Lessons from My First Writing Conference

I started my life as a writer in early 2007, so I’ve now been trying to develop my skills at writing fiction and creative nonfiction for a little more than a decade. I recently pulled out my journal volume from ten years ago, wanting to get a sense of how my writing life has changed over this time span.

I opened the volume from the summer of 2007 to a random page and saw my description of the first writing conference I ever attended. It was a local conference here in Kansas City, sponsored by the University of Missouri—Kansas City, in late June 2007.

At that point in my writing career, I spent hours each day writing and reading about the craft of writing. I knew I was developing as a writer, but it was a lonely occupation. Before attending this conference, I didn’t know anyone else who spent their time as a writer. The conference was my first step into the world of writing beyond my own head and the library.

On the Monday morning after the conference, as I sat with my notes from the conference in front of me, I wrote:

“Before I dig into [my] notes, here are some major themes:

“(1) There are other people like me in the world, who want to write and who are doing something about it. Some of them are ahead of me on the journey and some are behind. We are all still traveling.

“(2) I have more discipline and dedication than some and less than others. We could all be more disciplined, but the key is to find a rhythm that works.

“(3) I probably have more talent than some and less than others. What matters more than talent is what we do with it and whether we are trying to learn and grow.”

I went on to list four pages of bullet points from my notes, most of which can be found in any good book on the craft of writing.

But those three themes I took away from the conference—I’m glad I found them again. They are still true for me today.

Ten years later, I realize the wisdom of what I gleaned from the conference. I am still traveling my path as a writer. I could still be more disciplined, and I still search for a rhythm that works, even after having drafted four novels. And I hope I will always have the humility to continue to try to learn and grow—in writing as in every other aspect of life.

A few months after I attended that conference, I was fortunate to find an introductory writing class. Through that class, I found critique groups that have helped me hone my writing. I now know many fine writers in the Kansas City area who are “like me.” This community of writers makes my path easier and hastens my development as a writer. I hope I encourage them on their writing journey also.

When have you rediscovered the truth of something you learned in the past?

Different Forms of Grieving

I did not plan to write this week about losing my parents—that’s a subject I’ve covered many times in this blog (see here and here for examples). But this week is the third anniversary of my mother’s death, and the topic is on my mind. Three years sounds like a long time. I’ve published two novels and drafted a third in those three years. And yet at times it feels like yesterday.

My parents at their wedding, 1955

I am bothered sometimes because I do not grieve my parents in the same way. My father’s death just six months after Mother’s was a raw wound—sudden, at a time when he still had plans for the future. He was an interesting and interested companion and conversationalist until the day he died. His death made me and my siblings orphans, and it thrust me into becoming the executor of both parents’ estates, which at times was overwhelming even for someone with a law degree. My life changed in the middle of the night when I got the call that he had died, and his passing left a gaping hole in my life.

By contrast, my mother had been declining for years as a result of Alzheimer’s. I had lost her piece by piece for several years—at least since her diagnosis in 2010, and in retrospect as far back as 2007 when I first noticed symptoms of her cognitive decline. In many ways, her death was a relief. And yet my feelings of relief provoked guilt, though my rational self told me that they should not. Her quality of life was poor, and she had been suffering physically as well as mentally.

When my maternal grandmother died in 2003, also from Alzheimer’s, I told my mother I was sorry she’d lost her mother and tried to console her. “I’m all right, Theresa,” Mother said to me. “I’ve already done my grieving.”

My parents in 2005 on one of the cruises they took, after 50 years of marriage

I understand now what she meant. I, too, did much of my grieving for my mother before she died. I remember returning home from one visit to see my parents and bursting into tears as I walked into my kitchen after the flight from Seattle to Kansas City. “I don’t have a mother anymore,” I told myself out loud. At that point, she was no longer capable of sharing her wisdom and experience, of mothering me in any meaningful fashion. Instead, when I was with her, I was her caregiver, as she had been mine in my childhood.

So my parents’ deaths affected me differently, and I have grieved them differently. This week, my realization is that grief comes as it comes, in the form that it takes, with each loss meaning something different. And that is all right.

