Monday, March 31, 2014

My Writing Process

The amazing Kate Hopper, about whom I've written here many times before, tagged me on this writer blog meme. I took two of Kate's "Motherhood and Words" online classes (she helped midwife my first published essay) and met her all-too-briefly in real life at AWP last spring. I've had the pleasure of reading both of her books, including Ready for Air, which I wrote about (accidentally writing about myself a bit too much) here. Kate has been a great mentor and, I hope I can say, friend. Thank you, Kate, for picking me to play along!

1)     What am I working on? 

After a two-month funk senescence, I finally got back into a writing groove in the last couple of weeks. I've been going through each of the short stories from my thesis, revising, tightening up, rewriting endings, and getting them ready to send out for publication. I'm also at work on a long essay about a fairly complicated environmental health issue. I'm trying to find a way to write it that is neither journalistic nor regulatory jargon. In addition, I have a bunch of short essay and story ideas rattling around in the back of my head. I'm so happy I've got my writing mojo back so that I can put all those ideas to work.

2)     How does my work differ from others of its genre?  

My writing is different in that I generally incorporate themes of motherhood and nature or the environment into both my fiction and nonfiction. While I know I'm not exclusive in this area, I've found it's not a common approach (though getting more so, which is wonderful). I've also found that the mother-protagonist is a fairly recent development in literature (though also getting more common), and I love being a part of this great new wave of literature. I enjoy experimenting with point-of-view, playing with humor, especially juxtaposed with dark subject matter, and finding the significant in the ordinary.

3)     Why do I write what I do? 

About the time the twins were born, I got a subscription to Brain, Child Magazine and a friend of mine handed me a few issues of a mama-zine. I had always written and wanted to be a writer, but I had sort of lost track of my passion until then, when, in the intensity of life with two newborns and a really disenchanted four-year-old, the awareness for the first time that there was a literary outlet for what I was going through really lit the spark for me. As I like to say, "I gave birth to my subject." While I started out writing nonfiction, motherhood followed me into the realm of the short story, which I started writing not long after the twins were born, when I took a writing class in which the instructor encouraged us to try our hands at fiction, which was always my first love and secret desire. A year or two later, I had published my first short story, and I focused on short fiction in the MFA program I just completed. I write short stories because I think I lack the attention span to write a whole novel.

4)     How does my writing process work?

I wish I knew! Every time I sit down to write, I feel like I've never done it before. I think it's a bit like putting together a 100- or 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I start with an idea, an image, a line, a theme, or a scenario (choosing a puzzle off the shelf). Then I scribble all kinds of notes into my journal, dig through old journals, blog posts, and zines for little snippets and memories to incorporate, or earlier essays that can be made more robust now that time has gone by, and I pay attention to things like weather, conversations, scenery, landscape, to build into the piece (dumping out the puzzle pieces on the table). Then I begin to organize my ideas, often clustering in the manner of Gabrielle Lusser Rico's Writing the Natural Way, typing up bits and pieces, arranging and rearranging them in a pleasing order (putting together the border). I free write, research, turn over and over the plot, the characters, the language when I lie in bed awake at four a.m. or while I swim laps in the early morning or drive to work, set it aside and focus on something totally non-writing-related, come back to it, write, and rewrite and rewrite (fill in the middle). It's a big hot mess, really (as you can see from my "office" in the picture above). I wish I had a more orderly method (or that the muse would just dictate to me a whole, completed piece). I can't stress enough the importance of both letting the work (and the brain) sit and marinate and rewriting. And by rewriting, I literally mean, setting the piece aside and typing it all into the computer again (see why I don't want to write a novel?).

Next up on the My Writing Process blog tour:

Kristen Levithan writes about motherhood, women’s history, and books for print and online publications. Currently at work on a non-fiction book about writers who were also mothers, Kristen lives in New England with her husband and three children. She offers cultural commentary and musings on modern motherhood at her blog, Motherese.

Rachael Levy lives in Seattle with her husband and four children who serve as both inspiration and impediment to her writing. She is a former newspaper reporter who writes regularly at The Slow-Cooked Sentence. Her articles, essays and fiction have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Story Bleed, the anthology "Twice the Love: Stories of Inspiration for Parents of Twins and Multiples," and elsewhere.

Karla Fossett is a Maine-based writer, inspired by the beauty and coziness of New England. After earning a film degree from Boston University and spending the first five years out of college pursuing film work, Karla now lives in Portland and is pursuing her love of fiction. She graduated in July 2013 from the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program and currently works as a technical writer and editor for  a national CPA and consulting firm. She is at work on her first novel, a young adult work inspired in part by her time spent as a high school social studies teacher. Her blog can be read at
Please visit these amazing women's blogs on April 7 to hear about their writing processes.

