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).
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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.
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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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Can We Interest You in a Blog?

One of the best parts about participating in the Franklin County Book Festival this past weekend was hanging out with Fred, Floyd’s First Blogger, and running into fellow presenter and old friend, Jim Minick. Jim is a widely published regional writer, a teacher of writing and literature, and the author of, “Finding a Clear Path,” but I remember him most as a blueberry farmer who lived in Floyd County for many years.

Although Fred’s first book, “A Slow Road Home,” wasn’t back from the printer in time for him to be a presenter this year, he participated Friday night as one of the Festival’s scheduled authors, reading excerpts from his book at the Edible Vibe, a café adjacent to the library. I knew Fred was going to be there Saturday as well, but meeting up with Jim, who I hadn’t seen in more than a few years, was a pleasant surprise.

Rapping on the window, I waved when I first saw him in the library’s glass paneled, makeshift author’s book store. He smiled and came out. We exchanged a hug. Although our presentations were scheduled to start at the same time, mine was slated for a half hour and his for a full one, which meant that I would be able to catch some of his reading.

I concluded my talk by answering a few questions and reading an excerpt from my book, from which my presentation, “Mining the Gold of a Story,” was named: In this physical world, we have to mine for treasure. Gold and silver and precious gems are not usually found laying around on the surface of the earth. It’s the same with us; we have to excavate our own treasure, down through the door of our childhood, through the pain of what hurts, into the grief of our losses. Life nudges us to go deeper because to live only on the surface is superficial. There’s so much more.

I went from images of mining the gold of a story to those of digging potatoes, as Jim was in the middle of reading his essay entitled “The Holy, Lowly Spud” when my husband, Joe, Fred, and I finally arrived. We grub for orbs of light: Kennebec, Pontiac, Yukon Gold. Earth eggs perfect in their potato-ness.

Jim’s reading took place in the children’s part of the library, and I couldn’t help but notice the rug with its larger than life prints of monkeys and trees in bright primary colors. “I’m glad they didn’t put me in this room,” I thought to myself, considering my book’s subject matter, grief and loss. Giggles rippled through the room at the start of his next essay: I inherited my hate for groundhogs from Grandpa. He instilled in me, while I was still young, his utter disgust for those hairy varmints that live in holes.

After Jim’s reading, we were all off duty, and so we headed over to the Edible Vibe for lunch. It was there, while munching on marinara soaked angel hair pasta, that I uttered these words to Jim, “Can we interest you in a blog, Jim?”

He answered calmly, slightly suspicious, as though we were playing poker and he was upping the ante, “How long do you spend at it?" he asked.

Fred and I broke out our litany of reasons why, as writers, we blog … it’s so much more than a business card… a motivator to write… a networking tool. But Jim held his ground.

“How long do you spend at it?” he repeated, causing us all to laugh as we realized our complete avoidance of Jim’s repeated question.

Clearly, as a farmer and ecology activist, Jim would rather be in the blueberry patch, or rambling down a country road, than creating more reasons to be at the computer. And he’s probably right.

“Well, you at least need your own web page,” I conceded.

“Smile, someone will blogging this!” Joe said, as he snapped a picture of the three of us laughing.

Photo: Fred, Jim, and Colleen

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on August 21, 2006.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How to be a Better Writer


If you don't understand yourself you don't understand anybody else. ~ Nikki Giovanni

Years ago, I audited a creative writing class at Virginia Tech, taught by renowned poet Nikki Giovanni. I remember my excitement when I learned the word “audit” and what it meant, apart from its IRS context: that you could sit in on a university class for free if you had permission from the class professor. I learned that you don't get credits when you audit a class, but as a mostly self-taught learner, and single parent raising two sons on an income that fell below the poverty line, getting credits was the last thing on my mind.

I remember the poems I was working on back then, reading them out loud in class, and getting feedback from the other students and Nikki. But mostly, I remember two specific things Nikki said that have had a lasting impact on me.

“You don’t need punctuation. Let the line break tell the reader where to pause,” she told us. Even though, in my current Writer’s Workshop we continue to wrangle about the use of punctuation in poetry (I’m the only one that doesn’t use it), Nikki’s advice didn’t so much inform me as it validated what I was already doing.
The other thing she said that was well worth the hour commute to her Blacksburg class was (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you want to be a good writer, live a full life.” In other words, you have to live life in order to have something to write about.

Whenever I feel creatively deficient, I eventually remember Nikki’s words and push myself away from my computer or notebook the way I would from a dinner table if I was overfull.

As a writer, I can often over-ride writing inertia by writing, but often the results tend to feel lifeless. When my writing doesn’t flow for more than a few days, I know I need a change of scenery. I know I need to put it aside, resist my reclusive tendencies and go out into the world and mingle.

