Saturday, June 28, 2014

Memory and distraction

Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream.
 --Khalil Gibran

Do you ever get creeped out by the fact that just about everyone around you is looking down at a cellphone with the glazed-eyed look of a Vegas slot machine addict? I do.

I was walking my dog the other morning before work, and I happened to forget my cellphone. I have been forgetting things a lot lately, but ordinarily I do not forget my cell. I felt a little awkward without it, as though I was missing something important--the house key, for instance, or pants. But then I decided to embrace it. There was life around me to soak in, after all. Thick heat, mosquitoes and loud trucks.

Actually, it was a beautiful day, if a little muggy, and with no headphones or potential calls or dings from texts, I decided to take in the world during a time I would usually be listening to an audio book or music. The few people I saw out walking that early were face down, absorbed in their texting or posting or quick news updates. In a way, it was creepy, yes, but it was also freeing. I kept thinking that I had the world to myself and I was safe because if someone were to try to attack or rob me, they'd likely first be interrupted by a text from a cousin or a Facebook post from that guy who lives down the street and forget about knocking me down for a ten dollar bill or a credit card. I felt almost invisible, but it wasn't me blocking out the world. It was the world blocking me out.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have my cellphone everywhere. I do have times when I run or do somehting consciously without it. But this routine was one in which I usually had headphones and was pleasantly distracted by an audio book or music. It was just paying attention to a routine route during which I am usually distracted. I remembered what it used to be like walking around the world without being so interconnected electronically and disconnected physically. The memories of this previous time were wearing thin. 

Back to memory. I have this theory that all this interconnectedness is killing my memory because it's killing my attention span. I'm so easily distracted. At a work lunch not long ago, a friend told me about a memory technique he'd read about called the memory palace. The basic principle is to associate a familiar landscape (a palace or a map or some other landscape) with what you'd like to remember. I have a pretty good memory for numbers but have trouble with names and faces, as well as remembering passages that I love from books. I remember how they make me feel, but am usually unable to recite or recall the actual words.

After reading about this technique in Moonwalking with Einstein, I set out to memorize "Spring and All" by William Carolos Williams.

"By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue..."

This was a tough one to start with, but I did it. I memorized the thing in a night using the techniques outlined in the above book by assigning absurd images to each turn of action or description. But more, I used focus. As I did other things: cleaning, grading, walking my dog, I kept bringing my mind back to the poem. I associated vivid imagery to all of the stanzas. "By the road to the contagious hospital/under the surge of the blue/mottled clouds driven from the/northeast - a cold wind" became the Mucinex man (from the commercials), standing by the road to a germy-looking cartoon hospital, beneath a blue race car surging in the sky, then models driving from the east coast, cold because they don't have any meat on their bones... and so on. It worked! After making all these wild associations, I had the poem memorized and then was able to really break down the meaning in my mind, allowing the images to become mere reference for the turns.

It is amazing what focus can do, even for the folks with feeble memories, such as yours truly.

So, this week's prompt:

Memorize a poem, a short one, and then write or paint or draw the story you find behind what you envision, no matter how wild and nonsensical. Find the absurd in the astute, and do so in less than 1,500 words.

We're at the end of June, so have a wonderful 4th of July and/or start to July.


Self promo (now a weekly event): Don't Tease the Elephants, available for Kindle for $2.99. Ways to consume: Buy it, then read it, send it to a friend, send it to your G-ma, read it again and aloud, on the bus, loan it to people who will disagree politically and emotionally and spiritually, argue with them. Maybe agree with them. Read the stories to get angry. Read them and write searing reviews. Write glowing reviews. Don't write reviews. Eat eggs while you read it. Drink coffee. Read it on the stationary bike. Read it at stop lights. Read it at the mall. More suggestions to come.   

Sunday, June 22, 2014


“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”  
Michael Jordan

I've been digging Michael Jordan quotes lately. This one especially because it speaks to the spinning of wheels that happens when we plateau. This is relevant to me because have been feeling kind of stuck lately, frustrated that I have yet to find the right agent/publisher and have been unable to really work on my longer projects. Because I have a concentrated amount of time coming up for a writing residency this summer, I want to break this feeling. Now! 

This isn't the first time I have felt as though I should be progressing faster than I am. I have quite a few experiences with plateauing. I used to train for road races, for example, and I remember wondering why I could never seem to break the 40 minute 5-mile time. My frustration seemed to grow, but my times were not getting faster. Thing is, I was doing the same workouts every week, just trying harder. My training never seemed to get much easier, so I never moved beyond. I figured if I kept at it every day, eventually it would just feel more natural and then I could try a little harder. Doing the same routes again and again means getting stuck, and, more, it tends to mean my heart isn't in whatever I'm doing.  

