Category Archives: FILL

La Gilbert

Liz BN EventSay what you want about behemoth bookshops. Barnes & Noble has been quite good to me over the years, if only for the fact that they have provided me with opportunities to exchange a laugh or two with people who completely inspire me.

(Note to self: tell the story about meeting the graceful Susan Egan in a New York City BN and how she subsequently, divinely, and synchronistically sent you the elusive sheet music you had been seeking out for months. Well, actually, that’s pretty much the story.)

Last Monday, Barnes & Noble sent me Elizabeth Gilbert.

Yes, I’m a big Eat, Pray, Love fan. Who isn’t? Who didn’t read that book and all of a sudden treat themselves to luxurious artist dates consisting of solitary brunches and meditative labyrinth walks? Who didn’t follow her journey and repetitively conjure up friend after friend who would appreciate this section or that? “Oh, Suzanna would love this part about Italy,” I would think to myself while reading, and “I wonder what Stacia would think about this part in the ashram?” or “I can absolutely see Lisa and Tatiana and I having this conversation over dinner at French Roast.” And on it went. Book clubs happened. Copies were wrapped in Christmas paper and sent to the post. It was, and still is, at the top of my reading recommendation list.

But I think the appeal of that book is more than the fact that it’s a good read. I think the appeal comes from the fact that it’s so incredibly relatable. The voice is not an unfamiliar one. And as we watch the author “Frankenstein” her way through her experiences, as she might say, we get a sense of how to go about unpacking our own journeys, or at least perhaps how to  summon the courage to try. (Please note: the word “Frankenstein” can only be used as a verb if it is accompanied with the proper Frankenstein’s monster-ish walk, a proper illustration of what it is like, sometimes, to do “new and scary things.”)

“Writing is the thread that has sewn my life together,” said Elizabeth Gilbert at the Barnes & Noble event space adjacent to the loudly colorful children’s section. At least, I think that’s what she said. In a moment of haste, regretting the absence of a notebook in my purse, I busted out a pencil and started scratching in the back of my copy of her latest offering, The Signature of All Things. Anyone who knows me has witnessed those moments when I am caught scrutinizing my own writing as if it were a secret message from Orphan Annie and I am sans a decoder ring. (Yes, my life revolves around Christmas references. Get over it.) So, bear with me.

I think anyone who calls herself a writer would recognize that notion of not being able to truly understand things until they’ve been… I was going to say “written down,” but actually I think “written through” is the more accurate preposition. To “write something down” has such finality. To “write through something” implies work, journey, understanding. Joan Didion said it so many times in her personal essays: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Even now, I have a dear friend who is Frankensteining her way through unpacking her childhood abuse, writing through her experiences, bringing light to the dark corners.

I don’t know if Liz Gilbert feels exactly this way, but she contended that she even after the great success of EPL, she knew she couldn’t leave writing behind, get a big house, and “raise Corgis.” And so it is. Writing as necessity. In her own “Thoughts on Writing,” she says, “I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.” Joan said, “We tell stories in order to live.” Indeed.

Of course, this blog is about the not writing, the question of what happens when that is true and yet the words/space/time/healthy psychological headspace don’t seem to come. Liz had some things to say about this, too.

Starting with something like “stop trying to find your passion.”

Instead, she said, seek out curiosity. “Passion” is a word so fraught with anxiety, she said, that it becomes yet another weight to bear sometimes. Follow curiosity, that “small tap on the shoulder that makes you turn your head just a quarter of an inch. It’s smaller, quieter, and less intimidating.”

Cue the cumulative sigh of everyone in the room abandoning their stressful adherence to “finding their passions.”

I love this about Liz. (I can call her “Liz,” because we are obviously BFFs now.) She completely dispels the idea of the tortured writing process. “Artistic torment is a really romantic idea,” she said in an interview with Globe and Mail last month, “but it’s not very conducive to output.” In other words, she admits that her artistic process “would not make a very good biopic.”

Since she was raised on a farm, she says, her writing process is seasonal: the season for inspiration, the season for research, the season for writing, editing, and finally, for rest. Sometimes these seasons can take days, and sometimes they can take months. Sometimes, like winter in Westeros, they can take years.

The Signature of All Things was written from a 70-page outline, which was constructed from the index-card fruit of three years in the research season. (Shout out to her West Civ teacher, Mr. Kisco, and his index card research methodologies.)

Three years of research. Three years of preparation. Three years of curiosity. After that, writing was like painting a room where the the furniture had already been moved and the windows pre-taped.

“I feel sorry for the girl I was in my 20s,” she laughed, who would often try to paint only to realize there was a couch in the way. She spoke of sitting and staring at the blank page wondering where the inspiration was going to come from. She would later discover the way of the creative warrior.

