An Index to the Website
may be found by clicking here.



New WordPress Blog!

I've set up a new WordPress blog (with the help of my web-wrangler) because it gives me more options than the blog on this website, including the ability to post more photos, the ability to link with social media across the web, and a subscription service that sends a dandy version of the blog directly to your email inbox. Try it out.

Notes from a Western Life at WindbreakHouse.WordPress.com

You can continue to read the blogs here, however a few of the very long blogs under the category of "Writing: Where I've Been" will only appear on the WordPress blog.



An Index of Blog Topics
may be found lower down in this left-hand column so, for example, you can search for all blogs with "Writing Suggestions."

A dated archive of blogs is also available below the index.

Click here to jump to the index, or scroll down to see a selection of photos related to the blog posts.






Blacksmith or Wordsmith

Iron legs from yesteryear.

Smaller iron items inside.

The scrap-iron table.



Dust, Grass, and Writing

Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions.

Tough prairie grass roots splitting open a rock.

Green life may be found under dry debris.


Fringed Jacket Foofaraw

Turtle carved from bone.

Turtle made of silver.

Warrior Woman pin.

George's grizzly bear claw earring.

Powwow jingle cones made of tin.

Brass bell.

A tiny dream catcher.

Harley Owners' Group pin in honor of Jerry.

Wally McRae's cufflink and tooth.





South Dakota Poet Laureate? Not Right Now, Thanks.


"An older writer, conscious of his or her limited life span, may have specific projects in mind to complete. Thus, requiring that the Poet Laureate travel and teach extensively may exclude older writers regardless of their worthiness to hold the position."



Don't just click "like" about some political story you read.


Pick up the phone or write a letter and make a difference.



Ah! The Bathtub.

A brass hook on a nearby wall to hold my robe or a towel.

A removable wire basket stretches across the tub to hold my soap and sponges.



Windbreak House
Now on Facebook.


If you Like me on this Facebook page you'll get notifications of my newly-posted blogs as well as announcements about my books, writing retreats, and other events to do with Windbreak House.

www.Facebook.com/​WindbreakHouse

No kitten videos, but I post Tuesday Writing Tips, Wednesday Word Posts, and various other writing-related stories, announcements, book reviews, photos and the occasional joke.



Ah, Spring!


Want to know more about this critter?

See the Gallimaufry Page for more about the bird, including more photos, and some odds and ends that don't fit anywhere else on this website.



More Stories and Essays by Linda
may be found on this website.

* Home Page Message archives
Many of these essays have writing advice. All have photos, some have recipes, a few have poems.

* Poetry Page essays
Read suggestions for writing and performing poetry and the stories behind some of Linda's poems.

* Critter Stories
Brief stories and photos of birds and wildlife seen on Linda's ranch may be found on this page.

* Gallimaufry Page
Stories and photos that don't fit anywhere else.



Linda on YouTube

Nancy Curtis, publisher and owner of High Plains Press, recorded a couple of videos of Linda reading her poetry and posted them on YouTube.

To see Linda read "Where the Stories Come From"
click here.

To see Linda read her poem "Make a Hand"
click here

Or go to www.YouTube.com and search for Linda Hasselstrom.

You may also want to visit the High Plains Press facebook page where you will find these two poetry videos and much more about the many great western books-- poetry and non-fiction-- published by High Plains Press.

Thanks, Nancy!

# # #





Index of Blog Topics

Quick Links

Find Authors

Notes from a Western Life
Ranging Far and Wide on the High Plains and Beyond
Linda M. Hasselstrom's Blog



Enjoy a Petite Retreat at Home

June 5, 2015

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Writing Retreats, Thinking Is Writing

.
One day in May I realized that I was going to be alone in my house--- except for my dogs--- for several days. I wrote in my journal and on my Facebook page:

Today I am starting a personal retreat to get back to a working routine after ten days of travel, meetings, illness, pain, a spring snowstorm, and various other disruptions.

I began this retreat by opening a gift sent to me by my friend January Greenleaf, a TED talk by lexicographer Erin McKean. Make time for yourself, for your enlightenment and education, to listen for fifteen minutes. For more information: www.erinmckean.com, which lists various places you can learn more about her projects, which include wordnik, where you can look up words and phrases; VERBATIM, a language quarterly; The Word column for the Boston Globe; her varied blogs, (which include one called A Dress a Day, detailing the dresses she makes and proving that an obsession with words doesn’t mean she doesn’t have other interests), her biography, and contact information.

My retreat was already well begun. At 4:30 that morning, I’d awakened with the dogs, let them outside, started the coffee, let them back in, and settled in bed with my journal. I wrote a plan for the retreat week, had breakfast and fed the dogs.

As soon as I declared myself “on retreat.” I felt more relaxed. Simply making the declaration meant I had time--- when in reality I had made time by making the decision.

I stretched. I walked the dogs, I rinsed my few breakfast dishes and put them beside the sink. Finally I went to my office. My retreat plan prohibited me from checking email until late in the afternoon, but I knew the video was waiting for me and thought it might be a good way to focus my attention on writing, so I allowed myself to go online long enough to watch it before shutting down my Internet connection.

At last I was ready to begin the first writing task I’d assigned myself: writing about creating a short retreat at home--- while creating a short retreat at home.

My first suggestion for creating a private retreat is to choose to do so. Decide how long your retreat will last, and begin to create the conditions that will help you make the best use of that retreat.

Prepare for your retreat: physical space

Most of us have developed a lifestyle built around events that are really distractions from real life, so we may behave as though this disorganization is normal. Email notifications appear on our computers; our cell phones ring; we run to the store for milk; people say “are you busy?” and without waiting for a reply launch into a recitation of their troubles. By planning ahead, you may be able to immerse yourself in work more fully than you can on a normal day. Depending on your circumstances, you might:

--Tidy the house so you won’t be tempted to clean while retreating.

--Cook or arrange for several meals in advance.

--Inform friends you will be limiting email and phone calls.

--Arrange your workspace to focus on your primary project; put aside temptations that might distract you from your main job.

--Remove potential disturbances: turn off your cell phone; put a note on the TV that says “NO!” A friend shuts off her computer’s audio speaker so she doesn’t hear the ding of incoming emails.

--Pull shades and lock doors if you have friends who “drop in;” one writer I know hides in a vine-covered alcove in her back yard, out of sight from six feet away, and unable to hear the telephone in the house or the door bell.

--If you don’t live alone, explain the terms of your retreat to other members of the household and arrange for them to do the necessary chores you usually do.

--If you cannot be alone in your house during your retreat, make the quiet statement of a closed door. Since my study door usually stands open, my partner knows, when he sees it shut, not to knock, call out, or open it. And if my sneaky mind tries to distract me from my work, I’m reminded of my purpose as soon as I grasp the doorknob.


Prepare for your retreat: mental space

These are logical ways to prepare your physical work space for a retreat, but a harder job, I think, is to focus on whatever retreat task you have set for yourself. Prepare for your retreat by walking around your home like a stranger, as if you have arrived at this haven just to enjoy a writing retreat. Arrange a chair before a window so you can watch birds; find a flower or tree or rock to identify. Turn a chair so your back is to the room.

My idea of the perfect retreat would include ordering meals from a personal chef to be delivered on my preferred schedule, but that is a fantasy. So I enjoy a bonus benefit available only to people who have partners: the retreat diet and exercise plan. When my partner isn’t here, I don’t cook as much, therefore I don’t eat as much, therefore I’m leaner and more focused. I often make a big batch of spaghetti or meat loaf, and eat similar meals for several days.

In my study, I look at each project I’ve begun to choose which one I’ll work on. I write notes so I’ll remember, when I’m ready to begin the other projects, what I was thinking, and put them firmly aside. Whether my writing is going well or not, it’s far too easy to sidestep into another writing project that looks more seductive. Even though I am my own boss and have set up my own schedule for writing, I dislike authority enough that my subconscious mind tries to flout it and sneak off to another fascinating story.


How it works: retreat reality

As soon as I got to my tidy office, I realized that in my haste to begin a retreat I’d forgotten that after days of travel and trouble, I needed to clear my journal. I’d recorded observations relating to several different writing projects, marking them with sticky notes in my journal so I could find them quickly. Each one needed to be placed it its proper file before I forgot the details.

As I recorded these notes, I recorded comments for the organizer of the meeting I’d attended, and sent those off--- telling myself that while this was not a retreat activity, it was legitimate work as part of clearing my desk for writing.

During my lunch break, I referred to my journal and realized that I needed to revise my class presentation for Road Scholar on ranching in South Dakota. That’s creative, I thought, and it concerns on one of my usual writing topics, so it’s a legitimate retreat task. I completed the revision.

By then, I was distracted by the pain of an injury and called a doctor who agreed to see me that afternoon. The doctor was able to alleviate my pain but as I drove home I wondered if I had killed my retreat by leaving the house and breaking my concentration. Discouraged, I sat in my chair, read a few pages, and fell asleep.

Footsteps jerked me out of my nap. I stepped outside to find an insurance salesman on my deck, the first such caller in six years! Repeatedly and at length, I explained why I did not need additional insurance.

Now what? Nerves jangled, I turned to my calendar and my journal work list and realized I was obligated to attend a meeting the next afternoon, and had promised a friend to car-shop the day after that. My stomach knotted. I’d sabotaged myself by incomplete planning. Should I declare my retreat a failure?

No, I decided. The retreat was not over unless I allowed it to be.

First I had to recapture the feeling. If I allowed interruptions to make me angry, I was wasting my own time and becoming even more distracted. I had to dispose of disturbances efficiently, choosing which jobs I could complete and which I might postpone.

Part of my distraction, I realized, was having had a sketchy lunch; I had no enthusiasm for cooking, but discovered some attractive leftovers. I took my time arranging the meat, potatoes and gravy on the plate and heating them in the microwave while I made a salad. When I sat down to eat, I thought about my choices.

I was still alone in the house. I could recover from these setbacks. Instead of cancelling my private retreat, I decided, I would simply conduct a series of short retreats. I’d begin each day with a couple of cups of coffee in bed, dogs at my side. I’d write in my journal about my primary project: this essay about conducting my own retreat.

Next I planned a simple menu for several days, choosing ingredients on hand, because I knew my concentration would be broken if I was either hungry or constantly snacking.

During the morning before the meeting, I’d write as much as I could. After the meeting, I’d attend to online communication, putting off anything that could wait a day or two. The next day, I’d honor my morning commitment and then write in the afternoon.


The Petite Retreat

So began my week of discovering the concept of the miniature retreat, and I can recommend it. In fact, since many of us are convinced we don’t “have time” for a long retreat, perhaps learning how to conduct a retreat in a day or two, or even a couple of hours, might be considerably more useful to the average busy writer.

Before my afternoon meeting, I wrote notes and drafts of several ideas I’d recorded in my journal, so I was able to attend the meeting with a feeling of accomplishment that allowed me to be patient with the usual delays. Later, at the computer, I read a message from a writer who has been to Windbreak House on retreat. Her husband had just left for a ten-day trip and she had declared a personal retreat. She wrote, “I have the house to myself (it also means I have all the chores to myself, but leave that aside for the moment.)”

Serendipity! I thought. We’re both dedicated to our work and are conducting our own retreats; perhaps we can help each other.

“I seem to be getting over the gloom of separation anxiety,” she wrote, “and am moving into active embrace of the prospect of solitude. I will have some days that I have to go to town and work on projects at the rentals, but I will endeavor to keep the retreat spirit on the days when I’m home. I made a good start today by doing another revision pass and eating at odd hours.”

Again I was struck by the parallels; we both have obligations that keep us from shutting the world entirely out, and we both miss our spouses. I hadn’t thought to call it “separation anxiety,” but I was feeling the same. I don’t enjoy cooking for myself as much as cooking for someone else. When my partner is home, part of my morning journal time involves reviewing any available leftovers and deciding what to make for lunch and supper. Making preparations tells me when to begin both meals, and often keeps me from worrying about meals when I’m writing.

If I’d prepared properly for my own retreat, I would have frozen meals ready for quick preparation. Since I didn’t think ahead, don’t buy pre-packaged food, or live where I can get food delivered, I usually make a batch of one or two favorite meals that can be quickly reheated. My friend said she was surviving on hummus and potato salad and intended to plan ahead more effectively next time too.

Both of us are in a unique position in our homes, making retreats more workable. We both live some distance from town, so we don’t have the distractions of nearby traffic, and few neighbors drop by; we get few phone calls. (If your own home doesn’t lend itself to brief retreats, consider house-sitting.)

We agreed that the main obstacle to retreating into writing is mental. As she puts it, “. . . making the commitment to yourself that you’re dedicating this time exclusively to writing (doing of, thinking about, reading about, etc.) . . .”

Her comment reminded me that a writing retreat requires more than writing; it includes reading and thinking about writing as well. I was also pleased to be reminded that this is the way real teaching and learning works: I offered her some of my suggestions, and her thinking inspired me: we both give, and we both take from the exchange.


The power of intention

My friend commented that making the decision to do the retreat was “weirdly wonderful,” that she, too, felt a huge release, “. . . like I’d just gotten a massage. A marvelous lesson in the power of intention. I took an unseemly pleasure in defining my rules—monitoring email OK, responding unless absolutely necessary if a work project popped up was not. Checking weather OK, but no surfing. No TV. Doing dishes is OK, but only if you want to. Laundry is out of the question.”

Here we differed; my washer and dryer are just far enough from my desk to constitute a brain-clearing stroll with room to stretch, so I declared laundry to be OK that afternoon. With a load in the washer, I sent a few more messages and then found a reply from my retreating friend: “Decided I 'wanted' to get the dishes cleaned up Wednesday evening, and the spell was broken. The motions of that disliked chore turned on the brain-churn of chores looming and the to-do list for town the next day. I still spent the evening reading and writing, but it did feel like the last night of retreat, processing the prospect of re-entry.”

“Brain-churn of chores”--- that’s usually what wakes me up in the mornings if I allow it to. While waking for retreat, I’ve consciously pushed those thoughts away and concentrated my thinking on writing projects. During this rainy weather, I’ve forced myself to ignore the muddy paw-prints on the stairs and the dust in the corners; time enough to attend to those things when the rain stops.


What about those chores?

Still, everyone has daily jobs that, if we allow them to, can distract us from the kind of mood required for serious creative work. I can incorporate some jobs into a writing routine. When I come to a paragraph that baffles me, I may do dishes or defrost hamburger, slice vegetables or weed a flower bed while considering possibilities. None of those repetitive jobs can seriously distract a creative mind at work, though I have been known to burn rice when I rush downstairs to record a thought.

And some chores can be postponed. I’ll vacuum the house when my partner gets home and I’m distracted anyway. I’ll make a grocery list when he’s here to remind me of items I might forget. I’ll get the mail when I’m taking a break from writing.

My new challenge, then, was how to make my retreat work during short periods between the distracting obligations I’d discovered. I devised several methods and symbols to signal a new period of retreat.


How can I create tranquility?

If a retreat will be only a few hours or a day or two, it’s important to focus quickly, and learn to drop into retreat mode at will. I established signals to remind myself to avoid confusion and concentrate on the purpose of my retreat.

When I sat down to work on my journal at the dining room table, I pushed my nose deep into the bowl of lilacs and inhaled, letting the light, silky scent remind me to inhale and hold my breath, exhaling slowly.

Walking the dogs became part of my ritual when I needed to change mental gears. After I completed a job, whether it was an interruption to my writing or a writing draft, I changed my mood by taking the dogs outside to play or walk while I stretched and did bends.

Wildflowers as well as cultivated plants surround my home, but I usually notice them only when I’m working at gardening. For the retreat atmosphere, therefore, I took time to appreciate my surroundings as if I were in an exotic jungle. I sat on a railroad tie fence and watched a tree swallow swoop to collect a bug. I crawled through the grass looking for bluebells, found a smooth black rock and placed it in the precise center of a bowl worn in a sandstone rock. When one Westie brought me a baby robin carried gently in his mouth, I climbed a tree and put it back in the nest. Concentrating on the details of my surroundings refreshed me. Arranging a few stems of Sweet William in a vase in the bathroom did not break my concentration, but shifted my focus. During these times of not-writing, aspects of the writing I was doing floated to the surface of my mind.


