On Finishing a Memoir: Keep Growing Back

December 9, 2019 § 12 Comments

AnikaFajardo_photo2018By Anika Fajardo

In the courtyard in my father’s house in Popayán, Colombia, grows a tree. Its pale branches challenge the brick walls and reach for the sky. The delicate petals of the yellow flowers bow over the hibiscus and impatiens in the garden below.

“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me as we stood in his garden looking at its leaves that brush against the broken bottles cemented to the top of courtyard wall meant to keep out intruders.

My father told me this tree is called the borrachero and if you speak Spanish, you’ll know that comes from the word drunken. Once, when the tree was in bloom, my father had inhaled the scent of the blossoms. He felt strange, not quite right, and went to bed with a headache. He slept for twenty-four hours, perhaps in a sleep as deep as the one in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The tree, he said, had poisoned him.

At the time he told me this story, I was eight years into the cycle of writing, revising, and submitting my memoir. I had been writing about getting to know the man who was my father but without whom I had grown up. I had revised and edited the stories about the city in which I had been born and my visit at age twenty-one to the village where Guambiano Indians chew coca leaves. I had been filling in the details about the baby carrier my parents had used to carry me on walks through the páramo before they divorced, before my mother brought me back to Minnesota. I had been rewriting the story of my marriage and birth of my daughter. For almost a decade, I had been writing about my father and this house with the borrachero tree in the courtyard.

The borrachero tree or Brugmansia, I learned later, is native to the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, and Brazil. The tree or shrub with yellow or white trumpet-shaped flowers contains a toxic substance called scopolamine, which can cause hallucinations, confusions, and even death.

Sometimes my memoir felt like that tree. Deadly. As I reworked it and rewrote it, twisting and turning the narrative and the themes, the whole thing would feel black, as if it emanated a noxious fume that filled me with doubt and despair and exhaustion. And yet. It was beautiful. There were turns of phrase that I loved, sentences that glistened with meaning and metaphor, chapters that tied themselves into neat bows.

“I keep chopping it down,” my father told me. I pictured him in work boots and thick leather gloves. Perhaps he wore a bandana around his mouth and nose to try to protect himself as he hacked the trunk. “But every time I cut it down,” he told me, “it grows back.”

It’s been two years since my last visit to Colombia. And now I think of my father’s story: the tree that cannot be destroyed. My desire, my wish, my need to finish and publish my memoir was like that tree. The pursuit of publication takes a frightening amount of determination and will. It defies all logic, that urge to put your words out into the world.

And now I look at the book that lies on my desk, the one with brightly colored flowers on its dust jacket. The one that tells the story of magical things happening in Colombia and in my life. My memoir.

And I realize you have to be like the borrachero tree—beautiful and powerful, growing back no matter how many times you’re cut down. Eventually, you just might reach over the barriers, touch the sky.

Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Her middle-grade novel, What If a Fish, is slated for publication from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers in summer 2020. A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis. Find her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/anikawriter  Or Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/anikawriter/


Writing: To Listen

December 6, 2019 § 11 Comments

Mokes and MorganBy Morgan Baker

I sit at the computer on the round table in the tiny dining room in our rental house in Hawaii and listen to my dog whine because I didn’t take her to the beach this morning. “Tomorrow, I promise,” I say to her. She knows. She lost out today and I feel guilty, but today, I’m writing.

Yesterday, I gave my husband a draft of the feature piece I was working on – he’s a writer and a former editor. I knew he’d be honest. He told me it was choppy and needed better transitions and more reporting.

I sat quietly, trying not to feel sorry for myself. I knew he was probably right. I went into a decline. What was I doing? I started questioning my ability to write – feature stories and essays.

In the midst of all this angst during my rewriting, I thought about quitting. This is hard work and I’m not getting rich doing it, so why not just give up. But it’s not like I have anything to do instead.

I said to him in the thick of my frustration, “I’m a better teacher than I am a writer.” I’m not sure that’s really true but as we just moved from Cambridge, MA – where I taught Magazine Writing and Creative Nonfiction for more than 30 years at Emerson – to Kailua, and left most of my teaching behind, I needed to rationalize the loss.

