Category Archives: Memoir

Wake before the sun? Are you kidding me?

At the moment, I am flying high and nothing is wrong in the universe.
Why?
Because it’s 5:30 in the morning, I haven’t even started my work day yet, and I’ve already written 700 words on my novel.
Now, I know this feeling is temporary, but humor me. Can we just relish in how I got there for a bit?
In the past ten years, I have made hundreds of writing schedules, all of them avoiding the wee hours in the morning when I prefer to be sleeping. Then, last week I had a particularly scattered, brain-tired struggle of a writing session in the evening and I panicked, realizing that I cannot end the school year thinking that fall comes I’m going to go back to the same evening writing sessions and find success. I that moment of panic, I hit upon the idea that perhaps the trouble is that I’ve been trying to fit my creative time in at the end of the day when my mind is taxed and my energy low. How does that make sense? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write first when the mind is slow in a good way and fresh?
Yikes, though. That would mean—I calculated that I’d have to get up at 4 to make coffee and walk the dogs to be writing by 4:30. I’d also have to give up walking to school in the mornings. I like walking to school. I like the slow pace and the solitude. But I could walk home from school, right? And as far as getting the exercise, my evenings would be free to stroll all I wanted because I wouldn’t be sitting at my desk beating myself up to write three sentences. Or procrastinating sitting at my desk to write three sentences by sending Carrie pins or doing the dishes.
Then, I thought: What are you willing to change to prioritize writing?
Well, I’m on day two of rising at 4 am to write and I haven’t written like this in weeks. Today I wrote 695 new words on my novel and now I’m writing this blog. I took notes on how the writing went and made a road map for tomorrow. The quiet and solitude of the morning coupled with the stillness of my rested mind is the perfect place for writing.
I never thought I’d say this…
After all, I am a morning person.

 

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zen accident

Zen Accident

I began writing poetry at fourteen or fifteen, some terrible lost and vulnerable age. I wrote reams of poems about how profoundly I didn’t understand anything, using juxtaposed words like vomit truth and playground nightmare. It seems I’d always been a gawker, but I started to write little snippets of what I saw in my notebooks: man at bus stop shaving his feet, woman screaming fuck you fuck fuck on her way to the library, or an orange is a globe of light. I also started to write down the sentences from what I read that sent a charge of delight up my spine. If I could write like that!

I’ve identified as a writer from a young age and over the years I have continued to write, record my observations, and collect sentences with inconsistent commitment. This blog is dedicated to the commitment I’ve made to make time for writing in spite of the real and imagined demands on my writing time. I’ve been distracted by so many projects during my adult life including running a marathon and earning a Masters degree, both of which took far less effort and commitment than writing a book does. I’m not saying I shouldn’t have done these things, not at all. One can’t write every single moment of every single day. When you are not writing, though, everything else is a potential distraction.

Over this past winter break I had a moment of epiphany regarding my sometimes absurd cycle of professing I need time to write, then getting that time and struggling to write three sentences, then drowning my sorrows in a glass or two of red which of course completely kills my impulse to write and clouds my thinking. Of course there are other times where the writing flows and I finish my writing time absolutely buzzed by the feeling that I’ve created something dangerously close to what I want to say and with some tweaking, by God, it just might do. I’ve strategized ways to induce this kind of creative flow. I’ve turned corners of rooms into writing nooks, made signs for doors warning: Writer At Work, snuck away to cafes, bought noise-canceling headphones, and on and on.

We’ve just moved to a new house and by winter break we’d been there nearly a month and I hadn’t even once sat in the writing nook I fashioned in one corner of our bedroom. I’d written, but never there. And that’s when a new way of looking at the whole situation struck me dumb. Over the next few days I sat to write at our family computer that is literally wide-open in the middle of the house in the family room, the most unprivate spot one could possibly occupy.

What happened? Yes, children interrupted me. Dogs too with their endless need for ear-scratches and lap time. I’m pretty sure Chris also asked me where I had put the coffee filters, which were right in front of his face where they always are, just tucked a little toward the back. As all these disruptions happened, I didn’t react resentfully to them. Each disruption happened, then I returned to the writing. This is how I finished the novella I’ve been working on for six years.

Happy accident? Result of a recently revived meditation practice?

I don’t know, but I’ll take it.

