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

 

 

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

In the last blog, I promised you a recipe. But first my story:

The children were tired after spinning around on the State Fair rides. We had toured the animal barns and seen the Big Pig, filled up on cold milk at the twenty-five-cent-all-you-can-drink milk stand, and climbed on the huge green tractors on Machinery Hill. It was late afternoon on a hot August day at the Minnesota State Fair, and the streets were a mass of people. A strange mixture of corn dogs, cotton candy, and human sweat filled the steamy air.

“Can’t we get our ice cream now?” asked Susan, my daughter, who was maybe nine or ten years old that summer. She was ready to head to the agriculture building where we always saw the bees and devoured huge cones of sunflower honey ice cream. “No. Not yet,” I said, “We’ve got to go this way to the creative activities building.” I pointed in the opposite direction.

The boys were still little—both squirming in their double stroller. My parents, Ruth and Carl, who came every summer from North Carolina for State Fair, were with us too.

On this particular late August day, we were all together as we made our way to the creative activities building to see the cake display. “We have to check it out,” I said as we pushed the boys in the stroller through the crowded aisles around displays of quilts, handmade baby sweaters, carved duck decoys, and stamp collections towards the cakes.

Every year Gloria, my neighbor across the street, entered her bagels in the state fair baking competition. Each summer she encouraged me to enter my pound cake. She kept telling me that my pound cake might win a ribbon. I thought that Aunt Clarissa’s cake was much too ordinary to win anything in a cake contest. Of course, we all loved it—with its fine buttery texture and tender crust. But to me, it was just an everyday cake, one that my Southern relatives would serve at any meal—no icing, nothing fancy. When I was a girl, my mother’s favorite sister, Clarissa, baked it every time we visited her in Mt. Olive. Later Mother made it when I came home to North Carolina. And now, I had made it so many times I knew the recipe by heart. images

“Oh come on,” said Gloria. “You have to enter it.” So a few weeks before my parents’ visit, I spent a steamy August day in the kitchen baking. I made two cakes that day because the first one looked a little flat. I dashed up to Milt’s Grocery and bought fresh baking powder, butter, flour, and eggs and made it again. Our house had only a couple of window units to air-condition the bedrooms, so the kitchen must have been a hundred degrees by the time I finished. My friend June’s daughter from across the alley came over to watch the children. I jumped into the car, my wet hair clinging to the back of my neck, and took the cake over to the fairgrounds in St. Paul to be judged.

By the time my parents arrived for their August visit, I had almost forgotten about the cake. But now, here we were, our entourage, approaching the glass-enclosed display in the creative arts building.

We saw a big group standing around the cakes. My husband peered over the crowd as I tried to jockey the stroller in closer to the case. Susan slipped between the adults and pressed her nose against the glass. Finally we all managed to crowd around the cake display. At least a hundred cakes were arranged on shelves behind the glass—brightly frosted layer cakes with heaps of red, yellow, and blue flowers, all-chocolate cakes, yellow cakes with fluffy vanilla frosting, pineapple upside down cakes, every cake imaginable.

In the center, on a pedestal, surrounded by half-a-dozen ribbons, sat Aunt Clarissa’s plain pound cake with its sprinkle of powdered sugar. One huge blue ribbon said, “Grand Cake Sweepstakes.” On the card next to it, I read my name and the carefully lettered words, ‘Best Cake of the Fair.’ ” I was stunned. We crowded in front of the cakes and took photos and acted goofy. “Well, what do you know,” said Daddy.

“Mom’s cake won! Mom’s cake won!” said Susan to her two little brothers as she jumped around their stroller, pointing to the cake. I just stood there, shocked to see Aunt Clarissa’s ordinary cake taking its place so proudly among all the fancy cakes. Mother’s eyes were a little moist. “I can’t believe it,” she said.

Later as we headed over to buy our honey-sunflower seed ice cream cones, I was thinking, No, it’s not my cake. It’s Aunt Clarissa’s cake. She deserved that moment of glory.

Her pound cake pops up at most every meal at our house when my now grown children with their children come home. I take it to people when they have lost someone, the way I have now lost Ruth and Carl and Aunt Clarissa and all my many aunts and uncles. I take it to people in the neighborhood who are sick. I bake it when I need a lift.

I’ve tried to branch out and make other kinds of cakes. But I’ve made this cake so many times now that I can whip it up quickly. In a little over an hour, we’re poking toothpicks into its center to check if it’s done. We’re cutting into the moist steamy interior even before it has cooled. Aunt Clarissa’s pound cake never disappoints. All those memories are baked into its warm center.

