Friday, September 29, 2006

Try to Remember the Kind of September...

Although the season officially shifted to autumn more than a week ago, I find it hard to really feel the transition these days. When I was a child growing up in Boston, the foliage at this time of year with its brilliant hues splashed across my visual field served to announce the arrival of fall. In today's climate in southern California, hot dry Santa Ana winds puff new life into brush fires that have burned for more than three weeks. Hurricanes have always swirled to life in the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but the devastating potential of such a weather phenmenon was starkly realized last year in the challenging arrival of Katrina and Rita to the Gulf Coast region. Weather and its impact help to mark the changing seasons.

As a child, another significant marker of the change in seasons was the return to school. School was a refuge for some of us, whose turbulent home lives were kept at bay for those hours when we were busy learning. Although the superior technology available in today's classrooms with access to the internet and its infinite well of information had not yet been created, curricula regularly contained art and music and drama classes and sports activities as vital supplements to the academic curriculum. Like nutritional vitamins and minerals that we take to enhance our daily bodily functions, those classes taught us skills that eased the process of incorporating what we had learned into our daily lives.

Now schools can no longer afford such luxuries when the budget barely sustains the salaries of teachers and adequate maintenance of the facilities. Money must also be diverted to metallic screening devices and security police to protect students from gunmen intent on making their point with lethal weapons instead of words. Already in this academic year, seventeen instances of unprovoked violent attacks have occurred on campuses in Colorado (not far from the notorious Columbine High School), Montreal, Wisconsin and an Amish community in Pennsylvania. Debates continue over the interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution and "the right to bear arms." However, no one can dispute that the extinction of such young lives is tragic.

In Washington, the vulnerability of young people is also sacrificed to the needs of political power. High school students (pages) and college students (interns) have been subjected to the amoral and perverse behaviors of elected officials in the Congress while others in power looked in the other direction. Like other young people exploited by their clergymen, these individuals with aspirations of public service were betrayed rather than mentored. It is difficult to maintain faith in those who make and interpret the legal statutes when they secretly circumvent the laws precisely because they have the power to do so.

Memoirs have gotten bad press lately in the wake of the blatant distortions of James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces. However, the revelations of real personal experiences are powerful tools for exposing heinous truths and demonstrating the indomitable and resilient character of human nature. My first published piece, Now I Have to Tell This Story, exposed the horrific trauma of being kidnapped and raped but it also revealed that it was possible to survive such an ordeal. Two of the five girls killed in the one room Amish schoolhouse were sisters. I was struck by the poignant irony that their family has no photographs by which to remember them while the news of their tragic deaths were visible on newscasts around the country.

Whether you write in a private journal or letters to family members or manuscripts for publication, your words can create images as compelling and lasting as any broadcast on television, on the internet or in film. History is the accumulated stories of those who preceded us. In the future, when this time is examined, your verbal snapshots will be missing from the album if you do not create them now. Every one of us has the power and the privilege to record our beliefs and experiences in written form, whether or not we consider ourselves "writers." Write about the things that move you, the things that excite you, the things that infuriate you, but write!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Truth Can Be Stranger Than Fiction

I watched a documentary that aired on the Sundance Channel called "The Corporation." It examines corporate greed and power in many different dimensions. Michael Moore is one of the voices included in this very credible film that exposes incredible information. For example, how IBM supported Hitler's concentration camps by providing punchcard technology for accumulating data on the concentration camps (including a photo of IBM executive Thomas Watson at dinner with the Fuhrer) and how Coca Cola wants us to believe that Fanta soda (that was developed as a beverage for Nazi Germany to maintain their wartime profits) originated in Mexico. The film also reveals how psychologists are hired by big business to help them sell products to children by teaching them to nag their parents. As the cruel implications of privatization were demonstrated in a story about a Colombian town where residents were charged for water by the Bechtel Corporation and fined for collecting free rainwater in buckets, my anger swirled with volcanic fury.

At the same time, I felt an overwhelming impotence to define an action that would somehow impact this monolithic monster depicted in the film. Then I sat down and started to write. I have no idea who will read this or when, but these words have the power of permanence. Someone can read them in ten years and extract my outrage, if I communicate effectively. Freedom of speech guaranteed individuals in the Bill of Rights has not yet been silenced in the blogosphere. Even points of view that I find personally offensive still deserve to be expressed by those who believe and uphold them.

