2020: My Year in Review (and what I have learned)

Porch life

Reading my Kindle on our front porch while my husband reheated food on the grill during Hurricane Sally.

Small is almost always better than big . . . the circle of people in your life who care enough about you to help you when things go wrong is really small. They’re a lot of peopleyour friends on Instagram or Facebook or whatever, in the fake digital world . . . but the actual number of people who will take affirmative steps to help you is very very small . . . it’s like eightso your loyalty always has to be to themyour family and your closest friends, above anything else. Period. And anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that your real loyalty has got to be to some larger group of peoplesome political group or some group of people who look like yougive them the middle finger. Those are your enemies. They are trying to destroy the fortifications that will protect you through life, which are the people you love and love you back. — Tucker Carlson

For me, this year was the eye in a storm that included a pandemic, civic unrest, and a hurricane. My university abruptly shifted to online classes in the middle of the spring semester, my daughter’s school closed, and my husband and I found out we were having another child. Being stuck at home for months helped me learn a lot about myself as I reflected on what was going on in the world beyond my little world at home.

I learned that our country is reenacting a civil war, divided not into blue and gray but red and blue (and mask-wearers and anti-maskers). Regarding the masks, I am somewhere in between. I liken wearing a mask in a store to wearing a shirt and shoes, but I don’t wear masks when I’m outside, in my car, or my home. I never realized until this year just how little people respect other people’s space and property.

I learned that public schools are essential, and their purpose shouldn’t be so that both parents can work (school is not a daycare); school should be about educating the population. A quality grade school education shouldn’t be limited to the wealthy; I want to grow up in an educated society. When we lived in a more agrarian society, not everyone had to be as book-smart educated as they are now.

Because schools are essential, teachers are essential workers. We live in a society where both parents often have to work (when people are poor, survival always trumps education, just as paying rent trumps dentistry or eating what’s cheap trumps eating healthy). Homeschooling takes time (which many parents don’t have) and an incredible amount of dedication. Teaching is also a skill. You can be well-educated., but you are not a teacher if you don’t know how to explain something in a way someone else can understand. I’ve learned that it is so much easier to do than teach (though teaching is doing) because teaching depends on our patience and ability to help students overcome obstacles such as a short attention span, learning disabilities, et cetera. If your child has special needs, homeschooling is even more challenging.

I realized that it was a pretty great system when one parent (husband or wife) could work while their spouse could take care of the house and kids. I work from home, my husband pretty much takes care of everything else (though I pitch in on the laundry and dishes whenever I can), and we both homeschool. Our house stays clean and neat, and our meals are wholesome and delicious.

It’s a scary thought, but I realized just how dependent our society is on public school and how much lower-income children need it for education, food, health screenings, counseling, socialization, and so forth. It is deeply disturbing that due to the lockdowns, there are children who are shut up in an abusive house and cut off from the world, with no one to advocate for them. These children may be protected from bullying by other children but not from the adults who are the worst kind of bullies.

As for higher ed, virtual and remote school works for many courses (college students should have the proper scaffolding and be self-motivated enough by that time to distance learn), but most young children need face-to-face instruction. I remember there used to be a rule about no more than two hours of screen time, but I guess that doesn’t apply anymore (though it still does in our house; our TV is rarely on during the day, and I’m not motivated to teach with a tablet).

I keep homeschooling simple: I instruct verbally, using a whiteboard to illustrate my points. We read paper books, do art projects with tactile materials, and use physical objects for math. However, what I teach her is not limited to academics. I teach her the house rules and why they exist. She learns about fitness, nutrition, and proper self-care, as well as having manners, morals, and knowing her intrinsic value. I teach her about having faith in God, the importance of family, and being a good friend.

I realized you can’t be too much of a minimalist if you are homeschooling. I have a whole library of books for bedtime stories, Homeschool Book Club, and ones specifically used to teach children how to read. We also have stacks of games and puzzles and a closet full of art supplies. Everything gets enjoyed.

I realized that my time is more limited than ever. I used to blog thrice a week; now, it’s mostly once a week and only because I have back-up posts, and that’s okay. 

I realized Shirley Jackson is overrated. Many of her stories just end.

I realized how sleazy child beauty pageants are. I used to think they were harmless fun of little girls playing dress up, but with all the child trafficking going on, I realize these pageants sexualize little girls, and it’s abhorrent.

I realized that a Facebook friendship (unlike the Supreme Court) is not a lifetime appointment. And that goes both ways. When a woman I’d thought would be a lifelong friend unfriended me because I disagreed with her on a political issue, I realized that we live in a world where people with different beliefs, if they dare express them to one another, even in the nicest way possible, probably can’t be friends but in the most superficial way. 

