My Writer Birthday

 

 

Last Tuesday was my writer birthday. It was the first day of investing in myself in pursuit of a full-time writing life! Mind you, I’m still in the throes of post school year fatigue and would like to do little other than sleep, but my “sea legs” are coming back.  I’m still not fully able to get in the zone and write for hours on end as I once was, but I’m improving.

I worked this past week on my book edits, so I can send the manuscript to the agent who requested it. My goal is to send it by Friday afternoon. I don’t think I’ll ever be truly satisfied with it, (really, is a book EVER done?) but I’m giving myself this deadline and sending it along no matter how I feel. My friends have told me it is finished, but I am having a hard time letting it go into the world. As long as it is finished to the best of my ability to make it what I envision, then it is “done.” I just hope to get some good feedback from this agent.

I’m not only working on this book, however. I’ve been contemplating a number of new ideas, one of which won’t let go of me. Last year when I looked out at my patio I noticed two new birds on the trellis where the honeysuckle grows next to our garden, a pair of American Redstarts. They were only on the trellis for a moment or two, hopping about and flying quickly from one place to another, but they were new in my backyard so I took note. That’s when the idea for another book took shape. A young woman popped into my head, her name, her time period, her home (Here is Wisconsin!), the fact that she stutters but sings and whistles bird songs beautifully.  I have been bird watching again, mostly from my back windows, and noticing colors, songs, even habitat on my walks with Stella. Yesterday I found half a robin’s egg on the ground near our stream, a spot of clear blue on the brown sand. As I notice these things, I wonder what she would notice, how she would interpret them. The fermentation process has begun. Collected impressions of the natural world are percolating to the surface.  Although I haven’t devoted any time as yet to writing this story, I know the well is nearly full, and I can’t wait to begin drafting again! First things first, however.

I have a full list of writing “to dos” for the week. Really,  each week or even each day, I would like to move forward a few steps learning, writing, reading, contacting agents, and then writing again. Sometimes those steps will be concrete and measurable as a word count or pages ticked off in the editing process. Other times I may only come to a new realization or new understanding. Both are valuable. Here is this week’s list:

To Do Week of June 12:

1. By Friday finish editing  first novel for the last time before sending to round one agents.
2. Write several blog posts for editing later.
3. Work on my short story to send to Kristin Oakley for possible publication in The Write City E zine. Kristin is the editor of this publication as well as one of the founders of In Print Professional Writers Organization, and a dear friend of mine! You should check out her wonderful, award-winning novel, Carpe Diem, Illinois,  and her soon-to-be-released God on Mayhem Street.
4. Take notes on the ideas for the other books I have in my head to figure out how to get them out of my head!
5. Daily writing practice: 20 minutes each day.

I only included 5 items on my list because I think that number is doable for me. It isn’t overwhelming and will give me a sense of accomplishment when I complete an item. Since this is the first time I am sharing my goals, I’ll let you know how I do. Publishing them will, I hope, make me accountable not only to myself, but also to you!

How and when do you set goals for the work you do?

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A Leap of Faith

imagesCoco Chanel said, ” A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.” Well, I have a new ‘do, and, I’m about to take a leap of faith. I am leaving my teaching career to pursue  writing full time. I’m scared to death I’m doing something stupid, but it won’t be the first time. Life is all about figuring out who we are and what we are meant to do. I tell my students all the time to seize their opportunities and not be afraid, but it’s a whole other kind of scary when I am following that advice. With that said, I have noticed signs everywhere that God is telling me to take the plunge, but until now I’ve been too scared to trust Him and my own instinct that I’m doing the right thing. Writing is my calling.

The Gift of a Year of Writing:

Three years ago I left a teaching job I hated (this was one of the first signs) and couldn’t find another before the school year began. Each day that school year I rose early to see my husband off to work. After I worked out and showered, I “dressed for work.” I fixed my hair,  wore makeup, and put on nice clothes, then settled in to write for the rest of the morning and often late into the afternoon. Each day after no more words would come, I set my goals for the following day. Sometimes I planned to write particular scenes, sometimes I furthered my research and wrote only minimally, but I wrote and wrote and wrote. I finished the first draft of my novel that year. I was happy. I was content.

What I loved most was finding the zone, the place where my muse was in full control. Instead of sitting in my desk chair I was inhabiting 1869 Charleston with my characters. In fact, I became those characters. They lived through me. Haddon Hall is a figment of my imagination but is as real as the computer I type on. The buttermilk biscuits in the kitchen house drip with freshly churned butter, and the grits are creamier than any I can purchase here in Wisconsin. I was in another place, another time, transcribing events and emotions that already existed in another realm. Time passed more slowly there too. Often I discovered three hours had passed when I felt only a matter of minutes had slipped by. I miss that place and that occupation. I was not myself then. But I was more myself than at any other time I can remember.

