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dreaming of calamity kim

I told my boss a few weeks ago that I am thinking of a career change. I’m not trying to leverage a raise or anything like that; I want to do something different. I want to pursue something that’s more closely aligned with where my heart is now: writing.

I love my job. It truly is the best job I can imagine, but the thing is I’ve been doing it for going on 8 years, and I’ve been a part of this institution for almost 14 years. I’m ready to do something else somewhere else. I’m ready to focus on my biggest love. Ready to teach creative writing to younger students. Ready to influence students in the way I wish I’d been influenced. And I’m ready to move into a job that will give me the time, space, and momentum to be a better writer, a more consistent writer.

It’s time.

And yet.

It’s a frightening idea. There is, of course, the fear of loss of security. I have a pretty good situation: a decent salary, terrific benefits, and a job that I know isn’t going to go away. So there’s this part of me screaming that it doesn’t make sense to leave.

For a while I thought it’s the fact that 40 is bearing down on me.

I think of all the options out there, all the things I could do. It’s pretty amazing to recognize the possibilities. That I am capable and qualified to do many things. The world feels really big right now.

The other night on the drive home I had this epiphany:  I’ve settled down, my life is secure and still. I have a wonderful love, a good home, a good job, a good set of routines. I am physically and emotially stable. There much rhythm to my life, perhaps too much. I need a little (self-created) chaos.

I need the chaos that creativity brings.

I spent a few (all too short) days at the ocean with my friend Ant a couple weeks ago—our annual writing retreat. I didn’t accomplish nearly as much as I’d hoped. I mostly blame the weather. It was sunny and clear, and too warm for November. Ant and I craved rain and wind. We wanted to watch the storms come in. Instead we walked the dogs on the quiet beach. It was perfect for reflecting, horrible for writing.

But I did get a few things done, and, more importantly, I came home fired up, ready to write more. I’ve spent more the past two hours in this chair in my favorite coffee shop, working on three haibun I started last year. They’re nearly done. I think.

And now it’s on to the next thing. More writing. Figuring out where this project is going. Polishing some short stories and readying them for submission.

But I need a spark. I need chaos and mess. I need something that will keep me going. I need to be around more writers. I need to be further from administration and management and closer to craft and process and storms. I don’t know if I can sustain this on my own. It’s scary. I’ve started and stopped far too many times. I’ve written about starting and stopping too many times.

So I posted three haibun today, my show of commitment to Acceptance and proof that I’ve been doing something other than poking around on Facebook on this dark, dreary evening. The sky looked heavy earlier. I’m waiting for the storm, for the wind and rain and words to fly wildly, dangerously


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how good a memory can smell

I saw something really cool today.

This quarter I have been working closely with a community based practice class at UWB called Teaching Youth Journalism. Throughout the quarter the six students in this class have been learning the fundamentals of journalism writing and the fundamentals of peer tutoring. I’ve given a couple workshops on the theory and practice of peer tutoring, and I’ve introduced the students to the philosophies and methods we follow in the Writing Center I manage.

But that’s not the cool part.

The students have put these skills to use in a very good way. For the past three weeks they’ve gone to 826 Seattle to give journalism writing workshops to kids ages 9 through 14. The kids have gone through the entire phase of putting together a newspaper. They started by learning the basics of journalism writing, then they started conducting interviews and writing articles.

Today I got to see the end result.

Take a look at this: 826seattle.tumblr.com (Actually, it looks like the issue that this particular group of kids put together isn’t online yet, so I’m posting this link prematurely. I’m sure Issue 3 will be up soon.)

Here is the culmination of a ton of work. I was there to see the design editor put the final touches on the newspaper and “send it to press.” (Which, in this case, means he hit print and then went into another room to grab the pages of the printer, but it was still cool to watch). I was there to see the students hand out copies to the kids. I watched them read their pieces, and though they’re a shy, quiet bunch, it wasn’t hard at all to see how happy they were. But it didn’t stop there. They gathered up small handfuls of the 12 page paper and marched out to distribute it to coffee shops around Greenwood. A little while later they came back, beaming.

