Jun 25

Everyday Writing: An Interview with Midge Raymond

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I first met Midge Raymond, we both had books newly  out from Eastern Washington University Press: mine, called Blessing of the Animals; hers: a collection of marvelous short stories called Forgetting English. When we met it was “friendship at first sight” and we’ve been writing buddies ever since.

Her new book, published through Ashland Creek Press, is Everyday Writing: Tips and Prompts to fit your regularly scheduled life. As you can tell from the title alone, this book is perfect to carry around with you as you continue to practice “mindful writing in a busy world.” Midge includes 5-minute, 15-minute, and longer prompts, as well as “situational prompts” to be done while out in the world: the grocery store, driving, waiting in lines, etc.  She describes how to become an “everyday writer” and also gives great advice on creating your own writing retreats in the midst of everyday life. I’ve already used several of the prompts for writing on my own and with my writing group.

Midge sat down with me (virtually) and answered a few of my questions last week.

Q. In the first section of Everyday Writing, you write about the different writing spaces you’ve created in your life (no matter how small). You tell us that now you’ve “been writing in a sun-drenched studio with a marvelous view.” Can you describe that view for us? What brought you to this place?

A: My writing space changes often because I move a lot — I’ve moved every two to three years, on average, for my entire adult life. As much as I hate moving (who doesn’t?), I do love to adopt a new writing space, wherever that may be: Change is good for the mind, and every time I’m in a new space I come to my writing with a completely fresh approach. The “sun-drenched studio” was a room the house I lived in while I wrote Everyday Writing, and it was a beautiful spot in which to write, overlooking mountains that were snow-capped in winter, green in summer, and sometimes completely obscured by fog and clouds in spring and fall. The most interesting and important thing I learned about this space, however, was that a view doesn’t make the work any easier! It was lovely, of course, but it didn’t help my writing one bit — and sometimes it was even a bit distracting. I find that I get just as much, if not more, accomplished in a library cubby than in a room with a view.

Q: I understand that completely! Wasn’t it Flannery O’Connor who said the best view out the window for a writer is a brick wall?  So, I know you’re a busy person–you and your husband John started your own press last year, correct? What creative projects are you working on now? And are you able to follow your own advice about becoming an “Everyday Writer?”

A: Ashland Creek Press has indeed taken up most of my creative writing time for the past year — the first year of any new endeavor is always the busiest, I think! — but things are slowly beginning to settle down to a more reasonable pace. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote Everyday Writing was to figure out for myself how to keep up with my writing even when I was working fourteen-hour days. We all need to find ways to stay connected to our writing, no matter how busy we get. And I do take my own advice, from observing people while I’m in line at the post office to carving out time for five-minute writing prompts. Right now I’m working on new stories and on putting a new collection together. I also have an idea for a novel, but that one needs to simmer awhile before I do anything about it.

Q: How do you know when something needs to “simmer” and when you can start the writing process? and on the other side of the spectrum, how do you know when something is finished?

A: For me, “simmering” also means a bit of writing — just a few notes here and there, maybe even a scene. I’ll start exploring the characters with writing prompts to see what emerges. But the way I know that something must simmer is when I’m still trying to figure out what I want to say, and this, I’ve found, is a part of the process that can’t be forced — starting too early on a project that’s not fully formed in my mind always ends up going in circles and being frustrating. The “simmering” stage is when it’s great to be an Everyday Writer — if I’m aware of everything I see, do, read, etc., then ideas and insights begin to pour in, and the project can begin coming together.

As for the other end of the spectrum, I’m not sure I ever feel that a story is finished because I’ve learned that, even after (or especially after) seeing something in print, I still wish I could change it. But of course, we have to let go at some point. If I get a story to a point at which I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do, then I’ll get a reader’s opinion to make sure the piece actually does succeed in the ways I hope it has. Then it feels finished.

Q: A creative writing professor once told me that “nothing is ever finished, it’s just abandoned.”  I’m not sure I agree totally with that, but I do know that so much of maturing as a writer involves being able to make decisions about a piece more quickly. I think your book, Everyday Writing, helps us make decisions more quickly on the starting end too. Do you have any “favorites” from that book?

 A: I completely agree with you that being able to make decisions about a piece more and more quickly is an asset to a writer. And sometimes getting started can be the hardest part — at least, I often find this to be the case, mostly because I have so many ideas and so little time, and it’s hard to know where to begin! And the problem for so many of us is that if we find it challenging to begin, we simply never get started. So prompts are great for tackling this issue. Among my favorite writing exercises in Everyday Writing are the five-minute prompts, including the “quickies,” which are meant to be simple and fast — yet I find that they usually go well beyond the prompt and into interesting territory. If I have a character or a story idea in mind, I’ll apply this character or notion to one of the simpler prompts (a one-word prompt, for example), and I’m always fascinated by where it takes me. Of the longer prompts, I like the ones that help me jump-start a story or situation, something with a little drama.

