Browsing "How-To"
Aug 10, 2013 - How-To    4 Comments

This “Pied Beauty”

One reason I love living in Appalachia is it parallels my personality.  Every moment there’s some new drama occurring which, thankfully, has little to do with me. The mountains are as moody as a Russian poet and constantly in flux. I go for a walk and behold, the clouds have wrapped the Blacks in cotton, or the gray of early morning fog makes the green hillsides jump out at you. A white deer appears on the sloping meadow across the rocky rift of road as if she were just a deer like all the others. The painted pony prances for you as if he knew you were taking his picture.

Nowhere is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty  so appropriate a poem. Over and over, as streams gurgle and chuckle beside the roadbed I repeat the lines, “Glory be to God for dappled things–” and “All things counter, original, spare, strange;/Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?).”  Here in the North Carolina mountains, drama and dapple is just a way of life. This simple fact makes me feel at home.

Perhaps I am more aware of my surroundings. Certainly, I am able to take part as the heat is not intolerable and the sun does not burn as brightly as in the Arkansas Ozarks. Most days here are at least partly cloudy and always there are so many trees that I can find shade even at high noon. I spend my life outdoors and that is where I have always felt most comfortable. Four walls confine me as surely as if I were sitting in a prison cell. Even the sometimes bitter winter weather doesn’t prevent me from taking a daily walk. That’s why god made smart wool.

However, moving always sets your writing back. At my age, nearing 60, a move alone can take a person months to assimilate. Add a spouse, 4 dogs, and a business to move as well, and your writing practice can really suffer if you let it. I say that as if I have some choice in the matter. That’s because I do. One must decide to write and, during difficult times, that decision must be made nearly every day.

There will be days, if you’ve been a writer for some time, when your hand simply cannot stay away from the pen. But these days grow few and far between when, say, your partner’s small press has the busiest month in two years the July after you’ve moved. How did they know? Our customers could care less that we are completely discombobulated. They didn’t know we had not found a printer, that we are working out of an old garage which requires a dehumidifier running full time to keep the their booklets flat enough to pack. We’re short on boxes. And where is our current paperwork?

We have no fence and the dogs must be walked. The rental is so small we bump into one another on the way to the bathroom. But it has a glorious porch and the view is stunning. Our neighbors are good country folk working the nearby rock mine and then their gardens when they get home. Nobody shirks and they set a good example for me. Looking around for my pen and notebook, I decide to write. Yet, despite the piebald beauty surrounding me, I cannot find my words anymore than I can find my old notebooks or my writing books.

But there are poems which are already written everywhere. So I read them. Gerard Manley Hopkins has been a favorite lately.  As has James Dickey (read Cherrylog Road) and Emily Dickinson with her “Zero at the Bone.” I’ll tell you where to find such unlikely bedfellows all in one place in my next post. Suffice it to say, when you can’t find the words to write, let the poets, who have a long tradition of putting words in our mouths, help. You know who your poets are. Find them. Pull their slender volumes from the shelf and blow the dust off the covers. Read a fistful of poems every day until the images are engraved on your heart and the words stick to your mind; until, finally, you can pen a poem of your own again.

 

 

Jul 31, 2013 - How-To    4 Comments

Is It Sin or Just Southern?

I have to say I’m amazed to be included in this anthology of Southern women sinners. Really, all I did was enter an essay that I had so much fun writing that it seems a sin for it to actually be published. But then again, isn’t that the best kind of work? The kind you had a blast writing and then, just for the helluva it, you entered it in a contest because it was so blamed funny, and TRUE, which is the real kicker, and there you are, in a book edited by the “Godfather of creative nonfiction.” I thank Lee Gutkind and Beth Ann Fennelly for including me in this collection of Southern women writing sinfully, deliciously true stories.

The book releases in October and there isn’t a single person who keeps up with my blog that should not be pre-ordering this book. In three different cities in North Carolina and Arkansas, I have hosted open mic readings celebrating women writers; many who, had they submitted their own work, would be included in this collection. I can tell you this from keeping up my subscription to Creative Nonfiction magazine–the stories will all be good. Here is the editor’s preview of what you can expect:

“These stories may be from the South, but there are no shy, retiring belles here!

