Months in review: Jan-Mar 2019

One of the most challenging aspects of writing books is the stamina it requires. There is a trick to writing. If I am happy, that feeling will come through and imbue my work. If I cry, you will cry. If I laugh… well, you might laugh. Comedy is hard. But my deep, turbulent, and powerful emotions are often quite clear to my audience. So is my boredom and stress.

So how then does one sustain the excitement through years of writing and revision?

It’s a lonely life, living with all this ink and paper. Last year, I finally got out and socialized with other writers at various events around town. I met a lot of people and had a lot of fun but quickly realized that the hours I spent out were hours spent away from my writing desk. Everything takes time. We have to make hard choices. And while I enjoyed supporting other writers and listening to their work,  I could no longer justify blowing a whole night to read one lousy poem.

“Solitude sometimes is best society.” -John Milton

Writing is an extremely isolating life simply because it takes hours and hours of concentrated alone time to produce anything of quality. I know this is the reason I was out. I got too lonely. Being among other writers can be a shot in the arm. You can steal their excitement and inspiration.

The best readings I have attended over the years were authors who spoke at the UMN as part of the English department reading series. I got to see Denis Johnson, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Natasha Trethewey read live- in the flesh!!! Absolutely inspiring and breathtaking…

I’ve talked to my mom about writing novels. This is roughly how that conversation went:

Mom- “Have you ever considered writing a romance novel?”
Me- “No mom. If I did, people would think I had been hit over the head.”
Mom- “Really?”
Me- “Yes mom. Really.”

*SIGH*

Sometimes, you just have to make the road by walking. There are no rules about how you get a novel written and really the only way to learn is to do it. I once read that there are two kinds of novelists- architects and gardeners. Architects already know exactly what the structure of their novel will be and fill in the prose. Gardeners have a handful of seeds (ideas), throw them, and wait to see what grows. I am a gardener. I have spent the last three months figuring out the architecture buried within the blob that is my current draft.

A former teacher once told me, “a book can do you in” and it’s true. If you intend to do it right, to cut up your soul and smear it on the page… I never have to look too far to know what makes me burn. I know what my calling is.

But writing a book is a slow, slow grind. You give up one day, only to return to it the next. I often ask myself, “Who is going to want to read this crap, anyway?” But whether it has an audience of 15 or 15 million, I am in it for the work, for the creation, for the birth of whatever *IT* is. Once it’s done, it will find that audience and it will no longer be mine. It will have a life wholly its own and there will be as many versions of it as readers.

How fucking amazing is that?

This past quarter, I posted 11 blog posts- 9 essays and 2 poems. I submitted some poems for possible publication. I got rejected from another submission (it wasn’t my best work). All the usual writerly stuff. And I have an enhancement to my blog in the works… to be launched in May.

Stay tuned!

  

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2019

P.S. 2018

I love winter. I must since I chose to move north to Minnesota 15 years ago. It’s not the cold, it’s the 3 solid months of writing and reading with very little distraction. Cycling does not lure me out onto the forested trails and social invitations slow down to a crawl. No one wants to leave their home either and that’s fine.  I have plenty of paper and ink to spare.

Last winter, I committed to waking up at 5am and working on my novel before work. I had a smoke damaged, sooty copy of a 2nd draft I wrote 10 years before. It was somewhere to start. So, I scanned the 263-page document using optical character recognition software and imported that into Scrivener. After 1.5 months of work, it was formatted and cut up into sections, chapters, and scenes.

For the next 1.5 months, I wrote roughly 22,000 words of new content; total word count is sitting around 143,000 words. Now, I realize that if you participate in NANOWRIMO that 22K in 1.5 months is a puny amount… but what can I say? Slow but sure… It feels like I am writing a different book. 10 years will do that. Characters and the basic story are roughly the same, but I am not. I’ve had some practice. My writing voice is much more confident and authentic.

But 2018 was a tough year. By April, I was absorbed in implementing software at work and in May my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I did not have the energy or emotional resources to continue work on the book. I did continue to write poetry and post on my blog. I attended many poetry open mics and had my first show as a featured poet in March 2018. And I rode an emotional roller coaster for the rest of the year, often overwhelmed and feeling like a deer in headlights.

In November, I had a revelation: I was still hiding. I wrote for literally decades and shared very little of my work with anyone. I set-up my blog in 2014 and did not start posting on it until 2017 after I sent ‘Popcorn from the Void’ off to my editor. But I was mostly posting poems. I could still fool myself into thinking I was being vulnerable- and I was- but not in a way that people could see a clear picture of me. I could still hide behind the form.

