My essay, I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You, appeared on the Brevity blog a few days ago and I wanted to share it with you. If you love creative nonfiction like I do, this blog, which has more than 46,000 readers, is one you should take a look at.
By Ramona M. Payne
My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with […]
Favorite Books from 2019
My list may not be the same as the New York Times bestseller list or another “best books of 2019” list, but here are some of my favorites reads from the past year. I read about twice as much nonfiction as fiction, but there are some great novels in this group.
- Becoming by Michelle Obama
- Thick and Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
- The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
- The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby
- All the Colors We Will See by Patrice Gopo
- Educated by Tara Westover
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
- The Neapolitan Quartet (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child) by Elena Ferrante
- In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
- Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
- Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
My goal for 2020 is to keep up the pace of about one book per week, although some take longer, others, less time to read. I typically stay with one book at a time and I look forward to settling in on a Sunday and starting new book. Many readers like to use audible and e-books, but I prefer the actual book, for the experience and feel of the book, so I can make my own notes (I know e-readers let you do this), because I want to take my time with the story, trying to figure out structure and pacing and how an author keeps me turning the page. I also found that I read more since I started setting an annual goal, because I make time to read rather than waiting to have time.
How do you decide what to read—booklists, recommendations from friends and other readers, reviews, book club? I’d love to hear how readers choose their books.
The last two months have been busy—I launched my workshop series, Write.Pause.Reflect, in October and have been planning and delivering workshops, connecting with friends and meeting new people who are interested in reflective writing.
Write.Pause.Reflect is for anyone who is interested in using writing as a tool for managing stress, situations that cause you to worry, thoughts that keep creeping up, or issues of concern. Expressive writing, pioneered by James Pennebaker Ph.D., uses writing as a way to improve health, including mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. In April I experienced and learned the techniques, and after my first day I knew this was a method I wanted to share with others.
What is it?
Reflective writing uses prompts and reflection on the prompts to move towards better health. In the workshops, we pause to examine the writing and our thoughts about it and consider its impact. This type of writing is different from a diary or most people’s ideas about journaling; it asks you to consider the possibility of reframing the stories we hold about our lives.
Do I have to consider myself a writer?
It is not designed solely for writers, and no, you do not have to share your work; the writing is personal.
Each workshop has been engaging and the feedback very positive. Participants are thoughtful, willing to do the writing, and respectful of each other. I continue to learn more about this process and look forward to conducting more of these workshops in 2020. Feel free to contact me if you have questions or you can comment below.
I first read Toni Morrison in my twenties; it was the novel Tar Baby. Three decades later, I find her to be the most compelling writer in my lifetime. In her writing she chronicles and lays bare the experience of black people in this country in a way that is both affirming and gut wrenching in its truth. When I heard the news she had passed on I felt compelled to try to explain what her work has meant to me, but it is nearly impossible to do.
Maybe the best way is with a story, one related to her book Beloved. I had read Beloved before, but it was only after rereading it a couple of years ago that I truly immersed myself in the history and legacy of the story. In the book, Sethe makes the lifechanging decision to escape the cruelty of slavery in Kentucky and cross the Ohio River with one toddler child, and another on the way. When the slave catchers come after her, she attempts to kill her children rather than have them be enslaved again. It is hard to imagine making that choice as a mother, but then again, only one who had known how horrific life would be if she returned, for all of them, could understand the choice she made. Sethe kills one child before she is stopped and captured.
The story of Beloved was based, or maybe inspired is a better word, by the true story of Margaret Garner, who escaped from Kentucky, got to Cincinnati,(my hometown) and like Sethe in the novel Beloved, killed her child rather than have it taken away. Margaret Garner was captured as she killed the child, and was later tried. In another insult to her humanity, and the humanity of her children, she was not tried for murder. She was tried for destruction of property, because the child was not considered anything more than the property belonging to another human being, the slaveowner.
In Beloved, Ms. Morrison accomplished a major feat—addressing the devastating and ongoing impact of slavery on the minds, spirits, and bodies of black people, as well as the daily cruelties and suffering they endured. It is not easy to read, but I felt as if she had explained my story and the story of my ancestors in this novel. She wrote in her foreword, “In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout; that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive. To render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way.”
I read Beloved and I realized the river I grew up looking at from the bluffs of Eden Park had helped Margaret Garner pass over, and streets I knew in downtown Cincinnati had sheltered her and many others seeking freedom. Other forms of oppression awaited them, even in the north, but they sought relief from physical slavery and a chance to start new lives.
The Cincinnati Opera co-commissioned the opera Margaret Garner, and I was involved in a community engagement project to expand the audience for this opera. Margaret Garner was performed in 2005, each night sold out, and it was the most diverse audience in the history of Cincinnati Opera. There was a private reception before its opening and I was among the guests. I looked towards the door, and in walked Ms. Morrison. She was regal, her gray locks flowing, eyes scanning the room. There were so many people in the room, all eager to meet her, have their time with her. But in one moment, she saw me looking at her, and I smiled, and whispered “Hi”, trying to communicate I see you and I’m glad to see you, but I know everyone in this room wants to have your time, and I don’t want to be another person pulling at you. She smiled back, I nodded, and I left soon after. I had seen Toni Morrison, her books had already touched me, and there was no other reason for me to stay.
Ms. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved in 1988 and the Nobel in Literature in 1993. Our country’s greatest writer has passed on. She has been an inspiration to me because her prose was so powerful and evocative and gave attention to stories about people that had remained unknown, ignored or unexamined by many. I am grateful for the richness of her legacy and the magnificence of her writing.
