Living · Writing

Candles and Flames

This is the summer of non-blogs. And I’m a day late again.

I thought of not posting at all again, but that seemed a cop-out.

I’m not posting readily this summer because while my summer has had bright spots I would normally post about (a card-making crop, some great books, and some other wonderful moments), this summer has also been plagued with ICE raids and mass shootings, and it seems flippant to say it’s a lovely summer when it’s not.

I am torn. I am doing what I can to help, but it doesn’t seem like enough. I am trying to keep myself strong so I can lift up others, and I am sending more cards to people just to cheer them up than ever before, but I’m not blogging consistently. The kinds of blogs I tend to write threaten this summer to make me sound like a tone-deaf happy-ass. I am a happy-ass. I hope I’m not tone-deaf.  

I don’t know what to offer here this week, but I will say I squarely still believe in humanity and in the power of little things to overwhelm the world with goodness. I also hope we can get some big things straight in terms of more humane policy in the near future, so there’s not quite so much pressure on the little things to make us happy.

Meanwhile, I wish you all strength and hope and light above all. Shine on, you beautiful people.

This is one of the ways I imagine hope.

And before I leave, here is a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti entitled “Poetry as Insurgent Art.” Enjoy.

“I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….”

Teaching · Writing

Crystals and Flames: The teaching edition

Italo Calvino’s essay on “Exactitude” exhorts tight, vivid writing and the continual quest for the mot juste. In each of his Six Memos for the Next Millenium, he presents a pair of contrasting qualities literature can have, and then he comes down on one side as being closer to his own practice and of most use to readers in the 21st century. So in the essay on Lightness, he also considers weight or gravitas, and says he simply “has more to say about lightness”(Six Memos 3).

This pattern holds for the remaining four essays—Quickness, not lingering; Exactitude, not vagueness; Visibility, not abstraction; Multiplicity, not singularity. He died before writing the sixth: Consistency.

Today a student expressed frustration with his even-handedness. If he’s going to argue for one side being better, why not stick to that? The short answer is because it’s complicated (as everything important is). The longer answer is because he sees the value of both traits in different contexts and in the interest of living a rich reading life. The deeper answer, I think in retrospect, is that while he chooses the side he most naturally leans toward, he admires and even envies those who occupy the other side. Today it came up in terms of teaching styles and professors.

The crystal: “the self-organizing system” (71)

When Calvino argues for the Party of the Crystal and the Party of the Flame, he conceives of placing authors in camps who favor structure over stream of consciousness—intrinsic order over associative, digressive, descriptive texts.

As I was explaining this dichotomy, I put it in terms of pedagogy. When I was in college, I had two professors who taught entirely differently. One came in every day and put a list of topics on the board, and no matter how esoteric the subject (I took themed courses entitled “Philosophy of Love” and “Philosophy of War” from her), we marched through those topics, in order and in detail. When I left, I knew what I had learned. I felt like there was significant content added to my brain every day.

The flame: “order out of noise” (71)

Another professor in the same department delivered content completely differently. I thought of him as a juggler of ideas. He came in and brought up one subject, which led to a discussion of a related subject, which led to another, like a juggler adding balls without your noticing. All those balls seemed to float in the air above us, one idea connecting to another, with students questioning and adding and variously contributing to the aerial show until it was time to wrap up. And when he did wrap up, all those topics seemed to fold back in on each other like Chinese puzzle boxes, and I sat in awe of how many disparate subjects and ideas seemed seamlessly connected in his lectures.

The juggler was a flame. The list-maker was a crystal.

When I realized that, I recognized the pull in Calvino’s essays toward the opposite side of each binary. He is a crystal, but he admires those who embody the flame in part because he could never pull it off. Every impulse he has directs him toward structure that builds meaning and reveals order. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t marvel at the apparent magic and mystery of the flame and those who embody it.

I know because as I was talking about my professors, I found myself envious of the list-maker. I can start with a list, but when I’m done, if we’ve hit 40% of those items in a class, I’m doing pretty well. I more often follow the interests and experiences of my students, so every class goes where they are more than where I guide. I would never compare my classes to the virtuosity of my idea-juggling magician, but I’m no crystal when it comes to teaching, and I stand in awe of those who are. Students respond well when they can leave with that feeling of having completed a list of tasks and mastered a body of knowledge, and I wish sometimes that I could give that to them. I can’t. I do something else which I think also has value, but I totally get where Calvino feels compelled to do justice to both sides, even though he favors one himself.

