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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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! 😀

Workshop notes…

Previously published on the former Blogetary (1.0) blog.

So, today I went to a writers workshop for the first time in a verrrrryyyyyyy long time. It was at the same place that had the poetry reading/slam on Friday night, The Hatchery Press. I was more than a little nervous. And — again — almost didn’t go. I worked later than normal at the paper and a last minute rush freelance job came in that needed to be done tonight (still working on it, just taking a break). I hadn’t paid any money yet ($5 fee), and I could just de-RSVP.

I thought about it.

But then, I really wanted to go. And you know what made me want to go? I was working on the freelance job. I wanted to get at least a half hour in before taking off for the workshop (and I kind of thought, well maybe I’ll shrug the workshop off). I picked a playlist on my iTunes, opened up my workbook, started up my timeclock and started the project. Songs came on, old favorites that I have loved singing to in the past. And guess what? I couldn’t sing.

Literally.

Most of my life I’ve had an alto voice and not the best, but okay. I’ve sung in choirs. But tonight I couldn’t sing. My vocal cords were all wobbly and tight and I couldn’t seem to get the right notes. And I started to cry.

Singing, or music of most kinds, writing, drawing — these are things that have brought joy to my life. And I couldn’t even carry a tune!

Now, last couple of weeks, I did do some drawing, but I think it was like picking at rocks and debris that have fallen across the stream. And it helped clear some stuff away to get the creativity flowing again. But something was still hung up.

And I thought, that’s it. I can’t be stuck like this. It’s like entropy. I’m losing all those creative muscles.

Teddy did not want me to go.

But I showed up. I was nervous as anything, like I said before. So nervous that I remember my pencils but forgot my notebook. Had to borrow paper like a first-day-of-class freshman. But it was okay.

There was a handful of us, all different types of writers. Nice people. There were a couple of related writing exercises that helped me explore a character in one of my stories, and perhaps gave me an idea for rewriting one of her scenes. So, I feel good about that.

But…

Yeah, there’s a “but.”

Not sure I fit there, or not anymore, though there may have been a time when I did. Not saying I won’t go back, but I can’t tell if I don’t feel like I’ve fit because I’ve “grown out” of this type of group or if I’m just not comfortable because I haven’t been in a writers group for so long, or maybe I’m just not advanced enough.

It just felt awkward — like when you go to a new school and on paper you’re in the same English or Math class as where you transferred from, but in reality what you studied and what the current class is studying is completely different. You could be far ahead. You could be behind. It’s uncomfortable.

Part of it was the side remark someone made about, “just none of that YA crap” and another part was (on my bit I had written), “well, I could have done without the claws and monster stuff, but otherwise I was fine with it.”

As a friend once said, it’s hard to write around Muggles if you’re not one. Not that I’m about to go all Death Eater on anyone, but dammit, I write monsters. I write myth. I write science fiction and fantasy and sometimes even horror. With kids and teenagers thrown in for good measure, sometimes. And a stab at diverse casts and “strong female characters” — though basically to me that just means writing complete characters.

I write the “weird stuff” that my dad disparaged of. That’s just who I am.

Yeah. So. Anywho.

Maybe I’ll go back. Maybe not. For $5 I can’t really shake a stick at it, can it? I mean, it got me a page and a half on something that’s been on vacation for a year, so that’s gotta be something. Gotta keep the stream of creativity flowing somehow.

There’s a poetry class next week. If I still have the $5 left from the $10 I broke to go to this workshop — well, we’ll see what happens.

Getting out there — starting — again …

Previously posted on former Blogetary 1.0 on 5/28/16.

Today, for the first time in like — FOREVER — I went to a club. Heard some good stuff, only had one beer, but that’s what $5 will get ya. The cover was $5, too, so the $10 tapped me out.
Okay, so at first, I wasn’t going to stay. I was going to go with a friend, but she was feeling under the weather, so she couldn’t make it. But man, I haven’t been out in ages. I haven’t written anything in AGES (and it does feel like eons, but it’s only been like a year — albeit of year of death and change). But nothing gets the ol’ creative juices flowing like a live performance. I really needed to go out!
But-but-but — I’m not good in new places on my own unless I have a book, or a pen and a notepad.
But nothing. I needed to go.

Just around the corner. Walking distance. I live in a city for godz’ sake. Time to take advantage of it. Forget the purse. Forget changing or trying to look good. I’m not some 20-something anymore trying to get laid. I’m a grown woman and this is about going and doing like a grown woman does. Lipstick — check. Mascara and eyeshadow — check. How bad do I smell? Do I smell like the curry I had for lunch? Run a comb through my hair. Where did those cool urban boots go that I used to have? When did I give up the leather jacket? Where’s my China Rain? Why am I grabbing the old green cardigan to wear? Why am I so dowdy?

