Bridge Jumping: On Writing and Failure (pics and video)

I jumped off of a bridge into the Willamette River after school the other day. It was a cold water day – snow run-off – but some young people wanted to know a safe place to do a big jump into the water, so I showed them where a deep enough channel was. See the pics of that jump below.

This jump reminded me of a story, a failure story, and I told it at my reading at the University of Oregon. Click here to see me tell that story (just posted by my publisher, Ben Leroy, this morning).

Here’s a pic of five of us jumping at once (me on the right). Click to expand the pic:

all five

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the next pic when I’m out of the screen, the other four still in the air:

four

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, this is the swim out to the South bank into the cottonwoods, staying together because the water was cold:

swimming out

 

On Not Owning A Cell Phone

So maybe I don’t like cell phones. At all. Maybe I don’t think they’ve added anything to our culture.

Maybe I think they’ve ruined a lot of things too, like, for example, talking to other people, hanging out without interruptions, driving cars, looking around at the world around us, going outside, being self-sufficient, knowing how to read a map, looking up every once in a while instead of staring at your stupid expensive phone, looking people in the eyes, using dictionaries, reading books on the Subway, reading books without stopping every two minutes to check a text, listening to music while staring off…

This list could go on and on and on.

Plus, I hate every cell phone advertisement ever. Why do we need phones? Why do we need them with us everywhere we go? Why does every family need a “family plan”? Why do we willingly carry a device that tracks where we are? And would we readily accept chips in our brains if they were offered to us? I think so.

Maybe my opinions are too strong, but I’ve never owned a cell phone, and here’s my new essay for Vice Magazine titled “Confessions Of The Last Human Being On Earth Without A Cell Phone” :

Click to read.

Bonus: The artist Jack Graydon drew some ridiculous pictures of me to go along with the article. I’m so ugly in these drawings that it’s awesome.

Maybe The Pace Of This American Life Is Wrong?

Sometimes when I drive to a youth soccer game three hours away, I think, “Wait, why are we doing this? Why do we spend so much time and money on a game for kids? Also, in most of the world the local children play barefoot, with a half-deflated ball, on the beach or in the local vacant lot, and they still end up being better players than U.S. teenagers.” Our whole youth soccer club system is a broken mess, yet we…I mean…I, I have spent so much time and money on the system.

This is just one example. A microcosm. Maybe we Americans have it wrong. In soccer. In other things. It seems like we always find a way to spend a lot of money and drive long distances, for everything.

Or what about the pace of daily life? Driving, stressing, too much homework, complicated play-date schedules, expensive kids’ birthday parties. What are we doing? Why are we living this way?

My family is doing better than it was. We got rid of our second car a few years ago and try to bike or carpool most places. Recently we pulled our older daughter out of club soccer and put her in a cheap local kids’ league. We let our other daughter trade organized sports for “pretend time,” skateboarding, and jumping on the trampoline with friends. We’re encouraging our kids to explore in the local fields or small plot of woods near our house rather than play inside.

But we’ve also tried to drop out as a family a few times. We started small and built from there. Three times we’ve pulled our girls out of school in the middle of the year to go somewhere else, to experience something different. The first was a nine-day camping trip in the fall in Yosemite when the tourists were gone from the valley, the bears were out, and the nights were colder. And even though that trip was short, during the time that we were gone, the girls missed two soccer practices, two soccer games, two friends’ birthday parties, and at least twelve hours of overwhelming homework.

In Yosemite, we swam in the Merced River, saw nine different bears (including a mother bear and her two cubs who wandered past our tent in the high country), rock climbed, bouldered, went to the LeConte Museum, hiked, and saw a cougar eating a ground squirrel. But mostly we did nothing. We played card games and read for hours in our tent. We sat and watched birds. We put on snorkel gear and followed fish up through river eddies. The trade for six days of school and nine days of daily life was well worth it.

Then, last year, we went to Tucson for three and a half weeks in the winter. We stayed in a house in the Santa Catalina mountains and hiked, canyoneered, swam in creeks and the local pool, got sun on our skin, climbed a little, explored ruins, and hung out by the fireplace at night. Ruth got stung by a scorpion on her hand but she still loved the trip, and it was wonderful being away from everything we missed at home, more social engagements and school requirements than I can possibly list.

And now, we’ve taken another break from This American Life. We scheduled a trip this winter to Central America, planned it for February and March. I took a leave of absence from my day job to work on my fifth book (my third novel), and we pulled the girls out of school again. We’ve been in Congrejal, Costa Rica, for the past month, 1 kilometer outside of a tiny two-block by three-block town on the Pacific Coast.

We rented a small native house en el campo. There are fires in the ditches at night – burning palm fronds – large spiders and centipedes and black scorpions and beetles in our house, dirt roads, incredible stars with zero light pollution, and yellow beaches two miles long. The food is different, scary sometimes (we chance food poisoning each time we eat out – but that’s not often as we mostly eat rice and beans and local fruit at home). There is no rock climbing but I climb coconut trees on the beach, cut down three or four coconuts, cut them open and drink the milk with my nine-year-old Ruthie or Jennie.

