Tractor pins, writing—and tears.

The final–and most beautiful tractor pin of all.

Do you know what this is? 

If you grew up on a farm, you do. For those of you who didn’t—it’s a tractor pin. You slip this pin down into a connecting hitch on a tractor so you can tow wagons, etc. behind you. My dad made dozens and dozens of these throughout the years he owned a welding/machine repair shop in the farming community where we lived, and this tractor pin served as the catharsis for a story about him that is now published. 

The Fourth edition in the Series of Stories About Growing Up in and Around Small Towns in the Midwest (Shapato Publishing), *Make Hay While the Sun Shines, came off the presses last week. 

Before dad’s business sold after his death, my brother collected several of these pins from the shop, and he had this one chrome-plated. He recently made a gift of it to me. (Thank you so much big brother!) 

Shapato editor Jean Tennant requests submissions for her popular Midwest Series be kept to around 1,500 words. 

When I started drafting I ran into things I hadn’t counted on. Deep, sad things, and by the time I finished drafting there were 15 pages strong. That’s just a tad over the 1,500 word mark, so I had major decisions to make, and big time cutting to do. 

At times the process brought tears. I hadn’t counted on that. I was just going to write a story about my dad the machine-shop owner and welder, right? 

I wrote about the hardships he and his twin sister knew as kids because of an abusive alcoholic father who quickly abandoned the family. I worked through their being separated from their mother who had to work at what jobs she could find in town, often leaving them alone on the farm together to care for each other, or with neighbors—who my dad didn’t feel comfortable around. (Was there more to this than anyone ever told me? I’m never going to know.) 

I walked back through the story about the time all they had to eat were rotten eggs—and yes, they did eat them. When you’re hungry—you eat what you have. 

I wrote about the day he died. The roads were treacherous and slow that February afternoon and it took the ambulance 5 hours to get out to where he’d died and collect his body. On top of a wretched sounding childhood, this seemed like the ultimate final insult that, for me, still stings.

I wrote about the dirt and dangers inside a welding shop with dangerous chemical fumes. I wrote about foul-smelling manure spreaders that he crawled under to repair, and I revisited the nasty conditions of working in a machine repair shop—with no air conditioning in the summer and those frigid winter mornings until his heater caught up. All this so I could have pretty dresses and shoes—and food and all that good stuff that hardworking parents provide for their offspring. 

And through all that writing I realized I never told him that I understood just how hard he had to work for his family — because I know I didn’t fully comprehend this until later in life. 

I know this is a common affliction for the young, selfish and stupid, but it was damn hard to work through in that draft. 

Of course, I did not put all of this in the story that appears in Shapato Publishing’s latest edition, but I used it all to help me find and shape the story that I submitted. 

Some days I had to set the piece aside. The deep stuff was too much. I’d shut the file down and leave it. I’d pick it up again several days later, and eventually I whittled it down as I figured out what I wanted to say. 

What I wanted to tell the world was about his creativity that balancedBetween Iron and Paint,” the title of the new story. I mucked through a lot of “stuff” to get there. 

If you think you can whip out a story quickly, maybe edit a few words here and there and call it done, you are doing yourself a great disservice. 

Your first draft—your second try–your third look—simply will not be enough to give you a finished piece. 

Sometimes there will be tears—or anger, as in my case this time around, but eventually you end up with something you are ready to put before the world. 

Neither of my parents lived long enough to see me publish, but I’m hoping they have some idea of it from wherever. They both inspired so much of it. 

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. – Robert Frost  

*The book is available at www.Amazon.com, www.Shapatopublishing.com – or you can buy a copy from me, if you prefer.

 

We are never too old to do a report card

A writer's development path

 

Resume, or vitae–they both mean the same thing. A summary of one’s personal history and employment experience. 

Everyone trying for a job in today’s market needs one, and it is quite the task to put an effective one together. I tend to believe that everyone should try putting one together at least once in their lifetime if merely for the experience of the exercise itself. 

As I sorted through my bookshelves a few weeks ago I turned up a lot of folders, notebooks and tablets that I’ve accumulated from spirituality, creativity, women’s and writing conferences, training sessions, workshops, etc. I keep notes and resource materials religiously and I decided I wanted to see what my path looked like since I turned in the direction of an intuitive and creative writing lifestyle. The picture at the top of the blog post is what I produced from that process, and it was not only revealing, but empowering. I am extremely fond of that particular word. I believe it to be a word that will take us great distances when we become regular friends with it. 

Formal resumes must meet certain specifications to catch the eye of future employers today. You have to “spin” them to read properly for the job you are targeting, so you mustn’t necessarily put everything that helped shape and prepare you for the sought-after job on your formal resume. 

That’s why I like this new document format that I dubbed the “personal development plan” so much. It is a form of report card for your eyes only, and you can lay out a document that will allow you to analyze quite personally what you have—or have not—done that has shaped the zone you occupy currently. 

It allows you take stock of all the effort you’ve made since commencing the current career path you are on . . . or the one you hope to be on after you complete the “must earn pension check first thing”—or the “I don’t want to wait until it’s too late thing . . .” You get the idea I’m sure.  