Finding my way:

Earlier in the year  when I was struggling with this difficult decision, I turned to Facebook to ask my friends what they do for a living and what they like about their jobs. In a last ditch effort not to change, I think I was searching for alternatives to leaving. Many people offered me encouragement, prayers and guidance, but one response resonated with me. Tom Poland, a fellow UGA graduate and wonderful author, said, “As James Dickey, a tremendous writer, once told me, ‘Life is too short to give others your creative essence.'” That is what I do here at school each day. I spend my creative energy in giving to others, in teaching them how to read critically, how to write clearly and passionately, how to advocate for themselves and question accepted ways of thinking. It’s hard work, which leaves me mentally drained, but it’s rewarding work.

If I’m honest, I think I had made the decision to leave teaching before I ever arrived at my job here at SPASH. After I had a taste of what the writing life was like, I never wanted anything else. Writing fills me up like nothing else ever has. I will miss my students. I will miss seeing the light of understanding fill their eyes. I will miss their stories, their sense of humor, their candid criticism, their guarded eyes at the beginning of the year turn to warm acceptance of me at the end. I’ll miss their unbridled physicality, their blue hair and tattoos, their gender-bending costumes for dodgeball games, their crazy and all too suggestive dancing, their youth and exuberance. I’ll miss it all! But I won’t forget.

The Time Is Now:

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Writers never forget anything. Somewhere along the way, one girl’s smile, a boy’s clever joke, another’s moodiness, still another’s inquisitive nature will flesh out a character in one of my books. You see, writers don’t just live in the world; they see the world, in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, ” as the potentiality of fiction.” No experience ever goes to  waste.

I have not wasted my time teaching either. I don’t think I was ready years ago to become a writer. I hadn’t learned enough about myself or about the craft of writing to make the leap. In fact, I probably still haven’t, but I know there is no other way to learn the craft than by reading and writing a lot. Teaching doesn’t allow me enough of that. I’ve also learned far more about myself, about human nature, about creativity, about writing, and about driving snow-covered winter roads in Wisconsin than I ever thought possible.

On the last days of class this year with my seniors, I asked them to channel their inner kindergartner and make a words of wisdom bulletin board for me. Their words were intended for the sophomores, but I was surprised by how much they spoke directly to me. They wrote, “Don’t forget to take risks; Take every opportunity. You never know what could happen; If you don’t go after what you want, you’ll never have it; Make sure you don’t have any regrets.

Remember those signs I was talking about? I can read them now and plan to follow them. I find myself now sitting in my classroom on the last day of finals typing this up. I have only one day left as a teacher, but I don’t feel a sense of loss. I feel complete, as though one part of my life has ended well and another exciting opportunity is about to begin. I’m giddy with anticipation over what the next chapter of my life will bring. In the past I’ve had moments when I felt things “in my bones” so to speak.  I feel in my bones that leaving teaching to become a writer is the right thing to do at the right time in my life.

 

 

A Place of Peace

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Photo courtesy of Caitlin Podemski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Publishing my novels is still my dream, but twice now I’ve submitted my writing to Word of Art, the creative brainchild of In Print Professional Writers Organization, an affiliate of the Chicago Writers Association. Each time I’ve had something chosen for publication. On Friday, September 4, my husband and I drove to Illinois for me to read my very short descriptive essay for the book release reception to a packed room of artists, writers, and their guests.

At last year’s reception, I read a poem about my son leaving home to go to college. I was terribly nervous to read, partly because I had never read anything I had written out loud to my peers before and partly because the poem was so deeply personal. Also I am not a poet, but that was the form that piece wanted. I felt then and still feel at times blindsided by my children growing up and becoming independent adults. Through that poem I relived the emotions of letting go of a child, so I was off-balance and aching. Even now when I read it, I choke up. I managed to finish reading the poem last year after stumbling only once.

This year was different. My essay, “A Place of Peace,” was about a grassy area beside the river behind my house where I can see both the river and the surrounding grassy prairie and marsh, a place I’m lucky enough to visit every day. Though the room was very hot and I was one of the last people to read (third from last),  I didn’t stumble over the words or the title even once. A feeling of quietude came over me before I even began.

Sometimes when we write, a confluence of events come together, serendipitous moments that seem to have been arranged by God. I felt that as I read this year. When I was working on this piece for submission, the snow was on the ground and the bitterly cold winds of winter were blowing outside my window, but I was standing by the river in the heat of summer beneath the shade of the oaks and basswoods. I saw the summer sunset and was surrounded by birdsong and the sound of running water. I was enveloped by the heat of a summer day rather than the heat generated by man. That same feeling of inhabiting two places at once happened again as I read. Seldom am I able to overcome being present in the room by being present in the writing. Often I’m too aware of my own shortcomings to do that, but at Word of Art 2 only the writing and the place it evoked mattered, and I managed to be there in both places at once.

