Find Me at AHA

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Art House America is a wonderful nonprofit for whom I have written several essays in the past. I am proud to be part of an organization that that seeks to inspire its readers, and whose aim is “Cultivating Creative Community for the Common Good.”  Let me know what you think of my essay, “Eulogy:”

http://www.arthouseamerica.com/blog/eulogy.html

I can’t remember a time when I’ve worked so hard at getting every word just right!

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A Submission Call … and Some Thoughts on “Calling”

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About five years ago, two of my favorite writers and I launched a fun online project named Proximity. The effort was theme-based and made interesting by each of our different locations – Madison, WI (Carrie Kilman), Atlanta, GA (moi), and a small village in South Africa (Maggie Messitt). For each “issue” we chose a place, usually physical, sometimes temporal, and we wrote a short essay about our experience of it, yielding a diverse trio of perspectives. The project lasted a year, at which point we each felt it was time to move on.

Now, Maggie, Carrie and I are excited to serve as editors of the “new” Proximity, a literary magazine in the same vein as the original. We’ve added Traci Macnamara, an old friend with a stellar writing voice and a concrete sense of place, to the editorial team, and we plan to launch the first issue in January, 2014. Its theme will be “Morning,” and submission guidelines can be found on our web site. Please check it out, “like” us everywhere we can be “liked,” and tell your friends!

For my part, I am having a difficult time transitioning from having full-time “mom/family thoughts” to “mom thoughts” slightly diluted by “writer thoughts.” Everyone still needs to be fed and the kitchen cleaned three times a day; there is still, on average, ninety minutes of laundry to be folded and put away at least a few times a week; and there are things to volunteer for at the kids’ schools, and cookies to be baked, and parental awesomeness to act on.

And yet I now have this separate, highly creative project that I want to contribute to in meaningful, productive ways.

How I can make that happen in the midst of an afternoon like I had yesterday is going to be a work in progress. First, the baby tripped and split his forehead open on the (brick) corner of our house. Once consoled and cleaned up, he then dumped the contents of his diaper on the pantry floor (only to be found by me later, while grabbing canned tomatoes). At about the same time as the head injury, my three year old was yelling at the top of her voice for a headband she could not find among the playroom’s detritus and my five year old was having a monumental, if not historic, meltdown about misplaced butterfly wings.

Did I mention that we were having another mom and her two kids over for dinner and that the dads were working late? Our guests showed up just in time for me to find my 18 month old’s “present” in the pantry.

All is well that ends well, and it mostly did, except that Elizabeth (3) bit Claire (5) so hard on the back while I was putting the baby to bed that I could still see each tooth’s individual imprint fifteen minutes later. And speaking of teeth, I also had to play tooth fairy, which I think is the world’s most ridiculous joke on parents who really, really want their kids to believe in magic for as long as possible. Trying to get a tooth from underneath a sleeping child’s head in the middle of the night, especially when she shares a room with a light sleeper, without blowing the tooth fairy’s cover, is very nearly impossible. (Mission: Accomplished.)

Life does not slow down for me – for anyone – long enough to take stock of where I am and where I’m going. There is no time when I am not doing something, or neglecting something that needs to be done purely for reasons of self-preservation. There is no mossy rock on which to sit on and dream, to organize and plan for the next project, be it familial or professional. I read the work of great essayists, poets and novelists, past and present, and wonder how they found the time and the head space to put thoughts and words together in such beautiful format.

And for a few minutes, I find myself fraught with jealousy and dismay.

Writing is, in essence (and at its best), an act of service to the greater world. I have always wanted to minister to others in some way through my writing – to serve them for the better, because that is what writers, and so many of my writing teachers, have done for me.

But right now, I am spending my life – all the resources my heart and my mind have to offer – on the cultivation of little people’s hearts and minds. It is a service I did not know I was equipped for, but I am. It is a service that I thought would feel like a burden, but it doesn’t.

Yesterday, as I was talking to my amazing sister-in-law on the phone, I brought up Proximity and mentioned how long I’d been out of the game and how crazy it feels to be snapped back into a place of wanting to play again, in the midst of the three kids and the busy, ambitious husband, and everything else.

And she said, in such a beautifully casual way, “Right now you are writing – you’re writing your children’s lives, and one day there will be more time for writing of your own.” I almost burst into tears at the thought of engraving words into the tiny hearts in my care. I had never thought of it that way, but now I will.

How the calling of motherhood dovetails with the calling of writing for the greater good, even if we’re talking about a fairly small audience, is something that I cannot begin to wrap my brain around, but I feel confident, in a way I am not usually confident, that it will.

Editing Proximity-as-literary-journal is the beginning of that journey, and I could not be more thrilled to be a part of it. To learn more: http://proximitymagazine.org/about/

Beginning Again

                                                                         Photo Credit: Bookplates

I recently picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s newest novel, Flight Behavior. I’ve been a Kingsolver fan since The Bean Trees; her writing played a formative part in both my desire to become a writer and my appreciation of beautifully crafted contemporary prose. With the exception of The Lacuna, which I just couldn’t get into, I have relished all of her books. I easily fall in love with her characters, her descriptions and her plot lines, none of which feel recycled from novel to novel. Her voice is never quite the same, but still, you always know you’re reading Kingsolver.

