A Complicated Calling

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If I had to have a calling, why couldn’t it be teaching or fighting fires or some other noble pursuit that makes a difference and is more…tangible? Something that would not have me fantasizing about tossing this laptop off the 21st floor balcony and watching it shatter into pieces.

I had a second essay workshopped in the last class of this semester’s Writer’s Studio, and it ends up I have to revise this one, too, and get it to my professor in order to get approved to move on to the next semester. I wrote and then revised my first essay while at Ragdale, and I think I nailed it. I was so excited. Now I have to blow up the draft of this second essay; I mean what else can “relook at the structure” mean?

I didn’t even think we had another semester this Spring, which is probably half the reason I’m so bummed. Enough about how brilliant I am not. The bigger question: to write or not to write? Writing is a difficult passion to pursue day after day. When I just can’t do it, I read for inspiration. Aside from being profoundly moved, the activity makes me all too aware there are already countless great writers in the world. Who needs another one? One who feels mediocre in this pursuit at best?

Boy, would my mom come in handy ri8362d-00130006ght now. Perhaps writing about her loss is what’s bringing all this indecision front and center. She’d say, “knock it off, Dollface, and just do it!” All my life she told me I had a book in me. I wish she told me where to find it. And I’m glad she’s not around to read that sentence. It’d go over as well as a B-. She never understood the + and – concept in grading, and to my horror would march down to my grammar school to explain her problems with it everytime a teacher would add that element to my grade.

Shirley Stone’s life wasn’t a quiet one. She reveled in her passions, and she shared them with everyone. Of course there were those she didn’t see eye to eye with, and I imagine they thought she marched too loudly through life. But that wouldn’t bother her. She lived comfortably in her skin, confident in her decisions, satisfied with the outcomes. She always found it futile to look back.

My mom made the most of every day, and she did her best every day. She loved and laughed as she nurtured anyone lucky enough to cross her path. She was wise and her genuine interest in others was as much a part of her DNA as was her eye color, shoe size and the cancer that took her too soon.

She’d remind me nothing worth having or wanting so much comes easy and to knock it off, sit my butt down and do what I need to do to move to the next step. And then a few minutes later I’d get a Shirley hug, strong, heartfelt, pats on the back, and an “I love you Dollface,” whispered into my ear.

My mom, my muse, my best friend. I think of her every day, and that’s reason enough to keep on pursuing this passion. I couldn’t let her down when she was alive. To give up because she’s physically not here would be inexcusable. Thanks for that, mom, wherever you are. I’ve no reason to doubt her expectations of me aren’t any different today than they were decades ago. Giving one’s all when the going gets tough was part of her fiber. So there it is: why I can’t give up. Even the thought of letting her down when she’s no longer with us isn’t in my fiber either.

Talk about powerful love and confidence, bridging death to have my back. Even if this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I most certainly pulled the long straw. I will always be Shirley Stone’s daughter.

The Magic of Ragdale

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Success! Fellow writers know how rare it is to start anything about one’s writing with the word success. And here I’ve already used it twice. I arrived at Ragdale 16 days ago with specific goals in mind. Not spoken aloud or committed to anyone but me. I should do that more often given I’m fairly certain I’m my toughest critic. I needed to complete a second essay for class, and I needed to redraft my first essay and hand it in at the last class, which is tonight. Since the program isn’t graded, it’s what our teacher uses to gauge whether we’re prepared to move on to the next semester.

Lastly, I’ve been fussing with an essay for more than a year, redrafting and revising and getting nowhere. Some of the drafts are downright embarrassing. I decided while here at Ragdale that this essay is a bully, so I did what one should do to any bully— blow it up. No, I do not mean literally. The only advice I have to handle human bullies are to bully them back. They usually don’t want you on their playground but haven’t a clue what to do if you don’t cave when they geragdale2015t in your face. Blowing up an essay I’ve struggled with day after day, month after month, was the only solution I could arrive at that wouldn’t have me cleaning and landscaping all of Ragdale to avoid revising it for the 734th time. “Killing your darlings,” is what William Faulkner said about the writing process, and knocking off my lead, some well written passages and its structure is what I did.

Once I realized what I had to do, it wasn’t that hard. In fact, it was a relief. I let go of the old, the obvious, and even some pretty good insights, all of those darlings I thought were critical to the piece. I did new research, opened a new page, took the time to create a solid new lead and blew that bully right off my laptop. Well, not right off, but over the course of ten days I have a new essay on an old topic that’s been intimidating me for too long. And if feels great.