If I’m honest, it’s probably why I love him. I am a happy flame, but I remain fascinated by the crystal and its particular beauty.


The Little Bastard of Self-Criticism, or Use Your Words for Good, yo.

Photo from my 18th century French Lit text, where I learned I hate Rousseau.

I am still a little insecure about my blog. I don’t know how to do the tech parts well, and I have a little bastard voice still that says blogs, (really just mine, of course) are self-aggrandizing and vain. But I keep writing anyway. I don’t seem to be able to stop.

Last week’s I felt was a risk—I’m still fumbling around with a new platform, still out of my groove from taking a holiday break. And it was an ok idea (though not original), that all stories are palimpsests, but I’m not sure I did it justice…. Yeah, the little bastard voice is strong this month.

But the day after I posted it, a colleague approached me—made an effort, went out of her way—to talk about it and tell me she enjoyed it. It was all the difference to me on a cold, cranky morning, and it reminded me how much it matters that we tell people what we appreciate about them.

I try to do this. I try to remember to thank people for their efforts, try to point out what’s awesome about individuals, but I know I’ve missed lots of opportunities over the years. I’m happy to say I caught one recently, though. In the wake of the Very Bad News of 650 foreign language programs being cut from university curricula in the last several years, I panicked and looked up my alma mater to see if the French major still existed.

Not only does it still exist (though pared down, certainly), one of my favorite professors is still teaching there twenty-five years later. So I tracked down his email and wrote him a letter thanking him. He taught me French literature and culture. But even more importantly, he taught me how to learn languages, a skill which I have put to good use over the years. He also modeled honest, emotional, and aesthetic reactions to literature. From this… from this I have made a career.

He didn’t remember me. I didn’t care. I put some positivity out in to the universe, and some came back to me almost immediately.

So the Little Bastard of Self-Criticism got overshadowed by the Bigger, Stronger Voice of Gratitude this week. I probably need to do some work to turn my big, grateful voice inward, not just outward, in the near future. But today it was enough to notice that the little bastard is little, and the better voice is big as I conceive of them. That’s something to build on.

Remember to tell your people they’re awesome, y’all. We are fragile, all of us, and it helps to hear it. It helps even more, though, to say it.

Living · Writing

Resolutions 2019: A Writer’s Blocks

I couldn’t think of what to write about this week.

This is a case for steady writing. It works. I took two weeks off because two Mondays in a row were Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and I felt justified, but then I took a third week off just because. I’ll say I was planning on migrating my blog, and that’s true, but it’s also true I was just letting myself slip out of the groove.

I did move the blog. It feels like a good time—New Year’s and all. A time of changes, new directions, new endeavors. But I didn’t write. I just did detail work like going through all my old blog links and making sure they connected here. And now it’s been three weeks… and a day, since I’m moving also from Mondays to Tuesdays. And I have nothing to say.

I do have a wonderful family, who are trying to help me, though. Rob saw my box of Santa figurines waiting to be moved to the garage when the rain stops, and suggested I write about why we have such stupid Santas. (He misread “Int’l Santas” as Int 7 Santas, which in the Dungeons and Dragons world means your Santas have a score of 7 out of 20 in Intelligence). 

My daughter offered up the weirdness of language as a topic, still proud of catching her dad in a raucous pun trap last night. We’ve been taking advantage of the rainy weather to make chili, and while she crushed up saltines in hers, she asked if it weren’t cannibalism. “Not unless you’re a salty cracker,” her dad retorted, then he hung his head and groaned.

But the weirdness of language demands volumes, as does the clever pun-potential of my kooky family. So maybe I just need to tackle the problem head on and generate some topics. I often write about something that happened during the week on my blog, so what has happened of note?

We started a new year, and that always makes me want to make resolutions. Nietzsche regarded resolutions as a criterion for differentiating humans from animals. The idea that we could make a promise to do or be something in the future, make plans and stick to them or not, projecting an abstract view of ourselves in the new, resolved guise, was fundamentally human for him. I know it’s two weeks late, but it’s still January, so I’ll make some resolutions.

I will write more. Blogs, yes, but also fiction and also an article on Beowulf that I should have written years ago. If I boast that we wield words (and I do in my bio, which I reread for the first time in two years—oy), then I’d better do some darned wielding or welding or wending or something.

I will read more. I’m starting to feel like I don’t read as much for pleasure as I used to, and given my newish obsession with non-fiction, particularly non-fiction about reading, I feel like I need to sit and roll around in a novel, but I haven’t really, not even over the longest winter break I’ve had in sixteen years. So yeah—read more.

