Treasure Hunt

Periodically, a writers’ group I belong to has a writers’ retreat. This weekend we stayed at The Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota.

The Anderson House in February 2015

It’s an inspiring place—a stately old home set on acres of land with a sculpture garden on the grounds. There’s a sunny library filled with novels, volumes of poetry, memoirs, histories, and art books. Many were written and contributed by the Center’s guests. In each of the bedrooms, there are journals in which previous visitors (including some well-known writers) commented on their stay. Often they mentioned a breakthrough and expressed gratitude for the Great Things they accomplished . . . which was a bit intimidating.

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Contemplative view from my window, minus the other treasure hunter

On Saturday morning, I sat at my desk and stared out the window.

Outside, a young guy in a hoodie and camo pants moved among the trees, sweeping a metal detector across the lawn. He squatted, dug up something with a trowel, then repacked the dirt, and smoothed it out.

What could he possibly have found—a bottle cap? A quarter? The Anderson House is nearly 100 years old. Maybe a long buried artifact had worked its way to the surface.

Inside, I too was treasure hunting. I sifted through files, piles of words, scraps of images, mining my mind for a memory or a line to spark inspiration.

We both worked doggedly at our tasks.

I hoped to uncover an idea that would justify my presence there, so I’d feel worthy of the gift of time.

Quickly I covered up that wasps’ nest of self-doubt and tamped down my frustration. Smoothed over my prickly worries. Don’t be so driven. That’s not how inspiration works.

I reminded myself: Just spend the time. Do the work.

It will come.

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The Magic of Keeping a Journal

Recently, a request for volunteers to decorate personal journals caught my eye. The organization requesting help—The Family Partnership—says journaling is helpful to their counseling clients. I’ve kept a personal journal off and on since I was a teenager, and it certainly improves my mental health. Journaling also provides useful material for my writing projects.

Writers are always advised to keep journals. In high school, when I first realized I wanted to be a writer, I drafted poems and stories in spiral-bound stenographer’s notebooks. In graduate school, I made notes about some of the encounters I had as an ER clerk.

One of my early journals

One of my early journals

From the beginning, my journals also included impassioned blurts—here’s what’s bothering me and why. Finding words for my surging feelings made them concrete and more manageable. The process of writing calmed me. Often I felt like, “There. Now I understand what upset me and I feel better, so I can move on.” I thought the insights might be useful someday. If I ever feel so concerned about XYZ again, I can return to this hard-won insight and get feeling better, faster.

That’s funny now. I’m never going to be 19 again. Why would I need to look up the entry about fighting with my parents?

 

The journals became historical as well as therapeutic.

Journaling reminds me about how I got to this place in life, and that’s useful. I’m not still a heartbroken 24-year-old graduate student or an overwhelmed 34-year-old mother. Seeing that I’ve grown and changed is reassuring. I do figure things out. Things do get better.

Asking why and wondering about the meaning of certain events, comes naturally to me and is central to the essays, memoirs, and blogs that I write. I’m making sense of the big world as well as my own world.

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

A friend hand made this journal, which I used while teaching at UMM

When I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s, I began writing essays and memoir in earnest. Then the old journals offered valuable documentation about what happened when I was 24 or 27 and what I thought of it.

Rereading passages from old journals can be cringe-inducing. When skimming old journals, I understand why some people view them as the height of self-involved navel-gazing. Who is that whiny awful person? But that’s the magic of keeping a journal—within its pages, I can be my worst self on my worst day and spare the rest of the world a lot of my angst, anger, depression, and tedious analysis.

That’s also the danger of keeping a journal. The words and feelings included there would necessarily be taken out of context by anyone reading them. I journal when I’m confused or distressed. Good times don’t require explanation and analysis. I want to keep the journals for my use, but at some point I will need to get rid of them, since I won’t always be around to say, “I was having a bad day when I wrote that. I don’t still think that.”

My recent journals are much smaller-- 5x7, in this case

My recent journals are much smaller– 5×7, in this case

But the writer and philosopher in me resists. I’ve been writing about my life for 20 years. There might be some good material in there. I hate to dump it now!

If you keep a journal, how do you use it? Will you get rid of them at some point?

Why I Want a Coloring Book for Christmas

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 8.46.13 AM  I can’t pinpoint what makes visual pursuits like paper projects, quilting, and flower gardening so refreshing to a bizzy dizzy mind, but I have a few theories.

One is that I read and write words all day, so shifting to nothing but color, shape, and design relaxes me. I engage a different, less used part of my mind. With visual pursuits, I’m not explaining, persuading, or struggling to find meaning, as I must when I’m writing.

It’s also playful.

As a writer, I need to do a respectable job with whatever I write. But with visual pursuits, nobody but me cares how well I do. If I make holiday cards, I’m strictly pleasing myself. For me, fooling around with bits of paper is fun. I never get bored with the possibilities for color and texture: ridged green paper, lime checkerboard tissue, bronze matte vellum.card

I have to concentrate hard enough that everything else gets crowded out.

Because I’m not as visually talented as my graphic designer friends, I have to try out the combinations to see what works and what doesn’t. When quilting, what happens if I put this red fabric next to the gold? Repeat that color and create a pattern? Does this fabric work or is it too busy?quilt

 

 

Designing flowerpots and gardens also involves color and design, but now the shapes are 3D, so I have to think how tall and wide each plant variety will get. This leads to a lot of standing around thinking at the garden store and again in my yard. What if I put a lot of shades of purple with white? I shuffle bedding plants around until I have an arrangement that seems to works. Even so, after a few days, I may uproot and relocate a zinnia or geranium if it doesn’t look right.

