November will be over in a few days and it is time for another writing update. My progress on the short story has been slow, mainly because I have not decided how to end it. I worked on the piece today, and instead of writing with an absolute end in mind, I decided to slow down the pace and see where the story wants to go. It can take time to get to know my characters, even if I think I should know them better since I wrote them. I’ll continue working on the story, but I don’t expect to be finished by the end of the week.
Switching to fiction this month was also a reminder that nonfiction is probably my first love; it is what I write most often and what I usually read. Last December I set a goal to read 50 new books during 2018 and I’ve read over 40. I’ll have to see if I can actually make my goal, but the cold days of December are perfect for reading. I tracked whether the books were fiction or nonfiction and it did not take long to realize that over 65 percent of the books I read are nonfiction—essays, memoir, spirituality/inspirational, design, history.
So, it’s back to working on my essay collection, while trying to be intentional about reading more novels in the future. I missed working on the essays, and tend to believe being away from them for several weeks has given me a fresh perspective and new ideas. Changing my focus, if only for a month, made me miss that work and ready to get back in my chair and write.
This year was a milestone for me—I turned 60 and it was the first birthday that my mother was not able to celebrate with me, call me, or sign her name with my father’s to my card. When she passed away in late summer of 2017, I had no idea of how her passing would change me. I learned very quickly it was a hurt for which I had no words or experience.
I was excited about my 60th birthday and had planned a party (theme: Honey, I’m Grown) months in advance. As the June date drew nearer, I became apprehensive about how I would feel on that day, and wondered if in the middle of the celebration, I would realize that it was not a good idea. But that didn’t happen. Continue reading
The short story is coming along, at least the first draft of it. I am enjoying the process; this form is so different from the nonfiction I usually write and I am not quite sure of how the story will end. I think I know the ending but have to figure out how to get there, or if it is even the right way to finish the story. I’ll keep working on it, I have a little over two weeks to get it done.
I took a couple of days away from writing to visit a friend and we took a road trip to Amish country. We had a filling lunch, looked at Christmas decorations, and made a special trip to pick up the region’s best apple cider. At the market in Sugarcreek, the workers were sorting apples and filling bushels in an adjacent room. The aroma of different types of apples was enticing, but since I cannot eat fresh apples I had to make do with just enjoying the smell, watching the apples rumble and roll through the line, and observing the cheerful chatter of the workers. Here are a two photos from that trip. I love day trips like this—they can be both relaxing and inspiring, and new story ideas often take root after some restful time away.
Do you have a favorite day trip destination?
I am sitting in the middle of office clutter that I wouldn’t want you to see if you happened to stop by for a cup of tea and a chat. It is not junky, but it is not as tidy as I like. Pens of all colors fill jars, a tote bag, gray scarf, cough drops, and lip balm are nearby, and a stack of papers bump against my left elbow. I am ignoring all of it—right now it is more important to write than to clean.
You might remember two years ago when I did National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a global event where you commit to writing 50,000 words during November. I participated, ended with more than the 50,000 words, and that stretch goal was a good exercise for me. I wrote a bit about what I learned here.
Now that book, or better said, draft, did not make it to the best seller list, but I enjoyed the journey into my characters’ lives, and it gave me the start for a different book I will complete one day. But this year I have decided to set a personal November writing goal.
It has been years since I have written a short story; I typically write nonfiction. But this month I am going to complete a short story that has been dancing around in my head for months. I will finish the first draft, and at least begin the initial round of revisions. I’m just starting out, so it is hard to say how long it will be, certainly longer than flash fiction (under 1,000 words) but no more than 8-10,000 words. I’ll let you know each Monday how I’m doing.
The office cleanup will have to wait.
I have great news to share—Black Domers: African-American Students at Notre Dame in Their Own Words, edited by Don Wycliff and David Krashna, was selected by U.S. Catholic Magazine as its January 2019 book club selection. My essay, which describes my experience as a Notre Dame student years ago, is one of many in this anthology. The book tells how Black students first began to attend Notre Dame, how we made it through, what challenges and opportunities we faced, and what we have to say about our time there and relationship to the University, now that there has been time to reflect. The book starts with the first Black student, Frazier Thompson (class of 1947), and continues to alumni who graduated last year. The stories begin in the 1940s and provide interesting historical context.
Writing the essay was a rewarding experience for me, because it reveals what I love best about the essay form. Not only can a good essay connect us to a more universal story, but it requires the writer to do more than recount what happened. Writing an essay requires that you try to make sense of how the event or person has shaped you, what you took away from it. I learned there is not one typical ND experience, nor did we all respond the same way when confronted with challenges. All of the stories are not upbeat, but they demonstrate the resilience of the students.
I hope you will be able to read some of the stories, and would love to hear from you if you do.
Update: Some have asked where the book can be found. It is available on Amazon and in the Notre Dame bookstore if you happen to be in South Bend, IN. Thank you for your support and interest. I also wanted to add that in lieu of any payment, the authors agreed to support an endowment for scholarships so other students can have their own ND story.
