Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reflections from Marfa: 2016

The drive from San Antonio to Marfa is full of snaky roads and rock fall warnings. Taking I-10 through the hill country toward West Texas, the landscape is marked by rampart and cacti; the radio station options go from a few dozen to two. My husband and I listened to horse raising commentary interspersed with a sort of country music free-styling session. Our dog sat in the backseat, at first upright and ears perky, then alert and curious, and finally slouching and timid. Erm … where are you taking me?

The winds hit as I heard the hook “if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddle in the van,” and things got Hunter S. Thompson weird from there (sans mind-altering support). We stopped at just about every gas station we could find as we made our way further west. If driving to West Texas, remember that bathrooms are an opportunity to seize, not a guarantee.

As the roads twisted higher and the mountains surfaced along the horizon, we noticed fewer road signs and more border control vehicles. Marathon, TX was is a ghost town on the Sunday we drove through, but we were able to find gas and grab a picture from the base of a hill before setting sights on Alpine, home to Sul Ross State University. The town, at about 6K, hosts a few food trucks and a coffee shop with a laundromat attached and a scrabble board ordering menu. Dogs were welcome everywhere, it seemed, and “everywhere” could be exhausted in a few hours with enough motivation and mobility. We walked and soaked in the beauty of the mountains in the distance, and we looked for people, figuring they must be hiding somewhere. We walked.

About twenty minutes away (if you drive hella fast), Marfa waited in all her divine dissimilarity.

Population of approximately 2K, Marfa was once home solely to ranchers but now houses artsy folk from Los Angeles and New York, thanks to the foresight of minimalism without motion. To find art in life and not spend endless conversations debating art philosophies and trying to navigate the ever elusive art circles, Donald Judd moved to Marfa in the seventies thanks to a fellowship that allowed him to expose the small city’s heartbeat with the construction of markers that shone light on the contrast that occurs in life.

Walking around Marfa felt like a large-scale treasure hunt. Unlike geocaching, I didn’t have to move rocks or climb mountains to find my treasures, however. Instead, I needed only pay attention. The barren landscape was dotted with brilliant, clean, minimalist art that seemed to both complement and conflict with the city that it housed. While venturing to Marfa restaurants and bars on a Sunday and finding only two of the seven Yelp suggestions to be open, Chris and I wound up at the one open bar.
This bar could have easily been in a small Ohio town or, really, any small town, but instead of a surly or worn-looking bar tender - someone whose life choices, situations, and work history have been etched into her face, this bar, replete with sticky floors and two-three patrons who looked as though they were there daily, was tended by a woman whose cherubic features and angular style suggested adopted, rather than inherent, struggle. She was clean and smooth skinned and unworn.

After chatting with some of the locals, who were descendants of locals, I came to understand that there is a generations-deep feud between Marfa and Alpine that dates back to ranchers who used to own all of the land. I also came to understand that guests in Marfa are welcome and hospitality is almost a competitive sport. After exploring the outside bar area, which contained a street light and a swing above the gravel floor littered with American Spirit butts, we walked in the cool desert air toward Hotel Paisano, the site of the Elizabeth Taylor Movie, Giant. On the way, we passed a gas station (food!) and a few other small shops and stores that were open only Thursday through Saturday. We ended up eating dinner at the hotel, which was rather good. Though I don’t recommend the fish tacos, everything else was divine.

The thing I noticed most about Marfa was a sort of pervasive peace. Everyone we spoke to was kind in an unrushed way. I caught myself having conversations and feeling an ephemeral tug of the chin downward, as though I had a text to answer or an email to send. What an odd and strung-out sort of feeling. Though I admittedly spent the first day taking a shit ton of pictures and posting them to Instagram, the second day was about accepting that quiet wholeheartedly.

