Posted in Life, Poetry

Pandemic Painting & A Better Year Ahead

This weekend I sat down and re-read my journal entries from March through July of 2020. I wanted to re-experience those first few months of the pandemic, to see it again from a little distance. (I stopped at August because I wasn’t ready to revisit the school year again.) It was so surreal reading my thoughts in those initial days of confusion and fear. I wrote every day at first and then about every other day for many weeks. Seeing those entries again made me shiver. Here are a few excerpts that gave me pause:

* March 30, 2020:

This morning I got up before 7AM, showered, and went to HEB. It wasn’t bad. I got there about 15 minutes before they opened and lined up outside (6 feet apart, per the orange lines) with a couple dozen other people. Inside, there were reminders to stay a safe distance from others and lots of signs limiting numbers of items (4 cereals, 4 cans of chili, etc) and parts of the store were blocked off to keep people moving in an orderly direction… We have enough food to last us another couple of weeks. Now it’s just stay-at-home-stay-safe. It looks like we’ll be in this mode until the end of April.

* April 2, 2020:

Headlines this morning include:
“US braces for ‘horrific’ weeks as deaths top 5,100”
“Cruises with sick, dead passengers awaiting approval to dock”
“Coronaviras pandemic alters life as we know it”

* May 10, 2020:

I want to remember this… When the world goes back to normal, I want to remember these long ambling walks through my neighborhood, how hours went by without me checking my watch or making a list in my head of all I needed to do when I got back home. I want to remember how my feet felt on the pavement, how I knew every sidewalk scratch and screech owl by heart and watched the chalk art evolve from fresh and bright to faded and rain-streaked. When I’m late to work, stopped at the light at Slaughter Lane, when I’m collapsing on the couch after school, when I’m standing in line at HEB looking at Facebook on my phone, I want to remember the sound my ball made as I bounced it lazily while listening to my audio book and strolling the same streets at 5AM, noon, 8PM, midnight– how it felt when the ball landed perfectly in my palm with a *smack*.

Reading these journals makes me want to reach back in time to that version of myself and give her a hug. But then I’d be tempted to give her the truth, too, about what else was coming and how long this was really going to last, and that just seems mean.

But good things came out of those months, as well. For instance, I found some new creative outlets.

In June of 2020, I randomly started painting. I already had some old acrylic paints and brushes. I ordered a few more and some small canvases online and made myself an “easel” by propping flattened cardboard boxes on the windowsill in my office. I grabbed a button-down tunic shirt that I’d never worn but couldn’t make myself give way and made that my painting frock. Then I tossed a pillow on the floor to sit on, got a paper plate for my palette, filled a Rudy’s Bar-B-Q plastic cup with water, turned on some music, and started painting.

On July 18, 2020, I wrote in my journal:

I’ve been painting. I’m not great. I’ve had no training except for a few “Painting with a Twist” sessions and watching my dad draw, but I find that I can make things look mostly how I want them to look, and I’m learning as I go along—how to mix paints for subtler shades and how to turn the brush on its edge for a finer stroke or use a thick bristly brush when I want more texture. Mostly though, I just like putting paint on a canvas. It’s so relaxing. Sometimes I sit for hours and paint, until my back aches and my legs are tingly from falling asleep.

I’m still at it, and I think my paintings are improving, but honestly, I don’t care that much. I just paint for fun. It’s something to play with, and the freedom of it is what makes it so enjoyable.

My dad’s cat, Spunkie. I almost forgot to paint her whiskers!

I also enjoy playing with words—collage art, found poetry, book title poems—and the pandemic offered more time for that, too. This pastime is even messier than painting and often encompasses much of the house. If I’m making collages, there are little bits of paper everywhere and no fans or pets allowed in the area. To make book title poems, I end up taking dozens of books off my shelves, stacking them and restacking them in precarious piles and rearranging them over and over again until I’m satisfied with the result.

Book title poems in progress

I love making book title poems and have shared several of them here over the years, but this summer I decided to create something more tangible with them. I chose twelve of my favorites and made 2022 calendars.

Most people agree that 2020 was, in general, a terrible year, and there are many who say 2021 isn’t much better. But I have high hopes for 2022 (don’t you?), so I’m getting ready early.

I made three sizes of calendars: an 8×4 desk calendar, an 8.5×11 wall calendar, and a 12×12 wall calendar, but they all include the same poems. I’m selling them on my Esty store, so if you know a book-lover or a poet who would enjoy having a unique calendar next year, consider getting your shopping done early and buy them one of these! If you order by July 31, you can get 10% off by using the coupon code: NEWYEARINJULY

For me, summer is a season of creativity because I’m off work and can indulge in my hobbies. This summer, I’m grateful to be vaccinated and feel comfortable enough to venture out into the world again. There isn’t any part of me that wants to be that confused, stressed woman of last summer who was stuck at home feeling trapped and scared, but I’m thankful that she used her shelter-at-home time to try some new things and make some art.

Posted in Poetry, Teaching, Writing

Why I Love Writing Club

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Two years ago, I began assisting with my middle school’s Writing Club, and last year I took over as sponsor. It makes for a long Friday afternoon, and sometimes I need to just sit in the silence of my car for a few minutes before I drive home so I can get the ringing in my ears to stop*, but overall it’s been a very pleasurable experience.

* Ringing in your ears? It’s a Writing Club. Doesn’t that mean you spend the hour listening to the peaceful scratching of pen on paper? Um, no.

