Get Rid of Page Four

I love my Read and Critique Class.  I really do. Every Saturday afternoon as I drive home from class singing along with Adele or the soundtrack of Les Miserables, I  review in my mind the critiques I received from my fellow writers in the class.  

My mind swirls with all the comments.

“Love this first paragraph.” “Great grounding!” “Ugh, I was confused in page two. Who’s Nick?”  “Your descriptions are spot on, but this one is so over the top.” “You can get rid of page four.” “I hate your mother.” “You do dialogue so well.” “This is so repetitive.” 

By the time I get home, I am too weak to even look through the notes my classmates have scribbled all over my pages. I set my pages on my desk and leave them.

 I’ll save that for tomorrow. Or maybe never.

My husband can tell if my critiques were positive or negative by my face and body language when I walk in the door and he asks, “Did they like your scene?”

Writing is tough. Writing is painful.  Especially Memoir.

I love it. I hate it.  

We writers need a strong shell. Simply showing your work to other writers is frightening. Reading it out loud to them is even more petrifying.  All of our insecurities about our writing ability and storytelling skill are ramped up when we read the story of our lives in front of our peers. 

Will they judge our technique, will they understand it, and will they relate and sympathize with the story? What if they hate it? What if they laugh when it’s not supposed to be humorous? Should I even try to write?

All I know is that as hard as it is, it is also the best thing we writers can do–join a class or workshop with other writers and share our words with others taking the same path who are as vulnerable as we are. I promise, each class gets easier. Our writing improves. We keep writing and growing. And, if you are lucky, you find kindred souls to reach out to when you doubt yourself, who will be there for you in those dark moments.  And there will be dark moments.

Now I must stop and go over my notes from yesterday and, either way, positive or negative, they will force me to think outside of my box.  Perhaps I’ll make a tweak here and a change there. All I know for sure is that I will be a stronger writer, my scenes will improve and my book will be better because of my amazing read and critique class. 

Originally from Biloxi, Mississippi, Laura L. Engel has lived in Southern California for 50 years. She and her husband, Gene are the proud parents of six grown children and their spouses and “Grammy and PaPa” to nine exceptional grandchildren. Recently retired after 35 years as a regional sales representative for a national title insurance company, Laura left the corporate world and plunged headlong into writing her memoir in 2017. She has completed the Memoir Writing Certificate Program with Marni Freedman and currently serves as President of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association. She has won a place in the San Diego Memoir Showcase twice with scenes from her memoir. Her scene, “Secret Son,” was published in the anthology, Shaking The Tree, in 2018. Along with SDMWA, Laura is also a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild, Thought Leaders Who Write in San Diego, and Writers Ink. Recently Laura was interviewed by Dani Shapiro for her Family Secrets Podcast.

Laura’s  memoir in progress is You’ll Forget This Ever Happened ..The Story of a Mother’s Love and Secret She Never Forgot. Please visit Laura’s website:  https://www.lauralengel.com and listen to her podcast at: https://www.familysecretspodcast.com/podcasts/the-secret-son.htm

FB…@ laura l. engel author

IG…. @storytellerlaura

Writing as . . . Composting?

Colorful tulips blooming in a field.

I write about the weather often because I live in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Extremes. 2019 has been full of them. February’s –30-degree temperatures (without windchill) burst pipes in a building on the college campus where I teach, requiring classes to be moved out of the building for an entire semester. In May, five inches of rain fell on an otherwise ordinary day. 

Minnesotans consider spring sacred because it’s relatively moderate. My favorite part is tulips that bloom outside my home’s back door. Their hardiness, beauty, and short-lived presence after long, dark, brutal winters never cease to inspire me. I obsess over them. Once their green leaves push through the soil—and sometimes through the snow—I check on them as if they were pets. When they bloom, I stare at them giddily for a few minutes every time I step outside. When fall comes, I buy and plant additional bulbs because some Minnesota winters kill even the heartiest souls. And because I firmly believe one can never have too many tulips.

Like a tulip, a student essay I graded this spring pushed up through final exams’ black stress and white blanket of papers to present a colorful bud. The student mistyped our textbook’s title, The Composition of Everyday Life, and Microsoft Word autocorrected it as The Composting of Everyday Life

Initially, I sighed with irritation. 

Then I giggled, amused.

But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I fell in love with it. 

Composting everyday life seems like a perfect definition of writing. Creative nonfiction, especially, requires cutting through experience to find its most colorful or flavorful elements. Reflecting on and working with those parts to create something worth consuming. Revising to eliminate waste. Celebrating the fruits of my labor. Allowing the waste and myself to rest. Using the waste to prepare the soil for future projects. 

