I’ve heard that creative people are creative in multiple ways and so we should not be surprised to find that Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan also paint pictures. But when you are struggling to be the artist you imagine yourself to be, like me, writing a memoir and telling a story I very much want to share, finding that I have hidden talents is confirmational.
In cleaning out an old trunk in the spare bedroom I came upon this drawing I made when I was sixteen. I’d forgotten that I once believed myself capable of such creations because honestly, right now, I can barely play Pictionary. But possibly if I renewed that notion that I can draw and I put my mind to it, I might win a few rounds.
This sketch is the result of the one drawing class I had in high school, with Robin Burkhardt, who insisted it was about taking the time and seeing clearly. And voila, she was kind of correct! This Bonwit Teller department store ad is a direct mimic of one I saw in the newspaper at the time. The coloring-outside-the-lines I allow occasionally suggests a little artsyness!
Believing in yourself is half the battle.
This year’s creative nonfiction writer’s conference, Hippocamp 2018, in Lancaster, PA was wonderful. I was particularly delighted with two contacts I made, both offering future collaboration on projects I am thrilled about. This doesn’t even cover the many other writers I met who were fun, inspiring, and helpful, the great speakers, and finding some wonderful books for sale at the book table.
One of the notable speakers was Lisa Romeo, who gave a talk titled, “Reconstruction: Transforming Essays into a Narrative Memoir Manuscript.” I’ve attended her workshops before and always, she had plenty of very useful information to share. This year’s topic, well it is precisely what I need to know right now: how to use what I have already written to recraft the story I want to tell. After the talk I spoke with her further, then ended up at a lunch table with her later in the day. We hit it off so well that she asked me to write a guest blog post for her blog, Lisa Romeo Writes (http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com/) about my job as a theme reader at the local high school. I am thrilled to tell people about the cool job I get to do as a writing coach to young people, that also supports my own interest in writing.
The second wonderful encounter I had was with Alexander Monelli who held a session titled, “Call the Doc: How Documentary Filmaking Can Help Creative Writing.” Well, I love documentaries, so sitting in a class where we discussed their structure was fascinating. It was actually a bit frustrating, though, because the instructor kept stopping the video to make a point about how the narrative was developed just as the story was most compelling! Got to watch those online to see how they end up! (https://www.monellifilms.com/) During the course of a Q&A I realized he might be the perfect person to talk to about producing a short book trailer for my memoir. My book proposal, which goes to various editors, promises that I will put a book trailer on my website once the book is published. Yikes! What was I thinking! No problem, Alex told me, he’d be willing to work with me to put it together. Yay! This story will be continued…
Considering the lousy reason I am mentioned in this article, it all worked out pretty well. Wells Fargo gave me back the money a fraudster tricked me out of, I experienced what it is like to be interviewed by a New York Times reporter, and I had the fun of working with a very cool photographer.
Stacy Cowley, the reporter, was so easy to work with, actually sending me a draft of her story about a week beforehand and asking for corrections which she actually took. Take a look, she’s a creative writer too. http://stacycowley.com/
Then they sent a photographer from two hours away, to my house, to take about a hundred pictures of me, suddenly, two days before the story was to run. I essentially had a professional portrait shoot without the fee, and have access to some pretty terrific photos for my someday book jacket. Here’s his website. The unusually great shots he took made perfect sense when I discovered he’d done photos for Newsweek, Time and Teen Vogue to name a few.
Sometimes you just have to balance out the difficulties of being a grown up human being with a look at the absurdity of it all. Here’s a story I told recently at the West Chester Story Slam for the evening titled “It’s My Job.” Mine is about the time I worked as a research monitor for herpes studies. Watch out, it’s gets a little saucy in spots. See more of my stories on the video tab above.
