RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: March 2014

Moisture Fest & When Something Isn’t As Easy As It Seems

Moisture Fest & When Something Isn’t As Easy As It Seems

So the Moisture Festival is going on right now in Seattle, which isn’t as disturbing as it sounds. Although, if you get creeped out by carnies, clowns and rubber chickens, then perhaps it isn’t your scene.

Personally, I love anything related to the circus arts, and the Moisture Fest is a four-week-long festival that showcases vaudeville and aerial acts from the Seattle area and beyond.

The festival comprises dozens of “variete” shows, each one a unique mixture of music, clowning, trapeze, and other sorts of vaudeville-style acts. My boyfriend, Paul, and I went to a variete show on the opening weekend and saw, in addition to some extremely talented jugglers and trapeze artists, a man who made a baloney sandwich with his feet, and a man who sang the Gilligan’s Island theme song to the tune of “Stairway to Heaven.” Again, if you don’t like weird, this isn’t your scene.

The thing that always amazes me about physical performers is how easy they make everything look. They juggle swords or hang one-armed from the trapeze bar, and they make it seem so effortless. That’s how you know they’re good. If they made it look like work, we wouldn’t want to watch it.

Duo Rose, one of the variete acts we saw at Moisture Festival.  They were breathtaking.  photo credit.

Duo Rose, one of the variete acts we saw at Moisture Festival. They were breathtaking. photo credit.

Speaking of work, I’m currently learning “New Slang” by the Shins on the guitar, and boy is it hard. I’ve been playing guitar for about six months now, so I’m not a total newbie, but switching back and forth between a C chord and an F is more than my poor fingers can handle. I’m building up a nice callus on the side of my pointer finger, and I’m getting better at the C and F switcheroo, but if you were to hear me play the song, you’d probably think I sounded pretty bad.

That’s the problem. People who don’t play the guitar don’t understand how difficult it is, and people who have been playing for a long time have forgotten what it’s like to be at this stage. No one is impressed by my butchery of “New Slang,” except perhaps myself.

Snapshot_20131114_1

Here is a video of Eva trying to play “New Slang.”  You can see that she does NOT make it look easy!

It was Paul’s birthday over the weekend, so I treated him to another Moisture Fest show. Our favorite performer of the night was a male vaudeville performer who, while stripping nearly to his birthday suit, danced with a coat rack, twirled a cane, and hung his top hat on his you-know-what. When we got home, I attempted to dance around the house in the same style (sans the top hat trick) and realized it wasn’t quite as easy as he made it look.

The next day I planned to go with Paul to the climbing gym. He’s been rock climbing at least twice a week for a long time now, and he’s always coming home giddy about some hard climb he did and telling me that I should come and watch him sometime. So I figured that for his birthday I would go to the gym and be his adoring fan.

Except he decided he didn’t want me to do that after all. “You probably won’t be impressed,” he said.

“Sure I will.”

“No. Because what I’m doing probably won’t look that hard to you.”

It’s the same as with my guitar. Because I’m not a rock climber, I might have trouble appreciating the skill and training that goes into what Paul does. I’ll just seem him sweating on the wall and not be that impressed.

 *  *  *

I regularly tutor a Ukrainian in English, and every once and a while he says, “I can’t wait for your book to come out so I can read it. When will I be able to buy it?” He looks at me expectantly, and then I have to explain that I still need to get an agent, and then the agent will have to find a publisher, and I’m not even sure that this current novel is good enough to get that far – I may need to write another one.

To be honest, I don’t usually take the time to explain all of that. Instead I smile and say, “thanks. I can’t wait either.”

The problem is that a lot of people don’t realize what a challenge writing is. Not only is crafting a decent novel a monumental task in itself, but then you have to figure out how to break into the extremely competitive publishing market. If you make it that far it’s a feat, and then you have to worry about whether or not your book will sell.

As I once said to a boyfriend who was in medical school, “if you’re a doctor, people automatically think you’re successful. But if you’re a writer, people will only think you’re successful once you’ve written a best-selling book.” It’s like saying the only smart kid at school is the valedictorian.

