P.S. Mary Oliver, a Natural Inspiration

Of What Surrounds Me

Whatever it is I am saying, I always
Need a leaf or a flower, if not an
Entire field. As for sky, I am wildly
In love with each day’s inventions, cool blue
Or cat gray or full
Of the ships of clouds, I simply can’t
Say whatever it is I am saying without
At least one skyful. That leaves water, a
Creek or a well, river or ocean, it has to be
There. For the heart to be there. For the pen
To be poised. For the idea to come.

-Mary Oliver

This past week, the world lost a great poet. Mary Oliver wrote beautiful lines that transformed the world she saw and inspired those who read her work. As seen in the poem above, she wrote of nature; her deep connection with the natural world and the spirituality she felt when surrounded by it.

I am drawn to Mary’s poems as this is a sentiment I can deeply relate to. Being in nature is the best way I can think of to reconnect with my spiritual self. When surrounded by nature, I feel completely connected to the bigger picture, a higher place. It is said that time in nature can reset our biological clocks, and I wholeheartedly agree. Even just a short hike through the woods can leave me feeling more at peace, focused, and centered in all aspects of life. It’s hard to hold on to superficial worries when you are surrounded by the beauty of the earth. It also reminds me to slow down and enjoy the simple things.

And, as with Mary, nature is where I find most of my inspiration. Not that I typically write about nature, but time spent there draws forth a clarity in my ideas and triggers strong writing on a myriad of topics. When my mind is feeling clogged or overwhelmed, unable to reach that creative spark, a long hike in the mountains is sure to help find it. It is almost a matter of certainty that the second I get as far as possible from any computer, pen, paper, or other method of recording my thoughts, that is when I will come up with the perfect story idea, character description, or line of dialogue. And even if it is forgotten by the time I am able to write again, there is still an energy gained that encourages an inspired writing session or two.

So yesterday morning, while on a hike in the mountains, baby in the carrier, bright eyes taking in all that surrounded him, I thought of Mary. It was a beautiful day (the skies cleared from recent rain and a lush green covering everything), one she would have appreciated but, I’m sure, seen and described in a unique way. I tried to take in things in her poetic vision and brought that home for an afternoon of peace and writing (mixed in with a heavy dose of baby vomit). But we need that contrast! As Mary has shown us, it is in the contrast, with the gray, that we can find the purest beauty that nature has to offer.

And so, I will continue to enjoy inspiration from nature for all aspects of my life and keep Mary’s words always close at hand.

The Baking Challenge: Every weekend, my husband and I enjoy a breakfast of English muffins and coffee (or tea). We have found a particular brand of muffin which we have become quite fond of and it got me wondering if I could replicate it. So, this past Friday, I went about attempting my first ever batch of English muffins. A relatively simple dough and easy bake (totally doable with a fussy baby in the background). And while their appearance and taste were not exactly like those that we typically enjoy (mostly because the type we usually have are sourdough and I have yet to venture into the realm of sourdough starters), they were English muffins and quite good in their own right. I am truly enjoying this weekly scheduled time for baking. It’s me time and brings a focus to the day. I am quite happy to have found that this is something I can continue to do as the rest of my world has become rather altered.

TYBC

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P.S. New Baby Steps

My son is learning to walk. And I know he will get there someday (a lot sooner than I am prepared for, I’m sure). Right now, however, he can’t even crawl. He’s got the rolling over down pretty good (when he wants to). And he’s mastered tummy time, lifting his head quite high for extended periods. But the movement part of the process eludes him. I think it’s the giant Buddha belly that’s keeping him in one place. He can’t quite get himself high enough on hands and knees to stop the belly from holding him in a teetering position (images of Garfield, post-lasagna dinner, come to mind). And at this particular moment, he’s on his back, arms and legs flailing, “stuck” beneath a cloth book that he has draped over his face, so I don’t think I need to worry about a mobile child any time soon. But, in the grand scheme of things, he is learning to walk. For that is the end goal, right? (Well, walk, then run, then become a star basketball athlete and get the full-ride scholarship to the school of his dreams and win the national championship in his freshman year…but, I digress.) Yes, the end goal, for now, is walking. And all these little advancements in movement, each success at the next step towards that first step, are all part of the learning process.

