Monday, February 15, 2010

The Jury Is In

The following is Part II of “My Love/Hate Romance with Writing.” You can read Part I HERE.

On the very last day of the Roanoke Times columnist submission deadline, I sent in the requested three samples of writing. I was still ambivalent, but rather than not submit at all, I decided to lower expectations by sending one essay that I felt was my best work and two other average pieces. I thought if the paper liked my informal everyday voice the pressure on me would be lessened, but I also realized that applying half-heartedly smacked of self-sabotage.

It took me three weeks to decide to submit, and then three more before I heard back from the editor. During that time, I tried to sort out which part of my resistance was an upper-limits reaction and which part was realistic self-acceptance. After much pondering and counsel with friends, I concluded that it was a combination of both.

Although my husband and a few close friends knew that my comfort zone was being rattled, mostly I kept it to myself as I went about my normal business. During that time the only hint about what was going on that I let slip out on my blog was more of a self-affirmation than a weblog entry and went like this: It takes me twice as long to write for business than it does to write for fun, which is why I try to make fun my business and my business fun.

In early February I received a congratulatory note saying that I had made it through the first round of the selection process. I was flattered, but my hands began to shake. My worst fear was that I might be asked to do a column and would find that I had nothing to say. So, in the next couple of weeks I began drafting what I jokingly called my “acceptance speech.”

Most days, I felt sure that I didn’t want the position. I complained to my husband that the stress it would create would “ruin my life.” Even so, I strived to be comfortable with the idea of rising to the occasion if I was picked. I knew I was capable of doing such a column if I could just adjust my thinking about it. I wondered about the modest pay it promised, referred to by the editor as “diddley.” If it was more substantial, would I be more motivated? But money was not the issue. I was doing part-time respite care for the agency I used to work full time for, and selling freelanced writing here and there. Knowing that my writer’s muse was as fickle as a cat already well fed was my biggest concern. To be paid any amount of money for something I hadn’t yet written made me want to bite my fingernails.

After a total of two months of my “she loves me, she loves me not” flirtation with the Roanoke Times, it came to an end when I faint-heartedly scanned my email for the editor’s name and found this from him: “I would like to thank you for your submission and your interest. Unfortunately, you did not make the final cut.”

I called my close friend and fellow writer, Alwyn, because she was the one who asked each time we spoke, “Have you heard yet?”

“But you really did know what you wanted,” she said when I told her. “The next time a similar opportunity presents itself, you’ll be more ready because of this,” she went on to wisely suggest.

Ironically, as a blogger, I was already writing and posting column-sized entries several times a week. Being one who hates to waste the fruits of my own labor, several days after learning that I was not one of the new Roanoke Times columnists, I posted a version of the above mentioned “acceptance speech” on my blog. It was an essay about a belated New Year’s Resolution, an overview of my recent writer’s lifestyle, meant to be a possible column introduction. At least four of my regular readers commented that while reading it they worried that I was announcing my retirement from blogging. The opposite was true. If I had gotten the columnist position, my blogging time would have been severely cut back.

After reading the emailed rejection slip from the editor, I did feel some disappointment, but mostly I felt like I had received a “get out of school early” card. Although the paradoxical theme in my life of wanting to be heard and left alone at the same time would not be resolved anytime soon, I breathed easier knowing that nothing new or difficult would be asked of me. I wanted to retreat to my bedroom with a cup of tea and a People magazine to either withdraw or celebrate. I imagined that some of the shyest actors nominated for Academy Awards might be relieved not to win and not have to face the podium where they would be expected to deliver a witty speech as millions looked on.

The good news in all of this was that I made it as far as I did, and ultimately, I didn’t get a flat out rejection from the paper. Like all the first round finalists (45 people out of 145 who submitted) I was told to keep my eyes posted for future emails because I might be called on to contribute something at a later date.

