The Writer’s Journey

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By the time I reached adulthood I knew not to trust anyone. I knew to take things seriously. Not to say out loud anything that mattered to me. Not to expect anyone’s help. To be leery of people who wanted to help. To leave my body if I needed to.

I have been compelled to write the story of my unusual childhood, and now sixteen years after starting my project, I have an agent and a completed manuscript that’s making the rounds at various notable publishing houses. Join me next Tuesday night at the Brandywine Valley Writers Group where I’ll lead a discussion on The Writer’s Journey.

I’ll be using Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work “a best-selling guide to getting your work discovered,” to help me describe my own path. I’ll be using his points to make my points. He says that work, or in our case, writing, “is about process not product and that by being open and freely sharing your process you can gain a following that you can then use for fellowship, feedback or patronage.”

My own process has been slow for good reason, and I’ll talk about the hurdles we all face in trying to move forward in the seemingly solitary pursuit of “being an author.”

Meet us at Ryan’s Pub in West Chester, PA at 7:00pm to join in the conversation about The Writer’s Journey.

Throwing plates at the wall

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Whatever was on my father’s mind was rarely a secret. Unless it was a secret, of course. Both my parents were masters at keeping secrets. Common everyday concerns, like how they felt about me, for instance, was worthy of a trip along with them to their graves. Oh, they tried to come up with plausible feelings, but I don’t think they knew how they felt about much.

Their feelings popped out unexpectedly at times.

They didn’t fight. At least not in front of the kids. Oh, they did bickering pretty well, and complaining, and Dad was especially good at deriding, degrading and humiliating. But I was shocked to learn, that during my childhood, Dad would get so mad he threw plates at the wall. That’s what Mom said, and I believed her because it definitely sounded like Dad. But I never saw anything like that. That was a secret.

It was no secret that was how it was supposed to be. You are supposed to never share your feelings, if you even know what they are.

That’s what I learned at home.

Daughter saves the show

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Last night my daughter complained that both my husband and I fell asleep at the movie theatre. (What are they putting in those loungy reclining chairs for anyway?)

“It’s like going to the movies alone,” she said.

I countered with, “You used to wet you pants, you know,” and that shut her down!

Thanks to her waking me several times though, I can report that Knives Out is a delightful show with an unexpected social commentary under all the fun.

I’m always on the lookout for signs that people care

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As a Quaker and as a human being, I’m not a big lover of guns. But this weekend, a group of us from the Quaker Meeting went to the home of a deserving gentleman where I was encouraged to develop my skills with a nail gun. I personally installed those brackets inside his shed, and that was after using a battering ram to remove the old roof and install a new one. I even learned to hammer in roofing nails to shingles fitted and lapped into place. Others worked in the main house, and all in an effort to make the home safer, warmer and dryer, the mission of Goodworks, the organization supporting our work.

But then care comes in many forms.

Yesterday afternoon, a friend treated me to a group demonstration of how to make a Christmas centerpiece. It was a gift from her to me. At the end, though, the leaders encouraged everyone to make a second floral arrangement and to give it away to a friend or neighbor who would benefit from the cheer. On the spot I was able to pass on the gift as the two of us stopped by two homes in our neighborood where medical issues darken their lives.

Care comes in whatever way you want to package it. The common denominator may be the joy we take in caring for one another how ever we do it.

I’ve suffered from emotions my whole life

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This is me at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this fall.

Movies for me have always been a secret way to spy on others. I’ve had emotions my whole life and it’s been a big problem because they weren’t allowed in my house growing up. Because I was isolated physically and emotionally, movies were one of the ways I discovered that other people suffered emotions too. I’d see how a mother and daughter might interact, or discover that crying was acceptable. I’d feel the validation that disappointment happened to others, and the acknowledgement that forgiveness is real.

Even the least popular movies were wonderful for me, because they suggested that there was no shame in having emotions. There they were, on display, larger than life.

That is why I willingly signed on to watch ten shows in the space of 72 hours at TIFF this year. I am a lifelong movie lover and this event did not disappoint. Some movies were great, some were weird, some were not good at all, but overall, the artistic endeavor to depict the human condition in whatever way offered, is fascinating to me.

My favorites this year:

Blackbird with Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill, Kate Winslet and Rainn Wilson, and

Dads, the documentary directed by Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard.

Storytelling 101

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A jeans pocket I embroidered circa 1974

I was watching Abstract: The Art of Design, a Netflix program, when Ruth Carter, the designer for those fantastic Black Panther costumes explained that it was not a love of fashion that led her there. My ears perked up when I heard her say that her heroes were authors, poets and playwrights, like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. She considered them designers. And they inspired her. She says people think she sews, but that’s not it at all. Her work is an art form. A means of storytelling.

What?

Her Black Panther costumes apparently incorporate the history of African tribes. She selected a color palette to support the words and scenes of the script, and fabrics that mimicked the specifics of the landscape and of African traditions.

When I heard all this I felt like jumping off the couch. Because I used to sew. A lot. And I never once thought of my many hours at Mom’s Singer machine as a means of storytelling. I was supplying myself with clothes. Otherwise, my choices for what to wear included anything from my two older sister’s hand-me-downs. By the time I left home during the college years, I was splicing patterns together, custom fitting every project, and embellishing my work with embroidery, contrasting thread and button tricks.

