On Failure and Freedom

Flowers, at least, never seem to fail!
Flowers, at least, never seem to fail!

If I had not had the wisdom 13 years ago to ask for a separation and the grace 11 years ago to agree to a divorce, today would be my 25th wedding anniversary.

For many years, this date hurt. It reminded me of the hopes I’d had for life and the failures small and large I made in that relationship. As I wrote my morning pages today, I realized that the times of hurt were about my embarrassment and sorrow at failing. I was, after all, a straight A student. I rarely failed.

I also recognized that I no longer have those feelings. Oh, I failed, all right. I’m not letting myself off the hook.

But here’s the thing. Those failings caused me to examine so much: my values, my goals, my desires. They caused me to figure out who I want to be.

And those failings gave me freedom to find not only myself, but a partnership grounded in loyalty, strong communication, and deep devotion.

Today, I have no feelings of sorrow, only gratitude. Those 14 years shaped me, yet these last 11 years have been crucial to my entire identity. I’m so glad I can see the value of failure, the freedom that comes with saying “that didn’t work. I’ll evaluate why and make changes for my next endeavor.” By failing at something large, I’ve learned not to fear failing at anything smaller.

Tell me your own story of failure leading to freedom, will you?

Birth of a Book: Meet Damian Alexander

Last semester I had the pleasure of working with Damian Alexander in my Freelancer class. Damian, who recently graduated, is a talented illustrator, and a skilled writer. Among Damian’s many projects, he has written a children’s book (that’s just right for adults, too) with an important message. I asked him to talk about it a little: 

DAWhen I look at kids I almost instantly see myself. I see who I was and how I felt and what I thought about when I was that age. I see myself and my cousins and my friends and every kid I knew growing up in every kid I see. Over time I’ve developed this thing in the back of my head where I want to protect every one. Especially the ones who I know are going to have a rougher time with the life they’ve been given. Seeing as I can’t physically put them all into a bubble of safety, I started writing about them.

In my soon-to-be-published picture book I Want a Kid and I Don’t Care I focused on children looking to be adopted. The idea was sparked when I came across a wallin a furniture store with photos of kids looking for families. I found out that it primarily consisted of “harder to place” kids. On hearing that I instantly got sad and wished I could adopt them all, but I can’t do that at this time in my life. So I wrote a book. Through the lighthearted rhyme and colorful illustrations I wielded a story about unconditional love. Throughout its pages the book reiterates the idea that differences don’t matter, whether the child you have looks different from you or has a disability or is transgender or wants to do ballet when all you know is soccer. It just doesn’t matter.

All that does matter is love.

Over a year ago I dug through my illustrations and found just one of a little girl in acrylic paint on paper. I had found the style for my book. For the following year I worked on painting the illustrations and revising the story several times. Until finally I had it finished, printed and in my hands.

Now I need your help to make it a reality. Getting one copy printed is simple but getting funds for multiple printings and distribution takes a bit of help. I recently launched a Kickstarter where you can pledge and help support this project while getting a copy of the book or some art in the process.

Additionally for every book distributed through the Kickstarter, I will donate $2 to the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Association, which inspired the project. They’re an organization focused on placing all types children with the perfect family; they’re also open to single parent households and LGBTQ couples.

I hope you’ll consider supporting Damian’s book, at any level you can. If you’re interested in reading more about him, check out his interview on Alaina Marie’s Keys and read his blog

Book Review and Give Away

One of my favorite spaces online is Crystal Moody’s Year of Creative Habits. Crystal’s posts are thoughtful, educational, inspiring. Her FaceBook group is one of only a few in which I find myself actively participating–she’s created an encouraging space for fellow creative folks.

A few months back, Crystal sent me an extra copy of Chris Guillebeau’s The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest that will Bring Purpose to Your Life. I read it as I ate breakfast each morning–it’s easy enough to pick up and put down when you want something to read for a short while. I found myself inspired by the variety of quests he shares, his own included. The book is less of a blueprint (because your quest won’t be the same as the quests in the book), and more of an encouragement to live the damn life you crave, even if that means doing something a bit off the map.

