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Category — Writing

Clearing the Decks


Ah the fine art of self-sabotage that some of us (cough, cough) are known to practice so diligently as to become masters. I myself am particularly adept at one excellent self-sabotaging strategy, the “I’ll just clear the decks” approach. (Explained, along with other excellent self-sabotaging behaviors, in The Write Path.)

Let’s say you have some important creative work to do. For example: A book. A book you care deeply about. A book that is the most challenging work you’ve ever done. It is hard. I mean: It is hard. The molding of it, the shaping of it, the finding a way through the experience, the writing into a place of knowing. It is so hard that one plots ways not to work as one simultaneously proclaims (to oneself) passion and commitment for the work. (And by “one” I mean me.)

Thus the “I’ll just clear the decks” approach.

I’ll get serious, I’ll buckle down, I’ll really start to work once I take care of all the little stuff that’s currently cluttering the “decks.” For example: Those 30 pounds of peaches we picked this weekend that need to be skinned, pitted, sliced and freezer-bagged. The peach-juicy counters that now need to be cleaned. Which makes the OTHER counters look bad by comparison, so, yeah, those. And the floor. Better put a load of laundry in. While I’m at it, I might as well strip the bed and change the bed linen. I need to make that appointment with the dental hygienist. And take a picture of those weird cucumbers I just went out into the garden to pick so I can post in instagram. And then look at what others have posted. And check my newsfeeds for the latest Trump catastrophe. Read the latest WaPo story. I’ll just scan the first few dozen comments. And now, gee, it’s 3 pm, and I can’t start in on serious work this late.

Thus concludes a successful day at self-sabotage.

(Sound of reveille) Good morning! Those decks I cleared yesterday so I could jump in and write today? Wouldn’t you know it, they’re cluttered again.

But right now, this very moment, as soon as I post this on my blog, I AM GOING TO WORK.

August 16, 2017   13 Comments

The stories we tell


I think about stories all the time. Or, more accurately, I “think story” all the time. I think about the story the experience I am having will make, often in real time and especially if the experience is less than wonderful. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) as an 18-wheeler spewed a tsunami of gritty road water in my face on the afternoon of the first day of a three-day bike trek. And, yes, I did write about it. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) when, one morning not long ago, I stepped out the back door into a cool, lovely Oregon morning and skidded halfway across the porch when my bare foot encountered the splayed (still warm) guts of a vole the cat had proudly caught and eviscerated. And see, I just wrote about it.

But I also think more deeply, more seriously about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories others tell about us. I don’t mean made-up stories. I mean the narratives we construct to help give shape to our lives and make sense of our experience. I mean the stories others tell about us – again, not fabricated but constructed from their perceptions and the memories they retained – that tell us not so much about ourselves but about the people telling the stories.

I think about the men I work with at Oregon State Penitentiary, Lifers all, convicted murderers all, and the way they are learning to create narratives that are about something other than the worst thing they ever did, the lowest, most shameful moment in their lives. I think about the power of telling that story to yourself. And I think about a parole hearing I sat in on recently and the competing narratives I heard: One was the story of transformation, the 30 hard years of making sense of the senseless, of learning how to take responsibility, of figuring out how to live with the guilt, the anguish you caused so many people, of struggling to remake yourself into person who could never do what that person you were 30 years ago did. And then there was the other story, the one steeped in pain as raw today as it was three decades ago, a story of violence vividly remembered, of families shattered and lives forever altered, a story so often told, so often relived and remembered as to be truly indelible.

Both stories are true. But the story of pain, of the past, proved more compelling to the parole board.

And so the man who told the transformation story, a man who’s been in my writers’ group for almost two years, is now faced with another story to tell, a narrative that helps make sense of the parole board experience, a story that can help him process, understand and move forward from that experience. He’s working on it. I’m there to help.

That’s my story.

July 19, 2017   No Comments

Staying Sane

The way we begin each session of the writers’ group I run at the Oregon State Penitentiary is with a five-minute writing prompt. Every two weeks I come up with another prompt, generally a single word – trust, hope, friendship, power – that invites the guys to write about what they know and how they feel. Sometimes we do lists: 10 pieces of advice I’d offer to a new inmate; 10 things I’d do if I were prison superintendent for a day (an all-time favorite).

Last week I had them write a list of 10 things that keep them sane, that allow them to wake up every morning, morning after morning, year after year – some of them for more than 30 years – and keep on keeping on. The answers ranged from finding a sense of purpose to listening to music, from spiritual practice to indulging in Skittles. Faith. Will power. The knowledge that others have it worse. Books. Visitors. And, of course: WRITING.

I write along with them. They want me to, and I want to. It is part of the writers group atmosphere I work hard to establish. This isn’t a class. It’s a group of people trying to make sense of the world and themselves through writing.

So I wrote my list, in full realization that it is infinitely easier to stay sane if you are me, healthy and free. Still, there is enough out here in the “free world” to make you run out into the streets screaming, to bring you to your knees sobbing. I offer my list below in hopes that you, dear reader, will write in with yours. We all need to expand our keeping-sane repertoire.

