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 Power of Spring Cleaning

I am spring cleaning. Hold on to those images of soapy buckets and floor waxers. Don’t expect the smell of ammonia and vinegar. I am cleaning my office: purging files, reorganizing my bookshelves, checking old drafts, and sorting through notes from presentations made long ago.

The office is chaos; the project has been underway for a month and with each day I descend into a new layer of paper.

My original goal was to weed out books I wouldn’t keep, passing them along to new readers. I hoped to shred outdated papers and sort out saved mementos that my children might appreciate. I imagined how grateful they’d be that I spared them this effort.

Fellow KaBooM writer Leatha Kendrick writes that such a process is like revision, a seeing again of the work of a life. To some extent that statement is true. As I’ve worked I’ve reread essays and stories and arranged them in file folders. Many of these pieces are accompanied by early drafts and feedback notes offered by writing friends. Many pieces feel finished. From this exercise I am reminded that throughout my career I’ve been blessed to receive immediate feedback on my writing. Because I led writing classes, and because I always wrote and shared my work, I seldom had to wait for a response. Writing in community gives a writer a public and the payoff of quick publication.

However as my cleaning continued, I find that I’ve looped through revision. I find myself back to a starting point, a moment of generation.

Examples. In what I hope will be a penultimate step, I have three relatively short stacks of papers on my desk. One stack includes articles I’ve saved. My idea is that I will read those materials and write from the ideas gleaned therein. I see enough new material to supply a writing life lasting a good many years.

Another stack includes drafts of pieces that don’t feel finished. They are a living presence, waiting for the breath that will bring them back into existence.

The third stack remains a mysterious hodgepodge. Nothing in life ever sorts into three neat piles does it?

Spring cleaning has been good on many levels. One, I simply can’t go on acquiring books. I need to invent some kind of protocol to help me make decisions about future acquisitions. Suggestions are welcome.

Two, my stacks and my file folders contain work abundant enough to carry me to the end of my days. I need not ever worry about a lack of material.

Spring cleaning is giving me new energy and reminding me of the wisdom of letting something take longer than you meant to allot for it.

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The Best Kind of Slippery Slope

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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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SURPRISE!

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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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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Honoring Elizabeth Hardwick

 

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Elizabeth Hardwick is a Kentucky writer I’ve met only on paper. The loss is mine.

Recently I had the honor of reading an excerpt from her work on the occasion of her induction into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Hardwick was one Kentucky writer who got away. After finishing the BA and MA at the University of Kentucky, she enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia. For the rest of her long life, her contact with hometown Lexington was minimal. In the sixties she was part of a team who founded the New York Review of Books, as a response to a perceived softness in the reviewing style of the New York Times. The timing was brilliant as the Times was on strike for some months, and advertisers had marketing dollars to risk on a new publication.

Hardwick wrote reviews, literary biographies, essays, and novels. I think of her as a woman of letters, a vocation that sounds more old-fashioned and isolated than it ought to. Not only did Hardwick advocate for more demanding book reviews and better writing, but she also visited places like Selma in the mid-sixties and wrote about the experience for NYRB.

One of my favorite comments about her comes from the obituary that Mark Krupnik wrote for The Guardian:

“[Hardwick] was born into a large family in Kentucky, a southern border state that tends to produce literary sensibilities very different from those that flourish in the deep south. Her father was a left-leaning blue-collar worker who ran a plumbing and heating business. No doubt it contributed to her alienation from the mint julep school of southern writing that she was a city girl, from Lexington.”

I considered a number of her essays (you can read many online) before choosing a passage from her third novel Sleepless Nights, published in 1979.  Sleepless Nights is described as hybrid in form: somewhere between novel and memoir. It’s an artfully arranged collection of letters, portraits, musings, remembrances of the past and connections to the present: in other words, concerns that keep us tossing and turning at night. The book often feels like a glimpse into the writer’s notebook of a meticulous observer possessed of a singular gift for the apt metaphor.

While I didn’t choose the following passage from Sleepless Nights, it serves to introduce you to Hardwick: her mastery of the list, the complexity of her thinking, the diversity of the influences that worked upon her, the perceived limitations of her time:

“Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian—all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient—never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman” (Sleepless Nights, p. 8).

Hardwick’s life and career had their own brand of drama, of course, every bit as fraught as any quest by sea.

Photo source: Getty

 

Inspired by Speech

Last week I tuned in to the National Book Awards dinner—or as I call it, the Academy Awards for Writers. I do recognize the significant differences between the events: NBA streams live, so you balance your laptop for over an hour so as not to lose the feed. During that awkward interval you listen to the tinkle of glassware and the murmur of conversation while watching still images of book jackets and author photos. The folks who eventually step to the dais are clothed and seemingly free from surgeries that purport to stay the effects of aging.

