On Poetry, Mallard Island, Mindfulness and (Attempted) Calm

“How are we going to talk about this?”

It was the last night of a retreat with ten women poets on a (tiny) island in (very) northern Minnesota, and one of our two caretakers—volunteers for this foundation, which hosts small groups of artists for one week at a time during summer—had taken us out for a “pleasure cruise” on the pontoon. We were coming up on the Canadian border.

I sat across from one of the more established poets–a woman with close-cropped gray hair and an aura of fierceness, wisdom and warmth; her question seemed part rhetorical, part not.

“I guess we won’t,” one woman joked. “We’ll hold it close.”

“I’ll just say, It was great,” another said, flashing a sly smile.

“It’s kind of like any vacation, or study abroad,” I offered. “No one will really get it or care.”

Later, I recognized the absurdity: that we, women united by a commitment to exploring our surroundings for the sake of love and zero American (or Canadian) cash, wouldn’t seek to etch meaning from this experience—one that, we all agreed, was among the more extraordinary we’ve had.

Of course we would.

In a sense, it was the same question we’d been asking ourselves all week: both on our own, as we spent time secluded in various cabins and cozy outdoor spots—each crammed with some of the island’s collection of 15,000 books—and as we convened for an hour or more each day to talk about craft (the poetry of Rae Armantrout, revision strategies, the role of shame in form—conversations that often bled into shared dinners, evening swims, canoe trips around Rainy Lake): how do we express the ineffable?

 *

Most mornings I situated myself (along with my notebook, books and coffee) in a sunny Adirondack chair at the eastern edge of the island.

Occasionally a motorboat or pontoon would blow past and slap a series of waves against the bedrock shore, but mostly, I looked out on stillness and quiet.

It was not a sensation that I, at first, could mirror.

On Monday morning, the first one we woke on the island, I felt like the lake’s glassy surface was staring me down, challenging me: I have nothing to tell you, it seemed to say. I’m just here. Look around. For God’s sake: relax!

There were probably a few obstacles that halted me from being able to genuinely, immediately relax into the experience of being there—disconnected from phone and email, in a small space with women I hardly knew.

But among the particular anxieties I recognized was simply this: the anticipation of leaving. How, I wrote in my notebook, to enjoy the pleasure of a moment without simultaneously grieving its inevitable loss?

*

In many ways, I’ve enjoyed tremendous privileges and good fortune in the last two years: I’ve been physically healthy, made strong connections, done meaningful work. (Also, spent a glorious week on a spectacular island in the Boundary Waters …) But, largely due to my own choices and (efforts at) growth—you know, abandoning a book manuscript to reinvent myself as a poet, disconnecting from family and dating, etc.—they’ve also been challenging.

In this time, two preoccupations have lent me great solace: poetry and Buddhism.

Like most poets (and maybe most Buddhists), I am loathe to use the word moral, but if pressed to boil down both practices to an essential idea, it might be this: pay attention.

Pay attention outside yourself—to what you smell and hear and feel and see and taste; pay attention inside yourself—to what arises in your body, in your thoughts, in your physical sensations.

In the last months, especially, that I’ve been pushing myself to pay attention as feelings arise, one thing I’ve recognized is how difficult it can be (#firstworldproblems alert) to relax into positive experiences.

That’s what I was noticing that morning, in that surreally fortunate setting—that as much as I wanted to settle into the place and the moment, a stubborn part of me remained agitated by life (and Buddhism)’s most basic principle: that everything is impermanent, every moment passes away.

 *

“You couldn’t have written about when things were really good?”

Over dinner with the dude before we both set off on travels a couple of weeks ago, I described to him my last post.

“No,” I said. “Who wants to read about happiness?”

“I do!” he shot back, grinning as he stabbed at my salad and chicken.

“Nope,” I insisted. “It’s boring.”

I stand by that, of course—happiness, generally, is less interesting than conflict.

Still, even when things feel good, we (or I, at least) am not necessarily at ease.

When things first began with him, for example, they felt a bit magical. This was partially due to the circumstances of our meeting: through an ex of mine who’s a friend of his, both of us on “breaks”; the night after we met and I turned him down, we ran into each other at a coffee shop where I was visiting with an old friend—one who immediately observed, I think he’s your person. Adding to the allure was that, due to my initial resistance, we abided some unusual parameters to keep things (I hoped) in check.

Of course, that didn’t stop us from quickly forging a strong connection; one of our early dates was a one-night camping trip. In the morning, we sat beside a fire; he played his banjo while I read Alice Notley and wrote; periodically, we’d exchange one of those glances, charged with mutual infatuation.

Part of me was able to enjoy that moment, and others like it. But another part, I felt aware, prevented me from complete calm. I feared, as we (particularly those of us with spotty relationship histories, ahem) are wont to do, that things wouldn’t last. I feared, too, that even if they did—that they would change. That the marvelous sweetness of early excitement would, as it always, inevitably does, fade away.

*

At a meditation class the other day, I asked a teacher about this–how to manage this struggle to relax with pleasantness, to release from grasping for a certainty we know we’ll never have.

