The Epistolary: Writing Exercise and Personal Journey

Back in July, I was going through a book of writing exercises and the one I was working on was called an epistolary. You pretend you come upon a stash of letters, or even use a real stash of letters, and write story from that, basically reconstruct the letters into a story.

Such an exercise is actually one of the earliest versions of the novel, or so my professors taught me when I was at Western. Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, was one such novel. Carrie Fisher wrote her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, using an epistolary form for the first part of the book, leading the reader from postcards and letters to journal entries, before finally landing them in the first person narrative of the story.

Well, I thought I would take a stab at it, though it was probably going to take longer than a single night. But I got caught up in creating this thing, and ended up working on it most of that evening before finally winding up to the ending that had been in my head since the beginning of the story.

I feel good about that story, what I did and where I took it. The style reminds me a little of one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino. I hope I haven’t inadvertently copied him. I’ll have to look into that. I’ve gone through the piece once, but it’s still “baking” (Rising? Proofing?) right now before I go through it and do some more tinkering. It’s been a few years since I sent anything out there. Not even sure where I’d send it! But I shouldn’t get ahead of myself. It needs a few more drafts before I even think about that.

In the middle of writing that piece, I also realized I had material ready-made for a real epistolary. I had letters and cards I had sent to my dad from the time I was in grade school on up through college.

But let me back up a bit so you get where I’m coming from.

As my friends and I get older, more and more of us are becoming members of the “adult orphan” club. Some people “lose” their parents at a young age (though I hate that term “lose” – as if a person were an earring or a set of keys) and that is a devastating experience I’m thankful I never went through. The rest of us who are lucky enough to have our parents around into our adult lives, usually don’t have to worry about becoming members of the “adult orphan” club until we reach at least our 40s and 50s.

And then we watch and wait as each of us in our cohort becomes a member of the club. Whether suddenly, or as a result of a long illness, eventually our parents die. And even though we are adults, that experience of “losing a parent” crushes the child within all of us. I remember years ago talking with a neighbor about it. She was in her 60s and she talked about how much like an orphan she felt after her mother died some years before. Another friend of mine whose parents had both passed away a few years ago has said it was like losing his champions.

Neither of these people had perfect relationships with their parents. And yet, they still felt overcome with loss when their parents died.

And when that happens, when a parent, or anyone close like that dies, those left behind are left with putting the rest of those lives, the personal belongings that had meaning once upon a time, to rest. Because it’s not over when someone dies. I mean, some people are more prepared, more organized, than others. My grampa had a list with all the information needed for accounts, who to call and notify, the stuff about the will, what to do with his body, etc. Most people aren’t that prepared. Even with all that, it still took time.

After the body and brain have ceased to work and have been cremated or laid to rest or otherwise taken care of, it can take months, or even years, for a person’s entire life to be put to rest.

After all the relatives, friends, agencies, acquaintances and everyone else has finally been notified of your loved one’s passing, after the body has been disposed of, after you have acknowledged your own grief, there’s still all the material possessions to go through, homes to figure out, the online life to slowly shut down, the financial threads to be untangled and released. Jumping through hoops with people over the phone or in person who are trained NOT to believe you when you say, “I’m trying to shut down the email/account because my father/mother/spouse died and no, I do not have the PIN, but I might have the password and I do have the death certificate/social security number….” Or whatever else it will take for them to believe you.

And as much as you think it will be something you will have cleared up maybe a month after the death, that’s just not how the world works. Your body holds your grief as pain, and every task you do in laying your loved one to rest is taxing your body, your brain, your emotions. It is all painful. If you can accomplish one task a week while continuing to carry on with your life, that’s doing okay. If you can do one task a day? Phew! Wow! Make sure to give yourself time to crash and burn, because your body will demand it; laying a loved one to rest is hard work.

After watching other friends of mine who have had to go through this, and now as my family goes through a “laying to rest” of my father’s life, I think a safe guess for how long this takes is 18 months. Yes, after a parent dies it could take 18 months before everything with their lives is finally settled and laid to rest. Maybe more, maybe less.

But when this happens to you, and it will, remember that. Mark it on your calendar and hold it out as a marker to hang onto when it seems like everything is taking so long to sort through and manage: 18 months.

Earlier this year, in the spring (about six months after Dad died), one of the projects I took on to help lay my father’s life to rest was to go through the personal correspondence he had kept over the years and, if possible, mail it back to the people who had written him.

At first I just picked at the pile of correspondence that spilled out of the package. I figured it would be an easy evening in front of the TV. You know, just tossing the cards and letters in piles whilst watching Star Trek or Grimm or something. Right? I might cry, but that would be par for the course.

But it was more difficult than that. I couldn’t seem to approach it head on. I pulled out some folders I could use for keeping them organized. I’d pick a card or letter up, see who had written it and put it in a pile, but then pull another one out and the first one would tumble somewhere and get lost in the pile again as I read the second letter.

And then one day, I just started in. Not just sorting them, but reading them, thinking about these people who loved my father and wrote him, remember the stories he’d told me about these people he loved back.

My dad wasn’t sentimental, most of the time. He was English, which is not quite the same as Nordic, but bordering on it (Viking genes, you know). But he wouldn’t have kept these letters and cards if the people who wrote them hadn’t meant something to him.

I know. I was reading private correspondence, and a part of me felt squeamish at that. But the writer in me was fascinated at the breadth of story that could be mined in this correspondence. The daughter in me, who missed her father so much, just wanted to hang onto one more thing that was part of her daddy.

I could only do a few each night. The more I read, the more I remembered about my own life, what Dad had told me about his life, and the more I learned about these people my dad loved, as well as about him. I cried every night thinking about the love in this family. It was exhausting.

