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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 group. Photos by the author.
It’s snowing as I write this on a Sunday afternoon in January. The white stuff has been coming down in central Virginia steadily and relentlessly for more than five hours. It’s expected to continue for quite a while, after which it might shift to freezing rain tonight.
When it snowed here two weeks ago, my neighborhood lost power. Living in a completely electric-powered dwelling, I was left without heat, light, and internet, and did not have the use of kitchen appliances. Lucky for me, the power came back on later that evening. (For some people in the area, the power was out for as long as a full week. The public utility – cough – Dominion Energy – cough – has a lot to answer for.)
When the weather predictions about this snowfall began several days ago, reports differed from one source to another. The chatty woman at the UPS store told me to expect over a foot of snow. NOAA’s forecast predicted half of that. Two apps on my phone disagreed – because it’s impossible to predict the future. Even for weather experts.
I noticed I was feeling keyed up and udgy this weekend, and I knew why. Those cold, dark hours earlier this month, when the public utility gave us no projected time the power might be restored, were uncomfortable and full of uncertainty. Were a lot more of those hours heading my way? Thoughts – planning, list-making, trading bits of advice with friends – occupied my attention as I went through the steps. Do the laundry. Whiz up extra nutrition-packed blender drinks and keep them outdoors in a thermal carrier. Doublecheck that the shelf-stable food supplies are plenteous and accessible. Fill the thermos with boiling water. Go for a long walk the day before the storm was due, even in cold weather, because there may not be any walking possible for a while. Complete all the next several days’ essential desk tasks, just in case I won’t have the use of a computer. Make contingency plans with friends who have 4-wheel drive and/or a spare room, if my power goes out and theirs stays on. Sad to say, I’m developing a bad-weather routine. It did not include creative writing – not even this blog post.
My usual weekend sort-of routine has been disrupted. I’ll admit that I enjoy a certain amount of routine in my weekends, especially during the past 20-odd pandemic months. If it’s Sunday, it’s time for a long walk in the woods, followed by a laundry or two. If it’s Saturday, I get to read a book. I might do more in the kitchen than during the week, fixing something for dinner that requires longer prep time, or baking. Typically, in an aspect of my weekends that I treasure, these activities all happen without deadlines or timetables. I mosey from one thing to another, taking breaks as they happen.
It felt like all those relaxed weekend possibilities went – poof – once it was clear this snowstorm was coming. The “gotta-gotta” engine was running things. That engine used to run my life a lot, and am grateful that it doesn’t so much, these days. My body remembers how, though. The elevated heart rate, shorter breaths, easily distracted thinking – oh yeah. Like riding a bicycle. As I explain in the “Come to Mama” tool in my book, FLOAT, “A self-defeating, buzzing energy I’ve come to call ‘gotta-gotta’ takes over when I’ve been in the land of windowless light, filtered air, and hard surfaces for too long. Gotta-gotta is the welcome mat for workaholism, compulsion, and further depletion. In the throes of gotta-gotta, proportion and balance don’t have a chance to be taken seriously.”
I noticed gotta-gotta taking over this weekend. While I understood the wisdom of making plans to take care of myself and my short-term obligations, I didn’t want to see my hard-won equanimity buried in a snowdrift until springtime. I wanted to use the gotta-gotta when it was called for, and then drop back down into something that works better long term – something calmer and deeper. There’s good news on that front.
I’m glad to report that, although it’s still snowing, I’m getting to the end of this blog post. This wasn’t possible to write while in the throes of gotta-gotta. So, although there are now several inches of snow outside my front door, and they’ll need to be dealt with before I can venture out, it’s also true that indoors the lights are still on, my heartbeat is back to normal, and I plan to fix another cup of tea as soon as I wrap up this post.
Stay safe and sound, everyone. Here’s to calming down enough to write.
— 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.
The date was Wednesday, March 20, 1974. The place was the Louisa County Courthouse. The event was a hearing to determine whether the geologic fault running beneath the nuclear reactors at the North Anna nuclear power plant was safe. The existence of a fault wasn’t in question. Neither was whether Vepco purposely hid the existence of the fault from the AEC and from the public for three years. At issue was the age of the fault and the likelihood that it was currently active (or could be reactivated) and could jeopardize the four proposed nuclear reactors enough to flood the surrounding cities, towns, and farms with radiation.
