You Are Just a Man

by Gene Manne

This time, you tell yourself, maybe you can explain it without them squirming in their socks. Maybe this new approach will work.

You tell people you are just a guy, that all your parts, pieces, and inclinations are one hundred percent male. You reassure them, you are anatomically and biologically a man. You tell them if you stripped buck naked and performed cartwheels, they would see nothing before them except a guy.

Where they may notice a difference is in a classroom, you impart, because your brain processes thoughts differently, which means you learn in an unusual way. That’s why talking about the difference is important, you say, to raise awareness and help other people who learn differently understand and explore how they learn, to better connect with teaching, and to live better.

You mention middle school, when we were all taught that XX means girl and XY means boy. They nod along, remembering. You tell them how that isn’t actually the whole truth, that other chromosomes such as XXY also means boy, and the nodding stops. Their eyes move around in a semi-circle, searching for exactly what, they seem to be unsure. They appear to become uncomfortable.

You tell them all of this to make sure they do not somehow transmogrify your difference into the concept of you being intersex because of your XXY chromosomes, and still, somehow, you can hear their synapses squirm as they make that incredibly long and incorrect science-fiction leap anyway.

You know, at that moment, they are uncomfortable because they’ve just imagined you have two sex parts in your pants. Clearly, they have watched too much Alice in Wonderland. On something. You hesitate to disappoint their anxiety with the fact you have only the man part.

Still, you wonder why? Why would most people make that illogical leap?

Is it because they just turned reality into a misconstrued math equation, multiplying XX by XY to equal XXY? You tell them that’s not how it works, but they don’t seem to hear you.

Maybe it’s because we were taught incorrectly about what constitutes a human at an impressionable age? Or because we protect our beliefs, inserting knowledge pride in place of objective thought?

Did they do a Google search for “XXY” and see the XXY movie that misrepresents XXY as intersex? Or did they encounter the XXY misnomer “Klinefelter syndrome” that the more informed doctors regard as never having been real?

You can see in their nervous eyes, squished cheeks, and contorted lips, they’re still squirming. You wonder if this is because they are now imagining you are the key to asexual reproduction in humans, as if you could somehow impregnate yourself? You shudder at the thought.

You want to put their panicking mind at ease, so you reassure them that XXY is just another iteration of male. You tell them you are and have always been completely male in every way – physicality, inclinations, and so on.

Success! You can see and hear their squirming stop. Their eyes rest. Their face and posture relaxes. All is right in the world.

Even though you are not intersex, for you sport merely a penis betwixt your legs and you appreciate and enjoy its sexual purpose, which for you happens to mean you like women, you wonder how it is that the concept of intersex human beings is so threatening to peoples’ own identity in the world?

You wonder, “Is it because we have intricately wrapped the idea that love leads to the realization of our sexual desires around our own identities as men and women?”

You think back to when you learned about your difference during a routine physical for college athletics, the fact of you being there for that purpose itself perplexing for the doctor.

The doctor said, “I’m afraid you will be unable to compete on the cycling team because of your chromosomes.”

You said, “I don’t understand—I’ve been competing for years already. Why would this change anything?”

“Well,” the doctor said, “I suppose you could participate, but you won’t be competitive against XY men, and I can’t advise it.”

“But I’m already winning races,” you told him. “I’ve been a varsity runner, a podium half-marathoner, and now a bike racer. I just won a race on the velodrome last week.” You don’t mention you used to play soccer too.

You watched the doctor shaking his head in disbelief. This is who teaches us about the human body.

You were evidence to the contrary of XXY research standards sitting right in front of him. You watched several drips of sweat fall from his forehead onto the marbled white linoleum squares beneath him. You couldn’t tell if his trembling was caused by his nervousness or by being forced to recite oppressive medical fiction to you. He said, “Huh,” and you watched him smile lightly to himself and shake his head. You noticed the buzz of the fluorescent lights.

It almost seemed he thought he was delivering a death sentence as he said, “You will never be able to father a child.”

Your nineteen-year-old mind saw this as a good thing. Latex always caused shrinkage and burned your skin anyway. “Are you saying I have built-in birth control? Do you mean I don’t need to wear a condom with my girlfriend?”

The doctor raised his eyebrows in surprise. You watched as the sweat streamed off his head, making him not only nervous but also self-conscious.

“W-w-well, y-y-you’re having sex?” you heard the doctor say, as if he thought it impossible. “N-n-no, y-you should still u-use birth control, to be sure.”