For example, there were cards and letters from my Nana and her mother, “Mrs Edwards.” Nana, or more formally Grandmother Iris (but we just called her Nana) was my dad’s stepmother. I remembered Dad describing a distant relationship with a woman who may or may not have cared for him. For my sister and I, she was the grandmother in England who would send us the occasional nice gifts for Christmas and had the handwriting that was nothing like Dad’s or Mom’s or Grampa’s and Gramma’s. So, I never really knew her. However, these letters were from a woman who really cared about Dad. She encouraged him, asked about him. And her mother, even, really enjoyed my dad, sending him a card or two as well.

There were also cheerful and newsy letters and cards from his brother and brother’s family. Letters from my sister Heather and I that ranged from one-liners from camp to long, rambling missives about our lives and asking him about his. A couple from Mom. Cards from Meeg. More newsy letters from my sister Elizabeth. And then there were a few letters and postcards from friends who must be long gone now. I couldn’t even decipher the names to figure out a proper place to send them back to; those “orphans” are finding a home with my own cards and letters and the ones from Nana (who passed away a few years ago).

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

Rambling letter I wrote Dad while I was at college. I was babysitting and we were playing with markers.

 

Card I sent to Dad for Father's Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

Card I sent to Dad for Father’s Day, because the antelope was wild and free like my junior high self thought Dad was.

 

So, back to the idea of epistolaries as a writing exercise.

In July, when I was working on the writing exercise, I was also still sorting through those letters and cards. And after writing the faux epistolary, I had what I thought was this brilliant idea. I thought that after I had sorted through all the cards and letters and sent them off to their homes and only had mine left, that I would do a close read of them and write an epistolary based on my real letters.

I KNOW! Great idea, right?

Well…

Not so much. Or at least, not yet. Well, you can try it if you want to, but I can tell you from experience that trying that less than a year after someone’s death is not a good idea.

Beside, real life doesn’t always have a story, an arc, an easy beginning, middle, crisis, and end. And so it was with my letters. There wasn’t an easy arc to follow, no beginning, middle, crisis, and end as I wrote my dad the rambling letters about school and music and sports and boys and moving and jobs. It was messy, like real life.

And that’s the other thing. It was messy, funky, bloody, and too soon, too close to home. The girl that I was, and the woman I have become are completely different and at the same time also exactly the same. But separating out what is story and what is not and how tell a true story out of it all – well…

I have a bumper sticker up in my home office from a publisher as a reminder to be true to the work: “Write Gutsy. Write Lovely. Write Bloody.”

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

Bumper sticker from Write Bloody Publishing (the founder, Derrick Brown, is also a good poet).

 

I’d like that to happen sometime with my letters, sticking close to the bone and writing gutsy, writing bloody lovely, but it’s just not going to happen any time soon.

Breath Stealers: The monsters are real

A friend of mine has hired me to edit their novel — developmental editing. It’s a deep reading of a piece that’s not a simple proofreading or copy editing read through. The editor may read through the work several times looking for consistency, structure, meaning, logic, etc. It can be a long process and requires really thinking about what you’re reading. You can’t just do it on automatic. Fortunately, my friend wrote a novel that’s not only a good story, but also leaves the reader with lots of things to think about.

One of the characters comes to the conclusion, several times, that no matter how hard she tries to do the right thing, the thing that is required of her, it always seems to get her into trouble. She’s chopped away bits and pieces of herself over the years to try to fit into what is required by the many factions in her life, and even then, it’s not good enough. It’s never good enough.

I identified with what that character was going through, so it made me think about that feeling. That feeling that bits and pieces of you have been given away or stolen to accommodate others, and it’s never good enough. It’s a very familiar feeling for me, as I sure it is for others as well.

When I used to go out dancing, there was a bit of a protocol as to how things were done on the dance floor. Just as in walking on the sidewalk or driving along a street, there are “rules of the road” to allow everyone on the dance floor space to dance, express themselves, and have a good time. There was an assumption that everyone was allowed so much of a “bubble” around themselves. Sometimes you’d bump into someone, or they’d bump into you, but for the most part, most people respected the “bubble,” respected the space.

Except for those people. You know who they are. They’d come on the dance floor and it seemed like no matter where you danced, they were there in your space, bumping into you and not apologizing, not moving away, not allowing you your space. So you might move to another part of the dance floor, and there they’d be again. Or you might dance “smaller” so as not to take up all your bubble. This usually meant they just danced “bigger,” taking up what you weren’t using anymore. You could try dancing “bigger” as they did, but that risked some type of altercation.

So, you might leave the dance floor in a huff to get a drink, only to find that you’re now standing next to one of those people, who is pushing you aside to get the bartender’s attention before you. If you’re lucky, you finally find yourself some space outside in the parking lot having a cigarette, where you can swear at the world, swing your arms and kick the curb, getting the encroacher out of your system.

If you’re lucky and they haven’t followed you out to bum your cigarette. If you’re not so lucky, then there they are again. They took your space and your drink and they literally want to take your breath as well.

I don’t go out dancing anymore, but that concept seems to hold true in other parts of my life. There are people out there who don’t seem to want to acknowledge that you are allowed your space, your breath. They walk into a room and take up the entire room with their presence. I’m not talking charismatic people who have a large presence, I’m talking about those people who steal the room. They steal your space and everyone else’s space in the room. They steal their attention, their voice, their breath.

If you are anything like me (and there are a ton like me, I know), you think, “fine, I’ll just manage fine in this little corner.” So you move to that corner, thinking that now the person stealing all that space will be mollified. But they’re not. That they have 75% and you have 25% is not good enough for our breath stealer.  They want more. So you make your space smaller. You cut away at your space, letting them have 80% while you decide 20% is enough for you, if they’d just leave you alone and let you have it.