WHATEVER! Just stuff what I need in my pockets and go. Get OUT! Make sure I’ve got $5 for beer and $5 to get in. That’s all I need.

Say goodbye to Teddy, once, twice, okay, now GO!
I almost turned around and went home a couple of times. But I made it through the door; it was too bright, too loud, too many people — none of them familiar. Rhythmic music pounded out over the speakers; it all felt glaring and cacophonous.

But I’d paid the $5 cover already. Too late to leave. There’s a door prize, too. Go figure. I never win anything, but I’ll throw my hat in the ring. Why not? It’s free.

So, I made a joke with the girl by the raffle table. She was young and pretty and nice. Pretty red dress with gold 1950s-style strappy pumps. And she talked to me like a person. I mean it’s her job, but she did a good job of it.

These people know each other, brought friends, or know how to walk up to strangers. Me? Someone introduced herself to me (someone running the show) and to a guy she was talking to; he and I shook hands and promptly walk in opposite directions.

*sigh*

But there’s beer. Or wine. But this feels like a beer night. I’d have taken Jack if they had it, but sadly, they did not. So. Beer it was.

Now I was stuck here. The performance hadn’t begun, but I could see that like all clubs, musical chairs was in force and I needed to snag one or I’d be stuck.

I chose a comfy chair in a corner, pulled out my phone and texted a friend of mine. “Okay, so I made it out. Now what?”

“Get up! Go talk to another wallflower!”

I looked around. Everyone, it seemed, was talking to someone. Lots of tall, leggy actressy/LA-looking girls (okay, women, but in my head, they’re girls) with tight dresses and five-inch pumps. Guys in tight t-shirts looking around, eyeing the chicks with legs that go on forever. Except the guy I was introduced to, who was looking at his phone like I was.

“What other wallflower?” I texted back.

“Just get up and move around.”

“Okay. In a minute. After I finish my beer,” I lied. I tucked my phone away. I looked at my beer. I was about 3/4 of the way through. When the beer is gone, I vowed, I’m getting up and leaving. Can’t stand this music and I’m pretty sure I’m going to hate everyone here. I’m not going to win anything and they’ve yet to start the show. I’ve got a Grimm episode at home with my name on it….

The Emcee bounced up to the front, played with the sound system, read a name for a door prize. Not me. I looked at my beer. There was an inch left.

He read another name. Not me, again. I took another sip.

And again. Another name. Not me. I swallowed the last bit of beer.

I needed to leave now. Except he was reading another name. And this time, it WAS me!

I was getting up now for real, to get my prize. I didn’t pay attention to what I was getting. I was just so happy I got something. Then I turned around to find my seat now taken by a wallflower I hadn’t seen who’d walked in late. Yup. Musical chairs was in force.

And then the Emcee was announcing the act and congratulating us all on coming out of our hovels to make it to a civilized place to hear other writers reading poetry and fiction.

Yeah. That’s right. I was at a writing club — Hatchery Press. The door prize a cache of indie-author poetry books and writer doodads.

I felt like the only cavewoman in the place, except for the fact that the Emcee seemed to assume that we were all having a hard time interacting and made us introduce ourselves to each other.

But don’t think this was a room full of geeks and dweebs. I mean, those were present, but so were the cool guys, the rockstars, the poetry groupies and the writer roadies. All the high school cliques were present, just in a writerly way.

Short story followed by poem, slipping into a memoir, back to poetry, then a memoir, then poetry, poetry, poetry…..

Folk, contemporary, punk, indie rock, hard driving steel guitars, soft a cappella, screaming vocals — if we’d been listening to music in a dark smoky club, that’s what I’d compare the readings to. There was an appearance by James Fearnley of the Pogues reading from his book; readings by emcee Derrick Brown, one of which would have had him arrested in some parts of the world, and Brendan Constantine, who works with the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project. There were also several others I just can’t remember the names of now, but who all did a great job of standing there before their peers and opening up many-times folded pieces of paper to bleed out their hearts and souls in front of us.
There were times when the “poetry reading lilt” got to me. You know the lilt. Poets who read or perform their poems fall into this habit of ending each line in a lilt, an uplift of the voice. It’s why I avoid coffee shop open mics. But then the young poets get better, and get rid of that, and instead every line has no intonation at all whatsoever. It’s just got this weird thrust at the end. Not said like a real person talking. Better, but still annoying.

Why can’t people just read the damn poem.

But most of the time, the material was good enough, and the poets were good enough (one guy in particular was really good at performing his stuff and I mean, this is Hollywood. I overheard him saying something about doing some acting…. hmm… side thought…. improv classes for poets…) — um — what was I saying? Oh, yeah; the lilt only raised its ugly head a couple of times.

So, yeah. I ended up staying. Go figure.