I will shake up my teaching. I’ve started on that, so will keep moving forward. Semesters are a different pace from quarters, and require some new approaches, so I’m thinking up new assignments, new ways to break up class periods, and new ways to get people involved and engaged.

I think I’ll keep a grateful log. The current state of American politics and policy has me regularly grim-faced, so I will remind myself that as I work to improve things, I should notice many things are still right as rain.

In fact, that reflective impulse is where I’ll stop tonight.  I always think of Janus at the new year, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, passages, and transformations. He’s two-faced, with one face looking forward, but one also looking backward, reflecting, seeing where we came from and where we’re going at the same time. That seems admirable to me. Not that I want two sets of eyes, but that I  aim not to lose sight of what I’ve learned as I move forward. What I’ve learned tonight is that a steady writing habit makes it easier to write.  I knew this. But I just re-learned it. C’est la vie.

Good luck out there. And may you live up to some of your resolutions, forgive yourself for the ones that slip, and always roll higher than a 7 for intelligence.


Cleaning the Writing Pipes

I have written academic prose for a number of years now—mostly about teaching, but also about literature. It is a mode I still don’t find natural, despite (cough) over two decades experience. I can do it, but it takes effort. When I argue, I do not sing.

Academic writing takes research and planning and more planning, and then writing, then revising, then editing. So does writing fiction. But somehow one feels like work to me, and one feels like play.
In fact, writing fiction feels so much like play that I haven’t let myself do much of it. I’ve needed to get a job, to get tenure, to get promoted, and fiction hasn’t figured in to that. And now that I have reached a point in my career when I can write what I want, I still put up roadblocks.
In the worst sort of self-sabotage, I now feel like I’ve built a career writing academically:  how will I remember how to write creatively? So here’s how I have done it—am doing it:
I’ve read books about being creative, and finding time to fit creative work in around a career. I’ve taken an online coaching class for creative folks who feel blocked. I’m reading and workshopping with The Artist’s Way. And once, last fall, I participated in an all-day write-a-thon whose goal was to produce sample fairy tales, folktales, and fables for a collection aimed at elementary classrooms.
That was an exhilarating nightmare. And it unclogged my writing pipes.

The setting was a room full of tables and laptops, and about twenty writers. Over the course of the day, each writer produced nine pieces, in thirty minute time blocks, on themes and subjects that were assigned on the spot. “Here’s your topic. Write a story. Go.”
For fairy tales, we had to retell a tale we remembered from our childhood in our own words–in thirty minutes. We had to tell one about a princess that started traditional and ended postmodern–in thirty minutes. We had to concoct a ghost story for the folklore section based on a tabloid headline we drew at random–in thirty minutes. You get the idea. Nine texts.
I do not envy the editors their job of clean-up and presentation. I am not proud of all those pieces; there is one, even that I would be truly mortified to see in print.  But the process of cranking out story after story really got my head in to a whole new space.
The experience was invaluable. For someone who doubted her ability to write creatively, I had nine texts to show for myself. Some had come in part from stories I knew, but some were utterly original—about subjects I had never considered. I learned that I had enough story-stuff in me to pull together when I needed it, AND if I needed new material, I could be counted on to produce it.
I had not written against a clock since my last grad school midterm, and then I knew what I had to say; it was just a matter of writing it down fast enough. This was an entirely different experience: making things up that I didn’t have a plan for–and making them presentable–was trying in ways I could not have predicted. It was physically exhausting also—the drive home from Los Angeles is a blur.
The journey to viewing myself as a creative writer is long and winding and not over, but I took some giant strides forward that day. It is my fervent hope that others don’t make it this hard on themselves, but I suspect many do. Is it our culture of productivity (despite being fraught with early death and stress-related ailments)? Some vestige of a Puritan work ethic that says we shouldn’t enjoy work too much? Just a personal fear of letting ourselves “play” as adults? Do we worry that an art career doesn’t come with a 401K?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is I’m kicking all of that to the curb. And whatever else I have been or am, now I am a writer too. And I’m finding my singing voice.
(The Artist’s Way is by Julia Cameron, and there has recently been a 25th anniversary edition released.)
Living · Writing