I’ve been spending a lot of time (practically all of it, through the magic of Ragdale) lining up the right words in the right order all in the pursuit of good story telling. What a crazy calling is working with words. I don’t think anyone chooses to be a writer, we’re just born with the gene. And with it rarely comes the feeling of success so I’m wallowing in it. I’m inhaling the last hours of this residency, trying not to get caught up in the thought of reentering everyday life and marveling at the great fortune that allowed me a second residency where many a muse await their artist—be they visual, musical or wordsmiths. Still, I miss my family and friends. It’s time. I don’t want to get in the face of success.

Spring has Sprung in Paradise

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Day Evening 13 of 18. I don’t want to lose a minute so I won’t rush into tomorrow. Each day and night at Ragdale offers magical momentsIMG_0259 and the last few have been exceptional, at least in terms of weather. I can’t recall the last time I was out and about and so warm I had to take off my coat. With the ice and snow melting and the right boots,  inspiration surrounds us.

Tonight those of us with rooms in The Barn shared some welcoming moments at the Ragdale house that involved pizza, wine and a sunset that couldn’t possibly be properly captured with a camera.

IMG_0257The thing about Ragdale is you want to soak it all in with as wide a lens as you can bring to your senses. Walking back to my room I looked up into the dark sky to see it sprinkled with stars. Such a magnificent view defies a caIMG_0263mera lens, but hang in my memory it will.

Since my last residency, pictures and sculptures have been rearranged. Amid all the books near the stairwell to my room stands this proudly poised dancer.

On the other side of the wall in a room housiIMG_0265ng a TV I’ve never once seen turned on, this boy and girl quietly stand next to each other, forever too shy to turn and introduce themselves.

A new season has sprung. We lost an hour last weekend setting the clocks ahead, and it feels like an hour lost in paradise. If anything, a reminder of how fast the days fly by and how extraordinary are the moments when we follow our passions, even if they seem unreachable. But who knows? Maybe I’ll catch a star tomorrow night.

Step by Step

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I even found new pictures to take.

Day 7 of 18 at Ragdale, the artist retreat in Lake Forest, IL, and I’m into some intense editing—so much so that I’ve already done two loads of laundry. Those who know me will realize I’ve gone through the entirety of distractions I’m capable of unearthing so edit I must, right after I’m done with this blog.

The writing process is hard. Draft after draft you work on structure, point-of-view, character and scene-building until your story feels organic. It has a beginning, middle and an end that takes the reader on an interesting journey. Then you workshop it or have other writers read it for their advice. Often that means creating a new draft, other times it brings you to the revision process.

We were talking about that process last week in class. (Yes, I actually left Ragdale for half a day, stopped home to see the extent of destruction that occurs in 48 hours when I’m not there, then headed to the second to last class of my second semester at The Writer’s Studio. “I got the printer to work,” I was told on the way home. I was thrilled. Imagine my surprise to find it does in fact work, on the counter between the dining and living room….. More on the value of the room we call the office later, but see how good I’ve become at distraction?)

In class I compared completing an essay to giving birth, only harder. My teacher, Kevin, has a child, and he was the closest to relating. I know the younger women in class who picture children in their future will agree. It’s painful beyond belief but unequivocally worth it in the end. I’m at the point where I have to look at every word in every sentence to make sure it’s not only the right one in the right place but that it moves the story forward. I like this step. It means I’ve created something that works and now I need to fine-tune it. Nothing’s ever perfect so it’s a difficult step to complete. There comes a point where you just have to let go.

In one of my earlier stages of distraction yesterday, I emailed a former neighbor and writer and likened this step to walking your daughter down the aisle at her wedding. There she is: your greatest project, the prettiest moment of her life to-date, bubbling over with happiness while you’re still processing how she learned to ride a bike, read a book, get to school on her own. Already you have to “give her away,” and she’d prefer you do it with a smile on your face as you hold back cardiac arrest, billions of memories and tears as well as a newfound utter disrespect for the passage of time—what the hell is the hurry?

Letting go is a stage in nearly every part of life, and it’s a tough one to face in any situation. Not much is ours to keep and nothing worth having lasts forever. Letting go means you’ve held on to something you value otherwise whatever you thought you possessed would be easy to give away. Letting go is packed with insecurities and fears, doubts and disbelief, what ifs and if onlys. It’s as much an act of faith as any religion. People say “trust me, it’s part of life,” and “you’ll survive, I promise,” but those first steps without something you’ve learned to appreciate quake with anxiety.

