Monday, June 30, 2014

Learning from Lawrence Coates

Lawrence Coates writes, among other things, about California wine country. Living near hillside vineyards here in Germany, I took an instant interest purely because of the subject matter. That and his affiliation with Bowling Green University in my home state of Ohio. Over the course of the conference I appreciated his particular note of inquiry and unusual perspective. He's reminded me that a lot can happen when you bring "unrelated" ideas together.

Workshop title: The Story and the Novel--Forms and Variations

June 4, Opening Faculty Panel: Why are we writing?

Lawrence commented that some people write from tragedy and pain (I would count myself in that group), but that he writes primarily out of inquiry, out of not necessarily accepting what's taken to be "real." He writes historical novels. Writing is a means of understanding the self as one of many; of locating the stories of others; of exploring how people live in relation to the natural world in the place he comes from. Similar to Ellen Bass (and her comment picked up from Lawrence's), Lawrence says writing is about the pleasure of making.

What I learned about Lawrence's workshop from my "spies"

Well, I didn't have any official spies that I grilled about the fiction workshop. We heard from several participants during Open Mic readings, and I was moved, entertained and impressed by what I heard. Fiction writers create worlds without hanging on to actually occurring or already occurred realities. In my own writing (so far) I remain so connected to rendering actual events that this ability to create worlds is a marvel to me. I read a good deal of fiction, but I wonder if I will ever grow the muscles to write it.

Despite the lack of spy activity, I have located one of the fiction workshop activities based on texts Lawrence shared during his reading and in a posting he made on Facebook right after the conference. He described the exercise as picking an improbable image to write to. The images are generated by a group of writers together. Then each picks one to write about in 500 words. I'm sure if you try one of these prompts, he'd be delighted to hear from you.

From a June 9, 2014 Facebook post by Lawrence Coates:
"If anyone who has done a common image story with me is interested, my group came up with three new prompts at Writers @ Work. The rules are simple... you have to write a short short, 500 words or less, with one of these images included:
1) Baby doll in a wheelchair.
2) Panties in a pine tree
3) Pizza in the rain.
It seems that one of the shorts I read there, 'Lobster in the Laundromat,' made an impression. At least, one of the other faculty members said that his students were talking about it."
He's right, "Lobster in the Laundromat" made an impression on me and others. I've looked for a published version to link to, but I haven't turned one up yet. My current lead is a literary magazine called Lake Effect. However, it is print only, and the website does not indicate the issue that contains the Lobster story. I'll update this entry when I get the information.

June 6, Reading by Lawrence Coates on Friday night

Lawrence opened his reading with two of these short shorts. The first, "Bats in Purses" and the second, "The Lobster in the Laundromat." Both pieces carried compelling and bizarre imagery. It stays with me, the picture of a lobster watching clothes circle around beyond the glass door of a washer. The good news is that another piece, The Trombone in the Shopping Cart, was just published by Ascent. It's different from the Lobster, but the stories share an aching loneliness--the loneliness of being overlooked--that pierced me when I listened to the reading.

During the second part of his reading, Lawrence read the first chapter of his newest novel, The Garden of the World. While researching a previous novel, he'd come across an historical event that he chose to be the ending of this novel. (I won't say what the event was; you might find it more interesting to discover for yourself.) He conceded that some of the research for this winemaking novel was "liquid and pleasurable." When he mentioned the "fruiting canes" of the grape vines in the second paragraph, I became alert: here was my chance to learn English terminology about vineyards, since I've learned most of it in German.

This novel was the Coates book I purchased. I started it on the airplane home and finished it a few days ago. The pages are filled with sweeping and intimate scenery, with period detail in buildings, clothing and vehicles, and with characters that fully inhabit three dimensional space. Most of the chapters are subdivided into morsels of scene and image. The events accumulate in a way that feels close to life--memorable segments add up while the stuff in between fades away. There's lightness in the language--not in the sense of lacking content but in the sense of moving easily, without being weighted down. Here's a sample from a World War I battlefield in Chapter Two "Loyalty Day" (page 17):
       "There was only one tree still standing in the cratered earth between the two trenches, a stumpy, unidentifiable tree, with most of its branches and leaves blown off, more like the memory of where a tree had been than anything yet living. ...
        Then, suddenly, the tree was lit from within, a great tower of light from in the heart of it, illuminating it to the tip of its crippled branches. Gill remembered very clearly that sudden light."
June 8, Closing faculty panel: How we got here and where do we go from here?

