Category Archives: Writing

Let Me Read It To You

My then 20s something daughter said it best. “The main problem for my mother is that she has always been ahead of her time.” She supported this assertion with the statement that her mother had used what was then called “natural childbirth” when she was born. She added that her friends, who were just beginning to learn that taking drugs during labor might not be advisable, couldn’t believe her mother had acted on that so many years before.

Perhaps creative people have always had this problem but in the present era’s ubiquitous focus on branding, the timing and seeming appropriateness of an idea or project seems to have become even more critical. Being seen as a trendsetter is of value, but it’s not advisable to get too far ahead of where most of the herd are grazing. So recently I’ve been paying special attention not only to what’s emerging in my creative consciousness, but also to what’s happening in the larger culture, hoping for some possible connections during my lifetime.

Here’s the way my creative process works. Like most people, I get a lot of ideas, but every now and then, one idea won’t leave me alone. It continues to emerge and reemerge in spite of my efforts to question the advisability of acting upon it. Take for example the idea of writing a book. I wrote a book that I started with a co-author in 1985 and my version was finally published with me as the sole author in 1992. The process was so grueling that I told myself I would never write another book.

The idea to write another book came to me sometime in 2006, but it had to keep competing with the part of me that had taken that vow of “never writing another book.” I’m happy to say that the process of writing the second book was much more grace-filled and enjoyable than the first, but it did take, just as the first book had taken, seven years to become a reality. So perhaps our reticence to act on our inspirations exists to protect us from all the years of work that will be required to go from idea to reality.

Closet StudioSo here I am again, about to act on one of my ideas, to “ground my vision in reality, “as Anna Halrpin would say. Almost from the beginning of working on my second book I thought about the idea of creating an audio book version where I would read to my “readers”, making the book available for people to listen in their cars, or on their mp3 players while they worked out in their gym or garden. In the ensuing years, this idea has grown into a passionate desire.

Since Warrior Mother was published by She Writes Press in 2013, I’ve been Performing the Book, around the country and internationally, reading passages from the book while improvisational InterPlay performers respond with stories from their own lives. This idea, conceived as a way to get the word out about my book, has been most satisfying for me, and I believe for the participants who have performed or witnessed it.

All this practice in reading sections of my book out loud has given me the confidence to hire a sound engineer to help me create a sound studio in my closet and read and record the entire book for an Audio version of Warrior Mother.

Those inner voices of reticence and dissent have been making quite a ruckus lately as I prepare to act on what is now a burning desire. But all that became silenced this morning when I read Wyatt Mason’s article, Audio Books Read By the Author in the New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/17/magazine/letter-of-recommendation-audiobooks-read-by-the-author.html?_r=0

Mason begins by extolling the virtues of poets reading their own work but then he says, “I would extend Rilke’s idea beyond poetry to prose. Because in prose, the author’s voice is even more essential to making the text not only intelligible but also meaningful.”

As I enter my sound chamber/closet to begin production of my audio book tomorrow, I take this as encouragement from the universe that this project will be both timely and relevant, and serve the purposes for which I intend it. Stay Tuned.

What’s Involved In A Writing Life?

Writers write, or so they say. And though I write most every day, it hasn’t been the type of writing I believe that wisdom refers to. In the last two weeks I’ve written a writer’s statement for an article being published in an anthology in May, and three proposals for speeches I hope to give. Inspired by a woman who writes regularly for a business magazine I’ve filled several pages with practice headline titles for future workshops and articles. She said she spends half her writing time on the headlines because if they’re not engaging and provocative, what you write in the article doesn’t matter. No one will open or read it.

I’m still kept busy tending to the needs of the book Warrior Mother that I’ve already written: writing thank you notes to the people who helped me with last week’s Seattle workshops and book performance, sending emails to workshop participants so they’ll fill out the survey monkey evaluation forms, and organizing my notes from an online course I’m taking on book promotion. A couple of days ago I posted information on Facebook about a radio show I’ll be engaged in.

WritingLife_bookLooking over my list of recent duty filled writing inspired me to re-visit Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I was hoping for some inspiration, remembering what can happen when we writers respond less to external demands and more to what is trying to emerge from inside. Visiting her website, which I was surprised to learn she manages herself, http://www.anniedillard.com/ I find the following, “I’m sorry. I’ve never promoted myself or my books…Here is some information for scholars. (I’ve posted this web-page in defense; a crook bought the name and printed dirty pictures, then offered to sell it to me. I bit. In the course of that I learned the web is full of misinformation. This is a corrective.)”