“Inspiration is like a one-night stand,” she said. “Creativity is a 40-year marriage.”

elizabeth-gilbertTEDOf course, we’ve all seen her eloquent TED talk, where she outlines the potential parameters of genius, inspiration, and creativity.

But the counterweight to creativity? Compassion.

In a discussion about women and artistic pursuits, Liz pointed out that we are very likely a “new species.” We have no role models, no history, no mythology to reference as we go about our lives making decisions about family and career and balance. Never before have we had such freedom of self-determination. Here, she referenced Martha Beck, fans of her Facebook page, and also her sister as examples of the one thing that will enable us to truly embrace who we are and shine appropriately – compassion, for each other, but most importantly for ourselves.

“Martha Beck defines the mystic as the woman who chooses family, or career, or both, but has enough compassion for herself not to constantly berate herself for not choosing the other path,” said Liz, sort of. She then told a tale of her sister and a significant gesture of compassion she extended towards another mother who was spiraling into an oblivion of unworthiness after witnessing the gingerbread houses that her own kids had put together while being babysat by Liz’s sister. That conversation started with “You’re a better mother than I am” and ended with, simply, “Let’s not do this to each other.”

The Facebook has become an extension of this compassionate community, aka “Tribe Liz,” and visiting her page is like a run-in with someone offering free hugs. But, the cool part is that she is quick to return the embrace. She keeps track of her people, reaching out to them when necessary, tethering them to the font of support which that space has become. There is the story of the young woman on the other side of the world who has shared her hardships on the page, who was sent a copy of The Signature of All Things, who responded in broken English with “You care on me!”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth Gilbert. “I care on you.” And, the funny thing is, in this world where our heroes are constantly disappointing us, she really does.

Check her out on book tour now.

me and Liz

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In Search of an Outlet…

Plugging in against all odds…

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking, “Tiffany is about to write a post about how to release creative expression and find a space to explore artistic inclinations in a hustle and bustle world.”

Sorry to disappoint.

While it is poignantly true that we do all need that kind of an outlet, the point of this post is that I needed a literal outlet.  Like, an electrical one.

It was the summer of 2012.  The days were hot and the nights were…uh, dark (new moon, and all).  I found myself entertaining an invitation to spend some quality time with my immediate family over the Fourth of July holiday in a remote mountain retreat in Northern California.  The idea was rather enticing: days full of blackberry-picking and lollygagging beside the great North Fork of the Yuba River (yes, I said “lollygagging”), interrupted only by fiercely competitive games of dominoes (the ends have to add up to multiples of five in order to earn any points – we are hardcore) and bouts of rainbow trout fishing, not to mention a patriotic parade or two hosted by the local town folk.  Inside, my creative heart leapt at the thought of dusting off The Artist’s Way, journaling under dappled sunshine on the front porch, and trying my hand at acrylic painting – a slightly scary prospect, as those of you familiar with my (lack of) artistic talents would know.

There was only one teensy tiny little hitch.

I had an online class to teach.

Typically, vacationing and online teaching are highly compatible.  Yes, it means I have to spend a few hours each day in front of a laptop instead of lollygagging somewhere else having fun (yes! lollygagging!), but the flexibility of this day job is totally worth it.  Except, of course, that it requires wifi.  And, an electrical outlet.  Actually, both.  Simultaneous-like.

Thus, having yet to discover the magic of a mobile hotspot, I embarked on the mountain adventure that I like to call, “I Swear I Actually Have a Legitimate Reason to Seek Internet Connection, So Stop Looking at Me Like I’m ‘That Girl’ Who Goes to the Mountains and Can’t Live One Day Without Checking Her Facebook.”   Yeah.  I had to muster up a pretty good “don’t judge me – I don’t even really WANT to be online” face.  It wasn’t terribly convincing.

First stop:  The cabin.  Ruled out immediately.

Our mountain retreat

Located in Goodyear’s Bar, which is a town of – oh, I don’t know, I would give it a top estimate of about…23? – the closest thing to high tech I would find there is the guy down the road who outfitted his roof with three giant satellite dishes in order to access HBO.  As for our place?  Great family pride was traditionally taken in the fact that nary a DVD would played during our stay there, much less would there be cell phone service or wifi access available.  Likewise, the apparatus to support such endeavors were nonexistent.

Second stop: Google maps.  Frightening revelations.

Coffee shops had always served me well.  Certainly, I wasn’t the only writer within a 100 mile radius of our mountain retreat to seek out a caffeine/wifi combo.  Where did the mountain pens go to recreate my Living Room lifestyle?  A google search for nearby cafes with potential wifi access revealed this:

Green Arrow:  our cabin
Red Dots:  nearest coffee shops

Okay, so that didn’t seem like a viable option.  (Why am I hyperventilating?)

Third stop: Downieville.  A town with potential.

