Waging Peace

AFTER I RAN out of blank cards, I started decorating regular Christmas cards.

 

The need, the drive, didn’t hit me immediately. It came on me slowly, sneaking up on me from the side, in a zigzag pattern like spies or commandos storming a building in a World War II movie.

But first, after the initial shock and bottoming out of my stomach on November 8, 2016, my emotions went all fire-engine red and boiling hot orange anger mixed with gray despondence and despair. I couldn’t believe half the country had decided not to show up at the polls so that 25% of the country could vote in a man who makes fun of the disabled and thinks it’s okay, normal even, to speak with such disrespect about women or immigrants or anyone really, other than himself. It had been a year since Dad had died and I felt like I was grieving for my dad all over again, AND the country he’d immigrated to, at the same time.

But eventually, I needed something — anything — to keep me going, get me past this and back to life. Staring off into space for hours at a time between bouts of rage and grief does not pay rent or get stories written or feed the cat.

Normally, writing is one of those tools I use to find my way around my emotions, but I was too raw to write. It just seemed to make things worse. I just got angrier, especially at anyone who called for acceptance and calm. All those people asking for that felt too much like the slimy arm of some creepy authority figure trying to manipulate me into behaving a certain way. It felt wrong.

At the same time, the anger wasn’t productive, but it wasn’t going away either. I still needed to figure out how to manage all this anger and grief. Teddy, my cat, tried to console me. My heart was breaking for dreams I had held fast and hoped would come to fruition since I was a little girl. These were dreams I’d had for even longer than I’d wanted to be a writer. Dreams of hope and a world where everyone had a place at the table, no matter their gender, race, religion, ethnicity. These dreams predated my desire to write stories.

TEDDY DID his best to console me while I worked through things.

So, I had no words to describe what I was feeling; no words for dealing with the grief. Anger, hurt, and betrayal cycled through me constantly. I tried to tamp them down, but always I was wondering, did those people who voted for Trump, some of them quite possibly friends and family, did they truly comprehend all the damage he would do? That people they knew and loved would lose access to healthcare? Did they care about that at all? Did they care at all about the people they knew in blended families — blended genders, blended nationalities, blended religions, blended sexualities? Did they care that free clinics and Planned Parenthood clinics and other programs who help people with little or no access to healthcare probably kept people they knew healthy enough to be productive members of society? Did they care at all about all those people, from babies up to adults, who are disabled and probably going to lose access to necessary education and occupational programs? Did they not get that science is real and climate change really is killing us all?

Or were they as angry as I was, but from a different viewpoint altogether? Were they so clouded with fear and anger at losing grasp in a changing world that their vote was a last attempt to hold onto a world that no longer existed? Maybe they truly believed that the world was a zero sum problem, so if someone gets more, they automatically get less. Maybe they didn’t realize that if we all win together it’s better for all of us. Maybe they didn’t grasp that just because people with different beliefs were showing up and asking to be counted, didn’t mean any one belief system or way of life was being invalidated.

I kept wondering why they didn’t understand: If they didn’t believe in a woman’s choice to do with her body what she will, or that people of the same gender could marry, or that other religions were just as valid as their own, or that science was real and we all deserve to have access to, or the ability to obtain food, clothing, shelter — that that was their choice. They could believe that if they wanted. If they wanted to keep their world small, that was their choice. But that was the thing. It was their CHOICE. The rest of us chose NOT to live in that small world. And we continue to choose NOT to be sucked into that dark abyss with them.

As angry as I was with that particular “them” — the “them” who had chosen a smaller, darker world — I also knew that somehow I needed to get past that anger. Somehow, the world needs to change to allow all of us to co-exist, not just a few of us comfortably and the rest tossed under the bus. And I knew that I needed to actively participate within myself for that change to take hold.

