Category Archives: Writers and Writing

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Advice for Writers: 10 Fun Things to do with that nasty inner critic that is trying to murder you

10) Rudely talk over her.

9) Ignore her and when she doesn’t go away keep ignoring her until nightfall.

8) Listen to her and look for possible kernels of truth in what she says.

7) Regard her with mute compassion as a split-off part of the self.

6) Get used to what she’s saying and tune her out like a bad radio.

5) Pause in your writing until she has had her full say and then continue like nothing happened.

4) Tell her to go fuck herself and remember that she can’t hit you.

3) Write down everything she says and give it to your most evil character.

2) Find the strength in her vitriol and turn it on an enemy.

1) Make writing in spite of it your sweetest revenge.

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Letter to a friend, with a poem at the end

Dear …

I thought of you just now. I am sitting in this renovated 13th-century Italian convent between Rome and Florence, a short walk up from the train station, and your face  drifted into view. There were a lot of people here for ten days but they all left on the train today. I suppose suddenly being alone was one reason I thought of you. There had been little time to really think. Now I am alone.

I wanted to tell you some things, just being truthful, not wanting anything specific or immediate from you, but not wanting to offend you either with my bald frankness, which I realize has sometimes seemed uncivilized or cruel. As you may know, I was raised by people who spoke sharply to each other as a rule, and to us kids, with the understanding that sharp words were intellectual love and honesty. We spoke to each other with such words and it was not seen as cruelty or even bad manners. It was a point of pride. We knew what we meant.

But my wife has taught me many things in the 20-odd years we have been married. I have come to see how being too honest too quickly can seem cruel. In the spirit of that honesty, though, I will say up front that I do want something from you. Of course we all want things from each other all the time. But sometimes wanting something can cast doubt on the sincerity of what we are saying: Why are you telling me this now? You must want something from me.

Let me do this in my way. I just want to be honest, more honest than I would be if we were face to face. I want to say that I thought of you and believe it or not I felt gratitude. The word “gratitude” is in trouble these days from reckless overuse. It hardly means anything. There is even a restaurant near where I live called “Cafe Gratitude.” But I do want to say I am grateful, meaning conscious of having received much from you.

It is hot here in Castiglion Fiorentino today, hotter than we expected it to be in June. Another workshop starts in two days. People will begin arriving tomorrow. So I have only a little time. This lack of time may be one reason I got to thinking about all the people, like you, whom I’ve been able to meet and write with over the last eight years. You know, we always say in these workshops, “Let’s reflect back what we remember, what sticks with us.” I remember many things about you but some of those things have blended into a composite picture.

Here is something I wrote in the workshop yesterday, on the last day, which I thought I would send to you, which in a personal way sums up where I’m at, what it’s like to be me today. I share this because I have seen, over the years, what happens when people keep coming to these workshops. We go deeper and we get better at being able to capture a moment, where we’re at.

We’re not all big amazing genius type writers and I don’t give a damn about that, frankly. I feel that writing in this way, in a group, has given my writing something else, a home separate from the world of publication. Writing that is published has one kind of home, a big, public home where many shoppers come and go, and people can pick it up and make judgments about it, or dismiss it or do whatever they want with it. Here, though, in the group, it is like we are writing in someone’s home, and everyone is more attuned to the personal implications of each piece, and how we are affected by what is said and not said.

So I have the world that I write for publicly, and this world, where I write things and share them immediately, like just-baked biscuits. They get consumed fresh and that is that and we move on. That’s what I give a damn about: the feeling of having a home for my creative practice.

There are probably reasons that I am more comfortable sharing in a group than publishing, or at least as comfortable, and maybe we will talk about them at another time. But for now, I wanted to share with you this, a just-written piece, not agonized over, not polished but fresh and perhaps revealing in ways that I am not aware of, but which I don’t mind … while I have a moment, before the next nine-day workshop begins:

 

Is this a turning point?
Am I at a turning point?
How the hell would I know?
I know my history.

I remember running as a kind of change.
The only way I knew to change was to run.
Every word seems full of other meanings.
Are we in the dark or have we found a fertile garden?
Everything is ripe with more meaning than is wanted.

I know that in the past I turned and ran. Rant.
Plots have turning points. Plots are also graves.
The turning point. Remember that movie? It was
About ballet. Oh well. A plot is a grave and a
Turn is a spin and a point is an infinitesimal idea.

I learned that in geometry. Are we getting off the subject?
Welcome to the stream I dip my toe in.

Wood smoke. Bird cries. This endless thing.
Looking for a turning point, a radius. I wish I
could be witty. Is this a turning point? I have always
run. Now I try to pivot.

So I say to the therapist that I later fired,
I hate my house. He says, you hate your house?
He didn’t say anything about the house as metaphor.

Can I take a different road? Can I live in Italy?
What I came to San Francisco for now is gone.

I’m thinking about a wire transfer. Is that part of the turning?
I love the words that things are made of: wire, and transfer,
The things that money are made of, the keystrokes, the clatter,
the random number generator and who tracks, who sees, the
random numbers generated? This intrigues me as I wonder
If I am turning.

Could I simplify? Wood smoke like visiting Grandma Ann.

Now all these feelings start to come up. Why do we say come up
And not arrive, or fall down? Why do they come up? Are they
Being held down? I guess so. Duh. That’s how we do it, that’s our
Metier, our special Nordic genius for drinking and shutting up.

Shutting up and shutting down the
things that would come up or out; ever
think of that? We shut up but there is an object too that is then imprisoned.
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And then I’m sure there is more. But what I wanted to share with you was that. And I said I wanted something and yes, I do. I want these workshops, when we come back to San Francisco, to be big and full of joy. I want you to come. I want you to make time in your life for these workshops, so you will share these things with me. I want them to be big, like celebrations. I want you to feel free to dig deep and be respected. I want the house to be full of your spirit once again.

