Category Archives: Essays

A Fiercely Kind Word

OK, y’all, here’s the dealio. I’ve got a lovely new website, put together by the terrific folks at Tracking Wonder. It’s for writers who want to improve their writing craft with fiercely kind support, customized for their project, their writing challenges–because the writing process is messy, ambiguous, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, elastic, forgiving and forbidding.

I’m a writer, so my engagement with writers through A Fiercely Kind Word will reflect my writer’s life. At this point (one more semester to complete my MFA), I’m not going to promise a koan of writerly wisdom every Wednesday. There’s no way I can guarantee a brilliant insight first thing Monday morning. Because: writing is messy, ambiguous, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, forgiving and forbidding.

_C8A6964-Edit - Richard Mallory Allnutt photo - Lesley Howard - Blacksburg, VA - June 11, 2017

Richard Mallory Allnutt made me look good for A Fiercely Kind Word. Thank you, Richard!

When you hear from me, it will be the real dealio: my craft essays. My reflections on stories and novels. My practices. My stage of the journey, in all its messy, ambiguous, difficult, frustrating, exhilarating, forgiving and forbidding glory (or misery, depending). Sometimes, but not always, there will be a “craft frolic” at the end of my posts, giving you suggestions for how to play with whatever writerly craft element I’ve mused upon.

I’ve got a nifty manifesto you can download from A Fiercely Kind Word here; if you sign up for my Fiercely Kind Word prompts (at the bottom of this page), you’ll get five days of free writing prompts. And of course if you want to work with me, you can contact me through my . . . (drum roll!) contact page.

And I’ll still blog, occasionally, here, about the less-chronic chaos of having an half-empty nest and parenting the “baby adults” my sons have grown into since I started this blog five years ago.

Onward!

p.s. I’m still fine-tuning the behind-the-scenes components of A Fiercely Kind Word, so if you encounter any hiccups, please contact me at lesley@afiercelykindword.com and let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

Writing from an image . . .

. . . is an excellent way to jump-start a free-write, or explore a character, or launch a new piece. The estimable Janet St. John has used one my my images to do so as part of her intriguing series of “Art and Soul Shorts.” You can see it here.

May your weekend grant you some hours to linger in the late-spring blooming of your own writing–here are two very different images to get you going if you need inspiration.

Blog party: Mariela

17888076_1145165478961159_1779597627_nHere we are. It’s the end of the month. The final installment of our Blog Party has arrived already if you can believe it. We’ve so enjoyed working together and getting to know our respective audiences as a result. Hope you have too. Closing down our party is Mariela. Here’s how Mariela introduces herself at a [blog] party…

12819474_10110279046440424_7143565581058908509_oMariela: I have a passion for linguistics, culture and travel. Back in 2013, I started a blog to share my personal journey’s experiences with my family and friends, called El periplo de Mariela (or Mariela’s Journey). Although the blog’s name was in Spanish, posts were 99% in English. For the first couple of  years I wrote with certain frequency but then life took over and I eventually stopped. Fast forward to April 2017 and, after a 1-year hiatus from writing, I’m launching MarExplora. For now, its main feature is still the blog but this site will be an ever-evolving project..I’m excited to see what path it’ll take me!

CH-CH-CHANGES

One year and some change in transition mode: the company I work for will soon be centralizing all corporate functions related to the operations of its properties in the Americas in Miami and, therefore, they’ll be closing the Atlanta office.

Call it intuition or experience, this corporate decision didn’t take me by surprise. I had considered it might eventually happen, that it was just a matter of time. The majority of my co-workers did not see it coming, though. Confusion and sadness describe the very first days following the announcement last May. Although we were all given the option to continue with the company if we relocated to Miami, most of us decided not to, for different reasons.

In my case, as much as I’m always open to challenges, moving my residence to South Florida was not the direction I wanted my life to go. Being clear on what I didn’t want was a good first step, but what was next for me?

When something of this nature happens you have a great opportunity to take a step back and think what you want to do, where you want to be, what your purpose in life is, etc. I decided I’d take full advantage of being in that position and focus my energy on assessing all options. I’ve spent the last months doing exactly that.

I’ve explored and revisited plans I had earlier in my life that never materialized. I’ve returned to projects I had abandoned, including my blog site. I’ve even gone back to school to work on certain skills I wasn’t confident about. Along the way, I’m learning about many possibilities I hadn’t given a thought to before…and it’s exciting!

I’m still not sure what future lies ahead for me, but I know the changes in my life will all be for the better.