And I thought of myself as a kid.

I thought of the first time I was published. I was in fourth grade and I’d written a poem about Lynch’s Woods. The poem was published in the Newberry Observer and that, to me, felt like a really big deal. I knew that lots of people would read my poem. And I remember thinking about that days after it was published. I remember thinking that there were people who’d never met me and probably never would meet me that had read something I wrote. And how cool was that?

I thought of the first book I wrote: The Principal’s Desk that Could Talk. I wrote it in second grade, as part of a class project. We wrote and illustrated our own books and then bound the pages between cloth-wrapped pieces of cardboard. The book looked real to me, like something you could find on a shelf in the library.

I thought of the day my seventh grade teacher told me I should be a writer, and how I went home that day and wrote “Dear Diary, I want to be a writer!”

I thought of my first semester of college at the University of South Carolina. I was a journalism major and I was just as imaginative as I’d been as a kid. I had plans to become a journalist and move to NYC, work for a newspaper, live in a cool, low-rent studio or a loft, eke out a living doing the thing I loved most. (None of that happened, by the way.)

I saw each of these memories as a tick on the Timeline of Kim, and it was clear that this is what I set out to do a long time ago. Writing is the one thing in my life that has been a constant. I can’t remember, exactly, when it became a part of my identity. What I do know is that that identity solidified just a little more with each of these events.

I’m planning a short trip to North Carolina in October. There won’t be much time, but I hope—I really and truly hope—I get to sit by myself and sift through the innards of my mom’s cedar chest. Mom died last year, and I made my dad promise not to toss out anything in that chest. It holds a thousand family artifacts. Mom saved as much as she could cram into that chest—report cards, drawings, birthday cards.

I hope to find that poem I wrote. I hope to find my first book.

Toward the end of the workshop today, the kids were asked who they would give copies of the newspapers to. They all said they’d give one to their parents. I imagined the newspapers being tucked away in boxes or drawers. And I wished upon those kids the best wish I could give them: that one day far into their futures, they happen upon a copy of that newspaper they helped create. I hope they get a chance to sift through mounds of memories. I hope they get to happen upon this thing they’d created years ago. I hope they get to feel how the paper has withered. I hope they get to hold it close and smell it and breathe in memories of a time when they were encouraged to do something really, really cool.

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walking the dogbrain landscape

the writer and her muse

the writer and her muse

There are two things I love doing in complete solitude—walking and writing. But, truly, I’m never totally alone when I do either of these things. I always have my faithful pit bull by my side. Right now, for example, his head is on my thigh as I write this, and his floppy little ear twitches each time it makes contact with my wrist.

I’d like to think that in times like this when he insists on having his head on top of my keyboard (or as close to it as he can possibly get) he is inspiring my writing. In some strange little way, my muse rests inside a six year old American Pit Bull Terrier that cannot sleep without snoring, cannot eat without wagging, cannot be awake without letting me know he is near. My muse sits inside a sixty pound mass of muscle, flesh and coarse, white fur.

Each night, when it’s not too hot or too cold, my muse and I go for a walk. Sometimes we find ourselves in Discovery Park or Carkeek Park, or, when the weather’s too crappy for most folks, we might head down to Golden Gardens. Most nights, though, we take a walk around our neighborhood. Regardless of where we go, I am almost always able to get into something akin to a trance and it’s just me and my thoughts (and my dog). My mind clears itself of day-to-day ruminations; I stop forming to-do lists; I don’t think of work. I don’t think of much, really.

These are the moments when I see the most, and I see most clearly. Some refer to this as “appreciating what we don’t often see.” I just call it noticing. I notice, for example, the sunset. I notice the speed at which cars travel down Greenwood Ave. I notice the way a street smells differently from one week to the next in the summertime. And then I walk some more.