For me, the hardest part of writing is eliminating waste—better known among writers as killing my darlings. I’m a teacher, so I overexplain everything in early drafts. Cutting passages I labored over hurts, but it’s less painful when I think of it as composting instead of throwing away. That mindset was especially helpful recently, as I wrote a book proposal. 

I’ll be honest: Creating a proposal was among the hardest and grossest things I’ve had to write, and that includes my Ph.D. dissertation. Aside from the strict format and application of phrases like “poignant but inspiring” to my writing voice (eeeww!), I resented putting so much work into something I might never need. There is no consensus among agents or publishers about pitching memoir. It’s narrative, so some want it pitched like fiction, which doesn’t require a proposal. But it’s nonfiction, so some want it pitched like a how-to or research-based book, which does require a proposal. Most don’t specify, leaving the writer to make her best guess. And forget about consensus as to what belongs in a memoir proposal. One thing all agree on, however, is the need for a chapter outline, and that was the toughest part to write. I had to summarize each chapter of a book I’d revised over and over to add layers of complexity and subtlety (I hope!) by boiling it down to one typed line per page. 

While painful, the outlining exercise proved (I grudgingly admit) informative. I began to see my book’s potential in new ways, to question links among themes that had previously seemed as obvious as rotting vegetables, and to identify weeds I’d thought were flowers. It made me want to revise my entire manuscript again (while also laughing with hysterical madness at the very idea). The proposal and the additional revision it inspired seemed like wasted time and effort, but in truth, it was composting: revisiting early drafts and remixing the book’s ideas to create a layer of nutrients that would feed the final draft’s blossoms. Composting makes the process feel more like pruning to make the bloom healthier than throwing away something nature and I worked hard to grow. So I cut, mix, rest, and then sift the draft, letting “dead” passages fall away, perhaps to feed future projects. If nothing else, the process creates improved writing skills.

I can’t say that revising will ever be as fun as watching Netflix or riding horses, but it’s certainly less malodorous when I think of it as composting rather than trashing.

Image by 1195798 from Pixabay

The Drop-In Technique

A stack of rocks in a cairn

About the Drop-In Technique: A Guided Meditation To Access Your Life Experience 

For years of teaching memoir classes, we needed a way for writers to bring their true life experiences to the page as if the reader was a fly on the wall—in the moment with them. Yet, at the same time, if it was a difficult life experience, we wanted the writer to access memories without feeling overwhelmed.
We tried many techniques and finally found success with a guided meditation that helps the writer visualize their life as a timeline they can drop into at any moment, yet feel a sense of protection from the raw emotions the writer may have experienced during the time they first lived through the experience.

,
It’s been a powerful tool I have used for years. Usually, I read the meditation out loud and then allow for time for free writing in class. No tool has been met with more excitement and success and many had asked if I would record it. However, making a recording never felt right until I met Kimberly. She is a writer, healer, and yoga instructor and has a natural gift when it comes to guided meditations. Kimberly took the drop-in technique, added in music and made it her own. Please give yourself the gift of taking some time out to drop into a guided meditation. I would love to hear your thoughts about your experience. Enjoy!

Drop-In Technique for Memoir Writers

Warmly,

Marni

A photo of Kimberly Joy

Kimberly Joy writes to share messages that uplift and inspire. Her pieces encourage and provide new ways of perceiving the world and life’s experiences. Her background as a Physical Therapist, Restorative Yoga Teacher, and Guided Meditation Specialist gives her a deep understanding of the mind-body connection. She loves to share this wisdom in hopes of assisting others on their journeys of health, healing, and inner peace. You can find more of her writing at MessagesfromJoy.org

Music Credit: Christopher Lloyd Clarke

Photo Credit: Kimberly Joy and Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

The Sacred Truth

A self portrait of the son of Guest Blogger, ELizabeth Eshoo as he looks for truthI cracked open. I was sprawled out on the oblong yoga cushion like Jesus on the cross—arms wide and chest towards the heavens—as my yoga instructor’s guided meditation took me back to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I saw the yolky sunrise break through the ink-black sky, remembering the night I spent so close to the summit. I felt the frigid numbness in my toes, fingers, and eyeballs. I felt the power of that moment, standing on the roof of Africa more than twenty-five years ago like I was back there fully.  

Our instructor, Kimberly Joy, said something like, “Go to your sacred place,” and it took all of a second for me to be there. Whatever she said next, maybe “What’s sacred to you?” broke me wide open.  I was sobbing, convulsing with emotion, my spine still pinned to the yoga cushion, my heart on full display, and raw emotion spilling out into the unfamiliar yoga studio. 

