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Thursday, January 29, 2009

eat, drink, and blog

On Monday night, I had the opportunity to be part of a panel of local folks talking about blogging. The meeting was hosted by the Twin Cities writing/networking group Eat, Drink and Get Published and moderated by Jason DeRusha, who writes Jason’s DeBlog on The panelists included Stephen Regenold of The Gear Junkie, Kay and May of the StarTribune’s Cribsheet (I finally got to meet them!), and Justin Piehowski, who writes Minnesota Blog Cabin on MinnPost and produces Sheletta Brundidge’s Emmy-winning blog. And then there was, ahem, me (with the smallest blog of the bunch).

It was so interesting to hear how the other panelists got started. Some were motivated by money, but most were motivated simply by passion. We are all passionate about our subject matter, whether it be supporting new parents, writing about blogs, testing the newest mountain bike, or creating a space for motherhood literature to be taken seriously. Passion is the thing that birthed our blogs and passion is what keeps us posting.

According to Universal McCann, 184 million people worldwide have started a blog, and in the State of the Blogosphere, Technorati says that bloggers are:

  • Not a homogenous group: Personal, professional, and corporate bloggers all have differing goals and cover an average of five topics within each blog.
  • Savvy and sophisticated: On average, bloggers use five different techniques to drive traffic to their blog. They’re using an average of seven publishing tools on their blog and four distinct metrics for measuring success.
  • Intensifying their efforts based on positive feedback: Blogging is having an incredibly positive impact on their lives, with bloggers receiving speaking or publishing opportunities, career advancement, and personal satisfaction.

I’m not sure how savvy I am, and I’m certainly not able to post as much as I’d like, but I do know this: this small space on the Internet has definitely had a positive impact on my life, and it’s because of all of you. Two years ago (today), I began this blog to create to a place where writing by women about motherhood would be taken seriously as literature. I also wanted to develop a readership for my book. But I didn’t expect to become part of such a rich and varied community of mothers and writers living and mothering and trying to get words on the page. I am so grateful to all of you and to your words. Thank you!

I’m interested in hearing why you started to blog and how your perception of blogging has changed (if it has) since you began.


p.s. I am taking the advice of the other panelists and uploading a picture of myself. I guess I didn’t realize it was so important. Is it?

Monday, January 26, 2009

still reading

I haven’t posted about what I’m reading in a while and this is probably because I’m all over the place, reading three books at once. I prefer to read one book at a time, submerging myself completely in one voice, one plot, etc. But this kind of reading doesn’t fit into my life right now.

I did finish a novel a few weeks ago: Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, first published in 1925. Once considered a classic and now largely forgotten, it’s the story of Sara Smolinsky, a Jewish immigrant, who rebels against the traditional roles of women and the authority of her father. It’s set in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century, but what Yezierska says about poverty, the immigrant’s experience, and the “American Dream” seems to hold true even today, so if you haven’t read this novel, you should.

The books I’m currently reading are: The Best American Essays 2008, Writing Home by Cindy LaFerle, and The Middle of Everything by Michelle Herman. In the morning, to warm up my brain at the coffee shop, or to take a break from my memoir, I’ll read a few pages, or even a few paragraphs, of an essay from BAE. In the afternoon while I’m sitting in the car in front of Stella’s preschool with Zoë asleep in the back seat, I’ll read one of LaFerle columns or a few pages of Herman’s memoir.

Let me tell you what I love about Best American Essays. I love all those different voices and experiences, ways of seeing the world, stacked next to one another. I love the prose, discovering how someone else phrases the thought in my head. I love seeing a version of myself reflected in someone else’s experiences. And I was thrilled to discover that this newest collection begins with a mother’s story: Patricia Brieschke’s “Cracking Open,” an essay about the long hospitalization of Brieschke’s son, Ollie, when he was two weeks old. Her prose is so tight, her writing so immediate, that I felt I might vomit the first time I read it. (This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s not. This short, desperate piece is full of heartbreak.)

BAE 2008 is full of gems: Bernard Cooper’s “The Constant Gardener” and Lauren Slater’s “Tripp Lake.” I read one, go back and read it again. It totally works for my current attention span.

LaFerle’s Writing Home works the same way. This book is a compilation of newspaper columns and short essays written over a twelve year period, most of them for The Daily Tribune of Royal Oak, Michigan. LaFerle’s voice is intimate and inviting, and the more I read, the better I feel I know and like her. It’s interesting because I’ve never read a print newspaper faithfully enough to fall in love with a columnist. But I do read blogs that way, and this book is like having the posts of one of my favorite bloggers printed and compiled. I can read one or several at a time, then put them down and come back a day or two later. It’s a perfect book for me right now.

