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

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?

Inspired by The Crimson Tide

deandew-white-top

Several weeks ago, I was watching a football game on TV. Although I appeared to be calmly lying on the couch under a blanket, my heart was pounding. The Alabama Crimson Tide‘s best running back had just fumbled the ball on the six yard line and LSU had recovered. There was a minute and fifteen seconds on the clock.

It appeared that Alabama’s quest for the SEC West title was doomed. All LSU had to do was score. WIth only six yards to cover in four downs, it would take a miracle for the Tide to win. At this moment the score was tied, 10-10. Alabama’s coach, Nick Saban, told the defense that if they held LSU to a field goal (3 points) that he was confident the (struggling) offense could score its own field goal.

Saban “spoke the word,” as Florence Scovel Shinn claims in her book The Game of Life And How to Play It, is the way to success. This book was on a list of recommended reading given out by Margaret Wrinkle, author of the astonishing novel Wash, at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference last fall. Shinn says that “Two attitudes of mind cause loss, depreciation, or fear of loss, which makes a picture of loss in the subconscious.” Clearly Saban was describing a win to his team, despite the outward appearance of impossibility: stopping a powerful team from scoring a touchdown and then seeing his own struggling offense go 50 yards in under a minute and score a field goal.

Yet, that is exactly what happened in the football game. LSU was pushed back away from the goal line and scored a field goal. Alabama got the ball back with 55 seconds to go and manage to move it into field goal range and score its own three points. Alabama then won the game in over-time. And will now have the chance to win a national championship.

What inspires me about this game is the fact that the Tide planned to win, even if it was at the last minute, when the appearance of facts: little time left, the opponent about to score, suggested a loss. It is a good lesson to consider as a writer. When rejections mount, the writer, who must believe in her game plan, her preparation, her work, continues to aim for the win. I am working with Shinn’s ideas that “your word is your wand” and that “Spirit is never late.” I am developing the confidence that although events may make a loss seem likely, that if you have faith and stand still in the face of opposition, that your best path will manifest.  Perhaps this faith that I will reach the goal is the most necessary element of success, after all the hard work, the desire, the revisions, the attempts at getting every word right.

And, just for fun, here’s a video of another Tide fan who was clearly inspired by the play of one Crimson Tide player, Amari Cooper.  

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Working Water: A collaboration and memoriam

Cover Art by Pam Papka Sexton, 2000

Cover Art by Pam Papka Sexton, 2000

 

At a meeting recently, Gail brought in a copy of the anthology, Working Water, written and published in 2000 by the students in the YMCA Master Poetry Class, taught by James Baker Hall.  Pam Papka Sexton, our dearly missed Kaboom member, created the cover.  I remembered how and when she had made it, and how she and that anthology had led to the final chapter of my novel Ruby River, a chapter I would not have written but for Pam and the phrase, “Working water.”

Now, I often desire solitude as the ideal situation for making art or for writing.  We all dream of the private studio and uninterrupted days as long as the sun’s journey from horizon to horizon that sometimes include the moon’s crossing as well.  The artist in the attic, the recluse in the cabin, the single person, the wealthy person unencumbered by the demands of conversation and appointment.  And yet much good work comes out of group work, when the members intentionally engage in making some thing new.  Collaboration is one form of  group making, but making within the parameter of a group offers a rare sense of support and maybe even revs up the quality of one’s focus and intention.  Sort of like playing on a tennis team where every one has a racket and a desire to win but each member plays, wins or loses, her own match. Kaboom Blog Oct 2014 5

Pam’s cover and my chapter are both stories of artistic collaborations that bore better fruit because of companionship.   First the cover.  Pam, Deborah Reed, an early member of Kaboom, (pictured above) and I met for coffee with a North Carolina artist whose show in Lexington featured images she’d made with a fascinating process that involved a photocopier and nail polish remover.  Pam was intrigued and tried the process herself.  She xeroxed one of her paintings of a wooded landscape.  While the copy’s ink was still wet, she applied nail polish remover which created the foggy clouds of color  When it was dry, she copied that image and that is what you see as the cover of the anthology Sherry Chandler designed.  In this case, one artist shared a process with another.

