pour hot water into the coffee grounds and watch it bloom, then fill the press. Wait 2 minutes, stir with a butter knife and wipe it clean with the wet paper towels I used to dry the counters, and slide it back into the drawer. Pour myself coffee and forget that I brought cream. Light the candles, then the incense. I pay Homage, then take Refuge.
I come back to the small table and sit down at my computer. The rooster from a nearby farm is having a moment. He settles down and the chickadees, impossibly small, arrive on the north side of my cabin. One hits the window, twice. I watch the others as they try to get under the eaves. I remember the little wren that slept inside the rolled up window shade that hung on the outside of my old living room picture room, the winter I was pregnant.
Last night as I was out walking, I noticed that when I look up the sky as the sun is setting, or as it is rising, or really at anytime at all, I cannot help but be overtaken with awe, with a sense of god that has no definition. I reminded myself that it’s okay to ask for blessings. Later, I sat with the chapters of my book arranged in a line, trying to make sense of the order, of what to write next. I knew that it was time to write the hardest scene, the scene where my son is born in a place I didn’t expect to be with a room full of people and implements…. I asked no one in particular for a way in. I went to bed.
Here, now. I woke up and tended what needed tending – the bed, the water, the shrine. I paid homage to my spiritual lineage, took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and I did both of these things out loud. I drank hot dark coffee. And the little birds outside my cabin brought me back to that winter wren, which is where the scene of my son’s birth begins.
“Ladies and gentlemen, do not be afraid of who you are.” Chogyam Trungpa said that at the beginning of a talk on Buddhism. It comes to mind now, as I work on writing an “artist statement” for an application, because for a long time I let creation be the province of others. Because I was afraid I wouldn’t be good enough, because I thought myself unworthy.
The subtlety of that misbelief was stitched to an unrelenting shame that was handed down to me. I took it up, drew my arms through it like an ill-fitted sweater and refused to take off.
When I returned to writing, I found that shame was irresistible. My entire life was falling apart. I was a new mother, my son just over 3 months old. My husband and I split. The next month, I was laid off from work. I had to leave the house I’d bought, and eventually the bank took it by trickery and foreclosure. Shame had never been more present, more palpable, more impossible to ignore.
So I wrote toward it, and discovered that shame is part of the human condition. From things acted upon us as children to the first time we are caught shoplifting candy bars and Barbie dolls to being careless with the hearts of boys as waxing teens to the failures of marriage and careers and parenting.
That realization connected me. Was a lifeline, held the rode together so that I could pull up my own anchors and plot a new course, a course where the fear of who I was (and wasn’t) no longer pinned me in place.
And so I find that shame is a recurring theme, a place I explore sometimes greedily and often with tenderness. I don’t know how to translate that into an “artist statement,” but I’ll give it a try and remember to not be afraid of who I am and that I am worthy.
Thank you to Natasha Moni for tagging me on the Blog Tour!
1) What am I working on?
NONFICTION: I’m six chapters into a memoir about how music shapes us, how our relationships are shaped by music, and how songs influence who we are, how we love, and how we heal. I explore these questions through my story. While I was pregnant my then-husband wrote and recorded an album about leaving me. He assured me the songs were nothing more than “sad generic pop songs.” His actual leaving and the record release happened simultaneously. Our son was four months old, and I was left not only in the disarray of new motherhood and a dissolving relationship, but also with a public record of that demise broadcast over the radio and Internet. (That all sounds very serious, and it is, but there’s a lot of humor in it.)
Always, always have side work and other projects! I write profiles, book reviews, conversations with authors, and essays. I’m also laying the foundation for a book-length series of profiles that examines radical feminism, pop culture, and parenting.
POETRY: Earliest of early stages of a chapbook, working title And With It The Stars.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I don’t see myself as much of a genre bender. Sometimes this gets me down (because I don’t know why), but I’ve come to accept that there’s more of an accessibility to my style. That said, I do write toward the plunge, the moments of revelation where there is a bigger truth, a connection beyond my story. I like to play with POV and time in the narrative. In longer form, I like to use short-shorts or micro-essays to break things up, move the story through time, and shift into reflection.
3) Why do I write what I do?
I write for discovery and connection. A loss early in my life rendered me somewhat empty, a hole that I have tried and tried to fill with little to no success, and at times bringing disaster and more heartache. I’ve learned that it can’t be filled, and that it’s okay to hold that emptiness as a part of me. There was a time, embarrassingly not too long ago, where I said, “I only write in short sentences or fragments! I’m raw, this is how I feel.” A wise mentor simply said, “You might want to rethink that.” I’m forever grateful that he did.
Writing is both urge and habit, how I puzzle through things and connect the joys to the sorrows to the joys, and so on. More and more, I also write for the spoken sound of the words, the way words transform between mind-page-throat-lips.
4) How does my writing process work?
In good spells, I’m a 3-page “morning pages” person. All kinds of juicy threads can come from letting loose, without an internal editor. Working on memoir, they’ve been an invaluable resource, even though 97% of what I’ve written makes me wince and cringe. Right now, I’m in a dry spell. Between work-work, MFA class work in my “free time,” and parenting a kindergartener…. Sleeping in that extra hour as won.
Each piece gets one yellow legal pad with the title only written on the first page. I start everything by hand. I free write, let my mind wonder and turn in whatever directions and hit dead ends. When my pen stops moving I write, “What I mean to say is…” which almost always leads me deeper or to something new. I write and write and write the shittiest first drafts with the shittiest spelling you can imagine. Then I reorder the paragraphs by numbering them, and then I type a shitty second draft, doing a semi-revision as I as I go. New ideas often get written and hashed on in the notepad, and I take notes, record ideas and feedback in there as well. Pieces really come together in revision, usually in the 3rd or 4th round, when a small piece of the structure presents itself or falls into place or I stumble into an unexpected revelation that speaks to the universal. I’m also a fan of cutting up typed manuscripts, and rearranging the pieces.
