Years ago, my husband and I attended a panel about living with a writer. One of the participants said he has a writing hat. When he wore the hat, his spouse wasn’t allowed to interrupt him unless she was closely followed by a fireman with an ax and a need to evacuate the building.
Thus began the hat tradition in our house.
- My writing hat is a purple fedora with a yellow band, saying Police Line Do Not Cross around the crown. The same rules about the fireman apply when I’m wearing this hat.
- My playwriting hat is a crocheted yellow, orange, and lime green African kufi hat, with crocheted butterflies. Don’t ask why, crochet, butterflies and wild colors seemed appropriate at the time.
- My maker’s hat is a pink engineer’s cap with Thomas the Engine and Proud to be an Engineer on the front.
Doing the household accounts is my least favorite thing. Going digital has helped, but not much. I decided I needed a hat, or rather a headband a la 1920s style to wear when I was dealing with numbers. A few years ago a mathematician at Cornell University did some work on crocheting hyperbolic planes. Here’s the link. So here’s my hyperbolic headband, designed to concentrate math rays into my brain.
The Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF) is a Canadian organization, working with community-level organizations which are turning the tide of HIV/AIDS in Africa by providing care and support to women, orphaned children, grandmothers and people living with HIV and AIDS.
Through the SLF Grandmothers-to-Grandmothers Project Canadians have raised almost $2 million for African grandmothers. Link to the G-to-G Project
One of the Calgary, Alberta supporters of the Grandmother’s Project is called Ujaama Grandmothers. They sponsor several fundraising projects every year, including a fabric and yarn sale in the spring; a handmade craft fair in the fall; and other projects throughout the year. For more information on the group, here are links to their Facebook and web pages.
Their volunteer activities is truly art I love.
Two years before I retired, I said to myself, “It took four years in university to prepare for my career. What are the chances I need two years to get ready to leave my career?” Since the answer to myself was that sounded like a great idea, I started on a self-study mission.
Since I’m a highly touchy-feely learner, I process information much better if I take notes. The notes accumulated. I had printed, stapled information all over the place. Since I was also learning to do pamphlet binding at the same time, I decided to make each set of notes into a booklet.
Then the booklets accumulated. They were peeking out of other books, lost on shelves, and one was even found at the bottom of a laundry basket—I think I’d taken it to the laundromat to read while washing clothes. Then I decided to make a booklet folder. This is the result.
Since I’ve managed to fill this folder, it’s about time to make a second one.
For the makers in the group: art board base for front, back, and spine; covered with quilt batting and cotton fabric; machine and hand embroidery; pages Arches watercolor paper, folded at bottom to make a pouch; sections sewn into spine; edges of pouches closed with decorative paper; and strap with button to hold closed.
I said to myself, “Cross-stitch: How hard could it be? After all it’s just a lot of identical stitches, one after the other.” As it turned out, about 2,500 identical stitches, an 11.5″ x 13″ design worked on 18 count linen canvas. 5 years of my life. My first cross-stitch piece, and certainly my last on this scale. A lesson in persistence, driven forward by how much I loved the colors, and my conviction that a needle and DMC embroidery floss weren’t going to get the better of me. Sometimes we just have to plow through to the end.
The late Dr. Gene Cohen is one of my heroes because he was part of a movement that’s redefining aging in a positive light.
A year before he died, I had the pleasure of watching a video feed of Dr. Cohen, then Director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University speak at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. His talk was part of the cathedral’s Sunday Forum series. These talks are archived, so you’re interested learning more about Dr. Cohen or in seeing this feed yourself, given below are two links.
- This link has more information about Dr. Cohen and some supplemental material on his work. It has not been updated since his death.
- This is the video talk, which is about an hour long.
Dr. Cohen proposed that, from about our forties to the end of our lives, four things happen to make us view the world differently. During his talk, I had one of those wonderful ah-ha moments when the world suddenly made more sense.
The first phase he described was mid-life reevaluation, which starts in our forties and lasts, more or less until our mid-sixties. And boy, has this time of life gotten a bad rap, under the header mid-life crisis. Think of all the jokes about men with red sports cars and hair transplants, or women with plastic surgery and toy-boys. Sisters, that ain’t what it’s about at all.
As creative people, we’re familiar with the right-brain, left-brain idea, the notion that most of us have a dominant hemisphere. When younger people do activities that stimulate whichever side of their brain is dominant, they feel more in their comfort zone. But, according to recent neurological research, what begins in our forties is that both hemispheres begin to, literally, think together.
New brain cells are created. Existing brain cells develop more synapses—imagine all those people milling about independently in Times Square on New Years Eve suddenly holding hands. And those synapses, in large numbers, begin to connect the right and left sides of our brain. We are on our way to becoming whole-brain thinkers.
This is where I had my ah-ha moment.
