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Wild streak

It seemed fitting to end the year of wild with a little heat in my hair.

Other than cosmetically, however, I am not sure how wild the year was. It had its moments. We road-tripped to Virginia and made no real plans for the trip there and back. I ran alone sometimes. I tried new things and spoke out a little more about things that are important to me. I also discovered I’m wilder than I suspected, which is equal parts exciting and scary.

A significant part of the year seemed to be tangled up in trying to balance the wild with safety. This post from my 31 Days series sums up that struggle nicely. Wild is not safe. But wild can be free. It just needs a little room to run. I seem to love (and by “love,” I do mean “thrive in”) the chaos of the wild. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

I’m not through unpacking all of it yet, but that’s okay. The word doesn’t have to end its influence just because the year does.

In other resolution news, I’ve managed to meet at least a little of each one.

  1. Read 100 books. I read 63 books (or, at least, I kept up with 63. A few seem to be missing). I really loved a lot of them. The ones that stand out are Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey, Meagan Spooner’s Hunted, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series, and all the Fredrik Backman books.
  2. Learn conversational Spanish. I took a Spanish class at work. We only got to things like simple directions around campus, but it’s a start.
  3. Continue to make my home a place that is welcoming and does not hinder the life I create. My office is a madhouse. Everything that is still unpacked is in there, and it’s a lot. I think I met this goal in a way that I didn’t intend, though. Even though there are pockets of mess all around, I still had people over more often. I meant to keep my home in a way that was not a hindrance to hospitality, but what seems to have happened is that I just decided that it wasn’t going to be a hindrance and lived my life anyway. Acceptable.
  4. Continue to improve my health and well-being. This is another goal that morphed. My health is better. My blood pressure is staying down, and my focus has improved. Anxiety is still afoot, but it is the monster in the back of my mind instead of the one staring me down when I open my eyes, so that’s better. I haven’t lost the weight like I intended, but I haven’t gained either, which is something, considering that I didn’t pay much attention to it at all.
  5. Finish at least one manuscript and publish a 2018 calendar. I did not finish a manuscript. But I worked on one more consistently than I did the previous year, so…progress? I didn’t publish a calendar like I meant to, but I did make my own calendar of coffee pictures (currently hanging in my kitchen, and it’s sooo cute). I think I just needed to prove to myself that the printing of the calendar was the easy part if I would just get the pictures together.
  6. Run a 5K. Running is so much harder now than it was 20 years ago. I think I finally accepted that this year. This is a doable goal; it’s just not a quickly doable goal. I have a vague hope that I will run consistently one day, but this is not that day. And tomorrow’s not that day, either. Don’t hold your breath.
  7. Go on a writing retreat. Yay! I did! I went to Andi’s retreat, and I have to finish my Fishbowl rough draft by the time the 2018 retreat rolls around. I may have to insert some solitary retreats in there this year to get this done.
  8. Get paid for writing in some way. I totally did this. I make enough in writing to cover my grocery budget, and my Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify subscriptions. SEO writing is not my calling, but it’s a writing job, and I am happy to have it.
  9. Continue/establish beloved traditions. My traditions that have stuck are my Advent/Christmas rituals and my Hemingway party, and they’re both the newest ones. It seems like each home has its own traditions. The cooking/baking weekends all happened when I had a great kitchen (and Maggie to help). But parties with lots of people and space for a full-sized Christmas tree? That I can do here. I look forward to seeing what else this space might hold for me this year.

Happy New Year, everyone!

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Andi’s book is launching on November 14, and I’M SO EXCITED!!! As a member of her online writing community, I have benefited from Andi’s wisdom through my inbox every week, so it’s thrilling to see her letters compiled in a volume that I can share with the writers in my life. I interviewed Andi about the Love Letters to Writers, and I hope you enjoy it!

1. I am a to-do list person. One thing your letters (and your online writing group) have encouraged me to do is slow down and pay attention. Why is this important for artists in general and for writers in particular?

Oh, I’m a to-do list person, too. I like to feel like I’ve gotten a lot done, but I’ve learned that as a writer that product cannot be the end-all-be-all. Process is crucial, and part of the process for an artist is that we have to notice and bear witness to what happens around us. For writers, this means that sometimes our work is to take note rather than to shape things.  So sometimes we do a lot of writing that no one else will ever see.  We have to pay attention to our senses, to our bodies, and to our emotions. We have to slow down to try to see the Why? behind things . . . because it’s in that why that the life of a story lives.

2. You often write in your letters about the physical spaces you create to support the habits of your writing life. What common elements do you find necessary for such spaces?