I almost always cry when I type (what I assume will be) the final line. Because I’ve learned something about myself and the world that I didn’t know before.
I’m tagging these three fine writers to continue the PNW Blog Tour. Check out their blogs next week (9/8) to see their answers.
Lara Adrienne Dunning is an MFA Creative Writing student at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She enjoys writing young adult fiction and nonfiction and is currently working on two different projects. In the young adult novel her orphaned protagonist travels to Alaska to reconnect with her lost selkie clan. In her personal essay collection she finds that her encounters with the creatures in the natural world often reflect the complexity of human relationships. Lara works for Fine Edge Recreational and Nautical Publishing, Burrows Bay Associates and as a freelance writer. She is a member of Whidbey Island Writers, SCBWI and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. She blogs at Toothless Cats and Pina Coladas. http://laradunning.wordpress.com/
Sarah Alisabeth Fox is a freelance writer and editor. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Montana, the Magazine of Western History and Western Historical Quarterly. Her first book, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West is forthcoming in November 2014 on University of Nebraska Press. She blogs at Overeducated Waitress. http://sarahalisabethfox.wordpress.com/
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington, a remote community in the North Cascades accessible only by boat, foot, or float plane. Her books include Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey, winner of the 2009 River Teeth literary nonfiction prize, and Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw, named a Seattle Times Best Book of 2004. Her work has appeared in many journals including Orion, Brevity, North American Review, Oregon Quarterly and High Country News, and in anthologies such as Wild Moments, A Mile in Her Boots, and Best Essays NW. www.anamariaspagna.com
In a series of profiles I wrote for crosscut.com, I asked four Seattle creatives this simple question: Who were you at 17, and what part of that person is still with you today?
This isn’t my first go-round with this subject, and it seemed like a good idea to share my early attempts. Early as in 1994 -1995.
That’s when I was 17, and putting together a fanzine called Candy Heart with my lifelong bestie, Shana. I’d gotten the idea while working on my senior thesis for English class — a 20+ comparative paper that explored the mother daughter relationship as a metaphor for the relationships between the colonizer and the colonized in Jamaica Kincaid’s short stories and novels. In my research, I’d learned that Kincaid wrote for a teen magazine early in her writing career, and that she’d interview celebrities about what they were like when they were 17.
Being 17 at the time, I couldn’t think of anything much cooler. With an old handheld tape deck and a few previously recorded on mini-cassettes that I begged from my dad, I set out to do the same.
Philadelphia, PA had a great DIY scene, with punk shows in clubs, living rooms, and warehouse spaces. I stalked a bunch of older kids from touring bands, and asked them for a story about when they were 17.
Stories from Chuck (Weston), PingPong (The Showcase Showdown), Jen (Softies), and Eric (Queers / Smears) made the cut and ran in the third issue of Candy Heart. My interview with Ben Weasel from Screeching Weasel ended in a near fist fight (me mad at him), and I couldn’t make out Calvin Johnson’s mumbles over the city traffic.
I have to say, the presentation is a bit… embarrassing. But, I was 17.
IMPOSTOR: One who imposes on others; a deceiver, swindler, cheat; now chiefly, one who assumes a false character, or passes himself off as some one other than he really is. (Oxford English Dictionary)
Impostor Syndrome came up recently in an online forum, as it will when writers get together and talk about their work and lives and all that falls between. Wikipedia has a handy synopsis:
The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Last week, I hit send on an email to a lit journal and looked around the room. Wait. Who just did that? In moments of bravery, I am often unrecognizable to myself.
The editor I emailed got back to me right away, expressing interest. I’m going to follow up with him and another editor. It feels huge. And still, I felt disconnected from the experience, like it somehow wasn’t really me. Not the real me.
This time, I caught myself having that feeling when I was having it. That clarity is a shift in the right direction, a way through the notion that I am somehow not worthy.
Part of this recognition also comes from hearing other people’s experiences, knowing that I am not alone. As I sat down to write this up, I googled “impostor syndrome.” I never noticed that this phenomenon is common among highly competent and successful people. So maybe, for today anyway, I can place myself in the “highly competent” category of human being, and let that spill over to how I feel about my writing life. It seems like a cool way to turn things around. And useful.
In the past few months, I’ve taken a lot of chances and thrown myself out there, made my opportunities. I’ve pitched and pursued. I’ve asked editors to take a chance on me. It’s paid off. I taught a session at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House during their Write-O-Rama fundraiser. This summer and fall, I have work forthcoming on crosscut.com, Bitch magazine and the Bitch blog, Chautauqua Literary Journal (2015), and High Country News.
This is really just to say, and to remind myself, take chances. Your work and your writing matter, and you are worthy to tell these stories.
My guest blog for Brevity on the AWP2014 panel, First Person Journalism
I’m in an end-of-AWP-day-one cranky stupor when journalist, author, and magazine editor Autumn Stephens’ humor lifts me up. I shift my sore hips back into the chain-locked chair, lean forward, and soak up her soft-spoken words.
“Americans tell 1.6 lies a day,” she tells us, citing a 2010 study. She leans into the microphone and tosses out a few examples.
“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
We have an open marriage.
There are weapons of mass destruction.”
I’m pretty honest, but it makes me think. I tell that first lie to my four-year-old who demands the book Santa’s Toy Shop at bedtime at least four times a week. He says he’s going to be extra good this year so that Santa will stop at his house with a model…
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