Composting, Dating, and Becoming Unstuck

My compost bin is just a dirty plastic box without a bottom.  I set it up under a tree near the road a good ways away from my beehive so it wouldn’t attract bears or other critters to my bees.  I keep a bucket in my garage for scraps and carry them to the bin about once a week, more often in the summer during watermelon season.  More often if I’m composting something tasty that my dog likes to sneak into the garage to nibble on like sweet potato peels.  I compost egg shells, orange peels, and coffee grounds. I compost kale stems, pistachio shells, and leaves from my driveway.  How could this hodgepodge ever amount to anything worthwhile?  All I have to do is leave it be and let Mother Nature do her thing. She turns all those scraps turns into rich dirt.  Rich dirt to feed my trees and create flowerbeds.  Rich dirt to attract worms.  My yard is more productive because of those scraps.

Here’s the deal.  I’ve been researching a nonfiction project for a couple of years and let me tell you, a couple of years of research piles up.  I have scraps of newspaper articles, recordings of interviews, court records, books, pamphlets.  My poor little office has stacks of notebooks and ideas.  The problem is I don’t know how to tell this story.  The blind man and the elephant scenario.  The project is so big I don’t know where to start.

In other words, I’m stuck.

I need to become unstuck.  I flip through FLOAT, Becoming Unstuck for Writers by AM Carley.

FLOAT devotes a couple of pages on a topic called Compost. (pages 187-188) Not composting food scraps.  Composting writing scraps.

Sometimes the most clear-eyed, thoughtful, and beneficial decision we can make about a piece of writing is to put it away…. Put it in a drawer… Archive it on a hard drive…

And walk away.

Walk away!  What do I do then? Do I keep writing? Or not?  I flip through FLOAT and find a chapter entitled Date Yourself on page 57.

For this date with yourself, your only goal is to do something that interests or inspires you.… By getting out, you give yourself the chance to re-set your own approach. You take a complete break from your project and simply get out into the world with curiosity and a sense of adventure.… you don’t need an agenda…. be with yourself, open-minded, curious, free.

This was exactly what I needed. Permission to do something other than write and research. Permission to do something fun.  For me, that’s beekeeping. I have four hives and love to be out with them. I love to learn about bees and talk to other beekeepers.

Two of Carolyn’s Four honeybee hives. Photo taken Nov. 2019

 

So I decide to I attend the annual Virginia State Beekeepers Association meeting.   Most of the lectures are about how to maintain healthy hives.  The parallels between healthy beehives and healthy human societies are legendary.  The individual is moving ahead with her life in concert with thousands of other individuals moving ahead with their lives. And in the center of all this movement is the queen.

And then it happened.  As I listened to the lectures about the importance of a strong queen, stories began to swirl.  I went home that evening and wrote the first chapter about a fictional human family that behaves like a beehive. The family has workers, drones, babies, and a queen named Sabbath.

I’m not sure where this story is going but I’m having fun writing.  And now and then, an idea pops into my head about how to shape all that research into a readable, creative nonfiction.  I note of that idea and put it aside.  I’ll come back to it.  But for now, I’m having fun with my bees and my ideas.

The cover of FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers

A M Carley’s handbook for writers, available at Central Virginia booksellers and online.

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of KINGSLEY

AM Carley’s book FLOAT, Becoming Unstuck for Writers is available on Amazon

The Release of High Tide

high tide1 (2)

 

It’s here, now—the novel our friend worked on throughout her adult life. High Tide, by Andrea Fisher Rowland, is complete and beautiful. With her gone, High Tide is what we have left to hold in our hands—a little world of ideas, a collection of words born from her preoccupations and worries and loves and time. While she raised a son and taught school and graded papers and built a life, Andrea also wrote a novel and poetry around the edges of her life. In her last years, even in her last hours, she returned to these writings with hope.

Any writer knows that these are the moments to fantasize about: feeling the weight of your book in your hand, flipping through pages bound together in their final order, running a hand over a smooth, beautiful cover. From that first, hopeful, audacious moment that we set a pen to page, we dream of seeing copies of our book on a shelf in a real bookstore. Through the careful, devoted efforts and expertise of Dorene Fisher and Anne M Carley, Andrea’s dream of having High Tide published has been realized.