If we were talking sharing the bed with the cat, the dog and your assorted family members, this might be okay, comforting even, but we’re not talking about that. We’re talking about people who want to steal your space. You give up more and more of your space, more and more of your place at the table and that’s still not good enough for them. Your physical, emotional or psychological parts of yourself that you hold space for? They want that. Everything you hold dear to yourself — your ideas, your space, your opinions, your emotions — they want.

Why? I think each breath stealer has his or her own reasons, insecurities. It makes them bigger, more important. Or maybe they’re just absolutely clueless about how they are the big monster in the room stealing everyone else’s life.

dont-let-de-boo-hag-ride-ya
In Gullah culture, there’s a creature called a Boo Hag, a breath stealer. They’re like a vampire in that they steal your life, your energy, but by stealing your breath, not your blood. They creep into your home and float above your body and steal your breath as you sleep. When you wake in the morning, you have no energy. Or if that’s not enough, they might steal your skin (you can read about it here).

Probably everyone plays the part of the Boo Hag at one time or another in their lives. I mean, if things go the way they’re supposed to on any given day, then life is a bit of a give and take, right? You might give of yourself one day and take the next. Like the marketplace, you get paid and go out and spend your money for goods, which pays someone else, who goes out and spends money for goods or services, and so on, etc. You breathe in from someone one day, and breathe back into them the next. And there will be days when, whether or not you’re aware of it, you will be the one playing the part of the Boo Hag. You will be selfishly demanding the space, the breath, the opinions, the energy. They are all yours, dammit! People OWE you! Didn’t they know that?

Then you get over it. The huge bubble you have selfishly built from other people’s space is burst and you are once more a normal person, not a monster. You are once again seeing that, yes, other people deserve their own place at the table, just as you do. They deserve their space, breath, ideas, opinions, etc. This is an exchange.

But some people never “get over it.” The always demand more and more space. Nothing and no one is ever good enough for them. They want it all.

I know other women probably deal with this, maybe other minorities do, too. But you’re with a group of people and you don’t talk much. You know it’s safer to just keep quiet. But then you’re asked to speak up, so you do. And as soon as you start to speak up as much as the others at the table — not more than, just as much as — you’re suddenly labeled the loud-mouthed bitch by the breath stealer at the table (usually just one or two, because they won’t tolerate others like themselves at the same table). After listening to said Boo Hag talk about their work for hours, you finally talk about what you do or what you’re working on or other things in your life, and their eyes glaze over or they decide to interrupt you. “Too much drama” for them to have to listen and pay attention to someone outside of themselves.

I remember sitting at dinner with a couple and they went on and on against immigrants and people with mental health issues, and several other demographics outside themselves. Grand statements that swept millions of people into a corner of “undesirables,” without any thought given to any of those people as individuals at all. And this couple employed immigrants and had family members with physical and mental health issues. They had made a good living doing what they liked to do and instead of turning that good outward to help others, they decided they wanted more, and that the only way to get more was to make sure others had less. (At dinner that attitude made itself known by how often they talked across me or others whenever we tried to make a point or state an opinion.) Making a good living wasn’t good enough. Living in their space was no longer good enough. Now they had to take that space away from others as well. I used to think of them as friends. Did I change? Did they? Will they ever come back to themselves? Or were they always selfish bastards?

I was watching a film with friends one night and it wasn’t the best movie. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t bad. We kept watching. But one of the people there kept heckling it. If you’re at home alone watching a movie and heckling it, fine. Besides, you can turn it off, unless you want to see how truly awful it is. But the movie wasn’t in the heckler’s home, and it wasn’t being turned off. And she kept heckling, not just saying how bad it was, but also using an entire demographic of people (in this case middle-aged women) to disparage it. Why? Why use a whole group of people who have done you no wrong to disparage something? It wasn’t entertaining. It was rude and selfish and so bigoted against an entire group of people. I’m a middle-aged woman, for crying out loud! I was getting offended, but I did what I do, which is kept quiet, made my space smaller. That’s what we’re taught to do with rude people, right?

Was that just a bad, selfish moment for her? Should it have been a learning moment for me? Should I have said something? Will she ever see it on her own? Will she ever come back to herself? Or has she permanently morphed into the selfish monster who wants to claim all the space?

It’s like bullying. When I was a kid I was bullied. Back then, you just put up with it. When Todd and Tom wanted to chase me home and throw rocks at me, I learned to hide until they left school and make my way home a different way. When Robbie and John called me names, I ignored them. I played on another part of the playground with other kids. I tried to make myself as inoffensive as possible. Ignore it and it will stop. And sometimes that works with bullying. But other times?

Other times they decide that it’s no fun when you ignore them, and to run you down with their bicycle is more fun. They want your space. They want to claim the air you breathe.

When I was a kid and that happened, I ran home to my mom and grandparents and they called other kids’ parents. “Things were discussed” and a bulk of the bullying stopped. But when you’re an adult, you don’t have someone to run home to, except maybe your cat. You just have yourself, maybe a trusted friend to talk it over with, to figure out how to deal with it.

So what do you do? Do you keep self-editing pieces of yourself? Stripping things away to become less and less around others who demand more and more? That doesn’t seem right. But then, to go back to the dance floor analogy, trying to constantly dance with your elbows out so you don’t lose what little space you have is exhausting. That’s not right either. To go back to the bullying example, you could try to find another part of the playground to be on, and that will be okay for a while. But these people don’t go away.

My go-to strategy has always been to keep politely silent. Nod and smile until I get home where I can lock the door between them and me. I know that at least this space I can call my own, as long as I can pay the rent. In this space I can write my thoughts and think my thoughts and they are wholly my own.

But I can’t always shut myself away can I? Maybe that’s what we’ve all ended up doing in some way or another? Maybe that’s why some people become shut ins? They just want their space to be theirs without interference from the big, monstrous breath stealers, and that’s the only way they can safely keep their space.

