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

Writing as a Communal Art

 

I have just finished writing a poem a day during April. Having set that goal and (mostly) met it, it was a relief for the first few days not to have to come up with “something like a poem” in the midst of other obligations and demands.  At the same time, I felt bereft. The lull after the intensity of writing and sharing poems daily felt a bit like grief.

“Writing and sharing” – Yes. I gathered my poet friends via email, and we made the commitment to share a new poem daily no matter what else was going on in our lives. Part of what I miss this week is that conversation in poems, about poems, in support of our mutual (and solitary) work as poets. The surprises in the poems we shared. The way we allowed ourselves to write badly. The daily immersion in craft on some level. The encouragement of working daily. And, maybe most of all, the audience we were for each other. It’s this sense of being heard by astute but generous readers that I miss.

This was the fourth year that I have taken the month of April as a challenge to write a poem daily. This year my friends, poets George Ella Lyon (past Kentucky Poet Laureate), Sherry Chandler, Sue Churchill, and Martha Gehringer were my companions. (George Ella and Martha and I have written together in April for the past couple of years.) The level of writing was amazing some days—and bordered on silly on others (Okay, so we did cross that border!). We wrote for fun, just to see what might happen.  We could write three lines or three pages, revise or not, send something we’d started last year and wanted to rework. We could write something on our phone in a waiting room or spend a whole day wrestling with lines. The only rule was to write “something like a poem” – and even that rule was loosely applied.

As we wrote, I printed out each of our poems and put them into a loose-leaf binder. Another habit I’ve acquired.  I have four binders now, with poems from four Aprils. The binders capture the raw poems as they emerged – in the body of emails, as screen shots, or in documents we shared. Many of the poems where written “on the fly” – the fruit of productive minutes snatched from a day’s flow. A reminder of the power of setting an intention and of the collaborative nature of art. No, we did not collaborate in writing individual poems, but the poems we wrote and shared not only kept us accountable to each other but also sparked new work. What is writing but a kind of “call and response” between our words and all the literature that has ever inspired us?

When I meet with these poet-friends in person next week, we will read back through our “collected poems” of April, 2017. We intend to point out poems we particularly admired and talk about what works in these poems. I know we will laugh and moan about the “bad poems” we each produced and enjoy the freedom of letting them go. But we will each have a few poems we know we want to keep and revise—poems we see more clearly because of our friends’ responses to them.

If you haven’t tried this kind of shared writing challenge or if you didn’t get to write daily in April, start today – or write in June or whenever you choose to begin. Email some of your favorite writing buddies and see who will join you.  Not only is it more fun with friends, writing together deepens and enriches our work.

If you don’t have a local writing community, you might want to check out opportunities at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning here in Lexington. I have found the classes and groups at the Carnegie Center to be supportive and welcoming. Lifelong writing groups often begin with friendships formed in a class or workshop.

And, of course, the web offers many virtual groups.  The links below may be helpful.

 

National Poetry Writing Month      http://www.napowrimo.net

Websites for writers                          https://thewritelife.com/100-best-websites-for-writers-2017/

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.

Letter to a Poet I Will Never Meet

effiesmith1

 

On the last day of Women’s History Month, I am sending out this letter to a poet I will never meet— Effie Waller Smith: b. January 6, 1879, Chloe Creek, near Pikeville, Kentucky; d. January 2, 1960, Neenah, Wisconsin

First, some of Miss Effie’s words, her poem, “Preparation:”

Preparation

I have no time for those things now,’ we say;
“But in the future just a little way,
No longer by this ceaseless toil oppressed,
I shall have leisure then for thought and rest.
When I the debts upon my land have paid,
Or on foundations firm my business laid,
I shall take time for discourse long and sweet
With those beloved who round my hearthstone meet;
I shall take time on mornings still and cool
To seek the freshness dim of wood and pool,
Where, calmed and hallowed by great Nature’s peace,
My life from its hot cares shall find release;
I shall take time to think on destiny,
Of what I was and am and yet shall be,
Till in the hush my soul may nearer prove
To that great Soul in whom we live and move.
All this I shall do sometime but not now –
The press of business cares will not allow.”
And thus our life glides on year after year;
The promised leisure never comes more near.
Perhaps the aim on which we placed our mind
Is high, and its attainment slow to find;
Or if we reach the mark that we have set,
We still would seek another, farther yet.
Thus all our youth, our strength, our time go past
Till death upon the threshold stands at last,
And back unto our Maker we must give
The life we spent preparing well to live.