Photo: I call the above photo "Time-out." It was taken by my son Josh and is a self-portrait of his journal. He has them made for him so that they will stretch to accommodate his art form. For a few peeks inside one go HERE.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on April 15, 2006.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Every Cloud Has a Silver Lining

My brother Jim, who was a lover of storms, was more at home with the elements than he was with people. As the stories progressed, his essence began to emerge as the mysterious changing qualities of the moon. Dan was compassionate and generous. His bright light was personified by the sun. A silver and gold thread began to shine through the dullness of my grief and weave itself through the stories. The mythical presence of Jim and Dan, expressed through dreams, symbols, and the coincidences that my family and I shared, supported me in my grief and became the signposts out of it. ~ From The Jim and Dan Stories

“Two words,” I said to my husband as we were walking through the front door of Sal’s Restaurant, ready for a late supper.

“Cue cards,” I blurted out.

It was 9:00, and we had just come from the Radford University grief and loss class that is using my book, The Jim and Dan Stories, as part of their curriculum. I was the guest speaker, and Joe was telling me what a good job I had done. For once I didn’t deflect his feedback.

It was the 3rd time I had spoken to a class of Radford University counseling students in the last 2 years, and so I suppose my improved public speaking abilities could be due to the fact that I’m finally getting the hang of it, but it was also the first time I used noted index cards, and I think they helped immensely.

In “The Jim and Dan Stories,” I mentioned my ongoing fear of public speaking, so this group of 16 who had all read the book, smiled knowingly when I shuffled my index cards and began our hour-and-a-half together by saying, “I write better than I talk.”

Having my husband, a former counseling student who enjoys speaking to groups, by my side gave me an added boost of confidence. Although he injected less than he has in the past, he was able to overview the direction of the presentation, gauge the responses of students, and remind me to slow down when necessary. He also logged onto my webpage and blog and displayed them on a screen for everyone to see.

The evening included a show-and-tell of newspaper articles about the book, photographs, a scrapbook, and emails and letters from readers. My index card notes of talking points included headings such as; How the Book Came About, The Shadow Epilogue, The Turning Point in My Grief Process, What has happened since Writing the Book, The Hull Village Reunion, and Grieving My Father's Death. When my mind either went blank or became overloaded with what I wanted to say, I could glance down at my index cards and stick to my own script. Other times, I could refer back to them, after having veered off into a class-led discussion.

In the chance that the students might be hesitant to be vocal, I came equipped with a short series of questions that past readers had asked and a few questions that I like to ask readers, but I didn’t need to use them. The class, mostly women of various ages, was welcoming, intimate, and engaging.

In closing, I read The Black Feather, an account of a recent transpersonal experience related to my father’s death in November. By the look of the wet eyes in the room and by the feel of the hugs at the end of the evening, I knew it was a worthwhile shared experience, one that I would find myself thinking about later.

On my way out of the building, a woman who had been in the class but had not spoken a word approached me shyly and asked, “Just how did you conquer your fear of public speaking? I’m not even able to speak up in class.”

“I’m still working on it,” I answered. “The more I do it, the easier it gets. But it’s never easy, even with cue cards,” I told her.

Outside, I emerged, feeling like I had passed a milestone. Looking up, I noticed that the sky was filled with an amazing formation of large clouds. Seeing them, outlined by the gold of the setting sun, I instantly thought of my brother Jim, the weatherman, and my golden-hearted brother Dan. The clouds were like a “thumbs up” from them and a visual validation of something I had just said in the class. Death doesn’t only take away. Because Jim and Dan lived and because I wrote about them, so much love and insight has been given, received, and shared.

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on July 3, 2006.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Father’s Day Essay

“I heard your Mother’s Day essay on the radio! Good job!” Rob, the owner of Oddfella’s Cantina said to me as I was coming through the Cantina door on my way to meet my husband for lunch.

“It all started with you, Rob,” I surprised him by saying. He looked confused, so I explained.

Two summers ago, our local newspaper announced a Father’s Day Essay contest. Fellow blogger, Fred from Fragments, was appointed to organize the contest and asked me to be a judge. As it turned out, only a handful of people submitted essays, but we did have readings of those and others at the Winter Sun Hall during our town’s “Spring into Summer” weekend event.

During this period of time, Rob had been hosting Spoken Word events at the Cantina featuring members of the Writers’ Circle I belong to. On one such evening, he took to the stage himself and read an excerpt from a book he was working on. We all knew Rob was a talented musician and actor, but a writer too? He blew us away.

At the Father’s Day Essay readings, Rob read an essay about his father teaching him to dive. I was so impressed and struck by the way he was able to communicate a tender love for his father, mixed with the regret of what his father wasn’t able to give him that I vowed then to write about my own father.

The essay I ended up writing, titled Let Me Clue You in about My Father, became a turning point in my life. I had written The Jim and Dan Stories, a book about losing two brothers a month apart two years before. I was still immersed in missing my brothers and trying to penetrate the mystery of death. Writing my father’s story and honoring his service as a WWII vet got me excited about writing again. There are other things to write about besides Jim and Dan, I remember thinking. How cool to write about someone I love before they die.

I didn’t know when I watched my dad from my mom’s kitchen window reading the essay with tears in his eyes last summer that 4 months later he would be gone. Knowing he had read the tribute and was touched by it was the fulfillment of the highest purpose writing it had served. But the words I wrote about my dad rippled out further than that.

