“Too many Ps”? - a reading & conversation at UC Santa Cruz

Personal, Political, Publics and Potatoes - a conversation about the politics of food and kinship and other world-changing matters, at U.C. Santa Cruz on April 5, 2012 from 2 - 5pm. I will be reading from All Over Creation and then will join specialists in the fields of geography, anthropology and agroecology for a conversation hosted by Joan Haran (CESAgen* at Cardiff University), who says, "We will talk about public engagement with agricultural technoscience, genetic modification of crops, non-violent direct action and the creative use of generative metaphors.  We will tease out some relationships between genes, gender and genre along the way." Location and more information to come.

*CESAgen (The Center for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics) is a collaborative research centre based at the universities of Lancaster and Cardiff.

Writing Sesshin: a guided writing and meditation retreat @ Hollyhock

The word "sesshin" in Japanese means "touching the mind" or "touching the heart."  Sesshin is a special time in the Zen Buddhist calendar, when monastics step away from their everyday schedule and dedicate full days to meditation practice. As writers, we need these same periods of retreat and intensive practice to deepen and clarify our expression on the page. This sesshin will help participating writers touch the mind and heart of their writing practice. We will divide our time between guided meditation and writing exercises, discussions of craft, individual writing practice, supportive group work, and individual meetings with me about work-in-progress. Writers will leave with practices that will help sustain meditation and writing in everyday life. I've been wanting to do this kind of retreat for a long time, so I'm really looking forward to it.

Here's some information about Hollyhock:

An internationally renowned centre for learning and well-being, Hollyhock impacts personal, professional and social development through over 100 programs, and when space allows offers visitors a fantastic British Columbia island holiday, where you’ll enjoy wonderful Cortes Island accommodation.

Our spectacular natural setting on Cortes Island is an ideal backdrop for transformative experiences. We are linked intrinsically to our ecology, assisting us in providing a comfortable and safe environment where people can deeply connect with others, gain creative insights, and renew hope that a better world is possible.

Hollyhock is Canada’s leading educational retreat centre with over 28 years experience, but you can also think of us as a “refuge for your soul”, a place that allows you access to what matters, or simply time to rest, play and achieve wellness in BC.

For more information and to register, please check out the Hollyhock website.

Re-training the Writer's Mind @ Taos Writers Conference

This summer I'll be teaching Re-training the Writer's Mind at the Taos Writers Conference. I haven't visited Taos for many years, and I'm really looking forward to it! Here's a link to a version of the workshop that I taught at Hedgebrook. The content will be similar, a five-day workshop with a focus on developing meditation and writing practices that inspire and support us as writers. But the Taos workshop will be part of a conference, rather than a retreat, so participants will be able to engage in a wealth of other writerly activities, too, including roundtables, readings, workshops, as well networking and just hanging out. And I'm really happy because my dear friend, novelist, and editor, Carole DeSanti, will be there, too, and offering a weekend workshop of her own. (More on Carole's workshop and her new novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. to come!)

Pain Free: a creative conversation with Ruth Ozeki & Susan Squier

2012 Modern Language Association Convention 143. A Creative Conversation: Ruth Ozeki with Susan Squier

Thursday, 05 January 7:00–8:15 p.m., 604, Washington State Convention Center

Ruth Ozeki and Susan Squier will have a conversation on the theme Pain Free. Their conversation will wander from such agricultural innovations as genetically engineering animals so that they feel no pain, to questions of affect and academia, to Zen and suffering. The conversation will be interspersed with readings.

Susan Squier is the Brill Professor of Women's Studies, English Literature, and Science, Technology and Society at Penn State University. She is the author, most recently of, Poultry Science, Chicken Culture: A Partial Alphabet (2011). Her other publications include:  Virginia Woolf and London: The Sexual Politics of the City (1985); Babies in Bottles: Twentieth Century Visions of Reproductive Technology (1994); Women Writers and the City: Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism (1984); Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation (1989); Playing Dolly: Technocultural Formations, Fantasies, and Fictions of Assisted Reproduction (1999); Communities of the Air: Radio Century, Radio Culture (Duke University Press, 2003), and Liminal Lives: Imagining the Human at the Frontiers of Biomedicine (Duke University Press, 2004).

