These Boots were made for Writing?

26943464_1870425129635209_1410684589_nAbout this time last year, my friend Cami Ostman and I were tucked up four days near Naples, Florida. We’ve been friends since we were about 18, and writing buddies about ten years.

When I sold my writing cabin in Tennessee, we lamented that our usual retreat couldn’t happen, holed up with pre-made casseroles and wine, knocking out our latest narratives and reading them to each other to smooth the rough edges. Cami and I both find that drafting a book’s bones is best done in an intense huddle of anti-social time hoarding. To everything there is a season, and when writing time gets smooshed between all the other pulls of normal life, it gravitates toward the back burner. Better to start the year with a dedicated blast, upping the stakes to keep going.

Cami wondered it it were a plot for a horror novel when I sent her this message: “I’m sure there’s some nice person out there who’s read one of your books or mine, who’s got a she-shed or a rental property we could borrow for a week. Lemme ask.” But the response from Cynthia Piwowarczyk and her husband Jim sounded like heaven. She was a voice-over actor, he director of a non-profit. Two spare bedrooms, a pool in the backyard, a few blocks from a running trail around a lake, and don’t bring any wine or snacks because her husband’s job meant he had about a hundred gift basket items left over from Christmas, and they didn’t drink.

Cami messaged me: either this is set-up for the scariest movie ever, or we just hit the jackpot. Indeed we had. The worst moment of that time with the sweetest, smartest couple in the world was trying to spell their last name on the thank-you card.

We followed our usual pattern: three days of intense writing, emerging evenings to socialize (read: drink wine) and chat with the couple. And then a day of gleeful reward: Cynthia took us to the beach for the morning, and arranged to meet us in the afternoon for girl time. We got frozen ice juices, we ate crepes, we went shopping.

Cynthia and I shared a penchant for thrift stores, so left Cami in a cafe with her laptop to careen through a few big places, chatting and impulse buying and talking each other into and out of silly things.

Mindful that I’d flown with hand luggage, when I first saw the boots, I passed. But Cynthia had a good eye. The second time she saw me glancing back, she asked, “What? Those plaid waders?”

My guilty secret came out: I’d always wanted a pair of decorative gum boots, Scottie dogs or polka dots or some such. Cyndi studied the red and yellow lines of the pattern. “I don’t think it gets any more decorative than this, dear.”

So I flew home from Florida with second-hand knee-high rubber boots stuffed into my bag, dirty knickers stuffed into the boots. Security waved me through after one disgusted look. The officer changed her gloves.

And for a year, those boots sat in the back of my closet, because winter was mild and summer was dry in Southwest Virginia. They survived several closet purges and a Maria Kondo phase, because they brought me joy. Even if I never wore them, now I had a pair of cool hipster knee-highs.

Fast forward to the invitation to be writer in residence in Fayette, West Virginia from January-March of this year. As David, a long-time friend said, “You want to go where, WHEN?!”

I arrived when the weather had reached -4 just from temperature, windchill dropping it another few degrees. People were warned about freezing times of exposed flesh. No one was driving–except Amy and Shawn, owners of the flat that sponsored the residency. They took me on a scenic tour of the New River Gorge in their jeep. Nobody out there but us and one lone runner we encountered at the bottom. He stared at us like we were crazy.

And for the next three weeks, any time I stepped outside the apartment, I needed the boots. At last. I packed them more as a memento of the previous year’s week of glorious productivity, but also they were the only weather-proof shoes I owned. I tend to be a minimalist footwear girl.

So I guess these boots are now a connective theme. Next year, if I get the residency I’ve applied for in Yellowknife (yes, in the cold part of Canada) they’ll get use again. Meanwhile, they’ll sit in the back of my closet, a reminder that, to everything there is a season.

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Trial and Punishment – and Life

 

Jack’s Wednesday guest post is bitter sweet – –

Regular readers will probably know that I visit once a month with inmates in the local Federal Penitentiary (what a strange word!). I started doing this four years ago as part of the Prison Visitation and Support organization (PVS).

