Sunday, November 30, 2008

Just wanted to say that things will likely be pretty quiet around here for a while--my daughter and I are packing to move to a new house (hit me up if you need my new address) and I'm gearing up to teach at the 10 day Antioch MFA residency.

I still haven't heard from my editor re. my novel Pears, and am continuing to feel very nervous about it, continuing to feel as if I turned it in too soon. I will let you know if I hear anything. I completely trust my editor's judgment, though, and know whatever feedback she gives me will help the book grow stronger, whether it ends up on her list--which of course I hope for, since I love working with her--or not. The Lincoln book has (re)taught me that a manuscript can have life beyond rejection. But I'm getting ahead of myself! I look forward to jumping fully into the revision process in my new house, where I'll have fruit trees right outside the office door.

I wish everyone a peaceful and fruitful December!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On the eve of Thanksgiving, I am grateful to have found two wise posts about gratitude in today's uncertain world. One by my wise and amazing friend, Laraine Herring, which explores why writing matters even as publishers are closing their doors, and one by Michael Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle titled Change and Gratitude: How the hell can you be thankful in a time of fear and meltdown?

These words of Laraine's really spoke to me:
Write directly into the heart of the moment when reading changed you. Writing matters. Stories matter. You have a gift and a desire to tell a story. Rather than be fearful of what you might not be able to accomplish, instead be grateful for the gifts of language. Don't let the fear of the distribution (or not) of those stories get in the way of the telling. Your burdens will become greater by remaining silent. Perhaps especially in economic times like these.

Write what you were given to write and let the rest go.
These words by Michael Morford also resonated:
Maybe this Thanksgiving, it's all we can do to be grateful for, well, for change itself. Any kind of change. Because change is still required. Change is still the universal law. Without it, everything stops. Without it, we die. Change is the only thing we really know for sure. It's the only thing that actually makes any sense, even when it doesn't.

It is the grand rule: "Change and be grateful." Even here. Even now.
Yes. I am so grateful for words that can reach into my heart and make it pound harder. I am so grateful to people with whom I can share words and thoughts and moments and love. I am so grateful to be alive on this planet, which continues to be so beautiful and abundant even in these lean and confusing times. And yes, I am grateful for change, in all its terrifying, exhilarating glory.

May everyone have a gorgeous and delicious Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 21, 2008

If you found your way here via my National Novel Writing Month pep talk, welcome! I hope your month of novel writing has been a fruitful one indeed. My experiences with NaNoWriMo have been so crucial to my life as a writer--both liberating and affirming. NaNoWriMo got me back into my own writing flow a few years ago, during a time when I was feeling completely frozen by expectation (mostly my own, but also what I perceived to be external expectation, as well). I found that when I churned out words that quickly, there was no time to worry about whether what I was writing was perfect and beautiful; it shut my inner editor right down. Giving yourself permission to make a big old mess on the page is incredibly freeing. I hope you're giving yourself that permission and having lots of fun with the process!

For those who aren't taking part in NaNoWriMo, here is my pep talk that went out to all the intrepid November novelists today:
Dear NaNoWriMo writer,

The metaphor of writing-as-birth is not a new one—perhaps it may even be a bit overused—but I can’t help but think about it this month. It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man; you’re pregnant with a novel—congratulations!

Of course, one month is a pretty short gestation period, but hey, that’s all the time rabbits need, and NaNo certainly requires a “no time to say hello, goodbye” White Rabbit breakneck pace.

I remember how amazing it was when I was pregnant with my kids—each day, my body had transformed into something new. This month, you have transformed, too, moving from aspiring writer to novelist, from someone who has wanted to write to someone who actually is doing the hard, juicy work of getting words onto the page. You have learned new things about the creative process, about the depths of your imagination, about the themes and images central to your subconscious life. And even if you are way behind on your word count, even if you’ve only written the first scene of your novel, you have taken a profound leap. You are a writer now. How awesome is that?!

If your experience is anything my like NaNo experiences have been, this has been a time of exhilaration and frustration, inspiration and despair (and, hopefully, big slices of pumpkin pie!) A journey from that first thrill of conception, through moments when the story feels heavy and unwieldy, to times when it kicks inside you and fills you with awe. And now the end, your due-date, is in sight—at least as far as the calendar is concerned. Now you’re not just pregnant—you’re in labor.

In fact, you’re probably at what midwives call the transition stage—the point where the contractions are coming fast and furious, and you’re almost ready to start pushing your book baby, whole, out into the world. Some people get a rush of energy of at this stage, a super human surge that propels them through the birth—a mad flurry of words, a tumbling of scenes that seem to write themselves toward their own climax. Other people, when they get to this stage, suddenly feel as if they’re going to die. As if they can’t go on. As if they don’t know why they ever wanted to have a baby/sign up for NaNoWriMo in the first place. If you can breathe through this transitional period, if you can find a way to quiet those nagging critical voices and keep moving forward, your story will ultimately find its way into the bright oxygenated air (even if it’s long after November 30th.)

