I realize it's not the last Wednesday of the month, but I haven't done one of these compilations in quite a while, and I blew right past last month's bonus Wednesday, when I fully intended to post something extra. So I owe you! Besides, I've been finding some good stuff that I really want to share.
So here you go . . .
We tend to think of consciousness as skin bound, brain tethered. However, in nature we can sense something vaster--and that something larger senses us. And from here our perception and understanding transforms. We start to think from this bigger perspective.
-- Mark Coleman, Mindful magazine, April 2019
I'd sooner exchange ideas with the birds on earth than learn to carry on intergalactic communications with some obscure race of humanoids on a satellite planet from the world of Betelgeuse. First things first.
-- Edward Abbey, "The First Morning," Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness
Bees teach us so many lessons. When they take all this nectar from the tree, does that deprive the tree of anything? No, it enhances it. And when you give your time and energy to helping someone, does it deplete your skills? No, it gives you something to be proud of.
-- Brother Blaise Heuke, "The Beauty of a Bee," AARP The Magazine,
Live with unremitting alertness.
-- Joseph Campbell
[W]ith art comes empathy. It allows us to look through some else's eyes and know their strivings and struggles. It expands the moral imagination and makes it impossible to accept the dehumanization of others. When we are without art, we are a diminished people--myopic, unlearned and cruel.
-- Dave Eggers, The New York Times, June 29, 2018
Authorship is a solitary business, always coming down to a writer and a blank page, but inevitably it becomes a social act as well, because the book is inextricably part of the world. It finds readers, it begins a conversation, it tells a kind of truth that can't be told in any other way--or else it fails to do that.
James Gleick, Authors Guild Bulletin, Spring-Summer 2018
But here's the thing: Humans are not what we do. Humans are everything we do, and feel, and think, with a dash of stardust thrown in. The same is true for writers.
-- Lenore Myka, "When to ignore good advice," Poets & Writers magazine, Sept/Oct 2018
You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.
-- Andy Warhol
Life is a great bundle of little things.
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
What signals the beginning of summer to you? Do you wait for the calendar to tell you it’s officially begun, or do you declare it underway once you’ve planted a flat of annuals, fired up the grill, or popped open a beer on the back porch?
For me, those are all sure signs, but what really kicks off summer is the first festival of the season. Around here, that’s the Newaygo Arts & Crafts Festival, held over the Memorial holiday weekend.
Some years the festival is better than others (with my definition of “better” based on an index I derive through complex calculations weighted heavily by the ratio of actual artisans and crafters to booths occupied by gutter-guard salespeople and chiropractors).
This year, I have to say, the festival was outstanding. Not only were there lots of vendors offering interesting wares, there was also a new addition, “Let’s Art Newaygo!”, that I hope will become a regular feature of the annual celebration. This juried art show and competition showcased the work of twenty-two artists, displayed in thirteen businesses throughout Newaygo. You could think of it as a smaller-scale ArtPrize, the Grand Rapids extravaganza of the arts that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors.
I spent a blissful couple of hours strolling around Newaygo, checking out the works of art. Then I headed back to the River Country Chamber of Commerce booth in Brooks Park to cast my vote in the People’s Choice competition. (Read on to find out which pieces were selected by the judges and the People’s Choice voters.)
I was fascinated to see the variety of materials and techniques the artists used. There were paintings, photographs, sculptures of metal and wood, stained glass windows, and multi-media works. Several artists made creative use of recycled or repurposed materials, which added interest.
I could go on and on, but words don’t do justice, so I’ll let you take a look at more of the art. And if you’re in the Newaygo area, you don’t have to settle for pictures—the works will be on display through June 10, and printed guides to their locations are available at local businesses and libraries.
For a few years now, I have closed out most weeks by taking to the trails with the Wander Women, a local hiking group. We walk, and we talk, and we take in the sights and sounds along our woodland paths. But the truth is, we don’t really wander. We have a definite destination and an approximate time frame, from which we rarely deviate.
That’s as it should be. We all have post-hike errands to run or appointments to keep or evening engagements to get ready for, so it helps to have an idea just how the day’s hike will fit into all of that.
Sometimes, though, when I’m on my own in the woods—or on a city street, for that matter—I like to just aimlessly meander. That makes me a flâneur, a word I learned from a lovely article in Mindful magazine. The word has been variously defined as “an aimless idler” and “a passionate wanderer.”
I guess I’m a little of both. So, apparently, was Henry David Thoreau, who extolled the virtues of “sauntering” and letting his mind wander along with his feet.
