The Buzzy Challenge (or how I plan to conquer my addiction to Hulu)

It pains me to confess the following:  Until I cancelled my Comcast cable bundle and handed over my television to Goodwill Industries I was guilty of watching, on average, twenty-one hours of television per week.  Three hours each day.  Every day.

What on earth was I doing?  That’s an easy one to answer.  I was anesthetizing myself.

When I emerged from my cathode-ray-tube-induced-coma last September I had every intention of using the extra twenty-one hours I had given myself to write the next great bestseller while training for a marathon in between playing live sets at Angelica’s in Redwood City.

So far none of that has happened.  But it’s not all bad news.  I’ve spent more time nurturing my creative side with the found object assemblage work I love.  I attend a yoga class on an almost regular basis.  I dance more and of course there’s the meditation practice.

But what about the other ten hours?

Unfortunately, I’ve discovered Hulu.

It began innocently enough with a few Jon Stewart clips.  That led to an unquenchable yearning for Jimmy Fallon musical numbers (did you see him and Bruce sing “Whip My Hair”???)  Jimmy, of course, was just one steep and slippery slope away from the latest episodes of Glee and then Parenthood and then Grey’s and now I’m even getting my geek on by watching the ultimate in brain candy – The Big Bang Theory.

I need an intervention.

I need a Buzzy Sherman Challenge.

Buzz and I worked for the Sunnyvale School District as well as the city’s Parks and Recreation Program in the early 1980’s.  Buzz was into self-improvement and since I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread, I was into self-improvement, too.  Buzz was the kind of guy who would take off for four days without telling anyone, ride his bike to Yosemite, return safe and act as if it was a perfectly natural thing to do.

We liked to hand one another challenges. When I began to jog for exercise he challenged me to take my mileage from twenty to thirty miles per week.  In exchange he would ride Highway 9 twice a week.  Another time he offered to read as many books as he could in one month if I became a vegetarian for the month.  Or maybe I had to give up chocolate.  It was so long ago I don’t remember.

They seem a little silly now but I loved our challenges.  I loved competing with myself and I loved being accountable to Buzzy.

But of course he and I lost track of one another decades ago and I traded my hard competitive edge for something more nurturing when I found Yoga.

Still, if it’s a challenge that’s required to keep myself from surfing Hulu (did I mention the birth of Bones’ baby is imminent?) then it’s a challenge I’ll set.

And here it is.

I’m going to take the next six weeks – give or take a few days – to read eight books.  I’ll begin with Kelly McGonigal’s new book The Willpower Instinct:  How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters and What You Can do to Get More of It.  The advice she offers may help me negotiate the next few thousand pages.  After that, and in no particular order, I’m going to read:

 The Gospel According to Zen – First published in 1970 the book is described as “an extraordinarily ecumenical collection of readings in the new consciousness of post-Christian man, with commentaries by Erich Fromm, DT Suzuki, Alan Watts, J. Krishnamurti and others.”

A Gate at the Stairs – A novel by Lorrie Moore.

Haslam’s Valley – A collection of short stories and essays by Gerald Haslam.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeWasn’t I supposed to read this…um…ten years ago?

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Patti Smith’s biography about her life with Robert Mapplethorpe Just Kids.

Last but not least, Old Friend from Far Away.  This is Natalie Goldberg’s book on memoir writing.  I was going to read Writing Down the Bones but chose this one instead.

I think I have it all covered – fiction, non-fiction, short story, novel, essay, self-help, biography, philosophy. I’ve already dipped into The Emperor and Bird by Bird but both books have been buried in the pile by my bed for so long I may begin both again from page one and so don’t consider it cheating.

The challenge begins as soon as this is posted and the glass of wine is poured.  Wish me luck.

Write as if No One is Reading

People don’t ask, “How’s the writing going?” the way they used to.  They probably know.  It’s been too long since I put fingers to keyboard for any sustained amount of time.