Let Me Clue You in about My Father was my first essay submission to WTVT Public Radio, and it was accepted. I was invited by WVTF Morning Edition host into the radio station to read it, and it aired last Memorial Day. But there’s more…

The affect the essay had on my mother caused her to wonder out loud if I would write one for her. After a few false starts, I did write a tribute to my mother, which aired on WVTF this past Mother’s Day. During the year I was working on telling my mother’s story, my father passed away, and the Father’s Day essay came into play again when I read to a church full of people who loved my dad as part of a shared family eulogy.

My Father’s Day essay, initially inspired by Rob, seems to have a life of its own. It was recently purchased, along with photographs of my dad, by The Hull Times, the newspaper in the town where I grew up and my mother still lives (for what I call a “Boston price”). The Times published it last week for Father’s Day, the first one that my siblings and I have experienced without a father. Although it was emotional day for all of us, it’s good to know that my father’s story is being told and that his memory lives on.

Post Notes: 1. The first photo was taken in Oddfella’s Cantina of my husband, Joe (left), my sister Sherry and her husband, Nelson, when Sherry and Nelson were visiting in the fall of 2004. Rob is on the far left, playing music on stage. 2. The second photo is of my father, mother, and me at The Pine Tavern on their last visit to Virginia in May of 2002. 3. My sister, Kathy, has written a Father’s Day piece called “Who Put the Honey in Your Heart?” You can read it on her blog here.

~Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on June 20, 2006.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Floyd Bloggers Who Write Books

I was in the Café Del Sol posting flyers for our Spoken Word Open Mic this Saturday night when I witnessed an actual impromptu purchase of Fred’s new book, Slow Road Home,” at the Café counter.

As a friend of Fred’s, an author with a book myself, and a roving blogger who likes to record what interests me, my curiosity was piqued.

“I’m a friend of Fred’s,” I said as I approached the petite blonde woman who was buying the book.

“You are?!” she responded enthusiastically.

“I thought you’d like to know that I just snapped a picture of you for Fred,” I went on.

Her name is Katherine and she lives in upstate New York. In town for a wedding, she had just come from camping at Rocky Knob.

“We love this area,” she gushed and explained that she was in the Café earlier when she had first seen Fred’s book.

“Tell Fred that the back cover description sold me. We’ve been thinking about moving to a place like this,” she went on.

At that point, I handed her my card, the one with my blog address on it that says ‘The Blogkeeper is in,’ and let her know that Fred and I both have blogs and frequently write about Floyd.

“Do you know what a blog is?” I asked. She did. Not only that, she is a writer and has had a blog in the past.

“Look!” I said, pointing to the locally published books by me, David, and Fred (in that order) on a shelf below the counter. “And we’re all bloggers!”

I explained how supportive the café has been to local writers, showing her the open mic flyer in my hand. She offered to get her dog out of her car to pose for the next photo, but I had a date with the grocery store. We promised to stay in touch.

As I headed out the Café door feeling like got a scoop for Fred, I was thinking, ‘That’s the cool thing about the small press. You often get to meet and hear the stories of the everyday people who read your book, even if it comes to you by way of your neighbor.’

~ Originally posted on Loose Leaf Notes on June 16, 2006.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Cottage Industry

When I first moved to Floyd, 21 years ago, it didn’t take me long to look around and say to myself, “I have to learn to make something.” Here in Floyd, what one can make with their hands becomes a currency, whether it be wooden bowls, clothes, flutes, pots, or stained glass. Back then, it was especially true, as many of us were raising children full-time and living on very low incomes. We had a yearly Barter Faire for showcasing our wares and selling or trading them. For a time, some of us used the Lets System (Local Economic Transfer System), a way to exchange goods and services using local Lets credits.

As a newcomer, I admired the translucent and iridescent hanging beaded earrings that several alter-native women in Floyd were making and wanted to learn to make some of my own. Those women became my first teachers. I was amazed at how freely they shared what they knew. There were no classes to take or book instructions to struggle with. We met informally around someone’s kitchen table or by a neighborhood pond in summer and beaded together.

My friend Juniper took me under wing. She actually paid me to string necklaces for her craft business, first in a little studio shed on her property and later in one of her two bead shops. While working part time for her, my beaded jewelry evolved into gemstone and sterling wire-wrapped pieces. I developed my own line of jewelry, and for a while I lived the life of a craftsperson. In between raising my sons, I stocked stores, went to craft shows, and sometimes traded my jewelry for other things I needed.

When I began doing full time foster care for adults with developmental disabilities in the mid 90s, my income improved, and I no longer had the time or inclination to make jewelry. But the lifestyle of working at home, making my own hours, and having something concrete to use as currency stuck with me.

After retiring from nine years of providing full-time foster care in my home, I now work no more than one week a month at it. The rest of the time, I write. Writing is my new cottage industry. It’s a natural extension of who I am and how I live. There are even some in-house published books involved. I stock them in stores, have sold some at shows, and have been hosted to do a few book-signings or talk to local book club groups. I even have a storefront, where I put in a few hours of work each day. It’s called Loose Leaf Notes, and you are there.

Originally posted on loose leaf notes on June 6, 2006.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I Got Interviewed by Terry Gross!

My Terry Gross is young, has long straight blonde hair, looks a little like the actress Laura Linney, and doesn’t wear glasses.

