We hope you spend the holidays in a cozy place with people you love!
If you’ve been following WordSisters, you know that Elizabeth and Ellen write the blog on alternate weeks, and occasionally, guest bloggers like Jean Cook and Brenda van Dyck join us. We have been invited by Shannon Schenk to participate in a blog hop (thank you, Shannon!) and so we are writing a shared blog in which we each answer some questions about our writing process.
I feel privileged to call the Twin Cities my creative home. Institutions like the Loft and Hamline’s M.F.A. program, as well as the numerous aspiring and accomplished authors who live here, combine to create an exceptional writing community. Classes, resources, and writers’ groups are plentiful, and that’s how Elizabeth and I came to be in the same writers’ group and to launch this blog. The Twin Cities’ strong supportive writing community helped Shannon (a Hamline M.F.A. alum) reconnect with Elizabeth (another Hamline M.F.A. alum) and allowed me to discover Nodding and Smiling, Shannon’s blog. She has the sensibility of a poet with the insights of a psychologist. At her invitation, we are participating in this writing process blog hop.
What am I working on? Ellen answers . . .
I’ve completed a memoir manuscript (BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE) and I write essays, but currently, WordSisters gets most of my attention.
In many ways, Elizabeth and I seem like opposites—she’s very athletic, while the only way I’d be ziplining in Guatemala is if there were a gun to my head! She grew up on a farm while I’m a city kid through and through. But what drew us together is that each of us has a longstanding commitment to improving our writing and telling our stories. We also are fierce mamas. She is mom to 11-year-old Antonio and Crystel, and I am mom to Mike and Greg, who are in their early 20s.
Although our blog topics often vary widely, our commitment to writing is the same. We energize each other. I know Elizabeth is counting on me and I know she won’t let me down either. Together, we’re better. We also both like self-publishing—the empowerment of it and the connections we make. Each week, one of us sends our thoughts and observations out to the world and we connect with all of you. That, too, is very powerful.
Why do I write what I write? Elizabeth answers . . .
At the PORTA Hotel Antigua in Guatemala, I’m sitting next to my eleven-year old daughter who visited with her birthmother a few hours ago. My eleven-year old son is nearby, watching the Teen Beach movie in Spanish and English on the television. He also visited with his birthmother today. My partner Jody is working out in the hotel’s gym.
The focus of my writing is integrating my story with my children’s. I’m a birth mother and an adoptive mother.
As I hugged Rosa (Antonio’s birthmom) and Mayra (Crystel’s birthmom) goodbye today, I thought about how they must feel giving up a baby for adoption, visiting with their child, saying goodbye again with only the promise that we’ll return in two years. I, too, gave up a son in adoption. I know how it feels to not have a living part always with you—like having a phantom limb. But I’m also the adoptive mom standing on a cobblestone street with their child, while they are climbing slowly into a van to take them back to their casa.
During the next nine days, I will explore and study the heritage of my children, who are indigenous Mayans—an opportunity made possible because I received a 2014-2015 Jerome Travel and Study Grant. The information gained will be used to improve my memoir manuscript, HOUSE OF FIRE. It will help me finish the last chapter that brings bring the narrative full circle—from the trauma of my childhood sexual abuse and being forced to give away the son I conceived as a result of the abuse, to the healing and joy of my created family, and finally, to the redemption of returning with the children to Guatemala and figuratively handing them back to their birthmothers, their birth country, and their countrypeople – allowing me and the other birthmoms to experience love and forgiveness.
This new material will help me strengthen my manuscript’s theme that hope, joy, and redemption can prevail over trauma.
I write what I do because my ultimate goal is to speak publicly throughout the United States and internationally about breaking free from the cycle of violence, the trials of starting my own healthy family and the challenge of creating a home of love, safety, and joy despite being stalked by dysfunctional ghosts and dark memories from the Wisconsin farm where I was raised.
What is your writing process? Ellen answers . . .
Often, I start with a phrase that repeats itself in my head until I pay attention and start writing. Sometimes I have a flash of insight that intrigues me and I can’t rest until I work it out on the page. Then I’m off and writing—totally involved with writing the first draft. I love the rush of inspiration when that happens.
