In November, I was hit by a delivery truck (while a pedestrian) in a parking lot. This mostly impacted my already shaky left shoulder, which has been frozen (Google “frozen shoulder” for more info.) thrice this decade.
My answer to this accident: begin Mandolin lessons, even if it hurts. Life is too short to not (at least) attempt learning my favorite instrument.
Last week, on the day after Christmas, my feet slipped out from underneath me while I was taking out our puppy (our 65-pound puppy) at 6 am. I fell and struck my upper back on the stairs leading out to our patio. I had the leash around my right wrist at the time. My fall jerked puppy June back and the leash pulled the tendon away from my right thumb. With the wind knocked out of me, I looked up at the stars on the patio (it was a warmish morning and I was in my pjs only–no jacket to insulate from the cold cement or the hard steps) and wondered what Louise Hay would say about the energy involved in these two upper back injuries, so close together. At that moment, my back hurt so much, my thumb injury hadn’t yet registered and would only be caught by the orthopedic doctor during the ensuing morning spent with my daughter at a local urgent care.
As I face towards 2020, I can hardly type and I can no longer practice my mandolin, on which I was already learning my second song and had been surprising myself with my dedication to practicing each day.
At the end of a very long Minnesota winter, I spent four days at a cottage on the North Shore of Lake Superior. I tend to wake early when my soul is near Lake Superior; she is my muse. On the third day of our stay, I rose at 4:45 a.m. with this phrase in my mind:
I do it to speak to the joy inside of me.
While brewing a cup of green jasmine tea, I watched a faint pinkish glow spread across the eastern horizon of the dark frozen lake.
Settled in with my tea, sitting in the quiet, I turned my rising mantra into a question:
What do I do that speaks to the joy inside of me?
Here are the answers that came to me that morning:
I willingly rise at pre-dawn, when I am called awake;
I brew my favorite green jasmine tea (repeat often);
I show up to places ripe with the energy of creation, whether it is to a pre-sunrise morning over a lake or showing up to my computer and/or notepad regularly to spin a story from my dreams, from reality, or (ideally) both;
I forgive myself when I fail, over and over to show up to the energy of creation. This business of showing up is simple, but not easy. I must continually forgive myself and begin again;
I listen, I pay attention, I notice where the flow is in my life. Even when my entire life seems stagnate and frozen like the lake, flow is always present somewhere, deep down;
I dress in warm clothing at dawn and brave the extreme cold to take photos;
Even on an 11-degree day, even when the frozen lake seems silent, seagulls still sing at dawn. So too, I listen for the songs rising in me, the ones on the surface and those residing in my deeper currents;
When taking a photo, I consciously determine what to keep inside the frame of the photo and what to keep out. Thoughts are like this too, thoughts come with choices; if we are paying attention, if we are being mindful, we can direct the flow of our thoughts;
When the rising sun becomes too powerful to continue watching across the lake, I turn 90 degrees and watch its light glint off frozen boulders of lake ice or turn 180 degrees and watch its light dancing against the cottage wall. So too in life, I’ve learned to turn, to turn 350 degrees if I need to. By shifting my perspective, I will undoubtedly find beauty even when I can’t walk forward or backward; and,
I allow the dishes to wait when my soul and spirit have things to say; I offer up my mind and full attention to taking my soul’s dictation. Taking time to really notice and observe the creation in front of (and inside) me will provide fuel for my days necessary “to do” list.
*Video from a December visit to the Great Lake, Superior, when she was not yet frozen.
Back home now, I embrace this list, this invocation to joyful living; I embrace this list with the awareness that it is by know means the definitive guide. I will revisit it often. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear about what things and/or actions speak to the joy in you.
I read recently that the definition of a professional is someone who works daily at the things she loves, even on those days she doesn’t love them so much.
As 2018 comes to a close, I’ve found myself questioning whether I really am a writer. I can sum up the external net results of this year pretty quickly. I published two pieces early in the year, a review and a personal essay. I had one other flash essay accepted in late summer, but it has not published and I cannot get the venue to respond to my request for an expected pub date (although I’ve already been paid for the piece). Nothing makes me feel less like a validated writer than a lack of response from a publishing venue.
It’s not as if I haven’t been plugging away at my writing; I have. I’ve even written one of my favorite essays to date. Since November, I’ve submitted the essay to four dream publications. I am committed to seeing this essay through to publication where, in the past, I’ve often quit after the first few rejections. I will keep on submitting this one down the line of most desired publications.
