Planting Peas and Writing Poems

planting-peas-in-dakota-bones-grass-sky.jpg

This poem happened precisely as it says: in early spring, I decided to plant some peas in the rich earth of my biggest garden.

The month may have been as early as March; I was probably thirty-five years old. Bundled against a cold wind and shivering, I hoed a furrow down to black earth beneath the melting snow. Then I began dropping peas into the broken ground, enjoying the way the green shriveled shapes slithered into crevices. Each time I finished a row, I straightened up and used my hoe to draw the soil gently back over the peas and tamp it down lightly.

As I planted, I began the poem in my mind, then stopped and began to write it down on the scrap paper I always carry. I didn’t spend much time revising or reflecting on the poem, which is rare for me; it felt right from the beginning.

This plot of land has been subject to spring floods that bring in earth as well as manure from the pastures upstream. In addition, I’ve buried compost there for years, to aid the fertility. Harvests have often been terrific.

 

Planting Peas

It’s not spring yet, but I can’t

wait anymore. I get the hoe,

pull back the snow from the old

furrows, expose the rich dark earth.

I bare my hand and dole out shriveled peas,

one by one.

 

As I shuffled along the row, bent over, I looked at my firm young hand and recalled my grandmother’s bony one, dropping the peas every two or three inches as she showed me how to do it. The soil of her ranch deep in a Black Hills canyon is gray gumbo. When it is shiny with rain, it is slippery underfoot, clinging to our rubber boots. Later, we’d have to chop and hose it off our boots, and we’d laugh, finding it on our coats, even in our hair.

 

I see my grandmother’s hand,

doing just this, dropping peas

into gray gumbo that clings like clay.

This moist earth is rich and dark

as chocolate cake.

 

As I saw her hand planting the peas, I could see my nine-year-old self squatting beside her in my tiny jeans, my blonde hair held back by a barrette she had placed in it that morning. While my mother supported me by working in town, coming to visit on weekends, I lived seventy miles away with grandmother in her one-room house, that had once been a bunkhouse. She kept me busy all week, walking with me all over that place, showing me how to live in the country— though neither of us may have realized that. I was too small to climb the ladder to the barn loft, so she’d climb it in her lace-up black shoes, and hand a squealing kitten down to me. Remembering now, I can see her flowered dress, her strong legs in their thick cotton stockings.

 

Her hands cradle

baby chicks; she finds kittens in the loft

and hands them down to me, safe beside

the ladder leading up to darkness.

 

That memory, of course, led to others: the way she met me at the schoolhouse door in Rapid City, having left her beloved ranch to help my mother by taking care of me after school. How she piled her slowly-graying hair on top of her head in a bun that grew smaller every year as her hair thinned. Her “blue-eyed smile.” I’ve made gallons of biscuits and gravy, trying carefully to recall everything she did, but mine has never been as tasty.

 

I miss

her smile, her blue eyes, her biscuits and gravy,

but mostly her hands.

 

The final image, then, is one of pure joy that the experience of planting peas has recalled to me some memories of my grandmother that I had let slip away.

 

I push a pea into the earth,

feel her hands pushing me back. She’ll come in May,

she says, in long straight rows,

dancing in light green dresses.

 

I enjoyed choosing the word “light” to describe the green dress because it can mean either gauzy and see-through, or pale green. And “dresses”? All those pea plants, slender stalks filled with leaves, swaying in the wind made me think of multiple tiny grandmothers waltzing down the rows.

Of course, my grandmother never cavorted around the garden, and I never saw her dance, but I remember she mentioned how she loved dancing when she was young. The image made me laugh, and she would have enjoyed it; I could see again how her cheeks crinkled and her eyes sparkled.

Planting Peas - grandmother

Here’s a fine reason, if you need justification, for writing poems: to recapture memories that might have slid to the background of your busy mind. As you struggle to write what you remember to preserve your mental image, other memories will crowd in from your subconscious, memories you might have lost without the effort to write the poem. Like my images of grandmother, these memories will “come in May”: return to your mind.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Additional information:

The poem has a long history of publication. I probably wrote it in one of the workshops that I was giving for high school students for the Black Hills Special Services Cooperative in 1983 or 1984. That teaching coop published it a couple of times before it appeared in my first book of poems, Roadkill, published by Spoon River Poetry Press in 1987. I didn’t publish it again until it appeared in Dakota Bones: The Collected Poetry of Linda Hasselstrom, also published by Spoon River, in 1994.

