Our featured people of the week: Janine Kovac and the Write On Mamas

Cary and I first learned about The Write On Mamas from Janine Kovac, who has been a regular attendee of Cary’s writing workshops over the past few years. In addition to being an exceptional creative talent, Janine has an amazing spirit and energy, and is one of those rare people who can bring people together and make magic happen. Here’s what Janine has to say about the Mamas:

The Write On Mamas are a group of 32 writing moms (and one dad!) who meet monthly in Mill Valley, California to write and exchange feedback. Each meeting we have a guest speaker from “the industry” talk shop with us. Cary Tennis was our very first guest at our inaugural meeting in February 2012 and let our first writing workshop in January of 2013.

Since the group was founded, we’ve read at Litquake, Lit Crawl, the O’Hanlon Center for the Arts Women’s Literary Series. And in 2014, we’re publishing an anthology of our essays—scenes and thoughts from our lives as mothers and writers. (One of our essays was born in Cary’s January workshop!)

Our moms (and dad) range from published authors to journalists to bloggers to avid journalers. We also have a collection of “satellite moms”—Write On Mamas who live in Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, and Canada.

You can read more about us on our website writeonmamas.com. Want to know more about our upcoming anthology? You can read about that through our Indiegogo campaign.


Why the Creative Getaway is so great

Yesterday in my intro to the column I mentioned “how we need to fill the January getaway,” and that apparently set off some worries, like, it won’t be cancelled, will it?

Of course not. The Creative Getaway Jan. 17-20, 2014 at Marconi Conference Center is definitely happening. It’s just that some people who were hoping to make it found they couldn’t come, so there are some open slots.

Norma said to me, What will we do if there are only 5 people? And I said, Well, they’ll get a very good workshop! They’ll get a lot of attention and will have a lot of time to write! And what if there was only one person? Then we might lose money! It would never occur to me to cancel.

And then I thought, why is that? Why would it never even occur to me to cancel? Am I not thinking enough about the bottom line? And I realized: I’ve never been motivated by money — even when doing business. Business is just a way to make great things happen.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s what it comes down: I don’t do things for money. I do things for their social utility, or for their beauty, or for love. And then I try to figure out how to make the money work. Usually if something is socially useful or beautiful or if there is love involved the money part can be made to work.

It’s so funny what you think of as business expertise — the other night I was at a dinner in San Francisco with some experienced, cosmopolitan people from the world of business journalism — much more sophisticated in the world than I am — a speechwriter for the head of the Federal Reserve, a business editor for a major metropolitan daily newspaper and now for the Wall Street Journal, that kind of person.

You should have seen them trying to figure out the check.

Heck, I can do the arithmetic. But that’s not what the getaway is about. The getaway, if I may be so bold, is really a spiritual and aesthetic experience.

So why is Marconi so special?

Come to think of it, what happens at Marconi fulfills all three of my values mentioned above: It is socially useful, it is beautiful, and it is done with love. That’s why we do it.

It is also a response, a critical response, to contemporary American culture. It is a brief respite from life in America. Most of the time it is like we live in pressure cookers. We run around taking care of business and then we sleep. Underneath all this frenetic activity, our best and highest thoughts, our creative dreams, and our deep pains — the stuff of our souls, basically — simmer, shut off, made to wait. As what is delayed or put aside for later or repressed continues to press against us, at times will become a shadow, threatening and perverse. And that is how we live in America day to day: overworked, insecure, unloved, delaying the best parts of ourselves, hindered in our dreams. And yes, I say, unloved in a way. Unloved for that creative part: the part that dreams.

I feel this. I feel it intensely. But because of the unusual, countercultural way I grew up, because I always assumed I would be an artist, an outsider, mostly broke, because it never occurred to me that I might have a comfortable and secure life, because I never worried about that so much, I take material deprivations with good cheer, feeling essentially taken care of and lucky to live amidst so much luxury and splendor in the U.S. I always go for the risky but true aspiration, the dream that is underneath the daily grind. That seems the natural path. But it is a different path.

That path is what Marconi is about: It is about taking this chance, for just a few days, to live in the realm of the creative, the possible, and the true.

What we do at Marconi is provide a setting in which one can put one’s inchoate dreams first. When that happens energy is released. People make plans and change their lives.

Last year was amazing. Seven women — yes, it was economically perilous, like this one because there were only seven participants; I think we made a profit of $24 but that is the nature of the thing. Sometimes we do well; sometimes we make $24. But what made it socially useful, beautiful and full of love was how the seven women (and yes, it happened to be all women, but it is not by any means always women) bonded and shared their stories, which were amazing and inspiring and at times full of pain and doubt and longing. I won’t go into details but I am looking forward to the return of some of them, to try and shepherd along the stories that began to take shape last year. But not all seven can make it. One, on the strength of her experience last year, entered an MFA program in poetry and is taking up seriously her calling, so she is otherwise engaged this year. She’s very talented. But she found the courage to pursue it at Marconi, in our workshops and in our private conversations. She was clearly a person deeply literate, steeped in the American tradition of poetry. But it was sitting in McCargo Hall, with the freedom to improvise and let her voice rise naturally, like that voice of the baby in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Morning Song” — “And now you try/Your handful of notes;/The clear vowels rise like balloons.” So we’re happy that she is able to do that. People go back to their lives changed in fundamental ways, renewed, ready to be more authentic and to take some chances, awakened to the fragility and brevity of life and determined to be more alive.

People come and they bond with each other and then go on to do things in their lives with more passion and clarity. Like one of our “people of the week,” Amy Souza. Like Bill Kerr, who is organizing writers workshops in Baltimore to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans speak their war-torn truths to power. Like Brian Herrera, who dazzled us with his voice and his performances and is now teaching drama at Princeton. Like Mary Burnham, who found her voice and style and is writing books about wine. Like Lisa Eldridge and Kathy Doran and Gil Schwartz and Gil Gallagher and many, many others. Something starts at Marconi and it echoes and ripples outward into the culture and that is why we do it.