Bouncing off Ellen Bass' comment about looking for multiple metaphor options (rather than aiming at some ultimately "right" one), Lawrence shared a technique he uses to get clarity about a character. Define the character by generating ideas this way: "S/he's the kind of person who _____________." Like metaphor, these ideas need to stay on the level of the concrete. He gave an example of the character Meyer Wolfsheim in the Great Gatsby, a man who wears cuff links made of human molars.

As a favorite exercise, Lawrence offered the disparate image activity described above. Another image possibility: Wedding Cake in the Road. Although I haven't tried it yet, the exercise reminds me of a prompt I've tried from Brian Kiteley's 3A.M. Epiphany. This link to Kiteley's website will direct you to some exercises from his new book, the 4A.M. Breakthough. Similar concept. Exercise 15 in the 3A.M. Epiphany instructs the writer 1) to develop a vivid, haunting image; 2) to develop a second, unrelated compelling image; 3) to write a story fragment out of the two images together (600 words). I was astonished at the energy of this when I tried it several years ago. I'm guessing the disparate image idea has a similar source of tension and creativity.

I'm always grateful for creative impulses from fiction writers and especially from writers as generous and pleasant as Lawrence Coates.

Poetry addendum to Learning from Ellen Bass

Yesterday I linked to Seema Reza's page, where I posted poem ideas within the comments of a prompt she posted. I thought I'd also post them here.

Original draft, June 8, 2014
Precise black nibs, air-filled and
separate, top jaw flopped wide
I contain a gathering of long-sleeves
along on a summer trip, the other
shoes, embroidered vest, crinkled receipt.
I await repacking for a multi-flight
return; my teeth will perform their
miracle against the odds
and ends I hold while I totter and wheeze
and glide and shudder when you shove me
in that overhead bin. But I will not
be the one flung in the hold below, so there,
bigger bag, so there.
Reworked draft (for shape), approx. June 10, 2014
My precise black tines comb empty air
flat jaw flopping floorward
mine are the long sleeves brought on a
summer trip, embroidered
vest, birthday cards, receipts, the other
shoes. My tiny hooks yield
one by one—a corps de ballet—we are
a miracle against the odds
and ends I hold. I’ll glide, stand, topple
and shudder at your shove
in that lunchbox overhead. But I’m not
the one who’ll be flung on
a belt towards a crushing, frigid pit. So
there, bigger bag, so there. 
In my notebook, I also found this embryonic text, fed by poetic impulses and written June 8, the day the conference ended. 
In my writing I seek Simon
a boy who would not be little now
whose voice could be gravel or stew
or honey like his father's
who would know private things
he'd not tell me
who would sweat and lust
adultly arms and groin and growingly seek to leave
yet still be one I can't keep my
eyes from, one whose sleep
I watch like drinking wine
whose calmed face reminds of the
tiny closed eyes, the mouth
owning my nipple.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Learning from Ellen Bass

The 2014 Writers at Work conference (June 4-8 at Alta Lodge in Utah) featured four workshop instructors: Ellen Bass (poetry), Michael Martone (multi-genre), Lawrence Coates (fiction), and Robin Hemley (literary nonfiction).

As a participant in Robin Hemley's workshop, I spent the most time learning directly from him about the genre I write in: nonfiction/memoir. However, I made it my business to learn as much as I could from the other three instructors as well. I listened carefully during faculty panels and readings. I made use of "spies" in each of the other workshops. I took advantage of opportunities for conversation at meals, in the hot tub, and walking down the halls.

Reflecting on five intensive days spent in the midst of writers takes some time, especially after the travel I did in May and June (Oberlin, Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, and Alta during three weeks in the US). The next trip, barely a week after I returned to Germany, took me to Austria for busy days of family visiting and music performance in celebration of Markus' parents' 50th wedding anniversary. If it weren't for the distraction of World Cup soccer in Brazil, I might be digesting my conference experience more swiftly. But that temptation is too great, and I enjoy watching the games.