Of course, I wasn’t thinking nearly as coherent as above when I started making Christmas cards and watching Star Trek and Christmas movies. But, my brain couldn’t deal with it all, it was too much. No editing or writing jobs were going to get done while my brain was in this fog of grief and disbelief. No reaching out to others on the other side to show them that the world needed to be open and not closed was going to happen while I was just so very angry. In fact, no real thinking was happening at all, at first. It was Christmas movies cuz… Christmas. And Star Trek (TOS, TNG, Deep Space Nine, Voyager … it didn’t matter) cuz Star Trek is always relevant. And then I reached past the words to something deeper and began to create.

I got out my pens, pencils, brushes, paint, glitter, glue, blank cards, old cards, scissors and everything and set about painting and drawing and cutting and gluing and spreading glitter over everything.

At first I was just going to make about ten cards, just enough for some family and close friends. But then I realized there were a few more people to send to, and then I needed to get more laminate pouches, and then more glitter. Eventually, I found that once I got started, I couldn’t stop. So I just got as many 4 x 6 cards and laminate pouches as I could afford, ordered more stamps, and set about nonverbally expressing myself as hard and as loud as I could.

I wasn’t sure who would get what card at first. I just looked at pictures and colors and let my emotions and creative urges have their way with me. I’d make a bunch of cards, set them aside to “set” and make more, or work on making my Christmas crossword and newsletter. Then, I’d take the cards that were “set” and look through them, and look through my address list and see what spoke to me. The cards told me where they wanted to go.

It was all instinctive. There was no coherent thought to it. Pick up a blank card, think of the colors, look at the bits of paper I wanted to use in a collage, glue, paint, cover with glitter. Let dry. Repeat.

I couldn’t stop, so I decided to go with it. Each night I’d do as many cards as I could, wearing myself out so I wouldn’t cry myself to sleep.

Once I got through all the 4 x 6 cards I had purchased, I found regular Christmas cards and started decorating them, too. Colors and glitter. If I was being forced to have a president who believed in a dark world with no color, then I was going to make sure I spread the color and the glitter and light and life as far and as wide as I could. I don’t even know if I can describe the fierceness in my heart at how necessary it felt for me to do this.

It was early/mid December when I finally felt myself floating to the surface of my emotional ocean. Coherent words and thoughts were finally stringing themselves together outside of work. And the phrase that kept repeating itself in my head as I worked on my cards was “waging peace.” And that’s when I realized that what I had been doing was fighting a war in my heart to match the war “out there;” I was waging peace.

And then it was like everything broke loose. It didn’t matter if you were anti-Trump or had voted for the orange monster, or someone else, I was waging peace with these cards, and I was waging it in your direction. And dammit, I was going to be heard. This was my effort to reach out and get my message across — not with words, as words had failed me. If you weren’t going to listen to me or any words I said or wrote before the election, you weren’t going to care about any words I said to you now.

But now I was waging peace with color, pictures, paint, glitter, and my purely emotional and whimsical hope for a holiday that would be merry despite the despair in my heart and the fear and hatred peppering the world.

And I believe this still. Somehow we all have to get that message out there, past the prejudice of speech and old arguments, go primal and pre-speech, with hearts and dreams and color and glitter and hope — we have to reach out to the world and wage peace.

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.

Never had an attic

So, one of the writing exercises in Clear Out the Static in Your Attic is to describe something in detail from your attic, whether real or metaphorical is kind of hazy.

I never lived anywhere where I had an attic, though. We never had an attic where we stored things when I was growing up. Wanted one, never had one. We had a basement, a room under the stairs, crawl spaces. No attics.

So, in doing this writing exercise I had to decide, should I describe the basement I do know, or the attic I don’t know? Is there a difference in how we store our memories? Whether in a mental basement or a mental attic?

My basement will always be the basement in the house on Pear Lane with the cool room beneath the stairs and the wall of shelves for canned goods, the large zinc sinks, the drain in the corner, and the cut out cupboard in the wall where Gramma kept her bulbs. My sister tells me there was a little spot on the wall where Grampa kept his guns behind chicken wire, but I don’t remember that. I figure I blocked that.