Whether remembering the power of a cheerleading uniform or flirting with another woman’s husband, the women in this collection of true stories play with fire — sometimes literally. These stories range from the poetic and personal — dancing warm nights away with strangers and renting out rooms to adulterers with an exhibitionistic streak — to the journalistic, including a piece about Willie Carter Sharpe, the “queen of Roanoke rum runners,” and the story of Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, whose plan to run away and live as “man” and wife ended in scandal and murder in 1892.

This collection includes contributions by Southern women from a broad range of circumstances and stages of life–from teenage lifeguards-in-training to middle-aged lesbians struggling to find acceptance from their aging parents and Atlanta divorcees trying to get back into the dating game.”

I leave you to guess which one of these examples speaks of my situation. To be sure, you better get the book and read them all. Every one of them sounds fascinating. Really, I cannot wait. And for my nearest and dearest, know what you are getting for Christmas presents this year. I’m ordering at least ten of them myself.  I’m sure I’ll spend most of my check on the book. You can pre-order if you want (and I would if I were you) by going to their website–https://www.creativenonfiction.org/books/southern-sin. My gut feeling is, get a bunch. You are going to want to give these babies away without lending out your copy.

I have always loved the South; am proud to be “from here” which I consider the home of true story-telling. I have heard tales similar to those published in Southern Sin whispered by God-fearing parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. They’d gather on front porches at night, the halo of nearby street lights limning their profiles as they rocked forward to keep their voices low. Grown-ups didn’t want the kids, who lay on the sofa just below the front windows eavesdropping for all they were worth, to hear the raunchier stories of neighbors and not-so-distant relations.

I know some folks say about the South, but those same people will dog out any state, no matter on which side of the Mason-Dixon it lies. As if the State were the people who lived there, the politics belonged to all people alike, and everyone did nothing but listen to country and bluegrass all the livelong day. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with country or bluegrass. Like opinions and prejudice, Southern music has changed over the years. And it has long included voices that were hard to hear outside of New Orleans or Memphis, Biloxi or Charleston.

So, listen my friends and you will hear, Southern stories by women that will burn your ears. And I’m not talking the hot, buttered variety. Not the way you usually think of it anyway.

 

Feb 21, 2013 - How-To    1 Comment

Inspired on Facebook

Where do we go to find a well of inspiration?  Julia Cameron had the brilliant idea of the “artist’s date.” In her book The Artist’s Way, Cameron suggests that we take a few hours every week to explore something we know nothing about. Go watch a glassblower work. Try your hand at throwing a pot or drawing. Take a picnic to the mountains. Alone. You take these risk adventures by yourself. The level at which we are willing to risk embarrassment or failure is different when we are among strangers; when we think no one we know is watching. It’s a brilliant idea and it works. But Cameron wrote her book long before there was such a thing as facebook or social networking,

If we are going to spend time online either  actively  participating or lurking in the shadows reading, we might as well use it as a source of inspiration. And, depending on the friends you choose, you might find a well of information and even inspiration there. I realize we use facebook as an escape quite often, but I have a lot of thoughtful artistic friends who post ideas in the form of quotes or photos. Some who like to philosophize begin dialogues that bestir the imagination and force us to think, or post a link that leads to an interesting article. We can choose to use facebook as a source of inspiration as opposed to a time-burner. When you read something that touches you, go to “Word” instead and begin writing.

Recently, the “pay it forward” idea took hold on facebook. Someone would offer to give you and four others a gift of some sort if you promised to gift 5 others. Artists took it a step up. On my own page, artist and puppeteer Jo Ann Kaminsky offered to hand craft five gifts if the receivers promised to hand craft their own gifts to five more people. Knowing Jo Ann and her husband Hank, and the incredible artists they are, I immediately signed on, asking if a poem to another person would count as handmade. She said yes and I put it out there. Within a day, I had five takers. Several wanted love poems for their heartthrobs, one desired a sexy poem for herself, and one was “anything.”

