The older I get, the more I understand that life brings us a series of small endings that lead up to that one large ending, the one we’ll all reach someday.
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.
As it comes, so it goes.
No resolutions (see my December 31, 2018 entry) this year and just one intention:
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).
This water deserves our highest forms of protections:
legal, spiritual, emotional, and physical.
Water is LifeAll life depends on the availability of clean water. Clean water is a finite resource.
Jill Christman, AWP’19 Panel: Going Long: Editors & Writers of Longform Nonfiction in Conversation
“Don’t write for a market. Write what you need to write and work out the pesky details later.”
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:
- Jill Christman’s True Story, “Spinning: Against the Rules of Angels;”
- Leanna James Blackwell’s True Story, “Lethe;” and,
- Debra Gwartney’s True Story, “The River of no Return.”
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.
This morning, I read Heidi Barr’s wonderful blog post about revolutions not resolutions. I need a personal revolution this year, I think. That revolution probably involves a great deal more self acceptance and kindness than I’ve exhibited over the past few years.
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,
- Remember–on behalf of my children and my childlike writer self–that “sustained caution prohibits growth”. (from a Tony Linkson blog post on Holstee)
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.
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”