First Book, First Reading

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Oh, hi. It’s me again. Surfacing after months of quiet here on the blog to say, I made a book, and now it’s a real and beautiful object in the world, and I’m thrilled.

Rupture, Light is a chapbook just published by Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection touching on themes of loss, faith, and identity, often through the lens of my experience as a mother. These are poems I wrote and revised beginning in 2011, and so they reflect life experiences from graduate school all the way up through the births of my two children. For about four years, I revised and submitted the manuscript again and again as time allowed, against the backdrop of bearing and raising my kids, healing from injury and chronic illness, returning to work and redefining my purpose and identity in the wake of the upheaval of motherhood.

When I was pregnant with Robin, I felt a powerful wave of energy coaxing me to just get this book out there, one way or another, before he was born. I knew that becoming a family with two kids would be a major transition, and I wanted to sort of clear the decks– creatively and logistically. On a practical level, having already come through the babyhood of one child, I knew the level of focus and energy needed to pursue publication wouldn’t be available to me for at least a year after Robin was born. And on a creative level, which was the more powerful motivating force, I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world, honored and amplified in the way only a “real” book can.

Following Sky’s birth in 2015, I had abruptly stopped writing poems, and had begun instinctively to write long-form essays, something I’d never done with much confidence or inspiration prior to that. I’m still puzzling over the shift, which has remained. Firstly, at least for me, it that even though they are technically “shorter,” crafting poems requires a greater level of attention, presence, and quite frankly time than does crafting prose– and needless to say those things can be in short supply when you have young children. The same goes for reading poetry. Sure, you can whip through a collection of poems in a couple of hours, but it takes months, sometimes years, to really absorb a collection’s message and integrate it into what you currently think you know about the world. For me, the same is not usually true for reading and writing narrative nonfiction, and so I think I’ve naturally gravitated to a form that allows a little more flexibility during this busy season of motherhood.

All that to say, I needed to get these poems out into the world so that I could stay “current” with where the creative spirit seems to be leading me. Perhaps now that this book has arrived, and is offering me opportunities to read my poems aloud and be among Portland’s poetry community, poems will begin to come to me again.

I have dreamed of writing and publishing since I was about ten years old. This little book is a chapbook, not a full-length collection, which can be seen as a first step into publishing for an “emerging” writer, and can also be a beautiful way for an “established” writer to showcase a small group of thematic poems, or poems that don’t seem to “fit” anywhere else. This is all publishing-world stuff, and so at certain points in the process I’ve wrestled with feelings of being somehow less than a “real” writer, with this first book not being a real book. It’s a good wrestling that mirrors a theme in my personal growth these last few years, as I’ve learned to let go of old ways of thinking in order to become more fully alive.

I want to share how this experience of fruition has and hasn’t lined up with how I thought I’d feel, and what I thought was significant about publication.

Finishing Line Press accepted my manuscript Rupture, Light in April of last year, right around Easter. A few weeks later, I had a major flare-up from a previous car accident that sent me spiraling into the worst pain of my life– constant, chronic neck and arm pain that didn’t relent until around mid-July and didn’t fully clear until late August. As I went to multiple appointments, managed medications, and struggled to keep up with my children, I was simultaneously putting together materials for producing the book, including trying to finalize cover art. I couldn’t read, write, or spend more than ten minutes at the computer without excruciating pain, so this was challenging and confusing. It was strange to be pulling the book toward reality at the same time that my body was pulling me toward a future I didn’t yet recognize– one I wasn’t sure would even include writing, which was terrifying. I lost my grant-writing clients and began to seriously consider other career options, as desk work was suddenly cast in a different light by the diagnosis of a bulging cervical disc and severe foramenal stenosis.

Minute by minute, day by day, I inched closer to healing and the book moved closer to completion and my old narratives about who I am continued to disintegrate. It was a surreal, disorienting time.

