Homeschool MFA

Keep the Needle Threaded
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Keep the Needle Threaded

This is my best writing advice…that doesn’t even really sound like writing advice.

Melissa Wiley wrote a poem about the creative process called “Always Leave Thread in the Needle.” I love the unexpectedness of this piece, the way what we need is found in outside the usual places. In the ashes, fallen leaves, and overturned drawers.

When I finish embroidery for the day, I always thread the needle with fresh thread. This is the hardest part for my tired eyes. If I do the hard part first, I can easily begin stitching the next time I open my project bag.

Dedicate space and time in your day to return to the page. Make it easy to get back to work. Keep your notebook and a box of black pens near you. Have good words in your ears. And quiet too.

Thanks for reading along here this month! I hope that in reading about my writing practice, you’ve been inspired to think about your own process. And maybe even got to the page some mornings. Things will probably get quieter in the coming month as I try to follow my own advice and make space for the coming light.

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Postcard Poems
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Postcard Poems

When I am looking for handwork, I usually reach for embroidery. but I also love to make postcards out of calendar pages.

For years I had saved Nikki McClure calendars, but this year I have a MOMA page a day calendar. So many possibilities! We’ve loved looking at a new painting each day. And now I am slowly making a stack of cards.

I love to have a sheet of stamps ready with a few postcards. It’s the perfect way to send a thank you note or a quick hello.

But the best present that I could think to send is a postcard poem. My work is generally very short and perfect for the small spaces of postcards. For the past few years I have participated in February Peace Postcards.

In August SPLAB hosts Poetry Postcard Fest. I discovered these poets just after the cutoff date last year. I’ve been quietly dreaming of the end of next Summer and the cards I will send.

This year Rattle is hosting a postcard poem contest. It closes at the end of January, so maybe that’s another project for the first month of the new decade.

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Handwork as Soulwork
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Handwork as Soulwork

In a recent letter Holly Wren Spaulding mentioned what she calls embodied and improvisational tools including slowness, benevolent company, quiet, rest, space, and courage. Holly’s spacious improvisations overlap with my own reasons for loving handwork.

My life and work as a mother and homeschooler is filled with the 10,000 things that need doing. I work on embroidery projects to give definition to my time off. I don’t want it to slip away because I have failed to pay attention. And yet I’m looking for a way to step away from obligation and requirements.

Embroidery stills the insistent voices in my head and in our world that says we need to do more, we need to consume more, we need to be more.

For a few minutes each day I claim my sovereignty.

By choosing to slow down, to be quiet, to rest, I create a space where courage becomes possible.

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Ann Kroeker Writing Coach
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Ann Kroeker Writing Coach

Yesterday I mentioned the #AmWriting podcast. Another favorite is Ann Kroeker. She’s a writing coach in your ears!

Seasonal Homeschooling

I first came across Ann’s work 10 years ago while searching for Ann Voskamp. Isn’t that a blast from the past?! I emailed her or left a comment about looking for one thing and finding another. She was so gracious! How serendipitous her first book felt for me.

All through the years I’ve been a reader of her blog and listener to her podcast. Then our paths crossed again when I wrote the prompts for Tweetspeak Poetry, one of her publishers, for a season. These tiny affirmations early on in my Homeschool MFA were the spark, the sign that I was on the right path, that I hadn’t let go of the thread.

I was riveted listening to a recent episode on free writing vs. thinking before you come to the page. It’s a false dilemma of course. The two practices reinforce and strengthen each other. But hearing Ann puzzle it out is enlightening. And it made it easy to see how both practices could enliven my writing.

I’m due for a re-read of Ann’s excellent book On Being a Writer. I think it might be just the thing for the new year. A way through the dark of winter with writing together as our guide. I’d love to have you read along with me!

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Things You Control and Things You Don’t
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Things You Control and Things You Don’t

Whatever my submission goals shake out to be in the coming year, whether or not a particular poem gets published is not something I control.

It’s my job to be learning and growing and sending things out. But then that’s where my work ends. I can’t manhandle editors into publishing my poems!

