Monday, January 16, 2017

Family is More Than Blood

Beau and Becca, 36 years apart

Numbers take on a really wibbly wobbly effect once you reach a certain age.

Now in my sixties – a number that carries all sorts of weirdness – I have been an orphan over half of my life. In one year’s time, a mere 365 days, I went from one of five to on my own. I am now ten years older than my mother on her last day. I am three years older than my father. I am over twice the age my brother would have been, and my eldest has been gone longer still.

These are unsettled times, as volatile as ever I remember from way back then. The fear that everyone feels now is thick as San Francisco fog. Worry about jobs, losing health insurance, paying the mortgage, student loans – it’s overwhelming.

There is a palatable grief as we witness the changing of the guard in Washington.

This is why I’ve enjoyed this series of six word memoirs so much. April spoke of moving fearlessly forward, keeping hope alive. Recently Robert Hardies (Washington Post)  offered three ways to cultivate hope, even when it seems hopeless. Of hope, says Hardies, “start where you are and take one step at a time.” You do the best you can with what you have.

Esther spoke about finding the silver-lining.  It’s not always easy, says Esther, because silver linings play hide-and-seek. But she keeps going because she knows – she has faith – that they are there.

Faith is always easier said than done, especially in the face of fretful times. For over twenty years (there’s that number thing again), I have been a writer. But like most writers, and artists, I’ve had plenty of hope, plenty of determination, plenty of ideas, just not enough money to pay the bills. I worked as a journalist, as an editor, as a bookseller. For over twenty years, I’ve worked as an adjunct. An adjunct’s life, like the life of an artist, is uncertain. There are no guarantees. You live semester to semester, month to month. You pay for your own health insurance, your own retirement. At one point, I was teaching at five colleges, twelve classes a semester. And all the while I sent out hundreds and hundreds of CVs and resumes for a full time job. Some I got as far as the interview process, but it always came to three reasons why I was rejected. One, I had the wrong degree. Two, I had the wrong experience. Three, I lived in the wrong location. Eventually, a fourth was included, though it was implied between the lines, I was too old.

Eventually, most of the programs where I taught closed or moved elsewhere. Still, for most of this time, I had two colleges – five classes over the school year -- that were steady.

Until it wasn’t.

So, now what?

I am more than a ridiculous old woman who lives in the woods. I am a statistic. I am one of 5.6 million involuntary part time workers, those of us who prefer full-time work but can’t find it. I am one of the 14.1 per cent who is an older American, and one of 28 percent noninstitutionalized – and isn’t that a glorious word. Not.-- older Americans living alone. Did I tell you how much I hate numbers?

We are all so afraid of what lies ahead.

As Hardies says, we “need a horizon in our lives that is larger than today’s headlines.” Faith – however you define it – provides that larger perspective that spreads across the horizon. Lift your eyes to the hills, he says. Keep your eye on the horizon and keep moving forward.

Mary Ann spoke of puzzles,  that works in progress are long haul projects. Isn’t that the definition of life itself, a long haul project? She reminds us that “it will all come together, somehow.”

Hardies tells us of Rumi, and “There is a secret medicine given only to those who hurt so hard, they cannot hope. Look as long as you can at the friend you love.”

Fearless. Faith.


So we come full circle to my six-word memoir: Family is more than blood.

“This is my family. I found it all on my own. It’s little and broken, but still good. Yeah, still good.” (says the wise alien, Stitch)

For most of my life, and all of her life, it has been just the two of us. We were the Gilmore Girls before the Gilmore girls. And recently, my little, broken family welcomed two new people. My little, broken family grows!

But I have learned over the many, many decades that blood is not as strong as togetherness. Family is not always defined by shared ancestry, but rather by a shared life.

Those who hold you up.

Those who show you the pieces of the puzzle.

Those who point to the horizon, and walk with you.

And if all this is true, then I have a really, really, really big family. Thank you, Monica, for believing in me. And Cynthia, for all our TARDIS larks. And Eric, and Marion, for holding me up. And Karen, for taking my hand. And Vera, for the hearts. And Emma, for your Dumbledore wisdom. And Jo, for the years. And Bonny and Bette, for all the hugs. And Bruce and Joanna, for your journeys and stories and inspirations. And for Teaching Authors, for bringing me into the sisterhood.

I could go on, but you get my point.

Indeed, these are scary times. You have every right to be afraid, feel betrayed, and be angry. But just remember, you are not alone, and therein lies your courage and your hope.