Blog Party: Shannon

17888076_1145165478961159_1779597627_nSince we’ve been at this for a while, you probably remember what “Blog Party” refers to, but in case you bonked your head like a cartoon character, or are just late to the party, read this post.

This guest post is by Shannon. Here’s how Shannon first introduced herself when she got to the Blog Party:

DSC_2205Shannon:  Greetings! I’m a storyteller and story coach living in Atlanta, GA. I’ve been blogging since 2006. My current blog is embedded in my website. I tend to write irregular reflections on storytelling, projects, and my journey. My subscribers are almost entirely a part of my personal network, so I’d love to have a chance to grow beyond the people who just want to make sure I don’t starve. 

Seeing & Not Seeing

I recently went to the memorial service of a guy I worked with at Buffalo Mountain Camp. The following day I went for a long hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Forest, terrain very similar to the mountainside on which our camp resided. As nostalgia is one of my favorite places to be, I went there.

18472457_10158704605475224_1836321784_oConrad the Snake was one of the long-time residents of Buffalo Mountain Camp in the mid-nineties. He was a rat snake, not to be confused with a rattle snake, though they look frighteningly similar. Rat snake = loves to eat rats. One of my less desirable jobs for a time as the camp’s assistant director was to go to town and buy mice for Conrad. To. Eat.

Really hated that part of my job.

One day, through circumstances I can’t quite remember ~ someone left the lid off the cage? ~ Conrad escaped. After he was gone for a few days, we began to mourn. You see, a domesticated animal cannot go back into the wild. Tim, our resident guru, explained that Conrad would only last a little while on the mountainside. Surely he’d starve or be eaten by another predator.

18472594_10158704604345224_225846036_oA week later, I led first aid orientation with new staff. I stood over this large plastic bin full of the fanny packs I’d lovingly made with all of their supplies. Counselors were to carry their emergency first aid fanny packs with them at all times. I opened and went through a sample fanny pack, like an alternate-universe Vannah White, showing the various pockets and Ziplock bags full of bandaids, creams, and ointments. I stood over the tub for like 20 minutes.

I’m sure you already know where I’m going with this story, but, before I get there, let me justify this moment to you a little bit.

Camp is a multi-sensory experience, y’all. There are “little altars everywhere”: feathers and stones placed lovingly for your secret pal to find; sloughed off snake skins are offerings of God’s creation made manifest here and there on hearths and in window sills. I’m not saying this totally excuses what I was so oblivious to, seeing and not seeing at the same time, but I was indeed distracted by my very important first aid business.

So, of course, the big reveal: Presentation over, as I bent forward to begin distributing the fanny packs to the less than eager hands ~ because let’s face it, even in the 90s, even at camp, which is its own society, who wants to be forced to wear a fanny pack day in and day out? ~ I finally understood that Conrad was right there at my feet. He was nestled up amongst the fanny packs, all shades of brown and black amongst the neon pink and blue. It took me a while to realize what I saw, even reaching my hand into the bin…until he adjusted himself ever so slightly.

That’s when I went into shock.

“Um, guys…” I think is what I said. “You know what?…”

Trailing off, I walked away, sat down on a rusted folding chair for a really long time, completely speechless after that. Just rubbed my hands up and down my legs, like I was trying to keep warm, despite it being a humid summer day. Amazingly, Tim, aforementioned camp guru, knew exactly what was happening in that moment and sprung into action. He gently lifted Conrad from his home-away-from-home and took him for emergency food and water.

I still sat where I’d landed for a while. If you’ve ever experienced shock, then you know this phenomenon. Generally, in a crisis, I’m your Jenny-on-the-spot. I’m the one to spring into action, think with absolute clarity, and get things done. But, just a couple of times in my life, I have been so taken aback in the moment that my reaction turned out to be quite different.

I think the more remarkable aspect of the story of Conrad-the-Snake-turned-Houdini, though, is my moment of seeing/not seeing. Think of how stubborn my senses had to be in order to completely miss that snake at my feet! I refused to connect the dots in my mind.