I need to be strong enough to listen to feedback from my husband and editors when they have suggestions for making a piece more specific or they don’t want the pieces I’ve written, which sometimes feel like hits to my ego.

The truth is no matter how many essays I write that don’t get published or how many pitches I throw out that don’t get picked up and despite all the rewriting I do on the features and essays that do get picked up, I don’t know what else I would do with myself if I’m not writing or in the classroom.

I’m a writer. Plain and simple.

I write to hear what I’m thinking. I write to learn. I write to share ideas. It’s a way for me to be heard.

I write essays about moving to Hawaii, about teaching, about my family’s life-threatening food allergies, about being an empty-nester, and about growing up in multiple homes. Whether I’m writing an essay about my dogs, or a feature story about dead end marriages, I learn something new each time and that is exciting.

Plus I don’t give up easily. As a friend just reminded me, I’m tougher than I think I am. I can withstand the comments and rejections, after the initial sting, just like I could handle the move from Cambridge to Hawaii, better than I thought. The remarks just spur me on. I’ve written two memoirs that I hope will someday get published. But the truth is, published or not, I needed to write them. They were stories I needed to tell. All the years of research, interviews, writing, rewriting and looking for agents wasn’t for naught because I told my stories.

I take an on-line writing course several times a year to make sure I keep writing – to have the structure in my life and ears to hear what I’m working on. When I was packing up my house in Cambridge, I took two back-to-back flash courses that saved me when the packing got too hard and sad. I sat down and worked on short pieces – about a party I had in high school and a time a bike was stolen from me while I was riding it -that kept me super focused.

Writing not only helps me understand today, it helps me understand yesterday as well.

I have been writing for 40 years now. It sure doesn’t feel like that when I start a story, it feels like I’m writing for the first time. I’ve written feature stories about travel, business ventures, health issues, children’s development, and now I’m working for a new publication writing about issues with which older readers are dealing.

Every time I start a new project, I worry about how I am going to do it – start it, develop it, finish it. I worry about finding sources for my feature stories. I worry about interviewing those sources. I worry about writing essays and whether I have interesting topics to write about.

As I told my students for thirty years, the best way to start any project is to jump in and know you’ll make a mistake or two along the way. Don’t edit as you write, it’ll slow the process down. Chances are, they, and I, are better prepared than we realize. Interviewing a source is often just like having a conversation with someone you think is interesting.

Writing anything starts with writing crap. Sentences may run on, descriptions might not be tight enough. You just have to let that happen. Staring at a blank computer screen isn’t going to help. I have learned that I simply have to start writing and once I have those bad sentences, on the screen or paper, then it allows me the opportunity to rewrite, and as another friend told me after she read a book proposal I’d written and gave me some helpful notes, “you’re good at rewriting”.

I love rewriting and I have to remind myself of that. It’s when I get to make the piece really come to life and make it sound the way I want it to. I can talk about the birds singing in the background as I write a piece about moving to Hawaii, and the cars going through the rain puddles in front of my house in another essay about walking my dog in my new neighborhood, or on an article about gratitude.

After seething for a bit when I was writing the feature piece that Matt critiqued, I went back to it and looked at where he thought I needed smoother transitions and I realized, to my horror, he was right. I put in more transitional words and phrases, linking paragraphs. I looked at the places where he wanted more information and after much interior debate, I sent two additional emails to new sources, one of which returned my request for an interview.

Finally, I reorganized the material in the story, putting the how-to solve answers in the end of the piece instead of in the middle – duh – and sent it back to Matt with the subject line Better?

He wrote back. “Much.”


It’s still a work in progress, but I’m ready to put a leash on my dog, knowing a change of pace, as we walk through the neighborhood of Palm, Monkeypod and Mango trees, is good. Mayzie jumps up from her bed and twirls in delight when she sees the leash in my hand and then sits calmly while I snap it on her collar and we’re off.

Morgan Baker has returned to Cambridge after almost a year in Hawaii, where she walked her dog to the beach for the sunrise, and explored O’ahu. She is the Managing Editor of The Bucket and teaches at Emerson College. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Talking Writing, Cognoscenti, Under the Gum Tree, Writing it Real, and other publications. Find her at https://www.bymorganbaker.com or @mmorgbb

They’re All Dead

December 5, 2019 § 12 Comments

By Anthony J. Mohr

The woman at the gym combined a theatrical streak with a fun-filled manner, which matched what I wanted in a girlfriend. It was early 2004, and until recently, Jan had been married to one of the Dodgers. Finally, she agreed to have dinner with me. Until the entree arrived, we’d been talking about movies. Then, without warning, she asked, “Was your father an actor?”