My idea is to share what I learned from this year's conference faculty, each of whom has sent me forth with impulses and energy for my work. I want to begin with the poet, Ellen Bass.

Workshop title: When I Met My Muse

June 4, Opening Faculty Panel: Why are we writing?

Ellen offered a good, basic reason for writing: because you want to. She compared writing to making a mudpie--something you do for the primitive satisfaction of making. "If you love sentences, then you can write." She considers writers to be "people for whom writing is more difficult" and she sees writing "as a way to pay attention, notice more deeply." When terrible things happen, she said, write.

When the discussion moved on to writing about challenging topics, Ellen encouraged us to be bold. "Nothing is taboo; you have to be brave to reveal, to be controversial, to write things somebody thinks you shouldn't be writing (or another part of you thinks you shouldn't)." She said she thinks of herself as being in the special olympics and trying to do her best there. It's an honor to be in the lineage--you put your pebble, not necessarily a boulder, on the altar of writing.

Ellen also spoke about facing ignorance--our own and "dumb questions" from others. I liked a term she used: you develop "functional calluses" against what others might say; you learn to give stock answers. If I understand my notes correctly, Ellen indicated an energy about her own ignorance--that it means she always has something to bring to the "blank page," something to work on.

In closing, she offered: "If you're writing, you're a writer. If you stop writing, you're not a writer. The whole game is to keep writing."

What I learned about Ellen's workshop from my "spies"

My lodge roommate, Katharine English, and workshop mates Star Coulbrooke and Natalie Taylor from last year's conference (during which I boldly joined the poets for the three days of workshop led by Katharine Coles) kept me apprised of their progress in the poetry workshop. Notably: Ellen structured each of the three days to include a two-hour writing block. Participants wrote a new poem each day. (To those of us in "workshop method" critique-based sessions, where you can learn a great deal but you must then apply the learning on your own later, this opportunity to generate work inspired some envy.) We heard several of these new works during Open Mic readings.

The second thing my spies raved about in Ellen's workshop was her critique method. For a given poem, the critique began with an opportunity for participants to praise the work in question. Then Ellen carefully, kindly, wisely and thoroughly offered a spot-on critique. I believe I can picture this process, but I would have enjoyed seeing it in action.

Finally--and quite amazingly for me--my own writing found its way into the poetry workshop. As described in the June 11 post The night I read at Alta Lodge, my Thursday night reading had a direct connection to Ellen's topic for Friday's workshop: Sentiment vs. Sentimentality. (I.e., emotion is present in the writing without relying on expressions like "It was terrible.") My fellowship-winning essay, "Objects of My Attention," goes into intimacies and detail about my son's death to cancer and about my ensuing grief. The topic is loaded with sentiment--knock-you-out-at-the-knees sad and awful experiences--but the writing is object-based, specific and unsensational. Over and over at lunch on Friday, poetry workshop participants enthusiastically told me how often they had referred to my writing in their discussion that morning.

June 7, Reading by Ellen Bass on Saturday night

Ellen read from her poetry collection Like a Beggar. As I generally do, I scribbled along while listening. She began with a lovely assertion: "Poetry is one way of choosing joy." Katherine Coles offered a similar sentiment last year. I believe I am beginning to see over the edge and into the deep poetry well of joy. Here are the snippets of language that made it into my notebook.

"breasts that remember the sting and flush of milk"

          "the backyard potatoes swell quietly"

"as darkness was sinking back into the earth"

         about killing chickens, Ellen said, "I loved the truth"

"rhododendron blossoming its pink ceremony"

          "the moon rinsing the parked cars"

I allowed myself to purchase one book by each of the faculty (watching my luggage weight limit). I chose Like a Beggar.

June 8, Closing faculty panel: How we got here and where do we go from here?

