Maya Stein is one of my very favorite writers in the whole world. She’s also one of my dearest friends – which shouldn’t preclude you from checking out this interview, but it might help you understand why I was able to ask her questions ranging from the see-through dress I saw her wearing once in the middle of the day, to the tumor the size of an egg that was lodged in her spine. I also talk to her about her fine, fine writing. Her weekly 10-Line-Tuesday poems are the medicine I take each week to help me locate what matters. Maya has a rare talent for naming things exactly as they are, and which allows me to understand my own life so much better.
Here’s one of my favorites: scrapping the lawn
It would be simpler, surely, to stay in tune with the neighbors, whose yards rest, placid, at the foot of each house with nary a dip in topography save a trio of bushes soldiering the front windows. And it’s true that what you’ve got planned is an upheaval you can’t predict, a loose cannon of horticultural proportions, since you’ve neither the education nor experience to guide you, exactly. But there are sacrifices for every choice that goes against the grain. You don’t slash and burn without cleaving from your own comfort. Even now, as the lawn lies partially scraped and scorned, you see you could turn back, patch the broken pieces, ignore the song of wildness and color calling you. Maybe the grass doesn’t need changing. But you do, and that knowing’s clear enough to wrap your novice hands on awkward tools to find the garden living there.
Without further adieu, Maya Stein…
“I have always believed that much of writing is actually about seeing, about paying attention, listening in, getting up close and personal with the details, and I have built a poetry practice – and a life practice – based on this.” — Maya Stein
Maya, did I hear your father say that you didn’t speak until you were 4-years old ? Do you think that had something to do with you becoming a writer? Or rather, do you think the writer part of you was coming to life?
I don’t think I was quite as old as 4, but yes, apparently I was pretty silent for those first few years. I guess I needed a lot of time to observe the world around me before making any commentary. By the time I actually piped up, I spoke a jumble of English, Hebrew, Dutch, and Spanish. My parents are American, but we’d moved to Israel when I was 2, and were living on a kibbutz with a lot of volunteers from the Netherlands and Argentina. So I was taking all of these languages in, and when I was finally ready to say something, it came out in totally unintelligible jibberish.
I do associate those early years of quiet and intake with my trajectory in later years as a writer. I’ve always been more of an observer, taking my own sweet time to orient myself and understand what I’m experiencing. At the same time, I realize that I may have “chosen” writing because expressing myself verbally, out loud, used to be (and occasionally still is) such a challenge. So writing was – and is – a way through, an act of translation, a guardrail that I lean on to express myself. I tend to believe that we choose things as a profession that we need the most help with ourselves. Communication is a place of deep learning for me, even as I continue facilitating writing classes and workshops. I’m constantly figuring out how to say the things that I mean…and to make sure I really do mean what I say. And I think that being in observational mode, and writing from that place, helps bridge both gaps.
Do you remember pre-verbal feelings or thoughts you had from way back then that you didn’t voice? Strong feelings about the world around you?
I remember being fascinated by really minute objects. My parents like to tell the story of how I could spend hours playing with a dust bunny in a corner. I remember that I was more comfortable being alone than with anyone else, except my sister. I remember being puzzled sometimes by the social behavior of others. How effortful it looked. How much fighting and turmoil and misunderstanding there could be. I was, like, screw that, and went in search of a patch of grass where I could go look at ants or something.
Once I saw you walking back from the Haight Street Fair wearing a completely see through knit dress. It was super sexy and wild, and yet, you’re not a loud person, a person who flings their arms about trying to get attention. Can you speak to this curious blend of shy and outrageous?
You can’t really live in San Francisco without doing something outside the box once in awhile. When I lived there (from 1995-2011), I discovered that about 4 times during the year, I came bounding out of my own comfort zone. The first time it happened was during the Folsom Street Fair (an annual BDSM and leather event). Some friends and I were planning to go, and though I am not part of the BDSM and leather community, I decided that I didn’t want to be one in the thousands of people who came to the fair to gawk at others. I didn’t want to be an observer. I wanted to be one of the observed. So I went shopping for an outfit that would meet this requirement. I think it might have been that same see-through dress, actually. And a pair of 4-inch knee-high leather boots. I was, like, 6″2′ in them. My friends and I drove down, and I remember stepping out of the car and into the sunlight and just feeling every part of me wake up. We walked the few blocks to the fair and immediately I heard the snap of camera shutters.