“He was.”

“My aunt knew him,” Jan said.

“Who’s your aunt?” I asked.

When Jan told me, I dropped my fork. I’d met her aunt many times during the early 1960s, when I was in high school and her aunt and my father were having an affair. Eventually my father’s second wife learned about it, and once she did, Jan’s aunt and my father went to ground, still quietly seeing each other until my father died in 1968.

For years friends had urged me to write about my father, a character actor who’d played Philip Marlowe on the radio, appeared in dozens of TV Westerns, four Perry Masons, and movies ranging from Gilda to Guns, Girls, and Gangsters. But I balked. Following his death, I’d said almost nothing. That changed around 2000, when, slowly, I began to feature my father in essays. As I did, I wanted to connect with people in his life. A reunion with Jan’s aunt might have sorted out a lot. But that wouldn’t happen.

“My aunt died three months ago,” Jan said.

The aunt’s son agreed to sit down with me. I met him for a few minutes, but before we could arrange a long talk, he too died. I found myself chasing lives that, if not extinct, were fading fast, often just ahead of my phone call. I reached out to several of the leading ladies in my father’s campy movies. Peggy Castle, from Invasion USA (1952). Cathy O’Donnell from Terror in the Haunted House (1958). Both had died in the 1970s. Naura Hayden, my father’s love interest in The Angry Red Planet, had been single when she and my father made that 1959 sci-fi flick. Knowing my dad, I was sure they had coupled a few times. But she’d died, too.

I tried to get in touch with children of my father’s friends. One died just weeks before I tracked her down. An elementary school classmate whose dad had worked with mine met with me for an hour. We planned another get-together, but three months later, she was dead. I cried the day I learned, then cursed myself for being a slow writer. That’s also the moment I realized what happens if you wait until age seventy before starting a memoir. The people who can feed your recollections—they’re all dead.

I reached out to James Garner, star of Maverick. He was too sick to talk with me, and a couple of weeks after my phone call, he died. At least in his memoir The Garner Files, he praised my father as “the one I had the most fun working with on Maverick…He could tell a joke better than anyone, and he had a bunch of them. Never repeated himself. And he was a pro.”

Without people who can help me remember, I’ve turned to archives, press clips, school yearbooks, old newspapers, and, fortunately, the few contacts still alive. I’ve worked my memory like a bodybuilder bulking up. Anything that nurtures it, I’ve tried. Thinking in the dark. Staring at photos. Playing forgotten songs. Driving by a house. Plunging deep into Google. Eating children’s foods (Remember the Sugar Daddy? — “Lasts an hour or more…only costs a nickel”). Occasionally I’ve speculated about what a departed person would say, careful not to present my imagination as truth. Sometimes I’ve had to refocus an essay, narrowing it to what I know is factual.

At least I was lucky with Jan. Thanks to her aunt and my dad, we now call each other “cousin.” I just wish her aunt had lived to share some of her remembrances.

At a recent writing conference, an eighty-year-old started reminiscing about, of all things, the mules on her family’s farm—their names, colorings, and other details. I was losing interest until she snapped me back to attention by boasting that now, with everyone who knew her gone, “I’m free to say anything.” I hoped she was joking. The absence of guides on the road to the past hasn’t emboldened me. It’s made me nervous, because I crave recollections and corrections to strengthen my work.

At that same writers’ conference, a speaker advised memoirists, “hold off on interviewing until you’re ready.”

Not a good idea.

I recommend doing instead what they taught me when I practiced law: find witnesses as fast as possible and preserve their testimony. Witnesses have a habit of forgetting things, leaving the country, or dropping dead.

In other words, hurry up, or you’ll be too late.

To younger would-be memoirists: save your school newspapers, your homework assignments, your report cards. Save your parents’ letters, save your social media photos, save everything. Your parents, roommates, and spouses may label you eccentric thanks to all that stuff in your closet. Ignore them. Eventually you’ll be rewarded with striking details on the page.