Doubtless I read from the book at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, where my friend Teresa Jordan heard it, and picked it up for Graining the Mare: The Poetry of Ranch Women, published by Gibbs Smith the same year.

Ted Kooser, US Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, writes a weekly poetry column, American Life in Poetry, sent to 3 million readers worldwide via newspapers and individual email subscriptions. In August, 2014 he shared my poem “Planting Peas” in his column #490. Find it here.

You can find the poem used as an illustration of the value and richness of memories in the Beltane chapter of The Wheel of the Year: A Writer’s Workbook, 2015, as well as in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky: Collected and New Poems, Spoon River’s 2017 collection.

In 2018, I granted Educational Testing Service the non-exclusive right to use the poem in developing test questions for their K-12 Programs beginning in 2020. I’m especially thrilled to think of the poem being used in Braille recordings: imagine young fingers feeling my words tactilely!

Cowboy Poetry vs Free Verse

Cowboy Poetry Week text from poster

In honor of National Cowboy Poetry Week (April 21-27, 2019), I am reprinting this blog, which was originally published July 30, 2012 on my website’s blog page.

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Recently [July, 2012] I presented a workshop at the combined annual meeting of the Dakota Cowboy Poets Association and the Western Writers Group, held at Slim McNaught’s house in New Underwood, South Dakota.

My workshop was With the Net Down: Do You Dare to Write Without Rhyme? Briefly, I discussed the differences between rhymed, metered poetry and free verse. Poets like myself, who don’t generally use rhyme, often hear Robert Frost’s statement that writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis with the net down. Many rhyming poets think that free verse just means the poetry doesn’t rhyme.

In fact, rhyme or the lack of it has nothing to do with defining free verse.

Free verse can be rhymed or unrhymed but its primary characteristic is that it has no set meter.

No set meter. That’s not the same as having no meter at all.

Here’s a fine and familiar free verse poem:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever. Amen.

Free verse. And when one person or a congregation is repeating those words, you can hear the rhythm.

I don’t want to repeat here everything I had to say at my workshop, let alone everything there is to say, about meter. The set acoustic pattern of a line of poetry is its meter or rhythm and may be measured in syllables, accented syllables, or both. Thus meter is often defined by the number of syllables in the line.

Most of us speak in iambic: collections of one unaccented followed by one accented syllable:

I’m GO-ing TO the GROcery STORE to-DAY.

That’s iambic pentameter: five iambic (da-DUM) feet.

Because we speak in iambics, we appreciate poetry that uses them. Blank verse is usually unrhymed iambic pentameter: five pairs of iambs. William Shakespeare and John Milton both favored this form.

Cowboy Poetry - Iambic Pentameter boots with label

But other kinds of feet exist: Pyrrhic is two unaccented syllables: da-da; Spondee two accented syllables: DUM-DUM; Trochee an accented and an unaccented (DUM-da) and so forth. Free verse has meter but not usually meter as regular as the conventional rhymed iambic pentameter pattern of cowboy poetry.

My favorite articles about cowboy poetry, including information about unrhymed poetry, appear at www.CowboyPoetry.com, written by cowboy poet Rod Miller. If you write poetry, rhymed or otherwise, you ought to read these. [link posted below]

As Rod Miller says, any good free verse poem uses the kinds of literary tools and techniques that elevate all good poetry to a level above ordinary writing:

“. . . tonal quality, word choice, allusion, onomatopoeia, metaphor, layered meanings, imagery, and such like. The lack of discipline offered by the absence of meter and the opportunity to cast aside rhyme do not give a poet free rein to be less than poetic, any more than strict adherence to rhyme and meter allow a poet to use otherwise ordinary language in creating verse.”