It was such a release and relief, to simply turn off that editor in me that tends to be more modest and inward. I knew, instinctively, that I couldn’t straddle both worlds at the same time. It was impossible to show up somewhere in the middle. So I made a very conscious decision to take that leap. I think my friends were shocked on some level – they couldn’t believe I’d willingly walk around practically naked on a public street for 6 hours. But it also made sense to them on another. The shy girl bristling against her own self-imposed introversion. And the delight and joy and wonder and newness of playing with an alter ego. I think there’s definitely a part of me, at that time, that was looking to connect with something wild and outrageous, but to do it in a safe container. That street fair was exactly that. And a few times every year following that, I’ve found other safe containers to trot out my other Maya.
It transcends the racy, sexy thing. I think it’s really more about connecting to something inside of me I long for. A kind of rebellion against the parameters of my personality, which are cozy most of the time, but can also be confining. So this is a way of walking in the world differently. It’s exciting to me that such a thing is possible, that one can just decide to try it on. And I’m more attuned to it now. I think as I get older, my other Mayas are showing up more and more. They’re getting more comfortable raising their hands and saying “Pick me.”
You put out ten lines every Tuesday. When Sunday rolls around do you start sniffing for the poem? If it’s Tuesday and you don’t have one do you actually go searching for one?
The “10-line Tuesday” poems are always written on a Tuesday. So Tuesday morning is when I start sniffing, although probably on Monday night there is a kind of clearing of the mental palate, me getting myself ready to write. The beauty of the 10 lines is that they’re only 10 lines. I’m not trying to write a blog post here, or a personal essay, or another chapter of a novel, where you could sort of wrestle indefinitely. Sometimes the poem does take me a long time to write, but the fact of its brevity is the gift for me as a writer. I lean on it. I know that I have this limited space to say something, and the structure helps streamline my navigation. Sometimes, when I really don’t know what to write about, I’ll troll through my photographs, which I’ve been taking more of in the past few years. The camera phones make this so easy, and in a way, I see my snapshots as mimicking the structure of the 10 lines. When we post an image on Instagram of Facebook, it has a similar effect. We’re capturing this brief moment of connection to something we see and then sharing it. And that’s, ultimately, what “10-line Tuesday” is about. It’s been an amazing practice in noticing, capturing, and sharing. Taking a moment to slow down and really see something. It’s wonderfully nourishing. That writing practice has sustained me in more ways than one.
You’re not really a 9-5 girl are you? Your projects are out the box, completely inspired…but by what? What inspires you to create a new project? What are the components the project has to meet?
Despite being someone who’s living in their head so much of the time, I get really inspired by physical movement. I love coming up with projects that involve me getting my butt out the door. I was also a total tomboy growing up – still am, in many ways – and was always athletic. I played a lot of team sports, and loved the feeling of camaraderie as well as the desire to contribute my personal skills. I think my projects have all evolved out of that space. I ask myself, “How can others participate? How can I facilitate a connected, connective experience?” I love coming up with ideas on my own, but the planning and execution of them invites – no, demands – collaboration, and I love seeing how things begin to flesh out and find their fullest shape when that happens. I don’t believe in creating in a vacuum, in shielding people from my ideas until they are absolutely finished and faultless. That’s so isolating, and ultimately keeps us from truly being open and porous to new ideas. When I drum up a new project, it’s built from a feeling rather than an outcome. There are certainly hopes and dreams incorporated in there, but I tend to think in terms of experimentation and seeing how the idea unfolds into reality, into a more practical application. To me, staying curious about what’s happening is a key component of the experience. I can feel the difference, internally, when I’m not engaged, and that ends up (dis)coloring everything. So I am always awake to that, and make sure that I’m bringing as much of my full self to the table as possible.
