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

The Worth of the Writing Life

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The frame for the Canterbury Tales, one of the early works of literature in the English language, was a pilgrimage.  As the characters make their way along the road, having set aside their everyday lives for a time, the travelers share the stories that make up the collection of tales. It was a natural and effective way to structure that important work, and the connection it suggests between pilgrimage and literature seems particularly apt.

Learning to shape a love of the written word into an artistic offering is a journey in itself. When we commit to being writers, we set off on a pilgrimage. We set aside the urgent and relentless concerns of everyday life, for at least some part of the day or week, and focus on something that calls to our higher selves. We learn to see the world differently, becoming more careful observers in the context of the work we do. We form relationships with like-minded souls, fellow travelers on the same road, whom we might be unlikely to meet in any other way.

We have a destination in mind—publishing the book that elevates us from writers to authors, hopefully with the backing of a respected press and to the acclaim of critics and readers. A truly crazy dream is for sales figures that make for financial success as well. But what if that doesn’t happen?

Whether the path is through self-publishing or finding a publisher, the market is a wild and woolly place. The currency has more to do with gaining attention than writing well. Some wonderful writers have excellent careers, and that is something to celebrate. Yet it’s entirely possible to be a publishing success without committing to excellent work. I would like to believe that all good work will find its audience, but I’m not convinced.

With the outcome so uncertain, what would be the point of the writing life? For me, the reward has been the journey with my writing friends. The camaraderie in the shared devotion to our art has elevated my life and made life as a writer meaningful.

I don’t know who I would be if I had not claimed the desire to become a writer, learned to write well, and connected with others whose souls are fed through writing. How my work is received is out of my hands. When I can let go of the outcome and appreciate how devotion to the work makes me more fully alive, I find it easier to hold the destination loosely. I appreciate the satisfaction that comes from doing the work. And I remember that being part of a community that truly values the written word is itself a privilege.

 

 

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.

Honoring Elizabeth Hardwick

 

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Elizabeth Hardwick is a Kentucky writer I’ve met only on paper. The loss is mine.

Recently I had the honor of reading an excerpt from her work on the occasion of her induction into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.

Hardwick was one Kentucky writer who got away. After finishing the BA and MA at the University of Kentucky, she enrolled in a PhD program at Columbia. For the rest of her long life, her contact with hometown Lexington was minimal. In the sixties she was part of a team who founded the New York Review of Books, as a response to a perceived softness in the reviewing style of the New York Times. The timing was brilliant as the Times was on strike for some months, and advertisers had marketing dollars to risk on a new publication.

Hardwick wrote reviews, literary biographies, essays, and novels. I think of her as a woman of letters, a vocation that sounds more old-fashioned and isolated than it ought to. Not only did Hardwick advocate for more demanding book reviews and better writing, but she also visited places like Selma in the mid-sixties and wrote about the experience for NYRB.

One of my favorite comments about her comes from the obituary that Mark Krupnik wrote for The Guardian:

“[Hardwick] was born into a large family in Kentucky, a southern border state that tends to produce literary sensibilities very different from those that flourish in the deep south. Her father was a left-leaning blue-collar worker who ran a plumbing and heating business. No doubt it contributed to her alienation from the mint julep school of southern writing that she was a city girl, from Lexington.”

I considered a number of her essays (you can read many online) before choosing a passage from her third novel Sleepless Nights, published in 1979.  Sleepless Nights is described as hybrid in form: somewhere between novel and memoir. It’s an artfully arranged collection of letters, portraits, musings, remembrances of the past and connections to the present: in other words, concerns that keep us tossing and turning at night. The book often feels like a glimpse into the writer’s notebook of a meticulous observer possessed of a singular gift for the apt metaphor.

While I didn’t choose the following passage from Sleepless Nights, it serves to introduce you to Hardwick: her mastery of the list, the complexity of her thinking, the diversity of the influences that worked upon her, the perceived limitations of her time:

“Tickets, migrations, worries, property, debts, changes of name and changes back once more: these came about from reading many books. So, from Kentucky to New York, to Boston, to Maine, to Europe, carried along on a river of paragraphs and chapters, of blank verse, of little books translated from the Polish, large books from the Russian—all consumed in a sedentary sleeplessness. Is that sufficient—never mind that it is the truth. It certainly hasn’t the drama of: I saw the old, white-bearded frigate master on the dock and signed up for the journey. But after all, ‘I’ am a woman” (Sleepless Nights, p. 8).

Hardwick’s life and career had their own brand of drama, of course, every bit as fraught as any quest by sea.

Photo source: Getty

 

Claiming a Space, Making It Yours

                       “Virginia Woolf has said it: What a woman (what any writer) needs in order to write is a room of one’s own.     It is not simply a matter of space — it is a space of one’s own that is needed.”  —Pat Schneider, Writing Alone and With Others

 Google “writers on their rooms,” as I did, and you will find blog posts, TV series, photo sequences, books examining “where I write.”  Even non-writers seem fascinated by the spaces in which their favorite authors spend their creative time.  As a tourist I have visited writers’ homes — from James Thurber’s house in Columbus, Ohio, to Anna Akhmatova’s apartment in St. Petersburg, Russia, and many spaces in between.  Something in us wants to see the rooms where writers sit doing their invisible work.  As if by entering that space we could enter the artist’s process.

In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard muses, “ . . . if I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamers, the house allows one to dream in peace.”   Writers’ rooms fascinate us because they house the dreaming that is the creative process.  The contours of walls, the angle of light, even the stacks of papers and books become the shape of that dreaming.

