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.

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?

Maya Angelou, Brainpickings and Inspiration

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Trying to ignore one’s blog as it waits patiently for your attention is no easy feat. A political blog is so much easier with fodder to feed it daily no further than 24-hour news stations. Reading so many other great blogs drains the time as does using the “my house is for sale” excuse that reveals endless tasks to ensure it shows better.

Then comes Sunday. The weekly newsletter from Brainpickings is always overflowing with inspiration from the best of the best. Check out the link below, offering abundant inspiration, including Maya Angelou’s letter to her younger self.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/07/01/maya-angelous-letter-to-her-younger-self/

I will never be able to contribute more than $3 a week to keep Brainpickings alive if I don’t start writing more. In March I attended an 18-day writers retreat at Ragdale, where the words come easily. The real world isn’t as accommodating, but that’s no excuse. So I commit to at least a weekly update to this blog. Its care and feeding I expect to fuel my essay writing.

Time will tell. That is, if I allow the time.

I’m a writer now

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My life has changed dramatically since I returned on March 21 from Ragdale, a writer-in-residence retreat in Lake Forest, IL. I’m a writer now. I’ve got no problem saying it, writing it, filling it in the occupation blank on forms. Those 18 days surrounded by other writers and artists transformed me from a tentative wannabe into a determined published author and writer.

All my life my mom told me I was destined to write the Great American Novel. Not too much pressure. When I was probably 6 or 7, my cousin pulled from her bookshelf a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and I was hooked.

After a million more books and sitting in more classrooms than your average nerd, I learned fiction isn’t my thing, so I’m not on the line for the Great American Novel catch. I write essays, or what’s known nowadays as creative nonfiction. They just moved the deadline out a month so I won’t find out until September if I’ve been accepted into the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. That would be two more years of classes, 24 months of nirvana. I have everything crossed.

I’ve written several essays and sent two to dozens and dozens of publications. I’m learning how to deal with rejection letters. Remarkably, however, both were picked up at More magazine.

The first one was called “Connections,” but the editor changed the title to “What Needlecraft Gives Me.” They could have called it “This Writer Sucks” and I’d still be thrilled―a published writer! It can be seen at http://www.more.com/print/438749. Forty one days later, they picked up my other essay, which was laying on slush piles all over the country. “A Picture Bigger Than Life” is at http://www.more.com/member-voices/your-stories/picture-bigger-life.

Now I’m working on a compilation of essays for a book I hope provides me the opportunity to read rejection letters from a whole new audience: agents. The Writer’s Studio would be The. Perfect. Place. to complete it. In your second year you work with a professor to write your final project: a 250-page creation.

But I’ll survive if U of C rejects my first attempt at the program. In fact, I may then just write those 250 pages in a single year, get an editor, then read rejection letters from agents. And that’s okay. I’m a writer now. Rejection comes with the job description. And so does one the most rewarding career-sided emotions when that one out of 100 letters/texts comes back saying “accepted for publication.”

And who knows. One of these days someone may even pay me for my own words 🙂

She Pictured It Long Before I Did

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It was a month ago I learned I was invited to spend 18 days as a writer-in-residence at Ragdale. March 2, my mom’s birthday, and of course a birthday present from her from wherever she is, watching after me still.

I loved every minute of those 18 days, and I can’t wait to return. Of course, I love my family and home, too. But re-entry is very difficult, and it’s probably worth a seminar during a Ragdale stay in order to prepare one for it. 

In the three weeks I spent at Ragdale, I napped once. I never watched television. I only read my colleagues writings, the NY times and other literary publications. I stayed up late reading and writing. I woke up early, anxious to do it all over again.

I was originally teased when I arrived at Ragdale because I was so tentative about saying “I’m a writer.” Should there be any doubt, that apprehension is thoroughly washed away now. Not because I’m writing more since I’ve left Ragdale. But because I miss the environment created solely to stoke one’s creativity. Sure, at home I can ready our place to move, paint, clean out closets, shine the wooden cabinets in the kitchen, and then find some time to write. But it’s not the same. Nonetheless, I. Am. A. Writer. And write, I will.

If I learned anything at Ragdale, I learned how important it is for writers to take their craft seriously whether or not others do. To put dedicated time aside to put words on paper and know we’re creating magic in doing so, as painful as the process is. Because we really do look at blank pages. Writers start and then restart. Swear we’ll write 1500 words without editing a single one until we’re done, then go back and spend a full week editing each of those 1500 words until they sing the story we’re appointed to share. 

Writing is hard work. The odds of getting rich from it unlikely. But that’s not the point. I can no more not write than I can not breathe. I find My truth in writing. I learn more about myself in writing than in anything else I do. Writing is as much a part of my life as are my children and grandchildren. 

Perhaps the biggest lesson from Ragdale is to prove it. Find the time to write. The world did not fall off its axis while I was away writing. What makes me think it will if I’m home writing? Whatever was in my head that had me thinking that way has had its day. I’m a writer now, and I’m going to take the time to create the words that fight to get out every day―when I’m home or in the car or just about ready to doze off.  I’m simply not going to go to sleep at night without giving time to the craft that fuels me.

Theodore Roosevelt understood the concept:  “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…. Hunter Thompson was no less brilliant: “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”

And if Shirley Stone were around, she’d add to those thoughts with words she used long before any sports equipment company’s advertising agency made them famous: “Just do it!” she’d be saying, and probably has been all along. And only as she can, she found a way to make sure I start listening to her again.

That’s mom’s for you, or at least what I’ve learned about what it means to be a mom: they never stop looking for ways to help you achieve your dreams, whether they’re sitting next to you or finding ways to remind you even after they’ve slipped those surly bonds. 

I’m on it, Mom. Thanks for the reminder. 

Time for re-entry, tough nonetheless

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After an 18-day writer-in-residence retreat at Ragdale, I got to spend an extra night to attend a workshop held there Saturday afternoon: “Finding Home―Writing & Publishing in the Global Community.” Those 5 hours flew by as fast as the previous 18 days. A panel with Heather Buchanan, publisher at Aquarius Press/Willow Books; Ralph Hamilton, senior editor at RHINO; Danny Parra, editorial director at 7Vientos was moderated by the Director of the Guild Literary Complex John Rich.

Fascinating to here about editorial decisions from “their” side, and lots of useful information about queries, multiple submissions, cover letters, all those concerns writers fret about once completing the words they want to send. The poetry workshop was moderated by Angela Narcisco Torres, prose by Angie Chuang, both winners of Aquarius Press’ first emerging writers’ contest.

Orchids waited to bloom.

My experiences at Ragdale couldn’t have ended better. I’m still not sure it wasn’t all a wonderful dream, like if Frank Baum had Dorothy navigate her greatest fantasy before waking up in The Wizard of Oz. 

But Dorothy didn’t have my family and the most adorable little pip-squeak in my granddaughter, who is the very best of her mother, my oldest, and who idolizes her aunt, my youngest and is as excited to see me and as I am to see her.

My husband can’t replicate the monastic quiet that stirs creativity for Ragdale’s residents, but somehow he managed to bribe one of my orchids to wait for me before blooming. And he didn’t have every horizontal plane covered with papers, nor did he screw pictures into the wall, willy nilly. In fact, the washer/dryer was repaired, and the corner where his desk allegedly sat at last reveals the desk―a project that must have taken every one of those 19 days I was gone.

Yep, I’m back in the real world again, no question. But I’m not the same person I was when I left. I’m a writer now. Thank you Ragdale for the time and confidence-building, and thanks to my family for their happiness for my opportunity.