Don’t Feed the Sharks

It is both rush hour and the unofficial start of the weekend. Sluggish traffic moves in dribs and drabs of chrome and tinted window. I am in my car, and this is my third time to circle my destination.

I am bad with directions. I can’t parallel park. And I can’t find the entrance to the parking garage.

When I finally make it into the garage, there is a white car ahead of me at the kiosk to get a ticket. Two garage attendants are working on the kiosk; they have it open and are trying to load in more paper. When they take out the entire printing mechanism, the younger worker smiles at me apologetically. I pass that apologetic smile along to the man in the white car, because he wants to back out of the parking garage. As bad as I am with directions, I’m worse with driving in reverse. My spatial reasoning skills are non-existent, and the entrance to the parking garage is a corkscrew of concrete and orange-plastic barriers. If I back down, I’d either hit the wall or destroy my rims on the curb. I’ve destroyed rims before; it is an expensive habit. So here we are, stuck in a situation we never would have chosen.

I experience the events in my external world as being indicative of my psyche and, from that perspective, there was nothing accidental about my parking garage misadventure. This past week, my mind has snagged in a whirlpool of counterproductive thought. The same angry reasoning keeps circling around itself, swimming just beneath the surface like a shark in shallows. Impatient and nipping, it goads me into wasting time considering things I cannot change. It is not meditation. It is aggravation. I go round and round, just like I did in the parking garage.

The circling thoughts generate two contradictory urges. The first is to lash out, to inflict my anger and indignation on someone; it is the equivalent of smashing right through the lowered parking garage arm. The second is to try and suppress my anger, which would be the same as getting out of my car, walking out of the garage, and pretending not to notice that anything is wrong. Neither is a graceful solution. Is there a third way, one that is not driven by the heckling, sharp-toothed thoughts fraying my calm?

I think there is. I can accept my feelings because they are legitimate denizens of my psyche. They are me, I can’t hide from them and remain at all self-aware. Acceptance doesn’t mean pretending not to feel something. It simply means welcoming the sensation, and taking it as a reminder to be mindful and practice compassion towards myself as I deal with the emotional storm. Mindfulness prevents me from lashing out in damaging ways that would only serve to increase misery by spreading it to others. This doesn’t mean I will avoid the situation or not address the problems. I will, but out of a place of co-operation rather than anger. It won’t be an attack or a recrimination, but an opportunity to make things better than they are.

Each interaction is a chance to become, and every challenge is an opportunity to decide how to live in the moment. It’s easy to be nice and practice loving-kindness when things are going well. It’s reality to need to learn to practice when the thought-sharks are nipping.

The other night, in the parking garage, I drove up to the roof. I stood at the side and looked out on the city that has become my home. I looked up, and saw the stars I have grown to love and welcome in their yearly transit. I couldn’t have reached that point without a lot of circling – both within the garage and on the street before I found the entrance. What seemed like a setback led me to a beautiful moment, and I believe that if I stop feeding my sharks a diet of anger, I will end up exactly where – and who – I need to be.

Update:

The situation that was making me angry has been resolved. By tending my anger and not allowing it to cause me to lash out at someone else, I was able to focus on doing what I could to help the other person (who never intended to anger me). The act of co-operation ended with feelings of gratitude on both sides, and is proof that well-tended anger can produce good outcomes.

 

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Inspiration/Appropriation?

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (Photo credit: MariamMAM)

I just finished a second read of Wintering, a novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses. Wintering is written in a Plath-like voice, about a Plath-like character going through Plath-like tragedy. The protagonist is even named Sylvia Plath, and the characters she interacts with bear the names of other real people, but Wintering is not presented as a biography. It is copyrighted as a fiction that portrays real people. Wintering is beautifully written, and has a symbolic form that serves to emphasize the imbalance of emotions experienced by the Sylvia character. Yet I don’t love it. In fact, Wintering leaves me – well, cold. There is a lot of Plath by Plath, and her journals are a mainline into her consciousness at the time of the events fictionalized by Moses. There is no need for a secondary source:  Plath speaks for herself.

Wintering reminded me of a craft exercise I completed early in my writing career. My exercise was inspired by an event rumored to have occurred Plath’s life, and emulated the plot structure used in a short story by Rick DeMarinis. Is my craft exercise an example of inspiration, or a case of appropriating from not one, but two sources?

