Sep 10

Some Thoughts on Water

photo by Dale Nuce, taken at Finnriver Farm

“When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.”
Benjamin Franklin

Dear friends,

I woke last night to the unfamiliar chatter of rain on the roof, turned over, relieved I wouldn’t need to water in the morning. We were going on 50 days without rain in the Pacific Northwest, but I’m not complaining; I figure we’re just making up for June and July.  One look at the garden, though, and I’m reminded we live in a maritime climate. Our plants love drizzly days, a constant stream of moisture trickling into their roots.

The past month, I’ve loved spending early mornings in the garden watering, watching the light climb through the Douglas firs and maples to the east, dappling the grass.  One morning last week, I was feeling anxious—school starting in a few weeks, too many house and yard projects underway, not to mention writing projects I’m still hoping to complete—but as I watched the cold, clear water trickle from the watering can into the dry flower pots, I reminded myself to breathe, to imagine being this plant, so grateful for each drop of water. Yes, I still have too much to do, but I’ll just do what I can. In the meantime, I was reminded of what matters: sun, water, air, breath, living in this moment as we all reach for the sun, sink our roots into the earth, drink in the life-giving water.

But then our well pump broke. The plumber couldn’t come and replace it for three days, so I was back to what I learned years ago on our fishing boat with a 25-gallon water tank: use bottled water for drinking, brushing teeth, cooking, then re-use cooking water to wash dishes and water the plants—and only the plants that really need water.

Thankfully, the pump is fixed now, clear water gushes from the faucet, rain falls outside.  But that week reminded me how easily it could be otherwise and perhaps is true for many in the world who face water shortages. I’m reminded to be grateful each time I turn the faucet, when I water the plants, and yes, when I hear the rain fall.

This week, as we head into fall, let’s reflect on water and the rich diversity of life it supports. If you’d like  to learn more about water, here’s a link to an award-winning documentary film by Irina Salina: “Flow: For Love of Water.” If you’re watering your garden, use the time as an opportunity for contemplation—and come up with your own watering meditation.  (Please share it with us if you do)  If you feel inspired to write, check out these poems about water. We hope you’ll post what you write, or post your favorite water poems.

Holly

*****

P.S. Here are some more photos from our Finnriver Farm workshop. Enjoy!

 

Sep 04

Entering the Mind of Green Tomatoes

Dear Friends,

We had a fantastic writing workshop last Sunday. Thank you to the folks at Finnriver Farm who welcomed us to their beautiful land, and thank you to Lela Hilton for making us incredible food for the celebration afterward (almost every bit of it local!), and to Jennifer, for her chocolate “silk truffles” that make eating mindfully so easy and full of pleasure! Thank you to the weather gods who granted us the perfect fall day: sunny, with just a touch of coolness in the air.

Thank you to the participants who gamely did whatever we asked, whether it be lying in a field, while blueberry pickers passed by, and uttering loud, reverberant “AHHHH’s” as we breathed fully together; or thoughtfully examining a single blueberry, before rolling it on the tongue; or walking in mindfulness down the hill to commune with sunflowers, green tomatoes, pigs, or chickens.

For those of you who didn’t get to join us in person, here are a couple of the writing exercises we did together:

For an exercise around food, we looked at the Li-Young Lee poem, “Eating Together”:

In the steamer is the trout
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,
brothers, sister, my mother who will
taste the sweetest meat of the head,
holding it between her fingers
deftly, the way my father did
weeks ago. Then he lay down
to sleep like a snow-covered road
winding through pines older than him,
without any travelers, and lonely for no one.

We talked about how Lee’s attention to the simplest, physical details leads him seamlessly to more metaphysical concerns. It’s a great example of paying careful attention to what is right in front of you and allowing those details to lead you (and the reader) to a startling, yet inevitable, destination.

Then we tried it ourselves for ten minutes. Here’s what I wrote:

In the roasting pan is the chicken, stuffed with two lemons and a peeled onion, skin crusted with coarse salt and peper. We shall eat it for Shabbat: father, mother, brothers who will argue over the wishbone with greasy fingers. My father will pry the leg from the bird; my mother will cut thin, tender slices of breast. The candles  burn, one of them in a glass jar for my grandmother, Beatrice, whose recipe is spotted with oil, whose apron now hangs limp behind nobody’s door. I’ll pick up the bones, smell thyme, sage, rosemary—herbs that are nowhere in evidence tonight but that will grace all my roast chickens in the future.

