Travels & Rambles

Report From Ucross or Some Thoughts On Abundance

So I have spent my first week at Ucross, an artist colony in Wyoming.  I’ve only been here two days, but already I feel my spirits lifting.  I credit it to the overwhelming spirit of abundance that infuses everything here.

It starts with the landscape.  This is big sky country.  When I look out of the window of my studio early in the morning, I witness the miracle of a purple sunrise over a meadow that stretches as far as I can see. (If you looks closely at the photo you can see it peeking in the window.) This morning, I put on my puffy and sat out on my deck, sipped coffee and just tripped on the splendor.

The rest of the feeling of abundance comes from the colony itself.  In the past I have visited retreats that come with a long list of rules telling you what all you can’t do– more like a boarding school than a true retreat.  But when we arrived here at Ucross, the terrific staff first showed us around making sure we knew where to find the tea station that featured so many varieties that I was tempted to give up coffee and join the #teamtea.  And then we were told that we could take tea with us to our studio.  Take the whole box you want.  Same for coffee which was in it’s own cabinet, stuffed to the brim.  The even found an 1970s IBM typewriter for me to use! The vibe here is like this: tell us what you need to create.  My needs are modest, really.  A sunny room, a big desk, coffee, and cookies if you have them.  But what I see I also need is the feeling that there is enough of everything.  No need to ration.  That feeling of abundance has already influenced my work.

My challenge when I get home to learn to recreate the feeling of abundance.  How to feel that there is plenty and not worry about scraping the bottom.  I think the answer is going to have to be spiritual rather than material.  Because in the material world, there seldom is quite enough.  The in the spiritual realm, there is infinity.


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Ada’s Rules of 8 #NaNoActTo

A few months ago, I purchased a fit bit– a fancy pedometer.  It’s a nifty little device; not only does it count my steps, but I was able to look at a graph and see how much of my time I spend sitting down hardly moving.  This will sound crazy, but I started trying to get in at least a mile of walking while I am at the office.  A quick trek to the deans office, a walk up the stairs to speak to a collegeage instead of using the intercome.  It adds up.

Small changes are still changes.

Alice Randall’s novel, Ada’s Rules, about a woman who wants to lose 100 pounds is part story, part self-help.  One thing I really like about it was this simple three point list to wellness.  Three simple things that anyone can do, but I suprised myself to see that I wasn’t always doing them.  Here they are:

8-8-8: Sleep eight hours each night. Drink eight glasses of water each day. Walk 8 miles each week. Three simple changes start Ada’s health and beauty revolution in the novel Ada’s Rules. Talk to your doctor about whether they make sense for you. (source)

Because I live in the Northeast, I was getting the walking in easily– I do that much walking just to get the subway.  But I wasn’t drinking water.  I was drinking five cups of coffee, but eight glasses of water no.  Three diet cokes? Absolutely. But not enough water.  And the sleeping?  That’s going to have to be another post on it’s own.


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Are you Working Too Hard? #NaNoActTo

Work to Live, Live to WorkI know I work to hard, but I am trying to learn to live/work/love differently.

It’s not Worth The Grief“ by J. Victoria Sanders on Feminist Wire really struck a chord with me.  For a long time, I thought working extremely hard was a way of showing self love.  After all, the only way I was going to reach my goals was to work for it, right?  Were these books going to write themselves?  Who was going to update my mailing list? Apply for these grants? Have you seen the VIDA numbers?  And besides, when I was working– writing, teaching, improving my apartment, whatever– it was something that I was doing just for me.  It was the rare time that I wasn’t laboring for the benefit of someone else, to meet someone else’s goals of what I should be doing with my life.  But guess what– too much work is just that, too much work.

Here is what J. Victoria Sanders wrote:

I basically subsisted on a few hours of sleep during the four semesters when I was teaching and publishing. I answered every e-mail and graded meticulously every single paper and PowerPoint presentation, all while producing a minimum of three stories and five blogs weekly at the paper—on top of freelance work. At work and after hours at home, I kept my inbox at zero, calling readers back, moderating comments and responding to sources. At ACC, I usually skipped dinner and had a bag of chips during my fifteen minute break so that I could mindfully and professionally attend to the needs of students there on Monday nights.

There was something really satisfying about it, I think, because I was used to abuse. I had no idea what to do with my feelings when I wasn’t working. My work addiction provided immediate gratification so that I was always accessible to anyone – student, editor, supervisor or reader.

