Tag Archives: Susan J. Tweit

Writing: A Typical Day at WISC

One of the reasons writers crave time away to write is that so much of our daily lives isn’t actually spent writing. We all have family, friends, community work, administration (answering inquiries about writing assignments, talks, workshops; publicity, paying the bills, reminding people to pay us, accounting, etc), and so on.

If you asked the average fulltime writer how much time they actually had to put pen to paper or hands on keyboard, the answer is likely considerably less than 8 hours a day (except in the days or weeks immediately preceding a big deadline, when we panic and make those words fly!).

Two hours of actual hands-on, uninterrupted time is a figure I hear. I’ve been writing a long time, so I have more practice in focusing and ignoring interruptions than many writers, which means on a good day I might get in three or four hours. But that’s a lot.

So when we have the opportunity to leave our daily routine behind and just focus on our writing, we’re ecstatic. Or terrified, because then we have to actually produce something. Or both ecstatic and terrified.

Which I think describes how I feel having a whole month here in Santa Fe at the Women’s International Study Center, with few responsibilities besides writing. I’ve gone through the whole gamut from over-the-top excited to what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here? And that was just the first day…

So what’s a typical day of my writing fellowship like?

Pretty ordinary. I get up at my usual time, around six a.m.. (Which is easier now that we’re past daylight savings time and those very dark mornings!)

An especially lovely dawn

I take a moment to appreciate the dawn out my windows, and then I do half an hour of yoga (which reminds me to be in my body while I write, not just in my mind), and my morning gratitudes, which include a salute to the four directions, plus earth, sky, and self, in place wherever I am; plus sending out love and good wishes to friends, family, and my far-flung community, human and moreso.

After yoga I write in my journal for half an hour or so, and then I bathe, dress, and eat my simple hot breakfast cereal of organic whole oats and other grains, plus organic dried fruits, and cinnamon for sweetness and blood pressure/ blood sugar control. I read the news online over breakfast (although some days I wonder why I even want to know), and then head back to work.

Breakfast (earthenware bowl by Jim Kempes–see below)

I do my best to focus and write until early afternoon, usually about one-thirty or two. Usually that means I write for a while, then have to stop to think, pace around, check my email, resist the obsessive urge to read the news, and then sit back down at the keyboard again.

When the stream of words dwindles to a trickle and nothing I try restarts it, I break for a late lunch, answer more messages, and then go back to the writing to see if there’s anything else I can say. If not, I need to move, so I head out for a walk.

Sometimes I have an errand (like walking to the grocery store for food!), but mostly I just ramble at random, letting the writing rest in my subconscious while I look at interesting walls, gates, gardens, sculptures, plants, and other sights, and listen to bird calls or ravens croaking, people talking in different languages, traffic whizzing past, cathedral bells… I smell tortillas frying or chiles or spicy piñon smoke.

Eye-catching details in a woodbine (Parthenocissus vitacea) vine with blue berries and red stems

When I get tired, I come “home” to this quiet casita on a dirt side street and read a book from my stack, or check the news or answer emails… I usually eat my simple dinner early and then read until bedtime, do a bit of yoga and am asleep by ten.

Yesterday I played hooky all afternoon and drove out to the Chama River Valley (Georgia O’Keeffe country) near Abiquiu with my agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli. Our mission was to visit Lesley Poling-Kempes and Jim Kempes, she a fine writer (and another of Liz’s clients) and he a ceramic artist. (Lesley and Jim stayed with me last month in Salida and brought me one of Jim’s wonderful ceramic vessels.)

Jim’s large sculptural ceramic forms issue from the desert along the dirt road leading their house; I could have spent all day finding and sitting with them. (And I so wished Richard could have been there to delight in them and talk art with Jim.)

See it?

As it was, we had just time to admire the beautiful adobe house they built with their own hands (building the studio first, as is proper for any artist, and then the house), and then we followed Lesley to the house of a member of her writing workshop. We had tea with Peggy and another poet and workshop member, Ginger, and talked writing and women’s history and elections, and life.

