Marseille is a port town on the south of France, and there is some sort of parting energy here, always moving from shore to lanes to people. We stay on a main road in a hotel outside of what sounds like a busy freeway at all hours of the night. There are hundreds and hundreds of boats in the port, sitting, waiting, pointing up like reeds to the sky, arms up, praying. I am inhaling. If this is the end, then I will stay here in the pleasant sun and sea and mediterranean coast filled with pleasure.
There are parts of the city that are not so pleasant to gaze at, parts lined with graffiti, with thick steel bars etched nicely over their windows, parts with their metal shadows drawn down. No one lives here, perhaps. No one lives here now in the off season. No one wants to get robbed, my love tells me. There are people who are suspicious but I don’t notice these people. My traveling partner does. It is usually the opposite, I am the worrier but I am also the naive one. He is savvier in any new surroundings. While I daydream, Marc is busy looking out for me.
On our first day we walk over thirty minutes through the long and winding side streets, up towards the hilly parts where the Basilica rises. It is their Eiffel Tower, a large and beautiful domed church on the highest point of the city, the holiest place to be closest to the sky where heaven may be seen and felt. I am very thirsty. I cannot walk on without something to drink. I am wearing boots with heels not made for walking up a hill. I am growing tired quickly. I must have water on me at all times in case of the end of the world. I must have everything on me at all times traveling to feel safe and comforted. With the largest hill in front of us, the hill with the Basilica, I must stop for thirst.
“I need something to drink,” I say. I turn away from Marc and walk towards a fruit stand, no bigger than a garage or a bedroom. One man is working the stand, cutting a large fruit into pieces. It is orange and fleshy at it sides and looks large as a pumpkin. He doesn’t speak English. I pick out a small bottle of juice. One Euro. He has no change. He goes back to his safe and my love immediately turns to me.
“Never walk away from me again,” he says.
I am confused. This is a dire need I must fulfill and I am anxious to walk up the hill. Not only am I slightly afraid of heights, but I’m definitely not going to keep walking up a steep hill feeling thirsty. There are hundreds of steps left. We take our juice and our change and we leave.
“He could have robbed us,” he says with such might that I almost believe him for a moment. The safe tucked in the back of the store gave him a moment to arm up. The empty street around us made us vulnerable. One man speaking another language. Us looking so much like American tourists in a foreign place, my bags, my confusion and exhaustion. Our intention to purchase a drink, but my purse out with me.
“He was nice,” I said. “And besides he had a large knife out the whole time anyways, cutting the fruit. Remember? If he wanted to do anything he would have.”
We continue walking up the hill and when we get to the top we can see the whole port town around us, a blur of sky and sea and sand colored houses in the hills. The mediterranean. The juice in my hand. Perfect. No need to come back down to to the bottom of the hill. I’d prefer this unknown world first, fear and hunger and thirst for it all.
I feel alone when I am one in a crowded room. But I am not. I am a part of something like a drop in the water or the fine line of a sentence to the whole. We are all a part of something.
"You are not alone," the editor says on stage. "That's why we come here."
But I have just stepped in, stepped away from the screen, away from the room where it is quiet and still and the story mills. I always feel a shift to the internal, the emotional, and become quiet in large settings like this one. Perhaps processing to much, listening to deeply, and wanting to understand on the inside what it all means for me.
Anyways, here's what I learned at AWP to share with those who couldn't join. My biggest takeaways:
1. Focus on moments. There is power in the events you write. Worry about editing into sequence later, especially if a novel or larger piece of work feels intimidating. From a discussion on writing flash. This tip is especially helpful for me. With larger pieces, I tend to not write literally but follow the character and feel their tensions.
2. Use real emotions. I had recently learned this tip. When writing fiction, infuse your work with your emotions so it comes to life. Imagine that time you felt heartbroken or insecure or anything? This was a discussion on what can be learned from non-fiction into fiction writing. Other tips included learning how to use ideas more into one's fiction work. For the essayist, the idea rules, and then so does the telling. For the fiction writer, drama rules, but telling can have it's place too.
3. On Editing: trust the gut. It was wonderful to hear one of my favorite pulitzer prize winning authors on stage, someone who's inspired me to push and write and strive for innovation in art. And it's always humbly to hear they go through many of the same struggles to. For this author, she shared that she receives advice widely to try to determine what's working for others. However, many others emphasized you have to trust your gut when it comes to feedback and accepting advice.
4. Structure, say what? It was odd and frustrating to hear from a couple different discussions that structure just falls into place after a few drafts. I would have loved more feedback than that. However, I agree too. It's hard to know when structure of larger narrative will form. There seemed to be no strategies, just keep writing through a few drafts and it will show itself to you.
5. On Publishing: it's business. That was a theme that I heard over and over. Remember that when you do get an agent or a contract it is a business relationship with certain professional expectations. In this way, I feel good. I have learned a lot about business, marketing, sales, publicity, on my own through my own business. Writers must remember this is all important too if you want to ship a book to market.
6. On Life: No squandering, no letting up on yourself. Two full time authors who have been able to make a successful living at writing shared on stage how they balance that in their life. One, a young mother, says she has learned not to squander a single moment. The older writer with no kids said she learns to watch out for her own self. She knows when she gets tired or wants to stop or start a new project, and keeps here eye out for these distractions. Both good tips.
After this my notebook was left behind and because we were at a writer's conference actually returned. I am grateful, but have no other notes to share with you.
