Welcome the New Year


And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been. -- Rainer Maria Rilke

2017 was a year of highs and lows for me in many ways. On the up side there was the Always a Blue House reading tour. Riding high from publishing my poetry collection with Saddle Road Press, run by the incomparable Ruth Thompson and Don Mitchell, I had a wonderful time with my writer-sisters Tania Pryputniewicz, Michelle Wing, Marcia Meier and Barbara Rockman who arranged readings, planned poetry workshops and opened their homes for poetry salons. Without them, I would never have been able to pull off such a tour. I can never thank these friends enough. 

Then there was the saddest event of the year: my father's death on October 11, 2017. Having spent the last three years mourning the gradual decline of his mental capabilities, my feeling of loss has been a muted grief. I am thankful that Dad didn't linger in dementia limbo. Even at the end, he was able to enjoy visits from family and friends. He still knew we were his people even if he couldn't always remember our names. 

With all the tumult of 2017, when 2018 rolled around a few days ago I felt particularly reflective. However, before I got around to making a list of new goals, I read an interesting article in The New York Times: The Only Way to Keep Your Resolutions by David DeSteno, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University. In it DeSteno claims that "By Jan. 8, some 25 percent of resolutions have fallen by the wayside. And by the time the year ends, fewer than 10 percent have been fully kept." Why do we fail so miserably when trying to keep our resolutions? According to DeSteno it's because of "our tendency to be shortsighted - to value the pleasures of the present more than the satisfactions of the future." And this is all because of the way we look at willpower as the key to success. The very idea of willpower goes against our own evolutionary path as human beings. Focusing on what DeSteno calls self-focused goals was not what mattered most to humans for most of our history. Instead, what led to our success was "strong social bonds."

So just what advice does DeSteno give to help us achieve our goals? Here's where I found the article most interesting. The author claims that we are ignoring the very tool that will help our success. What is that tool?  "It's our emotions - specifically, gratitude, compassion and an authentic sense of pride (not hubris) - that push us to behave in ways that show self-control ." How intriguing.


This idea made me look at one of the biggest resolutions I've ever made: starting a daily writing practice. When I think about what has helped me get up early every morning to write (since August 19, 2013, 1601 days and counting), certainly genuine pride in creating this achievement helps keep me going. That is simple.

But what about gratitude? What part could this emotion play in helping bolster my resolve?  Even though I am not naturally an early riser, the impact of my morning practice has been immense.  I have never felt more like a writer in my life. And without this, Always a Blue House might not have been born. And for that I am grateful.

I know I'm grateful to my writer friends for their support. I know that giving similar support to them them can only enrich my life and help me become a better "literary citizen." (See Ten Kind Suggestions for Being a Literary Citizen post on Women Who Submit blog). I try very hard to be that kind of friend and colleague.  I've just never named it as compassion before.

DeSteno's article gave me a new way of looking at setting resolutions. When contemplating a new goal, I'll try to remember to find not just the reason for that goal but the feeling that drives me. I'm hoping that will help me stick to what I set out to do. 

As for the new year, now I'm struggling to find a reason to be grateful for going on a post-holiday diet. I'd welcome any suggestions for how to feel that!


Such Beautiful Books!

Today the advance copies of my book, Always a Blue House arrived on my doorstep. It is such a beautiful book thanks to the editing and design work of the multi-talented Ruth Thompson and Don Mitchell of Saddle Road Press

My book officially comes out December 10, 2016, just in time for my birthday. You can pre-order it on Amazon here, or wait to order it via my website in December. 

How many different photos of my books can I take? 

Sea Ranch, June 2016: A room with a view and starting a book campaign

For the past few years, I've made an annual trek to the northern California coast to Sea Ranch. This is a rather other-worldly place. Made up of a community of cedar-sided houses perched on the edge of the Pacific, there is little to do here. In June, it's windy and chilly. The nearest town is tiny Gualala, 12 miles up the road.

So what's the draw? For me, it's the chance to be with an amazing group of women I met in 2011 at the AROHO retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Another ranch, another place where there was nothing to do except eat, read, write, talk and experience the beauty of nature.

This year at Sea Ranch my bedroom is in the library of one of the houses we've rented. As I type this, I sit surrounded by books. Out my window, the ocean roars, gulls riding the wind currents. This is a glorious, wild place to begin my summer vacation.

