Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Write Like A Motherfucker And Other Writing Advice

(the tyranny of the keyboard)

I love my "job." It's in quotes not because I don't get paid for it (I do) and not because it isn't work (it is) but because for as long as I can remember I thought I would be a writer.

And technically, mostly by accident and circumstance, and also because I get paid to do it, I am a writer, and it is actually how I make my living, so it qualifies as a job. There are two things I do as a writer:

1. Mercenary writing work: This is usually referred to as freelance writing, but in my head I see myself as a mercenary sailing the seas of the internet, loyal to no one country but getting the job done for all. In a less glamorous view, this is where people pay me to write blog posts, articles, and snippets of content, or they give me ducats to read their work and polish it. Sometimes I get credit, sometimes I don't (but I still post some of it to my Pinterest writing page). This is how the lights stay on and the bills get paid.

2. My own writing: This is the writing that I put off and generally procrastinate about but which gives me tremendous joy (when done well) and inconsolable heartache (when the words don't come).

It is to this heartache that I address this blog. The heartache of the lazy, the lost-for-words, the plain old what-the-hell-should-I-say days. There are, fortunately, thousands who have come before me, much more famous and skilled than I will ever be (let's be honest with ourselves), who can address the very issue of how to work when the work won't come.

I get a tremendous amount of solace from the knowledge that every writer in history has struggled to write. From just planting their hind end in the chair to actually putting words on paper or computer screen to people thinking that you don't have a real job because all you do is "dink around online," everything about writing is challenging. It is a beautiful thing that in this land of struggle there are kindred spirits, brilliant writers and artists, many of whom even in the midst of a crisis of writer's block proportions come to the same conclusion.

Write like a motherfucker.

While I am actually not a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed's, how can one argue with this?

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

Another person I turn to frequently when the rock echoes at the bottom of the well is Chuck Close. He is an artist whose work has stayed with me, in large part because of the workman-like manner in which he constructs his pieces. He takes photographs of faces, and then, in an art-school-type way, enlarges them to huge proportions using a grid drawn on an enormous canvas (think 10'x10' portraits). The grid lines remain on the work; he doesn't erase them or attempt to cover them. This workman's dedication to The Job rings through one of the most profound pieces of advice on creativity that I have ever heard (or followed):

"Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work."

Show up, get to work: that is how the creation happens.

Write the crappy piece of writing. Take the horrible picture.

Feel bad about your awful work? Good. Filled with self-doubt? Even better.

"But the problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt." 

Charles Bukowski knows a thing about self-doubt (and a good bit of self-loathing, I'll warrant). If you can somehow manage to show up anyway, to go to work, to dig the mine, then the work is its own reward. And if the vein goes away or the levy runs dry?

Back to Chuck Close:

"...the most interesting thing is to back yourself into your own corner where no one else’s answers will fit. You will somehow have to come up with your own personal solutions to this problem that you have set for yourself because no one else’s answers are applicable."

Back yourself into a corner and figure that shit out. Be honest in your writing in a way that is true to your own voice and where you come from and things will happen. If it feels fake, it is. If it feels true, it is (for you).

But above all, sit down, every day, and write.

Write like a motherfucker.

I share this advice when I most need to hear it, when my work is taking a turn for the better or the worse, when it is time for rubber and road to become acquainted and the mind is willing but the flesh is weak.

I share it because writing is lonely work that millions of people do (to the tune of a white-noisy two million blog posts a day) but no one really talks much about in person (kind of like masturbating, only way more than two million of us doing it at once).

I share it in hopes that you will add your own advice to the comments: what is your writing routine, and what do you do when the words don't come?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Free Yoga In Baltimore, Plus A Prize!

In my yoga teacher training program (and all over the Instagram, the Facebook, and the Tumblr) there has been a conversation started about to whom yoga belongs. Who gets to do it?

If you believe most advertisements (still), it's wealthy, skinny white women in Lululemon, attending retreats in exotic locales, floating effortlessly up into handstands, or contorting their lithe bodies into pretzel-y shapes.

If you read the Hatha Yoga Pradipika

"The Hatha yogi should live in a secluded hut free of stones, fire, and dampness to a distance of four cubits in a country that is properly governed, virtuous, prosperous, and peaceful." 

So in other words, according to one of the most ancient, foundational yogic texts, no one in this day and age should be able to practice yoga. Who really lives in a virtuous, properly governed country?