Members of BACCA and other writers that Andrea knew gave this novel their time too. Sharing work for critique a little at a time over months or years is an exercise in patience and mind-stretching understanding—for the writer and the reader. Scrutinizing parts of a larger work so closely, while trying to hold the whole of it in our minds over time is slippery business. I read High Tide both ways—piece by piece over months and months and all at once in a few days. After revisiting it, I found that as familiar as it felt, I had hardly known the novel at all. It was like trying to recognize something at a distance that I’d only been viewing under a magnifying glass. Before, I’d missed some of the novel’s dreamy energy, its pull, its soft momentum.

Experiencing it in its entirety, some of us have realized that High Tide isn’t so easy to categorize. Not just a drama or a thriller or a mystery, it borrows elements from these genres, while pressing questions about human impact on the natural world and the repercussions of our fraught relationship with the environment.

High Tide might be best described using words we know from other forms: art, music, and poetry. I think of a tapestry as I follow dynamics between characters, or sort out the interplay between the personal and universal. The voicing is fugal—as the point of view of one character rises and falls, the perspective of another character takes a turn, first doubling and amplifying themes, then diverting focus and introducing new ideas and emotions. In tone, the novel is often elegiac, as characters face moments of growth, love (in all forms), and death or loss. Whatever we name it, however we describe this book, it is best to be experienced—the fulfillment of Andrea’s dream and part of her legacy, a gift from her to us.

andrea (2)While it’s dangerous and lazy to assume that any poem or work of fiction is autobiographical, I can’t deny that writers leave a part of themselves in their work. Without assuming too much, we can still expect to meet Andrea here as we read, to find a trace of her wandering in these pages. For those of us who miss her, this is a comforting thought.

On Saturday, December 7th, we will celebrate the release of High Tide and the life of Andrea Fisher Rowland at Baine’s Books & Coffee, in Scottsville. Friends of Andrea, if you’d like to hold High Tide in your hands and meet the forces that made the publication of this novel possible (Dorene Fisher and Anne M Carley), join us in Scottsville between 10:00 am and noon.

(Baine’s Books & Coffee, 485 Valley St, Scottsville, VA 24590)

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

Fiction or Nonfiction? Dinner or Dessert?

Fiction is a roller coaster

Fiction is fun. Fiction is freedom. 

Fiction creates new worlds and fills these worlds with heroes, villains, comics, romantics. Fills them with humans or monsters or aliens from another dimension.  Fiction can be as wild and unbelievable as the author’s imagination.

Every paragraph is a roller coaster.

Everything is fair game.

Everything is up in the air.

Enjoy the ride and let your imagination soar!

 

Nonfiction has rules.

Nonfiction takes place in a location the author can and should visit

Creative Nonfiction takes place in a location the author can and should visit, whether it’s the graveyard down the road or a ship in the middle of the ocean. Not to say writing nonfiction can’t be fun, but the author doesn’t have the same freedom to make up worlds or characters. The people and places must be real.

Nonfiction isn’t a roller coaster.

It’s a maze and research is the author’s only map.

Newspaper articles, interviews, books, and (occasionally) Google.

This is how I contrast my experiences writing fiction versus writing nonfiction. First drafts of fiction dance off my keyboard.  Ideas pop into my head. My writing group asks “why did he do that?” about a character and in fiction, I can create the motivation. In nonfiction if I can’t find his motivation in my research, I can’t answer that question.  I can’t make up an actual  person’s motivations for his or her actions.

Most of my research comes from newspapers and interviews.

I have been researching a complex, creative nonfiction project for years. 

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this creative nonfiction centers on the man who discovered an earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Virginia and ended up with a bullet in his head. 

It’s an exciting story with a thousand twists and turns, just like an intricate maze. 

Am I near the end of the maze or still in the center?  Only careful research will help me find my way.

 

Which is more satisfying as a writer? Fiction or nonfiction?

That’s like asking what is more satisfying to eat, dinner or dessert.

Why not try both?

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of:

KINGSLEY,

Honey I’m Yours,

Terry and the Monster-Beaters,

THAT WORD: Uterine Cancer from Diagnosis to Recovery.