I’ve submitted 38 times this year–many of those are still outstanding. I think my “goal” last year was to submit 100 times. I guess I fell short of that goal, but the intention behind the goal had me submitting at least twice as much as I did in 2017. Part of the issue now is that I’ve become more selective with where I want to publish. Perhaps I need to view this as a sign of the developing writing professional in me.
In August I attended Hippocampus Magazine’s annual writing conference for creative nonfiction writers–HippoCamp–for the first time. After this marvelous conference, I signed on as a reader for Hippocampus, fulfilling an intention of mine that took shape in grad school. Reading essays each week for Hippocampus is an act of literary citizenship and an education, all in one.
During the first half of this year, I worked intently on my memoir-in-progress. I thought it was complete but developments in my life over the summer made me rethink that “doneness.” I put it aside and, this fall, signed up for Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words class for the first time (although I’ve attended many of Kate’s retreats). Even after receiving my MFA in CNF, Kate’s class had much to teach me. That’s where I began (and completed) my *favorite* essay–a long form essay. I also began another promising essay that I’ve let rest during the month of December.
December was devoted to my own health. Menopause has been doing a number on me this past year. I finally admitted that–30 years later–it was time to return to treatment for an ugly eating disorder that has reared its head along with my changing hormones (not unlike adolescence). I had to hit pause on my writing practice.
Health first. Health always first. I cannot write effectively when 75% of my brain and soul is devoted to thoughts about food and self-imposed body politics.
To be perfectly honest, 2018 has been kind of a sucky year for me. I am ready to brush the dust off my feet and move on. I hope that renewed mental health and a new maturity (and decreased hot flashes) are on the horizon for next year.
Earlier today, I also read the latest from Assay Journal (a piece by Vivian Wagner) on writing book reviews as a form of literary citizenship. I am bookmarking Wagner’s essay, which provides a clear way forward for writing more (and better) book reviews.
So here are my intentions for 2019:
Keep on writing, even when I am not loving it;
Tell myself I am a writer, daily;
Return to my memoir when it calls to me (I know it will);
Continue to finish some of those many essays trapped in my computer and send them out into the world on a regular basis;
Write a handful of book reviews;
Get emotionally right side up;
Learn to use my “real” camera;
Walk more, sit less;
Keep on swimming to the other side of menopause; and,
When I woke up this morning, I was hit by the realization that the time period covered by my writer’s contract had expired. This is a contract I entered into last year (prompted by Professor Kate Whouley) as I exited my MFA program. I haven’t often referred back to the terms of the agreement, but I’ve allowed my days (and year) to be governed by its key directive: write, only write.
In a follow-up blog post, I undertake a performance (self) review to evaluate my compliance with the terms of this agreement. To give context to that later blog post, I am copying my writer’s contract here:
Dear Idea Heidi (aka Heidi Parton),
From our past dealings, I know that you like movement and action; you crave progress. I get it and I appreciate the many times this trait has served our joint enterprise. I am, however, asking that you thoughtfully consider my offer of a one-year contract of employment. Your “work,” during this year’s time, will be simply to practice the art of waiting. Indeed, it will be much like a vacation for you; I plan on doing the heavy lifting this year. But I need your full cooperation.
To be in full compliance with the terms of this agreement, you must not seek out additional employment (even if the brightest, shiniest job announcement or offer comes along) during the entire calendar year, commencing on June 1, 2017 and ending on May 31, 2018. Any move toward “outside” employment, will be taken as a violation of the non-compete that I will be asking you to sign, in exchange for the full consideration of the opportunity to explore the job of your choice (be it in teaching, publishing, bookselling or otherwise) at the end of this term without any resistance from me.
As further consideration, if you do find your so-called “dream” job (after the term of this contract), I will no longer whine to you about not getting proper writing time. You will be free to engage with the broader world unhampered by my nagging pleas for more time to write. I promise that I will, at that point, be content to slip my writing into the margins of your employment situation. To gain this career freedom, however, you must sit back, rest, and wait out the entire term of our contract.
Because I know how impatient you are with inaction, I’ve outlined my mission statement and plan for the year below. Please trust that I will be using our time in an efficient and productive manner.
I will encourage and uplift other creative nonfiction writers, of which I am one, on their writing paths. The success of each writer will be celebrated as my own. We all win when we tell our stories and bring our truths into the world. There is not “you and me,” only ever all of us, here together. There are no finite limits on publishing opportunities. These opportunities only grow and expand as the world has more opportunity to be introduced to an ever-increasing supply of compelling, well-written works of creative nonfiction.
