Feeding my writing

I haven’t done a pastry post in a while. I haven’t really experimented with pastries in a while. I’ve just made the standards, really, Grandma Scott’s sugar cookies and my son’s favorite, chocolate chips.

Truth is, for me baking is meditation, baking and walks with my dog, Maynard. Unfortunately, between the first nasty cold I’ve had in years and the “polar vortex” conditions we’ve been experiencing lately, Maynard and I have been mostly unable to walk outside.

Winter is a fantastic time to bake. I can’t describe the smells in my kitchen because I lost that sense a long time ago. Still, there is something visceral about baking. Perhaps, it’s that it brings me back to all that was good about growing up. That is being in the kitchen with family and friends. The kitchen in our house was Grand Central Station. It was where I did homework, where we gathered for holidays, where we sat with friends and discussed the workings of the world over sweet breads and coffee. Sure, we had a dining room and a table in that dining room, but it was rarely ever used except as a work station for my dollhouse crafting. My mother just preferred the kitchen, preferred everyone be in the thick of wafting scents and sizzling sounds of sustenance being prepared. We preferred it too.

 

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

A large version of the mini cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin.

The kitchen was part enigma, part fascination for me. I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag. I burned pizza and rice. My lack of sense of smell was a definitely a handicap when it came to seasoning savory food. It just couldn’t get it the way my mom could. Still, I always loved food, loved just about anything my  mother made–and now my husband makes. In fact, she and my chef husband have ruined me for your everyday restaurants. They pale in comparison to anything that came out of our simple, non-commercial, very homey kitchen. While trying to recreate some of that, for me, has been a challenge, the one thing I could do well was bake. I was always good at baking. Perhaps my pasta sauce needs a little work, but give me flour, sugar, butter, and pure vanilla extract and watch me go.

It started in the kitchen in our old house in Canton. It started there with my mother and her helping me bake chocolate chip cookies. It started with me watching and helping her make cannoli shells. It moved from my mother helping me to my best friend and I exploring our baking prowess on our own. Specifically, I remember the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a classic, and numerous batches of drop biscuits and a few pineapple upside down cakes. Later, in college, my roommate and let our final exam stress out by baking Christmas cookies.

Now, I have my own very small kitchen, smaller than perhaps it should be for as much as it gets used. Still, we make our galley work. Also, if  there is one place I’ve ditched books and gone electronic it would be for recipes. My apologies to cookbook writers everywhere. With my iPhone I have so many options available at my fingertips and an endless number of new things I can try. What is particularly nice is that I can take the ingredients I find in my pantry, look them up, and usually find something that fits.

Last week, I took some canned pumpkin I had left over from Thanksgiving and found a cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin recipe. You can find the recipe at Sally’s Baking Addiction. I made regular size muffins instead of minis, so I had to cook them a bit longer. They were not overly sweet. That’s fine by me. I hate when I get a muffin and am expecting a muffin, but it turns out sweeter than cake. Anyway, they were a hit with friends and family, and they made for nice morning side to my cup of ginger pear tea.

This week, I made a basic vanilla sheet cake from scratch for my son’s friend who is leaving soon for army basic training. I’d tried the Better

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Sheet cake made from scratch.

Homes and Gardens recipe many times, but the cakes always seemed a bit dry. This time I searched for another simple option. I landed on the best recipe at TheKitchn. The cake came out more moist than I had expected. I think a little tweaking with applesauce might make it just right. I consider myself a butter cream frosting connoisseur, so I can make it in my sleep. I need to beef up the cake decorating supplies and practice a bit with the tips. Still, it has been less than 24 hours and the cake has all but disappeared. And no, Maynard has not gotten hold of any.

In the end, what it does for me, besides making my family happy, is it gives me a little space from writing, directs my creative energy in another way that literally and figuratively feeds my writing and I think it’s important to take that time and do those things or we get burned out. I wasn’t feeling burned out, but it felt good all the same to fill the well in that way. How do you fill the well?

