Stumbling Toward the Buddha - A Sure-footed Debut

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Dawn Downey's memoir, Stumbling Toward the Buddha, Tripping Over my Principles on the Road to Transformation, is a lovely collection of linked essays that explore her search for meaning in her life. What is enlightenment anyway? Dawn asks, as she sits meditation on retreat and struggles with her fears and doubts. Fears of driving and getting lost (a perfect metaphor perhaps). Doubts about who her parents were and whether she can trust her own muddled memories of growing up amid family violence and neglect.

I am proud to have worked with Dawn as she perfected this exquisite memoir.

Anyone who has ever sought to understand him- or herself will find Stumbling Toward the Buddha both familiar and enlightening.


At Avila once again. And thoughts on writing.

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It's hard to believe, but my writing buddies and I have been coming to Avila Beach to write every six months for nearly seven years. We are back this week, and it is a time I relish for the quiet, the serenity, the opportunity to get away from my office and client work for a few days and focus on my own writing projects.

It's beautiful up here, as usual. We always come up in April and October. Sometimes it's chilly and foggy; often it's sunny and warm. Today it has been both: chill fog this morning dissipating to warmth and sun this afternoon.

The hotel we stay in is on the ocean, so anytime a walk on the beach beckons, you can have your toes in the sand within minutes.

This is a time to breathe deeply, to ponder, to journal, to figure out a writing problem. I'm working on two book proposals, and also planning to write two book reviews and several blog posts. 

I've been reading Jon Katz's Bedlam Farm Journal recently. He posts several times a day, and even after only a few weeks I feel I know him and his artist wife, Maria. And I feel I am on a first-name basis with his dogs, Frieda, Red and Lenore, the three donkeys, the sheep, and the barn cats Flo and Minnie.

These past few weeks, Jon has shared the drama of Minnie's run-in with a wild animal of some kind.  Her leg was severely injured, broken and mutilated, and Jon and Maria had to decide whether to have Minnie euthanized or have her leg amputated. I've followed the story each day, from their decision to amputate the leg through the surgery and, now, Minnie's recovery back at home.

For the first time in her life, Minnie's in the house, and getting used to the luxuries there. They plan to return her to her life as a barn cat, once she's healed, but I'm wondering if Minnie will choose otherwise. 

Meanwhile, Jon writes about the dogs and the sheep, the donkeys and the vagaries of small-farm life, all the while documenting his posts with his photographs. 

Over the weekend he blogged about his visit to the University of Tulsa, where he taught a workshop on memoir. (He's the author of 12 books, most of them memoirs and most involving dogs.) 

The literary crowd didn't take much to his assertion that he is writing memoir now essentially through his blog. Agents and traditional publishing are things of the past, he told them. 

I can't say I disagree with him. I enjoy writing in my journal every day. From now on, I will share more of my thoughts in this space as well. If you're a writer, you have to write, even if the old formats fall away and a new world of online publishing takes its place. 

The old system of unfettered gatekeepers has crumbled in all genres, which may turn out to be a very good thing. I know it is for readers, who now have unlimited access to writing that previously might not have made the cut. Some of it may be awful, yes, but there will always also be those singular treasures that no one in traditional publishing was willing to take a risk on. I trust this will be as good for writers as it is for readers. I believe it will be. Time will be the judge. Meanwhile, I'm willing to take a chance on the new world order.  

The Publishing Times, They are A-changing

Recently one of my clients read on Facebook that I had gotten an agent for my memoir.

“I’m curious about where you stand today on the subject of self-publishing vs. the traditional route,” he wrote. “Your advice to me a couple of years ago was this: Turn to self-publishing when the other options have been exhausted. It was good, clear advice, and I’m glad I followed it and got an agent rather than self-publishing. But the landscape has changed since then. Would you give the same advice today?”

Hmm. In a word, no.

When I started to write my memoir five years ago, the publishing world was a very different place. Self-publishing was still widely considered the last resort for authors who couldn’t get a legitimate publisher to consider their work. I’ve worked with other writers for all this time as a writing coach and developmental editor, and two years ago I was still telling my clients to try the traditional route first. Today the options are so compelling and vast, I am advising my clients to consider all options, including self-pubbing from the outset.

