Cake Quartet

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Over cupcakes at a March meeting in 2017, our writing group of four decided to call ourselves the Cake Quartet.
 
We rotate hosting our meetings and feed the group. Not only desserts and snacks, but thoughtful and respectful feedback on writing, whether prose or poetry. The meetings are times of nurturing our art.
 
We value one another as women, writers, and friends: Ann Hursey, Esther Helfgott, Trish McKenny Honig.
 
We are the Cake Quartet because cakes invoke celebrations. And we celebrate each other!
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Here’s another lovely thing about cake. It’s easier than writing!
I could not remember if I had ever baked a cake from scratch, but Trish is an experienced baker for her lucky family. We arranged a baking day for a recipe she found: Southern Coconut Cake. She had all the basic ingredients, pans, and other equipment while I brought the specialized ingredients like shredded coconut, coconut flavoring, whipped cream, and so on.
In a few hours, we were done. I felt I had accomplished something. It was fun and I had a finished product that I knew my friends and I would enjoy! Too bad if they don’t like coconut.
It was a divine 2-layer cake with 2 kinds of frosting. Voilà!
YUM!
Coconut cake
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Writing is definitely not a piece of cake. It’s a much, much longer process. Often a learn-as-you-go endeavor.
Frustration and disappointment can be constant companions along the road. Getting my book published has certainly had its ups and downs. Not sure what to do next, but I will keep doing the next thing, then the next thing and keep going. Pick up my heavy heart and keep going, while self-publishing lurks in the back of my mind.
I can commiserate with my writing group. Borrow their wisdom and strength.
And when necessary, I can bake a cake and celebrate my foolish dreams or my persistence. Maybe both.
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Please note: The Cake Quartet will be reading at “It’s About Time” at the Ballard Library on Thursday, October 12 at 6 pm. Come and join us! Who knows? We might even serve cake!

Performance!

I am a writer, not a performer. However, I have done public readings, which is a form of performance when done well. Recently, I read with eleven other Seattle writers in a program called “Listen To Your Mother” (LYTM). Feeling the energy in the room from the audience and from each other, we were all transformed. We had rehearsed before the event, but everyone stepped up and gave more of themselves during the program, a performance anthology of stories about mothers and motherhood.

It was magical! See for yourself. Here’s the link to my performance. You can also watch the other fabulous writers; I still laugh and cry when I see/hear them.

 

After this performance, I began thinking about what happens during a live performance. What makes live performances so exciting? When I go to a theater or concert hall, why do I feel a little nervous, this low hum of electricity in my body that makes me breathless?

From a performer’s perspective, I want to do my best. I want to convey my story, let the words flow through my body in an expressive way that the audience can relate to. I had practiced how to use my voice for emphasis, dramatic pauses, and to include a variety of intonations. I had practiced using my body to communicate a shift in the story, to look and connect with the audience.

On the day of the performance, we lined up to get ready to go on stage. We all felt some combination of excitement and butterflies. We got the signal and began walking to our chairs. When the audience started clapping during our entry, I teared up. I thought, “They want to be here! They want to hear us!!”

We sat on the stage and gave our attention to each writer as she took the podium. We all loved each other’s stories and had quickly bonded during our few meetings. We gave each other our attention, love, and support, and we could also feel this from the audience, mostly family and friends of the writers. But they were sending positive energy to everyone, not just the one writer they knew.

When I took the podium, I was still teary from the initial welcoming and the wave of support I felt from the audience.

It’s not easy to take the stage. When artists, whether musicians, singers, dancers, actors, or writers, perform live, we are communicating our art to connect with an audience. We strive for perfection, but mistakes can happen. But so can brilliance. Anything can happen when art is being created. In the moment. Right here.

Honestly, I am more comfortable being in the audience rather than on the stage. I find it magical to watch another human making art, to let the words or the music wash over me, to feel the rhythms and sounds, to experience the story come alive with the staging, lights, sets, and costumes all working together with the performers—the various elements coming together and coalescing into something whole and unique and hitting all my sensory receptors. Even in a public setting, this experience can feel intimate, like sharing a secret.