Think instead of talking

Having no other people in my house encouraged my uninterrupted thinking. I didn’t have to consider anyone else’s feelings, or respond to questions; providing attention to the dogs didn’t require much thought. I could walk with them, watch them hunt voles and run in circles, and throw their toys, all while relaxing and clearing my brain, or struggling with a knotty writing problem.

Think about it: responding to human interruptions can take considerable time in part because we observe social conventions; we’re polite, we explain, we listen, we justify. But if the telephone rings and I don’t answer it, time is saved. If someone posts to my timeline on Facebook and I don’t see it, my work is not interrupted. The choice is mine; the person calling or posting doesn’t know what I’m doing and will be happy when I do respond. Ignoring online distractions was similar to being alone in the house, without the necessity to respond to conversation.


Reading as writing

Sometimes I get so caught up in daily chores and writing that I may let significant articles and books that might inspire and inform my writing stack up beside my reading chair. I scan them distractedly while waiting for a soup to simmer or a conversation to be finished. So concentrated reading on the subjects I write most about became part of my retreat. Having given myself permission to read in the daytime, I slashed like a lawnmower through stacks of magazines and books that had gathered dust for months. Instead of reading my usual relaxing mysteries at night, I read serious stuff and took notes for future writing and talks. Because I was working later than usual, I also felt better about any diversions that occurred during the day.

My retreat rules banned reading that was not on a topic related to my work. I was delighted when my friend on retreat said one morning that she’d “allowed” herself to read my note to her about our retreats only when she was on a break.

Meanwhile, she reported that her first mini-retreat was two days long: “an intense writing day, followed by an evening devoted to reading about writing and to writing in my journal about the reading and about the projects I’m working on. The next day was more writing, more reading.” She was exhausted, but “maintained internet/media limits and spent another quiet evening reading.” All this worked, she added, because she had the house to herself.”

I, too, was feeling more satisfied with my small retreats of a morning and then an afternoon, and I wasn’t as exhausted because I hadn’t been able to immerse myself as fully as she had. I had, though, done what I could with the time I had and that was a source of satisfaction.


The retreat attitude

So how is a series of mini-retreats different from a normal work week? And how can we create the energy and the focus of a retreat in a shorter period?

I believe the power of my intent and the attitude I establish toward my work can allow me to conduct a useful retreat, even if it’s brief. During a normal day, my focus is outward: on my partner, on how our mutual day evolves, and on the obligations we have to one another. When he’s gone, I shift my attention to his evening call, leaving the rest of the day free for me to focus on my work. Reminding myself that my primary intention is my writing, I can allow other concerns to become invisible.

A danger zone is the restless periods between bouts of writing. When I get up to go to the bathroom, or fix a meal, or just stretch, I must resist the temptation to go online or check my phone. While the tasks of house-keeping like laundry or dishes don’t automatically pull my mind away from deeper thinking, the mindless chatter of the internet does.

This retreat also reminded me, and my writing friend, of another important element of a successful retreat of any length: reading books instead of the internet ether.

She puts it best: “The focus on hard copy reading reveals how shallow and unsatisfying most of what’s available on the internet appears. . . . It’s easy to justify the surfing by telling yourself that you’re ‘staying informed’ by looking at news or literary sites, but that kind of reading does not allow for the slow reflection one achieves by turning pages and making notes in the margin.”

Moreover, because I have made time, I have the luxury of time to sit and stare at a smooth stone held in my hand and see how my mind will connect that stone, the sun on my back, the birdsong, with my writing. I can watch the cattle moving across the gully below the house, enjoying the way they kick up their heels. I can sit on the deck listening to the birds without checking my watch.

On each day of my retreat since, I have begun the day by planning what it will contain, including obligations to others that I can’t escape. I figure out what to have for lunch. Then I note the times in the day that I can consider retreat time, and note which project I’ll tackle. I can breathe deeply, knowing exactly when I’ll be on retreat, and what I have to do before that time.

My friend remarks that she is learning to make peace with how slowly writing can develop, and getting better at focusing when she has the time to do so. I agree. Once I have established writing time and know that I will keep it, I can be attentive at a meeting, hold conversations, answer email, and vacuum, throwing all my energy into what I am doing at that moment.

When my writing time seems brief, I remind myself that Graham Green created a writing schedule of two hours a day. He was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he sometimes didn’t finish a sentence. But at that pace he published 26 novels, as well as many short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #


back to top



Blacksmith or Wordsmith: Time, Patience, Skill, Artistry

April 10, 2015

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Recycle and Reuse

At the basement entrance to our house stands our Iron Wall, a retaining barrier covered with old rusty tools.

The wall is a stack of railroad ties linked by rebar to hold the earth from the hillside back from the basement sidewalk. We salvaged the railroad ties from the railroad’s right of way that cuts through our pasture; they were free, sturdy, and heavily impregnated with tar so they will resist water. We also consider them a tiny payback for the trash we pick up that is discarded by track crews, and the fires occasionally started by the trains.

The wall decorations are rusty antique tools, mostly discarded by my father and hauled out to our personal dump in the pasture. Whenever we walk through the dump, my eye is drawn to some shape that I pick up and bring home. I chuckle every time, because I can see my father shaking his head in exasperation. He spent all that time and energy lugging that stuff out of his yard and buildings, only to have me drag it back in.

Visitors sometimes puzzle over the objects, their functions already a mystery to most. I have used several of these tools, and at least know the purpose of those older than I. After my generation of rural folks is gone, their stories may be a mystery. Another owner might haul them to the recycling center—or back to the pasture where my father dumped them.

But for now, look at some of these tools rusting gently on the wall. Worn horse shoes testify to the miles walked by Bud and Beauty, the work team. Next to them are the ornate legs of stoves and washing machines that a woman may have noticed when they were new, but stopped noticing as she worked over them for years. Here are the hobbles we used to keep the wild range cows from kicking while we were milking them or persuading them to let their calves suck if they rejected their babies. Gears, hinges, pick heads, hand rakes and the teeth from the dump rake I hauled for miles behind my tractor picking up hay for my father to stack. Chains, pliers, and a couple of chain boomers, winches that we used for everything from fastening gates to hauling pickups out of the mud. Several pieces of iron are unidentifiable, swooping curves of metal with rings, probably part of a horse harness. Several wheels with broken teeth hang beside a couple of stirrups pulled apart when a rider long ago was caught in a disagreement with an unruly horse.

The outside Iron Wall isn’t my only collection of rusty antiques. In the basement bathroom is another: this one a repository of small iron objects, and I could argue that I collected them for their beauty as well as their utilitarian charm. Here are hand-forged hooks made for various gates and cupboards in the barn. I’ve saved a hand-forged screwdriver, its length bumpy with hammer marks from that long-ago blacksmith. Jerry built a wooden rack to collect all the horse-shoe nails and square nails we’ve picked up in the area around his shop, where a school once stood. Hanging high are a couple of vicious-looking hay hooks I kept handy when I was living here alone. On the wall are buckles and fastenings from horse harnesses that dried and stiffened into unusable piles of leather in the hay loft.

Suspended in a neat row are several hand-forged nipple picks used to clean black powder from the firing pins, or flash channels, of cap and ball weapons. Two calipers curve against the cream-colored wall. A small fork was part of my child-sized pitchfork for feeding my horse, one of my first chores. A blackened leather bull whip drapes over a nail next to a crude wrench used for wagon wheels. I saved one of the horn weights we used to make a Hereford bull’s horns grow into the gentle curve that was both attractive and safer for the cows and for us. Like the tools outside, many of these are ones I used.

Why have I brought all this stuff into to my home? Am I longing nostalgically for a return to the past?

Absolutely not. While I admire much of the tone of the past, particularly as I lived it on this ranch, I don’t believe everything was better then. My childhood had many fine aspects but it was not a purely idyllic time and place. For example, as the debate rages nationwide about whether or not to vaccinate children against measles, I remember the terror with which my parents discussed whether or not I should be protected against polio—until a friend contracted the disease and was crippled.

By writing about this collection of rusty stuff, I have come to understand that I collect these things because they remind me to respect time, both in my writing and in my life outside of writing.

To make the hand-forged gate hooks for our barn, for example, required that the blacksmith own and know how to operate a forge, collect the appropriate tools and supplies of metal. One didn’t fire up a forge to make one hook, so he probably had a number of forging jobs to do that day. He may have taught himself to work iron because he knew he’d need that skill to save money on the ranch. Or perhaps someone in this neighborhood was a blacksmith, and the others ordered what they needed from him, paying in cash or perhaps in beef.

The blacksmith had to select the steel, then build a small fire in his forge to ignite the coal. He used a bellows or a hand-cranked blower to add air to the fire until the coal is burning well. Then he thrust the steel into the coal while continuing to use the bellows or blower to add air.

My partner Jerry has worked at becoming more skilled as a blacksmith since he retired. He tells me that the blacksmith must heat the steel just enough, but not too much. “Reddish-orange to bright orange is good,” he says. If the steel becomes white hot, it will simply burn up.

When the steel is just orange enough, the blacksmith removes it from the fire and begins to shape it. To make a hook, he probably first formed the hook on one end and the loop on the other and then reheated the steel. When the center portion was hot enough, he put the hook in a vise and turned the steel with a turning fork or tongs to create the twist. The twist might add a little lateral strength, Jerry says, but likely it was purely for decoration. Perhaps the hook wasn’t originally made for the barn, but for a home. Still, no matter where it was originally placed, it was created by a man who had plenty of things to do, and still added a flourish to his work. Finally, he quenched the finished hook in a bucket of water, and probably started to make another.

Not only does the blacksmith need materials and skill, he needs time and patience. When Jerry spend a day blacksmithing, he’s already done the planning, thinking about the project off and on through days of doing other work, and evenings of eating good food, watching movies, talking as we play Scrabble or Rummykub. After he has chosen his next project, he collects the materials and waits for a day when the wood stove in the blacksmith shop will heat the place enough so he can work without freezing solid.

Then he must go through each step, slowly and patiently, heating and reheating and hammering until he has created what he visualized. I don’t know what he thinks about, but I know he thinks because hammering iron requires patience and allows time for considering other matters.

Suddenly the similarity between writing and blacksmithing is obvious. Writing, too, requires planning and the ability to imagine the finished product from the crude materials.

I collect the steel of the idea, heating it in the forge of my mind (with plenty of help from air whooshing through the coal!) until I can beat it into shape with my words. I write while the idea is red hot, watch it cool as I revise, all the while keeping the coal hot and ready. I print out a draft, read it, scribble on it as I rebuild the fire, to recapture the heat of composition. I pound and sweat and mumble until I’m satisfied.

Like the books that line my study, these hand-shaped tools symbolize the patience required by writing, or by any other hand-forged creation.

And let’s take the writing and blacksmithing resemblance one more step. Once you have patiently written about a particular issue, you might shape the result in many different ways: as an argumentative essay, as a poem, as a memoir, or as fiction.

So when the handy table by our basement door collapsed from age, I asked Jerry if he could use some of my rusty antiques to make another.

The result is a triumph of recycling, including a couple of steel posts, some hoof clippers, a car jack, a hand drill, some rebar and part of a horse-drawn wagon. Topped with some redwood recycled from the deck we just replaced, the table stands sturdily by the basement door, ready for anything we may stack on it.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #

back to top



How To Write a Poem: The Snake Within

April 3, 2015

Tags: Poetry, Draft of Writing, Writing Suggestions

Linda checking her young bean plants, 2013.

When I’m having trouble writing, one of my favorite methods to start the process is to write a "How To" poem. This is probably why there are zillions of the things floating around, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't write your own. Working on a "How To" poem can serve several purposes.

First, writing a poem (or prose) about how to do something can clarify your thinking beautifully. One of my assignments to a new high school writing class was always for students to write instructions for something they knew how to do very well. The exercise provided them with practice in thinking, and writing, more clearly than usual. The students were always amazed at the steps they omitted in the first draft simply because the act they were describing was so familiar to them. I’ll never forget the frustration of one young man writing about how to ride a bull in a rodeo, and a young woman writing about how to make a bed. But they did it.

Another attraction of the "How To" poem is that you can use it to review something you haven’t done for a while, recalling memories from childhood. One of these days I need to do a poem on how to milk a cow, to refresh my memory of what started out as a chore and became a joyful duty that taught me a lot more than the direct act of milking.

So here’s an example of a poem written during an August when I was spending more time gardening than writing, and wanted to get back to writing. The file of drafts of this poem contains 9 pages, which is unusually short for my revisions.

Here’s the entire first draft:

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes that may
lie
in shade to wait for rabbits
coming
at dusk to feed.


That’s not a bad poem; it has strong verbs (kneel, reach, watch), some nature observation that includes the rabbits as prey of the rattlesnakes, as well as the ending twist with the rabbits coming to the beans as predators.

But I felt it was incomplete, so I put the draft aside. Once begun, a poem often surfaces in my subconscious, and my mind continued to nibble at the edges of it. This scattered method seems to work for me, though I can’t recommend it unless your mind works as mine does. Just now, for example, I stopped working on this essay to run upstairs to finish washing a sink full of dishes. They’d been soaking in hot water and suds because just after I started this essay, I needed to get away from the computer and think for a few moments. I wandered upstairs and started doing dishes-- but I don’t hesitate to drop a domestic job if I get a sudden inspiration in something I’m writing.

For the second draft, two days later, I delved into my memory of my grandmother, and began to alternate my memories of her gardening with my own experience picking beans. Somehow kneeling in the garden reaching into the sunlight-braided leaves made me see her hands doing the same, brought me close to her, though she’s been gone from my immediate world for many years. The memories this exercise evoked were worth the struggle, even if the poem had never been finished.

How to Pick Green Beans

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Grandmother kept her hoe handy, wore gloves,
tilted her bifocals until she was sure of the snake’s
skin among the mottled shade cast by the leaves.
She rose, steadied herself in the dirt and chopped.
Once, twice, until the head was loose. Hooked
the hoe to lift the limp body, carry it to the fence
She threw and the snake struck against the sky.

No snakes this morning, only gold
sliding among fat green leaves
beans slender as sunlight. I pinch
each one free, gently, trying not to knock
off the blossoms that will make next week’s
beans. A grasshopper lands on my wrist, feet
prickly. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods, and I commend the soul
of the grasshopper to them. I crawl along the row,
and start back down the other side, finding beans
I should have been able to see. Tomorrow I will
find more I can't believe I missed.
And I will
kneel
again.


Remembering my grandmother and her deft manner of killing rattlesnakes added a deeper aspect to the references in the first draft; the snakes are a threat not just to the rabbits but to the life of the gardener, adding value to the beans. I retained the idea of kneeling, suggesting a worshipful aspect to the harvest.

Now the poem needed to be tightened, refined. In the third draft, ten days later, I focused on the fourth and final stanza, emphasizing the aspect of gratitude.

I flinch from a prickle on my wrist, but
it’s a grasshopper. Redwing blackbirds sing
from the cottonwoods. On my knees,
I shuffle down the row. Grandmother used
even the scabby ones, hopper-gnawed.
Later the beans will sway in the sink
full of water like green snakes.
Tomorrow I will find more beans
I can't believe I missed.
And I will kneel again, my hands
singing praises for this harvest.


My mental picture accompanying the last line was of praying hands, but the idea of hands “singing” praises jarred my logical mind. Over the next several weeks, I worked on the poem every few days, mostly paring it down, whittling away unnecessary adjectives, trying to make the sensory impressions more vivid. In the sixth draft, late in August, I shifted one stanza from the middle of the poem to the beginning to put the reader into the center of the sensory experience before getting into the complications I’d introduced.

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight
making snake patterns. Gently, I brush
the leaves aside, careful not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.


Late in September, I was still tinkering with the poem, but I had decided against making the final stanza a hymn of praise, believing that the reference to kneeling carried that idea sufficiently. I was concentrating on the ending, groping for the right combination.

First I wrote this: “I will taste the green possibility / of snakes within this harvest.”

A month later, I decided to make the reference more direct:

All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
know the snakes
within this harvest.


At the side of this I scribbled, “Taste the snake?” That was the final touch: making the snake’s presence more vivid and sensory by suggesting something that seemed outlandish, that the flavor of the snake remains within the bean harvest. I knew the poem was close to finished, so I put it aside to rest. In November, I revised the poem for the final time.

