Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Masha Hamilton is the author of four critically acclaimed novels, most recently 31 Hours, released in September. She is the founder of the Camel Book Drive and the Afghan Women's Writing Project.

Shannon Cain: What inspired you to launch the AWWP?

Masha Hamilton: I returned to Afghanistan about a year ago, last November. On this trip, I found a greater pessimism among the women than during my previous visit in 2004. My own travel was severely limited due to security considerations, and the women I interviewed often spoke about how quickly the Taliban had taken over in the '90s, how quickly they were not allowed outside except in a burqa and accompanied by a male relative, how quickly they were denied access to schools. How quickly their worlds shrunk. There was fear that this could happen again. Although "moderate Taliban" may be a meaningful term in terms of negotiations with the Karzai government, it seems less meaningful in terms of women's rights. So there is definitely concern among Afghan women as the Karzai government moves toward incorporating the Taliban in some fashion.

SC: How did you organize the project and get it started?

MH: I had long considered teaching an online class to Afghan women writers; I decided to launch the class a few months after my November visit. But enthusiasm among the Afghan writers was palpable, and I rapidly understood the demand would outstrip my ability to meet it. That's when I began reaching out to American novelists, short-story writers, poets, memoirists, etc., who also teach, many of them my friends, and asking them to volunteer on a rotating basis.

SC: What are some of the barriers/risks these writers are overcoming in order to have their voices heard?

MH: Sometimes these women are overcoming major risks just to participate in the project. In several cases, their families do not know they are participating, and would not be happy. Virtually everything on the blog goes through some revision process, so exchanges back and forth between the student and her teacher are critical. Yet many have difficulties getting us the work: going into an Internet cafe is not possible for a woman alone, and a woman who goes in with a male relative makes herself the center of unwelcome, and sometimes threatening, attention.

SC: How has working with these writers changed your teachers’ perception of Afghan women? And your own?

MH: If you take a look at the newsletter, you will see the section called "A Word From Our Teachers." Often, they comment about how much more they understand about Afghan women at this point, and that they have been both educated and moved by working with the writers in ways they hadn't anticipated. This is definitely a two-way street and women at both ends of the project are benefiting. My own perceptions of Afghan women were formed by my previous trips, when I interviewed women in prison in Kabul and Kandahar, child brides, matriarchs of opium-growing families, war widows. I grew to appreciate the grace with which many handled enormous hardships.

SC: What are some of the stumbling blocks you’ve encountered along the way?

MH: The only stumbling block – which is also a strength – is that the teachers are here and the Afghan writers are there. We've largely overcome that with the help of a couple of awesome and amazing liaisons in Afghanistan. We also have a volunteer blogmaster in California and a volunteer technical director in Indiana who set up our secure online classrooms. This project has helped connect people in unusual ways -- I've heard from those who've read the blog and those who've heard about the project, and through this, I've been able to take part in some inspiring conversations. My hope for the coming year is that the blog readership will continue to grow because I think this is a unique and valuable project.

SC: Here at Kore Press we believe in the power of literature as a means toward social justice. Do you see the project contributing somehow to an improved standard of living for women in Afghanistan?

MH: That’s a large goal and my own goals are more modest. I hope we can connect Afghan women to American women as well as to readers from the U.S. and elsewhere. I hope the Afghan women can benefit as much as their teachers and readers do from this exchange. I hope we can let these women know we are here, we are listening, we care.

SC: What would you say resides at the heart of the Afghan Women’s Writing Project?

MH: AWWP is about sharing your story – and I think this is a human need that has been denied Afghan women for many years. Their stories were either seen as irrelevant and value-less, or expressed via male relatives, or sometimes expressed via the media. But not in their own words, in their own way.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Being a Woman: My Only Sin

Photo by Heidi Levine

Reposted from the Afghan Women's Writing Project

(Eds Note: This essay was written by one of our writers, but contains no identifying information due to security considerations.)

I love my job. I know it can help bring changes in women’s living conditions in my province. But there are obstacles.