I’ll report back on Herman when I finish The Middle of Everything. This book can be read a chapter at a time because its chapters are slightly essayistic, circling around a topic rather than pushing us along one narrative line. But I know that when I finish this book, the sum of Herman’s chapters will leave me with something larger than her story alone. She is a wonderful writer, her prose precise and engaging.

Revising the book is slow, very slow, but it’s making a difference. It’s amazing how much “stuff” I had in there because it was “good enough.” Now that I am retyping the whole thing, “good enough” is falling away. Not to mention that I am a much better writer than I was four years ago when I started writing it. 13 pages down, 298 to go.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

glued to the television

I'm sitting in front of the television, getting chills from the power of collective hope. Oh how I wish I were in D.C. right now!!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

a little like golf

My grandpa, Spencer, will be 100 years old on January 19th, and we’re having a big party for him on Saturday. 100 years old! It’s difficult to imagine the changes he’s witnessed in his lifetime. He has lived to see 19 different presidents in office (including Obama, for whom he voted).

Grandpa was born in 1909 in Granite Falls, a small town in Western Minnesota. He was the second youngest of nine children born to his Swedish immigrant parents. He grew up poor, on the wrong side of the tracks, but that never stopped him.

In high school he met my grandmother, Lucille, and he wooed her. They married in 1932, while our country and their small community were mired in the Depression. After the Depression, they built a greenhouse next to their house and became florists, so, as my grandpa says, “We could be our own bosses. We could live our own lives.” My grandparents were married for 67 years, until Lucille died in June of 1999.

After Grandma died, I was worried that Grandpa would whither. You hear of it happening often enough. But he didn’t. He eyes would fill with tears at the mention of Grandma’s name, and when he spoke of her, his voice wavered. But he didn’t give up living. He wasn’t ready. Instead, at the age of 90, he taught himself to cook, and he began work on his latest golf invention, a “swing tuner” which he called, simply, the Gadget.

A natural athlete, Spencer was captain of his high school basketball team. He was a hunter and a fisherman. At age 19, when the baseball coach wouldn’t play him, he swore off baseball and took up golf. He hit balls into a burlap sack outside his house until he was good enough to play against the best golfers in the state. He can remember what he shot in 1939, in 1945, in 1971. He has three holes-in-one on his golf résumé. He has been a greens keeper and a golf instructor, and it’s as a golfer than many people know him best.

One of the things I know disappoints him is that none of his granddaughters have taken the sport seriously. I used to go to the driving range with him, and he would adjust my grip and my stance, tell me to “keep that elbow in,” to “swing through the ball,” to “close the face of that club,” to “keep your head down.”

I have a pretty good golf swing because Grandpa, but I don’t play golf. He always used to tell me that golf was the most difficult sport you could play because you had to remember everything: the grip, the backswing, the elbow in, the stance. If one thing goes, you won’t make it. You can’t be sloppy. But it was difficult for me to remember everything I needed to remember all at once. And that’s where the practice came in. “It has to be second nature,” he would say. “You have to practice these things enough so that they feel natural.”

Before Stella was born, I would go to the driving range with him once a week in the summer, but after she was born I was too busy juggling childcare and graduate school. I couldn’t commit to golf. But I want my grandpa to know this: I still use what he taught me.

In my classes this fall I lectured about dialogue and scene, voice and character, and as I did these things, I said, “Practice. This will become second-nature.” I felt as if I were channeling my grandpa. You see, writing isn’t so different from golf. You need all of the aspects of good writing (strong characters, evocative prose, realistic dialogue, sensory details) to be a strong writer. In golf, you may know how to chip, but if you can’t putt, you’re lost. As a writer, your prose may be lovely, but if your characters are flat, it doesn’t matter. You can practice these aspects of craft separately to master them, just as you can in golf. But ultimately, they need to become a part of you. Like a golf swing, the craft of writing needs to be organic, natural.

I hope my grandpa knows that I’ve listened and I’ve practiced. I hope he knows what I’ve learned from him, even though I rarely step onto a golf course.

There will be over 70 people at my grandpa’s party on Saturday, a testament to the kind of person he is. He is without guile. He makes friends easily. He sees commonalities where many people see differences. He is forever positive, an avid reader who is also addicted to CNN.

If you wouldn’t mind, could you raise your glass for Spencer this weekend and say a wish for him? He’s a stubborn old Swede, and I love him.

Monday, January 12, 2009

first paragraphs

A number of times a day I have a thought followed by, oh, this will make a good blog post. I walk through the day writing paragraphs in my head. Some of these paragraphs are very good. Some are not. Regardless, by the time I get the kids to bed (especially when D is gone, which he was last week), I am too tired to type, and I’ve forgotten those smart paragraphs I had labored over earlier in the day. (Yes, I know I should carry a small notebook in my back pocket or invest in one of those itsy bitsy tape recorders, but I don’t.)

