Tag Archives: writing

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

I was addicted to stories. I devoured them, one after the other, bending and folding paperbacks with abandon, dog-earring corners, underlining words that were beautiful, words that were true. Young heroines like Emily of New Moon and Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books taught me how to be spunky and creative. It wasn’t long before I was weaving plots for hours on a 1995 Gateway computer in my bedroom.

I remember wanting other kinds of stories, too. Sitting at the dinner table long after all the food was eaten, we’d beg my father to tell us stories about his childhood. (My mother’d always shake her head when we asked her, saying she didn’t have any stories. I still find this hard to believe.) Dad’s stories often involved fish, foolish things my dad had tried because he was “curious.” The time when he was three and took the goldfish out of the tank “to look at it” is a classic; I can still picture the poor thing gasping on the living room carpet, the victim of an over-active mind and not quite enough supervision.

My mother’s friend from college told us good stories, too. I remember most the one of her throwing cherry tomatoes over the railing and hitting guests. Oh, and the one with blood-engorged ticks (who could erase that memory?!). And the one when the dog ate rising bread dough and its stomach rose with it, waddling proof that dogs do not know what’s best for them.

I grew up on stories.

The voices brought people alive, my great-great-grandfather and his stern Maine-ness. My grandpa whom I’d known but only awhile, breathed again when we talked about his stories of growing up on a fox farm. As I listened and began to craft stories of my own, I realized that one day, I too would have stories to tell my children.

Chatham

What do you want your story to be?

[He asks from the pulpit, and I think, I’ve been thinking about this all along.]

When you write your story, think about how it affects others.

When you write your story, make it one you want to tell.

This is the one sentence that rang through the sanctuary, hanging in the air, making the skin on my arms prickle with its truth.

Even though I’ve discovered the repercussions of writing a life before living it, here I was reminded that sometimes we need to shape the life we’re given. Yes, things happen beyond our control, and yes, sometimes we ache from those uncontrollables. But more often than not, we have choice.

I get to choose what story I’m living, and I get to make it one I want to tell.

~     ~     ~

I will tell about early Christmas mornings, all four of us huddling in one bedroom because we wanted to share it that one day. The lights from the tree bouncing off the mirror in the hallway. About waiting for the cousins to come and longing for the day to never end. They will ask where our traditions come from, and I’ll smile and tell them the story.

I will tell about riding horses in the sun and feeling powerful.

I will tell about discovering Laura Ingalls for the first time, about raising chickens and gardening, the plethora of projects done in the name of sustainable living.

I will tell about late-night summer man-hunts when hormones ran rampant and we didn’t know what to do with them so we ran, too.

I will tell about choosing a college and not being sure but doing it anyway. I will tell about loneliness and fear, about trying hard and singing hard and learning. They will ask about friends and making friends, about trying to love. I’ll tell about walks around the pond where so much got twisted around and sorted out.

I will tell about graduating and reeling in my own mind. About disappointments and mis-steps that, while not destroying definitely left me feeling useless. About dark months in winter when I was learning to trust and hating every minute of it.

redsox

And my most recent stories? They’ll include the discovery of joy. The summer we all lived at home again and spent our evenings on the back porch. Riding with the top down in my car, fearing the day when I’ll have to say goodbye to this lovely little bug that’s taken me so many places. Finding a church that allows me to be the silly, too-immature-for-small-group girl I sometimes am. Growing in friendships that have challenged me, shaped me, and made me think deeper than I ever could have thought on my own.

My story isn’t done, but I finally feel like I am choosing it.

Good Things #17

No Ted Talks this week. Just some not-so-related Good Things.

Music. You know a song is good when it makes you nostalgic for something you never had. That’s how I feel when I listen to “Ashokan Farewell,” like I miss deeply my Appalachian home. I found out that it was actually written in 1982, even though it sounds like it’s straight out of the Civil War. (PBS miniseries, anyone?) I listened to this on repeat while I graded Latin tests – there’s nothing like grammar terms to make good music necessary.