*  *  *

The other day, while playing my guitar, I thought, if only everyone could take up a new instrument, then they would understand that I’m actually doing a good job, even though it doesn’t sound like it. And then I thought, if only everyone could try writing a novel, then they would understand that it’s not easy, and that I’m doing the best I can.

As I was playing, a weird thing happened. My fingers automatically went from C to F, and it didn’t sound bad.  Muscle memory was finally kicking in. All of my practice was making it easier to play the song. And I had a glimpse of some day in the distant future, when, like a professional juggler or aerial artist, I will be able to play the guitar and make it look effortless.

And one day, with enough practice under my belt, maybe I’ll write that way, too. I’ll publish books, and I’ll make it seem easy (even though it never actually will be). That’s how you’ll know I’m good.

But I hope I won’t forget what it felt like to be at this stage:  the time when I’m still dropping pins and fumbling with my fingers and sweating on the wall, working so hard to make my way to the top.

 

A picture from Moisture Festival, and one thing I will probably never do with my guitar.  photo credit.

A picture from Moisture Festival, and one thing I will probably never do with my guitar. photo credit.

Crotch Diamonds, Space Travelers, and Sharing Contemporary Poetry

Crotch Diamonds, Space Travelers, and Sharing Contemporary Poetry

*Scroll to the bottom to read a wonderful poem — “The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments”*

You know what’s awkward? Listening to a middle-aged Ukrainian business man read a Maya Angelou poem with the line “I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs.” (“Still I Rise”)

Luckily, instead of dwelling on the crotch diamonds, Sergiy wanted to know what sassy meant, and how to pronounce haughty. He also didn’t understand how dust could rise.

“Dust is dirt, yes?” he asked. “Why will it rise?”

“You know when the sun shines into your room?” I tried to explain, “and you see these little specks floating in the air? That’s dust.”

He still seemed confused, but over-all he liked the poem. He said it felt up-lifting and strong.

I tutor Sergiy every day over Skype, and sometimes we read and discuss poetry together. It exposes him to new vocabulary, and he says it helps him to “feel” the language better. I try to find poems with good rhythm and rhyme because that helps with his pronunciation. (Sergiy still thinks that “leave” and “live” sound the same, and he can’t hear the difference between “man” and “men.”) Plus, he likes rhyming poetry better, and, often, so do I.

That means we don’t read much modern poetry. Because as far as I can tell, most poetry written these days doesn’t rhyme.  Doesn’t make much sense either.

*  *  *

I’m okay with the not rhyming part.  I have found some beautifully mind-blowing contemporary poems that don’t rhyme. There is one poem in particular (“The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments” by Benjamin Grossberg — see below) that I think is so magically wonderful that I have a copy of it on my refrigerator, and I email it to people when I think they need a little pick-me-up. I found it randomly in an Indiana Review a few years ago (Summer 2011), and I’ve been partial to IR ever since.

But in my journeys through literary magazines over the years, I’ve also come across an awful lot of modern free-verse poetry that is weird and difficult and obscure and leaves me utterly baffled and annoyed. Instead of welcoming me, these poems shut me out. I don’t understand them, and they don’t seem to want me to. I would never in a million years share them with Sergiy, or anyone else.

I won't complain too much here, but  I do complain about contemporary poetry in this blog post.

I won’t complain too much here, but I do complain about contemporary poetry in this blog post.

I’m not suggesting that poems need to rhyme, or that they should be easy to understand. But I do wonder why contemporary poets have practically thrown out many of the conventions of poetry that worked for hundreds upon hundreds of years. I wonder why poets don’t seem to want their work to be accessible to anyone except other poets and literary scholars.

But I don’t want to get into a big argument about the state of contemporary poetry, because the truth is I don’t read enough of it to really know what I’m talking about. All I will say is that I wish I knew of more modern poems like the one below. I want to read a poem and see the world in a different way, or be moved by the beauty (or terror) of a single phrase. I don’t want to read a poem and feel belittled, like I’m not smart enough to read it. I want to read a poem and feel changed in some small but significant way, like finally hearing the difference between man and men.  I want to read a poem and feel uplifted, like dust rising through a column of sunshine.  I want to find poetry I love so much I feel the need to share it with others.

Here is the poem I always share with others, and now I will share it with all of you.