The three-man Atomic Energy Commission Safety and Licensing Board had set up the hearing in Louisa County to listen to testimony from Vepco personnel, paid experts, upset landowners, and concerned scientists. Neither Chairman John B. Farmokides nor the other two men on the board, R. B. Briggs, a nuclear safety engineer from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and Lester Kornblith, Jr. an Atomic Energy Commission engineer, had any idea the hearing would go on for twelve long days when Chairman Farmokides called the hearing to order. (The Central Virginian, April 6, 1974, AEC Panel Concludes Twelve Day Hearing)
Most of those testifying were male. All three board members were male. All the Vepco personnel as well as their subcontractors were male. All the lawyers representing the AEC, Vepco, the state of Virginia, and the North Anna Environmental Coalition were male. It’s possible that on some days the only woman in the entire Courthouse was June Allen. Forty-two year old June Allen most embodied the North Anna Environmental Coalition yet it’s more than likely every man in the room thought she would soon give up. They probably thought she’d return to cooking or cleaning or whatever middle-aged women from Charlottesville did in 1974. What could one lone woman and a handful of cock-eyed environmentalists do to halt Vepco’s plans to build one of the largest nuclear power plant in the world? How could this middle-aged schoolmarm stand up to the combined might of the Atomic Energy Commission and largest taxpaying corporation in the state?
What neither Vepco nor the Atomic Energy Commission knew was that June Allen had never been content to watch injustice from the sidelines. She wasn’t about to scurry back to Charlottesville. What neither Vepco nor the Atomic Energy Commission knew was that June Allen had a history of advocating for the most vulnerable members of society against the most intractable foes.
Uphill battles & seemingly lost causes didn’t discourage June Allen. They spurred her on.
In the 1960 United States census, over one fifth of the population was living below the poverty line. In 1962, social critic Michael Harrington estimated there were between 40,000,000 and 50,000,000 relatively invisible poor people: Unskilled workers, migrant farm workers, minorities, people for whom work was sporadic, demeaning, and demoralizing. They were without adequate housing, education, and medical care. (American Social Policy in the 1960’s and 1970’s, by Jerry D. Marx, Ph.D., M.S.W., University of New Hampshire) Civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining the cause of the 1965 riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles, focused on the poor in a land of plenty:
“I believe what happened in Los Angeles was of grave national significance. What we witnessed in the Watts area was the beginning of a stirring of a deprived people in a society who had been by-passed by the progress of the previous decade. I would minimize the racial significance and point to the fact that these were the rumblings of discontent from the ‘have-nots’ within the midst of an affluent society.”
(On 17 August 1965, Martin Luther King arrived in Los Angeles in the aftermath of the riots. His experiences over the next several days reinforced his growing conviction that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) should move north and lead a movement to address the growing problems facing black people in the nation’s urban areas. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University)
In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared “unconditional war” on poverty. As Johnson put it in his 1964 State of the Union address, “Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” His efforts resulted in the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 (which established the Job Corps, the VISTA program, the federal work-study program and a number of other initiatives), and, most importantly to millions of disadvantaged children, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (Washington Post, January 8, 2014, Everything you need to know about the war on poverty By Dylan Matthews)
Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was created to distribute federal funds to school districts that had a high percentage of students from low-income families. It was designed to close the skills gap in reading, writing, and mathematics between children from low-income households who attend urban or rural school systems and children from the middle-class who attend suburban school systems. Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act supported special education and became the basis of the Education of the Handicapped Act. (Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 by Catherine A. Paul) School districts all over the country rushed to find educators and administrators capable of implementing the massive intricacies of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
In January 1966, June Allen became the first fulltime coordinator of Albemarle County’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs making her one of President Johnson’s unsung heroes of his war on poverty. Born in 1932, June Stone Allen was a native New Englander. She was Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Vermont. She had a Master’s Degree in Music Education from the University of Arizona and graduate work in English at Harvard. Before moving to Albemarle County, she taught high school English in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. She came to Charlottesville in 1963 when her husband, Dr. Phillip Allen, joined the University of Virginia medical school faculty. Before being recruited to implement President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act in Albemarle County, Mrs. Allen taught music at the Trinity Program in Charlottesville and at Head Start. In 1965 she taped “Patterns in Music,” a series of fifth-grade music lessons for WCVE, the Richmond educational television station.