This Terry Gross – the real one who produces and hosts National Public Radio’s interview talk show “Fresh Air” – is petite to the point of looking like Mary Martin playing the role of Peter Pan. She has short cropped hair, wears glasses, and is in her late 50s.

I had been invited to go down to Roanoke with a group from Floyd’s Jacksonville Center for the Arts to hear Terry Gross speak at The Jefferson Center. We were in the VIP room before the show dipping our plantain chips into lemon pistachio ricotta when Terry walked in.

Once we convinced ourselves it was really Terry Gross and we got over our initial feelings of being star-struck, we made our way over to meet her.

I was introduced to her as a writer. In perfect interview fashion, she turned to me and said, “What do you write?’
terrygrossinroanoke3.jpg
“Funny enough, right now (besides blogging), WVTF Public Radio essays,” I blurted out.

“What are your essays about?” she continued her line of questions.

“My last one was about my mother for Mother’s Day,” I answered and then went on to tell her the essay about my father’s WWII military service, which aired on Memorial Day last year, and how after that my mother asked if I would write one for her.

That was the extent of my two question "interview" conducted by Terry Gross before it was my turn to ask questions.

“Where did you grow up?” I asked, already detecting that she was from the northeast.

“Brooklyn,” she answered.

I asked her about a recent exceptionally good interview I heard her do with Paul Riechoff, author of a book on Iraq from an Iraq veteran’s perspective, before her attention turned to others. Some were waiting for her to sign her book, “All I Did Was Ask.”

Terry knew that most of us had a different idea of how she looked. She opened her show by saying how in one instant she had answered the question on most people’s minds: What does Terry Gross look like?

Letting us get a better look, she did a pirouette as she laughed, saying, “…I know what you’re thinking.”

At first, the only thing recognizable about her was her voice, and throughout the show I would occasionally close my eyes and listen, bringing “my Terry Gross” back to mind. But as the show went on, her familiar wit, calm, and enthusiasm came through. She was engaging, revealing, and seemed to enjoy making us laugh by playing recorded outtakes of past shows that some might consider to be bloopers.

She took questions, and was complimented (or hit on) by one gay woman who expressed her disappointment that Terry was straight, before closing the show by playing a haunting rendition of the classic song “Walk On” by Richard Thomas of Fairport Convention. The song seemed to be Terry’s way to bid us a farewell while also encouraging us to remain hopeful. We sat in meditative silence together, letting the words sink in.

When you walk through a storm …Hold your head up high …And don't be afraid of the dark …At the end of the storm…There's a golden sky…And the sweet silver song of a lark…

Post Notes: The first Photo is of Terry Gross signing Cindy’s book. Cindy is one of the Jacksonville Center’s board of directors. In the second photo, John, Jacksonville's business manager, and Jayn, another board member, are talking with Terry.

~ Originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on May 23, 2006.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Things That Make Me Need Extra Deodorant

The steep switch-backed descent from Bent Mountain into Roanoke is enough to make a person queasy. I could hear the watch on my wrist ticking as I drove down it on my way to the WVTF Public Radio station to record my latest essay. Resisting the urge to distract myself, I did not turn on the radio (even though I knew The Diane Rehms Show was on, one my favorites that doesn’t pick up in my house). I wanted to stay calm and focused.

But I wasn’t.

When I first started recording my essays last year, I could almost convince myself that it was just me and Beverly, the WVTF Morning Edition Host, who were listening as I read. Now that I was about to record my 5th essay, I knew better. All the calls and emails I received from people who had heard me on the radio, and the friends who stopped me in the street to say ‘good job’ were fresh in my mind.

But my nervous condition started long before the ride down the mountain.

After I wrote an essay for my father’s 80th birthday in tribute to his service as a WWII vet, which aired on WVTF last Memorial Day, my mother said to me, “I hope you’ll write one for me when I turn 80.” I started to sweat right then and there.

My father, who died this past November, 4 months after he read the essay I wrote for him, was a colorful and funny character, easy to write about. Not only would my mother be harder to write about, but I’ve never been good writing on cue or dealing with performance pressure.

Last summer my mother turned 80 and I didn’t have an essay written, but I promised her I’d have one by the following Mother’s Day. After my initial resistance, I began to see writing something for her as a challenging opportunity to honor her life. During a month long visit with her and the rest of my family that same summer, I spent a week alone, camping with my laptop, and was determined to write the piece.

And I did. I had the whole thing flushed out, first in scribbled notes and then on my computer, and I was actually excited about how it was coming along. “Ma, I’m almost done with your essay!” I later told her.

Not long after that, I fried the USB drive that had the Mother’s Day Essay on it. I was devastated to lose the progress I had made and, even though I still had scribbled notes, I seemed unable to face the piece again. As the months flew by and I got no work done on it, I realized that losing what I had written about my mother paralleled some of my early childhood issues. I was separated from her and all my family members on two occasions (for a month each time) before the age of 1.

It was a struggle to regain the momentum that I had lost, but I eventually did. And now I was about to read a tribute to my mother on the radio and was hoping my voice wouldn’t quiver.