During the final panel, Ellen stressed the concept of discovery. "If you get to the end of the page and you have only written what you already know, then you haven't written yet. Allow the poem to have its way with you. The poem is smarter than you are." In her workshop, she said they focused on finding sentiment, not bland statement. She cited neurological studies that support the idea that sensory detail activates brain response. In workshop they looked at metaphor, and her advice is just write a bunch and select later rather than tunneling toward the "right one."
Example: After reviewing these notes, I tried the metaphor idea. I'm struggling in one piece of writing to describe a certain Christmas tree decoration typical of my Austrian relatives: special chocolates wrapped in fringed tissue paper, hanging as ornaments on the tree. How to describe that tissue paper wrapping, the fringe? I've tried pompoms. No. My sister-in-law suggested those fringed papers at then ends of chicken drumsticks. No. (A Christmas tree covered in chicken legs?!) So (sitting on the toilet) I let my mind wander. I saw the toilet brush. Then in sequence: hairbrush, toilet brush, street sweeper, car wash scrubbers flapping around, anemone in water. Hmm. Could I use the idea of anemones? Then I saw the color palette of the tissue paper as that of tropical fish. It's quite accurate. Perhaps I can make use of this association. Perhaps I'm still looking.
Another Ellen-ism from the panel: Why make a fool of yourself? Why not make a fool of yourself?

An audience question from Lori Lee, a member of the nonfiction workshop, yielded a true bonanza of inspiring exercise ideas. I am so grateful to Lori for asking the question. Ellen contributed a series of "writing prompts that bring up a lot."

1. Write a scene when father (or other) comes home at the end of the work day when you are a child. This sort of "poem of the moment" has the best odds of working out as a poem.

2. Discovery is best when it "just happens," but when it doesn't, you can be aggressive about discovery. Ask your poem: "What do you want to be when you grow up?" If it says "I don't know" then look at its "test scores" and say (like a school guidance counselor) "maybe you can be this."

3. Imitations. Do them tight or loose. Try same syllable count. Imitate metaphor and image, reflective statement. "Suck DNA out of the poem. Steal its exuberance." As a poet, you absorb rhythms in your cells, especially from older poetry. Appropriate as much into your body as you can.

4. Practice before you begin work every day: write ten lines of iambic pentameter. It can be nonsense. Use the practice to walk through the door of poetry.
I tried this on June 26 during a writing group session:
To sit and think and write and look and breathe
I go to Cindy's garden hut and reach
my arms too high to write, my elbow up
my shoulder slant; I angle chin and line
of neck to accommodate this chair, this desk--
a table rounded, brown and formed to look
like wood, like walnut, eb'ny, something dark
but plastic, meant for outdoor use in rain
or sun, still new because the garden's new--
a hiding place with birdsong, breeze and light.
5. Gather suggestions and prompts from writing books for exercises, put cut up slips into a basket, pick one before bed at nigh. That's your assignment for tomorrow.

6. Purposely write something bad (150-200 words). "To write not bad, you should avoid using adverbs." If you succeed, you have managed to create a "good badness." The exercise can disable anxiety about your intent (what you want to do) and performance (what you do do). "If you write bad well, you can feel good about it." (I've tried this before, and it can be a lot of fun.)

My gratitude and admiration go to Ellen Bass for her gifts at the conference. I wish I'd taken the opportunity to speak with her directly. Somehow the time went by--and I missed my chance for an autograph in her book. However, I was paying attention!

I'll close with one more mention. I left the conference with poetry inspiration, quite probably because of Ellen's reading on the last evening. The next day, back in Salt Lake City and getting ready to re-pack for the flight home, I happened on a poetry prompt on my friend Seema Reza's blog. Instead of packing, I wrote a poem from the prompt. Then over the next days (including endless hours in airports and planes) I fiddled with a relining/rewrite of the poem to give it a visual shape. In the end, the first poem is the best because it holds the energy. But it's amazing how far you can travel in re-expressing ideas and adding/removing syllables or letters to fit a concept. If your eyes haven't fallen out already from this long post, head over to Seema's blog and read my poem versions in the comments on her June 2 post called Normal. Then stay on her blog to read her June 11 stop on the Blog Tour.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Today's look at the pumpkin patch (flash post)

Shaping up the pumpkin patch after restarting the plants. Getting them ready to grow and take over the garden. (Slight reworking of the same post of June 25th.)

