Friday, November 22, 2013

Unedited: A Series of Snapshots From My Journal

            Yesterday I had an episode with my book that nearly convinced me to shut it down. If it had been a terminal patient I would have pulled the plug. The only thing I still liked about it was printing it out and fastening it together with those mega file clips from Office Max. Everything else filled me with despair and loathing. This is the same book that a few months ago I knew to be a bestseller. The only thing that brought me back from the edge was drinking generic apple juice out of Pumpkin Dreams mugs my mom got at the thriftstore for 15 cents, orange pumpkins and black cats painted by an old geezer that the orange cardboard boasts to be one of our greatest American Folklorist. That, and decorating the backyard with severed hands from the Dollar Store. My cousin calls Five and Below the Dollar Store for rich people. The two foam swords she found there have been Henry’s favorite birthday presents so far. For the 5th or 95th time I thought that I should be homeschooling and growing root vegetables in my backyard instead of wallowing in despair with my manuscript. Would I be happy then?

My 3rd grade son’s parent teacher conference has abruptly transformed me into one of those mothers. The pushers, the fretters, the freaker-outers. ME. My son’s teacher, Mrs. X, fast paced and gorgeous, is in her mid-twenties and has more energy than a 6 month old golden retriever. “Your son,” she told us, “is very bright. He’s making straight A’s. But he’s figured out how to do only what’s required of him and nothing more. He’s figured out the minimum requirement.”
            “Oh God,” said my husband who looked like he hadn’t gotten a haircut in 3 years. “That’s all I ever heard in school. That I wasn’t living up to my potential. That’s me to a T.”
            “And how old were you when you stopped doing the minimum requirement?” asked Mrs. M, staring at him pointedly.
            “What time is it now?” asked my husband who dropped out of college, is half way through renovating our kitchen, plumbing the bathroom and digging out a new driveway. He looked at his imaginary watch.
            And there I was, terrified for the future of my bright boy who is currently in the 3rd grade making straight A’s. All the boys I’ve ever loved before him—totally genius level, fucked up under achievers flashed before my eyes. How do I get my son to want to do more than the minimum requirement when that’s all we do ourselves? When he’s already announced he’d rather be homeschooled and live on an island off the grid never paying taxes? The answer, I think, as I settle back down into this moment is to love him and do nothing else, nothing else at all. Nothing else is required.

Today there was something about the cold and the light and the cast of trees in the afternoon and the quiet and the loneliness of that quiet. I felt a burning need to make things cheery, to have the feeling of a fire in the stove, a hearth, I desperately wanted a hearth and I didn’t know how to create the feeling of having a hearth on the outside of myself, much less on the inside without drinking something, swallowing something, putting something in my mouth to raise the bar on the thermometer and brighten the wick. It useda woulda been whiskey or wine and I’d already had coffee, tea and hot chocolate—I couldn’t drink one thing more and then a friend suggested instead of triple or quadruple fisting it I take the time to breathe. He further suggested that I think of the most loving thing to do for myself that I could and I burst into tears that exploded out of me like logs going up in flame and I wept for how many people I truly miss and old cold afternoons long gone filled with people I may or will never see again and I cried and cried, even on the way to the bus stop, grateful it was mostly redneck dads who wouldn’t ask how I was feeling and then suddenly I felt better and my eyes were clear and the day was bright again and I hugged my son and walked my dog and I did have one more cup of coffee with hot chocolate mixed in—but that’s just because I was already feeling better.

I felt like a different person on the way up here, like I’m changing. I thought “This is the person I would have been,” but here it is the person I am. I stopped and took pictures, turned the radio off. Missed my son and called him. Felt the intensity of music and driving down country roads the way I always feel it, so that I think I may explode but another mile passes and another and I keep on living. This is when I feel the passing of time most—with a soundtrack and a road. I miss everyone I’ve ever loved and even the ones I didn’t love. And now there are so many different kinds of bird song—up high and then down low and then the bellows of the cows across the river. I used to think only people with no internal world listened to birds but now I think the opposite is true. I’m glad I took a walk down to the river this morning—saw the fog and the trees and the mountains and trains and bridges and the tumbling rural countryside of Virginia that gives back to me a part of my childhood self I had at my grandparent’s house and all those summers camping with my dad in the Blue Ridge that made me feel at least 50% country girl even though I grew up in houses and apartments in the city and the suburbs.

 I feel about our writing day the way I felt about the Ropes Course when I was 17 and took an Outdoor Adventure class at the community college with S. A mixture of anticipation and terror and in the end there was too much bad weather and our trip was cancelled but we did get to go camping and spelunking. I never did take that plunge off the cliff with the rope but in some ways I may as well have for all the thinking I did about it in advance. And now it’s time to take the writing plunge again and I feel like I’m at the start of a river or a road that splinters off in a million different directions and I could choose any one of so many and what if I choose the wrong one? All of the writing teachers say that in the end it’s about trusting your own voice, following your own nose, not living in the Hell of Second Guesses and Self Doubt so I’ll try to remember that as I ascend the cliffs of writing today. I thought on my walk, if I don’t have the patience to sew the first stitch when presented with a dress form how will I make the lines out, one at a time, for a book?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

One Head of the Hydra


          When I was little, I held 12 step recovery meetings with my stuffed animals. Buffalo Bear and Papa Smurf were trying hard to be good while the long skinny strung out looking ventriloquist, Charlie McCarthy, tried again and again to quit smoking. By the time I was 8, I’d called my best friend and told her I was going to be her sponsor. I’d grown up in recovery rooms and conventions halls with coloring books, crayons and a determination never, ever to be like my parents or their weird group of friends who talked about resentments and wrote out gratitude lists. At 13 I wrote an article for a local teen rag about how I was going to break the cycle of addiction, at least in my own family. The buck stopped here! I was “creative” and I didn’t want my creativity to be confused with getting drunk or high. Less than a year later, I found myself on the floor of a band apartment downtown swigging Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill from the bottle, wondering when and how I could do it again.
               From that night, my drinking progressed. I learned how to sneak out, which convenience stores sold to minors—or which adults hanging out in front of convenience stores would sell to minors. Drinking felt as natural as diving off a cliff into deep, cold water when you’ve been just a little too hot, too exposed and too uneasy with your land legs for too long. I stopped feeling like a nerdy, awkward freak and began to feel like my best self—daring, flashy—and whatever else might pass for cool.

