Around the middle of last week, I looked at the calendar and had a startling realization. Today would be my regular blog-posting day, and not only did I not have a post written, I could not see enough uncommitted time in the intervening days to get one written.
We were about to leave town for a book signing in Detroit, followed by a Michigan Nature Association dinner in East Lansing the next day, followed by a family birthday party in Northville the day after that. Then back home to Newaygo, where yoga class, a book club appearance, a medical appointment, and the library book sale setup all crowded into the next few days.
There just wasn’t time to write and set up a post.
Still, I didn’t want to break my commitment to post on HeartWood every first and third Wednesday. So I started scrambling and scheming. I could dig out a post I’d started a year or so ago but had set aside and never finished. Yeah, that’s what I would do.
I found the post and the notes and images I needed to finish it, loaded everything onto a flash drive, and figured I’d do the work on our laptop in the downtime between the weekend events.
Great plan. Until . . . the night of the first event when—thanks to adrenaline, an unfamiliar bed, and leg cramps from the super-stylish but brutal shoes I’d worn that evening—I got almost no sleep and woke up the next morning in a fog so deep there was no way I could write anything coherent. Now that I had the time, I didn’t have the brain power.
I needed to rest. I knew that. But my first impulse was to start scrambling and scheming again. I could power nap and then, if I was really efficient, still get the blog post done.
Just one problem: Tired as I was, I could not fall asleep for a nap. That’s when I remembered a recent conversation with a friend who’s trying to break the habit of cramming too much into her schedule. She told me she’s cutting back on commitments and learning to rest.
That’s when I knew that was what I needed to do, too. Just rest.
Just then, another memory came to me: a blog post I’d written last year, when I was in a similar period of overload and had the radical idea of taking a time out.
“As soon as I had that thought, the space around me opened up,” I wrote. “My breathing slowed. I felt like I could float on air.
“Such a simple solution, just stepping back and saying, ‘Whoa, there.’ Yet it's crazily easy to forget that it's an option—that when things get too hectic, maybe they don't need to be. Maybe there are things that don't have to be done, or that don't have to be done quite the way you thought they did.”
I re-read those words and thought, “Who was the wise person who wrote this? Why am I not following her advice?”
Well, now I am. I’ve given myself permission to a take time out instead of scrambling. That other post I was going to power through and finish for today? It’ll still get done, but in a week when I can give it the time and attention it deserves.
Meanwhile, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to shut off the computer and give it and my brain and body a rest.
You know how it is when the day you’ve dreamed of for a long, long time finally arrives? Sometimes it’s every bit as magical as you imagined it would be. Other times, compared to that glorious fantasy, it’s a dud.
I recently experienced the dream-come-true of celebrating publication of my book, Mango Rash: Coming of Age in the Land of Frangipani and Fanta, with friends and loved ones. Fortunately, the reality was anything but a dud.
It was pure magic.
Looking back on the occasion, I realize it was more than a book launch. It was equal parts reunion, time capsule, and celebration of friendship.
It was, of course, also a fabulous book party. Newaygo County Council for the Arts/Artsplace generously hosted the October 25 event, three days after the official publication date, and Artsplace knows how to throw a party. Everything was set up beautifully (who knew stacks of books could be so artful?), and the mood was festive.
Many guests dressed in tropical attire, adding to the merriment, and my publisher Behler Publications even provided an enormous, lavishly-decorated cake.
As for the reunion part, three friends from Samoa days—Valerie, Barry, and Beverly, all of whom are in the book—traveled from afar for Mangorama weekend. Though I had spent time with all three of them in recent years, Val and Bev hadn’t seen each other since Samoa days, more than 50 years ago, and it had been almost that long since Val and Barry last crossed paths.
As we continued the celebration over the weekend, we reminisced and laughed over pictures (did we really ever look like that?) and reinforced bonds that formed in that remarkable time and place: Samoa in the Sixties.
Other friends from my Detroit and Ann Arbor days also made the scene. That’s where the time capsule comes in. My whole writing life flashed before me, remembering time spent with these friends back in our Detroit Free Press, University of Michigan News Service, and Ann Arbor writers’ group days.
Those flashbacks continued into the following week when I had a second book signing at Artworks in Big Rapids. For several years, I belonged to a writers’ group at Artworks, and during that time I revised the manuscript that became Mango Rash. It was such fun to see friends from the Artworks writer’s group at the reading and for all of us to reflect on the long journey from manuscript to book.