Marfa reminded me how much I crave such time. To be with one’s self and one’s loved o
nes in silence is a gift rarely allowed in our transparency-above-all age. As though planted, a Marfa rainbow greeted us at an art school as we walked around, bellies finally full, noticing the number of cars (mostly trucks, actually) we saw could all fit in a doughnut shop parking lot with spaces to spare. The quietude was mesmerizing and important to me.

When we went to the lookout to see the famous Marfa Lights, we weren't disappointed to see only a few car headlights coming up the road. Each set contained promise, then the emotional equivalent to a shrug of the shoulders. Not indifference exactly, something nearer understanding. We stared out at the mountains, until we began to yawn. A local later told us that you don't always get to see them, and that he thinks they're staged. Perhaps. Some people beg to differ. To us, it didn't matter. 

“Marfa is the place people go to disappear,” a friend said before our trip. I only wish I could’ve kept the invisibility cloak on a bit longer. I turned 37 in Marfa, and I am going to remember the city's influence, artistic and inherent. I will attempt to carry some semblance of its odd peace and simplicity with me this year.  

Creativity prompt: Hire me! I'm accepting new clients through October, and I have a neat infographic up on my website (the things we do with spare vacation hours - shout out to Chris Shanahan for the help): :)

In the meantime, go somewhere quiet. No coffee, no food, no books, no computer. Just bring a pen and paper. Write.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Month of Observations, August 2016: Part 11

Some thoughts in August...
  • The best way to not write is to talk about what you're writing.
  • If you want to feel better about your decision-making skills, put your chess app on Level 1.
  • Name changes are a PITA. 
  • When you have 4 teachers and and only 1 student, that's one lucky student. #truestory
  • You shouldn't sip espresso. If you do, you don't get it. I'll show you how it's done.
  • The right lighting is everything.
  • The right friends are everything.
  • The right place at the right time is cool.
  • The right direction without GPS is genius.
  • The right decision can't be over-analyzed.
  • Adjuncts don't get paid enough. 
  • Nonprofit workers don't get paid enough.
  • The cannabis industry, globally, is something that people like to wave off, then secretly invest in. #truestory
  • If no one listens to you, that's permission to say whatever the fuck you want.
  • When you can get comfortable out of your "zone" and sit well with embarrassment, you're a rock star. 
*Creativity prompt: Write a story in a genre that you never ordinarily read. Just try it. Then read a bit in that genre and see how close you came. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Month of Observations, July 2016: Part 10

The last two weeks have been confusing. Human behavior is confusing. It's why we need art and meditation, poetry and stories. I'll just dive right in today and see where this goes.

  • Serrano peppers are hotter than they look. Take note.
  • Trends move so fast now that you can wait pretty much anything out without much effort.
  • Patience is not passivity.
  • Orange is the New Black is a great show (I really didn't think it would be).
  • People buy more guns when there are shootings, and more guns mean more shootings. That's math. 
  • Pokemon Go is all the craze, and a million copycat apps will be there to claim similar appeal when it fizzles (it's a good idea, and I suppose this is more of a prediction than an observation).
  • When your ceiling caves in on your couch, you can see it as a horrible thing or an opportunity to get a cuter couch (see: cute red couch).
  • Going home is unpredictable. I spent ten minutes looking around, trying to show my husband the way to a park that had been replaced with condos over a year ago.
  • Serrano peppers are burning my lips right now. Excuse me...
Check out my new essay in Black Fox Mag about community and writing. And writing communities.

Creativity Prompt: Write about an unlikely craze. It can be something as simple as gold pants or as complex as a new doctrine that has taken hold of the collective psyche.   

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Month of Observations: Part 9

As the world seems caught in a maelstrom of violence, I've been spending as much time as possible at the gym or park, listening to Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace Is Every Step and other similar books. In other words, I've been trying to find my center. Or hold on to it. This pervasive sadness and anger can seem too much to handle some days. I know that I'm not the only person who feels this way.