 

Carolyn O’Neal was creative consultant for:

Boss of the Outer Banks

Ultimate Obsession

Why did God allow…Lesson from a Local Preacher

 

 

Required Reading, Part One

oafk1

I’ve started a list of books that I consider “required reading”—not books that were forced on me, or titles that I would force on anyone else, but books that made me, the stories out of which I seem to be built.

Like most human beings, I resist when I’m told to read something and I don’t linger long in the company of those who enjoy shaming others for what they haven’t read yet. Anyone who really loves reading knows that there are too many wonderful books to read in one lifetime—you have to choose. So, while I don’t like bossy imperatives, or veiled humiliation techniques, I do love to see lists of things that have inspired others. I’ve started my own list with one of the first books that really mattered to me: The Once and Future King, by T. H. White.

I’ve heard that if you want a clue for what to do with your life, a vocation to pursue, you should look back at the things you loved to do as a kid. Buried in the play of childhood you’ll find the rewarding work of adulthood. When I was young, I became fascinated with King Arthur, and I began reading versions of the Arthurian legends and comparing them—letting the versions sink into me, letting the differences and irreducible truths permeate. I took that story in from every angle—devoted myself to it.

I could have started with Tennyson or Malory, but I began with T. H. White. The Once and Future King became the standard bearer for me and one of the building blocks of my understanding, one of the contributing factors of my emotional range. For years, if asked, I called it my favorite book. After I had studied literature for awhile, I decided that I should read it again, to see if it still had something to give, somewhere else to take me. I found that it had weathered very well.

Beyond the legend, beyond the story itself, which manages to hold up under all this re-visitation, here are just a few reasons why I love this book:

The Once and Future King starts with a children’s book. The Sword in the Stone (Book I) is a lovely book about humility, deep friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, and learning to see the world from the perspectives of others. It introduces us to Arthur before he’s a king, when he is just “the Wart.” Growing up with the protagonist, as Harry Potter fans can attest, is a powerful way to get to know a character. For the curious, there are versions of The Sword in the Stone, too—subtle variations between the stand-alone title marketed separately for kids, and the one included in the complete novel, which some critics say is darker, influenced by the horrors of World War II.

Also, one of the characters moves backwards through time, growing younger while others age. This formal choice is how White gets away with his use of anachronisms, and the 20th century social and political commentary sprinkled throughout the book. Another tiny, perfect reward that this device offers is a moment that I didn’t catch my first time through. Near the beginning, two of the characters meet—for one character, it is an introduction, the origin of what will be an important relationship, for the other (who experiences time backwards), that meeting is the very last time he will lay eyes on a beloved friend. This little heartbreak, nestled into the opening pages, disappeared the first time I read it. I could only fully feel it—as devastating as a tragic ending—after I knew what the characters would mean to each other, on my second read through.

oafk2And, I have White to thank for manticore, bodkin, escutcheon, greaves, angelica, featherfew, varvels, jesses, guidons, vergescu, fewmets, menee, hurdy-gurdy, foin, gelid, limner, ricks, rusks, purlieus, slee, souterrain, and widgeon. This is just a sampling of the rich vocabulary from The Once and Future King, a brief catalog of terms you might learn from various categories, including falconry, jousting, armory, architecture, hunting, heraldry, and archery.

Finally, The Once and Future King is full of flawed characters and human truths. I consider it a brief, effective course in empathy. The pretty people in the story aren’t always good, and the “good” aren’t always very likable. Most Lancelots you will encounter are handsome, dashing, irresistible. White’s Lancelot, however, is homely, isolated, uncomfortably religious, and he feels bad about himself most of the time. The book also gives us despicable characters who get redeemed, and decent, well-meaning characters who land in terrible positions, often of their own making—sometimes through big, glaring mistakes, sometimes through a series of little, shuffling missteps that eventually lead nowhere good. Finding themselves in tragedy, or violence, or grief, they have to choose a best way forward, an honorable way to keep going and make things better.

Do you have a core of required texts? A list of books or stories or poems, without which you’d be someone else? Please share titles from your list in the comment section below.

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

 

Remembering Andrea

photo of Andrea

Andrea Fisher Rowland (1957-2019)

Author, poet, playwright, and teacher

The BACCA writers mourn one of our own. Andrea died at Hospice of the Piedmont in Charlottesville, VA on 7 June.

