“J” is for Journal; “T” is for Thawing

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“Out of clutter, find simplicity.”

-Albert Einstein

In last week’s blog post I told you about the 6-week long journaling class I’m taking with writer Susannah Conway, and I promised I’d offer up “bits and bobs,” as Susannah puts it, of the experience.

Six years ago, a writing friend introduced me to the trendy idea of choosing a theme word for each New Year, as it related to our writing life/goals.

My log list reads thus:

2008 – persevere

2009 – believe

2010 – continue

2011 – expand

2012 – push

2013 – (no word chosen)

2014 – reassess

That blank in 2013 is probably the reason I signed on to do this life journal class. I can’t tell you why I didn’t choose a word last year, and frankly, it wasn’t until I started writing in my classy new journal for this session that it occurred to me. Life turned bizarrely hectic, messy and sad in 2013. That I didn’t have presence of mind to choose my word is proof.

Susannah provides us with many prompts and suggestions each day from which to work in our journals. Journaling longhand is not a new concept for me, as I have a number of them in process on my shelves. But the idea of working in a cyberspace classroom with 79 other women from around the world in a common vein added the touch of discipline and connectivity I realized went missing last year. That came out in my writing this past week.

It’s startling what your mind and hands lay down on the paper while you look on, and honest journaling will take over like that when you finally cut yourself loose.

Little wonder then that my gut chose the word reassess, because clearly there was a need. (I still can’t believe that I didn’t at least try for a word in January 2013. Ah, well.)

You see the colorful, but messy array in the picture? That’s my creative notebook journal in process. That is the second part of this winter adventure. Others are calling their notebooks their creative dream journals.

I have a pretty good handle on what my dreams are. It’s these blasted U-turns and detours life keeps handing me and mine that need sorting through.

My 3-ring journal will be titled, Life View, and it will contain pictures of family and friends, pets, beautiful party tables, skies (I love sky pictures), food (of course!), ticket stubs, handwritten notes and cards from friends, journal fragments, and various other bits of my writings; even some of my poems. Elizabeth Bishop I am not, but, hey—this is my journal after all.

I’m not real artsy-fartsy when it comes to the paper crafts/ scrapbooking concept, and I was not even going to try this 3-D part of the course, because after all—I am a writer. I was planning to dive back in with one ink pen in hand, and two more in my back pocket and give it everything I had. But Providence evidently thought it would be good for me.

Allow me to report to you: I think Providence was right, and I think I’m in love.

The play time with my 3-ring binder and all those doodads, stickers, fancy scissors, multicolored card stocks, and the drawing up of page layouts all while looking at pictures of my family, my friends, all those fun times we’ve had already . . . I mean, come on! It’s positively engrossing. Not to mention, cheering.

Observing where you’ve come from goes a long ways in helping you reassess where you go from here.

And then there was this revelation: the other night, as I wrote and played, it occurred to me that my head, heart and soul were thawing out.

Whether we freeze up to protect ourselves from the hard times, or to make ourselves be strong role models for the sake of those around us could be a topic for debate.

All that I can tell you today is that it feels good to have the ice breaking away, and I owe this to a new journal, a group of honest, like-minded women on the other side of the pond, and a whole lot of brightly colored clutter scattered all over my dining room table.

I know there are people who think they don’t need to do any of this self-examining journaling crappola, but people, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

You may never be the same.

Einstein nailed it. Out of my clutter, I am finding simplicity, and from there I will be able to reassess.

Talk to you next week–

The Life Around Pie.

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I am a pie snob, and I admit this with pride.

We had 14 people coming to our house for the annual Groff 4th of July party this past Saturday night and I woke up that morning with a wretched sore throat that was doing its best to spread its wickedness throughout my body.

I had 3 pies to create because homemade pie at our annual function is now a time-honored tradition. It didn’t matter that I was feeling poorly, those pies needed to come together.

Some people believe pie simply comes from the freezer section of their grocery store.

Some people have never made a real pie, and could give a fig whether or not they ever do, but . . .

I’m willing to bet something of value that a respectable majority of the masses adore a really good piece of homemade pie—which, to my means and methods—means the pie crust has to be a lard-based crust. (Groan if you want, but on this I am immovable.)

