My Writing Process Blog Tour

IMG_0178MARY-KIM ARNOLD is a fiery poet whose words reflect the depth of her diverse experience. The first time I heard Mary Kim’s poetry, my heart almost stopped. We were at a new best friend’s sleepover in a hotel in Burlington, VT. Words and spaces blended together seamlessly. She would pause, tilt her head, let her horn rimmed glasses ponder and continue, giving new life to each pristine line she spoke. She was a pro.

A colleague of mine at Vermont College of Fine Arts (her second degree in Creative Writing), MK  maintains a thoughtful blog at Small Fires: A Pillow Book. She is the one who tagged me for this My Blog Writing Tour! Her poetry can be found at Two Serious Ladies, Tin Houseand of course, The Rumpus, where she is an editor.

— So, I’ll ask myself these questions, and then I’ll answer them, that’s how it works. OK? OK.

Here we go:

What are you working on?

(1) For the past two years, I have been working on a personal memoir of travel and grief. In 2008, after the loss of our baby girl at forty weeks gestation, my husband and I took an epic backpacking trip through Southeast Asia and the Philippines. Our daughter was two years old at the time, and she became a central character in the travel memoir I hope to publish sometime this century. The story is mixed in shades of darkness and stormy seas of confusion and grief, following a path of color and culture as the main character, Mo, finds the freedom to liberate the heavies in a sort of reality check taking stock of what she really has left in this world.

(2) I have a collection of essays that need to be manicured in some fashion. These have been written in the past two years. They are a revolving door of personal and lyric essay, involving a myriad of themes including gardening, the land, marriage and children, meditation, the realizations of middle life. There’s also some really great dialogue based on my hilarious eighty-one year old father, a retired chemistry professor and local innovator who seems ever present in most of my essay work.

(3) My roots of poetry have recently swelled, suddenly growing limbs and lines after almost a decade dormant. At my last VCFE residency, I had the privilege of attending a workshop called The Porous Boundary between Creative NonFiction and Poetry, led by the great essayist Patrick Madden and long established poet, Betsy Sholl. This has really resonated for me in a writing age where I want to explore new possibilities in text and media, and also create innovative books. If there’s anything that’s better than writing, it’s talking about writing. VCFA workshops are the best.

(4) My girlfriend Romina and I have an ongoing journal that we have been creating since 1998. These are nonfiction shorts (yae, brevity!) which involve text, photos, leaves, and things written in popsicles and lipstick. Romina has been my number one reader for about twenty years now, and we have been through just about everything together, including a five year old manuscript which has been shelved for the moment. This book awakened something in me finally gave me permission to sit down and write, which was one of the first turning points in my writing life. Hopefully there are many more ahead.

(5) I have become a bit of a gregarious reviewer, which seems to play well to my social life here on Prince Edward Island. I am reviewing books, theatre shows and musicals, sometime integrating interviews, with bits of elaborate ideology.

How does your work differ from others of its genre? As much as I want to say that I am supremely original, the truth is that I’m not sure. I feel my work is different than some other travel memoir as it takes the reader on an emotional journey as well as one through time and space, but I am by far the first to do this. Maybe it differs in that my focus has always been on family, and generating a balance between the unpredictable electricity of cultural inquisitiveness with the smell of a kindergartener’s peanut butter toast.

Why do you write what you do? I guess I write to figure out my world, and to make it meaningful not only for me, but for those around me. Stillbirth hasn’t been an easy thing for me to deal with, but I’ve grown through the loss to another side of myself, and one I never expected to find. I love this family lifestyle writing because we can learn so much from our kids, through the honesty and the obsession and the questioning and their constant surge of reorientation. I’ve become an essence of the person who i want to be, and the role model i need to be. My writing has just been a recording of this process. I write to become better. For the last five years I have become obsessed with the craft side of writing, and it’s been a wonderful injection into my writing psyche. It’s made me want to read more, write more and fills in the gaps in my whimsical style with backstory, scene setting, body language, and attention to detail.

How does your writing process work? The only quiet hours in my house are between five and seven am, and this is amazingly productive time for me. I find that the earlier I can catch myself off guard, the closer to my dreams I can write, and usually before some little person saunters into my office needing a cuddle. I also enjoy the stillness of my mind at this time, before my busy brain is turned to dentist appointments, returning phone calls and the daily errand and housework churn of a family of four. My husband is always amazed that my critical mind takes over at nine o’clock, but it’s true. At that time, writing is over and revision begins.