As the first fulltime coordinator of Albemarle County’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act programs, June Allen started several of Title I and Title III programs including “Summer Skills,” “Greenwood Grows,” “Prime Time,” and “Candid Classroom,” but it was in the two language programs she designed that her gifts as an educator shined: “Language Lift” and “SP-EAR”
“Language Lift” was designed to stimulate oral language and reasoning ability. The premise for this combination was that both were essential for success in reading, especially for disadvantaged children. The program was widely admired and was recognized by the Office of Education as “outstanding.” (There was no mention in the source article of whether the “Office of Education” was a local, statewide, or federal Department of Education.) Two reporters from the Charlottesville newspaper The Daily Progress won prizes in writing for their pieces about the “Language Lift” program.
Like “Language Lift,” the “SP-EAR” program was a joint effort between the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle County. “SP-EAR” focused on the “hearing handicapped and the speech impaired” with particular attention on oral language.
In 2021, Albemarle County has Title I programs in 6 elementary schools. Funds support reading and math instruction through teachers, teaching assistants, instructional materials, professional development, and program support for over 300 students in the county. (From Albemarle County Schools website https://www.k12albemarle.org/our-departments/instruction/title-i)
After years of fighting in President Johnson’s war on poverty, taking on Vepco must not have seemed nearly as daunting. A month before the Atomic Energy Commission’s Safety and Licensing Board hearing began, Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Jean Purcell interviewed June Allen. This same insightful reporter had interviewed Louisa County High School Councilor Mr. H. Spurgeon Moss as rising waters from the dammed North Anna River threatened to cut across his driveway and strand him in his home. As with her article about Mr. Moss, reporter Jean Purcell saw the David versus Goliath battle shaping up as another dedicated educator tangled with Vepco and their billion dollar nuclear power plant. Modern eyes may read Jean Purcell’s description of June Allen in the February, 1974 interview as too flowery, even condescending, but in 1974, one professional woman interviewing another professional woman was certainly a rarity in Virginia and perhaps a rarity throughout the world:
“Willowy and gentle, a poet and a musician, June Allen’s interest had been largely in the fields of music and language arts, and in developing language teaching techniques for disadvantaged children.
But she can be aggressive without being abrasive, courteous without taking on the qualities of a Uriah Heep. Her birth and upbringing in a puritanical environment in New England have fused in her a strong streak of what she considers the rightness of things.
Membership in Phi Beta Kappa attests her academic achievements. As a friend said of her recently, “I never cease to be amazed by her basic intelligence, her articulation and her smoothness.”
All those qualities have been useful—more than that, necessary—in her work with the North Anna Environmental Coalition to block construction of the power plant as it is now planned.
In preparation for a March 20  hearing on the safety of the North Anna site in light of the geologic fault, Mrs. Allen and others in the coalition are hard at work.
‘I think it is a matter of survival. I genuinely do. We are developing something that has the power to destroy us,’ she said.”
(Richmond Times Dispatch, February 25, 1974, Atomic Power Plant Foe is an Unlikely Adversary by Jean Purcell)
June Allen and the North Anna Environmental Coalition had reason to distrust Vepco. They had reason to be wary of the Atomic Energy Commission as the hearings began. Far too many voices echoed the sentiment that the AEC had already decided to support Vepco long before the hearings began. Rumors rippled through the Courthouse that the AEC would give Vepco permission to continue building the North Anna nuclear power plant regardless of what was uncovered regarding the earthquake fault under the nuclear reactors.
Author’s Note: I’ve found very few articles about June Allen and nothing on her life after leaving Virginia (other than her obituary). If you knew June Allen or any member of the North Anna Environmental Coalition, please leave a message below. I’d like to learn more.
Albemarle County, Virginia, is located about thirty miles west of Louisa County (site of the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant.) In the middle of the 726 square-mile county is Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. Albemarle County is where President Thomas Jefferson built his famous mansion Monticello, and President James Monroe built his less famous mansion Highland.