Writing transports me. I experience the place and time of my imagination. At the podium in Illinois on September 4, I relived quiet moments by my river, experienced anew the place and its atmosphere. I didn’t see my audience, only the natural world of my memory and imagination combined. Last year I read a deeply personal poem which carried the emotional weight of a mother’s love for her grown son. This year I read an essay which transported me to a place where a river runs, washes away the weight of the world, and leaves behind the peace of reverie.  Even in a crowd.

Here is the beautiful art that Sarah McCashland created to go with my words:

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Here is the essay, “A Place of Peace.” The book is so popular that there is a second printing of it. You can order a book here.

A Place of Peace
On summer evenings the river gurgles past boulders and trills over stones. On the riverbank, damselflies light on my sandals where I stand amid rushes and purple irises. The breeze slides down the riverbank setting the tall grasses atremble with a sound like rain. Behind me oaks and basswoods climb the rise toward the collapsed line fence that separates the river from the prairie. Bluebirds streak across the dusty grassland, where goldfinches roller-coast toward the river. The last rays of the sun sparkle on the water and gild the treetops.
Then the light grows soft. Mayflies hatch, a sylvan spectacle. Trout feed in arcing, splashing frenzy. Cedar waxwings, like the bandits they resemble, swoop and dart, giving chase to escaping flies. Chick-a-dee-dee-dee echoes in the canopy behind me as twilight arrives.
No longer spangled with sunlight, the river mirrors the shift to early evening, its surface the murky greens and browns of the brook trout beneath it. A tender pink sky glows above me, intensifying summer’s green. By the river I think no frenetic thoughts, worry about no deadlines. Time passes, but the river remains the same, a place of peace, true and beautiful.

Many thanks to Kristin Oakley, my sweet friend, president of In Print, and award-winning author of Carpe Diem, Illinois, who told me about this opportunity, and to Mary Lamphere, super creative and talented writer and artist who designed and took the pictures and everything for the Word of Art books. Check out her very clever blog here.  You ladies rock!

Incidentally, this last photo below is near the spot beside the river I wrote about. It is never as beautiful in my photographs as it is in my imagination.

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Practice Art to Be Forever Young

A fellow blogger and wonderful writer, Paula Reed Nancarrow, has been taking a break from writing posts for the month of August and has instead complied a number of quotes from writers about different topics. She has used the using the hashtag #AUTHORity to  highlight authors’ views.  If you haven’t yet, you should follow her on Twitter here. The first week she posted about family, but the second week she posted about aging, a topic I readily identify with both at this time in my life and because my mother is currently struggling with some issues related to aging. This particular quote below fell at number 33, particularly auspicious number I thought for a particularly auspicious quote and one which rings true for me.

On the whole, age comes more gently to those who have some doorway into an abstract world-art, or philosophy, or learning-regions where the years are scarcely noticed and the young and old can meet in a pale truthful light.

―Freya Stark

To have age arrive more gently is a wonderful reason to practice some sort of art, especially if it allows us to scarcely notice our advancing years. I think I know why this is the case. Art gives us access to a collective consciousness. Those who don’t practice writing, music, art, or some other discipline that requires intense concentration and intense thought can neither know nor understand the attraction to it. Once you’ve been there, it is impossible not to experience again that place where creativity and inspiration live. It is the place we meet our muses.

Practicing art–in my case writing–allows me to enter into the doorway of the abstract, to spend time outside my body and outside time. I experience the world anew and from a perspective other than my own. It renews my spirit and somehow keeps me young and passionate about life and its mysteries. Writing also allows me to discuss with my students, or  anyone who cares about the written word, something which defies time, an abstract at once mysterious but accessible.

I’ve thought so much about Freya Stark‘s words since I read them in Paula’s post, especially since I’ve begun another year of school. I’m of an age that I am beginning to see some of my former students join the faculty of the school where I teach. That happened last year and this year. One of my colleagues who was hired with me and whom I enjoy immensely, could be my daughter.  Juxtaposing those two parts of myself–my aging body and my still agile mind–at times poses problems. You see, even though I realize I’m aging, I still think of myself as a young person. That can be awkward at times. However, my art, my writing, is what keeps me young, keeps me dreaming, keeps me thinking of when I’ll achieve my dreams.

That’s one of the things I love most about writing. Writing makes me feel limitless, something I try to communicate to my students. When I’m writing, I can be anyone, do anything, live anywhere. In fiction, nothing is impossible. That is the place where I hope to meet my students, the young people with whom I try to forge a connection, a place where they see me not as I am but as I want to be. That’s what I try to see in them also. And it can happen through writing.

If we practice our art, whatever that might be, we remain forever young and free in that “pale, truthful light.”

Writing Lessons from David Rhodes

One piece of advice new writers should follow is read a lot and write a lot. I try to do both often. My reading tastes are eclectic. Sometimes I read for pleasure, sometimes as a teacher, sometimes as a writer, but always as a consumer of wonderful words. What determines the books I choose is as varied as the books themselves. Sometimes a cover inspires me, sometimes a title. Sometimes word-of-mouth recommendations lead me to pick a book I might not have considered before. That is what happened when I bought David Rhodes’ Driftless a few weeks ago. I knew nothing about this author’s work, but several of my friends who also were Waupaca BookFest board members recommended his work.