Anthony J. Mohr’s work has appeared in, among other places, DIAGRAM, Eclectica, Hippocampus Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, Saint Ann’s Review, Superstition Review, War, Literature & The Arts, and ZYZZYVA. He has been anthologized in California Prose Directory (2013), Golden State (2017), and elsewhere. His work has received five Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time, he was a member of the LA Connection, an improv theater group.

Modeling The Artist’s Life

December 2, 2019 § 54 Comments

luann castleBy Luanne Castle

After a lifetime of spurning “self-help books,” I bought a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and joined a local support group to help me navigate a new spiritually-charged creative path. This book has been a go-to guidebook to discovering the life of an artist for twenty-five years, but only recently did I feel ready to tackle it.

At the first group meeting, we began by introducing ourselves. It turned out that most of us pursue various forms of writing. One woman identified herself as a painter, and I said, “My mother-in-law was a painter.” I could have bitten off my tongue because who cares? Why did it matter that my mother-in-law was a painter? An hour later, as I listened to the others talking about the artistic paths that led them to this first meeting, I experienced a rare epiphany.

Cameron’s system rests on two major repetitive activities—morning pages, which are essentially journal pages, and artist dates, where the artist performs a viewpoint-shifting solo activity. In addition, the artist performs a variety of tasks each week. In the first week, Cameron urges the reader to “list three old champions” of her “creative self-worth.” These people have provided affirmations to the reader’s creative spirit.

I struggled to answer the question, although certainly the poet and teacher who encouraged me to put together my first poetry book deserves a space on that list. The literature professor who used to read and comment on my short stories, although creative writing wasn’t her field and the stories not written for her classes. The well-known poet who wrote me when I was first submitting poetry to say that my poems were cogent and real. The truth is that when I pulled out that treasure from my files, I realized he was trying to sell me his summer workshop.

Diana Dale at the easel c 1950How had I developed a resilient creative life when the affirmations had been so limited? I hadn’t felt much support at home for my creativity, although my parents had never mocked my attempts and had even provided art, piano, and ballet lessons (the two latter subjects chosen by my mother, not by me). What I realized in a burst of “knowing” was that specific inspiration, and not affirmations, had allowed me to reach a point in my life where I can say the previously verboten words: I am a poet. I am a writer.

My mother-in-law was a painter who fully lived her life as an artist. Everyone she met knew she was an artist. Being a painter was never a second or, worse yet, secret identity. She exuded confidence in her art, never comparing herself with other artists. She invited others into her world by envisioning them through her artistic lens and sharing what she saw. She sketched at the coffee shop and while she waited in the mechanic’s office for her car. In-progress canvases and an easel took up the backseat of that car, an old Opel that smelled like oil paint when one climbed into the passenger seat. My mother-in-law showed me how to accept my artistic identity and to embrace it. As I looked around at the people in my group, I wanted to share this epiphany, but more understanding was still materializing in my mind.

luann castle daughter

Not only had my mother-in-law provided the inspiration to live the life of an artist, but my daughter had inspired me to come to my art with all my heart and efforts. A brilliant dancer from a very young age, she often heard people mention how she “danced her heart out,” and that is how it seemed to the audience. But she always found more heart to give. As she matured, she displayed the vocal and acting talents to match her dancing. As a teen, she worked hours every day, developing her skills. By her senior year of high school, she was a leader in dance, drama, and choir departments. She was accepted to a top-notch university musical theatre program and completed the four year BFA program. Throughout this time, she also auditioned for and performed in professional shows. After graduation, she continued auditioning and performing.

Only by going through this process or closely watching someone who is doing so can one realize the difficulties and hardships of the audition-perform cycle. Submitting poems to journals and watching them come bouncing back is nothing compared with the very personal rejection often served to one’s face at an audition. Scheduling conflicts popped up between auditions, between shows, with doctor visits, and survival jobs contributing to high-level daily stress. In the midst of all these issues, my daughter, like many performers, continued to train as she could fit it in. After all, artists need to keep learning and sharpening their skills. I watched my daughter go through this with grit and industriousness for so many years that when I decided to go back to my writing, I unconsciously modeled myself as a hard-working artist on her lifestyle.

