Full Circle

During my childhood, visits to the Portsmouth Public Library were one of the many walking vacations Momma took us on when she had a day off work.  She’d walk us to Tower ppl flyer2Mall, not to buy anything, but to maybe share a couple of cones from Chick-Fil-A, to the 7-11 where we five would share a Slurpee while walking London Boulevard, and to the waterfront, where we’d wave at ships, play on the balance beams, and hang from the gymnastic rings while Mary showed off her gymnast moves. I loved those walking, non-vacations, but my very favorite was the Portsmouth Public Library.

Even though library visits required us to be as quiet as possible, which is always problematic for rambunctious children, I relished our time there.  The woody scent of books, wall to wall, from floor to ceiling met me at the door. I’d open one book at a time, thumb the pages, flick them so fast air rushed toward my face. At eight, I did not search for pictures; I searched for words, enough to sustain until we could vacation to the library again.

Judy Blume’s Blubber, Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Series, Stephen King’s The Bachman Books, I chronicled the years of my life, not by birthday parties and gifts, but by books–the amount I could read in a year and the amount I hoped to one day write.  That library led me out of my world into a room with doors, so many doors I couldn’t fathom opening them all, but the ones I did open, those doors led to other worlds. And those worlds led me right where I am today.

February 20th I’ll be reading a book that I wrote, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, in that same library and the thought is daunting.  I fear I will be overtaken by emotion, remembering the world I was running from when my legs were shorter and my destination unclear.

I am so thankful to the Portsmouth Public Library and to all libraries across this world for the way that they serve their communities.  I imagine thousands of children walking into their libraries on their mothers’ days off, hoping they’ll find books with words enough to help their lives make sense.  I am grateful to my mother for placing the love of words in me with those too infrequent visits and I am hoping, despite our tablets, our amazon carts,  and our big box bookstores that those buildings, with books wall to wall, floor to ceiling, with no cost but that of time, that they will endure, as they continue to inspire the next generation of writers.Screenshot 2016-01-31 09.19.06

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Its Own Season

Hard to believe it’s been almost a year since I posted my last blog.  So much has happened in that time; a life-altering trip to the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico,  promotion to full professor, the release of Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, brain surgery (OMG), sick kiddos, some familial hurting and healing, a devastating loss (Christy Bailey) and some amazing friends found and forever cherished. While many of the difficulties my family and I faced would normally have deemed 2015 a year I’d be rushing to exit, I found myself wanting to sit with those memories, with the lessons, in hopes of using  them to usher me in a prosperous, joyful 2016.  As always, when I yearn to understand,  I return to that which gives me peace, that which allows me to clear my mind–my bike and the Pine Creek Trail.IMG_4019

Ironically, I’ve also been off of the trail for almost a year. After the brain aneurysm diagnosis, I spent much of the summer, supine, on the couch, rising only to take my blood pressure and heart rate, for fear that the slightest bit of exertion might cause the vessel bulging in my brain to burst. Even after surgery, I feared the narrow cylinder in my brain, pressed against titanium coils, might clog or worse slip, sending shards of titanium careening toward my heart and lungs. But something happened just days after the start of winter. I don’t know if it was the unseasonable weather outside of my home or the unseasonable weather inside of me, but I was called to the trail and the call was so pressing, so loud, I could not say “no.”

During the winter months, my bike is normally retired, resting among my husband’s tools and projects, waiting to resurface in the spring, but even that couldn’t stop me. I loaded my bike in the trunk of my SUV, seats down, barely able to fit the handlebars and wheels into what was meant to carry luggage and groceries, but I prevailed. I made my way to the trail, not certain I’d be brave enough to go it alone. But I did that too.   I staIMG_4012rted my ride to what had always been familiar, to what had always felt right under the sun, the crunching road, bordered by flowers, green leaves, and darting wildlife.  My new ride grew dark as a fog settled over the road in front of me. The temperature hovered at about thirty-five degrees and my glasses, something else I gained in 2015, kept fogging, so I could barely see, but I didn’t need to see. I could feel that the riding was right. I culd hear the crackling under my tires and I knew I was going in the direction I needed to be traveling.

Once the fog from my glasses cleared and I could really see the trail unfolding in front of me. I realized the space wasn’t more ominous because it was darker.  In fact, beyond the haze, beyond the darkness, without the green of the leaves, I could see more houses, more animals, an abandoned trailer, and waterways I had never seen before. I didn’t feel pressed to maintain my speed or hit the landmarks I normally hit in record time. I just took my time, taking in this new landscape, welcoming things I was now discovering on a road I thought I knew so well. The way the water cascaded over the rocks, slower, leaving a layer of ice. The way the green grass was a gorgeous rust-colored collusion of turf that could no longer be called grass. Occupying that space during a time I had never before visited had given me new eyes and the beauty I’d thought had died during the winter months was not dIMG_4018 2ead, but had given way to a different life, a different beauty, one I would not have witnessed if I only ventured there on sunny, warm days.