—from The Collected Works of Effie Waller Smith, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Dear Miss Effie,

I have only found you and your work in this, my sixty-sixth year of life.  Though you were a Kentucky poet born and raised 50 miles from my home in Floyd County, Kentucky, I had never heard of you.

It was your poem, “Preparation,” that made me write to you.  I heard it read aloud about a month ago when you were inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Lexington at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.  Though the reader, Frank X. Walker, did a fine enough job of presenting the poem, I could not help but wish that a woman had been chosen to read it — any woman, black or white. Though your poem does not declare itself a woman’s poem and could apply equally to men and women, I think that too often it is women who allow the “ceaseless toil” you write of to come between them and “what [they were and are] and yet shall be.” At least when I heard the poem and heard the fact that you had stopped writing at the age of 38 (at which age I was just starting out), I felt that teaching or mothering or other kinds of care-giving had surely pushed your vocation of writing to the side.

Now I have read more about your life — how you moved to Wisconsin to live in a strict religious commune with your mother around 1919, for instance — and I see that your story is more complex than I had imagined.  For one thing, it’s clear that you did not let teaching and supporting yourself, moving from place to place, marrying or divorcing stop your important work of crafting poems.  You published steadily from at least as early as 1902 — when you were 23 and finishing your course work at the Kentucky State Normal School for Colored Persons, now Kentucky State University — until 1917, when as far as I can tell, you were living again in or near Pike County.  You taught in Kentucky and Tennessee during that time.  By 1909 you’d been married twice (in 1904 and 1908), each marriage brief, each ending in your divorcing the man.  You’d lost your only child (I haven’t been able to find out if it was a boy or a girl) when it was a young child.  You’d seen enough violence in the mountains to last you a lifetime, including the murder in 1911 of your ex-husband, Deputy Sheriff Charlie Smith, who had also been a lifelong friend.

Your self-possession astounds me, even from the distance of all these years.  What I have discovered of your life makes me certain that the more than forty years you spent not publishing poems were a deliberate act, at least to some degree, on your part.  Because I am a woman, too, who struggles with how and even whether to continue to pursue publication, after twenty-five years of publishing poems and other writing, I wish I could talk to you.  Your last publication, a sonnet you entitled “Autumn Winds,” was in Harpers, for goodness sakes.  One of the most prestigious places in the nation.  Why did you stop publishing?

Your work itself gives us some clues — its somber mood, its intense religious overtones.  And the fact that World War One was raging and that you had lost your only child may have been part of the beginning of your silence.  You had to have been weighed down with grief.  You moved away from your beloved hills, which has been not only a solace, but a source of imagery and inspiration for you.  Was it the convergence of all of these things?  I have moved twice this past year and often find myself wordless, unsettled in a world that seems more than ever bent on violence and hatred.  Was silence your answer to despair?  I don’t want to believe this.  Was it an act of faith to relinquish your writing career?  Or were there other “hot cares” that kept you from your poems?

Writers and scholars before me have wondered at your disappearance from print, and I am grateful for what they discovered or pieced together about your life.  In next week’s blog post I will continue this letter, using the work of David Deskins, Elizabeth Engelhardt, and your adopted daughter, Ruth Smith — as well as your own words  — to piece together more of your story.