I never needed to look far afield for affirmations. I found inspiration in my own family and integrated the lessons of my mother-in-law and my daughter into my outlook and my artist’s life. I owe an enormous debt to these two dazzling artists. I wish my mother-in-law was still around for me to thank her, but I am blessed to be able to thank her granddaughter.

Poet and writer Luanne Castle has published in Copper Nickel, TAB, Verse Daily, American Journal of Poetry, and many others. Her first poetry collection, Doll God, was winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. Luanne blogs at writersite.org.

S-E-X, Private Body Parts, and Other Perils Braved by Prudish Writers

November 27, 2019 § 24 Comments

Kim HinsonBy Kim Hinson

When I belly up to my computer to write about certain spicy procreation events it becomes an all out, downright puritanical pickle.

I blame it on my mom. Of course I do. And you would, too.

My Victorian sensibilities started at our live-in gas station, in my childhood (of course), with my mother’s straitlaced, spur-of-the-moment description of childbirth. A feisty, lipsticky customer named Tina stopped by the station a few days after she’d given birth to her eighth child and couldn’t for the life of her remember what she’d named that new baby. Later that day, Mama, my five-year-old little sister Dawn, and I sat in the car waiting for Daddy to join us so we could drive Hansen’s Truck Stop for supper. Into the silence, Mama said, “That Tina. She just had her eighth baby and she can’t even remember what she named it.”

Little Dawn immediately piped up, “Where do babies come from anyway?”

I barely breathed for listening. Seven years old and happily ignorant, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like the answer. There was a tiny, pregnant silence while Mama’s librarian brain zipped through the card catalog in her mind.  She gazed through the windshield at the night sky darkening over our backyard junkyard and said breezily, “Oh, they come from down there.”

My face froze in horror, and Dawn said, “Wait. What!? Like where exactly down there?”

Mama gave a little cough. “There’s a little hole near where you pee,” she said, getting as close as she’d ever come to saying an actual private body part word. Without waiting for more questions, she leaned forward and flicked the car radio on to the only station we knew—KFIL True Country Radio—and cranked the volume way, way up. Little Jimmy Dickens cut loose with May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose and I sang along as loud as I could.

To my shame (but also a great deal of relief), I never talked to any of my three daughters about s-e-x.  I don’t say that word, and I don’t put that word down in Scrabble, even if the x lands on triple letter and the whole dang word scores quadruple points.  Raised in Minnesota, land of Lutherans, soybean farmers, and conversations that consist entirely of beating around the bush, I just don’t.

Flash forward forty years, to the day my nineteen-year-old daughter, Megan, wanted to start a horse breeding business. A horse breeding business that involved something called “in-hand breeding.”

Swept up in Megan’s enthusiasm, and deeply content with my innocent mindset, it never even occurred to me to say, “Wait. What is in hand!?” My Internet research on in-hand breeding turned up more mentions of private body-part words than I’d seen in my whole life. Well, I thought. This could be awkward. I don’t say private body-part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself.  Like a silent but powerful family tradition, my people keep private things private. I’d certainly never asked Megan if she knew anything about it. Because that would involve talking about…“it.”

Then again, this was about horses.  Surely this was different.  A few months earlier we’d had a baby miniature horse born on our Texas farm just by-golly out of the blue.  Nothing to it.  We saw nothing.  We knew nothing. Like immaculate and invisible conception. Just the way I liked it.

And then I became a writer.  I knew the in-hand breeding escapade made for a hilarious story, and I knew I wanted to write about it. But, the instant my fingers hovered above the keyboard, I faced the most priggish of predicaments: How could I write about an activity that involved several private body parts and all the various private activities involving those body parts in a modest, respectable, yet comical way?

So, like a good writer, I turned to books for guidance and genteel examples.

Frank McCourt, in Angela’s Ashes, chose a couple of vaguely descriptive terms which, when read in context, clearly represented the particular body part in question. McCourt’s first word choice, “boyo,” is short, informal, and almost amiable.  The expressions “my excitement” and “the excitement,” came next, representing not just a particular body part, but also the proceedings involving said body part. Sadly, none of these cheery terms quite fit my own writing voice, so I moved on to the next book.