I was fortunate to watch and learn from the real experts: my mother, my paternal grandmother and a couple of aunts in busy ordinary family kitchens. It had nothing to do with expensive granite counter tops, or designer light fixtures—or even degrees from prestigious culinary schools with familiar-sounding acronyms.

These women learned their pie tricks out of necessity for feeding families and large work crews.

Back to my sore throat and not feeling in the most “pie-baking” mood Saturday morning.

Because I was feeling awful, I worked slower than I normally do.

I took my time with the process. I rinsed and peeled, and washed and diced and sliced and grated and measured. With the fillings mixed up and waiting in their bowls, I turned my attention to rolling out the bottom crusts, and it hit me.

You are in this moment only. Feels good, doesn’t it? 

You are not rushing; thinking about what you’ll do after this. 

You don’t do this nearly enough, but you need to.

I took my time rolling out each crust—testing it for uniform thickness, adjusting it a bit here and there, then ever so gently arranging it in its pie plate before repeating that process two more times.

Stirring and scraping the fillings: fresh blueberry with lemon zest, rhubarb (from my garden) mixed with market strawberries spiked up a bit with freshly grated orange zest and just a touch of fresh ground nutmeg–for the second pie, and of course, apple pie for the third. I like to add fresh lemon zest to my apple pies as well because freshly zested citrus makes anything rock to the next level up.

I dabbed on the butter pieces—real butter, of course—and then rolled out the decorative top crusts, once again laying them in place, taking care not to stretch or tear, trimming excess dough, tucking and rolling the edges, before giving them finger-formed edges.

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There really is nothing better than working with your hands.

Perhaps you won’t believe me, but I swear my throat wasn’t hurting nearly as badly once those pies went into the oven to bake, and I realized I’d enjoyed my creative time at that dusty flour counter to its maximum potential.

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It takes practice at being in the moment, and I have been painfully negligent as of late in my practice of that art.

There are always deadlines to meet, the next interview to locate and set up, the myriad of things that always need doing around the house, the yard, volunteer duties, and so forth. It becomes too easy to live to rush toward that next task or duty or promise—or “always wanted to try that . . .”, and before I know it—I’m not even trying to stand in the moment and enjoy where I am. This simply is not good.

A friend recently asked me some pointers about starting her novel.

I told her to make sure she had a ball writing her first draft, because it may just be the most fun she’ll have with it.

Practicing what we preach can be such hard work, don’t you agree?

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Just for grins—here’s my family’s lard pie crust recipe. Just in case you want to try your hand at one.☺

Grandma Z’s Pie Crust

3 cups white flour

1-1/3 cup of lard

3/4 tsp salt

Mix flour and salt together, cutting in the cold lard with pastry cutter until crumbly, then add the following combined mixture:

1 egg, beaten

1 tsp cider vinegar

5 TBLS ice cold water

Mix, by hand, until smooth, shape into a disk before wrapping and chilling in refrigerator for several hours.

A few pointers:

  • Be sure the lard is cold.
  • I always use a  pastry cutter to work the lard into the dry ingredients.
  • Be sure the   and water mixture, as well, is very cold. (I ice a glass of water  first, then measure out my 5 TBLS of water and add the vinegar.)
  • Do  not overwork the dry ingredients/lard mixture. Just get them worked into a small crumb mixture and then add the wet ingredients.

Writing Wooly Mammoths.

Snow day cave drawings

Snow day cave drawings

The lights kept flickering. Outdoors the winds howled, occasionally whistling down through the chimney where they rattled the fireplace damper. Occasionally we lost sight of our neighbor’s house through the trees . . .

This sounds a lot like “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” doesn’t it. ;-D

These frozen snow-glob critters appeared on our screen during the first winter blow this past December, clinging like leeches and daring my imagination to come out and play. The minute I noticed them I knew what I was seeing.

Pictographs like the kind discovered on the walls of the ancient cave dwellers.

Do you see the large buffalo butting heads with a smaller one on the screen? (I admit he was the first I picked out.) There are furry mammoths and brontosauruses as well. What else can you pick out?

The thing I love about stormy snow days—and as evidenced out on the Facebook postings—is that people use these days to back away from regular life. They stay in and take overdue naps or make hot chocolate, clean closets, wrap gifts, bake—and indulge in the much ignored activity of getting quiet while they step away from the everyday jungle.

I’m always in favor of humanity being afforded the opportunity for stepping down for a while.