Daddy an Me  State Fair 1982

Daddy and Me                                   State Fair 1982

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Writing Idea:  Do you have a story about a recipe–a story about a certain food that just keeps popping up again and again in your life–and in the lives of others?

After writing this piece about the pound cake, I see that the one I really must write is about Aunt Clarissa, my mother’s favorite sister. Maybe your recipe and story will unearth another one.

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Here is the recipe for Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake. I’ve always said that I give this recipe and the cake itself only to people I love. I hope you do the same.

Aunt Clarissa’s Pound Cake

3 cups sugar
2 sticks butter
1/3 cup shortening (Crisco)
1 cup milk
5 eggs
3 cups flour (cake flour works well, but any kind will do)
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla

Bring milk, eggs, and butter to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease (using Crisco shortening) and flour a large Bundt pan. See note.
Blend together butter, shortening, and sugar.
Add the eggs, one at time. Beat each one into batter.
Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt in a separate bowl or large measuring cup.
Add flour mixture and milk, alternating—end with flour.
Add vanilla.

Bake at 325 degrees for one hour and ten minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let the cake rest for 10 minutes before turning out on cake plate. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Note:
You can use Bakers Joy spray, which has oil and flour together, for preparing the Bundt pan. Be sure that all areas of the pan are covered with shortening and then flour to prevent sticking. Use a very heavy-duty Bundt pan (Nordicware), rather than the lightweight ones. Also be careful not to over-beat as you add the flour. If you use the large Kitchen Aid mixers, beat for only a short time—just enough to combine the ingredients, during the flour adding stage.

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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

My Love Affair with W. B. Yeats

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I had not heard from Mr. Yeats in years. He was buried in my bookshelf with other old friends, tucked away in closed pages, long gone. Or so I thought–until this past October when I visited Ireland, a country in love with writing and with its writers–especially with William Butler Yeats.

In the interest of compression, the story goes like this: My husband and I were leaving the National Museum of Ireland where we saw the Cashel Man preserved in the Irish peat bogs. He was buried during the early Bronze Age, 2,000 BC, making him 4,000 years old!  (They had bogs; we have blogs.)

"The Lake Isle of Innistree"As we left,  we saw a notice for a Yeats exhibit next door at the  Irish National Library. “Oh my gosh,” I said to my husband, “we  have to go in.”  And there, as if Yeats too had emerged from the bogs of my memory, I found him still alive.  I heard his sonorous voice reading  “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” His words were music. The images of Innisfree were projected onto transparent screens:  the bees, the clover, the land. I listened as  other Irish poets read more of his poems. I was transfixed. One of my favorite poets, the complicated William Butler Yeats, whose poems sent me spiraling as a college student, was here alive and well. For the next hour, we made our way around the exhibit, visiting smaller rooms with multiple inter-active exhibits that captured his loves, his marriage, his politics, his interest in the occult, his writing, and finally his death and re-burial in Ireland. As we left, I knew that my love for Yeats had never really been lost.

If you won’t be making a trip to Ireland anytime soon, you can visit the Irish National Library exhibit and take a virtual tour. Go to The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.

A few weeks after we returned from Ireland,  I opened my e-mail to find  that Yeats was still speaking to me. There in my mailbox was his poem, “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” (Poem-a-Day, Academy of American Poets). Go to a Video Homage to “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” for a lovely reading of this poem.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve met many times with my friend, W. B. Yeats, reading his poems and biography and tracking him down on the internet.  I discovered a favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” one of his best-loved poems, written when he was quite young. As an extra bonus, I found a wonderful love story related to “When You Are Old”  from the Favorite Poem Project (founded by former Poet Laureate, Robert Pinsky) about a young woman, her grandfather, and her husband-to-be. The lovely video shows how one poem can connect several people and give meaning to each of their lives. Click here to watch it:  “Yeats, When You Are Old,”  Favorite Poem Project.

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When You Are Old

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 

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Writing Ideas: Take the phrase “My Love Affair with _________.” Try out different words to fill in the blank: “My Love Affair with the Ocean,”  “My Love Affair with My ’62 White Buick Convertible,” “My Love Affair with Chopin or Elvis.” Don’t think too much about it. Just write for at least ten minutes. There’s passion there–and longing. I know.

Or take the lines: “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” There’s plenty there to fill a few pages of your writer’s notebook. Go.images-9

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)