When I worked in downtown Detroit, I spent most lunch breaks walking, usually with no particular destination in mind. I might end up strolling by the Detroit River or losing myself in the Ren Cen’s maze of hallways and catwalks or exploring Greektown or Harmonie Park or Washington Boulevard. Wherever I roamed, I always came back to the office refreshed and ready to work for the rest of the day.
Later, when I worked in Ann Arbor, my lunchtime walks took me into various neighborhoods, where I found inspiration in the creatively-designed gardens, quirky houses, and funky yard art I passed along the way.
“When you wander, the spring you tighten in order to secure your purpose and direction can unwind,” editor Barry Boyce observed in the Mindful article. What’s more, he noted, wandering can even be a kind of mindfulness practice. While we tend to think mindfulness is all about corralling our restless minds, the definition can expand to include “the practice of just noticing one thing after another as we let ourselves out to play.”
That’s exactly what I find myself doing on my walks these days. A just-bloomed wildflower, an oddly-shaped stone, a leaf floating down the creek—there’s no telling what will catch my attention and take it far from whatever minutia occupied my overloaded brain before I set out on my stroll.
I seem to wander best when I wander alone, but some folks are joining up in free “walkshops” organized by the nonprofit group Street Wisdom. On these volunteer-led strolls, participants are encouraged to tune into their senses and use their heightened awareness to sharpen their creative problem-solving skills.
Whether you ramble solo or with fellow flâneurs, you can bet your creativity will get the same kind of boost, as long as you let your mind meander freely. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology found that frequent daydreamers scored higher on tests of intellectual and creative ability and used their brains more efficiently (as measured with brain scans) than people who zoned out less.
All of that is reason enough for me to get up from my desk and wander off. See ya later!
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.
This is what spring looked like at my house a few days ago. Not exactly picking-posies weather. But I do believe it's coming . . . eventually.
Until then, let's enjoy a few reminders of what spring should look like.
What are your favorite signs of spring?
In some ways, the third Monday in March seemed like any other Monday. Early that morning, eleven of us trooped into Fae Wood Studio, the serene space that’s been our yoga home for the past couple of years. Just as she had on so many other Mondays, our teacher, Behnje Masson, led us through a series of moves that refreshed our bodies and boosted our spirits.
Our spirits needed boosting more than usual, because—appearances notwithstanding—this Monday was not just any Monday. It was our last class at Fae Wood Studio, and for now, at least, Behnje’s last time to travel to Newaygo to teach us.
For this community of yoginis, this ending marked yet another change in a long history of practicing and studying together. More than twenty years ago, our neighbor Sally Kane initiated the class, teaching every Monday morning in her basement. When Sally went back to school to become a teacher, Ellie Randazzo appeared at just the right time. Ellie took over Sally's class and went on to add more classes, build a devoted following, and eventually open her own studio, Woodland Yoga.
As I've written about before, yoga with Ellie, followed by breakfast at Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café became a can’t-miss Monday-morning routine for the group (which I joined about seven years ago), and friendships flourished in the process.
When Ellie died unexpectedly in 2016, we were adrift. Yet we kept our Monday morning yoga-and-breakfast sessions going, even when we had to squeeze into someone’s living room or loft to practice together. Then, through a charmed confluence of events, Ellie’s sister Kathy invited us to use her newly-established studio, Fae Wood, and Behnje offered to drive up from Grand Rapids twice a month to teach us. It was an ideal arrangement, one we’ve been privileged to enjoy for almost two years.
But just as Ellie always taught us, change is inevitable. Sure enough, everything has shifted again, and it’s time to readjust.
After deciding to move back to Grand Rapids, Kathy has sold her home and closed Fae Wood Studio. Meanwhile, Behnje’s studio in Grand Rapids, From the Heart Yoga, has moved into a new location and needs more of her time and attention. All of that means we’re adrift again.
But sad as we are to see this chapter close, drifting for a bit may not be a bad thing, especially with all the possibilities swirling around us: continue practicing together at a new location, carpool down to From the Heart Yoga, try out other local yoga classes.
At the end of our last class, we gathered at the back of the room, near Ellie’s favorite statue of the Hindu archetype Ganesh. Behnje talked about the importance of letting go of what you’ve lost, without trying to figure out in advance what’s coming next. She used the image of casting the old into a stream and just waiting to see what flows back to fill the space left open.
It was fitting that this last, momentous class happened to fall in the same week as the vernal equinox, a time associated with balance, but also with change, cleansing, and new beginnings. As we contemplated this latest change, we could feel winter loosening its grip, allowing us to move forward into a season of growth and beauty.