It was funny, walking around after the performance with my writer swag, checking things out. I got asked a couple of times, “So are you a writer?!” And my inner voice, the one who talks like Janeane Garofalo, wanted to say, “Would I be here if I weren’t? I mean, come on!” But then the outer me was all polite and shit. “Yes, I write a little poetry, some sci-fi/fantasy.” Usually, people’s eyes glaze over at that point, though one assumed I was a screenwriter. (Cue the Janeane Garofalo scoff.)

Anyway, so, the “writers country club” (my nickname for the Hatchery) isn’t so bad after all (they charge $150 to $350 a month to be a member, I mean, do you know any writers who can afford that, cuz I sure don’t — although at one point they were asking if we made “less than $ XX and I kept having to lift my hand and it was kind of embarrassing. Maybe I am the only broke writer in Hancock Park). Found out I can pay $5 for the occasional workshop or class and not have to sacrifice rent, groceries and kitty litter for the occasional writing class. Besides, I live alone and have a perfectly good home office and / or kitchen table for writing. I don’t need that aspect of it. I just want some inspiration to get me going again.

Just something easy to get to, you know, that will prod me into slicing open my veins and bleeding onto the page.

Journaling as a tool for growth of one’s inner voice and internal life

Previously published on Blogetary 1.0 March 2015.

You can journal anywhere, but having a nice, clean spot that is pleasant, and where you can think and write is best.

I’ve blogged about journaling before, back in 2008 (since lost to the ether that is cyberspace). This is not a new thing for me, but I keep coming back to how important it is, so I thought I would touch base on it again, in my usual round about way.

The internet has become ubiquitous to our daily lives. It has become our democratic public space where we can freely discuss our ideas, our feelings, kitten videos and pictures of llamas and goats. In my head, I see the internet as this infinite town square with all these people getting on and off soap boxes as they yell for people to listen to them talk about art, politics, literature, medicine, ideas, cute animal videos and even what is going on in their everyday lives. Crowds wander past and stop at the occasional soapbox or steps listening to the various calls to attention, have their say and move on. Or someone from the crowd finds another soapbox or building step to stand on and make a speech while a crowd gathers around him or her. The crowd listens, comments, and moves on.

It’s so vast, so all encompassing, all these pushmepullyous of ideas and comments and pictures and videos, and then there are the companies commodifying that space so it’s snake oil, as well as ideas and such, littering our brain space and fighting for attention.

The internet as the town square of public life, the democratic public sphere where ideas can be tossed out and looked at from all sides is HUGE. And overall, even with all bad things that happen on the web, this is a good thing. But I think we forget how huge and public this town square is. We sit at our computers or peer at the screens of our various devices and we are each in our own heads and alone before those screens, and it feels singular and intimate. So, we don’t just discuss who we voted for, or didn’t vote for, or the price of tomatoes at the market (or kitten videos). We also put out some of our most intimate thoughts for strangers to see, read, and comment on. Things that are so private we wouldn’t normally tell anyone in person, things we are just thinking about and pondering that we haven’t decided on yet, we post on the internet, on the most public space in the world ever, for other people, complete strangers, to see and know about us.

To be sure, in this unprecedented public space it is possible to become friends with complete strangers who live on the other side of the world. You can have best friends on the internet who live on the other side of the country who know things about you that your best friends in meat space don’t know. And this is a good thing. A kid in a small town can now know he’s not the only romantic goth in the world, even if he is the only one at school. Someone living in a walk-up apt. in a city can live vicariously through a friend who has a garden or a farm. Whole movements can happen and people become very good friends and know a lot about each other, and yet no one has actually met each other. So, it’s easy to forget how public a space this internet is, because we can be — and are — so intimate in the way we use it, in the way we post every last detail of our lives in our statuses and tweets.

I think, however, that part of what we are looking for — besides all the other things like friendship or intimacy when we are lonely or attention when we feel neglected, or interacting with like-minded people — is some place where we can see our thoughts outside of our head so we have a better idea of them and get comfortable with them. We want some place where we can live our internal lives.

Most people, by the time they are adults, have an internal life of sorts, a place all their own where they can think things through, ponder life, make up things, create, relax, imagine, and/or fantasize just about anything. We problem solve, make decisions, come to realizations, all within our internal life. Sometimes, like Dumbledore and his pensieve, we need a way to separate out all those thoughts so we can look at them more clearly, and not get lost in the jumble. So, we write them out so we may see them more clearly. People used to write their thoughts out in letters to a friend or in their own journals, and it helped them figure things out.

Should I fight in the Crusades or not? Should I marry that man or take the veil? Should I take that trip over an ocean to a land no one I know has ever seen, or remain here where it’s relatively safe? Do I believe in abolition for all or the state’s right to choose? Do I believe in suffrage for women and blacks? Or do I think only landholding men should be able to vote? Should I fight my entire family and cohort and go to medical school as the only female, or just be a nurse and governess like everyone says?