Mo’ne Davis will share her story: “I hope it encourages people to take a chance and play the sports they want to play and not just the ones people expect them to play”

Mo'ne Davis (photo: Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Mo’ne Davis (photo: Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Few pieces of news could make my Monday like the announcement that come March, we can expect a memoir from teenage athlete Mo’ne Davis, she of Sports Illustrated cover last summer (and the accompanying article by Albert Chen), and the “I Throw Like a Girl” Spike Lee video for Chevrolet.  And to hear that for this writing project she is said to be teaming up with author Hilary Beard, whose previous collaborations include “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life,” is even better news, as it suggests that in her newfound fame and media scrutiny, she is good hands, and will be supported and mentored by wise elders.

http://static.squarespace.com/static/52687ed6e4b0b1f7d808ece3/t/52715587e4b023f89fe8977b/1383159175582/_CLC0156.jpg

Author Hilary Beard

To observe that Mo’ne Davis seems wise beyond her years is a cliche, yet one I return to when I read in the HarperCollins announcement of the memoir when Mo’ne says: “I’m just a girl that likes to play sports and I’m excited to share my story with everyone” … “I hope it encourages people to take a chance and play the sports they want to play and not just the ones people expect them to play.”

For weeks before today’s announcement, I’ve been trying to summarize what the example of this dignified, grounded young woman does for my spirit: how it lifts and inspires me beyond all rational explanation. Perhaps it’s partly that she exemplifies the gains made by female athletes since Title IX of the Civil Rights Act was passed over 40 years ago, which are astounding and worth recalling for ourselves. Now that the world that is possible for women and girls feels completely different from the one I grew up in, the gains we have made are worth remembering. 

For example, I’ve also been watching the PBS series Makers that documents, in oral histories, the women who have pioneered in so many professional fields. Watching these stories with my teenaged son serves as a salutary corrective to the impulse to take for granted the gains earned by these women. When my son heard Sallie Krawcheck reveal that photocopies of male penises were landing in her desk every morning, his shocked look reminds me: yes, we have traveled far. But we NEED to tell these stories, so that the gains are never minimized. (Educators: you can use the free discussion guides and lesson plans for this series at the website found at http://www.pbs.org/makers/discussion-guides/. )

Historian Gerda Lerner

Historian Gerda Lerner

Years ago I read something called “Lerner’s Law” referring to the pioneering work of historian Gerda Lerner. The “law” went something like: in the case of women who are pioneering in a field where women were not welcome, the fact that they know of one other single woman who achieved a similar feat made it exponentially more likely that they would be able to accomplish their goal. As I undertook research for this post, I could not find that comment: if you are reading this and are able to supply an attribution, I would be most grateful if you could let me know in a comment below. The nearest quotation I could find came from her book The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From Middle Ages to 1870 (pub. 1993):

[T]he fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group. Women who did not know that others like them had made intellectual contributions to knowledge and to creative thought were overwhelmed by the sense of their own inferiority or, conversely, the sense of the dangers of their daring to be different….Every thinking woman had to argue with the ‘great man’ in her head, instead of being strengthened and encouraged by her foremothers. 

photos: AP images

Pioneering marthon runner Katherine Switzer does battle as the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon. Photos: AP images

So whether or not Mo’ne fully appreciates the historical precedents that brought her where she is today (and what teen can grasp on whose shoulders she stands?), I find myself calling to mind the intersections of  essential gains won by pioneers who’ve received some recognition as such: what was won for all of us by Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon. She registered for the race using her initials, so that until she showed up to run, no one expected a woman (above is a series of photos documenting Katherine’s participation being discovered by Jock Semple, race official, his moving in to intercept her, then his being bounced himself by her boyfriend, Jack Miller). The recent #Likeagirl campaign reminds me that there are some strong voices reclaiming athletic abilities for women. They are welcome!

