Summer of 2015: Bread Loaf School of English

Is there anything sweeter than June?

Of course there is. It is July and August! It is an entire summer dedicated to reading, writing, and being in a place where the exploring has no end.

Greetings from New Mexico!

 

In September of 2014 I sent an email to those subscribed in which I shared my extensive research related to MFA and Phd. programs and my reasons for not wanting to attend either. However, I mentioned that I was quite taken by Middlebury College’s graduate school, Bread Loaf School of English, for a variety of reasons, reasons that I didn’t share.

I didn’t think–didn’t have time to think–about any of it becoming a reality until February of 2015. Looking back on it, September of 2014 till February of 2015 is hardly any time in between but because of so much that happened in that short amount of time, it feels like lifetimes. In March of this year I had a very honest  exchange with the admissions director: I was not some teacher confused about what I “really wanted to do” when I grew up; I was extremely picky about workshops and such, having attended only two to date (one in Prague in 2011 before Auguries and one in March of this year hosted by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency in Big Sur); and my definition of “community” was very old school, basically sans the digital static; and the idea of more debt for yet another degree wasn’t exactly exciting. I was so taken aback by her patience, kindness, and sincerity regarding all my concerns, that I decided it was worth applying with all my  heart. Where there was one real human being there had to be others, right?

I began my personal statement essay with: “Are you a writer who teaches? Or are you a teacher who writes?”

I ended that essay as follows:

In February of this year I had the opportunity to present my work of last two years with my phenomenal students in a rural community in California at the CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) conference in San Jose. On the final day of that conference we were given a long quote by John Steinbeck, part of which I share now, the part that answered my question.

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. It might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

It is my hope that during each summer of attending Bread Loaf I will find a community of avid readers and learners, which will make me a better writer. My experience at Bread Loaf will be one of joy and it will help me be of service to my students. It would also provide for a shared reading experience that I would cherish beyond any classroom.

Essentially, if I was going to go back to graduate studies, I wanted the cake and I wanted to eat it too and that too without calories!

Ask and receive.

So, here I am. Very grateful for this opportunity to become a better writer by having a shared reading experience.

 

In other news, Vusi and I are almost done with www.realthinkingtree.com (it will be live in a few days! It’s has been a huge learning curve for me to create a digital platform like this and I couldn’t have done it without Vusi). I created it to share my reading and writing strategies with parents and educators as I continue to grow in this profession. I feel it is imminent that educators across the United States (and the world) utilize the Internet to share what they are doing (or what they are unable to do, even if anonymously) to help one another given what’s at stake here, the future. Here is an excellent post on the demise of the artist-teacher.  What makes www.realthinkingtree.com unique is that it is also a safe platform for students–from anywhere–to connect with each other (and with me) about their thoughts on reading, writing, and learning because students’ voices are missing from the learning conversation.  In order to make that possible, we had to review COPPA, a federal law that regulates activities of users under 13. COPPA requires parental consent before signing up on sites “that may attract children under 13”. In the past I have only worked with older students, but while I was living in California I had the unique opportunity to work with an amazing group of 5th graders. They will now be in 7th grade and in case they find me (many have!) and want to sign up I had to ensure it was done properly. What’s interesting is that both Fakebook and Twitter are able to bypass COPPA by stating that they are not platforms which attract children under 13. I wish that was true! More importantly, I wish there was better enforcement of these regulations given the dangers of younger folks signing up on social sites.

 

Finally, here is the podcast interview with Jessican Ann Media where I talk about writing, auguries, yoga, community etc. I have received some wonderful feedback about it and I am grateful for the opportunity.

 

Bread Loaf.

I am enrolled in two courses for this summer. The first course is “Nuclear Southwest: Literature and Film” and is taught by Jesse Aleman. I have been reading this assigned link as a warm-up to the background on the Atomic Bomb. The “interdisciplinary course examines the literary and cultural fallout of the atomic Southwest—a constellation of texts, images, and film that confront the nuclear era with protest, critique, fear, survival, and humor.” Last night I watched two assigned films, one of them was Trinity and Beyond (available on Hulu ) and the other was The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project (available on YouTube). Both films show the uncertain days of the beginning of World War II when it was feared the Nazis were developing the atomic bomb and the migration of a group of nuclear scientists to Los Alamos where the first atomic bomb was detonated. I am very lucky that my in-laws, both in their 70s, are actually from New Mexico and have seen many parts of the state, including the changes to their hometown Santa Fe, which provides for another rare perspective not offered in a textbook or documentary film.

The second one is “Indigenous American Literature” and is taught by Simon J. Ortiz! I was first introduced to such literature by Prof. Bud Hirsch at University of Kansas. I have written–not as well as I can now– about that much younger self here (the shorter version, our first conversation) and here (the longer version, our last conversation before Prof. Hirsch died too soon). Reading these two older posts about an even younger time in my life brought tears of joy. I wish I could tell Bud that I am enrolled at Bread Loaf and I will be taking a class where we begin the session by reading the exact same book which I read with him, Ceremony by Leslie Mormon Silko. Silko is originally from Albuquerque and among many other well-deserved acclaims also  “self-published her multi-genre book Sacred Water: Narratives and Pictures (1993) under her own imprint (Flood Plain Press).”