The Truth

My brain had connected the sacred moment atop Kilimanjaro to my most sacred self—being a Mother. The weeks of stress and strain I’d been carrying around with me in the form of impatience with my 17-year-old son, Alex, transformed. Right there, in the little yoga room, I fell into deep belly sobbing that illuminated the reason behind my terrible mood.

Alex is leaving the nest. My nest, our nest, the one I’ve so joyfully built and tended these past seventeen years. My firstborn child is months away from flying the coop, albeit to a wondrous place, no doubt. But my truth spilled out of my heart as I laid it all on the floor of this unfamiliar place.

I tried to stop crying and couldn’t. Kim placed her warm hands on my head, massaging my scalp, pouring her tenderness over me. At the end of the session, when I was finally able to stop bawling and articulate what had happened, I was taken aback. I realized this struggle I’d been having with Alex, with his lack of urgency over college essay writing and looming application deadlines, was really more about the impending, inevitable moment when he leaves for college. Ah-ha. Clarity. Truth. Relief.

The Enlightenment

I surprised myself in this unexpected moment. I thought I’d be having a relaxing hour of stretching and breathing during a restorative yoga session. Instead, I had a life-changing moment of enlightenment that brought much-needed awareness to me. Thankfully, Alex and I are on better soil now, working together on his writing, making progress and, surprisingly, I have been able to empower him to become his own storyteller—to use his authentic voice and to actually enjoy the process. So much so, in fact, that now he is helping his friends find their stories, tossing aside the canned, predictable tales of teenagers for the deeper, more reflective ones that often sprout from solitary moments. Teaching Alex to become a thoughtful storyteller feels like one of the most important lessons I’ve passed along to him.

Storytelling is what makes us human. It seems like it has never been more essential. I feel like all of the sudden, I am submerged in all things story. I’ve been inspired by the courage of others telling their powerful and heart-wrenching stories of the #MeToo Movement, the Parkland stories of terror and survival, and Dr. Ford’s stunning testimony to the Senate about a night she will never forget, and now, we won’t either.

The Empowerment

I find that I am drawn to reading memoir again with a new sense of urgency. I am motivated to finish my own ten years in the making memoir, while my daily dog walks serve as brainstorming sessions for my next book or two. A fellow writer asked me to help her sift through her life stories to pluck the gems out and find the scaffolding to display her valuable life in the most authentic way. Even the support group I’ve attended for years to help me manage my daughter’s epilepsy is now using storytelling as a tool to cope with the unpredictable nature of the disease. I am swimming in words and stories, and I feel Powerful.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had a book signing—a book launch party and a reading from an anthology of stories with 29 other writers. Sharing my story, the “Maasai in the Mirror,” allowed me for one evening to step inside the skin of a published author and feel what it is like to be exposed and adored. Sharing this magical evening with my fellow authors, I had no fear, surprisingly. I felt joyful, delighted, happy, thrilled, energized, surprised, nurtured, welcomed and yes…Empowered. Moments before I stood before the group of incredibly enthusiastic readers, book buyers, friends, family and total strangers who were so happy to be there, the butterflies flitted for a few moments. Then I was up and being introduced by the MC who happened to be my editor. Her kind words boosted my confidence. I took hold of the microphone and began.

Let me back up a moment; I left out a crucial part of the yoga story. Kim, our yoga teacher, told me that when she saw me crying, or rather, before she saw me break down, she felt my guides surrounding me—lots of them—those were her words. It was a powerful presence—nurturing, protecting and swarming around me, providing loving energy to me at that moment. Later, I asked her what they looked like, and she had to think about it. “Definitely beings, but amorphous bundles of energy and light.” Sounds woo-woo, but honestly, I’ve always felt surrounded by something protective, and so I wasn’t surprised, just stunned that someone else saw them, too.

The Wrap-up

Back to the book reading. I stood at the front of the crowded room with the microphone in my hand and the “cluster of beads” the Maasai Warrior had given to me in my pocket for good luck—tangible evidence, even to myself that I had, in fact, come face to face with a warrior on that trip to climb Kilimanjaro. I began to read. The silence became loud as the noisy room settled into a low hum. I was transported back to Joe’s safari camp somewhere in the middle of the East African bush. I could feel the weight of my leather Raichle hiking boots on my feet, the sharp pain in my injured knee. I could smell the smoky scent of the campfire. And I could feel my guides surrounding me as I continued to read, remembering my fellow climbers: Catherine, NN, Dennis, Ribby, Eric, Bill, Mandy, and Laura. They were there with me, always, as is the sacredness of my peak moment on Kilimanjaro.

