What Was This Farm Girl Doing at AWP?

Ellen, Brenda, and Jill  Members of my Writing Group

Ellen, Brenda, Elizabeth and Jill
Members of my Writing Group

The Association of Writers and Writers Program (AWP) had their annual Conference and Bookfair this past weekend in Minneapolis and over 13,000 people attended, including me.

I could have left after the first panel discussion I attended: Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. I got my money’s worth in the first hour of the four-day conference.

I heard, “What is our truth and are we doing that on the page?”

I heard, “I allow myself to be a person who can change.”

I heard, “Let’s put out shit that matters.”

Those few words gave me the courage to own my story in its entirety.

When asked what I write it was easy for me to say, memoir, adopting infants from Guatemala, raising them with another woman, etc…but I generally would not say the whole of it.

Fear of how people would see me was part of that.

But, no one else can tell my story.

My completed memoir manuscript, House of Fire, uses fire as a metaphor for the dysfunction in my family of 14 growing up on a Wisconsin farm. I interweave the incest that defined my childhood and teenage years with how I healed. The book describes how my partner, Jody and I, intentionally created a safe healthy family by adopting and raising two infants from Guatemala.

I’ve spent over thirty years working on myself to have my past not define me.

And, to that end, I’ve been successful.

I contain multitudes: the Tae Kwon Do black belt who is a goof who loves to spar at the Dojang, the mother of two twelve-year olds, the police reserve officer, the human resources manager, the soon to be Assistant Scoutmaster, the writer and author, and the woman who married her partner last August.

I’m also the woman who suffered repeated sexual abuse, who had a hushed-up abortion after I was impregnated at 14 by one of my brothers, who was pregnant again within a year by another brother, who gave up a son and never saw him again.

What I wanted most in my early twenties was to know that people could not only survive what I did, but heal and live a good life.

Now, my book, House of Fire, will help me be that person for others.

I didn’t go home after that first hour of the AWP conference. I remained among my tribe of 13,000 writers.

I also have another tribe who I hope to reach through the printed and spoken word.

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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.

A Wonderful Dilemma for a Middle School Girl

Crystel and Natty

Apple Jack Invitational. Crystel and Natty after their first cross country meet – A one mile race.

“Go, go, go, dig, dig, dig.”

I hear my voice replaying on the video and cringe. I sound like a crazy woman.

It’s just my child running a 5th grade field day race for gosh sakes. In the scheme of things it doesn’t even count. The distance is approximately 50 (or is it 100 yards?) and none of the kids are called back for jumping the gun. Still, there I am, my voice reaching a high pitch squeal.

Here she comes, my girl crossing the finish line … first.

I wipe away tears, choke back a sob.

I’m sure it’s her strong body and competitiveness and has nothing to do with my out of control fervor.

My daughter is in for some rough years unless I get banned from her sporting events. I don’t think they can do that to moms. But if they do, maybe I can wear my police reserve uniform and sneak in. And, if that doesn’t work, I’ll go as McGruff.

Not that I screeched any less at her brother when he was running. “Go, Antonio, go. Dig, dig, dig.” He’s in for the same mortification.

When another mom, texted a photo of 12-year old Crystel and her daughter, following their first cross country race as 6th graders, it hit me that Crystel’s experience in sports will be very different than mine.

This year marks the 42nd anniversary of Title IX.

10th place for Crystel and 20th place for Natty at the Apple Valley Cross Country meet

10th place for Crystel and 20th place for Natty in the 2-mile race at the Apple Valley cross country meet

In 1970 when I was 12, Title IX had not yet passed. Although I could beat my older brothers at most anything and was the only one who dived off the cliff in Spring Valley, Wisconsin into the Eau Galle Dam, I couldn’t compete in sports.

Regulations on how to implement Title IX, signed into law, June 23, 1972, did not go into effect until 1975.

This past summer, Crystel was mulling over which activities and sports she was going to become involved in during middle school. “This is what you call a dilemma, Crystel,” I told her. “You have so many options that you will have to choose.”

Three weeks into middle school, she’s done what she can to cram in her interests: piano, dance, cross country, and Kor Am Tae Kwon Do. If she could she’d figure out how to add soccer and a number of other after school activities.

When Title IX was enacted, 1 in 27 girls participated in athletics. One in three girls participates in athletics today.

In the photo, Crystel and her friend are self-assured, confident, and have just run their first one mile race. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, women who are active in sports have more self-confidence and are more outgoing than women who do not participate.

