I’m filled with rage

A classic column from TUESDAY, SEP 27, 2005 


It’s political, it’s personal — I just wanna clobber the people in charge!


Dear Cary,


I have an emotional problem. I walk around with a rage inside me that I don’t know how to address. I fantasize about things that, were I to describe them to you, I would be visited by black-suited men at my apartment one night and, if not taken away, at least placed on a list I’d rather not be on.


I don’t know what to do with my rage. I can’t hold it inside me like this, but every time it seems to dissipate, and I’ve forgotten, as I have the luxury of doing, what a sorry, sad, unjust and, yes, despicable state of affairs we’ve galloped merrily into, something dramatically and heart-wrenchingly demands that my rage be acknowledged. And frankly — it’s necessary to be reminded of these things.


My problem is this, I just never felt interested in or comfortable with political action. I can’t stand the excruciatingly slow pace of it. I can’t stand the one-step-forward, two-steps-back inevitability of it. I can’t stand that progress is measured in generations and not years, in shades of brown and not in lives enriched.


I’d rather sing a song than write a letter. I’d rather nuzzle a belly than immunize a child. I’d rather build a tree house than a shelter. But I have to do something with this rage. I can’t walk around wanting to inflict pain and suffering on the people in charge, who seem to have neither brains between their ears nor eyes in their heads nor hearts in their chests.


I don’t like being angry. It’s a pathetic cliché, but I’m a lover, not fighter. Especially when the fight is as heartbreaking and insurmountable as this. Where can I put this energy that is poisoning me?


Lover, Not a Fighter

Dear Lover Not Fighter,

 

You seem to be describing an overwhelming state of emotion that is linked to politics but not directly tied to one particular act — as though world events had accumulated like snow on the roof and then crashed through, covering you to the chin. Your natural reaction is to struggle mightily against being engulfed. It’s hard to find a target, though. You are immersed.

 

That makes it difficult, at first, to know what to say to you — aside from “Grab the rope! Grab the rope!”

 

But I think I know what you are going through. There comes a time when we are so overwhelmed by events that we lose faith in orderly, sequential action toward moderate goals. Our situation seems so desperate that we need to do something right now or we will suffocate. Signing up to man a phone bank just doesn’t cut it.

 

You are not alone. Your letter reminds me, actually, of the situation prior to last year’s election when readers began saying they felt out of control and anxious; they were thinking of leaving the country. They were feeling apocalyptic. It was unthinkable that George Bush would be elected again. And yet it happened. We staggered out into the night.

 

I found myself trying to understand how human beings get themselves into these insane situations of mass hysteria, fascism, Nazism and so forth. One of the questions I had was why we in America seemed to be so deeply freaked out, torn, betrayed, as though having internalized some ideal notion of our country, as though it were a father or mother — while those in other, older civilizations would shrug it off, or hunker down, or do something pragmatic like emigrate. And I came across the writing of Jacqueline Rose, who talked about how citizens of a democracy are uniquely vulnerable to feelings of unbearable inner contradiction when their countries act in unconscionable ways.

 

Anyway, during my investigations into the symptoms of our national disease, I myself fell ill; I had some kind of attack; I collapsed and was taken to the hospital, where they found nothing wrong.

 

It turned out that to get well I would have to stop taking everything so seriously.

 

So actually, believe it or not, to counter the effects of today’s political climate, I have begun (again) reading Fredric Jameson’s “Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” His is a mind so energetic, so engaged and so amusing in its speculations, so wide in its knowledge, that it acts as a tonic for one’s befuddlement and outrage. Also, for the same reason, Terry Eagleton has been helpful. “The Illusions of Postmodernism” can also been taken like a vitamin to correct our deficiencies and relieve some of our symptoms.

 

Not that I understand what these brilliant men are saying, mind you. It’s more like reading Sartre in junior high: You sense some marvelous energy and intelligence at work, eager to tutor you into being if you can only walk alongside and listen.

 

And it is helpful for outside voices to diagnose us as well, for we cannot always recognize our own symptoms. Jonathan Raban in the recent New York Review of Books:

 

“I have been visiting the US for more than thirty years and have lived here for the last fifteen: during the last four of those years, America, in its public and official face, has become more foreign to me by the day — which wouldn’t be worth reporting, except that the sentiment is largely shared by so many Americans … Under Bush’s self-styled ‘wartime presidency,’ the composition of the American landscape is steadily altering. What was once in the foreground is moving into the background, and vice versa. Our world is being continuously rearranged around us in deceptively small increments. Though we like to pretend that the emerging new order is ‘normal,’ that daily life proceeds much as it always did, with a few small novel inconveniences, we keep on bumping uncomfortably into the furniture.”

