Reflective Blogging

My thanks to Tammy for including me on her list of five “Reflective Bloggers.” She is definitely the epitome of what the award is all about…a blogger whose posts are an “encouragement, a source of love, and provide a Godly example.”

One of the greatest gifts of this information age is the ability to learn from the amazing experiences and feelings that other bloggers share so unselfishly. These five bloggers are just a few of the many that give me pause for reflection and renew my spirit.

~Joan, of Rivanna River Days, has opened my eyes to the beauty of the natural world in an entirely new way. Her gentle and insightful posts about the environment, as well as her gorgeous pictures of her home on the river, give us all food for thought…

~Deborah, aka Jane Poe, of Nevermore, shares her perspective on life in general in a stirring poetic commentary that always merits multiple readings, and always makes me shake my head in wonder at her ability to find the perfect words to express her feelings…

~Darlene, at A Walk in My Shoes, has taken us with her as she lives day to day with lupus and as she worked to bring her son back to life after a horrific auto accident. Her beautiful smile and artistic talents shines through in all her words, and she brings beauty to my daily walk…

~My friend Deirdre, at Writing Anam Cara, has a luminous way with words that takes the reader directly into her experience, whether she’s describing her hopes for the future, her struggle to recover from the loss of her sister, or just an ordinary day. She writes the way I wish I could…

~Patti Digh, at 37 Days is probably already familiar to many of you. Her philosophical posts about life always make me smile, think, and marvel.

Hormone Havoc

I’ve been completely distorted lately. I was trying to come up with a word to describe this sensation of feeling disproportionately out of sorts with myself, my life, and everyone I come into contact with, and “distorted” seems to fit perfectly.

Yesterday, as I sat holed up in my writing room, I tried to reflect on the reason I was behaving like a petulant teenager, throwing mini-tantrums and storming around “loaded for bear” as the saying goes. Truthfully, these feelings are not unfamiliar. They used to happen on a regular basis – about once a month, to be exact. Any of you who happen to be female know exactly what I’m referring to. However, since I haven’t been bothered with that monthly occurrence in well over a year, I thought I was done with all that.

But this week, it came roaring back with a vengeance, the attack of the raging hormones. It’s really as if an alien has invaded my psyche and injected me with lethal doses of impatience, dissatisfaction, restlessness, anxiety – all those awful feelings that women dump into the category of PMS, premenstrual syndrome – or, in my case, post menopausal syndrome.

Now, I’ve since realized why this has happened, and taken steps to remedy the situation (I’ll tell you about that later.) The interesting thing – the rather frightening thing – is the way I have felt completely out of control, completely not myself. I literally want to do violence to people and things. I hate everyone I know (and love!) and have this almost overwhelming urge to get in my car and drive it off a cliff – seriously.

This has got me thinking about the ways women really are different from men. And these thoughts are completely antithetical to the feminist way of thinking I’ve been raised with. But it occurred to me that if I were the President of the United States right now, I might be sorely tempted to push that famous button and annihilate anyone and everyone who was getting in my way.

Of course, being the good girl that I am, I always stop myself from committing any act of violence worse than tossing dishes (plastic!) against the wall. Even in this state of hormonal havoc, I retain my sense of control, because I generally have great control over my emotions. (Whether that’s good or bad, only my therapist knows for sure.) But some women are completely ravaged by their hormones – we’ve all read the horror stories of seemingly “normal” women who murder their children while suffering from post partum depression.

Luckily, when I woke up this morning, I could feel my sense of emotional equilibrium returning to normal. I did some yoga, rode my bike, went to church, and haven’t felt like killing anyone (yet). But this episode reminded me once again that our bodies can play vicious tricks on us, and it’s well to be wary of them.

By the way, here’s the reason this happened – at least, this is my best guess. A couple of weeks ago, I started taking Black Cohosh as treatment for hot flashes, which were really driving me crazy this summer. As I looked at the bottle, I realized I was taking these 540 mg capsules twice daily, when the recommended dosage was once daily. So, I think I may have experienced an “herbal overdose.” I cut back immediately, and started to feel better. Another lesson learned – even “natural remedies” can be dangerous if not taken properly.

