Sharing Space… Literary Citizenship and the era of Me

It’s so easy to be caught looking inward. Navel gazing has never been so attractive. The culture of entitlement that surrounds us paves a yellow brick road to the Emerald City of Envy and invites us to pamper ourselves, celebrate our own egos, and neglect that which doesn’t touch us. Me, me, me scream the ads. “We’re all deserving,” suggest the self-help gurus. Mine is better than yours, sniff the armchair critics. Narcissus would be proud.

Recently, one of my author friends posted a question regarding writers who trumpet their own books as ‘the best of the year.’ Should we, he asked, be so blatantly self-centered? I submit that a good literary citizen remembers that we are a community of writers, that none of us succeeds without the helping hand, the lift up, the constructive critique,and the shoulder to lean on when the burden becomes too much to carry alone.

I have spent a significant amount of time, effort and money practicing my craft. As much as possible, I strive to be that good literary citizen for my fellow practicioners. Often, when I need that hand or shoulder, the pickings grow slim and the road long. But, still, I persist! 😉 To keep myself on track as I plod along, I have constructed a checklist of good lit citizen qualities. Forthwith, a path to achieve that most precious of status cards…the Good Literary Citizen Award.

1. Offer to mentor. What a gift to have someone point out the pitfalls, provide a road map and listen as you try out ideas. New and/or aspiring writers benefit from this. I only wish I had been fortunate enough to have a mentor early on.

2. Share information…about conferences, opportunities, meetings, workshops. No one knows everything, and what may not work for you may be just the thing for another writer.

3. Support writers, especially on social media and web sites but also in person. How flattering to be recommended, invited, included, applauded.  Nurture a network you may use someday. Vote for their books, mention their work, attend readings and launches.

4. Be generous. Offer to read and critique, without monetary reward when possible. The paying gigs will come later. Provide honest, constructive criticism. Speaking for myself, I won’t get better if I don’t know what needs to be improved.

5. Find a writing group where you can use your talents to promote yourself and others. We’re not all good at everything, but we are all good at something. If you’re a strong editor, offer that skill to others.

6. Be enthusiastic. Writers share a passion not easily explainable to non-writers. We all experience rejection. My computer file folder is filled with those NO emails. But, you know what? It only takes a word and a hug to pick me up and set me back on the path.

7. It’s easy to get lost in our own ambition. I remind myself that my greatest accomplishment may not be the best-seller I want to write, but the one I champion in another writer’s life.

I have witnessed the jealousy of writers, the tendency to find fault in others as a way to promote one’s own writing. It’s not pretty. I prefer to think that, as someone wiser than me suggested, a rising tide lifts all boats. Here’s to achieving the impossible dream…may you earn your card, as I hope to do, one small step at a time.

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A Discourse On Loss

“No man is an island.” John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

As 2017 closes out its run, I struggle through the immensity of unmooring that the year has brought.  My bubble life of structure and belief in the common decency of man has suffered a knock-out punch. As a child of the sixties, I am no stranger to turmoil. However, the bouts of political insanity that rock the country strain my belief that goodness will triumph. A minority should never determine the course of the ship of state, yet this is exactly what has occurred. The loudest voice, the vilest attacks, have set adrift the progress of our nation. I am no quitter, but I despair. Even the best of fighters hangs up the gloves eventually. That sick feeling in my stomach caused by tremors beneath the bedrock of our democracy lingers. Despite the efforts to raise my voice  – the phone calls made, the petitions signed, the marches joined – those in power are not listening. I am not an island. Connected by history and inclination to the best that we can be, I mourn for us.

“Grief is a plastic surgeon.” Sherman Alexie, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me

This old year passing has brought personal loss that I did not anticipated. Two dear friends and kindred souls passed away in the fall within a month of each other. The grief rises with me each day, rides my shoulder as I clean and bake and pray. It does, as Alexie suggests, carve new patterns in the grain of life. What once was treasured together-time has morphed into pictures in an album and memories already slipping through time’s erosive hand. Although I did not take for granted the road trips, critique sessions and working lunches, I see now how fleeting those moments were.

