My Two Cents…

penOkay, here’s my 2 cents on blog roll 2014…

Several weeks ago when J. I. Kleinberg (obviously a more organized person than I) on Chocolate Is a Verb tagged me, I had just gone down the rabbit hole created by my mother’s first, small stroke. I told Judy that I would love to, but to give me a few days. Since then I’ve lost days and days and not come one iota closer to having a post for this. So, this is what I’m going to do: I will paste in the four questions, and I’ll answer them. Right now. I hope it will be coherent, and not have too many typos.

What am I working on?

CAM00327Years ago I opened a fortune cookie and found this advice: “Try not to shoot off in all directions like fireworks.” I try, but I still have moments when the fireworks overwhelm me. This summer has been one of those times.

#1. With my mother so ill, and so up-and-down (gravely ill one day, sitting up and joking with her grandchildren the next), I have been 1) scattered, and 2) attempting to write some notes (some poems) about being here.

#2. I have, since May 5, been at work on a new novel, tentatively titled Reuben, Reuben, set in a Pacific Northwest timber town between the world wars. It has become a repository for family stories that I — growing up in the house my grandparents built — was steeped in all through my childhood.

#3. Two weeks ago I was very gently dumped by my agent, and — simultaneously — enrolled in the Pacific Northwest Writers Assoc. conference in Seattle. I was a finalist in two of the PNWA competitions — short story and mainstream novel — and I took second in both categories! This was a big deal. There were about 900 entries over all, and eight finalists in each category. I was invited to an after party (for first and second places, agents, editors, other judges, and so forth) and as a result I now have several new invitations to share my novel. I’ve turned back to that ostensibly finished novel, Pearl’s Alchemy, printed the damn thing out again, and I am rereading it and doing some thinking, strictly on the run. This no doubt sounds defeating to other people, particularly to my friends who have read the novel and love it, but I find it kind of…exhilarating. For one thing, I have three sets of notes from readers (from my former agent) and I want to take those seriously. How can I make this novel UNASSAILABLE?

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Sheesh. I have spent so much energy trying to imagine where I fit within contemporary novelists that it’s scary to imagine the flip sideb85fd-stack2bof2bbooks of that question. (Hello, Geraldine Brooks — are you out there?)

I have a mission statement that I wrote about 5 years ago and recently revised. Something like this:

While supporting my daughters in their quest to become independent and productive adults, I write every day into the heart of my own deepest desires, memories, and dreams.

think that it’s the particular, peculiar intersection of my life and art that make my work different, not that a desire to balance family with work is alien to any woman. But Pearl’s Alchemy (the “finished” novel) is drawn from my years of working with and worshipping at the altar of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (the heart of my doctoral dissertation). Braided into that is my work with the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, and braided with both of them is the simple (or not so simple) truth that when I was writing my doctoral dissertation I was a new, adoptive mother of twin daughters. My circumstances — of falling in love with these little girls who were no biological relation to me — made me see Hawthorne’s villain, Roger Chillingworth, in a light that changed the novel (and has changed it for all of my students over the past twenty years). Hawthorne got it, too, but you have to be quite a detective to disentangle this reading from all the other available readings of this endlessly ambiguous book.

Pearl3At the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, Chillingworth arrives, with an Indian, to be “redeemed.” At the end of the novel, Chillingworth dies, leaving his entire estate to little Pearl. Pearl’s Alchemy is my story of why. 

My poetry and the new novel (and the stories, from a small collection called Heartwood) is perhaps more obviously personal. I’m always, always writing out of my childhood. Even when I’m writing about my teaching and my own mothering, my childhood has a way of infecting everything. It was a wonderful, complex, painful, joyful childhood. I’m happy to be infected by it.

Why do I write what I do?

I have been writing stories since I was seven years old. If you locked me in a box, I would bloody my fingernails tracing out words in the dark.

Much to my daughters’ disappointment, I am never happier than when I’m reading a book. I would spend my last dollar on a book (ask my husband). Why do I write at all — that seems to be the real question here.

How does my writing process work?

I love this question! I could write an essay about it. But I’m out of time and so I’m going to tell in you a few sentences.

  • I usually read something to warm up. Right now I’m rereading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. I often read other poets.
  • I write in a journal, a big fat one, before I dive into more creative work. I set down the goals for the day. Sometimes I work out the particular problems — or challenges — I want to tackle in my creative work. But even when I’m pulled in a million directions, even if I do no other writing, I write in my journal.
  • I write early in the morning, before anything else can interfere. When my daughters were tiny, and I was teaching at the University of Washington, I colonized the early morning hours for my writing.
  • If I don’t have time to write, if I think I don’t have time to write, I write for 15 minutes anyway. No one will miss 15 minutes. The worst boss in the world has to give you a break once in a while. You can write if you really, really, really, really, really want to.

So, that’s it for this post! I have a feeling I will return to these topics and tell you more (particularly about my process and how it evolved).

bumblebeeI’ve tagged three other bloggers. Carla Shafer is my old and dear friend and the director of Chuckanut Sandstone, a readers series in Bellingham, Washington. She has several poetry chapbooks, and recently had a poem, “Elixir of the Solar Spectrum,” turned into choral song (a performance I was lucky enough to attend).

Joannie Stangeland is the author of several books of poetry, most recently Into the Rumored Spring and In Both Hands. 

I also tagged a PNWA friend, Cherie Langlois, who I hope will take time out from her farming, gardening, and writing to join us. (Great blog with great pictures.)



