The wild mind and mine

While fleshing out my craft of writing shelves last year, I ordered a used copy of Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life. It was an add-on, an afterthought, really. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Writing Down the Bones. But how many more Buddhist-inspired writing vignettes do I need in my life? Let alone on an already crowded shelf, nestled between King’s sentimental On Writing, and Pressfield’s barking The War of Art*. I’m not even entirely clear on why I keep reading books on writing, since they’re all say essentially the same thing I already know (spoiler: writers write).

Nonetheless, the book arrived media mail from some shipper’s New Jersey warehouse, and when I opened the padded envelope, this is what I discovered:

Delicately inscribed on the inside cover, of all generic names, was John Miller. He’d stuffed the book full of post-it notes, scribbled in margins, and highlighted verses throughout. At first I was put off by the markings. But as I started reading Goldberg’s zen tales, along with John’s reactions, I became aware that he was another character I was responding to—wondering what he was writing about, why he chose certain passages to set apart, what he was hoping to accomplish with his careful annotations.

I could tell that he’d started skeptically, a lone post-it and a flag marking the exercises in the first few pages. Chapters One through Ten he was warming to, first with some sparse highlights. Warm up, he noted. Stay specific, he liked. You are safe, in yellow. He avoids Goldberg’s references to sex and the body, but writes, Be sensual, on a post-it as a reminder, as though he needs the reminder, truly.

It’s not until chapter 14 that a fire is lit—five yellow stickies and notes—The writing is the dance on the Sacred Ground, he declares. I realize John’s a deeply religious man and his notes liken free-writing to worship, musing that a well-written story has an inherent healing power in both the writing and telling.


There’s a woman in his life named Ann, and the very profound parts, he notes to read to her. I imagine them together on a porch swing together on a late spring evening. He tells her Goldberg’s story about how being immersed in your craft is inherently lonely, but that loneliness doesn’t have to equal despair. Ann misses him when he obsesses over his keyboard, but she grants him a thin smile, because she loves him. On Goldberg’s chapter on pleasure, Miller writes in the margins, solace, next to a highlighted sentence, “It’s good to begin from this place, for us to notice what brings us true pleasure.” He doesn’t mention Ann again in his notes, but at the top of Chapter 43, scribbles, Success is not love.

John’s own successes in writing have been a poor compensation, he notes in scrawling blue ink along the gutter, for the recognition he never received from his own parents—dead since he was a young man (…though we never had a chance to really know each other…). He could neither please them, or let go of his need for their approval. Yet he continued to write. He highlights Goldberg’s words, “Being a writer in our society is making a choice … outside the norm.”

If you’ve read Writing Down the Bones, there’s not a lot of new material in this one. Goldberg rehashes much of the same stuff in her same signature style. But this particular copy is precious to me. It was a guided journey through John Miller’s own Wild Mind. When I’m looking for inspiration and advice on craft, I find myself pulling it off the shelf, wondering what John found useful, what he found beautiful from Goldberg’s wisdom, and what that says about me.


*This one is my favorite.

A jar of real human feelings

I’ve started and scrapped this letter so many times already. It’s hard to be profound when it seems the world is spiraling out of control, isn’t it? It seems an inappropriate time for self-reflection, but that’s my schtick. I’m supposed to be teasing out a thread of meaning to offer you—some small idea to warm you like a blanket. All I have is a pile of rags. Shit’s fucked up, it turns out.

But sit down anyway, I’ll try to build a nest from these scraps.

In the grocery store a week ago, my son asked, “When you become a parent, who tells you how to do stuff?” I was engrossed in the ingredients list on the organic ketchup bottle, and surprised by the question (though why his perceptions surprise me still, who knows). Still, honesty befit the moment, so I went with that.

I’m just making it up. No one tells you how to be a parent and do things. You just make it up as you go and hope it all works out.

Panic fell across his face as he realized there was no pilot on the plane; no one was driving this bus. I felt a catch in my throat because suddenly, and finally, I understood the same thing.

I really enjoyed this episode of The Big Think, featuring Krista Tippett. The part that really stuck on me though, is when she talks about how we really meet our selves—we even become our selves—when everything begins to fall apart.

“We are made by what would break us.”

I think about this often. Pema writes in a similar theme:

“We’re so used to running from discomfort, and we’re so predictable. If we don’t like it, we strike out at someone or beat up on ourselves. We want to have security and certainty of some kind when actually we have no ground to stand on at all.

The next time there’s no ground to stand on, don’t consider it an obstacle. Consider it a remarkable stroke of luck. We have no ground to stand on, and at the same time it could soften us and inspire us. Finally, after all these years, we could truly grow up. As Trungpa Rinpoche once said, the best mantra is “OM—grow up—svaha.”

We are given changes all the time. We can either cling to security, or we can let ourselves feel exposed, as if we had just been born, as if we had just popped out into the brightness of life and were completely naked.

Maybe that sounds too uncomfortable or frightening, but on the other hand, it’s our chance to realize that this mundane world is all there is, and we could see it with new eyes and at long last wake up from our ancient sleep of preconceptions.”