At my school’s Writing Club, the focus is on the word Club more than on the word Writing. The hour after school is as much about students gushing over their latest literary crush, arguing over which fandom is better: Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, and complaining about the perils of writer’s block, as it is about writing the great teen novel. We do eventually put gel pen to journal most days, but first there are beach ball ice breaker games and a general LOUD decompressing after a long day/week. Some students come to the club with works in progress—comics, sci-fi novels, poetry—that they add to or work on. Others sit down with a blank page and see what happens. Some just come for the company. Because, most importantly, Writing Club is a place where these young writers can be among their own kind and let their inner selves out to play without judgment.

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Random gift from a Writing Club kid. It hangs on my fridge.

My favorite part is when we end with sharing time because these kids, silly or not, are killing it with their poems and stories, and they’re not afraid to put themselves on paper or take their fiction to dark, shadowy places. Last week at our first meeting of the year (yes, we started Writing Club on a full moon Friday the 13th) one girl shared a heart-wrenchingly honest poem written to her math class crush, another read a haunting piece full of dramatic imagery, and another shared a witty, rhyming poem about the latest trends that had both me and our principal in stitches, even though we didn’t get all the references. These kids always inspire me. Which brings me to my other favorite thing about Writing Club… It often gets me writing.

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Poem I wrote during Writing Club

I’ve drafted unexpected blog posts in Writing Club and written poems based on prompts, and even wrote the first page of a story about a zombie crocodile that I later turned into something I really like. The ideas that come to me in this setting are things that probably would never cross my mind elsewhere, as if I, too, can channel my inner “young writer” around all this creative youth.

I’m grateful for Writing Club, and I’m looking forward to more meetings with this year’s bunch of unique little oddballs. They are my people.

Posted in Writing

Nowhere and Everywhere

I used to wonder where writers got their ideas. I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and tried to imagine where he came up with the story of Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis and the dish of lime-vanilla ice. I read To Kill a Mockingbird and speculated about the character of Boo Radley. Where in Harper Lee’s mind did he live before he arrived on the paper? Then I started writing, and I never again asked an author where the ideas came from, because I knew.

They come from nowhere and everywhere.

Some stories sneak up on us from our own lives, and we don’t even notice until someone points it out to us. You. There you are. I see you. Others spring from the news or photographs or prompts created to push us into new territories. But most of my stories don’t come from such concrete places.

One of the first short stories I ever wrote was about a disturbed man who blew up a hot air balloon full of his enemies and also, due to a last minute glitch in his plans, the only person in his life who he truly cared about. I never intended to write such a dark story. In fact, the day it came to me I didn’t intend to write anything at all. It was Christmas Day. I was on an airplane with my husband, flying from my family’s home to his. One minute, I was holding a piece of stationery with a hot air balloon on it and looking out the airplane window. The next minute I was furiously scribbling the first draft of “A Fair Day” on a notepad. I had no idea where it came from. I still don’t. The story went through a few rejections and many rounds of revisions, but the basic idea stayed the same, and eventually it found a home in Darker Times Anthology, Volume 5, as runner up in one of their monthly contests.

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The inspiration for “The Night Children,” published in Havok Magazine in October 2016, came from this library book. I wanted to know who “The Day Children” were. And, if there could be Day Children, didn’t that mean there could also be Night Children? What was their story?

My first published short story was “The Jack-in-the-Box,” which came out in Issue 12 of Dark Moon Digest. That story was born from a combination of experience, memory, and “what if.” I was sitting on the floor of my cousin’s house, playing with her three-year-old daughter. She had a jack-in-the-box with a dragon inside and she begged me to turn the knob over and over and over, delighting each time the lid popped open. As I turned the crank again and again, I thought back to my own childhood jack-in-the-box. It had a clown inside, and the surprise of the POP, though predictable, terrified me so much that I refused to play with it. As I watched the dragon emerge time and time again, I thought, What if one time something was different? I held on to that idea, and when I got home, the first draft of “The Jack-in-the-Box” flowed from my fingers.

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The idea for “The Other House” came from my friend’s three-year-old. I like writing stories that scare children, but I love writing stories that scare their parents.

Sometimes though, letting go of an idea is as important as holding on. The story I wrote for Growing Pains, the YA horror anthology from Horrified Press, was inspired by a Facebook post. A friend wrote: Omg. Something in my attic is *knocking*. Like, “Hello? Is anyone home?” knocking. If I don’t come back, don’t send anyone after me. While my friend was dealing with her attic guest, I was typing the first draft of “The Girl in the Attic,” a tale about a twelve-year-old girl who hears a knock coming from the inside of an attic door that has been nailed shut for sixty years. She decides to pry the door open. But the more I wrote, the more I realized there was a problem. It was the knock. It didn’t fit with the rest of the story, and the more I tried to make it work, the more the story fell apart. Finally, I realized I had to let that part go. While the eerie knocking sound had been the instrument of horror in my friend’s real life, in the story I’d created, it was superfluous. It was hard to hit the delete key, but the piece was made better by the cut. (By the way, my friend DID investigate the sound in her attic, and she made it back just fine.)

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“Teardrops and Watermelon Seeds” is my favorite of all my stories. It was inspired by an article about magical realism in this issue of Writer’s Digest. “Teardrops” was first published in Spark: A Creative Anthology in 2016 and will soon be appearing in Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things.

Our ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They slip in through cracks. They whisper in our ears while we’re sleeping. They pounce on us from shadows. Some of them even knock. Our job is to let them lead us, and then know when to let them go.