My Hero

So, I accidentally had a fire situation. As in, there was a fire on my desk. The actual kind, not the writing kind. The flame kind. With heat. And lack of control.

I grabbed my coffee cup. I paused. And I saved my life–and my writing.

When it was done, ash floating in coffee…

I looked at my mug, and I thought… “Well, there goes the coffee.”

before the fire

before the fire

a new cup, ready for new heroism

a new cup, ready for new heroism. and new candles, for new… fires.

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In which I rant about posers

How safely fashionable self-crowned experts are in their advice. But fashion is not truth. They go to different parties.

“Writing rules.” Give me a break.

If there is one truth–and there isn’t–I’ll take Kafka’s:

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.

And if you don’t have the courage to be the axe and destroy yourself, FINE. I get it. I lack courage all the time too, and I destroy myself despite it on some days, and prowl around the outskirts on other days, too afraid I lack what I need to go underwater.

But don’t repeat rules as if… as if there were any.

For chrissakes.

Flaubert broke every last rule when he wrote Madame Bovary. He went to court for it. To court!

I throw at you something his prosecutor said, which may be the single most evocative thing a prosecutor has ever said in court:

History has spoken of a thousand things, but these are merely suspicions.

Apropos of nothing, just because it’s beautiful, I share it with you. And now Yeats, from The Second Coming, on something a lot like talking heads:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

God, I loathe posing.

I guess because it never actually struggles with commodified reality–it’s only someone’s fist tightly, whitely gripping onto their rung of a hierarchy. It is an unstable thing, pretending to itself that it is right. That it is safe, for that reason.

Writing isn’t safe. When has any honest, intimate human expression ever been safe? We take risks when we share our hearts. Risks when we share our weaknesses. Our ugliness. Even our beauty.

You can’t offer a writer safety. You can’t offer safety. It’s not in your purview, it’s not in anyone’s.

A writing rule that’s never broken is a straitjacket. “Interest the reader,” okay. That works. But Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady interested me, and Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea made me want to shoot myself. So maybe the writer should interest herself. Should inflame herself.

Self-branded experts are invited on TV, and people “RT” them on Twitter, and they seem knowledgeable–because people agree with them, because they talk like they’re right, without equivocation, without doubt.

Why is certainty so applauded? Because we fear our own doubts? Okay, but that’s not brave. That’s fearful. And that’s not writing. And writing isn’t cool, either. Writing is conversation with self, and we shouldn’t all be having the same conversation with our selves. That’s freaky, frightening, and not human.

And change is part of what is thrilling, as well as what is frightening. Flaubert got sued. David Lynch got three thousand raised eyebrows at least.

I look at it like this. Who taught Dostoevsky to write? Not some writing guru. Who taught Shakespeare? Who taught Jeanette Winterson? Maya Angelou? Ralph Ellison? Ngugi wa’Thiongo? Jose Saramago? Flannery O’Connor? Werner Herzog?

No-one. No-one.

I don’t care if any of them went to school for it–no-one taught them to write. You know what did teach them?

Their burning hearts. Their ravenous minds. Their struggles. Their longing. And lots and lots and lots of sweat.

If you have that, you have the material to write, and to live. To ask, and to explore. To live and to die. To write.

No-one else can guide you into yourself.

No-one else can write your stories.

Abandon the given. Assail it.

There is no ground. Jump from it into yourself.

Nothing is the material which formed everything. Both are in you.

Make yourself from your own fragments. Hear no voice above your own. Seek the shapes under your words.

When you die, make sure it’s you they bury. Because you were you. And not some facsimile of what you thought a you should be.

beyond a forbidden door in the sistine chapel

beyond a forbidden door in the sistine chapel

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The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you ~ Rumi


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The Worm

On my first day in my Peace Corps home, there was no water. I was asked if I wanted to go down to the river to bathe.

“No,” I said, “in America we frequently don’t have water every day.”

The second day, again there was no water. Again, the river was proposed.

“No, no,” I said, “no need at all. We frequently don’t have water for two days.”

On the third day, I asked where the river was.

