Tea, Tuscany & a Birthday/ guest post by Justine Gilbert

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Early morning, there is a softness to the sky that will later give way to storm or fluffy cloud or perhaps that intense azure ring from edge to edge that is so famous here.  I sit with a cup of tea (most un-Italian) and survey the vista in front of me. Somewhere in my soul, I smile because I am home.

My affinity with Italy started with my mother, Fiorentina born, a maternal thread that spooled out to my childhood and beyond. It stretched across Italy from Rome to Milan on many journeys, but in recent years, my life settled for a short span of time in this region.  I have learned so much here: the annual cycle of the contadini, the growling of the tractors as they plant and harvest crops, the cacciatore, with their khaki uniforms and loud pops of the shotguns as they fell the pheasant and wild boar, the agriturismo, with their fields that change colour from green spring to beige blanched summer broken by yellow sunflowers and violent red tomatoes, on to the purple of autumn spotted with pumpkins, and sometimes - if we are lucky -  the white coating of a short snowfall in winter that decorates every ancient roof with a magical dusting. 

I have learned it is hard to find work here, and even harder to make that work pay, so that one can live, eat and survive.  If you are not Toscana, you can never be truly one of them, and yet you will be accepted into the community provided you have the economic means to do for others, either by spending or barter or by being a good inquilino. I admire the Tuscan people, they have had few handouts, survived wars and bombing - still they plough on, paying their way and developing ‘un modo da vivere’ that is envied the world over.

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This land, and all the people I met, became my fourth child.  I helped to plant oliveand fruit trees here, my legacy after my death. I helped to restore vegetable plots, I put in a wood burning stove and learned to use a chain saw so that I could slice the dense wood required into manageable chunks to ease the winter cold with a piping hot stufa.  I endured the zanzare - the ever present mosquitoes, the papatachi, the voracious midges, and I watched with fascination as a myriad of lizards moved rapidly, seamlessly from rock to rock, shedding their tails when predators lurked, so that one did not notice their disappearance into the crevices, whilst the ejected limb wriggled in the dust. 

I walked dogs here, down dry river beds and across the beaches at Cecina.  I have laughed and shared a love of Italy and all things Tuscan with new friends under a silk black sky with diamonds, whilst fire flies blinked across the fields. 

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I have loved watching the birds of prey who settle on the telephone poles and then swoop with unerring accuracy to pick out the field mice.  With fascination, I acknowledged small black scorpions standing their ground on the terra cotta tiles, unafraid of a large human foot approaching.  I have seen the deer, turn and bound away in the pine woods, chased by dogs that had no chance of keeping pace and occasionally the ‘irskine’ or ‘porcospino’ that rattled away hurriedly to hide - illegal to hunt, yet they are prized for their meat. They are a remnant of Ancient Rome and its African connections.  I have seen the many migrants, their ebony faces staring into mine, hawking any trinkets they could find to make their way north to Belgium or Germany.

I remember with pity the many caged dogs that reside in the woods, who sit, barking and howling, waiting for a chance to be released into the hunt by their hunter masters. The chickens in coops, the swallows that circle, the rise and fold of the hills making their nest in the barns, the daily chatter of friends in the piazza, the richness of the local wine, oil and food.

I am sixty years old and I am grateful to have had my birthday here, grateful for the friends who travelled an hour from Montecatini Val di Cecina to share it with me.

And last but certainly not least, the warmth and friendship of Wide Open Writing, an adventure in authorship never to be forgotten and hopefully to continue and follow for years to come.

Grateful for having experienced all of this.  Thank you.  Thank you. Thank you.

This post originally appeared on https://teawithjustine.wordpress.com.