              In college, drinking became my major, my thesis, my religion, my revelation, my final project. I was stopped drunk driving but managed to recite the alphabet backwards (something I can’t do sober!) and was let go. One Easter I caught my head on fire trying to get into a bath with candles and a bottle of Jim Beam, but was sort of able to hide the burns with a what-was-left-of-my-hair combover. I did all of the things a girl trying to live life with instruction from a few cases of Manischewitz, Mad Dog 20-20, Wild Irish Rose, Carlo Rossi, bottom shelf vodka, any kind of whiskey and boxes of cheap red wine would do. The list is long: use your imagination! Between the ages of 20 and 23, I tore my way through a couple of countries, states and boyfriends before landing back home, broken and broke, wondering how I’d gotten myself into yet another Jerry Springer/ Greek Tragedy hijinks. I decided to try therapy.

“You could try a meeting,” my mother suggested. “They’re cheaper than therapy.”
“But do you have to think you’re an alcoholic?” I asked.
“You can wonder,” she said.

With just the right amount of ambiguity, I went to my first meeting—without  stuffed animals or crayons. I picked up a white chip with every intention of giving it back. This could not be me—or my life. I was different. I was special! I was wrong.

That was 15 years ago today. I haven’t had a drink or done ANY recreational drugs since that Friday morning in October when I walked into a church basement and not only felt surrounded by familiar faces because I knew them, but because I’d earned my own seat among them. The ride since has been wild and bumpy with switchbacks, trap doors, surprises, a million characters, stories, side-stories, diversions, discoveries and journeys I couldn’t have begun to imagine—even as far out there as I went trying to find the world and God and love and myself at the bottom of a bottle.  

Since getting sober, I have done my best to direct my risk-taking behavior towards positive-artistic-creative kinds of risks rather than getting-drunk-and-hitchhiking-in-the-middle-of-the-night kinds of risks. As sure as I was that not drinking would lead me straight to the convent (even though I’m Jewish), sainthood has yet to happen—thank God. The good news and the bad news now, is that for better or worse I have the chance to feel all of my feelings. And that has its pitfalls! Who wants to feel everything? Addiction is like a hydra—chop off one head and two (or 768) more sprout in its place. I have an addictive personality that will latch on to anything. And has. And will. Don't try to take away my other vices! I quit coffee last spring and it was the worst 36 hours of my life. A lot of the time, my smaller self is the bigger part of my self. My first thoughts are rarely divine. But I have a better chance of showing up and participating in my life—without puking!—than I did before. I have a better chance of cultivating my intuition and my relationships and my writing than I did before. I get to remember what happened last night—even if I still can't remember where I put my keys. 

I keep my own gratitude lists now—at the top of which is the chance to show who and what I am, even if exposing that soft, tender underbelly is more terrifying than jumping off any of the cliffs I threw myself off before. Over the years I've found that turning lights on in a room to illuminate everything is scarier than turning them all off, but it's far more productive. In fact, it's the only way I've been able to see the hydra-- much less attempt to slay it, one head at a time.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

In Memory of Timothy Scott McClellan, 8/2/59 - 9/13/13

I first met Timothy fifteen years ago in a 12 step fellowship, but got to know him better more recently when he began taking my Creative Nonfiction classes at the Black Swan Bookstore. More often than not Timothy didn’t follow my prompts but chose to forge ahead on his own path of truly creative writing instead. Early on he wrote a thrilling noir about following someone into Jackson Ward only to reveal that he was in fact the one being followed. We were all on the edge of our seats. “When did this happen, Timothy?” I asked trying to get a sense of the time frame he’d just captured.  “Oh, I just made it all up,” he answered with a big laugh. It became clear to me then I was working with a different kind of animal altogether.

“Timothy’s writing was outrageous but exciting to listen to,” said Hope, another writer in our class. “I remember him writing about getting back in the dating scene and "accidentally" having a tryst with a senior citizen.  He wrote like an artist in big broad strokes which felt abstract but at the end was real or concrete.” 

Said Sara, “I recall him reading with a booming voice and lots of intonation for his characters. Before reading each piece he would seem skeptical at first, then dive into the world he spat out for the last ten minutes and end with a triumphant, "Fuck... what did i just write?!

 “I was struck by the self-conscious narration,” said David. “He knew he had an audience who was eating it up... but it didn't stop him from writing some really vulnerable stuff. I have a pretty good recollection of the tone and the enjoyment we all felt when his writing was cooking and there were no taboos and inhibitions. My guess is that he raised the bar for all of us. I know that I wrote better than usual in those classes. If just for that, I'm grateful to have known him.”   

Of his writing about his own life, Timothy said, and I quote:

“This work is my personal narrative. It is not about discovering the truth or accurately chronicling the events of my life. This is not about getting it right. This is my story about how I have experienced the world tethered to a rather crazy and self-absorbed group of people. They will have opinions and deep disagreements about what these pages contain and how they are portrayed. That's fine. They can write their own fucking book.”

In life, as in my writing class, Timothy constructed his own rules and his own framework for living. He was the sensitive tough guy who could pull off more silver hoop earrings than a whole VW bus full of hippie girls. He was the Zen Buddhist who could turn the word fuck into a prayer, wedding the unholy with the divine in a string of curses that would make a sailor blush. He was the devil-may-care drunk who’d been sober 29 years but still knew how to live wild, to live hard, to love big, to occupy every bit of space in a room. Timothy was a storyteller who could captivate a room one night and throw down his notebook mid-sentence the next. He was the lone wolf who secretly loved to be surrounded by his pack.

Timothy loved to make fun of the way I parked my VW bug, with just the right mixture of disdain and endearment. Forever more when I park badly I’ll think of him. He reminded me of buffaloes and bulls, big burly beasts with soft fur and tender skin. He gave good hugs and big smiles. He had a beard big enough to speak for itself and a motorcycle jacket wider than the road he lived to ride. Timothy had big hands but only part of one thumb. He was accident prone and blundering in some ways, gentle and careful in others. He shared war stories and epic tales of pain and survival like badges, like memories, like jokes, like prayers.  