How to Pick Green Beans

This morning’s gold breeze slides
among beans slender as sunlight,
making snake patterns in the earth.
I brush leaves aside, careful
not to knock off blooms
that will make next week’s beans.

Kneel
in the garden’s deep soil.
Reach
to lift the bottom leaves.
Watch
for rattlesnakes.

Picking what she called a mess of beans,
my grandmother kept her hoe handy,
tilted her bifocals to see the snake,
steadied herself and chopped
until the hissing ceased.
Hooked him with her hoe, swung her arm.
The snake whirled and struck the sky.

Hold
each stem with the left hand
Pluck
each pair of beans with the right.
One hand
should always know
the other’s whereabouts in rattler country.

Redwing blackbirds sing from the cottonwoods
as I shuffle on my knees down the row.
Later, in the sinkful of water,
the beans sway like green snakes.
Grandmother used even the scabby ones,
hopper-gnawed. All winter, eating beans with bacon,
I will taste the green flesh,
taste the snake
within the harvest.

* * *
“How to Pick Green Beans” (c) 2011 by Linda M. Hasselstrom
This poem was published in Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, with Twyla Hansen, now the State Poet of Nebraska. (The Backwaters Press, 2011).


Twyla tells me that she’s celebrating National Poetry Month by writing a poem a day. I’m not going to be able to manage that, but I urge others to try it. And you might want to start with a poem on How To Do Something.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #

back to top



Dust, Grass, and Writing

March 20, 2015

Tags: Grass, Writing Suggestions

Green grass sheltered by limestone rock.

.
I’m on the deck trying to convince myself the weak March sunshine is warmer than it is when I notice the pickup in the field, hauling hay to the cattle. Dust rises behind the tires, swooping up and then spreading out, reminding me how very dry the weather has been for the past three winter months. We are three-quarters of an inch behind our normal one and a quarter inch of moisture for the year. During this month of March, now slightly more than half over, we have had only a trace of moisture.

Yet when I look at the hillside close to my house, I see green grass several inches tall. How can the grass be growing when the ground is so dry?

The answer lies in the native grasses surrounding my house: buffalo grass, blue grama, big bluestem, redtop, and others that have been adapting to this area for millennia. These grasses can tolerate heat, drought, and soils that would be inadequate for more tender plants. These grasses have probably even evolved to fit this particular slope, rich with limestone rock, and to the way the wind blows snow across the ripples in the ground.

The thin roots of buffalo grass, for example, go deep, reaching down as much as five feet for buried moisture. The roots of blue grama are in a dense mass in the top two or three feet of soil, compact to provide efficient use of moisture. Up to 80% of the roots of redtop are found in the top two inches of soil. So these grasses complement each other, utilizing all the moisture that falls, whether it’s scant or abundant.

Immediately I can see the writing simile or metaphor. Some who looked out over this prairie today would find it uninspiring, covered with the gold of dried grasses except where vehicles have left dusty tracks. This morning my mind felt the same: covered by the dried debris of ideas I haven’t pursued, failed possibilities grimy with too much handling. Without inspiration.

Similarly, if I only scan the prairie and turn away on this early spring day, I will miss its subtler beauties. Sitting at my writing desk, if I concentrate on the dust and desiccation and immediately give up, I may miss possibilities.

Standing on the deck, thinking, I hear a cry and see the resident kestrel drop out of sight below the hill, pursuing a blackbird or sparrow as relentlessly as I sometimes follow an idea.

Like the native grasses, the roots of writing go deep and reach out in many directions. These roots may be so thin they appear delicate, but they have strength to draw life-giving moisture from the soil. I’ve learned that I need to be patient. I may begin writing with no clear idea of where I am going, simply describing something I’ve seen, or responding to a news item. I may write and write and write-- and suddenly the subject will present itself, will draw the sustaining moisture out of soil that may seem dry and unforgiving.

Here’s the tricky part. No matter how dry your personal prairie looks, you must start writing. You must start following those roots down. If you think, “I’m writing SOMETHING VERY IMPORTANT” you may choke yourself, and become unable to go on: surely your thoughts are too trivial to be worth recording.

Don’t be afraid to be trivial. You have to start somewhere, and every root may reach down to necessary moisture, and up to a strong blade of grass.

This essay began with two simple observations: dust rising behind a pickup, and grass growing green, two pictures that contradicted one another. Those two sights led me to one of my main themes and interests, native grass and its ability to withstand drought and abuse. I've written about this subject often in attempts to persuade readers to save native prairie grasses, but this time my thoughts turned to writing and the comparison emerged.

Each of us contains “native grasses,” possibilities rooted deeply in childhood or our pasts, events that are the foundation of everything we are. From those deep roots we can write endlessly, following their twisting course down into the rich soil fertilized by our years of experience. Or we can follow the roots up to the stalk that is our present and our future, reach into the clear air of tomorrow. Either way, taking time to look at the landscape around us, whether it’s literal or imaginative, can start the writing we need to do.

Flannery O'Connor, in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Ignore the dust. Follow the roots.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #

back to top



Thinking Is Writing: The Bathtub

February 20, 2015

Tags: Thinking Is Writing, Writing Suggestions, Bathtub

Reading a book in the old cast iron tub.
The tub is surrounded by curtains hung on a framework of copper pipes suspended from the ceiling by chains.

.
One of my favorite methods of dealing with pain, with lack of inspiration or with almost any other problem is a hot bath.

The main ingredient for a truly inspiring bath is a cast iron claw-foot bathtub, which holds heat as no modern plastic tub can do. The one in my basement, though, is somewhat shorter than I am, so a relaxing soak requires some bending. As I sink into the hot water, I often dream of the six foot long tub I discovered in Scotland. Even as short as it is, though, the tub fulfills its promise as a Writing Aid.

Turning the hot water on full, I pour in an herbal mixture that includes eucalyptus, peppermint, wintergreen, clove and juniper oils to soothe muscle aches. Then I’m ready for the ritual.

First one foot-- if the water is too hot, I may have to modify it, and I've scalded my poor right foot several times. If the water is perfect, I step in, sit, cross my legs to fit in the tub, and lie back with a sigh. Sometimes I just close my eyes and visualize how the hot water is soothing muscles and sinuses. Secure in the knowledge that no one will disturb me, I can let my mind free of everything that has concerned me for days or weeks. I may immerse myself completely in the steaming, echoing water, hearing the cast iron ping and bong as it absorbs heat.

I may try to remember the words to the Janis Joplin song “Mercedes Benz,” or think of a poem I memorized in high school. When I sit up, spluttering suds, I feel renewed.

When I’m conducting a writing retreat, my first task in the hot bath is to think of the writer I've been working with during the day. What have I failed to mention? Have I been encouraging enough? Are there other resources to suggest, or other handouts I could provide?

Almost always, I capture a thought that I missed while I was intently reading the writer’s work, or talking about it, so I've made a hot bath part of every retreat so I don’t miss that vital notion. I apply the same logic to my own work when revising: a hot bath often reveals an answer that eluded me during days of walking, thinking, and staring at the computer screen.

Sometimes I take a book to read, placing it on the table behind my head as I scrub or while I meditate. I love to read until the water cools enough to remind me it’s time to get out. But I have to exercise care not to drop the book-- especially if it’s from the library.

But most often, after a period of reflection or reading, I write.

On a shelf at the head of the tub is a stack of small squares of recycled paper and a pencil. It’s easy to grab one of the little squares, scribble a thought, and toss it on the rug beside the tub.

Thinking is writing, I've often said, and lying back in a tub at the perfect temperature is conducive to thinking.

One idea often sparks another, so that at the end of a truly great bath, the rug is littered with a half-dozen little squares of paper.

After I’m dry, I gather them, stacking them by topic, and carry them to my computer desk, where I’ll find them the next day-- and get a great start on the day’s writing.



Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #


back to top



Seeing: the Key to Writing

January 26, 2015

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Seeing

The Westie rock in a jar of other little items. A red outline of a sitting West Highland White Terrier on a yellow limestone rock.

.
“Look what I found for you!” my friend said, handing me a chunk of sandstone. “A rock like your dogs!”

I looked at her smiling, eager face, and then at the rock, trying to sputter a response. The chunk of tan sandstone filled my hand, but it looked nondescript to me, a big chunk of driveway gravel. Originally oval, it had flat faces where it had been broken. A reddish stripe ran up one side, and there was an odd blotchy red line on the side.

She pointed at the mark.

“See?” she said. “I thought of your dogs as soon as I saw it: he’s sitting back and howling.”

I could picture one of our white Westies sitting on his haunches, nose pointed to the air, his white carrot tail lying flat on the ground behind him.

And there he was on the rock. In the side view, I could see one closed eye and the ear lying flat against his head, even the line of his mouth. Was he howling? Or gazing up in expectation of a tasty treat?

“Oh!” Finally I could say something. “I do see it!” I’m sure I still sounded doubtful.

“I was taking a walk on the hillside,” she said, “and glanced down and there it was. It’s yours,” she said, and I tucked it into my bag to take home and we went on with our talk and preparations for the dinner she was serving.

When I got the rock home, I put it into a glass jar on a bathroom counter, beside a green jade disc she’d found on a California beach and given me on another occasion. This is a woman who appreciates rocks, and knows I do too. I treasure her insights and the growing friendship between us.

But I’m not sure she realized, any more than I did at that moment, what this particular rock signified.

Each morning, I look at the red outline of the dog, his head thrown back, and I smile. Somehow that little figure embodies the Westies’ stalwart natures, and their cheery steadfast solidity.

I kept picturing the hillside where my friend and her husband have made their home. Typical of the Black Hills foothills, it’s rocky, grassy, studded with pine trees. Naturally, their construction carved new shapes as they created a basement, driveway, and space for adjacent buildings. I suspect this stone was always resident on the hill.

As I walked with her to an outbuilding later that day, I noticed many similar stones scattered through the grass, observed them the way you do when you don’t want to trip, only as obstructions. We walked and talked, enjoying the air, but more intent on our conversation than on our surroundings.

As a writer, I pay attention to my surroundings. I pride myself, apparently too much, on my ability to recall and describe what I see. Yet I can describe that walk and those stones only in very general terms. I might have stepped over a dozen stones with figures outlined on them that day, and not known it.

At home, I measured the figure of the dog on the stone: it’s three-quarters of an inch high.

She was walking on her hillside, perhaps getting out of her home office for a few minutes to relax. Her profession requires her to listen sympathetically every day to people talking about their problems, so she may have been considering a specific issue. I imagine her striding along, breathing deeply of the fresh air, straightening her back, clearing her head-- just as I walk on my hillside. Thinking.

Somehow, she looked down and in an instant saw that figure and thought of my dogs.

How do our brains make connections? All I know is that odd conjunctions happen. A scent can trigger an ocean of images; a sight can remind the viewer of anything that may reside in her tangled brain. Thinking of what has triggered poems, I could name a dozen unlikely sparks. From these inexplicable linkages come art, poetry, music, and a dozen other disciplines that engage our brains.

But in order to catch the poetry, the art, the beauty, we have to see. If we stumble blindly up the hill concentrating on not tripping, or trapped inside our minds with anger at what the day has done to us, we may miss the clue.

One of my axioms in writing has been Norman Maclean’s statement from A River Runs Through It:
“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren't noticing which makes you see something that isn't visible.”

Seeing. That’s the key to writing, and I believe it is also the key to living consciously, to getting as much from your life as you can: seeing every day, as much as you can, in as much detail as you can.

The more you see, the more likely you are to see something you weren't noticing, which makes you see something that isn't visible-- but that invisible image may hold the key for which you have been searching.

So every day, when I look at that little red dog on that piece of sandstone, I remind myself to see. And I thank her for seeing.


Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House
Hermosa, South Dakota

# # #


back to top



Perks of the Authors Guild

December 5, 2014

Tags: Authors Guild, Writing Suggestions, Book Contract

The Authors Guild "Model Trade Book Contract and Commentary" booklet
The cover is rather plain, so I present it here in my greenhouse with one of the Flamingo Family. In late October, when the photo was taken, I still had some pepper plants fruiting. Ahhh.

.
Once you begin to think of sending your work out for publication, you might consider joining an authors group. Benefits of membership often include vital information that can save you time, energy and money.

The Authors Guild, founded in 1912, is the oldest and largest association of published authors in the U.S., but it has specific requirements for membership. Check on those at www.authorsguild.org.

I've been a member of the AG since 1991. One of my favorite parts of membership is the consultation on publication contracts. For example, a member can send a contract to the AG and get a lawyer's comments on its provision. This has saved me from several bad mistakes.

This fall I received the latest publication, MODEL TRADE BOOK CONTRACT AND COMMENTARY, updated to include recent changes in the treatment of digital rights.

The pamphlet-- 80 pages-- provides a clause-by-clause commentary on an entire sample book contract, from the grant of rights through warranties and indemnities, proofreading, advances, royalties, first serial rights, accounting, revision, bankruptcy, and agency clauses. Besides providing a much-needed update on subsidiary rights that are non-print-related, electronic rights and audio downloads, the booklet lists "unacceptable provisions." Wary and careful as I am, I found a clause that exists in one of my contracts listed under this heading.

This booklet complements one of the sessions I went to at the Women Writing the West conference in October, 2014. Susan Brushaber, an intellectual rights attorney, discussed how the Internet and other kinds of publication have altered what we need to look for, and be wary of, in contracts.

I highly recommend that, if you qualify, you join the Authors Guild.

# # #

For more information:

See the Authors Guild website at www.authorsguild.org


back to top



Altitude Adjustment: how to change your life and write about it

October 31, 2014

Tags: Book Review, Writer: Mary Beth Baptiste, Writing Suggestions

. . .
I’m always reading about private lives. Since I conduct writing retreats, much of what I read when working with prospective writers is about their struggles to live satisfyingly and with meaning. I've never become cynical about these writings because every one of us is doing the same thing: trying to figure out how to get the most from our time on earth. We can learn from one another.

Mary Beth Baptiste’s Altitude Adjustment has joined my shelf of books I will recommend to writers who are trying to figure out just how to write about that divorce, that disastrous love affair, or that terrible loss. With courage, and a discerning eye, she has looked at her own past, at the way she left a bad marriage in suburban Massachusetts to become a woodswoman in the Rocky Mountains.

Have you got a difficult story to tell? Read this book for clues on how to do it.

How do you handle the reactions of relatives to your decisions? Mary Beth’s parents weren't happy about her divorce or her plan to move west. Sounding a lot like my mother, hers said, “No man would ever want you again.”

How do you handle swatches of your life that you don’t want to write about, because they were unsatisfactory or boring or nobody’s business? She tells us enough about the marriage she left to be convincing, but doesn't hammer at the subject, understanding readers don’t need every detail in order for us to understand. In a sentence or paragraph, she summarizes several events that aren't part of the quest of the subtitle.

What about love and sex? Mary Beth handles scenes of intimacy with relish but with restraint; your mother won’t be embarrassed to be caught reading this book.

Readers always ask writers of nonfiction, “Is this true? Did this really happen?” We've all become a little cynical after learning that writers we trusted made the whole thing up. Mary Beth has written an author’s note that clarifies the way she has handled the truth so well that I must quote the whole thing:

“I sincerely hope that those who recognize themselves in these pages will understand that I wrote this story from a place of love and gratitude for all of you who crossed paths with me during this magical time of my life. The events in the narrative did occur. Whether others will recall them as I have is debatable. To protect privacy, I changed some names, genders, physical identifiers, draft numbers and birthdates, radio call numbers, and other finger-pointing characteristics, and I created a character to take the heat. Some local place names have been changed.

A chronology of events does not a memoir make. To create narrative flow, I reconstructed dialogue, scrambled chronology, and compressed time. To keep the book to a manageable length, some people and events had to be left out.”


Besides all this, she writes with skill about her new home and the people in it; her prose is lyrical and strong. “Snow sheets over the ground and feathers up the mountainsides, lending a paradoxical softness to the landscape.”

Writing about your life? Mary Beth shows how to do it honestly and with grace. Mary Beth writes, ”The mountains called, and I came. I found my way home. . . . I finally feel the power of my life, and it matters. . . . I don’t pretend to understand it all, but this I know: Dreams won’t die, no matter how hard we try to slay them.”

She's not only provided a lesson in writing about your life, but the book will give you goose bumps too.