Any time people are performing, the audience becomes an integral part of that performance. The audience is not passive. There’s social interaction with those who accompany you and perhaps with other audience members. The fact is, when someone chooses to leave the comfort of their homes to be present in a particular location, they are making a decision to interact. With other people and with the performers. It’s an unconscious contract. It’s an energy exchange, this flow from the stage to the seats in the auditorium, concert hall, or even the park; whether it’s laughing or crying, holding our breath, feeling shock, applauding or booing, the performers can feel the audience and its moods, and they respond accordingly. The audience offers both silent collaboration and dynamic, spontaneous responses.

I am so, so grateful for having had such a wonderful, supportive audience at the LTYM event. Their energy contributed to our success. They were moved. We were too. Dare I say, together we were brilliant!

Hitting the Refresh Button for May

LTYM Seattle2016 flyer

One of the big events for May is Mother’s Day. This year I was thrilled to be selected one of twelve writers for the Seattle production of “Listen To Your Mother.” We presented personal stories about our mothers or being a mother. The words originated in each writer’s heart and rang true for an appreciative crowd at Town Hall on Sat., May 7.

LTYM programs were presented in 41 cities in North America this year. That’s nearly 500 stories! Many thanks to Seattle coordinators Jill Ginsberg and Jennifer Scharf for making this amazing event happen!

LTYM Seattle2016-trees

The fabulous women of “Listen To Your Mother” 2016.

I want to acknowledge the range of emotions that Mother’s Day generates for people. Not all mothers are loving. Not all mothers will inspire their children to think about them with gratitude, about buying cards and gifts, flowers and candy. People are complex, and it’s not unusual for love/hate relationships to develop between parents and children. Or it could even be worse. Like other people, mothers are capable of extreme cruelty, awful decisions, even life-threatening ones, and harmful, irrational behavior that can traumatize their children. For the children of such mothers, Mother’s Day might conjure up anything but celebration. Survival might be a more appropriate word.

Still, Mother’s Day is only one category of women.  Motherhood is a huge commitment and an enormous job. No question. Even though I have no children, I’ve observed my friends who are mothers, sometimes up close and personal. The challenges are many. This is a job that’s never done. This is a job that’s not for everyone. And many women are choosing to be childless.

Not only is Mother’s Day only for mothers and grandmothers, it is only one day out of  the year when we think about honoring women and the importance of their role in society.

Generally speaking, women should be respected and honored every day. Instead, what I’m seeing is evidence of misogyny at all levels. This concerns me. For example, on May 24, 2016, The Seattle Times featured three disturbing stories about women.

One featured Bill Cosby. Eleven years after a woman reported that Cosby sexually assaulted her, the case if finally headed to trial in Pennsylvania. For years we have been hearing about dozens of women coming forward with their allegations about Cosby’s misconduct: drugging and raping them.

Why has it taken the authorities so long? Are these women’s stories discounted because of Cosby’s celebrity status or simply because of male privilege?

The second story described the “Highway of Tears” in British Columbia where up to 50 indigenous women have disappeared or become unsolved homicides. These crimes are happening in all parts of Canada, and the Native Women’s Association of Canada estimates the number of disappearances and homicides could be closer to 4,000 instead of the official count of 1,200 cases.

If these were white women, there would be a public outcry. If these were men disappearing, resources would have been found to solve these crimes for a manhunt to  find and prosecute the perpetrators.

The third story reported about the working conditions for women employed on Wall Street. Twenty years ago, 23 women working at Smith Barney filed a class-action suit against their employer for sexual harassment and unequal pay. If you saw the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, you have a good idea about the outrageous behavior and sexism that this male-dominated culture encouraged. Almost 2,000 women eventually joined the case.

Even though Smith Barney paid out $150 million in settlements and awards, women still are frustrated today about disparities in income and promotions. In other words, conditions have not changed much. In addition, women’s hands are being tied in bringing legal action because they are required to sign away these legal rights if they want a job on Wall Street. Instead, they have to submit to mandatory arbitration.

Violence against women takes so many forms: economic, physical, emotional, cultural, medical, even judicial. It’s happening with such frequency everywhere.

