Out of the Broom Closet

The new movie I Feel Pretty starring Amy Schumer is about a woman who, after a head injury, wakes up the next morning with arguably, a major personality change. As someone who lives with a traumatic brain injury I find this a comical and somewhat accurate premise for a movie, based on my own experience. I could say that I hit my head and became a radically different person, and from the outside that may appear true, but my injury was more nuanced, I think.

I hit my head and as a result, I started living as the whole person I was all along. My brain injury didn’t change who I was, it just prevented me from hiding who I am.

A recent episode of the Invisibilia podcast explored the idea of living between two worlds. The individuals featured in the episode talk about living in a gray area between two identities, and this got me thinking about my own identity.

I am a writer who teaches composition and critical thinking at a university level.

But I am also a psychic/intuitive who offers readings, energy healing, and space clearing.

In my own perspective, these aspects of myself are on opposite ends of a spectrum that I might label “academic” and “woo woo.” When I teach composition, I often call into question the very beliefs I hold personally. And yet when I am using my psychic gifts, I attempt to ignore my rational mind that would question or even criticize what I do.

Because of the obvious clash between these personas, I’ve kept them separate, for the most part.

Spoiler: it’s not working.

I find that when people in my “writing” circles discover that I’m an intuitive, they become my clients, and vice versa. I often find myself working with people who come to me for spiritual advice and then they admit that they have a secret passion for writing. Or, I’ll assign my students to write a research paper and one of them will ask if they can perform a survey of research on metaphysics.

This blending of my worlds is happening in my personal practices, too. Until recently, my writing came about through a crafted/academic approach. Lately, I can’t seem to put down any words unless they’re coming from a more mindful, heart-centered, even spiritual place. I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s such a link between spirituality and art, but for whatever reason, it hadn’t clicked for me until I read this blog post I came across on the The Traveling WitchS.L. Bear writes,

“Just as an artist uses intent, deep focus, and ritual to create a work of art, a witch uses intent, deep focus, and ritual to work a spell.”

Here was my revelation. I had heard similar things before, but the idea of applying my spirituality to my art as a process rang true. I had spent years learning how to write using my brain, but now I’m coming to understand how to write using my heart.

Process, I think, influences the product too, and this shift in my creative method is reflected in my current work. I’m drafting my second novel and this manuscript contains overarching occult themes. It’s not that my earlier work didn’t reflect on aspects of myself, but they were older versions of me, and versions that didn’t touch my deep (and current) passions.

So, for many reasons, it seemed time to “come out of the broom closet,” if not for the sake of acknowledging these disparate aspects of myself, and connecting the dots for anyone who’s been following my Facebook feed lately, but for my own sake, for the opportunity to practice authenticity, and to let all of my varied interests influence one another.

Despite this proclamation, this raising of my “freak flag” up the flagpole, I recognize that I am a work in progress. For practical reasons, I will still toggle between these personas, but I expect that there will be more blending of my two worlds from now on (especially as I continue to work on this particular novel).

If this is the first you’re hearing about one or the other of my personas, or you had heard a little bit and want to know more, my spiritual work is available through my website ashtreeharmony.com and my writing is available at ashleykwarren.com. Both sites have an option to subscribe to my blog or email newsletter.

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April Events with me!

I’m giving several readings and talks this month–details below. If you’re local I’d love to see you! 

April 8th 6:00 – 8:00pm – URBAN ARTS PLATFORM, Parking Garage Roof at The Northern

Join us on Saturday, April 8th for a night of international and local talent featuring a stunning view of downtown billings atop the Northern Hotel parking garage!

This will be a 2 part event featuring:
-Video art screening by G. Roland Biermann
-Discussion with the artist and Dr. Aaron Rosen (author of Art & Religion in the 21st Century)
-Poetry readings by local poets Pete Tolton, Ashley Warren, and Meagan Lehr, as well as MT Poet Laureate Earl Craig.
-Drinks (for 21+)
-A discussion on the future of cutting edge art in Billings!

