The Pitch

Last year I took some time off writing this blog to concentrate on finishing my novel. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-written the first few chapters, but I know I’ve done at least five revisions of the entire book. I’m preparing for what I hope will be the last. Do authors ever finish revision?

If I ever get this book published, I’m sure I’ll find places where I would change words or phrases even when it’s in print. Maybe that’s the nature of writing or any other art form. But at some point you have to let it go. That’s what I’m preparing to do with my book baby.

Elsa Let it Go

Most of my writing life is spent in solitude, sitting at my desk surrounded by the world and people of my imagination. Although it seems real to me, I often think the fact that I’m a writer doesn’t seem real to other people because I don’t have a tangible product–a painting or a sculpture or a photograph–to share with them, showing what I do. I hope that’s about to change.

Last week my writing life was exciting. I took part (virtually) in a pitch event with the Women’s Fiction Writers Association, a fantastic group of writers who support me and my writing on a daily basis. If you write women’s fiction, you should join right now. As soon as you finish reading this post! Joining this group is the best thing I’ve done for my writing since I took a class to write my first novel at UW Madison Continuing Studies with Christine DeSmet, novelist and writing teacher extraordinaire. At last year’s WFWA pitch event, I found my  critique partner Natalia. She and the other two women in our group have helped me shape my book into something I can be very proud of. I hope I’ve given them half as good advise as they’ve given me.

Crit Group

During this year’s pitch event, which took place last week, I wrote a new 50 word pitch for my book. Eighty other writers and I posted our pitches along with the first 250 words of our manuscripts for agents to read. Then, wonder of wonders, an agent who likes Civil War era stories requested to see more of my story! I sent it out two days later aftergoing through the pages one more time using Natural Reader to check for errors and rhythm. My writer friend Kristin Oakley gave me that tip!

Civil war

I’ve learned so much in the course of writing this book, mostly about writing, but also about myself.  About seven years ago, I started writing  Faith Can Move Mountains without a clue how to write fiction. I muddled through and took classes to learn the craft. In the process I discovered that few things are as satisfying as when the writing comes, when the muse visits and gifts me with words I don’t recognize as mine when I reread. I’ve found what I love to do.

My novel is a work of historical women’s fiction  called Faith Can Move Mountains and is complete at 104,000 words. It represents seven years of work, mostly summers and weekends, while I was teaching and one one year when I was out of work and finished the first draft.

Here’s the pitch:  In 1869 Charleston South Carolina, unkempt, free-spirited Faith Gentry reluctantly marries former Confederate soldier Josiah Hamilton to save her beloved plantation from a vindictive banker with ties to her past. Her decision triggers events which uncover secrets that threaten her identity, her marriage, and those she loves.

What do you think of my pitch and my title. Would you read my book?

 

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Nature Feeds the Muse

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Water Lilies and Cattails in the Pond

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There

My life this week has been a reawakening, a slow revelation of moments of natural beauty I have missed buried in student papers and teacher preparation as I was for so long. With my hubby’s help my neglected gardens are coming to life once more, each day showing more of “the pretty” Leopold talks about. False indigo flowering, Onondoga Viburnam and pagoda dogwood flowers, potentilla, dianthus, and roses unfolding.

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Pagoda Dogwood Blossom

This past weekend thunderstorms rolled into my area of Wisconsin and reminded me what true power looks and feels like. Raccoons, chipmunks, deer, hawks, snakes, mice, butterflies, and songbirds too varied to mention are making my backyard home. The river is full and fast, and the deer flies and horseflies are plentiful. These days I smell like a piquant combination of Coppertone Sport sunscreen and Deep Woods Off just to keep my skin from burning and the bugs from biting. Stella and I are fixtures on the roads in the morning  where we routinely walk 5 miles, and I’m sure the bugs expect a free meal.

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After the storm sunset in Wisconsin

For the first time since I left school, I finally don’t feel like I have papers to grade or the coming week to prepare for. I have had time this week to see, to notice, to experience my corner of the world without preoccupation. I have paid attention both to my surroundings but also to my writing, my art. One feeds the other. I feel inspired to write when I’m running or gardening, and those moments of introspection feed my writing. I can think when I’m engaged in a repetitive activity or one that only requires  the body to be engaged and leaves the mind to wander and romp. Through gardening I create gorgeous natural scenes, flowers and trees, frequented by birds and butterflies, hummingbirds and deer. Nature feeds the muse.

What at first drew me to writing was, in fact, the same thing that drew me to gardening, “the pretty” that Leopold talks about.  I tried to understand how to craft a beautiful turn of phrase. When I was in college, I majored in English. I read A LOT: Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Hardy, Alice Walker, Faulkner, Shakespeare. These authors expanded my mind and allowed me a glimpse of what was possible with the written word.