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My boyfriend is my boss

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, NOV 23, 2009

I’m getting sick of being “the editor’s girlfriend”


Dear Cary,

I’m a college student and a reporter for my university’s paper. I’m a good writer — my work has shown up in publications beyond the university, and since arriving here I’ve established myself as “one to watch” in the English department. I really don’t intend to sound cocky, but I’m not affected with false modesty. I have a lot to learn, but I know I have a knack for this.

I’m in a fairly new relationship of about three months, with a boyfriend who so far has been entirely wonderful. We’re both ambitious types with busy schedules and social lives, but we make the time. I think it has been a revelation to both of us just how extraordinary it is to have another person who is truly in your corner.

Here’s the problem — he’s my boss. He’s two years older and is the editor of the school newspaper, while I’m a staff writer. We met outside of the newspaper, and other people are in charge of how much I get paid and where my articles run. We’ve had several serious discussions about ethics, during which we emphasized that I’d never, ever ask him to do me any professional favors, and he would never give me any sort of special treatment. The relationship is more public than I’d like at such an early stage — we’ve both gotten long personal lectures on ethics from the head of the journalism department, and how he heard about us is anyone’s guess.

The thing that bothers me is not the ethical question — I feel like we’re managing that. It’s that I’m entirely fed up with being “the editor’s girlfriend” and not defined as a reporter in my own right. I have never, ever been the kind of woman who would be defined by a relationship — it is extremely important to me that I be defined by my own actions and my own work.

I’ve been doing good work at the paper, and I’m likely to be getting a promotion in the next couple of semesters. But I’m so, so sick of having to hear jokes about my sex life every time one of my stories runs in a prominent place in the paper or I pick up a particularly coveted assignment.

These aren’t serious allegations — the newspaper staff knows that it is not my boyfriend who makes these decisions, and people from outside the staff are only kidding. My friends say to laugh it off, but the fact is that those small successes are things that I earned through a lot of hard work, and the suggestion that I’m somehow trading sexual favors for good assignments truly offends me. I worry that the staff will take me less seriously and that this could endanger my future at the paper.

I know that having a happy relationship and a successful career are not mutually exclusive, but I feel like I’m too young to be dealing with such a minefield. I don’t even know whom to talk to about this — my boyfriend and I are handling it as best we can, but I don’t know how to tell him that although I’m pretty attached to being his girlfriend, I’m getting damn tired of being “the editor’s girlfriend.” I’m not giving up on my work, or on my relationship, I just need to figure out how to reconcile the two.

Her Own Girl Friday

Dear Girl Friday,

I suggest you try to be a little lighthearted about this. Imagine strutting around campus wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m sleeping with my boss and enjoying it. You got a problem with that?”
Picture yourself walking amid these yahoos with your head held high. Imagine striking them down with wit and glamour and sophistication. Imagine shutting them up and putting them in their place.

Do you feel better?

Keep going with this. Conjure up an image that makes you feel powerful and proud. Make it vivid and real. Draw some cartoons or make a collage. Create the image of the superhero you are. Inhabit her skin. Name this woman. Give her special powers. Keep her image close to you. Appeal to her for strength and guidance.

And know this: Sexism pervades our culture. The assumption that a woman’s achievements stem from her value as a domestic, sexual and romantic companion rather than as a skilled worker is evidence of that sexism.

You know what else exists in our society? Morons. The world beyond your college gates is a nightmare of hulking, mouth-breathing morons. Morons even run newspapers. So be ready. You’re going to be encountering a lot of sexist morons.

So that’s the sociological part of this.

The other part is psychological: By mixing creativity, sexuality and power, you run the risk of incurring deep psychological wounds if things go wrong. By hooking up with your boss, however much you trust him, you have placed your fate in the hands of someone who may damage you, even if he doesn’t mean to.

That is my opinion, but I assume that it is also a fear of yours. If you sense that you are in dangerous territory emotionally, I would agree that you are.

Stuff can happen in such a relationship to shape the rest of your life. Sometimes people make decisions in such circumstances that last for decades. “Oh, he told me I’d be happier if I wasn’t writing, so I quit.” You know, crazy stuff.

How power, sexuality and creativity combine to damage the psyche is complicated. Let’s assume that our emotional responses are rooted in invisible structures formed very early. As a baby, you must be loved unconditionally. You are helpless. You have no vocational skills. You are just a cute, wiggling bundle that eats and shits and throws up and makes noise. You are not a cowboy or a princess. You must be loved and cared for unconditionally. We get older and develop skills, but underneath, our need to be loved unconditionally persists even after we develop great skills and charm and form adult relationships. One area where this need for unconditional acceptance seems to persist most deeply is in the area of creativity. Why is this so?

Could it be because creativity is our one way back to that primal state?

That would be my guess. Betrayal of this creative self reaches beyond personality self into some realm of existential pain and fear that is difficult to find access to. So if you are exposing this fragile, unprotected, raw creative pre-verbal self — the one that cannot protect itself but must be cared for unconditionally — to the upheavals of romantic and sexual relationship, you are in frightening territory. If for instance you were to break up you might feel unconsciously it was because you were not a good reporter. That may sound stupid. But these decisions, we do not make consciously. They are made by this pre-verbal, emotional self that reacts to rejection as if it were an existential threat. So I assume you feel concerned and confused for good reason. You are exposing your psyche to risks that you might not consciously understand.

