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writing retreats

Navigating rewrite limbo by Robin Gaines

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In the last few months, working on my second novel, I’ve done nothing but ask myself why: Why doesn't this scene work? Why does this character feel like type? Why did I become a fiction writer? What pivot in life led me to examine the fictional world of characters conjured from imagination and what ifs? Characters I probably would hesitate to befriend if they lived in my neighborhood. And what massive amounts of self-delusion does it take to pull this off convincingly?

I’ve been in REWRITE hell that only writers familiar with the hollowed out terrain can appreciate. The dry creek beds. The poisoned trees.

It wasn’t always this bleak. In September, I spent two glorious weeks at Ragdale immersed in finishing up REWRITE #2 of my second novel. (Already on its third title, I’m afraid to write it or say it out loud for fear all 350 pages will combust. Maybe the core of my rewrite angst is that the baby has no name that fits?)

At Ragdale, I fleshed out anemic characters and wrote stronger middle chapters and left feeling elated that I had a book. By January, I finished REWRITE #3, showed it to a couple of editor friends, agents, and my critique group and waited. Of the two editors, two agents, two critique partners, and my mom, all had different opinions on what worked, what didn’t, and how to go about “improving” the manuscript. When I sat down this spring for REWRITE #4, it felt like the train of creativity had left the station without me. So long it waved. Good luck figuring it out. I closed the laptop and cried for weeks.

Oh, there were other things—life—to occupy my time, but the characters and the story never strayed too far from my thoughts. Then, one night last month, in a fitful sleep, I had a literary epiphany and figured out the why to a part of the story that kept asking why. I got out of bed and wrote six pages of notes on how to answer my own question. Baptized once again in the waters of imagination and self-delusion, I’d do what all writers do: invent what they can control.

I’m driving the train again on a slow and methodical course. If I can pull it off, the manuscript will be better for it. And if not, I’ll have to ask how long to let the story ferment before tackling the next REWRITE. Because sometimes with time words and ideas mushroom in dark drawers or boxes on closet shelves. When pulled out into the daylight, it’s not unusual to find one character has grown a beard, another has learned to play the piano, and sometimes sweet Aunt Barb has murdered someone. The inmates of imagination have taken over, and REWRITE #5 has begun.

One writer describes rewriting akin to “scrubbing the basement floor with a toothbrush.” To that, I beg: Please, oh please, dear imagination, dear self-delusion, give me the stamina to scrub this mother*&%$#@ clean.

Robin Gaines is an award-winning fiction writer & journalist. Her work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines & anthologies. She lives in Michigan. Her first novel,   Invincible Summers  , was released to widespread acclaim. She is hard at work on her second novel. Learn more about her on   her website  .

Robin Gaines is an award-winning fiction writer & journalist. Her work has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines & anthologies. She lives in Michigan. Her first novel, Invincible Summers, was released to widespread acclaim. She is hard at work on her second novel. Learn more about her on her website.

Slowing down for magic

On a recent evening we were walking on our rural road, my mother and I, when far up ahead we saw a whitetail deer crossing the pavement. A shadow nearby, her newborn fawn, no larger than a cat, born that day or perhaps the night before. We stood still, watching from afar as it followed its mother into the safety of the brush, spindly and unsure and looking wholly exhausted with the world.

We marveled at the deer’s tiny-ness and continued with our walk. We had been too far away to see exactly where they had entered the woods, but we gazed beyond the branches and greenery as we went to see if we could detect a sign of the mother deer and her unbelievably small charge. At one point we stopped completely and stared into the woods, trying to see past the leaves.

We were looking in the wrong place. I touched my mother’s arm to get her attention, because at the exact point we had stopped, a minuscule spotted bundle curled motionless in the tall grass next to the road.

To exhausted to follow, the fawn had lay in that spot, waiting for its mother to return. What reason or energy or strange ultra-accurate unconscious calculation had caused us to stop in that very place, we don’t know. I say it was magic or some earth spirit or higher force saying, look at this. Be connected to this beautiful moment. Stop and look.

There are some writing retreats that focus on craft, on critique, on the expertise of authors.

We stop and look.  

Can you remember the last time? Is it hard for you to remember that time when you were a child and you were bored?

Magic happens at a slow speed. We step outside of our lives so we can slow down.