How many times have you heard someone say, “The older I get, the more time it takes me to do something?” This statement, inevitably, has a negative connotation. Getting older. Slowing down. Decreasing mental and physical faculties. The inevitable winding down of the car engine or the clock, to use two physical objects used as metaphors for aging.
Yes, there is a physical component to aging and, as a society, we have thankfully crossed beyond that mental barrier that once said all older people will inevitably grow physically weaker until they can no longer manage even simple tasks. So we’re out there pounding the pavement, or taking aerobics classes, or doing Pilates and yoga, etc. And still it takes us longer to do things as we get older.
It takes us longer to do things because, beginning in our forties and lasting the rest of our lives, our brains come to tasks working in a way that is more holistic, more whole-brain, more multi-focused. And, like baking multi-grain bread, which takes longer to bake than white bread, that way is healthier, more artistic, and more satisfying. In a world where nano-seconds are considered a reasonable measure of time, taking longer has a bad, bad reputation.
The second phase that Dr. Cohen described was liberation. It begins in the mid-fifties and goes to somewhere in the mid-seventies, though for all of these phases, there is no hard and fast end point.
Liberation is a change in consciousness: “If not now, when?” “What can they do to me?” Raise your hands, all of you who—like me—took up serious something sometime after you qualified for the “Over 55” menu at Denny’s. For me it was serious writing and art.
The third phase was summing up, and it comes to the forefront in the mid-sixties to mid-seventies. People become more interested in philanthropy, in volunteerism, and in conflict resolution. This is the time many of us think about writing memoirs, or taking that special trip back to a place that marks a significant event in our lives.
The final phase is éncore, in the French sense, so let’s use the French spelling, as in pas éncore (not yet), or éncore un peu (just a little more, just a little longer), or Quoi éncore? (What else?) It’s the grown-up equivalent of “Can’t I play just a few minutes more?”
Dr. Cohen finished by saying that for most of our lives, we were nudged along. Parents expected children to do better. Peers influenced teen-agers in ways that parents and teachers could only dream of. We nagged our spouses, “It’s for your own good, dear.”
The older we get, the less people nudge us. Too old, they think. Slowing down. Takes them longer to do things. Not interested in new things. Not really keeping up. Living in a shrinking world. So sad, so why remind them of their frailties. Stop trying to nudge them along.
I think that you and I, as writers, as creative people, and as friends, have this absolutely sacred task not only to develop our own creativity, but to continue to nudge one another along in all creative areas. Forever. Éncore un peu.
“I attended a major retrospective exhibit of fifty years of folk art. Of the 20 artists featured in the catalogue, 12 of them, 60%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of sixty-five; and 6 of them, 30%, did their first piece of folk art over the age of eighty-five.” ~Dr. Gene Cohen (1944-2009), gerontologist, teacher, author
Once upon a time, there was a rhythm to submitting manuscripts and publishing.
Never submit a manuscript or look for an agent in August. Everyone in New York is out of town in August. As for December, close up and go home. Publish in May to catch the summer readers and in October for the Christmas market. Never, ever release a book in January. No one buys a book right after Christmas.
The seasonal rhythm of writing has vanished like the dodo bird. Finish a book on Tuesday; start writing the next book on Wednesday. Come home from a convention; get ready to go to the next convention. Submit a manuscript or hunt for an agent every day of the year, with the possible exception of Christmas Day itself. With electronic publishing, publish even on Christmas Day.
Negative spaces is what surrounds activities and events. An image is seen not only because of the image itself, but because of the space that surrounds it. Good negative space makes an object pop.
There are no negative spaces in writing any more, except the ones we create for ourselves. That makes them even more important.
The first writing negative space I encountered was in a class I took almost thirty years ago. We were required to keep a daily journal, writing down snippets of overheard dialog, descriptions of people or events, news stories that caught our attention; in short, anything that might make a good story. Only, we weren’t to grab our notebook and write these things down as they happened. The instructor asked us to wait a full twenty-four hours before committing them to paper.
He said that beginning writers were often afraid to lose the moment. Fearful of not getting the dialog or the description word perfect and correct, we focused on immediate retrieval. He said that we needed to train our writer’s mind to do two things: first, to develop memory because there would be times that we simply couldn’t get to a notebook. Second, to let the thing we wanted to remember settle; in essence, adding negative space around it so we saw it more clearly. If we couldn’t remember it after twenty-four hours, chances were what we thought so brilliant in the moment wouldn’t make a terrific story after all.
It wasn’t easy to wait. My fingers had this intense desire to scrabble in my backpack, pull out my journal and write. Sometimes I grieved over forgetting. If I’d only written it down yesterday . . .