For another exercise, Holly read several poems about the land, including a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, called “The Mind of Squash”:

Overnight, and quietly. Beneath the scratchy leaf we thicken and expand so fast you can’t believe. Sun pours into us. We drink midnight too, blue locust lullaby feeding our graceful sleep. When you come back, we are fat. Doubled in the dark. Faster than you are. Sometimes we grow together, two of us twining out from the same stalk, conversational blossoms. Bring the bucket. Bring the small knife with the sharp blade. Bring the wind to cool our wide span of leaves, each one bigger than a human head, bigger than dinner plates. Wait till you find the giant prize we have hidden from you all along—no muscle-rich upper arm exceeds its size. But the farmer doesn’t like it. Too big for selling, he says. Only for zucchini bread. Never mind. We like it. We have our own pride.

We then sent everyone out to observe something on the farm and then sit with it for several minutes, writing. We could enter “the mind” of that object, or write an ode to it. Here is what Holly wrote:

Hanging out with the Green Tomatoes in the Greenhouse

Come in, they say. We’re all Romas here, green, yes, but in time we’ll ripen, our pendulous bodies blushing pink, then pimento red before fall. Don’t give up on us. It’s never too late to ripen. Just give us a little more sun and heat and the farmers who come each day to slake our thirst, our long tendrils reaching like white snakes into the black earth.

Yes, we’re a mess; we admit it. We sprawl on the weed cover with abandon, not climbing neatly onto the cages like the farmers wish. September, and still we wear our crown of yellow flowers, hoping for a few more hot days to ripen.  Just don’t fry us or make us into that green tomato chutney–anything but that! Trust that we’ll ripen in time, that there’s always enough time, and if not, there’s always compost.

As the afternoon light ripened, we left each other with a final bell of mindfulness, a  bow, and the knowledge that we can always gain access to our creative selves just by being here, fully present, to the all that the world offers us. And it helps to have a few good friends supporting you along the way.

Crystie, co-owner of Finnriver Farm

Jennifer, the chocolate fairy.

Please try our writing exercises and let us know what you come up with! Wishing you a bright fall day, filled with abundance,
Brenda

Aug 27

The Power of Priorities

Dear Friends,

Holly and I are getting ready for our first collaborative workshop this weekend at Finnriver Farm in Chimicum, WA. As I think about what we’d like to offer this group, I imagine us gathered in a quiet circle, surrounded by the vibrant life of a small farm: blueberry fields glistening with ready fruit; chickens doing their chicken thing; apples ripening on the trees.

And I understand that before Holly and I even say a word, the workshop truly began when each person made the commitment to come here, to set aside three hours of their busy lives for this time of introspection and writing.

So much of authentic living, it turns out, is about commitment. Deciding what’s important to us and arranging our lives so they reflect these priorities. It seems simple, but the world has a way of placing obstacles in our paths. Emily Dickinson once said: “The world is spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it.” Some days it feels like that: one frustration after another, and our real lives somehow getting away from us.

And some days are the opposite: days that begin smoothly, with all our priorities in place, shining like beacons. We get things done easily, smoothly, and even have “extra” time leftover for whatever meets our fancy.

For five minutes, list your priorities for the day. Try to go beyond the obvious and be a little whimsical. What do you REALLY feel like doing? If you had all the time in the world, what would rise to the top of your list?

Then, for fifteen minutes, write a memory or a fantasy of  a time when all your priorities seemed in order: what did this feel like? What did you do (or what would you do?)  What does this scene show you about yourself that you might not have articulated before?

Holly and I are looking forward to the twenty people we’ll meet this Sunday, but we also want YOU to be there in spirit. Even if you haven’t been able to join us in person for the workshop, consider setting aside an hour or two this Sunday, September 2, to write, alone or with others. We’ll be at it from 1:30-4:30 Pacific time. Join in!

Thinking of you,
Brenda
P.S: Save the date: October 27th in Port Townsend for our second workshop. Information here.

Aug 20

The Elements of Style

Dear friends,

Are you ready for more writing advice?

I first encountered the timeless dispensary of advice—Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, (or “the little book, “ as it’s affectionately called, for where else can you find so many nuggets in just 85 pages?)—in my freshman English class, and when I became a college teacher myself, I continued the tradition: requiring it in all my writing classes over the last twenty years.

Those of you who have read The Pen & The Bell met my beloved journalism mentor, Rags, who used to not only assign The Elements of Style in his journalism classes, but required that students actually memorize the rules—and then he’d give quizzes to ensure they did. He taught many of the country’s top journalists, and I can’t help but think they succeeded because they’d memorized these “elements of style,” and had taken the critical next step: incorporated them into their own writing.