Still more memories came flooding back at the Croton Township Library book signing a few days later, where I connected with another writing friend. Kendra Lachniet and I were in the Fremont Area District Library’s writers’ group together, and Kendra has been supportive of my work all along.
So have all my friends, writers and non-writers alike. Celebrating with them over the past couple of weeks has reminded me over and over how blessed I am to have a circle of such kind, caring, generous, and FUN pals.
Whether or not I published a book, whether or not I ever publish another, I couldn’t ask for more.
Chris Martin at www.chasinglightphotos.net
What with summer activities and chores and the myriad details associated with the launch of my memoir Mango Rash, I confess I haven’t been doing much new writing lately. I was inspired to make an exception, though, when I received a compelling request earlier in the summer from one of my favorite Michigan authors, Anne-Marie Oomen.
She was appealing to writers in her circle to join in an undertaking she called the Lake-love Letters Project. The idea was simple: write a love letter—no more than 400 words—to the Great Lakes or a specific lake. Not a huge investment of time and energy, but an important one, as Anne-Marie’s cover letter made clear.
I love our waters: lakes, rivers, wetlands, little sinking ponds, remote swamps. If it’s wet, I’ll probably like it. And of course, I’m worried about all of them, as I know many of you are. I often wonder what I can do. I’m not a scientist, politician, lawyer, not even a very good journalist. I often feel inadequate, a “fish out of water” when it comes to this work. This year, a question I asked myself: how might I use my small gifts a literary artist (creative writer) to do something for our beloved waters.
She went on to relate that just as she was considering how she might make a difference, she received a letter from Liz Kirkwood, director of the regional water organization For Love of Water (FLOW). The letter explained that in July, the International Joint Commission of the Great Lakes would meet in Traverse City. Liz wanted to enliven what might otherwise be a dry discussion (subject matter notwithstanding) by involving artists who are passionate about our water.
As Anne-Marie described it in her letter,
She had a vision: at the final meeting with the commissioners, could we showcase our love of water in a way that would involve the arts, particularly the writers. She spoke of the arts as one heart behind all the science and legal work. I was so grateful for her rare understanding. And she offered an idea that I could run with. Could we writers and artists do something with love letters to our waters. Love letters? Yes!
I usually take my time responding to requests that ask me to write, edit, or critique something. I like to consider what else is on my to-do-list and how interested I am in adding to that ever-expanding list. This time I didn’t hesitate. As soon as I found a sliver of writing time, I drafted my love letter. After a few revisions, I sent it off to Anne-Marie.
Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Lake Michigan,
You’re not like the others—the ones I grew up with. In that flat and dusty land, those pretenders to the title were mere puddles. Knowing no better, we suited up, dived in, toweled off, sat on shore with sandwiches, staring out across their dense, red-silted expanses, thinking, “Well, this is nice.”
Then I met you, and I had to expand my vocabulary. I’ll admit it: you dazzled me, spangled like a rock star, necklaced with villages whose very names enchant: Empire, Pentwater, Saugatuck.
The only time I didn’t love you as much as I wanted to was on that blustery September day I ferried across your liquid skin. Your ups and downs! How they unsettled me. Betrayed, I sulked until I reached the other shore and looked back at your troubled face, your spectrum of shades.
You, too, carry burdens, I realized in that moment. And also this: I may have loved you since we first met, but I haven’t really known you. Let me know you now.
Just before the commission meeting, Anne-Marie reported that nearly 100 letters submitted to the project would be presented in book form to each of the commissioners. In addition, she extracted sentences from some letters and shaped them into a ten-minute script to be read as part of the presentation to the commission. “Your words made a beautiful praise song to the lakes—thank you!” she wrote to contributors.
So often, writing feels like a solitary, inwardly-directed pursuit. It was gratifying to take part in this project, and it made me think about other ways I might merge my passion for writing with the issues I care about.
How can you apply your talents to something you care about?
FLOW’s video of the entire Traverse City meeting can be viewed here. The Lake-love Letters Project portion begins around minute 14 and continues to minute 28. FLOW and the commission also plan to post the entire collection of Lake-love Letters on their websites.
Last Saturday I celebrated an occasion I’ve never celebrated before: Independent Bookstore Day. It was so much fun I plan to put it on my calendar every year.