Well, I call bullshit. The people who should practice yoga are anyone who wants to practice yoga. Young, old, skinny, fat, white, brown, rich, or poor. Stiff or bendy. Strong or puny. Injured or healthy.

The economics of yoga is where it gets tricky, but luckily, Baltimore has a plethora of free or donation-based yoga classes offered throughout the summer. Here are just a few.

This class is held in Robert E. Lee Park off of Falls Road just north of Northern Parkway (easy access from I-83). The class is led by Dave Martin and is located across the bridge by the riverfall.

Bentalou Rec Center, Fridays, 6 p.m. and Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, Sundays at 4 p.m.

This free yoga class at the rec center (222 N. Bentalou St) is just one among many free fitness options offered through Healthy West Baltimore. The Friday class is a beginner class, while the Sunday class is for more experienced yogis. The calendar may change after July 2nd, so bookmark that link for current free classes.

Brick Bodies offers a free weeknight yoga class at Pier V (711 Eastern Avenue) in partnership with Waterfront Partnership, Inc. Register on their website in the link above, and check out their other free offerings (like kayaking). This class may change based on availability of instructors, so if you are set on yoga, definitely plan ahead.

Charm City yoga offers a free class every Sunday at West Shore Park in the Inner Harbor (501 Light Street). Expect a flowing class, as most Charm City Yoga classes focus on vinyasa. Also offered by Waterfront Partnership, Inc.

Taught by Adam Kantelas and held outside at Baltimore Free Farm in Hampden. Pick up some produce or tend your community garden plot at the same time!

Vinyasa (flow), Sundays, 10 a.m.

For you late(r) risers, Baltimore Free Farm also offers a 10 a.m. Sunday vinyasa class taught by Hina Ahmed. This is a pay-what-you-can class, but if times are tight bring whatever you can.

The American Visionary Art Museum on Federal Hill offers free movies on Thursdays during the summer. Come early on August 6th for free yoga with Charm City yoga. Yogis of all levels from novice to pro are welcome. Grab a quick bite in the new cafe (and your the museum for free!), then stay for a free screening of Awakenings.

East Mt. Vernon Place Square, Saturdays, 8:30 a.m.

A free weekly, yoga class in the shadow of the monument.

While not entirely free, many Baltimore yoga studios offer community classes for $5 (Yoga on York) or $6 (Baltimore Yoga Village) or new student specials like 30 days of yoga for $30 (Yoga on York, Charm City Yoga, Baltimore Yoga Village).

Yoga is truly a practice for every body. 

But wait, you say. I don't have a mat, and these free classes require that I bring my own.

Well, friends, you are in luck. Welcome to our first inaugural giveaway. 

I love giving stuff to people. It makes me happy. I also love helping people win stuff. So a giveaway is perfect. 

So I am giving away a yoga mat.

Not just any yoga mat. This one. With a strap, delivered to your home. You win, you get a mat, you do yoga for free, everything is awesome. 

You can earn one entry for each of the following:

1. Subscribe to this lovely blog by adding your email address in the little box. When I write something, you'll get an email. If I don't, you will get no email. Simple.

2. Share this blog, and post the link in the comments. Share on Twitter, Facebook, wherever.

3. Leave me a comment and tell me about your yoga practice. Do you have one? Do you want one? 

If you do all three, you get three entries. Three chances to win. Winner will be chosen randomly, and this contest will close at midnight, EST on July 4th.  Winners do not have to live in Baltimore, but the giveaway is restricted to the U.S.

Thanks for coming along, and good luck!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Changes Are Coming

This t-shirt popped up on my Facebook page the other day, and it felt so appropriate I had to share. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this t-shirt is how I have been feeling for awhile. Scattered, pulled in eleventy million directions, days slipping by like water through a sieve with nothing done at the end of the day. And it's really only natural; we have been on the move quite literally since June of last year. Now that we are getting settled, it's time to make some changes.

For starters, I am dividing my personal and professional writing. This blog will no longer be a part of my professional portfolio unless potential employers choose to seek it out. I needed it to process so many of the feelings that I couldn't say out loud as Sicily and I grieved for Dane, but I have realized in the past few weeks that A) this type of writing is unsustainable as the focus for a blog, and B) some of you people may be offended/hurt/upset about some of the things I have wanted to write about. I have been censoring myself, and that does not work for me as a writer. 