Time is also a good component to work with. Having a finite window to execute something. This serves me in two ways. It forces an efficiency of movement forward, in the form of deadlines. And it also rewards me with a launch date, so that I can physically, viscerally, emotionally experience a sense of a culmination to all of my efforts.
What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?
For one weekend, I worked at a wine-tasting festival at Fort Mason in San Francisco. My job was to empty the spit buckets. That may have also been the grossest job I’ve ever had. Another odd one was working with a catering company at a Renaissance Fair-type event. I had to dress up as a court jester. Total whackadoodle.
How about your tumor …how did that touch your life? Is it a touchstone for you?
In April 2010, after more than a year-and-a-half of experiencing numbness in my feet and difficulty walking and seeing a dozen practitioners for help, I saw a neurologist who ordered an MRI of my thoracic and cervical spine. It turned out that I had an egg-sized tumor resting against my spinal cord. I was absolutely terrified, of course. I needed surgery right away – the doctor I met with in the emergency room after the results came back told me that this tumor would eventually paralyze me if it wasn’t removed. Less than a week later, I was wheeled into the operating room. I was incredibly lucky that the schwannoma taking residence under my 7th vertebrae was benign. No further treatment was required after surgery, and after 6 weeks, I was back to normal. I remember walking onto the basketball court where I used to go after having been unable to play for those 18 months, running for my first lay-up and wanting to burst into tears in gratitude and relief. The entire experience – my loss of mobility, the fear of what was happening to my body, the drama of being told I had to have surgery, the hospital experience itself, putting my life in the hands of a surgeon and medical staff (holy vulnerability and trust), gathering my friends and family together after basically shielding everyone from my pain and distress, and being so absolutely cared for and looked at and prayed over by countless others, the healing process, the come-to-Jesus waking up into a healthy body again and realizing there was not a minute to waste – all of it is still so fresh and clear in me. I am someone who tends to be a little on the morbid side, who worries about dying, who does a minor freakout before every checkup. That is still very much true – if anything, the tumor reminded me that it could all basically change in an instant (although in this case, it turned out that it had been there for 5 years!). So there is this see-saw of emotion around the fragility of life. I don’t take anything for granted while at the same time I can sometimes obsess about it all being taken away. I get profoundly sad when I read about others’ diagnoses for things that are far worse than what I had. I grieve with them in a different way now because I understand the terror and anxiety of getting bad news.
The experience with the tumor taught me something huge about the importance of sharing pain. Of not trying to protect others from it. Not isolating myself. It’s a continuing practice, but oh my God, once I let down my guard and shared what I was going through, there was so much love and concern and care waiting for me. I think getting the diagnosis forced me into disclosure – it was, like, there was no place left to hide once that happened. It’s scary to me, now, how much denial I was in.
You got married and entered a family with two teenage boys at age 42, but before then you were free to wake up when you pleased, free to write when you wanted to or stay up all night if you felt like it. You weren’t really accountable to anyone. Does being a “mom” figure impact your creative writing life?
The short answer is a resounding YES. The difference is striking, and this is an understatement. Everything is more scheduled now – dinner times, work times, free times. It would be easy to compare and contrast, but the truth is, it’s a totally different life and when I get into comparison mode, it’s gets me out of the present tense. There are absolutely times when I long for that open-endedness, the ability to change direction mid-stream or have dinner at 10 o’clock at night or stay up ’til 3 a.m. working on a poem. But I just can’t physically do that right now. I wake up earlier in the day than I used to so that I can have a moment with the kids before they go to school, I craft my day so I do the bulk of my work before they get home, stop early to go to the grocery store or make dinner, and am ready to hit the mattress by 10:30 p.m. (I tried staying up late recently because I’d gotten behind in one of the online classes that I facilitate, and I only made it to midnight before I just couldn’t focus anymore.) It can be challenging to make accommodations for other people, to feel squeezed in sometimes by the demands of a schedule I can’t control. The biggest adjustment for me is the multitasking involved in being a part of this family. Having my eye on several things at once so that the real and metaphorical house is in order. It’s been a steep learning curve for sure.
