Red Room's "where the writers are." Here's where this writer is:
I'm trans-genre'd and as prolific as a zucchini plant. I write for adults. I write for children. I write about food, or more accurately, life through food. I write fiction. And poetry. And magazine articles. And I blog.
And yet somehow, like every other writer, I angst about not writing enough, messing around, procrastinating, wasting time. Occasionally I actually convince myself that this is true.
But, there are the 51 published books with my name on them. A few of them have won awards and prizes, been translated into other languages, etc. There's been a fair amount of outer "stuff": the dream review in The New York Times, the being on TV shows (Today and Good Morning America, yes; Oprah, no - and I'll add that I don't own a TV myself) --- the things one's supposed to claim and cite in a bio, but which really have nothing to do with the act of writing.
Which is something you do regardless of how you feel and how the world does or doesn't think of you.
As much as I've been fortunate enough to be published, I can't begin to number my unpublished works, many of which have taught me as much about writing as the more acclaimed ones. I prize this, because while writing pays my mortgage, it's also one of my practices, in the sense that one "practices" yoga, or a religion. And I've come to feel that practice makes practice, not (damnable lie!) perfect.
You have to be willing to be lousy at something to get good at it. You keep showing up, digging at the areas that are edgy for you. I'm lousy, I'm good, but I keep showing up and playing the edge. Sometimes, throughanother of my practices, teaching, I help people to do their version of the same.
Once you give up the idea of perfectiom - trying to write perfectly, live perfectly, have perfect relationships, practice gets a lot less angsty (though I don't think you can ever duck it entirely; you can learn to use it, though; instead, it becomes part of the process, a recognizable guest at your table).
My late father, the writer Maurice Zolotow --- he was Marilyn Monroe's first biographer --- used to say, "Nothing is wasted on the writer." A phrase so wise it became my blog title. A phrase as vast as our own imperfections. A phrase which makes those imperfections no more or less than material.
And everything is material.
The faint ammoniac odor you associate with working out because the workout room is the same room that the cat-box is in, though in the summer, when the screen door is open, this is mitigated by the scent of rosa rugosa, Grand Commander lillies, and honeysuckle just outside.
Or: hearing a snatch of someone playing trumpet through an open window in Key West.
Or: sunlight from a high-up clerestory falling precisely on a wooden bowl filled with oranges, one large buff-colored sculpural butternut squash beside it.
Or: the hiss of the espresso machine over a background pf Billie Holiday as you unromatically assort receipts in your favorite coffeehouse,because indulging in a mocha there is the only way you can force yourself to do sort receipts.
Or: discovering, at age 57, that your math skills are at a fourth-grade level not because you are incomprehensibly stupid in this area but because you have dyscalculia,a learning disorder.
Or: snow-shoeing on a full moon night in Vermont, and the moonlight bounces off birches and glittering snow, an illumination clear and strange and wondrous, like being out on a bright day when the sky is dark. You snowshoe all the way out to the old cabin you go and back, and it's after midnight when you return.
Where you are is where you are. That is where you start, in the middle of messiness, beauty, bittersweetness, anger, distraction, uncertainty. It's material.
About that other practice, teaching: I mostly do it in a weekend-long workshop format. Fearless Writing. This is one I've been reinventing, and watching students reivent themselves through, for 25-some years (Julia Child, at age 80-plus, was my single most famous and surprising student. She participated fully and energetically. Over lunch at the break she asked me to describe how I made my barbequed tofu. This is all true).
More recent additions to the workshops I teach: Building a Writing Practice, This Year You Write Your Memoir ( a year long course, one full day a month), and Deep Feast: Writing the World Through Food.
Speaking modestly, I think if you have the slightest interest in anything, you should take one of my workshops. Or at least, invite me to speak at your conference, or visit your school or university. Just saying.