“So then, I can have children?” you asked.

“W-well, um, hm.” The doctor pursed his lips and raised a spread hand to cover them. He lifted his silver eyebrows and dropped them again, squinting in thought. You heard a quiet splat as a drip of sweat dropped from his head onto the paper on his clipboard. He draped the sleeve of his white coat over his forehead to sop up his nervousness and wiped away the wet spot on the paper. You heard him murmur under his hand, “I’m not entirely sure.” He looked at you hoping you did not hear him.

You asked, “Can you sign my paper or not? My university requires it for me to compete.”

You watched the doctor shake his head again in disbelief as he said, “I guess I can. You know, it says here that you aren’t supposed to be intelligent, so, um, you’re in college? Huh.”

You silently muse, “If the doctors are blinded by their own standards, maybe they are teaching everyone else to be blind too, like Pied Pipers.”

Doctors failed to make you think less of yourself. You defied their documented standards in every way. You upset the apple cart, and you’re not the only one.

All these years later, you smile when a woman calls you handsome in a class you’re visiting. Flattery will get you somewhere.

Now, to figure out how to keep people from assuming you are intersex when you talk about the difference? How to keep them focused on what matters?

You tried writing about it as though you made a great discovery that doctors missed. Then you realized it wasn’t a miss. It was eugenics. You felt a duty to expose the medical mistake they are making. You talked about the termination rate of XXY fetuses, and people mistook your stats for a pro-life argument. You tried boiling the concept down to its most basic reality, and people still made the weird leap. You did your part.

You realize you are just a man. You can’t change how people think. You can only relate your stories. You define you. Everybody has the right to define themselves and their own reality.

How difficult it must be for people who actually are intersex or are somehow different from the medical archetypes learned in middle school.

“Who changed my thinking,” you wonder. “Who most influenced my thoughts?” and you know it was your best teachers. You remember them all. Mrs. Noel in fifth grade, who noticed your aptitude for poetry. Polly Hobbs in high school art classes who noted your ability to draw in perfect perspective, taught you formal calligraphy, and instilled a lasting confidence in your talents. Your undergraduate advisors at Antioch Seattle, who collectively taught you to see the world differently and encouraged your writing. All the MFA advisors and professors at Antioch Los Angeles, who taught you to be a better writer and person. They taught you profound lessons in writing and life, changing your thinking. In their own unique ways, they taught you to recognize and believe in the concept of love again.

Maybe you could learn to be a teacher? You enroll in Antioch’s Post-MFA in the Teaching of Creative Writing, where, through unknown wonders of the world, you somehow land in Kathryn Pope’s class as her assistant. There, you witness a kind of heretofore-unknown brilliance in the arc of a creative writing class. When considering the program, you thought maybe seeing writing from the teacher perspective might change your writing, and within a month it already has. It’s changed you too.

You wonder if, together, we can toss out the human archetype notions? Isn’t it time? Maybe, if we play with the concept, talk about it. Maybe, if we put a little love into each of our efforts.

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The Gift of Writing

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Portrait of the author as the baby of an author.

 

by Kate Maruyama

The summer after I first had my son, when he was three months old, my mom sent me a check, in the memo at the bottom was scrawled, “babysitter.” I called her, a bit miffed, we had just had the kid, were just getting used to him, how could we hand him over to a stranger? Besides, we were doing just fine, thank you, we didn’t need a handout.

Pardon the crankiness, I was a bit sleep deprived. The kid wouldn’t stop crying. Like, at all.

My mom knew this, and she said calmly, “While they’re small, you need to buy writing time. Find a teenager or a nursing student. You don’t even have to leave the house. But buy yourself a few hours a week.”

My mom was a writer too and, despite raising three kids, had written over thirty novels by the time she was through. I don’t even have a final count on her books including collections and anthologies. She relied on her morning stream of local student babysitters until we were school age. I remember a number of them fondly, and I’ve been told I went to a university sit-in demonstration against US interference in Cambodia when I was two, but that’s another story.

It took me a few years to hire a babysitter. That check sat on the mantel and I carved writing time out of nap time, or bed time, and burned the candle at both ends as I was working in the evenings reading scripts for money. That check was still on the mantel when my second kid was born, but then she was eighteen months and my oldest was in preschool and there was no such thing as nap and I was at the end of my rope by the end of each day. I had met other parents by then, so I called around and found a local teenager to babysit in the house while I shut myself in a room. I carved myself out three hours of writing once a week.

