Monthly Archives: June 2014

the fig tree

fig tree with sleeping gnome

The last few months have been very difficult, and I wasn’t planning on planting a garden this year. Since I avoided the garden, I didn’t notice that the fig tree wasn’t coming back to life. It wasn’t until a neighbor said “I think your fig tree died” that I thought about it.

Every year, for almost 16 years, the fig tree had come back to life after winter. And every year, it grew bigger and stronger. It got to a point where I could no longer wrap it during the winter, and I would worry that the weather was too severe for it to survive. New York isn’t the ideal climate for fig trees, but the tree had grown, and had grown strong. I thought we lost it a few years ago, but it came back with a force that seemed to double it’s size.

The tree was a hybrid of two cuttings – one from my friend’s father’s glorious fig tree and one from a local nursery. The placenta from each of my pregnancies had nourished the root. It sat in the corner of my garden, and in truth, it had taken up most of the spot. I had to extend the garden along the fence, because there was no more room in the original garden to plant vegetables and herbs that needed full sun. But I didn’t mind. I loved the fig tree. In it’s shade, I could still plant things that would grow.

The fig tree was the pride of my garden. Every year, I anticipated it’s arrival. Every year, I loved watching it come back to life. People who visited in late summer would leave with a bounty of figs, and there was still enough for all the birds and squirrels. We had families of birds living in the backyard in nests and various birdhouses, some who hung out all day among the branches, singing, and many species who came from far and wide to feast on the fruit.

So this year, when my neighbor told me that he thought the fig tree died, I was upset at the prospect that it really died, but I was also upset that I was so wrapped up in my problems, I had neglected to notice it.

I went into the garden and surveyed the tree. There were shoots at the bottom, new growth. The fig tree had not died completely. But all of the branches, even the strongest limbs, were dead wood. I took a deep breath and went back into the house, changed my clothes, found my saw and a lopper, got a drink of water, and went back outside.

It was hot. The sun beat down as I circled the tree, cutting off each branch and limb carefully, methodically, one by one, down at the base, and then watched, sometimes guided, each one as they fell. Some of the limbs were over 10 ft tall. The air around me began to smell like over-ripe peaches, and it actually became so overwhelming, I wondered where the scent was coming from. Then I realized it was the sawdust and cut wood from the fig tree.

I was sweating, soaked in sweat; my shirt was sticking to me, and drops fell from my skin like tears, burning my eyes. I was thinking of everything. I was thinking of nothing. I wanted to stop. I did not stop. I kept sawing. For a second I wondered if I was crying and didn’t know it, and then I thought that it was as if my entire being was crying, gushing through my skin. I was kneeling on the earth, covered in dirt, taking care of the dead, preparing the way for new life.

When I was done, I stood up. All around me were felled branches and limbs, splayed out in a grotesque circle. My neighbor called out in passing, “that’s a lot of work!” and I muttered back, “it feels like a massacre.”

Then I began the work of chopping each one into a manageable length, sawing first in pieces along the trunk, then lopping each network at the top, organizing them into piles and bundles, to be disposed of and recycled later. By the time I finished completely, hours had passed, and I was numb. I stood and looked at what remained. At the base of the fig tree stood more new growth than I had thought, strong growth, reaching almost 2 ft. The garden gnome on a stake who used to be at the bottom of the tree is now almost at the top. The gnome is climbing up the stake and he has his hand to his mouth, as if he is whispering to the plants beside him, “grow, grow.” And when I saw that, I couldn’t help but smile.

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my writing process blog tour

Many thanks to Kirsten Imani Kasai for inviting me to participate in the “My Writing Process Blog Tour.” Please click here to read Kirsten’s articulate and thoughtful Q&A last week, and to find out more about her amazing work.

 

Q&A with Michelle Augello-Page

michelle augello-page

 

1) What am I working on?

