Monday, February 20, 2017

Banged-Up Heart is Full of Heart

"Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival." —Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself & Another

A life's significance can be measured in many ways. But for a life to be fully realized, all of those many ways must be considered. One's life and the life one shares with another cannot be assessed or regarded in a single moment, a single space in time or the early excitement or the late reflective years of a relationship. But instead must be evaluated through the lens of its wholeness—the good, the bad, the mundane, the tragic, measured by what comes before it, in the heart of it, on the edges, and after it is lost.

This is the center of Shirley Melis' memoir Banged-Up Heart: Dancing with Love and Loss from Terra Nova Books, a journey through the deaths of those we love and how life can find a way to give us light when the dark appears to be winning the battle. Banged-Up Heart is a heartfelt personal story of finding the love of your life, losing him to the ravages of disease, and steadying oneself enough to accept that life is not what happens to you but how you deal with what happens to you. 

There are moments in this book where the reader will anticipate what is coming. You can feel it in the writing. But suspense is not the narrative's purpose. Instead, Banged-Up Heart is about the particulars, the lovely moments, the hard and sometimes debilitating struggle of a life turned on its head. Melis allows us into her heart with insight and detail, and in simple language allows the reader to know how she feels in a deep and exact way, helping us understand how we might face our own tragedies and the beauty of something new. 

In the chapter entitled "Epiphany," Melis writes of the moment her new relationship shifts from casual to serious. Melis clearly explains this essential moment with grace rather than through an overwrought scene one might view in a gushy Lifetime movie. Instead, the telling here is real. It's honest. 

"Crossing the Potomac back into Virginia, I was overcome by an intense desire not just to be with John but to be married to him. If anything should happen to him, I thought, I would want to be able to speak not as the girlfriend or significant other but as his wife."

In a later scene, Melis reveals her concerns about how a wedding band may not fit over her knuckle and confesses to a friend that the solution is Windex, a subtle metaphor for clearing the sight lines to a new relationship. 

When the book turns more tragic, Melis remains in this mode. Rather than employing overly sentimentalized prose, she writes with conviction and precision, saying much about a loving relationship. 

“I was no longer in denial, but John’s acceptance was more complete than mine. Understanding this, he was firm yet gentle with my faltering grasp on the reality that I would soon lose him.”

Be certain, Banged-Up Heart is not morbid, overly sad, or a book soaked in tragedy. Through all the difficult times in this story, and there are several, Melis carries with her buckets of hope. She's "banged-up" but she is not knocked out. It is not that the book employs a simple formula—girl has tragedy, girl finds a way out, girl has a happy ending. No, there are still unanswered questions here, bows that still must be tied and knotted. But that's exactly what life is, right? Our lives are never neatly presented and neither is the narrative of this book.

Banged-Up Heart is a brave story of navigating love, loss, health care, fate, the fragility of life, aloneness, togetherness, strength, heartbreak, and survival—all relevant and shared elements of our collective lives. Banged-Up Heart works as a memoir not because of its unique story but because—in so many ways—it is universal. It is the story of all of us. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Writer's Shed: The Poem

"Writing is an act of faith" —E.B. White

 E.B. White's Boat House

As some of you know, I have been working on completing an outbuilding that will soon be my writer's shed, a simple place to find solace and a place to create. I plan to fill it with solitude and words. Those words began today when I wrote a "flash" poem on what was before me. Not to suggest that something good comes with speed, but in only five minutes these words came to me in a river's flow. 

A Writer's Shed 

My sacred space emerges 
Among the gardens of my home
Among the flowers of a lifetime
Among the seas all alone

Words are never written
Inside the roses one must tend
But are found in heaven's spaces
Alongside the time I must spend

Lost in my heart forever
Pouring out from blood-soaked vines
It is here that I am with the angels
It is here I find the lines

The truth of what I'm thinking
Every solitary shift
These are the discoveries of angels
These are the sincere and lonely gifts

             —David W. Berner 2.17.17

Monday, February 13, 2017

Writer Shed Porn; Not Really

"Building this shed was the most relaxing, de-stressing thing I’ve done in ages." —Alastair Humphreys, Microadventures: Local Discoveries for Great Escapes

I stumbled across a book recently about finding that quiet place to work. Despite it's provocative name, Cabin Porn is about settling into the deep need or longing for a place of your own. Not a home, necessarily. But a space, a retreat for inspiration, art. The book is about a collaboration of handbuilt cabins. Rough and tumble, yet beautiful in their simplicity. The blog of writer and adventurer, Alastair Humphreys turned me on to Cabin Porn through his blog posts and all of it reminded me of my own project, at least in spirit.