What a gift. Three hours in which, because I was paying someone, I was forced to stay in a room and write. Three hours where I couldn’t do the millions of other things calling to me: the house, the kids, the job. That first morning I felt downright wicked, alone with my computer, writing the only task in front of me. I don’t remember now what I was working on. Likely a screenplay, but possibly my first ever (and yet unpublished) novel that earned me my training wheels in fiction; that eventually got me into the MFA Program at Antioch University Los Angeles where I found my people, my voice and my profession.

That specified, paid-for time was everything.

After graduate school I went on to teach writing to grown-ups. People who wanted to write but had not found the time before. My first class was a Saturday morning workshop with a local community college extension program. I asked my students to share with the class why they were taking this workshop. Obviously, they wanted to write, and this class was a gift to themselves. Three hours, one morning a week in which they would sit down and honor their oft-neglected writing selves. I adored the work that came out of these fledgling students. Writing fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, we used prompts, and, as my hesitant group became more comfortable, the words began to flow.

There was one older gentleman in his early seventies, Cesar (not his name) and he always arrived at the same time as a younger white guy in his thirties, Bob. The two were obviously not related, but Bob (not his name) would always call Cesar, “Pops.” They always sat separately. Bob at the back of the class, Cesar at the front. Cesar wrote non-fiction, hilarious and moving stories about growing up in Los Angeles with a “gang” of friends of all different races. He brought to life a vivid and vibrant Los Angeles neighborhood in the 1960s that was undivided along racial lines. The kids would travel in a pack, get in trouble together, and were parented together by each other’s families. It was beautiful writing.

Cesar and Bob were always cracking jokes and funny with each other and only in the last class did Bob take me aside. He told me that he had gotten the class for Cesar as a gift. “Pops” had always talked about writing down his stories, but wouldn’t sit down and do it. So Bob bought him the classes and drove out to Whittier every Saturday morning to pick him up and bring him all the way back to Glendale for class. They stopped for breakfast on the way.

It turns out that Bob had been abandoned by his drug addicted mother when he was about thirteen after years of abuse. Cesar lived across the street and had befriended the boy when he sensed he needed someone. When Bob’s mother died, Cesar adopted him. The “Pops” part was real and Bob said he wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Cesar. And the gift was real. Bob was writing some beautiful pieces of fiction himself, but he was also getting those stories Cesar kept telling written down in scene in gorgeous detail. The gift of the class ended up paying off for both of them.

As we head into the holiday season, if you have people in your life who have always wanted to write, but haven’t had the time, who have great stories and have never learned how to get them down on paper, if you have writers in your life who have been at it for years but need a little extra push to get their work edited and refined to get it out there, or have a novel they need guidance reshaping, inspiration2publication has gifts that you can give.

With our affordable two week and four week class gift certificates, you can give a writer an array of choices of how they would like best to honor their writing. They can choose from a large selection of classes and, if they’re hesitant at first, they can wait to use the gift certificate until the right class comes up, until it’s the right time for them to dive in. Our asynchronous classes mean that, while the class happens during a two or four week period, students can check in from any time of the day or night, from anywhere in the world. All they need is access to a computer.

With our Writing Coach gift certificates, you can give the gift of guidance from a mentors for all writers. With a coach appropriate to their work (which they get to choose from our divers, published, trained staff) your writer friend or relative can begin a project, rewrite a project, and strengthen their voice and writing skills in the process. Our coaches are trained to work from a writer’s strength while giving them the tools they need to tell their story in the best way possible.

 We hope you’ll give the gift of inspiration2publication, if not this holiday season, for upcoming birthdays, summer vacations, when a child is born, or for someone’s retirement.

If you have any questions about these classes or how the gift certificates are used, please write to us at i2p@antioch.edu

Student Testimonial

As a disabled person, it can be difficult to attend workshops in person, particularly as someone who is deaf. Inspiration2publication has given me the opportunity to continue learning and growing as a writer without any of these obstacles. I am incredibly grateful to be able to participate in workshops and courses of the highest quality from the comfort of home. Inspiration2publication isn’t just accessible to people who would not have normally have access either because of a disability or geography but it is also affordable. I have tried online courses from two other writing associations and a single Inspiration2publication has been more beneficial than all of them combined. They have pushed me as a writer and helped me produce more impactful work, as well as offered insight and motivation to get my work out there. I never submitted a piece before taking Inspiration2publication courses and since then I have submitted and been published several times. In a way, I have this program to thank for that.