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Standing-On-My-Sisters-Shoulders/55438180809

The heroines of the Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders documentary

But there are other pioneers I see even less recognized. For Mo’ne Davis inherits a legacy from Civil Rights foremothers in a way different than I do. The film “Standing On My Sisters’ Shoulders” reminds me of stories we are far too quick to forget, if we ever knew them at all. The film exists because

most of us have never heard of Fannie Lou Hamer, Annie Devine, Unita Blackwell, Mae Bertha Carter, or Victoria Gray Adams. But without the efforts of these women, the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi would not have been possible. In a state where lynching of black males was the highest in the nation, a unique opportunity for women emerged to become activists in the movement. This is their story of commitment, bravery and leadership in the face of a hostile and violent segregated society. In the name of freedom and equal rights, these women bravely faced great adversity and risked their physical safety, their jobs, and even their lives.

The accompanying book, “Pieces From The Past:  Heroic Women In Civil Rights” (edited by Joan H. Sadoff; co-Edited by Dr. Robert L. Sadoff and Linda Needleman) allows the women profiled in the film to continue telling their stories in more depth.

So: on a day I celebrate Mo’ne Davis, here’s to honoring all our foremothers, their divinely strong shoulders, and the incalculable benefits we enjoy even on the days we forget them.

  

The Art of Finishing

 

Blog photoGreat is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

When we moved this summer, I found these words tucked into a pile of old clothes.  The yellowed half-page torn from a steno notebook nearly thirty years ago had hung on the back wall of our walk-in closet above the small desk where I wrote.  That walk-in closet was the “room of my own” I claimed in our brand new house in 1984 as I mothered three children aged eight to one.  I knew I was good at starting things; I wanted to remind myself that finishing a piece of writing mattered.

Though I have finished books of poetry, an MFA, and a novel since those days of writing in the closet, I still find finishing a challenge.  Most writers struggle to complete a work and wonder if it is our fault that it takes so long to get it right.  The form we glimpsed as we set out on our poem or novel becomes less clear as we write ourselves into the interior.

Thanks in part to Louise DeSalvo’s book, Writing as a Way of Healing, I have learned the value of reflecting on the writing process for each piece I undertake.  I set down what I have realized and what I plan to do next.  Capturing insights and seeing a way ahead has been so important in my work that I’ve incorporated keeping a process journal into the assignments for the classes I teach.

Here’s an excerpt from one of these:

September 16, 2009

And now for my fifteen minutes on the novel — the assignment I gave the Finishing class.

It’s one thing to write about the novel and have its stacks of pages safely out of sight  . . .  It’s another to read those pages and see what’s there and despair of ever making a coherent book out of them.  . . .  But it was necessary for me to see that my coming to know the story, to see its end and feel a general shape for it, was not the same as . . . having worked it out on the page for myself.  What was needed was for me to accept that I still had a period of wandering in the wilderness ahead of me, and that I had to surrender to that if I were to write the novel I want to write.

 

I wish I had made entries like this more systematically as I drafted my novel.  And that I had not buried them in the pages of my journals where I cannot easily access them.  Louise DeSalvo says in The Art of Slow Writing that she keeps her process journals on the computer where she can search them easily.  She accesses them to remind herself of the stages in finishing a work: “Whenever I’m stuck . . . I turn to an earlier journal and . . . learn that I habitually think about abandoning a project just before I see how the book should be organized; this helps me reengage with my current work more confidently.”

I was wise to post Longfellow’s words in that closet.  Finding a way to the end of a piece is an art in itself.  An art that isn’t only about finding the best ending, but also about having the patience to discern the story I’ve wandered into, to receive its wisdom and work out the techniques I need to tell it well.

Finishing

IMG_0227 re

Finishing

 

The goal and the fruit of a true discipline is completion.  The completion of the work of art.”

Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and with Others

            There are icebergs all over my study — piles of paper that represent the mere tips of manuscripts I have begun but not yet completed.  Most days I sail blithely among the hidden masses, maneuvering as if with sonar to avoid a brush with their frigid bulks.