But storytelling was not on my mind.

My work back then was literal. I sewed the straightest top-stitching around. By eye. And I measured three times before I cut once. My work was impeccable, skilled, practiced and I considered going on with it somehow. But the only idea I had was to become a tailor. I did not see the possibility of becoming even more creative in my sewing or to tell the stories I wanted to tell through this art form. So hearing Ruth Carter tell me that I could have, that she does, confirmed what I’ve learned about art in general since then.

It’s about expressing yourself and you can do it any way you want to.

So, I ended up writing a story to express my story. Being literal once again.

But the good thing about art is that the story is still the story however you tell it.

High apple pie, in the sky hopes

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Next time you’re found with your chin on the ground, There’s a lot to be learned, so look around

My chin WAS on the ground, so I looked around.

And then three girls from our local STEM high school answered my ad! My new marketing team are these media-savvy students determined to assist this local author in improving my platform.

My agent tells me that the editors she has shown my work to were interested in my story, in my writing and in me. But my lack of a platform has been a stumbling block. I need to engage with the writing community more and reach out to potential readers. So since this is not what I know how to do naturally, I have called together these smart teens to assist.

My goals include producing a book trailer that highlights the story I have available for publication, taking the time to regularly sit next to a live person who can in real time advise me on how to make “genuine connections electronically”, and learn more about the authors out there that I love for their work and their stories.

Wish me luck as I embark on this self-assignment to lead this team toward the publication of my manuscript.

I’ve got high hopes. I’ve got high apple pie in the sky hopes.

P.S. In case you are wondering, goober peas are boiled peanuts. Just saying.

I go to the farm for the smells

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CSA Two Gander Farm

My CSA was great this summer because it was like shopping in a grocery market. I was able to select what I wanted skipping the dark leafy greens in favor of beets every time!

Besides the great food, though, I use a CSA for another reason. A secret reason that no one can see as I select my squash and tomatoes, and as I tramp around the beds in the field picking flowers and cherry tomatoes or beans and fresh herbs.

I’m breathing while I am there.

I am breathing in fresh air and smells of the farm, of soil and rain and varmints. Being there, my feet sinking into the ground, makes me remember my childhood. My father was a dairy farmer, and I am not kidding, the smell of cow manure is not a bad smell to me. My CSA has no cows, but since Dad also raised vegetables, every summer my mother and I sat snapping buckets of green beans then blanching them before freezing. Stepping out to the farm once a week has its purpose for me today.

My childhood lacked important elements, but one thing it had for sure, was an abundance of contact with the earth. Sometimes you’d find fall leaves on the steps going up to the attic as if they’d wandered in and hitched a ride through the house. Or you’d hear creatures in the walls and a possum on the porch. The dirt tracked in the house from my dad’s boots and the stem he used to pick his teeth meant he’d spent the day in the fields checking on his men. And for me, the babble of the creek nearby was as hallowed as the voice of a trusted friend.

Although Two Gander Farm is my outdoor grocery store, I go there not just for the rich produce. There’s a sense of belonging I don’t feel anywhere else. The smell of leaf and seed and dirt in the cracks of the barn’s floorboards swirls around me and welcomes me in. The ladders, the post beams, the creaking of the roof as windy air whips through, or just the puddles that gather where they will as it happens, all love me just because I show up.

Being on the farm makes me remember that the earth is my friend and otherwise I don’t visit it enough.

My conversation with Mark Twain

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Mark Twain and I were chatting the other day when he said to me, “When in doubt, tell the truth,” as if I hadn’t heard THAT before.

What was he even talking about? Of course, I tell the truth, that’s the whole point of my memoir. But you can’t just tell the truth as if it is a finite thing, Mark. Nope, I’ve learned over the years, and it’s been a difficult surprise, that my truth is not necessarily your truth.

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything,” he explained.

Mark Twain seemed a little exasperated as he stared back, not even batting an eye. He sat still as a stone, a cold chill flying off his shoulder directly at me.

But you might consider, he continued, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

Thanks for that, Mark, but I can’t stop myself, I told him.

He seemed a little testy now.

Best I can do is be as honest as possible and hope others see that’s what I’m aiming for. I want to make a point, you know. About how we try to love each other and about how it doesn’t always work out that well.

Mark softened and I thought I saw him smile. His parting words, which I chose to interpret as supportive, were all I needed to head back to my desk and hit the keyboard again, back on my way after our brief interlude.

“All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.”

Thanks, Mark. Looks like I’m ready then.

Some books get more love than others

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Look at the place of honor my childhood etiquette book has on my shelf at home, right on top of old Charlie Brown comics and even Charlotte’s Web. I’ve always loved this book, set in rhyme, because it spelled out the expectations of adults. It seemed I was always getting everything wrong as a kid and this book held hope that if I only studied the rules I could lift myself into the world of those who knew how to behave. And even though it reinforced the gender stereotypes of the day it was still a book embued with hope.

There is plenty of advice in there about not bothering one’s parents and being nice to pets, lots of ideas that helped me learn to be civilized even when the world around me seemed less so. But this page seems especially sweet. I have shelves full of dear old books that have served me well over the years speaking to me with unqualified respect every time I open them.

I love books. But some are more special than others.