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Into the Unknown

7 Mar

On not knowing, and failing, as a path to wisdom and success…

Divine Light Coaching

Into the Unknown Into the Unknown

When I sat down to write this blog today, I had several ideas swirling in my head, and so I decided to pull an Oracle card from Colette Baron-Reid’s deck “The Enchanted Map.”  The card I got is pictured above Into the Unknown, and the upshot is that trust and willingness to admit I don’t know this new territory are needed as I move forward.  Bingo – every day right now feels like this for me, a perfect thing to write about!

When I got into coaching, many pieces of it felt “known” to me.  I had trained as a therapist, and had lots and lots of experience working with people, listening to them, identifying their strengths, zeroing in on problems.  I had hired my own coach, who helped me change my life and I modeled a lot of how I practiced in the beginning on…

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“Novelists are chancers”–A few favorite moments from AWP ’14

3 Mar

A few favorite moments from this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Seattle:

*Rachel Kushner saying she tries to make sure that when she writes, she has “not yet performed any acts of speech that day.”  (Or was it that she tries not to have “committed any acts of speech”?  Either way, she’s a #silentgenius.)

*Hearing writers from Killing the Buddha talking about the complex ways in which they write about faith, paying attention to the stories that believers tell rather than the “facts” of God’s (or gods’ or goddesses’) existence or non-existence.

*Jess Walter’s very funny introductions of Gish Jen and Tobias Wolff, including his commentary on how he, a writer unaffiliated with any college, felt about attending his first AWP:

Walter joked that he’d worried about whether he’d fit in at AWP, about whether he’d be expected to use words like “pedagogy,” or if he even was pronouncing the word correctly.  He mentioned that when he first arrived at the conference, he saw a writer friend coming out of a convenience store, and the writer said, “Dude, what the hell?! They legalize pot here and then they don’t even sell it in the stores?!”

To which Walter replied:  “That’s pedagogy for you.”

*Seeing my former Pitt colleagues Catherine Gammon and Jeffrey Condran both doing so well.

*That attentive and somewhat beleagured look on other writers’ faces as they watched each other streaming up and down the endless Escher painting escalators of the Washington State Convention center.  Reassuring because I knew it was the look on my face as well.

*Spending time with my friends and talented fellow Berkeley writers, Kaya OakesRyan Sloan, and John Levine. Always a pleasure.

*Sarah Einstein, the managing editor of Brevity, talking about what kinds of stories the magazine doesn’t accept, and doing so by giving a breakdown of the worst submission she’s ever seen, the one she keeps posted on the wall next to her desk as a reminder, and she pointing out to the audience, in great specificity, the flaws in that submission’s title and theme and craft, and I’m thinking, “Jeez, that’s awfully mean of her to go on like that,” until the ending that I didn’t see coming (and which I’m sure you do see coming) when she revealed that the submission was hers.

*Hearing novelist Thaddeus Rutkowski talk about how hard it is to market his books on a shoestring budget, and how difficult it is to know how effective his use of online tools for marketing is, so in the spirit of online sharing, here’s a link to his website, and here’s a video clip of him performing “White and Wong,” part of the documentary Aurora:

*And finally…Colm Toibin making the statement that “Novelists are chancers.”   Toibin took such impish delight in being a chancer that I knew, then and there, that I wanted to be one.

Colm Toibin

Art Inspiration

12 Feb

Art (and a blog) to inspire!

Divine Light Coaching

A couple of weeks ago, I had a day of complete inspiration.  It was the uplifting, heart opening, I-can-see-all-the-possibilities-in-the-world feeling that makes me want to sing or dance or do whatever I can to express the joy of feeling alive.  I felt completely jolted out of the winter and post-holiday doldrums I had been in.  I owe this feeling, this lightness of heart and spirit to David Hockney.