Flight Behavior is no different. I bought it without reading any of the reviews and was astounded to find, on page one, that her writing has actually improved. She seems have fallen in love with language all over again; it is a really beautiful thing to behold. And at a time in my life when I am rediscovering my own creativity, I couldn’t be more encouraged than to read a favorite author who has somehow improved upon a writing style that needed (in my humble opinion) no improvement.

In the past year, I’ve written very little aside from harried grocery lists and little bedtime stories for my girls – three minute, on-the-fly compositions, for only their ears and the quickly darkening sky. Six months ago I started a short story I haven’t finished. I write little essays in my head as I fold laundry, envisioning the sentences in scrapbook form – words on strips of paper without the accompanying pictures. I’ve had neither time nor presence of mind to flesh out the images. But that’s changing.

Two weeks ago, Claire started kindergarten. Peter just joined Elizabeth at preschool. In January, we moved into a house where we’ll stay for a good long while. Life is full of surprises, but as long as we stay steady, I need to find some work to do.

So here I am, beginning again. I’m no Kingsolver, which is great, because that leaves room for lots of improvement. I’ll be posting here and here in the next few months, and I also have a project in the works with a couple of other writers which will be unveiled this fall. Stay tuned!

A Challenge

For months, I’ve been talking about writing fiction. When someone asks me how my writing is going, I hedge and then casually mention that narrative nonfiction, which is what I’m trained in, doesn’t suit my lifestyle with young children and that I’d sort of like to see what it would be like to make a genre change. This is met with a lot of encouragement. I have good friends and writing mentors; they tell me to do it, and to do it fearlessly and with as little frustration as possible.

Nonfiction has plenty of challenges: uncooperative sources, the perils of the broken tape recorder, the confusing nature of memory and recollected fact, and the inconvenience of truth. But at least the truth, no matter how difficult, offers the writer a framework. Writing fiction is like having someone tell you to tailor a dress to a perfect size four with no measuring tape and no mannequin. Where in the world does one begin? My feeling is that you must have to be very good. A very good writer, an even better reader, a person with a way of seeing things that applies to both a very specific instance or story while offering a broader meaning to others.

I have no confidence in my ability to do any of these things. I am “good enough” in my own head, writing down the things that happen to me or that I find funny or quirky or moving. But I have set such a high standard for fiction writers that the prospect of becoming one myself totally freaks me out. Which is why, for the past month, I have opened my notepad and written a few lines before scratching everything out. And why, for the past week, I have been avoiding writing all together. The thing I want to do scares me to death. It’s a writer’s neurosis, and it is silly, but, for me, very real.

So yesterday, on October 31st, I got an email from Gotham, an online writing center, reminding me that November 1 begins NaNoWriMo: the National Novel Writing Month. The challenge? To write a 175 page novel in the month of November. Before I even knew what my little fingers were doing, I found myself signing up at Nanowrimo.org.

I’ve been known to take on extreme challenges before. When I could run only two miles without sucking wind, I signed up for the Chicago marathon, trained for it and finished. In graduate school I decided to take on an immersion project in a city three and a half hours from home. The finished manuscript certainly was not perfect, and it didn’t come without major stress, but I finished it, graduated and felt I could be relatively proud of that accomplishment.

So, here I am at the foot of this mountain. I have no idea how much I will actually write every day, or if I will be able to write every day, and I am NOT going to kill myself to get 175 pages. But I love the idea of the challenge, and I love that I am doing it for no one other than myself and for the joy of creating.

There will be no Facebook for me in November, and certainly no Pinterest, and doggone it, very limited access to email and this beautiful blog. Feel free to send me your sympathies and encouragement, though; I’ll need a month’s worth to get me through!

On Writing and an Unkept House

Over the weekend, I was reading a little of Billy Collins’ poetry collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room. I love Billy Collins’ work, and not just because, as a former US poet laureate, he’s a high-profile poet. I love Collins’ writing because he finds meaning and humor in every day things and communicates those lessons by composing poetry that feels tangible and well-reasoned. His lines make you think, but not too hard. That’s a feat for a poet.

At any rate, I was reading this collection of Collins poetry on the way to the mountains last weekend and came across a poem entitled “Advice to Writers.” The first two stanzas read:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
 
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

 

I had to wonder if Collins would offer writers with two children under the age of four the same advice, or if he might just say to make sure the diaper bin had been emptied, the breakfast dishes cleared, a path made free of toys, princess tiaras and the previous night’s pajamas.

Later in Collins’ “Advice to Writers,” he writes, “…you will behold in the light of dawn the immaculate alter of your desk, a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.” My only consolation upon reading this is that the man must be crazy; I have a desk, but it is far from being an immaculate altar – it’s currently covered in Claire’s (highly entertaining) artwork, four craft buckets, puppets, and the detritus of our every day lives. It seems my desk has become the sacrifice rather than the altar to which I bring my words for penance.

