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Journeys Notes from the Road

Hey, Now

iced matcha latte-anneliesz-7196

Writing sometimes resembles wrestling a beast to the ground where the writer’s persistence on the page is rewarded. Rest assured, no animals were hurt in the statement above. Departures in writing can come about innocuously and perhaps some might say are causes of distraction, but I tend to abide by the idea of inhabiting Alice chasing the white rabbit on the page. The image of wrestling a beast came to me vividly today as I sat down to right about one thing even as the strains of the song in my headphones shuttled me somewhere else entirely. Before I could proceed with the writing at hand, I needed to grapple with that interloper head-on, knowing if I let it fight underneath my grasp, I might be able to access something real and true. Here’s where it took me:

In May, I had been refreshing my phone app’s weather program as if willing the weather to simmer down. I was traveling around Texas on book tour and so were the showers. I’m not fond of driving in Bay area rain where showers have garnered headlines long before the rain dried up. When I used to commute to San Rafael from San Francisco on a rainy day, the sky would turn the same color as the glistening road, blurring boundaries of street and sky. I had grown up in Texas where rain means business and takes on the adage that everything really is bigger in Texas. Growing up in that kind of place, you develop a healthy respect for weather systems. Tornadoes, flash flood thunderstorms, heat that bakes the back of anything in its wake appears regularly in the lone star state.

On one leg of my journey in the spring, I stayed at my mom’s house. She watched the weather channel with the frequency of conferring with it as one would with an oracle. The weatherman’s drone became the soundtrack of our days. That healthy respect transformed into an edginess as the darkening skies unfurled overhead. I have grown too accustomed to 24/7 sun that keeps the streets dry.

As one does in situations that test our mettle, I decided to try and make light of the typhoon of uncertainty growing within. I posted a photo of my driving route through the Texas and Louisiana legs of my book tour where not one but eight lightning bolts lit up the route I was supposed to take. I joked about being in a modern day rendition of the Odyssey and secretly hoped I didn’t spy any sirens on the roadside. An event in Dallas with overcast skies ended up blowing over. Another event in Dallas brought rain after the event had finished. Austin and Houston were on the horizon. My mother practically pushed us out of the house early on Mother’s Day to try and beat the storm headed to Austin. She had deliberated and treated herself to a one way ticket home that night. We beat out the storm. After several mildly wet days in Austin, I needed to leave for Houston. For days, I had been tracking the storms that lighted up the weather app that showed 80 percent precipitation days bleeding into one another. It was inevitable. I couldn’t avoid driving into the heart of the storm alone.

On the morning of my departure from Austin for Houston, the sky hung ominously like one large cloak of steel grey. A few fat raindrops dripped onto the windshield of the rental car and I made a decision to stop into Central Market for road snacks and an iced matcha latte. Blueberries and cherry tomatoes had made the cut of easy to pop snacks for the drive, and my caffeinated green drink would keep me energized. I headed back to the car, squeezing open the umbrella with my free hand to shield me from the rain that had picked up force, finally shutting myself inside the car. What had started as a light rain picked up force and gathered speed to become a full-blown gale.

In the parking lot, the rain pelted down with fury and the kind of force that would have made me pull the car over and wait it out. I hesitated to turn the key and shift the gear into drive. Instead, and without a sign that the rain would abate, I turned on the radio to listen to London Grammar and shifted the gear into reverse. As Hannah Reid’s ghostly voice pierced the quiet of the car amid the crazed percussion of the assaulting rain, I found comfort even as the peach pit of fear in my stomach blossomed in size. She sang Ooh, this is frightening and then followed it with Ooh, it’s like lightning. The words left my mouth, matching her pitch and with them recognition of a type of song onomatopoeia where her lyrics matched my circumstance. They caught in my throat as I tried not to cry.

With 15 percent visibility, the car edged forward as the other few drivers kept a very polite distance. Though the windshield wipers had been set to top speed, I couldn’t discern where one lane ended and the other began. My eyes shifted to focus on the brake lights of the car in front of me, letting them be a light unto my path. I found that if I sang along with the words, I could channel all of the nervousness out of my body and into the melody, letting it catch like a key turning in a door. I could separate myself from the myriad possibilities of catastrophe that could assail me on this road I had to drive alone. It was as if I had found a modicum of courage to just keep moving forward at an ant’s pace. And, eventually, the rain did abate. And, eventually, my coiled fingers around the steering wheel slackened.