Today, it’s become a kind of allegory to me in more than just the following ways:

    1. Climate change deniers. With each passing year, we experience strangely warm winters and fiercer, more frequent, more frightening storms. I think about the cognitive dissonance people have to stuff down in order to pretend we are not having a devastating and direct impact on our planet’s ecology. I truly wish there were a way to help people stop seeing the matter as something politicized or out of their own hands. If we all could know this is our legacy, our responsibility, and something that’s very much real–acknowledge that we are indeed seeing what we’re seeing and feeling what we’re feeling–how much closer would we be to solving the problem?
    2. Mental illness. As you may know, I just spent a period of time back at Virginia Tech doing storytelling work for the 10-year anniversary of the 2007 shooting. I often think about Cho’s 23 years of life that came before he killed 32 people, shot 17 others, and then killed himself. At every point along the way, he had presented as a deeply troubled person. As a little boy he refused to speak. In high school he wrote a paper stating that he’d like to commit violence on the level of Columbine. He’d been placed on a 24-hour psych hold, which meant he should have never have been able to buy a gun. His teachers noticed the warning signs and even reported him to the administration. Our system–and individual people–let him down all along the way.  In retrospect, it’s terribly sad that he was able to do what he did because people were seeing–but not seeing–what he tried to show them.
    3. Systemic racism and white privilege. White people. Those of us walking around in pinkish skin, who are melanin-challenged (as my friend Kathie D says), have this tendency to bury our heads in the sand. This head-sand-burying problem is to our convenience. We like to claim that racism ended around 1968, as though Martin Luther King, Jr. was a second Messiah who cleansed our sins with his assassination. Of course that’s not true. We willfully ignore, remain oblivious. We look, look away at police brutality and assassinations of black children. Look, look away from the overly large numbers of incarcerations and state-sponsored killings (executions) of people of color. Poverty rates. Children who are punished and expelled from classrooms in imbalanced rates. Environmental racism is revealed as we build pipelines through places we don’t want to live. We dump toxic waste in communities of color and sit idly by but make sure to watch the made-for-TV movie about Detroit’s water crisis. Look. Look away.
    4. New love found in an old friendship. (This! This, of course, is my favorite one to write about.) I have this dear friend who’s been friends with a certain gentleman for a very long time. He had a crush on her for years, but she just sort of tolerated it and basically ignored him until late last year. When she visited in the fall, quite unexpectedly, she saw him in a different light. He’d been doing a lot of work on himself both physically and emotionally–had been in love with someone else for a while, done a lot of yoga, grown a beard–and blammo! Magic! It was like when you were a kid, playing with magnets, pushing them around by their opposites, and then suddenly they flip around and stick to each other. She’d probably be the first to tell you some of what had changed was the work she’d been doing on herself as well. This story is not yet far enough along to know exactly where it’s gonna go, but I’d be willing to guess it’s going to remain as epic and sweet as its beginnings. It’ll be worthy of a Modern Love essay one day, which is apropos, since my friend is who introduced me to that wonderful column.

Tim, the now legendary camp guru of this story, had a funny way with words. He could turn a phrase with the best of them, and I’m quite certain his daughter now rolls her eyes at his jokes like, “The only thing worse than pneumonia is OLDmonia.” One of his favorite sayings was, “If it had been a snake, it would have…crawled away and hid from ya!” His point being that most snakes are not hiding in hopes for the chance to jump up and bite you as the more famous euphemism goes. Their markings are there to protect them; they’d rather stay hidden.

I guess my point is, it’s our collective responsibility to keep our eyes open. In essence, to be woke, but as a white person, I don’t really get to claim that term. To understand what it is we are observing and to make meaning of it as we must. My plan, and my dearest hope, is not to miss the next opportunity, the next observation, the next sensory experience, and especially the next potential love I’m given, that’s for goldarned certain.

Epilogue. A word about fanny packs and the camp counselor mentality. They evolve. I have now become infamous for always having bandaids, ibuprofen, an umbrella, sunscreen, and, of course, a reusable water bottle/coffee cup. The Boy Scouts didn’t land the market in the Always Be Prepared mentality. Good Methodist camp counselors had that too.

Epilogue, Epilogue. Please, let’s not talk about the escaped pythons in Florida. We’ll not think about that!

Blog Party: Zach

It’s time for Round Three of this month’s Blog Party! If you’re unfamiliar with this, I encourage you to read this post to see what it’s all about.

This guest post is by Zach. To remind you of who he is, here’s his brief blog bio from the original introductory post to Blog Party:

 Hello, I guess. Is that right? I’ve never been good at social … things. I’m a writer of fiction, currently delving into Middle Grade fantasy, where the kid in me is quite happy, thank you. For the most part, I’ve morphed my blog into a collection of posts about all the truly bad choices I’ve made in life. I figure others should be able to laugh at me as much I do. So, if you’re up for feeling better about your choices, check out I Have a Wrong Way to Go, drop a comment, talk about operatic mice, share stories, or, you know, stuff.

