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

A Writing Prompt

Old photographs can make powerful writing prompts. They’ll work differently depending on whether they are pictures of people you know, or know something about, or don’t know at all. These are some photographs I found at an estate sale.

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I brought them to our writing group meeting a couple of weeks ago to use as a writing prompt. Different people, poses, types of photos appealed to each of us in different ways. Not knowing anything about them freed us to imagine anything based on this brief moment preserved in the image.

Who are they?

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What happened to them?

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What did they do later that day?

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How did their story become lost, so that no one would want to keep their picture?

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What was happening in the larger world when the photo was taken?

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How did it feel to wear these clothes?

What kind of chores did they have to do?

What was most important to them?

If there had been stories to go with them, these photos probably wouldn’t have been tossed into a box to sell. But the photos themselves are compelling, asking for a story to go with them. If one of these speaks to you, the story is yours to write.

Taking Time to Celebrate

Here at the end of the year with the holidays upon us, the days feel too short and the things to be done seem to multiply. Creative work easily falls victim to those long to-do lists, and it’s tempting to respond by trying to demand more of ourselves. But the holiday hiatus might actually nourish our creative pursuits if, instead, we take time to give ourselves credit for what we have done this year.

A life that embodies creativity is something to celebrate. The cultivation of creative gifts, at whatever level we’ve been able to work, puts us in closer contact with the world and helps us to appreciate the talents of others. A shared appreciation of art, or of the effort to create it, fosters friendship and community. Whatever our shortcomings as writers and artists, no matter the goals that are as yet unreached, life is richer and more meaningful for the creative efforts that we do make.

KaBooM at Holly Hill Inn Dec 2011-1

Our group celebrated the holidays, and another year together, with lunch at the Holly Hill Inn in Midway. (We missed you, Leatha!) A wonderful meal in a beautiful setting, the exchange of simple gifts, and time spent relaxing together is a tradition we look forward to. This year we’re celebrating the publication of books and the perseverance in writing those books we hope to publish. We celebrate making progress in our work and making gains with our health; bringing creativity to our lives and bringing life to our creative goals. We celebrate the friends who appreciate the work we’re doing, and the support that encourages us to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Such abundance.

Christmas Lunch

So if you’ve written something, supported a reading, penciled a sketch, attended a show, played some music, made some art, shared a poem, or in any way contributed to the flow of creative work—it deserves to be celebrated! You’ve been part of what breathes life into everyday existence and makes the world more humane. These small acts are bigger than they might seem, and they deserve to be lifted up and acknowledged before the year is gone. It’s an effort that matters, so remember to give yourself credit for it.

 

 

The Dao of Writing

There hasn’t been much spare time in my life lately, and in the face of work to be done and life maintenance to sustain, creative work is so easy to set aside. But today I felt like I could spend some time getting back to my long-neglected writing, and pulled out a yellow legal pad to get some thoughts down on paper.

I filled a page—no problem—but when I re-read it, the idea I thought was going somewhere just…wasn’t. So I tore that sheet off and started again. Words, lines, paragraphs, a page, but again when I looked over what I had written it was disappointingly trite. Another page to tear off and get rid off. At this point the frustration really kicks up. There are so many things I need to do. I can’t afford to be pursuing dead ends. Time is precious and I want something to show for it when I set aside an hour to write during a busy day.

Smokies Roadside

My impatience comes about in the midst of being busy with the new (to me) work of teaching a class on world religions. Ironically, I’ve spent weeks steeped in the spiritual ideals and common practices of a wonderful variety of faith traditions, yet it has left me in this urgent, scurrying state of mind. What’s more, one of the ideas I taught this week was a notion from Daoism called wu wei—a kind of effortlessness, or acting without strain. It refers to living your life sustained by the Dao, a life that puts you in harmony with your own nature and that of the world around you.

Daoism, as I’ve told my students, teaches that below the strivings of conscious effort is a power greater than we are, a power that we can draw from if we let ourselves. Wu wei yields access to the rich levels of creativity beneath the surface of our minds. It allows the abundant resources for creative work to move through us, so that we become a vessel for deeper and better work than we could ever accomplish with the strivings of our own merely conscious effort.

Action follows being, according to the Dao. So to focus on the busy, busy of our lives is to miss the point. Driving ourselves to act without attending to our state of being keeps us disconnected from the source of creativity. The work we do will flow most easily and be of better quality when it emanates from the source that sustains us, no matter what we call it.

If only I could keep that in mind! So I’m writing this post as a reminder to dwell in a better place than I found myself earlier, to dwell in that deeper strength and more profound creativity. Or at least to try. I think it will help with both the teaching and the writing.

May you experience wu wei as you work, too.

