Do Less, Be More.


My beautiful and talented friend Sienna Creasy.

My beautiful and talented friend Sienna Creasy.

The yoga teachers I know have a certain way about them. They carry themselves with a practiced calmness, entering the warm studio with beatific smiles. They greet their students generously, like cult leaders, or with a laid back hippie vibe. “Welcome, yogis!” Their exclamation points land softly, and we practitioners gather our focus and close our eyes, before we have even begun to practice, feeling nurtured by the sunset colored walls, the solidity of the floor, the faint air of incense, and most of all, the fact that we are here, sitting still, doing apparently nothing. Ninety minutes of vinyasa later, we leave physically and spiritually refreshed, having reaffirmed the capability of our bodies and experienced the blessing that is turning off one’s otherwise incessant mental chatter. We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, and we’re happier for it.

One of my favorite teachers is Zak, a handsome and guileless man who balances laughter with eager seriousness as he demonstrates increasingly complex physical contortions. Like all good teachers, Zak seems to take real joy in his class’ success; his appreciative and drawn out “Yeahs” are directed at individuals and at everyone. He’s also got the best playlists.

A typical class at my studio, Shakti Vinyasa, begins with a few minutes of meditation or setting an intention. An intention might be a single word or small phrase to guide one’s practice, such as “creativity,” or “open heart,” or it might be more directed toward a personal goal, such as improved relationships, in which case the intention might be something like “accept others” or “be authentic.” In any case, setting an intention is a brief act of awareness of the mind that the yoga practitioner can somehow both continue to make use of and immediately let go, as class begins, and awareness leaves the mind and moves to the body and the breath. The teachers urge that when we notice our minds beginning to wander, for example, that we are suddenly trying very hard to achieve a pose or evaluating our success, we return to the breath, keeping our focus there for as long as possible. As Zak says, stop doing. Just be.

It may seem a contradiction in terms. Imagine you are balancing on your right foot, your hips rotated skyward, knee bent, clasping your left foot above and behind you while your right hand stretches toward the floor: this is ardha chandra chapasana, or the sugarcane variation of standing half moon pose. The instructions you hear are complex: root all four corners of your foot down; lift the center of your chest to open your heart; find space between your right ear and your shoulder. In other words, there’s a lot to do in this pose, and all poses; however, if you’re really doing yoga, you’re doing the poses with a focus on the ease of your mind, letting your body be what it is capable of in that moment, not judging yourself, even when you fall. Just come back in.

John Tierny seems to get at the the same idea today in his NYT piece, “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying.” At first glance, the title might seem to smack of the sort of excuse-as-answer a projectless writer like myself might give in response to the question of “what are you working on?” I wish that, like others in my MFA graduating class, I were halfway into writing my second book of poetry, were working toward a self-imposed deadline of 75,000 words by March on my memoir, or even that I had some sense of direction as a writer; that there was somewhere I knew I wanted to go with my words. Maybe some day, those will be my answers. For now, I’m here, today, sitting at my desk, writing this. I’m taking notes in journals. I’m writing letters to friends, and meeting nearby friends at coffee shops to sit with warm mugs and laptops and to practice being a writer.

Though I haven’t seen the results of my writing practice yet, I do believe that eventually, if I keep it up, I’ll find that I write more words I like than words I don’t. Maybe some of those words will even be recognized by others as good or useful. I can believe this because I’ve seen the way getting up for 5:30 a.m. track practice yields greater endurance on the long runs and more power on the hills; how twelve hours with a guitar callouses my fingers enough to play B chords without muting the resonance of any one string; how yoga poses like arm balances and head stands, once seemingly outside the realm of possibility, are there for me, in the surprise of my newly capable body, after twenty, or forty, or ninety attempts.

Practice makes perfect, as they say. But Tierny’s article illustrates a more nuanced sensibility with regard to achieving goals. Tierney explains the work of University of British Columbia professor Edward Slingerland, who argues that since the dawn of civilization, humanity has been striving toward “effortless action,” such as that achieved today by top athletes and charismatic business professionals. According to Slingerland, central to the concept effortless action, or “wu wei” (“pronounced oo-way”), in Chinese, is its instinctive, or inherent quality. As Tierny explains, “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”

Tierney describes how the tension in this concept played out, in ancient China, between the Confucians and the Taoists, the former of whom, according to Tierny, followed a “practice makes perfect” model while the latter eschewed striving as evidence of a lack of authenticity. To illustrate, Tierny quotes the Tao Te Ching, taking, as he says, “a direct shot at Confucius”: “The worst kind of Virtue never stops striving for Virtue, and so never achieves Virtue.”

