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A tiny beautiful dream

I keep having dreams about driving. When I say “keep,” I mean that the dreams are recurring over several years, although not with great frequency. In high school and college, they were usually about not knowing how to drive, or driving too fast and losing control, or driving down the wrong side of the road. Lately, they’ve been about driving into water.

Often the dream starts with me already falling off the road, helplessly buckled into the driver’s seat as my vehicle nosedives into a river. (Or lake, or sea.) I always manage to get out well before drowning, but then I can only watch the water slowly rise, flooding the engine, ruining the car.

Obviously these dreams are metaphors. My subconscious’s way of speaking to me, of digging out some kind of psychological splinter. Is it about my life? My relationships? My writing? This particular manuscript? Or is it broader than all of that — maybe a general sense of unease or uncertainty that’s running through me like a secret undercurrent?

The exact meaning might always be a mystery. Fortunately these dreams don’t trouble me. They aren’t nightmares, merely scenes. Scenes from a larger story that I don’t yet understand, and possibly never will.

Recently, however, the scene has changed.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear SugarEarlier this week, I stayed up late to read a new book. I bought it after browsing through several books at random in the store, because within a few pages, this one had me in tears. TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS is the collected writings of Dear Sugar on TheRumpus.net, an “anonymous” advice column about love, grief, and everything in between. (“Anonymous” because just a few months ago, Sugar revealed herself to be Cheryl Strayed whose new memoir WILD is sitting comfortably on several bestseller lists.)

I had heard of Sugar once or twice in the past, most notably through her popular advice to “write like a motherfucker,” but I was already subscribed to plenty of writing blogs. I didn’t need another.

If only I had known that Dear Sugar wasn’t a writing blog at all. Well, it IS a blog of beautiful writing — but not like any other. It is equal parts advice and memoir, full of heart and grace and hard truths and simplicity and profundity and courage and… well, just about everything I aspire to, in both myself and my work. Sugar has a way of really seeing the letters that are sent to her — not through them or underneath them, but not just the surface of them either. She sees them like someone staring directly into the sun without squinting or blinking or going blind. Somehow she can do that. Somehow she sees that light, touches it, then radiates her own back into it.

I’m not a religious person, but TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS is probably the closest thing I have to a personal Bible, in the sense that it is a collection of stories that exposes the many facets of humanity, validates them, accepts them, allows me to recognize them within myself, guides me toward the ones I want to nurture, and inspires me to let go of the ones I don’t.

So. For obvious reasons, the book was hard to put down, and I found myself pushing my bedtime further and further until at last, the beautiful, bittersweet ending came. I had read all there was of Sugar, both in the book and online. There was nothing left to do but sleep. Absorb. And dream.

That night, I dreamt of driving. Driving into a large indoor pool, falling into gleaming blue-green water, splashing into cold and sweet. I swam out of the car as it sank, watched as it was swallowed inch by inch. For a moment I stood there bewildered, waist-deep in the water, wondering what I could do now, how I could keep going without a vehicle to carry me.

Then I thought, “Who says this one can’t?”

Reaching forward, I pulled the car out of the water. I carried its body, wet and shriveled like a rag, and lay it out piece by piece, ministering to each part with a blow dryer, the way you would with a cell phone rescued from a puddle. When I was done and the car was as dry as it would ever be, I put the key in the ignition, took a deep breath, and turned my hand.

The car sputtered to life.

In that moment, I felt the amazement of someone who both completely disbelieved and yet also knew all along that things would work out. I hadn’t ruined it after all. Or maybe I had, but then I had worked hard to save it and I’d succeeded. Achieved the impossible. Un-drowned the engine.

Like I said, there’s no way to know exactly what these dreams mean, but regardless, I believe this was a good sign. I think my subconscious sees something new in me. A spark, a light, a sun.

Writerly Wednesday: Olympics edition

Quick note: I’ve been published! My triptych of triptychs about the Galapagos (first seen right here on the blog) was accepted by Sugar Mule for their 41st issue. Yay! Please click to check out many great stories and poems about “women and place.”

So, it’s the Olympics. Unless you live in a cave (and maybe even then) you know this already. You’ve heard all about the Opening Ceremonies, NBC’s commentators, their selective editing, and the tape delays. (SPOILER ALERT: you’ll survive.) Don’t worry I’m not going to talk about any of that.

All I want to do is share a few thoughts inspired by the Olympic spirit. This first one is mine.

• “Pressure makes us”

Rewind to about a year ago, and the US women’s national soccer team and I were in roughly the same place we are today. Them: On the verge of winning gold in a major international competition. Me: Awed and inspired.

