Now I’m Annoyed

Some times I’m slow to recognize an insult when I hear one. Not so long ago I was shopping for holiday gifts and the woman in front of me at the register, whom I know casually, asked me if I make much money from my writing. I grinned and answered her. I answered her! Robotic courtesy. Well, damn, would you ask anyone else whom you know casually what they earn at whatever they do? Do you question the clerk at the register or the server in the diner, the barista? How about the FedEx or UPS driver? Of course not, it’s no one’s business what they make. It did not occur to me at the time to be offended, but I should have been. My income is no one’s business but mine, my banks, and my creditors.

This time of the year I get cranky about money because of the constant pressure to buy things, the sale junk that clogs my email, Face Book, Twitter, mailbox. No, I don’t resent giving gifts to people I love, taking the time to discover what will please them, anticipating their joy with just the right present. But I’m so numbed by the endless ads for things I don’t want to buy that I didn’t even feel that rude question when it came at me like an arrow right in the wallet.

Writing is my work; I expect to be honored as an honest worker, but I don’t expect people to pry and judge my worth by the numbers. Some of the best writers we have ever known earned little, some nothing; some of the worst have made millions. The gauge of good writing in not monetary; it’s the freshness and precision of language and imagery, the surprise in the story or the depth of the poem; it’s the humor or the passion or the grief. An insight. It’s the making something new out of our tiny alphabet, our only raw material. It’s a gift beyond price and money is not the reason for the season. Nor is it the reason I write.

What Inspires Me

TWISTED TREES

It’s easy to praise

lush trees weighted

with fruit or flowers

but the true test

of love is to trace

skeletal silhouettes,

stripped of their leaves

by the wind.

What remains—

the endurance of bark,

exposed, the wisdom

of bare branches

to carry less

of winter’s weight.

   Karen Douglass

Photograph used with permission from Kit Hedman, photographer.  Thanks, Kit.

December’s Diary

When I was twelve years old, I found my late grandmother’s diary, one of those with only a few lines for each day. What I saw was not important. What was missing could have been very important. Gram died when I was seven, and to this day, decades later, I wish I had known her better. Even my memories of holidays are sketchy. That diary was a lost opportunity for me. And a few years later the old family house burned, and her history became hearsay.

At this time of the year many of us fret over the busy buying season, lose sight of the personal routines that otherwise soothe us. For me, of course, writing is all the more a relief and a solace. And this year I plan to bracket each day with writing. I won’t give up morning pages because they are now a vital form of clearing my head. And I will add a reflection of each day in this busy, potentially distracting month.

This morning I pulled from my stash a small red notebook with a little white snowflake and wrote on the first page my intention to capture what I can for this month. I’ll write about the traditions, the expectations and the disappointments. I may tuck in pictures, holiday cards, even ads that reflect the commercialism of the season. The view may widen to public issues, or narrow to my emotional reactions to whatever happens. I may write about decorations or potlucks, worship or worry. Whatever comes is fodder. And at the end of the month I’ll slide that small notebook into an envelope, label it, December Diary 2017, and set it aside.

Book Launched

On Saturday a gaggle of friends and fellow writers helped me officially launch Invisible Juan. I talked a little bit about the inception of the book–it’s been lounging on the shelf far too long and needs to get out and earn its keep–and I read an excerpt, about fifteen to twenty minutes. Then signing books, I was winging it all the way. Because I knew these people well, it wasn’t hard to make each book unique.

An event like this one is definitely not a one-woman show. My heartiest thanks to Caribou Coffee on W. 120th in Westminster CO. The baristas were welcoming and efficient and the coffee, as always, delicious. Another grand thank you to my friend and writing partner Carolann Walters. She is my “handler” in these situations. By which I mean that she provided snacks and took care of book sales, even packed up my box when it was all done but the shouting.