The advice we’re given is “treat writing like a job.”  In other words, show up, sit down and write.  That was easy for me to do when I was writing the manuscript now gathering dust on my bookshelf.  Three years ago, as I dived into research about World War II, the contributions of civilian women during wartime and Japanese internment camps, it was easy to set the alarm at five.  I was on a mission to complete a full-length novel.  Eighty-eight thousand words later the job was done.

I just don’t know if I’m on a mission any more.

I haven’t lost my love, only my drive.  Or maybe it’s not my drive.  Maybe it’s my vision – I can no longer see in my mind’s eye the writer I wanted to be in 2008.  The writer who craved commercial success has disappeared.

An old friend said to me last night, “Of course you’re not writing – these days you’re too busy living.” And then a few hours later a new friend said, “Write as if no one is reading.”  When I began to study the craft of writing that was my focus – writing for the potential reader with the conviction that one day the President of the United States would put a hardcover copy of my best seller in his summer vacation carry-on.  And now?  I think it’s time to begin writing for me – to color outside the lines a bit or maybe allow the flow of words to lead me down an unexpected path.

(Why does that make me feel uncomfortable?  What would happen if I did that?  What would I discover?)

With the counsel of those friends still sitting warmly in my heart I’m going to embark on a new writer’s path.  No matter what I read in all the “how to write” books I am not going to treat writing like a job.  The writing that I want to produce – the writing that nurtures or challenges or pulls at you – that  writing is not a job.

And so the dozen half-written essays on my desktop, the few short stories I began but never finished and the unfinished novel languishing in an electronic file – they’re all going to wait a while longer.  I’ve got to go live a little and then write about it as though no one is reading.

Just Say “Yes”


Image via Wikipedia

The “we love your writing but unfortunately we’re unable to use your work” emails were filling the inbox regularly this week.  Ok, none of them actually used the words “we love your writing.” But despite being letters of rejection, in most cases the author attempted to put a positive spin on things.

“We look forward to seeing more of your work!” 

“Keep writing!”

“We haven’t found a place for your work, but we know it will find a good home elsewhere.” (Note to editors of Le Petite Zine:  I’m not trying to re-home a puppy.)

These all beat one of my first rejection letters:

“I found the dialogue stilted and just was not compelled to turn the pages.”  Ouch.  That one hurt.

The messy business of rejection is part of the writer’s life.  Some days it’s easy to brush off.  On other days it requires a foot stomping, ‘f-bomb’ flying hissy fit.  But either way, after the initial sting and whether we want to believe it or not, rejection moves us forward.

Still, life would be much easier if I wasn’t compelled to write.  Certainly there would be less rejection.  More than that, however, I’d cease being an introspective recluse and become the life of the party. I’d see more sunshine and maybe trade my pasty writer’s pallor for a tan.  I would sleep in.

No I wouldn’t.

Even before I became addicted to the mad rush of creating a perfectly formed sentence I enjoyed the quiet reflection found in the company of a few good friends (even imaginary ones) over a crazed and crowded party.  My lack of a tan is somewhat intentional and that lie in?  Impossible.  My brain wakes up at 6:00 AM whether I want it to or not.  I’m a morning person.

So I might as well write and suffer the consequences.  I can’t stop now because one of these days there’s going to be a ‘yes’ in my inbox.  And when there is…


On my mom's fridge: a photo of house I lived in as a child.

I don’t know what to say about the past month.  I’m pretty thrilled February is barreling right into March.

I broke up with my critique group this week.  It had been fomenting for months, but I couldn’t find the courage.  Each time I summoned the strength to leave, someone else would drop out or move or drift away and I would feel the guilt of their leaving strong enough to enroll for another eight weeks.  Now that I’ve finally let go, I’m wondering what not having five fresh pages to share each Wednesday afternoon will do to my writing.

It wasn’t your typical critique group.  We didn’t see one another’s work until the day we met, and then we had fifteen minutes – sometimes twenty depending upon who was in attendance – to read and receive comments.  My strategy was to bring in about five minutes of reading so I could receive ten minutes of review.  Others in the group enjoyed spending most of their time reading, with little time for feedback.