What can you find? What will you see? It’s waiting to be discovered.

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Modern dance performances and amber stones, by Eline Van Wieren

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Last weekend I went to a modern dance festival where young dance makers get to share their work with the world. One of the pieces I saw was choreographed and performed by a girl who I think was somewhere in her twenties, just like me. She was wearing oversized soft pink track pants and a black t-shirt with what looked like a heavy metal band logo printed on it.

In the festival folder, it said that her piece is research on the pre-consisting ideas and images of the female body. An exploration of how her body deals with loneliness, rage and sensuality.

Her dance isn’t what you’d expect dance to be. It’s not elegant and flowing. The movements mimic daily life motions so closely, it’s hard to know what it is that you’re actually looking at. You could even argue if this is dance. But I don’t want to be like the average close-minded fifty-something theatergoers that I’m surrounded with. I’m an art school student. I’m cool and I have a well-curated Instagram account. So I tell myself: Dance can be whatever it decides to be.

 The girl on the stage has long blonde hair in a ponytail high on her head. The music intensifies and she starts head-banging. The music softens down and she starts to undress. The black shirt and the washed-out white sports bra. The track pants she doesn’t take off completely; she lets them hang around her ankles.

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She starts rubbing body lotion on her legs, her arms, her belly and her chest. I know what she’s doing. This is a performance of self-care. A performance I’ve do every Sunday night, without an audience, trying to make it look natural. She rubs the lotion on her perfectly formed breasts. Breasts that would do well in a black and white photoshoot with a girl between freshly washed sheets looking into the camera caught off guard, showing everything but the nipple.

There’s also bouquet of flowers on the stage and the puts them in her neon pink panties. I look at her, sitting on stage under the bright lamps and think: I know what you’re trying to do. Being naked on this stage, trying to show the world that you’re allowed to do whatever you want with your body. But this is not a statement. You’re pretty. You have the body and the breasts and the pretty face. You’re exactly what people want a girl to be.

After the show I go to the bar and order a drink. I look next to me and there’s the girl with the blonde ponytail high on her head. She smiles at me and says, I love your necklace.

Thank you, I say. She reaches for the gold chain with the amber hanging from it.

She holds the stone between her thumb and index finger. Her forehead is about as tall as my collarbone and I look down at her bright blue eyes. Standing here in front of me, she looks so much more fragile than on that stage. She’s the kind of girl a man could wrap his arms around, pick up off the ground and there’d be nothing left for her to do than wait until he puts her down again.

She says, amber is supposed to turn negative energy into positive energy, but I don’t know if I believe in that kind of thing.

She is so nice and smart. I feel like maybe I should say something, about how I call myself a feminist, but still manage to judge brave girls who happen to also be pretty. But that doesn’t seem like a fun thing for her to hear, so I keep quiet. We talk about other things and her eyes whenever she speaks, her eyes glance down to my chest, where the golden-brown stone is laying between the folds of my t-shirt.  

At night before I go to bed I look at myself in the mirror as I take of the necklace and think of all the work that little stone has left to do.

 

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Scars

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I wrote this piece during a session at our Marrakech retreat in November, and it seems appropriate to share it this week, when women are losing ground again in America, ranked 51st in the world in terms of gender equality. Check out the Daily Show’s “Desi Lydic: Abroad” for more on this topic.

In my dream, a bearded man compares his shark bite scars to the ones from my double mastectomy. He draws a line on the ground, wants to measure the length. Are they this long? he says, but he doesn’t know that my scars are three-dimensional. He seems threatened by my pain, wants to dominate that, too. He sees a power he doesn’t like and doesn’t understand. When I wake, I hear men’s voices downstairs in the house, ghosts or real, I don’t know. I hear footsteps on the stairs.

I am a monolingual drifter, learning languages I didn’t expect. I translate my stories through alternate universes. The alien who can leave her broken body whenever she wishes, the vampire who heals at the blink of an eye—still, both with psychic wounds they have trouble reaching.

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A dove perches on a TV antenna like a weather vane. Sparrows gather in a flowering vine. I contemplate loss and gain, a misplaced or sacrificed iPod, found sunglasses and gremlins or fairies, weakness and sickness and falling off a stone step, landing hard but without bruises, missing towels and caterwauling, sweet tea and magic places that hide in a maze of stone walls. I will see more clearly when I’ve gone from here, or maybe tomorrow or tonight or something will happen later and I’ll see how to end my novel the right way.

