Somethin’ About a Road Trip

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US 89 north of Bozeman isn’t much more than two narrow strips of pavement. In 2012 we drove its northern section,  404 miles from the boundary of Yellowstone to the Canadian Border. To easterners, like Dave and I, calling US 89 a highway is a stretch. Hour after hour, we’d see maybe one or two cars pass in the opposite direction, heading south. We traveled north in a borrowed jeep with Willie Nelson on the radio warbling his way through Whisky River.

Earlier in the day, we’d stopped in Helena to fill up the gas tank. We wouldn’t see another gas station for a bit. The wind in Helena is so fierce we had to walk with our torsos bent against the gale. The locals weren’t daunted. They looked to be strong, sturdy, resilient types. When I paid the cashier, I asked about the gale force winds.

“Honey, this is Helena. It’s always windy here!” She was a stout woman, no more than four feet and change. I imagine Helena’s winds stunt growth, giving rise to a people of short stature, like the stunted scrub pines we’d seen on the highest peaks in Yellowstone.  I see a culture of deeply rooted people forced to hunker down, their growth curbed by the wind.

Once we got back on the road and had traveled a while, I touched Dave’s shoulder.

“Pull over.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Just pull over.”

He shut the jeep off. We stood outside the car and listened. Nothing. No radio, no traffic, no planes. The crunch of gravel under our shoes and the ticking of the jeep as it came to rest reverberated in the deep quiet of the landscape. The Rockies silently observed us at the horizon. I had this notion that if we started walking toward those peaks, just walked and walked, they’d keep moving away. We’d never arrive where we thought we were headed.

We know better than to break the quiet with words. This patch of earth, this one breath, this silence and no other, will live in the memory. It hits you. The way you’re living is a choice. You remember you have the freedom to carve a new life if that’s the idea that comes to you.

We stood on the side of the highway with the mountains in the distance and the flat, golden valley all around, feeling like we could drink it or take it in somehow, take it with us, back home. Back east.

There’s something about a road trip.

I met William Least Heat-Moon at a writer’s conference in Hartford years ago. I waited in a long line to have him sign my copy of his book, Blue Highways. When it was finally my turn to speak to him, I was struck by how ordinary he seemed. Just a regular guy who reminded us of the importance of journeying by car, how it can break down the barriers we build between the landscape and our souls.

He told me that his book was inspired in part, by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I love Steinbeck, but I love Least Heat-Moon’s story better. The book chronicles his three month long road trip of 13,000 miles through the heart of America, most of it on secondary roads. In his book, he writes that the trip allowed him to return to himself after the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his teaching job.

Blue Highways stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists for 42 weeks in 1982-83. If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy. You’ll visit places like:

Nameless, Tennessee.

Simplicity, Virginia.

Why, Arizona.

Whynot, Mississippi.

The world feels upside down these days, but I have an idea.

Let’s have a Road Trip Renaissance. I mean we’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. Where, we don’t always know. Only on a road trip can we get intimate with the landscape and the people. We’ll eat at the diner on the outskirts of town, shop at the local five and dime, talk to the old-timers hanging around outside the P.O.

Here are the rules:

Choose a destination. Think of it as an abstract, a point on the compass you might never reach.

Take the back roads.

If you’re traveling alone, bring a dog. Preferably one that likes to stick his head out the window so the wind can blow his fur a little.

If you don’t have a dog, borrow one.

Take a side trip when opportunity presents.

Stay in a mom and pop motel.

Eat at a local burger joint. Start a conversation with the waitress or the short order cook.

Play the right music. Play it loud. Sing your heart out.

Stop the car. Get out to stretch your legs.

Listen.

Enjoy the moment. And the next one. And the next one.

As William Least Heat-Moon once said in an interview,  ” I think it’s still important for Americans to roam extensively as we have done…after all, roaming makes coming home that much richer.”

Well, I don’t think any of us could say it better.

 

 

 

Are You Good Nuff?

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My nickname is Katya Goodnuff.

