DOES AUDIENCE MATTER?

Could someone be hurt? Possibly. Could I be considered disloyal? Probably.

I came home from a three-day writer’s workshop a couple of weeks ago with a fresh idea: if I write the story of my childhood without any intention of publishing it, perhaps I’d talk about it less and write more.

A couple of weeks later, a one-day workshop conducted by the same instructor (Jill Swenson of Swenson Book Development), convinced me that this was the path I’d need to take if I were ever to make any progress.

I’d written hundreds of pages and thousands of words about what went on inside the walls of my childhood home. But I’d never been brave enough to put much on paper. I generated words, sentences, and whole paragraphs in my head. But I didn’t write them down. Could someone be hurt? Possibly. Could I be considered disloyal? Probably.

Then a friend gave me an article from the New York Times by William Novak: “Writing Books Very Few Will Read.”

“Private books don’t demand complete structural consistency,” Novak says, thus freeing me from an editor’s need to see a polished story arc.

So why not just keep a diary or a journal, you ask. Good question — except that something about the journal format doesn’t work for me, probably because journaling reflects a spur-of-the-moment, unedited thought process. I’m after something more

But most important is the freedom I gain with the knowledge that no one will be hurt nor will I be considered disloyal.

And who knows? Perhaps after the potential for hurt feelings is no longer be part of my writer’s block (after all, people do die), and perhaps if I do a good enough job (after all, there’s always the potential for improvement), I’ll look for an agent.

For now, it’s enough that I’m writing again.

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FROM FULL SHADE TO FULL SUN, AND I AM IN MOURNING

They pulled in with an aerial lift, a chipper, and a grinder. They tied thick ropes around limbs and limbs fell prey to chain saws.Their massive claw-like trunk grabber could have served as inspiration for a Star Wars film.

I watched for five hours, impressed at the skill of the three muscly guys from Precision Landscape and Tree, Inc. as they coordinated their moves with the same kind of grace and timing as members of a top-notch ballet company. Piece by piece, limb by limb they worked in our small yard to remove our 50+ foot, 60+ year dying ash tree.

The only indications that the tree was ever there are the eight foot diameter hole (which they filled in), the fine sawdust in the grass, and more sun than my shade-tolerant plants will be able to handle. And, of course, my hazy sense of loss. But what must be must be; I’d recommend these guys to anyone.

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THANKS, FELLAS!

YET ANOTHER COMMENT ON GO SET A WATCHMAN

Much has been said, written, and no doubt thought about Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Much of it has been disparaging, and of that, not a small number of these negative remarks have been from people who have not read the book. (Go figure.)

Well, I just finished it. And yes, while it’s true that it’s not up to the caliber of To Kill a Mockingbird (after all, very few things are), it’s still one fine piece of writing.

Please hear me out; I promise not to ruin any of the plot.

Yes, Jean Louise (aka Scout) discovers that Atticus has feet of clay.

Yes, her fury and disappointment are palpable…not unlike mine were when I got to the part where she discovers that Atticus had joined the Klan.

But wait…there is so much more here, and it matters. A lot.

For example, Jean Louise is an adult during this tale. And as adults, who among us didn’t finally discover that our parents were not the gods/goddesses we thought they were when we were children? It just took Jean Louise longer to come to this “stab of awareness….”

Indeed, “she welcomed (her father) silently into the human race….” We loved Scout, but we would we have loved a 26-year-old who still viewed the world through the eyes of a six-year-old? Like Jean Louise, it was time for me to let go of Atticus as the ideal parent and learn to love him as an honorable, realistic man.

On a larger issue, Lee’s novel helped me understand the postbellum south, much of which, if current news reports are accurate, has not changed all that much since the 1950s setting of Watchman.

Read it for the history. Read it for insight into the human spirit. Read it because you want to see how Lee’s story telling skills evolved into what became To Kill a Mockingbird. But read it.

FOR SHE WAS A LOVER OF LIFE

We all tell stories over and over again to our spouses and friends. But I don’t think it’s the stories we’re sharing; we’re reliving the memories.

I spend a lot of time thinking about age these days: my age, my mom’s age, the ages of my friends. What we all seem to have in common is a desire — maybe a need — to tell, to retell, and to tell yet again our stories from the past.

My mother used to drive me mad with her repetitions. Her ability to ignore my impatient sighs as she rambled on yet again through a tale I knew by heart, was impressive. No amount of “Daughter Rolls Her Eyes” would disrupt her auto-pilot relating of (take your pick here) the day I was born, the day she got her driver’s license, the wintry afternoon when she, as a 12-year-old  drama queen, decided to run away from home. (She got about 25 feet when she decided it was too cold outside.)

“Ma! You’ve told me those stories a hundred times! I could recite them with you!” I thought to myself.

I recall the day my impatience with her was cut short by my hair dresser. (Pun not intended.)

“You know,” she said as she reached for her shears, “I hear this from other daughters of aging moms. I wonder if it’s because their peers have all died. We all tell stories over and over again to our spouses and friends. But I don’t think it’s the stories we’re sharing; we’re reliving the memories.”

