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

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.

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.

Just Looking—Notes from Normandi

Note: In the 13 years KaBooM has nurtured writers, some of our members have taken leaves of absence.   Normandi Ellis is one such member, recently returned and contributing again.  Today she posts from Gail’s account.

I had an A-ha moment in the Louisville Barnes and Noble Bookstore one morning last week. I had gone to Office Depot to print out some copies of a manuscript I am working on. That process was going to take a little while, so I popped over to the bookstore.

I’d never been to this particular store and so everything was a bit turned around. I walked in circles, got lost in the cookbooks and travel books. I went through the aisles looking at this and that, stopping to pick up a cover that intrigued me.  Then I’d move on.  A nice young clerk came up to me at one point and asked me if he could help me find something.

I said “No, but thank you.” I merrily went on my way looking around, walking through a maze of shelves, lost but happy.

After about 30 minutes I walked up to the counter with a magazine, Isabel Allende’s memoir (My Invented Country), a book of W.S. Merwin poems (The Shadow of Sirius) and a Ted Andrews book I’d never read before. The clerk asked me if I had found everything I’d been looking for. “No,” I said, “but it didn’t matter.”

“Well, I could have helped you find it and saved you some time,” he said.   I laughed, saying “Well what would be the point in that? How would I ever have found these books if I knew what I was looking for?!”

I think that is also true about writing. I sit down thinking I know what I’m looking for, but then suddenly something else grabs my attention as I write and I find myself off on a tangent. Sometimes I have to go back and start over, but most of the time I find that being willing to be a little bit lost in the process allows the writing to pleasantly surprise me. The discoveries then, the synchronicities, and the recurring symbols that I hadn’t seen the first time, become a beacon for the writing rather than my imposing a form on it and strangling it into submission.

There are many books on the flow experience including the work of Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg. I like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention and John Briggs’s work Fire in the Crucible as inspirational texts on the writing process.

I hope you find time to follow your nose and keep writing even though you don’t know where you are going. I think I could adapt a poem by David Wagoner called “Lost”.   He suggests that when lost, one must “Stand still. The forest knows/Where you are. You must let it find you.”

Stand still. Let the words find you.

Rush Slowly

At the beach bar and restaurant near our rental unit, this motto is printed everywhere: on the backs of t-shirts, on the menu, as the name of the boat moored in the shallow bay. Most comically it’s scrawled across the screen of a pink cell phone nailed to the post that supports the bar’s canopy. You can’t help but come face-to-face with this piece of island wisdom as you place an order for rum punch or an iced bucket of Carib beer.

The barkeep exemplifies the motto in action. He blends pina coladas and gets them to the table in seconds. His rush is a controlled one, an economy of movement appropriate for a tight space. His eyes, however, stay fastened on the Caribbean and the distant cloud-covered vista of Nevis.

“Rush slowly” tantalizes like any other oxymoron, with its easy wit and mild tension. What might it mean? Is it good advice to take home, to pack in my suitcase next to the sack of nutmeg, the batiks, and the new recipes for Caribbean stir-fry?  Or is it a vacation platitude that resonates most strongly read on the back of a t-shirt through a beery gaze?

What does it mean to rush slowly? There’s the possibility of rushing to accomplish, to load a life with people, places, sensory observations, books, art, movies and other artifacts of culture, to engage in thoughtful conversations, to do meaningful work. To pack it in, to open it up, to be busy not for the sake of busy-ness, but for the sake of a full life.

Then there is the reminder to do it slowly, not with a hesitant or lazy step, but with a thoughtful one, with a mind that savors and reflects, considers and adjusts, takes in new information, processes and assimilates, seeks not just experience but also improvement and change.

From my terrace overlooking Turtle Beach, I hear one man call to another, “No problem.” I knew this island motto already and saw great wisdom in it. But as a general directive for living, there’s probably more to be gained with “rush slowly.”

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Letters From Home

The birth of my first child changed my life in such a myriad of ways, I did the only thing I could think to do as a writer: I wrote about him and the new me I was discovering.  I wrote to document and to understand, because the contradictions of my new life baffled me, both my deep love for the baby and the bewildering grief at leaving my old life behind.  I wrote in my journal, and I wrote letters to friends.  When they responded, I wrote extravagant thank you notes.

Now that child stands taller than I do, those early days sometimes seem like a place from long ago, a home I left behind.  But one friend kept every missive I sent her about my new baby, and recently gifted me back a box full of my letters to her.

I sift through those physical artifacts, and their tactile presence places me back in those early moments as a new mother, when to keep back the tide threatening to overwhelm I scrawled a line or two and stuffed it in an envelope.  The need to post the letter gave me a reason to get out of the house, to pack up the baby I was still learning, so I could send out my latest struggles, and even my celebrations—send them to someone far outside the daily cycle of tending, feeding, caring.

When is the last time you wrote or received a letter—a physical memento of emotions, desires, connections?

