Read!

Funny how we absorb — the good, the bad, emotions, behaviors — such is life. Things subconsciously stick. Bad things happen, I get it. But we can make choices in handling those experiences that are beyond our control. We can surround ourselves with whatever we want to absorb.

You want to be a better writer? Surround yourself with words.

Read widely.

Read above your usual level and absorb the techniques of the experts. Absorb their words, sentences, paragraphs, style, and structure — details of time and place, character, dialogue and gesture — inspiration and imagination, understanding of the human condition and more. Name it and notice it.

This April I’ve been devouring memoirs. Maybe you’re looking for something to read next.

This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession is the debut of Cameron Dezen Hammon. On page one, Hammon takes the stage at a suburban megachurch to sing at a funeral for a teenaged girl. Her cell phone buzzes in the pocket of her dress. It’s the man she might love, not her husband and father of her daughter. And from the opening scene, Hammon’s honesty and bravery hooked me. She grapples with misogyny in religion, infidelity in marriage, and doubt in faith. I couldn’t stop turning pages, and I can’t stop thinking about this book.*

Educated by Tara Westover had been on my to-read list for a couple of years. I listened to it on Audible, but I wish I had a copy. Born to Mormon survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, Westover was 17 the first time she stepped into a classroom on the campus of BYU. The following passage strikes at the heart of this book and the ideology of Westover’s childhood. This conversation is the steppingstone she needs to further education—at Cambridge, then Harvard.

“By the end of the semester the world felt big, and it was hard to imagine returning to the mountain, to a kitchen, or even to a piano in a room next to the kitchen. This caused a kind of crisis in me. My love of music and my desire to study it had been compatible with my idea of what a woman is. My love of history and politics and world affairs was not, and yet they called to me. A few days before finals, I sat for an hour with my friend Josh in an empty classroom. He was reviewing his applications for law school. I was choosing my courses for the next semester. ‘If you were a woman,’ I asked, ‘would you still study law?’

Josh didn’t look up. ‘If I were a woman,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t want to study it.’

‘But you’ve talked about nothing but law school for as long as I’ve known you,’ I said. ‘It’s your dream. Isn’t it?’

‘It is,’ he admitted, ‘but it wouldn’t be if I were a woman. Women are made differently. They don’t have this ambition. Their ambition is for children.’ He smiled at me as if I knew what he were talking about, and I did. I smiled, and for a few seconds, we were in agreement.

Then, ‘But what if you were a woman and somehow you felt exactly as you do now?’

Josh’s eyes fixed on the wall for a moment. He was really thinking about it. Then he said, ‘I’d know something was wrong with me.’

Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club was a trudge for me. There are funny and heartbreaking parts. I enjoyed Karr’s vocabulary and sentences and images, but for whatever reason, I didn’t feel compelled to turn pages. In connection with the other two memoirs, all three authors goes through tough injustices. Hammon and Westover both triumph and learn something about themselves. As for Karr, I prefer her book The Art of Memoir, especially if you’re interested in writing one.

*One more thing about Camerson Dezen Hammon. I’m thrilled to say my university has contracted her to read my memoir-in-progress and mentor me. So, now I leave this post to continue my revisions. My due date approaches, and I just might have more books to read.

Quest!

In 2013, I received an opportunity to teach a Creative Writing class at the high school where I also taught English. As a new elective without an established curriculum, I had the freedom to teach it however I wanted. I adopted a two-part philosophy. First, writers must be readers, and I structured classes with time to read for pleasure with an eye toward author’s craft. Next, writers must write—every day. I gave the students daily prompts that they could use or not for their writing. The point was sustained practice.

In the beginning, I felt like a hypocrite, and so the second part of my own philosophy forced me to write—almost every day. I kept a journal and notes in my phone, bits of dialogue and scenes. As I wrote alongside my students, I often stuck to a theme of my son Drew, our new normal with schizophrenia, and our quest for help. Little by little over the next few years, I realized my story might help someone else. Finding help had been hard, especially when my son didn’t see a need for help. Maybe I would write a memoir. I quested ahead with my writing practice. My structure was episodic. My ideas were fragmented. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was horrific. I didn’t know how to make it all publishable.

For my fiftieth birthday, I gifted myself time for grad school and started a new quest for my MFA. Who knew I could study Creative Writing? As my program winds down, I’m questing toward my degree and the latest draft of my memoir Help in the Time of Schizophrenia. When I submit this work on April 26th, two of my professors and a third contracted reader will read it and provide a final round of feedback. I’m super thankful for the extra perspective.

