Writing—and paying attention

This fall I became a volunteer mentor for Girls Write Now, an organization that pairs New York City public high school girls who have a passion for writing with professional women writers who pass on their craft. I find myself going back to basics, trying different writing styles and genres; it’s a little like being a baby writer again. My mentee and I began with exercises in the building blocks of writing: interviewing, note-taking, description. Last week, we did character description. We sat on a bench in a plaza outside a mall and picked out a man sitting a couple[…]

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Where does writing come from? (part 2)

Mavis Gallant, a Canadian short-story writer, died in February at 94. A notice in the New Yorker got me curious about her. After a brief early marriage, she moved to Europe in 1950, at 28, giving herself two years make a living entirely from writing. And she did it, making the tradeoff so many women have felt compelled to make: “She has quite deliberately chosen to have neither husband nor children, those two great deterrents to any woman’s attempt to live by and for writing,” as one scholar put it. So when she explains what drives someone to become a[…]

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Between the Door and the Street: the stoop, and a conversation

Sitting by a stoop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, with three other women, discussing gender politics—as an art form. The yellow scarves signal that we’re part of Between the Door and the Street, a work of socially engaged art by California artist Suzanne Lacy. We were among 84 groups on stoops along the block, “performing” our unscripted conversations for a large crowd that strolled the sidewalk, stopping and listening at different stoops as they chose. We stoop sitters represented a huge range of local activist groups. My own group’s subject was second-wave feminism—how it changed us, how it changed society—and what[…]

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Floored by a foot

A six-by-three-foot foot. It sat like a huge bench right by the elevators at the Asia Society, part of an exhibit titled “Pilgrimage and Buddhist Art.” This gigantic stone carving of the Buddha’s right foot, inscribed with 108 auspicious symbols, packed a wallop, more than anything I saw in the exhibit rooms. It felt personal and close, as though the Buddha had just been there, striding through the lobby on his way to the galleries. You could sense the sculptor’s pure longing to feel his presence. I had never seen a Buddha footprint before, and went home to figure out[…]

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Where’s the OUTRAGE?

A city dweller—a true child of concrete—once spent the weekend with a friend in the suburbs. The friend’s cat snared a bird and as cats will do, deposited the corpse as a gift on the doorstep. The city visitor was indignant. “Aren’t you mad at Rudy for killing the pretty bird?” she demanded. “Why should I be angry at a creature for acting according to its nature?” the friend responded. Even at the time, I perceived a real wisdom in this answer (that city creature wasn’t me, by the way). But only recently do I see why. Not long ago[…]

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Occupy Wall Street: a spiritual movement?

The other day I visited Occupy Wall Street in Zucotti “Park,” essentially a paved strip one block long between tall buildings. What struck me first was how dense it is. Little bubble tents are close-packed, with narrow aisles here and there so you can thread your way through. Almost all the square footage is taken up by these tents and by various organizational/ administrative booths: the “Think Tank” where seminars and lectures are held, the Library (writers, note: lots of real books), Information, Community Affairs, and Legal. A large hand-lettered sign listed a full schedule of activities for the day:[…]

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The sky of mind: vast like space

Buddhist meditators practice experiencing the mind as a vast, clear sky, through which thoughts, feeings, and all other experiences pass like clouds, appearing and then vanishing in an open space of awareness that’s not limited to the inside of the head. (Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes this practice here.) Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Blue Sky combines that image of the mind as vast open sky with an experience I’ve had when writing at a very deep level. Part of the conceptual work for my books about homeless women and about self-sacrifice was simply discovering what they were actually about. I came across[…]

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What’s the “practice” of writing?

I practice yoga, and I practice meditation. And I also “practice” writing. I like this concept, because it connects skill and inspiration. I’ll begin with skill. One authority defines practice as “systematic training by multiple repetitions.” Other sources emphasize frequency, skill, instruction, discipline, and “artful management.” (Here is a thought-provoking collection of definitions.) My practice of insight meditation shapes my thinking about writing as a practice. In meditation, you train your mind to stay focused by systematically returning over and over to your breath. You need instruction to learn how to do this. There is an art to choosing the[…]

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