Meanwhile, in the weeks running up to it, I belly-ache. I kvetch. I pace and worry and pace. So what if we make only $24 or even if we lose money? That’s not why we do it. We do it because it is one of the few things in this world that is socially useful, beautiful to behold, and full of love.

It is also a really enjoyable time for me personally. The people at the front desk who run Marconi — Margaret, Julie, Venta and James — are really sweet, kind and likable people, and we love to see them whenever we come up. And the food is outstanding. It is really, really good to eat.

Here’s one other interesting thing about Marconi, which I just realized it has in common with Burning Man: Basically, you don’t spend any money there. Everything is already paid for. It’s subtle, but I think there is something about being liberated from paying for things that releases one more strand of worry, one more little link to the everyday grind. We just go and eat breakfast and then write. Then we eat lunch and write. Then we eat dinner and gather to read and tell jokes or perform or sing, or just crawl into bed in the great, serene, quiet darkness of Tomales Bay, West Marin, the Point Reyes Peninsula a dark finger jutting north into the Pacific.

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

View from Marconi Conference Center of Tomales Bay

There might be a better place than Marconi to do these things, but for the price I haven’t seen it. And we looked around. I mean, when we started out in 2008 we looked around. And we looked around again last year when we thought we might not be getting the best deal, or that people might be tired of Marconi. We looked at retreat centers in Napa and up the coast and down the coast; we looked at a number of well-known and well-regarded centers. But nothing beat Marconi. We just love it. The serenity of the location. I mean, you just have to go there and walk about in the morning and you get it. Or at night, walk up Tower Hill — where the first trans-Pacific wireless receiving station stood in the early 20th century (yes, it’s named for that Marconi), and look up at the sky, or down at the few lights twinkling on the bay.

It is always memorable. So that’s why we do it. There’s no better way to start a new year, in my opinion.

And it’s easy. Whatever needs to be done payment-wise, we’ll do. We’re revamping our Internet store but meanwhile, if you want to go, and you’re not sure about the payment options or how to proceed, or how to get there from the airport, just email info@carytennis.com, or just phone. We’ll work it out. We can run your card, or we can take a check. There are no real barriers.

See you there.


My daughter is dating a grandchild of Nazis

Dear reader,

I had been thinking about forgiveness, and gratitude, and certain aspects of my own personality that are maddeningly perverse, and how boring I’ve become, and how hard it is to install a new piece of software, and how much we miss the dogs, and novelistic structure, and how we need to fill the January getaway, and the books I’m reading which I have opinions about, and how we are going to enjoy Thanksgiving, and all kinds of things. And now, after writing this column, all that just seems kind of frivolous. For again, as has happened often in the 12 years of writing this column, a reader has proposed a vexing and painful moral problem and I have responded but do not feel at all equal to the task.

The only thing I believe with confidence is that children are born innocent of the crimes of their forbears. This I believe, though even this I cannot prove. Perhaps babies can be criminals. Perhaps I don’t understand evil. Perhaps children bear a historic burden to right the wrongs of their ancestors. Perhaps I don’t have a large enough consciousness to see that. But what I see is the innocence of the child. It seems to me that we must treat children as innocent of the crimes of their forbears.

Dear Cary,

You know how they say that “life can be stranger than fiction”? What I’m about to tell you is no joke, and it’s eating me up inside. About 12 years ago, I returned to college as an adult, and enrolled in a class whose subject matter covered World War II, and the Holocaust in particular. I came away from the class very disturbed.

I’m not sure what disturbed me more, the fact that the Holocaust happened, or seeing my younger classmates casually eating their  lunches while we watched a devastating and graphic film that left me badly shaken. In fact, after the term ended, I became so severely depressed that I could barely get out of bed for months. I had many revelations when I was deeply depressed, and to this day, I’ve never quite seen people, or the world, in the same way.

Fast forward 12 years later, and my daughter has begun dating a boy around her age.  I have recently found verifiable evidence that the boy’s German grandparents participated as Nazis during Hitler’s regime. In addition, the grandfather emigrated to the U.S. and was employed by a highly respected university after the war where he worked in research. All of his children also went to the best schools in the U.S. which makes me sick.

Cary, I’m not Jewish, but I have a strong emotional connection to the Jewish people,  and to anyone who has ever suffered at the hands of another person. My daughter’s boyfriend is now applying to some of the best schools in the country, and I’m very angry that this family can enjoy their advantages like nothing ever happened.  As unbelievable as this sounds, last  week, the boy came over to spend some time with my daughter and handed me some baked goods from his parents. When I unwrapped it I found a piece of challah  bread and a Bavarian pretzel.

I was so shaken when I saw it, that I almost vomited. (I can provide a picture to prove that this actually happened.) For some reason, God or the universe has dropped this into my lap and I don’t know how to deal with it. I want my daughter to be happy, but I feel myself slipping into another depression.

What should I do?



Dear Horrified,

What you should do is meditate on the fact that we are born innocent. We are born innocent to parents not of our choosing. We are born innocent of the crimes of our parents and grandparents and of the state crimes in which they were implicated. A baby knows nothing of its parents’ crimes and later in life is powerless to undo those crimes, not only for the obvious reason that those crimes are now historic facts and cannot be undone but also because the filial bond is so strong that to oppose the parent or grandparent, to condemn them, to sever ties with them is so psychologically difficult that it is rarely attempted and even more rarely accomplished.

Consider your own birth. Consider how many ancestors you have, stretching back into human evolution. Consider the long string of successful births, matings and pregnancies, births, matings and pregnancies, births, matings and pregnancies … that eventually resulted in your own birth, your own mating and your own pregnancy and now the approaching adulthood of your own child, who now meets a child who also is the product of a different but also unfathomably deep chain of being.