 

A space of her own

My corner

My corner

It’s a small space. It’s a corner of the room, the front room where the foot traffic is most certainly the highest, but there is a window. The window looks out on our street and the little bungalow-style homes that sit on it. In the spring, summer, and most of fall my Japanese maple is thick enough to hide a good part of that. The butterfly bush sends off its purple shoots that lure all kinds of fluttering things. This year I saw, for the first time, a hummingbird moth.

For a while I couldn’t come to my space. It felt cluttered and keeping the rest of the family’s stuff out of that area is a bit of a chore. I’ve dubbed the space my sacred space. I try to instill that notion in my family, but they don’t really get it. Ironically, I heard an interview with Roald Dahl’s daughter on NPR Friday. She spoke of his little writing hut and called it a sacred place. Unlike Roald, though, I can’t be in my own little hut. I don’t think I’d go there. It would feel too secluded. What my corner needed was a sense of peace, even though it is in the middle of everything. I realized in all of this that as much as I read those “the chores can wait until the writing is done” kinds of things, I can’t write until there is a sense of calm around me, calm amid chaos. In essence, I have to get the place spiffed up a bit in order to concentrate. Seclusion, as much I think it would be nice, would probably be less conducive. I go stir crazy very easily. I need a corner, a clean corner, a corner where some attention has been paid to placement of things.

That’s what I have now. I have my corner. I spent an entire day painting the one wall. It’s the same color it was before. I needed to patch holes, to make the wall whole again so I could hang but two simple pieces up there, a piece that features various metal round plates each with a Fleur-de-lis on it and an angel. The Fleur-de-lis is a reminder of my time at Spalding University. I really got the art by chance. I wanted something round to keep with the Feng Shui placement of things and the Fleur-de-lis happened to be the only reasonably priced piece of round out. I took it as a sign. I don’t come by design or decluttering naturally, so having the road map that Feng Shui gives me has been more than helpful. In fact, my house does feel more open and conducive to creativity. The angel is one my mom gave me. She gives me angels. Somewhere along the line she thought I collected them or liked them enough to collect them. I don’t recall that, but I love the angels she’s found and having angels watching over everything isn’t all that bad an idea. To the left is the window with my little tree outside of it. I taped the rejection letter from Calyx Books to the window frame as a reminder to follow my novel through. It was a good rejection, with a nice note about my writing and a reminder that it was one of 25 final manuscripts to be evaluated fully for their contest in 2011. Even if it didn’t win, it was seriously considered and I keep little notes like this in view as incentive to keep at it.

So, here I am in my corner. It does feel nice. I’m working again, making progress on my novel. That progress was tripped up about this time last year, maybe by my cluttered space, maybe by other things. I hit a wall and never felt I could get past it. I am miraculously squeezing through a crack. Re-making my space is a huge part of that, I think. I don’t need a big space or a secluded space, just a space that I feel like I can work in, a space where I can sit and work through the tough spots in my  novel and then get up and get a cup of coffee or throw a load of laundry in. That’s this space.

Now that the space is done, I need to set a regular writing time. That was another nugget I got from that Dahl interview on NPR. He had discipline. He was at his space for two hours at a time, twice a day. He gave himself permission to write or not write in that two hours, but he always sat for that two hours. That is my goal.

I need to establish that kind of work time and make my family aware of that. That’s the hardest part, getting everyone to understand. That’s where the hut would be helpful, but there are no huts here, just a corner, just a corner. Time to sit in my corner.

A sense of place

So often I read calls for submissions that say something about looking for work that has a sense of place. Sometimes, when I see this I stop and wonder about place. For most of my adult life I have felt rootless. I have lived in places, but the constant seems to be the need or want to live someplace else. It kind of is an affliction in my family. I can’t blame anyone for it. We are still trying to find our place here after three generations or two or a mix there of. My family is from Sicily. I have family there, but I haven’t seen most of them in almost 20 years. I grew up in various places in metro Detroit, mostly Canton, but when I go back I don’t really know anyone there anymore. My immediate family is scattered, across continents and across oceans. It seems like we are always searching for something, a kind of home, a kind of place.