See if you can use this final stretch of time to stretch yourself creatively, to try something new and playful with language, to let your characters surprise you, to let yourself surprise yourself. Never let yourself forget what a profound thing you’re doing. As Margaret Atwood says “A word after a word/after a word is power.” You have that creative force inside you. You are poised to give birth to a whole new world.

Congratulations again!
Gayle Brandeis

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

You can read a portion of "Raising a Ruckus with CODEPINK: Women for Peace", the speech I recently gave in Toronto, at CODEPINK's online magazine, PinkTank.

Monday, November 17, 2008

It's always such a treat for me to visit book clubs (such as the lovely one pictured that I visited in Claremont last Friday.) I love connecting with such passionate readers; they always come up with the most wonderful, thoughtful questions and help me see my work in fresh ways. One woman at the book club on Friday wisely commented upon how Self Storage couldn't have been set in today's post-election world; the fear and intolerance that were such hallmarks of the post-9/11 Bush era wouldn't have the same resonance in a story set after Obama's win. I hadn't thought about this before, and am so grateful that Self Storage now represents only a small, dark sliver of American history.

I am also so grateful to see how the word YES has exploded since then. In 2002, YES was not so easy to come by; when my main character Flan found the word inside a box in a storage auction and decided to go in search of her own source of YES, it felt like an almost radical act. The world at the time was so full of NO. As I wrote the novel, I had no idea that in a few years, millions of people would be chanting YES WE CAN and working together to say YES to the future. Such a beautiful and joyous affirmation. The host of the book club even baked a YES cake, the letters shaped with Hershey's kisses, so we had a chance to literally embody the word.

I am visiting another book club next week; I am eager to hear their questions and see how they'll open my eyes anew.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

GOOD Magazine (a great newish progressive journal exploring arts and culture and the environment) recently launched a book blog; I was delighted to find this post linking Barack Obama to Walt Whitman. It closes with these lines:
At Grant Park, Obama was evidence that, as Whitman wrote in the preface to his epic “Leaves of Grass,” “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” Obama absorbs Whitman, we absorb Obama, and “the United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
There is mention of Abraham Lincoln, who was Whitman's contemporary, earlier in the post, as well. It's fun that I've written novels inspired by both Whitman and Lincoln, and now they've found nexus in our new President!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What a day for new beginnings! As we launch into this new era for our country, we have some fresh starts in our own household, as well: my daughter just enrolled in a new school, which hopefully will prove to be a better fit for her for the time being, and my contract for my first YA novel just arrived! I was offered the deal in June, but didn't want to say anything publicly until I saw the actual contract. Now it is here and I can say with confidence that My Life with the Lincolns will be published by Henry Holt, Spring, 2010.

My Life with the Lincolns tells the story of Mina Edelman, a 12 year old girl in 1966 Chicago who believes her family is the Lincoln family reincarnated and it's her job to save them from their fate. It's set during the Chicago Freedom Movement, when she and her father get involved in Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign to work for housing equality. I love knowing the book will be published during an Obama presidency--so much of the book is about community organizing in Chicago, which of course is such an important part of Obama's own history (be it in a different era). Plus I know Obama feels such a deep connection to Lincoln, himself. My biggest, wildest fantasy is an Obama blurb for the book, but I think the President might be a bit too busy to offer one. :)

All the happiness of this day of course is tempered by the passing of Prop 8. How heartbreaking that on a day of such celebration, a day of breaking barriers and stepping forward as a country, our state decides to take a step back toward inequality. This is proof that we can't just relax now that Obama has won; there is still so much work that needs to be done. I have faith that the American people are up for the task and will ultimately work together to ensure equal rights for all, but it's going to take time and energy and commitment. Obama's campaign proved that we have that--may we continue to band together and use it well!


So wonderful to wake up today to a new world, to find out that the dream of last night is actually real. Here are the stirring newspaper headlines people woke up to around the country and around the world.

And be sure to check out this wise and beautiful open letter to Obama by Alice Walker

I have never been so proud or happy to be an American. Yes We Can, Yes We Did, Yes We Will!

