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.

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.

Process, writing groups and reviving this blog

Ice on my morning walk. I feel like I can see the universe in it.

Ice on my morning walk. I feel like I can see the universe in it.

I have been inconsistent with this poor blog. Chalk it up to an overload of classes (the never ending plight of an adjunct instructor) and the constant running that comes with having teenagers. Oh, there is also my guilty pleasure–a little Doctor Who. I am going to try to be more consistent, though.

As a fledgling writer I am trying hard to encapsulate an hour here and an hour there for some novel and short story revision. It’s at a point where I have some sparks of ideas, but I can’t really give them a lot of attention until the other projects are cleared away. That would be part of my own process. It has taken me this long to figure out that I have to work out my own process. These books that tout certain processes of writing as “the optimal” processes are lying. There is no one process fits all. Each writer has his or her own approach. Those approaches are as vast as the universe.

My process is scattered. Some days the best work I do is while sitting on my couch in my writing room. Some days I do my best work at a cafe. The most important thing is to be reading and writing at least a little bit most days. I write this to tell myself that as much as anything. So, to revive this blog I’ll share my trials and tribulations of living the writing life, as I have been doing all along, and I’ll bring in a bit of discussion on what I have been reading. In addition, I’ll share the images I get on my contemplative walks, another key part to my writing process.

My latest trial and tribulation of the writing life has been trying to find a writing group that I feel comfortable with. I had a perfect group, the Sistah Scribes, a while back. I loved the Sistahs. I grew with the Sistahs, but a we all scattered to different regions about the time I started grad school and couldn’t really commit to the time. After grad school, I wanted to find another group. I wanted to continue the momentum of growth that grad school gave me. Finding the right writing group is not easy. I was misled with how easily the Sistahs formed and gelled so well.

That’s not to say I haven’t gotten anything from the groups I have visited. I have. I’ve met some great people. There are ultimately either scheduling conflicts or the group is too big or it’s online or…or….or. Well, I’m giving it another shot. This time, though. We are forming organically as off-shoots of other groups, a little like the Sistahs did, so it looks promising. It’s a small group, another good thing. I can tell it is going to be focused and hopefully consistent. Mostly, it will be more at my pace. Weekly, is too often for me. I need time to write. So, we’ll see how it goes. I have a good feeling about it. Now, it’s off to get some work done. Must turn some stories that have been rejected around and send them out today. Happy writing. Today’s image is of ice. I know we want spring to stay, but there were some wonderful patterns in the ice during my walks these past couple of months. Enjoy.

My life as I envision it

I realize I have not posted in ages. It has not been for lack of trying. I have tried. Oh god, how I’ve tried. The words just will not come. I’m in a sort of writing limbo. I need to give myself time to come out of it. My method for this is to get some writing, any writing, done and forgive myself for the slow pace of it all. In addition, I am giving myself time with everything. There is no hurry. Sure, it seems like everything must be done right now, but not so. I have been working through some personal things that have taken up a lot of time and a ton of energy. For fun, and for a brief moment of escape I am going to take a page from my friend who once wrote in presence tense his vision for his life. I think it’s an exercise that life coaches and motivational people use, but I thought it might give me the boost I need this morning to begin the necessary steps to make that vision a reality. Also, my friend Cynthia Newbery Martin at her blog Catching Days shares  how well-known writers spend their days. Every time I read one of those posts, I feel like I am reading a bit about the life I envision.

My life as I envision it:

I wake up. Make myself a latte with no flavors. Have a delicious breakfast of fruits, nuts and coconut yogurt before going to my desk, which is in my writing office that had a big window that looks out a wooded area with a pond. I don’t look at any mail. I sit down and begin work on my second novel. My first book, “Sometimes the Smallest Things,” has been published by St. Martin’s Press and I am preparing to go on tour. My agent gently, or not so gently, nudges me to finish book two. I love the silence in the mornings and feel bolstered by the sound of birdsong and the soft rhythmic breathing of my dog who lounges at my feet. I work like this for a good three to four hours before I get up to take the dog for a walk and grab a sandwich. In the afternoon, I usually get a call from my son, who has a moment between classes just to check in. He likes to check in. I like to hear from him. My daughter calls, too, but later in the evening after she has spent time in the recording studio. I take a few moments to get the business of emails out of the way. I see that I have readings scheduled all over the country and I have been invited to lead a few workshops. This gives me a nice little nudge to work a couple more hours on my novel before doing some work in the garden. Jay returns home from his restaurant to have dinner with me before he is off again. Some days I go to the restaurant. I spend the rest of the evening reading and getting a few odds and ends done.