When I started I inherited two inmates from my predecessor and continued to visit with them, as is PVS policy, until they were moved to a different facility, as is the Department of Prisons policy to discourage close relationships between prisoners.

One of my guys was Bryan (not his real name) who was originally from Oklahoma (except he wasn’t). I visited with him for three and a half years and we got on well and always had lots to talk about. He was in for life – a real life sentence with no parole. Like anyone in that situation he needed some hope and for him that was continual pursuit of a successful appeal against his sentence. Our monthly conversations always ended up with his latest attempts to conduct convoluted conversations with folk ‘outside’ about his latest appeal.

Out of curiosity I googled his name and easily found details of two previous unsuccessful appeals. I was horrified to learn the details of his case. He had been the ringleader of a drug gang that had gotten into an argument with another one and folk had been murdered in various particularly gruesome ways. He never denied that folk had been killed but always talked of how corrupt the courts and the state justice system was, and how he’d been ‘framed’.

Notwithstanding all this I still found him to be a straightforward and easy guy to talk with. He was part Native American who helped organize a sweat lodge in the penitentiary and went to great lengths to stay away from any trouble.

Just about six months ago I went to my regular visit with him and he was much more depressed than I’d ever seen him and assumed he’d had a ‘knock back’ on his latest appeal attempt. But it wasn’t that. He had been having some problems with his throat that affected his voice and it had been determined that he should go for tests and diagnoses to see if he had cancer.

A month later we met again and he was euphoric – he had just gotten back the day before from hospital where he had had the tests and shortly after had been given word that he was clear – just an infection!

Then I had a visit here at the bookstore from the local Native American who oversaw the sweat lodge at the penitentiary. He knew that I visited with Bryan and wanted me to know that the diagnosis was premature. He had been given wrong information and the tests had actually confirmed that he did have throat cancer and it was beyond effective treatment.

By the time I went back he had been moved to a prison hospital and I never saw him again, but there’s a website where you can track the whereabouts of any inmate in the system and I checked on Bryan regularly just to make sure he was still in the facility.

Yesterday I did that and read this – deceased 01/10/2018

I don’t understand why I should feel so sad about Bryan’s death when I have lost quite a few close friends and family over the last couple of years. Folk who lived pretty blameless lives and certainly were never responsible for killing anyone. I know Bryan had done wrong, that he wouldn’t be considered “deserving,” but perhaps everyone deserves someone to mourn them, or just someone to talk to, even though they cause others to mourn. There are many reasons why I visit for PVS, but the main one is because even the worst humans are still human after all.

Maybe there’s a kind of justice in the way Bryan was given real hope and then had it torn away, but I miss him and wish he was still battering away at yet another appeal. RIP.

 

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Angelic’s MONDAY BOOK

THE STORY OF ARTHUR TRULUV By Elizabeth Berg

Angelic Salyer Veasman is this week’s book blogger. Thanks, Angelic!

truluvI attended the reading and signing of Berg’s latest release in early December 2017.  Kind of a Christmas present to myself. I purchased my book, took my line number and found a seat. I started reading the book immediately, while waiting for the event to start, but it was a week or two before I could get back to it again. I finished the book just after the New Year and thoroughly enjoyed it.  The author stated, of all of the books she’d written, this was her new favorite.  While it isn’t MY favorite of hers (that would be The Year of Pleasures), I wasn’t in the least disappointed. But, I’ve not read all of her books yet.

The Story of Arthur Truluv is several intersecting tales of loss and love, heartbreak and healing, family and friendship, aging and coming of age and the legacies we leave behind – intentional or not. While the main characters are Arthur, Maddy and Lucille, Berg’s ability to create deep, meaningful supporting characters is again wielded with her signature grace.  As with so many of her books and the lives she creates within them; you fall in love, learn to dislike, shake your head at, laugh with and care for these people.  They are easy to relate to; in some characteristic way or another they are your neighbor, your grandfather, that one teacher you had in junior high. Speaking of junior high, Maddy is in high school and I commend Berg for broaching the subject of bullying to her audience with a spare honesty that is still moving for the reader, without being imposing or cumbersome.

