I feel alone when I am one in a crowded room. But I am not. I am a part of something like a drop in the water or the fine line of a sentence to the whole. We are all a part of something.
"You are not alone," the editor says on stage. "That's why we come here."
But I have just stepped in, stepped away from the screen, away from the room where it is quiet and still and the story mills. I always feel a shift to the internal, the emotional, and become quiet in large settings like this one. Perhaps processing to much, listening to deeply, and wanting to understand on the inside what it all means for me.
Anyways, here's what I learned at AWP to share with those who couldn't join. My biggest takeaways:
1. Focus on moments. There is power in the events you write. Worry about editing into sequence later, especially if a novel or larger piece of work feels intimidating. From a discussion on writing flash. This tip is especially helpful for me. With larger pieces, I tend to not write literally but follow the character and feel their tensions.
2. Use real emotions. I had recently learned this tip. When writing fiction, infuse your work with your emotions so it comes to life. Imagine that time you felt heartbroken or insecure or anything? This was a discussion on what can be learned from non-fiction into fiction writing. Other tips included learning how to use ideas more into one's fiction work. For the essayist, the idea rules, and then so does the telling. For the fiction writer, drama rules, but telling can have it's place too.
3. On Editing: trust the gut. It was wonderful to hear one of my favorite pulitzer prize winning authors on stage, someone who's inspired me to push and write and strive for innovation in art. And it's always humbly to hear they go through many of the same struggles to. For this author, she shared that she receives advice widely to try to determine what's working for others. However, many others emphasized you have to trust your gut when it comes to feedback and accepting advice.
4. Structure, say what? It was odd and frustrating to hear from a couple different discussions that structure just falls into place after a few drafts. I would have loved more feedback than that. However, I agree too. It's hard to know when structure of larger narrative will form. There seemed to be no strategies, just keep writing through a few drafts and it will show itself to you.
5. On Publishing: it's business. That was a theme that I heard over and over. Remember that when you do get an agent or a contract it is a business relationship with certain professional expectations. In this way, I feel good. I have learned a lot about business, marketing, sales, publicity, on my own through my own business. Writers must remember this is all important too if you want to ship a book to market.
6. On Life: No squandering, no letting up on yourself. Two full time authors who have been able to make a successful living at writing shared on stage how they balance that in their life. One, a young mother, says she has learned not to squander a single moment. The older writer with no kids said she learns to watch out for her own self. She knows when she gets tired or wants to stop or start a new project, and keeps here eye out for these distractions. Both good tips.
After this my notebook was left behind and because we were at a writer's conference actually returned. I am grateful, but have no other notes to share with you.
I was walking with my neighbor one evening when the topic of language came up, specifically phrases that are now too young for us to use. I am a few years younger than her but we both agree on the language. Words like “precious” just don’t belong in our vocabulary the way it does for twenty somethings. Then I thought to ask, wait, am I one of those girls?
“No, not at all,” she says.
“How old are you?”
“I’m turning 28.”
“That's the year you become an adult,” she said, citing some scientific research she had read that refines that yes this is the year I will start to feel like I am an adult. But is it?
The weekend before my birthday I swear I feel it. I clear out my closet of anything that isn’t professional and comfortable. Why hold onto to clothing I’ve had since before college? I throw out anything that I see as too young for me. The clearing goes seven bags deep, donated bag by bag into the bottom of the barrel outside of an empty Meijer’s parking lot.
* * *
This year started off with difficulties, losses of friendship and shredding of past ways. It makes sense then that this is the year I dive deep into self-help and spirituality. I am on my own more, and more than ever I want to feel this is a strength and not a curse.
I start first with Dr. Wayne Dyer, a Detroit native. He passed away this year and yet his smooth and strong voice still comes on through my podcast app each week, a new episode shining his light on life from a man who is deceased. It is enchanting and I am soothed. I find one of his books at John Kings, but I can’t digest it as closely. I listen to his voice again and again.