Timothy was an example of a man who by no means should have been useful or helpful in civilized society that somehow managed to become both useful and helpful in civilized society. He used his rebellious, antiestablishmentarianism- nature for the good—through his art, his writing, his job and his service in 12 step recovery rooms all over the city. He was living proof that you don’t have to become a saint or sacrifice yourself to the life of the glum lot to conquer your additions, to trudge the road of happy destiny. He walked on the wild side, sober. He gave back, sober. He showed up, stood tall, carried a big stick, and forged his own path through a knotted wood, sober, helping others along the way. He’d made peace with much of his path and his dear ex-wife Helen whom he considered a good friend. Timothy loved Boo, his dogs, a good story, a good turn of phrase, a good friend, a good linguica sausage and a good motorcycle. And he loved his beautiful girlfriend Ruth Ann who brought him worlds of happiness and joy in the last year of his life. And I feel sure that he loves that we’re all here together now in his name celebrating his big, glorious fucking life. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Why We Write: A Compilation from Creative Nonfiction Classes, Past and Present

(This post is dedicated to Timothy Scott McClellan, a fine and outrageous writer. Write on, Timothy. We miss you. )

I write because my mouth can't keep up with my brain. Thoughts fill my mind like gusts of strong wind, carrying the songbirds of E.E. Cummings' verse. 

I write because I've been telling stories since back when they were called lies.

I write for revenge. To get the bastards back. You may think you had the last word but just wait until you see your name in print.

I write because my head is a balloon floating atop my shoulders, the pen and paper act as the ribbon tying me to the front stoop. The only indication of the birthday party going on inside.

I write because I love the smell of new books and I wonder what mine will smell like one day.

I write because when the time comes, I have nothing to say. Those moments where seconds turn into lifetimes and all the words you should be saying run right underneath your skin, slithering like electric eels.  The treacherous ever-expanding landfills filled to the brim with I love you's and Don't hurt me's rotting like hot wet garbage in the sun.

I write to leave a map of where I've been. Words as breadcrumbs, gradually revealing where I've wandered.  Where I'm going. How soon I'll arrive.

Sarah Merryman

I write to be known – by myself and, even more, by others.

I’m from a “good girl” family and I fit right in.  You know, “the pretty is as pretty does” environment - always polite, considerate, respectful, smiling.

Never mind that I felt like shit inside – that I wished my father dead because he loved bourbon more than me.  Never mind my agony when just the next year he was diagnosed with terminal bone cancer.  Smiling, polite, “good girl” ratcheted up a notch.  Only my pillow knew my rage, my terror, my sadness.

Now more than 50 years later, all that good girl façade has made me sick – digestive
track is a mess:  throat burns, voice weakened – acid reflux; colin “irritable” with protruding, inflamed pouches known as grief.

I want to write because I’m still mad about my mother’s oft-used reply, “Oh, don’t be silly!” when I asked the big questions like, “Why would God make heathens?” Why was that a silly question or, worse yet, why did that make me silly?  I wanted to know why my church sent people to the Philippines to save those naked people’s souls.


I write because I am impatient, because I need an explanation and sometimes the only way to get one is to write it myself.

I write because I have a cat, and my cat likes to lay on me and while my cat is laying on me, I’m forced to stay still, but not so still that I can’t pick up a pen and write.

I write because I am always late – either 6 minutes or six years behind where I should be. That may not make sense to you, but trust me, it’s a factor.

I write because, if I don’t write, I go a little crazier than usual, and that’s not good for anyone.

I want to write about huge, beautiful, introspective, deep, meaningful things – grand discoveries put into words never before used. But grand is not what is up my sleeve. No mysteries, no fantasies, no great twists at the end. I write about what I am trying to figure out, what concerns me and confuses me. To get into those places that I’m desperate to get out of.

I write about real life. About marriage and how ridiculous it seems, and though I find myself very happy in my marriage, it’s hard-fought happiness, and, being a marathon, there’s still plenty of time for one or both of us to screw it up. And I write about motherhood, and how I took to it like a buffalo driving a car.

That’s also my reality to write, although it’s harder and sometimes makes me cry. And then there’s my mother, and that always makes me cry.

But that’s what’s real and I always come back to that, even when I try to get all clever and creative—like once I took the Magical Realism class – and all I had in me was Real, with not a hint of Magical. No vampires, no talking teapots – just sisters, ex-husbands, crazy mothers and the occasional cat.

Sema Wray

Many people have asked me, “Guy, why do you write?”  Usually I leave the room immediately, go out on the porch, stare at Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal taking turns at the bird feeder (they are never more than a few feet apart), and ask them, “Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, why do you fly?”  He peeps and postures, gently tilting his head as if to say “say again, please, why do I what?”

They usually immediately leave the bird feeder, go out on their back porch (which is a small screened in section at the top of the neighboring elm tree), kick back and smoke a banana.  Mrs. Cardinal then usually saunters in her Van Gogh-like pastel shawl into her kitchen, and prepares a culinary dish to explain why she flies.  She returns to the porch at which point her husband in his regal sunburst orange red smoking jacket, looks up and softly murmurs, “why, don’t you look soft in that feather down pastel comforter!” 

They really are such the couple, aren’t they?  Just after dinner he looks at her, and they gently begin to stroke each other’s head plumes, and he whispers ever so quietly, “I fly because I love you.” 

Later that evening, someone asks me, “Guy, why do you write?”  And I nuzzling the top of her head coo, ‘“Because I love you.” 

Guy Ellard Frank

I write because I have stories to tell, words to put on paper describing my past, my thoughts, how I get to/got to where I am. I think my history is part of history, not just the events but what happened to me and to my friends. I write because I have something to say about being alive, about being young, about becoming old and in pain, about the lessons of that physical pain, and, of course, the emotional pain, about love, and loving, and not being loved enough, and not loving.

I write because I love words, love finding or remembering a word that has a precise meaning or connotation, finding the exact way to convey an action or feeling.

I write because I like having people react to what I have written, to have others tell me their own stories, to understand what I am saying, to tell me they like my writing, to compliment my writing.

