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.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Audiobook: Behind the Scenes of Recording

 "She read books as one would breath air, to fill up and live." —Annie Dillard, The Living

When I was first writing the essays in There's a Hamster in the Dashboard: A Life in Pets, I was reminded by many that I should consider turning the manuscript into an audiobook. It did make sense. I have had a successful career in broadcasting and had narrated other projects before, although not books. But it seemed a natural project to work on, considering my background. Still, narrating your own work is a daunting idea. I am a broadcaster and radio journalist, but I am not a professional book narrator. 

It takes a special talent to bring the words off the page. Some of the best at it are the VERY best. They take narration into the stratosphere. It's not as simple as it may sound. Still, I believed no matter the task, I should be the one to tackle it. After all, the book is memoir, these are my stories, and who else should be conveying their meaning in audio than me?

The book's publisher—Dream of Things in Chicago—relinquished the audio rights to me and I set out on the journey. I won't get into every nuance of the work, but I must tell you it's not just a matter of reading into a microphone. It takes a skilled engineer and a top-notch studio. But most of all—it takes a brand new familiarity with your words. Sure, you wrote them and you should know them better than anyone else on the planet. But interpreting them in sound is another level of knowledge, one that only reveals itself when you begin to read aloud. 

Like many writers, I have done readings at book signings and the like, but there is an audience at these events. It is a very different dynamic. You can play off the audience, sense their vibe, connect with them as you read. It is not the same inside a small sound booth with only your engineer on the other side of the glass. 

Hamster is roughly 45,000 words. A short book, relatively. Still, it took nearly nine hours of studio work to produce a three hour audiobook. Professional book narrators tell me that's not very long. I would assume my background helped compress the time. Still, I could not work more than two hours at a stretch. I found my concentration and energy level dramatically waning if I would try to push it any longer. At the end of each session I needed a nap. 

The final audio files are being produced and the audio version of Hamster will soon be available at Audible and Amazon. I'm proud of the work, proud of the stories, grateful to my very talented engineer, Pfil Fujiwara, and thrilled with the final product. 

I hope to do more audiobooks of my other works in the future. As long as I can still get in the occasional nap. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Sixteen Minutes: Prep for Hemingway Workshop

"Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it." —Ernest Hemingway

That's it. Sixteen. Each day. Just sixteen.

Why sixteen? That's the age in which we begin to emerge. Sure, for some it's earlier, others later, but if you had to pick an age when you first began to figure out who you might become, what was going to make your soul fly, heart flutter, world turn, sixteen would be the age to which many of us would point. Sixteen is the beginning of the journey.

So, as you emerge as a writer, sixteen minutes of work each day seems just right.

All of us can find sixteen minutes. Take public transportation? Sixteen. Waiting at the doctor's office? Sixteen. Hold off on the one binge episode of "Game of Thrones?" That's nearly four sixteen minute chunks. Think how much writing you can get done. 

I've been asked many times over: How do you find the time to write? There is no trick. I simply find the time. It's a priority. It beats out several other things in my day. Cut out minutiae and you'll be amazed at the time you'll have. Think of writing as working out at the gym, having a meal, brushing your teeth. It's something you just do. You do not skip it. You do not dismiss it. You set aside a time—sixteen minutes—and you write. Do it early in the morning before the rush of work or late at night when the kids are in bed. Sixteen. That's all you need. And remember: discipline.

This doesn't mean you have to write every day. In fact, the mantra that has been spinning around writing communities and workshops for years might be bad advice. One still has to live a life to write about. So, write when it works for you but be sure to do one thing: make it a habit. Each morning. Every other day. Twice a week. Whatever it is that's good for you. Keep a log of your work. Ernest Hemingway used to keep a journal of the number of words he'd write at a sitting. It helped him focus on the goals. Also, do not wait for "inspiration." It will not come. Consider the craft and sit down and do the work. After you create your habits, stick with them as if you were reporting to the office. There is no such thing as "writer's block." Just write.

So what do you do with those sixteen minutes? 

Write anything. Poems. A little story. A journal entry. Map out a bigger project and consider each step. If outlines and hard plans work for you, then do that. This doesn't work for me. I know what I want to write when I'm writing but I don't truly know what I'm trying to say until I write it. I'm more of a discoverer. If you need more concrete parameters then put them in place and start writing but write regularly and for at least sixteen minutes.

After you've found your stride, consider sharing your work. Sometimes this is hard for new writers. It can be daunting. Certainly writing can be therapeutic and personally helpful, and keeping it to yourself has worth, but sharing your stories is part of the work of a writer. Join a writing community. Share with friends. Post on Facebook. Ask for feedback, if you wish. Whatever works for you. Writing is introspective and sometimes lonely work but the glory is in the sharing. Also, do not judge your own work while your working. Leave judgment for another day. The words need to marinate. Hemingway was a big proponent of this practice. Write drunk, edit sober.