As is Mark, my loving husband, and my daughter Emily, my heart and soul. As is my incredible son Alex, who, no matter where he goes or however the rest of his story unfolds, will be with me in my heart, deeply embedded forever.

We need our stories. We need our sacred moments. We need our guides surrounding us so that we can feel empowered at this moment in history when the only thing that seems to matter is telling our sacred truths.

Three Reasons to Write About Things We Don’t Talk About

The logo for the San Diego Memoir ShowcaseWhen we were brainstorming ideas for themes for this year’s San Diego Memoir Showcase, one theme kept circling back: Things We Don’t Talk About. People loved the idea, except for one cranky writer who came up to me and asked, “I don’t get it, why in the world would we want to write about things we don’t talk about?”

The question made me think. I didn’t have an answer at that moment, so I let it percolate until I realized that for me, there are three reasons:

 

  1. It feels like setting a big bag of rocks down that you have been unknowingly lugging around for years.

    I have to admit; I am sort of addicted to the feeling now. I love to “let go” of rocks before they pile up and become too heavy. One writer described her experience to me a few weeks ago as a weight off her chest—as if she could more fully take an in breath, and more fully exhale—for no other reason than she put down in words what she thought she would never share.

  1. The fear of people knowing your deep, dark secret—of judging you, and blaming you—it all sort of dissipates.

    The truth is, yeah, others may know, and so what?  We all have stuff we think no one will understand. Either they will or they won’t, but by facing the faceless monster, you are taking away the monster’s power. It’s empowering as you realize you don’t need to run anymore, you can stand in the light of your truth.

  1. You are speaking for those who feel they have no voice. 

    I can’t tell you how many times when a writer has taken a risk and shared his or her truth that someone comes up to them and thanks them. I hear sentiments like, “Thank you for putting my experience into words,” or “I had something just like that happen to me—I thought it was just me,” or “I feel less alone after hearing what you wrote.”

These moments are such full circle moments—we hide because we think we are the only ones with that kind of pain, then we share it—to realize just how many have experienced a similar kind of pain. By sharing what we are most afraid to share, we create community, spark healing in others while we heal ourselves.

For submission guidelines, click here. I if you have any questions, please contact me at Marnifreedman18@gmail.com. Please put Memoir Showcase 2018 in the subject line. I can’t wait to hear your stories about writing what you thought you could not.

Photo Courtesy of San Diego Memoir Showcase

Lessons for a Writer at Washington DC’s March for Our Lives: When Words Are Too Small

The author walking at the March for Our Lives protest in Washington, DC.
The author in purple next to one of her favorite signs from the recent March for Our Lives protest.

I’ve been struggling with a case of writer’s block at the prospect of blogging my experience of the March for Our Lives in our nation’s capital ten days ago. But, no words have felt big enough.

The first expression to come to mind about the march is “community,” which seems to be a good and big enough word. I carried the names of people who had asked me to put theirs and their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews on my shirt. So while I was there, I felt a kind of halo of beloveds around me. And this struck a chord with others there that would say something like “ Nice shirt; that’s why I’m marching too!”

But the entourage on my shirt did not overcome the sense of puniness I felt when arriving at the corner of C and 4th and walking into an ocean of people with other brave and awesome homemade signs.

The Gathering of a New Us

Along with my self-image of tiny-ness was a humongous expanded sense of We. “We” may be a big enough word. It was big enough in “We the people… in order to form a more Perfect Union.” And our larger ‘We’ was marching all over the country. All over the world. With the same goal of stopping senseless killing, some life-affirming joy-based action at its heart.

We were there to support new life itself in the form of children speaking their truth. It was a wake. They were proud and sad, making us listen to their sorrow, their songs. The Psalms of our time. They were David of the Old Testament. They were our Prophets speaking uncomfortable truths in front of millions via media and half a million breathing souls weeping and hanging on every word as if we were at our own sister’s funeral.

March for Our Lives as a Writers’ Event

I do not want to gloss over the importance of these contributions and the significance of the entire three hours of this event. Here were original heart-wrenching stories, poems, songs, and material YES! Yay! All in the genre of memoirs – all from very young people. This punctuated by professional musicians. You can see the entire event recorded here.  But I do want to highlight two breathtaking moments.

Yolanda: “We Are Going to Be a Great Generation”

A few hundred meters in front of me Yolanda Renée King came out to speak, the day’s youngest presenter. Like at a Passover feast, she embodied why this day was different from all the others. Her very being was larger than any words. Reciting from Dr. Martin Luther King, her grandfather’s 1963 speech, itself a luminary incandescent piece of literature and history, created a time machine.