Anne Lamott, in Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, had obviously faced a similar dilemma when writing about her son’s circumcision.  She resolved the issue brilliantly by writing, “I was scared…that I had, after all, made the wrong decision and now…he would need emergency surgery on his wienie” (24). Now this I liked! Thank you Anne Lamott for such an absolutely cute, yet meaningful and even accurate word choice! It also turns out that we have a choice of spellings: wienie or weenie.

Giddy with relief, I pulled myself together to write the in-hand breeding story, cheerfully adopting the word “weenie” to reference our stallion’s…weenie. My writing group, upon hearing me read my piece, snorted, guffawed, clutched their stomachs and all but fell off their chairs laughing. They wheezed and gasped things like, “Just…NO!” and “Don’t!” and “You can’t!” They couldn’t stop laughing, which, for me, is the exact reaction I’m shooting for every time. Still, for a variety of reasons, they didn’t think I should use the word “weenie.”

Thankfully, Lamott chose a couple of other words that filled the bill modesty-wise and also felt right to me voice-wise: Unit and missile. I used them both as follows:

“…wedging Mercury [our stallion] next to the pipe fence with her shoulder, she reached down and took ahold of his hyper-enthusiastic unit. Well, that certainly brought Mercury around.”


“Mercury reared up, feet planted firmly in the gravel, towering over us. But the mission was darn near impossible. There was the missile. And there was the target. But there was way too much water, and all the vital body parts were far too slippery.”

Anyway, like I said, it’s my mom’s fault. All I could do as a mature, grownup writer was to develop coping mechanisms to, well, to cope with the brunt of the backlash of this puritanical skeleton in my family’s underwear drawer.

To prudish writers everywhere: My therapist says it’s not our fault. You’re welcome.


Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. Find out more about Kim at http://kimhinson.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/KimHinsonAuthor


How I Got to the Writers Workshop the Week My Father Died

November 25, 2019 § 7 Comments

MRogersPhotoBy Marian Rogers

Everything packed, I cut the last peonies in bloom that my father had planted in the garden years ago after our wedding, and put them in a Mason jar to take with me, knowing that in a week they too would be gone.

On the eight-hour drive west to Ohio, I began to write the first workshop assignment in my head, reading my mind aloud alone in the car, replacing words in midsentence, midvoice, midair, tossing it all out, starting again, and over again.

I stressed about who in the coming week I should tell about my father’s death, if anyone, and why, then whether that was or should be the most important thing or anything I had to say about myself.

I cried for miles, across three states, on the interstate that circles the Cleveland suburbs where I grew into a teen, and south through Medina where my father’s parents once lived on the public square, and as a boy my father had his first job, sweeping floors and stocking shelves in his grandfather’s small grocery.

Once off the highway I gave myself over to the embrace of farm homesteads, sweet pasture and corn standing sentinel, the hamlet with silent bandstand, the insect rub and zither of the early summer night, finally slipping into town at dusk, moon ascendant, sun now nowhere on the horizon.

I wondered at my foresight in arranging months before to arrive a day early and stay overnight in town to get my bearings after what was always a long drive, not knowing then what kind of lost I would be.

Weary but wanting some sort of company, I took the innkeeper’s suggestion to hurry to the village restaurant for a hot meal before it closed for the night, in the half light of the back dining room settling into the servers’ conversation as they filled ketchup bottles for the next day.

I drafted the first piece for workshop later, on the edge of the bed, laptop on knees, can of hard cider on the floor, homemade cookie from the house kitchen on the pillow.

At the coffee shop the next morning, in a chair by a window, I read and revised, watching as the buzz picked up and other writers began to materialize, friends and some familiar faces, and others I must know from somewhere, in that gathering feeling myself returning, becoming visible—remembering after all why I had come.

That afternoon in the dorm that would be my home for the week I found my key opened a room meant for two, with two beds, two dressers, and two desks, one at a window that looked across to a vacant house by a dark wood, where I would see myself reflected every night until I pulled the shade, the other a place for the peonies until their petals finally fell.

In the closet I hung the dress I had worn two months earlier to take my father out to lunch for what I did not know was the last time—the black summer dress garlanded with flowers that I would smooth absently, then press to myself as I stood three nights later, stepped toward the audience for my reading, and began, In memory of my mother and father . . .