Andrea Fisher Rowland spent her childhood years in New Zealand, and thereafter was a Virginia resident for most of her life. She graduated in English from James Madison University, where hers was the first student-written play – entitled “Fancies” – ever presented on the main stage of campus and for which she won the Norman Lear Award for Comedy Playwriting. She earned an MA from the University of Virginia with a concentration in Creative Writing, studying with John Casey and Greg Orr.

She went on to earn a PhD from the University as well, working with Karen Chase and Edgar Shannon. Her dissertation, The Supernatural Muse: Representations of the Creative Impulse in the Fiction of Emily Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens, examines the supernatural figures (ghosts, genii, etc.) appearing in those authors’ works.

She worked as an Assistant Dean and Director of Studies at the University of Virginia, taught composition and literature at Wake Forest University, and taught introduction to theater at James Madison University. She has directed readings and productions of Shakespeare and other early modern playwrights at Wake Forest and at the University of Virginia. Most recently she taught English at Renaissance School in Charlottesville.

Throughout the years, while raising her son Liam, she wrote poetry, plays, and fiction, notably her novel High Tide. In 2017, an excerpt from High Tide was a finalist in the Virginia Festival of the Book Fiction Contest, and her poem, “These Same Fields,” won the Writer House / Jefferson Madison Regional Library Poetry Competition. In 2018, her poem, “Waikato,” was published in Artemis Journal.

A poetry collection, Family Album, was recently published and her novel, High Tide, is forthcoming in 2019, both from Chenille Books.

 

Andrea and I were co-workers – even co-teachers, occasionally – as well as neighbors, and members of two writing groups together, and friends. We both liked gin & tonics, and we both had jukeboxes on in our heads all the time. We would sing and whistle out loud and give each other earworms. We had one fight that was dumb, and lots of raucous laughter. I liked goats and she liked poetry and we both liked New Zealand. I was organized and she was spontaneous.

I am grateful she is no longer in pain, but I don’t understand yet what it means that she is gone, and I already miss her terribly.

— Bethany Farris

photo of Andrea

I first met Andrea through her writing. I had moved to Buffalo and she joined BACCA (our writing group) in Charlottesville after I left. Writers know, sharing a draft is like sharing one’s secret self. To send a draft to a virtual stranger takes courage and trust. For my part, I was sharing professional non-fiction writing. It felt low stakes for me. But Andrea was sharing from her novel, High Tide. I was at once intrigued and soothed. I learned from her work that she loved nature, especially things to do with water. As a Pisces and a native Michigander, water connected me to the things she cared about. I also learned that she deeply empathized with our fellow humans, even the most flawed. To quote Anne of Green Gables, I realized Andrea was a kindred spirit before we ever met.

I’m grateful that in June 2017, I could attend a writing retreat, and spend 2 days getting to know Andrea the person as well as the writer. I wish it had been more. She was obviously full of love and rich perspective. She generously and thoughtfully helped me improve my own book, written for teachers. I’m grateful for the chance to know Andrea, and to reflect on knowing her. I look forward to reading her book, and learning more about a very special human being.

— Claire Elizabeth Cameron

photo of Andrea

Our writing group was looking to add a new member when Bethany introduced us to Andrea. That was a few years ago yet seems like yesterday. I appreciate Andrea’s love for nature and passion for the environment. Her words were always poetic. Her heart was always full. I mourn with her friends and family. She made a difference in the world.

— Carolyn O’Neal

photo of Andrea

Andrea had already made an impression on me before our writer group considered her as a new member. I met her the previous year at a party. I only knew a little bit about her – from her voice, her presence, and her spontaneous creativity that evening. But I knew I wanted to get to know her, and her words. I was delighted when she joined BACCA.

Meeting monthly, sharing our words and our voices, I grew to admire Andrea and her inventive, perceptive mind. When we became friends, I learned to admire more — like her love of family, her deep knowledge of English literature, her devastating low-key sense of humor, her dedication to her students, and her musicality. Knowing Andrea enriched my life. May her memory be a blessing to all of us who shared our lives with her.

— A M Carley

Photo of Andrea

Time worked its tricky magic on us. Taking something, giving something. Sleight of hand. When I joined BACCA as the sixth member, shortly after Andrea became the fifth, I walked to the table with velvet ropes erected around myself—hopeful that I would find and give help, insight, understanding—but cautious, too. I have found myself in prickly, stingy, even dangerous writing workshops before. In BACCA, I found a safe and generous community.