I have no ultimate answer for this. The most I can say is 1) that the Breath Stealer Monsters are real. Watch out for them. And 2) I enjoy developmental editing because it leads me on thoughts like this one.

 

Writing is a marathon

When I was in grade school, I started sprinting. I wasn’t superfast. In fact, I was just sort of fast. And I liked the longer sprints, the 220 mostly (now called the 200 meter), but not the longer ones like the 440 (400 meter). And I wasn’t quick enough at the start for sprints like the 50 and 100 yard dash.

But when I walked, I liked to go slow, stop and look at things. Family walks used to be interesting. Mom liked to walk fast, I tried to keep up. My sister would out-and-out stop to make us stop so we’d both wait for her. Now, of course, they’re both fast-walking fiends.

I liked going fast on my bike, though.

In junior high, I actually lettered in track and volleyball. Mostly the 220/200 meter and the relay – nothing too long or too short, like I said. And it was again, mostly stick-to-itiveness that got me those letters. I wasn’t the fastest, but I didn’t give up.

Sports letter

I also wrote poetry a lot, not stories. I thought about writing stories, but I was all about the poem. And sometimes plays. I really liked the idea of writing plays at the time. In grade school, I used to check them out and bring home ones I thought I could mess about with at home, to direct my sister and our friends in. Or really just me and my sister. Maybe if I’d gotten involved in drama more in junior high and high school I would have tried writing plays.

Anyway, that’s all to say that all these things I did were the shorter versions of things I was into. They were the things I could do in brief amounts of time. They were things that I knew I could finish.

In high school, we moved from the east part of the state to a larger town, a college town, on the west part of the state. Completely different type of town. My interests traveled with me, of course, but the friends who I’d done track and volleyball and drama with who would have pulled me along with them were back in Wenatchee. I was starting over in Bellingham. New school. New system. New friends. The only thing I really held onto was orchestra (but without the private lessons). I have Mr. Schlicting to thank for that. He grabbed me before I could shy away and got me into orchestra and chamber.

But as a runner, I didn’t fit anywhere anymore. And though my shotput had been okay for a junior high kid, it was lousy for high school. Somehow, I got talked into joining the cross country running team. I don’t know how. Maybe it was the Chariots of Fire movie. I don’t know. Long distance running had never been something I was into. But somehow I made it. It was longer and slower (for me, though for others it was faster). I frequently came in last or tied for last.

Writing happened, outside of homework, in fits and starts. I explored being an architect for a while instead of a writer. It seemed like there would be more promise for employment, and more exotic than mundane writing. I read books, thought about things, wanted to make the world a better place, had dreams. Meandered.

Eventually, though I quit running for track in high school, I did end up running for myself in college and later. And that’s also when I started working on longer forms of writing. My poems got longer, as if expanding my lungs, my breath, my stamina, also seemed to expand my ability to expand on my ideas. I wrote longer poems and short stories, toyed with ideas for novels. They were halting and poorly written, but coming out nonetheless.

It wasn’t until I read “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg that I connected that writing was something that happened between the brain and the body; it was just as much physical as mental. Goldberg’s theory was that writers had good figures because they (we) expend a lot of energy writing. It takes stamina. It also takes stubbornness and focus, like running long distance does.

Now, I know a lot of out of shape writers, because if you spend all day in front of your computer and get out of the habit of moving around, your body will deteriorate. But I also know what she was saying. I get it. It takes strength – physical, mental, and spiritual – to write, to keep at it and not give up.

Last year, my cat died, my dad died, hell, my washing machine died. My best friend’s dad died, and his dog died. The paper I work for was sold and we not only changed how we do things and got a new boss, but we also moved down the street. I also moved out of my kitchen while it was being redone, and back into it, and out of the rest of my studio apartment while it was being repainted, and then back into it. Family visited in between.

2015 was exhausting.

Writing got dropped like a 10-pound sack of potatoes.

I’d been working on a book, well a novella and two books. And before everything hit the fan, I thought that one of them was close to completion. But I would soon learn that even with all the practice I had with poems, short stories and novellas, when it came to novels, it wasn’t going to be a sprint. It was going to be a cross country journey requiring stamina and focus. And I was getting there, bit by bit. I might come in last, but I figured I would get there eventually.

And then last year happened.

It’s been over a year now, but I am finally getting back into writing. But like all exercise regimens, I’ve lost the “conditioning” I once had to sit down and stick to a piece of writing. I’m barely working on poetry, only nipping around the edges of stories. I have to get back my stamina. Gotta practice the short sprints before I get back into the long distances.

A couple of weeks ago, I opened up the file for the novel I thought was close to being finished and realized just how much farther I have to go on it. I have to get in my “distance training” again before even looking at it. So much more to do, more exercises getting the creative writing chops back. More poetry and short stories so I feel comfortable in my writing skin again before I get back into the marathon training that is novel writing. It will take some time before I finish this book, or any other for that matter. I need to be comfortable with that. This isn’t a short sprint. I’m in it for the long haul.

 

Obsolescence and Wringer Washing Machines

One of the exercises from “Clear Out the Static in Your Attic” is to take something that’s obsolete and explore it from the perspective of being out of time. Look at the tension that happens when it is out of its regular time and place. Alternately, try to imagine something that is used all the time now, which may become obsolete sometime in the future. Explore what that looks like.

For this exercise I decided to explore the old wringer washing machine that’s used at Pickett Fences down the street.

This GE Wringer Washer is similar to the one my gramma had.

This GE Wringer Washer is similar to the one my gramma had.

Time in a Washing Machine

The shop was one of those upper class boutiques that fakes old-fashioned working class sensibilities with creaky wood floors and fixed-up crap your grandparents and great-grandparents threw out because the new stuff from Sears & Roebuck really did work better. Vintage things you could have gotten from your parents for free when they cleaned out the attic or the garage or went through your grandparents things after a funeral, sat next to artisanal objects and products handcrafted — sometimes by special snowflakes and sometimes by actual artists and artisans.

