Shopping, Shopping, Shopping

I seem to be behind the curve this year with folks heading into Thanksgiving. The New York Times declared that family gatherings are probably okay, this year, but there will be no grand feast at my house. Covid just doesn’t feel over, yet. Or maybe I’m so consumed with writing I haven’t had the mental space to plan and invite the usual numerous guests. Next year!

I’m also out of sync with late-November shopping. While most of America prepares for Black Friday, or, God forbid, leaving those Thanksgiving feasts early to rush to Target or Walmart before they close, I’m preparing to shop my novel, Deep Roots, Tall Sky.

I’m not sure why it’s called ‘shopping’ in the writing business. We’re shopping for a market? Shopping to see who will want to buy? Whatever, I have this beautiful manuscript, telling the story of the wonderful Mary Prickett in her childhood. Drought. Dust storms. Livestock famine. 1934. And I am shopping for an agent, who will shop for an editor connected to a publisher who will turn it into a book.

Speaking of books and Thanksgiving, my short story, Constance Hopkins, Age 13, about one of my 9th great grandmothers who came across on the Mayflower, is the lead story in the new anthology: Dim and Flaring Lamps. This is a beautiful anthology put together by the editor of Sundial Magazine. Check it out!

Choosing the Story

There’s always this moment after I finish a creative project when I feel lost. It doesn’t matter if it was a short story, a video, a novel. It’s like I’ve just pushed a boulder up a hill, and set it free to careen down the other side. I’m in this great, high place, feeling the wind in my hair and the sun on my forehead. I could relax.

But I like pushing boulders up hills so I start looking back at that jumbled pile below me, and get kind of lost trying to pick out which one will be next.

It didn’t used to feel like such a big deal. Pick a story, any story! But one thing that writing stories teaches you is that they take time. One of those little 10-minute lake videos takes dozens of hours to put together. A flash story can consume days, a longer story weeks. And a novel? Don’t even ask. I’m not the sort to toss down 50,000 words in a couple of months. My last novel (107,000 words, after some serious cutting) took two years for the rough draft, and then there’s the rewrites and rewrites and polish.

Launching into any story is a commitment. Beginning a novel-length project means choosing what world to I want to live in, to give most of my energy to, for the next two years, at least.

So which boulder is next? I have to clear the deck with a few more lake ecology videos. And, dang, there are a lot of short stories nibbling on my shoulders. But which novel comes next? I’m only looking at the stories from my family’s past, here, yet there are a lot to choose from.

The question isn’t just which one is most interesting. It’s also which one am I skilled enough to take on? One quarter of my family comes from Alabama, and if I had those stories written well they would be so appropriate in this moment. But am I ready, for instance, to write a novel about my 3x great grandfather and the path that led him to owning slaves? Maybe not quite yet. Nor the story about my 3x great grandmother who led the caravan from South Carolina to Alabama in 1819, just her, her five children, an overseer and his family, and 300 slaves.

Those stories need to be told, and told well. So maybe I work up to it. Quickly. That is a big pile of boulders.

I decided to look closer to home (Seattle) and closer to the present (1910’s) and to people I knew (my grandmother) for my next big project. It’s a love story, a coming-of-age story, set in 1915-1920, full of fraught father-daughter relationships, and travel, and a young woman demanding freedom and independence, and then being forced to grow up enough to handle it.

Okay! Bring it on.

Visiting My Ancestors

I can’t tell you exactly when I decided to write about history. The extent to which what came before impacts who we are now slowly crawled into my consciousness, probably with age.

My mother understood. Before she died in 2011 she did everything she could to share her own understanding of history and its importance with her family. As an undergrad at the UW my mother took a course from Giovanni Costigan, a class she loved so much she added a history minor to her English degree. Giovanni Costigan was an Irish storyteller, and in his classes history came alive.

Mom wished that I could study with Professor Costigan, who was still a professor emeritus when I was at the UW. I wish I could have, too. More, though, I wish that I could ask her questions now.

My grandmother, Mary Jeannette Gray, was also a (half) Irish storyteller. Her mother’s parents both immigrated from Ireland in the 1830s. On Mary’s father’s side our ancestry leads back to the great migration of the early 1600s. Mary and her husband, my grandfather, Dayton Williams, were both descendants of William and Mary Brewster, of Mayflower fame. I doubt they knew that. By the time they met, 300 years had passed since the founding of the Plymouth Colony, and there was no online genealogy industry for tracing one’s family tree.

In 300 years that tree had seen a lot of transplanting as the family moved west. Mary’s father, Smith William Gray, moved from Michigan to Minnesota in the 1870’s. Twenty-some years later, in 1898, he left his own wife and children behind in Minnesota to join the gold rush in the Alaska, several moths before my grandmother was born. They soon followed to Seattle, but Smith Gray had abandoned them. Stories from her father and his Mayflower past were not anything Mary Gray knew.