Which is why for me the most horrific example of the abuse of power from "The Corporation" is the story of how two journalists were silenced by the Monsanto Corporation. Two investigative reporters for Fox News had done a detailed report on the links between Bovine Growth Hormone and health problems, including cancer, for children who drank the milk from cows who had been given this chemical manufactured by that corporation. Other countries, including Canada, have banned the distribution of milk that contains the substance. When the story was blocked from airing, the two newspeople were first forced to rewrite the story 83 times in an effort to come up with a version that still contained the truth without offending the station's corporate owners. When a compromise could not be reached and the journalists were fired, they filed a lawsuit as whistleblowers and prevailed in court. However, on appeal the Supreme Court eventually threw out their lower court victory and monetary compensation by denying the plaintiff's status as whistleblowers, saying that Fox News did not have a legal requirement to tell the truth in their news broadcasts.

When I was a child, most people believed that information which appeared in the newspaper was virtually gospel, to be accepted without question as reliable truth. That same mantle of trust was given to early television newscasters such as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. Today only the most naive person accepts the information dispensed in print and broadcast media as unquestionable fact. However, the ability to express my individual beliefs and opinions on the page is one of the most compelling reasons I have for writing and constantly working to improve my skills as a writer. If there is something you learn and want to tell others, a letter to the editor or a blog can provide access to a wide audience of readers. Your opinions can also find a voice through a sympathetic fictional character who shars your perspective. Don't be afraid to put your truth out into the world!

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Back to the Future

I have always enjoyed reading science fiction and future-oriented fantasy fiction. For one thing, what starts as fiction may well become reality. I remember watching the original Star Trek television series and feeling awed by their "communicators" which resemble current cellular flip phones in form and function. As a child, George Orwell's vision of 1984 intrigued me precisely because I had no idea what would actually transpire in that future era. One of my favorite authors from this genre is Piers Anthony. For one thing, I admire his productivity, as this prolific author has published an incredible number of books. I also consider him a role model, because he has managed this achievement despite the limitations of being dyslexic, a learning disability by which I am also affected. However, the fact that his fiction demonstrates the parallel functions of the creative and technical spheres of life has enabled me to better define and implement my participation in both spheres. All fiction risks the parallel experiences of victory and defeat, as the author creates a world populated by characters that must be convincing despite never having actually lived. Another author whose accomplishments in this genre are breath-taking is Octavia Butler, whose Xenogenesis trilogy elevated her into the pantheon of brilliant writers. The vision that she created of the human race and its survival by incorporating genetic contributions from other species is matched in intensity by the reality she explores in Kindred, the story of a black woman transported from the present to the time of slavery. Whether fiction leaves present time to travel back into history or forward into the future, it gives the author an opportunity to shift basic assumptions from the present reality to create new societal paradigms. The infinite possibilities empower the writer to explore cultural phenomena without the limitation of attachment to existing realities. In fact, such explorations can create a willingness to question the present that may lead to the possibility of change. I have learned to appreciate technology in a different way once I realized how hard my great-grandmother had to work each day just to keep her family fed and clothed. There was no outlet shopping mall where she could purchase clothing on sale, no automatic washer and dryer to facilitate doing laundry, no microwave oven to provide instant hot food for consumption. The barriers to education would have limited not only lifestyle and career choices, but the self-awareness to develop beyond the strictly limited boundaries proscribed by her status as a slave. When I am tempted to complain about how hard my life is, I simply have to remind myself of how much harder it could have been were I born 150 years ago. At the same time, I can evoke a sense of possibility by imagining how many of life's daily problems will be minimized 150 years into the future. As a writer, it is possible to create a vision that exploits those possibilities. Feel free to step out of present time in your writing and enjoy the adventures you encounter.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You. ~ Dr. Seuss One of the really neat things about Dr. Seuss is that the ideas in his books appeal to readers of all ages. Certainly, reading the quote above today takes on more depth for me than it did when I first encountered it as a child. I have many labels of identification, although in this case, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts. For example, I am a mother. I gave birth to my daughter nearly thirty-four years ago. But that does not make me more of a mother than a woman who nurtures and loves and guides her adopted child or the countless women and men who make up "the village" needed to raise a child. I live in the United States. When I travel to other countries, I am labeled "American." Those of us who live here know that from speech patterns to political ideologies to climate, there is no single homogenous description that applies to all who reside within this nation's borders. When someone from Fargo, North Dakota stands next to someone from Miami, Florida on a January day, the point is visibly reinforced. I am an African-American, an appellation that I willingly assumed in preference to other labels that had been applied to those whose ancestors were brought to this continent as slaves. I am not strictly "colored" or "Negro" or "Black" although I identified myself with each of those terms in my lifetime. There was a time when the amount of white blood a slave's genetics included served to define them as mulatto or quadroon or octoroon although such distinctions only factored into the price which could be demanded for them, not in their freedom. Lingering remnants of this mentality serve as the roots for the divisive colorism that attributed greater status to fair-skinned members of the race. I also define myself as a writer, a description I adopted once I started writing with serious intention on a daily basis, even before I was published. One of the absolute joys of writing for me is that I can literally step outside the boundaries of all the labels and explore how life would be different if I were a man or I spoke only Japanese or if I lived one hundred years ago. Stephen King in his book "On Writing" likens writing to telepathy. The author puts the words onto a page and someone far away in time or space can read that page and understand the author's ideas. Science fiction writers conceived of travel to outer space long before engineers actually developed rockets that could go to the moon. As a writer, I can be anyone anywhere at any time. I can imagine myself growing up in a shtetl two centuries ago in the wintry cold of Siberia. I can imagine myself as an androgynous being sitting at a gathering on Alpha Centauri two hundred years in the future. Or I can simply pick one attribute to explore. What if I woke up tomorrow and had lost my sight? The challenge as a writer is to chronicle how I would navigate the world around me and how would my perceptions change without the aid of visual clues. Imagine describing the colors of the rainbow to someone who has never been able to see! One of the most dramatic images in history is that of Beethoven composing much of his music after he had lost his hearing. So much of how we experience life is through the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. The sensory details make us as writers better able to share our experiences and those of our characters with others. A good way to develop your use of sensory details in your writing is to focus on one sense at a time. For example, make a list of all the smells you notice as you enter a restaurant. Pay attention to the texture of the different fabrics in your closet. Notice the sounds you hear as you walk to the parking garage when you leave work. Think about how you would describe them to someone who had never been there. Adding this level of detail to your writing will enhance the experience of your readers and pull them into your story, the one only you can tell.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Sound of Writing