There was a man in a café in Madrid who angrily demanded my change, shaking an empty plastic cup at me until I demanded he leave me alone, and I think of all the times I should have gotten angry and didn’t, and accepted things because that’s how it was, these things happen you know.

A few random memories surface, bubbling up one by one in a tempestuous boil. The time when I was eleven and an older boy pinned me on a neighbor’s bed, demanding I kiss him before he’d let me up, the weight of his body crushing the air from my lungs. Much later, the time I was promoted to a job I was proud of, the first female to hold this position at the company, and a male colleague said ‘Wow…so, what’s up with that?’ Or how I talked one night at dinner not long ago about walking down the street near my apartment and two different men in two different cars stopped to comment on my appearance or ask me my name. Just be nice and keep walking, my father suggested, and I said why, why should I have to be nice when I feel threatened? That’s been part of the problem all along, that men have seen women as “for” them, to comment on or to offer the gift of their attention, because that means we’re valuable, even though they miss the dimensions, and they don’t see the ways we have to think six steps ahead of any situation, how it distracts us from the things we’d rather be thinking about.

Which brings me back to my novel. Back to making it right. Back to wondering whether I can carry it through, or the other one, and reading last night about Haruki Murakami, how he decided one day in the middle of watching a baseball game that he could probably write a novel and did, a few months later, sending off his only copy to a contest without another thought, only caring about completing it and not what it meant or whether it would ever get published, like a sand mandala, colorful and singular and temporary.

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A Meditation by Eline Van Wieren

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When I meditate, I sometimes imagine I’m on a tiny string connected to my crown that leads all the way up to a to a gigantic golden ball hanging somewhere between the roof of the house I live in and the clouds.

That might be a weird thing to do, but my yoga teacher says that gold is the color that represents love. I imagine the string being a like a leaking tap where it connects to my crown and the gold drips into my body. It fills up my feet toe by toe, all the way to my ankles. I get distracted by thoughts. Probably something about something I wanted to do yesterday but forgot.

When I get back to the leaking tap, the gold is already reaching up to somewhere around my knees. I hear a car drive by and I think about the children in the backseat and the radio station they’re listening to. For some reason whenever I think of people in cars, I imagine them singing along to a Tracy Chapman song.

I think, this is a strange thing I’m doing. Shouldn’t I be sleeping in until way past noon and drinking gin tonics and maybe sleep with some guy I care nothing about? Shouldn’t I be doing things that will turn in to stories that I can tell to make me an interesting person? But the gold has already found its way to my belly button.

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I sigh. The air I draw in reaches down all the way to where my panties start. When it leaves my body I sink a little bit deeper into my meditation cushion. A few days ago, a guy asked me why I sometimes wear make-up and I told him it’s so I can feel like a real girl. A soft and hairless girl. My aunt says I shouldn’t call myself a girl anymore, I’m a woman now. But most of my socks have holes in them and I often forget to change my bedsheets before they start to smell stale. The gold spills over my armpits into my arms.

Last week I went to a yoga class where at the end we sat in a circle to tell each other the things we had on our hearts. If you wanted to talk, you pressed your hand palms together before your chest and bowed forward. Then you waited until the group had bowed back to you before starting your story. In the middle of the group was a vase with half-withered flowers. Nobody was allowed to respond to what you told them.

When the class was over, one of the women in the group came up to me and asked me if she could give me a hug. I told her she could. I held on to her tighter than she held me and I was aware of it. Everywhere I go I look for mothers. I wasn’t sure how long the hug was supposed to last, so I tried to let go in phases. When our upper bodies were no longer touching, she placed one hand on my waist and the other on my shoulder. She said, ‘Don’t forget you’re a beautiful person.’ We looked straight into each other’s eyes and I hoped she thought my face to be pretty. I asked, ‘Can we do another hug?’ We said we could. She was soft.

I am almost filled up with gold. All of me is glittering and there’s no one here to watch. I don’t really know what love means, but at least I can imagine all this gold and glitter. All the weight of this body has sunken into the laminate flooring. As the last drop reaches my skull, the bell of the timer I set dings. I open my eyes and the gold is gone. I move on with my day.

