Failure is Vital

Failure is the destination that comes to you when you do not  act.  ~ Kim Stafford

 

hermit_crab2

The opening sentence in the email echoed many others I’d received: “I’m sorry to decline your submission…” It was the twelfth such note for that particular essay, one in which I’d pushed the boundaries of prose structure. I’d experimented with the “hermit crab essay,” a technique coined by author Brenda Miller that uses tools such as menus, how-to instructions, lists, or any number of forms to help a writer ease into tender material in a shielded way, just as the hermit crab’s soft underbelly is protected by the shell it crawls into.

tfgreen-airport-terminal-infoThe editor suggested that the frame I’d used—an airport arrival and departure board—didn’t support the content of the essay. My shoulders sagged as I typed “rejected” on my submission tracking form and pondered the critique. As much as I appreciated the feedback (it’s rare to receive any explanation for a submission’s turndown), I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Perhaps it was, as the editor acknowledged, the nature of “… a subjective industry, and what didn’t work for me might well work for another editor, or another lit magazine.” Regardless, I’d tried something new in my writing, and it still hadn’t found an audience. The essay rebuff resurrected fears of “doing it wrong.”

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Mistakes weren’t welcomed in my family. Missteps at the ballet recital led to embarrassment and disappointment. Straight As were expected—and rewarded. Fully thought-out plans were insurance to ward off the unexpected or dreaded. In a family on a tight budget, experimentation was expensive.

med cupThis ethos served me well when I enrolled in nursing school. The potential for mistakes lurked at every bedside, inside each medicine cup, and within doctors’ orders scrawled in patients’ charts. The stakes were high, and my starched, white, student nurse apron didn’t carry power or protection. I dedicated myself to sidestepping slip-ups.

The first time I made a medication error, my hand trembled as I completed the incident report form explaining I’d given the wrong pill to a patient and how I could have prevented the mix-up. The fact that the patient wasn’t harmed by my wrongdoing did little to ease my shame, embarrassment, and fear about future blunders. Worry about mistakes followed my steps in and out of patient rooms, hovered over my notes in charts, and stood in wait when I talked to physicians and families.

Co-workers and supervisors didn’t value creativity when it came to starting an IV, inserting a urinary catheter, measuring narcotics for injections, or reading an EKG strip. More terrifying, if I veered too far from standard procedures or tried an untested approach, a patient might suffer injury—or death. Even if there weren’t any adverse results, not following the rules might require that I notify the doctor and explain to the family; I also could be reprimanded, sued, or fired. Although there might be more than one right way, the pressure to avoid the wrong way weighed on me.

~   ~ ~   ~

Twenty years and a variety of nursing jobs later, I felt competent and less worried about errors, but confined by protocols and standards. Dr. Danielle Ofri, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of Bellevue Literary Review, writes of similar restriction. “During the tumultuous years of medical school and residency training, I always felt that something was missing, that a part of my experience remained unfulfilled. During a two-year break after residency, I was drawn back to my original interests in literature and writing, and found that these filled the gaps in meaningful ways.”

Stehekin-Chelan by David Ansley
Stehekin, WA – Photo by David Ansley

It was a two-year sojourn with my husband and two children in a remote, mountain village with eighty year-round residents (and no health care facilities) that helped fill the creativity gaps in my life. With writers, photographers, woodworkers, printmakers, bakers, and fabric artists as my neighbors, I found willing mentors to support me through experimentation with creative work. But two decades of upholding science and fearing the consequences of wrong decisions left me yearning for foolproof formulas for “success.” Instead, I discovered the hours and years of practice—and willingness to make mistakes—necessary to achieve a level of skill and satisfaction with watercolor brushes, linoleum block carving tools, pastry cutters, and the pen. I produced mounds of paper for recycling and sheet pans full of misshapen croissants with my flawed efforts.

It’s taken me another twenty years, dozens of rejection letters, and pounds of manuscripts in the recycle bin to believe what an artist/nurse friend claims, “Failure in art only leads to better art.” Author Naomi Epel echoes with, “Bad writing is part of the creative process.”

photo 1Now, I devote my days to my desk, scrawling “bad writing” on paper or tapping it out on my laptop keyboard. Just as when I work out at the gym, I begin my writing time warming up. First, I follow a journaling practice I learned from poet Kim Stafford, who learned it from his father, poet William Stafford: write the date; follow with a few sentences about the previous day (nothing profound allowed!); next, jot down an “aphorism”— a brief thought, observation, or idea; finish with words “in the form of a poem, or half a poem, or notes that may never become a poem.”