Sunday Scribbling-Phenomenon

I’ve never really been one to get obsessed with any cultural phenomenon, not even those pecuilar to my era…The Beatles, for instance. Oh, I liked them well enough, but nothing on par with my cousins, whose turntables spun their lp’s endlessly and whose walls were plastered with pictures cut from every fanzine published about them.

Since I’ve lived for half a century now, I’ve seen quite a few phenomena come and go. I’m always amazed at the lengths people will go to indulge their obsessions, and of course, the Harry Potter craze is certainly no exception. Like everything in the 21st century, it’s bigger and more fantasmagorical than anything in my memory. I feel as if I’m admitting to heresy when I say that I’m not a huge Potter fan…ok, truthfully, I haven’t read any of the books. (I started to read the very first one, and I got so upset at the way Harry’s mean Aunt and Uncle treated him that I had to put it aside!) People told me I should have finished it, to see that they got their comeuppance…but I don’t know, I think I had a huge stack of other books calling more loudly to me at time.

Maybe my life would be more exciting if I could throw myself wholeheartedly into these types of phenomenal trends. I’m certainly not arguing that J.K. Rowling’s huge success is a phenomenon, as was the Beatles. But I guess I’m just more comfortable observing these phenomenal success stories from afar, while I putter around in my totally non-phenomenal life.

more phenomenal scribbling here

Write on Wednesday-Revision Redux

The revision process continues to be on my mind this summer – notice I said “on my mind,” meaning I haven’t done much more than think about it. The whole process of novel revision seems terribly daunting. I’ve been collecting other writer’s thoughts on their process of revision, hoping to get inspired, and it worked to some degree. I’ve started revising a short story I wrote last winter, hoping that by “practicing” on something smaller, I’ll be less intimidated by the work involved in revising the novel.

Here’s some food for thought regarding the revision process…as you will see, every author approaches it completely differently!

“I start on the first page. Then, I rewrite that page twenty or forty times until it’s right, and then it’s finished. Then, I go to page two and I do the same thing twenty or forty times.” Stephen Dixon

“I go over what I’ve written, but I’m not making major changes. I’m just fixing it by making minor changes that might have a big effect. I hardly throw anything out.” Jayne Ann Phillips

“I do twenty or thirty drafts. I’m a big reviser. I go back…and polish the beginning, then I force myself to go through page by page from beginning to end, over and over again.” Amy Bloom

“I go through with a very cold eye to cut out everything that can be cut without loss.” Thomas E. Kennedy

“I polish as I go along. My habit is to perfect individual sentences, individual paragraphs, and individual pages, and when I think they’re as good as I can make them, I feel free to go on to the next part. So when I write the last sentence of the last paragraph, I’m done with the book.” Kent Haruf

“I do a great many drafts, no matter what it is. This means letting it sit for a few days before looking at it again, then doing it again, then letting it sit and doing it again. I let my friends read drafts after the first ten or twelve. My early drafts are sketchy in the most important ways – everything vital is left out – and they’re wordy in other ways – there’s all this extraneous material that doesn’t matter. So the revisions are in both directions.” Andrea Barrett

“I do a lot of revisions in fits and starts. When I write, I barrel through from beginning to end, and then back up, and if the beginning isn’t working, start over. Once it works, I write through to the end, and start revising, and, if necessary, trash the whole thing, and start over.” Myla Goldberg

Writer Bug posted some great revision advice which she picked up at her last residency. She talks about picking 15 areas you want to work on in your manuscript, and then going through it 15 times, focusing on one area each time. Some things to work with include: verbs, redundancy, verbosity, vagueness. She also advises reading the story aloud, which is a great idea.

As I’ve begun revising my own short story, I’ve been taking one paragraph at a time, revising each sentence, looking for better words, paring down wordiness, then going on to the next paragraph until I’ve finished the page. Then I re-read the page and see how it flows. Once I’ve done each page, I’ll go back and re-read the whole thing to see if I need to make structural changes.

