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Savages, “Adore Life”

Savages “Adore Life”

It started with an image:  Savages, onstage in New York City. Immediately, I searched for online videos, then stared at the screen as if hypnotized. Every aspect of their music and style was intense and gorgeous, full of energy and strength. I don’t know much about punk. I only knew that Savages music stirred something in me, and I wanted to listen to more.

I pre-ordered Savages second album Adore Life in January. When I told a friend what it was called, his response was that the title didn’t seem very punk, which I think means that it didn’t sound angry enough. But, here’s the thing: anger is everywhere. There’s little that’s interesting or transgressive about it. Anger is what the cool kids do when they’re afraid. Anger is how we keep each other at a distance.

This music is the antithesis of the easy, the complacent, and the guarded. It questions, and yes rages against, expectations and assumptions.

I understand the urgency of life
In the distance there is truth which cuts
like a knife
Maybe I will die maybe tomorrow
So I need to say
I adore life

Savages “Adore”

There couldn’t be a more transgressive sentiment than this one. These lyrics are not about playing it cool, hedging bets. There are, in fact, no bets to be hedged. There is nothing but this life. We spend all of our moments, one way or another. If we spend them badly, they are gone from us just the same. These lyrics challenge us to live and to love with our whole hearts and bodies. Each of us has that choice.

Several months ago, inspired by Savages drummer Fay Milton (amazing beyond the power of my words to describe), I took up drum lessons. When we play music, when we listen to it, when we let ourselves be moved emotionally, spiritually, and physically, we affirm that we are here, that we are connected. We affirm our irrevocable right and innate responsibility to take up space and make plenty of noise. The drums, being some of the most space-taking and noise-making instruments around, are a helpful tool for practicing this. And I can hardly stop smiling when I’m playing, I feel so alive.

I adore music for the power it has to change me, as if the right frequencies could actually reverberate through my bone and tissue and liquid, and rearrange my molecules. I adore Savages for making the kind of music that makes me stop what I’m doing and listen.

And I need to say: I adore life.

Check out Savages videos on their website and on YouTube, especially this favorite of mine, a live performance on KEXP. Don’t watch if you like your molecules where they are.

A Poem and a Promise

I’m doing nothing
but being me.

I’m not a wife
or a mother
right now

I’m not a generous friend

Breathing in breathing out
Feeling my shoulders
they rise and fall
as my lungs fill
the soft muscles in my back
expand
then contract
whether I notice or not

And feeling the smooth skin of my calf against my shin
and my hands resting heavily on my thighs

I’m moving
a little
because there is music

I’m returning to the stillness
and quiet
and breath

I’m reminding myself that being me
is enough
I’m not lacking
any critical components or
depth
I’m not too much, either
too demanding
too sensitive
too tired

I’m learning
I’m enough

I’ll keep learning

**

Today, I pledge that I won’t worry about what I am — too heavy, out of shape, a pushover, a bore, unsuccessful – or what I am not – a published writer, in great shape, funny, popular. Those worries are counter-productive to a full, creative life. So, today, I’ll keep them at bay. I’ll protect myself and my creativity from them, the same way I’d protect my children from a gang of bullies.

Food and Memory

My phone rang, and I almost missed the call because my arms were buried to the elbows in a bowl of ground lamb.

My sister Parry was on the other end of the line, and I told her I was making lahmajun, a thin pizza-like dish made with lamb, onions, peppers, and tomato. Lahmajun was one of our favorite things to eat when we were kids, and we frequently begged our Nana to make them. Rolled up like skinny burritos, we’d easily scarf down three in one sitting.

Lately, I’ve been flipping through my Armenian recipes, looking for the most beloved foods of my youth. My Nana gave me her recipes to follow, but cooking her food is so much more than following the instructions. It’s remembering, thinking back to how the dish looked and felt and smelled to me as a child. I channel my grandmother’s practiced way of spreading the topping, hear her voice telling me to make the meat layer thin. Even thinner than that, my hokhis.