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Origin story

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As I write this it’s May the Fourth, an adopted Star Wars celebration day (as in, “may the ‘fourth’ be with you…”), just a few days after the death of Peter Mayhew, who played the beloved Chewbacca. My favorite TV station, Comet, was playing a clear Star Wars knockoff, the 1978 Japanese film Message from Space.

And just a couple of days ago, I interviewed a young woman, who, through a flight scholarship program, got to fly a private plane with the original Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford. I was trying to play it cool, but it was hard to hear her answers over the sound of my twelve-year-old self screaming at me from across time. I’m only one of millions of people who were hit with a bit of The Force growing up, and as a writer, its influence and impact on the shape of my imagination are undeniable.

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The original Star Wars film came out when I had just turned 7 years old. The truth is I wasn’t interested, or I was too busy with my Barbies to notice. I didn’t see it until a few years later, as I recall, when the library put on a showing of Star Wars in anticipation of The Empire Strikes Back. Then I was totally in orbit, so to speak.

The Empire Strikes Back expanded my understanding of storytelling. It was the first film I remember where I felt truly shocked by the twists and the pain inflicted upon a main character: Luke got his hand cut off! By his father! Who he didn’t know about until just now! It was also the first film I recall that didn’t have a completely happy resolution—what? They can leave us hanging like this? Where is Han??

While my young pre-teen/early-teen years I was mainly interested in Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, the presence and influence of Princess Leia was undoubtedly the most impactful. My mother likes to tell a story about when I was four years old and had said something about becoming a nurse. ‘You could be a doctor,’ my encouraging mother said. I apparently snorted derisively and said, to her horror, ‘Girls can’t be doctors!’

Clearly, such a notion didn’t come from my mother, and demonstrated how a misogynistic society had already wheedled itself into the unsuspecting brain of a toddler. To that point had witnessed no females or female characters in roles of authority. Princess Leia began to turn that around. Soon afterward Sigourney Weaver sent a scary Alien flying out of an airlock, all by herself, though I didn’t watch that one until much later.

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Also much later, I learned the screenplay for Empire Strikes Back was co-written by Leigh Brackett, a longtime novelist and screenwriter who died shortly after turning in a first draft of the screenplay. Early on in her career she was called in to work with William Faulkner on the film The Big Sleep by director Howard Hawks, who assumed she was a man. Brackett also wrote, among many things, the acclaimed post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel The Long Tomorrow. I found other ‘hidden’ writers, Andre Norton among them, and began to question why science fiction—a genre launched by Mary Shelley—was a ‘male’ domain.

The Star Wars franchise, like for so many others, also offered me heroes when I needed them. Around the time of Empire Strikes Back we moved to a rural town that seemed to have a different mindset and a different vibe. The kids were different. We moved in the middle of the school year, and I was something different to them, an easy target for bullies. I retreated into my imagination, creating my own internal fan fiction, putting myself in the Star Wars universe as Luke’s Jedi sister (yes, before I knew he actually had one!). Later I began writing my own stories, an oddball fantasy series casting my enemies as the antagonists.

I dove into other books—my mother’s Trixie Belden mystery series, the off-the-wall Hitchhiker’s Guide books—and I set the foundation for an inner world that has become a strange, delightful and gothic bit of architecture with lots of weird staircases. That’s part of my creative origin story. What’s yours?

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Pathways

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Lately my mind has centered in on the places where I could’ve taken different pathways and what that might have meant for me. With our Costa Rica retreat coming up in January, it occurred to me that one of my divergences happened here at the young age of 24, recently out of college and feeling directionless and lost.

That year I had worked a temp job to scrape together the money for the three-week interim course on tropical ecology. I carried with me more than a suitcase—emotions I couldn’t sort out, rendered sleepless and raw, as I often am when traveling, though this was my first solo out-of-country trip, the first that put me far outside my element. The first away from my husband.

Like my mix of emotions on that trip there were terrible and beautiful things everywhere. Scorpions and tarantulas and a 16-foot boa constrictor captured in a swamp we were supposed to walk through. There were long bumpy roads and watery food and endless treks and mud and tiny tents and sleepless nights and fear of the unknown we had yet to encounter.

