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Archive for April, 2015

Writing About Writing

IMG_1013There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of books, manuals, guides and handbooks on writing. We all have our favorites: Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life; Bonnie Friedman’s Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. And many more. All have helped me through my own darkness, guided my students through theirs.

During my grad school days, learning to write merged with learning to write about women and reading women’s stories on how they learned to tell the truth about their lives. Even critical writing and analytical studies flowed out of my passion for the subject. Not that the writing was ever easy—it wasn’t and the standards held by publishers often pushed my limits, but the passion carried me through to completion. And with completion, came truth: realizations that moved me forward in my goals. I loved being part of that culture, writing reviews, editing newsletters, creating new projects, teaching students to do the same. Writing from the truths within.

Remember the famous quote from Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Well we have and it hasn’t. Or maybe it has—turn on CNN or Fox News, depending on your political leanings, and you will see just how split open it is. But I’ll bet it’s not so much about women telling the truth about our lives; I’ll bet it’s a lot more about people who don’t tell the truth—about anything.

Writing about writing can be so much easier than actually working on a project you’re trying to write. I can meander down my mind’s sinuous paths all day long and write down the thoughts and images as they come. Free association. That’s how I’ve been writing blogs. Early ones recounted grandkid tales. A pleasure to put into words their observations, our co-adventures learning to know one another. Reliving through reciting and commemorating our time together.

These days I’m writing about writing because I’m trying, after too long a hiatus, to get back my groove. Capturing the flow of unrestrained thoughts is relatively easy. Getting back to a major project, revising a couple of full length plays—I find myself staring into space. Working on Claire’s biography—abandoned several years back—feels a little better. Carolyn Carney has agreed to come here and work on that with me; set up a schedule for revising and tackle the endnotes I abandoned in disarray after trying to adhere to university press guidelines.

Revising my play, Nani-Ma’s Diamond means getting back, way back, to the original Jewish characters I created in Mama’s Mama’s Diamond, then traversing the “translation” process to listen for the voices of Indo-American women conversing. Writing a play involves listening to conversations between once imaginary characters, now as alive as family in my mind.

In fact, some of those characters are fictionalized versions of family members or friends as close as siblings. Reimagining them through revision of my original portrayal means taking back one set of words, cannibalizing and replacing them with another set of words, which will fit into a newly designated location in the script. And, at least for me, I have to hear the “people” and watch them move. I have to watch the “play” unfold anew, structuring the plot to bring the action forward. Whew. I’ve never been very good at plots.

At this point in the process, I can’t hear the characters’ chatter; their voices, now distant as a train whistle in the night, whisper from offstage. Louder please, I think. For me to hear them, they must step into view, speak up, announce themselves. They must walk, make coffee, serve dessert, write on a computer, create flower arrangements.

In short, they must live again.

The process from where I sit today seems arduous. Zelda (from Mama) became Zareena (from Dadi-Ma). Now, I’ve been advised to rename her Gita for Nani-Ma’s Diamond. I’m not sure if Gita’s new name fits her personality the way Zareena’s name did; Zelda—well, she’s off in the wings waiting for me to get back to the original play where she appeared as a typical Jewish mama/grandmother/ sister, so I can “revise” her into a new structure.

Before any of this can happen, I have to hear Gita speak to me from her new appellation. Zareena is pouting; rejected she refuses to allow Gita to speak at all. Perhaps I should allow Zareena back in. Gita doesn’t seem to fit the character I’ve drawn so far. How does Kareena sound? Is that a name that fits the region Z is from in India? I’ll check. Meanwhile, Zareena/Gita/Kareena—nee Zelda—come back to me please. Allow me to hear your voice once more.

Supriya, nee Linda Sue in the original Mama’s version and the mistress of the home in which the play is set, is revising as well: her current project, a critical study of food imagery in Indo American, 20th Century Literature. Her project, which she feels will prove to be the quintessential theoretical study of her career, causes her so much stress, she keeps finding ways to avoid the manuscript. Deadlines approach and life sabotages her resolve. Or is Supriya self-sabotaging—to avoid the inevitable final version of her manuscript? Does she continue to allow friends and families to derail her? Do I?

And so it goes: the process of writing.