I did head for the bedroom, but not with a People magazine. I went with my notebook to write. I knew from experience that when the ups and downs of my life settle back into place there’s usually a good story left to tell, something the writer in me has never been able to resist.

Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on March 19, 2007.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

My Love/Hate Relationship with Writing

AKA: She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not

As soon as I hit the SEND button, emailing my letter of application for a possible Roanoke Times columnist position, I started to come up with excuses for why I couldn’t do it if I was chosen. In early January 2007, when the “Call for Columnists” was announced in the paper, several friends called to make sure I saw it and to encourage me to apply. I was hesitant from the beginning. I figured if I applied I might have a 50/50 chance of getting the job, or maybe a little less since the editor made it clear that he was particularly interested in conservative voices (of which I am not) to balance the paper’s editorial positions. But did I even want to try?

I consider myself to be a productive writer. The narrative stories I’ve written for our local paper (The Floyd Press) and the radio essays I’ve read on WVTF these past couple of years have given me a boost of new confidence. Even so, I have an underlying tendency to believe that my writing is a fluke, that each piece I write could be my last, that I’ll never be able to repeat a success, or muster the muse again. It’s as if the writer part of me is my alter-ego and the other part, which is running the rest of my life, doesn’t have a clue that I write. When people approach me and comment on something I've written, I’m usually surprised. Although I greatly appreciate hearing feedback, I have a tendency to feel awkward about it, as though it isn’t my writing they’re talking about.

I don’t do well under the pressure of deadlines, writing on cue, or being a company employee. A favorite quote that describes my resistance to such things was made by an Irish pool player named Danny McGoorty. He said, “I have never liked working. To me a job is an invasion of privacy.”

I’ve learned to protect my own privacy because, as my friend Doug recently said when asked how he was doing while recovering from pneumonia, “I’m good for a half a day.” As one who has managed Chronic Fatigue for the past 30 years, I have learned to prioritize and not waste time on things I wasn’t meant to be doing (and I’m so good at it that if you see during my better half of day, you’d never guess my struggle).
The columnist position would hardly be a 9-5 job. According to the editor, the paper wanted several writers to provide a column a couple of times a month. A twice a month deadline seemed doable enough, but after retiring from full-time foster care in May of 2005 to devote myself to writing, I’ve been on the computer more than anyone I know. For me, writing generally starts first thing in the morning and continues on and off throughout the day. It usually doesn’t end until I tiptoe up the stairs to my office for some tweaking and editing after my husband has fallen asleep.

“You already miss me,” I said to him. “Could you handle me being at the computer even more than I already am?” He, a counselor, viewed my question as a defense mechanism designed to deflect my own sense of insecurity.

I enjoy freelancing stories to the Floyd Press (the key word is “freelance”), and those hometown stories are ones I would write whether or not they appeared in the Press. Writing for the Floyd Press, posting entries to my blog every day, putting together the Museletter (a community newsletter) every month, writing poetry, and creating press for the Spoken Word Night that my writer’s circle helps sponsor are all activities natural to me that fit into my small town life. And yet, I have to trick myself into doing some of those. I don’t like to admit, even to myself, that I’m working on a particular story or blog entry until a fully fleshed out first draft is in my hand as proof. When a subject interests me, I take appropriate photos and make mental notes, and then I wait to see if the writing begins itself. If I make a linear decision to write about something, I’m prone to take myself too seriously. When that happens a formality is likely to interfere with my everyday voice, causing the flow of my words to become disjointed and stifled.

The Roanoke Times is not a small town paper. As the editor calling for columnists pointed out, it “comes with an audience that makes those of any but the biggest national blogs pale in comparison.” That’s around a quarter of a million readers. The thought of writing a column for an audience that size makes me nervous on the scale of being asked to read poetry at the Academy Awards, as opposed to reading at the Café Del Sol in Floyd, which I have already proven I can do.

On the other hand, being a columnist was something I thought I always wanted. I couldn’t see myself NOT submitting.

