The Processes of Seed and Clay

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In the process of moving and going through old boxes, I found a medal I’d won my eighth grade year for “Excellence in English,” and I thought, Just when was it I knew I wanted to be a writer?

Paper had always been such a part of my life.  Before I was old enough to draw, I spent hours cutting it up.  (I believe snowflakes were my favorite creation.)  Once, while my dad was asleep, I cut up every paper in the house, causing him to throw my red Roger Rabbit scissors against the Butano heater in our Spanish apartment, breaking them.

As my brain developed, I began to illustrate the stories in my imagination, my fascination centering around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (especially the Hanging Gardens of Babylon).  Then, my third grade teacher, Ms. Cahoon, had us keep journals.  I always wrote about my summers in Poplar Bluff; I was never interested in keeping a diary (I preferred to write creative nonfiction without the gushy stuff.)  I didn’t like writing about my feelings, save through the medium of poetry, so that no one could read this or that and say for sure, “That’s Sarah.”

Through poetry, I could reveal everything in plain sight.

I don’t know when it is that we know what we want to be–whether it’ll be in athletics, academics, or the arts.  I only remember my parents’ encouragement, never their pressuring me to be interested in any one thing (though my dad would only help me with history homework because it interested in him; if it was math or science, I was on my own).  Mom and Dad simply exposed me to what they could afford to; lucky for them, I was always drawn to books, such as the Berenstain Bears, Encyclopedia Brown, The Baby-Sitters Club series, and any books by Roald Dahl, as well as all the Newbery Medal award winners.  Books were my way out of poverty (literally and figuratively).  For years, I fancied myself as Francie Nolan from the movie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; I could write lies that weren’t lies because they were stories.

I am so grateful that my parents just let me be (I call it the Libertarian approach), which is why most of my daughter’s playtime is unstructured.  I see how she ignores the television (thank God) unless there’s music, during which she is immediately transfixed.  Maybe that’s why I enjoy singing to her so much (though it does get a bit daunting trying to come up with a different melody for every nursery rhyme).

When she starts kindergarten, I’ll enroll her in piano lessons (as music works every part of the brain).  My husband prefers classic instrumental, though I always balk a bit at that, because I’m a writer, so of course, lyrics matter (though I wanted only “Canon” played at my wedding).  I see lyrics as telling a story, the melody, making you feel that story.  With classical music, there is no story–you just feel. 

Poetry, for me, is the flip side of instrumentals.

Everyone should have something–something that encourages mindfulness, something that draws them outside themselves.  My craft does that for me; I will lose myself in it, yet I will find more of myself I hadn’t known was there.

Because I know how much fuller my life is with writing, I want my daughter to have an outlet (so far, it’s ripping up paper).  Children come to us a blank slate, and it’s our job, as parents, to shape them as if they were clay–to mold them into good human beings–but they’re also seeds that need to be watered with nurture so they can reveal what they are meant to become.

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Drawing from the well

Last night, I was honored to participate in a release party/poetry reading for the “Life in Your Time” edition of The Emerald Coast Review.

The poem I’d entered, I’d written for a rhymezone.com poetry contest on the theme of “Community.”  The original title of my narrative was “The Emerald Coast Community,” but I changed it to “Pensacola, 2016,” for this publication.  Ironically, the one piece I didn’t specifically write for “Emerald” was the one piece that was accepted.

I’ve learned that just because a piece is rejected, that doesn’t mean it won’t find a home.  (Just make sure to re-edit it after every rejection.)

I’ve become comfortable reading my poetry in front of people–we all seem to be accepting of one another and are probably more nervous than we let on.  I was blessed to have my support system–my husband, daughter (okay, she’s four and had to come), parents, and grandmother.  One of the women who is in our WriteOn! Pensacola group was there with her husband, so it was great to see someone I knew.

One thing I learned:  If there’s a microphone, use it!  The book should not have to serve as closed captions unless you are deaf.

We arrived early (catching a glimpse of an albino squirrel) and found out that security had been ordered, as there’s some burly guy in town who shows up at events and crashes them with his “preaching” (as the policeman put it).  I was already thinking that the subject of my next short story was going to show up, but I got a blog post instead.