Ecclesiastes 3:4 says there is “[a] time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” But Ecclesiastes doesn’t promise these times will occur in a linear fashion, just that “[t]here is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens.” Eccl. 3:1. (NABRE)

Another thought that comes to mind this week is that the meaning of each loss I have suffered is likely to evolve for me as time passes. But it may take many more years before I can internalize that idea, before I can see the larger patterns of weeping and laughing, of mourning and dancing in my life, and how these patterns have changed over time.

What have different losses meant in your life?

The Bahamas: On Slavery, Service, Dependence, and Independence

I wrote last week about the recent vacation my husband and I took to the Bahamas. That post focused on the beauty of ocean and beach and on all the things we saw and did. Today I am writing about what I learned from Bahamian history and art. Because that nation’s history and art developed through experiences of slavery and colonial dependence, it seems a fitting topic for this week in which we in the U.S. celebrate our own independence.

At the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, we learned of the slaughter of the Lucayan native tribes by Europeans, beginning with Christopher Columbus. Some exhibits taught us about the English Eleutherians, who came to the Bahamas seeking religious freedom. Other exhibits showed the trade triangle—ships carried firearms and alcohol from England to Africa, then brought African slaves to the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Americas in inhuman conditions, then shipped molasses from sugar cane and other agricultural products grown in the New World back to England. Each of the three legs of this triangle earned a profit for the shipping companies, and each was in some way dependent on the free labor of African slaves.

Bahamian Historical Society Museum building

Slavery was abolished in Great Britain in 1833, and slaves became apprentices and then free by 1840 in Britain and in most of its colonies. Nevertheless, the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, which is housed in a former meeting place of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (something like our Daughters of the American Revolution), was clear about the racial stratification that remained prevalent in Bahamian society even after the abolition of slavery, just as such stratification remained a fact of life in the United States (and we had slavery for decades longer).

Moreover, the Bahamas only became an independent commonwealth in 1973. Before that, the islands were a colony of Great Britain. The Bahamian economy remains heavily dependent on tourism. Thus, even in independence, most Bahamians perform service roles in support of tourists like my husband and me.

Fading Mind, watercolor by Thierry Lamare

When we visited the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, we saw a lovely exhibit of watercolors by artist Thierry Lamare. Mr. Lamare’s still lives, portraits, and landscapes depicted traditional aspects of Bahamian life—the local life that we as tourists did not see. He painted elderly Bahamians in their homes and at their work. The culture he painted was beautiful, but it wasn’t the clean and polished facades presented to visitors. Other works in the Art Gallery took as their theme how a modern culture that originated in slavery and colonialism can express itself and its independence through art.

These experiences in the Historical Society Museum and the Art Gallery caused me to ask myself—what impact does a history of slavery and colonialism have on people once they become independent? My interactions with the Bahamians of today—the restaurant waiters, the hotel employees, the taxi drivers and tour guides—made me reflect on how all of them were dependent on pleasing me as their customer. How did that dependence mesh with their status as an independent people?

Once I thought about this question, I saw tensions between the struggle for independence and being dependent on foreign tourism all around me, from hotel and restaurant staffs, to the boat pilots and guides, to the craftspeople hawking their wares on the street. All these people had to provide good service to be successful. I expected them to serve me well—I was paying for the privilege.

Still, I was more conscious of being served on this vacation than I typically am in hotels and restaurants in the U.S. Receiving service became uncomfortable on occasion, even when the people serving were doing their jobs well and providing me what I expected.

To add to my introspection, while we were in the Bahamas, I read an essay in the current issue of Persimmon Tree by African-American writer, Dawn Downey, entitled “The Cleaning Women.” In this essay, Ms. Downey described her efforts to find a housecleaning service in the U.S. and reflected on her feelings as an African-American daughter and granddaughter of housekeepers. I compared her feelings about service and race with what I experienced as a white tourist in the Bahamas. We both felt discomfort and being served, but for different reasons, because of our backgrounds and our expectations.