She looked at me (as Buddhists do…) with patience and compassion.

“I’m afraid,” she said, “that’s our condition.”

It’s our doom, in other words, as humans, to crave the certainty and security–the permanence–that we’ll never posses.

“You have to remember,” she went on, “that even if you can’t hold onto the present, you don’t know what will come next. It might be sad, there might be loss.” Her eye suddenly glimmered. “But it might, also, be better.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Patience, and Letting Go

When you are three months out of graduate school, at the end of a summer spent walking around Prospect Park and writing wretched revisions of your MFA thesis, a Big Deal Writer whose work you admire and with whom you have a very loose connection might, generously, offer to meet you for a glass of wine.

She might, unexpectedly, talk with you about the structure of your memoir, which she hasn’t read, but, based solely on your conversation, is able to grasp and talk through so expertly that you use her name in the subject line of subsequent drafts.

And then, three years and countless revisions later, when you are on the verge of sending out said memoir (drafting a query letter, making final line edits, setting yourself a hard June deadline), you might run into said writer at a conference and take her up on her offer to meet again, when she visits Minneapolis the following month.

You might giggle at the neon hotel bar with the techno soundtrack and the drunk, overdressed couple behind you, wrapping each other in slinky dance moves.

And you might sit there as she, again, without having read a word, and with no motive besides a disarmingly generous, empathic spirit and seemingly supernatural quality of wisdom, says the painful words that are also the exact ones you need to hear: You know it isn’t ready. 

*

One spring day a couple of years ago, A and I walked down a side street in the West Village. This was during a brief section of time we then recognized as charmed: both of us living in New York and working from coffee shops, coaching one another through tough, transitional times. (As, we’ve since learned, most of them are…)

I was feeling better about the manuscript at that point, but still not great. And I’d spent that afternoon struggling. I told her.

“I just listened to this really great podcast,” A said. We were crossing Mercer, side-stepping NYU kids with earbuds and denim coats. “It was about failure.”

My muscles stiffed.

“It was just about how, it’s such an important skill, as an artist. You know, to recognize when something isn’t working, and to let it go.”

I don’t remember what I said. I remember that I listened the way you listen to someone giving someone else driving directions, or the way you listen to something you’re not ready to hear.

It isn’t, now, that I am accepting failure.

I still hope, and believe, that a time may come when I will be able to finish this book.

But in this moment, I am accepting that that time isn’t now, or, likely, anytime soon. I am letting go of the way I thought things would go; accepting that my writerly life will unfold not how I wish it would, but as it must.

It isn’t pretty.

On Friday night, after talking with Dani, I biked home in tears. I’d forgotten my lights, again, and the mix of danger and disruption had me rush through downtown in a dizzy, slightly drunken cocktail of panic: I might get hit, I might have lost the primary purpose that had come to organize my mornings and afternoons.

When I got home, I let rip. I let my body heave with emotion, with shock, with loss. In the days since, I’ve felt something like grief.

But along with it, and perhaps even more strongly, I’ve felt relief.

I knew, I know, that the urge I felt to rush that book into the world didn’t come from certainty that it was ready. It came, instead, from impatience. From the desire to get on with it, to be done. Also, ego. (“But Dani, it makes such a difference to have a book in the world!” I moaned. She didn’t miss a beat. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t.”)

I had tried to convince myself of it’s doneness, I’ve realized, in much the same way I’ve tried to convince myself that I was in the right relationship. I have to assume that, when a book project does feel complete, and when the right (or, a right) person appears, I will feel some tendril of doubt: I don’t think we find total certainty when it comes to art, or to love.

And it is easy, when you’ve never finished a book or found a right person, to assure yourself that the grave, deep doubt at the bottom of your belly that you know should be troubling you, perhaps halting you, is simply normal. That this might be as close to complete, as close to right, as you’ll get.

It’s easy, in other words, when you want something deeply, to tell yourself stories and convince yourself it’s yours.

*

The morning before meeting Dani for a drink I got the good news that a wonderful journal will publish a new, weird poem of mine. I also got an email from an old friend, writing to tell me she’d connected with a recent blog.

It seemed to be some small gesture of foreshadowing, and of comfort: a reminder that in fact, my writing energies are driving me elsewhere. That even if I’m letting go, for now, of one project, it is worthwhile to pursue others.

In moments, I remember that. That things are right as they are, where I am.

And in others, of course, I despair.

“I just try to touch it once a day,” A said. Last night, I stood in my kitchen and talked to her on the phone; she was in her Lower East Side apartment, listening. “That feeling that everything’s perfect.”

And that, I replied, is the thing that we truly must remember.

Not just to be patient, but that it will always be hard. That those moments when we find patience, when we touch the reassuring idea that what is is what’s right, will so often elude us.

That no matter how much we meditate or trust ourselves or practice mindulness and intention, there will (if we’re lucky) be parts of the day when we feel strong, and others when we crumple with impatience and doubt.

*

You know how it goes: when a subject is on your mind, the universe has a way of surfacing all that relates.