The Space Traveler’s Contented Moments
by Benjamin Grossberg
Think of the way your thumb
held in front of you can cover
the moon.  Granted, humans have
big thumbs and a small moon, but
there you are:  in a corn field,
celestial bodies disappearing
behind your digits.  At some distance
above the earth (if you looked
down) your left foot would blot
North America.  And farther up,
the planet become so small
you could stand on it only
as a ballerina, aloft on a toe.
A little farther, and you, human,
would become a space traveler.
So it is, sometimes, this ship
displaces the universe around it:
so far from all, the universe
recedes into a tangle –
a string of your Christmas lights
balled up in a box to stow
for next year.  But lit.
And here’s the odd part –
it does that even though
I’m inside it, a speck somewhere
amid brightness and writhing
wire.  These moments
are unstable, they puncture,
are frail to corrosion by
elements that would extend
your periodic table into
a lord’s banquet.  But, human,
more than once I have wished
to take you up with me, to share
how what startles with immensity
can balance, cat’s eye,
on the palp of one finger

photo credit

photo credit

Moral Flaws in Main Characters, or, What’s Your Biggest Weakness?

Moral Flaws in Main Characters, or, What’s Your Biggest Weakness?

When I was twenty-three, I had an interview at the largest public high school in New Orleans for my very first full-time teaching job. The principal was a large, intimidating black man with a neatly-trimmed mustache and a look of disapproval permanently pressed into his face. We’ll call him Mr. Abe. He sat behind a large metal desk with his arms crossed, looking down at me. I felt very small and very young.

“What would you say are your three biggest weaknesses?” Mr. Abe asked.

I didn’t know at the time that this is a fairly normal interview question, so I was totally unprepared to answer. My heart skipped a beat, and then I responded: “I work too hard. And I’m a perfectionist. I end up working too much to get things just right.” I laughed awkwardly. That sounded good to a potential employer, didn’t it? “And for my third weakness…” I racked my brain. I had plenty of flaws, but which one wouldn’t cost me the job?

“I’m too nice,” I said finally. Niceness was a positive thing, wasn’t it?

Mr. Abe’s brow furrowed. “Too nice, huh? Will you be able to maintain discipline in your classroom?”

Oh shit. Being too nice was a problem when it came to classroom management, especially in an over-crowed, low-income school like this one.

“Oh, yes,” I said eagerly. “Definitely. I know it’s one of my weaknesses, which is why I’m going to work extra hard on my discipline strategies. That’s where the working too hard and perfectionism come in.” I gave another awkward laugh.

“I just have one more question for you.” He leaned across his desk and looked me in the eye. “Can you commit to staying with us for the entire school year?”

“Oh yes, absolutely.”

“All right, then. You’re hired.”

It turned out it didn’t really matter what I said in my interview. I had passed both my Praxis tests, which, despite the fact that I had no real teaching experience, made me “highly-qualified,” and Mr. Abe had trouble filling his school with highly-qualified teachers. He didn’t care what my weaknesses were, as long as I showed up for work.

 *  *  *

I think back to that conversation now as I contemplate the idea of character flaws. As I mentioned in The Story of My Writing Career, screenwriter John Truby says that the main character of every good story should start out with a moral flaw. (And Truby says for it to be a true moral flaw, the character is hurting someone else, not just himself.) As the character pursues his goal, it becomes clear that it is his moral need at stake, and not the thing he thinks he desires. The character has an epiphany towards the end and usually changes for the better.

Makes sense, right? So I went back to the young adult novel I’ve been working on – the one that I’ve been told is lacking in plot – and I gave my character a bigger flaw. Now, at the beginning of the book, she is hurting others with her behavior, but by the end she has changed for the better. Unfortunately, I’m now being given the feedback that she is too unlikable. It’s a catch-22. The character has to be flawed at the beginning in order to change by the end, but if she is too heavily flawed, readers won’t like her. They won’t stick around to see the change.

What's a writer to do?

What’s a writer to do?

I’ve been reading a lot of Young Adult fiction lately, as research, and I’m noticing that YA authors often do what I did during my interview with Mr. Abe. They give their characters inoffensive flaws. Flaws that aren’t really hurting anyone. Positive traits that are disguised as flaws so that the reader will still like the character.

