If-Then: Making Connections, My Best Seller and a New Book

Today my friend Jayne Benjulian sent me an email with a link to Poetry DailyThis online poetry anthology features a daily poem chosen from work published in various journals, furthering a poem's audience while at the same time offering support to literary journals. Today’s featured poem was one of Jayne’s that will appear in Spillway Poetry Magazine's upcoming issue.  How wonderful it is to see Jayne's work honored. Reading her beautiful poem made me think about how we can never predict the connections we may set in motion. 

Then while emailing a new internet literary friend, I found myself pondering about such connections in my own life. In May I wrote a post that four of my poems had appeared in When Women Waken. Now editor Anora McGaha has helped  further our association by kindly including a link to my chapbook on the When Women Waken website. (While you're there, consider buying a copy of my book as well one of their journal issues.)

I think sometimes it helps to stop to appreciate our if-then stories. Of course being the teacher that I am, this made me remember one of my favorite children's books,  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond. If you haven't read it, you should. It is a delightful story about the effects of our small actions. 

All of this made me look back on one of my biggest if-then stories. If I hadn't found  Big Table Publishing while trolling the internet for possible journals in which to place my poetry, I never would have gotten my chapbook In the Poem an Ocean published. For that I have to offer a big thank-you to their Acquisition Editor, Robin Stratton. She is another online friend whom I have never met, having conducted our lively conversations about my book entirely via email.  Now my book is included on Big Table's best seller list

If I hadn't published that chapbook, I would never have had the courage to look for writing events to attend. If I hadn't done that, I never would have found A Room of Her Own Foundation. If that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to attend their wonderful retreat for women writers at Ghost Ranch in 2011. 

If weren't for that, I never would have met an inspiring group of women writers, including Jayne.  At that same retreat, I also met Ruth Thompson. If I hadn't met her, I wouldn't know about her small press, Saddle Road Press, which she runs with her partner and fellow writer, Don Mitchell

Then I wouldn't be able to announce that this summer Ruth agreed to publish my next book. So now, thanks to her, I'm on my next journey of writing and revising a new manuscript of poems. Just figuring out which poems to include is a marathon if-then in itself.  

Happy Anniversary! 365 Days of Writing Practice

One year ago, I sat in the Albuquerque Airport with my good friend and writing buddy, Barbara Ann Yoder waiting for our flights back to the Bay Area.  We had just finished our second A Room of Her Own Foundation's Writing Retreat, still riding high on the glory of the past week.  We had spent our time among 100 writer women:  writing and talking about writing, reading and listening to others read, reveling in the gorgeous high desert scenery of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico.  How could we keep this all alive when we re-entered our daily lives?

I'd been here before; after the 2011 AROHO retreat I had sat with  Tania Pryputniewicz, another AROHO friend, trying to make a writing plan.  Back then I still thought I could get myself to write after teaching all day. So that year my plan included locking myself in my room when I returned from work each day. I thought I now had enough fortitude to do this.  After all, I've struggled to write after work for years, sometimes successful but mostly not. Could I do it this time? What I worried about came true: the mental and emotional drain of teaching still won out. No amount of "you should", "you can do it" and "you want to this" self-pep talks could make a real difference. Yes, I wrote more consistently after that first retreat, but not every day. 

And now a year later I sat facing the same problem. I couldn't - and didn't want - to quit my job. I still felt too overwhelmed to write every day after work. What was left for me to try?  Oh, yes - the dreaded early morning wake up call.  

I have always hated the idea of getting up early to write, having resisted the idea that I would ever, ever, ever willingly get up before the sun rose each day. But on August 18, 2013, I made a desperate decision to do just that:  I would get up a half hour earlier each morning to write before going to work.  I was terrified that I couldn't keep it up, but I promised both Barbara and myself that I would at least give it a try.

The next day, August 19, 2013, the alarm rang at 5:45 a.m., and I jerked myself out of bed to sit in
my chair with my notebook.  Since school didn't start until the next day, this was my practice run.  I survived.  I wrote and it felt good.  Now I just had to keep it up. 