Imagine what crimes and also what glorious victories lie in your unknowable lineage and also in his. Imagine all the descendants of all the bloody tyrants of all time. Imagine all the descendants of rapists and murderers and child molesters throughout our long evolution. Where are we to draw the line? Who among us can claim with certainty to have no criminals in his or her lineage? And what importance are we to assign to one’s lineage, anyway? At a certain point does it not sound like the very classifications by lineage that underlay the philosophy that resulted in the Holocaust?

You took to heart this film. It scarred you and awakened you. It was both a gift and a burden. You are now vexed by the horrors it bequeathed to you. But maybe there is some gift in this. What gift can you give the world as a result of taking all this to heart? Compassion and forgiveness are gifts. You can give the gift of compassion and forgiveness. For as long as we assign blame to innocent people based not on their behavior and their character but on the acts of their forebears, such social crimes as slavery and the Holocaust will happen again. Only when we greet each individual as an innocent child deserving of love will we eliminate crimes against humanity. Humanity means all humanity, not just those who can claim a lineage unblemished by crimes known at the time or discovered later. We extend our love to the descendants of Nazis and the descendants of slavers and the descendants of murderers and rapists and all whose acts we term foul and repugnant.

Otherwise, we will continue to persecute people for where they come from and who their daddy was and what their people did.

The dream of America is that we start out innocent. Children also start out innocent. This boy your daughter is dating is just as innocent as any child gassed in the Holocaust.

I don’t want to say anything trite. I don’t want to suggest that we all just forgive and forget.

But this child your daughter is dating brought you an innocent gift of bread. Perhaps it was a mistake on his part. But it sounds like an innocent mistake.

Newsletter_NEW_Dec13Consider him innocent.


How to shut up an obnoxious wedding guest — when you’re the bride


Write for Advice

Dear Reader,
Well, hello there. I just feel friendly today. We’ll get to the letter in a moment. It’s down there below this note –>>.

But  first: I’ve been out of Salon for a good six weeks now and am adjusting to being newly independent, an entrepreneur, dedicated to finding a way to exist economically in this culture without a regular paycheck from a company. It’s not that new for me, but it has been a long time. I worked at Salon steadily for 14 years, through periodic crises for the company. Many times commentators said Salon would go under but it never did. I watched people come and go and I just stayed, doing my little column, for a long time.
Now for the time being I’m an independent economic entity.
So, can I just tell you how great it was last week to receive donations from people for the column? Over the years people have occasionally emailed me to say they’ve been struck, moved, changed even, by reading certain columns. They have told me that. It is a priceless point of connection when someone tells me something like that. It does feel like community. Like we are all in this together. And, now being outside of Salon, not insulated or buttressed anymore by the salary, it seems even more that way.

So now, folks have the opportunity to donate once, or perhaps several times, at the end of a column, and that actually seems cool. And the fact that some people actually did last week was awesome. It felt like a good, solid, honest economic transaction. An honest and hearty thanks to to all who have donated! If I haven’t thanked all of you individually yet, I will.
So I am building a new Internet store on the Magento engine. I’m not sure that the store will be a robust enough source of income all on its own, but it will certainly be better and easier to use than the haphazard WordPress plugin we are currently using. So far Magento has proved to be reliable and, while quite complex, not bafflingly so — just necessarily so. It is comprehensive and has many features but they all make sense and are well documented.
The plan is to have our new Magento-powered store up and selling books and ebooks as well as workshops and getaways in time for the big holiday buying season — by Black Friday, and in time for Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday! So after posting this column, I’m back to building the store.
See you around the Internet, or around town. If you see me on the street, say hi. I’m doing fine. Glad to be alive and free to move about the cabin, and glad to be engaged in this new phase of economic self-sufficiency.


Dear Cary,

My wedding is coming up.

But I am dreading having my self-absorbed, flirty family member be present at my big day (at my mother’s insistence). She is already invited, so that cannot be changed. In the past, she has flirted with my boyfriend (now fiancé), and demonstrated her appreciation of him (kiss on the lips goodbye, ongoing physical contact, in conversation, as well as trying to friend him on Facebook immediately after meeting him. p.s.: Without even asking me). She is an “alpha” personality type and thinks that her behavior and life experience is “fascinating” and worthy of attention.

Since that initial meeting, I have avoided her. That was over a year ago. I don’t fear abandonment, that she will “take” my boyfriend or he will fall for her, but I do worry about how she gets so close and so intense, focusing like a laser on the men in the room and trying to create private, inappropriate flirting and it grosses me out.

Even though she has a boyfriend, he is mousy and retiring, the peahen to her peacock. She tries to create this “jet setter” facade, someone who’s always on the go; trumped-up professional responsibility and success; or someone who always knows the latest and greatest. She even repeats compliments unknown third parties paid her (re: looks or physical ability). Every time I meet her, she always begins our conversation with, “Just got back from…” It feels real pretentious.

Even though we are family, she is not what I would describe as loving or tender with me. I sincerely find her advances upsetting and disrespectful. Growing up, I vividly remember how she has flirted with friends of the family, talked about sexual topics — and always alone in the company of someone’s husband or boyfriend. And always there was this tone of defiance to raise taboo subjects. One time, I remember her telling my father that she and her [then] boyfriend used porn [of women] and…. why they used it. It turns my stomach to recall how every man in the room had bated breath with each pronouncement she made. She was loving it. Gross. Needy. Her conversation struck me as distasteful even then, young adult though I was.