As I was working on my book The Cornbread Gospels, I was also grappling with the fact that my husband of many years had died suddenly in an accident. As I was testing recipes, and grieving, I was also reading many Native American iterations of the old, old story (birth, growth, death, resurrection) which all the human race tells in one way or another, varying only the symbology and narrative details. Most people are familiar with the Christian version. But the indigenous American people told the story through corn. Corn and grief? Life and death? What was being stone-ground here, me or the cornmeal? Obviously a lot of material came up that didn't belong in the cookbook. Thus I developed, wrote, and perform, Until Just Moistened: A One-Woman Show, with Crumbs. It's not really one-woman; I have an accompanist (my old friend, the musician, Bill Haymes) and he's a man. But.
You could take me up on this, too: getting us to come and perform for your group or institution. I'm flexible, and not just because I (intermittently) do yoga.
I teach because writing --- as a calling, a way to make a living, and as practice --- continually teaches me. As Richard Price said, "You always teach what you most need to learn." While I help others regenerate or discover their own powers of invention and reinvention, right alongside them I, too, am reclaiming those same things: this process is never complete, it's only practice, more practice. When what you're talking about is endless creativity, the replacement of shame with resilience, exploration, self-love and doing rather than thinking about doing, it's not like sticking a toothpick in a cake in the oven to see if it's done. It --- you, me, any of us --- are never done. Unless you count death as done.
There are resources, like those I mentioned above, that are inherent in being human.They become exhausted only if we fail to use them.
Not all of us do triathalons, but almost anyone can and should take a daily walk, and benefit from doing so: movement is what our bodies were made for. Not everyone creates publishable work, but everyone can and should write and tell stories and benefit from doing so: narrative is what human minds and hearts were made for. It's how we figure ourselves out. We are meaning-making animals.
Food, shelter, story: consider the basics. Consider the cavepersons, our foreparents. First they killed the mastodon (food). Then they dragged it back to the cave (shelter). And then they painted the particulars of the hunt on the cave ceiling (story).
As a teacher, I remind people of this, sometimes escort them to their own cave ceiling, point out what they can use as a brush and paint. If my students learn to write with greater clarity, ease, and self-understanding --- and they do --- it's because the story itself wants to be told. Narrative is our birthright. Once you get that, the rest is craft. Which comes through, you guessed it, practice.
And with practice, the muse sometimes shows up. Call it what you like --- surprise, inspiration, the divine --- it's what creates the thing you did that you don't feel like you did, that leaves you imfused with wonder, certain that you, as a writer, are the most fortunate of individuals (even if you were fretting over your American Express bill or even the resilts of your biopsy the moment before you sat down to write). That gives the moments of saying "Where did that come from? How did it get there?"
And, with practice, sometimes it doesn't. You keep writing. The muse,some say, is fickle. I just think she/he/it is busy. Lot of us to go around and tap on the head. Once in awhile is enough. If, that is, you keep writing.
And that is one of the things I can often help others get, fully, in Fearless Writing.
So that's my teacher-life. I have a gardener-life, too, a citizen-life, a relationship-life. None of us are one-dimensional, thank God.
But back in my writer-life, I'm in the cave. Painting away. I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm telling a story. As I do, the firelight from the old, old fire warms my back as I look up.
My parents were readers as well as writers; my mother was also an editor. They read out loud to me before I knew how to read, and from my earliest days I knew that I, too, would be a writer. (Before you say, "It must be in your genes!" consider: I have one brother, and he is a world champion poker player). How, specifically, did they influence me? I've written some about it; to get Maurice's part, see Creative Discontent: lasting father-wit, & a writer/innkeeper's ex-files
All the Awake Animals, A Very Sleep ABC, Little Brown
The Bean Book, Workman Publishing
Fearless Writing, Shire Books
Workman Publishing, HarperCollins, Atheneum, Macmillan, Charles Scribners Sons (R.I.P.), Marshall Cavendish, Simon & Schuster.
Cooking, gardening, ecology, sustainability. Reading. Yoga, going on long walks, resistance training. Reading. Collagerie, mixed media and three-dimensional journals and scrapbooks. Reading. Spending time with my very very old mother in her last years. Reading. Jiving around with my partner; badinage up the wazoo. Reading. Playing with my cats, Wislawa (after the poet Wislawa Szymborska) and Cattywhompus (idiomatic Southern term meaning crooked, at an off-angle, not square or level). Reading. Progressive politics. Reading. Having people to dinner. Reading.
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