1. Writing. Always, since those first leatherette diaries with locks that didn’t lock, I have used writing to make sense of my world, to capture experience so I can learn from it, to try to understand others, to talk sense to myself.

2. Reading. Since I read my first chapter book (My Friend Flicka) and disappeared into someone else’s world, reading has been for me both an intense exploration of and immersion in the other and the most glorious of escapes.

3. Lists. I make them. They bring order to chaos. They calm me. I’ve written about them here.

4. Sweaty, full-on, challenging physical activity: long-distance biking, running, hiking, ballet, barre, holding two-minute planks, mini-triathlons. Without exercise, my mood plummets. I can be awash in negativity.

5. Simon, the cat. Sonny, the cat. Tenderberry, the cat. Sally, the cat. For cat-lovers, I need say no more. For others, you wouldn’t understand.

6. Solitude.

7. The heart-stopping physical beauty of the place I call home. Plus clouds, from every angle, especially looking down from 30,000 feet.

8. Sleep. Yes, it does knit up the raveled sleeve of care. I’ve written about it here.

9. My stubborn belief that most people are kind.

10.My family. I put them last in recognition of the fact that they are also sometimes the cause of my temporary insanity.

Now your turn.

May 31, 2017   8 Comments

Doing time

For two hours every other Thursday we sit in an incongruously cavernous room around a rickety table drinking bad coffee out of Styrofoam cups and talking story. How to tell a story, why to tell a story, how writing is thinking, how writing lets you see what you ignore, remember what you forget, feel what you built a wall around feeling, how to craft a narrative of your own life so nobody but you can own it.

The other people around the table, eight of them, are Lifers, men who have been sentenced to either Life with or Life without. The “with” and “without” refer to the possibility of parole. Possibility. One of the guys is entering year 34 of a Life with sentence. He’s been denied parole eight times so far. Three of the guys were sentenced to Life when they were 17, one without the possibility of parole. The oldest in the group will be 79 next month. The youngest is 37.

You get a Life sentence for doing something bad, generally very bad. Not “just” murder, but aggravated murder. When I started working with these guys, coming into the maximum security prison to lead a writers group, I stayed purposely ignorant of the details of their crimes. I wanted to see them for the men they were now not who they were when they did the worst thing they’d ever done. I asked them not to tell me their last names so I wouldn’t be tempted to look them up in the system.

For a time, that worked. Now, for various reasons mostly having to do with references in their writing and conversations around the rickety table every other Thursday, I know. I know sometimes more than I want to know.

And here’s something odd and in a way wonderful and for me transformational: It doesn’t matter. I see clearly what they did. I see the horror and cruelty and amorality of it. But I also know who they have become. I see how almost all of them have, over time, faced the guilt, the shame, the pain they caused and continue to cause, the lives they ruined that they can never make amends for, the history they forever changed. I see that, against all odds, some are blooming where they have been planted. I see that change is possible, that emotional, psychological, moral rehabilitation is possible. I see that the cracks have let the light in.

I am learning so much more than I am teaching.

February 8, 2017   9 Comments

The REAL Elena Ferrante

GetFileAttachmentTo write, to write with purpose, to write better than I had already. And to study the stories of the past and the present to understand how they worked, and to learn, to learn everything about the world with the sole purpose of constructing living hearts, which no one could ever do better than me…

These are the thoughts of Elena Greco, the narrator of Elena Ferrante’s  stunning four-book series of Neapolitan novels. But this is also the author herself, proclaiming her purpose. It is every author proclaiming her purpose, setting her intentions.

And that’s why, as I read the novels, I was content not knowing who “Elena Ferrante” really was. I knew who she was. She was a woman writing. She was a woman giving voice not just to her narrator but to every woman who is bold and then doubts herself, who works for success and then questions whether she deserves it, who is wary because that’s what a woman has to be in this world, who pretends and knows she pretends and beats herself up for pretending and then pretends again. A woman whose interior monolog is richer and deeper and darker than anyone can imagine.

The author, despite extraordinary international acclaim, chose privacy. She chose to remain cloaked in a pseudonym, and I loved that. I loved it because it allowed me to feel the work, to be fully immersed in the work. I loved it because, at a time when every author (myself included) lusts for media attention and shouts me me me on any and all social media channels, this author was letting the work speak for itself. This author put the characters first. And the setting. And the force of culture and history.

And then…the revelation.

An Italian investigative reporter, who apparently had nothing more pressing to do (may I suggest, for starters, investigating the stranglehold the Camorra has on Naples? Italy’s astonishing unemployment rate?) took it upon himself to paw through financial records and real estate records and unmask the “real” Elena Ferrante.

Asked why he would want to delve into the identity of Ms. Ferrante, whose readers value her anonymity, the journalist, Claudio Gatti said he was just doing his job.


If his job is making a name for himself. If his job is (temporarily) one-upping the most widely read, most respected FEMALE novelist of our time. He is like so many of the male characters in Ferrante’s novels – loud voice, small mind, clueless about and simultaneously jealous of the power of a woman.

He wants to steal Elena Ferrante from us. But we know who she is, and we won’t let him.

October 5, 2016   2 Comments