Since those days, she has also crossed the line with other partners in our family. When the women reproached her for her behavior, including reaching out exclusively to the men, or disregarding wives in favor of their husbands, her response was that they had a problem, not her. She definitely wasn’t open to “touchy- feely” exploration of their concerns or her own behavior/motivation. She is very unemotional that way. In the end, she claimed not to be interested in the men she flirted with. But I notice that the more modest members of our family (i.e. in terms of looks, “career success,” etc.) don’t seem to have this problem of her unwanted attention. In short, she focuses on some members who have her “currency” (money, lifestyle) while she barely acknowledges others.

In the past, my boyfriend’s head was turned by this behavior (we had just begun dating when they met). Damn him! He even flirted back. Since then, he admits that she was interesting to talk with, but asserts that he has no interest in her and that this is our day. He is very clear and strong about who he is marrying and who he loves.

Nonetheless, I still feel tense, and torn about what I should do.

Cary, can you share some sage advice to help me gain balance and perspective?



Dear Upstaged,

Ignore her.

How? How do you ignore her? In basically two ways. One, don’t react or respond or try to change the situation. If she is in a room and all the focus in the room is on her, let it be. If you don’t like it then get out of the room. Do not attempt to take the attention that should rightly be yours. Let it go. Excuse yourself. If you are talking and she appears and dominates the conversation, do not engage with her directly other than in a formal, or even icy way. Basically just don’t react to her. As you draw back and fail to react, notice what you are wanting in the moment. Are you wanting her to acknowledge you? Are you wanting praise and attention? Just notice that, and notice that you don’t need these things. You are fine as you are. It is your day. You have the love of your fiancé and your family and friends. You have your whole life opening up in front of you. You have permission, on this day, to enjoy yourself.

But how do you actually not react? It’s easier said than done. The best way is not to struggle with your reactions and try to shut them down but simply find something else to focus on. If she is in the room, find something that needs to be done elsewhere. Ask someone to come with you and exit the room. If she asks you a question, pretend not to understand, or promise her an answer later, or send her to someone else for an answer. Obfuscate. Do not engage with her. Put up a smoke screen. Delete her from your mental screen. Withdraw into yourself and redirect your attention to those people and activities with which you feel strong and safe.

That is my suggested approach. Now, you might find yourself resisting this, as though it’s not right. So here is something sort of “meta” about this. In a larger sense, this is about getting in touch with your self-protective instincts; it is about a good kind of social aggression. It is about recognizing that you don’t have to be polite all the time. You don’t have to treat people as though they were your friend. You can cut people off and you can refuse to engage. It doesn’t have to be done overtly, i.e. you don’t have to announce through a bullhorn, “I hereby refuse to engage with you because you are a narcissistic pest and you suck the air out of the room.” You can just firmly refuse to engage.

If such behavior is new to you then practice it. Try when you are out in public not smiling and nodding and agreeing. Try giving the cold shoulder. Watch how people respond. Take note of the fact that women are socialized to be kind and polite and smiley-face but you don’t have to be. You can project toughness. If it’s hard to practice this toughness on people, start with dogs. Dogs understand body language. If you lean down and smile and talk in a  high voice the dog will come and get in your face. If you cross your arms, plant your feet, look away from the dog and project an air of “I’m not interested,” most of the time the dog will not engage. That’s what you want. You want to project an air of non-engagement. It’s the only language some people understand.

Work on it. Be just a little meaner. It’ll help you survive.

Oops … almost forgot to put the “Donate” button here … hold on, it’s coming, gotta just cobble it together …  (working feverishly) … OK, here it is: Ta da!




Our person of the week: Kathy Dolbow Doran

Kathy Dolbow Doran was ‘present at the creation’ at Cary’s first Creative Getaway and attended two others which she claims to be among the best times of her life. She has a full-time writing position, but is in the midst of starting a movement for displaced Baby Boomers called 50 Plus Reinvented. Kathy was horrified to learn about the 50% increase in Baby Boomer suicides from 1999 to 2010 and is focused on “crowdsourcing” a movement to help people reinvent themselves. She is modeling her site on Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better”  project (helping suicidal gay teenagers) and is asking for your help. If you or anyone you know is in the process of reinvention, please share your story by emailing: 50plusreinvented@gmail.com.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford: Holy DayGlo tattoo of the roaring political id, Batman, get this wayward soul to detox and hand him a big book!


I’m starting to think of the Rob Ford phenomenon as a rare performance-art spectacle in which the tragic and doomed performer, seeking the death of his own ego, effects a feat of topological magic in which he turns his own id inside out. Like a DayGlo 3 a.m basement tattoo of his ravaging animal being, the awful, voracious, unquenchable id of desire appears on his red, bursting skin: Will I get enough food? Will people like me? Can I eat some pussy now?

He is so oral. He’ll never be able to consume enough to quench what’s eating him. As he eats, it eats him. It’s the ouroboros turned inside out. Instead of shedding skins, he’s adding them.

It’s funny but sad. And some of us can’t help seeing something of ourselves in this caged animal. We think, “Of course we are better than that lunatic! Of course we are not deranged fools!” And yet … we can relate, because it’s medical, not moral. It’s the disease at work.

Speaking metaphorically, not knowing the neurological way to express it, it’s what happens when you regularly numb the regulating brain: A man is left with nothing but his rattling, wildly swinging beast.

And, things can’t be that great at home right now for Mr. Ford. Why’d he bring his wife up there on stage to radiate the fury and disgust and helplessness of the aggrieved partner? Dunno. Just did. But it fits. Why’d you go tear up that bar and wreck the car? Dunno. Just did. Feel bad now but at the moment it seemed like the thing to do.

Because you were momentarily insane. Duh.


He looks like he could use some sleep. One imagines the gloomy disgust that hovers about his head at home. One imagines, too, all of Toronto, made his enabling bitch, howling with impotent outrage. Having let the insanity go on too long, regretting that she did not throw him out at the first indiscretion, now sitting captive at the dinner table night after night as he moodily gallops from grandiosity to despair, from humor to rage, from wounded to attack mode, like a hurt, snapping dog.