But wait: there’s a voice in my head right now telling Gita good-bye. Is that Zareena? I think she wants her name back, even if it’s not representative of the Indian region from which she hails. Whatever happened to poetic license? she asks. Exactly, I respond.

This afternoon, I met with Sara Kumar, who will direct this play when it’s produced, to re-launch our project, review the necessary changes, brainstorm. Together we resolved to get back on track—to re-rail, to get back our groove.

Aha. Even with this new resolve, the voices begin to murmur, still out of range, but, yes, I hear the hum. It’s a start, a new beginning. After the writing about writing, the real writing begins.

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Self-Development

IMG_1011I always say that each new challenge is a matter of self-development. I say it ad nauseam, so some people are pretty much sick of hearing it (Pepi? Lois? Carol?), but in fact, it’s a fact.

It’s not about the business we’re in, or managing a successful launch of a new product, or bringing in a new distributor. It’s not about a writing project, or jumping through hoops at jobs or tests in college or judges at competitions for art or poetry or auditions for theater. It’s not about finding a publisher for that first novel.

It’s about developing the SELF. The SELF is not just “me.” It’s more than me. It’s the me I’m becoming as I face life’s challenges.

Think about the challenges that gave you tummy aches, brain blocks, even sick headaches the first time you faced them. Once you passed the challenge, you could do it time and again. No problem. First time you got on an airplane (assuming it was before all the security checks)? First time you traveled alone? First time you approached a new customer? How about first labor, or even morning sickness? Bathing a baby the first time, alone?

Once you lived through it, you were never the same. That’s because you grew a new self out of your old self—like a snake shedding skin to emerge fresh and new.

The good news is this: each time we pass through a challenge we arrive renewed, not just stronger, but revitalized and redefined. “I am this” becomes “I am something larger.”

The first time I had to stand up in front of a classroom in grad school—in my 40s mind you—I gave a talk on Surrealism with slides, using the now antiquated, ever annoying, slide projector of the day. My hands were sweating so, I couldn’t get the slides in or out without a struggle. My voice shook. A slide stuck and I almost ran out of the room. But I didn’t. I dug the soaking wet thing out, and put it back in and continued my talk.

When class was over, we all gathered in the grad student lounge, which now that UT Dallas has grown up no longer exists, and I told my friend Peggy Brown, “I’ll never do that again—I’m done with giving talks in class.”

My professor overheard and put her hands on my shoulders and turned me to face her. “Miriam,” she said, “it’s far from the last time. You’ll do it every semester in grad school, and then every day when you start teaching in colleges. And you’ll teach others to do so as well.” How true that turned out to be. Each time I presented in grad classes, my hands grew steadier and dryer, my voice calmer, and before long I was requiring undergrads to give talks in class every semester—so they’d be beyond it in their careers or in post-grad programs.

By the time I took my qualifying exams for my doctorate, I was a pro. At speaking, at testing, at writing, at everything academic.

I studied for the three-day writtens and the one day orals and had it all under control. I memorized the first sentence in each category of my defined fields, the conclusion, and a few quotes. I was confident that whatever they asked within the agreed boundaries, I could mold the essay to answer their inquiry. For the biography exam, which I took day one, I even had a quote memorized from a footnote in a biography about Eleanor Roosevelt! I had the page number the footnote appeared on in the hardback version.

“Prepared” was my middle name.

But when I walked into Tim Redman’s office, where I’d chosen to take the exams each day, and sat down at the computer, no words would surface. I typed gibberish to warm up. I spent the first of the three allotted hours with nothing on the page—blank page. Blank page. Blank page. . . Nothing.

Now, with only two hours left to write, I left the office and went to the Humanities Office and told Sherry, our secretary, of my plight, and she called Professor Redman, the chair of my committee. He was cold: get her back in there and tell her to write. Period. No excuses. Dr. Redman is the most supportive mentor I’ve ever had, but he’s a no-nonsense kind of guy, and he clearly was not putting up with my “nonsense.”

I stood frozen in my tracks. Sherry went and got the then Dean of Humanities, Dr. Gerald Soliday, and he invited me into his office. He told me the story of his own doctorals at Harvard. He told me that his mouth went dry during his orals and no words would come out. His committee was not amused. Yet somehow, he got through it and passed. (Obviously) He sent me out to lunch, told me to relax and eat and come back at 1 PM. He would call Dr. Redman and set it all right.

