Summer ’19: Dog Days Become Book Days

Right after my son’s grade school let out for the summer, we decided the timing was right to add a puppy to our family. The following Saturday (6/15/19) we brought home a 10-week old bernedoodle. Her name: June Carter.

10-week old June

I knew it would be a summer filled with little else but puppy training and monitoring; I signed on for the job. But the reality was even more work, more chaos, and more sleep deprivation than I had anticipated. My husband has said he would not do it again. I am less sure.

5-month old June

She is, after all, pretty cute. This is true even if she spends most of the day “playing” with Bilbo (the cat) and Bilbo spends most of his days executing complex mind games against June. This is true even if June’s bladder is not yet an extended-wear model.

With June the dog and my nine-year old underfoot this summer, I rarely achieved the deeper dive I need for writing; in consequence, I read more than I wrote this summer. I guess you could say June helped me remember the joy of summer reading.

I rediscovered the benefit of checking out books from the library: a firm deadline.

Six of the memoirs I read (all pictured above) involved death or debilitating (potentially mortal) injuries and/or disease. I am drawn to such memoirs and an entire shelf of my home library is devoted to the topic of death and dying. For fun, I read a historical account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s various historical dwellings in Minnesota. He lived in a surprising number of places. The Fitzgerald book has inspired a new (or, more accurately, revived) essay-in-progress.

Favorite summer reading location; a hammock in my backyard.

Two of my writer friends, Joy Riggs and Katy Yocom (Bilbo can’t stop talking about Katy’s book), published books this summer. I highly recommend both books! My final summer read was a collection of essays by Randon Billings Noble. This book flows seamlessly, from one essay to the next. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book of essays so quickly. I will link to reviews of these books (links on the authors’ names), once I have them up on Goodreads.

Perhaps you didn’t know you can support an author by reviewing their books online. It’s all about good “litizenship” (being a good literary citizen). I stole this term from Hippocampus Magazine, where I serve on their editorial staff as a reader. I am not certain if Hippocampus was the originator of the term, but I like it! I love to see my friends publishing books and, it reminds me that one day, yes one day, it could be me with my name on the cover of a book.

To that end, I am back at it–writing, revising, editing–now that my son is back in school. I have three shorter works publishing this month: an essay in an online publication, a review, and a piece in St. Paul Almanac (an annual anthology).

Write (Right) Where You Are


“Don’t write for a market. Write what you need to write and work out the pesky details later.”

Jill Christman, AWP’19 Panel: Going Long: Editors & Writers of Longform Nonfiction in Conversation

I recently returned from my third AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference. As with previous conferences, I am inspired and, I am overwhelmed. I find myself, once again, swimming in the vast sea that differentiates my writing from more skilled writers, especially those seasoned essayists whose work I deeply admire. Writers who’ve written essays like:

Can you tell, I have the True Story series–a series made up of longform narratives–by Creative Nonfiction on my heart and mind today? Although I’ve been subscribing to True Story for about a year now, I covered the AWP panel, convened by Jill Christman, on longform nonfiction writing for Assay Journal. From attending that panel discussion (and listening extra hard), my interest in writing longform has only magnified.

But I know I do not yet have the layering skills of Christman, the probing reflections of James Blackwell, or the breathtaking lyrical underscoring of Gwartney. So, what does a writer do when she cannot yet bridge the distance between the kind of essays she wants to write and the kind of essays she is currently writing (or not writing, in my case)?

She brews five cups of tea, she edits photos taken out and about Portland (backdrop to this year’s AWP), she eats the dairy-free chocolate eggs intended for her nine-year old son. She also does a load of laundry and then spends long moments contemplating whether she’s finally beyond her fixation with blue bottles, contemplating whether perhaps blue bottles are now simply too blue, contemplating how she can fall so completely in and out of love.

I’ve made this observation through nearly five years of reading, studying, and writing personal essays: they are definitely written with differing degrees of skill. Some very fine essays only scrape the surface of one single subject; these seem to work best when they come from the writer’s soul. Some essays attempt to weave in a second counterpoint and implode. Better perhaps for these to have kept to one point and to have executed it well. Some amazing essays successfully layer, balance, and weave multiple points of juxtaposition. These are the kind I so admire, these are the kind I desire to write. Even when they involve the oddest subject matter, I will immerse myself in the sheer enjoyment of the skill it took for the writer to pull off such a complex weave.

Do essayists begin writing these complex weaves? Do pianists begin with Grieg’s Concerto in A Minor? Unlikely, although some might arrive at the destination sooner.

So what does a writer do when she cannot bridge the gap in her own ability? For me, the answer is probably not sit around, drinking endless cups of tea while dreaming of the kind of essays I would like to be writing. Instead, I need to work on my scales; instead, I need to begin (again) where I am today. While I may never write essays like “Spinning” or “Lethe,” I will surely progress, I will surely improve my craft, if only I dare dive into the mediocrity of right now. If only I dare to write what I need to write.