Headline image of two workmen atop the North Anna Dam courtesy of The Central Virginian Newspaper
This month the deadlines are stacked up like flapjacks, but I do not want to work. All I want is to go outside and soak up as much of the light and color the short days will allow.
For once, October wasn’t a diva and saved some glory for November. Usually, we only have the subtle pink and burgundy oak leaves left by now. But this year, the sassafras leaves are still waving, the ginkgo is more green than gold, and sunset-colored maples are competing with the Christmas lights that have already gone up. Autumn is taking its time in spite of the calendar, and I just want to be in the middle of it while it’s happening.
Meanwhile, that little pile of to-dos I thought I had under control is cascading into chaos, threatening to take me with it. I’m using my tools—I’ve got the whole mess micro-mapped, broken into baby steps. I thought I’d be less daunted if I broke it down. I thought I’d just soar through, but I’m moving at more of a meander.
The potency of liminal time
Lucky for me, I have Brenda Ueland backing me up. In her slim, hope-packed manifesto, If You Want To Write: A Book about Art, Independenceand Spirit, first published in 1938, she proposes that the “idea that we must always be energetic and active is all wrong.” Instead, she promises, “the imagination needs moodling,—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering.”
I love this. In this light, afternoons spent pondering, strolls outside spent gathering petals, rocks, leaves—all have value. It isn’t laziness or just avoiding the inevitable to stay in bed for a few extra minutes some mornings. Maybe those quiet, just-waking moments, when pieces of dream and thought drift down together in new interlocking orders, are as important as the work I’ll get around to after. In that liminal time, crucial creative energy accumulates, banks up, gathering in potency so it can fuel the creative work of another time.
I know this from dabbling in other disciplines—recovery days are as important as running days. If I want to run next week, or when I’m 75, I have to give myself days in between to stretch and rest, refuel and heal. The garden teaches this too. You can’t plant tomatoes in the same patch every year—the soil needs fallow time so it can be replenished.
For the sake of today and tomorrow
I try to hold this all-too-appealing permission slip in balance with other advice that I know to be true, including the undeniable prescription that, to be a good writer, you need to write everyday. Still, Brenda Ueland makes good sense when she says that “what we write today slipped into our souls some other day when we were alone and doing nothing.” What she calls a “span of idling yesterday,” therefore, is essential. Racing from one task to the next so that we can get it all done doesn’t lead to the best work, she argues, because “good ideas come slowly” as a result of “clear, tranquil and unstimulated” time—and the more slowly they come, she says, the better they’ll be.
Still, deadlines loom, and I can’t pretend otherwise without disappointing myself and others. So today, I do a task and cross it off the list. Then before the sun goes down, I give in to “unstimulated” time. For the sake of the novel I hope to start next year, I get myself under the ginkgo branches to check on the progression of green to gold.
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.
A coaching client of mine emailed the other day to ask why I hadn’t yet begun the “heavy lifting editing” on their book manuscript in progress. Turns out that previous experience with an editor had taught my client to expect cutting and pasting — or slashing and burning — from the start. My behavior wasn’t measuring up to the client’s expectations.
I got to thinking. I saw that, especially with this project, there are multiple kinds of heavy lifting involved in the collaboration between writer and coach, and they each have their own timing.
I reflected on where we were with the project and what had happened so far. They’d sent me 80 or so pages, and asked for an edit of the first portion of those. I did a line edit on those pages, with marginal comments and questions about structure and context. We met a couple of times to discuss these things, and to plan a working outline for the book. After those coaching sessions, the client requested time to think through some new ideas we’d brainstormed about the architecture of this book-length project, and the basic design of each section and chapter within it.
It wasn’t yet time for me to get into any heavy lifting. We were still defining what we were building. With several hundred more pages to write, the client was doing plenty of heavy lifting already.
Along those lines, my client also said: “I think after we get through this first chapter we will have a better idea of how to proceed in the future.”
With that thoughtful sentence, the client was exploring our working process. Makes sense, since they’ve never done this before. And we’ve never done this together before. They’re right about the “heavy lifting,” too — and there’s more than one kind involved for this project. It’s a good metaphor.