This weekend I went on a pilgrimage of sorts. It wasn’t a long pilgrimage. We just made a short trip south to St. Marys, Ohio, where my husband, Jay, was born and lived for a part of his childhood. In our nine years of marriage we have never made the trip. We passed St. Marys multiple times and every time Jay would say, “There’s St. Marys.”  Not only is St. Marys where Jay was born, but his parents grew up there. He has roots there. He has family there.

We traveled to St. Marys for a wedding, Jay’s cousin Sherri’s wedding. It was a beautiful wedding. What made it beautiful more than the flowers or the church or the food was the intense family rooted in place vibe, a vibe I really haven’t felt a part of in a long time–if ever. I met Sherri’s longtime friend, briefly, and I listened as she laughed with another cousin about stories of when they were young. People were there because they love Sherri and her family and still know them and still live near them. In essence it was a small community in all the small community kind of ways I’m sure, but I realized that more than them being rooted in place, place is rooted in them. Perhaps this is sentimentalizing everything a bit, but I envy these scenarios sometimes. I envy the real sense of belonging people have when they are rooted somewhere. I envy Jay’s parents that they can go back home to St. Marys and see people they know and care about, people who still live in their hometown or have a strong connection to it. I envy Jay in that his cousins really are not that far away. They are my family now. I do know that, but I am not from a place like St. Marys. Still, I have searched for that sense of place often. I spent years at a small community newspaper trying to make place and roots kind of happen, but none of that can be made intentionally. It just happens over generations, over time. Perhaps, that’s why I am always stopped by that term “a sense of place.” I am an observer of it more than a participant. Hopefully, my children will have more of it than I have.

This morning, we woke and had breakfast lakeside at Grand Lake, the lake where Jay’s mom grew up. After, we drove around the lake and saw the house that Jay’s mom grew up in and then the house Jay lived in as a little boy and the house that Jay’s dad lived in as a boy. I heard how Jay would steal away from home to go to the pool when his mom wasn’t looking. I heard all kinds of stories and appreciated being immersed, for even a brief time, in this sense of place.

Regardless of all of it I feel that place isn’t just about place. It is about the people that are rooted in that place and deeply connected with it. It is Grand Lake and two towns where everyone knows each other. It is the rocky shore and the old little cottages that haven’t been dozed for bigger lake homes. It is the history of the lake itself. It  It is the winding neighborhood streets that lead to town. It is the fact that Jay’s parents can return to that place year after year and find friends and family welcoming them back. Now that I know that, I will work with that. I will understand that a little better when I see those calls and when I set my characters in place and set place in them.

Unfortunately, I was so captivated by place in this sense, I didn’t take the time to photograph the lake or anything. Oh well.

For Cristina without an H

For my entire life I have been two people. A real Cristina and an imagined Christina. I am Cristina, named after a client my mother had when she worked as a hairstylist that many years ago. TI am Cristina couldn’t eat at the table without a wet dishcloth because I would go into an instant hissy fit if food got on her face or hands and there was nothing to wash it off with. I am Cristina, an introvert who prefers the quiet of her home over public places, but can pass as an extrovert, though it will wear me out immensely at the end of the day. I am Cristina, who can’t hit a basket to save my life (or a net with a puck or…the list goes on). That being said, I did nearly start a one-girl stand-off in a pet store when the clerk told me that a dog that they were giving away free would be killed if it didn’t get a home soon. I am the real Cristina, who studied sports medicine because it was easy, but ached to be an artist, which I knew was going to be the most difficult, gut-wrenching path to follow. I am the real Cristina, who had cancer at 38 and knows now I won’t live forever, but doesn’t really know what to do with that information. TI am Cristina who cries at the littlest things, always has, Cristina who loves her children fiercely and thinks they are worth a million times more than the gross domestic product, Cristina who is generally a hot unorganized mess and readily admits it after arguing that she is trying her best and Cristina who wants to read and write more than she actually does those things and wants literary success but kicks and screams for the paltry little windows of time she has to make that happen.