So it was that, earlier this week, I opened Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I opened it in search of some morsel I might share with my Monday night class as we began our segment on poetry. Instead, I stumbled on the passage below, which says, I think, everything:

There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Being Open

I had met the woman bagging my groceries a handful of times, so, naturally, I asked if she was in love.

In my defense, I did know, vaguely, of a new guy in her life–last I’d seen her, moving shopping carts in the co-op parking lot, we’d floated ideas for third date fun.

She giggled and flicked her right hand toward me. Her left palmed a lemon.

“Oh, no,” she said. “We’ve only hung out a few times!”

I shrugged. “So what?” I said. “Girl, I fell in love, like, three times last week.”

Granted, that particular week was the one of that writers’ conference—a week in which, as one friend put it, I did a lot of living.

But, generally speaking, you likely know that I tend to fall fast. And, sometimes, maybe, on occasion, something like often.

“Oh, has it been twenty minutes?” My friend C gave a mock-glance to his watch. We were driving from the coffee shop to get gyros for lunch, and I’d announced the arrival of a new crush.

“Jesus,” I shook my head. “Am I really that bad?”

He nodded, patted my shoulder.

“Yep,” he said. And then, because C holds firm to certain convictions, among them that men are seduced mainly by baked goods, “Have you made him cookies yet?” (Answer: not yet…but considering.)

This lifestyle is not without peril. Among the risks: (appropriately) skeptical friends.

A few encounters with said crush later, I walked to meet R for a drink while wrapping up a phone conversation with A–one, needless to say, dominated by my gushy update.

“I really wanna use hyperbole,” I said, sighing as I paced a mist-wet patch of Lyndale sidewalk. “But I realize I have zero credibility.”

On the other end of the phone, in Manhattan, A’s breaths were short as she speed-walked uptown. “Yeah,” she said, flat. “That is true.”

It takes a village for me to date safely.

When it comes to jumping into something express-style, because someone is moving or unavailable or matches my tendency for recklessness, I can pretty well operate on my own. Toss me some coffee, maybe some poems, and I can glide on through that high like an angsty twelve-year old with a brand new board. (Not true for the inevitable crash-like comedown, of course, but that is for another/12-30 previous posts…)

Give me, however, the combination of a man I desire and some scenario in which an Insta Relationship, for various sensible reasons (you know, most of them) isn’t an option, and my needs swell. To coach me through any given Tuesday, I suddenly require a small army of friends to assure me of various, boring truths. (He probably hasn’t texted you back because he’s busySeeing someone once a week is what dating meansYes, he’s a catch, but so are you…) Also, daily lake runs and some pounds of Tylenol PM.

Sidenote: it would be great if, in these stretches, I also had the luxury of a personal assistant to send my emails, complete my essays/manuscripts, and teach my classes–but somehow, mysteriously, I manage without. “When I have a husband,” I assured my friend B, after distracting both of us from our work by requiring her to talk me down via gchat from some irrational Moment of Panic, “I am going to be so fucking productive.”

Another problem, in other words, with being open, is being a basketcase. I’ve told you this, and I know, it’s not that interesting. Still, it prompts that conversation, again–the one I have with myself, and dearreaderforgiveme you, pretty often: whether to simply value and accept my penchant for vulnerability, or to battle against it.

Recently, as I’ve written, I’ve contemplated some resistance. But alas, these days, I’m back to leaning the other way.

In part, this mood was influenced by a chat with a fellow writer during one of my eighteen AWP lives. A conversation, as you might guess, fueled by critical quantities of booze and acknowledged mutual (if impossible and un-acted-upon) attraction.

“It’s part of being a writer,” he said. “We’re emotional and we’re complicated and we’re endlessly fascinated by people.” He took a slug of whiskey. “I fall in love every day.”

“It’s like that Hozier song!” I cried out, leading him to nod in unimpressed recognition. “No song lyric has ever felt more true…”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “Of course.”

It’s a recurring theme of this whole process: life and aging, that is. That balance, that sorting out, as we get to know ourselves, between which tendencies we should push against, and which we simply embrace.

And with that question, as with most, I’m not sure we ever arrive anywhere final or anywhere clear. It is, I guess, an eternal process: a perpetual effort in which we watch ourselves sometimes flail, sometimes fierce, and sometimes facedown in messes of panic/shame/humiliation/sadness/disappointment/fear–at which times, the best we can hope is to surround ourselves with sympathetic (if sometimes skeptical) pals who say the right things: I hear you, I love you, your feelings are valid, and you’re going to be okay. 

 

 

On Mantras, Mondays, Gym Friends and Feelings

The problem with Monday morning spin class is that it’s difficult to talk.

Lest you’re unclear, what motivates my regular gym habit (as much as the need to offset particular passions for almond croissants and malty beer, and the happy accident that I genuinely like exercise) is, in a word: gossip.

Probably you are clear that I take pleasure in few things more than turning my personal problems into entertainment. For you, lofty readers, I attempt to deliver stuff that is polished, (sadly, sometimes tragically) censored, hopefully sense-making. The gals at the Blaisdell Y get the dirt: the raw play-by-plays and (occasionally) juicy bits.

