On Keeping a Journal

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Yesterday, I spent 5 solid hours on a plane correcting a toddler, who was banging with both fists on the seat in front of him, throwing his shoes, and screaming like I was sticking pins under his toenails. It has been a long time since I was so desperately beside myself.

The good thing about your life exploding is that it twists your arm behind your back and manhandles you back to square one. Beginner’s mind. Humility.

The growing pains of going from one child to two, both of them with lots and lots and lots of needs, has left me little dedicated time for writing. I steal an hour here and there, early in the morning, late at night. I have to fight for even that much. I know it won’t be this way forever- it will change as all things do. I also know that when it changes I will be both relieved and beset with panic. Because change does that to me.

Part of me wants to follow the path of least resistance and check my creative life at the door of motherhood. Find ecstatic joy in macaroni collages. Marvel at the potential of the popsicle stick. Instagram whimsical, earth-friendly ways to decorate for each holiday.

I’m not knocking the creativity, even art, we bring to mothering. Not at all. But I am also a writer and an individuated being. I’m not interested in pouring every ounce of my creative inner life into my children. I need sacred space in which my mind can wander and my self-expression doesn’t have to be stamped with a G rating.

Before kid #2, I had a pretty manageable schedule, in which I had hours at a time to work. To daydream. To write and write and write. And now I don’t. The end.

I can’t shoehorn 3 more hours into my day.

So what now?

It’s easy for me to get stuck in resignation and self-pity. It’s also a convenient out. I have a perfectly reasonable excuse to not write right now. Writing is very hard- I’m tempted to surrender far too easily.

Whenever I find myself facing this dangerous mindset, I return to a place of curiosity.

What is it I really want to say right now? What’s burning to come out of me? What’s essential?

Then I look realistically at my limitations, and summon all my creative resources and say- how? How am I gonna do this? Is there a way of accomplishing this that I never considered before?

I’m someone who works things out on the page. I ask myself questions and I write and list and chart until I come to some semblance of a conclusion or a next action. This may take minutes, or hours, or weeks. I usually do this in my journal. So journaling has again become so important to me, with my radically limited time. There’s almost always time for a journal entry.

The most important thing I’ve learned in all my years of writing is not to expect every word to be a publishable pearl.

I have kept diaries for roughly a billion years. I have stacks upon stacks of them moldering in the garage and there they will stay until I die, when they will be shredded and donated to the SPCA for kitty litter. They are process documents. They are research and therapy and muscle building. They are not works of art.

I’ve employed a lot of different journaling methods over the years, and I recently did a complete overhaul. I had grown pretty lackadaisical about it, so I gave my journal a hard look and noticed that my writing was completely compartmentalized. I had a tiny notebook I carried everywhere, a large journal I kept in my bedside table for morning pages, a legal pad with an ongoing albatross of a to-do list, a smaller legal pad for grocery list/stuff we needed….

And then I happened upon this post by my friend Karen Walrond at the wonderful Chookooloonks, which suggests putting everything in one notebook. At first, I blanched. I mean- my grocery list next to my Deep Thoughts? Heresy! But in the spirit of curiosity, I decided to give it a try. If I didn’t like it, it only cost $15.

When you organize your thoughts differently, your perspective shifts. Man, I needed that shift so badly. I realized I was compartmentalizing not just my actual physical lists, but also the various aspects of my life. My Writing Time was sacred, as opposed to the to-do list- the minutae.

Combining all has caused me to notice it’s the same me- same heart, same mind, same soul- wandering the aisles of Whole Foods or sitting down at my desk with my important frown on. And life, all of it, is what art is made of. Not just the lofty parts- the passionate love affairs, the dazzling sunsets, the childhood tragedies. Toothpaste, tin foil, animal crackers, crushed tomatoes… has its own poetry.

When we let the high and low- sublime and ridiculous- coexist, a certain kind of magic happens. Without any extra effort, just by proximity, the creative work is lent texture by the daily details and the daily details demand a different level of consciousness.

I also find that having a “friend” always nearby to whom you can tell your most awful thoughts helps those thoughts to not leak out the sides.

For instance- Tariku has been having trouble sleeping lately.

A few nights ago, I had been around and around with him for 4 hours. It was 11pm and there he was, sitting in front of me and I was at THE END. THE END. I wanted to say the worst things. You don’t even know.

Instead I said, “Just sit here and color for a minute.”

And I turned to my journal and wrote all those awful things in giant, psychopath lettering. Then I turned back to him, and said, “Let’s try again.”

Not exactly a gratitude journal, but I got to say it all! With zero consequences. Because there is no such thing as a thought crime.

I can’t say enough good things about putting it all in one place. When I color with the kids, I do my crappy drawings in my journal. When I give my students a writing prompt, I do it along with them.

I almost never look back at it. But as a result, all of my work has many more layers of richness.

What goes in your journal?

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(photo credit: Casey Sjogren)

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Who Do You Think You Are?

