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.

 

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!

Taking Stock: The Janus Factor

The old year passes. The new one slips into place. The creative mind and the practical one juggle for position on the rim of tomorrow. I stand on the brink of the unknown, contemplating the void before me. Do I step back from the edge or leap forward? My choice balances between what has been and what will be. Unable to resist the pull of temporal gravity, I shuffle closer, breathless, wondering, and stare into the face of the Janus Factor.

You remember that ancient god, the two-headed coin, the backward glance fused to the brow-furrowed squint into the future? I’m well acquainted with this deity. As a writer, I have no real choice in the matter. My past accomplishments, documented by publication or rejection (plenty of those to call upon when ego threatens) drag at my heels. Future works hang like ripe fruit just beyond my outstretched hand. Borrowing a sports term, I teeter on the cusp of go-hard or go-home.

Among the multiple files on my computer are two serious contributors to my Janus factor: the first is a list of submissions, documented by date and cost and result. Each year going back to the true beginning of my writing career, that calendar day I realized if you send nothing out, nothing will happen, I have compiled proof that I’m not a dilettante at this writing business. I’m a serious practicioner of the art. The NO responses to submissions outnumber the YESes, but the pages prove my commitment.

The second crucial file is my idea box. It brims with titles and first lines and final paragraphs, bits and pieces of creativity awaiting a forever-home. They repose in unquiet lines, anxious, impatient, more than eager for their turn on the page.

Here, at the beginning of another year, I am caught between prior work and future production, between published pieces and works-in-progress.The looking-forward profile on my Janus coin trembles with nervous energy. “Get on with it,” the head advises. “Time passes.” The backward-facing silhouette sighs over past success, lost opportunity and the weight of daily living that gobbles time, prevents progress. Both counsel me to continue the quest. Auld lang syne might sound good on New Year’s Eve, but Carpe diem is best for tomorrow. Happy Writing Year!

Long Time, Longer Journey: A Groundhog in Training

The season’s blessings approach this winter of my discontent and I, steeped in the release of my latest novel and deep into the draft of my next venture, have rarely looked up from the keyboard. Yes, I’ve been ‘away’ for a while. The nightmare in November, otherwise known as the election, has sapped my will to post. How to reconcile the angst in a way that followers of both political persuasions can accept? Still, I carry on, hiking the fields, staring at the pond, drawing sustenance from the earth. Perhaps that is as it should be. I have borrowed from the groundhog playbook and settled into my winter den well before the weather shifts into gear.

There is value in withdrawing from stridency. Solitude begets calmness, increases fortitude, nurtures commitment. I make, and break, a vow to cut off contact with social media, arguing that a wound constantly bothered will refuse to scab and heal. The best of comments on the small screen are marred by the worst of attacks by smaller minds. But then here comes December, sneaking up behind to kick my sorry ass into a new dimension.

The holidays – Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanzaa, and others that fill this calendar month – beckon, not with consumeristic glee but with candles and cookies and prayer. That advent wreath on your table, that menorah in the dining room, that kwanzaa flame reminding me of virtues tested and found strong, shake their fiery fingers and whisper, “There is goodness in the world. Find it. Feed it. Carry it like an ember in the pocket of your soul.”

The road goes on forever, Bilbo Baggins said, and I am one more pilgrim trudging down the path. I’ll hunker down, draw within, fatten up for the journey to come, the rivers to ford, the battles to engage. I would like you to travel with me. Here, take my hand. After the clouds, the sun will shine.

Carving Pumpkins

 

One of my favorite October rituals is carving pumpkins for Halloween. As soon as those orange gourds appear on the gardening lots, I experience a visceral need to stroll the fields, weighing the choices. It is not an easy decision. Size, weight, and surface area are integral to the creation of funny, spooky or downright creepy pumpkin faces. Once the selection has occurred, I load the potential jack-o-lanterns on my cart and, Sisyphus-like, push them toward the car. Once home, I spend more time arranging them in suitable groupings. (Did I mention I don’t buy just one?!!) The carving itself waits until October 31st. That way, I have plenty of time to sketch out faces, prepare my special pumpkin knives and anticipate the tactile pleasure of pulling out pumpkin guts. The smell of the fleshy interior is distinctive and so very fall-ish. And those seeds, rinsed and de-gooed, make for tasty roasting. All in all, it’s a feast for the senses, to be sure.

