Saturday, July 26, 2014

The (Magical Mystery) Blog Tour 2014

Thanks to poet Carey Taylor, who lives and writes in Puget Sound, for the blog tour invitation. The tour is an opportunity to write about writing by answering four questions. Please visit Carey’s blog to read some lovely poems and her answers to the following questions.

My responses:  

1-What am I working on?

I work as an editor for “Good Letters” (Image Journal’s daily multi-author blog) and in shaping my own writing for my blog or to send to literary journals with hopes of being published. I enjoy rewriting for consistency and clarity, the precision in punctuating, paragraphing, and selecting the perfect word.

Writing first (and subsequent) drafts for me is play, especially when I write with a pen and paper, which removes the technology-driven temptation to make each word and sentence perfect.

I’ve been playing with writing while house painting and weeding. Hands busy, I conjure essay and short story ideas.
Painting a bridge from deck to garage rooftop turf

Extreme weeding on a hillside

Right now I’m playing with the second half of a short story I began about a ventriloquist whose mother is reincarnated as a parrot! I wouldn’t have imagined the scenario on my own: it came from “The Writer’s Toolbox” used as a prompt in the Amherst Writers & Artists method writing group I participated in on Bainbridge Island.

The absurd plot leads me to consider more absurd possibilities, but I want the circumstances and characters to feel true, real, and affirming (like Lars and the Real Girl for cinematic example). 

2-How does my work differ from others in its genre?

A better question might be, “How does my work add to others in its genre?” because I’m keenly aware of how I’ve been influenced by the written word, from the moment my mother began reading to me, to this day.

In so many aspects of life we focus on our differences in ways that can lead to isolation and misunderstanding, feelings of superiority and fear. I long to be part of, not set apart from, community and conversations about the things that matter most to humans: creativity, identity, and meaning.

My own modes of expression—poetry, essays, short-fiction, even the occasional song lyric—are as varied as my moods.

I’m a writer who is Christian, but not necessarily a “Christian Writer.” (You can read about my search for a faith-based writing community that allows for doubt and secular concerns here).

I may choose a broad genre to write in—fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction—but never follow a formula. If my writing is to be truly authentic, it must unfold rather than reach a predetermined conclusion.

3-Why do I write what I do?

I write to make sense of the world and my place in it. To find that my creative expression resonates with another human being inspires me to continue writing, even though it seems self-indulgent at times.

I write to vent frustrations, work out problems, pray, dream about the future, and uncover new insights.

I usually write about my faith and spiritual experiences with poetry, and my book of poetry, Burnt Offeringsis a compilation of my spiritual poetry written over fifteen years. 

I’m inspired at retreats, conferences, and occasions when I’m exploring ideas with others. I frequently use scripture, images, and metaphor and “write them slant” in the words of Emily Dickinson.

Companions in Ministry 2 Writing Group San Antonio TX 2010

If I’m feeling more direct, philosophical, or analytical, I’ll write a personal essay, usually for my blog, usually less than 1000 words.

When my aim is more story-oriented, I might write “pure fiction” or a snippet of memoir. Sometimes I’ll take an element of real experience too slim for a story, or too close to current events and people, and incorporate that moment into fiction.

4-How does my writing process work?

Creative Nonfiction students at SPU MFA Whidbey Island residency 2010

When I lived in California I wrote at a desktop computer in my own home office. When I was working on my MFA at SPU (2008-11), I turned off my email and I didn’t go online while writing.
MFA Graduation
Now I don’t have a routine. My schedule changes daily, so when I write fluctuates, as does where, and how. I’ll click away to answer an email, or check a fact and find myself wasting time on Facebook.

I most often write alone, but love to write with others and share new work aloud. I enjoy experimenting with form and content, especially from prompts chosen by someone else—something about the surprise, time limit, and inspiration jumpstarts my imagination.

I usually write poetry longhand, and I’m left-handed, so fancy journals are wasted on me, as I smear the ink. I write in a plain spiral notebook or composition book, then type and revise.