# # #

For more information:

Altitude Adjustment: A Quest for Love, Home, and Meaning in the Tetons,
by Mary Beth Baptiste
Helena, MT: TwoDot, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.
ISBN 978-0-9134-7. Paperback. 272 pp.

Visit the author’s website at: marybethbaptiste.com

back to top



Hollyhocks

August 27, 2013

Tags: Hollyhocks, Pioneers, Gardening, Family: Grandmother, Childhood, Writing Suggestions

Hollyhock Dolls made by Linda, August 2013.

. . .
I've always thought of hollyhocks as a settlers' or pioneers' flower-- without any particular evidence except having seen hollyhocks, along with hardy roses, growing beside shallow holes that may indicate the cellar of an early-day home. I surmise they were popular because they grow easily but I've also read that the stems can be used as firewood.

To my utter delight, I've just learned that the hollyhock was one of the first plants brought to the new world. I intuited those pioneer women planting!

In deference to the women who planted hollyhocks on this prairie, I've tucked seeds into likely spots around the retreat house, Homestead House, and into the stony ground on all four sides of my Windbreak House since moving back to the ranch. Most years, they have done well on the north, east and south, but very few grew on the western side of Windbreak House, blasted by the afternoon sun. But this year the western seeds received extraordinary rain, so the older hollyhocks some on the west side have nearly reached the deck railing.

When I lived in Cheyenne, I spent fifteen years making our corner parkway a display spot for native species, growing as many varieties as I could of flowering plants adapted to the arid climate. I wanted to demonstrate to other residents that their yards could be beautiful without pouring expensive city water into the ground.

So I grew purple coneflower, gaillardia, bee balm, several cacti, columbine, evening primrose and Shasta daisies. I planted Jerusalem cross, chamomile, oxalis, currant, lamb’s ear, lupine, flax, rose mallow, delphinium, snapdragons, penstemon, sweet peas, Siberian iris, wild flags, hyacinths and crocus. I grew butter and eggs, salpiglossis, myrtle, Centaurea, buffalo gourd, plains coreopsis, common sunrose, low poppy mallow, rose mallow, larkspur, pyrethrum, statice and campanula. And more.

Finally, nostalgically, I transplanted my grandmother's pink peony to a spot beside the front gate. Behind the windbreak fence, a tall plank structure, I planted hollyhock seed gathered from my grandmother's and aunt Josephine's plants. Many of the other seeds I deposited in the ground there did not grow, but in the back alley, the hollyhocks reached rose to eight or nine feet, peering over fence, their sturdy stems providing shelter for the birds and stalking cover for the neighborhood cats.

When I've passed the house in recent years, I note the parkway is overgrown and untended. But the hollyhocks grow sturdily in the alley.

* * *

Hollyhocks, native to central Europe and China, are part of in the hard-working Mallow (Malvaceae) family, which numbers more than two hundred flowering plants including such unlikely cousins as cotton, cacao, marsh mallow (yes, it is the original source for the confection), okra, painted ladies, hibiscus and rose of Sharon. What these diverse specimens have in common is that their flowers all have a central column of joined stamens. The hollyhock genus (Alcea) includes about sixty specimens.

Looking up any aspect of this history could send one wandering among in nomenclature highways and paths of origins. You might disappear for weeks. And I haven't even mentioned the hollyhock weevil and the medicinal uses.

Remains of the plant have been found in an archaeological dig in the grave of a Neanderthal man buried more than 50,000 years ago.

The common name "hollyhock" is very old and also has no clear history. One source says the word comes from "alkaia," the Greek word for mallow. Others say it originated with "holy" and "hoc," an Anglo-Saxon word for mallow.

Some say the "holy" was added because it was brought to Britain by the Crusaders in a salve for sore horses' hocks; in that regard, it was also known as Hockleaf. The Spaniards called it Joseph's Staff, and, to continue these religious references, it’s also known as Saint Cuthbert's Cowl, probably as a reference to the hooded shape of the flowers.

St. Cuthbert was an Anglo-Saxon monk and hermit who sounds like a fine fellow but I found no suggestion that he knew about or used hollyhocks.

* * *

Hollyhocks are easily grown from seeds and do well in poor soil and dry conditions. This time of year, and especially this year, you might stroll casually past your neighbor's tall hollyhock staffs and slip a seed pod or two into your pocket. I generally plant new seed in fall, water it generously for a week or two and then forget it until next spring when the plants pop up and surprise me.

Put the seed where you want the plants; they’re hard to transplant because of a long, tough taproot. I usually scrape a shallow trench, no more than an inch deep, sprinkle the seeds liberally, cover, stomp the earth down and then water. The plants will be tall, so I place them close to buildings for background. With our wind, they often lean and lean and lean until they nearly reach the ground, so I like to put them near fences for support. The big, showy blooms, some frilly and double, range in color from white through red and yellow, peach and almost black. The blooms open in succession starting at the bottom of the plant and moving upward, so you can collect seed at the bottom while blooms at the top are still opening: a good way to be stung or at least buzzed by the local bees.

The plants are short-lived. Some authorities say the plant is biennial; others consider it perennial, perhaps because it spreads its seeds so widely that new plants return year after year in the same area. Experts say they like hot, dry weather, which makes them ideal for this climate.

* * *

Medicinal uses may have made the plant popular with pioneers. One modern source suggests drinking an infusion made of flowers and leaves to aid in urinary tract infections, gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments. The same source recommends the leaves as a poultice for chapped or dry skin.

The thick mucilage, the gluey protein produced by nearly all plants, is said to be soothing to the throat and mucous membranes, thus good for coughs, colds. Cacti and flax seed are better-known sources of mucilage. And I recall the word being used for a particularly nasty glue when I was a child; much more stuck to my fingers than to anything I was trying to affix.

* * *

Testifying to its Asian origins, the hollyhock is part of the official seal of the Shogun of Japan and the name of a Japanese soccer team; Kyoto hosts a hollyhock festival yearly.

* * *

One day, as I drove down the street in Cheyenne toward the driveway, I saw an elderly woman and two little girls standing among the tall hollyhocks in the alley, where they would be hidden from the house by the privacy fence. Hmm, I thought.

When I strolled around the corner, there was the owner of the house next door with two little blonde girls. "Oh," she said, flushing red. "I hope you don’t mind. I’m showing my granddaughters how to make hollyhock dolls!"

"I absolutely do not mind," I said, "and thank you for reminding me."

* * *

Have you ever made a hollyhock doll?

Here’s a source of endless entertainment that requires almost nothing in supplies, does not employ technology and is guaranteed to keep participants away from the computer or TV screen.

Simply pluck a hollyhock blossom and turn it upside down. See? It’s a green-haired lady wearing a colorful dress, full skirt sweeping across the floor. When my mother wanted to make a little fancier doll, she tied ribbon or thread around just below the green sheath, making the doll’s waist.

I always thought these basic hollyhock dolls looked as though they had no heads. To remedy that, take a green seed pod or bud and fasten it with a toothpick above the skirt blossom.

Or pin in place above the first a second, smaller hollyhock or other flower blossom to create the look of a lady wearing a broad hat. You can stack several more blossoms below to make the skirt layered and more full. Or use a spent bloom to make a head with a tall headdress or long flowing hair.

The dolls don’t last long, but floating them in a broad bowl of water allows them to drift gracefully through your day.

* * *

Suddenly it occurs to me to do an internet search.

I was woefully wrong; these days, computers could figure into this entertainment. Not only are there photographs of hollyhock dolls, but step-by-step tutorials-- even a video!-- on how to make them. (Search "images for hollyhock dolls" for photos; see the Better Homes & Gardens website for instructions; or take a look at www.DesignMom.com . There’s even a site that sells fake ones but I’m not going to help anyone find it.)

Horrified, I picture little girls being lined up in front of a computer screen to learn the correct way to make a hollyhock doll.

However, several of the sites offer ideas new to me. For example, PremeditatedLeftovers.com suggests pulling off the sepal of the first blossom to expose "eyes" and breaking off the stem to create a mouth.

Still I hope that somewhere grandmothers are demonstrating for their grandchildren. I hope children are left alone in the garden to use their imaginations to create the dolls. I'm sure there was a time when most little girls knew how to make dolls from hollyhocks. I hope the numbers are growing as young mothers learn from their computer time.

* * *

The key to success with hollyhock dolls-- as it is with so many creative enterprises-- is imagination.

Here comes the writing connection I always try to slip into these blogs.

When I began this essay, I had no idea whether or not I would find a link to writing. In fact, this was to be a break from reading manuscripts, a simple reflection on the innocent fun of long hot afternoons I spent with hollyhock dolls after my grandmother and mother taught me how to make them.

I waltzed those dolls all over my grandmother’s screened-in porch on hot summer afternoons. I don’t recall imagining their escorts, but I suppose I did.

Imaginatively, the dolls have turned into writing coaches. They remind me of my maxim that spending time thinking about your writing is probably as valuable as the time you spend making black marks on paper or on a computer screen.

Don't even think. Just sit, look around you, see what happens.

And handwork of any kind is good because it detaches you from the writing implement of the day. While doing something creative besides writing, you can think about your writing project. You'll find you work out all kinds of problems that had defeated you while you sat at the computer, fuming.

Relax, Breathe deeply. Imagine those little pixies with green faces whirling around the garden at dusk.

* * *

One source says that hazel buds, wild thyme, marigolds and hollyhocks were part of a recipe made in 1660 AD that enabled anyone who ate it to see fairies.

Or perhaps what they saw were hollyhock dolls, dancing in the wind.


# # #

back to top



For Teachers and Other Hard Workers: Making Time to Write

February 22, 2013

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Butterfly, Life of a Writer

Inspiration found at the Creek Place, 2010.

. . .
The original draft of this letter was written to a long-time friend, a great teacher. Like many teachers I’ve known, she is frustrated because, though she loves teaching, she also wants to write. I hope my comments help other hard workers as they seemed to help her.

Good morning, Friend,

I got to thinking during the past couple of days about your frustration with the complications of teaching. You’re frustrated by the forms that must be filled out, the meetings to be attended, the administrators-- some of whom have never taught-- to please. And yet you love your students and the challenge of teaching; you cannot imagine short-changing them by teaching the same thing every year.

And you look at me and the fourteen books I have in print, the work I’m doing on the next book or two and think, “She’s so productive!”

Thinking, I looked up and realized I hadn’t yet removed the 2012 calender from above my computer (and you say I’m organized!) and the quote on it.

The butterfly counts not
months but moments,
and has time enough.

— Rabindranath Tagore —


From the outside, perhaps I look organized. From in here, much of my life seems to have been an agonizing stumble from one mistake to another. Occasionally I seemed to wake up and act intelligently or have a little good luck, making the right choice in between making a lot of wrong ones. I won’t go into detail; you’ve read enough of my work to see admissions of idiocy or omissions where you might assume it occurred.

When people, perhaps especially women, look at ourselves, we often see only the flaws and errors, and fail to appreciate what we have or what we’ve accomplished. I’ve had good friends, especially during the last couple of decades, who helped me see myself with a little more understanding. And as you know, writing in my journal and studying what I’ve written in my journal for years has also helped. It’s sometimes discouraging, though, to see that I’ve had the same life-changing revelation more than once: in 1965, say, again in 1978, perhaps in the late 1980s. But perhaps we need to keep learning the same lessons over and over until we really understand them.

The butterfly . . .

So let’s look at your life: you have been a diligent and creative teacher. You are sometimes impatient with administrative detail because some of these requirements seem to steal time from your real work: teaching. Your students remember you for years; when they see you after graduation they sometimes rush up to you with thanks. Or they forget to thank you but you can see the changes you have made in their lives by their attitude, their grades, the way they step out into the world.

At the end of the day, you are exhausted because you have poured so much energy into your work. You curl your lip at writing advice columns that suggest you establish a home office; you’ve had one for years and the desk is usually piled with papers to be graded. You hustle to clean house, make meals, tend to your spouse, children, pets. Sometimes you get up early to write. You may carry your journal everywhere with you and make notes.

But you want to spend entire days writing, as you imagine I must do, with nothing to think of but the next word, the next sentence.

counts not months . . .

Let’s see, where was I? I had to stop to let the dogs out, then start lunch, which reminded me I needed to put the compost bucket by the back door so I could empty it next time I go out, then let the dogs in, then turn down the heat under the spaghetti because it was boiling over, then take a load out of the dryer, fold it, and put another load in the washer.

See?

Besides teaching, you managed to survive a difficult first marriage that might have ripped you apart or sent you into depression or alcoholism. My grandmother said that when her first husband was killed, she wanted to die but she had to live for the children. She kept on living and working and raising those kids and married again.

Her second marriage was a good one but yours wasn’t. Still, you raised your children very well; you stuck by them when they made stupid mistakes and you now have incredible grandchildren in whose lives you are closely twined in the best of ways.

Remember I’ve never had children, though I still have some ties with three out of my four stepchildren. I’ve never taken-- made-- the time to know my grandchildren or my (gulp) great-grandchild. But I know about bad marriages and divorce and widowhood.

But all the time you kept teaching, kept writing in your journals, kept writing poems. And you, like me, found a man who will support you psychologically, lovingly, in anything you choose to do. Will work his fingers to the bone to support you financially. Knows stuff the rest of us haven’t even begun to figure out and besides all this has a great sense of humor. That man will never let you down.

but moments . . .

So look at where you are now: you have had a satisfying career but you are tired of filling out the forms, arranging your life around class schedules. You currently choose to teach but you are able to arrange to do so on your own terms. You are getting respect, at last, for what you know. You can begin to let this part of your life wind down if you choose to, knowing you have accomplished a great deal. The important thing is that, as you approach what much of the world calls “retirement age,” you can choose your next adventure.

Meanwhile, as you said, you have this gigantic body of rough drafts bubbling in the pot on the back of the stove. You can smell ’em, hear the bubbles, stir once in awhile. Even if you don’t turn the heat up, the pot will continue to boil and bubble and once in awhile raise the lid and make it jingle. Sometimes you’ve snatched up a bowl, filled it and won an award for your creation.

and has time enough.

Relax. You know that a good soup has to simmer a long time, tantalizing you with its aroma.

Look at yourself: you are a woman who knows how to get what she wants. When you need a break, you’re smart enough to take one. You can enjoy strolling in the sunshine, visiting with friends, petting the dogs. When you see a pair of earrings you love, you buy them; you don’t spend too much, just enough to remind yourself you can.

Trust this woman. She’ll know when she must write. She might analyze how her time is spent and decide that she should drop this or stop doing that in order to spend that time writing.

She might decide to get up earlier on Sunday and leave the cell phone off and write. She might decide to organize all her writing so that she knows what she has and what she wants to work on next.

She might decide that the book club has deteriorated into political squabbling and stop attending meetings. Perhaps she’ll refuse the next invitation to join an organization that really really does a great deal of good for something or someone.

She might decide that every time she starts to think of how frustrating a particular situation is, she will grab the rough draft of a poem from the place she’s handily stacked or tucked them and put her mind entirely into that. She might write a poem the size of a postcard every day. She has time.

The point is, she is a mature, seasoned woman and writer. She doesn’t need to apologize for what she has done or feel inferior to anyone. She will evaluate her life and decide where to make changes to allow her the time to do the kind of writing she wants to do. She’s getting on with her life and her writing and she’s just fine, thank you. She has time enough.

Signed,

Another Struggling Writer

# # #

back to top



Vacation

November 29, 2012

Tags: Vacation, Writing Suggestions, My Poem: (draft) Vacation House, Poetry

The meal of scallops (and shrimp) described in the draft poem.

Again this year, we traveled to Manzanita, OR, for a vacation, renting a wonderful house a block from the ocean (www.susansbeachhouse.com). We invited Jerry’s relatives to visit and many of them did, able to stay for a night or two because we had extra bedrooms.

Vacationing a block from the beach in Oregon in October does not mean one works on a tan; during most of our days there, rain fell and the Oregonians apologized. But we enjoyed the sensation since we’d had virtually no rain here since May.

Vacations, of course, are for enjoying oneself, relaxing from daily work. For me, however, a trip such as this requires that I take work along-- but it’s usually work that’s not what I normally do at home. Last year, for example, I went through dozens of cooking magazines and my recipe books and organized my recipes into a handy file that helps me find the recipes I really use.