All around the country indie bookstores hosted special events, like the Michigan Author Jamboree my friend Janet and I attended at the Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague. A chilly wind just about blew us into the store, but inside by the fireplace, with warm drinks in hand, all was cozy.
The event opened with a workshop on how to present your book to prospective readers. Led by author Ingar Rudholm, the workshop offered easy-to-apply tips on quickly engaging readers and keeping their attention.
We all had a chance to practice our book pitches during the workshop. And it was a good thing we did, because after the workshop, any authors who wished to do so were given ten minutes to get up on stage and talk about their books to an audience of readers.
Following those presentations, authors signed and sold books at tables near the front of the store. Even though I won’t have books to sell until October, I took the opportunity to spread the word about Mango Rash, hand out information cards, and sign up subscribers to my newsletter, Mango Meanderings.
Beyond promoting my own book, though, I was excited to connect with other Michigan authors. It’s always interesting to hear how authors began writing and what led them to write the kinds of books they write. I also learned about Written in the Mitten, an online community of published and aspiring authors that shares information on local author events.
Most of all, I was happy to show my support for independent bookstores. These welcoming spaces are more than stores, often serving as community hubs and performance venues. They enrich their neighborhoods and boost local economies. As publishing professional Valerie Peterson noted in a 2017 article, even some well-known authors got their start at local independent booksellers. “For example,” she wrote, “Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi hosted an unknown John Grisham's first book signing event.”
So mark your calendar for the last Saturday in April 2020 and plan to celebrate next year’s Independent Bookstore Day. But don’t wait until then to celebrate independent bookstores. Visit often, and buy books!
As for me, I’m heading off tonight to Flying Bear Books for poetry night.
Today’s visitor, Kelly J. Beard, is an author whose writing I have admired since we met in a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books two years ago. Along with the other members of the class, I was a finalist in the festival’s literary contest, and Kelly won second place for an essay later published as "Os Sacrum" in Santa Ana Review.
When I learned that her memoir, An Imperfect Rapture, was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. The book, which debuted last November, is a remarkable story of finding her way in the world after growing up in poverty, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion. The story is compelling, and the writing masterful.
I’m delighted that Kelly has agreed to answer questions today about the writing and publication of An Imperfect Rapture.
Writing has been part of your life for a long time, yet your career was practicing employment discrimination law. Are there skills you developed as a lawyer that also serve you well as a writer?
It’s funny, but my latent love for writing probably served my legal work as much as (or more than) my legal work served my writing. A huge part of my litigation practice was writing motions and briefs, basically marshalling the facts and law into a persuasive story. Thinking about this has just reminded me of a legal writing technique I used while writing my memoir, An Imperfect Rapture. As you know, the writer’s ability to infuse her story with insightful reflection is the very essence of memoir. As opposed to the kind of writing approaches one might take in writing biography (“Just the facts, Ma’am”) or fiction (“Show don’t tell”), memoir’s marrow requires a measure of telling beyond the facts.
As I struggled to find ways to add reflective texture to my story I sometimes used a loose version of a writing technique taught in law school called the “IRAC” method. In short, the IRAC method requires the writer to identify the issue (describe the facts) and then to analyze those facts in light of the law. The analysis part of the IRAC is really quite similar to the memoirist’s reflection.
But to get back to your question, the real skill I developed as a lawyer that served me as a writer was self-discipline; the day-to-day commitment to sit at the computer (or wherever) and work on something you know won’t be finished that day (or year, or maybe even decade) because you believe in what you’re doing. That’s the real work of both practices.
How deeply did you have to dig to bring forth the memories you recount in An Imperfect Rapture? Were they close to the surface or submerged? What helped you access those memories?
I started writing An Imperfect Rapture in my early-to-mid 50s, so the events I was writing about were anywhere from 30 to 50 years old. Like a lot of people—particularly, I suspect, people who had difficult early experiences—I submerged so much of those early years under layers of busy-ness, mostly trying to be a decent mom and lawyer. I hadn’t really thought about writing memoir. I used to write poetry and short fiction, and had started a couple of novels before practicing law. So my thought was that I’d write a novel when I finished practicing law.
All my life I’ve struggled with depression, but for most of my “mom” and “lawyer” years it was easy to stay distracted. I think I was also invested in trying to give my daughter a different experience than I had, so I never talked to her about the events in my memoir. She hadn’t lived in the shame of poverty or experienced the confusion of wildly erratic and unstable parenting, or the violence of their religious faith. When she left home, I fell into one of the worst depressions I’d ever had. And that’s saying something.