Everything I have written is influenced by all that I’ve read, watched, or experienced. Stolen Climates owes its existence to my exposure to Italo Calvino, Shirley Jackson, and the B-movie, Food of the Gods. I leveraged Calvino’s theme of a family faced with a seemingly innocuous yet unconquerable natural enemy. I deliberately chose to pay homage to Jackson’s wonderfully neurotic character who, like Prentice Feyerback of Stolen Climates, starts the journey into darkness with nothing except hope and a car. I certainly took the B-movie idea of Nature growing out of control and put that to use. I like to think of these things as being “inspired by” rather than “appropriated from,” but how different is what I did than what Moses did with Wintering? Where is the boundary between inspiration and appropriation?

Perhaps the boundary has less to do with subject than with impact. I believe Wintering could have gone farther in the examination of a damaged woman trying to repair herself if it were pure fiction. In a fiction, Moses could have taken us right up to the moment when the character took her last breath. As a fictionalization of real events, though, doing so would have been crass. Moses didn’t cross that line, but in a sense, that’s one of the things that bothers me: as a story teller, Moses didn’t deliver the hard truths. She couldn’t, because she was writing a fictionalized reality, not writing fiction.

I want the books I read to have guts. I want them to go into the hidden recesses of humanity’s darkest secrets and root around for the element of truth. I want to see the darkness in order to guard myself from it. I expect a skilled author to make me understand true desperation, and do so with a steady hand and lack of sentimentality. No one with a conscience can do that when writing about a real person, and perhaps that is the marker of appropriation. When a life story is appropriated, there are certain things that will be off limits. Fiction can reveal truths, but only if the writer is willing to press beyond the boundaries of reality and into the realm of inspiration – no matter how dark the path.

 

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Towards a More Beautiful Life

I’m heads-down on my revision. It is going well, and I am having fun again with my writing. There are several factors that contribute to the positive flow I’m experiencing. I believe  they are all things that can apply equally well to any endeavor – including the all-important endeavor of living a good life.

Witness Joy

In no particular order:

 Witness Joy

Earlier this week, I got to sit in on a Geology for non-Geologists class.  I’ll kick a rock down the road when I walk, but I don’t crouch down to check it out. The presenter at this class was a crouch-down-and-check-out-that-rock type of guy. He is passionate about geology. He is funny, knowledgeable, and a good presenter, but what shone brighter than all of those was his joy. It is a wonderful experience to witness someone talk about the things they love. It gives me hope that there is something warm at the core of what seems to be an inconsiderate and cruel existence. It makes me want to do things that matter to me. Witnessing joy enlivens my soul.

Give Back

At the beginning of the year, I decided I would write a GoodReads review for every book I finish in 2012. The reasoning was that not only would this help me be a better writer by learning from others, but it would also be a way to give back to the reading community.  In July, I was struggling with my WIP and falling behind in my book reviews. When I counted up the number of books I needed to review, I was stressed. Epictetus says, “Everything has two handles, one by which it may be borne, the other by which it may not.” I was grabbing my book review backlog by the wrong handle. I was looking at it as just another task, and not viewing it through the lens of my intentions. I am not just writing reviews: I am giving back to a community that I have belonged to for almost three decades. Sharing feels good. The simple fact is that feeling good is more beneficial to getting into a creative flow than feeling bad, so why not choose to frame situations in a way that make me feel good?

Fill Your Belly with KINDness

I am the Kind Bar evangelist! I love the sesame chocolate bar. I love the nutty crunch of the seeds enrobed in rich chocolate. It is a bit o’ rectangular heaven. It’s also healthy. I don’t live on Kind bars (mmm, to be so lucky!), but I do eat five small meals throughout the day, and include generous helpings of fresh veggies, seasonal fruit, yogurt – and yes, Kind bars. I have found that eating smaller meals more frequently has an amazing effect on my mood, concentration, and creativity. The sugar highs and subsequent crashes are bad memories. The late afternoon downslide of my mood due to hunger is a thing of the past. When I eat matters as much as what I eat. By sustaining my body thoughtfully, I can take on a lot more and still smile.