So. This blog will still talk about life. Still talk about The Teenager. Still talk about parenting. It will still be personal.

It just may not be quite so wretched. 

There may not be quite as much cursing. Or maybe there will be. As with the image above, I am not quite sure what the focus is going to be, but it's important to note that it will be something. Maybe writing. Probably yoga, too. Potentially, eventually, maybe, there may be a boy involved (but I am not holding my breath).

I am also in the process of designing a food blog to support the cookbook I am writing.

There. I said it. "The cookbook I am writing." I said it again.

The food blog may take a while to launch, as I am very interested in A) not being the type of douche who just plagiarizes someone else's recipe, and B) making delicious things or learning how to do something and sharing it. I am also working on food photography in the hopes that whatever I make (or screw up) will be beautiful. 

And you should know that there will be ads, but  they will not be overwhelming. I am also patently against those boxes that pop up and try to guilt you into subscribing, so those won't be around. If I am being completely honest (which I always try to be), it's time to think about earning some ducats. So ads will happen. Click them, or don't. I will try to make them as relevant as possible, but not obtrusive.

But it's not something for nothing here, friends. As I get ready to re-launch each of these blogs, it's only fair that I give something away to those of you who have followed in the past and continue to ride along with me on this journey. So stay tuned for that on each blog in the coming weeks (food blog will take longer. Life happens, and two people can only eat so much food. Seriously. If you want to be a recipe tester, comment below. We are stuffed.).

If you have been with me from the very first blog entry, thank you. Thank you for your love, your support, your comments, the private notes. If you have not done so already, subscribe with your email to get new blogs when they arrive. No newsletters or spam, I promise. I hate that, too.

If you are new to Bitter/Sweet, welcome. Please subscribe via email, comment, and share whatever moves you. 

Re-booting, re-focusing. Moving towards the light. As the Soul Train says...come on along....

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Take A Bite Out Of The Ass Of Life


It took me 26 years to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

In 1997 I had just moved to Seattle and was temping for a contractor's office. I had spent the previous 11-odd years drinking my way through college and moving to a different state or house when I felt restless or uncomfortable. I waited on my fair share of tables, slung thousands of drinks across a bar, nanny-ed for the same family for three years. Once I got to Seattle, I signed on with a temp agency and was immediately hired by the company I was temping for. I may have loathed office work, but I was damn good at it.

A year passed, and just as I was about to quit, an opportunity to become a VISTA volunteer in Seattle Public Schools came up. I don't know why I applied; I hated school, quitting in my senior year.  I was not especially fond of kids of any age. I guess it was a safer step than the Peace Corps, so I applied, was accepted, and promptly fell in love with middle schoolers and teaching. Like, both-feet-in, crazy-in-love with kids and teaching. I got my master's degree in education and settled in to my calling.

And I was a damn good teacher. The hard kind, the kind that believed in you more than you believed in yourself. The kind that kids came back and thanked, not for throwing pizza parties and for hand-holding (although there was a fair bit of that) but for pushing them to do better, to be better, and to work harder. I put everything I had into this work. If I was a religious person, I was say that I was called to teach, and then again to start a school. The work was hard, the pay was shit, and the respect was zero, but it was all about the kids and changing the world.

Yesterday it smacked me in the face, right after I published the blog about inertia and vata conspiring against me and my motivation: I am trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. AGAIN.

If we are lucky, we find something in our lives that drives us, something that we feel so passionate about that motivation isn't always an issue. Sure, there are days where even the most passionate people want to blob it out on the couch. There were days when I desperately needed a break from teaching, but the drive and the motivation to do better and be better was always there.

But then there is the reality for the vast majority of people, I think:

"Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." (Thoreau)

Most people don't find something that really drives them. They get a job, get up, go to work, work, come home, drink a beer, watch TV, go to bed. Lather, rinse, repeat. Maybe there is a vacation once a year or a weekend away. Maybe there is  a painting class or golf lessons. Maybe the kids play a team sport, so weekends are dominated by that. The job may not be the best ever, but it pays the bills and puts food on the table. For most people, this is enough. This paragraph is the point of life.

For me, that's not enough. And that is a blessing and a curse. In the movie Big Night, Angelo cries out, "It is never too much! It is only not enough! Take a bite out of the ass of life!"  A day job with an occasional night out or weekend off is not taking a bite out of the ass of life. Not even a nibble.