I almost always compose first drafts of essays and short stories on my computer, unless I’m at a writing group.

Since moving to Washington, I write on my laptop in a recliner. I love having my feet up, but it’s tough typing with both a cat and computer in my lap!

When I return to in-progress work onscreen, I always start at the beginning to reread and revise before moving on. Thank goodness I’m not writing a novel.

I try to keep a paper and pen by my bed. When my head hits the pillow my creative mind lights up, especially if I’ve been to an evening writing group or event. I often dream-write, but when I awake, the elegant wording evaporates and I’m left wishing for a Pensieve (from Harry Potter) to extract the thoughts from my brain.

Up next on the tour are Angela Doll Carlson and Nancy Nordenson.

Angela’s memoir, Nearly Orthodox, releases on July 31. A poet and essayist I know virtually from her guest posts at “Good Letters,” she blogs as Mrs. Metaphor and at “Nearly Orthodox.”

Medical Writer and essayist Nancy Nordenson is an SPU MFA alumna, the author of the book Just Think, Nourish Your Mind to Feed Your Soul, and of the forthcoming Finding Livelihood: A Progress of Work and Leisure. Her blog is titled “Just Thinking.”


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Give a Man a Fish: Thoughts on Becoming a Self-Starter

 The summer after I graduated from eighth grade several of my friends and I enrolled in the Model United Nations class at our local high school. As freshmen, we were each given small African countries that we hadn’t heard of before to represent. I “was” Tanzania, and soon learned that the People’s Republic of China was my ally.

The PRC, a high school senior, introduced legislation to build a railroad in my country, and as I prepared a speech, my first, to give on the floor of the general assembly, I came across a Chinese proverb that seemed the perfect illustration as to what this legislation would mean for the people of my country. Instead of delivering food or other consumables as aid, my countrymen would learn construction skills building the railroad that would in turn foster enterprise to spring up as goods, produced in our own nation, could be moved readily throughout the country.

“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day,” the saying went. “Teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

I delivered my speech, quote and all, despite the fact that several other delegates used the same one—directed I’m sure to the same book by our branch librarian.

For the past two and a half years, my husband has been teaching me to fish—in the sense that do-it-yourself remodeling is akin to railroad construction is akin to fishing. In my case I have been learning the basics: this is a rod, this is a reel, this is bait, this salmon is edible, this jellyfish is not. Here’s the pole; here’s how to cast, I’ve caught a fish for you, please reel it in.

Each day on the job, unless I was self-assigned to the garden—where I gather my own tools and choose my own weedy nemesises (nemesi?)—I relied on my husband to set up my tools and instruct me on my tasks. Even when I became capable of painting (something I’m not particularly skilled at, but which is simple enough to understand and doesn’t require brute strength), I relied on him to set up the work space with tarps, stir the paint with his drill, mask off the windows or other edges, attach the roller to the cage, fill the paint tray, find the right sized brush.

My job was to dress appropriately, don my gloves, stand in the right spot and spread the paint, or operate the electric drill, or do whatever I was assigned until I’d finished it, or needed my supplies refilled, and went back to my supervisor for the next assignment.

Now, however, the house we’ve rented has revealed itself as a fixer-upper, and my husband is busy at the project house we are renovating for our livelihood. After corresponding with our property manager, who has been relaying requests to the owners—a couple in their mid-eighties who live out of state—I received permission to remove the old carpets that smell of dog accidents, and to paint the rooms at my own time and expense.

interior stairs with carpet removed, pad ready to be removed

Although my husband has been bringing me home free paint from the Household Hazard Waste collection site, I am the one mixing tan and white concoctions to repaint the rooms. I am masking my own doors and windows, assembling my own rollers and cages, choosing brushes, spreading newspaper and cardboard on the floor, moving the furniture I can move on my own, ripping up carpets (once a corner has been started for me) and padding, removing the padding’s staples from subfloors, and prying up rotted tack bars.

My paint station: thanks honey!