But in the same way that the “10-line Tuesday” practice gives me an opportunity to experiment with efficiency of expression, these new parameters of family life invite me to streamline my productivity. To get more done with less time. And it also imposes new pauses in my day whereas before I might have not taken any. Even when it feels like running to the grocery store or whatever is impeding my creativity, I actually think it’s the opposite. It forces me into a time-out, and that brief stepping away can actually stimulate my creative muscles.
I don’t think I’ll ever not want quiet, alone time to create. So I’ll be honest – a bustling household with lots of noise and interruption is not ideal for me in terms of writing. But all of the hubbub is working my other, more undeveloped muscles, and I am grateful for that. It’s like putty. On the one hand, it can sit all nice and compact and still in that plastic egg container. But it’s really capable of so much stretching, of new shapes and forms. There are certainly days when I all I want is to tuck myself back into that little container. But I’m also very aware of how much I am growing as person – in my wholeness, not just the part of me that writes and creates. Growing pains are always a combination of pleasure and pain. You really can’t have one without the other.
But even with all of the zoo-ey realities of the care and feeding of teenage boys, and the late-blooming reality of marriage…but perhaps more likely, because of these, I feel a stronger connection to and insistence on nourishing and sustaining my creative life. It’s becoming important now to me to model this for the kids, to model this with my partner. As I was growing up, my parents were always involved in many creative pursuits, and I really learned so much about them by seeing them engaged. But seeing how much they prioritized their passions while being present as parents. They weredimensional people, not random characters who put dinner on the table or drove me to a friend’s house. And I think that’s one of the big lessons and inspirations for me, in the context of this new family, to keep my creative life visible. It can’t be a separate, private thing, because my feeling is, if the kids don’t know this part of me, then that’s a huge piece that’s missing. So probably the biggest move I’ve made in the past few years is to demonstrate and be vocal about its importance. It feels vital, especially during this time when they imagine they’re the center of the universe and can’t really see beyond their own shadow. My partner and I are increasingly moving our creative collaborations to the front burner to share space alongside them, and I am much more communicative about what I’m doing, and why.
What’s something that most people would be surprised to know about you?
That I am still, after all these years, uncertain about how to put on makeup. That I can feel like a total social misfit. That I fantasize about hiring an image consultant. And that my hair is a continual source of puzzlement and irritation.
What breaks your heart?
The sadness of others. Sometimes, I can feel my very cells crying on their behalf.
Also, when a child is misunderstood or ignored. Oh my God, that absolutely levels me.
Want more Maya?
Maya + her partner Amy Tingle are running a 4-week “Choose Your Next Adventure” online class starting on January 5. They’re offering twice-weekly writing prompts and creative challenges to help people jumpstart action toward leap-taking. The link for the class lives here: http://food4thesoultrain.com/e-courses/
Maya Stein is a Ninja poet, writing guide, and creative adventuress. She wrote her first poem, “Papa Tree and the Seasons,” when she was 9 years old. It told the story of the life cycle of leaves, honing specifically on the fate of one little leaf that is the last one clinging before winter comes. She bound this poem into a little book, filled it with color pencil drawings, and proudly offered it up to her parents one evening. She sees now that this quite accurately represents the instincts behind most of her work to date – the desire to capture that which is most fleeting, to locate the heart of its beauty and power, sustain its life through language, and share that language with others. Maya has since self-published four collections of writing, most recently “How We Are Not Alone,” a compilation of work from her poetry blog. Since 2005, Maya has kept a weekly writing practice, “10-line Tuesday,” and her poems now reach more than 1,200 people each week. She also leads “Feral Writing” workshops, both live and online, providing mentorship and guiding students through simple, often playful exercises and activities that help strengthen their creative instincts and develop a writing practice that sticks. Among her latest escapades are a 30-day tandem bicycle journey through the Midwest, a French crepe stand at a Massachusetts farmers market, a relocation from San Francisco to suburban New Jersey, a business collaboration— Food for the Soul Train — turning a vintage trailer into a mobile creative workshop space with her partner, and most recently, marriage and step-motherhood. Her favorite body part is her left hand, as it has gifted her with the ability to sink a nearly invincible hook shot, peel a whole apple without a break, and transcribe the poems living in her heart. You can learn more about Maya’s adventures at her website.