Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Do We Have to Stay the Same?

 

changeAn old friend of mine recently asked why it was that I had written about financial insecurity when she remembers me as someone who always had so much. I had not thought about those who knew me reading this and comparing the person in the post to my younger self. It’s kind of like an author or  musician changing styles and those in their circle saying “What’s up with that? This [fill in identity here] is who you are.”

Well, what’s up with me is that I actually always had financial concerns. The difference was that they were “concerns.” They were not real. Nowadays, there are actually some pressures but, as I wrote in the last post, they could be much worse. My goal was to express my understanding of how our desires and hopes or fears drive our consciousness. This also ties in to being able to present the people in our stories or articles as close to their true selves as possible. So, hopefully, we can be mindful on and off the page. My ultimate goal for this blog is to promote the writing and teaching life alongside the philosophies that are part of yoga practice, so truth and evolution of the self is part of this process.

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So, getting to the title of this post: Do we have to stay the same?

NO. Hopefully we don’t stay the same. Hopefully, we evolve and even in the down times, learn and grow in spirit, practice, and profession. If we strike someone as so different from before, then we are. Or they are. Or both. Still, to surprise people is actually a good thing. I’m glad I’m not the same as I was 30 years ago. I would be so bored.

 

What’s YOUR Story?

I think of my friend Malynda who used to go up to people and say, in her Texas drawl,  “What’s yer story?” RealRembrandt, Old Man with a Beard (left) and self-portrait (right) hidden underneathly, this would be her greeting. Those are the first words she ever spoke to me and I was dumbfounded at first. But her face was inquisitive and she really wanted an answer. I observed her do this many times over the years and she nearly always ended up getting the “story.” Sometimes the tale was of the present. Other times it was a yarn about how the person came to be standing there answering. But we all answered because someone was present, interested, and ready to listen.

I recalled her bold and genuine query the other day as I thought about writing in general and memoir in particular. Really, what is your story? What makes you “you” at this moment and how did you get to this place where we are interacting? What brought you to this screen? This blog? Why are you asking yourself to offer a real part of yourself to strangers? Why am I? Come to think of it, memoir is not the only writing form that suits this question.

What path led you to fiction or fact? I think it is much more than wanting to share or explore versions of reality. I think those of us in Malynda’s presence responded rather than recoiled because she wanted our story. Her attention told us that we we might be interesting. That our general outline might be much more textured and rich once revealed and explored. What we thought we covered up or lost still showed through and is considered to be a hidden treasure by some. She was actually making us ponder our motives, incentives, and resultant existence as openly as she.

So, you may think you are fully aware of why you are a memoirist or a short story writer or a poet, etc. But if Malynda bore down on you today as you passed on the sidewalk or sat on a bench, what would your answer be? What’s YOUR story? And who will you honor with it?

 

 

Ask, and the Answer is Not What You May Expect. Listen, and a Path Opens Up

I listened, earlier, to news about youthful offenders. Missives of sadness. I read now from poems of welcome and belonging. Of comfort and sureness of purpose. Which is more likely to teach me about love and hope? About life and how events unfold and to what purpose? Both.

NPR’s story of the horror of one particular offender’s actions resounded within me. While not identical to my own encounter with another’s cruel and manipulative violation of trust, it answered my desperate question as to how one’s troubling behavior can be overlooked or ignored by others. I was reminded that it is common to find out, after the crime is committed, that the assailant had been exhibiting antisocial behavior already. That their friends and family knew the person was troubled. It’s not personal that no one let you know. It’s not a conspiracy of silence that set you up for trauma. There is basically a pattern of ignorance or passivity that many  participate in expecting that “this behavior” is not a long-term problem or a sign of danger. But if you are dragged into engaging with the seemingly preventable damage, there is a relentless psychological, spiritual, and emotional nagging that adheres to you. It’s like grief after a loved one dies. No amount of comforting or advice can make you skip the stages you must go through and the time it takes to become accustomed to the loss.

I was not comforted that someone else was hurt. By no means. But I was finally brought to face the commonality of many victims’ experience. A sense of community, albeit tragic, came to me. I am not a freak, nor a failure. Just another dupe. No amount of beneficent intentions can prevent bad actions. All one can do is hope to earn the respect and love of others so that you can share all that is good. This trust creates a respite from anything too large to bear alone. There is hope that I can now help myself and others through this unexpected life lesson.

The poetry book, The House of Belonging, now that I think about it, called to me because of my need for gentleness. I have been afraid to let too much gentleness in since my hatred and loathing for another and myself was evoked many months ago. The book has been moved around as I have packed to move. I couldn’t quite part with it but I did not want it near me. It took something as objective as radio journalism to bring me back to face something that is not about being alone and isolated, but a painful part of a greater whole: humanity in all its horrible truths and insatiable lust for healing.

In one morning of routine actions (turning on the radio as I work with the horses) the message of hope I needed found its way to me. All of my prior asking  did not result in satisfaction. But my continued listening did.

You Don’t Have to be Just One Type of Writer

It is now time to contradict myself. About two months ago I offered a post titled Can You Write Fiction and Nonfiction at the Same Time? The answer for me, at the time, was No. Really, it still kind of is but I’ve revised my viewpoint. I am not fond of splitting my focus and I feel rushed or disconnected when I have to spread my attention out. It’s a wonder I do so much freelance and adjunct teaching since I seem to have created a lifestyle and financial dependence on juggling multiple and sometimes conflicting jobs at once!