Moreover, I wish I could tell him that his letter of recommendation didn’t just land me in law school, but because of that experience I met another great professor who became a wonderful mentor and remains a dear friend. That I had a lot of questions after his death but now I know I was never lost and he always knew that. Most importantly, I wish he could have met Jamie, my best friend, the love of all my lives, and I could tell him I finally “get” what he meant by a “love that just doesn’t quit, no matter what life throws at us, a love where you are in love always.”

His loss doesn’t make me sad like it once did. If anything, it confirms that there are no mistakes, and there is indeed some invisible trajectory following commands, whispers from our deepest chambers, that we can’t always hear.

So, I will be reporting from “The Land of Enchantment”, New Mexico, this summer. That is, when I am not reading and writing!

I am re-reading Fahrenheit 451 and other Bradbury stories again because I plan on teaching them. Re-reading Ceremony after over a decade. The rest of these are not Bread Loaf readings but my own! Hope I can do it! I am almost done with the Stinging Fly issue and it is fantastic.

no filter

Sometimes we need a filter to see and feel clearly. Other times, we can only see clearly without one.

I have spent most of the day this Sunday reading the  Winter 2014-15 issue of The Stinging Fly. If you are on Twitter, find them, follow them. Or better yet, check them out and subscribe! I discovered this magazine a few weeks ago and felt it might be something I would have to sit down to really read, Internet browsing wouldn’t suffice.

As most of you already know, there aren’t many magazines out there I have mentioned since the writing doesn’t really move me. It all feels stale. I stopped reading The New Yorker 8 years ago, not as a boycott but because I just gave up. Whenever I could browse online, I did, and sometimes I would find nonfiction gems but fiction didn’t impress. Other magazines that offer new writing by new writers disappointed too. Everyone in these “alternative” magazines trying so hard to be different that they forget the object was to write a story, a good story, not be different.

Not this. The writing in The Stinging Fly is so alive you could feel the stories moving without even opening the first page. The essay, the poetry, the reviews, the fiction, just all of it. I am inspired, I am moved, I feel hopeful. Art is not dead. Honestly, I don’t think I can articulately review any of the pieces in it, I am too stirred with joy upon this discovery. The writing is fresh, the perspectives unique, and it made me realize how it is our obligation to protect what is unique in one another. Moreover, having checked out the website of Deborah Rose Reeves and a few others who are published in this issue, I can toast to what Jamie is always saying, “You can’t encounter the richness of life if you never live it.” And if you never live it, you can’t really write it, create it.

I have never felt this more profoundly than I do today, of all the reasons that exist to create Art, the quintessential is to move us to a deeper understanding about ourselves and the world around us, and if Art can’t achieve that, at the very least it ought to give us a confirmation, more than mere hope, for an alternative. For some of us, those of us, whose standards are not aligned with that of the general public, that hope is not as readily available. But when it comes, it illuminates everything so clearly, that even the shadows become beautiful.

light

 

“small diagnostic truths”

November 2, 2014.

Still Sundays.

 

 

“My plan was clear, concise, and reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country.  I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light.  I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.  […] So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.”

 

The aforementioned passage is from John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America. I happened to come by an 8th edition at an antique shop which I readily purchased. No regrets about that buy. On the contrary, several months prior to that, I bought—my curiosity had led me to get caught up in the Colbert-Amazon-Hachette controversy—California the debut novel by Edan Lepucki. It attempts at the dystopian genre which describes post-apocalyptic California. I was really hopeful to read something insightful. It didn’t take me very long to realize that the story read as if following a creative writing workshop formula. The characters were two-dimensional at best and the plot lacked the depth I was expecting. I read some reviews and they echoed my thoughts and feelings much more aptly than I cared to explore in writing a review myself. You can read two here: “Lepucki’s cautious dystopia never quite asks the right questions of us, ultimately to the detriment of the novel” and “mediocre characters plodding along in a meandering plot.”

I unsuccessfully tried to return my disappointment at the local Barnes and Noble. For months now it has been sitting on a small shelf where it is not visible. No one knows it is in this house but I know. I haven’t given it to recycling yet or donated it to a used bookstore. It sits there as a reminder about how not to write, how to contain your excitement about an “idea” as you work on the craft instead of just telling the idea as a story.  More importantly, I think I have allowed it to fester in my space because I haven’t figured out my own reasons for disliking it so much other than the obvious ones in the reviews.