For me, the space needs to be quiet. It needs to be filled with things I love but that don’t require my attention – pieces of art, books I know, objects that people I love have given me.  I really need to love the wall color (My office is painted in “Macaroni and Cheese.”).  I also need my writing space to be comfortable in terms of a chair and desk.

But that’s what I need. Every writer needs different things. Some people need to work in coffee shops for the gentle distraction of other people and their chatter, and others love to have music going all the time. Some people prefer a pristine, streamlined environment, and others find that the dining room table is ideal for them.

The key is for each writer to determine what works best for them and then to create the space they need. I recommend a dedicated space for writing – even if it’s that the dining room table becomes writing space after dinner – because when we return to the same space again and again to write, it creates a sort of mental memory of what we do there.  That can be a powerful tool for starting that day’s writing.

3. You are so gentle – in your letters, in your work, and in person. Have you found this gentleness to be useful in the work you do? Why or why not?

What a kind thing to say, Suzanne. Thank you.  In the work I do with writers, yeah, most of the time I think gentleness is key. We’ve all been scolded about our writing selves – either by teachers or blogs or by those voices that live in our own minds.  Most of us need to be spoken to with gentle directness, I think.

On occasion, my clients could probably use a more assertive coach who demands more of them, but then, the clients who work with me know who I am, so perhaps they don’t expect that.

In my writing life, well, I often wish I wasn’t so gentle. When I’m not working with writers, I research and write about the history and legacy of slavery, and I’m learning to make my voice more steely because American needs to hear the truth about this part of our American history.  I’m still gentle on the inside, though, so sometimes, it’s quite challenging to continue to speak strong on something that feels so obviously needed to me.

4. Great writers are often great readers. What is the best book you’ve read this year, and what did it teach you?

This is always a tough question, but I’ll just go with the first book that came to mind: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.  I read this book just after I miscarried this year because it’s about McCracken’s own experience of losing her son before he was even born.  It taught me to write raw about the pain I’ve lived, even if I’m not ready to share that rawness yet, and it taught me that you can recall the details and emotions of an experience even after it happens and even if you don’t journal the whole time. Sometimes, I feel like since I don’t journal my days I’m missing out on books I could write later, but McCracken’s memoir reminded me that those experiences still live in me – I just have to work to find them again.

5. What are your favorite moments when working with writers?

Oh, many.  My all-time favorite is when a writer decides to take herself seriously as a writer, when she decides to commit the time, when she decides to do the work because she WANTS to do it . . . even if there’s no recognition or paycheck coming. I love those moments because they are the moments I know that a writer is in and will keep going no matter what.  They aren’t that common, but when they come, I’m exhilarated.

I also love the moments when writers find that their own egos are not the best judges of their work, when they can put aside their intentions and what they thought a work was and hear the perspective of someone – a friend, a reader, an editor – who does not find the work flawless.  Those moments are the ones that make us better writers, and while they are painful, they are crucial.

I also love launch days for writers I know.  They aren’t always – or often – spectacular successes, but the joy of putting something out into the world, something built with hard effort and love, well, that’s a glorious thing.

Love Letters to Writers is available for pre-order now. Treat yourself to this gem of a book.

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Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, four dogs, four cats, six goats, three rabbits, and thirty-six chickens. She writes regularly at andilit.com

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Farm stand, sky and coffee. Pretty great trip!

June was fast-paced with pockets of slow. It’s a busy month at work, so of course I took a week and a half off, because I enjoy full mailboxes. It was a week well spent, though.

This was the first year I got to go to Andi Cumbo-Floyd’s writer’s retreat, and I am hooked. It was so refreshing. It was fun to meet people in person whom I’d only met online, and we got to drive through some beautiful scenery (note bottom left photo – Virginia is freakin’ gorgeous). I also got to spend lots of time with a couple of good friends on the way there and back since we drove from Texas.

No matter how busy it is, though, summer is always a heavy reading time for me. I picked up Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and Susan Hermann Loomis’s In a French Kitchen, both of which I liked. I loved Meagan Spooner’s Hunted. It may be my favorite retelling of Beauty and the Beast. My favorite thing I read this month, though, was Fredrik Backman’s novella called And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. You can read it in one sitting, and if you have someone in your life who is losing their memory, I recommend reading it someplace private where you can ugly cry.

I am growing tomatoes! I have two plants, and they have actual, real green tomatoes on them. I have spent more time on my porch watering and talking to them this month than I have spent on my porch the rest of the last year.

Speaking of the last year, today is my apartmentversary. I have officially been here one year in this great neighborhood where, for the first time in a long time, I did not wake up to fireworks still going off at 4:00 in the morning. Do not ask me if I have finished unpacking yet. It would be a shame for me to be forced to lie to you.

