More than one way to write a story

You may have seen Mandy Len Catron’s recent article, What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse. I share the author’s experience that many of the costs associated with marriage ring true for those of us who are partnered-and-co-habitating, if not actually married. 

But the part of the article that made me yell out loud in agreement was this sentence, a quote from psychologist Bella DePaulo:

 When the prevailing unquestioned narrative maintains that there is only one way to live a good and happy life, too many people end up miserable.

I believe we could replace “…live a good and happy life” with just about anything and it would still hold: when there is only one way to “raise a child,” or “save the world,” or “use gender pronouns,” too many people end up miserable.

I also believe we need to question the narrative that there is only one way to write a life story.

Six months ago I attended a long-weekend writing workshop to see if I wanted to sign up for the school’s longer program. The MFA-esque course in fiction and memoir writing would have required a significant shift in life priorities, and I was seriously considering it. I decided not to sign up for a number of reasons, including the fact that I found myself more than a little triggered by the main instructor’s assumptions that:

  • Being published would obviously be our primary — if not only — motivation for investing in such a program, and 
  • The only way to get published is to follow the very specific, tried-and-true story arc.

Now I’m not arguing that the Story Arc doesn’t work for that specific purpose, but I am Very Resistant to the idea that it is the ONLY way to tell a story. I know I know — you have to learn the rules before you can break them, etc. But some of us would rather not pay cash money for yet another experience of learning that we “have to” mold ourselves to someone else’s — or some entire tradition’s — definitions of how we should be in order to be “successful.”

(Related: except for one piece by Arundhati Roy, the authors of every single excerpt we studied, and every member of the longer program’s listed faculty, and every one of my fellow students, were white. I recently read a powerful account of a woman’s experience of racism during a writing class and am grateful that none of my fellow workshoppers behaved as unskillfully! Still, I am weary of wondering if I am the only one in the room who even notices details like those I listed above. And I wish it were possible for me to simply appreciate the curriculum, rather than also having to weigh the pros and cons of bringing up what — and whom — it leaves out.)

And so, rather than polish my craft under the watchful mentorship of professional writing teachers, I continue to write rambling, unpolished pieces for… myself. And you 🙂

***

Speaking of stories, I loved Tommy Orange’s There There. My friend Mike, the most prolific recommender of books I know, suggested I read it long before the New York Times listed it as one of their best books of 2018, but I didn’t get to the top of the waiting list for the library’s electronic copy until the end of December. Took me only two days to finish as I couldn’t put it down.

As a follow-up, Mike suggested Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries: A Memoir. “A much different book,” he said, “but crazy intense as well.”

Wow wow wow, so much REAL! 

And a very interesting structure. To be honest I can’t remember whether it follows THE Arc or not; there were so many other details that held my attention, including the author’s choice to name the names of those who had harmed her and her mother. 

Even before reading Heart Berries, I’d spent a fair bit of time lately thinking about:

  1. The ownership of stories (as in: what are the ethics of telling other people’s stories, even if they belong to the author as well?);
  2. The difference between what actually happened and what we remember, and how much / when that difference ultimately matters; and
  3. The many ways we (as individuals, families, institutions, a society in general) practice “healing” and “justice” in the aftermath of the various types of trauma we cause each other, sexual and otherwise.

There’s a lot to sift through and process. In the book and in our own lives, clearly.

The very next book I read was Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, also a memoir of sorts, which I discovered because a bunch of people on The Creative Independent (a collection of essays and interviews that Kickstarter publishes to support the emotional and practical needs of creative people) keep recommending it.

And now I would like to recommend it to you! Nelson’s writing in Bluets is beautiful, lyrical, and explicit in its exposition of the messy, nonlinear cycle of remembered joy –> nostalgia –> shattering grief –> –> coming back together again.

As I was reading Bluets I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between its structure / tone / the author’s approach to writing about vulnerability / relationships / heartache (etc) and Mailhot’s in Heart Berries. Because I like being right, I said to Scott, “she must have been inspired by Maggie Nelson,” though I knew full well he hadn’t read either book.

***

In an April newsletter from independent publisher Catapult, they announced their latest offering, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, by Jane Alison. I look forward to reading its “deeply wacky pleasures,” as described in this New Yorker review.

In the meantime I can’t stop thinking about the excerpt quoted in the book’s description: 

For centuries there’s been one path through fiction we’re most likely to travel— one we’re actually told to follow—and that’s the dramatic arc: a situation arises, grows tense, reaches a peak, subsides . . . But something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses? Bit masculosexual, no? So many other patterns run through nature, tracing other deep motions in life. Why not draw on them, too?

I thought about sending a copy to the writing program’s leader, who also happens to be an acquaintance of mine, but I suspect I’m only tempted to do so for ego-boosting reasons (Scott points out that this piece isn’t exactly a conversation starter).

Also, it’s sold out.

***

A few weeks ago, after the similarities had been gnawing at me for months, I resorted to Googling whether anyone else had, in internet-discoverable format, compared Mailhot’s style in Heart Berries to Maggie Nelson’s in Bluets.

What I found was so much more exciting than that: an entire Atlantic article in which Mailhot describes Bluets as a critically-important inspiration for her own work, and tangentially, her marriage. 