This year the National Day on Writing takes place on Wednesday, October 20.  The day is a national celebration of writing sponsored by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and officially recognized through a congressional resolution.  Locally, the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning is sponsoring “Letters From Home: A Glimpse of the Bluegrass Through Handwritten Words,”  an event designed to encourage the public to write and send longhand letters to friends, family, and U.S. soldiers.

So tomorrow, I’ll be writing new letters from my home in the Bluegrass, at Good Foods Cafe from 11 to 1.  The Cafe is one of 14 locations around Lexington where you can celebrate National Day on Writing by composing a handwritten letter with other writers.  (You can find the full list by clicking the link to the Carnegie Center’s web site, above.)  The day’s events will culminate at the Carnegie Center for a community reading and celebration at 5:30 PM.  Participation in National Day on Writing activities is free and open to everyone.

Come write with other writers.  Make a new artifact or two.  Post your letter and send out your words, from the home you’re in at the moment, into the world.

Finishing a Novel

We’re about six weeks away from the next installment of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Are you trying to decide whether to participate? Perhaps you’ve got a great character in mind. Perhaps you’ve already imagined a breathtaking opening scene.

Your problem, as you often confess to your writing friends, is that your life seems to be full of starts but skimpy on finishes. And truth be told, once that breathtaking opening scene is written, you don’t have any idea where you’re going next.

I just finished a novel. While I didn’t finish it in a month, I did reach the end of a draft in just under three years. Considering this is the first novel I’ve finished, I’ve set a world’s record for me. Now I want to figure out what I’ve learned, with the hope of next time beating my personal best.

Narrative arc. If that phrase makes you nervous, take heart. It was important for me to realize that narrative arc was something I could pay attention to after I had a narrative. Instead of predetermining plot, I relied on those aforementioned great characters to lead the way. I put them in contact with one another and watched the scenes unfold one by one, or “bird by bird” if you will.

Write by hand. It sounds practically pathological to suggest greeting something as intense as NaNoWriMo armed with nothing more than your writer’s notebook and favorite pen. However, I found this process useful. I needed to slow my brain so I could envision the scene, hear characters speak, and set it down on paper. Writing by hand let me overhear the undertones of conversations and envision actions. The eventual typing of scenes got tedious at times, but never so tedious that I switched to composing on the computer. The slow paying of attention yielded too large a payoff.

Attend writing classes, writing group meetings, and writing workshops. All  offered ideas that kept me going. The trick is to manipulate any assignment you receive so it meets your needs. For example, if the workshop leader brings a plastic bag filled with paint chips with exotic names (Fire on the Mountain?), imagine the conversation your character might have about that chip and where and how such a scene might fit into your narrative. Does it reveal character? Advance the action? Provide a much-needed concrete detail? Once you’ve got a project going, make writing workshops work for you. I can’t imagine any workshop leader not applauding such a practical and necessary ownership. Check out the opportunities at the Carnegie Center. Writing Practice is a flexible way to push ahead.

Recently one of my students, a retired police officer who is finishing his own book, reminded me of this E.L. Doctorow quotation: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And pulling into your final destination is every bit as sweet.

On inspiration that makes you more yourself…

This year’s Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference begins with the Gypsy poetry slam tomorrow night.  Workshops follow on the weekend.

KY WWConference

At last year’s conference, we at KaBooM had just launched our book, When the Bough Breaks.  We led a panel discussion that was well attended, well received, and really fired us up for a season of selling the book and making ourselves available to other writers.  It was a wonderful, busy, exhilarating time, a very “put yourself out there” time.

Just prior to the conference, this week I’ve been re-discovering singer-songwriter Emily Haines, whose musical work spans many groups and moods.  For example, she’s appeared with the Canadian band Metric on David Letterman, and has a solo album of her own called “Knives Don’t Have Your Back.”  I’ve been enjoying her pure voice accompanied often only by her piano playing.  And then there’s a Youtube video that captures her reflections on how much she needed a writing retreat in Buenos Aires.

The tone of that video is completely affirming.  And I’m remembering a line from an interview she gave in 2007.  When asked about role models, she said: “everybody needs people to inspire them. The most valuable make you want to be more yourself, not more like them.”

So at this year’s KWWC,  I’m in a very different place, and am looking for …. well…  I’m not exactly sure what I’m looking for.  But since that’s the great thing about a conference,  my plan is to be open to the deep, warm-hearted, generous, creative people who make themselves available to complete writing strangers, for just this eye blink of time that a two-day conference represents.  In my imagination, I’m polishing a tuning fork when I write these words,  thinking of the satisfying hummmmm that reverberates when a tone is adjusted and reaches that instant it’s in tune.

The two notes echo back and forth off each other and vibrate out into the wider air, moving out of the essential “tuning” period and out into the larger world.

Try again. Fail better.

Once school is out, at our house the summer break means everything changes: the habitual imperatives lifted, all the rhythms of our days are renegotiated.