I write because I want to make a connection, to not be alone, to tell someone else they are not alone. I write because I want to honor the past, to remember the simple, ordinary stories. I write because the experience itself is fascinating, how I can begin in one small room and end up in another time and world.

Cate Fitt

I write because it's pretty.  I write because I have washed away all other possible outcomes for me and my potential.  Because I can't play basketball.  Because I have felt how it feels to really read, when it lifts you up and before you know it, you look down and your toes are dangling above the roof.  I write because I like the way it sounds, words in general and yes, the phrase, "I am a writer."  I write because I don't know anything.  I don't know what it's like to be in love the right way, I don't know what my dog is thinking when he looks so sad in the middle of a bright day, I don't know what it would be like to live in a world where you can take someone else's red and black grief and thrust it into your own chest.  I don't know whether, at a traumatic moment, your soul splits in two and you are left halved until you are quartered until you are sixteenthed until you are too missing to mention.  I write because I cannot just live on the surface, blissful and ignorant like I imagine some people are, the lucky fools.  I write because my ex-boyfriend wants me to, and for some reason I still want to do anything he wants me to.  I write because I was told once that I did it well, and at some other point I was told that again, and now I am stuck faking at something I want so badly to make real, before they can figure me out.  I write because I miss my siblings, because I can still see each one's scared face from behind their beds and can remember how it felt to be unable to save them.  I write because my nightmares worry me, because my dreams frighten me, because my monsters are never who I expect them to be.  I write because it is punishment.

Mary-Peyton Crook

I write because it was one of my first private territories. I may have felt alone a lot as a child, in hospitals, in a family with many children … but those isolations were not private. I found a facility there, in the solitude of writing. I felt praise the first timeI was asked to write something original. I was a child and it was a prayer. I don’t have that little bit of self history anymore, and I have no idea what I wrote. But I’ve always suspected some vague inheritance of ceremony in the kind of inside place I go to write. It feels sacred, I suppose. The stripping away of most everything on me.

As I kept writing and as I left childhood, I needed a stripping away; there was so much I don’t think I could have handled, carried, without a place to unpack it alleveryday, many times a day. I feel madness sometimes on that line between writing and not writing;. I resist writing because it points to miles of past madness; I give in to writing because nothing else unties the knots in the same damn way.

I also have not, since I was a child, exactly found joy in writing. I have found relief. I leave the page less unsettled, less itchy, less bad … less some or any double negative. Writing for me is the voice that breaks silence, the beat after a pause, the inhale aftera long held breath. It’s the bridge from the stories of sad things to the jubilance of sun on my hands and face. It’s a rope’s pull from the dream where my voice doesn’t work to the singing of wind through grass. No straight errand run, but a passage between frames, from experience to sense.

So from that, what about the art, or the craft? I resent the effort (by me only) to place this chemical reaction under a glass, or on a pedestal. I resent discipline. I can only honor practice, at least so far. For that I may never find myself between two covers of my own on a shelf. But the priorities are what they are. I don’t live to write better. I write to live better.

Anne Carle Carson

I pulled out my journal and wrote longhand from my mother’s bedside, mostly to keep myself from running out of the room. Four weeks after her death, the journal is still sitting in my bag.  It’s my prettiest writing place, a gift, I think, the cover decorated with a Van Gogh and meant to make me feel artistic.  I sort of miss having it out on my desk. But I don’t dare open it or read the many entries that start with “Right now I am sitting at my mother’s bed.”  I have to let those entries cool for a good while, let them lose their heat, let the lava become harmless rock.

Maybe it was a macabre thing to sit alongside the dying and take notes. Maybe it was nothing more than spying on despair.  But I couldn’t stop myself from writing. Nerves drove me to catalog the weird minutia of active death. I wrote about giving her morphine with a dropper and changing her bloody diaper as CNN en Español blared on. I wrote about my aunt watching wide-eyed from her bed across the room. I wrote about my mother as she finally turned into a crushed little bird, pale blue in all her extremities, her breaths rattling into the night.

Who in their right mind wants to remember that?  Only a writer, I suppose, someone who resists what time will do to shape more acceptable snapshots of memory. I write because I believe in story -- its beautiful parts and its ugly ones. I write because I believe in the often-frightening face of love.

Meg Medina

I write about my dad and his life.  I write about him so he doesn’t feel so removed from my life. I write about him as if I were a detective searching for what made his soul tick. I write about him so that he’s more than a pile of dust sitting in a jar inconspicuously next to the telephone in the kitchen.  I write to find out more about myself – the self that people, his friends, keep telling me he would be proud of. 
I write so my kids will be able to find my soul if they ever need to go searching for it.  I write so they will have a record some day far in the future that they may prefer to read about rather than ask about.

I write because that’s the only way I can figure anything out. The only way I can see myself through a problem or a situation is to put the words into sentences and the sentences into paragraphs.

I write about things and people that are so real to me. But sometimes the only way to do it…the only way to make it painless for those around me is to call it fiction instead of real life. It’s easy to write about someone who sits in a jar on your counter.  The jar doesn’t critique.

But what I know each time I write is that what is inside that jar or maybe what’s floating up in the stars is the soul of a man who gave me more than either one of us realized. He gave me the desire and the drive to write.  He gave me his passions and some of his emotions.  It’s just a shame that even though he can’t critique me that he can’t enjoy me either.

I write for him.

Julie Farley

I write because it’s cathartic to stop the swirling in my mind and dump it, clearing it briefly before it fills again with bits of conversation and lots of worry and schemes and wonderings and hand-wringing questions about the meaning of life.  My life.  I write to bear witness to the little beautiful things in life others might miss, I might miss if I wasn’t looking for little beautiful things to write, and I write to bear witness to the injustices I see.  I write out my anger and my heartbreak and my neuroses and my empathy and my pettiness because something other comes out on the page, something I didn’t mean to write, some realization that my mind’s churning alone cannot produce, and I am eager to find out what it is, I am eager to know it and the only way to know it is to write it.  Sometimes I write to honor, to eulogize, or to hold up some bit of experience I’ve loved or suffered for others to see, though it makes me vulnerable, I hold it up and sometimes I’m rewarded in someone else reflecting their own experiences back at me.  I write because I am less awkward on paper than in person.  I write because I can’t not or because I am not whole or cared for when I don’t.  I write because not a moment spent writing feels wasted.  I write because it is my purest form of what I want to be.  I write because stories are in my blood, as they were in my father’s, and maybe because he can’t tell his stories any more, maybe because the slow, painstaking words he speaks now are often nonsensical, at least to me, and I wonder if his stories are maybe still trapped in there, in him, and how torturous that would be.  Maybe that’s why I spill them out now, empty myself while I can.  