I realized that if the holidays are stressing you out, you are doing them wrong. Even though I design all my Christmas cards, not everyone has to get one every year. We use the same Christmas decorations year after year, many of which we got from after-Christmas sales. We plan our holiday menus a month in advance to stock up on items when they are on sale. Also, don’t be afraid to regift (provided what you are regifting is in mint condition and is something you truly believe the other person may like. It’s always lovely to sweeten it up with a little gift card to a lunch out somewhere to support a local business).

I’ve realized that as much as I’ve enjoyed being a student, I’m ready to move on (especially since I have a few lit classes I dread taking). My priorities have changed, and I look forward to having more time for my writing and family. However, I will finish uni because I want to be an example to my daughters that you finish what you start—that children are not a barrier to accomplishing other things besides their raising.

So achieving my other goals may take me a little longer, but I will be doing other great (and fun) things in the meantime. However, it’s okay to admit that being a mother requires sacrifice. If you try to have it all, you’ll end up having to do it all, rather than enjoying all you have.

Cheers to 2021!

What I Learned from a Memoir Writing Independent Study

2003 (2)

Dad, me, my brother, and Mom (circa 2003)

Memoirs are autobiographies for those who have a story to tell, not for those whose story has been told.

Last year, a friend and coworker from the Writing Lab mentioned that she had taken a memoir writing class. Though I’ve written a few novels, several short stories, and numerous poems, as well as a handful of personal essays, I had never, to my knowledge, written a nonfiction piece that read like a fiction piece, in which I was the protagonist.

My teacher, whom I’d had for Fiction Writing and Careers in Writing, agreed to do an independent study to meet the two-class requirement I needed for financial aid. Despite the pandemic, online options were still limited. 

Though I didn’t get feedback from other students on my pieces (which can be a hit or miss kind of thing), I got feedback from someone who has been doing this awhile—who doesn’t just teach about writing but is a writer herself. 

I’ve always struggled with coming up with essay-like stories about my life: I’d written about my summers in Poplar Bluff, when I was a live-in nanny in Montana, and when I left the Mormon Church, among a smattering of others, but these were all significant events, not everyday ones. Through this class, I learned how to take something small and write about it in a way that highlighted its significance.

I learned how to write a literary piece of nonfiction and improve my essay writing skills (and the differences between them). For literary nonfiction, I learned how to dig deep and remember things that were said, maybe not precisely (like you’d have to for a journalism piece), but close enough. This class inspired me to pay more attention and jot down things people say.

We discussed publishing for our last meeting, and there are many markets (not blogs or platforms, but paying markets) seeking personal nonfiction. I decided to avoid markets that prioritized authors who fit a certain demographic over stellar content. I am an average person writing for ordinary people, and I write about my life as an individual, not as a member of any special interest group. 

I learned more about myself through this process and felt more comfortable writing about myself in a way that made me human rather than the ever-sympathetic character. I was just thinking tonight that even though I don’t want people to think I’m not a nice person, I’d rather them think that than be a virtue signaler (and an obvious one at that). It is much more intrinsically rewarding to do something good in private. Before I post anything on social media, I question my motivations. Usually, it’s nothing more than just to entertain, show off my wit, or engage in a fun conversation. Once in a while, I share something that shares my values because I think it’s important not to be ashamed of what you believe. (Just don’t let yourself get into a long Facebook conversation about it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.) 

Though I came up with a dozen ideas for stories, I wrote about what it was like living in a shelter and being an expectant mother during this pandemic. I also wrote a humorous piece on growing up with avid genealogists for parents—a suburban Hillbilly Elegy but in a stable family environment. 

The last I consider one of my finest pieces of work. 

Though I love blog writing, most blog posts don’t have the timeless quality that memoirs do, for memoirs tell a story; they don’t try to convince you of anything (and they’re certainly not a rant). You get information from a memoir, but it isn’t informational, and it is something I will do more often—now that I know how to do it well.