So now I tag two more people. I met Jason Howard, a fine young Kentuckian, when we drank bourbon together for four semesters at VCFA, planning our lives together as writers and dreaming in essays and memoirs. Jason’s book, A Few Honest Words, The Kentucky Roots of Popular Music, was published last year and he interviews musical greats such as Joan Osborne and Naomi Judd. You can also find him on Twitter @jasonkylehoward. If you ever meet Jason in a bar, ask him about Ann Boelyn.

Monica Lacey‘s love of words has been going on for decades.  In her honest beginnings,  Mon wrote and created her own books of poetry and boldly stocked our small city’s library with them. She has always been an inspiration for living the artistic life, and we are old friends from a past life, we think.  She has currently expanded her artistic merits to an impressive roster of visual art endeavours. Find her blog about her work at Dance the Changes.

climbin’ fences

Climbing fencesThis winter when the raging nor’easters brought blizzards galore, the snow piled and piled and piled up in the softball diamond beside my house, until my eight year old daughter, Leila, could skip right over them with a crouch and a roll. There was something about that small taste of freedom that ignited a spark in her. She’s been asking more than usual to visit the park, and it’s not because she’s interested in walking the german shepherd, or even playing much with the baby.

At seventeen months, he officially outgrew his sled this year, even before the snow finished flying. But as he gathered the steam he needed to pull the four pounds of plastic out of the shed yesterday, push and hauling it over Fall’s leftover leaves, something inside him says, “No, no, not yet,” and as I sighed, and caught myself thinking, “they grow up so fast.”

Why is Lei so desperate to get to the park these days?

She wants to climb the fences. First, it was the skate park. Could she do it? The throws of adrenaline that she must have felt climbing higher and higher,  as i pretended not to look on, my heart pounding, the half pipes and rails seeming miles beneath her.

“Let her go,” a small voice inside me says. I swallow hard when i think of her as the babe i nursed and care for, a few short years ago, holding her hand through a precocious toddlerhood, the difficult entry into the school system, and all that’s followed since.

It was fine in the winter. First it was only the top three feet of the fence exposed, plenty of snow underfoot to cushion a little girl’s fall. Then four five, then five. Over and over. Finally six, and the snow’s melted away altogether. And still, she climbs.

Behind the umpire, a thirty foot fence stands mighty and tall. She jumps up and on it like a cat now, hooking her paws through the wire openings and curling her body up to meet the tenth foot, silent,  before i’ve noticed.

“No,” I said. ” It’s too dangerous.”

“Come on, Mom,” she says, her eyes squinting in the sun, her body twisting and flexing. Ari looks on from his perch in the carrier, his head slung back and toward her as i march on behind the dog.

Ting! The wire reverberates as she she jumps six feet down, landing on the soft ground.

Life is dangerous.

Ari’s current mission in life is to crawl up the stairs. He’s got his own fences to climb, up, up, up throwing mail and socks to the floor in a hysterical buzz, his toothy grin still empty on the sides, where the arrival of molars torment him. He giggles, pleased and anxious for someone to find him. “Look what i’ve done. Look where i’ve come.”

“Ari!” I call from the bottom of the stairs. It’s too late. He’s halfway up.

He may know the way up, delighted in the badland fringes of mommy’s tolerance, but the little goose, he sure doesn’t know the way down. He won’t attempt the backwards crawl back down, his arms outstretched in need of safety, comfort, and warm hugs. The small blue eyes that cry, hold me, pick me up and take me away from this scary place. 

The spring changes us. It invites to fly to places unknown, take steps in new directions that we didn’t anticipate. Mom moves through her MFA, Dad finishes the school year. Lawns become new with the green of life, marriages become refreshed again with the sun that hits our faces. New energy brings new solutions to last fall and winter’s problems.

Mom used to say, “We’ve all got our cross to carry,” but i think a more suitable mantra would be “We’ve all got our fence to climb.”

And everyone in the family climbs.

 

 

 

the birth of advocacy

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It happened again.

I got a dreaded phone call from a girlfriend who lost her full term baby, abruptly, unexpectedly- in the dangerous passage from warm comfortable uterus to the sharp, cold air of the birth room. As always, I cried. I cursed the world. I stopped breathing for a minute, the pain impenetrable, then exhaled, anguished. My heart races and I hold my hand over my mouth, “No, no.” The unthinkable has happened.