Part 2 of the night, located at 2905 Montana ave. will feature all local musicians including:
-Grant Jones
-Golden Hour
-Bull Market
-Snow Bored

April 11th 7:00 – 8:00pm ARTFUL WOMEN OF MONTANA, Community Room, Billings Public Library

Please join Zonta Club of Billings and Billings Public Library for our next event on Tuesday, April 11, 7-8 p.m. when our guests will be Anna Paige and Ashley Warren. In this Artful Women of Montana talk, they will be discussing a multi-disciplinary approach to the arts, the importance of collaboration, and empowering community voice through writing.

From a desire to connect writers to one another and grow the literary community in Billings, Ashley Warren and Anna Paige created Billings Area Literary Arts (BALA). Active in the writing community, both Ashley and Anna are faculty at Montana State University Billings, poetry teachers with Arts Without Boundaries, and instructors for Big Sky Writing Workshops. Through BALA, they host bi-monthly Write-Ins where they invite the community to “occupy space in form of creation.”

Ashley writes fiction and poetry. She’s a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program, and her work has appeared in The Examined Life, Easy Street, and in the anthology Poems Across the Big Sky II among other places. She was recently an Artist-in-Residence with the Billing Public Library and teaches youth in the juvenile detention system through the nonprofit organization Free Verse.

Anna is freelance journalist, photographer, and poet. A Montana Slam Grand Champion, Anna has also been named Best Spoken Word Artist by the Magic City Music Awards in 2012 and 2014 – 2016. She’s performed spoken word poetry in several collaborative pieces, including a short act in Billings’ Fringe Festival and with Terpsichore Dance Company of Montana. She also co-hosts “Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains” on Yellowstone Public Radio.

April 26th 5:30 – 7:00pm READINGS FROM POEMS ACROSS THE BIG SKY II, This House of Books, 224 N. Broadway, Billings.  

Poems Across the Big Sky II is a significant collection of Montana poets that came out late in 2016. Lowell Jaeger, the editor, wrote that the collection is an “effort to uncover hidden talent, to combine novice poets and acknowledged poets, to pay homage to Montana’s many voices, many poems.” Billings writers are well-represented. Come to hear your neighbors share their poetry of our place. This House of Books, from 5:30 PM to 7 PM. We gratefully acknowledge the effort of Corby Skinner, who wrote the Humanities Montana grant that allows Lowell Jaeger to attend our event.

November 9th, 2016

After midnight, moments after setting my iPhone on the nightstand, deciding I couldn’t refresh NPR.org one more time, I heard what I thought was a gunshot. I live in a red state and my first assumption with every bang is it’s a gunshot, but then there was another, and another, four bangs with a silent even pause between each one.

“Fireworks,” my husband said. “Trump won.”

We both reached for our phones. 244 electoral college votes became 279 votes and the angry caricatures of both Trump’s and Clintons faces stared back at me from their places above the abstract map of blue and red squares. We turned out the light and went to bed.

*

I don’t remember what I dreamt about, or if a dreamt anything. My brother said he dreamt about zombies. At 4:30am I woke up, I can only assume from stress or panic. With deep breaths I fell back asleep only to awaken, leering, two and a half hours later. My period started. Even my body was exhibiting some kind of ironic biological defiance to America’s new reality.

Two days before, a friend and I had hosted the first event in a series of Write-Ins, an hour for people to come together to write and be in community with one another. The series was part of a literary organization (with a hardly subtle hint of feminism) that we started with a mission to create more writing opportunities in our town. Two days before we were feeling revolutionary and empowered. Overnight our confidence turned to desperation.

The day after the election, my friend’s text to me read, “Hello. Did you get any sleep? I want to do something. Hold safe space for people to write and hug and be. What can we do?”

I texted back, “Barely. We could do another impromptu/pop up Write-In maybe,” and then I digressed as I thought about my commitments for the rest of the day.