Late June, the pumpkin plants are up and clustered
around five yellow markers.

Too many seedlings competing for nutrients and space.

Alas, I have thinned each spot down to one plant
(although the metaphor of weeding out the weakest causes me some pain--
this is, after all, a pumpkin grown in memory of a sick child).

The current forerunner, a seedling growing solo for several weeks now.
I had planted a random seed before the first plants got munched. Markus
replaced it with one marked 2005 from our neighbor Elizabeth's garden.
So it's not truly a "?" anymore. Those were awesome pumpkins she grew.

I'm looking forward to what happens next (and so is Simon-the-Cat).
All pumpkin posts:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pumpkin update

"I wonder if they're blooming? You never know what a flower does when you're out."
Simon Craig Vodosek, age 4, April 15, 2002

Simon made that comment as we were driving home from daycare. The weather was unseasonably warm, and I'd asked him what he thought the tulips might be up to, the ones he'd helped plant in the fall. Somehow, the quote came to mind today, and I searched for it in my files. You can read the original Simon Says entry on Simon's Place. Scroll down to find April 15, 2002. But then read the whole page. I found many quotes to chuckle over--just normal times with two kids, aged 2 and 4. And some entries help us understand what it might feel like to be four years old and have cancer.

Seeds from the original 2004 pumpkin, just up since yesterday.
Simon frequently commented about nature in ways both cute and thoughtful. Markus and I always believed we heard an echo of Linda Britt, the wonderful daycare mommy who cared for both Simon and Miriam in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She guided the kids' appreciation of holding roly-poly bugs and hand-picking raspberries. Linda's brilliant rule for little ones: one-finger touching. Kids can't damage a flower by pointing gently at it (just by grasping and mashing or tugging it).

On Simon's birthday, May 17th, I planted pumpkin seeds directly in the soil outdoors, taking advantage of the warm spring. Other years, I've set seeds to sprout in the house on Simon's birthday, then planted them in June. Four days later I was on a three-week trip in the USA, solo. I hired Miriam as my tender and waterer. A week after the planting, she sent a photo of the first sprouted seed. But soon she noticed nibbled off  leaves on all the small plants. Markus helped her replant the pumpkin patch. Knowing they truly always sprout, I had placed a single seed next to each yellow marker. To assure success, Markus said he planted a bunch of seeds at each location and covered them with plastic cones to keep the munchers away.

A cluster of seedlings awaits thinning.
Now Markus knows the pumpkin seeds really do come up. It will be his task to thin these out. I told him if you want to overdo things, then plant two seeds instead of one. 

Growing out of the cone, a pumpkin from year "?"

Soon they'll be big enough to evade the munchers. Pretty soon they'll take over the garden. But for now, they make roots and prepare. Here's what things look like today, June 13th. Miriam made 31.50 Euros, by the way.

About five pumpkin plants this year.
The other end of the garden has the returnees of last summer's perennials. On a sprig of lavender, in front of the gaura (whirling butterfly), there's yet another delight: a real butterfly. The German word, aside from "Schmetterling", for this sort of creature is "Falter", which carries the meaning of folding. I find the word poetic. I'm guessing Simon would, too.

White butterfly alight on lavender.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

After traveling

Typing again with full-sized keyboard in a pull-out tray, 23-inch monitor, and a mouse at hand after three weeks on the road. Ahh...

The thing I miss the most on my 13-inch laptop: forward delete. On my iPad: arrow keys.

My optician predicted I'd need a prescription update every three years when I got my first glasses nearly three years ago. My middle-aged eyes. From the typos I made looking at my little laptop screen, I'm convinced: it's time.

Back up drive plugged in where it belongs. It's good to be home.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The night I read at Alta Lodge (2014 Writers at Work fellowship in literary nonfiction, part 2)

Up in the Wasatch mountains, toward the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon at 8,530 feet (2,600 meters), I spent five days in a rustic lodge with a group of writers. We collect here to listen and talk, read and write, exercise our intellects and our emotions, and a walk outside if we make the time. It's the Writers at Work annual conference, this year featuring workshops with Robin Hemley in nonfiction (my group), Michael Martone in multi-genre, Ellen Bass in poetry, and Lawrence Coates in fiction. Participants share in afternoon open-mic readings (a good place to start, as I did at a 2006 W@W conference back at Westminster College in Salt Lake City). In the evenings, we hear readings from the faculty, guest writers, and the year's fellowship winners.