“Sorrow floats.”  John  Irving, Hotel New Hampshire

The last twelve months have required more patience than I ever imagined I had. My mother-in-law, 96 on the cusp of 97, and my mother, 94 this coming March, suffer the ravages of physical and mental ailments. I juggle visits to the nursing home with power-of-attorney requirements and long-distance discussions with trips to the emergency room. Each day brings a new challenge, not the least of which is the knowledge and expectation that this, too, shall pass as they do. Grief isn’t finished with me yet.

I know I am not alone. The world suffers. Death visits us all. How do we find strength, hope, and grace amid the emotional debris? One source for me is books. Reading the words of others who have entered this arena gives me courage. Recognizing the vast sweep of human emotion assists in placing my own grief in perspective. Although my post this month is grim, the promise of peace rises, like Picasso’s flower in the painting “Guernica,” from the wounded heart.

A child laughs. A woman decides to run for office…and wins. The dough rises in the pan, spreading the yeasty smell of home and hearth and hospitality. Words cover the page, sometimes in abundance, but more often in quiet runs.

A new year walks beside me, buoyant and full of expectation. I must make it count.

A December Manifesto: 2017

One.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

As a human being, as a citizen, as a child of the Creator, I must use that voice to speak out for good.

Evil cannot be ignored or excused.

Not for political gain. Not for corporate greed. Not out of apathy.

In this season of peace, when all religions share hope, I must nourish the flame of that hope.

More alike than we are different,  a cut bleeds red on all our skins.

A light illuminates the deepest shadow.

If I shine my light, I illuminate a circle in the dark.

Two.

If you join me…

Two together  can enlarge the circle.

Two together can dispel those shadows.

Ghandi said be the change you wish to see in the world.

Martin Luther King called us to lift every voice to the mountaintop.

Change I must be. No excuse to pass the torch, to wait for another to do the work.

I am only one. If you hold my hand, we become two, then four, then ten and a thousand.

If I carry my candle to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial to stand in silent vigil, will you join me?

No protests. No violence. Only silence and light and a voice raised in thanks and blessing, in concern and caring.

We will sing together. We will carry all our children on our shoulders and in our hearts.

Together, we will brave the perils of the journey.

Each of us is one, but merged we become a force for change.

I am only one, but I have a voice.

Stand with me. You, too, are only one, with a voice that can move the world.

Let us raise those voices together.

Allelujah…

Oh, No, November!

“There is October in every November and there is November in every December! All seasons melted in each other’s life!”
Mehmet Murat ildan

November – the ninth month from the old Latin calendar, hence the name, when people divided the year into ten segments rather than twelve. Back then November stood, as it still does, on the cusp between Samhain and Winter Solstice. That pagan thing before the Christian takeover, before All Saints and All Souls and Thanksgiving and Advent. No clever god stood ready to claim November’s hand, so the practical won. Ninth month, pregnant with foreshadowing and the clear, crisp voice of mortality.

So, November. In this month, NaNoWriMo returns, enough of a tease to make a writer’s heart stutter, enough of a taunt to make one cringe. National November Writing Month and the challenge is on. Put butt in chair, fingers on the keyboard (or pen, if you still write the old-fashioned way), head in the airspace that surrounds your creative corner and GO! Write a novel in thirty days. No judgment here. Doesn’t have to be good, just has to be done. Stretch your hand for the ancient Nike swoosh, gird yourself with wine and chocolate, and just do it.

No. I have never run this particular marathon. I always have a Work-In-Progress straining at the gate. Don’t get sidetracked, my story urges. Feed the muse you’ve got. Which is the advice I’d give, if anyone were to ask. Follow your own inner instinct. If the moment calls to you, of course you should clasp hands and take that path. But if your story is already in your bed, unclothed and waiting to be ravished, don’t turn your head in another direction. You, after all, make the call. Personally, I need these thirty days for revision, so that is where I’ll be, squeezing as much productivity out of this eleventh month as when it was the ninth. And if my thirty days slide into forty or more, I’ll remind myself of Mehmet Murat ildan’s words: all seasons melted in each other’s life.

A story may begin with a challenge, stagger forward, lurch along the course, but, in the end, all that matters is crossing the finish line. After that, new challenges await. December sashays in, candles lit, legends rustling, packages filled with surprise or regret stacked at your feet. The ancient and the modern worlds dance a jig as music swells in the aisles of churches and department stores. But enough of anticipation. I am where I am, at my computer watching the words tumble free like breath in the frosty air.