Most people think Title IX only applies to sports, but athletics is only one of ten key areas addressed by the law. Other areas include: access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, learning environment, math and science, sexual harassment, standardized testing, and technology.

Before Title IX

• In 1972, women earned just 7% of all law degrees and 9% of all medical degrees.

• In 1970, women earned only 13.3% of doctoral degrees.

• Women weren’t awarded athletic scholarships.

After Title IX

• For the graduating class of 2013, the Department of Education estimated that women earned 61.6% of all associate’s degrees, 56.7% of all bachelor’s degrees, 59.9% of all master’s degrees, and 51.6% of all doctor’s degrees.

• Last year, 140 women graduated with a college degree at some level for every 100 men.

• By 2003, there was more than $1 million in scholarships for women at Division I schools.

1045198_1472771266320064_3137456199553566764_n1My WordSister, sister in writing, Ellen Shriner has completed a book-length memoir called BRAVADO AND A SKETCHY VISION LED ME HERE, a coming-of-age story that takes place in 1979 and 1980 during her first year of college teaching.

Her memoir portrays the challenges of women faced as they sought graduate degrees and entered the workforce.

On July 5, 2012, Ellen also wrote a blog piece about Title IX.

Thanks to Title IX, Crystel has the wonderful dilemma of choosing which sport she will compete in. Eventually when she joins the workforce, she will have more choices to her liking than women of previous generations had.

And, because of Title IX, Crystel and Antonio will have to put up with a mom that alternately shrieks and sobs at the finish line.

Recipient of a Jerome Travel and Study Grant

Jerome_foundation newJody met me at the end of the driveway. In her hand she held a yellow envelope addressed to me.

Notifications on two prior occasions from the Jerome Foundation came by email: We’re sorry to inform you….

This was an envelope. A large envelope. I opened it slowly and carefully which isn’t my nature. Rejections don’t come in such packaging. This could only mean one thing.

As I pulled out the contents I realized that I’ve been a beneficiary of much goodness: wonderful teachers, mentors, my writing group, peers, friends, and family.

In November of 2012, participating in Mary Carroll Moore’s weekend workshop, “How to Plan, Write, and Develop a Book,” at the Loft Literary Center, I understood for the first time what my book was about: A Woman’s Search to Be Seen. Using her W-shaped Storyboard and Three-Act Structure, I left her workshop with an outline and edited structure for my near completed manuscript. That weekend, I revised several chapters and was able to reach a new depth in my writing.

More importantly, I was excited about my writing and my book, HOUSE OF FIRE. I had been working for ten years on finding the right structure to tell my story.

guatemala-map[1]After applying and receiving a Next Step Grant funded by the McKnight Foundation, I attended a one-week writing retreat with Mary Carroll Moore at the Madeline Island School of Arts, September 2013 and participated in two twelve-week online classes – “Your Book Starts Here: Part 3.

Since winning the Loft mentorship, I have been working closely with mentor, Mark Anthony Rolo.

Under his tutelage, I enhanced the structure of my book to weave in my present story with back story. For example, on our flight to adopt Antonio and Crystel the sun is setting when the plane descends into the airspace above Guatemala City. Three large volcanoes dominate the horizon and I ruminate how both me and the Guatemalans were literally running from fire in 1974 when I was 15-years old.

And now, receiving a Jerome Travel and Study Grant allows me to travel to Guatemala to research indigenous Mayans and Mayan heritage to inform my memoir. I’m truly blessed. This trip is critical to finishing my book.

The trip is detailed field research on the traditions and history of Antonio’s and Crystel’s homeland. Besides the powerful emotional content intended for the last chapters, my visit will also provide insights that will enrich the whole manuscript.

Pacaya Volcano

Pacaya Volcano

Following Antonio and Crystel visit with their birthmothers we will travel by van to Panajachel and board a lancha to take us to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a small pueblo located on the northern coast of Lake Atitlan in Solola, Guatemala.

Situated half a mile above the shore on the mountainside it is home to indigenous Mayans.

Accessible only by rocky footpaths and lanchas, Santa Cruz is a virtual island on the mountainside.

Because of its isolated nature and small size, Santa Cruz is a great home base for our stay. We will be employing indigenous Mayan guides to explore small, traditional Mayan villages around the lake. The guides will be much more than guides as Antonio and Crystel will daily be seeing their own rich café au lait skin.