What can you do? For one thing, you can begin getting assignments outside the school. You can strike out on your own so that there is no question in anyone’s mind how you did it. And  I would suggest, if possible, that you find some ally, a therapist or counselor or older friend, and go through this with that person, checking in frequently, discussing this, asking for protection, watching for ways that you have placed your fragile creativity in danger. If you are in self-doubt, ask yourself why. If you feel like quitting, interrogate your feelings. Honor them but interrogate them. It might be this frightened child who wants to quit. Beware. It’s complex. Keep moving forward.

p.s. You know that Yeats poems that ends, “I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”? What a lovely and moving poem that is.

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I get distracted by the Internet when I try to write

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 30, 2008

Every time I start to do my assignment, I find myself surfing the Web instead!


Dear Cary,

I am taking a creative nonfiction writing course, and I’m supposed to be working on a piece about what I ate for breakfast. The problem is, every time I sit down at the computer to work, I start compulsively reading the election coverage online, sometimes spending two hours or more on variations on the same five articles. I am ashamed of my lack of self-control in this area. It is really unusual for me, because in my normal life I am a very capable person. I am a stay-at-home mom of two boys, ages 8 and 6, with a great marriage. I keep a neat house, get the kids to school on time, and fix organic, gourmet meals. But in this one area, this writing class, I can’t seem to do the task in front of me.

I have always been a terrific student. I have a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Chicago, and until I got married, I always figured I would finish my Ph.D. and work in research or teach somewhere. Instead, I decided I wanted to be home with my kids and fix up our house. I learned to garden and bake pies, and basically dug my heels into domestic life. It suits me, as I am basically an introvert who likes to take care of people. I am happy here, but I see my kids growing up and not needing me as much, and rather than stifle them with overattentiveness, I decided to take some classes and get a hobby, as they say. The sewing class is going great; I’ve made a skirt and might work on curtains next week. But the writing class, the one I really care about, has me totally stumped. I can’t seem to stop myself from clicking on the Google news page. Cary, is this self-sabotage, or simply escapism? What should I do? I’ve read that all writers need a lot of time to just sit and stare, but the Internet news is just wearing out my brain to the point where I can’t work at all.

I’m afraid that I am not allowing myself to do the one thing I’d be really good at, maybe for fear of failure, or just because it seems too selfish. My mother worked at a high-powered job throughout my childhood, and my parents were divorced, so I have issues about being ignored as a kid. I swore that I would be the mom who made cookies and was always there when you needed her. The problem is, my kids don’t seem to care one way or another, since they’ve never known any different. Cary, I feel sometimes like a doormat or a dishrag, like I am wasting all of my potential, and no matter how many Terence Conran house books I read or Julia Child cookbooks I memorize, I am still not getting what I need.

I think I need this writing thing way more than I will admit to myself. So, how do I let myself just do it, without all of the distractions? On the other hand, am I just kidding myself with this fantasy that I might have great untapped potential? Maybe I should just accept the choices I’ve made and be happy planting tomatoes.

Stumped

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Dear Stumped,

There are certain things you’re just going to have to assume from the outset. Assume that your writing is important. Assume that you have the right to do it and that it’s necessary and important. Assume that something has happened in your life such that you must attend to certain moral, aesthetic and philosophical needs, or that you have reached a certain passage, or phase, or that you have been blessed, contacted by aliens, touched by God, whatever works, however you want to put it. Something has happened. You have received a call. Assume whatever you need to assume in order to answer the call.

That is what I would suggest.

For that’s what it is: It is a call. It might not be clear exactly what it is yet. But something is calling you and you have to answer the call. It might be frightening to answer — it might be asking you to face certain fears about your own competence and value. It may be asking you to take up a challenge. But I believe that whatever it is you are trying to accomplish, it is best to begin with your own motivation and your own desire, and work from that place, rather than concentrate on the phenomenon of distractions and try to eliminate them. You will find more energy in focusing on your objective than in focusing on defeating the distractions. Now, it’s true, as a tactical matter, I often have to turn off my browser. I have to sit in silence. I have to find places and techniques. But the main thing is to find the deep emotional or spiritual hunger that fuels our creativity. Assume that this is important and you will find it easier to take the necessary steps. And as I said, you may be called to difficulty, to facing fears.

In facing your fears, I advise this: Guard against contemporary assumptions about cultural value, particularly our assumptions about what it means to be a writer. You are trained in anthropology. So look at our culture as an anthropologist would look at it. Notice the beliefs we express about writing and writers. Observe how we revere certain writers and vilify others. Notice that we seem to harbor some primitive belief in writing as a magical act; notice how we behave toward certain writers as though they were shamans or gods or priests; notice how as we do this we also devalue our own native abilities and thus become consumers rather than producers. Notice how we devalue our own desires to write, buying into such notions that only a select few are called to do this holy and sacred thing. See how undemocratic that is. Notice how much hogwash we are wading through. Keep all this in mind as you begin to write.

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Also pay attention to what conditions allow you to write and what conditions hinder your writing. Where can you go to write? Can you park your car on a lakeside, sip a cappuccino and write? Can you take a trip and write? Can you sit in an attic room and write? How much time can you put aside to write? Can you use a timer? Have you tried free-writing? Is it possible that the nonfiction class you are taking does not offer productive methods? For instance, if you were simply told to go home and write about what you had for breakfast, it might be that such a thing does not work for you. I do not know if I could write about what I had for breakfast. I might feel compelled to think about it too much. Maybe if you started with, “Today for breakfast I had …” then words might follow. You might end up writing, “Today for breakfast I had a fucking hard time of it.” Or “Today for breakfast I had none of your fucking oatmeal.” I don’t know. You might find things arising that you did not expect. It is fun to see what words come. You might find anger and pain arising first. That is often the case. It may be that you do not want anger and pain to arise. That might be why you are not writing at all. If so, you may be helped by the support of a group. You might look around in your area and see if there are any groups that follow the writing process movement, or the Amherst Writers and Artists method.

