Continuing Education

I just finished a two-week intensive course on plot arcs. Writers aren’t required to get CECs the way health and fitness professionals are. I don’t have to renew a certification or have to take a certain number of courses per two-year period to prove to anyone that I’m keeping up my skills. But I have to keep learning.

People sometimes ask me why I go all the way to Albuquerque to take yoga classes every couple of weeks, classes I don’t get CECs for. The other teachers in T or C are good, after all. But they’re my peers. We’re equals. While I enjoy their classes, I also want to study with someone more advanced than I’ll ever be. I get excellent critiques from other writers, my peers, but I took a class with my editor’s editor.

It forced me to outline my work in progress before I completed the first draft, which I don’t usually do until I’ve improvised the whole plot, so it was challenging. I’m not sure my outlines made sense. But the ideas the instructor brought to the course did. Her structure for pacing and tension, for weaving in secondary storylines, and the key elements that need to take place in various portions of a book, will help me when I revise. She said she admired my bravery in staying with my “pantsing” (writer-talk for flying by the seat of your pants through the first draft) style while being required to outline. Maybe that was a diplomatic word for stubbornness. I don’t think I was brave. It’s just how I create. When I make plans, my characters seldom go along with them. I look forward to applying what I learned in the course when I do the major revisions in the second draft—once I know what everyone is up to.

 

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Alternate Routes

While my car has been away on an extended health retreat, recovering its ability to recognize its own key, I haven’t been able to drive to the nearby state park where I like to run the trails, so I’ve been running on a dirt road along the Rio Grande instead. It has a flatter terrain, a harder surface, and not as much wildlife, but it offers a view of the river and of T or C’s magnificent landmark, the sleeping turtle formation atop Turtleback Mountain. For a second choice, it’s not bad.

On an unfamiliar route, though, I don’t know where all the lumps and soft spot and other hazards are, and I can get distracted by the scenery—and yet it totally surprised me that I tripped and found myself scraping my knees and elbows in the dirt and gravel before I’d even gone half a mile.

I jogged back home, cleaned up, bandaged my gashes, and decided to take a walk rather than sit around getting stiff from the fall or frustrated about not running. The route I chose took me to the highest point in town, the hill crowned by the water tank, where you can see to the edge of town in all directions. The tank features one of the town’s best murals, an image of Apaches on horseback coming to their traditional healing place, the hot springs along the Rio Grande. When I descended to downtown, I continued on to Ralph Edwards Park, one of our two riverfront parks. On the opposite bank, in the wild area across the river, a mule deer stood with her feet planted on the steep slope, her head lowered to the water, drinking in a position that would have caused a human to flop head first. She sustained her balance at such an angle it was like getting aerial view, revealing the subtle brown stripe on her back, a marking I’d never been able to see on a deer before. Four legs and hooves, I thought. It would be nice to have hooves. Her fine pointy feet enabled her to turn on a camber in a tight little clearing and angle herself uphill to browse the shrubs without a stumble. If my big ol’ size nines hadn’t stumbled, though, I wouldn’t have seen her. I’d have been somewhere else.

If my personal training business in Santa Fe hadn’t crashed, I wouldn’t have taken a job as health educator at a fitness center in Northeastern North Carolina. While I was working there, they needed a yoga teacher and none was available, but I had decades of yoga practice and offered to go to teacher training. It changed my life as well as serving their needs. Teaching has deepened my yoga practice profoundly and brought me in contact with some of my most valued friends. I found the setting for The Calling in that North Carolina town, and met the young woman who inspired the character of Mae Martin. If I’d stayed in Santa Fe, where there’s an excess rather than a shortage of yoga teachers, none of this would have happened. I can’t regret the alternate route. It was better than the one I’d planned on.

Observations on being a full-time writer

    • It doesn’t feel like a job.
    • I’m writing while it’s still light out, not just after nine at night the way I did when I had a structured day job.
    • I now live where my protagonist does. Result: Everything gives me ideas.
    • The town changes faster than my fictitious version of it can, but the essence stays the same.
    • I don’t need a job to structure my life or keep me busy. There’s so much to do, from music events to dancing at Sparky’s to Art Hop to teaching yoga to just getting out in nature, the challenge is telling myself no, stay in and write. I was more productive when it was 108 degrees in June. Less temptation to go out.
    • Depending on which of my friends is making the introductions, new acquaintances may be told that I’m a writer or that I’m a newly retired professor. If they hear the latter, it’s hard to redirect their first impression, and they tend to suggest things I could do to keep busy, including—I cringe at the thought—adjunct teaching. I think of myself as a writer and yoga teacher, not a retired professor—the person I am today, not the role I used to play. It’s an important distinction.