I had to meet a student at my office then teach a composition class. Also, I was an artist-in-residence at the public library. I had been leading a workshop for the last four weeks leading up to the election. I was helping teens write letters to the next president as part of a project hosted by the National Writing Project.

The rest of my text read, “I don’t know what I’m going to say to the two thirteen your old girls who participated in the Letters to the Next President project—we’re supposed to have a pizza party at the library tonight.”

The moment needed immediacy and action, but I was grieving along with everyone else in my bubble of America. I wanted to hide. I called my friend and we poured over our options. Our literary organization was new and we had no idea what the political leanings were of our participants. In the end, she opened her home to anyone who wanted a place to write but asked people to private message her for the address.

I stumbled through my morning and wondered how I would face my students, many of whom had made it clear in one way or another that they were Trump supporters.

When I got dressed I wore a jacket I purchased from J. Crew several years ago when Mad Men style was a thing. I curled my hair and put on some lipstick and my big black sunglasses. I looked like Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I thought about how she performed her civic duties at a time when she might have wanted to hide.

On campus, walking to the liberal arts building I passed students. Fear set in, labeling set in, and everyone I passed was either a “likely Clinton supporter,” which brought a feeling of relief, or a “likely Trump supporter,” which brought on a feeling of distress. I’m not proud that in that moment I was engaging in the same kind of irrational thinking that contributed to Trump’s election in the first place.

Before my lecture, I had to meet the student who needed to take a test. She arrived at my office and her greeting was careful, her voice polite, and it took on a tone she hadn’t used with me all semester. Though I had never said it she knew which side I was on, and I which side she was on. We exchanged the appropriate professor/student pleasantries and I sent her to a conference room to take her exam.

While she worked I graded papers. I checked Twitter and Facebook. I sent texts to my brother and my husband. I wanted to cry but didn’t because I didn’t know how my students would meet my vulnerability. I tried to understand what exactly I wanted to cry about.

Before class I went to the bathroom and coming out of the stall I ran into a student who had written an essay for me about voter apathy. She was my mirror that morning. We couldn’t smile. Our eyes were tired. Our skin lacked the pink that comes with breathing deeply. We didn’t say anything to each other but we knew.

*

On my lunch break, I watched Clinton’s concession speech and had my cathartic moment. I sobbed while admiring those steely nerves that characterized her as being robotic. I listened to her words mindfully (it was the first time in a while I hadn’t scanned something on my phone during a long video), and near the end of twelve minutes, I found the smallest ray of hope. She said, “To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world,” and it reminded me of the two girls who were taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them, who were asking important questions and finding their way through the answers. Hope for me was two girls who wrote letters to the future president about making school lunches healthy, and developing community programs to educate people about nutrition choices. Hope was two little girls who, despite the outcome of the election, believed their voices would be heard.

*

That night we had our pizza party at the library, the girls and I. We read letters about medical marijuana and cyber bullying, and unemployment, and we shared ideas and opinions. We smiled and we laughed because we needed to.

On the day after the 2016 election, in my darkest moments, I was planning for the worst. I was planning for the reality that I could lose my health insurance and that my student loan payments might not be adjusted for my income anymore. And when I ran out of plans I worried. Worried whether my cousin’s husband and family would be allowed to stay or return to the United States because they are Muslim. I worried for my Muslim students and my African American students and my gay students and my female students.

But eating pizza in a small conference room with two intelligent, adolescent girls, I realized I was doing something, however small my actions might seem.

I was doing something by mentoring them. I was doing something by teaching my Trump supporting college students how to write effectively and think clearly. I was doing something by running a literary organization with my friend, even if our feminism made us vulnerable.

And with these thoughts the hope caught on and pumped in my heart, like small bangs, with silent even pauses between them.

The Magical Twitterverse

According to my Twitter profile, I joined the social networking platform in 2009, but it wasn’t until the last month or so that I really began to embrace Twitter. I got tired of the recycled content on my Facebook feed (I’m looking at you TIME Magazine. I can’t count the number of times I’ve logged in to see that article delineating the 14 reasons why I’m so tired all the time. Here’s reason #15: I’m tired all the time because I see duplicative content on my newsfeed.)

