Archives for posts with tag: writing practice

Dear Readers,

Since I last wrote I have embarked on serious work on my memoir. I am five chapters in what I call a first or second draft, depending on my mood. The memoir originated in a habit of writing that I have had for most of my life, aided by over twenty years of writing and meditation retreats with Natalie Goldberg, and vomited on the page in three years of NaNoWriMo from 2009-2011. I had written a lot, over 150,000 words, plus countless stints of writing in notebooks and I did not what to do with what I had, so I let it sit. And sit. And sit.

Then, shortly after I wrote my last blog post in January 2021, Saundra Goldman invited me to a free webinar on writing. One of her questions caused me to weep, sweat, lose sleep. She said, “Tell me about experiences when you went out on your own and what you dreamed of.” The question haunted me, bringing every failure in my life into focus. She was offering a four-session class in February. And, before I even started it I knew it was time to write the memoir, time to dig into what my life had been and the root causes of much heartache and self-doubt.

Before Saundra’s class started I set a strong structure in place to help me make it through the emotional ups and downs of writing. I already had a writing group that I met with once a week. To that I added twenty minutes of sitting meditation each morning and a ten-minute check-in write that Saundra recommended: “Where I Am.” Right after breakfast I returned to my room to sit and write.

When I took Saundra’s class I connected with one of the other students. I liked her energy. I liked her project. I reached out to her on Facebook and joined a dyad of writers who wrote with each other twice a week for an hour and read to each other for an hour on Fridays with limited feedback. I was nervous about giving and receiving feedback because I had been working in a tradition for over twenty years where you don’t comment on each other’s work at all. At the same time, I was excited because I was engaged with the memoir again. Writing is lonely work and being able to ask questions about how my work was landing with listeners felt helpful.

I registered for one of Natalie’s online writing classes to keep me going after Saundra’s class ended and signed up for a writing retreat in July in Wisconsin, even though the pandemic still raged through the United States — I figured if it was impossible Natalie would cancel the retreat. I started meeting with a writing group twice a week rather than once, knowing that every time I attended I would be writing. If I could I would work my memoir into the writing topic; if not writing would keep me limber for memoir writing.

With my structure in place, I wrote. I had written a draft of my first chapter in 2019 for a manuscript review. I took out the draft, reread it, read the comments Natalie had made, thought about them and began to craft a new shape for the chapter. I took out some parts I loved, hoping to use them later, and tried to make the story clearer. When I thought I was done with the chapter I asked a few writing friends to read it and comment. I asked one of them, my most clear-eyed and enthusiastic reader, what he thought the story needed next and he said the reader needed a break from the intensity of chapter one.

I considered what I could start with in chapter two and ultimately decided to go back to the day I was born, before I was born, where the main character was my mother.

All through the writing process I spend time rereading parts of notebooks and journals, making time lines for the section I am working on, drawing diagrams to represent potential structures of the book. I work intuitively, letting writing do writing. Sometimes I don’t know for days or weeks what is happening next in a chapter or in the memoir as a whole, but I keep writing anyway, even if I’m writing “I don’t know what else needs to go in chapter five.”

I also keep asking for what I need. One day I was writing in writing group about wanting more feedback from people who did writing practice. When I read the piece aloud, one of the listening writers said to me “We have a group like that that meets on Wednesday evenings.”

I agreed to attend one meeting to see how it went before making a commitment: my entire writing life I have stayed away from “critique groups” and competitive situations. At that first meeting we got a fun writing topic, a piece of a Nick Drake song. No one was slashing and burning the writing we heard. I joined up and added the Wednesday Evening group to my writing, support and feedback structure.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because if you want to work on a sustained writing project such as a book you will need a good structure. My pal Saundra will tell you to study books for their structure — she’s good at that. But the structure I mean is a writing and emotional support structure because writing a sustained work is hard work. The part that no one tells you about writing a book is that you will unearth things about yourself and your past as you write and it will not all be pretty and some of it will not feel very good.

So, first things first: if you want to write a book, do whatever supports your sanity. For me this is sitting meditation. Then make some writing structures: if you like writing groups or classes, join some and show up for every meeting. If you want or need feedback, find a trusted friend or two who is willing to read your work periodically. Ask people for what you need and see if it doesn’t appear.

