Wednesday, August 19, 2015

"Fruit is so sexy": Writing and the Body.

As part of my series on Books That Inspire, I had a chat with the inspirational--dare I say, luscious goddess?--Gayle Brandeis. Read on for some inspiring words about how to love your body and jump-start your writing.

Me: Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write is such a juicy, gorgeous book. It inspires us to write and live with our senses wide open. You start the book with a revelation you had in high school that involves a strawberry. And one of your novels, Delta Girls, features a fruit-picking character and begins with a discussion of pears. I call myself a "fruit bat" because I love fruit so much. What is it with fruit? What makes it such an important element (literally and metaphorically) in life and writing?

Gayle: Thank you so much, Kate—always nice to find a fellow fruit bat! I’ve loved fruit all my life, and it’s long felt connected to language for me. When I was in third grade, my teacher gave our class “succulent” as a vocabulary word; I had a pear for a snack after school that day, and told my mom “My, what a succulent pear”. It made me very happy to use my new word, and not just because it made my mom gasp; the word felt just as juicy in my mouth as the pear. Fruit is so sexy, its seeds so full of potential—the perfect metaphor for both writing and our bodies. 

Fruitflesh is filled with wonderful--and often surprising--writing activities. Have you done every writing activity in this book? Which one or two are your favorites? And if you took your own advice and wrote on your body, what did you write?

I did indeed test drive every single exercise in the book. The ones that have had the most staying power for me are all the sensory-based prompts. I use them often in my workshops, asking my students to write so the reader can feel/taste/see/smell/hear the words on the page. And Dictionary Poems: crack open a dictionary at random, close your eyes and point to a word, then write a poem around that word. It’s still something I turn to if I’m not sure what to write. If I recall correctly—it’s been a while—I wrote just one word on my body: YES.

You write, "There are many ways of knowing. Our bodies have great imaginations." How can we hear what our bodies are "imagining" or telling us? How does that translate to the page?

I find that our bodies’ imaginations come into play the most when we’re writing fiction, or accessing memory in our work. I do an exercise with my fiction students where I have them close their eyes and check in to their own bodies; once they’re really grounded inside their own skin, we start to morph into all sorts of other bodies—we imagine ourselves as a three year old boy, a 90-year-old woman, a 400 pound man, a dolphin, a hummingbird, etc.—and then we write about the experience. It’s our bodies’ sense of kinesthetic empathy that allows us to imagine what it’s like to live in other bodies, that allows us to access the “other” in our work—it’s the same sense that allows us to feel what it must be like to be running when we watch the Olympics, or that makes us cringe when someone falls down, as if we can feel it in our own body. When we tap into the body’s intelligence and imagination, we become more compassionate--since the root of the word means “to suffer with,” and when we fully can imagine being in another person’s skin, we can more deeply connect with their suffering. And yes, if we just get quiet and listen to our own bodies, we can learn so much about our own stories.

The book is geared toward women. Have you ever talked with a man who read it? What was his reaction?

Several men have told me they’ve gotten a lot out of Fruitflesh, which makes me happy; they said they just skipped over the parts they felt didn’t apply to them. When I first envisioned this project, I wasn’t planning to gear it toward women—the book was originally titled Writing From the Body, and I thought I had this great, fresh approach to writing, but then a book called Writing From the Body written by John Lee came out when I was about halfway through the first draft, and I was devastated; I felt as if my life’s work had been taken from me. Eventually I realized there was still room for my voice, and I decided to distinguish my project by focusing on women writers. I was very happy to do this; I thought the book offered a great opportunity to help break through the damaging messages we receive about our bodies as women, to help us appreciate our bodies and the stories they can tell.

You write, "Being a person can be embarrassing." I once heard memoirist Joe Loya say, "In order to write a memoir, we have to be willing to be embarrassed." How do you allow yourself to be vulnerable on the page?

That hasn’t been easy for me. Even around the time I wrote Fruitflesh, I was less willing to embarrass myself on the page than I probably would have admitted. I think it’s helped to get older and not care so much what other people think. It’s helped to feel as if I can own my own story, including my bad decisions and deeply human flaws. It’s helped to not need to be seen as “perfect” I am a recovered perfectionist, and as Anne Lamott says, “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” Also, reading other writers who are able to be vulnerable on the page has given me courage to lay my own life bare. 

You write, "Writing involves listening. Deep listening. We need to quiet ourselves so we can hear the world around us in a true, clear way." In such a busy, noisy world, how do you focus on deep listening? What advice can you give to other writers?

This is not easy to do—I definitely have more trouble doing it now than when I wrote the book 15 years ago; the constant lure of social media has dramatically affected my ability to slow down and listen deeply. But it’s so necessary—for my sanity and my writing—to take time to just breathe, and check in with my body and feel really grounded in the moment. This can happen while going for a walk through the forest, or just sitting and closing my eyes for a few minutes, or dancing like a wild woman and feeling as if my body is taking me exactly where it needs to go—anything that gets me to that place of receptivity only enriches my writing (and my experience as a person!)

It seems that in your ruminations, the body, sexuality/the libido, and creativity/writing are all intertwined. Why do you think this is? Why is it important for women writers to tap into these interconnections?