But — and this we note with perverse glee: Until the addict is done, there ain’t nothing anybody can do about it. He’s going to keep on. The id knows no framing, no modulation; it has no self-restraint. The restraint is supposed to come from that other part of the brain that is now shut down, poisoned.

That’s not to say that if he were to continue spiraling out of control and die we wouldn’t feel awful. Of course we would. And, being flawed ourselves, we might well reflexively blame the co-dependent world around him but we would know in our hearts: There’s nothing anyone can do but watch and wait, following him with a net.

He’s doing what people in active addictions do: The mood swings, the alternating confession and attack, the warped expectation that now that we’ve confessed everyone will cozy up to us, the rage when people don’t seem to get it and don’t seem to want to be our friend again even after we’ve confessed! come on, man, I owned up, I said I smoked crack, so what’s your problem, Let’s be friends again or else I’ll double down and go double nuclear crazy! and then you’ll see the real Rob Ford Crazy Man!

It’s all there like a template. All of it that we know and love and have heard a million times.

It’s unrealistic and silly but the thought occurs that maybe there will be something educational in this: The world gets to see just how crazy a person gets. Most folks who haven’t seen the disease of addiction at work up close still view behavior through the moral filter. But, I mean, Rob Ford Is Us. Whose id is any less crazy than Rob Ford’s? We’ve all got that inside of us. Most just keep it chained up.

It’s the process of addiction that corrodes the chains and lets the crazy take over.

And that is scary. Right? Addiction is scary. Maybe at least that will get across, amid the late-show laughter and scowling highbrow disgust.

Now here’s a fantasy best-case scenario: Rob Ford takes it as far as he can take it, Charlie Sheen style but fatter and less sexy, until through truly awful but not fatal events he finally hits bottom and gets help and changes his life. And then: because here is opportunity writ large: Toronto, at his behest, in his honor and probably partly for its own security, builds a huge recovery and drug addiction and alcohol treatment center like right next door to Toronto City Hall.

Yeah. Dream on.

But which occasioned the following thought: I was at a meeting today at a recovery house in a coastal California town, a lovely clean, pleasant place filled with people showing recent scars of hell, that haunted, terrified look of people who’ve been searingly close to the burning consummation of holy hellfire and have survived, have OD’d and are coming back to life, and it occurred to me, sitting there in that den of redemption settled under palms in an old and lovely Edwardian, it occurred to me that a recovery house is a community repair shop of the soul: That our lives, as lived in America today, are uniquely perilous to the soul, uniquely oblivious to its subtleties and needs, and so the soul often breaks, as would be expected, because we run it uphill at such high temperatures for such long periods of time, and so, as a village would have a blacksmith at the ready for horses who lose their shoes, so we have recovery centers at the ready for that predictable catastrophic breakdown, that sure percentage who will lose their souls and minds and need help getting better.

It was a nice, comforting thought, that the madness of addiction is an everyday event, and that we have plenty of beds for everyone.

Maybe we could use a few more. Maybe the bar could be a little lower for admission. But basically it’s quite a wonderful, compassionate and civilized thing, all these recovery houses we have. Maybe somewhere out there there’s one waiting for Rob Ford. Or maybe, as I say, in the dream of all dreams, one will eventually be built in his honor, and will help thousands of people just as crazy as he is, but just as salvageable.

And now, for the premier of my Experimental Donate Button: I’m going to try out different forms of this, but the idea is to allow people to vote with their money if they like a column. I will receive this with gratitude and will salute you privately in my little crazy world. Or maybe I’ll send you a note or even record a greeting. Not sure yet. For now, um, Ta-Dah, there it is: The Donate Button!


New column today? Hmmm …

Write for Advice

Dear Reader,

Well, I’m in Monterey this morning, here to help some writers. Also here to write on my own.

When I was writing the Since You Asked column for Salon.com, which I did for nearly 12 years, every day I wrote it I wanted to be proud. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a writer, for someone who really doesn’t know how to do much else and so has had to find jobs writing and editing and weather the uncertainties and deprivations of such jobs. Having had writing jobs and lost writing jobs I knew also that it would eventually end. That had been my experience and my observation, that writing jobs end. They live at the most 15 or so years, like dogs. So I was ready for it to end.

But every day until it ended I wanted it to be something I could be proud of. So I never slacked. I never dashed anything off. It may have seemed at times that I did but when the column was sloppy or not well thought out it was just because I reached the limits of my own personal ability. Because I knew it would end and I wanted to serve in that strange army with whatever strange distinction I could muster.

So when I left Salon, when that job ended, I thought at first that the noble and fine thing to do would be to end it. I did not want it to have a sloppy, drawn-out death of half-starts. So if I were to continue, I would have to give it the same effort as before. This I continue to hold to. So if I cannot give it the same attention and care and desperate effort as before, I do not think I should do it.


This raises a problem, because the one reason I was able to throw myself into it every day was that I knew it was paying the bills. I knew that as long as it was a salaried occupation, I could give it everything and be exhausted and unable to do much else for the rest of the day, and that was OK because the nut had been secured.

The nut is now not secured. So when I write the column I must somehow again reach that fevered certainty that what I am doing is vital.

I am going to try to reach that condition by placing “Donate” buttons at the end of the column. I will see if that works. I figure on some days, if the column reaches a person, truly reaches them, changes their life for the moment, as I have been told these columns occasionally do, then it would not be unreasonable to say that such a column might be worth $25, or $50, or more. Not every day of course, but I would like to present that option, that when a column truly moves someone, they can express that, and by doing so, they can keep me writing it. And of course it would also be possible to donate $1, or $5, or nothing. The column would be free. The donation would be like an expression, a statement: Yes, Cary, I want you to keep doing this. Do that again. Here’s some vital inducement to do that again.

Because I really am going to have to figure out how to make a living.