Currently I’m suffering my way through The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, who has been called “this generation’s Judy Blume.” Having recently read Judy Blume’s Forever (a book that blew me away with its simple, honest perfection), I think that’s a little generous. Although The Infinite Moment of Us has some things to admire, I don’t think it’s destined to be a classic.  And its main character, Wren Gray, is a prime example of a character with inoffensive flaws. She is a beautiful, thoughtful, volunteer-work-doing straight-A student who has always followed the rules and pleased her parents. Her biggest weaknesses are naivety and a lack of independence. She’s not hurting anyone (except herself because her life is too boring), and she’s so nice and sweet it’s easy to like her despite her flaws.

Except that I can’t stand her. So far, the plot of The Infinite Moment is basically the same as the 1980’s John Hughes movie Say Anything, and it’s hard to decide who is the more insufferably annoying goody-goody: Diane Cort or Wren Gray. Which is ironic, because I think these are both characters who were written to be likable.

Ione Skye as Diane Cort in Say Anything   photo credit.

Ione Skye as Diane Cort in Say Anything photo credit

 

The farther I find myself down the road towards becoming a novelist, the more I realize how difficult the path is. Everything is a catch-22. Write a character-driven story, but make sure it has a strong plot. Write the story you want to tell, but make sure it’s something other people want to read. Write from the heart, but use your brain. With everything, it is about finding a balance or deciding to ignore the rules completely.

Give your character a flaw, but still make her likable. Or, alternatively, strike out on your own path (go ahead and make your main character totally unlikable), but know that you may find yourself wandering alone in the wilderness without a reader in sight.

Writing a story isn’t that hard. But writing a good story is, which is why I’ve felt the need recently to look at the rules, even if I don’t end up following them.

As I ponder the question of flawed characters in YA fiction, I’ve come across a few who are flawed in real ways but are still likable. Harry Potter is a prime example. He is impulsive and self-absorbed and he cares too much. He makes rash decisions in order to save the ones he loves. It can be annoying, and it gets him in trouble, but it’s also what makes him a hero. Or Meg from a Wrinkle in Time. She is maddeningly stubborn and defiant, but it is her flaws that comes in handy when she has to face It.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle

Since that public school interview, I’ve learned that when asked the weakness question, you’re not really supposed to say that you’re a perfectionist or that you work too hard. It sounds like you’re sucking up. Experts recommend answering the weakness question honestly, but using it as an opportunity to discuss how you’ve overcome a challenge and how you are better now because of it. Interesting. That’s what novels often are, aren’t they? They are stories about how a character conquered his weaknesses to overcome a challenge.

That doesn’t make it any easier to figure out how to create flawed characters who are likable, or how to keep readers reading until the end, when the character changes, but at least I know it will be a good story if I can achieve it.  And at least one of my flaws is that I work too hard, so I know I’m going to keep working until I get it right.

Slowing Down Time, or, Why Spring Used to Be Creepy

Slowing Down Time, or, Why Spring Used to Be Creepy

I was at my part-time job the other day,and in an attempt to make small-talk with the school secretary, I said, “I can’t believe it’s already the middle of March!”

“I know,” she agreed. “They say time speeds up as you get older, but I don’t think that’s it. This winter went by fast. It really did.”

I was reminded of a quote from one of my favorite movies, The House of Yes, in which Lesly says, “boy, it’s been a long day,” and Jackie says, “not as long as yesterday. Yesterday was a whole twenty-four hours.”

Days only feel long or short, depending on what you do with them.

Although, according to science, the days really are getting longer. The earth’s rotation is slowing, adding 1.7 milliseconds to the length of the day each century. That means today was the longest day of your life.

St. Paddy's day has already passed!  Where has this month gone?

St. Paddy’s Day has already passed! Where has this month gone?!

My boyfriend and I discuss the phenomenon of time quite often, and not only when he tries to explain concepts of relativity to me (which, as a physicist, he does on a regular basis). We talk about how our days seem to go by so fast. It’s good, we acknowledge. Time flies when you’re having fun, or, at least, when you’re focused on what you’re doing. Time moves slowly when you’re bored or unhappy or anxiously waiting for some future event.

But still, we worry we won’t accomplish all of our goals. We have a limited amount of time on earth. That’s what makes time such a precious commodity.