“My grandfather had a dream…” she began in her perky nine-year-old voice, “That his four little children would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ” The sad relevance of those words brought millions more into awareness that Saturday when Yolanda Renee King spoke them anew.

Yolanda added, “And I have a dream that Enough is Enough!” And we truly all became the same crowd marching through time. “Repeat after me,” cried the child, “We. Are Going to Be. A Great Generation.” We were connected from one mass of marchers to the others who had gone before chanting together.

A Writer’s Dream

In August 1963, only a short walk from where we stood was where Dr. King spoke of his dream. Just as here and now people marched with one another, with the spontaneous brave decision to make a stand, we were all together giving voice to our dream.

Time collapsed for me like a Janus telescope looking into the past and future. That’s exactly what I want my writing to do, to bring together the past and the future in a timeless now.

Here over eighty years of demonstrators in Washington stood in this place among us like ghosts holding our hands. There were the thousands of WWI veterans who gathered nearby during the 1933 Depression when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wandered among them. There was the Poor People’s March in 1968, and its earlier incarnation in 1963, all the way in history to the Women’s March last year. The tradition of marching felt proud and long and brave and yes, big enough.

Emma and the Power of Silence

Then Emma Gonzalez came to the podium and simply read the names of her young friends and how they would be missed, those who had been killed just one month before while we collectively stood. While she looked on, weeping, she made us feel every millisecond in our hearts and our expectations, of the six minutes and twenty seconds it took to destroy the seventeen names she said.

That is when the names and the worlds each name represented extended into the sky and beyond. When the words were big enough. And when the infinite hope that each child should be born with crashed into ashes. Gone forever.

This very personal pain, this lament, may have been the only way to birth a new hope of action to change the shameful reality. “Fight for your lives before someone else has to;” Emma called to action a generation.

I did not count her words, but it was a low number. Sometimes silence has the power to light a flame in each heart with a quiet invitation to our souls to care enough.

I can’t think of a stronger writing lesson than those seconds passing in the hearts of half a million strangers whose breath surrounded me.

The Content of Their Character

Today, April 4th marks the 50th anniversary of the murder through gun violence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I am old enough to remember crying for hours with my dearest friend, Rueben. Even as a young child, the words of Dr. King rang deepest true, and that is what I felt all around on Saturday. The sound of Truth – with or without words.

 

photo of K.M. McNeelK.M. McNeel holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, Trinity University, and Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London. In the 1990s and 2000s, she was known for her interventionist art collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Oxford, England. She is currently creating a solo performance, a memoir of her time working as a communications officer traveling for charities, and a mystery novel.

 

Photos courtesy of the author.

 

 

Harnessing the Power of Six-Word Memoirs

a lit fire in a fireplace with hearthSix years ago, I lost my job right around the same time I became an empty nester. Adrift without direction and needing inspiration, I decided to sign up for the TedX San Diego conference.  I was surprised to learn there was an application form to be turned in before being accepted as a participant.  Among the thought provoking questions was a requirement to write a six-word memoir. We would use these six-word memoirs as talking points with other participants. That gave me pause. It had been years since I had written and shared my writing with others. Could I even write a six-word memoir?

It turned out to be a powerful exercise, requiring me to discern what had been the most important and interesting theme or themes in my life thus far and pointing to what I knew best.  

After much debate, I settled on this:  Smoking-gun girl cooks from the hearth.

I hoped to stimulate conversation:  Why Smoking-gun girl? What’s important about cooking? Why the word “hearth?”

I had a reputation for being a “finder,” earning me the nickname, “Smoking-gun girl,” and I liked this about myself.  I was inherently tenacious and knew whether I was seeking a critical piece of evidence, the perfect family vacation, or enlightenment, I was going to keep at it, paying attention to patterns and ferreting out the keystone.  

I had also developed a passion for cooking—not gourmet cooking, mind you, but something closer to peasant cooking.  I made endless variations of stone soup and relished the sensual art of hand chopping ingredients and melding them together. To me the hearth was symbolic of gathering together and nourishing each other with good food and good stories.

This six-word memoir pleased me and, in fact, helped me shape the next phase of my life.  Most importantly, it got me writing again. At that TedX conference, as I was sharing my six-word memoir with others, my adrift and unfocused self suddenly saw a simple next step: I would start a cooking and storytelling blog. I wanted to use my favorite recipes as a springboard from which to tell stories.  My blog would be my cyber hearth.  

I revisit the idea of the six-word memoir from time to time. I still find it to be a powerful focusing exercise for my writing. A few years ago I was a “Zen Tantrika Witch Casting Writing Spells.” These days I am more of a “Devoted Rock-climbing Dakini Cooking Up Stories.”  