Q: Thank you so much for speaking to us at Pen and the Bell! I think Everyday Writing and The Pen and the Bell make very nice companions. Any last words for our readers?

A: Thank YOU for the wonderful conversation! I agree that Everyday Writing and The Pen and the Bell make great companions, and what I love about The Pen and the Bell is the way it invites us to slow down and relax our busy minds — to make space for the meditation and contemplation that is so necessary for good writing. Both books, I think, are useful to the busy writer, whether you’re in need of a jump-start or some quiet time — and my parting words to writers would be to make room for both!

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I thought I’d take this opportunity to show you how a writing prompt can go beyond the prompt. While writing with my friend Rae Ellen the other day, we both did this 5-minute prompt from Midge’s book: “Write about getting caught in the rain.” Here’s what came for me:

After a Grateful Dead concert, me and Pat, walking in the rain in Colorado, the words “It’s just a box of rain….” singing through our heads while we clutched each other’s hands. Leaning into one another. Did we really sleep under the VW van? That’s what I remember. Hard to imagine being so young. Hard to imagine the body and heart so flexible. A gymnastic heart. Agile. Easy to stretch. Not like this arthritic heart I have now. Clumsy heart. Heavy heart. Heart that groans in the morning, takes a while to wake up. Heart that needs to be plied with medications. Coffee. Oatmeal, just so. Toast dry, with sugar-free jam. Heart that puts on its jacket in the rain, checks for hourly updates on the weather.


Try it yourself! See what image rises to meet you.

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Midge Raymond’s short-story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and many other publications. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize nominations and received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship.

Jun 18

Technology Time Out

Dear Readers,

One day last week, I left home in a rush, leaving my laptop sitting on my desk in Chimacum, where I live with my husband John. When I arrived at my cabin in Indianola, checked my book bag and found it missing, my heart sank. Of course, all my afternoon plans revolved around it: I had to check email, grade student poems in my online class, write a blog post for the Pen & Bell. Yes, it’s here, John reported, when I called in a panic. Yes, he’d bring it down to me that night.  But what about all these hours in the meantime?  All that work I’d planned, nay not just planned, NEEDED to do? I debated driving the 45 minutes each way to get it, but couldn’t justify the extra trip when John would be coming down that evening.

Luckily, my dog Fox showed up at my studio door just then, with his best Let’s go for a walk! expression. You’re on, I said, and we headed out into the sunny afternoon together. He seemed to know what we both needed, heading down to the beach where we walked for more than an hour, soaking up the sun, running into friends I hadn’t seen in months. When we returned home, I had just enough time to weed the flower beds, plant lobelia in the flower boxes, give the garden a good drink of water. By the time John showed up for dinner—with my laptop—I felt rested and revived, ready to put in an evening of work.

I resolved, then, to take a Technology Time Out each week, to be reminded to return to my community and what sustains me. I didn’t dream I’d have a chance to try it again so soon. This week, it happened again. I was at Edmonds Community College to meet with a student in my poetry class who was having trouble with the online system, Blackboard, but when we tried to log on, found the network was down. I couldn’t work on Blackboard, I couldn’t catch up on email, as I’d intended. But now I knew what to do. I headed for the ferry and walked on the beach in Edmonds until the ferry arrived, grateful for another afternoon in the sun.

One afternoon this week, turn off your Smart Phone, your laptop, your iPad, your iPod, and spend a few hours deliberately free of technology. View this time as an opportunity to rest and renew your spirit. Then write about how it felt to be in the non-connected world, but perhaps connected in a deeper way.

May you have the opportunities for many “time outs” in your life, not just this week, but in all the weeks ahead.

Holly

 

 

Jun 10

Are we there yet?

When I was a young girl, my father liked to pack us all into the station wagon for long road trips in the summer. We didn’t have iPods, or portable dvd players, or cell phones; we didn’t even have air conditioning, which meant my father liked to hit the road at 4 a.m., to beat the heat of the day and the LA traffic. I remember this was part of the excitement: rising in the dark and stumbling in our pajamas out to the car, still clutching our pillows and blankets and stuffed teddies. My two brothers and I crawled into the way back and set up our nomadic bedroom, snuggling back down as the car pulled out of the driveway in reverse.