In February I begin my writing workshops at the Ernest Hemingway Birthplace Home in Oak Park, Illinois. I love meeting the writers who attend and especially look forward to hearing the stories they have to tell. Join us. Here's the link: Hemingway Workshops.

In the meantime...go out and find sixteen minutes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

On Karl, My Favorite Modern Writer

"You feel you are absorbing the complete portrait of an entire life."—Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex on Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle


If you're a reader of the Harry Potter books, or Jodi Picoult and Nick Hornby novels on a regular basis, my guess is you don't know Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian author who has been compared to Marcel Proust. I am not trying to be smug or pompous. This is not to say one author is better, greater, or more literary than the other, but rather a matter of genre and style. It's more about what one wants out of a book. It's like expecting someone who listens to Metallica to know all the lyrics of a song by The Decemberists. It's simply unlikely. Still, I think it's time the reader of popular fiction gives Knausgaard a real shot.


Karl Ove Knausgaard has received international attention over the last several years for his six autobiographical novels of 3,600 pages, titled My Struggle. Yes, that sounds daunting. But stick with me on this.

If you are unfamiliar, Knausgaard wrote the works in a flurry of personal reflection. As he has said himself, he wasn't worried about being "literary" or ""perfect" in his writing or concerned about making beautiful sentences or staying within conventions. He simply wanted to get the story out, to break away from the traditional norms of the "novel" and permit the rawness of a personal story to be the real star. In some ways his approach is Kerouacian and as critics have said is reminiscent of Proust's seven volume work, titled In Search of Lost Time, a work considered fiction but also believed in many ways to be autobiographical.

My Struggle has sold more than a half million copies in Knausgaard's home country. Considering Norway is a nation of only five million, that's quite a feat. It's become so popular there, some offices in Oslo have declared Knausgaard-free days when no one is permitted to talk about his books in the workplace.

To be clear, Knausgaard's work does not only resonate in Norwegian. The English translations are just as addicting. American novelist Jonathan Lethem has called the installments "spellbinding." But again, not in the sense of a popular novel, a suspenseful page turner, or a wizard-driven phenomenon. Knausgaard is more about the personal details of a life that achingly resonate with all of us.

However, not all agree. Some reviewers have labeled the books flat and superficial, not unlike Truman Capote's slam on Kerouac's On the Road: "That's not writing, that's typing." If you are a regular reader of popular fiction, Knausgaard may be an acquired taste, like good whiskey. But if you can see the art in a life and the shared struggles of growing up, parental missteps, and the scars of addiction. If you can relate to the details of youthful shame, unfulfilled familial love, believe in the beauty of the ordinary, and share the longing of discovering where one fits in the world, then I urge you to try Knausgaard. Sip him and let the words warm you. Do not be overwhelmed by the thickness of the volumes. Do not turn your head because the story was first a Scandinavian phenomenon and not an American one. Simply accept the shared humanity of My Struggle.

Knausgaard has been in the news and his books in discussion since 2009, so why only now do I encourage you to read him?


Question: Would My Struggle be as meaningful and impactful with the passage of time?

Answer: Yes.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Walden Redux, 2017

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." —Henry David Thoreau  

I read Walden for the first time in high school. I believe it was 1973. Honestly, I only read parts of it. The entire work was assigned by the teacher, but I stayed close to the sections I figured would be on the test.

In my freshman year of college, I was involved in drama productions at the university and I played the role of Henry David Thoreau in the play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail. It was just a few days ago that I recalled this. For some reason that memory had been tucked away in my head and didn't resurface until I read an online review of a recent performance of the play somewhere in New England. 

Why was it buried?

The answer is quite simple: I wasn't aware enough in my younger years to understand and appreciate Henry. Back then, I saw him only as an assignment, an old 19th century recluse who wrote silly nature stories, a hermit. But decades after my stage performance, and maybe a little because of it, Henry has emerged as a hero. I believe the lines I memorized in that long-ago performance eventually sunk in, or finally mixed with my maturation and understanding of civil disobedience, the art of living deliberately, and beauty of simplicity. 

At Thoreau's funeral, his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson praised Thoreau. "No truer American existed," Emerson said. Jennie Yabroff reminds us in the introduction to her online interview with Kevin Dann, the author of the biography of Thoreau,  Expect Great Things, that Henry never married, did not drink alcohol, was a vegetarian, refused tobacco, did not own a firearm, did not vote, did not pay taxes, and did not attend church. In today's world his life might be considered rather un-American. Still, for me, these elements of Thoreau's personality and style solidify his true American-ness. His individualism shines through all of it and his "night in jail" for refusing to pay a poll tax that he believed would be used to pay for the Mexican-American War, which Thoreau opposed, makes him even more of an American figure and a hero. I wish I would have paid attention to this when I was in high school and in my early college years when learning those lines for a play that was written, in part, as a protest against the Vietnam War. The lessons were and are striking. But I was young, dumb, and unaware.

So, with this, I re-read Walden, all of it this time, paying attention to each word, every idea, and this time better aware of how Thoreau's writings inside and outside that cabin in the woods remain as relevant as ever.