What Dyer preaches he says is similar to Christ: self-actualization, reliance, and self guidance into spirituality. The bigger shift of our time might just be that god is within us not without. God is not in the scary secular church of my Catholic raising, not entirely as I see it. This is far too comforting now that I am on my own. For I am now entirely on my own if I choose to believe that god lives inside me too.
* * *
It is the year that I feel I meet guides and mentors each step along the way. I am the business owner now. I am the leader now. I am the artist now. These were all choices of my becoming but I feel a heavier light on me as I step fully into my identities. What do all of these identities mean and how do I own and accept them? I have to find my vision, my voice, and my values more than ever so that I can trust myself again.
This is what I think the best mentors do: teach you to trust in yourself.
I meet an older more successful leader in our community. He shares his approach to business and community, one that is so focused on people and I am enlightened. There is something here that I reflect and live as well. He offers simple yet challenge questions on my work building community.
“How do you get people to care?” He asks.
“How can they care if they don’t see each other?” I ask.
But now looking back I feel I know the answer: it is to show you care first. To give first. Building a community starts with what you want to offer to others. What I offer is acceptance, access, support. All of these words come back to me again and again. I am understanding again what it is I uniquely do now on my own. It is forming. It is clearer. I am feeling a bit better.
* * *
Next on the spiritual totem pole is a bigger, tanner man named Tony Robbins. I am more interested in the man himself than the message. His charisma is charming and his voice challenging you past defeats. I buy his financial book. This too is part of my adulthood. I want money to build a future for me. I do not want finances to be how I grew up - unpaid bills, struggling month to month, cable on and then off and then on again. Can you help? Paying bills all the time here and there, whenever and whatever my mother needed. We figured out a way to get by. We always do.
I want security. If it exists at all it is in my power to create it -- right?
“Who’s love did you crave the most growing up?”
This is Tony on the screen bellowing into a crowd questions for all to see on Netflix.
I answer: my father.
“Why? What did you need to do to accept his love?”
I think: be quiet. Behave. He was often angry when I was young. But I know the real answer: accept him. That is it. Accept and forgive him for the drinking and the divorce that was not mine but all of ours.
“There is a time he loved you purely, before you felt any judgement. Go back to this moment and think on it.”
I remember being so young I would crawl all over my dad. He sat on the ground leaning on the couch, his long legs sprawled out in front of the television. He would let us wrestle and play with him. I know that in this memory I am happy. I know my parents are together and happy. It feels like bliss - pure love. It feels like a memory that can never be taken from me.
We are together again. We are all alright.
A man on TV roars. Tony has helped him heal. The roar is loud and odd and the crowd cheers and I am sitting alone, late on a weekday night, with strange tears rolling down my silent face.
* * *
There is one memory that I love more. It is the day of the butterflies. I love it for it feels magical to me.
It is one of the first summers we go up north without our mom, just Dad, myself, and my sister. I am in high school. We turn down a country road, all dirt and cornfield. Flat blue sky stretches above us. But when we turn down this road there is is something else: hundreds of monarch butterflies floating above the cornfield.
We immediately pull over and get out. The butterflies are bright orange and black and overwhelming. They land gently on the stalk or gracing my arm with their presence, then fly up and over into the cornfield.
We know all the roads along here. We’ve been visiting for decades, usually with mom and all of us together. But this year is different. Butterfly road. I call it Butterfly road. We will never find it again.
“Is this real?” My dad said in wonder.
“Were they just born?” My sister asked.
“Maybe it’s mating season,” I guess.
We didn’t know. But the road was magical. When we got back in the car, though we’d come back to this same vacation place on the same days in the same years ahead, we’d never see the butterflies out again.
* * *
Am I still searching? Am I still accepting myself and all the roles I want to play? Or am I stronger now after a year of searching? Will I be a great leader and creator? Will I trust more in myself, my process, and my values at work?
I think yes. I say yes. I say it and then become it. That is the simplicity and the strength of the mind all these leaders speak to me.