It would have been Rags’ 101st birthday yesterday, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute than to have us return to our dog-eared copies of The Elements of Style, choose one rule and consciously incorporate that rule into our writing this week. I’m starting with  “Omit needless words”:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all details and treat his subject only in outline, but that every word tell. “

He then gives examples of common phrases that violate this rule:  “there is no doubt but that” (doubtless),  “the reason why is that” (because)  “owing to the fact that”  (since), in spite of the fact that (though).

See what writing advice you find in “the little book.”  If you don’t have a copy, you can order one from your local independent bookstore or download a free e-book here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/37134

Yours, ever in pursuit of clarity & brevity,
Holly

Aug 12

The Long and Winding Sentence

Dear Friends,

Holly and I are both currently in residence at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. It’s like writing camp: every day is full of interesting talks, conversations, classes, readings. Everyone’s excited to be here. As faculty, I look forward to this chance to be in communion with fellow writers, to remember what brought me to writing in the first place.

Every year, it seems, some theme arises for me, and this year it’s a simple one: the sentence. I remembered I love the sentence. And, if you’re a writer, you must love sentences too. I don’t mean platonic love. I don’t mean liking something the way you like, say, chocolate or Friday Night Lights or the color blue. I mean LOVE. I mean wallowing around in it, full-bodied, mooning-in-your-pajamas love.

I sat in on a class led by Suzanne Berne, where we scrutinized sentences. Sentences that worked and sentences that didn’t.  I could have done that all day. When the time was up, I begged for more. I revealed my true inner nerd. But then again, Annie Dillard once wrote:

A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ”Do you think I could be a writer?”

”Well,” the writer said, ”I don’t know. . . . Do you like sentences?”

Sometimes we get all caught up in WHAT we’re trying to say, forgetting that the HOW of saying it is really the writer’s work. And the HOW can reveal so much of our inner selves, our true voices.

Personally, I’m a fan of the long sentence. The sentence that keeps exploring deeper and deeper, suspending itself in space and time, breathing in and out, until something both unexpected and inevitable opens up at the end. Here at RWW, I taught a class on E.B. White and had the students pick out memorable “White” sentences; here’s one, from his classic “Death of a Pig”:

From the lustiness of a healthy pig a man derives a feeling of personal lustiness; the stuff that goes into the trough and is received with such enthusiasm is an earnest of of some later feast of his own, and when this suddenly comes to an end and the food lies stale and untouched, souring in the sun, the pig’s imbalance becomes the man’s, vicariously, and life seems insecure, displaced, transitory.

Ah. Do you hear it? The rhythm of thought, the rhymes, the momentum? Do you hear how that one simple clause, “souring in the sun,” allows us to hold still a moment in this contemplative space, to be suspended, before the drumbeat of “insecure, displaced, transitory” brings us to the inevitable, melancholy insight? This line ends a section, so a gap follows, in which we hear the bell tolling not only for the ailing pig, but for us all. (Luckily, White’s “vile old dachshund” Fred, comes bounding into the breach, wiggling his rump and lifting our spirits….)

In this busy world, it can be tempting to forego the long thought, the slow thought, for quicker bullets of information or story. Pico Iyer has written on this subject beautifully; in his article for the L.A. Times, “The Point of the Long and Winding Sentence,” he opens by telling us that he’s been accused of writing too-long sentences. His response?

“I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment…. Nowadays the planet is moving too fast … and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light…

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.”

So, I know that the way we read now can be so much different, and that I’ve already violated some of the unspoken blog rules about writing short, concise, bulleted points. But what say you, dear reader? Do you have any favorite long sentences that rattle around in your head?

For just 10 minutes, write the longest sentence you can. Don’t stop. Let the sentence breath through you. Where does this sentence lead?

With gratitude,
Brenda

 

Jul 30

The Pleasures of Collaboration

“The weather forecast had called for showers this morning, but thankfully, was  wrong, so Zann and I seized the moment to take advantage of this sunbreak amidst days of rain, buckets of it, cats and dogs.  Right now the sand is warm under my bare toes and a light breeze provides just enough cooling to sit comfortably, soaking up the sun like a turtle.”                        June 24, 2012

Dear Friends,
One of the great pleasures of writing The Pen & the Bell was collaborating with Brenda.  Since we finished P & B, I’ve embarked on another collaboration with an artist in Indianola, my friend Zann. I can’t remember now how I met Zann, but likely it was on the Indianola beach.  I’d head down to the beach with my journal for my morning walk and was always delighted to see Zann heading up the beach with her sketchbook, pants rolled up, a floppy sun hat in summer, bundled in fleece in winter. We’d walk & talk, and sometimes write & sketch or paint together.