So for today, because I do not feel I can give it everything I have, because I am in Monterey and have to go to breakfast and see if I can be of service to some other writers, because the day is uncertain and I am in a strange hotel, because I never want to rush it or short-change it or cut corners, I do not think I am going to write a column today. Besides, I have to figure out how to work those “Donate” buttons.

Thanks for being there.


p.s. Oh, one other thing. I find that I miss the daily writing for an audience. I have never acquired the habit of blogging about whatever, because that seemed pointless and self-indulgent and also because I had the column as a perfect outlet for my daily writing obsession. But now that I don’t have the column, and I can’t afford, mentally, spiritually and economically, to write the column every day, I may just adopt the habit of blogging every day about just whatever. It would at least give me the illusion of being in touch with others. And the bar would be a bit lower, so that if I had nothing of any consequence to say, I could still meander a bit, like a morning walk with friends, not saying much of anything, just mumbling, but being there.

Anyway, that’s it for today, from me, for real this time, down here in Monterey in the fog, by the beautiful, beautiful sea.

Write for Advice

Can I write and publish this book?

Dear Cary,

What a delight that you are continuing. Bravo!  The quality of the world dipped there for a moment, but now it is leveled up again, thank, goodness. I’ll be sure to do my part to spread the word so that everyone I know can enjoy your column.

On another note, I do want to ask you a few related questions about my writing. Some background: On a deep and sweet level, I am an artist–singing, composing, writing, playing. This artistry was supplanted seven years ago when I discovered the intense pleasure of teaching and facilitating personal growth during a five minute segment I was asked to teach in a personal growth class in which I was assisting. That kind of activism attracted me.

To be part of the solution, rather than a complainer, I wrote a roughly 400-page book six years ago by sitting down every morning, remembering my divine nature and writing what came of that. It was an incandescent journey, saving me while I was going through a total financial meltdown. (Real estate; says it all, doesn’t it?)

To my bafflement and distress, I was unable to pull the book together into one coherent entity. I had 57 short chapters and no single through-line, no simple overarching context.

I tried to cobble the chapters together, writing segues. But each attempt seemed to destroy what I had already written.

I hired an editor. After viewing the first chapter, I decided not to continue. She had no better luck than me; it seemed her efforts, as mine before, were extinguishing the light in a text conceived during, what felt like, illuminated moments. I decided to set the book aside.

Last Wednesday evening, a dear close friend, a horror writer, of all genres (!) suggested I frame the book as a collection of essays. This has sparked a little hope.

I am currently reading an exquisite book, When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams, who is an artist, teacher and writer. This book seems a little outside of the usual and expected in every way. In how she circles back to a theme; that there is more than one; format changes; images of a bird in the margins that “flies” when you let the pages run through your fingers. The non-conformity is subtle but adds up to something unique and genuine, even pure, perhaps.

And here are my questions: If I let myself be encouraged and inspired by Ms. Tempest Williams’ example, being unknown and untried, do I have a candle in the wind’s chance of appealing to a publisher? Would it be tantamount to a pointless labor of love? Should I stick with the recommended approaches that have been suggested in How to Get Published workshops?

And secondly, from your perspective, is wanting to be widely read an “evil” I should shed, or is that a legitimate consideration? As an artist, I feel that the work is its own raison d’être. But as an activist, I don’t see the point in writing something my five closest friends will read.

I am so looking forward to your thoughts.


Writing from the Heart

Dear Writing from the Heart,

Of course you can write and publish a book. Whether you actually do it will depend on whether you are willing to put in the time and effort.

Right now you sound like you are not exactly sure if you want to do it badly enough to devote your life to it. It’s best to assess that possibility now, before undertaking what could be a long and painful journey. It doesn’t take just time and effort. It takes unexpected personal sacrifice. You say you do not want to write the book unless many people are going to read it, but you cannot force people to fall in love with your book and recommend it to their friends. All you can do is devote your life to writing it well and seeing that it is published, and then do everything you can to bring it to people’s attention.

Here are some of the difficulties you may encounter along the way.

You may have to guess, from a sentence or two from a professional editor, what actually has to be done in concrete terms to fix a problem in the manuscript, and then try several different approaches to the same problem — writing the same paragraph, or same chapter, over and over, not knowing when you might hit on the solution. Then, after doing that, you might find that the solution actually lies elsewhere. Such frustrations are common, and there is no clear way to eliminate them, because the material has its own secrets.  But if you are willing and able to endure such frustrations, then of course you can publish a book.

You may have to listen to and take advice from people you don’t like, people who seem arrogant and short-tempered and dismissive. The book business has such people, and their knowledge is valuable. If you can learn from them and not dismiss them, then of course you can write and publish a book.

You may need to acquire certain traits, skills, knowledge and sensibility. It might be necessary to spend a few years reading all the books you can find, thinking and taking notes and studying the inner workings of sentences. Yes, sentences. You might have to change in certain fundamental ways how you perceive units of meaning, how you structure your thought. This can be hard, especially after the university years. But if you can do that then of course you can publish a book.

You may discover what you are saying has already been said by geniuses, in clear, evocative, compelling language. How then will you persuade an editor or agent who has read most everything and is not easily amused that what you have written is relevant and important and moving and salable? How will you recast your insights to apply to specific people in our time? Will you be willing to take the time to solve this problem, coming up with flawed solution after flawed solution until you find one that is uniquely suited to your style and your time? If so, then of course you can publish a book.

Experts can point out the flaws in your manuscript, and people like me can cheer you on, but you will eventually meet your own shortcomings, your own darkness, and you will be alone with your insufficiency. Writing and publishing a book may require you to face a kind of spiritual desolation you had not counted on as part of the price. But if you are willing and able to go through those things, then of course you can publish a book.