In our rape culture, the latest outrage was the rape of an unconscious young woman behind a frat house at Stanford University in January 2015. Good people actually caught the rapist and he was charged. There was no question of Brock Turner’s guilt. He committed a violent crime. The prosecutor expected a sentence of six years for three felony counts. But he was a white male athlete attending a prestigious university, and the judge sentenced him to six months in prison and three months probation. Judge Aaron Persky of Santa Clara County thought this was fair. Instead, he was violating the victim once again.

White male privilege? You bet! The old boys’ network is alive and well, and violence against women will continue because apparently there are no consequences.  When will women’s lives matter in our society??

Mother’s Day. Women, let’s not be lulled into accepting this one day out of 365 when the reality is persistent and pernicious misogyny.

 

Short-listed!

Thank you to the Santa Fe Writers Project 2015 Literary Awards Program for selecting my manuscript out of nearly 500 entries for their short list!

Of course, I was hoping to win. Nevertheless, I am very thrilled with this honor. Especially since I never intended to write a book.

This is part of the magic and mystery of writing. A writer does not necessarily know where the writing will go. I started writing vignettes and personal essays about my life in Honolulu because, while many people have written about these islands, most have been white visitors, not local residents immersed in the culture. Hawai’i-born writers have been published for sure, but they are as scarce as outrigger canoes in the Pacific Northwest.

Authors Kiana Davenport, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Garrett Hongo, Sharon Hashimoto and Nora Okja Keller have represented Hawaii’s voices that are authentic. Prominent authors like James Jones, James Michener, Joan Didion, and Mark Twain have voiced their perspectives as outsiders about the islands. When I read their essays and books, I didn’t see myself or the local community in their words. I feel that no one can understand and appreciate my homeland without understanding the people who live there.

As an island girl born and raised there, I wanted to share what it was like to grow up in three cultures: Chinese, American, and Hawaiian. And so, The Lava Never Sleeps: A Honolulu Memoir About Being Lost and Found evolved and came into being.

Comments from other book contests:

Clear, compelling, and original. I loved this story of East meets west in Hawai ‘i. The writing was compelling and easy to follow. (2015 Pacific Northwest Writers Assn. Literary Contest)

With a lovingly evocative setting, this manuscript is a delight to read. Characterization is strong, as as the atmosphere created. The author has a rare voice… (2014 Memoir Discovery Contest)

I am encouraged by these words and will continue to seek a publishing home for my manuscript. Book contests offer one avenue; I am exploring other opportunities as well. It’s all part of a writer’s journey.

Tutoring Writing and English

It’s definitely Fall. The days are getting shorter and cooler. The leaves are falling. Flannel sheets are on the bed. Sweaters and fleece are ready to go. And of course, school is back in full swing, and I’m tutoring writing and English at the community colleges.

As a writer, I am humbled by this work. Writing is difficult for everyone, even native English speakers. The language is treacherous. I myself am constantly learning something new.

Most of my students are non-native English speakers, either immigrants or international students of all ages and from every continent. I am awed by their courage and determination in learning English to improve their lives and following their dream for an education thousands of miles away from home, family, culture, and everything that’s familiar to them. Often, this is a huge leap–their first time away from wherever they call home.

Yes, they are extremely challenged. Articles. Verb forms. Idioms. Prepositions. Pronunciation. So many rules and so many exceptions. So much coming at them every day, tumbling over them like bushels of autumn leaves. But they show up for tutoring to get help, sometimes daily.

Like I said, tutoring is humbling. It reminds me how difficult English and writing is.

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I have to say, tutoring is demanding work, more than I realized. The tutor’s brain is constantly shifting gears to adjust to each student’s needs. It’s a good mental work-out because we meet with a different student every thirty minutes to assist them with their essays or personal statements for applying to a university or whatever they need help with.

In this brief time, we greet the student, review the teacher’s assignment, scan the draft they have brought,  assess whether they are following the guidelines for the assignment, and evaluate their proficiency in expressing their thoughts on the page. We are encouraging, but at the same time, we need to point out the areas that need more work, whether it’s at the sentence level, paragraph level, or the general organization. Because tutors offer students information to learning the rules of writing and English, it is often challenging to communicate “the lesson” in a way that the student can understand.