I guess what I’m saying then, in reading the above, is I’ve answered my own question. I don’t connect with an attic like I do a basement, so it’s best to use the basement.

The title of this chapter in the Clear the Static book was “Floorboards.” So, we’re supposed to describe the floorboards in the attic.

The floor in the basement was concrete, of course. It was painted gray in the main room with the zinc sinks, but there was green shag carpeting down the stairs and at the foot of the stairs and into Mom’s room. That’s all we had for carpet. My sister and I got the linoleum in our room. It was cream-colored with gold glitter in it and had these odd shaped star things in black and pink. My sister and I used to pretend they were spiders and we had to get around the room without touching them, which meant hopping about from door to bed to bed, and back again.

Blurry photo of the linoleum we had in our bedroom.

Blurry photo of the linoleum we had in our bedroom.

In the summer, when it was 108 degrees outside, the basement floor was nice and cool to the touch. But it was way too cold in the winter when we’d tiptoe across to brush our teeth in the zinc sinks so the grownups could have time in the real bathroom getting ready for work.

One of my favorite places in the basement was halfway up the stairs, just sitting there, sometimes reading a book. When I first learned about prayer, that was where I sat to pray, asking God for a crown, a robe, a scepter and a chest of jewels to arrive there by the time I came back to my favorite place on the stairs.

Gramma tried real hard not to laugh when she explained to me that’s not how prayer works.

Still, it was one of my favorite places in the basement.

The other favorite place was the little room beneath the stairs. It was always warm, all year round. It was where the hot water heater was, which was “new” and right next to the old hot water heater, or boiler, which was made of iron and had 1898 stamped across it. It was the room where the ironing board and iron were kept, always set up. It was where all the old games, knickknacks, toys, sewing supplies, fishing rods, and other oddments were stored. As far as I was concerned, it was a glorious room. A magical room. Down there was where the old Chinese checker game lived, alongside the 1,000 piece dragon puzzle. It was one of the places where I hid when things went wrong. I think of all the rooms in that little orchard house, that’s the room I miss the most.

Yeah, it’s not the attic that works for me. It’s the basement.

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.

The first time my poetry got published

When I was in junior high — Pioneer Junior High, home of the Bears — our school newspaper had a poetry contest. I had moved across town from another junior high, Orchard, home of the Bulldogs, a couple of years before.

Annuals from Orchard Junior High and Pioneer Junior High, 76-79.

Annuals from Orchard Junior High and Pioneer Junior High, 76-79.

It has been a long time, and I believe both junior highs are now middle schools, and neither one has newspapers anymore.

I don’t think the poetry contest was a regular yearly thing. I think it was a “one off” that our school newspaper was trying out in my 9th grade year; it was a glorious “one off” as far as I was concerned.

I remember being really excited at the prospect of a poetry contest. I figured that this was it. This would be the thing that would prove I was a writer. And I think it was also the first time I actually considered sharing my poetry with others. Before this, I don’t think I ever really thought about other people reading what I wrote — I mean, not really (other than silly day dreams, and Paul McCartney songs on the radio in the early morning helped with that). The whole concept that someone other than my teachers or my mom might read what I wrote was foreign. On the other hand, I knew I needed to enter this contest. And I think my mind filed the poetry I’d be submitting in the “homework” portion of my brain to keep me from freaking out about it.

So, I approached it as I would any homework, like I was working on an essay for class, and assumed that only the teacher advisor, and maybe the newspaper students, would ever see the poems I submitted.

The little house on Pear Lane.

The little house on Pear Lane.

But maybe I should back up a little — give you a little history.

