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The Heart of Grace

For Renée

Tall pines fill the frame of my kitchen window.

These dense layers of green seem to infinitely

recede across my back neighbor’s property.

 

Should I ever hear a chainsaw’s caterwaul,

my only standing will be that of witness.

Straight-line winds uprooted the red pines

 

surrounding my brother’s Northern Minnesota

lake home. He was heading west

to visit friends when his cell phone rang. He

returned to downed trees and open sky.

 

Trees quietly sift at the heart of grace.

 

My life formed on the windy plains of North

Dakota—a place of vast horizons—and still

I’ve found the steady companionship of trees

 

more dependable than shifting colors of sky.

My brothers and I left North Dakota, as did

so many others of our generation. An oil boom

 

brought new folks to mine what lies beneath

grasses that once fed bison. I am an outsider

to the economic needs of North Dakotans.

 

I condemn the fracking frackers,

their inevitable “fraccidents.” And yet,

 

as I stand at my kitchen sink, one fragile end post

to one tunnel of green, hot water runs

across my hands and across morning dishes.

 

I am not without need and the weight

of my body bends towards mercy.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Contract Part II: The Performance Review

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

After posting a copy of my writer’s contract yesterday, the moment of reckoning has arrived. And why not? During my decade in the corporate world, I drafted objectives (with strategies for achieving those goals) for the year ahead. I’d also sit down with my manager for an annual performance review. My raise was tied to my success in achieving objectives set the prior year. I dreaded those reviews as much as I embraced them. While it was painful to see where I hadn’t quite hit the mark, I liked receiving feedback. Having once been a grade-driven student, my performance review was my annual report card.

As a freelance writer, external rewards and recognition are hard to come by. I guess this is why, when I publish an essay or article, I long for some of my peeps to read my words and say, “Good work, Heidi.” Because that doesn’t happen often, it’s important for me to recognize myself, to celebrate my own success–even when it amounts to having sat in my chair writing for 15 minutes on a day I commited to writing. And when I’ve spent a day submitting essays? Then, even more of a celebration of this achievement; because as hard as it is to get myself to sit down and write, it’s 100 times harder for me to send my work out into the world (so many essays remain trapped on my computer’s hard drive).

To recognize my achievements this past year, to observe where there’s room for improvement, here is my first annual writer’s performance review, based on the twelve goals and/or aspirations listed in my writer’s contract. Continue reading “Writer’s Contract Part II: The Performance Review”

Writer’s Contract With Self

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Mission Statement

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.

Guiding Value

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:

  1. Spend at least fifteen hours per week on my own writing (strive for a minimum of 2,500 words each week);
  2. 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;
  3. Submit a minimum of one new essay or poem (to multiple publications) per month;
  4. Attend writer-based events in my own local literary community (at least one per month) AND network at event;
  5. 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);
  6. Make time for three writer’s retreats (at least one carried out in solitude);
  7. Read four books outside of my genre (for these purposes, graphic memoir will be considered “out of genre”);
  8. Take two relevant writing classes at The Loft Literary Center;
  9. Continue steady work and progress on my memoir (at least 5,000 words/month); and,
  10. 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.

__________________________________          _______________________

Heidi Parton                                                          Date

Acting Head of Idea Heidi

 

I’ve Been Holding Back

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.

 

And That’s a Wrap: The Graduate

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On Bay Path’s lovely campus in Longmeadow, MA.
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The top of my hat, decorated to pay homage to my three years as a student of creative nonfiction.
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I am grateful to have had such an inspiring MFA program director, Leanna James Blackwell.

 

 

Completing my MFA; Entering the Void

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Normally, by this point in the school week, I would have long since written the requisite blog post for my Immersion in Publishing class. This week, however, I’ve been dragging my heels. When I paused to assess the reason for this uncharacteristic procrastination, I realized it was because I was putting off an ending.

With this post, I am completing my last assignment for this class, which is the last class of my MFA program. The moment I post this on my blog, I will essentially be done with my MFA (aside from a few final responses to classmates and one last class this coming Thursday). As much as I’ve looked forward to (even counted down the weeks) to the ending of my MFA program, now that it is upon me, I feel myself hitting the brakes. Why is that? I think it’s because I know I’m entering the void: the void created by the absence of the MFA program.

The truest thing I’ve learned over the past three years of doing this MFA work is, I am a writer. Submitting pieces and receiving rejections is a part of the game. Having an essay or poem rejected is an ending (of the hope you had). It creates a different sort of void. To fill that void, I’ve learned to do one of three things: revise the piece (again), put it aside to mature (and then revise), or submit it immediately to another publication. This game is always half terror, half hope. But play I must; the act of writing is what I love.