A few weeks ago I met with a woman I did not know, my first beta-reader for my manuscript of You’ll Get Over It, Jane Ellen, specifically to get her reaction. She, of course, knew all about my life and had opinions on it, and that was a shock. It was a surreal experience. Because I grew up in isolation one of my childhood dreams had been to have a witness, someone there to see it all unfold, so I wouldn’t have to live it alone. I used to tell the stories of my life to the trees, to the air, to no one, pretending there was someone there, and practicing in case someday someone would be there. Now that I have done that, told the stories to that nebulous someone out there, it feels pretty crazy.
She called the book “compelling” and “honest”. I was aiming for that! She said that the characters were living in her head even when she wasn’t reading the book. She even put in writing on my feedback questionnaire this: “It was also a powerful reminder of the importance of staying in touch with one’s feelings. From the standpoint of a writer, it was a strong example of powerful writing techniques.” When I asked what the theme was she wrote, “Finding one’s own voice, self, and sense of purpose in spite of great family challenges.”
She is a co-director at the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project whom I’d met at a writing workshop two years ago where I got her name and email address. So glad I dared to contact her recently asking if she’d be up for reading my story. I could not have asked for a better first beta-reader experience. Many thanks, Janice.
Today I started volunteering at a local elementary school, reading for thirty minutes separately with two second graders. I’ll be going every week throughout the school year to be their personal cheerleader in reading.
We had a lot of fun because discovering the story together, was a delight. Even though I know the story already, and even though I read it twice in one hour, it was a special experience each time. Each of the kids saw different parts of the story as significant and each was excited by different parts.
The little girl I read with was ridiculously cute, asking me when I would be coming back. She was clearly keeping tabs on me, calling out as she left, “See you next Thursday!”
At the bus stop today, which I visit regularly to stay in touch with my youngest neighbors, I showed the kids how to get my dog to do tricks in exchange for treats. One little girl was so charmed as my dog dutifully came to her on command, that she said to me quite directly, “You come back tomorrow and we’ll do this again.” Once the older kids were on the bus and she was headed back home her mom insisted she and her very young brother say thank you to me. She didn’t let them off the hook when it seemed a little difficult. They both knew, they’d been down this road before with mom, and they said their thanks. I thanked them in return for being great friends to me and my dog.
The parents of my piano students do the same. After every lesson they instruct their children to say thank you to me. I in turn thank them for working hard and for being great students. Kids don’t always want to do this. When my kids were little we called it a ‘proper thank you’ and it required that you look directly into the eyes of the person you were addressing. It matters to me that we acknowledge one another.
Friends of our stopped by last night to say thanks for a favor we’d done them. They stayed and chatted and let us know what it all meant to them. We shared in the joy of having a connection. We said thanks back for being great guests and for acknowledging our favor.
The reason I bring all this up is because saying thanks is part of how we get to know ourselves. It is a significant means by which children learn who they are. My MANTRA! Helping kids know who they are! It is important to me because it is the reason kids ever leave home and get jobs. They are itching to go and be who they are and live the life of a grown-up after all those years of being a kid and just thinking about it.
Saying thank you is a way to become aware of what they like. They are grateful and they say it out loud. Parents help kids know this about themselves. Know what they like. Consciously. Out loud. And this in turn helps them get to know who they are. And then they often hear back why the other person is grateful for THEM. Bonus that kids then learn even more about themselves. Teaching children to be grateful, to show gratitude, to not take the world, even neighbors and piano teachers, for granted, is a gift to your child because it is a doorway to helping them learn who they are. If they know who they are they have a chance of figuring out what to study in high school, in college, and then into the work world. Knowing who they are helps them direct themselves in life.
There are a whole bunch of other benefits to saying thank you, like bringing a positive spirit to those you interact with, like character building which is shown to be a key to doing well in school, like inspiring others to be conscious of themselves, like teaching children how to treat their parents once they themselves have become teenagers and then adults, and on and on. And there are, of course, many additional ways to learn who you are. But saying thank you is a cultural norm that I love to see young parents teaching their children. It is good for children, it is good for parents, and it is good for us all.