– Michael Whelan (AULA Alum 2008)

“Let Me See You Once More:” Finding, Restoring, and Amplifying Marginalized Voices that Build Community

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By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad

 

By the time Old Lizzy Gray’s enslaver Dr. E. J. Mims buried her in a granite sarcophagus on his South Carolina plantation in 1860, she had 127 years’ worth of stories built up in her. Stories from lives lived on two different continents. One as a free Muslim in Africa. One as an enslaved person with a syncretic religious existence in America. But almost everything we know about Old Lizzy Gray’s story today, including her last words, didn’t come directly from her. What we know came from the hand of her obituarist Dr. Mims, the last person who held her as property. His amplification of her story, in less than five paragraphs on the front page of the September 12, 1860, issue of the Edgefield Advertiser, is the only reason we know anything of her existence beyond her being just another name with a price next to it in estate records.

 I think often of Old Lizzy Gray.

I wonder what her original name was before being labeled with the surname of one of her earliest enslavers and a given name likely belonging to one of the women in his family.

I wonder how long she cried out for her four children whom she was ripped from in her homeland through the forced migration and forced dislocation trauma of the transatlantic slave trade.

I wonder where in Africa she came from and if it could have been Senegambia, given that a large portion of the Muslim-born captives arriving in America had come from there and had ended up in the Carolinas.

I wonder when she decided that she would begin to practice a mixture of Islam and Christianity—stating on many occasions “that Christ built the first Church in Mecca and his grave was da”—and if it started as a coping mechanism while she was imprisoned upon a British ship during the American Revolution, or after she had been sold on to her first, second, or third enslaver after that, no fixed address in sight, no real control over her own time and space.

I wonder who her American-born children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were who took care of her in her final days and if, with all the new genealogical resources we have today, we can find their descendants.

And, I wonder why Dr. Mims, one of the most influential people in Edgefield County where they lived, the town of Johnston, which he founded, now built up over what was once much of his plantation, and probably up over Old Lizzy Gray too, wrote so passionately about the human he held as property, placing her obituary on the front page of the local paper and giving her a higher grade of burial than even those in his own family and, later, even himself.

In his own way, was Dr. Mims writing the community to effect change?

I know I am, in writing this, writing to effect change. And with hope of bringing the dignity and humanity back to a forgotten ancestor of the African diaspora who is only discussed in a negligible number of history books, and her name I’ve never heard rolling off the tongues of those in the greater community who could be inspired by her story of survival and resilience.

Old Lizzy Gray held on to faith and family to her last breath, calling out to her American-born daughter, “[L]et me see you once more,” and then, “Jesus has come!” The latter an utterance, no doubt, of deliverance from the enormity of her life struggles.

One cannot underestimate the value of finding, restoring, and amplifying marginalized voices that build community. That, in the case of Old Lizzy Gray, this service comes from an enslaver does not make it any less valuable.

There are many ways we experience community. For some, their first experience with community life begins in the home, amongst family. For others, it’s in their place of worship, or at school, in the barbershop, or the salon, in the neighborhood, or at places of work, and on and on.

Community connections can be local, national, or international. Community life is in every direction we turn. It is wherever we find humanity and engage with each other. And, in that every engagement, there are opportunities to write the community, and there are opportunities to effect change.

I invite you to take an online class with me on this very subject: Writing the Community: Write to Effect Change. With no grades to worry about, it is a relaxed and fun opportunity to be part of an intimate online writing environment, reading, reflecting, and writing about the community.

We will explore what it means to write the community as a means of effecting change. We will study successful authors’ stylistic approaches to writing for the community. We’ll examine how figures in our local communities have valuable stories that too often go untold, simply because they do not have national acclaim. And, we will learn creative approaches to documenting and sharing the stories of these people and how this is an effective means to “building community through history” across seemingly intractable divides.

Even with the tiniest nuggets of information, we will figure out a way to draw out the beauty of the story you want to amplify, just like how I just took a creative approach to building a whole narrative about Old Lizzy Gray around nuggets of findings in an 1860 obituary.

I welcome you to join me.

You’ll leave with nothing less than the reward of a new piece of writing that I am confident can start making an impact in your community right away.

Precious Rasheeda Muhammad received her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert in 2016. She received her Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. She is an author, lecturer, and researcher on religion in America, among other topics, and is known by many as “The History Detective.” She lives in Virginia with her family but travels frequently for research projects and speaking engagements. Her motto: “building community through history.” Her favorite craft-related, self-motivational saying: “write mama write.”