I first learned about this idea from the #AmWriting Podcast–an excellent listen all around. In Episode 140 they were talking about goals in the new year and mentioned this concept of things you control and things you don’t.

They weren’t advocating shirking responsibility or a lackadaisical approach. These writers are committed and driven. But they were advocating a clear headed look at where all that drive settles down into something deeper.

A softening, an open hand, the boat moving freely in the current.

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Small Steps
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Small Steps

In my Homeschool MFA it all counts–daily writing practice, reading, journaling, watching movies, reading craft books, taking classes. Because I don’t have great swaths of time to devote to this project, I aim to use every bit of my life to build up my writing.

But how can I be sure that I’m not just covering the same ground? How can I be sure that I am growing as a poet? Well, in a lot of ways I can’t be sure! I’m in it for the long haul and am working on habits that will be with me through time. I don’t want to just put in the hours, but also grow horizontally–to develop my craft while putting in the time. Here’s how I’m doing that.

This poem has been through many, many revisions. And came back from a publisher with another rejection this month.

Take Classes

This doesn’t come as a surprise does it? I love the accountability and passion that a class stokes up. I love learning from someone who is a few steps further down the path than I am. I love the small serendipities that develop as my work intersects with a teacher’s offering.

Meet with Friends

Something happens when you talk to other people who are doing the work you want to do. I do this online primarily. But every once in a while I get to see people in person. In a couple of weeks my writing group will meet over bowls of soup and glasses of wine. There will be music and laughter and deep conversation. I can’t wait…though this morning on a walk I realize that I should probably bring poems to share. That made me a bit nervous! So there’s my assignment between now and the cold night’s moon.

Submit Work

Sage Cohen says that you can’t get published if you don’t send it out. This month I’ve heard back from three publishers–two said no and one said yes. Hall of Fame numbers! Regularly submitting work keeps me returning to the work in revision. It honors the first heat of creation. I don’t know what my submission goal will be for this coming year. Maybe 12 submissions over the 12 months? I do know that I want to spend more time and thought in the revision process and learn better how to move poems forward.

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Sabbath Rest Four: William Stafford’s Daily Writing
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Sabbath Rest Four: William Stafford’s Daily Writing

“I want to consider what William Stafford’s daily writing pages contained and how they worked for him–
how something like his approach might work for any of us who choose to give such daily writing practice a try.”

He would write something like a poem…or notes toward a poem…or just an exploratory set of lines that never became a poem.

He had taken a few steps up the ladder from silence in the general direction of song.

This can begin a process for distilling from ordinary experience the extraordinary report of literature. Nothing stupendous may occur…but if you do not bring yourself to this point, nothing stupendous will happen for sure….

and you are likely to spend the balance of your day in reaction to the imperatives of the outer world–worn down, buffeted, diminished, martyred.

–Kim Stafford
Four Elements of a Daily Writing Page in William Stafford’s Practice

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Advice: Lower Your Standards
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Advice: Lower Your Standards

I live in William Stafford country. His words and work permeate this place. And it is a goodly inheritance.

His collection on writing called Crossing Unmarked Snow came out while I was in school, so it became our unofficial textbook. Come January, I think it might be my first re-read of the new decade.

Often when I’m writing I hear his advice over my shoulder: if you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going. I think sometimes when people encounter that axiom, they focus on being stuck or lowering their standards. But I think our attention should be to keep going.

That’s where the magic starts.

In the daily return. The simple companionship of attention and a notebook. A way to discover what we didn’t know.

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Advice: Remind Yourself of the Work You Want to Do
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Advice: Remind Yourself of the Work You Want to Do

In Reggio Emilia classrooms, teachers often leave out provocations for their students–a neat collection of supplies or books, a pile of leaves, a lump of clay. Just enough to catch the attention of an interested child. Just enough to inspire them to use these new materials in the work they were already doing.

So each night I set my own provocation. A pile of books and a black pen. The french press filled with grounds, the kettle filled with water. A candle and matches at the ready. A room strung with twinkle lights. Pictures of geese everywhere!

In her excellent journaling class, Lori Pickert says we need to remind ourselves of the work we want to be doing.