Fast-forward to last week, January 17th, when a nondescript cardboard box arrived on my front porch. I had told my 3-year-old daughter that my books would be arriving soon. My daughter is just getting old enough to understand that I am a writer, and she is as curious and passionate as I am about books and learning. So she was as excited about the books’ arrival as she might have been about Christmas.

That day, I had just learned about the death of Mary Oliver when Sky raced into my room yelling, “Mama!!! Your books are here!!” Together we sat on the living room floor and opened the box, and there was my real book, my first book of poems, right there in my hands, and meanwhile Mary Oliver was dead. The poet of my childhood and adolescence– the poet who had inspired me at a young age to pursue poetry as a vocation– had slipped from the world. It was again a strange and surreal mix of emotion.

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Last Saturday, January 12, I had the great pleasure of reading from Rupture, Light, at Mother Foucault’s Bookshop here in Portland, alongside two talented and funny and warm women and poets: Kristin Berger (Echolocation, Cirque Press) and Carey Taylor (The Lure of Impermanence, Cirque Press.) I had read with Carey in the summer as part of the poetry series Kristin organizes at our local farmer’s market. It was fun to read with both of them on the opposite side of the year, to go from wide blue summer skies to the insular world of a bookshop on a dark winter’s night.

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Kristin’s work is stunning– it’s direct, urgent, unapologetic while also speaking the language of the body, weaving in strands of the everydayness of human experience, with the necessary dry humor that requires nowadays. Echolocation floored me. It’s one of the best collections I’ve read in a while. Granted, I’ve definitely not been reading nearly as much poetry lately as I used to, but I think that further emphasizes the success of this book: it was human enough to overcome my strange resistance to reading poetry (“I’m so tired. Can I focus enough to read poems right now?”) and passionate enough to sustain my interest from page one. It was a pleasure to hear Kristin read from her book.

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The Lure of Impermanence, Carey Taylor’s first book, is on my bedside table right now. I’m enjoying its irreverence and momentum. Carey does some really amazing things with imagery in her work, especially color, and I loved listening to her read. She’s a former teacher, and so she has an easy yet authoritative presence, a way of inviting listeners right into her poems that makes you feel like you’re there with the poem’s speaker. She is just as warm and welcoming in person, and meeting her has been one of the great gifts of this new experience of publication for me.

I really loved getting to share my own poems with the people who showed up that night. The room was packed, and there was an energy of deep listening that really touched me. I met a fellow poet named Phil, who wore a broad-brimmed hat and sat listening in the front row with his eyes closed and a gentle smile on his face. My parents and my sister were in town for my son’s birthday, also the 12th, and my husband and four of my close writer friends were there. I’m not sure you could ask for a more affirming space to read. I felt relaxed and happy and like I could speak from my heart as I talked about the origins of each poem.

I’m deeply grateful for the chance to do this in my lifetime– to make poems, to make books, and to read with and for others. I hope I get to write many more poems (and essays and maybe even fiction) and bring many more books into the world.

On Creativity, Marriage, and Parenting on Coffee + Crumbs

 

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I’m delighted to share my essay “Through,” published this month on Coffee + Crumbs. This essay is about how becoming a parent transformed my relationships– to my husband and to my creative work.

Coffee + Crumbs has been a lifeline in these early years of parenting. I’ve looked forward to each new essay appearing on this collaborative blog about motherhood, because I can always count on the words published there to be affirming, encouraging, and real. I appreciate how this collective group of writers and editors does not shy away from the hard parts of becoming a mother– and how the readers respond with kindness and support.

And as I’ve folded laundry, washed dishes, prepped dinner, or collapsed on the couch after my little one’s bedtime, I’ve LOVED listening to the C + C podcast, with its humor and helpful advice on everything from adoption and being a working mom to making time for spiritual practice and finding the perfect postpartum bra. (PS, there’s also an awesome monthly newsletter you should subscribe to right now. It’s probably the only newsletter I subscribe to that I read, reread, and save. Click here and look for the subscribe button on the right.)