 

Born in New York to a mother who was a ballet dancer and a father who was a journalist, I moved to Long Island and then to London at the age of six. I spent many summers in Italy for reasons of my father’s work, and we all lived in Rome for a year.  My family has had an ongoing love affair with Italy. I began writing as soon as I could write and have had a lifelong passion for literature, poetry and the written word. I would call myself a Scribbler. I write because I must. My thoughts come to me in words I press to the page. I became an English teacher and my writing was focussed on school plays, short stories and poetry much of which I shared with my pupils. I have a B.Ed (Hons) from Leeds University (Yorkshire, UK) - the part of the world where the Bronte sisters grew up. I also have an M.Ed in Literacy Difficulties and Dyslexia assessment. There is nothing more rewarding that seeing a child blossom as they find their creative writing potential, and it has been very fulfilling to be a part of that. I created websites for reading reviews, ran creative writing workshops and competitions, and spent a life encouraging pupils of all ages to write and read. Three children, two husbands and three dogs filled my personal life (not all at the same time!).  When I wrote my first full length novel at age 54 - set in Tuscany - I opted to upload it on the Kindle site, rather than go the traditional publishing route. My aim being to create a virtual shelf of books to share with friends and family. Indie publishing gives people an outlet for their creativity and I think it’s the best thing about today’s world of literature.  I took early retirement, and moved to Tuscany, where photographing and writing blogs began my focus for annotating an amazing part of the world. I began with serendipityinitaly.co.uk and went on to write hugsfromitaly.wordpress.com, followed by usachronicles.wordpress.com when I spent six weeks with family, and subsequently, having left Italy to go back to London, I am currently writing teawithjustine.wordpress.com  My second novel has been inspired by people I have met, but its completion will be due entirely to WOW, without whose help and guidance, I might have given up. Now I know, in my sixtieth year: Every good book takes the reader on a journey. If you feel you have a book in you, never give up, if a tale is worth telling, it is worth the time to see it through, no matter how long it takes you. Two Sides of the Coin is due to be uploaded on Amazon Kindle in December under the name of J P Chan Gilbert.

Born in New York to a mother who was a ballet dancer and a father who was a journalist, I moved to Long Island and then to London at the age of six. I spent many summers in Italy for reasons of my father’s work, and we all lived in Rome for a year.  My family has had an ongoing love affair with Italy. I began writing as soon as I could write and have had a lifelong passion for literature, poetry and the written word. I would call myself a Scribbler. I write because I must. My thoughts come to me in words I press to the page. I became an English teacher and my writing was focussed on school plays, short stories and poetry much of which I shared with my pupils. I have a B.Ed (Hons) from Leeds University (Yorkshire, UK) - the part of the world where the Bronte sisters grew up. I also have an M.Ed in Literacy Difficulties and Dyslexia assessment. There is nothing more rewarding that seeing a child blossom as they find their creative writing potential, and it has been very fulfilling to be a part of that. I created websites for reading reviews, ran creative writing workshops and competitions, and spent a life encouraging pupils of all ages to write and read.

Three children, two husbands and three dogs filled my personal life (not all at the same time!).  When I wrote my first full length novel at age 54 - set in Tuscany - I opted to upload it on the Kindle site, rather than go the traditional publishing route. My aim being to create a virtual shelf of books to share with friends and family. Indie publishing gives people an outlet for their creativity and I think it’s the best thing about today’s world of literature. 

I took early retirement, and moved to Tuscany, where photographing and writing blogs began my focus for annotating an amazing part of the world. I began with serendipityinitaly.co.uk and went on to write hugsfromitaly.wordpress.com, followed by usachronicles.wordpress.com when I spent six weeks with family, and subsequently, having left Italy to go back to London, I am currently writing teawithjustine.wordpress.com  My second novel has been inspired by people I have met, but its completion will be due entirely to WOW, without whose help and guidance, I might have given up. Now I know, in my sixtieth year: Every good book takes the reader on a journey. If you feel you have a book in you, never give up, if a tale is worth telling, it is worth the time to see it through, no matter how long it takes you.

Two Sides of the Coin is due to be uploaded on Amazon Kindle in December under the name of J P Chan Gilbert.

The Quietest Place On Earth/guest post by Ellen Welcker

Instead of writing any poems, I deconstruct a Band-Aid box and draw four diagrams of four chords: A minor, F, G, and C. I slide a tab of the box into the glove compartment and secure it there, so I can practice my ukulele. It’s out of tune, but that’s the least of my problems.

The Rock is a legitimately talented dude. I feel a strange kind of allegiance to him, like, he made a poor decision: to become a WWF fighter, when he could’ve been anything. This is one of the ways that we’re alike.

When we sing, “I know it’s a lot: the hair, the bod…” all of us mean it differently.