Gradually, I came to realize the dimensions of what he was trying to teach us. There was a huge difference between things remembered in exact detail, and things remembered as fiction. For some experiences it mattered that I could recall the exact smell, the sight, the colors. For others, it was more important to remember the—gestalt, for lack of a better word—how I was moved by the thing rather than the exact details of the thing itself. Both had a place in writing, and learning how to do both made me a better writer.
Over the decades, I learned another lesson about negative space. If the business of writing has become a 24/7 occupation — I believe that it has — then we, as writers, have the freedom to set our own seasons. Yes, there will always be deadlines coming at us faster and harder, with none of this nonsense about taking August off or relaxing in December. But I truly believe that it will be the negative spaces with which we surround our work that will enable us to survive.
We have to develop a whole range of negative spaces in order to survive. Five-minute vacations that we take on a moment’s notice. Ways to shut off that nagging “What am I going to do about Elrod’s lack of motivation in Chapter 7?” long enough for Elrod to work out the answer for himself. Entire days off in which we restore, restock, and replenish those creative gifts we have been given.
Recently, I added Jennifer Louden’s Conditions of Enoughness to my tool box. She says that as creative people we tend to over plan, over commit, and over work ourselves. Her COEs are four steps to limit doing that.
Recently, a rather pompous writing expert pontificated to an audience I was in that, “Writing today demands a full-time commitment. If you’re a part-time writer, you’ll never be successful.” Oh, dear, I have a life outside of writing. I love that life. I guess that means I’m not a real writer.
I came home depressed until I caught site of a mini-quilt I did a couple of months ago.
There are 168 hours a week, so unless we’re writing 168 hours at a time — yes, some weeks seem like that — we’re all part-time writers. And many of us are darn good at working part-time.
“It takes peace of mind and clarity to recognize and reorder meaningful, personal priorities . . . Many of us assume that we can continue to get along just by winging it indefinitely. We can’t. We need an antidote for the hurried and harried lives that threaten to tear us apart.” ~Sarah Ban Breathnach, author
Hope to see you back next Tuesday, September 2, for Write the Novel – Secondary and Tertiary Plots, what are they and how do we use them.
Today we conclude our summer series of merit badges for writers.
Writers of a Certain Age
This one is for writers who have been around a while. We began our writing careers writing in longhand or using a manual typewriter. We remember how mimeograph ink smelled and the way it turned our fingers purple. We erased on carbon copies with a small brass stencil and a crumbly erasing pencil, which had a white eraser on one end and a stiff blue brush on the other end. We sent a SASE with our submissions and bought International Reply Coupons if our submission was going to another country. We had to look up words in a dictionary and did research by going in person to the library.
We’ve been around for a long time and this badge celebrates our persistence! You go, girls and guys!
Writers of the Purple Page
This is for those of us who have written—let’s say anything involving parts of the body or clothing, which throbbed, heaved, ripped, or enlarged, or characters blessed with milk-white skin and raven locks. If we’ve ever written anything that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. If we’ve ever written fan fiction, and had a hot date with someone else’s character. If we’ve ever written under our burlesque name.
Burlesque, for those of us who don’t yet qualify for the Writers of a Certain Age badge, was a form of entertainment popular in Britain and the United States from approximately 1880 to 1920. It involved ribald humor and dances that would embarrass an elderly, conservative relative. The women who danced in burlesque theaters worked under pseudonyms, sort of nom-de-danse names.
To find your burlesque name, take the name of your first pet combined with the street you lived on when you were ten years old. My burlesque name is Blackie Freemont, which has a nice ring to it. I may name a character that one day.
Of course, this formula doesn’t work, if we lived on a numbered instead of a named street. In that case, try this alternate formula: combine an object that is either sweet or has a lovely odor with the name of a bird. Rose Nightengale? Robin Cinnamon? Hey, those beat out Bowser 68th Avenue.
What better symbol for writers of the purple page than a Mardi Gras mask? As they say where I come from, Laissez les bon temps roulier—Let the good times roll. If we’re a little hesitant about going public about having written purple prose, you have my permission to keep this badge in a drawer instead of displaying it on a badge sash.
Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again
I don’t have to explain this one. Those of us who have earned it know who we are. Even though our contributions are hugely appreciated it’s okay to stop volunteering! Why not spend the next few months at our word processors instead? Writing a new novel would be hugely appreciated, too.
We can’t burn the candle at both ends forever.
I hope you’ll be back Tuesday, August 19, for Write the Novel: Primary Plots. After all, they are what the book is about.
Today we continue with our series of merit badges for writers and readers because we all need an Atta-a-Girl once in a while.
This is the second in our badges for readers as well as writers.
Sometimes we just have to have it all. Every book in a series, lined up in perfect order on our bookshelf.
Award yourself this badge if you will go or have gone to any lengths to own a complete series and/or read it in order. This includes—but is not limited to—bugging librarians, requesting inter-library loans, dropping not so gentle hints to friends and family as to what you want for your birthday or holiday gift, sending out general SOS calls for books on the Internet, driving to another city to buy a copy of the book, or paying an exorbitant amount for the one book needed to complete your series.