Having a work space with notebooks, pens and paper ready means that when I can’t sleep, I have a place to go where my mind can work. Surprising thoughts sometimes emerge-- ideas that might not have surfaced in the busy-ness of home. Long walks with the dogs helped me consider the book I’m working on and make notes. And I worked on a poem, writing one draft into the house journal before we left. Here’s the current draft.

Vacation House (draft)

Coffee steams from the smooth curve
of a yellow cup. Two dogs and a good man
sleep in a darkened room.
The joints of the house creak
as warm air flows around me.
This is not our house,
but we’ve settled into its worn couches,
laughed with family around its long table,
created good food in its kitchen.
We’ve splashed in rain in the streets
leading here and away.
We watched kites leap and twirl
above the sandy beach.
Stared at Neahkahnie’s bold brow,
the froth around her feet.
Laughed and dined, read and played
games and the piano in the living room.
Listened to the sea advance
whirling, coiling, seething, falling,
always falling toward the land.
Perhaps we heard the contented sighs
from ghosts glad for our company.

Tomorrow we’ll head home
to dry grass, dusty sky,
cattle grazing on rumpled hills.
Tonight we’ll saute scallops
from that muttering sea
in rich gold butter, seasoned
with rosemary from the bush
outside the door. Rosemary,
that’s for remembrance.

copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2012


# # #

back to top



Gleanings II: Learning from other writers -- Alyson Hagy's craft talk, “Fiction: Lean and Mean"

September 21, 2012

Tags: Gleaning, Writing Suggestions, Book Festival, Writer: Alyson Hagy

Alyson Hagy at the Equality State Book Fest, 2012.
Visit her website here.
Photo by Jane Young.

. . .
My policy, when I attend writing conferences as a speaker, is always to attend as many sessions by other writers as possible. I believe doing so compliments my hosts and the other writers and I always learn something unexpected.

Moreover, I’ve attended many such literary festivals where the featured writers appeared only for their own sessions and then disappeared, sometimes to drink with their buddies until it time to appear again. I understand the desire to keep up with friends but I believe when I’m paid to appear at a conference, my responsibility includes making myself available during the normal work day for questions from the other attendees. They are, after all, the folks who presumably buy and read our books.

So I dived right into Alyson Hagy’s craft talk, “Fiction: Lean and Mean,” at the Equality Book Festival, taking notes on that and her keynote luncheon presentation about her newest novel, exploring the intersections of art, Wyoming and the west.

Alyson Carol Hagy is author of the Wyoming-centered fiction Boleto, (2012) Ghosts of Wyoming (2010) and Snow, Ashes (2007), all from Graywolf Press as well as other works of fiction.

Some quotations and paraphrases from her talks:

“Don’t tell the reader what to think; tell the truth. Tell what happened.” The reader will figure out the meaning for himself or herself.

“If you think you can write something that will help you reconcile with your parents-- it ain’t gonna happen.”

“Failure isn’t really a hindrance. It’s part of the process.” Hagy likened revising to fly-fishing and tennis, both of which she loves: it’s necessary to just keep casting and hitting balls, over and over. “All three require a lot of repetition.”

“I cheat myself,” she says, by writing short scenes. Instead of thinking of the thousands of pages she has to write to create a novel, she thinks only of little nuggets, writes in short spurts, knowing that eventually they will add up to a novel.

“Writing (fiction or poetry) is about questions.”

I agree with Alyson’s assessment; I write to discover the answers.

# # #

For More Information:

Wyoming Authors Wiki website for Alyson Hagy

back to top



Gleanings I: Blogging, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr and more with Rebecca K. O’Connor

September 19, 2012

Tags: Gleaning, Writing Suggestions, Book Festival, Writer: Rebecca K. O'Connor, Journals, Blogging vs Journaling, Twitter, Flickr, Tumblr

Rebecca O'Connor talking about journaling at the Equality State Book Fest, 2012.
Visit her website here.
Photo by Jane Young.

. . .
Ripening tomatoes and the approach of the Autumn Equinox have turned my thoughts to gleaning, reminding me that during the weekend of September 14-15, 2012, I gleaned as much writing advice as I dispensed.

I was invited to Wyoming’s Equality State Book Festival, held at Casper College.

First, I presented a craft talk, “What We Do With Our Days,” centered on the use of a time monitor to analyze and change how we spend time, finding more for writing.

My second presentation was a reading primarily from Dirt Songs: A Plains Duet, my new book of poems with Twyla Hansen, published in 2011 by The Backwaters Press. I also read and talked about a couple of selections from No Place Like Home: Notes From a Western Life, published in 2009 by University of Nevada Press.

On the second day, I was moderator for a publishing panel starring Annette Chaudet, owner/publisher of Pronghorn Press, Greybull, WY, and Nancy Curtis, owner/publisher of High Plains Press, Glendo, WY.

Finally, I participated in a nature panel with Pat Frolander of Sundance, Wyoming’s poet laureate; writer and photographer Cat Urbigkit of Pinedale, WY (paradisesheep.com); her newest book is Shepherd of Coyote Rocks. California writer Rebecca O’Connor (rebeccakoconnor.com), whose newest book is Lift (Red Hen Press), about her experiences during a year of training a peregrine falcon, was the fourth member of our panel. Moderator Holly Wendt and questions from the audience kept the discussion moving along-- and that’s all I can say about it. Being inside a discussion leaves no room for note-taking. But our audience was so attentive one of the festival’s organizers had to remind us time was up and herd us out the door.

Still, I gleaned plenty from the festival and here are some examples.

I attended Rebecca’s session, “Narrative Through Modern Journaling.” Rebecca keeps journals online, making use of her website and of blogging. I blog, but the idea of keeping an online journal terrifies me with its lack of privacy so I wanted to see how she used the Internet in her journal-keeping.

“Why blog?” She asks-- and her answers are several: to keep a record; to gauge interest in a writing project; to work on your discipline; and “to discover the story in your story.” She adds, “The little details are the things you forget,” -- and those are precisely the elements that make a story come to life. And I agree that a writer may begin thinking the story will take a particular direction but discover as it expands that it has other ideas.

Writing observed details immediately places the material where you can return to it a year or more later and see it as fresh as the day you wrote. To add zing, she includes photographs with her posts. Many of her blogs later turn into essays, but she says, “If you’re going to blog instead of writing, don’t do it.”

Rebecca likes Twitter as a great place to make your writing stronger by honing it to the required 140 characters. Great writing exercise, I think, and resolve to try some twitter-like journal entries without the benefit (or peril) of the Internet.

Flickr, Rebecca says, is a “great tool for building a photo journal” and feeds her writing. “If you’re looking for a photo, you are honing your writer’s eye, focusing on beautiful things.” She adds, “You can unstick yourself, discovering the unexpected in the camera’s lens.”

Tumblr, she says, is not a full blog but more like a scrapbook with bits and snippets, easy to use. And if you’re not comfortable with the conversations that Twitter inspires, she adds, Tumblr may be for you; it allows short comments.

I’m not likely to begin doing my journaling online-- that just seems way too public to me-- but I can see the advantages to accompanying online journal entries with photographs. I take pictures too, but it’s a fairly laborious process to process the finished pictures and put them together with my journal entries from the same day. I can see Rebecca’s method being considerably more efficient.

Rebecca also recommends therumpus.net, a “warm and safe” online environment in which to be published. One benefit is that the site “culls out the nastiness;” only positive comments are allowed. “Be the comment you want to leave,” says a website heading.

Rebecca also recommends Spotify, a free music service, for building a playlist of music to write to; “you have to listen to commercials,” she adds. She’s working on a book set partly in 1958, so has compiled a playlist of songs from that era.

She also warns about addiction; it’s easy to waste a day online. To prevent time-wasting forays, you can pay for Freedom, a site that cuts you off the Internet for a specified length of time. (Or you can set a kitchen timer or the alarm on your phone.)

“Remember,” said Rebecca, “the story you think you are writing is not the story you are writing.” I was also pleased to hear her say that when writing comments on other websites, “Encourage each other. Be kind, bighearted, give virtual hugs.” There’s no reason to be unpleasant; what you sow comes back to you.

She furnishes links to her work on each of these sites plus her Facebook page on her web page; click on “community.”

Other sites she recommended are Morning Pages Julie Cameron, which recommends writing three pages a day by hand. Written Kitten provides you with a new picture of a kitten when you write a certain amount. Write or Die: if you don’t keep writing, your work is erased.

And the final and perhaps most important part of Rebecca’s advice: “Remember it’s out there forever.” Be careful what you write. She doesn’t write about relationships, personal or private things people said or did. I find this final advice to be excellent, of course: but also inhibiting.

In my private journal I can write anything. Of course, what I write is “out there” in that journal-- but I keep my journals tucked into pockets, purses and private shelves in my office where they are unlikely to be read by anyone but me as long as I live.

So consider the advantages of the online journal: all that spontaneity, the vivid color of photographs. Perhaps you’ll choose to use versions of both the paper and online journals.

# # #

For More Information:
Rebecca K. O'Connor's website

back to top



Free Advice: Worth What You Pay For It
Or: Why I Won’t Give you Free Advice on Your Manuscript

June 4, 2012

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Writing Workshops, Life of a Writer, Publishing, Book Promotion, Book Selling, Computers, Writer: Helen Rezatto

Linda talking at a workshop for which she was paid.

. . .
Dear friend of a person I barely know,

You wrote your friend to say you are fed up with workshops, that you know you can write. All you need, you wrote, is a mentor to help you put your manuscript into book form.

The mentor, you wrote, should also tell you how to sell your published book. “I need a connection,” you wrote, urging her to give the letter to me so that I would become that mentor.

Your friend did give me your letter: at a workshop where twenty writers had paid for the time and expertise of several published writers. For four days the experienced writers worked with those students, ate lunch with them, sat for hours discussing their work.

You weren’t there because you have decided workshops are a waste of time and money. Sadly, that is sometimes true.

As a science fiction writer replied when asked why science fiction is worthless: because 99% of everything is worthless. A few years ago I saw a workshop that promised to introduce writers to an agent even if they hadn’t written a word. Legitimate agents are unlikely to discuss your publishing prospects if you don’t have a book contract in hand for a book that’s already written. (See my suggestions about whether or not you need an agent elsewhere on this website.)

A writer interested in attending any workshop should investigate it the same way you would investigate any purchase: asking questions and doing research to see if what you are buying will be useful to you.

But workshops can be beneficial. You may gain information you didn’t know you needed. And you might connect with other writers who are learning about the profession and who have the same concerns. You mentioned the cost of travel and motels as being prohibitive. So look for assistance where you live; aspiring writers are everywhere. Scan want ads, check with friends, examine the bulletin boards of libraries, bookstores. Search online for “writers, Your Town USA.” Visit websites on writing topics.

Ideally, you will find compatible writers who will exchange writing with you, so that everyone comments on everyone else’s work. This can be time-consuming; you owe your fellow writers the same effort you expect them to put into helping you. But it is likely to be the single most useful thing you can do for yourself as a beginning writer: to discover, cultivate and cherish fellow writers so you can all help each other. I wish I’d known this opportunity existed and found writers with whom to exchange information at various stages in my career. Most of what I have learned has come from making mistakes and doing research on my own.

You said you need a “connection.” Surely you have read news reports of publishers going bankrupt, of bookstores closing nationwide. Even nationally-famous writers with long lists of books published by reputable companies are finding their books rejected as publishers cut costs and try to profit with new competition.

If you consider yourself a writer, educating yourself about the world of publishing is part of your job. Read available news about publishing, writers, bookstores and libraries to learn about your chances of publication. If you believe your writing is valuable, then you must find your own method of getting it in print.

You may dream of receiving a contract from a major publisher but many other methods of publishing exist, from print on demand to online publishing. You can write your thoughts on the Internet through blogging, publish in an Ebook, self-publish, create a POD (print on demand) book or join a publishing cooperative.

Information on publishing is easily available. You can learn how to publish a book via the internet or in your public library. Librarians I know are eager to help their patrons. Start with a look at Writer’s Market and The Literary Market Place. In the library or bookstore or online, browse the dozens of “how-to” books on writing and publishing. Look at bibliographies so each source leads you to others. Every day hundreds of writers figure out how publish their own books. You must do the same. This is the good news.

You already know the bad news: some of the people spreading information are not honest.

As an author, plan to learn new skills that will enable you to publish and promote your writing in the way that suits you best. No mentor, no matter how generous or well known, can determine which publication method is best for your book, submit it, design it, edit, copyedit and proofread the manuscript, oversee publication and help you sell it. Because you know your own manuscript best, you must develop your own ideas about where and how it might find readers; that’s just part of the job of the writer.

Do you picture yourself as a famous author seated comfortably on a chair in a TV studio, casually discussing the latest book? Even famous authors have to work hard to sell their books. Commercial contracts often call for a certain number of speaking and book-signing appearances in particular cities as part of the publishing campaign. The author who publishes with less-famous publishers has to arrange his or her own travel. In both cases, when the writer is traveling to promote her book, she’s not writing. Many authors now use the Internet for promotion, blogging, tweeting, exchanging reviews. And more and more frequently, I hear the complaint, “I’m spending all my creative energy promoting my work, not writing.”

In writing to me, you proudly said you do not have a computer, that you are “too old to learn” and can’t afford one. Without a computer, your task is more time-consuming in several ways. Internet research is faster, though often less reliable, than library research. Most publishers no longer read printed manuscripts; they require attachments sent in the proper format.

Still, most settled regions swarm with people willing to teach you how to use a computer, often at low cost. For example, senior citizens’ organizations offer many such classes particularly for seniors of limited means who aren’t interested in “surfing the net” but in writing their life stories. I know a dozen people in their 80s and 90s who confidently use their computers to pay their bills, do research, write to friends– and none of them are well-to-do.

When you told your friend that I should help you write, publish and promote your book, you did not mention any effort you may have made to find help in the busy metropolitan area where you live. I know that city to be thronged with writers at all levels; many of them are generous with their time and teach or give workshops. I might have ignored your letter or said “No!” but I’ve spent hours composing this reply. Those are hours lost from my own writing. And if you are like many who have asked me for help as you did, you will be angry, resentful, perhaps rude about my refusal to put aside my own work to help you with yours.

I have and do work hard to help writers who show initiative and determination to see their work in print. But if I am to get any of my own work done, I must limit the time I take away from it to give to others.

I am a full-time writer; I begin writing by nine each morning, stopping only to cook and eat lunch. In the afternoon I may write or answer mail or email. I also have all the usual responsibilities: cooking, cleaning, gardening. My writing is an important part of my livelihood. Because I don’t make enough money from selling my books to eat, I have developed other ways to make a living from writing.

Once upon a time, when had real jobs and was not writing as much or as seriously, I worked free for “good causes;” I reserve the right to do so still. But my writer friend Helen Rezatto lectured me: “You wouldn’t call the plumber and ask him to fix the leak in your pipes for free,” she said. “Why should writers be expected to give away their hard-earned knowledge?”

Often, I am invited by a college or university (with paid professors) or a high school (with paid teachers) or a civic group or arts organization (with paid staff) to teach writing for a day or more. They don’t mention pay but the invitations promise chirpily, I’ll have a “chance to sell my books.” This usually means I’ll sit at a table in the foyer as everyone goes home to lunch or out for the evening. People issuing such invitations do not consider the costs of travel, overnight stays, or time lost from my work. I speak from experience; I’ve done hundreds of such jobs in and around my home state.

If Helen were alive, she’d remind me to tell them that I might sell far more books staying at home and blogging or tweeting. People value service in direct proportion to the amount they pay for it, she insisted, and writers who perform their work for free are always underrated.

I make my living in three ways. I am hired by colleges, universities and writers groups to give workshops and talks. I expect those organizations to pay for my time, just as if they’d hired a plumber. (See an explanation of my fees on this website.)

I conduct writing retreats at my ranch. Writers who come for retreat usually spend two full days and two half-days here in my retreat house, consulting with me on work they have sent ahead. When I receive their email attachment, I can write comments directly in the manuscript. During the retreat, I print copies for the writer and for me and we devote our time together to reviewing and revising the work. I offer suggestions for publication once I know the writer’s needs and abilities. (Descriptions and costs of a Writing Retreat are described on this website.) They pay for my expertise just as they would pay the costs of a college class, and for the same reasons.