It’s a quick read – it wasn’t so much an I-can’t-put-it-down-kind-of-book – the story just moved forward, beautifully and effortlessly. The prose was ethereal at times, especially when it came to Arthur, who has a way of sharing his thoughts and feelings that is often poetic, floating through time and memories and  always a gentlemanly host.

Nestled within the pages of this little tome is a bit of advice or what could be considered an admonishment or even a challenge for some.  I plan to take it to heart.  I hope you do too.

Then Lucille says, “It’s so embarrassing to be useless.”

            “Why, you’re not useless!” Arthur says.

            “Yes I am.”

            “You’re just going through a hard time!”

            “Yes, I am, but also I am useless. I do nothing. I realized this was happening some time ago, everything falling off, but I made do. I had church. I read books, and the paper. I had my garden. And then . . . lights off! All the lights are off now. And I really don’t want to live anymore, Arthur. What is left for me now?  I am useless.  And so are you!”

            Arthur straightens in his chair, indignant. “I’m not useless!”

            Arthur rocks for a while. Lucille’s chair has gone still, but Arthur rocks for a while.

            “Let me ask you something,” he says, finally.

            “What.”

            “Did you ever hear anyone say they wanted to be a writer?”

            “Yes, I’ve heard lots of people say that.”

            “Everybody wants to be a writer” Arthur says.

            “Seems like.”

            He stops his rocking to look over at her. “But what we need are readers. Right? Where would writers be without readers?  Who are they going to write for? And actors, what are they without an audience? Actors, painters, dancers, comedians, even just ordinary people doing ordinary things, what are they without an audience of some sort?

            “See, that’s what I do.  I am the audience. I am the witness. I am the great appreciator, that’s what I do and that’s all I want to do. I worked for a lot of years. I did a lot of things for a lot of years. Now, well, here I am in the rocking chair, and I don’t mind it Lucille, I don’t feel useless.  I feel lucky.”

Angelic lives in Southern Missouri with her husband and their two cats and posts sporadically on her blog.

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The Train that I Ride – –

Jack is jumping in here so Wendy can write something else –

I had the great pleasure of visiting with Wendy up in Fayetteville WV a few days ago and found it to be a charming place, about the same size as Big Stone Gap. The biggest difference was the group of writers and artists I met who are re-inventing the place and promoting it as a welcoming haven for such folk (but that’s for another blog post).

On Thursday we drove out into the surrounding area and explored out of the way places. We stumbled on the most amazing thing. We had heard there was an old abandoned coal-town that you could wander round called Thurmond. My goodness!

We traveled along a narrow winding road and came to what might have been the place, but there wasn’t much to see. So we carried on just out of curiosity to see where we’d end up. A few miles further on we came to a scary narrow bridge and essayed across gingerly and found ourselves at an abandoned railroad station with a sign saying Thurmond. The depot had been restored as a visitor center by the National Park Service and there was a street of empty impressive looking buildings. The buildings had big posters mounted inside explaining their history and that of the town.

thurmond 3

As we wandered round we stumbled across a very modern Amtrack signboard and discovered to our amazement that the station was on the main line from New York to Chicago and a train stopped once a day in each direction.

thurmond 4

It turned out that the nearby New River Gorge area is a big tourist destination in Summer, so we suppose that people come there by train then, although how they get any further can only be on foot as I doubt there’s any bus or taxi service.

 

That said, it is a destination worth getting to, especially for outdoorsy types into hiking, biking, and kayaking. Wendy and I can watch people like that for hours.

While we were there, a train came through, hauling empty coal cars. The L&M may not stop there anymore, but at least in the summer, people do.

