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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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The Power of Daily Writing

. . .
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

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Never Discard a Written Draft, or Finding Metaphor in Harvest

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

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