*  *  *

Today is the first official day of spring – the vernal equinox. Today is the day that everyone on earth is experiencing an equal night and day.

In Seattle, the cherry blossoms are blooming and red-breasted robins hop on the branches of budding trees. “Look at Plant!” I tell Paul just about every day. Plant is the ingenious name I gave to our Star Jasmine on the patio. Every day it seems like Plant has new white flowers and new curly shoots reaching over the railing and out towards the sun.

For some reason, Spring used to creep me out. There was the weather, to begin with: cold in the morning, warm at mid-day, windy, rainy, sunny, foggy… utterly fickle. But the really scary thing was that Spring always happened so fast. The cherry blossoms came and went before I could get down to the DC Tidal Basin to see them. One day the trees were naked, the next day they were full of leaves. Whoa – when did that happen? It freaked me out. Time was flying by, and I wasn’t stopping to notice the daffodils.

The first year I truly enjoyed Spring was last year. Last year I was in a transition period of my life. I was living in Virginia and working two part-time jobs (instead of three, the way I am now), which meant I had more free time. Because of this, I went for a walk around the neighborhood every single day. Sometimes multiple walks per day.

On my walks I saw the way the buds formed on the trees, and for the first time I marveled at how amazing it was. These trees that had stood dormant all winter contained life inside their knobby branches. I wandered into people’s yards and took close-up looks at the buds, watching the way, day-by-day, they opened into tiny new leaves so green I could hardly comprehend the color. For the first time, my life had slowed down enough so that I could enjoy the miracle of Spring.

My dear Plant.

My dear Plant.

It makes me sad that so many people in the world have full-time jobs that never give them the opportunity to slow down. They rush from one day to the next without noticing the little miracles going on all around them.

And then there’s the people whose jobs (or lives) make them wish time would speed up. “How’s it going?” someone asked the woman behind the counter at a convenient store yesterday when I was buying some gum. “Oh, I’m just trying to make it through the day,” she said. I hate to hear that. Just trying to make it through the day, through the week, through the year…. Through your life?

This year I’ve been a lot busier than last year with my writing and my three jobs and my guitar lessons and my yoga work-exchange. I haven’t had the time to take as many walks, and it makes me sad that Spring is passing by so quickly.

What I need to remember is that time is relative. And I don’t mean that in a sciency way. I mean that I can control, in some small way, how I experience my time on earth. I can choose to slow down my day and notice the world around me. A fifteen minute walk around the neighborhood doesn’t take much time, but it can make Spring last a lot longer in my world.

And if I drop the ball and miss Spring entirely, I’m in luck, because it will be back again this time next year.

Some beautiful bleeding hearts in my mom's backyard, Spring 2013.

Some beautiful bleeding hearts in my mom’s backyard, Spring 2013.

How Meta Can You Get, or, Getting Rid of the Infinite Loop

How Meta Can You Get, or, Getting Rid of the Infinite Loop

*See what my friend Tawni Waters says about getting a book deal with a major publisher.*

Last week I was featured on “Freshly Pressed,” which was super exciting, and I’m still giddy about all my new followers (hello, everyone!!). The wordpress editor who contacted me with the good news said he liked my “meta-meta treatment” of the “writers writing about writing” theme.

It makes me wonder how “meta” I can get. I’m a writer writing about writing. That’s one level of meta. But sometimes I write posts about craft books I’m reading (such as John Truby’s The Anantomy of Story, or Stephen King’s On Writing.) That means I’m a writer writing about writers writing about writing. Two levels of meta. Could I read and review a fellow blogger’s take on a craft book and be a writer writing about a writer who is writing about a writer writing about writing?

Whew. It’s an endless fun house mirror of meta.

Or, as my physicist boyfriend would say, an infinite loop.

Eva in a fun house mirror.

Eva in a fun house mirror.

I experienced a less exciting infinite loop the other day.

Currently I do work-exchange at a local yoga studio for free classes. Perhaps it’s because the other work-exchangers are more zen and relaxed about stuff than me (I tend to be hyper-organized), but I’ve been told by both the manager and the owner that I’m the best work-exchanger they have. I arrive early. I always remember to check and return voice mail messages. I fill out all the forms correctly.