‘Popcorn from the Void’ is a book based off personal essay blog posts that Todd Park used to manage his cancer- both in providing information to family and friends and in processing his experience. Was I not about to walk through my mother’s cancer and death? And could my personal essays about this journey help others?

My 2018 blog stats are very modest but solid: 43 posts, 1,147 visitors, 1,733 views, 107 total followers. That means I averaged 40 views per post and 10 visits per follower. There aren’t a lot of you, but you are loyal! I had two shows in which I was one of the featured readers. And I submitted ‘Popcorn from the Void’ to the 2018 Writers Digest Self-Published Book Awards. And while it did not win, it received a rave review from its judge and scored 30/30 points on its assessment. Not bad for an amateur.

So dear readers, 2019 promises to be an even tougher year personally but it is also the year that I intend to try to be published for real, for the first time. And it will be a year of personal essays where I will feel very, very naked. And it will be the year of my first finished novel.

It has to be… if I want to be sure mom can read it…

Blessed New Year!

Christine

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, January 2019

Christmas Cards

I celebrate Christmas and annually travel to Illinois to spend the holiday with my family. In the weeks leading up to it, I don’t do much besides shop for gifts to take home with me. As a single professional, what is the point of decorating a Christmas tree besides to serve as an extra-large cat toy? I hang a wreath instead.

I don’t go to Christmas shows or events because I do not have anyone to go with. I have attended events alone for years, so that’s not the problem. It just gets old. And lonely. And if you attend family events alone, people look at you with suspicion like you are there to snatch their husband or baby or purse. It’s a terrible world we live in.

Christmas cards are one of the few holiday activities I participate in.

I have collected many friends and acquaintances over the years. As much as social media might want us to believe it has brought us closer together, I mostly see disconnection. I sometimes find myself searching through the newsfeed for help and come back with emptiness. If I have learned one thing living in a highly commercialized society, it is that you will not find real connection in marketing- whether it’s for an actual product or by an ordinary person presenting an image, trying to brand themselves.

I don’t see everyone, every year. Some I haven’t seen in decades. And I may not see some people ever again. My former boss Margaret comes to mind. When I first started out in my career 20 years ago, she taught me what it meant to be a smart, hard-working, professional woman. She set an example for me that I carried through my work to this day. We remained friends after I left the job and I delighted in terrorizing her around Halloween about just how many days were left until Christmas. I sent her a Christmas card every year until now. Cancer took her September 13, 2018. I have to cross her name off my list…

All I ever get in the mail these days are bills, advertisements, or junk. The art of the hand-written letter is all but dead. Do you remember what that was like? How exciting it was to get an envelope addressed to you in a familiar hand. That was replaced with the excitement of getting an email in the mid-90’s. Now email seems to just suck the life out of you. Letters haven’t returned. So, I mail Christmas cards that are funny or beautiful. I hand write messages of good will in each to simply let people know I am thinking about them.

I know some people think cards are stupid and don’t bother. I know others who play a yuletide version of ‘chicken’ in which they watch the mailbox for Christmas cards, then only send out cards in response to those they’ve received. I have also watched people open my card looking for money and when they only found my message, toss it aside in disappointment. Here is the truth folks: Love is spelled T.I.M.E. not M.O.N.E.Y.

I still have Christmas cards sent to me from my grandmothers who have both been dead for over 20 years. As I age, I have come to recognize that the time people spent writing out cards and letters was the love they were sending me. Christmas cards return me to a simpler time. They remind me of the days of anticipation for Christmas day. When I fill out my cards, I walk down memory lane, think about the people and the time we have spent together. I suppose I do it as much for me as for them.

“Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you”
– Jim Croce

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, December 2018

Wayfarers Thanksgiving

In 2010, I was faced with a terrible realization: I had nowhere to spend Thanksgiving. My hometown and family were 400 miles away in Illinois. Old friendships from school were dormant and scattered across the country. I had been in a long-term relationship that ended in 2009 and the people in my life outside of that relationship consisted mostly of coworkers. I did not have a strong connection to my community. I did not have the friendships, colleagues, or writing contemporaries that I have today.

I can’t recall now how it happened, but friends of another friend got wind that I was without a place to share Thanksgiving dinner. They generously opened their family table to me. I spent that Thanksgiving among near strangers, watching a family dynamic not my own, and having a wonderful holiday. I spent Thanksgiving 2011 with them as well.

My niece moved to Minnesota in 2012. Suddenly, I had family in town and when Thanksgiving came around, I knew that I wanted to celebrate the holiday together. But it seemed silly to cook a feast for two of us. I remembered that terrible feeling of exclusion, that feeling of isolation and disappointment from two years before. Surely there were others in this same predicament- new residents, recently single, travelers, or folks just isolated for whatever reason.

