First, a little housekeeping.* A week ago, I wrote this post, Nine Things I Wonder About Other Writers. The reaction was unprecedented, particularly given my usual low readership/commenter-ship. I’m pretty small potatoes and quite honestly am so touched by the response. In fact, I still have not had enough time to respond to some of the comments, for which I apologize. I have been volunteering at my daughter’s school quite a bit this week, and last night was sidelined with a crushing migraine. I promise to respond to each comment on that blog post in due course.
That post then lead to others answering the same questions on their own blogs, and I strongly encourage all of you to read those and their respective comments. So far, Nina Badzin, Lindsey Mead (A Design So Vast), Lara Anderson (Joy, Lovely Joy), Justine Uhlenbrock (Heirloom Mothering), and Andrea Jarrell each wrote a post. If there are others I missed, please leave a comment and I’ll add you here too.
All of the responses, wherever they might appear, have been very insightful, helpful, and, if nothing else, make certain doubts and/or hesitations (of mine) feel normal. This is why I recommend reading those other posts and the comments to my original post.
BUT! I thought it might be helpful, to aggregate the recommended “must have/must read” writing craft books mentioned in all the various posts/comments in one spot, so that is what this post is meant to do. As a reminder, I specifically asked people to leave off books by Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, Dani Shapiro, and Natalie Goldberg (because I have those). I am presently time-pressed, so I’m going to skip hyperlinks at the moment, figuring that we all know where that certain jungle of a book buying website can be found, or at least our local bookseller or library.
On Writing, Stephen King (by FAR the most recommended)
Steering the Craft, Ursula Leguin (for fiction)
How Fiction Works, James Wood
From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler (for fiction)
Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter (for fiction)
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, by Burroway & Stuckey-French eds.
The Getaway Car, Anne Patchett
The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate
The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, Ted Kooser
Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like A Motherf*cker“ (in her Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus)
Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brande
The War of Art, Stephen Pressfield
Writing Begins With the Breath, Laraine Herring
What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter
If there are other must have/must read writing craft books that you think warrant inclusion, leave the title/author in a comment and I’ll add them to the list.
*Another bit of housekeeping: (1) A few folks (I think because of either Nina’s or Lindsey’s mention of my post on their Facebook pages) have requested to become friends with me on Facebook. I do have a personal FB account, but I keep it very private and limited to just my closest family and friends, so if you try to connect via that one, I am not likely to accept, sorry. I do this more for my family’s privacy than mine. But I do have a “Kristen Ploetz, Writer” page that you can search for on there and “like,” and I hope that you do. (2) I’ve recently switched my Instagram account (@littlelodestar) to private. It won’t affect existing followers, but anyone else new I will have to approve first. I’m doing this to cut down on the spam I was receiving, but also because I like to know who’s looking of photos of my personal life, that I’m more or less happy to share, but within reason. (For instance, I was getting a few private accounts following me that wouldn’t reciprocate. Sorry. Dealbreaker. That kind of one-sidedness creeps me out.)
Thanks for your understanding.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I try to protect my daughter’s privacy a little more here now. Part of it is that she’s getting older, but some of it is also that a few people who know us “in real life” are aware of my writing here. As I’ve learned from other pieces I’ve written, I cannot control the way things might be interpreted or used, so I try to be more careful when it comes to her life. One can never, ever get the full picture from just one essay or blog post, but some try to and then it leads to unfair assumptions and prejudices. It’s one thing for me to take that on, but I’m not willing to do that to her.
So without getting into the specifics, the other day she came to me after she’d been playing by herself for a while. Something was definitely on her mind, so I asked her what she was thinking about. Tears immediately flowed. She was feeling very alone about something (which she and I talked about) and wished she’d had a girl friend to talk about it with, not just me. She wanted someone to be comfortable with and not be judged. Don’t get me wrong. She has a few friends and classmates that she plays with regularly who are all equally sweet and kind children. But what she was looking for was a trustworthy confidant to share something very personal that she’s been thinking about a lot lately, and it is a topic that is certainly provocative for many.