“Oh No! It’s 7 minutes long!” Beverly announced after the recording was made. Seven minutes was twice as long as the station's recommended time for a morning essay. Not only did we have to perform emergency surgery on the piece, Beverly discovered a grammatical error which we set about to correct. (Whew! Nice save, Beverly.)

After the reading, on the drive home it was hot, and so I cranked up the car’s air conditioning. I decided to stop at The Tanglewood Mall, where I sat for awhile on a bench watching all the people who didn’t have to read an essay on the radio that morning. Then, I went into TJ Max to try on a few bathing suits. That was a mistake. Looking at myself in a bathing suit for the first time since last summer only gave me something new to sweat about.

~ Originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on May 9, 2006

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Book: Fulfilling Its Higher Purpose

My book, The Jim and Dan Stories, started with a poem I wrote about being with my brother Danny in the hospital when he was taken off life supports – like taking Jesus off the cross he was nailed to… He died 3 hours later.

After the poem, I wrote a tribute about the deaths of both my brothers, Jim and Dan. Jim died in August of 2001 in a machine shop accident, and Dan died a month later from liver failure. The tribute was published in the town newspaper in Hull, Massachusetts where my eight siblings and I grew up.

After the tribute, I got out my notebook, thinking I would write some more poetry to help me process my grief; instead, “The Jim and Dan Stories” poured out of me. The original poem and the tribute got incorporated into the new writing, which I didn’t realize would end up as a book.

Once I knew it was a book, I didn’t know I was going to publish it.
After I knew I was going to publish it, I thought I would do so in a small number for family and close friends.

When the first printing of 300 books was done, I thought I was going to get stuck with lots of extra books.

When the first 300 sold in a few months time, I had another 300 printed up. Again, I thought I was going to get stuck with a lot of extra books.
When I sold that 300 and invested in a 3rd printing of 300, I thought I would surely get stuck with those.

I’m now more than half-way through the 3rd printing and wondering about a possible 4th.

Will the day ever come when someone asks about “The Jim and Dan Stories” and I say, “Oh, I don’t have any copies of that anymore?

Post Note: The cover design of The Jim and Dan Stories was done by my brother-in-law, Nelson Pidgeon. For more information about the book, how it came about and what has happened since it’s been published, visit my website, Silver and Gold, which Nelson is also the creator of.

Originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on April 18, 2006.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Where Does a Poem Come From?

April is National Poetry Month. With that in mind, I decided to attempt to answer the following questions posed by Carol at A Revision.

1. Where do your poems start? What causes you to sit down and write a poem? Is it a certain emotion? Poetry is a constant in my life. I seem to have a need to interpret everything into the voice of my own spirit in order to better understand it. When I haven’t written any poetry in awhile, I become irritable and restless. At those times, I think of writing as taking my physic blood pressure, and I use the pen to get a diagnosis as well as for the treatment. Other times, poetry begins on its own as a rhythmic line I can use as springboard, or a thought that I recognize as an original one. It’s like coming across a shiny coin that wants to be picked up and then spent.

2. Do you have different stages to your poetry? Can you see how you’ve matured or changed over the years through your poetry? The foundation I write from has been informed by my genetic, environmental, and working class background. My love of language was first awakened by nursery rhymes, jump rope songs, and the songs of the 40s that my father taught me. I first started writing poetry after being inspired by the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and others. I’m amazed by all the time I’ve put into writing over the years and still today, and that I actually want to write. I can see the kernel of my early writing in everything I write today. That kernel is only now coming to fruition, 30 years later.

3. Do you have a favorite poem that you have written? What do you like about it? What does it say about you that you like? I’m usually excited by the new work I’m engaged in. Like a mother with children, it’s hard to pick favorites. I like the ones that are the most honest, where I was able to find a particular nerve and hit it, or ones that are condensed to the point where the lines are almost interchangeable. I like the ones that were fun to write and are fun to read. “Where I’m From,” about the place and the people that I’ve been steeped in, is one that was rewarding to write. I discovered through writing it that growing up by the ocean was as formative to me as my family environment was.

4. Do you have a favorite that someone else has written? What does it do for you? Does it give you an answer or cause you to think a certain way? Does it motivate you?
If you ask this question on another day, I might say something different, but today two poems come to mind. One is by Richard Brautigan. I like Brautigan’s humor and his ability to distill an image down. It’s a 7 line poem that ends with… A fly is sleeping…on a paper napkin. I have to wake him up, so I can wipe my glasses. There’s a pretty girl I want to look at.

The other poem “Long Life, is by a Japanese poet named IKIYU, written when he was 70. I first heard it by way of storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade. I like the way the poem surprises, like cold water splashed in my face, not to be hurtful but to wake me up. It ends… Face it! You’re happy! How many times do I have to say it? There is no way not to be who you are, and where.

5. Do you only write poetry or is it a part of a vast array of writing methods that you use to express your self or your thoughts? My voice came first, the technical skill came slower and later and is something I’ll always be working on. Through poetry I’ve learned how to tell a story, a mythical one with a beginning, a point, and a resolution. I’ve learned what sounds good together, not to waste words, and how to tie pieces together.

