Inspiration for the Writing Life

A LOVE LETTER TO ANNE LAMOTT – AND KUDOS TO HER SON SAM

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Retreats, workshops, conferences and literary gatherings are everywhere today, blissfully in-person after the dark days of all-online (which doesn’t really cut it.) What’s the reason?

It’s all about inspiration.

Inspiration is to writers what thermals are to seagulls: you perch on the rock forever, or you soar into the unknown.

I learned this after being a writer (newspapers, magazines, & loving every minute) for about four decades.

It happened after my then new husband, Bud the Great Encourager, strolled into the kitchen with a scrap of paper advertising a 6-week workshop with a then little known writer named Anne Lamott.

“You should try writing stories for the grandchildren,” Bud said. “This would be a great place to start — and you’ll love the teacher.”

He did not lie.

By the end of those six weeks I had become convinced I could write anything in the world I chose, something readers of Lamott’s subsequent, wildly popular books will understand.

In those weeks I had been edited for craft, scene, dialog, you name it. I had met fellow writers who remain my friends and literary partners to this day.

And who doesn’t love Anne Lamott?

At the time (early 1990s) Lamott had published several novels and the nonfiction Operating Instructions (which I gave to every new mother I encountered for the next decade) and was at work on the widely acclaimed Bird by Bird.

Operating Instructions had to do with the birth of Lamott’s son Sam (in 1987.) After Bird by Birdcame Tender Mercies, and the books that have inspired generations of writers since.

The workshop itself inspired yours truly.

Photo by hannah grace on Unsplash

Soon after that workshop came a two-week Napa Valley Writers’ Conference directed by the late great Jack Leggett in the mid-1990s. Leggett had retired to Napa after founding and directing the famed Iowa Writers Workshop that nurtured many of the best writers of the 20th century. I had met him briefly, soon after marrying his old friend Bud. (The two were equal encouragers.)

“You need to come to the Napa Valley Conference,” Leggett said, within moments of our being introduced. “Bud says you’re a really fine writer.”

Having never written anything much beyond newspaper and magazine articles and a few really bad books on commission when I needed the money, I said something clever like, “Uhhhh.” I had also never heard of the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. But wisely I withheld that information and said, instead, “It sounds wonderful.”

It was. That literary gathering was all about craft: character development, dialog, scene, structure, language . . . Write, edit, critique, repeat.

By the end of that great adventure I had finished drafts of several short stories (Thanks, Annie workshop!) and begun work on what would be my first not-bad book, Dying Unafraid.

It was inspiration on steroids.

Well, it was also excellent teaching, a lot of advice and support from fellow conference attendees and hard work — all on the wings of inspiration.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Thirty years later I sneaked off, one recent weekend, to A Writing Room retreat to absorb a little inspiration and miscellaneous good stuff — and okay, it was an excuse to visit some old friends in Albuquerque & Santa Fe.

Writers’ gatherings have changed little over the years, if the few I’ve attended are any indication: good opportunities to meet and mingle with potential writing partners and kindred souls, limited opportunities to hobnob with the big name speakers, plenty of mutual support and food for thought.

And all for what? Some of us want to get published, or make money (good luck with that) or be on TV; most of us just want to be better writers. Workshops and retreats (in person and ubiquitously online) inspire us to try.

The Writing Room event presented all of the above, created anew for the 21st century. Inspiration with a distinctly 21st-century flair.

Full disclosure: I paid the fee but mostly audited the course; this is only a butterfly’s-eye view.

Writerly inspiration today is low on craft, high on introspection and self-discovery. Early sessions invited attendees — there were some 350 from across the U.S. and elsewhere, plus uncounted others participating online — to dig within for what’s most important and what it will cost to achieve.

We still want to be better writers, but today’s gatherings focus on mindfulness and the creative core, vulnerability and persistence — as tools for the journey.

My arms-length participation in the recent event had a lot to do with personal push-back against the weekend rules: No outside news, no politics, no communication with problematic friends and family members, and quit with the social media. Excellent advice for a few days of serious writing; problematic for my scattershot self.