My thirteen-year-old, Rain, is surfing and reading and journaling. Both girls are home-schooling, and we get their work completed each day in three or four hours. We’re reading world history together as a family. Learning the geography of Central America. Studying native plants and animals of our local area.

The nouns are different here. Back at home we see squirrels in the trees. Here we see Howler Monkeys. Estuaries in Western Oregon have carp and frogs. Here they have 16-foot crocodiles.

We have wild horses and coatis in our yard.

We surf each day.

I write 1000 new words on my novel.

We bike around because we have no car.

We stay outside until after dark, live outside everyday, and even though it averages 98-degrees, we’ve adapted now and the days no longer feel too hot.

Jennie pumps her fist in the air and yells, “I love that there are no rules here!” as we bike along a pot-hole filled road, wearing no helmets. There are no stoplights or stop-signs even in the town nearby where people lay on their horns and yell at each other, drive on the wrong side of the road or swerve all over the place in their cars. Motorcycles pass us going 60.

What would we be doing back home right now? I’d be working 60 hours a week. There would be dance practices and soccer practices and games and performances. We would have play dates, drive regularly, be late all of the time. We would have to work to be local. But when the location is small, like it is here, localism is natural, unforced, nothing difficult. We eat the limes and cashew fruit from the trees next to our house. And there are more green plantains than we can fry.

I know that we can’t live in a perpetual state of vacation, but maybe that’s not what this is. I’m working here. The girls are doing schoolwork. Jennie and the girls are making art together. Our lives and the development of our minds has not stopped.

So maybe this is just a richer life? Maybe there is no one named Jones to keep up with. Maybe we – as a family – must stop every year, stop to think and read and write and hang out, as a family, because these years will end soon, and the girls will go to college, and we will have missed our opportunity to take them out of their culture, out of the daily speed of U.S. city life.

In ten years, both girls will be out of the house and this will no longer be possible. They will be leading other lives. They won’t want to be dragged to Central America by their parents. They will have their own chosen obligations. They will lead their own lives of personal interests.

And our chances will be over.

So for now, a slow life, something different, something other than the daily pace of life in the United States. Here, for a moment, we avoid (as Tim Kreider of the New York Times says) The Busy Trap.

And the soccer here? We play every day on the beach, barefoot, with the local boys. We play on the sand, goals scored through two sticks stuck one meter apart. We call the barefoot game “Pelada,” which translates as the crazy naked woman.

Barbara Kingsolver on Writing, Novels, Fiction

As I passed 30,000 words on my new novel today (my 5th book), here are two quotes on writing by Barbara Kingsolver, on why we do what we do, why writers write and readers read:

“The power of fiction is to create empathy.  It lifts you away from your chair and stuffs you gently down inside someone else’s point of view.”

And,

“A novel works its magic by putting a reader inside another person’s life.  The pace is as slow as life.  It’s as detailed as life.  It requires you, the reader, to fill in an outline of words with vivid pictures drawn subconsciously from your own life, so that the story feels more personal than the sets designed by someone else and handed over via TV or movies.  Literature duplicates the experience of living in a way that nothing else can, drawing you so fully into another life that you temporarily forget you have one of your own. That is why you read it, and might even sit up in bed til early dawn, throwing your whole tomorrow out of whack, simply to find out what happens to some people who, you know perfectly well, are made up.”

Reader Responses

Every once in a while, as an author, I come across reader blog-posts so wonderful that I have to share them. These two are fun to read. Unfortunately, I miss many posts or go back to look them up and can’t find them (one of my favorite recent blog responses – with a thematic song included – seems to have vanished from the internet). But here are two excellent examples.

The first includes fishing and a home-run derby:

http://ourcrazyblessedlife.blogspot.com/2013/09/let-them-be-eaten-by-bears.html

The second is a book review in the form of a letter by one of the Hiker Mamas:

http://www.hikermamas.com/2014/01/book-review-let-them-be-eaten-by-bears.html

Thank you to all of my readers.

Speaking at Kennedy High School

I got to speak at Kennedy High School, South Lane County today, then do five workshops with student groups, working on personal narrative and developing conflict. The students had read The End of Boys, my memoir, and they wanted to talk about process, structure, the use of flashbacks, and what it was like to put something like a memoir out into the world for the general public to read.

I came away from the experience amazed. The students were honest, vulnerable, engaged, and ready to write. They had stories to tell, and were willing to work through difficult emotions. When I asked for volunteers and examples, student after student impressed me.

There are times as an educator or writer when I feel like no one’s reading anymore, no one’s thinking, no one cares about truth and writing and imagery and evocation. But today wasn’t like that. Today restored my faith.