Take care,

Bobbi Miller
P.S. Yes, it's actually a five-word memoir. But I have always been a bit wibbly wobbly with numbers.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Six Word Memoir: It Will All Come Together, Somehow

     Everyone has a secret guilty pleasure.  Chocolate, Hallmark movies, karaoke.

     I have a secret geeky pleasure. Puzzles.  Jigsaw puzzles.

     When I lived in Wisconsin, where winter seems endless, lots of families kept a permanent "puzzle table" in the Great Room. Some of these could really mess up your mind: 2500 pieces of a Jackson Pollack painting. The cover of the Beatles' White Album.  A two-sided, round pizza puzzle; each side a different pizza. I put puzzling down as something for People Who Needed to Get a Life.

    Then I found the Beach Puzzlers.

    Several times a year, my family and friends meet at our beach house at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina. I don't remember who started it, but one year, along with the family-sized bags of M & M's, gallons of margarita mix and toilet paper, someone brought a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle. We dumped the pieces on the dining room table (never used for dining), and singly or in groups, put it together during our stay. Some of us spend hours at the table. Some of us stroll by on our way out to the beach to add a piece or two.  Tradition is that it MUST be finished before we leave.  One year, the Saturday morning cleaning crew arrived to find that The Renters (us) had not left at 10 am, so they could ready the house for the New Renters, coming in at 3.  The cleaners waited on the other side of a locked screen door, as  my husband yelled, "Two more pieces. I just have to put in two more pieces." (That was the year of the infamous swan-shaped puzzle.)
Daughter Lily, age 5, learns that no matter how hard you pound, you can't make a "wrong" piece fit.

     No, I haven't forgotten the six word memoir. Hang in there.

     I am terrible at meditation. I have a gabby mind that never shuts up. On sleepless summer nights when I hover over the puzzle, adding a piece here, searching for a piece there, that is a kind of meditation for me. Chanting "Blue piece, red piece" as a mantra, calms me, empties my mind of all the "outfield chatter."

   A tranquil mind leaves room for deep thoughts of life...and puzzling. How puzzles and life are a bag of jumbled bits, that come together to make a Big Picture. Only life is more like an old puzzle that has been in the house for years. When you finish it, five pieces of sky are missing, and you have ten pieces that definitely do not belong to this Big Picture.

  Hmmm. Maybe puzzles aren't like life after all.  Maybe they're more like writing. You start off with a jumble of ideas that you know are going to come together, some day.

    There are two ways of putting together a story/puzzle. Most people look first for all the straight edged border pieces (assuming it's not a swan or pizza). I look for pieces of a similar color that just look like they should ft. I write novels the same way. Some folks start with an outline.  I start with the scene that is the most vivid and fully formed in my head. I rarely start with Chapter One, and never with an outline.

   After awhile, I'll have a bunch of little puzzle patches that go with each other, but need to be connected to the Big Picture. The same with writing; my first draft will have scenes missing. What chapters and scenes I do have, need to be connected, to flow seamlessly one to another. When I stand back and look at a puzzle/novel (after working on it bit by bit), my head mysteriously now can find that weird-shaped black piece that goes with a bunch of other weird-shaped black pieces, that connect all the patches.  With a novel, I can see that this character should have gone here, not there.  All the transition scenes are waiting for me to insert them, so many tiny bridges of time and space, moving the reader through the story.
Puzzle two days ago

    And now...get ready for where my six word memoir fits in.

     When I first started submitting stories, my husband worked at an Alabama pulp mill. If you've never lived downwind of a pulp mill, I don't recommend it, unless you like the smell of sulphur 24/7. The upside of the mill was it's by-product: wood chips, which make great ground cover for the parts of the yard that would not grow grass.

    I was sitting on the front steps of my house, opening mail, when the wood chip truck arrived one day. I waved to Wayne, the driver as he backed up to his usual dumping space. The chips rattle-roared  down the dump slide as I opened a letter. A letter from an agent.

    An agent who had read my first three chapters and wanted to read the rest. My heart shot to my throat. And then back to my stomach.  You know it's not going to be a good letter when it begins, "I took your manuscript with me to my mother's funeral." You just know it's downhill from there.  And it was. Not only a rejection, but a nasty one. (I later learned that agents tend to be much more blunt than editors.)

