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

On Setting One’s Intention

Readers of our anthology When the Bough Breaks know that one of KaBooM’s shared habits at our weekly writer’s meetings is individual goal setting.  As honestly as possible, each of us takes a turn to look back and summarize what we’ve accomplished in the previous week.  Then we take a few moments to review the week ahead, reflecting on the writing tasks to which we’ve committed and the ones that remain as-yet-unrealized dreams.  Finally, we articulate—speaking out loud to each other—how much of that task or goal we think we can, or should, accomplish in the week ahead.

The wisdom of this attention to our intentions becomes immediately obvious when you consider that “everyone knows the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  Extend that aphorism and it becomes clear that no matter how bright one’s beginning, to accomplish the journey the traveller still make take each one of those thousand steps.    For some of us, each step requires a new commitment, and our KaBooM goal-setting time serves that purpose well.

This need to continually re-set my purpose is reinforced when I practice yoga with my wonderful teachers at the local Y.   There, we begin our classes with a mindful setting of our intention for that day’s practice on our mats by making our commitment physical.  We hold our hands in prayer position and place our thumbs on our foreheads, because that’s where intention starts.  We lower our hands to our hearts, because that’s where an intention begins to live, breathe, and have being.

From Sacred Source Yoga: http://sacredsourceyoga.wordpress.com/photo-gallery/ariele-meditating-in-nytimes/

Finally, our hands come back to our foreheads to “set” that intention.  When I set my goals at KaBooM meetings, I do my best to articulate goals that will live in my heart and prompt steadfast effort so that I have something of substance to report the next time we gather.

When I set my intentions for my writing work, I am taking seriously the dreams of my heart and the yearnings of my creative self.  At the root of the word “intend” is “tendre” which means, in part, to stretch.  There are times when the goals I set for myself feel too difficult, too great a stretch.  Yet by continually setting and re-setting my intention to make that stretch, the creative power available to me is a constant, wondrous surprise.

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.

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.

The Other Food for the Writing Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

On the Subject of Book Fairs

Last week I had a conversation with a nice man who anticipates his self-published novel arriving at his house any day now. “Once they arrive,” he asked me, “what do I do next?”

I thought about this conversation Saturday as fellow KaBooM members and I sat in the middle of Main Street in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, in 90-degree sunshine. Our umbrella tent provided some shade but was unable to keep us from noticing how heat shimmered above the asphalt or how good it felt to pour cold water over our heads and let it trickle down our necks.

Harrodsburg’s first Festival of Books and Arts coincided with an unseasonably warm June day in Kentucky, which meant that the crowds of book buyers were thinner than might have been expected, and, as a result, sales were lower. Had the newly-published novelist been present, he might have been disappointed by the results of his day and the undiminished stack of books in his trunk.

I concluded that you have to attend book fairs and local festivals for a multitude of reasons, not all of which include selling lots of books and making lots of money. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

Those other reasons might include the following:

  • Meeting other Kentucky authors. We were happy to chat with the famous and the soon-to-be-famous authors and publishing house representatives who happened by.
  • Noting how other writers go about making a sale. Those authors who sell books are accessible and inviting when browsers happen along. They make eye contact. They chat. They answer questions.
  • Checking booth arrangements for clues to success. Another writer also sold bracelets; Accents Publishing gave away pocket-size notepads. A basket of candy can help attract potential customers; if you are afraid the candy will melt, a vase of flowers is eye-catching.
  • Figuring out what equipment to invest in: Umbrella tent? Portable chair? Cash box/credit card swiper? Tablecloth? Display signs? Cart on wheels? Long-suffering friend, spouse, or partner who will help you with all this stuff?

And most importantly, recognize that you won’t sell out every single Saturday. Marketing your book is a time-consuming and time-spanning endeavor. You may have to convince yourself that the best reason to attend was to get your name and the name of your book before the public eye one more time.

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.”

Leaving a Paper Trail

This Saturday, May 22, I’ve been invited to speak at a conference called “Meeting the Challenges and Opportunities of Aging,” sponsored by our local government. As I recall, the last time I spoke at this event, the title included only the word “challenges” and neglected to mention “opportunities.” Perhaps the event organizers know that I have since entered a new decade and hoped to soften the blow.

My topic will be “Leaving a Paper Trail,” and I plan to encourage attendees to set their life stories down on paper. I know what it’s like when a loved one leaves no written record, because when my mother passed away in 2004, she left no paper trail: few letters, no journals or diaries, not even any lists from which to tease secrets. She had assured me that family records would be available in the central section of a behemoth-sized family Bible, but when I opened its yellowed pages I found what I call “the family tree in winter”: all black outline with no leafy verdancy to give it bulk and color.