The publishing industry is as uncertain today as at anytime in recent memory. Certainly debut authors have a harder time of it, particularly novelists. But there are so many new, innovative avenues to successful publication now that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend self-pubbing first.

Interestingly, a recent study found that “hybrid” authors – those who publish both traditionally and as self-published authors – are making more money than either traditionally pubbed authors or self-pubbed.

Even so, when I finished my memoir, I was determined to try the traditional route first. I know a number of agents, and one in particular had encouraged me to write my story all those years ago. I had little more than a very rough first chapter then, but he read it and said, “Keep writing!” Over the ensuing years I approached the work intermittently, until two years ago I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing, and I made my memoir my thesis. That was the key for me; just the motivation I needed to stay at it. Last fall I spent a month in Costa Rica rewriting and finishing the book. In January, I sent the manuscript off to my agent friend. And … waited.

And waited some more.

After a month I emailed him and didn’t get a response. Keep in mind a query to an agent typically would not be answered for two to three months. But I knew this agent. So I decided to go ahead and submit the book proposal to other agents. I had a good query letter. I made a list and sent it out to about 15 agents.  And … waited.

It was an exquisite lesson for me in patience and in learning to follow my own advice to my clients: Wait. Send out more queries. Don’t despair.

Man, we do, though, don’t we? Despair? Writers are champions at despair.

I finally got about a half-dozen responses, all of them very positive about the manuscript, but nearly all said they didn’t think they could sell it to a traditional publisher. I’m not a celebrity, and while I’m fairly active on social media, I don’t have the kind of platform they seek (meaning tens of thousands of friends on Facebook and followers on Twitter). Most said the memoir market has become oversaturated. While memoir sales have slowed down, it’s still a pretty robust genre, but that’s the conventional wisdom in the industry right now.

Thank goodness for my agent friend, my original cheerleader. He finally did read it and called me. He loves it. So, I am thrilled, but also going into this process with clear eyes. It’s only a first step. There’s no guarantee that an editor will love it as much as my agent does. We’ll have to discuss strategy and how long to try to sell it to a publisher. If, ultimately, it doesn’t sell, I will have to make a choice. Self-publish then? Absolutely.

Seeing the Unseen

Playa Langosta, Costa Rica

A short break in the rain and I head out for a beach walk. One of the things I’ve learned here is to look closely; you will always see something you didn’t notice before. Corkscrew shells scattered in the sand. Tiny fish darting in tide pools. Lilliputian hermit crabs in multicolored shells on the volcanic rock along the shoreline. They move so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. Yet if you squat down and look, really look, you’ll see their tiny legs sprouting from under the shell, antenna moving this way and that.

When I was at Ecocentro Danaus, I would have missed everything without Olman’s trained eye. Monos in the treetops high above. A slow-moving gorrobos climbing a tree. Sloths sleeping in the tallest branches, even with binoculars appearing as nothing more than brown blobs, perhaps birds’ nests or clusters of decaying foliage. Even when he took my shoulders and pointed me directly at whatever creature he wanted me to see, I still struggled to detect it. The green lizard in the ferns. The tiny bat hanging upside down inside a decaying banana leaf. The sleeping Fleischmann’s glass frog (once I looked, I could see its pale eyelids closed, its wee sides expanding and contracting with each rapid breath). Even the bright orange-and-blue dart frog. At first my eyes just couldn’t find it in the leaves Olman parted with his hands. Then, suddenly, it came into view, and I had to catch my breath with its beauty.

How often do we not see the things so plain to others? I realize I’ve spent most of my life not seeing. Not understanding. Unable to connect the dots. It’s almost as if I’ve spent the past seven years slowly opening my eyes. Watching my life unfold, come into stark relief, colors growing vibrant with each revelation.

It’s been painful. And the journey continues. But, finally, I am moving forward with both eyes - and my heart - wide open.

