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BACCA Writers

Resources: Architecture, Purpose, and Commitment

Here are three books that I keep handy. I notice that they come up in conversation, and maybe they’ll be useful to you. See what you think. (And let us know with a comment.)

Architecture with Jane Alison

Image by Reto Scheiwiller from Pixabay

As a writer of fiction, I’m more of a pantser / discovery writer than a plotter, but I think most of us on the looser side of the plotting spectrum do possess a kind of architectural sense. Bigger-picture than plotting, I mean by architecture the overall sense of where a story will begin and end. Or what kind of pursuit – of adventure, understanding, or change – will lead the way, if the end isn’t yet foreseeable.

Author and professor of creative writing Jane Alison has written a book, Meander Spiral Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, about sophisticated kinds of architecture and structural design. At first look, the book intimidated me. I believed myself incapable of understanding her analysis. Now I feel I have been able to comprehend at least some of it. And I admire tremendously her celebration of alternatives to the overwhelmingly favorite structure out in the wild, the “dramatic arc” known to everyone who’s taken an intro to [conventional, western] fiction class.

For those writers whose brains, unlike mine, tend toward the 3-D chess-playing end of the continuum, this is a book you may want to treasure. Alison provides excerpts from many authors’ work to illustrate the ways – beyond Aristotle’s formula for tragic drama – that words can work for a purpose. She calls this collection a “museum of specimens,” drawing on the natural patterns of spirals, meanders, and branches to find them in literature.

“We invoke these patterns to invoke these patterns in our minds…: someone spirals into despair or compartmentalizes emotions, thoughts meander, heartbreak can be so great we feel we’ll explode. … Those natural patterns have inspired visual artists and architects for centuries. Why wouldn’t they form our narratives too?”

~ Jane Alison

Purpose with Brenda Ueland

Image by Chen from Pixabay

BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly has already celebrated Brenda Ueland and her book, If You Want To Write: A Book About Art, Independence, and Spirit (1939). I’m back with more! I find myself citing and quoting Ueland regularly when talking with other writers, including friends, colleagues, and coaching clients.

For one thing, she confidently embraces pantsing.

“You write [the book] and plan it afterwards. … If this is done the book will be alive. I don’t mean that it will be successful. It may be alive to only ten people. But to those ten at least it will be alive. It will speak to them. It will help to free them.” Later in that chapter she adds, “Say it. If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take its place later…. If you find what you wrote isn’t true, accept the new truth. Consistency is the horror of the world.”

~ Brenda Ueland

Throughout, Ueland reminds her reader to trust herself. When writing, Ueland says,

“do not try to make somebody believe that you are smarter than you are. What’s the use? You can never be smarter than you are. You try to be and everybody sees through it like glass, and on top of that knows you are lying and putting on airs. (Though remember this:  while your writing can never be brighter, greater than you are, you can hide a shining personality and gift in a cloud of dry, timid writing.)”

~ Brenda Ueland

Brenda Ueland had the confidence to urge her students and readers to build theirs. I find her book a reassuring source of support.


Commitment with Twyla Tharp

Image by Prawny from Pixabay

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life is Twyla Tharp’s handbook for all kinds of creative endeavors. The dancer-choreographer-author intersperses her anecdotes and life lessons with exercises, 32 in total, which appear throughout the book. Each chapter in this conspicuously typeset book is complex and weighty enough to be a book in itself. This is a book to pick up and set down, not to blitz through in one sitting.

In the fourth chapter, called “Harness Your Memory,” Tharp begins by talking about her ongoing efforts to keep her memory sharp, using mental exercises.

“Metaphor is our vocabulary for connecting what we’re experiencing now with what we have experienced before. It’s not only how we express what we remember, it’s how we interpret it – for ourselves and others.”

~ Twyla Tharp

Wow. Tharp then proceeds to discuss kinds of memory, declaring that we remember much more than we think we do – in muscle memory, sensual memory, institutional memory, and ancient memory. The chapter next spins from a pottery fragment of dancers holding hands into the story of how she came to make the 14-minute dance “Westerly Round.”

The Creative Habit is exhausting, if read all at once. Savored and explored, bit by bit, the book is a potent resource. Tharp’s writing is direct, confident, and slightly impatient, as I imagine a conversation with her would feel.