As a writer, no experience is ever wasted.  I draw from the well that is my life in this time, in this locale, every day; I like to say that I’m an alchemist who mixes fact with fiction, so that each person who reads my words sifts out their own truths.

I have to say, Pensacola gave me the material I needed to bag this one.

~~~

I’ve lived in this town for thirty years, and written about it from many perspectives.  I believe that’s a gift writers have–we can see the same thing in many ways.  I see the beauty of Pensacola, as well as the ugliness, for it’s as extreme as its weather (which range from freezing cold to boiling hot), along with its rednecks and “country club Republicans,” its plethora of churches and homeless.

So I’ve immortalized Pensacola–this city “not quite confidential” several times.  Here are a few:

Our (Quirky) Town:  https://sarahleastories.com/2017/06/15/writers-digest-wednesday-poetry-prompt-397-land-of-blank/

Do as the Pensacolians do:  https://sarahleastories.com/2016/11/23/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-23-theme-when-blank/

Haunted Pensacola:  https://sarahleastories.com/2017/07/01/saturday-evening-post-honorable-mention/

Local flavor:  https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/10/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-9-theme-work/

My “hit piece” (for which one local writer “questioned my mental health”):  https://sarahleastories.com/2014/02/19/daily-prompt-west-end-girls-2/

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The Magic of Childhood

Me

So I’ve been working on a piece to enter in this year’s college writing contest (which I plan for a year in advance, except for the nonfiction portion, just in case it had a theme). I’d already had a piece picked out–a personal narrative about my childhood summers in Poplar Bluff; however, it was too long, so I wrote a new piece, built, in part, from secondhand memories.  Writing it made me think of this foreword I’d written a few months ago for that too-long piece–a foreword which I’d like to share now.

Childhood memories are some of the strongest, for we don’t have other memories competing with them.  Everything is new, magical, and exciting.  It is why I am often nostalgic when I smell bacon grease or when I hear the “Bewitched” theme song.  I’ll never forget the day my husband was cooking bacon in the oven and I walked back in from the patio and I was hit extremely hard and incredibly close with walking into Grandma’s kitchen with the white porcelain and white-painted cabinets.  Sometimes, I imagine when I smell a smell like that, it’s almost like the spirit of a loved one, letting me know they aren’t really gone.

There have been times I’ve talked to a stranger longer than necessary, because they remind me of them.  My husband laughs like my granddad sometimes—a cross between a chortle and a snicker—and it gives me a chill.  

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that memories such as these become more real, my short-term memory becoming an unreliable narrator.  Memories help shape us into the person we become, and I believe those summers I spent in P.B. showed me that contentment—that spending a summer afternoon on a screened-in porch, chatting away the day—was its own sort of magic.

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #409: I Am A (Blank)

Reflections, Saint Patrick's Day

I Am a Slow-Speaking Lady

I am a slow-speaking lady,
a cracked Southern belle.
I am a Pollyanna at times,
an H.L. Mencken at others.
I am a Christian outside church,
a skeptic, a questioner, inside.
I am a lover of old things,
a user of new things.
I am okay and not okay.
I go by no other name—
no Mrs., no Dr.,
and never Sally.
I am someone’s brown-haired,
less intellectual
Diane Chambers.
I am a Lucy,
looking for her Ethel.
I am a bra-hating
non-feminist,
stuck in a society
stuck on teats.
I am a 35-year-old mama
playing her gender role
to the cross.
I am a black Irish,
white-collar,
working-class gal,
whose freckles
number the stars.
I am an open book,
a woman of mystery—
right down to the
witty gritty.
I am unilaterally deaf,
bilaterally blinded by
what is going on in the world,
for mine is a series of
unnatural disasters.
I am strong as spider’s silk,
as vulnerable as Hitch’s
leading ladies.
I am all these things;
I am more than these things,
for there is no end
to that which makes me,
me.

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/wednesday-poetry-prompts-409

My 500th Blog Post: Why Blogging Rocks

When I look back at my earliest blog posts, I found myself editing some, deleting others (including reblogs–don’t waste your time on those, unless your blog or name is mentioned).  I wanted my 500th to be my true 500th.  It was quite a task going through all the old stuff.  I’ve learned so much about copy editing since then, and my writing has improved tremendously.

My blog used to be something I only posted on when inspired.  Now, it’s Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, without fail–the other days, when I feel like it.  This self-imposed discipline has helped me become better at meeting deadlines.