If your life is such that distractions arise, or if disappointments set you back, or if you do not know how to continue writing after you have lost interest and do not feel inspired, or if you are not able to differentiate between when your sentences are clear and when they are muddied, or if you do not know what kinds of linguistic phenomena offend cultured and sophisticated readers, or how long the average attention span is, or how the brain works when it reads, or how to create tension on the page, then of course it may take longer than expected. But of course you can write and publish a book.

Writing talent is just part of what is required. Can you motivate yourself to learn difficult new skills; can you manage your own emotions over a long period of time; can you bounce back from rejection; can you creatively solve problems; can you find the money to hire professionals when needed?

The difficulties are not insurmountable. They are merely huge.

Assuming you have the resources, you could begin today. You could begin by finding a careful, experienced nonfiction book editor currently in the business who would read the book and tell you all the things you would have to do to make it marketable. You would have to commit to that process. If it was unpleasant hearing these remarks, then you would have to sift through the unpleasantness, seeking to know what was unpleasant because it challenged a false assumption you had, and what was unpleasant because it failed to address your true intent. Having worked through that, you could come up with a plan for how to address each perceived shortcoming in the manuscript.

Then you could hire a coach and/or editor to keep you on track and coach you along the way.

I suggest you spend the next few days or weeks on this one essential question: Is this something that I must do, that I am driven to do, for which I am willing to make any sort of sacrifice?

Our featured person of the week: Amy Souza

Our featured person for this week is Amy Souza. Not only is Amy a talented writer, but she is a visual artist as well. In 2008 Amy founded Spark, a quarterly call-and-response project in which artists, writers, and musicians have ten days to create something new using another person’s art or writing as inspiration. Here’s what Amy has to say about herself and the Spark project:

I have been writing for a long time and painting for about seven years. I definitely consider myself more writer than artist, but I love to paint and draw.

I met Cary and Norma at the retreat in Tomales Bay. I had been reading Cary’s column for years and felt drawn to the Amherst Method as a “kinder, gentler” way to approach writing and responding to work. Sometimes I freeze when asked to write in the presence of other people, but prompts always push me and much of the work I did that weekend felt real and important, pieces I wouldn’t have written if not for that experience. I also met a lot of great people, many of whom (including Norma!) have taken part in my call-and-response project called Spark.

Here’s how it works: Artists, writers, and musicians have ten days to create something new using another person’s art or writing as inspiration. To begin, participants get paired with someone who works in a different medium: for instance, writers send artists a story or poem, and artists send writers an image of their painting, photograph, or sculpture. During the ten-day project period, each person uses their partner’s piece as a jumping off point for new work of their own. People are allowed to respond to their partner’s work in whatever way they wish. (“Response” is left purposely vague.) Inspiration pieces and responses then get showcased on the Spark website.

I started the project in 2008 as a way to bring together my art and writing sides. The first round featured ten writers—many I’d met at Vermont College—and ten artists—most of whom I’d met at the Torpedo Factory in Virginia. The project grew mostly through word of mouth, and since then more than 500 people from five countries have taken part, resulting in more than 1,000 new works of art, writing, and music.

I try hard to make Spark inclusive—anyone can join us, regardless of skill level, so long as they’re open to the experience and respectful of other participants—and I want people to feel welcome. At first, I wrote that I want them to feel welcome and unafraid, but that’s wrong. There’s always some fear involved in creating. What I want is to give people the support and space to feel brave.

Spark requires people to approach the way they work in a new way, which is a lot to ask. You have to stick to a deadline; you have to work from the inspiration you receive (which could be something that doesn’t appeal to you). Not only that, you are asked to share just-created work. Some of us like to let pieces sit for a while before we put them on display, but with Spark you share your ten-day creation with the world.

I have taken part in all 19 rounds, sometimes paired with more than one person, and every time I feel vulnerable and afraid. But, I like making things more than I like to feel safe, and I think other Spark participants would share similar sentiments. Also, not surprisingly, I end up creating things I would not have made otherwise.

The project’s main goals are to give creators a challenge, a new way of looking at the world and their work, and a chance to inspire another creative soul. My other big goal is to build community. I’m proud of the art, writing, and music that Spark has helped bring into the world, but I’m equally (if not more) proud and happy to know that real bonds have formed as a result of this project. I’m driven by a desire for community and connection, and that’s why what Cary and Norma do to bring people together really resonates with me.

The next Spark round starts on November 27th. You can contact me for more information (http://www.getsparked.org/contact-us) or register here. I’d love to have you join us!


I want to strangle stupid people who say stupid things about Obamacare

Write for Advice

Dear Reader,

Right now I’m writing this column here on my own site on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can bookmark http://carytennis.com to always find it. I’ll announce it on Facebook and Twitter whenever it goes up, and we’ll send out an email newsletter about it, too. Might miss a day or two here and there but that’s the schedule.

Since I left Salon some people have asked how they can contribute to see the column continue here on CaryTennis.com. Norma and I are trying to figure all that stuff out. Your patience is appreciated as we weigh the options. We have plans. They’re just taking some time to work out.

Also, let’s not forget, I’m a writer, for heaven’s sake, and also a musician, so I’m enjoying my relative unemployment even though I’m probably not supposed to. I am also working all the time on other stuff that doesn’t pay money, just like the old days. Plucking my guitar, messing around with poems, etc.

So here’s the letter, something we can probably all relate to in some fashion:



Dear Cary,

I know that you overcame a health crisis of your own not long ago and I congratulate you on your valiant fight! Over the past decade, my husband Kevin and I have had several health issues including two back surgeries and a hip replacement for him and an emergency appendectomy and broken foot for me along with several smaller, but still costly illnesses. My husband lost his advertising job after Sept. 11 at 51 years old and we’ve been doing everything we can to right our ship. Unfortunately, between a significant loss of income and HUGE medical bills, we went through all of our retirement savings (~a quarter of a million dollars) before going through bankruptcy. We are down, but we are definitely not OUT!  We are regretful, but not full of self-pity. We are extremely focused on rebuilding.