This morning, without warning, I found myself back in the rental car, the rain thwacking the windshield as I was pulling out of the safe haven of the Central Market parking lot in Austin. The music unleashed a visceral response to something in the recent past on a day where I was sitting in front of my computer in Oakland, attempting to write something else. Perhaps that reaction came from not listening to London Grammar since the trip until this morning. Or, I could point to the fact that this morning, I woke up with a desire to listen to their music. Do you ever think about the cavernous rooms inside us that stay locked and inaccessible or how they quietly thrust the key into our hand at the right moment? What happens when we stop listening? What happens when we crane forward ready to receive what they have to tell us about life, about ourselves? On the wall of my office hangs a hand-lettered sign that asks a question. Everyday, I pass by it several times, reading the words and letting them take root inside. What is the story only you can write? My rental car rainstorm might be something different for you, but we all go through events we survive that feel harrowing and insurmountable at the time. It’s not everyday that they resurface. And, perhaps, it’s not everyday that we let ourselves be swept away into a memory we would rather forget. When you sit down to write, keep yourself open to what needs to be expressed. You might find as I did with the aid of that London Grammar song that the revelation given is something you need to see in order to move on and start working on the writing at hand. You, the writer-wrangler. Words, the elusive beast.

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Notes from the Kitchen

Writing Tips: The One Trait Every Writer Needs to Have

Writing Tips: The One Trait Every Writer Needs to HaveIn college, I worked as a residents’ assistant for two years. It proved to be one of the hallmarks during those four years. During the year I manned a freshmen hall, I developed a bit of a… reputation. Whenever I was on duty, my ears would perk up to the sounds of clinking bottles or my nostrils might expand at a whiff of an alien smell similar to sweet grass burning. A few raps on the door and a lot of furtive commotion and heightened whispering would lead to no admissions and skepticism on my part. Unbeknownst to me, I had developed a nickname among the community of residents’ assistants too. At one of our annual meetings, someone let it slip and it was met with knowing laughter: the bulldog…

…The rest of this story is going to be shared in my weekly newsletters. Not signed up yet? You’re missing out on a whole lot of fun. See, I manage a newsletter for one professional organization I’m a part of and managed newsletters for a company I worked with over the span of four and a half years. Newsletters, if done well, can be bright shining beacons in a crowded inbox. I see my newsletter as 52 opportunities in 2015 to inspire, help, challenge, and nudge you to join me in chasing after the creative life actively. In the newsletters, I’m sharing ideas for stoking your creative fires, food articles, food poetry, writing prompts, and Steeped book news. So far this year, we’ve covered how to pack for 2 weeks using a carry-on, the future of food is printable, as well as a lesson on creativity from the Golden Gate Bridge. I keep the newsletters pretty short and packed full of interesting tidbits. Sign up today and find out this weekend what the one trait is that all writers need to have.

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Notes from the Kitchen

Augustus Waters, Oblivion & Gathering the Last Bits of Thanksgiving from the Table

Augustus Waters

Not that long ago, Nathan and I set off from our coast to the other one on a whirlwind trip to New York. One afternoon at a restaurant situated on the edge of Greenwich Village, a friend and I caught up over kale salads (with tempeh bacon for me, tofu for her). Our conversation strung along easily, even though it had been several years since we had last met up. After the trip, I made an intention and plan to write a thank you card to dispatch quickly to New York but first needed to find its companion, a book that I referenced during lunch. I found the perfect card, all adages and best wishes. Visiting one store, then two, I began to grow a bit listless as a dawning reality settled upon me. This book that is among my cherished books, a book that sandwiches old comments and markings of mine in the margin next to recent ones is no longer in print. The awakening continued with the surge of thought: if this can happen to this prolific poet’s words, then what becomes of the rest of us?

A few weeks ago, on an evening when Nathan was away, I took myself on a date at home, complete with dinner and a movie. We had steered clear of seeing “The Fault in Their Stars” in a movie theater the way that I had wished someone had warned me about “A Walk to Remember.” Cancer has hit too close to our family and frankly, I can’t imagine getting invested and absorbed into a fictional story when I’ve cried, prayed, and lived it through our own family narrative. So, in the same way that I catapulted myself into seeing “The Exorcist” in junior high to confront my terror of horror films, I watched this movie. Inevitably, the plot doesn’t turn out in quite the way you assume in the beginning, but still wrenches apart something good and whole inside movie viewers. A scene that has stayed with me and even then caught my attention is when love interest, Augustus Waters is asked in support group what he most fears. His answer is simple and leaves me a bit breathless: oblivion.

