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

Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

Linda reads from her book of free verse poetry Bitter Creek Junction, published by High Plains Press.
. . .
Recently I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.cowboypoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these.

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”


Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent--” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

“disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.”

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis, she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

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Ken Steinken’s MyTown Blogand Remembering Carl Sanson

Field trip on the old Sanson Ranch, 2012
The Sanson family owned this property from 1882 to 1987. It then passed to the Casey family, and now is part of Wind Cave National Park.
Photo by Ken Steinken
. . .
Ken Steinken, who has worked on his writing at Windbreak House Retreat, has been getting paid to write (and take pictures) for KOTA's MyTown website. He chooses his topics and is able to, as he says "drive around the Hills looking for ideas." The site is set up so that all Ken’s articles are archived by author and readers can subscribe to his posts– almost like having his own blog.

Ken Steinken's KOTA TV MyTown blog

Ken says:
Anybody can write for the MyTown website as long as it has connections to the Black Hills area or to Gillette and Sheridan, Wyoming. And writers who contribute regularly may even become eligible to receive concert tickets and occasional cash incentives in appreciation for their participation. Potential new writers should send an email expressing their interest to Kandi@RobertSharpAssociates.com

The editors are open to any kind of writing including poetry and would consider starting a specific section for poetry if they got enough people submitting. The site may eventually expand into the Nebraska Panhandle as well.


A few years ago I encouraged Ken to join the Great Plains Native Plant Society. He admits he should have heeded my advice sooner (!) But now that he’s a member, he enjoys field trips. The most recent was participating as an inventory volunteer on the Sanson Ranch property which has just become part of Wind Cave National Park. I am delighted to present this link:

Ken's blog “Up-close Look at Wind Cave's Sanson Ranch”

I’m especially happy to know about this land acquisition since Carl Sanson was a great influence on my life as a horsewoman. He helped advise a horse club that a friend, Mikkey Murphy, and I organized when we were teenagers. Patiently, Carl worked with a dozen horse-crazy kids, teaching us how to respect our horses as well as to get the best performance from them. He also hauled our horses around when we were short of qualified drivers and stock trailers. We devised a number of intricate maneuvers to execute at a gallop in the arena. When we had horse wrecks, Carl was there to pick us up, dust us off and tell us to get back on those horses. I recall that he sat up several nights nursing his own horse when it was gored by a buffalo during the annual roundup in Custer State Park.

I find it fitting that the ranch on which he lived a bachelor life has become part of our national and state heritage.

Take a look at some of Ken’s other pieces while you’re exploring. Steinken: The Next Generation, is about becoming a grandfather. Follow the Shootingstars resulted from a gathering of the Prairie Winds writing group (for which I also once taught workshops) in June of this year.

After you've read Ken's great pieces, consider writing your own.

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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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Prairie: A Natural History by Candace Savage

I’ve just written a cover comment for Candace Savage’s next book, Geography of Blood, which prompted me to return to the first book of hers I read, Prairie: A Natural History, published by Greystone Books, Canada, in 2004.

The photos in this book are so beautiful it’s easy to skim over the writing; that would be an error because Savage’s writing and research are excellent. If you think the Great Plains are flat and featureless, this is the book to introduce you to their excellent variety.

Grasses, notes Savage, “have migrated to every continent except Antarctica and have diversified into about 10,000 species.” Of these, some twelve dozen distinctly different native grasses naturally occur in the Great Plains!

Because the climate here is more variable than it is almost anywhere else on the continent, including periods that are much wetter or much drier than the long term, these grasses need to be adaptable. And they are, “able to dial their metabolism down when conditions are unfavorable for growth and speed them up when the weather improves.”

Grasses, she notes, are not passive, blowing idly in the wind but “lean, mean growing machines, designed to make the most of limited and unreliable resources.”

Therefore, the first rule of living in grasslands should be to preserve, not destroy, this rich resource. And yet to create cities and subdivisions we pave and plow it wildly, planting tender non-native grasses we call “lawn” and spreading poison to keep the useless little blades alive against huge odds constituted by the climate, predators and nature.