Thankfully, there was a town four miles up the hill from Goodyear’s Bar.  (Wait, does a population of 325 count as a town or, like, a village?  What’s a homestead?  Settlement?)  Upon first exploration, Downieville seemed promising.  The local grocer was semi-friendly, the pizza parlor was recently remodeled, and preparations were underway for the annual Fourth of July parade and festivities that would be taking place later that week.  Hoards of mountain bikers and rafters regularly met up in Downieville to stock up on nature trail sustenance or to throw their flotation devices in the rushing river to begin miles and miles of descent through mountain gloriousness.  I stared longingly at those with athletic agendas, tucked my weighty laptop under my arm, and began scoping the main streets, er, street, of Downieville in search of a viable wifi option.

Yes, that says, “Fireman’s Dance.”
Yes, I considered staying a few extra days to attend.

The town pizza parlor doubled as a brunch spot on the weekends, and I was drawn to its clean, sturdy, square tables and views of the river.  The manager happily unplugged a neon beer sign to accommodate my computer’s embarrassing lack of battery life.  I set myself up with a cup of coffee and graded two papers offline while the parlor transformed around me for the lunch crew.  It was nice of them not to kick me out and I enjoyed the quiet solace of my own little corner. However, the wifi options were a tease, and after 20 minutes of trying to connect while perusing The Mountain Messenger (“One wallet was reported missing in Downieville.  Another was turned in.  The incidents were not related.”), I finally packed it in.

The next stop was the ice cream parlor.  The scoops and cones barista, who was 15, gave me the rundown on the town gossip, most of which consisted of the fact that guys from out of town regularly think she is 25, which apparently leads to awkward moments over mint chocolate chip.  I managed to connect, just barely, but the decor of the place – which included old timey feathered boas and dingy lighting – sort of creeped me out in a Miss Havisham kind of way.  I left.

But, on my way out, awkwardly mature ice cream parlor girl mentioned the town wifi.  Um.  Were we keeping this a secret to mess with the city folk?  But sure enough, sponsored by the Sierra County Arts Council, a wifi hotspot at the Yuba Theatre, right in the middle of town.  And pretty much plain as day.

Thanks, Sierra County Arts Council!  I settled cross-legged on one of the cozy little benches outside of the theatre with my laptop on my, uh, lap, and began tapping away in internet connection bliss.  As I was now located out in the open on Main Street – well, the street – passersby would nod hello or greet me with a smile.  Yay!  No one thought I was loony bins for attaching myself to a computer instead of an inflatable river raft!

A local named Charlie even sat down next to me and struck up a conversation.  Apparently, he assumed I was some city bigwig who was checking her stock portfolio.  Oh, Charlie.  If only you knew.  I quickly corrected him before he could ask me for market tips and then found myself explaining the ins and outs of online teaching.  But that’s boring, so we quickly moved on to the unemployment rate in the mountain towns, which was…depressing.  Desperate for a subject change, I asked him for details on the upcoming Downieville Fourth of July Parade.  He happily obliged with a preview into the annual foot races, the tug of war, and the lemonade stand.  I laughed.  But, he wasn’t joking.  These were actual things that would be happening.  I made a mental note to finish grading papers before the Fourth.  Lemonade is my second favorite beverage, after all.

Fourth of July lemonade

Twenty minutes after settling in front of the Yuba Theatre, as expected, my laptop battery began to die.  I quickly looked around me for an outlet, which seemed to be…missing.  I looked at Charlie, who shrugged unhelpfully.  Ack!  Code Red!  Defcon One on the streets – damn, I keep doing that – street of Downieville!

I glanced around at the neighboring structures situated within the Sierra County Arts Council wifi range for the promise of a plug…not too hopeful:  a grocery store, a shop selling river rock, a parking lot, a church, and…oh no.  Seriously??

St. Charles Place.  The bar on the corner.

I hadn’t done anything academic in a bar since I studied abroad in Canterbury, England.

Picture if you will:  Me in a cute sundress, laptop in tow, walking into semi-shady mountain bar midday, the fragrant strains of last night’s beer drifting up from the bar floor to meet my sunglass-perched nostrils, the local ruffians turning on their barstools to locate the source of the daylight that has pierced their dark sanctuary of hops and yeast.   And then, me:  “Um, can I get a Hefeweizen and some electricity, please?”

Well, it wasn’t really that dramatic.  But I think I will always like to remember it that way.

Internet and electricity secured, simultaneous-like, St. Charles became my online home during my stay.  I am absolutely positive that the pints which accompanied each grading session had nothing to do with the remarkable curve established for that week’s assignments.  And once the papers were done…it was time to enjoy the festivities!