“Frigid” suits these projects, since they have grown icy and remote-feeling.  Their temperature plunges the longer I refuse to approach them.  There’s the novel looming in a corner, the set of essays peeking from the back of a vertical file, a memoir whose weight disappears into a notebook on a bookcase.

Two or three times a year, I propose a plan of action to reclaim one or all of these bergs and melt it down in order to remember  the taste of its refreshment.  I propose.  But I do not engage with the novel or revive the essay collection.  I continue writing bits and pieces, filing them with others of their kind, not even believing anymore that I will really bring one of these books to reality.  My might-have-been books evaporate, directly from their solid mass into mist.

The heavy cold of these unfinished pieces makes me doubt that I will complete the next big piece of writing I begin.  As I age into what I had thought would be more leisurely years, my life remains full and diverse, busier than ever:  there is a new generation of offspring I have a hand in raising; new opportunities for engagement with other artists and with my community; and teaching remains one of my deep joys.  I am reluctant to give any of it up.

I am even more reluctant, however, to give up on the writing projects I’ve begun— at least until I’m sure that I am not interested in completing them.  (After all, I don’t have to finish anything if I don’t want to.  An important point to remember!)

Last month I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home one day as I browsed the library’s non-fiction tableLate in the book, Rubin notes that we overestimate how much we can get done in a short time (a day or a week), but we also seriously underestimate how much we can get done little by little over an extended period.

I have put this wisdom into action on tasks that I dread (like filling out my income tax worksheet).  I wondered if it might work to help address the ice floes in my study.  My strategy is to choose one neglected project (the novel first) and devote fifteen minutes a day to it.  For the first two weeks I plan to not go one moment past the fifteen minute limit.  Fifteen minutes is manageable, no matter how busy my day is.  One way I can make sure the fifteen minutes happens is to do it first thing in the working day, before I have a chance to think about it too much.  I am finding that not letting myself work past my time limit also creates anticipation about what I might accomplish or discover the next day.

I’ve barely begun this regimen, so I am not sure how it will turn out.  My guess is that I will still need some kind of deadline (self-imposed or imposed by a call for submissions) in order to push through to a new draft of the novel.  For now, I am exploring — getting reacquainted with the book.  Getting inspired fifteen minutes at a time.

I promise to report back here in two months (aha! a self-imposed deadline: I’m putting it on my calendar) with a blog post:  Finishing, Part 2.

 

At It Again

They say pets resemble their owners. I imagine him as merely meditating.

I don’t know what it is, but I can’t get my brain wrapped around writing again this month. I think I wore myself out writing 3 books in less than a year. (Last one comes out mid week next week –Imagining the World into Existence.) I told myself when I had a down week I was going to get back to my novel, abandoned a couple of years ago to:
a) Write the aforementioned 3;
b. Get PenHouse Retreat Center going, and the really dreaded
c.) Research and rethink the book.
It’s not a. or b. that have stymied me. It’s that research and rethinking. I found when I stopped I was reconsidering the use of the first person point of view. Wound up reading a few books that used point of view in ways that made me think third person was the way to go, including Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. Brilliant book! But then a teaching gig came along at Berea and so I did that for a term—and didn’t write a thing other than comments on papers. And then there were the workshops I offered, the publicity for the new book. My publishers like it; I do it, but…
Well, there’s the being a writer part and there’s the selling the books and making a living part. I think I like the being a writer part best. Somewhere along the way I seem to have lost that woman, though. Like Gloria Steinem said: “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” Amen, sister. Afghan women will risk death to write poetry. (Fabulous article, by the way. Read it here. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/magazine/why-afghan-women-risk-death-to-write-poetry.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all)
I am just making my own small, but certainly public statement here. It’s time. I’ve taken 2 years off from this novel and now I need to either finish it or bury it. So as of now—now being the moment I post this– I am pulling the novel off the shelf and beginning to read it again. Just making notes on a legal pad to start. Here’s what I’d like you to do. Pinch me. Poke me. Hug me. Ask me how it’s going. Thanks. I’ll gladly do the same for your.