Anyway, the other day I did something unspeakable…. I missed a shift at the yoga studio. It was on my calendar, but somehow it completely slipped my mind.

That evening, when I check my email, I had a message from the manager: “Eva, I just received a call that the front desk is unmanned. Did you forget?” I gasped and looked at the clock. It was too late to go over there now. I felt like an idiot.

I contacted the manager to apologize profusely. She said it wasn’t a big deal. She knows it happens sometimes.

“I feel so bad,” I moaned to my boyfriend. “Now I’m not their best work-exchanger anymore.”

There was nothing I could do to fix the mistake. I’d already told the manager I would take another shift to make up for it. But still, I berated myself for missing the shift and felt myself sinking into a bad mood.

“Now, Eva,” I admonished myself. “Stop beating yourself up about it. You’re making yourself feel worse.”

Now I was berating myself berating myself for berating myself.

“I need to stop,” I told Paul. “I need to be kinder to myself. I need to stop beating myself up, and I need to stop beating myself up for beating myself up.”

And that’s how I found myself berating myself for berating myself for berating myself. The infinite loop.

Ahhh!  The infinite loop is maddening!

Ahhh! The infinite loop is maddening!

I find that I have a lot of infinite loops that run around inside my head on a daily basis. Sometimes they are simply to-do lists, or plans, or memories. I find myself reviewing my exercise schedule, or what I’m going to fix for dinner over and over inside my head, as if my brain thinks it must constantly remind itself of these things, when really it doesn’t need to.

Yoga instructors often talk about “mind chatter,” and that’s what these infinite loops are. They are background noises inside my brain. They are thoughts I don’t need and am not even always aware of. I wonder what will happen if I clear out the chatter. Will deeper, more important thoughts finally have the space they need to emerge? Will I hear something inside myself I never knew was there?

Part of the reason I do yoga is that when I’m concentrating on my breath and balance, the mind chatter tends to recede, and I experience moments of brain silence. Only brief moments, so far, but I always hope for longer.

It’s really hard to get rid of infinite loops, because once you notice them and tell yourself to stop, you’ve added one more layer to the loop…   The loop gains power with repetition.

I’m not sure, but I think the first step to solving this problem is to notice your mind chatter, and, instead of yelling at yourself to get rid of it, accept that it’s there. Maybe when you accept an infinite loop, one layer is removed. With kindness and acceptance to yourself, the layers begin to peel away, and the mind chatter slowly starts to fade.

But that’s way easier said than done.

Since I am a writer writing about writing, I will close with this thought: when the infinite loops are mostly gone and my mind is much clearer, will my stories have more space to emerge?  Will I be able to better hear my inner muse?  A cheesy sentiment, I know…but perhaps it’s true?

Drawing by Eva!

Drawing by Eva!

....P.S.  Happy St. Patrick's Day!

….P.S. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

What I Learned About Writing From Yoga, or, Why Being Gumby Isn’t Always Best

What I Learned About Writing From Yoga, or, Why Being Gumby Isn’t Always Best

When I started doing yoga about eight years ago, I admit that I liked it because it was easy for me. At least, that’s how it seemed at the time. I’m super bendy, like Gumby, so while other yogis ease slowly into half-reclined hero’s pose and breathe through the effort, I toss myself casually into the fully-reclined pose and wonder what the big deal is. People are often impressed by my flexibility, and I’ve had multiple instructors ask me if I’m a dancer, the answer to which is no, but that question always goes straight to my head like a glass of bubbly and makes me just as giddy.

I’ve begun to realize, however, that my natural stretchiness has actually been impeding my progress as I try to deepen my yoga practice. When muscles are over-stretched and under-strengthened it puts pressure on the ligaments, and in fact, I injured myself a few years ago by stretching too far, too fast. (I popped a hamstring, and the pop was so loud I thought I had broken a bone.  It was terribly painful and took months to heal.) Slowly I’ve been learning that yoga is more about strength, balance, and proper alignment than about how far you can stretch.  (See Flexibility Can Be a Liability on holisticsquid.com.)

Gumby. (www.rlmpr.com)

My boyfriend has started coming to yoga with me sometimes, totally of his own volition. The other day we were in class, sitting with our legs spread wide. “Now, for some of you, this is as far as you can go,” the instructor said, looking directly at Paul. “For others, you may want to start walking your hands out in front of you and moving your nose towards the ground.”