I read Driftless in a matter of a few days. It took days only because I didn’t want to rush it. It was a fine meal meant to be savored, allowing each word or phrase or sentence, even at times entire chapters to move through my imagination and leave their footprints on my consciousness. The book consumed me as I consumed it. I can’t tell you how often I stopped to consider a description or a simile, its beauty or aptness, or often both, hitting me right between the eyes. I didn’t use a highlighter or a pen handy while I read because I really just wanted to read for pleasure, so I dogeared the page where the passage was so I could go back to read it again and again.

Driftless tells the story of Words, Wisconsin, and the people who live there, but the Midwestern landscape is as much a character of this book as the people themselves. If you’re not from Wisconsin, you may not understand the title, so David Rhodes begins the book with a prologue explaining that the area where Words is located is in the Driftless Region, an area unaffected by the last ice age which “endured in its hilly, primitive form, untouched by the shaping hands of those cold giants.” The isolation and unchanged nature of the region serves as a metaphor for Words and the people there. It provides a a fascinating look at rural America–something I’ve become a bit obsessed with– in modern times.

I could write volumes on this book, but I mainly want to share some of the passages that arrested me and made me appreciate the poetry of Rhodes writing. I hope they inspire you as much as they did me.

1. This first passage tells of the moment two of the main characters met and fell in love. They have since lost that connection that Rhodes depicts so vividly here as something quite beyond their control:
“I’m Cora,” she said.
“I’m Grahm Shotwell,” he said, and his voice expanded like summer.
“Pleased to know you,”said Cora. She offered her hand. Grahm took it, entangling them in a mutually inquisitive texture of fingers and palms. The most primitive parts of themselves immediately began speaking to each to her, without permission. Their imaginations entered caves deep in unexplored forests, and joined painted bodies dancing around orange fires. The thin membrane of keeping the watery world of dreams from diluting the hard substance of reality stretched to breaking. Through a quick organization of bodily fluids, Grahm’s face turned bright red, and Cora tried to pull her hand away but found she couldn’t move it.
“Oh, no,” she said.
“Let’s find a place to sit down,” said Grahm.

If that doesn’t communicate the irresistible attraction between two people at the moment they recognize it, I don’t know what does.

2. In this next section, Jacob Helm, who has lost his wife and cannot stop grieving, arrives at Gail Shotwell’s house to work on a lawnmower. He hears music and goes to investigate. She is naked and playing a guitar; she’s a musician who lives alone. He is quite unprepared for seeing this beautiful naked woman and feels “accosted” by her beauty:

“This woman communicated an exuberant compact burgeoning that had years ago departed from Angela, whose bodily form had been consumed in a losing battle against disease. But even in her best days, Jacob feared, before illness had begun to exact its limping toll, Angela had never possessed this creature’s combination of raw visual appeal and unrehearsed grace. She glowed with health. Her neck, stretching out of the extraordinary suppleness of her shoulders, mimicked in every detail the curving stem of a lily rising to its flower. and the problems posed for him by the rondure of her hips were addressed in his imagination, one after another, before they blossomed into conscious questions, only to be posed anew.”

3. Later Jacob is alone looking at pictures of his wife in a photo album. He misses her and still grieves her and the closeness they shared. These lines break my heart.

“He looked away from the album and closed his eyes, as though protecting them from the unbearable glare of memory.

Her illness had driven a wedge between them, interrupting their sacred dialogue, the source of his joy. How he missed that vital center–talking, touching, and living one life in two parts. The disease persisted until what she most longed for she could not share with him at all, and their citadel against the outside world was finally breached.”

4. Throughout passages describe the landscape. These two resonated with me because even after 20 years here winter is such an enigma to me. I still am baffled and assaulted by the cold. Sometimes though, a mild day or two provide a respite from the harsh winter days. These two passages capture each kind of weather in winter.

First one:“It began to snow–not heavily, but persistently. Driven like powdered fog from the north, a dry, weightless snow arrived in Thistlewaite County with a nearly audible sigh, an empty, barren whisper that Upper Midwestern farmers recognized in the marrow of their bones and meteorologists detected through their digital instruments as the kind of snow that could get bad.

A stationary cold air mass perched above Wisconsin. It lingered there for several days, until, like the Owl of Minerva, it stepped off its frigid crag, opened its monstrous shadow wings, and came south, squeezing water out of the air.”

Second one: “Sometimes in the theater of winter, a day will appear with such spectacular mildness that it seems the season can almost be forgiven for all its inappropriate hostility, inconveniences, and even physical assaults. With a balmy sky overhead, melting snow underfoot, and the sounds of creeks running, the bargain made with contrasts doesn’t look so bad: to feel warm, one must remember cold; to experience joy, one must have known sorrow.”