And while the late-30 and early-40-something moms have a pretty hefty appetite for vicarious Single Gal Tales, it’s not a one-way street. Last week I found myself doing bicep curls next to a woman who I’ve seen outside a sports bra a grand total of one time (we ran into each other at the co-op), whilst getting the update on her marital counseling.

“I just had this big breakthrough about the way I approach intimacy!” she said.

I turned to her, breathlessly hoisting a purple pair of twelve-pound weights.

“You mean physical intimacy?”

She nodded.

I looked out at the gym, a blur of neon and blondish braids, and smiled. “I fucking love boot camp,” I said.

But back to Monday spin class, where, this week, I was on a bike beside my friend K. K is closer to my age, and for the year that we’ve known each other we’ve regularly floated the desire to meet for a drink. Maybe someday we will, but already she knows my life better than most close friends.

I had promised her a story, but the fetal-position nature of cycling was preventing much chat.

“I’m dying to hear the rest!” she said.

“I’ll tell you after,” I assured her. “If you want. But, you know, you can already guess how it ends.”

This is the part where I would recite my relentlessly reliable dating pattern, if not for that I’m pretty sure you know it too.

Okay fine, quick refresher: man pursues me. I take interest in said man because he’s (circle as many as may apply): stylish/intelligent/tall/builds things/reads poems/DJs/loves NPR/plays music/is bearded/writes absurdist horoscopes. 1.5-3.5 dates later, aforementioned man realizes that I am incapable of playing games/being casual, remembers whatever issue made him single in the first place (again, circle any): commitment-phobia/emotional scars/arrested emotional development/existential attachment to someone else. He panics. Flees. I am shocked, but also not. (Because: really?? And because: yup.)

I’ve been trying to come up with mantras–a genre in which, it turns out, I am pathetically unskilled. A sampling:

It’s his loss.
You know what you want.
If he doesn’t contact you he’s an idiot, and you hate idiots.
He’s not even your type.
(What is your type again?)
Stop comparing yourself. 

A contributed the standby: You dodged a bullet. 

A new Minneapolis friend, this gem: When boys blow, they really blow, hard. 

But, heavens. I need something, at this rate, to help me through these Dating Moments, as we may as well call them. (It fits, a bit too well..) Because no matter how many times they hit, they still really suck.
*
In response to this recent essay that I hopefully managed to get on your screen, a friend in California wrote to laud me for being so in touch with my feelings:
It’s impressive to me, she wrote. I don’t think most people can do that.
Thanks! I wrote back. It’s called Years of Revision :)
It’s true: one reason literary nonfiction takes me (and many others) so long to get any good is that it takes time, and discipline–basically, work–to sort out how the hell you feel/felt about an experience you want to render.Finding the right words can often feel like the easy part. It’s not that I’m any better at being in touch with my emotions than anyone else; I just happen to (be trying to) make it my career.
I thought of her words yesterday as I drove a South Minneapolis route that I used to take regularly, a little over a year ago, when I was living with N. He’d shown up in my dream the other night–after I went to sleep feeling sad and sour about my latest prospect’s exit.”It’s a signal,” my friend (a different) K said, when I told her the next day over lunch of soup and crepes. “A reminder that you know what you want, and being alone is better than settling.”Driving from my old library to the gym, I thought of my California friend’s comment. I thought of it because, I realized, when I was with N, I didn’t know what I wanted. More than that, I didn’t know what I felt. I was so afraid to find the truth, festering just barely beneath life’s daily layers, that I didn’t let myself look. The truth wasn’t that I was unhappy, or that N was anything but an extraordinarily good, loving, supportive partner. The truth was that I knew we weren’t right.

Few things are more painful for me to admit to myself than that: how much I was able to distance myself from how I truly felt.

And amidst the disappointment and frustration, that is one piece of comfort and calm: that, at least, I know how I feel. That I’m (most mornings) living honestly, and with the kind of (attempted) self-understanding I denied myself not many months ago.

It’s not a mantra, exactly, but it’s something. And I’m holding on.

On Dwelling

“Just, dwell in it.”

I was sitting at a kitchen counter with a friend, and it was late, and I was sharing some poems inspired by a recent heartache.

“Keep writing,” she encouraged. “And just, you know. Dwell.”

I keep returning to those words.

A few days ago, another writer friend echoed them. She told me about her recent discovery of pages that she’d written during a low period of her own, how struck she’d been by the clarity of that prose; how she is just now realizing the fullness of inspiration that time provoked.

“Use the pain,” she advised.

Writing aside, this is a spirit that has felt resonant lately: the spirit of sitting in the sadness, soaking yourself in the aches that come, when they do.

Not to mislead: I have zero pity for myself, which is exactly how much you ought to have. My life is still wildly charmed–living with a pair of my (and half of Minneapolis’) favorites, back in the balmy, bike-able bosom of Minnesota summer. I have plentiful time to write. I get to teach some of the most engaged students around. I have a standing, weekly date for a lakeside picnic. Things are good.