After reflecting on these things, I wrote back to the client: Yes, you’re right. I wait to move blocks of text around until I feel we both have a strong sense of the way we’re going to structure the book. For me, that kind of editing makes sense only when the overall architecture — the plan for the book — is clear. Once we have that in place, I’ll be glad to dig in and sling paragraphs around.
Another kind of heavy lifting
The paragraph-slinging I’ll be undertaking is one kind of heavy lifting. There’s another important aspect to this project. It’s the client’s first full-length book — a complex braid of memoir, the science of trauma, and wisdom — and it contains sensitive subject matter. So not only do they need to find the words and make the sentences, and organize them into chapters and sections with an overall arc, flow, and momentum — they also need to find the inner resources to develop and sustain an arms-length stance to the entire enterprise.
Writing about difficult topics from their own life, particularly those that are likely to trigger some members of the intended reading audience, this author has the extra challenge of distancing enough from their own past trauma and growth to be a clear communicator with a consistent perspective. Doing that involves building some strong muscles, and allowing for plenty of recovery time.
The inner work my client has already done — to be capable of this kind of writing — is impressive. That preparation has made it possible now to immerse in deep and painful memories, then surface enough to express in language things that have become possible to articulate, and then climb all the way out, shake it off, go to work, feed the cats, have supper with the spouse, etc. It’s a kind of heavy lifting that takes all the time it requires. From the pages I’ve seen, it’s already apparent that the client’s voice is clear. Their purpose is well defined. People will benefit from this work.
And another kind
Also, it’s the first time they’ve worked with a writing coach. As with any relationship, trust builds over time. We first met a few years ago, when they came to me for a quick creative boost. They had a short deadline for a presentation that needed some finishing touches. So initial trust was there, but now we’re developing a deeper working relationship. Things are going well, and we’re already making real progress defining the book and its architecture.
But last time I contributed the equivalent of a car wash and detailing for a vehicle that the client had already built and road tested. Compared to our prior work together, our process this time is more like designing and assembling an airplane. It makes sense for us to do this work on the ground, not mid-flight.
In short, a project like this requires several kinds of heavy lifting. The author has to bear the most weight, and for the longest time. You might say they’ve been carrying a lot of it their entire life. In fact, this writing project has the potential to lighten their load, if we proceed deliberately and with care. I’m really looking forward to doing my part.
— 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.
My sister is an excellent quilter. She knows everything about quilting, from presser foots* to Prairie points**. In her sewing room are drawers of needles and sewing machine equipment, organizers full of measuring rulers of every shape and size (straight, triangle, curved), and bookcases of quilting books and magazines.
Lots and lots of fabric. She has fabric with tight patterns of flora and fauna. She has fabric with large panels of complete images. Majestic mountains, smiling sunrises, slumbering moonbeams. She has fabric in every imaginable color and hue. Go to her “green” drawer and she can find anything she might need to add a touch of nature to a quilt. Shamrocks, leaves, frogs. The same with her yellow, red, and blue drawers. She and I often visit fabric stores to add to her collection. Cottonwood in Charlottesville is my favorite fabric store. She’s partial to Patchwork Plusin Dayton.
Recently, she’s begun teaching me how to quilt.
She began by giving me a task that made me comfortable with the tools of quilting. The sewing machine, the iron, and the rotary cutter (a sharp, round blade attached to a handle, looks like a pizza cutter).
Putting together the pieces of a story isn’t very different from putting together the pieces of a quilt. The best way to start is with a strong and thoughtful mentor. I began my work as a serious writer by taking a Creative Writing Class at Writer House in Charlottesville. My teacher was David Ronka. Like my sister, he was both patient and instructive.
After you find your mentor, gather your tools and build up a supply of the bits and pieces to create your story. Characters, setting, plot. Beginning, middle, and end. The basic framework and the personal touches. You’re not going to use all the bits and pieces. Some will be thrown out. Some bits will be tucked away for a later project. Patience, creativity, and love.
Just like with quilting, if you don’t love the project you are working on, if it doesn’t give you both satisfaction and challenge, you’ll give up before it’s finished. Find the love.