After a long, long chat with her on the stairs, she seemed to perk up a bit. She seems hopeful that the specific kind of friend she is seeking is out there, and one day they will cross paths. That is the best kind of outcome for a parent when you know you can’t fix things for them, and that they have to find their way. You have to at least guide them to the path of hope, but then they must take the journey. She went on to play, almost as if nothing had been wrong to begin with. That’s what makes children so awesome–their ability to let go, move on, and live in optimism.
But after she left my side, I was struck with how inept I feel about talking about the subject of friendships with her, primarily because I have struggled for so long to find the particular kind of depth that I know she seeks (at least in her seven year old way). In a nutshell, I don’t have that in the way that I’d like. I am (I think) friendly and have the tools to teach her those kind of social skills. I have friends, yes, even a few good friends. But a deep, soul bearing confidant (that is not my husband)? No. I do not.
This year in particular that has weighed me down quite a bit. In fact, I wrote a deeply cathartic and personal, if not shame inducing, piece about it all just weeks after I turned 40 earlier this year (it was declined for publication–and hence my post from last week about what to do with those kinds of pieces; I’ve shared that piece with two people but I am not sure about anyone else at this point). In a word, I feel like a fraud. I feel alone and lonely much of the time because of this, and, as a result, I am not entirely convinced that that kind of friendship is actually achievable for every single person. So when she comes to me, I feel like I’m selling her a bill of goods. I wonder if that kind of friendship as an ideal—despite how much I’d like it—is one that I can adequately sell anymore. Yet, if I am her role model and teacher for so much of these things, am I supposed to fake it? I’m wondering. But sooner or later, she’s going to see the gaps in my own life that I am trying to help her fill in hers.
I realize that this might all sound hopeless and pathetic, but the truth is that this year has also been a year when I have mostly made peace with what is my life in this particular regard. And that, I hope, is the other message that I can ultimately convey to her: that your solitude can be its own source of strength too.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I am deliberately calling myself a writer these days. I’m still a mother, wife, attorney, (reluctant) runner, and all of that, but I’ve definitively added writer to the list. The rationale is 50% “fake it til you make it”, and 50% feeling like I can legitimately say so now with a few published pieces under my belt, one more to come in the next month (The Humanist magazine, Jan/Feb 2015), and several pieces still in draft. It’s what I want to do, and, quite frankly, it’s what I am doing so much of the time these days. So, writer.
But…I don’t have an MFA and don’t plan on getting one. I don’t currently belong to a writer’s group and I’m not sure I will anytime soon. I’m working on a book but I’m not sure if it will ever be good enough for publication. I don’t have an agent or anything like that. I’ve probably only scratched the surface of reading all the various craft books out there. So I’ve got questions for other writers, especially those who blog too. Sometimes it’s lots of questions, but these are the ones that bubble to the surface so often.
1. Do you share your work with your partner or spouse? Does it matter if it’s been published yet? (I share with my husband something that I submit elsewhere only AFTER it’s been published, and I am pretty certain he does not read my blog 90% of the time.)
2. How much of your family and/or closest “friends in real life first” read your stuff…let alone give you feedback about it? (Comments from my family and friends, either online or in person, are overwhelmingly rare. I’m totally fine with that, but I am curious if this is the norm for others.)
3. What do you do with the pieces that continually get rejected–post on your blog? Trash? When do you know it’s time to let it go?
4. Are there pieces you write for one very specific place that, once rejected, you just let go of, or do you rework into something else?
5. What is your main source of reading-based inspiration (especially you essayists)? Blogs? Magazines? Journals? Anthologies? Book of essays by one writer?
6. What tends to spark ideas more for you: what you see/hear in daily life or what you read?
7. Who have you read in the past year or two that you feel is completely brilliant but so underappreciated?
8. Without listing anything written by Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Lee Gutkind, or Natalie Goldberg, what craft books are “must haves”?