Post Notes: To be continued … Find out how this story ends. (I'll probably post the rest sometime in the next few days). This entry was originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on March 14, 2007.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Born to Blog

~ The following essay is the one that recently aired on our local PBS station, WVTF, and it appears in its entirety here. You can listen to me reading it at the WVTF website.

When I first started blogging in March of 2005 many people asked, what’s a blog? Less people ask me that same question today; I like to think because my answers have been informative, but I know it’s more because blogs are in the news, everywhere these days.

The word blog, short for web log, is a web page that’s updated daily. Sometimes referred to as citizen publishing, blogging appeals to my sense of self-sufficiency. It’s like having my own online magazine that I post an editorial to each day. As a writer, it allows me to hone my skills, build a readership, and create a time-capsule record for my descendents, all at the same time.

Although I have some computer savvy friends who have helped me out along the way, most of my computer skills are self taught and ongoing, which is why I was at the Floyd library recently checking out a book on blogging. While doing so, the librarian looked up from her task and asked me, “Have you ever read a blog?”

“Yes, I actually have one, I confessed.

“Isn’t it tedious? There are so many of them,” she continued.

“You find the ones you like; in the same way you’d check out only one or two magazines,” I said, gesturing to the magazine rack. “You don’t have to read them all.”

On the ride home from the library that day, my conversation with the librarian continued in my mind and went like this: “Let’s say you check out a gardening magazine,” I said to her, “and in it find an article you like. Wouldn’t it be great to have instant access to its author? With blogging you can, because it’s interactive.”

My imaginary librarian was listening and nodding her head now.

“As one blog discovery leads to the next, before long networks and communities are formed,” I told her. “Blogging friendships are often based on what bloggers have in common, but sometimes they are based on differences. This past year I’ve made some unlikely blog friendships that have given me glimpses into lifestyles very different than my own.”

“Tell me more,” the expression on the librarian’s face seemed to say.

“Well, there’s the pony-tailed artist, chemical magazine editor, who works in New York City and lives up the road from where the Sopranos is filmed; there’s the performer, playwright, and composer, living in Los Angeles, who has an engaging personality and lots of famous friends; and a free spirit raising twin daughters in Istanbul who’s blog mission statement reads, “trying to save the world before bedtime.” Some of my blog friends live near oceans and post seacoast photos that ease my homesickness for the Massachusetts peninsula I grew up on. Of course, regional blogs are on the top of my daily reading list, and there are several good ones right here in Floyd,” I told her.

She was smiling, with her eyes slightly widened, and so I continued.

“After two of my brothers died a month apart in 2001, I wrote a book about it,” I explained. “Some readers come to my blog to read my writings on grief and loss, a subject I continue to explore.”

“And you’d be surprised,” I went on, “how many people follow my Scrabble games at Café Del Sol via my blog. More than one reader has commented that Floyd is like the acclaimed TV show “Northern Exposure,” Southern style, especially after the entry about the deer that crashed through the Café Del Sol window and thrashed about, wrecking the place. There was a photo included with that entry of the boarded up door, bearing a sign that read: Café Del Deer Crossing, and Bambi Was Here.”

She laughed before getting more serious. With a slightly wrinkled brow, she posed a question, one I had heard before. “Don’t you feel exposed putting your personal writing on the internet?” My imaginary librarian asked.

“Sometimes, especially in the beginning, I did, but then I asked myself ‘What difference does it make to a reader whether they read a commentary I wrote in the Roanoke Times or on my blog?’ I consider every posted entry to be a published document and keep that in mind.”

“Mostly, I blog because I love to write, and I know that when you share what you love to do, it grows larger in you. I think I was always a blogger just waiting to happen,” I said in conclusion.

By then, I was pulling into my driveway and up to my house, anxious to get to my computer and check my blog comments for the day.