Every year when I come to Sea Ranch, I set myself writing goals, just as I would expect of my own students. This blog post is the beginning of my first goal for 2016: begin a book campaign.

One of the wonderful women in my mighty band of writers here is Ruth Thompson who runs Saddle Road Press out of Hilo, Hawaii. I am honored that Saddle Road will be publishing my first full-length book of poetry in December.

Creating a book of poetry can be a long, painstaking process. I published my chapbook, In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing) in December of 2010. For the last six years, I've been slowly and steadily building a new collection of poems. And now my completed manuscript is in the hands of my trusty publisher.

Well, at least the first draft is in her hands! I know I have many revisions to go through before the book is ready to go out into the world. All writers can expect that. We may not like it, but we expect it. It's what writers do.

What many people don't know is the other work that goes into getting a book into people's hands, especially a book of poetry from a small press. And that's a marketing campaign. Most of my non-writer friends are surprised when I tell them that I will be responsible for marketing my book. But it's true. Being a poet and teacher, I never thought I'd have to add PR representative to my resumé. Now I am.

So in the next six months, I'm off on a new adventure of revision, choosing a cover -- and marketing. I know I'm not alone in this. I'm lucky to have writer friends who have given me great advice already. But I'm always looking for more ideas.

I'd love to hear from others, not just writers, who have have been on the same path. I know artists, photographs or filmmakers face the same challenges. What was it like for you to get your work known? Maybe I'll add your ideas to my to-do list.

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.  

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I was quite excited when my good friend Ruth Thompson asked me to participate in the "My Writing Process" Blog Tour.  I met Ruth three years ago at my first AROHO (A Room of Her Own) summer writing retreat at Ghost Ranch.  Since that time we have become fast friends, close enough to risk bunking together at the 2013 retreat.  

Since the beginning of this blog tour, I have had a wonderful time reading the wide range of writers' answers to these four questions, especially those of Ruth and other AROHO sisters, Esther Cohen, Tania Pryputniewicz and Marlene Samuels.  What a joy to read each person’s responses and learn more about her.  It is an honor to join their ranks. 

What are you working on right now?

As always, I'm just trying to lay words down on paper.  At the moment I'm working on poems for a memoir. I've been interested in writing a memoir for years.  It's always been one of my favorite genres but I had never thought of tackling one until I took a class that focused on writing what I think of as a hybrid memoir - one composed of poems as well as short vignettes and prose poems.  I've done some research on this and found the term "lyrical memoir" so maybe that's what I can call it.  It had never occurred to me that so many of my poems could be thought of as memoir until starting this project, but when I look at them it makes a lot of sense.  I've just started on this idea, so it feels very young and fragile, but I'm excited by the prospect of nursing this baby along.  It gives me an "assignment" - which is something I enjoy.  I guess it's the teacher in me.  Also, putting it down in black and white – coming out  as it were - makes this work seem more real.  Having announced to the world that I'm doing this means I have to keep going!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
What a question!  I like to just write what comes to me and see what happens.  I’ve never spent a lot of time reflecting on my work in that way, I think because it would open up all my insecurities and let out that big, bad self-critic.  But if I must answer this, then I would say most obviously my work differs from others because it is mine, because it is written in my voice, from my perspective of the world.  No one else can view the world with my eyes.

My writing has been called simple, clear and gritty.  What I think this means is that I use simple language to create poems people can understand.  I think the gritty means I'm not afraid to put down on paper even my most unflattering thoughts and feelings.  And I do think this makes my work different.  I don't want to hide behind elaborate metaphor or imagery.  I want people to understand what I write, to be able to connect with it.  I want to say plainly what I have to say using simple words in the most poetic way I can. For years I agonized over how simple my language is, but then someone sent me this poem by William Stafford:   

I wanted the plums, but I waited.
The sun went down. The fire
went out. With no lights on
I waited. From the night again—
those words: how stupid I was.
And I closed my eyes to listen.
The words all sank down, deep
and rich. I felt their truth
and began to live them. They were mine
to enjoy. Who but a friend
could give so sternly what the sky
feels for everyone but few learn to
cherish? In the dark with the truth
I began the sentence of my life
and found it so simple there was no way
back into qualifying my thoughts
with irony or anything like that.
I went to the fridge and opened it—
sure enough the light was on.
I reached in and got the plums.  

It's become my mantra so whenever I feel insecure about my simplicity, I bring this to mind. 