Sweet Little Nothings

We're all stories in the end just make it a good one! chocolate

Her life began as a brief birth announcement,
followed by a series of Owen Mills poses,
blurry candids,
& unfocused, jittery videos.
Then there was the grainy color newsprint photo in The Patriot Press
of her holding up a certificate
& wearing a medallion
for placing first
in a Constitution calligraphy contest.
For many years,
that was akin to her 4 touchdowns in 1 game.
She never got a write-up in the arrest records,
for that was a legacy she didn’t want to leave;
rather, she lived up as a subject
for several human-interest stories—
as the girl who sold 6701 Girl Scout cookies
because of a YouTube video
that turned those processed disks
into decadent desserts;
as a college graduate who crowdfunded her way
into creating an endowed scholarship
for creative writers in memory of her sister,
whose memoir, Lessons from Mother Goose,
gained notoriety posthumously;
in her silver-haired, golden years,
as a woman who made old tee shirts
into rag rugs for the homeless,
in memory of the brother she’d lost to addiction,
whose inward riches had turned to outward rags.
And then she finally told her own story
by writing her obituary,
for she always had to have
the last word.

Sweet Little Nothings

Do YOU chocolate

She was as much Leave it to Beaver
as she was Married with Children.
She wrote children’s nursery rhymes by sunlight
& Southern Gothic horror by lamplight.
She loved her technology
but loved her childhood without it.
She loved the finer things,
enjoyed with the common people.
She was, as Maureen O’Hara would say,
“tis herself.”

5 Ways I’ve Used Minimalism to Improve my Writing

Instagram screenshot

My Instagram posts

Instagram: Poetry Unfiltered

Every Saturday and Sunday, I publish a “Post-It-sized” poem on Instagram. I used to feel that I had to make each poem “pop” with the use of filters until I realized that such was unnecessary. I could feel the seconds being wasted, trying to come up with just the right filter, so I started screenshotting my poem with my phone via Google Docs and publishing it as is with the hashtag #nofilter. I realized there is a certain beauty in stark white and bold black. Coming up with appropriate hashtags take enough of my time.

Images are (Almost) Everything

Because I blog a minimum of twice weekly, it helps to recycle images, especially with my recurring features: Micropoetry Mondays and Fiction Fridays. For Monday, if my theme is “The Lighter Side” or “Opposites,” I use the same graphic; eventually, I will design my own logo for Micropoetry Monday, so I can ditch the stock photography all together (I’ve already scrubbed my blog of most of it). Because Fiction Fridays are all excerpts from my book or poetry based on it, I use the same graphic. Even when it comes to LinkedIn, rather than using a stock photo, I use my business card in basic black and plain white (without my personal address or telephone number) and an eye-grabbing headline. However, since I’ve discovered the Medium Daily Digest’s publishing platform (https://medium.com/), which is lot more attractive than LinkedIn’s (and not about boring corporate culture), I use an abstract photo—usually a close-up of something loosely related to the quotation I paste over it.  (And my quotes are always original.  There is enough recycled content out there.)

Strunk and White + Stephen King = Needful words

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is one grammar book that changed my writing (and maybe my life). It is what I call a hornbook for all writers. I applied its principles to my writing when I worked for my community college newspaper for several semesters, which helped me with conciseness (though I would still try to sneak in the Oxford comma). In On Writing by Stephen King, King says to “Kill your darlings”; I say you have to kill your characters (meaning the alphabet kind). Writing also helped me chuck 99% of my adverbs; nothing beats “he said” or “she said.” You want those dialogue tags to be invisible. I credit these two books and my experience as a student reporter in helping me get the job as a clarity editor for Grammarly.

Social media < Writing, Editing, Submitting

When I started my blog in October 2013, I thought I had to be as omnipresent as possible when it came to social media, but, after an incredible amount of spam I received on Twitter and people following just to get a follow, I ditched it and Pinterest, too. Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and LinkedIn is enough for me. (Often, what I post in one place gets posted in another). What time I used to spend trying to brand myself on all those social media accounts I could be spending building my vocabulary, submitting to actual publications, etc. I don’t have time to engage with all my followers — I need readers who aren’t writers. After more than three years of posting my Wednesday and Poem-a-Day prompts (in April and November) for Writer’s Digest on their blog and mine, I realized it was time for me to move on, which simplified my writing life even more. I needed content I could write ahead of time, so I could schedule it to publish on my blog at a later date. 

Submissions: Kitchen-Sink Theory Does Not Apply

I used to think I had to flood the market with submissions rather than focus on a handful of publishers. Targeting your publications gives you time to read and study them; submission guidelines alone will not provide intuition into what the editors are looking for. I have since discovered that my work would not be considered literary, so most small presses would not be a good fit; I have a better shot at larger publishers because of their more mainstream content. If I pick up a journal and don’t “get” any of the poems, then it’s the wrong publication for me; if I pick up a magazine and don’t enjoy any of the stories, then it’s not a good fit for my writing. This keeps me from being overwhelmed with reading material.