Guided Writing Intensive - a summer writing workshop at Hollyhock

I'm really excited to be collaborating this summer with my friend, Linda Solomon, in leading a six day intensive writing retreat at Hollyhock. Linda and I love teaching together. While the focus of our writing is somewhat different--Linda is a journalist and writes non-fiction, and I write more fiction and poetry--we both have experience writing in each other's genres, and together we have a lot to offer other writers who are looking for mentoring, encouragement and guidance. Here's the description of the workshop:

Every once and a while, a writer needs to dedicate time to retreat from the world and to concentrate on writing. We set an intention. We clarify a goal. We work on building new skills, or grappling with an old writing project that continues to haunt us. We acknowledge our persistent love of the written word, strengthen our resolve, and then we write.

This retreat is open to all writers, including those who do not yet think of themselves as “writers” but who know they have something to say. Linda and Ruth are long-time colleagues, who have guided countless writers through the process of putting words on the page. The retreat will focus on individual writing, with time set aside everyday for discussions of craft, work sharing, and mentoring for those who want it.

Linda is a Pulitzer-nominated journalist, creative nonfiction writer, and founder and editor of  the award-winning online news site The Vancouver Observer.

Ruth is a novelist, Zen priest, and author of All Over Creation and My Year of Meats. She writes fiction, poetry and memoir.

And here's some information about Hollyhock:

An internationally renowned centre for learning and well-being, Hollyhock impacts personal, professional and social development through over 100 programs, and when space allows offers visitors a fantastic British Columbia island holiday, where you'll enjoy wonderful Cortes Island accommodation.

Our spectacular natural setting on Cortes Island is an ideal backdrop for transformative experiences. We are linked intrinsically to our ecology, assisting us in providing a comfortable and safe environment where people can deeply connect with others, gain creative insights, and renew hope that a better world is possible.

Hollyhock is Canada's leading educational retreat centre with over 28 years experience, but you can also think of us as a "refuge for your soul", a place that allows you access to what matters, or simply time to rest, play and achieve wellness in BC.

For more information, or to register for this workshop, please visit the program page on the Hollyhock website.

Re-Training the Writer's Mind - redux!

I'm delighted to say that I've been invited back to Hedgebrook to do another Master Class this summer! Here's the blurb:

A writer’s mind is her most important tool. We rely on our minds to be quick and associative, dogged and diligent, and above all to maintain the quiet, steady focus necessary to reach into the heart of our text. The mind’s enemy is skittery distraction in all its myriad forms, and in these days of email, Internet, and information overload, as writers, we are often fighting for our attention and our sanity. This workshop will offer practical training in re-focusing the mind through meditation, using contemplative exercises designed to deepen our expression and to allow us access to untapped areas of imagination and experience. We will look at aspects of the writing craft from a contemplative perspective, investigating ways of delving more deeply into point-of-view, metaphor, sensory imagery, characterization and plot. We will leave with writing and meditation practices to keep our most precious tool well-honed, focussed and responsive. Participants should come with writing projects in progress, or well-formed ideas for projects to start while in residency.

Here's the backstory:

Last February, I went to Hedgebrook for a residency to work on a stalled novel. In my cottage I had no access to the Internet. There was no wifi, no ethernet, and no way to get online while I was writing. It didn't take long before my mind started going through a withdrawal that was as intense and uncomfortable as the one I'd experienced when I quit smoking. The sensations, although mental, felt almost physical. I could feel my mind reaching outside itself, like a hand groping for a cigarette. I was shocked. As a writer and a longtime meditator, I'm accustomed to tracking the nuances and subtle movements of my mind, but I'd had no idea that my mind had morphed into such a cyborg. Unplugged, it felt bereft, incomplete, and horribly unsure of itself. And suddenly I realized this was why my novel had stalled. This is why I kept losing momentum and traction, and couldn't seem to finish. Somehow, my mind had lost faith in its ability to hold fast to the myriad complexities needed to conjure a fictional world. It had grown impatient and clumsy. It could no longer penetrate and go deep.