It was a good time, too, to be reminded that yoga itself is all about change. As instructor and author Cyndi Lee writes in the March/April 2019 issue of Yoga Journal, yoga “offers a myriad of experiences, many that we could never have predicted.” The point is not to nail a particular pose and hold onto it to dear life (no matter what we may think as we totter in Tree pose), but to adapt, adjust, and explore the range of possibilities.
“See how your actions come together to make certain poses, and then notice how that experience dissolves and is over. We are learning the truth of impermanence. Since everything arises and passes, we try to appreciate it in the moment that it is here.”
I’m happy to welcome Peter Gibb to HeartWood today. I met Peter when I took—and greatly enjoyed—his workshop, “The Joy of Mindful Writing,” at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference last fall.
Peter’s award-winning memoir, King of Doubt, is a beautifully-crafted story of self-discovery—a must-read for anyone who’s ever experienced self-doubt. (Is there anyone who hasn't?) When I learned he has a book on mindful conversation in the works, I cleared a space on my bookshelf in anticipation.
As he relates on his website, Peter grew up shy and isolated. Not exactly a conversational whiz. Eventually, though, he caught on to a few secrets that he honed and shared over a 22-year career of teaching, consulting, and coaching conversational skills “on 4 continents, in 3 languages, to Fortune 500 companies, to leaders of the emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, to doctors and bakers and just plain folks, hungry to learn.”
I’m honored to have Peter as a guest today. At the end of his post, you’ll find a link to his website, where you can take a quiz to learn your dominant conversational style. I encourage you to check it out. I took the quiz and not only gained insights into my habits in conversation, but also got tips on tweaking those habits toward more effective and satisfying face-to-face communication.
Now, here’s Peter . . .
First, I’m delighted to be a guest on Nan’s blog. So much interesting talk happening here, and such important topics.
Is there any human activity that has the potential to bring us contentment and provide real connection, more than Great Conversation? Conversation is a master life skill. Essential for parenting, teaching, leading, making friends, getting along with colleagues, selling . . . you know, just about anything and everything you do will be more successful and more satisfying if accompanied by Great Conversation.
But here’s the rub. Not all Conversation. In fact a great deal of conversation isn’t conversation at all. It’s just talk. Talk that does not bring us contentment or connection.
A great deal of talk consists of what I call “Serial Monologue.” This is talk in which two people, supposedly engaged in conversation, are actually just talking heads, listening mostly to their own voices. Rather than paying attention to what the other person is saying, they are more frequently:
Further, when such talkers do respond to the speaker, the most frequent type of response is what I call a “Grabbing Response.” Here is an example:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “San Diego, we were there in fall of ’17, but it was cold most of the time.”
Person A: “The zoo was really wonderful. My Clara left saying she wants to become a Vet. I’ve never seen her so excited.”
Person B: “Really. We take our kids to the zoo at least once a year.”
Person A is all excited to tell about her vacation, but Person B pretty much disregards everything that A says and launches into whatever story comes to mind. A conversation should be like a dance of connection, but in fact this one is more like a football game, each side trying to grab the ball and score points on some mythical scoreboard. Person B grabs the spotlight from A and changes the topic from A’s vacation to B’s cold vacation in San Diego and how one of the children is going to be a Vet.
Instead of creating connection and contentment, this kind of talk fosters isolation and frustration. Neither talker feels heard or acknowledged. There is no real connection.
What Ears Can Do
We were given two ears but just one mouth. There must be a reason. The most critical ingredient for Great Conversation is “Deep Listening.”
The first step toward deep listening is to get rid of grabbing responses and start using “reflective responses” instead.
Imagine how different this conversation might have been, had it gone something like this:
Person A: “I just got back from a great trip to San Diego with my family. We had a terrific time.”
Person B: “You sound so excited. San Diego. What made the trip so exceptional?”
This is a “reflective response.” There are many types of reflective response, too many to go into here. They all validate the speaker, mirroring back some aspect of what the speaker has said and often inquiring for further about the topic. Note that in this particular response, Person B validates a feeling (excited) and then inquires for more detail (what made the trip so exceptional?) There is no telling my own story, or giving advice, or judgment, or distraction. It’s basically listening, reflecting and inquiring. Simple? Well, not always, but what a difference it will make.
The Power of Listening
Learning to become a more conscious, committed listener is the single most important step you can take to move your conversation from talk to connection and ultimately to “Great Conversation.”
So what exactly is great conversation? Well, that’s a longer conversation. The best I can do in this short time is to say that it’s a skill we can all develop. It’s based on four values whose first letters spell the word C.A.R.E.