I thought of it myself. I was binge-watching a series on Netflix that had a lot of Russian-born characters and I loved all the names; Smirnov, Michailov, Chernov.

It’s only natural that while vacuuming one day I put my finger on the off button and shouted,

“Good nuff, Katya! Goodnuff!”

And just that easy, Katya Goodnuff was born.

I love her. She’s the first to step up when my fear of not being good enough keeps me from trying. Not nice enough. Sexy enough. Young enough. Old enough. Talented enough. Not enough.

“Good enough for who?” she says. “In what situation? And for how long? Who gets to decide?”

The fear of not being good enough can stop me from launching a project. I’m not alone. In every writing workshop I’ve attended there’s a fellow writer who is scared to death to read their work aloud.

To a bunch of amateurs, mind you.

One woman in a local writer’s class introduced her poem like this:
“This isn’t very good. Um. In fact, it’s awful, and I just want to say…” until the teacher interrupted, asking her to just read the damn poem. So she read this five line poem about her mom. It took our breath away. It was a perfect, perfect poem. We loved it!

Even so. Who were we to say?

What if, instead of praise and support, we were in a collective bad mood that day? What if we’d attacked her syntax? Poked holes in her rhythm? Insinuated that the time for writing about mom was over—I mean moms were sooo 80’s.

A couple of years ago, I had my face figuratively smacked in a workshop. It was one of those workshops that had gathered an unfortunate mix of writers who honestly didn’t like each other. This happens in some groups and it’s always either dreadfully boring or alarmingly mean. This one was both.

The teacher was bored stiff, and rightfully so—the writing was truly awful and I was probably the worst of the lot. But I do feel a teacher can rescue a wayward writing group, provide a little inspiration. This guy didn’t. He was large as a barge this guy and he sat in his chair looking for all the world like Jabba the Hut. He spent most of the class in some sort of somnambulant state just above snoring. (This sounds mean, but this class brought the meanness out in all of us.)

Week four. I read a heartfelt piece about my dad who had recently died of cancer.
Yup.
It was a terrible idea in hindsight. Too soon. Too raw. Risky environment.

The critiques went something like this:

Well, maybe if you change the main character to a boy. That would work so much better for me.” This was from Will, who was writing a fictional account of his boyhood growing up in Tennessee. I pointed out that I’m a girl. This was a personal essay!

“Still,” he said.

We moved on to a guy named Jeff who was writing a police story. Jeff was one of those guys who signed up because his wife wanted him out of the house.

Before he spoke, Jeff shook his head, sighed, smirked a little. (I’m not making that up. He smirked.)

“In every writing class I’ve ever taken there’s some woman who has this thing with her dead father.” The words leaked out of his mouth and down his chin like tobacco juice. “I can’t even comment. It’s so boring and overdone.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I waited for a collective gasp from the group who surely were as shocked as I was. But, no. Nothing.

I felt like I’d been clubbed in the sternum with a turkey leg.

My cheeks blazed. I slid my eyes to the teacher. He gave me a bored, but sympathetic look, sighed, belched (okay, I could be making that part up) and said, “Okay. Great work everyone. Let’s reconvene next week.”

I kid you not.

I felt for my Leatherman knife in my pocketbook. I could slash Jeff’s tires before he gets to his car, I thought. But, Jeff made a fast getaway.

What a chicken.

When I got home, I made up my mind to quit the class, but first, I’d shoot off a caustic email to the instructor while the rage was fresh in my mind.

Dear John,

In every workshop I’ve ever attended, participants bring open minds and hearts. Your participants left them at home. Most instructors would have stopped someone like Jeff and reminded him what constructive criticism means. You didn’t. Perhaps you were napping.

Furthermore, your critique of my essay fell short as well. Comments on the placement of asterisks? A repeated phrase? It was a first draft! What kind of a writing teacher are you? And how much time did we need to spend on Gail’s story? You critiqued her story ad nauseum while barely spending any time on my essay. I imagine it would be easy to dismiss me as an angry wannabe, upset over how my work was received, but that’s not it at all. The work was not received. And that’s the problem. I wish your group a happy remainder of the session. I won’t be back.