David Hockney “Bigger Trees Near Warter, Winter 2007”

And to the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

David Hockney at the deYoung Museum

David Hockney exhibit at the de Young Museum

And “Bigger” this exhibit was!  This man is amazing! The depth and breadth of what he does, just blew my mind.  Sure, he is a painter as in the first image (one of my favorites, it was HUGE).  The size of the paintings were such that some took up whole walls…

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So What? A few final CW R4B thoughts

6 Dec

A few words on the last day of College Writing R4B, Fall 2013 

For Mimi, Nick, Nathan, Brent, Jeevan, Kristine, Jasmine, Noosha, Grant, Kevin, Kevyn, Alan, Michelle, Richard, Nicole, Estefania, and Lulu…
[Note:  If you’re reading on a computer, the hyperlinks in the text should come through fine. For those of you reading this on a mobile device, some of the hyperlinks don’t seem to be activating, so I’ve listed a few raw URLs at the end of the post. ]

We live in heady times.  Every day there is something new.

Talk of Amazon delivering packages by drone and Google doing so via robot, and of hyper-connected, love sick couples in Seoul, along with ongoing discussions of whether the Long Tail is a good thing–for consumers, for artists, for businesses, for the culture.

Remember the Long Tail?  Jaron Lanier talked a little bit about it:  most of us are in the long tail, while a few Amazonians, among others, are in the slender tippy top of the curve.

Speaking of Lanier, here’s what he had to say in the New York Times a couple of days ago about that Amazon drone delivery idea:


“I can easily picture a scenario where drones deliver things to upscale tech-savvy customers,” he said. “But note the implication, whether intended or not, that working-class truck drivers will no longer transgress geographic class lines. It’s also hard to imagine delivery drones flying unmolested in restive working-class or poor areas. They’d become skeet or be ‘occupied,’ depending on the nature of the neighborhood.”

A prospect both funny and sad because it all seems so likely.

An End to the Introductory Digression…

What is it that I want to say to you?

I’m not sure, but I’ve given myself an hour to do it.  (Or 50 minutes, really, since that’s how much time we have together each day.)  This is in keeping with the ethos of the speed of technology.

I suppose I want to say this:  The sentence is human.

The sentence is human?

Human, the sentence is.

(Yoda version.)



Is it human, though?

It is.

Is it?

(Apparently, I’m talking to myself; that’s what writers do sometimes.)

Only humans can write sentences, really.  Machines can’t write them.

No? Well…

Jewel Darling, you are my covetous infatuation. My lovely infatuation. You are my precious sympathy. My precious desire impatiently adores your fancy. You are my avid fancy.

What the…?

Jewel moppet. You are my loving rapture. My heart breathlessly adores your desire. You are my beautiful adoration. My precious charm. My sympathy impatiently tempts your yearning.

These are love letters written by a computer program. The program itself was first written over 60 years ago(!)

And then there’s this:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ”

This is a news story from just a couple years ago, generated by a program designed by the company Narrative Science, one of whose founders said at the time:

“In five years,a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

Program + input of data = news story.

But can such a program write this?

Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do. A row of shining hubcaps on sticks appeared in the front yard of Burkes’ house. A wedding present from the bride’s father.

For if Jack Buggit could escape in a pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string.  And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.

A machine can’t write that. Not yet.

(It’s from the last two paragraphs of The Shipping News, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Annie Proulx.)

The Shipping News

So:  what’s my point?  What’s the So What?

Still not sure, other than showing my biases.

I think it’s partly this, though:

We read on machines.


We write on them.


We do research on them.


And we use them to cite so incredibly easily. (Though my citation here, particularly of the images, is quite poor. Most of the images come from Creative Commons.  I’ll take the time to cite them later.  This post, like so much that is online, is a draft.)

(An aside on “citation” and provision of evidence:  Don’t you love it when articles give you a hyperlink trail so they don’t have to give you all sorts of tedious explanatory context?   And sometimes you can find little gems.  For instance, they can just go:  “For something quite silly, go here or here.”)

