On how to see

I am doing an in-person interview because the editor who has hired me to write the piece I’m working on prefers her writers to do in-person interviews. This is important only because while I understand the point—it helps build rapport with someone you are about to ask a bunch of very personal questions—I am thinking of time, and how I don’t have time for this, for shoes and combing my hair and driving into town and hunting for a parking spot.

The magazine is paying me a lot of money so I am making the time. But I don’t have it. I am working on a developmental edit with a tight deadline and teaching a feedback-intensive class and trying to deal with Jessica transitioning from pediatric to adult medical services, which for a lot of people amounts to making a new patient appointment with an internist but not for Jessica. For one thing, I have to deal with a bunch of people who refuse to talk to me, despite my being her legal guardian, because she is eighteen. Apparently Jessica is the only young adult in the world who isn’t fully capable of taking care of herself. Anyway, don’t get me started.

She is living with me full-time now. For a few years she split her time more or less equally between her father and me but now she is living with me. In her idea of the world, she is a grown up and we are roommates.

In my idea of the world, I love her dearly and I would never consider her a burden but she takes so much time.

I have a novel I am trying to finish and I hate the novel but I would like to finish it but I am doing all the paying work because it is available and I like to stack up money in the bank for when the work slows down, which it will, inevitably.

Right now there is no time so I am cramming together the interview with buying some lentils at the grocery store and picking up some of Jessica’s glass from the ceramicist who fires it.

I arrive at the studio and she begins packing the pieces in bubble wrap and placing them in a box. There are a few candleholders that turned out very well and then some trays, and we both frown down at the trays, our hands on our hips.

The glass has bubbled. It looks as if the bubbles you get in a pot of boiling water have hardened, as if this were the glass version of the bubble wrap Melissa is using. I have never seen this happen before and I don’t know why it has. I do know that glass is hideously expensive. All I can see is a hundred and thirty five dollars I might as well have set on fire.

“I wonder if it’s the glue,” Melissa ventures but I shake my head.

“It’s the same glue as always. And she only put a little on the corners to hold the pieces in place, not where the bubbling is.”

I frown. Jessica is trying a new approach, fusing big slabs of glass together, then slumping them into shapes, but something is going wrong in the process. It’s always something. Like with my writing. Just when I think I know what I’m doing, it turns out I don’t have the slightest clue. This is why I hate the novel I’m working on; it has bubbles like this and I don’t know how to fix it.

Jessica doesn’t have the technical knowledge to understand what’s happening; kilns and cones and firing cycles are too complex for her to understand. It is one more thing for me to figure out and I don’t have time. It is an especially difficult challenge when someone else is doing the firing. If I had my own kiln, I would test until I found out but to have my own kiln I would need my own house or at least my own studio; the small rental I live in with Jess has no room for a kiln. Plus imagine trying to explain to the landlord.

So I have to buy a house with a shed out back and hire an electrician to install the commercial 220 volt power I need and so far I haven’t been able to scrounge together a down payment. I don’t know why she couldn’t have found something simpler to love, like horses. Her grandmother has a barn and a pasture. Horses would have been simpler.

But glass is her thing and I respect that and I understand that this is all part of the process; it is like the one million words I’ve written that will never see the light of day because they were the wrong words in the wrong order. But it is an expensive process, costing more time and money than I have.

“I suppose it could be air getting in between the layers,” Melissa says. “These big slabs . . . air might be getting under.”

I nod. “Right, and to secure the pieces so no air gets in, you’d have to use a lot of glue and that much glue will burn.” We’ve had that happen before. Two hundred and fifty dollars of glass with burns on it.

I sigh. I will have to see what I can find out about the problem and how to fix it. Maybe the people who run the glass society I joined a few months ago will know or could recommend a book.

“Thanks,” I say, and carry the box to the car and wonder how I am supposed to keep doing it all, forever, keeping my daughter’s dreams alive and my own, too, while making sure we have a roof over our heads and food on the table. I am fifty-one years old and it should be easier by now; I should know how to do this but somehow I never do.