 

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A New Year! Some reflections, plus what I read in 2014.

This past year I submitted my portfolio for National Board Certification, got married, and taught summer school for the first time. Somehow, I still managed to read WAY more books than I did last year. I’d love some suggestions from you for what to read in 2015 and by the end of this week I’m going to compile a list of 15 must-reads for the year, leaving plenty of room for new possibilities to open along the way. Tell me–what should be on my must-read list? What have you read recently that you are dying to talk to someone else about because it was just that freaking good?
When I read I have to take notes, it’s a compulsion. I also love collecting sentences that strike me as particularly well-rendered and I publish them here from time to time as “found sentences”. I’m reading more and more books on a device these days, which is probably good since I really don’t have that much book shelve space left.
I’m not making any resolutions this year or any grand intentions for change. I’m happy with who I am now. I want to read a lot, write often, take walks and hikes in nature, sit and breathe, write letters, and remain open to new adventures. Just like I’m doing now.

What I Read in 2014:

1. I finished Ulysses!!! It took me years and Chris and I read the entire thing out loud together. <3
2. By Blood by Ellen Ullman –Unusual in a good way.
3. The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus
4. The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn
5. The Tenth of December by George Saunders — Awestruck!
6. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern — Loved!
7. Quiet by Susan Cain
8. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith
9. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
10. On Writing by Eudora Welty
11. The Best American Poetry of 2009
12. Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III
13. Divergent by Veronica Roth
14. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
15. The Fine Print of Self Publishing by Mark Levine
16. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
17. Her Best Kept Secret by Gabrielle Glasser — Loved!
18. How To Start A Home-Based Editorial Business by Barbara Fuller
19. How The Brain Learns to Read by David Sousa
20. The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
21. Teaching With Poverty In Mind by Eric Jensen
22. Google Apps Meet Common Core by Michael Graham
23. Brain Rules by John Medina
24. Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins
25. Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
26. Mating by Norman Rush
27. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (Loved! Can’t wait to see the movie.)
28. Being Perfect by Anna Quindlen
29. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
30. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Loved!)
31. The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
32. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud (Loved!)
33. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
34. Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Loved!)

 

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Dear Present Moment,

Dear Present Moment,

The click of keys. The ponderous pause. The long-distance stare. Alert, alive, creating. The problems to solve are diverse, complex, and many and I must be some kind of brainiac because I am solving problems left and right. What is the mood here? What is the consequence? Will this seem real to a strange reader? Will it break his heart? What’s the story? A comma here?
Present moment, the struggle emerges when you elude me, when I focus on the future goal or that time I left critique group with a fresh bruise on my cheek, a deep scratch on my collar bone.

Seeking you,
Liz

 

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Temps will be in the eighties all week

The first full week of school and temps will be in the eighties all week. The fast pace of the year has started and I find myself keeping up and standing back, mouth agape, wishing I had one more day to read all day, one more morning to spend in my pajamas writing until noon.

It’s the pace that gets me, though I take to it with the timing of a cook. My co-teacher is always getting behind, wondering how I’ve managed to get through all we so optimistically planned for that day.

Yesterday I laid down some propositions about reading to my seniors. Among those propositions: Reading can change your life. Several nodded. One kid looked at me like I’d said something challengeable and another’s hand shot up. Were these my propositions he wanted to know or did I get them from the approved curriculum?

Eighty percent of my freshmen indicated in the Google Survey I gave them that they will write if they have to. Many also indicated their top reading goal: read faster.

When I stand back, as I am doing right now, I look forward most of all to reading days and creative writing prompts like It was a dark and stormy night or In that moment, she realized.

 

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Reflection on maintaining a writing life post-MFA, written in second person for no particularly good reason, just to see what emerges

When you published your first book, an allegory on dot matrix pages filled with colored pencil illustrations, held together with yarn and glue, you were told by the big sister-like teacher with the cinnamon hair in the Young Writer’s Workshop that you were a writer. You liked the sound of that. It was the thing you had been waiting to hear, the explanation for your impulse to observe, mute, a soothing from the shame of “stare hard, retard”.

Because you were young enough to believe just about anything, for a while you needed nothing more than the go-ahead of the teacher with the cinnamon hair. You wrote stories, all illustrated. You and a friend made up your own comic.