Andrea was a large part of the comfort I found. She and I were “new” together. We shared a love of poetry, Shakespeare, and music. For all of our shared loves, I knew I had a host to learn from Andrea too. She knew countries I’ve not yet seen. She spoke eloquently in public. She kept a luxurious pace that reminded me to slow down. Most of the time, she seemed composed. Zen-like. Steady. Even if she was remembering something important that she’d forgotten. I also admire the dreamy, lush language of her novel, High Tide, and the lovely way that poetry haunts her prose, evokes. Her characters, two of them in particular, feel real to me. I think about them, and worry about them still.

Time is tricky. Something happens when we meet, month after month, and share this much of ourselves. Somewhere—between seven months and ten—velvet ropes disappeared, caution dissolved, and (without even much fanfare) I realized we were friends. Just when things fall into place, sometimes, time moves again. And now we have to figure out how to do this without her.

— Noelle Beverly

 

Thanks to Gareth Phillips, Noelle Beverly, and Andrea’s family for the photos.

Of Bees and Books

Honeybees at River House Hives

I am a beekeeper. 

I began my first hive a few years ago and am happy to report that it is still going strong. Since then, I have acquired more. I’ve read countless articles about all the threats facing honeybees today.  From parasites to pesticides, from bears to beetles. According to one statistic, sixty-five percent of the honeybee hives in the state of Virginia died last winter. So my chances for honeybee success are pretty grim.  I can’t let the statistics discourage me.  I can’t let my passion for my honeybees end because of the naysayers. I enjoy working with honeybees regardless of the outcome.  I enjoy beekeeping.  Whether my bees thrive or perish.  Whether I harvest gallons of honey or none at all.  There is joy in the process. These industrious pollinators make our world a better place.

Carolyn O’Neal is the owner of River House Hives in Buckingham County

 

 

I am an author.

I self-published my first novel a few years ago and am happy to report that I have sales and positive reviews. Since then, I have self published more. I’ve read countless articles about the obstacles facing authors, especially self-published authors.  Endless marketing, low sales, no validation for the years of work.  So my chances for making a living as an author are pretty grim. I can’t let mere facts discourage me.  I can’t let my passion for writing end, even if no one outside friends and family read my books.  I enjoy writing.  I find it simultaneously relaxing and stimulating.  There is joy in the process. Books make our world a better place.

 

Carolyn O’Neal is the author of

KINGSLEY,

Honey I’m Yours,

Terry and the Monster-Beaters,

THAT WORD: Uterine Cancer from Diagnosis to Recovery.

Creative Stalking

shreds

It has taken months and pages and ink and hope, but I think I’m closing in on the story that will be my second novel.

Elizabeth Gilbert reported that Tom Waits, in an interview for GQ, said every song has a distinct way of entering into the world: “He said there are songs that you have to sneak up on like you’re hunting for a rare bird, and there are songs that come fully intact like a dream taken through a straw.” I think stories are the same. We can’t expect them all to arrive in the same way, with the same grace and ease. We can’t expect the story or the muse to do all the work.

I’d love to think I’m sneaking up on this new story, stealthy in a stylish trench coat, but I think I’m looking more like a clumsy stalker at this point. It started about a year ago. I’d been playing with a thread, batting it around, seeing where it might lead. But unlike the idea for my first novel, ROOK, this thread was quite thin. I had a character and a setting. No plot. Not yet. So, I gave myself the task of getting to know that character. I did this by writing one page (600 words) every day for a month. By the end of January, I had a lovely stack of paper. I also knew more about my protagonist and secondary characters, as well as some juicy details about setting, and a few plot lines and themes. Not a bad start.

Then I put it away. For months. When November, 2018 approached, I decided I’d try my own, unofficial novel writing month. One page a day had been easy to achieve. But the goal for NoNoWriMo (Noelle’s Novel Writing Month) would be 50,000 words. If I hand-wrote three of those unlined pages, front and back, every day, at 600 words per sheet, I’d have 1800 words, which after 30 days, would get me to 54,000—well over my goal.