And all of the items — Vintage and artisanal alike — cost much more than your working class family would have ever dreamed of paying for such things as soaps, scarves, cards, buttons, and other cool objects.

Old things made new and cool again.

New things being cool because they had the patina of being old, because they could.

One of the shiny new old things in the store was the outer shell of a wringer washer sitting in the middle of the store.

I wasn’t going to go into the store, I really wasn’t. My budget didn’t normally include visiting boutiques that had objects that cost enough to bite into my grocery budget, or clothes that would only fit prepubescent girls with no hips.

But this old wringer washer, sitting in the middle of the room, it drew me in.

I felt myself shrinking as I approached the old washer. Slowly, I was changing from a 50-something woman in a 21st century city, to a small town six or seven-year-old girl. Gramma’s voice was in my head warning me stay away from the wringer washer as she fed in the clothes from the basin into the hard rubber spools. My little hands and arms might get caught up and pulled through the wringer.

My six-year-old self wanted to help her grandmother, but obediently clasped her hands behind her back as she stood on tiptoe to see into the basin. Watch the clothes pulled out, fed into the wringer, back into the basin. Rinse. Repeat. Hung to dry on the clothesline in the utility room of the basement.

And then I am standing over the hollowed out basin in the boutique, once again a grown woman, and staring into a container of vintage scarves. This is nothing but a display piece. No monster agitator to mangle my hands and my clothes. No greedy wringers to take off my fingers or arms. Inert. Dead. The working-class demon is now an empty shell of itself in an upper class boutique on Larchmont Boulevard.

A Place at the Table

I’m taking a moment to not write about writing and to write a little bit about something else instead.

Once upon a time…

When I was young, sometime between six and 12 years old, I was heavily influenced by what felt like so much conflict around me. The Vietnam War was on TV. People (including my grandparents and parents) were still watching documentaries on World War II. I’d also read lots of history stories and biographies written for kids. Edith Cavell (a nurse from WWI who was killed by the Germans for harboring Allied soldiers), Marie Curie, Helen Keller, Marie Antoinette (that one made me too sad, I only read it a couple of times), Joan of Arc (another sad one, but I always felt victorious after reading it) and the British Blitz (WW II bombing of London) were just some of the topics of those books. The whole we’re-gonna-die-any-minute-in-a-bomb-blast-or-a-catastrophe thing was also highly influential (Cold War mixed with a handful of disaster movies like Towering Inferno and Poseidon Adventure helped with that).

I also remember being acutely aware of how mean people were to each other for various reasons (Side note: I had no idea why people were being mean to Nixon, but I felt sorry for him. Later, of course, I didn’t. But as a child, it felt like everyone was picking on him and I felt sorry for him). Race, gender, and denomination or religion were only some of the obvious reasons people entered into some kind of conflict. On top of that, I hated how it felt like girls were treated differently than boys, excluded because they weren’t boys — it felt like I was always shrugging something off of me, or that I was constantly trying to prove myself. Plus, I was one of those kids who was bullied at school as well, so I knew it wasn’t just adults, it was everyone.

In the middle of all this, I craved unity. I wanted so much for everyone to get along. I wanted good stories and beauty and creativity and lots of musicals with singing and dancing (Okay, I admit, I still want lots of musicals with singing and dancing). I used to draw pictures of huge buildings built out of large pine logs (I was a Laura Ingalls fan) in the middle of flowery meadows on a sunny day with an American flag on the top (I was a patriotic child). I called them “non-denominational churches” that everyone was invited to attend, to be in, to be accepted in. I was sure that would solve the problem. If we could just all love each other and feel loved and accepted then the world would be a better place. That’s one of the reasons I became a Christian as a kid. Love and acceptance.

By the time I reached my 20s, I realized that the church (at least the one I was attending at the time) was not about love and acceptance after all. It took me at least 10 years and the reading of Stealing Jesus, among other things, before I felt like I could accept my faith back into my life and heart. The Jesus I believed in was not exclusionary. As Bawer in Stealing Jesus pointed out, everyone deserves a place at the table.

And now?

I’m not sure where those pictures are anymore, if they’re stored away in a box or now only exist in the attic of my memories, but back in the 90s when I first read that book, I figured I would have create my own all-inclusive table, similar to that all-inclusive church, if I wanted it to exist for me. Every once in a while it felt like society was getting closer to this idea, but every time there was forward movement, something happened to snuff it out.

Today when the delegates were casting their vote at the Democratic National Convention I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I felt that hope again. I had felt that hope, that feeling of being part of history, when President Obama was first elected, but after eight years of all his progressive goals being continuously blocked I had forgotten what it felt like. So when the delegates from Vermont and Sen. Bernie Sanders cast the votes and requested Hillary Clinton be accepted as official presidential nominee of the Democratic party, I cried. I cried from relief that at last this was happening. And this time it’s herstory that’s happening, and not just history.

Then I saw this video clip and bawled and bawled (in a good way).

Despite all the other stuff (insert all the things and links and stuff you’re going to post if you are cynical or don’t like Hillary Clinton or think there’s some grand conspiracy etc., etc., etc.), I am happy Hillary Clinton is the official presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. I want to hold onto this hope. I want it to last. I want things to move once more toward that better, inclusionary place from my childhood that I daydream of — that place where we all have a seat at the table.

 

Workshopping through “Clear Out the Static In Your Attic” — A Review

When I went to a poetry reading recently, I entered a door prize raffle and won some poetry books and a book of writing exercises, “Clear Out the Static In Your Attic,” by Rebecca Bridge and Isla McKetta, published by Write Bloody Publishing, September 2014.

Some of the door prize swag from the poetry reading.