ETA: I realized I didn't share anything about my election night experience. Michael and I went to Nancy and Jenn's house for an election night dinner party; the group decided to turn on Comedy Central to see what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had to say about the election proceedings, and a minute or so later, Jon Stewart got all teary and declared Obama president. We couldn't believe it--it was just after 8pm; the polls in CA had just closed. When had the decision ever been made so early? We all looked at each other to say "What?" "Could this be true?" "It is live", "That's real emotion in his voice," so we switched over to MSNBC and learned that yes, it was indeed true. Obama had won. We were all in complete delighted shock; it took a moment for the reality to sink in. I'm still reeling with joy.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

As I nervously, hopefully await the election results, I find myself thinking about community. I have felt it in different powerful ways in the last couple of weeks, and as someone who tends to be a bit of a hermit, I am reminded of how important it is to get out of my own cave and connect with others.

I felt community in so many ways when I was in Toronto--just being with my sister and her family was such beautiful communing in itself. My sister and I created our own community as we were growing up (both metaphorically and literally--we invented a little land called "Purcell" in the side yard of our apartment building, complete with its own laws and language and customs) and being with her always feels like coming home, no matter where we are. I loved being able to visit some of her favorite places (including the sweetest little tea house you can imagine, where we drank lavender mint tea and ate an assortment of fall delicacies, our sweets all centered around pomegranate, fig and persimmon.)

I found another powerful sense of community at the Motherhood Movement Embedded conference--connecting with mothers who are doing important work around the world to promote peace and justice was very inspiring indeed. And after my speech, my sister and I raced back to the city so we could be part of Night of Dread, one of the most amazing communal experiences I've ever experienced. Night of Dread is organized by Clay and Paper Theater (the link is a few years old, but will give you the gist of the night), and is an artful, fun, moving way to face and exorcise fears as a community. It begins with a huge procession with giant puppets and drumming and people dressed in black and white wending through the streets of Toronto before landing at Dufferin Grove Park, where there is a wonderful, kinetic series of performances and experiences, from fire dancers to fado music to a ritual burning of fears (written out on pizza boxes painted white and planted into the ground with stakes--fears ranging from millipedes to Sarah Palin.) My daughter, who joined me on the journey, and my niece Mollie were both "death dancers" (I actually found a picture of them online in this slide show; they're in the 7th picture, where you see three figures with white and black masks and white robes (Hannah's the one on the left and Mollie is in the center.) At one point in the evening, the death dancers invite the crowd to dance with death, and later they come out with platters ringed with marigolds and full of the "bread of the dead" (cooked in cool community ovens in the park) which they wordlessly invite people to partake in. Such a powerful evening, full of wild imagery, cathartic chanting and overall awe-inspiring spectacle. I hope I'll have a chance to experience it again (but I hope to see my sister and her family again much much sooner than that!)

Since I've been back home, I've experienced other beautiful instances of community--a gorgeous Samhain ritual at my friends Nancy and Jenn's house, during which we each honored a loss from the past year by making altars and meditating on what we had learned from that loss, and what lessons we'll bring forward with us into the future. I made an altar for my wedding ring; it was very emotional and healing to be able to honor the years I spent with Matt and think about how to take the lessons I've learned from my marriage and divorce forward. The ritual culminated in Nancy and Jenn's legal wedding--a profound celebration!

Our Inspire Hope 4: Rock and Shimmy the Vote this Sunday was celebratory in itself--Nancy and I pulled the show together so quickly, but it ended up being a wonderful mix of poetry, music, dance and storytelling, with a great engaged audience. I'm so thankful for the community of artists who were able to jump in at the last minute to share their talents and inspire us all to use our voices at the polls.

And speaking of polls, my boyfriend Michael and I decided to vote a day early yesterday. We had to wait for three hours at the voters registry office, but it was well worth it. I was deeply moved to see hundreds of people waiting patiently, happily to vote. Most of the voters there were people of color; we overhead several people talk about how they hadn't voted in 15 or 20 years. I got teary several times as we waited and the enormity of this election crashed over me. Seeing people come together to bring change and hope to our country is a beautiful thing indeed. May all our hope prove to be fruitful. My fingers will be crossed for the next few hours!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Two things to do Sunday, November 2nd:

--If you're in the Riverside area, come to Back to the Grind at 3575 University Avenue from 5-8pm for Inspire Hope 4: Rock and Shimmy the Vote, an evening of poetry, music and bellydance. We'll be inspiring people to get to the polls, and raising money for the local homeless shelter. Hope you can join us!

--If you have a tv, please tune in to PBS at 10pm to see my brother's documentary, Dissonance and Harmony: Arabic Music Goes West, part of PBS's new series, America at a Crossroads. Jon spent many years (and much heart and belly ache) making this film, which traces the journeys of five Arabic musicians in their home countries, and as they travel to the US to collaborate with Western musicians. I had the pleasure of seeing the musicians perform in LA, and am very excited to see the documentary, which I know will inspire great cross-cultural dialogue and understanding.