In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, I find it hard to stay focused on the myriad projects with deadlines looming (or already passed). But one thing I learned from those horrible days in september 2001 in NYC when the dust was everywhere and sirens became a part of our daily soundtrack is that there is a way through and for some of us, that way is with words. I write to understand the world. I write to understand myself. And when I can’t understand either, I write because I have to. That may sound pretentious or self-involved (aren’t all humans by nature self-involved?) but I really believe in the healing power of art. For several years I volunteered as a writing workshop facilitator at the Brooklyn Vet Center leading workshops for veterans with PTSD. They didn’t write about combat all that much and (with a very few exceptions) they were positive, mutually supportive and wonderful writers. The opportunity to write with them every week was one of the high points of my writing life. While that workshop ended due to a mixture of organizational dis-organization and my own PTSD making it difficult to take the subway to/from Bklyn every week, I still draw strength from that time spent writing with men and women who have witnessed horrors I will (I hope) never see. To be real, no one is “safe” and there is no such thing as “normalcy” (a word thrown around a lot in the days and weeks after 9/11 in NYC). But I can’t live life worrying every minute about when the next attack will come. And on those days when I just can’t see how we will ever get through this, how humanity will ever become “humane” on a global scale, I know I can’t do much but what I can do is write. And whether that writing helps anyone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that it helps me: to process rage, sadness, guilt, and confusion. So my advice to you: take some time this week, this month, this year to write, to read, and to write some more. Art does matter. Writing does matter. Even if you are the only person who sees it, it matters.
I generally try to keep these posts focused on writing and editing and the more creative aspects of my life but in the midst of one of the more bitter Democratic primary processes I can remember, I find myself at odds with many acquaintances (I hesitate to call them “friends”) over the rhetoric being slung about by the Sanders’ campaign. I’ve been told I’m “voting gender,” “voting with an older demographic,” and “not understanding Progressive politics.” Several people I admire have responded to this rhetoric – perhaps none better than Gloria Steinem – but I find myself feeling that people just want me to “be quiet.” As a woman and a feminist, this is a feeling I’ve had before – many times. It’s a part of the insidious anti-woman behavior of many in this country. When I was a young undergrad at Smith, I traveled with a group to UMass-Amherst for a rally in support of Geraldine Ferraro. We were met with a HUGE crowd of “bros” holding signs that read “Ditch the Bitch.” This atmosphere has not changed. The assumptions made by Sanders’ supporters that Clinton supporters are a) not “Progressive” b) voting w/a gender bias c) not smart enough to understand the nuances of this campaign, or d) too “old” to vote outside “the Establishment” are all deeply disturbing and deeply flawed. I am an intelligent (some would say “over”) educated, politically Left, “progressive” and yes, a woman of a certain age. To suggest that my politics are “invalid” or “simplistic” or that I have not thought through ALL candidates and their ability to represent the causes I champion is not only disrespectful but also leaves me questioning the foundation of their views. When Obama ran the first time, I was hesitant to support him – because, I believed, he simply did not have the experience necessary for the job. Because of this hesitancy, I was called a “racist” by more than one person. The assumption was that I was hesitant because I didn’t want a black man in office. I was (and am) thrilled that we had two terms with a black man in office. Obama accomplished a great deal but his lack of experience did cause problems during his first term. And that’s part of why I’m supporting Clinton – because she has the experience. (Sanders does not). The other part? Because she is a champion of human rights – including women’s rights (why we always have to specify “women” as if we’re not included in “human” speaks to the broader issue of misogyny). That Clinton is a woman who is both accomplished and intelligent leaves her open to vicious attacks from the Right and from those who position themselves as a part of the “Left” – but bias is bias and I for one am sick of it. It is time for this country to have a woman president – we’ve waited long enough. I am proud to call myself a Liberal and a Leftist and I am voting for Clinton – not just because she is a woman but because I’ve done the research and I believe she is the best PERSON for the job. I also believe that there is nothing “progressive” about a bunch of white people voting for yet another aging white male – whatever he claims his politics may be. Whatever the outcome, I remain, as always, an optimist – eventually women will have equality in this country and eventually, we will have a woman president. Here’s hoping 2016 is that year.
Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time. I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.
While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.
Orcas Residency Day 1: long, long travel day to Orcas Island. Taxi driver tour of the “main points in town,” did some major editing for 2 hrs, then had a fabulous (vegan!) dinner and great conversation with our host and fellow attendees. Wish I could stay here for a month. or a year.