The other reason I started to engage more frequently with Twitter was the various recommendations I saw around the web that Twitter is THE PLATFORM for writers. Then, I came across this bit of wisdom (in a Pinterest newsletter, I think, which I regretfully can’t find at the moment. Feel free to link to this insight in the comments if you’ve read/seen it somewhere else) about social media. Facebook is about the past. Twitter is about the present. Pinterest is about the future. I’m all about being in the present so Twitter seems like the natural choice.

I started tweeting more frequently and quickly discovered the magic in Twitter: the hashtag. Not just any clever hashtag, the ones that other people are using. My first tweet where I really felt like I was starting to “get” how the whole Twitter-thing worked was when I found a hashtag that didn’t mean what I thought it meant, and then I tweeted about it:

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 10.35.45 AM

I can’t tell you what kind of rockstar I felt like when I had one friend and four strangers favorite this tweet. On Facebook I rarely (okay, never) interacted with people I didn’t know. But on Twitter I was having light, micro-conversations with people the way you might strike up a conversation with someone on a plane or in a coffee shop.

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Twitter also helped me remember that social media can be fun. I squee when someone who I think is moderately famous favorites one of my replies. I chortle when people live tweet #TheBachelor or dish out clever responses to #FiveWordsToRuinADate. I get a tiny boost of self confidence when I buy a new pair of glasses and the company I purchased them from throws a compliment my way.

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The hashtag thing also helped connect me to my field, my people. I discovered #amwriting. There are many opinions about whether or not this is a helpful or distracting hashtag for writers but for me it makes me feel like I’m back in my low-res MFA  connecting with writers all over the country (and maybe the world) around a common goal. It makes an arguably lonely profession feel less lonely.

#amwriting led to #PitMad where I found that I could pitch my novel to literary agents and that they might actually respond. Consider my mind blown. I’m still dazed from the magical high that is #PitMad so I’ll virtually introduce you to Brenda Drake, host of #PitMad and other wonderful things, and let you read up on what it is/how to participate in the future.  Also, I want to link to Diana Urban who is an author that got her agent through #PitMad and has some great tips on how to write your tweets.

While participating in #PitMad was an amazing opportunity professionally, I liked it just as much because I got to “meet” so many writers. And seeing the goodwill of writers retweeting one another’s pitches and wishing each other luck just reminded me that the publishing industry is not as mean, or scary, or terrible as some people would like you to believe.

Participating in #PitMad also helped me to be a better writer. I’ve heard many a writing mentor say that if you can’t distill your novel down into one sentence then maybe the novel is not as tight as it should be. Having to generate 24 tweets about my novel forced me to use my skills as a writer to convey a large idea and hundreds of pages into one small, compelling sentence. Even if I’m not tweeting about my novel, the social pressure on Twitter to be funny, witty, or have something meaningful to say is like a writing exercise all on its own.

Of course, the most important writing I do is when I’m putting down words on the next novel or short story, but in an age where many writers are the advocates of their own work, it’s nice to know that I can spend time on social media in a productive and fruitful way.

Here are few of my favorite people/companies/parodies to follow. And obvi, if you want to join the fun, follow me!