Though I believed I should receive good service, this trip caused me to think about how people in service roles feel. I believe that it is important to treat everyone with courtesy and respect (though I admit to sometimes getting peeved at poor service and failing to follow through on my beliefs). I did not intend to—and did not want to—demean them, though service roles are often seen as demeaning. I simply saw them as doing their jobs—and usually doing them well.

In particular, I thought of the tour guide on our Island World Adventures excursion, an older Afro-Bahamian gentleman whose role seemed to be to keep the tourists on the boat happy with food and drinks and gear. When the time came, he outfitted us with snorkeling masks and fins, then stayed in the hot boat while we cavorted around the reef. As an inexperienced snorkeler and a poor swimmer, I panicked and thrashed back to the boat shortly after we started. This guide handed me a life preserver and showed me how to fit the mask properly so I could breathe without inhaling water. His calm voice turned my fright into fun, and I told him later that he had the most soothing voice I’d ever heard. In no way did I view him as “just” a service person. He made my experience what it was supposed to be and deserved credit for doing so (and a large tip for exemplary service).

Moreover, I have generally viewed myself as a service-provider in the jobs I have had—whether as an attorney, a Human Resources manager, a mediator, or a writer. In all these roles, I have had customers—just as the Bahamians had me as a customer. It has been my responsibility to please my customers within the confines of my expertise and ethics. Indeed, the concept of “servant leadership” has been important in my definition of success throughout my career.

Nevertheless, this trip taught me that it is important to be sensitive to how service is viewed through different lenses. Racial and cultural lenses can impact both service providers and service receivers. (Gender is another lens that makes a difference, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) For each individual and for every nation, the experiences of our past influence our present and our future.

When have you taken a vacation that caused you to reflect on cultural and historical diversity?

Summer Freedom from Generation to Generation

Now that we are well into June, most schools across the nation are out, and kids everywhere are enjoying their summer vacations. Or are they? It seems to me that children don’t have as much summer freedom as past generations had. They may have the world at their fingertips through the internet, but they don’t know their neighborhoods as well as their parents and grandparents knew theirs.

My dad in the years when he roamed Los Angeles

My dad talked about taking the bus all over the Los Angeles area when he was a kid. His family lived in Pasadena from the time he was six or so until he was thirteen or fourteen. He told me he and a buddy would each bring a dime for their excursions—a nickel to travel outbound as far they could travel using bus transfers, and the other nickel to get them back home. From Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, they rode to downtown Los Angeles and beyond. I wish I could remember his stories about all the places they went.

It didn’t seem to bother his parents that he was roaming the streets of a large metropolis in the years after World War II. (L.A. was the fifth largest city in the U.S. in 1940 and the fourth largest in 1950.) He made it sound perfectly normal for a preteen boy to be out on his own anywhere he could travel on public transportation.

A Kansas City-born friend of the same generation as my parents talks about similar bus trips in her hometown. “My mother never knew where I was,” she told me. Kansas City was much smaller than L.A., but in the 1940s the municipality was annexing land for expansion, and it had its own share of crime. I’m not sure I would have let my preteen kids take the bus by themselves, though they did once they reached high school.

By contrast, I grew up in a small town without any public transportation. I could only go where I could walk or ride my bike (and there weren’t many places in town worth pedaling to in the summer heat). In my grade school years, I mostly roamed the fields around our house with my brother or stayed inside and read a book.

Columbia River from near the ferry road access point

When I was in high school, some friends and I did go tubing in the Columbia River on hot summer afternoons. We took our inner tubes to an access point on the old ferry road and floated to a boat ramp maybe a mile or so downstream. The river was cold but the sun was hot, and the water felt great in the dry desert air. Then we’d walk with our tubes back to the ferry access and do it again.

I look back on those times now and realize floating the river was probably less safe than riding the bus in L.A. in 1947. The current was fast, and I was not a strong swimmer. But there was only one time we didn’t maneuver ourselves to shore at the boat ramp. We floated on past as we paddled furiously and reached the riverbank a few hundred feet further on. Then we had to scramble through the rock and brush back to the boat ramp. A little scary, but we all survived, unscathed except for a few bug bites.