"Fill a space in a beautiful way." —Georgia O'Keeffe

Some of you know I've been working on my own "cabin." It's not a cabin but a writer's shed, to be more specific. It's not rough and tumble; it's a bit less woodsy. But it's purpose is the same in many ways. And the process is moving forward.

This past weekend I began the inside barn wood interior. It's slow work, yes, but rewarding. Although I want to finish, I'm trying not to hurry, trying to stay in the moment, savoring the work—the measuring, the sawing, the pounding of finishing nails. My father worked with his hands, a carpenter by trade. With every plank of wood that is attached to the studs, I think about him. I can see him with a pencil behind ear, wearing his stained painter's pants, and his old golf cap. He too, I'm certain, would be attempting to take it slow, to feel each and every step.

"Space is the breath of air." —Frank Lloyd Wright

I've had to remind myself of how to use a miter box, how to trim around the window, to measure so that flaws—and there will be some—are hidden. How will the barn wood walls fix against the floor? I had to auger a small hole in the back of the shed and another in the nearby garage so that an electrical line can be snaked inside. Light will be needed. A portable heater must be powered. A fan will be essential.

The desk will be placed at the window. I already know this. But that's all I have determined so far. Certainly a small book shelf or two. A chair, other than for the desk, designed for reading. I can see it now. I can feel it. I drafted the final edits of Any Road Will Take You There at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando a few years ago and part of Night Radio was drafted in the attic office at the Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. I have been so fortunate to have these places and so honored. But the shed, my shed, gives me new, more extraordinary visions.

Strangely, the shed makes me think about remote places, faraway and lost to time. I did a little research and found Tristan de Cunha may be the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. It sits more than 1700 miles from the nearest island in South Africa. My shed is some 100 feet from the back door of the house, even closer to the garage, but yet somehow it is already feeling remote, secluded. Like a world of one's own.

The weather has been unseasonably mild in the Midwest this winter and I am grateful for the early start on the shed. In March it could all come together.

Writer shed porn? Maybe. A remote place of my own? Certainly.

"True solace is finding none, which is to say, it is everywhere." —Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

Friday, February 10, 2017

Write a Great Valentine's Day Love Note

"Love gives all its reasons, as if they were terms for peace." —Jonathan Wells, Love's Body 

Even the most seasoned writers can get stuck in the mud when it comes to putting the right words together for a love note. Not a letter. That can be pages and pages and you have opportunities of time and space to work through what is in your heart. I'm talking about a note...a few simple words...a brief but powerful statement about your love for someone. Notes like this are perfect for Valentine's Day. So how do you make it the best it can be?


Okay, not really steal. But borrow. Some of the greatest writers and poets have crafted incredible words of love that have lasted for decades, even centuries. They have stood up to the test of time. So, why reinvent the wheel? Certainly I'm not suggesting you take credit for these loving and poignant words. I'm only saying this: Why not let the words of the masters do the work?

Here are several of what I would argue are the best words of love from literature. Use any of these in your love note and you'll win the day.

"You and I, it's as though we have been taught to kiss in heaven and sent down to earth together, to see if we know what we were taught." —Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago 

"Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same." —Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights

"Each time you happen to me over again." —Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

"The way her body existed only where he touched her. The rest of her was smoke." —Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things. 

"You are my heart, my life, my one and only thought." —Arthur Conan Doyle, The White Company
"I've never had a moment's doubt. I love you. I believe in you completely. You are my dearest one. My reason for life." —Ian McEwan, Atonement 

"The curves of her lips rewrite history."—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

"I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly and then all at once." —John Green, The Fault in Our Stars 

What are your favorite lines of love from literature? 