Photo by carolyn christine on Unsplash

After the event, though, I spoke with a number of attendees who had paid attention to the rules (except for the social media thing) and been far more serious about attendance and participation. They were, by and large, excited, uplifted, enthusiastic — and inspired.

Said one: “I was apprehensive about coming, but I’m going home feeling like I can achieve my goals. Yes, it’s been a memorable weekend.”

Several spoke of having gained confidence — in themselves and their future as writers. More than a few attendees were struggling with adversity, emotional distress or recent illness. (The stuff of great stories.) They’d been met with ovations.

One told me, “I have several hundred pages of a memoir, but had all but given up on ever finishing. When I shared about it this weekend, though, the response was really encouraging. It gave me the confidence I need.” She was “excited about sitting down and really getting to work on it.”

Co-hosted with author/creative guide Jacob Nordby, A Writing Room Retreat was led by artist/podcaster Sam Lamott.

For this writer, the inspiring words of the keynote speaker — Sam’s indomitable mom Anne Lamott — still rang true.

What Can I Say, After I Say I’m Sorry?

THE CASE FOR NICE OVER NASTY

Photo by Kristina Paparo on Unsplash

A recent Miss Manners column — you DO follow Miss Manners, don’t you? — featured her response to a Gentle Reader who had been called out for being, well, too polite. This was because Gentle Reader delivered a cupcake with an apology for a minor misdeed.

Excuse me?

If only I had a nickel for every cupcake apology/thankyou/etc I have delivered over the years. Not to mention the yellow tulips . . .

But Gentle Reader writes that he or she had been accused of etiquette that was “merely performative.” (Which, Miss Manners notes, is indeed what being polite is all about.)

Photo by Aneta Voborilova on Unsplash

We should be worried, gentle readers.

I yearn for a return to politeness. Courtesy. Peformative etiquette. The right to deliver cupcakes when you need to apologize.

Considering the contentious times we live in, what if a hostile, angry anti-etiquette movement emerges? Protesters showing up at every sickroom door, accusing well-wishers of showing off by bringing cards or bouquets. Mass-produced Stand Up for Rudeness! signs.

They’re probably already at work. Don’t Be Glad, Be Mad! (I can think of a lot of others, mostly too impolite to print.)

Photo by Mark Jones on Unsplash

The anti-etiquette folks believe our actions “should reflect our true feelings, however offensive they may be.” Or something like that. The bottom line is: courteous people are making the discourteous people mad.

We are in deep trouble, folks. Some true feelings really might need re-thinking. I’m particularly worried about ‘Honest Nastiness’ — protest posters for which are probably already in mass production.

My own true feelings are usually “Geez, I am really, really sorry for that stupid whatever;” nasty hasn’t ever worked for me. But what if the Honest Nastiness true believers organize? And join forces with random anti-cupcake people?

The inevitable next step? Those are the same folks who support open carry.

Which brings us to scenes of little old ladies (me, for example) delivering cupcakes to innocently wronged friends only to be confronted by crowds waving Pro-Rudeness signs — and packing heat.

Photo by Maxim Hopman on Unsplash

This is going to make it hard to say I’m sorry.

Considering how often I mess up, buy cupcakes and apologize, and how nervous I get in the presence of firearms, I’m in the deepest trouble of all.

Please consider joining me in the Return to Gentleness Movement. Unless the idea is offensive to you. In which case . .

I apologize. Could I bring you a cupcake?

Constitution & Citizenship Day!

INDEED! SEPTEMBER 17th IT IS

Photo by Anthony Garand on Unsplash

Want to join the celebration? It requires nothing but a pause.

Constitution & Citizenship Day celebrates the United States Constitution, which was signed on September 17, 1787 in Philadelphia. Along with the Bill of Rights, it’s the foundation of our democracy.

There’s a fascinating history of the celebration, including “I am an American Day” which was made official by President Truman in 1951. (Some of it’s more nationalistic than comfortable today.)

Photo by Alex Meier on Unsplash

So we don’t get a day off, or an excuse to go beach-bumming.

We get, instead, a chance to reflect on Bill of Rights items currently under threat. Reproductive justice, anyone? Freedom to enjoy life without guns everywhere? Gender equality?