5. In the chapter Finding July, the reader is privy to Jacob Helm’s thoughts in finding his friend, July Montgomery, who has died in a farm accident. If you’ve ever experienced the shock of something that altered your world, you will recognize Jacob’s emotions.

“There are some things, he later reflected, that change everything else. Their breaking makes no sound yet fractures the world. Afterwards, nothing can be restored to its original order. It’s Gone. But at the time, at the moment of domestic impression, Big Events don’t appear to have any power at all, a single leaf falling. They don’t seem as if they will be important. Their terrible reckoning is hidden from view.”

6. Toward the end of the book, we see Grahm Shotwell again. He is at July’s house walking through the outbuildings of July’s farm. He is lonely for July and grieving in his own way. Rhodes manages to express the ineffable feeling of absence just after someone passes away.

“Everywhere, things that couldn’t move waited for July to touch them again. The Mason jar of arrowheads that July had picked from his fields sat on his tool bench, longing to be reseeded into the ground. Wrenches wanted to be picked up  and fitted around a nut. It wouldn’t be long, he knew, before they would be auctioned to someone else, along with the cows and everything else.”

As I wrote this post and read again David Rhodes’ words and sentences, I realized I don’t want to parse them. I can’t take apart what he put together to understand how I might do what he did. I will soon, but I am still too awed by the images he evokes to examine them too closely. I want to savor them a while more. What I can say is that  if we want to be writers who can do this sort of thing with our words, we must read books like Driftless to  absorb through osmosis, through touch and sight and sound, how he makes us feel. Read. A lot. Immerse yourself in glorious words, my friends, and write.

 

 

Butt in Chair Equals Early Death?

This past school year I gained 12 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. Ordinarily during the school year I gain anywhere from 5-8 pounds, but this past year set an all-time record for me. I was horrified and still am because 8 of those twelve are still hanging on. School starts in only three weeks. I wouldn’t be concerned about gaining the extra weight if I felt good, but I felt like crap at the end of the year. Not only was I busting out of my jeans, but I also was tired all the time, and my lower back and neck hurt ALL the time. I knew I had to employ drastic measures to get back into shape.  For me this means walking and running usually, and dreaded body weight exercises. My vanity made me want to lose the weight I had gained, but a little voice inside me whispered that for the first time my health was at risk.

During last school year I became really sick, bronchitis in the fall and then pneumonia in the spring. That had not happened in about four years. Was that only a coincidence of working really hard last year? Maybe, but I had also fallen into the routine of doing my job over every other aspect of my life, including spending time at home with my husband and taking walks with Stella, my Lab. I was overwhelmed, over-stressed, and sedentary, a potentially lethal combination. Does that sound familiar to any of you?

Last year author Tom Rath, author of such books as Strengths Finder 2.0, How Full is Your Bucket, Strengths Based Leadership, and now Eat Sleep Move, said that “sitting is the most underrated health threat of modern times.” How does that square with the “butt in chair” mentality of writers? And teachers? And secretaries? Or anyone who spends much of his or her time plopped in a chair either by choice or necessity? Read this article in Forbes Magazine for more information about his research. I guarantee you’ll think twice about how you work.

Having a health crisis last year made me sit  stand up and think about my future (or lack thereof) if I continued my work only sedentary lifestyle. If I were going to be happy, healthy, and successful person, I had to take care of myself first. To that end I decided I had to do something to shock myself into changing. I have always been inspired by pictures people take of themselves when they were really overweight and then the after ones of them in bikinis or swimsuits with ripped abs. I think that is the appeal of The Biggest Loser. We get to see how people transform their lives each week, their successes and failures. When they first weigh in in public and expose their fat in front of people, I cringe for them because I know how embarrassed I would feel. Heck I can barely wear a swimsuit in public and not because I’m fat but because I’m modest. I think Victorian Era swimsuits look pretty good! Weighing themselves in public like that I think is designed to make them accountable and give them nowhere they can hide the fact of their weight from anyone, especially themselves. They can no longer deny how much they weigh or o how big they really are.

I decided that I couldn’t be quite so public with myself–aren’t you relieved?–but I did take a picture of my stomach. I will never show it to anyone, but I do look at it when I want a cookie  or don’t want to take a walk because I’m too tired. I also want a record of how far I’ve come and what I don’t want to look and feel like again when I must choose between my health or my job this school year. No job should consume so much of my life that I don’t have time to fill the well of creativity that keeps me happy. That only fills when I have time to spend with important people in my life and my writing.

I have dedicated myself to my writing and my health this summer. I haven’t lost the weight that I want to lose yet, but I’ve already changed my life by exercising nearly every day and working either on this blog or on my books. Though progress in my writing is much harder to quantify, I’ve made progress in both areas. I now walk 4.5-6 miles most days. I also do Spartacus workouts twice a week with some modifications for my weak upper body, and Popsugar is my “go to” site for fun workouts that are doable and short. I’ve built muscle and no longer have pain in my lower back or neck as often. I’m not where I need to be yet, but I’m getting there. I’m also using my Pinterest profile to keep track of  workouts I like. Checkl out my Pinterest Health and Fitness board. The inspiration for the sculpted belly I want is the cover picture on this board.