Carving pumpkins is a lot like crafting a story. Anticipation plays a huge role in the preliminary writing stage. I wander through my ideas, searching for the strands that most speak to me in the moment. Once the decision is made, I collect the disparate elements and bring them to the page, contemplating the next step. What will happen as these characters develop? How will they look, act, think, react? Can I trust myself to create just the right tone as I write the story? With the initial decision clarified, placement of plot lines becomes central to the development of the work. Pacing can make or break a piece. My line-by-line synopsis grows as the story does, a useful guide for the more intricate carving to come. Change and re-arrange are essential elements. Once the draft is complete, the real work begins, the increasingly subtle use of the metaphorical knife to shave away the unnecessary bits and reveal the inner life.

October fades, like the light, echoing ancient rites, blending the pagan and the Christian as the calendar turns. Observing the blend of primitive and modern, listening to the excited greetings of miniature ghosts and superheroes, I am transported into fantasy and imagination, two places where the artistic and creative life thrives.Within the glow of candlelight and toothy pumpkin grins, I find inspiration to continue my journey through the fields of story.

Happy Carving!

How I Lost My Voice…And Found It Again

The day, the hour, the moment muteness descended on my writing voice crouches in the deepest corner of my heart, waiting to pounce at unexpected times. As my son’s birthday, May 27, approaches, I feel the memory uncurling, preparing to leap, determined to remind me that wounds can be dressed but some scars never heal.

Dayton Children’s Hospital, September, 1973. 11:00 a.m. A doctor I do not know explodes from his office, lifts my three-month old infant from my grasp and swings him in the air. My baby does his frog imitation, arms and legs flopping loosely, muscles limp.

“Mrs. Irvin.” The doctor frowns down at me. “You have every reason to be worried about this child.” Snap. The trajectory of my life swerves off course. My plan to raise a perfect family and write perfect stories jumps the tracks. My construct of the future collapses. I am strangled by a diagnosis so devastating, I can’t be certain I will ever speak, let alone write, again.  My son is profoundly retarded.

Profoundly, as in stunted growth, cerebral palsied limbs, a skull that fused too soon. At my side, my two-year old daughter stands, puzzled and shaky, as the tears run down my face. That day I join a subterranean society of families with children like mine. We are apart from the norm, engaged in a battle that we are destined to lose. There are few cures, limited options, pity but little empathy. After all, damaged offspring remind us all of vengeful Furies, Olympian punishment.  No matter how well I cared for myself and my child, disaster struck. When I step into this underground realm, a journey begins that will sear my soul. Writing is a luxury I no longer have time, strength or energy to pursue.

My husband and I roll the genetic dice. A third child is born, a second perfect daughter. The economic exigencies of caring for our son propel me to the workplace. I return to teaching, but my writing voice remains in lock down.  I scribble poems on napkins, story ideas on the margins of old letters. My random bursts of inspiration die in my throat. No tales emerge. I send out no submissions. Twenty years pass. In August of 1992, Scott passes away after an unsuccessful operation. My precious child is gone, my voice resting among his ashes.

One day a brochure for the Ohio Writing Project based at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, lands in my school mailbox. Proposal: Teachers as writers. Deep inside me, in that dungeon of abandoned desire, a spark ignites. I sign up for the course. I drive an hour and a half each day for six weeks to learn that I am not without talent. I fill a notebook with required writings. The concrete lid of my tomb cracks, slides free.