 

The sense of disorientation that he describes strikes me as central to what many of us are feeling: It is not so much that we disagree with specific policies as that, as he puts it, someone keeps rearranging the furniture. It would be tempting, if also paranoid, to consider us as the victims of a kind of shock-and-awe campaign, orchestrated not with bombs but with media and a planned concatenation of events, a bombardment from all sides on all our privileges and freedoms, beliefs and assumptions, wholly ideological in its content but military in its precision and its strategic concentration of force. The purpose of such an assault would be not just to win a series of individual battles but to systematically demoralize and disorient the left so that it becomes ineffective for a generation or two to come. After all, a confused and enraged enemy without a plan is a weak enemy indeed. The fact that we increasingly wander alone in the night, dumbly wanting only to club somebody with a stick, is evidence that, intentional or not, such a strategy seems to be working.

 

It is good to feel crazy about politics. It is a good signal. It means we must act. But act how? If you are feeling crazy and nearly violent with anger, protesting is good for you — and good for the country! We saw this during the period of the Vietnam War: It was possible for a time to believe in the necessity of the war. One by one, though, people began to crack. One by one they sought a cure. It could only be found in action. People of all stripes took to the streets. Once that began to happen, the old regime was finished.

 

Lastly, a warning: Your symptoms may not be exclusively political; there is the possibility that you may require medical intervention. I am not particularly frightened for you, for I am well acquainted with the extremes to which one can go before one really needs to be checked in somewhere. Still, if the voices begin telling you to do things, harmful things, seek psychiatric help.

Will our words ever be heard again?

We write and we write and we write on the Net, dispensing thoughts and advice. For what?

 Cary’s classic column from  WEDNESDAY, FEB 4, 2009

Dear Cary,

My problem is that we have a one-day cycle in our writing, in our lives. You read our problems; then people read our problems in your column. Then people read our responses, but then the sun comes up again, and all our writing goes down on the cycle, to oblivion.

I go nuts trying to give good advice to your letter writers, and also trying to provide wisdom and info in other Salon topics. But it all washes away after a single day. Smart, thoughtful posters get their say, but raging ding-dong posters get away with their silliness, because it all starts over again every day.

I always have imagined that future historians and archaeologists will read Salon, and gain insight on our society. But, Lord Almighty, we have so many words on our World Wide Web, and so many people!

Classical civilization had fewer writers than we have now, and even fewer whose work has survived. It is possible for a person to read every single surviving written work from all of Greek and Roman literature. Now, though, yikes! Overall, we generate as many words in a day as all those surviving classical works.

So! My question: Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again? Will our best, well-meant advice ever help anybody else in the future? Will our detailed knowledge ever help anybody in the future? Or do we just get filed, permanently?

And, does it matter?

Frequent Wise Man

Dear Frequent Wise Man,

We do not know what will be left of our culture.

I do imagine that in oral cultures a great deal of brilliant talk was made and all of it is lost. I imagine that Homer composed poems more brilliant than any that were written down, and they are lost. I imagine that throughout time seers and sages have solved the mysteries of the universe while drunk on wine or high on hallucinogens, have seen it all and tried to convey it but had no tools with which to do so, and therefore countless moments of wisdom and genius, perhaps the very keys to the universe itself, have been glimpsed and they are lost.

If you have ever had the sensation of comprehending for an instant the totality of the universe and thinking, I’ve got it! I see it! I understand! and then slinking sheepishly into the house an hour later with only the fuzziest recollection of what you have witnessed, then you can imagine how many times this has happened throughout history, how many solutions to the world’s ills, how many poems of crystalline brilliance, how many mathematical proofs, how many perfect melodies and glistening poems and fantastic, indescribable visions of universal harmony have come to our ancestors and our brothers and sisters throughout time meditating high on mountaintops or walking along dirt paths from village to village or sitting in forest shacks and caves, or journeying in ships across vast oceans or contemplating the enormous desert sky, and you can imagine the tragedy or humor implicit in this: that it all has been lost. I imagine that many who have taken psychedelics have seen, in an instant, the very core of existence, but have not had the mathematics or the physics or the poetry to convey it, and so those visions are lost. I imagine that in the pubs of Ireland poems are composed daily by farmers in their cups and they are lost by the morning. I imagine that in New Guinea seers know with utter certainty the secrets of the universe but do not trust us or do not know us or figure we wouldn’t understand anyway, and so these secrets of the universe will die with them and be lost.

At the same time, as we prattle on endlessly in our way, I imagine that software of ever-increasing subtlety will be devised to ferret out important truths from the staggering mass of words that now pile up like a digital landfill, clogging the servers of the world. I imagine that everything we have written on the Net will eventually be retrieved, sorted and priced, valued according to its originality and wit.

But does what I imagine bear any relationship to the actual future we race into as though sliding down an icy mountain? Will what we say here ever really be unearthed and used? Will there be a need for it? Are we just playing out the old fantasy of immortality, dreaming that our words will live on? And, as you say, does it matter?