I finally found a brilliant therapist who is probably responsible both for saving my life right then and for getting me to write the memoir. I remember sitting in his office one day weeping over the distance between my daughter and me. My expectations of her and our relationship was unhealthy, I realize now, but at the time I felt utterly abandoned by her and betrayed by life. I told the therapist that I was thinking about writing to her—telling her how much I loved her, how irrelevant I felt in her life, how sad I was. I expected him to say, “Good idea, even if you don’t send the letter.” Instead, he looked at me and asked, “What doesn’t she know about any of that? What could you tell her that she doesn’t already know?”
And that’s the book, really.
In the book's acknowledgements, you mention “that first scary thought, maybe I'll write a memoir . . . ” What scared you about the prospect?
The scariest part was knowing I’d have to reveal this whole other life, this person and past no one—not my friends or colleagues or even my own daughter—knew about. I also have a pretty fractured birth-family. Only one of my siblings still talks to me; two haven’t spoken to me for decades. Although my father died in 1996, my mom is still alive, and I didn’t want to hurt her. It felt a little like deciding to pour gas on the charred remains of our family.
How did you move past that fear enough to write your story?
For one thing, I pretended I was writing for the very limited audience of my daughter and perhaps any child she might have, and that they would only read it after I was gone. I focused on telling the truth with as much beauty (skill) as I could muster. And I figured I could keep it from my mom. She’s 90 and doesn’t use the internet. Also, the more I wrote, the more committed I became to that Aristotelean ideal of truth and beauty. That ideal was hugely important in helping me work past any lingering sense of grievance and find a way to be honest with the reader about these deeply complicated people and experiences.
Take us through your journey from initial idea to publication. How long did you spend writing and revising the book? What avenues did you explore in pursuing publication? How did you come to be published by Zone 3 Press?
As I mentioned, the initial idea occurred to me shortly after my daughter started college in 2010. I was still practicing law, but I had my own practice and was able to scale back. I read somewhere that Virginia Woolf wrote two hours a day, always in the morning. She claimed not to have enough creative steam to carry her past the two-hour mark. I took her cue and wrote for two hours each morning (except Sundays—some things never leave us) and always before work or even reading email. The few times I tried to change this schedule either by working first or peeking at email before writing, I lost my creative energy for the day.
After a few years of working on it, I thought I had a pretty solid manuscript. In the summer of 2013, I attended a Master Class with Emily Rapp Black in Taos. The manuscript was 450 pages long. Emily critiqued the entire manuscript (as did the other workshop participants). Emily’s critique was brilliant, and I spent the following year working on the areas she suggested.
Then, in the summer of 2014, I attended a workshop in Tucson. It was affiliated with the Tucson Book Festival and the workshop leader was Rigoberto Gonzalez. It wasn’t a Master Class, so we submitted short (20-page) essays rather than entire manuscripts. I submitted a section of the manuscript. Again, here I was with a truly amazing teacher giving me advice I couldn’t have come up with on my own. As a consequence of those two workshop experiences, I figured out I was not one of those (lucky!) people who can write themselves into the craft. I needed a good teacher (or teachers) or I’d be stuck—never really knowing what or why parts of the manuscript weren’t working.
That’s when I decided to go into an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program. Please hear me when I tell you that I realize some of the most talented writers I know (and have read) didn’t go through MFA programs. I don’t think they’re for everyone. But at that point (I was moving into my later 50s), I didn’t think I would learn the craft sufficiently without significant guidance.
That winter, I entered the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-residency MFA program. It was a pretty mixed bag, and while I had two fantastic advisors during my tenure there, I also had a couple that weren’t worth the tuition. But I went to tons of craft talks, studied work I might not have found otherwise, and worked diligently at learning the craft and revising An Imperfect Rapture. I ended up submitting the manuscript—essentially re-written and 100 pages “lighter” than what I’d submitted to Emily three years earlier—for my creative thesis in 2016.
At that point I thought, OK, this guy is ready to go. I started querying agents and submitting to a few contests. I don’t know how many agents I queried, maybe 30 or 40, but no one was interested. I think to a certain extent the gatekeepers—the literary intelligentsia, if you will—have a bit of a herd mentality. And, of course, it’s all about making money in that world, so increasingly agents make “safe” choices, a fact evident by walking into any bookstore and seeing how the genre has been cannibalized by celebrity memoirs.
