On THE ARTIST’S WAY and the Truth in Fiction

I’ve kept the Post-It from September 2005

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a diversity program called “Women Supporting Women” in late September 2005. When I declared to the other participants in that program, “I will write a book before I die,” one of the women in the group handed me a Post-It note. On that Post-It, she wrote a quote from Julia Cameron, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.” She also jotted down the titles of two of Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way, and Walking in the World, and recommended I read them.

I wasn’t sure I had “sudden problems” in my life, though I did feel I was at a crossroads. So, as a good student, when I returned home, I went to the library and checked out The Artist’s Way. It appeared to be a book that might be helpful to me as I flailed at how to become the writer I wanted to be. Its exercises were as much about self-awareness as they were about artistic endeavors.

I quickly realized I would need my own copy of the book to highlight and mark up. I bought myself a copy and worked through it in some detail. Over the next year, I also bought Walking in the World and Vein of Gold, both by Julia Cameron, and a few years later when she published Finding Water, I bought it.

In the twelve years since I attended that diversity program, I have read all four of these books at least twice (as well as a couple of Cameron’s other books). Most of them I’ve read three or four times. I’ve highlighted my copies until there is as much yellow as white on the page, and their paperback spines are all broken.

While it would be an overstatement to say the books changed my life, they certainly have contributed to my growth as a writer. First, they encouraged me to proclaim I am a writer—which is very difficult for beginning writers to do. Second, they told me to do a little bit every day—write three pages, take one small step toward my goal, do something physical or repetitive with my hands or legs when I’m stuck creatively. Third, they provided tools for me to use in examining my life, in determining where I’m on track and where I need to change.

I was already journaling before I read The Artist’s Way, but Cameron’s encouragement of daily “morning pages” made me a more faithful scrivener. When I retired from my job at the end of 2006, I made a commitment to write in my journal every day, and I haven’t missed more than three or four days a year for the last eleven years—I don’t always write in the morning and I don’t always write as much as she recommends, but I write. The exercises in Cameron’s books have provided topics to write about when I’ve felt empty. As she says in her books, when the same subjects come up over and over in morning pages, it’s a signal that area of my life needs to change. (And there are always a few areas of my life I need to change.)

I’ve been less diligent about incorporating her concept of “artist dates” into my life. These are weekly times of play, where one goes on a small, solitary expedition to fill one’s creative well—anything from a concert at the Philharmonic to browsing through a fabric store (I’ve done both on my artist dates). Even though I don’t go on artist dates regularly, I’m more aware now of when I could use a shot in the arm, when I need exposure to something different and playful in my life.

Earlier this year I read through The Artist’s Way and did many of its exercises for at least the fourth time. What amazed me was how much I’d grown since the first time in late 2005 or early 2006. The first time I worked my way through the book, I was not at all certain that I could be a writer, nor did I know how to go about making myself into one. I needed Camerons encouragement. During the years, I have become a writer, and I’m proud of myself.

This time, I focused on the spiritual aspect of the artist’s journey. I wrote the following affirmations to myself:

1. God intends me to have a writing life, to be a writer, at least at this stage of my life.
2. My stories speak of human frailty and fallibility, of people trying to do their best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—as such, they speak the truth.

Those statements are far too wordy to be memorable affirmations that I can use when I need to give myself a pep talk. So I shortened them:

1. I am a writer.
2. My stories speak the truth.

It may seem strange that I write fiction, yet tell myself “my stories speak the truth.” But fiction is only good if it faithfully portrays the human condition within the confines of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As such, fiction often clarifies the truth in ways that real life cannot. After all, everyone reading this has not yet experienced the end of life’s story.

I’m not done with my journey along the Artist’s Way. As Cameron says in the epilogue to that book, “Growth is a spiral path, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.” I will probably reassess my life and my work using her exercises in the future, and I hope twelve years from now I can see that I have grown even more.

What affirmations do you tell yourself? And when have you found that fiction speaks the truth?

Writing Milestones: Journaling and Blogging

I don’t want March to get away from me before I write about two milestones that occurred this month—the fifteenth anniversary of when I began keeping a journal, and the fifth anniversary of this blog.