In the late mornings, after I’ve edited posts for “Good Letters” and checked my email and run the dishwasher or folded laundry, I don the appropriate attire, queue a book on my iPod, head for the paint station my husband set up for me in the garage, choose the supplies I need, set up, work, take a lunch break, and work until it’s time to cap the buckets, slide the rollers and brushes into a Ziploc bag for another day, and turn my attention to dinner.

interior stairs painted

My husband has awarded me with imaginary gold stars, declared me a self-starter and jokingly, a do-it-yourself badass. There are still things I don’t know how to do: install toilets with their flanges and wax rings, use a level to hang a curtain rod, replace the kitchen faucet, caulk baseboards and door trim.

I don’t know about the toilets: it’s enough for me to keep them clean. But I imagine that someday in the not-so-distant future, I could caulk the areas I paint, or hang mini-blinds singlehandedly (but using both hands and a level, of course).

Downstairs bathroom repainted (by me) with new toilet (by my husband)

I imagine myself pulling the blind’s cord, the shade sliding effortlessly up and down the window, making a satisfying whoosh, not unlike the rumble of a train headed through the arid countryside of an impoverished Tanzania, a whispered promise of dignity and prosperity echoing in my ears.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Celebrate the Small Successes

Deep in painting, pulling weeds, planning and projects that fill my days as a self-employed do-it-yourselfer I can forget that I’m a writer. 

I become so absorbed in applying primer to baseboards and door trim, troweling up planting beds to trace bindweed roots to their bitter ends, that my monkey mind ceases swinging from light bulb to light bulb of new ideas for essays, stories, remodeling projects, and settles into the rhythm of the one thing in front of me right now.

My struggles, goals, and joys in life are reduced and concentrated to focusing only on the recalcitrant weed wedged between concrete blocks, or the thin edge of trim my brush must keep to. Successes are small—a garden bed free of weeds for a week or two, a freshly painted wall that will soon be covered by furniture, bookcases, and artwork—but I celebrate them anyway.

Today I was reminded that I’m a writer: I received my first royalty check from my publisher, along with the stats: I sold 52 books in the first three months of this year online through eLectio, Amazon, and other platforms, and another 22 myself to my writing group, at readings, and the local bookstore.

In early April I began moving carloads of belongings to a new town, where I find myself without a writing group, a venue for readings, or a local bookstore. My efforts at marketing my book gave way to more pressing matters of making a living, so I know my second quarter sales will be even smaller, and yet, rather than being disappointed that my book has not spread beyond my narrow rings of influence, I must celebrate the small successes of Burnt Offerings in the first quarter of 2014:

My book is in the hands of 86 readers (I gave ten copies away) and in circulation at the Bainbridge Island branch of the Kitsap Regional Library. I participated in a multi-poet reading as part of the Poulsbohemian Armchair Poetry series, led a spiritual writing workshop through Fields End, and gave a solo reading at Eagle Harbor bookstore.

I promised to donate 10% of my author royalties to the OrcaNetwork to aid their efforts to educate the public about the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales. Today I sent them $42; $22 in royalties and $20 donated by my brother-in-law (an English professor and poet) and his wife.

I will never be a household name in any household beyond my own, but fame and acclaim aren’t what motivate me, or anyone, who seeks to live an authentic life. We are motivated by the inner voice that calls us to create art, families, and communities. We build homes for the body, mind, and spirit. Our small contributions, even as miniscule as a splatter of paint, all become part of the greater good that we often cannot see from our close up perspective.

When I take the ferry to Seattle, disembark and trudge uphill, I find the city teaming with hurried people, snarling traffic, highrises that block the light and create wind tunnels, and noise that makes it difficult to see the necessity and beauty of each element present. From my new home across the Sound, I have a long broad view of the city, that changes from morning to night, in sun and shadow, from gleaming, bright, and blinking to gray and imposing, the disparate parts integral to the whole.


I will keep writing, painting, weeding, and selling one book at a time. You will sing, sew, cook, repair engines, teach, write tech manuals, and love. Someday we will all step back from this mosaic called life and marvel at the intricate pattern we helped create.