Monday, March 27, 2017

Thank You, Dear Readers: On the Occasion of Madam Mayo Blog's Eleventh Anniversary

Images courtesy of Pulp-o-Mizer
Methuselah of Blogdom here. Why am I still blogging? I am heartened to say, dear readers, that I know you're there, more of you each year, and I appreciate your visits and your comments (as always, I welcome comments via email.) As for the granular whys and wherefores of this blog, I wouldn't say much that I didn't say last year, on its tenth anniversary, which echoed much of what I had to say on its eighth anniversary. The latter link goes to my talk for the 2014 AWP Conference panel on "Homesteading on the Digital Frontier: Writer's Blogs." To quote from that:
"Madam Mayo" is not so much my so-called "platform," but rather, a net that catches certain special fish the readers who care about the things I care to write about. 
As ever, I aim to provide posts on a variety of topics that might be, in turn, of use and/or interest for my writing workshop students, and/or for Mexicophiles, and/or for Far West Texasphiles (is that a word?), adventurous readers, and myself. 

One of my many motivations for blogging is to iron out my own thoughts, especially on subjects that tend to come up in my correspondence with other writers and in my writing workshops, for example:

(What do you mean, "reading as a writer"?)
One Simple Yet Powerful Practice in Reading as a Writer

(How do you keep up with email?)

Email Ninjerie in the Theater of Space-Time

(Where do you find the time to write?)
Thirty Deadly-Effective Ways to Free Up Bits, Drips & 

(What do you think about social media?)

You will also find posts on my work in-progress and anything relevant to it (at present, a book about Far West Texas):

Once in a zera-striped-chartreuse moon of Pluto I touch on nonwriterly topics:

Yet one more reason to check in with this blog is for announcements about my publications and interviews:

To share my talks and podcasts:

And, something I especially relish, to learn about and celebrate the work of other writers:

> More interviews here.

P.S. For those of you who are writers / bloggers, herewith the top five things I would have done differently back in 2006 had I known what I know now:
1. Use WordPress
2. Post once per week, something verily crunchy, otherwise take a vacation;
3. Post interviews with other writers more often;
4. Maybe tweet the link to a post once or twice; otherwise do not waste time with social media;
5. When possible and when there is substantive content, upload the bulk of that content to the webpage, not the blog itself (because of those scraper sites).

(Your comments are especially welcome on this subject. Write to me here.)

P.P.S. Yep, one of these days I will move the whole enchilada over to WordPress. It's still on my to-do list... [UPDATE JANUARY 2019: This blog is now on self-hosted WordPress at]

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, March 20, 2017

What the Muse Sent Me About the Tenth Muse, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

Door to the quarters of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,
"the Tenth Muse." Photo by C.M. Mayo, 2017.
Late last year my amiga the brilliant short story writer Paula Whyman invited me to send a "Dispatch from Mexico City" for her new magazine, Scoundrel Time. So I dialed in to Muse HQ... 

As I told Paula, woefully past the deadline, I had asked the Muse for a slider, a yummy little note about books in Mexico, but she delivered the whole ox. In other words, my "Dispatch from the Sister Republic or, Papelito Habla" is a novela-length essay about the Mexican literary landscape, from prehispanic codices to contemporary writers. It is what it is, I don't want start chopping (there would be blood!!), but of course, a 30 page essay is too long for a magazine. 

Scoundrel Time will be publishing an excerpt about Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca's Relación-- a nearly 500 year-old memoir little known outside of Mexico and Texas, yet that stands as one of the most astonishing and important books ever written. (As soon that goes on-line, I will be sure to link to it from here. Read the piece about Cabeza de Vaca in Scoundrel Time here.) 

As for my full-length essay, "Dispatch from the Sister Republic," look for it as a Kindle under my own imprint, Dancing Chiva, ASAP.  it is now available in Kindle.

Herewith my other favorite excerpt, about the Tenth Muse, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz:

Excerpt from 
by C.M. MAYO 

For rare book collectors, Mecca is Mexico City’s Colonia Centro, and for such aficionados of mexicana as myself, its sanctum sanctorum, the Librería Madero—by the way, recently relocated from the Avenida Madero to the Avenida Isabela La Católica, facing the the formidable wedding cake-white corner of the 16th century ex-convent of San Jerónimo, known today as the Claustro de Sor Juana, that is, the Convent of Sister Juana.

And if you would not know Sor Juana from a poinsettia, gentle reader, with all respect, you must crowbar out that boulder of ignorance, for which you will be rewarded by a glimpse of the diamond of the Mexico’s Baroque period, the first great Latin American poet and playwright, “the Tenth Muse,” a cloistered nun.

Texan poet John Campion was the first to translate Sor Juana’s magnum opus, “Primero sueño,” as “The Dream,” in 1983. (Alas, that date is not a typo.) Campion’s translation is out of print, but he offers a free PDF download of the text on his website, The first lines of Campion’s translation beautifully capture Sor Juana’s uncanny power:
death-born shadow of earth
aimed at heaven
a proud point of vain obelisks
pretending to scale the Stars

In her time Sor Juana was one of the most learned individuals, man or woman, in the New World, and her prodigious oeuvre, from love poems to polemics, comedies to enigmas to plays to villancicos, was exceptionally sophisticated, so much so that its interpretation is today the province of a small army of sorjuanistas. As Mexico’s Nobel laureate poet Octavio Paz writes in Sor Juana: Or, the Traps of Faith (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden), “A work survives its readers; after a hundred or two hundred years it is read by new readers who impose on it new modes of reading and interpretation. The work survives because of these  interpretations, which are in fact resurrections.”