I need to get back to a story I hope is worth sharing, one I believe some will identify with and may even help them feel more confident despite the fundamental imperfections uniting us. Letting go of some stuff is easier than others. Much isn’t nearly as important as others. Still, letting go step by step is relative. Whatever we’ve worked so hard for or in service of is hard to release because whatever “it” is always takes with it a piece of our soul.

Lighting Fires at Ragdale

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We moved recently and the one thing we don’t have in our new condo that we really miss is a fireplace. So how fortuitous to spend 18 cold winter days at Ragdale where of course they have one!IMG_0246 I haven’t lost my touch either, it’s burning pretty darn good and that’s without the help of last year’s expert fireplace lighter and poet extraordinaire, Katie Riegel.

They’ve rearranged some of the furniture and artwork recently. I don’t remember this beautiful piece of sculpture here where all kinds of plants including geraniums IMG_0251anxiously await Spring, literally sprawled against the windows to soak up enough sun to bloom. I appreciate their impatience.

I’m in the same room I was in last year, the Hay Loft, and this year my neighbor is my friend and mentor, Rita Dragonette. Last year that room was occupied by Jill Wine-Banks, who I met through Rita. We both miss her lots but know she’s on to something special with the book she came here to work on last year.

As was the case before, there’s a fascinating group here again–visual, composers, poets, non-fiction, fiction and multi-genre artists, all who raise the bar so high it’s both exhilarating and intimidating. In other words, I really need to quit circling this wagon and jump on. Enough procrastinating this morning. I’ve got stories to tell.

Musings on writing

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Tomorrow I head to Ragdale, an artist- and writer-in-residence retreat in Lake Forest, IL, to spend 18 glorious days focusing on my writing. I’ve wanted to write for as long as long as I can remember. I was blessed with a career and awesome bosses who allowed me to write for clients and—god love them—a salary. The idea of being allowed the time, monastic quiet and like souls to work on my own words and ideas that have been percolating in my mind, on my computer and in notebooks is akin to winning the lottery (I’m guessing).

I’ll miss my family and friends. We just moved to a beautiful highrise overlooking the frozen lake. I’ve finally emptied the last box. Admittedly, the thought of how all that time-consuming organization might be rearranged is a little bit more than a nagging concern. But I can use the change in scenery, and I know my family can use a break from me!

My oldest daughter, Jill, is moving into her first house today. Last year when I left for Ragdale, I’d been helping with her newborn son. This year within weeks after I return she’s due to deliver a brother to Patrick Xavier (Pax) and Caitlin. For one week in my absence my youngest, Jackie, is heading to Florida as assistant softball coach to North Park University’s softball team and to help recruit new players in return for a Master’s Degree she’s earning there. I cannot articulate how surreal it is to write and read this last paragraph. Where did the time go? How did this happen so fast?

We moved into our first home 31 years ago, a few months before Jill was due. Reagan introduced his trickle-down effect, Ghostbusters was a hit and my friends made those costumes for a Halloween party! Tina Turner was asking What’s Love Got To Do With It and the clothes we were wearing are too silly to even try to describe. Phones attached to wires and walls, computers were a new technology and we got mail through the post office in an envelope with a stamp. Addresses were at least three lines long, and I don’t know of anyone who thought much of an @ symbol.

We were in our second home when Jackie arrived. Clinton defeated Bush, Sr., Johnny Carson turned The Tonight Show over to Jay Leno after a 30-year run, Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own and A Few Good Men were at the box office, and I’m pretty sure a bunch of my girlfriends and I attended our first Madonna concert.

I’ve learned of love and loss, shared laughter and shed seas of tears, survived what I was I sure I wouldn’t and experienced moments I never dreamt could happen. Very little remains the same except my desire to write. Can I capture those fleeting moments and the profound significance of so many of them with my words? Will anyone care if I do?

I don’t know that I’m writing for fame or fortune. Maybe it’s to share that universal experience of the sum of those days and months where we plan and fail, trip and fall, get back up, celebrate successes and mourn losses big and small and repeat it all, thinking that combined those events lead us to something more meaningful than the sum of those days and months.

All my life, all our lives, add up to right this moment, don’t they? We’re products of our past, but all we really know is only in this very moment. It’s been said we make plans and God laughs. I wonder what She thinks when we work so hard to share the meaning in our lives?