Sincerely,
Karen Elizabeth Baril

I did say I was mad, right?

Karen, hi–

I’m very sorry you felt this way about the workshop and I take your comments very seriously. I did get a twinge when Jeff made his rather sexist comment & should have responded at the time about his attitude. (If he had been at the first class he would have been reminded about the ground rules of constructive criticism only) I meant to address it at the time but the subject changed quickly, as Keith chimed in about his own interest in non-fiction, whereupon I discussed the common elements of high-quality writing in both fiction and non-fiction. Jeff was out of line and I should have gone back to his attitude.

I don’t believe my critique of your piece was as limited as you suggest. I complimented the touching impact of the father’s caretaking, your shift to the adventurous daughter (I may have digressed too much to my own experience), and the excellent carryover into the courage it takes to be a writer– the metaphor of being in the wilderness with only a tent as protection. I suggested you might expand and develop this short piece to make it even stronger and more substantial. As I mentioned, the piece is full of excellent writing.

I ask you to reconsider dropping out of the class. I can’t guarantee that all the participants will respond with open minds and hearts, but I certainly will.

Thank you, 
John

Well. Fair enough. I returned to class the following week. I met Jeff in the parking lot on the way in.

“Hey, I hear I offended you.”
“You did.”
“I meant no harm. I’d had an argument that day with my wife. She’s always comparing me to her dead father. Evidently, I don’t measure up.”

Shocking. The part about him not measuring up.

“But, you know, even without that, I don’t like your style of writing so I probably shouldn’t offer any advice. But, I’m sorry. I really am.”
I accepted his lame apology and finished the class…

As Katya Goodnuff.

Remember, you are young enough, old enough, sexy enough. You are good enough.

 

Sacred Spaces

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I believe in sacred spaces. These are the places you happen upon and for a reason that is not known to you, (and will never be known to you), feel like home.

As a kid I knew I wanted to write so I understood the value of sacred spaces early in life. I’d tuck my body into the below-grade casement windows of our apartment house and hide from the world. This was the very first room of my own, a place to write, daydream, practice solitude.

Where is your sacred space? It should be close to home so you can visit it whenever you need to. I have several:

The foot of a yellow birch tree in the Naugatuck Forest. Someone carved a date: 1969 into the bark years ago and now the numbers are as broad as children’s blocks.

Meigs Point, Hammonassett Beach.

My writing room.

These are places where it feels natural to be alone, go inward, be still. There’s too much talking in the world and I’m the worst offender, filling exquisite silence with nonsense chatter. I don’t know why I do it. I think it’s an uneasiness with silence when in human company. Shouldn’t we talk? Engage in polite, filler conversation? Silence is uncomfortable.

Say something.

Seeking solitude can be misinterpreted by those around you. Anti-social, detached, self-indulgent, a loner. I’ve been called all of the above, but only in solitude can I find the solution to a niggling problem, get creative, find a new way of looking at my past or my future.

When I’m in one of my sacred spaces, I don’t feel any pressure to talk to myself. Silence is easier. More natural, a welcome change. Think of a piece of music that never pauses. It’s the pause between notes, known as a ‘rest’ or ‘breath’ that allows us to hear the music, understand it’s significance. Without the rest, music would be exhausting to listen to.

Solitude helps me feel grounded, centered, connected to my life. No phones, no social media, no reaching out. Social media is often a two-edged sword for me; too much posting or scrolling and I feel more separated. I have an image of an ocean of hands grasping for something just out of reach.

Solitude. It can feel dangerous. It takes courage to step away from the rabbit-like heartbeat of the world and pause for a moment or two, but it’s the ‘rest’ you need and it can change your life.

The Good Word; books you might have missed.

I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite reads over the years, many of which you might have missed because they are outside the realm of what you normally read. Please feel free to share your favorite books as well!