NOTE: This post contains affiliate links to books sold at Bookshop.org, which exists to support independent bookstores throughout the US by selling their books online.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new journaling handbook is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Embrace Rejection

Here it is, mid-October, and many young people are struggling with their first semester of college. Struggling an dare I say, panicking. The drop/add deadline has passed. Students are sure they won’t make an ‘A’ in all of their classes. They are terrified that one or two bad grades will ruin their GPA. Will ruin their career. Will ruin their lives….

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Instead of destroying your health, happiness, and sanity chasing the perfect grade, I suggest you embrace one or two bad grades

– even failures –

They are learning opportunities!

Embrace rejection.

What seems like catastrophe can actually be freeing.

Back when I started college I had the notion that I should become a nurse. Why? I don’t know. There were no nurses in my family, but I figured that’s what women do. They become nurses. As I recall, my older brother told me I wasn’t smart enough to become a doctor so I should become a nurse. (Hey, give him a break, it was the ’70s!)

I had done quite well in high school. Honor roll. Golden tassel. My first summer after graduating from high school, I wanted to get a jump on academics so I took a college statistics class. I passed. More than passed, I got an ‘A’. I liked statistics. I thought it was pretty interesting. I thought “if this is nursing, this is going to be great.” The next semester I took the usual bachelor degree first year classes: English, history, whatever. All A’s.

I struggled with biology. Probably because I don’t have the best memory and never took Latin. But I passed and finished they year with a good GPA.

The next year was hell. I was thrown into hospital situations. I worked with a mentally ill veteran who didn’t act mentally ill until he started talking about being stalked by the Pope. Working the maternity rotation is why I waited until my mid-30s before my son was born. All that screaming! All that yuck!

I watched an experienced nurse insert a urine catheter into a female patient and tell me it was easier on male patients. I never wanted to find out.

I gave shots during my pediatric rotation. I was terrible at it. That poor kid. Traumatized for life, no doubt. And forget drawing blood. I could never draw blood. I was terrible at everything. I even got fussed at while helping a kid brush his teeth. That’s how awkward I was.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

But the final straw – the nail on the coffin, as it were – was when they sent me off to do community nursing. This was before GPS. Before cell phones. I have a terrible sense of direction and I hated those huge road maps they sold at gas stations. They were too big and folded in weird ways. The patient I was sent to visit lived on the other side of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in Newport News. My task was simple. Drive to her home and check on her status. She was an elderly diabetic with a recent amputation. I was supposed to examine the amputation site and report my findings.

I got lost. Of course. My inner self saying “you don’t want to go there.” Hours later, I finally arrived and the patient tells me that the school had been calling and calling, wondering where I was. I talked to the lady and I never inspected her amputation site. I just ask her how she is doing. She said fine and I left as quickly as I could.

The next day the head of the nursing department called me in to her office. “You don’t have your heart in this, do you?”

“Absolutely not.”

I hated yuck. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fine with dirt but not fine with vomit. Or poop. Or blood. Or puss. I thanked the head of the department and never looked back. I switched majors and ended up a computer programmer.

Now I keep bees and I write and I am eternally grateful to the head of the nursing department for being honest and rejecting me because I didn’t have the courage to say “I’m quitting.”

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
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BACCA Writers

Memento Mori: Death as a Tool (For Writers)

Vanitas – Still Life (1625) by Pieter Claesz; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Death is useful. The knowledge of our own end—and the end of all things—can be a catalyst for action. Writers like to make use of everything. Triumphs and setbacks, blows and banalities—almost all of the detritus of life can be used to make art. Everything is fertilizer and furniture for story. Even death. Maybe, especially death. If we let it help us to live.

The patterns and rituals of the day tend to sweep us along, and life, so much of the time, feels ordinary or even dull. To remind us that our lives are not endless even when they feel like it, we have the memento mori—a symbol that impels us to face death, to acknowledge and accept our mortality. From the Latin, memento mori literally means remember that you must die. Often represented as a skull, the memento mori can be a rendering of anything ephemeral; any image or object that evokes the passage of time can serve the same purpose: a candle, a flower, a sunset, an hourglass.

Time Flies. (Photo by the author.)

The origin of the memento mori has been traced back to ancient Rome. When a triumphant general embarked on a parade of victory, so the story goes, a slave would accompany him all the while whispering, memento mori, remember that you must die. A preventative measure, this was meant to guard against excessive pride so the victorious leader would not begin to believe that he was a god. In the centuries since, zealots and visionaries have used the memento mori, incorporating images of death into their art and sacred spaces, often as a hedge against vanity, greed, or idleness. (For a more thorough treatment of this history, visit here.)