And so, Augustus Waters and the Poet mashed up in my head together. What happens to a writer when their words disappear from bookshelves? The importance of oral literature and of making time to sit around and tell tales is seen in a new light. Each of us is a walking storybook that others might rifle through or read deeply. As we get ready to gather around the Thanksgiving table and a fork and knife chase the last bits of cornbread dressing into cranberry relish, there is a magical moment that sometimes happens if we catch it before it scampers off the table. And it is this: before we get up to clear the plates, before we excuse ourselves and flip on the TV to catch a football game, sometimes a story trickles out of one mouth. If you’re lucky, as it enters all those other ears, it comes out of a different mouth, similar but with a few stray details that build upon its flavor like a drizzle of pan gravy moistens the meat. These are the bits of the Thanksgiving meal that go unnoticed and are not planned into the most elaborate menu. Even so, they are the moments that give curvature to our lives, that pull us into the past, present, and future and erase the possibility of oblivion. When I share my appreciation for the Poet’s work with someone new, they come to life again. Their words continue coursing in me finding new meaning long after the book is out of print. Their ISBN is still catalogued—their work existed! They existed! And as we linger around the Thanksgiving table amid the messiness of the meal and possibly flinging together the disparate elements that can make family gatherings messy, passing platters and our stories to one another grounds us into who we are, where we’ve been, and perhaps illuminates where we might go next. In this way, we are never doomed to oblivion.

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Poetry

Poetry: The one that got away

artistic influence

If you write poetry, perhaps you’ve had an experience of reading a poem that makes you sigh and utter the words “if only I had thought of that first”.  What about consciously working a phrase or line of someone else’s into your own poem? Perhaps you’ve never done that, and yet found unconsciously a line or phrase of another poem breathing itself into yours?

I’d like to consider the idea of influence.

Nathan has an incredible ear for music. Sometimes we’re listening to the radio and with nonchalance he will call out musical influences of the song on the airwaves. It’s almost like a game we have in our house. Katy’s ear hears the minutiae but instead of picking out influence, she mimics the sounds and can usually accurately guess what’s coming next melody– wise. Hers is a photographic mind of music and the play list extensive. I teasingly call her “the human jukebox.”

When it comes to recipes, this idea of influence is a bit of the wild west. What would the ratio of original recipes be that have not been riffs of another person’s? I actually think it’s one of the things about recipes I like best- inspiration from the original and then the personalizing and tweaking that ensues. There is ongoing discussion about the right way to attribute recipe source.

In poetry, there is a way to call out and pay tribute or homage to the source of one’s influence. This can be done through borrowing the title of a poem that has influenced you as is or tweaking it to your place, time or particular transition from the original source. Then there are also the poems that borrow a line or phrase from another person’s poem and there are ways to cite source or not. You can also indicate that you are mimicking a poem by titling it “after (insert poet’s name).”

jeff friedman the poet

During my MFA program, Jeff Friedman was hands-down my favorite person to lead us in workshops. At the beginning of  our workshop time together, he would provide a single or series of writing prompts to get the juices flowing before we discussed each other’s poems prepared ahead of time.  I embraced the prompts. Our small group of four or five would jot out all the tendrils of ideas for 20 minutes and then share the very raw writing that resulted. He later became one of my mentors as I appreciated his deeply narrative style and the compassion lent to his characters, whether his uncle with a glass of scotch in hand or recounting memory through poetry. He didn’t let the “actual” story get in the way of the “story.”

In one of these workshops with Jeff, he gave us a writing prompt to create a poem “after” a poet. This exercise led us to consider how we might fashion a response to a poem by Cesar Vallejo about how he envisioned dying and what he might be doing. Our responses veered off from this central idea, tone and style of his voice. From it emerged a poem that I still feel proud of these many years past, set in the sticky heat of a Moroccan villa. I’m 100% romantic in my sensibilities.

There is something to be said with borrowing phrases, attributing along the way and infusing your own voice into something that is other. It is a way of grappling with the world around you – with the void and the fill, where the world is actually richer for all of the references and influence that worm their way into your work. If you find yourself influenced and appropriately enamored with a song or poem, why not try your hand at making it your own and giving it the refinements that might spark something new from the created?