I’m a woman who loves a project. I enjoy testing my ability to do something for a sustained period, to challenge what I think I can do and push through to what I can actually do. Guillebeau’s book reminded me: do that more.

To build on the creative spirit and generosity that prompted Crystal to send me the book, I’d like to pass it along to one of you, my dear readers, with the condition that after you read it, you do the same.

If you’re interested, leave a comment telling me about a quest you’ve undertaken or long to undertake. Next Wednesday I’ll randomly pick a name and mail the book to you next Friday.

ETA: Kym is the book winner! Thanks to all who left comments–your quests are terrific!

Phoenix Draft: Written

Novel It started in 2004 with a writing prompt to craft a 25-line story featuring a childhood place. I wrote “Queen of the Tobacco Field,” set in the shade tobacco farms of the Connecticut Tobacco Valley, my birthplace.

Are you surprised? Most folks not from here are. They think the south owns all the rights to tobacco. But I grew up watching local and migrant workers tend the plants as they pushed against the ghostly nets that create the just-right environment for some of the world’s best cigar binders and wrappers, and those fields, that netting, the red barns…those are my markers of childhood and home.

I digress. My first MFA workshop saw that 25-line story morph into a proper short story, and as I drafted my dissertation, it grew into a novella. I defended my dissertation in 2008, yet I still couldn’t let go of the story.

Every May, when my teaching gig was over for the summer, I promised myself I’d write a new draft, the one I could shop around. I have at least five half-finished drafts in which I changed huge parts of the story, but they were never right. As September arrived, I would give up.

This year, I didn’t make myself a promise. I gave myself permission.

Permission to try it one more time. Permission not to give up. Permission to do what I had to in order to write a brand new draft with a brand new focus. I made the commitment matter by hiring a terrific writing coach.

Around the same time, I saw a tweet from Rachael in which she used the term Phoenix Draft. And I knew she’d written it just for me (okay, she didn’t, but it flew past my eyes at the moment I needed to see it). See, almost every time I begin a new draft, I open a brand new document and start from scratch. I rarely (except with short stories) get to the point where I’m satisfied enough with the story to revise the existing draft.

This one, I told myself, would be the Phoenix Draft. The last one to rise, new and different, reborn, if you will, from the ashes of ten years of drafts.

Last week, I finished the draft. 81,800 words of a brand new story, the story I was meant to tell, the story that precedes all of the events I crammed into the 25-line “Queen of the Tobacco Field.” I kept the name I gave it in novella form, The Hardest Bent, because it is a true and right name for this novel.

I printed it out, mapped out a revision plan based closely on Rachael’s, and in my last coaching session with dear Charlotte on Friday, firmed up how I’ll spend my next three months of writing time.

I am over the moon about revising this Phoenix Draft. I am terrified about finding a home for the novel, but it deserves that from me. So when this revision is over, when my trusted readers give me one last round of feedback, I plan to once more give myself permission. Permission to write a terrific query letter. Permission to find the agent and editor who will love my story the way I do. Permission to let The Hardest Bent do more than press against the netting…to burst out from under it, into the world.

How about you? What have you given yourself permission to do lately?

Perfect Sky. Wrecked Sky.

Twelve years ago, I walked up the hill from the train to my office. My step was jaunty. The air was clear and bright as I chatted with a pal. The night before my college had hosted a writer to a huge crowd, and I felt the afterglow of an event gone right.

The sky was perfect.

And then the sky was wrecked. And so many lives were wrecked. And our nation’s sense of self was wrecked.

Every year, I remember each moment of that day. Every year I see it through new lenses, new ways of understanding.

The grief I feel is softer, but more complicated now. My instincts remain the same: hold all my dear ones close. Be kind. Commit to living life with with exuberant imperfection. Express gratitude.

One thing in life I am grateful for is you, dear reader. Thank you for sharing this world with me. Perfect or wrecked, it remains beautiful.