I do not know, but you and I and all the rest of us go on dreaming, trying to see the order in chaos, to glimpse the perfection at the edge of madness, look for the souls of trees and hear the voices of clouds and see in each occluded heart some echo of divinity. I know that we keep on talking and writing and it goes somewhere. Perhaps in that universe that even now is spinning backward from our own, our words are coming back out of the spring air and into our mouths and back into our brains where they will lie dormant, as if never spoken, until the pre-universe universe contracts sufficiently to cause another Big Bang, and it will start all over again, and after millions of years fish will climb the rocks and grow lungs again and apes will pick up tools and invent language all over again, and again as they speak and speak they will begin to wonder, Will this ever be heard again? Will future generations benefit from all our thoughts and visions? Does any of this really matter? And again the apes will go to psychiatrists and lie on couches and fill the air with doubt and uncertainty.

So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.

 

My crazy creative acts don’t add up

Write for Advice

Dear Cary –

My creative doubts have been simmering like a mild poison in my heart and mind for years and I’m starting to hate myself. I need to do something about it.

Nine years ago I was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By age 31 I had accidentally become a loudmouth, performance-arty, punk-rocky type person. I say accidentally because as a dull-witted, privileged, Southern Californian white girl, I wouldn’t have chosen that life. I wouldn’t have believed myself capable of thriving on the grungy, diversified, kaleidoscopic roller coaster that is (was?) New York City.

I was a quiet adolescent with vague aspirations of becoming a marine biologist, though I had no aptitude for science and was a poor student; I just liked Sea World and wanted to ride around on the whales. Then in high school I found the drama kids, in college I majored in theater and went on to get an MFA in acting; even though acting is an impractical profession, the path was well defined. I went on auditions, tried to land an agent, took head shots and even started a theatre company of my own. But I wanted to run wild and so I did.

I raced around New York on my bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, having sex with random creatives and cursing loudly into microphones. I would do anything as long as I considered it to be “arty.” I wasn’t accomplishing anything real, though — nothing I could point to and say, “If only I’d kept doing ‘xyz’ I could have made it.”

I wrote short stories, sang and played guitar, acted in plays and did standup comedy and I am not being overly critical of my abilities when I say that unless something unusual happened like it did for some of the lesser bands that hung out at CBGB’s, my antics weren’t going to get me what I really wanted which was to be a part of the professional rather than amateur conversation by making the art that only I can make. I prayed that the group of misfits I was surrounded by would achieve a Studio 54 level of significance, if only in retrospect, so that my showboating would turn out to be meaningful. I can see now that artists like Amanda Palmer, Taylor Mac or Kathleen Hanna are actually doing what I thought I was doing, but wasn’t. Anyway.

I was also lonely and I yearned for romantic love so when I met my husband — the true love of my life, also a standup comic, musician and actor — it felt like hitting the jackpot. I became shy and lost my taste for exhibitionism and decided to drop out of my punk rock band and focus on writing. I grew quieter and I liked it.

I worked as a secretary and eventually became a flight attendant. We got married and both started to feel chewed up by the New York grind. We bought a house in the desert where my parents live and we love it out here. Neither of us misses big-city life.

I quit flying and became a secretary again, wrote five incomprehensible novels and created a silly/offensive cartoon and blog.

But then I started to feel hidden in a bad way. It seemed none of the people around me understood that I had more to offer than the ability to arrive on time and fill out expense reports. I felt sad and droopy, like a bird with wild, colorful feathers wearing a drab, slouchy grey sweatsuit with stains on it.

I didn’t know how to handle this feeling, but I wanted to take action so I swore that I was going to work as hard as I could on my latest novel. I was going to write my way out of the ugly, grey sweats and let the world see my feathers again. I quit my job and for a year I’ve been living off of my savings trying to do whatever it takes to finish the fucking thing.

But I hate it. The novel — writing it has been just … bad. Not bad like “Keep at it and you’ll get better!” bad, but bad like “Why do this when every single day writing feels like a dead, empty, cold, fishy void?” Right now I’m working now on my third rewrite (rewrite as in I’m rewriting the whole thing from scratch) and I just don’t care. My feathers are as droopy as ever. They’re wilting and I think they might be starting to fall out. The novel is meaningless. I am disgusted with myself, but I swore I’d finish it.

I feel like I’ve wasted all of my energy and enthusiasm and now I’m going to be 40 and I have absolutely nothing to show for my artistic ambitions. I’m not a marine biologist, I’m not a punk-rock theatre skank, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a secretary or a flight attendant.

Today I spent the afternoon contemplating getting a degree in digital media arts at the local community college. It seems like a practical thing to do, but is it? Is it just more of the same? Who’s to say I won’t hate that too?

I’ve tried teaching yoga for a year and I really, really hate teaching yoga. I hate secretarial work. I hate writing novels. I’ve tried and failed at a crafty Etsy endeavor. I enjoy painting and drawing but can’t fathom what makes the visual art world tick and while I can pursue it as a hobby, I feel that a hobby doesn’t achieve my goal of exposing my feathers. I want to dig deep, get serious and contribute something artistic in the next (knock wood) forty years. I don’t know what I want to do only that I don’t want to be a nurse or an actress or anything that I can point to in a college catalogue. I don’t have or want children. All I’ve ever cared about was art but I can’t seem to make any.