Marian Rogers lives in Ithaca, NY, and writes about place, the natural world, travel, myth, family, and identity. She has been a participant in the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Literary Nonfiction. She is a freelance editor of scholarly nonfiction and holds a PhD in classics from Brown University. Find her at www.bibliogenesis.com and on Twitter @Rogers_Marian.

Good Grief: After Finishing the Book

November 22, 2019 § 12 Comments

nancy-kay-brownBy Nancy Kay Brown

I scuff through the house, watching my boiled wool slippers navigate the floor: left, right left, and once again, right. It’s 3:00 in the afternoon. Plucking at the tattered cotton nightgown my mother in law gifted me thirty years ago, I scoot around the kitchen searching for something to fill the void and pick at the last corner of the lemon cake I made to celebrate. Yes, I finished my memoir. That same day I printed and bound the 24 chapters with a card stock cover, a title that one reader thought sounded hopeless. I sent an agent a query letter and the first 5 pages, another query with 25 pages, a query letter and a proposal, another pitch with a stronger bio and warmer handshake in greeting. Though selling my book is not my cup of tea, I alone must promote it. It’s the alone part that’s hard. Had I moved to promotion too quickly? I’d written a fabulous story and written it well. Ready to be done is what I was.

Ten years in the making and while it took everything I had, in the process, it squeezed the writer in me to the surface. Some days it hurt like a nasty boil. Others, I soared. Shelved and bound in a fat plastic coil, the manuscript haunts me like a relationship turned sour; the kind that had once been good.

Time has lost its boundaries, purpose and structure. I wash a window, floss my teeth. Maybe I’ll send out another query letter, a pitch to an agent: personally directed, requested additions included (never attachments). Each communication takes an hour to recheck the agents wish list, assemble the packet, review, line edit and send off.

The blue satin ruffle of my gown, a well-worn nightie, dusts along the desk’s edge. I am that close to sitting down and getting back to work. My desk is tidy for the first time in months: sharpened pencils in cups, a stack of fresh notebooks and a variety of color-coded folders hang like dresses waiting for the right occasion. Just a few months ago, for 5 hours at a time, sometimes more, I’d sit and tackle adjectives, massage metaphors, align descriptors and arm wrestle for the perfect image. No, I can’t bear to write another word.

I did everything we talked about in writing group: showed didn’t tell, dropped us into scene, organized, planned, reorganized and reconsidered. I employed a rubric, used the grid, beat by beat, and revised the arc. Weaving threads into Act 1, I cut and redrafted Act 2, added sinew to Act 3, increased the pace at the climax. Then I kissed it deeply like sending my lover on a journey. 340 pages to an editor, we cut a hundred. Then, off to beta readers. The feedback, a note from each, several pages from one, among other things, “powerful” they said, “what a story,” “I missed your humor in this.” After more cutting and revising, some connective tissue, and another arm wrestle—it was as good as I could make it, my best. Humor? It was not a funny story. That burr took its time to fall free.

I never considered “the afterwards.” My writing group thinks a break is a good idea. Sit with the emotions. Honor the space. “Don’t let it lie fallow.” In farming it’s a good thing to rest the soil in readiness for a fresh start. In art, it can be a dangerous state, a type of neglect. The point of writing a story is to share it and getting it published is the way to do that. I slide a tube of lipstick across my lips, because you never know, this could be a special day.  I check my inbox for the fifteenth time. Maybe I’ll do a YouTube promotional piece, a read-aloud on Audible. I am lost. I’ve forgotten what I do besides write.

Do I still have any friends?  Never mind about them, I’ve chosen to honor the space. But first I prop myself with a broom and scuff around to sweep up the crumbs from yesterday’s cake.

Nancy Kay Brown‘s memoir, Fallen From the Nest, is finished and awaits representation. Her stories and essays appear in Brain, ChildFull Grown PeopleBrevity blogWising Up and a short story called “Burn Pile” appears in an anthology for rural youth, Fishing for Chickens, edited by Jim Heynen. “Letters To Montana,” a WordPress blog, can be found at NancyKayBrown.com.

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