I hope you’ll track me down and ask me about it.  And if you do, I’m going to return the favor and ask you:  What is your six-word memoir?  Please, do tell!

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1896745/

 

Would Shakespeare Tweet? #Maybe, by Guest Blogger, Lisa Whalen

PART I.

Bubba the cat hiding under a bookshelf“Bubba embodies my Thursday mindset,” I posted to Facebook a few weeks ago, along with this picture.

But I lied.

I should have posted, “Bubba embodies my social media mindset.” Even as I giggled at my cat’s antics—batting a toy mouse beneath the bookcase and then contorting to dig it out—I, too, wrestled with a pest: Twitter.

To Tweet, or not to Tweet, that was the question. Every time it arose, I wanted to crawl in beside Bubba and stay there. I batted at the question and then contorted to dig out the answer I desired. Twitter, it seemed to me, was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It popped into my head every time my students and I discussed Othello’s famous line: “Chaos is come again.”

Facebook caters to an introvert’s craving for a cocoon. Its privacy settings insulate against scrutiny’s glare and trolls’ vitriol. I can tuck my online community’s edges tight as a drum around my form. But Twitter throws open the blankets. It lays out a feast of introvert fears: brief exchanges with strangers, a worldwide audience, a continuous feed. Character limits. Hashtags.

So, there it was. I didn’t want to join Twitter. Then I shouldn’t. Right?

Wrong.

  I want to be a published author. I’d like to see the memoir I spent more than two years writing and revising on a shelf next to frothing cappuccino machines at Barnes & Noble and suggested as a “you might also like . . .” by Amazon. Then I want to write another book. And another.

A memoirist hunting publication stalks skittish prey. Everyone in the industry advises crafting a name-brand and constructing a social media platform upon which to hoist it. Then, maybe, an agent will consent to reading a few manuscript pages.

Platform? I’m no Taylor Swift. I can’t draw a fraction of the interest she generates by tweeting a single snake GIF.

I vacillated. I asked a mentor for advice. Then I channeled Bubba.

When I adopted Bubba from the Animal Humane Society, he was a literal fraidy-cat. If I lifted my hand to pet him, he flinched. If I unstuck a Post-It Note from its pad, he ducked beneath the couch. If I opened a grocery bag to collect our recyclables, he bounded upstairs to hide in my closet. But shown the patience to adjust on his own terms, Bubba evolved to become the stuffed-mouse-hunting predator I know today.

So I followed Bubba’s example. I wriggled out from under the bookcase and joined Twitter.

Stay tuned to discover what I learned next month . . .

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderLisa Whalen has an M.A. in creative and critical writing and a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education. She teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at North Hennepin Community College in Minnesota. When not teaching, she spends as much time as possible with animals, especially cats, dogs, and horses. Then she writes about them. For more information—and pictures of Lisa’s favorite animals—check out her blog, Writing Unbridledor find her on Twitter @LisaIrishWhalen, Facebook (lisawhalen4hs), or her website: lisawhalen4hs.wixsite.com/lisawhalen.

 

Photo courtesy of Lisa Whalen

Big Canvas by Elizabeth Eshoo, Feisty Guest Blogger

I stood back from the massive white canvas hanging on the wall before me and began to weep. I wondered, which is more intimidating: a blank canvas or the blank page? I was struggling with both. Where do I begin to paint the picture of my life?

I was about to start the fourth painting of this daylong workshop. Just before I began weeping, I’d felt rejuvenated by each picture I painted. I thought I was ready to tackle a bigger canvas since the first three paintings were on smaller, manageable pieces of paper. But now, as I stood before this massive wall of white, I welled up with emotion, my gut tightened, and tears flowed down my cheeks like raindrops during a mountain downpour. I motioned to my best friend, Pam, to come over for guidance. She was my instructor for this intuitive painting workshop in Boulder, Colorado. I’d flown here from San Diego for exactly this moment. I knew this was coming, this pain, and this blockage, this feeling of fear, uncertainty, and incompetence. Vulnerability draped over me like a lead apron, weighing me down and rendering my arms useless.

The phrase, ”big canvas” popped into my head as I recalled the words my writing instructor uttered one night after reading the second draft of my memoir during a manuscript critique session. My story deals with big places: New York City, Africa, People magazine, and Costa Rica as well as broad themes like personal transformation, self-discovery, courage, risk-taking, inner strength, and finding fulfillment. Now on the third draft, I am still struggling with how to distill the largeness of my story into manageable bite-sized morsels that my readers will be able to digest and hopefully, to savor without being overwhelmed.