Create an environment that nurtures you toward success. Make sure it reminds you of your plans and your intentions.
 
The whole world is trying to distract you away from your meaningful work. It is constantly bombarding you with messages about what it cares about: your clothes, your electronics, your weight, your dinner plans, your entertainment choices.
 
Create an environment that helps you focus. Advertise to yourself. Create visual reminders that call you back to your highest priorities. Make sure your space is constantly bombarding you with messages about what you care about: your family, your work, your values, your priorities, your goals.
 
Use your space to promote your most authentic life.

–Creating a Supportive Environment

The allure of screens, the bog of inattention, the 10,000 other things that demand our time–these and more can keep us from touching our work every day. From stoking that fire and gathering around its warmth. From staying with the work.

What steps can you take to creative a supportive environment?

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Revising
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Revising

In The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening and Other Pleasures of the Writer’s Craft, Kim Stafford writes about sharing Theodore Roethke’s notebooks and fragments with his students. I don’t know much about Roethke’s work, but I am always interested in writers’ notebooks. In fact this whole series is an extended look at my writing practices and notebooks.

The library had a copy of Straw for the Fire. Excellent title–we’re off to a good start. The collection is edited by David Wagoner. Here are the first two sentences of his introduction:

At the time of his death in August 1963, Theodore Roethke left behind 277 notebooks–most of them spiral notebooks–full of a miscellany of

  • fragments of poetry,
  • aphorisms,
  • jokes,
  • memos,
  • journal entries,
  • random phrases,
  • bits of dialogue,
  • literary and philosophical commentary,
  • rough drafts of whole poems,
  • quotations, etc.

…and 8,306 loose sheets (as a rule these represented a second stage in his method of composition: a movement from notebook to clipboard as he began to track a poem into its final multiple versions,

…after which he would move on to typed drafts, revising heavily.)

Let’s just pause for a moment and honor that very large number of notebooks and pages! And the wonderful miscellany that his notebooks contained. I fill notebooks fairly fast. But it would take me 69 years to approach Roethke’s stacks!

What really caught my attention though was the beginning stages of revision that were described–from notebook, to loose leaf on a clipboard, to typed drafts.

Oddly enough, this is exactly the process I follow. I even have a clipboard. I write what Holly Wren Spaulding calls zero drafts in composition books. Then every season I read through the notebooks and mark pages that I want to pull out. Then I copy these by hand onto yellow loose leaf pages.

Why yellow pages? In the basement I found a ream of yellow paper that had been rescued when a nearby school burned down. Straw for the fire, indeed!

My personal process, that developed haphazardly and accidentally, suddenly had a level of legitimacy.

How is revision a part of your process?

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Treat Yourself
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Treat Yourself

When I show up to write, when I show up to do what I’ve said I was going to do, I treat myself. Some people use stickers or chocolates.

Me? I read a little about becoming a better writer.

The Wonder Project

Shaunta Grimes is a middle grade novelist who writes almost every day on Medium. She is no-nonsense and has plenty of experience to share. She’s also a great reader and curator.

This article called How to Become a Better Writer: 100 Resources is pure gold. Each day I read about just one resource. I follow the rabbit trails. I make notes in my Ideas Notebook (another Shaunta idea!) I end the day at the page filled up and ready to write tomorrow

Because really? That’s what I’m after. A writing practice that is sustainable and satisfying. Mornings at the page that fuel my life.

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Morning Practice
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Morning Practice

Every morning, before the rest of the day crowds in and my attention is scattered, I come to the page.

But what counts as writing every day? Just showing up? A few lines of journaling? A completed poem? Something in between?

For me the answer shifts. I intuitively follow a practice…until it feels like it’s time for a change. That usually happens maybe once a season. Here are a few recent schedules to give you a taste of what my mornings include:

There’s a lot of overlap between these two lists. Items move in and out organically. One relative constant? There’s a reward at the end! Reading Shaunta Grimes and investigating her resources is my reward for moving through the practices.

Morning writing practice isn’t revolutionary, and it’s not a perfect system. But it is enough.

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