Pulling Weeds and Telling Stories

July 27, 2020 § 14 Comments

PullingWeeds_June2020By Carole Duff

Before the sun heats up the day, I retrieve a large scrub bucket, weeding fork, and garden gloves from the storage bin under the deck and head into the meadow and planting beds that surround our mountain house. My daily quota: one scrub bucket of weeds, so I don’t wear myself out and lose sight of what I’m doing. Although I love the grasses, flowering shrubs, meadow anemone, goat’s beard, wood aster, cone flowers, and yarrow, also known as Queen Anne’s Lace, it’s the weeds that get my attention. Most are stand-alone singletons, such as stilt grass, a recent invasive that can outcompete native plants. Though stilt grass is easy to pull by hand, the repetition becomes tedious. So many seedlings, going nowhere.

The weed I especially like to pull is a creeper, probably a variety of Pennywort, that roots and sends out runners along the ground. When I find that creeper—here in my grasp—I pull and pull and pull, following the vine until it breaks. Then I search for its root and pull again. A creeper is like a storyline thread or through-line that moves the reader from one rooted scene to the next. Meadow creepers like the Pennywort weave around a story’s characters and move the plot along without competing with the setting.

Another creeper that roots in our meadow, a mock strawberry, produces what my sisters and I call “starving” strawberries. Its flowers are yellow instead of white or pink, and the fruit though edible tastes bland and dry. Roots and vines of the mock strawberry—on my forearm—require digging with the weeding fork and even then, don’t pull easily.

The moral of this story is: not all creepers produce good threads, though there are plenty to pull. As Jill McCorkle wrote in an article titled “Haunted,” in the February 2017 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, “I have often told my students that if you walk around with your eyes and ears open, you can’t possibly live long enough to write all of the potential stories you will glimpse along the way.”

And so, every morning I retrieve my scrub bucket, weeding fork, and garden gloves from the storage bin under the deck and walk into the meadow and planting beds, eyes and ears open. After the sun warms the day, I sit at my desk and write—cutting fruitless singletons and looking for a creeping thread that pulls easily.

I won’t live long enough to pull all the weeds or tell all the stories I’ve glimpsed along the way. But I will achieve my quota:

One large bucket each day.

Except in winter when, like pulling singletons and creepers, I remove leaves from ditches and shovel pathways through snow.
___

Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, and writer of creative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes from Vanaprastha, has written for The Perennial Gen, Streetlight Magazine’s Blog, and Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, and currently is seeking representation for her book titled Wisdom Builds Her House: A Memoir about Faith, Love, and Forgiveness. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband and now three overly-friendly shelter dogs.

AWP 2012 – Writer Mother (Father) Writer

March 10, 2012 § 21 Comments

By Betsy Andrews Etchart

Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life

Panelists: Kate St. Vincent Vogl, Hope Edelman, Jill McCorkle, Kate Hopper, Katy Read

Chicago of course turned out to be not so scary after all. In spite of myself, I made some friends.

And I did many things as a writer that I couldn’t also do as a practicing mother with Bots in tow. I posted several reports for Brevity’s blog, which meant I stayed up Friday night writing ’til after midnight.

Saturday night I slept for eleven hours. I can’t remember the last time I slept for eleven hours uninterrupted.

Sunday morning, I sat down to drink my coffee. Coffee, like wine, is best when taken while seated, but most necessary when there is no time to sit.

I ate whole meals while seated. I sat for more than thirty-two seconds without shooting out of my chair to get something. I sat and I ate and I wrote, all at once.

From the number of Weebots crawling and toddling at the carpeted margins of the book fair or hanging out in chest carriers at their parents’ readings, it was apparent that many writers at the conference balance parenthood with their literary vocations/avocations.

So it wasn’t a surprise that during a panel called “Barefoot, Pregnant, and at the Writer’s Desk: Managing Motherhood and the Writing Life,” the Wiliford C room at the Hilton was filled near to capacity.

Two panelists were Kate St. Vincent Vogl, author of Lost and Found: a Memoir of Mothers, and Hope Edelman, both NYT best-selling authors; Jill McCorkle, a prolific novelist and short story author, Kate Hopper, author of Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, and  Katy Read, journalist and author of  the Regrets of a Stay-at-Home Mom on salon.com, where she brings Jane Austen searingly up to date: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of two teenagers must be in want of a steady paycheck and employer-sponsored health insurance.”

These women are funny and successful and all, aside from Katy Read, who laments her decision to quit writing temporarily during her sons’ youth, fiercely protect (or protected, in the case of empty-nester McCorkle), both their identity and productivity as writers, and the time they spend mothering their children.

As she was pushing to make a copyediting deadline on her recent book, Kate Hopper told her post meltdown eight year-old, “You know I love you more than anything in the world.”

“’Do you love us more than your book?’” asked her daughter.

“’If I had to choose, I would choose you girls,” replied Hopper. Before quickly adding, “But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.”

Most of us feel that way. And it seems the only thing we love more than writing and parenting is talking about how to mix the two without blowing something up.

Their strategies included combine and schedule. Edelman combined her professional obligations in Chicago with a long-desired museum visit. Employing similar tactics in daily life, Jill takes longer to food shop than strictly necessary. “No one ever argued with my saying, ‘I need to go to the grocery store…I have great ideas while I’m standing in produce.’”