November. Thirty clots of darker days and skies smudged with gray and bruised clouds teasing us, ragged wisps of loves-me, loves-me-not transposed into snow promises and hard rain. This month offers us the last, sad, soft fall of leafy veils. In naked vulnerability, November whispers, “See me. I am savage and ruined and aching to sleep, but I hold the promise of rebirth in my silent slumber.”

October…a prose poem in three stanzas

If April is ‘the cruelest month,’ October is the most seductive. I am thrice bitten…by the whisper and crunch of fallen leaves, the distant call of migrating geese, the yawning fields and garden beds settling into slumber. October crooks a finger and I lean into the wind, eager to grow hobbit feet and slip off among the trees, to follow streams and trails, to sleuth the beauty hiding beyond the next turn. The seasonal sights of orange lanterns strung beneath black spiderwebs, the excited squeals of children anticipating the candy feast to come, the pop-up costume stores enticing me to become someone else, if only for one night — all underwrite  the ancient appeal of the mystical and the magical. So, yes, I am seduced by the round-eyed, plump, hip-swishing month of October.

My writing revels in the same roly-poly autumnal slide. Each manuscript exudes an Octoberish magic. After much planting and weeding and harvesting, the stories I have incubated over the summer now breathe on their own. I am Victor Frankenstein strapping the monster to a table, primed for the lightning. I am Dracula outside the window waiting for an invitation to crawl into the story. These characters, once only shadow, now appear fleshed out and sassy. I am the Wolfman howling under a fat Octoberine moon as my plot runs before me. My stories, crafted from musing and imagination, insist on breaking free, following their own unexpected course. I am my own childhood self, ringing doorbells, shouting trick or treat, anticipating the unexpected as it pops out from page, daring me to stand firm.

Among the last of the wildflowers, bushy heights of Michaelmas daisies, I lift my face to the breeze, inhale the wood tang from the fire pit and let the harvest chant of dying crickets settle on my shoulders. October sends an embrace, a love letter written in clear, star-stressed skies and coyote howls echoing from the wood. Indoors, in the author’s den, worlds brim with chaos and anarchy, but I wield the final penstroke. I get the last word, laugh the last laugh, can be the Poe or Shelley of my October days. Write on, the ghost of summer whispers, and fall holds its breath.

Honing the Harvest…

Listen. Do you hear that? The rustling of autumn grasses, the chirring of locust wings, the goodbye calls of flocking birds as the earth turns to bounty and binds itself to a new season. I have spent the summer planting, tending, filling the freezer with vegetable goodies, preparing for the months when the soil slumbers. As I put my garden to bed, the fertile blank spaces of my writing await a different kind of harvest…words, phrases, plots, themes and, above all, hope.

This month I send out queries for my newest manuscript, one I have weeded with special care, watered with conviction and fertilized with research. Now, I must offer it to others, this lovely growth of stem and flower. Like a table filled with farm produce at the market, my wares will splay themselves on someone’s desk, waiting to be purchased, shucked and served to hungry readers.

Okay, that paints a pretty picture, but it fails to reveal all the sweat equity invested in both my literal and my figurative garden. I’ve removed the props from my beans and tomatoes, chopped the once-laden plants into mulch. So, too, I’ve gathered the fruits of my prose, inspected them for insects and blight, stored the notes and revision cards, and practiced patience, perhaps the most important tool in the gardener’s and the writer’s box. I have also cultivated my writers’ groups, who protect, support, defend, nurture and prod me to go on. The willingness of fellow writers to critique, inspire, suggest, encourage cannot be overstated. Without them, my writing would never flourish.

I don’t know where you are in your writer’s garden. I do know that in the soil garden, there are blights and insect deprivations and too much heat, too much rain. With writing, there is always a lack of time or attention or inspiration or focus. Yet the planting goes on, so we can reach the harvest, savor the bounty and hone our harvest skills for the next great adventure. Prepare the soil, lay the compost and wait for the seeds to sprout.

 

Sharing Summer’s Grace …

No philosophy this month. No deep delving into the writer’s psyche. This column is about summer, about fireflies and crickets, wildflowers and mist rising above the pond, about  reading on the porch and wading in the water. This time, I’m writing about all the grace shadowing our lives, if only we dare to reach for it.

