I am in celebration mode these days. Tonight I pack up and return to California from a long month-plus away on residency in the jungle on the southeastern coast of the Big Island of Hawaii—a place where the life force is so visible it truly boggles the mind, where delicate-looking flowers wear faces capable of surviving intense heat and humidity, where new earth literally breaks through the surface as liquid molten rock, where whole jungles of coconut palms take root in black sand. I have spent large portions of my time here counting sea turtles from a swing atop a volcanic rock cliff, writing new pages under deafening coqui frogsong at night, and living off the kinds of fruits that have, since my grandfather first introduced me to them as a child, felt like my food: lilikoi, white pineapple, carambola, lychee, apple banana, mango. (I even discovered two new favorites: rose apples and mamey sapote.)
Part of my celebration has been intensely private. Ten years ago this week I arrived in California. I’d just left a plum lectureship at Michigan to move west with my partner-at-the-time (who was starting a grad program) and our thirty boxes of books and nearly as many potted orchids. I was twenty-five. I had no idea what I was going to do in California, other than train a puppy we were getting and write for a year or so on a fellowship I’d deferred. Even though I felt a little like I had to be out of my mind for dismantling what was a good life for me in Ann Arbor, I got in the car.
Then this thing started happening, with Skye the puppy, at the farmer’s market—people would come up, and while they scratched behind his ears and wondered at how much he looked like a possum or a pig or a bunny and begged to hold him for just a minute, we’d get into conversations in which they’d mention how much they wished they could live as writers, when they found out that’s what I did. (It’s amazing how truthful people are when they’re holding something young.)
And thus I came to understand I had just landed in a land of writers desperately seeking community that could support their work as the real work it was.
I’ve been astoundingly lucky to have spent this decade teaching—it’s my favorite kind of work—and to have taught the things I think are most important, to people who keep coming back. I’ve been at it long enough now that the writers who have come through my workshops have gathered all sorts of interesting accolades from beyond, but what I see when I look back on the whole long stretch of it all is the relationships that now exist: writer to writing, writer to writing, writer to writing, everywhere. I am surrounded on all sides by writers who write. In these ten years I have created my own place in the world, and in doing so I have accumulated rare experience figuring out how to create and sustain space for people who want to maintain contact with their creative lives for the long run. The real deal. Teaching for me has always been about the space.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the making and honoring of space is the only thing that’s truly hard for creative people. The rest is gravy. If you want to write, in this life, you have to write through your life. Period. You have to take seriously the enormously positive shifts that happen internally when you’re working regularly, and take responsibility for building a life that keeps that space open. You have to stop pretending you’ve forgotten the things you know, and stop pretending that other people have more time or greater ease than you do, and stop thinking of your writing as belonging to an eventual self for whom it will come easily. Every time you make an excuse—“feeling uninspired,” having “too much going on,” not “knowing how,” “not in the mood,” you are choosing to not show up. It’s that simple. You can make excuses, or you can make pages. If writing is important to you, it’s only by making pages that you will find the ease you perceive others to have.
The last couple years have delivered me into startling clarity about what is important in my life, and what works. Personally, professionally, creatively, energetically. I think I have a pretty clear outline these days of what it is that I know, and what it is that I want to do with what I know. How I want to expand and push my teaching, how I might be able to better serve writers working at the level of manuscript development, how I might be able to adapt my teaching to an increased need for time spent traveling. Perhaps this is the kind of shift that happens when a first book finally comes out, when an author finally arrives inside her own name. Perhaps this is what happens when ten years of self-designed teaching projects start looking like a legible whole. I have always been moving from instinct. I have followed it all the way here.
What I know is: I am a writer and a teacher, not because someone taught me how to do these things I love most, but because I showed up and paid attention to what happened, and kept showing up and paying attention.
And what I also know is: the things that work to move us into alignment with the best, most accurate, most fulfilling parts of ourselves don’t work if we don’t do them, and then keep doing them.
I counted this morning. I’ve taught, since landing on the west coast ten years ago, a total of 88 creative writing workshops across basically every genre: for LGBT teens and UCDavis undergrads and certificate-aspirants and rural poets and urban essayists, locally and semi-locally and online. Children who believe poetry is about good behavior, high schoolers who believe poetry is pointless, teachers whose experiences as educators have made them writers. Veterans, people in crisis and recovery, people at the end of their lives, people who are brave enough to show up and ask me to meet them where they are. A huge number of those workshops have been taught in my living room, or in the living rooms of other local writers who understand something special about space, and the kinds of spaces that help us come together best. I have taught my way through culture shock, heartbreak, illness, jetlag, states of speechlessness, on birthdays, on bad days, on holidays we all wanted to celebrate by not doing something else. Teaching has never, not for one day, been hard.
I have learned that teaching, like writing, will offer me my life if I show up.
I could not be happier to be celebrating ten years with each and every one of you who has shown up too. May your writing lives continue to offer you everything you know in your gut they can.