So I started sending queries to independent and university publishers and also entering a few contests that were being judged by people whose work I loved. I don’t know how many contests I entered (not that many because it costs money to enter and it too often felt like a boondoggle), but An Imperfect Rapture was a finalist in two other contests before I submitted it to Zone 3 Press. Janisse Ray was the judge that year (2017). I’d read several of Ray’s books, and she was one of my idols. Her work is not only breathtaking, but important. By Important I mean necessary. So, when I saw the ad for the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, and saw Ray was judging, I knew I wanted to enter.
Actually, I almost didn’t. By the time I saw the ad, the deadline was only a week or so away, and there was a page limit of 300 pages. I’d spent two years largely re-writing the manuscript, but also cutting, culling, and winnowing it down from 450 to about 385 pages. The thought of getting it from 385 to 300 pages seemed impossible. Let alone doing so in such a short period of time. But I did. I killed way more darlings than I would have dreamed possible.
So there it is. Ray did love it! The darlings weren’t missed. Zone 3 Press is the press of my dreams. But that’s the contest I almost skipped.
What parts of the book were most challenging to write? Were there parts you enjoyed writing?
The hardest part to write, by far, was the end. Mostly because I didn’t know what I was writing about, and I kept trying out possible ends. As you know, the story in An Imperfect Rapture ends when I’m in my mid-twenties. I tried ending at later dates and with later events closing the final scene. I remember that in the third semester of my MFA I was trying to work out the ending, and not to sound all woo-woo or anything, but in addition to writing, I was spending a lot of time practicing yoga, meditating and praying. And at one point while trying to write the ending, I went into a kind of fugue state and wrote the end scenes. (It was the one and only time this has ever happened to me while writing, so I’m not sure I’d want to rely on it as a strategy for finding my way to an ending, but who knows?) I subsequently edited the heck of the rest of the manuscript, but the ending is the only part of the manuscript I could never really edit. It put itself on the page, and I had to leave it alone.
One of the cover blurbs calls An Imperfect Rapture more of a "coming to terms" story than a coming of age story. Do you agree with that description? What does that mean to you?
Oh, I absolutely agree with that description. I couldn’t pin down what the difference is with any precision, but “coming if age” conjures the idea of mastery: “I came, I saw, I conquered,” as opposed to the idea of “I came, I saw, I understood.” I understood. But I’m not sure I conquered.
You write with honesty about living in poverty. What do you think people who've never lived in poverty don't understand about people who are struggling to get by?
The shame of being poor. And the rage. I read somewhere that the average age of death for men who work as coal miners in Appalachia is 46. There’s a reason for that. Poor people are dispensable in this system, and they know it.
At a few key times in your life, someone challenged you to be more than you thought you could be. At other times, people told you that you weren't good enough. Both experiences seem to have motivated you. How did that balance play out in your life?
That’s the mystery, isn’t it? When I was writing An Imperfect Rapture, I spent a lot of time wondering what my life would have been like if just one or two more kind, empathic people had shown up to mirror someone to me I could love and root for, or if one or two more tough-love kind of people had shown up to mirror someone to me I could admire. So, I’m not dead. I had the life I had, good and bad, so at the end of it all, I feel like it was exactly what it was meant to be. One more kind person (“angel”) or one more challenger (“worthy adversary”) and I might be—who knows, on the Supreme Court? The author of ten or fifteen important books? But one fewer kind person or challenger and I wouldn’t be here, I suspect.
What's next for you as an author?
Right now I’m trying to give An Imperfect Rapture a chance to breathe. Maybe all authors feel like this, but I can’t imagine writing anything I love as much as this book. So, I’m trying not to pressure myself about that. Some readers have asked if I’ll be writing a sequel (a lot of years between 24 and 60), but right now, I really don’t know. I’ve written a few essays I like, but the essay form feels a little constraining to me. I’m moving toward another memoir, I’m pretty sure, but I just don’t know what slice of life is calling me to investigate it yet.
Around this time last year, inspired by year-end "Best of . . . " lists, I compiled my own list of standout books I'd read during the past twelve months. I didn't rank my books—on that point I have to agree with author Neil Gaiman, who has compared picking five favorite books to "picking the five body parts you'd most like not to lose."