 

It was only this morning while reading that excerpt by Steinbeck that the profoundness of my dislike for that book became clear. A sentence formed to provide clarity: I am offended. Yes, that was the word! I was offended! I was offended by Lepucki’s treatment of the post-apocalyptic California (her attempt was to shed light on current California) because she failed to tell “small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.” And she failed to do so because, like many from California or those visiting here, have only been exposed to one version of California. California is a huge state that has endured many transitions and consists of so many middle-America towns that it can take a life-time “getting the story” right. Moreover, unlike New York City which the entire state of New York treats as a separate entity, here everyone carries on as if life begins/ends in one corner of the state in one prominent city and ends/begins in another well-known city. There is no delusion of “oneness” in New York City; New York City is that weird mole on the face of the state which just happens to belong there and there isn’t anything that can be done about it even if not all view it as a beauty mark. Austin is another example that comes to mind: it is an anomaly city. Even within anomalies there exist exceptions that originally make them an anomaly and without a deeper exploring, even if not physically, of the land itself, I think one would be hard pressed to write a story that offers “larger truths.”

 

Other than celebrating that clarity, I have been exploring “small diagnostic truths” this Sunday morning where the day offered an extra hour thanks to Day Light Savings Time. Things are certainly shifting. It is November! The Day of the Dead just passed and we should all be more concerned about the ghosts we may become than the ghosts that may haunt us.

2014 is almost over. What a year it has been. In many ways I have felt the entire year can be defined as if someone accidentally hit “freeze” in a game filled with more tricks than treats. This is not to imply lack of momentum but more akin to holding large blocks of ice and putting them in an order that doesn’t really exist. So you finally give up and the ice starts melting and you realize there was nothing to put together in the first place. Except the giving up required hitting an  “unfreeze” and that was up to Time.  So, it’s time. We only view it as end of the year because of the calendar we have created, for all we know November 1, 2014 might very well be the beginning of everything.  It sure feels like it.

Another “small diagnostic truth” is the work I am doing in the field of literacy. I am beyond elated about putting together evidence in the form of a book. I didn’t know my first book would be a collection of stories and I didn’t expect my second one to be about students writing and third one to possibly be children’s fiction. I have considered starting a separate blog that pertains to education but a “small truth” of the matter is that all of that too is my life. I never imagined sitting and writing stories here or elsewhere in some ivory tower sipping on my tea and looking out the window at a world in which I didn’t participate. And so it is: all of my living which I choose to share belongs in this space, my cares about legal reforms and how they are shaping the American landscape to what is going on in the classrooms. After all, what good is writing if there are no adults who can read? I attended a recent conference where phenomenal educator, author, speaker, consultant, Kelly Gallagher, mentioned an article from the Washington Post, “Serious reading takes a hit from online scanning and skimming, researches say“.  The author of  Proust and the Squid calls this an “eye byte” culture. I feel compelled to share my findings that show if reading is taught by those who love to read, the current students who are in elementary schools, even English Language Learners, actually prefer to read print although they enjoy the digital world as a tool to extend their reading.

 

All these “small diagnostic truths” this year have led me to the foundations of a larger truth: the larger Universe opens up to us to the extent we let go of our reigns over our smaller universe.

“Bloom where planted” feels only glorious in theory and not in actuality because in reality you can’t always predict what blooms since it depends where you are planted. I don’t think the Universe would have it any other way.

Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost, but climb.” ― Edna St. Vincent Millay

 

 

Still Sundays: Ghosts of Elsewhere

October 12, 2014

 

I have been traveling in other worlds lately. The worlds of William Maxwell and Frank O’Connor’s words. I am in Ireland and in New York but I am still here too as I stare upon Elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” is always a place in Lahore or somewhere in South Africa. I see corners of streets from “Elsewhere” if the sunset’s light hits the smog on the leaves a certain way. Some days, the quiet on a street after the cars leave an intersection takes me to this “Elsewhere” to which GPS coordinates don’t exist.

I have lived many lives and when it comes to “Elsewhere” I have lived them more than once in this very lifetime.

I sometimes wonder if I am everywhere but Lahore on purpose, at least in part unconsciously. Some secret resolve to keep oneself protected from such depths one can’t claw out of, at least not without bleeding. How much blood can you shed for the past? It requires immense strength to pull your entire body weight to toss yourself over the other side of a wall. Now, add to that weight the additional poundage of memories, good ones, of a world that doesn’t exist anymore, not even in pictures that can now be touched to insta-glorify even garbage.

I think of William Maxwell’s words, thoughts, dispositions, in his stories, interviews, anecdotes about him, and his letters and editorial notes to Frank O’ Connor. I relish the characters in Frank O’Connor’s stories; I have been reading many of them, almost all of them. “Ghosts” is a remarkable piece of art, sheer genius in my opinion.

“They could go looking for ghosts, but he had ghosts there inside himself and I knew in my heart that till the day he died he would never get over the feeling that his money had put him astray and he had turned his back on them.”

That’s how it ends, that story, and that’s how it stays with you forever.

The ghosts within us, of our other selves, that remember different worlds, aren’t scary but they are persistent. They don’t haunt us for the sake of nostalgia but as a plea to save the present.

