KaBooM WritersKaBooM Writers

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!

Welcome to the online presence of KaBooM, a writing group that has sustained the creative lives of a diverse group of women for over a decade. We hope that getting to know us will inspire you, too!

The KaBooM Writers Notebook: Our Blog

Solitaire, Trolleys, and an Artist’s Way



I am not quick.

The air is cool.

A free-write begins.  A list of words shared: quick cool trolley solitaire Paradise . . ..  Four women at a table at Third Street Stuff, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Concrete trucks outside the plate glass window.  A utility ditch being filled.  The street loud with its repair.

No more trolleys

move us past the city’s

edge into seas of grass.

And who whitewashes

anything now, as we did

the chicken house that summer?

Paradise long afternoons

of solitaire—three of us

on Grandma’s bed,

cards tilting off columns.  Each of us quiet. Only the slip and slap of 8 on 9 or Jack on Queen, and later the cool side porch, its concrete smooth and gray, our paints and brushes laid out, Paint-by-Number making us feel like real artists.

What makes me feel like a real artist now, decades later? The time to lose myself in a page, slow sketching or seeing all at once the way sentences fit into a shapely whole, the possible poem inside a scribble. More than what I’ve published or where I’ve taught, what assures me all is well with my artist self is making something.  The never certain motion of pen across the page, picking up speed as I go.

If we weren’t so hard on ourselves, wouldn’t it be easier? Unforced as those hours with the shades drawn, the whir of a fan, turning the cards over and over until something fits.  Okay with losing the game – expecting to lose more often than win in the rhythm of our pattern-making, the order art makes, the way a shadow (the darker brown in our paint-by-number horse’s face) lets us see its rounded eye, the angle of the emerging equine cheek.

These summer days gone – 1956, -57, -59, -60 – stay in me somewhere, breathe with the slow exhale of times when the world was in place and I fit there, 7 always landing under an 8.  Nothing perfect or even okay much of the time. Everyone, even then, torn by grief. The air in those quiet rooms sometimes caught, sharp as a sob. Uncle Russell, steady, sweet, gone at 42 in 1958. A wound that sank through us that year, day by day, though it sealed over like the surface of Aunt Ella’s lake, like the early 1960’s years took her and her one-year-old grandson, too, both too soon. A breeze riffling the water, a cloud shadow on the yard.

A great big paint-by-number, this living – all light and shadow, splotches of white, greens, slivers of blue.  The image, different from the edge of each decade, emerges, even as I sit in this coffee shop writing with women I could not have imagined then. Together we remind each other not to be so hard on ourselves, to write as if we were playing solitaire, for the hush and slip of words, the pattern that sometimes shows through.  Because in many ways Paradise is always Now—if we let go and sink into making, into being.



With the taste of cherries

Today, on the anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, I’m offering appreciations for the work of Athena Kildegaard, whose new book Ventriloquy is just out. Last week Writer’s Almanac featured her poem “Ripe Cherries” (from her earlier collection Bodies of Light) that I found myself recalling.

Portrait by Laura Peterson. See https://athenakildegaard.com/about/

Portrait of poet Athena Kildegaard by Laura Peterson. See https://athenakildegaard.com/about/


In that poem, Kildegaard writes

I read that the men,
on their way to Gettysburg,
stopped along the road
to pick and eat ripe cherries.

That the fruit should not
go to waste.

She closes that poem with these lines:

That they should aim rifles
with the taste of cherries
against their teeth.

On this day, remembering the eagerness with which so many began battle, I hold up this poet’s remembrance. Another poem in that collection, titled “The Deaths We Are Called To,” enlarges the resonances of all those lives lost. You can see her reading that second poem and talking about the place the poem came from in this video (go to 8:30 in the clip). She mentions, specifically, looking at a book of photos from the war, by Matthew Brady, with her son and his friends. The boys are in seventh grade, and as they turn the page, they see a photo of dead soldiers. I don’t know if this is the photo she’s referring to, but the starkness of this one suggests it must be very similar.