Modern usage of the memento mori is more typically as a driver for action, a gentle reminder that we have a fixed number of minutes to finish a few things while we are here. “Remember, you must die,” then, is only half of the message. The unspoken conclusion, it could be argued, is “…so, remember to live.” In this light, knowledge of our mortality becomes a crowbar, or a portal into a better life. Sam Harris, in a bittersweet meditation entitled “The Last Time You’ll Do Something,” asserts that “everything represents a finite opportunity to savor your life.”

Besides the pen, the memento mori may then be the most transformative and useful tool that a writer can have, serving as a marker for our ultimate deadline—the day we run out of time entirely. Since a death date can’t be marked on a calendar for most of us, the memento mori teaches that death looms in every minute. Every day can and could be our last. So, if there’s something you’d like to try, do, make, write, or be…don’t wait.

Perhaps, as a sensitive and creative person, you are already acutely aware, thanks very much, of the impending doom and gloom. Maybe death is a constant obsession or fear. Maybe every time you face a Boggart, like Molly Weasley, you see a parade of your most cherished loved ones in deep peril. I get it. On a weekly basis, I struggle through that fear of loss, that terror of the unknown. The what-if, wide-awake-at-3-am panic usually leads to a deep sense of loneliness for me, and also inaction. Wheel spinning. Maybe the practice of the memento mori offers an alternative approach. Maybe it asks that we step back and view death from a different angle, one a bit more removed from the harrowing fear that the thought of death usually provokes.

For one, I think the memento mori connects us all as living things. The images themselves, the skull and the hourglass, point to the universal. We are the same at the bone level. We are all at the mercy of time. In that sense, we are not alone. Also, the memento mori is not meant to be a siren, screaming emergency, causing our hearts to bound. It’s more stately than that, a cordial invitation, of sorts, to an inevitable event that we’ll all attend at some point. We are invited to prepare and respond—to channel our gnawing fear into useful action—to survey and then to narrow in on what is most important. To work toward the priority we’ve assigned in our lives and to infuse the time we have with deep meaning and purpose.

Love it or not, the season of the skull is upon us. Halloween looms and visions of skeletons will dance before our eyes. Perhaps this year they can escort us back to the work we most want to do.

Phoebe Bridgers says (sings) it well…

“Baby, it’s Halloween
There’s a last time for everything
Oh, come on, man
We can be anything…”

…don’t miss the full song and video, featuring lovely vintage Halloween costumes, even a skeleton or two.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, supports local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary group.

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BACCA Writers

Stay Active With Your Online Course Through Regular Writing

For adults who are interested in a topic of their own choosing, starting the online learning process is easy. Enrolling in a course requires almost no effort and we get to choose what we want to learn. Starting assignments—whether they are lectures, discussion boards, or Q&A sessions—can even be exciting as we begin the learning process. Why, then, is it so difficult to keep up our interest and excitement about a course, to actually complete it over time?

Many online learning experiences outside of a college or a university setting may provide a schedule, but lack a detailed structure that tells us how to keep up with the provided timeline. Online learning may also provide limited to no feedback or social interaction. The most popular courses draw hundreds or thousands of students and staff are not able to meaningfully interact with so many enrollees. Instead, adult students are expected to structure their own learning which means figuring out ways to pace themselves and understand their mistakes, all while maintaining enough active engagement and accountability to complete the course.

In this post, I share my recent experience with an online course where I am fully responsible for completing all exercises and assignments. Because there are over 1,000 people in the course, there is no one available to check my work or to interact with, unless I have a technical issue. I decided to journal regularly about the course, to both keep my attention during the course and to remember the important lessons afterwards.

Regular Writing Is a Form of Accountability

For my online nine-month course on the nervous system offered by Sounds True, I created a simple GoogleDoc.

Excerpt from the author’s course notes

New entries are dated and appear at the top. After listening to a lecture or doing one of the exercises, I write about the ideas and my thoughts or reactions. Each person is different as to how to make this type of accountability work best for them. If you are motivated and have the time, a daily written reflection might be appropriate. For myself, with a six-year-old with special needs and limited child care, I aim for two to four times per week. If I write only once per week, or skip a week if things are very hectic, that’s okay. What’s important is regularly writing as a way of revisiting the ideas in the online course. This process can create what’s called a distributed practice schedule, which research suggests improves long-term learning 15% over reviewing only once, which includes cramming (also known as massed practice).