The following summer I scrape up money to attend the Antioch Writers Workshop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I’ve heard good things about the instructors. They offer afternoon critique sessions. Feedback for my work. Do I dare to open my narrative mouth? Now, finally, there can be only one answer. Yes.

I was mute, unable to free myself from sorrow until I found a way to grow beyond that trauma. The teachers at OWP and AWW believed in me. Their mentoring restored my voice to me. Since those two key events, I have published stories online and in print magazines and journals across the US, in Canada and in the UK. Last fall my first novel was published. My story is a poster: it is never too late to realize a dream. As long as one person believes in your voice, you can learn to sing.

Advice is usually worthless. We each follow the demands of our inner guide. But should you ask me how to find your voice, I would suggest you start with a course or a workshop where you can explore your creativity, find mentors to nurture you and meet fellow writers to encourage you as you open your heart.

A Gardener’s Guide to Writing (part I)

Sorting through the need-to-be-shredded pile of papers in my loft library, a never-ending story in itself, I encounter the bazillion tiny scraps of ideas I’ve penned along the trajectory of my daily life. On napkins. On memo pads. Across post-it notes. Embroidered along the margins of conference handouts. All those instant flights of fancy that I just know will make a great story…someday. Feeding the whine of the machine that turns old bills into thin ribbons of recyclable material, I catch myself rescuing my jottings from its jaws, uncertain as to their potential but unwilling to let them go. Like a gardener collecting heirloom seeds, I gather these words for my own private seed bank. Outside, spring rain patters on the roof, reminding me that what washes away today returns through the roots of the garden tomorrow. Cycle of life, indeed.

Across my desk sprawl the innocent kernels of story. I save up contest forms and conference invites like a gardener planning for her next crop. Not every pip becomes a seedling. Some fall away, unable to flourish in the rocky ground I offer them. More wither from inattention. Too many voices, too little time. A few simply fail to thrive, their chance at fruition overshadowed by more vigorous and sturdy tales. But, oh, those wanton scribblings enrich my writer’s soil. Tucked away in folders, typed into my idea file, they become my writer’s compost. Dozing in the dark, churned and heated by the weight of reflection, those ideas ferment and mingle. I turn them occasionally, water with questions and add new bits. And then, wondrous indeed, I watch the shoots push their way through the ground. All that mental prep yields such surprising bounty, if only I have patience enough.

How do you tend your writer’s garden?

Making the Writer’s Dream Real: creating a vision board for 2016

vision board

While winter churns its way toward spring, here in the heart of January, I contemplate the road already traveled and make plans for the trip to come. As an assist to my musings, the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared this 2015 annual report for my blog. (See below) How useful to see what I’ve been doing. Useful and instructive and a goad to starting the new year well.

First, I look back at that which was. Since most of 2015 was consumed by work on my first novel, I wrote fewer blogs than I intended and fell behind in following others. I expended the bulk of my energy on my debut novel, The Dark End of the Rainbow. (Oh, and there was the brain surgery and the procedure to remove a skin cancer from my nose, but who wants to dwell on those procedures?) My well-intentioned vow to post more blogs was swallowed by the need to polish, publish and publicize the book.

Then, I glance ahead. Most of 2016 will be taken up by work on my sophomore novel, The Rules of the Game. I see no way to avoid the intense concentration required to take this idea from kernel to full-blown pop. For me, immersion in the creating and the revising entails pursuit of the writing with single-minded fervor. I find it difficult to digress to other projects. Perhaps my resolve to post more blogs will drift away as it did in 2015. This is a problem I am determined to solve. But how?

Recently, I had the opportunity to ground my mental checklist in a visual way. A group of writers from the Dayton area met for food and fellowship and to create vision boards to help us focus on the year. We searched through magazines for pictures and words that fit the goals we hope to achieve this year. This concrete and tactile effort allowed us to ‘see’ the dreams we hold for ourselves, as writers and as human beings. Still, amidst the creative, the grand wish to create and publish, there must be the mundane, the chores and the errands that keep us all grounded in the reality of daily life. And it is the details of our lives that give substance to our creative ones. How can I reconcile these two necessary parts of my whole?