Some of the door prize swag from the poetry reading.

Why this book?

I have enjoyed some of the poems from the poetry books I received, but I think the gold nugget in the door prize I received was this book. Previously, I blogged about getting into some of the exercises in this book as a way to self-workshop. I was going to leave it at that, but decided it might be good to leave an in-depth user review for anyone who might be on the fence about spending the money on it (hint: Long story short, I’m for it. And if the price is steep for you — $10 for Kindle or $13-15 for paperback can be steep when you’re trying to make ends meet — try tracking down a used copy or see if it’s available on BiblioBoard or somewhere).

If you don’t have the time to track down or create a writers group or can’t afford a workshop on your own, then something like this book might help keep you fighting the good fight in the writers world. “Clear Out the Static In Your Attic” (still think it’s an awkwardly worded title, but there, not my book) won’t replace a good comprehensive six-week course, of-er-course, which can cost anywhere from $300 to $600 or more. And going through a book will never take the place of interacting with other writers, getting critique and feedback, or reading your own or others’ work aloud (great for catching all sorts of problems in your writing, especially the ebb and flow of dialogue), but for $15 this book will help motivate you to get back into writing shape or get you to start looking at what you are writing differently.

That’s how I approached using this book. When I delved into it, I hadn’t worked on my poetry or fiction for at least a year. While I do write some small filler articles at the community newspaper where I work or occasionally write resumes or bios or letters or other copy for clients, that’s not the same as using my creativity muscles or stretching my storytelling bones. You need to have writing stamina to work on poetry of all types or specific characters or story line or plot over time. It’s like any other exercise; you need practice. So, that’s how I have been using this book, to help me get back into the practice of writing creatively on a regular basis. This is what I have learned.

Pros:

This book has 47 chapters, which means that if you only did one chapter a week, you would get a whole year’s worth of use out of it. You might not do that. You might do several exercises in one night, skip a couple of weeks, and then go back to it. Perhaps you’re setting yourself a goal to write every day, so you might also do one exercise a day, that would be a month and a half. (Note: I wouldn’t recommend a hurried or slapdash method like that, by the way, as many of the exercises require the writer do some prior research or homework. So, a weekly appointment with a chapter seems the best way to go, in my opinion.) The point is, one could use this book to keep one writing for a sustained amount of time, and so get in the habit of writing regularly, just as one needs to get in the habit of exercising regularly. So, for me anyway, it belongs in the “useful” category for that alone.

Also, while this is a straightforward book of writing exercises, the writers understand how the creative brain works and have set it up so that the creative part of your mind can anchor to something to help it create. It won’t get bored. So, the book is set up as if a brain was like a house with an attic with all sorts of boxes and closets of things in it. These things in the metaphoric attic can inspire writing. Each chapter looks at a different part or something stored in the attic. Here we find a secret, there we explore a lamp or a floorboard, old letters or a sewing kit. And the writer is to use that as a starting point in a writing exercise, to create a scene, poem or essay, or whatever.

Each chapter also has slightly different input from the two separate writers as to how to approach that part of the attic to accomplish the writing exercise, so it’s not just one person’s point of view. An example is usually included, as well as a brief list of books for further reading. Sometimes I read the example and look over the list of books, sometimes I don’t. I don’t always need it or want it (though they make for interesting reading).

For the most part I have found the exercises fairly intuitively based and easy for me to grasp. I think they are natural exercises for a writer to undertake. Some require doing homework, but it’s the kind of homework that needs doing anyway, such as eavesdropping into conversations to hear the cadences and ebb and flow of speech patterns (writers are a nosy lot). Or looking up poems, sayings or old photographs for inspiration. In fact, one of my past exercises was to go out and eavesdrop. And my next exercise is to look for an inspiring photograph to write a story or poem on. As I write in the kitchen with photos of my family staring down at me, all I really need to do is look up on the wall to find something if I like. Or I could go open up one of several boxes I have stored. I have my pick. (I had to try a little harder to find a spare seat at a cafe and listen in on people talking. That was hard.) The point is, though, that when I was writing stories and poems regularly I didn’t need to be told to go look for a photograph. Sometimes it was just necessary to go look for that picture of that garden of my Grandmother’s because that was the one I was trying to describe. Again, this book is getting me back in that habit.

I haven’t gotten further in than the first eight chapters, though I have peeked ahead to see what’s coming. And the exercises do appear to get more difficult and demanding as one goes along, so if one keeps at it, it will make one push oneself and grow in one’s writing. This is a good thing. I had assumed that the exercises would be all easy when I first began, but it’s nice to know that there are challenges coming up that will push me into writing better, writing more close to the bone. To borrow words from the publishing company that put out the book, to write more bloody.

Also good is the fact that, for the most part, these exercises can be accomplished with little more than paper and pencil or pen. There are a couple that may require going to the computer or the internet to get say a photo or run a program, but mostly it’s done with what’s in one’s head and at hand. Since I work looking at a computer screen most days, typing on a keyboard, I find that a good contrast for me. My hand sometimes cramps up with the writing while working on the exercises, but it’s better to give my eyes a rest, or I wouldn’t do any writing at all. And the contrast also seems to spur me to go off on jaunts that I might not otherwise give myself permission to take. And while I am in danger of repeating myself, I will say it again, a writer needs to build up stamina. If I need to build up the muscles in my writing hand so I can churn out better poetry and prose, so be it.

Cons:

The only real con I can see with this book is how people treat it. I think if the writers were asked they’d say that these exercises are meant to be jumping off points for the person going through them. These exercises are meant to be suggestions, not rules. However, there are people out there in the world who will read through these exercises and think of them as “rules.” Some people are just like that. They see a recipe in a cookbook or read in a magazine what the next fashionable cut of something is and take it as “gospel,” with no thought of improvising something to suit themselves, or just for the hell of it.