I’m recognizing both the opportunity this change in daily obligations presents to us, and am also feeling the weight of possibility.  Several weeks ago I spoke to a writer-friend who finished the first draft of a novel and shed some work obligations so that she could concentrate on revision and re-writing.  Yet even though this was her intention, she declared, her immediate response to an open schedule was to get less writing done!  Once she eliminated the usual time constraints that used to press her to squeeze in a little writing here and there, the wide open field of newly available time quickly got filled with neglected household tasks and other activities she’d pushed aside in her previous desire to just get some pages done every single day.

This complaint is not new to me: many writer-friends have observed themselves in similar predicaments—what seemed like a good change to “free up time” instead disrupted former habits, and meant that they were getting to the page less than they used to be when they were busier.

Grateful for this reminder, I’ve gone back to my own beginnings, and picked up two supports that helped me first establish a writing time.

First, I’ve started yet another “process journal,” a place where I’m recording which habits or practices help me get to the page and those that prevent my attending to my own work. Simply observing and recording my successes and failures helps me bring attention and intention to daily writing during a summer that lacks the usual structure in my schedule.

Second, I’ve picked up, yet again, a wonderful book by Gail Sher called One Continuous Mistake. The title comes from her chapter of the same name where she reports: “The effort to stay centered in one’s self, minute after minute, is what Dogen Zenji meant when he said that Zen practice is one continuous mistake” (page 54).  Thus, the Zen practitioner never attains complete attention, but also never allows her failure to discourage her. Instead, she keeps returning to her effort.  That continuous return is a kind of success which all the failures do not wipe out.

So I begin my summer with a sound bite running through my head—this very truth, as Sher reports Samuel Beckett using in his writing instruction: “Try again. Fail better.”

Tips for Revising

Sometimes it takes me an entire week to solve the Sunday New York Times crossword. Not long ago I put the finishing touches on my solution to the puzzle. Smack in the middle I penciled a circle around one particular intersection of across and down. I had expended all mental effort possible over whether the answer to “Yanks and others” could really be “ALers,” which made the cross clue “Strand” solve as “enisle.” I stashed my pencil and checked my grid against the solution. This week, they matched.

It felt a little bit like the protocol I follow when revising a piece of writing: give it a try; come back to it after taking a break; use a pencil with a good eraser—it makes editing easier.

Revision, one of the most important steps of any writer’s process, means following different strategies at different stages. For your writing to achieve its best, you’ll probably have to engage in a revision process that’s more complex than the simple steps I mention above.

One of the best conversations that took place at the Carnegie Center February Writer’s Retreat led by KaBooM resulted in shared wisdom about revision strategies that work. The ideas generated are summarized below.

  • Writing can be being something like weaving threads into cloth. Sometimes the cloth has to be cut up and refashioned into a different cloth; sometimes the cloth has to be tailored so it becomes a well-fitting garment.
  • Distance yourself from the material—then look back at it for a leap, a lurch, or a life pulsing. Circle that leap and write it on a fresh sheet of paper. Start making a mind map by drawing lines out from the circle (like spokes around a wheel). Put words on the lines as associations come to you.
  • Ask yourself about the purpose of a scene. Is it present only to advance the plot or is it also doing something else? Check for sensory detail—have you covered each of the senses? You may need to help the reader see what you see. Add noise and taste and smell. Be sure the sensory world is present in your writing.
  • Remember that perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to remove. It is sometimes necessary to kill your darlings.
  • Underline adverbs and adjectives and replace them with strong verbs when possible.
  • Don’t be afraid to try another starting point.
  • Look at models of writing that you respect. (Cf. Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer.)
  • Join a group—find readers who are critical but supportive, who can give you ideas on how to make something right.
  • Read your work outloud. Use the mirror test. Look in a full-length mirror and read your work to yourself.
  • Go do something physical for a time. Walk, do the dishes, or solve a crossword puzzle.

Creative Listening and the Winter Solstice

The turn of the winter solstice is upon us—hallelujah! We’re reaching the farthest extreme of how short the days will grow, and how long the nights. The return of the sun begins, even with winter yet to endure.

It’s a season of grand celebration and then hunkering down. Not a bad pairing. I’m glad for the holiday lights that see us through these darkest days, but once they’re put away I welcome the most introspective time of the year.

Holly 1_1

As the world grows quiet, it allows the deep listening needed for creative work. Ideas and images have a chance to surface. The subtle stirrings of the imagination have room to take shape.

To prepare for those fertile days, it helps to consider what we’re listening for. What are we processing from the world around us? What is within us that seeks expression? What are we challenged to interpret? How will we act on what comes to our attention?

For the next few days, try to frame the question you want to ask about where your work is going. Then when things settle down after the holidays, listen for the answer.

One of the questions for me has been, “Where is the energy in my writing life, where is it leading me, and what form do I want to be working in?” Ok, that’s three questions. No matter.

What kinds of questions are you asking?

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