And yet this show, for all my doubts about awards, inspires me as I watch my heroes, America’s writers, step to the microphone to acknowledge their moments of success and to comment on what it means to be a writer in this moment, in this place.

In 2011, the show-stopping acceptance speech came from Lexington’s own Nikky Finney whose book Head Off & Split took the poetry prize.

This year, were it not for a series of unfortunate comments from emcee Daniel Handler, the distinction of showstopper would go to Ursula K. Le Guin, age eighty-five, a writer of speculative fiction who won a lifetime achievement award—the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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Le Guin used her camera time to offer a sobering critique of the current state of publishing. (Click here to watch.) She alluded to the recent dispute between Amazon and Hachette over pricing in this scorching comment: “We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa.” “Right now,” she continued, “I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…”

These brave comments strike close to the bone. Recently I had the opportunity to pitch my novel to an agent. “What are these surprises you mention?” asked the agent. “Illegitimate births, rape, murder, incest, pornography?” In my imagination her voice grew more high-pitched and eager as the list of perversions lengthened.

“Not in this story,” I apologized. “These characters have their own issues to worry about: caring for aging parents, watching a town be destroyed by greedy developers, acknowledging the torn fabric of race relations.”

I thought about that conversation when Le Guin made this comment: “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

This morning I’m back at my desk focused on telling the stories of the characters before me on the page rather than the stories that someone believes will sell. I’d like my stories to sell, of course, but not because I add salacious detail to make them marketable.

Félicitations, Ursula K. Le Guin. Your well-chosen words bring honor to you, to all of us who struggle daily in the name of art.

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What Will You Harvest?

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Harvest

It comes down to this:

twilight, on a ridge in Kentucky,

vines twirl about a grid of twine;

leaves, dry, tobacco-colored,

shield indigo globes.

 

dogs and children run the rows,

the low sun a diamond point in each eye.

 

right hand cuts bunches free;

they drop into bins,

the fatness of summer cushions their fall.

left hand plucks fruit to taste:

the sweetness of a cloudless day,

hints of alfalfa and cedar.

 

these are ancient motions

like kneading bread dough or

smoothing curly hair

 

at row’s end, the work turns, repeats itself,

the moon rises,

the earth spins,

light drops.

 

Several weeks ago we went to a friend’s vineyard in a neighboring county and picked Norton grapes, the grapes often grown in Central Kentucky. Participating in this harvest is a rite—an invitation to pause at the end of growing season—as vines wither and last fruits become evident, whether they are bunches of grapes or clusters of pumpkin, squash, or tomatoes.

Common sense tells us that in order to harvest one must first sow. But sometimes we’re in a position to harvest even when we didn’t do the hard work of planting. I had nothing to do with this crop of grapes other than showing up to spend some hours clipping stems and tossing bunches into bins, where they landed noiselessly thanks to their plumpness. Likely I will later drink wine made from these grapes.

I experienced a different kind of harvest, an opportunity for thanksgiving and reflection, and in this case I am led to see that the ordinary and the fabulous are not that far apart. The harvest shows where the one bumps against the other.

This autumn, what will you harvest?

 

Photo credit: rvanews.com

 

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Handling Poetry

Poetry anthology illustration

Years ago when I worked for a boss who distributed poems at staff meetings, I started the habit of sticking my favorites into a loose-leaf binder. That binder became my own camera-ready anthology: poems at my fingertips to be shared with classes and recombined into packets for specific teaching purposes.

As life filled, the binder filled, filled to overflowing. When I retired, I crammed it in a box and carried it home to worry about another day.

That other day arrived this winter. Record snowfalls, cold, and ice canceled meetings, closed gyms, and kept me close to home.

Organizing the binder looked like a doable project: order a few poems by author’s last name and recycle extra copies.

Easy.

As I entered Day Three of the project, I was reminded that few tasks of this kind end up being straightforward. I first deviated from the path of start-to-finish when I found myself tallying which poet had written the greatest number of poems I prized. (Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Jane Kenyon, and Wislawa Szymborska were the winners.)

Next I made a pencil notation on any poems whose source I could recall, creating a provenance of poetry appreciation.

The individual poems soon came to life for me. Their physical appearances are so dissimilar. Some poems came by way of book release announcement, straight from a local letterpress, printed on high quality paper. Others are photocopies (some few perhaps photocopies of ancient purple dittos). Some poems are printed on paper with festive borders or in seasonal typefaces so hard to read that the giver translated the poem on the flip side in plain old Times New Roman. A very few are handcopied. Even the poems printed on turquoise cardstock have their advantages. Too dark to read, in the binder they are easy to spot.

And of course, I read and reread. I saw that themes converged (themes of joy and loss, reminders to value a closely-named present, seasonal markings), I remembered when I first heard a particular poem read aloud, I appreciated anew poems written by friends and students, amateurs and professionals, and that poem-distributing boss, who taught so many of us to love language on a page with wide margins.