Emily Gambone


I write because I want to see what my thinking does to my emotions. I want to see my thoughts, concrete, on the page. Sometimes I don’t write, because I don’t want to see these things, as well… Today, “why I write” is because I have some stuff going on. (My cat is sitting here on the desk. Probably not giving a shit why I am writing, as long as I have my presence near her.)

I write because I just celebrated with family and friends in NJ, the fact that I am glad that my mother (who I had so many mixed emotions about for so many years – that I feel are resolved, today) has turned 91 and looked better than she has in a long time. The fact that we are no longer “threatened by each other’s presence is why I write… Sometimes I have
to see myself write that, so I actually confirm that that is a reality, not just fantasy in my head. I have put a lot of erroneous fantasies in my head for years, using my family as the blame for my warped thinking and drinking, too.

I write because I want to make sure I am being honest with myself, and others. I have not always told the truth or even acknowledged the truth. Now I feel good about the fact that I can handle it, without defensive maneuvering and posturing stances, without fighting it.

I write because I have lots of stories to share that I have still not put down on paper, about my life, about people in my life, about events past, present, and dreams for the future. I write because I sometimes need to vent. Writing out of anger – which I do not feel at this moment – is so much more productive than taking anger out on people, places and things… I let it go and move on, if I write about how my anger feels and affects me.

I write because I am a writer, a poet, a creative human being, who likes to express myself through words. I need to give myself more time to actually do this…I write because I want to stop censoring myself and my feelings and thoughts. I want to know myself like I want to know a new friend.

I want to stop wondering “WHY” I write, so I will just DO IT…I write… I write… I write…

Margaret Lerke Woody

Why do I write?  I write because of the empowerment reading has given me.  I’m nurtured by the written word.  I have found myself in haiku, poems, novels, and essays.  In return, I share my own written words in hope they will give nourishment to someone else with further hopes they will write and nourish someone else.

When I write, I am never alone.

My Poem

Nurture me, my words, my spirit
Nurture me and I will nurture you.
Cultivate my imagination
with Angelou, Neruda, Merwin.
Give my words seed
and they will take root and bloom.
Golden like a wheat field,
boundless as the sea,
and we will reap the harvest.

This is my second act,
my second  chance.
Death came for me like
thunder and twice I
told it not today.
The universe has more
growing for me
with my talent, with my soul.
What is divine? What is holy?
A newborn's first breath,
that the sun rises then rises again,
the promise of a rainbow,
that wildflowers blossom in untilled soil?

Nurture me, my words, my spirit.
Nurture me and I will nurture you.
When I write, I am whole.
When I am whole, I give the universe
my seeds, my words.
In return, my words are perennials of love.

Hope Whitby


I write to remember. It's so easy to forget. There are sticky notes in every room of my house, pens with inks in interesting colors are there, too, because sometimes the words just get away. Sticky notes trap words in the middle of the night.

I used to write to hide myself. Now I write to find what's in there. It can be surprising, sometimes.

I write to connect to people, to string a line between me and someone else. It's hard to hold someone at arm's length when your hand is so close to the page.

I write to keep the memory of a blue sky in September. The taste of tomatoes in August. To remember how that river sounded going underneath that bridge. Or how things change from the time I open my eyes in the morning until I close them again at night.

I write to let things out so they'll leave me alone. I write to let other things in so they'll stay.

I write to leave a trace of me.

I write because I miss it when I don't.

Mary Jo McLaughlin

Why I write... It might be to compile a chronological list of cars that I've owned or a way to record midnight confessions for posterity. The journal remembers, and that's helpful considering I can barely recall, well, anything from that webinar on health care coverage I sat in on just two hours ago. I write because of what someone said (sang) once... "someday, everything's going to be different, when I paint my masterpiece." 

David Sharrar

I write because one of me isn’t enough to hold it all. Over the years, I’ve tried to write through my addictions: drugs, alcohol, food, nicotine, caffeine, donuts, men. The high, the high, the high, the low, the low, the low. Beginning on the top floor of the penthouse suite, ending up on my knees in the gravel, shards of broken glass cutting up my knees. Words cushion the blow. I write because I can’t have all the things I want but I have way more than I need. Writing is a way to get and to give. To squirrel away a million tiny scraps and then purge, piece by piece, word by word, entire oceans. I write not because I’m a good girl or a bad girl. I’m neither and both in the neutered-nympho world of the writer. I write because it’s the hardest possible work with the least possible action, because it’s cheaper than a plane ticket or therapy. I write because it’s the adult version of passing notes, because it’s gossip and myth and music. A hand, a pen, no mouth, no breasts, no hard muscles in the chest, bloody ink smeared on the page, a suicide note and a birth announcement, a thank you card, a gratitude list and a dear John letter. I write because I feel too full and half empty. I need to rinse, reuse, recycle, pack it in and hack it off, because I’m ravenous, starving, greedy for more. I write because writing is my brain’s math, my brain’s explanation and excuse. I write because secretly I believe you have no inner life if you don’t and I desperately want an inner life. I write because when a person wears clean clothes and goes to the PTA and shows up places on time and takes a multi-vitamin and pays their bills and keep their vows and washes their dishes, they need something else. They need this. I write because a woman at my kid’s bus stop told me she caught a rat and shot it 30 times but it still didn’t die, it just screamed on, like a baby.