So, how about you? Anyone else out there in the process of revisions? If so, how’s it going?

Decisions, Decisions

Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.” ~Agnes de Mille

In case any of you are wondering whether I’ve made the momentous decision, the one I regularly dither about here at the Byline and in morning pages, the one I keep waffling back and forth about, knowing full well the desire of my heart, but troubled nonetheless by the demands of my schedule…just in case you’re wondering…yeah, I guess I’ve pretty much decided. How’s that for a definitive answer?

How do you make decisions? I’m horrible at it, really. Please tell me you have some fail safe process I can follow, or a formula that will give me the best possible answer to everything from which library book to read next to where to build my retirement home. I try to be logical about decisions, looking at the pro’s and con’s of all the variables, tallying up the strengths and weaknesses I’ve listed in neat little columns. But in the end, I often just follow my gut instinct, or my heart, or the path of least resistance!

It comes down to the fact that I don’t trust myself. Most of the time, I know what I really want, but I’m always second guessing myself in favor of the “greater good” or some other amorphous “what if.” Perhaps I simply think too much, worrying my thoughts as if they were beads on an Indian necklace, rubbing them nervously between the fingers of my mind.

I began the summer fretting over making a decision, but somewhere along the way I stopped fretting about it and let the question lay dormant in my heart for a while. It burrowed down in my mind, where it’s been quietly simmering on its
own as I’ve gone about my quiet, peaceful days. Along about 4:00 in the afternoon, that period when I start to get restless and dissatisfied with what I’ve tried to accomplish for the day, I feel it stirring, poking me gently, reminding me “I’m still here…you haven’t forgotten about me, have you?”

Truthfully, I think this particular decision was decided for me long ago. The moment I walked into my living room 45 years ago and saw a brand new piano waiting for me. From that moment, playing music became such an important part of my life that relinquishing any opportunity to do that is unthinkable. Might as well ask me to voluntarily stop breathing.

So, come September, I’ll be going back to my job at the high school, at least for the time being.

If I come to some other decision, I’ll let you know.

Write on Wednesday-In the Moment

In the past year, I’ve become addicted to morning pages. There is something so freeing about sitting down to write three pages every morning and knowing it doesn’t matter what I write about, whether the words that end up on the page are sensible, beautiful, logical, or even legible. Knowing that spiral notebook and ballpoint pen are sitting on the table where I left them yesterday morning, waiting patiently to hear all my sleepy headed, good morning thoughts, is like knowing a patient and trusted friend has been sitting up all night just to hear what I have to say.

Admittedly, sometimes the words don’t come so easily. Those are the times when I’m the slightest bit fearful of the page, because the reluctance sometimes means there are disturbing thoughts or issues I don’t want to face, and they’re liable to come rushing to the forefront if I start writing, opening the floodgates in my mind and my heart. I’ve worked some things out on the page~feelings about relationships, hopes for the future. I’ve allowed myself to dream “out loud,” and also to release my anger in those words I spill onto paper first thing in the morning.

And, because morning pages are all “in the moment,” meaning they’re not thought out or planned, sometimes all that appears is drivel – what I made for dinner, what movie I plan to see, the new dress I’m shopping for. Whatever flows from my brain through the pen and onto the page is what goes into the mix for the day.

“Daily writing, writing simply for the sake of writing, is like keeping a pot of soup on the back of the stove,” writes Julia Cameron. “It is always there, always ready to be tasted, always ready to be added to, always nourishing, savory, life-sustaining. Like soup, your daily writing doesn’t have to be fancy. A few simple ingredients are enough.”

Cameron’s basic recipe for the “stock” of our writer’s soup consists of these three “ingredients”:

  • Honesty~look at “where you are” in your life, both physically and emotionally;
  • Observation~what’s going on in your world, immediately, and in the larger sphere;
  • Imagination~what can you imagine doing, or being that would bring you the greatest happiness?