I am just in time to pick up Jess from school. When we get home, we unpack the glass. I lift one of the candleholders to the light.

“Look at that,” I say. “Gorgeous.”

But she is not looking at the candleholder. She has taken out the trays. She has removed the wrappings and set the pieces on the table. She is running her fingers over them, studying the bubbles with her fingertips. She leans down to look at each tray in turn. The bubbles have formed in different patterns.

“I wonder how that happened,” she says.

“Not sure. I talked to Melissa—”

She looks up at me. “I love the texture. It is like the glass is breathing. It is like it is alive. If you look hard enough you can see it move. I want to do more just like this next time. I will try to get more bubbles in. Mom, aren’t these beautiful?”


On holding still

I am talking to Pete (not his real name) at the coffee shop. It is probably more accurate to say I am listening to Pete. Pete is homeless, and he passes many hours of each day at the coffee shop, usually sitting outside except on the coldest days of winter. Most days he greets everyone by name including, occasionally, people who are not there.

Some days when he is having a hard time and his demons, whatever they are, get the better of him, he doesn’t greet anyone at all.

I don’t know why I talk to Pete. It’s not my job and I always have something else I should be doing, a manuscript to work on, a document to review. Pete can talk for a very long time if he can get someone to hold still for it. He doesn’t expect anyone to listen but he always appreciates it when they do and thanks them afterward.

The secret is in not breaking stride. You answer his greeting, one hand on the door, and then you slide inside, no harm done. In other words, I know how to avoid him. It is just that some days I don’t. I have no idea why.

Today it is a beautiful Friday afternoon with a light breeze and a sunny sky. It is the first day that feels like spring, a perfect spring day, the kind we don’t get nearly enough of.

I’ve taken my coffee outside and Pete starts talking. It’s not as if I have to listen to him. I could get started on my project, which I have spread out on the table in front of me. He will take the hint and won’t be offended.

Instead I lean back in my chair, coffee in my hand. Every now and then I’ll interject a comment and he listens carefully and when I am through, he will say, “Yes, that’s right,” or “Yes, but here’s what I think.”

He is never adversarial. No one is ever wrong, they just don’t have all the facts. His talk covers foreign policy, Greek mythology, Erich Fromm, and the cultivation of innate talent. I realize halfway through that I talk with Pete because he’s more interesting than 99 percent of the people who enter my orbit, prattling on about their multilevel marketing plans for Christianity and how about those Royals.

Today he tells me something his wife used to say, then adds, “She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.” I don’t know if this is something that happened recently or a very long time ago. It seems to be both at once, fresh and remote. Like he is trapped in a temporal fold, and the event keeps playing over and over. He can’t escape it. He has had a while to get used to it but he still can’t believe it happened.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“You didn’t know that?” He sounds a little puzzled, and seems to sort through his memory, trying to figure out what I know about him, which isn’t much. I’m not trying to save him or be there for him or anything like that. I’m just listening to him because he’s interesting. Believe me I wouldn’t bother if he were prattling on about the ten pounds he needs to lose.

He seems to know a good deal more about the inner workings of the federal government than a sixty-something homeless man ought to and for a while I imagine he is a retired CIA agent or maybe a diplomat who had a little trouble with drink at his last posting. He is tactful, the way I imagine an ambassador would be, or maybe the protocol officer on an ambassador’s staff.

But then his talk about the government shades into government conspiracy theory and I realize he is just someone who reads a lot.

Today he is roaming over his past, apparently having decided it is safe enough to entrust it to my keeping, and it comes out that he first started having trouble in third grade, when he didn’t understand the purpose of school. I think how young that is for it to already start going wrong.

Then he tells me he is sharing his stories because he thinks someone can learn from them and I guess that means me, and maybe I will. Right now I am lifting my face to the breeze and sipping coffee and listening to Pete straighten out the world. I think he would be very good at it except when he has his bad days but maybe then we could just have a substitute, or close the offices for a holiday.

