Monday, October 28, 2013
I thought you might like to see the cover of my book. It will be coming out by a new imprint, Oak Tree Press in April. It's been wonderful to experience more people coming on board with my project, which started out as me alone, at my desk, writing words. Then it was me and my agent. The project became ours. Now it's me, my agent, my editors and publishers and the designers of the cover, and ultimately it will belong to all of us together - all those who worked on it, as well as our readers.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
|from Kenneth Patchen's book Hallelujah Anyway|
I teach at a community college, where in addition to taking classes, many students have not just one job, but two. They also often speak two or even three languages. They are busy people, communicating on many levels in many different ways. In fact, we're all busy here in Greater Washington DC - busy being busy and keeping in touch and communicating, making sure we don't miss anything important.
But this week, something happened in one of my classes which has never happened before. "It keeps ringing," one of my students said.
"I'm sorry?" I asked.
He handed me his cellphone, smiling. "My phone is distracting me. Can you just keep it until after class?"
"Can you take mine too," asked another. So I took their cell phones and put them on my desk.
"Thanks," they said. It was unprecedented.
Maybe in trying so hard not to miss things, we are missing the present moment. We are endlessly distracted - so connected that we become disconnected. My students had realized this, and of their own volition, were trying to be more focused.
I frequently point out that it will be difficult to write good papers, if at the same time as writing they are text messaging, checking facebook, IM-ing their friends, and constantly pulled from the task at hand. It's as if your brain can never experience a steady stream of thought heading in one direction. Perhaps this is why the most productive writing often takes place in the classroom itself- especially in writing exercises, when the room is silent for ten long minutes, and they are writing by hand in their notebooks.
Undivided attention. Wow. How many people have the luxury to pay undivided attention - or to receive someone's undivided attention these days?
This reminds me of Freddy.
My friend Freddy was a retired colonel and a journalist writing on international security matters when we met in Brussels several years ago. Being old, and also very disciplined, he had figured out something important about time. "I am seventy-seven years old," he told me once, "and every minute counts."
He made his minutes count by focusing attention. If he was making us lunch, for example, he paid full attention to one item at a time. Slicing bread? Full attention. Pouring out the soup? Full attention. Placing apples and cheese on a cutting board? That got his full attention too. Then he'd sit down, and unfold his napkin on his lap. "Now," he said, looking at me directly, "tell me what you've been doing." His focus was flattering and it made me feel important. That's what your full attention can give to another person. When I was with Freddy, I got the sense that nothing and nobody else was quite as important as me.
And because everything got his full attention, he never had nothing to do. If you telephoned and asked what he was up to, there was always something on his list. "First I'm going to NATO. Then I'm going for a swim. After that I have an article in my head that I want to write, and then I'm dining with friends." Whereas I, who had three children and a busy household and a husband with a schedule that included embassy receptions and functions, frequently felt run off my feet, and could never seem to priorize about what it was I had to do. "No, no," I would reply if someone asked are you busy... "Go right ahead." And then, while they were talking to me on the phone, I'd be making sandwiches, or supervising a child's homework or music practice, stopping to be interrupted, even from those things, all along the way. I didn't consider it interruption back then. Life was an endless stream of overlapping tasks.
If I wanted to get any writing done, I never had the time. So I had to do it in between other things - and I had to expect interruption. If I'd waited for all decks to clear, I wouldn't have written a word. As it was, this was an important time for me and I got back into writing fiction for the first time in years.
If you want something done, so the saying goes, ask a busy person. Because they will find the time. Is this really true? I was in my forties and Freddy lived alone. He was occupied and focused and he had a full life, but I wouldn't have called him busy. What a luxury to perform a task from beginning to end without being interrupted! I couldn't imagine it. To spend all the time you want. To focus.
Yes focus is a luxury, but it also allows time to stretch out. You fill the unforgiving minute with sixty-seconds worth of distance ran, as Kipling wrote. Or, in the words of poet Kenneth Patchen, "All at once is what eternity is."
