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

Tulips and Your Writing

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.

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Chin Hairs and Proofreading

. . .
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.

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