I believe that same discovery of beauty has occurred in me. Less than three months ago, I was faced with the real and present truth that my life was completely out of my control, that one wrong move by my doctor, that one miscalculation could mean the difference between returning home with my family or never going home again.  That reminder of my mortality, I believed, had caused something to die in me.  But I’m not afraid anymore, not checking my blood pressure nor counting the beats of my heart and that’s probably because I no longer feel I am solely responsible for keeping this body safe. I am now looking for discoveries that can be found in the months of darkness. I am watching the way things that used to matter don’t even prompt a second thought. While the belief that I could make this body do what I wanted (Trust me, I tried to will that aneurysm away.) has died in me, something else has come alive, an appreciation of the surrender and an appreciation of what has grown in my soul now that I have looked beyond the green grass, the flowers, and the darting wildlife of my every day. Now that the pressure has lessened I just want to live, every moment present, ready to discover the ever-evolving beauty surrounding this life.

Gettin’ It Right

Up early combing through these first page proofs and I’m glad I didn’t take the fast/easy way out. Finding before-hidden errors that could have been embarrassing. Thanks Diane Lefer and Kelly Cherry for your excellent advice. I had wanted to rush through, using my trusty editing program, and be done with it.  But Kelly and Diane encouraged me to read every word, every time the opportunity to do so presented itself. The thing with reading the manuscript over and over again is I become a blubbering mess each time. I know there’s this distance that is supposed to come as you get deeper and deeper into the revision process, but that hasn’t come for me.

Some days I can just push through unscathed, but there are days I’m that little girl again, confused, angry, and unsure that there is a way out. Friday, I could barely make it to Chico’s arms before the tears shook me defenseless.  All I could say, over and oScreenshot 2015-01-18 10.04.19ver again, was this is so sad.  It’s so very sad that children have to live like this. Up until that day, my tears had never been for myself. They were for the child I was writing about and writing to.  But on that day, I realized it was me, that I don’t often allow myself to cry for that little girl in me. And it was sad.  It is still sad, even sadder when I look at my baby girl, knowing how used over and tired I was by the time I was her age, fourteen. And the sadness becomes all encompassing when I imagine today’s fourteen-year-olds, feeling like men and women, acting like men and women because circumstances won’t allow them to be children.

So, I’ve acknowledged the tears are part of the process, even this late in the revision process, and my family knows this, so they force me to take breaks throughout the day.  Chico even went shopping for towels and sheets with me at Kohls :-).  That man loves me!

And I want to get this right.  I don’t want any distracting errors pulling the reader from the narrative, giving the allusion my story and the stories of children like me aren’t worth getting right.  So, I’ll keep reading and crying every opportunity I can.  We should all be crying because no matter where we are in our lives, no matter how happy, loved, and sheltered our babies are, there are still children in this world suffering, in real-time, atrocities we get to write about in our leisure, ones we get to visit when we choose, ones we get to close the book on when it gets too tough.  That fact alone warrants the tears.  That fact alone means we should never stop crying, trying, and working to get it right.

A page a day . . .

Just returned from a blissful New Year’s celebration with my VA family and I am full. Full, because I stepped out on faith, did something new, and reaped the benefits of that newness. Save for the two New Years I spent at Vermont College of Fine Arts, the Cannady family has always spent New Years in the quiet of our home, wrapped in what we believed to be the safety of our spaces, ushering in the new year with prayers, hugs, and promises we intended to collect. This new year’s day was different, still met with the hugs, the prayers, and the promises, but also dance, a little sipping, the shortest and tightest dress I’ve worn in years, the music of my extended family’s cheers, the music of some not-so-danceable (but we danced anyway) tunes, and the realization that the idea of safety does not have to reside in one space. It can reside in places filled with hearts that love so much and so hard, nothing untoward can reach in.

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I promised I would be updating this blog throughout my revision and writing journey, but 2014 held days, weeks, and months of crippling writing, rewriting, and revision. It held moments of fright, when the words on the page became nights’ terrors and days’ intrusions. It held the constant reminder that memoir writing is a beast, never tamed, but one we struggle to walk alongside, all cautiousness and bravery in one body.