What are you into this month? I’m linking up with Leigh Kramer – drop over there and join the fun!

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charlotte

I received an advance copy of Andi’s new book, Charlotte and the Twelve: A Steele Secrets Story. I am so grateful for this new chapter in Mary Steele’s education as an advocate for those whose voices have been silenced or stolen.

As with Steele Secrets, where we first met Mary and her friends, this book deals with race relations and the uncomfortable conversations surrounding them. More importantly, it emphasizes that these conversations are absolutely necessary if any kind of justice is ever to happen. Some of the characters wrestle with their privilege and their guilt. Some of the characters bury their anger, and some of them embrace it. People say the wrong things. They call each other out. It’s helpful to see the tension in these conversations, and I appreciate that, although it’s written for a young audience, Andi didn’t try to mask the tensions.

The parts I loved the most were when old friends and family were unexpectedly reunited. The writing of that peculiar mix of joy and anguish was exquisite. Andi has a gift for holding multiple experiences – anger, grief, relief, guilt, love, discomfort, hope – in the same hand and honoring them all through her words.

Another thing I love about Andi’s writing, particularly with these characters and this ongoing story line, is that there were no tidy bows tied on the ending. It is an admission of all the work left to do and a firm exhortation to do it.

Charlotte and the Twelve releases today, and I encourage you to buy it. Enjoy!

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Steele Secrets

I met Andi Cumbo-Floyd by joining the online writing community she leads. She has helped me with my work and has taught me a great deal about making time for getting it done. I am very excited for you to get the opportunity to read her first novel, which comes out February 9, so I invited her to talk about it here today. Enjoy! And order her book!

  1. Tell us about Steele Secrets.

Steele Secrets is my new YA novel, and it tells the story of Mary Steele, a 15-year-old girl who finds herself unexplainedly in an abandoned cemetery.  While she’s there, she meets the ghost of a slave named Moses and has to fend-off a bulldozer sent to destroy the cemetery.  In the course of her fight to save the cemetery, she learns a great deal about her small mountain town, about her neighbors, and about herself.  And not all of what she learns is good, and all of it challenges her sense of history and self.

  1. What prompted you to write it?

Over and over again, I have read about – and personally witnessed – the destruction of historic African American places, particularly slave cemeteries.  As a country, we do not value these places as they should be valued, and so we let them be destroyed because of our apathy. Sometimes, we destroy them with malicious intent or because of shame.  None of those reasons is acceptable.  So Steele Secrets comes, in part, from that experience and is my way of working through why we don’t care to save these houses, cemeteries, and other historic sites as much as we do, say, a presidential mansion.

I also wrote this book because I wanted to investigate my own heritage – note, small spoiler ahead – as a woman who identifies as white but is a direct descendant of African Americans.  I wanted to study my own thoughts and feelings about that identity, of which I am very proud but still unsure of how to wrap into myself fully.

Finally, I wrote Steele Secrets because at our 200-year-old farmhouse, I often feel the presence of a woman who was enslaved here.  I call her by the name Judith, but I do not know her real name; it’s not recorded anywhere.  So in these pages, I wanted to explore this idea of slave hauntings as beneficent gifts to us in the 21st century.

  1. Describe the research process that went into writing this story.

I actually didn’t do any particular research for this book, BUT I did draw on the research about slavery that I did for my previous book, The Slaves Have Names.  I also used a lot of the knowledge I’ve gained as a member of the Central Virginia History Researchers, a group of professional and independent historians who have worked to save a local African American cemetery and who strive tirelessly to recover the stories of African Americans and their communities in our part of the world.  Plus, I was able to draw from the work I’ve been honored to do with local historical societies; in fact, one of my characters – Shamila – is based loosely on my friend Elaine, who directs the Louisa County Historical Society.

  1. From which character did you learn the most?

What a great question! Without a doubt, Moses taught me the most. . . about what it might feel like to be enslaved, about what it is to forgive but not forget, about what family means.  I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to give away too much of the book, but Moses was my favorite character.  I fashioned him after Primus, a man who was enslaved at the plantation I call home.

  1. Which character frustrated you the most?

Oh, Mary, the protagonist.  In many ways, she and I are alike, so her foibles and failings are much like my own. . . and so when she messes up, I get frustrated because I do the same things.

  1. After reading Steele Secrets, I wanted to know more about how burial grounds and other sacred historical spaces of slaves are treated in our culture. What resources would you suggest?