The writing of my story requires telling secrets, not just mine but also my family’s. Growing up as the good girl in a conventional, upper-middle-class suburban family, I was groomed to have polite manners from the womb. So telling secrets is not in my nature. We didn’t talk about my mother’s drunken behavior. We lived in denial and by a code of silence. We never even questioned my mother during the sober light of day about why, when the clock struck five, she was magnetically drawn to her nightly elixir, instead of to us, her three little girls.

Facing the blank page requires remembering the pain and processing it, feeling emotions I thought I’d left behind. Reliving awful childhood memories and realizing, nothing much has changed since then. My mother drank a lot back then, and fifty years later, she’s still at it.

The largeness of the canvas before me made me feel small and overwhelmed. The empty pages of my childhood chapters keep me silent and powerless.

“Where do you feel the hurt?” Pam asked me as I stared forward, avoiding eye contact with her.

“My stomach. No, my heart, right here,” I said as I pointed to the middle of my chest.

“Start there,” she said.

I walked over to the table in the middle of the art studio and stared at a colorful collection of tempera paints. I shut down my thinking brain and let my intuition take over as I poured an array of colors onto my palette: blood red, Pepto-Bismol pink, a fiery orange, and one that looked like melted gold. I surveyed the assortment of painting tools stuffed into glass jars and plastic yogurt containers; brushes of every size and dimension, sponges, scrapers, even toilet bowl brushes with plastic handles. I chose a smooth handled wide brush and walked back to the long white horizontal canvas. It was at least nine feet in length and about three feet high. I stared it down while attempting to take a deep, nourishing breath, but my chest was tight, so a shallow inhale was all I could manage.

I began in the middle of the canvas with a big broad stroke and painted a blood red heart. I used repetitive motions, switching up paints, layering color, and creating zigzag textures with the scraper. When I felt done I moved to the right side of the paper and laid down more paint, again playing with texture and color. The painting felt lopsided to me as I stared at the empty left side of the canvas, but I continued laying down red, pink, and orange paint on the right side, using a robotic motion with my brush, over and over again. The layers of color were like drafts of my story, each layer of paint felt like a rewrite of that troublesome first chapter. I moved the brush and the paint over and around, up and down, round and round, each stroke feeling like it still wasn’t right.
Judgment. This was a judgment-free workshop, but there it was, my inner critic, rearing its ugly head, telling me it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t perfect, not yet. I put a big black “X” through it all. There…take that, manuscript!

I walked back to the paint table and squirted more blood red paint onto my palette. I grabbed the toilet brush and dipped it into the paint and with a big violent motion, threw it across the canvas–a pitching motion that splattered the red paint across the canvas and onto the wall and floor and nearby bookshelves as well. Most of it landed on the blank left side of the canvas. Splashes of red paint stained the glimmering white paper. I dipped a new brush into the gold paint and threw it like a baseball at the wall. It landed straight through the heart in the middle of the painting, just like an arrow. I stepped back from the canvas and gasped, as though the sharp tip of an arrow pierced my own heart, my knees buckled and I fell to the floor. I felt the wounds of so much buried pain.

I looked up at the golden arrow on the painting, and I couldn’t help but think it was magically guided there. My chest expanded, and I was able to take a deeper breath. I got up from the floor and walked closer to the wall. For the first time all day, I looked at the canvas with compassion. I liked it and smiled. I chose another brush and painted over the black “X” with pink. It wasn’t to cover up the big black “x” as though hiding a mistake. It felt more like a healing gesture. Like I was taking back the reins, steering this masterpiece back on course.

I put my paints and tools down, wiped the rainbow of colors off my hands and onto my smock and scrutinized the canvas. The red heart centered the painting; the golden arrow sparkled; the heavy layers of color on the right side drew my attention but so did the sparseness of the left with its dramatic spattering of blood-red paint.

I realized I’d painted my manuscript. The right side of the painting was heavy with effort–so many revisions of the African adventure part of my story. The middle panel held the heart with the golden arrow slung through the middle–the romance at the center of my tale. And the left side of the canvas was the beginning of my manuscript–still empty save for the hint of the blood-letting of secrets yet to come.

Pam appeared by my side and asked, “Are you done?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Then sign it.”

I picked up a slender, long-handled wooden paintbrush, dipped the bristles into the paint and proudly signed it with big, gold letters. I stood back to admire my creation. I felt like I had overcome something by facing this big blank canvas and attacking it, then making peace with it. Replacing the sting of my own harsh judgment with self-acceptance.

It’s been a few years since that workshop. The blank page looms large before now.

Big canvas.

How do I begin to write the story of my life?

Where does it hurt?

My heart.

