Tiny Turtle, Giant Tortoise

Since our return from a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, where we swam with sea lions, watched the mating dance of the waved albatross, observed a frigate bird high above us show his red throat, and stood within a few feet of a giant land tortoise as she grazed on grass, I’ve come to realize how far I’ve traveled from those days in North Carolina when I was the proud owner of a green pet turtle that I cared for in a small plastic pool.Turtle12(1)

These tiny turtles could be purchased in the five-and-dime stores of my childhood. Such amazing stores for children! All laid out in rectangles of counter after counter: the perfume counter, the hosiery counter, the underwear counter.

Each counter was overseen by a single salesperson, complete with her own cash register. There was no central station to which you carried your merchandise, no credit cards for that matter. In fact it would have been unheard of to carry your merchandise from one place to another in the store. You chose whatever, paid for it with cash, and then moved to the next counter for your next purchase.

It was mid-July, 1950, I was almost eight years old, on the day my mother and I walked by the turtle counter. There they were, turtles. An entire section was devoted to these small green creatures, some swimming in their shallow tanks, others “sunning” on their plastic promenades. My mother, who was probably headed to the underwear counter, paused as I stood before the turtles. “No.” she said. “Absolutely not. No turtles.”

By my birthday in October, I had managed to convince her that a turtle was a small pet: one that would not track mud into the house, one that would be easy to take care of.IMG_8954 (4) copy

Fast forward to July, 2015, when our family of twelve visited the Galapagos Islands where we saw the giant tortoises made famous by Darwin on his visit aboard The Beagle in 1835. During Darwin’s time, these tortoises were captured and eaten by the inhabitants and visitors to the islands. Darwin writes: “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.” The giant tortoises were almost extinct until the islands became protected. Today we can stand by these large reptiles and watch them munch on grass unafraid like most all the animals, birds, fish, and reptiles in the Galapagos. It gives one hope.

From tiny turtles in a North Carolina five-and-dime store to giant tortoises in the Galapagos of Ecuador—from the 1950 to 2015—how far I’ve traveled. Yet these turtles and tortoises still tell me to slow down, to take my time. The turtle has become my totem creature. Can I slowly gain even a little wisdom? Can I carry my home wherever I go? Can I persist? Trust my path no matter what?

Oh yes, I’ve become a turtle. Wrinkled. Shell intact. Yet vulnerable. Like that tiny green turtle that sat in my hand so long ago. And even the large tortoises of the Galapagos. But, good news, turtles and tortoises live a long time. Lonesome George lived to the age of 102.  Plenty of time to do our work—slow but steady within shells/rooms/studies/homes. We write and read and move along.

Lonesome George (1910 to June 24, 2012)

Lonesome George
(1910 ?  to June 24, 2012)

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Writing Idea:  Pets–write about your first pet. Or your “totem animal.”  Is there some living creature to which you feel a special bond or identify? Or try to connect a small memory (those little turtles) to a more recent one (Galapagos tortoises). How do animals (birds, reptiles, fish) enter into your writing?

“Having the turtle as totem means that you have an affinity with the ancient wisdom of the earth. You are naturally tuned into the elements, land, plants, people and animals. You carry your home on your back figuratively speaking and feel at ease wherever you are.”   —-Elena Harris from “Turtle Spirit Animal”

“In modern China, turtle is one of the four divine animals along with dragon, phoenix, and chimera.” Turtle Symbolism 

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“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise -”
“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

 

 

The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?

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Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015

 

 

The Joy of Writing

We are in our final week of the Joy of Writing workshop here on Sanibel. I’ve appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of this group of writers as we explored the similarities between cooking and writing. Along the way, we definitely cooked up a good stew of writing.

Remember Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking—that classic cookbook from the 1930s?joy_stack_web

During the class, we talked about how this same joy can be found in writing. We’ve tried to counter the doubts, the fears, the negative emotions that sometimes creep into our writing lives. This is not to say that the writing itself need always focus on happy topics, but that even writing about pain and difficulty can lead to moments of joy.

