Saturday, November 24, 2012

Texas Autobahn

Right now, the Buckeyes and Michigan are playing. Michigan is in the lead, and my scarlet and gray clad husband is nervously engaged. During breaks and commentary, he's been pacing and separating pomegranate membrane from seed that floats in a big bowl of purplish water. This is not the normal Saturday in our household, but it's a rather perfect portrait and what I had hoped for from our vacation. I am writing, my husband is relaxing and watching football, and we have some odd doings in-progress in the kitchen. I love this downtime and will soak in every minute.

Over Thanksgiving I think I might have gained back the pounds I lost a few weeks ago back, which I'm happy about. I'm feeling healthy; and in my own opinion, I haven't been looking it since I lost that weight. I've never liked the emaciated look. And, I really don't like the attention it gets from other too-skinny middle-aged women: "Oh wow, you look so good. What are you doing? Zumba? I started doing Zumba last year, and now I go four times a day..."

Nah. Nothing against Zumba. I actually want to try it, but I'd rather be the weight that does not invite such comments (healthy!), and I'm almost there again.  Thank you, healthy appetite; thank you, pumpkin pie!

Because my family is so spread out, and we have Christmas plans to visit, the husband and I stayed in Texas. A good writer friend, JP Reese, was generous enough to invite us and the dog over for a home-cooked meal. (Let's be honest here, my Thanksgiving would've been veggie lasagna had we stayed. And there is a 20% chance said veggie lasagna would have been store-bought.) So, we packed up the dog, drove five hours, and had a beautiful time with her family.

It was so cool to experience a family dinner without being part of the actual family dynamic--no pressure, just a lovely time. Her family is awesome, and I felt welcome and at home. That said, I missed my family a lot. I spoke to them at various times since dinner, and we all agreed it sucks we couldn't see each other but we were all making the most of it. Mom asked me outright to "kindly get really rich, preferably sooner than later," so we wouldn't have to worry about not seeing each other another holiday. Seeing as how I'm a teacher and writer, I made the promise with ironic optimism that sure, I'd get right on that.

During our stay with JP, her four cats and my dog bonded. Two of the cats, one almost as big as our 35 pound dog, followed him around; they smelled his ears, sat at the window while he looked around outside, and tilted their little triangle-shaped heads at him as he bullied us humans into petting him. Lucky for him, he's oblivious when he's well-fed and getting attention, so he made the rounds like an old family pet, cleaning the floor where people dropped bits of food and ensuring everyone pet him at least once. And he doesn't bark, so that kept him indoors. I don't think he wanted to make the trip back home, but thanks to a turkey coma that seems to still be in effect, we were able to tear him away.

Here, we come to the Texas Autobahn. In late October, 130, was unveiled. It is a toll road in Texas between Dallas and San Antonio that has the highest legal speed limits in the U.S. The signs said 80 mph when we got on, but after a stretch at that pace, they were raised to 85 mph. Let me tell you, I wanted a picture of a road sign that says 85 mph  but when you're going 85 mph, good luck getting one. As far as we were concerned, dog in tow, the stretch was well worth the $6.50 or so it cost us to avoid 35 through Austin. And, it was kind of cool to go that fast. The freeway was relatively empty and those that were on it seemed to be content to move at the designated limit.  

The drive was so smooth; in fact, I began reading Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From. I forgot how much I love Carver. I forgot so intently that I'd forgot I'd read many of the stories aside from "Cathedral," which is, of course, in almost every fiction anthology imaginable. Carver is just what I needed. His easy narrative style and subtle endings give me hope that works I'm drawn to and works I'm drawn to write, for that matter, will continue to be recognized. I find quite a bit of the work I read to be so forced, so over-the-top and gimmicky, that I sometimes forget to return to those writers I love to find home. As a writer myself, it's a good reminder, too, that I shouldn't force or try to fit in with a style. A narrative that feels easy is a lot of tough writing but it's also so, so worth it; and this is my wheelhouse.

Well, I'm off to watch the rest of this game and write, write, write. And figure out what the hell we're going to do with this pomegranate. Since I began writing this, the Bucks are still 5 points down. They have on new uniforms, and I have to say, they don't look comfortable. It's days like today that I miss Columbus but am also ever-so-thankful to not be living there. If you're a fan, and we win, don't go setting trashcans on fire; oh, and if you're a fan, and we lose, don't go setting trashcans on fire, mmmmkay? And, on that note, Go Bucks! (They're winning now!)


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Journal writing about journal writing workshops

Let's face it, this blog is really just a public journal. I mostly talk about myself, my writing failures, successes, frustration, and inspiration. I guess this alone qualifies me to teach a journal writing workshop. I've been hosting such workshops at the San Antonio Public Library every six months, for teens and preteens who are interested in journal writing and want to know more about how to do it, and why they should bother.