With the inundation of one national and global travesty after another, 2014 held me as an untethered, bouncing between moments of balance and complete abandon, as the PTSD of it all squeezed breath, voice out of me. So, I definitely needed a change. Despite the fears of bad weather, bad driving (Anyone who has driven through I-495 and I-95 during a holiday week knows exactly what I’m talking about), and newness, the Cannadys hit the road and loved every bit of it, especially the beach with its salty scent and constant rumble, that which always reminded me as a girl, I could be movement, fluid, penetrable, and whole at the same time. I needed that reminder for this coming year, as some of my innermost thoughts are introduced to the world in the form of memoir.10277524_1007668605913569_4142725939073684636_n

With this new “newness” and uncertainty, I return to the old that carried me through one of the most difficult times. Alongside my talented, intelligent, and devilishly handsome Dereck, I’m returning to the process that got me through writing, revising, and defending a five-chapter dissertation in five months, while teaching an overload along with two online classes, and being mommy and wife to the Cannady Clan; I’m returning to my “one-a-day”pill that always kept my anxiety away. Dereck and I have committed to writing at least one page a day or for him, one poem a day for the entire year. We’re allowing ourselves to write crap, to write masterpieces, to write at the brink of dawn or during the last seconds of the day, but we will write, together, even though miles separate us.

That “one-a-day” concept is what had me, against earlier fears, opening the new year with my loves, wearing a dress I won’t ever wear in the state of PA, and dropping it like it was hot so many times, I’m certain I left parts of “it” on the dance floor. It found me embracing the new, holding tightly to the old, fluid, one day, one page at a time.

What’s Going On?

It has been a while since I’ve been able to post here.  I spent the summer revising and re-revising my memoir, and that left little time for anything else.  30,000 words later, I’m free from my first literary baby, but my new literary kiddo, the one about my military experience, has garnered interest from an agent, so I had to immediately get back to crafting.  No complaints here. I am enjoying this work

So many things I want to write about, I feel overwhelmed. I’d like to give tips on writing and the publishing process as I promised last year, but that all feels weak and pedestrian right now.  The protests in Ferguson have my heart heavy, troubled, and I find it difficult to rest when I know there is turmoil occurring in the country I love so much. I’ve seen the racist comments inundating twitter, the ignorance spewing from all corners of facebook, and the news reports demonizing both, Darren Wilson and Mike Brown.  All of these things have taken me back to a time I’ve often wanted to forget.  What do we do with this anger, these feelings of helplessness? I have no answers.

 As I gave my oldest a hug before sending him back to college, I felt that helplessness, that innate fear, I know every parent feels when they send a child out into the world, praying they come back intact.  I’d imagine Brown’s mother felt that as she prepared to send her child to college and I’d imagine Darren Wilson’s parents felt that as they sent their child out into the world as an officer.  There is sadness in all corners of this tragedy.  

I’ve struggled this last week, trying not to let the prejudices of others create prejudices in me, but it is so difficult. Every time I see someone heralding the death of Leslie McSpadden’s child a “win,” it gets harder and harder to find that bit of me that sees the best in others.  As I stated, I have no answers, but I am praying we can find our way back to a better America than we had before.  If we can remember Mike Brown is someone’s child and Darren Wilson is someone’s child, then maybe we can remember both of them are human. 

Mike Brown’s death triggered something in me. Knowing his blood leaked on that hard street for hours, like he was roadkill, has stayed with me. I remembered being a little girl, watching many bodies grow cold as my eyes burned in my head.  At that time, I thought, “They don’t care anything about us.  We don’t exist to them.” I believed this of the white cops that walked over the bodies as they searched the scene and the black shooters, who left pieces of themselves when they took the life of someone who looked, acted, and wanted to live just like they did.   I spent decades undoing those beliefs of invisibility, until I saw Mike Brown, dying alone, no one caring enough to cover him with a sheet. 

I am clinging to the part of me that believes there is still hope and the whole world will one day see that brown bodies matter as much as white bodies.  I refuse to go back to being that little girl, more angry than afraid.  I refuse to believe we can’t come out of this a better America with policy changes that protect all of our citizens. I have to believe this, or I fear I will suffocate under the anger that “unbelief” yields. 

Panic Attacks

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Now that I’ve sent my manuscript to my lovely editor, I’ve had more time to myself. While I originally thought I’d spend that extra time working on my new memoir, getting ahead with grading, and getting some much needed rest, I’m sad to say most of the first month was spent agonizing over what happens next. What it my editor hates all my changes and realizes the press made a mistake in offering me a contract? What if the book comes out and people hate it? What if it comes out and I hate it? Worst, what if it does well and gifts I imagined would come with publishing a good book reveal themselves to be childish, unrealistic fantasies? What then?

I spent a good part of the last month, beating myself mercilessly, bashing myself for things I didn’t do. Why hadn’t I finished this book earlier? Why hadn’t I quit my job years ago, secluded myself in a writing room, and dealt with this writing thing as a serious writer, dedicating every waking moment to my craft, so I could already be past this point? Even worse, why wasn’t I as brilliant, as talented, as skillful and as fast as writers like Jesmyn Ward, James McBride, Diane Lefer, Remica Bingham, Cheryl Strayed, Sue William Silverman, Tim Seibles, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Laurie Albert, Elizabeth Gilbert, and the list goes on. By the time I was done beating myself, I was pissed, ready to beat all those amazing writers who’d come before me, those who’d done it right, quickly (in my mind), and who were already past the point of anxiety I was experiencing.