Tutors don’t “fix” the student’s writing; instead, we give them information that they can understand and apply themselves. Instead of a quick fix, this process is collaborative between tutor and student. It’s a conversation with both parties needing time to process information. As such, thirty minutes can quickly evaporate, and waiting until the last minute to come in for help will be frustrating for everyone.

Students often use electronic dictionaries, whose accuracy can be questionable, especially translating from one language to another. Many inexperienced writers believe that using fancy words improves their essays. They don’t. Often these words don’t make sense in the sentence, and when I ask the student to define the word, they cannot. They pluck a word from these dictionaries without understanding that synonyms often have nuances in their meanings that make them inappropriate for what the student wants to express. This only confirms that the English language is complicated and very difficult to learn; I get these lessons every day, and my heart just goes out to these students. I wish I could make learning easier for them, but there are no short-cuts.

They are not only working on their writing skills, but also on their speaking skills, vocabulary, and reading comprehension. Each of these areas is extremely challenging. I remind them that mistakes are natural. Learning something new requires practice, practice, and more practice. Effective writing requires more than one or two drafts. And I invite them back to visit us again, as often as they need to.

We tutors are here for them. In every season.

One Hour Every Day: Part 2

Because I’m not the most disciplined writer, writing for an hour a day sounds reasonable.

I can get up in the morning, get a cup of tea, and sit at my desk to work on a piece, do some journaling, write something for my blog, or compose a marketing piece like a synopsis. Emails, texting, and tweeting don’t count nor should they. However, more formal correspondence, though borderline, should because it requires complete sentences, good grammar, and thoughtful construction. I don’t write letters often anymore, only occasionally, but I remember the pre-computer days when everyone wrote letters, and long-distance telephone calls were rare and expensive.

I’m not disciplined, and I know very well how life can intervene and intercept writing time so that even one hour seems impossible. But writers have to write; we have to develop a practice. I have to develop a practice. And one hour is a good starting point.

Sitting down to write for an hour is like a runner who wisely stretches and warms up before taking off down the road. It’s like a pianist practicing scales: playing strengthens the wrists and fingers over time so they become flexible and can respond to what the music demands.

Writers need to warm up, flex their muscles, too, and not just my hands and fingers. Because I use my body to write, writing is a physical activity. Calling up the words and transforming ideas into language require brain-to hand coordination. It’s the practice of putting words on the page in a coherent way. Ideas float out from the ethers all the time; it’s the writer’s job to tether those ideas with words. Pin them down. Make sense of them. Find the precise words and language to convey meaning that will resonate with readers.

I agree with Ian Brennan: writing should be a daily practice. I don’t know whether the writing will get easier. I hope so. But first of all, I need to get my butt into the chair for at least an hour and have my pen and paper or computer ready. Theoretically, my body will become a more responsive instrument over time to whatever the brain conjures up. The pianist develops a relationship to the piano keys, to the pedals, to the entire instrument; she stretches her fingers daily to produce the notes desired. Similarly, the writer needs to sit at her desk for at least one hour to develop a relationship with her writing tools.

This I know: when the writing starts to flow, the measurement of time becomes meaningless.

One Hour Every Day: Part 1

In a commencement speech at Loyola University in Chicago, Ian Brennan, television and movie producer/writer, had this to say:

Foster your creativity. and then protect it. Your creativity is the greatest gift you will ever be given, and it’s the source of the greatest things you will achieve. It’s the part of you that is the most you. So care for it, the way you would care for a child or a beloved pet…

To writers: Write. That’s the one thing you have to do. Write for an hour every day. I remember I was told that once, and I thought, “That sounds horrible.” And it sort of is. But it doesn’t matter what you write, just write for an hour a day. Two at most. Nobody is creative for more than two hours a day, and if they say they are, they’re lying to you. Stephen King sort of was, but he did loads of cocaine.

(The New York Times, June 14, 2015)

I don’t know about Loyola’s Class of 2015, but I’m taking Brennan’s words to heart. How did he know I needed this advice?