Your body too was changing when you stopped believing, no longer content with what you had been writing, afraid to write the things that sat like a heavy meal in your gut. Terrified you weren’t a writer after all, afraid to have nothing to show, you took the poem about a flamingo offered by your generous, concerned friend and put your name on it so that you would have something to show.

You started to journal and your aunts, who must have sensed your need for guidance or perhaps were once there themselves, bought you books that called you writer, offered you exercises to build-a-better-body, a body that could endure the strain of story-making.

You began to write the things that mattered, though your stories then, like the teen who wrote them, mostly only pointed and balked. You wanted to keep writing then more than anything though. In fact, those stories were the only thing you trusted and you were sure without them you were nothing.

You believed this less when you became a mother,then a teacher, and it was hard to write in those years and you were so aware of that hollow, just as you were the beating of your own heart that first year of teaching. You wrote in fits, though you often felt guilty and were sure that your family must be lost without you. Selfish of you to have this page, this pen, this separate pleasure! You sometimes snuck in writing time.

It wasn’t just that you loosed your grasp on what you never could control, though that helped. You persisted, sometimes you really just limped along and lied. Now you’ve got your MFA and you know without a doubt, like you did when you published your first book, an allegory on dot matrix pages held together with yarn and glue, that this is the thing you must do and that you must in some way do it every day. When you doubt that, you will remember the rush of relief, love, and joy you felt the first time your fifteen-year-old son spent the bulk of one day struggling to master a song on his electric blue Fender guitar.

 

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Teacher/Writer: Struggling to Find A Writing Schedule

Summer time is prime writing time for me. My best teacher friend (who also happens to be a fiction writer) and I devise an escape plan at the end of every school year to immerse ourselves in a writing life. We do this to avoid the inevitable. School ends and the routine that we have spent all year perfecting and shaping drops away, leaving us not free and inspired, but lost and looking for our keys. This year (because of a late release date) we didn’t do this. Until now. Here we are in Packwood, WA where I have no cell service and I have to sit on the roof to steal Internet from the neighbors who own the pug named Gary (who stops by every once in a while to make sure we are all settled in).
The first day here I was like a kid with ADD during a history lecture. Read for a while. Pace the floor. Write a letter. Walk down to the river, throw myself down on the sand and pray to the River Gods for aid. At least three times, I was ready to pack it up and go home, ready to say, you know what, I finished my one book, that’s all I’ve got.
Finally, I was able to sift through some short stories and decide which ones were worth the hard work of revision and set aside three that are the seeds of future novels. At that point, I couldn’t delude myself. I had a complete draft of a novel I’ve needed to write since 2005, three future novel seeds, five stories that even the thought of revising gives me a mild endorphin rush. I will write. I have to.
This whole situation is really a false dilemma that I have been handed the solution to countless times. Build a habit. Keep a schedule. Set attainable goals.
So, what’s the problem?…
I am accustomed to my teacher schedule, wherein every year the schedule begins anew and every summer, the comfort of that routine drops away. So, here’s what I decided while I was walking around the neighborhood here in Packwood trying to get even one bar on my cell phone so I could send that one last text message. It’s high time I separated my teaching life and my writing life and came up with a writing schedule that will work for me year round. If I am able to write more in the summer (because I have more time), well nothing keeps me from writing above and beyond the schedule, right? I need to create a summer schedule that will also work during the school year and hold myself accountable to that schedule.

My schedule: Thursday through Sunday
Goal: @ least 1000 words or 6-10 pages of revision
What’s your schedule?
See my success rate here.

 

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Writing practice

Working on a short story and researching markets. Read an article with my breakfast (coffee, grapefruit, brie and crackers) about yoga and activism that nailed how I feel about writing practice, yoga practice, running, and just trying to be a better human being: “…sometimes what feels like a setback is really preparation for a big leap forward…progress isn’t a neat linear path.” That’s pretty much what my novel is about. 🙂

 

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running woman

Revelations About Writing While Running the Capital City Half Marathon

This morning I ran the Capital City Half Marathon for the third time. I’ve run several half marathons in the past seven years, and as for overall good feeling before and after the race, this race was my best yet. Around mile 5 or 6 of the run, I put into words what it was that was making this race so good for me, so that I could stay feeling good for the rest of the run, and I kept repeating three phrases over and over to myself: stick your neck out; listen to your body; come to your own edge. It was around mile 7 that I began to see how these mantras applied to my writing life too.