The magic flower.

The magic flower.

 I wanted to absorb all of it. Howler monkeys groaning in the treetops. Colorful hummingbirds, feathered jewels that buzzed around us like fairies. A walking palm, a tree whose roots grow on the outside, allowing it to slowly move itself to a place where it can get more sun. There was a magic flower that popped open into splendor if you removed the covering that hid it from sight. The beauty and magic were speaking to me, sending messages about turning my face to the light.

 One night we camped on a beach, waiting for sea turtles, and in the no-moon darkness we followed each other’s flashlights to a place where an endangered leatherback laid her eggs, surrounding her in a circle as she labored in a trance. In the depth of her concentration, we were invisible to her. We were invisible to time and place. I felt like a ghost haunting another world.

Out of my element, I found something. I couldn’t fully interpret what at the time, but something took seed and began to grow in that lush rainforest environment. On the dry side of the country, the winds blew strong, fanning an inner flame. I had come with a mission, fresh out of college and working at a suffocating job, trying to figure out my next steps, complicated by a young marriage and all of the expectations that came with it.

 I had this idea that I needed to choose between a pathway of journalism or one of fiction writing. Being far away from my life and sitting on top of a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in the setting sun, swirling around Roca Bruja (Witch’s Rock), I also had the nagging yet unreconciled sense that I shouldn’t have to choose. I became overwhelmed with the idea that the world was large and untamable and that I had locked myself away from it. I had the first true inklings that the cracks in my marriage were only temporarily patchable, that the roots of whatever was growing would eventually wind themselves in and pull everything apart, and it was too much for me at the time to accept.

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Practicality won out at the time and I returned to school for journalism classes that eventually led to an internship and then a career. Whether or not it was the right pathway, it was a pathway, and I’ve become a fiction writer regardless. The marriage fell apart regardless. Perhaps it’s telling that I chose to write a series of poems instead of a long report as my ecology class project. It was bad poetry but it was a beginning. Then I wrote a bad novel, but it was a beginning. I stumbled and lamented through much of this trip, but it, too, was a beginning.

I had gone to Costa Rica as a way to begin to repair a broken pathway, the lost dream of taking a semester abroad in college, and, whether conscious or not, to reclaim my lost self. Sometimes we know where our pathways broke off and sometimes we don’t but I think they want to turn and twist and converge to bring us back to where we belong.

Step out of your element with us. We’re headed to Costa Rica in January-- join us for 7 days/6 nights as we settle our body mind and spirit into the magical bounty of the Costa Rican Rainforest.

Fat by Eline Van Wieren

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My stories for Wide Open Writing so far, seem to all start with either coming home or finding a piece of mail on the doormat. Today’s story starts with both. Coming home and finding mail on the doormat. And for some reason, that makes me feel like a cheater. Like I don’t have the imagination to think of something more interesting to start with and so I’ll just go for what I know. But here we are. I come home and I find a package on the doormat.

I take the package in to our living area, where three of my roommates are. One of them is cutting vegetables for dinner at the kitchen table, another is sitting on the other side of the kitchen table, reading the newspaper. The third is laying on the couch, reading a book and listening to music. Coming home to this is something that has become so familiar to me, that I feel like I don’t need to describe anymore details to you.

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The package contains two things. A book and a small cardboard box. The book is written by a woman who I’ve never met in real life. But we follow each other on Instagram and we shared two long phone calls. Short excerpts from those phone calls ended up in the book that I’m now holding in my hands. The title of the book: Knap voor een dik meisje. (Which translates to: Pretty for a fat girl.)

In the cardboard box: a necklace made of gold string and a white ceramic plate. On the ceramic plate, in bold golden letters, is the word: ‘fat’. (In Dutch: dik.)

I laugh and blurt out, ‘Look how cool this is!’

I put on the necklace and show it to my roommates.

‘Fuck yeah,’ says the one cutting the vegetables and puts both of his middle fingers up in the air.

It is now the morning after opening the package. I just had a shower, after which I put on a plain black t-shirt on which the white ceramic and gold letters of the necklace proudly stand out. Fat.