The other night, I woke at three o’clock in the morning. That is  the hour I’m quiet enough to hear the Lord’s voice. Seems He’d seen some thoughts manifest in me and I was in serious need of a talking to, one that couldn’t wait until the morning. I stared through the darkest part of night, nestled under my husband’s warmth, and listened.

I’d grown too big for my britches, He said. I’d lost sight of what was most important. I’d allowed competition, envy, and fear to sully an experience that should have been one of excitement, humility, joy, and love. I had coveted my neighbors’ writings, and assumed what they’d written, in the way they’d written was something I should have been able to do when they did it, even though I knew not from where their writing bloomed. Those wonderful writers I coveted had done me a favor, they had worn the path that I would soon walk and I was not grateful. I wanted to own their journeys, so  I could bypass my own. I was reminded this writing thing is not a competition, no race I could win or lose, just the showing up, everyday, either on the page or in my mind, reliving and releasing the story within. When my time comes, I will be ready, not because the writing work was done, but because the spiritual work will be done.

The next morning I rose with a renewed spirit, thankful for all those amazing writers who wrote and walked before me. From Chaucer (one of my favorites) to Karen Lynch, who just published her first book, I was grateful to know those writers had trudged through the first book anxiety and lived through the fear.

So often, I’ve worked my arse off for a goal, putting everything into realizing a dream, only to sabotage myself, stealing my own joy by letting the fears of the after drown the thrill of the now. I did this during my academic career. From B.A to Ph.D., the process was something to get through, not something to savor. I did it during my MFA at Vermont College as well.  I did this during my pregnancies. (That I don’t apologize for because those things were painful.) I did this in my marriage, trying to race to perfection, rather than tasting the sweet only a first, second, third all the way to the sixteenth year of marriage brings.

I’ve been rushing, to where I do not know, but I’ve been getting there so fast I have continued rushing. That night, I got permission to rest, to be satisfied in the not knowing, to be thrilled by the anxiety, the fear, the “what-might-be.” I will not let this “in-between-time” be a blemish as I have in the past. It is a necessary part of the process. There are things I need to work on before the world meets my baby and I am going to enjoy doing it.

Above is a picture I was pitching as the cover of my book. For many reasons, it probably won’t be, but it was fun playing around with the format, getting an acceptable (for me) font, remembering I will one day have a cover for my first book. I see my beige face in the middle, in tears, looking off to the side as everyone else looks at the camera and I wonder what I see, I wonder why I am crying, I wonder if that little girl had already started the race I have been running against myself. I don’t want to run anymore. My knees hurt and all of the beauty along the way has become a blur. I choose to be like this picture, frozen in this beautiful moment, with the five people I loved first and hardest. There are tears there, but I am certain that little girl knew how she was feeling, and she stood there, surrounded by love, feeling it despite the tears.  I am learning peace feels more like peace after having trugded through a bit of pain and I will slow down long enough to feel every bit of it.

Anybody else experience this joy drowning  anxiety? Would love to hear how you made it through!

Second Chances

If only I could go back and fix all things I’ve done wrong in life. . . If I could see those signs sooner, avert those sometimes awkward, sometimes painful, and oftentimes life-altering occurrences before they embedded themselves in my psychological DNA, life would be. 

You fill in the blank. I’ve often heard this phrase and repeated it myself. If only there was the going back, the reliving in order to right life’s wrongs, life would be . . . different/better/lived. But there is no going back, no reliving, just the continued journey, slower than it was before, because you are older, wiser, and better able, hopefully, to identify crevices that don’t just inconvenience, but open to a new dark, stifling existence.

This week, I had the unpleasant opportunity to revisit one of my past crevices by way of another and I found it as dark and as stifling as it had been in my youth. The same abusive spirt resided, with a different culprit, in a different time and different space. Still, that darkness, that suffocation wrapped itself around me, welcoming me home, even though this new crevice did not belong to me. But for a moment . . . it did.

In the midst of the darkness, I realized having made it out, I am a light and I possess an “eye” that cannot unsee, and I, nor the owner of the crevice, had to get comfortable in this new existence. Because of the light emanating from our pasts, we could lead each other out.

There is no reliving, no do-overs, but there are second chances, maybe not in the life you are living, but in the lives of those you encounter. Reflecting back on my own crevice, remembering how I fell and remained there–embarrassed, ashamed, afraid–those memories paralyzed me for a moment, but when I assessed the situation and realized I was still in tact, there was pride, joy, celebration in knowing my past fall could lead to someone else’s “getting up and staying up.” That person’s near fall and immediate rise definitely led to my “getting up and staying up.” It served as a reminder of who I truly am and not what I was in the past and not what others say I am today.

