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

The Heebie Jeebies

My three quilts framed and hanging in the hospital hallway.

The following is an email conversation that I had in January with my friends from KaBoom. I was working on three quilts to be hung in a new hospital and about halfway through the project, I was plagued by a severe case of self doubt. The responses I received from Normandi Ellis, Susan Brown, Leatha Kendrick, and Jan Isenhour were thoughtful, encouraging, and warm and allowed me to relax and successfully complete my work.

 

MA: Help! I’ve got a bad case of the heebie jeebies. That’s what I call the feeling that comes when I’m halfway through a project and suddenly paralysis sets in. I’ve been trying to work all week and it’s not going well. Self-doubt is plaguing me and interfering with my sleep. I’m beginning to wonder if I will be able to complete this quilting project by the deadline. Have I bitten off more than I can chew? Or am I setting myself up to fail with this extreme anxiety?

I’m panicked that I won’t have enough material of the right colors to give cohesion to the project. I’ve spent hours at quilt shops and on line looking at material and yet everything I’ve bought has turned out to be wrong somehow. I’ve put on pieces (I work on a design wall first before sewing pieces together)only to take them down. I put up another color only to take that down too. I had hoped to work out most of my problems with fabric choice on this first quilt and that the other two will be faster. My goal was to finish this first one by the end of December and yet here it hangs, about half done.

Today is my daughter’s birthday and I don’t think my labor to bring her into life was as painful as the process I’m going through now. At least during that labor, I knew that it was going to end one way or another before the day was through. I had wonderful nurses, an adequate doctor, and a terrified husband to deal with, but I knew that at the end of it all, I wouldn’t be pregnant anymore. What can I say, I was only 19! Not being pregnant seemed the height of desirability. Looking back, I can see that giving birth was the beginning of a long journey that is not ended yet.

Maybe if I can tell myself that creating these works of art is only a beginning then it won’t seem so terrifying. This is not a live or die situation. Yes, there is the possibility of failure, but it’s only one possibility of several. Maybe the hospital people will love the quilts. Maybe the company that commissioned them will commission others. Maybe they won’t be in love with my work, but will deem it acceptable and still hang them. Maybe they’ll hate them, but I have a contract and it doesn’t say anything about whether or not they LIKE the work. 🙂 And I’ve already deposited my check for half the commission!

Thank you dear friends for your patience with my whining. I find, as always, that writing down my deepest fears takes some of the bite out of them. I can only hope that the heebie jeebies will come to an end and my time will be more productive. I will try to be grateful for this opportunity and not paralyzed by it.

NE: All is well and you will get through the other side. The hardest part is the doubt, but as you say, you just have to keep going. I think some of the best things I ever did in terms of stories or books were those that I was ready to ditch at one point because they just weren’t want I thought they were supposed to be. You know, of course, that the art itself will teach you what it needs and wants. I have seen you work and I have every confidence that you are listening closely to it! In fact, I can even see you bent over the work with your ear to the fabric practically. We’re all there with you, cheering you on. It’ll be wonderful when it’s finished, and you will have learned something of your own process through it.

SCB: Oh, Mary. Normandi is right, of course. This work will teach you what it needs and what it will take to finish it, and you have all the skills and intuition you need to see it through. You’ve done so much beautiful work, and you’re up to finishing this project.

Maybe you could set aside thoughts of the audience and the people who will see it for a while, and just be with the quilt. Eventually the audience will have a role, but they don’t belong in your studio with you while you’re doing your work. Too many crowds, too much noise. You’re the one who knows what needs to be done, and what your audience needs is for you to do what only you can do.

Interesting question, whether the Magi had their doubts about that journey. They probably did– how could you not? But they had enough faith to keep going. And your friends who know you and know your work have enough faith for you, even if your own has its moments of wavering.

All will be well.