Savage also faced head-on the folks who insist that bison are the most perfectly adapted grazing species for the plains and should replace cattle. “.... bison and cattle are fundamentally alike. Removing wild American bison and replacing them with tame Eurasian cattle-- though a stunning act of hubris-- was ecologically relatively neutral.”

Management is, of course, the key. “Fortunately, even when confined by fences, cattle help to maintain patches of vegetation. ...and this effect can be enhanced by implementing an appropriate regime of management.” By manipulating the variables-- number of cattle, season and duration of grazing and rest-- “ranchers can manage the prairie to provide an array of habitats. The best and wisest land managers do exactly that because they understand that rangelands with a natural diversity of vegetation will outproduce and outlast those that are reduced to homogeneous spans of grass.”

Want to know about the prairie? Get the book. Go through it at least once just to enjoy the photographs of expanses of grassland, gorgeous and rare water elements and the native wildlife. And then sit down and read it for the information.

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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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Writing Letters

Does anyone save old family emails?
. . .
Many of the writers I know are quite proud of it.

“Oh, I never write letters anymore,” they say, nodding. “I’m just too busy. I email or text.”

Elsewhere, I’ve already confessed to how I changed my mind about computers when I realized how efficient they were for preparing manuscripts.

And I’ll even admit that when pressed for time-- let me rephrase that-- when PARTICULARLY pressed for time-- I may do a little recycling with a letter. I’ll write a letter saying what I’ve been doing lately and then change the "Dear____" part to fit the recipient. After I print it out, I add the personal notes at the bottom before mailing-- and I usually say, “Excuse the generic letter.”

But I stubbornly continue to write personal letters to many friends. Not only that-- but I hand-write some of them, proving that I am stuck in antediluvial times, sinking in the swamp of prehistory.

Here are some of my reasons.

I have only a few of my father’s letters, usually headed with the date and “At the breakfast table.” My parents lived in what is now my writing retreat house, which doesn’t much resemble the way it looked when they were there. The round oak table at which my father wrote is gone; the curtains he pulled aside to look out the window have been replaced by modern shades. The buffet on which he kept a dictionary so he could look up any word about which he was uncertain is in someone else’s home.

But when I see my father’s handwriting on those letters, I can picture him just as he was on those mornings, the blue eyes, the smile he never wore for photographs because he hated them. My mother is cooking breakfast in her blue bathrobe. He has been out and looked at the weather, recording the night’s low in his journal. He’s planning his day. And he’s writing words of advice and love and encouragement to his daughter.

These letters are particularly precious considering how his life ended, in anger and bitterness and confusion. Without seeing that strong handwriting, I might gradually let the good memories be submerged in the horrible ones. The handwriting provides an anchor; a typed copy of the letter would not be the same. Had he been emailing his thoughts, they’d have long since vanished.

Perhaps nothing I write to any of my friends is as important as those notes my father wrote and it may be that none of my friends keep my handwritten notes. That doesn’t matter either. I like the feeling of holding that pen and seeing the words flow onto the paper, even the recycled scraps I sometimes use for notes, tucking them into envelopes with a few clippings of news stories I can imagine discussing with my friends.

I like seeing in my mind’s eye my friends taking those envelopes out of the mailbox, slitting them open, sitting in their favorite chairs. My handwriting conveys my voice, my thoughts, my image in a way no computerized facsimile ever could.

And when I am hand-writing a letter, my mind slows down. I take time to form the letters, picturing the person to whom I am writing.

Fairly often, I discover as I scribble a thought that had been eluding me while I sat at the computer and pecked and stabbed and jabbed and dug and prodded the keys, a thought that could not be born as the cursor blinked.

So whether the post office is efficient or not and no matter how much it charges me for the privilege, as long as mail service exists, I’ll keep folding those letters, hand-addressing the envelopes and hauling them to town, thinking of the people whose handwriting will be on the envelopes I’ll get back in a few days.

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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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Sharptailed Grouse

Sharptailed Grouse in the windbreak at Homestead House. Photographed by A.J. during a writing retreat, 2009.
. . .
Since my earliest days on the ranch, I’ve regularly seen coveys of Sharptailed grouse, Tympanuchus phasianellus though my folks and the neighbors usually referred to them as “prairie chickens.” The term probably dates from pioneer times because the chubby birds resemble chickens in size, habits and sounds. No doubt they were among the easiest game for settlers to hunt, providing a chicken for practically every empty pot.

