On Sunday: One Writer’s Prayer

Give me this day a focus of mind,

a love of the word,

a willingness to try to understand those who confound me,

a patience with my own shortcomings,

a forgiveness for every time I didn’t write as well as I might have,

compassion from those I’ve hurt,

tolerance for those who have offended me.

Open my heart to the world in all its mysteries and contradictions.

Keep me from pride.

Keep me from envy.

Help me to be thankful,

to be ever mindful of this gift,

Finishing Our First Drafts



Painted in white letters on a lane of the high school track where I sometimes run or walk is the word, “Finish.” Each time I passed it on Father’s Day this year, I thought of how my own father made sure I understood the importance of completing what I started. I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating now. Whenever I complained that I couldn’t do something he wanted me to do—loosen a nut, fit a grease gun to a zerk—he’d say, “Can’t never did nothing.” How true about so much, but especially true when it comes to writing. Can’t never finished nothing.

My Father and I in the Wheatfield: A Lesson in Surprises

When I was a small child, my father always told me the flags flew on June 14 because it was his birthday. It’s true that the 14th was the date of his birth, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that the real reason the flags flew was because it was Flag Day. Although he’s been dead since 1982, each year on the 14th I see the flags on display and I think of the joy my father took in telling me that story.

Writers’ Retreats

I recently had the pleasure of teaching at a writers’ retreat sponsored by The Sun Magazine in North Carolina, and I came away with what I always do when I’m a part of such groups: a reinforced belief in the power of the written word. Not that I ever doubted—I’ve always believed that writing is as essential as air and water and food; at least it is to me—but still it’s good to see the evidence in what transpires between participants at such events.

Making Ourselves Vulnerable on the Page

Someone asked me recently if I ever cry while writing fiction. This person said it had happened to. . .um. . .a friend of his, and the “friend” found it alarming. As fate would have it, I’d just read something that the singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams said about how her father, the poet, Miller Williams, taught her to not censor herself when she wrote. “I met a young man who came to me for advice on how to be a good songwriter,” she said, “and I told him don’t be afraid to dig into the deepest part of yourself and face your demons. He gave me the saddest look and said, ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ He was afraid to do that. I felt bad for him. It never occurred to me that someone would be too afraid of doing that.”

Decoration Day

On this Memorial Day, I’m thinking about peonies, which, for some reason, folks in my part of southeastern Illinois always called “pineys,” with a long “i” as in “pine,” meaning to long for.

On our farm, when I was a boy, we had peony bushes along the edge of the side yard where each summer the grass gave way to the start of my parents’ vegetable garden. Each year on what we called Decoration Day, my mother cut the “pineys” (we had crimson and pink and white) and arranged them in coffee cans wrapped in foil paper. She filled in around the flowers with loose gravel I gathered from our lane, making arrangements we could leave on the family graves in the country cemeteries where my ancestors, all of them farm folks from Lawrence and Richland Counties, were buried.

The Writer as Camera: Perspective in Personal Narratives

When we write personal narratives, we are both the participant and the spectator, both a character in a story and the narrator of that story. From each position, we can adjust the angle of vision, moving the camera slightly, in order to increase our understanding of the people in our lives and the situations that make up our experiences. Too much “me time” isn’t necessarily good for our narratives, which can start to feel claustrophobic if the writer doesn’t invite us to see and feel from perspectives located less closely to the interior.

Telling Our Family Stories

I was talking with a friend the other day about revisiting the past—the often-painful past—when we write memoir. My friend admitted to having night terrors when her work with the story of her mother became too intense. Eventually the conversation swung around to the question of why we do this. Why do we keep going over our stories when often the act of telling them affects us so deeply?

I tried the usual answers. We write about the past in order to document it, to preserve it, to come to terms with it, to move beyond it. “Yes,” my friend said, “but why is all that important to you?”

When the Words Won’t Come

This was one of those mornings when I didn’t want to work out, but I knew that if I did, I’d end up feeling better about myself and the world in general. Sometimes we have those days, those days of “just don’t want to”—and, of course, the easy thing is  to “just not,” but sometimes if we force ourselves to do just a little bit, we suddenly find that we’ve done a lot.

Can’t Never Did Nothing

Take from this what you will.

There came a time, toward the end of my father’s life—though we had no way of knowing the days were running out—when I had to bathe him. My mother, his caretaker ever since the farming accident that cost him his hands, was in the hospital, and so I did what she had faithfully done for twenty-six years. I helped him out of the canvas harness that held his prostheses—his hooks, he always called them. I undid the safety pins from his tee-shirt sleeves, the pins that fastened his arm socks to those sleeves and kept them from drooping. I pulled the tee-shirt over his head. The skin on his neck was red from sun, his chest and stomach were white. I helped him out of his trousers, and then I tugged down his boxer shorts.