"My own remembering was too isolated and memory alone wasn't enough. I wanted proof, and I wanted it in ink."

Strong Wings

Writing is hard. I want to run away. It’s an absolute confrontation with the self, though, so you can’t run away. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to metaphors: they screen; I can hide for a minute, catch my breath.

Strength training is the same kind of hard: there’s nowhere to hide. I always show up on time, I’m always warmed up, ready to go. My trainer’s always there, always ready; he shows up too, every time.

I have trouble with shoulder movements. I tend to hike my shoulder blades up towards my ears, dancer backcaving in on myself, compressing my neck. When this happens, I can’t breathe properly, my posture breaks down, I hunch. When this happens, he stands behind me and touches his fingers across the top of my trapezius muscle, gently pressing down, to keep me in place. To remind me of the proper form. “Remember to stabilize the scapula,” he says.

BrownScapularBut I hear it as scapular, and I remember necklace I wore as a Catholic schoolgirl, the two squares of brown felt, stitched to a narrow satin band. I think of how it promised me salvation. “Whoever dies clothed in this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire,” it read.

“You want to keep your shoulder blades in position so you activate your lats,” he tells me.  “You want to use the strength of your back for this movement.” I try to focus on my lats, on keeping my shoulders down, try to breathe into the movement.

But I run away again, remembering the moment in The Awakening where Edna Pontellier recounts an odd conversation with Madamoiselle Reisz, the artist.Edna Library_Walk_30Edna remarks, “when I left her to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said. ‘The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.’”

“Lift your chest up,” he reminds me. “That will help you breathe. OK, ready? Let’s try it again.”


Strength Training

weight rackI want you to turn all your weight training over to me, he said that first day.  When you’re working on your own, you can do whatever you want in terms of cardio or stretching or yoga, whatever.  But leave your strength to me.  This was exactly what I wanted to hear.

I wanted to be strong, so I signed up with a personal trainer and started lifting heavy weights.  Every week, I listened hard, I worked hard, and I got it all wrong.  We do as many reps as we need in order to get your muscles to failure, he told me.  That’s the goal here: we’re training to failure.  I took this in as a life lesson, and when I left the training floor, I kept lifting weights that were far, far too heavy.

What a dope I was: I was hearing everything as a metaphor, and I kept missing the real lesson.  Perhaps I think in terms of metaphor too much.  Perhaps I should just focus on things themselves.

We started with single plane movements, worked up to compound joint movements.  I worked on the mondo floor, alongside serious bodybuilders.  In every session, I did something that involved a push, a pull, a squat, and a lift.  I did balance challenges, first using just my own body weight as resistance, and gym floorthen adding additional weight, because that improves stability and balance.  As my upper body strength grew, I moved to the pull-up machine – where the ultimate goal is to lift your entire body weight up, unassisted, with your arms. I hate that machine.  I also want to beat that machine, but I always need the assistance.  I can’t lift myself, and that feels like failure.

Can you see the allure of metaphor here?  These were all things I wanted for myself – to push, to pull, to lift, to balance.  Of course, my great mistake was in thinking that my body was myself.  It’s not.  It’s just my body.  Sure, I thought I was something of a badass the morning I leg pressed 410 pounds (and you’ll note how casually I’ve mentioned that fact in two straight blog posts) – but quad strength gave me no help  when I was blindsided in a meeting later that afternoon.  My excellent range of motion didn’t help me manage stress; cardiovascular conditioning offered no advantage when I was running up against a deadline; stability on the bosu ball couldn’t help me comfort my son after he’d been cruelly insulted by a friend.  My hamstrings are really strong, and sure, that’s great.  But that’s just physical strength.

All that time, I was utterly aware of my own basic assumption.  I thought that everything connected to my strength training worked on the transitive property, that physical strength would automatically correlate, would saturate and transform every layer of my self.  It didn’t.  I’ve learned a lot about the body: you build up resistance, you add load, you pay attention to your form, you watch your breath.  But how do I train for the strength I really crave?

Goodbye Hello

I had expected 2014 to be a spectacular year — 14 is my lucky number, it’s the year I turned 50, and goshdarnit, I was due.  But, damn, looking back, I realize Fire-ScapeWebthat it was pretty miserable all around: identity theft, tax fraud, shingles, arthritis, credit card theft, clogged pipes, sudden deaths, unsudden deaths, a torn ligament in my right thumb (I still haven’t recovered from the surgery), major relationship trauma — far, far too many bad days.  Too many times this year, I have found myself in the crosshairs, walking what I thought was a clear and straight path only to find myself stepping on a landmine.  Even a casual visitor of this blog will recognize that there wasn’t much to see here — long gaps and silence.  The stagnant blankness tells  you everything you need to know about my creative practice in 2014.  Goodbye goodbye.