I went over to a yogurt shop nearby, got some frozen coffee yogurt with almonds (still my favorite) and tried to calm down.

At 12:30, I was entering the building when my office mate walked up beside me, took one look at my face and said: “Wow. Look at you. What’s wrong?” I told her the whole story as we went back to the Humanities Office so Sherry could let me back into Dr. Redman’s office.

“I can’t go in there, “ I said. “No way. I just have to lose the dream. I cannot pass these tests—and there’s three days of this. I can’t even write the first sentence for the first exam.”

They said: “Yes you can, of course you can.” Then they joined hands in prayer – we formed a circle: they prayed for me. It was amazing because I wasn’t used to prayer circles. I’d never experienced anything like it. I just had to allow myself to be carried along in the moment. When they finished praying, they said: “Go in now, sit down and you will feel us with you, beside you as you write. You are not alone.”

Zombie like, I entered the cave, AKA office, sat down, turned the computer back on, looked at the wording of the question, and began to write.

It was as if two angels stood beside me giving me courage, giving me words. I wrote the opening statement, framed it to answer the question, wrote the body of the argument, and even used the footnote I’d memorized from the biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. I spent all three new hours writing. And I did the same thing the next day on autobiography and the next on American history.

Each day as I walked out of that office, I felt lighter. We often hear writers speak of projects as the equivalent of birthing a baby. Indeed, women often realize a given project has taken exactly nine months.

Well, this baby look a bit longer as I read, studied and prepared for each exam. And when the third exam was written, spell checked (back then it required a process), printed out and turned in, I floated to my car.

The following week, I entered the room where the four professors on my committee sat ready to evaluate me on my oral exam—my final field, feminist theory. I talked for an hour straight, and they listened with blank faces. But I was cool, calm, certain. I didn’t miss a beat.

When I finished fielding their challenges to my answers, they asked me to leave. I walked into the hall and waited. And waited. But unafraid, as people passed and saw me dressed as a professional instead of as a student; they knew why I was waiting; they each smiled and wished me luck.

Soon, Dr. Redman walked out of the room, motioned to me, “Come on back in,” he said, and smiling a rare smile, “Doctor.” He called me, “Doctor!”

I entered the room to applause and congratulations and to my new moniker: Doctor. And I was renewed, redefined. I was still my self—even that scared, frozen self, but I was a new SELF—I was a Doctor of Humanities, still ABD, before the final PhD.

When I entered the Humanities Office this time, Sherry stood up and shouted and hugged me. I congratulated her—I shared my victory with her and my office mate.

Leaving the building, I felt great; success was written all over my face.

Until I met Dr. Rainer Schulte: “Call me Doctor,” I told him: “I’m a doctor now, just like you.”

He congratulated me, gave me a quick hug.

“Now the real challenge begins,” he quipped.

“Huh!” I said in my best doctor voice.

“Now comes the hard part: the dissertation proposal. The dissertation. It’s only just begun,” he said. “Go home and start writing. That’s the best way.”

Yeah right, I thought. Whew. No more words left in me. I was empty, depleted.

He was right, of course; the next challenges were hard, but doable and, most important, that moment was mine—and I knew it. It wasn’t time to face new challenges, to move toward another process of self-development. I wasn’t ready yet. I had to get used to the new SELF I’d become.

When Octavio Paz wrote in the afterword, “Fragments,” to his book, Eagle or Sun, “I am not finished with myself,” he was speaking to me. I think of that phrase every day: I am NOT finished . . . .

Today I just went through another challenge—business is a huge challenge for me–and tomorrow I will face yet another. Small challenges by comparison to such lofty ones as the hurdles presented by doctoral programs. But each challenge large or small, lofty or simple, redefines us as individuals. All of us, moving along, developing ourselves, reaching our individual potentials as we move toward that ultimate SELF . . . we have yet to discover.

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Results? After “Blank Page”

IMG_0969

So how’d it go last week? Your Passover resolution—the one about balancing the matza balls and chicken soup with the writing and revising of your play?

That one? Oh, not so good.

I’d have bet on it.

Be quiet.

Well—did you accomplish your goals?

Pepi and I made a great Seder—the best ever some told us.