For Cristina without an "H"

For Cristina without an “H”

For nearly all of my life people have been trying to change my name, trying to give my alter-ego its due. No matter how I often I say I am Cristina without an “H,” the “H” finds its way in. At times it has been nothing short of a migraine-inducing inconvenience. There have been legal documents that have had to be rewritten, applications that have had to be re-entered. Once I didn’t get paid for work because the bank couldn’t be sure that I was the person named on the check because there was an “H” typed in the name, though my last name Trapani-Scott is so unique that in the global community of the World Wide Web there isn’t one single other person with my exact name, H-less or otherwise. In recent years, I have even caught myself by surprise as I slip that H in there as I type my name. Sometimes, I do wonder what it might be like to be Christina with an “H.” Would she be all those things I never could be? Would she be charming and witty? Would she have always known what she wanted and be well on her way to solving issues of world peace while showing off her mad dribbling skills? Would she always know what to say to her children, know how to comfort them and protect them from sadness? Would she know how to bake the perfect cookies (Oh, I already know how to do that when the oven works correctly)? Would she have jumped that fast track to literary success and have that quiet little bungalow writing space set far off in a quiet corner of the yard where she is not bothered until she emerges? Would she, would she, would she?

Ah, but I am not Christina with an “H.” I will never be Christina with an “H.” I am Cristina without an “H.” I am not really two people and really I have Andrei Codrescu to thank for reminding me of that. He gave a reading here near my home. I, of course, had to go. I am a huge fan of his NPR commentaries. His voice, with that thick Romanian accent, draws me in and his words keep me in a space that makes long commutes dissipate into a space where I feel like I am being read to personally. Hearing that voice again with out the distraction of keeping my eyes on the road was that much better. After his reading, I purchased a book for which he signed. I told him to sign it to Cristina without an “H” (habit, of course). He had read a poem that evening that mentioned a Swedish princess named Christina. “Not with an “H” like Princess Christina?” he asked. I said, no. Then he signed the book. I didn’t look at it until I was in the car and on the road back home. In the darkness of the moving car I shined a flashlight that revealed the following inscription, “For Cristina without an ‘H.’” Yes, Andrei, here’s to Cristina without an “H.”

Writerly things I did on Sunday

I missed my what is becoming a regular Sunday post. I spent all day in Ann Arbor at the Kerrytown Bookfest. When I returned home my son asked me to take him out to practice

The issue of Michigan Quarterly Review I got with my subscription sign-up deal and the Ghost Writers collection I finally purchased.

The issue of Michigan Quarterly Review I got with my subscription sign-up deal and the Ghost Writers collection I finally purchased.

some driving skills for his test, which is today, and then I applied for a job while watching this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. By the time I finished will all of that, I had no time to post.

The Kerrytown Bookfest was such a treat. It was an entire event devoted to books and those who read and write them. It was like a craft fair, but the booths were all filled with books and people making bookish things. There were also speakers throughout the day that ran the gamut of genres. I was particularly interested in two talks that overlapped near the end of the event. The first was a panel discussion on women writers, moderated by V.V. Ganeshananthan, with Bonnie Jo Campbell, Lolita Hernandez, Natalie Bakopulos and poet Susan Ramsey. It was a fascinating discussion with fascinating women–an important discussion–the overarching theme, of course, being how the literary world continues to undervalue women writers and women’s points of view in writing. I say points of view, because our points of view are as varied as the number of women on this planet. There is no one way to be a woman and the literary world is rather single-minded if it continues to ignore these points of view. All of the women brought up interesting points, from Hernandez getting flack for being a woman writing about factory workers (which is personal for her since she worked in factories for many years) to Bakopulous finding Vogue‘s Edith Wharton photo spread as a metaphor for how the strong and complex female point of view is feared. I found her examples defining that point of view refreshing as I think about my own work and how I have viewed my novel character, Rosa. She pointed to the characters in the movie Bridesmaids. I realized there are similarities to the struggles Rosa goes through. I struggled with Rosa for a while, feeling that maybe she wasn’t outwardly tough enough, but hearing that discussion made me realize how I need to stick with her and flesh out all of her complexities. I need to keep my faith in her as a solid, interesting character and not be pulled by what I hear on the outside. For that, and more, it was a more than worthwhile discussion to hear. I had to duck out before it ended, though. I wanted to attend another discussion.