Writing in Our Own Words is a Deep (Not Surface) Way of Processing Information

When we transform ideas we have listened to or read into our own words, we have to do what is called deep processing. Reproducing a verbatim transcript takes only superficial processing—mainly listening, comprehension of word order, and typing those words. When we think about the ideas, comprehend them and then use our own words to restate the ideas in a way that has meaning to us, this activates more areas in our brains than surface processing, and builds new neural connections. Because of these changes, deep processing makes the information we have transformed more memorable.

Making It Personal Makes It Memorable

Expanding this idea of deep processing is the principle of making our learning personal. When I use my own words, I don’t just rephrase the words the course instructor is using.

Vivid memory in Mt. Pleasant, MI. Photo by the author.

I link ideas to my own personal knowledge and experiences—including emotional responses like feelings or body sensations, or vivid memories of something being rewarding, painful, or funny. Information that has emotional relevance to us and our lives builds very strong neural connections that make learning more permanent.

BACCA Writer Emerita Claire E. Cameron is Associate Professor and director of the Early Childhood & Childhood EdM and PhD programs in the Department of Learning and Instruction at the University at Buffalo (SUNY). Claire studies how children develop “learning to learn” and school readiness skills like managing their attention and behavior and successfully navigating learning environments. In her creative non-fiction, she further explores individual stories of growth and change on the way toward well-being. Claire believes that great wisdom can be unearthed when we explore the things that we’re often taught to keep hidden, and that telling our stories helps us find our place in the world. Visit Claire’s website for more information.

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BACCA Writers

Resources: Critiquing, Simplifying, and Ending ~ Plus Some Hope

Here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve seen, bundled together as summer bounty for writers in the Northern Hemisphere. Are you planning on taking time off? Hard at work? Both? See what works for you here:

Beginners Mind

Start simple.
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

BACCA’s own Noelle Beverly put this evergreen blog post together a while ago for our website, after working on an internal document for our critique group. I notice that I keep sharing the link with other writers! Noelle’s apparently simple approach to critiquing the written work of another is powerful.

I begin with this: everything is intentional. I assume the writer has something in mind and figuring that out is my first job.
~ Noelle Beverly

Noelle has given us invaluable, humility-inducing advice and I recommend it to your attention. Take in this state of mind first, before starting to think critically about the pages you’ve received from a fellow writer.

Is This Necessary?

single flower blossom on a white background

Less is more.
Image by Glenn A Lucas from Pixabay

Are you overwhelmed? Desperate for ways to pare down the obligations, shoulds, lists, expectations, and self-flogging? Creativity coach LA Bourgeois (here’s her guest blog about Kaizen Muse for my website) in a recent newsletter advises us to “Chop wood, carry water. This phrase means to focus on simple acts and perform them to the best of your ability. Do NOTHING extra.”

Before you take any action, ask yourself if it is necessary to complete to maintain your body, spirit, heart, and work commitments. If the answer is yes, move forward. If no, move on to the next task.
~ LA Bourgeois

LA’s guidance may ring true for you as it does for me. I’m even considering – gasp – abandoning to-do lists during my time off next month.

Is This the End, My Friend?

empty road in the mountains, with the words "FINISH" painted on the road surface and "START" superimposed above it.

Which is it?
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Are you struggling with the ending to a piece of writing? George Saunders in one of his first public “Office Hours” essays provides ten ways to think about endings. While he’s speaking to short stories, I can see many of these ideas applying in other creative contexts as well.

Consider that, if you’re having trouble with your ending – you’re not.  Your issue is actually the beginning and/or middle of the story.
~ George Saunders

Saunders tells of a class he taught when non-writing-major undergrads all knew which elements of a Vonnegut story needed to be addressed to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. This gives me hope.

Not Made for These Times?

To wrap up, for those readers who, like me, are feeling swamped, struggling to move forward in the wake of so many cruel, baffling, unconscionable decisions from the US Supreme Court and elsewhere: Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach provided a podcast episode for us. “Navigating the Dark Ages” acknowledges the current environment and offers ways to keep going, finding and making meaning along the way with a sense of connectedness to others and participation in the long arc of human history. Give it a listen.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The FLOAT Journal: Becoming Unstuck on the Page, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

Local Newspapers are essential for nonfiction writers

 

My research of Virginia in the 1960s and 1970s almost entirely depends on local newspapers.  I am investigating the impact of the discovery of an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant in central Virginia on the man who discovered it, on local farmers who lost their land to the project, and on the nuclear power industry in the United States. 

