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

Solitaire, Trolleys, and an Artist’s Way



I am not quick.

The air is cool.

A free-write begins.  A list of words shared: quick cool trolley solitaire Paradise . . ..  Four women at a table at Third Street Stuff, in Lexington, Kentucky.  Concrete trucks outside the plate glass window.  A utility ditch being filled.  The street loud with its repair.

No more trolleys

move us past the city’s

edge into seas of grass.

And who whitewashes

anything now, as we did

the chicken house that summer?

Paradise long afternoons

of solitaire—three of us

on Grandma’s bed,

cards tilting off columns.  Each of us quiet. Only the slip and slap of 8 on 9 or Jack on Queen, and later the cool side porch, its concrete smooth and gray, our paints and brushes laid out, Paint-by-Number making us feel like real artists.

What makes me feel like a real artist now, decades later? The time to lose myself in a page, slow sketching or seeing all at once the way sentences fit into a shapely whole, the possible poem inside a scribble. More than what I’ve published or where I’ve taught, what assures me all is well with my artist self is making something.  The never certain motion of pen across the page, picking up speed as I go.

If we weren’t so hard on ourselves, wouldn’t it be easier? Unforced as those hours with the shades drawn, the whir of a fan, turning the cards over and over until something fits.  Okay with losing the game – expecting to lose more often than win in the rhythm of our pattern-making, the order art makes, the way a shadow (the darker brown in our paint-by-number horse’s face) lets us see its rounded eye, the angle of the emerging equine cheek.

These summer days gone – 1956, -57, -59, -60 – stay in me somewhere, breathe with the slow exhale of times when the world was in place and I fit there, 7 always landing under an 8.  Nothing perfect or even okay much of the time. Everyone, even then, torn by grief. The air in those quiet rooms sometimes caught, sharp as a sob. Uncle Russell, steady, sweet, gone at 42 in 1958. A wound that sank through us that year, day by day, though it sealed over like the surface of Aunt Ella’s lake, like the early 1960’s years took her and her one-year-old grandson, too, both too soon. A breeze riffling the water, a cloud shadow on the yard.

A great big paint-by-number, this living – all light and shadow, splotches of white, greens, slivers of blue.  The image, different from the edge of each decade, emerges, even as I sit in this coffee shop writing with women I could not have imagined then. Together we remind each other not to be so hard on ourselves, to write as if we were playing solitaire, for the hush and slip of words, the pattern that sometimes shows through.  Because in many ways Paradise is always Now—if we let go and sink into making, into being.



With the taste of cherries

Today, on the anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War, I’m offering appreciations for the work of Athena Kildegaard, whose new book Ventriloquy is just out. Last week Writer’s Almanac featured her poem “Ripe Cherries” (from her earlier collection Bodies of Light) that I found myself recalling.

Portrait by Laura Peterson. See https://athenakildegaard.com/about/

Portrait of poet Athena Kildegaard by Laura Peterson. See https://athenakildegaard.com/about/


In that poem, Kildegaard writes

I read that the men,
on their way to Gettysburg,
stopped along the road
to pick and eat ripe cherries.

That the fruit should not
go to waste.

She closes that poem with these lines:

That they should aim rifles
with the taste of cherries
against their teeth.

On this day, remembering the eagerness with which so many began battle, I hold up this poet’s remembrance. Another poem in that collection, titled “The Deaths We Are Called To,” enlarges the resonances of all those lives lost. You can see her reading that second poem and talking about the place the poem came from in this video (go to 8:30 in the clip). She mentions, specifically, looking at a book of photos from the war, by Matthew Brady, with her son and his friends. The boys are in seventh grade, and as they turn the page, they see a photo of dead soldiers. I don’t know if this is the photo she’s referring to, but the starkness of this one suggests it must be very similar.

Here’s to all the times we recall the taste of cherries against our teeth, and that sweetness causes us not to pull the trigger.

photo of the Civil War dead by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822 - 1896)

photo of the Civil War dead by Mathew Brady (ca. 1822 – 1896)

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The Season Turns, and History is in the Air

“We sure need some rain” is the refrain heard as leaves crunch underfoot. The morning sunlight takes longer to show itself, and the evening dark creeps more quickly than we expect. The season is turning. So many of these words could apply to lives lived generations before our own. While the feet of those earlier people would not have trod the asphalt and concrete my feet know, their sense of seasons, their concern for the weather — so much of this entirely human experience would be theirs as well.

Unidentified Union Soldier and FamilyFrom the Library of Congress, “Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters”

Yet my life is so different from those so long ago, a fact I am reminded of this as this week on PBS stations, Ken Burns’s Civil War series is rebroadcast. For lessons in history more up close and personal in Central Kentucky, Camp Nelson holds its commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the war this coming weekend.

As I watched the images of the first episode of that series scroll past last night, I was struck by the use to which Burns put the photos. Unidentified Union Soldier and FamilyBy focusing on the hands of the photographic subjects, for example, so that as viewers we are reminded that these people reached for each other for comfort and reassurance even in the photo studio, Burns manages to cause us to see what we might otherwise miss. In this family photo, I imagine the daughter to the father’s right slipped her hand between his, even as she watches the camera with her chin slightly lifted, her gaze electric.

Writing about history when we are not historians can be challenging, but allowing historical artifacts and words to move us, and then prompt us to respond, strikes me as an essential activity. Last night as my family watched the television, my son, a senior in high school, recited whole passages as the actors read from letters and journals. “How do you know that?” I asked, startled. “The Titus Andronicus album Monitor is all about the Civil War,” he shrugged. “I guess they used a lot of these quotes for their lyrics.” What a resource he has, to know, by heart, many of these lines.

History lives as long as we recall it to ourselves. Participating in the lives of those who came before us by reminding ourselves of their struggles, hopes, and dreams, enlarges our world. As I recall the spring that lead to this autumn, I find myself recalling the cycles of lives that breathed air so similar to my own. It’s a humbling sensation, but also one that grants me essential perspective.


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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?

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



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:”


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.

Honoring Elizabeth Hardwick



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 The Crimson Tide


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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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.


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!


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.

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