Making Up with my Muse

I wrote an essay this week! My first free-flowing, inspired, creative writing moment since I received my Master’s Degree in Creative Writing – two years, nine months, and three days ago. You have no idea what a relief it is to know that my muse has not permanently left me after all.

I do not blame my MFA experience on this extended dry spell, (a spell that lasted longer than my time in the program). The graduate environment I experienced was encouraging, empowering, enlightening. I read, heard, and met amazing writers who were doing fantastic work. The lessons I learned and tools I was given are invaluable to me.

But muses are finicky, you know. My muse is more organic than academic, and in my graduate goal to become a better writer, I think she somehow got the impression that she was no longer good enough. I thought my MFA would make me a “real” writer. My muse, after all, isn’t “real,” but she is a true part of my writing process.

My muse and I have been writing together all my life. She’s whimsical. She likes to do her own thing, without expectations. She likes to figure it out herself without structure or strings. She doesn’t think about writing rules or prescriptions or possibilities of getting published. She doesn’t care what others think. She just needs a fine-point pen and a college-ruled page.

But even these will not persuade her when she’s pouting.

I tried to appease her. New pens, new notebooks, new books on the craft of writing. Writing prompts. Writer’s Group. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artists’ Way (again), and when that didn’t work, I read Cameron’s The Right to Write.

I tried to write without my muse. Real writers write as a discipline you know, inspired or not. The results were clunky, forced, and without flow. Chunks of purposeless rambling without direction. Clearly, though I now have my Master’s, I am nothing without my muse.

I did all I could to conjure her. I tried to bribe her, entice her, force her to appear and produce, to maintain the production level I imposed on her during graduate school. All to no avail. I could not find her nor force her, so I let her be.

In her absence, I colored adult coloring books. I redecorated the spare bedroom, began scrapbooking. I started reading for enjoyment again, re-organizing my house, playing word puzzles on my phone. I got promoted at work and adjusted my life to spend more weekends with my aging mother.

I waited, with dwindling faith that my muse would return.

And then, on my long drive home from my mother’s last weekend, I heard her. My muse was sitting quietly in the back of my mind, drafting an essay about what my visits to Mother’s have become.

A disciplined writer might have pulled over to scratch down the words. The thought occurred to me, from fear I might miss the chance to catch them. But instead, I listened to her. I listened to her routine of tasks she tackles on her regular visits to Mother’s. I listened to her strain for honor and gratitude beneath the burdens of the increasing caregiving responsibilities.

When the muse fell silent, she left an unfinished essay in my head. But I knew, as I pulled into our driveway, that she would be back for it.

Four days later, I caught my muse running through the introduction of the essay again, and I sat down with a fine-point pen and a college-ruled pad. Within a few minutes, together we filled a full page.

I believe my muse has finally forgiven me. Forgiven me for comparing her to others, telling her she had to improve, for whispering shoulds and coulds in her ear. She and I are working together again, and she even used some of the new tools from the MFA toolbox. For her they are new toys, not tools. (And of course, there’s always revision.)

I don’t believe though, that all is completely well between us yet. That new essay we started on visits to Mother’s still isn’t finished. When we sat down to finish it, we wrote this essay instead.

I’m hoping she and I can move forward from here.

.

Mountains Piled Upon Mountains

I am so proud to have my work included in Mountains Piled Upon Mountains:  Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene.

Image from the corresponding article at 100daysinappalachia.com.

Available from West Virginia University PressMountains Piled upon Mountains features nearly fifty writers from across Appalachia sharing their place-based fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry. Moving beyond the tradition of transcendental nature writing, much of the work collected here engages current issues facing the region and the planet (such as hydraulic fracturing, water contamination, mountaintop removal, and deforestation), and provides readers with insights on the human-nature relationship in an era of rapid environmental change.

This book includes a mix of new and recent creative work by established and emerging authors. The contributors write about experiences from northern Georgia to upstate New York, invite parallels between a watershed in West Virginia and one in North Carolina, and often emphasize connections between Appalachia and more distant locations. In the pages of Mountains Piled upon Mountains are celebration, mourning, confusion, loneliness, admiration, and other emotions and experiences rooted in place but transcending Appalachia’s boundaries.

The collection includes my essay, “Shaken Foundations.” An excerpt from this essay was included in the fall issue of “Mountain State Sierran,” the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Shaken Foundations” has also been used in college composition classes as an example of a fact-driven narrative.

You can read and hear more about Mountains Upon Mountains from WV Public Broadcasting, or from 100 Days in Appalachia.