Friends my age talk of being shooed out of the house on summer days until dinner time, whether they lived in the country, in towns, or in cities. So freedom was still a part of summer for my generation.

My kids having a summer picnic on our deck. Not much opportunity for exploration. 

But my kids’ generation had a different experience, at least those who were in day care. I can remember making sure my children were enrolled in summer programs during their grade-school years. Their school had a summer program with weekly activities that seemed quite adequate in the primary grade years. But as they got older, they wanted more variety. They went to Scout camps and YMCA camps. They visited grandparents. But I made sure they had scheduled group activities every week. I didn’t want them home alone.

When my son reached middle school, I let him stay home by himself a day or two a week. But I thought a whole week at home by himself was just asking for trouble. When my daughter reached middle school, she refused to go to the school’s summer program any longer. I let her stay home with her older brother—who was in high school by then. They had strict instructions on what they could and could not do, where they could and could not go. They were allowed to walk to the YMCA swimming pool a mile from our house, but they were also cautioned about crossing the four-lane roads and the freeway entrance and exit ramps that lay between our neighborhood and the pool.

So my children had less freedom in the summers than I had, and far less than my father who had all of Los Angeles as his playground. I think it’s one of the disadvantages of having two parents who work jobs with little flexibility.

What do you remember of your summers? Were you free or scheduled?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?

Musings on Time in the Twenty-First Century . . . and Before

As of the end of May, we’ve spent 209 months in the 21st Century (I started my count in January 2000). So at the end of this month, we will be 17.4% into our new century. If time were the plot to a novel, we’d be almost finished with the first act and moving into the middle of the story.

Are we ready to declare we are in Act 2 of the 21st Century? I don’t think I am. When I quit working at the end of 2006, I felt like we were still on the cusp of the new century. I’ve continued to feel that way, despite my calculation that we are a sixth of the way through the 21st Century.

Maybe it’s because I write historical fiction that takes place in the 1840s. Maybe because my family stories seem so rooted in another time. Maybe because I’m a conservative at heart and don’t like change. Whatever the reason, I still feel like a 20th-century inhabitant, though I’m living firmly in the 21st Century. I find myself reflecting on 20th-century events. And sometimes I’m even pulled back into the 19th.

I remember figuring out as a child that I would be almost forty-four when the year 2000 arrived. Forty-four seemed so old. At the time, my parents were still in their thirties. And then it dawned on me that I might spend half of my lifetime in the century yet to come—that shocked me.

I recently calculated that my life expectancy isn’t quite that long. While it is possible I will live to be eight-eight—and I certainly hope to—the odds are that I will die before 2044. Still, it’s possible. And I will most likely spend many more years at least in the 21st Century. When will my perspective shift to seeing myself as a post-2000 being more than one of the 1900s?

Maybe I never will. Maybe I will continue to reflect on the past.

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Because of the recent anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the nation and my family were one-hundred years ago.

  • The one great-grandparent I knew, Thomas Hooker, was born in 1879, so he was an adult when the 20th Century began. By 1917, he worked in the Polk County Courthouse, where he served as Sheriff for decades.
  • My other great-grandparent alive during my childhood (I never met her), Lillie Smith Claudson, was born in 1885 and married in 1900. By 1917, she had four children. Act 1 of her 20th Century was certainly productive.
  • James Parks, my husband’s grandfather whom I knew, was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army infantry at the tail end of World War I in 1917. His entire childhood passed in the first 17 years of the last century.

So that’s one perspective on what happens in one-sixth of a century. If I look at the last seventeen years of the 1900s, I see the passage of a sixth of a century from another angle.

  • My son, who began walking in May 1983, graduated from high school in May 2000, a time I remember well, but a time that feels long ago.
  • I hadn’t even used a personal computer as of 1983, though I was starting to teach myself how to operate a Wang word processor. When PCs first came to my company a year or so later, I knew as much about them as the IT department did. But by 2000, my knowledge had failed to keep up with the experts.
  • In 1983, Bill Clinton started his second stint as Governor of Arkansas. He was not yet a national figure. By 2000, he’d been President for two terms.