Here’s to all the times we recall the taste of cherries against our teeth, and that sweetness causes us not to pull the trigger.

photo of the Civil War dead by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822 - 1896)

photo of the Civil War dead by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822 – 1896)

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The Best Kind of Slippery Slope


Last summer I plowed through an arts and crafts fair looking for inspiration for my annual Christmas ornament. For the past several years I’ve been using up old paper goods (posters and a faulty book signature printed on paper with a high linen content) by making gift tags and ornaments in bulk.

A velvet Christmas tree with button trim caught my eye, and I purchased it. The ornament sat on my desk into autumn as I deconstructed it and plotted its re-creation in paper.

The original had once been part of a crazy quilt, I decided. I admired the colorful stitches. Could I embroider paper? Could I push paper through my forty-year-old sewing machine without clogging the feed dogs with pulp? I traced the velvet tree and made a pattern, dug out my jar of buttons, purchased embroidery floss, and ran a couple of crafting trials.

Not much about the original plan was successful. Perhaps others have had better luck embroidering paper. Not I—I crumpled paper with needle and thread. I never got around to trying to stitch the layers on my sewing machine.

So Revision #1 began. I could not simply copy the velvet Christmas tree. I was disappointed. I had liked the idea of decorative stitching as a way to distinguish my 2015 ornament, a way to make it less black and white. Then I remembered that while it may be hard to embroider paper, Mohawk superfine loves stamp ink, so I stamped away.

From that point it was the best kind of slippery slope to the final product: a flat ornament became three-dimensional thanks to a friend with a good eye. His casual comment that the tree might be made to look more like a little book led to additional layers and to stitching things together with a bookbinding technique—and to my remembering that paper can easily be sewn when you pre-punch holes with an awl.

The “published” form of the ornament looked little like its prototype with the exception of its general shape and jaunty button hanger. But I was pleased with the outcome and felt I’d produced something that looked like me.

As I prepared for a December 21 writing class at a local retirement community, I realized I had a teachable moment. Not only would we write about trees, but also I could talk about finding my way as an ornament maker. On the one hand was a piece of art I liked but couldn’t replicate. On the other was an ornament I made by trusting my own experiences, materials, and skills. I had to enter into the creative process not so much with a fixed end in mind, but with faith that through fretting and failing, by seeking feedback and trying again, I could make a product that was all mine.

As I gifted the last seven trees to members of the class, heads nodded around the table. Several members told me they far preferred my paper tree to the velvet one. Of course they did. We all know that with effort and trust in what we know, by relying on vocabulary we’re comfortable with, we can find our way as artists.


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The Season Turns, and History is in the Air

“We sure need some rain” is the refrain heard as leaves crunch underfoot. The morning sunlight takes longer to show itself, and the evening dark creeps more quickly than we expect. The season is turning. So many of these words could apply to lives lived generations before our own. While the feet of those earlier people would not have trod the asphalt and concrete my feet know, their sense of seasons, their concern for the weather — so much of this entirely human experience would be theirs as well.

Unidentified Union Soldier and FamilyFrom the Library of Congress, “Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters”

Yet my life is so different from those so long ago, a fact I am reminded of this as this week on PBS stations, Ken Burns’s Civil War series is rebroadcast. For lessons in history more up close and personal in Central Kentucky, Camp Nelson holds its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the war this coming weekend.

As I watched the images of the first episode of that series scroll past last night, I was struck by the use to which Burns put the photos. Unidentified Union Soldier and FamilyBy focusing on the hands of the photographic subjects, for example, so that as viewers we are reminded that these people reached for each other for comfort and reassurance even in the photo studio, Burns manages to cause us to see what we might otherwise miss. In this family photo, I imagine the daughter to the father’s right slipped her hand between his, even as she watches the camera with her chin slightly lifted, her gaze electric.