If you’d like to learn more about Great Conversation, please visit my web site, http://www.petergibb.org/. Scroll down a bit on the home page, and you’ll see an invitation to take the “Conversational Style Assessment,” a short survey that will help you discover your dominant conversational style. You’ll learn which of four basic conversational styles (Observer, Nurturer, Performer, and Explorer) is your default mode. You’re not locked into any one style for life. You can change your conversational style, but knowing your default style can help you to get oriented and on the path to Great Conversation. Take the assessment and you’ll get a personalized report back from me.
I also have a blog that discusses issues of Great Conversation once or twice per month, and a forthcoming (but not for at least 18 months) book, titled Beyond the Weather: 5 Steps to Great Conversation. If you’d like to be notified when the book is released, please sign up on the drop down form on my web site, or email me: email@example.com
Thanks for Listening. I hope to visit with you again.
In the days leading up to my recent birthday, colorful envelopes began appearing in our mailbox. Guessing they were birthday cards, I set them aside to open on the actual day.
Except for one. More a card-sized parcel than an ordinary envelope, it intrigued me with its cobbled-together lumpiness. When I noticed it was from my uber-creative friend Val in North Carolina, I couldn’t resist opening it right away.
In an earlier email exchange, Val had told me about her latest obsession: making “junk journals” and altered books from bits of this and that. I had no idea that junk journaling is a thing, but it is. Val confessed she’d gotten wrapped up in YouTube videos showing how to make the whimsical little assemblages.
More on those videos in a moment, but back to that mysterious envelope.
Inside, I found a mini-journal filled with a most imaginative and personalized assortment of miscellany. The cover was fashioned from a small manila envelope, folded in half, with one end left open to form a pocket for stowing notes and mementos. Val had covered the outside with a tropical print reminiscent of Samoa, where we met as teenagers in the 1960s. Inside were more pockets and envelopes made from magazine and catalog pages, sheet music, and so on, and stuffed with little treasures: maps of Samoa and my home state of Oklahoma, a recipe for Michigan Party Cheese Bake, clipped from some fundraising cookbook, plus other scraps and tidbits with special meaning to the two of us.
In the center was a two-page spread of another tropical scene, with Val’s face smiling from the window of a beach house and two little figures like the ones that populated the cartoons she used to draw in our Samoa days. My birthday journal was a delight from cover to cover, one that I’ll enjoy looking through again and again.
At Val’s prompting, I decided to try my hand at junk journaling (fully aware that the last thing I need right now is another project, but rationalizing that a hands-on activity would provide a good and necessary break from all the writing and book-related work that’s consuming my life these days. Sound convincing? I thought so.)
A junk journal is really whatever you want it to be, but it usually includes some combination of words, pictures, and other memorabilia, such as brochures, ticket stubs, maps, calendars, cards, or whatever else you want to include, all assembled in a helter-skelter way. The idea appealed to my passion for making collages and my tendency to hoard paper memorabilia with which I have no idea what to do.
But before I plunged in, I felt like I needed at least a little guidance. That’s how I found myself in the online realm of junk journal inspiration. It soon became clear that, like scrapbooking, junk journaling is one of those hobbies people can go a bit overboard on. I found photos of amazingly—and intimidatingly—elaborate journals, along with lists of all sorts of paraphernalia one might want to purchase, either to decorate the journal (where’s the “junk” in that??) or to use in crafting the journal: pre-made pockets, special paper cutters, fancy papers, bookbinding twine.
Yeesh. This is why I tend to stay away from Pinterest and crafting blogs. They’re inspiring, yes, but they also feed my insecurity when I start comparing my slapdash efforts to other people’s lavish creations. What’s more, have you noticed that it’s virtually impossible to find written instructions and diagrams for anything anymore? Learning how to do even the simplest thing requires watching a YouTube video. Or several.
I could see hours, if not days, swirling down the drain. So I set limits. I would watch only enough to learn a couple of things: How to make origami envelopes and library card-style pockets. Then I’d figure out the rest by studying Val’s example and just winging it. This decision also helped with the intimidation factor. Junk journals are supposed to be messy, but some people’s messy still comes out looking a lot more artful than mine. The sooner I stopped looking at videos and started doing my own work, the happier I’d be.
I chose a theme for my journal: Yoga and meditation. Now, here’s where it gets a little woo-woo. I went looking for card stock to use for my journal pages and found a stash left over from previous projects and recycled from other purposes. For my first page, I chose a pale yellow piece that seemed to stand out from the others. I had noticed that some of the pieces of card stock had color on only one side, with gray on the back, so I turned over the yellow piece to see if it had color on both sides.