Mastery is a slow process because a number of steps precede it. The 10,000 hours or so that make an expert, however, don't do it on their own. There has to be some deliberate methodology for all those hours, clear growth. This is something I've come to learn over quite a bit of failure and a few successes. The things that remain important day in and day out should be invested in. But, we also have to figure out how to best plan our journey forward. 

Over the last week, I have been reminded numerous times how important community is. Broadening our community is what helps us to push boundaries because it allows us to see things in new ways. We must continue to challenge ourselves, and if we can't figure out how to do so, look outside self. Inspiration is everywhere. See those who are doing what you want to do, and ask yourself what they're doing differently. This is something I have to remind myself of often. Appreciate, challenge self, and learn.

For me, a more varied and strength-based training session every week helped me to prepare. The day came when I breezed through a race, and reached my goal. I remember being baffled by how easy it felt once I reached it, and I quickly forgot how impossible it once seemed. Such things can happen again.  
I think the h is implied

This week's prompt:

Write about a character who feels stuck, in some respect. This could mean she's stuck in a dead-end job, or he's stuck in a pattern of over-consumption. Whatever's sticking in his or her life, this character needs change. Write 1,000 words about the attempt to break through. And whether or not goals are reached, the journey will encompass awkwardness, struggle and realization. Sometimes, we plateau because we're happy where we are. Sometimes because we're just not going about things logically. Many endings are possible, and I think this will be a fun one to write.

I'm personally going to torture this character, and I'll have fun doing it. Ah, the joys of writing. 

In a way, perhaps these prompts are going to help me to break through my rut, and, as I said earlier, so is community. Looking outside. For a long time, all I read was the type of stuff I wrote (literary fiction), but I have been using my nightly reading time to consume more poetry and nonfiction and have been challenging myself (as one must do post-schooling) to learn about new things. I started reading about memorization techniques, and a friend challenged me to memorize "Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams in a night--to put said techniques to the test. I'll talk more about my experience with this next week (I really will because I have a lot to say about it), but let me just say now that given my feeble memory with its sad track record, this was WAY out of my comfort zone, and it was comical but also rewarding. This is what community does. Little nudges.    

Have a great week all, and if you have the drive, drive yourself right outside of that comfort zone a little just to see. 


*Self promo: My new chapbook (available on Amazon in eForm) is on giveaway again at Goodreads. Check it out, if you want to win a free hard copy. It's short and sweet. Read it, add it, show it love. I appreciate the read and would love to know what you think.


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Writhout creativity, no bibimbap

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” -Mark Twain

Imagination can nurture or destroy, depending on its direction.  It can cause anxiety by fooling us into thinking we know the future (see: panic disorder), or foster brilliance in art and writing. So how does one harness the imagination so that it works to our favor? Yeah, good question. I'll circle back to it.

I started teaching my short story class this week, and I've got to say, summer courses are the best. The students, for the most part, really want to be there and it shows in the writing. Even more exciting, they're turning in assignments early and eagerly. As a teacher, it's nice to not have to hunt folks down. As a writer, it reminds me of my own initial eagerness. I was the kid in the Internet course in college who would do all the assignments in the first two weeks, then spend hours revising before I turned them in. I imagined my teachers' hair blown back by my stories as I wrote them, and even though I never felt this way when I actually turned in the piece, I tended to do pretty well because my goals were clear and pretty big. I had an audience, and I wanted to impress and entertain that audience. 

When I do not write, even to this day, I get bouts of anxiety. The discontent will pop up randomly, and I'll find myself stressing about being late to an appointment, or I'll talk myself down before a big meeting. I'll even talk my previous writing ventures down, especially as I read, but then I actually sit down to write, and that energy is released. I feel better. I got my fix. 

I don't know who reads this blog, aside from a select few. My comments, from what I hear, only sometimes work, but if you're reading this and you're not a writer, I think the same theory applies to whatever you do creatively. Creative output squashes anxiety, if for a little while. It is necessary for many of us.

Accordingly, I've been challenging myself to get back in a serious writing routine. Last week, I posted a prompt that I wrote to (no final draft yet, but we have a draft and that's what matters), and this week, I'll do the same. I hope to continue this as long as I can, if nothing else but to get that fix. 

Old videos inspired this week's prompt. 

Find an 80s/90s song, the stranger the better.  In fact, to really bring this home, find a video. I'm picking Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight." Really listen to the song, the message (the more elusive the better), then think up a character who has lived the story told in the lyrics. Interpret it ironically or literally, and keep it to a thousand words. 

Speaking of anxiety, sometimes mine comes up around food. Thing is, I am allergic to a lot, my stomach inflates or, worse, I'll break out into hives; needless to say, I'm not very experimental.

Putting my imagination to good use this weekend (I already started on this prompt, and a good kind of crazy creative output ensued), I didn't over-think and tried a new Korean dish, bibimbap (also known as bi bim bop), and it just might be my new favorite thing (image below). 