 

 

 

A Sanctuary for the Literary Life

Our group recently took a field trip to the newly renovated Mercer County Public Library in Harrodsburg. It features the work of regional artists, and we were particularly eager to see Mary’s latest quilt of hollyhocks displayed prominently behind the main desk.

Mercer Co Library 001

To our delight we found the library both inviting and inspiring. It’s a sanctuary for exploring and enjoying the written word, in a setting steeped in local history, culture, and art. The work of local painters and artisans is on display, and the glass wall of the local history room is etched with an 18th century map of Mercer County. In the children’s area, little ones can climb on a limb or sit inside the trunk of a spreading Osage Orange tree, modeled on a long-beloved specimen in nearby Old Fort Harrod.

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In the entrance to the library is a beautiful and dramatic iron sculptural screen, fifteen feet tall, made by Erika Strecker and Tony Higdon. Antique farming tools make up the elements of the screen, many of which were donated for the project by local farm families.

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This work of art is a celebration of Mercer County, the rural landscape and culture, the labor and ingenuity of farmers. To walk into the library is to experience an affirmation of the place where it is located, as well as the value of literacy.

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This unique library, reflective of the people it serves, reminded me of the individuality of the connections between writers and readers. As writers, it is a privilege when people take up our work and read, allowing it to become some small part of their own story. Likewise, as readers, it is a gift to have access to a world of books that engage, challenge, and entertain us.

A setting like this one speaks of the value of books and the nourishment to be found in a literary life. Good books are hard-wrought, but they make possible the intimate communion between reader and writer—one that changes the world, one person at a time.

I’m grateful for libraries, and for the readers, writers, and librarians who make them great.

 

Where Ideas Hide

The past few weeks I’ve had my head down, working diligently—focused, goal-oriented, driven. Necessary for getting through the task I needed to accomplish, but not much fun. And worse, I frightened away all those feathery near-ideas that are so nice to have around. I want them to feel safe enough to float nearby, to tickle my nose and get my attention. I want them to stay close and grow into good work. But the force of single-mindedness scatters them, so they disappeared.

I was really too tired to go find them, it takes a lot of energy to go out and round up creativity. So I rested a little once I got to a stopping place. I missed the faint sense of possibilities brushing across my skin, but figured I’d think about that tomorrow. I stared out the window.

But the next morning, in the shower, I found one in my soap. Sometimes it’s when you’re not looking that an idea turns up. For sure I wasn’t giving a thought to anything at all when I picked up my mandarin-scented bar. Maybe ideas like the smell of oranges, or the wholesomeness of soap. Hard to say. But anyway, there it was.

I felt better after that, for a little while. But pretty soon, one idea starts to get heavy. You can feel the weight of all the other companion inspirations it needs that aren’t there. One idea is lonely, and it starts to wonder whether it picked the right place or time to show up. You can hear it asking these questions out loud. It feels terrible.

I took a walk to get away. The nattering was just too annoying and besides, while I had been doing all that work I hadn’t put nearly enough miles on my sneakers. I tend to overrate thought and underrate movement. I needed to bring some balance.

It took maybe three blocks to forget about how my body felt about it and to just be a body walking. Striding along past houses and parked cars I had no agenda, not even exercise. I had nothing to think about and no desire for mental exertion of any kind. I can slip into that brain on vacation mode more easily than I’d like to admit.

So I can’t say I found the next idea. I think it was in the magnolia tree I walked beneath, and it let go of the branch just at the moment I passed by. But wherever it came from, suddenly it was there, and I hadn’t done a thing to make it happen. Just the opposite. Ideas are sneaky that way. They like to drop on your head when you least expect it.

I still wasn’t much in the mood to think about it, but I was happy that the first idea had some company. It made me feel like things would be all right. I kept walking.

If you like the idea of being productive by not thinking,  you might want to read the article, “Bother Me, I’m Thinking” by Jonah Lehrer. It’s about the value to creativity of not paying attention.

The Other Food for the Writing Life

At a meal I once shared with a charming five-year-old, the precocious kindergartener wasn’t much interested in finishing her lunch. “I’m full,” she insisted when her mother urged her to eat. But dessert looked good. Her mother logically pointed out, as mothers have done for longer than I can remember, that her daughter had said she was full. My young friend was undaunted. “Dessert is for my other stomach,” she replied. “It’s still hungry!”

There are two kinds of work that feed a writing life. One is the creative effort that allows us to bring a piece of writing into the world. It’s the expression of what we have to offer, refined and polished until it reaches the form that connects with a reader.

The other is the work toward the goals we have for our writing. It’s the task of finding places to send finished pieces, learning how to query agents and editors, and figuring out ways to promote our work.