Here's how these workshops go down:

After our introductions, I begin the workshop by telling the writers what I believe to be the benefits of journal writing. For me, journal writing offers the following:
  • a record of life events (no worries about faulty memory)
  • perspective on current situations, which allows me to decide what my goals are and what I need to change in my life
  • distance from emotions
  • safety (if I write or even draft a post, and I decide I don't want to share it, I never have to.) 
  • proof of how far I've come
  • a reason to write 
After this introduction (sales pitch), we trade our own journal writing practices, if any, and we get ready for the fun stuff. The prompts.

I only have one ground rule for my workshops, a rule inspired by Natalie Golderg's Writing Down to the Bones (a book I often use in my beginning writing classes at San Antonio Community College). Everyone is asked to respond to a specific prompt and let go; allow the mind to be free to wander on the page. I set a timer for 10 minutes, and the only rule is to keep the pen on the paper at all times. No stopping! Just keep the pen moving, Goldberg suggests, and I insist. I like this idea because it means the goal is to shut off the censor and let the writing itself take over.

It doesn't always work. Not the first time, anyway. But the second or third or fourth time, it works, and once it works, it continues to work a little easier each time you sit with pen and timer. If you stray from a prompt, so be it. If you end up writing a grocery list or a list of wishes, so be it. Just keep writing.

Okay, here are the prompts, a few of which I've actually used in workshops:

Past:
  1. Food: Think about a family meal, a holiday or celebratory meal, and begin to write about what you ate. What did it taste like, smell like, were you a child and if so, did you get to sit at the same table as the adults? Were there other children there. Begin to write about the meal, and see where this memory takes you.
  2. Aspirations: When you were ten years old, what did you think you'd become when you grew up? Why did you think this way, and did it turn out to be true?
  3. Change of scenery: Write about a place you used to visit that no longer exists, a restaurant that has closed or a lot you used to walk through on your way home from school that is now a pizza place. 
Present:
  1. How do you feel? Let it out.
  2. Write about who you were two years ago and who you are today. What's changed? 
  3. What did you dream about last night? Be as vivid as possible.
Future:
  1. Aspirations: What do you expect your life to be like in 5 years? How about 10 years?
  2. Fears: Let them out, and write your worst case scenario. Seeing our fears on paper, really written out, can make them far smaller.
  3. Goals: Write what you need to change and how you plan to change it.
Lists:
  1. Write a list, like this one, that recounts what you did to today: 1.) Woke up and hit the snooze button, 2.) Dog licked me in the eye, so I had to get up and walk him, 3.) Got the mail and found yet another envelope addressed to Elida. Who the hell is Elida?, 4.) Listened to Christmas music on the way to work. Stopped singing at the stoplight when the guy in the truck gave me that Texas serial killer look.
  2. Write out a list of what you need to do this coming weekend.
  3. Write your actual To-Do list and then the To-Do list you'd have if your life was exactly as you wanted it to be.
Roles:
  1. Write about what you imagine your life would be like if you were a man (if you're a woman) or a woman (if you're a man), tall (if you're short), etc..
  2. Write your ideal day/date/evening/family gathering.
  3. Choose your own adventure: Explore on paper what it might have been like if you went overseas to teach, after all; if you decided against that MFA program you're currently paying off, if you went for that Art degree, despite your parents, or if you'd had/not had that elective surgery. You get the idea. What if you took the other path?
Inspiration:
  1. Write about those family members, friends, or role models that keep you striving.
  2. Write about what makes you happy each day, the little things such as the first cup of coffee or the good seat in Monday meetings.
  3. What are you thankful for? In AA, there is the common practice of keeping a gratitude journal. This is kind of what we're going for here... write a sort of thanks-giving post. This is a very helpful tool for people who need to feel grounded or haven't taken the time to reflect on how far they've come.
So, pick one, write for ten minutes. Don't stop. If you go off-topic, so what? It's your journal.

In my workshops, I make the offer to those who want to share writing with others, and a few take me up on the opportunity. This is the beauty of journal writing. Sometimes excellent creative work, some damn funny reflection, or even new realizations, will come up and you'll want to share. But, you're not sitting down to write with the intention to share, so there's no pressure. That's the freedom!

I always look forward to these workshops. I'm holding one tomorrow. We usually only have time to complete three prompts, and it's just enough. A good half an hour of solid, non-stop writing; and then we all part ways with our journals a little fuller. Hopefully, we leave with a little more clarity on some aspect of our lives, even if this clarity comes from a simple scene from our past, perhaps how much we really disliked turkey as a child but ate it willingly on Thanksgiving because when it was served, the entire family became quiet and happy, if just for a moment.


Well, that was a nice warm-up. I'll be hosting a workshop tomorrow after work. Can you tell I'm excited? Have a good week. If you use any of these as catalysts to write, let me know how it goes. 

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What a healthy weekend looks like around here

Writing and Other News:  

I'm thankful to be feeling better this weekend and more, I'm beginning to catch up on work, so I'm feeling much better creatively. I wrote two really bad short stories, one in a waiting room and another as my husband drove me to a mega gas station (more on this later); somehow I think the stories will evolve to their desired state if I let them sit and simmer a while. I like the characters. Also, now that I'm feeling better, I plan to return to my larger works that really just need polished and submitted. But one thing at a time...

