March 10, 2014 § 10 Comments
“I’ve… been too much in my head. Why don’t we take a walk?” (McLain)¹
I’m not sure if pursuing writing is a good idea for me. I think it makes me crazy. I’m moody, brooding about my latest idea, working things out in my head, withdrawn as I think and think and think. I am irritated because the dishes aren’t done and I clatter them roughly, this beautiful earthenware we received as wedding gifts. I don’t want to wash these plates; I am impatient to write, or read about writing, or research my diaries, or deconstruct the Best American Essays. I am in my head, trying to find the guts of the story in my boat rides piece, trying to figure out how to write my trustworthiness of narrator idea, worried that the tone of my fainting piece isn’t right. Wondering if its worth blogging about our son’s little-boy-voice query, “Do you get paid for your writing?”
I write every morning. I wake at 6 o’clock to write for an hour before the rest of the house stirs. But instead of emptying my head, the practice jostles ideas that elbow and shove to get themselves onto the paper first. They are quite rude and occupy an awful lot of space, and because I cannot release them all in one hour in the morning, they create noise long into the day, so much noise that when I prepare dinner, I am not able to simultaneously chop pecans and answer our daughter when she asks me a question.
I worry I’m pulling away from real life in order to chase ideas around in my head and maybe catch a few and throw them down onto the page. And not even get paid for it. I wonder if it’s worth it. Does writing make me happy? What are all these ideas I want to get down, and why?
Ebb tide -
dip to mud. (Basho)²
Moon snails. Luna moths. Aurelia aurita: the moon jelly. These are favorite animals. Moon stone enchants me. Moonlight on snow, moonlight on water: they pull my insides out, they compel me to poetry.
There is magic in the smooth spiral of the moon snail-shell, the absinthe glow of the luna moth, the grace of the gelatinous moon jelly. The milky moonstone mystifies; opalescent in its luster, it makes me want to swim into it. Snow sparkles blue on a full moon night, as if diamond trees shook glittering dust from their branches; light paints a white path on black water under the silver coin in the sky.
Tides rush in, bulge, and recede, like the ideas in my head.
I write on the toilet – there is not a second to spare. I have to pee, but I don’t want to lose the words.
lu·na·cy (lo͞oʹ nə-sē) n. 1. Insanity, esp. insanity relieved intermittently by periods of clear-mindedness. 2.a. Great or wild foolishness. b. A wildly foolish act. 3. Archaic. intermittent mental derangement associated with the changing phases of the moon. [Root leuk-. Light, brightness]³
lu·cid·i·ty (loo-sid-i-tee) n. 2. The ability to see things clearly; rationality; sanity. [Root leuk-. Light, brightness]⁴ ⁵
The moon snail tongue is acid and many-toothed; it is the moon snail who is responsible for the perfectly drilled holes in clam shells along the beach. Sometimes moon snails are cannibals.
The adult luna moth has no mouth. It cannot eat. In its winged form, it only lives about a week.
The moon jelly drifts with the currents.
The night is dark and full of shadows.
Resignedly beneath the sky
The melancholy waters lie. (Poe)⁶
Everything has a name. During Wednesday word work, when I researched lunar words, I came across these entries:
lunette n. 1. Archit. A crescent-shaped or semicircular space, as over a door, that may contain another window, a sculpture, or a mural.⁸
Naming invokes connections: a part of my body with a heavenly body, our dwellings with the cosmos. Words help us piece the universe together.
Bright moon: I
stroll around the pond -
hey – dawn has come. (Basho)⁹
We had a come-to-Jesus meeting in our writing group. We spent the morning discussing what we each want from the group and how we want to spend our limited time together. To my great delight, we agreed to bring current works-in-progress each Thursday so that we can push up our sleeves, reach in with bare hands, and pull the guts out. We will dissect and probe, expose paragraphs, transplant words, poke sentences to make them jump. After group, I wrote hard and well. I couldn’t stop smiling.
On the way to soccer practice, a song I liked came on the radio. I turned it up, sang out loud, let go my grip of the steering wheel so I could do jazz hands. I caught our son’s eye in the rearview mirror and could see him grinning at his crazy mom, dancing in the front seat. I grinned back and sang louder.
The tide rushes in.
¹ McLain, Paula. The Paris Wife. New York: Ballentine. 2011. E-book.
² Basho. On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho. London: Penguin Books. 1985. Print.
³ “lunacy.” The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third Ed. 1993. Print.
⁴ “lucidity.” Def. 2. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2014.
⁵ “lucid.” Etymol. The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third Ed. 1993. Print.