Word Snacks for the New Year

After the seasonal food-and-time-off debauch, I’m grateful for the turning of the year, though it’s slow going these past few days.  To ease back into regular work,  my practice is to turn to poems of the new year.  This morning it’s these lines:

“     … Gentle and just pleasure
It is, being human, to have won from space
This unchill, habitable interior
Which mirrors quietly the light
Of the snow, and the new year.”

“New Year’s Poem” by Margaret Avison.

Margaret Avison was a Canadian poet I had the good fortune to actually meet years ago.  She died in 2007 after leaving a valuable legacy to those to closely observe small moments.  Often, her poetry demands much of me as a reader so I take her words in small sips, remembering a comment made by Joseph Zezulka, an English professor at the University of Western Ontario and friend of Avison, who famously said: “Her poems were not snacks, they were full meals.”  Stuffed full of too many holidays, my writing self needs Avison, along with everything else, in tidbits at the moment.  But how necessary is the return  to words and work.

Not sure my digestion could handle a full word meal just yet,  I am also grateful to Lexington poet Sherry Chandler and one of her first blog posts of the year where she mentions “small stones” as a way to write our way into January.

There, she links to  The January Mindful Writing Challenge: A River of Stones,” a call to write a daily “small stone” during the month of January.

What are “small stones”?  The site says: “A small stone is a short piece of writing (prose or poetry) that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment. …The process of finding small stones is as important as the finished product – searching for them will encourage you to keep your eyes (and ears, nose, mouth, fingers, feelings and mind) open.”  This sounds like a good way to enter back into the work after a time away.  In a testimonial, one of the people who adopted the discipline of small stones says:

“…Several times I’ve had the thought that I absolutely don’t have the time or mental space or energy to stop and notice something outside my driven daily preoccupations, to compose even this tiny ‘small stone’ of words. But I keep finding that it doesn’t eat up time or mental space; on the contrary, time stops and new space is created.”

Here’s to each of us finding ways to create new space in this our new year—the best way there is, through our words.  Even beginning with sips or snacks, we’ll soon be back to those satisfying, full meals.  And as we get our creative momentum back, those words  really will build slowly, helping us create the new year.  What an image it is:  to conjure up that whole river of words our regular work will become.

Goal Tending

I am not a jock. I can hear my friends and family laughing at this massive understatement, but I make it to underscore that I am the last person one would expect to use a sports metaphor. However, I find myself thinking about the phrase, goal tending, and how it applies to basketball and the life of an artist.

In basketball, goal tending is a foul. Wikipedia defines it as ” the violation of interfering with the ball when it is on its way to the basket and it is (a) in its downward flight, (b) entirely above the rim and has the possibility of entering the basket, and (c) not touching the rim.” It goes on to add that “in both NCAA and NBA basketball, goaltending is also called if the ball has already touched the backboard while it is above the rim in its flight, regardless of whether it is in upward or downward flight.” Clear as mud right?

I remember my first college basketball game. I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky. My date was a member of the UK track and field team so we sat in the athletic section. I watched in amazement as my date transformed from the thoughtful, slightly shy boy I knew into a raving lunatic, swearing at the referee, questioning the parentage of various players on the opposing LSU team. One of the moments I remember most came when the referee called a goaltending foul on UK. I asked my date in confusion, “Why aren’t they supposed to tend to the goal?”  My date gaped at me, clearly wondering how I made it into college with such a fundamental gap in my education. What can I say. I was a basketball virgin.

When it comes to an artistic career, I think goal tending is an absolute necessity. There are fewer clear, defined landmarks for the arts than there might be in another career. It is necessary, therefore, that you not only create your own goals, but defend them from the many distractions and detractors that come with the messy process of living.

