Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Moment I Knew

I don’t remember my first kiss much. Or my first date. Or that boy with dark wavy hair in seventh grade who played the saxophone during band class. Okay, maybe I remember him a teensy bit. But I do remember the first time I wrote something and it gave me a thrill.

Let’s call it The Moment I Knew.

The Moment I Knew didn’t seem like any particular moment at all. At least, it didn’t at the time. In fact, it could have happened in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade. Some of the finer details are a little fuzzy now. What I do remember is locking myself up in my bedroom in Clinton, Missouri, pop. 3,600, and writing a story about a woman who had grown up without electricity. I had interviewed the woman to write an essay for a contest. The Rural Electric Cooperatives of Missouri were offering students the chance to win a trip to Washington, DC. Didn’t that sound special? To a girl from pop. 3,600 Clinton, MO, it sounded more than special.

I asked my parents and friends of my parents for ideas about whom to interview. Several of them suggested a woman who had a warm reputation in town, Mrs. Vansant, who was somehow related to the local funeral home owners. This seemed a strange detail to remember, but not when you’re a kid from pop. 3,600 Clinton, MO. In small towns, folks were known for their strangeness, as if they had a patch on their sleeves that they’d wear about town—to the grocery store (Country Market), the only burger joint in town (Mr. Swiss), and the roller rink (that played ‘60s music). Oh goodness, I never saw Mrs. Vansant at the roller rink. She was in her eighties.

I called and made an appointment to interview her. She lived only a few blocks from my house in a neat duplex. When I say neat, I mean well-kept and tidy, not neat as in cool. Cool as in hip, not cool as in cold. Hip as in … oh, you get the idea. I vaguely remember taking a tape recorder to the interview. It might not have worked. We talked for an hour, and she imparted the story of how in her youth, at about my age, electricity first came to her home and neighborhood.

Admittedly, the details of her story take a back seat to mine. My memory doesn’t include so much her story as the sheer joy I took in writing an essay about her that eventually won the contest. I probably waited until the night before the deadline to write the essay. Hey, I was still a kid then, not a writer. There’s a recollection of a stern look or two from my parents. But once I committed to the page, the words flowed.
Not mine, though I wish it were.

One word in particular stands out in my memory. My first dictionary at my side, I decided to look up a different word for “resident.” It sounded too pedestrian (that’s another way of saying normal). In my newly induced writer’s zone, I found a beautiful fresh word. Denizen. Look it up. I had learned a new word, and it made me fall in deep like with language.

The rest of the essay came together, probably after a first, second, third draft. Back then I had a crummy electric typewriter that didn’t have proper erasing capabilities. I recall a few smudges, perhaps a tiny eraser hole in the paper. But my most distinct memory is the joy of the process. It was The Moment I Knew—that I knew writing was a gift of mine. That whatever was causing such a great ah-ha was darn cool by me. It was thrilling, no exaggeration. The weaving of the story, the typewriter ribbon, and the clackity-clack-clack of the keys on the platen (that’s the name of the black round cylinder in an old typewriter), every part of it made me happy. Could the hum of a writing machine and the ease of crafting a story be so wonderful?

This euphoric epiphany (look it up) didn’t dawn on me until much later in life. The Moment I Knew has had time to grow in grand scale to what it actually was. It was fun. Plain. Simple. Fun. And here I am, still clackity-clack-clacking away, thirty-five years later, searching for that next cool word.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Your Writing and the Snowflake

All the words have been written before. All the great lines have been published. The killer plots have been monetized and made into movies. DNA will be mapped. Clones, mass produced. Droids will replace the workforce. Stop now. It's no use.

Except, the snowflake.
Ollie and snow.

How can it be that one snowflake can never perfectly match another? (And I'm not talking about this snowflake.)

Snow forms by falling through the air and is determined by the path it takes to the ground. Water vapor is susceptible to its environment. So, you humanists out there, take heart that environment is more important that pre-determined factors about the source of the water vapor.

My writing, your writing, develops like the snowflake. No one else can write your story because no one else has lived through what you've lived through. You might make mistakes in style, technique, plausibility, wordiness, grammar, but the story is all yours. You might bore everyone by pg. 6, but it's all your boringness, and no one else's. (Congratulations, you're a bore!)

If we writers put our computers away and never write another sentence again, because we think we can't sell our stories, or because we do, in fact, bore people, what do we have left? Would it be like a world without snow? Now that sounds like the interesting start of a good story.

So, I write this blog for me and say that I write it for readers who have an interest in writing (or who know who I am or want to know more). But, mainly, I write it for me. Because I don't feel like a snowflake. I try to convince myself, "Yes, yes, you are meritorious in your pursuit," when a sense of futility weighs more on the scale.

Even famous, prescient writers felt this way. Octavia Butler often wrote notes to remind herself of her standing as an accomplished writer. She needed personal affirmation, even as an award-winning best-seller.

Who am I writing for? A commercial audience or myself? Does it matter? Maybe, like a snowflake, my writing is a singular, floating, temporary entity. Just me.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Writing Time Conundrum

It's past 11 p.m., not a good sign for a writer who goes to bed semi-early. I'm tired, but this blog has been calling me to give it a good helping of something for a while. Hello, blog, here's a spoonful.