The recipes are a connection between my sister and me, too, because we’ve shared tips and advice for making these traditional foods. We’ve both attempted choereg, the sweet bread rolls that were our favorite snack. Nana would make a big batch and put it in the freezer. When I came home from school, I’d take the bag from the freezer, defrost one (or two or three) in the microwave, and eat it, plain, or with whatever I wanted slathered inside. I preferred them with jelly, Parry with cheese. I remember Nana braiding the dough. Parry says she knotted it.

When my kids and I made choereg recently, my daughter and I had a good laugh at our dough-knotting incompetence. Between the mixing and the rising and the shaping and the baking, it was a day-long adventure. And now we, too, have a big bag of choereg in our freezer. When my daughter comes home from school and defrosts her choereg (she takes hers with jelly), or when my kids have their first tastes of lahmajun, it makes me feel like I’ve done something good.

This food goes beyond sustenance. Cooking these dishes connects my kids and me to our Armenian heritage, especially to my Nana, who even now cooks up yalanchi and boereg when the family gathers. I love the feeling that I am carrying on her role, and sharing an important tradition with my children.

I’m giving them something that they will remember.

Lahmajum!

Lahmajun, almost like Nana makes. Yum.

 

Fun with Rubrics

Author Jo Knowles wrote a blog post called “Some Things I Learned from Being ‘Judge-y'”, in which she reflects on the experience of judging writing competitions, and compiles the feedback she gave to the submissions. Looking across her feedback, I was struck by the common threads and my mind started to bunch certain comments together. I was also super grateful that she generously shared her experience so that the rest of us could learn a thing or two. Her post epitomizes the generosity of the writing community. Three cheers for writers!

I thought it would be useful to apply Ms Knowles’ criteria to my own submissions, to see how my writing would fare and, most importantly, asses where it needs the most improvement. For ease, I adapted her comments into a rubric. By referring to the rubric during revision, a writer can see what he or she already does well, and which areas of the writing are weakest. And, then, by following a column, the writer can even figure out what to do to move his or her writing into the next category.

Can’t take the teacher out of the girl, I guess.

Here’s a link to the Writing_Rubric I made by adapting Ms Knowles’ comments. I tried to make it feel as universal and non-genre specific as possible. Feel free to use and share. I hope it’s helpful to others.

To learn more about author Jo Knowles, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

 

This Extraordinary Life

The poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth is clipped to the bulletin board in my office. I keep it there because the language is elegant, and it makes me happy. It’s about a moment of joyful appreciation for a field of daffodils, and the memory of those flowers that repeatedly delights and inspires the poet.

This is, on one level, a poem about the creative process, about how a writer’s daily experiences make up the material for his or her work. Seeing a field of flowers is something that one might not register as extraordinary. It could be easily missed. And, yet, by happenstance, Wordsworth does see the field and, because it is the poet’s job, he lingers. And, later, in his revery, he makes something of it: a source of personal delight, and the inspiration for a poem.

Moments of quiet revelation are elusive as lightning bugs, and just as hard to capture. Perhaps they have always been so, but they seem particularly so now, in our age of social media, smart phones, highways, and overnight shipping. Everything is on demand. That’s why this poem speaks to me, because it’s a reminder that the job of the artist is, primarily, to notice. And to notice, one must be engaged and present for the stuff of life. The walks, the travels, the conversations, the chores, and the frustrations are all opportunities to pay attention. The daily, ordinary, even mundane moments of life are full of beauty and mystery. It is the artist’s job to notice the extraordinary in the ordinary, and to hold it up for all to see.

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

Book Notes: Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson


Jacqueline Woodson’s newest book Brown Girl Dreaming tells the narrative of her childhood through a collection of poems. Woodson has won numerous awards for the work of her prolific writing career, and Brown Girl Dreaming is a finalist for the National Book Award. Here, Woodson sketches a thoughtful portrait of a herself as a girl, figuring out the world, becoming a person, and becoming a writer.