But I am still me: a gal with an uncanny knack for hurling my heart around several North American regions (the Southwest, Northeast and Midwest, mostly; but I’m not exclusive), caution and experience be damned. It is bound to get some scrapes. Also, I still lack a permanent address and can’t subscribe to magazines like a real person.

So, you know. Sometimes that fragile feeling sets in.

There have been times (times like a couple of months ago) when feeling fragile meant something completely different; times that, accordingly, called for a completely different kind of self-care. Then, I needed to keep moving. I needed to avoid being alone for more than an afternoon. I needed to release myself of any pressure to read, much less write. The last thing I wanted to do was reflect. I gave myself that. I didn’t have a choice.

Now, though, I do. And, I could choose to stick with that philosophy of momentum and speed. It’s tempting.

But more and more, I’m realizing that what I need now is something else: what I need is to bask in it. To spend as much time as I can bear reflecting. Writing. Dwelling in the nuances of feeling. Exploring these scales of solitude as I slide, with varying measures of sentience, along through them.

In a recent Louis episode, (the best/only current TV show I sometimes remember to watch), Louis talks with his ex-wife about his current relationship. Among the several significant obstacles to its’ success, he reveals, is the fact that she, the woman he loves, is soon to leave the country. For good.

The ex promptly gets furious: he’s introduced this woman to their young daughters! How could he do that? Aren’t they going to feel crushed when she up and leaves? Aren’t they going to feel sad?

They’re talking on a midtown sidewalk. Louis shrugs.

Yeah, he says. They’ll be sad. So what?

The tendency is to call this bad parenting; to agree that we should protect children from any semblance of hurt.

It’s a tendency that extends past childhood: to each other. And, to ourselves. To care for people, we think, is to protect them from sadness and hurt. To care for ourselves, we’re taught, means to avoid these sensations as well.

At the risk of stating something obvious: we can’t.

And still, that impulse, to shirk away from hard emotions, runs deep. Such that we, or at least I, can need reminding: that there is value in dwelling. That it is sometimes worth combatting the urge to distract and to avoid.

That the hardest feelings tend not to saturate us for long. That when they do, exploring them is often what leads to discovery. (And, too–conflict!–good art.)

In other words: some time soon, it is likely that other, more overtly pleasant feelings will begin to take hold. And they will be far less interesting.

On Re-Orienting, Taos, And the Hardship of Heading Home

“I can’t believe we’re leaving so soon.”

A couple of my fellow Wurlitzer residents and I were having dinner together at a Middle Eastern restaurant in town. A chalkboard on the wall described its’ vision as promoting peace “through evolving people’s consciousness and taste buds.”

We slunk down towards our pita, homemade in the name of harmony, and commiserated about the fact that being in Taos is not unlike being on a different planet.

“Three months seemed so long,” someone said. It had been about two since we arrived. Then, departure seemed a remote, un-envisionable destination. Now it feels like a brick wall toward which we’re being driven, unwittingly.

I was reminded of this conversation a few days later, in a yoga class at the airy, light-filled studio with wood-beamed ceilings where I have been spending much time. As he guided the class through a series of physically demanding postures, the teacher reminded us to re-situate our bodies at every opportunity—to take each chance, whether bent in a soft forward fold or standing in a fierce warrior pose, to take stock, soften the breath. The usual yoga stuff. Except he used a particular phrase that struck me: continuous re-orientation.

That’s what we have to keep doing, always, he said.

Not only in our bodies, of course, but in our minds, our selves. We’re constantly re-orienting, in terms of our internal state, but, probably more often, based on our external context: where we are, and with whom. It’s unconscious, how we gently rotate our manners and personas depending on what surrounds us. It’s also exhausting.

Taos, somehow, demands less of that action.

The space is so open, so generous, the community so eclectic and spiritual, one can almost feel the mountain holding out it’s arms: inviting you to relax, stay a while, be whoever it is you’re meant to be, at this very particular moment in time! It’s the opposite invitation of a hectic urban environment, with its message of Keep up! Get someplace! Keep busy! Do something!

It’s not difficult to understand why so many permanent residents have come here as an escape from previous versions of themselves: post-divorce, post-mid-life crisis, post-professional reinvention or spiritual awakening. To say nothing of the breathtaking scenery, the perimeter of spacious sage fields and rolling peaks, Taos demands that you know what you want (the space will strangle you otherwise), but it allows that desire to take whatever shape.

And then there’s the fact that my co-residents and I don’t actually live here. (Yet.) Most of us have really lovely lives in the places we’re from: New York, San Francisco, England, Atlanta. Good partners and cozy apartments and supportive groups of friends. It’s no reflection of our home lives that we are so loathe to go back.

But going back means (in addition to leaving the majectic scenery and life-altering green chile breakfast burritos), going back to that normal pattern of constant re-orientation.

It’s difficult, and perhaps, for most people, undesirable to lead a purely creative life. Most of us who choose to make art a part of our lives must also wear additional hats to get by: in academia or advertising, journalism or graphic design. Even those who don’t have other relationships in which we play different roles—daughter, girlfriend, brother, uncle, friend. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does require a constant re-situating of our identities and minds.

