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

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.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Snowfall

Holly and Wood Pile in SnowThirteen Ways of Looking at a Snowfall

 

 

1

Through air tinted white,

a frozen mist descending, descending.

2

After the fact,

at what happened while you slept.

3

A sideways howl, driven by the wind.

4

Flat on your back, as a snow angel.

5

A relief from all that was scheduled

when the roads were passable.

6

A wall closing in.

7

A postcard to send.

8

Wet on your cheeks,

a sign of warmth.

9

A highlight on a dark tree branch,

marking the lines.

10

From beneath bright lashes

weighted with flakes.

11

One thick, soft flake.

Then another.

12

The chores of bundling and unbundling children,

warming the pipes, shoveling the walk.

13

Undelineated white

of ground and sky.

 

Susan Christerson Brown

 

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Inspired by Speech

Last week I tuned in to the National Book Awards dinner—or as I call it, the Academy Awards for Writers. I do recognize the significant differences between the events: NBA streams live, so you balance your laptop for over an hour so as not to lose the feed. During that awkward interval you listen to the tinkle of glassware and the murmur of conversation while watching still images of book jackets and author photos. The folks who eventually step to the dais are clothed and seemingly free from surgeries that purport to stay the effects of aging.

And yet this show, for all my doubts about awards, inspires me as I watch my heroes, America’s writers, step to the microphone to acknowledge their moments of success and to comment on what it means to be a writer in this moment, in this place.

In 2011, the show-stopping acceptance speech came from Lexington’s own Nikky Finney whose book Head Off & Split took the poetry prize.

This year, were it not for a series of unfortunate comments from emcee Daniel Handler, the distinction of showstopper would go to Ursula K. Le Guin, age eighty-five, a writer of speculative fiction who won a lifetime achievement award—the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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Le Guin used her camera time to offer a sobering critique of the current state of publishing. (Click here to watch.) She alluded to the recent dispute between Amazon and Hachette over pricing in this scorching comment: “We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa.” “Right now,” she continued, “I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art…”

These brave comments strike close to the bone. Recently I had the opportunity to pitch my novel to an agent. “What are these surprises you mention?” asked the agent. “Illegitimate births, rape, murder, incest, pornography?” In my imagination her voice grew more high-pitched and eager as the list of perversions lengthened.

“Not in this story,” I apologized. “These characters have their own issues to worry about: caring for aging parents, watching a town be destroyed by greedy developers, acknowledging the torn fabric of race relations.”

I thought about that conversation when Le Guin made this comment: “Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.”

This morning I’m back at my desk focused on telling the stories of the characters before me on the page rather than the stories that someone believes will sell. I’d like my stories to sell, of course, but not because I add salacious detail to make them marketable.

Félicitations, Ursula K. Le Guin. Your well-chosen words bring honor to you, to all of us who struggle daily in the name of art.

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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.

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Author Hilary Beard

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

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

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

Historian Gerda Lerner

Historian Gerda Lerner

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

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

photos: AP images

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

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

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

The heroines of the Standing on My Sisters’ Shoulders documentary

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

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

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

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

  

October Inspiration

October itself is a source of inspiration lately—

The vivid blue skies, the flaring foliage, the bright world, transformed.

Fall foliage 002

 

October is urgent, and dazzling.

 

The pool of gold below the maple reflects a season nearly gone.

I want to hold these amber days.

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October insists that I pay attention,

appreciate what is beautiful,

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take pictures, take notes,

remember what will pass away

Fall foliage 003

and write while I can.

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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.

What Will You Harvest?

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Harvest

It comes down to this:

twilight, on a ridge in Kentucky,

vines twirl about a grid of twine;

leaves, dry, tobacco-colored,

shield indigo globes.

 

dogs and children run the rows,

the low sun a diamond point in each eye.

 

right hand cuts bunches free;

they drop into bins,

the fatness of summer cushions their fall.

left hand plucks fruit to taste:

the sweetness of a cloudless day,

hints of alfalfa and cedar.

 

these are ancient motions

like kneading bread dough or

smoothing curly hair

 

at row’s end, the work turns, repeats itself,

the moon rises,

the earth spins,

light drops.

 

Several weeks ago we went to a friend’s vineyard in a neighboring county and picked Norton grapes, the grapes often grown in Central Kentucky. Participating in this harvest is a rite—an invitation to pause at the end of growing season—as vines wither and last fruits become evident, whether they are bunches of grapes or clusters of pumpkin, squash, or tomatoes.