Recently I received a death threat from Taliban. I was on my way to work when a neighbor called out to me and said, “You must return home because we found a letter from the Taliban threatening you, and you must quit your job right now.”

“I want to see that letter,” I told him.

He said, “That is fine,” and gave me the letter, which said the Taliban in my province were planning to kidnap me, my sister and my father and then kill us.

As my family was at risk, they decided to move to another city. They were not happy about leaving me alone and asked me to come with them, but I thought about my responsibilities for the women in my province, so I remained behind for my job. I am not living with my family any longer. I only go out covered in a burqa. I am still working.

My early life began like this: when I was seven years old, my mother got sick, so I began to take care of our home, washing clothes and dishes, cooking. One night during the Taliban regime, our family left Afghanistan at midnight and headed to Iran. It was cold and dark. We were traveling in a car and the roads were unpaved and dusty. Finally we reached the Iranian border. We found a place to stay for the night, and in the morning we crossed a river and then took another car to Zabol in Iran.

In Iran, we started another life with many difficulties. My father was working and my mother and I began to work also. We deshelled nuts for a shopkeeper who paid us about 1000 toman so we had enough to buy bread. I have many bad memories from that time. I remember when I was eight years old; I went to bakery to buy bread. I was the first in line, but the baker did not give me bread because I was an Afghan. I waited until 10 p.m. that night. It got darker and darker and I was afraid, as our house was very far. Finally I got the bread and was running home and, on the way, crying. When I got home, my mother was waiting at the gate, also very worried.

At that time I wanted to study, so I tried to enroll in official Iranian schools, but as I was an Afghan, I was not allowed to attend the schools. I did find a literacy class and I started my primary education there until sixth grade. That meant when we returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, I could go directly to school to learn subjects, not simply to learn to read.

The first day of school in Afghanistan, I was so glad. I felt I was floating in the sky. It was a sunny day. I was with many Afghan girls standing in the yard of school and waiting for our teachers. It was 2001 and I was in the sixth grade. We did not have chairs, desks, books, or a blackboard and our floor was dirt, since everything was lost during the Taliban regime. I was an intelligent student and the teachers loved me. I never missed a day, even though my mother was sick. I got up early in the morning to clean the house, make breakfast and cook lunch.

In 2004, my life faced another tragedy. My family forced me to marry an uneducated, older man. I was sixteen years old. The man I was engaged to was my father’s relative. From the beginning, every day, I was beaten by him. He wanted to prevent me from going to school; he never allowed me to see my friends and relatives. I tolerated everything because I was an Afghan and it was shame for my family if I complained about my husband.

After three months, my husband sent me to my father’s home and left me. When I was 17 years old, he came and divorced me. I was pregnant. I was happy that this cruel man would leave me alone, but I was worried about my child. After he divorced me, people started to say bad things about me because they did not accept a divorced woman. My child was born in a hospital but since then, I have never seen him. It was a boy and my husband’s family came to take him forever.

There was no way forward for me except to continue my education. I finished my pre-university classes and wanted to go to a university. But my mother was again sick and required an operation that cost the equivalent of eight-thousand dollars. So I worked for three years to help raise this money. My mother had the operation and is now fine. I feel so happy to see her finally healthy after 17 years.

As for my own future, I don’t know what it will be. I know I want a university degree someday, and I know I will keep trying.

By Anonymous

Friday, August 21, 2009

Victoria Garza

Victoria received her Master of Arts degree in Film and Media Theory, History, & Criticism and her M.F.A. in Film Production at NYU. She received the Tisch School of the Arts Fellowship and was nominated for both the Directors Guild of America Scholarship and the Women in Film Scholarship for her documentary Claribel. She has twice been awarded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts Entertainment Industry Scholarship. Victoria just finished production of a documentary on immigrant street food vendors in New York City. She resides in Los Angeles, where she writes and develops projects for her production company, clearthoughtmedia.

Left behind

and drenched as the grass,

with drops of dew.