At the Kerrytown Concert Hall, the final discussion featured authors Matt Bell and Benjamin Percy discussing the intersection of the literary, the supernatural, and the strange. I am really really interested in exploring that intersection in my work. I am really really interested in reading Bell’s new novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods and Percy’s novel Red Moon. I had signed up for a Michigan Quarterly Review subscription and purchased a book I had been meaning toget  for a long time, a collection of ghost stories by Michigan writers called For Ghosts Writers: Us Haunting Them, which I know follows that same literary, supernatural, strange, theme that just seems so much a part of who I always was as a writer and a reader. Anyway, that was my book quota for the day, so Bell and Percy’s novels are on my Christmas list, or maybe my October book quota list, just in time for Halloween, though their stories are much more complex than simply lumping them into Halloween stuff. Anyway, that discussion gave me the equivalent of a writing caffeine jolt. It was as if I had downed ten Red Bulls. It was a mini-writing workshop-type discussion that I found well worthwhile, especially hearing not just the writing process of both authors, but the reading process. Both had their unique processes for dissecting the works of others to understand better their own process of storytelling.

I did attend an earlier talk by a couple of mystery writers. I can’t say I have ever really read mystery, but the discussion was focused on family and I found that also helpful in thinking about my novel, which does look closely at family.

The event was free, which was an added bonus, and open to the public. I wouldn’t say I am a collector of anything, but if there is anything I do collect it is books–books and art–but not with the intention that I will sell them for three times their value or anything. I just like books and art. So, any opportunity to celebrate books is a good opportunity (dare I say it) in my book.

Anyway, happy reading and writing. Now, it’s off to do some work on the novel and later hold my breath as I witness my son’s driving test. Yikes!

Football, fall and the wonderful women in my life

Jay's UM hat.

Jay’s UM hat.

It’s Sunday again and I am posting again. It’s a miracle. I know it’s not officially fall, but what marks the beginning of fall in our house more than the autumnal equinox is the first Saturday kick-off at the Big House (University of Michigan Stadium). While I could really care less about U of M football (and the fact that they killed my alma mater Central Michigan University yesterday), what I enjoy is that reason it gives for us to gather with our good friends. My husband, Jay, and his friends (nearly all of whom he’s known since high school or middle school) all attended U of M. They now all attend all of the U of M home games. The wives hang back at someone’s house nearby, have cocktails and chat while the kids run and play.

Ideally, we should gather other times. Sometimes we do. We are all good friends, however, most likely because football brought us together. I met all these women through my husband. I love my husband. It’s an extra bonus that all his friends’ significant others are such wonderful people. I’m blessed in that I’ve gotten to know them over the years and football season is really the impetus for that. In fact, at yesterday’s tailgate we were laughing about the first time I experienced a football Saturday with the gang. It was an away game, so everyone gathered at what was just Jay’s house at the time to watch the ever heated annual battle between University of Michigan and Ohio State. I hadn’t moved in yet. University of Michigan lost. The guys were none too happy and a television controller happened to slip out of my husband’s hand and crash against a wall. No worries. The television controller is the only football casualty I’ve witnessed to date. Well, a few UM baseball caps have been hurled violently to the ground, but nothing more. Still, the passion for their team is what brings us together. It was bringing the gang together long before I came into the picture, and it has continued to bring everyone together for the past nine years that I’ve been with my husband. I probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know these women the way I have if we hadn’t spent many long leisurely Saturday afternoons going to parks, shopping, playing badminton, among other things, while our male counterparts baked in the sun or sat in the rain or cold watching UM football.

My immediate family lives an ocean away or at the very least many states away. My friends from previous lives are scattered as well. These women are the family I have here. So, as much as I might grumble that the chaos of football season has begun. It can get chaotic when there are three home games in a row (eight home games total) and the events of those days take up the one down day left in the week. Still, I appreciate the lasting friendships that my husband has built with his friends, and I appreciate that consequently I have built lasting friendships as well. These are the women I am blessed to have in my life. These are the women that make me grateful that University of Michigan football really means the start of fall in our family. A friend of mine gave me a sign that I hang in the house in the fall. It reads “We interrupt this family for football.”