I created some questions which would tell me something about each of these people or their loved ones and sent them by message. Within their answers I discovered the poems. What was their favorite color? What foods did they like? What animal did they consider a totem? What was falling in love like? What were their best memories? What songs did they listen to? A handful of questions opened up a barrage of answers and I had more than enough material with which to work. The hard part was deciding what my focus would be. So far, I have written two of the poems. Since I retain the rights on the poems, I can both give them away and keep them, which is not possible for most gifters. I will share a poem with you that I wrote a male friend for his beloved wife. He told me she loved dragonflies. Then he said she was a dragonfly. He told me a lot more about her, but my heart latched onto that image and, like the dragonfly from the nymph, the poem was born. I did the research and Dragonfly Love emerged. (Link to the poem: http://hillpoet.com/?page_id=817 )

For my poem recipients, I requested they give away five gifts that would inspire creativity in others, suggesting found objects or perhaps something they, too, had created. They didn’t have to be artists or poets to pay it forward though. They just had to know how to find inspiration in life. And so I am following my own request as I share this post with you. Find inspiration everywhere. Then pay it forward.

 

—Mendy Knott is a writer, poet and author of the poetry collection A Little Lazarus (Half Acre Press, 2010). To order your copy of A Little Lazarus directly from the author, please click here.  Or, if cookbooks are more your style, get a copy of Mendy’s family cookbook Across the Arklatex at www.twopoets.us.

Feb 5, 2013 - How-To    Comments Off on Keep It Simple to Keep Going

Keep It Simple to Keep Going

I’m sorry, Faithful Readers, for abandoning you so long. I can tell you that I had a painful foot surgery, but that did not affect my writing hand. I can relate to you how my 80-something parents moved to Dallas from Benton, AR and what THAT was like, but my hands weren’t bound, just busy. I could have found the time. For sure, there was a bit of emotional blowback from those two events. Still, my hands were free to blog if I took a mind to do so.

However, as we all know, it takes more than hands to write. It takes heart. For a moment there, which I let turn into months, I lost heart. My confidence sank deep below the surface like fish in winter. In other words, my self-assuredness was hard to find, much less catch and net. Then, just as I was crying, wringing my writing hands, and asking that age-old question: Why, why, why do I keep on doing this…this insane writing thing? WHY?!! The Universe responded.

I was published in a lovely online journal called “Rise Forms” which is written by well-spoken, highly educated fishermen. They have both a poetry section and an essay section, and the editor decided my poem belonged in the essay section, which serves to tell me something about my writing; how it really is somewhere between a short story, poem, and essay. As far as I was concerned, he could put it anywhere he wanted. I was delighted to feel a nibbling at my heart.

Next, I received a wonderful rejection letter from “Creative Nonfiction” magazine, edited by the godfather of creative nonfiction himself, Lee Gutkind. The letter essentially said that they loved my essay “Matinee” but in trying to achieve balance in their “Southern Sin” edition they unfortunately couldn’t use it. It did however, make the top 25 out of 600 essays and they would like to hold onto it for a book proposal they were considering. Now, that is a good rejection!

And finally, I ran into a woman I hadn’t seen in some time at the hairdresser’s and out of the blue she said, “You are my favorite poet. I just love your book.” A little praise goes a long way with a writer. I am so grateful to her because it was with those words, I began again. All of this happened in the span of one week. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I begin again. Now there’s a phrase you’ve heard all your life. Start over. Try it again. Get back up on that horse and ride. Begin again. Simple as that. Yet, you have to lay claim to it to understand that it takes courage, some kind of crazy bravery to start over, to keep going, to try harder. Speaking of bravery, here’s a little phrase I picked up from the movie “We Bought a Zoo,” which I watched out of the need for a little comic relief. I found more in it than I ever thought I would. “It only takes 20 seconds of courage; foolish, embarrassing, crazy bravery…twenty seconds and it can change your life in the most fantastic ways.” That is all it takes because once you’ve signed on for those 20 seconds, you are committed to follow-through. A wonderful, simple philosophy I will never forget.

As for the persistent and annoying question of why, why, why am I doing this? Well, the zoo movie had an answer for that one, too.

Why not?

—Mendy Knott is a writer, poet and author of the poetry collection A Little Lazarus (Half Acre Press, 2010). To order your copy of A Little Lazarus directly from the author, please click here. Or, if cookbooks are more your style, get a copy of Mendy’s family cookbook Across the Arklatex at www.twopoets.us.

Dec 16, 2012 - How-To    2 Comments

New Nonets

As promised, I have included the nonets that were sent to me at my last post’s request.  The first one called “Star” is mine and was done at a friend, Jane Voorhees’  request to try an upside down nonet in order to make a Christmas tree shaped poem. Then Jane, using old-fashioned letter press equipment, formed the words and with a swipe of a watercolor brush, formed a beautiful little Christmas card. This is the fun and beauty of collaboration.