He is talking about playing soccer and not understanding the rules and he laughs a little and then he says, “I just thought you kicked the ball down the field. But you had to be part of a team. I never learned how not to be alone. I don’t know how to do it.”

And in that moment I am right there with him. It is curious and hard, to be apart from the world, to see the games and not understand them. I think maybe someone will invite me to play or that I can invite myself and I try that but I still don’t know the rules. Everyone else seems to know them. But when I try it turns out I cannot play, because I do not have job promotions to crow about and my daughter isn’t getting college acceptance letters and I’m not celebrating twenty years together this Tuesday.

I think the anxious bleating about Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is just window dressing, that there is something more serious beneath, but it turns out they think Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is serious; they think it is just about the most serious thing that could be. The vapidity is not just surface; it goes clear through. I can’t begin to imagine being like that. I cannot begin to imagine wanting to.

Maybe all of us feel this way. I don’t know. How would I know? I can’t seem to scratch beneath the surface of anyone. I think most people fit in okay. They’ve taken the stray ends and tucked them in so they can belong. Belonging is powerful and safe and I get that, I understand it but I don’t believe in it. I used to, until I learned that you can’t buy safety no matter how good you are or how much money you have.

I see the apartness grow, the gulf between becoming wider and wider, the connections dropping away. My ex-husband calls my life “streamlined” because there is just me and my daughter and my work and sometimes I’m pretty damned doubtful about the work. I long ago stopped believing it was worth doing or that there would be some reward other than a check payable to, so maybe all I have left is a habit. If I didn’t have my daughter, my next stop would probably be homelessness, too.

Pete is talking about his friend, who made a scene downtown and was arrested. “She just wanted attention,” he says and I know he doesn’t mean like a kid acting up although in a way he does. He means she wanted someone to say, Yes, I see you there. Yes, I see you.

“They gave her pills,” he says. “It wasn’t pills she needs.”

That’s a favorite solution, like two round white pills will do the trick. That what is wrong is something to do with brain chemistry or socialization. Maybe it is. But I somehow doubt it. People think the homeless would stop making scenes downtown if only everyone had access to some round white pills and a kindly social worker to pass them out. But human lives are complicated and mental health is hard, especially when we pathologize every difference. It used to be that conformity was suspect. Now it is nonconformity that alarms people. Twee hipsters pose at it but they are just as invested in the games as anyone else.

I probably became a writer to try to bridge that apartness, to have a conversation and not just an echo. But sometimes all I hear is the echo.

I sip my coffee. The breeze stiffens into  a wind. I realize I have more in common with the homeless guy than with any of my friends. That is a fact worthy of contemplation though I have no idea what to make of it.

But for a little while, as the heavy trucks barrel down 23rd Street and I strain to hear what Pete is saying, I’m not alone at all.

Week 9. On practicing perfectly

One of the things I love about writing is getting into that mental state where the words come effortlessly, without my having to think too hard about it. That moment where I’m lost in the work, and have no awareness of the ticking clock or the buzzing fly. Just me and the work. Beautiful. Zen.

Unfortunately, flow is also a state where you, or at least I, can produce an endless amount of crap. Flow, by its nature, circumvents the editor on your shoulder who hates every other word you write. Now, often the editor on your shoulder will keep you from writing if you let her, so you have to find a way to shut her up. One way is to just get into flow, where she can’t follow you. EOTS hates flow.

On the other hand, the editor on your shoulder is often right. You’re writing crap, and you need to do better.

Here’s the thing: practice does not make perfect (this is something we learn in martial arts). Perfect practice makes perfect. That is to say, if you practice a sloppy kick ten thousand times, all you’ve learned how to do is kick in a sloppy way. That is not mastery. It’s not even competence.

So the problem with flow is that it can be sloppy, and not in an organic, generative way where you can make something of it. It can be a form of masturbation. And while you may enjoy that, no one else really wants to see it.

When you’re doing the work, you need to be able to do the work even without flow. Even with the editor on your shoulder criticizing every third word. Even when it’s just no fun at all.

