Things to Teach, Things to Learn

Spent the past couple days devouring Lynda Barry’s new book Syllabus. My sister gave it to me for Christmas because I am gearing up to teach my first class in February, and it’s a fitting source of inspiration. My sister and I talk a lot about how our lives have been shaped and how we work to shape to our lives and about all the things that fall in between. We talk a lot about gaps and bridges and phases of life.

A few weeks ago, she told me “We teach what we want to learn.”

In Syllabus, one of Barry’s notes says “Teaching this: To be able to accept what comes up.”

That about sums up what I’m hoping to learn, and how I wish I could live out my days.

So, to get started on that…. I have a pretty big fear of drawing. You can ask any of my work-work coworkers, and they can tell you how funny and out of scale and crooked all my lines and shapes are, especially when drawn on those massive white boards. My inability to draw has bummed me out for as long as I can remember. I just dug out a sketchbook I last drew in back in March of 2012. But about half way through the Barry book, I felt like I had an opportunity, and the responsibility, to just see what came up if I tried without trying. In one of her classes she took attendance by having her students draw 2-minute self portraits on index cards, which she then collected and held all semester. So I pulled out an index card (which I got in my stocking!), set my timer, and went for it. So that I wouldn’t feel so alone, my five-year-old son joined me, though he spent about 10 seconds on his after bemoaning the unfairness of only having 2 minutes.

Here it is, my first self-portrait in 10 years.

O said, "Aw, you look so cute, like a kid!"

O said, “Aw, you look so cute, like a kid!”

"But two minutes is toooooo short for me." (O's 10 second self portrait)

“But two minutes is toooooo short for me.” (O’s 10 second self-portrait)

It is tempting, but I probably won’t have my students draw attendance cards.

I’ve spent the last year working part-time and going to grad school full-time. I’ve written 21,000 pages of my book and started a crown of sonnets. In a few days, I’ll reverse the order and work full-time. Writing needs to make its way back into my morning routine, which means before I wake the boy up and get him ready for school, which means I’ll write from 5 – 6:30 am. These 2-minute self-portraits are going to become part of my morning warm up, to keep my head from taking over too soon and to get my hands moving.


How to Begin When Your Head is Empty – From Writing Exercise to Finished Prose

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.


Feel free to email me if you’d like a reminder email once registration opens: samantha [dot] updegrave [at] gmail [dot] com.


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.

“Artist Statement”

“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 PublishingBurrows Bay Associates and as a freelance writer. She is a member of Whidbey Island WritersSCBWI and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. She blogs at Toothless Cats and Pina Coladas.

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

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