Okay, so that’s only one day, but that would be a nice day with a lot of nice stuff going on. Now, I do have some quiet time. It’s time to get to my projects, for real.

So, it’s the third day

I met my challenge. Admittedly, it was a bit tougher than the first two days. Still, I love the direction the novel is going in. I feel productive. I am enjoying the community around NaNoWriMo. I probably won’t post in the next couple days. It will be enough to try meeting my quota and teach two classes. My house is already feeling neglected. Still, I know I’ve seen quotes by writers like Annie Dillard and Toni Morrison that talk about writing as a priority over say, the constant run of dirty dishes. Ah, well I have to set my clothes out for tomorrow.

Words to date: 5,100

At the page

Things are progressing. I have never felt quite as free as I write. It must be all that positive energy I am harnessing from NaNoWriMo. I went to my first write-in Tuesday night. What fun. It’s all about going back to the beginning for me. I feel the same excitement about writing that I felt when I first started years ago. I have been good about staying on track with word count. Of course, I haven’t gotten to the days where I teach. Things might be a little more difficult then, but at least I am writing.

All of this makes me think of Louise Erdrich’s book “Blue Jay’s Dance.” In it, Erdrich talks about literally having to tie herself to her chair with belt from her bathrobe to keep her from being distracted from her writing. I get it. I know what that is like. Somehow, having a word count goal is like having a virtual bathrobe tie.

Cumulative count on day two: 3,404

The first day of NaNoWriMo

This is my first attempt at NaNoWriMo. The day began with me getting up an hour before everyone to see what I could get on the page. I had one hour and by no means met my goal in that time, though I have been working on the novel in snippets throughout the day. After getting the kids off to school, I helped my husband set up the food cart and get through lunch. My days of food carting as a full-time gig are long gone. I am teaching now, so I help out when I can and use the rest of the time to write and plan my classes.

Already, I feel NaNoWriMo working its magic. This book is finally in my head. These characters are becoming real. I had been thinking about it for a while and had some fits and starts. I took one of the fits and starts to a writing group but learned that it really was not ready for that. That experience nearly killed the project, but I can be stubborn and not let things go that easily. Thankfully I held on, and even if I don’t meet the daily goals, which I am guessing could be difficult, I feel like I am getting somewhere. I am moving forward.

 

Day 1 word count = 1,712

This eve

It is the eve where characters come out of all sorts–ghosts, goblins, vampires, love struck protagonists, evil antagonists. Yup, it is the eve before National Novel Writing Month. Who knew this mostly solitary activity of writing a novel could be such a party? I am diving in tomorrow. This will be my first crack at NaNoWriMo. I spent so many years working on the first novel that I didn’t feel ready to kick off something else, and my Novembers of past were always pretty crazy. This time things feel a little more manageable, and I have a wonderful group for encouragement. I also have my Momwriters for encouragement.

Perhaps nothing will come of it, but it will get me focused on a new project and hold me accountable in a way. It’s a no pressure party. At the kick-off party, there definitely was a buzz of excitement. Well, I’ll be checking in regularly throughout the month. Really, I will.

Words as food

I eat words, not in the sense that we all know, not the “eat your words” sense. No, words to me are like the very sustenance I get from sitting at a table filled with the warm delights of a hearty meal. Recently, I had forgotten how wonderful words tasted. I had forgotten how nourishing they were.

I suppose, like anything, too much of a good thing can make you sick. I had too much. I went from writing for work to writing for work and school to writing to make a few bucks. In essence, all I did was write, and I wasn’t writing what nourished me as much as writing what needed to be written. I’d made myself sick in a sense. I was tired. Dark circles appeared under my eyes. Then there was the crossroads. At some point not so long ago, I wondered if I’d ever again write anything new or anything that might get me excited. I had moments when I thought I’d gotten inspiration, but then I stopped. I couldn’t get a single new spark to flash in my creative core. There was no energy to keep a spark going anyway. I thought being in a critique group was the answer. I thought going to fancy literary events would be the answer. None of it worked like it used to. I’d definitely hit a low point in my writing, a low point I never imagined I would ever hit.