When Gramma and Grampa decided to leave Wenatchee, my mom and my sister and I moved from the little house on Pear Lane with a double corner lot, a huge back garden, a little play house and a cool basement, to the tiny two-bedroom duplex on Dakota on the other side of town with a dime-sized yard. Not very far as things went, but far enough to put me in a different school district. Far enough to leave behind friends I’d made my first year of junior high, leave behind track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers and cute boys I had crushes on, and then have to get to know new friends or old friends from grade school again, whilst wondering if I would be able to please my new track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers. Would I find new boys to have crushes on?

So, what I’m trying to say is that even after being at PJH for a year, I felt the need to prove myself. I really was holding onto this poetry thing like a lifeline to do that.

When we’d lived on Pear Lane, my sister and I had shared a room in the basement. We’d built forts out of our closets and beds. We’d played “avoid the monsters on the floor” (the creamy linoleum floor had those pink, gold, and black star things on it) and other games. When I wrote it was with visions of becoming another Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, or L.M. Montgomery. In my world, I was Jo March.

The window I left open so Peter Pan could visit.

The window I left open so Peter Pan could visit.

My sister’s bed had been by the door at the bottom of the stairs and mine had been by the small window that was high up in the wall. I’d left that window open every night when I was really young in hopes that Peter Pan would come to visit. Later I kept it open just to annoy my sister. (It was a basement window with a screen, hidden at the side of the house, in a small town, so no one cared I left it open.)

When we lived on Dakota, once again my sister got the bed by the door, and I got the bed by the window. But this time we were on the ground the floor and the windows looked over the little hedge and the yard onto the small street. We had carpet on the floors and shared a closet with a sliding door and were older, so no more did we build forts or play “keep away from the monsters on the floor.” Instead, we — what would they call it these days? We were “establishing our territories.” We put duct tape down the center of the room. We charged each other 1/4 of a penny every time we touched the other person’s side of the room. Trouble was, my sister’s side was by the door. I had to run down the short hall and do the long jump to get to my side of the room without touching hers, which was only successful about half the time since that was not one of the things I was good at in track.

I probably still owe her money from then.

I still loved being next to the window, though. It was my own little corner of the world. The windows were larger and let in more light. They only opened out a little ways, though, and I didn’t leave them open at night as much anymore. I was old enough now to have seen scary movies and know about the monsters who broke into houses. I wrote messages to my friends in runes or codes, coloring the paper with mom’s leftover coffee so it would look like parchment (she was so annoyed when she found out). And my bed by the window is where I sat to work on my poems for the contest that year. I remember sitting there in the early morning, and sometimes in the evening, looking out the window while I wrote and rewrote lines, crossed it all out and started over again.

I remember working on two poems that year. One I had written mostly while we lived in the little house on Pear Lane. It was simple, following the seasons of the year, and about being a kid in a small town: riding bikes, running along canal roads, running through the sprinkler in the summer, playing in the snow in the winter. I began it on Pear Lane, but I finished it on Dakota. I remember calling it “Childhood.”

Then there was the other poem I worked on, but only on Dakota. It was specific to my immediate condition and was full of young teenage angst and yearning. It hurt so much to express all that that it felt good. I called it “Alone.”

I had put my entire young self into those poems. And then, somehow, I had the confidence and bravery to actually enter them into the contest. A contest where people might read them who hated them, who might point at me and laugh at my ridiculousness. But at least one of them, “Alone,” made it. I think I remember getting third place, but that didn’t matter. It placed, and because of that was published in the school newspaper.

I was so proud! So happy. I don’t even remember the other poems that made it in. I think I remember some semi-cute guy offhandedly saying to me, “cool poem” in one of my classes. It put me over the moon.

I brought home my copy of the school newspaper and swore I’d always keep it. This would always be mine. No one would take it away from me. I’d always have this newspaper as proof I’d been published somewhere.