Nothing beyond the most meager facts about the power plant in rural Louisa County, Virginia can be found on Wikipedia.  Nothing can be found on Twitter or Facebook or any of the plethora of social media sites that have materialized faster than lawsuits in our endlessly litigious world.  

That’s why I am extremely grateful to Louisa County’s own local newspaper, The Central Virginian, for not only articles about the origins of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant but also their vivid photos that capture the enormous scale and impact of the project.

Archives of The Central Virginian aren’t online, at least not for the years I was investigating, 1968 to 1975.  I called the Louisa County Public Library and learned that the library had The Central Virginian newspapers neatly organized by year, bound in thick books, and stored in their easily accessible stacks. They aren’t on microfilm like The Daily Progress, the Charlottesville local newspaper.  I actually had to open the large bound books and inspect page after page of The Central Virginian to find what I needed.  I’d take a photo of the article or image and email it to myself.   Once home, I transcribed the article or copied the image for use in my research.  

As my research grew, I developed a fondness to certain reporters who took the time to interview the property owners affected by the construction of the nuclear power plant.  I felt like I shared a common interest with these reporters, especially one particular reporter who worked for the larger regional newspaper, The Richmond Times-DispatchJean Purcell worked the Louisa County beat for the Richmond Times-Dispatch and dug deep into the lives of the people who lived there.  Farmers and teachers and politicians, she interviewed them all.  She reported on the announcement of the nuclear power plant construction, on the people that lost their farms to the project, and the controversies surrounding the discovery of the earthquake fault under the power plant site.  Then, all of a sudden, her articles stopped.  I was heartbroken.  I had lost a wise and dependable friend.  I searched for her name on the web and discovered she’d retired and became involved with other activities. Ms. Purcell has since passed but I was able to find one of her children on Facebook and send them a message to tell them how much I greatly admired their mother’s reporting.

The demise of local and regional newspapers is a huge loss for current society and future historians.  Too many of us get our news from TV pundits, Twitter provocateurs, or Facebook friends.  Where will future historians go to discover the small current events that ripple out and change history?

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Curiouser & Curiouser

I’m starting to wonder if I have a curiosity problem. This never occurred to me before. After all, I love a good mystery. Libraries—the sanctuary of the curious—are my happy place. Imagination—where questions are born—is a sturdy, internal realm that I visit often. As a writer, I know that curiosity is a crucial tool, best kept sharp and shiny. Curiosity and I are good, old friends. Except…

Do I treat my curiosity more like a dirty secret than a trusted friend?

There was a time when I used to wonder out loud. I peered through every keyhole, tested every lock, turned the knob on every closed door—just in case. I watched for holes in stories and pointed at them. I made connections between ideas and tested those bridges out on others. I wandered and wondered out in full view.

Over time, something changed. My curiosity persisted, but my willingness to test it out in front of others waned. Instead, I’d delay my quest to know and employ clandestine habits designed to satisfy curiosity without risk of embarrassment or humiliation.

What happened? How did shame get involved?

Looking back, I see a trail of very stale breadcrumbs that led from there to here—moments when my weird questions led to awkward silences, unsatisfying replies, or worst of all, ridicule. A bewildered look would let me know I’d wandered away from the expected and into strange territory. A dashed off response intended to divert or pacify clued me in that I’d become annoying. Maybe the adults involved were merely uncomfortable—my curiosity had taken them past the boundaries of their own knowledge or experience and they had no idea how to answer. Less forgivable are those times that I received an answer delivered in a tone that made me feel small and ridiculous for even asking. Technically, my curiosity may have been satisfied, but the answer I’d sought was so laced with toxic disdain when I got it that the whole subject had become tainted.

If the sources of knowledge around you—family, teachers, friends—fear for your sanity or give you inadequate, or treacherously squelching answers in response to your genuine, wild and natural need to know more—well, you might do anything to scoot around the scrutiny and circumvent criticism. In my case, I took refuge in books. I found safe haven in libraries. I piled up good books and made a fort. Books are neutral. Books are safe. Right?

Are they?

Our culture is studded with stories—cautionary tales—about curiosity:

Curiosity killed the Cat. Eve broke the world when she tasted forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. Pandora opened that tantalizing box. Bluebeard’s naive (unnamed) Bride, married a monster, opened the door of a forbidden room and found carnage: the bloody corpses of brides that came before her.