But I know. The more I find out about my ancestors (including Smith William Gray), the more I realize how much their lives have influenced me. Researching and retelling the stories I am finding is a way of bringing forth unspoken parts of myself.

One of these stories, about a young woman named Constance Hopkins, my 9th great-grandmother, has just been published by a new online magazine dedicated to historical fiction. I’m quite proud of it, of course, mostly because when I started writing it I had no idea where it was going to go, and the voice of the story was not one I had ever heard coming out of my pen.

You can find the story here: Constance Hopkins, Age Fourteen. Enjoy! And please share it! That’s how magazines like this survive.

Diving Into the Lake

Autumn dropped off her first sunny day here yesterday, after weeks of smoke and wind and rain. Walking up in the forest (working forest, currently a clear cut, you can see how I have learned to dream the long game) near my house, it felt like I’d been transported to a different time, a different year, one without the constant threat of doom. Yep. It got sunny and I felt hope. I’m so easy. Or maybe it just reminded me what it’s like to walk through air that isn’t constantly fighting back. I could breathe. I could see for miles. I wasn’t getting drenched. I felt good. I wanted to go swimming.

Sunshine does that to me, when it’s accompanied by a little bit of warmth. Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for fifty years now, it’s an automatic association. I’ll take it.

I had actually already been out on the lake, only not swimming. I got to tool around on my boat for a couple of hours with Ben Peterson, an aquatic weed expert from King County, who is a generally truly excellent human. He’d come to be interviewed for my new … well, I started out calling it a Vlog, but, really, it’s a series of short films about this lake that I call home.

We talked about plants, and water quality, and the choices we humans face when we’re living in the middle of what could be a very healthy natural environment. Every time he talked about landowners giving the shoreline over to native plants, creating buffers, providing habitat for native critters, I got so happy. I could see it. Not, like, there in front of me. Most of the properties at the North end of Ames Lake, where we were at the time, have obsessively landscaped yards. I saw it in my mind and in my memories and in my hopes for the future.

There it is again. Hope. I guess it wasn’t just the sunny day. It’s that long view of an ecosystem in constant flux. It could go that way again. The clear cut has been replanted. This summer it was an ongoing wildflower showcase that never would have been there if they hadn’t cut down the trees. In the sections that were logged first this round, about ten years ago, the trees are fifteen feet tall.

When I moved to Ames Lake in 1970 the trees around the lake were only about 25 feet tall. They were babies. Time passes and trees grow and sometimes they get cut down again and sometimes new trees come to take their place. Sometimes people clear their lots next to a lake and put in cement bulkheads and manicure their lawns. And sometimes they don’t.

It is my hope that these short films I’m making (It’s not a Vlog when each one takes about a month to create) will be a nudge in that direction.

You can find the videos via the Getting to Know My Home tab. Or here’s the latest one on YouTube:

Mentoring Up!

I’d already marked October off as the month to get going on the rewrite. Deep Roots, Tall Sky has been sitting on my desk, in my drawer, and on several hard drives, mostly untouched since I finished the first draft last year. I needed a break. I needed enough distance to see it clearly. And I needed some more experience before I could turn what was essentially a too-long Middle Grade Novel into a compelling book for adults. But now I needed to get to work.

Then last week I heard from the AWP Writer to Writer program that I’d been selected as part of their Autumn 2019 class. Woo hoo!

Three months of conversation, critiques and hand-holding with a published author is pretty much exactly what I need right now. Deadlines! Advice! I’m in.

My mentor is Kim Chinquee, a master of Flash Fiction and professor at Buffalo State. We’ve agreed to meet weekly via Skype, to go over questions offered up by AWP, and to discuss my pages. Again – Woo hoo! Deadlines! Advice!

Thank you AWP for creating this program, and inviting me in.

#AWPW2W, #AWPMentorship.

Returning to the Source

When you have too many jobs it’s easy to get lost, especially if you’re the sort of person who thrives on committing to their work. Which I am. It’s been decades since I had a job I wasn’t willing to give my all to–bodywork, writing, being a mother, caring for my dad, fixing up my house.

All of these are things I love. But sometimes my attention gets pulled in too many directions, so I narrow it. I funnel my focus into a project, a task, a specific area of my life. It’s a form of being in the moment. Which is great, right? Except that each kind of task requires a different kind of thinking, of being, of awareness. And I find it very difficult to quickly switch from one mode of thinking to another.

Perhaps my mind is not as agile as it could be. I read of writers fitting their novel in before breakfast, or in fifteen minute increments here and their throughout their day. This is not me. I seek my stories in place long buried by time or emotional shielding. They don’t easily rub up against the aesthetic awareness of picking paint.

So in order to write, in order to reach the parts of my brain available to particular atmospheres of truth, I sink into caffeine-fueled meditation, I do yoga, I walk. I wait until I find the words, or they find me, and then I follow them. I look around from inside the source of the story and describe what I see.

You might say I get lost here, too.