Stick your neck out

This mantra has a simple, practical application to running and has to do with physical alignment. I have experienced shoulder and neck tension with frequency during runs. I’ve tried various tricks to keep my shoulders relaxed, but today something clicked for me. “Stick your neck out” reminded me to keep a long neck and to extend through the top of my head. For the first time ever, I had absolutely no tension in my neck and shoulders during the run.

I was basking in this freedom of movement and turning the corner of mile 7 or so, when I thought about how “stick your neck out” also applied to my writing life now. I just finished my first novel, have written a query and synopsis, and am attempting to find an agent. After twenty years of writing, I am finally willing to stick my neck out and try to sell my work. In the past so many things have prevented me risking rejection. I felt overwhelmed by the publishing process. I felt less-than other writers. I did not trust my own instincts. Mostly, I just didn’t believe I could do it and so I didn’t stick my neck out. I have sent out 20 queries to agents in the past two weeks and already received five rejections, and despite those rejections, I feel a freedom of movement much like I felt during the run this morning. In a different way, I am sticking my neck out.

Listen to your body

At mile 4 I was running hot and though the rain was coming down and people around me were still wearing their long sleeves, I peeled off my long-sleeve layer. I ran the rest of the run in a tank top. The relief I experienced when I peeled off that layer was ecstatic and came as a result of listening to my body. I listened to my breath. I felt the cool raindrops on my skin. I slowed and quickened my pace entirely based on my own body’s signals (breath, temperature, body sensations). I tuned out what other runner’s around me were doing with their bodies just like I would in a yoga class, a place where listening to my own body and not looking around are givens. Today I found that I could do the same in running more than I ever had before. The resulting feeling of freedom filled my heart with love. I made it a goal to say thank you to the volunteers I passed along the rest of the route and I did.

Listening to my body in my writing life has to do with accepting the natural ebb and flow of my creative energy and not judging my own writing practice by what I did the day before, what another writer does, or what I think I should do. As I mentioned, I just finished my first novel. I am eager to get back to the page. I even know what my next project is going to be. I have a roll of butcher paper that has been sitting in the corner of my bedroom for a week now in anticipation of mapping out the plot of my next project. I also have some short stories I am working on. Should I start mapping that plot while I am also researching agents and sending out queries? Should I split my daily writing time between queries and writing time? These are questions I have been struggling with. This morning, on the run, I discovered my answer. No. I will write when I am ready and when I am done sending out queries. I may take some notes here and there, but when I listen to my body and I think of having my head in a writing project and trying to sell my book, I feel my breathe catch and my muscles tense and I realize that I need to slow down my pace and do what feels right, not what I think I should do.

Come To Your Own Edge

Come to your own edge was the mantra today that reminded me to push myself the whole way. I have a tendency to be a bit easy on myself when I run and this phrase reminded me to stay in the moment and push to the best of my ability.

In my writing, coming to my own edge means to find time to write every day and to value that writing time by staying focused in the moment, setting goals and working toward them. It means being a good self-editor by being willing to delete, revise, or set aside work that isn’t my best. Coming to my own edge means that when I’m writing, I am just writing (not multitasking) and I am doing the best writing I am capable of in that moment.

Somewhere between mile 5 or 6, I had come up with the language for how I wanted this run to go: stick your neck out; listen to your body; come to your own edge. I was saying those three phrases over and over to myself and it was at about mile 7 that I began to see how each of those phrases related to my writing practice as I want it to be. I thought to myself, “The first thing I’m going to do when I finish this race is find someone with a pen I can borrow.” Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far. My pals at Guerrilla Running were the first booth I came to. As I write this, I am reading the notes I made on the back of one of their flyers.

 

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Yoga and Writing: Another Perfect Pair

An article about yoga and its benefits for writers and also about the importance of solitude and stillness (which yoga provides). Included in the article is a quote from Writing Down the Bones, a book that influenced me as a very young writer and that I love and a link to a site with poses and prompts for you to try.

My personal yoga practice of more than twenty years is a part of a whole creative practice, the product of which is writing. I generate and work through ideas while I run or walk. I prepare my body and mind for the stillness and focus that writing requires through yoga. Both running and yoga have made me a better writer.

 

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