Common sense tells us that in order to harvest one must first sow. But sometimes we’re in a position to harvest even when we didn’t do the hard work of planting. I had nothing to do with this crop of grapes other than showing up to spend some hours clipping stems and tossing bunches into bins, where they landed noiselessly thanks to their plumpness. Likely I will later drink wine made from these grapes.

I experienced a different kind of harvest, an opportunity for thanksgiving and reflection, and in this case I am led to see that the ordinary and the fabulous are not that far apart. The harvest shows where the one bumps against the other.

This autumn, what will you harvest?

 

Photo credit: rvanews.com

 

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Notes from the Ky Women Writers Conference

The 2014 Kentucky Women Writers Conference was full of inspiration and insight, and more ideas than anyone can absorb. I don’t have snapshots to share, but here are some snapquotes to give you a glimpse of what the conference was like. For anyone else who was there, it would be great to hear about what stood out to you.

2014 Ky Women Writers Conference

Jill McCorkle made the intriguing comment that “I’ve come to believe that the [short] story has more in common with a poem than a novel.” She also said that in beginning a new project she almost always starts with the voice of her main character.

Rebecca Makkai spoke about endings, saying “A good ending adds to the story; it tells you something you didn’t already know.” She noted that film has taught us that leaving the audience with sound at the end is often more effective than leaving us with an image. With this in mind, consider how the final lines sound. Pacing is part of that. It often works to slow things down at the end.

Margaret Wrinkle led a workshop on the spiritual work of writing, and the spiritual encounter with material that matters—what she referred to as the stories that are bigger than we are. This is what comes first, before the crafting of work. We journey to that deep place where we find the story and bring it back. “Creativity is a spiritual practice,” she reminded us. “The key to the creative process is surrender.”

Hannah Pittard told how reading Alice Munro’s “Runaway” changed her approach to critiquing work during writing workshops. “First find the most beautiful thing,” is her new philosophy. All kinds of surprising things can work in service to what resonates.

Kim Edwards noted that when Munro’s first person narrators question themselves, they become more accessible.

In Liza Dawson’s agent talk, among her many recommendations was to spend time on publishers’ websites and learn how books are sold. Look at how those books you like are described. You have a dual identity as a writer and as a business person.

But most vivid is a piece of advice from Margaret Wrinkle. Take a piece of paper and write down the mental impediments to doing your writing: the self-doubt, the fear, the questions about the validity and worth of your work. Then burn that list and put the ashes into moving water, letting them be carried away. Repeat as needed. Even the mental image of this exercise is freeing.

 

 

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.

 

To pay attention… our proper work

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”  —Mary Oliver

One morning this week when the day was still cool I had the windows open.  Hearing a slight, skittery, fluttery sound, I moved into a room with a window not too far off the ground.  Outside the window was a flower bed that holds a patch of purple coneflowers, now dry and gone to seed.  I’d been meaning to pull them up; they had long since become unsightly.

What I saw through the screen, though, made me pause at the threshold.  On the heads of the brown, dried coneflower heads were a clutch of finch, feeding on the seeds.  I crept closer, moving slowly and as quietly as I could.  One was definitely a finch—it had that characteristic yellow color and the markings even I, no birder, recognize.  Most of the gathered fowl, though, were a soft grey.  When are finch grey, I asked myself.  Someone else in the house moved behind me and most of the small birds lifted off in a quick, nervous jump of feather and anxiety.  One closest to the window, however, stayed longer.  Looked over its shoulder, right at me, it seemed.  So soft, so warmly grey.

The wonder that is online searching turned up this photo of a mature finch and a fledgling, precisely like the ones I’d just seen outside the window.  These are even perched on a cone flower (though one in considerably better shape than mine).

Thanks to the Stokes birding blog: bit.ly/1amN23O

I consider this sight outside my window a very tiny treasure, one that might have been missed in the usual bustle of a busy day.  While my own writer’s notebook hasn’t yet produced a pearl from this beginning, at the Writer’s Almanac,  there is a fine poem by Billy Collins title “Aimless Love”: its opening stanza is clearly born of moments of observation similar to my own.

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

Billy Collins “Aimless Love”

 

Your assignment, should you choose to take it:

Today, give yourself a moment to notice small stirring and sights that—were you to rush—you might otherwise miss.  Bonus points: record them in your writer’s notebook.

 

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