It was then I decided to start hosting Wayfarers Thanksgiving.

Wayfarers Thanksgiving 2012

Wayfarers Thanksgiving is for ‘lonely travelers’. It is an extension of my table, an extra seat, a sharing of the bounty and blessings that life has heaped upon me. It is about creating community where there wasn’t one, breaking bread with people you would otherwise not meet. It is often a mixed bag- some family, some old friends, and new friends I’ve just met as they walk through my door. They vary in age and background, but we come together over the feast and wine, to break our isolation and loneliness.

I once stood in line with my grocery cart full of canned goods and a frozen turkey in preparation of the feast. A woman behind me complained loudly to the two men that were with her, family members, that Thanksgiving was just a waste of time and money and there was no way she was going to cook. She repeated this over and over, exasperated and looking for an argument. Her family members’ faces said it all: shame, exclusion, not worthy. They were hurt but stoic, their lips pressed in silence. I can not know their story- she may have lost a job or a family member or had very bad memories of previous holidays.

But for all the headache that Thanksgiving can bring, there is something important and special about the way we celebrate it. It ties our past to our future. I cook recipes from my long dead great-aunt for my niece and friends. It is a time to pause and think about the harvest. The bounty we have reaped once meant our very survival during the coming winter and still does in many parts of the world. There is no pressure of gift giving. Only feasting and imbibing and with any luck, ignoring our troubles and our differences for at least one day.

I have deep gratitude for my ability to host the Thanksgiving table. But there will come a time many, many years from now when I will no longer be able. My hope is that all those who have and will celebrate with me over the years, will look back in fondness, pay that generosity forward, add an extra chair to their own table, and offer a smile and a welcome to a fellow wayfarer.

Wayfarers Thanksgiving Queen

 

Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Months in review: Jul-Oct 2018

It’s November and this post was intended to be a quarterly Jul-Sep check-in but then life happened… I’ve had celebrations, out of town visitors, and/or business travel every weekend for the past five weeks. Since I mostly write and blog on the weekends you can understand my absence this past month. But really, who’s keeping track?

I submitted a piece for publication. It’s been over a decade since I last tried. Back then, I was writing children’s stories. If you know me, this fact may come as a bit of a shock- but it’s true. In the early days when I was first breaking out and sharing my work, they were simple, funny stories and did not disturb the deep fibers of my soul. Fast forward to today and you can read the lyrics that erupt when I strum those fibers.

I submitted the story after a friend and someone I consider a writing mentor urged me to do so. It feels like the natural next step to my writing career, such as it is. I have been asked by others why I am not published. And the answer is easy: because I don’t try. But the natural progression of questioning leads to why I don’t try, which I don’t have a good answer for.

You can chalk it up to laziness or perfectionism, but the truth is that it’s just the constraints of a professional working life. Consider our 168 hours every week, minus 56 of sleep (if we are lucky), minus the 60 hours dedicated to weekday work prep, commute, meals, and work day. That leaves 52 hours to rest, clean, shop, exercise, socialize, read, write, etc. Now add in the random universal chaos generator and there you have it. It’s not an excuse, just reality.

There is writing and then there is writing business. Searching for appropriate markets takes time and effort I am not willing to dedicate to my poetry and short fiction. So, I blog it here dear reader. I did manage to post ten times in the last four months, as well as attend open mics around town. This blog is my own magazine, entirely constructed of my work, for free and for my true fans.

But… what are my writing goals? What is it that I want to have accomplished by the end of my days? It’s not fame and fortune. We all know that is the same dream as winning the lottery. Still you can’t win if you don’t have a ticket, right? But I really don’t want that anyway. My dream is more about making a living outside the cube farm from the fruits of my creative writing. Maybe it’s my retirement dream, I don’t know.

My mission in writing is to make my readers feel the way I feel. I want others to know that they are not alone in this world. That the feelings and longings that they are ashamed of are a natural part of this human experience. I find life to be incredibly isolating- some of that by choice and some by circumstance. The difficulty of finding kindred spirits is universal. There are so many paths through life and different kinds of people navigating them. We often face the same trials with different responses and perspectives. I can learn from your experience and maybe you can learn from mine.