People often want to remind you of who you were, of the missteps you’ve made in your past, but they are shortsighted. They do not understand those slips, those falls, have a purpose beyond what they see. Your second chance may be another’s first and since you are moving slower, and are older and wiser, you can now see clearly what was missed before. Having trudged through this week with feelings of disbelief, anger, and then celebration, I am grateful to be open, to possess that “eye” which allows me to truly see, not what is in front of me, but the way in which the past, present, and future, speak to one another, the way life travels across space and time in order to correct itself.

Just remember, “They’ve go so much things to say right now,” but they don’t know you. You are still learning you and those lessons hold second, third, infinity chances for us all. So, “let them keep talking, ’cause none of them walking.” You keep walking because you know what they do not, “When the rain falls, it don’t fall on one man’s housetop.” The same can be said of the sun, the light; that is the true lesson.

My Anemone

 

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If you’ve spent any amount of time with me, you know how much I love my fish tank.  I started the hobby soon after my family was targeted by people so unhappy with themselves, they hid behind fake email accounts and anonymous letters spewing racial and, oftentimes, hate-filled barbs about the atrocities they’d suffered at the hands of blacks.  Since I was available and black, they wanted me to kindly shoulder the blame for all of the wrongs they had experienced in the world.  

If you know me, you know I could not and would not comply with their requests.  I, rather eloquently, replied to each of their messages, with a compassionate, but stern tongue, letting them know their healing was not in hurting me, just as mine was not in hurting them and my husband and I were promptly taking their messages, ip addresses, and arses down to the FBI office, and they would be charged with harassment and a hate crime, at the least, if they made any more threats.  Since I’m  VA (by birth) and PA (by choice), I also added, I am not their typical “libtard professor” as they labeled me, and, in fact, I am an Army veteran, 2nd-amendment-loving, get-all-up-in-your arse woman, so “If you come, you better be ready.”

Thankfully, the messages ceased and they were replaced with newfound relationships of love and reciprocity, things I work so hard to foster in my everyday life. Still, that was a difficult time that led to my tank and my fish. I started with a 34-gallon freshwater tank I purchased through Craigslist.  I loved my fish so much, I wanted them to be happy and being happy meant more room.  So, I purchased a 55-gallon tank.  Then, I needed more fish because that’s what you do in the hobby, so I got another 55-gallon tank.  Then, I decided my fish babies needed even more room and I found a great deal on a 150-gallon tank.  I never got rid of the other tanks. Much to my hubby’s dismay, my home had become an aquarium.  But I still wasn’t satisfied.  I wanted to get to the mecca of fish keeping.  I yearned to get back to my VA roots, where you taste salt before you see the ocean, where sand in toes, hair, and swimsuits is something to bathe in, not wash off. I wanted to go home, which meant going saltwater.  

After a bit of begging, pouting, and loving, my dear husband agreed to convert the 150-gallon tank to saltwater.  But, he’d only do that if I rehomed the other tanks. So, I did and now I have my new baby, my peace, my stress-reliever. (It’s no stress for me mainly because hubby does the majority of the maintenance.  Ironically, he says that is his stress reliever.) I spend many hours after work watching the corals opening and closing, the fish grazing, and the crabs and shrimp picking at the rocks, eating the leftovers, the dead, and sometimes the living.  What a beautiful and chaotic world it is, but my favorite part of the tank has to be my carpet anemone and her relationship (Yes, I say it’s a “she.”) with my Clarkii Clownfish.  Image

 

If you’ve seen Finding Nemo, you know anemones and Clownfish have a uniquely beautiful, reciprocal relationship, one that scientists still don’t fully understand. It’s enlightening to see the fish wrapped inside the anemone like a Clownfish taco, snuggling against her mouth, frozen in ecstasy.  The thing is, only certain anemones can host certain Clownfish. If the wrong Clownfish attempts to host the wrong anemone, it can mean certain death or certain pain which will lead to certain death. I’ve lost a few fish to Carpet, but she never hurts, never stings the two Clarkiis that have become her home and she theirs.  I often watch them, cleaning her, protecting her, and when hubby feeds the corals, snatching whole pieces of shrimp out of their mouths, just to feed her.  I know then love can exist anywhere.  

And when she wraps herself around them at night, knowing full well opening her mouth or tightening her grip would mean a meal, would mean a delicacy, and still, she doesn’t, I am in awe of her.  She just cradles them, and they rest in her, as she rests around them.  Then, I am most grateful for the Lord, my own anemone and I pray those people that wrote those hateful messages, and all of the pained in the world, I pray they have or can find an anemone to be grateful for as well.  