It's behind me now, and I still can't quite believe I was one of the readers on Thursday night, along with Mil Norman-Risch (fiction), Molly Spencer (poetry) and Rachael Weaver (guest writer). What a night. I was glad I had practiced reading for audiences. For a final dress, I hiked alone up the mountainside in the afternoon and spoke the text once to stony cliffs. All went well. In sharing this intimate, sacred text about my family's life and my son's death, I gather strength.

The next morning, I journaled. This bit of writing struck me as I reviewed my notes while flying home to Germany, yesterday to today. From the transatlantic flight, I've shared photos out my window in a new slide show: Sunset to Sunrise.

Sunset to Sunrise slide show

To move this post along, I'd like to quote my notebook from the morning after my reading at Alta.
June 6, 2014, 7:12 am, Alta Lodge
For weeks I'd steered myself toward the date of June 5th, my reading of my essay about Simon's death at the Writers at Work conference. Today is June 6th.
I'd set my alarm for 6:45, just in case, expecting I would rouse earlier, naturally with things to write on my mind (my blog, comments for workshop). But the electronic marimba twiddled its pattern of notes and tore me from far under.
No sign of my roommate. Blankness in my mind first. Then remembering to roll to one side of the bed to quiet my iPad alarm to the other side for my thyroid pill. Is the dose related to the faucet of sweat, only worse since coming to the Salt Lake Valley from Ohio, worse since coming up in the mountains? In Germany it's been only moderately bothersome (or I've stopped caring). Here I'm switching shirt, bra and underwear 2-3 times a day, grateful they dry out again so fast, doubting cotton after all--sweat soaks my cotton armpits dankly and the microfiber bra stays near-dry.
It was my neck I felt in the morning, though, mis-angled on the pillow, a ruler inserted from mid-shoulder up through the side neck toward my skull, both sides, pressing muscle, nerve. Familiar pain. I cope by expecting I can't relieve it--only by getting up, beginning things, taking my mind other places. The pain has become part of me, like my brown eyes.
Brushing teeth I closed my eyes into a weeping--into the empty-other of after-the-anticipation. I had done it, that reading. Stood in the restaurant turned event room, held a wired microphone in my right hand, steadied the shaking atop my right breast, wished for a camelback tube to suck on as my mouth dried to paste but raised the light plastic cup with a quivery left hand to sip only when I could truly break, but not during Part One when I needed it most because it was better to lose my B-sounds and R's to the stickiness of mouth flesh than to stop anywhere in that long piece of cloth.
There are many gratifying outcomes from the reading. So much support for both story and writing. The next morning, members of the poetry workshop stopped me at lunch to say they'd been discussing my work as an example of sentiment vs. sentimentality. My work was a literary reference!

People ask me how I can do it, read this difficult text out loud. The answer is this: I believe in the words, one after the next. By giving these words to an attentive, absorptive audience, I find the energy I need.

A choir friend, Renate, from Salt Lake City drove up for the reading with her sister. They are German, and we conversed a while "auf Deutsch" afterward. I walked them out to the sidewalk, where we leaned on a railing and gazed at the half moon. Renate began to sing: Der Mond ist aufgegangen. I joined her for a verse, holding the melody to her ornamentation. I turned to her and said, I just want you to know, that was Simon's favorite German lullaby. He used to ask for it: Mo' gange.