LK: Mary, I am so glad that you wrote out your doubts and allowed us to hear them. Doubt and fear have paralyzed me and continue to — especially lately — but I have not thought to reach out. What I know is that these emotions (as Susan wisely points out) have to do with letting others’ judgment hover over the work itself. When I simply am with the work, it takes the lead — the problem here for you is the deadline also hovering. And your self-imposed schedule. Let go of what you thought would happen and be with what is unfolding. Trust that once the first quilt falls into place, the others will come more quickly. Most deadlines are more flexible than we imagine — even our own.

Of course, we are all talking to ourselves, you know. And you have given us a chance to remind ourselves of what matters — which is the process, as frustrating and terrifying as it is sometimes.

JI: It sounds as if each of us sees herself in the situation you describe, Mary. I had always thought of myself as being a procrastinator–and then of course someone pointed out to me that procrastination is classic behavior for a perfectionist, who allows so many things to interfere with the work she wants to accomplish. A useful piece of advice for me was Anne Lamott’s exhortation to work “bird by bird”: forgetting about the finished, beautiful, and well-received end product and instead making my slow way through tiny steps that lead eventually to the end, allowing myself to feel graced by surprises along the way rather than threatened. Good advice. Wish I could learn to accept it more often.

MA: Thank you all for your wonderful encouragement! I’ve read your responses over and over and feel myself taking heart already. Each of you had a fresh take on my problem and each new view has helped me look at my work in a new light. I will keep plugging along and hope that I will have a better report when we meet again. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I am once again reminded of how important you all are to me.

 

I did finish the quilts in time, but I know that the words from my friends played a key role. How many times do we sabotage our own efforts with doubt and negativity? By acknowledging my difficulties and reaching out to my committed group of like minded artists, I brought the heebie jeebies out of the dark and in the light of clear thinking, I vanquished them and completed my project. The words, “All will be well!” became my slogan and self fulfilling prophecy.

Do you have people in your life as an artist that you can reach for when the heebie jeebies attack?

The Joy of the Telling

 

A blue plastic jewel on a flimsy chain — the ring attached nearly too thin to hold anything as heavy as keys.  A fake. A fraud.  A bit of glossy gaudy nothing, that probably has a story or I wouldn’t have saved it.

A souvenir from some misspent afternoon, no doubt.  Let’s say I remember a crossroads country store, laughter and pickled bologna, crackers and some beer.   An impromptu picnic along a narrow two-lane road named for a mill or a creek.  A big oak and sunlight flashing between limbs, me putting the ring on my finger, the light weight of the plastic “stone” bobbing.  One hand to my heart, my face lifted, I declare my undying love for the man across from me.  More laughter and pickled bologna sliced with a pocket knife and eaten on crackers.

Let’s say I can’t resist a coin-operated gimcrack dispensing machine, like the one back at that store, and I’ve wasted my fifty cents on this bauble, dispensed in its plastic capsule, and though it wasn’t what I’d hoped to get from that machine (who can remember what I’d hoped for back then?) I’ve made the best of it, turned it into part of the pale clear blue of the sky and the flash and glitter of that afternoon stolen from regular workdays, and when I got home and faced what to fix us for supper (what lies well atop pickled bologna, my love?), I dropped this trinket into my desk drawer where it has waited until today.  My place is filled with this kind of treasure, whose value is their spark of story.

And did any of this really happen?  It could have, I know that much for certain.  There were those afternoons.  I pushed quarters down such slots, and more that I care to remember I’ve declared fakes to be treasures, taken what’s fallen my way and seen that the light does pour through it all with a certain sparkle, wanting to love what I held for the sake of love itself.

I’ve come to the place in my life where I’m letting the trinkets go (mostly to Goodwill, with hope that they’ll find a new story). It’s the story I’m keeping, the story that matters now, though it be evanescent as breath, though it fade away as that “perhaps” afternoon did.  It’s history that stays in my cells, that wants to rise from the blue plastic jewel, keepsake from a day I might have long since forgotten except for this trinket, spark for a story I tell myself (and share with you) just for the joy of the telling.

What speaks to you?  Look in your desk drawer and find a story.