And then what? Keep going. Keep going when you write junk. Keep going when you are confused. Keep going when you don’t know where you are going. Let writing do writing.

Formerly green tomato.

Formerly green tomato.

I began writing this month’s Kale Chronicles on an October afternoon, following a morning of rain showers. The rain is a major blessing in drought-stricken California. My thirsty vegetable and mint plants drink in the rain, as they have drunk in the abundant sunshine of October. The two-tone green tomatoes have unexpectedly turned orange and are on their way to red. The poblano peppers on one plant continue to grow, while the other plant is forming fruit as its blossoms die. A few tomatoes that fell before they were fully ripe are ripening on a windowsill in the breakfast room. I will have a small harvest from my seed-grown vegetables.

With the return of damp weather to punctuate a bright autumn, my thoughts turn to butternut squash soup. I originally published this recipe for kabocha squash soup in 2011, an adaptation of the soup I usually make from butternut squash, my absolute favorite of the winter squashes. I start making this soup each year when the weather gets cool and continue to make it until spring warmth returns. Butternut squash keep a long time on the counter or in a cool garage or cellar and one large or two small ones will make a lot of soup. All you need else is water, onions, fresh ginger, tamari, a bit of thyme and dairy or non-dairy milk to suit.

Poblano and flower.

Poblano and flower.

My personal lesson for the summer and fall parallels the experience my friend Saundra wrote about in her Wonder Woman blog post: that in times of trouble I must make self-care a priority, whatever form it takes. In my case, I must meditate, seek conversations with friends, practice music, attend 12-step meetings, do spiritual reading, attempt to get reasonable amounts of exercise and sleep. A surprising outcome of taking better care of myself is that I draw all kinds of gifts into my orbit: a friend offers to make a performance video that I can put up on YouTube (Stay tuned! I’ll tell you when it is done). Another friend sends me a music CD that I want in exchange for feedback on the CD. Even the passers-by at my busking gigs buy more CDs and increase their tips to me. And I hatch an idea for a new short-term music project: next month I will go into the studio to make a three-song E.P. (short CD), recording the songs I wrote in 2012. It will be called “Clueless” and I hope to have it for sale by the end of next month. I am only manufacturing three hundred copies to start so be sure to let me know in the comments field if you would like one for yourself or for a Christmas or Chanukah gift (Manufacturing a small run makes it possible for me to make new music available without incurring the large costs of a full-length project). I continue to busk and offer full-length “Paris” CDs for sale at CDBaby, Down Home Music and via email.

My daily experience continues to be that people are kind to me and supportive of my projects and of my efforts to improve my life and relationships. Oh, sometimes there is push-back, but there is often a way to step out of the conflict by focusing on what I need and not what the other person is doing.

I am continuing to seek what Buddhists call “right livelihood,” ways to earn money that are consistent with my gifts and ethical stance. For inspiration I am currently taking an expanded version of Maia Duerr’s course, Fall in Love with Your Work. In the spirit of generosity, I have created a new page on The Kale Chronicles called “Writing Prompts.” Look for the page link up in the left-hand corner at the top of the blog post. Each month I will feature some of the prompts or writing topics I learned to use in fifteen years of work with Natalie, plus prompts inspired by the current season (sort of like your serving of writing fruits and vegetables for basic nutrition). I will be glad to answer questions about writing practice and grateful to have referrals to students in the East Bay who desire to learn Natalie’s deep teachings.

 

Not so much has changed since I wrote my March blog: I am still busking in the Berkeley BART stations twice a day five days a week, plus singing at the Farmers’ Market some Saturdays. I get up and eat breakfast, often flavored oatmeal cooked in milk, but sometimes leftover pie or scrambled eggs with cheese or vegetables, fresh cinnamon rolls, Shredded Wheat with sliced strawberries now that spring has come.

I am almost always home for lunch, which I generally eat with a pot a black tea, served with milk, English-style. Today I had tacos from some leftover poached chicken, simmered in green salsa, with sour cream, shredded cheese, romaine lettuce and cilantro. Yesterday I ate leftover rolls and Cotswold cheese, a blood orange and a sliver of leftover coconut custard pie (It was a pie-for-breakfast day).