I am currently working on a poetry chapbook which I plan to submit for publication, so my primary focus recently has been creating and revising poems which form a collective arc, a journey, as inspired by the myth of Persephone, the Tarot, and the life/death/life cycle of love relationships. Once the chapbook is completed, I plan on immersing myself in writing short fiction. I have at least a dozen ideas for stories that I put on hold in order to complete the chapbook, and many other stories that are in various states of completion. After the publication of my book Into the Woods a few months ago, I knew that I wanted to move forward and expand even more in my fiction writing. In many ways, a collected publication of one’s work is the end of something. However, I know that the end of one cycle is only the beginning of another. I wanted to take some space from storytelling to wrestle and fall in love with language again in its purest, most distilled form. Poetry was my first love, and it’s the place I instinctively turn for reawakening, renewal, and regeneration. Poetry is the essence, the heart, of all my writing. I’m really happy with the way the chapbook is coming together, and I will be sad when it is completed. But it’s a great feeling to know that after it is completed, there are so many other things  waiting to be written. As much as I love the project I’m working on, I’m always very excited to begin a new writing cycle.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Because I write and publish in different genres, I don’t fit neatly into a box. There are both benefits and drawbacks to labeling oneself in a certain way and keeping within a specific genre. Some of the benefits include fitting into a group or a community who will support your work, keeping a specific focus in your writing, and being able to reach readers who look for new work based on the genre they like to read. Some of the drawbacks to identifying with a certain genre include stagnation, limitation, subscribing to stereotypes, and furthering the hierarchy and misappropriation of all writers through genre.

For example, many people feel that “literary fiction” writers are somehow smarter and more relevant than “erotic romance” writers. Of course this couldn’t be further from the truth. Truly the only distinction between the two genres lies in the way that sex is represented. Some people say that erotica’s biggest crime is that, in this genre, the characters actually enjoy sex. Though I feel there is some truth to that joke, I think that erotica writers are generally much more cognizant about the power sex holds and how this power manifests in our relationships, and they consciously use sex as a lens to explore how we relate deeply to ourselves and others.

Nevertheless, inherent in this bias is the fact that “literary fiction” writers tend to be published in “respectable” (i.e. academic, scholarly, traditional, high paying) journals and receive book deals from more traditional publishing houses (which are able to promote to the public more successfully, giving wider distribution and more money to the writer). They are also more likely to receive associate and tenured professorships, giving them a monetary cushion in academia while they pursue their writing. This is only one example. In some genres, only one gender or race dominates the scene, making it harder for writers in the minimized role to be seen and heard because of the stereotype. This can also apply to writers who are marginalized in the dominant culture, where their “otherness” is directed into genres which only serve to reinforce their outsider status. I see this prejudice and inequality among writers as a problem that seems based directly in genre.

My philosophy has always been to write first, and try to find the “fit” later, because genre really only comes into play when one is trying to publish his/her work and needs to find a way to present it to the world. I have never set out to write a genre-specific story or poem. During the process of writing, I am only interested in the act of creation and bringing ideas, concepts, and images to light through language.

One of the reasons I started Siren is because I wanted to create the type of publication that didn’t exist for me, a place where I would have loved to send my work, a place for writers and artists who were interested in pursing their craft in edgy and experimental ways that didn’t necessarily fit into the mainstream or subscribe to a genre box. My book, Into the Woods, is a collection of dark erotic fiction stories that could have been labeled in a number of different ways. Upon publication, the book was labeled “fiction and literature” because that is a general, all encompassing term. One of the reasons why I was so happy to work with Onerios Books is because they are a genre-less specific publishing collective, interested in quality writing and art that both explores and expands our traditional views about the kind of art we create, the meaningfulness of what we write without regard to finding a box to put it in, and how we publish and share work through new and non-traditional paths.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I feel that this question is really asking, “who are you?” I write the things I do because of who I am, and I’m aware that this answer is both simple and complex. I write to explore my interests, my obsessions, my questions, my world. I write about the things that drive me to write.

There seems to be a very high level of control assumed in this question that I don’t think writers necessarily have. Writers channel dreams and visions into language. It is true that they sublimate real experiences into their work because no writer lives in a vacuum. But when you are dealing with creative and imaginative writing, it is necessary to open yourself up to many things that none of us, and that includes the writer, truly understands. I often say that writing is a type of seeing, more than anything else. I think of “revision” is a literal re-vision, a re-seeing. Writers develop a kind of inner-vision, and in the process of writing they are touching upon something very real that is also very magical and mysterious.

In her Q&A last week, Kirsten Imani Kasai said something that really resonated with me. She said, “Storytelling is a collaborative effort between me and the characters who need to speak – I act as an interpreter of dreams and the hidden world.” Yes.