    I slumped against a porch pillar, letter limp in my hand, and blinked away tears. Not only was I not good enough for her to represent, I apparently wasn't good enough to call myself a writer.  (Everyone's secret fear, right?)  This wasn't my first rejection, but it was the first to be up close and negative about my writing. (Although I did think that judging a work at a loved one's funeral was hardly fair.).  Maybe I should give up writing.  Maybe I should go work at  Barnes & Noble at the mall.

   Footsteps on the driveway made me raise my head.  The Wayne the Truck Driver had walked away from the enormous pine chip pile, stopping about twenty feet away fro me.  I pulled myself together and stood.

    "Would you like some water, Wayne?" I asked. "Hot day, huh?"

     As if he didn't hear me, he looked at me and said. "Don't you worry about whatever is worrying you."

     Did I look that depressed, even at a distance? But before I could speak, Wayne said, "It will all come together, somehow." To make sure I understood, he held out his hands and laced his fingers into a triangle. "It will all come together."

    Then he got back in his truck and drove away. The whole moment was so weird...almost as if I'd been visited by Yoda...if Yoda had been much taller, and wore overhauls and a John Deere cap. Sometimes I see signs and messages. I knew that this was a sign for me to keep writing.

    I remember Wayne's Words whenever my work-in-progress looks like an unfinished puzzle. It will all come together, somehow. If I work long enough, the missing scenes and connections will come and feel right, just the way you know the instant before you set it in place, that this puzzle piece belongs just there and nowhere else.
Puzzle this morning. Yes, there IS a missing piece.  Maybe the dog ate it.

   This is why there is always a puzzle-in-progress on my kitchen table (the one we never use for kitchen-like activities). It reminds me that puzzles, like novels, are long haul projects.  When I have a Bad Writing Day, or just hit a brick wall....I spend a moment or two with the puzzle. A piece will suddenly look different to me. I know where it goes. It snaps into place. A bit more of the Big Picture is revealed.  In my head, the brick wall crumbles. When I get back to the computer, the rubble will be swept away, a bridge forming in it's place.

Because, it will all come together, somehow.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Six Little Words That Tell My Story

Oh, how I love any New Year’s gifts.
Think: 365 chances (minimum).
Think: countless possibilities.
Today’s celebratory salutation requires but six little words - “Happy 2017 to our TeachingAuthors readers!”

Six, coincidentally, is the Magic Number for our current TeachingAuthor theme.
Six, as in, “six-word memoirs,” created by Smith Magazine a ways back and first introduced to our readers in Carmela Martino’s August 12, 2009 post.
April’s fearlessly-written Friday post is a Keeper.  I’ve ear-marked it for those times I feel my courage shrinking.

Thanks to Carmela’s 2009 post, I already own a six-word memoir: “Non-stop finder of Life’s Silver Linings.”
I’d thought long and hard to determine and capture my essence.
That was me then.  No if’s, and's or but's.

The question now, though: do those thoughtfully-chosen words STILL serve my story?

After weeks of reflection, my answer is “You betcha!”

While Happy Endings are my favorites, Life, I eventually discovered, is not all goodness and light. Clouds do gather and build, obliterating our sky-blue vistas. Often those clouds darken, and more times than we wish, they claim a spot smack above us, refusing to move on for very long periods of time!
What keeps me keepin’ on – personally, professionally, spiritually, even politically - is something else I also eventually discovered: those proverbial Silver Linings of song and breezy sayings will - in time - identify themselves.
The “H” in my ESTHER Name Poem stands for “hopeful.”

Maybe my hopefulness is astrological.  I’m a Sagittarian.
Or maybe it’s in my DNA.  (My blood type is BePositive.)
As we all know, I’m a Cubs Fan who believes “someday” is today.
But this very blog’s descriptive phrase in apposition – TeachingAuthor – embraces Hope!  My fellow bloggers and I work to help writers discover and grow their stories so their readers can do the same.

In Mary Schmich’s CHICAGO TRIBUNE column yesterday, she attempts to distinguish “Hope” from its most common synonym “Optimism.”  She drew the distinction that “Hope” was a “fluttery thing, that pretty flower that springs spontaneously from the dirt, no gardening skills required.”  Whereas she saw “Optimism” as “hard.  It can take work.  It demands focus in the face of contradiction,” she wrote.  “It’s a habit of mind, and like all habits it can be difficult to cultivate, easy to lose.”
Optimists must discipline themselves, she advises, to look up and forward, not down and back.