--Kobayashi Issa

For twenty-three days I am terrified of dying. I am terrified that I or my parents or my grandparents or the dog across the street will die. Having decided I was barely surviving, I decide I am a Jew and hiding in Ohio. When I suggest this to my mother, she gently asked me how I can manage to be a Catholic and a Jew at the same time. I remind her that the early Christians were Jews and so was Jesus Christ. “Yes, that’s true,” she says, while patting my hand to keep me from pulling a loose thread from her brown and orange flowered bedspread. I tell my mother all about Anne Frank and remind her that people can be hiding for years and everyone thinks they are dead—but they are not, they’re just hiding. My mother says that my sister is not hiding.

I know she’s dead Mom,” I say. But I also think my sister is bound to show up at any moment, and so I should therefore be prepared. Thus began my love of lists. As long as I could list my thoughts, I felt a degree of control over them, as if listing was slapping them into submission. My most important list was a series of questions I was going to ask my sister upon her return home. The relief I feel from performing the exercise is so profound that it consistently overshadows the knowledge that she is not coming back.

Rather than add to my list, I always change it. I choose eleven, one number shy of my favorite number. There was some logic to this, but I can’t remember what it is. Maybe it’s the same logic my cousin Rachel (whose pajama party my sister and cousin never arrived at) uses when she decides to skip her 7th birthday. We find out a year later when she announces to everyone’s surprise that she is a year younger than she actually is. She says, matter of factly, “I skipped a year.” I skipped weeks and months after Gina’s death. I just wiped them off the map of time. And then I skipped time altogether when I took to daydreaming without realizing it. Anything could set me off. I fell into a trance once while looking at a beetle behind the garage. When I finally hear my mother calling , I have no way of explaining to her what I was doing. I can’t say, “I was looking at a beetle,” because that would sound stupid. So I say, “Nothing,” which my mother, like all mothers, takes to mean that I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing.

Death does that to time, compresses it, slows it down until it doesn’t exist. A year feels like a week, three years, like three weeks. Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan says that death lives behind you on your left, an arm's stretch away—ready to tap you on the shoulder. Lorca calls it duende, death as friend, death as companion. But Grace resides to my right, and she is louder and far more beautiful and more powerful than death. She is capable of coaxing death to do whatever she wants. She can make death shut up. Death whispers, “Certainly, if it can happen to you, it can happen to anyone, or worse yet, it can happen to you again.” Then Grace would whisper, “Yes, my girl, it is not only true but it is The Truth, so why worry about it?” So after twenty-three days, I decide I want to die. I imagine my death in hundreds of ways. I die riding my bike, smashed to a pulp by a reckless teenager who only has his driver’s permit. I die by drowning in dirty Lake Erie after jumping off the jetty. I freeze to death outside my bedroom window eating too much snow. I get struck by lightning. I die when I fall out of a tree and crack my head open, and instead of blood pouring out there are just dead thoughts that trickle out and collect in a puddle, which I then stomp on and watch scatter in the wind. However, finally thinking I understand what an attack of the heart means, I decide to die of a heart attack. Except in the case of my heart, it will not give me any warning—it will just beat slower and slower until it stops, like melting an ice cube under my armpit in the middle of summer—slowly or quickly my heart would start shrinking until it is the size of a pin head beating tiny beats, like a lighthouse beam flowing through my bloodstream, working its way out through my eyeball and then flying away. My heart would wave to myself, dead down there in the yard.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Radical Art of Sowing Seeds and the "Net Win"

Deborah Fisher is a sculptor and critic whose work focuses on the structural meaning of climate change, or the relationship between the built world and the earth. She recently completed a large-scale public sculpture entitled Solid State Change for Middlebury College’s Environmental Studies building, for which she received a Puffin Foundation grant. She is an artist in residence at Sculpture Space in Utica, NY. Fisher contributes regularly to two online magazines: ArtCal Zine and A Gathering of the Tribes. She earned a BFA in studio art from the University of Arizona in 1997, and an MFA in visual art from UC San Diego in 2003, where she was a Regents scholar and recipient of the Center for Humanities Research Fellowship.

For more than a decade, I made sculpture. It feels good, viscerally, to take a concept in, chew on it, and either shit or regurgitate a third thing that is now neither you nor the original idea, but is a record of the journey from outside to inside and back again.