Third, I provide writing consultations by email. That is, writers send me their manuscripts-- by email, as attachments-- and I write comments throughout the work, sending it back so that the writer can work through my suggestions line by line. (Descriptions and costs of Writing Conversations are also described on this website.) I no longer accept paper manuscripts sent by mail because the process of commenting is so much more laborious for both the writer and for me. My $50 an hour charge for this service is, I’m told, hundreds of dollars below the industry standard.

I have spent more than fifty years writing and publishing my work, educating myself about the process-- so I believe I am justified in charging for the time I spend helping others. Writing and working with writers are my only businesses.

So I urge you to invest your own time to learn about the profession you chose by calling yourself a writer. Study the business and decide what procedure is best for you. If you have faith in your work, you will find a way. Thousands of people with limited resources have educated themselves and published worthwhile books in one form or another.

You could be one of them.

# # #

back to top



Monitoring Your Time

April 30, 2012

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Time Monitor, Priorities, Wasting Time, Creating Calm

Outdoor seat in the hollyhocks near Homestead House, Linda's writing retreat residence.

. . .
Create a graph of an entire week, breaking days into increments of 15 minutes. To be precise, you will need 48 lines to record what you do each 15-minute segment of a 12-hour day. You can shorten the graph by using larger blocks of time for activities that don’t vary, such as sleeping and going to work.

Along the side of each page, use a separate line to record each category of activity on which you spend time: sleeping, eating, work. Add other personal major categories: eating, cooking, other employment, television, walking. Leave some blank lines to add things you don't think of at first. I suggest you devote a single page to each day, and staple the pages together to form a handy-sized booklet.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s worth your time.

* Schedule the things you must do first: work, appointments fixed in advance. Then add daily activities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.

* Include errand time. Little things can destroy any schedule if you let them crop up in the middle of other jobs. Once you set aside time to do laundry, get groceries, ONLY do those jobs at that time. DO NOT allow yourself to leap up in the middle of a poem to run to the store. Tell your family, "Sorry we don't have whipped cream, but we were out (maybe someone used the last of it without writing it on the grocery list?) and I was working, so I couldn't go get it."

* Schedule enjoyment, and choose what it will be. Rather than sit blindly in front of the TV, decide you'll take a walk during that time, refreshing mind and body. Remember, physical activity is necessary for health, and many writers say it helps break writer's block.

* After you have included everything above, then set goals for your writing time; be realistic; don't schedule yourself for 8 hours of writing beginning at 9 p.m. Friday.

Carry the chart with you for one week. The time spent filling it out will be worthwhile in helping you create a realistic plan for scheduling writing time along with your other responsibilities.

At the end of the week, add up the time you spent doing each item. These figures will tell you how you really spent your time during that week. This means that, for that week, the categories that took the most time were your REAL priorities-- no matter what you might have told yourself or others.

If you say writing is a priority, but at the end of a week have spent more time baking cookies, then you know you have to work hard to change your priorities by altering your mind set as well as by your actions.

Analyze how you might switch your priorities. Keep in mind your own tendencies, and don't try to change too much too soon. That is, don't immediately say, "Well, NEXT week I'll spend 5 hours a day writing." Work up to it. Figure out a new schedule, changing what you can. Maybe this week you will deduct a half an hour from one activity and add that time to something that has a higher priority. Move step by step. Don't try to change everything at once. Follow the new schedule for a week or two, until you feel you have made improvements or until you’ve discovered what changes you still need to make.

Then make out a new time monitor, and keep track again for a week, so you can see where you have succeeded, as well as where you have failed. Give yourself rewards for what you have done well. Don't beat yourself up with guilt. Keep working on it, and maybe once a month or so, do the time monitor again so you can see where you are improving or not.


SUGGESTIONS TO CONSIDER WHILE CHANGING YOUR PRIORITIES

* Try doing the jobs that are most boring first while you're fresh, so you can get them out of the way efficiently.

* Avoid marathons sessions doing anything. Don't try to write eight hours a day at first. When you get organized and have worked up to it, you may be able to do that once in awhile. But if you try it and "fail," you may have a harder time convincing yourself you can, and want to, do it.

* Figure out your best time of day and write then, so you can be more forgiving of interruptions later.

* Carry your journal so you can use time spent waiting for appointments, at traffic lights, for children after school. Some people think "Five minutes isn't long enough to do anything," but if you've been thinking about or working on a poem or story, it can be time enough to come up with the solution to a problem, to outline an article, to brainstorm new ideas. Write grocery lists while waiting so you don't have to shop more than once a week. Use waiting time to think of little jobs you can accomplish during waiting time! Often if I’ve been struggling with a particular problem, I find the solution when I leave the computer to do something else that requires little thought--washing the dishes, say, or walking dogs.

* Write regularly in one place. Obviously, one advantage is that your working materials, such as reference books, paper, pens, are together. But also your body knows where you are. When you use the same place to work every day, your body and mind become trained, sensing that it's time to work when you are in that place, allowing you to focus more quickly and more intensely. For that reason, don't write where you sleep-- where your body and mind are trained to slow down-- or vice versa; don't eat or watch TV in your writing place.

* A ritual may be useful: perhaps looking at a particular quotation, or sharpening your pencils, or prayer might help you focus, to tell you, "OK, it's time to stop thinking about dinner and start thinking about writing." Anything that works for you is acceptable.

* Don't get too comfortable. Especially if writing is new to you and you haven't created your own disciplines and habits, trying to write while leaning against pillows on the bed can make you associate writing with drowsiness, for example. Learning-- as writing is-- requires energy.

* Pay attention to your attention span. Breaks in concentration may be caused by internal interruptions, your own thoughts jumping in. These thoughts may be related to what you are doing-- your subconscious may be trying to give you information. Stop and examine whatever seems to be causing the gaps in concentration. If it's not relevant, make a note to deal with it later and go on.

* Avoid noise distractions. I can't write with the radio on-- the ads drive me crazy or distract my thinking. But I do have particular music on tape or CD that seems to help me shut out other noises-- traffic, for example-- and which I can play while working without interruption. In my case, I don't play music with song lyrics, because my word-oriented mind follows the lyrics instead of what I'm trying to write.

* Notice how others misuse your time. Be aware of people who call you or enter your writing space even after you've asked them not to. If certain friends or relatives constantly interrupt, ask yourself what this means. Are they consciously sabotaging your work? Do they not understand your need for solitude? You may have to send a clear message. Sometimes they really don't know what kind of concentration is required by thinking. Start with gentle reminders.

In order to relieve yourself of the responsibility for making a decision about every potential interruption, try putting a humorous sign on the door:

GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL IN PROGRESS
IF YOU KNOCK, IT WILL TURN INTO A MINOR AMERICAN JOKE


A painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on the chain that closes off the road to her house when she is in a painting or thinking mode:
"I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn't mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does."

Another sculptor hangs this sign on her gate:
"Do not disturb unless I've won the lottery or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway."
--from Women Who Run with the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Este`s (NY: Ballantine, 1992)

If these gentler messages don't work, discuss the problem with that person. Rather than being negative-- "You are rude, you are ruining my work"-- try putting the message more positively: "I am having trouble with what I'm working on and I need your help in order to concentrate. Can you keep me from being interrupted for [insert number of your choice here] hours? "

Asking for help allows people to show their innate generosity, and they are less liable to resent it than if you lecture. Can you find a way to compliment someone-- your mother, for example-- while asking her not to interrupt: "Mom, you were such a help to me when I was studying French. I need you to help me now that I've created this writing job for myself." Pat yourself on the back with relatives and friends; they have no idea how hard what you do is, so remark on it to them, not as a boast, but because you know they will be happy to know you finished writing five feature stories and mailed them the same day.

* Remember, writing is a job. As you begin to get organized, keep adding up the hours you spend on it, and if your goal is to be a full-time writer, aim for a 40-hour week. (And DON’T estimate what your wages are until you have prepared yourself for the shock of how far below minimum wage most writing jobs are!)

Grafton rises at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o’clock to begin the day’s writing. “I don’t wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don’t work in my pajamas."

interview with Sue Grafton, mystery writer
Publishers Weekly, 4/20/98, p. 40-41.

* Treat the telephone as just another tool. Remember that you are in control of this machine; you pay for it. It's hard not to answer if you hear it ring, but try not to be a telephone victim. Consider various alternatives-- turning the ringer off and using answering machine or voice messaging. Again, if you have made yourself available to everyone by answering at all hours, you will need to make changes slowly. Two mornings a week, for example, you might replace your regular message with one like this: "I'm working against a deadline, so please leave a message and I'll return your call as soon as I can." The deadline might be your own-- "I'm going to finish this today"-- but use of the word implies someone is paying you, guaranteeing callers will take it more seriously.

* Learn to say “No,” a simple word that is a time saver and skill for managing your life more effectively-- not rude behavior. Tell the person making a request that you have other commitments right now, and that you don’t like to take on work you can’t be sure of finishing without jeopardizing other obligations.


QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF WHEN ORGANIZING YOUR TIME

* What little task can I finish in five minutes?

Maybe you can brainstorm a bit on that poem idea you had while doing the dishes. Or record the day’s writing expenses in your accounts. Doing small jobs trims a little of your list of jobs, and gives you positive feedback: "I am making progress."

* Am I beating myself up?

Are you being too hard on yourself? Lighten up-- berating yourself only wastes time you could spend on the job. Take a few deep breaths and get on with it.

I copy this combination breathing exercise and prayer into the front of each of my journals and repeat it as needed. I highly recommend going through this once if you are about to get into an argument. Rarely do I get through a day without using it once!

(Breathing in)
        I am arriving;
(breathing out)
        I am home.
(Breathing in)
        I am here;
(breathing out)
        this is now.
(Breathing in)
        I am rooted;
(breathing out)
        I am free.
(Breathing in)
        I dwell
(breathing out)
        in the ultimate.

--Buddhist gatha, prayer

* Is this a piano?

Carpenters who build rough framework for buildings have a saying they use when they bend a nail or dent a two-by-four: "Well, this ain't no piano." If what you’re doing does not require perfection, don't ask too much of yourself. On the other hand, being organized encourages you to take enough time to do each job well-- doing it poorly may only mean you have to do it over.

Accept lower standards where they are appropriate, reducing your tension, and saving your energy for the times it IS a piano. Your research notes, for example, don't have to be written in full sentences or be grammatically correct.

* How did I waste time today?

As you build better work habits, ask yourself each evening how you sabotaged yourself during the day. Once you note things you do that kill time, you're more likely to stop yourself in the act next time. “Well, I’d love to visit some more, but I spent so much time having coffee with you yesterday that I didn’t finish this project.”

* Do you spend large blocks of time doing a single task or leapfrog from job to job?

Each of us must find our own best work method, but if you bounce from one task to another, you may never quite finish anything, growing more frustrated and scattered as you survey the undone jobs sitting around you. Blocking out a specific period of time to accomplish a single task also allows you to notify people who interrupt-- that deadline, you know-- and at the end of the job to feel a sense of accomplishment.

* How many of the jobs on your time chart are things you really WANT to do? Can you cut any of them out?

Using what you have learned from the time chart and your analysis, set up a schedule reflecting how you WANT to spend your time. Remember, as soon as you get serious about writing, it becomes real work and you will try to weasel out of it.

* How many of the categories on your time chart are really unavoidable? Can anyone else help you? Are all of those jobs really your responsibility? Did you take over doing dishes because your ten-year-old or your husband didn't do them QUITE to your satisfaction? Maybe you should lower your standards, or train someone else how to do the job well.

The investment of time will pay off-- often our companions have no idea how much time we spend in household chores. Your family should support you by helping with work that benefits everyone. Women often do household tasks like cooking, washing dishes, washing, folding and ironing clothes, cleaning, taking out the garbage. Yet everyone in the household eats, creating dirty dishes, wears clothes, and creates dirt and garbage. Spreading these tasks among family members can be viewed as an educational program, helping each member of the family understand the responsibilities of living. This educational program is especially useful to children, who will grow up and have their own homes where they are responsible for all these jobs.

*Spend five minutes brainstorming, scribbling ways in which you waste time. Limit yourself to five minutes. Think about the list. Put an X by the two time-wasting habits you use most often. Write down why you think they are so attractive to you-- what rewards do they offer you? What is the cost of wasting time in those ways? Review the list. Which two or three time-wasting activities can you give up tomorrow? This week? Repeat this exercise as needed.

* Would I pay myself for what I'm doing right now? A good question during the work day, particularly if you've just taken your third popcorn break.


AN EXERCISE THAT REFRESHES AND RECHARGES

The Roaring Lion

Lock the door if you are easily embarrassed. Sit on the floor, cross-legged-- with each ankle on the opposite knee if you can manage it. Shoulders back, arms extended, hanging loosely over your knees. Take a deep breath, exhale hard through your mouth. As you exhale, open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue. Spread your fingers apart and stretch your arms down. Hold the pose without inhaling for a few seconds. Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through your nostrils. Breathe out slowly through your nostrils. Relax. Repeat three times.


The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
--Simone Weil
The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1951

# # #

back to top



How to Live in Spite of Your Computer

April 5, 2012

Tags: Computers, Email, Writing Suggestions, Creating Calm

. . .
A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila
--- Mitch Ratcliffe
Funny Times, April 2006, p. 4.


I drove away from the computer repair shop that day feeling pretty darn smug. My computer needed repair over a weekend, so I’d spend four days without it. Not only was I not worried, I looked forward to the weekend as if it were a vacation.

Since I didn’t get a computer until long after most people were speaking glibly of their PCs and I habitually write in longhand and read widely, I expected to have no trouble at all filling time without the mechanical device.

When I got home, I carried my groceries upstairs and then whipped downstairs into my office to check my email.

Hmm. Maybe computer withdrawal would be harder than I thought.

So I set about reconstructing my life of writing without the blasted thing. The results were satisfying enough to convince me that it would be beneficial to any of us to deliberately choose computer-free days in the future.

First, I realized that without the computer, my schedule could be changed. On the average day, I get up at 4:30, turn on the coffee, let the dogs out, and return to bed for an hour or so of reading. After breakfast, I go to my computer-- and I could begin writing at that moment.

A few years ago, before I got email, a fellow writer, commented on how productive I was, how much writing I got done. “What’s your secret?” she asked. Well, I said, I started work early in the morning and stop only to fix lunch.”

“I do the same thing,” she said and then stopped. “Well, first I take a quick look at my email. And sometimes when I’ve finished that I’m amazed that a couple of hours has gone by.”

These days, I don’t start writing as soon as I sit down at my desk. I know that my assistant has probably sent me email from my public email address, so I check. Ah! There’s the answer to my question about what accommodations are available for that speaking engagement. And I’d better see if I can accept that writer for a Writing Conversation by eMail. And I ought to let that officer of the history group know that I will attend the meeting. There’s the schedule for the workshop in October; I’ll print that out. Oh, and Nancy has played Scrabble; I’ll play my turn now.

And before I know it, an hour has passed. I’ve done what I so deplored in my friend.

So I shake myself and get back to work on the latest project, feeling a bit harried and hurried and guilty for wasting that good writing time. Feeling guilty and harried is not a good way to begin one’s writing day and yet only rarely do I slip through the email reading only positive messages.

One way to begin my writing day in a better frame of mind would be to leave email unopened until I have written something. This is easy when the computer is twenty-five miles away, a little harder when it’s sitting on my desk. Fortunately, I have two desks: I try to keep the old-fashioned one clear for hand-writing.

That weekend, I set out to break the Email First habit by tackling the job of writing a foreword for a soon-to-be-published book by a friend. I collected the manuscript and stretched out in my comfortable recliner with a yellow tablet. The dogs settled on the couch beside me; outside the window, grouse gurgled in the trees. Ah! The life of the writer!

Usually when I am reviewing a manuscript, I fill it with sticky notes to mark passages, writing cryptic notes. Every few minutes, when an idea becomes too complex to fit a manuscript margin or a yellow sticky note, I go to the computer and expand my immediate responses into more coherent paragraphs.