Another aspect that defines my work is a sense of place.  I believe my nomadic early childhood created a need for me to experience deeply whatever place I am, to observe everything around me to keep the memory safe when it came time to leave.  So much of my work is about place, whether it about places of my childhood or my travels.  That's another thing, travel - I am a passionate traveler and always find something to inspire my writing when I am shaken loose from my everyday life to go experience somewhere new. 

Why do I write what I do?
Why do any of us write what we do? Because we have to!  I write the words that come to me, sometimes in the night, sometimes as I am walking under wide trees or sailing for the first time.  Sometimes the words come on a bus in Turkey or Thailand.  They come when I am cooking with my mother or watching my niece cut flowers.  I write what I write because the world is so beautiful and so terrible that I have to put into words what I see and hear, taste and touch.  I write because of the ache of love or sadness, the joy of a bird's nest outside my door or grief over a friend's death.  I write because the words come demanding I put them to paper.

How does my writing process work?
For years I feared I had no writing process!  I felt like I was just stumbling along and every once and a while a poem would spring out of me rather like Athena from  Zeus' forehead!  Of course that wasn't really true, but I had so much trouble finding a way to meld writing and my other working life together that I spent a great deal of time struggling.  Being a teacher means talking and giving and draining myself each and every day.  While this can be rewarding, it isn't very conducive to coming home and gathering thoughts to put on paper.  

So last year I finally gave in and realized if I was ever going to get any serious, sustained writing done, I would have to overcome my resistance to getting up early.  And since last August I've done that (257 days and counting).  Every morning I get up and perform a little ritual to get me started.  Then I sit down in my chair with a thermos of tea and begin.  I use this time to purge the happenings of the previous day, writing longhand in my journal for as long as it takes for something "writerly" to come up.  I make lists of ideas to work on over the weekend when I have more free time to concentrate.  I dog-ear journal pages that seem promising.  Sometimes I start working on those ideas right away; sometimes I let them stew for a while.  At the end of each journal, I go back through and record any of the ideas still unrealized into a small notebook full of idea “seeds” (a term I got from Tania Pryputniewicz).  Sometimes those seeds sit unplanted for months or years.

I am a big fan of writing to prompts and exercises.  Somehow being given a subject to write on shakes my mind free.  I know many people find exercises scary or boring or confining but I love them.  Maybe that's also why I love to travel so much.  Every day on the road is like one big writing exercise offering up ideas for my pen.

And now it's time to pass the baton to three more talented writers.  

The first person on my list is Lisa Lutwyche.  I met Lisa at the AROHO retreat in 201l and then again in 2013.  She is not only a talented writer but also a wonderful artist and teacher.  I have one of her watercolors hanging over my writing desk.  It is of Chimney Rock in Ghost Ranch, and offers me inspiration everyday.  

Lisa received her MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College (in Vermont) in 2013.  She is an Adjunct Professor of English at Cecil College in North East, MD, and is also an instructor in the Fine and Performing Arts department at Cecil.  Poet, playwright, essayist and novelist (at work on two books), her work has been widely published in the US and in the UK.   Her publications include Mad Poets Review, Image and Word, Poppy Fields, Piano Press, Pitkin Review, Falklands War Poetry, Minerva Rising, the cancer poetry project 2, and Fiction Vortex.  She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2000.  Lisa has taught writing workshops at AROHO (A Room of Her Own Foundation, a bi-annual, selective, women's writing retreat at Ghost Ranch in the mountains of New Mexico) in 2011 and in 2013.  She was the recipient of the 2013 AROHO “Shakespeare’s Sister” Fellowship for a one-act play, and has had two short plays produced in Philadelphia.  Lisa’s one-act play, A State of Being, will be produced in Philadelphia in July. 

Lisa has been teaching creative writing (and art) at community arts centers for over twenty years.  She has a BFA in Studio Art, a BA in Art History (from Youngstown State University in Ohio); she attended University of the Arts and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and she spent 28 years in architecture and design.  

A professional artist, Lisa's work has appeared in magazines and galleries for decades; her artwork will appear on the cover of Undoing Winter, a chapbook (Finishing Line Press) by good friend Shannon Connor Winward. Lisa blogs at logophiliaclisa.