~ Originally posted on loose leaf notes on November 18, 2006.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Finding Voice

After completing The Jim and Dan Stories, my writing didn’t abruptly stop, but the book had its own rhythm and timing and there came a point when the story was told. I continued to take notes and some stories came like aftershocks, too late to be included in the book. Soon, I put “The Jim and Dan Stories” aside and moved onto other things. The war in Iraq was gearing up at the time, and I had a lot to say about that, and so I let myself be consumed with writing political commentaries. I wrote a couple of small poems and went to my writer’s workshop, where I mostly gave feedback on other people’s writing.

The Jim and Dan Stories was published a year later using local resources. A few months after that when I was in my hometown of Hull, Massachusetts, I was interviewed by Susan, the editor of the Hull Times newspaper, about the book. I remember looking out from her large picture window onto the bay. It was a bright sunny day and a sailboat was going by. She was asking me some typical questions and taking down notes in a small notepad. Towards the end of the interview, she posed a question that caught me off guard. “What’s next?” she asked pointedly and put down her pen.

Writing a book is a bit like having a baby. There’s a point of conception, a gestation period, followed by hard labor and lots of aftercare. After you’ve had a baby, or have written a book, you feel pretty accomplished (having followed through with it) but you also don’t want to think about another one, at least not right away.

“I can’t imagine another story as compelling as what happened to my brothers and how it played out,” I eventually answered. Maybe I would put a book of poetry together (which I did), I suggested.

Back at home in Virginia, I wrote an update for my webpage about the trip. I began taking notes about my experiences following the book’s publication and the feedback I was getting. Even so, I felt uninspired, less alive than I did while I was writing the book, and as though I was a writer laid-off from my job. At that time, my muse was a lingering presence that manifested as a sense of weighty tension.

Three weeks after I returned home from Hull, the tension finally broke when Susan emailed me my first look at the newly published interview. In it she wrote, “The Jim and Dan Stories reads like a writer’s diary, a keenly observed, anecdotal account of small-town life nearly a half-century ago in Hull, and today in Floyd, Virginia …”

Susan’s descriptive naming of my style of writing was like getting permission to do more of it. Her words to me in the week that followed, as we struck up an e-mail conversation, were an encouraging validation as well. She said:

I don't think you need tragedy to find an audience for your work. Yours is an authentic voice and, whatever the subject matter, if you market the piece correctly, it will find an audience.

A downpour of writing soon ensued.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on
October 9, 2006.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Floyd Loves Barbara Kingsolver

“Having something to say is more important than guessing what people want to hear.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver, spoken at the Floyd County High School auditorium, September 16, 2006

The line of people waiting to meet the acclaimed author, Barbara Kingsolver, wound from the school library table where she was signing books, out through the library door, into the hall, up the stairs, and into the school lobby. At the close of her talk, I rushed from my seat like a single woman determined to catch the bouquet at a wedding and discovered the fast track to her table. It involved a first stop at a book sale table, set up by the owners of Floyd’s independent bookstore, noteBooks. After purchasing a copy of “Small Wonders,” I was ushered into a much smaller line that dovetailed with the longer one.

I’m happy with my personally signed copy of a book written by Barbara Kingsolver, but the book I really wanted wasn’t for sale. The one I’m most interested in is the non-fiction one that she read from that evening, called “Animal, Vegetable, and Magical,” due out in May.

Barbara, who grew up in rural Kentucky, was recently living with her family in Tucson, Arizona, but living in Tucson – which she referred to as a “space station” – made her nervous. Everything that sustains life has to be flown or trucked in, she told us. She estimated that each item on her family’s dinner table that wasn’t grown in their garden probably traveled “Fifteen hundred miles” to get there. The water in Tucson, brought in from other places, is called “borrowed water.” “Like a keenex,” she joked, “do you really want to give it back?”