Machines might serve as excellent tools to do a certain degree of our writing and reading for us.  

But in this context, there are certain things a machine can’t do–that a machine shouldn’t do.  Sharp writing and careful critical reading become even more important as automation makes aspects of it undeniably easier.

So who’s going to do it?

You are.

(You knew I’d say that, didn’t you?)

Mimi and Estefania will show us how cyberbullying and sex trafficking online, respectively, might be stopped by, in part, expanding our Circle of Empathy.

Noosha will make us more aware of what Facebook might be doing to women’s body images, and maybe Nicole will provide us solutions to that problem by showing us some non-stereotyped female gamers who will kick some misogynistic butt.

Or maybe we’ll all just chill out, go to Disneyland, and wear RFID wristbands with Kristine, except Kevin will say, “No No! Don’t you know what they’re going to do with your information?! Doesn’t anyone care about their privacy anymore?”

Nathan will tell us to calm down, he knows just what to do, let’s all go on Twitter and pass along information about this crisis as it happens, and if we decide we don’t want our RFID bands anymore, then Michelle will tell us how to dispose of them properly.

Or else she’ll totally freak us out by showing us something like this: 


Maybe one way to deal with all that e-waste is to generate less of it by pirating more things and torrenting them, though Kevyn will actually give us other ways in which we ought not to worry so much (and worry a little? yes?) about piracy.

And what happens if the Great Firewall of China comes down? Less piracy?  More growth?  Richard will show us–and the Chinese economy–how to make a booming economy boomier.  In the meantime, Lulu will give us the tools to become as famous (and rich!!) as social media make-up maven Michelle Phan.

Speaking of make-up, let’s watch some baseball being umpired entirely by technology, and then take a moment to stare at Grant’s newly peroxided Game of Thrones hair.

[Self conscious, real-time, staring-at-Grant break]

Is he remaking his in-person image for an online presence?  Brent will tell us what he thinks about that, and Alan will tell us whether that’s why teens find Facebook so appealing, even as Jasmine tells young people that people, people, Facebook isn’t reality and there are better ways to achieve true happiness and among them is…Jeevan!  Jeevan!  Stop looking at your own profile picture!!

Not to worry though, all will be well, because once he leverages his Obama-esque knowledge of social media campaigning, Nick will solve all our problems as our future Senator from California.  You can all say you knew him back in his humble beginnings in 263 Dwinelle.

(BTW, what a crappy room, eh?)

So, the machines have started, and E.M. Forster (may he Rest in Peace) might well be dismayed if he were still with us (and he is still with us–his writing!).  But the humans haven’t stopped yet. I have faith in you.

In the meantime, it’s best to laugh in the face of our imminent demise.  That is, until machines get a sense of humor too. So I turn now–as I often do at this time of the semester–to the Kiwis:

Cheers and Adieu.


Raw URL Links (in case the embedded ones above didn’t work):

On Amazon delivery drones:

On Google delivery robots:

On “The Love App” in Seoul:

About the Long Tail and blockbusters:

Narrative Science:

Computer generated articles:

Creative Commons:

Something silly #1:

Jimmy Fallon, Rashida Jones, & Carrie Underwood: A Holiday Mashup

Something silly #2 (a book trailer for the novel Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart):

Dance Like No One is Watching

29 Aug

Read this post, watch the first video and smile, watch the second video and be inspired, and then get up and dance.

Divine Light Coaching

Recently in preparing some materials for a class on coaching mastery I read the question, “Are you willing to dance like no one is watching?”  It struck me that I had not long ago asked a client if she was willing to do just that.  Now the tables were turned, and I had to ask myself, am I willing?