Who vs. Whom. Yes, this is one of the good things. I’ve been explaining the difference for about a week now to various levels of Latiners. I’ve watched their eyes glaze over and their cheeks drain of all blood and I’ve fielded their desperate pleas for a bathroom break. Do you know the difference between who and whom? I can honestly admit that I didn’t…until I took my first Latin class as a sophomore and learned about the Accusative Case and Direct Objects and All Other Things Grammatical. Now I can use “whom” with aplomb, but who would choose to?

lavender

Lavender spray. What is that, you ask? My mom bought me this amazing lavender spray from an herbalist at the Farmers’ Market and it’s amazing. Wait, did I already say that? I spray it on my pillow every night and it’s so soothing. I wish my muscles could soak it up.

ruminate

Taking risks. I wrote a poem my senior year of college. I remember sitting on my bed, not sure if I should write it, not sure if it was worth anything. It had been a moment – the summer before when I was twenty-one and freaking out about graduating – and I didn’t (and still don’t) trust my ability to recognize moments for what they are. But I wrote it anyway. I sat on it for a year and a half. I pulled it out again, brought it to writers’ group, deleted and added and shifted and shaped. I called it “Almost Family”, submitted it to a poetry contest at Ruminate, and it placed in the top seventeen. It was published in the September issue and there is my name in black and white print. There is the moment in writing that I didn’t trust and almost forgot. My first paid piece of writing. Now how to spend that twelve dollars…

Enjoy your Wednesday!

Where I’m From

I am from a thought-filled bed –

from pumpkin-pie candles and oak bookshelves.

 

I am from the white house on the slope,

homegrown apples and sage.

 

I am from the golden honey –

the towering pine whose long gone limbs

I remember as if they were my own.

 

I’m from dinners on the porch and too much laughing,

from an open-hearted mama and a dream-big father.

I’m from not enough cleaning and just the right living

and from stacks of books that beg reading.

 

I’m from “don’t wish your childhood away” and “try new food always”

and “Jesus called them one by one.”

 

I’m from cozy Christmas mornings and the yellow lights.

I’m from New and Old England,

sun-warmed vegetables and raspberry jam.

 

From sea-fishing, lake-fishing, ice-fishing,

when long-gone family breathe life again

for just that moment on the water,

 

and scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings

tell us the world.

 

[This is part of a link-up with SheLoves Magazine]

Good Things #15

I decided to write “Good Things Mondays” back when Monday morning was spent with my writing and reading and catching-up. This year, my schedule has shifted, and Wednesday is now the day for creativity.

So, are things just as Good on Wednesdays as they are on Mondays?

I like to think so.

Thought-provoking. I have recently become re-addicted to TED Talks. I posted one last week on being a twenty-something, and this week’s favorite is on body language. We’ve heard this idea before – that information is conveyed through non-verbal cues – but Amy Cuddy asks if perhaps our body language can change our thinking. It left me thinking: How do I portray myself just by the way I stand? Do I adopt a posture of powerlessness? Or the other way around?

amy

Music. I can’t remember how I found this song. Probably Pandora. And for once I was smart and wrote down the name. It’s called “Way Over Yonder in a Minor Key”, and the version I like the best isn’t on Youtube. This one’s pretty good though, and when I heard his speaking voice, I was surprised he sang such folksy music.

Books. Right now I’m reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. I bought it from an independent used book store right before they were unceremoniously kicked out of their space of twenty-plus years by outrageously-raised rent (can you tell what I think about that?). It’s written as letters back and forth so that was an adjustment at first. It’s set post WWII, and I really like that time period these days. It’s also Shaffer’s first novel, and I like reading author’s firsts.

guernsey

Fall walks, bike rides, etc. Is there any other season that begs to be walked in? The leaves are changing here in New England, the air is crisp, and I revel in the particular way the sun looks in autumn.

IMG_0855

Fall foods. Crunchy apples. Warm cider. Pumpkins (uneaten on the steps). Cider doughnuts. Apple pie (as soon as I get to apple picking).

Woo-hoo! So, I submitted a poem to a competition a few months ago (okay, more like a lot of months ago), and while it didn’t win, it was one of 17 finalists. It’s called “Almost Family” and it comes out in the September issue of Ruminate. A step in the right direction. Now if only I could write more…and more… If you click on the link, you’ll see my name, fourth from the top in the poetry section as proof!

Words. Autumnal. Puerile. Euphoric.

Small Town Summer

What do you do when you realize old-fashioned doughnuts are the best?

You eat them.

It is the first week of summer vacation, and I’ve begun a terrible and beautiful habit. This past winter, a little cafe opened downtown. It’s so little that there are only three tables inside and two tables outside. They serve sandwiches and other things, but I go for the doughnuts. I’ve tried a few kinds: old-fashioned plain, maple-bacon (wow, sugar blast!), and a sort of puff-doughnut. But the one I keep coming back to is the old-fashioned cinnamon-sugar.