The chapter came about in a more roundabout way, with more antecedents, some which I will never know of.  Pam, Deborah Reed, Mary Alexander, Betty Gabehart, and I went to Forest Retreat, an old estate in Nicholas County, for a writing weekend.  One of its distinctions is that its family cemetery contains the remains of both a former governor and a Kentucky Derby Winner.  Actually there are several thoroughbred race horses buried in the plot.  We had our photos taken with their memorial stones.

We also visited an emu farm and Blue Licks Battlefield, places which offered inspiration for our afternoon writing practices. We gathered in the sitting room, where Pam led us through an exercise she learned in the Master Poetry Class: as each poet read his or her weekly poem, the students gleaned intriguing words which they used as the basis for new poems.  At Forest Retreat, Pam read a poem she had written using that method.  We repeated the exercise by writing down words we liked.  I wrote “working water” among others.

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From our pile of gift words, we constructed a scene on the page, into which would come, after ten minutes of writing, a character whom the person on our left had created. Since we had been to Blue Licks that morning to the river, I described a sycamore that was “ghostly.”  Mary Alexander (pictured above at the retreat) passed me a character sketch of a young girl wearing a red and black dress.  From those words, I wrote the three page chapter that ends Ruby River:  “He was born with a hole in his heart.  When the wind blew he could feel it gush deep in his chest, a sound like green hush.  If he was working the water on Sunday morning, always a Sunday morning, he heard the wind play as a harp, the ripples on the slow river like the notes in his heart . . . .”

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?

Kayaking and Writing

Now begins an extended metaphor. Yesterday I went on a 12 mile kayaking trip, where I stopped at the halfway point for lunch at the canoe shop. I left my kayak on the rocky landing point in the only spot available, which is the protocol. Other kayakers who conclude their trip must bring the boats up the hill and return them.  I was enjoying my lunch on a deck above the launch and keeping an eye on my kayak as there was much traffic below.  At one point a young couple barged into my kayak. The woman was clearly miffed by the obstacle in her way and roughly knocked into my boat, which sent my paddle into the river.  Her companion retrieved it and kindly moved my kayak higher on the beach.  I was glad I had not called down to the woman because the problem was solved.

Next came a young family of four in a red raft. The father and the children scrambled out and went up the steps. The mother, who was very large, had a hard time getting out of the raft. She had to crawl from it to the slope. There she held onto my kayak for support and managed to crawl and lean on it until she called to her husband to come and assist her.

I saw that the young woman who annoyed me actually was the agent for moving my kayak up the hill so that it was the exact support the next woman needed it in her own ascent.  If I had interfered,  likely my kayak would not have been in the right spot to be of aid.

This scene made me think about the often a mysterious and slippery path to publication.  Having a story or poem published, or a book accepted, is not a given. Even if a writer does all the proscribed tasks, reads all the good books, earns an MFA, submits first to small magazines and then more prestigious ones, queries agents, attends conferences, does the hard hard work of revision, patiently sends out finished poems and waits for chunks of a year for that small slip of paper saying no or a two line letter saying Yes! . . . even if a writer does all those things, there is no guarantee of publication and a career that grows in an organic or logical way. Some writers find early success and grow up in print, with mixed results. Others toil many years before finding the right publication, the right agent,and  the right editor.  The interactions of the women and the kayak suggests that there is a path that one doesn’t control.  Sometimes the “I” and the normal impulse (“That’s my kayak, leave it alone!”) is not the most knowing of how things should go.  Again, I come back to understandding that doing the writing is what I can control.  What happens when it floats off into the world is not.