My original journal. The picture at the top is my new journal cover, which I had to buy when the original leather cover became tattered.

I’ve written before about starting my journal. One of my early posts on this blog was titled “Take the Plunge—Start a Journal.” That’s what I did—I had bought myself a Christmas present of a pretty leather journal cover and three blank narrow-ruled notebooks to put in it. It sat in my drawer for a few months, until one day in March 2002, I took the plunge and started writing.

That month was a turning point in my life for many reasons, though I didn’t know it at the time. I suppose most fifteen-year periods in my life have been equally eventful, and some have been more stressful, but the last fifteen years—close to 25% of my life—have been challenging.

On the personal front, I’ve seen my children grow from teenagers to responsible adults. One child graduated from college, and has since had six jobs, more than six different addresses, and the same girlfriend for the past three years. The other child has graduated from high school, college, and law school, has lived in D.C. and two states, and has also had more addresses than jobs. In these fifteen years, I’ve also grieved the loss of a grandmother, both parents (one slowly, one fast), and a father-in-law.

On the career front, the last boss I chose to work for quit during March 2002—the month I started journaling. A new boss was appointed several weeks later. I was already wrestling with whether I should retire four years later in 2006 when I turned fifty. In those four years, I had two and a half different jobs (I worked on a special assignment for several months, hence, the half) and had three and a half different managers (same reason for the half manager). I dealt with corporate politics in ways I never had before.

I did retire at the end of 2006, and for the past decade I’ve been devoting my primary effort to becoming a novelist. So on the writing front, I mark March 2002 as the beginning of my career as a writer, because my journal started me on the path to writing, even if I didn’t take myself seriously at the time.

My journal has helped me stay grounded through all these changes. It has helped direct my life. I’ve debated a variety of courses of action in its pages, often repeatedly. When an issue keeps raising itself for discussion, it’s a sign I should change something. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t, and sometimes I continue to debate what to do.

I didn’t write daily in the first few years. But since I retired, I have written almost every day of every year. I’d bet there are only 10-20 days in the entire decade that I have missed. In fifteen years, I have filled fifty of those narrow-ruled notebooks—160+ pages each, about 300 words per page, or roughly 240,000 words. The equivalent of two to three novels.

And, oh, by the way, I’ve published three novels, am well into a fourth, and I’ve written many essays, short stories, and poems, some of which have won contests and been published.

And I’ve written this blog. I really began Story & History in January 2012, but I didn’t start posting weekly until March, so I consider that to be the anniversary of the blog. (I increased my posts to twice a week later that year—a schedule I’m amazed I’ve been able to continue for so long.) So in my mind, this is the month I have completed five years of blogging.

While my journal is my private musing, this blog is where I muse more publicly. As readers know, I muse about all sorts of things. Enough to have written well over posts. I write another blog under my pseudonym, which I’ve also kept up for about five and a half years. Between the two blogs, I estimate I’ve written about 375,000 words in the past five years. That’s another three or four novels’ worth.

I guess I have to say I’m a writer now. And take myself seriously. I often wonder if I should be spending my time journaling and blogging, or if I should focus on moving more novels from my head to the page. But as long as my journal directs me, and as long as blogging connects me to others, I will probably continue.

Does writing help direct your life? Have you tried it?

Why Do I Ask Questions At the End of My Posts?

questions_answers_1The short answer to why usually I ask questions at the end of my posts is that I read somewhere that it was a good thing for bloggers to do to get readers to engage.

The long answer is a little more complicated.

It is true that I’ve read that bloggers should ask thought-provoking questions to hook their readers. But I usually ask the questions at the end of my posts. My purpose is less to hook my readers than to get you thinking.

Why do I want to get you thinking? Well, I hope that this blog provokes some dialogue and that it isn’t purely entertainment.

The stated theme of this blog is “One writer’s journey through life and time”—a pretty broad theme, but it describes a journey I want to take my readers on with me.

Sometimes my journey is through history. I give my thoughts on how the past impacts the present (and future), and I want you to consider these things as well.

Sometimes my journey is through my own and my family’s lives. Readers have their own family histories that impact who they are. I hope my questions help you reflect on the joys and sorrows of your own past and how those who have touched your life have influenced you.