Instead, I listed ten books I found memorable for any number of reasons: the writing was exceptional, the story was engrossing, the tale was told in an unusual way, or the book just stayed with me for reasons I couldn't explain. That's what I'm doing again this year. A couple of the books on this year's list were written by friends, but that's not why I'm including them. They're on this list of books I want to tell you about because that's where they deserve to be.
Last year I limited my top-whatever list to ten books. This year I'm being more generous and giving you a baker's dozen. About half were published in the past year; the rest have publication dates ranging from 1960 to 2017. I didn't set out to include particular themes, but as I look at the choices on my list, I see that several deal with pivotal periods in history, people making a life in unusual situations, and the challenges of overcoming adversity and finding a place in the world.
Just as I wrote last year, I'm not really sure what to call this list. My Most Want-to-Tell-You-About-Them Books of 2018? Or simply A Bunch of Books I Read This Year and Actually Remember Something About?
Whatever you want to call it, here it is:
A Baker's Dozen Something-or-Other Books I Read in 2018
Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road from Debt to Freedom by Ken Ilgunas. Burdened by crushing student debt and inspired by Henry David Thoreau, Ilgunas took off to Alaska, where he scraped together enough money from odd jobs—cook, tour guide, and the like—to repay his loans. Finally debt-free and determined to stay that way, he enrolled in graduate school and bought a used Econoline van that became his mobile dorm room for the next two years. What began as an experiment in frugality became much more: an educational experience in its own right.
The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown. You might think the title and subtitle say it all: American boys, boat, epic quest, 1936, Berlin, Olympics. You pretty much know how it's going to turn out, right? But how it turns out is not the whole story. The beauty is in the details of this tale about a ragtag team of working class kids from the Pacific Northwest who learned—literally—to pull together, challenging elite rowing teams from the East Coast and Great Britain and ultimately defeating Hitler's vaunted rowers in the Olympics. Like a good novel, this saga portrays characters in ways that make you really care how things turn out for them. And just as I couldn't have imagined—until I read Barbarian Days last year—being engrossed in descriptions of one surfing wave after another, I could not have imagined—until I read Boys in the Boat this year—getting so wrapped up in descriptions of boat races. Yet I found myself riveted until the last page.
Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir by Cinelle Barnes. One reviewer described this book as a "fairy tale turned survival story," and that's an apt characterization. Barnes's childhood world of opulence and privilege in the Philippines is shattered when a monsoon hits with destructive force, her father leaves, and her mother takes up with a shady character. Still a child, Barnes is forced to fend for herself, navigating not only complex relationships with flawed people, but also such practicalities as finding fresh water. Hers is an inspiring story of resilience.
Never Stop Walking by Christina Rickardsson. This book is also a story of resilience and adaptability, but it's almost a mirror image of Monsoon Mansion. Rickardsson, née Christiana Mara Coelho, was born into abject poverty in Brazil and lived with her loving mother in forest caves for the first seven years of her life. Her mother did the best she could, but eventually Christiana ended up in an orphanage. Adopted by a Swedish couple and taken home to Sweden, she was swept into a life that could not have been more different from her earlier years. The story of how Christiana/Christina adapted and came to terms with her dual identities is both heart-rending and heartening.
Listening to the Bees by Mark L Winston and Renée Sarojini Saklikar. I am truly blessed to have so many talented friends who find the most interesting outlets for their creativity. My bee buddy Mark Winston just keeps amazing me with his ideas and output. You may remember Mark from his guest post on collaboration, "Everything I Know I Learned From Hermit Crabs." Listening to the Bees is the delightful fruit of one of his collaborations. Merging Mark's scientific knowledge with Renée's poetry, the book explores the challenges to bees in the modern world—and to humans living in complex societies. That's all I'm going to say about this book right now, because I've promised to devote a more space to it in a future blog post. Stay tuned.
Personal History by Katharine Graham. Not long after seeing the film "The Post," which dramatizes The Washington Post's struggle to publish the Pentagon Papers, I was browsing at Flying Bear Books and saw a stack of copies of this autobiography by Katherine Graham. Graham (played by Meryl Streep in the movie) was at the helm of the Post during both the Pentagon Papers and Watergate exposés. I snapped up the book and devoured it, fascinated not only by Graham's accounts of these two infamous periods of history and their relevance to current times, but also by the insider's view of a bygone era of journalism and the story of Graham's own evolution from awkward child to overshadowed wife to confident and competent businesswoman.