Most of us don’t live up to the high standards set by the best writers. I’ve never heard a rhyming cowboy poet better than Wally McRae or a free verse cowboy poet better than Paul Zarzyski. And plenty of bad poetry of every type finds its way into print.

We all want the same thing: to tell our stories and have people listen to and enjoy them.

In my workshop, I challenged the assembled cowboy poets and their spouses to write about a subject without trying to rhyme. Several people produced drafts that could turn into good poems of one kind or another.

The question and answer session turned into the most fascinating discussion I’ve had on the subject of poetry in years.

During the workshop, I’d read a couple of Paul Zarzyski poems as illustrations of fine free verse poetry.

Cowboy Poetry microphone -- pexels-photo-164829Cowboy Poet Robert Dennis of Red Owl, South Dakota, asked if all free verse poetry is meant to be read aloud.

“Because,” he said, “listening to what you just read, my brain just can’t keep up. I realize those are interesting words and lines, but there’s so much happening in the poem that I lose the meaning.”

I could see instantly what he meant.

Here’s a bit of Paul Zarzyski’s poem “On my Birthday, The Serpent–” that I read during the workshop. (I’m reproducing it here without his specific permission because it appears on his website and I think he’d approve of my using it in a teaching context and Paul refuses to use email so gaining his permission by mailing a letter to ask him could take weeks.)

disturbed from his moist coiled sleep in the cool
humus beneath the horse trough
triveted an inch off the ground
by mildewed boards–glides
between my feet. It has been
startled by water
hose thrashing the roof
over its head, brass nozzle
striking side-to-side
wildly under the sudden thrust–spigot
handle yanked up full.

Though I’d practiced reading those first lines many times, I still muffed “moist coiled.” The rest of the words are so filled with imagery, tone, alliteration and layered meanings that I had to read the poem several times to try to get the full meaning into my reading. The vivid, complex language had grown more fascinating with each reading.

But could someone hearing the poem for the first time understand it? Only after I’d read it several times did I really appreciate many of the nuances.

Cowboy Poetry reading a poem -- free-use-photo-unsplash-by-Cassidy-Kelley“So can it be,” Robert persisted, “that some free verse poetry should be read on the page and not performed?”

That idea had never occurred to me but I think he’s right. Some poetry that I’d call excellent would be extremely hard to understand if you only heard it once. Only after many readings and thoughtful pondering can the reader grasp the meaning.

Should such poetry be read aloud? Probably not if the poet’s primary aim is to be understood. Audiences who listen to Zarzyski, though they may not understand the entire meaning of a poem, are thoroughly entertained by the explosive, dynamic presentation.

Poetry is far older than writing. No one can be sure precisely where the art began but it probably arose as spells spoken or chanted in early societies to promote harmony and good harvests. Ancient societies such as those in Greece and Rome made poetry part of religious rites. Later it became the way to transmit and recall the stories of a civilization’s struggles and victories. Traveling troubadours in later societies were often singing or reciting news events; rhyme and meter helped everyone remember the stories.

So the cowboy poet who recites stories of his daily life is considerably closer to the true origins of this ancient art than the academician who lards his lines with italicized words and loads on footnotes to explain all the references.

Cowboy Poetry man at mic -- pexels-photo-2114760-by-Kevin-Bidwell

When I mentioned my discussion with Robert to publisher Nancy Curtis [High Plains Press, Glendo, Wyoming], she added another element.

Some poetry that sounds terrific when read or recited aloud is not well written; the images may be cliched or the rhythm rough. Part of the magic lies in the poet’s performance. Poets who regularly entertain audiences may be more interested in making the story entertaining than in making it conform to any “rules” of poetry.

Meanwhile, some poetry that is technically excellent isn’t enjoyable to listen to or is too complex to reveal its meaning when read or recited aloud. A solitary reader might appreciate the meaning but an audience just doesn’t have time during one hearing.

Logically, then, the poetry that has the best chance of resounding in the minds of audience members is that with strong rhythm and rhyme: those familiar elements that allow the audience to become part of the story. This is one reason cowboy poetry has become so popular.