And this is where I find myself, too. Back at the beginning, learning to “walk”. Recently, I made a move in my professional/creative life to begin focusing on writing children’s books. Picture books specifically. As I have recently become a frequent reader of this genre, so too have ideas for these types of stories flooded into my mind. And so, I’m back at the start. Maybe not as completely novice as this young one on his quest toward bipedal motion. I have written a novel and, therefore, know how to put some words together to create a story. Children’s literature is, however, a whole new world when it comes to writing. There are new rules, new things to consider when drafting a story. And the idea that children’s books are easier to write than more lengthy works is a bit of a fallacy. Sure, there are less words, but that can often make it way more difficult. A lower word count makes each individual word much more important. And, if you are thinking of writing a story in rhyme, well, there is so much…and you have to…and then there’s…well, just don’t. It is much more difficult than I initially thought it would be and have quickly come to realize that it is going to take far far more time and study to create a great rhyming story than just coming up with a little jingle to sing at bedtime. So yes, I’m in the early stages, just taking those first few baby steps into this new genre and, although there have been some stumbles already, I really am enjoying it. It’s fun and I find myself getting quite excited when I sit down to write now. And, hopefully, it won’t be too much longer until I reach the “walking” of publication. (Let’s just hope it happens before the young one gets his scholarship). A baby getting a basketball scholarship! Basketball Baby! Could there be a story there?

The Baking Challenge: As you’ll recall, I have challenged myself to bake one new thing each week this year. This past Friday, I made a batch of savory British biscuits (not really the biscuit we Americans think of, light and fluffy, that come with any deep-fried southern meal or covered in gravy at any roadside diner, but more of a thin cookie type biscuit). Half of them were poppy seed and the other half were parmesan and sundried tomato. Both were quite delicious and we enjoyed them with a dinner of warm split-pea soup on a cold, rainy Friday night. I had never made these before and the recipe came from, surprise surprise, my Great British Bake-Off cookbook. Now, the challenge here with the cookbook being British was the measurements. All grams and milliliters rather than cups or derivations thereof. And really, as long as you have a kitchen scale, much easier and fewer ridiculous little cleanups. (Just another argument in the limitless list of why we as a country really should go metric.) So, a successful bake. Pretty quick and easy, a quality I really appreciate in recipes these days, and one that will definitely be repeated. Now, what to bake next?

TYBC

P.S. My Baking Challenge

Along with writing, one of my lifelong interests has been baking. But I have come to find that, over the years, I’ve gotten into a rut, baking the same things over and over. Cakes? I’m your woman. Pies? I’ve got those down too. Brownies? I make a pretty mean brownie. And I’ve made pretty much every cookie there is. I love baking, find it relaxing and enjoyable, and am rather good at it too. And then came along a show called The Great British Baking Show (or The Great British Bake Off for all you UK folks out there). I know I’m a bit late to the table on this one, but I have become quite taken with it, consuming seasons within days. Ok, I’ve now finished every season on Netflix within the past two months. But through this show I started to realize how confined my baking has been. There were so many items on there I had never even heard of and many, after watching the contestants work through the challenges, had me thinking “I can do that!”

So, this year, I’ve decided to give myself the challenge of baking one new thing each Friday. One baked good, either sweet or savory, that I have never baked before. To connect it to my love of books, I have shelves of cookbooks, many of which I have barely cracked open. So, it was time to get cracking! I may have even purchased a couple more, baking specific cookbooks, for this very endeavor. And thus, the challenge began. To start it off, I decided to task myself with using something I’ve never baked with before. Yeast! I’ve made plenty of quick breads (no yeast necessary there), and have used a great recipe for beer bread (where the yeast for the bread is simply in the beer you add, no fuss required) many times. But for some reason, the mention of yeast in a recipe has always deterred me from attempt. I always felt it was too temperamental, an odd, finicky ingredient, and something I really didn’t want to bother with in the kitchen. So, why not start off this year-long enterprise by taking on this previously assumed foe?

Therefore, this past Friday, I stepped into my kitchen, whipped out my newly purchased packet of yeast, and got to work making my first ever loaf of bread. Crusty French Bread to be exact. And the experience was actually quite great. As with most of my baking in the past, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The recipe was fairly simple, a straightforward, minimal ingredient concoction I found online (here), and using the yeast was far less overwhelming than I had previously thought. I mixed together the first few things, waited for the yeast to foam (I’ve never really needed something to foam in my kitchen before, a bit odd), and then added, slowly, the flour. There were several moments of “I don’t know” and “Does this look like it’s supposed to” but, true to the recipe, I carried on. Mixed, proved, folded, waited, plopped it all in my Dutch oven, and baked. My house smelled great for hours and there was a finished product at the end.

Now, the bread didn’t turn out perfect, but it was a first attempt. And that’s what this year is about, right? (Refer to Jan 1 blog) Those little firsts with new and exciting things. The baby method! But it looked like bread and tasted like bread. A little under mixed and a little over baked, but definitely edible. And I’ll take that for a first off. And even if it wasn’t perfect, it fed my family (something I’m always proud to do with my culinary abilities) for Friday’s dinner and definitely made some tasty French Toast the next morning!

So, stay tuned for the next baking adventure and all the coming week’s new experiences in the world of writing and beyond.