I want more out of life, but it seems that I am an asshole who doesn’t like anything and can’t do anything well. I should also say that I am very fortunate to have a great husband and great parents who love me and I know how lucky I am.

Can you please tell me if I sound like an asshole? I’m so tone deaf that I don’t even know if these concerns are meaningful or just the dissatisfied whining of someone who’s been given way too much, encouraged way too much and should just find a way to stop complaining and be a secretary. Help.

With much love and appreciation for what you do,

Like a bird in a sweatsuit

OnlineWorkshopAug6

Hey there Bird,

It’s OK for you to move from one thing to another. It’s natural for you. That’s where your energy is.

You are a wanderer. You are gathering wisdom from experience.

The problem is that when you look at what you have accomplished it seems like an incoherent mess. So you feel like a failure. You are not a failure. You are at the beginning of something. You are an artist in the early stages of accomplishment. There is a large, life-defining project awaiting you but you don’t know for sure what it is yet. That’s OK. You are working toward it.

What you need is a pattern of working for the next few years that will allow you to keep doing these seemingly disparate activities while also finishing pieces, and all the while keeping an eye on the unifying whole. I suggest using a loop as a pattern.

Envision a circuit. Picture a studio with several projects in various stages of completion. Or maybe it is not a studio but an open field. Maybe it is the desert. Whatever comes to mind. Line up your various pieces and ideas out there: Your performance-art work, your writing, your punk band, your painting, your jobs. Make a path that links them and walk that path. Go to the project that speaks to you at the time, but water them all. Attend to them all. At times, you may simply go and contemplate a project. That is OK. Your attention is like water. It is like love. It keeps the project breathing while it awaits your hands.

You don’t have to stay with one project until it’s entirely finished. You can move from thing to thing. But line the things up so that as you are moving around, you are moving in a circuit of your creations. Each time you come back to the next thing, it’s at a stage where you can work on it and move it forward. In that way, you can finish things and keep them moving forward. You will eventually finish certain things. Others may languish for years. That is OK. Finish what you can finish. Just don’t turn away from anything in despair. It all has meaning.

At the same time, while you do this, in your spare time, study form.

Concentrate on mastering the basics of any form you work in. The novel, for instance: Master the elemental truths of the novel as a form. Go back to basics. Take a look at what the novelist Jane Smiley did when she got stuck. She read 100 novels and asked herself, what are these things? How do they work? What defines them? She wrote 100 Ways of Looking at the Novel. She got down to basics and defined what a novel is at its most elemental. It is “a lengthy written prose narrative with a protagonist.” That’s all. But that’s a lot. The implications of that small statement are immense.

So learn as much as you can about form. Use what you learn to make your pieces cohere.

I sense that you are an extravert, a courageous and in-your-face kind of person, probably an ESFP with an unusually strong intuitive side. It’s vitally important for you to be alive in the moment and impassioned, and you want to share this passion with others. Also, you are physical, tactile. That is your sensing preference. So you need to be doing the stuff. You do your thinking by doing. That’s OK. Because you have a strong intuitive sense (you are probably on the cusp of sensing/intuitive) you can envision and take in nonmaterial ideas.

Creative people are often unbalanced in our talents. We can take steps to moderate our tendency not to finish things. That is one main reason why I created Finishing School — to help those of us who are impassioned and live in the moment but also want to make lasting work. By creating a structure in which we can be just as crazy as we like, we get things finished.

For some people, often those of the “J” persuasion, finishing is the driving motive. For others, the “P’s” among us, the process is the driving motive. For folks like you and me, in the moment of working, it doesn’t matter to us that much whether we finish. Later it does, though. And it matters a great deal to the world, to our audience. So we come upon the dividing point where the creative person must choose between selfishness and service. If we just want to fuck around then we can fuck around and we enjoy it but we are of no use to anyone else. They can’t understand what we are saying because we are not finishing our statements. So we have to supplement our weaker, anarchic, process-oriented, in-the-moment-and-fuck-the-results side. We have to consciously build a structure that ensures we end up finishing things in spite of our tendencies to wander off mid-song.

This requires both finesse and faith.

Since your strong side is the inspiration side, concentrate on building up your conceptual side. This may take a little bit of make-believe; that is, you may have to conjure up a story about each work that is not perhaps entirely literally true. It is a hypothesis that can guide you in making decisions. Ask, What is this piece? What is its thesis? If you are racing around New York on a bicycle doing naked performance art in dive bars, what is the thesis statement of this activity? What might it be? What is the conceptual framework? Might it be a critique of bourgeoise society? Might it be a celebration of the Dionysian? Might it be about being a woman, or unleashing the power of the body? Try to think in terms of a thesis so that you can make decisions about what goes in and what stays out, and so you can decide when the piece is finished. If you know what the thesis is, then you can say the work is finished when it adequately states the thesis.

You may say, well, people should understand the work anyway, in all its inscrutability. Well, maybe they should. But they won’t. Not unless you give them some framework in which to “understand” it. Now, of course, “understand” is in quotes because it is only a rough equivalent of what actually happens when people apperceive a work; it is the cognitive, expressible side. The other, ineffable side is there too. The mystery doesn’t disappear just because we conceive the work within a hypothesis.