51+3fd3iIEL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ From the book jacket: “In 1977, Laura Bell, at loose ends after graduating from college, leaves her family home in Kentucky for a wild and unexpected adventure; herding sheep in Wyoming’s Big Horn Basin. Inexorably drawn to this life of solitude and physical toil, a young woman in a man’s world, she is perhaps the strangest member of this beguiling community of drunks and eccentrics. So begins her unabating search for a place to belong and for the raw materials with which to create a home and family of her own.”- I loved this book; it’s honest and true.

517-30Is7AL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_ From the book jacket: “Settled in the wild takes us into the woods and along the shorelines, mudflats, and paths of rural Maine, where Susan Hand Shetterly has lived and written abut nature for the past thirty years. Now, she turns her attention to the ways humans and animals share the land, especially as our mutual habitat is changing.”- Beautiful prose. I loved this book!

 

Honor the Kid in You

jumpshot photography of woman in white and yellow dress near body of water

For more than 15 years, I’ve written and published feature articles for the equestrian and pet market. I can still remember how excited I was to get that first check. My byline in a national magazine. Intoxicating! I cashed the check and pitched another idea to my editor. She accepted.

Since that modest beginning, I’ve written hundreds of articles and penned two columns that ran consecutively for more than a decade. Most of my features ran at least 1500 words; many ran 2500-3000 words. As my daughter so wisely pointed out, it was the equivalent of writing a research paper a month! Writing feature articles was a lot of work, but hugely satisfying and the money helped pay for my horse habit.

All well and good, right? Well, yes and no. A little over a year ago, I lost my writing mojo. A laziness crept in that felt like a bad case of the flu; only this wasn’t the flu. I started sleeping late every day. I lingered over a second and third cup of coffee. I avoided my writing room like other people avoid Walmart on the weekends. My keyboard collected dust and even my Border Collie, (my tried and true writing companion) cultivated a heavy sigh.

“What is wrong with us?,” I asked the dog. She didn’t know.

We took long walks, cleaned closets, alphabetized the pantry. I cleaned the grooves in my kitchen cabinets with cotton swabs. (They work great, by the way…just dab the swab in a little polish and …well, never mind.) I turned my face away as I passed the closed door of my writing room. I missed deadlines, ignored emails from my editor. I was in a funk of the worst kind. The guilt of not writing was killing me. Writers write!

I began to walk with a limp.

One morning, while cleaning out the attic, I found a book I wrote when I was in the third grade. Although it had never been published and probably wasn’t all that good, the boys in my class were impressed that I’d written all thirty pages in cursive. I remember I’d felt like a celebrity. But, I also remembered how I wrote that book; sitting cross-legged on my Cinderella bedspread, hunched over double-lined yellow paper, writing my heart out.

Then it hit me. I wanted to be that kid. Writing her heart out all over again.

I got to work right away…uh…I mean…play. I sat cross-legged on my couch, hunched over my lined journal, and wrote a personal essay I called, One Kind of Woman. Weeks later, that essay was published in a small literary magazine and helped put the spark back in my writing.

Honor the kid in you. It’s our innocence and love for the written word that nourishes our writing and our life.

 

 

Story Seeds

Story Seeds

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Whether you write short stories, novels, non-fiction, or screenplays, look for story seeds and write them down on colorful notecards. Here are a few I’ve collected over the years. Some of them sound like good first lines or topics for creative non-fiction, but they act as great prompts when I’m stuck for my next idea.


 

Once, at a 4th of July picnic, my mother thought I was a girl she knew in high school. I pretended to be that girl until the moment passed.

A shocking thunk! as my father ran over the family dog.

He called it, The Menopause, as if it was a monster in a Grade B movie. 

She wished the mouth of the sea would open up and swallow her whole.

That moment when you realize the situation is unfair, but at least it’s not unfair to you. 


I’ve lost so many story seeds simply because I never wrote them down. I forget them. Keep a notebook or an index card in your pocket and write down your story seeds as they arrive. You’ll be surprised how many of these seeds grow into full length articles or stories.