My toes are cold because I'm outside shoeless on my screened-in porch, a new addition to my life. I wish to report that my writing is flowing freely these days on the porch and that the next novel is just moments away from being for sale. No. Not the case. My life has become far too busy. And here is where I stumble: What do I give up to take back the writing time?

Random cute puppy photo from my sis-in-law.
My cousin asked me a few months ago if I made any money at it. You mean, writing books, I asked. He nodded. No, I admitted. Not the fake stuff. Not the stories from my imagination. Nor the poems. Those don't turn the lights on or put gravy on my potatoes, and that's why it's hard to justify the necessary concentration/time it takes to put out something good. My "product," if you will, has a process, as does every writer's. Mine comes out about the same way I read, quite slowly. I was never a quick reader. It takes me weeks, often, to finish a good book, even if it's a page-turner. I don't rush through reading, and this also makes me a slow writer.

Although these blogposts take me about 20 mins to draft. Why is that? I just basically spit them out at you. Sorry about that. Here's a tissue.

There's a chicken/egg catch, too. If I wrote more, I might get faster, and I might make more money, and then I could write more. You see where this is going. So, here I am writing. Is it working yet?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Literary Circus in Asheville, North Carolina

Look at those beauties! Writers, all of us. We've become a "thing." An Asheville creative collective of women who write and perform. Of all the ways I could expend energy, this has become one of the most fun and uplifting because we're redefining what it means to be successful writers in a commercial, hypercritical literary culture.

Not that we don't care about quality. We do. We're each interested in improving our work. For Randi Janelle (far left, purple hair) that means cultivating a creative life and mind, channelling, being happy, teaching yoga, and performing. For Alli Marshall (second from left, striped scarf, closed eyes), this means writing every day at dawn because she loves it, working with other artists to make new art, leading a local writing group, and memorizing poems...because, well, shouldn't you? For Nina Hart (middle, abracadabra hand), her work has evolved into a full-time career as a writing and creativity coach. Watch out for Nina--she can spot negative self-speak before the paint is dry on your faux mea culpa, and she may give you a sock monkey to stay positive.

Photo by Adam MacMillan
As for the last gal on the far right (in turquoise and impossible scarf), she's still figuring it out. She's more about flying by the seat of her pants, playing it fast and loose, scribbling a poem, pecking away at a novel, writing a public letter that uses the word pu**y (the cat, silly!) about 25 times (yes, I read it at the Fringe Festival. No video!). She loves playing with words, publishing a few other than her own, and maybe someday, a few of her thoughts strung together will see the light in an eager audience's eyes.

We came together to take the downer out of being unknowns. With financial rewards and wide recognition seemingly out of reach, we decided to make our goals less about admiration/acclaim and more about pushing the boundaries, airing our creative voices, and enjoying the writing more. A year into this experiment, it's going well. We've had four successful events (with public participation), and we're planning to publish a zine later this year. The fun may just be starting. Hula-hooping encouraged. Bring your sock monkeys.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Maybe Stuck Means Something Else

Okay. I'll admit it. I'm stuck. Not writing much of anything these days that would fall under the category "creative." Oh, I did write a nice little one-liner poem a few mornings ago: "Tiny mouse, the end of your nose is just the beginning." It has potential.

Flipping through my journal tonight, I ran across a notation from last June, when I felt the same malaise. By the way, journals are good for seeing your patterns of thought.

"I haven't written in months. It's almost like I've lost the will to write. Not the will to live, just the will to write anything creative. This is not a sad place. It is just a place. Like a dead space that Moses may have created when he parted the Red Sea." (Funny, this close to Easter and I think, Charlton Heston. I was thinking this a year ago, too.)

"I think of that scene in the movie when people walk down into the sea next to two solid masses of walls of water. Many were scared, but they did it and walked into the void. I guess I'm there, trusting it's the right place to be right now, not knowing how long I'll be in this strange void.

"I don't really have the desire to write on any of my projects. They are just unfinished pieces. Some are done, and some aren't, and I really couldn't care less either way. I've let go of the guilt of being non-productive."

Today, same. No shift. Just stasis. Non-productive dry sea bed.

Except, tiny mouse.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Art and Hope

Cynicism must be a gene buried deep in the cerebral DNA. That tiny nodule has a pretty good hold on my outlook. How much of our condition is nature versus nurture? I look at my kids and think: Jeez, they turned out so much differently than each other, and yet they essentially had the same environment.

I'm seeing the world change. I wonder if the '60s felt like this, a similar kind of sweeping tide of impossible politics and public distaste. My parents were not protestors. My dad was too old to go to Vietnam, and my mother was busy with two little kids. Domesticity occupied them. Not that they weren't smart and didn't have opinions, just other obligations took up their time.