Being in Taos has given us the rare opportunity to focus, as exclusively one can, on the creative piece of ourselves.

And in that sense, it’s no surprise that the prospect of going home, of returning to the “real world” in which we must inhabit not just one but a whole series of selves, in which we must be constantly re-orienting to the people and places around us, sounds hard.

On The Noise, The Process, Listening to Others and Yourself

“Trust yourself.”

The woman with wavy red hair and painted lips stood in front of a life-size, watercolor John Wayne. She leaned her elbows on a case of vintage turquoise and baskets of silver.

“I learned the hard way,” she said, telling me how she’d quit three waitressing jobs to take a gamble on supporting her kids as a stunt double. How she’d tried to make it in Nashville and misunderstood the rules on her way to writing a Country Song of The Year. (Never know who you’ll meet in Taos!)

I’d just finished telling her how the anxiety of waiting for feedback on my first book was making it hard to focus on the new project I’d just begun.

She’d nodded, empathic, and smiled as she told me to “let go of my ego.” And repeated that phrase: Trust yourself.

The words seemed to strike at the heart of where my head’s been lately—or rather, where I’ve been trying to get it.

Here’s one suggestion: if you’re setting out for a day of novel-writing, try not to begin it by reading this article. And try not to take personally the endless stream of rejections, or the news of diminishing, risk-averse publishers, or the emails that talented friends receive in which editors lavishly praise their work before, mysteriously, taking a pass. In other words: shut your eyes and ears.

I’m trying. Switching over to a data-free flip phone, circa 2006. It’s a step—one I imagine will send me into something like heroin or sugar withdrawal before setting me, hopefully, a little more free.

But the noise won’t go away, since most of it is in my own head.

The endless, boring self-doubts: Is my story worth telling? Are these sentences any good? Will anyone ever read them? Should they?

It’s perhaps unsurprising that at an artist colony, (if that term eludes you, see this) the question arises: why do we make art? In a climate where the prospects of one’s work ever meeting the world feel so bleak, the query takes on a sharper edge. Without faith that our writing will ever be seen, what should motivate us to get up in the morning, put our heads down, silence the noise, and get to work?

“What if your writing wasn’t appreciated until after you’d died?” V, a British artist and filmmaker and my neighbor at the residency, serves as both collective muse and spiritual guide. She meditates for hours a day.

Across my kitchen table, another neurotic writer from New York and I exchanged a wary glance.

“Sure,” we both muttered.

“But I mean…” I hesitated. “It would kind of suck.”

V summoned us to think of everything in the world as connected, to detach our self-worth from our art, to fulfill ourselves with the process instead of it’s end.

The next morning I took a break from the novel and dashed off a comedic story, feeling smug that I’d actually found pleasure in the writing. And the day after that, I could hardly wait to share the piece and send it into the world. So much for process.

When I left the stuntwoman/country singer’s shop my eyes were wet with ambiguously derived tears: or maybe not so ambiguous. I’d managed to get through two days of writing that didn’t make me totally hate myself, and then ruined it with an abrupt panic over my first book’s word count. (iPhone: be gone!)

I walked to the indie bookstore and listened to an employee explain to a customer that, yes, it was easy to click the button on Amazon and writers could release work there, but they’d never get paid. I bought a book. Across the street I plopped myself down at a diner and ordered an oversized breakfast burrito. (Just, because.) Outside, small pebbles of hail fell from the gray clouds slipping west over from Taos Mountain.

I pulled out my notebook and pushed myself to answer that question: why?

All of my answers felt like tired clichés. For the fun of it. Because it helps me make sense of things. Because I like it! Because, as Alison put it the other night on the phone, I don’t really have a choice?

Flustered, I remembered those words—Trust Yourself—and decided to resolve that, for the moment at least, they serve as answer enough.

Notes on Rejection and Awe

When one sends out an essay on Friday and by Monday has received not one, or two, but three (three!) rejection letters, it’s difficult not to feel as though the universe is trying to tell one something.

One perk of being a person with a merely blithe belief that the universe tells one things is the attendant ease with which one can then decide what the universe is saying: in this case, of course, I concluded the universe was (rather harshly) urging me to write about getting rejected three times in forty-eight hours.

Unfortunately, all I have to say about said subject amounts to: Ouch.

Or, if I must elaborate: No matter how deeply, intellectually, I understand that all writers, even famous, brilliant writers, have gotten (still get!) their work (even good work!) rejected lots and lots of times before they get it published, no matter how many times I send work into the world only to have it come back with the literary equivalent of ‘Thanks, but who cares,’ no matter how earnestly I assure myself that it’s inevitable, that rejection is going to happen, and that it doesn’t (necessarily) mean that I am (as a person) a failure or (as a writer) failing, it still fucking sucks.  

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to move on to another, more positive, but, in a sense, equally stifling emotional experience:

Awe.

As I mentioned, I’ve been making some rather pitiful, highly unusual attempts to write poems. In effort to render said attempts less pitiful, I did what any self-respecting baby poet would do, and took out some library books—including How to Read a Poem by Edward Hirsch.