The way we engage this process is dependent on who we are, and the results are specific to who we are. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued and drawn to certain aspects of the world. I have always been drawn to reading. I have always felt a great love for books. This was something within me that I nurtured, but one might also say that it was nurtured because it was within me. I’ve always loved fairy tales, mythology, folk tales – stories of deep archetypal truths that have been carried down from generation to generation. I’ve always been drawn to art that is sensual and erotic, surreal and dark, because I recognize something in myself there. As a woman and a mother, I have a deep feminine consciousness. I am also drawn to writing that is not typically considered “creative” and I love learning and exploring psychology, philosophy, science, history, and religion. All of these things contribute to who I am and what I write.

I know that my entire life has prepared me for the path of being a writer. Yet, I still can’t truly explain why when I walk into a bookstore or a library, or any place where books dominate the space, my entire being goes “ah” … I’m home. This is how I’ve felt from the time I was a child.

4) How does my writing process work?

There are many different ways that I engage my writing process. Probably the first and most important way is by reading. Reading good work by other writers is a great way to immerse yourself in the craft, and to expand and grow in your own work. Reading can inspire and challenge you. Reading teaches you how writing has been done and it shows you the potential that has been reached so far. When I read good work, I am excited, enthralled, invigorated. I am invested in learning. What I get from reading, I bring into my own work, with one eye on what’s been done and the other eye in the realm of what’s next. I am not interested in doing what has been done before or what I already know works. I want to explore further and to push myself further, and reading helps me find inspiration from those who have (or had) similar motivations.

Another part of my process is thinking. I am not the type of writer who does a lot of preliminary writing. I do a lot of preliminary thinking. I’ve noticed that often when I am thinking of a story or a character or a poem or an idea, I tend to draw. Oftentimes, these drawings are very strange maps of my thoughts, almost like a blueprint from the non-verbal side of my mind. Art is essential to my creative process, and I am constantly inspired by visual art, music, and the natural world of the environment. I also write in a journal nearly every day, and I find it both necessary and important. I need the tangible act of writing and drawing with a pen and paper as much as I need the sensory stimulation of typing on a keyboard. Journal writing helps me try to figure out what I am doing with my life and my work, and it is the place where I practice deep, stream of consciousness thinking.

Beyond that, my writing process is simply finding long stretches of time to write. I use short stretches of time for revising, refining, editing, and sending out work. But as far as creating and generating work, there is really nothing like sheer unaccounted-for time to write. Between working for money and carrying the responsibilities of a family, I have to find time to write.  Sometimes I steal time to write. Sometimes I will stay up all night writing, knowing that I will suffer the next day. Sometimes I will ask my kids to give me space, and I’ll be at the computer typing frantically all day on a saturday afternoon. But no matter how I get there, when I am there, I am there. I allow myself to fall into it, whatever “it” is. I am still amazed that I will be working on something and then look at the clock to see that hours have passed. Where was I during this time? What experience has moved through me? Though I am very interested in why and how this happens, I think at this stage I have just completely given myself over to it. I am open and receptive. I am there to discover, to learn. I am there because I have no choice but to be there. It is beyond me. Long ago, I accepted this gift, and it has both blessed and cursed my life. Every day, I accept the gift; I am so grateful for it.

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Next week, June 23, 2014, the “My Writing Process Blog Tour” continues with writers Eric Nash and Lucy Taylor, who will answer these same questions from their own unique perspectives. Be sure to visit the sites below to read their insight into the writing process.

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Eric Nash lives amid chaos in the south-west of England. On occasion, he escapes to his laptop and writes something dark or wicked. He has discovered that he rather enjoys editing and is looking to attend a self-help group to address this issue. Eric’s short fiction has been published in various digital and print anthologies. He is currently writing his first novel. Read Eric’s interview at eanash.wordpress.com

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Lucy Taylor  is the author of seven nov­els, includ­ing Danc­ing with Demons, Spree, Nailed, Sav­ing Souls, Eter­nal Hearts, and the Stoker-​award win­ning The Safety of Unknown Cities. Her sto­ries have appeared in over a hun­dred mag­a­zines and antholo­gies, includ­ing The Mam­moth Book of His­tor­i­cal Erot­ica, The Best of Ceme­tery Dance, Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury Gothic, The Year’s Best Fan­tasy and Hor­ror, and the Century’s Best Hor­ror Fiction. Lucy lives in Pismo Beach, CA, where she vol­un­teers with cat res­cue orga­ni­za­tion, attends Bud­dhist retreats, and plots dar­ing escapes to exotic and fan­tas­ti­cal places. Read Lucy’s interview at darkfantasy.us