Star
Pine’s
Pungence
Snaps the cold
Air whitened by
Sifting snow. Red bird
Flutters in her night’s nest
Suggests holly berry bright.
Black trunks cast long shadows against
Drifts while stars drape boughs in mystery.
 

Below are the nonets readers submitted. The submissions are all quite good and prove the point that surprising things can happen when we fit our words into a form. It was very hard to choose a winner from these great nonets, so I put the names in a hat and drew one out. The winner is Pamela Hill. She wins a copy of “Saved by a Poem: The Transformative Power of Words” by Kim Rosen. Congratulations and enjoy!

Leaving
Lucid once, then often not, she leaves
more quickly now, frightened by a
shadow, spark, or spot, she’s off
to wander isles of blue,
then asks “Where are we
now?” “Who are you?”
I’m missing
her, a
lot.
(A nonet by Pamela Lee Hill, Nov. 2012)

 

 Waiting for my Eye Exam
 An old hand, wrinkled skin drapes on bones,
creped fingers curl softly around
two younger hands — a picture
in a magazine I
use to pass the time.
Tears sting my eyes —
I see my
mother’s
hand.
by Ann Teague
   
                                                       
Aging in Place 
Cruel alarm shatters the darkness of early morning sleep.
Full moon spies paper tossed carelessly on wet lawn.
Fresh coffee, soon your doctor we greet.
Relentless pain, crippling spirit, mind, body.
Constant love the only drug
Binding us past reason
Hope and fear
You are
Mine.
 © Jeanne M. Sievert 12/1/12 /3/12
 
 
 
Semester’s End
No more hikes up the hill to Hogwarts.
No more challenges to old rules
of writing, of power, of
living a successful
life.  Teacher, you led
my heart through the
stone shower
into
now.
 —Jan M.  VanSchuyver  12/6/2012
 
 
My Sundowner

She asks my name like we have not met.
Cloudy eyes gaze, her hand comes up
To brush my cheek and the tear…
Mother, it’s your daughter.
Barb? Where have you been?
Here mom, right here.
Who are you?
Mom, it’s
Me.

—Barb Wallace

 

Stoney grey, the weather holds us in
Doors cordon off drafty windows
Steamy cup of joe to warm
And blanket in my lap
A cozy corner
In well lit room
poetry
thaws my
mood.
—Susan R.
 
 
 
 
 
  
Nov 28, 2012 - How-To, Writer's Life    6 Comments

Writing When You’re Down

As I experience my 7th day after Achilles tendon replacement, I’m starting to feel a little limited by the fact that I must use crutches to get around. We thought our house was accessible to all, but now I see that some significant doorways (like bathrooms) are not wide enough to accept the easier alternatives. I have, so far, slung myself into chairs, dropped from great heights onto sofas, lost control and fallen into doors and dressers. My shoulders ache and my good leg cries for a break; not literally.

It’s easier to stay in one or two well-cushioned spots with the bad foot up. I study Buddhism, meditate, read bad novels, watch “Glee,” and thumb through journals like Writer’s Digest or my current favorite, The Writer, for inspiration as I try to keep up my practice. I would love to begin and even complete my first TV series while lying around for several months waiting to heal. Then I can run off again. I’ve decided that’s why you have to hurt something once in awhile­–so you can complete a long project. However, I must be able to do without the painkillers before I can begin my series in earnest.

Meanwhile, I came across a creative challenge in Writer’s Digest to write a form poem called a nonet. The word nonet is is defined as a combination of nine musical instruments or voices. The form is fun, only slightly challenging, and there are no definitive rules aside from the structure: The poem is nine lines long. The first line is nine syllables, the second line is eight, and so on until the last line finishes in a word. The form, as many do, force you to keep the poem short and concise, use vivid imagery and verbs, and compress your lines.

In “Sundowners,” I try to express a syndrome known to the elderly, the dying, an injured middle-aged drama queen poet, and most of us during the season when the light starts leaving the sky earlier and earlier each day. It seems better to turn these “negative” feelings into art so that, even if they seem dark, there’s a shine that comes off them like a low light bouncing off an unsunk eight ball.