Zachary Steele BWThe Manic’s Guide to Connections

The moment he took the taser out of the case, I sat down and waited. I knew what came next. In that inexplicable sense of destiny, or fate, or the complete and utter understanding of my best friend/meta-sibling’s personality, there was nothing I could do to stop it. It took only, “I wonder what it feels like?” to inspire him into action. For three seconds, he held the charge against his arm, smile twisted in a blend of shock and amusement. Anyone else and I’m running to stop them. But this is the guy who covered his face in shaving cream in order to act like, I don’t know, a rabid Frankenstein or something, then wound up screaming his way down the hall because he hadn’t expected it to burn so badly. This is also the guy who filled a plastic container with butane, stuck his hand through the opening, lit a lighter, thereby (shock!) rendering his arm hair to curled, horrible smelling, reminders of what once was.

This is the smartest guy I know. No, truly, he’s brilliant. In fairness, this all took place over twenty years ago, so perhaps his judgment merely lost its battle against youthful curiosity. A fight we all remember losing more often than not.

I, myself, have lost that battle numerous times, predominantly in the pursuit of the ideal connection (a.k.a. Twoo Wove, a.k.a. Aphrodite, a.k.a. Zach’s Insane and Somewhat Naïve Quest for Completion). The trick—the part I always lose myself within—is getting beyond the initial connection and immediately attempting to translate that into some state of permanence. Some might call this a, “relationship”. I have called them, “oops, nope”. Still, I persist. After all, life can be whittled down to nothing more than an ongoing series of connections, right? Like the charge through my friend’s arm, we absorb the shock and it fills us. It enlivens the mind and heart; and, sure, it scares the hell out of us, but we do it anyway because stopping seems as likely as travelling through time in a DeLorean.

Speaking of which, I read an article regarding the activity of particles in relation to time. The prevailing theory the scientists presented stated that particles show behavioral patterns based on future events, working then backward through the complexity of what we know as “time” in order to reveal their true nature. Now, I have neither a chalkboard, chalk, nor Doc Brown’s manic energy to explain any of that; but it did get me thinking about the connections (and disconnections, for that matter) I have experienced in my life.

Perhaps, in this context, connections are actually echoes from the future. Perhaps we know we’ve met someone important in our lives because—as with the nature of particles—we’re seeing the result that will be instead of the emotion of the moment. Perhaps all of this is utter nonsense and merely an escapist means by which to avoid the reality of the patterns in my life.

Until recently, that pattern has gone like this: I find a connection, I feel alive. I have a sense purpose, completion, and a dingle-dangle twinkle of the ever-elusive surge of happiness. I dive headlong, the connection following my lead. The connection is strong, the pairing complex yet thriving on simplicity, the bond like, I don’t know, every metaphor for love ever stated. Something with flowers and sunshine, probably. Or waves across an otherwise silent beach. I could probably invent one that has to do with tacos, but it might make me hungry and then I’ll spin off into some tangent on cheese.

Mmmmm…cheese.

Anyway.

The point. Right. The non-cheese point is that every new connection thrives on the euphoria of discovery. The newness, the elation of two people sharing commonality and dreams. Ultimately, this wanes in favor of reality, personality, behavior, and the truth that some people just like to shock themselves with tasers to see what happens. And that’s okay. I didn’t know that. I was under some deluded impression that every connection required permanence. It had to last forever, otherwise what was the point? Not quite a shock to the arm, but I did do it to myself and marvel at the results.

Sometimes you meet someone, you share a connection, it feels ridiculously good, then the river of life leads you to drift you apart. Or, sometimes you meet someone, you share a connection, it feels ridiculously good, then no matter how much you want it to continue, the one you’ve connected with drifts away on their own, leaving you to wonder what in the hell of hells you did wrong.

And that’s okay too, I suppose. Everyone deals with this stuff in their own crazy ass ways.

I’m no atomic particle travelling backward through space and time, but regardless of outcome, I’ll take the connection, no matter the result. Sure, I have wants, needs, dreams I can’t shake no matter how hard I try; but I can’t be without connections. Which means I might need to fill the container with butane and burn my arm hairs off from time to time. I might need to shock myself just to see how it feels. I might even need to act like a rabid Frankenstein just to see who runs away first.

Life’s a crazy thing. May as well be a little crazy with it.

