Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Book ~ In Process

I recently read a column in which the author claimed that no one who says they are writing a book will never, ever finish writing a book.

This made me neurotic for a little while. Had I already told too many people that I'm writing a book? Should I delete all references to it? Do I need to invent a fake job as cover? Is it already too late?

I've decide instead to throw caution to the wind and tell you all about my book-writing process thus far. See that big pile of paper to the right of my laptop? That's my book.

Also can you see the sad cracks on my laptop screen from the day I left it on the couch and someone must have sat on it?


Please don't ask me if it's done yet. Writing a book, in my experience, is not like baking a lasagne, where you prepare all of the parts, put them together, and toss it in the oven until it's all bubbly. It's like making a lasagna if you individually make each part from scratch (including growing the tomatoes), put it all together, bake it until it's bubbly, then take it out, taste the whole thing, then take it all apart, scrape the cheese and sauce off of the noodles, add different seasonings, switch out the spinach for eggplant, add some sausage, then take it back out again, then put it all together again, bake until bubbly, then repeat, several more times until it actually tastes good (or, possibly, turns into an inedible mass of burnt cheese and noodles). Have I taken this metaphor too far?

When we returned from our hike on the Colorado Trail last year, I spent the next couple of months transcribing my journals, adding from memory, rewriting as I went along, and dropping the notes from my first Colorado Trail hike into the document at about the same geographical points. I finished this process the day before the election, after which I went into a bit of a tailspin. I can see now that I needed a bit of temporal and emotional distance from the material, but I would have been perfectly happy to attain this break another way. After a couple of months' hiatus, I spent some time working on shorter pieces which helped me step away from the whole big huge manuscript and focus on specific themes and ideas and begin to process the experience.

Around that same time (January) I also started The Artist's Way, which entails daily writing of three pages, long-hand. Several weeks into TAW, I started to work on my book again, three pages a day, long-hand (coincidence?). This helped me put together my introduction (which has since become Chapter 1). Beginning around February, I printed out my journal notes, one section at a time, and retyped them into a fresh document, revising, researching, and incorporating the first hike as I went along. After a few months of this incredibly slow process, I put a hold on the research and focused instead on retyping/revising/incorporating only (putting in bracketed "research ski industry/spruce budworm/mineral belt" as placeholders). Summer threw me for another loop, what with kids home all day and a big road trip and the sun and the beach and stuff, so that by the time my writing retreat came, I was about two sections, or 60 pages, shy of finishing this process.

Nevertheless, I printed out all I had finished as well as all I hadn't and took the stack of paper and several different colored pens to the artist colony, where I wrote all over the manuscript in a color-coded system (teal=general edits/changes/revisions; pink=find a better word; orange=research; lime green=write better). Now I'm going through that stack of paper, incorporating the edits into my draft and doing research as I go along. I'm up to Chapter 5, which is about where I stopped researching during the first go-round, so I expect the process to s-l-o-w-w-a-y-d-o-w-n again.

During a session at a writing conference this summer, one of the panelists described revision as smoothing out a scarf—you start at one corner and push the wrinkles ahead of you, coming back to that first corner again and again and again. I've been holding this image in my mind—the scarf (book) doesn't have to be ironed flat with each step, just smoothed out a little more than before.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Nature Journaling ~ Event Mapping

An Event Map is a visual depiction of your time out exploring nature. Using words, simple drawings, and mapping symbols you recreate on paper the world around you—both elements of the landscape, like trees or mountains, and things that happen, like a visit from a chickadee or a dragonfly that zooms across your path. Usually an Event Map will trace your route through the landscape as you hike, wander, or explore, but you could also make an event map while sitting still. Event Mapping slows you down and helps you pay attention to and record little details; it gets you out of your mind and into the world that surrounds you.

I'll be teaching a workshop on Event Mapping at Viles Arboretum in Augusta on Saturday, October 28, 10 a.m. - 2 p.m. $35 members/$45 non-members. Call the Arboretum at 207-626-7989 to register.