It is also about an hour after I finished reading the book. My body is alive with recognition. This book has put to words some of the thoughts I didn’t even think were worth putting on a piece of paper. And now that they are here, that I can hold them in my hands, something has softly dropped within me. Something, I realize, that I’ve been holding up for quite a while now.

I think of a quote of which the last sentence every once in a while finds its way back in to my mind. Even though I can never really grasp its meaning. It goes like this:

“I explained to Warren the difference between male and female monsters. ‘Female monsters take things as personal as they really are. They study facts. Even if rejection makes them feel like the girl who’s not invited to the party, they have to understand the reason why.’

…Every question once it’s formulated, is a paradigm, contains its own internal truth. We have to stop diverting ourselves with false questions. And I told Warren: I aim to be a female monster too.”

-       From: I love Dick, by Chris Kraus

 I aim to be a female monster too. This sentence has something to do with the thing that just softly dropped within me. It has something to do with the idea of a universal truth. A truth that I am prone to believe does not exist. We all live under different circumstances, with different bodies and different memories. Different things ahead of us.

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It is easy to forget that under all those different circumstances, we long for the same things. Something that is maybe summarized easiest as: wanting to be seen. And the programmed thought that always follows after that undying desire to be visible: I must show less of myself in order to be seen as a complete human being. How weird is that?

How weird is it that I am a writer and that time and time again, I find ways around asking the questions that are most obvious to me? Because I tell myself they are too obvious. Because I’m scared that if I ask them, I will find that everyone but me already knows the answers. Because no one will understand what I’m talking about. Because, because, because.

Reading ‘Knap voor een dik meisje’ has been a fucking grounding experience for me and in my eyes Tatjana, its author, is a true female monster. We need these monsters. We need to come home, once again finding a package on the doormat. Opening it. Carefully looking at its contents. Going out into the world, wearing our necklaces. Writing about it.  

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Praise/criticism

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We’re in Isla Holbox, Mexico right now with new groups of writers who are exploring, creating, discovering and encountering. Each of our retreats includes a series of prompts, often in question form, designed to get our minds going, to dig deeper and to tap into that river of authenticity that takes us to an open place. We try to write in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way, in a limited period of time. to eliminate the inner editor and just get some words down on paper. In Tuscany 2016, one of the presented questions was ‘What’s my story of praise and criticism?’ Below is my response.

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It’s the thing that goes on, the thing I can’t control in other people’s heads and barely in my own, the one that tells me, Good Lord, Woman, haven’t you learned how to pack a suitcase yet? The wonderment at somehow convincing myself that squeezing all of the air out of a space would make it easier to carry, when, in fact, it’s like that thing they say about the Earth, how if you squeezed all of the air out of everything then the planet would be the size of a soccer ball but still weigh the same. And sometimes that’s what I carry. But these things are no longer the driver, but simply the screaming kids in the back seat. I long to be elegant, to never clatter my silverware or trip over my own feet, and if there are lessons to be learned from these distractions, I don’t know, but that’s all they are, distractions. Because age is good for something, and that’s knowing that most things are silly and that there are no somedays. That all you really have is to be here now, and some years are more prone to remind you that it’s time to use the good china and the pretty linen and to wear that dress. You learn that you can’t avoid the dark, and in fact, it’s long past time to seek it out. You learn that sometimes pain is least painful when you crawl inside it, become it, to find the smallest origin of it and expand inside of it until it bursts. To look under the bed and say, hello, monster, come out and play. You begin to see the beauty in the whole, to understand that painters seek the right kind of light not for the light itself but for the play of light and dark. You begin to dust off that heavy trunk in the corner that carries the carefully folded and preserved statements and lessons passed along for the sake of safety or good intention or not such good intention, the collection of proclamations, yellowed and frayed but very carefully kept, the ways you still convince yourself you’re not enough just as you are. You begin to unfold them and see them as silliness, too. Maybe you actually find something in there that can be spun into silk. You invite the shadow on the other side of the mirror to laugh with you, and maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t but you see it for what it is. You cry for the ones who won’t be convinced but then you let it go. You see the falseness and have no patience for it and maybe now that you’ve unfolded some parchment from the trunk and it’s not so heavy anymore, you start to let your impatience show a little more. You stop hiding your crazy. You start seeing through the veil, you start seeing more clearly what is real, what is life, what is love.