That lullaby was part of Simon's memorial service in Salt Lake City on August 28, 2004. Soprano Carol Ann Allred and pianist David Owens performed. I've linked to the full text, with English translation, at Simon's Place. It's a beautiful, thoughtful, quiet text worth reading. Don't miss the photo at the bottom of the page showing our sweet four-year-old Miriam.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The blog tour (and some complicated stuff I do when I write)

Today I’m officially joining a blog tour. I want to thank Natalie Taylor for inviting me. She and I became friends during the 2013 Writers at Work conference in Katharine Coles’ poetry workshop. Natalie’s forthcoming chapbook, Eden’s Edge, is one subject of her blog: Eden on the Edge. I had the pleasure of sharing a reading with Natalie last week in Salt Lake City. Her poems (some of them) meander through imagery and concepts of the Garden of Eden. Others travel through (sometimes appropriated) childhood memories. She shared perhaps eight poems (I was listening, not counting). I am eager to read the full chapbook. Thank you, Natalie, for thinking of me and tagging me for the tour. Natalie’s blog tour post about her own writing process is here.

Natalie Taylor reading at First Unitarian Church
in Salt Lake City on May 29, 2014
I’ve done a few minutes of research to locate the origin of this particular blog tour. I don’t believe I found it, but I did find sites that promote Book Blog Tours and Blog Book Tours. Authors can tour their books from blog to blog as a means of widening their audience instead of or in addition to traveling city to city to read and sign books. If this particular blog tour started that way, I believe it has now become something else, perhaps like a game of whispered telephone. Natalie was asked by a writer friend, and then Natalie asked me. My task is to answer four questions about writing and pass the tour along to writer friends of mine. It’s like a game of tag. In my case, there’s no book to promote, not yet. Although my forthcoming publication in Quarterly West of my fellowship-winning essay will be a sturdy start.

Here are the blog tour’s four questions.

1) What am I working on?

I am writing a lived story. Perhaps it is a memoir. Perhaps it is essays that approach the topic in various ways. The life experience that brought me to writing is the illness and death of my son. One ongoing project is a chronological draft of the story, which I began in November 2013 by writing 50,000+ words during National Novel Writing Month (I blogged about NaNoWriMo on November 23, 2013 and November 28, 2013). That project has stalled around 130,000 words. I drafted chapters on conceiving a child, being pregnant, giving birth, parenting and breastfeeding, giving birth again, parenting and breastfeeding even more. Around mid-December, as I continued drafting, I reached the time of Simon’s diagnosis, and the narrative became much more difficult to write. I find myself splintering into multiple (possibly interesting, often evasive) directions. It is difficult. 9/11 happened. My friend Sally’s father died of prostate cancer. A month later we discovered Simon, at age four and a half, had an aggressive form of cancer.

2) How does my work differ from other of its genre?

I need to identify my genre before I can answer this question. The quick answer is “memoir”. Another answer is “creative nonfiction”, which my husband, Markus, recently misremembered in an informative way: “fictitious non-creation”. Maybe I’ll go with that.

There are a few books (Hannah’s Gift by Maria Housden, Comfort by Ann Hood) written by mothers who grieve a child lost very young. Neither one feels to me like what I’m doing, but I’m not done yet. Uncommon as child loss is in our society, we know how common it is in human history. I believe Housden and Hood each provide a response to this dichotomy of the universality and deep personalization of mother-grief. I believe my work will offer an additional unique response.

Joan Didion’s two books on loss and grief, on being a wife and being a mother, also feel connected to what I’m working on. The Year of Magical Thinking was published in 2005 not long after I first read Didion and not long after my son died (2004). I recall waiting for a turn on a library copy. The backdrop to Didion’s exploration of walking forward after her husband’s sudden heart attack and death is their daughter’s ongoing hospitalization. Blue Nights, sadly, chronicles the death of her adult daughter, about a year after her husband’s death. The New York Times review of Blue Nights calls Didion a “connoisseur of catastrophe”. Yes, I believe that’s what draws me to her and to Annie Dillard (especially Holy the Firm). I need companions in catastrophe. I hope one day I will write as powerfully.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I can’t stand not to. The experience gestates within me. I carry it. On a day I can’t yet imagine (just like anticipating a birth), I will bring it fully into the world.

4) How does my writing process work?

I journal. I draft. I do very well when I’m in a workshop or a class and someone gives me an assignment, preferably a very smart one. In my current chronological draft, I have avoided doing “research” by looking in my older journals or digging out the binders of medical records and notes from Simon’s illness. I’m looking for the story as I remember it. Occasionally, I consult a photo or the updates my husband and I posted at Simon’s Place. Sometimes I use a date calculator or calendar to help me remember things such as what day of the week Christmas fell on in a given year.