My journal

My journal

Sometimes my journey is into myself. I ask myself questions all the time in my journal. I don’t always answer them, but the questions indicate what’s troubling me at that point in time. When I find myself asking the same questions over and over, it means I need to change something, to work on that area of my life. I’ve made many changes as a result of these questions over the almost thirteen years that I’ve been journaling. (Yikes! That’s the time a kid goes from kindergarten to college—I hope I’ve made some changes!)

So some of my questions are intended to help readers explore their own lives as well.

Do you find yourself pondering the questions I ask after you read? If not, how can I make this blog more meaningful to you?

Focus on the Present: Be a Buddha, Not a Janus

One morning last week as I wrote in my journal, I grumbled about the Midwestern cold and ice. The snow that had fallen a few days before Christmas had melted just enough to leave a glaze behind on walks and driveways. On Christmas Day I fell on the ice and injured my wrist.

So the morning after Christmas, I bemoaned my bruised and sore arm and wrote “I am already ready for winter to be over.” Not the most artfully crafted sentence, but it expressed my opinion about the season.

The winter solstice had just passed. We have at least two months ahead of us of cold. Threats of snow and more ice are likely to be frequent.

But I just wanted to skip the season. Or get through it as quickly as I could.

I mused to myself about hiding at home until winter is over. I’ve always told myself I would not become a little old lady afraid of driving in the snow. But that day last week, I rethought my position.

And then I caught myself and wrote “Why is so much of life a rush to the future and a mourning of the past? Too little time spent in the moment.”

It didn’t seem right that I was wishing several months of my life to pass in a flash. What life will I experience in the months ahead of me? What will I choose to do with my days?

Once past, the time will not return. So I must make use of each day, cold or not.

800px-Janus1I thought of Janus’s two faces, looking at the past and the future, at endings and beginnings.

Throughout this holiday season I have thought of Christmases past, when my children were small and giddy with the excitement of Santa Claus. Or I have dreamed of Christmases to come, when my grandchildren (I hope they will exist someday) will bounce with their own anticipation, eager for me to spoil them.

Surely I should be focused on the blessings of this season, of the present, not feeling wistful for past delights, nor desirous of future pleasures that may or may not come. I should face my days straight on and experience each moment’s joys and sorrows in its own time.

buddhaThen, as I was writing this post, I came across an entry on another blog, Married to Alzheimer’s, that quoted Buddha:

Don’t dwell in the Past;
Don’t dream of the Future;
Concentrate the mind on the Present Moment.

So others—other bloggers and even the Buddha—have experienced the same thoughts I have, the same desire to look forward or back that Janus displays. And they, like me, have come to the realization that we should focus on the present.

That was my serendipity this week, as we look back on 2013 and anticipate 2014.

May you savor each moment of this new year!

Preserve Your Family’s Stories During National Family History Month

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

October is National Family History Month—a month for those with an interest in genealogy to spend a little extra time on their hobby, and a month for all of us to reflect on our forebearers and on how our pasts have shaped our todays and tomorrows.

For tips on activities you and your children can do during National Family History Month, go to Family Tree Magazine here, to the Family History Research Group here, or to About.com’s Genealogy page here.

Some of my favorite family history projects from these sites include:

  • Asking older relatives about their childhood memories
  • Putting together a scrapbook of old family photos—labeled, of course, so you’ll know in years to come who those people are
  • Keeping a journal of your daily life
  • Writing your own life story—don’t worry if no one has asked; some day they will want it
  • Telling the story behind some of your favorite possessions
  • Creating a family recipe book, complete with the story of how each recipe came into your family
  • Putting together your family’s medical history, which can be a lifesaver, as well as tell you more about your ancestors
Theresa's parents in high school, ready for the dance

Theresa’s parents in high school, ready for the dance

One of the things I have loved about writing this blog is the opportunity to explore my own family’s history. From love stories to murder, from heirlooms to toys, every bit of history I remember or discover is like finding buried treasure.

Does anyone else in my family care about these stories? Some do. Some may in the future. But in the meantime, I am doing my part to preserve our knowledge of our past.