Below, you’ll find my nonet. I challenge you to try your hand at this form. If you’d like, you can paste your nonet into the comments section and I’ll put them in a blog post for all my 31 ½ readers to see. Just kidding, but you won’t need to feel overwhelmed by the publicity. I can use your name or a fake name or no name. If you like this idea, just put “can include” next to your nonet. I will also pick my personal fave and send the winner a prize, which will be a writing book or mag to inspire you onward. I’ll contact you through your email on the comments page. I realize authors and poets fear putting their work on the web, but I’ll cover that fear in a post soon. For now, here’s my nonet:

“Sundowners”
Leaves copper with shine, wings flicker, suns fire
until the sky’s gold-coin brightness
silvers to a fifites’ dime,
darkens to old penny
flattened on a track.
No way to flip
back to light
leadens,
gone.

 

 

Nov 17, 2012 - How-To    2 Comments

When Words Fail

You might be the most prolific writer in the world, but sometimes words will fail you. Yes, even you and me. Words can’t always express the fullness of the feelings we hold in our hearts: the fear of an upcoming operation for you or a loved one; the anger we experience at yet another war beginning or the next oil spill; the love that fills us when we look upon our friends and family and know, just know, how lucky we are; the angst of understanding that we really might ruin the world for the next generation; the horror generated by more news of murder and rape. Already, this post in almost too cheery for words!

So what does a writer do when words fail them, even temporarily? Often, I write anyway. I allow myself to write about anything. It doesn’t have to be good or significant to anyone but myself. Sometimes I blather on like an idiot. This is what I call journaling and I consider it to be primarily for mental health. Should something significant appear, it is purely by accident. Later I will rip that page or two out and put it some place safe. The rest is fuel for my New Year’s bonfire.

Allow yourself to play with artistic expression that has nothing to do with your specialty. If poetry or prose is “what you do,” but you find yourself momentarily blocked, then draw. You can take a drawing class, but it’s not necessary. I created a whole book of stick figures documenting an anniversary trip Leigh and I made with some friends to a cabin in WNC one year. I had copies made and each of the four of us had a funny souvenir to remember that year. Most often I wrote a poem of our time spent together, but that year just happened to be a drawing year.

As I prepare for surgery on my achilles tendon shortly, I find that I am again at a loss for words. Well, words that you would want to read anyway. Words are often my greatest comforter, but not now. I think they will be again some time after the operation when I’m not laying about in la-la land. I fully expect my vocabulary to return in full. At least I hope so. Right now, and through a great deal of this autumn, I have taken more joy in photography than in writing. I am not a great, or even good photographer, really. I just happen to love taking pictures.

Pictures, at least for the moment, seem to be worth more than a thousand words. All of a sudden, the smallest things glow from the inside out. This gift of seeing more than I usually do, touches me deeply. The beauty, the life and death inherent in every object in every moment, can only be captured in a picture. That’s if the photographer is both good and lucky. And since the invention of the digital camera and photo shop, even the most amateur photographer can feel okay about the outcome. I can take picture after picture and never worry about running out of film or how much it will cost to get them developed. I know my shots are mostly good for reminding me of a special moment of beauty. Still, I find I do have a good sense of composition. When I consider the fact that I’m primarily a writer, having a feeling for composition makes a kind of sense.

Since I am about to undergo foot surgery, I may be delayed in my next blog post– hopefully, not for long. Only until the worst of the pain has passed. Then I will need to write to you, my faithful readers, and tell you what is going on in this strange and crazy brain pan of mine. Then I will be forced to write because my ability to get out and take the pictures I love will be limited for awhile. I feel grateful for all the outlets that exist for anyone who desires to be creative. Almost anything you need with which to express yourself is within easy reach. Just put out your hand and, abracadabra, make it happen.

 

Oct 23, 2012 - How-To    Comments Off on Haunted (Part I)

Haunted (Part I)

“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” one of my favorite Ray Bradbury stories, floats into consciousness like the drifting leaves this time of year. October is a ghostly month and never fails to bring out my closeted admiration for the thrill of a fine, haunting story. Ghost stories instill a sense of mystery in me as large as death and as horribly fascinating as the tiny microbes feeding on compost in the big black box out back. After all, things are dying out there. They’ve been doing it forever; we’ll join everything else eventually and so perhaps should sit up and take notice. Writers and artists owe it to themselves and to their audiences to honor the darkness that grows long with the shadows in the fall of the year.