As I put my morning thoughts on paper, I try to be mindful of these ingredients. Even when the pages seem to be nothing more than a litany of complaints, or a string of worries knotted together like beads, they are reflective of my honest observations about life at the moment. As I write, I feel the soup begin to stir in my brain, simmering slowly as the flavors mix and mingle together. Where am I and what is going on around me? How can I change things? What shall I do next?

Each morning, my writer’s soup nourishes me for the day ahead and forms a record of my life “in this moment.” The broth only grows richer with each entry.

How about you? Do you keep a writer’s soup simmering on the back burner of you mind? What are your basic ingredients?

And the Rain Came Down

It’s been so long since we had a rainy day here, but finally the sky relinquished some of that miracle water it’s been holding on to for the past six weeks. It’s a niggling amount, really, skinny little streams tracing down in thin lines from those bloated grey clouds, but even this skimpy portion has lent a greenish glow to the parched grass on my front lawn, grass that looked and felt like straw last night as we scuffed across it on our evening walk.

There’s something calming about a drizzly day like this, especially after many days of endless sunshine. Don’t get me wrong, I love sunshine. Sunny days urge you outdoors into movment and activity, but a cool rainy day invites you to slow down, settle in where its warm and dry. There is definitely something to be said for being tucked up cozy inside with tea and a book at the ready, while the outside world performs its ablutions in peace.

I came home early from work today ~the house is eerily empty and quiet with my kids gone back to their own home in the land of eternal sunshine. Molly is curled up on the bed here in the guest room, her head tucked into Nantana’s pillow. Molly seems to feel that she and Nantana are “soul sisters,” and she cleves to the girl with an obsessive devotion. So she’s sad, and pouting a little bit I think, hoping I’ll take pity and give her an extra cookie.

My plan was to do some errands on the way home, clean up the house, do some laundry, make something for dinner…yet here I am, curled up in the armchair with dogs at my side, writing, reading, listening to the rain coming down, sort of reveling in this peacefulness. I think I’ll give myself this gift of refreshment today, a day to enjoy some simple pleasures. Let the rain come down.

Sunday Scribblings-Hair

My mom and I have always been very close, and so far have managed to escape most of the usual mother-daughter conflicts. However, when I was a pre-teen, my hair became a huge battleground between us.

My long, thick, wavy hair was my mother’s pride and joy. She delighted in curling and brushing it until it hung like smooth auburn silk, flowing in gentle waves down my back to my waist. Personally, I despised it. I desperately wanted my friend Lisa’s stick straight blonde page-boy, that framed her face perfectly and fit nicely underneath a baseball cap.

Then, there were the bangs. Oh, how I longed for those forehead covering bangs all the 60’s models wore, the kind that grazed the eyebrows and tickled the eyelashes. But no, my mother insisted on trimming my bangs high up on my forehead. “Why in the world do these girls let their hair hang down into their eyes?” she’d say, coming at me with those dreaded scissors. “Because it’s cool!” I wanted to scream. But, I was a good girl and kept my mouth shut, letting her trim away, all the while seething inside.

The last straw came in the form of a comment from one of my friends – the aforementioned Lisa, actually – who was describing a classmate in the mean -spirited way only 12 year old girls can.

“Her hair is so stupid!” she declared. “And her bangs are the worst! They’re so…” here she stopped and looked at me thoughtfully. “Well, I was going to say they’re so short, when I realized that yours are like that too. Why don’t you grow them out?”

The jig was up. Now my friends realized how totally un-cool my hair was.

“I want my hair cut!” I announced when I got home from school that day. “I want short hair, and I’m letting my bangs grow long.”

“You’re not cutting off that beautiful hair,” my mother answered. “Someday, you’ll be glad you have all that thick, wavy hair. You’re not cutting it.”

For once I was persistent. For days, weeks, months, I complained rudely every time we completed the hair washing/drying/curling ritual. Finally, she relented.

Alright, you can cut it,” she said. “On one condition. Have your portrait done with long hair.”

GOD, if there was anything I hated worse than short bangs, it was having my picture taken. And a portrait would entail posing endlessly for a stranger. It was a mark of my determination that I agreed.