That was one year ago today. I have gotten up early every single day since then and written.  365 days in a row. The first time in my writing career that not even a cold or late night celebration have kept me from writing. I have even set my alarm for 4 a.m. to write before catching an early morning flight.  
To commemorate this momentous anniversary, I did a little accounting. During the last year I have filled eight notebooks and am half way through a ninth one.   I have used countless pens. To assuage my guilt at adding all those used carcasses to landfill, I found a new type made from recycled soda bottles. Out of all those notebook pages, most, of course, are just filled with gobbledygook that will never see the light of day.  I remind myself that's not the point.

Today summer vacation ended, and I returned to my full-time job for the school year. This morning the alarm rang at 5:40 a.m., and I wrote for a half hour before getting in the shower. And tomorrow I'll do it again.

What works for you? I'd love to hear.

Discovering Ourselves: Memories of Making a Blog Mask

How delighted I was when a notice from my friend and AROHO alum Martha Andrews Donovan popped into my email inbox announcing a post for her blog, MarthaAndrews Donovan: One Writer's Excavation.  Reading this post, I felt a real burst of pride.  After all, I had been there when the seeds for that blog were planted.

 At the 2013 A Room ofHer Own Foundation’s summer writing retreat, Martha and I participated in Tania Pryputniewicz’s small group titled “Transformative Blogging”.  The focus of the group was the creation of a mask that could be a physical representation of what our blogging persona would be or become.  Along with making a mask, we wrote about what we wanted from blogging, what our writing focus would be, what the mask might reveal – or not reveal - about ourselves.  

Thanks to Tania I had been blogging since the 2011 AROHO retreat and had already taken another blogging class she taught, so I didn’t really expect any new insights about my writing.  I just wanted to make a mask and have fun.  As the participants paired up, I found myself with Martha.  Although we had met in 2011, we hadn’t really gotten to know each other.  Deciding to make masks together felt a bit risky. 

We started with me.  I lay down on my yoga mat, and Martha began putting the plaster strips on my face.  It was very cool and wet.  We had read in the instructions that the person putting on the plaster should talk to the “plasteree“ during the drying process, so before we started I asked Martha to tell me stories about her mother’s life.  Since my mouth was covered in plaster, I couldn’t interrupt her or jump in with my own stories.  All I could do was make murmuring noises to show I was listening and feeling fine.  It was wonderful listening to Martha’s calm, soothing voice tell stories of her India-born mother and missionary family.  I could picture that world of India and missionaries, of a New England family so unlike my own.  She made me want to meet those women and ask them about their experiences. 

Then when my mask was done, Martha decided I should plaster her foot instead of her face.  It was such an intimate experience making that foot mask.  I’m not sure I had ever touched a relative stranger’s foot before. I loved the feel of the plaster as I smoothed it with my fingers, how delicate my movements had to be to keep from bunching up the strips.  It was almost meditative to dip the strip in water, lay it and then smooth it until no seams showed.  It was almost like caressing her foot.  I felt I was giving her something, helping to uncover a part of her in some way.  Dipping and smoothing, dipping and smoothing. I didn’t want to stop.

As I had lain on the floor with the plaster drying, in my mind’s eye my mask looked exactly like me only better with smoother skin and no wrinkles. I pictured Martha’s hands smoothing the plaster over my face to create this mask.  I imagined how strong it would be once it was dry, strong and able to face the world. I pictured what I would do with my mask, how to make it represent my true self, the one I am so often afraid to unveil to the world.  I would use it not to hide behind, but to affirm.

Afterwards, when I first saw my mask I was disappointed.  It didn’t look like a face at all; rather it was rough and mummy-like.  Martha apologized and asked if I wanted to change it, but I decided keep its original form.  Perhaps its roughness could tell me something.  And as I began to paint it, that coarse texture became something other than a face, it became part of the landscape around me.  The blue New Mexico sky, the clouds that rose over the desert each day, Pedernal Mountain.  I surprised myself with that painting – because I had painted a place,  not a person.  I realized it all made sense because it is places that that so often are important to my writing and to me.  Finding my place, describing places I go, building the world one word at a time as I describe where I have been or where I am right now.