But just as often, I’m not inspired. However, I’ve learned to trust myself—if I show up and sit at my computer, the words and ideas will show up, too.
My favorite writing spots include my office at home, our sunny porch, and a chair overlooking the lake in Lebanon Hills Park—I’ve revised large hunks of my book there.
After I write the first draft of anything, I know I need to let it cool off. I always allow time to look at the piece—whether a blog, an essay, or a newsletter for work—with fresh eyes a while later. Then I begin revising, and the more time I have to revise, the better the piece will be. I rely on other readers to help me see what works and what doesn’t, and Elizabeth and I always share our blogs before publishing. However with blogging, I’ve had to learn to let go of the desire for perfection—sometimes I need to accept that pretty good is pretty good and I should just press Publish.
Introducing Cynthia Kraack
Elizabeth and I would like to introduce and recommend Cynthia Kraack, a talented novelist. Her first novel, MINNESOTA COLD, won the 2010 Northeastern Minnesota Book Award for fiction. LEAVING ASHWOOD is being released July 1st. It is the final book of the speculative fiction ASHWOOD trilogy about a family living in post-global depression. She has had short stories published and received professional recognition for her work in writing business simulation games. Cynthia, a graduate of the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing, also holds a graduate degree from the University of Minnesota and a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Marquette University. She is a native of Wisconsin and has lived in Minnesota all of her adult life.
Writing this blog has become second nature. Every other week, we mine our lives and distill our observations into posts. As writers by calling, we take pleasure in the discipline of writing, but connecting with you is even more rewarding.
I remain astonished by the power of the Internet to bring people together. Today, WordSisters has—
Thank you to our many faithful readers! Your comments and Likes keep us going.
More than a dozen years ago, Lisa Taylor Lake founded the writers group that eventually gave rise to WordSisters. Lisa’s original inspiration was that we could provide vital insight and feedback to each other. Over the years, the group grew to be so much more—mentors, cheerleaders, and true wordsisters. In spring 2012, Lisa died of cancer and this March, we are honoring her with two blogs—this one and one in a few weeks. Ellen & Elizabeth
I had belonged to Lisa’s creative nonfiction writers group for years before I learned she also wrote poetry. Inspired by classes she had recently taken, Lisa had created a chapbook of her poems and reserved a cozy room at her church for her first poetry reading.
When she invited our writers group to the reading, she had confessed to nerves, even though she regularly spoke in front of groups for her work in the state health department’s communications office. This was different, she said. This was her poetry. It was personal.
And it was beautiful. As she read, her audience of two dozen listened quietly—until several of us couldn’t suppress an ooh at a particularly lovely line. Silence broken now, as Lisa continued, more of us expressed mmms, oohs, and aahs, and shared appreciative nods and smiles. Our response emboldened Lisa to mention she had planned to end with the poem she had just read, but if we would like, she could read one or two more. When we applauded wildly and said yes, please, more, she stepped back, momentarily overwhelmed, and then she obliged us with pleasure.
Afterward, ever the good hostess, Lisa flitted among us, greeting people, directing us toward refreshments, accepting compliments, her eyes and feet virtually dancing.
Years later, my husband David and I sat at a lacquered pine table in a dark booth while I wondered what I had gotten myself into. An essay of mine had been accepted by a local online literary journal. A local church sponsored the journal and the editors celebrated each issue’s publication with an author reading at the Turf Club bar. Well, not in the bar itself—in the bar’s basement.
Lisa was the first of my friends to arrive, her eyes twinkling as she took in the wood-paneled walls sporting mounted fish and game. She and David ordered beers and discussed the typography of the beer signs and the design of the amateur northwoods landscape paintings that filled gaps among the taxidermy.
As I read, I remember the sensation of all eyes—those of the patrons, the bartender, and the mounted deer—fixed on me as people listened. Afterward, I felt the adrenaline rush of finishing without tripping over words or a microphone cord. Now I understood why Lisa was aflutter after her poetry reading—the lightness of heart that comes from risking and successfully entering new territory.