The Fourth of July Parade in Downieville goes down Main Street…then turns around in the pizza parlor parking lot and comes back again. 🙂

Annual Tug of War – Interestingly, most of these participants were recruited at the last minute from their barstools at St. Charles Place.

Annual Fourth of July Foot Races.

I painted a thing!
Excellent tutelage provided by Dad.

Happy Fourth of July!

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Just When I’m Feeling Uninspired…

 

…I stumble across a giant statue of Orpheus, god of music and poetry. Okay, I get it, I get it!

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Mini me and giant Orpheus

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The Awesomeness of Elizabeth Gilbert

Inspiration for a Thursday…

One of my all time favorite authors is Elizabeth Gilbert.  (In fact, I plan to launch an “I want to lunch with Elizabeth Gilbert” twitter campaign, but more on that later.)  The point is that it is important to find authors who speak to us, who write to our hearts, whom we would like to emulate as we navigate through the discovery of our own writing styles.  Whenever I get a serious case of the “mean reds” around my writing, I take a deep breath and listen to Liz.  Enjoy.

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I Promise I Will Write the Novel Tomorrow…

…I’ve been a little distracted this week.

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Number Four

Unplug.

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A Request

Me and Zu at Tent Rocks outside of ABQ

I wish Suzanna would blog about beekeeping.

That is all.

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Time to Get Back to the Surf

There is pure joy in doing what we are meant to be doing.  Every moment should feel like this.

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Surfing Is Life

summer sunsets in san diego
photo: moi!

So, I’ve recently taken up surfing. Yes, I know what you are thinking. “Tiffany, didn’t you grow up in San Diego? Why are you only starting to learn how to surf now?” Because I didn’t grow up a walking stereotype, people! Just because I grew up here doesn’t mean that I spent all of my time growing out my long blonde beach hair and surfing every morning and going to work/school with sand in my shoes and retreating to the beach every summer for bonfires and saying words like “rad” on a regular basis. Geez!

So, anyway, the waves were so rad this morning (passionately flips long blonde hair over her shoulder). I think this was technically my fourth time out as a “serious surfing student” under the tutelage of Kevin Olson Six. Apparently, there is a fourth lesson breaking point, which I totally hit. This is the point when you know enough about the mechanics of surfing but not quite enough to actually do it well. So, there I was, on the “inside” of the break (surfing lingo: closer to the shore and not out where the crazy waves are) and basically getting pummeled over and over again by the completely ungentle ferocity that is the Pacific Ocean.

And so, there’s a point. And, I think this happens in writing as well. The point when nothing seems to be working, you know you’re in the middle of the learning curve and you’ve realized to your own horror that there is something in this world that you’re not completely  brilliant at right from the get. (Insert future post about being a Type A overachiever). All you see is the hours and hours of time stretching between where you are now and where you want to be. Like at the end of a novel. Or surfing Pipeline. What to do now?

After the fourth or fifth time my shoulder was raked across the ocean floor, my hands flailing out in front of me to protect my head from my surfboard which was now flying through the air, bouncing on foamy ocean break, I knew I had to make a decision. Either paddle farther out to where about twenty surfers waited, sitting on their boards in the calm “outside,” waiting for the Maverick waves that would probably only reach about six feet but still felt gigantic to me, or beat it back to the shore.

Again, I know what you’re thinking. A pivotal life lesson moment! Find your inner awesome, Tiffany! Channel Blue Crush and get out there with the big guys and prove something to yourself!

Hell. No.

Five minutes later, sitting on the shore and contemplating life, I had a minor epiphany. And it went something like this:

I don’t have to be a badass everyday.

Because, truthfully, I am quite often a badass. They say that you should do something every day that scares you? I quite frequently feel like my entire life is one scary moment after another. (That might have come out wrong, but I think you know what I mean.)

But just…not today. Today, perhaps in an instinctual lunge of self-preservation, perhaps because I was still really frickin’ sore from booty boot camp the day before, or perhaps because I have spent the last two months being a badass in so many ways…today was the day to declare Mother Sea the winner, enjoy the warm sand for a moment, watch the other badasses catch the big waves, and gain some perspective.

When I am in the thick of something, I have a hard time seeing the goal. Enter perspective. Time to step back. Absorb the lessons. Choose the next path. Reaffirm the goal: This is how I want to be able to surf. This is the kind of book I want to write.

So, the morning was spent watching the pros tear it up on the outside. The afternoon was spent writing down the first lines of the first books ever published by my favorite authors and tacking them to the bulletin board in front of my computer.  (“Lily heard the shot at seventeen minutes to one.“)

Because this is a marathon, and not a sprint. Choosing to be a writer is choosing a lifestyle. And sometimes the most important part of choosing something is how you get yourself through the times when you just don’t want to do it anymore. It’s okay to beat it back to the beach. Just make sure you’re out there again the next morning. Cowabunga.

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