Another AROHO sister is Pamela Helberg.  Pam and I met for the first time last summer at Ghost Ranch.  Her incredible humor and positive presence was so invigorating.  I wish I could write with as much verve as she does. 
She received her MA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University where she studied under award-winning novelist Laura Kalpakian. She founded and operated Fremont Place Books in Seattle and taught English composition for many years at Whatcom Community College. Mostly recently she worked in IT before quitting to go back to school for her master's degree in Mental Health Counseling. Her essay “Body Language” appears in Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, Seal Press, 2013.  The mother of two grown daughters, Pam is currently working on her memoir about lesbian parenting in the 1990s and lives with her wife, Nancy, in Bellingham, Washington. She blogs regularly at pamelahelberg.com, most recently as part of the A to Z Challenge. 
And last but not least on my list is someone who I have never met in person!   Juliana Lightle is an "cyber-friend" who I met while taking a online blogging course taught by Tania Pryputniewicz through Story Circle Network.  Even though we haven’t met face to face, I have enjoyed reading Juliana’s wonderful blog.  I hope someday to have the opportunity to actually sit down to one of the wonderful meals she is always describing!
Raised on a family farm in Northwestern Missouri, Juliana became a singer, college administrator, corporate manager, racehorse breeder and trainer, management consultant, educator and author.  Her first poem was published in a statewide anthology when she was in high school.  She holds a Ph.D. in counseling from The Ohio State University and an M.A. in high education administration and B.A in English from the University of Rhode Island.  She currently writes, teaches, sings, and raises horses in the Panhandle of Texas.
She is a member of the board of the Story Circle Network, a group dedicated to women telling their stories.  Juliana blogs at writingontherim.

100 Days

On August 24th, I wrote about my experiences at the AROHO Writer's Retreat in my post "Open the Door."  In part I wrote:  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.

Well, here I am on Day 100 of my new writing practice.  In the last 100 days I have gotten up a half hour early to write. When I realized this, I was reminded of how elementary teachers celebrate the 100th day of school with their students by computing all sorts of statistics about school, so here is my list:

  • I have gotten up for every morning for 100 days.
  • I have written for 50 hours in those mornings (and sometimes more on the weekends).
  • I have drunk 100 cups of tea from my thermos.
  • I have filled 3 1/2 notebooks (and just started a new one).
  • I have written 10 poems.
  • I have written 1 essay.
  • I have written 2 short memoir pieces.
  • I have read 4 books of poetry by fellow AROHO writers Diane Gilliam, Ruth Thompson, Barbara Rockman and Leslie Ullman.
  • I have written an estimated 200 words per page (since I am one of those neat freaks who fill the entire surface of every page with writing, I was able to extrapolate this amount by counting the words on a random number of pages).
When I first went to the AROHO retreat in 2011, I bought a stone with an eclipse symbol carved into it:  a moon and sun joined together.  I read that this is a symbol of merging opposites, representing unity and compromise instead of conflict.  I envisioned that stone as a symbol of how I want to join my two sides:  writer and teacher. 

I talked to my new AROHO friend, Tania Pryputniewicz about my dilemma in the Albuquerque Airport.  I made a pact with her that I would write every afternoon after returning from school.  Did I keep it up? Nope.  I found my mind too filled with all the noise of the day to keep myself writing.

Then this year, at the Albuquerque Airport once again, I made another pact with Barbara Yoder. This time I vowed that I would get up early every day.  I had been resisting this idea for years, but had finally faced the fact that early morning was the only time I could reliably call all my own.  Did I think I would be able to do it?  I admit I was skeptical. I still doubted myself.  But here I am 100 days later...

Now that I've finally given myself the gift of time, I feel I've  joined those two sides of myself.  Although there are many times of conflict when the stresses of teaching keep my from writing as much as I wish, I now know I can always find that morning time to sit quietly with the my notebook. 

So on this day before Thanksgiving, I can only say thank you to all the wonderful women writers of AROHO who have helped me find my way.
A Red Woman Was CryingA Red Woman Was Crying by Don   Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book totally surprised me!  At first I was unsure if I would enjoy it, but I kept reading. There was something that unsettled me about the voices of the characters I met. And then I realized that what was unsettling me was also bringing me into the world of the novel, a world so different from my own.

My favorite story of the whole collection was "My White Man," partly because it was told by the only woman narrator in the book, partly because that story revealed so much about Eliot, the White Man who was so changed by his time with the Nagovisi. 

This was a good read.

View all my reviews