Monthly Archives: March 2014

Priorities

woman trimming tree

I had every intention of writing about priorities, but I’m having issues. Priority issues. Writer, teacher, feminist and activist Grace Paley noted, “Writers write about what we don’t know about what we know.” In which case I should be able to write volumes.

My experience in graduate school was much the same. The weekly requirement to read a book and write an annotation on it trumped moving my thesis along. Now I need to see that blogging doesn’t encroach on editing and publishing that manuscript, a novel. Or the gardening memoir that has been marinating far too long.

Things are piling up around here.

But it’s all good. All writing is rewriting, and that’s what I am doing.

Quit blogging, you say? Not a chance. The first step in writing is observation. Writers walk into the world with antennae, and prompts pop up as sure as spring. Themes seem to find us. The rest is practice.

“If you write for yourself,” writes William Zinsser, “you’ll reach all the people you want in your writing.” This line could be a blogger’s maxim.

Today one of the first questions that an agent or publisher asks a writer is whether she has an audience. Well, that would be you.

We can make this happen.

The gardening memoir should be published first. I have already purchased the stationery with which I intend to reply to readers’ letters. Stored in safekeeping: dozens of orange boxes of notecards of ladies gardening, as well as designs for gentlemen, illustrated by Laura Stoddart (pictured). Hopefully one day you’ll receive one.

And so it goes, carts before horses in everything. Priorities.

Man with Flower

 

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Sign of the Whale

bulletin_summer2009-killer-whale1I have a friend with a home in the San Juan Islands that has everything one would want in an island home: simplicity of style, plenty of light, beds, beds, beds. Acreage, a deer-fenced garden, Adirondack chairs upon a porch, a lodge pole pavilion with a wood burning fireplace, sunsets over the water, trees, trees, trees. And a writing hut, for she is a writer. I have never been able to understand why my friend is not out there all the time.

Here we go again, ferrying to the San Juan Islands. This would all be good but the boating is flanked by I 5 freeway driving to and fro Seattle. That’s the part that isn’t right. Otherwise we are talking about what I consider one of the nicest cities in the country and one of the most pastoral and serene of seaside places. “The islands,” as they are locally known. A tough choice.

On our last trip out to the islands a pod of orcas was alongside us like synchronized swimmers, perhaps as many as twenty. The boat was in waters between San Juan Island and Jones Island, not where whales normally pass. In that moment our boat was the only one around, and we were the only people in the world enjoying the magnificent  sighting. A good sign, I know it is. I could feel it.

Maybe we should say we have lived in the city for a number of years, and a change could be good.

One thing is for sure: we know of no other way to find out.

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Daylight Savings: What I Did with the Hour Lost

Friday Harbor

Daylight savings happened and I have to wonder, whatever did I do with the hour lost? Where’d it go? I know where I was at the time. Driving on I 5 in relentless rain. The monotony of gray. A day as dark as night. Four lanes of cars spraying like a battalion of power boats. Hypnotic windshield wipers. Well what I did with that hour while driving was nothing less than to re-imagine my life.

We were meeting a friend for lunch that day in Blaine, Washington, where he keeps a cabin. Blaine is in Whatcom County and the northernmost town in the state of Washington. Our friend lives in an apartment in Vancouver B.C. and comes to the cabin every chance he gets. He has been doing this for years. There he has guest rooms for his children and grandchildren, a vegetable garden, and a 36’ sailboat in the marina.

Never mind that his cabin is a doublewide, it looked like the good life to me.

In the darkness of winter it is difficult for us to believe we will ever come out of it. It is almost like Whoville. You would hardly know we are here. Though our candles glow like Northern lights, we lose sight of it too and start to wonder.

For our friend in Vancouver, the biggest draw to Blaine is the sun. Between the cities of Vancouver and Seattle there exists an intricate pattern of microclimates, some of which are blessed with a hundred more days of sunshine per year. I know of pilots who have identified Ocean Shores, Washington from the air, and vowed to retire there. For us it would be in The San Juan Islands. We spend a lot of time on I 5.