Painting of ingredients for improvised gumbo -- Davis pepper spray incident in background.

Mumbo Jumbo Gumbo. 12″ x 12″ gouache and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

Ever since my younger brother moved home my mother has taken over most of the cooking — she seems to think that Bryan will starve without her intervention. I sometimes cook for Johnny: Friday I cooked him an impromptu gumbo, featuring andouille sausage, leftover shrimp, chicken and fennel, not unlike the Mumbo-Jumbo Gumbo I’ve written about before. Tonight I helped prepare a simple supper of spaghetti, grated cheese, Italian sausage-flavored Prego from the jar. I ate my pasta mixed with leftover sauteed bok choy. Mom fixed a bowl of fresh blackberries with sugar and, voila, c’est tout.

I am still buying bags of “cosmetically-challenged” Moro blood oranges from the Farmers’ Market and eating them out of hand as snacks. I still buy Farmers’ Market carrots, which are sweeter than supermarket ones. I still buy fresh walnuts in the shell — not much has changed, although last week I bought a few fresh sugar snap peas to snack on.

Original ink and watercolor painting shows people around breakfast table.

Second Breakfast at Vicki’s. 12″ x 12″ ink and watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick.

Tomorrow I am taking a morning off my busking day job to attend a pre-dawn Morris Dance event in Tilden Park. I will assist my friend Vicki at the grand May Day breakfast after the sun has been danced into the sky (You last heard of Vicki when I mentioned attending the Hobbits’ Second Breakfast at her house). Perhaps I will bring back some food stories or recipes for May. You never know. Anything can happen.

What I completely forgot to mention in my March post because I was running around going to Natalie Goldberg‘s readings for her new book, The True Secret of Writing, is that I am featured in the book: the chapter on Practice contains a story about me, a snippet of my writing and the words to my song “The Wallflower Waltz.” Those of you who are interested in writing or meditation practice (which is the true secret of writing) will want to read this book. Natalie, of course, is best-known for her book Writing Down the Bones.

Dear Kale Chronicles’ Readers and Friends,

It has been a long time since I sent you an update, much less a painting or a recipe. As Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day I was standing in the kitchen at my mother’s house, baking a last batch of Russian teacakes, a traditional holiday cookie for us, consisting of butter, finely chopped walnuts, powdered sugar and enough flour to hold it all together. I had bought fresh walnuts in the shell from the Berkeley Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning and shelled them earlier on Monday evening while listening to Christmas carols on public television. Unfortunately, I had not consulted the recipe for amounts and had shelled just 1/2 cup when I needed 3/4 cup: as soon as I looked at the cookbook I went back to shelling nuts and wielding my chef’s knife.

It was an all-cookie Christmas this year, supplemented only with batches of Betsy’s delicious Italian Glazed Almonds. I did not have funds available for purchasing gifts in 2012, so I made them, Cocoa Shortbread and Pfefferneusse, Smitten Kitchen’s maple butter cookies, thin Moravian ginger cookies. For several days I busked in the Berkeley BART station in the morning and baked in the afternoon and evening, preparing a silver tray of cookies for my friend Elaine’s Chanukah party, packing a waxed cardboard box with almonds for another. When I wasn’t baking I was borrowing a guitar from Fat Dog at Subway Guitars who kindly lent me a Johnson to play while my beloved Harmony went to the guitar doctor, who treated her for a couple of serious cracks, rehearsing with Johnny for a gig at Arlington Cafe in my home town or giving my annual Christmas music party for which I prepared butternut squash soup, Mexican corn soup, Swedish rye bread and Finnish cardamom bread.

I remember standing at the bread board chopping resinous walnuts, seeing the chopped nuts in the metal measuring cup, the knife blade against the wood, thinking “This is not so bad a way to spend the evening.” True, it was late and I was behind on Christmas preparations, but I focused on the pleasure that a fresh tin of powder-sugar dusted cookies would bring my mother, Johnny (they are his favorite) and my sister-in-law who threatened to kill Johnny on Christmas Day if he had eaten them all. As the knife flashed through the nut meats, as the butter and sugar whirled in the mixer, as I rolled the cookie dough into small balls in the quiet night kitchen I thought how lucky I am:

1) My mother and brother are healthy and here to celebrate Christmas with this year.