At the meeting, I took a poster board and began to dream. Not surprisingly, my selections from the magazines were more prose that pictures. Write from the Heart… read, write, be read… the world is Bigger than we Imagine. To no one’s surprise, each writer in the group chose to visualize her year in a completely different way. Several boards contained more pictures than writing, more family goals than individual ones, more specific plans than general ends. We found the process and the outcome so delicious, we’re going to reconvene for Vision Board 2.0, come back together to describe and discuss our boards. In the sharing, we hope to find strength and support for the work ahead.

You know, newspaper advertisements at the beginning of a new year include, with some frequency, organizing items: bins, shelving, storage units. It is such a basic human proclivity, to clarify at the beginning where we hope to be at the end. Creating a vision board is a writer’s way to do that for our work. The idea is not mine. It is borrowed from other visionaries, who coupled writing and art to allow those of us who work in words to express our goals in an artful way, a way that allows us to focus and refine. My vision board is not static. It is a fluid reminder of where I’ve been and where I hope to go. I can add or subtract, revise and re-vision. And each day, as I sit down to write, I see the path I’ve laid out for myself and take the first step. Again and again and again, until I reach the end.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 270 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Celebrating the Two-Headed Beast: A Toast to Time

New Year’s Eve…one foot in the past, one in the future. We watch a ball drop, twine arms and sip champagne and the months of the old year wind out behind us like a scroll. January…weather alerts and bowl games. February…does he/she love me, does he  not? March…the winds blow, carrying the faint aroma of rebirth before the cold clamps down again. April, T.S. Eliot’s cruelest month…but you get the picture. Twelve months gone. Our past is written, at times in lyric poetry, often in doggerel, but it is known. Notice I don’t say knowable, for hidden within those 365 finished days are secret troves of revelation and understanding, of growth and wisdom. We just need time to discover them all.  And time is what the new year brings us.

At midnight, that most arbitrary of moments arrives. One tick of the clock and we begin a new set of days, each one linked in a chain of events as yet a mystery. The future becomes a red carpet rolled out before us. A golden doorway beckons. One glance backward and we forge ahead, at once timid and bold. Who among us knows what to expect? Nothing is guaranteed, not even the next minute. Stepping into the unknown is an act of courage. No wonder we fortify ourselves for the journey.

On my writing desk, I keep a calendar, one with large blocks in which to record the mundanities of my day to day life. At the end of each year, I catalog the trips to the dentists, the days I pay bills, flight arrangements and meetings. Then, I go back through the pages, remembering the lunch dates with friends, the theatre excursions, the books I have read, all my walks in the wild. I total those precious hours when joy, not obligation, visited my life. And in the summing up of days gone past, I set a pattern for the days to come.

The Romans had a god for this, Janus, whose two-headed likeness dwelt in both realms. Past and future were not disconnected but merged, their gift to us double- faceted. The coins of our lives bind us to past and future, to what was and what shall be. We cannot have all work or all play, all joy or all sorrow. Life, in all its complexity, demands our attention. Yet we do have choices, to be positive or negative, to strive for the mountaintop or dwell in the cellar. The past may be etched in stone, but the future is a blank canvas.

This new year, I intend to borrow an activity from a writer friend and create a poster board on which I will paste a collection of items that represent my future, a visual representation of the goals, activities and paths I wish to pursue. Then I will hang it above my work desk, a reminder of the road I wish to take. Why such a project? Because before I can reach those goals, before I can walk those paths, I must dream them.Seeing them hanging there will serve as a tangible reminder of the year to come.

In the aftermath of the New Year’s Eve mania, I will lay me down to dream the future into being, welcoming as much of life as I can, facing the storms and the rainbows to come with as much strength as I can, thankful for the opportunity to go forward one more time.

Happy New Year!