 

 

 

thurmond 5

thurmond 1

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How to Make Writing Time

Making Writing Time

So many people have said to me since starting this writing residency, “What discipline! How do you do that?” Well, for one, this is my full-time job right now. A lot of people have inconvenienced themselves to give me these three months: my board at work, saying “Go and we’ll give you a three month leave of absence; the cat rescue team saying “Go, we got this!” and my husband saying “Of course I can run the bookstore by myself; where do we keep the bleach wipes?” Amy and Shawn have opened their lovely apartment (AND endowed me with bathtub privileges!) It’s not to be taken lightly.

But say you’re not tucked up in a cozy flat with your fingerless gloves and your month-long supply of sparkling water typing away. Say you have a day job and kids and responsibilities… how do you make writing time?

Here are some tips—with a caveat. You’re the one who knows your personality. Tweak, test, reject what doesn’t work and embrace what does.

  • Whether writing is your hobby or not doesn’t matter. Don’t call it a hobby. Make time for it because you need to, not because it’s “fun.” Your need is justification.
  • Some people can write in the little empty spaces between stuff they have to do; others need a good clear run. When I’m drafting, I need three days or so to get some outlines down and start chugging, or it’s no good. But I have a friend who drafted the book on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 6-8 pm over the course of a month. Whichever one you are, find the recurring time in your week, or block out a three-day weekend, and WRITE IN YOUR CALENDAR THAT YOU ARE BUSY. This is not “if I can” time. This is “nobody else gets in” time. Drafting is harder for most people than editing. Most people find editing easier to do in the between spaces. It is also easier to use the between spaces once we prove we need them because we have a first draft. Whichever kind of writer you are, block it off in your calendar and lock yourself away.
  • Where to write is harder for women with children than anyone else. You have to get out of the house. If you like white noise, go find a diner that will let you buy one cup of coffee. I drafted my second book in a Chinese buffet restaurant by going in after 2 and staying to 5, nursing a diet coke. The waitresses were sweeter than anything, and I stayed away from their rush times. A friend wrote her novel at Starbuck’s. JK Rowling wrote her first draft in an Edinburgh tea shop, one pot at a time, her little daughter sleeping by her side in a stroller. Get out of the house if you are a mom, OR if you work from a home office. Don’t try to use your office/living room/kitchen table to write unless you can guarantee its privacy and lack of distractions.
  • If you can’t get out of the house, but are a night owl or morning person, here’s an alternative: after the kids are in bed or before they get up, stay in your pjs and go in your (hopefully empty) spare room or to the kitchen table. But be in your pjs, seriously. It keeps you from doing other “needed” things with your time; psychology or something. Do not get dressed until you’re done writing. Set a time, get up early, stay up late, cut a deal with your spouse or oldest child.
  • Set a word count. I require 5,000 words per day when writing is all I have to do, minimum. That’s not a lot. I also type very quickly (background in journalism) and usually have ideas in my head before I sit down. Some people are planners, others discoverers. Whichever kind of writer you are, set a realistic word minimum for each time you have blocked out in your calendar. If you don’t know what would be realistic, take an hour, sit down, and write as you would like to write. Then count your words and add half again. (If you wrote 800 words in an hour, your average speed will be 1200 when you’re up to speed.) Starting is harder than going on. You will get faster, so add half to get a realistic speed.
  • DO NOT EDIT TO EXCESS. Draft your essay, novel, memoir, speech. Draft it, THEN go back and edit it. Worried you changed the main suspect’s hometown half-way through? Leave it for now. As Nora Roberts says, “You can fix anything but a blank page.”
  • Do not show your first draft to anyone. You may be tempted to show people parts of all of it as you go. You’ll think ‘if I wait until he gets back to me, it will go much faster with his feedback.’ IT’S A TRAP. NO. Part of the reward of finishing is to get to share. But also, first drafts are not for public viewing. They’re for finishing so you can build your story in this shaky foundation. It’s fine that it’s shaky.
  • Don’t let word count drive your words. The point is to be in front of the keyboard (or writing on your legal pad, whichever kind of drafter you are). You have to make space for it, and then it happens. No one stands in front of a stove saying, “Dinner, dinner. Sometime.” They make time to make it. Same with writing. Put fingers to keys and let the movie in your head unfold.
  • You are not allowed to give up on an idea that has less than 10,000 words in it. You know who you are: you start a novel, decide it would be better to work on a memoir, no crime fiction is where it’s at, you’ve always fancied writing a Western… Finish one of them. Even if it’s to get it out of the way so you can start the next, you may not stop one project mid-paragraph to begin another. Because I said so, if your inner gremlins ask why. Tell them I said you weren’t allowed.
  • Do not get up to get a drink. Seriously. Like the pajamas, this is psychology. If you don’t take it with you to the keyboard, you’re not allowed to fetch one until you’ve written at least an hour. Again, refer any gremlins threatening to die of thirst to me. Got your back on this one.
  • This goes doubly for straightening pictures, closing the blinds so the furniture won’t fade, taking care of that online bill, or anything else that doesn’t involve an immediate need to go to the hospital. It will wait. This is writing time.
  • Turn off the Internet. Disable it on your computer with that wireless button nobody uses any more. Or close it down. Anything you have to do. Do not go into a private room with a set time limit and open the Web. If you hit a research point in your story, write XX, highlight it in yellow or turn the XXs red, and keep writing. You can find it later. NO INTERNET during the initial writing phase.
  • Set rewards. Carrots work better than sticks; “don’t have tos” can be both! Enlist family members. “If I make 3,000 words by Friday, my husband is taking me to dinner.” “If I get to 10,000 words by my mother’s birthday, she says I don’t have to help her clean the garage this Spring.” Rewards can be simple and cheap: when I get 4K I can call my best friend, do my favorite craft activity, garden. Whatever truly is a reward to you. Don’t use “have tos” for rewards. Use “want tos” or “escape froms.” And you will find, as you write, that writing becomes more and more its own reward. Like any activity, it becomes more fun as it gets easier.