One of my favorite things about growing as a writer has been finding publications that really fit my voice– and becoming part of the community of readers. It seems so obvious: you should publish where you read. And yet actually doing that has made such a difference in my life. It has connected me to other readers who resonate with my writing, and to writers whose work I love, too.

Read my essay “Through” on Coffee + Crumbs, leave a comment, and join this amazing community of mothers, readers, and writers.

Photo via Coffee + Crumbs

Writing in the Margins

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Here’s a short essay on how I write poems, a contribution to the “25th Hour” column at Mothers Always Write, on process and mothering.

As mothers who write, we often stretch and steal and bend time in order to make new work. The writers in this column compose poems in their minds as they rock babies, prepare lunches, or wait in the school pickup line. They carry notebooks in their purses, and write on the back of junk mail envelopes at the post office. These mothers always write, even when we’re not writing.

“In the Margins”speaks to the way I’ve stretched time throughout my life, writing poems since I was young, always at the edge of things.

How do you make time to write? Do you write in the margins of life, too?

Read my essay at Mothers Always Write, then click over to my poem “Sunflowers.”

An Essay on Growth Charts at Mothers Always Write

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Read my essay from November about childhood growth charts. In it, I reflect on what it means to measure your child’s growth, and your own personal growth as a parent.

I’m catching up here on the site after a bit of a post-election hiatus from social media and the digital world in general. I wanted to be sure to post about this essay because I learned a lot while writing it.

This essay took shape during an online writing workshop called Boot Camp, organized regularly by Mothers Always Write. MAW is an online journal I came to know and love last year when my poem “Bean Saving” was accepted for publication. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know other contributing writers at MAW through reading their work, and supporting one another as moms and writers.

If you’re a mom who writes, consider taking a workshop with MAW. In fact, there’s one coming up next week, March 6-24!

Read my essay “A Vocabulary of Growth,” and check out my previous publications for MAW here.

Image via Mothers Always Write.

On Anxiety, Prayer, and Mothering at Hip Mama

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I forgot to post that I have an article up at Hip Mama! In September, I participated in the Literary Kitchen Personal Essay Intensive, and wrote the rough drafts of five new essays in under two weeks. This is one of them. (This was an incredible workshop I highly recommend for both new and experienced writers! Go, go, go sign up for one right now.)

This essay is a chronicle of my relationship with worry and faith, both of which have been challenged and intensified during new motherhood. Since writing and sharing this essay, I’ve learned from so many other women that this anxiety thing is very, very common– and that fact alone has been helpful.

The first few months of motherhood can be especially dark for new moms, and it’s a slightly cruel corollary that they’re also months when it’s extremely hard to get out of the house. So not only are you sleep-poor and anxiety-rich, but you are fairly convinced you’re alone in both. Not true! We moved into a new neighborhood just after our daughter was born, and I had a hard time getting together with friends across the city– even and sometimes especially with other new moms. Changing nap schedules and frequent colds inevitably led to canceled and postponed playdates.

Some new neighbor mom friends and I got together last night. We shared a bottle of wine, some chocolate and popcorn, and lots of good, cathartic laughter about the relentlessness of mothering toddlers. We told stories about new words and potty-training successes, and swapped frustrations over neighborhood issues and tantrums and skipped naps.

I am buoyed by this possibility of new friendships developing. It’s what I’ve been missing in this last year– the chance to be real with other moms and in doing so to realize I’m not alone. In the overwhelm AND the joy. That being a mom can be all of this– gratitude, absurdity, irritation, fierce love, fear, sadness, pride, happiness, and yes, worry.

Writing and sharing this essay on anxiety, prayer, and mothering has been a meaningful experience and I hope it helps other moms feel a little less alone.