It’s been a full summer and August was heavy with travel, a weekend at the Newport Jazz Festival, and a trip to Bremerton and Seattle, WA. I had not been to Rhode Island or Washington state before, so they were fun firsts. I’ll write more about Bremerton and Bainbridge in a future post.
Last week, I went to hear Tracy K. Smith, US Poet Laureate, read and give a talk at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN. I have always been impressed by this small college, which has invited so many amazing women over the years. It was at Saint Mary’s that I first saw actress Cicely Tyson, and I can still remember her entrance on the stage, she wore winter white and was positively regal.
Ms. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize and I am a fan of her memoir Ordinary Light but have come to enjoy her poetry too. She spoke about understanding poetry, writing it, and also considers poetry a form of activism. She spoke about the “impossible resilience of black people despite attempts to annihilate us,” and many in the auditorium seemed to understand how these are challenging times. I love how poetry can convey a feeling or emotion or experience with its use of rhythm and imagery, and Smith left us feeling that poetry should not be inaccessible, it is for everyone.
I love summer but I am going to embrace the fall weather that is only a week or so away. On my nightstand is the book Poets on Place by W.T. Pfefferle, and I want to read it to learn how poetry and other writing can be used to express the heart of a place.
Until the next time…
Over the last two weeks, I made some changes to the shade garden in my backyard and the flower garden in front of my living room window. Even though the plants were thriving, I spent time clearing some of them out. In the back, there are hosta, some with white-tipped leaves, others are more bluish-green, and another has leaves that are enormous (Empress Wu). I have two kinds of ferns intermingled with the hostas, and there are also deep pink impatiens planted in clusters. This part of my yard, on the north side, does not get nearly the sun that the front does, so I use shade-loving plants that like to keep their feet a bit wet because they thrive here.
But my garden also has a plant that is a bit of a bully—a purple iris that sends out a slim flower in early summer and what is left after the flower dies back is a mass of spindly leaves. I don’t mind that the season for the purple flowering is short, everything has its own season. What bothers me is that over the last several years, in parts of the yard, this iris has pushed out the hostas and peonies that used to share its space. So two weeks ago, after a rainy day moistened the soil, I grabbed my shovel and dug a massive clump of it out of the yard.
Normally I might try to find another place to put a plant that seems so native to my yard and grows well, but I knew in a few years’ time, I would have the same problem, too much iris creeping in, other more delicate plants being shoved aside. So I tossed the clumps into the yard waste bin, where they were carried off the next day for pickup. Even though I shook off as much dirt as I could while tossing the plants from one bin to another, I was surprised by how heavy the first trash can remained; it was hard to heave it up and into the yard waste.
The front flower garden is going to take more work, but that might have to wait until September, when I can divide and transplant the purple and red coneflowers and Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia) that have gone from a handful of plants to a dense plot of flowers that attract bees, butterflies, and many types of birds. Compared to the irises, this will take more time but the plants are not nearly as heavy to move around.
Yard work reminds me of life – the need to periodically prune, trim, and even toss when I realize I have allowed excess to creep in. Sometimes it is hard work to decide what to keep, what to get rid of, because I want to believe it all belongs, that there is space for everything I think I need to do. But when I sit back and reflect on what is working and what needs to go, or what can be postponed until later, just like the transplanting of the coneflowers to another spot in my yard, I realize that in creating a bit more space in my life, I can enjoy it more. I feel less encumbered, and can move more lightly, and that is a good thing.
There is a bothersome vine that has taken root in this area, and occasionally I see it has popped up in my yard in a space where it is not welcome, twisting through a rosebush or winding through the peony leaves. I don’t ignore it like I did the irises. Instead of tackling the vine all at once, I will pull at it a little at a time, leaving space, and tending to any overgrowth before it takes over.
Several years ago, I left a job that I mostly enjoyed, planning to take a one-year sabbatical to sort out what my next move would be. I was a development officer, also known as a fundraiser, for a large midwestern university with national name recognition. I believed in the programs for which I fundraised, the visual and performing arts, scholarships, endowments, and I met amazing benefactors, many of whom I still maintain friendships with. But I knew I needed a change, wanted to explore some of the stories that I carried in my head and heart. I had been able to spend time with highly creative people—artists, musicians, sculptors, actors, and writers, while in that position. When we had time, I asked about their processes, how they studied, when they found the time to practice and create. Continue reading
May has been a whirl of activity but let’s start with the 30-day challenge I began in April. My goal was to wake up every day, at 5:18 am, for 30 days. I missed a couple of days, primarily because after the second weekend I asked myself, “Why are you getting up this early on the weekend?” I modified the challenge and did not set an alarm on Saturdays and Sundays; however, even without an alarm, after about four days I found myself naturally stirring around 5:15 am.
Rising early set me up for the next goal for May. I had been accepted for the Vermont College of Fine Arts Novel Retreat, which took place May 15-21. This experience was positive and affirming for me as a writer because I was able to accomplish a few goals I established for the retreat:
- Spend hours a day writing, starting a new (and lengthy) project that I want to write,