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writing with a conscience

I had to look up the spelling of the word “conscience.” I am usually a very good speller, something I attribute to the amount of reading I have done. I am very used to seeing words written, so I remember the spelling. But I realized today when I began this post, I don’t see the word “conscience” very often. I know I’ve seen it, I know I’ve read about it. But in my everyday life, and in all the words I read online, I truly don’t think the word is used very often. I decided to look it up, because if I had to check the spelling, I figured it would do me good to revisit the meaning. According to wikipedia:

Conscience is an aptitude, faculty, intuition or judgment that assists in distinguishing right from wrong. Moral judgment may derive from values or norms (principles and rules). In psychological terms conscience is often described as leading to feelings of remorse when a human commits actions that go against his/her moral values and to feelings of rectitude or integrity when actions conform to such norms. The extent to which conscience informs moral judgment before an action and whether such moral judgments are or should be based in reason has occasioned debate through much of the history of Western philosophy.

Religious views of conscience usually see it as linked to a morality inherent in all humans, to a beneficent universe and/or to divinity. The diverse ritualistic, mythical, doctrinal, legal, institutional and material features of religion may not necessarily cohere with experiential, emotive, spiritual or contemplative considerations about the origin and operation of conscience. Common secular or scientific views regard the capacity for conscience as probably genetically determined, with its subject probably learned or imprinted (like language) as part of a culture.

Commonly used metaphors for conscience include the “voice within” and the “inner light”. Conscience, as is detailed in sections below, is a concept in national and international law, is increasingly conceived of as applying to the world as a whole, has motivated numerous notable acts for the public good and been the subject of many prominent examples of literature, music and film.

One of the aspects to being a writer that I have long understood is the power of language and the written word. You could say that I am hyper-aware of it. I would think that most writers would be aware of it, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I would also think that most writers would be great readers, but that is not always the case either. Writers are not all of the same mold. Like any subset of artists, there is a wide range in how and why people choose to communicate in their chosen medium.

Because I have been writing and reading for so long, and because I am also analytical by nature, I am sometimes appalled by the things people write. This could be a whole other topic, considering the way “non-writers” write … say, on facebook or in comments of articles and videos or in message boards and forums. I use the term “non-writers” to indicate the level of awareness of the writing process, which is something I suspect others do not think about nearly as much as I do. There is a certain transparency to the way non-writers write that I find very interesting. But sometimes it is actually painful to see the complete lack of awareness that some people have for the power of the written word.

When professional writers display this lack of awareness of (or disregard for) the power of the written word, I feel that they are writing without a conscience. And I suppose one could say, “well who are you to judge whether or not they have a conscience?” To that I would answer, I’m not trying to judge anyone, per se. But this is a topic that I feel so strongly about, writing about it is a way for me to try to make sense of it.

I think these answers vary a bit depending on the type of writing. When we think of journalism, we want those writers to have a conscience. We want to be told the truth of what is going on with our leaders and our world. Yet, we know that writing is not only very powerful, it can also be manipulative. Many journalists portray events in a certain light, and no matter how objective the journalist may try to be, there are inherent biases in perspective. The reader is dependent on the truth-telling of the writer, and many people don’t realize that. The old headline of the New York Times was “all the news that’s fit to print.” Who determines what is fit to print? The industry? The writer? We depend on the conscience of journalists when we receive our news information. Many people aren’t even aware of that.

When we are talking about fiction writing, there seems to be less of a demand for conscience. First of all, fiction is basically an intricate lie. If you agree with Stephen King, then “fiction is the truth inside the lie.” When we start getting into ideas about truth, we are also getting into the territory of conscience. Can you apply right and wrong to fiction?