TYBC

P.S. Happy New Year! (2019 Edition)

2018 was a year of firsts for me. I published my first book and gave birth to my first child. A debut author and a debut mother within just months! To say it was a pretty incredible year would be quite an understatement. I find it hard to imagine that 2019 could beat it. But what I hope to do, is carry on the excitement and joy of this past year into the new year.

Watching my son begin to interact with and explore the world around him has been fascinating. And what I am constantly amazed by is his overwhelming happiness. It is truly astounding, but he is actually quite happy most of the time (a fact I try to keep quiet when speaking with other new mothers who have babies that cry all night long or scream for the entirety of every car ride). What I would like to do this year is work on incorporating that ability for happiness in my own mentality. I am usually a pretty optimistic person, but sometimes, you know…life (a feeling I faced quite frequently this past year when turning my attention to anything outside of my private life bubble). But public and national concerns aside, I will strive to find a strong level of joy in all that I do this year. Now, I’m not saying that there will be complete delight in each and every diaper change, or every writing session, but I will search for the slight moments of happiness within those times. (Note: I do understand that there is a privilege that enables this strong focus on the quest for happiness and for that privilege I am truly grateful. I am also aware that, being thus privileged, I should not waste the opportunity to take part in such a quest.)

I will also be aiming to achieve my child’s level of excitement with the world. For him, each day brings something new and with that comes the elation of learning and embarking on fresh adventures. It seems that many people I know who are bored with life or constantly feeling flat are so because they stop learning, stop trying, stop finding new things to brighten their lives. So, I’m taking the baby approach to this year. The find-something-new-and-stick-it-in-my-mouth approach. The get-up-fall-down-and-get-back-up approach. I will take every opportunity to find new things to learn, both in my professional and personal life. I will discover aspects of the world around me with which I was previously unfamiliar or have left unexplored. I expect there will be tumbles, missteps, and even complete failures. But it will be better than never having tried at all. And there you go…the happiness! And, I plan to share many of these firsts with you. This year I am recommitting myself to making these posts much more regular in making it a weekly blog. My first set challenge for the year, and one I look forward to taking on.

So, while 2019 might not be the year of grand firsts like last year, it will be the year of little firsts. The year of new experiences and, quite possibly once more, great happiness.

TYBC

P.S. Gestation

My apologies for such an extended absence. As you will see, I’ve been a bit busy…

“Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

I read this quote this past week in an article about the solitude of creativity, something I’ve been feeling a lot recently. And I truly feel nothing speaks more to my life right now than these words by Rilke. My life is currently one mass of gestation. In the very literal sense, I am in the middle of the most important gestation of my life. I have just a few months to go carrying this small bundle of wonder inside me and I have to remind myself every day to slow down and enjoy it. The little (and sometimes not so little) kicks let me know that something incredible is growing and I must have patience (something I am not naturally prone to). But patience and trust in the process has become a necessity in my days now as I wait for this new person’s arrival.

Secondly, my first novel is in the gestation process of publication. Another call for patience (ugh!). For nearly seven years, this story was mine. Something that has been this close to me for so long, my project and my project alone, is now out of my hands. And that is somewhat terrifying. And exhilarating. And nerve-racking. And all I can do is wait (and strategically plan every aspect of the release and marketing). Wait for the process to happen. Wait for drafts and cover designs. Wait for all the little details to come together. And trust that those that I’ve handed my precious project over to know what they’re doing and will come back with the best representation of my years of quiet labor. So, while I let that “come to completion wholly in itself”, I try to move on to the next thing.

And here we arrive at my third current gestation. The one where I most closely lie to Rilke’s thoughts, as I am in a period of creative gestation in the formation of a new project. Every day it seems like new ideas come to me, those little germs of inspiration, and I struggle to find a focus for them. I understand, as he warned, the process “cannot be pressed or hurried by anything”, yet I find myself anxious to take the next step and move forward. My first book has been my focus for so long that, now completed, I feel somewhat overwhelmed by the endless possibilities of the next. I am back to square one and trying to remember how to begin again. It’s exhilarating and terribly daunting. But I continue to take those baby steps that are necessary in the sparking of this process.

So, I “await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity” in more ways than one. This is a time of great physical, mental, and creative growth for me and while it can often be so overwhelming that it grinds to a complete halt, I am taking it day by day. Trusting in the process of each individual gestation and working towards those moments of Rilke’s promised clarity. For that is “living the artist’s life”.

TYBC

P.S. New Year’s Goals (2018)

Happy New Year! New year, new goals. As a writer, reading is a key part of the profession and for years, I have set reading goals. The number of books I will read in the coming year. Goodreads.com has definitely enhanced this experience, giving me a place to keep track of this goal, review what I’ve read, and plan my next reading endeavor. And if you are an avid reader too, I highly suggest this site (by the way, that was not a paid plug…I love that website and use it freely and willingly. However, if they wanted to pay me to endorse it, I would gladly accept!) In 2017, my final tally came in at 59 books (with a couple more not quite finished, to be completed in the new year).