I imagine the people that wrote those hateful letters were afraid, hurting, and they decided they would wrap themselves in that fear and anger, in hopes it would offer some much-needed relief.  I don’t condone what they did, but I do understand. I know wrapping myself in pain and anger has, at times, made me feel safe, even though I was not. That is why I choose to wrap myself in God and in people able to wrap themselves around me, people able to allow me to wrap myself around them, people willing to clean me when I am dirty and willing to be cleaned as well, people who live reciprocity, even though certain death is imminent and there is always the risk of being stung.  Still, they love anyway. They rest anyway.  They cradle anyway, knowing that compassion, that loving, that reciprocity is the only way we will all thrive and survive.   

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#MyWritingProcess Blog Tour

I felt honored to have been asked by the amazing Diane Lefer to be a part of the #MyWritingProcess blog tour.  This blog tour connects authors all over the globe.  The intent is to share blogs and the writing life with others. For me, it unifies writers.  I know I’ve been inspired and motivated by the blogs I’ve read thus far.  

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If you’ve met Diane, you know she’s a brilliant, passionate, and generous person, who inspires and delights with her work.  If you don’t know her work, check her out at http://dianelefer.wordpress.com/. Diane is one of the few who has read my forthcoming memoir, Have a Little Piece of Me, from beginning to end.  She has been instrumental in my development as a writer.  I heard her constant, “You can do it,” and “Your story is important,” during difficult writing days. Be sure to check out her books, Fiery Alphabet, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, and The Blessing Next to the Wound

 Now for the questions:

What are you working on?

I’m working on several things as we speak.  I’m beginning a new memoir about my stint in the Army. This memoir is focused on my process of maneuvering through military hardships, while coming to terms with hardships I faced throughout my childhood.                    Image

I’m also working on revising a few of the essays I originally wrote for Have a Little Piece of Me.  Since they now don’t work in the larger piece, I’m trying to find them homes in journals. My most pressing project is completing my initial revisions for Have a Little Piece of Me, so I can get them to my editor before my March 30 deadline.  Much of the hardest work has taken place off the page.  Having to revisit past traumas and immerse myself in the pain and happiness associated with those experiences has proven to be a difficult task.  It is also empowering!  I’m one tough chick! I’ve been working to remember that in all  I do. 

 How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think my work differs from others in the genre of creative nonfiction because I’m not a celebrity.  If you go to iBooks or the Kindle store, you’ll see most memoirs are written by people in the media or people who have gone viral because they said or did something so controversial the powers that be decided they should write a book.  (Think Brandi Glanville, LaLa Anthony, and Robert Gates.)  Reality stars and politicians (That might be redundant.) seem to have a monopoly on memoirs right now.  Those are the ones we hear people talking about.  That had really been a source of confusion for me.  On the one hand, I wanted to get my book out there, but I didn’t want to put myself out there in a way that was disingenuous.  I hoped my experiences and my writing would be “celebrity” enough for me to  get a chance. There are some amazing memoirs out there now that do just that.  I adore The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and I’m really enjoying The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.  I think my work is different from theirs because of the grit.  The essays in Have a Little Piece of Me are not pretty and some are akin to a car wreck, where you know ugliness is there, but you can’t look away. (Yes!  That’s cliche, but this is a first draft.)  Some of the content in my work will be difficult to digest, but it is my life and I’m hoping my grit can show readers how to free themselves from theirs.

 Why do you write what you do? 

 I write what I write in order to get it out of me.  I write in order to make sense of the tragedies that have occurred in my life.  I write in order to give past trauma’s purpose.  If my words help someone find his/her way, then those negative spirits function as a tool of enlightenment and not as a tool of horror.  I write what I do because my experiences demand it.  Once that’s done, I’ll be writing something else.Image

How does your writing process work?

My writing process isn’t really a process.  I try to write every day, but with teaching and a family, I sometimes fail.  I try to write in the same place, but there are times the words rush and I’m writing on my hands, on envelopes, and on my phone.  I do have a few tools I must have in order to write.  I can’t live without Scrivener.  This program is every writer’s dream. Scrivener helps organize chapters, thoughts, and projects seamlessly. It works across platforms and helps organize drafts from beginning (notecards on a corkboard) to end (eBook version of manuscript).  Here’s a snapshot of my current project in Scrivener. Big difference from Word!  In Scrivener, I can move full chapters and see two different drafts of my work at the same time. They have so many helpful youtube videos and you can compile your project into a Word or eBook file if you desire.  When I first started getting serious about my manuscript, I converted it into an eBook and read it on my iPad.  That was the motivation I needed.  It helped me believe people would one day be purchasing my book and reading it on their iPads and Kindles if I kept up the work.  Sometimes, that push is more than enough.

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If I have to write longhand, and I often do in order to work through problems with the manuscript, I must have a Pilot ink pen.  There’s something about the way that the pin slides across the page.  I often close my eyes and write, allowing the words to leave me without being seen.  I’ve worked through several problematic sections doing that.  

If I’m doing some serious writing, not just line editing, but immersing myself in my experiences, I generally do that in my basement office my hubby built for me.  It has two desks, my comfy chair, all of the books I love, and my fish tank.  When I’m in there, I’m cut off from the rest of the world.  I can watch my fish and they soothe me. They remind me I’m in a safe place and I just have to keep writing, keep working, (channeling Dorey here) and I will eventually get where I need to be.  Sometimes, I go there just to be quiet.  The quiet, I believe, is as much of my writing process as the writing itself. Image

I often listen to music while I write.  Marvin Gaye’s Here My Dear is haunting.  Whenever I listen to him, the words flow.  I also love Lauryn Hill’s MTV Unplugged.  There’s so much wisdom in that CD.  It teaches me to write without concern for reception.  When I need to get hype, I put on Lecrae or Dereck Minor.  Such inspirational gospel rap and they go hard on those lyrics!  They make me want to go hard on my writing.  Here’s a link to a free copy of Lecrae’s Church Clothes 2: http://www.datpiff.com/Lecrae-Church-Clothes-2-mixtape.544619.html. Download and enjoy!

When I’m writing a difficult scene, I make sure to have my husband, Chico, close by.  He gives the best hugs and he constantly reminds me I don’t have to fight anymore.  This is necessary, especially when I’m immersing myself in parts of my history. Image

When I write, I don’t wait for the inspiration to strike. I try daily to latch onto my experiences and wrestle them onto the page.  Sometimes they win and I leave with nothing, but sometimes I win . . . and (shameless plug) I’m hoping you’ll see that winning when you read my new book, published by Etruscan Press, forthcoming Fall 2015 :0)!

Below are the folk who will now be embarking on this #MyWritingProcess blog tour journey.  Can’t wait to see what wonderful words they’ll be blessing you all with! 

Suzanne Farrell Smith’s essays, memoir, and stories have been widely published in literary and academic journals, including the Kenyon Review, the Writer’s Chronicle, Post Road, PANK, the Monarch Review, and the English Record. She has been teaching for fifteen years, most recently as a college writing instructor. Teaching allows her to remain a student of writing for life. Suzanne lives with her husband and son at the foot of the United Nations in Midtown Manhattan.

That’s Suzanne’s formal bio, but I have to add she’s such a generous, gentle, beautiful spirit, who can really get her dance on!  I met Suzanne at Vermont College of Fine Arts and she, alongside Mayumi Poe (Isn’t that the coolest name?) and Tony Luebbermann planned our graduation party.  With so much work to be done before graduation, she and her comrades selflessly gave their time and ensured our VCFA graduation was one to remember for the ages.  I’m still doing the Cupid Shuffle now because of her!  She’s also a dang good writer!  Check out her words!  I know you’ll agree.

Suzanne blogs at: suzannefarrellsmith.wordpress.com 

Patrice Gaines has written two books about her journey—the autobiographical Laughing In The Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color— A Journey from Prison to Power; and the self-help Moments of Grace—Meeting the Challenge to Change. She has been a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show and was featured on a segment of NBC Dateline.

Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Essence, the New York Times Magazine and BlackAmericaweb.com. She has been a commentator on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Blues and Notes.”  She is a freelance writer, teacher, coach to new writers and a motivational speaker. She tells her story at colleges, conferences, prisons and drug rehabilitation programs around the country. She is a “justice reform activist,” who encourages discussions on forgiveness in her lectures and coaxes people to redefine “justice.” Her goal is to drastically change the U.S. judicial system and prison industry

She is also devoted to empowering women, especially those who have been incarcerated. To that end, she and longtime friend Gaile Dry-Burton co-founded The Brown Angel Center in Charlotte, N.C. They currently run a monthly workshop for women at the Charlotte Mecklenburg County Jail but plan to create other programs aimed at assisting these women to become mentally, spiritually and financially healthy.

 Now for the informal bio!  Patrice is fire . . . She knows how to get those good words out of writers.  I met her at the Hurston-Wright Writers Retreat held at Howard University.  She challenged me, encouraged me, and later mentored me as I worked on Have a Little Piece of Me.  Without her knowledge and strong, but gentle guidance, I would not be the writer I am today.  Plus, she’s an amazing writer. She goes for the gut.  Check her out here: http://www.patricegaines.com/blog/. I trust you’ll see what I see.