We went to the river together–it was the only time we’d do that. In the future, through the waterless winter, I’d use baby wipes for daily cleansing, and every two weeks or so, we’d have about a bucket or half-bucket of water to use for bathing. It had been pulled from a well in the village, but cleaning the body came behind cleaning dishes and cleaning clothes in terms of priorities.

But my point isn’t how wonderful it feels to be clean. My point is what I saw with jarred eyes that day by the river.

We were there with extended family. The women a bit separate from the men. Our clothes all on; them in their skivvies. The car had been rolled partly into the water too, and was being cleaned upstream from us.

Across the river was another family. Also bathing. Similarly attired and not attired.

One of the people in my group whispered to me, “Azeris.”

Which to me was, like, the coolest thing in the world. After all, I was in the Republic of Georgia, which abutted Azerbaijan and Armenia, and in a region which was primarily Azeri. But how did this person know the others were Azeris, and why the tone?

I asked how the person knew this for a fact.

“They’re dark.”

Again, with tone.

And I felt the horror and revulsion of witnessing oneself in another person’s ugliness. Racism–implicit, explicit, subconscious racism, it runs through all of our social systems, and as a result through us.

To me, the Georgians and the Azeris were equally exotic. Equally different. It hadn’t occurred to me that one could be “worse” than the other. Lesser.

Plus no-one in that river was darker. And what is darker, anyway? A badge of what, lesserhood?

It was horrific, it was brutal, and it opened my eyes to how ludicrous racism at home was. Even more than before.

As a person who’d grown up in Africa and the West Indies, only moving to the States at age 16, you’d think this would already be in my skin. I’d been a racial minority my whole life, with the majority of my friends not being white–but always in places (aka the world) that valued white skin differently than black skin. But I didn’t realize the privileges I had until I was 16, when I looked at my best friend and suddenly realized that her parents didn’t have the right to vote. That racism was real, not an abstract wrong that other people were affected by. That it was everywhere.

Coming here, I’d been so, so disappointed in America. I was young, and thought of America as the land of the free, a place beyond racism. It isn’t, of course. It isn’t free of racism, of sexism, of classism… We swallow these poisons in the daily air we breathe, and we don’t even notice it.

I have a friend I’ll call C. For years, C would periodically tell me tales about being treated differently because he’s black. For years, I would believe him, but would sometimes think he might be imagining things. Can you believe? I, a woman, whose perspective is also downplayed by a society which imagines itself to be clean because it wants to feel good about itself, downplayed in turn the perspective of another human being–whom I know history has targeted.

I don’t know when it happened that I finally listened to C and just listened. Just heard. But when I did, it changed everything.  If you’re open to reading the signs again:

Black kids shot by the police. Black people’s salaries lower than whites. Security guards watching African-Americans in stores. Mortgages higher for blacks. Traffic fine patterns. Expectational differences. TV shows and movies limiting the number of black actors, especially in lead roles. White stories, white pantheons, white leaders, white police.

We may want to believe that we’re past racism–some people point to the fact that our president is not white–but these signs glare a contrary truth back at us.

Racism is so fucking alive, and the worm is squirming under scrutiny, as if open conversation were a magnifying glass concentrating light to fire upon it. Let the fucking worm squirm. We have to be willing to struggle with what we see, if we’re to be sure we’re seeing it honestly.

Those of us who are on the previously easier side of history, yes, we have the uncomfortable duty now of listening to things that are uncomfortable. But how much stronger we’ll be when we have. As a people, as a whole.

We won’t be alive to see that world we create together, the world in which all people are respected equally. But we can build it at the cost of the growing pains of personal growth.

And frankly, it’s not like we’re doing anything else particularly worth our time on earth.


Vasiliy Vereshchagin: The Lost – Funeral Elegy for the Fallen

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When Crossing the Rubicon in a Paper Boat

It helps, as your hair fans in its waters, before the other shore is visible, to make your heart new oaths–ones you’ll drag from your death if the river demands it.

I know my oaths. One is to this damn beast of mine. I’m going to explode it to the place it needs to be. I’m not giving up. The other is to my short stories. Why haven’t I ever tried to hone for publication? Who cares. It’s happening now.