But, well, things don’t always turn out the way you think. I learned a valuable lesson — to always keep extra copies of what you’ve had published, to keep tearsheets, to keep the original poem or story somewhere safe. Because I lost the copy of that school newspaper with my poem in it, and the copy of the poem as well. I’ve moved several times in my life since then. Every time I have to go through old boxes I think, “I wonder where those poems went.” I look again, just in case. Still not there. They’re long gone in some landfill, probably decomposed by now.

I used to go online every so often and see if anyone had scanned in old copies of the annuals and newspaper from back then. Maybe I’d run into my poem. I even wrote Pioneer Middle School to see if they kept copies of their old newspapers (they don’t). The real world is not Sunnydale and I don’t have a Willow to hack in online and find things that aren’t there.

While I know from the perspective I have as a middle-aged adult that these poems were probably childish first attempts at poetry, “juvenalia” as a friend calls such things, they were my first attempts at poetry. My first attempts at poetry where I actually won something. My first attempts that got published. I will always honor them. I will always miss them.

 

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?

Gramma and the Giant Tomato Worm — Illustrated

Cover of Gramma and the Giant Tomato Worm.

Cover of Gramma and the Giant Tomato Worm.

Back during the summer of 2011, a short story I had written, “Gramma and the Giant Tomato Worm,” was published in Sam’s Dot Publishing (SDP) magazine “Beyond Centauri.” Soon after it came out, my first novella, The G.O.D. Factor, was also published by SDP. As a run up to the publication of the novella, I read a scene from my short story here that you can listen to / watch if you’re in the mood.

(Side note: SDP had a long and venerable history in the genre small press world and I was proud to have my story published in various publications there, as well as a couple of novellas. However, “Beyond Centauri”  and “Aoife’s Kiss” and other of SDP’s books were bought up and then squashed by White Cat Publications. And if you see anything by me on White Cat Publications, I don’t have anything to do with that. I’ve never received any money from any sales of books or stories by me on that site, if any have even sold. SDP no longer exists except as some weird blog site obviously owned by someone who must have bought the domain name. You can try to find some of the original SDP stuff, such as Scifaikuest at Alban Lake Publishing, and they officially carry some of my books and do actually pay me when those books sell. Though if you just want something by me you can also bypass them altogether for some of my stuff and find me at Lulu and Amazon. Okay, side note over. Just remember White Cat bad, Alban Lake good, and when in doubt, just go to Amazon.)

Later I self-published “Gramma and the Giant Tomato Worm” in a collection of stories called Uncommon Faire: A Fiction Sideshow (available on Lulu here and on Amazon here). If you just want to read a collection of some of my short stories, then that’s a good place to start. It’s also available as an e-book to check out for free at Biblioboard, if your library system subscribes and you can find it (I have a hard time finding it and always seem to have to write a librarian for help).

This spring, after a year of change and death, I decided to pull the story out again, update it a little, spruce it up with some of my homemade illustrations and photos, and publish it by itself. I wanted to do something that would get my creative juices flowing again. The ebook is available on both Amazon and Lulu, if you just want to read it on its own. But if you’re considering getting it for kids you know, I suggest the paperback, which right now is only on Lulu. The paperback has pages where someone can continue writing more stories about Gramma or draw other squishy, scary bugs to write stories about. It’ll be on Amazon eventually, for those of you wanting to save on shipping charges, just keep checking back to my author page. I’m told it should be there in about six weeks.

Workshopping as a Free Radical — And Throwback Thursday

Trying to come up with a clever title — like that one? Well, it’s a title. It’s not like I’m at work and have to fit it in a two-line one-column head at 16 or 18 pt. And here I’m Queen of my Blogetary Castle, so it can be whatever I want. So there.