Yes, we do interrupt this family for football. I am so happy for the interruption. I’m so happy to have these lovely days to spend with the wonderful women in my life.

Thoughts for a quiet Sunday

One of my wet felting projects.

One of my wet felting projects.

I don’t often get quiet time. I have teenagers. I have a husband. This morning, I have a bit of quiet. I figured I’d write a blog. I have gotten away from writing–and blogging. I have worked in fits and starts all summer, but I did not accomplish nearly anything I had hoped. I am learning to forgive myself that much. I wanted my novel done done. I don’t want to think about it anymore, but I am still at the beginning of this latest revision and it is agonizing.

This is the real life of a writer, I guess. I am agonizing over revision. Then I get frustrated and move to something else. Poetry. I’ve written some new poetry. I am working on a collection now. Rethinking my collection anyway. I have my creative writing students to thank for that. I had put poetry down for a while. Maybe, I should just put writing down for a while. It is such a struggle lately. Maybe, it’s supposed to be that way. Maybe, I need a vacation.

I had a vacation. I strained my back on vacation and couldn’t really do much but lay in bed or hang out on the floor in front of the television. It took me almost three weeks to recover from that.

Really, I need another creative outlet that doesn’t involve writing. I found it. I am wet felting things now. Mostly, I was looking for an inexpensive way to make round art to decorate my career corner. I got most of the other quadrants of my home to where I feel like they need to be according to Feng Shui. At least the corners I have access to. I do feel a sense of calm when I am in those places. My kids’ rooms are a bit difficult to access, but that’s okay. My career corner has made me feel uneasy. It doesn’t look pleasing or inviting and round art is hard to come by unless you want to fork over a lot of money. I decided to wet felt some things. I was interested in doing it for a while. Now, I’m hooked. Maybe that is the outlet I need, something other than writing, but something creative all the same.

Fall is quickly approaching. I start teaching new classes this week. The summer was busier than I expected and not with fun stuff. I do appreciate the times when things seemed quiet and summer-like. I am grateful for a lot of things that I did do, even if I didn’t get the writing done that I wanted to.

The summer things I did enjoy and continue to enjoy include:

1. Going to the Farmer’s Market every Tuesday to pick up our CSA share. Our fridge has been stocked full of the best fresh local produce all summer. We have eaten some really healthy fare. We should have done this a long time ago. It also made us carve a little time out with our good friends who we split a share with.

2. I got to spend more time at home with my kids for the first time ever! I worked, but teaching college is odd hours so I spent more time at home.

3. I started running with my dog, though my back issue sidelined me for a bit. I am back at it and happy to be so. My next goal is to run a road race.

4. I spent a day at the Detroit Institute of Art with my daughter and dear friends of ours. I grew up going there with my mother, so it was a blast to take my daughter there. Also, all this talk of appraising the art to possibly sell it to help Detroit get out of debt made me want to see the world class exhibits all the more. I am hoping, hoping, hoping with every cell of my being that Detroit realizes the value in keeping that treasure and sees that while Detroit has a lot to deal with it still needs these treasures intact if it wants to rebuild and become vibrant. If there is nothing cultural to come to in Detroit, no one will come. (Sorry, for the soapbox. I love my DIA).

5. I taught my first college level creative writing class and loved it!!! I found out how important it is to revisit the basics of creative writing from time to time.

6. I baked a lot and continue to bake. We hoped to make a killing at this one music festival this summer, but it turned out to be a bust. We were left with a lot of staples. I mean a loooooot of staples. I have giant bags of flour and sugar, like 25 pounds giant for the flour and a huge box of sugar that will last forever. So, I make my own bread now and I have been making zucchini bread, lots of zucchini bread. I even convinced my daughter to try it and she loves it.

Well, here we go. The last week of summer is upon us. I measure it by when the kids are in school. They start after Labor Day. I get a break from one college, but the other starts this week, so I never really got much of a summer break. Still, I only taught one day a week over the summer, so I can hardly say I worked the entire summer. Anyway, the fall will be tricky getting kids to different schools far away, but we’ll figure it out and before I know it Christmas will be here.