Here’s what I found on the “back,” which had originally been the front: A flyer for classes taught by our beloved yoga teacher Ellie, whose death two and a half years ago devastated our community. Of course I wouldn’t sacrifice that flyer to make an ordinary page, but I’d find a way to give it a special place in the journal.
What else I included: Pockets holding decorated cards, with spaces on the backs for writing thoughts or inspiring words I come across in my reading; a freehand mandala I drew when I was going through a mandala-drawing phase; a collection of cards representing the seven chakras; a print of a collage I made for Ellie and another one that she especially liked; an origami envelope, made from Yoga Journal pages, into which I tucked a card with the names of my yoga friends.
I’m still putting together my junk journal, and even when it’s “finished,” it’ll still be a work in progress—something I can add to whenever I find something that fits.
Will I make others? That remains to be seen, although I already have ideas for several.
Will you make one? I hope so. And if you do, send me pictures, and I’ll share them in an upcoming blog post.
Want to know more about junk journals? Check out these websites:
A Beginner’s Guide to Junk Journaling
Junk Journal Tutorials For Beginners
What is a Junk Journal? Junk Journaling 101 for Beginners
Today is my birthday! I was going to be all low-key about it—just let it slide by without a mention. But when I noticed it would fall on a blog-posting day, I couldn’t resist sharing some birthday thoughts with you.
Besides, this one’s a biggie: 70. Just typing that number makes my jaw drop. Me?? 70?? With the dicey health history I had from age 17 on, there were times I doubted I’d ever see this many candles on my cake. Yet as the years piled up, I allowed myself to hope—and then believe—I just might.
When I did envision myself at 70, I imagined I’d be living a slowed-down, reflective life, sifting through mementos and old photo albums, processing the past, while practicing meditation and yoga to keep me grounded in the present. What I didn’t imagine was that I’d be so involved in new projects and interests and so jazzed about what’s still ahead.
It helps that we live in a community of energetic, engaged people around my age and older who are doing interesting things: playing and recording music, making art, writing and illustrating books, tending gardens, devoting time and talents to worthy causes. (By the way, if you missed my post on Bea Cordle, an inspiration to us all at 90+, be sure to check it out.)
Last year, the stars aligned to make good things happen with my writing and photography. Now, looking forward to the publication of my memoir, Mango Rash, later this year, I’m loving the idea of being a debut author at 70. Toward the end of last year, I also achieved my goal of hiking 50 miles of the North Country Trail, earning that coveted patch for the vest I wrote about in a previous post. This year, I’ve signed up to try for 100 miles (and another patch!), and though sub-zero temperatures and icy trails have set me back lately, I’ve at least made a start toward that goal.
Yet in spite of my undampened enthusiasm for projects and passions, this time of life does feel different in some ways from my earlier years, and I do feel the need to take time out for reflection, for putting things in context and looking back as well as forward.
In that spirit, Ray and I have been looking through all my photo albums, in order. They start with photos from before I was born—ancestors, my parents’ early lives—and continue up to 2003, when we switched from film to digital and I got tired of sticking pictures on pages.
Though I’ve dipped into these albums from time to time over the years, I’ve never gone through them this way, one after another, in the span of a few weeks. Doing that now, I notice threads that run through the decades. One is my love of nature, from childhood romps in the woods to more recent treks on nearby trails. Another is appreciation of art, evident in snapshots from settings that range from tony sculpture gardens to funky street fairs. Travels—around Michigan and beyond, by motorcycle, RV, or other conveyance—are another theme.
Most meaningful, though, are the faces that keep showing up, year after year, in different situations and places: the friends and family members with whom I’ve shared both celebrations and somber occasions. It's gratifying to realize how many of these people I'm still in touch with and have talked to or exchanged email with in the past week alone. Remembering the roles we’ve played—and continue to play—in one another’s lives gives me a deep sense of connection.
Within the pages of my photo albums, I also find reminders of the losses that come with a long life. So many faces in those photos belong to people who have passed from this life and whose presence I miss. At this time of life, the losses come closer together, and the bonds among those of us who remain grow stronger.
When I embarked upon this photographic time trip, I didn’t give much thought to its significance. It was just one of those “someday, I’ll . . . ” things that I felt like doing now. Now, as I pore over pages, I realize what a profound experience it is to look back over a lifetime and contemplate what it's all been about. At a time when it sometimes seems things are falling apart, there's also a sense that everything's coming together.
As I anticipate the coming year—and years—it's with a keen awareness that there's really no way of knowing what may come, and no point in either worrying or fantasizing about what-ifs.
All I can say for now is, "So far, so good."
Share your thoughts about the stage of life you're experiencing.
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.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
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.