I ran across a journal the other day that I kept while participating in a workshop using Julia Cameron’s classic book, The Artist’s Way. For one of the exercises we had to write down at least three secret desires for our work as artists. I wrote out my wishes, thinking that they were far-fetched and unlikely to come true. I wanted to have my own show, I wanted to land a large commission, and I wanted to have my work displayed in a public place. Imagine my surprise when looking through the book three years later, I found that I have fulfilled each of those desires.

Although I had not thought of that exercise in those three years, I believe that the deliberate act of writing them down pointed me in the right direction to succeed. By writing down my desires, I transformed them from wishes into goals and placed them into the back of my mind. My subconscious tended to those goals even when I was not thinking of them with the result that I had a show of my work at Beaumont Inn, I landed a large private commission, and I now have a quilt hanging in a prominent space in the Mercer County Library. Slam dunk! How’s that for a sports metaphor?

 

Yarn. Tale. The thread of story.

As a writer who knits – or, on some days, a knitter who stops to write –yarn is, for me, a way into memory and story. One leftover ball, the colors of dusk sky, a fringe of evergreens wound into the horizon, bought at the Midway fair and intended for a baby’s hat, evokes a strand of words, a yarn to carry memory forward.

As I made the hat, the yarn bled onto my hands, onto the bamboo knitting needles. I called the alpaca farm and spoke to the woman who had sold it to me, who said to saturate the hat in salt water, then heat it in the microwave. Soaked and zapped, the seeping color stopped. Poor babe got a blurry, irradiated hat — proving that the harder I try to get some thing that will be so perfect (Kentucky alpaca for an expat infant in Salem, Mass.), so special (I met the alpaca!), so much beyond the generic, store-bought gift (hand-made, stitch by stitch, hand-dyed yarn), the more, in short, my pride demands I be beyond outstanding (is it pride or some other need?), the farther I have to fall.

And yet the baby wore her hat, her mother sent me a photo of her in it, and I have this part-ball left to knit into something else. And the colors still call to me, though I wonder if at the heart of this ball, the dye might still bleed.

And all this talk of bleeding and of winding takes me back to yarn as a tale, a thread of story coiled around itself and holding its heart hidden in the turning of its lines. Like a poem I’ve put down on the page or the turning of calendar pages reaching back and back. There never was a place that wasn’t tightly coiled and threatening to bleed. Even in the womb I was a curled bud wrapped in a cord of blood. “Wee weare within the wombe a wynding sheete” one of the Renaissance poets said, and when I read that line at nineteen, how I hated this assertion of our death beginning with our life, preceding even breath. Yet in that time of plague and filth and language lovely-harsh enough to catch it all, those poets spoke the truth.

I was a foolish girl, determined to reflect only the sun and deny the taste of earth already in my mouth, the sluggish drift of it in my very veins. I am wound up in this ball of yarn in ways I haven’t even come to yet. Its failing, its tendency to bleed or break under stress, its messy stain of color, even its softness and its lovely mix of shades are in my days. It sits in my wicker basket waiting to be taken up and used; if it is lucky, something will be made of it and that something – hat, afghan – will have its uses, elegant, unforeseen, ordinary, then will be tossed onto the trash, burned up in a fire or ruined in flood, folded into a trunk, a cardboard box, and stuck in some unused space.

As I knit (and when I write, as well), the lived experience and emotions of my days and hours are looped and caught into what I’m making. A scarf or hat can bring back the worries or the musings that overlay its creation, as this ball of yarn holds the October day and the fair at Midway, my daughter home for a weekend, our hours in the blue air, how I tried to just soak it up, to believe I really was there, and maybe tried too hard, as with the hat. This yarn holds my daughter’s tall form, her clear blue eyes, her laugh, and the long black eyelashes of the alpaca tethered in the shade beside the crafter’s tent, the percussive rhythm of the steam engine grinding corn into the grits we bought, the breakfast we shared the next morning, her driving away.

This ball of yarn, these words reach all the way back to her baby self and forward to the baby, then unborn, who has already outgrown her hat — and outward now, as story travels.

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