Both kinds of work—doing the writing and finding its audience—are necessary if we are to connect with readers. But while I have a great appetite for the writing work, the business and promotion aspect is less appealing. This is what has me thinking of my young friend and her two stomachs to feed.

In this case, both kinds of food matter. If dessert seems dispensable to you, think of it as more of an Italian meal with a fish and a pasta course. Or a simple repast of soup and a salad.

The point is that in order for our writing to find readers, we need both a creative and a business life. We need quiet hours to work and social hours to connect with others. It can be hard to keep both going at the same time. But it’s important to not only write (and finish!) stories but to send them out. To not only edit poems but to share them at readings. To not only conceive of new essays but find new places for them. Our job is to make our writing as good as it can be, and to learn about the publishing world as well.

The writer in us will often think she’s had her fill of work, whether it’s one kind or the other. This may happen daily, or even more. At those times it’s good to remember the other stomach—the one that wants something different—and feed them both.

Learning in Retrospect

To our delight, Normandi Ellis has moved back to Central Kentucky and rejoined KaBooM. She’s a gifted writer, an inspiring teacher and workshop leader, and a woman of wisdom. We’re happy to have her with us again.

As we embark on a new year, she’s leading the group in a series of exercises looking back at the year behind us and ahead to the year to come. These are taken from a workshop she offers at the beginning of every year, called The Night of the Mothers. It’s an energizing way to assess where we’ve been and discern where we want to go.

This week we considered which month of the past year was our “lead month,” the one that gave the year its direction. We sifted through twelve months of calendars, checkbooks, or emails to find the place that held some kind of shift: a birth or death, a beginning or ending, a change in finances, work, health, or family. We then spent ten minutes each writing about that month, the previous month, and finally the month following.

As I paged through my calendar, I realized that I almost never take time to do this. Trying so hard to move forward, I rarely look back with this kind of intention. Moments from the past remain with me, but patterns are much more clear with a review of days I might otherwise forget.

Those patterns can teach us about ourselves. We learn what helps us respond to challenges, and what helps us live a full life. In becoming familiar with patterns that have unfolded in our lives, we can better recognize them when they show up again. And we are better able to choose whether to repeat them, or not.

Looking back can reveal surprising insights into the conditions that allow us to work creatively and productively, which is step one in trying to recreate them as best we can. In looking at how we spent our time, who we were with, how quiet or busy our days were, and what captivated us, it’s easier to see what worked and what didn’t. The things that energize and those that weigh us down become clearer.

It took an hour or so to do the exercise and for each of us to read back some portion of what we had written. It led to a deeper understanding not only of our individual lives, but the collective energy of the group. Sharing those words allowed us to hold the year with the support of one another, witnessing the change, loss, learning, and growth we experienced.

It was one of the richest hours I’ve spent this year.

Our Writing is More than Our Words: Cutting What Does Not Serve

This is not the post I was going to offer you this week. For days, I tended and tweaked that one—about how words and sentences work together in service of something greater. I tortured that metaphor within an inch of its life, thinking I was getting closer to a finished piece. Then I read it again, and saw it was time to start over. Unfortunately, words and sentences sometimes don’t serve anything greater at all.

There are many ways writers describe cutting work we’ve labored over. “Killing your darlings” is one. “Letting it go” works for writing and for life in general. “Seeing what is not working” is part of the process of revising.

At our KaBooM meetings, reading each other’s work in progress, we often discuss where the piece should start. It’s not unusual for one of us to jettison pages of work, often writing that is carefully and beautifully crafted, because we’ve realized that in those pages we were “writing our way into the piece.” The writing that leads to the beginning is essential to the writer, but the reader doesn’t need it.

Even for this simple post, first written by hand on a legal pad, words and phrases are marked through, false starts and extraneous paragraphs are squiggled over.

Do write from the heart, without an editor’s eye, in that early phase when the work is about catching wisps of thought and imagination and giving them form. But once those drafts are written, remember that a writer is also called to be an editor, and it takes a tough editor to make good writing.

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Paying Attention

Diane Ackerman signing books following her talk at the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, Sept. 11, 2010

In her recent talk as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, Diane Ackerman shared with her audience the value she has found in paying close attention. It’s clear that her books grow out of her keen observation of the natural world. But she spoke also of the solace she finds in nature, when she can “loll in wonder’s swaying hammock.”

She described finding moments of transcendence during her husband’s illness at those times when she was able to bring her attention to the natural world. When fully present to some aspect of nature, the weight of other concerns eased. Even nature found in “the manicured wilderness of the city” offers such an escape. It takes us outside of ourselves.