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It’s my last day in New York and I have pink eye, which is a complete mystery because Tariku doesn’t have it and it’s not like I’ve been walking around Sephora shoving dirty mascara brushes in my eyeball. Now I have to throw out all my makeup, which is about enough to make me have a nervous collapse. Farewell, dear MAC eyeliner. We had a good run, you and I.

It’s been a whirlwind few days. I was mostly here to meet with my team over at Penguin. Because you know that memoir I’ve been working on for the last couple of years? Well, it’s coming out May 5. I kind of can’t believe it.

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Here I am with my agent and good friend Alexandra Machinist and my wonderful editor Becky Cole.

The limbo between finishing and publishing can be a scary thing for a writer. Actually, it’s all scary- the first blank page; the mid-point, when you’re sure you’re creating a steaming pile of doodoo; and the end, when the doodoo has magically transformed into a precious beautiful baby in your arms. Most of the time, I feel like I’d rather go take this baby and lock myself in a closet with it for the rest of my life than release it to be judged by the cold cruel world.

But that’s what we do if we want to connect- we allow ourselves to be judged. Sometimes it’s awesome and you find yourself in front of a studio audience chatting with Whoopie Goldberg. Sometimes it sucks and the slut-shaming trolls go bananas on you online, or the mean girl from high school says something shitty about you to your mom at the grocery store.

But the advantage of having done this a couple of times before, is that I now know that even at its worst moments, to put these words on a page and have people actually read them is one of the great privileges of my life.

This is my third book, and I still look over my shoulder every time I walk through the big glass doors of Penguin offices because I’m sure that I’m about to be revealed as the big faker I truly am. I’m convinced I’m going to be arrested by what Amanda Palmer in her inspiring The Art of Asking calls The Fraud Police.

Stop right there, Ma’am. We have it on good authority that you have been masquerading as someone with something to say in this world. Who do you think you are?

I share this with you because I know that the fear of being exposed as a fraud is a very common experience. I might even venture to say universal, if my writing students are any indication.

As Scott likes to say, “Just what exactly needs to happen before you’ll finally feel successful?”

The real question is, “Just what exactly needs to happen to make you feel worthy?”

Worthy not of my success, even, but of the few square feet of sidewalk I’m standing on. Worthy of this ordinary human experience, with all of its joys and suffering.

The answer definitely doesn’t hinge on this book. It’s a far deeper issue. But the fact that I have finished something, in spite of being hotly pursued by my imaginary fraud police, is a start.

Who do I think I am?

It changes all the time. A snapshot of this evening’s answer, as I look out over this dazzling city, looks something like this:

I think I’m a child of God. I think I am both animal and spirit. I think I am you and you are me and we’re all part of the same buzzing electrical generative crazy planetary thing. I think I’m a mother and a wife and a daughter and a friend. I think I’m a writer.

Who do you think you are?

Death by Book

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As I approach the finish line of this new memoir, my response to the question How are you? has lately been, This book is killing me, or (in the style of the Wicked Witch), I’m melting! MEEEELTING! And other cheery and not-at-all dramatic stuff like that.

Then, right before Halloween, my best friend Julie in upstate NY called to tell me her husband just had emergency heart surgery. If they hadn’t caught the blockages, he would have been dead within the year.

After I hung up the phone, I vowed to slow down, to be in the moment, to be present for the miracle that is my life. Forever more. The end.

And then I used that vow to flagellate myself for the next few days because, as usual, I was unable to accomplish this goal in any significant way. Until I finally just said forget it and tossed the vow out of the window of my car, while texting at red lights, blasting The Shins, crying and eating an emergency taco on my way to therapy.

When I got home from therapy, I (not at all slowly or mindfully) stuck T in front of Phineas and Ferb, while I packed two suitcases for NY. In the morning we left to meet Scott and see an Everything Will Be Alright in the End show. The next few days were a maelstrom of activities and meetings and rock shows and no sleep. By the time we were in a rented car heading over The George Washington Bridge to go upstate and visit Julie and her family, I had been running nonstop for so many days that my whole body was vibrating.

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When we got there the air was crisp and smelled like rain, the grass phosphorescent against the grey sky. The last of the fiery foliage still clung to the trees. I began to breathe as we wound through the country roads that I recognize in my very bones, from having spent every summer of my childhood there. I hurried us all into our half-assed costumes (Frankenstein, the Mummy And a fortune teller, fyi), then met Julie, her sister and their kids in the hippie haven of Woodstock. It was adorable night, with exuberant trick-or-treating punctuated by lots of old school drum circles. Without even trying, there it was in front of me: the wonder of my days.

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When we got back to their house after the candy carnage, Julie’s husband was resting on the couch, waiting for us.

Scott asked him, “How are you feeling about all this, Man? Are you anxious?”

He replied, “I’ve never been calmer. Nothing matters to me anymore except this.”

The “this” he was pointing at included six children racing through the living room on plasma cars, screaming with laughter and leaving chocolate fingerprints on every available surface. The youngest of them toddled behind, yelling “Tarikoosh! Tarikoosh!”