Well, I’d better get back to revision. See you much sooner than before, I hope.

I shoulda known: How I became a writer

So, I’m participating in this little writing contest all about telling the story of when you knew you were a writer. It’s called You Are A Writer and is being hosted by blogger Bryan Hutchinson of Positive Writer.

All the signs were there, but I was never good at reading signs. I struggled with elementary school, mostly because I was living in some fantastic place in my head instead of paying attention to lessons. I suffered for my art, even back then. All that living in my head meant I never did well enough to sit in the loft and eat popcorn like all those obedient students who were happy enough paying attention and finishing their work. Because of my less than stellar performance, no one was beating down the door saying this kid might be a writer, though a really astute teacher might have.

Of course, I didn’t know at the time that living in those fantastic worlds in my head were signs of being a writer. I wasn’t  really any more interested in books than the next kid, that is except for the Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I read those over and over and couldn’t get that old-time simple life world out of my head. It was just another world to collect and daydream about. Still, no one, not even me, thought that made me a writer.

My less than stellar performance in elementary school set the tone in some ways for the rest of school. I did fine in middle school and high school. I passed. I got good grades. Still, I doubt too many teachers remember me.  Again, I read, but no more than the next guy or girl, though I still remember fondly books I read back then. I wouldn’t say I was exceptional in any way. The last thing I imagined anyone would say was, “Hey, she’s a writer.” Because I kind of internalized this attitude, there were two stand out moments in high school that kind of came and went and I didn’t really do much about them. The only two times that I can remember actually getting some kind of really positive, almost startling, feedback from teachers were from stories I had written. One was a story I had written in humanities class. It was supposed to be research based, but I wasn’t into the research. I was into the story, so I wrote it and just did what research I had to do. The teacher loved the story and recommended that I enter it into a contest. I got an A for the story and a D on the research. Still, I never entered it. My over all attitude then was that I wasn’t exceptional and I never win things. The other moment was in French class. Our assignment was to write short stories all in French. My teacher recommended that I translate my story back to English and send it out for publication. Of course, I didn’t do that. What I do remember about those two assignments, more than the brief recognition from teachers, was that for once I really enjoyed assignments in school, well for twice. Still, at that time, I would never have said I was a writer and no one ever told me then to go be a writer. I might have listened, but that’s not something counselors and teachers suggest as a career. I still liked to live in the worlds in my head and even jotted some of them down but never thought I’d be a writer.

Instead, I went to college and studied sports medicine. I somehow landed as far away from writing as I could possibly land. In fact, there was very little writing in my sports medicine courses. There was a lot of taping ankles and watching athletic practices and games. Each year, I wondered more and more why I had chosen sports medicine as I read boring medical texts and sat at boring sports practices. Each year, I picked up more and more novels to read to keep myself from going insane. My roommates couldn’t figure out how I had time to read extra books. I had to get into those worlds. In fact, I began to realize those worlds were a lot like the worlds I lived in in my head as a kid. I enjoyed being in them, being in these worlds other people created. I kept thinking I wanted my worlds on paper. I wanted to explore my imagination. When I graduated with my sports medicine degree, but with no intent on practicing sports medicine, I turned to writing. I wasn’t qualified to do much but tape ankles, so I found myself with a college degree working the same jobs I worked in high school and feeling pretty low about all of it. Writing kept me going. Making the worlds I always lived in the worlds I wanted to share my central focus made me happy. It only evolved from there. Now, I write short stories, poetry, and am working on a novel. I’ve been published. I’ve even had some agents look at my novel manuscript. What makes me a writer though is that I love writing.

I should have known. I could have seen all of those signs. Much later my mother gave me a stack of stuff I did in elementary school that she had saved. Among the construction paper and paste projects were stories that I’d forgotten I had written, stories filled with imaginative detail. They were the beginnings. Even now, I look back at those two high school experiences and really feel like those were defining moments, even if I didn’t get that back then. Yes, I should have known, but what is important is that I know now. This is it. Writing is as necessary as food. It took a while to accept it, but that is just the way it is. I can’t change who I am.