Week 8. Understand and respect the art

When I first began training in the martial arts, I met a lot of people who were interested in what I was doing, a certain number who would do it themselves if only they weren’t so afraid of getting hurt, and a handful who rolled their eyes and asked me if I thought I was a match for their eight-year-old nephew who was taking Tae Kwon Do.

I didn’t really care what other people thought, but what always struck me as odd was how many of the eye rollers ended up taking classes and then—surprise surprise—got nothing out of the experience. I guess they wanted to prove to themselves that they were right to scorn.

Doing the work, whatever the work is, requires understanding and respecting the work. I once took on a write-a-novel-in-thirty-days challenge (not Nanowrimo, but a situation where I had to deliver a manuscript to a publisher in a month). I succeeded, but that would never have been possible if I had never written a romance before. There’s no way I could have learned all I needed to learn about writing romance in thirty days.

What I did is in some ways quite straightforward: I did something I already knew how to do, I just did it faster. If I hadn’t known what I was doing, all the slogans and atta girl!s in the world wouldn’t make any difference. I wouldn’t have succeeded.

What I notice is that a lot of people don’t understand the work they want to do, and they don’t take the time to gain that understanding. There are people who have contempt for romance who try to write romance because they think it’s easy. (There are people who try to write children’s and YA for the same reason, despite never reading the genre. The list goes on.)

While I suppose you can “understand” something you have contempt for, it’s very difficult to do the work required to succeed under those conditions. Mostly because it’s a lot of work. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time on things I think are ridiculous or pointless or unimportant, and I don’t care enough about them to do them right. This is why my house is never vacuumed.

To understand what you need to do, and to do it well, you have to care about what you do. Start from there. I am never going to care about vacuuming so there is no point in my giving it any mental space.

When you’re trying to understand the work—and trying to do the work—naturally you will look to others along the way for help and guidance. You can’t do the work completely in isolation, although you do need a lot of time alone with your butt in that chair. You have to find out if you’re succeeding at your endeavor, and that means getting feedback.

How you get better at doing the work is by figuring out where you are going wrong. The feedback tells you. Now, some feedback is more important than other feedback. Who cares what Joe on the street says unless Joe on the street happens to be your target reader, an agent who reps your genre, or an editor who acquires books like yours?

On the other hand, if nineteen agents tell you that you don’t have the first clue what a romance is, then it’s quite possible you don’t have a clue what a romance is. Shaking your fist at them for telling you the news and saying, “I’ll show you!” is what ten year olds do. You’re not ten. You need strategies that help you get better, not strategies that keep you in a state of denial.

Care about the work. Learn about the work. Be open to guidance. Do the work. #WishICouldTattooThisOnMyForehead

Week 7. On having enough

One of the most important lessons in Dojo Wisdom is the one that says, “If you think you don’t have enough, you will never have enough.”

The human appetite for more is enormous and insatiable. That’s the fundamental principle of philosophies such as Buddhism. And the cure is to stop feeding the craving. This is the hard part, of course, and why there are entire books/libraries/lives devoted to figuring out how.

But I want to talk about two aspects of this problem that have emerged for me over the last few years. One is that our cravings are often disguised as goals, and we know that goals are supposed to be good. So we make it a goal to write a book or to run a marathon. And as far as they go, such goals are fine, even laudable. But pursuing goals based on the insatiable hunger for more never satisfies. Such goals never result in what the person who set them intended.

If you think having a pile of money in the bank is security, then you will never have enough money in the bank. There will never be a time when you have enough. You can save a million dollars and it won’t be enough. You can save ten million dollars and it still won’t be enough.

If you think, “Gee, I’m going to save a month’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund because unexpected expenses do crop up,” that’s one thing. Thinking you can somehow protect yourself from life is another.

I made this point in an online conversation once when everyone was stressing over money and someone chimed in: “I agree with Jennifer.” Then she anxiously added, “But you have to have a bare minimum.”

But you don’t. That’s my point. Money does not equal security no matter how much you sort of wish it would. Money is a storehouse of value, but what it stores isn’t security.