And soon, I’ll be on a new quest. To be determined.

Quest

Carrie Williams Clifford

My goal out-distances the utmost star, 
Yet is encompassed in my inmost Soul; 
I am my goal—my quest, to know myself. 
To chart and compass this unfathomed sea, 
Myself must plumb the boundless universe. 
My Soul contains all thought, all mystery, 
All wisdom of the Great Infinite Mind: 
This is to discover, I must voyage far, 
At last to find it in my pulsing heart. 

Photograph.

One Friday in April, I found myself home alone with time on my hands. I hopped in my car on a quest for murals. If you’ve been reading recently, you might guess that I Googled locations first, and you would be correct. With the first address in my phone map, I stumbled upon a little pot of gold. I ended up in EaDo, also known as East Downtown Houston. I can’t believe I’ve lived here nearly five years and had never seen this revitalized neighborhood. It’s vibrant and thriving, and I’ll be back. Meanwhile, I photographed the opportunity.

Thank you so much for supporting today’s A-Z Challenge post. After a year at home, I wanted to mix it all up a bit and thought surely someone would like a suggestion or two, maybe even twenty-six. This April, I’m sticking to a theme of action. Some are mental feats. Some are physical. Others spiritual. Some I practice already. Some I haven’t attempted in years. Others never. Your guess is as good as mine whether I can keep it up for ten more posts. Links below to my first fifteen:

Observe.

On Observing A Blossom On The First Of February 1796
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Sweet flower! that peeping from thy russet stem
Unfoldest timidly, (for in strange sort
This dark, frieze-coated, hoarse, teeth-chattering month
Hath borrow'd Zephyr's voice, and gazed upon thee
With blue voluptuous eye) alas, poor Flower!
These are but flatteries of the faithless year.
Perchance, escaped its unknown polar cave,
Even now the keen North-East is on its way...

Source: 
The Golden Book Of Coleridge
Copyright 1914
London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.
New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.

Even the sweetest of flowers weather storms.

Observe your own thoughts.

A wise woman once told me (click the link to see)—If you are angry, most likely your mind is stuck on something in the past. If you are anxious, you are probably worrying about the future.

Stop and smell the roses.

It’s not about roses, you know. It’s about staying present. Seek beauty and goodness, and you will find more of the same. And so I send you good vibes today. May the rest of April bring you joy, fulfillment, perspective, and hope.  

Nominate?

Many thanks to Chen Song Ping, who nominated me for the The Golden Bloggerz Award! I’m humbled and honored! Serena Chen is a nurse and the caretaker of a child with a mental disorder, and she shares insightful life experiences. Serena asked me a series of questions, and my answers are sprinkled throughout this post.

I’m going on my fourth year of catapulting my ideas into the blogosphere, but I still remember what it was like in the beginning to have like three followers and no idea how to find other good blogs. [Stage left. Enter the awards.] The awards, no matter which one, are all about promoting other bloggers’ blogs and helping them be part of the community. If you’re new to blogging (or not), here are some of my best tips:

  1. Read other blogs.
    • Of course, you can keep up with the blogs you follow in Reader.
    • There is also a tab you can click at the top of Reader to Discover new blogs, and you can search by key words according to your interests.
    • You could search for Awards (or maybe Award), and you will most likely find lists of bloggers that other people like inside those posts despite your interest in their questions and answers.
    • Read comments in other posts to see who responds in a way you like. Then pay that person a visit. If a person cares enough to leave a nice comment, that person might care enough to support your blog.
  2. Write something compelling.
    • I taught high school English for twenty years. I used to tell my students, “I have one hundred and fifty essays to grade. Make me laugh or make me cry.” As far as blogs go, people have so many choices. Compel readers to return.  
    • The same advice applies to your comments. If you just hit the little star on the post, you may or may not receive a return visit. If you leave a likeable comment, you are more likely to receive a visit.
    • When I write about anything, I try to reveal a deeper meaning or a bigger lesson without preaching. I personally don’t like to be told what to do in life and especially during my free time.
  3. Final thoughts.
    • One big DO NOT. Too often a star-happy blogger comes along, clicking star after star on my site without any time in between clicks. Knowing the reader isn’t a reader makes for a pointless visit, and I feel no obligation to check out that site.
    • In connection to awards, some people thrive on recognition. Others do not. Considering my own time restraints, I wouldn’t want anyone to feel pressure to respond. Rules are arbitrary, and I tend to circumvent them. I also reserve the right to decline.
    • Remember to update your About page. Check what other bloggers say on their pages for ideas.
    • Blogging should be fun and guilt free. If it ever feels otherwise, step away. People understand, and if they don’t, well…
    • Show your readers gratitude. I appreciate you for reading today, and I know you have a million and one other things you could be doing.  