What I learned from Annie Dillard, a most prolific and accomplished writer who was born in Pittsburgh – The life of a writer, whether experienced or neophyte is nowhere close to our romantic notions of that profession. It takes a great deal of determination to pursue it.

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On Receiving a Book Award

The email to inform me that I had won a book award last week went to my spam folder. A voice mail message on my home phone delivered the news that Warrior Mother had won a silver in the category of “Inspirational Memoir – female” for the 2014 Independent Publishers’ Living Now Book Awards.

LNsilverMy first reaction was a feeling of not being sure how I felt. I sent my husband and best friend a note saying, “I think this is a good thing.” In spite of the ambivalence I’ve always felt about contests in the world of art-making and performance, the powerful role that individual taste and opinion play in the final judgments, and that at some point, the differences in quality between offerings are often miniscule – I’ve decided to decide this is a good thing. 

I got into this contest because last summer as my book was coming came out, my publicist suggested I do so. She warned it would take a year or so to get results, but if I won, that would be good timing to re-energize the sales of a book that would no longer be “hot off the press.”

This particular contest satisfies my social work heart in that it honors books that have the ability to change lives. “The Living Now Book Awards celebrate the innovation and creativity of newly published books that enhance the quality of our lives, from cooking and fitness to relationships and mature living.”http://www.independentpublisher.com/article.php?page=1861

And, I’m at the place in my life that I don’t want to pass up any opportunity to celebrate – my own achievements, and the accomplishments of people who contributed to Warrior Mother through the years; those that helped me live through the events I wrote about, the community of supporters such as my writers’ group who helped in the process of writing, the She Writes Press team that produced the book, and those of you who have been willing to read it, tell your friends about it, write reviews and help me perform it around the country. Please join me in this celebration. I’m sending each of you a high five and a gigantic thank you.

Speaking My Mind

As a writer with a new book out, I’m not turning down any invitations to read my work in front of an audience. I had the privilege last Sunday of participating in an outdoor literary event sponsored by the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. http://www.cityofasylumpittsburgh.org/

CityAsylum-30

The provocative theme we writers were asked to respond to was “I Don’t Know What I’d Do if I Couldn’t Speak My Mind.” Every 10 minutes for six hours, a different writer read from their work while groups of people walked past, lingering a bit as they participated in the Mexican War Streets Annual Home Tour.  I read a short excerpt from Warrior Mother, and three short pieces inspired by the topic.

Speaking My Mind
Before I speak, my focus goes to stillness inside.
Before I speak, my ears listen for the sound of suffering
Before I speak, my heart decides, will this serve love?
Before I speak, my gut signals something must be done.
My hands speak as I type and text.

The tone of my voice speaks, revealing sorrow.
My muscles speak as I lift debris from the river.
The twinkle in my eyes speaks of a grandmother’s joy.
My arms speak as I churn the chocolate chip cookie batter.
demanding peace.

Speaking My Mind 2
My mind’s in my feet, like a choreographer taught me years ago. We were rehearsing a dance in a church, suspended high over the pews that the congregation would soon fill for the service. We danced on a ledge over the pulpit, perhaps illustrating a story from the bible, “And David danced before the Lord.”
There was no railing, nothing to catch us if we fell. “Keep your mind in your feet,” she called out from below. “That’s the only way to stay safe.”
That’s how it is for dancers, writers, musicians, spoken-word performers – people who insist on staying in touch with their souls. Having your mind in your feet means that your sole is in touch with the earth, a necessary connection as you move about on uneven surfaces, exploring the territory close to the edge.
To be an artist is to live there, on that edge, and though you become accustomed to dancing with your own fear, your witnesses, fanning themselves as they recline in comfortable cushioned seats, are both enlivened and terrified by the possibilities you present.

Speaking My Mind 3
People who know me as I am today might not believe it, but I haven’t always spoken my mind. On the surface of things you might say I’ve had the freedom to do so. But like other children of “The Silent Generation” I learned early not to disagree out loud with the adults around me.

As a young woman I followed the rules, even the stupid unwritten ones, like women must behave as proper ladies, and be careful not to threaten men. I finally found my voice to object to being paid less than men I supervised, to being given half my ex-husband’s debts but not his good credit score.

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Is The Story True?

In a recent column, Maureen Dowd raised the question, “Why can’t filmmakers tell the story as it actually was?” Lamenting the creative license taken in Oscar nominated films, she objected to the fabricated car chase in Argo, done for dramatic effect, and the historical inaccuracy of the voting process for the 13th amendment in Lincoln, done reportedly for simplicity sake.

Creative non-fiction writers have been dealing unceasingly with the issue of truth, since their motto is “True Stories, Well Told.”  In finishing my mother’s memoir due out this summer, I recognize I’ve learned a great deal how complex truth actually is. In my family, as most likely in yours, people who were present for the same events have quite different perspectives on them. My book, Warrior Mother: Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and Rituals that Heal tells events from my perspective. My daughter’s then 12 year-old son, her husband, or my son’s stepfather would each have their own views of the events we all shared. As a social worker, I know it’s not productive to ask who’s right? Everyone is right from their own perspective. In literature this is called point of view.

In my retelling of events I discovered that I sometimes misremembered details. An email exchange with my son-in-law resulted in some fact checking on some items I got wrong or didn’t give the emphasis they deserved. And any telling of a long complicated story involves selecting what to include and what to leave out. This selectivity becomes by its very nature, not telling the whole truth. When given the assignment at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival to write a scene from the perspective of someone who is likely to see it differently than me, I discovered that there was a previous scene to the one in question that I hadn’t included. From my perspective it wasn’t important. But telling the story from this other person’s perspective, meant the previous scene had to be included. Later, I decided to leave it in because it added a rich layer to the story.

“Truthiness,” Stephan Colbert’s made up word is defined as something that feels true, intuitively, without regard to the evidence. In spite of it’s being all in fun, I think he’s on to something. In a radio show recently I heard Maya Angelou say that truth is not the same as facts, and that in some instances, facts obscure the truth.  Since the meaning of a communication is in how it is received, I like the notion that feelings are facts too, just a different kind.  

Then there are the secrets withheld, to protect the innocent, the guilty, or to maintain peace in the family. I wrote a paragraph that involved my son but when I shared it with him he said that wasn’t what he said. His denial did not convince me because in my training as a therapist I was taught to write my client notes so carefully that when called upon to read them out loud in a courtroom under oath, I would feel confident of their accuracy. But whether he said it or he didn’t, I took it out and replaced it with another truth we both could agree on.

The Path of a Warrior Mother

In looking at images for the cover of my book, Warrior Mother, I discovered early on that pictures of a skinny woman, dressed in battle gear, brandishing a sword were totally irrelevant. I found in Native American folklore, references to the path of the spiritual warrior, which was more what I had in mind. A spiritual warrior lives everyday, closely aware of his or her own death. And since death is guaranteed to happen to each one of us, no exceptions, spiritual warriors face that possibility every day.

Warrior Mother is the story of my journey as a mother, through the diagnosis, illness, and deaths of two of my three adult children. Looking back, as soon as my 20s something son Ken was diagnosed with AIDS, he was staring death in the face, and so was I. I become a warrior mother because I didn’t want him spending his then waning energy having to take care of me. As a model for him, I felt I needed to be brave and positive. As Dr. Bernie Siegel, who worked with those exceptional patients that defied the odds, said, “In the absence of certainty, there’s nothing the matter with hope.” http://berniesiegelmd.com/

In my readings I discovered the notion that what makes something sacred is sacrifice, not a popular concept in today’s world.  But when my 40-year old daughter called me, five years after her brother’s death, to say she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer, I did whatever I could to help her. It wasn’t want I’d planned for that time in my life, but when the mother of my three grandchildren said, “I want my mom,” that became my sacred assignment.

From all that we learned as a family from these experiences, lessons I hadn’t read about in other places, it seemed I needed to write about them. And since no family will escape having members become ill and die, it is my fondest hope that these stories might be helpful to others facing their own life and death situations. As Peggy Andreas writes, “This relationship with her Death calls the Sacred Warrior to be who she truly is, to live her life fully and completely, to use the power-from-within.” http://dreamflesh.com/essays/warriorpath/

Learning to Take Turns

The holidays take us away from our daily rituals and that’s both the good and bad part of it, so this is the first chance I’ve had to get back on the horse of my writing practice. As I write, the image of one of the highlights of my holidays comes to me, my four-month old granddaughter, Kyra Joy jumping on her daddy’s knee.  She pulls against his arms that surround her trunk, seemingly poised to jump off of a high diving board into the open space in front of her. Adult relatives gathered around are having their first meeting with her and her charms; her dimples and smiles, and the sound of her laughter, she captivates everyone.

She seems to know that all eyes are upon her, and she relishes this assignment as the star of the show. Rather quickly, she recognizes our conversation as a game that involves taking turns making sounds. Someone says something, and then another person contributes his or her sounds. Uncle Bill makes sounds, so Kyra Joy contributes hers. Cousin Ethan speaks and Krya Joy answers him. Her utterances are not words yet, but she makes every attempt to improvise sounds with her voice and by changing the shape of her tongue.

As the grandmother I remember her Aunt Corinne at this age, always the center of attention in any family gathering. As the first grandchild on either side everyone saw her as the miracle gift that each child truly is. I remember when Krya’s dad, Kevin, came along two years later he didn’t speak or even much try to talk till he was 3 years old. When he finally did speak, it came in long full sentences, not pronounced very well. I always thought he hadn’t taken the time to practice. But his daughter is starting her practice early and catching on already to the notion that the main idea is not just to create one’s own sounds but to also listen carefully when someone else is making theirs.

Show

One of the games we play in my writer’s group is to challenge one another to write a response to a single word using only 100 words. It’s a discipline much needed in these days of sound bites, blogs, and tweets. Here’s my 100 word response to this week’s word, “Show.”

A picture’s worth a thousand words they say, and new technologies are busy demonstrating that truth. Skyping with my son, his facial expressions and gestures show me how he really feels. My high school granddaughter constructs power points to show teachers and fellow students what she’s learned. My techie friends’ Facebook posts include images and a ytube address.

Elementary school children still do “Show and tell” as we did in the olden days, and writing students continue to be admonished to show not tell. But it still takes dancers to show with their whole bodies, that which words cannot reveal. 

A Reason To Write

Yesterday was National Writing Day. In honor of that event I decided to share an experience I had this summer, while working on my upcoming mother’s memoir, Warrior Mother.

Most everyone knows that no two people, present for the same event, are having the same experience.  Witnesses to traffic accidents, or to someone committing a crime, often differ in their accounts, sometimes even providing conflicting details. In recent years, the emergence of DNA evidence has secured the release of many incarcerated persons, convicted on the evidence of eyewitness identifications. In these cases, the DNA evidence demonstrates the person convicted could not have been the offender, the eye- witnesses made a mistake.

Fiction writers can capitalize on this truth of differing perspectives by telling the story from various characters points of views. But what to do when the story is my own? When I am describing my experience of a real life event that happened in the presence of other family members? I am certain that each of them would describe the scene in their own unique ways.

I know I could tell them to write their own story, and some differences do come down to that. But in preparing my mother’s memoir for publication, I want to be as true to the reality of the situations I’m describing as possible.  And I want to understand to some extent, from where these differences might spring.

I found a course at the Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival titled: The Politics of Writing About Your Own Family, which turned out to be exactly right for this exploration. The assignment was to select a scene in your manuscript, and describe it from the perspective of a person who was present, and that you imagine would see the scene differently from you. I knew exactly what scene to select and what person, though I had no idea how I would be able to accomplish this daunting task.

Hold up in my second floor sleeping/writing room over the used bookstore where I was staying, I reread the scene I had selected just before going to bed, deciding I would tackle the assignment in the morning. I awoke with a start, remembering a scene that had occurred the night before the scene that was my focus. It wasn’t that I didn’t remember the scene, I did. But it hadn’t made the cut in my selection of scenes that were needed to tell my version of the story.  I immediately saw that it was critical to the perspective of the family member that I had selected, the person who I imagine saw things differently than I did.

So in writing the story from this family member’s perspective, (as I imagine he might tell it) I began with that recently remembered scene. Then placing these two accounts, side by side, I saw how different experiences of the same event develop.  I’m not sure which of us is right. I suspect we both are. And realizing this has changed forever, the way I remember it.