Most importantly, the exercise reminded me that I have written poetry. There, among the I’s, are copies of my work. I remember the genesis of each creation, I relive the struggle to make each poem the best possible, I replay the rare occasions when I took a poem out in public and shared it with an audience. I find images and lines that please me still: a poem about choosing a china pattern written as a toast for my daughter’s wedding, a simile in which I compare another of my efforts to a tomato with blossom-end rot.

Handling words in this way strikes me as a useful prelude to writing (emphasis on “hand”) as opposed to reading, which permits an extra layer of separation from the text.

Nonetheless, I must bring this project to a stop, stop this wonderfully fertile “composting” as one friend calls it and go back to nurturing my own frail seedling words that have languished in the chill of this unseasonable winter.

Or in the words of a villanelle I forgot I wrote back in 1976:

Winter is sometimes fine for talking,

shoring against crack of spring.

Then comes a feeling in the blood for acting.

 

NaNoWriMo or NaNoReMo?



With National Novel Writing Month 2013 approaching in three weeks, you may be debating whether or not to participate.

A year ago I faced that same decision. I had a finished novel out for consideration and no new project underway. No enticing characters haunting my subconscious; no nascent story squirming under my skin, no pile of post-its recording quirky details; no overheard conversations lingering like earworms.

So I signed up for NaNoWriMo.

On November 29, 2012, I crossed the 54,000-word mark as I penned the last scene of my new novel. I had to crown myself a winner because there was no way for the folks at NaNoWriMo to track my efforts: a novel handwritten in a series of writer’s notebooks. Strangely, that official recognition meant little to me. After all, I had a writing group, a family, and an exasperated husband, all urging me to finish what I’d started.

Now it’s time to decide again. What’s the best way for me to spend my writing time? Should I sign up for NaNoWriMo and get a new project underway? Or should I return to my 2012 novel and devote the month to serious and disciplined revision? In other words, should November 2013 be National Novel Writing Month? Or National Novel Revising Month?

Here’s a synopsis of my ongoing conversation with self:

Reasons to spend the month revising:

• You’ll lose the soul of your 2012 novel if you abandon it now to start something new. All those threads swimming in your head, waiting to be tied—what of those?

•  You know how to create a revision protocol. You know what to do next. You need a timeline, a scene list, a verb list, and a couple of mentor texts that you study for clues.

•  You’ll be starting the month with SOMETHING rather than NOTHING. Move that second novel along! Finish it and see what you’ve learned! Discipline that mess!

Reasons to spend the month writing:

• You’ll share in the cosmic energy generated by tens of thousands of other working novelists.

• You can take advantage of the fact that Thanksgiving comes late this year. You could pass 50,000 words before it’s time to peel potatoes.

• You’ll make something new, bring an as-yet-to-be created story into being. Get out the glitter glue! Let that mess flourish! As Grant Faulkner said last November in a NaNoWriMo pep talk, “We set the audacious goal of writing a novel, not scrubbing surfaces clean.”

What do you think? How will you spend the month of November?

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Exercise: Brainstorm a List of Objects That Might Appear in a Scene

Here’s the exercise: You’re revising a scene in a novel or short story. You want to make sure you provide enough details so your reader visualizes the setting where your characters act.

A.J. Verdelle, novelist and master revisionist, suggests brainstorming a list of 15 or so objects that might appear in your setting.

During a session of “The Twenty” at Hindman [Kentucky] Settlement School, I invited college-age writers to try A.J.’s exercise. I offered a setting from my own novel-in-progress: a retirement facility “social hall.” Students generated the list shown in the above photo, and we also brainstormed objects for their settings.

Later, as I worked to revise my scene, one object suggested by a student seemed so quirky I knew I wanted to include it.

I had seen (and heard) wall clocks that chirp like a different bird at the top of each hour. In their own relentless way, they remind us of time’s passing. It seemed plausible that an elderly resident or family member would donate such a clock.  I liked this specific detail, and as I revised I made room for that clock on a cinder block wall, not far from the mounted television set.

Then I realized that the opening paragraph of the novel features a couple of cardinals pecking holes in the main character’s sugar snap peas.  Then I thought about Terry Tempest Williams’s memoir, When Women Were Birds. Sometimes, I had learned, birds are just birds—they are mentioned as details that make the created world seem whole and fully realized. Sometimes, however, birds resonate as Jungian archetype, representing the spirit among other things. That possibility is magnified in a scene set in a retirement facility.

Suddenly I had added a layer to the novel not previously present. As A.J. Verdelle says, “Almost every detail you carefully select will in itself tell a story.”

Have you tried brainstorming a list of objects that might populate your scene? Will you send me suggestions for objects that might appear in a used bookstore—an important setting in my new novel?

 

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