 

Anyway, I think of William Maxwell and others and can’t help but wonder if any of them could ever relate to the stories I want to write, characters that don’t belong to one city, characters whose edges can’t be neatly cut according to most MFA programs that follow a trend even when they try so hard not to follow one. More importantly, I wonder if any such editor exists now. What I mean by that is, editors who hold their current positions because they are or were writers first. I mean, take the current editor of The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman, I can’t seem to find any creative fiction she has penned despite being part of the literati long before taking on the role as an editor. (Side note: I use The New Yorker just as an example, not as some implicit attack; perhaps it is not fair to mention an example of a magazine whose fiction I don’t read, it was a very different magazine before the 90’s. This is not to say they haven’t published authors who deserve their public or literary reputation, but one doesn’t have to read The New Yorker to “discover” them).

 

But perhaps there is hope after all? The recent Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to an unknown author (to me and probably majority of the United States’ readers), French writer, Patrick Modiano.  Lucy shared an article with me which sheds light on the current creative conundrum. Horace Engdahl, Nobel judge, part of the Swedish Academy, hopes “the literary riches which we are seeing arise in Asia and Africa will not be lessened by the assimilation and the westernisation of these authors.” The article in The Guardian continues, “Engdahl slammed novels which ‘pretend to be transgressive’, but which are not. ‘One senses that the transgression is fake, strategic,’ he said. ‘These novelists, who are often educated in European or American universities, don’t transgress anything because the limits which they have determined as being necessary to cross don’t exist.’”

What precisely constitutes as “westernization” is a dated concept in itself in my humble opinion. It’s not as easily defined as it once was. The advent of social media has changed the landscape in many ways, but in as many ways Internet and social media have brought this change, in equal amounts, thanks to people’s self-absorption everywhere, they now know even less about the world outside of their mobile devices and computers.

 

Frank O’ Connor’s Ireland reminds me of Lahore.

“I prefer to write about Ireland and Irish people merely because I know to a syllable how everything in Ireland can be said; but that doesn’t mean that the stories themselves were inspired by events in Ireland. Many of them should really have English backgrounds; a few should even have American ones. Only language and circumstance are local and national; all the rest is, or should be, part of the human condition, and as true for America and England as it is for Ireland. The nicest compliment I have ever received was from a student while the authorities of the university were considering the important question of whether I was a resident or non-resident alien. “Mr. O’Connor, I find it hard to think of you as an alien at all.” (Steinman, Michael, ed. The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945-1966. 15. New York: Knof, 1996. Print.)

 

Writing stories makes feel less of an alien on this planet, where geographic divides don’t make sense, given the human condition, made of ignorance, sufferings, joys, dreams, are as common throughout as the oxygen we need anywhere to stay alive.

Sometimes I feel this digital space will be known as the place where I recorded my challenges “to get it down right” till I finally got it down, even if not right, and I could care less because there would be no more ghosts.

attention to details: a way of being

September 7, 2014.

 

The article in The New Yorker, “Creativity Creep” by Joshua Rothman, is probably one of the most succinct and apt essays I have read on creativity since the dawn of social media and the rise of “creativity” as a “job”.  Maybe there is hope after all if The New Yorker is willing to publish such an essay. There is always hope, I suppose. 

Mr. Rothman writes:

People like Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that we don’t just store things in our imaginations; we transform them. Coleridge made a useful distinction, largely lost today, between two kinds of imagining. All of us, he thought, have a workaday imagination, which we use to recall memories, make plans, and solve problems; he called this practical imagination “fancy.” But we also have a nobler kind of imagination, which operates […]  like “a human reflex of God’s creative energy.” The first kind of imagination understands the world; the second kind cares about it and brings it to life. In the “Prelude,” Wordsworth describes this kind of imagination as “an auxiliary light” that changes everything it illuminates.”

This watchful, inner kind of creativity is not about making things but about experiencing life in a creative way; it’s a way of asserting your own presence amidst the much larger world of nature, and of finding significance in that wider world. By contrast, our current sense of creativity is almost entirely bound up with the making of stuff. If you have a creative imagination but don’t make anything, we regard that as a problem—we say that you’re “blocked.”

How did creativity transform from a way of being to a way of doing?

[…]

It sounds bizarre, in some ways, to talk about creativity apart from the creation of a product. But that remoteness and strangeness is actually a measure of how much our sense of creativity has taken on the cast of our market-driven age. We live in a consumer society premised on the idea of self-expression through novelty. We believe that we can find ourselves through the acquisition of new things. Perhaps inevitably, we have reconceived creativity as a kind of meta-consumption: a method of working your way toward the other side of the consumer-producer equation, of swimming, salmon-like, back to the origin of the workflow. Thus the rush, in my pile of creativity books, to reconceive every kind of life style as essentially creative—to argue that you can “unleash your creativity” as an investor, a writer, a chemist, a teacher, an athlete, or a coach. Even as this way of speaking aims to recast work as art, it suggests how much art has been recast as work: it’s now difficult to speak about creativity without also invoking a profession of some kind.

[…]

Among the many things we lost when we abandoned the Romantic idea of creativity, the most valuable may have been the idea of creativity’s stillness. If you’re really creative, really imaginative, you don’t have to make things. You just have to live, observe, think, and feel.

