Where You’ll Find Me

On my to-do list for today is “write blog post.” So, here goes. What I’ve been up to, and a little of everything else.

I have finished my poetry manuscript. “Finished”? I finished it last April, too, and sent it out, then withdrew it from several contests. I couldn’t say why it didn’t feel ready, it simply didn’t.

A friend suggested that I not think globally, condemning the entire ms, but to instead focus on individual poems. What I actually did was ignore it. I took a class. I worked on my send-out practice. I (finally) returned to my mystery novel. Then, in October, I finished the rewrite of the mystery.

And the poems were still sitting there, muddy and neglected, their unwashed faces looking up at me.

I again found useful distractions. A short story re-write, notably. Then, I broke my arm and was unable to type.

I had been fantasizing about a writer’s retreat, or just a week anywhere in an Air BnB alone with my story and…maybe…my poems. With the retreat option off the table, I made a decision to resort to my practice from when my three daughters were small and writing felt like an edifice without a door, impossible.

I would sit with my poems for 15 minutes every morning.

Even in that first awful week with the immobilizing splint, when I couldn’t type, I could page through poems and reread them. I could mark them up and scribble revisions. After a day or two, I began setting my timer for 25 minutes-on / 5 minutes-off (the Pomodoro method) and I often found myself putting in an hour or two.

Every. Morning.

Even Christmas Eve. Even Christmas Day. If I didn’t break through to the hours, I at least set my timer and did the 25 minutes.

Last summer — while working on the novel — I gave up some time-wasting habits (TV on my iPhone; Spider Solitaire, which is my crack cocaine; listening to audio books). Or, I mostly gave them up. While working on the poems, and perhaps feeling sorry for my poor broken self, I slid back into all these habits. It took several weeks before I recognized I was self-medicating.

During my halcyon months on the novel, I had hit on a method of reworking a chapter, then recording it, sending it to my phone, and listening to that (instead of an audio book by anyone else) on my walks. This was genius, by the way. I don’t know if it will work for you, but it was a huge breakthrough for me.

At some point early in January it dawned on me that I could record the poems — especially the most troublesome ones — and listen to them while I walked. Again, big breakthrough. I was almost … there.

Then, sometime in the last week or so I found myself back at that edifice — the big, blank, doorless one.

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but it felt as though I wasn’t at the foot of a blank wall, but stuck up high, poised to jump. It was despair. The poetry book — which is about the extremely emotional topic of my childhood on a farm, my parents’ deaths, the loss of the farm —  would never be done. I was trapped. The book would never be good enough. I would never be that person, that writer, who can do my story justice. Then, like someone waking up from a bad dream, I recognized where I was and I knew I had been there before.

In the past, whenever I felt this sort of despair over a writing project, I floundered around searching for someone to save me, maybe a whole committee — my steering committee — some august body to weigh in with all their considerable authority and tell me what to do.

I woke up one night — from a dream? into a memory? — of sitting in the hayfield beside our barn, and watching a foal die. (“A” foal? The foal, Brandy’s foal.) I experienced exactly what Bessel Van Der Kolk describes in his book, The Body Keeps the ScoreI wasn’t remembering it, I was living it. My heart was pounding. I was wide awake, terrified, horrified. I could see my uncle’s face, hear his voice: “That mare has plenty of milk.” I could not just see him turning to walk away, I could feel him walking away from me. I could feel my own words stuck in my throat, choking me.

I am strongly considering not posting any of this.

In essence, in my pit of despair with the poetry manuscript, I saw that I needed what I needed when I was a kid on a farm — what I wasn’t able to do when I was that skinny, freckled girl who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak up and insist on her own voice, her own truth.

I needed to listen to my own counsel.

That foal was not the only loss I’ve experienced in my life, and I’ve often tried to deny its importance. But the truth is it was important, and early, a preface to adulthood and adult cares. It changed who I was, who I would grow up to become. I’ve written this story before — in poetry and prose — and sometimes I think I will never be finished writing it. The foal is (perhaps strangely) absent from this new book. In short: including her this time around seemed to tip the book over and unbalance it. Even so, whenever I fall back into this visceral memory, I know that I’m being asked to wake up to some reality and, well, own it. I am being asked to speak up.

Is the poetry manuscript now perfect? No, not even close. But it has reached a point where I’m pleased with it, where it feels possible to share it. It is out to four contests, and I have a spread sheet with several more to send to as they open and deadlines loom.

I had planned to say more — maybe something about how AI apps can’t write with your peculiar history, your emotional depth, or your brilliant sarcastic humor. I had meant to share a poem. But — for today — I think this is enough.

So that, my friends, is where you’ll find me.


Last week one of my oldest cousins died. The oldest? Well, the oldest one still with us. Patricia was 86, the youngest child in this photograph from about 1937. My mother is the little girl in the middle, back row. My aunt Darlene is in the front row. I called Darlene this evening and we talked about my cousin — who was more like one of Darlene’s sisters. “She always called my mother, ‘Mother,’ and her mother, ‘Mama.’ She did that right up until the end.”

The conversation made me think about how the older people in our lives are repositories of history, of story, and it made me think about how much of that history dies, untapped.