Oh, here is something else: Part of writing seems to involve rebellion. One challenges the gods; one steals fire; one dares to create; one plays Prometheus. I note that you say you have been a good student. Good students do what they are told. Writers do what they are not told; they have to tell rather than be told, so a bit of rebellion is involved. Being a good student might be holding you back. Being a bad student might be better. It is fun to be a bad student for once. Be a bad student by disobeying the teacher. Try giving the teacher what she does not want. Try being bad. Try writing badly. Just put a mess of words down.

Let it go.

In other words, in order to overcome this habit of distractions, I recommend that you focus first on becoming who you are as a writer, and that you embark on a journey. I recommend that you enact a long-term plan, not just to start writing but to become a writer in the world. Join the worldwide community of writers.
Writing brings great rewards. It makes us happier. It entertains us. It allows us to know others in a unique way. It manifests what is hidden or unexpressed. This makes our lives deeper and more interesting. So, to paraphrase Baudelaire, get writing! Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue, no matter! But get writing!

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What part of the autofiction is fiction?

Is it appropriate, in a work of autofiction, to ask, Which part is the fiction?

I think it is. Because of how people read.

The great thing about fiction is it frees the author of the ethical considerations of autobiography and memoir. When people read something that’s about something that actually happened they read one way. When they read about something that’s not supposed to have ever actually happened they read another way. They use them for different purposes. People read books that are supposedly true to get information about how to live their own lives. People read fiction sort of that way I guess but it’s different and they probably shouldn’t. The author doesn’t owe them to get the facts right. The author is free. Hooray for fiction! Hooray for freedom!

But in “a novel from life,” like Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? it seems totally normal to ask, what parts of this are “from life?” and how?

Don’t you think?

Like, maybe, given how it’s likely to be consumed, it should have a consumer label, showing the ingredients?

I don't mind! Why would I mind? It's fine! Everything's fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There's always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don't give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I'm OK. Really. I'm fine! It's a miracle!

Poets and Writers Live: Of writers and political conscience

I write from passion and desperation; my heritage is as a punk and a hippie, a fan of visionary and beat poetics, a lover of revolutionaries and rebels. I also am drawn to the severe aesthetics of writers like Nabokov and Wallace Stevens. I straddle worlds.

But let’s have a little context.

The Friday before the Jan. 10, 2015,  Poets and Writers Live event at the Brava Theater in San Francisco, I walked up and down 24th Street distributing cards and posters  for my business of giving writing workshops and arranging international retreats.

I went to Adobe Books, Alleycat Books, and Modern Times. At Modern Times I ran into journalist Denise Sullivan, and asked her about prospects for survival at the venerable progressive Modern Times bookstore. Prospects are tolerably grim as usual. This, of course, brings to mind the volatile cultural and economic changes we are living with but let’s not go there quite yet.

I mentioned to Denise that I was going to the Poets & Writers event up the street the next day. Denise mentioned that Modern Times is hoping to find a coalition of public and private support to continue playing its role as a purveyor of books geared to left and progressive sensibilities. I thought that maybe one of the panels dedicated to talk about community and support might touch on this issue but I did not formulate any plan to bring it up. I just sort of thought it would be an obvious issue. That’s not so smart, really, but it’s the truth.

So, Poets and Writers magazine is sort of the main trade magazine for graduates of writing MFA programs. I have come to love Poets and Writers magazine, actually, despite occasional exasperation at its quiet tone. It lists all the major literary competitions and who won them, as well as all the upcoming submissions deadlines for writers hoping to have their work accepted by journals. This is indispensable career intelligence. Its articles, to my mind, are a bit mild. But as I said, I burn with impatience and long to read mad, hallucinatory, transcendent voices.

This matter of taste is not evident always in my role as an advice columnist, though I have used the column as a platform to soar when possible. Nor is the fiction and poetry I write openly “political.” Yet it has always been difficult for me to sit in a room full of writers talking about process and not feel like screaming. Especially those writers who have prestigious degrees, awards and publishing arrangements. So it was difficult to sit in the Brava Theater and listen complacently.  Yet I lacked the courage to ask those questions I considered important. I thought it was more important to behave, to try to be an adult about it.

Kevin Larimer, editor in chief of Poets and Writers, opened the event by introducing former poet laureate Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was charming and her poems were enjoyable. But neither mentioned recent events in Paris that have rocked the world.

I should have stood up and said, What about the 12 murdered cartoonists in Paris? Can we have a moment of silence?

But, timid, half-asleep me, being a good student, I sat quietly in the balcony, remembering the early 1980s when Laurie Parker (who went on to become a movie producer!) and her sister, who worked there and always carried sandwiches, would let us in to the York Theater and we would smoke cigarettes in the balcony and watch  matinees.

I sat up there in that same balcony, enjoying Ryan’s poems and reminiscing sleepily. And the whole idea of writers’ roles in the larger society, the immediacy of it and its omnipresence — the fact that it’s not a writer’s role sometimes and not other times but all the time —  got away from me. I never spoke up or even raised my hand. I just kinda went with the program

To be fair, it was a beautifully run event in terms of efficiency, the politeness and well-behaved nature of the audience, the sticking to times, and the focus. Any political discussion would have been, in this setting, a disruption. Yet disruption is necessary at times. That is what writers are supposed to do, isn’t it? To disrupt? To speak the disruptive truth? To hurl insults from the balcony at power?