Yesterday morning, I walked down Main Street in the sun. I was alone, so I carried my journal, and I thought about all the times I’ve walked down that street growing up. I looked down the brand new development that’s engulfed my old woods, and I took a deep breath. Things change, I told myself, and who knows? Maybe those houses will be filled with children who discover life like I did, even if their woods will be a different shape.

I passed the street where dear family friends live, with memories of Man Hunt and swimming and screaming in fun. I passed the Richdale, notorious for its ugliness in our sweet town (and where I routinely purchased Snickers and Coke growing up). Past the graveyard and the old church I used to go to. Past the white house whose kids I still think of as tiny but who graduated this past spring. I hit the cafe faster than I thought and was a little dismayed to find one of the tables outside surrounded by three boisterous women (one of whom I used to know) – how was I supposed to write?!

Doughnut and iced coffee in hand, I sat down and took out my journal. I broke off pieces of doughnut, the kind with crispy edges and fluffy insides, and I thought about how a stranger had said to me recently, “Your hometown’s all backroads – no offense!” and I had looked at her quizzically and said, “Why would I take offense? That’s what I like.”, and it was uncomfortable, but only for me because she wasn’t aware enough to know what I thought of her.

I sipped my coffee and listened to the women pronounce “Elaina” like “Elainer,” “Linda” like “Linder,” and even though a part of me cringes at this botching of a beautiful sound, I secretly enjoy hearing it. I wondered if I would run into Eric of the white beard and full laugh and David of the middle-aged sweet arrogance and too-many-margaritas again. The week before they’d been sitting at the table next to me, their National Grid vans parked on the street, and we had been far too close to each other not to say hello. “Hello” turned into a twenty minute conversation.

[“We’re here every day!” they said. “We’ll be seeing you this summer!”]

I wrote and watched for about an hour, and I packed up only when I begrudgingly admitted I had ESL lesson plans to write. As I threw out my trash and headed to the sidewalk, a National Grid van drove by, and Eric’s white beard shown in the sun. He waved a big wave and said, “Catherine!”, and I smiled.

There is an ease to small-town living that I don’t know if I could live without.

Faces and Illuminated Manuscripts

I wander into the throng of people, past the long table covered in delicious-looking food, and into the gallery. I haven’t been in this building in nearly two years; the tile floors and walls of windows remind me of creative writing classes and theatre monologues and my first interview for college admission.

Now I’m twenty-four years old and attending the senior project of a fellow lit-journal friend. I’m not sure who I’ll run into, who will glance at me from across the room and smile (or not smile). I rarely like to read about the projects first – the words get all tied up in my mind and crowd out what my eyes are seeing – so I skip ahead and look at the repetition of trees and brick building edges. In the center is a dark, tiny room, with illuminated manuscripts meticulously created. Candles flicker, and I want to reach out and touch despite the “Please Do Not Touch” sign.

I know it’s hers when I see the faces, familiar faces that I can’t put names to. The oil paintings watch us as we gaze, and I’m shocked at the enormity of time and material and space this takes up.

[My senior thesis was “Poetry and Music”, a mere hour and ten minutes of my hardest and best and most exhausting work. English, German, Italian : aria, song, jazz. That was two years ago.]

I know why I’ve come when I run into an old professor, a man who sat across from me in a Salzburg coffee shop and didn’t have to pretend he was interested in our conversation. We stand talking, he, his wife, another art professor, and I.

Teaching Latin at a Christian school. Love it.

What’s next?

THIS. or THIS. or THIS.

You’ve got the moxie for that.

And even though I’ve never heard the word “moxie” other than soda, I know what it means, and I smile.

So it can be done! You did it – taught and created and studied – and now look at you! Yes.

My fear of being the one who “had so much potential” but never quite cut it ebbs as I see the lack of concern in their eyes.

We do not actually know it, but we sense it: our life has a sister vessel which plies an entirely different route. While the sun burns behind the islands.

– “Blue House” by Tomas Transtromer

Pure Poetry

Dylan was the word-maddest of word-mad young poets.

Often the best poems happen when lines cross; when poets write in pursuit of the spirit while their words still roar with years of obsession and love.

Dylan never put his poetry in service to anything but poetry. He served the Muse; he wrote pure poetry. But what is pure poetry pure of? It is pure of thought and pure of feeling, pure of vision; its largest emotion is love for itself.