And?

And we worked hard.

And?

Uncle Gene—Pepi and Earl’s uncle, my brother-in-law from a former life, died.

I’m sorry.

Well, it was for the best. He and Aunt Janet have been failing for several years now. I think when Uncle Polly died after years of suffering from Parkinson’s and Aunt Rhonda died unexpectedly from a heart attack, Janet and Gene just lost it. They were on a downhill slope anyway. So Gene Rice’s death last Monday, followed by the funeral and shiva service on Tuesday was a relief of sorts.

Yes, I understand.

So as far as Passover went, the whole family lost a couple of days in the preparation process. Then we went into full speed ahead action Wednesday through Friday night when people started arriving.

Wow. I’m impressed. But. . .

Working at that level, by nightfall, I couldn’t keep my eyes open if you must know. I barely could read. Mostly I vegetated, played on the computer. I never even thought about the play.

How quickly you let go of those goals of yours.

They’re back now. . .

We’ll see.

Yes, they’re back. I just know it. Of course, I do have this LTO for my business to prepare for. Lot’s of phone calls letting people know about the launch of our new Essential Oils line this coming Thursday. And a weekly meeting Thursday night — we have invited guests. Other than that—and the mattress issues I’m dealing with after too long a hiatus . . . I can start writing again.

Sounds possible, but plausible? I’m taking bets. . .

You’ll see.

I want to see. That’s my job—seeing. My job is not an easy one with such a subject as you.

Stop complaining. I’m 72 years old. I’m active and healthy. I’m attentive to my children and grandchildren, even if they do live out of town. I tend my garden and plan for spring flowers. I love my husband and see to his needs. I’m doing well—I am religious about taking my supplements, which is the reason I can do so many things. . . and . . .

And I thought you were a feminist. Don’t feminists put their careers first.

Well—feminists can balance career with family. And their families support them in that effort–if they’re lucky. If not, they move on.

Yes. And yours does. Support you, that is.

Totally. They know and understand me.

So what’s your excuse?

No excuses. I pulled it off for years—I balanced career with domestic life. Okay, so maybe now I’ve become more traditional in my lifestyle. Maybe it’s because this husband works so hard and comes home tired. His retirement has turned into a full time job—a hard one. He deserves my support as he’s supporting me.

Wow. You sound so nineteen fifties I can barely bare to hear your thoughts.

Sorry. Next time I won’t be so open and honest.

You can’t hide from me, silly. I know all you know.

And you’re so polite about your opinion of me.

My job has nothing to do with politeness. My job is to keep you honest.

You do your job well. In fact, I think you are the most successful person I know.

I’m not a person. I’m a thought process. You’re the person.

How am I doing?

Pretty good. Not bad. You’re disappointing yourself, but that’s not a matter of age—that’s just you.

Whew. Well, at least I’m still me.

Yes.

For what that’s worth.

It’s worth a lot. Being true to yourself is the key to happiness.

Thanks for reminding me.

So what are you going to do today?

I’m going to work on the LTO—Essential Oils. I’m going to get food for tonight’s dinner—because it’s Passover and too hard to eat out. I’m going to find my mattress notes and move forward on that. I’m going to Fed Ex the Face Spa materials for Lori’s fundraiser event.

So your play . . . ?

Has to wait.

And your Claire project? The one Carolyn is editing with you?

That starts when her semester ends.

And then?

And then, when those two projects are in launch mode, I’m going to start editing the story of Bobby and Miriam—the emails. They comprise a wonderful story and while I’m still a sentient being, I’m going to shape them into a narrative people can enjoy and learn from.

How noble.

Pahleaaase. Give me a break.

That’s not my job.

I know. And you always do your job so well. So hey, keep up the good work. I think you’re an asset rather than a liability after all. In fact, I think I’ll give you a promotion!

Yeah right!

Come on—be grateful. Compliments don’t come easy for me.

Tell me about it . . .

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Blank Page: Writing into the Void

Miraculous Moments on the Streets of Victoria BC

Miraculous Moments on the Streets of Victoria BC

If you’re a writer or artist or musician, you know exactly what’s meant by “blank page.”

What’s a person to do when one can’t find the words to express the discomfort and malaise of a life in the “In Between”? This is not the first time I’ve been “In Between.” It’s part of my life cycle. Right now my malaise comes from not knowing which way to focus my energy. So I just stay unfocused.