And several types of chicken-like fowl native to the prairies made identification even more confusing. Sharptailed grouse are spotted brown and white and have short, pointed tails. Among their relatives are Spruce grouse, Blue, Ruffed, Gunnison Sage and Greater Sage Grouse; White-tailed, Willow and Rock ptarmigan and Lesser and Greater Prairie Chickens. All once thrived in North America. Ptarmigan live mostly in the north and northwest. Prairie Chickens prefer open prairie but the rest seem to like prairie cut with gullies where shrubs grow for cover and food sources. All are well adapted to the extremes of heat and cold the prairie offers but their numbers have been greatly reduced by humans and their accompanying guns and predatory pets (dogs and cats).

In Windbreak, I wrote about butchering and eating a grouse that we’d accidentally hit on the highway.

I asked George to stop, caught it–it was bleeding– wrung its neck and then realized I had just committed an illegal act beside a busy highway. We brought it home and Jim and Mavis were here so we added three game hens to the roasting pot and had the grouse for supper. I had to endure a lot of hilarity about eating roadkills but I told them that’s the only way we poor ranchers survive.
-- Windbreak: A Woman Rancher on the Northern Plains, October 25, page 34

That brief reference fails to show my appreciation of the sharptails, either as residents of the prairie and part of the work force that conserves grasslands or as dinner. The mention does point to one of the dangers of life for the grouse, though I don’t see as many grouse dead on the highway as rabbits, skunks, coyotes and foxes.

Sharptailed grouse forage on the ground in spring and summer, eating mostly leaves, green shoots and flowers along with a few insects. Anyone familiar with the way chickens pursue grasshoppers and other bugs will be instantly charmed to see grouse leaping in the air to snatch flying bugs in the same way. In summer, more than 50 percent of the grouse diet may be grass, according to birdweb.org, though insects and especially grasshoppers are an important food. The diet of young grouse, say some sources, may be as much as 90% bugs. Experts indicate flower parts may make up 25 percent of the breeding-season diet, while in fall grouse eat seeds, leaves, berries, waste grain, buds, and flowers. In winter, sharptails often roost and graze in shelter under trees and bushes; significant winter foods include the dried fruit, seeds and buds of willow, cottonwood, chokecherry, plum, buffaloberry, juneberry, birch, aspen, rose and juniper.

Apparently open water is not essential to the grouse, which is good since many parts of our prairie don’t offer it. Instead the grouse satisfy their requirements from their food. Early in the season the birds cluster in groups of 5 to 10, perhaps families; later they join into larger coveys.

Like the better-known Greater prairie-chicken, sharptailed males dance and coo as the mating season begins; authorities say this causes the females to initiate the breeding cycle. Males return to the same dancing grounds, often located on open high ground each year, usually in March. There they rattle their tails, stomp their feet and display their feathers, beginning 45 minutes before sunrise and continuing for a couple of hours afterward. Females stroll through the furiously performing males, selecting one with which to mate. One source, landhelp.info, says females are “polygamous and probably promiscuous.”

Sharptailed grouse usually lay a five to seventeen eggs in a shallow depression in the earth under a shrub or thick clump of grass, often lining the nest with grass, leaves, or ferns. The young leave the nest shortly after hatching, but the hen continues to lead them to feeding areas.

Grouse look ungainly in flight, like balloons with wings, but hunters and other experts say that for a short distance they are able to escape hawks like the peregrine in horizontal flight. Often we spot the covey because one or more of them is perched in the top of the junipers, where the branches appear too slender to hold them, heads erect as they watch us. When one takes flight, they all do, chuckling and clucking in alarm. The flapping of their wings is miniature thunder in the sky as they head for the nearest cover, a bunch of trees or tall prairie grass.

Once, a covey landed on the power lines leading to our house. From the kitchen window I watched a routine that had me snorting with laughter as the birds tried desperately to balance themselves on the wire. Wings out, they leaned ahead and back as the wire swung madly. If one achieved balance, the one next to it flapped off-kilter and they staggered into one another. One by one they gave up and flew into the junipers until only one was left, still fluttering and unable to achieve balance.