Valley Haggard 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Stay With Me (Wingina, Virginia)

Stay With Me

Don’t ascend too high, my friend
Stay on earth with me
And don’t go to hell too low—no,
Stay in Virginia with me
Change yourself, transform, transcend
But don’t go getting your wings
We need you on our physical plane
Us heavy human things
Don’t grow horns or tails or fangs
When hearts and hands will do
We need your flesh, your tongue, your mind
Because it’s only humans who sing
Don’t give away your debts and sins
Don’t give away your mind
Keep your festering open sores
Those perfect human things
Bring to me your thwarted attempts
Your failure, your worry and shame
Give to me your darkest heart
No, don’t go getting your wings
The place that breaks
When we stumble and fall
Is precious, most precious of all
I wouldn’t like you perfect
But blackened like a beast from hell
It’s the open heart, most fragile of all
Where we as humans dwell
I’m here in the flesh and waiting for you
Whole and broken too

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Werewolf Mother

This is how it starts:

Foam around the mouth
A wild look in the eye 

Your mind—and hands—are racing. There’s fire in your belly. You HAVE WRITTEN A SENTENCE. You are WRITING. It is a GODDAMN MIRACLE. You have cut through the first flaky layers to the tough rich underbelly. You are in the blood and guts. You have hit the core. You can finally breathe with all of your body. Your senses are charged, alert. Your eyes are blood red. A bit of flame shoots out of your left nostril. And the next sentence you write is even better than the last.   

You don’t know where you are or where you are going but you do know you've left everything familiar behind. You're flying. You're ready to rip flesh with your teeth and you do-- but with your fingers, on the keyboard. Dialogue is coming and strong active verbs. You relish your hairy knuckles, your broad, hairy chest. They make you one with the jungle, the jungle that is emerging on the page in a world you have created. Possibilities are endless. You have lost all fear. Anything can happen and anything will. Until you look up.

It’s 2:23. Time to pick your second grader up from the bus stop. You throw on your shoes and run out the door. If only you’d had time to put on lipstick, clean the house and bake a few dozen cookies, perhaps your transition back to mother may have been complete. But no, he’ll have to see you with the wild look in your eye, the bit of foam left on your lip. You needn't worry, however. Talking to the other moms at the bus stop makes the transition complete. Just looking at them reminds you there are things to think about besides the jungle beast you've discovered how to become.

And those are the good days.

“Just because it’s the end of school doesn't mean it’s the end of the world.” That’s what I kept telling myself during the avalanche of the spring that catapulted me into the swamp of summer, this land in time where the days are no longer my own. I told a friend we should hold a memorial service for our former lives, when the mornings were crisp and the children were gone and we could travel to that wild place inside of ourselves without the constant threat of having to make someone else a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

My friend tells me it’s OK to feel this way, that it’s normal. That it’s the way of the artist, the writer, the creative person who also happens to parent on a regular basis. “We’re hot house flowers,” she tells me. She wouldn't like me any other way, she adds.

Still, I berate myself for being a horrible, wretched, ungrateful loser who whines about the very things she’s been blessed with. I wanted to be a mother my whole life long and after 6 miscarriages I should know better than to take the honor of raising my son for granted. Not to mention he happens to be the most brilliant, beautiful boy in the world. Remembering that, however—if I haven’t been writing-- helps for approximately 5 seconds per day.

And so far this summer I have been defiantly not writing. My manuscript needs to breathe between drafts and the magazine that carried my column was cancelled. Of course the only one I’m actually hurting is me. No one else suffers when I place myself on hold. It's me who feels like I’m swimming in the shallow end of the pool where the water is hot, stagnant and full of pee. But I've been holding back from diving deeper, certain I’ll be pulled back up before I can grab the buried treasure. So I've stayed away from the deep, dark waters, the temptation to submerge and I've looked instead for surface things to do, kicking at the trash pooled in the swirling eddies that leaves a mucky film around my ankles.

A few solid weeks into summer while sitting in my lap, intent on researching every song Weird Al Yankovic ever sang, my son and I swirled down the internet rabbit hole until we landed on Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  “You don’t know how to be a mother,” he said suddenly, turning around to look at me. “You only know how to be a werewolf.” My jaw dropped. I had never told him my “Werewolf/Mother Theory.” I had only told my friend, and together we had howled—with laughter. Maybe my transitions between writer and mother are a little less smooth than I’d thought.  

Then I had to remind myself that I wrote fiction for the first time since college when I was pregnant with him. That I floundered through my first interviews and articles for publication while he grew fat in my belly, was handed my first feature article in the hospital bed the day after he was born, was offered a regular writing job the first week we were home. That I called him “my writing baby,” nursing him at the keyboard and in my writing group. That the world of motherhood and the world of creation were not so separate then. That they merged—milk and blood and shit and sleeplessness and words and love beyond reason—all a part of the wonder of making something from nothing. If I can remember that now, maybe retracting my fangs and talons will hurt just a little bit less.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Fox Elementary School Commencement Speech

To start off this morning I’d like to congratulate each and every one of you in the audience today—from the teachers, faculty and staff of Fox Elementary, to the friends, parents, grandparents and siblings here to support their loved ones, to the Fifth Graders themselves, who-- after six years that perhaps felt like six lifetimes-- are here to be honored as they prepare to move on from this big chapter in the book of life called Elementary School.  

There are many more chapters to come, and in each and every one of them you will be the hero or the heroine of your own adventure, creating lifetimes full of plots, characters, details and story arcs that will likely be difficult for most of the adults in this room right now to even fathom. Will you be vacationing on the moon? Typing in passwords that will allow you to teleport at will? Breaking the speed of light? Curing cancer, ending hunger and finding the key to world peace? I hope so. But before I launch into what I think of your stories, I want to tell you just a little bit about mine.

I, myself, am a veteran of elementary school—as well as a few other schools that came along after that and I’m very happy to tell you that now I teach creative writing workshops for adults as well as creative writing after school classes and summer camps for children through a year round program called Richmond Young Writers held at Chop Suey Books in Carytown, home to Wonton, perhaps the most famous black and white kitty cat in all of Richmond, Virginia.

Why am I happy to tell you this? Well, probably like some of you, when I was in elementary school, I was convinced that I was really a princess that had been kidnapped from the Royal Family or at the very least an alien in the disguise of a little girl planted here on earth to steal the secrets of the human race. I just knew that at any moment I would be rightfully restored to my proper place, either in the Royal Palace—or on Mars. I was sure there was some big secret or revelation as to who I really was and therefore what my real purpose was here on this planet.