For 2018 though, aside from a number (I will start at 45 and see how my pace is going as the year progresses), I have set myself two rather lofty, specific reading goals. The first one is my coming rather late to the modern literary party in that I have decided to read all seven books of Harry Potter for the first time. Prior to this past month, I had never read any of Rowling’s works (aside from her speech “Very Good Lives” which she delivered at Harvard in 2008 and which was then published as a short book. A fantastic read!), but knew her to be a great author. When Harry Potter first came out, I was in sixth grade, a schooling level that still required book reports. And, since pretty much everyone was reporting on Harry Potter, and I was the child not wanting to do what everyone was doing, I refused to read Harry Potter (“I’m not really into fantasy stories,” I said for years). At the end of this past year, however, I read Rowling’s first adult book, The Casual Vacancy, and absolutely loved it. It is desperately, painfully, beautifully written. So, spurred by this new-found appreciation for her writing, I have now decided that in 2018, I will read her masterpiece series in its entirety.

The second, slightly more daunting collection that I have set for myself this year are the novels of Mr. James Joyce. I will read Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Finnegans Wake, and the forever argued, either loved or hated, Ulysses. This is a big task and one that I am excited and also anxious to begin. Somehow, I managed to earn two degrees in English without ever experiencing a full work of Joyce. And I know his texts to be dense (particularly Ulysses) and not easy reads. But, from the excerpts of his I have read in the past, I am sure that I will enjoy this formidable task. And I know I won’t mind spending all my reading time on the Emerald Isle.

As I said, reading is a vital part of writing and both these reading goals will contribute strongly to my writing goals for 2018. Not only will I be immersing myself in the works of two of the great writers in the modern western canon, but the content of their writing will provide great example for my own projects that I plan to work on this year, as one of my planned pieces for takes place in a school (albeit not one of magic, but still relatable to Rowling’s work), and both planned pieces take place in Ireland (a place I love and am eager to continue my education in how others, particularly natives, write about…enter Joyce). I look forward to this challenge, both the reading and writing, and know I will be in great hands with these two magnificent writers as my guides.

I look forward to 2018 for many reasons. I look forward to the books I plan to read and those I will come across in the coming months. I look forward to meeting new characters in my own writing and watching their worlds come alive. I am ready and I am excited. May 2018 be a great year for us all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some reading to do…

TYBC

P.S. Christmas is for writers

Welcome to December! The end of another year. A time for festivity and, for many, a time to assess the goals they set at the start and where they are with them now. If, like me, you are a writer, it is quite possible that you (or an editor/agent/publisher) set a very big end-of-year deadline that you are scrambling to meet. And, for those of you who are in this boat along with me, I wish you the best of luck (and good coffee for those long nights ahead). At the same time, I encourage all writers out there to allow themselves a bit of celebration in amongst the scramble. Because Christmas is a holiday for writers. And I don’t mean because there are excessive amounts of socially approved drinking, although this may help with some end of year inspiration. Christmas is a holiday for writers because it is a holiday completely devoted to storytelling.

Being set in the winter months (for those of us in the northern hemisphere), the Christmas season, in times past (before the distractions of TV and social media), was a time to stay warm inside, cozy up next to a fire, and tell stories. Familial story-telling still continues to this day with tales from a wise old grandpa or crazy drunk uncle rounding out many a successful Christmas dinner. And this holiday, and the storytelling that goes with it, has inspired many classic works of literature. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe stand out as greats that center on this holiday, while other novels (Little Women, to name one of my favorites) have memorable Christmas scenes at their core. And the list of short stories and poems that tell tales of Christmas would fill plenty of stockings.

And then we come to Christmas carols; one of the greatest examples of the oral storytelling tradition. Most established Christmas songs tell stories. They have plots, drama, romance, and even a little humor. Some even speak of storytelling, with “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” lyricizing “There’ll be scary ghost stories/And tales of the glories/ of Christmases long, long ago”. Although I’ve always considered this a reference to Dickens, there may have been a time when the ghost story telling was part of the annual Christmas get together.

And, while Christmas has inspired some of the great works of literature of our time, the holiday itself is completely devoted to the greatest work of literature in the western cannon. Now, whether you believe the story to be true or not, the Bible is the foundation of this wonderful holiday. And the story it tells about the birth of a child is the reason most celebrate this time of year (pagan traditions and Coca-Cola commercialization aside). So yes, stories. It’s the reason we celebrate and how we celebrate. And for those of us who spend the rest of our year writing stories, this is our time. So, whether you celebrate Christmas or not, writers, celebrate yourself and the magnificent time of year that revolves around your passion. Finish up those final edits and raise a glass of nog, for this is our holiday. Cheers my fellow writers! This one is for you.

TYBC