Regarding my choice to hand-write and type later, I figured it would give me freedom. I wouldn’t be constantly checking my word count, interrupting the flow of writing. Besides, certain ideas never bloom for me without the time that writing by hand affords. (Although some ideas, I’m sure, which could have been captured in a typing context, might slip the slow net of writing by hand.) I also decided that I would not look back and revise, or try to keep up with typing pages. I would just focus on the writing, which meant I had a big job ahead of me after November.

I’d read advice from NaNoWriMo veterans, who suggested completing an outline first—brilliant guidance for writers who start with plot. That was not my situation, but I still needed a map of some kind, even if it didn’t take me on a straight line. So, I compiled a list. Instead of plot points, I made a list of possible scenes, situations, questions, happenings, and images that could lead me into new territory. I came up with 80 of these and they sustained me for the entire month. One of the hardest things about writing 1800 words a day is—obviously—time. I didn’t suspend my life during the month of November, so I had no time to waste. It was incredibly valuable to have an evocative list to lean on—80 ways back in to the story.

How did it all turn out? Well. There were moments of enchantment, disenchantment, and uncertainty. Since I’d done no re-reading or revision, I really didn’t know if the whole business had been a bust or a coup. I still don’t.shards

I achieved some clarity along the way, though, and learned some good lessons:

  • November is a crazy time to try to write 50,000 words. Thanksgiving. Cooking. Cleaning. Planning. Family time. Travel time. Mind-fuzzing pie. After an extremely faithful start, I let a whole week of writing slide in the middle of the month. (Thanksgiving came early last year, if you remember.) I didn’t even try to write again until the pecan pie was gone.
  • It’s true what they say: nature abhors a vacuum. For fourteen days or so, I had fiercely protected my writing time, but once my vigilance slackened, so many obligations and pressures crept in, eroding the time, luring me away.
  • Resources are important. I’d planned ahead on the paper I needed, but by day 12, I’d run out of ink in all of my good pens. I fell back on borrowed/purloined BICs, which I also demolished. After the luxury of my Navigator G7 Gel Pen Deluxe, this little downgrade made the process much less enjoyable. In Harry Potter speak, it’s like going back to the Cleansweep after you’ve busted up your Firebolt. At least I had something to put on my Christmas wish list: ink refills.
  • Finally, November taught me just exactly how little time I had been carving out in my life for an actual writing process. Nothing feels as good as writing every day. Even after I got exhausted with the project, the daily writing practice felt essential and necessary. Why is it so hard to make space for this?

I’m revisiting those pages now, hoping to find a shape to this thing, to discover the edges and center. After all the distractions, I managed a strong finish, but while I had intended to write 90 pages, I ended up with 52. Ouch. I guess it’s not all about the word count. On the other side of NoNoWriMo, I have a few things to celebrate. I have material to work with. I haven’t lost my will to write.  And, after typing a few of those November pages, I realized that on those crazy, unlined sheets of paper, I was averaging significantly more than 600 words per page…

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

Trickle of life

Recent health issues have had unexpected effects on my mental state. In particular, I have not been able to write or to actively read.  I reasoned that both my subconscious and conscious minds were working so hard on healing that my creativity and my discipline were being channeled, willy nilly, toward self-preservation and restoration.  Recently, I wrote a song about mourning the loss of my mother–another thing I had been able to do only a little, blinkered by the demands of my own cancer, its treatment, and its after-effects. I posted the poem and noticed how many of the responses to it came from people whom I knew were grieving a recent loss, and it occurred to me that others might be responding from losses I didn’t know about. The act of writing the song, the act of sharing my grief, and the feeling that I had touched other lives all combined to make me feel that something that had been frozen was beginning to thaw into a trickle of life. Shortly afterward, Mary Oliver died, causing me to consider how much of her poetry was an invitation to feel life as we live it. I don’t know when I will get back to writing in earnest, but I will not be the same writer I was, and I think that the experience of sharing “Song of Dawn” (my mother’s name was Dawn) and the poetry of Mary Oliver will be part of that difference.

I have felt the support of my fellow BACCA members throughout this time, and I am grateful for it.

Haunted at a writing retreat.

I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat.  I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner.  It was almost ninety degrees outside.  I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.

Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips.  Hollywood lips.  Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:

December 3, 1974

I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…

I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular.  Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.

I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence.  Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night.  The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face.  I rubbed my arms.  It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition.   Just a tad warmer, please.  I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror.  I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.