When my students handed me their cell phones this week, it was the greatest compliment they could have paid. I hope the trend continues!
Sunday, October 13, 2013
The key to moving forward might be letting go. When your heart is broken, for instance. Letting go of the possibility of working things out is absolutely key to moving forward. So long as you hope, you're at the whim of events beyond your control. Will s/he or won't s/he let me live my life? You've lost all power in determining the outcome.
|It was fun and the pictures were funny|
To seize power is to forget about hope. You move forward from zero when you have no alternative. We want to live in the present and not in the past or the future. We are alive right now. We are breathing and the world is before us and although we cannot make our sun stand still, yet we will make him run!
But the example I really wanted to share with you is about knocking for years at the closed doors of traditional publishing houses. For years, I stood knocking, shifting from foot to foot and biting my nails on the doorstep, waiting hopefully for acceptance. My stories and articles seemed to fend for themselves well enough, so why not this novel? After all, I had so much invested. Oh, this novel and the pain of rejection! This was my baby over which I had laboured long and hard.
I might have done better to leave it in the hands of my capable literary agent and move on with my life. How I tried. I began a new novel, and focused on my sculpture, my teaching, on my friends and family. But somehow I couldn't let go of this book, because I lived in the hope of its eventual publication. This is the cycle of despair: living in hope, gutted by rejection. How much longer could I reasonably keep hoping before I became ridiculous, not just to others but to myself?
Then over dinner with our friends Brett and Bill I had a conversation in which Bill posed a fascinating question. He asked me to imagine my past present and future in physical space. Where did I place them? Some people, he told me, put their past behind them, their future before them and themselves in the present. Others saw their past present and future in a row of panels in front of them on the table.
I realized I pictured my past and present directly before me -while my future was off to the right hand side, somewhere in midair and unsupported, waiting to realize that gravity couldn't hold it up.
Was I waiting for it to drop out of sight?
How would it feel, said Bill, if you moved your future to a position more closely in front of you?
With this, I experienced a surprising mental breakthrough. I saw, for instance, that our home was moving from present into future. It wasn't stuck in the past. Ben and I decided to make a library in the largest most beautiful room, and thus shift the gravitational focus of the home.
In September, I traveled for several weeks to England and France, visiting friends and family. We talked, my friends and I - and most of them are in the arts - about our books, our music and our theatrical careers. My report seemed always to be the same old same old: my book -- yes I was still harping on about this same bloody book -- and though it was represented by a very capable agent, it had still not found a publisher! The market was dire, I told my friends once more! Nobody wanted to take the chance, even when they liked it.
"I'm on the verge of giving up," I told my dear friend Alice, a novelist, as we sat together in a coffee shop in Stroud. "I think instead, I'm going to be a person who does Bikram yoga. That's going to be my identity from now on. I will be a person who practices Bikram yoga."
She laughed. She might have been relieved. Or perhaps she didn't believe me. But it was a good idea. Because in yoga we learn to be present. We learn to let go of the pose that went before - and not to think about postures yet to come. Wasn't my book just a posture I had done? It was something I'd worked on, admittedly very hard, in the past. But now I was in a different posture. This was the present. What was my present going to be about?
In Paris I had the sudden and peculiar impulse to draw. I bought a little sketch book in a Japanese shop in Les Halles. I was fascinated by the rooftops outside my daughter's window - the straight lines of chimney stacks, drainpipes and antennas, the jutting attic windows. My energies shifted and I felt myself fully present. It was fun and the pictures were quite funny. I was full of energy.
|Nothing invested but the present moment, nothing to lose|
I returned to Virginia and resumed my practice of Bikram yoga. I got back into the sculpture studio and also some new and inspiring teaching work lined up.
Then I received an email. It came from my wonderful agent in London. "I have good news..." she wrote. And yes, it was my novel. Without any help from my constant worry and hope, she had found it a publisher.
|I sketched silly pictures of rooftops|