And perchance startling discoveries. In his 2011 El eclipse del Sueño de Sor Juana, Américo Larralde Rangel makes a radiant case that her “Primero Sueño” describes the dawn over Mexico City after a lunar eclipse on the solstice of the winter of 1684.

In the Librería Madero I find on the first shelf, facing out, two new books by sorjuanistas: one about Sor Juana’s family, another, just published by a Legionario de Cristo, that purports to decipher her twenty enigmas. The latter work incorporates a series of contemporary paintings of Sor Juana in the baroque style—dim backgrounds, crowns and scepters of flowers, and afloat above her head, fat-tummied cherubs, flounces, unspooling bundles of draperies. But these Sor Juanas look too pert, make too coy a tilt of the head. It seems to me as if, session over, the model might have just tossed off that habit to wriggle into some yoga wear.

Yes, just as in the United States, in Mexican cities yoga studios have been popping up like honguitos. 

But if a vision of modern Mexico would have been obscure to Sor Juana, by no means is Sor Juana obscure in modern Mexico. She has inspired scores of poets and musicians; there have been movies, documentaries, and novels, most recently, Mónica Lavin’s 2009 best-seller Yo, la peor (I, the Worst—yet to be translated into English—fingers crossed that Patricia Dubrava will do it). 

As I write this in 2017, Sor Juana graces the celadon-green 200 peso bill. From the portrait by Miguel Cabrera in the Museo Nacional de Historia: a serenely intelligent young woman’s face framed in a wimple, and behind her, her quills and inkpot and an open book of her poetry—and a few lines:

Ex-convento of San Jerónimo,
now the Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana,
Mexico City. Photo by C.M. Mayo, 2017.
Hombres necios que acusáis 
a la mujer sin razón, 
sin ver que sois la ocasión
de lo mismo que culpáis.

I cannot pretend to render the music of Sor Juana’s lines into English. But here’s a rough go at their literal meaning: You pig-headed men who accuse women unjustly, blind to the fact that you are the cause for that which you cast blame. 


# # #

P.S. Those of you who follow my blog may be wondering, what in blazes does this have to do with my book in-progress on Far West Texas? More anon about the truly fantastic connections.

>> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

UPDATE: "Dispatch from the Sister Republic or, Papelito Habla," my long essay on the Mexican literary landscape and the power of the book, is now available in Kindle.

Monday, March 13, 2017

One Simple Yet Powerful Practice in Reading as a Writer

I'll be giving my annual one day only workshop on Literary Travel Memoir at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland this April 22. [Learn more and register online here.] New in ye olde packet  of handouts for this workshop is "Words I Like," my name for a powerful yet simple practice that you might think of as Feldenkrais for your vocabulary. 


As writers, albeit human creatures of habit, we tend to use only a woefully limited portion of our vocabularies. Hence our first drafts may be stiff, dull, and vague. To add verve, freshness, and focus, it helps to loosen up our mental joints, as it were, and reach for a greater variety of words.


The challenge is not necessarily to expand your vocabulary --I am not talking about trying to sound fancy-- though perhaps you or one of your characters may want to do that-- but to bring more of your writerly attention to words you know but do not normally use.

Towards that end reading is vital-- but not reading passively, as a consumer of entertainment, nor reading for facts and concepts, as would a scholar. Instead, read as a writer, with a pencil or pen in hand, noting down any words that strike you as especially apt or somehow, for whatever reason, attractive to you. 

These might be simple words such as, say, brood; caprice; crackpot; pall; nougat; persimmon. 

When I read I keep a notebook, PostIt, or index card handy so I can jot down any words and phrases that I like. I used to worry about keeping all these notebooks and bits of paper in some semblance of order, but I now believe that most of the benefit is in simply noticing what it is that I like; and second, writing it down. (In other words, when it comes time to declutter, I will, as I have, and so what?) Of late I toss these index cards in a recipe box that I keep on a shelf behind my desk. When one of my drafts needs an infusion of energy, I pluck out a random batch of cards, shuffle though them, and see if anything might be of use. Often it is. 

From another card plucked out at random:

shrewd; sagacious; "intrigue and shifting loyalties"; surmise; astute; console; relentless; do not relent; never relent; pout; nuanced; verdict; deadly; banal; banalities; dejected; munificence; fail to grasp; thieving toad
Thieving toad! I don't know why, that makes me laugh. And it makes me want to start (or perhaps end?) a short story thus:
She failed to grasp that he would never relent, he was a thieving toad.
I also note phrases and sayings I like, e.g.:
"Trust in Allah, but tie your camel."
"Birds of prey don't sing"
"the apostles of -- " 
"camarón que se duerme amanece de botana" (the shrimp that sleeps wakes up as an appetizer-- that's a variation on the old Mexican saying, "the shrimp that sleeps is carried off by the current.")