It was surprising that no one stood up and gave a speech or hurled insults, or cried or shouted.  Isn’t this crazy San Francisco? Maybe the $100 price tag kept out all but the most determined, commercially minded, career-oriented young fiction writers and poets? Anyway, I felt out of place in the  well-behaved crowd. Of course, if one feels generally out of place anyway, that’s part of it. But here is my beef:

I believe at gatherings of writers that some mention ought always be made of the larger global political context in which we work. Is this an outdated expectation? Perhaps the Poets and Writers staff discussed whether to mention the slaughter of 12 cartoonists in a Paris office building less than a week ago and decided to avoid getting sidetracked? It’s possible. This is not a reported piece so I haven’t asked them. Anyway I sat through the three morning panels,  skipped the first two after-lunch panels and returned for the last panel with Joyce Carol Oates, which involved Oates reading a poem that has been published in the New Yorker, musician Ben Arthur playing and singing an “answer” to that same poem, then a film using the poem as a leaping off point and then a dance performance, or maybe the other way around.

I had stopped listening and was scribbling away in my notebook, defensively.  That was interesting: That my creating is sometimes a defensive move, a way to reclaim creative space in response to the creations of others. Like I did as a kid!

Also had major realization about songwriting: need to jump in passionately again. So it was useful in that way. As to taste, I guess I just didn’t get it.

What’s not just a question of personal taste is this:

What customary obligation obtains for prestigious publications for writers to make space for vital political matters?

Is it not heartening at gatherings of poets to hear at least a token acknowledgement of world events that affect us? Does it not reaffirm a crucial truth? I think it a custom worth upholding. It says, to the uninitiated, that those of us who write recognize our global role, our responsibility to speak on behalf of others. And it reminds those of us involved in the daily practice that we are indeed doing it in a larger context.

As I was walking to the cafe this morning thinking about this, and the possible reasons no mention was made of the Paris murders, which are so in my mind and in the minds of commentators, I thought of the years that financial difficulties brought me to work for  one of the world’s largest oil companies. One of the things that shocked me, and left me feeling I’d been naive, was the unspoken assumption that what went on inside that building had no connection to what went on in the streets outside. When protests occurred outside the building directly targeting the company’s practices, it seemed that we ought to acknowledge and discuss the matter, and that the company ought to make some kind of explicit statement of its position. Instead there was silence. The message was that we completely ignore the world outside.

This is the corporate way. In the interest of efficient running, the keeping of timetables, corporate workers ignore “outside matters” and stick to what is functional: getting it done on time, sticking to the schedule. It allows corporations to ignore crucial issues and I think it’s a bad way to run a company.

I expected that a gathering of avowedly creative people would be different, more chaotic, more charged with energy. By the end I felt like a squirming teenager, eager to get out into the fresh air, wanting to shout, to rock and roll, to drive fast, to shout insults at those who had held me captive and whose placidity seemed to gain them the rewards we all wanted: the acclaim, the position, the security and acceptance.

It was an interesting moment. Then it ended. I went downstairs, ate one cheddar cheese square in the lobby “mixer,” I gathered up the remainder of my printed marketing materials, and fled into the fresh night air of 24th Street for a quesadilla suiza at El Farolito.

I Tweeted a little bit about this this morning. Maybe there is a conversation to be had about this.

For I am in a position full of contradiction. As I rail against the institutions I am at the same time courting them. I am diligently attempting to master the art of applying for fellowships and grants, submitting my work to journals and contests, writing queries and pitches.

That is why, actually, I so appreciated Kay Ryan’s quip about not being a joiner and assiduously avoiding such events as the one for which she was presently delivering the keynote. “Even a writer who doesn’t come to these things and loathes the whole enterprise still wants to know that they exist — that there is still a community to disdain.”

We all laughed. But no one said anything more about the contradiction, about our own, personal disdain for the messy and irritating job of self-promotion. It all went on in the background, all these ideas — how the democracy and freedom that allow us this privilege are being eroded, how the bookstores that were our lifeblood of community are threatened by economic change, etc.

And what was I there for in the end? Talk about contradictions. The $100 I spent to attend the Poets and Writers Live event was a business marketing expense. Leaving cards and fliers all up and down 24th Street was a marketing activity.

Although, to be fair to myself: I also attended as a matter of conscience and identity, as a writer of fiction and poetry interested in having my work read more widely.

It’s just a shame there was no  Jack Hirschman ranting in the lobby.

Does anyone else feel as I did — that there are some matters of soul, of conscience, that are present always and always ought to be voiced?

 

I don't mind! Why would I mind? It's fine! Everything's fine! Reject me! Go ahead and reject me! There's always tomorrow! The future is bright! Don't give it another thought. Just go about your day like nothing happened. I'm OK. Really. I'm fine! It's a miracle!

My screed for the Poets & Writers Live event

I felt so strongly about reaching out to San Francisco writers at the Poets & Writers Live event, such a strong sense of localness that I found myself staying up late the night before writing this long screed, pouring out my heart in the matter of what it’s like to be in San Francisco today, having moved from the Mission to the Outer Sunset, having seen Salon.com move its operations to New York, having seen the streets and the restaurants change. I printed out a bunch of copies and left them in the lobby of the Brava Theater, which I, being a longtime guy, cannot help recalling as the York Theater.

You can also find it as a pdf here. A Note to Fellow San Francisco Locals.

A Note to Fellow San Francisco Locals

(Subtitled: Really Just How Far Out is the Outer Sunset Anyway and Why Would Anybody Go Out There Except to Take Their Parents to the Cliff House Which Technically Speaking is Actually the Outer Richmond or Sutro Heights anyway?)