Emily Swartz is a freelance writer who recently graduated from USM’s Stonecoast MFA program in Creative Writing. Her current project, The Midnight Thief, centers on the real and fictional lives of Appalachian children growing up in Kentucky during the 1940s. Emily lives in Maine but travels down South whenever possible. Emily blogs at

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Weekend Things: Projecty

Last week, I dropped M's quilt off to be long-arm quilted, so naturally, I immediately started thinking about quilts for E and Z. Theirs will be much less complicated: No stars. No crazy-cut jigsaw-puzzle madness. Nothing but squares. Also I want to use as much stash as possible so as not to spend a zillion dollars (and make some space) though I will take a trip to a quilt shop or two to fill in some special pieces. This is my favorite part of any project (sewing, knitting, writing, decorating, cleaning, cooking, gardening)--the planning, dreaming, imagining stage. I'm also very fond of the "it's finally done!" stage. It's the in-between stage that stymies me. But I think I can power through.

I also finished one cable hat and started another. C and I have been watching TV shows from Netflix and the library every evening (Blackadder and the original Upstairs, Downstairs), so I've gotten in a lot of knitting lately (but much less reading and sleeping).

Saturday (after we got home from seeing the new Muppets movie, and eating Thai food out), I received a book in the mail that I'll be reviewing here very soon (and which matches my current yarn beautifully). I think I need a nice long vacation so I have enough time to read and write and do projecty things (and knit in front of the TV).

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Spring Skating

Last week we made one last attempt at iceskating.

After a little warm weather and some rain, followed by a few really cold days,

the conditions looked perfect.

Every pond and bog I drove by looked really smooth and glassy and perfect.

So we decided to seize the day and made our way through the woods to a nearby pond.

But it turned out that snow-turned-ice is kind of...brittle.

And slushy. Skates broke through the first inch or so. 

I said, "We should go to the rink and skate on some real ice," and C gave me a look that reminded me this is REAL ice. But soon we'll take a trip to the Ice Vault and skate on some real smooth man-made ice.

Most of us switched back to our boots in short order, but Z and M stuck it out, skating in patches of solid ice, skate-running through the choppy bits.

 And yet, it was a pretty great afternoon, slushy ice (slice? icsh?) and all.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Signs of Spring

Despite the nor'easter forecast for tomorrow,

It's coming friends, it's coming.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Needles

This month has been knitting season (and it appears to be green knitting season--St. Patrick's Day? Spring?). I came up with a solution to my cables dilemma, and am working away on hat #1 (of five).

And E has gotten started on a green hat of his own. Circular needles are brilliant for the beginning/child knitter, by the way.

What's on your needles these days?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Now Reading

Right now I can't get enough Beth Kephart. I loved her essay "The Line is White and it is Narrow" in Slate's Mothers Who Think collection so much, so I don't know why it's taken me years and years since I read that to pick up one of her books.

It all started with her recently published memoir craft book, Handling the Truth, which I picked up from the book table at residency in January. I was reading that one night in the library and it reminded me that I had been meaning to read A Slant of Sun for a long time, so I went to look for that book, only the library I was at didn't have it. Instead they had Seeing Past Z, which is a collection of essays--meditations, almost--on books and reading and writing with her child. I know that doesn't sound like enough to sustain a full length book, but really it was and Kephart's voice is so lovely, so endearing and honest and earnest, that you just want to sit and read whatever she has to say on anything. And it also reminded me of some essays on reading to and with children that I've been mulling over for some time. 

I have a huge stack of books in the hall at the top of our stairs, many of which I haven't read yet, and I've been trying to put my shoulder to the plow to get through them (my plan is one a week--alternating fiction and nonfiction--last week I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which was divine), but I was overcome with the urge to order A Slant of Sun from the library and have been eating it up all week--it's about Kephart's journey through raising a child with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. And again, it's her voice, her lovely descriptions of space and scene and weather, that make you want to never put it down. I also love how much adoration of her child comes across on the page, yet I don't find it "sentimental" (then again, I'm not a man prone to using that word as an insult in the literary realm).