Sixteen centuries later, in my tiny bedroom office, both versions of wu wei seem true. If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed. Eighty percent of success is showing up. Practice makes perfect. But also: runners run. Writers write. And the breath, as long as you live, will always be there, a reminder of how possible it is both to do and not do, and an invitation simply to be.

Tim’ s Vermeer: A Documentary that Questions Our Definition of Art

Is art as good as the tools that make it?

Is art only as good as the tools that make it?

Is a painting a work of art if the painter uses technology that makes it possible for even a novice to be successful? What tools are off limits for an artist if their art is to be considered legit? These are the questions asked by the documentary Tim’s Vermeer written and directed by Penn and Teller.

The documentary focuses on Tim Jenison, an inventor who has spent most of his life creating visual effects technology used in movies, and his quest to find out if he can paint a Vermeer, specifically “The Music Lesson.” His hypothesis is that the precision and detail in Vermeer’s paintings had to be a result of something more than Vermeer’s genius and skill, that some sort of technology was likely involved.

Jenison goes to great lengths to recreate Vermeer’s painting– building by hand an exact replica of the room Vermeer used in “The Music Lesson” including all the furniture and windows as well as the instruments Jenison believes the 17th century painter used to achieve his masterpieces: a camera obscura and a mirror. These tools would have allowed Vermeer to arrange scenes in a room and focus closely on each part of the scene using the mirror. Jenison tests his mirror by painting an incredibly accurate portrait of his father-in-law from a

Tim Jenison tries out his mirror hypothesis by painting a replica of his father's photograph.

Tim Jenison tries out his mirror hypothesis by painting a replica of his father-in-law’s photograph as Penn watches.

photograph. The whole project from the research stage to building the set to painting a replica of “The Music Lesson” took Jenison over five years to complete — the painting alone taking 130 days — and the whole process was documented by his longtime friend Penn Jillette, who was enthusiastic from the first moment about his pal’s brilliant idea. Watching Jenison’s process was interesting and excruciating in equal measure. He made it very clear that he is not an artist or even particularly interested in art. He’s an inventor, a tinkerer, the kind of guy you know built amazing shit out of Legos as a kid. But what was missing from his experiment and the documentary was any real history of Vermeer’s life and how he may have painted and Vermeer’s original of “The Music Lesson,” as this The Guardian article points out. Jenison, Teller and crew went to Buckingham palace to see the original, but only Jenison was allowed in, sans cameras, so us viewers only got to see his poster version of the painting, which just isn’t the same thing. According to Jonathan Jones at The Guardian,”It’s a painting of hypnotic intrigue and psychological fascination – a painting to get obsessed with.”

And while Tim’s replica is quite amazing, there is something mysteriously different about the two paintings; maybe it is that lack of hypnotic obsession in Jenison’s Vermeer that’s missing. Maybe it’s that his experiment is a bit reductive, implying that with the right tools anyone can paint a Vermeer or be an artist, completely ignoring the heart and soul that create the mystery behind great art. Or maybe it’s that he approached the project like a scientist, not an artist, but he wouldn’t agree with that notion.

Tim's Vermeer is on the left; the original, right.

Tim’s Vermeer is on the left; the original, right.

Jenison says in the film that we’ve now turned science and art into false binaries that didn’t exist when Vermeer was painting. About that he’s right. After all, Michelangelo blended science with art, and as this Quora post illustrates again and again, this isn’t uncommon. It’s true that art and science are cousins that rely on each other for sustenance and life.

The remaining question is what exactly is in art that makes it art? I know, this question is too big, but this experiment of Tim Jenison’s is a good place to start answering that question, or to add more interesting questions to it. Did Jenison actually rediscover Vermeer’s tools and techniques, and if so, does this in any way diminish Vermeer’s art? If this 17th century artist used boxes and lenses and mirrors to make his magical, light-filled work, is he less an artist, or should we just stop asking that question and enjoy what he created?