And then, all too soon, the sun set to the south of Pedernal Mesa, and it was time to head home to Santa Fe, tired but full from the time with friends and art and beautiful landscapes.

Sunset from Peggy’s house

Today was an ordinary day, which meant I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, a joy in itself.

Thank you to my Santa Fe friends for understanding my need to write, and also making sure I get out of my cave from time to time, and to Laurel and Jordan of the Women’s International Study Center for the blessing of this time. It is rare and precious, and I am using it well!

Thank you, Peggy Thompson, for the gorgeous hand-knitted wool scarf as well…

For more from Susan J. Tweit, visit her blog.

Exploring Creativity: Musings Journal

When I took Sherrie York’s field journal workshop at Rocky Mountain Land Library‘s Buffalo Peaks campus in August, I came home inspired and vowed to make sketching a part of my creative routine. “I’ll do a few sketches every week,” I told myself.

And… I didn’t. Of course I have good excuses: writing and workshop deadlines got crazy. In September, I was on the road most of the month, driving almost 5,000 miles in just over three weeks. And so on.

Still, I could have made the time and I didn’t. Clearly, I needed a nudge.

So when my neighbor, Lisa DeYoung of Mountain Mermaid Studios, mentioned the other day that she had finished the new edition of her Musings Journal, I bought one on the spot.

Today I took time to play with it. (Lisa offers two versions of this hand-designed tool for creative play: a daily one dated with the months of the the year, and an undated one. I bought the latter so I wouldn’t feel guilty about missing a few weeks now and again.)

Pages in the undated journal, just waiting for me to fill those rectangles with something…

I took my journal and my trusty mechanical pencil out to the front steps to think about where to start. A comma butterfly fluttered in and landed on the rabbitbrush near me and began to feed. It sipped nectar from one flower cluster, crawled to the next, and sipped more.

I picked up my pencil and began a simple gesture drawing, sketching the general form with quick shapes, and then beginning to fill in the details. The comma was so cooperative that I had gotten the ragged outline of the wings and had begun on the somewhat complicated wing pattern when I looked up and…

The butterfly was gone.

Since the rabbitbrush hadn’t flown away, I sketched one of the small, compound flowers, and then took my journal inside. I dug out my favorite colored pencils and added color.

Derwent “inktense” colored pencils, which I love for the tin they come in as well as their great feel and handling.

I even colored in the shapes Lisa had drawn as a playful border for the page, and thought wryly as I did that my kindergarten report card probably said something like, “Very enthusiastic, but cannot stay in the lines.”

Which is quite true about my approach to life as well: show me a line or a wall or a boundary of any kind, and I’ll be the one quietly figuring out how to stray beyond it.

When I finished coloring, I made some notes (ever the scientist, observing and recording those observations), and looked at my first “creative play” page. My butterfly sketch isn’t finished–the comma flew away mid-pattern–but it pleased me, which is important.

The butterfly was actually perched upside down as it fed, so I drew it that way…

I learned something about myself in the doing. I’m not a doodler; doodles are abstractions, and I’ve never been particularly good at the abstract, whether in philosophy or art. I’m rooted in what I can touch, smell, taste; what I can measure and observe, describe and record. (There’s that scientist again!)

Nor am I am artist. I have friends who are wonderfully talented at interpreting life through visual and sculptural forms, who practice art in their daily life. My late love was one such.

I’m an observer of details, one who notices the everyday marvels around me, one who wonders constantly about how it all works: how all of the beings involved in creating this animate world fit together, the why and who and how and where of life. I’m happy practicing sketching as a way to notice and record, to witness life going about its business.

This moment, this now.

This comma butterfly who flitted before I could puzzle out the pattern on those dusky orange wings.

For now, I’m just happy to be able to translate a moment onto a journal page as a way to focus, to learn, and to express my gratitude in being alive on this glorious autumn day.