Ah yes. This.

Writing is hard. Mothering is hard. Sometimes keeping both balls in the air does indeed feel like it’s killing me. But it’s not. Ultimately, it’s nourishing me. My family and my work both give me much more than they ever take out of me.

The book is called Everything You Ever Wanted. It’s a motherhood memoir for the slightly less traditional moms among us, about going from being a member of a harem to a member of the PTA, and it comes out in May. It is almost finished. So close. I can’t wait to share it with you. I am wicked stressed, but it is not killing me. Not at all.

In Defense of Confession

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It seems every six months or so there’s a new viral essay disparaging memoir. They bemoan the fact that hoards of narcissistic memoirists are clogging up our MFA programs and slush piles, poisoning the minds of the reading public with confessional junk food and ultimately edging out the real writers (i.e. journalists and fiction writers), who actually have something important to say. You know, really important stuff, like essays trashing an entire genre.

I generally stay out of the line of fire, mostly because I’m too busy actually writing something to stop to defend it. Besides, I can usually count on Stephen Elliott over at The Rumpus to handle it better than I could (as he does here). I agree with Stephen when he says:

Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting. If a good memoir was merely predicated on having an interesting life then some of the best books would be celebrity memoirs. These people live a life most of us know nothing about. But celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.

It’s easy to point to bad memoirs and use them to attack the entire form but the form is never the problem.

It’s never the form that’s the problem and it’s never the subject that’s the problem. Russell Banks once said to me, “A book is never about what it’s ‘about.'” I loved that. I think about it a lot, and let it remind me that what’s important is the heart of a thing, not the hat it’s wearing.

I was drawn to confessional work long before I ever sat at my desk and turned my own life inside out looking for some kind of truth. When I was twenty, I saw a Louise Bourgeois (pictured above) retrospective in Paris about twelve times. I knew I wanted to do what she did. I had no idea what my medium was going to be, but I got that she was using self to transcend self, and I felt instinctively that therein lay my destiny.

Confessional work has always been essential to the artistic expression of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the voices for whom mainstream avenues of education and distribution aren’t readily accessible. For feminist artists and writers in the 60s and 70s, confession was a political statement. It’s a tradition I’m proud to inherit. Some of my favorite gut-spillers include Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Dieter Roth, Tracy Emin, Nan Goldin, Kathryn Harrison, Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr.

I consider the process of confessional writing to be neither cathartic nor exhibitionistic. Rather, I think of it as a sacrifice. I sacrifice my life to the muses, the gods, the world, and hope that it will be of use to someone. The gift I receive in return is that I get to live with a sense of purpose- a reason for noticing, for listening, for trying to be aware and present in any given moment.

There are people who can better defend the confessional genre than I, on grounds aesthetic and political. But I can speak from the inside of the creative process and say that we don’t choose our medium, it chooses us. The derogatory essays always seem to imply that if we memoirists were less solipsistic and more talented, we would choose to write about something else. But writing is never a choice, it’s a calling. For me, at least, I find it way too hard to be strategic and calculating. I don’t sit down and say, “Hmmm… What important thing can I write about today?” I sit down and I pray.

Conscious Chaos

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In spite of my no-resolution resolution, the beginning of the year finds me at the beginning of a couple of new-ish endeavors. I’m once again in front of the blank page with a new creative project and it feels both familiar and frightening, both electric and exhausting. I confess, I love this part. The ideas are zinging around and waking me up in the middle of the night. I’ve done this enough times now to know that the ones I think are the treasures are usually the ones that wind up in the trash and vice versa. So I try not to attach too much to a day’s work, try to let the chaos unspool around me and then wait for the muses to show up and start to organize the post-its into something resembling structure.

I’ve also been trying to show up for my parenting in a more conscious way. I’m leaving my cell in the car and re-focusing on all that good ol’ attachment-promoting behavior with which I was so engaged the first few months T was home with us. I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with T’s behavior right now, but I know for certain that if I can be more present and connected, it might help us find our way to some solutions.

Guess which project is easier?

I challenge any Tibetan lama to maintain eye-contact and active listening through an entire dinner with a toddler. I actually had a friend (clearly a better person than me) say to me a couple of months ago, “I can’t believe I ever worried that motherhood was going to be boring!” Really? You can’t? Perhaps you’d like to talk to my kid for an hour about whether the bouncy house down the street is BIG or FLAT. Or, slightly more interesting but trickier in a crowded restaurant, who, out of everyone we know, has a PENIS and who has a VAGINA. All this punctuated by a running dialogue about why it’s not advisable to eat fries off the floor or launch cutlery at the next table over.

But I know that the writing will also hit a spot at which it becomes mind-numbingly boring. And parenting will have its thrills and chills. I spend a lot of time complaining about balancing the two, but they do act as effective counterpoints to one another.

I hear the wee monster stirring in his crib. I now close up my computer in anticipation of an afternoon of eye contact and choo choos and tantrums and penis talk. All without a texting break. Bring it on; I ain’t afraid.