#augustbreak: inspired

I usually take a more workmanlike approach to writing than an inspired one. When I take time off here, it’s not because I’m not inspired but because the shit I have to say has been judged not suitable for internet consumption. (I’m taking steps to bring more unsuitable stuff to suitable status. More on that later.) And I’m trying to get over my aversion to inspiration as a term, even though I think it’s overused and almost trite anymore. That said, today I boxed up this book that a friend gave me years ago. She collaged the cover of a day planner, and provided a prompt for every day—one that would work for both fiction or journaling. It’s one of my most cherished possessions, and it’s responsible for some of the best writing I’ve done since I started writing online (notably one that some of you have already read). I can’t wait to tear into it when I’m settled in the new house.

a passel of projects

Today is one of those days that requires an entire pot of tea. First, we have another thick layer of snow, which makes me think of the kind of cake frosting that belongs only on Pinterest and not on a plate in real life. Piles and drifts and swirls and still.more.coming. This is not a problem, because my entire pot of tea is a very lovely one, David’s Sencha Pear, and if you’re going to drink that much of anything, it might as well be good for you and somehow both rich and astringent all at once. I am at the little writing desk in the living room, and my notebook is at my side with scribbles and scratch-outs and smudges.

If you’re going to be smothered by snow, you might as well be in your element inside.

I wrote letters, so many letters. I wrote to people who were already in my address book and people who were brand new. Myron asked what I was saying to all these strangers. “Anything,” I said. And this is pretty much true—some of the letters stayed on the surface, and others tapped hidden confessional veins. In the last letter I wrote yesterday to Annett in Germany, I said “What is blogging but writing letters to strangers?” That is how I felt when I wrote the letters, once I got past the beginnings and before I hit the closings—as if I had slipped into the mode that comes over me when I open up a window and write a post, except I knew that the audience of each post numbered exactly one person.

Even with the horror that is Canada Post’s delivery system, I’ve gotten lovely responses already, and I have heard that many of mine have landed where they were supposed to. This thrills me. Do you know how often I have talked myself out of buying yet another lovely set of stationery because I had so much already? Well, let’s just say there is no more need for austerity when it comes to my paper drawer. Next week, I’ll post a slideshow of all the items I sent out, because they should mostly be delivered by then. I’m thrilled (and a little appalled) that I sent 32 items and every single one of them was different. Yes, there was a lot of stationery in my stash.

I took on other projects in February, too. The most maddening was the breakdown, buildup, and damn-and-blast hatred of the chapter I was working on. I believe I have fixed the foundations of it, finally, and set it on a path to coherence. And then! And then there was Scintilla.

Onyi created all of the badges and banners for this project. I am about to splash them everywhere, just so you know.Last fall Onyi, Dominique, and I talked about the kind of prompts we would love to answer in our own blogs. I have to admit that (even though I was originally determined to write the Reverb posts when they happened during December) I felt limited by the scope of 2011 as a subject for a month’s worth of reflection. I wanted to think about the stories of my whole life, some of which show me in a fabulous light and some of which show me for the jerk I can sometimes be. But I tried to do it, because what I wanted most was to read the posts of others and get to know new people.

I thought about the times when we show ourselves in our most glittering spotlight, for good and not-so-good. I thought about a zesty, everything-clicks blind date, the kind of date where you hear about a few closet skeletons but you understand how they helped to make the person sitting across the table from you. Dominique and Onyi brought their own sense of what they loved to read to the prompts as well. Between the three of us, we winnowed a long list of prompts down to the ones we thought would elicit the best blog posts—the ones that make you remember why you click Publish, the ones that make your list of very favorites, the ones that take the most out of you but give the most back in return.

Please visit The Scintilla Project and, if this sounds like a journey you want to take with us, sign up for the prompt list. We cannot wait to read about what makes you who you are.


This weekend I read the Sandman cycle yet again. I turn to it when I need it, and that is all I can say about the force that tells me to abandon whatever else I might be reading and submerge myself in dream, mistake, hubris, and justice. Saturday morning, I saw this:

Walk any path in Destiny’s garden and you will be forced to choose, not once but many times. The paths fork and divide. With each step you take through Destiny’s garden, you make a choice, and every choice determines future paths. However, at the end of a lifetime of walking you might look back, and see only one path stretching out behind you; or look ahead, and see only darkness.