Creating a thesis for a work also provides a basis for deciding various crucial elements. For instance: Do I want to smear bicycle chain grease on my nipples or not? Would that add to the meaning or detract? Would it create a richer pattern or would it seem random? Would it be sexually exploitive of yourself as a woman? And speaking of being sexually exploitive, why nipples? Why not on your face, as a warrior? Or on your biceps?

Another way to deal with these apparently incommensurate forays into various art forms is to conceive of your life as the actual project, or canvas. In that sense, what unifies these various activities? They spring from one unique consciousness; together, they define a person. So ask what are the major themes of your life and how do these activities express those themes? Wandering? Seeking? Rebellion? Break down those themes into their constituents and find correspondences. For instance, where has wandering been synonymous with rebellion? When has rebellion provided answers to what you were seeking? See if you can draw lines — it may help to do this visually — between these themes; look for equivalences and synonymous relationships, and also for the contradictions: Where has rebellion led to confinement? Where has seeking led to emptiness and wandering to stasis? These dualities constitute another ordering principle by which you can bring these various artistic endeavors into a conceptual whole.

That whole is your life.

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Our person of the week: Eva Finn

First, I’d like to give a shout out to the other featured writers, some of whom I had the pleasure and privilege of meeting at Cary’s first Creative Getaway. It’s good to see their faces again and inspiring to witness the success they’ve achieved with their writing. Going to the Creative Getaway and meeting Cary and Norma changed my life. I knew I wanted to do more with my writing but I didn’t know what. Cary was very generous with his time and counseling. After asking me a few really good questions about what I wanted to write, because seriously, I had no idea, he suggested young adult fiction might be a good area of focus for me.

I didn’t know that that conversation would lead me, five years later, to writing a blog that gives advice to young women. But I always loved Cary’s Salon.com advice column, and his book, Since You Asked. I felt a very personal connection to him through his writing and always thought he was better than any psychologist I ever had.

Which brings me back to what I’m doing now. I made a lot of mistakes in my 20s and sometimes wish I had done things differently or had had more guidance. I started the blog, Wisebefore25.com so young women could avoid some of my misfortunes. The topics range from finances, to boyfriends, to roommates, to family, to sex, to entertaining and beauty tips. But most of all, the goal of the blog is to help young women feel better about themselves and know that they’re not alone.

I also hope to finish a young adult book I’ve been working on. Not surprisingly, it’s a coming of age story. I plan on enlisting Cary and Norma to help me self-publish it once I’m done. It will be great to have their passion, devotion and inspiration once again.

Let the revolutionary self speak

by Kyoko Ide

Revolution. I feel such resistance towards it. Why?

I feel fear, I get tense, I feel like I have to find the right, proper words and expressions that wouldn’t offend anybody, so that my revolutionary self wouldn’t get criticized. But that’s not revolutionary at all. How come I feel like I have to protect myself and guard myself when I try to let my revolutionary self speak?

I have been always cautious not to offend anybody: Don’t offend anybody. Read the air. Read the atmosphere. Read other people’s minds. Keep the harmony. Don’t stick out. Tie your hair. Wear your uniform. (The ruler in the teacher’s hand that measured the length of the hem of my skirt.)

Keep your head down. Don’t speak up when your grandma speaks; she doesn’t want to be bothered by little kids; you have no right to speak up at the dinner table, you should just listen and nod quietly.

My mom told me she regretted that she didn’t let me speak up at the dinner table.

“Why didn’t I let you speak up? You were little and you had so many original, creative, incredible things to say, and I forced you to shut yourself up, because I feared your grandmother. I didn’t want to upset her. But who cares? Why didn’t I let you speak up? I should’ve let you speak up. I should’ve told your grandmother, ‘Excuse me, but now my daughter is speaking, could you shut your mouth and listen to her, please?'”

Why have I been silent? Why did I not say anything? What for? What was I afraid of? Where has been my revolutionary self? Why has she been so silent? Why has she been hiding? Why was she smiling, when she wasn’t smiling at all inside? Why did I keep silent?

My grandma’s dead. Then my mom’s dead. The teachers are gone. My father is old. What am I afraid of? Why do I have to keep my head down?

Where’s my revolutionary self — that wants to scream? That wants to stand up. That wants to walk ahead. That wants to turn the light on. That wants to pour the water and wash it all out. That wants to swipe it all. That wants to open her eyes and look them straight into the eyes.

Where is she? She is here. She has been hiding way too long. And she says: “Basta. I’ve had enough.” I’ve been listening and listening and listening and not saying anything. Nodding. Smiling. “Yes, yes.” “Sì, sì.” “Ho capito.” “Hai ragione.” “Sugoi desune.”

How wonderful! Basta, basta. I have something to say, too. I have a lot to say. I want to speak up. In any language. In Japanese. In my dialect. In English. In Italiano. Whatever.