 

This is what I have been doing in this space every Sunday, testing my “human reflex”, sometimes willingly and other times questioning that same reflex. Moreover, my recent work,  has taken me to experience depths of living, observing, breathing, feeling “creativity” in ways I can only hope to one day articulate in some tangible medium. And finally, since the advent of social media, people are of two views when it comes to absence from “blogging” or “sharing”: either one is living such an amazing life that there is no time to share photos or thoughts or alternatively, that an individual’s life must be so distressful that it doesn’t merit sharing. Of course, my point is about when people don’t share as much as they once did or at all, not those who report, the good or the challenging, for a sake of community and sharing, however regularly and openly.

Life is just life, it goes on. Yes, it’s sweeter when shared by those who “get it” but when one is truly original, majority of the people don’t “get it”.   At first.

 

Another article, also about creativity, was featured in ars technica and titled  “Is there a creativity deficit in science? If so, the current funding system shares much of the blame” by Ben McNeil.

Ben McNeil offers a notable quote by John Ioannidis who is head of the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California and links the quote to other sources.

“A truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers: if it is truly innovative, no peer has any clue about it; if peers already know about it, it is not innovative” said John Ioannidis, head of the Stanford Prevention Research Centre in California. Ioannidis and others published a recent analysis called “Conform and be Funded where they show that safer, established ideas have a much better chance of being funded at the NIH than novel, creative ones.

To be fair, the bias against any risk is not limited to the NIH; it occurs across every governmental science agency globally.

 

I also found the following a bit unsettling:

In the early 1970s, Roger Kornberg, a 27-year-old Stanford PhD, was working at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England. With a modest post-doctoral salary, Kornberg was given freedom to explore untried and risky areas of research. This would ultimately allow him to make a revolutionary discovery about how DNA is copied in cells.

Kornberg would win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2006 for that work. Yet he told The Washington Post that he’s convinced his groundbreaking Nobel Prize winning idea would never have been funded today.

 

 

An unrelated short piece by William Childress titled “A Born Writer” in the most recent print issue of Writer’s Digest brought it all together for me in the form of a question that perhaps doesn’t have an answer.  A side note I must mention:  I have never had much interest in that magazine because the online version, with all the links and ads, has always felt manic to stay the least; however, I recently subscribed to print thanks to coming across a print copy at a book store which I found useful. Anyway, in the piece Childress writes, “…comments by Mom, friends or kin were useless. In their eyes, I was a success simply by putting words on paper. But they signed no checks. Editors are a writer’s link to reality. They know when they must tell a writer no–and they will. But sometimes I get lucky and hit the mark, and they say, ‘Thank you. This is exactly what we need.’ Then I try again, and again, and again…”

 

I reflected a lot about this “trying again and again” and the statement from the other article, “a truly innovative idea cannot be judged by peers”.

My primary reason for not having tried again and again (or just barely) is twofold: lack of time and that a part of me is quite  satisfied with the audience I have (not to mention grateful!) and whenever I sit to write my objective is to deliver a valuable story where the words are crafted with hallmark care and whatever happens after that fades into the background. That being said, if I want signed checks, I have to try, at least once, twice, or thrice and do so beyond here.

What I know now without a doubt, thanks to the perfect articulation by Joshua Rothman, is that this space has been and will continue to be about sharing a way of being that is me, a way which also happens to be creative. This is also true for a lot of others who blog and share some phenomenal photos, words, and art. This is also true for many who don’t. Some of the most creative people I know, artists and otherwise, are not available via social media platforms. However, it is my hope, that a new consciousness within social media is emerging, where we are able to distinguish our inherently creative natures from creating meaningful Art “that changes everything it illuminates”.  Stories are more than ideas and art is more than being creative. And while both kinds of creativity have their place, it would serve us all to approach each with more mindfulness. Mindfulness is not a job description or a test of creativity, it is a way of being.

 

 

branches

 

“a special state of mind” ~ Marquez

It was during my first trip to Europe, a year before graduation from undergraduate studies at University of Kansas, a year before “September 11” would change travel, when I was first introduced to the works of author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel was Love in the Time of Cholera and the time was a train. My friend Dawn who gave me the book before my first trip hopping European cities on trains had said, “You need this.”

I was young and like most, not all, young people I was in love with the idea of love which meant I was more interested in looking than finding and my melancholy stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know the difference. It was a rebellious trip in every which way possible and it would begin a series of events that eventually led to a rebellion with one’s worst nemesis, oneself.

I wasn’t very far into the book when I knew this was no ordinary writer and this was not just a love story. The last time I had been this moved by the writing itself, beyond the story, was when I had read The Great Gatsby on my own, long before it would become assigned reading in high school. I knew without having read any reviews or commentary that I was reading craftsmanship in the ranks of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner etc.

Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure—long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence. She felt very well: the time of iron corsets, bound waists, and bustles that exaggerated buttocks was receding into the past. Liberated bodies, breathing freely, showed themselves for what they were. Even at the age of seventy-two. 

(Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Love in the Time of Cholera. p. 25-26, New York:  Knopf, 1988. Print.).