My question for you is how can I keep from completely losing my shit when someone (usually at my office) makes a negative comment about Obamacare? It happened again last week and I blasted a coworker and shrieked, “DON’T YOU DARE BLAME IT ON OBAMACARE!!! I WENT THROUGH BANKRUPTCY ON GEORGE-BUSH-DOESN’T-GIVE-A-RAT’S-ASS-CARE.”

How can I either walk away or provide a cogent argument without sounding like an angry nut? I’d like to come up with something having to do with “What kind of a country do we want to be?” but I can’t stop seething long enough to sound reasonable.

Thank you, Cary.

Broke But Not Down

Dear Broke But Not Down,

Imagine somebody says something stupid and insulting and you’re about to scream but instead you say to the person, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.” And the person looks at you and goes, “Right now?” or maybe, “What for?” or just, “Whaaa?”

And you say, “Now would be fine. In private.”

I love to imagine this scene. It would play out all different ways for different groups. Like if it was a group of men, or a mixed group, or all women. If it was men it might be like asking a guy to step outside. But you just stick to the script. You just say, “Could I please have a minute of your time? In private.”

Now, maybe when the person says, “Why?” you say, “Once we are alone together and can talk in private, you will know why.” This introduces some mystery and suspense, making the person perhaps a tad curious. It’s less threatening than saying, “Because I want to beat your ass in private where there are no witnesses.”

In any case, if the person agrees, you go, together, to an empty conference room or outside on the street or to a cafe.

And while you are walking to this place you calm down just a little bit but you maintain your focus on the emotional energy that has been unleashed. And you maintain your focus on your own personal experience. For that is what is important here: to regain your equilibrium and some sense of personal validation by relating your personal experience and being heard. You’re not going to change any political opinions necessarily but you’re going to make a connection with another person. Now, this person may not like you. You can’t control that. But by taking this action, you have the upper hand, morally speaking. You get to do this. You get to be heard. You get your moment.

Or maybe instead of agreeing to meet with you in private the person says something insulting, like, “No, you cannot have a minute of my time,” or just something vaguely dismissive like, “Not now, maybe later.”

Now that would be a crucial moment, because people would be looking at you to see how you respond. Without preparation, you might not have anything to say back to that. But if you were prepared, you could say this:

“I will be in touch, and we will have some time together, and I am looking forward to our conversation.”

And then you walk away before the other person can say something to you that you would have no comeback for. You’ve stated that you and that person are going to meet in private and that’s that. You have the upper hand because you have stated a fact. And you’re out of there. And a question lingers in the air.

So, either right now, or eventually, you have a private chat with this person who said this thing.

In this private chat, you begin by saying that you were upset by this person’s words. You avoid saying that the person is a dumb shit or that her political beliefs are naive and uninformed. You just say that her words were hurtful to you because of your own personal experience, and then you ask if you can relate that personal experience. You tell what it was like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.

You don’t ask the person to change her views. You just relate what it is like to be forced into bankruptcy by medical bills.

Because here is the thing about hearing a person’s story: If we are merely listening to someone’s story, we are not required to make political sense of it. We do not have to rebut it or try to fit it into our scheme. We can simply acknowledge the truth of it, and the truth of it is not about policy; the truth of it is emotional: Here is what happened to a person because of the lack of medical insurance.

Let’s think for a minute about why might it be so insulting to you that this person would say what she said. Can it be partly because what she touched on was not a matter of policy but a matter of personal hurt? Let’s say you’ve been through the Gulf War and you were wounded and I start going on about what a stupid, unjust war it was. You might agree with me in principle about the the war but still feel hurt and offended because it was your war; you went through that war and got blown up in it and that’s what’s real for you. So what I might say about it would feel like a transgression. It would feel like I don’t know what I’m talking about, because for you, that war is about your injury.

In the same way, the issue of health insurance is about what it feels like to be ruined financially. As with the person who went to a war he might not have believed in, you did what you thought was right. You didn’t shirk. You paid, just as a person who goes to war goes to war because that is the honorable action. So to hear others make political hay of it is personally offensive.

Perhaps in a private setting, if you tell your story, something like that might get across to this person. You did the right thing and were screwed, and scarred, and left with feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

There’s a larger picture here, too, in which all but the very richest of us have been abandoned and betrayed by our country. Our soldiers, our women, our working people, our minorities, our artists, our writers, our intellectuals, our students, all of us have been hoodwinked by a system of government and business geared to profit, not to the protection and care of its citizens. We all carry some anger and resentment and feelings of betrayal about this.

Still, sometimes you just want to hit a person who says something stupid about Obama and Obamacare. And why not? Is that such a terribly wrong thing to feel? Is it so terribly wrong to want to say, “You, motherfucker, just don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about!”? Is it so terrible to want to say, “You, motherfucker, are a fucking idiot!”?

Well, especially in a work environment, it’s preferable to count to ten. But not to just let it go unchallenged. Make an appointment in public to challenge it in private. Make time with the person where we can tell our story, so there is some understanding between us about why we feel as we do.

And by telling this person, you might have some influence on this person’s future political thinking. For our political attitudes are shaped by emotion. If you can touch someone with your own personal experience, you have a chance to change their political calculations regardless of what they may outwardly profess because, having once felt something, we cannot unfeel it. Some are better than others at shutting out feeling that conflict with their beliefs, but feelings are powerful. They can change lives. They can change opinions.

Then, having told your story, having thanked the person for hearing you out, you might also think to yourself, I can tell that story pretty well. I could put this story on the Internet. I could write an article about this. In that way you might indeed have some influence on policy.

And then, finally, after all this, you could always go to a martial arts class and beat and kick the shit out of some inanimate object and pretend it is this person.

Write for Advice