I had written this piece about blogging, and why blogging is awesome, for a scholarship contest. I’ve won hundreds of dollars writing scholarship essays, and even when I don’t win, I have a nice piece to post on here or LinkedIn, or submit elsewhere.  Who doesn’t love recycling?

Blogging, for me, hasn’t just been about the product, but the process.  It’s given me great writing practice, and given me an additional creative outlet, because sharing what I write is part of the fun of writing.

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Virtually Living the Good Life,
in the Blogosphere

A blog, unlike a painting, is a multi-layered work of art
that cannot be seen all at once.
A blog, unlike a book, is ever-evolving and has no end.

With the advent of the Internet, words have more power today than they ever have before, for they can transmit in a matter of seconds to billions of people simultaneously. The Internet is a virtual pond, where the thoughts of anyone with an Internet connection can ripple forever. Like blood scrubbed with bleach, even when something has been deleted by the administrator, there are still traces of it. Once you’ve spilled your guts into a computer, it is never completely gone.

So be careful with your words—they might come back to haunt you someday.

Since I was a third-grader in Ms. Yvonne Cahoon’s class, I’ve been a writer. “I just love reading your journals,” she would say, and the spark was ignited. Those journals weren’t just logbooks, but how I felt about what I saw and heard. (I didn’t learn how important it was to include sensory details, like touch, taste, and smell, until much later). Those journals were my first taste of writing creative nonfiction. I started with what I knew, and then, as Mark Twain would say, “distorted the facts as I pleased.”

My blog, besides my child(ren) and the few whose lives I hope I touch, are part of the legacy I will leave when I depart from this world. I like to think that my descendants, a hundred years from now, will know so much more about me than I know about mine. Many of my words I will take with me, but the ones I’ve written and will write for the enjoyment, and, hopefully, the enlightenment of others, are the ones I will leave for my great-great-great granddaughter to read. I like to think even if my words don’t become famous in this life, perhaps they will posthumously (à la Emily Dickinson). I suppose that’s why I chose creative writing over journalism, for how many newspaper articles about local politics or blog posts about parenting endure like a poem or a piece of literature?

That said, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to stand out, for with the ease of sharing, there is oversharing, as there are over 74 million blogs on WordPress alone. Though I cannot control how many people choose to follow, share, reblog (also known as the Holy Grail of blogging), or comment on my posts, I do have control over the quality of the content. I’ve found that the shorter the post (400-600 words is recommended), the more likely it is that someone will read the whole thing. (I suspect that’s why haikus are so popular.) We like our information bite-sized now. Think about it: We’ve gone from the cake slice, to the cupcake, and now the cake pop.

You will (usually) get more mileage out of a tercet (a 3-line poem) than a 500-word blog post; in short (pardon the pun), you will be able to make more with less (i.e. generate more readership).

Wednesdays are the only days in which I have to create new content, which frees up time for me to spend on writing pieces that may get published for pay. (Every April and November, I post my Writer’s Digest PAD, or Poem-a-Day, Prompt. This is when I get a bulk of my followers, but you will stretch yourself too thin if you try to post 365 days a year. Once a week is the minimum you should post.

My blogging journey started in October 2014, after I picked up a copy of The Writer’s Market.  I read that blogging should be a part of every author’s platform, and Sarah Lea Stories: A Flurry of Creativity, was born (which I’ve since renamed). I blogged about everyday life: marriage, motherhood, food, and many other things (none of which I am an expert, but rather just have an interest in), though a part of me felt why should I give it all away for free? Did followers really translate into sales, even though I had nothing tangible to sell, but would someday? (The only time I’ve ever bought a book from someone I knew was if they were a member of my local writers’ group. Other than that, my way of book shopping was browsing the bookshelves at one of the local bookstores, reading Amazon.com reviews, or listening to my friends about the books they’ve read, simply because anyone can publish a book now.)

So no, not for me, at least not right now.

That said, it got to a point where I struggled to find things to write about—not that I was running out of ideas, but I liked to save the really good stuff for professional (i.e. paying) publication, as once something is published online, even on your own blog (and even if you have only 100 followers), it’s considered published and you will likely never be able to submit it anywhere else. So, never publish anything online that you may find an adopted home for someday. I’ve written volumes of work I will never publish on my blog.