Writing about history when we are not historians can be challenging, but allowing historical artifacts and words to move us, and then prompt us to respond, strikes me as an essential activity. Last night as my family watched the television, my son, a senior in high school, recited whole passages as the actors read from letters and journals. “How do you know that?” I asked, startled. “The Titus Andronicus album Monitor is all about the Civil War,” he shrugged. “I guess they used a lot of these quotes for their lyrics.” What a resource he has, to know, by heart, many of these lines.

History lives as long as we recall it to ourselves. Participating in the lives of those who came before us by reminding ourselves of their struggles, hopes, and dreams, enlarges our world. As I recall the spring that lead to this autumn, I find myself recalling the cycles of lives that breathed air so similar to my own. It’s a humbling sensation, but also one that grants me essential perspective.


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The Worth of the Writing Life

Glendalough, Ireland 1

The frame for the Canterbury Tales, one of the early works of literature in the English language, was a pilgrimage.  As the characters make their way along the road, having set aside their everyday lives for a time, the travelers share the stories that make up the collection of tales. It was a natural and effective way to structure that important work, and the connection it suggests between pilgrimage and literature seems particularly apt.

Learning to shape a love of the written word into an artistic offering is a journey in itself. When we commit to being writers, we set off on a pilgrimage. We set aside the urgent and relentless concerns of everyday life, for at least some part of the day or week, and focus on something that calls to our higher selves. We learn to see the world differently, becoming more careful observers in the context of the work we do. We form relationships with like-minded souls, fellow travelers on the same road, whom we might be unlikely to meet in any other way.

We have a destination in mind—publishing the book that elevates us from writers to authors, hopefully with the backing of a respected press and to the acclaim of critics and readers. A truly crazy dream is for sales figures that make for financial success as well. But what if that doesn’t happen?

Whether the path is through self-publishing or finding a publisher, the market is a wild and woolly place. The currency has more to do with gaining attention than writing well. Some wonderful writers have excellent careers, and that is something to celebrate. Yet it’s entirely possible to be a publishing success without committing to excellent work. I would like to believe that all good work will find its audience, but I’m not convinced.

With the outcome so uncertain, what would be the point of the writing life? For me, the reward has been the journey with my writing friends. The camaraderie in the shared devotion to our art has elevated my life and made life as a writer meaningful.

I don’t know who I would be if I had not claimed the desire to become a writer, learned to write well, and connected with others whose souls are fed through writing. How my work is received is out of my hands. When I can let go of the outcome and appreciate how devotion to the work makes me more fully alive, I find it easier to hold the destination loosely. I appreciate the satisfaction that comes from doing the work. And I remember that being part of a community that truly values the written word is itself a privilege.



Invite Yourself into Your Life



Most days I rise early to spend a little time alone.  What I want from these morning hours is a sense of welcome to the day.  That feeling we get when we approach the door of a home as an honored guest, certain of comfort and cheer within.  The gift of hospitality.

What hospitality do I offer myself day-to-day? And how can I create it?  It seems a basic courtesy I might do myself to simply welcome the me of me into each instant, each hour.  Instead I find myself too often anxious, screened off from vitality in a world where there are screens everywhere — digital tv, smartphones, iPads, Kindles — broadcasting everything from details of the latest atrocities to mundane street corner murders, to pleas for money for every kind of cause to “sharing” of cute photos of grandkids or of cats Photoshopped to impossible expressions and attitudes.  I long for the squeal and slap of a wooden screen door interrupting the whirr of cicadas.  I want an unrefrigerated air at night through windows screened in rusty mesh.  Screens whose only information is the metallic tinge of iron, the sough of wind, the calls of sleepy birds and waking insects— sensual knowledge without guile or goal.

