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!

Can I write and publish this book?

Dear Cary,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am so looking forward to your thoughts.

Blessings,

Writing from the Heart

Dear Writing from the Heart,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The difficulties are not insurmountable. They are merely huge.

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

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

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

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

Write for Advice

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

 

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Dear Cary,

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

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

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

Thank you, Cary.

Broke But Not Down

Dear Broke But Not Down,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Write for Advice

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