As opposed to the villain Tamatoa’s message, which cannot be misinterpreted by the young. A powerful vim rises up in me. And something like assurance, which villains always have.

In the book I’m reading, everyone’s memories are lost to them, all their joys and sorrows, their deep-seated hatreds and their most tender bonds—gone. Do you know what lingers, though, what can’t be erased and is therefore stronger even than these powerful emotions? Suspicion.

It lodges in memories, even the lost ones, like a splinter. It festers too, I think, in concepts like “tolerance” or “diversity training.” Tainted and hollow.

Call it openness. Call it anti-racist, anti-sexist; call it what it is. Euphemisms—and that is what these words are—allow the sick splinter to fester, unacknowledged or hidden or secretly nurtured.

Bam-slunked it, the child says. I bam-slunked it. Off in the distance, a baby falls into a fire.

Mud is cool and squishy; gravel points and says, hey! Sand and rocks all have their textured communications. We’re dull with shoes on. When we walk barefoot, our brains light up. We give ourselves the moss treatment. It’s so wet here that tree branches believe they are roots in the air, their arms dissolving into fingers, fingers into tentacles.

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A map of my scars reveals the dog bite, the other dog bite, the bird-shaped time I danced a glass into my knee, the smile-shaped time I skateboarded my face into the sidewalk, some chicken pox, a gash from an oar, and hidden under my ring now, the tender blast of stovetop blister squeezed to bursting in the grip of my best friend’s hand. The boys were about to get us, after all.

Someone thinks the word is “barnit” and everyone laughs. Barnit. We say it and say it.

Another bam-slunk.

Another baby gets dropped in the fire.

Then someone barnits for real. It had to happen.

Sea anemones hang ponderously, sexually, suspended under an outcropping, mussels dangling from their mouths. Dentata. Barnacles creak and snap, talking to each other. Here I conceive of a beautiful idea for a pendant—a nurse log. That’s what a mother is: you fall over and a cacophony of life erupts from the wreck of you. Get on it, jewelers.

The cigarette-burn where a wart once was, the angry veined lumps of sun damage in the whites of my eyes, the hairless spoonscoop on my head where a beam landed, the continent on each knee gnarled through forty years of the Falling Down Problem. Where the barbed wire pierced my thigh and pinned me to my jeans in the neighbor’s old barn, the tear—third degree they said—where the first emerged, fist out front like a narwhal, or someone fighting for her future.

Notes:

I have a memory of hearing or reading that there’s a place deep inside the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park that is considered “the quietest place on earth.” A quick Google search will show that this is title is much disputed. Hoh Rainforest doesn’t even come up.

We learned the lyrics and sang a lot of the songs from the Disney movie, Moana, while in the car on the way from Spokane, Washington to the Olympic National Park. So catchy! It’s a long drive.

My 4-yo thought the word for vomit was “barnit.”

 

 

Ellen Welcker’s books are Ram Hands (Scablands Books) and The Botanical Garden, 2009 Astrophil Poetry Prize (Astrophil, 2010). She is a recipient of a 2016 GAP grant from Artist Trust, for her manuscript-in-progress, The Pink Tablet, and chapbook of these poems are forthcoming from Fact-Simile Books in 2017. She lives in Spokane, WA.  

Ellen Welcker’s books are Ram Hands (Scablands Books) and The Botanical Garden, 2009 Astrophil Poetry Prize (Astrophil, 2010). She is a recipient of a 2016 GAP grant from Artist Trust, for her manuscript-in-progress, The Pink Tablet, and chapbook of these poems are forthcoming from Fact-Simile Books in 2017. She lives in Spokane, WA.

 

The freedom of a writing retreat /Guest post by Dara-Lyn Shrager

The Borestone Mountain retreat. Kathy Westover photo

The Borestone Mountain retreat. Kathy Westover photo

What stays with me about my first Wide Open Writing retreat is how free I felt. Free to answer questions honestly when asked by my new roommates. Free to write in response to Dulcie's stirring prompts. Free to share those raw, unedited pieces with the group. Free to eat as much as I wanted to eat. Free to practice yoga with my eyes closed and the sound of Nancy's voice rising from the lake. Free to laugh, free to dance, free to walk, to swim, to smile while looking into another person's eyes. I don't know if what was given to me was love but I came home from Borestone Mountain feeling loved. And love is what I hold from my time among some of the most wonderful women I have ever known.