9. Have you ever regretted having something published? Was it because of the content or the actual writing style/syntax? (Obviously we all grow as writers and looking back at our “clunkier” writing can be cringeworthy…that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean are there things you wish you hadn’t said out loud either because of what you said or how you said it. I’m not in this position right now, but some things I’d like to write about might get me there. And yet…how can I ignore those topics, you know?)
I’d love it if you answered a few of these. I’d also love it if you shared what YOU wonder about other writers too.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Maybe it’s silly, or maybe I just have too much time on my hands, but I am afflicted—often—by wondering about the “invisible” people in our lives. There are so many people in our everyday lives who present themselves in tangible ways, but we will almost never come to meet them. Like the worker who stocked the yogurt shelf or the janitor who mops down the gym each night. Who are they? We may never know, but that doesn’t make them touch any less upon our lives.
During this month of wonder and winter, I find myself thinking about
the musician who played the triangle parts in “The Little Drummer Boy” I hear on the radio
the data entry clerk who typed up all the song information that displays on my holiday music station
the sanitation worker that will eventually pick up our Christmas tree for the city compost pile
the family of the UPS worker who has to work many late nights this month
the stringer of twinkling lights in the trees lining the city streets
the senders of all the letters that weigh and slow down our mail carrier each darkening day
the tree farmer in some distant state (or Canada!) that cut down the very tree we will put in our living room
the baker who rolled the dough for the last minute cookies we will surely buy
the fisherman who caught the salmon that will fill our bellies on Christmas night
the wordsmith that crafted the sentiment printed in the second holiday card we received
the beekeeper who sold the beeswax to make the candles that will glow in our living room
the snowplow drivers who try to move the mountains of snow around our narrow street
the factory worker that helped to churn out the stocking holders on our mantle
the bookstore clerk who thoughtfully wrote up a book recommendation that will result in a gift under the tree
Who are all of these people? Do they have joy, warmth, and love in their lives? What was their day like on the day they did the thing that will help create the memories in my own home? What kinds of Christmas cookies do they like to eat? What is on their wish list? Do they wonder about people like me? Do they realize, like I do, that we really are all connected by invisible but indelible strands?
Who are the mystery people you’d like to know this month?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
There are so many wonderful words written by parents who have more than one child. Some lovingly lament the last of their babies shoving off for Kindergarten or college. Others offer hope for the relative ease of parenting that settles in when child number two or three or even four comes along. War stories of parental exhaustion are swapped around virtual campfires. Revelations about raising sons and daughters are bricks laid in these family foundations, and the intricate and intense relationships that form between those siblings are the mortar that holds it all together.
Yet, as the parent of one child, I can’t write some of those stories.
Sure, I can glean tiny bits from the perspective of being a sister and growing up with a brother myself, but as a parent I am not quite able to walk the full mile. I’m not sad or remorseful about that—those words are too strong—but I am sometimes curious about what differences I might’ve seen, both in myself and within my family as a whole, had we chosen to have more than one. Would patterns in nature versus nurture emerge more clearly? Would I second-guess myself less with each added child? Would I be faced with the question of “whom do you love more?” and, more to the point, would there be an answer I could truthfully utter aloud? Would she have been the amazing older sister I know she wants to be? Would I have found that my well of patience and resilience is actually much deeper than I think it is? I don’t play often here in this treacherous land of unknowable answers because it’s too easy to get lost in shadows of doubt and mystery, but sometimes I do.