If you are one of these people I do believe you can still get a lot out of these writing exercises, however, I beg you, please, give yourself permission to improvise and explore, because that’s what these exercises are all about. Throw the rules out the door and just treat these exercises as suggestions for mental play.

For example, you tell me you can’t write about an attic because you never had one? Well guess what, neither did I. The most attic we ever had was the space between the ceiling and the roof that Grampa kept us out of because he’d put insulation up there to keep down the heating bill, but otherwise it was dangerous for anyone to be up there.

But, I had a really cool basement growing up, and I have known old houses with all sorts of nooks and crannies and rooms hidden here and there. I grew up reading about wardrobes that were doorways into far off lands, and I watched TV shows where a police box was bigger on the inside and space ships could take me galaxies away. So I can imagine quite a bit for my writing exercises, et voilà! I have my inspiration, just the same as if I had my attic.

So, as long as you’re willing to improvise, go with the flow, use your imagination and use these exercises in the spirit in which they are presented, as jumping off points to get you writing more, writing better, then you’ll find this a very helpful book.

Teddy tells me it's time for bed.

Teddy tells me it’s time for bed.

 

 

 

 

When notes and critique become a balm for the soul

The proofreader at work, besides coming in to proof for us a few days a month, used to teach high school English, and now coaches kids on how to prepare for college. She’s also a mom and a grandmother, and all round nice person.

When she comes in, we snatch the occasional brief conversation here and again. Since I proofread outside of work and used to write and proofread and such for a research (read term paper mill) company, we meet in a unique place. So, when I published “Gramma and the Giant Tomato Worm” last month, I thought she might enjoy reading a copy. The only copy I had I needed to go through for errors, but she said once I had a final copy, she’d love to see it. So, the next day, I brought in one of the faulty copies I had of “Who Will Sub for Miss Simmons?” (I had the whole thing starting on a left hand page instead of the right hand page and had ordered a bunch before realizing it and fixing the error.) I told her it was hers to keep and do with as she would, but I thought she might get a kick out of it. She said she’d share it with someone else who teaches younger kids and let me know what they thought, which is always a good thing to know if you’re hitting some kind of mark or not.

She told me about one of her favorite books, “My Grandma Could Do Anything,” which she reads to her grandkids. And then we put the paper to bed for the month and she was off again until this month.

Then, last week, her first day of proofreading this month, after she got settled, she came back to my desk with a couple of tiny Post-it Notes with notes from her nine-year-old grandson, who’d been reading through the “Miss Simmons” book. He was only halfway through and really liked it, so she asked if he could keep it another month and I said, “OF COURSE!” And told her he could keep it. And then let me look at the notes on it.

Now, on Lulu, I’ve set the age at nine years old and up, but that was just a guess; actually hearing from a nine-year-old boy was like striking a vein of gold.

The first comment was, of course, the best. “Really scary, great story. Can I get the book back to finish it?” YES!

He saw that the page numbers were on the inside corners of the pages numbers and explained it was hard to find them when looking up the chapters and could I please remember to keep them on the outside corners. Good eye! Future editor, here! I nodded at that, because that was one of the faults I’d had to correct after that copy.

I like the prologue.”  That’s important to note, because you don’t need the prologue, and he told his grandma that normally he doesn’t like to read prologues, but this one he did. And he also said he wasn’t going to read the epilogue. So, cool!

I like the chapter headings and the cursive writing.” They’re a Schoolhouse font that I’m in love with for these little things I’m doing. I don’t use them in the e-book copies, but they’re fun in the print editions.

I knew my drawing wasn't good enough to be pretty, but I'm glad it was good enough to be scary.

I knew my drawing wasn’t good enough to be pretty, but I’m kind of glad it was scary.

I didn’t like the pictures.” And he thought the pictures of Miss Simmons were too scary. I’m not really an artist, so I knew I couldn’t do pretty, but I got a secret thrill hearing they were scary. Though, I understand not liking scary pictures. That’s a little bit of a downer. But cool, still.

 

 

 

It got me interested right away!” Always a good note to get back from a reader!

So, I have those notes up on my bulletin board next to other notes I’ve received from people who read some of my other stories. Notes that encourage me and keep me writing. My “cheerleaders.”

On top of THAT, our proofreader also brought in the “Grandma Could Do Anything” book, which I read in little breaks throughout the day. If you’re one of my friends who’s kids might be having grandkids in the future, then you might end up with it headed your way. It’s the cutest kids books ever! Perfect for grammas to read with their young grandkids.

I had also passed onto her a final copy of my own “Gramma” book, and I look forward to hearing notes back on that one as well, if she likes it and passes it onto one of her grandkids.

On the whole, this experience was like a balm for my soul in the middle of all the crap that’s been going on lately.

Have a cup of tea with that balm for your soul?

Have a cup of tea with that balm for your soul?

Teddy News: Happy Six Month Teddy-versary!

The last two weeks have been very busy at work with pre-production and production at the Larchmont Chronicle, as well as being all sorts of busy and emotional personally (including dealing with the shooting in Orlando), but in the back of my mind I knew this was coming up — the six month Teddy – versary of Teddy coming home with me.

I posted a little bit about it on Facebook and Instagram, but I thought I would do a more comprehensive posting here with pictures of Teddy over the past six months.

Teddy and his shaved back when he first came home.

Teddy and his shaved back when he first came home.

Teddy and I have become pretty good friends. He needs to remind me to play with him sometimes. He reminds me to get up and move around and do things. He is a gentleman who gives me the occasional shoulder massage, soothes me when I’m having a bad day, and is a great alarm when I’m not listening to the one by my bed.

Mom and Heather met Teddy when they came to visit in January. Teddy liked Heather, but he fell in love with Mom and didn’t want her leave.