Horror is often an under-appreciated form of storytelling. One can see why by observing the scary story’s evolution at the theater. “Halloween 1, 2, 3, 4, etc” and the infamous Jason capitalize on gross visual and sound displays. Not that I don’t admire a really good screamer; I do. Think of Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho. I simply prefer my blood to be thick with meaningful content. Raw gore and guts have slowly replaced the elements of surprise, mystery, setting, and the silent scream stifled in our breasts at certain unspeakable thoughts.

Do literary snobs frown on the likes of Stephen King? Of course they do. He’ll never win a Pulitzer, but I’m sure he could care less as he banks another  few million from books like Carrie, Salem’s Lot, or The Shining. His early works were some of the most terrifying tales I’ve ever read, and several of the screenplays created from his stories even did his writing justice. He also wrote a wonderful book for writers called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Anyone who has read him must admit that he is a master storyteller, has a genius for characterization, and tops a long list of authors in his chosen genre.

Yet, no writer explodes full blown from the publisher’s brain. We form a long line of inspiration and are always reaching back to grasp the hand that held the pen before us. King hails from a most honorable gallows of  thrill-seeking writers. Mary Wollstonecraft created  Frankenstein from the fragments of a dream. She was challenged to pen her story by a group of writing friends including her future husband Percy Shelly, Lord Byron, and John Polidori as they swapped ghost stories during a winter’s rain around a blazing fire. I’m sure King, like many authors, was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, civil war veteran Ambrose Bierce, British author Algernon Blackwood (whose scary nature stories top my list of favorites), and Bram Stoker who brought the living dead to life.

Count Dracula was so real to me as a seventh grader that I had to put a bible on top of the book before I could go to sleep at night. He was a vampire’s vampire before they became fodder for teen movies, leading simple everyday adolescent lives full of affection and sweet teen sex. Stoker gave me a taste for blood and every year at Christmas, a book of horror topped my list of wishes. I’m sure Santa was slightly horrified, but I got my book of stories by Alfred Hitchock and Twilight Zone shorts written by authors who were unafraid of the dark, or were at least willing to face their fears in order to make us shiver.

This year, read at least one ghost story or novel that will scare the wits out of you. Read it a second time in order to study how the author managed to elicit such a response. If you think reading such material is a negative way to spend your time, I dare you to compare the scariest fiction with the present state of the world or the ongoing presidential election. Now that is frightening! Haunted tales are a great way to shapeshift us out of the mundane. They sharpen our powers of observation and imagination, and remind us that there is more to life, and death, than meets the eye.

Sep 9, 2012 - How-To    1 Comment

Writing: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Four Inspiring Writers: Mendy, Jan, Britt, Kam

The other day, a friend asked me for a bit of “coaching” advice. I’m not an official writing, life, football (altho’ I’m kind of wishing I went into that line of work about now) or any other kind of coach. But I am one helluva cheerleader for those wanting to deepen their relationship with their creativity. If I had a long line of creatives wanting to be advised, I might charge or barter. Since I don’t, my shared inspiration, like my blog, are free. This way no one can get mad if things don’t work out the way they hoped. At least they won’t have spent any money. Besides, I often get inspiration in return. This works out well for everyone.

My friend, who is a talented poet and essayist, had been on a long retreat from writing. Busy with entrepreneurship, passionate gardening, and beekeeping, she’d left serious writing behind for awhile. Everyone takes time off, but real writers always return to the page eventually. It is true that the longer you’re away, the longer it takes to reclaim the level of writing you had attained. Like riding a bike, you won’t forget, but you must be patient as you practice the balance and spin of writing well.

She said that, as she was turning 45, she wanted to commit to 45 pieces (short essays) in 45 days. As she talked, she repeated the word “commit” several times and I noticed each time the wince and swallow that accompanied it. Listening, I realized the word commitment is overused and perhaps abused. We tend to associate it with whips and chains, being tied to a chair with our nose to the grindstone. The word feels more like an anchor tying us to our creativity than a hot air ballon that lifts us up above the ordinary.

So I surprised her when I said, “Oh, you want to give yourself the gift of your writing back for your 45th birthday. Congratulations!” We smiled at one another. “Think of it as the birthday present you are giving yourself rather than a commitment. How about that?”