Jennifer Haugen Koski is the next women with words. Jennifer Koski writes a weekly newspaper column, “Jen’s World” for the Rochester, Minn. Post-Bulletin—where her goal is to, always, write the raw truth, whether that’s about love, loss, parenting, failings, successes, or the amount of dog hair accumulating in her foyer. She’s also the associate editor of Rochester Magazine, where she writes a monthly column called “My First Time,” for which she’s experienced countless adventures (windsurfing! back-up singing! aerial yoga!) all in the name of journalism. As time permits, she continues to work on her essay collection (titled “Somebody I Used to Know”) and teach memoir-writing classes. She lives in Rochester, Minn. with her funny husband, two handsome sons, sweet dog, and a cat who comes into the house to sleep during the day.

Jennifer’s writing is song.  I met her my first semester at VCFA and I still remember that beautiful essay she wrote about her grandfather.  She’s been a supportive reader and writer since we first met at VCFA!  How many people do you know who will critique an entire story for you and not demand that you critique one of theirs?  That’s Jennifer, giving herself to the art for the love of it!  

And so it goes . . .

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Initial meeting with editors and director.            

Hello loves!  I promised I would blog about my publishing experience, so here’s the first installment.  I’ll try to post updates as often as possible.   I had the pleasure of meeting my publisher this weekend over lunch.  I felt so special listening to them tell me how excited they were to work with me.  Many of the elements of my book I considered missteps were, for them, what made the book genuine, what gave the book structure, and what allowed them to hear my voice.   Anyone who has heard me complain about the difficulties of finishing my book knows finding my voice was something I often struggled with.  To hear them say they heard me and I sound like Laurie, not like any other writer, but Laurie, justified all of those late nights and early mornings, all of those eight-hour treks to VCFA,  all of those packets going out the day they were due, all of those anguished phone calls and yahoo messages with my writing homies (Christy, Corrine, Betty, Mark, and Anthony, I’m talking about you :-)) and my reading homies (Jae, Trisha, and Jennifer, you know what I’m talking about :-)) trying see if they could hear my voice better than I could.   Hearing a publisher essentially say you gave it and we got it, I believe, is what every writer strives for.  We just want to be gotten!  This whole experience has been surreal.  From the acceptance phone call to the wonderful reception I’ve received from Etruscan, I am so humbled, so hopeful, and so very nervous.  I’ve been reciting the following Lao Tzu quote in order to calm my nerves: “If you are depressed you are living in the past.  If you are anxious you are living in the future.  If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Reciting those words centers me and allows me to enjoy what is proving to be an exciting journey. As I sat at the table with three of the nicest people I’ve ever met, three people who love literature so much they’ve given much of themselves to it, I felt honored to be joining their family.  I was present and I felt peace.

When I allowed myself to think that this could actually happen, I prayed I would find a publisher that would “get” me.  I used to say, “If they’re just willing to work with me a little, I will not let them down. I will be the James Brown of memoir.”    I kept thinking, my publisher is out there, waiting for me, just as I am waiting for them.  I listed the things  I wanted them to be involved in, like community service, and the things  I hoped they’d be able to teach me about publishing, about marketing, about writing.  Etruscan is all that I imagined and more. They are the publisher  I was meant to have.  I say all of this to say many of us writerly types hope to land that big publishing contract with the large advance and a New York address, but most of us forget that we also need to find a publisher that believes in us and our stories. We need a publisher willing to nurture us as we are all still so vulnerable in this writing and publishing thing. Publishers are so selective that we forget we need to be selective ourselves.  We need a publisher that “gets us” and one that we “get.” We don’t just need any publisher; we need the publisher intended to help nurture us through this process.  As I sat at lunch with those funny, generous, dedicated folk, I realized they weren’t just investing in my book, they were investing in me, and they wanted to “get” that woman behind the little girl on the page.  

Every rejection from a journal, magazine, publisher, or agent hurts.  Those rejections can make a beautiful day the worst day.  With each rejection I received, I offered a “thank you” to  God and the Universe.  I was thankful on that day I hadn’t been placed with the wrong publisher.  If they didn’t see what I knew was in my manuscript, then that was a clear indication they were not the publisher I needed to be working with.  That thinking was not a slight against the publishers or agents that said “no,” but it was a confirmation that every “yes” is not really a “yes.”  Sometimes, the wrong “yes” is standing in the way of what is truly for you.  A “no” can be the clearing of things, a cleaning of house that helps you see and helps you prepare for the “yes” originally intended for you.   This is true of writing and life.

As promised, I’m going to give you all a tip or two that might help you as you work to publish your manuscripts.  These are some tips I wish I had known while drafting my manuscript.  I hope they help as you all continue to push forward to your intended “yes!”   My tip for today is page breaks.  I never knew I needed to add page breaks between all of my chapters.  What a chore going back and putting those buggers in.  So, page break those chapters people!  You’ll be happy you did once your publisher asks for your formatted manuscript.  

Love to you all in each of your endeavors!  

ImageEtruscan Executive Director signing my contract.

Finding peace and healing on Pine Creek Trail