What do you wish you knew about your ancestors? What can you find out during Family History Month this October?

Life Without Electricity

Tornado over Oklahoma TownSunday morning the electricity went out in our house. It seems to happen more and more frequently. The lines in our subdivision are underground, so usually the lights just flicker, or we get our power back after a minute or two.

But Sunday morning it was out for over an hour, from about 7:30am until about 9:00am. I’d already had my breakfast and read the newspaper, but I was just starting the crossword puzzle. The sun was up, but the skies so dark under the storm clouds that the house was dark, except just next to our windows. And even there, I couldn’t see the small font or squares of the puzzle.

What could I do without power?

I found a large flashlight, and took a shower by its light. The master bathroom in our house has no windows. Neither do two other bathrooms in the house.

Home design has changed since electricity became the norm. Houses did not have windowless rooms before the convenience of light at the flick of a switch. We turn on lights as we move from place to place, each new transmission of electricity seems free in terms of time and cost.

We do not have to take time to fill our lamps with fuel, nor strike a flint to light them. We do not have to dip candles made from the tallow of animals we raised and slaughtered. Our only exposure to the cost of light is the utility bill we pay once a month, so we have no concept of the resources and labor required to create the power we use.

After my shower, I pulled up all the blinds in the den, sat in a comfy chair, and in the dim grey light I wrote in my journal. I had to move from one chair to another, needing the window behind my left shoulder to illuminate the page. When the window was behind my right shoulder, my right hand cast a shadow on my journal, and I couldn’t see to write.

Our ancestors would have known where to sit for maximum light unconsciously. They would have learned the lesson in childhood. I had to learn again this cloudy morning, no diffusion available from my many lamps and overhead fluorescent bulbs to block the shadows.

As I watched the minutes pass on my battery-powered clocks, I worried about cooking without power, about the food that would spoil in the refrigerator and freezer if the electricity did not return soon, and about laundry without the convenience of washer and dryer.

Although many of us find it fun to spend a few days in the wilderness camping without electricity, we say we are “roughing it.” We think we are living like our ancestors, but we do not consider how our Goretex boots and nylon tent were fashioned. In fact, even our backwoods adventures are beholden to our high-tech society. They are not what our ancestors experienced.

The electricity returned.

I then typed this post about my hour without power. On a laptop that could have survived only a few hours without its cord. To post through my network router that did not connect at all without electricity.

The Stonehenge in UKAnd I was grateful when the sun reappeared from behind the clouds. The storm had passed. I had both natural and artificial lighting. Which did I appreciate the most? Hard to tell.

What lessons have you learned about life in the past from failures of our modern technology?

Top Ten Lessons Learned about Blogging

Blog of the Year Award 1 star jpegI’ve been posting regularly (at least weekly) on this blog for a year now, and since May 2012 I’ve posted twice a week (on Mondays and Wednesdays). I’ve had some successes, but I also know I can improve.

Here are the top ten lessons I’ve learned in the past year about blogging, as well as some questions I have for my readers about how I should shape this blog in the future. Please leave a comment if you would like to see any changes made.

1.      Know the purpose of your blog.

Much of the reading I’ve done about blogging says that it’s important to know what you’re trying to do with the blog. Do you simply want to make your writing public? Do you want to sell your books or other products? Are you trying to build a service business by showing your expertise? All of these can be good reasons to write a blog.

In my case, I decided I wanted this blog to focus on the two directions my writing is taking – historical novels about the Oregon Trail and California Gold Rush, and personal essays about  family and life generally. I want to write about these topics, to promote my work (sometimes), and also to write some posts might serve as drafts for submissions to other publications (like “My Son Made Me Tweet,” for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Parenting) or for another anthology like my Family Recipe anthology.

cropped-nasa-topographic-map-oregontrail.jpgFrom these purposes, I developed the title and tag line, “Story & History: One writer’s journey through life and time,” and decided to use the Oregon Trail banner. 

My title and tag line set the scope of what you should find on this blog. They give me direction, but are broad enough that I can find a lot to write about. After all, a journey through life can encompass almost anything!

Readers: Am I holding true to my purpose? Do you get what you expect when you read this blog, or do I sometimes go off topic?