It’s so hard to narrow down my list of amazing bloggers, and so I’m choosing nominees under the 900 follower mark, who deserve so many more. When you have extra time, check them out. Without further ado, I would like to Nominate the following Golden Bloggerz:

With over twenty years of experience, Tiffany Arp-Daleo has developed a unique painting style described as Bohemian Abstract. All her creations are original, derived from the heart, and born out of a need to consistently create and to explore the unknown.

My friend Keith at Terrified Amateur is actually a Bold Expert in the kitchen. His cheeky sense of humor and adventurous culinary spirit never fail to deliver fantastic posts.   

By day, Gr8ful Collette helps pregnant and parenting teens beat the odds and earn their high school diplomas. Over at her Wine 2 Water blog, she pens her experience of finding peace and meaning through sobriety.

From Faded Jeans Living, Dwight Hyde writes about finding happiness, comeback stories, and growing and learning along the way. I love how he keeps it simple and real.

From the land down under, Perth Girl at The “F” Word blogs about faith, family, and food. She enlightens me with her spiritual insights time and again.  

The David from David’s Daily Dose is just a regular guy, who was tempted to lose all hope but didn’t. It was God who made the difference, but he isn’t preachy about it.

Bosssy Babe shares her journey through life as an imperfect human trying to balance marriage, motherhood, work, and her many passions. She is proud of being loud and feels no shame about having unpopular opinions. 

H. Davey Thoreau claims to have succumbed to a spell for the first forty years of life before undergoing a spiritual awakening. At Words from Walden, he writes of how our friendly universe is full of possibility.

Jen Knapp at Life, Love, and Sentences is a former high school English teacher who scooped up her family and moved to Quito, Ecuador. Her blogs are part literary analysis, part life analysis, all in the in the hopes of doing some good.

Bryan Wagner blogs at Visions of a People’s Dharma. He believes that we can all have our own paths and still interact with compassion, intelligence, and caring for others. I love his philosophy: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you and expect nothing in return.”

For my nominees, I have one question should you choose to respond. No sweat off my back either way.

What is your all-time favorite post, the one that makes you laugh or cry or most proud of your own writing?

If you have a spare moment, please reblog your favorite one. I would love to read it.

Memorize?

A couple of weeks ago, I read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, and I’m one chapter short of finishing her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club now. As the Peck Professor of Literature and Memoir at Syracuse University, she offers expert tips and provides an appendix of must-read memoirs. The list is so worth the purchase for those interested in studying the genre.

In Chapter 19, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr encourages intellectual enterprises to keep you studying the craft of writing. Here are some of the tools she uses to learn from mentor texts. Some of these include writing longhand. She says it will slow you down as typing can’t.

  1. Keep a notebook, where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose. Nothing will teach you of great writers’ choices better. Plus, you can carry your inspiration around in compact form.
  2. Write reviews or criticism for an online blog or a magazine. It will discipline you to find evidence for your opinions and make you a crisper thinker.
  3. Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions.
  4. Write out longhand on 3×5” index cards quotes you come across, writer’s name on the left, source and page on the right. Karr has thousands of these from which she cobbles up lectures.
  5. Memorize poems when you’re stuck.
  6. Write longhand letters to your complicated characters or even to the dead. You’ll learn more about voice by writing letters, how you arrange yourself different ways for each audience, than in a year of classes.

Number Five spoke loudest to me. Funny how I can still remember chunks of verse from days gone by. I memorized the “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost in the eighth grade for my English class. Anytime I take another look at that poem, the words come flooding back. When I taught sophomores, I memorized Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. And when I taught juniors, I memorized Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy. Because the students had been tasked to memorize, I wanted to prove I could do it. I loved to show them a three-year-old’s ability to memorize, too. Here’s a toddler’s version of “Litany” by Billy Collins.


Here’s one I’m working on, at Mary Karr’s suggestion and just because I love it:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Listen.

My mother visited me not long ago in a dream. I sat in a campus classroom when someone came to the door and said, “Your mother is here to see you.” That seemed weird—one, because my mother passed away this past Christmas Eve, and two, because my classes are online, but this time my cohort surrounded me.