When my brothers died in 2001, I intended to write poetry as a way to process the grief, but I ended up writing a book instead. I remember feeling liberated by how much room prose allowed me and how specific I could be with it. But if I’m writing too much prose, I begin to need a vacation. Prose is like the day job and poetry is the rest of my life.

~ Originally posted on looseleafnotes.com April 14, 2006.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Wine of Words


All my friends would like to know…how I can sleep so late…well, I have a gene for it…the wine of words is mostly partaken…in the wee hours of the morning…I write alone. ~ Colleen, From The Zen of Winter Poetry, Muses Like Moonlight.

The open mic that began as a community outreach effort by the Writer’s Workshop I belong to is taking on a life of its own. The wordsmiths and bards came out in full force last night, the night after St. Patrick’s Day, to the Café Del Sol to share their poetry and prose. Our 7-9 P.M. announced schedule went over by at least an hour. With a front row seat that happened to be a comfy couch, I nursed a beer while taking in the fare and found myself becoming intoxicated with language.

Beginning with the performances of a few talented students from the high school’s forensics’ team and ending with my friend Jayn reading her poem, “City Boy Country Girl” …Yeah, we’re in love… Exposed hearts melting in our personal global warming…causing floods of correspondence… climate changes in poetry…and occasional research trips into each other’s changing world… there must have been a dozen readers reading all variety of works.

I got to inject my best Irish accent when it was my turn to take to the mic with a poem called My Grandmother’s Brogue … My grandmother came to America to be a servant… and then have 11 children for the Catholic Church…Jesus Mary and Joseph! And my friend Katherine, whose article on home-birthing twins was published in Mothering magazine over two decades ago, shared her image-rich remembrances of childhood while writing at her now-deceased mother’s desk.

Although it is actually a serious subject, Doug Thompson, fellow blogger and journalist, brought the house down with his humorous response to being a target of the Bush Administration’s investigation into reporters who write unfavorable stories about them: On an unspecified day last week an employee of a federal agency that cannot be revealed delivered a document that cannot be identified to a company that cannot be named seeking information that cannot be discussed.

His piece was written following a more serious report on the matter, “Bush Declares War On Freedom of the Press,” which is excerpted below but can be read in its entirety at Doug’s news site, Capitol Hill Blue. In recent weeks, the FBI has issued hundreds of “National Security Letters,” directing employers, banks, credit card companies, libraries and other entities to turn over records on reporters. Under the USA Patriot Act, those who must turn over the records are also prohibited from revealing they have done so to the subject of the federal probes… Just how widespread, and uncontrolled, this latest government assault has become hit close to home last week when one of the FBI’s National Security Letters arrived at the company that hosts the servers for this web site, Capitol Hill Blue. The letter apparently demanded traffic data, payment records and other information about the web site along with information on me, the publisher…

Sipping tea over breakfast this morning with my husband, Joe, I realized out loud that 4 of my 5 closest women friends are writers. We spent the rest of the morning poring over an article my son Josh had been asked to submit for a Studio Pottery publication with an editor’s eye (all 4 of them) in mind. This afternoon our Writers’ Workshop is set to meet. Tomorrow night my calendar tells me that I’m scheduled to attend the Blacksburg book club that recently read my book The Jim and Dan Stories.

I feel a hangover coming on…

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Strong Foundation to Stand On

I and Pangur my cat… “Tis a like task we are at… Hunting mice is his delight … Hunting words I sit all night. ~ Excerpt from a stanza scribbled into a ninth century Latin manuscript by an Irish scribe.

In March everything is turning green and seems to revolve around St. Patrick’s Day. The March issue of the Museletter, the local newsletter I co-edit, is printed on green paper and the front page ad for this month’s Spoken Word Open Mic (Saturday, March 18, 7-9 at the Café Del Sol) reads: In the tradition of the troubadours and the ancient Celtic bards, come out and share your ballad poetry, limericks, and even your blarney.

Because their ancient Celtic culture was based on an oral tradition, and because Ireland was isolated from outside influences by the Atlantic Ocean for so many centuries, the Irish came late to literacy; but they more than made up for lost time when they did. Thomas Cahill writes in his 1995 bestseller book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Like the Jews before them, the Irish enshrined literacy as their central religious act.

Although writing language down can be likened to trying to possess a butterfly, the Irish, steeped in the oral tradition of their poets, bards, and druids, embraced what was opened up to them by doing so. To the Irish, who were said to have invented rhyme, language was a living entity and the alphabet was magical. Soon after their introduction to the written word, they learned Greek and Latin, devised Irish grammars, copied out the whole of their native oral literature, and even began making up languages.

Cahill writes: The Irish thought that all language was a game – and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it…they found the shapes of letters magical. Why, they asked themselves, did a B look the way it did? Could it look some other way? Was there an essential B-ness?

Irish curiosity and playfulness led to their invention of the codex, the descendent of scrolls and predecessor of books as we know them today. By way of the codex, Ireland began to produce the most spectacular magical books the world has ever seen, as evidenced by The Book of Kells.