Book Tour Survivor
Being a writer isn’t easy. Being a writer on a book tour is a test of humor, stamina, patience, planning skills, and the ability not to trust GPS to get us where we need to go, but rather take out a map and read it.
Award yourself, and any traveling companions, this badge if you have done at least 2 of the following:
- Laughed until you cried listening to other authors describe the machinations of their book tour, only to find out later that everything they said was true and then some.
- Spent three hours making conversation with two bookstore employees and the store cat because you scheduled your signing opposite a major local sporting event, the Rolling Stones return tour, and/or the worse weather the town has had in 50 years. “We never have hail in October, honest!”
- Added an extra stop on your tour at the last minute, but without checking a map. Then you found out that the Springfield you thought you were signing in—the one only 30 minutes from your last stop—isn’t the right Springfield. The one you’re committed to is half-way across the state, but not to worry. You can still make it if you drive all night.
- Eaten the most incredible meals, in the most bizarre circumstances and laughed yourself silly while eating it because you know what a great story this will make at the next convention you attend.
It’s not easy being a writer’s family member. There are questions significant others learn not to ask. Do I smell gunpowder? Why is there a raw chicken in the sink with knitting needles stuck in it? The Poison Lady returned your call. She’ll be home tonight if you want to call her back.
They also learn to adopt a nonchalant stance and fix their eyes on the horizon as we ask police officers if we can hold their tazers; airport baggage security checkers what’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever found in a suitcase; and construction workers how long it would take a body to sink into freshly poured concrete.
Award yourself this badge when you have done at least one activity from each category listed below in order to research a book:
Research in extreme places
You’ve done any of the following activities for a book: snake or other wild animal handling, skydiving; scuba diving; mountain climbing; rappelling; skateboarding, break dancing, in-line skating over the age of 55, or cave exploration. Going with a guide through Carlsbad Caverns doesn’t count for the last one. We’re talking the light-on-your-helmet, wedging yourself through tiny holes kind of cave exploration.
Danger pay research
Gone on a ride-along with a police officer or taken a civilian police course; learned to fire a gun or fight with a knife, taken up a martial art, or attended a para-military basic training course. Give yourself full credit, and award yourself the badge, if you served in the military.
Researching the law
Done something slightly illegal. If you’ve done something blatantly illegal, I don’t want to hear about it. I’m putting my hands over my ears. I’m not listening. La-la-la-la-la-la-la.
As often as not our whole self…engages itself in the most trivial of things, the shape of a particular hill, a road in the town in which we lived as children, the movement of wind in grass. The things we shall take with us when we die will nearly all be small things.
~Storm Jameson, That Was Yesterday, 1932
Last week, I began a series of merit badges for writers. I’ve expanded this week to include a merit badge for readers as well.
First Aid For Writers
This is not a badge for ordinary events, like printer jams or sightly missed deadlines. We should award ourselves this badge when we’ve survived those worst days of days. We’ve lost an entire manuscript and the last time we can remember making a backup was three months ago. Our publisher declared bankruptcy and didn’t tell us. We found out about it on Facebook. The agent we love sent an e-mail saying she’s re-evaluated her life and is changing careers. Real life has dealt us such a blow that we’re not sure we’ll ever be able to write again.
Here’s how we can render first aid to ourselves
- Sit down.
- Say, “Sweetheart, you are in pain. Relax. Take a breath. Let’s pay attention to what is happening. Then we’ll figure out what to do.” ~Sylvia Boorstein, Zen teacher, author, and psychotherapist
- Breathe slowly and steadily.
- We are all part of a strong writers’ community. Trust other writers. We will be there to help.
Readers deserve merit badges as well as writers. Any reader can award herself this badge when she has completed at least 4 of these requirements.
- Someone has said to her at least once, “Turn off that light and go to sleep. Don’t make me come in there.”
- She finished a book sitting in the bathroom because she didn’t want the light to bother a significant other.
- She owns more than one book light. [I think our household’s current count is 7, but only 3 have working batteries.]
- She left clothes home in order to take more books on vacation.
- Her TBR (to-be-read) pile doubles as a piece of furniture.
- She’s left a bookstore or library thinking her collection is more extensive, and better organized.
- The first thing she does when moving to a new town is to find the library. Then she worries about non-essentials like schools, grocery stores, gas stations, and fire, police, and ambulance.
- The first gift she buys for a newborn is a book.
- When the clerk asks for her debit card, she automatically hand them her library card because it’s the most accessible one in her wallet.
Books are like lobster shells. We surround ourselves with them, then we grow out of them and leave them behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development. ~Dorothy L. Sayers, mystery writer