Metamorphosis–Giving Myself Permission to Change

I got my fifteen year pin at work. That’s half a career. It feels like a perfect time to shift some gears.
I sometimes have to remind myself not to be afraid of change. I’m pretty good about trying new foods and restaurants, but big changes, I resist. I’m done moving. I chose a career with job security.  I’ve been married to the same guy pretty much all of my adult life.
But I know change is good. I know it’s invigorating, and I know it’s necessary. Since I’m not willing to trade in my husband for another model, it had to be work that changes.
I certainly am not stopping teaching, although some shifts are coming there too, as we change to semesters, and I step out of the King Arthur class and in to some new territory after “semester conversion.”  But this is a multi-faceted job I’m in, so I’m shaking things up in terms of writing.  Really, I’m giving myself permission to revisit a dream.
If you had asked me at fifteen what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d have said write, and at that point, I’d have meant poetry. I wrote a lot when I was young, but I could never have been so bold as to try to make a career out of writing creatively.
After about twenty-five more years of reading, though, I feel like I have something to write.
It started with a book for my kids. After reading so many books to them, I felt like I could tell where the gaps were, and what worked and didn’t work. But I still wasn’t ready to commit to thinking of myself as a writer.  It took five years to write one little novel. The kids I wrote it for have grown up; that doesn’t sound like I’m a writer—more like a scratcher in the sand.
This year, though, I’m picking up speed. I got awarded a sabbatical to wrap up the novel. That was very validating. I started a blog about reading. It turns out that counts as writing! Before I finished my first novel, I started thinking about the second one. And as I start getting in to critique groups and searching for an agent, I find I have reached a critical mass of baby steps toward a new identity and now don’t feel like an impostor when I call myself a writer.
There is a delicate dance, being a reader and a writer, and we can go from being one to another and back again in an endless circle. I have always considered myself a reader, but only a dilettante writer.  But I have come around to writer again, and this time I’m not begging off.
The best bit of wisdom my dad ever gave me was “If you do what you love, you’ll never work again.”  At the time, I dropped the biology degree and ran headlong in to literature and languages.  And he was right (except for grading). What he forgot is that there can be more than one thing you love.

What I Did Over Summer Vacation

Not a lot, honestly.

That’s not true—just not what I had in mind to do. I had great plans for a sabbatical project and some travel and a last hurrah of a summer before my institution converts from a quarter system to a semester system next year, and we go back to school in mid-August, rather than late September.

I did do some writing. I did do some reading. But everything else went haywire.
My mother passed away in April. It was a long time coming, and I expected it, I think, every day for the last six years or so, except the day it happened. I have been dreading phone calls for years, especially from anything looking medical, but for some reason, this time when I picked up the phone, it was the farthest thing from my mind. I actually was thinking, “Oh, it must be time for a quarterly review.”
“Hello, Ms. Baker. This is ______.  I’m calling to inform you of your mother’s death.”
First of all, who says that? Shouldn’t she ask me to sit down, or say she has some bad news? Eesh. I did sit down. Abruptly. The breath I let out was a sigh and a moan and a balloon fluttering around in my chest.
No. Not now. Not like this. When my father passed away, I was a thousand miles away, and I got the call that if I wanted to say goodbye, I should come right down. I couldn’t, of course, but they tried. Where was that call this time, when I was twenty minutes away?
This time it was over in a moment. Years of anguish, as she battled Paranoid Schizophrenia, winning some days–losing ground, most days. After years in her convalescent hospital, after more than a year on hospice, and after being completely blind and not particularly noticing, she had only clothes and a few stuffed animals in her possession. I donated them to the convalescent hospital. They didn’t even need me to come down.
All there was left to do was wait for the death certificates and the cremains, both of which would be mailed. “Thank you. Have a nice day. Very sorry for your loss.”

I have been responsible for my parents for the last ten years. Dad had dementia and passed away a year and a half before Mom. Because I had been mourning them for so long, I thought it wouldn’t hit me so hard. It didn’t hit. It sucked.
It sucked the life out of me–all my energy, all my emotion. I couldn’t think or feel or cry or yell. I watched more tv this summer than I have in the last ten years. And those things I said I’d do—I forgot what they were. All my plans involved thinking, and I just didn’t have thinking in me.
I read novels. I watched Netflix. I filled my head with other stories, until I was ready to tell my own. I’m ready now. And being ready to tell my story means I’m ready to work again. I’m ready for the fall quarter. I’m a chapter away from that book being done. I’m taking a fiction writing workshop and looking for an agent.
There are stories to be told about my mom now, and I’ve started spinning some out for my kids. That will continue, now that it makes my heart swell, rather than deflates me, to talk about her, now that she is an exhalation, a soul free in the ether. Deep breaths, deep breaths. Life flows on.