⁶ Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Works. New York: Gramercy Books. 1985. Print.
⁷ “lunula.” The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third Ed. 1993. Print.
⁸ “lunette.” Def. 1.b. The American Heritage College Dictionary. Third Ed. 1993. Print.
⁹ Basho. On Love and Barley – Haiku of Basho. London: Penguin Books. 1985. Print.
When I declared 2014 to be The Year of the Craft for me, some of you asked that I share my writing group’s homework exercises here. We’ve been working on structure, and this was an experimental craft work piece using found words (from other writers, from dictionaries, from drafts in my WordPress dashboard, from my old diaries) and the collage structure as described by Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor.
March 3, 2014 § 13 Comments
Dear all editors everywhere,
I recently had the privilege of guest-hosting a writing challenge on The Daily Post, WordPress.com’s site dedicated to the art and craft of blogging. I was honored by the editorial team’s confidence in me, that my name came up when they brainstormed writers to invite, and though they did not ask me to guest-edit, as a private show of gratitude I committed to putting myself on their side of the desk for the duration of the week-long challenge. I traded my pen for reading glasses, and I vowed to read every submission to the challenge, not as a casual reader, but as a would-be-editor curating content for a website.
Within one day, I sent an email to the lead WordPress editor, and I wrote: “I bow down to you and all editors of the world.” Because editors, I do.
I was shocked by the patience, lucidity, and stamina your job requires. I was thrilled by every submission – readers are responding! writers are writing! – yet my head ached from ciphering symbols on a pixellated screen; from trying to find my place in a piece with no paragraphs; from wading through unnecessary parentheticals, misspelled words, and four paragraphs of explanation before the meat of a story began. My head ached from recognizing mistakes I continue to make in my own writing.
I realized quickly, within 30 submissions, why you give writers the tips you give, the tips that until this experience I dismissed as too simple. Punctuation? Please. There’s got to be a bigger secret than that. But these editor tips I read over and over again – always the same, from all the editors, often in what has seemed to me a resigned and tired tone – I understand at a visceral level now. When I was on my 78th submission of the day, these simple second-grade basics meant the difference between me reading further or glancing at the first sentence and clicking the little “x” to close the tab:
- Spelling, grammar, punctuation: Mistakes here were jarring. Every misspelled word jolted me out of the piece and into my living room. A narrative had to be really strong to overcome mistakes that could have easily been corrected before submission. Until experiencing this from your side of the screen, I was careless with mistakes in my work as well. No more.
- White space: I don’t think I’ve ever been a bigger fan of the paragraph than I am now. My heart died a little each time text filled the screen without any breaks. I tried to read the first few stream of consciousness submissions, but the strain of keeping track of where I was distracted me, and I gave up.
- Title: A boring title might not make me shut down a piece, but an exciting one will sure make me happy to open it – and keep reading (as with My Descent into “Mom Jeans” on Becoming Vivid).
Beyond those fundamentals, after reading so many submissions, I came to appreciate the ones that were different, that made me sit up in my chair and pay attention. Like when one blogger wrote from the point of view of a calculator (Alexia Jones: The Evil Calculator), and another made me want to say goddamned a lot (Forgotten Correspondence: The 6th of March 1997 – Fishkill, New York). I wanted to kiss the writers who made me laugh (Emily Schleiger: Him; Merissa Bergen: Frying Pans and a Knife), were brief but beautiful (A Full Cup of Tea: Haiku Trio), who taught me something new (Flour Mill Reflections: Egg UKO), or left a lasting image in my mind (The Silver Leaf Journal: Three Red Chairs).
In other words, I experienced the truth in those craft tips that appear in every writing book, in every workshop, on every editor’s pages:
- Surprise us with a different point of view
- Language matters
- Funny is good
- Be concise!
- Teach me
- Show don’t tell
Until this experience, I had only seen the finished product of your work as editors: the perfect pieces, the fresh voices, the error-free, beautifully spaced narratives with captivating titles, proper pacing, concision, and imagery, and voice. I now understand your joy when a writer provides all those things, when on submission number 473 your forehead relaxes, and your mouth twitches, and you take off your glasses and lean back in your chair and allow yourself a full smile. Your patience, and clear head, and stamina have paid off, and now you can provide a writer and the world with the same joy you just felt when you read that submission and said, “This is good. This is really good.”
Wearing your hat for a week – or at least the brim of it – has made me appreciate these tips you keep giving us. As a writer, I am an advocate for writers, and I understand now that you are, too. You want to read and promote good work – that’s why you do the work you do. You want more than anything for writers to write well. I will do my best to improve my craft, to give you good work, and in the meantime, thank you. Thank you for your patience, your clear head, and your stamina.