Barring these fantasies of lost time, alive now only in memory, I want to find myself at home in this now — in whatever place and moment I find myself — not pulled into puzzling out how history has led us to the Greek financial crisis.  Or worrying about how the fear and frustration of people caught in poverty or seduced by their private screens morph into racial and ethnic hatreds.  Beamed from the ubiquitous sources, each action and moment and decision of our mutual lives condemns me.  I am part of an inextricable tangle of cause and effect too large to comprehend except piecemeal.  I know too much and not enough.  Burning coal and traveling automobiles, even cattle breaking wind (and a  myriad of other variables I cannot keep hold of) determine there will be torrential rains one region, drought in another.  I am an accomplice to outcomes I cannot fully foresee or prevent — an insoluble part of universal conundrums.

I can find respite, though, if I am lucky or mindful enough, in the white expanse of silence that is the blank page.  No matter how long it has been since I wrote last, the page waits for my pen to trace a way through the briar patch of the day’s thoughts and facts and in the process draw a clearer outline of what has troubled me.  In the act of writing I turn the huge helplessness that oppresses me into squiggles of ink that flow into letters, words, sentences, paragraphs to contain and clarify it.  This respite waits not just for those who call themselves writers, but for anyone willing to sit down and shape their thoughts on a page.


Finding words for what looms around us, it is possible to disperse its shadow, to be calmed by the rhythm of breath as it rises, steady and welcoming.  Here is the hospitality we crave.  The practice of reflective writing invites each of us to be the honored guest in her life.  Words, as they unfold across the page, have the power to name what feels wrong around us and — most importantly — to remind us of all we cherish.  This kind of writing rights the world, welcoming us home.


Public Art in Holden

On a recent trip to the beach, I hadn’t expected to run across a local artist’s painting decorating a utility box. The combination of playfully-rendered produce and a strong beach palette made this little piece of public art a pleasant surprise.

I’ve been thinking about surprise this summer as I tread the much-loved path of the unsurprising: Sunday morning trips to Farmers’ Market, homemade applesauce cooling in the fridge, a vase of balloon flower, gooseneck and bee balm on the kitchen table, the memory of firework chrysanthemums splayed across the night sky.

The word “surprise” was mentioned often during the Carnegie Center’s 2015 Books-in-Progress conference by presenters as well as a panel of agents and publishers. This was not surprise of the “I never saw that coming” variety. That kind of unexpected turn of events can rupture the contract between writer and reader.

This was about surprise on a micro-level. This is about the writer who takes the time to search for new images, new objects, fresh dialog, original names for characters, new occupations and activities for those characters, new situations.

For example, presenter A.J. Verdelle, a master of revision, frequently mentioned the need to search for vigorous verbs. Think about the work done by a verb like “wobbles” or “muddles.” These choices conjure action without the need for embellishing adverbs. They surprise us with their unanticipated precision. As Verdelle says, “If you can’t get jazzed up by verbs, you probably aren’t going to make it in this business.”

Another opportunity for surprise can occur when the writer creates a simile from the fictional materials on the page instead of resorting to a cliché pulled from a catalog of similes, tried and true.

According to Verdelle, list-making is also an exercise that can lead a writer toward creating surprise. List-making delays the brain from selecting an easy or obvious choice and trains it to the habit of generating options. I’ve previously written about the value of list-making as a revision strategy. Verdelle suggests picking an object, then listing all the things you could do with it until you come up with something surprising.

She reminded conference-goers of the monstrous surprise of the stewing bunny in the movie Fatal Attraction. She speculates that the scene might have been inspired when the script writers said, “Okay, we gave the kid a pet bunny. What else could we do with that detail? Let’s make a list.”

Creativity is often described as divergent thinking, the ability to generate options. Surprise helps the writer produce something fresh for the reader, leading us to praise a written work as being creative.

How do you ensure that you surprise the reader?

Photo Credit: “These Peppers Are Still Hot Stuff” by Mary Paulsen. Photo by Jan Isenhour

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Cinderella: Who is your fairy godmother?

imagesWhen Gail asked, what would your fairy godmother give you? I had many quick answers: a giant home library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, preferably in a sprawling old Victorian home with wood floors, plaster walls, and a fireplace. A giant writing desk made of good old wood. Windows that opened onto mature trees and flower gardens, while tea olives sent sweet fragrance in to me as I wrote. Of course, tea olives aside, what I was imagining was something less spectacular than Edith Wharton’s mansion, The Mount, but something grander than Virginia Woolf’s Monk’s House. That would be the idealized setting I’d ask the fairy godmother to confer on me.