The result is that you have no idea what a serious blogger I am. You have no idea how often I “post.” I know that doesn’t count; I’m just groveling for a little affirmation here.

This morning I’m at the coffee shop for the first time in almost two weeks, and I feel rusty. I have a list of things I need to work on: 1. revise book, 2. finish an essay I promised an editor months ago, 3. organize teaching stuff in our radon-filled office basement, 4. prepare for AWP. (I could go on, but I don’t want to stress myself out.)

My goal with the book is to re-type the whole thing into the computer. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Crazy. It’s 97,000 words. But I haven’t looked at it, much less read it, in almost two years, and it’s time to “make it the best book it can be.” I certainly have emotional distance at this point, so I can be brutal with my prose and my scenes. And I will be brutal; I’m actually looking forward to it. But it’s difficult to begin this process because I dislike the first paragraphs of the book. I’ve always disliked them. There, I said it. Time and again, I’ve gotten hung up on these paragraphs. I’ve been obsessive about this word or that word, changing “lie” to “lying” to “lie” to “lying” a dozen times. And I know that this sort of piddling always speaks to a larger problem, a problem that screams: “These paragraphs suck!”

I know what I would tell a student if she came to me with this problem. I would say, “Skip the first paragraphs. Sometimes those are the last to be written. Come back to them.”

I’m absolutely confident that I know what I’m talking about when I doll out this kind advice. I smile and nod encouragingly. I ask my student, “Who says you have to write a book from beginning to end?”

So, I am staring at myself now and nodding encouragingly. (I look slightly foolish, as you can imagine.) But I’m ready to take my advice. I’ll come back to these paragraphs, and soon I’ll discover whether: a) I’m full of shit or b) I really know what I’m talking about. I do hope it's the latter.

Monday, January 5, 2009

looking forward

Happy New Year!

I hope you all had a relaxing holiday, or, if not relaxing, exciting. We’re just back from my mom’s cabin, where we spent a few days skiing and cuddling and skiing and cuddling. Stella got cross-country skis from Santa (you gotta love that guy), and she was all over the skiing. I was actually worried she wouldn’t like it because a certain amount of falling is inevitable (ask my sister’s new husband, who tried it for the first time). But she wasn’t fazed by the falls, and was even able to pick herself up most of the time. She chattered the whole way: “We’re on the same team, aren’t we? Look how fast I’m going! Watch this, dad! Look at me, mom!”

Skiing at the cabin is one of my favorite things, and one of the only things that makes our Minnesota winter bearable for me. There are trails on the other side of the road, so we can ski down the road and head straight into the woods. There is no one else around, so all you hear is the wind in pine trees, dead oak leaves scratching against one another, and the swish of skis. Snow clings to branches, and the sky, when it’s clear, seems impossibly blue. It’s lovely, and I always feel so hopeful when I’m there, gliding through the forest. My favorite section of trail is under a tall stand of pines. It's dark and the snow is littered with pine needles, and there is something about it that reminds me of a fairytale. Emerging into the bright snowy field on the other side is always a shock (albeit a lovely one.)

So the cabin was wonderful, but now we’re back, and I’m having a difficult time facing the fact that there are still three (and maybe even four) months of winter left. Zoë came down with a bad cold up north, so of course I am now sick again, as well. It’s snowy and very cold here, so even if I felt up for it, I wouldn’t be able to take the little bugger out for a walk. (Not to mention how difficult it is to push a stroller through snow and ice.) So I’m trapped inside again, sniffling and getting snotted on. (Did I mention how much I love January in Minnesota?)

Alright, I’ll stop whining. Instead, I’ll list a few things that I’m looking forward to this year:

  • My grandpa’s 100th birthday—we’re having a big party on the 17th (more about him later)
  • AWP—I will be on a panel of writers who write about their children in February in Chicago. I’m a little nervous to be away from Zoë for a whole weekend, but I’m so excited to sleep through the night and talk writing for three days!!
  • Zoë’s first birthday (though I hate how fast she’s growing!)
  • Launching an online version of Mother Words (stayed tuned for more on this)
  • Selling my book (this is me being hopeful, but I thought including it might help)
  • Stella starting kindergarten (again, I think this will be a difficult transition for me, but she’s ready)
  • Going away for a weekend—or even a night—with D when I’m done nursing (I don’t know when this will happen, but it must)

May the new year bring each of you many small and large joys, much laughter, and stable personal finances.