Thank you Lisa for the nudge, Sherrie for reminding me that I do love to sketch, and comma butterfly for fluttering into my day…


For more from Susan J. Tweit, visit her blog.

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]
1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold.
origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what?

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day.

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained.

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.


Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane,
at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary.

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown.

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago—the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday—and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now).

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilarating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books.

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe.

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom.

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Richard and me–in shadows–at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together

 

Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but… But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn’t quite right for them.

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all.

Simple, no?

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive “ears” tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I “heard” them, like a click in my mind that said, “Stop here. This needs work.”

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well.

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that’s 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while.

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds “season.”

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I’d be done with the revision–she’s eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read–I said blithely, “I’ll have it back to you by July 15th.”

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could “hear” passages that felt like they weren’t necessary.

What isn’t necessary to a story like this? That’s hard to define: it’s both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers’ engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts.

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice.

There’s no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what’s not working.

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages.

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier.

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread.

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart

 

I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit “send”–only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. “We expect service to be restored again tomorrow,” the chirpy support person said. Great.

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did.

That’s the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard’s birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir.

So here’s to you, my sweetheart–Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I’ve learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn’t let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person.

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died

 

((This post was originally published on Susan J. Tweit’s blog.)

Making Time to Write

After an exhausting week away, a week that involved shepherding my Mom through her graceful death at home and getting my Dad set up to continue life on his own, I had counted on getting back to my writing the first work day home.

A petal from Mom's favorite amaryllis

Writing is my way of nurturing myself. When I can get quiet and focus on finding the pattern in words and sentences and narratives, I can also hear what my own inner voice has to say. So by “listening to” my writing, I am listening to myself.

Writing gives me the time and space to hear what’s going on inside me, to sort through and process the events, emotions, experiences, and concerns of my days. Right now, there’s a whole lot of unsorted stuff inside me, and that means my mental and emotional balance isn’t so good.

That first work day home, Richard, who held up well through a grueling week of helping with Mom’s hospice care, only to succumb to a sinus infection and serious brain fog after Mom died, was still sick, needing a lot of extra tending. He was slow, confused some of the time, and his short-term memory was definitely impaired. To be honest, his condition reminded me of the first few weeks after his last brain surgery, and I was pretty worried.

He seemed better that morning, so when I headed to my office for what I hoped would be a morning’s work on my current writing project, I felt good. Then Richard kept interrupting me, and I finally lost my patience and temper. (My hair may be going silver, but I still have a redhead’s fire.) We ended up spending several hours sorting things out.

We also decided Richard needed to talk to the Nurse Practitioner in neurosurgery at the VA Hospital in Denver. She suggested that his brain was likely suffering from the swelling of a sinus infection, made worse by the previous week’s stress. (Whew! I had envisioned the worst, as you can imagine.)

But there went the day. No writing, except for this blog post.

Sunrise over Salida

That, however, was enough to gift me with two critical realizations: First, I’ve been in caregiver mode for a long time now; it’s not easy to switch back to caring for me. Second, I know what I need to do to take care of me. Write.

It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Just make time to write… (Like “Just say no!”–not so easy at all.)

Some days go well; some days just don’t. That’s life. What I have to remember is that if I don’t get to writing one day, I can write the next.

What gets in the way of your writing time? What do you need to do to make time to write?

Taking the Round-About Route to the Proper Destination

A few weeks back, my snail-mail box yielded a treat, a review copy of Susan Leigh Tomlinson's new book, How to Keep A Naturalist's Notebook. I dipped into the book immediately, and here's part of what I said in my review for Story Circle Book Reviews:

This thoughtful and elegantly written guide shows you to how to dip beneath the surface of the natural world through keeping an illustrated field journal. We journal about our lives, why not journal about the other species around us as well? Observing and noting nature is a way of getting to know that wider, wilder community, and through it, deepening our understanding of our own species. It's a way of honoring the living world….