Because I couldn’t go to the computer, I had to hand-write every step of my thought process. I’d read an essay, taking notes in the margins and on my yellow pad about its contents. Then I’d make a cup of tea to sip while I thought about the implications. How did this piece relate to the previous essays? Each period of thought led to more notes. Without the cursor blinking at me, I seemed to have more time to flip back through the pages to check references, re-read passages and appreciate them again.

Sometimes, even when I get to the computer fairly quickly after making notes on the book, I’ve lost track of some convoluted idea. Having to write out my thought process helped clarify my thinking about many points.

The slow speed of hand-writing my thoughts allowed my brain to race ahead of my fingers-- and this meant I had to consciously think out each step of what I was saying. “No that is not what I mean; it’s more nearly this.” I leapt up often to refer to the dictionary. The resulting foreword is, I think, better than it would have been had I done all the work on computer.

Naturally, when I got the computer back, I first copied my notes and then reviewed the manuscript. I am convinced that I covered the points I needed to make more thoroughly because of having to write them out by hand.

Of course the job wasn’t finished-- I did considerable revising on the computer, reminding myself that when we first began to use these things, we called them “word processors.” And it is easier in many ways to “process” a lot of words with the machine: one can tentatively check spelling, though no spell-check program is very reliable. I do like using the word counter to keep track of the length of the writing, and moving paragraphs from place to place in the manuscript is easier with the machinery. And since I do my best proofreading with a hard copy, I can without guilt print multiple drafts-- on the back of already-used paper.

Throughout that weekend without the blinking cursor, I didn’t have to work hard to find both jobs and entertainment that didn’t involve the computer. My partner was away, so my only companions were the dogs. We took longer, slower walks, played many more games of kick the ball. They could stay longer in my lap because I didn’t get up as often to go to the computer to check on some point or write a paragraph.

During my free time, I let my mind relax, wander. My reading broadened, rather than being simply an escape from the constant demands of writing. I picked up a mystery and then swapped it for a couple of nonfiction books I’d been meaning to read and a volume of poetry.

Still, I had to remind myself not to check email. The need to do so was a gnawing that reminded me of how hard it was to break myself of chewing my fingernails. And of course that’s the secret: Much of our addiction to the computer, in whatever way we express it, is only substance abuse-- like smoking a cigarette. It’s not good for you but it digs its talons into your body and mind so you have to be determined to break its hold.

Unlike most of the other substances we abuse, computers really do have benefits: but only if used in moderation.

Friends received notes, postcards and long thoughtful letters. I baked cookies and didn’t eat all of them. I read six books, some for enjoyment and some because they related to various writing projects. I found dozens of packs of cards and was chagrined that I had to concentrate to remember how to play solitaire without a screen. I couldn’t play any of our board games-- I had no partner-- but I did put together one of the many jigsaw puzzles I’ve found at secondhand stores.

I counted wildlife: a dozen rabbits, two antelope and then six antelope, a bald eagle, an owl, and four chukar partridges along with a couple of dozen sparrows. I took the camera with me and studied patterns in the grass, tracks in the dust, rocks.

Before my weekend of solitude, I’d take breaks from my writing to fix meals, help my partner with a project outside-- but I’d always check the email first when I came back to the computer. Now, unless I’m expecting an important communication, I often spend most of the morning working on my current writing project before giving in to the Email Desire.

Some of the changes I made that weekend are, I hope, permanent. Nowadays, instead of automatically thinking “email” every time I look up from a job, I try to do something else: stroll out onto the deck and take a good look around. Perhaps go to the greenhouse, pet the dogs, check my paper file of unanswered letters.

And I’ve started shutting the computer off at 5 p.m. daily just as if it represented paid employment: no games, no email, no flashing cursor. Since we have no TV, we play board or card games, entertain the dogs.

Hmm. Now where did my partner put that magic trick he bought so long ago?

# # #

back to top



Its or It's: To Apostrophe or Not To Apostrophe?

March 15, 2012

Tags: Punctuation, Writer: Lynne Truss, Book Review, Writing Suggestions

. . .
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss (2003, Miraculous Panda, Ltd.) is my favorite punctuation manual and I recommend it for all writers. As its author says, “It’s tough being a stickler for punctuation these days.”

The subtitle tells it all: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

The introduction will give you the flavor:

“Either this will ring bells for you, or it won’t. A printed banner has appeared on the concourse of a petrol station near where I live. “Come inside,” it says, “for CD’s, VIDEO’s, DVD’s, and BOOK’s.

If this satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes causes no little gasp of horror or quickening of the pulse, you should probably put down this book at once.”


As soon as I began writing this note, I started flipping pages and finding quotable lines on every single one.

“. . . standards of punctuation in general in the UK are indeed approaching the point of illiteracy; self-justified philistines (“Get a life!”) are truly in the driving seat of our culture.”


The advice of Ms. Truss is not for the faint of heart-- but if you want to be a professional writer, you’d better buck up and give up faintheartedness in favor of correctness. Here’s my favorite handout, taken from her pages so as to disguise my own fury by quoting hers:

Its and It’s

“The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. “This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

--- Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots & Leaves, p. 44


I couldn't have said it better myself.

# # #

back to top



Redding Up for Winter

November 13, 2011

Tags: Family: Grandmother, Gardening, Seed Collecting, Herbs, Journals, Writing Suggestions

Linda's seed box.
. . .
For the past few days I have been doing what my grandmother called “redding up,” tidying and organizing several compartments of my life.

First I gathered up my gardening journal and the muddy, crumpled pieces of paper I’d been stuffing into it all summer. I read through the summer’s gardening notes from the beginning-- “3/12: planted radishes in greenhouse” to the end --“11/5: ate last fresh tomatoes, picked 10/16 and ripened on the windowsill.”

On 5/1 we ate the first radishes from the greenhouse, though they may not have been those planted in March. On 4/27 we planted half the potatoes; the harvest is in the basement of the retreat house, at least a hundred pounds. We planted them on the surface of the ground and covered them deeply in old hay mulch.

But my intent wasn’t to reminisce, but to collect information from the journal that will help with next year’s garden. The peppers and tomatoes I started April 1st didn’t do well since my greenhouse is unheated; I’ve learned from that mistake-- just as I try to learn from my mistakes in writing. On 5/28 I planted Habanero pepper plants in my cold frame but the season simply wasn’t long enough; they set on blossoms about the time of the first freeze and the cold frame didn’t protect them enough. Planting basil in my garden hasn’t worked; too many hoppers, so I planted it in pots on the deck this year and still have one pot growing vigorously in the living room after harvesting all we can use for pesto and drying plenty for winter use. The Early Perfection peas were blooming on 6/10 while the Alaska peas were still short; I was eating reliable Cherry Belle radishes.

As I read the journal, I make notes that will help me in 2012: “Plant turnips in center of garden and then till under for fertilizer,” reads one. And “Plant early perfection peas on tomato cages.” Research is as much a part of gardening as it is of writing, so I’m reading The Seed-Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel, a gift from Tam, noting her suggestions beside my own.

Once I’ve organized the notes, I draw a new garden plan, deciding where to move plants to fresh soil, deciding what to plant and what not to plant. I didn’t bother with sweet corn this year: we haven’t had a good crop in three years and it’s readily available in farmer’s markets so we support the local economy by buying it. I may give up on asparagus; it hasn’t thrived despite my best efforts-- a reminder that, just as in writing, I must sometimes decide that a project just isn’t working. I prefer to consider this an acknowledgment of limitations rather than failure.

I started eight varieties of tomatoes in my tiny unheated greenhouse and brought only about five varieties to maturity, so I wonder if my local nursery might start some of my favorite types. The Manitoba and Glacier did well and were especially tasty, perhaps even better than my favorite Early Girl.

Sorting the seeds I have left, I arrange them in my wooden seed box by the date I’ll plant them-- from a few weeks before our last average frost date of May 24-- and make notes on the seeds I need to buy, before tucking the seed box in my freezer. I’ve had good luck saving radish, pea and bean seed this way so I can buy bargain seed when I see it and count on a pretty good sprouting rate for several years.

Once that job is finished, I turn to the wire basket full of brown paper bags of seed I’ve been collecting since August, some domestic and some wild; gaillardia and goblin gaillardia; Echinacea and pot marigold; bread poppy. Wearing tough rubber gloves-- because Echinacea and gaillardia have prickly seeds and pods that can stay in your fingers a long time-- I crush the seed heads between my hands, separating the seeds. Gaillardia has a bittersweet, almost peppery scent that reminds me of the hint of frost at sunset on a September day.

I package some seeds to give the Great Plains Native Plant Society seed exchange and some for friends. Then I roll up the paper bags to hold the rest of the seeds and hang the basket in the basement, out of our way where the furnace will keep them dry. On cold winter days, as I prop my boots beside the furnace to dry, I’ll glance up and know they are waiting to be scattered.

Eyeing my spice cabinet while I wait for the pressure cooker at noon, I found a red bottle of ancient tarragon; I washed it thoroughly before refilling it with the freshly-dried herb. Juniper seeds! I brought them from Cheyenne where I didn’t have juniper trees. To add the savor of juniper to a venison or beef stew these days, I’ll just dash to the windbreak for fresh berries; the grouse and cedar waxwings won’t eat them all.

While doing these tasks, I often dash into my office to scribble a note on one of the two books I’m working on-- because “redding up” time is good thinking time, and thinking is writing. I can be quietly recalling how the tomato plants looked in July and suddenly slip into a thought that results in a paragraph. I keep the two binders holding the rough drafts of the books on my desk so I can make a note there or in the appropriate file on the computer.

Doing tasks that don’t require complex thought allows my mind freedom to consider the possibilities of both books, recalling relevant dreams or ideas I might not have written down thoroughly enough earlier.

Once I really start a writing project (or in this case admit that I had started thinking about a couple of different writing projects over the past three years), then in a sense I’m writing all the time. The key to collecting thoughts is to be ready for them. At home, I keep my larger journal at hand during the day and night for lengthier notes. When I’m in town, instead of juggling the bulky journal with my shopping lists, I reach for the tiny notebook I keep in a zip compartment in the back of my purse. When I come home, I enter those scribbled notes in the appropriate spot: “redding up” again.

Perhaps readers picture us writers sitting at our computers, writing long seamless sentences that flow smoothly onto the pages of printed books. Instead, writing alternates chaotic flurries of ideas with flat spaces featureless as bathroom tile, a stop-and-go business. We collect bits of memory and image and dialogue and story and imagination. We stitch this colorful jumble together, pricking our fingers often, into something that we hope resembles a quilt but which may turn out to be a rag rug.

* * *

“Redding up,” grandmother called it when she picked up our empty teacups (she made mine weak, with milk) and put them into the dishpan. Then she brushed the gingersnap crumbs off the old round oak table (I heard that the relative who took it painted it black) into her wrinkled hand and tossed them out the door. One of the hens pecking around the rock step would raise her head, murmur “Cluuuuuuck?” and dash over to tidy away the crumbs.

Grandmother would pour hot water from the teakettle always steaming on the wood stove over the dishes from lunch, add a little soap and a little cool water from a pitcher and wash while I dried them on a soft old dishtowel that’s likely still in my cupboard. Then she’d dry her hands, hang up her apron, nod with satisfaction and we’d sit down in our chairs to do a little reading before it was time to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. We’d read quietly together, the only sound the turning of pages, the shuuuuuush as the coals settled in the stove, the tick of cooling cast iron. Having done a little “redding up,” we felt comfortable, prepared for whatever came next.

I’ve never questioned the origin of the expression but I give in to the temptation to investigate online and find varied possibilities. Many people heard the term regularly somewhere in the south, though several Pennsylvanians quote their mothers as using it. One writer says it’s used in the Shetland islands and another quotes the Scots dictionary definition: “To clear (a space, or a passage) by removal of debris, undergrowth or other encumbrances.” Anyone who has listened to bluegrass music and musicians has some idea how deeply Scots immigrants have influenced Southern culture.

My grandmother was born Cora Belle Pearcey (or Pearcy) on October 9, 1891, daughter of Lafayette Pearcey and Jeannette Smith. At the age of 17 in 1906, she moved with her parents from Swann, Missouri where she was probably born, to Wheatland, Wyoming, by horse-drawn wagon. She was definitely a Southerner; when she spoke of black people, she used the Southern pronunciation “nigra,” which designated color while showing respect.

Smiling as I thought of the way her eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she “redded up” her little cabin, I’ve bustled around for several days feeling as if she just stepped into the other room to make us some tea to go with the gingersnaps she kept in her cookie jar. (And I wish I knew where that cookie jar went after her death.)

* * *

No doubt writers have had no trouble deciphering the metaphors. Redding up is part of writing as well as housekeeping. Going back over my gardening notes gave me an opportunity to organize the information I’d written down while I was busy gardening but had been too busy to fully absorb-- just as going back over a draft allows one to check for corrections as well as thinking about how the whole piece of writing is coming together.

We can check them off: learn from our mistakes; plan ahead; stay organized. A writer’s desk may look jumbled to someone else but if the writer isn’t organized she’ll waste valuable time when moments of pure inspiration strike. When I’m tired or feeling as if I’m doing too much, I may take a day to organize. Sorting through ideas may allow me to discard some and organize others in such a way that I can use them later if they don’t fit the project I’m working on now. And I may discover that an herb or an idea I’ve been hoarding can be replaced by something fresher and tastier.

Finally, of course, it’s easy to berate yourself for not writing when you spend the day looking at old notes or shuffling pieces of paper into files and drawers or sorting seeds or herbs and spices. But after I finished both those chores, I expanded the notes I’d made into this little essay, so I’m filled with the joy of having written. And I know that my garden, my spice cabinet and my writing files are neater and thus more ready for the serious work of growing and flavoring food-- and creating prose or poetry I can consider finished-- than they were this morning.

Thanks, Grandmother.

# # #

back to top



Tiny Bouquets

September 27, 2011

Tags: Creating Calm, Gardening, Writing Suggestions, Journals, My Poem: (unfinished) Fog, Poetry

One of Linda's tiny bouquets, 2011.
. . .
This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write-- which seems to happen much more often than it should-- I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway noises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.


Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011


Even tiny pieces-- one image, one line-- can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

# # #

back to top



The Perils of Punctuation, or How I Became a Stickler

April 13, 2011

Tags: High School, Teacher: Jo Zamow, Punctuation, Writing Suggestions, Poetry, Horse: Oliver

Linda Hasselstrom's Senior Class photo in the 1961 Pine Cone of Rapid City High School.
. . .
A few weeks ago, I received a telephone call from Becca Curry, the niece of my favorite high school English teacher, Josephine Zamow. Going through her aunt’s possessions, Becca had found a folder containing papers I’d written for Miss Zamow’s class. Would I like to have it?

That worn folder has kept me reading, and laughing, and blushing, and remembering Miss Zamow, for days. I’m deeply grateful to her, and to Becca, for reminding me that, like most of us, I wasn’t as smart in those days as I thought I was. I have trouble even looking at my photo, because I look so young and at the same time so smug. Like my peers, I was caught in the horrid high school business of trying to be gorgeous, trying to fit in with the crowd. I believe Jo Zamow was one of the people who taught me, by example, what a waste of time that is.

I remember Miss Zamow as a little dynamo with soft brown hair cropped at chin length, and bangs that curled down on her forehead. She wore tidy little suits, brightened perhaps with a scarf under the collar. I remember her jaw as usually being fairly rigid, probably from what she had to put up with from her classes. She had a wry sense of humor, and I always had the sense that she wanted to say more than was acceptable in a high school classroom. I hope I told her how much she meant to me, and probably I did not.

Years later, after I’d begun to be published, I visited her class. She pulled from a deep desk drawer my lengthy treatise on Why I Am A Christian and read parts of it to the class while I blushed furiously. I was hoping to find that paper in this collection, but it’s probably just as well it’s not here. As I recall, it was written while I was angling for the attentions of a handsome blond fellow who was determined to become a missionary. And I heard in Miss Zamow’s voice, when she read it aloud, her awareness of its pompous tone and its ironies. (See “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan” in my book Land Circle.)

The papers Becca gave me were written for Advanced Placement English, dated from late 1960 into 1961. Here I found three poems that deserve to be forgotten, but they are among the earliest work of mine I’ve saved. I’ll show them to my retreat writers to prove that everyone CAN improve.