I was on one of the many train rides and felt this strange, fierce urge within to feel what it would feel like to write those sentences. So, I asked for a bunch of napkins from the little restaurant area in the train and started writing the aforementioned passage over and over again. I knew in the next city I would have to find a journal—I didn’t even have a journal, can you imagine?! But until then I wrote and rewrote those sentences until I felt full. The kind of full one feels after over-eating on a holiday dinner. Then on a different train I experienced another urge: what if I tried to describe people I saw on the trains the way he had? The way in describing how a man touched his eyelashes could offer your a glimpse of Italy’s history? What if…and what if… So I described people as if an artist might have attempted to jot a quick line sketch.

After the trip, upon my return to the United States, with one year still left at the university, becoming any kind of writer wasn’t even in the periphery of my imaginings. I was obsessed with international relations and took as many political science and history courses as possible. Then “September 11” happened. As if I wasn’t already about to burst in half doing splits between two cultures, now I had to redefine myself as the world changed definitions every other month. It was a very chaotic time and I wanted nothing more than to  start my life in the very city where the acts of terrorism took place. And a year later that is exactly what I did. Everything aligned perfectly—beyond human planning—for me to begin my life in New York City. Between the time of graduating and starting my life and work in New York City I read everything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I could get my hands on. The only thing I still haven’t finished reading is the novel which would finally bring Marquez international notoriety: One Hundred Years of Solitude. I am not sure why this is given I have read even the most obscure of his collections, essays and other novellas. Perhaps now is as good a time as any.

What Gabriel Garcia Marquez gave me is what Franz Kafka gave him:

One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. . . .” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago.

(Stone, Peter H. “Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Art of Fiction No. 69.” The Paris Review. The Paris Review Mag., Winter. 1981. Web. 2014).

I could write a love story and have it be a report on a country, culture and history! I could tell a political story about love and I didn’t have to fit myself in a niche of a culture that matched my skin color or the color of my passport! Of course I didn’t think of all these things the instant I read his words. That would be a slow coming together. As all of you following this journey since 2010 already know.

A year away from becoming a Nobel laureate and before the publication of the English translation of Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988, Marquez ends the 1981 Paris Review interview by stating:

I’m absolutely convinced that I’m going to write the greatest book of my life, but I don’t know which one it will be or when. When I feel something like this—which I have been feeling now for a while—I stay very quiet, so that if it passes by I can capture it.

 

In 2009 when I began writing to share my encounters with my friends (which eventually led to this blog in 2010) it was because of Marquez’s Leaf Storm which he wrote for his friends who had been his biggest supporters long before anyone knew of his work. I created this space so my closest friends and lovers of stories and words could stand witness to the trial of fragments where sometimes I am the judge and other times the advocate and yet other times a mere stenographer.  And the year 2009 began long before 2009. Somewhere in Paris that summer when I finished Love in the Time of Cholera I sat in a typical internet cafe staring at the email I had crafted to my recipients. I counted the number of people to which the email was going. When I had begun that trip I was writing an email update of my travels to every person I knew whose email address I had. Three months later I was only emailing a handful of friends.  I mean the others had done nothing wrong but I felt they couldn’t relate or understand or appreciate my urgency—literal, acute, grave compulsion—to share those reports of my travels. I didn’t know then that there was a writer in me whose primary task was to ensure I was always in the company of those who could see that writer even though this other me would have laughed at the idea of writing a book, a blog, a thought.

I am grateful for each and every person who has served as a baluster in this journey, this “special state of mind.”

-a.q.s.

 

10 reasons why I would rather teach writing to 10-year-olds than adults

For the past seven months I have been working with a group of 10-year-olds. More specifically, working on their writing skills. Other than teaching distinctions between various homophones and homographs (their, there, they’re; fair, fair, fair) I have not emphasized “correct” spelling. I know from many experiences, personal and in the field of education, that spelling comes with practice and reading, lots and lots of reading. The only real challenge I have encountered is teaching complete sentences versus fragments. This is quite difficult to get across because when they read fiction they come across fragments upon fragments authors write for “voice” or within dialogue or to serve other literary and figurative purposes. To this end, I decided why conclude that these young writers “wouldn’t—couldn’t—get” author’s craft nuances and instead to teach writing like in any traditional creative writing program for adults.

Also, I have never worked with such a young age group. Before law, I taught middle and high school. There would always be a handful of students in that age group who didn’t hate writing but most of them preferred to plagiarize or figure out a way to still pass the class without turning in any writing related assignments.  The spelling was atrocious and the content dry. I have also taught students in community colleges and those trying to get their G.E.D. diploma and it felt that the students’ relationship to writing got worse as they grew up. There were always a few each year who ‘liked’ writing but only if it was creative writing; any responses to literature or short essays were drier than empty tin cans. They  had been taught that writing was for writers/creatives and if you weren’t aspiring to be a song-writer or an author then there was no use for writing except to pass the class as a requirement.