But the book that spoke to me was Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s writing blew me away, so much so that I committed passages of it to memory, particularly this one: “His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

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Onondaga Viburnum Flowers

“The pretty” of Fitzgerald’s words and Shakespeare’s and Thomas Hardy’s and countless others initially pulled me into the world of words and communicating ideas through writing, but something happened to me when I began to appreciate what authors did. I found myself wanting to become one. Over and over I would read and try to figure out what authors I admire did to involve me in the stories they wove. Reading became a study in technique, but often I became so immersed in the stories  I lost myself there. I ended books without a clear idea of how the author crafted scenes, characters, or dialogue. Now I work to remain aloof from the story to understand before I become emotionally involved. Sometimes it is harder than others to do so. That is when I know I’m reading a masterful writer.

I don’t know if writers, the really good ones, understand what they are doing when they write. I’m still finding that out about myself and my writing.  When I feel the muse take hold. I itch to get some niggling thought out of my brain and express it. Where I believe the muse and craft of writing come into play is in the transcribing of whatever the idea is into eloquence. How do you take a raw idea, even if it is just a whiff of an idea and translate its essence into words?  That is the task, one which is utterly difficult and ultimately fulfilling.

Here is how  Wisconsin author, David Rhodes, describes the feeling of a writer–this time a songwriter–trying to express an original idea in his book Driftless (one of my favorites).  “The feeling inside her had never been expressed before, yet it longed for expression and had chosen Gail to accomplish the deed. It was jiggling out of the primal psychic strands of whatever memories and passions made her. She had been chosen, and though she couldn’t quite hear it yet, she felt the inspiration trying to make a sound through her. It wished to be born.” He pretty much captures it.

Grappling with ideas that have chosen me is what I’ve chosen to commit my life to. I will still try to express “the pretty,” (that’s the seductive, fun part) but even the ugliness of life will find expression in my prose. I want to be a faithful steward of words, to capture the ineffable yearnings of the human spirit to make them accessible to all, to transcribe the smells, sights, feelings, tastes, and sounds of my corner of the world so that through my words others can find their way into the beauty of art but also through  their own poignant struggles, recognizing those “values as yet uncaptured by language.”

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False Indigo

 

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?

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.

 

 

Ada Lovelace: Mathematical Visionary

 

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Google’s tribute to Ada Lovelace, first computer programmer.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, and it does, mostly. I’m sure I’m not alone in my struggle to learn the nearly constant changes in technology I’m supposed to apply in both my work as a teacher and also my work as a writer. I must admit part of the problem is I’m reluctant, not because it intimidates me though sometimes it does, but also because I’m tired of change. Society lacks a human connection and a connection to the natural world these days, and technology is making that lack more pronounced. I resist the indoor/sedentary lifestyle that has been imposed on me to become and remain connected to the world through technology. The paradox of this dilemma is that through technology I am more connected to people and places far away from me  than I ever could have imagined 20 years ago, but that connection comes at a cost of being disconnected to physical reality. Technology is more than ever a matter of the mind in much the same way writing is.

More of my life than ever is spent at a desk or sitting with a laptop warming my thighs as I grade papers, write blog posts (though I’ve done precious little of that lately) or work on my novel. Seldom do I drop everything and walk outdoors to enjoy the brilliant colors of autumn or call a friend or better yet, meet a friend for a walk amongst the brilliant colors of autumn or for coffee outdoors. This school year I’ve tried to balance the demands of a demanding job, to satisfy my creative calling, and to learn the technology skills I need to use to do both well, but I also don’t want to neglect the part of me that requires the sun on my face and the feel of stretching my legs on a long walk. More on that in another post.

Who I would like to pay tribute to here is a woman for whom creativity and poetry was mathematical–seems a contradiction of terms to me because I’m language oriented, but I understand the elegance of math, just not the mechanics of it. I wish I did. I know I would have a far greater appreciation of the world and the workings of minds like Alan Turing’s, the man credited with breaking the Enigma code, or Ada Lovelace’s, the first computer programmer.

Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Ada Lovelace was the only legitimate child of the Romantic poet, George, Lord Byron, and his wife, Anne Isabella Noel. Theirs was a stormy relationship and one that inspired Ada’s mother to foster in her a love of logic and math  to prevent her from developing what Anne Isabella Noel regarded as the insanity (read poetry here) Ada’s father suffered. Despite her mother’s influence, Ada was fascinated with her father even though he left her mother and her when she was only a month old and died in Greece when she was only eight years old. Perhaps the influence of his reputation as a passionate, free thinking poet rubbed off on her after all or was handed down in her DNA. Whatever the reason, Ada became a mathematician who approached her subject using, to quote her, “poetical science.” She described herself as an Analyst and a Metaphysician.” I believe she had the same free-thinking tendencies, the creative vision, if you will, her father had and was able to make connections no one else had done because of those tendencies.