“The spirit of poetry is awe,” Hirsch writes.

That line hit home. Indeed, my awe-inspiring surrounding are just what’s jiggered this impulse to write poems, after thirty years in which I’ve done well to avoid it: the thick, towering cottonwood trees in my yard, the snow-covered mountains in the landscape, the way they appear a different shade of stunning below every angle of the sun and formation of clouds.

Of course, merely experiencing that moment of awe isn’t enough; perhaps, I wondered, one reason why it’s so damn difficult to write a good poem is because it is so challenging to animate, or explore, or even share, the experience of awe.

One of my favorite sections in Geoff Dyer’s totally cynical, totally awesome book Out of Sheer Rage is this moment, where he describes regarding the ocean:

The sea: you watch it for a while, lose interest, and then, because there is nothing else to look at, go back to watching it. It fills you with great thoughts which, leading nowhere and having nothing to focus on except the unfocused mass of the sea, dissolve into a vacancy which in turn, for want of any other defining characteristic, you feel content to term ‘awe.’

 

There is something inherently unsatisfying in the word ‘awe:’ it describes the impact of being struck by something, beauty or brilliance, usually the likes of which we can’t quite comprehend—but does nothing to explain it.

And, being human, we aren’t content to know that something makes us feel awe. We need to know why. It’s that pesky, ineffable need: to narrate, to explain, to create causal relationships.

A paradox of literature, and maybe all art, is that we’re endlessly striving to capture an experience that can’t be captured. Of course, art doesn’t derive its beauty or significance solely from its proximity to truth. And yet, authenticity matters: particularly when it comes to words, often what makes us swoon is recognition—the sensation of yes, I know that, that is me, that feels real.

How, then, to render the truth of something as gauzy, as deeply personal, as, often, inarticulate, as the experience of awe?

But it’s one thing to render awe, and another, quite different thing to actually experience it. In order to even contemplate the former, it seems one had better get good at the latter. And, like many an impatient, progress-driven Americans, I struggle: I can hardly notice a mountain or cloud or sea before I notice my noticing…and it’s hard to observe a moment that hardly has a chance to happen. Like Dyer, I content myself to term the experience “awe”…and then set about trying to describe an experience I’ve barely had.

(Not that I intended to even try and make this cohere, but what the heck. Perhaps that aim of lingering in the awe can be instructive when it comes to managing rejection: there are certain moments in which we must allow ourselves to linger. And others, like when you’re told you’re shitty, that you had best leave right quick.)

But anyway. I guess we’re really talking about the same mental muscle when it comes to experiencing awe, writing poems, and even reading them: the one that allows us to slow down and pay attention. Tomorrow, promise, I’ll start meditating.

 

 

On Imposter Syndrome, Coffee Rocks, And Being a Resident Artist

“I mean, I’m not going to knock on your door and ask you to show me your paintings or stories!”

Across from me, the Most Genial Man in New Mexico laughed. A painter from Memphis sat to my left; both of us wriggled in our seats. I muttered: “Maybe you should…”

We chuckled, nervously.

“No really,” the man continued, explaining how the woman who began the foundation didn’t just want artists to come and create, but also to provide them respite from their normal, urban lives.

“If you want to sleep for three months,” he said, “that’s totally fine.”

I didn’t say: Maybe for you! But I thought it.

The last, and only other time I attended an artists’ residency, I had a concrete goal: to write a new draft of my book manuscript. I had five weeks, and I used every minute (well, every minute that I wasn’t falling in love with N…) to get the thing done.

This time, I have three months, and my objectives are less concrete. When I applied, I assumed I’d be editing that book manuscript, still. I might. But at the moment it’s on pause. And so: I find myself with a cute little casita of my own, a lot of time, no obligations, and, evidently, an expectation no greater than a solid nap.

I am vastly grateful: for the charming space surrounded by tall cottonwoods, for the picnic table outside and the snowy mountains jutting along the horizon and the rock crystals that, for one dollar, a nearby coffee shop suggests you put in your coffee to aid with walking an unknown (presumably internal?) path.

And perhaps most of all, I am grateful to sit across from an exceptionally nice man (no superlative can really suffice) who makes me mint tea, looks me in the eye, and regards me as part of a community of artists–all selected on the basis of their work to come to this beautiful place, and do whatever.

Imposter syndrome. It’s the feeling I never had the words for until graduate school, when my advisor explained it.

“Every writer suffers from it,” he announced, his voice flat. “I still do.”

All artists are are beset with twin compulsions: to relentlessly expose ourselves, our intimate, deeply personal (regardless of subject matter) work to the world; and then, to relentlessly worry that it isn’t good. That we aren’t good.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that no amount of validation can convince us not only that something we’ve made is decent, but that we, personally, are worthy of acclaim–even that we are worthy of being dubbed an “artist.”

“If any writer is going places, it is Laura Van Den Berg.” That was Publishers Weekly in 2013. When asked by The Rumpus whether she ever felt she’d made it as a writer, she said, first “Not even remotely,” and then, something I’m sure I’ve heard other writers say: “I’m only as good as the next project. I’m only as good as the next book.”