For the next few minutes, I read writing I admire—scenes rich with sensory detail, poems that tackle difficult subjects in lyrical tones, essays that compel me to look at life from a different angle. Then I select one of the several writing projects I usually have going at a time. I set a timer for 25 minutes and, in the silence of my office, try to put aside beliefs about “the right way.” When the timer chimes, I step away from my desk and fold laundry, wash a few dishes, or stroke my dog’s ears for ten minutes or so, my writing focus shifting to the background. What I don’t do during that respite is make phone calls, read email, or check Instagram. When I return to my desk and re-set the timer for another 25 minutes, I often pick up where I left off with clarity or a new idea about how to proceed.

This practice works for me, but not for everyone. It’s my way to open my door to creativity, but it’s not the only way. Yes, I still stew over fellow writers’ critiques of my words and hesitate when I press the “submit” button to send work to a publication. I know that most of the time, editors receive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of submissions from skillful, imaginative writers who have their own ways to express themselves. The probability is high that I’ll “fail” and that another writer’s way will speak to an editor more than mine. But the accumulation of rejections reminds me that the consequences of my experimentation aren’t so fraught with disaster as when I was a nurse. Instead, the trial and error and re-try process delights, rather than terrifies. And the acceptances, though few in number, affirm that my voice—my way—has a place.

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The response to the umpteenth revision and the eighteenth submission of my hermit crab essay surprised me; it was awarded an Honorable Mention in a lyric essay contest and would be published in The Lindenwood Review. I smiled, marked “accepted” beside the essay’s title on my submission tracking form, and opened my journal to write the day’s date.

 

Hold On… and Let Go

weather screen shotRain is in the forecast today and for every day but three of the next eleven. Such predictions aren’t all that unusual at this time of year where I live in the upper left corner of the United States. But twenty-two years ago at this time, I lived a bit east of here on the Stehekin River in Washington’s North Cascades, where most of the winter precipitation is in the form of snow. As I write in my new memoir, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, the Stehekin River was a powerful teacher for me during the two years my husband Jerry, our children Rachel and Matt, and I lived on its banks, along with eighty other people who treasure—and respect—the beauty and the power of the valley.

That year, 1995, snow came to the valley floor in early November, followed by warmer temperatures and then days and days of heavy rain. Rocks and boulders in the summer-dried riverbed disappeared as the river swelled. What had been a tranquil trickle of flowing water just days before was now a roar we could hear whenever we opened the house door. As we prepared for Thanksgiving, we kept close watch on the river inching up its banks.

River flood1Now, the river that usually serenaded me with its quiet, soothing flow, echoed the sounds of tumbling boulders and the splash of hundred-foot tall cedars and pines, their roots torn from the banks by the pressure of the current. Late one afternoon midweek, the river exploded over the bank at the end of Company Creek Road, and gushed through the foundation of the Avery cabin just beyond our house.

As full-sized cedars rumbled past, I wondered how one of my favorite trees was faring. Early in our relocation to Stehekin, I spotted it just beyond Harlequin Bridge and called it my “lean into it” tree. The cedar stretched its lower third over the riverbank before curving the rest of its height gracefully up toward the sky. Five roots, as thick as a grown man’s thighs, sprawled from the tree’s stringy-barked trunk and clawed into the soil. Half-a-dozen branches reached out across the river as if in a tug-of-war with the roots to keep the cedar upright and anchored. Could it survive the thrashing water now gnawing at the banks of the Stehekin?

“Hey guys,” Rachel said as we sat down to dinner, “it’s stopped raining.”

“Yay,” cheered Matt.

“I wouldn’t get too excited yet,” Jerry said. “The river is so full we’ll need lots of days without rain to make a difference.”

That wouldn’t happen for a while, as the rain returned during the night.

The next morning, Jerry, the kids and I ventured out in the gray, walking down Company Creek Road to see the effects of the night’s deluge. After about half a mile, we could go no further. Water had burst over the embankment.

