Calmly, Joyously, Recklessly

Lower_Manhattan_from_Jersey_City_November_2014_panorama_2
View of Lower Manhattan from Jersey City; photo credit, Wikipedia

We’re moving to New Jersey! Come August, the girlfriend, the dog, the cat and I will be making a home in Jersey City for at least the next two years while I get an MFA in fiction at Rutgers Newark.

I wrote in my personal statement for my application that I was tempted to draft a manifesto—something akin to Kerouac’s “Rules for Spontaneous Prose” or Henry Miller’s “Eleven Commandments.”

I’ve felt at times with some chagrin that I could have used a blueprint for how to live life as a writer. Earning an MFA in fiction, a new genre for me as a writer, feels like the right next step. The throughline in my meandering path has been stories—writing and performing my own, creating space for my students to tell theirs.

I spent my childhood reading voraciously—being fondest of orphan protagonists and hobbits—and banging out poems and plays on my father’s typewriter. Continue reading Calmly, Joyously, Recklessly

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How to Do What You Love

Edouard_Manet,_A_Bar_at_the_Folies-Bergère
Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.                                                                                                           Henry David Thoreau

In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.

In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love

Forgive Me, But Now I Own Your World

photo by Terence Faircloth on flickr
photo by Terence Faircloth on flickr

My manuscript is out to six publishers, and now we wait to see what they have to say. In the meantime, what to post? I’ve started some fall teaching work and will have stories about those residencies down the road, but meanwhile, I’ve been meaning for some time to share a favorite student poem.

It was written in a third grade poetry class. We read William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say:”

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I asked students to write a poem, in the style of Williams if they wished, that apologized for something. Most students wrote poems like this one from Justin A: Continue reading Forgive Me, But Now I Own Your World

Till You’re Done Growing Up: An Open Letter to My Theater Students

Theatre 2

The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.

Dear All City Ensemble,

I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.

This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.

Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.

I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.

I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.

I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”

I’m gonna get by when the going get rough                                               I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up                                                     And when I go down                                                                                             I’mma go down swinging                                                                                   My eyes still smiling                                                                                           And my heart still singing

Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.

Have a beautiful summer, young artists.

Love,                                                                                                                     Maia

Theatre

Listen sample 2

Listen sample 3

dressing room selfies 1

dressing room selfies 2

brandon

A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life

Photo: Wikipedia
Photo: Wikipedia

I make lists. I’m soothed, in particular, by the kind where you eventually get to cross things out or check them off. But I make other kinds of lists, too. Lists are containers; they are maps, taxonomies, blueprints. As a kid, I listed ways to make money, things I wanted to have when I grew up, things I needed to pack for vacation, boys I liked, books I liked, songs I liked.

I like writing that’s based on lists. I liked the litanies we said in church when I was a kid—Heart of Jesus, Lamb of God, pray for us. Nowadays I often used list-based writing in teaching.

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right… Continue reading A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life

A Handful of Residencies

Regular readers may remember I resolved to finish The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures by the end of March and also that that was going to be a tall order. Well, I’ve made significant headway, but I’m not there yet. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some of my students’ work. I’m currently teaching five residencies with Chicago public school students who are creating theatrical performances from scratch.

On Saturdays I’m directing the CPS All City Theater Program which brings together teens from across Chicago. For this performance, we’re investigating maps. I was inspired by the fact that the students in the program come from neighborhoods all over the city as well as this quote I came across in my initial research for the residency: Continue reading A Handful of Residencies

On Writers, Egos and Truth

Foster underpass by Jason Pettus
Foster underpass by Jason Pettus
The writer’s job is to tell the truth…All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.                   
                                               – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
 

I was thinking about two things on my bike ride down to Logan Square. Well, three. One was a feeling, really: how blissful it felt to be pedaling by the river, music ablaze in my ears, sunshine ablaze on my shoulder blades. Two was contemplating this odd task I’ve taken on of writing about myself – spending hour upon hour thinking about my life, traveling through my past. I was puzzling over why I feel driven to write about myself in this way. Are writers, specifically memoirists, monologuists, poets who draw on their personal experience, everyone who writes about themselves, are we all raging egomaniacs? The third thing I was thinking about was truth. Because when I think about why I write about myself, my life, it comes down to wanting to tell the truth. And I wondered what makes the truth so important.