Bonhomie! I love it! Why? 'Cuz!

From that second index card pictured above: bonhomie; obviate; banal; decrepitude; penumbra; chronic; salient; pieties; vim; dour; bouyancy; bouyant; circumlocutions.

Why these words? Because I like them. You might not. The point is, as you read, write down whatever words you like.

Well now, I hear Henry James' Muse yelling! 
So many salient pieties... In the penumbra of his chronic bonhomie, she felt at once dour and bouyant.

>> Workshop Page 

>> Resources for Writers
(Includes Tips & Tools; On Craft; On Editing; On Publishing; On Digital Media & more) 
>> Giant Golden Buddha & 364 More Free 5 Minute Writing Exercises
>> For more on reading as a writer, see my archived blog, Reading Tolstoy's War and Peace.

>> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

P.S. Still working on Marfa Mondays Podcast 21. Twenty podcasts have been posted so far; listen in anytime here. 

(Remarks for the panel on Writing Across Borders and Cultures, 
Women Writing the West Conference, Santa Fe, November 2016)

Monday, March 06, 2017

Email Ninjerie Update: Old-School Tool to Break the Ludic Loop

Behold the Zassenhaus.
Back in December of 2016 I posted "Email Ninjerie in the Theater of Space-Time or, This Writer's 10 Point Protocol for Inbox 10 (ish)." As I explained, for me the game-changer was point #1, tackling email in scheduled batches using a stopwatch. To quote:
I usually do 20 minutes of email processing with a stopwatch. It's not that I am trying to hurry through my email, but rather, I am respecting the limits of my brain's ability to effectively focus on it. I'm a speed-reader and I can type faster than lickety-split, but on most days I can deal with email for only about 20 minutes before my brain cells run low on glucose and I end up scrolling up and down the screen, dithering, feeling scattered in short, procrastinating. (You might be able to do 10 minutes, or, say, an hour in one go of course, not everyone's energy to focus on their email is the same, or the same every day and in every circumstance. One can always set the stopwatch for a different amount of time.) 
Don't believe me about batching? Check out the extra-crunchy research at MIT (PDF). 
By processing email in 20 minute batches, when the sessions all add up over the arc of the day, I find that I accomplish more in, say, one hour of three separate 20 minute sessions than I would have had I plowed on for an hour straight.
When the stopwatch dings, I do not expect to have finished "inbox zero" is a fata morgana! And that's OK, because I have another email batch session already scheduled (a few hours later, or five minutes later. It's important to take a break, at the very least stand up and stretch.)
Above all, because I am focussing on email at my convenience, on my schedule, my attention is no longer so fractured... [Read the complete post here

I didn't put it this way in that post, but now that I've grokked the term ludic loop, I must say, that rrrrrring slices right through it. In other words, paradoxically, the reason I was drowning in email was that I was spending too much time on it. That is, I would get stuck in a ludic loop, checking, looking, checking, looking. 

Yes, indeed, gentle reader, batching with a stopwatch works. But of course, when it goes off, you have to actually stop. I added the habit of standing up. Bell rings, I stand up. 

Which stopwatch to use? Of course everybody and their uncle's cousin's zonkey has a smartphone with a stopwatch app, and I know, for a lot of people, especially those under the age of 30, any other option would be, like LOL, a total eye-roller. 

For those answering email on their laptop, such as myself, I recommended using a free on-line stopwatch (get yours here). 

But of late, I have switched to using a mechanical Zassenhaus kitchen timer.* I chose that particular brand because it's better quality and heavier than the average cheap-o plastic kitchen timer.

Why an old-fashioned kitchen timer, pray tell? Because using something not on the computer screen but in the real world-- ye olde meatspace-- helps me stay focused on the task at-hand. It's one less reason look at the "desktop," one less thing to have to go click on (and so reduce the risk of another journey down the rabbit hole, or to put it another way, of getting caught in a ludic loop). 

As I quoted David Allen in my guest-blog for "Cool Tools" on why I use a paper-based organizing system, "low-tech is oftentimes better because it is in your face."

Methinks Dmitry Orlov is onto something. But that's another post.

*Perhaps you are wondering if I have not heard of Francesco Cerillo's The Pomodoro Technique and  his tomato-shaped kitchen timer? (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian.) Actually, I have... long, long ago... so long ago that I had entirely forgotten about it until this very moment! Well, definitely, Cerillo is onto something! Check out his website and watch his introductory video about the technique here. But I am not actually using the  "pomodoro" technique which, as I understand from having just watched the above-linked video, is about doing all kinds of work in stopwatched 25 minute "pomodoros," or chunks of time. For the past months I have been working on email in not only 20 minute batches but also 10 minute and, on occasion, even 5 minute batches. Neither do I want to stopwatch all the work I do... I like a lot of fluidity in my day.

One of the benefits of fluidity in one's day:
As the Muse does not call,
one can ever and always take the opportunity to 

assume energizing random yoga poses.
My writing assistant demonstrates.

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.