I will participate in the world of creative nonfiction on a daily basis. I will find ways to celebrate the wonder of emerging talent and stories, mine and those of other writers.
Plan for Diligent Execution of “Free” Year of a Writing Life
During this year I pledge to:
Spend at least fifteen hours per week on my own writing (strive for a minimum of 2,500 words each week);
Read creative nonfiction books (at least one book per month) and, after reading, take at least one of the following actions:
Reach out to the writer directly about their book
Write a review on Goodreads
Tweet the book, copying author when available
Write blog post/review
Write review to submit to literary journals;
Read at least two essays each week in online literary journals and comment on one;
Continue administrative role in The Fisher Cats—an online writing group of “motherhood” writers—encouraging submissions and celebrating the publishing success of group members;
Submit a minimum of one new essay or poem (to multiple publications) per month;
Attend writer-based events in my own local literary community (at least one per month) AND network at event;
Get together for coffee or a meal with other writer(s) once a month (breaking bread with those of similar interests/backgrounds lowers stress and burnout risk);
Make time for three writer’s retreats (at least one carried out in solitude);
Read four books outside of my genre (for these purposes, graphic memoir will be considered “out of genre”);
Take two relevant writing classes at The Loft Literary Center;
Continue steady work and progress on my memoir (at least 5,000 words/month); and,
Search for an agent or submit directly to indie publishers and/or contests (when or if my memoir feels ready).
In full consideration for signing the below non-compete, the undersigned will be, on June 1, 2018, granted full and unencumbered permission to search for paid employment in the the world of publishing, teaching, or book selling (or, even, to pursue your interest in becoming a death doula).
Very truly yours,
Heidi Fettig Parton
(AKA Writer Heidi)
Your signature below will serve as the full and complete execution of the non-compete agreement set forth in the above letter.
I’m always holding back. I hold back my writing, because maybe I’ll use it somewhere else someday. Maybe there will be a better time or place to put my words out into the world.
I hold back feelings of hope in a futile attempt to tamp down the potential for disappointment.
I hold back feeling joy, in an effort to stave off feeling sadness.
I hold back love. I’m not sure why I hold back love. I sense it has something to do with trying to keep chaos at bay. For me, love and chaos were once intimately linked. At the very least, I know I hold back love when my world is at its most chaotic. For example, whenever my youngest son’s health issues creep into the forefront of our lives, as they have this fall, I fold deeper into myself. My capacity to show love to those in my life declines. My life becomes singularly focused on trying to control the uncontrollable: my son’s health.
I attended Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words writing retreat in northern Wisconsin two weeks ago. It was my fourth time attending this retreat; I always come away with new insight and new words. I’m still shaping some of the essays I started at that retreat and I’m mulling over the direction I received from Kate, other attendees, and my inner guidance: overhaul your entire manuscript. Begin again. Rewrite it a fourth time. This time, actually retype the whole thing. I’m kind of resisting the direction right now. I know this because I started applying for editorial jobs. Wouldn’t it be better to be an editor again, rather than a writer, I ask myself. I ignore the writing contract that I made with myself last May, when I graduated with my MFA, when I agreed to let my “writing self” have a year before my “get-shit-done self” stepped in and told writing self to get a real job.
Even in my resistance, I’m still thinking about the rewrite and how it will be done, how the manuscript will be shaped so differently this time around. I’m reading about five memoirs right now. Reading to observe structure, more than to absorb content. That said, I’m sucking the marrow out of Claire Dederer’s Poser: my life in twenty-three yoga poses. I’ve come late to the Poser party, but am so glad I came.
Another bit of wisdom I brought back with me from Wisconsin is an idea that another writer shared. This writer shares a first name with me, so it’s only natural that her wisdom would resonate deep within. She told us she was trying to move from “ego writing” to “soul writing.” She described the difference. Ego writing resists going deep and, instead, slips safely along the surface. Soul writing, in contrast, dares to reveal the shadow side, dares to become all it can be. In other words, soul writing doesn’t hold back.
It feels scary to me, but I am going to watch for the places where I am holding back. In those places, once observed, I will ask myself if I can give a little more. I will take small steps until it no longer seems so scary to give myself to my writing, my loves, my life.
Like birds do, I want to enter each day with a feeling of abundance and generosity. I’m tired of living small; I’m tired of holding back.