So, yesterday was one of the $5 workshops at the writers country club down the street. I thought long and hard about going. I wanted to do something writing associated, but I knew if I went I’d end up feeling frustrated and ridiculous at the end of the evening again. I realized you can look up who else is attending through the Meet Up app, and saw that once again I’d be twice as old as everyone else. I’d probably end up opening my mouth and sounding like a know-it-all, but you can’t help it when you happen to have that many more years experience.
So am I supposed to keep my mouth shut? Isn’t this supposed to be the 21st century? If I were in my 20s and keeping my mouth shut someone would be railing and ranting against how white male culture was suppressing my expression. But now, the reason I would keep my mouth shut is to keep the peace and allow these younger women to express themselves freely without feeling shot down by the “knowitall” in the corner. *sigh*

Easier not to go at all. Hell, in a few years I can probably find a writers group in a senior center.

Looked up events that are supposed to be happening at the bookstore down the street as a friend suggested. The one last night was a reading/discussion with an author of a political book (not my cup of tea)  and the only event I’m even remotely interested in is a couple weeks from now and is $250. So, that’s out.

But you know, one of those books I won as a door prize when I went to the poetry shindig/hootenanny at the writers country club, was a book of writing exercises. I got it for free and here it was sitting on my kitchen table waiting for me to use it. It’s called Clear Out The Static In Your Attic. It feels like a clumsy title to me. I would have said, “Clear the Static Outta Your Attic” — but maybe there was already another book by that title or something. Anyway. Thought it was time to be creative and have my own little workshop as a free radical not attached to anything. I used to do that a LOT when I lived in Bellingham — get the Writers Digest out, or some other book, and set myself writing exercises to work on. If it worked then, it can work now. And it’s FREE.

I did a couple of exercises out of the book last night. The first one I had tried a few nights before, writing a few six word stories (you know that old story about how Hemingway was asked to write a story with six words?) and then linking them together in one story or poem. So, I worked on that again for a while. I think I might get a poem from that, and maybe something else as well from other phrases I worked up.

The second exercise is to take an epitaph quoted by a favorite author, or even something a favorite author wrote and write based on that. And I couldn’t decide what to do. I got up and wandered around my apartment looking at books.

And here’s where the Throwback Thursday ( #tbt !) comes in: I pulled “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg off my shelf to page through. She’s coming to the West Hollywood Library at the end of the month so she’s been on my mind a lot lately (so excited!). I thought I had remembered her saying “Be kind, be kind, be kind” somewhere in that book, but I couldn’t find it. However, she does repeatedly say throughout her work to be kind, so maybe that’s where I got it. It’s what sticks in my head.

Going through that book brought back so many memories. I thought I had bought it in college, but it was actually a couple years later. I remember reading it on weekend road trips from Bham to Seattle. All sorts of bits were underlined. The cover is almost falling off. And then something I read there sent me to another old favorite book, “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh. Going through that reminded me of San Francisco all over again. I used to practice breathing while I was hanging on tight to a bus or BART rail on my way too and from work in Oakland.

Eventually I settled on no quotes from either book, but instead remembered something my nurse practitioner had told me last time I’d been in. I barked a laugh, wrote it down and got a pretty good flash story from it, I think. We’ll see. A good scene, anyway.

The next exercise in the book used an app on the computer and I stare at the screen a lot these days with work at the paper and at home. As I wanted this to be a computer-free evening, I skipped that exercise and came up with my own, which turned out really well for me. So, I’m sharing it here.

Take a deck of cards. It can be any deck. I used a deck of tarot cards because they have good pictures, usually, and they were close at hand. But you could use SkipBo cards or Uno cards or Creative Prosperity Cards would be good, too. (Might even be better.) Shuffle and cut the deck. Draw seven cards. Write a story based on the pictures on the cards.

Write a story or scene or poem based on random cards pulled from a deck.

Write a story or scene or poem based on random cards pulled from a deck.

I got a good three or four handwritten pages out of that one. Could be a good short story in the making.

By then the sun was setting and I was running out of natural light and I figured my free radical workshop could come to a close for the evening.

So, on the whole, it was a really productive writing workshop last night. In fact, it was so good, I think I’ll go back again next week! 😀