Completions, Pending

I sent my last packet for this semester to my professor last week. I can hardly believe I have only one more semester to complete my MFA in creative writing. I will travel to Los Angeles in mid-June for my next-to-last residency at Antioch University. Then it’s six months of writing like my life depends on it. My thesis, a memoir, is due to the program office in December. It has to be at least 100 pages of stellar writing, including insightful and thoughtful commentary on early-childhood experiences, authorial interpretation, exceptional offerings of universal teachings. Yet suddenly I am feeling terribly insecure about this process. The more I write the more I question its veracity and my abilities. Who is this person writing this story? Why should anyone care? I am in existential crisis – creatively, anyway.

I’m about to abandon the whole project and submit my blogs from the past two years as my manuscript. But I won’t. I will keep going, even if I haven’t a clue where I’m headed.

That’s what writing – and life – is all about, isn’t it? Continuing on in the face of adversity and uncertainty? I don’t know where I first learned that. Probably from my stoic Michigan-bred parents, who never gave up. It’s in my DNA.

So, I soldier on. I keep writing. I trust that in time it will come together. That I will experience the sense of purpose and creative outflow that will allow me to express the things I have to express. That they will be heartfelt and inspiring and helpful to others. That is my prayer.

This is the hardest writing I have ever done. And writing has always been easy, second nature, the place I was most comfortable. Now as I struggle to bring forth the past, emotional barriers emerge, blocks rise up and I am flummoxed. Writing has been my respite, the place I go for succor. Suddenly, it is my enemy. It keeps me in a place of uncertainty, a place unfamiliar and frightening. I want nothing more than to be back in equilibrium, trusting that my words serve me. Instead, they betray. They do not let me express what I want to express. They are like the childhood I want to write about: obstinate and inaccessible and riddled with grief and sadness. How to circumnavigate this? I don’t know. I look for inspiration. I hope for guidance from mentors. They offer good advice, but I can’t seem to access it.

I keep trying, but I feel so frustrated. So I wonder, should I stop pushing? Stop forcing? Stop doing? Allow the words to come when they will? In the way they choose? If I have learned anything these past few years of upheaval and change, it is to let go of control (well, at least I’m trying to learn this). It is all illusion anyway. Still I fret.

This is important to me. More important than almost anything (except my daughter, of course). I want the writing to reflect the grief, the joy, the whole journey, and I fear it doesn’t. Not yet. So, I am going to Central America for the month of October. I am taking my writing, and the thoughts of trusted mentors and friends. I am going to write and revise and look out upon the ocean and try out my limited Spanish on the natives. And maybe, just maybe, I will arrive at my residency in December with a coherent manuscript that I feel good about. We shall see. Wish me luck.

A Beautiful Day for Writing

It's been a beautiful day here in Santa Barbara. I have been writing, and revising my 25-page critical paper for my MFA, over the weekend (it's almost done!). And I got to go out and take a long walk along the ocean bluffs with my dog, Chevella, this afternoon. The Daylight Savings Time shift is always disconcerting to me. I like the longer days, but I don’t like the change twice a year. I’d be happy if things just stayed the same all the time.

Even so, I feel productive today, despite the loss of an hour. I have started one of my two required book annotations this month, and am enjoying (as a work of exquisite nonfiction) the book Hiroshima, which we will discuss in my MFA mentor group next week.  I also have been trying to get as much writing done on my memoir as possible. My writing group acts as a wonderful incentive that way: I have to have 5,000 words of new material by next weekend. We meet once a month, and I specifically formed this group to give me feedback (and provide feedback to women writers I admire) when I started my MFA program.

I’ve also been submitting some of my poetry to literary magazines this week. This feels like such a shot in the dark, but I get a tremendous sense of satisfaction from writing poetry, and I’ve had a couple of poems accepted for publication, which only encourages me. That’s a good thing.

I’ve been delighted to hear from some of you who read my blog. My friend Karin Finell has a new memoir about her late daughter, Stephanie, coming out in the fall from the University of Missouri Press, which published Karin’s first memoir, Goodbye to the Mermaids, A Childhood Lost in Hitler’s Berlin.

Would love to hear what your latest projects are. And what you are doing to get them out into the world. Cheers!