Also make a dedicated space: Hopper has a dedicated writing space off her kitchen. It’s four feet square, but it is her space. Another panelist left out the front door when the babysitter arrived and then sneaked up the back stairs for two hours of solitude. Edelman has written three books by “binge-writing,” every third weekend in a motel room close enough to home in the event of emergency but far enough away to discourage visitors.

A man–one of at least thirty in an audience of over two hundred people, raised his hand. When called on during the brief question-and-answer period, seconds before the session’s end, he introduced himself as a writer and a full-time dad. “How,” he asked, “do you cope with the pure exhaustion?”

“Sleep when they sleep,” was the panelists’ answer.

The answer was like a basketball tossed from deep in the opponent’s free-throw zone as the bell goes off. It seemed as empty and inadequate here as it had out of the mouth of my mother-in-law three years ago when I was writing and teaching a college course in Mbot’s first months of life. Sleeping when he slept would have been completely impractical. Would the dish fairy appear to clean my kitchen while I slept? Or better, the book fairy come to polish the next chapter of my novel? Peter Dish-Pan Hands? Peter Pen? I raised my hand to join the conversation, but time was up.

I fought through the crowd to this man. He was no more than thirty-one or -two. I told him the only helpful thing I could think of: that I’d bought a Netbook, so I could work in the car, while I drove Mbot—and then both Mbot and Gbot—through the streets of Litchfield Park, willing him to sleep. I would pull over the minute his eyes closed. Sometimes, parked under an orange tree for shade, I could write for ninety minutes. If needed to email a manuscript, I pulled up in front of the Starbucks or the Burger King, pirating their wifi. Making use of the Bots’ daytime sleep in this way, I could allow myself to (kind of) sleep that night when they (kind of) slept.

Having generously dispensed my wisdom to the poor tired man, I saw that he was not impressed, although he allowed that a Netbook was a good idea. In fact, he had one.

“How many children do you have?” I asked.

“Five,” he replied. Ranging from eight to two.

“I don’t have any more suggestions,” I said.

But I think my answer, completely unqualified, should have been: “Wait.”

In her memoir A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that she and her husband referred to their thirties, during which they raised their young family and worked and participated in their community, “the tired years.”

The Newbery-winning author penned the novels she is known for after her children were in school. This isn’t to say she didn’t write during the tired years. She just didn’t push to the deadlines of others. She was, of course, fortunate that her husband had a steady paycheck that kept her kids in Cap’n Crunch.

Hope Edelman, along with reciting a list of things she can do, now that she is a mother as well as a writer—including budget time, and experience “a whole range of emotions that have enhanced my writing”—also recited a long list of things she can’t do because she is a mother as well as a writer.

Here is an overview: “Spend three months at a writer’s colony….Stay at literary events past 9:15 on a weeknight…Shower every day….Be a foreign correspondent.”

On Sunday morning, I added one more thing to the list.

As I pulled up the hood of my down parka and turned my back to the wind on the platform of the L train to Midway Airport, I was joined by a mother and two little girls about five years old. I stuffed my gloved hands into the pockets of my parka and hunkered down.

The other mother was laughing and chatting with the girls, gripping one of their mittened hands in each of hers.

There’s another thing mothers can’t do, without thinking about it, without the world thinking about it, even if they aren’t also writers: No matter how cold it is, they can’t put their hands in their pockets.

You pays your money and you makes your choice. But I’m really glad I don’t have to choose.

Betsy Andrews Etchart received her MFA in CNF from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyAndrewsEtc or at superherounderpants.com, where she blogs about motherhood and writing

How About that Best American?

October 21, 2009 § 1 Comment

In our effort to seem young and jazzy, the Brevity editorial team hangs out on Facebook way too much.  Along the way though, we noticed that former Mid-American Review nonfiction editor Karen Babine had posted a thoughtful, personal reaction to the latest Best  American Essays volume, edited by Mary Oliver.  We like her enthusiasm (as a reader and a teacher) toward the BAE series, so we asked Karen if we could post her Facebook review to Brevity as a bonus between-issues book review, and we did, and we hope to spark some discussion here.  If you want to comment, go ahead and comment here, or if you have your own review of BAE 2009, send it to us for the blog.

Here’s an excerpt from Karen’s full review:

When my 2009 Best American Essays arrived and it was only half the thickness of my Best American Travel Writing, I frowned at it. What is this? Where’s the rest of my book? But I sat down on the couch with it and my highlighter and did what I always do: I flip to the back and check out the Notables, because this is where I think the neat stuff is happening. I highlight people I know or magazines I really like. My highlight was back in 2003, when my brother-in-all-but-blood Matt had an essay in the Notables. This time around, there were quite a few names I recognized and that thrills me as much as anything else about my BAE.

Here’s my overall impression of this collection: well done. I’ve got a fairly specific aesthetic, one that likes to see essays not only work through an idea, but I want to be able to see the author’s brain on the page working through the idea. But there has to be more than that. I want the author’s work to illuminate some other area that I didn’t expect, something that’s at stake for me as the reader.  And I want language. Too many of the essays I’ve seen in past years have completely neglected the language.

Karen goes on to discuss specific BAE essays by Brian Doyle, Sue Allison, Richard Rodriguez, Jill McCorkle, Gregory Orr, and Janna Malamud Smith.  We really think the full review is worth reading, with Best American Essays 2009 at your side.


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