Dear Fellow San Francisco locals attending this Poets & Writers event,

My name is Cary Tennis and I came to San Francisco on a Gray Rabbit Bus from Florida via Manhattan in 1976 for the same reasons thousands of others came during those years – for the cultural and personal freedom unavailable elsewhere and to be around writers and musicians. I went to grad school in creative writing at San Francisco State. I ended up on the staff of the SF Weekly in the 1980s and wrote for the Examiner, Focus, San Francisco magazine, East Bay Express, Berkeley Monthly, Frisco and the Bay Guardian. I formed a band here called the Repeat Offenders and we played our first gig at the Hotel Utah. I drank here and got sober here. I read Herb Caen. I lived through the Loma Prieta quake and the East Bay Hills fire. I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing: This is my town.

I came here with no money. I am one of those people who came here when a person could just come here. There was a nice lady at the Greyhound station at 7th and Market from Traveler’s Aid right when we pulled into town. Imagine that: A welcome wagon for hippies on a hippie bus. The Grateful Dead’s electrician who lived downstairs from us at 1492 Fulton showed us how to apply for General Assistance. We got jobs as bike messengers. Scholars on bikes. We learned the streets.

If you live here too and feel this magical city changing, we are probably here at this P&W event for some of the same reasons, and I would be happy to talk about it but I believe, as perhaps you do, that it’s not as simple as stopping the Google buses. And also I have a suggestion: If you are wondering what happened to the city you thought you lived in, get on the 71 bus downtown and ride it to the end of the line at 48th and Ortega and you will see a city you may have forgotten about. Plus, my house is right down the street at 1966 48th. I do writing workshops there. It’s quiet out there and the ocean air is fresh and the waves are big in winter.

The writing workshops I do are not for everybody. If you are a working writer with a solid practice and are happy with your routine and have easy access to your deepest emotional and psychic resources it might just seem silly. Writers used to work alone. I used to work alone. I worked alone for 30 years, or 40 years if you count the decade during which I was becoming a writer. But writing as a solitary pursuit can break you down, too. It broke me down. I finally sought support and community through Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers and Artists method. I needed something warm and welcoming. That’s what the AWA method is. It’s not for everybody but it works for me and thousands of others.

But the thing is, I am also demanding and precise and volatile and impatient, schooled in daily and weekly journalism to get to the point and to get pieces drafted, edited and published, and though I sought refuge in the AWA method from the demons of ambition and fear and grandiosity, it didn’t cure me of those things, nor was it supposed to. I am still ambitious and grandiose and impatient.

So I started a second thing of my own creation called Finishing School, which is all about getting it done. Not about being cool or brilliant or accomplished but just about getting it done before it’s too late.

Time goes fast. That’s one reason to seek help getting written the things you feel you must get written. We lived right in this neighborhood before we moved to the Outer Sunset. Our move was dictated by gunfire. A bullet came through our window. We witnessed a shooting on 24th Street, on this very block, actually, back when Brava Theater was the York Theater and showed movies and you could smoke in the balcony. People were running down the street screaming and bullets were flying and my wife Norma said enough. We moved in 1993. We bought a house out there in 1997 when it became clear that no leftwing coalition was going to protect us from the economically motivated decisions of landlords and if we wanted to stay in the city we loved we were going to have to own something.

So, loving this town as I do, and feeling sad and afraid about how it is changing, I just wanted to reach out and say, wherever you live — in the Mission, in Cole Valley, the Haight or the Lower Haight, or the Fillmore, or South of Market, Inner Sunset, Downtown, Tenderloin, North Beach, Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, Dogtown, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill, Glen Park or wherever – I invite you to come out to the Outer Sunset.

Take Muni. Or drive. There’s easy parking. You can park maybe not right in front of our house but on our street, or definitely on Lower Great Highway. Come early before the workshop and go to Trouble Coffee on Judah and 46th and have one of the best espressos ever, plus dig the very hip clientele and baristas. Eat at Outerlands. Amazing food. The owners Dave and Lana are sweet brilliant people, as is Julietta from Trouble Coffee. (We don’t have kids or tattoos or we’d also be into Small Talkers and that tattoo place.)

The house we bought in 1997 is pretty big, not huge but bigger than some of those little Bernal Heights houses, and plus we tore down some walls so the house itself is open and homey, a welcoming space for Saturday afternoon writing workshops. My wife, Norma, is an exacting and inspired cook, and she bakes amazing things, and we have cheeses and other nice things to eat. Plus we have not only the greatest drip coffee machine (Mocamaster) but also the amazing Nespresso. And I make green tea — gen mai cha, the kind with little roasted rice grains.

Pack a book and take the 71. Ride it to the end. It takes you half a block from our house. Or drive.

I do writing workshops out there.

Like I say, it’s not for everybody, but it might be for you.

Cary Tennis. Writing Workshops out at Ocean Beach
1966 48th Avenue (Pacheco/Ortega) SF CA 94116
cary@carytennis.com 415-308-5685 www.carytennis.com

 

 

 

 

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I’m 22 and stuck! How do I break out?

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from SUNDAY, NOV 22, 2009

I think I’m a writer, but fear paralyzes me


Dear Cary,

I feel paralyzed and stuck in a rut. I recently graduated from college without a clear path and a hazy focus at best; I am lost and confused and can recognize that I self-sabotage any efforts to find my path and start my journey. I truly seem to be my own worst enemy yet I am clueless how to escape this vicious cycle.