As an owner of a dog who has a predisposition to occasionally making himself look like a bit of a dork (and because I’m a woman, walking alone, probably looking half zoned-out, and because there are streets to cross and people who shouldn’t be bumped into), I have to maintain some level of awareness. I have to notice things before Petey does.

There are, for example, some chickens in the backyard of a house on 95th, and it is up to me to discern whether or not the chickens are in their coop before we get too close. In Petey’s dogmind, the chickens are always there, and they always deserve to be barked at. But in my peoplemind, the chickens don’t need to be bothered, nor does anyone else in our general vicinity. So I plan ahead and I relay information on to my companion. I tell him to leave the chickens alone. I tell him not to bark or pull on his leash. I tell him to keep walking. Or, on nights when the chickens are in their coop, I simply tell Petey that they’ve gone to bed so he can start seeking out something else to sniff or bark at.

But even as all of this is going on, I am in my relaxed headspace where lists are not being made, work is not a consideration, and there are no bills to pay or people to call or things to do. It’s rare that I even think about writing when I’m out on walk.

And I wonder if what is going on in my peoplebrain is anything like what goes on in Petey’s dogbrain. He clearly does not make lists or consider his responsibilities. He is never burdened by chores or thoughts of how far a paycheck can be stretched. As far as he knows, there is always food in his bag and it will be dumped in his bowl in the morning and again at night.

Life, for Petey, is a series of rhythms. Just as I move my legs one in front of another without much thought, Petey’s life goes on without much consideration. It just sort of happens. The day begins, there is a meal, there is outside, then inside, then outside and inside again. There is the couch, with its tattered and nest-like cushions. There are the bones by the dog bed. There is the door with its long glass panes that provide a perfect view to the patio where squirrels scamper back and forth, begging to be barked at.

Things simply exist without rhyme or reason, and that is perfectly acceptable.

And that’s what makes him my muse. A muse inspires creation, and Petey does just that. Sort of. Petey can show me, quite easily, that some things must be paid attention to, and other things simply are the way they are and will likely remain that way forever (or at least until we turn the corner and are out of sight).

A dog’s mind—my dog’s mind, anyway—would be a wonderful place to take a walk.

There’s something to that, I think. Something in my writerbrain gets this. Something in my writerbrain wants to continue writing and revising this post until I am able to draw all of these ideas together and make some grand statement about my evening walks with my pit bull muse.

Instead, though, I’ll adapt the ways of the dogbrain and close here so I can go off in search of other things that stink.

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there, i wrote something

I’ve met some interesting people lately, some of whom I’ll likely never spend time with again, and some of whom I’m forging new friendships with. Like Linsey, who’s sitting across the table from me right now, writing a blog entry on bodily fluids. About every three minutes or so, she starts laughing. Bodily fluids crack Linsey up. Linsey cracks Linsey up.

Meanwhile I’m feeling floaty; I’m moving from one idea to the next, unable to follow anything through enough for it to become a full entry.

I’m finding that the things I’ve been writing about lately often bring me down. I can only maintain a serious tone/focus for so long. And as much as I want to stick with this project, to commit myself to it wholly, I don’t know if I can maintain this level of focus without giving myself an additional project to work on at the same time.

True, it’s only been a week since I revived this blog, but I feel like I’ve found my rhythm, and I don’t want to lose it. I’ve felt good about blogging (almost) every day. I’ve written every day, and some of it hasn’t (and won’t) make it to the blog. Were someone to ask me about my process (which they often do), I’d say that my writing comes in spurts. I go through more dry spells than anything. So when the rhythm comes back, I do all I can to maintain it. I’ve had some late nights this week, which has resulted in some sleepy days and miserable mornings. But I’m okay with that. And I think it’s something I can (fairly easily) adjust to.