This stuff is great, and now the challenge will be learning how to make it efficiently. The Food Network has a great recipe (though I'll omit the beef), but 2.40 hours? Yeah, maybe I'll go with this one. Either way, challenge accepted.  I'll let you know how it goes.  

In the meantime, have a great week! 

Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Writing Life

“Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” —Annie Dillard

I don't know about you, but I am notorious for thinking something great will have to wait until later, sometime a few months or years from now when I'll have more time or a better space or a tighter grip on what the hell I'm doing as a writer and where I can find that perfect niche. I have this abstract vision of a future me who has it all together.

If everything happens as planned, I should have time and space soon, and before reading this quote, I had caught myself thinking, a few times, Eh, I'll do that when I get to the residency. What I want to do, precisely, is write a piece of flash loosely based on a prompt that a friend of mine shared recently from a memoir-writing workshop she attended. This is an adapted version of what she told me:

A screensaver that is similar to how I remember
seeing my backyard as a kid. Google
"ghetto backyard with bathtub" for an accurate image.
Close your eyes and try to imagine your favorite place to go as a child, whether that be your home, the neighborhood pool, or a friend's house. After you have an image in mind, begin to draw that place. Your artistic prowess is not as important as the effort. Draw with as much insight as you can. Try to remember the details, then use that setting as your catalyst for a story. It can be fiction or nonfiction, but tell a story in the location as you remember it. 

The original prompt was something specific about a childhood home, but I like favorite place better because when I was younger, my favorite places were my safe places--the places that I felt free to get the most crazy and let my imagination go wild. I had a few favorite places, but I'm going to start with the dense and weedy jungle that comprised the backyard of my childhood home. I used to play out there, allowing my imagination to go wild. I would play spy and cop and space travel games with my sister, using my imagination above all else, dreaming up fairies and elves and little purple aliens with attitudes. So that an ordinary, perhaps sad-looking but eclectic backyard (we had a bathtub half buried and filled with sand--a sand tub, for example) would transform into something magical. I assigned superpowers to the homeless men who were sometimes sitting out there on cinder blocks smoking cigarettes and drinking from brown bottles. I would find bugs and imagine them mutating or transmitting messages from a wizard. Imagination can make anything beautiful (or horrifying, but that's another post).

If you write, do the prompt with me and let me know how it works out. I'm shooting for less than 1,000 words or less. I have a sand tub and homeless men who may or may not have been magical going for me. What do you have?

Have a wonderful weekend! - Jen

*I have been struggling with the idea of defining my writing life and trying to tease it out here on this blog. My focus here has been blurry over the years, swaying and unpredictable, something like an old TV that cannot catch the channel you want to watch and is therefore filled with gray, fuzzy lines that may capture attention, but not for long. I write about myself, so that's a constant, and being a writer. I seem to have plenty to say about my subject, but I've decided to make what was once center-stage a mere part of my blog going forward. I'll still post news, but I hope to make the blog more interactive and focused on writing, and I hope you enjoy it. Let me know if you have any feedback. 

Sunday, June 1, 2014

New publication, new opportunity

It has been a good week, a hopeful week. I began budgeting, spring cleaning, and got a few important questions answered after quite a bit of waiting. My writing has been stalled a little, but I think I'm getting back on track. Don't Tease the Elephants, my 5-story chapbook, has been getting some strong reviews, which is encouraging since I haven't had much time to market (as indie writers must).

Craft-wise, the day-to-day is motivating. I have a lot of great people in my life, but a few folks I know have been testing my patience lately. To them I say, "Bring it!" One of the best catalysts for short fiction is being upset about something/at someone. Anger (even annoyance) is a reason to rewrite what we see, how we see fit, and to examine what we know, what we cannot, and what we can change. Speaking of which, I got a story published in METAZEN last week. "Soon" is about a man searching for peace of mind. Thank you to the editors at this one-of-a-kind journal, notably Christopher Allen and Frank Hinton.

Other writing news: I am going to a summer residency at The Art Farm to work on my novel. I can't wait! Unlike the residency at Vermont Studio Center, during which I stayed only two weeks and had to work (the day job) on-site, I'm free and clear to write this time, the whole time. I'm going to sacrifice three weeks of pay at work and take a leave. I finished three short stories and a considerable amount of a novel (revision) at the first residency I attended, so I have high hopes. I want to be accountable, so here are my goals:

  • Complete draft of novel (already close)
  • Complete a post-draft outline (this is how I work)
  • Complete 1-2 flash fiction stories (I'm working on a series that each cover a personality disorder cluster, as defined by the DSM-V)
  • Begin novel revisions (and set a post-residency schedule)

So there, I wrote it. Now I have to deliver.

I wish you all a good week. But if the negativity comes, fuel up and create something.


Observations: Dublin Vacation

Dublin seemed the obvious destination. We would be close to various restaurants and tourist attractions. It would be easy to call a cab or...