Failure is the gamble of every little paper boat sailing into its Rubicon. The coin of experience would be nothing without failure.

It matters not the outcome
If what you will gain instead
Is a heart deepened in the knowing
That experience carves the soul
And the very thing that empties you
Shall surely make you whole

~ The Cruxshadows

I have given Delilah a pair of scissors, and my head is on her lap. But my power isn’t in my hair. It’s in my ability to keep going without it.

Climbing the Caucasus Mountains

Waking up in the Caucasus Mountains

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Also, a Revolution

Every October 5, I remember where I was when Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown. The basement of the Croatian embassy in Washington, DC.

The mood in that room…  They knew better than I did, what the result of the revolution would be on international aid.

But now I return to my writer’s hysteria.

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Yet from those flames no light, but rather darkness visible ~ Milton

One of the touchstone images on my writing desk is a magnet of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath.

I actually bumped into this painting in Rome. What I loved about our encounter was that I didn’t recognize the painting from any books, but when I walked into the room, it took my breath away. I gravitated toward it, blind to everything else.

It’s a painting you need to see in person to understand how powerful it is.  It’s dramatic and emotionally gripping. Incredible use of light and darkness.

In fact, notice what a great percentage of this painting is of the darkness itself. The subject isn’t merely the swordsman and the head. It’s the darkness in which they exist.

Turns out that the head that David is holding–is Caravaggio’s. It’s the painter’s own head he’s painted, decapitated, held by its hair.

That thought riveted me. I stood in front of it forever.

You could decide: whatever, it’s ego. Caravaggio claiming the position of giant among his peers, suggesting they all want his head because no other way do they become the heroes of society (and their own minds). Or maybe it’s grief at his trajectory, or maybe it’s a cry for mercy. Or maybe it’s humanizing the ones we destroy. Or humanizing the pasts we must move away from.

So many interpretations could be valid.

For me what rooted me, and what made me keep him on my desk these past years, is the notion of the artist destroying herself for and in her own work.

Rendered honestly, art is a true fragment of the painter, or of the writer. It has something so powerfully theirs that their life is what bleeds into it and sets it ablaze, and hooks it into the open hearts of those who encounter it.

If you protect yourself, you cut yourself off from your work. You rob it of life and any point in being at all.

Caravaggio's David with the head of Goliath

Caravaggio’s David with the head of Goliath

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Sometimes everything has to be destroyed

I think it was Picasso who said that creativity is first of all an act of destruction.

A year ago today, a play destroyed me. Or rather, since I went to see it ten times, and then lied so that the library would let me watch it on tape one more time–> A year ago today, the play that destroyed me held its final live performance.

I’ll let everyone else love on Streetcar, Glass Menagerie and Cat. For me, Tennessee Williams created his masterpiece with The Two Character Play. And when Brad Dourif and Amanda Plummer made it theirs, it lived something so visceral, so true and so beautiful, it still pains me to think the playwright wasn’t able to experience the life they gave it.

Watching it, I remember feeling him inside it, hands shaking the bars, soul-seared. That play taught me what true writing was, and true acting. Devastation and beauty.

A year ago today. It terrifies me how much it’s affected me. It’s my greatest vulnerability, that play. As the old song goes, “Only love can break your heart.”

Photograph by Brooke Shaden

Photograph by Brooke Shaden

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Rhyme of the Ancient Flyer

Last week, my mom calls me at work.

“Ruti. Please. Do not humiliate us.”

Pause. “Can you be more specific?”

“When you come to San Francisco.”

“I shouldn’t humiliate you in San Francisco.”

“Please. You know what I’m talking about.”

I wait for enlightenment.

“Please. Bring luggage.”

“I do bring–”

“Not a purse. Luggage.”

“I pack light.”

“You have humiliated us enough.”

“You want me to bring luggage.”


“Even if it’s empty.”


I LOATHE luggage. But I unearthed my blue carry-on, and I packed it with three garments. And I dragged it from coast to coast like an albatross.

I learned something valuable, which I’m gonna share with you now.

An albatross weighs more than a purse.

Stuck forever in a room, a statue with no body and a statue with no head. Unable to move or speak. A charming fragment of eternity.