Notebookcover
I knew after reading the book that I wanted to talk with Tomlinson about her work. So I emailed her, and she agreed to an interview. The full Q & A is on Story Circle Book Reviews, but here's an excerpt that touches on questions near and dear to all who write about our life-choices. 

Tweit: Your writing in How to Keep a Naturalist's Notebook seems like that of someone who grew up in kinship with nature. You have an undergraduate degree in fine art, and two graduate degrees in geology. Why the switch? Or do you see art and science as integrated?

Tomlinson: This is a difficult question to address–not because I think science and art aren't integrated, because, in fact, I do. Rather, it is a more troubling and complicated answer, and says something, I think, about society and our perception of the arts versus science. Also, this is a bit confessional, and so that makes it harder to share….

Early on, my parents recognized something in my drawings and enrolled me in in art classes at the local museum, even though that must have really stretched their very strained budget. I enjoyed it–immensely–but I also enjoyed being outside a lot, too. I would walk around in the surrounding desert, exploring arroyos, picking up interesting rocks… and somewhere out there, I decided I was going to be a scientist. Art was just something I did because it was fun and it came naturally to me, but it wasn't something I ever took seriously as a career.

I had this idea, see, that scientists were more respected for their brains than artists–they were taken more "seriously"–and that was important to me. I've always struggled in school, mostly because I am an inveterate daydreamer, even today. A teacher would be explaining how to do this or that with math and my mind would start to wander…and the next thing I'd know, we'd be having a quiz about it. So while my siblings were always excelling at school, I was dragging home the dicey report card. I got it in my head that I wasn't very smart.

Around the same time, there was a wonderful television program on in New Mexico, and it focused on science for kids. … It was, I guess, a local version of "Mr. Wizard," and we used to watch it school. I truly loved that show. And perhaps because of it, science was one of the subjects at which I did well in school.

But math was not. And so when it came time to go to college, my father sat me down and told me I should major in art, because a scientist needed to be able to do math. Though he probably didn't mean it this way, the implication, in my mind, was that I wasn't smart enough to be a scientist. So I majored in art, and always felt a little less smart because of it.

I enjoyed majoring in art, more or less. But what I didn't know then and understand now is that I didn't really want to be a "fine artist." I wanted to be an illustrator. One is not better than the other, but certainly there is more prestige in society in being someone who is creating original and ground-breaking art…. The trouble is, I'm really a pretty simple person, and don't care a whole lot about being a ground-breaking artist. … In art school though, the emphasis was on fine art (and at the time, this seemed to mean, "the uglier, the better" though I am certain, in retrospect, that I interpreted that incorrectly), so that's what I thought I had to do.

Oftentimes, I've envisioned the path my life has taken as someone who is standing in a station when a train rolls in, and I hop on it because I think it's going to take me where I want to go. Only later do I find that it is the wrong train, and I have to wait until the next stop in order to get off and right my course…

So after I graduated, I kicked around, trying very half-heartedly to be ground-breaking, but it just wasn't in me… . After awhile I got a job working for a geologist, who made a point of teaching me some things about geology. I enjoyed it a lot, and then one day, I said to myself, "You know, I've always wanted to be a scientist…"

My feelings about scientists being "brainier" than artists persisted all the way through graduate school, all the way through getting a doctorate in geology. But while I loved being outside and doing field work, learning the geology of a place, … at some point I realized that, once again, I'd apparently gotten on the wrong train, for the wrong reasons.

After I'd earned my doctorate, I stumbled into a job in the Honors College at our university. Through a series of very fortunate circumstances, I wound up directing and teaching in a new degree program that combined humanities and the study of nature and the environment (the Natural History and Humanities degree). I was hired, of all things, because I had a scholastic background in both! And suddenly, it all came together, and I knew I was home. It turned out that all those years, I hadn't been on the wrong trains at all–I'd just needed to take several connecting trains to reach my destination.