As I return to the initial drafts, I add material. I look for the places that hold energy and write more to uncover what’s underneath. I share parts with my writing group for input. Sometimes there are multiple drafts to combine. Inevitably, the writing process reveals things to me: things I had quite forgotten (often poignant), disparities between the memories in my head and actual documents (photos, videos, writings), and filtering of experience through media (I remember a certain photo or video segment, I realize, instead of remembering the event itself).

Here is an example. For the Writers at Work workshop with Robin Hemley starting on June 4th, I have put together a manuscript using an idea from my (as I call it) NaNoWriMo draft. The time of Simon’s diagnosis and illness presents writing and emotional challenges. One approach I tried was to tell the story in four consecutive Christmases from 2001-2004 (from diagnosis to after his death). From an initial five or six paragraphs about each of the four Christmases, I explored and expanded each part. I wrote about earlier Christmases. I had pages and pages. Then—I thought this was a clever idea—I decided to make each section take the form of “flash nonfiction”, which will be the focus of the workshop with Robin Hemley. “Flash” is variously defined, but let’s call it concise writing that’s under 750 words (sometimes under 1,000 and sometimes even shorter). The challenge of re-condensing my expanded material did a couple of things. It made me cut, cut, cut. It made me find efficient modes of expression. And it confused the hell out of me.

Christmas 2002 ended up absorbing some of the “earlier Christmas” material, but out of chronological order. To begin reducing and integrating, I went at my various drafts with a Sharpie marker, blacking out everything but the words that had to stay. I snipped the pages into segments with their handwritten notes and highlighter scribbles and then taped them together in a new order. I threw some parts away. In the end, I had a four-foot long strip.

Work very much in process, May 2014
I rolled the strip like a scroll to clear it aside. The next morning, when it was time to write the new draft, I attempted to unroll the thing and spread it out on a corner of my desk. It rolled back on itself. Then I had an idea: what if I leave it rolled up and simply reveal it bit by bit as I write? (Think Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and John McPhee’s article Structure in the New Yorker). I steadied the thing by winding it around a roll of paper towel. Bit by bit, I arrived at a new draft. The roll, I discovered, relieved the intimidation factor of writing the whole section anew because it revealed just one workable bit at a time. My goal became to finish the scroll, and I did.

If you click on the photo to view it larger, you can read
some of the scribbles and the type.
Often, that is how I write. Sometimes, though, I get an energetic first draft that holds. My essay for the Writers at Work fellowship begins with paragraphs I wrote as an exercise for a class. The essay’s opening sentence comes whole from that quick draft. I posted the original exercise on Simon’s Place in an entry from November 7, 2009.

Passing the blog tour on to the next writers

Seema Reza is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, DC, where she coordinates and facilitates a unique multi-hospital arts program that encourages the use of the arts as a tool for narration, self-care and socialization among a population struggling with emotional and physical injuries. She serves as a council member-at-large for the Transformative Language Arts Network. She is at work on a forthcoming book of poetry and prose. I met Seema in 2012 during a Writers at Work conference in a nonfiction workshop led by Steve Almond. In May of 2014 our paths crossed again at the Creative Nonfiction conference in Pittsburgh. Her blog is Seema Reza—Reading and Writing.

Nicole Trick Steinbach goes by the name of Pickle in the blogosphere. Also known as Mrs. Steinbach (Frau Steinbach), also known as Mommy, also known as Nicole, she is an American, living and working in Germany since early 2003. Her two children regularly inspire hilarious blog posts; too bad she usually falls asleep before she, you know, blogs them. Nicole and I met obliquely through the online ex-pat community Toytown Germany because we were both looking for a writers group. We found we lived in the same general quadrant of Germany and created our own group for two until her first child was born. I am proud to say that when I offered support for her breastfeeding in the early months, Nicole (and her son) really “ate up” the advice I was able to give. Nicole’s blog is Pickles and Onions. Head on over to find out who Onion is.

Ladies, I give you the tour torch. I’m eager to read your posts.