My mask is not a face, but a landscape.  And Martha’s mask isn’t a face either, but a foot.  A foot to embody the journey she is on, trying to find the way along her path.  When it came for her to decorate this mask, she covered her foot with the most amazing assortment of beads, feathers and scraps of paper with inspirational quotes. It is ornate and intricate.  And as I read her blog post about photographs of people unknown to her, or small objects found buried, I realized that her foot mask, rather odd and not quite the usual thing, was like one of those enigmatic objects that so fascinate her.  This mask could represent her impetus to uncover mysteries left by others.  Because by writing about those mysteries, Martha tries to stand in the world of those unknown people for just a while.

And so those masks we made last summer really do reveal our deepest motivations for writing, what our blogs would be, have turned out to be.  In her blog, Martha uses a Telugu proverb she learned from her mother: By digging and digging the truth is discovered.”
 Isn’t that what all writers are trying to do?  Digging down to find the truth about themselves and the world around them?  Even though I didn’t believe it at the time, making those masks was an important step in that digging process for Martha and me.   

Aspiring to Inspire Anthology: Read My Five Poems!

Five of my poems will appear in the Aspiring to Inspire Anthology published by Durham Editing and E-Books.  In all the years I've been submitting my work for publication, this is the first time that editors have taken all the poems I sent!  So this is a very exciting even for me.  

Two of the poems, Sunrise with Mountain and Hike to Box Canyon, New Mexico were inspired by my time at the AROHO writing retreats in 2011 and 2013, so the theme of inspiration from women in my life is particularly appropriate. 

The anthology will be available online, so check back here for a link to the e-book.  There will be an official Facebook Launch Party this Saturday, March 22nd.  
Join in if you can. You know I'll be there!

Post AWP Re-entry Was Not Easy

I played teacher-hooky last Thursday and Friday to fly to Seattle for AWP 2014.   Thus began four wonderful days  surrounded by more writers and books too numerous to count.  

Never seeing more of the Space Needle than a little blip over the rooftops, I was nevertheless one happy writerwoman content to stay within the confines of the conference center.


A real highlight of the entire trip was visiting and dining with the incredible friends I've met through the A Room of Her Own Foundation's summer retreats.

Returning to my middle school classroom this morning hit me hard.  As with most writers, I often feel the conflict between the writing identify I struggle to cultivate and the demands of my teaching job.  Today that struggle felt particularly difficult.   

Faced with an early morning parent conference, piles of ungraded papers and then another meeting after school, I couldn't believe that only a few days ago I attended poetry readings by Robert Haas and Gary Snyder and listened to Ursula Le Guin talk about how even she still faces rejections of her work.  

Today before going off to work, I spent a few minutes digging into my AWP carrier bag filled with books, postcards, flyers, pencils and buttons.  Maybe I can get myself through the week by dipping out a few of these goodies every morning. 
Who knows what inspiration I'll find there?  

How do you reconcile the conflicts between your writing life and the demands of the outside world?  What helps you stay connected to your writerself?

Happy New Year to Me!

I'm very excited to see that A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) posted my #radbrief that I submitted to them last year:

Open the Door

Last week at the magical A Room of Her Own Writers Retreat at Ghost Ranch, I participated in a guided imagery exercise led by Bhanu Kapil.  Much to my surprise, I found that I am highly susceptible to such exercises.  Being a pragmatic realist, I never would have thought I could be able to envision what waits for me in my subconscious.  In this particular exercise, Bhanu asked her audience to close their eyes and imagine a door - a door that would lead each of us to a place we wanted to be.  Not only was I able to visualize that place, but I was also able to use the ideas I gathered while I was there by writing about it later on.

The next day, as I began a hike up to Chimney Rock, I found a gate at the trail head.  I'm sure it is meant to keep animals such as dogs or horses off the trail, but I was struck by how the ritual of opening that gate - another door - prepared me to enter the rocky beauty of that trail.  And of course I was reminded of the work I had done with Bhanu.