My house is a disaster. Since August it seems like we’ve barely been home, and when we have been here, I’ve hesitated to put away the unpacked bags, or even to completely unpack them, because another trip was on the horizon. Elizabeth is in that delightful phase where she treats emptying boxes and bags as her full time job, and Claire, my unkempt little princess, tries on several outfits each morning before settling on any one and refusing to let me brush her hair. I folded two massive loads of laundry yesterday while the girls were napping; I can’t bring myself to face the third, waiting for me in the dryer. On days when the girls are at school I often take myself off-location, but honestly, there’s no place like home for writing. I can focus here, even if it is messy, and I can write without feeling self-conscious or pressed for time.

In all seriousness, I get what Billy Collins is saying. I agree that an orderly life most often leads to orderly inspiration, that a mind clear of nagging chores does better work. But if I waited for my entire house to be clean, for my children to be perfectly presentable, dinner expertly cooked, and for all my motherly and volunteer duties to be wrapped up in a lovely little bow, I would Never. Ever. Sit down to write.

So, here I am, sitting on my rumpled couch, in front of my magazine/children’s book scattered coffee table, going after inspiration in whatever form I can find it. Sorry, Billy. I’m taking Annie Dillard’s advice, instead: “Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair.”

 

 

Beautiful Time

By Nic-C

While reading the New York Times the other morning, I was distraught to find not one sampling of good news. Not one. Every ugly headline I read had something to do with destruction on both a global and a personal scale. And for days afterwards, columns of bad news piled up around me, rising like cinders, threatening to distort my world’s simplest joys.

More than that, the bad news made me think about the world we are handing to our children, to my children, and how I might help them cope with the onslaught of negative information and experience (i.e. middle school) that will inevitably come their way.

When I was growing up, I read and wrote poetry to process and lend beauty to circumstances that were not always the best, and some of my favorite memories of my father, a strapping, stoic farmer, are of his recitations of poetry at the dinner table – something that shaped my love for language and the comfort I’ve taken in it. So, I decided that I would help my family (and myself) combat the stress and uncertainty of each day with a few minutes each morning dedicated to the consideration/reading/hearing/tasting/smelling/seeing of something beautiful.

We call it “Beautiful Time.”

Now, this is a lovely idea in theory. And, actually, it’s a lovely idea in practice, except that our three year old has her own conceptions of beauty, and TV happens to be one of them.  Each morning, we drag Claire away from “Jack’s Big Music Show” to share with her the things we hope will eventually sustain her when NickJr. is a thing of the past: truly great music – not just classical, but rock, folk, country and alternative – beautiful, interesting art, and kind words, spoken and written.

For now, we recognize and give in to our children’s line of vision: we allow Claire to put on her princess dress and dance to Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Major, even if it’s a harried morning; on occasion, we use her art as a “Beautiful Time” focal point; we ask her what she thinks is beautiful, how she feels when she makes something beautiful (“happy”), and what makes her feel loved. In this way, her perspective (and soon, Elizabeth’s) will shape our grown up perspectives on beauty in all its forms, bringing with it a peculiar joy and curiosity.

Absorbing artful sustenance for whatever lies ahead seems a good practice for anyone unwilling to surrender completely to the world’s painful realities. It can be a reminder of how best to process bad news – a lot of incredible art has been born of hard times – and how to find a center point of beauty and strength to return to in otherwise unwieldy chaos.

On Tuesday, we looked at a wood carving of a flower Andrew’s dad made when Andrew was Elizabeth’s age. It is one of his simpler carvings, but beautiful, and both our girls loved holding it and running their fingers across its intricate detail. Claire was so enamored by the idea of “Pete” having made the carving that she lingered longer than usual at the kitchen table, and didn’t even ask for the TV to be turned back on, allowing me, even, to read her a poem far above her reach, but filled with beautiful words. I’ve posted it below to give you your own bit of sustenance for whatever your day may hold.

From Blossoms

By Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

LAUNCHED!

On New Year’s Day, my friends and I launched PROXIMITY MAGAZINE, a brand-new online writing project. Read our inaugural issue today at http://www.proximitymag.org.

We are three writers in three different places: a Midwestern college town, a big city in the Deep South, a rural village in South Africa.

We live in worlds divided: by oceans and mountain ranges; by state and national borders; by accents and politics; by race and by history. We live in worlds divided by real and imagined lines.

But our worlds are increasingly connected. By cables and computer screens. By trade agreements. By communities reuniting, realizing our fates are tied to what happens to our allies, our enemies, and people oceans away.

Our worlds are far apart. Our worlds are the same.

Each week, we choose a different place that exists in each of our three locations — a coffee shop, for example, or a street corner, or a family dinner table.

Over the course of one hour, we find a story. Then we share it with you. Over the course of one year, these stories will form a collective whole, illuminating the surprising ways in which our worlds are uniquely different and remarkably related.

Our inaugural issue explores the theme of HOME and serves as an introduction to each of us, our lives and our “place”.

Beginning next week, we will publish new content each Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

My publishing day will be each Wednesday, but I can almost guarantee that you will be so drawn to all the writing on the site that you’ll find yourself visiting Proximity three times a week.

Thank you for your support of MY work for the past year and a half. I look forward to sharing more of it with you in this new venue.