Isn’t it fascinating how cataclysmic the consequences of curiosity are in these stories? So bloody. So final. So dire. Strange, here, how quickly a simple query leads to apocalypse or homicidal rage…

Eve doesn’t get a belly ache after taking a bite; her actions lead to the fall of all of humankind. Bluebeard’s Bride isn’t merely scolded; the price for opening the forbidden door is a gruesome death. Pandora, we are to believe, is responsible for unleashing the greatest horrors upon the world: greed, hatred, disease, poverty, and war. We don’t know how many of its nine lives that Cat had left—maybe none.

Curiosity must be pretty powerful if all the cautionary tales built around it come equipped with repercussions this devastating.

Does curiosity really matter?

Many experts and luminaries agree: curiosity is key.

Brené Brown, a researcher known for her lectures on vulnerability, describes curiosity as the “super power of middle age” and the best way to weather rejection. In Women Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés examines the pervasive “trivialization of women’s curiosity” in stories like the Bluebeard fairy tale, and asserts that questions, especially those one is forbidden to ask, are “the keys that cause the secret door of the psyche to open” causing a “germination of consciousness” and the ability to recover vitality. In a recent interview, writer Margaret Atwood, when asked how she had remained prolific, active, and sharp into her eighties, told Tim Ferriss that it was curiosity that kept her thinking, writing, and publishing work. Re-framed, the upside of being curious sounds pretty good.

What about the consequences of keeping quiet?

What if the squelching of curiosity invites other forms of narrowing? What if a reluctance to ask questions leads to a fear of taking risks? Risks like… applying for good jobs, trying out a new love or hobby, choosing the riskier dream path with big rewards over the safer one that keeps you trapped in a smaller life. Maybe a stunted relationship with curiosity feeds inaction and stifles the ability to wonder what if. What if I could do that, try that, be that?

What now?

Maybe curiosity never got pushed to the edges of your life. Maybe you followed every stray thought, whim, and wondering to a satisfying end. Or maybe your questions got you into enough trouble enough times that you stopped asking them out loud. Maybe you saved up your wonderings and what ifs for private spaces and research. I think there’s hope even if you took a long break from investigating the mysteries and silences and untold stories that floated about you. For one thing, we have Alice holding down the fort amid all those stories in which females and their curiosity catalyzed destruction. We can be like Alice

Alice didn’t slip down the rabbit hole accidentally; she made a choice. She drank from the bottle and she ate the cake, even knowing they might change her. Alice found wonderland to be “curiouser and curiouser” at every turn (which any good explorer would if she’s really paying attention), but the strangeness did not stop her. Not ever. Alice traveled a wonder-filled dream world, led by her own curiosity, encountering strange folk and surreal situations, and she never stopped looking or asking questions. And…

The world didn’t end because of it.

Alice got home just fine—she returned to her family, pondered what she’d seen, and, no doubt, slept in her own bed that night. Where she might dream of wonders again.

*

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhotos by the author.

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Keeping a Journal Isn’t Virtuous

“Oh, I could never do that. I don’t have the discipline.”

I’ve been thinking about the benefits of keeping a journal, which got me thinking about walking. I lived in New York City for many years, and I walked a lot. Not to “go for a walk” but to get from here to there. Especially during the years I lived in Manhattan, walking was usually my preferred mode of transport – from home to work to entertainment / friends and back home at night.

Before.
Photo by JESHOOTS.com on Pexels

Then, when I moved out of New York City, I stopped walking. My method for arriving at most of my customary destinations no longer worked. I had to use a car or bus or train or combinations thereof to get anywhere at all. First came years of disbelief. “People get in a car to go somewhere just to go for a walk. That’s insane!” Eventually I accepted my new non-walking reality. Years went by, and I reluctantly grew accustomed to driving everywhere.

After.
Photo by Jonathan Petersson on Pexels

During the pandemic I began to make plans with friends to meet up outdoors, where we could chat safely while getting in some steps. As the months went by, I began to form a new habit of going for walks. Still, though, each time I go for a long walk, I confess to feeling virtuous. I expect I’ll get over myself, but at this point the habit is new enough that I remain self-conscious about it. In the early stages of a new habit, it can be a short distance between awkward self-congratulation and slamming on the brakes. “Oh, I tried it for a while, but it didn’t work out.”