I, too, am a hard worker and my mother before me has always worked hard.  I don’t think I have had any model of a woman who didn’t work and work and work.  My childhood memories of my father are of him in his basement office working and writing.  There was no room in our world for princesses. By and large, these lessons have served me well. When Silver Sparrow was in the final editing stage, I was also teaching full time and it was the end of the semester AND I was preparing my tenure packet.  I had my daily schedule calibrated down to every fifteen minutes. One item on the list: “Call parents. Assure them that I’m fine.”  The hard work has paid off, but I have also paid for it.

For women it’s a double edged sword.  “You work too hard,” is often thrown out as an insult by people who may resent your success. I have always taken it to mean– be a lady; stop trying to be somebody. I always want to say, “If you think think I am working too hard, why don’t you help me?”

The challenge for me is learning not to work even though there is no help on the way.  When I take time off, I come home to zillions of emails, interview requests, deadlines ticking like bombs.  When I don’t work, there are consequences.  There are opportunities that I may not be able to be able to take advantage of because I didn’t hope right on it.  Deadlines will be missed and people will be disappointed. (And of course there is the fear that I will ruin it for the black woman that comes behind me because I wasn’t perfect.)

For single women who don’t have children, it’s even harder to say no to work.  When a colleagues says she is not taking papers home because she wants to spend time with her kids, everyone says “awww…”  But if a single person says she is taking weekends off to chill, then it seems selfish.  So I always take time off to write.  It’s my passion. I love it.  But it’s not time off.  And for the women with children, taking your kids to soccer isn’t time off either.  And a week off work because of Hurricane Sandy– that’s not time off either.

I am not saying that we should all walk off our jobs tomorrow at noon, ringing phones be damned, or that we should drop the kids off at the pool and never come back. But let’s try small.  Find two consecutive hours this week where you just chill.  If you have to leave the house to do it, then do that.  Go have a coffee or take a walk– a leisurely walk.  No phone.  No iPad.  A book, but no reading for work or for school.  I imagine it will take a couple of tries to keep your mind in the moment.  You will visualize the emails, hallucinate the little tone that says more messages are coming in.  But let’s try to learn to shut the door to all that.  Baby steps are still steps.


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Na-No-Get-Your-Act-Together-Mo, aka November 2012 #NaNoActTo

Happy Autumn.  I am posting this from New Jersey, ground zero for Hurricaine Sandy. I am blessed to report that I lost nothing in the storm but peace of mind.  There were a couple of ugly days without power, but it all seems like a bad dream now, and not even worth mentioning when I see the devastation in Hoboken— just a mile away from my place.

That said, the sun is out this morning, really bright and I plan to take a walk and see what things look like in Jersey City.  But I am also sort of taking a look around my life and taking stock.  There is a lot that’s happening with me that’s excellent and there are other areas that are sort of, well, raggedy. Let’s take the next thirty days to get ourselves together.

Now what is this act that needs to get together?  It’s can be lots of things.  Fitness, writing (of course), nurturing friendships, personal time, getting organized, working on that bucket list, saving money… you get the idea.  Getting your act together is about looking at the big picture  I think I have been too laser focused on one dimension– writing, writing, writing.  Now I want to focus on living, living, living.  Would you like to join me?

I really enjoyed the way we harnessed our energy in August with #WriteLikeCrazy.  Let’s try and do thirty days of moving forward in all sorts of ways.  The way I am imagining this is that every day, I’ll think of some thing to do to mlife a better place– and I will happily take suggestions from all of you.  If you can think of something that you do that takes the edge off, makes things go a little more smoothly, please share.  We’re all in this together.

Novemeber is the perfect month for this– and not just because the month ends with my birthday! But we can sort of start now, getting our ducks in a row for the new year.

Do we need  hashtag? Of course we do. #NaNoActTo

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Summer Writing “Work-cation” in Lisbon, Portugual


This summer, I am joining the faculty Dzanc Books/CNC DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal – July 1-13, 2012.  Two weeks of writing in a beautiful historic city by the sea.  Dreamy, right?  There will be workshops, readings, lectures, fellowshipping… Can’t wait.  Apply.  Make it a summer writing work-cation. More details here:

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Happy Birthday Spelman, Thanks For The Memories

Dear Spelman, on behalf of the girl in this picture, thank you for showing me the way to become the woman I am today.  Happy Founders Day.



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Want to Cast A Vote for the NAACP Image Awards?

The NAACP Image Awards is the rare Hollywood award ceremony that includes writers in the festivities.  As you can imagine, I am thrilled to pieces that Silver Sparrow is among this years nominees in the category of Outstanding Literary Work– Fiction.  Many many people have written to ask me how they can cast a vote in the contest.  Well, it’s easy.