Another great question.  The first resource I’d suggest is Lynn Rainville’s book Hidden Histories: African American Cemeteries in Virginia. The book is chock full of advice about finding old cemeteries, tips on preserving them, wisdom about how to understand the gravestone carvings, and an array of insight about historic preservation.

I’d also suggest that if you live in a place where there are plantations – i.e. most of the East Coast and all of the South – check with your local historical society. Ask them what places of import to African Americans are in danger.  Talk to property owners and see what they know about burial sites, slave quarters, etc., are on their land.

But honestly, we simply don’t have enough resources going into this work.  Every day, historic cemeteries are destroyed.  Every day, houses and other buildings that relate to enslaved people and their descendants are torn down.  So our best resource is ourselves – we can learn about these places and gather people to save them. . . we can take Mary’s lead.

Andi

Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer who – with her husband – runs God’s Whisper farm at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they have 4 dogs, 4 cats, 6 goats, and 23 chickens.  Her books include The Slaves Have Names, Writing Day In and Day Out, God’s Whisper Manifesto, and the forthcoming Steele Secrets.  You can learn more about her at andilit.com.

 

 

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This was originally going to be the background to my 31 Days icon. I look sneaky. I like that, but I couldn’t get the right color of text that would show up in front of the books and the dark space. The writing group at Andilit helped me in my hour of visually challenged need to pick a better picture, a better font, and better spacing.

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Ah, yes. Much better.

I also received a lot of encouragement from my other online writing group, the Coterie at Awake the Bones. We had several people participating in the 31-day challenge, so we had a thread every day to help us keep up with each other’s posts.

I am thankful for my friend Michelle, my librarian friend and star of my Fandom Friends post. She will read anything I hand her, and she’s done so for as long as we’ve known each other. I need to clear out a place on my shelf where her books will go someday. You’re all going to love them. Also, I am pretty sure I got the idea of taking shelfies from her. I distinctly remember a picture of her with library shelves in the background, and I thought, “Shelfies. That would be a cute series.” So I’m officially giving you credit, Michelle.

Dear Maggie – here is another post where you are mentioned. It happens so often because, even though you are far away, you are still one of my main sounding boards for rants and stories, and a lot of those turn into longer rants and stories of book-ish length. Thanks for loving my rants and reading my stories and for being my partner in crime for NoHoNoPro (No Honor, No Problem) that one time.

I love being friends with Margarett, and I love that this series is sprinkled with stories from our friendship, from our one shelf of sanity to our obsession with Ethiopian food to our compulsion to acquire large numbers of books in a single bound. Thanks for never telling me I have too many books.

This month has made me especially grateful for my parents. My earliest memory is my mom reading Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer to me. She took me to libraries, encouraged me to read anything I could get my hands on, and made me look up answers for myself. My parents insisted that I go to college, and that experience was instrumental in forming me into the person I am today.

Thank you, dear readers. Thanks for your likes and your comments and your emails and your encouragement. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. You make me make this face:

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I wrote 31 Days of Shelfies!

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Let’s Dish

Our prompt this week in the writing community at Andilit was “your favorite dish.”

My favorite dish is not actually mine at all. It’s Mel’s. And it’s adorable:

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I kept it for her after we shared an apartment for a couple of months before she got married. She was downsizing to move into her apartment with Adam, and I was happy to look after her peas-in-a-pod serving dish.

This dish is not merely a dip holder; it’s a conversation starter. Prompted by this dish, guests in my apartment have discussed:

  • Decorating
  • Entertaining
  • Weird dishes our families pass down (and the stories behind them)
  • How adamantly one of my friends hates peas (which I do not understand at all)
  • Gardening
  • The importance of color-coordinating food and dishes (there may have been an excess of wine involved here)
  • Gift-giving (or specifically, how if someone gave her something lovely like this, she wouldn’t have to work so hard to pretend she liked it)

A good dish or a good recipe is one that sparks commentary. While I find compliments unnecessary in other parts of my life, there is not a quicker way to my heart than to compliment my cooking, my coffee, or my presentation. I put a lot of care into creating a good dinner experience for guests, and cute crockery makes it easy.

When I’m alone, I still like festive dishes. Aunt Gale gave me part of her old school Fiestaware set, and I love them.

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(Not pictured – cream and sugar set and gravy boat)

I swear that everything I eat off these plates tastes better. The colors are vibrant and cheerful. These plates are also sturdy. I dropped one of them on the kitchen floor once, and it remained intact and didn’t even chip. They remind me of my family – strong and stubbornly optimistic.

These pieces are little artifacts of my life. Ideally, I would like every item in my kitchen to tell a story or serve as a reminder of a loved one. Perhaps one day, they all will.

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