Finding “Flow”

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by Jacquie Cope

I’ve longed to write fiction for as long as I can remember, probably since the moment I was able to read. Paradoxically, for most of my life, I never wrote a word. First, I was always too wrapped up in other pressing issues – education, work, kids—to get much, or actually anything, written. The other problem was that even when I made the time to write, the page or the screen always stayed blank. I held my pen in my hand or poised my fingers over the keyboard and stared into space, daydreaming, and waiting. The waiting was painful. What was I waiting for? I assumed that eventually I would hear a little voice, a phantom or an angel, coming to whisper a story in my ear or guide my hands into typing something brilliant on the screen. I waited for my muse. There were moments of desperation, when I ruthlessly forced myself to write literally anything, painful sentence by painful sentence. I believed that eventually the muse would reward me by showing up and taking over. When I reviewed those sad sentences, or on some lucky occasions a handful of pages, I found that most of what I wrote was a little embarrassing — just isolated images or scenarios about eccentric people, many of them with avoidant personality disorders, most of them having a distinct physical feature, like a thick scar along one side of the face or a handlebar moustache.  I figured that I would wait a little longer, maybe the muse would show up tomorrow, or next week, or definitely within the year.

Well, my muse never showed up, and the frustrating part was that whether I wrote or not, the inclination and the longing to write never went away. Over the years, after an undergraduate degree in the sciences, a medical degree, a house in the suburbs, two kids, a Maltipoo, and a hamster, my urge to write never dissipated. And still, no muse.

Eventually I entered an MFA program and made a larger commitment to the pursuit of writing. Over the course of earning the degree, I learned a tremendous amount – about craft, about character, point of view, and plot. About where to start a story and where to end it. I also learned—or maybe just finally accepted– that there was never going to be a muse. There would be technique, faith, and perseverance, but no matter how often I would sit at the computer, sweating it out, coming up with a protagonist, a setting, and even a verb tense– there was never going to be a guiding voice, an angel on my shoulder, a divine gift of just the right words packaged and placed in my sad, suffering brain. The task of writing began and ended with the hard work of writing one sentence followed by another. I’m pretty sure now that that’s how most (all?) writers write. And yet, is it possible that that’s how War and Peace or East of Eden got written?

There had to be some trick, a strategy or formula to accessing stories and getting them on the page.

One concept that provided insight was that of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The state of “flow,” or what is also commonly referred to as “being in the zone,” is an intense concentration on an activity performed only for its own intrinsic reward. Immersion in the activity is so profound that the performer loses a sense of time, of biological need (like thirst or hunger), and, importantly, of the self-consciousness of the ego. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz,” Csíkszentmihályi says. He further describes this experience of disconnection of self from physical reality as a form of ecstasy.

Wow. So what did I have to do to get into flow?

Based on what he observed, Csíkszentmihályi’s developed a model, predicting that flow could be achieved when there was a fit between the challenge level of the task and the skill level of the individual. People can achieve this state of flow (perhaps to a milder degree) doing even mundane activities, such as driving, washing the dishes, or sewing. In these instances, the challenge is fairly low, and people who perform these tasks easily perceive a sense of mastery, focus on the moment, and feel personal control over the activity. On the other hand, a high challenge task (write a novel) attempted by someone with a low level of skill (never wrote anything) results in a state of anxiety. No wonder all of those hours sitting in front of a blank screen had left me so irritable! While my logical, left-brain had been training for the Ironman all of those years, my imaginative, right-brain was a total couch potato.

Fortunately, a number of well-known authors have provided guidance and recommendations for strengthening the skill of accessing the creative brain. I read a number of books by these authors (Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg among others) and found that most of their recommendations followed a similar theme: stop the inner critic from censoring your creativity. When you sit to write your first draft, write your first thought and don’t erase it. Editing and crafting aren’t meant to take place during the generative, creative stage of the writing process. If you find your avoidant protagonist sporting a handlebar moustache, leave it. You can always trim it later.

In a practicable way, most authors suggested practicing this skill through the use of journals (morning pages, timed exercises, dream journals). I tried all of these techniques, and the good news is that all of them were helpful! Each activity was an opportunity to practice, not only how to access the impulsive, imaginative part of my brain, but also how to quiet the critical, logical part of my brain that had kept me from writing anything in the preceding years. All of the activities also helped for another reason: each ultimately forced me to do the real work of writing. I didn’t need to face the task with the expectation of completing an entire short story or a novel or even a chapter. I just had to write something, anything. The more I “practiced” being creative, the easier the activities became. I just had to commit myself to doing them a lot.