You can’t pick up a health magazine or newspaper today, but that experts—even the ol’ “we’ve got a pill for that” Western medicine docs (finally)—are spouting the advantages of slowing down, disconnecting and getting quiet once in a while for improved mental and physical health.

We don’t do it enough, even though we know we should. It takes a ravaging storm such as a blizzard, a devastating disease or the death of a loved one to bring us around.

We always need the reminder every now and then to say to ourselves: yeah, today I’m going to step back and do something a little different; maybe something lighter—more fun—more unusual.

When the winds howl and the snow flies, my fingers itch until I pull out the laptop, park my rear on the sofa and free write until I’m tired of it.

Healing days. That’s what such days are.

Mother Nature has my eternal gratitude for sending raging, vicious snow storms every once in a while.

Leave Godzilla at home.

A room with a view.

In the August 10, 2012 issue of THE WEEK magazine, editor-in-chief William Falk writes about the hold that the Smartphone-iPad-laptop techno Godzilla has on our lives—at work and on vacation. Pair this with the typical American work ethic these days and the picture begs for serious examination. 

A short excerpt from Mr. Falk:  . . . not long ago I would have found it unthinkable to work while on vacation . . .I recall glorious two-week sojourns where I had no contact with bosses, employees—even friends . . . But that was before I traveled with a Smartphone, an iPad and a laptop . . . 

Read his brief, astute editorial at: http://theweek.com/article/index/231444/editors-letter-tech-masters-or-tech-slaves 

Last week I attended a writer’s academy/retreat located in the sticks—and glorious sticks they were! 

One-hundred and fifty acres curled around the bank of Chub Lake, complete with wooded walkway across a marsh covered in water lilies that leads to a hill where we could sit in a swing and look through the trees overlooking the lake. This retreat center offers five miles of hiking trails through woods and wildflower prairie land, a labyrinth, swings, picnic tables and fire pits placed throughout the grounds, along with three meals a day prepared by someone in the kitchen who knew about “Mom cooking.” 

There wasn’t a burger, French fry or pizza in sight the whole time. 

We enjoyed smashed cauliflower served with roasted pork loin topped with a spicy and sweet raisin sauce. There were roasted vegetables, and wild rice side dishes and tender pot roast accompanied by real mashed potatoes (with just the right amount of lumps) and interesting green salads (no iceberg or macaroni salad allowed). There were desserts—cranberry bread pudding and hot caramel sauce . . . fresh blueberry crisp—not too sweet—and real whipped cream for topping. And breakfast was ready at 8 o’clock every morning.

We had 24-hour access to the dining room where hot water and tea or coffee, iced drinks (no sodas on the premises – impressive!), granola bars, fruit and yogurt awaited us if we wanted it, not to mention bars, cookies, M&M’s or nuts snacks that appeared on the counter just for us between lunch and dinner—and late in the evening before bedtime. 

I mean—come on—who couldn’t handle this?! 

I took plenty of work along–(yup—I did)—just in case. I even took one freelance project draft copy; looked at it once and put it away. This was my fiction-editing and creative writing retreat and I wasn’t going to screw that up.  

What I did: 

  • Ate smashed cauliflower – for the first time. (It looks like mashed potatoes, but with fewer calories.) 
  • I attended a short chapel session every morning in a sanctuary with 3-sided window views of woods, lake and prairie. 
  • I went to a couple of writing sessions on poetry and flash fiction—141 character flash fiction. It ain’t easy, but it was fun playing around with it. 
  • I enjoyed quiet, uninterrupted time in my private room ticking off edits on the novel. Yea! 
  • I walked a labyrinth. Timely it was, too—right after a critiquing session that left me a bit displeased—at first. I was back to breathing normally by the time I completed the labyrinth.  (Additional blog post to come on this. Finishing a novel and walking a labyrinth are first cousins. Six pages of handwritten, single-spaced journaling shot from my brain.) 
  • Over meals I visited with interesting people; the majority of them older than me. People who’ve been to Haiti and Ethiopia and Israel and know of the Palestinian struggle. People who are exceptional writers, poets, essayists and published authors. Not one person dragged out their Smartphone or Blackberry in the dining room during mealtime. Not one. 
  • I filled my digital camera with pictures of the marsh land, and videos of the sounds of the wind through broad stands of tall cattails, and the breeze around the creaking wood swings placed among ash and aspens, cottonwood and bitternut hickory trees. These videos will be fun to view next winter, when the snow comes. 
  • I slept with my window screen open at night so I could watch peach-toned moonlight while raccoons scratched around in the dirt below, looking for something we human types might have dropped during the day. The stars had the night sky all to themselves. No ambient city light invaded from any direction.  
  • And I pitched the novel to an editor who gave a presentation. I didn’t know I was going to do that. She agreed to take a look at it.

