You must write every single day of your life…You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
I hung Bradbury’s quote above the kitchen sink. It was supposed to inspire. Instead, as the days passed and I failed to write, it began to haunt and eventually torture.
It was early 2012 and reality was slowly destroying me. The educational program that I worked for at the time, Adult Ed, was being threatened with extinction and we--students, teachers, administrators, staff, and community members--were embarked in an ugly battle with the LAUSD school board to try to salvage it. It was one of those David and Goliath battles that you almost know you’re going to lose, if not completely, enough to leave you maimed or jobless. Yet, you give your best fight anyway--for the principle and because, well, as Zora Neal Hurston once wrote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
More dreadful for me than the looming extinction of Adult Education was the news that one of my dearest friends, tatiana de la tierra, former Bloggera, had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Half of Adult Education was killed in June of 2012, my job along with it. And at the end of July, tatiana died.
These candles, our bodies, see how they burn.
How many hours will they last—days, months, years?
It is difficult to summarize the chaos that reigned the months during and after those two losses. It is even harder to summarize what tatiana’s passing meant for me. Aside from our friendship of 17 years, tatiana was my closest writing partner and confidant. She was also my editor and I many times hers. We swapped poems and prose and commented candidly, almost brutally, on each other’s work, a skill practiced in graduate school while getting our MFAs and mastered throughout the years. Nobody could tear my work apart like tatiana and make me laugh so hard at the same time, and I truly loved her for it. I respected her work greatly, so comments like “Me gusta!” or “You still got it, girl” were golden, and ones like “No sirve!” could be devastating. She was, among many other things, bold, colorful, passionate, keen, obsessive, Una Diva Divina, unpredictable, eccentric, magical, hilarious, hedonistic, and a royal fucking blast. Like sisters or a long-married couple, we fought over stupid things, like each other’s idiosyncrasies. Sometimes out of anger at something I'd said, done, or not done, she’d stop calling or texting me for a week. She’d later explain that her lack of communication was my punishment, to which I’d laugh and answer, “That wasn’t punishment. That was a vacation!” If we could make each other laugh, which we usually always did, then we were good, and we could move on. Regardless of what was happening in our lives and in our relationship, though, words were our most sacred glue. Above everything else was The Creative Word. The Bilingual Spoken-Broken Word. The Immigrant Word. The Word of Poverty. The Word of Abundance. The Queer Word. The Chicana from East L.A. Word. La Colombiana from Miami, Buffalo, Long Beach Word. And The Word was always with us. And we were The Word.
antes de la muerte, la poesía
--tatiana de la tierra
There are people who can write through anything I suppose. Pain and loss are fuel; words are medicine. I know that. But in 2012 my writing came to a standstill, and it wasn’t merely due to the year’s challenges and losses. My writing life has always been riddled with sporadic dry spells; now it had just reached an unprecedented season of drought. But maybe what appeared to be a drought on the surface had a deeper meaning. Could it be a much-needed period of rest, mourning, or creative incubation where seeds were being cultivated?
We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.
I spent the last days of 2012 with loved ones in Yucca Valley. The cold night pierced through our layers of sweaters and jackets as we huddled around a bonfire. Beneath the waning gibbous moon, I reflected on everything that had transpired in the previous year. The world as I knew it had come to an end. But before me was a breathing metaphor, the desert. On the surface its vast open land seemed empty, desolate, almost post-apocalyptic, but upon looking closer, there was unyielding strength and beauty—the ubiquitous creosote bush that clones itself in extreme drought, the queer Joshua tree with its gnarled branches, the tough, standoffish Cholla, and the ocean of rocks—the speckled quartz monzonite, the coarse layered gneissic, the sand, the silt, the gravel, the clay, the rocks.
There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
--Zora Neale Hurston
On the morning of the New Year, I awoke in the desert with an urge to go rock hunting. What were the rocks for? I didn’t really know. Originally, I thought I was picking them as small gifts for friends, but the more I wandered, looked, and touched the plethora of rocks, the more I felt something heavy shifting inside me, like a planet slowly changing its axis or a boulder moving, clearing a new path. Suddenly, it was hard to move or breathe. I sat down on a slab of rock the size of a lifeboat and took several long breaths, trying to replicate the rhythmic flow of a gentle wave. I could feel the earth spinning, the Universe churning, and my heart pounding. My year of gestation was coming to an end and it was time to say goodbye to 2012. I crawled further onto the rock, and then lay flat on my back, surrendering completely, the beautiful stuff inside me, my tears and cries, spilling out. I’ll never forget you, beautiful dying sun. I’ll always love you, 2012. Thank you for everything.
Whatever touches us touches our writing.
I picked dozens of rocks that day and upon returning to Los Angeles I got myself a large mason jar. An idea was forming and the urge to write was surging from the ground up. It had occurred to me in the desert that I needed a new approach to creating my own writing routine, one that did not judge or torture and one that was in sync with my personality and lifestyle. What I needed was a habit-forming ritual and the rocks from Yucca Valley were going to help me. They were going to be my grounding stones, my Writing Rocks.
First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not.
Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't.
Habit is persistence in practice.
--Octavia E. Butler
The idea was very simple--put a stone in the mason jar for every day that I write. At first I thought I’d empty the jar at the end of each month and start anew. Then I envisioned growing fantastically old, like a redwood, and being surrounded by my own sea of stones. Visual metaphors speak to me louder than words sometimes, and I dug the image, so I started to write, clumsily at first, like someone learning to walk again after a serious car crash, but writing nonetheless.
There is no poetry where there are no mistakes.
Once I began my new ritual it wasn’t important to have a set time to write during the day or even the week. Rocks could care less about schedules. Time is time. This works wonderfully for me, since some days I’m a night owl who stays up till the crack of dawn and others I’m an 85-year-old woman who needs to be in bed as soon as the sun sets. I write whenever there is a block of time, and if there’s no apparent block of time, I move rocks to create it. It doesn’t matter so much where I write either. Of course, I want “a clean, well-lighted place,” and “a room of my own” would be rad, but that’s not always my reality. I don’t even have a desk at this time. I have a small kitchen table that’s one hundred years old. I can feel its spindled legs squeaking as I type. It’s a fine desk for now if you ask me. Other times, I write on the sofa with a laptop. Almost any place is game for a writing place—a café, a park bench, a library, a friend’s home. What matters most is that the writing happens, and that it be braided into my life, por vida, like a vigorous habit I cannot shake.
Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.
I cannot completely explain why this visual metaphor, rocks in a jar, has been so empowering and healing. There’s something about the small physical act of holding a rock and placing it in a jar that is helping me make peace with one of my oldest nemesis--discipline. And I love my rocks, the desert quartz, the ocean pebbles, the river rocks, the precious turquoise, the random earth stones that are grounding me like little anchors with no strings attached.
In loving memory of taiana de la tierra, escritora extraordinare
May 16, 1961 -- July 31, 2012
May 16, 1961 -- July 31, 2012