I was walking with my neighbor one evening when the topic of language came up, specifically phrases that are now too young for us to use. I am a few years younger than her but we both agree on the language. Words like “precious” just don’t belong in our vocabulary the way it does for twenty somethings. Then I thought to ask, wait, am I one of those girls?
“No, not at all,” she says.
“How old are you?”
“I’m turning 28.”
“That's the year you become an adult,” she said, citing some scientific research she had read that refines that yes this is the year I will start to feel like I am an adult. But is it?
The weekend before my birthday I swear I feel it. I clear out my closet of anything that isn’t professional and comfortable. Why hold onto to clothing I’ve had since before college? I throw out anything that I see as too young for me. The clearing goes seven bags deep, donated bag by bag into the bottom of the barrel outside of an empty Meijer’s parking lot.
* * *
This year started off with difficulties, losses of friendship and shredding of past ways. It makes sense then that this is the year I dive deep into self-help and spirituality. I am on my own more, and more than ever I want to feel this is a strength and not a curse.
I start first with Dr. Wayne Dyer, a Detroit native. He passed away this year and yet his smooth and strong voice still comes on through my podcast app each week, a new episode shining his light on life from a man who is deceased. It is enchanting and I am soothed. I find one of his books at John Kings, but I can’t digest it as closely. I listen to his voice again and again.
What Dyer preaches he says is similar to Christ: self-actualization, reliance, and self guidance into spirituality. The bigger shift of our time might just be that god is within us not without. God is not in the scary secular church of my Catholic raising, not entirely as I see it. This is far too comforting now that I am on my own. For I am now entirely on my own if I choose to believe that god lives inside me too.
* * *
It is the year that I feel I meet guides and mentors each step along the way. I am the business owner now. I am the leader now. I am the artist now. These were all choices of my becoming but I feel a heavier light on me as I step fully into my identities. What do all of these identities mean and how do I own and accept them? I have to find my vision, my voice, and my values more than ever so that I can trust myself again.
This is what I think the best mentors do: teach you to trust in yourself.
I meet an older more successful leader in our community. He shares his approach to business and community, one that is so focused on people and I am enlightened. There is something here that I reflect and live as well. He offers simple yet challenge questions on my work building community.
“How do you get people to care?” He asks.
“How can they care if they don’t see each other?” I ask.
But now looking back I feel I know the answer: it is to show you care first. To give first. Building a community starts with what you want to offer to others. What I offer is acceptance, access, support. All of these words come back to me again and again. I am understanding again what it is I uniquely do now on my own. It is forming. It is clearer. I am feeling a bit better.
* * *
Next on the spiritual totem pole is a bigger, tanner man named Tony Robbins. I am more interested in the man himself than the message. His charisma is charming and his voice challenging you past defeats. I buy his financial book. This too is part of my adulthood. I want money to build a future for me. I do not want finances to be how I grew up - unpaid bills, struggling month to month, cable on and then off and then on again. Can you help? Paying bills all the time here and there, whenever and whatever my mother needed. We figured out a way to get by. We always do.
I want security. If it exists at all it is in my power to create it -- right?
“Who’s love did you crave the most growing up?”
This is Tony on the screen bellowing into a crowd questions for all to see on Netflix.
I answer: my father.
“Why? What did you need to do to accept his love?”
I think: be quiet. Behave. He was often angry when I was young. But I know the real answer: accept him. That is it. Accept and forgive him for the drinking and the divorce that was not mine but all of ours.
“There is a time he loved you purely, before you felt any judgement. Go back to this moment and think on it.”
I remember being so young I would crawl all over my dad. He sat on the ground leaning on the couch, his long legs sprawled out in front of the television. He would let us wrestle and play with him. I know that in this memory I am happy. I know my parents are together and happy. It feels like bliss - pure love. It feels like a memory that can never be taken from me.
We are together again. We are all alright.
A man on TV roars. Tony has helped him heal. The roar is loud and odd and the crowd cheers and I am sitting alone, late on a weekday night, with strange tears rolling down my silent face.
* * *
There is one memory that I love more. It is the day of the butterflies. I love it for it feels magical to me.
It is one of the first summers we go up north without our mom, just Dad, myself, and my sister. I am in high school. We turn down a country road, all dirt and cornfield. Flat blue sky stretches above us. But when we turn down this road there is is something else: hundreds of monarch butterflies floating above the cornfield.
We immediately pull over and get out. The butterflies are bright orange and black and overwhelming. They land gently on the stalk or gracing my arm with their presence, then fly up and over into the cornfield.
We know all the roads along here. We’ve been visiting for decades, usually with mom and all of us together. But this year is different. Butterfly road. I call it Butterfly road. We will never find it again.
“Is this real?” My dad said in wonder.
“Were they just born?” My sister asked.
“Maybe it’s mating season,” I guess.
We didn’t know. But the road was magical. When we got back in the car, though we’d come back to this same vacation place on the same days in the same years ahead, we’d never see the butterflies out again.
* * *
Am I still searching? Am I still accepting myself and all the roles I want to play? Or am I stronger now after a year of searching? Will I be a great leader and creator? Will I trust more in myself, my process, and my values at work?
I think yes. I say yes. I say it and then become it. That is the simplicity and the strength of the mind all these leaders speak to me.
As the Dr says life is what you think it to be. I am what I am, or what I want to be. I only have to think it and then become it.
There is strength in knowing your creative power, the voice that wasn’t lost just whispering for it’s turn, the values reflected back stronger and stronger as I turn into adulthood they also do say.