It’s uncanny how much of what I wrote back then applies again now — including the dramatic late-in-the-game goals…

The US’s mind-blowing comeback win not only revved me up for the rest of the night, it also reminded me that pressure can be a good thing. Sure, sometimes it’s intimidating, and sometimes it can get overwhelming. But sometimes it pushes us to work harder than ever before. Sometimes it brings out our best. Sometimes it makes us who we are.

• “Lessons from Olympians” by T.S. Bazelli

Comparisons between Olympians and writers are inevitable, and not only does Tessa cover the similarities well, but she also brings up a couple new points that I think are invaluable for us to keep in mind.

In gymnastics and diving, the degree of difficulty is sometimes the determining factor in winning. When it comes to writing, are you taking risks and trying things that make you uncomfortable?

• “The Power and Glory of Sportswriting” by Nicholas Dawidoff

I’ve often thought that I would love to be a sportswriter or athlete profiler. These two quotes, combined with my deep appreciation of “the game,” might help to explain why.

When writing about sports, you have to learn to navigate an odd literary predicament: Your audience often already knows the outcome before it starts reading. An editor at Sports Illustrated once advised me that the art of the work rested in telling people who already know what happened a story so compelling that they forget everything and, at the end, wish they’d been there.

Where too much recent American literature is less concerned with any search for meaning than the preening desire to be admired, really good sportswriting is grounded in curiosity and revelation, an enthusiast’s notes. And while few authors can compete with the reality, a writer can deepen it, preserve what happened and then mine it for the deeper human qualities at play that are the essence of lasting writing.

• “Going for Gold” by Shari Cylinder

On that note, here’s a great summary of what the Olympics — and all sports, really — mean to me.

It’s not about winning gold, silver, or bronze. It’s not about getting the highest score. It’s about the diligence, dedication, and devotion the athletes put in for so many years. It’s about the way they motivate us to do the same — whether we’re swimming the backstroke, writing a book, studying our way through med school, choreographing dances to the music in our hearts, anything. No matter what, these people inspire us to push our limits. To dream further. To dream more. It’s about teamwork between people — like the golden women’s gymnastics team and the rockstar volleyball duo of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor — and about teamwork between nations. It’s about sportsmanship, unity, and love.

Being Elmo

Until a couple years ago, I never gave much thought to who was behind the high-pitched voice of our beloved Elmo. But if you had asked me, I would have guessed a woman. Probably a white one. And boy would I have been wrong.

Honestly, I did a double-take when I learned that Elmo was a black man. It didn’t matter to me; it just wasn’t what I had expected. And ever since I saw him (with Elmo) on YouTube, doing an interview on some British talk show, I have been intrigued by his story.

Being Elmo is a look at the life of Kevin Clash, the man behind the muppet who stole our hearts.

(There’s also a book called MY LIFE AS A FURRY RED MONSTER. I’m not sure if I feel the need to read it anymore, since I imagine much of the content would be the same as this documentary.)

I adored every second of this film. Unlike some documentaries, Being Elmo gives you a “character” to latch onto, to root for — and that’s what makes it stick.

We start with Kevin’s humble childhood in Baltimore, with parents who were surprisingly supportive of such an unusual endeavor. (Meanwhile his siblings didn’t get it, and many of his peers mocked him for it.) We laugh when young Kevin cuts up his father’s coat to make his first muppet. We marvel when he puts on shows for the neighborhood kids. We cheer when he gets his first job at a local television station. And we cry (or at least I did) when he goes to New York City to meet Frank Oz and Jim Henson.

Throughout the film, I felt SO inspired by Kevin’s single-minded focus. His passion. His work ethic. I found myself wondering if I could honestly say that I put in as much time, effort, and love to my writing as he did to his puppetry. (No.)

But then the film switches gears and reveals what Kevin sacrificed to become such a success: his family.

At some point he married the girl he had been dating since 19, and they had a daughter. But Kevin was always traveling, entertaining other children with Elmo, and becoming a bigger and bigger part of Sesame Street (writer, producer, director). Unfortunately that kept him away from his wife — they eventually divorced — and worst of all, from his daughter.

I don’t necessarily get the impression that he would go back and change things, but he did seem to regret that he couldn’t be more present as a father. That he couldn’t “have it all.”

That made me wonder about how I want to live my life. Do I want to become so dedicated to my writing that there’s no room for anything else? (No.)

But maybe that’s just what some people are destined for. Like, isn’t the work that Kevin was doing important enough to justify his absence? His family might say no, but when I think about all the children who benefit from Sesame Street — all the dying kids who just want a hug and kiss from Elmo — I have a hard time agreeing.

