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

Solitaire

Solitaire

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.

 

 

Invite Yourself into Your Life

Welcome

 

Most days I rise early to spend a little time alone.  What I want from these morning hours is a sense of welcome to the day.  That feeling we get when we approach the door of a home as an honored guest, certain of comfort and cheer within.  The gift of hospitality.

What hospitality do I offer myself day-to-day? And how can I create it?  It seems a basic courtesy I might do myself to simply welcome the me of me into each instant, each hour.  Instead I find myself too often anxious, screened off from vitality in a world where there are screens everywhere — digital tv, smartphones, iPads, Kindles — broadcasting everything from details of the latest atrocities to mundane street corner murders, to pleas for money for every kind of cause to “sharing” of cute photos of grandkids or of cats Photoshopped to impossible expressions and attitudes.  I long for the squeal and slap of a wooden screen door interrupting the whirr of cicadas.  I want an unrefrigerated air at night through windows screened in rusty mesh.  Screens whose only information is the metallic tinge of iron, the sough of wind, the calls of sleepy birds and waking insects— sensual knowledge without guile or goal.

Barring these fantasies of lost time, alive now only in memory, I want to find myself at home in this now — in whatever place and moment I find myself — not pulled into puzzling out how history has led us to the Greek financial crisis.  Or worrying about how the fear and frustration of people caught in poverty or seduced by their private screens morph into racial and ethnic hatreds.  Beamed from the ubiquitous sources, each action and moment and decision of our mutual lives condemns me.  I am part of an inextricable tangle of cause and effect too large to comprehend except piecemeal.  I know too much and not enough.  Burning coal and traveling automobiles, even cattle breaking wind (and a  myriad of other variables I cannot keep hold of) determine there will be torrential rains one region, drought in another.  I am an accomplice to outcomes I cannot fully foresee or prevent — an insoluble part of universal conundrums.

I can find respite, though, if I am lucky or mindful enough, in the white expanse of silence that is the blank page.  No matter how long it has been since I wrote last, the page waits for my pen to trace a way through the briar patch of the day’s thoughts and facts and in the process draw a clearer outline of what has troubled me.  In the act of writing I turn the huge helplessness that oppresses me into squiggles of ink that flow into letters, words, sentences, paragraphs to contain and clarify it.  This respite waits not just for those who call themselves writers, but for anyone willing to sit down and shape their thoughts on a page.

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Finding words for what looms around us, it is possible to disperse its shadow, to be calmed by the rhythm of breath as it rises, steady and welcoming.  Here is the hospitality we crave.  The practice of reflective writing invites each of us to be the honored guest in her life.  Words, as they unfold across the page, have the power to name what feels wrong around us and — most importantly — to remind us of all we cherish.  This kind of writing rights the world, welcoming us home.

Finishing

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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.

 

The Joy of the Telling

 

A blue plastic jewel on a flimsy chain — the ring attached nearly too thin to hold anything as heavy as keys.  A fake. A fraud.  A bit of glossy gaudy nothing, that probably has a story or I wouldn’t have saved it.

A souvenir from some misspent afternoon, no doubt.  Let’s say I remember a crossroads country store, laughter and pickled bologna, crackers and some beer.   An impromptu picnic along a narrow two-lane road named for a mill or a creek.  A big oak and sunlight flashing between limbs, me putting the ring on my finger, the light weight of the plastic “stone” bobbing.  One hand to my heart, my face lifted, I declare my undying love for the man across from me.  More laughter and pickled bologna sliced with a pocket knife and eaten on crackers.

Let’s say I can’t resist a coin-operated gimcrack dispensing machine, like the one back at that store, and I’ve wasted my fifty cents on this bauble, dispensed in its plastic capsule, and though it wasn’t what I’d hoped to get from that machine (who can remember what I’d hoped for back then?) I’ve made the best of it, turned it into part of the pale clear blue of the sky and the flash and glitter of that afternoon stolen from regular workdays, and when I got home and faced what to fix us for supper (what lies well atop pickled bologna, my love?), I dropped this trinket into my desk drawer where it has waited until today.  My place is filled with this kind of treasure, whose value is their spark of story.

And did any of this really happen?  It could have, I know that much for certain.  There were those afternoons.  I pushed quarters down such slots, and more that I care to remember I’ve declared fakes to be treasures, taken what’s fallen my way and seen that the light does pour through it all with a certain sparkle, wanting to love what I held for the sake of love itself.

I’ve come to the place in my life where I’m letting the trinkets go (mostly to Goodwill, with hope that they’ll find a new story). It’s the story I’m keeping, the story that matters now, though it be evanescent as breath, though it fade away as that “perhaps” afternoon did.  It’s history that stays in my cells, that wants to rise from the blue plastic jewel, keepsake from a day I might have long since forgotten except for this trinket, spark for a story I tell myself (and share with you) just for the joy of the telling.

What speaks to you?  Look in your desk drawer and find a story.

 

Writing With Others

 

I’ve had two fairly recent experiences of trying to write with others. The first one involved a good friend who was between jobs. I had finished a draft of a novel and so felt that her idea to co-write a screenplay had appeal. Over time we had talked about different ideas for a screenplay.  Based on these sessions, I had dutifully gone home and written out several plots but when I showed her the plots, she gave them a blank stare. That should have tipped me off.