I know that what I was looking for behind the  door I pictured is a clearer idea of how to keep writing even in the face of a very  demanding school year.  I want to stay on my writing path, just as I stayed true to the trail up to Chimney Rock.  I opened that door at the AROHO retreat, and so far have been walking my writing path during this first week back at teaching.  And I'm determined to keep going.

We all have closed doors in our lives.  Some are those we have shut ourselves, some we have been afraid or unwilling to open.  They take many different forms, and opening a door means something different for everyone.

What is your door? What would you find on the other side if you opened it?  I'd love to hear from you.  Share in the comments below.

I'm Climbing Back Up the Mesa: A Room of Her Own Foundation Writer Retreat 2013

In August, 2011,  I traveled to Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico for A Room of Her Own Foundation's Writer Retreat.  As I got ready to go, I was nervous, afraid I didn't belong among so many talented women writers.   Today as I begin my packing list for this year's retreat, all I feel is excitement to once again mingle with a wonderful group of writers. And I owe that to AROHO and the women I met two years ago.  
Here is a piece I wrote about that first retreat:
                                                                                                                                                       The Day Moon

I had come to AROHO with only the idea of pushing myself forward – to bring myself back to writing. The first night at Ghost Ranch I slept poorly – a new bed, new night sounds and I was at such a high altitude – 10,000 feet above the sea in the New Mexico high desert.  The desert air was dry, dry, bone bleaching dry.  I had tossed and turned all night dreaming fragments of dreams in and out of consciousness.  I thought of my friend, Kathy who had taught me to love the desert and once again mourned her death.  I thought of the red rock hills and mesas that surrounded me on all sides. I dreamed of what would greet me the next day in Ghost Ranch.

That first morning, tired of my bed, tired of pretending to sleep, I got up early.  I went out on the porch of the Tumbleweed bunkhouse.  I guess it would be called a bunkhouse.  It is a long low building of several rooms with a kind of porch or walkway that ran the length of the building.  This bunkhouse sits up on a small mesa covered in sagebrush and cacti.  To reach my room I had to walk up and up a zigzag switchback path of desert grit uneven with rocks and fallen twigs. It was, for that week at least, the most beautiful place I had ever been.

         When I stepped out of my room, taking care not to let the screen door slam against the frame, the air was still crisp. The sun hadn’t fully risen over the surrounding mesas, and the mountains in the distance were still hung with purple shadows. The sky was completely clear with not one cloud, not even those beautiful white columns that often come to the desert in summer.  The deepest blue hadn’t come either, the sky still pale like a lovely silk shirt.

         And there to my surprise the moon still hung in the sky.  Not full yet but rounding towards fullness, at the point in her cycle that made me certain that I would still be in this magical place when she rounded fecund to shine full upon me. That day-moon softly glowed in the sky that was just beginning to pink at the edges.  I had gotten there just in time before the sun bullied its way in, causing her to fade back. Mist wrapped her soft roundness.

         I stood there graced by that moon, gazing at all the mountains north, south, east and west, mountains that Georgia O’Keefe had painted over and over in this place of her soul, and the sleepless night fell away from my shoulders.

         I can’t honestly say that any lingering doubts or fears were completely gone.  After all I still had to navigate my way to breakfast in the dining hall full of women I had barely met the night before.   No, the fears were still there. The doubts about myself as a writer or my right to be there were all there, small pebbles lying heavy in my center.

         But the moon, bravely hanging in the morning sky when she wasn’t supposed to be there, gently muscling her way in, gave me the courage to set my pack on my back and head down that switch-back mesa path. It gave me the courage to stride out under the cottonwood trees, plunk my cafeteria tray down and to find a place at the table.

AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer Interview with Nikki Loftin

I remember being particularly impressed when I met Nikki at the 2011 AROHO Retreat.  Here was a woman who had made the journey from teacher to writer - and a writer of books for middle readers, no less.  This is a genre with which I am quite familiar. As a middle school teacher myself, I have read many a book written for young readers.  I always admire those writers who are successful at capturing adolescent readers' attention without sparing language or depth of subject matter.  Nikki's book The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy fits that ticket.  I enjoyed hearing some of her work at the retreat and am now in the middle of finding out for myself just what makes Splendid Academy such a sinister place.  Yesterday I told my seventh graders a bit of the story, and they seemed hooked as well. So it was with great pleasure that I got to know Nikki a little better through this interview.  I hope I can find out the real truth about just what rules she broke at Ghost Ranch - maybe at next year's retreat!

How did you make the transition from teacher to writer?

Well, I had a few years between as Director of Family Ministries int he Presbyterian Church.  So, I spent my time equally working with children and thinking about God, grace, redemption, salvation...you know, the small stuff.  I think it flowed naturally into living my writing life.  Those sorts of thought patterns form narratives of their own, and reading great texts, like Thich Nhat Hanh's writings, the Bible, and so many more, nurtures a response life. My response was in my writing.

What made you decide to focus on middle reader literature for your first book?
I didn't choose it - it chose me! I had gone to school in literary fiction, and thought I might try my hand at creative nonfiction, but when the stories came to me, they were all suited for younger readers.  Of course, this works well for me, as I have two very keen middle grade readers at home to try my new material out on!

Nikki Loftin lives with her Scottish photographer husband just outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and small, loud boys. Her debut middle-grade novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, is available now. You can visit her online at www.nikkiloftin.com.   twitter: @nikkiloftin
  To read more of my interview with Nikki, visit AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer

What is “Real” Writing?

For the last year I have indulged in a subtle form of self-flagellation by keeping a calendar of my writing days.  On days when I write, I get a green star on the calendar. On days without writing, the blank white calendar square stares at me reproachfully.  A few days ago, feeling guilty about one more day away from my writing desk with no poems drafted or revised, no blog posts written, one more day when I could not put a star on the calendar, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just spent the last three days working for hours on curriculum for my upcoming classes. 

For that curriculum I created writing prompts for my students to follow, crafted sentence frames to help them generate ideas, researched sources for them to use, wrote my own examples of assignments to model for them and then revised my ideas until I felt they were ready to give to  students.  Let me see, the words I just used were “created,” “crafted,” “researched,” “wrote” and “revised” – all words that are used by people who write.  So why – after all these years – have I never seen the writing I do for my teaching job as real writing?  This led me to the question – just what do I mean by “real” writing? 

As with most people who call themselves writers, I have a day job that earns me the money that allows me to keep body and soul together (and have a comfortable middle class lifestyle – no artist in the garret for me!) so that I can write.  However, unlike many writers – and unlike myself for many, many years before becoming a teacher - my day job is not just something I do because of necessity.  My day job is something that I love and find incredibly rewarding and creative.  In fact, I have never thought I really wanted be a “full-time” writer – to be truly fulfilled, I need to teach as well as write.  So if I think teaching is so creative – truly an art – then why do I ignore the writing I do for that art?  Instead of saying I hadn’t written for the last three days, why didn’t I just name what kind of writing I did – educational writing?

The day of that revelation I had lunch with my friend Barbara Ann Yoder, a fellow writer and writing coach.  Barbara has written a book about writing primarily aimed for women who have trouble slaying their writing demons.  I met her at the AROHO Retreat in New Mexico last August, but luckily for me she also lives in the Bay Area. We’ve started to meet now and then to talk about our writing lives -- and our demons.  That day, sitting outside the Ferry Building on one of those sunny days so rare for summer in San Francisco, I told her about my new conflict. She suggested that perhaps my writing calendar couldn't tell the truth of my writing life.  Just having a small space to show yes or no – so black and white, so unlike my writing life that ebbs and flows, has fits and starts –doesn’t let me tell the whole story.

Barbara gave me a tip that she has shared with some of her clients: keep a writing journal in which I record what I create - or don't create - each day as well as a short reflection about my thoughts and feelings about that day's work.  This idea resonated with me.  I know how important self-reflection is for my own students.  I have them reflect about their writing all the time. Why didn't I think about it for myself?  I had nothing to lose.  Besides, it would give me a chance to buy another journal to add to my large collection.