That place has little to do with the gift that would mean more to my writing career: a situation where I could write first and foremost, and then do other paid work and family tasks, if at all, after I’d expended my best energy on shaping a new, yes, a brand-new essay or story that had never been written before. That gift, fairy godmother, would be the best.

In the Cinderella story, the fairy godmother appears without a request from the working woman. Poor Cinderella has been toiling, unappreciated, beset by demanding family members to perform unrewarding and relentless repetitive labors. Her lot is miserable, yet she sings and is cheerful. Perhaps Cinderella is a writer. If so, then I see her story in a slightly different light.

The fairy godmother is the agent who plucks the good work the under-appreciated Cinderella has been producing and places it in the public eye where its beauty and worth is appreciated. The prince is the publisher that swoops in to rescue/publish the Cinderwriter; they “marry” and live happily ever after.

So maybe the fairy godmother I want is an agent who can make this magic happen, the agent who recognizes the work and acts to make sure the writer lives happily ever in a publishing house, the agent who is interested in the writer’s entire career, rather than in a single big dance.

While my fantasy of the Victorian house and library is true, it’s the practical agency that I’d really ask for from a fairy godmother. Aren’t we all hoping for that magic wand?

Jane Gentry Vance, The Fairy Godmother, The Buddha, and Effie Waller Smith

Buddha peace


by Leatha Kendrick

I remember the day that Jane Vance said to me that thinking about working (writing) was not the only thing in her life.  I, who was always fretting that I should be “getting some work done” rather than enjoying the afternoon with a friend.  She said something to the effect that life was for what we were doing — being together, enjoying a day on Morgan Street on her front porch and walking downtown for lunch and a visit to the consignment store on Main Street.  It was about the trees and flowers along the way, the conversation, the sandwiches and saying hello to the neighbors and friends who drifted through the small restaurant where we ate, her excitement at finding a good buy at the consignment shop — this was life.  Life was for living.

Jane had found a peace with the balance of her life, while I was still driven toward “getting somewhere” in my writing: to write more and write better, to publish more, to finally feel that I’d done enough in writing as (and I see now what she must have seen) I had in all aspects of my life.  Too often the “driven” quality reigns in my psyche and, I suppose, my spirit.  “Hungry ghosts,” my therapist used to call is, citing the Buddhist idea of samsara and what keeps us stuck in the materiality of this life.

“What we want” doesn’t always take us where we imagine it will.  I am thinking about Effie again, with whom I feel so often in accord.  Effie Waller Smith, the Appalachian, African-American woman poet I’ve been researching and writing about, who wanted to be a respected writer known for her poems, but also wanted a husband and family, and at one point was convinced she wanted a communal religious life in Wisconsin with the Metropolitan Holiness Church Association (known in their Waukesha, Wisconsin, community as “the Jumpers”).  Effie married twice and twice she divorced the man she’d married.  She and her mother sold all their possessions and land and gave the proceeds to the Jumpers, only to become disillusioned with the sect and want out.  Effie had to sue to get at least part of their money back.  Like Effie, things I have pursued have not always turned out to be what I expected.

I imagine, though, that Effie would look back on her life (as I am doing lately) and decide that on the whole what she wanted had been trustworthy.  That when she (and I) commit ourselves to something — a faith, a family (she adopted a daughter and had the joy of raising her to adulthood), an orderly and nurturing home, and/or an art (writing, but also the arts of teaching, of gardening, of friendship) —it brought us deep satisfaction.  Through uncertainties and blind alleys, life finally comes down to “falling down nine times and getting up ten.”  Each day, the decision is as simple as taking the next step, which is to step into your own life more deeply.