I think this lack of direction and feeling that what I am doing is not meaningful is causing my ennui. I blame Dane, 100%, which is not particularly helpful but super convenient. Most days, because that jackass had to go and die, it is really enough that I can keep everything together and continue to move forward. Teaching, giving so much of myself, is not really an option for me. So the calling that took 26 years for me to answer is a painful reminder of what I used to have, what life used to be like, not an uplifting and inspiring reason to get up every day.

I find myself muttering "fuck" every morning when my alarm goes off. I always knew that Dane was going through something, often before he did, when he would curse every morning when the alarm went off (we both favor "fuck" as our curse of choice). This feels the same. For now, I write (getting paid for writing assignments but also occasionally working on The Book That Shall Not Be Named), I docent at the American Visionary Art Museum, and I am in yoga teacher training.

I feel like a precious housewife, dabbling, a lady who lunches (although I don't really lunch). Some days are better than others. Some days are worse. Sometimes I get kooky and walk the dogs in the middle of the day or paint something.

And it is never too much. It is only not enough.

How many years will it take for the next calling to come? I am not the type of person to plod along and am liable to do something really, really stupid (I blame my dad for that character trait). I am still trying to say "yes" more often than "no" (failing at this of late), doing things that make me uncomfortable and exploring, but Christ on a bike. I just want this whole self-discovery bullshit phase to be over. How many times does a person have to figure out who they are in one lifetime?

Where do you fall? Do you have a passionate calling? Do you think that whole concept is a waste of time? What matters to you?

(image source)

Monday, June 8, 2015

Inertia + Vata = Uneven Productivity

[caption id="attachment_1173" align="aligncenter" width="300"]We shall not be moved... We shall not be moved...[/caption]

This is a potent, lethal combination.

Inertia is the basic rule that an object in motion stays in motion, and an object at rest stays at rest. Once in either state, it is difficult to change. So if a huge boulder is rolling down the hill, get out of the way. If that boulder is at the bottom of the hill and you need it to build your house at the top, good luck.

A vata ayurvedic tendency is ruled by air. Think about wind at its extremes: the kind that swept the prairies clean during the Dust Bowl days (constant and powerful) and the kind that hangs above a swamp in mid-August (soupy and stagnant).

I, friends, am the epitome of a person with vata attributes. As such, the wind has dropped from my sails. My boat is at the Horse Latitudes, and it's time to start tossing equines overboard (anyone want a dog? Just kidding. Sort of.). As the wind dies down after frantic weeks of moving and unpacking and working on writing deadlines and recipe testing (p.s.: crackers are really fucking hard to make), I have become a big, fat boulder at the bottom of the hill, emotions ruled by the high tides of the full moon and airy vata brain making no logical sense at all.

I am mixing metaphors from a million different disciplines and lazily falling back on the art of hyperbole to make a point. See? No good.

Suggestions for getting out of inertia/combatting the stagnant air of a vata:

1. Do it anyway. Get off the couch and go do something. Jesus. Go for walk. Take a dog. They are assholes when they don't get a walk.

2. Stop eating muffins. Even if they are delicious, homemade, and gluten-free, they are not helping with energy levels. Unless made with chocolate covered espresso beans (note to self: yes. Make these. Soon).

3. FFS, go to yoga.

4. Make a list of things that can be accomplished in ten minutes or less (e.g., filling out warranty cards for new appliances or unpacking the old junk drawer into the new junk drawer). Do those every now and then.

5. FFS, give yourself a break. A nap won't knock the earth off its axis, but it might just make you easier to get along with. Maybe not, but it's worth a try.

6. Don't avoid people, unless those people are assholes, then avoid them because you might say something that you don't regret, per se, but that might get you punched in the throat. This is not a good ending.

7. Don't take it out on your kid, even when her Teenager is showing and she deserves a poke in the eye. One day, soon, she will be gone and you will be all alone with your asshole self and a dog who won't die. And then what?

Your homework: come up with three more things to contribute to the list, and write them in the comments by 11:59, EST Tuesday, June 9th. 

This message brought to you by the Council For Making Light of Things That Could Potentially Become Serious and Partners For Minimizing Collateral Damage Due to Being Colossally Unsatisfied and Unmotivated By Anything. Additional support provided by Hey, Fuck You!, a personalized attitude adjustment service with convenient home visits.

(image via Flickr)