Sandman IV: Season of Mists (Neil Gaiman)

Just another set of words shouting themselves out at me louder than all the others on a particular page. The way bits do from my friends’ blogs, from a book I may be reading too quickly, a shred of a song. I wonder if looking back and seeing only one path would fill me with grief or with confidence that I had always done what I should. I know how I’d bet.

It turns out that there is enough carbon in me to generate a new kind of diamond when I’m put under five months of sustained anxiety and pressure. How to polish it: Say yes when an incisive, artistic writer friend asks me to trade chapters for critique. It has been a long time since I’ve had to do this kind of work, and it is panic-inducing to start the process. Then the machine gets going and the low-grade buzz lulls me into concentration and I delete sentences and write new ones. Two hours go by.

I remember this. How did I let it get so far away from me? I turn around and I see it doesn’t matter whether I see every turn along the path or just one solid line stretching back to a cardboard playhouse in the first grade classroom. In the dark, work glows. You can find your way to anything if you let your eyes adjust.

pulled apart and patched together

One of my favorite sounds in the world is the barely-there sound you can sometimes hear when you pull a very firm orange section from its neighbor. That is what these days sound like in my head—windows open for cool breezes, brown fields grassing over, birds singing all day long. I write stories on paper lately, squiggly-scribbling over old sentences but never making them vanish. It’s an old feeling made new.

I take notebooks with me most days out of habit, but more often than not when I come home I haven’t written a thing. It’s rare that I will sit down with my notebooks and use them, and this is bad news, because I know it’s not conducive to creativity. Last week, inspired by Tracy, I thought about my most creative times, my most prolific times, and I was writing on paper then, in stolen moments, wedged in between classes and social obligations and a full-time courseload and a full-time job. I wrote in the hallway on the third floor of Raub Hall outside of my classrooms. I wrote in my car. I wrote in the back room at work on Sundays when I should have been selling shoes. I wrote on my porch and sprawled out on my stomach on my bed.

So doing it now for these stories, no matter how odd and random and bad and mudstuck they are, feels good. It feels like orange sections coming apart. Time slows down. The process and the inevitable end are before me all at once. I pay a new and drastic kind of attention. Writing is fun again. And though I know I don’t have to do anything with these stories, especially not the hard work of revising them, I am grateful for their existence even in their dinkiest first-draft forms. My brain wants to know where they’ve been all my life. Duh, we were right here all along.

Yesterday was a long, packed day out in the sun eavesdropping and shopping and making plans for a very busy next few weeks. When I came home I cooked onions, grape tomatoes, and garlic in a skillet. I pushed aside the sauce, making room for some snapper. I let it go a little while, then scattered the zest of three limes on top, added a little water, and steamed it until the fish was done. It was gorgeous. But here’s the important thing: In my pocket there was a receipt. While I chopped and seasoned and gauged sizzle levels, keeping a weather eye on the rice simmering on another burner, I was thinking about the story for last night. I wrote the pertinent bits on that receipt. I got a smear of grape tomato juice on it. I almost threw it in the compost by mistake. But I saved it; I created some orange-section moments in the middle of the whirl and I wrote that thing with only a cooking pan full of fish to witness me doing it.

Not the kind of inspiration I was expecting, but you take what you can get.

truth, fiction, hózhǫ́

Five Star Friday This post was featured on Five Star Friday on May 5, 2011.

I wasn’t going to write about Three Cups of Tea; I haven’t read it and it’s not our usual subject matter by a long shot. But Roxanne pointed me to this article in The Rumpus about fictionalized memoir, and an episode in it crystallized a memory for me. This episode, in fact (emphasis mine):

Years ago, when I worked for a newspaper in El Paso, I wrote a story about the press in Juarez, Mexico. I spoke very little Spanish and had no business working on such a story in the first place.

The guy who translated for me worked for a leftist weekly. He told me that one of the biggest papers in Juarez was funded, in part, by drug money, an allegation I included in my story.

It was an inexcusable moral breach, and my paper was nearly sued.

We’re all subject to this impulse. We’re all constantly exaggerating, amending, confabulating – trying to make our given story more worthy of being heard. But we also know when we’re lying.

I used to think I wanted to write a book about my time on the reservation. The more I learned about publishing the more I let go of that desire because nothing horribly tragic happened to me there. There would be no gruesome scenes or grand romance or To Sir with Love moments. For a memoir to succeed these days it’s almost imperative for them to be even more over-the-top than fiction, so it doesn’t surprise me when I learn that parts of a memoir have been fictionalized. It’s disappointing, yes. But I can imagine reasons for it, not that those reasons make it right.