 

Kufwasa

I discovered this beautiful concept while researching Zambian culture for my work in progress. Kufwasa is a word in the Tumbuka language that means a blend of patience, mindfulness, flow, enjoyment, and something unique to the understanding of people who live in a traditional African culture which may be hard to put into English words. My goal in reading about Zambia was to understand more about a minor character, Mwizenge Chomba, who has been in my series since book two, Shaman’s Blues, but is about to play a larger role in the book I’m writing, the seventh in the series. I wanted to make sure I got his background right, his way of seeing the world. I’m not sure I’ll find a place for describing kufwasa in the book, but it should exist in the character himself, in the world view he grew up with.

Kufwasa implies doing one thing at a time, with full concentration and a kind of serenity, or it will be neither done well nor fully experienced. My character was raised in a remote village, so his family members would have planned one major activity a day. When you get around on foot, by bicycle, or in old and unreliable vehicles, travel and errands can’t be hurried. Cooking can’t be rushed, either, using traditional methods. A society without distractions enjoys taking time to talk and laugh and tell stories over these slowly prepared meals. In the twelve hours of equatorial darkness, married couples have plenty of time for kufwasa in their relationships. (I liked coming across this idea about marriage, because my Zambian character is married to an American woman who writes romance novels.) Love thrives on kufwasa.

It’s funny how I can discover something about a character that makes perfect sense even though I didn’t know it at the time I introduced him. Mwizenge appears in Shaman’s Blues as a singer and drummer in a world music trio. Live music of all kinds is a big part of Santa Fe life, and I’ve enjoyed African drumming and dance groups there, so he simply showed up the way characters do as someone likely to be in Santa Fe. I understand now why he feels at home there, so far from his village. He carved his own drum with kufwasa back in Zambia and grew up with music and dancing as community events. Compared to the high-pressure lifestyles of some parts of the country, the pace in New Mexico comes a little closer to kufwasa.

Next time I find myself trying to do too much too fast, I hope I can slow down and remind myself to practice kufwasa.

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

I memorized this poem years ago when I was working in theater and also pursuing a degree in a new field. It struck me as the perfect fit when I used it as the introduction to a research paper on stress and  health. To me, it describes the reaction of the human spirit to the demands of work—work we once chose with idealism and commitment but which now consumes us. William Butler Yeats, no doubt, rewrote the poem many times to achieve such simplicity and strength, yet the words seem to rush out in a flow of passion.

My father was my role model in many ways, the kind of person I aspire to be, with his gentleness, humor, open-mindedness, warmth, community engagement and enjoyment of the arts. He retired early from his management job to run his own small business selling specialized supplies to bird watchers. In many ways he was a cautious person, but he had the courage to risk a change when it was time. People tell me I’ve been glowing since I decided to retire early. Revisiting this poem after I’ve acted on the need it expresses, I get more out of it than ever.

How does it speak to you?

 

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

The fascination of what’s difficult

Has dried the sap out of my veins and rent

Spontaneous joy and natural content

Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt

That must, as if it had not holy blood

Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud

Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt

as though it dragged road metal. My curse on plays

That have to be set up in fifty ways,

On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,

Theater business, management of men.

I swear before the dawn comes round again

I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.

Shrines

peacock-feather In Martyn V. Halm’s one-of-a-kind suspense novel, In Pocket, the narrator Wolfgang, a pickpocket, begins to doubts the motives of a young woman who befriends him because her shrines don’t seem authentic. He says that in his observations of women’s homes, they make shrines. He doesn’t mean religious ones but highly personal arrangements of objects that honor special aspects of each woman’s life.  When I think of friends’ houses and apartments, the most common shrine is the family pictures shrine, but I’ve seen idiosyncratic ones. I recall a friend who had peacock feathers and other objects arranged around a mirrored dressing stand on the hall landing, her shrine to I know not what, but it had a kind of art deco bordello feeling to it.

Some people’s kitchens are shrines, arranged to honor the gods of nourishment and conviviality. My academic colleagues’ offices are shrines to scholarship, with diplomas and books and journals—but also softened with mini-shrines to family. In my books, I’ve used this kind of imagery—Charlie’s door and office in The Calling are the most vivid example—as a way of revealing character and also implying a mystery. Why do people  build the shrines they do?