My advice: Never blog your book—you’ve worked too hard to give it away, and I have found that a book I haven’t paid for, but downloaded for free, is actually less likely to get read because I have so many books I paid for competing for my attention. Professionally self-publish before you ever blog your book. At least that way, you might have a chance at making a little money off of it.

Notwithstanding, you should still always post your best (but not necessarily your most ambitious) on your blog, and it should never be a dump site. When I write something (whether specifically or not) for my blog, it represents me, and it’s going to be polished to a fine patina.

Moreover, writing short on a daily basis has helped me add richness to my longer works, for what is a Great American Novel without great lines? With a blog, you see the results immediately, mostly via likes and maybe a follower or two (comments, apparently, take a great deal of effort because it requires you to actually read the article). With a novel, it might be months or years before you get feedback (much less published), besides the form letter that says it was great, but just wasn’t for them (which are the most maddening kind.)

Nevertheless, don’t let blog writing take too much time away from the writing that might make you money someday, unless you plan on making money from your blog. (I prefer the term “online column”.) Give your audience just enough to get to know you and your work (don’t just sell, but tell), because your blog will be one of your greatest assets when you publish that breakout novel.

~

Don’t think of blogging as giving away your hard work for free, but as investing a little time in yourself and your brand. There are fifteen great reasons to start blogging now!

1. It helps people get to know you better. If you are at present unknown, people are more likely to take a chance on buying your book if they feel they have a personal connection with you. Blogging is also a great way to advertise your product, but make the ad entertaining. Everyone loves a story, so use a story; you’re a writer, after all. Even Jesus got people to “buy” what He said using parables.

2. It gives you a voice, an outlet. Blogging isn’t a diary, but a narrative. No one sees the world quite like you do. As Edmund Wilson says, “No two persons ever read the same book.”

3. It satisfies our temptation for instant gratification. That’s one of the many reasons why we write—to connect with others.

4. It gives you writing practice.

5. It instills discipline with self-imposed deadlines.

6. It enhances your creativity. I’m not sure I ever would’ve stuck with the Writer’s Digest prompts if it hadn’t been for needing regular content. (I always include the link to the prompt, as it helps with search engine optimization.)

7. It’s free. (You don’t even have to pay for images.)

8. It can make you money. Attract enough followers, and this can happen to you.

9. It can get you speaking engagements. This is where many writers make a lot of their money.

10. It sharpens your observation, makes you become more aware. Everything, and everyone, has a story.

11. It helps you learn. You can learn as much by researching as you would by being taught.

12. Depending on the job description, it looks great on a resume.

13. It leaves a legacy. Like any distant star, there is a chance someone might land on it.

14. It replaces the dreaded Christmas letter. (This is if you post personal stuff on your blog, and some do, for friends and family.)

15. You get to know yourself better. Though writers often live inside their heads, they don’t always self-reflect, especially if they’re used to making things up. I’ve learned how to capture the ordinary, and make it extraordinary.

I’m still learning everyday how to become a better blogger, website designer, photo editor, and someday photographer.

Blogging, if done right, will not take a great deal of your time. What’s great about it is that you have complete control over your content and can even write ahead for it if you know you’re going to be short on time. (I did this during my summer medical internship, with months’ worth of Monday and Friday blog posts “in the can.”)

Blogging is a great way to unload some pent-up creativity—a way of shedding the excess, so you can focus on writing down the bones.

Another poetry manifesto, from “Slow Speaking Lady”

I’ve been bitten by the Shutterfly bug.

Last semester, for my final project in poetry class, we had to make a chapbook.  Being the anti-procrastinator I am (not because I’m so good, but because I’m so forgetful), the day the project was assigned, I started my Life, Inverse chapbook on Shutterfly, and worked on it once a week till it was due.

It wasn’t just a poetry project, but an art project as well.  I also learned a little about graphic design throughout the process.  I had so much fun doing it, I decided to do another, using the book below (one of the required texts for our poetry class) for inspiration.