I know yoga’s not a competitive sport, but sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that. I looked at a woman across the studio with her nose to the ground and felt a momentary squirm of jealousy. I used to be able to do that, and maybe I still could, but this was the position in which I popped my hamstring, so I’m much more cautious now.

“OK. Let’s move our mats to the wall for inversions,” the instructor announced.

Inversions. The bane of my yoga practice. The frustrating thing is that I can do a handstand. I taught myself how to do one when I was seven. I can’t stay balanced for very long, but it’s easy to get into a handstand as long as I can do it my way.

What I can’t do is a yoga handstand. Or a yoga headstand or a yoga forearm stand. Because those require control, balance, and strength. All qualities my Gumby-like body is lacking.

Paul and I set up our mats along the wall and put our heads in our hands. We stuck our butts in the air, walked our legs towards our heads, and tried to gently lift up into headstands. A moment later we both collapsed down on our mats, red-face and giggling. “Don’t worry, ” I whispered to Paul, who was looking around at the forty-year-old women in headstands all around the studio. “I can’t do one either.”

This is the position in which I popped my hamstring.

This is me in the position in which I popped my hamstring.  (I did not pop it when this picture was taken.)

For the past few years, perhaps since my hamstring injury, I’ve been focusing more on building muscle and improving alignment and less on showing off my stretchiness. I’ve had to get humble and let go of my flexibility, at least a bit, in order to improve my strength. Now I’m retraining myself.  I’m getting rid of bad habits and relearning poses. I’ve had to accept the fact that just because a regular handstand is easy for me, it doesn’t mean a yoga handstand will be, or should be.  Sometimes it seems like I’ll never be able to do a yogic inversion, but the important thing is that I’m trying.

I often find that lessons I learn on the yoga mat can be applied to other aspects of my life.  Like writing.  I started out with an initial aptitude.  I was always praised for my creative writing in elementary and high school, and I won a prestigious short story award when I was just out of college. But perhaps this reliance on my natural ability has impeded my progress as I try to take my writing to the next level.

Lately I’ve had to accept that just because writing and revising short stories is relatively easy for me, it doesn’t mean writing a novel will be. My writing has always been heavy on language, character and style, while lacking in plot and structure – qualities you usually need for a novel. I’ve dashed out a few novels, but like my quick-and-dirty handstands, they haven’t been very good. I need to learn to write with more strength, balance, and control. I’ve had grow more humble and let go of some of my deep-seated notions about my own writing in order to improve.  I’m in the process of retraining myself: getting rid of bad habits and re-writing large chunks of my latest novel. Sometimes it all seems impossible, but the important thing is that I’m trying.

*  *  *

“You’re so close,” Paul told me the other day while I was practicing headstand position in our bedroom.

“I know. I think I’m scared. I can feel that I’m close, but then I get nervous and I stop.”

“Try it again,” he said.

I put my head back in my hands and stuck my butt in the air. I could feel my core contracting, pulling me upwards. I lifted one leg, and then, gently, the other. And suddenly I was upside down, balancing in the air.  “Oh my gosh, I’m doing it!” I couldn’t believe it. I felt like a tiny window had opened deep inside me. A secret had been revealed.

I guess if you practice anything long enough, eventually you figure it out. And sometimes the scariest part is right before you succeed.  Writing and publishing a novel seems seems impossible sometimes. But it’s not.  So I’ll continue to practice, and one day, when I’ve built up my strength, it’ll happen.

Eva doing a headstand in her bedroom.

Eva doing a headstand in her bedroom.

I Can’t Even Look at a Mess…And Yet I Must with My Writing

I Can’t Even Look at a Mess…And Yet I Must with My Writing

“Babe, are you hoarding Tupperware again?” I asked Paul the other day. I pack his lunch every morning, and sometimes he forgets to bring the Tupperware home from work.

Later, when we got in Paul’s car to go to the horse circus (Cavalia – and that’s another story), I gasped. Littering the passenger side and strewn across the backseat were at least a week’s worth of Tupperware. “Ah ha!” I shouted. “I’ve solved the mystery!”