I shuffled back a few feet from the raw river edge, keeping my eyes on the new arm of the Stehekin surging down the middle of Company Creek Road. The same road that wound from our house for four miles beside the Stehekin, then across Harlequin Bridge to connect us to the five miles of paved road leading to the ferry landing, the head of Lake Chelan, and the rest of the world. Now, this link had been split by a torrent of mud-brown, churning water, so deep I couldn’t see the rock roadbed that surely lay underneath. Cut off from friends, neighbors, the school, mail, and groceries, I huddled with Jerry and the kids, all of us staring at the galloping currents.

The power of this force humbled me. How many times had that river flooded, reminding the residents of its valley we had intruded on its home?  We might think we know best where roads should go or houses should be built, but the river follows its own wisdom, has its own idea about its course, and thus ours. I had come to Stehekin to wrestle with both my need for control as well as the ways I’d disengaged from the world to protect myself from urban overload and work stress. The flood’s fury reconnected me to the earth. The water frothing between the banks carried the rains, the melted snows, the ancient glacial melt that forced the Stehekin to escape its borders and eat away at the bend in the road. Now a big chunk of road joined this flow of history, mingled with old and new waters, mixed with boulders and pines that rushed down the swollen river, to the head of the lake, bound to get to Chelan, the Columbia, and the sea before I would. While the Stehekin raged a record 19,000 cubic square feet of water every minute, there was nothing for us to do but wait, stranded at our end of Company Creek Road.

Along with the boulders and trees, the river washed away power poles and lines, leaving us without electricity during the flood’s climax. Fortunately, we had heeded the wisdom of our neighbors and filled our bathtub with water in anticipation of the loss of our electric pump for the well. We had plenty of firewood for the barrel stove that warmed the house. A full tank of propane fueled our cooking stove to heat the food we kept cold in an ice chest on the front porch. Our days were filled with basic survival chores as well as monitoring the river’s course, so it didn’t matter that the sun disappeared around four in the afternoon. After dinner preparation, cleanup, and a little reading by the light of candles and kerosene lamps, we were all ready for sleep.

Three days after the road disappeared, the water receded enough for a neighbor to drive his bulldozer into the woods beyond the washout to punch out a temporary road between the trees. Now crews could get in to replace the missing power poles and string new lines to restore electricity. Life began to return to normal.

When we received permission to drive across the temporary road, my family and I enthusiastically piled into our 1973 Suburban. Jerry drove slower than usual down the narrow, winding road, not knowing what hazards from the river’s rampage might stop us. Its surge had created gullies, cleaned out fall debris, and scattered firewood, toys, barrels, shovels, rakes, and ladders far from their homes.

River flood2We had heard that the approaches to Harlequin Bridge had taken a beating. I held my breath as we neared the bend just before it. The sky was blue, but the coffee and cream-colored river bubbling past like soup at a hard boil still taunted both sides of the road and the bridge’s underside. My eyes focused to the left, just beyond the bridge’s span, to the bank across from us. Still “leanin’ into it,” my cedar clung to the river’s edge, reaching toward the sun while remaining firmly rooted in the rock and soil of home. I let out my breath and leaned a bit more into life’s requirement to both hold on and let go.

 

 

Sick of the News and Wondering – Why Write?

This morning after I turned the key in the ignition to drive to the gym, I flicked on the radio. It’s programmed for NPR, and as I heard, “Here are the day’s headlines,” I switched to the classical music station. I knew my heart would be pounding soon enough in my circuit class; I didn’t need the morning report to raise my blood pressure.

I’ve been feeling this way a lot lately. Distressed by accounts of wildfires, hurricanes, mass shootings, sexual assault and harassment, earthquakes, dismantling of our health care system, and environmental protections erased, I’ve had to limit my intake of current events. And that distresses me, too, because denial or ignoring does nothing to ease the suffering of our world.

I’m not alone. In the last week, two women I admire have responded to these troubles, each in her own way.

Eileen-Valley-Green-e1504621326715I’ve written previously about Eileen Flanagan, and I found her course, We Were Made for This Moment, extremely helpful in the early months of 2017. A couple of days ago, an email from Eileen asked, “Sick of the news?” Some intense, exciting work had kept her away from media, and when she tuned in again, she writes, “…I went on a CNN binge. It was the spiritual equivalent of chowing down pork rinds and jellybeans right after your yoga retreat.” The news literally made her sick, disturbing her eating and sleeping. Eventually, though, she realized “…it wasn’t just the stories themselves that were depressing; it was the way they were presented, with no role for me to play but voyeur. It confirmed my intention to keep my focus on things people like you and I can actually do to create the world we want to see.”