2) I have a pleasant and safe home to live in.

3) I have found someone to love who loves me back.

4) I, too, am healthy.

5) My lone guitar has been safely repaired

6) Johnny and I played a gig together in my hometown to generally favorable responses and both ended the evening in the black financially.

7) Friends came to hear us play.

8) My song about our courtship, “Clueless,” continues to be a runaway hit and fun to play.

Honestly, I can’t remember more of those midnight thoughts now. Suffice it to say that I thought of my patient readers who have put up with my long absence from the blogosphere.

Just in case anyone has not had enough cookies over the past month or has never made Russian teacakes at home, I’ll share the recipe with you, slightly modified from that presented in our Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook.

Russian Teacakes

Soften 1 cup (two sticks) of butter — I use one stick salted butter and one stick unsalted.

Shell and finely chop 3/4 cup fresh walnuts

Combine butter with 1/2 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar and 1 tsp vanilla extract in electric mixer until creamy.

Slowly add 2 and 1/4 cups sifted flour, about 1/2 cup at a time, incorporating flour completely before each addition.

Mix in chopped nuts.

Chill dough as necessary. If you work late at night in a cold kitchen you will not need this step (or want to wait for the dough to chill either). Before baking, preheat oven to 400.  Bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes until some color shows on the bottom edges. Roll warm cookies carefully in powdered sugar — they are delicate and will develop mangy-looking spots where the butter comes through. Let cool and roll again, or sift or sprinkle more powdered sugar to cover each cookie. Store in airtight tins for up to a week or two. (Mom recommends providing other cookies for the family to eat if you want to keep Russian teacakes on hand very long).

Food notes: the fresher the walnuts, the better the cookie. ‘Nough said. If you live in the South you could try making them with local pecans. If you prefer to bake exclusively with unsalted butter you will want to add 1/4 tsp of salt to your sifted flour. I use unbleached flour in these. Mom likes all-purpose. I have never tried them with a whole-grain flour — part of their attraction is that they are snowy white and ethereal. We only eat them once a year….

Painting notes: The reign of the emperor’s new clothes is long. You’ll know I am painting again the day you see a new painting here. Also, it has been so long since I’ve taken a photo that I cannot find the charger for my camera battery. Oops.

Writing classes: I will be teaching a six-week writing practice group on Tuesday nights in the East Bay starting January 8, 2012. My teacher Natalie Goldberg developed writing practice as a way to help people get their real thoughts on paper. For more information, see my ad on craigslist.

Happy New Year to everybody! See you again in 2013. –Sharyn

Things may be a little different around here at The Kale Chronicles for awhile. I’ll have some guest posts. I’ll continue to paint. Mom and I will figure out some kind of cooking collaboration eventually. But, in the mean time, in case any of you have ever wondered what it is like to use a walker, I wrote a description as my morning’s writing practice. Enjoy.

painting of coffee in mug, filter cone, place mat.

Morning Coffee. 6″ x 6″ watercolor pencil. Sharyn Dimmick

The Walker Routine

I crawl or scoot to the edge of my bed to grab the walker from the foot where I left it. I stand up on my right foot and stomp-hop over to my bureau by the light from the window to pull out some thick socks. Because there is not enough light to see the socks’ color, I turn back to press the mouse: the light from my computer screen is enough to see by. I choose two red socks.

I turn and lean toward a chest, a plastic storage container where a few clothes currently rest, grabbing my holey cashmere sweater turned pajama top (I have enough worn-out cashmere for a lifetime of p.j.s). I turn again and take two steps back to the bed, where I sit and put on the socks.

Lifting the walker over a gap too narrow for it to transit, I then stand again and make my way down the hall to the head of the stairs. Using the window ledge and the banister as handholds, I lower myself down onto the top stair, left foot extended in front of me. I fold the walker and begin propelling myself down the stairs using my hands and my right foot, taking the walker with me. At the foot of the stairs I lower myself onto the narrow landing, scoot across to the last two stairs to the kitchen, unfold the walker and use my right leg and two walls to stand again.