And now, I step into the void. I promise myself, I’ll keep on writing.

Pinup World: Sting, Bono, and Ponyboy

Ponyboy, as played by C. Thomas Howell in the film version of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsider’s, that is (that crush burned out quickly, I’m afraid). These were the three faces that covered my walls when I was fourteen. I was a Police fan even before I was a U2 fan. I’d haul home Police albums, in vinyl, from my local library. It was impossible to act cool while listening to The Police in my parent’s living room, on my parent’s cabinet stereo. By the time Synchronicity came out, however, I had a little funky blue plastic boom box (if I’d have kept it, it would be worth some good money now in the collector’s world) and could listen to the album in the privacy of my own room. The Police imploded before I was able to get to the big city of Minneapolis for a concert. I did, however, see Sting live at smaller venues, such as the Orpheum Theater, in the late 90s and early 2000’s. I missed The Police’s reunion concert, which happened in 2009 at a large stadium in my hood, because I was very pregnant with my third child.

I never thought I’d attend a concert at the Myth Club in Maplewood, Minnesota. Never. But when–last fall–I heard that Sting would be there on March 2nd, I promptly joined the Sting fan club (which would have been a much more logical development back at age 14 than now). Said membership allowed access (for an even greater expense) to a special early entrance to Sting’s soundcheck. Yes, I paid way too much money for the whole experience, or so I thought. After the soundcheck, I used a phrase my seven year old is now using: mic drop. I’d already received my money’s worth and more. The soundcheck was that good.

We weren’t allowed to record during the sound check. Sting, ever the perfectionist musician, did lots of fine tuning with all of the different musicians on stage. I was located, however, dead center, right in front of Sting. I made sure I danced like crazy. I was the only one dancing like crazy. I’m not sure Sting noticed. He didn’t invite me up onto the stage to dance with him.

At the actual concert, recording was allowed. Here is a clip of Sting playing his very ancient base (I had wanted to ask him during soundcheck if it was from the 70s, from his Police days–but I was too shy, in spite of the dancing).

And, some Police songs.

 

Indie Bookstores, Part II: Stingy with Sexy at Milkweed Books

In Part One of my blog post on indie bookstores, I mentioned having recently visited Milkweed Books. Milkweed Books is housed on the first floor of Open Book, the same literary arts space where Milkweed Editions and The Loft Literary Center are located, on the floors above. On October 26, 2016, I entered Open Book with my twenty-one year old son, Ethan, to attend Benjamin Percy’s publication release reading his craft book, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, published by Graywolf Press.

Before Percy’s reading, Ethan and I decided to check out Milkweed Books.  While we were browsing, Ben Percy entered the store and handed the store’s manager two signed copies of his new book. I assume he provided only two because upstairs, outside the auditorium where book readings are held, another local indie bookseller, Magers and Quinn, was selling copies that Percy would sign after the reading. I recognized that Ethan, a busy senior in college, wouldn’t have the time to stick around after the reading to talk to Percy. As soon as Percy left the bookstore, I located the two-signed copies, plucked them from the shelf, and tucked them under my arm with the Ann Patchett book I’d already decided to buy. Why two? I was purchasing one for a former professor of mine, who’d recently provided volunteer hours on my watershed stewardship capstone project, graciously editing my first article for St. Croix 360; the second signed copy would be his thank you.

By that time, Ethan was deeply engrossed in an art book and so I went to the front of the store to page through Mary Oliver’s new book, Upstream. While reading, I heard a man talking to the manager with enthusiasm and confidence, providing tidy critiques of all the books he’d recently read; he even instructed the manager to add a few obscure titles to his line up. My back was faced toward the window, away from the man; I couldn’t see him. I did, however, find myself wondering what this man did for a living—that he should have the time to read so many books. Then I heard him saying he wanted to purchase a copy of Thrill Me. I felt shamefully like a hoarder. I let the manager puzzle over the shelf where he’d placed the books just ten minutes earlier until I heard him say, “I know they’re here somewhere.”

“No. They’re not,” I said as I turned to come clean. “I’m sorry, but I’m purchasing both copies.” The customer—the one who seemed to know so much about books—told me to never apologize for buying books; he told me that he would pick up a copy upstairs. I told myself I was being selfish for not handing over my extra copy—but it was, after all, for my beloved professor who undoubtedly read even more books than the man with the thick wavy hair—just starting to gray—and sexy glasses (nicely dressed too—metro, decidedly metro—I noticed). He nodded at me graciously and left the bookstore.