I have so much meaningful art around me that my whole home is a shrine. And then I look at the clutter, the heap of writing reference books, the heap of journals on alternative medicine, the stack of books and magazines I’m reading, the notes on my work in progress spread on the left side of my desk, and I think—that’s not clutter, those are shrines. Shrines to reading and writing.

When I move to a smaller space, I’ll be parting with slice-of-life shrines, eccentric random gifts with stories behind them. A Roswell NM alien-face paper fan a friend gave me at the Mescalero ceremonies many years ago. A Gumby one of my yoga students gave me. A stuffed toy tree frog. I’ll trust my heart to store the people and memories I echo back to myself with things like these little green creatures. Sooner or later, we all part with everything we own. Practicing non-attachment seems abstract at times, but not when I am taking down my shrines.gumbyleaning2

Curiosity and Openness

park

The boy braked his bicycle on the bridge over the creek and stood straddling the frame. “What are you doing here?”

As I adjusted out of the mildly altered consciousness that comes from a long, peaceful run, I continued stretching my calf muscles, listening to the stream’s soft burbling, the autumn trees rustling, and studied my interrogator. He was about ten years old, with a stocky build, short hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His question wasn’t unfriendly—not as if he owned the park, but more of an inquiry into what other people came here for.

“I just ran four miles,” I said, “and now I’m stretching my legs.”

Four miles?” His eyebrows shot up. “I can’t even run one.”

“It took me a while to build up to four. I didn’t run that far when I first started running.”

The boy asked what it felt like to run four miles and I said it was beautiful, being outdoors and quiet, moving through nature. It’s hard to describe the spirituality of running and I didn’t do a very good job of it. He said it must be a good workout. I agreed. He rode around a little while I finished stretching, and then pedaled beside me as I walked through the parking lot toward my neighborhood.

“What was it like the first time you ran?” he asked.

I told him a shortened version of the story that follows.

I’d been visiting the Apache reservation in Mescalero, New Mexico. A friend informed me that there would be a five-K and 10-K race the next morning, then looked me in the eyes and said “See you there.”

He and his girlfriend would be running, but I could tell he didn’t mean I would be there to cheer them on. He meant I would be running. I took the challenge and ran the five-K. At the time, I lived at sea level in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and Mescalero is 7,500 feet above that. Being an aerobics teacher, I was in good shape, but until that day I wasn’t a runner. I struggled uphill at that altitude, but the singer for the Navajo Nation Dancers kept cheering me on. His group had come for the powwow, and we had met briefly and chatted while waiting for the race to start. He couldn’t remember my name, only where I was from, so he shouted, “Go, Virginia! You can do it!”

I came in second for my age group, and I was hooked. Not on racing, but on the Apache concept of spiritual running. This race was not just any race, but a community event to promote health and traditional culture, timed to go with the four-day Dances of the Mountain Gods and the girls’ coming of age ceremony. My friend who convinced me to run had told me about spiritual running when we first met, and before the race started I got to know a number of other people who ran for cultural reasons. That was almost twenty years ago. and I never lost my love for running.running

The boy in the park listened to the short version of this story attentively. We chatted a little longer. He concluded that he would still prefer bicycling and then pumped his way up the steep hill, wishing me a good day and saying, “See ya.”

There was a synchronicity to this encounter. Back in 1998, I made friends with the man who got me to run that first race by striking up a conversation with a stranger. I was stuck in an airport due to a delayed flight, and as I walked to pass the time, I noticed him sitting cross-legged on the floor rather than in a chair in one of the gate areas, and was intrigued by the writing on his T-shirt. It read: All Apache Nations Run Against Substance Abuse. I was doing research in graduate school about using traditional culture to combat modern health problems in Native communities. The idea of people running all the way from the various Apache nations, from Oklahoma and Arizona and New Mexico, to gather at one chosen reservation, was inspiring. We talked a while, and he invited me to visit Mescalero later that year and put me in touch with a medicine woman who could help with my research.

On subsequent trips, I ran the five-K several more times. At the time, I was thinking about writing an ghost sickness ebookacademic paper, not fiction, but years later these races, the powwows, and the ceremonies inspired many of the scenes in Ghost Sickness. By the time I wrote the book, I had a lot of experiences to draw from.

My new young acquaintance’s friendly curiosity makes me think he has what it takes to be a writer. He has his own view—prefers biking to running—but he wanted to know what I thought and felt as a runner, and not because he planned to start running. He simply wanted to know. That’s a writers’ mind, or an actor’s or a psychologist’s. He asks: What’s it like to be someone who is not like me?