These questions were probably discussed aloud with friends and family at some point, but they and the processing of all the thoughts that went with them began with the inner voice. The individual’s internal voice, inner life, had space so that person could look over those thoughts and consider the points, and they usually gained some measure of perspective in writing in their journals, or perhaps in letters. But still, it was the writing it out and looking at it separately from themselves that gave them that distance they needed to ponder those thoughts.

These days, however, I think journaling, that urge to look at the thoughts of our internal lives, gets lost in the urge we have to make constant status updates. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of an event or activity and thinking about how I’ll post it, instead of just being in the moment and listening to my inner voice. And instead of putting these thoughts safely in a journal where we (and we alone) can ponder them and decide on them — indeed decide on whether or not we want others to see them or even if we want to work through them ourselves — we tweet or post them where everyone can see and comment on them. We get ourselves all frazzled because we put something out there prematurely.  Get ourselves into trouble and get flustered, or be embarrassed or whatever, because the thought we posted out there in the public square wasn’t meant for the public square, it was meant, really, for the internal heartbeat, the inner voice that reasons things out before you come to a decision.

I remember a few years ago when I first started realizing how posting statuses so frequently online was affecting my inner voice and internal life. I can’t remember now what it was I put out there, but I saw it, realized it was something I was pondering, not ready to share with people. I didn’t want to see their comments littering up my thought, whether or not the comments were kind or not, meant well or ill. I just wanted to be able to hold my thought and ponder it outside myself, but privately.

So I took it down from where it was posted and stuck it in my journal, and I remember some people didn’t get that. “Oh, you can share with us!” I think it may have hurt some feelings because it felt like I didn’t trust them. It has nothing to do with that though. Your thoughts, when they are still yours, are like Schrodinger’s Cat when they’re still yours and no one else’s, when they’re still part of your internal life and have not made their way out into the external world. As long as they are still in “the box” — your head — they are neither dead nor alive, and both dead and alive, all at once. No one has told you it was a stupid idea or a good idea. No one has not laughed or laughed too loudly at your joke or comment. No one has not “got it” or gotten it a little too well and now you’re uncomfortable.

I guess what I am saying is that what journaling gives you is this magic space and time to reflect on things before revealing them (or not, your choice) to the external world.

For example, I walk down the street and smile at people passing by, most of them neighbors and some of them friends. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, it feels good and I write about the experience as a status update and now everyone out there can comment on it. “Well you didn’t smile at me.” “No one smiles in my neighborhood.” “It was too hot!” “Ha-ha! Did you remember to zip up your pants?” “Only tourists smile.” And now suddenly it’s a “thing,” and instead of feeling good about your walk in the neighborhood, you’re suddenly doubting whether or not it was real. Was it really a good walk? Was your experience real?

Another day, same thing, but instead of posting it online, you post it in your journal. You read it. You reflect on your day and your walk. You remember the warmth of the sun and the squirrel that scampered across the street. You remember the little girl pulling her own stroller as her mother pushed it, and the smile that went from their mouths to their eyes. And you remember it and think about it. And it wasn’t just a happening and wasn’t all fake, in fact, writing it out and rereading it has reinforced how real it was. It really was a good walk. It really was a good day. No one can take that away from you.

NOW, you can share it online if you want, now that you know it is real. Your friends can joke about it and you won’t go away with a sour feeling, you’ll laugh like everyone else, because you’ll have seen your experience through your own eyes first. It’s been run through your pensieve, and you’ve internalized it, made it your own.

This is what journaling does for you, or can do for you if you let it. It makes you stronger and helps you to grow, helps you develop a reflective self. Next time you break up with that boyfriend or girlfriend, instead of posting it on Twitter, write about it in your journal. Take the time to get everything down and out of your system. Not just 15 minutes, either. Go back to it the next day to work out what you went through changing your relationship status and putting together a bag of all their things to give back to them. The feelings you had were real and need the time you give them, privately, in your journal.

And then — maybe — you won’t embarrass yourself with over emotional tweets about your ex for the whole world to see. You’ve already gone through it. You’ve processed it. You can tweet confidently that you’re single now and ready to move on. Unlike your ex, who tweeted while drunk and is now face palming themselves for the crap they put out there and can’t take back on the grand public town square that is the internet.

Who Will Sub for Miss Simmons? An Excerpt

Previously published on Blogetary 1.0 October 2014.

And here’s a video of me reading the prologue and first Chapter of Who Will Sub for Miss Simmons? I apologize for the fumbles I did it on one take rather than trying to do it more than that. But you can also read a preview of the first chapter elsewhere on my blog if you prefer not to watch me trying to imitate Miss Simmons. Click the picture or the link above to go to the YouTube video.

Me trying to imitate Miss Simmons.

Me trying to imitate Miss Simmons.