Image via Hip Mama

Reviving My Writing Practice Post-Baby

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My daughter was almost one before I began writing again. Her early months were all-consuming, and I simply didn’t have the spare energy to either write or worry about not writing. It was late May when I decided it was time to jump back in and figure out where I had left off. Staring at the haphazard pile of drafts and notebooks in my closet, I swallowed a nervous lump in my throat.

Where do I start?

I want to share some of what I’ve learned as I’ve stepped back into a regular habit of writing. Please note: this is not a how-to. I read so many how-tos during the anxious months of pregnancy and early motherhood, I now recoil at the very sight of a how-to infographic. The last thing any of us needs, parent or not, is another way to feel anxious, or another list of things to do.

As a parent and as a writer, I like learning from others and feel grateful for the people and resources that have helped me along the way. Friends texted us when we were struggling with our daughter’s sleep. Eula Biss’s On Immunity and a big fat history of vaccines helped me grapple with all the fear out there about immunizations. The moms and babies in my breastfeeding support group have shared snacks and hugs and recipes and tips with me as we each made our own way through our little ones’ first year.

So what I want to share here is, like so much of my parenting style, a big collage of trial and error and learning from others. It’s what is working now, but I know I will need to stay attentive and active so that I can respond to the changes in my writing and my family. That’s probably the biggest take-home here:

For me, reviving my writing practice has meant tuning into what works today, and taking one step at a time. It has meant being fierce—I will find time to write today because it’s important. And flexible—I will accept the amount and quality of time I have today, even if it’s five minutes, and trust that both will grow and deepen with time.

My goal is to finish a collection of poems, and write prose for paying markets, while continuing to be the primary caregiver for our daughter. Here are five things that are helping me as I reach for those goals.

1) I’m reading more, especially about writing.

It’s really, really easy to collapse on the couch when my girl naps and zone out on the Internet. This is what Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, calls resistance. It’s easier to fritter away my time on Pinterest, in the name of researching dinner recipes or garden hacks, than it is to feel my fear about creating. That fear is currently tuned into my sense of time having accelerated since becoming a mom. I’m afraid I won’t ever have enough time to complete the projects I really care about, so I don’t even begin. You know what? It’s true. I don’t have enough time. I have slivers and bits and scribbled-on margins of time, littered all over the day. But I feel way more inspired and motivated when I use those margins of time purposefully. Now I try to sit down and write, or I read– especially about creativity and career. These are the books I’ve found most helpful so far:

Writer Mama, Christina Katz
Ordinary Genius, Kim Addonizio
The Artist’s Guide to Grant Writing, Gigi Rosenberg
Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

Next step is learning how to be kind to myself when I choose Pinterest or Facebook or some stupid slide-show (Kid Stars of the 1980s! Where Are They Now?!) instead. Your tips requested!

2) I map out the weeks and months.
This spring, I signed up for an 8-week Fit4Mom class. Every Monday and Wednesday night for eight weeks, I worked out at 7:30. Period. When I finished those eight weeks, I felt great and saw a difference. I thought, Why not do this with writing?

Now I put writing time and deadlines into my schedule. To keep track, I use the free Monday Calendar app. I also have two whiteboard calendars: one on the fridge for family life, and one above my desk for writing deadlines.

3) I joyfully hitch my wagon to other wagons.
If you are a new parent, and especially what they (so unimaginatively) call a “stay at home mom,” you’re probably well-acquainted with loneliness. Writing can feel lonely, too. I love being able to connect with others about our writing goals and projects– sometimes while we push our kids in swings or pack them into the backpack for a hike.

From time to time, I connect over Skype with a couple of incredible women from my MFA program. We exchange work and critique via group video chat. The technology is hit-or-miss, so I am on the lookout for ways to improve that side of things. But I love the magic of suddenly being reunited with these powerful, compassionate writers. It still feels like sci-fi or Charlie’s Angels to me.