This morning I started revising one of the June stories, “Through Parted Curtains.” I’ve sent it off to several lit journals, only to receive one rejection after another. The problem lies in the voice. The narrator is 11, and the voice is much, much older which, obviously, won’t work. I poked at it a bit, but am hesitant to cut some parts of it. Faulkner would tell me to kill my darlings, but it’s hard. I am attached to the language, which is always a dangerous thing for a writer. I can’t bring myself to edit some sentences that badly need editing, for the sake of the story.

So what’s there for me to write about—what is there that sticks with the theme of this (newly revised) blog—that will keep me from painting myself into a corner?  I don’t think it’s important that I laugh as much as Linsey, but I’d like to at least smile from time to time as I write. And I’d like to write stuff that keeps my reader here. I don’t want to meet the same roadblocks I met with Unplanted; I don’t want to fall into something that sucks me under so much that I stop writing.

It’s also true that I don’t want to write about Linsey all the time. I think that might make for some awkward situations. And it’s a little creepy. Besides, if you wanted to read about her, you could just go to her blog.  (For the record, I take full credit for inspiring Linsey’s post on bodily fluids.)

So maybe I could write about this. I read the story this morning and I smiled. The short version, if you don’t want to read the full article is this: a woman with a heart condition passed out in the middle of the street, and apparently no one came to her rescue. But a pit bull did. The dog sat by her side and barked until the woman’s husband came out to carry her home. Luckily, the woman survived.

The story doesn’t say whether or not the woman wanted to keep the dog. What it does reveal is that Ontario—where these events took place—does not allow people to own pit bulls, regardless of whether they save lives. (Don’t get me started on the irrationality of breed specific legislation.)

As I was driving around this morning, I thought about how poorly written the story is. I thought about the pieces that seem contrived. I thought about the parts that feel, well, made up. How is it, for example, that no one came to the woman’s rescue, in spite of how clear it was that she needed medical assistance? And how does the author know that this is true? Who reported that the dog sat by her side barking at traffic?

These things are important to this story. It is crucial that a storyteller know what she’s talking about.

Linsey, for example, is actively researching bodily fluids.

I, on the other hand, am doing very little, and I think that’s okay—for now, anyway.

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sharing secrets, part ii

(This post was written on 7/27.)

Someone recently told me that it’s often easier to talk about taboo topics like sexuality than it is to talk about grief. She was absolutely right.

When I tell my story, it often feels, in this odd way, as though I am coming out, as if I am sharing something I maybe shouldn’t share. Earlier this year I started online dating. As I fumble my way through this new endeavor, I’m learning that relationship history is important in the dating world. We skirt around certain stories, and though we try not to break the cardinal sin of talking about an ex on a first date, it happens more often than not: I have talked with people about exes and bad dates and loves and losses. And the people with whom I’ve had these conversations are the people I’ve made the strongest connections with. As I listen to their stories, I am learning how to tell my story again and again, to open myself and allow myself to be vulnerable with new people. I am learning what to share and what to hold on to for later.

There are all kinds of reasons I shouldn’t say too much.

Largely, though, it’s because I can almost always predict what the person’s reaction will be. Silence. There’s often the obligatory ‘I’m sorry.’ Neither of these things are bad, per se; they just make for terribly awkward situations. The bereaved are incredibly vulnerable and those vulnerabilities are magnified by silence.

What I want to do with this book I am writing is give voice to some of the stories that I dare not share in public, certainly not with people who don’t know me well. Late last year, just as I was beginning to accept the fact that I would, indeed, write this book, I wrote this in my journal:

Let’s just call it Acceptance.

Not so much in the sense of the Final Stage of Grief. It’s not at all representative or anywhere near a finality. Rather, it’s a new outlook, a new way of viewing the world and Her place in it. It has taken years for Her to get here…

But now new truths exist. Everything here, everything you are about to learn, is absolutely true.

There is, for example, The Presence. The simple knowing that He is here with Her. It’s a feeling, more than anything, and nearly impossible to articulate, especially to those who have not felt it. It is a pushing against her skin, or a weight she feels against her back when she is lying in bed and He knows that She needs that closeness, or else She will not sleep.