No person is your friend who demands your silence or denies your right to grow.

Writing saved me from the sin and inconvenience of violence.

Helped are those who create anything at all, for they shall relive the thrill of their own conception and realize a partnership in the creation of the Universe that keeps them responsible and cheerful.

Never be the only one, except, possibly, in your own home.

~ Alice Walker

Alice Walker is another author whose prolific body of work has earned my respect. She has shown an extensive range of skills and craft in poetry, essays, memoir, fiction, non-fiction as well as editing an anthology of work by Zora Neale Hurston. I have included a bibliography of her works at the end of this piece *. Walker overcame the harsh realities of her early life as the child of sharecroppers who was blinded in one eye by a stray BB gun shot to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her epistolary novel "The Color Purple." She has tackled tough issues such as incest and genital mutilation in her work. She has honored both her parents in "By the Light of My Father's Smile" and "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens." She has never retreated from the challenge of uniting spirituality, political consciousness, creativity, and artistic merit in each of her works. Alice Walker attended Spelman College and received her degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She gives education a good name. She also has a gentle mellifluous voice that holds the listener in a gentle swing and rocks her back and forth. It was her book "The Temple of My Familiar" that started my habit of reading prose and poetry aloud, so that I could appreciate not only the ideas but also the rhythms of the writing. It is a habit that has also helped me in the revision of my work, because I can often hear awkward phrasing that appears perfectly functional on the page or recognize a long passage that would be improved once replaced by a series of shorter sentences. I can always trust Walker's prose to almost dance off the page when read aloud. It is no accident that some of my favorite authors share her Southern heritage: Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O'Conner, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, John Grisham. The languid pace of southern speech has always comforted me. Think about books you have read where the language employed by the writer almost samg inside your head. Which author's work would provide an audio listener with pure pleasure? When my vision was dimmed by cataracts, I was saddened by the loss of my ability to read. However, audio books have provided me with as much or more pleasure, especially while traveling. James Patterson and Stephen King always read their own books into the audio format and it is like having your parent read a bedtime story. The next time you are feeling stuck as to how to revise your work, read it out loud. You'll be surprised at what is revealed in the process. Feel free to share your experiences with the readers of this blog as a comment.

*The Works of Alice Walker:
Once: Poems
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems
In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women
Langston Hughes, American Poet
I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (editor)
Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning
You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories
The Color Purple
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful
To Hell With Dying(Illustrations by Catherine Deeter)
Living by the Word
The Temple of My Familiar
Her Blue Body Everything We Know:Earthling Poems 1965-1990 Complete
Finding the Green Stone(Illustrations by Catherine Deeter)
Possessing the Secret of Joy
Warrior Marks(In collaboration with Pratibha Parmar)
The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult
Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism
By the Light of My Father's Smile
The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart
Sent by Earth: A Message from the Grandmother SpiritAfter the Bombing of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon
Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart
Pema Chodron And Alice Walker in Conversation - Audio CD
A Poem Traveled Down My Arm : Poems and Drawings
Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth : New Poems
There Is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me - May, 2006
We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For - December, 2006

Friday, July 07, 2006

Let your light SHINE!