You can purchase the book from Amazon here:

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility

I am so proud and pleased to have my work included in the recently released anthology: Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, from Cynren Press.

My essay, “Mental Pause,” discusses many of the issues that are included with the onset of menopause, and how this right of passage can affect a woman’s life.

Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility brings together international poets and essayists, both award-winning and emergent, to answer these questions with raw, honest meditations that speak to women of all races, nationalities, and sexual orientations. It is an anthology of unforgettable stories both humorous and frightening, inspirational and sensual, employing traditional poetry and prose alongside exciting experimental forms. Feminine Rising celebrates women’s differences while embracing the source of their sameness–the unique experience of womanhood.

Edited by Andrea Fekete & Lara Lillibridge, with a foreword by Amy Hudock, PhD, this collection includes voices of women from all over the world.

You can read Lara’s introduction here, Andrea’s here, and listen to contributor Rashida Murphyread her poem from the anthology here.

Get your copy below:

Back to Blogging

One of the authors on a writing web site I follow noted that she doesn’t believe in writer’s block. She says, we block because we don’t know what we want to say next.

Come the end of November, it will be two years since we killed Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine, a monthly publication we produced for a decade.  When we ended the magazine, we were at the peak of our readership, reaching nearly 40,000 readers monthly with 18,000 print copies circulated around central West Virginia. We never could print enough copies.

Of course, I had a monthly column in the magazine, a continuing conversation I had with readers for ten years.

And when the magazine ended, I lost that audience and lost that conversation. For two years following, I did not know what to say. Who would I be talking to?

Perhaps I was reluctant to admit we failed the magazine. We could not rustle up enough advertising revenue to keep it alive. Perhaps I didn’t want to admit that I felt trapped by the business–its monthly deadlines, the routine of it, the box I had put around myself as a writer and career woman. I knew, for the last two years of the publication, that the magazine I had once dreamed of creating was something I didn’t want any more. The simple country Iife I had toted and promoted for ten years was feeling restrictive, limiting, and too much of a struggle.

I had hoped to create a publication that readers would love, and we did. That was the fun part. Keeping it financially viable with advertising income in an economically depressed region was a huge pain in the ass. That was no fun at all.

I did not realize until we discontinued the magazine, how much of a burden it was on us. Nor did I realize, until the deed was done, how much I would miss our readers. How much, as a writer, I needed that audience. I needed that conversation. (One-sided as it was.)

I was recently interviewed by an artist working on a project that she waited 30 years to start. We talked about how Two-Lane Livin’ started (an idea in a bubble bath) and how it ended (with phone calls to this day from readers who miss it).  We talked about my graduate school writing experiences, and then she asked me, “What do you want to do with your writing now?”

And the question that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for two years finally answered: I’d like to have an audience again. Not facebook followers, not sporadic literary journals, not a book (although that’s coming). I don’t want to deal with writing as a business right now, I don’t want to scour submission guidelines, subject my work to an editor, consider marketing tactics, web site SEO, cover photos, paper stock, sales tax.

I just want to write and be read. I want to start that conversation again, between me and the world out there, whoever cares to participate. For a writer, what other goal is there but to write – and to be read?

I have been blogging off and on, for 16 years. The archives on this site alone go back to 2006. Sixteen years. Good lord. That goes back to before I was a newspaper reporter, before I was a columnist, before I was a magazine publisher, graduate student, college professor, librarian. Who knows what is in those archives? I don’t. Who knows what new will be added? What’s this blog about? I don’t know that yet either. The photos I’ve put in the page give a review of some of the main points of my recent life — porch sitting, caregiving, library life, creative play, pictures of Daisy, our beagle. This is my space for expression — I cannot predict what is to come.

Blogs, they say, should have a niche. They should use photos, SEO, keywords, hashtags, make regular entries, include external links — there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.  I may or may not adhere to those guidelines.  I’m an Amazon Affiliate and have a Google Adsense account, so I might put those in play at some point, but the point here is to put the words out there, and hope folks read it.

Blogs should allow commenting…  Yeah, that’s not going to happen. I’m not going to moderate comments or take crappy criticism from strangers. (I’ll post links to these entries on my facebook page and profile. You can comment there if you’d like.)

Since it already has nearly 400 subscribers, I’m also reviving my email newsletter. It was originally intended to be monthly, but I think seasonal/sporadic is a more realistic description.  Highlights folks might have missed. Favorite entries, work published elsewhere. You can sign up in the form in the right-hand column–I’m preparing the fall issue to send out some time next week. You can also sign up here.

So, here we go again–writing via the blogosphere. I hope you’ll join the conversation (one-sided as it may be).