  • Hayes Brown: @HayesBrown. Foreign News Editor/Reporter, @BuzzFeed. Formerly at @thinkprogress. RTs = multiple Russias Today. Thoughts all mine. Tips, etc: hayes.brown AT buzzfeed dot com
  • Neil Gaiman: @neilhimself. will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, will keep making things up and writing them down.
  • Roxane Gay: @rgay. I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. I love Ina Garten. Now: An Untamed State (Grove Atlantic) and Bad Feminist (Harper). Next: Hunger (Harper, 2016)
  • Linda Holmes:@nprmonkeysee. Writer at NPR’s pop culture blog, Monkey See; host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. Formerly of Television Without Pity.
  • Glen Weldon: @ghwelcon. Writes/podcasts for NPR and other places. Unauthor, SUPERMAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY. Author of THE CAPED CRUSADE, coming 2016 from Simon & Schuster.
  • Barry Allen Facts: @BanterWithBarry. Barry Allen parody account! Not associated with the The Flash.
  • inbox tattoos: @getinkbox. A New Way to Tattoo. Natural ink-based tattoos that last 12-15 days. Check out our tats on our website below!
  • Saved You A Click: @SavedYouAClick. Don’t click on that. I already did. (Tweets by @jakebeckman)
  • Warby Parker: @WarbyParker. Welcome to Warby Parker! (Pleased to meet you.) Questions? Let @WarbyParkerHelp know.

My Tools for Writing: Reprise

A while ago I wrote about my favorite programs/implements for writing efficiently, but I neglected to mention my most important tool: my laptop.

It didn’t seem worth mentioning because it’s an obvious tool. Most writers have some sort of computer or tablet  for writing. My own laptop faded into mundanity because I used it for everything; it wasn’t special anymore.

Until one day, thinking my computer was moving slow (I had taken to calling it “the dinosaur”), I watched the clock in the top right hand corner of my screen while waiting for Microsoft Word to open. Four minutes passed.

"Dinosaur Jr." by Stéfan via Flickr
“Dinosaur Jr.” by Stéfan via Flickr

I realized then that without much awareness, I had been building mini-accomplishments into my day to make those four minutes pass. Open a document/make a cup of tea. Send a file to print/take the laundry out of the dryer. Download an update/take the dog for a walk. I felt productive because I was multitasking but really, I was wasting a lot (3 minutes and 52 seconds) of time. I needed a new laptop. Continue reading “My Tools for Writing: Reprise”

How Being a Writer is Like Being a Gardner

photo 1I’ve reached an age where, because I don’t have any children, I’m picking up “adult hobbies.” I blame this too on the fact that I own a house now* and feel like, you know, I should probably take care of it. So, I’ve started gardening.

Last weekend I stepped into my yard to assess my hard work. The black-eyed Susans are blooming, so is the lavender, and the mint is out of control. The bee balm is bowing out of the mint’s way. The valerian root is trying to stand out amongst the weeds. The lilac bushes are holding their own, though one branch has given up. The pansies are fickle and wilt at a minute’s worth of too much sun, yet the second I flood them, they’ll perk up as if nothing was wrong. The pansies are acting like, well, pansies.

I realized there are probably a hundred metaphors or lessons on life in my garden. As I stepped close to examine leaves then stepped back to take in the whole plant or bush, I saw that the process of taking care of plants is much like the process of being a writer. Continue reading “How Being a Writer is Like Being a Gardner”

The Last Word

"The End” by  Bob Marzewski via Flickr used under a creative commons license.
“The End” by Bob Marzewski via Flickr used under a creative commons license.

On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour the crew discussed first impressions in movies, books, films and TV. Panelist Glen Weldon gave some of his favorite opening lines in books then went on to create this comprehensive list of opening lines.

Coming to the end of the rewrite on my own novel, I find myself contemplating endings rather than beginnings, and I have another writerly confession to make: I judge a book by its last word, which I read first.

Before you lay judgement, things that I know:

A) This is a ludicrous habit.

B) The likelihood that an entire book could be encapsulated by only the last word, when considering the numerous books in existence, is outrageously and implausibly small.

And you might wonder how I can peek at the last word without spoiling the ending.  My ability to flip to the last page and peek, only taking in that last word, maybe two, has been fostered by years of looking at scary movies through fingers, ready to close the gap in a nanosecond lest I see a wayward severed head. Continue reading “The Last Word”

What’s in a Name?