However, by about the fifth grade when both the spaceship and the queen had failed to come rescue me from my mom’s house in the West End or my dad’s apartment in the Fan, my ambitions changed ever so slightly. Instead of being a princess or an alien I decided that I would have to settle for something just a little lower down the totem pole-- being famous! I wanted to be a famous reader first and a famous writer second but even more than that I really just wanted to be old enough to stay up all night long eating candy. Which I’m also happy to tell you, eventually I did.

Meanwhile however, before I left home, my mother always had a saying for me, “Don’t wish your life away!” because she wanted me to enjoy the perks of childhood--- being able to roam the wilds of my own back yard and my own imagination without pesky adult interruptions like having to pay the mortgage, file taxes or figure out what in the world to make for dinner.

When the time came and I was finally old enough to leave I went as far as I could, looking for fame, fortune and my true identity first in New York, then in Italy, then in Colorado, then in Arkansas and finally in the Last Frontier, Alaska.

While I did meet a lot of amazing people and see a lot of cool things and gather up a lot of interesting experiences did I find fame and fortune just because I’d gotten as far away from home as I could? No. But I did get this: I got a chance to know myself better and, by the time I came all the way home right back to where I’d started--- the house I’d grown up in with just up the street from here I found that just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, I’d always had everything I needed inside of me to find what I’d been looking for.  

It turns out, I actually knew at 8, 9, 10 and 11 a lot of the things I sometimes had to struggle to remember in my teens and twenties and thirties--- how to make and be a true friend, how to have fun writing a really weird sentence, how to love animals and plants and the other creatures on this earth, how to get lost for hours in my own minds and between the covers of a really great book. 

Maybe you really are an alien living on earth pretending to be a human or royalty stolen at birth or a witch or a wizard trying to make your way in the muggle world. Even so, your job is not only to find out who you are, but to remember it, to hold what you already know to be true close to your heart, and your mind, and your hands.   

I do believe that on this earth, we each have a mission. It might be to stop the destruction of the magical world by He Who Cannot Be Named like Harry and Hermione or save your sector like Katniss and Peeta or your father from the dark planet of Camazotz dominated by the Black Thing like Meg and Charles Wallace or to get the ring back from Gollum like Frodo and his gang.  Or, it might be to be kind to someone who is being teased, to stand up for what you believe in, to create art, to test experiments, to create inventions, to care for animals or even to simply get to know better and better the person who is already inside of you. 

 So, as you launch into your futures, one that in the next couple of months might look a lot like a big new building with a million different teachers, combination locks and bathrooms with enormous toilets, you may be daydreaming of bigger, better things to come. And they will.  I’m sure in this room we have budding rocket scientists, brain surgeons, herpetologist, concert violinists, private investigators, inventors, computer whizzes, maybe even a future President of the United States….or Jupiter.
However, like my father once told me, remember, that an acorn already contains everything it needs to become the most magnificent oak tree. Though you will need plenty of sunshine and water to grow to your most glorious potential, the essence of who you are and who you will be is already inside of you. Your trunks will grow strong, your roots will grow deep and your branches will stretch wide, but that acorn is no less perfect than the tree. 

Though I am certain that each of you will launch, far and wide, I truly believe that you already have everything you need to make that happen. So learn, teach, invent, discover, imagine, travel, blossom and grow but don’t forget what counts. What you already know, right now in this room.

Thanks very much for allowing me to be here today…and congratulations to everyone!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Richmond Arm Wrestling for Ladies + RYW!



What: Arm wrestling bouts, haiku thumb wrestling, a silent auction and a lot of smack talk

Where: the fabulous Dixie Donuts in Carytown, 2901 W. Cary Street, RVA 23221 (across the street from the Byrd Theatre)

When: Saturday, May 25th, 1-4pm (we are using our raindate!)

Why: to raise scholarship funds for young writers in need

The Richmond Young Writers' spring scholarship fundraiser approaches and trust us: YOU DO NOT WANT TO MISS IT. We're going to be hanging out at Dixie Donuts, cheering on Princess Slaya, Patty Cakes, the Swiss Missfit, Atomic Mom and more - for several bouts of LADIES' ARM WRESTLING! The event is free and open to the public, but come ready to “bet” on your favorite wrestlers and support the RYW Scholarship Fund!

We’re also introducing a new sport that we’re certain will make it to the Olympics one day: haiku thumb wrestling, of course. What’s that, you ask? You’ll have to come find out.

Plus, you'll have a chance to win a Kindle, a writers' pack, restaurant gift certificates and more at our silent auction!

Can't make it to the fundraiser? Donate online! RYW Scholarship Fund.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Everything I Need to Know I Learned Waiting Tables

If you’ve ever woken up in a cold sweat realizing you forgot to bring mustard to table 3B, you may have waited tables. If you’ve ever paid for your own birth control pills with a roll of nickels, you may have waited tables. If you can read faces, memorize legal documents, calculate complex equations in your head, juggle time management for a small empire, run in heels and make the happiness of others your number one priority, you have definitely waited tables.

My first job at the age of 16—beyond my mother’s metaphorical apron strings—was as a Waffle House waitress. I had been in my mother’s employ for some time but she’d gotten the idea that my “attitude” might be improved by working for someone else. She was right. The summer after my junior year I was hired by an actual man named Bubba and even though he’d be busted and fired on drug related charges before the summer was out, I was to learn a lot under his care. For example, almost immediately I learned that it’s possible to smoke through a tracheotomy while frying eggs and flipping bacon, that themed juke boxes are the second cousins of water torture and that you can actually wear a bonnet and an apron at the same time without dying of eternal shame.