I’m the first to admit: Silver Linings excel at playing Hide-and-Seek.  Sometimes they won’t show their shiny selves until their mother clouds are miles (or even years) down the road.
What keeps me going is knowing (1) they are there and (2) they’ll surprise me, in a positive life-changing way.

“The moment passed long ago, but despair, defeatism, cynicism, and the amnesia and assumptions from which they often arise have not dispersed, even as the most wildly, unimaginably magnificent things came to pass. need to wait until the cloud has passed…before you catch sight of the silver lining…”

Yes, there are and will always be those times I am overly hopeful, overly optimistic. (The “E” in my ESTHER Name Poem stands for “enthusiastic.”)
This yellowed cartoon has lived inside my wallet since 1999.
Still, I’m on the hunt, non-stop, finding Life’s silver linings.
I’m keepin’ my six-word handle because it keeps me keepin’ on.

Happy Silver Lining-Finding!

Esther Hershenhorn

If you’re eager to write your Six-Word Memoir, click here for this Oldie-But-Goodie Wednesday Writing Workout.

Friday, January 6, 2017

6 Word Memoir ~ Fearlessly Looking Forward To The New Year!

Howdy, Campers ~

Happy New Year from all of us at TeachingAuthors! We are kicking this year off with a tip-of-the-hat to Smith Magazine's Six-Word Memoirs  More on this in a bit.

Thank you, Linda, for hosting Poetry Friday today. The link to PF is below, as is my small poem.

"The first and great commandment is: Don't let them scare you."
~ Elmer Davis

When I was young, my blood froze if I saw a spider across the room. I experienced sheer terror at the thought of a spider. When I was in college, I lived in a student co-op, with six guys and six girls. We were like a large family whose parents were gone for a very long weekend. We cooked and had dinner together each night—my kind of heaven. One of my first chores was to clean the downstairs bathroom. This was the University of California, Davis, originally an ag school, surrounded by fields and vineyards. So the Davis Student Co-op was filled with ...spiders. Of course it was. And the downstairs bathroom was apparently their party room.

How could I admit my phobia to my fellows? I could not. Instead, I made a sign that said "Charlotte," pasted it just under the big spider in the corner above the sink, and used a rolled up newspaper to send the rest to spider heaven. 
Every week I'd talk to Charlotte. I grew fond of her. With Charlotte's help, my phobia disappeared.

Fast forward to my life these days. I am afraid of a boatload of things--but not spiders. For example, I am afraid of earthquakes. So I volunteer with CERT, Community Emergency Response Team. We learn to rescue people. CERT turns neighbors into team members so that in an emergency we band together. This doesn't mean I've lost my fear of earthquakes, it means if there is one, I have a job to do, and a community of people who will help me do it.

More fears: I am an TeachingAuthor who is afraid of teaching...and of writing. Of teaching badly. Of writing something mediocre. 

I am learning to walk through these fears with the help of others who have gone before me, including our tiny village of TeachingAuthors ~ and all of you, our readers. Thank you.

This year? I am afraid for democracy. 

I am terrified.

Fear, I'm told, is the opposite of faith. I have faith in my own resilience, in the basic goodness of the universe, in a village of courageous and smart friends and fellows along the way.

So, I've decided to copy many of you who, like Irene Latham, choose One Little Word (OWL) to guide them each year. My word for 2017 is Fearless. Every day I tell myself I am fearless and everyday I believe it a smidgen more. I love the whole community of words that I could have chosen, including unflinching, unafraid, defiant, gutsy, and audacious.

In fact, is having a contest right now about hope in the new year which ends January 13th: Basically, "Tell us how you keep hope alive in six words." You can read the rules here.

by April Halprin Wayland

Hold hands.
Move fearlessly
photo credit:
What is your Six Word Hope in this New Year?

Check out a host of Poetry Friday hopes at Linda's TeacherDance

posted by April Halprin Wayland with a heart full of hope (with help from Eli, Monkey and Snot.)

Monday, December 19, 2016

Not for the Fun of It

I have the honor of writing the last blog post for 2016.  We will return with new posts on January 16, 2017.

To wrap up our blog posts for the year, my colleagues have posted excellent lists of wonderful books they’ve read this year.

Now it is my turn.  But to be honest, I’ve read nothing purely for the fun of it this year.   I’ve been writing a nonfiction book about George Washington’s enslaved people.  So this entire year, I’ve read mountains of research material on the subject.  I’ve studied books, articles, and unpublished manuscripts on George Washington, on slavery at Mount Vernon, and on slavery in general. 