One way I've found that helps is by being in nature. The heat in Texas sometimes intervenes, but I get out there when the sun is taking a break. It doesn't bring full balance, but it helps. Speaking of nature, I have one new piece out entitled OUR SKY, THE OCEAN (written a while ago). It's based on a true story. Loosely. And it's categorized as YA fiction here. If you read it, let me know what you think.

So. In interest of maintaining some consistency in this blog, here are a few observations I have for the last month:
  • Violence invites more violence, which only leads to further violence. We are NOT all the stars of our own action movies, as some will have us believe. 
  • Getting "revenge" on animals is about as productive as getting revenge on the weather. 
  • Many of the people of San Antonio are gracious and compassionate, even in the face of pure hatred. 
  • Conversely, the service at TxDPS and DMV sites can be a litmus test for calm and tolerance.
  • When it comes to long-form writing, starting small is the way to reach the finish line (the paragraph-long goal beats the few-page goal and usually results in just as much writing)
  • Sushi is fun to make and so incredibly cheap. 
  • According to this article in Electric Lit, the top earners in writing can bring in more than I expected (and less than I made as a bagger at an Ohio grocer):
  • Piggybacking on that last one, it often seems that the more noble the profession, the less one is paid, but I think this will have to change because do-gooders/teachers/social workers know how to make shit happen with few resources and no time. Watch out! 
  • Varying a diet is better than eating the same thing every day. (Obvious one, but I need to remind myself.)
  • Reading YA is surprisingly gratifying as an adult. (Just finished Pigman and Made You Up - Recommend both.)
  • Taking one's own advice can seem damn-near impossible sometimes.
  • I could discuss The Lobster for days on end and get nowhere, so don't try to discuss it with me. 
  • Small acts of kindness, even as small as a smile, can stick with others. Kindness is just as contagious as violence. 
Have a peaceful week.

Prompt: Stop watching the news for a full day, then free-write. Free-write again after a day you've been following all the news (internet or TV).

xo Jen

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Reflections from Prague: 2016

At the airport on the way home:
Prague Castle

“Would you like anything else? Beer?”
“How about a beer?”
“No thanks.”
Sighs. “200 CZK.” Looks to husband. “Beer?”
So ended our trip to Prague. I’ll miss the city so much it hurts, and I don’t even drink beer. Meanwhile, I now know more than I ever thought I would about the four-ingredient intoxicant that was once made of a mere three ingredients (yeast being the late-arriver). I know that those in the Czech Republic drink more beer per capita than anywhere else in the world (though this isn’t tinkered with craft brews made for potency alone). I know that most restaurants in Prague serve beer two ways: light or dark, and in two sizes: big or bigger. Again, I don’t drink beer, but I have a new appreciation for its rich history thanks to the beer museum.
Me at the John Lennon wall, post-goulash
If you're considering going to Prague and you happened upon this blog, do it! Do it now! Do it for the following reasons: the clothes, the odd fascination with Culture Club, the thirty-year old music videos constantly playing, the Powder Tower, the Roman bathhouse style of fitness clubs in the basements of hotels, the beer, the architecture, the artisans on the Charles Bridge, the view from the Astronomical Clock, Slav Island, the history, the food (no diets allowed, unless you're like seven feet tall), the chocolate museum, the black light theaters (I only made it to intermission, but the experience is burned into my brain), the puppets, Kafka everything, the goulash, the portions, the conversion rates, the conversations, the castles, the bridges, the views, the John Lennon Wall, and the walking. I clocked about 25K steps a day (the one part of my phone that worked in Prague was my pedometer app) and I willfully ignored the rest of the world as I drank this city in. I suggest you do the same if you can, if only for a few days.
Other suggestions, more on the practical side: bring good walking shoes; have your hotel call your car; try Airbnb (I have a specific recommendation if you'd like, just drop me a note); try to get off the beaten path a little; the best words to know are: ano, ne, prosím, and and děkuji (yes, no, please/check, and thank you); your money can go far, but the redundancy of the shops increases odds of impulsive purchases (and they can add up); eat goulash (have I mentioned this one already?); enjoy the other tourists as they're part of the scene; go to the top of the Astronomical Clock - it is worth it; and the tours are fine but you can also explore the city on your own. It's very easy to get around.