In general, he is a very social cat, more like Kiko was in that way, than Pye. In fact, when other people are around, Teddy really likes to be in the center of the action.

Teddy didn't want Mom to leave.

Teddy didn’t want Mom to leave.

Teddy likes to be in the middle of the action.

Teddy likes to be in the middle of the action.

Teddy can see everything from his perch.

Teddy can see everything from his perch.

If there’s a spare chair, that’s where he wants to sit. I ended up getting a cat tree so that he has a place to sit and survey everyone. The “in box” on my desk wasn’t close enough to the action for him.

Teddy's favorite place is still an empty box.

Teddy’s favorite place is still an empty box.

And while he enjoys the cat tree, his favorite spot is still an empty cardboard box. So, I’ll usually keep one around for weeks after it should have been trashed.

But if I’m at my usual spots — that is working at my desk computer proofreading or working on something, or sitting at the kitchen table composing an early draft, he’s either sitting under the desk or on it. On a chair at the table, or on the table itself.

In which we celebrate our six-month Teddy-versary by splitting some liverwurst.

In which we celebrate our six-month Teddy-versary by splitting some liverwurst.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So it seemed entirely appropriate for us to celebrate our six-month Teddy-versary by splitting some liverwurst at the kitchen table.

And finally, his bald patch has finally grown back in.

Teddy's shaved patch has finally completely grown back in.

Teddy’s shaved patch has finally completely grown back in.

And now you’re up to date on the Teddy News.

 

 

 

 

 

A Time for Praying, and a Time for Doing

To quote the verse from Ecclesiastes 3:1: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”

Yesterday was a day of mourning and loss, a time for reflection and connecting with people we love. It was a time to ground ourselves in love and get a handle on our lives; it was a time to somehow create order out of chaos as a way to grasp what really happened in Orlando. That was Sunday, typically a day for reflection for many people.

Today, however, is Monday, the first day of the work week. Now is the time to get down to work. Yesterday you may have asked the world why and proclaimed “Never again!” But today is the day when we all need to begin the slow hard work of backing up that proclamation. Now is the time to dig in, establish and assert who we want to be in the long haul and fight back. Take back this world that we have been working on creating where everyone has a place at the table.

There are several ways you can fight back. One of the first and simplest is to write your representatives — at both the State and Federal levels. You can find your U.S. representatives using this website here: http://whoismyrepresentative.com. Each state usually has it’s own government website where you can find your state representatives. California’s is here: http://findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.  But don’t forget to write people like President Obama and Vice President Biden, which you can do here: whitehouse.gov.  Write your governor. Write your state’s attorney. Write councilmembers, supervisors and aldermen. Have discussions (not fights, but discussions) at neighborhood councils, residence association meetings, condo meetings. Let them know how you feel and that this issue is important to you.

If you’re not sure what to say or where to get started, Nicole Silverberg at the Huffington Post came out with this article last year after the Paris and San Bernardino shootings. In it, she not only gives you links that show you how to find your representatives, but she also has a sample letter you can use when writing these people.

Get educated. Invite the police who cover your area to come talk on gun violence. Learn about the laws that exist where you live. Learn about gun safety, and if you’re up to it, how a gun works. Maybe go to a shooting range and check it out so you know what this lethal weapon is beyond what you’ve seen on TV or read about online.

Next, find out about organizations you can get involved in that might help combat this craziness. Women Against Gun Violence is one such organization, but there are others. Look them up.

If you’re feeling generous or if you’re one of the many people who believe in tithing or giving back to the community somehow, then do that. Give. When there are natural disasters and we feel this need, people often give to the Red Cross/Red Crescent. This is a little different, but there are places where you can donate money. There’s a GoFundMe page for the Orlando victims, but there’s also The National Center for Victims of Crime and the National Compassion Fund for victims of mass casualty crimes. Or look for other ways to somehow help and give back. If your church or temple or mosque or some other organization is doing something to help victims or help give back after a tragedy, get involved. It will not only help the victims, but it might help you, too.

Whatever you do, don’t just set there feeling bad about the world. You’ve had your mourning time. Now, dry your tears, blow your nose, look around and see what you can do to make it better.

 

Onward and Upward!

SO!

OKAY THEN!

YEAH!

That happened….

Do I look annoyed? Cuz I am. Very. Annoyed.

Do I look annoyed? Cuz I am. Very. Annoyed.

 

I have uploaded as much of my prior blogs that a) I could find on my Blogspot blog and b) seemed mostly relevant and good to have around. I might upload other load blogs later or if Blogetary 1.0 files turn up somewhere, maybe I’ll be able to go through those. We’ll see. For now, at least there’s not a blank white wall of death. And that’s always good.

Just a note, if anyone out there has linked to one of my blog entries in the past, those links are now defunct. I might not have that article up anymore, or if I do, there’s a new link you’ll have to use.

Now, below is a list of links to where you can find my books, as well as me offering samples and reading my books, since the blog entries where I listed those are all gone.

On Amazon you can find just about everything that either I’ve published on my own, or that has been published by someone else.

You can find some of my work available for the Nook on Barnes and Noble.

I am not very good at keeping tabs on Goodreads, but you can also find me there.

On Lulu you can find books I have self-published, including poems and short stories that had been published elsewhere and I pulled them altogether into collections.

I haven’t uploaded any videos in a while, but my YouTube channel can be mildly entertaining. And who knows, maybe I’ll upload something again soon.

And last but not least. If you are interested in my proofreading, copy editing, developmental editing or writing services, contact me at Putt Putt Productions. If you’re interested in what I’ve written and want to read a little bit more about it, then check out my author website.

And now, as Edward R. Murrow would say (if you don’t know who that is, do yourself a favor, look it up, or at least watch the movie), “Good Night and Good Luck!”

I’ll see you around the blogosphere!