How to Talk about Sexual Harassment in the Workplace


I wrote a letter that I can’t seem to send.

Recently, a friend and coworker asked whether she could post my letter on Facebook. I had sent the letter to her in a moment of hesitation following the moment of frustration in which I wrote the letter.

I was sitting at my desk that day, anxious and unable to work, feeling the weight of someone’s presence – an older man, a coworker and mentor, and a friend, who I respected, and who, I had thought, respected me.

There had been an incident. The incident was preceded by weeks of increasing discomfort on my part, following a year of mentoring, productive collaboration, and increasingly close friendship. Now, all that seemed to be over: the mentoring, the collaboration, and the friendship – it couldn’t continue. It had been wrecked. Worse: it had been devalued. I was angry, disappointed, offended, and unsure how to proceed.

After an hour of staring at the screen, stewing with negative emotion under the faint blue of the office fluorescence, I hammered out the letter, but I couldn’t send it. Here it is – the version that my friend posted.


Hi (omitted),

Regrettably, as you intuited, I am not okay. In fact, I feel really disturbed. After our conversation over dinner on (date omitted), I feel a lot of anxiety around you, and I am not prone to anxiety. I want to keep collaborating with you, especially as we look forward to an (omitted, work-related); however, I feel that in order to keep working together closely, we are going to have to have a conversation. But, it can be difficult to be direct, and to communicate accurately, in person. I’m writing today with the intention of communicating well.

The way I see it: we have a good friendship. Our friendship has been compromised by the fact that I feel objectified by you at times. This is not new as of (date omitted); however, on (date omitted), you verbalized it very clearly. In response, I asked whether it would surprise you to know that I routinely feel objectified by you. This was very direct on my part, and I expected a response, yet you seemed not to notice. I let it go; however, I find that my negative feelings about it remain.

I’m a grown up. I can deal with negative feelings, as unpleasant as they are when they affect a friendship. As well, I can work with people who don’t care for me or who don’t respect me. It is not my job to be well liked, and it is not our burden to make sure that our colleagues know we respect them. Nor do I intend to be accusatory on those points. Clearly, we enjoy each other’s company, and I think we share a mutual respect.

So. What am I saying? What I am saying is that I don’t want to come to work nervous about whether my coworkers – you – will be evaluating my physical presence: not my wardrobe, not my makeup or lack thereof, not my body. I don’t want to be referred to as “sweetie,” or be touched — not because friends and coworkers can’t speak to each other using terms of endearment or touch each other, but because you have fundamentally changed the way that those things feel. Once, they felt harmless. Increasingly, they don’t.

On (date omitted), you told me that I “walk a line” – a line between sexiness and masculinity, between submissiveness and dominance. You should know: our culture, like so many, tells women that we must choose which part of ourselves to embrace: sexual, or intellectual? This is a false dichotomy. Women, like men, are complex individuals, despite the way in which we are characterized in popular culture. We are encouraged to believe that our power lies within our sexuality, as well as that embracing intellect must be at the expense of being attractive. I reject this dichotomy, as I reject the insinuation that masculinity, as you stated, is equal to intellectual superiority. There is no question that the line you are referring to exists; however, I want you to realize:

I did not create the line. And I do not walk it for you.

Finally, let me say that while I do not want to make you feel like an oppressor, I think, given my words here, you might recognize in your behavior the elements of oppression. I think that we reflect the world that taught us how to be; although as thinking adults, we hope to move toward reflecting the world we choose to create. The things you say and do – they have the power to reinforce the gender binary opposition that victimizes women, and they have the power to subvert it.

In short, I would like my workplace to be free from the weight of the male gaze. I hope that you see what I mean, and that you’re amenable to talking about this, so that we can hit the reset button on things and move forward.

All the best,



To me, the letter I’ve written feels excessively diplomatic. I hear myself trying to protect his feelings, to hedge the intensity of my disappointment. I feel like a cliché, like a victim, and I feel weak for not sending the letter, and for not being more forceful.

Before my friend posted the letter, what bothered me was the idea of sending the letter and ruining a relationship. But you didn’t ruin it, my friends say. He did.

I know they are right. What bothers me now is what’s been omitted. The end of the letter reads “All the best, (omitted).”

