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

Glendalough, Ireland 1

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.

 

 

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.

“I’m Writing a Book”

I had the same experience twice this week. I’m chatting with a friend or an acquaintance at a social gathering, community event, or business function when the person leans close, assumes a sheepish grin, and in a voice pitched too low for anyone else to hear, confesses, “I’m writing a book.”

Such confessions make my heart sing. Don’t whisper, I think. Give yourself a pat on the back. Treat yourself to champagne. I wish you every success. And don’t give up.

Lately, with the future of “book” (as we understand the word) in question, the attempt to write one strikes me as heroic. Will the very concept of “book” become outmoded?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “book” comes from the Proto-Germanic bokiz or “beech,” a reference either to the beechwood tablets on which runes were inscribed or to the tree itself. As the publishing industry pushes us toward the virtual, will the roots of the word in the physical world seem inappropriate? Does an e-version deserve to carry a name based on the organic materials from which a book is made?

The picture that accompanies this post features a shelf in my home library. It just happens to be the shelf where my own as yet unpublished book will live (in alphabetical order by author’s last name, should it be destined to take print form), living out eternity somewhere between the books of John Irving and Kazuo Ishiguro. Given the current state of publishing, I sometimes despair of ever seeing my book assume this place.

So to all of you closet writers out there, keep telling me your secret whenever you can.  And keep writing your books.

And let’s agree that when we envision “book,” we’ll see our words pressed into paper that has tint and heft. We’ll imagine our pages as leaves that ruffle in a breeze. When we say the word “book,” we’ll think about where it will sit on a shelf or how it will rest on a table.

We’ll remember that “book” refers to something three-dimensional. In that form, books occupy physical space and cannot fail to demand our attention.

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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.

Hungry for Good Writing

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

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

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

They are hungry for good writing.

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

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

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

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

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

We couldn’t agree more.

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.”