The need to understand writing spaces became urgent for me as my husband and I consolidated our family home of thirty years with my separate writing space of more than ten years — combining two kitchens, two sets of everything, including two writing rooms from two different phases of my writing life.  In my relief at letting go of the burden of a home too large for two people and my anticipation of no longer having to maintain two households, I denied what the moves meant for me as a writer:  the dissolution of a space I had slowly claimed in which to do the creative work essential to my wellbeing. Instead of the joy and ease I had expected to feel in claiming our new space, I have felt mostly anxiety — the primal terror of “disassemblage.”

In an essay I wrote twenty years ago I described the writing room I created for myself in our family home.

 But one room of the house is mine alone, reclaimed from Barbies, Little People houses, and the spring- frame rocking horse–Shy Anne (Cheyenne)–where [our oldest daughter] sang to Sesame Street.  Sitting in the quiet of what has become my writing room, rereading Wallace Stevens’ “Idea of Order at Key West,” I understand it at the level of the body: “there never was a world for her/Except the one she sang and, singing, made.”   Here, in what was the playroom for the first six years of this house, my girls sang themselves into existence.  Those years the bodies of my children enfleshed Paradise, ordered the universe.

And beyond that Paradise, this angled space above the garage has become my retreat:  to three favorite chairs, two desks, and half a dozen bookcases filled with poetry, volumes on craft, essays, science, and theology—my  room.   What is distilled here is an inner landscape, a different kind of garden, and one which it has taken me years to claim.  Beyond Edna’s pigeon house and the insanity of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper, I have brought Lessing’s “Room 19” home.  My place of solitude.  To not create this place, I finally understood, was death, a drowning in other people’s needs, a suffocation.  Here writing continues like the heartbeat in the center of the chest, life within a life.  My home.  [“No Place Like Home,” The American Voice, No. 49, Summer, 1999]

Of course, my old spaces, dismantled in the course of moving, are not recreate-able in this very different room.  Everything from the compass to the floor plan make it impossible. I can’t quite find myself in this room I have chosen, and I’ve given up my old writing rooms, which makes me angry as well as anxious.  Above all I’m impatient to get on with work long interrupted by this dual move which has dragged out now for five months.

Tonight, reading and preparing to write, I glanced up and for the first time felt my new writing space taking shape:  the space seemed to gather itself around my ratty peach recliner (reclaimed from that first writing space) and the desk moved from my writing studio, set at  90º  to a scarred work table inherited from my grandparents’ business, and the bookcases along the walls and the lamps I have gathered over years.

Yes, there are boxes to be unpacked and things to be sorted, put away, let go of, but I am making (again), in my intuitive, slow and inexact way, Woolf’s “room of one’s own.”  Inimitable.  Suiting only myself.  A dreaming space.

 

 

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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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.

 

How Do You Slice the Pie?

(Photo source: trapezoidal.wordpress.com)

I finished up my day job on January 31, and since then I’ve been figuring out what it means to live a writer’s life. I’ve discovered there’s more to this than sitting in front of my computer or scribbling in a notebook. A life of the mind must be nurtured by many food groups.

Here’s a partial list of those groups:

  • I write,

AND

  • I belong to a writing collective,
  • we share work in progress and provide feedback to one another,
  • we take turns posting entries to this blog ,
  • I lead workshops for adults and children,
  • I facilitate a book discussion group,
  • I participate in readings/I attend readings,
  • I submit work,
  • I meet with students who are working on manuscripts,
  • I copyedit manuscripts for publication,
  • I take workshops and attend conferences,
  • I read—books, newspapers, magazines,
  • I attend a revision workshop focused on the novel,
  • I’m trying to decide how much of my own web site I can create, and
  • over it all hovers the question of whether or not to tweet!?

While I acknowledge the importance of these activities, I’m constantly working to find the right balance. If not vigilant, I can spend 95 percent of my writing life doing everything but writing. I can subsist on a diet of reading alone, for example, or I can happily gorge myself making suggestions on other people’s manuscripts.

From time to time I must pull back from these literary indulgences and chant a line of poetry I first heard back in 1981: “The real writer is one/who really writes.” (From Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to”)

How do you distribute the time allotted to your writing life? How do you keep yourself focused on writing?

 

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Writing and Time

This week has been a rich one for public events. On Monday Elizabeth Strout read from her Pulitzer Prize-winning story collection, Olive Kittreridge, at Centre College. Wednesday night contained both the inaugural Bryan Station High School Poetry Slam and the live stream of the National Book Awards, culminating in “the best acceptance speech ever given” by poet Nikky Finney

This morning I’m considering how time works in a writer’s life. I mean the span of time, not the daily increments that most writers have to defend. Ms. Strout wrote the work in Olive Kitteridge over seventeen years, a time segment that yielded two other novels. The exuberant and courageous students on the Bryan Station stage could have forty years to go before they might find themselves winning a National Book Award. Or sixty, if they are to be like John Ashberry who earned the lifetime achievement award. The writing life is for life. The writing life is a life. It is not a smooth climb up a ladder, though we all wish it were. Good work takes time and patience and faith. It is during the long slow path to possible grand reward that we deal with the daily portion of work we do. It is the daily work, the placing of stone next to stone, word next to word, that takes us to our destination.

Should we tell the young eager poets at the Bryan Station it might take decades before a first book is in print? Would any of us have set out on this arduous pilgrimage if we had known how many years would pass before we achieved a modicum of success? That thought daunts. But, if one truly loves playing with words, testing them, tossing them, catching, and grabbing the newest combinations, the freshest truest thoughts born of a startling arrangement, then yes, we do and will keep on playing, working–you choose–until we can no longer speak.

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