But here we were a year or so later with some time to collaborate. We downloaded a screenwriting program and its tutorials. I read Syd Fields’ book and shared it with her. I broke down the screenplay of CRASH into scenes and recorded information on color-coded index cards. We thought to use CRASH as a model because it involved a larger than normal cast of characters and that matched my friend’s original idea of telling a neighborhood story. But as we began to talk, it became clear that she and I were on very different pages.

She had much professional experience in letter and grant-writing but wanted to branch off into something creative. I have decades of writing and teaching fiction so I soon recognized a phenomena common to many people who start to write in middle age. Most of these brave souls have authority in many areas of life and they carry that authority into this new enterprise. That authority is not transferable. Yet the new writer cannot recognize that every new idea they have is not a good idea. And arguing for it on “creative” grounds is a common defense.

Eventually our meetings devolved into sessions where she typed with joy and I was supposed to applaud but not offer any commentary, as it became her screenplay. At that point, I withdrew and suggested she take a class in screenwriting. She completed the screenplay through the class. She invited me to workshop the night it was discussed and, not surprisingly, its many weaknesses were pointed out: there were basic formal issues that relate to competence in craft. These were things I knew and had pointed out but were things that she could not hear from me.

I’d like to share one of the best pieces of advice I’ve come across for beginning writers. Jane Smiley wrote an essay for a wonderful out-of-print anthology called Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway. Smiley’s essay is titled, “What Stories Teach Their Writers.” The first nugget is “Your first duty, if you want to become a writer, is to become teachable.”

I want to become teachable as a collaborator.  How does one collaborate successfully?   Should both writers be at the same level of experience?  Clearly I failed the first time out.

Now I’m in the midst of a second writing collaboration, this one for a grant in a field that I am less familiar with than my collaborator is. However, as the more experienced writer, I am again embroiled in this thorny issue.  I believe I am simply going to conclude that I don’t write well with others.

Maybe you can share some good advice about how to make a collaborative writing project succeed. Anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Swift Words

I am blessed by having had in my life several configurations of writing circles. I highly recommend them. Wherever I have lived, I have found kindred spirits who write, who listen and who keep me aware of the changing life patterns. Currently, I write with two different groups—my KaBooM sisters in Lexington (all of them publishing writers) and the Crones in Frankfort. (old friends and family)

On the last evening of summer the Thursday Night Crones, as we often called ourselves, gathered. The last time that this journal group met (back in mid-summer), we promised to do it again soon—to not let time get away from us; and we do gather as frequently as our lives permit. It is not the same tribe, but it is the same spirit.

We began in 1992 as a cadre of mothers and daughters who gathered at one another’s homes once a week for about consecutive 15 years. On Sept 22nd we gathered on the porch at PenHouse Retreat Center. Among other old friends, I sat to write with two of my daughters. Alaina is 28, and Roxie is 36. They were 8 and 16, respectively when we began to write together; I was 38. It is hard to believe that this particular configuration of women and I have been writing together in the evenings for 20 years now.

After we write—usually three times all using a similar prompt—I listen to the round of voices, and I feel grateful for the way words on a page have kept us sane all these years. We have shared who we are in deeply personal ways. We have given voice to the wild ones within us, to memory and longing. In our now bookshelf of stacked journals, we have begun to write short stories, poems, novels, to longing through sorrow and ecstasy. We honor the passages, mourn the losses, celebrate the renewals, toast the possibilities.

I’m certain that as I was writing I was not conscious that I was ever working on  this or that book; although, looking back on it, I see that those journal pages were a riffle of flowing language that watered three books of short stories. It wasn’t literature I was seeking at the time I wrote; it was sanity and the only way to find it was laying down one word at a time, one breath at a time.

I think of that two decade process of writing as we pause this night during sunset. The group goes outside into the yard at PenHouse to watch the chimney swifts dive down into the darkness of their home at night. (Yes, we have rooms available for the swifts, too!) They become a metaphor for the act of writing as I watch them sweep across the page of sky, gathering night and tucking it under their wings. They fold night into their bodies and carry it with them down the chimney. In the gray evening sky, they look like clots of words being laid down on the page. A few of them straggle along, leaving meditative pauses in their flight, or perhaps line breaks. Then again, the birds as words cluster together, swirl and fall quickly. There is beauty in their patterns.

I know that these birds (and my cronies) will be leaving soon. Roxie and Alaina will come back whenever we meet. Glenda at the end of autumn has to go back to Alabama. She left an earlier configuration of our group to take a job at the university there. Debbie, a visitor to PenHouse and our group, will return to Louisville, but has promised to come back. I have also moved away several times (to Berea and Lexington) and then returned. Several of the other old-time group members are absent tonight, but our gathering whether in thick or thin continues.

This journal writing, like the migration pattern of swifts, also has its season.  Now that the light is waning in the sky, the chittering birds will soon leave for the rainforest of the Amazon. Our words, too, go out into the air, floating on currents of thought. We gather in our community, and reach out to continue at times to gather in more. The writing together over all these years has changed us. We have grown, we have flown, and we have returned again. The center holds us together—a communion of ideas among kindred spirits.

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.

Hungry for Good Writing

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

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

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

They are hungry for good writing.

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

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

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

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

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

We couldn’t agree more.

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