* presser foots: The removable sewing machine accessory that holds fabric in place against the machine bed and accommodates the needle. A variety of presser feet styles are available for most machines.
** Prairie points: Folded fabric triangles used as a quilt border or embellishment.
I’ve returned to my old stomping grounds: the classic fairy tales. Rereading has always been a happy pastime for me. I was one of those kids—ready to start over with Once upon a time as soon as I’d heard The End. It’s comforting to revisit a story, to be delighted again by characters and ideas, even when you know what’s going to happen at the end.
Under the guidance of some master storytellers and interpreters of the form (Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Robert Bly, Angela Carter, and others), I’ve learned that rereading can uncover new things, too. Especially if I’m willing to pull back traditional interpretations to search with fresh eyes, or if I’m ready to examine gaps and silences instead of just leaping straight over them. This time through the Brothers Grimm, I’m looking around the corners in the stories, mining fissures to find what may be hiding there. I’m also trying to peer back into the eyes of the storytellers to see if they have anything else they might like to say. Here’s an example…
Remember The Frog Prince? (A princess drops her golden ball in a well, a frog offers to retrieve it—for a price. She agrees, but as soon as her favorite toy is recovered, she runs off, leaving the frog in the lurch.) Conventional analyses of this story tend to focus on the importance of integrity and keeping your promises. In the story, when the king hears the details, he makes his daughter fulfill her obligations. So, Froggy gets to eat from her plate and she even has to carry him up to her room. There’s nothing wrong with learning to keep your word, but I can’t stop thinking about what happens next…
When the frog tries to crawl into her pretty, silken bed, the princess slams him against the wall. Now, for the record, I do not condone violence against animals—it’s just the princess’s anger here that fascinates me. There’s a line she can’t cross, even to please the king. She made this bargain in haste without really considering the consequences, and when payment comes due, it’s too much. So, she gets mad.
Here’s the funny thing—the pothole in the story that I’ve always been encouraged to skate past—her anger IS the necessary catalyst required for transformation.
After Froggy hits the wall, he pops back into his original, charming prince form—no kissing required! It seems like the original storyteller here understood that keeping your word is important, but protecting your boundaries when you’ve entered into a bad bargain might be even more rewarding. That little facet of this story really holds up—in fact, it seems made for readers today.
There are a host of reasons why teachers and mentors and gurus have used stories to pass their wisdom down. Stories are easier to remember, for one thing. But they can also be elastic—they can grow and bend and twist with us. Narratologists have noted that fairy tales were likely never meant (just) for the children gathered around the fire, but told for the benefit and entertainment of everyone listening.
For me, all of this means that I never have to outgrow these tales—but I know if I return, I might discover that my allegiances have changed. I’m sure I’ll always want to see Hansel and Grethel escape the cannibalistic witch, but I’m less excited to see a damsel in distress get rescued and married off to her champion before she’s had a chance to grow up properly, to rescue herself, or to see the world. It’s likely that the endings might change for me too; I expect them to feel a bit more ambiguous. The sense of justice in happily ever after or they all got what they deserved depends entirely on who we’re cheering for.
Increasingly, I’m much more intrigued by the wish-granters and the catalysts now—those enigmatic figures lurking at the edge of the forest or in the bends of the path, offering help and advice and resources to the worthy and the curious. I confess I’m also sympathizing more and more with the solitary crone—minding her business, growing herbs in the forest— who’ll defend her territory if she has to, even though she might much rather just be left in peace. I must be entering a new phase.
I know of readers who reject the notion of going over old ground, but some books seem to be worthy of a return trip. I’m often tempted to seek out a good story again and again so I can see it from all sides, examine its facets, and imagine myself in each one of its thousand little worlds. And, as a writer, it’s one of my goals to make stories that are worthy of a second look—to create books with capacious themes, and ideas that bloom, and characters that hold new gifts in their hands every time a reader comes around.
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. Illustrations in photos by Arthur Rackham.
Writing habits differ and writers define success in a variety of ways. But a universal truth is that distractions online, at home, or at the office are abundant. They can easily sneak into your everyday routines.