Patricia had a son one year older than I, and another son, one year younger. Her mother, Violet, was like a second mother to my mother. I don’t think we saw a lot of Patricia’s family when I was young, though I have vivid memories of their collie, Shep.

I knew the “Mother/Mama” story. I didn’t know that my cousin’s favorite food was pierogis. My aunt Darlene is making a batch of them to take to the dinner after the graveside service. “She won’t get to eat any, but it’s the last time I can make them for her, so I’m doing it.” I remember my aunt Violet’s cabbage rolls (they are one of my specialities). But if I ever had pierogis, I don’t remember. So, I told my aunt I’d make them, too. She told me how she makes them — in great detail —  and then said, “You can find a recipe on-line.”


I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand, but they turned out pretty yummy anyway 🙂

I thought of that poem by Grace Paley, “The Poet’s Occasional Alternative,” about making a pie instead of writing a poem.

I also thought of this short poem, though it isn’t especially appropriate to the occasion:

On the Death of Friends in Childhood

We shall not ever meet them bearded in heaven,
Nor sunning themselves among the bald of hell;
If anywhere, in the deserted schoolyard at twilight,
Forming a ring, perhaps, or joining hands
In games whose very names we have forgotten.
Come, memory, let us seek them there in the shadows.

Donald Justice (1925-2004)



The Acrobat’s Success List

borrowed from https://www.flickr.com/photos/cereal-killer72/2603616192

I had an upsetting experience yesterday. I went to a financial planner with my dear husband, and, as we sat down, he began explaining how precarious our existence is since I have quit my job to be “a writer.” I don’t think he actually put “air quotes” around the words a writer, but he pronounced them as though he might be saying, to join the circus. Over and over he emphasized that I was bringing in “zero income.”

This is, in fact, completely true.

And it does freak me out, too, on occasion. But this morning, remembering how the financial planner began making helpful suggestions (perhaps I could work as a substitute teacher–they make good money!), I am feeling very, very freaked out.

What if my retirement account totals continue plummeting because of current global financial status?

What if, like my mother, I end up needing long-term care? What if my husband needs long-term care?

What if I never sell a novel…no awards…no best-sellers…no movie deals? What if there is never another poetry book? What if I never publish another word?

Somewhere in the midst of all this angst, however, I touched bottom. And I wasn’t on a trapeze, after all. I was more like a swimmer finding the bottom of the pool. I planted my feet, bent my knees, and pushed up, back into oxygen. I gulped in a big, fresh breath. I realized that what I was really doing was procrastinating–not working–and a sure way to never again do any work or experience any success.

As I breathed, I began to remember my strategies for getting work done. One of the strategies is to work for 15 minutes. This, in my opinion, is a little like thinking you are out over your head, then putting your feet down in an unfamiliar pool, only to realize that it’s not that deep. You can stand up! No problem! So I started on my 15 minutes, which turned into 45 minutes before I went into the house to fix myself some breakfast.

Another strategy I remembered, while eating breakfast, comes from a get-organized book I once read: notice the places where what you do is already organized. I am something of a slob and I let clutter accumulate. But where my make-up and hair stuff go in the bathroom? Totally organized. So it is possible for me to be organized. It is not a genetic flaw, pre-determined and impossible to surmount.

So, yes, it is precarious, but here’s my success list (you do not have to read this) around my work, just to remind myself:

  • I have two published books of poems, The Coyotes and My Mom and Sparrow. Three if you count my Carla-published chapbook, Be Careful. 
  • For five years I wrote one-bad-poem a day (you can see my essay about the experience here). And got many of them published, btw. (Some even made money!)
  • From July 27 to August 30 this year I wrote 31 new poems and sent them out as postcards.
  • I facillitate a Writing Lab now going on its sixth year of existence.
  • I have a BA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing, and a Ph.D. in American Literature. I taught American Literature, composition, and creative writing for 25 years!
  • Last week I submitted a short story to Glimmer Train, breaking a long send-out dry spell.
  • I have won three poetry awards (or four?), and I have had five poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
  • I have had about 100 poems published in journals, including Blackbird and Calyx and Floating Bridge (Pontoon) and The Sun and Escape into Life.
  • I came in second in both the mainstream-novel and short-story categories in the 2014 PNWA Literary Contest.
  • I have drafted four novels and one is more-or-less finished–I’ve submitted it to two places and will submit it to as many as need be. I will finish the other novels, too.
  • Yesterday morning I took out my poetry submission notebook (for the first time in several years) and began getting ready to do a September send-out (the intention is to submit four or five poems each day of the month to a different journal).

In her book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, Carolyn See has this to say:

“Protect yourself. Be careful whom you tell. Because the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer.”

When my dear husband outed me as a writer, I felt something like shame, and something like heartache. It was as if I didn’t want this woman in her office that was all about money to know my secret, my dirty little secret. But it isn’t dirty and it isn’t little and it isn’t a secret.

  • Oh, yeah. And I’ve been blogging since 2009 about my writing life! See? Not a secret! (http://awritersalchemy.blogspot.com/2009/08/summit-creek.html)

It’s going to be okay, Bethany. You can breathe now.