Recently, though, I heard parts of the speech Steve Jobs gave to Stanford University graduates. This is not a reflection of anything I think about Apple or Jobs himself. No, I just heard his words at a time when I needed them. In his speech, he talked about being at a low point in his career and life. He talked about how he went back to the beginning, returned to where everything had started, to where everything was exciting and new again, to where he felt hungry again. As I heard that, I knew I knew what I needed to do. I needed the hunger again. I needed it from the beginning, from before the MFA, from before the 12 years of newspaper writing, from before the handful of awards and publications. I needed to savor the flavors of words again.

That wasn’t going to happen in a critique group or in a career focused solely on mass producing copy. No, what I found was that I had to go back to a group much like the one where it all began, a group that inspired me to keep my hand moving across the page, that nurtured those first sparks of inspiration and saw them for what they are–food and nourishment meant to keep the light of inspiration burning.

I found just such a group, finally. They are  a talented and exciting bunch, but most of all they are a hungry bunch. They are as hungry as I am to taste those words, to try them in various flavors. I remember now how words taste–savory and sweet in all the best ways possible. Mostly, I remember why I started writing words. I realize now that I’d starve without them.

I want to be in there! A meditation on persistance and solitude

This is Rita. I snapped a photo of Rita a couple of days ago. She and her owners and sister visited the food courtyard where my food cart business is located. Her sister was too shy to be photographed, but Rita desperately wanted to be inside the courtyard and didn’t seem to care who was taking a picture of her.

The photo, one, makes me laugh, and, two, makes me think of my own “outside looking in” scenario. That scenario being that post MFA I feel more on the perimeter of the writing world than I did before I had the MFA. I’m sure that’s mostly my own doing. I’m mostly just trying to figure out where that MFA thing fits into my life now that I am no longer on campus. I don’t have the community I had readily available during my MFA, and as I’ve searched to build  a new community it has been somewhat difficult to fit in.

I realized recently that perhaps I don’t have to fit in, that perhaps I just need to accept that writing is a solitary thing and that I need to be doing it in solitude and not in a community. I also realized that I have been trying, somewhat like Rita, too hard to get past the gate that allows me to fit into that community. It all is a waste of precious time and precious energy. Writing does not mean talking about writing or being with writers. It doesn’t even mean having your book published or having an agent. It means actually sitting down with a pen and paper or a computer and diving deep into the lives of characters or the snapshot of a moment captured in a poem. I am ever so grateful to have people in my life who know nothing about writing but somehow seem to get what I am doing. In my quest to get inside the gate, I have probably lost sight of this the most.

With all the hoopla surrounding the book and movie “The Help,” which I have not read or seen, yet, I was reminded that the community I am in is the community I need to do what I am doing and persevere. Independently of each other, my dear husband, Jay, and my mother somehow caught wind of Kathryn Stockett’s many rejections through a couple of her recent interviews. Jay cornered me in the food cart, which isn’t hard to do since it is a six-foot by ten-foot stainless steel box. He asked me how many rejections my novel had received. I told him 20, so far. He said well you have about 40 more to go to get to that woman who wrote “The Help.” Not more than a day or so later my mom called and left a message on my phone telling me all about this article she read on Kathryn Stockett and how many rejections she had and that I just had to keep sending my book out.

Sure, in some sense I know all this stuff, but to me these are moments of clarity that help me see through the fog of insecurity and help me move through the fog of all the chatter about what a “writer” needs. I know deeply that I am supposed to be doing this writing thing, just as Rita knows deeply she should be inside the courtyard enjoying a little pork belly and scratch behind the ear. I realized in this moment of clarity that all this energy that I have spent sticking my nose through the gate has been mostly energy spent on fear, the fear of not making it in the one thing I know deeply I am supposed to be doing. I realized all the different ways I have attempted to get through that gate have been distractions. As much as I loved the newspaper, even that was a distraction, that was a crutch keeping me safe, keeping me from diving into this life that I don’t necessarily feel I have chosen. Perhaps getting the MFA was another safety route, as much as I wanted to do it.

So, I sit here at my desk. I sit here in my writing life of brief moments of peace and solitude to work on turning those metal bars of fear into dust.