  • The most important thing is that you have to be a member of the NAACP.  (Which is a good thing to do, anyway. They do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, especially in the legal arena, that makes a serious difference in people’s lives.)
  • You can join right now and cast your vote: Join To Vote
  • Are you already a member of NAACP? Vote for this year’s Image Awards using the ID number found in the winter
    issue of The Crisis Magazine, which will hit your mailboxes soon.  Then head over the the Image Award ballot.
  • Now, if you are like me and are a member, but haven’t updated your address so you don’t get your Crisis Magazine, just call the Membership Department at 1 (866) 636-2227 for your ID.
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Let’s Work Together At Napa Valley

I am very excited to be on the faculty of the Napa Valley Writers Conference this summer– July 22-27.   Come take a creative writing couse in the beautiful Napa Valley in Northern California.   I’ll be teaching a five-day fiction workshop, and so will my mentor, Ron Carlson.  It’s a lovely opportunity and there are scholarships available.

I really urge writers to take summer classes.  It’s a great way to meet other writers, with whom you will may form critique groups that will sustain you long after the summer class is over.  If you are thinking about joining an MFA program, this is an opportunity to see how you like talking about your work in a roundtable classroom setting.  In other words– win-win.


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Are You Prepared for the Possibility of Adventure?

Today, I am renewing my passport. I can’t believe that it has been ten years since I made a New Years Eve promise to myself.  Things were a lot different then.  I hadn’t yet published my first book.  I was living on a tight budget.  I did all my writing in a closet. Not a converted closet, but an actual closet with clothes in it, and also a small desk.  But still, I decided to get myself a passport.

Why? It was because of advice from an older friend.  She said: “You should always have a current passport, even if you don’t have money right now, even if you don’t have plans.  What if an opportunity presents itself?  What if someone invites you to go to Paris? Can you imagine having to say no because you didn’t have enough faith and imagination to believe in the mere possibility of adventure?”

Well, nobody invited me to Paris, but I did get myself a passport. And once I had it, I started thinking of myself as a world traveler, even though I hadn’t set foot in any foreign country.  I found myself keeping my eyes open for opportunities to get that passport stamped.  I applied for residencies in Europe.  I trolled the internet for cheap flights.  As I am getting ready to turn in my old passport for a new one, I see that I have used nearly all the pages. Ghana, Uganda, Brazil, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, France…

If you already have a passport, wonderful.  Make sure that it is current.  But if you don’t have one, promise me you’ll get one.  The world is waiting for you.

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Dispatch from Atlanta: Alas, Poor Paschal’s

Yesterday, on my last day in Atlanta, I took a ride through Southwest Atlanta.  This quadrant of the city is my home and the setting for all my novels so far and I like to take a quiet tour just to say thank you to the place that has nurtured me and my creativity.

Atlanta has undergone many changes over the last twenty years.  In my second novel, The Untelling, I wrote about a neighborhood in the West End that is in the middle of gentrification.  It’s a tricky this, this turning over of neighborhoods.  But what I was seeing this time was neighborhoods in that same zip code that are not being “renewed.”

Paschal’s Motor Inn has been declared a historic landmark.  After all, it was a regular meeting place for the titans of the Civil Rights Movement.  Dr. Kind, Andy Young, etc regularly met there to discuss plans and just to enjoy the legendary fried chicken dinners.  During segregation there were no other places that black folks could go and be treated with respect.  After segregation ended, Paschal’s  went into a decline as did the neighborhood.  I think this is because that many black folks failed to realize that places like Paschal’s were nice places, not just places we went because we were not welcome elsewhere.

Paschal’s is a location that looms large in my imagination.  You will find it mentioned several times in Silver Sparrow.  It’s where Gwen goes on that fateful date with her ex-husband. (“If it’s good enough for Dr. King, it’s good enough for us.”  It’s also where Raleigh and James go to enjoy jazz and cocktails.  To see it now, you wouldn’t have the slightest clue that this used to be a special place.

I am pleased to note that there is a new Paschal’s restaurant– a lovely red-brick building about a mile a way from the old site.  Pearl and I sometimes go there for brunch.  But sill, it doesn’t ease the sting of driving by the historic building and see it boarded up and to see the buildings around it in similar states of disrepair.

Much of the southwest side of Atlanta is in a state of neglect that breaks my heart.  It’s a shame and I don’t know what can be done about it.


Read the NYT Obit of James V. Paschal

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