2.      Have a blog plan.

Related to the need to have a blog purpose is the need for a blog plan – a schedule when you will post, a topic or well-defined set of topics you will write about, a plan for rotating among your topics to keep it balanced.

My plan involves posting every Monday and Wednesday. I want to write at least one post each month about Oregon Trail history (though occasionally I’ll write on another historical topic from the 19th century) and at least one post each month about writing. Most of my other posts are about family stories, involving either current or past generations.

Readers: Would you like me to write more or less about any of these topics in the future?

3.      Keep a list of topics for your posts.

Most blogging authorities recommend that you keep notes on topics you could post about.

As I research my novels and read about writing techniques, I try to jot down ideas for posts. And about once a month I look at those notes and try to plan out the posts for the next few weeks. But I frequently find myself with holes in my posting schedule. Then it’s a mad search for something to write about.

4.      Anything can be a blog topic.

Related to keeping a list of topics is the discovery that almost anything could be a blog topic. It takes discipline to decide what to write about, consistent with your blog’s purpose and plan.

For example, I was driving down the street the other day when someone cut me off. I thought about writing a list of my top ten peeves about other drivers. So far, that topic hasn’t become a post, because it’s pretty far off the theme of “one writer’s journey through life and time.” But on a day when I become desperate for a topic to write about, you might find it surfacing. After all, I could make a case that driving is a journey and is part of life.

5.      Feeding the beast is difficult.

Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of PaperMaking the commitment to blogging is a difficult thing. I write two posts a week. They range in length from about 300-1200 words, with most being between 500-1000 words. That’s a lot, particularly when I’m trying to work on novels, personal essays, and short stories as well. Each post takes at least an hour to write, and often half a day when I have to research the post or when I need to find pictures beyond simple clipart.

Readers: Would you prefer more shorter posts, or should I keep them about the same frequency and length?

6.      Try to write ahead.

Related to the commitment is the need to write ahead when you know you’ll have difficulty writing. You can also use guest posts to help you out also.

When I’ve had plans to be on vacation, I’ve tried to write ahead a couple of weeks, and I’ve had the good fortune to have posts by Beth Barnett and Pam Eglinski, and a post based on Norm Ledgin’s press release about his novel Sally of Monticello.

Readers: Would you like to see more guest posts? If you’d like to write a guest post for me, please let me know.

7.      Food sells. 

Two of my most viewed posts are restaurant reviews of Catalpa in Arrow Rock, Missouri, and Whiskey Warehouse in Alma, Missouri.

But you won’t see many restaurant reviews on this blog. First, my waistline won’t permit it.

Second, both these restaurants have some historical connection. Arrow Rock, Missouri, was a stop for steamboats up the Missouri River during the days of the Oregon Trail, and the Whiskey Warehouse is in a mid-19th century building of historical significance in Alma.

8.      Writers read about writing.

My journal

My journal

The blogging world is naturally full of people who like to write, and many of my readers are professional writers. Others are great readers.

Some of my top-viewed posts have been about writing. See my posts about  keeping a journal, about writing memoir and family myths, about plotting a novel, and about critique groups.

Readers: If you’re a writer, what writing issues or techniques would you like me to write about? If you’re not a writer, would you like to see fewer of these posts?

9.      Be grateful for friends and family, old and new.

I always appreciate a comment or thank you from my readers. You are the reason I keep writing. It means a lot when my father tells me I am teaching him something about our family history, or when friends tell me I’ve made them think about their family in a new way.

And I’ve “met” some wonderful bloggers whose blogs I now follow. I learn from what they write and from the comments they leave me.

Readers: No question here – just a simple “thank you” from me!

10.  Don’t devote your life to your blog.

Balance the time spent on blogging with time spent on other writing, or other work, or family, or whatever else is important to you.

Despite what I said about making the commitment to blogging, and about anything being a blog topic, your life is not your blog. Like anything, the blog must fit into the rest of your life. Balance is important to a life well-lived.

Thanks again to all who read this blog! I look forward to our journey together in the year(s) to come.

Remember, please leave a comment if you have any changes or improvements you would like to see me make in this blog.