One of the ways Eileen shifts her perspective is through teaching, so she’s offering a new, four-week, on-line course, How to Build a Nonviolent Direct Action Campaign. It begins October 23, and there’s still time to register. Like her earlier courses, I suspect this one will help participants build their capacity to make change.

In “We Were Made for This Moment,” Eileen discussed a variety of activist roles (helper, organizer, advocate, rebel) and helped me gain some insight into the actions I feel I’m best equipped for and that give me joy. She cautioned that no one can do all the roles, and that if a role doesn’t feed you, burnout is likely.

Hiking Naked Final CoverWriting is both my creative outlet and my way to advocate for change. But as I’ve turned much of my energy to promoting my new book, Hiking Naked: A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance, I’ve wondered what good it’s doing in the face of the tragedies throughout the world.

Carol-768x1024Another friend, Carol Sexton, reminded me I’m not the only artist raising this question. Her blog post a couple of weeks ago, “Why I Make Art,” wrestled with, “What is the point of this art that I am making?  I see news of police brutality, racial injustice, political corruption, the failure of our current health system, or natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes, and I am sitting at home making a drawing of lace. I have to wonder whether there is something more I could/should be doing as an artist to address the needs of a hurting world.”

lace

Carol explored her role as an artist further.

“There are artists who focus their art around issues of social justice, and I admire and respect what they do, but that is also not who I am as an artist. I paint images of plants. I draw mandala designs. I carve figures in stone. I am attracted to things that I find beautiful and I want to share them in some way. But how can I justify being an artist when there are so many other worthy causes that need support?”

While acknowledging the privilege of choosing to make art, Carol lists clearly why she continues it. By changing the words “make art” to “write,” the points work for me, too.

  • I continue to make art write because it is what I do, and who I am.
  • I make art write because it is a gift that I have been given, and it would seem wrong not to exercise that gift.
  • I make art write because it satisfies my soul and gives me pleasure on a daily basis.
  • I make art write because part of my livelihood depends on it. In a lifestyle where there is no regular paycheck, every little bit of freelance income counts. And before getting income from art, one must take the time to produce art.
  • I make art write because it brings enjoyment to others.
  • I make art write because in a world full of ugliness and hatred and injustice, there is also much beauty to be shared and celebrated.
  • I make art write not as a direct response to important issues, nor as an escape from thinking or caring about them. I make art write because it is what I do best, and I want to offer my best to the world.

Most days, I trust that if I listen to the voice within, I’ll be led to actions that contribute to the world we want to see. But when I doubt, wisdom from people like Eileen and Carol sustains and inspires me. My hope is that my writing does the same for others.

Whatever your work is, how do you view it in the midst of today’s tribulations?

 

 

 

 

What a Difference Six Years Make

Here’s what showed up on my Facebook feed this morning—a memory from 6 years ago today.

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I can’t believe it was that long ago that I was receiving critiques of the first chapter of my memoir, “Hiking Naked” (you can read a version of that draft at http://sharkreef.org/non-fiction/hiking-naked/).

Much has happened since that August residency of the Whidbey MFA program. Now I’m a graduate of the program grad (1)(here I am in 2014, surrounded by members of my writing group who cheered me on at my graduation). And I’m still lucky to be part of the community of skillful writers and teachers I met at Whidbey, but, sadly, the program has closed.

badge.jpgDuring the first year after I graduated: I sought an agent (was rejected by some very good ones) as I revised the manuscript some more; I entered contests that would lead to publication (received a lovely rejection from one and was a finalist in another) while revising the manuscript again; and, while tinkering a bit more, I researched small presses that accept un-agented manuscripts.

indie_voices_indie_minds_sm_1That’s when I found a perfect fit at Homebound Publications. Two years after that first discovery of a home for my book, I had a contract with Homebound; my manuscript had been revised once again following review by my editor, Leslie M. Browning; we selected a photograph by Nancy Barnhart that Leslie used for the cover;hn-cover-no-blirb  I had dinner with my publisher (our first face-to-face meeting); and my manuscript—now a book—was off to the printer.

l & i (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Soon (just six years and one month after my MFA classmates critiqued that first chapter), I hope to be surrounded again by my writing group, friends, and family at my book launch on Lopez Island.

 

Release Party poster (1)

On September 16, 2017 there are bound to be more good memories to look back on—with or without Facebook’s help.