Every time the world loses one more beautiful baby, I lose Tya again. And this is the third beautiful baby this year I’ve said goodbye to, before i got to say hello.

I have a ghastly thought.

“I’m killing babies,” I tell Mitch, ravaged by the latest news. “I’m cursed.” I was bringing unbearable accidents – cord knots, tumours, more.

“No, Mo.” He gives me one of the stern looks he gives me sometimes, when I’m being irrational or melodramatic. His teacher look. “You’re the one who’s chosen to write about this.  You needed people. Now people need you.”

He’s right. But still.

I can’t breathe.

When we first lost Tya, I thought that someday I would go into the hospital, share my story with some nurses there. As if I could enlighten them. I picture myself there sometimes, in a sterile, outdated hospital conference room with women in scrubs, only somewhat interested.  I’d give a spiel about baby loss. I’d take two questions. I’d keep it together. For an hour. When i was healed. And it would be over.

The book was an accident. I never meant to write a book, but as the months ticked along, the manuscript grew and grew .  I was just writing (righting?) myself though the door, from a quiet internal place of stillness to the open, more comfortable place of dialogue. Somewhere new. A place where acceptance brings peaceful, cerulean blues and even purples. Longer stretches of moments between anxiety attacks, between nightmares.

I never thought that i would need to be strong, that I must be strong. That i MUST be a voice for the little babies who leave our world as tiny flames under  hot air balloons that travel, travel ,travel until we only have their memories, the tiny space in our hearts where they lived.

Advocacy has begun. This is not an outdated hospital conference room. This is a living, breathing wild thing of a space where anything and everything happens. A place where pregnancy sends mommas (and dads too) home with empty arms and curious, puzzled looks, stretching up and up on tippy-toes trying to see where that hot air balloon has floated away to, a light getting smaller and smaller until it appears there is nothing left. Where people need support and love and understanding. Sype dates and teas and girls trips to Montreal.

Not cursed. Haunted, is it. Cursed or haunted?

In a way, blessed.

I bring this up to Mom. She says she can’t read most of what I’ve written because it’s too difficult for her. She’s still on the wrong side of the door, i guess, with the darkness and confusion. I hope that she’s traveling too, finding her way to the light.

When I tell her about my friend’s experience through the tragic, the despaired, she comforts and assures me.

“This is Tya’s mission,” Mom says, her eyes watering as she wipes them.

Tya’s mission. I like that. After five years, her little candlelight has gotten a little brighter, her air balloon enveloping others with love.

deeper into the words

notes from julia's lecture.

notes from julia’s lecture.

As I return from my third MFA residency, I find a deeper connection still with not only my work, but with the work of others, and I am opening up to a whole new world of discovery. Sure, I tasted the fruit in college when i poured over Wordsworth and Keats, but I never dreamed that I would be able to recreate those feelings, vast and unexplored, in my own themes and live up to the accolades of these forefathers (and foremothers, thank you virginia wolf).

So let me begin with, I’m not there yet.

But I think I am starting to see glimpses. I am tuning in to the rhythm of my own creative process. I am learning character from Hemingway and style from Didion, delving into wildness with cheryl strayed and sitting peacefully on the fences of British churchyards with Bill Bryson. I am asking myself the traveller’s questions of Pico Iyer and am suddenly indebted to Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty for their courage and bravery to get up every morning and write.

And I love it.

This residency was dominated by three themes for me, and i would like to bow to each of them for a moment.

the heat

This residency in workshop I was lucky enough to have LeAnne Howe for a leader. LeAnne swears by the storyboard and her stories come alive in pictures. She challenged us to think cinematically, including shots both close up (the ring on my finger), medium (the city where I live) and my favourite — what LeAnne call epic (where I looks up to the stars or the mountains or the sky and wonder, “who was i meant to be?”)

When we were workshopping my piece (a chapter from the travel memoir that I’m writing), LeAnne stopped and said, “The writer is looking away from the heat, here.” Uh oh. Bad writer.

That wasn’t the first time LeAnne had mentioned the heat. She mentioned it several more times when things were “heating up”, “cooling down”, and got a charge when the narrator themselves seemed to be overcome with something. I take “the heat” to mean: pain, vulnerability, honesty, desperation. Grief, desire, you name it. We all have our own heat.