The first poems are set in Ohio, where Woodson is born. Just a year or so later, her mother takes her and two older siblings to live with her own parents in Greenville, South Carolina. Woodson’s mother tells her children, “We’re only halfway home.” She knows they won’t stay there; many of her family and friends have already moved to New York City, and that’s where they head, too.

The book deals in large part with the notion of home, a difficult one for Jackie and her siblings. Woodson imagines her mother, standing in the middle of a road, stretching her arms toward both North and South, and this is how Woodson herself is for the majority of the book. During summers in South Carolina, where the Civil Rights movement gains momentum, Woodson’s Northern speech and mannerisms differentiate her and her siblings from the other children. In New York, she longs for the beauty and richness of life with her grandparents down South.

Family is the defining element of Woodson’s childhood.  The love she feels from her mother, grandparents, and extended family tethers her, protects her, and makes her strong. Much of who she is, from physical traits like the gap between her teeth to her love of telling stories, she traces back to her family. They also give Woodson the strength to be different, to find her own path, to pursue her passion for writing. Watching her brother sing in a school concert, young Jackie revels in the realization that each of us has a unique brilliance. Her brilliance, she knows, is words.

As a child, Jackie announces that she’s going to be a writer. She cherishes an empty notebook, learns by mimicking greats like Langston Hughes, writes songs, and binds her own book of poetry. Like home and the love of her family, writing makes her feel powerful. She sees early on that writing is a gift, and a key.

These are the first of Woodson’s poems that I’ve read, and I enjoy them just as much as I enjoy her beautiful prose. Some of these poems are vignettes, some descriptions, and some just ideas, like the poem “how to listen #7:”

Even the silence

has a story to tell you.

Just listen. Listen.

One of my favorite poems tells of the warm nights when Jackie and her siblings sit as quietly as they can, listening to the adults tell stories. They’re careful to be invisible, because as soon as the adults remember their presence, they’ll be sent away from the grown-up talk. In their bed later, Jackie repeats the stories aloud, over and over, until well after her siblings are asleep. Woodson’s writing reminds me of the awe we have as children, the hush and magic in moments as simple as whispering to your best friends in the dark. Through writing Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson recreates that magic, and allows us to go back there with her.

This is a wonderful book for children in upper grades and beyond, particularly those children who love reading and writing stories. They’re likely to be inspired to pick up an empty notebook and start filling it. I know I am.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

The Quiet Books

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithHow delicious it can be to pick up a book without any expectations. No rave reviews or weeks on the bestseller list setting up high expectations. No preview for the upcoming movie playing in my head.

I knew nothing about I Capture the Castle before I read it. I don’t even know why I bought it, except that I liked the title (I’m a sucker for titles). The cover art on my edition of the book, unlike the romantic scene on this book, wasn’t the slightest bit appealing, nor did it reveal anything about the story. But I did pick it up, and within the first pages I was lost in the beautiful ruins of an old English castle with the most wonderful narrator, teenaged optimist Cassandra Mortmain.

Cassandra lives with her family in dire poverty, in the crumbling, cold remains of a castle. Yet Cassandra is far from depressed. Her romantic and rosy view on life stems from her love of her family, her love of the castle, her love of words, and her bright intellect. The book is her journal, which she keeps so that she can improve her writing, and in which she is constantly seeking to capture these fleeting moments of her life, and to set down on the page the exact ways in which they happened. She also sets down her own responses to life, which are sometimes funny or touching, and always interesting.