The Birds: OLD SCARS, NEW WOUNDS | ENTROPY

I recently had an essay published at Entropy Magazine online.

Here’s the introduction:

In the sixteen years my husband and I have lived on this farm, only three times have sirens screamed out along our rural road. We can’t see the road from our house, but we recognize traffic by sound. Sirens resonate through the hills like a ringing in the ear as they work their way through valleys, vehicles straightening out the curving roads that follow creeks and streams. The ringing rises to a wailing shriek, louder and louder as the vehicles get closer, vehement mechanical screaming amidst the solemn mountains.

Last week, one by one, seven sirens sliced through our serene country evening just after dinner. They were, by the sound of it, law enforcement—fast, high pitched whooping, but without the low thrumming of an ambulance or fire truck’s massive motor. We wondered what happened. Law enforcement miles from town, flying along with sirens blaring? You do not need a scanner or a news broadcast to know something major has happened, something somber…

Read the piece in its entirety at: The Birds: OLD SCARS, NEW WOUNDS | ENTROPY

The Cover of the First Issue - September 2007

Two-Lane Livin’ – Bright Star, Beat-up Car

In the beginning it felt like a newborn child that needed protected, nourished, defended, promoted. And like any child, it grew in its own way, expanding and developing in beyond our plans and expectations, demanding more and more of our time and attention.

Launching an independent magazine–or any small business for that matter–is much like birthing a child. Your life becomes that child which often demands your constant attention. It surprises you with needs and situations you did not expect or plan for, keeps you up at night often.

This child does not really care about your business plan, or your dreams for its future. She becomes what she will, of her own fruition, becomes a living, breathing character influenced by those who support her, befriend her, embrace her, nourish her.

And like any child, you hope that your creation will grow healthy and strong, will flourish and shine brightly. You hope that she will become a mature, responsible, functioning adult that at some point, will not demand so much of your time.

Time.

Ten years can fly by in an instant, but you feel every second of it in your bones, see the life sucked from you in every dry wrinkle and sag. A decade gives you perspective, and time to learn and mature.

With Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine, ten years means hauling heavy loads home from Parkersburg more than 120 times in all seasons of weather. Ten years means delivering magazines over ten Thanksgiving breaks, ten Christmas breaks, ten wedding anniversary weekends. For Frank and I, ten years of Two-Lane Livin’ has been a decade of scheduling our lives around this child’s rigid monthly deadline–me a week every month tied to the desk, him a week every month on the road.

We have loved Two-Lane Livin’ like a child. I birthed her from nine months of planning and from the very first issue she had a life of her own. (All copies were gone in three days.) From the beginning she was more than we had ever hoped for, and quite often more than we could handle. In ten years, we have never been able to solicit enough advertising revenue to produce enough copies to meet reader demand.

Our popular girl wanted to go farther than we ever imagined, into twice the number of counties we originally planned, twice the mileage on delivery vehicles, twice the time delivering. Strangers and friends volunteered to help get the monthly issue circulated into their own areas.  Writers from across the state began offering to write for us. We never planned to offer subscriptions, but in response to demand, reached 18 states and two countries outside the U.S.

For ten years, Two-Lane Livin’ has been a bright star shining from, in, and for central West Virginia. I believe that. I truly do.

Bright stars burn quickly.

I have come to believe that small businesses in West Virginia age in dog years–seven years of aging for every year of existence. The amount of energy, dedication, creativity, strategy, problem solving, and work required to get a small business up and running and to keep it running smoothly ages it prematurely.

(This month on my birthday, I hit the big Five-O. Perhaps it’s not the magazine that has aged, perhaps it’s just me.)

I thought retiring Two-Lane Livin’ would feel like killing my child. Instead, I find it’s more like giving up a beat-up but beloved car that has almost 300,000 miles and no longer holds third gear. She’s dented and has a slight oil leak; smells of newsprint, fast food, and hay. But boy we’ve had some fantastic adventures together.

Two-Lane Livin’ has been good to us, and has been a wonderful experience. But our time with her has come to an end. In dog years, she’s more than 70 years old.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for being with us during this Two-Lane experience, for being fellow witnesses to the life of our creation, our child, our dependable car…

Our shining star.

Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine
September 2007-December 2017

(P.S. We will be maintaining the twolanelivin.com web site, and will, over time, be making all issues of Two-Lane Livin’ available as flipbooks and featuring favorite articles we encounter in the process. To keep up with those developments, you can sign up for our email newsletter in the form at the right of this page.)