My motives have always been personal and deeply vulgar. That's art for you. Making meaning is a grabby activity. You see something and want to take it and make it yours. And while I deeply enjoy this arrogant, aggressive part, I also think that gratuitous creative license is boring. If there's going to be nastiness, I want some kind of redemption. I want a net win.

I'll make this real by telling a true story. I worked until recently for Socrates Sculpture Park, which Mark diSuvero founded and where he still keeps a studio for his work on giant I-beam sculptures.

The original goal was to create an art petting zoo: an alternate universe where you can stand right in front of someone making a sculpture, even if they're welding or using a crane, while your baby plays at your feet, with no thoughts about liability or mishap. That part of Socrates does kind of work. But the genius part of Socrates is the ecosystem of people who actually do this, and what they bring. Doug the Taoist has been doing tai chi in Socrates forever, and he introduces himself to every artist he meets and tells stories about past artists. In doing so, he creates a running narrative, handed from artist to artist. Frank is an eighty-year old man who comes to the park every day and talks about how he's waiting to die, how beautiful his wife was, and his WWII exploits. He sits in full lotus on the work tables, smoking Misty cigarettes, and fixes the tools. The unemployed Dominican men that fish in the nearby east river every day are the sharpest art critics I have ever met.

Socrates was a particularly aggressive grab. DiSuvero made plenty of enemies by insisting that this vacant lot, full of tires, junk cars and concrete block, was his to clean up and use to build his career. The relationship to the surrounding community wasn't always perfect, but the park still thrives because it is so much more than one artist’s playground.

Mark would never call Socrates art, and neither would I, but it is a successful act of meaning creation. And Mark would be disappointed to hear this, but I actually find it more meaningful than his sculpture. It's got the parts I like: the creative violence and its overcoming. It's got the Net Win.

So, I come to you in this essay from the middle of a substantial transition. My strong bias toward sculpture as the "right" way to make meaning is giving out. In fact, this bias has been so powerful that the first one hundred drafts descended quickly into tedious explanation about how I am not some loser who was forced to stop making art because I couldn't hack it, or because my art wasn't good. And right now I am going to catch myself at the edge of this particular cliff one last time and just say that I am not making art right now because when I look at the scale and scope of my sculpture and compare it to something that is truly giving, like Socrates, I think that it pales in comparison. Most art does. Even my all-time favorite pieces do less than the park .

Art’s primary job, in New York City, anyway, is to prove the wealth of very rich people to other very rich people. It can be wasteful. And it's all about one individual's devouring and excreting vision. We all love the image of the asshole artist chewing through the world in service of his vision. We cling to this idea of art even as it dawns on us that the rest of modernism has hateful side effects. We are rejecting the radical consumption-based individualism of buying a McMansion in a distant suburb, and rolling around in a really big vehicle willy nilly, and feeding at the more-cheaper-is-better trough of agribusiness. We are collectively deciding that the diseases of modernism, from diabetes and climate change to existential angst, are worth addressing. Why not subject the impulse to create and all its products to the same scrutiny? Is it so crazy to suggest that, just as there are transportation alternatives to the Hummer, there are ways to live and work creatively that reorganize redemption, consumption and destruction?

As you know, times are tough. We need to problem solve, to find new ways of doing just about everything. Last winter, as I stood alone in my studio, I realized that if I thought the most important thing I could be doing is make an abstract sculpture out of my junk mail while the financial system collapses and the climate becomes increasingly unlivable and this poor Obama fellow keeps his chin up as he recites his impressive litany of deeds left to do, then I am not firing on all cylinders.

I decided that what I care about is the environment, and the culture of environmentalism. I decided that I hate calling myself an environmentalist because the movement is decidedly puritanical, and that even as I reject the label, I struggle with my own infinite capacity to eco-ritualize on a daily basis. I started wondering why I feel like I have to fish other people's compostables out of the garbage and bring them home in a wet sack. I got really angry that Earth Hour, an hour of sitting in the dark, is the worldwide environmental action. I decided that it would be much more beautiful if everyone went and sowed wildflower seeds instead.