We’ve talked about ingredients (telling details), recipes (structure/shape/form), heat (suspense, emotional sub-context, characters). One participant asked, “So if we have broth, soup, and stew, as a sort of continuum of complexity, when do we know to be happy with the simple broth?” When does a simple poem (that one delicious creme brulee), say all that needs to be said? Another writer asked, “How do we keep writing when no one is reading what we write?” Why do we cook when no one is there to eat the meals? Jan, who admitted she didn’t like to cook, responded, “I write for myself. I enjoy it. Besides, we never know who will read what we write.” Emily Dickinson comes to mind–or my mother, who along with her paintings, left me a huge stack of her journals.

We can always invite people over for a meal–which is what we will do on March 2 when some of us will read at the Sanibel Library and invite family and friends. Or maybe we write a letter to a person in our past, present, or future–the way we take soup and fresh bread to a neighbor.

We studied a short story, several poems, and an essay to see how other writers have cooked up a sort of meal or dish for us the readers. We talked about the opening or beginning of a piece of writing as the first taste we give our readers; and how as writers, we may have made that special sauce (the opening) much later in the preparation. We looked at the final arrival of the guests (our readers) when we put the meal on the table and remembered how the people at a dinner party are happy to enjoy the meal even if it’s not perfect.

Writing, like cooking, can be messy and creative. The meals we cook don’t always turn out the way we thought they would. Yet there is often pleasure and surprise in the process and the chance that a truly great dinner or that one amazing dish will make it worth all the effort.

And when all the work of cooking is over and the guests have gone home, we can sit back and enjoy a taste of coffee or a little brandy and reflect on what a good time we all had. What a relief that with writing, unlike cooking, we don’t have lots of dishes to wash!

In my next blog, I’ll share a recipe.

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Good news!  Red Bird Chapbooks has published my little book of poems, What Can Be front coverSaved. I’m so grateful to Dana Hoeschen and all the folks at Red Bird. This is a limited edition (100 copies. 44 pages, 8.5″ x 5.5″ single signature with hand sewn binding. End Paper and Cover Images reproductions of paintings by Vicky’s mother, Ruth Bethea Hodges).

Go to the Red Bird’s website to order and to see all the delicious chapbooks created by the amazing Red Bird press. If you’d like a signed copy, contact me.

Stop by Red Bird’s booth if you’re at the AWP conference in Minneapolis (April 8-11). I plan to be there some of the time.

 

Here is a sample poem from the chapbook:

My Mother

So many doors to walk through
each a little smaller
than the one before,
each asking that she leave
something behind.

First her coat
then the suitcase
finally her shoes.

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Writing Idea: Do you have a cooking story? Does it relate in any way to writing?  Stir it up for ten minutes and see what you can make. For another take on writing and cooking, check out this blog entry from Ploughshares.

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“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
― M.F.K. Fisher

What the Leaves Believe

I was going to write about my rekindled love affair with William Butler Yeats, but he will have to wait. Because today all I can think about are the leaves and Lucille Clifton. I have to start by saying I cannot describe the brilliance of the trees today.the leaves today

We’re lucky to live in a small stand of maples on Gleason Lake about fifteen minutes west of downtown Minneapolis.  I enjoy these trees in the spring when the shadowy green of their leaves emerges after the long winter and, of course, in the summer when they reach their deep glory to cover our lane allowing only a few rays of sun, yet it is now in October when they tell the real story. The trees scream out: “See it only gets better because we will soon do it all over again.”

Yesterday in our poetry class, Deborah Keenan brought in this poem by Lucille Clifton:

the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith
such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leavesIMG_7612

A few years ago when I was under the spell of Lucille Clifton, I wrote a poem inspired by her. I bring this poem to you because not only did Lucille Clifton lead the way and help me see the leaves and state my credo, but also because the poem shows how what others write can lead us to what we can write. Without Lucille Clifton, I could never have written this poem. I owe her gratitude–and the leaves too for all their lessons. _______________________________________

What the Leaves Believe

After Lucille Clifton

that they will fall
and wither on the ground

that they will have gone to
all that trouble

to make abundance
to make glory

all that trouble every spring
to fill those branches

so full that a bird is lost
in their midst

and then gone
leaving the bare bones

the bare black bones of branches
what the leaves believe

is what I believe

––Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Idea:  What do you have to say about this time of year? about the leaves? Seasons appear in all genres, so if you’re writing memoir, go in your memory bank to fall. Try picking one fall: the fall when you went to junior high, the fall you learned to drive, the fall your father died. Fall on the east coast of North Carolina is not like fall in Minnesota. Give us your fall. Go for ten minutes–just write it out without over-thinking. Smells, colors, sounds, feelings, the light. That kind of thing.