But those deep fibers have not rung out yet and finding markets for such stories will require fortitude, energy, and faith that I can and will find my place. That last one… that one fails me too often. Who exactly wants to read about all this crap rattling around in my head and heart? I have no great ego around my writing that makes me think the world needs to hear me, yet I am angered by the suggestion that I am not trying hard enough. I have fantastically wild dreams about my ideal writing life even while I still punch the time card…

The question I ask myself is why publish? Why not remain safe, pouring my guts out in anonymity? Why not leave all the notebooks behind and shock whoever is tasked with putting my final affairs in order? When I was first published in the Journal of Ordinary Thought back in 2002, a publication of the now defunct Neighborhood Writing Alliance in Chicago, I simply could not believe it. Yes, this was the parent organization of my writing group and yes, we were all guaranteed publication (unpaid) once per year, but there was still nothing else like seeing my writing in print. Some unknown someone was going to read it and react to it for good or bad. And in 2003, when I finished the first draft of my first novel, it felt as great as my college graduation. I felt like I could fly to the moon and back again.

Maybe that ride is reason enough for me.

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, November 2018

Mid-year review: Jan-Jun 2018

It’s July. About this time six months ago, I was scanning the sooty remains of one of the drafts of one of my novels through optical character recognition (OCR) software and importing it into Scrivener. If you write long works of fiction but have not heard of Scrivener before, check it out!

I spent 1.5 months (Jan-Feb) organizing that mess into chapters and scenes; character, scene, and conflict sketches; vague ideas and lists of topics to research- all to find the holes. And Lordy, there were canyons. So, I spent the next 1.5 months (Feb-Apr) ‘shoveling gravel’ into the gaps, to the order of about 25,000 words of new content. It is a pittance to all you NANOWRIMO’s out there but it is realistic progress for a full-time working schlub like me. I can’t apply the brakes on life and focus solely on my book in the way that the November National Novel Writing Month requires to reach that 50K goal.

Then came silence. No progress on the book. Apr-Jun were all about the ‘Spring Thaw’ of my social life. I took a cooking class that ate up my hours with kitchen adventure. I took a couple trips, one for business and one for pleasure, plus had out of town guests. But mostly, writing became about poetry, poetry events, poetry classes, and connecting with a wider writing community which has been wonderful and revitalizing.

But books don’t write themselves…

Time and energy are limited resources and unfortunately, my mother is in cancer treatment now. I have to get real about my stress levels and where to focus myself. Someone wise once said, “I can’t control the wind. I can only adjust my sails.” So, as I reef the mainsail, I pull back on the social side of writing, miss opportunities to read, and classes of interest. It’s just where I am at today.

Still, over the last 6 months, I produced 27 blog posts: 15 poems, 7 essays, 2 travel logs, and 3 posts about the poetry readings I had in the spring. Poetry writing will continue because I can’t help it. And my blog remains my weekly ritual as this is the only place I talk about my ‘writing career’, such as it is.

But I have already recommitted to the 5am wake up for the 5:30 writing hour before work, dedicated to my novel. I am typing up my hand-written notes and charging once again into the breech. Book writing is not glamorous. It is a long, arduous, mostly thankless journey through a writer’s personal hell.

I have books to read and write, my friends… Happy summer!

 

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, July 2018

Month in review: April 2018

It’s May and this blog post is late. That’s indicative of the sort of month April turned out to be for my writing- either late or never. April was also National Poetry Month. All my writer friends produced massive amounts of poetry to celebrate. Me… not so much.

April 29th was the 5-year anniversary of the apartment fire that consumed all the electronic copies of my writing- but not the paper ones. As an IT professional, computer screens mean databases and software and day-job. It puts me in a particular mindset that stifles my creative voice. So, it is my habit to write everything longhand first. There is something about that organic experience of paper and ink that creates a limitless plane for my mind to wander on. By some miracle, I was able to salvage all of my writing in journals and notebooks though they are smoke and water damaged.

I also have print outs of two different novels that I wrote over ten years ago. I have been working on one of them in the early morning hours before work since January. It has been a struggle for me to figure out what exactly it is that I am writing. There is such a difference in who I was when I first wrote it and who I am today but I have to write what is within me and this is what is coming out. Though the general story is the same, the way it is being written is vastly different.

In April I only worked on it for two days. Instead, I have had trouble sleeping, three separate visits to the doctor (including the ER), helped a friend move, traveled out of town for business, participated in a 4-week cooking class, and attended four different poetry events. *Whew*

Instead of my novel moving forward, I managed five different blog posts: ‘Movement’ (poem), ‘Drifting in at Night’ (poem), ‘Single, White, Professional, Female- in Kansas City, April 2018’ (essay), ‘Home assignment 1’ (food blog), and ‘Home assignment 2’ (food blog). I also was invited to read at ‘Writers Read’ at the Coffee Shop Northeast on April 12.

May should calm down as I return to my regular routine and writing practice though cycling season is just starting. I haven’t yet figure out how to do both at the same time and both take long hours of my life. Still, I can think of no better life then to bike to a lake in the warm sunlight and sit under a willow tree with pen and paper, dreaming…

-Copyright C.M. Mounts, April 2018