So goes Donald Hall’s essay on Dylan Thomas in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. I am simultaneously awed and disgusted; what is it about those who reach the edge of acceptable and choose to jump that will always get my admiration? I cannot respect because I cannot agree, but these lines are still there, the beautiful creation of a life despicably lived:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green,

  The night above the dingle starry,

               Time let me hail and climb

      Golden in the heydays of his eyes

I am attempting the impossible: to live well and create well. To write poetry that serves more than itself but that refuses to be merely therapy.

[A friend asked me my senior year of college, “What is the fault of bad poetry?”, and I said as I hurried across the grassy quad, “Sentimentality.” I know some of the answers.]

Words as words and words as art – to use them well but not join the ranks of Plath and Sexton and all the rest. To learn poetry as another way, but maybe not the only way.

[“Fern Hill”]

Update

IMG_0432

1. Spring is springing. Finally. I will update the “View From My Window” picture soon so I can prove it.

2. The musical is over and it was beautiful. I keep attempting to write about it, but it deserves more time and thought than I’ve been able to give it. Expect a post soon, though, filled with quotes from darling children and an extremely proud director.

3. Went bee-ing for the first time this year. Sunday afternoon was spent in a smoke-and-propolis-filled jeep, bumping over bumpy gravel roads to get to the hives. (Propolis is a dark golden cement that bees use to hold their hives together – very strong stuff!) We checked on three hives and fed them. Oh, and we found a mouse nest (yes! a mouse nest!) in the base of one of the hives. Confusing, because Dad had put up a mouse guard, but the little buggers climbed in through the opening. It was filled with cotton-looking stuff, deer hair, and a bunch of cozy mouse things. Not good. Dad said, “Where’s the blogger’s camera?”, and I just shook my head; some things are better described than seen.

4. Did not get into the MFA programs. Am I shocked? Not really. I tucked the rejection letter in my briefcase of correspondences for the day when I will look at it and laugh. I’m not laughing right now, but I hope it’s coming.

5. Last week before April vacation!!! Can you tell I’m psyched? But I can’t imagine how hard it’ll be to motivate my seniors when we get back…ugh…

6. Finally figured out the email subscription thingy. All it took was, “Um, Harry? Will you help me?” and with one simple click he changed the entire thing. Embarrassing. So if you’d like to be notified via email of new posts, sign up! It should finally be working!

7. Listening incessantly to: The Shins Pandora Station. Love.

Have a wonderful Monday!

A Past Worth Preserving

224095_10150230247400972_577485971_8459308_1418119_n

I wrote my great-grandmother’s “biography” when I was nine or ten. It was terrible. It all started because I had a magazine, and I wanted to interview her for the “Premier Edition.” (My aunt had worked for a magazine for a few years after college, hence the language.) I took a yellow legal pad and a blue pen and sat across from my great-grandmother in my dead great-grandfather’s blue recliner. The sun shone hot through the bay window, and I remember feeling pretty grown-up, asking all these questions. I had a legal pad, after all.

I asked her about growing up in the early 1900s. I asked her what she did for fun, what school was like, what her home was like filled with six people. I asked her how her hometown was different during WWI than it is now, and I asked her what she liked to eat and how she met my great-grandfather. I wrote furiously because I didn’t want to miss a word and the thought of writing shorthand never occurred to me. My great-grandmother’s handwriting was always beautiful – smooth and looped – and mine was hurried and uneven and merely served a purpose.

I think I was in awe of the sheer amount of time sitting across from me. Born in 1909, my grandmother had seen both World Wars and all the other atrocities and beauties of the 20th century. I crafted the interview with all the intensity of a ten-year-old who wanted desperately to preserve the past, and a copy of that old magazine is tucked away in my great-grandfather’s briefcase where I keep all my old creations.

I’d forgotten about the interview and the resulting mini-biography until this morning. For Christmas my mother bought me a book by Donald Hall, the former poet laureate: String Too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm. It’s a thin paperback, first published in 1961, and it has a poet’s carefulness of language and transcendent moments.

donaldhall

Hall writes of his grandparents’ farm and the summers he spent living and working alongside them. He writes of moments in the hayfield when all he ever wanted was to hay, and of a time when he was so exhausted and thirsty from picking blueberries that he couldn’t imagine his 70-year-old grandfather was still plugging away, stripping the low-growing bushes of their tiny wild berries. The love Hall felt for his grandparents and the place is so palpable, it made me fall in love with them myself. His poetry was born in the fields of New Hampshire.

Hall says he had a “need to conserve the past,” and I know that is what I felt sitting across from my great-grandmother, desperate to grasp this other life that I would never know.