Start there…

 

a photo of author, Elizabeth EshooElizabeth is currently working on behalf of the Epilepsy Foundation of San Diego County as an advocate, speaker, and fundraiser. Formerly an award-winning advertising executive with Sports Illustrated, People and Life magazines, a life-changing climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro steered her towards a new path, working in conservation and education in Costa Rica, Baja, and the Galapagos Islands. Along the way, she discovered writing and is currently finalizing her memoir, Beyond the Peak with Marni Freedman’s Thursday group. An excerpt from her memoir, Masai in the Mirror was performed on stage as part of the 2016 San Diego Writers’ Ink Memoir Showcase and will be published in the upcoming San Diego Memoir Writers Association anthology.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Eshoo and Amaury Salas on Unsplash

 

 

Rant by Nancy Villalobos, Feisty Writer Guest Blogger

side view of a human skullWhat were you feeling?

What was your emotional response to that?

Show more of your emotion.

The other writers in my Read and Critique group pounded away on this theme after I read from my memoir the latest revision of an experience that occurred more than fifty years ago. When I was in Lima, Peru as a 20-year-old international student, I’d gotten locked in the cathedral that holds Pizarro’s tomb. I thought that was a pretty interesting vignette, even mildly humorous.

I had written it exactly as it happened. I described the day, the surroundings, the interior of the church. I described the way I’d taken a long time to find the tomb and what it looked like and then the realization I was locked in. I finished up with my escape at the hands of a disgruntled priest with a bit of translated dialogue. I even closed the piece (really a chapter) with a foreshadowing of the obstacle that had arisen in the rest of my life, the subject of the next chapter. I’d done a defensible job of relating the events of the day. I didn’t know what else to say without making something up. I hadn’t felt like crying or laughing or screaming. I’d just wanted out of the church so I could get to my class on time.

My friends avoided my gaze, unhappy at not being able to applaud my efforts.

“But what were you feeling?”

Enthusiasm drained out of my pores and pooled around my unemotional feet.

Digging deep into my memory after I got home, I kept coming up empty. They expected me to feel something, but what?

The more I thought about it, the only emotional response I felt was anger at the beloved members of my group. Why did they keep harping on this? It happened in 1965, and I really couldn’t remember feeling anything.

What did they want me to feel? Joy? No. An intense spiritual awakening? No. Fear? Nope. Panic? Not really. Despair? Seriously? Anger? Not then.

My list of emotions I hadn’t felt grew. I began an imaginary conversation with that group of very stubborn people who only wanted to make me a better writer but who refused to accept that what I had felt at the time of the event was NOTHING. Why was that so hard to get?

Listen, I would say to them, the only thing I wanted on that day in Lima was to find the tomb of Pizarro. I wanted to see if that skeleton was really there and I wanted to see what it looked like. Period.

And right then my imaginary conversation petered out.

Because…I had really WANTED to find that tomb. It was almost like a quest—Harrison Ford in his battered hat. So, I must have felt ANTICIPATION. And I knew the skeleton was in that church, so I must have felt the EXCITEMENT about seeing it, and I must have had the EXPECTATION of fulfilling my quest. And because I’d never seen a relic, I must have been filled with CURIOSITY. And when I finally found the tomb, and it wasn’t what I’d expected, I must have felt at least mild DISAPPOINTMENT. And when I realized that I’d been locked in, I must have felt FRUSTRATION and CONCERN ABOUT BEING LATE. At the very end, I must have felt CHAGRIN at not having paid attention to my surroundings after the doors were locked. And then I remembered walking out of the church feeling pretty STUPID.

Damn! This was working.

I peeped at my pages again. Yes, I could add an adjective here, another line of dialogue there, a tighter or looser description, move this phrase to the end of the sentence, add a final paragraph with a takeaway—something the reader could relate to. And, in the end, a tiny little phrase rang like a timid bell in the recesses of my writer’s brain: I’d been telling about my experience, but when I’d been able to resuscitate my emotional state, I was able to show.

Sometimes it takes an emotional response to critique to elicit the emotional response to an event.

 

Headshot of authorABOUT NANCY: When not revising her memoir, sending out query letters, and building her blog queue, Nancy loves being on Nana duty with Lucas, her newest grandson, attending Cavalier King Charles Spaniel meet-ups with her Tri-color Coco, or traveling with family and friends. Her writing has been featured in the Memoir Writers Showcase. Her memoir, Peru, My Other Country, chronicles her twenty years there as an American married to a Peruvian in the midst of revolution, earthquakes, and her husband’s untimely death, until an extortion call during the Shining Path terrorist movement forced her to choose where her loyalties lay: in her adopted country or in the land of her birth.

Photo Credit: pixabay.com-476740