I love the association with words to colours, a scale of passion in some greater scheme of a story. The other thing LeAnne talked about all the time was movement. “The heat propels the story forward”, she would say. Of course it would.

storytelling

VCFA’s young (and not so young) writers this semester had the pleasure of welcoming Julia Alvarez as a visiting writer, Dominican storyteller, memoirist and essayist. She arrived with her fingernails painted and a untidy bun pulled to the back of her head with loose grey curls. I met her in the cafe right before her lecture, and even that encounter was riveting. Even Julia’s eyes tell a story. Her enthusiasm was contagious, her voice boisterous, and most of all, she has a spirit that fills the room around her. Do you know someone like that?

Alvarez talked about the importance of storytelling.

She asked, “can the imagination save us?”

Our lives, our stories, our perspectives. She paid close attention to the stories that we tell that take on lives of their own, growing and changing with each expansion, each generation. Characters are alive, our ghosts become real presences, and the grey area between fiction and nonfiction becomes slightly blurred at the edges. This is the gift of the storyteller.

I mulled over this during glasses of wine with many other students, writers from coast to coast. So many times as writers we doubt the impacts that our stories will have. Fiction writers doubt their credibility, nonfiction writers doubt their honesty, and poetry writers doubt their covert relationships and the secrets on the page left by the poet for only the reader to find. Will they get it?

Are my stories important?  Hhmmm.

inspiration

The last running theme of the residency for me was sparked by a lecture that my friend Jason Howard delivered. He talked about the power of the muse. Now, when most of us think our a muse, we think lineally about someone on paper, dressed in a goddess outfit, long flowing robes, etc. Jason thinks of long dead Anne Boelyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, who was beheaded and to this day haunts the castle. She also haunts Jason Howard’s apartment in Kentucky. And not only that, she’s given him countless essay ideas as they have communed together.

It wasn’t just Jason that talked about his muse. My second workshop leader Brett Lott carried around a battered old copy of John Gardner’s On Becoming A Novelist (with a forward from his hero, Ray Carver)  and could quote from the thing like it was his bible. A student asked Brett about writer’s block, a common problem. He said, “When I think i can’t go on, I always ask myself. What would Ray do?” He smiles when he answers,

“Sit in that chair and write.”

My own office muses are becoming louder and louder, waking me from dreams or arriving at odd times, rousing me unconsciously to a pen or a keyboard nearby.

And the one thing they keep telling me is, “You can do this.” 

Surf Baby

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Mitch and Leila, 2006

When I was asked to be Maid of Honor in a wedding in Bristish Colombia this summer, my husband and I were thrilled to plan our trip. We decided to start our adventure in the tiny sea inlet of Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s majestic pacific coast.

We were there together once before. It was 2006, and our daughter Leila was nine months old. Mitch and i were a romantic young couple, exploring the world one leaf and one legend at a time. We always considered that whole summer one long, loving honeymoon as we were married that year, in June.

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There is no change in the rugged coastline. There are still massive waves on Chesterman Beach. The sunset from Radar Hill is still spectacular, and the ancient rainforest trees of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve quietly grow their mosses in the misty mornings, playing host to the thousands of birds and wildlife that grace their branches.

IMG_9375Now our daughter is seven, and our son, Ari is the one who is nine months old. Leila and Mitch spent the week surfing, using words like “crest” and “breakwater” and   ‘”killin’ it.” Last time we stayed in a private room at the youth hostel (a huge splurge for us); this time, we’re in a 3 bedroom house across from the shore. Leila does remarkably well for her first surf, and I’m so proud of her. Even her father is impressed, and Ari watches the waves with intensity.

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According to the Stanford School of Medicine, every single cell in our skeleton is replaced every seven years. Does that mean that that I was a different person this time, on that beach in Tofino? A unique person with hopes and dreams, looking back on the shadow self of years behind me? The thirties have brought with them tumultuous times of grief and fear, professional quests, enterprising ideas and the dream of a future with kayaks and wildflowers.

And of course, my boy.

And now I carry on, fulfilling my thirties with blue mountain skies and family campfires and babies laughing over and over as the same block tower tumbles down, down. Writing books, critical papers and devouring the literature that will make be a more astute communicator. 