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Write Your Writer's Mission Statement

"The only thing I was fit for was to be a writer, and this notion rested solely on my suspicion that I would never be fit for real work, and that writing didn’t require any." —Russell Baker

What are your values as a writer? What are your writer goals? Not necessarily your "business" or "career" goals, but your "writer" goals? Think about it like this: Why do you write?

Some of us write because we must. Others write because that's the only thing we really know how to do well. Some write for reflection. Some write purely for money. Others write because storytelling is in the blood. Instinctively, you know why you write. You know it in your heart. But putting it down on paper makes it...well...official. 

I read a blog not long ago, one of those "five things you can do to make your writing time better" posts.  Mostly I abhor those kinds of articles. They are usually silly and written mainly to get eyes on the page. Rarely is there serious value in them. But the last suggestion on this particular blog entry was on what the author called a writer's mission statement. 

If you've been in the business world more than two minutes, you know about mission statements. Companies craft statements that best describe the organization's goals and values. Many times, the statement appears hollow. But what if the company truly meant what it said? What if the mission statement honestly played out in real life; what if the company or organization did what it promised or what it believed in? 

Now consider your writing. Can you write a three-to-five sentence mission statement on why you write? Be honest. Be true. Consider the personal value of this artistic endeavor. Keep the statement in your wallet. Tack it on the wall above your desk. Make it your screensaver. 

Here is just a part of the mission statement for Poets & Writers magazine: 

Poets & Writers’ work is rooted in the belief that literature is vital to sustaining a vibrant culture. We focus on nurturing literature’s source: creative writers. 

Pretty simple. To the point. Clear.

So, how do you turn a mission statement into your own?

Three things:
1. Write in first person.
2. Keep in brief.  
3. Be authentic. 

It must be your statement and only yours. First person helps this process. Brevity is the soul of wit, right? Brief keeps it manageable and memorable. And tell it like it is. Be honest with yourself. This is the only way the statement will ring true to the one that 

Columbia College Chicago, where I teach, has a page on its Career Center website that can help you start the process. Consider this rough template:
As a (writer, novelist, essayist, copywriter), I (what you want to do, hope to do, what you are doing). I [explain what makes you special about what you do]. I [say what you believe, include your values, training] and [end with how you will contribute positively to your artistic work.)  

Joanne Phillips, a writer of commercial women's fiction, has her mission statement on her website. And it's a good one:

I write stories to entertain and offer a temporary escape into another life. I create interesting characters who may linger with the reader long after she’s finished the story. I write about characters who learn to examine their lives – their motivations, their hopes and fears – and find the courage to change. I write about the important stuff, but with a light touch. I write about the four Ls: life, love, loss and lies – including the lies we tell ourselves. And yes, I want to change the world. A little tiny bit of it, anyway.

It can be messy. It can be incomplete. But writing a mission statement can help focus you, bring you back to the core of why you write, or motivate you on a singular project you just haven't been able to complete. 

Try writing your mission statement. And if you want to share, I would love for you to offer your ideas right here.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Poetry of Redemption Celebrated in WAVE RIDER

"Now it is time to say what you have to say." —Billy Collins, "Silence" 

Rebecca Pott Fitton is not a poet. She even says so in the opening lines of the first poem in her book Wave Rider: A Poetic Journey From Abuse to Wholeness. After reading these heartfelt and honest poems, one might agree with Rebecca's assessment of herself. She is not a poet, not in the classic or traditional sense. She is not Keats, Shelley, or Dickinson. But that does not mean the words she has offered in this collection are to be dismissed. What Rebecca gives us is a raw and authentic look inside the soul of a woman who has recovered from the hell of sexual abuse and neglect. An old-school English professor might not consider her a poet, but her words are as authentic as any critically acclaimed bard and that is what matters most. Because Rebecca is like all of us, struggling to find her way. This alone allows her the right to write these poems, and worthy poems they are. 