As the Dr says life is what you think it to be. I am what I am, or what I want to be. I only have to think it and then become it.
There is strength in knowing your creative power, the voice that wasn’t lost just whispering for it’s turn, the values reflected back stronger and stronger as I turn into adulthood they also do say.
This is a fiction piece written from my Detroit area writers group, exploring the work of building the M1 Rail through a man on the line.
Line by line. Rail by Rail. Hands down. Jacket on. Mid-day Fall, early Fall where the heat is striking just as much as my tool on the steel. Grounded. Complete. Next few feet.
They named it, but not what I named it. I call it Ole Detroit Line. Decades ago we had something like this. What happened? People. Properties. Automobile moving father and farther away.
One step back towards the core now. Downtown. One step back and forward. Back and forward in time.
Testing will begin soon. So we're almost there. Lot's of fuss over it. How will the cars share the road with the new light rail? How will people use it? Who? These aren't light questions. But I came just to build and build onwards.
Stations. Stops. Temporary rest. The skeleton is up, then filled. Advertisements next. Shallow faces of figures we may or may not want to be. Who cares? It looks good. Finished and polished and waiting for Detroiters now.
I am tired. The sun cools and chilly Fall comes in. I am tired. They wanted more and more hours. A project is never complete until it is.
Hands down now. Hands up. Rest. Move. To the city. The city of working class people, the city of poor, the city of billionaires rebuilding, the city of engines roaring and disappearing. On my line. On my time. No more.
Cumulus clouds on the horizon. Time in flight slows. I am watching out the window. I am watching the plain in space, blue space, clouds above and in the distance, puffy and thick, moving onwards in their own speed and direction.
Behind me a passenger interrupts my dreaming.
“It’s a magical place, just magical.”
But I am sleeping, half watching and half listening. The lake appears so flat and still as if an ice sheet of blue and grey below. The buildings on its horizon are shaded, small, and you see two sides, a top and a reflected bottom. Two sides to everything, looking from above or below.
I have no sense of location. No sense of what is passing when in flight.
“What do you mean magical?”
“It’s a special place. You see strange things happening there,” she said. The two women were directly behind me discussing a past visit. “Once I was driving and it was Thanksgiving day. I drove right through a double rainbow right on the road. It was so beautiful it almost brought me to tears.”
I feel sleep creeping in the slow haze, sleep like a clouds passing, puffy and closer now whispy at its ends, waking again to hear.
“Then another time I swear I saw this man. He was standing there in the rain. It was raining hard and he was perfectly dry.”
“My friend said to me - did you see that? I did. We both saw it. She asked if we should go back. I said to her, you know if we go back he won’t be there anymore.”
Strange things. Magical things. She is an attendant maybe, talking about the island she once lived on. It was Hawaii. Beautiful. Not like the crowded city of Chicago we were landing in soon. There no rainbow here but a heavy bodied grey mass, a sense of rain, a flight or two canceled, pending storms and their power to disrupt.
“It was tough living there. Couldn’t get along with the locals. Tough to make friends. They were alway skeptical of newcomers. Think we are always just passing through.”
California for days. Lots of tall palm trees on the boulevard to Stanford. Walking slowing in the heat. The leaves like fans, shadows of a hand on the ground, warm welcoming.
I like the way this college town is. I like the people I have met. I ventured to the city but it was large and confusing and I didn’t see much at all in the brief afternoon. I will go back. But there is something about smaller cities I like, the comfort, knowing a place aftering being there just a couple days. Big cities scare me, leave me in a haz.
Traveling along for days in California. Work brings me here, but creativity keeps me.
Alone I wonder who I really am to be. It’s an action: Being. It’s the woman along at the bar. Tasting. Not talking. Reading.
It is a process you see and when away from all who know me I am free but I am still. More quiet. Relaxed. Fine with not speaking for hours. Content with my words in my mind and page. The writer in me is social, craving the interaction and inspiration and also observant. Quiet. Enjoying the setting of ourselves alien.