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Next blog, I promise: “My Love Affair with William Butler Yeats” (R rated)

Can Writing Be Taught?

Can writing be taught? This question was recently debated in the “Bookends” section of The New York Times Book Review (8/24/14). Both Rivka Galchen and Zoe Heller agreed that, yes, it can be taught. How well or why the teaching of writing is so debated when we accept that we can teach biology, chemistry, history, ethics, music, painting–these are the issues raised by Galchen and Heller.

Since I am an old English teacher, who spent the better part of her life trying to teach writing, or composition as we sometimes called it, to college freshmen, I do believe that writing can be taught. But over the years, I must say I  struggled with the way it was taught–and I frequently doubted my ability to teach people to write.

The Comp 101 classes, still required in most colleges and universities, grew out of the old rhetorical tradition dating back to Aristotle and Socrates. During the Greek and Roman times, rhetoric was a part of public discourse. How do we convince people to see our side of the argument? It grew into a detailed study of sometimes formulaic methods of argumentation and debate.  A quick check of the definition of the word rhetoric reveals the inherent problem with the rhetorical approach to teaching writing:

1 : the art of speaking or writing effectively
2 : the study or use of the principles and rules of composition
3 a : skill in the effective use of speech b : language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful

Note that this definition begins with the word art, but ends with the more current association with rhetoric:  “language that is not honest, sincere, or meaningful” as in “cut the rhetoric and get to the issue.” In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the word appears in this sentence:  “No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook.”  

This passage occurs early in the novel and refers to a long speech in which Dorothea’s pedantic future husband, Mr. Casaubon, has attempted to express his ardor for Dorothea. But his rhetoric is frigid. This is a foreshadowing of Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s disastrous marriage. Mr. Casaubon wants to tell Dorothea how he feels, but his brain has become so tangled up with rhetoric that what comes out, while sounding good, is really a mess. Unfortunately, Dorothea is blinded by her idealized notions of love and her own lofty ambitions.

With the classical, rhetorical approach to writing, people often learn the techniques of effective argumentation as a substitute for truth and honesty and real thinking.  It is much easier to teach the structure of the five-paragraph essay (or theme as it was called by my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy) than it is to teach how to write clearly and truthfully with insight and even a dash of creativity.  All you need is an introduction with a thesis statement that includes three points that you must develop in three body paragraphs and finally a conclusion to re-state or summarize the three points. And so can begin the death march to disastrous writing.images

Dorothea, because she is young and wants to be in love, makes Casaubon’s speech mean what she wants it to mean. Mr. Casaubon’s life work is to write the great book, which never gets written. No wonder. He can not be true to himself. How to teach a person like Casaubon to write? There is no easy, fill-in-the-blanks formula. That is why we can keep telling budding writers to read, read, read great writing. But it is deeper than that. Thus the dilemma of teaching writing.

Still I bow down to my English teachers–especially the great ones, who tried their best to help us see the light. How can I ever forget thin, waif-like Miss Walsh, my eleventh grade high school English teacher. Or my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, who was sturdy as a fire plug, and a formidable opponent to those in her classes who could not, or would not, learn all the comma rules or how to diagram sentences. My brother did not have the same high regard as I for dear Mrs. Murphy. “She ruined my ninth grade year,” he said recently. There again the predicament of teaching writing–how not to kill off any love for the written word that might be trying desperately to blossom. I know too many people who hated their English classes and can only remember their red-penciled essays.

That’s why I never used red pens: only blue ones.

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5-paragraph-monster

This image was from a home-school teacher, who teaches the “Five-Paragraph Theme”  as a monster. Truly scary! Oh, well.

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Writing Challenge: What do you have to say about your English or writing teachers?  Go for ten minutes in your writer’s notebook. Can writing be taught?

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In my next blog, I’ll talk about my recent visit to Ireland–and my emotional moment with William Butler Yeats. Also I still want to tell you about the workshop I attended this summer with Rebecca McClanahan and what Rebecca, a master, taught me about writing.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. I always enjoy your comments and e-mail.