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Patience and the Tiger

Patience and the Tiger

Weigh, hey, year three is it of this novel? It’s draft number three at any rate. Writing a novel takes endurance and faith and the patience to tolerate so many days that look the same: the screen ahead, the softening hips below, the sun rarely shining, the rain coming too often, the snow a bore. Writing a novel is like rowing toward the horizon. No matter how many times you crank the oars, nor how many months you have been at this labor, the horizon is still far away, and the shore has disappeared. There is nothing to do but keep on going.

Now, as a somewhat creative person, I like to make things. But the course of writing a novel requires so much patience that I find myself turning to other enterprises in order to feed my need for quicker gratification. (note: eating is not advised as a means of instant gratification. A novelist spends entire seasons in a chair, and blooms but not in a flattering way.)

This winter I tried drawing and painting to satisfy this need. As you can see from the photo I posted, I am quite an amateur with  visual composition. However, the delight I got from using color to make forms on a page was exciting and soothing. It quieted the internal, impatient tiger wanting to be finished with this novel right now. It kept my tiger distracted, purring as if my the brush strokes were petting its fur. If you are at sea with a novel, it helps to have a tiger on board, as Yann Martel illustrated so well in Life of Pi.

Today we are roaring across the waves and my little creative self has had some play and is quite happy to be in the boat, and the tiger has begun to eat up all the chocolates and the ladies in the painting are losing it, but that is the way of writing a novel.

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Contrary Needs

As a writer, I have two strong and contrary needs, one for solitude and one for community. I once spent a month at a retreat where there were specific rules about community and solitude. Writers and artists breakfasted together and shared the evening meal, but between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm there was to be no conversation. These rules demonstrated the perfect understanding of the contrary needs of the actively creative person.

I don’t live in such a place now.

In solitude, the need I’d say I prefer to gratify more, I write with delight and anguish in private. It’s delicious to be alone with the imagination in a protected space where anything is possible. But, if the post man always finds me in my pajamas, or my children do after they’ve been at school all day, then I have some ‘splainin’ to do. Is this normal? Am I normal?

A community of writers validates this private self. It  offers the opportunity to talk with people who know the vocabulary, practice the struggle, and read books in a similar way. They understand a publication in a small magazine with a readership of less than a thousand is a coup, an occasion for a hand spring when it arrives at the door, much to the befuddlement of the post man.

It is fun to socialize and to feel a part of a community of like minded souls. Hearing a good reading, discussing a problem of construction, or a brand new excellent book or a bad one, links to the happiness inside: I am a member of a tribe. I belong here.

Sometimes this sense of belonging is too seductive, drawing the writer into on-line discussions or too many post-workshop get-togethers and the private life of writing suffers.

When I have over-indulged in community, I long for solitude and return to my desk, dreading meetings, feeling akin to Charles Dickens, who once said, that knowledge of an impending appointment can ruin an entire writing day. I feel that way, too, if my writing must be curbed for a meeting, even if I likely can’t sit for five hours in my chair until the appointed time. It’s the idea of interruption that adds anxiety to the act of writing in solitude.
Yet, in this 21st century in America, I appreciate the opportunity for both privacy and community. It seems a fortune to be able to reconcile the contrary needs. Thank you, fellow writers, for claiming this strange compulsion for self-expression and for insisting its needs be met.

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Eat Pray Love Kvetch Appreciate Understand

As we gathered after a summer hiatus, we discovered each of us had read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, or seen the movie, or done both. A lively discussion followed. We examined a number of points of view, ours and those of other public commentators.

One writer was disappointed that the movie glossed over the story of Gilbert’s purchase of a home for Wayan, an ostracized divorced mother in Bali.  I agreed that the story was amazing but then I found myself irritated with Gilbert for what I thought was self-aggrandization.  We examined the idea that often what bothers us about another is a problem we have with ourselves.  I chewed on that notion after I left.

For me it seemed a self-congratulatory tale, a do-gooder seeking praise. But it wasn’t really. It was a story of one woman shepherding resources at her disposal to improve another woman’s daily life.  That Gilbert claimed the good work was what irritated me.