Leaving the baby stage and the utter exhaustion during those early years, those I can relate to, but in a different way. For me, saying goodbye to the open mouthed kisses and baby cellulite happened only once, and the fatigue was shorter lived because I didn’t renew my contract with late night feedings and diaper changes. At the time, I didn’t necessarily appreciate the gravity of these things ending, but I certainly had a strong hunch I wouldn’t be going for another round. By the time she was three, we were pretty settled that she would be it. Even our momentary, three-month change of heart when she was almost five was half-baked and half-assed. We knew from very early on that we should pay attention to the milestones because we’d likely see them only once. There would be no reminiscing that started with “Your sister was … when she did that.” Those first several years, I was equal parts “thank goodness we are almost done with this” and “oh no, we are almost done with this!” It’s an odd, unsettling feeling when that is all tied to one child rather than more.
For us parents on this particular path, whether it be by choice or otherwise, I’m guessing some of it really is different, though certainly stitched with the common thread of sorrow that binds all of us parents together. Honestly, I’m not even sure if parents of multiple children can fully understand what it is like to have just one child because, on some level, it forces them to imagine their life without one or more of their children. That’s an impossible exercise. You get only a small taste of what it’s like between the time when your first is born and the second comes along, or perhaps when the last one is still in the house after the others have gone, but I imagine the flavor will never be as robust or nuanced as raising just one with intention.
I often wonder if parents of onlies and parents of multiple children ask themselves what I see as two sides of the same coin. For me, I wonder how could I possibly love anyone else as much as her…how could that possibly fit in my heart? And yet, I feel like parents of more than one might ask how could you stop at just one? because they actually live that intense love that (I’m guessing) doesn’t diminish despite more juice to pour or teeth to brush.
For me, the biggest discovery has been how I straddle the worlds of “firsts” and “lasts” so much of the time. My oldest is also my youngest. Her first day of Kindergarten was the first and last time I will ever have to do that. I won’t know if it gets easier with each child, or whether it grows harder knowing what’s on the horizon. It’s all easy and hard at the same time because I have no idea what to expect nor do I have to endure it again. I do not get that next child to “get it right” or “pay better attention.” This is it.
If we are going to see the twirl of her favorite flowered dress again, it might be on a friend or a niece, but certainly not another daughter (I have saved a few for a maybe granddaughter…you caught me). We will cycle through only one string of teachers in school, and there’s only one set of pencil marks on the wall recording how tall she is each year. She always gets the last cookie in the box, undivided and without elbowing a sibling on the way. In the same vein, we have to make sure she gets other opportunities to learn how to negotiate, respectfully disagree, and work through disappointment in ways that families with multiple children might take for granted with a home-based band of nations.
I don’t have to tend less to anyone for lack of arms or time or energy. There is enough of me to go around. The flip side, of course, is that once she’s too big for my lap, my legs will be cold again forevermore. That’s an inherent liability when you raise one child, but I choose to see it as a reward. There is an intense ability to savor and dwell in many of the moments because I am able to focus, stand upright, and face in only one direction.
Depending on the day, it can look like a sprint or a marathon, but it is certainly not a relay race. She is the only one on the track, and so I can wait patiently for her to cross the finish line in her own time. But this all reveals that being the parent of one child can be intense in a very singular and sometimes uncomfortable way for both her and me. I am sensitive to her life possibly unfolding under a magnifying glass, on center stage, or in a fishbowl.
There are simultaneously too many rules and not enough. There is no brother to blame for broken vases, and there is no sister who will break curfew first in order to soften our position when she does. If I want her to feel confident enough to take risks and make mistakes but without the burden of feeling like she has to please us all on her own, then sometimes I am (and will be) forced to avert my eyes, even though I don’t want to.
As with any first-born child, there are no worn cart paths to follow and guide my way. But the difference with one is that I will only travel down this road once. Any wisdom picked up along the way is nice to know, but not necessary for another time. This is why so much of parenting one child is now or never, and I feel that so deeply sometimes that I’m afraid to blink. I don’t want to miss all the brass rings. I know this wonderful carousel pony is eventually going to slow down and stop. And I know I only have one ticket to ride.
This post was inspired, in part, by some of the words I read here by Dina L. Relles. Do you know her writing? You should.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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