Now a shout out to readers: the book is available on Amazon. The gift of a book is a wonderful thing. If you are not yet aware of Juan’s problems and adventures, I have a page on this website, Bookstore, where you’ll find a synopsis. And any writer these days is thankful forreviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Word Greed

Admit it, if you are like me, you collect words you’ll never need. I go further in this vice: I collect quotes, whole sentences, even paragraphs. These snippets are not necessarily related to what I’m working on; in fact, I may never use them. Like a crow with shiny objects, I carry them in my beak from a library book to my nest which is a journal and hide them from jealous eyes. It’s not just the words that shine so much as it is how they cling together, like the roots of a tree, hidden but intricate, nourishing resources.

Language is more than a list of words, isn’t it? It’s a harvest of phrases and sentences, images and sounds, some of them heard silently in my brain as I read. It’s a gathering, which like any other healthy community, welcomes immigrants. In fact, it needs strangers in its midst or it stiffens like rheumatic knees. A vast array of word groups from many sources brings news of other villages and cultures, news we need to grow on.

David George Haskell, in his wonderful book Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, repeatedly demonstrates the interconnectedness of life over time and place, whether in the canopy of the rain forest in Ecuador or the balsam firs of the frozen north. He listens and brings back what he hears. We who write must do the same or risk ignorance, a false understanding of the web of life which is so much bigger than we can imagine. But we might just grasp it through a web of words.

A Week of Weakness

My recent illness was not exotic, just an annoying head cold that required me to stay close to the tissue box and the herbal tea, and prevented me from leaving home in order not to offend or contaminate others. One of the several annoyances this week was the distraction of sneezing, coughing and dripping. My hands were busy with other things than the pen and notebook. Inactivity left large muscles sore and grumpy. Writing may begin in the brain but it is released into the world by the body, and my body was not cooperating.

While I was achy, frustrated, whiny, I read part of Helen Keller’s autobiography. Blind, deaf, and mute, Keller first learned finger spelling and finally speech. Her senses put her in touch with the world and the world in touch with her. Despite her long journey into literacy, her prose is clear, fresh, deliciously detailed, a lesson on the futility of self-pity and a beautiful reminder of the mind-body connection.

I remember a student who came often to the Writing Lab at LSU-S when I taught there. This woman had a spinal injury that left her immobilized with barely enough dexterity to manage the lever on her power wheelchair. But she wrote! She used a mouth stick to depress the keys on the computer keyboard. Given new voice-activated options, she is, I suspect, even more productive now than when I knew her. I’ve worried at times what I’d do if my right hand failed me and I could not write. I’d remember Kathy and find another way because I need the body to deliver what the mind invents.

Writing in a Stockpot or a Skillet

There are at least two ways to cook up a new story or poem: #One is the stockpot process. You take out the stockpot with the intent to make chicken soup. You go to the refrigerator, get the chicken and carrots and an onion, find in the pantry the rice, reach down the sage, salt, pepper and bay leaf. You know in advance the ingredients and the process. You boil the chicken till the meat is tender and falling off the bone, remove the chicken, strain the broth and shred the meat. Chop and add the veggies, measure in the rice and seasonings and there you have it, just what you intended.

If you’re writing a sonnet, a short story or a novel, you know the size of the pot you’ll put you ingredients into and you may know the ingredients ahead of time–characters, plot, theme, etc.

But another time you look around the kitchen and find one potato, a couple of eggs and two slices of bacon. What to make of this? Quiche? Or a traditional breakfast? You get out the skillet, cook the bacon, use the bacon grease to fry the potato and the egg. This time you began with no preconceived idea but the inspiration of ingredients.

I often do this when I see an image that triggers my imagination. The shadow of low-flying Canada geese, a phrase that seems loaded with mystery, or an interaction between strangers. The new novel that is coming to life started this way: I made a silly pun in my journal, “Dear Paige,” the way writers used to say Dear Diary. Well, turns out Paige is a fully rounded character and she gets into trouble without too much help from me. I go to work every morning not knowing what she’ll do next. So far it’s working. Spicy!

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