Asheville protest, Jan 2017
There's a collective call among my friend base to get off our duffs and do something. My plug-in goes right to the news feeds, the ones that legitimately offer objective reporting. I hear you laughing. Objective? Right, you say. But the notion floating around from on high that credible journalism doesn't exist is false. Good reporting is still out there, and the cretins who suggest that all journalists are not worth a dogpile is itself a dogpile. Facts are still verifiable. Eye witness accounts matter. Seeking the input of many sources to put news together is fundamental. Be skeptical of what you read, but be smart. Read broadly. Understand the law. The law may be our only buoy in this sea change.

Our freedom to speak and to do it in public with a poster board may look and feel whiny, but I'm glad we have the right to whine. Let's whine with all our hearts.

Last month, at the Asheville Fringe Festival, I heard protest poetry. Art becomes a tool for the political. Weave a few words into a piece, and suddenly the writer becomes an activist, a visionary, a hope-giver. In a larger sense, isn't the art of great people or the great art of unknown people what we remember? A powerful phrase? Or a compelling photograph that changes public opinion? Or a novel that raises the hair on our perspective? An unforgettable speech? Or maybe just a poster.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Looking Back to Look Ahead: 2017

Never you mind all the unfinished projects in your life going into 2017. If you don't have a few things left to do, what's the point in getting out of bed?

Happy New Year, or maybe scary new year, depending upon your perspective. I tend to take the long-view of life, see events on a long arc of history, but this doesn't always happen, and often, nagging thoughts about my to-do list get the best of me. My to-do list never ends, and this makes me feel unproductive. But moving into a new year, let's take stock.

Overall, 2016 was a poor writing year for me. Personally, I wrote zero fiction. Zero fiction is not a new genre, like emo manga (which by the way, may or may not be a genre; it just sounds like it should be). Zero fiction, if I were to invent it, would be fiction without punctuation marks. Probably already exists and is labeled something else.

"Licking Flames" Diana Kirk
No, what I mean is that I didn't write anything last year that could be classified as fiction. This sounds as if I were a lazy bum in 2016, but in fact, I was busier than ever. I went back to school, foolishly, to study IT. Guess what? I'm a better writer than a computer programmer. PHP made me crazy. Bleech.

Fortunately, I kept my little micro-press engines boiling by editing and publishing a really great collection of essays by Diana Kirk, who lives in my adopted second home, Portland, Ore. Her project, of the many in my 2016 planner, took a great deal of focus because we essentially started from scratch. She didn't have a manuscript, per se. She had a loose collection. Her book came out Dec. 1. All of you, go buy it. She's outrageous. Strong. Ballsy. Hilarious. She's a go-getter who pushed Black Bomb Books (BBB) to a new level. Her book is "Licking Flames: Tales of a Half-Assed Hussy" and definitely A+ material.

"Diamonds and Moths"
Next, I worked with another writer, my friend Steve Wechselblatt, on a book of short stories, which will be published by BBB this March. He'd been running several short stories through a critique group that we'd formed, and I thought they deserved an airing. His book "Diamonds and Moths" will be the fifth title for BBB.

I've also been reading manuscripts because I'd like to publish a memoir. Two submissions on are on my list to read this month. I read one in October by a woman who was a dominatrix for most of her adult life. And, she had already written about the subject successfully for her own small press and is considered an authority on the pleasure of pain in sex. Wow. It was a pretty interesting subject, but in the end, I decided against it. It was written well, but I look at new work and ask myself, 'Do I want to spend a year on this?' And sometimes my gut answer is no. Selecting material is all subjective and gives me a new perspective on why agents and publishing houses don't say yes very often.

Frances Figart "Seasons of Letting Go"
I spent a considerable part of the summer working for a few magazines, specifically The Laurel of Asheville and Carolina Home + Garden, both wonderful regional publications. The Laurel work led me to help the new editor, Frances Figart, publish a book about her perspectives on grief. She helped her mother during the final months of her life. I worked as a publishing consultant to funnel her book, "Seasons of Letting Go: Most of what I know about truly living I learned by helping someone die," into channels for publication. It's available now and is selling well.

I also finally started the motions to layout a non-fiction book that has been put away in a folder for some time, one of my own, a compilation of magazine articles about artists in the Northwest from my reporting for a trade journal about leather goods. While living in Portland, I met many people who make a living with their hands creating boots and saddle and tack, beautiful stuff, and now that book will come out in 2017. I had a draft of it finished two years ago. But, good intentions often fall to the wayside.

"The Gulf of Folly" Doug Storm
I would be remiss not to mention the poetry collection BBB put out last February, a fine volume of work by Doug Storm in Bloomington, Indiana. As a set, like Steve's essays, Doug's poems work some sort of magic when grouped together. Maybe my long-view of life also informs my editorial self. On a side note, Doug resisted titling his book "The Gulf of Folly," a reference to a Melville passage, but I finally convinced him it was the strongest one of a long, long list. Those damn lists, again.

All this happened in 2016 while I moved back into the professional sector. I'm lending my skills to improve understanding of the science behind climate and weather, and oh, the many new things I've learned tell me the world is in a tentative place.

I will be returning to writing fiction again this year. I'm clearing space to finish my last Musketeer book. It's taken me a while to create the time, but this will happen in 2017. And then, there's that novella on my list...