It seemed abominable to me that I had only one life to live, and that the realities and hardships and loveliness of this woman’s life would be lost to nothingness when she died.

I don’t think she herself felt such a desperation.

During college, Hall found himself longing for his friends during the lonely summers in New Hampshire. He doesn’t hide the horrible guilt he felt, and I knew exactly what he was talking about; the deep love you have, yet the desire for something stirring inside you.

The book ends as I knew it would. His grandfather dies when Hall is 24, and even though that is the way of every life, I cried. I haven’t cried at a book in a good long time, and I was surprised and glad that no one was around. How can you explain crying over someone else’s dead grandfather? Someone who’d lived a good life and worked hard and loved well?

I think I was struck as much by the beauty as the sadness. There was such strength in the life of this man I will never know, this grandfather who had shaped a young boy more than he realized. I saw the sweet progression of life, the stories of family and friends and small-town myths all woven together. It was not mysterious. It was not filled with world-travel or adventures or death-defying heroic acts. The adventures and heroic acts were contained in the fields of generations of farmers, and they breathe in the pages of this book.

My great-grandmother’s life is much the same way. She grew up and lived in the same city until she was 95 and moved in with my aunt and uncle. She didn’t go to college, but she loved words and music and games. She had four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and she made lemon meringue pie and cole slaw for every family dinner. She went to Niagara Falls and took pictures and she attended the same church her entire life.

What is this desire to preserve the past? In some ways it feels like an avoidance. I am constantly living in the past or the future, my eyes set both forwards and back. I hold on to my great-grandmother and my grandmother’s words tightly, as if they hold some secret to a better time. How do I get that? I wonder. How do I get stories? How do I live? I don’t think either one of these women ever really thought about that; living was what you did, not what you thought about.

I am striving to live some huge life, some remarkable, adventurous life. I’m wondering if I have my priorities straight. Maybe a past worth preserving doesn’t have to be of legendary proportions; maybe it has to be true.

Summer 2008 016The summer after I graduated high school – all six of us kids on our yearly vacation.

The Sibling Police [Thanks for Being There]

DSC_0937

“Isn’t it kind of scary that people you don’t know read your blog?”

This question always comes from people who don’t write.

I thought I would be a writer when I was two years old. I’m not even exaggerating. I remember one day in the apartment before we’d moved to our house, and I wanted to write a letter. I didn’t know how to spell anything, so I ran out to the living room and asked my mother how to spell “Dear Gramma.” I wrote letter after letter of the same sentences: “Dear Gramma, I love you and God loves you too. Love, Catherine.” A little redundant, huh? But that’s the day I remember thinking something along the lines of I want to write books because books were some of my best friends. (Don’t get me wrong, I was extremely social. Don’t imagine me all reclusive and lonely in a diaper.)

It’s because I’ve always hoped to write that I’m not too worried about others reading my work. It’s a natural result of writing. It’s what we all hope will happen one day.

I am not worried about people I don’t know reading my blog. I’m worried about people I love reading it.

I was thinking of writing a post about my selfishness and my strivings for graciousness and self-sacrifice and gratitude. And then I imagined my brothers and sister reading it, and all the hubbub that would’ve caused: “Um, excuse me, but didn’t you just write about being more giving? I could really use xyz right now…” And then I laughed because I realized I don’t want anyone keeping tabs on my soul-work but me. I guess God can be in on it, but even that’s a little dicey sometimes (I half-kid).

The idea of “live and let live” has never crossed my family’s mind, at least not my siblings and me. My parents are much better at stepping back and watching us screw up (not in a ‘haha!’ way, just a good, healthy, you-are-adults-now way). The four of us, on the other hand, are constantly giving our two or three or four cents-worth and then raging when our obviously-correct advice goes unheeded. I am by far the worst culprit, but the other three are fast at my heels.

It isn’t my words that make me feel vulnerable, it’s the implications those words have on my life that make me (and any writer) easier to critique.

That’s the trade-off, though. To hold everything inside because someone might discover I’m not nearly as good at doing what I strive to do as I am at claiming the coffee as “mine!” and the bathroom as “mine!” and the warmest winter coat in the house as “mine!”. This is not an option.

So when people ask me if I’m nervous about strangers reading my blog, I’ll just smile and say, “I’m honored when strangers read my blog. I’m terrified when people I know read it.”

Note to the Siblings: I am NOT working on graciousness today, FYI.