And most importantly, I'd finally matured enough to realize that I was neither "brainier" as a scientist or as an artist, one discipline did not have more prestige than another, fine arts were not somehow "better" than illustration. I finally realized that what is important is to always keep seeking the things that interest you, the things you love–this is what is important when trying to chart a course for your life. If you do this, you will one day arrive at your proper destination.

I still reek at math.

______

Here's your life-writing prompt: Imagine the course of your life as a series of metaphorical train journeys. Where did you begin? What trains did you take? And where did they take you? Can you say, like Susan Tomlinson, that in the end, by "seeking the things that interest you, the things you love" you have arrived at "your proper destination"?

Difficult Memories: Finding Voice and Grace in the “Hard Stuff”

How do we handle the hard stuff in our life stories? How do we write about the memories that are controversial, painful, or just no fun to remember? We'll practice writing techniques that strengthen our voices and reveal the grace and wisdom to be found even in hard times.

That's the description of "Difficult Memories," the workshop I'll be teaching at Story Circle Network's Stories From the Heart V Conference, in Austin, Texas, February 5 – 7, 2010. 

When I proposed the workshop last spring, I was thinking about my process in writing my memoir, Walking Nature Home, and my struggle to find the wisdom in the painful and outright hard parts of my own story. When I wrote the first few drafts of that book, I was still angry and hurt by some of my experiences. Writing out my feelings was therapeutic, but didn't result in particularly good memoir.

In fact, some of the initial drafts are so bad that re-reading them is more than embarrassing. It took me decades–and many rewrites–before I learned to chip away at the narrative to find the gift of gold in the hard stuff, before I found the grace to tell my story in a way that was respectful, honest, and compelling. When I finally did, reading the story was exciting instead of painful. It finally felt right–and I felt good about writing it.

Homecover700k

Here's an example of finding voice and grace in the hard stuff, from the first chapter of Walking Nature Home:

That Labor Day weekend, we went backpacking with friends and an early fall snowstorm moved in. All I remember from those three days is a steady rain of wet, white flakes falling silently, muffling forest and lake and rock, pressing down on the roof of our small tent until I felt like I would suffocate. On the long drive out, even the cab of our pickup truck seemed to have shrunk. I looked over at Kent and said,

“I need space. I think we should separate.”

His jaw clenched hard, but he didn’t turn his eyes from the gravel road. “You’ll be dead first.”

I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor. 

Those four paragraphs paint a vivid picture of the disintegration of my first marriage, conveying the salient points without portraying every gory detail. The last line shows how dramatic paring events down to their essence can be: "I moved out. He attempted suicide. I saw a counselor."

There's obviously a lot more I could have said. That chapter did in fact originally include much more material, all of it vivid and dramatic in its own right.

Over time as I worked on the memoir though, I realized that this particular part of the story had come to "weigh" so much that it disturbed the overall balance. Writing out the intimate details of the disintegration of my first marriage may have helped me come to peace with my decisions, but it distracted from the larger point, a love story on several levels: me learning to love myself, the loving bond I found with my second husband, Richard, and the love of nature, the community of species with whom we share this planet, that sustained me through those years and still does.

As I re-visited the painful story of my first marriage, my ability to tell the story well grew as I grew as a person. I can't say which came first: my ability to understand myself or my ability to write the hard stuff with clarity and grace. But I know that we grew together, that memoir and me. 

Richard
Now I need every bit of that clarity and grace as my beloved Richard and I walk hand in hand through the "hard stuff" of his brain cancer. I know my practice in learning to tell the sometimes painful and traumatic stories that make up Walking Nature Home is helping me keep my balance today, both in writing and life. Wrestling with difficult memories not only taught me how to write a story that novelist Sandra Dallas recently hailed as "a moving story… filled with hope and joy," it also taught me how to make a hopeful, joyous life–no matter what comes.