 

Blog Party: Lesley’s post

For those who have no idea what “Blog Party” refers to, I encourage you to read this post to see what it’s all about. 

It’s glorious spring in my neck of the woods, and the woods I walk my dogs in is bursting with all shades of green: emerald, jade, sea-foam, M&M, spearmint. And these greens come in all shapes and sizes, from mayapple to fern to clover to rambling rose to cottonwood saplings. Each different, each thicker in some parts of the woods than others: the mayapples tend to cluster where sunlight makes its way through the thickening canopy; the ferns seem to prefer darker slopes; the saplings dot the areas where an older tree has fallen—they need the light that’s available to them in those gaps.

So many greens! So many shapes!

So many greens!                   So many forms!

And so it is with the forms that our stories may take: just as the majority of the plants in the woods are green, so many of our stories are made of words, words of all types: sacred, profane, Germanic, Latinate. And the form these stories take also varies: spoken word, poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, short story, novel.

I have been banging my head against the proverbial wall in regards to form for my writing: short stories are encouraged in the MFA program, I believe because getting a short story to “work” is a practice that can be applied to longer (and shorter) pieces of prose. But I’m only human, and I’ve worked with three- or five-act structure for years; I know Aristotle’s incline intimately, and Freytag’s triangle is my good friend. It’s like being in love with ranunculus or daisies and not noticing hyacinth and coral bells, and there’s nothing wrong with having a preference, for loving what we love.

For story structure, my love has been to include a fair amount of backstory. Last semester, while I floundered with a short story, my advisor suggested I get rid of all backstory and revise the story entirely in one scene. What?! No no no no my writer self hollered, I need backstory! At least a little bit!

I was wrong. Completely, totally, entirely wrong. When I cut out the backstory bits (carefully saving them in another file, because, well, because) the characters did and said everything necessary for the story in the present moment of the story. And in fact, once they were unencumbered by the backstory, they soared up and out and behaved in some startlingly interesting ways—the story blossomed.

Oh.

There are a gazillion ways to structure every piece of writing. OK, maybe not a gazillion. But more than three. How to become familiar with more than the major three? First learn the basics: Aristotle’s incline, Freytag’s triangle. There are all kinds of resources for this: Deepening Fiction by Sarah Stone & Ron Nyren. Imaginative Writing by Janet Burroway. The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers. In Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, page 19 has a wonderful jump-start process for an essay. Also Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist does a terrific job both teaching structure and providing the beginning writer with the scaffolding to complete the draft of a novel. And while learning, or reminding yourself, of the basics, read like mad. Take stories apart. Re-type them. It’s amazing how a writer’s process is revealed by simply re-typing their story. I’m doing it today with a chapter of Renata Adler’s Speedboat.

Because even if we love only some of the greens the world has to offer, our stories may demand that we expand our aesthetics. Writers are here to serve the stories that come to us, not cram them into the little boxes we’re familiar with.

Here’s to spring’s wild greeny excesses, its bounty of difference.

May your stories find their shape.

 

Blog Party: Vienna

For those who have no idea what “Blog Party” refers to, I encourage you to read this post to see what it’s all about. 

This guest post is by Vienna. To remind you of who she is, here’s her brief blog bio excerpted from the original introductory post to our Blog Party:

blog party viennaVienna: Hi! I began my blog, Vienna writes, in the summer of 2014 and blogged on an infrequent basis until very recently. This year, in the last week of March, I decided it was time for me to blog again simply because I wanted to get back in the habit of writing. My blog is an exploration of reclaiming my voice as a writer, and I have committed myself to one blog post every day. It includes posts of my thoughts, memories, and inspirations that are slightly longer than a drabble. Feel free to come along for the ride, the ultimate destination of which I have no idea.

 

Our Body, Our Planet

Our country is home to millions of people, the majority of whom are overweight and obese. Fast food is everyday while slow food is a rarer luxury. People, overweight or not, feed themselves at a dangerous pace, looking at their screens and, at the same time, going through the motion of shoveling food in their mouths without consequence. The body is a car to get them from Point A to Point B. A pair of glasses to see through. Nothing but a mechanical shell to get what we want.

Who knows what we’re trying to feed? Our bodies? Our sense of comfort and convenience? Our numbness? Our spiritual emptiness?

Our planet is home to millions of other living species and organisms. Forests, fish, birds, and livestock. This blue-green orb, which offers up its riches without fail, suffers on account of the abuse inflicted upon it by humans.

Why would beings that mistreat and misunderstand our bodies do any better by the Earth?