Dara-Lyn Shrager lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and is the co-founder and editor of Radar Poetry (radarpoetry.com). She holds an MFA from Bennington College and a BA from Smith College. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals, including Southern Humanities Review, Barn Owl Review, Salamander, Yemassee, Whiskey Island, Tinderbox, and Nashville Review. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Magazine. Learn more at: www.daralynshrager.com.

Dara-Lyn Shrager lives in Princeton, New Jersey, and is the co-founder and editor of Radar Poetry (radarpoetry.com). She holds an MFA from Bennington College and a BA from Smith College. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in many journals, including Southern Humanities Review, Barn Owl Review, Salamander, Yemassee, Whiskey Island, Tinderbox, and Nashville Review. Her articles have appeared in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Philadelphia Magazine. Learn more at: www.daralynshrager.com.

Why Writers Need Field Trips: Guest post by Ann Hedreen

I thought I was going to take a quick stroll down the beach. Instead, I walked straight to the water’s edge, sat down, took off my shoes, and waded into Puget Sound. My toes dug happily into the dark, kelpy sand. My calves were electrically, perfectly cold. After a few minutes, I backed up and sat down where the tide could still lap my toes. I lifted my face to the sun and the breeze, both newly freed from the summer wildfire smoke that had blanketed Seattle for days.

I felt like I’d come home, after a long time away.

None of this involved thinking. All of it simply happened, as if some irresistible magnetic force was pulling me. As if I knew with my body, not my brain, that at this particular suburban Seattle beach, Richmond Beach, the thing to do was to get yourself right into the water the minute you got there.  

I never go to Richmond Beach. I live in southeast Seattle, and it is northwest of the city limits. But just over the hill from Richmond Beach was the home where I lived from zero to five. That much I do know, though all I remember of those first years are slivers and glimmers of our life in the little ranch house on NW 183rd Street; a jumble of memories that include only the briefest flashes of this shore.

But here I am. And here my feet are, wiggling in the cold water. And here now is this feeling washing over me, of utter contentment; a feeling that the shape of this beach and this sky and this driftwood and these train tracks all feel—right. Mine. Home.

I’m a memoir writer, and I teach memoir writing at Seattle Central College. I often tell my students to take themselves on field trips; to go back, if they can, to where they grew up. To be anthropologists, journalists, and study their own lives. I acknowledge that it’s easy for me, because the places where I grew up are not very far away.

The problem, of course, is that those places have changed: like me, they’ve grown older. Or they’ve disappeared. Or, if it’s a house, someone else now owns it and they’ve remodeled or painted or replaced the rhododendrons with drought-tolerant grasses.

This summer, I was invited to read at the Richmond Beach Library. The minute I put it on my calendar, I began to plan my post-reading, memory-lane field trip, first to the beach and then to 183rd Street. I had no specific writerly questions to research; I just wanted to see how it felt to be where I was in the very first years of my life, the years before reading and writing; the years in which every memory was sensory. Personal. Not complicated.

The author with her mother.

The author with her mother.

We lived on a street of then-new ranch homes, just a few miles inland from the sweeping public shoreline. At the end of our block, there was a tangled green patch which we called “the woods;” I knew from previous drive-bys that it was long ago covered with more houses. I remember riding my tricycle into the woods with a neighbor boy named Bruce, my very first friend my own age, and watching, astonished, when he unzipped his pants and peed. I remember he and I got into trouble once when we tried to walk by ourselves to the nearby Tradewell Supermarket.

The beach was way too far for us to even think of walking to by ourselves. And there were those train tracks. My older brother and sister knew all kinds of scary stories, told by kids even older than them, about crossing those train tracks.

But when we drove to the beach, and walked from the parking lot right over the train tracks on the overpass, me holding tight to my mother’s hand, and then kapow! —that huge, sky-filled world opened in front of me—I didn’t have words for it then, and I still don’t. I just knew I wanted more of it. To this day, I want more of it.

More huge sky, more water, more beach. More wildness.