Our culture teaches us as women to see ourselves at war with our bodies, to feel as if we’re somehow lacking or “wrong” if we don’t fit the airbrushed media ideal. When I wrote Fruitflesh, I think I was reminding myself, and hoping I could remind other women, that we don’t need to listen to our culture’s damaging messages, that we can start to love and accept our bodies as they are and tap into our physicality as a source of creativity and wisdom and power, that we can remove shame from our narratives of desire and sex, that we can claim our full experience, let desire fuel us in the world and on the page.  I wish I could say that writing the book led me to love and accept my body all the time, that I never fall prey to body insecurities, but that wouldn’t be honest; I still struggle at times with body image, still measure myself negatively against that ridiculous ideal. Fruitflesh continues to help me, though. I read my own words and find myself teaching myself what I need to learn all over again. The book helps remind me to forget about how I look and focus on how I feel inside my skin, to write from that juicy, painful, experiential place.

You are the author of Fruitflesh, four novels, and a poetry chapbook--as well as stories, poems, and essays that have appeared in an impressive array of journals. You are currently finishing up a memoir and are co-editing an anthology about suicide loss. And on top of it all, you have children, a husband, and you teach for three programs: Sierra Nevada College, the Incarcerated Student Program through Lake Tahoe Community College, and the low residency MFA program at Antioch in L.A. How is this humanly possible? Ha. What I really want to know is: How do you structure your life so you have time to write?

I don't! I am kind of structure averse, actually--I'm much more of a go with the flow kind of person. Of course I need to stick to schedules for class times, etc., but in terms of fitting everything in, somehow I have an intuitive sense of what needs to get done when and I try to give my attention as fully as possible to whatever task is at hand and not get too overwhelmed by everything else that needs to get done. I fit the writing in whenever and wherever I can--I don't have a set writing schedule; I just take advantage of little windows in my day, and those windows can feel spacious even if they're small. Sometimes 15 minutes of furious writing can be more productive than a full day of staring at the screen.
Gayle Brandeis has been awarded the Bellwether Prize and a Silver Nautilus Book Award. She served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She lives in Tahoe. Check out her website:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Chicago Life

We had barely landed in Chicago, when a cousin I had met only through Facebook asked if I wanted to get together for brunch.

Anne-Marie brought her two sisters and her mom, who was my father's cousin--the woman I was named after. I hadn't seen her since I was a child.

Janet, Anne-Marie, the Kathleeens, Elaine
It was a sweet way to begin our adventure. Well, actually our orientation started a few days before when we first met Mike and Joanne, the people who picked us off a housesitting website. We spent a day together. They showed us around their Hyde Park neighborhood which features lots of brick, flowers, mature trees, and gorgeous architecture. We walked to the Lake Michigan waterfront and through the gothic architecture of the University of Chicago campus.

The Obamas' house is just a few blocks away, surrounded by Secret Service barriers. Down the street is a plaque that commemorates their first date.

They made us dinner that night and breakfast the next morning. Before they took off on their own adventure, we went with them to a moving service at their Unitarian church. It didn't take long before we were encamped in their home with their two dogs. The nomads know how to adapt.

Bear on the chair, Jake on the floor.
Some days we hang out at home, walking the dogs, doing yoga, and taking care of business (me, writing and editing; Dave, working on the development of a new company).

Other days, we explore, or visit the farmer's market, or walk across the street for the free music in the park.

Near the train entrance.

On the days we venture downtown, there is so much to see. The art and architecture are mind-blowing. As are the food and music.
Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago

Blues at Buddy Guy's Legends.

It's a very walkable city, even in the heat and humidity. Fortunately, this has been a milder summer than most. Still, it feels strange for this native Californian to feel like the air is a thing.

Navy Pier
We launched into full-speed tourist mode when our friends Paul and Mari Carmen arrived from Mexico City. At the same time, our friend Kate has been here as well, serendipitously coming through the area more than three months into her "Big Adventure" road trip.

Kate, Paul, Mari Carmen, Dave, and me reflected in the Bean.
Our tour guide and hostess par excellence has been Pam, a long-time friend who lives in Oak Park, a Chicago suburb famous as the home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Pam took us around the neighborhood to see a bunch of his remarkable homes.

My favorite Frank Lloyd Wright.

The crew with Frank.

The whirlwind of activities included a picnic and free jazz in Millennium Park...

The Kates do headstands before the music starts. architectural boat tour down the Chicago River, where we learned a lot about the history of the stunning array of buildings...
Architecture boat tour down the Chicago River.
...dinner (and a Doors cover band) at an open air restaurant at Montrose beach....
So warm at night it felt like a Mexico beach. 
... and a baseball game at Wriggly Field. Even though our Giants lost (damn), I was glad to have experienced this park that has hosted the MLB for more than 100 seasons. The visibility is really good--and the bratwurst rocks. It was charming to see someone behind the scoreboard manually updating the score!

In our last two weeks here, we plan to kayak down the river, experience more music and perhaps see some of the famous Chicago theater. Even though living full-time in an urban world is not my bag, Chicago reminds me how enjoyable time in a city can be--and how astonishing is its scope.