Why?  Because I have been taught that modesty is a woman’s way.  Other people may praise you, but you must not toot your own horn.  It felt like Gilbert had gotten away with something that she, as a woman, should not.  The irony is that I often write about the curious tendency of women to censor the behavior of other women–and here I was doing just that.

I appreciate now that Gilbert was showing women how to claim actions.  As women we must. Too many works by women, artistic, social, political, and religious, have gone unnoticed, sometimes due to modesty, sometimes due to malicious intent.   I am glad to have been brought to this understanding and am glad to toss away a fossilized belief.  Let’s allow for self-celebration.  Let’s claim what we do.

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Hungry for Good Writing

Homegrown Authors! KaBooM at the Lexington Farmer's Market: photo by Susan C. Brown

This past Saturday members of KaBooM were at Lexington’s Downtown Farmer’s Market at a booth cosponsored by the Morris Book Shop and the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning called “Homegrown Authors.” The event turned out to be one of the most successful sales days ever for our group; you might want to check out the Morris Book Shop site for details on more selected Saturdays this summer when you can meet area authors and buy signed copies of their books.

But as Jan said in her immediate previous post, these days are not only about selling the book. Continuing her theme, I’d like to reflect on what I learned from our time at the book table on Saturday: many of the folks we met at the Farmer’s Market are hungry not only for fresh, locally grown produce.

They are hungry for good writing.

We set up the sewing frame to let people know that the object we were selling was hand-sewn, and a number stopped to have conversations about book binding and the beauty of hand crafts.

Sewing Frame entices passersby to see hand sewn signatures: photo by Susan C. Brown

But an even larger number of passersby were fascinated by the content of When the Bough Breaks.  One person who read through the table of contents was completely stopped by the title of Lynn’s short story.   “Heartichoke!” she called out: “Oh, isn’t that just perfect, that’s exactly what it’s like!”  She bought three copies.

A retired English teacher stopped to tell us of his frustration that high school students are not guaranteed opportunities to do their own writing in English classes.  We showed him the structure of our book: the brief essays after each entry that reflect on the creative process and the role the group plays in our continually developing craft; followed by individual writing prompts—“Try this”—to encourage written responses.  At that, he was sold, too.

And a number of folks were simply pleased as punch that this joint venture meant they could buy literature with their produce: “that’s fantastic,” they said.

We couldn’t agree more.

How Bullriding Is Not Like Judging a Literary Contest

This week I attended a bullriding contest and I judged a literary contest. I observed some differences between the competitions. In bullriding, it’s the rider, the clock, and the bull. The rider who stays on the longest wins.   That is the simple method of determining the winner, without consideration for style, or conflicts overcome, or originality in setting or situation. The story is always the same. The bull wins.

In a literary contest, there are many variables, the most crucial being the judge’s sense of what is the most valuable characteristic of a written piece. After years of judging, teaching, and writing, I’ve decided that structure matters very much. Is it a story, first of all? Does it satisfy the requirement that there is a conflict that has been dealt with? I read first, not in an analytical way, but for pleasure. One of the pleasures of reading a good story is the sense of satisfaction and completeness a reader feels when the story ends, as in the stories by Kim Edwards, Michael Knight, Charles Baxter, and Barbara Fisher. This understanding is felt or known, but the reader may not immediately be able to articulate why the story has created such satisfaction. Then, if one is a judge, one can return to the story and see how and why she felt that the story was successful. I start with that response to a story. Then I consider voice, vision, and acumen with language. Once, in the past, I liked the third place story best, because of its language and imagination and voice, but I did not choose it as the “best” because its structure was more flimsy than the winner’s was.

I find that a number of stories show tremendous promise but have been sent out before they are completely finished. That is the most common reason why a story does not win. It needs a few more turns on the spit, for more fat to drip out, more flavor to be tendered in.

Bullriders rarely go into the ring until they are ready. There’s too much at stake. For writers, submitting to subjective judges, it’s harder to know about  a story’s readiness. So I suggest that writers master structure as a necessary skill. If you do so, you will go far in your quest for the prize.

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