Sure, I could look back and focus on the positive, dwell in the professional accomplishments — a well-received MLA presentation, the OU President’s Colloquium, directorship of a successful Liberty Fund conference, completing a chapter length  biographical essay of a writer I value and admire.  But to be honest, while those projects gave me tremendous satisfaction, I can’t really say that they brought me joy.

What brought me joy was the day I was able to leg press 410 pounds.  I found joy at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, listening to Matthew Goodman speak with passion and brilliance about creative nonfiction.

I found joy last month in boston-public-library-85885_1280Boston, spending an afternoon in the Public Library and then an evening sharing dinner with my brothers.  Joy riding the Paint Creek Trail in September, joy picking berries for my breakfast each morning in June,  joy receiving a handcrafted ceramic vase from the girl I adore.

Joy writing this.









Hello joy.

The Biographer’s Dilemma

On October 14, 2014, I had the honor of presenting Oakland University’s President’s Colloquium Address, in which I considered the role of biography in contemporary literary culture.  Some thoughts from that talk –


Let me begin with a premise — As a literary form, biography appeals to many readers precisely because it avoids lots of thorny discussions and difficult challenges about the meaning of a text. Modernist and post modernist literature want to disrupt the reader, it wants to challenge us with difficult questions about authorship and authority and truth and reality.  books

In bookstores filled with magical realism, science fiction, surrealist, futuristic and fantasy worlds populated with magic, muggles and vampires – in such a range of literary options, biography stands out as a safe haven, a place where readers can be confident that they’re entering into a real and knowable world.


Biography is understood to be objective, to be based on facts, to be reliable and true; in biography, the author’s role is quite clear. To read a biography is to engage with a stable and authoritative text, a story with a beginning, middle and end, a tale that promises to be, in whatever way, relatable. In 1939, during a time when biography was considered still “a young art” Virginia Woolf wrote an essay examining the genre, and in it she declares, “The novelist is free. The biographer is tied.” Woolf writes that biography “imposes conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact.”

But these conditions also create the biographer’s dilemma, and the dilemma is this — how can biographical truth ever be ascertained?

We look to biography for more than a life in writing—we look for lessons, heroes, guidance, warnings.   As Paula Backscheider notes, “Biography explicates the symbolism of lives, can turn lives into symbols, and is itself always a socially symbolic act.”

VirginiaWoolfI began this talk with a quote from Virginia Woolf and I’m tempted to end it by citing Scott Donaldson, who advises, “Never write a biography of someone whose children are still alive.” Or I could quote Meryl Seacrest, who titled her memoir after the first rule of biography: Shoot the Widow. But I don’t want that cynicism to be the message that you take away from this talk. Rather, I believe that the broader meaning surrounding the biographer’s dilemma comes from precisely the complexity of these problems and from the questions they raise. Biography, that socially symbolic act is also an act of life writing. We read biographies to measure our own lives against others, and when we follow the trail of a biographer’s dilemma, we discover that the lives of others can not be so easily known, so easily understood, and in knowing this, we can expand the possibilities for meaning of our own lives.

If you’d like to see s video of the full talk, including the question and answer session, it’s here:


In the past two weeks, I have found myself sobbing as I read the final paragraph of a book. I’m not talking about a few tears brimming over my eyelids here and there – I’m talking full-throated keening, in the fetal position, unable to catch my breath.

I had to wonder, what’s up with that?

The books in question were both written by women — one fiction, Short Girls by Bich BKGIRLS_SU_C_^_SUNIQMinh Nguyen, and one nonfiction, Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller Wild. And wildwhile they differ in many ways, they both ended with a glimpse of the future. In each story, the future-telling gesture was such a delicate and understated thing, and yet I found myself wholly slain in the face of it.

It’s one thing in fiction; these are invented characters, after all, and their futures can be invented as well. I sensed, as I moved through the final pages of Short Girls, that Linny would be okay in the end, I hoped she’d move on. And I thought that would be enough. Still, as the novel’s conclusion blossomed well beyond my expectations for closure, as Nguyen’s elegant fiction satisfied my deepest desires for this fictional character …. surely, my keening was as much a desire for myself to be okay as it was in gratitude for Linny’s denouement. I hadn’t, until that moment, even been aware that I wasn’t okay myself.

The stakes are different in memoir, of course, and anyone who comes to the final pages of Cheryl Strayed’s lovely book these days does so with the clear knowledge that she ended up okay herself. She ended up better than okay, in fact, happily married, successful as a writer, friends with Oprah and Reese, exchanging friendly tweets with Diane Ladd. But she didn’t know it then, she couldn’t possible have known it then — not as she sat on a picnic table on that final day of her hike, not as she sat at the keyboard on that final page of her manuscript.

I’m not even on the final pages of my manuscript. I’m still so lost in the wilderness of writing that I don’t know what the end looks like. I’m not even entirely sure where I am most days. But if Bich Nguyen made it, if Cheryl Strayed wrote her way through the story, maybe I can too.

Getting out of the wilderness of life, however, that’s another matter altogether. That still has me keening.