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

Vacation

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


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

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.

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For More Information:

Wyoming Authors Wiki website for Alyson Hagy

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

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.

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

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

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.

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Monitoring Your Time

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

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How to Live in Spite of Your Computer

. . .
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?

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

. . .
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.

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Redding Up for Winter

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.

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Tiny Bouquets

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.

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The Perils of Punctuation, or How I Became a Stickler

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.

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