Regardless of how much I exercised my creative brain, writing ultimately required taking the risk to write my first bad draft and look it square in the eye. Now when I sit at the laptop to write, it’s still a mixture of pain and relief to put down that first sentence, not knowing if a second is going to follow. Sometimes, now, I can fall into that zone. I lose track of time. I lose awareness of my own self-conscious self and start to see the characters, hear what they might say or see what they might see before my conscious brain looks around for it. And many times I don’t enter that blissful zone. Those days I realize that I’m going to have to dig deep and accept that writing is risk. I force a sentence on the page. And one more. Maybe another. And so it goes, sentence by sentence.

 Jacquie’s class, Creativity and Craft: Completing the Process from Journal to Short Story begins May 7. 

Jacquie Cope is a doctor from Los Angeles who recently took the plunge and dedicated herself to her writing. She holds degrees in medicine and public health, and more recently, an MFA from Antioch University. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.

Poem-a-Day as Practice

IMG_1646By Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo

I am not a morning pages poet, nor am I a write everyday poet. To write every day, or close to every day, is something I have to work at, and by work I mean, it takes trickery. It takes a challenge like Poem-A-Day that happens every April for National Poetry Month. If you’ve never heard of this event, it’s similar to National Novel Writing Month—commonly known as NaNoWriMo—in September but without the cute name. For the month of April, in celebration of NPM, poets around the country and even the world, challenge themselves to write one new poem a day for 30 days. To help, many websites and journals give daily writing prompts. Many are free and some take a subscription. But here’s the thing, you don’t have to wait for April to challenge yourself, and to be honest, I have never successfully accomplished writing 30 poems in 30 days in April, and to be even more honest, I’ve only tried once, maybe twice.

In fact, the only times I’ve successfully written everyday for an extended amount of time have been when I’ve gone away for a writing residency. It’s actually incredibly easy to write everyday when you have vacated your home for 25 days and have no responsibilities to speak of beyond keeping yourself and your space tidy and writing. Being a writer in residence means you have been put up for 2-4 weeks in a beautiful local with a comfy bed to sleep in and a quiet desk to write at both most likely with views of a forest, or prairie, or ocean-side bluff. Your meals are taken care. Your email has been set with an automated response: “I am currently away on a writing retreat until ____. I will be checking and replying to emails periodically. Your patience is appreciated.” Your bills were paid and squared away before you left. All your deadlines were met. Children are being cared for (I don’t have children). Pets are being fed. And someone is enjoying your car while you’re gone. When you are a writer in residence, there is nothing to do but take long walks, sit in the bath, pick flowers, read, eat, and oh, yes, write.

The very first writing residency I attended was at Ragdale Foundation in North Shore Chicago. For 25 days my only responsibility was writing a first draft of a novel. I had a warm, quaint cottage room over looking a red brick courtyard and nothing but time. I thought, Well, shit. I better write something. And write I did. A novel written in letters, I gave myself the assignment to write at least three new letters a day. (This was another trick I gave myself, since letters aren’t much longer than a poem.) As days increased so did my output, and by the final day I had a complete first draft. It was magical.

Since then, there have been times when I think, Well, I’ll just make my own residency at home, but it’s not so simple. Jobs, friends, family, laundry, dishes, bills, oil changes, and all the other everyday obligations get in the way of regular pages, so what do you do?

One friend suggested I try “The Grind,” a by invitation email group that asks members to write a new piece of work a day for one month. A form of accountability, the administrator places poets and writers into email groups of about 10 people. The only expectation is members send one new piece a day to the group. No one is expected to read. No one is expected to comment. All members are expected to do is write and send. I know a couple of poets who have had major success with The Grind, which if you participated for 3 months, has the potential to help you produce at least 90 new pieces. These pieces are mostly likely raw, scraps even, and some may only be one sentence, but still, it’s material to play with.

I hated The Grind. I have come to realize that I don’t like joining any group or organization that increases the amount of emails flooding my inbox. Remember that instant reply message set in my email? I live for setting that instant reply! But I did like the idea of being beholden to another person, so what I did was invite one friend to join me in a 20-day challenge. For 20 days, we were to write new pages and send our new work to the other person with the same stipulations, no one was expected to read or comment. And that worked for a while, until I realized that the other person was only a crutch. I could do a 20-day challenge on my own.