I put the egomaniac question to Roger, with whom I’ve been meeting to share work and critique. We sat at a bar; I had a beer and a Cuban sandwich (which blessedly involved both plantains and pickles) while the sweat cooled on my skin.

“Are writers in love with themselves?” I asked. Continue reading On Writers, Egos and Truth

squirrel toy rage rocket lemon

Levi Mingus computerFirst, some good news: the first chapter of The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures was named a finalist for Fourth Genre’s Michael Steinberg Essay Prize! I’d post an excerpt, but I’m still working on actually getting it published somewhere, so the curious will have to wait.

Meanwhile…Levi Mingus computer 2

It feels like summer today. Lawnmower in the distance, fluttering curtains, susurration of leaves, chatter of birds and squirrels outside my third story window. Right now I’m doing research. Not the kind that requires library or internet or the kind that necessitates phone calls home to ask who taught me to suck the honeysuckles that grew along our backyard fence or whether it was a tire or a wooden monkey swing at that one house we stayed in that summer. Nor is it the kind of research that winds up with me on the floor amid stacks of notebooks or letters dug out of cardboard boxes from the hall closet. Today’s research involved plugging in an ancient (like over a decade old) laptop (time capsule) and meandering through its contents.

Some things it contains: Continue reading squirrel toy rage rocket lemon

In between

four moonIt began in mystery, and it will end in mystery, but what a savage and beautiful country lies in between.                                      
                                                                           — Diane Ackerman

I’m waiting tables again. This past fall, a couple gaps in my teaching schedule left funds a little thin, so I picked up a couple nights a week at a place not far from home. Waiting tables has always been something I’ve done between other jobs, between teaching and writing and life. Often, the restaurants where I’ve worked have been staffed by artists and students and immigrants – people on their way to doing other things, people working two jobs or three to support families, put themselves through school, pursue creative projects, people between countries, languages and cultures. On top of all of those betweens, there’s the contrast between the staff racing around, keeping tabs on tables and drinks and entrees and the customers at rest, eating and drinking, catching up with friends.

Waiting tables makes me think about these collisions, these betweens. It also makes me want to go have a drink after work. So, the other night, somewhere between one day and the next, I was sitting at a bar with a couple new friends from the restaurant. Continue reading In between

the courage of your lungs

It’s June already. Summer is breathing down our necks. How did this happen? I’ve been working hard all spring, but teaching a full load of classes and workshops (oh, and trying not to be a hermit because that never ends well) has meant that I’ve only completed one 7,000 word chapter, “Law of the Jungle” over the past several weeks. But summer’s nearly here, and that makes me feel energized and alive and ready to run. I know just a few weeks ago I wrote a post “In Praise of Slowness,” but now I’m kind of in the mood to go fast. Not a teeth-gritted-when-is-this-hell-going-to-be-over kind of fast, but the kind when your body just begs you to run.

One afternoon this spring I asked the students in my after school program to write images that showed relationships. They wrote of grandmothers dancing at family reunions, a woman chasing a man and throwing her high heels at him, a father marveling over his infant son’s feet. One student wrote: Two girls running, the wind blowing their hair back.”

(If you want to, you can pretend you’re listening to the “Chariots of Fire” theme as you read the rest of this post.)

That’s the kind of running I mean – when your lungs ache and your legs get a mind of their own, running like a kid, running toward nothing. The goal is not the goal, you just open up and run like a smiling dog on the beach. So that is my summer plan. I have a goal in mind. It’s a big goal, a lot of chapters. But I’m going to set my mind on running for the joy of running and see how that works out.  And when my lungs ache I will remember running in my college town through fields of corn you could practically hear growing, wisps of clouds in the sky, worn pavement rising to meet my feet.  I’ll revel in my fleet feet, my capacity to move and breathe and feel the sun and wind on my skin.

This summer I’m running. Who’s in?

You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it, seeking out new sights just on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.

                                                                                                        – Jesse Owens