I like it done in chronological order by month and year, with the earliest thing you can remember—first. Once you have it all together, sit back and study it with honest eyes. Really look at the dates and their spread. 

  • What years did you show great progress? 
  • What years did you not take any forward-moving steps at all? 
  • Why? 
  • What was going on that kept you from doing so? 
  • Will you allow that to happen again? 
  • How do you feel now that you look back on it? 
  • Are you smarter? (If you answer yes!–great. If you answer with anything else, explore that maybe?) 
  • What do you think needs to happen next?
  • Who might you call in to assist you?

This isn’t just for a writer. It can be for anything you want to grow or change. 

It can also be the pat on the back you might need. Perhaps you feel like you’ve been spinning your wheels and not making any headway? A document like this might be just the thing you need that allows you a little personal brag time as you plot your next step. 

How about trying your own report card?

 

Untangling the tangled.

 

    To the person who has never seen or made one of these before, this probably looks like the craft project of a three-year old preschooler. 

     This messy looking thing is called a bird nesting globe, and it was made by someone who hasn’t been three for a very long time: me. I’ve been attending various bird/nature classes at an ecospirituality center not far from where I live. It is an amazing place with 70 acres of trees, trails, small cottages to rent for a day or a week, and a staff that puts on many such classes and educational events throughout the year.  

     We filled the center of this ball with torn balls and shreds of cotton batting, short strands of yarns, twine, tiny fabric scraps or strips of denim and wove it in and around this varnished grapevine globe. I tied a long length of twine to the top of the globe and hung it high up in the white pine trees close to our bird feeders. Very soon the birds will come and pull these materials out through my well-intentioned aid and carry them off to build their nests for this season. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching for new nests around the yard to see if they contain any of the familiar materials gleaned from my tangled “mess.” 

     Several weeks back I asked a competent writing buddy if she would lend a sharp eye to two pieces I was getting ready to submit to a writing competition. I was fairly pleased with the first one, but the second story was proving a struggle for me. She agreed, and a few days later the two pieces came back with WORD Track Changes all over them. 

     I studied everything she’d indicated, and agreed with much of it—not all, but much, so I tore back into the tangled messes she’d returned to me. The one I thought was fairly well done, really wasn’t after I reviewed her marks. I went back to the drawing board with both of them and many, many hours and a couple of days later they both had grown up substantially, and I was satisfied to submit them for contest consideration. 

     Very soon lots of birds will hover around that newly hung nesting ball, venturing in closer so they can pull out what they think they can use for their nests. They’ll fly back to where it is under construction and they’ll peck, poke, prod, weave and arrange until they are satisfied that they have the result they want with which to start their new project: the next brood in their family lineage.

     We really do want our work to come back full of track changes, challenging questions as to why we did something—or didn’t—and conspicuous grammatical errors pointed out. It is the only way we improve. 

     If the wrens, finches and sparrows can confront a tangled mess of yarns, twines and fabric to produce an effective nest, we as writers can do the same from highly edited copy of our work. 

     It should never be about supporting the ego. It should always be about writing better.

 

Learning from the dead.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Poets teach us the power of brevity. They can get so much territory covered by using just the right word in the right place at the right time.

Several years ago I took a creative writing class at Mount Mercy University. Naturally, a portion of the session was devoted to poetry. I hadn’t read much poetry up to that point in time so it was a little bit of a struggle.

We were given several assignments of writing new poetry of our own. My poetry reading background was pretty slim at that time so I looked around to study—and ultimately–copy the rhythms of others to help get me jump started. Going back into class without anything to show was not an option for me.

There was one writer of light verse, however, that I was familiar with–Ogden Nash. He is an American product who excelled in light verse, sometimes deliberately misspelling words to create surprising rhymes as he wrote about mankind’s unending idiosyncrasies.

His lighter verse approach to various topics was something I could relate to. His works present a humorous yet effective playfulness, so I borrowed some rhythm from him to get something ready for class one night—using my own words, of course. It proved to be a fun exercise for me.

Lately, I’ve been trying to read a little more poetry by some of the grand masters–old and new. I’ve said this before, but I have to say it here again: If you want to learn about something, looking at how others have done it is THE ultimate learning tool.

Allow me to share Mr. Nash’s poem today, and my “student attempt” below that; his rhythm–my sentiment.

I didn’t go to church today,
I trust the Lord to understand.
The surf was swirling blue and white,
The children swirling on the sand.

He knows, He knows how brief my stay,
How brief this spell of summer weather,
He knows when I am said and done
We’ll have a plenty of time together.

                          (Ogden Nash)

*****

I didn’t go into work today,
The boss said she understood.
The house was empty, quiet and free
The fireplace beckoned with wood.

My heart, my soul knows this day I need,
How seldom such risk I do allow,
And when nighttime falls again
I will return to the Here and Now!

                (R. Groff, the student)

Writing fraud.

Controversy 

Definition: An often public dispute marked by the expression of opposing views.

An argument. 

Drama 

Definition: A succession of events with the dramatic progression or emotional content typical of a play. 

As I mentioned in my post of two days ago, I read and researched a lot last summer about this new writing-world-art-form called blogging before I set up this one. 