Whenever I feel a need to start producing more material, I open a new document, title it “20 Day Challenge” with the date and begin. I mark the top of each page with the day and the date before writing a new poem: Day 5 February 14, 2018. The challenge can start whenever you like and doesn’t have to coincide with any day or date, but at first, you may consider beginning on the first of the month, the first day of the season, or if you are into the phases of moon, with a new moon. The new moon is a good time to set intentions such as to write everyday, and if that’s of interest to you, the next new moon is March 17, 2018.

Tips for writing a poem-a-day:

  1. Try writing at the same time everyday. I write after lunch once I’ve had some experiences in my day to reflect on. As I mentioned before, I’m not a morning pages writer because I find it difficult to write before I have fed my mind inspiration, but midday seems to work.
  2. Don’t expect the poem to be in fact a poem. At this point you are creating raw material. Be ok with building a shapeless mound of clay. Later, you can go back and see if you can sculpt it into art, but for now, let it be whatever it is that comes out of you.
  3. Try sitting for ten minutes, and see what comes out. 10 minutes is all you need!
  4. If you miss a day, still write the day and date on a blank page, and maybe make a note about what you did that day. For example, just the other day I wrote: “Day 9: February 18, 2018. Went to Brunch for T’s birthday.” Sometimes I will go back and write something for that day, but most of the time I don’t.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up for missing a day or two. It’s your challenge, make of it what you will.
  6. Get a buddy if you need a buddy, but also know you can do it alone.
  7. Inspiration for writing a poem-a-day:
    1. take a walk and see where your mind wonders. When you get back, write down all your random thoughts.
    2. Take time to read a new poem, a new chapter in a novel, or even a page in novel and write a response to what you read. Try stealing a favorite line by making it the title of your poem and see what happens.
    3. Visit an art exhibit and write a response to a piece in the exhibit
    4. Ask a friend to send you a photo from their own library of photos and write a poem from the photo. (It’s helpful if you know your friend is a good photographer.)
    5. Journal out all your feelings and thoughts. Spill on to the page, and then take pieces from your journal for a collage poem.
    6. Notice what you notice. I heard this advice from movie director, Miguel Arteta when he did a talk for junior high kids at 826LA. He said to be a writer, you only have to notice what you notice. As you go through your day, pay attention to what catches your eye: the way your coworker left out the creamer, a character in your favorite TV show that seems to be unfairly treated, a funny misspelling on a street sign, the misplaced baby shoe sitting in the middle of the sidewalk. Whatever it is, write it at the top of your page, and see what comes.

After you’ve done a 20-day challenge, be sure to look back at what you’ve created. You will mostly likely be pleasantly surprised to find the beginnings of a poem or two.

Let Xochitl get you started in your practice with her class, Spanner, Slammer, Socket: Building a Poet’s Toolbox, or get a coaching package in poetry. which starts April 2nd, opening National Poetry Month

 

 

Passion in the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry

adrianclass

by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

When I walked into Francesca Lia Block’s Antioch University seminar, The Importance of Social Media for the Contemporary Writer, I had no idea my life would be changed and inspired. Francesca highlighted the growing trend of the most successful writers linking to their fans, followers and other writers by using social media as a tool to express their creative message. I know if it wasn’t for Facebook, I wouldn’t have been introduced to the writers, poets and artists I now call my friends. Francesca reemphasized my belief that the point of a writer is to connect with an audience. She said it best, “Don’t just journal, you are here to write, get your voice out in the world.” Not only did she open my eyes specifically to the world wide web that was reverberating all around me, but she helped me focus and I realized how much the internet was the essential ingredient to all my creative writing endeavors.

Douglas Adams once said: “Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you.” My whole life I’d been learning if you, as a writer, write down what you see, fear and love from your own universe, you will make the reader want to live inside your mind, your vision and your own creative voice. It was like a lightbulb exploded and I realized that if you’re a writer looking for ideas on what to write, go on Pinterest or Tumblr and write an ekphrastic poem, a poem reflecting what you see and feel from a photo or work of art. I discovered that my main source of inspiration was the internet footprint I was creating daily around me. We are unique and no one has the same online presence; harness that distinctive spark that inspiration is everywhere online for your creativity…that is your power as a writer.