Be Intense

My time is fractured by demands that come in from all directions. Over the course of July, I realized that I was spending just as much time trying to switch between different tasks than I was spending actually doing the tasks. None of the tasks were things I was willing to drop, so I had to find a better way to manage my time. I tried blocking out sections of time within the day dedicated to different tasks, but the stress of working under constant mini-deadlines was stalling my productivity. What finally worked for me was to batch up similar tasks and pick a day in the future that would be dedicated to working through those tasks. The feeling of constantly struggling to keep up was replaced with a sense of control over how – and when – I get things done. I work, write, blog, love, laugh, read, and practice friendship in intense, single-minded bursts. When I go all in, the results are better than when I’m frazzled and fragmented. I hope this is a lesson I don’t forget.

Embrace Pandora

I was a write-in-silence kind of girl until I got stuck trying to figure out this WIP. All of my writer friends report great experiences writing while listening to music, and I bought some tracks from Amazon to play in the cloud (neat stuff). Those tracks came out of my book budget, so I can’t do that very often and still read. I ended up revisiting Pandora, the internet radio. I am not new to Pandora; I’ve listened to it for things like repainting my sunroom or scrubbing the house, but I’d never tried it while writing. It turns out that music does help me write. It pulls me through those dread blank pages, carrying me on the inspirations of other artists.

I’m working on learning to live a beautiful life. If I were one to believe in signs (and I am!), I’d believe I was on the right track. What else could seeing three shooting stars in one week mean?

May all your portents be good!

-aniko

 

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Reading the Bee Leaves

It is August. In January, I’d planned to have my book to my editor by July. It is not at the editor; it is not even complete.

If this book is a baby, then this is a breach birth. Everything is coming out backwards. My work in progress is the first in a series, but I didn’t realize it needed to be written until I had already completed the draft for the second book. That was inconvenient, but not as gut-wrenching as getting to the end of the first draft of my WIP and realizing that it is faulty.

Over the course of July, I found it harder and harder to work on my WIP. The more I wrote, the more confused I got. I started taking naps instead of writing. If you are ever me, and suddenly find you want to nap instead writing, I want you-who-is-me to know that means something is wrong. R-O-N-G, wrong.

So I stopped.

I stopped writing. I tried on the idea of not finishing my WIP, of having hours of time not dedicated to what I only half-jokingly call my “second job.” I even announced it to a couple of people, but I knew it was no use. I can’t decide to stop writing any more than a woman can decide half-way through birthing her child to just stop. The story’s coming out, one way or another.

Last weekend, I was panicked that I was stuck writing a stillborn book, depressed at the idea of all the wasted time I’d already spent working on it, and anxious to figure some way out of the mess. I also had a week’s worth of laundry to do. I took my heavy laundry basket and my heavy thoughts and went out to the garage. I opened the door to let in the sunlight, and started loading the washer as if filling it would stopper the wellspring of my dismay. It was then that I heard it.

A buzzing noise.

I focused on the sound, following my curiosity across the garage. It was a bumble bee. He was trying to fly into the opening of an air tool, but he couldn’t fit because he was holding a leaf. All six of his buzzy-bee legs were clutched around the tiniest, green leaf. He did not give up just because the path seemed insurmountable. He just kept banging his head and holding his leaf. I went to get Mr. Aniko, saying, “Have you ever seen a bee do that?” No, he hadn’t. And he pointed out that the bee had dropped several leaves on the workbench. They were not whole leaves, but sections that he had apparently cut –  somehow, improbably cut – and transported back to the power tool in our garage.

Maybe the bee had a purpose. Maybe he was just crazy. All I know is that by taking that pause, by allowing my focus to drift away from my problems with the novel, I had freed myself from the panic and doubt. So the novel wasn’t working? If the bee can keep trying different sized leaves, why couldn’t I just… try a different approach? Introduce a straw character earlier, give her meaning. Cut out the rambling (but fun!) scenes of people getting drunk on something purple. Take a break to plan what is missing and organize what is left to do.

There’s still a long way to go. The important thing is that I understand where the characters are leading me. This may not be an easy birth, but I have faith that it will result in exactly the book that is meant to be written.

In honor of that bee and his leaves, I give you Just Like Honey:


Just Like Honey, Jesus and Mary Chain

 

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