There are four sections in Wave Rider: Darkness, Between, Spaciousness, and Wave Rider. Through each there is palpable clarity, transition, or redemption. She makes it clear in the book’s Introduction that the term “Wave Rider” is a metaphor, the author riding the waves and nearly being tugged under by the rough current. And in many ways the reader of this book rides along with her, holding on and praying she’ll make it to safe waters. Each poem is an incremental moment in her rebirth and an act of growth.

In the poem “Anxiety,” Rebecca writes:

This Earth walk is difficult for all human spirits.
I am so weary of having to be careful, judicious,
needing to protect myself from myself.

The poem appears as a call for renewal and sets the reader up for the resurrection.

In the section Between, Rebecca makes it clear in the poem “Here and Now” that writing is her medicine, her healing. Writing verse is a form of therapy.

I write because no one is here to listen.
I write when I don’t want to forget.
I write when my mind spins.

And with the poem “Surrender,” the reader begins to clearly see her personal revolution.

It is time to be.
I have no more energy or desire for doing.
I have done enough outside of myself.
It is time for my own creation.

There is despair and heartache, but there is also playfulness in these poems, a sort of truth in the world’s goodness and how it can be discovered or unearthed or rehabilitated, an element of Rebecca’s work that is necessary here in order to keep from burying the reader in the difficult realities of what she has faced. The poem “Playbook” works as the light in the dark.

With polka dots flying from my coat
Striped pants billowing in the wind
With high-top sneakers on my feet
And a hat upon my head
I am ready to greet the quantum
As my teacher said.

And if you believe a place can be transforming, then you’ll see the relevance of “Coming to Santa Fe.”

You come to Santa Fe
to breathe the air
to see the beauty
to come alive.

To find merit and to appreciate Wave Rider, one does not have to have experienced Rebecca’s arduous journey. One only needs to be sensitive to it, to be keen to the power of reflection and perseverance. All of us have had challenges to overcome and each reader can find inspiration in Rebecca’s words, maybe not in every single syllable, but in many because as humans we all need restoration and one way to celebrate it is to offer a passage to redemption through the power of verse.

This is from Rebecca’s final poem “Women of Now.”

We carry the waters that transform
darkness into light.
We are the alchemists.

Wave Rider: A Poetic Journey From Abuse to Wholeness by Rebecca Pott Fitton from Terra Nova Books.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Writing Rituals

"My only writing ritual is to shave my head bald between writing the first and second drafts of a book. If I can throw away all my hair, then I have the freedom to trash any part of the book on the next rewrite." —Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club 

Charles Dickens, one might say, must have had obsessive-compulsive disorder. I do not mean to make light, but only to make a point: There is clearly a fine line between OCD and ritual. 

Dickens had an extra door installed outside his writing study to keep out noise. He was insistent on complete quiet. Everything had its proper place. His desk was always next to the window. His writing materials—a quill pen and blue ink, only blue—precisely placed. Always on the desk, a small vase of fresh flowers and two bronze ornaments—a man being swarmed by puppies and two toads dueling. Dickens wouldn’t begin writing until all of this was…just so.

This “ritual” is explained in a wonderful book: Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, And Get To Work, by Mason Curry. He lists 161 famous artists and the 161 very different ways they approached their writing, their art, and their life’s work.

Hemingway frequently wrote standing up. When he lived in Cuba, he stuck to a pattern of writing at dawn, done at noon. Capote wrote in bed, smoking and drinking. First coffee, then tea, then martinis. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserable in the nude. He said being naked kept him focused. He even had his valet hide his clothes. 

Rituals allow for concentration and motivation. They put us in a good place, a state of confidence or contentment. They calm, enlighten, and as structured and systematized as some rituals may seem, most give us solace.

I asked some writers from around the Midwest about their personal rituals. What are the little OCD patterns they must and often adhere to before they begin to create?

Mary T.Wagner: When it's absolute crunch time, both coffee and vast quantities of chocolate are involved. But, I can't think of any better source of inspiration than going to the Lake Michigan shoreline and letting daily cares float away on the breeze while waves lap the shore and birches and aspens shiver behind me and creative thoughts take root and grow instead. 