Maybe you thought the Equal Rights Amendment (first proposed in 1923) had passed? Nahh. One would think that in 100 years we might get equal rights for, ahem, women; but the ERA is still being battered and batted around. One nonprofit is spearheading interfaith efforts to make it official.

Plenty of Good-Citizen work to do, or support, as part of your celebration.

Happy September 17!

Grieving for Morocco

MEMORIES OF MARRAKESH AND ITS UNFORGETTABLE MEDINA

I never really learned my way around.

But my brief stay in the Medina — ancient center of mesmerizing Marrakesh — was a time apart. A chance to live where people have lived and died, worked, played, loved and shared their stories for centuries.

Our AirB&B, a dozen turns into the narrow passageways, was pure 21st century: a renovated traditional Moroccan riad with indoor courtyard, a few beautiful rooms on several levels (accessible by narrow stone stairs,) the courtyard open to the skies, all the 21st century comforts one could want.

Ground level sitting room off the courtyard

Looking upward from the courtyard at dusk

Second level bedroom

And just outside our doorway, life went on — as life has gone on in the Medina for centuries. Families are families, whatever the time or place.

Marrakesh is a marvel of a city. I’d never been to Morocco before.

I loved roaming the streets (with an invaluable local guide!) — visiting the Koutoubia Mosque, the gardens, the palace, the desert-like Palmeraie with its palm trees and camels a stone’s throw from upscale modern homes and golf clubs.

But coming home, back into the 11th century Medina, was the best.

I don’t want to believe it’s gone.

Since the earthquake that has claimed several thousand lives across this part of the country, and left much of the Medina in rubbles, we’ve heard from only one of the three friends we made on that brief visit. A merchant who emailed that he is “All right, thank you, sister!”

We’re praying for the others. And that somehow the people of Morocco will rebuild.

I hope so. I hope the ancient marketplaces will again coexist with renovated riads that might welcome tourists like me again. And those visitors might have a chance to climb up to the rooftop for sunset tea . . .

Relaxing on the rooftop

Another rooftop view at sunset

Looking down into the courtyard gardens & fountain from the rooftop at dusk

. . . and marvel at the 21st century beauty created in the very heart of this 11th century city.

My heart is with their hearts, those citizens of the Marrakesh Medina

Super Moon, Super Blue Moon

A SUMMERTIME OF MOON WATCHING COMES TO A SPECTACULAR CLOSE

The Super Blue Moon, after shining spectacularly over San Francisco Bay and the surrounding mountains and countryside, continued doing its spectacular thing as it soared majestically over my skyscraper neighbors. The sight above was glimpsed from the roof of my building.

A spectacular summer’s end for the moon.

My summer began with this moon over Decatur, encircling itself with a gauzy Georgia haze.

And later, an August moon shone over Montana’s Bridger Mountains, clearly trying to outdo itself.

Speaking of which . . . when it appeared above St Mary’s Cathedral, as seen in mid-summer from my balcony window, the moon or the phone or an eerie phenomenon (I choose that last) created a nifty blue dot as a prophecy of moons to come

And sure enough, the Super Blue Moon, in all its brilliance, rolled across the late August sky.

Good night, moon.

Treasures With A Thousand Faces

WHAT MATTERS AFTER ALL: ALMOST A CENTURY OF FRIENDS

(Written in response to a Medium.com invitation to write about one’s treasures)

What would you grab if you had ten minutes before a coming disaster?

In earthquake-prone, wildfire-wary California, this is a sometimes parlor game. More than once, I’ve used it as an icebreaker or had it come up in conversations with friends and strangers alike.

I think: My passport? My laptop? My cellphone? But invariably, I go back to the now-famous Guest Book Collection. I would grab the guest books.

When I married my Final Husband, sometimes referred to as the Last Best Husband, a few decades back, I moved from a lifetime on the east coast into the San Francisco Victorian he had bought twenty years earlier. He had had no siblings or close relatives, and though he’d been married before had never had children. But he had friends around the globe. I had more relatives — children, grandchildren, sisters, cousins — than could be easily counted, plus friends scattered everywhere myself.