After purchasing my books, Ethan and I proceeded out to the bistro to grab sandwiches before the reading. I contemplated the beverage container—kind of in line, kind of not. Then, over and over, I slid a bottle of ginger brew closer, then further, from my squinting eyes, struggling to read the fine print. I wondered aloud whether the beverage was alcoholic. That’s when I realized the man from the bookstore was standing beside us—at the front of the line. He was, I observed, the kind of guy I’d have fallen for back when I was single. Perhaps he was a professor (and that’s why he read so much). I’d once had a thing for professors and dated more than a few in between my two marriages.

I found myself apologizing again, this time to the woman for getting out of the line (if I’d actually ever been in it) and asked if she would mind terribly if we jumped in ahead of her; I brought my ginger brew with me, still not sure whether it was alcoholic. At that moment, the man with the sexy glasses said something achingly clever about democracy and lines. Whatever it was he said (and neither Ethan nor I can remember what he said), sounded like it came directly out of a New Yorker piece. Hell, it sounded like it came straight from the pages of an f—ing novel. I attempted a response but, later, neither Ethan or I remember what I said.

Eventually, we all sat down at different tables with our food. “Sexy Glasses” ended up at a table near the front with Ben Percy. Couldn’t he just get Percy to give him a copy if they’re this close? I’d wondered. To make myself feel better, I suppose, I leaned over to Ethan and whispered, “That’s one heck of a pretentious dude over there.”

It wouldn’t be the end of Sexy Glasses that evening. We walked by him later on our way into the auditorium where he was purchasing Thrill Me from the Magers and Quinn staff member sent to The Loft to sell books that evening. I admit, I felt a slight twinge of guilt at the sight. But then I heard him telling the woman from Magers and Quinn (as if she knew who he was), “Ben’s teaching from one of my books this fall.”

One of his books? So he’s a writer—of more than one book, I thought. What’s he published? Probably a few B-list spy thrillers. *Oh, the petty writer envy that sometimes fills my soul.*

I dismissed all (most) thoughts of Sexy (I had to drop the “glasses” part now—knowing he was a published writer; sexy said it all) and took a seat with Ethan behind the reserved seating area up front. Of course, three minutes later, Sexy walked into the auditorium and took a seat in front of us, in the reserved area. Ben Percy solicited Sexy’s perspective multiple times throughout his reading (I love Percy’s book, Thrill Me, by the way—I don’t want that fact to get lost in all of this writerly foreplay).

Two nights after Ben Percy’s reading, I awoke in the middle of the night with a sick feeling. From the depths of my declining memory bank, it hit me. I laughed my I’m-so-stupid laugh; my husband stirred to ask “What?” before falling back to sleep.

I left our bed and located my laptop, recharging in the living room. I googled “Jonathan Franzen” at 4:22 am. About 600 photos came into view. I opened a few for a closer look. Instead of screaming, A search of Ben Percy’s Facebook page confirmed that Jonathan Franzen had indeed attended the reading. Another ill-fated brush with literary fame.

Instead of screaming, I stuffed the fuzzy fleece blanket draped across my shoulders into my mouth and bit down really hard. I missed not one, but four opportunities to interact with Jonathan Franzen. Jonathan F—ing Franzen! (but as Ethan pointed out to me later, what would I have said to him when I’d never read any of his books).

But how lucky am I? Not many people get to say they were stingy with Jonathan Franzen.

The Fall and the Rise of the Indie Bookstore

I live in the Twin Cities area (what we natives call the Minneapolis/St. Paul corridor, built up along the Mississippi River). We are said to have more food co-ops per capita than any other place in the country. One can hardly walk, bike, or drive a mile (a few blocks in dense urban areas) without coming across a food co-op. I’m not sure, but it seems the same could be said for locally owned, independent bookstores. While the Twin Cities wouldn’t win a “per capita” contest with respect to indie bookstores, it would likely be in or near the top ten. There is no dearth of independent bookstores here. But it has also lost some important ones. I still miss my favorite indie bookstore of all time: Hungry Mind.

Dave Unowsky opened Hungry Mind bookstore in 1970, the year I was born. Hungry Mind was located on St. Paul’s historic Grand Avenue on the Macalester campus. Hungry Mind initially serviced the needs of Macalester but, with its well-stocked selection of local and national literary titles, it soon played host to a wide range of Minnesota readers and writers.