 

Writing With Others

 

I’ve had two fairly recent experiences of trying to write with others. The first one involved a good friend who was between jobs. I had finished a draft of a novel and so felt that her idea to co-write a screenplay had appeal. Over time we had talked about different ideas for a screenplay.  Based on these sessions, I had dutifully gone home and written out several plots but when I showed her the plots, she gave them a blank stare. That should have tipped me off.

But here we were a year or so later with some time to collaborate. We downloaded a screenwriting program and its tutorials. I read Syd Fields’ book and shared it with her. I broke down the screenplay of CRASH into scenes and recorded information on color-coded index cards. We thought to use CRASH as a model because it involved a larger than normal cast of characters and that matched my friend’s original idea of telling a neighborhood story. But as we began to talk, it became clear that she and I were on very different pages.

She had much professional experience in letter and grant-writing but wanted to branch off into something creative. I have decades of writing and teaching fiction so I soon recognized a phenomena common to many people who start to write in middle age. Most of these brave souls have authority in many areas of life and they carry that authority into this new enterprise. That authority is not transferable. Yet the new writer cannot recognize that every new idea they have is not a good idea. And arguing for it on “creative” grounds is a common defense.

Eventually our meetings devolved into sessions where she typed with joy and I was supposed to applaud but not offer any commentary, as it became her screenplay. At that point, I withdrew and suggested she take a class in screenwriting. She completed the screenplay through the class. She invited me to workshop the night it was discussed and, not surprisingly, its many weaknesses were pointed out: there were basic formal issues that relate to competence in craft. These were things I knew and had pointed out but were things that she could not hear from me.

I’d like to share one of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across for beginning writers. Jane Smiley wrote an essay for a wonderful out-of-print anthology called Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway. Smiley’s essay is titled, “What Stories Teach Their Writers.” The first nugget is “Your first duty, if you want to become a writer, is to become teachable.”

I want to become teachable as a collaborator.  How does one collaborate successfully?   Should both writers be at the same level of experience?  Clearly I failed the first time out.

Now I’m in the midst of a second writing collaboration, this one for a grant in a field that I am less familiar with than my collaborator is. However, as the more experienced writer, I am again embroiled in this thorny issue.  I believe I am simply going to conclude that I don’t write well with others.

Maybe you can share some good advice about how to make a collaborative writing project succeed. Anyone?

To pay attention… our proper work

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”  —Mary Oliver

One morning this week when the day was still cool I had the windows open.  Hearing a slight, skittery, fluttery sound, I moved into a room with a window not too far off the ground.  Outside the window was a flower bed that holds a patch of purple coneflowers, now dry and gone to seed.  I’d been meaning to pull them up; they had long since become unsightly.

What I saw through the screen, though, made me pause at the threshold.  On the heads of the brown, dried coneflower heads were a clutch of finch, feeding on the seeds.  I crept closer, moving slowly and as quietly as I could.  One was definitely a finch—it had that characteristic yellow color and the markings even I, no birder, recognize.  Most of the gathered fowl, though, were a soft grey.  When are finch grey, I asked myself.  Someone else in the house moved behind me and most of the small birds lifted off in a quick, nervous jump of feather and anxiety.  One closest to the window, however, stayed longer.  Looked over its shoulder, right at me, it seemed.  So soft, so warmly grey.

The wonder that is online searching turned up this photo of a mature finch and a fledgling, precisely like the ones I’d just seen outside the window.  These are even perched on a cone flower (though one in considerably better shape than mine).

Thanks to the Stokes birding blog: bit.ly/1amN23O

I consider this sight outside my window a very tiny treasure, one that might have been missed in the usual bustle of a busy day.  While my own writer’s notebook hasn’t yet produced a pearl from this beginning, at the Writer’s Almanac,  there is a fine poem by Billy Collins title “Aimless Love”: its opening stanza is clearly born of moments of observation similar to my own.

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

Billy Collins “Aimless Love”

 

Your assignment, should you choose to take it:

Today, give yourself a moment to notice small stirring and sights that—were you to rush—you might otherwise miss.  Bonus points: record them in your writer’s notebook.