Taking the Temperature of Writers’ Conferences

Since we’re in the midst of writers’ conference season, I decided to rerun a post this morning:

If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember the old thermometers, the ones that you had to keep under your tongue for four minutes, the ones you had to shake down with an expert snap of the wrist, the ones that made you squint in order to make out the level of the mercury that told you your temperature. Believe it or not, I’m now the owner of a thermometer very much like this, only this one contains Galinstan, “a non-toxic, Earth friendly substitute for mercury.” You still have to hold it under your tongue for four minutes.

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Writing to Preserve

I lost a pocket comb yesterday. It exists somewhere without me now. It was a black pocket comb, purchased in Anchorage, Alaska, to replace another comb that I lost there. I usually don’t lose combs, but now I’ve lost two in two months.


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Juggling Balls: An Exercise for Opening a Short Story

For whatever reason, I’m thinking this morning about the openings of short stories and what we expect of them. Rust Hills, in his excellent book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, says the end of a good story is always present in its beginning. The final move of a story is only possible because of everything set in motion in the opening.

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Memoir and the Future

A few days ago, I was telling my cousin that I used to have problems managing my anger. She asked me what I’d done to help me let that anger go. Without thinking, I said I wrote a book called From Our House. It’s true. Writing that memoir about my father’s farming accident, the angry man he became, the violence he brought into our home, our difficult relationship, and our eventual journey toward reconciliation allowed me to gain a measure of control over the temper that living with my father’s rage instilled in me.

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Travel and the Writer

Because my father was a farmer, we didn’t travel much when I was a kid. The crops and the livestock needed constant attention. A farmer can’t afford to wander. It was only after my father sold our stock that we started to take a few trips. We went to the Illinois State Fair in Springfield one summer, and my father surprised us by suggesting that we go on to Hannibal, Missouri, and once we were there, he said we might as well drive on over to St. Joseph to see my mother’s brother. Outside of a train trip to Washington, D.C., it turned out to be the longest trip we ever took as a family. I came home with a genuine Stetson hat purchased in St. Joe and the newfound knowledge that not every place was as flat as the farmland of southeastern Illinois. For the first time, I’d seen the Mississippi River and its bluffs. I’d gone through Mark Twain Cave. I’d eaten Pie a la Mode at 2 a.m. in a diner in Chillicothe, Missouri. I was eleven years old, and suddenly the world was full of wonders.

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Taking Flight: First Drafts

A wild turkey crossed the road in front of me this morning, and as I slowed, it started to run through the grass—running, running, running in a most unseemly fashion before spreading wings, lifting into the air, and taking flight.

Starting a piece of writing is sometimes that way for me. I feel like I’m running and running but nothing is lifting up from the page. I often have plenty of forward momentum in a first draft, but I also have the sense that things haven’t really started and I’m waiting for that feeling of liftoff. It’s a matter of sensing that I don’t really know what the piece is about. I don’t know what it is that I’ve come to the page to explore. Over the years, I’ve come to accept that it’s okay to know very little when I begin. I’ve learned to trust that the writing itself will show me what’s important.

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Close to the Bone: Writing Family Secrets

Over the weekend, I was at my aunt’s house and I was looking for a fork. I opened every kitchen drawer and found no silverware. Finally, I gave up and asked where a guy might find a fork? Turns out that my aunt has a concealed drawer that opens up above a drawer that holds ordinary kitchen utensils. Who knew? A secret drawer that holds the silver. My aunt said in jest, “That’s to keep people like you from stealing the silver.”

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Slowing Down

La-Z-BoyIn 1990, I bought a La-Z-Boy rocker/recliner for my study, and spent a number of years sitting in it, writing. I still own that chair, and, when I want some time to ponder or to daydream while working on an essay, a story, a novel, that’s where I go. There’s something about the gentle rocking motion that soothes me, and if there’s a window nearby with a view, then all the better.

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What Fills Us as Writers

Recently, I made a trip to the farm my family owned in southeastern Illinois. Yes, I was trespassing, but I took nothing but memories and a few photos, so I hope the current owners will understand. One of the photos was of the cistern behind the farmhouse. I remember, as a child, lowering a sorghum pail down into the water by a rope tied around its bail. I would let the pail fill with water and pull it back to light and air. Emptying and filling up, again and again, in this place that now never leaves me–this place I still think of as home.

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On a Mother’s Birthday, a Writer Loves the World

Mom feeding me

Today is my mother’s birthday. She’d be 101 years-old. She was a soft-spoken woman who put others before herself. Some may have thought her meek, but she had a fierce strength inside her that allowed her to endure the twists and turns her life took. She was a woman who knew how to endure, a woman of duty, but I hope she also knew how to thrive. I hope she had a million small graces that made her love her life.

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