As July transitions into August, the garden offers beans and tomatoes in heaps and handfuls, while the carrots drill their way into fullness. The marigolds planted at the edges press against the sides of the raised beds, warning off the insects that come to feed on the leaves. Sometimes I swear they’d take to flight if they could. But nothing daunts the bunnies. I find their marks in the bottom half of the bloody butchers (an heirloom brand with a sweet taste and a thin skin), their rasps of canines against the eggplant rind. Along the back of the lawn, the wildflower garden shifts from coneflowers to Queen Anne’s lace. Prairie sunflowers wheel, ironweed flashes, and in the field, swaths of brown-eyed Susans wave as I slip between the grasses, my dew-wet boots barely rustling as I pass. The landscape is a cathedral. If I can’t find God residing in these vistas, I won’t find Him anywhere.

Some afternoons, rain lashes the siding, a jazz medley of percussion and drums. The Canadian barrel fills, ready for use on the impatiens, geraniums and petunias climbing out of the pots. Hummingbirds flit around the feeder, zooming in for sips as they protect their approach with chittering and stealth attacks.

Caught up in chores and worries, it is easy to ignore the simple beauty around us, the generous offerings of grace. These days, I remind myself frequently to pay attention, to open my arms and my heart and just breathe.

Writing insulates, cocooning the writer in the story being created. Stepping out of the fictional into the real involves disconnecting from the word, reconnecting with the world. And what a rich world it is, this august August.  The natural gifts of earth and sky offer all the blessings of this season.  I hold them out to you to taste and touch.

May these ‘dog days’ bring a special grace to your journey.

Saving Space For Sorrow…

When I’m immersed in a plot, one of my favorite lines to ponder is a quote from a John Irving novel The Hotel New Hampshire, I believe: “Sorrow floats.” Of course, in the novel, Sorrow is a stuffed dog, but in my experience, personal now as well as professional, sorrow is that emotion that sneaks up on you when you least expect it, scares the shit out of you and then begs for attention. There isn’t a doggy treat in the world that will satisfy the chap.

I’ve been reading an eclectic mix of books this summer: dystopian, paranormal, fantasy, literary, non-fiction. The one thing they all have in common is an inordinate amount of inexpressible sorrow. Art imitating life. And, reading the news from around the world,  that truth continues to batter into us. Many mornings I wake up with a fair amount of  dysfunctional anxiety, courtesy of our current government and society in general. No wonder old-timers refer, with profound sadness, to the “good old days.”  Maybe they weren’t so good, but they didn’t seem to harbor the precise amount of terror that we face today. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking and faulty memory.

See, sorrow is that visitor who usually arrives unannounced, although there are times when we can anticipate that arrival. Which is worse? The sorrow you see coming or the one that blindsides you? Is there any way to prepare for that crush of loss, that unfair tumble into the dark side? If you could tell the future, would you really want to know?

Where am I going with all of this? Well, my two current manuscripts both deal with sorrow in different ways, so I suppose this is a plea for a philosophical outburst of comprehension and acceptance. We anticipate joy, plan for pain, pursue happiness, accept suffering. But we put sorrow in a box and stuff it under a cushion, unaware of its longevity, oblivious to its nuanced intrusion into our lives. If we set aside a space and a place for it, would we deal better with the aftereffects?

Finding Your Trail…

hike 3Okay, here’s the thing. I’m a hiker. Not a biker. Not a runner. Not a motorized vehicle mama. In the water, I paddle. On land, I walk. I like the slow and steady pace of placing one foot in front of the other, the closet rumble of a well-fed stream just out of sight, the chatter of birds annoyed at my intrusion or simply sharing the day through song. I listen for the rustle of wind through the prairie flowers and grasses, the scurry of unseen animals in the brush. Revelation is scant steps away. On a good day, the sounds of the freeway two miles beyond the trees drift away and I am left with an elemental connection to the world around me.

Now, I’ve tried  other modes of getting from here to there. I owned a bike once, had a carrier for the kids and a basket for purchases. But that was a while ago, when the roads were less crowded and the number of distracted driver did not exceed the square root of one. We live now in an era when any one at any time may choose phone over attention to the road, wander over the center line or onto the berm, forget that he/she is not the master of the highway. My home is located in two-lane, backroads territory. Narrow streets and harried motorists make me leary of cycling. I’ve also given jogging a try, frequently and with little success, over the years. I challenge myself to run – one block, then two, then three. But before I’ve reached the end of the first section, my brain  whines, “Really? You want to run? What for, girl? Your feet work just fine. Besides, if you stop this foolishness, all your inside parts will stop jiggling.” (Yes, my brain does address me in that superior, smart-ass tone.) So I end the experiment, tighten my bootlaces and step onto the trail.