Conversely, free verse poets who plan to recite their work before audiences should consider whether or not their work can be understood when recited. Rather than simply distributing gorgeous language and long lines across the page, we free verse poets need to spend more time studying those many methods of using meter in order to create poetry rhythmic enough to satisfy the audience’s love of regularity and make memorable lines.

Robert said in a later conversation, “I do enjoy the good stuff,” just as he enjoys the best rhymed poetry. And sometimes as he works on a poem, he added, he gets “caught up in the rush to share it before it’s at its best. Kind of like showing off your new baby instead of your college graduate!”

And perhaps we need to relax and allow poetry created to be performed to be judged by a different standard than poetry created for deeper study. I am not ready to trade flamboyant cowboy performers for fellows in three-piece suits reading footnoted masterpieces of obfuscation.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2012 and 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Cowboy Poetry Week poster by Shawn Cameron for www.CowboyPoetry.com

If you are at all interested in Cowboy Poetry, the website to visit is www.CowboyPoetry.com where you will find poems, blogs, history, stories, cds to purchase, and current events all relating to western poetry, new and old, rhymed and not– including webpages about the poetry of Slim McNaught, Paul Zarzyski, Robert Dennis, Rod Miller, Wally McRae, and Linda M. Hasselstrom (and many more).

This poster from CowboyPoetry.com celebrating Cowboy Poetry Week, features art by Shawn Cameron. Find more of her western art at her website www.ShawnCameron.com

The essays by Rod Miller about Cowboy Poetry, mentioned in my blog, may be found on the CowboyPoetry.com website by clicking here.

 

Learning to Breathe

Linda tea party with doll in Texas

 

Often I take a hot bath to soak the kinks out of sore and damaged body parts and ease my mind. Finally, after a long and complicated day, I have the kind of solitude and quiet that encourages and enables writing. If I’m too tired to think, I lean back and inhale. Recently, I realized that when I’m busy, I sometimes do not breathe.

Oh I breathe enough to sustain life: little sips of air between rushing here and there. But I do not inhale so that the air flows through my nostrils and throat and lungs and feels as though it is flowing into every vein in my body, clear to my fingertips and toes. This is the kind of breathing that is necessary for the calm that allows us to think, and to accomplish serious tasks.

Most of us, I think, scrabble all day long, like chickens scratching in the dust of the henyard. A friend calls it “putting out fires.” We can deal quickly with the daily emergencies, but we don’t have time to absorb them, to consider how each action fits into the whole of our lives, and make it part of a concentrated pattern of pleasant living.

This train of thought led my mind into the past, and I could hear again my mother and my biological father screaming at each other as I huddled in fear. I was probably in my crib in a bedroom with the door shut, but I could hear every word, hear glass breaking and doors slamming.  Suddenly, even though I was chin-deep in hot scented water in a cast iron tub in my own bathroom more than a thousand miles from that place and more than seventy years from that time, I was shivering in terror.

Gradually, I calmed myself, inhaling eucalyptus to clear my sinuses, reflecting on the good and privileged life I lead now, to clear my mind.

Early the next morning, I suddenly thought: Didn’t I write a poem about that incident? I couldn’t remember the title, only the final phrase: “This poem is me learning to breathe.”

In my study, I started looking at my books, starting with the earliest ones, Roadkill and Caught By One Wing. I looked through Bitter Creek Junction and Dakota Bones, and Dirt Songs, the collection I published with Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, and then Land Circle, in which I included several poems. Finally, in the expanded collection Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky, I found the poem.

Poetry books by Linda M. Hasselstrom

I’m writing about this for several reasons. First, nothing you write is ever wasted. Somehow the writing sinks into your brain and may emerge as a poem, a story, a solution many years later. Second, no experience goes unrecorded in your mind, no matter how much time passes. And few of us perfect the ability to put these matters completely behind us and never think of them again. But if the pain of the past is accessible to your brain, so can the healing be.