It took me a week or so to begin to settle down, and in that time, I rediscovered some of the patient focus and clarity of mind that I remember from my pre-wired days. This workshop is an outgrowth of that experience and incorporates some of the practices I've instituted in my own writing life to keep me connected but not overwhelmed. Many of these are writing and meditation techniques designed to nudge the mind from its habitual ruts and patterns of expression, and I thought it would be helpful to share them, since they seem to work. In the months since the retreat ended, I've finished a draft of the novel. It feels good to have my mind back.

This workshop is part of the Hedgebrook Women Writers Master Class Retreat Series. Hedgebrook is a retreat center for women writers, and all proceeds from these workshops go to subsidize the Writers in Residence Program. You can find information about registration at the Hedgebrook website, but here's the basic idea:

THE EXPERIENCE: 7 days at an idyllic world-renowned women writers retreat on Whidbey Island, and exceptional writing workshops with a celebrated writer. Each resident writer is housed in her own handcrafted cottage in the woods with a sleeping loft, work area and wood-burning stove. Meals are prepared by Hedgebrook’s in-house chef using fresh produce from our organic garden. The 48-acre retreat features forest walking paths, ponds and meadows, views of Puget Sound and Mount Rainier, and quiet areas for writing, reading and meditating. A beautiful beach and charming seaside village are nearby.

“Hedgebrook isn’t a retreat…it’s an advance.” - Gloria Steinem

baby priestlet

The significance of headshaving is complex. Certainly it's a symbolic act of renunciation, of cutting ties with the world. But it also felt like a kind of liberation, and after my head was shaved, I felt light-headed and clear, like a weight had been lifted. I could feel every cool and ephemeral breeze and glint of warm sun against my skin. When I looked at myself in the mirror and saw my skull for the very first time, I recognized myself. There I was. Where had I been all this time? It was like my face had opened up. Suddenly, there was no place to hide, but there was no need to hide, either, and this was a powerful feeling. I felt strong and lean, and my friend said I looked taller, too. Hair seemed immediately extraneous and cumbersome, and in the shower, I was delighted to realize that I no longer needed shampoo, conditioner, blow dryers, and product to keep the stuff in line.

Having no hair also made me feel like a baby, and that's what I am: A bald baby priest, who doesn't even know how to put on her robes, and needs to ask for help at every turn. It's a sweet feeling, and a relief from the normal responsibility of always thinking I have to know things.

The ordination ceremony was a beautiful mix, formal but also intimate and friendly, and I felt relaxed and able to enjoy it, to laugh and also to feel moved to tears. Lots of friends, family, and the wonderful sangha. I've had many thoughts about ritual over the years, lots of skepticism, resistance and doubt, but now I feel a deep and growing appreciation for ritual's ability to mark moments in time, to strengthen intention, and to forge bonds within community. It doesn't always work like this. Sometimes ritual can feel superficial, or pompous, or exclusive, and I have at times felt excluded and resentful and embarrassed. But not this time. This time felt fine.

I feel deeply grateful to my teacher, Norman Fischer, for all this. He's truly a great teacher, and he's got a great website (okay, full disclosure: I edit the site), with hundreds of wonderful talks that you can download for free or for a donation. And if you'd like to see the range of Norman's teaching activities, from Zen & Jewish meditation to his workshops at Google, check out this video that recently aired on PBS's Religion & Ethics program. And don't miss the extended interview, which is in many ways even better than the program, because he talks at length about the benefits of meditation practice, about renunciation and happiness, and about the psalms.

And last but not least, I have an essay in the July/August issue of More magazine about ordaining and sewing Buddha's robe, so check it out!

Okay, I'm off to Japan in a week, and I'll try to post again from there. Thanks for all the comments, emails and encouraging words. I appreciate them all.