You can also find my board for my novel on my Pinterest page too, but I’ll be posting about that soon.

Any job that requires that we put our job responsibilities above our health and time with important people and activities in our lives is asking too much of us. In those cases the time we invest to accomplish work tasks is not worth the money we make because once we don’t have our health, we can’t be successful at anything. We can’t even enjoy our lives. I truly believe “sitting is the new smoking” because last school year I lived the kind of life that endangered my health.  I allowed my job to take precedence over everything else including my husband, my family, my friends, my art, and my spiritual life. I won’t live that way ever again. I am making a pledge to myself to move more, write more, love more, live more, and work less. I will care for myself first so that I have the energy and health to take care of everything else.

Perspective: On the Inside Looking Out

Image result for revisionAt the end of June I began work on another revision of my novel to incorporate what I learned at UW Madison’s Write-by-the-Lake in Laurie Scheer’s class, Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend this class for everyone working on a novel or screenplay, but you could also read Laurie’s book The Writer’s Advantage: a Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend it. The research you do will open your eyes to what has been done before and how you can offer something new in your genre. My research led to my learning a number of lessons not only in writing but also about life. One of those lessons involves perspective.

I’m a slow writer. Mostly when I revise, I weigh the words and images I put on the page, but even when I’m composing my first draft I struggle with a number of problems, chiefly point of view. Christine DeSmet, best-selling author and writing teacher extraordinaire, read and critiqued my entire first draft, God bless her. I don’t know how she could stand it! I can’t tell you how often she put in her notes, “You’ve switched point of view here.”  It must have been vexing. I was slow to see the difference, I think, because I was in l love with the writing process, rather than trying to see from a character’s point of view and only that character’s point of view. Now I understand whose point of view carries a scene and why and how not to switch point of view even as I write my first drafts.

The work I’ve been doing lately has to do with point of view, but it goes deeper than I thought before. It involves seeing the world of my story from the perspective of each character, and it is slow going. Since I delved more deeply into the genre of my book, I realized that my main character wasn’t strong enough. She needed to carry the story much more than she had before. That meant I had to understand her world as she did, to understand and love and hate the people and places she does. I had to feel what her home means to her, what falling in love for the first time feels like, what feeling betrayed feels like, all those things from her point of view, her perspective. I’ve had to imagine what life would have been like when being unmarried at 19 dubbed you a spinster, when wearing trousers rather than a corset and dress made you provocative and unladylike, when the only prospects of survival for a young lady were marriage or inheriting a large amount of money.

I’ve also imagined what living at a time when the world as you  knew it had collapsed and the societal structure was either non-existent or changed so as to be unrecognizable. You see my book is set in 1869 Charleston, South Carolina, so I try to delve into what society might have been like then, what relationships between women might have been like, both between white women and between white and African American women. To  see from Josiah’s perspective, I’ve tried to understand PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the struggle to live life normally after witnessing the unspeakable horrors of war. Back then PTSD was called “soldier’s heart” or “nostalgia.” I’ve tried to inhabit that world as much as possible, but not until I took Laurie’s class did I feel I could crawl beneath my characters’ skins and see their world from their perspectives.

Often I don’t take the time to look at life from a new perspective. I drive the same route to work each day. I travel the same path when I go for my morning runs with Stella. I drink the same basic smoothie recipe on a daily basis. To change that, something must jar me out of my routine. That’s what this class did for me. Today when I was out for my run, I decided to try something different. In my book my main character Faith has a special oak tree which she has considered hers since she was a child. It is a live oak, a big one that I imagine looks like the Angel Oak  on John’s Island in South Carolina. She goes there when she needs to think or be alone. I don’t have a special tree where I go to think, but a very old white oak tree stands in front of my house. At one time I imagine it might have been someone’s special tree because it survived standing in the middle of a farm field rather than being chopped down for fire wood.

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Today when I was walking back home after my run, I decided to include a picture of this tree in this post. That is it to the left. Since I’ve been thinking of perspective, however, I wanted to do something else, too.  I wanted to climb this tree to get Faith’s perspective from inside a tree. As a child I climbed trees,  but that was a long time ago. I climbed up to the first limb, but I chickened out going any higher. My middle name is not Grace for a reason. One day I still might climb it, but not on the spur of the moment when my husband is not around to rescue me if I can’t get down. So I did what I think is the next best thing. I took several pictures from beneath the tree looking up into the branches as though I were about to climb it. Below you’ll see what that looks like. Quite a different feel from the one above, wouldn’t you say?

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Before this revision of my book, I was looking at the world of my story as I always had, from afar. I was looking AT it rather than being inside the story looking out from it. Before I was telling the story, reporting it rather than inhabiting it with my characters. To understand my characters and what they see and feel, I’ve learned I must see from the perspective of each of them . They will show me what is important to them. I must be present in the story with them and feel what they do, see what they do, love and hate what they do. I must be with them in their world rather than looking at it from afar.