Orcas Residency Day 2: woke up to dark (except 1/4 moon). Currently rediscovering: there is such a thing as too much coffee (even fancy WA State coffee). Fixed the sudden laptop crash. Currently hacking the novel into tiny pieces – somewhat inspired by the sound of a chainsaw in the distance.
Orcas Residency Day #3: woke up to dark again. This whole late sunrise thing is a drag. Smell of coffee got me out of bed. The quiet here leaves my ears feeling like I’ve been holding shells to them all night. Spent the morning drinking coffee and discussing Ph.D. programs and critical theory with our host. May go for a walk in the rain soon or just inside looking out at dripping trees. Oh & writing. Splitting my manuscript open like an overripe peach & digging out the rot.
Orcas Residency Day #4: up early and went with the group up to Cascade Falls. Hiked the lake loop hike (5? miles) and part of another hike before my knee gave out. Then back to K. House for hot tub and shower and dinner and some weird modern version of the exquisite corpse game. And now, time to write.
Orcas Residency Day #5: can’t believe how quickly the time has passed here. This morning woke up to a 5am call from my vet’s office. Mina is sick (still) but in good hands. I wrote all morning until my back was screaming. Headed out into the cold for a walk to the beach where I found many interesting things including a partial view of REAL mountains. Stuck my toes in the ocean and then was joined by Nancy Lord who told me it was too cold. We walked back while she looked at birds (red winged blackbirds, starlings, chickadees, thrush, a very fat robin, and some harlequin ducks). I went off to soak in the hot tub and now more writing. We’re all heading out to Doe Bay for dinner tonight and then it’s down to the final stretch.
Orcas Residency Day #5: one window shows blue sky, the other shows grey. About to have more coffee and head down to the beach to look for mountains. And then, back here to write and write some more.
Today is apparently David Bowie’s birthday. I spent most of it sitting at the beach, staring at mountains, writing bad poetry and listening to Calexico. And now I’m going to listen to more Calexico and write some (hopefully) good fiction. Sorry Bowie. Maybe later.
Orcas Residency Day #5 (part 2): day started with coffee and writing then beach (!!) where there was some blue sky and also, mountains. I wrote a poem at the beach and met a new dog friend. Then back to the house for more writing followed by a field trip with the awesome non-fiction Alaskan writer Nancy Long to the Island Hoppin’ Brewery where we shared a flight of beer and made friends with some local school teachers. Then back home for more writing followed by another wonderful home-cooked meal. After dinner, we each shared some of the work we’ve done while here – really powerful writing – and then talked until late. I will indeed miss these new writerly friends of mine.
Orcas Residency Day #6: last full day at the residency. Got up early and had breakfast with our host and a couple fellow writers then I walked down to the beach. Sun reflecting off all the melting frost. The beach is cold but there’s a clear blue sky and a full view of the mountains. Only seabirds for company. Back now for more coffee and some writing. This afternoon, we’ll be at the East Sound Library joining their writers’ group then dinner in town and likely back here for a last night of quiet and writing. The long trip back to Seattle tomorrow and then back to NYC.
Orcas Residency Day #6: settling in for some writing after a long day. Started out with coffee and then a trip to the beach to stare at Mt. Baker. After that: coffee and more writing. Then walked to East Sound with Nancy Lord, stopped at the book store and bought one of her books. We met the other writers at the Library where ArtSmith’s Jill facilitated a very packed writing round table focused on “place.” Lots of creative people on this island. I read two very short pieces and got some kind words from some locals. Overall a good afternoon of hearing and sharing work. Then we had a great Mexican meal followed by some hot tub time and now wrapping up another long day of writing and enjoying the culture and nature on this beautiful island. Tomorrow two of us head back to the mainland (Anacortes, then Seattle) and too soon, I will be back in NYC.
While I’m still slogging away at NaNoWriMo (and about now it DOES feel like a “slog”)…I’m also trying to get through the last of this semester’s course work and final papers, etc. As a Ph.D. student with more than one Master’s Degree behind me (I have 4 if you’re counting), I’ve learned to separate “emotional” responses from “critical” responses. Despite this ability, since 2012 when I was first diagnosed with PTSD, one of the struggles I’ve had is responding “appropriately” to images, sounds, and texts. In other words, when I see violence, I “over” react. But what does this actually mean? This week’s reading for a course I’m taking on the history of documentary photography – Susie Linfield’s “Cruel Radiance” – focuses on images of “political violence” and responses – critical and personal – to these images. It’s rare that my academic reading aligns with specific “real life” events but reading critical discussion of how “we” should respond to images of human suffering while the events in Paris unfolded was both apt and also, incredibly difficult. To be clear – my suffering is not as “personal” as that experienced by those who lost loved ones or were direct witnesses to the Paris attacks (or those in Lebanon) – I’m not claiming that. One of the worst symptoms of PTSD is the way it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view violence and achieve that distance necessary to “process” it. But is this really what we should be doing? I don’t want to feel the debilitating pain that I feel when I view new footage, photographs or read about human suffering (torture, war, famine, etc.) but I also agree with Linfield that we have an ethical obligation NOT to turn away. But how do I get past the feeling of shock and helplessness such viewing causes? How do I process these images (or in the case of my class assignment – write an “appropriate” response paper to an academic text) without internalizing the fear and despair I feel at witnessing the suffering of others. Linfield suggests that it is through the viewing of images of suffering that we become inspired to be active in human rights efforts. But for those of us who suffer from PTSD and who don’t have the “proper” filters for viewing such images, is it ethically wrong to turn away? How can we learn to empathize without descending into the deadly cycle of flashback-anxiety-hopelessness that PTSD can cause? No answers here, just questions.
It’s Day 11 of NaNoWriMo and although I’m in the midst of one of the busiest times at my day job and in my semester, I’ve still managed to crank out over 13,000 words so far. What my main character is up to I’m still not sure but I’ll let her do what she wants and hope it all turns out. Currently there are two main story lines going: some formative event(s) from the main character’s past and what is apparently either a story about a woman going slowly mad or more likely, some kind of haunting (?). Also, yellow roses appear to be a big problem for her. This is the first time in a while that I’ve written with a female protagonist throughout. It feels odd but as she’s different from me, it’s interesting to find out how she feels/thinks/acts. As to the writing process itself, it’s very difficult (impossible?) for me to find periods of concentrated writing so, instead, I’ve been writing whenever and wherever I can. I just wrote 300 words on my lunch break at work – not much but it introduced an important plot point. Last night, I was stuck on a NJ Transit train that was 30 minutes late pulling in to Penn Station and that gave me well over an hour of writing time. I’ve never been precious about where I write although, of course, I prefer my desk at home. I write on a small pad of paper when I don’t have my laptop with me and on my laptop when I have it. I have a couple of long flights coming up and those are always good for getting writing done. I don’t understand writers who need a specific “atmosphere” to write – I’m just too busy to be so precious about my writing space. As long as I have my iPod and a few spare minutes, I’ll be writing. However, there is one aspect of my life that suffers during NaNoWriMo and that’s my daily poems. I wrote a short poem today but otherwise, I’m not able to stick to my daily schedule. I’m hoping to be at 25,000 this weekend in anticipation of some major academic work that needs to get done over the next four weeks. Meanwhile, what IS it about yellow roses?
So every year I participate in NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) and every year I finish the 50,000 words required. Most years, I wait until Thanksgiving Week and then I pound through the word count, breathlessly finishing by 11.59 on 11.30. In the past, I’ve usually just sat done and written whatever story was in my head at the time and it all seemed to connect eventually. Often, it’s a character’s voice demanding to be heard. Sometimes, it’s a place or a moment or a line of dialogue but I’ve never written with a plan or a central conflict or a list of pre-created characters.
This year, I decided to be a sane human about things. In the few days prior to Nov. 1st, I wrote an outline. I thought about characters. I thought about place and conflict and all the other things that go into writing. And yesterday, once I’d finished my reading for class tomorrow night, and making a pot of soup, and feeding the cat, and cleaning the apartment and putting the clean laundry away and checking my email…I turned off my phone, sat down and started to write. At some point, I realized it was time to stand up and stretch and go to bed. It wasn’t that much writing – only about 2,000 words – but it was a start. And it was NOTHING like my outline, nothing like the rough plot or characters I’d thought about. Currently, I’ve left one character downstairs fetching luggage while another character sits in a bedroom in an old house she hasn’t seen since childhood. Outside a storm is raging and, of course, the power’s just gone out. No idea what happens next. I guess I’ll have to wait until tonight to find out. And for me, that’s half the joy of writing – letting the story tell itself without being forced to follow an outline, without putting limitations on characters, and without knowing what’s going to happen next.