Will Ari some day take a little sister back to Tofino? To browse the native galleries and tickle her toes with starfish? Maybe for his first surf lessons, seven years from now :) 

Until then, Cox Bay.
                                                                 

[insert deity here]

When I returned home from walking the dog last night, the dusk had turned to dark.

In front of my house, a kerfuffle arose on the street between two cats, one of them mine. Shady Grove, our fluffly British Longhair, flew up a tree. The dog nearly pulled my arm off, barking,  heading to Shady Grove’s rescue. The perpetrator cat shot quickly away; he was a black and white thing I’d never seen. Skinny, but vicious looking. Shady sat perched on a high branch, shaking. We have families of foxes that live in our neighborhood, bordering a park, so it could have been worse.

The house was dark, including our seven-year old Leila’s bedroom window. “Mom!” she called out, “there he went!” pointing to the other cat. The front lights went on and my husband opened the door, wondering what the ruckus was all about, dogs barking, cats screeching, mom coming home in the dark and a little one with a flashlight in the window, eyes wide and caught in the play by play.

“Mitch! Did you see that cat?” I asked him.  “Get the treats!” I let the dog off the leash and she bounced around the tree, wildly. Mitch shook his head, disinterested, and came back a minute later with the familiar rustle of the plastic bag. Cat number two ran outside to get in on the action.

“He’s scared, Mom! I can get him down! Let me come!” Leila cried, but i hushed her from the street. Lights from the street lamps glowed orange and cars passed slowly leaving drivers wondering what exactly i was up to.

“Back to sleep, Leila!” I grabbed the treats from Mitch, gave him the dog, and stood under the tree shaking the treats for Shady, my arms extending as if he would jump the ten feet down and straight into them. I circled the tree, trying several angles, and eventually gave up. He got up there, he could damn well get down. I started up the driveway.

“Mom, don’t leave him!” Leila called. “Shady! Come on, boy!” Her flashlight bounced around the window sill in an excited state, and ten minutes later, he listened to her.

The next morning, the buzz around the breakfast table was alive with Leila’s recounts of ‘the Shady incident’, and she bragged that she had been the first one to see the whole struggle transpire. She then clarified how it was that she made Shady come down.

“Mom,” she said, “I begged Santa, I said, Santa, please make Shady be okay, please please Santa.” She held her hands together in prayer and demonstrated how she looked up to the heavens, or rather, to the um, North Pole. We’re no where near Christmas here, yet Santa is her all year miracle worker. We’re away in the manger, and we haven’t returned.

Mitch and I lock eyes, trying not to laugh. I continue peeling my apple and buttering toast. “Santa, huh. Very good then.”

Somewhere in her religious education (Einstein’s theory of relativity plus the Big Bang theory) the traditional Jolly St. Nick has inserted itself into Christian mythology and pouf! Santa saves cats.

As much as we’ve tried to explain that life is long series of unique cosmological events, coupled with the fiery energies of our passionate pursuits, she’s seven and she needs something a little ….easier to manage.

Well, then, my creative little lady, go forth and spread the word. When I think of it, Santa’s Workshop does look a lot like The Last Supper.

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five years of gratitude

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Five years ago today, i lost someone.

I thought this would be an easy post to write. Cosmic connections. Celestial elevators. Babies one week from due dates that go in their sleep.

Tya Marie would be five today, if she had survived her treacherous passage into this world. That means that when she went, I was a young twenty-eight, and L. was a energetic toddler.

I was swallowed by the darkness. I could go on about the things that brought me out of the haze of loss: taking off to Thailand with a kicking two-year old, worshiping a quartz crystal that i strung around my neck and talked to, or writing a crazy book .

But the things that really helped me through the grief weren’t things.  They were people.

An amazing man, who listened and loved me. A caring family who were willing to walk into the silence of our loss. Friends who not only stood by us at the time, but who continue to share with us in our journey today.

I am grateful to so many who have helped me through these last five years, and barring an emotional outburst, the waterfall of wonderful women pictured above is just a beginning.

Baby loss brings with it a complicated grief. And through this, I hope that I’ve been able to help others through the struggle of miscarriage and late pregnancy loss. These are people who continue to inspire and move me with their courage, their hope. I hope that — as when we lost Tya — my presence can speak for itself, where no words can go.

I am here for you.

T- wherever you are. We love you and we’re okay. You shine alongside your big sister, who misses you furiously, and your new little brother, who will plant the seeds of youth in your honor.

But we are forever changed. And now to the road ahead.

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