“Oh, yeah,” Paul said sheepishly. “Now I remember why I didn’t want to take my car.”

Apparently Paul hates washing Tupperware. “I avoid taking them in the house, because then I know I’ll have to wash them.”

“If it’s that big a deal, I’ll wash them.” Not that I love washing Tupperware, but I would rather have clean Tupperware stacked neatly in the kitchen cabinet than dirty Tupperware growing mold in Paul’s car.

 *  *  *

I am a very tidy person, and I like organization. I used to arranged my music CDs alphabetically by artist. My clothes are currently hanging in rainbow order in my closet – white then pink then red then orange and so on.

I take after my grandmother. Legend has it that when my brother and I were young, she would follow us around with a Dust Buster, and to this day, when my dad sets down a glass at my grandma’s house, he will announce, “I am not finished drinking out of this!” Otherwise, she’ll swoop in and wash it before the ice has a chance to melt.

Although I don’t follow Paul around with a Dust Buster, I do clean up after him sometimes. “I’ll wash those,” he’ll say to me about his lunch Tupperware in the sink, but when an hour has gone by and the dishes are still there, I sometimes break down and wash them myself.

“I was going to do that,” he’ll say. I know he feels bad.

“What you have to understand,” I tell him, “is that I can’t look at a mess without wanting to clean it up.”

In fact, it’s more than that. When my surroundings are untidy and unorganized, my brain feels the same way. I can’t think, I can’t concentrate. Every morning before I sit down at my computer to work, I straighten the couch cushions. I can’t work if the living room isn’t tidy.

Our living room.  The candelabras and most of the books are Paul's.  The painting, couch, and Picasso print are mine.

Our tidy living room. 

That’s why revising my latest novel has been so difficult. I decided to gut it down to the bare bones and restructure it, so right now, my novel is very messy. I’m having trouble deciding the order of events, and which events to include. I keep moving chapters around and rethinking character motivations. I’ve been deleting things and adding things and then deleting the things I’ve just added. I have about fifteen different versions and four different outlines. Last week, I kept saying to myself, “I just need to get the novel organized. Then I can relax.” All I want is one clear outline to hang everything on. But it seems impossible. The story has grown so messy, and I am so confused.

Now I realize why, for so many years, I kept writing novels and then not revising them. I’m like Paul – I’m avoiding the part I hate, even though I know it’s necessary. Because I’d be lying if I said that this messy revision stuff isn’t causing me some anxiety.

 *  *  *

Paul and I have had to learn to compromise since moving in together. Now he makes the bed every morning and cleans up dinner every night, but he’s still hasn’t reached my level of tidiness (and probably never will.) I have to learn that apartment doesn’t have to look absolutely perfect all the time. I’ve made my peace with the way Paul stacks his clean clothes on top of his dresser instead of putting them in the drawers. I have to learned to be (somewhat) OK with the way he leaves socks on the floor of the bedroom or water glasses on the mantle in the living room.

I’m learning to accept that things can’t be perfectly organized all the time. And that includes my writing.

*  *  *

A few weeks ago, I realized that even though my side of the room looked neat, I had been stuffing unfolded clothes willy-nilly into my dresser drawers. So I dumped out all the drawers and made piles of clothes around the bedroom. I made a Goodwill pile and reassessed how I wanted my drawers organized – workout clothes in the top drawer, t-shirts and tanks in the middle, long-sleeve shirts in the bottom. I thought that if Paul were to walk in, he would probably be surprised. Here I was, making a complete mess!

But then I refolded everything and stacked all the clothes back in the drawers neatly. Ahh, organization. It makes me so happy!

I had to go through a stage of messiness in order to get my clothes better organized. And that’s where I am right now with my writing, too: surrounded by piles of words and plot points, reassessing how I want my novel to be structured.  It’s an uncomfortable stage for me, but a necessary one. And something I’ve avoided doing in the past.

Sometimes I worry that I’m never going to get this novel into good shape and all fifteen confusing versions are going to sit in my computer, growing mold. But I don’t think that will happen. Because I can’t look at a mess without wanting to clean it up.

I've learned to make my peace (somewhat) with stages of disorganization.

I’ve learned to make my peace (somewhat) with stages of disorganization.