I plan to make the case that it is essential to tell our personal stories, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. My rationale came to me as I read Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book, The Zookeeper’s Wife, in preparation for her upcoming September visit to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. Her book focuses on the director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife, who worked with the Polish Underground Movement during World War II. They successfully helped approximately three hundred Jews, hiding them both in their villa and on zoo grounds, in outbuildings and animal cages.

The book is filled with details of their lives as zookeepers: the particular personalities of the animals they kept as pets, an inventory of a beetle collection developed by a Jewish friend, the layout of the Warsaw ghetto, the names of trees. I won’t remember all the details that Ackerman includes, but my sense of the reality of the Holocaust in Poland is heightened and enriched by this reading. As a friend commented, “It supplies a micro-story to accompany the macro-story.” The book describes acts of individual courage and sets them against the drama of the larger war effort.

I now understand why college history courses didn’t always work for me. The sweep of history was overpowering. It’s when I consider individual stories that I am able to do the slow work of understanding, one life at a time. In this way I have been encouraged to continue as a lifelong student of history. I’m willing to bet that Saturday’s conference includes people who have important micro-stories to set down on paper, which will add threads of understanding to large and complex historical events.

The enduring power of words

The last thing I expected to hear when my twelve-year-old son sidled up to me Saturday afternoon was him, asking casually: “Where’s the Velveteen Rabbit?”

A confession: as a wordaholic, I used books to parent in ways that felt vaguely like I was cheating in the game of motherhood. I was shameless, reading to distract, entertain, surprise and astonish, to soothe, and to brighten long dull patches—to have words in my mouth far more courageous, wise and curative than any I could have come up with on my own. Certainly we went through picture books the boys chose for themselves, of dinosaurs and earth-moving machines, demolition derbies and space adventures. But I also had a private stash secreted away for the times the coin of my abilities was spent long before the day was done. I couldn’t have loved my boys more intensely, and yet there were times I was poured out, squashed flat, by sleep deprivation and the unceasing needs of those very children. Then, the audience needing distraction, calming, and exemplary modeling was not a child, but me. The Velveteen Rabbit was a story for those times, as Margery Williams’ tale of the Rabbit who learns to be Real only after his shiny surface has been loved off suited my stretched-thin mother-self precisely.

Since it was a book I read for myself, I never would have guessed it would the one my son would recall or request. In fact, he said he needed the book for a language arts assignment to bring in a favorite childhood story to read aloud. I have yet to ask his teacher if she knows what a gift she bestowed with this requirement.

He reads on his own now, of course—this proto-man-child who is taller now than I. His choices are great tomes of adventure and mystery. But for the time it took us to read the Velveteen Rabbit together again, it was as if he were again the tiny child he was so long ago. When we were done, he nodded sagely, and said “that’s a good book,” as he lifted it from my hands.

Of course not all of us will necessarily write a classic on the order of Williams’ Rabbit. But I am renewed in my faith in this power words have. Her words, published in 1922, rescued the harried mother I was years ago and have managed to embed themselves into the heart of a boy in spite of his need to be “manly” around his friends. This is a special kind of magic that is far beyond what Williams called in her book “nursery magic,” bursting past any nursery walls she knew, to continue living in ways she could not have possibly imagined.

In the face of this kind of enchantment and power, all I can offer up is gratitude—and a renewed desire to dip into that well, that power, myself.

Spring into a New Writers Notebook

I bought a new writers notebook over the weekend. As I planned my blog post, I realized that I had already written about reading an old notebook as I made way for the new (Nov. 30, 2009).

I observed that my summer/fall writers notebook was full of plans for When the Bough Breaks: production schedules, numbers of copies, notes for who would staff which book fairs at what times. It was all about the business of writing, necessary to be sure, if not exactly the date that invited me to the dance in the first place.

In looking through my winter notebook, I noticed a couple of things. For one, I filled it up faster. It took just four months to write my way to the back cover. However, quantity should never be confused with quality.

Instead, I focused on the nature of those contents. My winter notebook holds more starts, more responses to prompts offered in writing practice, rich notes from two conferences, a few short poems begun during a Saturday seminar, even a sketch of a murex shell that I picked up on the beach at Sanibel.

I complained a lot this winter. The cold was dispiriting; the snow and gray skies oppressed me, turned me inward. I kept repeating that this year, winter got me down. But my notebook bears witness of a fruitful time, a time of productivity, of nurturing seeds that may grow into something larger.

Once again, the evidence of my notebook corrects my misapprehensions and reminds me that I somehow kept pace with the world as it turned toward longer days.

Comments (0) — Categorized under: Jan Isenhour — Tags: , ,
« Newer PostsOlder Posts »