So, what does a person do when they know the oil companies are at the Arctic Preserve door with drills, and that the food on their family dinner table is part of the reason why? With a degree in biology, a history of environmental activism, and a background in journalism and science writing, Barbara decided that the subject of her next book would revolve around an experiment, one that would involve her whole family. They would get all their food from local sources. In order to pursue what she called “food choices with family values,” she and her family set about to move to a farm in Southwest Virginia, which is how her new book begins.

As a speaker, Barbara is engaging, articulate, and comfortable in her own skin. She’s also funny, so much so that my husband referred to her talk as stand-up comedy! I don’t think anyone in the audience that night will forget the scene Barbara read, the one about the family-farm turkey that came-on to her husband. The hilarity of the “turkey hokey pokey” story was preceded by an account of the state of commercial turkey production, in which commercially raised turkeys not only can not reproduce on their own, but because they are bred to produce the maximum amount of meat and are top-heavy, they can’t even walk without tipping over. Barbara’s reading illustrated one of her strongest strengths as writer. She knows how to take a disturbing situation and educate her readers about it in a humorous or otherwise entertaining way. In the case of using local food, there’s nothing to protest or boycott, “doing the right thing is fun!” Barbara said.

In telling the story of her family’s experience living on local food, Barbara’s youngest daughter Lilly figured in. Lilly has an egg business, and because she was the subject of some of the passages read, towards the end of her talk, Barbara invited Lilly on stage. The audience cheered Lilly on, as though they had a vested interest in the success of her egg business, a business that Lilly hoped would eventually allow her to make enough money to buy a horse. “Did you get your horse?” one woman asked during the question and answer period. “Not yet,” Lilly answered.

A lot of us in the audience understood the experiment that Barbara and her family had taken on, either because we were from a local farming tradition, or because we moved to Floyd years ago for the same reason Barbara and her family had moved. Since the back-to-the-land movement of my generation, which started in the late 70s and brought so many of us to Floyd, interest in the sustainability of using local food has grown. As I looked around the auditorium, I saw the familiar faces of neighbors, homesteaders, market gardeners, wild-craft herbalists, and those involved any one of the several Community Supported Agriculture Farms in Floyd. I couldn’t help but smile as I imagined our collective chickens, gardens, and goats.

It turns out that Floyd and Barbara Kingsolver have a lot in common. The Harvest Moon, which started as a small health food coop over 20 years ago and is now a large two story building on a sprawling lot, was hosting a major event on the day of the evening that Barbara spoke. It was a Slow Foods Event, called “A Taste of Floyd,” where an array of locally raised and grown foods could be sampled and purchased under a canopy of colorful tents. It was not a coincidence that Barbara’s appearance was scheduled on the same day as “A Taste of Floyd,” and, in fact, Harvest Moon staff members have reported that Barbara did indeed attend. She may have also attended Floyd’s first Country Fair, part of an annual Homecoming and Harvest Festival in recognition of the county’s 175th year anniversary, where homegrown fruits and vegetables, canned goods, baked goods, jams, jellies, and pickles were featured and competed for blue ribbons.

Apparently, Barbara liked what she saw (and tasted) in Floyd. She began her talk that evening by announcing to the crowd, “I really love Floyd.” Considering the filled auditorium and the reception the audience gave her, it was obvious that Floyd loves Barbara right back.

Post Note: The donated proceeds from “An Evening with Barbara Kingsolver” are earmarked for the expansion of the Floyd Jessie Peterman Library. Special thanks go to Floyd’s “Friends of the Library,” and in particular Mary Stratton, for inviting Barbara to Floyd, and to Barbara for loving libraries enough to accept the invitation.

Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on October 2, 2006.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Do Writers Retire?

As a writer, it seems that I seesaw between the fast-paced productiveness of writing and the dead end crash it leads to when the bottom falls out. When I’m inspired, I complain that can’t write fast enough. When I’m not, I whine about having nothing to say.

I know I should enjoy what is commonly referred to as “the writer’s block,” the way a person on vacation shouldn’t think about work. I thought I had gotten over the feeling I used to get when my creative outpouring dried up: that my writing had been a fluke after all and would never happen again.