 What I didn’t do:

  • Didn’t post to or read Facebook, LinkedIn, or check my blog. 
  • Didn’t spend any time on the cell phone except to let my family know I had arrived safely. 
  • Didn’t read any editor, agent, publishing world blogs, newsletters or other “do’s and don’ts” emails pertaining to the writer’s path. 
  • Didn’t look at world news headlines. 
  • Didn’t watch TV until the last evening after the retreat concluded. I had to see how the Olympians were doing. 
  • Didn’t count calories. 
  • Didn’t use the laptop to journal. I wrote with a pen—and often—sitting outside. 

I’m back home with another freelance job to complete, and dealing with article sources who can’t—or won’t—follow through for me on a story assignment. There’s a stack of bills to pay and the laundry is in piles in the hallway—and I am eager to get the novel query package into the mail to that editor. 

Returning home is always good. Don’t get me wrong. The whole concept of what home is, is what makes me tick in the first place. 

But Editor Falk makes a good point. When you go on vacation—or retreat—you need to make the conscious decision to be there. 

All of your electronic toys and phones,  as well as the rest of the world, will be there when you return.

Marshlands don’t need to hurry.

Writing and Finishing: Be like a child.

It took a child dunking her bread in the sacrificial grape “wine” at church this morning to remind me.

About patience and my own rhythm. 

As I watched from my liturgist perch, one family came forward to stand at the communion rail to partake of today’s offering. In our church this is cut squares of white bread, and a thimble-sized cup of grape juice. 

I watched as one small girl took her bread and her little cup of juice and stood alongside the rail. She dipped her bread into the juice and took a tiny bite, and chewed it leisurely. Pretty soon she dipped her bread again in the juice and chewed that—again, leisurely. She was in no hurry. As she chewed she stood there lost in thought. 

Adults and other families came and went while she finished her meal. When her bread was gone she tipped her cup and made sure she’d gotten every last drop out of it before placing the cup in the receptacle holes for the used cups. Her Dad stood next to her, waiting until she’d finished and then they returned to their seats. 

The first thing I appreciated about this scenario was that no one—and I mean No One—attempted to hurry this child, or interfere in any manner with the way she chose to consume her communion. That would have totally honked me off. 

But the second thing—the way she continued in her method, unaffected by the steady flow of traffic to the rail around her impressed me to the max, and I couldn’t help but question: Why do we forget how to remain unaffected when working on our own projects, be it writing, painting, designing flower gardens or redecorating our TV room? 

Many have written and sold books on “How To Write Fiction” or “How NOT To Write” or “5 Easy Steps to Publishing Success!,” or blogs espousing how you, too, can make 6 figures in freelancing! 

Their intentions are mostly good, I am sure, but too much of “them” gets in your head and does much damage, especially if you get so bound up by their advice that you cannot cut yourself free to be and do—what you want to. 

If you spend too much time reading and absorbing all this flak, you, unlike that oblivious small child enjoying her communion, won’t be “taking your particular seat” anywhere nearly as calm and satisfied as she was today. 

We know our own rhythms and expectations; what we want. What works for us, is going to be very different from what someone else does. 

And that is okay. 

Like taking communion, as far as I’m concerned, there is no right way. 

All that matters is how you feel about how it’s progressing. For you. You’ll know when you aren’t happy with the way it’s moving, and then you’ll do something about that, or you’ll quit. (I don’t recommend this.) 

Forget everyone else. Try to be like the child at the communion rail. 

Follow your own rhythm–because you do have one.

“What’s on Your fridge?”

Can the fronts of our fridges be our creative coaches?

 A magnet on the front of our refrigerator declares: 

I’d give up chocolate . . . but I’m no Quitter! 

Still another magnet advocates living strongly, something all the self-help books–and especially those for women–promote all of the time. And, oh, wow — the supporting words for this one come from the Bible. 

Be a Risk Taker!

“ . . . Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 NLT 

I like having the words: Be a Risk Taker up in front of me every day. 

Most of us like short, catchy phrases. We’re offered wit, wisdom, encouragement—even social angst to chew on—in our daily lives because of them. 

I think the Capital One credit commercials on television are an absolute hoot: “What’s in Y-O-U-R wallet?” they ask us as these crazy, silly Vikings trip, stomp and break their way through stores and buildings—paying for all damages with their Capital One credit card. Of course these commercials are trolling for new card holders, but they do make us consider the versatility from a single source. (Kind of like the contents on the front of our fridge.) 

I don’t care as much for the implied tone in the more universal chestnut that forecasts: “You are what you eat.”  

If I am what I eat, technically I should weigh at least 400 pounds—or be dead. I’m neither. I like it all—the green and the healthy, the chocolatety-smooth treats, as well as the perfectly char-grilled, a little pink in the center, please and thank you, goodies.

My stance on things is: somewhere toward the middle is mostly good. A balance. Not just one direction, but many.  

The magnet-held contents of my fridge demonstrate this: 

The 12/11/11 Mallard cartoon says much to us, as the child in the frame tells his mother:

“Mom!! – I got the part of “nondescript person number three” in the school generic inoffensive holiday-season extravaganza!” 

I’m always clipping Non Sequitur cartoons, and in particular the ones that poke fun at the writers of the world. We’re in trouble when we take ourselves too seriously: 

Miriam, the Anti-Muse, gripes to her husband: “Isn’t there a program that’ll write a best seller for you? Then you’d have more time to clean out the basement –“ 

Or in another of his cartoons where a slouchy-looking writer has his feet up on the coffee table, working on his laptop while watching a big-screen TV: 

The post-Journalism Existentialist: I blog, therefore, I am. 

A Peter Vey cartoon I clipped shows one employee talking to another employee who is sitting at his desk surfing the web –  

“If you want to find out more about my dull, boring life, check out my blog or my Facebook page or my Twitter or the flyers I taped to lampposts all over town.” 

That one almost hurts, doesn’t it? 

The contents of the front of our refrigerator constantly offer rotating humor, encouragement, pointed reminders—and sometimes solace, like the beauty in the picture of a frosty winter day with only a red barn for contrast that I tore from a magazine and posted last week: 

There are times when silence has the loudest voice. – Leroy Brownlow

Picasso on: Finding the art.

"The Illusion vs. The Reality"

 

One of my Facebook friends posted this graphic on her Wall a couple of weeks ago. She said this “felt like her life.” I don’t know who created this bit of wisdom, but I think them most clever. 

Several local actors/players and I have been rehearsing for a historical play we will present in two weeks. I signed on for the narrator part because I had no delusions that I was an actress. 

Well, guess what? This narrator has to throw in a wee bit of acting gestures and movement. “But I’m not an actor; I’m the narrator!” didn’t get me very far with the director. 

‘Everyone has to start somewhere . . .’ 

I have never been one to say, “I want to be an actor because they have such an easy job.” 

There isn’t a doubt in my mind that the average citizen has no idea how hard actors practice and work to convince, scare or amuse us. To be able to tell us something with a simple shift in their eyes, or a casual hand movement that suggests approaching danger—and make it look natural. Until you try it, you won’t realize it isn’t easy. 

The same applies to writing. We pick up a novel read the first few pages and we’re in the Appalachian Mountains, or overlooking the harbor off the docks in New York or feeling the terror in fresh blood running because of a writer’s well-chosen, well-timed wording. 

Another friend of mine wrote the following to me as we discussed editing challenges I’m experiencing with cutting/keeping work on a manuscript: 

“When I was in Barcelona and Paris this year, I went to quite a few art museums. One of the displays that fascinated me was a Picasso one where they showed a very detailed painting, and then showed Picasso’s experimentation based on that painting. 

This display had about a dozen associated paintings where he was trying to select the basic elements of the picture without the detail. I hadn’t really realized that his modern art was more of a minimalist view of the world – trying to answer the question ‘What are the basic elements that have to be in the painting and have it still tell the story?’”  

An editor reminded me that I’d have to kill some of my darlings. I knew it was true and I knew it would be hard.

It is. 

Writing well.

Anything looks easy–until you give it a serious try.

(Thanks to friends Melinda and Sandi for the astute graphic and thoughts this week.)