The guest-piece I refer to in this post is A Drought or a Flood – The Daily Post’s Weekly Writing Challenge: Object.
March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment
Are you ready to shiver? Here’s a little something from Alaska that I didn’t post before.
Originally posted on Andrea Reads America:
The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this addition of a “Favorite Quotes” series to my Andrea Reads America coverage.
“All afternoon the clouds remained high and thin, the wind ripped dead leaves from the tree branches, and daylight guttered like a candle. Mabel thought of the terrible cold that would trap her alone in the cabin, and her breathing turned shallow and rapid.”
February 25, 2014 § 30 Comments
Over the years, I have become a less patient housekeeper, easily annoyed by trinkets and knickknacks that add nothing to my life but more work: remove trinkets from shelf, dust shelf, wipe trinkets, notice chips in trinket bases and grime in trinket cracks, fetch toothpicks and toothbrushes, deep-clean trinkets, place trinkets back on shelf, arrange, rearrange, check watch and cluck tongue when I see I wasted more than an hour of my life removing dirt from inanimate objects.
When I became a more diligent housekeeper, when I began dusting on a weekly basis, our trinkets transformed from sentimental, significant mementos into useless, meaningless crap that got in my way when I tried to clean. In the past year, we have purged kitsch from our home, and I am proud to say that our shelves and tables are now trinket-free.
What remains on our shelf-tops are sources of light (candles and lamps), pieces of earth (smooth gray cobbles from rocky beaches), and a small, jiggle-bellied laughing Buddha from our pre-children life. The little Buddha is fashioned from black resin; a chalky green, like oxidized copper, etches the lines of his happy grin, his belly button, and the laugh lines that crinkle the corners of his eyes. My little Buddha fits in the palm of my hand, and when I look at him, he giggles: of all the objects I pitched on my path to happy housekeeping, of all the things I was able to detach from, I could not part with him, The Buddha, whose philosophy advocates non-attachment as a path to contentment.
My little green Buddha sits among smooth stones on the low wood shelf near my writing desk. He reminds me of another life, when my husband and I were young and newly married, when we lived in College Park, Maryland as DINKs (double income, no kids). On weekends we explored the Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware that lay outside of the D.C. Metro area: Annapolis, Sugarloaf mountain, the western shore of the Chesapeake, the eastern shore of the Chesapeake. We sailed, we hiked, we ate seafood in Annapolis, drank beer in Baltimore. And one weekend – a rainy weekend in winter, maybe even Valentine’s Day – we booked a room at a bed and breakfast in Rehoboth Beach. We traveled to a summer beach in winter.
I love summer beaches in winter.
At Rehoboth, we huddled against each other in a raw drizzle as we walked the empty boardwalk. The ice cream kiosk was shuttered, low clouds grayed the sky, and most of the shop windows were dark, even at midday on a Saturday. We paused to look out over the mist-shrouded beach. Wintry Atlantic waves crashed on tan sand, and wisps of my straight hair curled against my temples in the wet, salty air. I smiled against my husband’s shoulder. We had this all to ourselves.
When the cold worked its way through our coats and into our bones, we found a side street parallel to the main drag, where in addition to the neon Bud Light signs, we saw a cozy coffee shop, a sidewalk sandwich board with a chalk drawing of a steaming bowl of soup, and a few pottery and gift shops whose windows glowed like hearths. I saw crystals and tiny Buddha statues through one shiny pane, and the bell jangled on the door when we whooshed into the warmth from out in the cold. I fingered geodes and handmade straw brooms, flipped through incense boxes and nodded at the proprietress with her long silver hair and reading glasses that hung from her neck on a beaded chain. When I came to the glass shelf of Buddhas, the laughing ones with the fat bellies made me happy, as they always do. I picked up the one who looked like he was holding an umbrella, smiled at my husband and said, “I’m getting this one.” I held the little Buddha in my hand like a talisman.
Four years later, I think I suffered postpartum depression when we brought our infant home. Or perhaps it was post traumatic stress disorder. My life as a new mom, and our life as a new family, shocked me in its differentness from what had come before. Gone were our freedoms: freedom to travel unencumbered (diaper bags, toys, diapers, baby), freedom to sleep (10pm feeding, midnight feeding, 2am feeding), freedom to take romantic weekends away (single income, with kid). I felt trapped, without an outlet, stuck in this new life forever. I remember driving by a restaurant one night with our baby in the back seat. I looked into those warmly lit windows, saw couples smile at each other across a bottle of wine, heard cutlery clinking in my mind, and I burst into tears. “We’re never going to be able to do that again!” I wailed.
