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!

A Gardener’s Guide to Writing (part II)

Status update: I’m feeling quite Juney these days. June bugs by the porch lights…Juneteenth celebration upcoming…anniversaries of June weddings…even the June-ipers are blooming with berries (okay, that one’s a stretch, but the observation is true!). The raised garden beds rendered a fine crop of cool-weather spinach and lettuce. Now those plants are wilting, while the peas hang heavy on their stalks, the carrots and green onions are sprouting and the tomatoes…well, they’re just getting started. To everything, as the Bible says, there is a season.

Ideas are like seeds, surprising in their appearance, responding to the proper stimulus, reaching toward the sky when well-established. With careful tending, each will blossom and bear fruit. But sometimes the terrain is just too inhospitable, the winds too strong. Sometimes they just fall on rocky soil. Past performance is not the measure of future yield.

In my Documents file and in folders stashed in my file cabinet, I have pages filled with titles and opening lines and plots. This is my secret seed bank, stockpiled against the Armageddon of writer’s block, although if I’m being honest, that has never been my problem. Rather, I have an overabundance of stories, far too many to cultivate now. Too little time, too little space. Just like in my garden, I’m forced to cull the crops. If I leave all those little carrotlings growing, not a one of them will become a full-grown carrot. So, too, with my tales.  For ideal harvest, I must doom some to oblivion so that others may persevere. Truthfully? I lean heavily on faith. What else explains my willingness to believe  that the tiny seed in my hand/head, buried in the dirt of my garden/imagination will actually give rise to something wonderful?

How do you select the best kernels to sow? I examine my ideas for size and weight and viability. The shriveled, the half-husked, the runts I toss or combine with other, sturdier seeds. Such specificity may mean I overlook the one prize-winner among them, but I can’t dwell on might-have-beens. Like the seeds that flourish, the stories that thrive and grow and produce the best result are those I have chosen, cherished, tended and plucked at their peak moments. Good writers, like good gardeners, know that they are at the mercy of the elements — some plants/tales just don’t make it to the table.

Happy planting!

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!