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Growing up in the Deep South, I am far from a “fast-speaking woman,” so I named mine “Slow-Speaking Lady.”

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A screenshot of the cover of the book. I stood in front of a glass door where the sun was shining through and created a silhouette of myself.

With every Shutterfly project, rather than a dedication page, I will include a foreword or manifesto.  The passage below is from this project.

Manifesto

In the spring of my third year of community college, I finally got to take the poetry class I’d been waiting a year for. Though I’d written massive amounts of poetry, I considered myself more poetic than an actual poet. I didn’t feel I had a mind for adult poetry, but rather a heart for children’s poetry (which mostly rhymes). It wasn’t until I took Jamey Jones’s class that my ears were opened to how rhyming can often limit what could be limitless. I also became more aware of the way poetry looked on a page.

I simply became more aware.

I like to say that through my health information technology classes, I learned more about healthcare, but through poetry, I learned about myself.

I became comfortable sharing very personal poetry, when before, I’d always held something back if I had to read aloud. I conquered, at one student poetry reading, my fear of public speaking (at least non-extemporaneously). I quit asking myself “Why?” and began asking “Why not?”

I changed my internal dialogue.

I became more comfortable in my own skin, even though I’ve always felt there was too much of it. I realized if I could be confident in my message, then I wouldn’t feel like I had to look like the perfect messenger.

I had the pleasure of seeing renowned poet Anne Waldman perform one night during that spring semester. Though I’m more of a fan of her than her poetry, I was inspired by her passion, which led me to analyze her work on a deeper level; I discovered a greater appreciation of it, which inspired me to write my own version of an autobiographical narrative in list form (a la Fast Speaking Woman).

Like in Disney’s unanimated version of Cinderella, I learned, when it comes to workshopping, to have courage and be kind. Have courage when reading your work, and be kind to the person whose work you are critiquing.

Poetry class helped me become more aware of poets I wouldn’t have read otherwise. I could only learn so much in one class, but that one class inspired me seek out the work of other poets, and appreciate not just the way it looks and reads, but also the way it sounds. Good teaching, I’ve learned, leads to self-teaching.

I will never stop learning; I will never stop writing.

I will never stop until my heart does, and by then, I will have a million little pieces of myself behind, for writing is the closest thing to immortality on earth.

For more on the inspiration behind this project:

https://sarahleastories.com/2017/04/23/about-myself-and-poetry-what-i-learned-at-an-anne-waldman-workshop/
https://sarahleastories.com/2017/04/23/makeup-on-empty-space-poetry-reading-night/

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #397: Land of (Blank)

If a New York minute is thirty seconds, then a Southern minute is ninety.
–from “Poplar Bluff: A Memoir”

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The Land of Dixie

Selling their messages on street corners are
Bible-bashers, cardboard-carrying hobos,
and dancing people wearing sandwich signs,
while cars plastered with Bible quotes
or slapped with a COEXIST bumper sticker,
coexist on the streets,
passing the temples of capitalism,
the cross-bearing churches that
capitalize on the guilty man’s soul,
seeking deep, silver-lined pockets.

The rapture’s coming soon for some
in this land of Deep South Protestantism,
where hearts are blest,
where everyone’s either saved or going to hell,
or just plain don’t know what the hell’s going on.

Pensacola Beach is the jewel,
set in fool’s gold turning green,
with its sand like ground pearls,
water vacillating between
emeralds and sapphires,
and homes the color of Jordan almonds.
The flip-flap-flopping of their footwear is their answer
to Australia’s slip-slap-slopping,
beating a rapid tattoo on the boardwalk.

Such paradise is everyone’s playground,
home to the earthly blest,
where few transplants are rejected,
their organs pumping the lifeblood
into the economy,
for which the tourists are both
donors and recipients.

I look around at my side of town,
at the heat waves shimmering off the asphalt,
the mud-filled potholes,
the never-ending road work;
I still see conflict and war,
deconstruction alongside reconstruction—
a rebirth of conservative nationalism.

I am home.

Note: Slip-slap-slop is a real thing: http://www.sunsmart.com.au/tools/videos/past-tv-campaigns/slip-slop-slap-original-sunsmart-campaign.html

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/wednesday-poetry-prompts-397

For more on Pensacola:

https://sarahleastories.com/2014/02/19/daily-prompt-west-end-girls-2/
https://sarahleastories.com/2015/04/10/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-9-theme-work/
https://sarahleastories.com/2016/11/23/poem-a-day-writers-digest-challenge-23-theme-when-blank/