As writers, how do we go deep and get work done? It’s so easy to get lost online and realize an hour has passed since you stopped to research a fact for your book. Authors like Dan Brown have set hours in the morning for work and they make sure apps are not open during that time. It is focused writing time. Other authors prefer more flexibility, but be careful.
If you need to research a name or a story detail, will it send you down many interesting rabbit holes online? If that’s the case, you need to set a time for that kind of exploration and just leave a blank in your story or document until you can get to your research.
Since covid, many more writers work from home. That comes with so many distractions. I need some water, maybe a snack. I should use the bathroom. I can throw those things into the washer and get that done while I’m working… It’s as bad as the internet.
Writing classes, workshops, and writing groups can also be distractions. Joining writer groups in person or online can be helpful in making connections, but at some point, you need to decide which groups serve you. Does the group allow you to contribute and grow as a professional? Is the group just taking up your limited writing time? The same can be said of classes, and even writing opportunities for anthologies, magazines, and blogs.
Contests, magazine submission calls, and deadlines for anthologies can serve as opportunities, but also as distractions. The first question is why are you writing for this deadline. It’s good to be published and it can add to your credibility, but make sure what you’re writing furthers your career and moves you forward in your genre. Chasing contests can keep you from finishing your novel.
In the end, what’s important is learning your craft and knowing/finding your audience.
The four best things you can do for your writing career?
Read recent works in your genre
Pamela Evans is a writer and teacher. She is best known for The Preschool Parent Primer, The Preschool Parent Blog, and The Preschool Parent Book Review which can all be found at www.ivyartz.com
As described in another page in more detail, the writer group BACCA formed after four of us met in a fiction class at WriterHouse in Charlottesville Virginia.
After the final class session, the four of us wanted to meet again for one more critique session. Then we realized that we all wanted to create an ongoing writer group.
That was ten years ago. Wow – it almost seems impossible that it’s been ten years, but there it is in my 2011 calendar – “writer critique swap” at noon on Saturday the 25th.
We immediately adopted the critique guidelines that had served us well in our writing class. Later, when we created a website for our group – by then we had named ourselves BACCA – we asked permission from Prof. Luke Whisnant, whose guidelines we’d been using, to reproduce them on the website as a resource for other writers. He graciously consented.
At our (pre-pandemic) workshops and in personal emails, we often referred other writers to these guidelines – along with a bundle of other writer group resources.
Changes over Time
Our membership has changed over the years. We now include two founding BACCA writers, another who’s been with us for many years, and one who is a guest member for the duration of her book manuscript. Three other writers were with us for a time, over the years.
Naturally, because of the variety of writers and the passage of time, our critique process has evolved.
A few months ago, we decided to take extra time at our monthly critique session to focus on the guidelines, and see where they might need expanding or refocusing.
Why the Guidelines are Like the US Constitution
I was shocked, when I looked a few months ago at the Whisnant critique guidelines, to see how much I’d added on to them – in my mind. Turns out, the actual guidelines only addressed works of fiction intended for adults, for one thing. Our group has produced, read, and critiqued in many more categories than that.
Kind of the like US Constitution, the underlying document had accrued a lot of additional meaning to over the years. But when I casually suggested to a new writer that a look at the guidelines on the BACCA website was all they needed to get up to speed, I had forgotten that none of that extra stuff is actually written down.
The US Constitution is written down.
So we went to work and came up with modifications to address not just adult fiction but also narrative nonfiction (from Carolyn O’Neal), children’s fiction (from Pam Evans), and self-help / instructional manuscripts (from me, A M Carley).
In addition, we now have a wonderful preamble by Noelle Beverly who gives every writer a high-altitude view of the critique process. Her suggestions are thorough, generous, and deeply insightful. You may recall seeing Noelle’s blog post here about this recently, as well.
Amendments Take Time
Also like the US Constitution, making changes to the underlying document requires deliberation and careful thought. Our process is not as glacial as, say, passing the Equal Rights Amendment – waiting since 1972 – but it has taken us several months.
We really hope that writers find them useful. As Noelle points out in her preamble, preparing critiques benefits the critiquer as well as the critiqued. It’s already been a great experience and opportunity for us to reflect on the key features of an excellent critique.
— 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 her52 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.