No, I don’t trust magic.  I resist the idea of a fairy godmother.  I am probably a natural Buddhist — and as far as I can tell, Buddhism is a very practical spirituality.  Nothing is going to rescue me from myself, except the gradual awakening that comes from falling down nine times and getting up ten.  My ideal writing life would not look a whole lot different (from the outside) than the life I have been leading.  What I would change is invisible mostly — I would be freed from the despair and angst of never feeling as if I am doing enough.  I would find the peace and inner balance I felt in Jane.

This would mean knowing that I am enough.  This would mean enforcing reasonable boundaries while also fulfilling a commitment to myself.  So, yes, I would make time for my writing.  Calmly and gently, daily, weekly.  I would allow writing to become my practice — spiritual and mediative.  I would trust small changes and incremental tasks, set in motion by reflection and by making the decisions I have to make to ensure that I will have the space, the time — and maybe most importantly, the friendships — that will nourish my work.

The Fairy Godmother Asks, “If I Could Give You Any Life You Wanted, What Would It Look Like?”

Her Smalls

Last Tuesday, I left our KaBooM meeting at noon, drove home, heated leftovers, and worked the daily crossword. An hour later I was walking.

Yes. I just opened the front door, walked through it, and spent the next forty minutes looping my neighborhood. The air was brisk but cloudless so the walk refreshed, filling my lungs and bloodstream with as much oxygen as a girl can handle.

I left my earbuds and podcasts behind. Instead, I let my thoughts play over KaBooM’s conversation, which had culminated with the Fairy Godmother Question. I think of such conversations as calibrations, thirty-thousand-mile tune-ups, wellness exams (or appointments made for minor illness). We need them periodically to right our ships.

What struck me first was the ease with which I started my walk. I just opened the door, walked through, and pulled the door shut behind me. Perhaps I should have stretched or filled a water bottle, but I didn’t. I was pulled by the beauty of the day, the limits on my time, and by my mental and physical need to stretch and move. I wore walking shoes and socks but considered no other special equipment.

Walking is an established habit, borne out of medical and psychological necessity. Walking ensured a quick recovery from surgery. Walking enabled me to maintain my sanity while recovering from medical treatment. Walking helped me keep off the ten pounds I lost during that process. I’ve been rewarded by a twelve-point drop in my glucose number, a drop that took me out of “scolding” range. I’ve been rewarded by drops in cholesterol that make medication unnecessary.

There’s much at stake with my walks, yet I can just open the door and without fanfare begin a walk? So why is writing, an equally life-giving, sanity-maintaining necessity, so much harder for me to initiate? Why do I surround myself with rituals before writing that sometimes prevent me from ever getting to the activity itself? The cup of coffee, hot, with just the right amount of my brand of creamer. E-mail checked and critical messages answered. Worries over interruptions, real and imagined. The dishwasher that has competed for my attention for forty years. Forty years, and I haven’t figured out how to outsmart that bitch? Shame on me.

Of course I know the answers to these questions. It’s time for recalibration, a wellness exam to cure a minor illness.

I must re-establish writing as a habit. For many years I spent summers with a writing project, beginning every morning with thirty minutes of quiet writing time. That early motion of the pen almost always resulted in my returning to that work throughout the day, whenever snatches of time could be found: between classes, at lunch, before bed. Momentum begun is difficult to arrest.

So, Fairy Godmother, thank you, but I do not want a different life. I want more of the same. It’s up to me to tweak time; to shave a bit here and attach it there. I will consider whether there are activities that sap more energy than I can afford to give, but this strikes me as an unusual activity for a retired person who ought to be wise enough to have given up those things which are truly draining and give nothing back.

I can manage thirty minutes of quiet writing time. I will walk though the door into the fresh air of my own brain without fussing about “getting ready to write.” I’d like to re-establish this habit and see if I can regenerate momentum.

How would you answer the Fairy Godmother’s Question?

Photo credit: “Her Smalls” by Jan Isenhour

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