This germ of irritation evolved into Bed Stuy Meadow, which happened April 11, 2009. I got two hundred and fifty people to give me either money or a promise of time, and even though the 11th was pouring rain, almost one hundred people turned up to sow wildflower seeds on every single square inch of untended land in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, where I live. The seed sowing day was a great success: more than 90% of the territory got covered, and the volunteers were on fire. But if I thought I was getting away from the arrogance and grabbiness of making meaning, I would have been very disappointed. A lot of people were angry because they thought it was a white idea in a historically black neighborhood. Or that it was about newcomers in a neighborhood with a fiercely protective old guard. The press coverage focused overwhelmingly on gentrification. And at this writing, in mid June, with zero flowers on the scene because they seem to have been choked out by weeds, I am finding myself getting intimate with a whole new class of people that I've pissed off: disappointed volunteers who feel like they got soaked in April for nothing.

I am sitting here at the most vulnerable point of a selfish, impulsive, problematic and totally redeemable project that could really explode into exactly the kind of thing I want... if it gets enormous enough. I am wrestling with the fact that I wanted a simple Wildflower Love Gesture and got Race War and Real Estate Anger and Disappointed Volunteers, but I know that this is a function of misunderstanding the scope of what I wanted to do. It's not a manifest destiny thing, it's a call and response. And I am just getting the first responses back.

A quick list of what I have, and what the Meadow yielded:

1. I have the original grabby gesture: seeing all this available untended land, lying fallow behind busted chain link fences, my neighborhood's greatest liability, begging to be turned into its greatest asset.

2. And I have a big handful of new neighbor friends who have even more ideas than I have, and more real-world knowledge, and backgrounds that are, I must admit, a little more practical than mine.

3. I also have, at this point, a responsibility not to run away. My role here is to make meaning, and I already said that much of that work is a matter of follow through. Pulling back now would make the meaning of Bed Stuy Meadow something that I can't bear, like the perverted inverse of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, or the same old things we already know about how frightening it is for white people like myself to be called racist.

In other words, I am in this up to my neck, and the stakes are much higher than they ever were when I was screwing tires together. Thankfully, I am working with a handful of folks to get to that net win that this project requires. We are talking about making an Urban Farm Syndicate that takes actual responsibility of as many vacant lots as possible instead of just casting seed, and uses them to feed and employ people and conduct large-scale urban farming research. Right now it's just talk. But it could evolve into a lot of dignified, living-wage jobs for local people; tasty local produce in a neighborhood formerly known as a food desert; beautiful trees and shrubs that sequester CO2 and provide shade in perpetuity; a venue for trying out new ways to remediate contaminated soil; a library of urban farming knowledge; a seed bank; a project that improves Bed Stuy by delivering value to all the people who live here: rich and poor, black and white, new and old.

The vision is grand, and even more grabby than the original idea, but much less dependent on one artist's work. I am in total freefall, with nothing to cling to but my belief that freefall is how the best creative work happens. I have never been happier or more frightened in my life.

More about Deb's project:

Press coverage:

Friday, May 15, 2009

How To Treat Your Minority Student

Sophia Licona is a high school student in Tucson, AZ. She is a long-time participant in the Kore Press Grrls Literary Activism Project.

Do you have trouble interacting with minority students? Does it seem like they are overrunning the schools? They just keep coming, year after year, lowering test scores, and speaking their foreign jibber jabber. Fortunately, the Minority Student Instruction Manual (MSIM) has now been written. What follows are solutions to all of your minority student problems.

The safest way to learn your minority student’s ability is to assume they don’t speak English. If they have a last name that can’t be pronounced, like Garcia, they probably won’t understand your course content. If they come in and try to declare that English is their first language, don’t be fooled. Insist they at least take an English fluency test, but it is best if they go through several weeks of ESL. Start out the ESL class with a picture of a dog. Point at the picture and clearly state, “dog, D-O-G, dog.” Have the student repeat the word several times. If your student complains that they “already know how to speak English,” they may be moved to a regular English class, but not before you comment on “how fast” they learn and “how well” you taught them.