Every Tuesday evening, I head over to the Berkeley Y to my Transdance class where I mostly dance like no one is watching.  The teacher, Heather Munro Pierce, describes it as a moving meditation, and when I pay attention and tune into my body and the music it mostly is (I admit to sometimes being hijacked by my thoughts).  Sometimes I wave my body around like a frond of kelp in the ocean; other times I jump, hop, and skip around like I did when I was a little girl.  It…

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Rocks, Coats, and Transformation, oh my!

19 Jun

How our metaphors can shape us, for good and ill, and how we can reshape them: powerful insights from Monica Garcia, PhD, of Divine Light Coaching.

Divine Light Coaching

I am thinking about metaphor today.  I tend to think that way a lot; seeing a picture in my mind helps me connect in a deeper way with a thought or a process in play.  Some days I absolutely need my metaphors — to ground me, help me get out of my worm’s eye view, change my perspective.


One of my earliest and still very relevant metaphors is a rock.  I connected deeply to it when I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s song “I Am a Rock” as a girl.

I was preteen (possibly 10, the year of my parents’ divorce), and I loved the idea of making myself a rock that feels no pain and an island that never cries.  The song always made me cry because even then I knew that hopes for such transformations were pretty futile.  Then in my 20’s, the metaphor of the rock…

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The Character Who Came to Life

21 May

The following personal essay originally appeared on the web site, You Must Be This Tall to Ride, which was released at the same time as the print anthology of the same name.  Both the web site and anthology were put together by the excellent writer, BJ Hollars, whose work you should check out.

Since the web site has recently been discontinued, I thought I’d re-post it here to give it another home on the web.  Cheers.



The Character Who Came to Life

by Michael Larkin

I’m a thief.  I steal stories.  I’m not proud of the fact, though it is something most fiction writers do.  If it isn’t nailed down by copyright, we’ll use it.  Any resemblance to actual persons is coincidental.  Art imitates Life and all that.  But there are times when Life reasserts itself, and things get a little more complicated.

I once wrote a manuscript of linked short stories centered on a pair of boys who grow up in a leafy and stultifying California suburb.  One of the boys, the sometime narrator, is a bumbling, well-meaning lad who makes mistake after mistake as he learns a series of life lessons (yawn), while the other, his buddy, whom I’ll call D, grows up down the street in a ramshackle house painted across the front with vivid flowers, rainbows, and a bright ruby pair of Rolling Stones lips the size of a VW Bug.  D’s hippie, divorced mother regularly sunbathes in the nude, brings home shaggy men with sketchy backgrounds, and gets into shouting matches with her rebellious teenage daughters over their smoking dope and having waterbed sex with their boyfriends in the house even though she does the same herself.  Just inside the front door, a poster emblazoned with the words “Fuck Housework!” effectively captures the aesthetic of the interior, which features unattended dog poop, peeling linoleum floors, dark corners piled with all manner of junk, and a muddy smell seeming to signal that the house is being claimed by the earth.  The excitement of activity inside rarely shuts down before three in the morning.  All of this slowly drives D mad.

And it was all true.

D was a childhood friend of mine, one of the first I met upon moving to California.  We were especially tight in preadolescence, spending countless hours doing standard boy stuff:  throwing touchdown passes, setting fire to toy soldiers and KISS albums, dubbing Leave it To Beaver episodes with sex-laced dialogue, and, for D’s sake, trying to ignore almost everything else going on in his house, which I regularly and eagerly visited.

During one such visit on a hot summer day when we were both about nine years old, D and I raced outside where we were met by the vision of D’s mother padding around their backyard as she watered her sunflowers, and—occasionally, incredibly—watered her naked self.  At first sight, her body morphed into a kind of Cubist painting:  I knew the pieces and the shapes, what they were called and where they fit, but they initially scrambled as my brain struggled to make sense of what the eyes were delivering it.  That, my boy, is a woman’s peach fuzz bottom; those are pink-brown nipples at full salute.  The distortions gradually resolved into the real-world figure of D’s mother.  She was thin as a shoot of bamboo, which accentuated her womanly curves all the more.  Her skin, sprinkled with freckles, was the color of redwood, not a square inch of it pale like her son’s, and none of it covered save what was obscured by a pair of oversized Jackie Onassis sunglasses.  Normally, while clothed, she struck me as girlishly pretty without being desirable; she was my friend’s mother, after all.  But without her clothes on, she became a woman, all sex.  She was naked, for Christ’s sake—with boobies!  And pubes!  And everything!—so it was stunning and frightening and fantastic.  This first encounter set off a response that the three of us would repeat many times over the next few years:

I would gape while pretending not to—nonchalant gaping, you might call it—thus conveying that I saw and did things like this all the time.

D would be livid, his head bent in shame, and he’d spit out a revision on the holy trinity:  “Jesus, Mom…Gaaaahd!”

Then his always amiable mom would offer an unperturbed explanation.  In this case, it was:  “C’mon now, D, you know I need my naked time.”

I should emphasize that this was all taking place in a tidy suburban context where other boys’ fully clothed mothers were telling their sons to sit up straight, dragging their tie-strangled sons to church, expressing horror at their sons’ accidental use of the “F Word,” tacking extensive lists of chores carefully typed on 3×5 cards to their sons’ doors as if they were Martin Luther’s theses, and also entering the exquisite clutter of their sons’ rooms while, in masterful displays of manipulation, they forlornly sighed things like, “Michael, the mess in here is depressing me.”

Another time, perhaps a year later, during a drive to the beach, D and I were holding forth on matters scatological, the way young boys do.  Eventually, D’s mom piped up from the front seat and helpfully announced, “You know, the reason why guys like to poo is because it reminds them of buttfucking.”

Nonchalant gaping ensued.

“Jesus, Mom…Gaaaahd!”

“What?  It’s true!”

You get the idea.  By the time I was fictionalizing such memories years later, these parts of the manuscript wrote themselves.

After grad school, I published a few of the manuscript’s stories, and then eventually let the rest lie, deciding they were the work of a young writer that were best left in the filing cabinet.  By then, more than a decade had passed since I’d last heard anything about D.  His family had grown up and moved out.  His funky old house had been torn down and replaced with an unremarkable beige abode that didn’t draw attention to itself—a classic new suburban home trying to deny the history of the land on which it sits.  D had passed into the realm of myth, of character.

The parts of the story of D the Character that I extrapolated in the manuscript were what happened after we lost touch.  The fictional D fell into a depressing post-high school run of extended drug abuse, which led him to bank robbery and then to jail time and eventually to hope for a fresh start, even as the two friends in the stories grew apart at the end.  It was a bittersweet but Hollywood ending, for sure.  With each passing year, as I got further from my manuscript and the childhood experiences which had inspired it, D increasingly became an abstraction for me—more a creature of my fiction than a flesh and blood human being.

However, our characters don’t always want to stay anonymously ensconced in filing cabinets or between the covers of a book moldering on the shelves of a university library.  They’ve got lives to lead.  They may track you down to tell you so.  One morning, almost 20 years on from when I’d last heard tell of D, I got an email out of the ether which began:  “Hello Mike:  Many moons ago, when the world was young…”

It was, of course, D.  He noted that we’d taken separate paths since high school, each of us exploring different depths:  for me this meant “higher scholastic aspirations,” and for him “mindfully destructive narcotics” and the obscurities of Peter Gabriel lyrics.  Though he’d mostly kicked the drugs, things sounded pretty bleak:  he was living on disability payments, out of money most of the time, and suffering from bipolar disorder.  The brief note was sad in its particulars, while bearing a tone that managed to be both matter-of-fact and affable.  He expressed hope that he might hear from me soon.