This workshop will be a little different from my other Nature Journaling classes in that we'll spend less time indoors working on drawing techniques and more time out in the field exploring. After a brief introduction to Event Mapping and a few quick drawing skills, we'll wander the Arboretum's trails and create our own Event Maps. Through noticing and recording the sights, sounds, and moments in nature that draw our attention, we'll sharpen our observation skills and deepen our connection to the natural world.

Please bring: a journal, notebook, or blank paper and clipboard; simple drawing tools (pen or pencil with sharpener); snacks, water, and lunch; and a backpack to carry everything in. You may also bring binoculars, a hand lens, and field guides if you would like, though this workshop will be less about identifying and more about observing and experiencing. Please dress for the weather and wear sturdy shoes, a hat, and sunscreen or bug repellant if needed.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Monarch Summers II

In late summer, my children and I search for caterpillars. The milkweed is thigh-high at this time, with fragrant mauve flower clusters swelling into rotund seed pods. When we see leaves that are missing great chunks of green flesh, we peer underneath of them, hoping to find a fat yellow-, black-, and white-striped caterpillar hiding there. When we do find one, we bring it home and place it, along with a good handful of its milkweed host, in our butterfly jar, a bulbous vase of blown glass, to complete its cycle of eating and growing and transforming into a monarch butterfly.

So begins my essay "Monarch Summers" which was published last fall in the journal Snowy Egret. JUST in case you didn't order a copy of that print-only journal, you can now read the piece at the website Nature Writing. I'd love to hear what you think.


Monday, October 9, 2017

September Reads

A monthly recap of books I've read. For past months, see:
January Reads 
February Reads 
March Reads 
April Reads 
May Reads  
June Reads
July Reads
August Reads 


Fiction.
I wasn't going to take any fun reading with me for my week at the artist colony, but I gave in at the last moment and packed the last installment of the Amelia Peabody mystery series by Elizabeth Peters (about which I've been regaling you since May) and I'm so glad I did. Reading it was the perfect way to wind down in my cottage after a day of focusing on my own writing, and this book, a satisfying, happy ending to the 20-book series was the perfect choice. After returning home, I read The Tale of Hilltop, which is the first in a series of Beatrix Potter mysteries by Susan Witting Albert. You can see I'm in the mystery mood these days; they're such soothing escapism. And this one in particular is the coziest of cozies (barely even a dead body at all). It was a little slow to ramp up, with a lot of different characters to outline, but ended up being pretty entertaining. I have a fascination with Victorian and Edwardian era women naturalists, and the book brought in a lot of personal and historical detail about Potter's life.

Read-Aloud
One of the boys' grandmothers started reading A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly to them while we were at camp over Labor Day weekend, and I brought it home and finished. The movie Lion is based on this story, about the little boy in India who accidentally ends up on a train to Calcutta, 1600 miles away from his home. Two, book and movie, complement complement each other wonderfully. The book gives a lot more details about what life was like for Saroo as a boy in India, how he adjusted to life in Australia, and how he managed to remember enough details to get him back home. And the move has such wonderful visuals, it really makes the book come alive. By the end, I was only reading to E (Z prefers to go and do his own thing) and then he and I watched Lion together. He was very concerned with the discrepancies between book and movie, and got a bit bored with grown-up Saroo (and fell asleep).

Nonfiction
While on my writing retreat, I read two books to help me get into the long-distance hiking chronicle mode: Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and Scraping Heaven by Cindy Ross. I'd read both of these before, and in fact Ross's book, about hiking the Continental Divide Trail over five summers with two little kids, helped plant the seed of a big trip, way back when the twins were little. The only thing I remembered about Bryson's book was that it was funny, but I'd forgotten just how funny. Actual laugh-out-loud. But he also incorporates a lot of information while being funny. I had originally thought my book would be humorous, but the reality of the depressing environmental stuff I want to address in it didn't seem to lend to humor. Yet Bryson somehow manages to be funny even about the destruction of the world and he's inspired me to at least try to inject some humor, even though I know I could never be a tiny fraction as funny as he.