Sunday Morning

Chocolate Is a Verb today…

My brother visited Mom yesterday, for several hours I understand, and will be back today. I’m taking the weekend off from Mom-duty, and I had this fantasy that I would get some writing done, and some laundry.

Instead I slept, went to a movie (The Grand Budapest Hotel) with my husband, took the dog for a long walk through the woods, had dinner — at home — two nights in a row, and — did I already say — slept?

I watched Netflix (Warehouse 13, mostly) with Annie. I watched Upworthy videos and played Spider Solitaire. I meant to do my blog roll post, but instead I reread everyone else’s and…veged.

I think I needed to vege.

It’s a beautiful, sunshot Pacific Northwest day. Earlier this week we thought my mom was (again) dying. We were told that she is in renal failure. She couldn’t talk to us, she scarcely ate anything, and she never got out of bed from Sunday evening to Thursday. On Friday, when I arrived very early in the morning, I found her sitting up, smiling, eating. Over the last two days she has continued feeling better, is talking more clearly, and she is able to work with the physical therapists. My sister and I this week will look for a facility closer to one of us, one with a private room.

As Kurt Vonnegut says, “And so it goes.”

My good friend Madelon, when I (quite a long time ago) confessed that I was wasting a lot of time playing cards on my computer, said, “That’s probably what you need to do.” She’s a behavioral therapist with more than one doctorate, so I believed her then (my kids were small) and I am going to channel her now.

CAM00323I am going to trust that the writing will be there (yes, I am still journaling) and the blog roll post, and send outs…

And, today, I will do some laundry. 

blog touring 2014…

Click on this link to go to CHOCOLATE IS A VERB and a fabulous post all about blog touring 2014…. You’ll find that JK has written all about the process of these amazing collages, or found poems (almost 700 of them!), and link you to some other great blogs. I’m still pretty overwhelmed with personal stuff, but hope I’ll be able to get organized and join the blog tour in the next week or so.



Be Kind, Work Hard, Give Thanks

CAM00313~3I saw this bag at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference… which I managed to attend sporadically last week despite also driving back and forth to Olympia to see my mother four times (five times!). PNWA where, incidentally, I came in second (!) in two of the fiction categories (short story and mainstream), and met several agents and editors who invited me to show them some pages.

Up and down. That was my week. Mom was better, then she was worse. Then, a little progress in physical therapy gave us hope. Seeing her grandkids from out of state gave us hope. Learning to accept a new reality gave me more hope than I expected.

Last week I felt really really brave. I gave up my literary  agent without a struggle. I am open now to finding another. (The bag, by the way, belongs to an editor at Sourcebooks, who would like to see the novel.) I met lots and lots of very cool writers who, like me, are throwing their hearts into the ring…

I met some really wonderful nurses and CNAs who definitely know how to be be kind, work hard, and give thanks.

At this point, on all fronts, I am simply waiting to see what happens next.  And I’m taking notes.


If it’s not fun…

I saw this bumper sticker the other day as I drove to Olympia to sit at my mother’s bedside. It royally pissed me off.

My brain (which is like a hamster on a wheel these days…and nights) went to other things…like writing…as well as the big-life things like one’s mother being so ill.

It kind of sounds fun, writing a novel. Getting fit–or getting really healthy on a great diet–any of that can sound fun, at first. Then you realize that it’s work. If your intent is to have fun all the time, then I predict that you will be eating a lot of ice cream (weighing 280 pounds), entertaining yourself constantly with your iphone or tv or whatever, and NOT finishing a novel, or a short story, or a poem.

Sitting with my mom is not fun, and it made me think of when my 14 year old had her meltdown earlier this year. There is really no where else I would rather be, even in hard times, than with these very important people in my life. I want to be the kind of person who is there for the hard stuff, the kind of person who doesn’t flinch from the hard stuff.  My friend Louise, who is an Early Childhood educator, once described it to me as being on a bus ride. You can’t get off that bus, not easily (some people do get off). As she used to say to her teenaged sons, “I’ve enjoyed growing up with you.” (She says it to me, too!)

So, how is this also about writing? There is something for you — in the work, whatever the work is today — that you must learn, something you can only learn by being present with it. I wish you the strength to be present today with your most important work, even when it isn’t fun. I promise you moments of astonishing beauty, moments that you will only reach by being there.




Where I’ve Been

mom mtn

My mom has had a series of strokes and I’ve spent a lot of the last week in her hospital room. We thought we were losing her for a while there, but now she seems stronger and we’re just waiting to see. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, a picture and a poem. (published in Jeopardy, spring 1992)

Calling a Daughter

Each spring you call me,
your word from home, some number
of new calves born on the farm,
your voice flowing

a dozen years of miles,
conjuring red and perfectly white babies stumbling
under their mothers’ bellies,
clean as Jesus, bawling “maa.”

I hear dishes clinking in a sink,
water’s fumble
as you wander your kitchen
tethered by the wall phone’s curling cord,
your kitchen where five children crept
underfoot and then abroad.

In summer dusk my name
swept the yard, curving
outward from your throat,
sound liquid as perfume spilling
from where you stood on the old porch
and I ran over the damp grass
waving my arms like wings.
One morning I found my way
down the road around that dangerous corner
to Granma’s house. She called you
on her black telephone
and you fetched me back,
tickling my legs with a switch
every step the way home.

After you hang up, I stand
on my own front porch where night air
blooms sudden and voluminous,
lavender and roses,
the scent of your powder puffs.
Memory, like a mother catches me up,
like you, lap at the upright piano,
fingers jangling ivory keys
Abundant grace you gave to me. 

How daughter looks like laughter,
sounds like water, 
always here, always going away.