What do you do with this information?  What do you say to someone who’s been a character in your fiction, safely tucked away in your memory and your failed art, longer than he’s been a person in your real life?  For one, you wonder how you got so close to the truth of what actually happened.  You also feel a little guilty about having presumed to write a fictionalized version of his family in the first place.  And you wonder at the mental illness you never knew your character had.  But then you put that to one side, you reply in kind, you receive the character’s phone number, and then one day a few months later—on New Year’s Eve, in fact, as if you’re fulfilling an old resolution before it’s too late—you call your character and make him real to you again.

We talked for a long time, playing catch up, the discussion pinging randomly and easily from one subject to the next, D’s voice on the phone sounding like a faint, deeper echo of my memory of it.  D tells me he’d put himself in some bad situations in his 20s and early 30s, using all sorts of drugs, knocking back a six-pack every night, freaking himself out in front of the TV as the characters held there, both fictional and real, made him manic.  Now he’s living in a cramped space in a rough neighborhood with no car, no money, no steady job.  He’s trying to stay clean and sober, to manage his depression, with mixed results.  He says, “The neighborhood around here, it’s unsafe.  Nobody reads, nobody has discussions.  They all argue and yell at each other.  They’re all conservative or super religious.  It’s really loud.  My neighbor is a medical marijuana guy, and he just smokes all the time.  It’s a bad place for me to be.”

He loves his mother, doesn’t know what he’ll do when she’s gone someday, but he also wonders what role his upbringing had in accounting for his current state, how it affected his mental illness.  He tells me, with palpable pain in his voice, that the sister he was closest to (“my hero,” he calls her, “she always says the perfect thing”) now lives 2,000 miles away.  He can’t work.  He’s having trouble sleeping.  His psychiatrist won’t prescribe him sleeping pills because he’s afraid D will overdose.

But there is hope.  He’s feeling good these days.  He takes acting and English Lit classes at a local college, and literature has become, he says, his cup of salvation.  He’s an autodidact, reading voraciously and keeping notebooks full of favorite sentences.  Faulkner and Bellow are currently blowing him away.  And now he’s ready to write poetry:  “I’m just bursting with material!  I’m ready to get it out.”  Strangely, the two of us end up talking about writing more than anything else; it’s our common ground in the present and future tense, a place where we both find solace.  It may just be that there is a redemptive ending for D’s story after all, something richer and truer than anything I could have imagined for him.

Yet here I am writing about him again.  I can’t seem to help myself.

However, it’s time for the character—the human being—to reclaim his rightful narrative and rewrite the work of the fiction writer who’s been hiding in the shadow of the naked mom, nonchalantly gaping while refusing to take a hard look at himself.  At one point in our conversation, when D is recounting one of his harrowing tales and the depressing realities that have spun out of them, he pauses for a moment and asks me, “You’ve never struggled with anything like this, have you?”

The question roils the acid in my stomach, and I answer him truthfully:  “No.”  Though D has asked in a way that is more inquisitive than accusatory, and he’s asked specifically about drug abuse and mental illness, his question strikes more deeply.  He’s unknowingly called me out for my narrative appropriations, for making fictional hay with his miseries.  He’s also commented, knowingly, on my good dumb luck.  Our boyhood friendship was real, the empathy I felt for him both then and now is real, but the travails of his childhood—no matter what justice I tried to do them in my fiction through our character selves—were largely vicarious ones for me.  Had D written a fictionalized version of my childhood, he might have titled it Most Likely to Be a Lucky Bastard.  At the ends of those summer days of our youth, I always got to return to my house situated behind its quite literal white picket fence.

We fiction writers are fond of saying that when we’re really in a zone, the creative force of our art seems to be coming from someplace outside ourselves, and that the characters start speaking their own minds and take the story where it’s supposed to go.  So it is with D and me.  Is it any accident that the stories I wrote based on him and his family weren’t among those that I published?  The stories we write, the stories we tell, the stories we steal and make our own—sometimes we’re the ones meant to be telling them, and sometimes we’re not.  These aren’t my stories, they’re D’s.  And they’re not stories either.  They’re poems, just as they always have been.