Lately, several people, discussing why they don’t keep a journal, said similar things like: “Yeah, I never got into the routine. Good for you, though, for having the self-discipline.”

“Sometimes I wish I had developed the habit years ago. It’s too late to start now.”

“I never found the time for a journal. I’d start one and abandon it after a few days.”

I guess I can understand why people make remarks like that. I imagine it has to do with unfamiliarity, the way I had come to feel about walking distances.

Now.
Photo by Marta Wave on Pexels

My rediscovered and morphed version of “going for a walk” rather than just walking as transportation is still new, not automatic the way journaling has become for me. I need to give myself a little boost to stand up from what I’m working on, get the right shoes on my feet, maybe even drive somewhere, and walk around outdoors. I imagine that a similar hesitancy is at play when people distance themselves from the possibility of starting a journaling practice. To establish either habit takes some time and determination.

Journaling isn’t a panacea. It won’t appeal to everyone. I suspect, though, that a journaling practice can benefit people who assume it’s not for them. Yes, it requires a commitment. Yes, it rewards some regularity of routine. Beyond those constraints, however, it’s incredibly flexible. Like a good friend, it’s there when you need it, even after you’ve been apart. Like a trusted mentor, it provides perspective and guidance. Like a spring day, it’s refreshing and energizing. Like an inner sanctum, it’s private and safe.

Nothing at all to do with virtue. Like going for walks, journaling is its own reward.

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Through Anne Carley Creative she provides creative coaching and full-service editing to writers and other creative people. Decks of her 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase from central Virginia booksellers, at Bookshop.org, and on Amazon. A new handbook, The Becoming Unstuck Journal, is forthcoming.

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BACCA Writers

The Witchcraft of Older Women

Today is Sunday.

Regardless of what day you’re reading this on I’m writing it on a Sunday. I know it’s Sunday because I just took my alendronate sodium pill. That’s what my husband calls my “bone pill.” I have osteoporosis. I take my “bone pill” once a week, first thing in the morning. I’m not supposed to eat for 30 minutes after taking the pill and I’m not supposed to lie down. I usually take my dog for a walk.

My dog, Zoey. Wanting something. A walk? A treat? Needing to poop?


I’m not even that old, but as Indiana Jones said, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.”


I’m a cancer survivor and a brain aneurysm survivor so it’s not too surprising I need a pill to keep my skeleton from crumbling under me. It’s just one of the pills I take. Most of them are vitamins. I tend to forget whether I’ve taken them or not so now I have the truest badge of old age – a multi-day pill container.

What day is it?


I’ll blame it on writing. Writers, just like all creative people, lose track of time. And days. And weeks. And years. So now I have a pill container to help me keep track, but I still couldn’t tell you how long I’ve been working on my latest writing project. Four years? Five years? I can’t remember. Maybe I need a multi-year pill container for my writing projects.


The last time my writing group met we talked about how history and the media- books, movies, even YouTube – have stereotyped older women. The witch, the crone, the “Karen.” These are women who society sees as troublesome. They are past their usefulness and a menace to society. At least they’re not burned at the stake anymore.


Fortunately today’s older women have role models that help us reject and defy these negative stereotypes: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Angela Merkel, Katherine Johnson.

Angela Merkel. I think she’s brilliant. Photo By Martin Rulsch, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30227377


But I wonder how these ancient stereotypes – dare I say archetypes – began? Why is the witch old and ugly? Why is the crone thin and grey? Why is the “Karen” hated more than the worst criminals?


According to scientists there are only three mammal species that experience menopause. Humans, killer whales and pilot whales.

Pilot Whale. Photo: NATIONAL OCEANIC AND ATMOSPHERIC ADMINISTRATION | U.S. DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/long-finned-pilot-whale

These three intelligent species share more than menopause. They share close relationships with family and friends, with children and grandchildren. But it’s their relatively long lifespan that really sets them apart. Post-menopausal females teach and nurture the next generation. Since no more energy need be spent on having babies, they can use their time and energy on their daughters’ offspring. The older women have forfeited their ability to reproduce so they can help their grandchildren survive. This is known as the ‘grandmother hypotheses.’ (source NPR)

Consider how antiquity looked at the life changes a woman goes through:

The young girl is bright and inquisitive. She is daring and can outrun most of the boys. She is often stronger and bigger that the boys. She can fight them easily and chase them away. Then…


The boys are bigger than her. The same boys who use to chase her and lose now can chase her and win. Life is so unfair. The boys are gaining ground, moving ahead, exploring the world.