Now, if you aren’t quite sure what your minority student’s heritage is, there are two (two, T-W-O, two) options. Option numero uno is to ask, after having an unrelated conversation, if your student has “recently been on vacation,” or if they are “just not Caucasian.” It is best to do this when the student is about to leave and must answer quickly. Option two is best if you have a vague idea of where your student may come from. If you think the student is from India, ask “Are you from India?” When your student says, “No, my family is Mexican,” respond with, “Sweetheart, you must be mistaken. Are you sure your parents aren’t from India?” Thirty minutes of arguing is acceptable. After, remind the student that it is important to not be ashamed of where they come from. It may be in the student’s best interest if you recommend that they try to reconnect with their cultural heritage. Perhaps suggest watching the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

When grading a minority student’s work, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, make sure they aren’t writing in clich├ęs that they learned in those first few weeks of ESL. Suggest alternatives they might relate to culturally. For example, if a student compares something to “a knife through butter,” say, “Why don’t YOU write, like a knife through guacamole?” Any ethnic food will do. Also ask if there are any common sayings where they come from.

If your student has trouble picking a topic for a project, suggest an issue meaningful to them. If they are from Japan, suggest they study communism in China. They will already have a wide knowledge base because China is a big country in their part of the world. Finally, when having a class discussion, don’t hesitate to ask your minority student for the Black community’s perspective, or the Hispanic perspective, or the Asian perspective, or the Indian perspective (it is important to separate India from Asia because Indians look more like Middle-Eastern terrorists than like Chinese). However, don’t let these guidelines limit you; get creative with your suggestions.

If a Black or Hispanic student ever approaches you about college, the advice you should offer is clear. If they have anything to say, listen patiently. Then, if they are smart, tell them how lucky they are to be Black or Hispanic. If they are remotely intelligent they need not worry about silly things like SAT scores; they will get into the school of their choice because of affirmative action. Well, maybe they won’t get into Harvard, or Stanford, or Yale, or [insert school here]. It is then acceptable to go off on a tangent about how soon all of our universities will be overrun by Black and Hispanic students with mediocre SAT scores and on financial aid scholarships.

This will segue nicely to your next point. There are many scholarships out there for kids of color. In fact, almost all scholarships are for kids of color. Remind the kids of color to be grateful to white kids who have it so hard. If you feel your minority student isn’t bright, tell them to join the military, as this will be their only opportunity to be a contributing and productive member of society.

Remember, when dealing with minority students, it can be hard to know what to say. However, parent-teacher conferences are easy to prep for. When your student’s parent arrives, speak loudly and slowly. If you can’t enunciate, just yell. Start by asking how to say hello where they come from, then use your newfound linguistic skills to say hello. Ask how they like AMERICA. If they look confused, it’s fine. They probably don’t know what you’re saying. It’s not like they have a PhD in Rhetoric through the English department in AMERICA. Next, say what you need to say, and, if the student is getting good grades, state how well they represent Mexicans, or Indians, or whatever.

If you can’t remember any of this, just tell your student how beautiful you think their culture is. Let the student know you understand them and their “minority-ness.” Remember: you are doing the best you can with these people.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When You Catch Writer's Block on the Side of the Road, Kill It

Laraine Herring is an author, teacher, and counselor. Her first book, Monsoons, was published in 1999 by Duality Press. Her novel, Lay My Sorrows Down, won the Barbara Deming Award for Women in 2000. Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal From Adolescent Father Loss, was released in May, 2005 from Hazelden Press. The audiobook is also available on itunes and Her latest book, Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice was released in September, 2007, from Shambhala Publications. She is at work on a third novel and a memoir. Find out more at

This semester, my students have been resistant to practice. Perhaps because it's spring and they want to be dancing in fields of poppies. Perhaps because they are worried about their futures. Perhaps because they are simply not ready to commit to writing. Writing, after all, is serious business.