When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1998, Hungry Mind became a second home to me. My older two kids were small at the time and, although I hadn’t admitted it yet, my marriage was crumbling. My then husband and I (rather unconsciously—I think) began trading shifts out of the house during our nonworking hours. My “out” shifts were spent sitting on the wood-planked floor at Hungry Minds, in the middle of its vast poetry selection. Hungry Mind, in fact, figures prominently into my memoir-in-progress about my divorce.

During those years spent at Hungry Mind, I was only four-years out from law school, seven years from my undergraduate work. I remember enjoying the feeling of blending in with the students utilizing the bookstore. Perhaps I liked imagining I was still a student—that my life was yet one with limitless options.

Hungry Mind began to experience financial trouble at the same time many indie bookstores were going under due to pressure from “big box” booksellers. I hate to admit it, but a shiny new Barnes and Noble became another place of escape for me. I liked to read (without purchasing) its vast and varied inventory of periodicals in its big, comfy chairs.

Maybe it was the beginning of the end when, to help pay the bills, Hungry Mind sold its name to an online university in 2000, changing its name to Ruminator Books. Ruminator then tried expanding, opening a satellite store at Open Book in Minneapolis, a location that houses The Loft Literary Center, Milkweed Press, and the Minnesota Center for Book Arts. Unfortunately, Unowsky’s decision to expand only increased Ruminator’s financial woes. Unable to make rent, Ruminator Books closed its doors in 2004.

Twelve years later, I still miss Hungry Minds/Ruminator Books. I jealously covet the free paper bookmarks I’ve held onto from both Hungry Minds and Ruminator. After Ruminator closed, the outdoor clothing manufacture, Patagonia, opened in Ruminator’s Grand Avenue location. Last time I checked, it had the same worn wooden floors, but sitting on the floor in the women’s jacket section isn’t the same as sitting in the poetry section at Hungry Mind. In one, I’d look like a crazy lady, in the other; I was just one of many in a community of writers and readers.

I don’t know if Unowsky is still around, but Indie bookstores are back on the rise. In fact, the small publishing house, Milkweed Editions, just opened its own bookstore last month in the same space in Open Book that once housed Ruminator. I visited Milkweed’s bookstore last week and all I can say (for now) is that one never knows who she’ll run into in an indie bookstore. Stay tuned for Part Two of this post.

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One of the collage board of images I put together while working on the first draft of my memoir; Can you spot the Ruminator bookmark (cow image) in the upper right hand corner?

Chasing the Barbie Dream House

I am entering the final phase of my MFA program, with two classes this semester and a publishing internship next spring. My Intro to Publishing class has us writing blog entries this fall. In this first post, we are asked to consider what it means to be an “accomplished” writer.

In writing, I still equate “accomplished” with “published.” Although I’ve been published in a variety of online publications, I probably won’t feel “accomplished” until or unless I have a book sitting on my shelf, with my name on its spine. Until then, I’ll likely continue to feel like a fraud when I tell people I am a writer in response to the question, “What do you do?” Sometimes, I think I should just come out with it and admit, “I’m a fake writer,” before being asked the inevitable follow-up, “What do you write?”

Even as a child, I wanted to be a writer or, “author,” as I called it back then. I also wanted a canopy bed—one with a pink gingham canopy. While I did get a pink gingham bedspread, I didn’t get the canopy. I also wanted a Barbie Dream House, the kind that was three stories high and had a working elevator, which operated on a rudimentary pulley system. One Christmas, my parents gave me a plastic Barbie suitcase fashioned to look like a jetliner (I’m certain my mother found it on clearance). I played with the jetliner regularly but it would never match my Barbie Dream House fantasies.

I may always equate success as a writer with being published and, because I equate publishing with success, I may struggle to believe I am accomplished without a published book that says “Heidi Fettig Parton” on the spine. That elusive book is my adult-sized Barbie Dream House. Still, what I have learned in my MFA program is that a published book doesn’t make a life. The day after one’s book publishes, she still has to do the laundry (maybe Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t), worry about book sales, and continue the search for her corner of happiness in the world.

Somedays, especially those days I receive a rejection letter, writing is really difficult. On those days, I ask myself if I really need a Barbie Dream House to feel complete. Perhaps there’s some writerly version of the plastic Barbie jetliner out there that I’ve yet to find. I have to wonder though; is good enough ever enough?

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The local newspaper interviewed me about my Judy Blue obsession (I suppose the local library tipped them off). I wanted to be Judy Blume, someday.

For my fellow Judy Blume fans, here’s an amazing song about the influence a writer can have (especially one writing for the young adult audience). It captures why I want to write books.