We needed space. So the first major project we undertook was to convert the ground-level area behind the garage into a guest room with a small kitchen and bath. It was seldom empty for the next quarter-century.

A favorite niece started this tradition: as a wedding gift, she personalized a small notebook, transforming it into a guest book. It began life in the upstairs extra room of the Victorian, moving happily into the downstairs mini-suite within a year.

Guests were invariably greeted with a hug and an admonition: “If you leave without signing the Guest Book on the coffee table, you may never be invited back.” To a person, our guests obeyed.

They also quickly got creative. The book became the repository of reflections, photos, poems, cocktail napkins, ticket stubs, playbills, and more. As soon as Guest Book #1 was filled, it was succeeded by #2 — and by the time we downsized, the stack had grown to include Guest Book #6.

The little books came to tell the story of a happy marriage: illustrations by grandchildren, notes from favorite friends — they also grew to include pages for parties or special events, when I would invite everyone to sign with a name or a comment. My son and daughter-in-law came for my MFA graduation. A Parisian friend pasted in a photo from a trip we’d shared . . .

They’re just books, most costing less than $10. But they hold images and remembrances of literally hundreds of people I love.

And having those people in my heart? Priceless.

Solving the Abortion Rights Problem

A SIMPLE, EFFECTIVE PLAN ACCEPTABLE TO PRO-CHOICE AND ANTI-ABORTION SIDES ALIKE

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

I don’t know why nobody’s thought of this before.

Recent news of the Florida Solution (isn’t Florida coming up with great policies right and left?) to its peacock problem suggests the perfect answer to the testy abortion debates. Universal Vasectomy!

(We will set aside the peahen here. Peahens have never had access to reproductive choice so what do they know? We could ask growing numbers of women in choice-less states. But it’s mostly the peacocky guys making laws anyway, and they pay little or no attention to the reality of us peahenny women.)

Clearly, if Universal Vasectomy were put into place the whole abortion problem would go away, and women could set about accessing the reproductive care that they — and presumably peahens — deserve. 

This policy, as described in a New York Times article, “would allow peacocks to continue acting like dominant males, displaying their dazzling feathers and assembling their harems, though they could no longer fertilize eggs.” Does this make sense, or what?

The same issue of The Times carried another article which sums up the need for UV: An 89 year old man voting against Ohio’s sneaky attempt to restrict abortion was quoted thusly: “If men was having babies there wouldn’t be none of this nonsense.”

OK, how is this going to work, you ask. Easy peasey.

All we have to do is set up a national trap-and-release program for all males of the species. Each will then be given the choice — imagine! individual choice! — of either assuming full responsibility, in perpetuity, for any fertilized egg that may result from any future sexual adventure for the rest of his natural life — or, Snip! 

There will admittedly be costs involved, for things like reimbursement to physicians administering the simple procedure (I suggest that thousands of women MDs who have endured harassment or worse will eagerly sign up for the program.) Solution: take it out of the defense budget. Who’s going to notice a few billion there? Especially after the need for dazzling- feathers displays concurrenty diminishes, a peripheral benefit. 

Once this innovative program goes into effect in the U.S., countries around the globe will recognize it as widely satisfying and at the least cost-effective, and quickly follow.

Voila! World peace.

I rest my case.

Should You Eat That Eel?

AND OTHER NOT-SO-DIFFICULT LIFE CHOICES

Not for dinner! An eel at the Academy of Sciences aquarium in San Francisco (Author photo)

The eel in the aquarium is among my favorites. He (or she, as the case may be) just has an enigmatic grace wondrous to behold. You can’t watch an eel and not calm down a little.

But take him home for dinner? Nahhh.My husband loved eel. He was prone to pay exorbitant prices for it; and to my protestations would say, “It’s only an Anguilliform!”

Which is true.

Eels are also catadromous, meaning they migrate from freshwater to salt; and they can swim forward or backward, all sensible traits. Two drops of eel blood, however, and you’re dead. This never increased my fondness, but it explains why raw eel isn’t a menu item. The blood cooks out; I still prefer not to think about it. And lobster is cheaper!

Still. An eel in an aquarium is a joy and a blessing. 

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