And the laughing Buddha laughed.
Over time, my depression transformed into delight as I let go my clinging to our old way of life. It helped that our infants did not remain infants forever, and that in a few short years, our babies have become responsible little people who sometimes stay home alone, who cook their own eggs and grilled cheese, and who surprise me into belly laughs that crinkle the laugh lines at the corners of my eyes. They hike and camp; they write comics and crack jokes; they snuggle and say, “I love you, Mom.”
My little Buddha has moved with us from state to state, home to home, shelf to shelf; he bore our children with us, watches as we raise them, hears us read books and tap keyboard keys and eat pizza while we watch TV. And no matter where he is, no matter what room or state or shelf, he sits relaxed and laughing. He reminds me of romantic rainy days both past and yet to come, and of the transformation of depression into delight, and of the deep, happy-soul laughter our children surprise out of me on a near daily basis.
Some things carry meaning that is worth dusting off every week. Some things are worth hanging on to.
This is my entry for the Weekly Writing Challenge: Object.
February 24, 2014 § 11 Comments
Have you ever noticed how when you focus your attention on something, that thing grows? It works for both bad and good: you focus on your fears, and you become paralyzed with terror, or you focus on your co-worker’s faults and those minor flaws balloon into defects of character. And the good? If you give attention to your garden – if you water, prune, prop up seedlings, talk to the flowers – your plants flourish; if you carve time for exercise, your body becomes stronger; and if you declare 2014 to be The Year of the Craft, if you put your head down and dedicate your writing year to craft-work, your writing life expands beyond the borders of your blog.
At least that’s what happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I received an email from Krista, an editor at WordPress.com, asking if I would be interested in writing a guest post for The Daily Post‘s Weekly Writing Challenge. The Weekly Writing Challenge, published every Monday, is a craft-focused prompt intended to spur the blogger into new writing territory. I’ve participated in previous challenges, and when I received Krista’s email asking if I’d like to write one (hello craft-work universe!), I wondered if I should mute my enthusiasm and act all professional by responding with a “Thank you for the invitation. I would be happy to consider writing an installment.” Instead I wrote something to the effect of “YES! YES! YES!”
This is why I don’t get paid.
Anyway, the challenge I wrote – Weekly Writing Challenge: Object – is live today, and I hope you will play along. It was inspired by dozens of prompt-based generative writing sessions with my writing group, in writing workshops, and at my desk at 6:00 am, rubbing sleep from my eyes, wondering what I’ll write about while I pull a slip of paper from a gold and white Chinese tea tin.
If you are looking for tips to get you started, try this post:
February 21, 2014 § 21 Comments
On February 1, 2014, my husband had an itch to hike the woods around Pandapas Pond. It was a sunny, 50 degree Saturday after two weeks of sub-freezing temperatures, and we had seen pictures in the paper of folks skating and ice fishing on the pond. I asked if the kids and I could ride along. When we arrived, he waved and disappeared into the forest, and our children and I wound our way down to the iced over water. College students walked across the pond’s hard shell – all the way across – and threw snowballs through sunlight. Our kids begged to go out on the ice, and all I could see was them crashing through. I was terrified. I told them to stay near the edges – the surface looked wide and treacherous, more of a lake than a pond, really, with all that shockingly cold, surely fathoms-deep water beneath a thinning sheet of cracking, melting ice. I white-knuckled my camera; I told myself, unclench your jaw. I reminded myself, Breathe, as they ran reckless, full speed, heads-back, mouths-open-in-laughter races on the sun-warmed ice; as I stepped onto pond’s slushy skin. I probably lost five years of my life that day, but our kids remember it as one of the best days of theirs.
This is my entry for the weekly photo challenge: Threes
February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
I avoided posting favorite quotes from each state’s literature on my Butterfly Mind blog, but I will be posting them on the Andrea Reads America site. Plus I just wanted to see how the reblog button works. Enjoy!
Originally posted on Andrea Reads America:
When I covered my around-the-US reading project on my Butterfly Mind blog, I was reluctant to publish posts of favorite quotes. I thought, “Those aren’t my words – they don’t fit here.” Now that Andrea Reads America has its own site, I am breaking that silence. The authors’ original words do their work more justice than any book review I write, and when grouped together, the quotes become atmospheric of the state they are set in. I hope you enjoy this new addition to my Andrea Reads America coverage.