The portrait wasn’t too bad. It turned out so well, in fact, that the studio asked if they could hang it in their display window for the summer. It still hangs in my mother’s living room, a young girl dressed in the pale peach colored dress chosen by her mother, her long, dark tresses artfully arranged to lay smoothly down her back, grazing the bow tied at her waist. In her eyes is the slightest sly smile, knowing that with this portrait, she’s stepping into a world of her own choosing, independent from the wishes and tastes of her parents.

I got my haircut, and began a battle of my own with my hair, struggling to tame those pesky waves into the smooth, sleek looks so popular in the 60’s and 70’s. I’ve never had long hair again, much to my husband’s dismay. (Do all men love long hair, and if so, why?) Much as I love him, I’ll never let anyone dictate my hair style again. I fought that battle already – and won!

here are more hairy tales

Write on Wednesday-Character Study

Once upon a time, I wanted to be a psychologist ~ believe it or not, my first major at the University of Michigan was psychology. Seems strange for a girl who grew up playing the piano and writing stories, doesn’t it? I think this compulsion sprang from my fascination with people – why they act (and react) the way they do, how their emotions effect their behavior. This same fascination is why I love literature so much – where else can you meet so many fascinating and complex characters?

I recently read an article by Gail Godwin (an author whose characters I greatly admire), who has this to say about “Creating Characters With Depth” (The Writer, June 2007):

“Use yourself. Go deeply into your own feelings and look for the hidden truths, motives, and perspectives. For we all have more in common than you think.”

Godwin relates that she was once working on a story with a character who had recently become widowed. Trying to convey a sense of what this woman was feeling, without being trite, Godwin reflected on the way she herself felt when she was alone. She realized that she always felt a need to leave a light burning at night. So by having her character compelled to leave a light on, she was able to convey a sense of vulnerability without being maudlin.

“Observe others, observe yourself,” Godwin advises. “Practice putting gestures, habits, facial expressions into words.” My son was once quite interested in animation, and took some classes at the Disney animation studios. The artists talked about the way they imitated their characters antics in the mirror, and then drew what they saw. As writers, we can do the same thing with our characters – observe ourselves not only physically, but emotionally, to gain insight into the way people might react in a given situation. Godwin assures us that “you have enough self knowledge to take an imaginative leap from what you don’t understand about a character you’re trying to create to what you do understand about yourself.”

Creating characters gives the writer a chance to play God – to take bits and pieces from ourselves, from people we know, and put them together to create a unique individual. It takes lots of practice to be precise and compelling enough with words to get a person “down on paper” well enough so that he can “walk off the page” and into the reader’s imagination. As writers we have to be able to “reproduce with clarity” the looks, gestures, objects, and environments of people, because these are the things that make them who they are. “You have the power of observation and compassion necessary to penetrate to the depths of people and realize they are just as complicated as you are,” Godwin assures us. “The really great writer is on everybody’s side,” having empathy and understanding of their emotional needs and motivations.

Since my career in psychology didn’t quite pan out, I’ll have to be content with studying human nature with an eye to creating complex and entertaining characters. And isn’t that what makes reading, writing – and life itself!- so fascinating?

So how about you? Who are some of your favorite fictional characters? If you write fiction, how do you create believable and interesting characters?

More of what I’m learning about character development can be found at Moving Write Along – A Matter of Character, Part, I, II, and III

By the way – I could have written a really good description of myself having a complete meltdown about 30 minutes ago after I finished the first draft of this post (complete with links) and Blogger somehow mysteriously ate it! So much for the “automatically saves your draft” feature.

One Deep Breath-Feathered Friends

wings splash
cooling dusty feathers
in the birdbath
It’s been so incredibly dry here in Michigan this summer …our grass is brown, the flowers growth has been stunted, and the wildlife are searching for moisture. Each morning, I find my birdbath tipped over, as if some creature has toppled it on himself for a cold shower in the night! As soon as I fill it up, birds gather eagerly, waiting their turn to splish, splash around.
~for more haiku about our feathered friends, fly over here