Writer Heidi Barr published the best little craft essay yesterday on Brevity’s Blog. Honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find better writing (and life) advice. This five-minute read is worth your time. I printed it off and am keeping a copy at my writing desk.
By the way, Barr’s new book of poetry, Cold Spring Hallelujah (which I reviewed for Harbor Review), is publishing on November 1, 2019. I am not given to hyperbole when I tell you that Barr is stepping into the void left by Mary Oliver’s death. Hallelujah!
If you are local to the Twin Cities metro area, you can catch Barr’s launch party at Gustaf’s Up North Gallery in Lindstrom, MN on November 7th, 2019 at 7 pm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
“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.
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.
Today I had the privilege of speaking to the Woman’s Reading Club in Stillwater, Minnesota. I learned that this group started in 1886. It was an honor to be a small piece of the history of this group of women, who carry on the tradition of monthly gatherings to celebrate community and literature.
I talked to the group about my long road to publishing a book (one that is still ongoing). Initially, I was reluctant to keep this speaking engagement. When I first agreed to speak to the group, I thought I might have a completed book by now. I pondered handing off this invite to a friend of mine who recently published a book.
In the end, I decided to stay on the roster today. At this point, I am close enough to know my book will publish, one way or another, and it is time for me to begin talking about it out in the world.
I am glad to know current members of this group continue to carry on the tradition of gathering together to discuss books and culture in Stillwater, Minnesota (a truly magical and historic destination), almost 133 years after the group began.
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,
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).
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.