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"Purgery"

The author’s many books, which she’s keeping.

The author’s many books, which she’s keeping.

In middle class America, we have too much stuff, and a helpful Japanese organizer has given us permission to get rid of it. Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” has transmuted into a popular Netflix program in which we get to watch other people get rid of their stuff. Now, thrift stores are getting buried under mountains of our discards.

It feels good to let go. I’ve been a pack rat most of my life, even packing stuff away in a storage unit when I left California to move back in with my parents so I could finish grad school. When I went back for the stuff in 2015, planning to put most of it in a rummage sale and use the proceeds for a volunteer trip to South Africa, this is what I wrote for the Volunteer Forever blog:

It was easier than I thought to let go of most of the things I had packed away. And that made it both easier and more difficult emotionally. …But it was more difficult in the way of getting a sense of how much energy and time and money I invested in hanging on to and accumulating things that didn’t matter.

How much time, energy and money do we put into “stuff” when we could be investing it elsewhere? How many things are useful, and how many things are meant to create a sense of self? Does our “stuff” hinder us or help us? (And can it help someone else?)

Like everyone, I had a lot of hopes and dreams about who I would be and what my life would look like. I surrounded myself with things that I thought fit in that vision, interests I wanted to be associated with, talents I wanted to acquire, strengths I wanted to possess. But opening box after box of unread books, unused items and clothing that wasn’t right for me felt like opening boxes of desire, envy and insecurity.

Still, I brought home a small Penske truck’s worth of goods and, for a short time, it ended up in another storage unit in Wisconsin. Now that I’m in my new small house, I’ve been going through another round of “let’s make it fit,” and it’s been a powerful exercise in learning how much I don’t need, and in what aspects of my life have more space to breathe when dead energy is moved out.

The author, at left, about age 7.

The author, at left, about age 7.

The frequent and fevered question people have is “Do you regret giving anything away?” That fear is a reason why we hold on to stuff in the first place: I might need it later. I might want it later. But the answers can be revealing and powerful: The only thing I ever was sorry to have given up was a pair of tap shoes. And here’s the thing: They were easily replaced—with better, more comfortable, tappier shoes. And more importantly, the loss of those shoes brought me far more wealth: A renewed interest in dance lessons. New kinds of dance. New friendships. Fancy, bright costumes. The thrill of getting on the stage again. And, possibly the most impactful—an important exploration of why I gave up dancing in the first place. Which also gave me important fodder for my writing life.

Purgery: I used this title as wordplay, a twist on the act of purging. But a “purgery” is also a real thing, the place in a sugarhouse in which molasses is drained off maple sugar. A way to the final product, the sweet stuff.

It works in writing, too. Having once or twice dumped a hefty portion of my worldly goods, it’s seemed easier to highlight and delete unwanted or unnecessary lines of text. Working as an editor and reporter honed my sense of what belongs, but releasing “stuff” has maybe added a stronger sense of what has the most impact. Or at least a sense of that whatever you get rid of won’t be noticed or missed.

Still, when I’m editing a novel and taking out big chunks of text, I put them in a file I call a “Holding Pond,” a just-in-case-I-want-it-later file, my own literary junk drawer, so I don’t get distracted by my fear of the lost words. But like real junk drawers, I hardly ever go back and look for what I threw in there. Once in a while, I realize something might fit better in a sequel or a prequel, and I create a special new file for the section of text, giving it the honor and space it deserves.

Keeping things that matter is OK—nobody has to purge everything. Even the Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, who have shared their joy in letting go through their book “Everything That Remains,” say it’s about keeping the things that make you truly happy, curating the most meaningful possessions. In Marie Kondo terms, it’s about what sparks joy.

Like most writers I have a number of works in progress, and I cultivate the ones that I think have potential, letting them simmer and bubble up when the time is right. Recently, I discovered that a long-dormant and partially finished project really belonged integrated into another work-in-progress, a melding of a present-and-future story that became my speculative fiction novella, “The Fledgling.” In February, the manuscript was shortlisted by Brain Mill Press for its novella contest.

With more clarity around each piece, I was able to recognize their strength and power as a congruent narrative and gain momentum on a new and exciting project. And that sparks a hell of a lot of joy.

The author, center, about age 15.

The author, center, about age 15.