Consider the new mother. She can’t spend her time philosophizing. She can’t spend her time exploring. Every waking moment must be spent on one thing: the baby. How to take care of it, how to keep it alive. Keep it healthy. Protect it, make it strong. Make sure it has all its needs. The new mother can seem dull witted because she is sleep deprived. She has one obsession, her child.


Here is where the Grandmother Hypothesis blooms. Who steps in to let the young mother sleep? Who loves her baby as much as she does? Who can help her raise this young individual to become a healthy member of society? Because what is a civilization without children who have been protected and nurtured and trained and taught by their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters?

My mother, Stella Jones, holding one of the many children in her life. 1980s or so.


Finally, after many years of toil, she no longer needs to run away from boys because they are no long chasing her. Her children are grown and her skin and hair shows her age.

But something magical overcomes her. She no longer has to prepare for her monthly cycle (I won’t go into what menstruation was like before the conveniences of modern sanitation) and she can do whatever she wants without worry of pregnancy or monthly pain. That must have seen like magic. She can hike a mountain or swim a lake anytime.


But most of all….


She finally has time to think. She has time to philosophize and seek the wisdom of the universe. Menopause gives her freedom and throughout the history of mankind, including right now in the Ukraine, freedom is a radical idea.

Image courtesy of Facebook campaign in support of Ukraine, March 2022
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Uncategorized

By Guide and By Feel

Every story seems to unfold according to its own logic, its own rules, and its own design. While working on my latest fiction project, I’ve realized that it hardly matters if I’ve put a novel together before—the process is different this time. The story is teaching me how to tell it as I go.

My first novel popped up from a dream like a beribboned gift—equipped with a title, characters, a primary plot, a beginning and an ending. Knowing where the story was going helped guide me through the process—all I had to do was keep writing the scenes that I knew needed to exist. They accumulated, not always in order, but all of them over time, and bit by bit. For the order and organization of these scenes, I didn’t have a guide. I had to go by feel. I’ve said before it was like watching an intricate ship emerge from the water—parts that seemed separate at first were revealed to be connected, a part of the greater whole.

For this latest fiction project, I had no plot in mind when I started. Instead, the two main characters showed up first, arriving with distinct voices and (mostly) formed personalities. Beyond the roughest idea, I didn’t know what these characters would do or where the story would take them, but I knew their voices and I knew how they wanted to talk to each other. When I needed to write a new chapter, their voices beckoned, guiding me in. Many chapters later, they guide me still. All I have to do is put those two into a scene together and the dialog almost seems to write itself. I have pages and pages of them conversing—and they never fail to delight me, to make me think, or to make me laugh. Sounds a little too easy…it isn’t. My characters may show me the way in, but the rest—world-building, plot construction—is up to me.

If I had the characters and a ready plot, too, like I did before, maybe this would be like walking through one of those meditative, unicursal labyrinths: one way through and just follow your feet to the end. Without both elements, I find myself in the multicursal labyrinth—the maze. From an aerial view the maze makes sense, the solution is easy to spot, but from inside the maze it’s a different story, and it’s best to prepare for a challenge. While feeling my way through this latest novel, I’ve had some missteps, even reached a dead end and had to double back, start again.

Maybe, at times, a puzzle is best. Good stories need struggle. They need turmoil and huffing and puffing. They need risk and failure. Second chances and second tries. Maybe the storyteller also needs some of these things to keep writing, to stay intrigued. I have plenty of those easy dialog scenes piled up and ready to go, but my favorite parts of my new novel might be the puzzle-box chapters, the ones that kept me up past my bedtime and asserted their conundra into my dreams. Both ways, by guide and by feel, are gifts of the process. The unicursal labyrinth entices, and the maze (after some work) rewards.

Writing takes courage. It’s an adventure, a quest of sorts, with helpers and obstacles. Writers may look like they’re doing very little while sitting in a café, or camped at their desk, hardly moving for blocks of time. But really, they’re creating something out of nothing, inventing worlds from scratch. Fans used to throw posies or silk hankies at their champions as they faced down danger. Maybe instead, we can just check on each other now and then—see if anyone needs a Chai or something. Hydration is easy to forget when you’re in the maze.

Noelle Beverly writes poetry and prose, promotes local writers in the surrounding community, and is a member of the BACCA Literary groupPhotos by the author.