My uncle and my father often exchanged reports of seeing the grouse, pleased to have them as part of their ranches’ wildlife. The prairie between the two ranches seemed to offer just what the grouse need in food, concealment and privacy. For winter shelter, they like groves of trees like the windbreaks around our houses, but in summer they range widely over the mostly treeless prairie. In winter they often roost in or under trees or deliberately allow themselves to be covered in snow. Often I have found round holes under our windbreak trees with wingmarks on each side. When they are ready to emerge, the grouse simply row upward with their wings and fly out the top of a drift.

Natural grouse predators are many; hawks, eagles, owls and coyotes all make a meal of the sharptails when they can. We often find flattened circles of grouse feathers near the windbreak trees, as killers no doubt creep close while the grouse are sleeping or eating.

Though natural predators take their toll, it’s humans who do the most damage to the sharptailed grouse, as they do to all other wildlife. Since two houses have been built between the ranches originally owned by the Hasselstrom brothers, I’ve been watching the animals’ habits. John and Harold used to compare notes on the herd of whitetail deer that would move east down our draw then circle through an area of small waterholes and trees and graze past my uncle’s place a few days later. “You should be seeing that old doe and her bunch today,” one of them would say. Now we rarely see the deer, because the new houses are directly in the path they used to travel. I often hear a dog barking at one of the homes but no stray dogs have shown up here, so perhaps it is not free to chase wildlife. My lessee, who lives on my uncle’s former ranch, often sees a covey of 35 of more grouse, as do we, so presumably they can still navigate the distance safely.

Once upon a time, I saw a flash outside my basement study window and heard a thud. I went outside and saw a grouse huddled under an outdoor table.

A week before, I’d been in the windbreak trees when a grouse shot past me at eyebrow level and dropped to the ground under the protective cover of the thick juniper branches. A northern harrier hawk veered up and away, its hunt foiled.

So I assumed this grouse had dived under the deck for sanctuary, though I couldn’t spot a hawk. For a half hour, I kept the dogs inside so the bird could rest and recover from its fear. But when it was still tucked under the table an hour later I crept close and touched it: dead. In escaping from the hawk, it must have been unable to slow down and hit the side of the house.

I skinned the grouse and soaked it in salt water overnight to get the blood from its traumatic death out of the flesh. Dismantling the grouse the next morning, I studied its architecture: the legs were small and thin and the wings had very little flesh. The breasts were huge–musculature for that swift flight. The flesh was dark red, much darker than turkey.

Years ago, after a successful grouse hunt, we had a half dozen of the birds. We’d found them in the juniper trees in a pasture and their crops were stuffed with juniper berries. I emptied the crops and, after gutting the birds, stuffed them with the berries, adding a tart flavor to the flesh.

Since only one grouse had been killed this time, I cut it up, splitting the breast and leaving the back in one piece and the legs connected to the thighs. I rolled each piece in a mixture of egg, milk and spices and then in flour and seared it quickly in a hot fry pan. Then I placed them in a casserole, mixed milk with a can of cream of mushroom soup and baked the dish at 300 degrees for an hour and a half, until a thermometer in the breast registered 170 degrees.

Grouse does not taste like chicken. I’d compare its rich flavor to tender venison or antelope harvested correctly, without time to be afraid. The meat was so rich and tasty that I didn’t need to eat much of it to feel satisfied. I mentally apologized to the hawk who probably missed its dinner but was grateful for the opportunity to make this bird’s death into an experience.

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For more information:
For photographs, search “sharptailed grouse photos” on the internet.

www.lauraerickson.com provides videos of the grouse in their mating dance.

Several sites including www.junglewalk.com have recorded grouse sounds.

landhelp.info provides considerable information on managing resources so as to encourage wildlife on farms and ranches.

For specific information to help you identify one of the group, see www.allaboutbirds.org

Or look in a bird identification book such as The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley (Knopf).
I received a copy of this wonderful book for Christmas, thanks to neighbor and friend Tamara. It’s slightly possible she was tired of me calling to say, “I just saw a bird I can’t identify. It has a yellow breast and is kinda gray on top and . . .”