Here’s the deal: in my heart I’m a writer. That’s who I am. And yet for several years I haven’t been writing much. I’ve spent most of my time in the last three years trying to learn how to do business. I’m no businesswoman, and yet here I am marketing a premier global anti-aging direct sales business. I’ve had my ups and downs. I love the people involved, the products, getting healthy. Anti-aging at my age? What choice do I have? It’s not a question of choice. I love working this project with my husband, and my daughter and niece as well. But where has all the writing gone? What have I to show for the last few years of non-production?

Oh yes, I did write a full length play about five years ago, and it’s still in “process,” as I convert it from a mainly Jewish family drama to an Indo-American (Indians from India) one. Wow, that’s a tall order. About a year or so ago, Sara Kumar, the artistic director of Shunya Theatre here in Houston, and I started the process. We worked and revised and revised and worked. You see the two ethnicities have a lot in common, so it seemed to make sense. But soon we found out:  It’s not just a matter of changing names and food choices. No. There are personal histories involved. There are lives that have to be filled in with pasts I know nothing about.

So we worked together, and then we arranged a “living room reading.” I invited friends with a literary bent. Sara invited friends with a dramatic bent, actors. We invited Indian friends from a book club my husband and I attend. A famous Indo-American writer, a member of that book club, came too, and brought her friend, a director from California.

Sara and I gathered food for the multitudes—Indian appetizers, American snacks, guacamole. Everyone talked and laughed and visited. Then we sat down and I listened while actors read, some with great energy and enthusiasm. They’d rehearsed.

The evening was a smash hit, followed by great comments, amazing suggestions. The original Jewish drama, Mama’s Mama’s Diamond we’d renamed Dadi-Ma’s Diamond. Great alliteration, right? Turns out Dadi-Ma designates the father’s mother; my character is a Nani-Ma, the mother’s mother’s diamond is the one in contention. I, as writer, had to let go of my cherished alliteration. Move on. Nani-Ma’s Diamond it is.

In the after-glow of a stimulating and provocative discussion, reality set in: structural changes were in order, some of the names didn’t fit their geographical history! Who knew? Names in India signify locations? OY. The revisions ahead seemed daunting. Deep breath: I organized my notes and went to work.

Then–I received a very encouraging phone call. The California director wanted to hold a formal reading with her theater group. She would let me know the date my script would be read. I planned to attend. She recommended that I wait until after this reading to start the revisions.

I agreed. Why revise twice? (Procrastination?) Get all the suggestions together, let them simmer and then go go go. Sometime in March, I’d be ready to make some final changes and submit the finished product to Shunya. Sara Kumar and I would hold a public reading, iron out the kinks and voila: the play would be ready for a full production.

But alas, here it is April 1, and the California group still has not sent me a date for the reading. I’ve asked. I’ve phoned and emailed and, well, no definite answer has come through. So, now, it’s time to revise with what I’ve got and move on.

Sometimes people mean well, but their lives get in the way. Sometimes things take so long that a hot topic grows cold. It’s my job to NOT allow this new play to freeze with neglect. It’s time to just write it up, send it in. Let Sara take it from there.

So that’s my new project. Here and now.

Right now I’m spending the week at my daughter’s home in Allen, Texas, preparing for Passover. Whereas each day will be busy, hectic and often exhausting — though fun and a deep privilege to spend such quality time with this sweet young woman–I have the evenings all to myself. My daughter often flops into bed the minute her kids, Miles and Eli, are done with their activities and homework. My son-in-law is glued to his computer creating games and apps, and my two grandsons are both avid readers and need their own privacy.

So this week, despite my commitment to make a Passover Seder (for thirty) with my daughter, I will begin to revise my once Jewish, now Indian, play. Get those names down once and for all. Move scenes around and flesh out the characters’ needs, desires, and conflicts. Shouldn’t be that hard anymore: I have plenty of my own conflicts to draw on.  It should be fun and productive. A time of my own. In between the matzo balls and chicken soup, chopped liver and roasted turkey, I will begin to revise. It’s okay. I’m comfortable in the In Between. I’ve spent lots of time here.

Blank pages: here I come.

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