What’s been omitted is my name, and with it my voice. What’s embraced, what’s repeated, if I don’t send this letter, is the same old story.

Step Into the Mind of Your Favorite Iconic Author

Angela Davis annotated If They Come In the Morning

Image from PEN American Center’s First Edition/Second Thoughts Auction catalog.

What if you could step into the mind of your favorite author while they wrote your favorite book? What if you could find out not only how they crafted that brilliant prose, but what inspired them in the first place? And what if you could find out how they would write the book differently if they wrote it today?

Guess what! Now you can. Well, if you have enough money.

Today, the PEN American Center’s First Edition/Second Thoughts auction takes place. If you don’t happen to be in New York, you can bid online or by phone.

More than 75 famous authors and artists annotated their most iconic work, including notes in the margins, whole essays, pictures, doodles, and in one case of a photographer, a whole new set of images added to the book. Participating authors include Alice Walker, Billy Collins, Tony Morrison, Jane Smiley, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates and many, many more.

If not limited by funds, which book on the list would you bid on and why?

I’m torn between Barbara Kingsolver’s Poison Wood Bible, Sue Grafton’s A is For Alibi, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Each of those books showed me something new about reading, writing, and about myself. They are also books that have stayed with me longer–because of their characters, or story line, or plot twists–than some of the more established and more part-of-the-cannon literary works that I have read.

Here’s the PEN American center’s promotional video for the auction. It includes some of the writers reflecting back on what it was like revisiting their work.


How To Be a Writer on Social Media

We live in a bold new era. To become a successful writer, one must learn to navigate the unsteady currents of social media in order to discover, reach, and build an audience. No matter how groundbreaking your novel, a strong online presence gives you a leg up on your competition. I’ve outlined below a few basic strategies, including a few examples, for cultivating and maintaining a social media presence.

Getting short stories accepted at literary magazines is still a form of currency for finding an agent and a publishing company for your novel. Remember to keep your followers aware of any success, no matter how small. For example:

  • “My Short Story,” has been accepted for publication by Literary Magazine
  • “My Short Story,” has been published online by Literary Magazine
  • The issue of Literary Magazine with “My Short story,” has been published in print
  • In case anyone missed it, last month “My Short Story” got published.

Short stories may be a more pure form of fiction, but eventually it comes down to your novel. Consider sprinkling your news feed with some of these:

  • 100 pages in and feeling great
  • Whew! That’s 20,000 words in just two weeks #onaroll
  • Finished a new draft #couldthisbeit?

Even if you haven’t been working on your novel, you don’t want to stop the flow of information. Here are some examples of good generic posts about the writing life:

  • Nothing better than a good morning spent writing
  • So glad the muse returned. Never leave me again
  • Working on this story for months and just figured out the ending #epiphany

Social media isn’t just useful for getting the word about your novel. You can also crowd source for specific details:

  • What kind of music would a punk girl love in the early 80s?
  • What brand of suits would a hedge-fund manager in Connecticut wear?
  • What size tires would a ‘67 Buick Skylark need?

Read more »

Short Poem & Metamodernism


Have you read the three-word poem by Jesse Damiani, published by Seth Abramson at Ink Node?

Seth Abramson has more about the poem, metamodernism, and Shia LaBeouf at Huff Post.

Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker write in their article, “Notes on metamodernism”:

One of the most poignant metamodern practices is what the German theorist Raoul Eshelman has termed ‘‘performatism’’. Eshelman describes performatism as the willful self-deceit to believe in—or identify with, or solve—something in spite of itself.

They also discuss a reemergence of romanticism—a neoromanticism—and self realization and enthusiasm and irony.

Yesterday the weather turned freezing. Even though I had to scrape ice from my windshield before I could drive to work, I fondly imagined hot chocolate and snuggling with my family under a blanket, watching a movie. A romantic thought with some enthusiasm to it.

Yesterday evening, after I finished a long day of work, I stepped out of the elevator to the sight of an unkempt older man reclining in a chair in the lobby without pants or shirt, wearing a stocking cap, unzipped jacket and well-worn boots, stroking his genitals, staring straight at me. Even now I can’t unsee all of that flesh and that direct look that didn’t seem to hold any sort of message in it at all. The cold is the most likely reason why he chose the lobby of my building for his performatism, ironic in light of my earlier enthusiasm about activities related to the weather.