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us
We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?”
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t save the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We were born to manifest that glory of God within us.
It is not just in some of us.
It is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

~ Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary man, some would say a hero. After 27 years unjustly incarcerated in prison for challenging apartheid in South Africa, he was elected in the first democratic presidential election in that country's history in 1984. His reversal of fortunes was in stark contrast to the symbolic and doomy notoriety that year had been ascribed in George Orwell's book. I most respect this man because he still was loving and generous despite all he had suffered.
I started teaching writing as an homage to all the really good and generous teachers I have known. I wanted to bring to students the best of what they had demonstrated and leave out the negative and critical techniques that other teachers had used. Teaching has never seemed like work to me, in part because I get such absolute joy from being able to watch a student confront the blank page with new ideas and turn them into an essay or a poem or a story. I get excited when someone manages to learn the rewards of revising work and seeing it improve.
One of the most inspiring books I have ever read is "Grand Central Winter" by Lee Stringer. A homeless man living under Grand Central Station and addicted to crack, Stringer's only motivation was to score his drugs each day. One day while using a pencil to get the dregs out of his crack pipe, he realized the pencil could also be used to write. He sat down to write a story and was so swept up in the writing process that he forgot about getting drugs that day. After publishing short pieces in a local paper, he eventually wrote the book that chronicles his ascent, literally and figuratively, from the bowels of the dark train tunnels to the light of day as a sober writer.
Another favorite book is "Push" by Sapphire. It is the story of an adolescent girl struggling with very adult concerns. She is in eighth grade, pregnant for the second time by her father, and struggling to improve her life condition despite the near impossibility of progress with her limited education. The voice of the narrator is so real that I could see her in my mind's eye as one of the pregnant teen mothers I had coached through delivery at Martin Luther King, Jr. hospital here in Southern California. One in particular stands out for me: she was still sucking her thumb as a means of self-comfort as she went through the very adult rigors of labor.
Once I was sitting in a fast food restaurant and a woman asked me what I enjoyed doing more than anything. Without hesitation, I replied, "Writing." "Oh," she said, "You are lucky. You must have a natural talent to do something like that." I shook my head. I told her about the proverb from Zimbabwe that suggests, "If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing." I added, "And I believe that if you can think, you can write." I am not discounting the importance of talent. I just believe that it can be expanded and developed in anyone with support and encouragement.
I know you have stories to tell. I know that you have crossed paths with interesting and unusual people. I know that you have wishes and dreams that you may have felt too embarrassed to share with anyone. Make up a character who is not afraid to talk about these things, even when she feels like she is making a fool of herself. Fiction is made up but that doesn't mean it can't have its roots in reality. Think about a time when you were so embarrassed you wanted to run and hide. Now write about that event as if it happened to someone else. I'm willing to bet it becomes less painful in the process.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Getting Started

There are significant moments in everyone's day that can make literature. ~ Raymond Carver I once read a book by Nicholson Baker called "The Mezzanine" that recounts a man's experiences while riding an escalator in a shopping mall. The entire time frame of the book is about 90 seconds. What made the book intriguing was not an epic scope of time or journeys to exotic places. It was the wonderful landscape inside the human mind. Sometimes as writers, we put off the inevitable (getting started) because we are waiting for some perfect idea or grand plan to grab hold of us and draw words and phrases out of us and onto the page. This is a clever ruse for procrastination. Great ideas sometimes grow like giant sequoia trees from insignificant little seeds. Starting to write about the curtains might develop into a story about two murderers hiding out in an abandoned summer cottage. Writing about postage stamps could lead to a tale of a serial killer who is also a philatelist. The most important thing about writing is to suspend all judgments and criticisms until the words are actually on the page. It is impossible to edit a blank sheet of paper. Worrying about editing before the words actually are written is analogous to measuring an infant girl for her wedding dress. It is impossible to know the right measurements before she finally grows up. And while it is easy to think we are ignoring the voice of the internal critic, it has numerous ways of rearing its head through unconscious routes. Judgments of any kind, even well-intentioned ones, serve only to stifle the creative voice. This applies to appropriate corrections such as grammar, punctuation, spelling, and structure. These concerns are valid but only after the idea has taken form on the page. Similarly, the content of an idea does not deserve to be questioned while it still germinates inside the brain. I am fond of thinking and talking as much as anyone, but I have learned to simply funnel the words onto the page and then examine them, like the obstetrician in the delivery room who rates the newborn according to the Apgar scale once it is delivered. Natalie Goldberg (author of "Writing Down the Bones") encourages writers to fill their notebooks (or computer memory) with lots of "bad" writing so long as they are writing. I have found wonderful grains of ideas within old exercises that have blossomed into luxuriant fields of stories. Whether my final product is fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry, it came into being because I was willing to risk committing something to paper. As the oft-cited Chinese proverb states, "the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Be willing to leap onto the page with whatever spills out of your head and something good will result. I hear the raucous rhythm of the Blackeyed Peas singing, "Let's get it started." Follow their advice and get started on your own writing right now.