Well, this is it. Today I go into retreat. In a week from today, I'll be shaving my head and being ordaining as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest. People keep asking me why. Why am I doing this? What does it mean? I try to answer. I talk about how profoundly Zen practice has helped me and changed me. How I want to share this practice with others. I talk about the importance of transmission of knowledge and forms, and about how I want to help by being a link in this lineage. I talk about how I've lost my parents and have no children or close blood relatives, and about how my Japanese grandparents were Zen Buddhists, so in a way I've inherited their traditions and am carrying them forward. I talk about the importance of sangha to my psychological health, and the importance of meditation to my writing practice. I talk about my profound gratitude to my teacher, Norman Fischer, and how much he has inspired and helped me. I talk about all these things, and all of these are good reasons, but the final answer to the question of why is simply, "I don't know." I don't know. I may never know. The truth is, I just have a feeling. The feeling has grown stronger over the past ten years of Zen practice. This feels like what I should do, and I'm okay with not knowing exactly why.

So, if you happen to think of it, on June 25th, please take a moment and send me some nice, steadying thoughts. I'm sure I'll be nervous about shaving off my hair. I know I'm both scared and excited about taking vows that will last for all lifetimes to come (especially given that don't really "believe" in reincarnation) but anyway, here goes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Writing Fact into Fiction: writing workshop September 10 - 11, Vancouver

All fiction, even the wildest and most speculative, is rooted (where else?) in an author's life and experience. But even the most truthful, precise and accurate recounting, be it historical, autobiographical or journalistic, is never entirely what it seems. So where is the border between fact and fiction? Does it exist, and if so, how do we cross it? Is it really a fine line, or more like a swamp--a murky and liminal haunt of the imaginary and the misrembered? Is this the source from which fiction draws its power? Fiction is a powerful medium. Stories communicate. They touch readers' hearts and have an enormous capacity to change people's minds. But as every fiction writer knows, writing socially engaged fiction comes with an inviolable contract never to use story solely for didactic or pedagogic purposes. Propaganda fails as fiction.

A fiction writer's obligation is to story.  Much of this workshop will be devoted to timed writing exercises, using prompts to develop strong, compelling characters and plots, and to ween us from our staid, reality-based ways of writing about our experience and our beliefs. We'll practice the power of "what if...?", directing our human habit of wishful thinking to create compelling fictional worlds. We'll also spend time sharing work, offering and receiving careful feedback, and discussing issues of privacy and respect for others, which concern all writers, but especially those writing autobiographically-based fiction. If you've ever wanted to write short stories or a novel, but felt too constrained by the fetters of reality, this workshop will help you expand your writing potential and take the leap of faith.

waiting for nothing

I’ve been writing well these days, which means I’ve been feeling well, too. This is different than feeling good, although as it happens, I've been feeling good, too: happy, excited, eager to get back to the page. But that’s not what I’m talking about.

My point here is that I’ve been feeling well, which is to say that my ability to feel is heightened. This is what happens when I’m writing well: I feel better.

Writing is one of the means I have available to feel. Meditation is another. Put another way, writing and meditation are practices that allow me to feel my feelings. Otherwise, how would I know?

We are what we tell ourselves we are,” says my friend and teacher, Norman Fischer. “Language-making isn’t incidental or ornamental to human consciousness: it is its center, its esssence. No language, no person. No relationships, no tools...Meditation practice brings the mind to a profound quiet that comes very close to the bottom of consciousness, and right there is the wellspring where language bubbles up.”

I’m hopelessly drawn to this wellspring. I sit on my cushion or at my computer, alert, eyes half shut, listening into that profound quiet. I seem to be waiting.

How am I waiting? Hopelessly (because hope can be constricting), and yet curiously, too. Trying to cultivate some patience and trust. Drawn by a longing to be fully who I am, whatever that may be.

What am I waiting for? Words. Or the world. No, that’s not quite right, because this is an intransitive kind of waiting, with no object.

I could just as well be in the garden, pulling up weeds or planting tomatoes or watching the ducks eat slugs. But instead I’m sitting here, waiting for nothing at all.