 As the months passed surrounded by that smoky orange, yellow and brown décor, I learned some other stuff, too. I’m now of the opinion that just as nursing students are required to attend AA, sociologists, anthropologists and students of the mental health field should be required to work in food service. Because nowhere is the truth of human nature more apparent than between a fork and its mouth. Serving people from every walk of life—or at least those willing to eat potatoes that have been smothered, covered and chunked—I learned how to make small talk, big talk and when to hold my tongue. I learned how to keep my head above water even when it felt like I was drowning in the weeds, what it meant to serve  and the importance of withholding judgment—at least until after dessert. And, as an aspiring writer, I learned how to pay attention to detail, that what I remembered and what I said mattered and how to get by on what I could bring home each day      

My next stints waiting tables were with the aid of a liberal arts degree—on a dude ranch in Colorado, at a five star resort in Arkansas, on a cruise ship in Alaska and then, lastly, at a small tavern within walking distance of my own house back home. Each was a continued education in communication skills, life lessons, gratitude and humility. And when I finally met my future husband I was relieved to discover that he passed muster: he’d waited tables at Pizza Hut on Jeff Davis Highway during Little League season. And I have no greater respect than for anyone who could survive that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve worn an apron, bonnet, tuxedo, cowgirl hat or life preserver but every time someone brings me hot coffee or a plate full of dinner, I know I will never forget what it felt like  when the tables were turned.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Goodbye, Good Girl

Photos by V. Haggard, Photo Illustration by Joel Smith

We were obedience school drop-outs. Never having been a dog owner before I accidentally enrolled in the Marines when I would have preferred the Peace Corps. The general gave us choke-chains and barked orders. We rebelled, dropped out and did it our own way which was pretty much no way at all-- but did involve lots of hotdogs and licking. Rescued from an abusive situation by old friends, I’d agreed to foster Alizé, the red nosed pit named after a malt liquor for one weekend- nearly 13 years ago. It was 2000, I was 24, my future husband and I had been dating for one month and we’d all just finished reading the first in the Harry Potter series. We renamed her Hermione, though that went through a million permutations: Miami, Mione, Her-me-own-ee, Mayan, a detail that did not escape our attention when we made the heart-wrenching decision to have her put down on 12/21/12, the date the Mayans supposedly proclaimed The End of the World.

For us, in many ways, it was. She had been a flower girl in our wedding, a garland nestled between her short blonde and white locks. She’d adopted first our kittens—allowing them to nurse and knead her-- and then a few years later our son, allowing him to ride her and teach her spelling words. As a couple we had few memories separate from her—from the largesse of holidays and anniversaries to the mundane of the everyday—sleeping, eating, walking from one room to another. She was embedded in the blueprint of our lives, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the back, but as constant as the foundation. When I mentioned that she’d ferried me from my early twenties into my late thirties, my eight year old son said, “Think how I feel, mom. I’ve never had a day in my life without her as my dog.”

The impact of this first up close and personal death on our son was profound. Usually disgusted by hugs and kisses he began to seek them out, uncovering a deeply affectionate side of himself that hasn’t vanished since. He elected to orchestrate her funeral, selecting red roses to hand out to each mourner to be placed on her grave. He wrote a eulogy on his new dry erase board: “You were the best sister I ever had. You were so sweat [sic]. I will miss you forever.” My father brought donuts and a roasted chicken. Several friends came with readings for the graveside. My step-father, father and husband wept openly as they shoveled dirt into her grave and through my own tears I was grateful that my son had such remarkable male role models and that every one of us had the chance to love our dog fiercely enough for such grief.

We received a beautiful outpouring of support—phone calls, cards, detailed experiences from others who’d been through this before, an anonymous donor even paid for a portion of our vet bill. Even so, in the days that followed I wrestled with the terrible feeling that I had failed her—not only in her death (a choice I willfully never imagined having to make)-- but in her life. She was the only person I had never once tried to be anyone else around. She saw me at my most selfish, ridiculous, small and ugly--without judgment or recrimination. She was the keeper of my secret selves, a witness to the worst of me—but also at times the best. Discovering what really matters, what’s truly important, what should come first, I feel as if I was just learning how to love her half as well as she loved me and I hadn’t managed to keep her alive long enough to finish learning—in other words, forever. We may have been obedience school drop outs but our dog was one magnificent teacher.

Friday, February 1, 2013

How to Find Love When One Thousand Donut Holes Are Not Enough

Start by learning what love is not. Learn the hard way. Find out that love is not defined by temper tantrums, drunken stupors, screaming hysterics, underpants left fetchingly on anyone’s front lawn or any of the other flu-like symptoms associated with that first rosy blush. Nor can love be ordered, tracked or dropped off by courier on an agreed upon delivery date. Hallmark and the Bible may make stabs at defining love but you’re going to have to live into your own, more particular versions of this word all by yourself.

Discover that no combination of Schlitz Malt Liquor, Carlo Rossi red wine, Old Crow whiskey, Marlboro Reds or little multi-colored pills equal love. Not really. Nor do barbeque potato chips, chocolate éclairs or lemon meringue pie. Glazed donut holes do not good lovers make. You may have no idea if love is an action, a feeling or an ideal, but you do learn that anything you can swallow, ingest or throw back up, probably isn’t love at all.  

Read that in order to truly love anyone or to be truly loved by anyone you must first learn to love yourself. Wonder what that means, exactly. Practice the affirmation, “I love myself the way I am” in the mirror, without sticking your tongue out, gagging or adding any clauses, footnotes or addendums.

Put all of your complicated, unresolved feelings for X, Y and Z onto the page instead of into your mouth. It’s more important to get the next page than to have the last word.

Accept that Prince Charming couldn’t have had more than two or three hundred lovers in his lifetime and that none of them were you. Even Jane Eyre had to wait until Mr. Rochester was blind and broke before they could get it to work. Practice loving your own assortment of imperfect, scarred, tender heartbreaks and misadventures, especially the ones that demanded you tear everything apart before you could build again.

Learn to look for love in unexpected places. Blow a kiss to the man in the elephant nose mask who wishes you a Happy Father’s Day in the dead of winter. Accept a flower from the woman in the wheelchair who looks like she’s been waiting all day just to hand it to you. Bring bittersweet chocolate to friends who have recently suffered loss, illness, heartbreak or tragedy. Recognize when you leave that love attached to your coat and followed you out the door.

Look into the face of the kitten, the child, the old man holding the door open for you at the gym even though he’s older than God and walks with a cane. But don’t clutch at these new, fresh faces of love and try to keep them for your own. They may bite, drool or hit you in the rear if you grab too much, too fast.

Finally, remove “unreciprocated love” from your lexicon. Try on new terms until you find one that fits like a perfectly tailored dress. Eat away your preconceived notions-- along with your donut holes. Be humbled, blown away, changed entirely by the new words that come to define you. But remember, when you feed the ones you love, don’t forget to feed yourself.