After I left the beach, I drove over to our old home. My route zigged and zagged around the ravines that run through the neighborhood. And then there I was, on our block, staring at a one-story, light blue rambler (it was red when we lived there) that I wouldn’t have recognized if I didn’t know the address.

There were two cars in the driveway, so I didn’t feel like I could linger and stare. But I took in the shape of the house. I knew which window had been my bedroom window in the room I shared with my sisters. I walked from room to room in my mind.

And then I drove away, back to the neighborhood I now call home, through a grueling Seattle traffic jam that no one could have imagined when I was five.  

I don’t know whether or when my Richmond Beach field trip will find its way into my writing, but I know this: for one fleeting afternoon, I remembered a bit of what it felt like to be two, or three, or four years old. I felt that sensory ecstasy, unfettered by thinking, thinking, thinking.

Maybe someday that feeling will find its way into my writing. Maybe I just need to let it wash over me for a while, like the tide washed my tired toes on an August afternoon.

Ann Hedreen’s memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, won a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award and her blog, The Restless Nest, won an honorable mention from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Ann earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Goddard College. She is currently working on a second memoir, The Observant Doubter.

Ann Hedreen’s memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, won a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award and her blog, The Restless Nestwon an honorable mention from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Ann earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at Goddard College. She is currently working on a second memoir, The Observant Doubter.

Dabbling with the divine

“…What I would say about writing stories is that while there are many, many important jobs out there in the world, I believe that writing stories is just about the most important job there is.  So if a story comes to you, I say, write it.  It's a gift that you have been given not to keep but to share.  And if you don't share it, it will disappear and find another storyteller to pester instead.  Because stories are living beings, their souls are eternal and all they want is to transcend time, space and imagination.  They want to move people and shape other souls and we must always say yes to that, even if that's a difficult task.  To write a story is to engage with mystery and dabble with the divine.”  Regina Tingle, July, 2017

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Extreme Makeover: The Big Build/ Guest post by Julie Mata

The word revision can mean a lot of different things. Maybe your manuscript just needs trimming. Maybe you need to knock down a few walls to provide better flow. Or maybe something more extreme is in order. Think big cranes and earthmovers.

When I finished my middle grade novel, Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, it was roughly 41,000 words. I was convinced it was pretty close to perfect, especially after several agents asked to see the full manuscript. That’s when reality set in. They liked it but they wanted changes. Big changes. My knee-jerk reaction was to emit a shrill Ha! and do some serious flouncing. As I stewed and simmered, a nugget of wisdom hit me. Agents know what sells. Their job is to test the strength of plot hooks, to analyze character and voice and conflict. Usually, you have to pay for that kind of professional advice. And, it was mostly good advice. So I started to revise.

One agent wished my story was “a bit longer and more complicated,” and she thought “some of the emotional situations weren't addressed well enough…” 

Yes, it’s pretty vague, but I realized she was right. My story needed more… story. I began to hunt for places where I could add conflict. Those boys who tease one of Kate’s schoolmates? They begin teasing Kate too. And her best friend doesn’t just dump her. They have a big fight in the school hallway. I also ramped up the conflict between Kate and her mother. Each new addition gave me chances to have Kate reflect, to feel sorry or sad or vindicated. As I made the story “more complicated,” my main character came more to life.

Then, I reexamined my “emotional situations.” If the plot points are the bricks of a story, then emotion is the mortar. I had a lot of bricks and not enough mortar to hold it all tightly together. I wrote new scenes and more inner dialogue. In all, I added about 13,000 words. I decided my manuscript was ready again.

I resubmitted to three agents, confident that I had done exactly what they wanted, and they would be fighting each other to represent me. Instead, each one found new reasons to decline my manuscript.  The agent who wanted more complications did give me one last suggestion. It was along the lines of, chop off your family room, move it to the other side of the house, and glue it back on. It meant substantially reworking my entire plot.  My first reaction was to emit a shrill… well, you know. I came around. Bottom line, she was right. It would improve the story. When I finished rebuilding, my manuscript had expanded to around 60,000 words.  This is considered long for contemporary MG, but I felt my novel was upper middle grade and, as such, could be a little longer.

Even though the original agents turned it down, their suggestions made it a stronger story and after a fresh round of query letters, I soon got “the call” from my wonderful agent, Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. She sold it as part of a two-book deal to Disney Hyperion. Interestingly, my editor liked the longer length. According to her, middle grade readers like longer books these days because they feel “older.”