Grit, Noise, and Revolution: The Birth of Detroit Rock 'n' Roll by David A. Carson. I didn't live in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s, but the city and its music were certainly on my radar and in my record collection, even when I was more than six-thousand miles away in the South Pacific. Carson's chronicle of Detroit's music scene and its ties to the culture and politics of the time makes for an engrossing read—especially fun for me because when I finally did move to Detroit in the early 1980s, I came to know some of the people who are mentioned in the book. Though I knew a bit about their roles in the music and political scenes of those earlier times, Carson's comprehensive account filled in the blanks.
The Chicken Who Saved Us: The Remarkable Story of Andrew and Frightful by Kristin Jarvis Adams. I learned about this book when I attended the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle a few months ago, where The Chicken Who Saved Us won the Nancy Pearl Book Award for memoir. I would have bought it and read it for that reason alone, but the cover and the story behind it also drew me in. In this memoir, Adams relates how her son Andrew, who has autism, formed a close bond with a pet chicken named Frightful, and how Andrew's conversations with Frightful ultimately saved the boy's life.
Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly. In this age of fractured attention and information overload, it's sometimes hard to commit to reading a book of four hundred pages or more. Yet that's not the reason I find myself increasingly attracted to extremely short pieces of fiction and nonfiction. I delight in the authors' skill in telling a complete story in very few words, and I've started playing around with flash nonfiction myself. In this collection, Fennelly celebrates childhood memories, cultural observations, glimpses into domestic life, and other moments that make life rich.
The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Yes, I know I just extolled the virtues of short works, but there's also a place for mega-books like this 528-page political thriller. Mysteries and thrillers are not my usual fare. However, the idea of a former president collaborating on novel intrigued me. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton—and I realize there's quite a range of opinion—it's fascinating to read details that only a president would know, and to get a glimpse into how a leader's mind works in a crisis.
An Imperfect Rapture by Kelly J. Beard. I met this author when we both attended a master class at the Tucson Festival of Books, and when I learned that her memoir was headed for publication after winning the Zone 3 Press Creative Nonfiction Book Award, I could hardly wait to read it. Kelly has kindly agreed to an interview for an upcoming blog post, so I won't go into detail about the book here, except to say that the writing is exquisite, and the story of finding her way in the world after growing up poor, within the strictures of fundamentalist religion, is remarkable. Stay tuned for more.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Oh, man. This book sounded so far out when I read reviews of it, I just couldn't imagine getting into it. I know, George Saunders is no slouch, and the book was acclaimed by The Washington Post, USA Today, Time, and The New York Times. But come on, a bunch of ghosts—who don't know they're ghosts—gossiping, griping, and skim-walking around a graveyard where they're caught in a sort of purgatory and trying to help Abraham Lincoln's recently dead son Willie escape such a fate? Really? All I can say is, I was hooked from the first page. The fact that I loved the book so much is a reminder that it pays to step out of my literary comfort zone (which for me would be reading yet another Anne Tyler novel—see list below) and take a chance on something completely different.
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel. In 1986, a young man named Christopher Knight disappeared into the Maine woods—on purpose—and lived alone there for twenty-seven years. Not exactly self-sufficient, Knight broke into nearby cottages for food and other necessities (including lots and lots of batteries), and though locals knew he was around, he and his secluded encampment remained out of sight for all those years. Journalist Finkel pieced together the story from interviews with Knight after he was found and arrested for the thefts. The story of how Knight survived, and the difficulties he faced in trying to readjust to the life that most of us consider normal, is revealing.
- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
- Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler
- Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
- Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters
- What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
- The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler
- Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
- Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman
- A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler
- Crossing Over by Ruth Irene Garrett
- Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
- Love & Vodka by R.J. Fox
- Awaiting Identification by R.J. Fox
- A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures by Ben Bradlee
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
- Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
That old-fashioned mode of communication seems to be a vanishing species these days. The average American household receives only ten pieces of personal mail per year (not counting holiday cards and invitations), according to a New York Times article by Susan Shain.
I thought about that kind of connection recently, when my friend Laurel gave me a packet of letters I'd written to her in the 1970s and '80s. Reading through them, I found verbal snapshots of that period of my life: vivid descriptions of my friends, amusing anecdotes about everyday incidents, accounts of the books I was reading, ramblings on romances, ruminations on my college and grad school anxieties.