Her mathematical talents led her to begin a working relationship and friendship with the brilliant British mathematician Charles Babbage, working in particular with him on his Analytical Engine. Babbage called her his “enchantress of numbers.” After she translated an article about the engine written by an Italian military engineer, Luigi Menebrea, Lovelace added her own extensive notes that she called simply Notes.

The significance of Notes is that many consider it to contain the first computer program, (and here’s where the description of it escapes me) an algorithm that was to be carried out by a machine. Ada Lovelace’s remarkable accomplishment took place in the 1840s. Over 150 years later I struggle to understand basic computer coding to deal with my blogging program or my interactions on the web for my technological teaching needs, but I appreciate the intelligence that went into making those technologies possible. Her research and Notes along with Babbage’s work on the actual hardware paved the way for the work of Alan Turing and others of the Bletchly Park mathematicians who broke the code of the Enigma machine. Their successful breaking of the code is credited with saving Britain and, very possibly, the world from Nazi Germany and Japan. If you extend that credit, we would have to also thank Lovelace’s mother and Lord Byron’s the scoundrel ways for inspiring Lovelace’s mother to raise her to become a clear-eyed, logical but creative thinker!

Tomorrow is Ada Lovelace Day, a day celebrated world-wide to honor the contributions of women in science, technology, engineering, and math. My hat goes off to the women like Ada Lovelace who have made our world what it is and have made technology to ease our handling of information. I just wish I were better able to understand the complexities of how it all works. I also wish there were a way to handle the new tasks created by technology. Wait, no I don’t. I love my world of language and the images and emotions it conjures. I’ll leave it to those women (and men) who make it possible for me to reach out to the world with my words. Tomorrow, October 13, I’ll raise a glass to the women who have made this blog possible through technology! Here’s to you Ada Lovelace and your poetical science!

 

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.

Graziano Gardens

 

Graziano Gardens

Last Saturday I was feeling lonely because my hubby was away, my friends were camping or otherwise occupied, and I needed a little inspiration for my house and garden. I’ve also been trying to do something creative other than writing to, as my husband says “keep my saw sharp.” We writers need to use our creative energy in more than one way to keep the creative juices flowing. Since the main character in my book is also a gardener, I thought getting back into gardening would not only be good for my creative spirit and let me feel some of what Faith feels, but it would also be a good way to be active, a real challenge when I sit so much at my desk writing. It is definitely a workout.

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I use to really enjoy gardening, but the past few years I’ve been overwhelmed with the amount of work I need to do, and I’ve been lazy and uninspired. We have lived in our house now for nearly ten years, and all our landscaping needs overhauling. After a time, shrubs reach their full height and need radical trimming or removal, perennials need dividing–especially when you neglect doing that year after year, and some overzealous plants reproduce and take over–Siberian irises anyone? That’s where my gardens stand right now. I’d really like to pay someone to come in and redo everything, but who can afford that?

20150801_143255That’s why on Saturday, August 1, I went to visit my friend Shelly Christie, the owner of Graziano Gardens.  That’s us: she’s in pink looking lovely even in the heat! People display their creativity in numerous ways, and I’m glad Shelly lets her creativity shine in the garden. You can see it even in my less than stellar photography. Last Saturday was the first in her new Super Saturdays at Graziano Gardens. I visited to get some inspiration for planting and also to go to the Barn-tique sale–the barn on the property has all kinds of antiques and collectibles to restore and up-cycle into some new treasure for your house or garden. Pinterest anyone?

In addition, I listened to the very knowledgeable Rob Zimmer discuss gardening and designing with native plants. Rob is a columnist for the Appleton Post Crescent and is also known as the Yard MD. I did get some inspiration for next spring, but still have too much to do with what I already need to divide and move to buy anything else, except for two daylilies–there is always room for more daylilies, and Shelly had some beauties. I purchased two called Pardon Me (love the name!) miniatures with cranberry red flowers with green throats. They are re-bloomers too. I can’t wait to get them in the ground. Today, I promise.

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If you need an injection of creative inspiration and haven’t been to Graziano Gardens yet or haven’t been in a while, I urge you to go. The gardens surrounding the garden center will inspire you as will the numerous plants and pots for sale. Shelly and her crew are wonderfully  helpful and friendly! Also mark your calendars for the next two Super Saturdays this fall. The weather will be cooler, perfect for gardening. Here’s the info! I hope to see you there!

Super Saturdays, September 5th & October 3rd

  • Super Specials & Sales
  • Barn-tique Open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Linda Otto Peeters of Willow Farm – Wet Felting / Jewelry Making
  • Mum Arrival
  • Fall & Seasonal Decorating Tips
  • WE-SHARE-A-COUNTY Fall Driving Tour

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