Recently, I came across a post by a writer who uses a pseudonym. The book she (or he, since it is a pseudonym, it could be either gender) had written was an erotic book. The tagline was something like “She’s 14! She’s hot! She just can’t wait to fuck her mother’s boyfriend behind her back!” And when I saw that, I got angry. I got angry because of what I feel is the writer’s lack of conscience. I have many problems with this. 1) “She” is an underage character, which is taboo, not acceptable in most published erotica, and is against the law in real life. 2) The writer is dipping into incestuous territory – another taboo- this is the “mother’s” boyfriend, which automatically puts him into a fatherly role 3) The writer is encouraging a serious betrayal of a truly terrible kind, damaging to a mother/daughter relationship and also a man/woman relationship 4) Who is exactly going to read this? 5) I just don’t understand why someone would write kind of material.

Is this what the writer is interested in? Is this what the writer likes to write about? Is the writer trying to be edgy because s/he thinks it is cool to write about taboo? Is the writer aware of the potential for damage s/he could cause by making this type of scenario not only acceptable, but sexy? Does the writer have any idea how a 14 year old girl might feel about being put into that role? How about girls who have divorced parents, is this the template to throw out there – hey, have some fun and fuck your mom’s boyfriend! Does the writer care that women who have daughters might consider a sexual relationship between their “boyfriend” and their “daughter” a nightmare scenario? Is the writer writing for the man who is dating a woman and is attracted to her daughter – as a wish fulfillment? (Which is what I suspect, and that makes it even worse to me.)

I have felt this lack of conscience in other books too, and not just the erotic kind. Somehow I came across the book “Gone Girl” and I felt similarly. That book was extremely popular and very well received. People said it was brilliant, so when I came across it, I figured why not. But after I read it, I felt disgusted. I was disgusted by the story. I was disgusted that it was so popular. I felt that obviously the writer could write, but what a thing to write. There was nothing redeeming in that book at all; it was a cleverly told tale of the horrendous capacity for manipulation and cruelty in which people can treat each other in relationships. And life goes on … Okay? Can I have those hours of my life back? This is how you choose to use your gift?

I don’t know why I feel so strongly about this. Am I the one off here? I mean, I feel such a sense of responsibility as a writer. I care deeply about language and I know the power that it holds. I can write anything! I can write a story about the worst taboo being broken and everyone having fun doing it and I could write it beautifully. But I would never do that. I would never want to. Even when I was writing my story about Elizabeth Bathory, I was so conscious of not wanting to glorify her actions. I could have written that story in an entirely different manner. I could have written it so that she was a hero. But it was my conscience and my sense of responsibility that tried to see the humanness in her monstrous behavior, to try to see the themes in her behavior as based in the female experience, and to look at the horror of these human themes taken to the extreme, as she did.

When I was a child, I loved to read. I loved to read more than anything in the world. I would ask my mother to tell my friends that I wasn’t allowed to come out and play, because I wanted to stay in and read. The library was my haven. And to this day, I feel that way about most libraries and book stores. When I walk in, my whole being goes “ah”. I’m home.

Making the move from being a reader to being a writer was done with some trepidation. I respected writers as almost god-like, perfect beings, who wrote books! and had knowledge! Slowly, as I got older, that perception changed as I grew and learned more about the world. Even if I didn’t really like a book, I would read it to the end, figuring the fault had to be with me, not the writer!! There came a day when I said to myself, “why am I reading this? I could write better than this.” And that wasn’t a happy day. It changed my relationship to books forever. The pleasure and joy that books had brought me wasn’t always there anymore. I began to find it frustrating to read some books, to see the places where the story didn’t flow or were confusing, to see the potential and the failings, to see the ways things could be done better. I wanted to be amazed, enriched, enthralled.

And I am, still. I love nothing more than finding writers whose work I enjoy, whether they be contemporary or whether they have written long ago. I love books. To quote Stephen King again, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” I can pick up a book from someone who lived 200 years ago – I am reading their thoughts, I am in their mind. That is an amazing kind of magic, one that expands your understanding of your self, one that can teach you so many things, one that brings to you different worlds and allows you to live multiple lives …

Maybe that is why I feel so angry when I see people who write without conscience. It feels like a total disregard for something that I hold really close and is one of the most important aspects of who I am. I worry about the people reading these kinds of work, what they might be learning from it, what it is teaching them. Maybe I am angry because it seems like society doesn’t care if what people write or what they read has a conscience. Maybe I’m fearful that society doesn’t have much of a conscience either. I was going to end my post there. But that seems too depressing of a note to end on. Instead, I will close with one of my favorite quotes. This is from Anne Lamott:

For some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don’t get in life…wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”

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