There are people in my life with whom I can share these words and they will know exactly what I mean. But my job as a writer is to share these words and be comfortable doing so. My job as a writer is to tell my truth confidently and assuredly. My job as a writer is to make my words resonate with others.

The thing that I will not hesitate to share is that these tasks overwhelm me more than almost anything I’ve ever taken on.

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the practice of sharing

Earlier this year I had my first haibun published in my campus lit journal, Clamor. This was my first attempt at the form, and there’s a story behind why I wrote it.

Several students on my staff worked on the Clamor editorial board and, knowing that I’m a writer, kept prodding me to submit something. My short stories are way too long and I didn’t have anything short enough that was anywhere near worth sharing. So I started poking around through old journal entries—stuff I’d written probably four years ago when I was processing a lot about my childhood. I found a piece that was mostly narrative and started playing with it, trying to cobble together some sort of story. But the more I played with it, the more I extracted and peeled apart the layers until I was left with something very condensed.

Then I found another journal entry, written a few months later. I followed the same process. I rewrote the entire thing, changing the point of view from first person past tense to second person present tense. This helped quite a bit. The pieces I was working with were intensely personal, and changing the POV and tense felt like putting on a warm, comfortable mask.

I changed a couple details—very minor things. What was really a car is now a truck, for example. But the story was the same. It’s told in two parts. The first is a scene:  a girl getting picked up from her grandparent’s house. The second is a reflection, an awareness of why the narrator is who she is now.

I liked these pieces. I liked that I could hide behind my truths by changing some very minor details. If this were to be published in the campus lit journal, I would be putting myself in a very vulnerable position. Friends and colleagues might see it. They might learn my secrets.

And then I thought about those secrets: that my mother suffered mental illness most of her life, that her illness affected me tremendously, and that I have struggled with depression and will likely remain on mood stabilizers for the rest of my life, even though I have been in remission for more than four years. Both of these things have been difficult for me to accept, and are very difficult to admit to others. But the thing is, they are common stories, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

So I kept writing, poking at what I had on the page.

It wasn’t enough. It needed more.

And that’s when I started playing with haibun.

I love haiku and its simplicity, but have never really played with it. All I know of how to write it is the 5-7-5 structure. So I played it safe and followed that rule (knowing that most haiku does not follow this structure). I wrote two haiku, one to follow each chunk of prose.

The first is from the narrator’s point of view and it marks an awareness of what was happening when she was young. The second is an acknowledgement of her present reality. The two haiku are meant to sit as contrasts: treatment of the mother’s and the daughter’s depression.

The piece doesn’t feel finished, largely because I don’t yet know enough about the haibun form. I haven’t practiced it enough to know how to present this story the way it should be presented. But that, I think, is okay. Simply having the piece out there—accessible to nearly everyone—is what’s important. I remind myself that this isn’t about writing perfect pieces. Truly it’s not about form at all; it’s about telling a story, finding a way to tell it so that I can make it real to my reader. More than anything, it’s about putting my work out there, sharing my secrets.

Yesterday I was talking with someone about practice in the context of some of my new adventures. I’ve recently started dating and, as I was telling K., I feel as though I am fumbling through the process, completely unaware of how to approach this new phase of my life. She paused for a moment and told me this:

In Eastern cultures, many things are talked about as practice: martial arts and yoga, for example. Even the best black belts and the most centered yogis practice. It is all a pursuit of continuing to learn, continuing to be better.

And this is how it is. I should approach dating or work or writing as practice. None of these pieces will be done. I will never be the best at haibun. This project will never be everything I want it to be. I am evolving. My writing is evolving. This book is evolving.

More than anything, though, when I put that notion of practice into the context of my writing—specifically this project—I realize  that it’s all about the practice of storytelling, the practice  of sharing, the practice of telling my truths.