When my writing becomes forced and feels empty of energy, I remember what renowned poet Nikki Giovanni said to her creative writing class that I sat in on years ago: to be a good writer you have to go out and live so that you’ll have something to write about. Nikki’s words help me to push myself away from the writing table, find a change of scenery, and get involved in life.

On the other hand, when I’m obsessed and feel that the muse is slave driver with her own agenda, I like to imagine letting go of writing altogether. I envision a day when I don’t blog, when I don’t walk around with a notebook and feel compelled to translate everything into words. During those times, I remember the words of Ruby Altizer Roberts, a past poet laureate of Virginia who was born in Floyd and grew up in nearby Christiansburg.

I interviewed Ruby for a Blacksburg art magazine (now defunct) called “Expressions” in 1999. She was 93 years old at the time. Arriving at her stately home, called The Shamrocks, in my kelly-green blouse, khaki pants, and black blazer, she opened the door and said, “Oh, I see you’re Irish.”

I thought she was psychic (I learned during the interview that she was involved in metaphysics), but I later realized my name “Colleen” probably gave her a clue. As I fumbled with the tape recorder that ultimately didn’t work, she put me at ease with her Southern charm and her bright enthusiasm.

At one point, I asked, considering her age, “Ruby, do you still write poetry?”

“No,” she answered, letting out a sigh of relief. “I have my life back.”

Post note: You can read more about Ruby and one of her poems in a past Loose Leaf post HERE. In it Ruby answers the question “Where does poetry come from?”

Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on September 30, 2006.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Roanoke Valley Bookfest

In Floyd we have locally famous artists, potters, wood-carvers, writers, and musicians; alongside well-diggers, saw-millers, hunters, and homebuilders. We also have midwives, herbalists, dousers, and rites-of-passage ceremonialists. Is it any wonder that I publish my books from my log cabin home, from a make-shift office that used to be my son’s bedroom, which is why Grateful Dead posters still hang on the walls? ~ Colleen, From "Homegrown"

My feet were still wet from the talk I gave about my book, “The Jim and Dan Stories,” at the Franklin County Book Festival last weekend, and I was just one in a panel of five authors scheduled to speak at Saturday's Roanoke Valley Bookfest. For those reasons, I wasn’t as nervous as I usually get.

Our collective panel was called “Local Voices,” and, besides myself, it included: Fellow Floydian, Fred First, author of “A Slow Road Home: A Book of Days,” a collection of seasonal poetic prose; Jon Harris, author of “Wings of the Morning,” an account of his experience as a pilot, shot down during Vietnam, Becky Mushko, humor writer, author of “Where There’s a Will” and other books, and Sally Roseveare, author of “Secrets at Spawning Run, a mystery.

We are all residents of Southwest Virginia and authors who have self-published, aka “in house publishing,” “books on demand,” or, as I like to say, “the small press just got smaller.” In my experience, some of the benefits of self publishing include: you have more control of your product, you can interface more personally with readers; it fosters a sense of self-sufficiency; and you can have book-in-hand quicker than you can when publishing traditionally.

Did you know that e. e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, and John Grisham all initially self-published? So did Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Thoreau. Blogging is a form of self publishing. Citizen journalism is on the rise.

From my point of view, I’m all for more access for everyday people to be in print. I think storytelling is our natural right and that a book to a writer is what a canvas is to an artist, or a stage is to a regional actor.

My motto is this: Start from where you are and watch how it ripples out.

Post Notes: Photos - 1. The Valley Bookfest author’s book sale table, staffed by library workers. 2. Some presenter’s perks, found in my goody tote bag.

For more on self-reliance, including self-publishing, read my WVTF radio essay, "Homegrown"HERE. Also, comments from readers prompted me to do a little research. The Hall of Fame list of authors who have self-published is more extensive than I knew. It includes Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Bly, Nikki Giovanni, and many others.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on August 28, 2006.