After several days of online research looking for the perfect tool for this new way of recording my work, I found what I wanted at Journals and Notepads (coincidentally owned by Deonne Kahler, another AROHO friend!): a weekly calendar that would give me a small space to write about each day with a place to list plans for future projects. I wanted to keep my notes brief, otherwise I would be tempted to spend all my time writing about writing instead of actually writing. 

Since the day my journal arrived, I have recorded my progress each day.  I still have conflicting feelings about the days when I don't work on what I'm now calling, for lack of a better term, my artistic writing.  However, being able to record the events or emotions of a day when I haven't been able or willing to sit at my desk has helped me feel better about my work. I also can give myself credit (doesn't that sound like a teacher?) for my educational writing. 

I still keep my calendar as well, and  only give myself a green star for a day with artistic work. After all, even though I know I work with many kinds of writing each day, the words that make me feel like a writer are the ones in a poem or memoir or this blog. 

So, I thank Barbara for giving me some better tools to sustain me and supporting me to get a little clearer about how I think of myself as a writer.  That journal has already helped to keep me from derailing myself when guilt or doubt creeps up.  Unfortunately, I'm the still only person who can get me back to the writing desk - even the best writing coach in the world couldn't do that.

Our Missing Sister Writers

My first - and for many years only visit - to Westminster Abbey was in 1987.  I was a young and starry eyed English major who had studied all the classic writers of English and American literature.  I was also a sometime writer who considered myself more of a scribbler than anything else.  Perhaps I was just afraid to hope for more than that -- after all, none of my teachers or professors had ever encouraged me to take my writing seriously.  So when I walked through Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, I was awed by the graves and memorials of some of the most celebrated writers of England:  Shakespeare of course, but also Byron, Robert Browning, Chaucer and many others. 

I had such fond memories of that first visit that when after 25 years I returned to London a few weeks ago, I was excited to revisit Poet's Corner once more.  I could not have been more surprised by my reaction -- anger and disappointment.  Everywhere I looked, I saw names of male writers.  Where were the women? Of course, there were the paltry few:  Elizabeth Barrett Browning's name stuck like an afterthought at the bottom of the memorial to her husband and an admittedly good-sized memorial to Mary Anne Evans who we all know as George Eliot.  Also, after much searching, I found a tiny plaque with Jane Austen's name almost completely overshadowed by the huge monuments to men that surrounded her.

Why had I not noticed this before?

I was quite the feminist firebrand in my youth, but why hadn't I felt anger over this meager recognition for women writers? Was it my own lack of confidence that made me ignore the disregard for women?  And if that is the case, what had changed to make me notice this so much on my recent visit? To my mind it's a good sign that in my middle years I still have the energy to feel resentment at this inequality. I also think that since I have a better sense of myself as a writer, I no longer question the right of any women to sit at the table of English literature, just as I no longer question my own right to call myself a writer.  Score one point for my development as a person and writer.  Mourn the fact that such a problem still exists in our day and age.

I was not allowed to take photographs among the graves of Westminster Abbey so all I have are my notes about my visit.  How appropriate that I wrote those notes in a notebook with a reproduction of the cover of Virginia Wolfe's famous essay, "A Room of One's Own."  I bought that notebook after having attended the summer writer's retreat sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation -- an incredible organization dedicated to nurturing women writers.  Virginia's essay describes what life would have been like for Shakespeare's sister if she had wanted to write.  Instead of flourishing like her brother, she  would have had to fight for every ounce of artistic expression she could manage.  Wolfe passionately argues for the right of all women to have a "room", a place of their own where they can create the lives they want instead of those dictated to them by a society that sees them as less worthy than men.

Near my desk I also still keep my copy of Wolfe's book from my college days with its rather "groovy" cover.  I've kept it all these years as a talisman against the forces that would make me doubt my abilities or those of any other women.  While we all know things have improved for women in the 21st century, Poet's Corner shows that we still have a long way to go before women are considered equals in the world of literature - and in the world at large.