Since a young age I have deeply desired to be an “artist”; though my true passion is music, it seems my natural ability lies in storytelling. Despite my limited attempts at creative writing, I have received quite a bit of praise and encouragement from my teachers and peers. Yet I feel guilty for wanting to pursue such, what I believe to be, a narcissistic path — that of the artist. I also have an interest in pursuing psychology, which is clearly the more acceptable path according to society and my parents, but only as a fallback. I think I would be selling myself short by not giving writing a try, yet I feel ashamed wanting to apply to an MFA program.

My immense fear of failure affects me in many aspects of my life. I rarely, if ever, take chances. If I do not feel I am in a safe and welcoming environment or if I am not positive I can succeed, I simply do not try. In regards to romantic relationships, I push people away and often am too afraid of rejection to go on a second date. I long for love, but I do not allow myself the chance to experience it. Similarly with my writing, every now and then I can get a few hours of productive work in, in which I feel open and excited, yet afterward I am consumed with self-condemnation.

I seem unable to make a decision by myself. I am always asking permission, whether it is from my parents or my friends. I rarely do what I want, so often preoccupied by what others will think, expect and want from me.

Whenever I appear to be on a streak of positive thinking and proactive habits, I find myself struck down by my own head. I am terrorized by an endless loop of destructive thoughts in which I tell myself I’m a fool to think I could ever be a successful writer, that I’m a spoiled brat for wanting to do so, that no one could ever love me.

When I am not working at my soulless and demeaning job as a waitress, I busy myself with television and the Internet. When I run out of shows to watch and blogs to read, I am filled with a sense of terminal dread and panic, a gnawing sense of avoiding something, but I can’t seem to face it. I feel the clock ticking, ticking, yet I lay frozen in my bed, staring at the ceiling.

Only alcohol seems to free me of my inhibitions. I drink pretty regularly to open myself, to afford a few hours of simple pleasure, yet the alcohol just as often turns on me, resulting in weepy self-pity or a nostalgic, heady swoon for the recent past if not for memories that never existed except in my imagination.

I so desperately want to upstart my life. I want to experience this world as much as I can — love deeply and fully, express myself, live without wondering “what if?” But something inside me is preventing me from change and so clearly doesn’t want me to find inner peace, yet I don’t know what it is. How do I move from here?

Dazed and Confused

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Dear Dazed,

I sense that you are on the cusp of letting go of your adolescent dependence on fitting in and belonging, and you need a great challenge that will propel you over the canyon. Its depth terrifies you as you peek into it and see how high you are. You think of how groundless you will be when you step off the cliff. But you need to step off the cliff. Your soul cries out for the unknown. You need nature and danger. You need something outside yourself that is not ego-related, that is not your guilt-ridden ego trying to perfect a beautiful image to be admired by others; you need the wild self not ruled by need for approval; you need a skin that is unknown; you need the growling bear of your inner truth, your soul erupting, trying to be born. What dread beast is this?

You must find out.

You must take the journey to the underworld. It is not a metaphor. You must get outside yourself and encounter some dangers and some strangeness. (Isn’t it sad that adults today, trying to protect their children from anything alien, have them chant “Stranger Danger”? Isn’t that emblematic of our sickening obsession with the pristine and antiseptic?)

This is what I understand today about our necessary progress out of adolescence into adulthood: We must face confusion and surrender to it. We must face the unknown and grapple with it. We must go into nature and experience its alien embrace. We must lie down on the earth and allow our cruder nature to be held.

So go somewhere. Maybe you need to sit in a bus station in a quiet dusty town where no one knows you and wait for the bus to take you farther away from everything you know. Maybe you need to sit under the stars in the middle of the night, or sit in your room in the middle of the night, empty your mind of ego and allow the voices of the world to speak to you. If you sit quietly and listen, if you allow yourself simply to see what appears before you, then you will begin to find your way. The night may tell you strange, unbelievable things. It may tell you things that don’t seem suitable to you. That’s exactly the point. You need the strange and alien voice of nature and the world to leaven your stagnating and suffocating soul.

At the same time that I speak in these poetic terms, know that this action is empirically necessary; it is not hocus-pocus. It is emotionally and spiritually necessary. Our culture’s language for such things is depleted, so it is no surprise that we laugh at the idea. Our cultural forms of adulthood are corrupted and geared to the continuation of military and industrial power. So it is hard to find the confidence and support you need for this time-tested journey out of adolescence.

Yet you must go into mystery and struggle. It is right there in front of you. You are right on the cusp of it. Your agonies are proof of this. Your agonies arise because you are fighting your own growth. The world is calling you. The world is telling you to grow.

The world is alive and wise and full of grace and power and savage beauty. Open yourself to it. Lie on the ground and open your legs to the sky. Lie in the sand on the ocean and let the waves cover you. Stare deep into the immensity of lost time and slow light traveling on a slow train across the cosmos. See the bigness of it. Find a tree and sit before it and ask it where to go. Do these things. Put yourself in the world. The world will answer you.

If you are to be an artist, what you learn and gain through this will be what you offer, what you craft. What you take from this will be your gift to the world.

There is no need to be cynical. Nor is there time to be cynical. You and I both know how much stupid crap there is in the world. Do not allow it to make you cynical about your own miraculous being. The crap in the world is about power and control and wealth and status; as such, it is an outgrowth of fear, the ego’s silly fear of dissolution and nonexistence; the crap in the world is not the world’s essence; it is our fear-filled distortion. Surely moguls and hustlers fill the streets and boardrooms; surely the bullshit machine of need hammers at us day and night to buy more, to keep these fearful moguls in trade; surely there is plenty of crap in the world. But the world is not crap. The world is glorious. The world is an out-and-out miracle. The world is yours. The world is calling to you.