Reading Cahill’s book helped me to understand my heritage and the tradition I write from. I especially related to the passages in his book where he describes how the Irish country folk, hired by monks to hand copy the classics, would write little ditties and poems inside the margins of their work. He writes of one example: in the margins of an impenetrable Greek commentary on scripture – we find the bored scribblings of the Irish scribes, who kept themselves awake by writing out a verse or two of a beloved Irish lyric – and so, by accumulation, left for our enjoyment a whole literature that would be otherwise unknown.

Although, I do write longer poems, I have a strong inclination, like my Irish ancestors who copied the classics, to condense language into scribbled-out small ditties, as the following excerpt from a press release introducing my first collection of poetry describes: The Irish side of my family is rich with storytellers; some poems and a song have been published, and there are a few unpublished novels still floating around. I think the Irish influence in my poetry manifests as humor, my love of wordplay, and my inclinations towards short poems, about limerick in size.

Photo: Self-potrait of feet taken by my son Josh.
~ Originally posted in looseleafnotes.com on March 14, 2006.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Guerrilla Blogging

The hardest part of Guerrilla Blogging is finding your cursor when the daylight casts a glare on your computer screen. You’ll need to learn how to balance your lap top while riding a bike, turn your laptop carrying case into a makeshift mouse pad, and be ready to pick up and move at a moment’s notice when the wireless signal gets low. There will likely be gnats and other bugs to contend with and discomfort from sitting on the ground. And don’t even try guerrilla blogging if you can’t get used to being stared at by people walking or riding by. Some will stop and ask what you’re doing. Be prepared to explain what blogging is. Some people still don’t know.
Where's the strangest place you've blogged from?

Photo: Picking up wireless in the woods next to The Hunting Island State Park Ranger's house. The ranger says the whole park will probably be wireless within a year or two.

~ Originally posted on Looseleafnotes.com on March 11, 2006.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Word Play


AKA: Things overheard while playing Scrabble.

Is topsy a word without turvey?

Is hob a word without nob?

Can the word oodles be singular?

Is pest an alternative plural for pet when you have too many of them?
Coyote is coy. His name tells us so.

I know listen and silent are the same word with the letters switched around, but semen and menses?

It makes sense that the word “evil” is “live” backwards.

My favorite letter is V. If a word has a V in it, you can be sure it’s infused with action and vitality.

It’s no mistake that “VERB” begins with the letter V.

Have you noticed that the word “astonished” has “stoned” right in it, and “embarrassed” seems to say “I’m bare assed?”

And lust and slut are so closely related that they’re the same word.

Note: My Scrabble partner, Mara, using one of her life lines. This entry was originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on December 12, 2005.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Self Portrait

The following are my answers to interview questions posed by Jake from the Jake Silver Show:

1. When do you first recall wanting to be a writer and what inspired that? I began writing Bob Dylan-inspired poetry as a teenager in my bedroom and then “letters to the editor” for local newspapers. As a young full-time mother I read an article in one of my favorite magazines, “Mothering,” and thought to myself, ‘I can do that.’ I knew I had something to say, but I had to teach myself sentence structure and punctuation by studying how it was done in books and magazines. The first article I submitted to “Mothering” was accepted for publication….and they paid me! (There’s a writer’s biography on my website that goes into more detail on my writing background and my genetic tendencies towards it.)

2. What made you want to start a Web Log? I was writing lots of political commentary for The Roanoke Times, The New River Free Press, and online publications. I got burned out because it was painstaking work to reference everything I wrote and because after the presidential election on 2004 I felt defeated and lost faith in the system. I wanted to do something completely different and have some fun with writing. For me, I understand life by translating it into words. I needed a container for all my writing and a way to organize and cross-reference it. I also think of my blog as a memoir writing project, a time capsule into my life and the time and setting I’m living in.

3. How did you come up with the name and theme of your Web Log? I wanted green. I wanted to let my hair down and draw on my Irish heritage (you know what good talkers and writers the Irish are). I purposely chose the bio-photo I did because it was taken in Ireland and because I have a shamrock pinned to my sweater. Besides being a nice sounding alliteration, “Loose Leaf” conjures up images of notebook paper and tea, both of which describe me pretty well. I recognized the multi-purpose a blog could fulfill. I knew it would be a natural extension to my Silver and Gold webpage and figured that it would have a re-occurring grief and loss thread. Like my webpage, I wanted my blog to offer a model of encouragement to other self-taught writers with stories of their own to tell. I wanted a forum to write about writing, post occasional poems, and feature snapshots of the country lifestyle I live. Some of the other themes, which I particularly enjoy, like the “S-C-R-A-B-B-L-E” category and “Featured Artist,” evolved over time. My Asheville potter son who loves the Red Sox and my Scrabble partner and poet friend, Mara, are regular re-occurring characters that are always fun to write about.

4. Have you ever had an embarrassing situation occur because of Blogging? The possibility to be embarrassed exists everyday when you put yourself out there (and use your real name like I do). I still swing from feeling really positive to vulnerable about blogging. I’m sometimes embarrassed that I have so little tech-no-logic sense about computers and that I have to rely on other people to help me. The worst thing that has happened thus far is this: A local city paper, which features links to regional blogs on its online front page, featured a blog post of mine entitled “Have You Seen Me Lately?” but the editor changed the title to read “America is Evil!” I thought it was a mistake or a cruel joke, but it wasn’t. I was mortified and felt exposed, misunderstood, and even libeled. By the time I got the editorial editor on the phone, I was in tears. They took it down, but for 4 hours that day people were clicking on my site looking for “America is Evil,” a black and white simplistic misrepresentation of what I actually wrote.