That’s it. Those are the the ways you get a draft done. Any questions?

 

Wendy Welch is writer in residence at Lafayette Flats in Fayetteville, WV. She is the author of THE LITTLE BOOKSTORE OF BIG STONE GAP, PUBLIC HEALTH IN APPALACHIA, and FALL OR FLY: THE STRANGELY HOPEFUL STORY OF FOSTER CARE AND ADOPTION IN APPALACHIA.

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Liz Weir’s Monday Book

So y’all know that I’m holed up in West Virginia in a gorgeous luxury flat, typing away at a new book. As I won’t be getting much else done these three months, friends and fellow writers have stepped in to cover the Monday book through March. Liz Weir is the first – a longtime friend and magnificent storyteller. Take it away, Liz!

I wonder what American readers will make of this book, gifted to me by my daughter for Christmas?

lost wordsA sumptuously illustrated, coffee-table sized book, which contains magic within its pages. Inspired by the decision of the Oxford Junior Dictionary to remove 50 ”nature” words from its pages to replace them with words such as “broadband” and “attachment” . It has been recognised that there is a connection between the decline in natural play and children’s wellbeing so for me this is a partial antidote.

In this book Robert MacFarlane decided to explore words from the wild and with illustrator Jackie Morris they have produced a beautifully crafted book which helps young and old alike reconnect with wild experiences. The illustrations in watercolour and goldleaf do perfect justice to the text. It should be pored over rather than read cover to cover at one sitting, containing as it does acrostic “spell” poems intended to be read out loud, stunning images and a richness of language often lost to many of us.

Words like “acorn”, “bramble”, “kingfisher” “heather”, words which roll off the tongue, and yet which can so easily be forgotten. Often we talk and write about conservation but unless we retain the words to describe the beauties of the natural world they can disappear from our conversation.

Apart from the delight of simply exploring its pages I intend to use the book to work with young people during creative writing sessions. While I generally try to encourage them to find the very “best” words when writing poems, Lost Words will provide an added stimulus.

Visually, it is a lovely book, and while the librarian in me might ask where folks will shelve this large tome, I urge people to acquire a copy for the sheer delight of exploring it. The author encourages readers to “seek, find and speak”. Please do!