This Literary Child of Mine

Yesterday my husband and I were talking after a relaxing weekend, and he said something that gave me pause. We had spent a lovely weekend together and were rehashing how nice it was to spend time with a good friend and not have a deadline to meet. We spent Saturday with his college roommate Andy, who had come to visit. We spent most of our time outside either up to our necks in the river to stay cool and keep the horseflies off our skin or sitting on our back porch watching the fading light of sunset while we ate barbecue and homegrown salad greens. When it became too dark to see, I lit candles, and we continued talking well into the evening. It was a lovely day. Sunday my hubby and I took Stella for a long walk and spent a lazy day together doing nothing in particular.

Sunday evening as we were both dreading the start of another work week, hubby said, “I can’t wait ’til you get published and I can retire and you can spend all your time writing. I’ll make the hotel and airline reservations for your book tour and manage all that sort of thing for you.” What aspiring author wouldn’t fall head over heels in love with that kind of confidence? I love his unshaken conviction that I will be finish this book and it will be good enough to be published. When I doubt myself, I only have to remember his confidence in me. Hubby’s roommate also asked about my project.  He asked where I was was in the process. My answer? “I’m revising again.” That seems to be the only answer I give any more. I had a goal to polish this, my first book, and begin my second one before the end of the year. I’ve begun my second, but only just, and I am still plugging away at polishing this first one. I have a list of agents I’ve researched ready to go, but I know I’m not ready to contact them yet.

 

Even as I sit writing this post, I feel like I should be working on my book. I’m like a pregnant mother who is well past her due date and can’t wait to give birth to her new baby. I feel that same sense of restlessness and angst knowing I have a little while longer to wait, but I think perhaps that is not the only thing bothering me. I think maybe I’m a little afraid of what the next phase of my writing journey will bring. Will this be my only book? Will it be good? Will people like it? Will my students be proud of me or disappointed? Will it sell? If it does, will I find success like my husband envisions? If I do, I’ll be overjoyed, but I know the odds are against that kind of success, though it does occur. I know I need to hone my craft; I feel it in my bones. When I read some writers’ work and get chills at a description or a few lines of dialogue, I know I’m not yet there. But I will be.

The blessing in this whole sense of dissatisfaction is I love the creative process. I love feeling the words form seemingly of their own volition. I love feeling that only a few minutes have passed as I’ve been writing and looking at the clock to discover that a few hours have passed instead. In fact, I miss that. I think that is why I haven’t been able to polish this first book completely yet. Whatever the reason for my not achieving my goals as yet, I know I will succeed. I am ready to birth this book. This literary child of mine will be born this year, revised, polished and ready to go to a new home with a good literary agent who sees its potential. I am ready for the next stage of nurturing it. I’m ready for my book baby to take on a life of its own, a new life separate from me but always a part of me. Perhaps it will find the kind of success my husband believes is possible. Wouldn’t that be awesome!

I Belong to Two Places

A couple of years ago I read a book that has stuck with me, The Conditions of Love by Dale M. Kushner. As I read, I dog-eared pages and underlined passages even though my copy is a hardcover, not a paperback. I couldn’t help myself. It’s that good. Each time I go back to the book, I discover something else that makes me think or appreciate Dale’s writing. As I was thumbing through it not long ago, one line in particular gave me pause, and I’ve thought repeatedly of it since. Here it is: “To learn is to forget, the events of one life crowding out the events of the next.” If that is true, what does it mean to my life? How does that affect who I am? Does it change my identity as a person? A writer? A teacher?

Change is difficult because we have a  tendency to hold onto what we know out of fear or the desire for comfort, but learning requires that we step out of our comfort zones to experience something new, and that can be scary but also exciting and liberating. Since I’ve lived in the Midwest, I’ve felt myself to be on the fringes of society at times, not able to fully understand or participate in the culture here because it is different from what I grew up with and identify with, but also because I don’t want to lose my identity as a Southerner. Just the idea of being any less Southern made me rebel against embracing the Midwest, yet I also pride myself on being willing to experience new things, on learning. I think of myself as an educated woman. I like the challenge of learning something new, but if I refused to change, or to embrace this place, every bit my home as the place I grew up in, what does that say about me?

If I learn how to be a Midwesterner, do I have to forget about being a Southerner? Perhaps, but I don’t like to think of it that way. I prefer to think of it as change. I’ve changed to live here, and the most noticeable way is how I talk. My speech no longer sounds like that of my friends down in Georgia; my vowels are less rounded. I’ve learned to endure the cold, sort of. I complain when it gets humid here, even though at times I still miss the sticky air of Georgia. Heck, two winters ago I was alone the entire month of January in 40 below temperatures with a poorly working furnace and had to shovel LOTS of snow, and stoke the fireplace to help heat the house without my Midwesterner husband around. If that’s not Midwestern, I don’t know what is. In fact, lately people have acted surprised when they find out I’m from the South. Lawd have mercy, I need a trip home to get my drawl back!