One poem, “The Alamo,” is filled with patriotic spirit– and contains one of the errors I’ve now become a stickler about: the confusion of its and it’s. Here’s the handout I use when I encounter that error these days:

*~*~*
The confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a simple Pavlovian “kill” response in the average stickler. The rule is: the word “it’s” (with apostrophe) stands for “it is” or “it has”. If the word does not stand for “it is” or “it has” then what you require is “its”. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best”, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.
-- Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots & Leaves, p. 44
*~*~*

Miss Zamow would have loved that.

The papers provide an insight into what we were reading and discussing for the class. For the third six-weeks test, for example, I wrote on conformity vs. nonconformity, and forecast some of my own future by voting solidly against conformity, quoting T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men” in defense of my view. In February, 1961, I wrote passionately in defense of the beauty of the prairie that some saw as “dull and uninteresting,” describing some of the encounters I had there with coyotes, antelope and eagles while riding my horse. However I also described Jackson Hole as the “ideal vacation paradise.” Both Jackson Hole and I have changed!

Another topic was training a young horse, and how one must patiently show him that “his diet includes only hay, oats and water,” and not human flesh. I vividly remember the inspiration for this one; my colt Oliver started biting my arm and left giant blue teeth marks on my buttocks before we convinced him that was a bad idea. Once you get on the horse, I said, his first act would be to “leap four feet into the air, come down hard, and start spinning like a runaway top. He is just high-spirited, as some parents say about their demon children.” I still feel pretty much the same way about horses and spoiled brats.

Another favorite topic of mine that semester was the behavior of teachers; three essays on the subject extol the virtues of strict teachers. Miss Zamow must have been proud of me; she certainly was not one of the lenient ones I criticized.

Much of our writing that semester centered around reading. I still recall lines from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poems “Ozymandias,” “To a Skylark,” and Ode to the West Wind,” and wonder if they are still read in high school English. I asserted in a September paper that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 should be required reading for all high school students. I thought John Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” were “escapes from reality,” but well-written. I didn’t care for William Blake’s work then, and have not changed my opinion. After writing papers analyzing the writing of Andreyev, Gorky, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I have avoided all four writers ever since. But I had a great time comparing our new car with our old car, saying the 1950 Chevrolet “closely resembled a duck,” while the 1959 was more like a “crouching panther.”

Asked to write about one poem, I insisted that I couldn’t choose between them and wrote about two, Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners,” which I can still recite, and “The Stab” by William Wallace Harney, which I had entirely forgotten-- though I can see the influence of both poems in my writing today.

On Dec. 9, 1960, I turned in a diamond paragraph designed to teach us the use of various kinds of sentence structure; I’m going to use this as an example to the writers who come to Homestead House. We were instructed to write the following sentences:

Simple
Compound
Complex
Compound-complex
Complex
Compound
Simple

Here’s what I wrote:

My mirror is my bulletin board. I wedge postcards around it, and I stick poems and reminders to the frame. Since I collect these items fanatically, I now see myself only in the center of the mirror. After tiring of peering at two inches of my face, I may tour the world in thoughts, or I may read poetry and philosophy. If I am discouraged, some selection will make me cheerful. I can read love poems and prayers, or I may look at friends’ faces and tour exciting places. Truly, my bedroom mirror is an adventure in itself.

But the best gift from this collection of papers came from the comments Miss Zamow wrote on two papers.

At the top of the paper on Maxim Gorky’s “In the Steppes,” dated Jan. 19, 1961, is an A-, followed by this comment in Miss Zamow’s small, square handwriting: “Excellent except for punctuation. Please analyze each use of the comma in this paper.”

The second paper, on Leonid Andreyev’s “The Seven Who Were Hanged,” dated Jan. 20, 1961, received an A, and this comment, “Anyone who can analyze this astutely, write this well, and produce a term paper for a daily assignment is intelligent enough to learn how to use punctuation. Please do so.”

I doubt that I sat right down and studied punctuation during that senior year of high school, but I’ve worked at punctuating correctly ever since. I’m delighted at this reminder of just why I’m so darn picky, and I hope Jo Zamow would be proud of me.

# # #

back to top



Tulips and Your Writing

March 30, 2011

Tags: Tulips, Gardening, Writing Suggestions, Family: Jerry, Friend: Margaret, Friend: Bill

Linda's flower beds in Cheyenne.
The tulips are in there somewhere.
. . .
One spring day I was behind the first house Jerry and I had in Cheyenne, looking in despair at the yard, which was pure gumbo. Right against the foundation, he’d thrown some boards-- and I suddenly realized that tulip leaves were coming up between them. I took the boards off, and the yellowed leaves stood up straight and produced several old-fashioned, small tulips in several colors. When we moved, I transplanted them to the front of the new house, and they are growing there yet.

Which reminds me of a story my friend Margaret told me. Every year, her husband planted a field that they knew had been a homestead. They’d picked up a few souvenirs in the first years they worked it, but it had been plowed and planted many times, so no trace of the house and outbuildings was left.

One spring when her husband Bill was in the field, he noticed tulip leaves sticking up through the soil. He dug down carefully, and brought up the bulbs, and took them home to Margaret, who planted them immediately. And they are probably still flourishing right where she planted them.

Most of us do a little writing in grade school, and more in high school or college-- even if it’s only mushy poems and love notes. Usually, we’re in classes that require some writing: essays for English, perhaps, or essay answers to history questions. And many of us begin to write a little on our own, with no grades involved. Maybe we start a short story, or a diary.

Then we get busy, get a job, get married, and the impulse vanishes. Once in awhile we may think, “I ought to write that down.”

Do. Your ability to write is just like those tulip bulbs; a little warm sun will encourage them. You might need to get a shovel and lift the bulbs out from under the trash or weeds, but with a little gentleness, those tulips and that writing can bloom. Start now: what have you seen today? Don’t be poetic or metaphorical, just write down what you’ve seen.

There. You’ve begun.

# # #

back to top



Chin Hairs and Proofreading

March 15, 2011

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Proof Reading, Poetry, My Poem: Chin Hairs, My Book: Dirt Songs

. . .
I always tell students you can write a poem about anything and it may become a good poem. Challenging myself, a few years ago I wrote about my chin hairs. And recently, probably while holding a pair of tweezers and peering into the mirror, I realized plucking unwanted facial hair is a dandy metaphor for removing those errors and unsightly intrusions in a manuscript.

First, here’s the poem, scheduled to appear in my new book with Twyla Hansen, Dirt Songs, sometime this autumn.


Chin Hairs

Two o’clock each October afternoon,
the sun angles just right
through the bathroom window
so I can perch on the tub
with the magnifying mirror
in one hand and the tweezers
in the other to pluck
hairs off my chin.

Each day, when I look in the mirror,
I see my grandmother.
Of course we never talked
about our chin hairs.
During our final conversation,
she was too old, I too young,
our minds too busy with her dying.
But these days we each know
what the other is thinking.
We understand how fast
the sun is sinking into winter.

Sitting on the side of the tub,
I remember being blonde,
believing chin hairs to be the curse
of dark-haired women. I tweeze
and yank and pull
and mumble to myself.

After I pluck awhile, I return to my desk.
I don’t know the angle of the sun
where grandmother is,
but I’m sure
no chin hairs grow.
. . .


Our chins may not have chin hairs in heaven or our manuscripts have mistakes, but here and now, we need to proofread!


** No one is immune from chin hairs or error.

As a child, I thought only dark-haired women got chin hairs, and felt quite smug. Similarly, no matter how good your grammar is, or how attentive you are as you are drafting a manuscript, you will probably make mistakes.


** There’s no sure way to remove chin hairs or faults in writing.

Once, in the throes of a new romance, I paid what seemed like a lot of money and endured many painful appointments while a young woman stuck an electric needle into my chin to remove hairs “permanently.” Yet every day, I pluck hairs she electrified at least once. Similarly, if you believe spell check or other computer programs will make your manuscript error free, you are misguided.


** Just when you think you have them all, you spot another one.

When I’m proofreading manuscripts, I read first the regular way, from the beginning to the end. Then I read the last sentence, then the next-to-last sentence, and so on, until I reach the beginning again. Then I run the various computer correction programs. Then I print out the manuscript and take it to a well-lighted desk and read it carefully. And still, I’ll often find an error the instant AFTER I mail or email it to its destination.


** Some are easier to find than others.

Some chin hairs and mistakes are big and black and obvious; others are blonde and hidden subtly in the curve of cheek or a sentence that you know sounds just wonderful. Only persistence and nit-picking care will find them.


** Take your time to get them all.

Just as with plucking chin hairs, don’t try to proofread a poem or article quickly in one session. A strong bathroom light might help you find some hairs, or sitting outside in full sunlight with a magnifying mirror. Similarly, proofread your writing at the computer, but also print out a copy to carry around and read in otherwise idle moments, like waiting at a checkout line. You’ll find errors you might have missed when your brain is in writing mode.


I’ve proofread this essay a number of times, both with the computer programs and by printing it out-- but quite often once I’ve done that and sent it to Tamara, she finds one or two more errors. You aren’t likely to have a friend who will pluck your chin hairs-- though I have a friend who plucked them for her mother when she was on her deathbed. But if you have a friend who will proofread, do take advantage of that good luck.

Both proofreading and hair plucking can be painful, and require you to be annoyingly detail-oriented, but both are worth the trouble. Your manuscript will be at its spiffy best when you've made it error free, and you won't risk an editor rejecting it just because dangling modifiers or the misuse of “its” and "it's" drives her crazy. And you'll feel more confident with the shadow gone from your upper lip.

# # #

back to top



The Power of Daily Writing

October 25, 2010

Tags: Writing Suggestions, Writer: Chris Valentine, Blogger: Amy Kirk

. . .
Chris Valentine (who had the essay “Down Gravel Roads” published in the anthology Crazy Woman Creek, of which I am an editor) just sent me her calender of writing prompts, The Power of Daily Writing. Her practical answer to the wail, “I just don’t have TIME to write!” suggests that you can find ten minutes a day, and that if you write for only ten minutes every day for a year, you will have written a great deal.

I’ve seen a lot of writing suggestions, but Chris presents ones I’ve never considered-- write about vines; make a list of what you can smell; your first vacation; Washington DC. I’m not giving any more of these away. The calender is at Homestead House, so take a look if you come for a retreat, or you can order your own.

And here's another idea for keeping the writing flowing. Amy Kirk, a rancher and writer from Pringle, South Dakota, has set herself a blog topic for each day of the week. Here's her list:

Monday: anything and everything about her writing life
Tuesday: about family, traditions, etc.
Wednesday: oddball stuff about herself
Thursday: stuff about rural life, ranch life, SD, the Black Hills, Pringle, and the surrounding area
Friday: a recap of their week, or wrecks if they have any with cows, equipment, and such
Saturday: informative or related resources about agriculture, farming/ranching, & the beef industry
Sunday: a surprise/whatever she wants to talk about

As I have repeatedly said, if you write every single day-- no matter what you write-- you will be a better writer at the end of the year than you are at the beginning.

Now go boot up that computer or grab your pen and paper and start writing.

# # #

For more information:
Amy Kirk's blog called Ranch Wife's Slant

To order the calendar The Power of Daily Writing
Send $13.50 (which includes postage) for each copy you want, to:
Christine Valentine
Box 547
Birney MT 59012

back to top



Never Discard a Written Draft, or Finding Metaphor in Harvest

September 29, 2010

Tags: My Book: Roadkill, My Book: Bitter Creek Junction, My Poem: Clara in the Post Office, My Book: Dakota Bones, Poetry, Writer's Almanac, Writing Suggestions, Draft of Writing, Journals, Gardening, Herbs, Food Dehydrator, Family: George, Zucchini, Tomatoes

Tomatoes on the food dryer.
. . .
Several people have just written emails to tell me that this morning, September 29, Garrison Keillor read an old poem of mine, “Clara: In the Post Office,” on Writer’s Almanac. I got to hear him the first time he read the poem, not long after my book of poems Roadkill was published; I believe this may be the third time he’s read it, so it’s good to know he likes it. I’m sorry that the “buy now” link on his website leads only to Amazon.com, but at least readers will see the titles of many of my books. And I was inspired this time to send him a copy of a newer book of poetry, Bitter Creek Junction, hoping that he might like something a bit more recent.

All this fits in with what I was thinking this morning about the value of saving drafts of everything you write. While Keillor was reading an old poem of mine that still inspires him, I was crumbling some oregano I dried in 2007, putting it into a jar to put in my kitchen spice rack. The oregano smells strong and fresh, much better than anything I might purchase-- and probably was harvested more recently.

In the spring of 2008, we moved back to the ranch, so my oregano was newly started. I harvested some in 2009, but not much, allowing the plants to grow and become more vigorous. Now they are not only strong in their first location, but I’ve moved them to an herb garden, so I should be able to harvest a lot next year-- but I still have a jar or two of the 2007 left, so I won’t have to buy any.

I planned ahead for this hiatus of herb harvest: my herbs in Cheyenne were vigorous, and I knew we were moving, so I spent a lot of the fall of 2007 cutting stems and hanging the plants from the curtain rods in my sewing room in the old house, where they received considerable heat during the long fall days. I planned ahead, and am reaping the rewards.

Writing doesn’t always allow me to plan ahead, but it has taught me to save, so I can see a metaphor here. My journal goes with me everywhere, and I am constantly taking notes. I don’t always know what those notes will become in my writing. Maybe they will be nothing, just notes taken about something I was doing or thinking. But sometimes, I find that a thought leads me back to notes taken on a particular day, and I draw details out that become a poem, or a paragraph in an essay.

In the same way, I dried that oregano in 2007 not knowing what it would become, but knowing I’d use it. This morning I added some to tomato sauce I am making from some tomatoes that have been ripening in the basement since I thought we were going to have a frost a week or so ago. (Meanwhile, on the plants, more tomatoes are ripening; the thermometer has dropped to 38 degrees, but no lower.) The food dryer was built by my husband George using plans purchased from Living Foods Dehydrators (he built the food dryer long before they had their DryIt.com website!). Made of plywood and plastic screen suitable for food preparation, it is heated by 4 lightbulbs wired so they can be switched on individually to adjust the heat.

Today I’m also drying zucchini; a friend gave me more than we can use fresh. I sliced them evenly, arranged them on several wire trays in the dryer, and switched on all 4 light bulbs. The temperature outside is a cool 62 degrees, so I moved the sliding top of the dryer almost closed, and keep checking the thermometer on the top shelf. I like to keep the temperature between 90 and 110 degrees for most-efficient drying. The dried chips will be great for winter snacking, or I can add them to soups and stews.

Besides making several gallons of tomato sauce, I’ve dried pounds and pounds of tomatoes, though they are a little trickier than many vegetables because of their high moisture content. I slice them as thin as I can, laying the slices on an old oven grill over a bowl in the sink, so some juice drips out of the slices. I catch the juice in a bowl and drink it or use it in soup.

Then I spray the screened trays with oil, or lay sheets of Teflon paper (available from Living Foods Dehydrators) on the trays, alternating sides to improve air circulation. I’ve found that the tomatoes don’t darken if I don’t put them on the bottom two trays. I keep the temperature high for a day or two, sometimes three. Some folks season the tomatoes with spices or salt. (The book Dry It You’ll Like It, also available at DryIt.com, offers good information on drying practically anything.)

Our dry climate certainly helps the dehydration process, though since the food dryer is close to my washing machine, I usually avoid hanging wet clothes on the indoor clothesline while I’m using the food dryer. The finished slices taste intensely of tomato, and look like stained glass.

I’ll confess to not liking any incarnation of green tomatoes I’ve ever tried, and I do believe I’ve tried them all. Instead, I ripen tomatoes on the vine or in newspaper-lined boxes in the basement. When I find tomatoes too grasshopper-gnawed or damaged to use, I toss them into the compost. So not a tomato is wasted.

Similarly-- back to that metaphor I’m working on-- I often look into my poem draft binder and find a fragment of a poem that didn’t work. But because I haven’t thrown it away, I can look at it again. Sometimes my attitude has changed, or I’ve gotten more information; I can often resume work on an idea that may be years old, and nurture it into completion.

# # #

For more information:

Website for The Writer's Almanac to read my poem "Clara: In the Post Office."

Although my book Roadkill is now out of print, "Clara" may be found in my book
Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom

Living Foods Dehydrators website www.DryIt.com

back to top