I was already teaching summer session at at the high school when I was asked at the last minute to teach four night courses for the local two-year college. I’d never done this before, and the schedule was killer: a whole day of high school work, followed in the evenings by college-level work. One of the night classes was a long seminar of southwestern lit, a three-credit course that wrapped up all of its class time on one night. The other courses were intros, and the material was stuff I already knew. But my back-east university degree hadn’t prepared me to teach southwestern lit, so in addition to all my class time, grading, and prep work for the other courses, I had to learn the subject matter of this one on the fly. The reading list had been prepared for me, but I never got a syllabus, so I had to make connections between (I think eight) works I’d never read on my own.

We were reading Laughing Boy by Oliver LaFarge. LaFarge was a white man (allegedly he had some distant Native American heritage) who had spent enough time among Navajo people to write a book set in their culture, a book with Navajo main characters that speaks eloquently against the encroachment of white culture on traditional ways. By the time I was teaching this book, decades after its publication, white culture had made permanent inroads; most of my students had Anglo names, listened to Anglo music and ate Anglo food, and a number of them of them had grandparents they could barely speak to because they didn’t know enough of their own language to do it. I don’t mean to say that they were strangers to their culture; they weren’t. We were in a town that attracted tourists from all over the world, and instruction in Navajo culture was available everywhere. They lived it. Many of their families made their annual income from the accommodations, restaurants, and artisan crafts that were paid for by white people who came to the reservation to learn and see and feel what that particular corner of Dinétah could make them feel.

The first class discussion of Laughing Boy arrived. I don’t remember which brave soul first pointed out that he’d found a discrepancy: One of the ceremonies was happening at the wrong time of year. The hands went up. More and more students offered up their issues with LaFarge’s facts. The book was seventy-five years old and millions of people were reading the wrong facts. It would never happen that way, they said. They were reading lies. These students—teenagers to adults in their fifties—were upset. We had gotten away from the plot of the book and strayed into what responsibility LaFarge had to represent Navajo culture accurately. I was unprepared. I had been in the desert for three years and I didn’t expect that so much of Laughing Boy could have been factually inaccurate.

It was late in the evening. It had been a long day and a long week. I got annoyed. How many of you, I asked, ever told a lie to a tourist? Made something sound more mystical and meaningful if you thought it would get you a higher price? Or just to have fun with a gullible bilagáana? How many of you got out of an obligation by claiming ceremonial reasons to someone who couldn’t know any better? I wasn’t angry, but I wanted them to see that the stories they told would be taken away from their land, and once that happened, the story wasn’t theirs anymore. People aren’t coming here for shopping and beaches. They’re coming to learn. You can’t fault a tourist who wants to hear the truth from you, someone who’s supposed to be living it. You are responsible for how you use your story.

Could there have been good reason for the Navajo people that LaFarge met in the early twentieth century to tell him things that were not true? Of course. Some things are meant to stay secret. And of course he could have mixed up his notes or even chosen creative license. Today we have plenty of Navajo writers who create wonderful Navajo literature, and they can tell as much of the truth as they want. Or maybe they’ll choose to keep some secrets, too, and misdirect readers from the dominant culture. Some are aware that the story they tell is not just theirs to tell, and that it belongs to centuries of ancestors who could never imagine a world like this one; the best story will stand on its own whether a flute or a drum is played at a particular time.

Driving home, I felt an energy that approached elation but was somehow held back by my lack of solid answers to How these things happened and Why they were offensive and Whether the story is still worth reading and What about the theme of protecting native culture against white-out? How do you argue with a dead man, an old book, your great-great-grandparents who may have lied to protect the truth of their sacred ceremonies? Fiction is a haze of intention, truth, falsehood, and fantasy captured at a particular moment of time. And it is always, always flawed. But if it lasts, it’s because it makes us feel.

My high school students used to love to try to trick me into believing bizarre traditions and origin stories to see what I’d fall for; most of them would giggle uncontrollably a few sentences in and give themselves away. And maybe that’s another reason that I think I wouldn’t write a memoir of my years there; the only facts I know for sure are the ones I lived myself.

 hózhǫ́ is harmony | Dinétah is Navajoland | bilagáana is Anglo