One other note: I have heard many adults say that Morrison’s work is difficult. I believe it requires careful reading, but the topics and her unflinching look at our culture are very likely what people find difficult. However, she wrote a children’s book, The Big Box, with her son Slade Morrison, which I gave out as a graduation gift for years while it was still in print. I will make sure that my granddaughters do not wait until they are 20 to pick up their first Morrison book; I am so glad to have a copy of that book in my collection.
Every year, I use August as a planning month, my equivalent of get ready for school. I want to write more, read a few books, work in my yard, and enjoy this hot weather for as long as it lasts. But before I take a hiatus from posting, here are a few things I’d like to share:
Reading During July, I finished all four volumes of the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante and I highly recommend these books – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of a Lost Child. The novels follow the relationship of two girls from Naples, Elena and Lila, from childhood to their sixties. The sometimes-complicated nature of friendship, rivalry and loyalty, the role of women in a culture that was led by men, education as a way of escaping poverty, and the backdrop of Naples, Italy and its changing political and social dynamics are key themes in these books. I read the first novel, an extremely satisfying read, and the last line made me immediately pick up the second book. If you’re still looking for a great summer read, check out these books out.
Writing I primarily write essays and also started a novel a couple of years ago. The novel sits in a folder, and maybe one day I will revise it, or see if I want to shorten it and rewrite as a short story. Earlier this year I decided to take a break from any client work and focus on a much longer book-length project. It’s too early to give much detail, but I am enjoying the research, some travel, and of course the writing, although there are days when the words come slowly. In August I will take a few days to attend a writing conference and expect to come back home with great ideas and new energy.
Staying in touch I’m taking a break from posting here until after Labor Day, but you can still find me on Instagram @writepausereflect or on Twitter @ramonapayne1. Enjoy your August and I’ll be back in touch after Labor Day.
I’ve been taking a drawing class at the museum for several weeks. On the first day, our instructor asked us to draw a self-portrait. I started with the obvious—trying to capture the shape of my head, the size and slant of my eyes, the fullness of my lips, adding in cheekbones and topping the image off with hair, or enough swirls and poufs to make it look like hair.
The finished drawing looked nothing like me. Maybe there were a few aspects that resembled what I had seen in the mirror, but my drawing could have just as easily been a picture of someone else.
The takeaway for the day was to learn how to look and then sketch what I saw, rather than what I thought should be there. Next, I had to copy and draw a photo that was placed upside down, which forced me to look at lines, edges, and shapes to complete the picture. Instead of thinking, well, this is the arm, I know what an arm looks like, so I’ll draw an arm, I drew from sight, not expectation.
Guess what happened? My upside-down drawing was far more accurate than I thought it would be, because I made myself focus on what I noticed as I went along, rather than what I know.
Learning how to draw has been rewarding because the initial progress has been swift, hastened by learning some basic rules. My pictures look considerably more accurate than they would have weeks ago. There are basic principles and with practice I am learning how to employ them, observing shapes and shadows, how to measure and adjusting on the page.
I see parallels between my writing and my new drawing practice. When I write an essay, I often start out with an idea, not fully formed, just a sense of what I want to write about. As I keep going, noticing small details, or where my interest picks up, I make decisions about incorporating them into the work.
My drawing instructor recently said, “You have to bound your composition, you cannot fill everything in.” I decide which elements serve the final drawing, much as choosing the right words serves an essay or story. Drawing has taught me to look more closely at the world around me, and reinforces the truth that practice is essential to improvement. My goal is not to hang my work in a gallery or museum, although I share each week’s work as eagerly as a first-grader, excited that my hands and mind have tried to work in concert to create something. Like my writing, the process is as importance as the outcome, and the process and the practice are the two components I can control. The more I draw, the more I want to write, because they complement each other.
Writing will always come before drawing for me, but I’ll keep up with my sketches, if only because they are fun to make and use a different part of my brain. Practice does not have to make perfect, making progress is reason enough to keep on.
Last week, I devoted one day—I call it my Quiet Day—to a day of quiet reflection and preparation for the year ahead. This has been an annual practice and it is my way to start the year in a less rushed state of mind. I don’t bother with resolutions, at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Nearly 20 years ago, I went through the training to earn a certification in coaching, and even though I no longer coach clients, I still use many of the tools when I want to work towards change in my life.
I began with a look at my 2018 calendar, going week by week to see how I had used the days. I remembered little victories, trips I took, days where I stayed home and enjoyed working in my yard. I thought about the people I spent time with, the meetings and events I attended, and then I wrote down on one sheet of paper the highlights of the past year. It is easy to quickly forget what we have done, felt, or experienced. I saw many happy, positive moments, and the exercise also helped me see where I had spent time doing things that I did not feel were in alignment with my goals, values or needs. Nothing to feel bad about, just something to observe.
Once I had looked over the past year, it was time to dream ahead. I identified a few areas where I want to focus, of course, one is my writing, and then I thought about the steps I would have to take to move forward. I felt a strong desire to try a new thing this year, perhaps something that is a stretch for me. I have not yet pinned down exactly what it will be; I have a few ideas, but I am certain the answer will come to me soon.
This morning, a question popped up as I mulled over an invitation. My inclination is to sometimes say yes, forgetting that no is also an option, often because it’s nice to be included, I am truly interested or curious, I like the people, the place, or the issue, or a sense of if I can, I should. But today I asked myself, “What is most in alignment with my goal or need for this moment, for this day?”Only then did I realize that although participating might be a good thing, it was not the best thing, for me, at this time. I’ve always said that as you get clear on your Yes, the No or Not Right Now becomes more apparent.
Because I can look back with gratitude and understanding that I am still learning, I can move forward with my dreams and goals for 2019, eager and excited to see how it all unfolds. Taking a quiet day is transformative for me, but it does not have to be done at the first of the year. Any time is a good time to look at your life and see if you are headed in the right direction.
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.
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.