In the 28+ hours since, I’ve considered the plight of the mentally ill and homeless, my own morals and need for feeling safe and respected, and the expectations and boundaries surrounding my day-to-day life. I am aware that my understanding of metamodernism barely exists. Can one be living and loving a metamodern life without knowing it?

Photo courtesy of LaBeouf, Rönkkö & Turner, copyright the artists.

Been Raped, Never Reported

HuffPostSomething amazing happened on Twitter this weekend and it all started in our neighboring country up north.

Jian Ghomeshi, host of a popular radio show, was fired when three women accused him of unwanted sexual violence. In the wake of the scandal, more women stepped forward to report the same thing, including Mr. Ghomeshi’s coworker Reva Seth and actress Lucy DeCoutere.

You can imagine what happened next: victim blaming, he-said-she-said doubts, and an all-out debate on what consent means.

And this is when the amazing thing happened. Cutting through all the noise and bullshit, Toronto Star writer Antonia Zerbisias and Montreal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery shared their own stories of rape on Twitter, starting the hashtag #BeenRapedNeverReported and creating an instant trend.

By Sunday, the conversation was strong enough for the Huffington Post Canada to dedicate their front page and their Living page to an outpouring of courageous rape survivors sharing their stories.

Even with a 140 character limit, these words hold so much power. The conversation is still ongoing, join it.

Nightstand Reading List

Survey question: Do you have a stack of books like this on your nightstand? If so, what books are contending for your pre-slumber attention?

Nightstand books

I’ve started and almost finished all of these, but something forces me to bring up new reads before the first one is finished.

Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?


To my students, the “real world” sits just beyond the classroom. It is a space in flux, moving and changing much more quickly than academia. In education, there is a creative tension between an established body of knowledge and the real world; this tension can help fuel teaching.

For the past two years, I have taught a series of literary publishing courses where students produce a regional literary arts magazine called Scribendi. Throughout the year, Scribendi students begin to master the skills necessary for small press production, including graphic design, desktop publishing software, arts and literature assessment, copyediting, and small business management and marketing.

Most of the students who enroll in Scribendi are English majors who are thinking about applying to law school. Even though they are “digital natives,” their skills are not as technologically robust as most adults believe. While many more of the students are entering the class with previous experience using Word’s track changes functions, about half of the students are still just as intimidated by Excel as they are by InDesign. In addition to being nervous about becoming proficient enough at InDesign to create a successful flyer, brochure, or magazine layout, many of these students are terrified of being judged on their creative or artisitic ability. They are, after all, mostly English majors.

To reassure students that they could learn graphic design, and to begin introducing the graphic design component, one of my first lessons discusses the difference between art and design. The students are expected to have come to class already having read certain chapters in Denise Bosler’s Mastering Type and are ready for a design discussion. In the past, I have drawn a Venn diagram on the board with the headings “Design” and “Art” to discuss the differences and similarities of the two. Then we look at some gig posters, book jackets, and advertisements to practice talking about design, and finally, we critique the previous year’s issue of the magazine.

The morning of that lesson last fall, while walking to campus, I ran across a flyer stapled to a telephone pole. Typically flyers in my neighborhood advertise pets lost and found, couches for sale, or upcoming gigs by the Vassar Bastards or Let ‘Em Grow, but this one was different. Across the top of the paper it read, “Hello? ” below which was a photo of Lionel Richie, then the words “Is it me you’re looking for?” At the bottom were tear-tabs, where one typically might pull off a phone number or e-mail address of a student looking for a roommate. These tabs had other lyrics to Richie’s song “Hello.” Someone had already plucked off one “I love you.” Read more »

Let’s Talk About Tao Lin

Like everyone in literary land, I’ve been following the events of the past week with a lot of interest. The allegations of rape and abuse have been absolutely abhorrent.

Tao Lin’s case—and the reaction to it—has been compelling. As everyone by now knows, Lin has been reviled for sleeping with a much younger paramour and subjecting them to an incredible amount of abuse. Clearly, what he did was reprehensible and he’s essentially admitted as much.

The open question seems to be—what now? Is Lin banished forever? Should he be?

Read more »

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