Still, there’s another element that is important in this event. My mother made a number of mistakes in her life for all kinds of reasons, but she loved me and once I was part of her life— though I doubt she really wanted me— she did her best to raise me well. She was absolutely right to resist my biological father’s drinking in whatever way she could; breaking bottles in the sink wasn’t the most violent action she could have taken against him. Yet when I hear raised voices today, I have to fight hard not to enter an almost catatonic state during which I can’t talk or move or escape; I can hardly breathe. Terror freezes me. If you have children, try to remember that every single action of yours has consequences for them that you cannot foresee. Do your best to keep them away from violence that may be coming back to haunt them 70 years later.

And this thought leads me to another quote I’ve loved since I discovered it: Winston Churchill may or may not (authorities differ) have said:

Never give in– never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

So, with that introduction, here’s the poem.

Broken Glass

She found more whiskey.
That’s how it started every time.
When he came home
she screamed and
he yelled. I was three,
crouched under the table
holding my breath
as she broke bottles
in the kitchen sink.
I could see his ankles,
shoes set wide apart facing
her hose and high heels.
Smash. One. Scream. Two.
Sour whiskey fumes choked me.
Glass shards pierced air,
shrieked against the tile floor.
Three. Pop. Four. Bash.
Holding my breath, I counted.
His drinking, her spending.
How he left me alone while he bedded
the woman upstairs and now
she’s having a baby. If I
held my breath, they’d stop.

That night mother carried me
up steps that clanged
onto a chugging train.
I held my breath and counted
lighted cars uncoiling
behind us in the dark.
Mother divorced father,
found a job, married a good man.
When she slapped me,
I held my breath and counted.
Her good man died. She
shriveled away into eternity.

For sixty-five years I’ve
held my breath and counted.
This poem is me learning to breathe.

. . .

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Linda testing the new cast iron clawfoot tub 2017

 

“Broken Glass” was originally published in the anthology True Words from Real Women  (Story Circle Network, 2013).

The poem may be found in Dakota: Bones, Grass, Sky — Collected and New Poems by Linda M. Hasselstrom (Spoon River Poetry Press, 2017).

Tiny Bouquets

April is National Poetry Month
This blog was originally published September 27, 2011 on my website.

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Tiny Boquet 1This has been a busy week; I read and commented on a 140-page manuscript, planned three retreats, made 6 pots of tomato sauce, worked on a home page message, and read six mystery books as well as the usual three meals a day, watering the garden, writing a few letters and no doubt a few chores I’ve forgotten. Sometimes it seems as though the world keeps spinning faster and faster.

When I feel that happening, I often stop and walk out to one of the gardens or on the hillside with the dogs, deliberately looking for the materials for a tiny bouquet. I select a few small blooms, thinking of nothing but their color, texture, size. I put these in one of several small vases that I place directly above the kitchen sink where I will see it often during the day.

Small boquet of peonies 2017In creating the bouquet, I create a little island of calm in the middle of hurry. And every time I look at it, I recall choosing it, and I also take a moment to enjoy its uniqueness. Each one lasts only a few days, but each provides considerable balm. Once the flowers have finished blooming, I often make a little bouquet from dried weeds and leaves, with the same effect.

In the same way, when I’m too busy to write– which seems to happen much more often than it should– I sometimes take time to deliberately create a paragraph or so of writing. Most often I do this when I wake in the morning, many times around 4 a.m. I switch on my reading light and pick up my journal from the bedside table. If I can keep the dogs from leaping up and running downstairs for their first morning outing, I have a little island of calm in which to write. Sometimes the highway Small sunflower boquetnoises are quiet; I can hear nothing but the wind through the grass, perhaps the light tinkle of a wind chime from the deck.

What I write may become part of a longer piece or it may be just a little morning reflection that remains in my journal. Either way, it helps me begin the day in peace.

Here’s a reflection I first wrote on an April morning in 2005, when I was living in Cheyenne, Wyoming and four a.m. was the quietest time on our busy street. Though I’ve worked on it a couple of times since, it has never satisfied me as an entire poem. But it makes me recall a quiet spot that gave me comfort.

Fog
makes the street
fantastical.
Red tulips lift
bowls of mist.
Gold daffodils offer
sacred liqueur to finches.