That’s when it hit me: I wasn’t a part of those memories; I was merely a repository for them.

Wise words from a 22 year old.

√Lover of Life

“For She Is a Lover of Life

pastel by Judy Westergard

Old Friends, New Memories

I never thought of Karen as a dare-devil. In fact, she was always (to my mind, anyway) the safe, calm, pragmatic one. It was Karen who, on our first solo foray sans moms into downtown Minneapolis at age 11, bought socks. Me? I bought a black and white poke-dot headband with a bow. “Do you remember riding high on our two wheeler?” she asked me. What? Karen doing daredevil stunts? I wonder how long my jaw hung open.

A writing workshop with Jill Swenson convinced me that if I wanted to add information and color to a memoir I’ve been working on, I’d be wise to interview people.

“Hmm,” said I to myself. (I spend a lot of time talking to myself. This time the conversation that proved fruitful.) “Call Karen!”

Karen and I go back 65 years. Now that’s a long time and yet, despite the fact that we haven’t seen each other for years, the spark of our old friendship reignited a camaraderie that I didn’t know I missed.

I’d told her that I wanted to talk about the toys and games we had and that, of course, led to not just a list but to warm memories of what we did with them.

“Do you remember riding no-handed on our bikes? I used to stand on the seat with my arms extended.”

Now I never thought of Karen as a dare-devil. In fact, she was always (to my mind, anyway) the safe, calm, pragmatic one. It was Karen who, on our first solo foray sans moms into downtown Minneapolis at age 11, bought socks. Me? I bought a black and white poke-dot headband with a bow.

filename-1 Not only did I not recall doing such a thing, I never would have had the guts. The idea of Karen risking life and limb on her blue Schwinn? Unheard of! We reminisced about how furious Joey became every time one of us won his prize marbles. Summers sweltering under wool Army blankets that our moms helped us stretch over clotheslines, reading book after book that we checked out from our local library. And this, of course, led to memories of the yellow, lined cards in their little envelopes, glued with precision to the back of each book. We’d take a 3″ pencil from a wooden box, fill in our names and the date, and proudly present these to the librarian who made us feel special when she had time to chat with us about our choices. (The Sue Barton series was among my favorites, until Sue fell in love with a doctor. Yuck!)

How I lusted over the Karen’s stilts! Always the smallest among any group of my peers, here was my chance to gaze at the world from heights unimagined! The stilts must have raised me all of six inches off the ground but they felt like six feet.

Pick-up baseball games in the field behind Karen’s house. (“Come home when the arc lights come on,” mothers told us.) Peeling each other’s sunburns. Arguing over which of our neighborhood park’s kiddy pools was deeper. We watched mosquitoes bite us, fill with blood, then squash ’em. (We girls in the mid-50s were discouraged from being violent. This no doubt was our answer to an unwanted pacifist life.)

Pardon the cliche, but oh my — I’m flooded with memories.

But best of all was to find out that one of my mother’s neighborhood contemporaries is still alive and still sharp. She’s 98 now, which leaves me little time to pump her memories of the old neighborhood. Karen and I plan to visit her soon. I can’t wait.

BREAKING THE GLASS WINDOW (NO, NOT THAT ONE)

Workshops scare me.

I attended my first painting workshop twenty years ago. Three times I came that close to stopping the car, turning around, and going home. What if everyone has a friend except me? (Bear in mind that my 7th grade days were far behind me.) What if I’m the only one who can’t draw a stick figure? (If I stick figures had been listed as a goal, I never would have signed up.)

And of course, after a week at the (sadly now defunct) UofM Split Rock Arts Program, I came home so jazzed about my neophyte skills that I promptly spent $500 in art supplies. (I always have been an over-achiever

Jump ahead twenty years. Did that painting workshop assuage my apprehensions about attending  a writer’s workshop offered by the Grand Marais Art Colony? Of course not! But an additional twenty years of living and a couple of health scares have taught me to ignore that nagging voice that tried to convince me to stay home.

So ignore it I did, and I’m glad that I did.

Have you ever felt as if you were standing on the periphery of something you wanted to do? Jump off the high board, sing a solo in the church choir, enter a cake in your state fair’s baking contest? Only to quit before you started because fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of being afraid stopped you?

To me, that fear of failure has been a pane of glass that stands between me and my goals. The scene on the other side of that metaphorical window is clear and enticing. But breaking glass is scary; one could get hurt.

I am excited (and relieved!) to report that Jill Swenson (Swenson Book Development) removed the pane of glass that has stood for years between me and my goal of producing a book-length memoir, and nobody got hurt!

It’s been three days since I left Grand Marais and I still can’t figure out how she did it. Certainly her vast knowledge of the writing process and her years of teaching and coaching writers figure into her talents. But there’s so much more than that. Nurturing, smart, able to use humor to break tension…gosh; I make her sound like Superman. And except for the gender and attire, to my way of thinking, she is.

After all, she was able to break my glass barrier with a single workshop.

You can also find Jill on Facebook and at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis where she’ll be conducting a one-day workshop on Saturday, July 18. More info at https://www.loft.org/classes/.