I've had students complain to me that they aren't writing enough, and when I ask them if they're writing, they say, "Well, no..." To this I respond: writing begets writing. There is no way to write but to write. There are no tricks, though there are plenty of diversions. One of the points I make in my book The Writing Warrior is that any structure someone provides for your writing, or any structure you create yourself, is only as useful as your ability to work freely within it and to stay centered and focused. The structure or the concept doesn't make the writing work. Your discipline, practice and flexibility make it work. When structure of any kind (relationship, job, religion, writing, city) becomes a prison, it's time to move on.

Now, what writing practice does is illuminate. It yanks out into the open everything that the writer has been trying not to look at. And so the writer goes away. This is normal, but a book about writing, or a class about writing, can't address the nuts and bolts without addressing the real reason writing is hard. It holds up a mirror to your own demons. It dares you to look, dares you further to write about it, then dares you even further to share it publicly. Yeah, is it too late to change majors to something safer like Pyrotechnics in the Middle East?

Writing practice brings up your limitations. This is a gift, not a problem. The more you know about what you do and why, the more room you have to make authentic decisions. Writing practice shows you your belief systems about yourself, your family, your world. It shows you where you need to be right and where you feel invisible.

One of my favorite books is If You Meet Buddha on the Road, Kill Him by Sheldon Kopp. What he means, of course, is on your quest to self-knowledge, anything that gets in the way of true self-intimacy needs to go—even if that thing is a revered deity. It’s a symbol, it's the finger pointing at the moon, it's representative of an endless search. You don't need it. Ben Yagoda’s recent title expresses a similarly radical sentiment: When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.

(Lest you think I hate all adjectives and manifestations of God/dess, let me reassure you that I don't. I have been known to use an adjective or two, and right now my office displays a statue of Buddha, Ganesh, Kali, the Venus of Willendorf, a yin/yang symbol and a cross.)

As an exercise, I ask my first year creative writing students to describe a person they know without using any adjectives or adverbs. The intent is not to wipe adjectives and adverbs off the face of the earth, but rather to show the student that they often cloud what’s really there. As Ben Yagoda says, adjectives are often used by lazy writers "who don't stop to think that the concept is already in the noun."

Writers get in the way of their own writing because they don't yet know that the writing is where they are. There is nowhere to go. Writing will not unlock the secret code to fame and fortune. Writing will not bring about world peace. But what writing will do is bring forth her sorrows and her joys, her secrets and her lies. It will bring these out, and once in daylight, they will vanish and she will find she has space in her body, in her mind, and in her heart. And as one writer opens to herself, she brings that changed being into the world and into her contact with others. She has no attachment to whether others change or not, no attachment to whether they write or don't; she simply is, and in that 'is-ness' she is the noun, nothing in the way of all that beauty.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Assuming it Matters

Susan Baller-Shepard is the co-founder and the Editor-in-Chief of Spirituality Book Club.

When I was very little, I loved to write in my room, on long skinny strips of paper given to me by my great aunt the librarian. In seventh grade, I won an essay contest and a big chicken dinner for my whole family. In eighth grade, my essay about a local candy company was published in a state history journal, and my mom and I got to have lunch with the governor. The message to me: words feed people.

But in college, writing become uncomfortable, so I abandoned it. I worked at a church, left the country, returned, got married, went to grad school in a dual competency program, and got two masters: divinity and social work. I took one writing class, along with my other graduate classes, and the instructor told me I had “verb tense problems.” I got ordained, worked at churches, eventually had two sons and adopted a daughter. I did the things women do that get repeatedly undone: laundry, dishes, meals, house cleaning.

I felt an urge to write again. I thought no one would take me; I hadn’t written or published in years. Still, I kept feeling this need to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. I submitted a manuscript to Dr. Lucia Cordell Getsi, editor of Spoon River Poetry Review, asking to get into her graduate poetry writing class. I was convinced it wouldn’t happen. I got an email back from Lucia saying I was welcome to come and try out the course. She wrote, “I can tell from your manuscript that you are a serious writer.”

Lucia helped me think again. She was not as I had conjured her in my brain. She was short, attractive, worldly, wordy, scientific, mathematical, poetic. I tell her she is surgical in her editing. She cuts away what doesn’t belong, and sees what is healthy and connective. Mostly, though, she helped me to think through poems, learn the skeletal frames of the poems, consider their sinewy tissues. Now I have a book length poetry manuscript which Lucia edited, a children’s book manuscript, and I am presently writing a collection of essays.