Do those things mean I have “forgotten” some of what makes me a Southerner? Maybe. I can hear my Southern friends blessing my heart right now.

Yes, I’ve changed, but the South will always be a part of me. When I write, I write about the South. I can’t help it. The South bubbles up out of me when I put pen to paper or at least hands to keyboard. And that’s when I hear the cadence of my people, no matter that I live so far north of the Mason-Dixon line that I might as well be in Canada. Though I’ve become accustomed to the fast flat vowels of the North, they still seem foreign to me because when I go home and hear a sweet southern drawl or hear my niece and nephew say yes ma’am or no ma’am to me, I fall into that drawl like I never left. I still make tea, though no longer sweet, but flavored with mint. I still love pimiento cheese, fried chicken, The Masters, and good sea food. I still long for the smell of magnolia blossoms and tea olive in the spring; UGA football in the fall, even if Larry Munson no longer calls the games; the occasional 75 degree day in winter; being close enough to the ocean to drive there for a weekend; and having everyone ask after your mama. I know these are only surface traits, but they represent the culture that Southerners hold dear. What keeps me feeling connected to the South is going back and being enfolded into family and friends as though I never left. The open hearts of the people, my people, are what keep me longing for the South.

What keeps me here then? Why don’t I return to my roots? That’s a question I’ve pondered lately. The answer I’ve come to is that I love what my husband and I have built here. I love my home here, my friends, my colleagues and my students, my writing friends, my church, my community. I became a teacher here, built my reputation on my own. I became a writer here and have a community of writers who support me. I’ve built a life here that would be hard to walk away from even though I feel the pull of the South. I look out at the gardens I’ve labored over, the house I see my husbands handiwork in, the town where I raised my children, the parks they played in, the rivers and lakes we swim in, the sunrises and sunsets we’ve seen, the trees we’ve planted that have grown so tall, the farm fields, the forests. Could I leave this place? This place I’ve come to love?

I have wondered if I would ever feel like I belonged here in the Midwest, and I finally feel like I do. Is it because I was finally willing to? Maybe. People here have welcomed me in their midst and I love them for that. But if I have to forget where I came from to fit in or belong, I don’t think I can. Being southern is part of my identity. I can’t separate myself from that part of me any more than Churchill Downs can separate itself from horse racing, mint juleps, or big fancy hats. I think what Dale Kushner meant is that to fully embrace where you are you have to be present in the moment. I’ve tried to do that, even though at times I long for my people and the place I’m from, the familiarity of home and the love of family. What I’ve come to understand is that I belong to two places now: the Midwest and the South, both lands  whose features have a way of becoming a part of your identity and whose people have the same generous hearts. Perhaps I’ll move back “home” one day. I want to, one day. But when I do, I know I’ll miss the Midwest, my other “home.”

My Writing Forecast

Storm Clouds

Great Plains clouds rolled in this morning like smoke billowing from a great fire dragging their ragged edged cousins along behind them. Rain and storms have arrived this morning and will develop again later today, but that is not unusual here in June. Weather in the Midwest is rarely settled or predictable. One day the weather will be fine and sunny with no humidity, still a source of wonder for this Southerner even after nearly twenty years here. In a matter of a day or even a few hours, however, the temperature and the due point rise making the air sticky and uncomfortable, bringing storms in their wake, a familiar pattern I recognize.

The unpredictable and changeable nature of the weather here mirrors my writing life. Turmoil about whether my writing is good enough, whether I will finish my novel to my satisfaction, whether I will one day be published affects my mood on a daily basis. I’m sure all artists suffer the same angst. I think overcoming my doubts and fears is a process, one which all writers must work through to become healthy and productive. Learning to manage writing and living in the world is a struggle, one all writers are familiar, but because I have the summer off from my job, I have the luxury of tackling my writing full time right now, and I plan to take full advantage of my time. After a wonderful week last week at Write- by-the-Lake in Madison, Wisconsin, under the tutelage of Laurie Scheer, Media Goddess, I’ve committed to two things for the summer: being healthy and being a productive writer. Today was the first day to put my plans into action.Stella and Me after a Run

My day started with a two mile run with Stella, my running partner (See above photo). We managed to outrun the rain today but only just. I can’t help noticing the metaphor there. I often feel just ahead of my doubts and feelings of inadequacy, but I managed to finish the run and write this blog post and work on my novel which (Laurie if you’re reading this) WILL be published soon! The trick to success, I think, whether it is in being healthy or being productive at work or writing is having a plan and putting the plan into action. I have to block out time to do what is important, make time to reach my goals and achieve what sometimes seems impossible. I outran my doubts today just as I outran the weather. Each day I just have to realize that though there will be stormy days full of rain in this writing life, they are necessary because the rain yields beautiful results. Write on people!Peonies in Celadon vase