Ten Years of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine

When we created Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine ten years ago, I had just spent a little over three years as a newspaper reporter in Calhoun County. For that time, I was up to my ears in news, events, controversy, and opinion. When we started Two-Lane Livin‘, I had two main guidelines for the magazine: nothing controversial, and no copies of past issues piling up around the house. I wanted the magazine to entertain, to educate, to have something to interest almost anyone, to leave the reader feeling satisfied and perhaps uplifted or refreshed.

For the past ten years, it has been no problem getting rid of copies and not having leftovers pile up in the house. But ten years–120 issues–without getting too controversial-that’s a challenge. It was almost impossible (and quite exhausting, I think, on the columnist) to present a column on the environment. We ran a piece on Global Warming once, and lost an advertiser. Over the last ten years, there were so many times I wanted to share my thoughts on an issue, but felt restrained by our mandate to remain non-controversial.

I know in the past ten years, I have written often about my garden or what I might view from our back porch. Sometimes, these are the only topics I can think of that don’t carry a controversy. But even then it’s easy to wander into the issues relating to our food and our lands. For ten years we have worked with other columnists to celebrate our lives here, to educate and empower readers, to look on the bright side of our lives. Folks seem to have no problem continually complaining. But try putting on a happy face for an entire decade. That, my dearies, is difficult.

When celebrating a milestone like a ten year anniversary, you have to look back and wonder if what you have been doing has made any difference. Can we celebrate our lives by ignoring what is happening around us? Or is it important to provide a venue that allows us to briefly take reprieve from the frustrations and controversies of our lives? I have been chastised more than once for not using this magazine as a venue to take a stance on life-changing issues in our state and our nation. Controversy is easily more intriguing and dramatic sometimes, but I still believe that we need venues that allow us to disconnect from all the negatives, and focus on the simpler, happier things in life.

It’s difficult for me. Over the past years, I have developed a love/hate relationship with West Virginia, and I have discovered that self-reliance and farm life are hard work. Running a small business isn’t a picnic either. My people skills (or lack thereof) have managed to get us blacklisted by a small city, a festival committee, and a college. We’ve blown motors in two vehicles hauling the magazines home from the printer, and I’ve gone from no glasses to reading glasses to bifocals. In February of this year, our web site was hacked by terrorists in Indonesia. I am amazed at the things that can happen. Sometimes it’s hard to stay happy.

But I still believe, after ten years, that Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine is needed. There needs to be a medium available that isn’t plugged in, isn’t linked, isn’t news, isn’t opinionated, isn’t manipulated, isn’t spouting hate, violence, controversy, disaster, politics. A venue where lessons are linked to memory and story and simply making use of what you’ve got. A place where I (and others) can remind myself (and you) of some of the great features and stories and possibilities of two-lane life.

I watched the snapping turtle having lunch yesterday, slowly rising up out of the water to bite the stems of the plants at the water’s edge, then pulling the plant under water to finish it off. I watched a young hawk roost in a dead tree this morning in the rain, feathers all ruffled up with crows cursing him nearby. Last night the crickets and katydids and bullfrogs filled the blackness of the valley and I looked up to see the Milky Way, intricate and multi-dimensional and immensely beautiful above me. I wonder how often that glory is there above me and I simply don’t look up to see it.

Here’s to ten years, insect song, snapping turtles, the hills, and the stars above. Thanks for reading and sharing Two-Lane Livin’ and joining us on this two-lane journey.

Two-Lane Livin’: What Does That Mean to You?

(This post originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine.)

The lake out back has been red with pollen as of late, and higher along the banks from recent rain. Without a garden this year to force me out into the hot sun, I have spent extra amount of time this summer sitting in the glider on the back porch. An osprey stopped by last week, circling over the water, then diving straight down to splash and clasp a fish in its claws. On one dive, the fish must have been heavier, or deeper than expected, and the bird struggled in the water for a good bit before managing its return to the air. It lifted itself above the water a few feet, wings flapping full and hard, and came right towards me, rising just enough to swoop above the back porch roof and rise over the house. I could see the bird’s black eyes; the fish wiggling in its tongs.

On another afternoon, I watched two fawns splash and chase among the adult deer in the shallows of the water on the far side of the lake. Their legs still spindly and weak, one of them seemed tormented by a deer fly, jumping and turning in the air, then simply flopping down in the mud. A few days later, when a cool downpour came in the midst of a hot and sticky afternoon, I looked into the sheeting rain to spy one of the fawns prancing and kicking along the bank of the lake in sheer joy and refreshment. I considered stepping out in the rain for a little dance myself, but remained in the dry and smiled at the dancing baby deer instead.