Stopping Something Old to Start Something New

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Sometimes you don’t know when the last time will be the last time, but as I was slogging through a group project for my Literacy for Emergent Learners class, inundated with texts and emails from group members, I realized that I needed to shift my focus.

When I saw the Writer’s Digest poetry prompt today, where I had to use 3 of 6 words in a list (one of my least favorite prompts, btw), I realized, after three years of participation, that it was time to retire “Writer’s Digest Wednesdays.”  November Poem-a-Day challenge will be coming soon; even though I feel I’ve mastered it, my focus needs to be on finishing school and building my (paying) writing career.  

I’ve always said that serious bloggers should blog at least twice a week, so #Micropoetry Mondays and #Fiction Fridays will be a mainstay, as those posts I can schedule in advance.  My work-school-life schedule has gotten too intense, and I’m ready for the shift to less timely writing projects. 

The time I’ve spent on my Wednesday blog installments has been well-spent—it’s instilled in me the power to meet 24-hour deadlines (which are a must in the incredibly shrinking newsroom), it’s helped me write a ton of poetry I wouldn’t have written otherwise, and it’s helped me cross over the 1000-post threshold—but I’m looking forward to working on longer form projects.  

I can finally work on editing my novel (for about the eighth time).

I will still post my short Instagram poems on weekends and writing tips on my Facebook page, but it’s time to do more “behind-the-scenes” writing on a regular basis.  I’ve already proven to myself that I can write something everyday; now, I want to work on projects that will take at least a week—projects I will actually take the time to edit.

I also want to learn how to illustrate my own work.

I enrolled in University, thinking I would be writing for the student newspaper regularly until I graduated, but I’m shifting focus to freelancing gigs.  I might still contribute an article if I happen to be attending an event that interests me, but creative writing will always be my first love (I don’t have to worry about transcribing audio or having to deal with flaky people whose information or interview I need to write my article).

I realize I’ve spent a lot of time writing for sure things—my blog, the college newspaper, etc.—instant gratification pieces. 

Now, it’s time to get serious and start writing those query letters.   

Me.jpg

Me, in one of my many offices, after a particularly trying day.

The Grammar Girl Returns

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Today is the day I start my Baccalaureate program as a Creative Writing major.  I was fortunate to be able to take two months off from work to read, write, and spend time with my family; I even got to catch up with friends.  I got back into the habit of strength training (as weightlifting doesn’t sound very feminine) and took up water aerobics; I’ve also focused on updating all my online presences (including my portfolio), professionalizing them for potential employers as well as uploading my resumes to all the usual suspects (e.g. Indeed, Glassdoor, etc.).  The university I am attending also provided invaluable feedback on my resume and cover letters.  

After refreshing my Upwork account, I was hired as an independent contractor to proofread documents submitted by Grammarly clients.  Even though I work from home, the job has a very Silicon Valley startup feel, which I love.  I am learning so much already; it’s a great gig.  Though there is nothing quite like being able to set your own hours, walk into the next room to go to work, and never answer a telephone, I will always be the type of person who has to have an outside job where I communicate face-to-face.  I’m a people person who also happens to be an introvert.

In addition to my jobs as an office assistant at uni and as a professional writing tutor, my plate will be full, but it will be full of things I enjoy, and that makes all the difference.  

Writerly and Grammarly,
Sarah Richards, Class of 2022

She’d graduated a Titan
before The New Millennium,
watching her training grounds
as a gladiator
in the public school arena
disappear.
Loosely prepared
to become a Pirate,
she laid down
her educational armor,
only to pick it up again
with eyes wide open,
diving head first
into the land of magnolias,
with their spinach green leaves
& mascarpone white petals.
Now, well-prepared
to become an Argonaut,
her armor fortified
with precious mettle,
she dove once more,
under graying canopies
of Spanish moss.
As a Titan,
she had brought home
the bronze medallion;
as a Pirate,
the silver chest;
but as an Argonaut,
she would put upon herself
the Golden Fleece
& battle with her wits
that had no end.

Poem-a-Day April 2019 Writer’s Digest Challenge #22. Theme: Correspondence #aprpad

Beyond Paper & Pixels: The Theory of Relatability

His favored correspondence was texting–
with its acronyms & abbreviations;
hers was lengthy letters
written in cursive.
Both were considered a form of code
neither could understand–
his without her 9-year old niece
& hers,
without his 75-year-old great-aunt.
When they met & talked to each other in person,
as all human beings should,
he couldn’t speak in shortcuts
any more than she could in cursive,
& they finally understood one another.

https://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/poetic-asides/2019-april-pad-challenge-day-22