Among those treasures was a note written on a Buckaroo Club napkin by my friend Darwin in 1981, shortly after he'd completed a 300-mile kayaking odyssey on the Yukon, Porcupine, Sheenjek, and Kongakut rivers, culminating at the Beaufort Sea.
"Right here you have a prime example of a Communications 301 class," he wrote. "Notice the yawns and the chins propped drowsily on hands. Notice the blank sheets of paper without any notes. Notice the guest speaker getting shook. Notice chair #213 back there writing a letter to some girl in Oklahoma."
I arrived early to nab a good seat for the workshop titled "Discovering Your Story: The Joy of Mindful Writing." On the hour, the instructor, Peter Gibb, walked to the podium. Around the room, people stashed their cell phones, arranged their pens, opened laptops and notebooks.
Finally, our speaker spoke: "We have now been in session for one minute."
One minute. Huh. One minute of unfilled time felt like an eternity.
Another noteworthy session was a four-hour master class with Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey. Vogler's approach to storytelling draws from psychology, mythology, physiology, and other sources not typically associated with writing.
Volunteers decorate the bags, and that's where Bea applies her talents. Curled up in a comfy armchair in the living room of the home she shares with daughter Sandra Bernard and granddaughter Marquita Bernard, with a rainbow of markers at hand and a pile of coloring books for inspiration, Bea draws her cheerful creations and finishes off each drawing with big "I LOVE YOU" at the bottom.
For Bea, the project has revived talents that took a backseat while she was raising her five children. In her youth, she enjoyed painting landscapes and cottage scenes. Then, for many years, she turned her creative energy to sewing clothes for her children (including wedding dresses, bridesmaids' dresses, and flower girls' dresses for all the family weddings) and crocheting outfits for the grandchildren that came along later. When she lost sight in one eye six years ago, she could no longer crochet.
But she could. And once she got going, she was unstoppable. She estimates she has decorated more than 1,600 bags to date.
The bag project isn’t the only creative work underway in the big gray house in the heart of Newaygo. Bea, Sandra and Marquita recently published a children's book, I Am Never Too Me!, and Sandra and Marquita have two more books in the works: Things That Matter and Elton's Tall Tale.
The family invested in a computer, and Marquita, who has a background in design and illustration, created the front and back covers, added a few illustrations, and designed the layout.
For Bea, Sandra and Marquita, working together on creative projects is part of a "spiritual movement" that began when they first started talking about living together.
For more about Sandra Bernard's creative spirit and talented family, plus a sample of her poetry, see her April 20, 2016 guest post, Creative Thinkers.
Welcome to the second installment of HeartWood's occasional feature on creative couples. In this edition, I'm profiling Newaygo County residents Tonya and Eldon Howe, whose talents impressed me when I first met them at the River Stop writers' salon and continue to amaze me.
"You see that curvy post over there?" Eldon points toward the kitchen. "I was going to put in a simple, straight post—just a post—and run the electrical up through it. But Tonya said, 'Can't we find something in the woods that'll be nicer than that?' So we walked down below the hill—there was snow on the ground—and she saw this tree and said, 'Can we use that one? I like that one.' I said, 'No, we can't use that one. It's all curvy. There's no way I can put electrical in it.' But she just kept looking at it."
In a second-floor studio off the bedroom, Tonya pursues her passion for oil painting and drawing.
Eldon's aim in guitar building is "functional artistry." Though beautiful to look at, the guitars are designed with specific playability goals in mind. "It's very experimental, what I'm doing," he says.
The Howes recently released a CD album of their songs, titled "Sundown," currently in the music rotation on WYCE. (Songs can be requested online at https://grcmc.org/wyce/wyce/request or by phone at 616-742-9923.) Tonya shot the cover photo of Eldon before a performance at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids.
Tonya also offered suggestions on accompanying instruments that would convey the proper emotions and fit the theme of each song. Now, she's mixing music into her art in another way. "I'm trying my hand at quick sketches of musicians while they're playing a song," she says. "I call them 'one song long' sketches."
- Another joint project—a children's book—is in the works. "The Elephant Story" is based on a true story of a toy elephant, one of Eldon's favorite childhood playthings, that reappeared after being lost behind a wall for decades.
from the heart of the woods
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.
Last Wednesday Wisdom