In that hour lost I flipped the whole equation mentally, and re-imagined our life from the islands. It struck me as clear: turn everything around and live there. Live, love, write, and worship my new god, Ra.

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Notes on Notes

Notes-1

Last week’s blog post asked the question whether writers can be excused for note- taking while in the company of others—four people out for drinks in a cocktail lounge was the setting. Responses, of course, varied. One writer I admire admitted that it is, of course, preferable to be fully present with others and attend to the writing later.  Another writer lamented that “People don’t understand the scenes we play out in our heads or the importance of capturing that right word right now because in 10 seconds it will be gone!”

Together they straddled the dichotomy in my mind. I needed more opinions. There was no need to contact Miss Manners on the subject because I found I have had her for a friend all this time.

“Well, I think electronics are the worst kind of rude,” she said. “But the bottom line is if you are going out with friends, the idea is to be present with them. Even gazing out the window with one’s own thoughts can be rude if you are at a table for four and people are sharing their thoughts. I say stay totally available to friends when with them. If inspiration strikes, hold the thought and run to the powder room to make a few astute notes.”

Oh my.  There is no telling how many times I may have offended her over the years.

But before I had a chance to make up my own mind I was off to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Seattle, where I would have the opportunity to query more writers on the subject. Being the largest annual literary event in North America, an event Sasha Weiss describes in The New Yorker as “a giant reunion of English majors thrilled to be back at school,” it comes as no surprise which side I came down on.

First I intended to ask JC Sevcik, a born writer. JC was participating in a panel discussion “Strange Families: Domestic Stories Illuminating Social Issues” at The Sheraton, just steps from the Washington State Convention Center. Conference rooms at the Sheraton are named after trees, so slinging my bag over my back I hiked past Douglas, Aspen, Cedar, Spruce, Madronna, and Willow to find him in the Redwood Room, straightening the tables in preparation for the event.

But then I took a seat, realizing that in all the time I have spent with JC, I have never seen him take notes. Yet he never misses a thing. I think he’s just so darn bright, and younger than some of us.

I got out my notebook and pen and waited.

“We write for a myriad of reasons,” moderator-writer Liza Monroy began. “We don’t always know why we are writing or what we are writing. We write to see ourselves through.” And then I don’t know whether she said it, or whether these were my own notes, but “Taking away the notebook is (comparable to) pulling the oxygen.”

In any case, the question was answering itself.

In the final hour of the final day of the conference, I met up with a couple other writer friends. Exhausted, we sprawled on the floor and I posed my question to them. They looked at me incredulously.

“If you want me to be present in the moment, put a pen in my hand,” stated Icess Fernandez Rojas. “I am never more present than when I am writing and reflecting about a slice of life.”

“When I take out my notebook to jot down or respond to something you’ve said, that’s a compliment,” Isla McKetta added. “It means you’ve inspired me to think more deeply.”

Now I don’t know how I ever saw it any other way. We must be up front about being writers, much like photographers shoot pictures and artists sketch. Notes are what we have to mine when we sit down to write. Notes spark stories, indeed, novels.

“Life and writing need not be mutually exclusive—at least not all the time. Almost everything you do, and every place you go, can lead to a story idea or a poem,” states Midge Raymond in her book Everyday Writing. “What matters is that you think like a writer—which in turn makes it impossible not to write…. And carrying a notebook is also a great reminder that no matter where you are, you are a writer.”

I knew all this of course, but for some reason I had to circle back and rally around it.

“Take a ridiculous amount of notes.” Midge Raymond continues. And I will do just that.

Riding home, some of the boys on the bus with me have ear buds connected to music the entire trip, and all day long for all I know. I never meet them, but I know it’s music they love. It’s all good. It’s all art. And no one is hurting anybody.

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