We’ve had a Mother’s Day re-do recently. I didn’t like Mother’s Day that much this year because I spent too much of it crying. Yeah, usually I like Mother’s Day, but this time I wasn’t feeling the love. Not that my kids aren’t good to me, but really, the effort was so low it hurt.
My husband does a great job of making me a super breakfast and showering me with gifts of flowers and such, but maybe because he’s taken on this job, my kids have not felt the need to rise to the occasion. In any case, even though I thought I made it clear that I wanted hard copy photos of my kids in their lives away from me, it didn’t really happen. Somehow it got lost in translation, and on Mother’s Day I had a beautiful computer file of photos from one of my kids and no hard copies from anybody. This is not a big request, folks.
I also asked for the ability to have a five-way Skype-like phone call since we are not living together anymore, and that is what led me to tears. It actually fell to me on that day to figure out how to do it. Yikes. It took an hour for the five of us to ascertain that we could not manage a five-way phone call because of various technical shortcomings in our respective hardware. I was so frustrated at my inability to communicate my desire for the photos, or the phone call, my inability to execute this desire when it fell to me, and the whole ‘lameness’ of the situation we refer to as ‘Mother’s Day’.
So, I called for a Mother’s Day re-do. This time I was definitely explicit about what I wanted. Hard copy photos, please. Many arrived in my hands just days after my breakdown with the kids. This time I wanted more than just a phone call, too. I wanted a real in-person fun day together where it was evident that kids went out of their way to celebrate their mom. I wanted kids to cook a meal for me, sit in the backyard enjoying it, and I wanted to know we have the capability, really this time, of having a five-way call once everyone goes back to college or their lives or whatever.
Given that everyone was poised to make a super looking meal, at my request, I felt free that morning to do something I have always wanted to do. Even though I wanted the kids to cook for me, I got up extra-early and made homemade cinnamon buns complete with a double rising (went back to bed for the 2 1/2 hours of risings) that I served piping hot, to my own delight!
I have failed to insist on being shown the love I know my kids have for me. And I have not adequately taught them how to demonstrate this love. I might have taught them inadvertently to take me for granted. I know my kids just needed me to tell them this. They just needed me to be explicit about my feelings, to let them know that ‘not much’ wasn’t enough, and that I feel I deserve more. I know I deserve more because I have tried hard to raise my kids with love and kindness and thoughtfulness, and even if I haven’t been successful at that, my effort has been stellar.
We had a wonderful day of cooking, eating, and hanging out in the yard. I had the unusual experience of sitting at my own kitchen table really getting to know my sons’ girlfriends, while others cooked. I was a guest in my own kitchen, and I loved it.
I proposed that this be our first annual Mother’s Day re-do, and everyone agreed to make it a re-do on the first try next time.
Last Saturday at the college rugby game we went to see, one boy broke his nose and another broke his leg. Not among those tending to their bleeding children, I had time to pose on the sidelines with my son and husband for this selfie.
I’m learning a lot about selfies. Turns out they are not just about self-absorption as I thought, but instead according to my daughter’s research paper (tipped by a generous cousin at UGA) I learned that they have much to do with communication and self-awareness.
If I’d been my son taking this picture I’d have been full of pride at the idea I’d inspired both my parents to travel two hours south from their home to see me play with my team. I’d have felt pride in being part of a team, in being fit, in being alive on a spring morning. No idea what was actually in his mind when he snapped this but he was eager to share it, texting it to me moments after he took it. I, in turn was eager to text it to each my two other kids.
For me the unspoken message here may seem obvious to some, and some may take it for granted that this is how families behave. But for me the idea that we travel to see our kids, that we have fun together and take such spontaneous candid happy moments as evidence of that, is the grateful message in my texts. I want to encourage our family to stay together and have fun together and texting selfies is a way to do that. I communicate my joy of being with my son and the implied joy of being with any of my children, and I report my awareness of this happy time by sending it to my kids.
It is hard to have kids leave home and spend their time away, so meeting them and enjoying their company whenever we can is top on my mind, and funny, my son’s selfie helps me appreciate that and share that and hopefully create more of that for the future.