I learned and learned and learned the languages; now I should actually use them. Stop nodding. Say something. Just say it. Say it loud. Don’t be silent.

I’m alive now. I won’t be alive forever. Death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain. I’ve got to say something.

Let us speak. Let us all speak. Let my sister speak, who is so afraid to speak. Let my friend speak, with her voice that is so free when she’s speaking to me. We have been speaking behind the walls. In the tiny Skype windows. In the car, when we were sure nobody was listening. In the kitchen, when the kids and the husband were not there. Behind the closed door, after we made sure it was locked, looking at the clock.

Let us be free from the darkness, the dense air that doesn’t circulate, the bad lighting, and the cold floor. Let us open the windows, unlock the door, turn the knob and open wide the door, let the air come in, let us swim in the sunshine. Let us say it all out loud. Let us show who we are.


[Note: This Voices from the Workshop World first-draft text was produced live in Cary Tennis’s Online International writing workshop. The goal of this Voices series is to showcase the literary productions that arise from these online Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, which are designed to maximize verbal creativity in order to free the expressive energy of all the world’s people.–Cary Tennis]

Let the revolutionary self speak

The world turns, and as it turns, people who could once keep to their feet and balance their weight against the motion, who learned to drink and dance and cook a meal while effortlessly poised against the turning of the world, these people suddenly found themselves thrown down to the ground, their plates and cups dashed from their hands, their feet hopelessly tangled, their heads broken and their limbs crushed. And those who lived began to ask themselves, as they fought to hang on to the violently-turning world, what has happened to the Earth’s rotation? Why do nights and days now flash by at such a speed? Why must we live with this awful perpetual motion, and why must we feel nauseous, and nurse injuries, and constantly risk our lives to cling onto the world by the very tips of our fingers?
They had little time to think about this problem, as daily life had become such a struggle for existence, and it was as much as they could do to keep body and soul together, let alone ponder big philosophical questions about the turning of the Earth. But they still did think about them, whenever they could gain a little rest and relief from their battle to hang on to the spinning world, for such is the nature of people. So one of their number said: “The rotation of the Earth has become so much faster because it suits the needs of a few rich men that it should be so. Never mind the fact that most of us are caused such discomfort, and that our friends and family and our neighbours have fallen off altogether, or become so sick and dizzy that they despaired and let go, or perished under the weight of heavy objects that have been displaced.”
Another said: “The trees are being uprooted and the atmosphere stripped away and the tides are too high and the land is flooded. The rich men do not care, for they can afford to live in special compounds that are protected from all the ill effects. But there are few of them and many of us. Why do we not demand that the Earth is slowed down to rotate once in 24 hours again? Then we can think of ways to repair the damage the rich men have done.” But one poor citizen who had suffered grave losses, and who was deeply scarred with old injuries from rolling objects, said: “Perhaps it is much better that the Earth should turn quickly. It is progress and progress cannot be argued with. And the wealthy men must surely be wise, or why would they have been blessed with wealth?”
Another spoke up: “If we do not accept that the Earth must spin nearly out of control, the rich men will give us no work, and if they cannot earn such vast wealth then surely we will all be poor. And if we do not hurtle through space at this frantic rate then we will be overtaken by other, faster planets who will rush around the sun much more quickly than we can, and they will steal our rightful warmth and light. And the rich men will label us ‘anti-revolutionists’ and all the world’s ills will be laid at our door. No, comrades, it is better that we should suffer in silence and continue to try to hang on until our luck changes and, perhaps by some miracle, we can join the ranks of the rich men.”
And so they did not try to right the wrong that had been done to the Earth and all its people. They lowered their heads and continued with their daily struggles as best they might. Until one day the Earth began to spin so fast that nothing could stop it. The last trees were uprooted, and the seas overran the land, and the atmosphere was stripped away, and the planet hurtled headlong out of the solar system and rolled away into deepest outer space.


[Note: This Voices from the Workshop World first-draft text was produced live in Cary Tennis’s Online International writing workshop. The goal of this Voices series is to showcase the literary productions that arise from these online Amherst Writers and Artists workshops, which are designed to maximize verbal creativity in order to free the expressive energy of all the world’s people.–Cary Tennis]

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Our person of the week: Lucy Hilmer

Lucy Hilmer has been a regular at Cary’s writing practice table at Café La Boheme in San Francisco, for the past 2 ½ years. Lucy is a fine art photographer, documentary filmmaker and poet, who spends most of her time working alone in her home studio. But every Friday at noon, she heads to the Mission to sit with Cary’s pop up community of creative people for an hour, where she and others fast write from prompts, and read aloud the instant trajectories of their free flowing imaginations. Writing with Cary at Café La Boheme has given Lucy — a self-described hermit/artist — a place she can count on for community and creative risk taking with others.

My Valentines BOOK COVERWe are please to recommend Lucy’s first photo book, MY VALENTINES, 21 Years of Portraits From The Family Album. It is a gift for all seasons, but especially appropriate for gift giving on Valentine’s Day. Here is the link to Lucy’s website, where it can be purchased.