Julie's post originally appeared on the Rate Your Story blog. http://rateyourstory.blogspot.com/2014/04/

Julie's post originally appeared on the Rate Your Story blog. http://rateyourstory.blogspot.com/2014/04/

With the help of good advice, I took a one-story house and added on a new addition, with more rooms and more levels. I flipped it, and it sold. So the next time you receive thoughtful criticism, feel free to emit a shrill “Ha!” Then, take a big step back and evaluate the feedback. Even though your manuscript is finished and you can’t stand the thought of working on it one second longer, ask yourself if the suggestions will make your story stronger. If the answer is yes, grab your construction helmet. It may mean lopping and chopping. It may mean calling in the cranes and undertaking a big build. But in the end, you’ll have a much stronger story with a bedrock foundation and, hopefully, a shiny new contract.

Watching your feet

Sometimes I look down too much when I’m walking but you do this after you’ve fallen a few times, even if your mother bought you dancing lessons from the age of six, even dancing with you sometimes, giving you your first taste of the spotlight and then stepping back and letting you be there on your own. Grace can still be slippery. I like it best when I can walk without stopping, both stepping into a rhythm and carrying myself somewhere. I look down and I look up and I like to see things, odd details, discoveries that are big and small and big, a tiny dragon on a high wall, a stone pig on a tower, a sewer grate with a fleur de lis. And while I care on some level about the facts behind each angry-faced door knocker or Roman inscription embedded in rock I prefer to hear through the silence the ideas that come, the thoughts that step through or no thoughts at all and just allow things to sit and I think about them later or maybe they show up later on their own when I need them. I step through these places and really see the smooth rock under my dusty shoes, and that memory allows me to recall the way a favorite city smells, like an old stone on which someone has put out a cigarette and then spilled a few drops of perfume. I want to take everything in. Sometimes I want to walk alone because the senses are too much. But this also allows me to find things.

One day I found a treasure and another and another. There was a church where nuns sang Ave Maria. There was a shop that invited you in with colorful scarves invoking sunshine and a carefree mind, rows of hopeful alabaster owls and hooks filled with canvas bags and a table of Mexican friendship bracelets and overstuffed racks of sundresses and tie-dyed skirts. A woman my mother’s age with gray tight curls watched me as I dug through the rack of dresses and found one I liked and held it up to my body to see if it might fit and she came out from behind the counter and flattened the dress against my body and said, “Maybe.” She directed me to the back of the store to find the place behind a red patterned curtain, in a corner with an ancient mirror, where I could try on the dress.

Looking down again to navigate the narrow path between the tables of zippered bags and stone boxes, I found a window. A window in the floor, plexiglass and yellowed, opening over a lighted stone cylinder to a buried floor beneath. Clay pot replicas sat at the bottom of the pit. The woman saw me gazing through the window and joined me. “When we bought this store, we found that buried underneath.” She said the Romans built it for storing grain, and it was two thousand years old.

Sometimes I think of the alternate me in a parallel universe, the one who paid more attention in school or didn’t marry that man or took better care of herself or learned to listen to herself much sooner. Wherever she was, she wasn't seeing this.

“It was for farrow,” the woman said. “You know farrow?” We talked about it and she showed me walls, one of them Roman and one of them medieval and the difference in the way the stones were built. She asked me where I was from and I told her. She said, “People from Italy, they live all over the world,” before she knew that someone long ago, a great great great great something had been born in Sardinia, a recent discovery, a thing that had been unearthed under my own family’s floor. “You see?” she said, before showing me the curtain and telling me to try on whatever I liked.

Turning Angst into Art: The Story Behind the Writing of Clear Out the Static In Your Attic/ Guest post by Isla McKetta

When I’m not writing I’m angsty. When I’m angsty I’m not writing. It’s not a good circle and it can be a hard one to escape. But sometimes, just sometimes, I’m able to harness all that angst and turn it into a full manuscript. I’ve actually done this three times now, this is the story of the book that’s been published, Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art.