At the beginning of May, I had the good fortune to attend the International Trails Symposium in Dayton, “Where Trails Take Flight.” Lucky me. I could drive back and forth from home each day, no need to schlep a suitcase and adjust to a hotel room, all so I could learn more than I ever expected about trails, which are more than a path through the woods. There are scenic, historic, recreational, bike, re-purposed rail corridors, greenways in cities and reclaimed industrial sites in depressed areas around the country. Trail people are visionaries, seeking ways to expand the horizon of the moment, to encompass tomorrow in that meander through the woods, that stroll through the industrial heart of a city. The closing luncheon featured a presentation on how the trails-as-transportation revolution can revitalize and reclaim our cities and towns, and give us back our liveable space.

Which got me thinking about writing and writers and the trails we follow as we pursue our craft. Frequently, especially at writing conferences, some author presents a formula or recipe for writing. We argue the merits of outlining versus pantsing, of traditional publishing versus indie. But there is no one right way. There are only trails, branching off through the forest or across the tarmac, disappearing among the trees or perching along the ridge of a mountain or staggering through town. Scenic, historic, recreational…accessed in multiple ways by multiple trail-ers.

Every trail, on land or on the page, is one of discovery. For me, hiking works best. I expect to be surprised, so I try hard not to anticipate. Oh, I know where the trail begins, and I usually know where it ends. But the route I follow emerges as I go.

So, here’s the message I brought home for myself. Perhaps you will adopt it, too. Find Your Own Trail. If the path does not reveal itself, blaze a new one. You are unique. So is your vision. Who knows what wonders we’ll encounter along the way?

Happy Trailing!

April in Paris…continued

The trip to Paris and Normandy turned out to be more than we expected…in so many ways. I suffer from history overload and the urge to sip Calvados by the harbor in Honfleurs. Along the way, I kept a journal, but all I had time to record were the events themselves. My reaction to each day’s journeyings, such a complex set of emotion, rumination and evaluation, remain buried, ready for exhumation at a later date.

First, the weather. It was cool but sunny most days. Only on the final walking tour of Ile St. Louis and Ile de la Cite did I suffer from the chill…overcast, biting wind and the shops were all closed so I couldn’t even buy hot chocolate! 😦 Still, the images remain affixed to my memory bins…the Eiffel tower in the daytime and lit up at night, the flags at the landing beach in Normandy. The photos below offer a small sample of all we visited and the tremendous emotional lift we experienced as we traveled through the towns and the centuries.

Then, the land and its stories. D-Day is as palpable along the coast as it must have been that gloomy JUne day when the ships assembled off the coast and the young men prepared to storm the beaches, climb the cliffs. The cemetery, Museum and battle ruins on Omaha and Utah beaches gathered me in, whispering the names of the brave lads who knew the odds and charged forward anyway, willing to sacrifice their lives to restore peace and freedom to the people of France and the rest of Europe. Courage lives on there.

My favorite ruin was Chateau Gaillard, Richard the Lion-Hearted’s fortress three hundred feet above the River Seine. The wind crowed that day, too, challenging us to stand against its push as we listened to the stories of the building, of the princesses held captive and one strangled within the keep, and of the eventual surrender of the once-proud citadel. History mows down even the bravest and strongest…

The fellow travelers – Diane and Ann from Australia; Steph and Jon from Lincolnshire, England; Richard and Dorothy from California — each with a story of his or her own to share, of other travels, of life in their peculiar portion of the world. I promised to wrap them into a story of their own, so I’d best get busy writing.

So, recording each day’s travel log, I allowed stories to incubate, acknowledged the tendrils of plot snaking out to entwine around my psyche. Somewhere, a heroine lifts a sword, a soldier dons his battle gear, a child sneaks aboard a ship and ventures far from home. The traveler gathers memories, the writer weaves them into a tapestry, not as intricate as the one in Bayeux, but worthy fo the telling, nevertheless.