Creep out into the night on your hands and knees and look around. Listen to the leaves snoring away their chlorophyl dreams in the night, waiting for the recharging dawn. Listen to the congregation of dew collecting in its pews. Listen to the whispering stars. This is your world. Let it strike you dumb with awe. Let it speak to you. Let it guide you. Do what it says. It will take you where you need to go.

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I used to love … What?

So here is another thing. Seth Myers is interviewing Joe Hill and I am watching from my perch high and far away on my mysterious island of emotional distance and contempt  and it is as if the older I get the more godlike I am because there is nothing that surprises me and I cannot be seduced by the son of Stephen King and I am charmed by nothing; I have attained the weary omniscience of a god  for whom all is repetition and slender variation; watching pop culture now is like watching a waterfall: the same silver mesmerizing stream, beautiful yet unchanging,  soothing yet loveless; I observe without allegiance. It is just a waterfall.

There used to be allegiance. I used to fall in love with bands. I fell in love with The Clash.

Before Joe Hill was on Kerry Washington was on and in between them was Michael C. Hall. So Kerry Washington is a star on Scandal but you knew that. You knew that but I did not because as I say pop culture has marched on like a silent army of robotic simulacra outside my tenth-floor loft window in an ur-New York City apartment in an imaginary graphic novel that is being read by a character played by me in a black leather chair by the red brick wall of his tenth floor loft window while the TV is on. I remember being in the vortex of slavish pop culture erudition, the mindless brilliance and repetition that the liminal soul state between 12 and 18 requires, that I have hung over the edge of the waterfall and watched band after band slide into warm liquid obscurity, that now older but no more knowing I am riffing now that’s all, on stage in the hot light in the roar of a bored indifferent crowd I strut with my top hat and cane, begging you to watch and begging you to see my code, crack the mystery of my eggshell, warm up to me, tell me a bedtime story.

Snorting speed to stay up all night entering calendar events in the computer of the San Francisco Weekly in the early 1980s: Now that was the big pop culture thrill: Knowing every single venue and every single show. For what? To feel the vicarious thrill. To possibly be cool by proxy. Enough. Horseshit. A bogus thing. But wait. Have you been there too? Do you also know the dizzy wakeup call when you’re watching a new talkshowhost and you don’t even know who the former talkshowhost was and you realize it’s been 10 years?

How 10 years can go by. How all your young friends look old. How you can’t believe children are allowed to be bank tellers.

When will I fall in love with a song or a book again? Perhaps never. Perhaps now it will just be an endless succession of amusing repetitions, authors enacting and reenacting a regal ceremony and me, locked in a sterile 10th floor room with my words, fewer and fewer, rolling them around on my desk, looking for a new combination. Me no better than you: both of us working with scarce few tools, seeing what we can do in the time allotted, like on Top Chef or the Apprentice.

 

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Stolen words

Write for Advice

 

Cary’s classic column from

My boss uses what I write in e-mails as his own. What should I do about it?


Dear Cary,

I’m an in-house copywriter/creative director with a small technical company, working for a boss whose communications skills, to put it delicately, are not his greatest asset. Lately I learned he’s been passing off my writing (not ad or brochure copy, just conversational e-mails on internal issues) as his own. I’ll write him a note on a topic, and later on that same note will land in my in box as part of a forwarded e-mail conversation chain — only now the note has his name on it. It’s happened several times that I know of.

I’ve always thought of him as a fundamentally decent fellow, and I sense he does this more for expediency’s sake (“Why bother rewriting this opinion that I share, when I’ve got this version sitting here?”) than to lay claim to my thoughts and words. Still, they are my thoughts and words, and I worry that by keeping my name out of these conversations he’s limiting my ability to benefit from people’s reactions to my ideas. Besides, I’m a writer: Even within the quasi-professional forum of interoffice e-mails, it feels like plagiarism.

Am I overreacting? And if not, should I confront him?

Accidental Ghostwriter

Cary Tennis Writing Retreat in France

Dear Ghostwriter,

Here are some suggestions: Stop giving your boss great lines that he can use and call his own. Do your job on the brochures and the official stuff, but stop giving him stuff for free. If there are people you want to impress with your ideas, send your ideas directly to those people. Or if there’s a discussion you’re having with your boss and you can predict that it’s going to widen to include others, if you suspect he’s going to steal your material, suggest that that you include those people to whom he’s likely to send your material. Ask, what other interested stakeholders are there? You know, act like you care.

Either suggest they be included, or just cc them as though you thought that was the normal thing to do, since you know they’re interested parties.

Don’t be telling your boss not to cop your copy. He won’t get it. He’ll just think you’re being a pain.

You might also review just what you were hired for. Did you get a job description? Did anybody ever tell you what your job was? There is probably some expectation that you provide “other written materials.” These e-mails could be considered other written materials. You just want credit for it, right? So I’d find some way to let others know where it’s coming from — like, by cc’ing them before your boss steals your stuff.

And I would beware of your own personal motives that are tripping you up, too. Hey, I know about this: You want to do a great job of writing e-mails because that’s what you are. After all, you’re a writer. So you could be tricking yourself into giving your stuff away because you’re so damned good and you can’t help it, and you can’t help trying to impress your boss. I know what it’s like to be a writer. It doesn’t matter who the audience is. You’re still going to sweat over a few sentences until they’re perfect.

Bosses in non-media companies are so weird. They have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. They are just so weird. How do they even get through the day without being able to communicate?

Who knows. But they do. I guess they do it by hiring people like you.

Don’t pick a fight with him, but don’t be a sap!

WhatHappenedNextCall

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