Santa Cruz la Laguna

Santa Cruz la Laguna

During our travel I will create a record of the voices, landscapes, and villages of the indigenous Mayans. Following my return home I will be able to create prose that truly draws its inspiration from the specific natural setting.

I’m lucky and grateful to have won a Next Step, Loft Mentorship, and Jerome Travel and Study Grant. Receiving these grants will help me complete HOUSE OF FIRE.

Antonio and Crystel, of course, understood the nuances of winning the Jerome Travel and Study Grant but it was Jody and I who were doing the HAPPY THANKFUL DANCE in the driveway.

Boy Scouts did What this Mom Couldn’t

May 18 2014 056A 30 mile bike ride with nary a whine. Just an I Made It! text. And where was I? 10 minutes behind the Scout, my butt and legs hurting.

Our ride started at Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis, the meeting place of Boy Scout Troop 110, and ended at Carver Park Reserve.

It didn’t take me long to realize how out of shape I was. Before leaving the parking lot, I tipped over. I couldn’t get my foot out of my clipless foot clamp. Lying on the ground, I looked up at Antonio while other Scout leaders rushed to help me. His face was expressionless, a look that he’s mastering.

“Perhaps, I’d better ride around the parking lot a few times before riding out,” I said.

Antonio’s daily bike riding had him in good shape for this challenge. Still, it was 10 miles before I saw his first smile. Antonio and another Scout had found the electronics table at the Depot Coffee House in Hopkins, our first rest stop. I didn’t chide Antonio to join the other scouts outside. I could see that this was a boy bonding moment and his way into this Boy Scout Troop. Instead, I snapped a picture, left a bottle of Gatorade and chocolate chip cookie on the Playstation.

Before leaving for our next ten miles, he said, “I think I’m going to like this Troop.”

May 18 2014 057At the 20 mile mark, he shocked me with two hugs. This could have been because we were at Adele’s Frozen Custard in Excelsior and in a moment he would ask for gummy worms and sprinkles . . . or maybe he was overwhelmed with love for his mom. Either way, I was shocked when his rock hard arms came around me and squeezed.

I had been giving him space on the ride, staying closer to the back of our herd of 16 bikers. I didn’t want to crowd him as he found his way into the pack.

Sometimes it’s only in a gathering like this that I get a glimpse of Antonio or Crystel as the ‘different’ ones. They are such a part of me that I don’t see any differences between us. In this group, Antonio was the only person of color. Meaning that in this group I was his white mom.

I wanted Antonio to choose how to ‘come out’ in this group that he was adopted. After all, it’s his group.

I’ve watched Antonio step between the world of Hispanics and the world of whites with ease. In this gathering he was the only Hispanic, even though at school his very best friends are Hispanic and white. (Thank you, Richfield Dual Language School!)

Troop 110 found a way around

Troop 110 found a way around

Six years ago, in kindergarten on his way home from school he whined, “Why do I have to learn Spanish?” Perhaps, he saw himself such a part of Jody and me that he didn’t see his difference. I paused thinking ‘Shock alert here’ then answered, “Because you’re Guatemalan, dude.”

At Carver Park Reserve, I texted Jody and told her that I had arrived. Antonio would be camping overnight with the Scouts while I headed for home.

This was another nice surprise: Antonio camping with the Boy Scouts by himself. I had told him in Cub Scouts that if he needed me to I would camp with him until he was 18. Perhaps he is writing his own book, LIFE WITHOUT MOM.

Except his book is LIFE WITHOUT TWO MOMS.

Carver Park Reserve

Carver Park Reserve

I wasn’t sure that Antonio was ‘out’ yet to this Boy Scout Troop that he had two moms. I’m sensitive that he and Crystel are allowed to be visible in their own timing and in their own way. I wrote a blog post about this July 26, 2012 titled Truth Telling.

I had already checked with the Scoutmaster (in private) about how the Troop felt about Antonio having two moms. “Everyone is welcomed.”

Since Jody and I weren’t sure if Antonio had come out to this Boy Scout Troop, we gave him separate quiet goodbyes.

The next morning at 7:40 a.m., I received a text from Antonio: When do you pick me up?

The Boy Scout

The Boy Scout

I couldn’t read between the lines–did he have a good time? Didn’t he have a good time? Would he be adamant about never returning to Scouts?

I texted back the time and then asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how did it go?”

He answered, 10!