Working in marketing can be an interesting way of getting inside the mind of an audience and honing your writing to make the most of all the triggers available to you as a writer—from the heightened sensitivity of stretching time during a momentous scene to knowing which words you can ____ out without affecting a reader’s understanding of your text. Writing for marketing can also be a soul-deadening experience of feeling like you’re pulling puppet strings rather than connecting with human beings. It gets worse when your department of four is suddenly shrunk to two but the workload is not.

When this happened to me, I had the good fortune to be working with a fellow writer. Rebecca Bridge went to Iowa for poetry which means not only did she have the writing chops, but I was also deeply intimidated by her.

So when Rebecca saw the Write Bloody book contest was looking for how-to books on writing and that she thought we could write one together, I flattered, inspired, and scared.

I was feeling down and pretty certain I had neither the luck to get accepted nor the energy to see another book through to publication.

But things at work were going from bad to worse and I needed an outlet or I was going to spend every night for the rest of my life weeping. I took Rebecca’s lifeline and we started conceptualizing the book. Most writing prompt books are simply ways to get writers’ brains started, and the format is relatively straightforward. We wanted to do something more to make the book more memorable/marketable, to give beginning writers something to hold on to, and to make the book fun for us to write. I never could get the line “static in my attic” from “Channel Z” by the B-52’s out of my head and we worked around that, thinking about all the things that might be in an attic and how those could translate to interesting exercises for writers.

We were lucky that the publisher was looking for a proposal to start because we had one month to get that in. We wrote an introduction for the book and six exercises. We also took a clue from Write Bloody’s personality and created a list of selling points in the quirkiest but savviest ways we could, from “We use our MFAs from Iowa and Goddard to write really good words that people like reading“ and “There are two of us which means we can cover more speaking engagements“ to “We stole the title of this book from the B-52s.“

It worked! The contest ended on March 31. By April 9, we had an email saying that we were among 20 finalists and they wanted the final manuscript (including at least 50 prompts) by May 15. Fifty prompts is a lot of prompts to write, especially on such a short timeline, and I’ll admit that Rebecca and I stole more than a few minutes of work time for brainstorming and writing. Rebecca is more creative than I am and I’m better at deadlines so we played off our strengths throughout this process.

We still struggled to come up with the full list and sometimes wrote things that were terribly duplicative. But we kept working on the book and found a form that worked. The prompts started to separate out into three categories that mirror the writing process: Inspiration, Carpentry, and Finishing Touches. Each prompt included a little essay about where it came from or how it related to our work, the prompt itself, an example using our own work, and a list of books that exemplify the technique at hand. The reading list was my idea. Not only did I find the annotation process extremely helpful in grad school but recommending books to people is my favorite thing.

We finished! On May 15 we looked a little like this:

 

And on June 12 we watched this video anxiously to see if we’d been accepted:

Round about 2:25 there was a big exhale! We’d done it!

There was a lot of back and forth with the publisher and polishing the book over the next year, but by April 2014 Rebecca and I had our book in our hands. That’s not to say it’s been a great commercial success, most books aren’t. But when I open the pages of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer's Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art, I still get the “I can’t believe I made this” thrill.

And success attracts success. Somewhere during the year we were editing Clear Out the Static, my thesis was accepted for publication by Éditions Checkpointed in Paris as Polska, 1994.

Lessons I’ve Learned

  • When you’re feeling awful, grab at the things that feel like opportunities, even if you don’t think you’re completely up to them.
  • Break your project into manageable chunks so you can see the next endpoint clearly. That gives you roadmap and a chance to reward yourself along the way.
  • Put yourself on a tight, but achievable, schedule. A little pressure can help you work through the hard parts.
  • Help others when you can. Whether you choose to collaborate on a project or just use each other as touchpoints on a lonely journey, a buddy is invaluable. Some of my best writing buds are the ones who manage this retreat and this blog. Although I usually do my best writing on my own, we all help each other out when we can and I’d be lost without them.
  • Project the best of yourself into the world, even when you’re feeling badly. You want a publisher or agent who wants the you you want to be, not the one who thrives on nursing you through misery.

Submit!

If you’ve turned your angst into art and that art looks like performance poetry (no writing prompt books this go-round), try submitting to this year's Write Bloody submission contest. The deadline is July 21. You can do it!