For more than 40 years, Lucy has photographed, at regular intervals, the ever-changing lives of herself, her family, and friends, creating multiple, B&W series-in-time, which she is currently funneling into a trilogy of photo books with short, companion piece films.

For 21 years, the time it takes to bring up a child, Lucy made an annual portrait of her daughter, always in relationship to a rose and some abstracted portion of her black-sweatered dad. These classic, B&W portraits were then mailed out as Valentine Postcards to everyone her family ever knew or met. “Annie Cards” travelled all over the world to be archived in albums, stuck on refrigerator doors, pinned on bulletin boards in all sorts of offices— and now, they are available to you in this beautifully printed and produced book, which tracks the life a child growing from a 3-day-old infant to a 21-year-old woman who has come of age.

Annie Valentine Card 1993


Cary's Writing Retreat in Chester, CT

Jan Rosamond

Our person of the week: Jan Rosamond

Happy New Year! After slowing down for the holidays, Cary and I are back working at full speed. The “Featured Person of the Week” is back, as are more columns and creative writing from Cary.

A note: because many commenters have mentioned that they would like the ability to edit their comments after they post them, we’ve changed our method of posting comments. You now need to log in to our site to post a comment, as this is the only way out site will let you make edits after posting. I hope you won’t find this extra step too cumbersome. Please keep the comments coming!

Have a great week!

 

We first met Jan at our writing retreat at Marconi Conference Center. Since that time, Jan has embarked on a “self-funded, self-directed, multi-media inner research project” called Dharma Town. Dharma Town is intended as a sangha-building resource for practitioners of Insight, Mindfulness and Metta Meditation in the St. Louis area. For the past 2 years she’s been writing every weekday on Dharma Town Times, where she posts her reflections on all-things-dharma.

Below is Jan’s unique take on the Creative Getaway:

I’ve been to several of Cary’s Creative Getaways…the first one he ever held and then the second, and the third one, too, I think…and they were all wonderful, joyous, inspiring and quite amazingly productive…but the one I remember the most was the one where the Bear showed up. Not a real, live bear, of course. Not exactly.

Cary had given us a prompt which asked us to let that part of ourselves that is afraid to write—write. He said to let it say whatever it wanted to say. Which sounded a little too “woo-woo” for me, but then I got started and I found myself writing the words: “You don’t trust me, you don’t believe in me, you don’t feed me.” And then: “You put me on display—like a bear on a chain—and you expect me to dance for you, but you don’t own me.” And then it was like the power of whatever it was that I had been afraid of for so long took over and these words just poured out:

“I’m a bear. I’m a huge, smelly, filthy bear. I have sharp, yellow, slobbery teeth. Don’t try to pretty me up. I have wounds that oozed. I have festering sores. But my eyes are clear and my great, soft belly is the color of ripe peach. Let me be what I am. Let me breath and drool. Let me claw through the garbage and break things. Let me roam and let me stumble in the dark. Let me stink the place up.”

Then I wrote: “You’re scaring me.” And then: “I know. Let me scare you.”  

But the thing is, I wasn’t afraid. I was energized. And since then, I’ve never been afraid to write.

Cary Tennis writing retreat in Chester Connecticut

 



We stood at the turning point: Brian Herrera and the beauty of change

What our friend Brian Herrera wrote today about his experience at the Creative Getaway at Marconi spurred some thoughts of my own which I’d like to share — with people who’ve had this experience and with people who perhaps do not know about the Amherst Writers and Artists method or the creative getaways Norma and I have put on at Marconi Conference Center since 2008.

Actually, I have a lot to say so I’ll post this in two or three parts. The first part, for today, is this: Brian’s post reminded me how much the AWA process can work as a catalyst at a crucial turning point in someone’s life. People get spurred on to make courageous changes and then they write books. They get degrees. They get jobs at Princeton.

Which means that they move on.

So let me tell you about my own kind of mixed-up psychology, or my personal emotional baggage: I am always trying to reconstruct my family. So if you come within my field of gravity, I will assign you a part in my imaginary family, as a brother or sister or uncle or aunt or parental figure. And then when someone whom I have assigned a place in my imaginary family makes a sudden move toward growth and change, my impulse is to say, Wait, hold on, you have to stay in the family!

Also, as a business, we can get hung up on having “repeat customers.” It makes it easier for us financially if everybody just comes every time. As producers of the event, Norma and I are focused on repeating it as an event, making it happen again and again. Yet the essence of it is about change: people using the AWA method to speak their truth, making changes in their lives and moving on.

There are some words in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that are relevant here: “Half-measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point.”

People come to the creative getaway because they are standing at the turning point. They have tried half-measures, acknowledging as portion of the writer self, for instance, feeding it enough to keep it from dying but mainly in life attending to what is practical and pressing and immediate, while continuously thinking that one day perhaps we’ll get around to seeing what this writing thing is all about, and this niggling, half-ignored voice of the writer will get its due. One day. Sometime.

Keep on like that and then suddenly you’re 80. So we say come, now, while the impulse is fresh, begin a dialog with the writer self in you, and make the changes you need to make.