I enter the kitchen, flipping on the light. The kettle is on the stove, but its lid is missing. I scan for the lid, feeling frustrated for a moment, until I see it sitting in the dish drainer. I stomp-hop over to the sink and fill the kettle half-full of cold water, pivoting to set it on the burner and turn the burner on. I tuck the red plastic filter cone and metal cup under my arm. Then it is back to the far counter, stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp, pushing the step ladder out of the way once, twice, three times to free access to the coffee and cereal cabinet. Leaning on the counter with my left elbow, I take out my coffee canister and a metal coffee measure. Then I stretch up as straight as I can to pull a coffee filter from the box on the second shelf.

Leaning on the counter again, I use two hands to open my coffee canister — it has a ring-pull mechanism that takes considerable strength to break the air lock. I measure two scoops of coffee beans into the grinder, plug it in and press on the lid to grind the beans. One-handed doesn’t work so well, so I lean both hands on the grinder. I fold out the paper cone into the red filter and aim the ground coffee into the cone, first from the grinder, then from the lid.

The easiest way to move objects when using a walker is to set them on a surface and then pivot to set them on another surface. I am able to set the filter cone on the edge of the stove. Then I stomp, stomp, stomp to the cupboard for a coffee mug and a Pyrex measuring cup: if I’m going to go through this for coffee it is going to be a perfectly-made cup of coffee.

By now the water is boiling. I turn it off and pour one cup over my coffee grounds, then one-quarter cup. Ten ounces of decaf is my daily ration. While the coffee drips. I take the long way around to the refrigerator: it is just steps from the stove, but the walker will not go through on that side, so I walk all the way around the stove island to get the half and half, in a carton, thankfully, not a pitcher. Using the pivoting transfer technique I move the half and half from the refrigerator to the counter to the stove to the opposite counter.

I stomp, stomp, stomp back to the first counter to get a muffin out of the dish cupboard, stomp, stomp, stomp to the microwave to heat it. I am getting tired and pull it out and put it on a saucer after twenty-five seconds. Pivot-transfer to stove. Pivot-transfer to counter. Pivot-transfer to edge of breakfast room credenza. Pivot-transfer to table. Remove filter cone from coffee mug and place on metal cup. Pivot-transfer coffee-mug to counter. Pivot-transfer to credenza. Pivot-transfer to table. Stomp back for half and half. Pivot-transfer, pivot-transfer, pivot-transfer.

Sit down. Ah. Prop left foot over rung of walker. Pour half and half in coffee. Take bite of muffin. Chew. Drink more coffee. Consider getting cut grapefruit from fridge. Decide it is too much work. Take saucer and mug back to kitchen: if I am careful and dishes are empty I can hold one item between each thumb and some fingers and still grasp the walker firmly. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Reverse stomp. Retrieve half and half by pivot-transfer method and return it to fridge.

Stomp over to sink. Open cabinet. Bend down over top of walker, balancing to get compost can. Set compost can on edge of sink. Stomp back for used coffee filter. Place in compost. Replace compost under sink. Dabble hand in dishwater.

Grab clean water bottle for return trip upstairs. Stomp to foot of stairs. Sit. Fold walker. The easiest way to climb is to use a cross-wise technique: use left hand to grab a few stairs behind you. Use right foot to push off lower stair. Use right hand to hold folded walker steady against wall. Move water bottle up a few steps with right hand. Move walker with right hand. Move self with right foot and left hand. By the time I reach the landing I am sweating.

I gain the upstairs hallway, set my water bottle on the banister, unfold the walker, kneel and stand. I hook my thumb through the plastic loop on the water bottle lid and head for the bathroom. I don’t bother with closing the door: it is enough to set the water bottle on the counter, stomp across the floor to the commode and use the window ledge and sink edge to balance to pull down my pajama pants and pull my robe out of the way. Stand again.Yank pajamas up, first one side, then the other, while leaning on opposite side. Flush toilet. Wash hands. Lean against sink counter to brush teeth, which takes two hands. By now my right hip is cramping. I shift positions a bit while singing songs in my head to see that I brush long enough. Rinse toothbrush. Fill water bottle. Tuck thumb through loop. Turn and leave. Stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp. Stomp, stomp, stomp, stomp.