One bit of advice that I kept running into—and one that just kept irritating the crap out of me, was—‘The more controversial your blog and your writing, the better.’ 

I consulted with a real live dictionary to see which direction they go with defining controversy—which then lead me to think of the word drama, because I see the two as (stopping to lean over and gag here) intertwined kissing cousins

It would appear the invisible “they” people want us to bombard humanity with even more pissing contest opportunities through blogging. 

Uh-huh. 

As if this world is going to run into a shortage of one more thing to bitch, holler, scream and beat on each other about. Isn’t that what those one-hour news shows along with the choosing-my-man-of-the-month, or I-can-eat-my-worm-faster-than-you-can reality shows on TV are supposed to help us with?

In the immortal words of Dr. Evil from the tremendously funny Austin Powers’ movies, I have to ask: 

“Will somebody please throw me a friggin’ bone here!” 

Is anybody else out there sick and tired of all the on-the-surface-is-all-that-anybody-cares-about-anymore train to cerebral hell? 

The phrase dumbed-down hasn’t made it into the dictionary yet, from what I can tell, but I believe it will have to before long because it seems to be such a burgeoning commodity for the human race. 

If you are only writing ‘stuff’ to start a fight, sling mud at some group you feel like picking on hoping to set off a viral chain reaction on the web, or just to please your MBA-degreed PR/Marketing people so they will write you a nice big check, you are, in my personal opinion, a fraud. 

Unless you are writing what rips out of the center of YOU, forget it. 

I’m damn picky about what I read, and if I think I’m reading some wanna-be-cute-and-clever, but-isn’t-cutting-it fraud, I stop reading. 

There are still actually people in this world who want to think—for real—about things that still go on below the surface. 

If you want to be a writer—give them something worthwhile to think about. 

Leave the faked controversy and drama to those folks on the reality shows. 

Yeah,  yeah, yeah—I know. They get paid a lot more than you do. 

I guess you have to decide which side of hell you want to stand on.

Rubber survives expansion, and so can we.

Every January I choose a word that I’ll use as my working point of focus for the New Year.

This year my word is: expand. It’s a verb. Verbs mean action.

Webster’s II Dictionary explains it simply:

expand v.

1.   To make or become greater in size, scope, or range

2.   To open up or out: unfold.

3.   To speak or write at greater length: enlarge

My numerical response order looks like this:

1)   The novel manuscript has a few spots that need to be explained better—in a word, expanded. Three of my serious readers have told me this now. 

2)   My reading and study into spiritualism, other world religions and philosophy will continue this year. The more I read, the more I realize how undeveloped we human-bots really are. 

3)   It’s time to raise the bar and try writing a piece for a more dangerous market, defined here as one of those publications where it appears that only the big writing guns are allowed in. There are three basic possibilities for such effort:

  • they ignore me
  • they say ‘no’
  • they say ‘yes’

I still get to go on living, breathing and writing, regardless.

The famous words of one particularly remarkable man will help get me started:

      “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

                                     Dr. Martin Luther King

What word did you choose for 2011?

Contributing to the world–for real.

     Sooner or later, anyone who chooses to leave the “real” working world–herein defined as: “being out of their house at least 5 days a week, and in someone else’s office/building area either at a desk or in a cubicle that they don’t own, and receiving a guaranteed paycheck either weekly or bi-weekly— to work from home as a freelance writer IS going to pick up some direct, or not-so-direct, commentary on whether or not they are still “contributing” to the world. 

     Oh, yeah–it’s going to happen. And it will surprise you—especially when it comes out of the mouths of those who call themselves ‘friends’—or even family. 

     I’ve experienced it myself, but as you can probably tell from this blog’s site content—I didn’t let it stop me from continuing to work as a writer. 

     So you can imagine how big I smiled when I received the following hand-written thank you note in today’s mail from a local hospice organization I interviewed and wrote a story about several months back. I quote: 

Ms. Groff, 

Thank you so much for your kind gift of “A Cup of Comfort for the Grieving Heart.” Our social workers have been getting a lot of use out of it, and it has finally made its way back to our library! Your gift, as well as your writing, is much appreciated. 

Sincerely,

Julie Martin,

Hospice Librarian

     I had donated one of my copies of the Cup of Comfort book to this hospice library when I realized it would be a good fit for the genuine, selfless work those people do. There are 45 contributing writers in that particular edition, and I’m one of them. The honesty and hope offered in each sad, but encouraging story is more than amazing. 

     This past December I sold a non-fiction story to a magazine with a circulation of over 40,000. The story spoke to the universal hope for peace among the diversity of this world based on a childhood experience that translated into current day life. I have no idea if 40,000 pairs of eyes read the story, but I’m willing to bet a good number of strangers that I’ll never know did take in the thought-energy I put into that writing. It doesn’t matter whether or not I ever get to know. It just matters that I did it. 

     Through the years I’ve put my time in amongst the cubicles of others and earned a pension check that I’m not yet old enough to collect, and trust me when I say—I doubt I ever touched as many lives doing that as I have since “working from home.” 

     This thank you note today tells me just how right my decision to start contributing from home really was.