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Buddhism for the Hyperactive ...Or...Noisy Buddhism and the Beloved Monkey Mind

I used to think I was too hyperactive for Buddhism. I have a visceral reaction to phrases like “clear your mind” and “treat thoughts like clouds that will pass by” (a lovely visual but one that devalues the thought.) It felt like yet another instance of the pressure I have been under all my life – sit still, stay on task, march in a straight line, don’t daydream, be more like an accountant and less like a dancer. The superiority of the quiet and contained, left-brained and linear! Arggh! Even walking meditations were a struggle for me because my fellow practitioners were covering 3 feet in five minutes as I was sprinting around the retreat grounds. I found no joy in trying to go to an empty place. To sit still and drain my mind sounded like Orwellian hell, like Stepford spirituality. But then I was introduced to the power of the mantra.

Loving My Monkey Mind

In Buddhist practice one is encouraged to contain or suppress the mind that jumps from topic to topic, distracting you with a mind-bauble here and a silly thought there – the Monkey Mind. As an alternative, I think of a hummingbird, which I consider my totem animal. But I am an artist and in many ways, I consider my monkey mind to be the best part of me. New ideas come from mental wandering, from allowing your mind to jump from a grocery list to a new idea for water conservation, to a great idea about the organic food supply chain, to a child’s toy, and a remembrance of a store in France. Creativity comes in the spaces between two decisions, in the unusual combination of things previously unrelated. And that’s the way both  Read More 

The Mathematics of Fiction

I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.

It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.

Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:

First, the math of the art:
• You will have 10 ideas for every story you complete
• It will take up to 20 published stories to discover the thematic thread that runs through your work  Read More 

Good Storytelling Techniques are Required for Family Stories

The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the material above and the keys to storytelling below:
• concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
• be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
• begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
• evoke many if not all the senses
• make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.

The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of  Read More 

The Advantages of Fictionalizing Your Family Story

I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (my last two novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.

First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces  Read More 

Turn Off the Tree and House Lights for a Natural Light Christmas

‘Tis the season for increased energy usage but I’d like to suggest something else: let’s do away with Christmas lights on the tree and the house altogether. Let’s go for a natural light Christmas. #naturallightchristmas

Watching Before the Flood I am reminded that oil fuels our transportation section but the coal industry is the primary source that fuels the electrical grid so anything we can do to reduce electrical consumption can help battle climate change. Anything at all. Especially now that the White House will be driven by climate deniers and potentially even heads of oil companies, everything we can do, counts. Think of the trade-off: rising sea levels; increased tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons; and out-of-control wildfires, versus twinkly lights inside a house that is already lit, or outside while the occupants are inside.  There have been plenty of suggestions  Read More 
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How and Why You Should Write the Story of Your Family and When to Veer into Fiction

Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing.  Read More 

Thurber, Burleigh and Dvorak Were Key to the Birth of American Orchestral Music

Jeannette Meyer Thurber
‘Had Jeannette Meyers Thurber put her name on the institutions she established, she would be as well-known as Carnegie and Rockefeller.’ That statement piqued my interest while enjoying the lecture series from The Great Courses entitled Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances.

An accomplished but obscure woman? Just my sort of treasure hunt.

Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 – the first of its kind and an endeavor that some say ushered in the first orchestral music with a distinctively American sound. But in a very radical stance for the day, Thurber championed the rights of women, people of color and the handicapped to attend her school, sometimes on full scholarship. This was 1885—not too long after the Civil War -- and her school was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward the handicapped.

“The National Conservatory of Music of America was the outstanding institution for professional musical preparation in the United States for some 25 years or more. At its height in the 1890s it boasted a faculty of international renown…and initiated a course of studies whose features became a basis for the curriculum now taken for granted in the colleges and conservatories of this country. Its achievements resulted from the endeavors of a single visionary: Jeannette M Thurber, a wealthy, idealistic New Yorker who devoted most of her life to the school…Although her innovative design for the Conservatory was influential in shaping the course of American music for the 20th century, Mrs. Thurber and her school have slipped into undeserved obscurity.”(1)

But the conservatory seemed to be her real love, and she grew it from 84 students when it opened to 3,000 students in 1900.(2) Her success was due, in part,  Read More 

Please join me Oct. 22nd for a Special Reading at The Writing Salon, Berkeley

San Francisco Bay Area writers and readers: Please join me at The Writing Salon in Berkeley on Oct. 22nd, 7-9 p.m. as I read new work, introduce my student Agatha Hinman to her first public reading, and share the stage with Karen Bjorneby and her student.

I'll be reading from my unpublished collection of short stories, The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, featuring a story that is particularly appropriate for an audience of writers.

The event is free but space is limited. Refreshments will be served and my books will be available for sale.

Please join me at The Writing Salon, 2121 Bonar St., Studio D on the Second Floor, Berkeley CA, 94702, October 22, 2016, from 7-9 p.m.

Looking forward to seeing you!
Jess
 Read More 

Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #3 - Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This post, Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

On the day of the flight from Shanghai to Beijing we arrived at the airport and I sought out the wisdom of an Irishman – his red hair and trim suit in such contrast to all of the Mao blue. Did he have any suggestions of places to stay, I asked him, since our hotel adventure in Shanghai had been so taxing. He looked at us incredulously. You come to China without hotel reservations? But he tilted his head and reached in his pocket. Go to this hotel, he said. My company keeps a hotel room there rented all year so their employees have somewhere to stay when they come to Beijing. Don’t go to the main desk, he said, go around the main desk to a small room behind it – Room 101 – and tell them that you’re there to do business with me. I was wary of his advice,  Read More 

Hubris and Wonder in China, 1986 - #2 - Screaming Through a Hole in the Window

This is the second of three posts on my initial trip to China in 1986 -- light-years from the China I'm about to see in September, 2016...

Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
This post, Part #2: "Screaming Through a Hole in the Window"
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons

With our money in hand we headed out to make reservations to fly to Beijing. Our driver to the Waste Garden had told us it was very important to get the reservations right away and to be sure to go to the foreigners and diplomats line – both pieces of advice that I would never have taken during European travel. We got lost again looking for the main travel bureau, still operating under our American assumption that important things have big buildings.

The building we ultimately determined to be the main ticketing hub for all of Shanghai was tucked behind a cluster of abandoned buildings. It was a one-level, low-ceilinged building with half-dome roof tiles. When we stepped inside, it was filled, wall-to-wall, with men standing shoulder to shoulder (in matching Mao outfits of course.) There was no way to know which window to go to within the large general area and so I broke my own rule and went to the diplomats and foreigners window in the corner, the only sign in English. I bent low and talked through a hole in a plastic window to the woman to make arrangements – this was how I did all of my business in China, trying to communicate with women who were shouting at me through holes in plastic windows. To get to Beijing we had to rearrange our flight back to the US --back and forth numerous times. Had there been someone to help us translate? Did the driver help us? Doubtful. I was exhausted, riddled with anxiety  Read More 
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