“I’m going to start right now,” she said and disappeared while I began mowing. I’d finished when she reappeared. She looked both pleased and slightly distressed. “I did it,” she said, giving the nod to her accomplishment. “But it took me nearly two hours. That’s too long.”

“Oh, yeah,” I replied. “We didn’t finish talking about your guidelines. You only get 45 minutes to write your 45 pieces in 45 days.”

“That won’t work. I’ll never reach my goal that way.”

I smiled, “Sure you will. You’ll get faster as you go along. Plus some pieces may be shorter than others. They don’t all need to be the same length. Perhaps the rule should be you BEGIN 45 pieces in 45 days. If you don’t finish one, you pick it up the next day until you complete it. Then you begin the next piece, even if you only get 5 or 10 minutes in. You’ll catch up to yourself eventually.”

“Got it,” she grinned. “You should blog about this–creativity as a gift to  yourself rather than a commitment,” she tossed her own advice over her shoulder as she headed for the garden.

 

Aug 2, 2012 - How-To    2 Comments

Writing When You Have to Dig to Do It

Hopefully, you have been watching some of the Olympics this past week. All those fine young athletes and their incredible bodies are something to behold. One thing I love about watching these young men and women give their best is seeing how differently they are all built. To me, this is real beauty, and not the anorexic model so many in the Hollywood and magazine industry set as a standard, especially for  young women, in the 21st century. I digress, but only slightly. We’re talking about strength and the form it takes. This is how it looks physically. Like an Olympian.

I have been working so hard to prepare an essay for the Southern Sin contest and publication in Creative Nonfiction that I have hardly come up for air these past two weeks. Keeping my head down and working was made somewhat easier by the fact that it was not possible to be outside in the triple digit heat and drought, anyway. But it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t particularly fun either. Essays are new territory for me and I am a self-taught writer. I read books about craft. I read essays and more essays. I turn my work over to my partner Leigh, who has a natural knack for the essay. I have yet to take a real workshop or class, but I’m trying. The one I signed up for in October with Janisse Ray (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood) was cancelled due to a family emergency. I haven’t given up, though. I’ll keep looking until I find the right class. And I’ll keep writing and submitting, learning what I can from books and other writers.

I don’t know when I’ve worked so hard as I have on the last two essays I’ve submitted. I actually went out and bought  the  2012 Poet’s Market so I could stay with my commitment to submit something every month, realizing I can’t possibly make it an essay each time. Good lord! I love to write, but what I love to write most is the original draft. Sometimes those first drafts are the best drafts I’ll do, but most of the time they are not. The elephant’s portion of the work comes in rewriting and revising. Sentence by sentence and sometimes word by word. As the deadline approaches, I get a little more panicked each day. Leigh hands me back another draft with red ink bleeding down the page, and I think I will just throw up. How can I work it again? I don’t even like the damn thing anymore. But I always go back in. I put my head down and I dig. That is the best term I know for it, “Dig.”

When I was a competitive swimmer, both as a youngster and then as a master swimmer, “dig” was the term that was used by the coach to try to wring the last bit of fire from you. You make the final turn. You see the flags pass overhead (backstroke). You turn your head slightly and see the woman in the lane next to you. You are neck and neck. Somewhere from another planet, a dry planet, someone is hollering your name. They are shouting “Dig, girl, dig! Do it now! Dig!” And just when you think you have nothing left to give, there it is– that final spark, the fire that will push you to the wall. That is the finest feeling in the world, a lift of the spirit that feels physical, like your body has lightened and suddenly that resistance which has been fighting you gives and you are uplifted; I don’t know what else to call it. But you know you can make it. Ask any athlete, that final dig only comes from practicing, practicing, practicing.  It is a final show of strength that you have earned because you gave your best all along, and not just when it came time to run the race. If all that beats your competitor is the brush of a finger, you will know that you truly earned it.

If you , like me, seldom take gold because there are those out there who are gifted beyond the ordinary worker bee, know this: steady-be-working builds strength. Strength builds character. And character builds commitment. So don’t be surprised when one day the tortoise beats the hare because that old turtle knew how to dig while the rabbit dilly-dallied, distracted by a dozen other things. Turtle kept her head down with one goal in mind, and she dug the shit out of that essay. Besides, digging is its own reward. It feels great to know you have the determination to work that hard and not give up. So, dig, writer, all the way to the deadline!

Photo of Missy Franklin by Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

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