(I’ve seen this idea of personal sacrifice in other stories, albeit fictional ones. Like The Santa Clause with Tim Allen. Or the heartbreaking romance between Olivia Pope and President Grant on Scandal.)

Anyway. All this is a really long way of saying that Being Elmo is an awesome documentary about a really interesting, quiet figure who has undoubtedly touched your life, even if you had no idea. Also, it shows you that there is SO much more to puppeteering than just sticking your hand in a muppet and making a funny voice.

A certain fire

I love dance movies — first and foremost because I love dance, and second because if there’s any world as brutal, beautiful, and inspiring as writing, it’s dance.

Center Stage: Turn It Up — the 2008 made-for-TV sequel to Center Stage — isn’t the best dance movie I’ve ever seen, but it was a pleasant surprise. Kate Parker, a self-taught dancer from Detroit, moves to NYC to audition for the American Ballet Theatre and pursue her dreams of being a professional ballerina. Her technique is found to be lacking, but what she does have is a certain fire. The question is, will that be enough?

Tommy: One rejection and you’re gonna quit?
Kate: I’ve had plenty more than one, thank you very much.
Tommy: Okay, but you realize that’s what this business is about. Rejection after rejection after rejection.
Kate: Thanks for the tip.
Tommy: You’re welcome. If you don’t have thick skin and serious drive, you could just give up now.
Kate: Serious drive? You woke up one morning, decided to be a dancer, and 6 months later you’re at the best school in the country. You have no idea what it’s like to work your entire life for something and then have no control over whether you get it or not.
Tommy: What are you talking about? Do you know how long I played hockey? Do you know how many times I got smashed into the boards hoping some scout might find me?
Kate: Yeah, and you walked away.
Tommy: I didn’t walk away. I made a choice. I didn’t let somebody else make it for me.
Kate: What do you care anyway?
Tommy: Because you’re good. You’re so good.
Kate: You know, I thought I was good. I was so sure I just had that thing that everyone always talks about. So I packed my bags, came to New York, and I gave it everything I had. And guess what? No one else sees it. My father didn’t see it. Jonathan Reeves didn’t see it. If no one else sees it, you’ve got to think, maybe it’s just not there.

Tommy: I bet she’s proud of you.
Kate: I haven’t really done anything to be proud of.
Tommy: What do you mean?
Kate: Well I mean, all I wanted to do by coming out here was show her she can do anything she wants. And I couldn’t do it.
Tommy: Just trying’s all she needs to see.

Jonathan: Next time someone like me tells you you’re not what they’re looking for, remember this moment. Because whatever you had to do to get through that and end up here, is exactly what it takes to be great.

A reminder about what really matters

A few days ago, my dad forwarded me an email titled “the Charles Schulz philosophy.” Now, snopes.com has informed me that Charles Schulz did not in fact come up with this little exercise, but it’s still a good one. So I decided to adapt it for us writers.

(Big thanks to Disney for all the characters who read!)

There are two “quizzes” below. Scroll slowly and read carefully to get the full effect. Note: It’s okay if you don’t know all the answers, just keep going.

1. Who are the 3 wealthiest writers in the world?
2. Who are the last 3 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature?
3. Who are the last 3 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?
4. What are 5 of the “Top 10 Best Books” of last year?
5. What’s the latest book on shelves that was signed for a 7-figure deal?

How many did you get?

The point is, few of us remember the headliners of yesterday. And these are no second-rate achievers — they are at the top of our field. But the applause dies, accolades are forgotten, and the “crown” is passed on.

Here’s another quiz. See how you do on this one:

1. Who are your 3 favorite authors?
2. What are the last 3 books that made you laugh or cry?
3. What are the last 3 books that inspired you?
4. Which 5 books do you most frequently recommend?
5. What’s the last book that you stayed up until the wee hours of the night reading?


The lesson: The books and authors who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that you connected with, the ones that moved you on the merit of their prose, characters and stories. Not the ones that someone told you were good or worthy. Because the success given by others is never as enduring as the success bestowed by our own hearts.

Keep that in mind as you check your Twitter stream and learn that so-and-so has a new agent or just got a big deal. Keep that in mind when you read publishing blogs and see the latest award nominations or starred reviews. Keep that in mind when you’re on Facebook and your feed is filled with posts about book tours and movie rights.

And then put everything out of mind when you’re sitting down to write. Because that’s your time, your space, your joyful play with the characters that you love and the world that you’ve built. Let nothing get in the way.

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