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments: that split second right after someone sends you a nice email, or you get something published, or three hundred people hit “like” on your beloved blog post…oh wait, that never happens.

But anyway, those moments come, and then they go. And that is okay. Many writers say this insecurity is what drives them, that the need to constantly prove ourselves is what compels us to keep going.

But there is the danger that we give up: that those moments come fewer and farther between (as, for periods of time, they inevitably do), that we spend so much time doubting that we let ourselves believe the internal cynic, and we stop.

And so, while I would like to think that I will do more in these next three months than sleep, I appreciate that the value in this experience is so much more than what I might make, and so much more than the inspiration or rest I might get: simply being acknowledged, somewhat formally, by someone who is not my grandmother or my roommate or my grad school peer, that I am, indeed, a writer.

So far I have been passing the days walking around town. Reading books. Doing some yoga. Getting to know the other residents: a varied group of artists that could make the New Jersey turnpike interesting, much less a town where no one blinks at Coffee Rocks and half the (white) population has dreadlocks. And writing: mostly fiction and poetry that I’m pretty sure are unreadable.

At first, I felt something like panic: I have three months to write! I should be drafting another book! Not dabbling in genres in which I am completely worthless!

And who knows what’ll end up happening between now and April, when I go home. It’s a lot of time. But what I’m realizing is that what matters even more than what I do here is what happens when I do get home–rejuvenated, inspired, reeking of patchouli, and, hopefully, resolved to keep writing.

 

 

 

 

The Precipice: On Wanting, and Not Wanting, to Know Why

Here are a few of the books I have begun reading in the last six weeks:

A biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt. A new novel set between contemporary Nigeria and the US. Assorted editions of Best American Essays. A friends’ recent, acclaimed memoir about his mothers murder. Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. A sardonic memoir about searching for D.H. Lawrence. A book about goats.

Let us not discuss how many I have I’ve completed. But, well, on second thought, lets–because that’s precisely the point: lately, my attention span has rescinded to that of a teenage Labrador. (In other words, technically, one.)

The urge to write most often strikes when my mind is least clear; so it is that I come to you in the middle of things. Among them: a seven (formerly known as ten)-day juice fast. A new relationship. A recent, cross-country move. A grueling apartment search whose tone I hope to soon turn.

I want to say that I come to you because I miss you. But to be honest, it isn’t exactly “you” I miss–”you” being an anonymous and widely dispersed cluster whose visible gestures (to me, at least) are few.

What I miss is the space to make sense of things.

Even though, at the same time, I don’t.

At the end of August, my family gathered in Vermont to celebrate a confluence of significant birthdays: this month my brother Jon will turn forty, I will (yep) turn thirty, and Pops will be seventy. We don’t often manage to get all of us (thirteen, at last count) together for meals or holidays, much less several days in the country. It was special.

One of the memories I’m currently cherishing is a walk with my nine-year-old niece. Her two cousins had departed the day prior, which meant that she had stopped running, and now had time to indulge contemplative conversation with Aunt Lizzie.

We were walking along a dirt path, flanked alternately by stands of maple and grassy fields where the Brown Swiss graze, and she bounced a small blue rubber ball on the ground, and told me that she hated not knowing things.

I asked her what she meant; she explained that she just hated not being able to figure things out, things like opening a door (what I knew had been a recent issue in the hotel).

“And I hate not knowing why things,” she said. “Like, why I like to ride horses but I hate riding a bycicle.”

I could feel my insides leap at the chance to Preach Writing: this niece has shown a fondness for the written word, and a compulsion to read thousand page books dozens of times. This was it, I thought, the chance to set her to follow my writerly footsteps!

“Well, that’s the really neat thing about writing,” I said. “It helps you figure out how you feel.”

“How?”

“Well, like if you were to describe how you felt on a horse…”

She played along for a moment—maybe she felt excited, maybe a little bit scared, there was one feeling brought up by jumping, another in that moment right before the jump—but we didn’t get far before her patience ran out.

“Actually, I’m not sure that I want to know after all,” she said, forcing a shrug and a smile, not wanting to let me down too hard.

“That’s okay,” I told her. “You’re only nine.”

But, even at my (rapidly-escalating) age, I know exactly what she means. I sometimes feel as though I live on a precipice: between an urgent compulsion to understand myself, and terror to do just that.

And in these few months away from blogging, that precipice has come into uncommonly clear relief: the urge to write, to connect, alongside that sense of relief–the recognition that I don’t have to connect the dots, don’t have to question everything, don’t have to pull back and ask why things are the way they are.

And I have wanted both.

I have wanted to ask myself: Why this person? Why this place? Why this path and this kind of writing? The kinds of questions that surface for all of us–propelled by shades of doubt or discomfort or those very elusive things whose murky nature compels us to go deeper.

Too, I have wanted to put my head down and just keep moving. To seek shelter from that mode of self-reflection and just be.

I know that I will walk that precipice for the rest of my life. Because it can be terrifying to know what drives us, and it can also be the most compelling thing in the world.