I’m going to be honest with you. Historically, I’m not at my best in these times. I panic. I collapse. I crumble apart. (I write poorly.) Right now, in our big world, there’s not a lot of dry land to find footing on. There’s been a good deal of scary images and sounds and news bites floating across our various glowing screens the past few weeks, so it’s hard to feel grounded. I’m afraid that for me, groundlessness, if left unchecked, can slip into nihilism.

I feel shame around this, my coward’s defense, my surly cat. When I delude myself into thinking nothing matters, when I stop caring, my heart contracts and stiffens. Joy and pleasure drain away and I can lose my self there; I find it’s comfortable, even. Like lying down on a cool, stone floor. I can see right through that bottle, and it seems safe compared to the murk and muck you’ll find in a jar of real human feelings. I hate that about me.

It’s my great work, I think, to carry that particular truth of my self around my neck, while foolhardily, nakedly trudging through this mundane world just being a person for as long as I possibly can.

All of this is to say that I don’t know. And I am not wise enough or wealthy enough or strong enough to fix or fight the wrongs in this world. It hurts like hell to stay soft and find inspiration, but I can sit down with the pain that needs attending—that’s my schtick, after all. I can be vulnerable and honest, should it befit the moment. I can tell you that I’m struggling with panic and the instinct to bolt. I can try to grow the fuck up. But let’s be real, I’m just making shit up, doing the best I can.

Gentle Reader, I hope it works out. For my sake, as well as yours.

On fear

Fear is a useful tool we’ve evolved to save ourselves from big scary monsters that want to devour us.

There are no monsters now though, we’ve killed the beasts, save the ones we grow in our own hearts and minds. We’ve slain the dragons, then we became the dragons. It’s probably our most formidable foe, right? Our selves.

On the radio, they profiled a company that offers training for what to do in the event of an active shooter. The owner of the company shared that it was only after Sandy Hook that his business took off—from schools, to churches and public/government buildings—he is providing a valuable service to our society. My chest tightened as I listened. I could feel the monster in my heart turning over.

My son was always especially sensitive to monsters, but no monster scared him more than Darth Vader. Once a noble Jedi, Vader let go of his humanity and became the thing that was in his heart—darkness. Vader tormented my young son, who saw him in his nightmares every night. How could a man, a regular man, become so cruel? My boy, who with his child’s heart, still believed that the monsters were beasts and dragons, couldn’t understand Vader’s metamorphosis. But he was Luke’s father! he would argue, futilely.

There’s something lost in a child, I’ve seen it now, when the realization dawns on them, that the monsters we must face are each other. And us. That we feed them with rage and hate and oppression. That we corner our hearts and beat them until they snarl and bite. My instinct is to save them from that, but it’s futile also, because they have active shooting drills at their elementary school now. I can’t bring myself to imagine it even—their tiny bodies huddled in the art supply closet.

Fear is a useful tool, but I don’t want them to be afraid. I want them to be fully realized human creatures, with joyful and forgiving hearts. I want them to love themselves enough, that the monsters in them have nothing to eat and slink away into the night. I want them to dance, to learn, to laugh, and to cheer for their movie heroes. I want them to be safe from it all. I want to save them.

And I pray for all who could not be saved.

Cheerio My Deario

i once was an innocent kit
wotthehell wotthehell
with a ribbon my neck to fit
and bells tied onto it
o wotthehell wotthehell
but a maltese cat came by
with a come hither look in his eye
and a song that soared to the sky
and wotthehell wotthehell
and i followed adown the street
the pad of his rhythmical feet
o permit me again to repeat
wotthehell wotthehell

the song of mehitabel, Don Marquis 1927

Have you ever read Archy & Mehitabel? I remember first picking it up in a used book store in Bowling Green, Ohio. Don Marquis wrote these hundreds of little humorous verses for a newspaper (my dream job?) in the twenties—from the point of view of a cockroach and his alley cat friend. It came up in a conversation earlier this week because I recalled a connection with toujours gai Mehitabel. She was a lot of things. Funny, but deeply flawed. She made a lot of mistakes during her search for love.

Did she ever find it? my friend asked.

I don’t remember now.

Isn’t it funny how we sometimes don’t remember the most important parts?

I guess for me, it wasn’t the most important part.

I am almost always surprised, in retrospect, by the most important part of any thing—the seemingly meaningless shred of memory filtering through the dark times, the how and why of this unconscious selection. Is my subconscious protecting me from a cutting pain or a tender vulnerability, by filing away the mundane details or an inconsequential plot point instead? There were instances I know I’ve sworn—in the moment—to remember always. I can remember the promise, but not context in which I made it. Instead of the smile on my infant son’s face, his weight in my arms, that milky-sweet baby smell, I can recall the exact color and quality of the floorboards in the home where we paced back and forth all night long during those early days together. Memory is deceptive and unreliable, colored by the present. An underpainting on a canvas we can’t put down or hang up.

So we have touchstones to bring us back—books and songs and baubles we keep on the shelf. But for me, when I’m searching for that one particular image, I know I can find it again in a poem. My daughter is a haiku—unexpected and impressionistic. My son is a sonnet—intelligently composed and delicately choreographed. And me. I’m the vers libre. A hot mess. Complicit even, in my form, regardless of my merit.

But what can I say, deeply flawed as I am?
wotthehell wotthehell