Freedom to Write

When I was in high school, my English teacher wrote, "This student will probably never communicate effectively in writing." That searing comment discouraged me from writing for almost twenty years until I found a wonderful teacher in Los Angeles named Terry Wolverton who encouraged anyone to put their ideas on the page. Because of her insights and support, I began to write with ever increasing confidence. I realized that I did not want to react to negative critics but was willing to listen to constructive critique. My role model as a writer is Audre Lorde. She came to writing later in life, primarily as a poet, although her work encompasses all genres. Her collection of essays entitled "Sister Outsider" is the one book I would take with me for an extended stay on a deserted island. My favorite quote from her has become my signature: What are the silences we swallow day by day? If we wait to speak until we are not afraid, we will be sending messages back from the grave. Her struggles and triumphs with breast cancer are recounted in "The Cancer Journals." Her experiences as a young lesbian in New York are fictionalized in "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name." As one of the founders of Kitchen Table Press, she also provided opportunities for other women of vision to have their work published. My mentor this past year has been Susan Straight, whose fiction leaps across the boundaries of her readers' expectations with stunning characters, fluid prose and engaging plots. I first read her work and widely recommended it to my students when her book "I've Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots" was released. Her thoughtful and judicious critique has sculpted the raw stone of my ideas into an emerging work that is exciting for me to create and hopefully will equally infuse my readers with the passion and joy I have known during the creative process. This has been my answer to the question: who has inspired you to write? What is yours?

Monday, July 03, 2006



July 4th is celebrated as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, a document signed by men who owned slaves and couldn't imagine women owning property or voting. This country's national anthem celebrates it as "the land of the free" even though we are in the process of lining our borders with members of the National Guard to dissuade the immigration of undocumented workers. Our state budget has lots of items for correctional institutions where we incarcerate lawbreakers who are too poor to afford effective legal representation while educators attempt to teach children without textbooks or supplies. Community colleges and state universities continue to raise tuitions and healthcare services are increasingly a high-priced commodity beyond the reach of many workers.

While we wage war in many foreign countries in the name of democracy, we have lost sight of the real meaning of "government by the people, of the people, for the people." Voters fail to exercise the privilege in record numbers as elections become expensive public relations productions that are often manipulated by special interest groups. Amendments to the Constitution are proposed to ban gay marriages while the Equal Rights Amendment never secured the necessary ratification to be added to the Constitution.

If this sound perilously close to a Dennis Miller style rant, I reserve the right to produce pieces of strong opinion on any Federal holiday. Otherwise, I will keep to the stated purpose of this blog: the joys of writing.

Welcome to Rainbow Lines

Welcome to Rainbow Lines! This is a space about writing and for writing. I will be sharing words of encouragement and writing exercises that I use to get my brain buzzing with energy and ideas. The most important thing to know about writing is that everyone can do it, many people have found it helps them to grow, and the more you write, the easier it gets. William Faulkner wrote one page every day before he retired to the veranda for mint juleps. Julia Cameron suggests daily morning pages, although that never worked for me because I am a night owl. I came to writing in my mid-thirties and it was like the perfect hotel into which I moved, lock, stock and barrel. My mind is a fun playground and I like to go there to relax and write as often as possible. For those of you who don't know me, I have taught creative writing classes in non-traditional settings for nearly twenty years. I have published a variety of essays, short fiction, and poetry in feminist, LGBT and African-American sources. I live in Los Angeles. I am currently an Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellowship recipient from PEN USA. I have previously been awarded a residency at Hedgebrook as well as Artist in Residence grants from the Caifornia Arts Council and Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles. I am writing the first novel in a trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Nationalist Movement in the twentieth century called Elmwood. My first question for you is: if you could write a book, what would it be about? My answer: I choose to write about the Civil Rights Movement and other significant social paradigm shifts precisely because it was such a vital and positive time. I think so much of recent history is reduced to a lifeless description that fails to convey the people who made it happen.