Thwhy-do-people-writeis week is a case in point. I am teaching an online college-level composition course while working on a nonfiction article for a newsletter, while finalizing the contract to write 1st and 2nd grade fiction AND nonfiction for an educational publishing company based in Mexico. This is absolutely necessary if I want to maintain my lifestyle (not fancy, but fun). It is also imperative that my contacts remain current so that I don’t fall by the wayside. After all, sadly, we are all expendable in terms of employment. Often undervalued and readily replaced. Not that my employers are that callous, but I’m not the only writer in their stable and may be one of the more recent additions. Turning down work does not keep me high on anyone’s list.

So, perhaps it’s not that I can’t multitask my writing, it’s that I prefer to immerse myself in one type of writing or teaching. That is my comfort zone. Can I write for multiple purposes for a diverse audience? Apparently so! Can I do it well? It’s my reputation, so, Yes. Mediocrity is not an option. In fact, the harder the challenges, the more skilled I can become. It’s all part of the process of learning and experimenting.
Find your strengths and challenge your assumptions about your weaknesses. If you want to stick to one genre, that is great. But if you think you have to, think again. Comfort and ability are not the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Write Fiction and NonFiction at the Same Time?

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For me, no. I certainly can’t even work on more than one project at a time these days even if they are both nonfiction. I have been absent from my site because I’ve been consumed with finding time to do a research paper. I need to produce a more recent writing sample than I have on hand for grad school applications. My brain cannot seem to stop the  search for more content even when I’m not officially working on the essay. Anything else has been hard to think about. It’s kind of like an actor who must stay in the character even between takes or over the period of the shoot in order to feel most connected to the essence of their role.

Many people can multitask their writing and I’m envious. Is it their time availability? Is it their dedication? Is it just how some people are wired? I once listened to someone on the radio talking about how they believed certain athletes had a kind of metaphorical “muscle” in them that they could turn on or use to block out all distractions and self doubt when competing. I certainly do not have that one or I did not know how to develop it well, that’s for sure.

So, maybe I am just a “one focus” kind of writer. I think I like to immerse myself in the project fully and then when it’s all finished (or at least the deadline is met—are we ever really finished?), I feel free to pay full attention to the next goal. It seems to be working so far. I may risk a stasis in the number of followers I have, but those of you who are here and sticking with me are just as important as the new entities out there.

What ever kind of writing “muscle” you have or choose to develop, it’s your game and you’re the only one keeping score. Just make the most of whatever it is that you have.

The Memoir: “Cut a Path to the Writer’s Past and Rediscover It”

memory-laneIn some of my last blogs, we’ve looked at the Memoir and evolving perspectives on what they should contain and who is most likely to benefit from them. Well, yet again I’ve found an interesting article that brings me closer to understanding the Memoir as an art form that addresses people’s present as well as past. In the September 17th issue of The New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews poet/novelist/memoirist Mary Karr’s latest book titled The Art of Memoir. While there is much to make a writer and reader think about in terms of “latest” books, “how to” books, and influences on a writer’s choices of subject in this article, ultimately, here, I want to discuss process and inspiration.

One of the first things that jumped out at me as a tutor and professor of composition is that Karr draws from the syllabus she uses at Syracuse University for this book’s ideas and structure. That is much like I am doing with my blog. I am letting these small sections and themes to become the basis of a larger work. It’s kind of my syllabus. She is drawing from experience in terms of success and failure in application. I am offering insight and philosophy based on my own successes and disappointments or failures. She’s observed aspiring memoirists in action in her classroom and can draw not only from her own works, then, but the results of other “would-be” writers. I work to include both aspiring writers as well as those who have found their voice and their way.

So? Perhaps your own scattered notes and ideas are actually not languishing ideas without focus, but building blocks to assemble into a guide for others or a foundation for a larger work you had not considered writing.

But let’s get back to Memoir in general and Karr in particular. In the article she calls herself a ‘passionate, messy teacher.’ It’s the passion in her work that draws people to her as a guide as well as an author. I like the idea of “messy” because many would-be writers think of the drafting or even teaching process as something only heavily organized or type-A people can do well. Or maybe the artist/author has an an assistant to make it all go smoothly. But getting messy is what it’s all about—especially with truth. But the mess must be organized into parts that translate well to the reader who has no ability to “see” or “remember” the past as you can. Embrace the mess and sweep and arrange it into a coherent narrative. That means edit and rewrite as needed for as long as needed but don’t throw out the edgy or uncomfortable things. These make you human and honest.

I’ve talked about imitation and emulation as a tool as you find your own voice. Karr addresses this as well. But then once you’ve studied the likes of Nabokov, McCourt, Maya Angelou, and others, including Karr, do you see a rhythm or truth in their work that affects you or do you have a voice that does not align with frameworks of resentment, affection, glamorizing, philosophizing, humor, or tattling that may dominate some writers’ themes. Karr looked carefully at her own life and her own voice was what made her work, fiction and nonfiction, engaging. She says to be ‘aware of [your] sensory impressions.’ I teach my students to engage in affecting the reader with vivid imagery even in nonfiction. The senses are what connect us all and if you don’t address what a stranger may be able to comprehend in the use of these, you are not truly able to connect to him.

As the article so well states: “Readers will love you for your imperfections.” So get messy, take chances, and, perhaps, read Karr’s book. What’s to lose?