This opportunity feels like the grandest opportunity: a window into the future, or the missing link from the future.   I have even considered a P.h.D around this topic: what happens when adults get out of the way?! Whatever else they may have learned from me, I can assure you I have never been more inspired. This Sunday I felt like sharing what I have learned from them. Anything in quotes is a direct quote by several 10-year-olds.

Here are 10 reasons why I would rather teach writing to 10-year-olds than adults:

1. You don’t have to convince them that they are creative. They are only certain about one thing: they have many ideas, thoughts, questions, and experiences. They are 10 and they know this with conviction!

2. You don’t have to convince them about “good writing.” They know that sharing a piece of writing must meet certain standards. The two most important rules that they came up with: “make it not boring” and “don’t just talk about yourself.”  They intuitively  know that “some pieces of writing are just for yourself and that is okay not to share. Your writing still matters because it is yours.”

3. You don’t have to hear about social media. They don’t care about social media. Don’t confuse this with their lack of knowledge about Twitter, Fakebook, Instagram, Vine etc. Most of them do have digital devices and some even have accounts! They just use them like text-messaging tools to share “selfies” and fart jokes or about what they are reading, no different than adults I suppose. However, an important distinction is, they don’t seek them as a source for inspiration for anything and they are definitely not as plugged in as the “millennials”. In another 10 years these children will be 20 and already have a very different take on technology.  Most of them can’t understand the adult obsession, they would rather play and hang-out in real time. They do have tablets for reading but equally prefer books. Most of them see tablets as game boards. “They are not a book! That’s just silly!” So, naturally, they don’t care to share their writing beyond their immediate audience or to know if anyone else likes it. That being said, they are very driven to improve their writing because “no one likes cliches because that’s boring and tiring”.

4. You don’t have to sell them the reasons for editing and revising. They like editing and revising. They know that when we are eager to write our initial thoughts or creative stories we sometimes overlook silly mistakes. It’s “fun to make it better because you grow each time you fix a mistake.” They know they are not perfect because no one is. They are focused solely on their own work but in a different way than most self-absorbed adults: they want to improve for the sake of improving and having their thoughts be more accessible.

5. They think writing is cool because you get to share stories, make up stories, use figurative language like “play-doh”.  “Most author’s craft is really just play-doh: why would you make something that somebody else is making? Unless it was really really cool. You can’t make mistakes with play-doh.” Their use of figurative language is mind-blowing. “It’s easy when you write from the heart and push yourself to find new ways of saying how you feel.”

7. They are not afraid to explore. Even the shy ones. They don’t need permission to cry or think they need self-help for crying. Some of them have burst into tears during their writing. “I didn’t even know there was that feeling in me!” Some of them don’t cry until they share their writing out loud. They love humor too and enjoy making up stories about one another and writing in third person. They are not interested in my “approval”. They help each other and are willing to receive and reject help. They emulate one another and authors and then grow out of it. They don’t want to be the best, they want the writing to be the best for that moment.

8. They don’t need a reason to break rules. “I wanted to try something new” suffices. “I didn’t have more to say” for a shorter writer’s notebook entry is an okay response. The five-paragraph essay doesn’t have to be boring if you care about what you are writing. “Don’t you want to convince someone of something when you sit down to write?”

 

 

On that note, I thought I was going to have 10 reasons, but 8 good ones are better than 2 extra useless ones.  “It’s okay to start with one thing in mind and then end up with another. That’s why it’s called a journey, right?”

I wish I could take credit for all of it. I am just a facilitator and here and now share my own writings and feelings with them. It’s all been an organic unfolding, truly an orchestration beyond my teaching abilities. That being said, Peter Elbow is a big influence and I incorporate a lot of his methodologies and philosophies.

On a personal note, these youngsters have really convinced me to write a young-adult or children’s book.

As they would say: why not? 🙂

“Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking. Meaning is not what you start out with but what you end up with.” – Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers.


“Who I am is who I could not not be.” ~ Peter Senge

A month ago, on our way to Santa Fe, New Mexico, while driving through beautiful Flagstaff, Arizona, I stumbled upon a used bookstore, Starrlight Books. This happened only because my internal GPS—“Gastronomy Paging System”—that doesn’t need external maps, directed me to a spot called Alpine Pizza where I had the best pizza outside of New York City.

I picked up a used copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s collected poetry at this quaint bookstore.

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And we stumbled upon this wall across the bookstore, near where we had parked. How we miss things the first time around because we are too hungry to see!

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Buddha in Glory

Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond self-enclosed, and growing sweet–
all this universe, to the furthest stars
all beyond them, is your flesh, your fruit.

Now you feel how nothing clings to you;
your vast shell reaches into endless space,
and there the rich, thick fluids rise and flow.
Illuminated in your infinite peace,

a billion stars go spinning through the night,
blazing high above your head.
But in you is the presence that
will be, when all the stars are dead.

Sometimes I reflect on how did I ever manage to write so much here? Not just that, but get to that space where I was just writing stories day and night which resulted in an edited collection that is now being shared by word of mouth!

stillness is a manji…or charpai…

March 31, 2013

Still Sundays.