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The Pipestone Meat Cutters Cap

Linda wearing the Pipestone cap.
. . .
Folks tend to stare when I wear my black corduroy cap labeled PIPESTONE with the crossed butcher knife and sharpening tool on the front. Of course, the cap came with a story.

The occasion was one of the many readings I’ve done at Southwest State University in Marshall, Minnesota. The reading took place after 1991, because the poem that occasioned this story was first published in Land Circle that year, and in 1993 appeared in Dakota Bones, published by Dave Pichaske, who still teaches in Marshall.

The poem I read that evening was “Butchering the Crippled Heifer.” This is not an easy poem to read or to hear. I consider it an important poem because it raises difficult questions about meat-eating and expresses the ideas in graphic images. I love to read the poem because it is dramatic; several people who have commented on it mention its strong religious overtones. Still, before choosing to read it, I try to determine if I will have the kind of audience that will appreciate the poem’s complexities.

At the end of my reading for the evening, people gathered around me to comment and to have their books signed. I noticed the quiet man wearing the Pipestone cap, but I couldn’t make out the insignia. Finally he was able to approach and did so with his cap in his hand.

He really appreciated the poem, he said, because very few people, even or perhaps especially people who eat meat, understand what it’s like to kill a bovine and to butcher it. He believed that I understood and respected the process-- as he did, because he was a professional meat cutter, his skills represented by the symbols he pointed out on the cap: a butcher knife and a sharpening steel. And then he said that because I understood, he was naming me an honorary professional meat cutter-- and he gave me the cap.

I wore it the rest of the evening. Sometimes I wear it when I’m reading the poem, and tell the story with pride.

Here’s the poem.

Butchering the Crippled Heifer

First:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp aim the pistol at her ear. Stand close.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp She chews slowly, eyes closed. Fire.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp She drops. Kicks. Sighs.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut her throat and stand back.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Blood bubbles and steams.

Then:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp wrap chain around each ankle,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp spread the back legs with a singletree.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp The tractor growls, lifting;
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp the carcass sways.

Next:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp drive the knife point in,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp open the belly like tearing cloth,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp the blade just under the skin.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut around the empty udder.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Don't puncture the stomach.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Sheathe the knife and reach in.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Wrap your bare arms around the slick guts.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Press your face against warm flesh.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Find the ridge of backbone; tear the
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp membranes loose. Hold the anus shut;
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp pull hard until the great blue stomach bag
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp spills into the tub at your feet.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Jerk the windpipe loose with a sucking moan,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp her last sound.

Straighten.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Breathe blood-scent, clean digested grass.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Plunge one arm into the tub, cut loose the heart,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp and squeeze the last clots out; slice the liver
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp away from the green gall, put it all in cool water.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Eat fresh liver and onions for supper,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp baked heart tomorrow.

Finally:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut off the head and feet,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp haul them and the guts to the pasture:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp coyotes will feast tonight.

Then:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp pull the skin taut with one hand,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp slice the spider web of tissue with care.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Save the tail for soup.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Drape the hide on the fence.

Let her hang:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp sheet-wrapped, through three cool October days,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp while leaves yellow and
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp coyotes howl thanksgiving.

Cut her up:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp bring one quarter at a time to the kitchen table.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Toss bones into the big soup kettle
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp to simmer, the marrow sliding out. Chunk
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp scraps, pack them in canning jars.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Cut thick red steaks, wrap them in white paper,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp labeled for the freezer.

Make meat:
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp worship at a bloody altar, knives singing praises
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp for the heifer's health, for flesh she made
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp of hay pitched at forty below zero last winter.
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp Your hands are red with her blood,
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp slick with her fat.

You know
&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp where your next meal is coming from.


Copyright Linda M. Hasselstrom

# # #

For more information:

Land Circle: Writings Collected from the Land
published by Fulcrum Publishing.
This poem may be found on pages 317-319 of the 1991 edition (cloth)
and on pages 356-358 of the 2008 Anniversary Edition (paper).

Land Circle is a featured book on this website. Click here to read all about the book.

Dakota Bones: The Collected Poems of Linda Hasselstrom
published 1993 by Spoon River Poetry Press (now Plains Press).
This poem may be found on pages 54-55.

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