Our work, our careers, our lives are shaped in large part by where we place our attention. Noticing the wonder of the world we inhabit is an ability that grows from both freedom and discipline. We need the liberty that allows our perception and thoughts to wander, absorbing the beauty and drama of this amazing earth. Yet when we are caught up in our individual lives, it takes strength and discipline to look beyond ourselves.  Curiosity and openness put us in touch with the world, while focus and discipline allow us to engage deeply with it so that we can create work and offer something back to the world.

Ackerman’s talk was a reminder that the skills of observation we rely on as writers are the same skills that refresh and strengthen us in the midst of living. The ability to be present, to really pay attention, to notice the life unfolding all around us, is the way toward “the satisfying state of mind we sometimes call joy.” The writing life teaches us a rich and rewarding approach to living.

Then there is the work of writing about what has engaged us. Ackerman described her own process of beginning new work as the task of picking something to focus on, then thinking of something, anything, to say about her subject. A process she described as “trying to get the goose of creativity to lay a golden egg.” Her method, however, is workmanlike: Write a sentence. Then write another about that sentence. And so on.

Inspiration is everywhere, but the work of writing is always specifically here, in this particular place, with this subject, on this page, with these words. Attention focused outwards will lead us to our work. Attention focused on the work will lead us to accomplish it.

Two Important Questions for Shaping a Collection of Writing

One of my writing goals this summer has been to shape a collection of essays into a cohesive manuscript. It sounds like a relatively simple task, with much of the writing already completed and polished. But it took some time to struggle with two questions before I could begin to consider calling the assorted works a collection.

The first question: What is this manuscript to be about? Or in other words: What have I got?

I had to figure out the answer before I could determine which pieces belonged and which didn’t. A false start on answering that question sent me down the wrong path for a while. I thought I could build a collection around a new idea that interested me, but when I began choosing which essays to include, and when I looked at my strongest work, I realized that I couldn’t manage any kind of adequate treatment of that theme. So I looked again at the work, at what I really had.

The answer was that throughout most all of my essays, I had been grappling with the process of bringing children into the world, shaping my life around the task of raising them, observing the changes in them and in myself as they grew, watching them move out into the world, and letting them go. What’s more, I could see all of that from the position of having lived through it as I considered what the next stage of life might hold. Overall, what I had was insight into the process of raising children, and perhaps myself as well, from the perspective of someone in the process of transition from child-rearing years to something else.

Finally, I had found a narrative in the collection, and I had a narrative stance for the overall work.

The second question: How will the collection be structured?

Finding the right structure is essential for having a collection make sense. It can transform a jumble of essays, or stories, or poems, into a satisfying, unified whole that deserves to be treated as a book. The work itself may suggest the structure that helps convey its meaning. But when the answer isn’t clear, inspiration is all around. The structure of objects in the world, or of our experience, offers myriad possibilities.

A daisy, for example, has individual petals surrounding the center. Some petals overlap but all radiate outwards. The eye is continually drawn from the center to the surrounding petals and back again. The pattern of the petals, seen together, echoes the circular shape at the heart of the flower. Concentric circles suggest both outward movement and concentration of energy at the center.

Thinking about the daisy might help shape the writing about, say, the guests at a wedding. The same dynamic occurs, with a wide circle of people connected through their relationship with the bride and groom. The organic shapes of living things offer a world of potential structures.

A book can also be structured by how we measure things. Time is a classic way of shaping literature, whether according to the cycles of hours, days, or seasons, or according to a chronology of events. Distance is another measurement that can lend itself to structure—measured by miles, or points along the way, or elevations. Terry Tempest Williams, for example, used the changing level of the Great Salt Lake to mark her chapters in Refuge.

Stages of work that mark the progress through a project is another possibility, whether the work is construction of a house, preparation of a meal, or launching of a business. Structure can be made in accordance with geography, as in Crystal Wilkinson’s collection of stories about the people on Water Street. It can be arranged by how things naturally occur together, as with Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s A Gift from the Sea, where the various shells she finds on the beach also serve as metaphors for her reflections on family life. Architecture can be another source of inspiration, whether it’s the shape of a building viewed from outside or the layout of the interior.

To find the right structure for this collection, I needed something that incorporated my perspective on the years of raising children. I wanted to celebrate child-rearing years as a single passage of time among many that a lifetime holds. So I structured the collection as a progression through the full cycle of a growing season, from the new growth of early spring through through the fullness of summer and the harvest then into the latency of winter when the earth rests before the next blooming.

By sculpting the work into a cohesive whole, I hope to be able to bring this collection into the world. There are no guarantees, but at least I have a completed manuscript dressed in good clothes ready to meet new people.

I wish you well in shaping your collections, too.

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