The last time we heard Lisa read her poetry, she looked artistic and angelic in a full-length turquoise dress that she couldn’t get over buying for herself for the occasion. The skirt flowed around her ankles so that she appeared to float rather than walk. We entered her church again. This time, many more of us filled a larger room that featured a wood-beamed vaulted ceiling and arched stained-glass windows.
Lisa’s writing group, our writing group—Ellen, Elizabeth, Rose, Jill, Brenda, and I—sat together, WordSisters well before Ellen and Elizabeth began this blog. We oohed and aahed over the dress, but moreso over the depth of meaning in her poems and her greater confidence in sharing them with us. We were not the only ones to surreptitiously wipe away tears, and not only as a reaction to her beautiful words.
Lisa could be comfortable in a vaulted spiritual space or in a basement bar decorated with dead animals. Lisa was game. (And as I write that sentence, I can hear her politely questioning whether I’m perhaps overreaching in my attempt at word play.) But she herself wrote in her essay, “Meeting with Royalty” about spending Christmas in England, “I was game for any adventure.”
Lisa took her good manners and tactfulness, her keen observation and sense of story, and her openness to new experiences with her wherever she went. Hiking and writing poetry along her beloved North Shore. Dressed like a tsarina in long underwear, a long wool coat, and a Russian-styled hat to see Britain’s royal family go to church. Tired and angry at a car and a relationship stuck in the mud. Driving with her sister to a family reunion—she wrote that they were “two gals pushing sixty in a rented red convertible that was pushing seventy.”
I hope Lisa pardons my paraphrase of that essay’s opening sentence, but it’s one of my favorite images from her stories: red-headed Lisa holding onto a broad-brimmed hat to protect her fair complexion, ever practical, yet speeding along joyfully with someone she loves, whether she was traveling on well-trod or unfamiliar turf.
More than 30 years ago, a good friend and I regularly launched what we mockingly called our “10-Point Plan for Happiness.” Our plans always included these steps: Quit going to the bars so much, especially during the week. Stop dating losers. Work out more. No more French fries/potato chips/chocolate or whatever indulgence was tempting us that week. Oh yeah, and save more money. But over the years, I’ve shortened up the list.
Even as my friend and I made those resolutions, we knew we were likely to backslide.
But there’s something very appealing about setting goals and having a plan—it helped me feel in control of my life. Setting goals is the means to accomplishing something and the counterpoint to daydreaming, but never doing. If I just follow these simple steps, I can make my life better—who wouldn’t want that?
Believing change is possible is ingrained in the American psyche. The lure of possibility is undeniable. If you’re fat and out of shape you can be transformed, especially if you win a chance to be on The Biggest Loser. If you’re clueless about clothes and your personal appearance, Stacy and Clinton can reform you on What Not to Wear. If you’re a philandering politician, you can humble yourself, ask your spouse and voters to forgive you and after some time has passed, you can be re-elected like U.S. representative Mark Sanford (ex-governor of South Carolina).
I believe real change is possible, but it isn’t fast or easy—it takes a lot more effort than making lists as I did in my 20’s or a going on a whirlwind clothes-buying spree. The people I’ve known who have reinvented themselves worked hard at it for years.
Sometimes my life feels like it’s one big Continuous Quality Improvement project. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that the changes I need to undertake are refinements, not sweeping transformations. So I try to be a better writer, and I tinker with how to squeeze in more time for projects I enjoy, travel, family, friends, and fun. That focus has made my life richer and more fulfilled.
I no longer believe that I’m capable of making major improvements to myself . . . or that I even need to. That’s not smug self-satisfaction, but another way of saying I’m learning to accept my flaws. I’ll keep trying to think before I speak. I’ll also try not to offer advice unless asked. However, I know I’m going to backslide sometimes, and even though I’ll fall short on those goals (and others), I’m still basically OK.
If the goal is happiness, perfection is not required . . . or even useful. So my current Plan for Happiness has a mere three points:
What works for you?