Trapped together, a bust without a body and a statue without its head. A bench without a person. No dinner conversations here.

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Timber, I’m not falling

Strange days, strange days.

Recently I got some beautiful feedback on my screenplay, CROW.  Things were said which I hadn’t realized I needed to hear.

When I began CROW, I knew it might take six or seven scripts before I wrote a worthy one. Time wasn’t stopping for me to hone my craft. I had to abandon everything–everything–and HURL myself into it. Just hurl, and hurl, and hurl.

I wrote as Death pounded on my door–and I pounded back.

I burned myself down to nothing, then burned my cinders, and burned them again, and again, and again. After all, I’m only stardust. Born to burn, and born to die. I protected nothing. Somewhere in me, in each burning, there had to be a glimmer, a distilled something that would be true. I was willing to die as many times as necessary.

“Stab me,” I wrote to those giving me feedback.

One day a script reader did, and didn’t stop. He said–and yes, I paraphrase–my only strength was that I used the right number of letters per page–but the wrong words.

He suggested I give up.

I felt like my vocal chords had been cut. Like I’d been singing foolish silence.

And now my tongue’s use is to me no more
Than an unstringed viol or a harp,
Or like a cunning instrument cased up,
Or, being open, put into his hands
That knows no touch to tune the harmony:
Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue,
Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips;
And dull unfeeling barren ignorance
Is made my gaoler to attend on me.

~ Shakespeare (Richard ii)

It hurt like I can’t even say.

I learned something very valuable. Something I thought I had already learned.

I’m 37 years old. I don’t give a flying rat’s ass what anyone else thinks of my life and my values, because I am the one who dies my death.

So why, in writing, should I need to fit in? I’m the only arbiter of my personal truth. The only truth is the internal truth.

It took two weeks to wrest my joy from the gutters of doubt. It was like netting a drowned cadaver, only it was my soul I was rescuing. And it wasn’t dead.

I had a goal so insane and desperate, I couldn’t bother with other people’s doubt. I wasn’t exactly attempting the reasonable.

I’d miraculously been writing without doubt for months, but now the monster was here. So I sat across from its bloody teeth and hungry eyes, and I bared my soul again. I hurled my heart against the wall again, into the abyss, into the wells of the world, and then I hurled it again. Because friends, that is the particular madness that is writing.

Two weeks later, I received feedback on the same draft from another script reader, this one describing CROW as having “haunting beauty,” and sharing criticism for my consideration. I noticed how much power I was giving to feedback.

I took all my power back. Good feedback, bad feedback, whatever came my way–I was grateful for the time people took to share it. And I would listen and consider everything that came from a person who got the emotion of the story.

But the only notes I’d act upon would be the ones that resonated with me. From inside. From where the story lies.

Wise, beautiful, smart, feeling people can approach the same movie/book/play and come away with different thoughts. To take some feedback and not others isn’t an act of arrogance. It’s a responsibility to the integrity of the work you’re creating.

This time around, when I sent the script out for feedback, I steeled myself. I readied myself for the price of being myself.

All six reviews are now back. Naturally, several contradict one another on almost every point, except that they find the leads compelling. Each person has given me something to chew on, has spawned some idea or another.

And this week’s professional script reader? Definitely they saw some weaknesses and provided notes. But they also saw beauty. Felt emotion. Strength. Found CROW striking. Even mentioned an original authorial sensibility. (!!)  For the first time, instead of simply being told I had a “unique” voice, that voice was heard–and valued. Which… was a stunner.

I confess I read their notes, and cried. Last time I cried at feedback, it was because I was told I had no song. This time, the opposite.

More work’s ahead, and I’m writing on. I’m so appreciative of all the notes.

The time’s coming when I’ll be sharing this little beast with the person who inspired it. Like it or not, that bridge is mine to cross. And I can see the trolls, and I can see the princess in the tower, and it’s not a fairy tale, and if it’s a “no” I hear, so be it.

This prince will buckle her sword, weep, and tell story after story until the day she dies. The least I can do is burn all the way there.

I still have blood to bleed, and it’s all mine, and it’s all I have to give.

Shower thoughts.

Shower thoughts.

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