In the spring, a friend included me in a 40-day accountability email exchange. She had a goal and she just wanted a handful of people she was close to to “listen in” on her progress. I was so deeply impressed with her vulnerability and her courage. I read every one of her emails and rooted her on to success. What I learned was that it wasn’t about completing a task perfectly– it was about discovering more about herself and what she valued. So in August, I asked her to join me in a 30-day poetry challenge. I wanted to do something that scared me, like she had. It was scary. Some days I hated it. But I ended up with about ten poems I think I might actually be able to do something with– and that’s more than I’d written in the past two years combined. Holy sh**.

I’m super, duper excited about this next one: a monthly critique group that meets in the evenings. I just started this last month with a handful of friends. I really hope it becomes a long-term thing, because I love it. We plan to rotate houses, exchange work by email a week before each meeting, and keep the snack thing simple.

Last thing in terms of community: taking online courses. I tried one with Poetry Barn and wasn’t able to get through all of the assignments, but I did my best. This month I’m trying a class called Literary Boot Camp with Mothers Always Write and a Personal Essay Intensive course with Ariel Gore, in which we will somehow write the drafts of six essays in twelve days. Both of these just about scare the pants off me. But supposedly that’s how you know you should do something, right? Right…

4) I found a great babysitter, and I stay home and write.
There is no way–no way— I would take on the “6-essays-in-twelve-days” thing without a solid plan. That plan is called childcare. I feel like I struck gold with our babysitter. She works in early childhood education, lives in our neighborhood, and has a gentle personality that my daughter loves. My husband and I pay her well and give her presents because we want her to be our babysitter forever. In the past, I used the time to get out of the house or nap. Now I hunker down at my desk and write.

This automatically saves money on coffee and gas or lunch or whatever I used to do instead of staying home to write. It also has meant combing through our family budget to cut expenses and be able to afford childcare. I say “no” to a lot of small things so that I can say “yes” to one thing that matters a lot to me.  Which leads me to my last point…

5) I’ve let go of a lot of other things.
I’m an American mom in the 21st century, so there are oh, I don’t know, 82 things I think I need to perfect. Tell me I’m not alone when I say I have somehow got it into my head, as a woman in the United States, that after having a baby I need to focus on having a great body, stylish clothes, an amazing sex life, homemade homegrown vegan meals, a spotless and stylish house cleaned with homemade natural cleaners, and spend all of my time engineering crafty sensory-play activities for baby. Good grief.

Thankfully, there aren’t enough hours in the day. Thankfully, I believe in a God who loves me as I am and covers me with grace, because not only do I fall so very short of perfection, I also believe the lies of this culture and keep wandering down their hall-of-mirror detours. Writing is prayer for me, because I also really suck at praying. But when I write, I feel like I get in touch with who God made me to be, and everything else starts showing up the way it ought to. The important things look important again, and the silly things look really, really silly.

Caring for our daughter is in.
Writing is in.
Connecting with my family is in.
Basic self-care is in.
Everything else is bonus.

I am learning to simplify my exercise routine (… sometimes that means I don’t exercise, but progress not perfection, right?) and keep our weeknight meals really simple. This summer I got fed up with keeping house and kind of just quit. Turns out that isn’t sustainable for any of us, so last night my husband and I sat down over a glass or two of wine and made our very first chore chart. In five years of marriage and twelve years of living life together. I hope we survive this. (Just kidding– like everything I’ve written here, the chore chart is an experiment designed to help us figure out what works for us. I’ll let you know how it goes.)

The best part about writing again— writing even though I’m scared, writing instead of procrastinating, writing myself toward a career I have wanted since I was a little girl— the best part is that the more I write, the more I feel like… me.

I feel motivated to write. Ideas find me. I wake up with lines for a new poem or one in revision. I have more energy. I’m a lot happier and that means I am more focused when I’m with my daughter and family.

I don’t have this nagging sense of work left undone, of missing out on a life I want to live, because I’m living it.

Are you returning to a writing practice after becoming a parent? Please share your ideas in the comments. I’d love to learn from you.

Photo via Unsplash stock photos; Simson Petrol.