No matter what form your writing takes, write. And when life is too hard to write, do it anyway.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

Isla McKetta Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 and co-author ofClear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Goddard College and reviews books at A Geography of Reading. Isla makes her home in Seattle.

What to write when the ideas aren't flowing

Do you love the idea of a writing retreat, but feel intimidated by having to write something on the spot and share with other participants? Me too. What consistently surprises me, however, is most of the time the magic happens--even when it doesn't seem like it. During our last Tuscany retreat there was an evening when I just couldn't come up with a piece -- so instead I wrote about why I couldn't write.

***

How we find water, stand in it, how we’re drawn there, how it cleanses us both in reality and symbolically. The truth is the cumulative effects of emotion and travel and listening have caught up with me and also I stayed up too late finishing a book and so today don’t know what it is that I want to write but at least I have a lot of new dresses to wear. And even if I can’t come up with the thing I want to say I know I am being filled, that rising waters will one day spill over or break through an inexplicably built dam, hopefully in time for the start of Nanowrimo, because wouldn’t that be cool, to finish a novel in one mad rush, like standing in a river that scares you with its power. I know that water is a thing that restores us but it also can destroy, and the book that kept me awake was about this, in part, the destruction of a city, and also about the destruction of reasonability, of snowballing hubris, of the lack of sense, of stolen lives and the absence of compassion, of bold-faced lies and dead dogs. And the truth is this truth has hung in my mind today like a poisoned haze, and so has the fact that I can’t always say what I want to say when I want to say it. Thoughts and ideas spiral, a tide pool or a tidal wave pushing along small cars that are supposed to roll but instead they float. So if I’m glad to be where the earth is dry and hot salamanders skitter across baked bricks you’ll forgive me, If I like to be where the color of the sun brightens walls and trees and grass and pots of dry flowers, you’ll understand.

***

It's not a perfectly coherent piece, and it doesn't have to be. The important thing is I wrote something, allowing a stream of consciousness that drew on the experiences and emotions and present-moment awareness of what was going on -- the heat (I finally bought several new sundresses and wore them in succession throughout that day), the book (Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, about an American Muslim family's experience during Hurricane Katrina), the writing prompt (which had to do with water), the parallel thoughts about my internal struggles and the greater world external struggles, the contrast between the place I was physically and the place I was emotionally. Writing is messy, just like us, and that's okay. Come try it out with us.

Dread Has Lifted by Dulcie Witman

Thank you to the Stars.

And the Saints.

Thank you to the Brothers and the Sisters.

Thank you to Friends and Healers and Potions and Herbs and thank you to Spring and it’s promise of Summer.

To Flowers and Vegetables and Peepers and Baby Deer and The River.

Thank you to Unexpected Money and Plays about Old Women and New Visions and thank you even to Cigarettes for joining me when I asked you to but leaving when I ask you to also.

Thank you to my Partner in Life.

I didn’t know that Dread was ruling me.  I thought it was Pain.  And Loss.  And Grief and Anger.  I thought I was broken and I would not find Joy or Light until I was well again.  I thought I would not be able to write another thing, not be able to want to write another thing until I was mended.  And I did not know for sure if I would ever be mended.

But somewhere on the road from Middlebury to Topsham, Dread lifted.  

I still felt poorly.  My hip hurt and my neck hurt and my belly down where the scar is, that hurt too.  Same shit different day, I was prepared to think.  

But I didn’t think that.  

I thought about this art project I want to do where I map out a New Vision I have of what it’s like to be human, this human, at this time in my life.  And then I thought of my cabin and how I’d like to set up as an art space so I could go out there and paint and play with paper and glue.  I was glad that we’re putting an outdoor shower on the back side of it, the side that faces just trees and that we’ll have a place to plug in things if we want to.

I drove the speed limit, I stopped and saw a family friend on the way. I got home late and didn’t unpack but, instead, took a bath and went to bed.  

I slept well even though I still didn’t feel good.

And now it’s three days later and I feel a little bit better in my body but not well.  I’m writing this down and sending it out so as to make note to myself that I felt this way and thought these thoughts.  I feel better even though I am not all better.

And just in case you have ever had this kind of time in your life, just in case this is one of them, I want you to know that at least this one person who it turns out was taken up with Dread can now feel past it.

And it feels good.