It is after all, raison d’etre – this gift and need to create and re-create, n’est ce pas? How have you borrowed from or been influenced in your personal work- poetry, recipes, fiction or art?

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Art Conversations on Art

Word as Art

In college, I discovered that many things in life are free. Then again came the reality that a whole heck of a lot of things aren’t. Sometime during my sophomore year, I stumbled upon a delicious secret. It kept my weekend evenings regularly packed. It kept me well versed and amused at the theater. I volunteered as an usher. By signing up in advance, taking tickets and pointing paid ticketholders to their seats, I received free entry. As the lights would go down, I would find a nook at the back of the auditorium to watch the play or musical performance. Many good nights were spent in the three theaters on campus.

One evening in particular, I remember ushering with a girl we’ll call Jessica. We’re going to call her Jessica because I don’t actually remember her name. Anyways, she was studying dance at the art school on campus and in between spurts of tearing ticket stubs, we began talking philosophically about what art is. A seemingly innocuous question, ” what are you majoring in?” had taken an unexpected turn. I replied I was studying journalism and poetry. She practically snorted as she quickly responded, “that’s not art.”

For 10 minutes we discussed the fine points of writing as an art form.  Her comment had jostled me to the core. I remember it gestating in my head, distracting me during the performance. Many years later it sits there on the shelf of memories. What could have been one artist talking to another about how their art forms might inform one another ended up being a conundrum of she said, she said. Even after cited attempts of Shakespeare, Woodward and Bernstein, she was unmoved.

Right now we live in interesting times.

The visual form holds our attention so completely that many Americans don’t read. Why read a book when you can see the movie? I have enjoyed my chats with film protagonists and buffs including Sandra and Xavier. I see the visual form as visual storytelling and when done well, what’s not to love. An image can transfix the viewer with such powerful appeal. It tells the viewer what to see when. Some directors show such skill with this medium that you can’t help but be wooed and thusly changed after encountering their work. I love that.

Then again, I live in a city well known for its books and authors. I remember once hearing a statistic that San Franciscans pay per capita more on booze and books than anywhere else in the country. Many people here tout themselves writers “with a book inside, waiting to get out.” And if this is the case, who will read those books?

Cue blogging. Sometimes people stumble upon a person’s blog and find themselves inexorably drawn into the story being told, whether it’s food recipes with photographs that make readers want to lick the screen or whatever appeals to their personal tastes and whims. We live in an age where newspapers are increasingly going from print to online and where books can be printed by the author for a price without having to shop them around to mainstream publishers as the only avenue.

Interesting times indeed.

Several years ago, I developed a fun ritual with my then-roommate Mindy of Tuesday nights as poetry night. See, I knew if she got a taste of it, she might be interested in bigger bites. It didn’t hurt that I scratched her back as we read Billy Corgan, Coleridge and Strand. Night after night, I could count on the television being on, but Tuesday nights, we set aside time for reading poetry aloud. She still mentions how much she loved poetry night.

The need for people to tell their stories is intrinsic and really one of the primary reasons I pursued journalism in the first place. We want details, an insider’s perspective, the close-up shot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps that says more about the quality of the words used. I for one, am a fan of film, but as with that conversation with Jessica so many years ago, am interested in how film can inspire or inform writing. I love the idea of conversation between art forms. And I believe in the power of the word.

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Journeys Notes from the Road

Beside myself in a concrete jungle

And so it begins. A girl affectionate for cities and all their clash of overlap gets to work in the city. A love story begins to unfurl.

I knew I have a thing for cities. And I knew that San Francisco captured my attention in its unapologetic way years ago. But working in the city is so much different than just living in the city.

My body feels the earthquake tremors. My body scuttles along sidewalks at a furtive pace, knowing I have 20 minutes to get where I need to go without a second to lose. My body memorizes the divets on street corners, telling my feet when to cross.

Somehow, it seems as though bits and bobs of the New York I cherish are mine here, in San Francisco, hometown of my own making.

I can’t begin to underscore the exhiliration enough. The joy of waiting at the bus stop or better yet hanging onto the metal pole, body jammed next to other tuna bodies. And somehow I fall in love all over again. The world becomes new and the familiar shellacked with gleam.

Part of this newfound world is time not spent behind a wheel 30 minutes one-way and 30 the other. Instead, a book spine is cracked open in my hands. I have finished two books in one hectic week and find myself like a cup brimming over, find myself grateful and trying not to smile at each person I pass.