You can see how one might become frustrated.

At the end of the day, though, the group gave me discipline.  And developing discipline is priceless.  I wouldn’t have a novel length manuscript under my belt if our leader Terry Galanoy hadn’t said, “That’s a good idea.  I want five pages next Wednesday.”  Classic critique may have been pretty thin, but encouragement and support was heaped upon me.  I’ll miss them.

In February I received my Get Out of Jail Free Card.  This is more difficult to explain.  I guess I had one of those experiences that cast a sliver of light on a very dusty part of my soul.   I had an awakening, of sorts.  A door opened.  That’s a good thing.  But if you’re old enough to remember the opening sequence of the 1960’s classic “Get Smart” then you know that behind the open door is…another door.  In other words, I have an awful lot of work to do on myself before my Get Out of Jail Free Card is valid.  I reckon a good couple of years.  But when that final door opens – it will be well worth the work and the wait.

At my penultimate meeting with the critique group, the only other women attending that day asked me, “What is your theme?” The men were staying shtum as the scene I had read was about a protagonist’s first menstruation.

I couldn’t answer her.  I hemmed and hawed until at last she answered for me.

“You are the sum total of your experiences.  Or not.  There has to be room for potential.”

I am the sum total of my experiences.  Or not.

Why Do We Write?

Why do we write?  Because we have a story to tell. Sometimes it’s a true story; sometimes it’s a story clinging to our heart desperate for liberation.

A friend says to me “You must tell your story” and I’m not certain what he means.  He says, “You have a facility for writing” and recounts the opening to a manuscript I’ve been struggling with since last year.  But that isn’t my story.  It’s just something I made up.  Something that has some tenuous association with the truth.

So why do we write?

Twelve days ago I stood in my shower and began to cry. The tears fell spontaneously.  They fell without warning.  I wasn’t sad.  In fact, I was standing on the precipice of happy. But still the tears spilled down my face, merged with Palo Alto’s municipal water supply and joined the wastewater on its way to be cured and returned to San Francisquito Creek.

I began to realize that my tears were a mix of elation for the decision my heart had made without my asking and mourning for the goals I hadn’t achieved.  I was liberated.  I was a failure.

It used to be different.  I wanted to write.  That’s all.  I didn’t think about writing a best seller, receiving a huge advance or being chosen for Oprah’s Book Club.  I wanted to write because it brought me joy. I wrote because it filled a void.  It was a way to clarify – an outlet.  And I loved the challenge.

I took a few classes and created a few blogs before I settled on the one you’re reading. I wrote a few articles for the local paper.  I wrote a manuscript that could, with a little polish, become a novel. No small achievement.

I dove deep and was amazed at how long I could hold my breath.  I charged into study and schedules and goals.  I wrote without thinking.  I wrote without feeling.  I dreamed of maybe, one day, having a book I could hold in my hand and saying, “I wrote this.”

And then things got ugly.  I forgot about the joy. I forgot about how crafting a decent sentence makes me giddy and the magic that happens when a character takes over and becomes the boss of these tired, typing fingers. I forgot about plot, structure and setting all in the race to be there first. But the truth is, I’ll never be there first.

That Tuesday, standing in my shower, finally craving air, I broke the surface and gasped for breath.

It wasn’t working.

The five o’clock alarms.  The word count goals.  The platform building.  The hollow dreams.  It wasn’t working.

I wanted to write.  This wasn’t writing.  It was micro-managing.

I put away all the tables that charted word counts, blogs posted and queries sent to magazine editors.  I closed the file on long-range goals, short-term goals and the list of forty-five writing goals I needed to achieve – today – while teaching classes and visiting clients.  I gave notice to my critique group – the six people with whom I shared every Wednesday afternoon for the past three years.

And I went back to basics.  I pulled out John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist.  I opened Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.

And then, finally relieved of the burden of high expectations, I began.

I write.  I will continue to write.   It is how I will tell my story.