The World Wide Web is much more than watching videos, spreading chatroom chisme, and surfing the internet. I follow the lead of poets like Nayyirah Waheed who’s Instagram and Tumblr posts shows how a poet can reflect an online presence creatively while inspiring their audiences. I have also discovered many poets like A. Van Jordan and Gary Jackson who have published collections about their pop culture passions. Jordan’s book The Cineaste merges his love of cinema with his gift of verse and Jackson’s Missing You Metropolis combines Gary’s affection for graphic novels and comic books with his talented poetic voice.

Poets like Francesca Lia Block, Nayyirah Waheed, A. Van Jordan and Gary Jackson have inspired me to connect with my love of vintage black and white photographs and classic film stills and create my own style of ekphrastic poetry. I wake up every morning and log into my Tumblr account and scroll through my dashboard and usually a photograph or film still will grab my creative intention and I stop, open up a word file and let the visual inspiration spark a new poem. Although I’ve written poems inspired by paintings, like one I’ve had published this year at Ekphrastic California inspired by The Blue Boy, (1770) by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) oil on canvas on display at The Huntington Gallery in San Marino, California and often write poems inspired by color photographs found on Facebook and Instagram, there is something about trying to write a poem from a black and white photograph. As a poet, it’s more of a challenge. There are no colors, so we as poets, need to dig deep inside while trying to connect with the photograph and conjure up an interpretation that satisfies the creative curiosity of the reader.

I’ve written and had poems published inspired by photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve and Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. I have to admit, one of my favorites poems, “Take Me to the Aquarium and Make Out with Me in the Jellyfish Room” was inspired by Dmitrijs Belokons black and white photo of an elderly couple kissing at an aquarium was published in a collection called Getting Old. It was only the silhouette of this couple, as I poet, I had to fill in the lines and create a portrait, bringing their ageless passion to life on the page. Most of the times, poems like this “Take Me to the Aquarium” flow out from my fingers and magically becomes verse.

But it takes dedication to search, scrolling through my dashboard and being open to every picture that appears in my feed. I have a philosophy that I follow when I am online:

When inspiration calls, you must accept the charges.

When I’m Tumblr, it’s to work and I have to be ready to write when the right photograph speaks to me. There’s a connection that wants to be made and most times the images connect with something I need to explore on the page. Bringing color to these images with my poems, is never easy but I love challenging myself, trying to expand my writing voice reflecting verses from these vintage photographs.

Bringing these images into focus with my poetry is a passion I’ve discovered online and one I am excited to share with other poets. I know I’m not the only writer who goes online to seek inspiration for their writing voice. As a poet, I always heed the words of Poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera who said, “Do not wait for a poem; a poem is too fast for you. Do not wait for the poem, run with the poem and then write the poem. And of course immerse yourself in a sea of books and poems. You want to be in that parade, that’s what you have to do.”

My course Your Voice Inside the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry is for writers are eager to explore the art of writing poetry by using Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr as your spark of visual inspiration. If you are visually inspired by photographs and artworks, then my class is for you. We will learn the craft of ekphrastic poetry, taking those images and reflecting our impressions on the page as poetry.

I wouldn’t be teaching Internet your Senses and Tumblr Towards Creativity without Francesca Lia Block’s inspiration. Thank You to Francesca for making me realize I needed to embrace technology, connect with my writing audience, harness my creative energies, and share my knowledge of using the internet to inspire poetry.

Adrian’s class Your Voice Inside the Picture: Ekphrastic Poetry begins Monday, September 10. Sign up here!

Adrian Ernesto Cepeda is the author of the forthcoming full-length poetry collection Flashbacks & Verses… Becoming Attractions from Unsolicited Press and the poetry chapbook So Many Flowers, So Little Time from Red Mare Press. His poetry has been featured in The Yellow Chair Review, Frontier Poetry, poeticdiversity, The Wild Word, The Fem, Rigorous, and Lunch Ticket’s Special Issue: Celebrating 20 Years of Antioch University Los Angeles MFA in Creative Writing.

To date, Adrian has over one hundred and twenty five poems published in over a hundred different publications.  One of his poems was named the winner of Subterranean Blue Poetry’s 2016 “The Children of Orpheus” Anthology Contest and two of his poems “Buzz Me” and “Estranged Fruit” were nominated for Best of the Net in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Adrian also had one of his poems “Longing for Our Airport Reconnections” featured in Shinpei Takeda’s Poems of Arrival for the Inscription Installation Exhibit at the New Americans Museum in San Diego, California.

Adrian is an LA Poet and graduate of MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and their cat Woody Gold. You can connect with Adrian on his website: http://www.adrianernestocepeda.com/