As one who is very reticent about letting other people choose my books I realise that my daughter knows me very well. What better gift for a storyteller and lover of language, or in my opinion for anyone?

Liz Weir is a storyteller from the Antrim Glens in Northern Ireland. Visit her website.

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What You Wish For – – –

Jack is off the hook this week as Chelsie Dubay takes on the guest post –

I decided when I was eight years old that I was going to be a chemist. I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas that year. I hung a massive copy of the periodic table of elements on the back of my bedroom door, right next to the posters I’d ripped out of the latest Tiger Beat magazine. After about a week of trying to sift through that chemistry set I realized that sodium bi-whatever-it-was did not inspire me like I thought it would. So, I boxed up the test tubes, experiment manual, and mortar and pestle and stuffed it in the back of my closet along with all of the other hobbies I’d abandoned over the years. Then, in high school, I accepted my fate and resolved that I was destined to be a mathematician. I really don’t know why I felt so certain about that career path but I knew how to solve for X and use a graphing calculator so I accepted that math would then be my destiny.

I’m notorious for that – building unfounded dreams in the sky and then letting them sink down to the ground.

It’s taken me almost thirty-five years to discover my passion. I can remember the first day I realized what it was that I truly loved. I was an undergraduate student at UVa-Wise. College was the first time I’d ever really been around people who weren’t from my tiny town in Lee County, Virginia. We were given a writing prompt in one of my classes. We were told to write about something that we had experienced during our first few days as college students. Most people wrote about how terrible the cafeteria food was or how far away student parking was from the dorms and classroom buildings. I wrote about how surprised and fascinated I was with how students from other parts of Virginia didn’t talk like I talked and how different our worldviews were. Needless to say, my essay was a bit heavier than some of the other submissions the instructor received in class.

From that day forward I charged myself with being an advocate for the region I called home. I was flooded with emotions – mostly regret. I had taken years of amazing memories, stories, and people for granted. I wanted to rewind time so that I could go back and appreciate the days I spent at my Mamaw and Papaw’s old general store in Hubbard Springs. Instead of complaining about Mamaw and Papaw not having MTV, I should have been relishing in all of the things that made my childhood and this area great. I needed to bottle the quirky way my Mamaw refers to herself in the third person, “Lord, Chels. Don’t look at Mamaw. Mamaw’s been weedeatin’.” I wanted to record the way my Papaw, with an eighth grade education, worked out complex math problems aloud, ending each solution with, “why, hell, Chels. At’s simple math!”

I can’t go back so I choose to go forward and to be thankful for the opportunity to reflect on those memories and relive those moments I’m afforded through the cannon that is Appalachian literature.

This semester I have the distinct pleasure and honor of teaching my all-time favorite class, Appalachian Literature, for the local community college, Mountain Empire Community College. The chain of events that landed me here is as poetic as the literature my students will enjoy over the course of the semester. Together, we’ll laugh and we’ll cry but most of all, we’ll reflect. I hope to expose each of my students to the beauty of the things they, like me, may have ignored or underappreciated. My hope is that, at the end of the semester, each student will walk away inspired to go out and capture the beauty that surrounds them – through oral history collection, through participant-observation, but most of all, through just being present in the things that make this area, these people, and this body of literature great.

Won’t you join us?

This course will be a great way to expose yourself to works of and about our region, as well as to build a solid foundation in some of the significant historical movements that have impacted and continue to impact this body of work.

During this course we will read works (both fiction and non-fiction) set in or about the Appalachian region. The works will range from ballads to novels and hit almost everything in between.

This course is not exhaustive; it’s a sampling. Also sprinkled throughout the 15 weeks we’ll talk a little about history, culture, religion, and the land itself. This course is discussion heavy, which means that your participation in the discussion board, contributing to our conversation, is crucial for the course’s success.

In addition to weekly discussions, the class will require 2 major projects and 2 short essays. Remember, too, that senior residents of Virginia may be eligible to audit the class for free!

Apply here: http://www.mecc.edu/step1/

Questions? Contact Chelsie Dubay, cdubay@mecc.edu

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