As a writer, my favorite part of the whole experience was just people watching. Prague attracts tourists from all over the world. In fact, there were very few Americans (a break from American politics!). Whether you can travel or not, other lands make for great settings for fiction, so...

Creativity Prompt: Research or travel to a place you've never been. Find an outdoor place to sit and people watch. People watch for at least twenty minutes before you even pick up a pen or open a computer. Then go at it. Write/draw/create for as long as you'd like.

Till next month, folks! Let us carry on with this craziness called life. In the meantime, please check out my new fiction in Sequestrum, "The Glass City."

Monday, April 11, 2016

A [Month] of Observations, April 2016: Part 8

So here I am posting after a few extra weeks away. I realize how much I miss blogging! I miss you!!

I recently got back from Los Angeles, where I stayed with a good friend and commuted to AWP, a massive writing conference, to meet other Writers in Communities program directors as well as thirteen thousand or so writers who share my love of writing in one way or another.

I probably interacted with about sixty of those thirteen thousand, but it was enough to put my introverted brain on sensory overload. So, after a reading, a signing, and a few amazing panels, I returned to hike at Sherman Oaks then hang out with my friend and try to debrief as we ate Cheerios and listened to her pet pig snore (they can really snore).

At the Black Fox Literary Magazine Table. Thanks, Black Fox!!

Ordering sweet potato fries with my new friend
Sara Fitzpatrick Comito and my long-time (mid/long-time) friend, Isie.

It was fabulous. I enjoyed LA a lot. As such, I came back with some new observations about life. So, alas, here's Part 8:
  • Tarot card readers will not always tell you what you want to hear.
  • Food is fantastic in LA.
  • Reading can be more dramatic when you need to make a quick exit after.
  • Uber works in a pinch.
  • Writing when overwhelmed is not a good idea (journaling for personal use only is).
  • Chicago has great taste in short stories (see: recent acceptances in Chicago Tribune and Chicago Quarterly Review).
  • I am not (you are not) who I know (who you know), but it's good to know good people nonetheless.
  • I need to revisit the memory palace - I'm horrible with names. And faces. Geesh.
  • Walking is medicine.
  • Comparisons are usually destructive. Then again, they also motivate. Use with care.
  • Cheerios are really great with banana and a pinch of sugar.
  • Starbucks employees are far nicer in LA than they are in San Antonio.
  • Acting is a fabulous ambition. Odds smodds. Go for it!
  • Writing: Same!
  • If you tell someone they're not going to like a thing, there's a good chance they won't like the thing. Contrarians are rare, precious creatures.
  • This list is getting too long.

Three new story links this go-round:
"Help Wanted in the Midwest: On the Bus Line" at Cosmonauts Ave. Basically my memoir in 500 words
"War Muse" at Cheap Pop - a dystopic presidential story
"Gather the Ingredients" at Chicago Tribune's Printers Row (ask me for a link)

Monthly prompt:
Use yourself as a character. Only reverse everything. If you're shy, make your character gregarious and assertive; if you're skinny, give your character more volume; if you're afraid of spiders, give your character a pet spider. Just write like that for 20 minutes. It'll be fun.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Living Museum

I'm thrilled to debut "The Living Museum" in Cleaver Magazine. The piece is odd. Fair warning. I wrote this story as part of a compilation I'm putting together on natural and unnatural disasters. I've done a lot of research, then thrown all research out the window to delve into a totally fictional world. Fun stuff.

Image credit: amira_a on Flickr
Story link:

If you're a writer or artist, I recommend that as a prompt. Do a lot of research on something, then write something from the center of knowledge that is 100% fiction, that breaks all the rules and blends the absurd, the fun, the crazy, with what you choose to include from what you've learned. It can be a lot of fun.

Have a beautiful week! xo Jen