“Goodbye house,” my mother whispered softly.

“Goodbye house,” I echoed back hoarsely, then lay on back and watched as the sky revolved outside the long windows. I imagined our house waving back until we turned the corner out of sight. Sometimes I’d be lulled back to sleep, but often I liked to lie there half awake instead, trying to determine where we were just by timing the turns or watching for familiar billboards and signs.

It was a lovely time of day to be awake. And a lovely place in which to be awake: between my two brothers who were pretty nice when sleeping; in the care of my parents, who murmured  together in the front seat; in our familiar car, so solid, moving us inexorably forward. My father, an engineer, had packed everything just so; everything had its place, including me.

I could hear the thermos lid being unscrewed, smelled the sharp scent of Folgers as it poured into a cup. I heard the AM radio voices: announcers who were all storytellers and invited you to be part of the story as well.

In a few days I’ll be flying from Bellingham to Phoenix to meet up with my parents at their retirement home, and the next day we’ll hit the road together to drive 8 hours to my little brother’s house in Laguna Beach. We’ll pack the car with snacks and water and podcasts. We’ll have air conditioning, so we most likely won’t leave at 4 a.m. I’ll drive part of the way, but not enough to take this pleasure away from my father who, at 81, still loves to drive. I’ll love being with them this way: together in a time out of time, keeping each other safe.

In this season of vacations and road trips, it’s a great time to remember traveling as a child. Write for 15 minutes about an early childhood memory of a road trip. Allow the sensory details to emerge: the smells, the sounds. Try to evoke your child’s frame of mind: what did that child think about; how did that child feel? Do these feeling arise in road trips you take in the present?

Happy beginning of summer, my friends. Here, in the northwest, we’re experiencing our annual “Juneuary,” as we call these cold gray days, but I know these will pass for sunnier days ahead.

With gratitude,
Brenda

 

 

Jun 04

More Tidbits to Ponder

Pink Peony I, Copyright David J. Bookbinder

Dear Readers,
Here is my semi-regular roundup of things I’ve been reading on the web. May you find something here that resonates or inspires.

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From Make a Living Writing, Carol Tice writes about “What I Learned About Writing From My Lunch With a Dead Woman.” While the title is a bit blunt, it fits with the no-nonsense lessons she learns from her dying friend Linda about taking care of your creative self, which include: Keep Creating; Be Perceptive; Be Forgiving; and Be Giving.

This post was especially resonant for me, as this past week three people in my wider circle died unexpectedly: one, a future colleague, only 32 years old, who died in her sleep; another, the husband of a former colleague, only 50 years old; and another, a student in our dept, a young man. At the same time, a gunman killed 5 people in a cafe in Seattle, in a neighborhood I frequented often. I spent the weekend with a somber heart. I burrowed into myself and yet yearned for connection at the same time.

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Sometimes it takes shocks like these to remember what’s essential. Here from Writing our Way Home, Fiona Robyns speaks about the “crust” that we often develop to survive, and how essential (and painful) it can be to strip away that crust:

I sometimes see us human beings as being made up of many layers. These layers form like crusts as a result of experiences. We mould ourselves & adapt within our network our relationships. We protect ourselves. We make mostly subconscious decisions about ‘who we are’. Sometimes these crusts are as tough as a giant tortoise’s shell, and sometimes they are deep deep down near our very foundations. They are often almost invisible. They can be rolled up and squashed in as tightly as the petals in that peony.

When we get close to a new crust, and as it begins to unfurl, we get to the hurt. These crusts think they are protecting us. They won’t give up the ghost without a fight.

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And finally, from Rick Hanson’s newsletter “Just One Thing,” he speaks about one sure way to connect with the world, even when we’re finding it difficult: discern what’s “likeable” in everything:

Right now, through the window in my home office, I see a golden squirrel scampering atop my fence. I like the little critter, the view of the hills beyond it, and having a life that includes squirrels. This simple moment of enjoyment is the subject of this week’s practice: see what’s likable.

Notice what happens when you apply it to everyday things around you, like cups, grass, streetlights, clouds, and sofas. Also feel what happens when you focus on likable aspects of other people, from casual acquaintances to loved ones. I think you’ll find that in your body this practice is immediately relaxing and restorative, in your mind it is soothing and happy-making, and in your relationships it brings ease and comfort and intimacy. Pretty good results for something that feels so good!

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May you have a likeable week, dear readers, and remember to cherish all beings, large and small—allow them to be the material of a creative life.

With gratitude for you,
Brenda