Renee James: I wrote the first draft of my first book in airports and on airplanes, but happily I don't fly much any more. I actually almost miss business travel because writing in airports was surprisingly energizing.

Dami Andonova: Blankets, lots and lots of blankets. Phone calls get ignored. Fire alarms are ignored. Sometimes chocolate, sometimes wine. And I am usually in a robe or my pajamas.

Beth Weindruch Prystowsky: I write in bed a lot. Sometimes I like to have mindless TV on in the background.

Roberta Miles: I write in bed in script with a pen. I must have a huge bottle of Smart Water by my side and a glass of Schweppes Ginger Ale and I will only use black gel pens.

Sue Rovens: When I sit down to write, I keep a Facebook game open. I don't spend lots of time playing, but when I run into a tough area or get stuck, I can play because it's mindless, and think through scenes and dialogue.

Rebeca Barroso: I have the discipline to work from home, but not to write creatively by myself. Somehow I prioritize other things above writing and I end up washing dishes, vacuuming, paying bills. Even if I go to a coffee shop, I'll just end up on Facebook. So I joined a writing meetup. If I'm sitting down with fellow writers and everyone is typing away furiously and purposefully then I'm peer-pressured into writing my own stuff too, especially if at the end of the writing session we'll discuss what we wrote, what we're having trouble with, asking how to solve a plot or dialogue problem, establishing goals, whining about submissions woes, that kind of thing.. If you're still curious, check out the Just Write Chicago group.

Donna O’Shaughnessy: My husband and I live in a 620 square-foot grain bin we converted to our home. I have a tiny office there with computer but when doing real writing, not research or final drafts, I go to a small barn on our farm, just on the other side of our cow pasture, that we turned into my studio. No electricity, no running water but big old chairs, sofa and desk from 1930's. My son built an outhouse for me. Really, it’s beautiful, located just a few feet away.

Iris Price: I take a nap. Then wake up and make coffee. Then I put Miles Davis or Charlie Parker on, and look at the first few pages of photos on the Internet for literary triggers. Then I write. I've also been using only the Pilot G-Tec C3 pen since 1998. It's been voted "Asia's favorite pen.” I originally came from the Philippines before immigrating to Chicago. Unfortunately they don't sell it in Chicago art stores so I order it online. My supply never runs out.

Steven Williams: Music. Lots of music, specific styles depending on what genre I want to write at the time.

Kenneth Chukwu: I write around midnight when every place is quiet, a cup of coffee by my side to avoid sleep.

Kristin Gembara: I write with a glass bottle of Coke, preferably from Mexico surrounded by complete silence, usually at night I live in Chicagoland, so in winter I write while sitting in a recliner under an afghan. In warmer weather I prefer my back porch.

Sandra Colbert: I write in the kitchen, even though I have a perfectly nice little office space. But I use that for paying bills and other things. My last book, The Reason, was written entirely at my kitchen table. And that's where the next one is being written. Maybe it has to do with the proximity to the refrigerator. Creative juices must be fed. 

Martha E. Hermerding: I have a coconut oolong tea that I love. I can only have it when I sit down to write.

Michael K. Gause: I once knew a guy who wrote after he worked out. Another, only when he drank. After writing for about twenty years, I realized I needed to train myself to be able to write anytime, anywhere. There’s simply too much to write to have to wait for this or that scenario. Headspace. It is all about headspace. On the train to and from work, the journal comes out as St. Paul blurs into Minneapolis. After lunch, it’s espresso and some speed thinking. Get the dirt into the pan. Mine for something shiny. On weekends, I get to slow down. Get some ambient music going, some candles. Or maybe my favorite bar down the street, open some of those doors in my head with an IPA. Rituals can be elaborate or stark simple. 

And me? I’ve been a coffee shop writer for a long time. Like mornings best. But I’m in the process of building a writing shed on my property in the spirit of Thoreau, Dylan Thomas, and George Bernard Shaw. New rituals are waiting inside.