I’m not sure when it occurred to us—I think it was Zann’s idea—that we could make our morning walks more intentional, not leave it up to chance; this way, we might share our beach reflections with others and reflect on our creative process, too.

Now we meet at the beach one morning each month with our sketchbooks & journals tucked under our arms.  We walk together out to the point, then settle onto a weathered beach log and sit in silence for 20 minutes, maybe more. We pick up our pen/brush when we’re ready, writing/sketching for another 30 minutes. Next, we share what we’ve each created, marveling at how frequently we each tune into the same thing: the roiling cumulonimbus clouds overhead, the great blue heron that tiptoes up to fish in the shallows. As we compare, we each make a few notes on what we noticed and how we chose to depict it: today, Zann’s painting of the sky is filled with swirling charcoal lines, while my words describe:

“Every type of cloud in the sky—a cloud chart full—from wispy cirrus to the billowing cumulonimbus hovering over Bainbridge Island.  I bet it’s raining there. A tapestry of clouds over Seattle, but blue sky overhead. Not much wind, but enough to keep the sailboats tacking back and forth across the rippled blue sea.”

Last time we met, we each confessed to feeling envy for the other’s art—and what it can do—that ours cannot.   You can show a progression of time, Zann points out, after I read my account.   But you can show the energy of the clouds billowing upward, I counter.   How many writers have said they write because they can’t paint? After our last exchange, Zann gave me some cool watercolor pencils to try out, so I won’t have any excuses.

We invite you to experience the pleasure of collaboration. You, too, can enjoy the synergy of two creative minds in dialogue with each other.  A good resource for this is Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life.  You can incorporate meditation, or just meet to write/paint and share your efforts with each other, then reflect on the creative process.  How are they similar? How are they different?  What do you learn about your own creative process from this? We hope you’ll post some of your reflections here!

Or write about a time in childhood when collaboration came easily, when you could dive into imaginary worlds with a friend and create for hours on end. Is there a way to regain some of that playfulness in your adult life?

Wishing you the fruits of all your collaborations,
Holly

Jul 23

Rain, Rain, Go Away?

Dear Friends,

It’s raining. This is not an unusual sentence to hear in the Pacific Northwest, but we’re  near the end of July, and it’s raining as if it were spring: a cold, hard rain that won’t let up. I reluctantly turn on my gas fireplace and huddle near it with my dog Abbe and glumly look out the rain-streaked windows.

I’m in a sour mood, and the rain gives me an excuse to be even more cranky. Where’s our summer? It’s not fair! I want it to be different!

And then I remember something: I really like the rain. I like the way it helps me narrow down the possibilities for the day. I like the way it tells me: You can stay inside and write! You can make soup! You can read!

I don’t have to worry about the newly planted bamboo. I don’t have to drag the heavy hose around the yard and water all my pots of delicate pansies and violas. The tomato plants are deep green; the lettuces that I thought were done suddenly spring to new life. The deck is washed clean.

I’m still a little cranky–I won’t pretend this minor revelation changed everything about the day. But I did relax a little bit. I picked up the book I’ve been reading: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and I was able to fall again into this world of weird miracles: where a mother’s cells outlive her a thousand times over. The writing in this book is superb—a compelling combination of research, biography, and story. It’s a book that took a lot of patience and faith to write, many years of searching out an elusive truth.

I’d like to cultivate such patience in myself and in my writing. I’d like to remember that not everything has to happen in an instant, though this world appears to be so instantaneous. I’d like to follow the example of the rain and the plants that receive it with such equanimity.

For just 15 minutes today, write about something you think you dislike, and find something to like about it. Or tell us about something you’ve been reading lately that tells you something about yourself or your writing life.

Wishing you a patient and slow week,

Brenda

 

Jul 16

To Prune or Not to Prune?

painting by Basil Ede, 1931

Dear friends,

I spent an afternoon last week pulling all the beautiful but pernicious weeds that had taken over my yard:  forget-me-nots,  buttercups, and the insidious morning glory vines.  Pulling weeds is satisfying work after so many hours at my desk, and I take pleasure in trundling them back to the yard waste pile in our rusty wheelbarrow.  Next, I go after the dandelions, their leaves too tough now for salads, their yellow heads threatening to go to seed.