Cassandra’s older sister Rose does not accept their poverty so lightly and, when two wealthy American brothers move into their town, Rose is determined to marry one of them.  While Cassandra can’t stand the girls who are always talking about finding a man to marry (she mentions her annoyance with the fictional Bennett sisters, which is humorous because she and Rose remind me of Eliza and Jane Bennett), she understands that such a marriage could make her sister happy – and that it could, even, improve the situation for them all – and so she decides to help. As she is pulled deeper into her sister’s plans, Cassandra’s own feelings develop with a power and intensity that surprises even her. She tastes for the first time the sweetness of love, the bitterness of disappointment and heartache. All the while, her voice rings with honesty, and Cassandra continues to take great pleasure in the world around her, particularly in those simple childhood pleasures that are already colored by the knowledge that they are almost at an end for her. This is the start of growing up.

I loved this book, and felt drawn to pick it up anytime I didn’t have it in hand. Granted, there were no scenes of high action. There were only two kisses described throughout, and these very chaste. It was set in a quiet place, narrated by a quiet girl who mostly did quiet things. This was a quiet book, and it made a huge impression on me nonetheless.

A friend of mine wrote a manuscript that we workshopped in our critique group. It was a lovely book about a young girl whose family is broken, a girl who has very few people on whom she can rely. Yet the story is full of light and hopefulness. The main character, through her generosity, her loving acts, and her humor, pulls a makeshift family around her. Even though my friend already had one novel published, her agent wouldn’t send this book around, saying the story was “too quiet.”

We don’t live in a time of quiet books. Many of the most popular YA books take place in a time of post-apocalyptic intensity, feature superhuman heroes, and deal with questions of life and death. And I like those books. But, I also like the quiet ones. As a child, I adored Anne of Green Gables (and all the other books by L. M. Montgomery). I sobbed over Where the Red Fern Grows. I read the Little House books, the Boxcar Children books. Without these books, the landscape of my reading life would have been barren. It makes me sad to think that today’s children might be missing out on some of these quieter stories.

Quiet books whisper in our ears, touching our hearts, suggesting new ways of looking at our own very plain and quiet worlds. Let’s make room for the quiet books on our shelves, and listen closely to what they have to say.

 

Me, Refocusing

When the writing is hard, and nothing is flowing, and I’m tired down to my fingernails, so tired that I can barely make a sensible thought much less translate a thought into a beautiful sentence, it seems so much easier and much more fun to check and see what kind of pictures my friends have posted of their vacations and their babies. Maybe I’ll see if my favorite store is having a sale. Then I will check a few other stores just for good measure. These are also the times that I wonder what that actress from that one show has been in before, or it might drift across my mind that I always meant to buy that album by that band that was hip back when I was pregnant.

It seems kind to give myself those distractions. I encourage myself – “You’ve worked hard, you’re tired,” I say – and forgive any guilt as I turn off my mind and indulge in mindless browsing of materials and information.

But it’s not kind. There are so many challenges to my writing, so many obligations and projects vying for the moments of my day. What business do I have squandering the precious few moments that I have set aside for my work?

I recently heard an interview with Walter Dean Myers, replayed this summer in commemoration of his life, and every syllable he spoke in his rich, deep voice was full of love for his work. Hearing him speak was inspiring, and reminded me of why I want to write.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes on her blog, “If you don’t write, you will one day die. If you write, you’re still going to die, but you will have disturbed the universe in the best possible way. You will have explored your heart more fully. You will leave behind your stories. The ripples of your creativity will touch countless lives and butterflies will sing your praises.” I’ve had that quote on my desktop for a long, long time.

I say it to myself something like this: Do you want them to say of you that you could find a really great bargain? Do you want your legacy to be that you always knew the latest gossip, could recognize celebrities with accuracy?

Because, I continue, I think you want it to be about the work. I think you want it to be about the words on the page and the magic of making the fiction so true that it becomes real. And, if you want that, which I think you do, there is only one answer when the work is hard, and turning away would be the easier option. You must breathe and go on.

I mean, duh.

Also, anyone seeking inspiration for a creative life, have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about creativity? Watch. Be inspired.