Exploration: Poetry

 

I'm spoiled by my lovely writing porch.
I’m spoiled by my lovely writing porch.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m a prose writer.

I like love sentences. I’m all about story, narrative arc, character development, emotional truth.

But the poets. Oh, the poets! They do astounding things with words and images. And I’m pretty convinced that the poets write better sentences. Something about the compression of language, the playfulness of their genre adds up to lovelier prose when they tackle it. Take Dana Salvador. Take Cari Luna. Yeah, they started as poets. And their prose rocks.

Since I have a personal policy about envy, I decided to spend the summer exploring poetry. I created a syllabus, and while I haven’t made it through the entire syllabus, I have learned some things:

  • I like assignments. I’m an industrious student and will do what I’m told with the expectation that I will learn from the assignment. 
  • Sometimes I resist assignments, and it’s a good thing to sit with resistance. It can mean that I am not willing to do what is difficult or it can mean I have a better idea. The former requires a little self-care (my poetry subject is about being childless. Writing about it is sometimes hard for me, but I’m compelled to the subject.), the latter requires exuberant rebellion.
  • Willingness to suck can lead to surprisingly good results.
  • Balancing reading about writing poetry with writing poetry is working for me. I have learned a lot and been able to apply what I’m learning immediately.
  • I like practice better than theory.
  • Playfulness matters.

I’ll continue to play with poetry, keeping an emphasis on play. Exploration is about living in a state of what if? There’s no place I’d rather be.

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This post is part of the Exploration Party – a celebration of our inner explorers, led by Tara Swiger of Explore You. You can find other tales of adventure from artists, crafters, writers and biz smarties – and share your own story – right here.

Creative Class in Session: Syllabus

First day of class. The professor distributes the syllabus. She drones on, word by freaking word. You skim ahead, get to the juicy bits: how is the grade calculated? How much homework? What will we read?

As a professor, writing the syllabus is a challenge. I have ideas. I want to re-invent the class, keeping the activities that worked, developing new activities. As a student, I can’t wait to read a new syllabus. All that promise. All that new stuff to discover.

But when it comes to life outside of academia I’ve worked sans syllabus.

This summer, that’s about to change. One of my colleagues, Joyce Hayden, is a talented artist, writer, and teacher. Last year she shared with me that she writes a syllabus for her creative work over the summer. The idea intrigued me, but I didn’t act on it. By the end of the week, though, I plan to have a syllabus written, printed, and on my desk. A plan for creative work is a good thing, right?

Do you want to join me? Whether you’re planning to hand stitch a quilt, write a novel, or learn French, give a creative-project syllabus a try.

Never wrote a syllabus? You can take a look at the one I wrote for this spring’s creative writing class.

See? No sweat. The components are simple:

Meeting Time and Place: I’ll block out sections of my day for creative work. When is best for you to work?

Required Texts: I’m going to have a couple of creative projects going. One is a writing project that will require me to brush up on my sentence diagramming. The other is a watercolor project, and I will need some references. I like to start my creative work (or play!) sessions with a reading to help me get grounded. What could you read as you enter into creative mode?

Other Requirements: What else do you need to gather for your creative project? I may need some medical references for the writing project. I have plenty of supplies for the painting project.

Courteousness and Safe Haven: Since you’re the only one working on this project, this can be an agreement for self care. For instance, my writing needs to feel protected. All too often, I ask for critique on my writing before it is ready. During this project, I will not do that.

Cell Phones: What is your policy for interacting with others, including the internet, during your creative time?

Attendance: How will you hold yourself accountable for showing up to the page, the needle, the loom? Are there any acceptable reasons for missing a scheduled session? Define them now, before you start.

Resources: Where can you turn for help? Make a list so you can feel secure when you need help.

Endeavors: This year, I started to use the word endeavor in my class rather than project or assignment. I like the connotations of it. So what are the parts that will make up the whole for you? How will you move forward on your creative endeavors? Define that here.