She goes on to critique “the established MFA aesthetic” (which she describes as “essentially white”):

I’m suspicious of when we try to compartmentalize the formula for success as an author, instead of just inviting the person to be as weird as they need to be to express something. Let them be the person they’re supposed to be, instead of trying to mold them into the aesthetic of this moment. It’s so difficult and important for teachers to try to bring that weirdness out.

Again, I’m tempted to substitute any other description of identity where the word “author” appears here. Why not challenge the compartmentalized formula for success as a woman, a man, a couple, an employee, or anything else for that matter?

I read these quotes as Calls to Action to become the teacher / friend / sister / daughter / partner / colleague that I want to be: the one who, by fully embracing both my weird and conventional qualities, contributes to the cycle of bringing out the unapologetically weird and conventional in others. And I offer an immense Thank You to those of you who have let your own evolving self shine forth, as this has helped me come to love and express my own.

The power of commitment

One of my Buddhist teachers, Guyhasiddhi, shared this quote in a class a few weeks ago:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

In tracking down an internet source for the quote (I knew it was from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition by W. H. Murray), I discovered that this character had quite a fascinating life:

  • He was an influential Scottish mountaineer who was taken prisoner during World War II (but charmed his initial captor, apparently);
  • While in captivity (for three years!) he drafted an entire book on the topic of mountaineering in Scotland… on toilet paper;
  • This manuscript was discovered and destroyed by the Gestapo, so he started it all over again… and this version was eventually published;
  • He was active in protecting wild areas in Scotland, including a successful campaign to prevent construction of a hydroelectric dam.

What an inspiration!

Thanks yet again, Wikipedia, for coming through with the backstory.

If the Buddha wrote a bio

If the Buddha Dated.jpgYou might have seen these books: If the Buddha Dated, If the Buddha Married? I loved the section in If the Buddha Dated on writing a dating profile that might attract an appropriate mate. Author Charlotte Kasl takes the reader through the various versions that you might write, starting with one that’s basically a laundry list of all the qualities you are seeking in your would-be partner. As she continues, the profiles get a little more “enlightened” and more and more interesting, and you start realizing that perhaps describing your values, and asking questions, might be more effective than presenting an impossible checklist of criteria and scenarios that might not ultimately lead to a mutually-fulfilling relationship, anyway.

The final sample profile simply reads,

Who are you? Who am I?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because it’s now been exactly 27 days since I was asked to write a bio for the Order members of my Buddhist community, or sangha, as Buddhist communities are known.

Now I am nothing if not a writer, and I have no problem writing bios; I’ve written gobs of them. Bios for online dating profiles (at least four different ones I am sure about, and probably more, all partially inspired by Charlotte Kasl, if decidedly more verbose). Bios for speaking gig programs. Bios for job applications, for teaching yoga, for the inside of my book, for websites, for fellowship directories, for high school and grad school alumni journals. 20 word bios. 120 word bios. 250 word bios, one-pagers. The list goes on and on.

So why is this one stumping me?!

The thought process goes something like this: “I’d better do this one properly. Wait, no, I’d better make it seem like I wasn’t worried about it at all, that’s more ‘spiritual.’ Continue reading “If the Buddha wrote a bio”

Chris van Leuven: my other “brother”

chris-vlChris van Leuven spent quite a bit of time at our house in high school, so much so that I often thought of him as the third sibling in the family. Things at his house weren’t going that well, we gathered, but neither my brother nor I asked many questions. Instead, we would bring him home after our afternoon sessions at the local boulders or climbing gym. We’d let his endless stream of words, spoken in such animated, rapid succession that anyone else would have struggled to comprehend, melt into our own stories from the day. Often, all three of us would be speaking at the same time, but that didn’t hinder our understanding.

In the Spring of 1996, I was just finishing my first year of college in Montreal while Chris was actually living our high school dream of dirtbagging in Yosemite Valley. Continue reading “Chris van Leuven: my other “brother””

Rising again

At 6am, insomniac in the Penn Stater hotel in State College, PA hotel (which means it’s really 3am to my body, still in Pacific Time), I finally rose from the bed and resurrected this blog. I think this is version 3.0? I’m not sure. Shutting down and letting go of those old blogs go was a relief, in the same vein (but nowhere near as cathartic) as having shredded a lifetime’s worth of journals — all 100ish of them — a couple years ago.

A few clicks… and we’re back!

It’s been snowing and/or cloudy since I arrived two nights ago, but this morning the only clouds I can see in the sky are far away on the horizon. Still, there are a few snowflakes drifting gently (no idea where they’re coming from) to land on the dome-shaped skylight that rises glowing from the snowy roof outside my window, the dome a stand-in for the sun that I’m pretty sure will rise just behind it over the hill. Venus rose before I opened the curtains, rising further as the morning brightens.

In a couple hours I go “on,” and will be “on” all day giving an 8-hour workshop and then doing a book signing. Tomorrow, a shorter workshop, another book signing, and the long journey home (weather permitting). I will rise to the occasion. No matter how little I’ve slept the preceding nights, I always do… except when I don’t, but that has yet to happen on a speaking day.

But right now, venus and sunrise and a glowing dome and mystery snow from clear, brightening skies. And me, writing again, on the internets.