If you live in San Antonio, and you're a pre-teen, teen, or have a teen, come out to the Parman Branch San Antonio Public Library on Thursday. I'm leading a Junior Journal Writing Workshop, and I'd love to see you. I've done this a few times, and I can guarantee, we'll have fun.

Personal and Of Interest (or Not):

I almost skipped the blog this week, but I couldn't keep such a magical experience to myself. Okay, maybe magical isn't the right word. And maybe you'll read this and think, Damn, why didn't you just take a week off, Jen?

Well, I was feeling better Friday, and my rehabilitation was welcomed, perhaps even catapulted, by the butterfly migration. I didn't see as many of the small monarchs this year as I did the year I moved here, but I had been looking out. As you may know, I wrote a short story about this migration which made me even more invested in the swarms (I've researched the migration quite a bit). I really thought they flew on by while I was sick, or that I had missed them at work; but while walking my dog Friday, there they were, flying around my ankles and ducking around the flowers by my apartment. This was magical, and seeing them made me feel the lightest (emotionally) I've felt in two weeks. That said, this is not the magical experience of the week but a mere prelude.

Here's the magic: I went, for the very first time since moving to Texas, to Buc-ee's. I'm sure it's been said before, but Buc-ee's is the Wal-Mart of gas stations, only more Wal-Mart than Wal-Mart. We pulled into the mega station, and Chris was cut off by a truck. He yelled at said truck's driver, but when I looked up and saw there was a pig in the truck bed, I told him to calm down. You can't yell at a man hauling a pig. We had to wait in line for gas (cheap gas - it was worth it), and then we took a deep breath and parked. We followed the crowds, headed for the front doors.

There were kolache samples being handed out near the entrance, fresh pies, three fountain soda machines with odd phrases (chewy ice indeed!), Buc-ee himself in stuffed form to the left and right. There were walls of sauces and nuts and spices.

When I first moved to Texas, I remember a friend telling me that I had to go to Buc-ee's. She explained that it was a gas station but also an experience, and once you've gone, you can say you've oriented yourself in Texas. Yesterday, I had my orientation. I saw cowhide coasters and cowhide flasks, cowhide wall-mounts and cowhide scarves. The workers all seemed thrilled to be there, and when I made a purchase, my purchase was gushed over for a good two minutes by a sales associate (I can name the purchase because it is, of course, a Christmas gift). At what other gas station can one have such an experience?

Look, I make it a point to try to make the best of wherever I am, but me and Texas don't get along. We just don't. I don't like beef, I don't decorate with cowhide, and I refuse to wear belts that will set off TSA alarms. It's not my thing. But, Buc-ee's was an experience. As my friend said, if you come to Texas, you might as well orient yourself.

Now that I've shared my magic, I'm going to bed. I hope to work well with others at the day job. I hope to have a good turn-out at the library, and I hope I can stay healthy, catch up more, and really find time to write again. It's going to be a long week, but I'm thinking a good one. I hope it is amazing for you as well.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fortune or No

This extra hour is needed right now. In fact, I need an extra day, so if anyone reading this can arrange that please let me know. I am quite behind on my work, grading, etc... because I had a little set back early in the week. But what do I have to complain about?

There are still so many people without power on the East Coast, or who are in need of help. I have donated to the Red Cross, and I do hope that this helps. I am thankful that my family in Holyoke, MA is okay and even managed to avoid losing power (an important thing for a small business that operates mostly online and specializes in videography).

Not much to say here this week.

I've spent most of the week in the house. I've lost four pounds since Monday from being sick to my stomach yet again. But, I've spent a lot of quality time with my dog and cat, and I finished up the week with some gentle yoga, followed by a seriously deep-tissue massage that makes me feel like I have neck again and not just a bunch of knots holding up my head. I worked the corporate job this week from home, I worked at grading, I got three rejections and no acceptances, I read some great work, and still, I should be working because I am so very behind.

The highlight of my week was a dinner with my husband. We had a meal at a Chinese fusion restaurant, where I had veggie sushi and a few pieces of cheese rangoon, and after I did something I normally don't do. I popped the plastic on my fortune cookie wrapping and I snapped the cookie in half. My husband was watching, and he snuck in a cringe, pre-laugh, when he saw what I saw: there was no fortune.

I ate the cookie. Fortune cookies aren't that good. I had forgotten. But the meal was lovely, and I'm thankful for the company.
Fortune or no, I survived another damn hard week, and I'm all the better for it. I'm looking forward to the lights and decadence of the holiday. I think next weekend it's time to decorate for Christmas. Yeah, I said it. So along with the holiday spirit, I plan some more light yoga, some writing, and a good night's sleep every night this week...

You know, now that I think about it, I kind of like that I can write my own fortune. I've always thought I could. And I'd write that I see better things ahead. I'd turn the fortune over and reveal the Chinese fortune cookie word of the day:


Write yourselves a great week as well.

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