I left my spot and walked into the next room where my mother stood with a radiant smile on her face and a gift in her hands. Neck scarves, probably four of them, rolled up in a long plastic tube. “I wanted you to have these before I leave,” she said.

“Will you come meet my friends and my teacher before you go?” I said. Mom nodded her head and followed me to my classroom. I introduced her to the people who’ve supported my writing most this past year. She came to leave me a gift before she left.

***

Sometime last month, my friend David wrote about Mother Teresa, and I carry this story with me. An interviewer once asked what she said to God when she prayed. She replied, “I don’t say anything. I listen.”

The reporter said, “Okay, when God speaks to you then, what does He say?”

Mother Teresa replied, “He doesn’t say anything. He listens.” She offered no other explanation. To her, prayer was spending time with the One she loved. The One who created her and cared for her

***

The sun rose on Sunday, the night after my dream. I walked the streets of my neighborhood, and I listened. The voices of unknown birds and rustling motions in the treetops filled the morning air. I thought about how my feathered friends can sing whatever their hearts desire, how their songs are as much a part of their nature as soaring through the sky. Sunbeams streamed through the leaves and lit the grass with gold. My mother and her scarves seemed a comfort—as if she came to my school to approve of my work, to protect my voice, to validate my story, and to say, “Don’t let anyone shut you up or shut you down.”

Sympathy
BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!


KISS.

I remember teachers in my life using the acronym KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid. I didn’t personally like the word stupid on the end. My mother wouldn’t let me use that word in reference to a person. There was no name calling in my house. (Probably not completely true, but that was the rule.) This probably explains why name-calling crawls under my skin, regardless of who is slinging insults at whom. But, name-calling is beside the point. This post is about keeping it simple.

The U.S. Navy began using the term in 1960, a design principle that most systems work best when kept simple, rather than made complicated. By the 1970s, KISS had become popularized.

As for me, I normally blog four to five times per month. Simple. This April, I took the challenge of 26 posts on a theme of action from A-Z. To Keep It Stupid Simple, I’m concluding here.

You could be doing anything today, but you’re with me. Thank you.   

Jog?

I would love to say I’ve been jogging recently. I haven’t. But since last summer, I have jogged more than I have in my entire life. #Progress. That all ended in January when I allowed myself some time to grieve for my mother and couldn’t seem to pull myself off the couch. In February, I committed to walking again, at least thirty minutes almost daily, and I’m pretty good at keeping promises to myself. (If you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?)

During my 2020 walks, I started jogging short distances. I worked my way up to a two-minute jog and then to four—that was my limit. I could run while listening to the entirety of No Doubt’s “Sunday Morning” in my earphones. The song inspired me to keep going. Suddenly I found myself able to run a few times in the course of a two-mile walk.



And now, my knee is achy. Walking isn’t a problem; however, I’m listening to my knee and doing some strengthening exercises. Maybe I’ll feel like jogging again before long. Sometimes we must accept our limitations and go to plan B.

Thank you so very much for reading my A-Z Challenge post today. This April, I’m sticking to a theme of action—mental, physical, and spiritual actions, some dreams and reality. Here are the rest—AbstainBalletCartwheelDevoteEncourage, Forgive, Google, Headstand, Innovate.

Innovate.

in·no·vate/ˈinəˌvāt/

  1. make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.”the company’s failure to diversify and innovate competitively”
  2. introduce (something new, especially a product).”innovating new products, developing existing ones”

Time and time again, I take a flying leap. I’m in the air and realize I have no wings. I might just crash and burn, or I can innovate. Take for example this A-Z challenge. I’m all for challenges. I know some people plan these types of things, like for months. Me? Well, I just make up my mind and do it—often at the last minute, without a plan or perhaps with a few sketchy ideas. Then I have no other option than to innovate. Such is life. We must figure it out—one day at a time.

Video suggested by Jerry Snider @ theartofbecomingawildflower – Ready to Blossom? (wordpress.com)


I’m humbled by those of you who chose to read my A-Z Challenge post today and especially for those who returned for more. After a year stuck mainly at home, I wanted to try some new things, you know, innovate a bit. Maybe you would, too. And so this April, I’m sticking to a theme of action: mental, physical, and spiritual, things I might already do or haven’t attempted in years or maybe never. You know what else I’m doing this month? Click here to see: AbstainBalletCartwheelDevoteEncourage, Forgive, Google, Headstand.