VIRGINIA:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH

VS.

RAY WILLIAM COOK

The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.

A deep quiet had settled over The Porches.  The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder.   I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows.  I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light.  The room glowed. I looked up.  I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was.  I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer.  I returned to bed and turned off the lights.

It was too dark. It was too quiet.  I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison.  Someone was watching me.  I sat up.  I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire.  That’s all it was.  I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.

Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.

Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing.  At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.

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My bedroom at The Porches.  I should have put my robe over that mirror!

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author.  She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.

 

 

 

 

A Mind of One’s Own

The act of writing, getting words down, can feel like a fragile feat of magic—a meticulous balance of time, space, and solitude, and those even more unpredictable ingredients that comprise inspiration. If it sounds convoluted, sometimes it feels that way too.

A lot of writers form a ritual for this: a schedule, a place, and a set of tools or totems—some magic words—all of which, together, unlock the doors to their work. In contrast, there are the brilliant and prolific that purportedly produce with ease, like William Carlos Williams, who changed the landscape of modern American poetry while tending a thriving medical practice—whipping out poems on his typewriter between patients. Maybe there’s a middle way, something reasonable, something modest, perhaps along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s criteria for a good writing practice: a little money and a room of one’s own.

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The question of territory is critical—for the women writing in Woolf’s day and now. Carving out and claiming a space for thinking, for writing, for painting, can be a radical act, an audacious move, a declaration of independence. I find that it’s not just a question of taking ownership of rooms, but of guarding boundaries around selfhood too—body and mind.

More and more, the mind space is assaulted. Constantly steered by outside forces, shuffled into ever narrowing corridors of thought, directed to look this way or that, to feel this or that, I find it’s getting harder to know what really needs my attention, where my focus might truly do some good and where it merely feeds the frenzy.

If I want to write something of my own, I have to defend myself against the words that come in waves, entreating me to spend, own, or act; to hate, or to hate the other haters; to speak up, or to shut up; to get out there, or to get out of the way; to prepare for weather that is or isn’t coming; to declare my allegiance to the superficial; and to bow to the pretty packaging masking a destructive hidden agenda.

It helps to have a physical room of one’s own, but if I really want a safe space, I’ll need locks that work against these messages, as well as traps for ads, sound-proofing to keep out political rants and propaganda, and firewalls and Faraday cages to guard against texts, tweets, barbed comments, and non-news. I might as well build a moat.

Even if I could silence everything coming at me, what about the echoes in my own mind? If I retreat to my retreat, but carry all that noise with me, have I really gone anywhere? If I took someone else’s train of thought into my creative space, I’ve been for a ride, but have I traveled at all? Sometimes a room of one’s own isn’t enough. To find what’s real again, I might need to find a space beyond language, to visit what’s bigger than words, so that I can hear my own mind.

As someone who loves words and studies them, I could wonder why it feels essential to put them down, but sometimes we need a break from what we love. We need to be in the presence of beauty or wonder or power that can’t be shaped or limited by our methods of framing, our attempts to summarize and control. We seek out the ocean at times like this to let the roaring take over, we go to the mountains, the sanctuary, or we try to find a safe, warm spot to witness a storm.

In the presence of what’s bigger than our words, an energetic exchange happens, a settling of questions and of self-contrived debts. Finally, the gnawing stops, the faint pain of background angst that never crescendos enough to be dealt with by the conscious mind somehow gets resolved, handled completely by the beauty and by the wordlessness.

What am I preparing myself for in these moments? I want to be wiped clean, but for what? The ability to discern rightly again and become attuned, more sensitive still? From a stunned state, answers come—the truth about our most guarded wants and needs, about the unfit compromises we’ve made. Solutions to life problems and story problems rise up too—as if they were waiting for uncontested ground on which to emerge.

Maybe I want to hear the quietest sound more clearly. The other gift from this kind of time is the all-too-brief ability to interpret upon re-entry, to hear the clamor that one has acclimated to and to understand it for exactly what it is: noise. Maybe that noise has served as a distraction, diverting us away from what we might do, substituting its messages for ours. But maybe that noise has also done violence, shaping the world for us into its sharpest, most damaging version. If I want to recognize the difference, I need to recover the weight and value of words, to become a better instrument for measuring them. So that I can start again.

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