As you can imagine this topic has been a heavy one-and an important one.  Within all that research, I’ve read many things I’ve enjoyed-but they aren’t all books.  Mount Vernon is one of my favorite places and their web site is amazing.  Even though I’ve been there many times, while writing my book, I’ve used the virtual tour and look at certain rooms again.  I’ll look and read through their online collections for hundreds of artifacts.  I’ve also read through many papers both published and unpublished written by Mount Vernon’s historian Mary V. Thompson.  And I’ve poured over print outs from the Mount Vernon slavery database overseen by Molly Kerr.  I’ve read countless first person accounts of visitors to Mount Vernon who mention specific enslaved people there.   

I confess there are times when I wonder if the books I write are worth the thousands of hours I invest in them.   Would fiction be more fun to write?  Would fiction be less restrictive to write?  Would fiction be more lucrative to write?  Maybe.  But I still hang on to the belief that the sort of research and books I do are important.   

Carla Killough McClafferty


to our giveaway winner:  

Carl S.  

Friday, December 16, 2016

A List of Good Book Lists from 2016 Plus a Few Other Books I Enjoyed

I love the year-end lists of good books that are appearing all over the Internet now. Every year, I pore over them, trying to memorize intriguing titles, noticing which books appear on several lists, and adding as many as I can to my teetering reading pile. Today, I continue our own Teaching Authors series on the books we've enjoyed from 2016.

Esther, Mary Ann, and Bobbi have already posted their favorites. I've agreed with many of their recommendations, but I won't repeat them here. Instead, I'll post a few titles that I haven't seen on other people's lists, at least not yet. Because there's never enough room on the lists for all the good books.

First, some of the lists I've been using to order books for my reading pile:

19 books to help children find hope and strength in stressful times: A librarian’s list from Karen MacPherson, the children’s and teen services coordinator for the Takoma Park, MD, library

Holiday Gift Guide: Here's Some Great Latino Books for Kids, Teens by MONICA OLIVERA

The Best Children’s Books of 2016 BY MARIA POPOVA (Brainpickings)

The best kid's books to give this year from Minnesota Public Radio News by Holly Weinkauf, owner of the Red Balloon Bookshop in St. Paul and a former children's librarian, and Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children's Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota Libraries.

Best books of 2016 to give -- and receive: Children's and middle-grade favorites by Tracy Mumford, MPR News Staff

Best books of 2016 to give -- and receive: Young adult favorites by Tracy Mumford

Best Picture Books of 2016 from The Huffington Post

Best Informational Books for Older Readers of 2016 from the Chicago Public Library

31 Days, 31 Lists: Day Four – 2016 Great Picture Book Readalouds by Elizabeth Bird, School Library Journal (Be sure to see the links to more lists at the end of the article.)

The Best Middle Grade Books of 2016 from Entertainment Weekly

Next, a few of the many books I've enjoyed in addition to those on the lists, with their library summaries:

writing book: The Kite and the String: How to Write with Spontaneity and Control - and Live to Tell the Tale by Alice Mattison. A targeted and insightful guide to the stages of writing fiction and memoir without falling into common traps, while wisely navigating the writing life, from an award-winning author and longtime teacher.

picture book: Wonderfall by Michael Hall. Follows the story of a single tree through the changing of the seasons from fall to winter, as people, animals, and vehicles pass in front of the tree, celebrating holidays, playing in the leaves, and building nests. Includes blended words.

poetry: Every Day Birds by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. Young readers are fascinated with birds in their world. Every Day Birds helps children identify and learn about common birds. After reading Every Day Birds, families can look out their windows with curiosity--recognizing birds and nests and celebrating the beauty of these creatures!

middle grade: Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LaFleur. Sofarende is at war and the army is paying families well to recruit children, so if twelve-year-old Mathilde or her best friend Megs is chosen, they hope to help their families but fear they will be separated forever.

young adult: Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King. A talented 16-year-old artist slowly discovers the history of domestic violence behind why her brother left the family years earlier and why she suddenly cannot make art.

Have fun browsing! Have fun creating your own reading pile! Have fun reading!

Today is the last day to enter our current Teaching Authors Book Giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the new verse novel by Jeannine Atkins, Finding Wonders: Three Girls Who Changed Science, which certainly belongs on a Best Books list. Good luck!

Tabatha Yeatts has today's Poetry Friday Roundup at The Opposite of Indifference. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken