Photo on 7-20-16 at 7.13 PMAnother Essay Work Shop Joint. Read Kelly’s last letter to me here, and read my last letter to Kelly here.

Dearest Kelly,

I was picking up things in the kitchen when I heard the babysitter cry out to E about the scissors she had in her hand. They were a big pair of scissors with a blue handle, the ones I keep on top of my desk. They were going to make a helmet out of construction paper for E’s rocket, an Amazon box we had received earlier. E ignored both of us and said something like “I’m just cutting paper.” We both shouted to put them down, as she scowled at the paper but really at us. I managed to snag them out of her hand and slip them back into the glass cup with markers. She’s tall enough to reach the scissors on my standing desk, I thought.

Or maybe she grabbed them from where I had left them earlier when I cut open the box my turntable came in? The Jensen box is there, in the living room, full of the owner’s manual and the Styrofoam that cushioned the device. “I’m gonna keep this box just in case” I said out loud to the babysitter on my way back to the kitchen, but really I’m saying it to myself.

Things have been piling up in the apartment. No, not Hoarders style, but they’ve piled up. My desk sure has. Every few weeks there’s been a purge. My summer has been so busy, compounded by teacher training and editing projects. I keep picking up the mail, thumbing through it to see if any bills stand out to me, and then I put the rest on the desk. Sometimes, I’ll go through and pick out the magazines and put them in the dining room.

There are also some books, books I have purchased in the past couple of months that I tell myself are for work (editing and writing and teaching) and so they are there because I don’t know where to put them. E made some drawings in May, and after I cooed over them and shared them with friends and family who came to visit, I put them on top of the cat tower. Then I moved them to the desk when the cat knocked over her own tower. There are some receipts and some postcards on the desk. I even left a picture frame that E wanted me to buy to put the picture of her dad and her at the amusement park. It’s such a pretty frame. I can’t remember where I put the picture. This happened just a few days ago.

Last week a friend came to visit, and I cleaned up because I didn’t want her to see my mess. It’s the only way I tidy up these days. She came to Houston so we could work on some stuff for the blog we co-edit, but it was also our co-parenting summer break—hers two weeks and mine four days. For a while, we were carefree women, working during the day and going out for drinks and dancing at night. For a brief while.

She and I talked about my career transition. Soon I will start teaching public school, and she repeated the phrase I have heard again and again this summer: “the first year will be so hard.” She added, however, “be kind to yourself.” And you know what I said, Kelly? I told her, “I think I’m gonna take a break from thinking about the book this year. You know, because it’s just going to add stress.” And then I remember what you said in your last letter: “We have to give ourselves permission to write and not write.”

This summer was supposed to be the summer I got some research done, did some interviews, maybe even finished Chapter One (or Essay One?). But in January I had not foreseen that I would be in teacher training all summer, trying to balance training for a new job and transition out of my current job.

I wanted to, I really did. But wanting it isn’t enough, Kelly.

So the desk stays cluttered, as if to tell me “don’t come over, you’ll just feel worse.” As if to say, “you have so much on your mind.” Actually, pop psychology says the desk clutter is just a reflection of my brain at the moment. So maybe it’s all just bullshit in the end and I just need to throw out a bunch of stuff. I keep looking for direction in the smallest things.

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Rising Strong, per your recommendation. I also find myself drawn lately to articles about mothers and creativity. I want to feel I’m not the only one wrestling with questions, or that I’m not the only one who sits back and thinks, “I can’t think about the book right now.” And when I type that out, I feel like I failed myself, Kelly.

I’m trying to be kind to myself and keep the creative energy around me, even if it doesn’t mean researching for the book. Maybe I should clear out the desk even if I’m not going to write on it. Elizabeth Gilbert would like that.

First Day of Class

Another Essay Work Shop Joint. Read Kelly’s last letter to me here, and read my last letter to Kelly here.

School materials

School materials

Dear Kelly,

Last Thursday I went to a new writing class. I take writing classes now. I’m the kind of person who takes writing classes. Last year I took my first one, and then in November I took another one, and this workshop is Number 3.  I actually put money aside to sit in a room next to other people and read my words to them and hear them tell me what they think. I occasionally speak up and tell them what I think of their words. Sometimes I slip into “writing teacher” mode and give them suggestions on how to show and not tell. But they don’t know that I taught writing. In these rooms I am another “aspiring writer.” They don’t know I taught for several years at the college level or that I worked at a writing center. They don’t know how much I love words. It doesn’t matter though: regardless of our CVs, we’re all writers who need someone to talk to about our words.

I take writing classes. I went through twelve years of college, and before that thirteen years K-12. I’m still of the age where I’ve spent most of my life in a school. I’m paying student loans. I should be done with classrooms. And yet I yearn for the structure. My brain is used to it. Or maybe the freelance life gets to me. Sometimes I want someone else to tell me what my words sound like.

These classes remind me that the classroom is one of the few places in my life where I can be led, where I don’t need to be the person in charge. I am the principal parent in my co-parenting situation. I am the caretaker who remembers when she wore the pink dress and which outfit Granny gave her so she can wear next time Granny’s in town and that her teacher is Ms. and not Mrs. I am a freelancer, in charge of my own schedule. I am constantly juggling emails I have to respond to, emails I responded to, and emails I am waiting a response on. I build my months around deadlines, and I carry in my head a Venn diagram with E’s dad’s schedule and my schedule, so I can see what days I can go out with friends…or just stay in and binge-watch a show.

Yes, it’s no wonder I yearn for the structure of the classroom. I don’t have to organize it myself. There’s that but there’s also the fact that writing can get lonely, and let’s face it, social media doesn’t fulfill all of our needs. I feel motivated to write when I go to these classes. It was in my first one last year where I shared my first postcard essay with people who knew nothing of my project beforehand. For years I’d been talking about these postcards, but I hadn’t yet written a full essay. It was in my second one where I wrote about yoga but then it ended up being about divorce and it was the first time I admitted out loud “I don’t want to write about divorce, but it keeps creeping up in my writing.” And my teacher said, “you need to write about it then.”

This is my first personal essay class, so I’m particularly hyped about it. I know you would be too.

In class last week we did an exercise where we were supposed to look at ourselves from the ceiling, sort of a bird’s eye view of ourselves, in order to build ourselves into a character instead of focusing solely on our feelings or our thoughts. I decided to float above my bed and see myself as I woke up in the middle of the night yet again to take painkillers for my sore throat. The brief exercise ended up looking like an essay draft, and the teacher asked me if I could see this expanding into a broader essay. Where would I expand? I wasn’t sure where, but I thought I’d like to expand it. It was nice to have the conversation with someone in person.

Is it community more so than structure the thing we need to make our writing flourish, Kelly? I wonder.



Fear of Writing

Part of my writing process is reading books and articles about creativity and inspiration. I’m a believer that sometimes writers need to try different approaches to getting the ball rolling in their projects. And sometimes that writer is myself.

2016-01-13 10.45.58

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear in my spare time lately. (I attempted to read and knit at the same time it hasn’t worked out so far.) I picked it up shortly after it came out last fall, and was reading it in spurts until January rolled around. Although I know that in order to write I must (wait for it…) write, sometimes I have hang-ups about how I should be writing or what the writing process should look like. Not only that: I also have trouble seeing those hang-ups. I am good at helping others see their hang-ups, but I conveniently can’t see my own.

So far, I’ve enjoyed Gilbert’s approach to writing. It’s practical but also thinks of creativity in a spiritual way, a way that makes sense to me. Not saying this is a religious book, but Gilbert spends a lot of time talking about inspiration and how we should make space both mentally and physically for inspiration to arrive in our lives.

She divides her book into 6 parts: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. I just started Persistence, and I am halfway through. However, because this book is getting me to think about my writing process (and about the book project in particular), I thought I’d share some things her book has made me consider. In a nutshell? Lots of what’s keeping me from writing can be distilled into one thing: fear.

•    “So this, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” (8)
•    Am I living a life driven by curiosity and creativity?
•    I fear I don’t have the discipline or the financial freedom to take time to work on my project. And by extension, I fear I am a hack, because I don’t just give into the urges.
•    “Creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome” (23).
•    I don’t have to be earning a living from writing in order to call myself a writer. This is not the only way to be  a writer.
•    I have to show up and work on a regular basis—but forgive myself when I don’t.
•    “The Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius” (67).
•    Prove to yourself (and no one else) that you are serious about writing. Show up.
•    I need to announce to no one but myself that I am a writer. No one but me is worried about whether I am or not. I am entitled to call myself a writer. Why not?
•    I never think of myself as an audience of my work. I always think about someone else, but never myself. I need to write for myself more often. (This is not how it happens with the blog though. My blog posts are often the easiest to write because of this. Hmm.)
•    I don’t think I’ve articulated out loud that I enjoy writing. It’s more popular to say, “writing is hard. Writing is painful.” Well, there: I enjoy writing.
•    It’s nobody’s business but my own if I write or not. Also, it’s nobody’s business if I write that book or not.
•    “I had never asked writing to be easy; I had only asked writing to be interesting” (143).


For the New Year

scene of workThe new year has arrived. I spent the first 48 hours of this year sick, with a sinus infection. On New Year’s Eve, as I celebrated at a friend’s house the arrival of 2016, I knew what the pain in my face meant. It’s been a while since I’ve had one, but I am familiar with the heaviness behind my cheekbones and the soreness in my gums when I try to eat. The next day, I came home, made some chili, and basically knitted, drank tea, texted, and watched tv.

Although I am eager for the antibiotics to make the infection go away, I think of this as a cleansing of sorts: my body getting ready for what awaits in 2016. January 1 is as arbitrary as any other day in the year, I agree. There’s no reason why I couldn’t make changes in my life at other points during the year. But for some reason this particular New year’s Day feels heavy, special. It’s the year after Year 1.

I had a lot of firsts the year post-divorce, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how to face those “firsts” head on. This year, I am eager to move forward and think long-term.

Last year there was very little blogging, and less publishing outside of the blog. I wrote a lot offline, but online and in print there was not much. That’s okay. Year’s over. But there’s a part of me that yearns for writing, that yearns to get the words out there.

This year I want to channel Austin Kleon (my creativity guru), when he encouraged readers to focus on the process and to share that process with one’s audience. So I’m hoping to start blogging more regularly. I like feedback. I like talking my ideas out loud. But the last two years I didn’t get a lot of writing done. Tweets? Absolutely. 82,000+ and counting. But not as much writing. I know why. Life.

I won’t apologize for being human and for having feelings that get in the way.

Back to blogging: I don’t know what I’ll be sharing here. I know I have several writing projects I need to work on: book proposal, research, longform essays to pitch, dissertation articles that need to be revised. Maybe I’ll write about those. Maybe I’ll share pictures of notes. Maybe I’ll talk an idea out. This blog started as a place to rehearse my writing. Maybe I should take “rehearse” literally.

Happy new year.

What I’ve been reading: “How to Cultivate The Art of Serendipity” by Pagan Kennedy.

“How do we cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking?”

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Marriage and Leading a Creative Life

Over the next few months, Kelly J. Baker (@kelly_j_baker) and I will be talking about anything and everything related to personal essays, and the conversations will take place across our blogs. One post here, another post there, and it’ll be like a conversation, except not in real time. Kind of like Twitter, I suppose. I categorized it as Essay Work Shop, but nomenclature is a work in progress. 

Sometimes the writing scene is a table at a cafe.

Sometimes the writing scene is a table at a cafe.

Dear Kelly,

It’s been a while since my first letter, and I have not forgotten about yours and your beautiful words. I don’t want to use the busy excuse (because we make time for the things we want to, right?) but the last couple of months have been draining. I’ve made time for work, work, and more work, and when I thought my plate was full I put more work on it for good measure, like it was sugar when I’m making pancakes. I also made time for some dating but…again, priorities are shifting constantly over here. October and November have been so draining to the point where my three-states, ten-days work trip culminated in me sobbing in a hotel room on a Saturday night because I just wanted to relax. I JUST WANTED TO RELAX and here I was in a hotel room, packing my stuff up to leave the next day for Houston.

I don’t remember the last time I yearned to be home so badly.

However, I know the feeling wasn’t just exhaustion. After a much-needed break from work on Saturday so I could visit the Milwaukee Art Museum, I realized that I was depleted not just energy-wise but also creatively.  I felt I was caught under a pile of work and my creative writing had fallen by the way side. I missed being in my world of words.

Today, I read an article in The Huffington Post about a conversation Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes had on Oprah’s show, SuperSoulful Sunday about marriage. (I linked to the video below.) Neither of them is married, and they both asserted on the show that neither was interested, at this point in their lives, in getting married. Now, people can live their creative lives however they want and I won’t be mad at them, and both you and I know what it’s like to be a creative person and not be able to live the stereotypical “creative bohemian single life.” However, here were two successful women of color, both creative people living a creative (hard-working) life. And let’s be honest: I’m divorced, so my ears perk up when I hear people talking about taking a different approach than I did.

Winfrey and Rhimes share the concern that marriage and creating would not mix well. After her boyfriend proposed in the 1990s (at the same time she was supposed to be writing a book), Oprah says he was concerned that people would be asking them about her book at their hypothetical wedding day. They decided to postpone the wedding…which has never happened. This delay led her to a major realization about herself: “I don’t want to be married,” she said. “Because I could not have the life that I created for myself … I knew that I couldn’t do it.”

Rhimes agrees:

“I have so much going on inside my head in terms of writing, there’s such a large space in my life taken up by that. I can’t imagine it being taken up by a husband and children and writing, and everything getting its due….I don’t believe there is room for all of it.  I really don’t.”

Her statement, “I don’t believe there is room for all of it” weighed heavy on my mind. I too wonder if I would have been able to jump head first into my dreams of becoming a published writer if I were still married. I admit that, once my husband left, I felt the need to grab onto something that was mine and mine alone, and that became the postcard book. And you brought up in your last letter how often writing happens in the little moments in between everything else that’s in your life. As I move forward post-divorce, I’m trying to figure out what leading a creative life could look like. What does it look like for moms to have creative careers?

I am aware, first of all, that I don’t need to drop everything in my life in order to become a writer. It’s not a feasible option at the moment. Meanwhile, I’m toying with the idea of taking more local writing courses that fit in with my weekly schedule and, of course, co-parenting schedule. I can’t take “no” for an answer. If this past trip was any indication, taking time for writing isn’t just about my career; it’s about my well-being.

I wonder if behind what WInfrey and Rhimes are saying is a bigger problem: women carry so many obligations on their shoulders (most of which are not even obligations they agreed to, but rather just patriarchal bullshit that they have to deal with clearly because they happen to be female) that leading a creative life is more of a privilege than an option. How can we tell women that “yes, you can do it all!” when “all” is an ever-expanding notion? For example, I am writing this from my lunch table at a spot near my house. It’s stolen time, carved from my lunch break and the time I was going to be working on copyedits for the next issue. To me, writing always seems to happen on what feels like stolen time. And I’m not even married. Dating, on the other hand, seems to be taking up more brain space than I’d like to. Perhaps that’s valuable real estate I could be using for my writing. Perhaps.

Sometimes I get upset that I can’t sit down and wrestle with the words that are floating around in my head. Instead, I end up scribbling them in my planner or putting them into the Notes app on my phone, hoping I’ll remember to write them down later and elaborate upon them. At some point I need to pick my daughter up from school or feed her or help her with her homework. That’s what I do as a mom. The guilt comes free, too: if I sit at the dining room table with my laptop while my daughter watches The Lego Movie for the 100th time, I feel like I should be in the living room, not in a corner of the dining room with my headphones on. Days like that I am jealous of my ex-husband, who rarely has to worry about putting together his work schedule around our daughter’s school schedule.

But I need to write. Ever since I left adjuncting in 2011, I’ve been reaching out for words, putting them on paper, snuggling with them on the couch in my head. It’s what I am supposed to do. So I continue to take slices of time so I can write. I am not determined to prove Shonda wrong, but I am determined to piece together what the writerly life looks like for this single mom of one who works from home and travels for work. I am determined to make writing a priority, even when life threatens to take over.