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.

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Early morning ramble at the retreat.

I attended Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words writing retreat in northern Wisconsin two weeks ago. It was my fourth time attending this retreat and 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 other memoirs right now (not unusual–I live my life juggling numerous books). 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.

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The fog always lifts, eventually.

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.

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Kind of a thrill to be a part of a graduation processional again at age 46. Carpe Diem!

 

#AWP17 Conference Report — Heidi Fettig Parton on “The Craft of Empathy”

So grateful for the opportunity to guest blog over at Assay Journal about an excellent panel discussion that I attended at #AWP17 on The Craft of Empathy.

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I’ve been spending lots of time over at the web page of Ana Maria Spagna, panel moderator, reading her essays; she’s is my new writer hero!

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies

awp#AWP17 Panel Report: F151 The Craft of Empathy

Description: Writing with empathy in mind, especially in nonfiction, can create texture in our work and be transformative for both writer and reader. On this panel we explore various angles of perspective: scenes where narrators show empathy toward other characters—especially ones who are unlikeable—and vice versa, reflections that suggest empathy of a memoirist for a younger self, as well as techniques for showing empathy, as a writer, for the reader, and from both reader and writer for the nonhuman world.

Panelists: (moderator), , ,

Conference Report

“Empathy is the deeper understanding that we’re all working towards as readers and writers,” Ana Maria Spagna told the audience of the #AWP17 Friday morning panel she moderated. Spagna referenced a 2013 study, which revealed that those who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t…

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The Fall and the Rise of the Indie Bookstore

I hail from the greater Twin Cities area (what we natives call the Minneapolis/St. Paul corridor, built up along the Mississippi River). My state, Minnesota, is 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.

Garrison Keillor, likely Minnesota’s most well known bookstore owner, is an author and former host of the public radio show, a Prairie Home Companion—recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater (named after F. Scott—a local writing hero) in St. Paul. Keillor owns Common Good Books. Common Good books recently (to me “a couple of years” counts as recent) moved from its original St. Paul location in an old—but cozy—limestone basement, painted white, to a spacious above-ground location near the campus of Macalester College. I enjoy visiting Common Good’s Macalester location because it’s so close to the former site of 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?

Is an MFA in Writing Worth the Time and Money?

I’m back in school again. I’m at the start of my fifth semester in my MFA program in Creative Nonfiction at Bay Path University. I am on the three-year plan (with two summers) and anticipate receiving my MFA in May of 2017. Because I’m doing my thesis work this year (next year I will be finishing up my teaching/publishing concentration and internship), it seems that this year will prove the most challenging.

I entered this program with 98,000 words of a work-in-progress on a memoir and the intention to gain the skill and understanding to refine those words into something that I would be proud to publish. I am pleased to say that this program, in conjunction with classes at The Loft Literary Center and writing retreats like Kate Hopper’s Motherhood and Words retreat weekends, are all helping me find the Situation and the Story (nod to Vivian Gornick) of my memoir.

When I started at Bay Path University (a completely nonresidential program) in August, 2014, I was hungry for writing mentors. I’ve certainly found those mentors in the likes of the ever wise author and teacher, Kate Whouley, and the incomparable visionary and editorial critiques of my thesis advisor, Lisa Romeo, as well as the “old school” (as my six-year old would call it) reporting and writing guidance from teacher and editor of Yankee Magazine, Mel Allen–truly a “salt of the earth” kind of guy. Mel is so good at this editing business that he can, with just a question or two, change the trajectory of an essay and help a writer transform a piece from “just okay” into a captivating read. I am pretty sure that Mel is a word alchemist.

Although it feels somewhat difficult (it is a transition after all) to head back down into the pit of writing fire for the next sixteen weeks, leaving aside most of my “own” projects for homework assignments and thesis work (which, after all, dovetails with my memoir work), I am happy to already know, at this half-way-through-the-program point, that “Yes, my MFA program has definitely been a worthwhile endeavor for me” and Bay Path was the best choice of program to fit the demands of life raising a special needs child.

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Illustration of Emily Dickinson by my son, Ethan Hellekson. Somedays, I feel this way about writing.

 

Struggling with Truth in Memoir? 

As I write my memoir, I often struggle with how much to say about friends and family. Because I’m writing about my divorce, my ex-husband is a key character. I am telling the truth, but in as kind of manner as possible (usually). I wouldn’t necessarily suffer if I didn’t ever speak with my ex-husband again, but he is still the father of my oldest two kids and for this reason, I endeavor to strike the right balance between truth and kindness each time I sit down to write.

I’m embracing the conclusion of Laurie Hertzel: I will tell the truth, be bold, and whenever possible, be kind. Thanks Laurie!

Source: Do I Own My Story? But What If It’s Also Your Story, and You Don’t Want Me To Tell It?

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