But how does that relate to the production of story? One might ask, where is the craft in all this? Where is the practical application? How is this going to help me be a writer?

I say, paradoxically, that abandoning for the moment all concern about craft is the route to finding our true story, for story is about revelation. Story is not about craft. Craft is a vehicle. Story is about facing desperate moments. So in coming to Marconi, or Chester, or Melrose, or Santa Barbara, or Amsterdam, or Tuscany, one may be treating oneself, but one is also mining one’s own desperation for that kernel of truth that is the only story that matters.

Story comes from personal truth in conflict with the world. One recognizes what is real, what is right, what must be done, and sets about changing, upsetting the apple cart, creating tension. Poetry, too, comes of conflict — confronting the barriers of language itself, twisting it to fit what is otherwise inexpressible.

So coming to Marconi to explore one’s relationship to the writing self is also about finding the story that writing self is best suited to write. Conversely, when we are stuck we are not only avoiding the situation, we are avoiding the story. The story begins when we acknowledge the situation and start dealing with it — as Brian did.

Thanks Brian, for reminding me what is the essential function and goodness of the AWA method.

The point is that if you “stand at the turning point,” if you are at the fulcrum of change and ready to set a new angle of trajectory, this may be what you need. And then, if this is what you need, then our job is to make it possible for you to do it.

It takes a little trust — trust of oneself, and also trust in external things coming together. In Brian’s case, for instance, there was the long-agonized-over dissertation. There was also the fact that it was his birthday; and his partner was supporting him in the decision. And a little bit of money had come into his hands that made it make sense to do it. All those things came together.

In other cases it may be just the soul crying out, saying, It’s time to do this. This is what you need, even if it does not appear to be the practical thing. Life is like that sometimes. We have to make a leap of faith.

My job is to be there and make the event happen. If now, having read this, you recognize that you are at some kind of turning point, then please let me know and we will see what we can do to accommodate you.

Oh, and feel free to phone me on impulse. 415 308-5685. You don’t need to have your whole plan figured out. You don’t have to be sure you’re coming. Call if you just want to talk about the possibility of it. I love to talk. All this emailing makes me miss talking on the phone. I don’t have things all figured out so I don’t see why you should.

p.s. Say Hello to Brian on Facebook!

 

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Our featured person of the week: Brian Herrera

We first met Brian Herrera at our first-ever Creative Getaway. An exceptionally talented and inventive writer, he amazed us all during our evening reading sessions by one moment reading us the most deeply moving piece, and the next reading something that would leave the entire room in tears of laughter. Here’s what Brian has to say about himself, the Creative Getaway, and his new project, Storywork:

When I got the email announcing Cary’s first Creative Getaway, I knew immediately I had to go. Even though it made no sense. Such an extravagance. Terrible timing. School would be back in session and, dang, it would be the weekend immediately prior to the last-chance, do-or-die submission date for my long-overdue dissertation! But…it would also be my birthday weekend. And a perfectly-sized lump payment had finally landed in my account. So when my partner said he’d spring for the airfare as a birthday gift, I clicked the button. I was in.

It was a gift, I reminded myself. Not a reward exactly, but a tangible gift to confirm that promise I made to myself. That promise that I would finish the dissertation. That confirmation that finishing the dissertation was itself an act of healing. That reminder that finishing meant I could no longer pretend I was just a dissertator. That finishing meant I was a writer.

And what better way to make that promise real than to join a bunch of other writers on a mountain near Tomales Bay?

That first Getaway was indeed a life-changer. In maybe the first session, I wrote my first real amends to my writerly self (using only single-syllable words, naturally). Within twenty-four hours, I wrote my first words of fiction. And by the weekend’s end, I felt as if a new chapter of my life had begun.

Looking back, just five years later, I realize that Cary’s Getaway didn’t make me a writer, but the experience did goad me to embrace that I am a writer, because I am someone who writes. That simple turn of mind not only opened a new chapter in my life, but also a renewed sense of self. And, in the five years since, I have kept writing in all kinds of ways. And not only the scholarly nonfiction required for my job, but exploring other forms, including young adult fiction, children’s picture books, and creative nonfiction The practice I began at the Getaway also took me directly to the particular set of coincidences that launched my autobiographical one-man show, I Was The Voice of Democracy, which has since been seen scores of times in more than a dozen states (not to mention Beirut and Abu Dhabi). I now enjoy a thrilling sideline in what I call “storywork,” or a mode of autobiographical storymaking in which the processes of writing and performing are so twined that the one can never be fully untangled from the other. (My new Storywork website launches this week — check it out!) And just a month or so ago, my ecstatic editor sent back a set of glowing reader reports, so now I’m hunkering down for a few weeks of deep revision because… Well, you remember that old dissertation? It is now nearly a book, presently under advance contract with a major university press and with a likely release sometime (hopefully early) in 2015.

And it all tracks back to that gift of a promise that Cary’s Getaway made real for me: I am a writer, because I am one who writes. So I better get to writing!