I am still convinced yesterday was Sunday. I should have written yesterday. I felt stillness bow from the edge of the horizon to the fingertips of the wind. I should have written yesterday. Today is not yesterday. Today has clouds and nostalgia is not as sweet; the aftertaste of memories has a vengeance. The best stillness is in which you are aware of the only truth that is real: there is only now.

 

Today I will share about a manji. Also known as manjaa, charpai, charpaya, and charpoy.

 

Here is the Wikipedia definition thanks to the internet: char “four” + paya “footed” is a traditional woven bed in the subcontinent of southeast Asia.

Dictionary.com offers that it is a noun that is a light bedstead used in India, consisting of a web of rope or tape netting.

Of course, also thanks to the Internet, we can charge $500 (or more, depends how much you can afford in your efforts to impress imaginary people who don’t really matter to you) for something that actually costs $2.00 to make in the country of origin.  Owning these as decor—not actual use, heavens forbid!— also serves as novelty for the plutocrats. Ironically, often the people who use these cots are villagers who can’t afford anything better.
Digression:
The other day while passing through Los Angeles, I overheard a group of men (producers?) discussing their possible pitches to the funding gods in the entertainment industry. Their topics included: a “reality television” series where plastic surgeons compete for make-overs; a “reality television” series where people buy houses without seeing the neighborhood; and one other asinine idea which I am now forgetting. I was shocked by two things: 1) Their unawareness about the privilege to quite possibly bring their ill conceived ideas to something quite real which the general public will end up watching and 2) One of the middle-aged men was wearing a shirt that had one word on it, ‘unemployed’.
I watched them finish their $12.00 sandwiches and then saw the “unemployed” man drive away in his  very new B.M.W.  I don’t doubt he has never worked a day in his life. I know this with certainty because his idea wouldn’t be so trite if he had.

 

Here is an example of a writer talking about a manji in a blogpost:
I bought this cot from an Indian store. It was too expensive I thought but my mother said it is great quality, very durable. The colors are simple and it really is strong. It brings me such joy. I can feel the cool breeze when I just rest on it. I love drinking my coffee on it. That is so divine. I find it so interesting that the very people who look down upon those who consider this their bed in villages in the Subcontinent of Asia are the ones who like to have one in their houses but not to use—only to show!

 

Here is an example of a poet talking about a manji in a post:
“Manji”
the knots that hold me/I can feel the hands who made them/ like earth/ I understand the sky.

 

Here is an example of an aspiring author writing about a manji and it might have taken him or her three hours to put it all together, and yet these words may never be seen by anyone even if they did find context to breathe in a proper, finished form:

 

Neelo hadn’t seen a manji since she stood on the balcony of the haveli and accidentally saw her father kiss the forehead of the young girl who was brought over the night before as a possible bride for her brother. The manji sat in the center of the brick veranda as two peacocks trod around it, almost knocking the bowl with water in which almonds had been resting overnight. She could hear the fan moving as fast as a spinning top, the blades indistinguishable. The adage “if these walls could talk” is not applicable in some parts of the world; some structures are built so there is no need for secrets.
What would I write or say about a manji?

 

Stillness is a manji, made of the same material I feel on 108th and Broadway.
mangi
I leave you with some words I was playing with earlier this week:

 

Coffee With Jesus

 

I would like to take Jesus out
for coffee.
Who else would he invite?
He would probably laugh at my prayers.
I don’t want to save the planet;
Just myself would suffice.
We would talk about plagiarism:
“Look at the damage it can create!”
Jesus would exclaim.
I would laugh at his aggravation.
I have bigger problems, I’d say.

 

 

This Easter Sunday I am grateful to my father who protected us from religions, taught us to question all books, including his words, so we would grow up to still believe in One Law—called by various names all over the world—as we continue to shine our doubts.

 

A joyful Easter Sunday to all.

 

 

 

Create or Else: Jack Rabid

March 17, 2013.

No writing today because it was the most perfect still sunday! It was filled with California sunshine, love, and family time.

Sometimes words really aren’t necessary, says the girl who eats words for breakfast and rearranges their meanings in her sleep.

I did get to some writing but it was for the “Note to the Reader” section for my collection of stories. The “Acknowledgments” section remains blank. Knowing me, it will be quite short. Anyway. In that process, I went down the rabbit hole of some of my writings that I have shared here.

Then I listened (again) to Jack Rabid’s words tonight.  He is the creator of The Big Takeover magazine. His words in this video made me realize that sometimes as important as the one creating the experience (for example, a musician), if not more so, is the one experiencing that which has been created, the one also known as the real fan. The term fan might as well be obsolete now because we think “followers” are fans when they are really just followers. The real fan is an artist in his or her own right. The real fan is a believer, the disciple who stands next to you before others can see the full picture. The real fan creates something quite different with the experience; sometimes it is visible and other times not so obvious.

I am very grateful for those who continue to read my writings here and share however, whenever and wherever.
Here is the link to the video in case it doesn’t open up within the post. I wanted to place it in my vault for future nights.