“Reader” By h.koppdelaney, via Flickr
“Reader” By h.koppdelaney, via Flickr

Nameless here for evermore.” – The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe

Recently I got married, and in the moments when I wasn’t deciding where my grandmother would sit during the ceremony, or trying to remember if I ate lunch that day, a quandary of many female writers weighed on my mind–once married, should I publish using my married name?

Many writers or dispensers of writing advice will tell you NOT to publish under your married name because, frankly, statistics are not in your favor. You could become Mrs. Fabulous-Last-Name (hyphenated, of course) only to find yourself divorced within five to ten years with that pesky pen name following you from book cover to book cover as a reminder of your ex.

Others will tell you not to take your partner’s name, particularly if they will be publishing too.  I always thought this argument was a little backwards. I’m sure Tabitha King has had some success because of her famous husband. And the Brownings literary success seemed mutually beneficial too. Shouldn’t having the same name as your famous partner help to boost your own success?

Before deciding whether or not to take my partner’s name, let’s take a look at the name I have: Ashley Johnson.

Do you know how many Ashley Johnson’s there are in the world? I was even a member of a Facebook group dedicated to the name that has thousands of members (which has since mysteriously disappeared from my profile).

Do you remember Chrissy form the TV Show Growing Pains? That actress is named Ashley Johnson.

Not only was “Ashley” the most popular girls’ name in 1991 and 1992, the surname “Johnson” is downright boring. For that matter it’s not even mine. My Irish ancestors used the name to come to America at least a century ago. I could be an O’Malley or a Kelly for all I know.

If you need another reason, I had a nightmarish nickname: Big Johnson.

Some of my fellow writers suggested I abandon my entire name and take on a new identity, complete with vague ethnic origins, a signature handshake, and subtle adjustments to my gait. The name they concocted for me was good. Too good, in fact, to share, in case I decide to use it to write erotica or science fiction.

These reasons aside, I’ve chosen to take my partner’s name (albeit selfishly) because I like it better than mine. To me it sounds literary. It sounds like the person I want to be.

And, I figure it can’t hurt throwing my middle initial in there. It worked for J. K. Rowling.

When Artists Retire

image courtesy of The Philip Roth Society

Last week, several American news outlets reported that novelist Philip Roth had written his last book.

Here is an excerpt from an article posted on Salon.com:

Roth said that at 74, realizing he was running out of years, he reread all his favorite novels, and then reread all his books in reverse chronological order. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing,” he said. “And I thought it was rather successful. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said: ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ This is exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.

“And after that, I decided that I was done with fiction. I do not want to read, to write more,” he said. “I have dedicated my life to the novel: I studied, I taught, I wrote and I read. With the exclusion of almost everything else. Enough is enough! I no longer feel this fanaticism to write that I have experienced in my life.”

As an artist at the beginning of my career, Roth’s statements seem hard to believe. With more books to read than I can count, and story ideas that keep me awake at night, how could a lifetime be possibly long enough to read everything I want to read and write everything I want to write?

Roth’s statements bring to light a great debate or paradox for many artists: is being an artist a job or a calling?

Continue reading “When Artists Retire”

Teaching to a Mirror

photo by Elsie esq.

In the middle of tutoring the other day, my student turned to me and said, “It seems too easy.” I couldn’t understand why she was missing questions on a quiz that she usually got right. I pointed out the answers to her and she said “Yeah, but shouldn’t it be harder than that?”

My next student seemed to need a road map of our tutoring session. If I said we were going to practice reading strategies he wanted to know if we were going to correct the homework. If I said I wanted him to do extra practice on subject-verb agreement he needed to know if that was part of the homework or if he needed to do it right then. Despite my assurances that we would cover all the material, every instruction I gave was followed with “Yes, but are we going to,” just to make sure I stayed on track.

I could take each of these situations personally, and assume my students’ reactions are a poor reflection on my teaching ability, but at the end of that day, something bigger occurred to me. I wasn’t worrying that I was a crappy teacher. What was painfully clear was that my students are a reflection of me.

Continue reading “Teaching to a Mirror”