I picked up The Snoring Bird by Bernd Heinrich at a conference a few years ago, but hadn't read it yet because it seemed like such a tome that would involve a huge commitment of time. Then I was talking to a friend about it a while ago and she told me "It's a page-turner," so I gave it a go and she was right. I tore through it in a week! The book tells the story of Heinrich's father, a naturalist of the late 19th and early to mid-twentieth century, who had an obsession with ichneumon wasps. I know that doesn't sound like a page-turner, but after reading through several of the elder Heinrich's brushes with death, as a pilot in World War I and II, while collecting specimens in far-flung jungles, and escaping Poland ahead of the Red Army, you won't be able to put it down. The book then follows young Bernd through his childhood in Germany and Maine (where his parents placed him and his sister in a boarding school while they went to Africa on collecting trips). Though fewer brushes with death occur, it continues to hold interest. Bernd struggles to differentiate himself from his father (studying honeybees rather than wasps) and as biological sciences evolve from taxonomy to research, son further distances himself from father. Yet, even as Bernd analyzes his father's motives and behaviors, he fails to bring awareness to the way he recapitulates his father's utter selfishness, particularly with regard to wives (yes, plural) and children. It's a fascinating read from the standpoint of the evolution of the natural sciences, the history of Central Europe in the era leading up to the first world war through the immediate aftermath of the second, and family dynamics in a very unusual family. And it's a page-turner.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

October Newsletter



My October Common Ground newsletter went out yesterday. If you don't already have a subscription, you can check it out here and subscribe here. If you've already subscribed but didn't receive your copy, check your spam folder and "promotions" tab. And if you try to subscribe, but it doesn't work (I've heard this from several people—has something to do with span settings and whatnot), send me a message using the blog contact form at right and I'll sign you up manually!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Pugnacious Beasts

I don't have any photos of snapping turtles, but here's a tiny little painted.

One morning I held a snapping turtle in my hands. Her shell was the size of a dinner plate, oblong and slick with a coating of greenish-black algae. Although she wasn’t the biggest turtle I had seen over the previous few days, her smooth carapace indicated she was an old one, lacking the ridges and keels that corrugate younger turtles’ upper shells.

Please click here read more of my essay "Pugnacious Beasts," which appears on Zoomorphic today.

I was a little hesitant to put up a self-promotion post today, the day after yet another national tragedy, riding on the heels of other tragedies. But as this is an essay about the vagaries of life and death and about doing something even when you know, in the big picture, it's probably pointless, it seems fitting, or at least not too callous. As long as our world is held in a stranglehold by those who make a lot of money off weapons of war and fossil fuels, we're as helpless as a turtle in the road, humanity—and all of life on earth—overridden by greed and violence.

Friday, September 29, 2017

One Week in Fairyland

Earlier this month, I had the great good fortune of spending a whole entire week away from home at an artist colony on a lake in Western Maine.



I had the most charming little cottage all to myself.


I shared the property with four other artists (including our hostess), each of whom had her own cottage, spaced far enough apart from each other that we only saw each other when we wanted to.

Each cottage was sweet and unique, and I'm quite sure each of us believed she had the very best one (but in my case it was true).


Mine was named Viking Court, and I'm pretty sure The Three Bears moved back in after I swept it out and went on my way.


Inside it had the most amazing array of patterns—tile and wallpaper and linoleum and window panes. I couldn't stop taking pictures of the intersections of light and pattern.

Even the giant spider webs under the eaves made beautiful patterns.

I also painted wildflowers and mushrooms and visited the big chestnut tree and went on a tramp with a friend who led a group of land trust docents and swam in the lake every day. I was extra-lucky to have been awarded a week of beautiful sunny weather sandwiched between two rainy weeks.



I got some work done, too—a full revision of my entire manuscript (handwritten changes on a very thick printout). A lot of work remains to be done (I filled seven pages with notes of things to research), but I feel good about what I accomplished and ready to move on to the next step.

Every day I had a moment where I thought, "E and Z's bus will be here soon…" or "I have to go pick up M from cross country…" or "Is there a soccer game today…" or "It's time to start dinner…" and then I realized…no. I don't have to do anything or go anywhere. I'm not responsible for anyone.


Two weeks have gone by since I left and I'm having trouble believing I ever really was there.



I hope the Three Bears are happy to have it back.
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