And then there are all the events that have happened since the start of this century, showing that time flows on whether we embrace it or not. Act 1 of this century has changed the world.

  • The job I took in 2000 has been held in a variety of iterations by several individuals in the last seventeen years. It is a changed role in a company that also has experienced great change.
  • As the last century ended, we worried about whether computers would survive the switch in dates to Y2K. People filled their bathtubs with water in case public utilities shut down, but those fears did not come to pass.
  • The tragedy of September 11 hadn’t yet occurred seventeen years ago. Remember the ease of traveling before long security lines? Some fears we had not expected did come to pass.

Time rolls on, whether we are keeping up with it or not. History happens.

Now I ponder what Act 2 in the 21st Century will bring. And I wonder what I will make of it. Whether coming events will strike me as odd as airplanes must have seemed to Great-Granddad Hooker in 1917. Whether I will ever seem as old to my descendants as he seemed to me.

What do you think the greatest surprises of the 21st Century will be?

Working Across Time and Across Generations

My husband and I recently were fortunate to have visits from our two adult children. Our son came for a few days at the end of April, and our daughter was here over Mother’s Day.

My parents and me on one of my solo visits

I remember my mother telling me one time how nice it was to have her children visit by themselves, without their siblings and without their spouses and children. She said she enjoyed being able to talk with each child by himself or herself. And now that my children are grown, I have the same feeling. It is nice to have a crowd around sometimes—over the holidays, in particular—but the one-on-one time is also special.

On these recent visits, it occurred to me how different my life is now than my children’s. And how different their lives are than my life was when I was their age (in my thirties). Each of them spent most of the weekdays they were here on their laptops working. My daughter has billable hour requirements she has to meet, and my son wanted to minimize the vacation days he had to take. Even when they are in their home cities, my children spend some days working from their homes (my son regularly, and my daughter occasionally), so their time in my house probably didn’t seem unusual to them.

In my thirties, I, too, was focused on my career, even though I had kids at that age and they do not. But it was easier in the 1980s and ’90s to separate work and family time. When I was at work, I worked. I didn’t have social media accounts to check, and I had almost no personal email in those days. When I was at home, I dealt with family and household issues. My thoughts might have sometimes been on what I needed to do at the office, but I didn’t have Internet connections and 24/7 smartphone access tethering me to the job. On vacations, I only checked voice mail occasionally.

I could get away from work, at least for a few days. My children do not have that luxury. They have separate work and home laptops, but they have access to everything everywhere.

And my time now? I no longer work solidly from 8:00am to 6:00pm on weekdays, plus several hours on the weekends. My time is flexible, and that flexibility is the primary reason I retired. But I still consider myself to be working. I work as a writer and blogger. I serve on committees for charitable organizations. I take on occasional paid mediation cases. But for the most part, my time is my own to schedule. When I am too busy, I have only myself to blame.

Moreover, I set annual objectives for myself—how much I will write, what marketing I will do, and what volunteer commitments I will make. I also set objectives for family activities. I mark my progress toward all my objectives twice a month, with a formal review about quarterly.

For example, I try to work on writing about 30 hours a week. But that time seems to dissipate in meetings and webinars and blog posts, instead of getting applied toward my novel. In the past two months, I added about 35,000 words to the novel. Not bad, but I wanted to be finished with this first draft by now, and I still have about 10,000 words to go. I will not meet my objective on my novel this quarter.

The result of all this monitoring is that I’m getting far more performance management than I ever got while employed. Even if now I’m managing myself.

I wrote in a recent journal entry, “Retirement life is harder than I thought.” I have to work to retain the flexibility I want while still feeling that I am productive and growing. “How do I find a sense of balance?” I wrote to myself. “Is it elusive in every life and at every stage of life?”

I suppose the answer to each part of this question is yes.

Still, I am glad I do not have a full-time job anymore. Flexibility in work—as in all things—is a benefit. Whether balance comes with it or not.

How has your life changed over the years?