As you can see in the corner of the picture, M is now reading the Jurassic Park books, which I guess means he's officially a grownup (shh, don't tell him that). After I finished reading Harry Potter to E and Z (finally!), we read The Enormous Egg, and then How to Train Your Dragon. Z took the latter to bed with him and finished it on his own when we were 3/4 of the way through. We started on the second book, but he, and then E, stole it and read it on their own. Now Z is laboring through The Lord of the Rings (can you believe that this is the child who could barely read a Dr. Seuss book a year-and-a-half ago??) and E just switched from all Big Nate all the time to National Geographic kids (back issues of the magazine and an old Almanac). I'm afraid I won't be reading them bedtime stories for that much longer. I'm not quite ready for that.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Three Boys

My kids' school was closed all last week, due to a small fire that resulted in a big mess (apparently chemicals and smoke distributed throughout the building via the HVAC system), giving them a bonus week of winter vacation. They got to spend at least part of that time at home, when C was working in his basement office. Somehow when they're home and left to their own devices, my kids are at their most creative.

This one got back into knitting, and with just a little help, made himself a cowl (cast-on, bind-off and all).

This one loves to be outside, and spent all day Saturday out with his dad making maple syrup (even when his brother and their best friend went in to play Legos).

This one went snowboarding with a friend both weekends and taught himself how to play "Jump" on the piano.

This one found a giant icicle that he called "the lightning bolt" because he'd just seen the Percy Jackson movie.

...and then he quickly turned it into a gun.

This one asked for some books on knights from the library, and actually read some of them. He asked me to help him make cardboard armor, and I reminded him that we had a cardboard-creation expert.

M was supposed to help build the armor, but as he said, he doesn't have the patience for that, so he did it himself. Z seems happy, though, and three boys getting along is something this mama likes to see.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Willing Spring

We're still pretty much dead-on winter here (3.3 degrees F this a.m.), though there are signs of the coming season. Mud, of course.

And the sun is much higher in the sky, and seems to stick around much longer (though that is largely an illusion, thanks to horrid daylight savings). 

Right now is actually perfect ice-skating weather--the ponds and bogs are clear of snow--but snow/sleet/and 44 degrees in the forecast will ruin that before the weekend comes, I'm afraid.

C has had to wedge big wafers of frozen sap into his evaporator to get any maple syrup going (though he's already up around ten quarts, which is nothing to sneeze at).

Even my boys who spent all summer saying, "I can't wait till winter so we can go sledding," are growing a bit tired of the cold.

E added "spring" to the grocery list. 

Meanwhile, I'm doing my best to stick with my March Manifesto--lots of fresh flowers, and some fun food for St. Patrick's day (shamrock-shaped crackers, Irish cheese, Irish soda bread, vegetarian Irish stew and green soup).

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Inspired by "Bark Week" at Everyday Nature, I took a few minutes this weekend to slow down and admire some interesting bark around our house, before buds and flowers and leaves come along to steal the show.

Paper birch:

Beech (?) and birch:

American beech:


Not sure here:

Black cherry:


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Weekend Things--Head Space

I've been having a hard time focusing lately. I pick up a book, read a little bit, then switch it for another book. I pick up my pen or open a document, write a few words, then switch to another piece of writing. I don't know if I'm suffering from my annual mid-winter malaise, if I'm just in a senescence period after two years of grad school, or if I just can't function without externally imposed deadlines and a steady stream of praise (or criticism, depending on the mentor). Then, last Wednesday evening, I had an hour or so to myself. I spent it in silence, just letting my body go where my brain directed it. I ate a silent dinner, read a bit, and started feeling inspired to write something, until I remembered my family would be home in a few minutes, which froze all inspiring thoughts in their tracks. I realized that, in part at least, I needed some head space--quiet time, unscheduled time, time to daydream and follow thought-threads. Time to just be.

Just such a time came on Saturday. M went snowboarding with a friend for the weekend, and C had his first maple syrup boil, which meant he and Z and E were outside, out of my hair, most of the day. While I could have set a lot of writing goals, I decided to just do whatever I felt like at the time (which meant no housework, except tidying my room so I could work and two loads of laundry). I worked my way through parts of several books (finishing one) and magazines.

I finished M's quilt top, adding the outer borders. And I even did some writing.

In the late afternoon, after E had come in to watch a movie, I headed out to check on the syrup boil.

I thought C was crazy tapping trees when the nighttime temperatures were still dipping well below zero Fahrenheit, but, once he thawed out his sap, he made close to five quarts of syrup.

Z, meanwhile, busied himself "blacksmithing" these old stove parts.

Sunday was back to business as usual, though I snuck in a bubble bath and more reading.

After I helped E and Z with a long-overdue room cleaning, E asked if someday we could spin wool into yarn.

I dug out this spindle that I bought a few years ago at the Fiber Frolic and managed to reacquaint myself with the rhythm of spinning, while E and Z played with roving.

How do you find head space among days full of family and chaos?
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