5. What is the best aspect of keeping a Blog? I like the interactive aspect of blogging and that it’s done without the obvious visual cues that can, sadly, sometimes cause us to judge people by how they present physically (age, size, culture, etc). I’m a social scientist at heart, and I’ve always been curious about people. I like that I can connect with those who I have something in common with, and I especially like that blogging creates a format that allows me to connect with others who live and think differently than I do. My book, about losing my brothers, my webpage, and my blog have all expanded me as a writer and a person, and have shown me that my writing can touch others, which has been very rewarding. But the best part of that equation is something I didn’t expect…the people I have touched with my writing have reached right back and touched me.

6. Is there anything that you'd love to be asked that I didn't ask you? This is like getting a blank in a Scrabble game. I know it’s an opportunity that should be welcomed. Most people like getting a blank, but I usually have a hard time visualizing it as anything other than a blank. I’m drawing a blank here, but I’m going to think about this question some more and maybe do a whole post on it someday.

Originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on February 18, 2006.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Word Play

“In a poem the word should be as pleasing to the ear as the meaning is to the mind.” Marianne Moore

I’ve logged in enough hours during my lifetime – fooling around with words, in search of just the right ones – to finally call myself a poet. For many years I would say only, “I write poetry.” To claim to “be a poet” sounds presumptuous, unlike other claims, such as “I am a gardener,” or “I am a mother.” But what other word do we have in our culture to explain one who is so fascinated with language and with using it?

I’m the sort of person who reads a “wet paint” sign, but still has to touch the bench to see if it’s true. I’ve always been curious about the alphabet that way too. I believe that alphabet sounds have properties, like foods have vitamins, plants have medicine and colors have the power to affect our moods. The M…M…M sound conjures a sense of manna, matter or mother. Whereas, the letter G…G…G, when it's hard, sounds antagonistic, especially if it’s followed by R…R…R (Grrr). Why does an L sound so light and lovely while D seems to say “downward descent”?

I like to play with the alphabet. I notice that the word “slack” has “lack” right in it. (Is slack somehow the plural of lack, the way too many pets become pests?) I notice that silent and listen are made up of the same letters, like note and tone are. I know that coyote is coy, because his name tells me so.

I once met a woman who made sock puppets, not the Sesame Street variety, but matriarchal figures, wise women, and witches. When I learned that her last name was “Weinstock,” I couldn’t help but point out that her name also said “Wise in Sock.” When I mentioned to another woman that if she added a G to her last name, “Robinson,” it would become “Robinsong,” she changed her name!

I believe that our names are our assignments and that there is mathematics to language. If we take a letter away or add another, everything changes. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the word “spell” means to put letters together in the right way, and it also means to make magic.

If you look at the word “universe,” you’ll see that it implies a unifying poetry. If you add one letter to “word” and you get the whole “world.” Why don’t they teach that in school? ~From Muses Like Moonlight by Colleen

Note: Originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on June 5, 2005.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Writing as Grief Therapy

“Everything has its roots in the unseen world…Every wondrous sight will vanish…Every sweet word will fade” ~ Rumi

We buried my older brother, Jim, who died suddenly at the age of fifty-four, in July 2001. My younger brother, Dan, died a month later at the age of forty-nine. Since their deaths, life has had a sharper focus. There are things I can see that I couldn’t see before. If I can describe what I see from inside this hole, will it help others when they are down in one? What place is this? How will I survive it? How deep does it go? I want to know. I’ve never been here before. Can I make something constructive out of the powerless feeling of loss? Am I digging my way out, word by word? I’m writing Jim and Dan’s story because after living this story no other seems worth telling, because what else can I do down here, because there’s no where else to go. I’m writing Jim and Dan’s story because I’m proud of their story. I want to shout from the rooftop how irreplaceable they are. ~ From “The Jim and Dan Stories,” the Introduction.

After my brothers died – one unexpectedly in an accident and the other from an illness – I read lots of books on death. I wanted to penetrate the mystery of death (as if it was possible to) and find proof that I would see my brothers again.
Recently, on the Charlie Rose Show, Charlie was interviewing Joan Didian, author of “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Didian lost her husband unexpectedly while her daughter was ill, and then lost her daughter. I related to the unexpected death followed by a more likely one, and the fact that she dealt with her grief by writing a book about it, as I have.

On the show, she said something about her husband’s death that poignantly describes part of the grief process, “You get obsessed and go over and over it… trying to find a different ending.

My blog bio reads: “I write to synthesize what I’m thinking at the time.” Didian put it this way: I had to write to know what I was thinking.
When Charlie asked her what has been the hardest part of writing the book, I knew what her answer would be.

“Finishing the book,” she said. And then she went on to explain that writing her book was a way to stay in touch with her lost loved one. Finishing it was hard because, she had to let go of that connection.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Note: originally posted on looseleafnotes.com on November 5, 2005.