Green herons, gray herons, kingfishers—they are all common occupants here, as are the blasted Canada geese, filthy noisy creatures we curse under our breath. I can tell the difference between the snout of the soft shell turtle and the snapping turtle when they peek up through the surface of the water. I know a wild duck attempted to raise young on the lake this year for the first time in years. She started with six ducklings, and she is now down to two. Our cat was responsible for the demise of at least two of her young, bringing them to the back porch to show off to our beagle. I’d say the snapper got the others. Or perhaps the local raccoon.

I know the Canada geese abandoned her nest and eggs just a few days after she began setting this past spring, and the raccoons came and ate the eggs.

I know the humming of the hummingbird when it comes to visit my hostas, and the buzzing of the persistent wood boring bees when they are captured in our bee trap. I know the roar of rain approaching across the hills as the drops beat upon the leaves of the forest—closer and closer. I know the high-pitched whizzing of the daggone deer fly, and even higher-pitched whine of the mosquito. I hear them all from the back porch.

I cannot decide if my favorite time is in the morning, filled with birdsong: the wrens, the sparrows, the warblers, the thrashers. Mornings are filled with the whistles of the titmouse, the “birdie birdie” call of the cardinal, the “wichity wichity” of the yellowthroat. But as we enter late summer, evenings just after dark are just as lovely. The night is filled with the “ch-ch-ch-ch” of the katydid, the droning of the cicada. The crickets spout their high pitched trills and chirps, and the tree frogs sing alto. Bass is covered by the bull frogs, and the barred owl occasionally asks, “Who cooks for you?” A friend of mine recently told me she had three whippoorwills on her farm, and I was decidedly jealous. We haven’t heard a whippoorwill at our house for years.

These songs of summer make me nostalgic, thinking of the afternoons and evenings spent on the porch of my grandparent’s cabins in Blue, West Virginia. The birds are not all quite the same, as the cabins were in the fields, away from the forest, but at the fork of Blue Creek and Middle Island Creek. We used to whistle back to the whippoorwills, to sing back to the barred owl, “And who cooks for you?” As I child I could only recognize the birds with easily recognizable songs, and I didn’t give the crickets a second thought. But now, these are the sounds I miss when winter comes. As I have aged, I’ve learned to sit in the back porch glider and enjoy.

In a few weeks, school will start again, then the next thing we know, we will have Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Come winter, all we will hear is the caw of crows. But the silent stars will shine crisp and sharp, and I’ll look up to admire the Milky Way.

There are times. There are times when the beauty around me literally touches my soul. And some times, I wonder if the beauty is enough to overcome the piling list of West Virginia downfalls.

Of course, if we read or watch the news, we are all aware of West Virginia’s statistics. Second lowest household income of the 50 United States, 49th in unemployment, and one of the highest gaps between the wealthy and the poor. West Virginia citizens rated themselves as being more miserable than people in all other states – for five years running. Our education system, one of the most expensive for taxpayers in the nation, has some of the lowest rankings. West Virginia, ranks either last or second-to-last in 20 health categories, including cancer, child immunization, diabetes, disabilities, drug deaths, teeth loss, low birth weight, missed work days due to health, prescription drug overdose, preventable hospitalizations, and senior clinical care.

Our population is expected to dwindle by another 19,000 by 2030, at which point we will lose one of our three seats in the House of Representatives. Thirteen years can fly by in no time.

This issue of Two-Lane Livin’ is the last issue of Volume 10. With the September issue, we celebrate our 10th anniversary. I have been looking back over some of our early issues, when I thought self-reliance and simple living could overcome the downfalls of our state’s statistics. When we started, I knew I wanted the magazine to be positive, empowering, entertaining and educational. I was determined the magazine would remain non-controversial, and we have tried remain so.

In the beginning, ten years ago, we asked readers, “What does Two-Lane Livin’ mean to you?” What is it about this rural life that soothes your soul? What is it that keeps us here in a state that faces so many challenges? I really want to hear from you, and hope to run some of your replies in the next issue. You can discuss Two-Lane Livin’ the lifestyle, or Two-Lane Livin’ the magazine, but I want to know what Two-Lane Livin’ means in your life.

Please write to me at Stumptown Publishing, 2287 Rosedale Road, Stumptown, West Virginia, 25267, or at info@twolanelivin.com.

There is comfort and beauty in the birdsong I hear on my back porch, in the sight of the Milky Way in the sky. I hope you still find comfort and beauty in Two-Lane Livin’, and I would truly love to hear from you.