Those darn first lines

From my bookshelf

From my bookshelf

I have struggled, to say the least, with this revision of my novel in progress. It has me tearing my hair out. It has me cutting whole chapters. It has me rethinking the entire novel altogether. The credit for this has to go to my writing team, my group. As frustrating as the process is, I truly appreciate their feedback.

I think the lesson I have focused on most, as of late, is the lesson of first lines. We all know the first line of a book has to grab the reader (or the editor) or the fear is that either won’t look past that first line. First lines are a bit like poetry. They say a lot in as few words possible.

My epiphany is that there are a lot of first lines in a book. For each chapter, there is a new first line that has to be as compelling, if not more so, than the last. Hey, if a book doesn’t keep my interest, I’ll stop reading and move on to the next one. I’ve got too many “to reads” on my bookshelf to mess around.

It’s not easy to get those luscious lines over and over again. In this revision, I’m really looking at how each chapter opens, that is if I keep the chapter. That’s a whole different post. Anyway, I turned to the great Barbara Kingsolver to get a lesson on first lines throughout an entire book. The Bean Trees was what was in reach. I read it years ago, but I could definitely read it again.

First line of the book:

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.

Here we know something about the character. We know her a fear. We know she probably comes from a rural background, a farming background. We know she probably has some grit herself, even if she starts out talking about a fear.

First line of Chapter Two

Lou Ann Ruiz lived in Tucson, but thought of herself as just an ordinary Kentuckian a long way from home.

Again it tells us something about a character, about where she lives and where she is from. We know she is out of her element from that little line. We are compelled about this whole idea of her being out of her element.

First line of Chapter Eight

Of all the ridiculous things, Mama was getting married.

Short and to the point.

All these lines are compelling. All these lines drive the reader to want more. These are just a handful. Now, it’s my turn to go through this revision looking at the lines I’ve chosen. My task is to take them apart and really examining how effective they are at drawing the reader into the next segment of my novel. Well, my work is cut out for me. Cross your fingers. Hopefully, this project will be done by the end of summer.

Revision is like a red tree with a few hammers thrown

I have written in the past about the little red-leafed Japanese maple that sits outside my writing corner window. The tree has been a constant inspiration with its deep merlot-colored leaves. Last year, the tree contracted a fungus and the leaves on much of it withered and died. Limbs became brittle. I sprayed some homemade

tree

concoction on it, but I had to trim and one day I got our dull clippers out and began trimming. My neighbor saw me standing perplexed in front of the tree as I contemplated how to get the higher most affected limbs. Thankfully, he (the guy on the street with all the great lawn maintenance gadgets) had a clipper with an extended handle that he’d just found at a garage sale. We trimmed and trimmed and trimmed until the tree looked sad and bare, much like the little Charlie Brown Christmas tree we all know so well. I wondered if my beloved tree would ever be the tree it had been with its full canopy of vibrant colored leaves. This year, to my delight, the tree was once again filled with its beautiful leaves. It looks full and healthy, though I am keeping an eye on things to make sure the fungus truly is gone.

What does this little tree have to do with writing and revising? Since I’m in the throes of yet another revision on this beast of a novel that I started more than a decade ago, I see the tree as a metaphor for this process. The cutting and reshaping of the tree reminds of the cutting and reshaping of this novel. It is agonizing at times. Like with the tree, I wonder if the cutting might actually ruin the novel
. I fear too much cutting would. As with trimming trees, in writing you have to find a balance between cutting away the stuff that is wild and no good and not cutting away the whole story altogether. That is where the hidden treasure is I presume. Sometimes, it takes a whole season to see the results of all the agonizing trimming, to see that the results are truly stunning. So, here I go. I trim and shape and hopefully by the end of summer I will have my novel shaped and ready to go. I’m sure it won’t be without heartache. I’ve been trying to get through the first two chapters over the past month, and there has been a lot of heartache. My husband likes to measure the frustration of projects in “hammers thrown,” not literal hammers thrown, but figurative hammers thrown. The more frustrating the project, the more figurative hammers thrown. With this revision, I would say there are already a good 50 hammers thrown. Ah, well it’s time to get back to trimming, shaping, and throwing a few more hammers.