Life is more difficult without money, obviously. But if you don’t have any, that wouldn’t mean the game was over. You’re creative, you’d figure it out.

I say this not as someone sitting on vast reserves of money but as someone who occasionally has precisely none.

You know what’s better than money in the bank? Faith in yourself. You need to feel secure? Go hug a friend.

Money has helped my daughter Jessica get good medical care but it didn’t stop her from being born with a devastating disease. Money couldn’t have prevented the accident that killed my friend Chantal. Money does not protect you from life—or from death.

I’m not trying to glorify poverty here. I like having money a lot better than I like not having money. I live in an area where I see daily the hard and hopeless effects of poverty. I’m not saying that’s any way to live. I’m just saying money will not save you from life. And maybe instead of being in desperate pursuit of it, you could be building the things that do give you security: a loving home, your own creativity, friendships with all kinds of people.

But I’ve hesitated to write this post for a long time because of the second aspect of this concept. The concept implies that you should be grateful for what you have and to be content with who and what you are. And I fully believe that. But I am so tired of the pressure on people, on women especially, to live their lives small, to be grateful for every scrap the beneficent overlords bestow on them, to not rock the boat or make too much noise, that I have to call bullshit on myself.

So let me be clear. I am not talking about making your life small. I am not talking about being okay with injustice or saying you should stick with the job you hate because you should be thrilled to have one in the first place. I am saying that you have to be very clear about what you want and why you want it, or you will be chasing desires that can never be satisfied, no matter how hard you try.

There’s a very old lore that says when you visit the fairy realms, you must be careful never to eat the food you’re offered, or you will sicken and die of want. The word “glamour” originally meant a fake facade, an enchantment meant to lure unsuspecting victims to their doom. Today we celebrate glamour and think how much we want the things that glitter instead of being suspicious of them. A medieval peasant had more sense than that.

Yes. I’m saying be as smart as a medieval peasant. Don’t trust the glamour. See what is real, and care about that. Let your life be about experiencing it fully and completely, not about chasing chimeras.


Week 6. Guarding your ears, take two

When I first began training in the martial arts, I had a lot of fear. I was afraid I would get hurt and that people wouldn’t like me and I would never fulfill my dreams and I would never have a family and on and on.

The first kick started breaking away the fear. But beneath the fear was a lot of anger. And uncovering it was unpleasant and uncomfortable. It turned out I was angry about a lot of things. About why I felt I had to keep quiet and the unfairness of the sexist assholes who had too much influence over my life and like that.

After a while I got tired of the anger and the fear and I let them go. Not completely: I still have a fair amount of outrage. And the only people who are completely fearless are psychopaths, which is not a condition I care to emulate. But it’s fair to say that after I trained for a while, these emotions—fear and anger—were no longer the dominant experiences of my life. I was learning how to assert myself. I was learning that some of the anger was directed at me, for not speaking up, for not walking away. Once I started taking those actions, I didn’t have to feel anger anymore.

Instead I felt confident, even content. On the whole, things were pretty good. But the thing about feeling confident that you can kick whatever asses need kicking and being content with the life you are living is a whole system of industries is set up to make you think you can’t kick whatever asses need kicking and that you shouldn’t be content with your lame-ass life.

You don’t have enough money to retire and you have to retire! because everyone does and what if you’re disabled and also you are fat and that will make you die. Also it is very unattractive for other people to look at. What kind of selfish bitch are you, anyway? And you are raising your children wrong. They are fat demanding slobs who haven’t been perfectly assimilated into the factory-worker mindset so they will never get jobs for which they are grateful and you are all going to die!

Yes, indeed.

For every voice saying, “You know, I got this,” there are ten thousand trying to drown it out.

The fact is, you are going to die, and unless you’re fairly close to your expiration date, you have no idea when.

But between now and then, you can have an amazing life, but not if you listen to everyone telling you that fear is good, and anger is better.

Don’t listen to them. You got this. You really do.