I am forty-five and grateful to have age on my side, to be a woman writing the truth of my life, as a minister, web site editor, wife, mother, writer. They are mutually inclusive roles. My brother Jim says I should be glad my roles feed each other. That’s the beauty I see in the over-forty writing women and men I know well. They speak the truth about their lives: the good, the bad, the less-than-perfect. I value this. It’s less about publication now than it is about giving voice to what needs to be said, what can finally be said at this side of forty. If we don’t say it now, maybe it won’t get said.

On TV recently, I saw Jessica Lange give the commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. She urged the young women,

“Remember who you are. Because, right now, you have it all: the power of your imagination, the velocity of your dreams, the language of innocence, and the passion of a beginner. Don't lose it. Don't let it evaporate or get stripped away or worn away. And, as time passes, if you find you've come far away from yourself, allow the breeze of humility to remind you of who you were—who you really are.”

Persephone lived in circles, cycling between worlds, going away, coming home. I am thankful to Lucia, and others, who reminded me of my writing self.I have circled back around to the child I was, the child who shut herself in her room because she loved to write.

Spoon River Poetry Review

Jessica Lange’s Commencement Address

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Search of a) Literary Activism; and b) Happiness

Shannon Cain was the Executive Director of Kore Press from April 2004 to July 2008, and has served since then as its Sales & Marketing Director. Shannon’s short fiction has received the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop and as a private coach. She continues her work with Kore Press as its new Fiction Editor.

1986: As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona I took a fiction writing workshop with Mr. Monkeywrench himself, Edward Abbey. He was stoic and closemouthed. I wrote horrible stuff. I had no idea a) what a workshop was; and b) that I was sitting across the table from a famed literary activist.

1988: I moved to New York and began working in nonprofit administration and fundraising. Someone gave me a job directing a small women’s organization in East Harlem. I fell in with a group of fierce feminist activists and learned how to make social change by a) community organizing; and b) yelling at the top of my lungs.

1994: I gave birth to a baby girl and realized a) this was happiness; and b) I needed to start writing again.

2000: I started writing again. I dragged myself to a night class in fiction writing at Pima Community College. The ground started to feel slippery under my feet, yet a) everything started to make sense; and b) there was no going back.

2002: I had a bright and shiny career in nonprofit management, with a lucrative specialization in raising money for social service and social change organizations. But I had grown to despise the work. I distracted myself with writing fiction, which was going well. I was in my first year of a prestigious MFA program. This education was blowing my mind and releasing a passion I’d kept in hibernation since childhood. I wrote a long paper on political fiction. Suddenly the philanthropic foundation I was working for shut its doors, creating in me a) panic; and b) despair.

2003: I turned 39. Unemployed for the first time in my life and resisting the urge to accept any number of jobs I knew I’d hate, I spent a year a) writing; and b) crying.

2004: I came to work for Kore Press. I learned what is meant by literary activism. Here I could feel good again about fundraising. I combined the fancy- schmancy nonprofit management training I’d accumulated with the rich, round fullness of literature. I got elbow deep in the business of publishing. My paychecks were small and irregular but I felt neither panic nor despair. I converted a backyard storage shed into a writing studio. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and won a prize or two. From my colleague Lisa Bowden I learned volumes about fine publishing, about editing, about standards of quality, and about perseverance.

2009: This year I take a deeper plunge into the literary life, evolving from writer/arts administrator to writer/teacher/editor. Soon I will be part-time fiction editor for Kore Press, part-time teacher and full-time writer. For five years at Kore Press I have been surrounded by women who honor the act of writing. They have shown me by example that it is possible to accommodate one’s passions. My partner and I have rearranged our lives. We live in a little brick house and worry about the mortgage. I am writing a political novel, flying headlong into a career as a literary activist. Writing a novel is the hardest work I’ve done so far, because it causes me a) despair; and b) happiness.