Then it’s time to take stock, to see what else we might reclaim from encroaching wildness.  Here’s where it gets hard:  everything else now requires pruning, cutting back, like the lilac that was a gift when I first moved in almost 30 years ago.  Oh no, don’t prune it, I’d protest each spring, just let it grow wild.  That was my refrain in those days—just let it grow and see what happens—not wanting to domesticate my landscape too much, wanting to keep its on-the-edge-of-wildness feeling. I encouraged foxglove to re-seed, let the columbine spread, the wisteria run wild on the arbor, only discouraging it from heading up the roof.

Now I see the price I’ve paid for my “live and let live” philosophy—the yard is too full:  the quince shades the vegetable beds, the clematis is an unruly mess, the honeysuckle blocks sunlight from the French doors to my writing studio. They all need cutting back, if not taking out altogether. Meanwhile, my husband John has been patiently waiting for me to see the light, clipping a few overhanging branches when I’m not looking. I’m grateful for his patience and regret that I held out as long as I did. Clearly, something—many plants, in fact—have to go.

And go they do.  How freeing it feels to cut back the honeysuckle to let in more light, even if I’m “taming” its wild nature.  How much sense it makes to create space for light, for more life, for space for its own sake.

For 15 minutes, write a  piece about what’s blooming in your garden right now and/or what you could take out.  Or: Reflect on how your inner landscape might also be pruned—what thoughts get in the way of feeling content?   

Happy summer and happy pruning,

Holly

 

 

Jul 08

Web Round-Up: The Value of Silence

Dear Friends,

Time for my semi-regular round up of what’s been coming through my computer screen these days. There’s so much of it, it’s hard to keep track! A little ironic, I know, that all these snippets of wisdom about the writing life and the contemplative life are now delivered via the medium that can so easily distract us from those lives. I surrender to the irony….

First up, Anna Wood, over at thenervousbreakdown, has much to tell us about the nature of silence:

Silence is radical. When sustained, it has an effect on your perception comparable to that of any number of chemicals with which you might seek change. Your vision transforms, to start with; you suddenly find yourself absorbing what’s on the periphery, massive amounts of once-invisible data assailing your pupils. When you’re not preparing your next remark, your hearing capacity expands, too: the changing rhythms of the wind; the muted thud of a teardrop hitting the wooden floor; your neighbor’s beating heart. And taste, and smell, they’re amplified and shifted, as well—a cup of tea sipped without the surrounding dialogue …is a more intricate cup of tea. Silence gives you the opportunity to know any number of an object’s facets that typically disappear behind the verbal screens we erect constantly, unthinkingly, between our selves and our environments.

Silence can be hard to come by, can’t it? Especially when we think we’re “too busy” for silence. Here’s an article from the NY Times on “The Busy Trap”:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. …..Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done. “Idle dreaming is often of the essence of what we do,” wrote Thomas Pynchon in his essay on sloth. Archimedes’ “Eureka” in the bath, Newton’s apple, Jekyll & Hyde and the benzene ring: history is full of stories of inspirations that come in idle moments and dreams. 

And this, from Kaspa, at Writing Our Way Home, as she takes a moment to pause in the busyness of moving:

I am enjoying this pause between moments of chaos. The silhouettes of leaves cast onto other leaves as the desk lamp shines though the plant next to me. The dark cat purring at my feet. Even the warmth of the light on the textured wallpaper we inherited from the last inhabitants.

This is all the stuff of life. I was going to write something about my hectic work schedule. How I had to take on an extra shift at my part time job and how little time I had to write to you all, what with seeing clients and running Buddhist services and unpacking boxes… It all seems less important in this Sunday evening pause.

Today I heard our friend Esther Morgan reading from her collection Grace at the Ledbury poetry festival. One of the themes of that collection is ‘whilst life is happening elsewhere’ – that sense that we are waiting for our lives to start. Waiting for something.

But this is it. We have to start from where we are right now – with all the chaos as well as the beauty. Learn to be with the plastic dust sheeting on the floor, and the too loud fireworks, in the same way as the flowering sage in the garden, and the splayed leaves of the young courgette plants. This is the stuff of life.


This is the stuff of life.
I find that when I struggle the most, it’s when I want that “stuff” to be different than what it is: quieter, louder, more beautiful, easier, whatever. I’m writing this to you out on my back deck, after I’ve spent the morning in a typical struggle that led to surrender. I’m much quieter now.

Today, contemplate your own “stuff of life”: what can you hold more close, and what can you let go?

Wishing you a peaceful week ahead,

Brenda

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.