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While I’m solving a visual puzzle, I can’t think or worry about anything else. I’m completely absorbed. So often our days call for doing things to meet other people’s specifications, so there is real pleasure in envisioning something and then creating it to my specs.

 

I suspect that’s one of the reasons why adult coloring books are popular now. What colors you select are up to you. Only you. I imagine it’s soothing. Filling in a little section is completely under your control, unlike so many things in life. Plus coloring is mindless. No big commitment of time, materials, or brainpower is required. Coloring isn’t earthshattering or important, but it looks like fun and fun is good. I intend to find out.

What To Do When Your Editor Has Your Manuscript

ostrich-with-head-in-sand 2Surprisingly enough, I don’t have any nervous energy waiting for her response. I’m looking forward to her feedback. And, as soon as I receive her comments, I know that I’ll stick my head back into the manuscript and write, revise, and write.

An ostrich doesn’t bury her head in the sand but she does dig a hole in the dirt to use as a nest for her eggs. Several times a day, the ostrich puts her head in the hole and turns the eggs.

Since winning the 2013 – 2014 Loft Mentor Series in Creative Nonfiction, I devoted my time to babying my book. Every spare moment I had went into the work that would result in this baby growing into a manuscript worth publishing. I had a vision. I purged what wasn’t working and kept writing what was.

With my newfound free time, I turned my attention to the cat room. It had become a stockpile of possibly useful stuff. Every time I walked into this room it bugged me. I’m a purger by nature. I don’t like stuff.

Transforming this room became a creative process. I had a vision for the room. I knew that it could be more than it was. Focus, hard work, and purging would bring my vision to fruition.

I’m the purger in our house. That’s my role. I enjoy it. For me it is creative. When Antonio and Crystel get to the point that even they can’t stand their bedrooms, they’ll turn their rooms over to me. I’ll go through every slip of paper, every drawer, every pencil box and organize, toss, give away, and rearrange. At the end of the day they have bedrooms they don’t recognize as theirs.

Of course, there are those moments when I discard something I shouldn’t. Crystel asked me where her grocery bag of papers were. She said, “They are in the memory box like the pictures you took down off the wall, right?”

Sorry, honey, I thought. That paper bag went straight in the trash.

“Ms. Hutton said we’d need those later in the school year.”

“Oooooh,” I replied.

Jody, also enjoys when I get in this state of mind. I can bring orderly to chaos to any kitchen cupboard or linen closet.

Maybe I am a good purger because I don’t have an attachment to stuff.

There isn’t much that I won’t give away. I am one of twelve children and my mother would stack our clean clothes on numbered shelves. We each had a number that corresponded to our birth order. As the fifth child, I was number five. Even so, one day I couldn’t find a pair of blue jeans that I got for Christmas. Finally, I figured out that number six brother was wearing them. Possession became ownership.

173314-stock-photo-sky-movement-head-sand-power-forceI tackled that cat room with the same intensity and focus that I used to write my book.

Within three days, it wasn’t recognizable and I had a new sitting room.

Soon, I’ll be burying my head back into my manuscript. I’ll be a mother to my words. Turning each one over and over. The only difference being … will be where I’m sitting. The cat room has become my favorite creative space. I’m confident I’ll emerge with a book worth reading.

On Being A Role Model

13355524[1]Recently, while Mark Anthony Rolo was visiting the Twin Cities he stayed at our house. Mark Anthony Rolo is the nonfiction mentor for the Loft Mentor Series and offered to devote a Saturday working with the nonfiction winners. Since he travels from northern Wisconsin, I extended an invitation to him and his dog. Our house would also serve as a meeting place the next day.

I’m sure that I told Antonio and Crystel that Mark is one of the Loft Mentors who’s working with me, but Crystel didn’t really understand until I said, “He wrote a book. It’s in the living room. The one with a picture of him and his dog Rock on the back cover.”

She got the book. At that very moment, Mark was sitting by a fire we had built in the backyard.

“That’s him? And that’s Rock?”

“Yes.”

6815689230_1497703279[1]Crystel loves books. Finally, it clicked that she had an actual living author right in her backyard. That was almost too much for her eleven-year-old brain to grasp.

I was hoping, as any mother might, that this also elevated me in her eyes.

Antonio and Crystel spent a lot of time playing with Rock, tugging and pulling and throwing. And, even though they could have left during the adult chatter around the fire, they didn’t disappear. I hoped that it was because they found us interesting, but truth be told, their electronics were banned for the weekend. So what else is a kid to do?

Later that evening, Crystel couldn’t contain herself any longer and told me, in the presence of Mark, that she was going to write a better book than me.

Mark making his mother's bread.

Mark making his mother’s bread.

Around noon the next day, she pulled me to the side in the dining room and said, “Are those people in there famous?” She motioned to our living room.

I thought of the four of us, all mentorship winners, all wanting to publish a book.

“Yes, they are,” I said. “They’re authors. They’re going to publish their books.”

That evening, long after everyone had gone, Crystel asked if she could read Mark’s book. “You’ll have to ask Mama Jody. I think she’s reading it.”

“Sorry, I’m reading it, Crystel,” I heard from the other room.

On Monday when she came home from school, she asked if she could take Mark’s book to school the next day. She had told people that a famous person had stayed at her house and she had the book to prove it.

Lately, Crystel has begun to ask, “Can I work on my book now?” And then she brings her computer over to where I’m writing and she writes with me.

This Saturday, she’ll meet another famous person, Ellen Shriner, my WordSister partner.

9780985981822_p0_v2_s600[1]Ellen is reading at SubText Bookstore. Contributors will read from Holy Cow Press’s anthology The Heart of All That is: Reflections on Home.

You’re all invited to the reading — 7p.m. on Saturday.

I love being surrounded by famous people and that my daughter wants to be one too.