Schedule: I plan to write a schedule like this one I used with students this spring. I’ll list my readings and what I’ll need to do to make progress on my creative endeavors. I’ll schedule an outing or two in there, just to make sure I fill the creative well.

Syllabuses can have other components, of course, and I’d love to hear what you’re including in yours.

Are you in? Creative class in session? Tell me about your creative project in the comments!

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Solstice Reflections

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“Do you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it!” -Daisy in The Great Gatsby 

I read this post from Sas Patherick about using the Solstice as a moment to pause and reflect on the year. Perfect, I thought, and I hope you’ll share a link to your own if you feel moved to pause, too.

Here are Sas’s questions.

One: Did you have a word for this year? How has it manifested itself? If you didn’t have a word, what is the theme that has played out in your life so far this year?
Two: What are you most proud of?
Three: What have you chosen to let go of? 
Four: What has been your greatest joy or surprise?
Five: What book, movie, exhibition, tv programme, play, concert, article, photograph, or website has been your favourite find? 
Six: What three things do you want for yourself by the next Solstice – 21st December 2013?

And my responses…

1. I selected the word Bloom for my One Little Word. Since January 1, 2013, I have had flowers in my house. Looking at these blooms, either on the table, next to my chair, or by the bed, reminds me that I want to open, to unfurl, to show the world (myself, especially) what I have to offer.

2. I’m proud of developing more patience and learning to bite my tongue more often. I’m proud of winning a new contract at work. I’m proud of the weeding I’ve been doing around the yard. I’m proud of risks taken. I’m proud of my imperfections.

3. I’ve chosen to let go of the narrowness of my creative identity. I’m trying to let go of parts of the identity that don’t really fit me any more. I’ve let go of Open Road Writing and merged my blogs…I’m letting go of putting myself in boxes. My work as a writer and as a writing coach and my work with fiber and my work as a teacher…all of these are part of the whole, and it is time to let go of viewing them as separate rather than linked.

4. I’ve had so many joys and surprises that it is hard to pick the greatest. One joy is how my connection to Neal has deepened as we navigate our beloved Tilly’s illness. Sorrow can tear apart relationships, and we have not had much sorrow in ours over the years. It is a joy to know that we’re as good a team in sorrow as in other parts of our lives together.

Another joy to date was celebrating my 30-year friendship with Sara by spending three weeks with her in France. It’s amazing to be with someone who understands every nuance implied by a raised eyebrow or pursed lips. It’s amazing to dream with my best friend, to hear her dreams and to cheer her on has much as she cheers me on all the time. It’s amazing to eat good foods together, to look at art and fashion and architecture together, to create new memories together.

Professionally, it was a joy to teach Creative Writing at my university this semester. I adored my students, and I am impressed by their hard work and the quality of their creative work. They made every Tuesday and Thursday delightful.

5. I’ve read a few books I’ve loved so far this year, but the one I can’t forget is one you should pre-order: Cari Luna‘s The Revolution of Every Day . Right now. You won’t regret it, and I’ll look for your thank you in October, once you’ve read it, too. I’ve also, rather late to the party, become a fan of Neil Gaiman’s work. His imagination appeals to me in so many ways!

6. By the next Solstice, I would like

  • to have written the poems that swim in my prosey head
  • to have developed my watercolor painting skills
  • to have a contract for the non-fiction book I feel compelled to write
  • to have ridden 100 miles in one day on my bike

I hope you find some magic in this long, long day!

The Writer’s Next Step: Ready for Action

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it is the value of a good reader. Someone who will read, not just for pleasure, but with a critical eye. Such a reader can help a writer move her work forward with confidence.

I want to be that reader for you.

Over the last 13 years, I’ve honed my skills as a reader and a writer, and I’m ready to share those skills.

I hope you’ll take a look at The Writer’s Next Step page. If there’s anything I can help you with, please ask. And if you know someone who might benefit from taking the Next Step, please share the page with them. Want to know what it is like to work with me? You’ll find some reviews here.

Here’s to the Next Step!