Someone says,
“The fog will burn off
by noon.”
No. The sun
sips the fog
like absinthe.

(c) Linda M. Hasselstrom, 2011

Even tiny pieces– one image, one line– can refresh your writing spirit the way a little bouquet refreshes your eye and your kitchen.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2011 / 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Language That Makes Me Grouchy

Westie Snarling because he hates misused phrases

Lately I’ve found myself snarling when I see language usages that are blatantly incorrect. And I see them everywhere, every day. As a responsible writer, I feel it’s my duty to call attention to these mistakes.

I most often explode when reading one of my local newspapers, The Rapid City Journal, for which I was once an intern as well as a regular staffer. I worked and learned during the reign of the late Jim Kuehn, who would never have put up with any of these insults to the language we were taught to revere.

And when I worked for the Sioux City Journal in college, Harvey, the gravel-voiced local editor, would have bellowed the name of the offending writer across the newsroom and explained the error at the top of his lungs so that no writer in the place missed the message. He referred to this method as “educating journalists.” I wish more journalists had studied in those tough schools.

Here are some usages I’ve read lately which are incorrect or just plain annoying.

We’ve been experiencing some issues that have interrupted service.

No, your organization has had problems, it has had outages, or it has had interruptions, but it has not had “issues.” My favorite dictionary, The American Heritage, lists 8 definitions with some sub-definitions for the word “issue” and none of them makes “experiencing some issues” correct.

She shared with me that you would like a ride to the auditorium.

People seem to share all kinds of things these days– diseases, meals, spouses– but what “she” did was tell you that I wanted a ride to the auditorium.

The registration lives in a folder in the glove box.

Yes, the registration is in the glove box, eating, defecating, taking showers and calling its friends at 3 a.m.  Get a pet. This is paper; it is not alive. You risk dismemberment if you tell me your bicycle lives in the garage.

I’m adulting.

No you’re not. You’re adulterating a perfectly respectable noun with a confusing addition. Adult is a noun. Adding “ing” does not make it a verb, and might lead to similar attempts to turn perfectly good words into some cutesy cliché. We already have “I’m penciling you in,” which is more than enough. Stop it right now! From now on, I’m going to assume everyone who uses the term ADULTING is ADULTERATING the language by committing ADULTERY.

To my horror, I see that the Rapid City Journal of March 28 printed an advertisement from Black Hills State University offering an “Adulting Seminar.” Worse yet, it’s the second such day-long event, in which students are taught “life skills necessary for success after college.” The program’s host says, “Many students enter the workforce without knowing the basics of buying a home, purchasing insurance or borrowing money.” Apparently those who will be teaching those very necessary skills have entered the workforce without having any respect for correct grammar. And in two years of advertising this program, no one has corrected the advertisement.

“here here”

What you mean to say is “Hear! Hear!” The phrase “hear him, hear him!” was used in Parliament from late in the 17th century, and was reduced to “hear!” or “hear, hear!” by the late 18th century. The verb hear had earlier been used in the King James Bible as a command for others to listen.

“for all intensive purposes”

You mean “for all intents and purposes,”

The phrase “to all intents, constructions, and purposes” dates from sixteenth-century English law. Later, the shortened “for (or to) all intents and purposes” became more popular than the original phrase. It means “in every practical sense” or “virtually.”

“Intensive” means “characterized by intensity.”

these impulses need to be reigned in

It is highly unlikely that a ruling monarch will be restraining your impulses; instead, like an unruly horse, they will be “reined in,” or controlled, possibly with a couple of leather straps.

The older children reigned in the toddlers

I threw the mystery in which this phrase appeared across the room for several reasons but this was the proverbial last straw. In this instance, apparently the older children brought the toddlers under control by “exercise of sovereign power,” rather than by “reining” them in, or restraining, checking or guiding them.

My head hurts as if it were in a vice

The word needed here is vise, which refers to a metal tool with movable jaws that are used to hold an object firmly in place while work is done in it. This clamping device is typically attached to a workbench.

“Vice” on the other hand is “immoral or wicked behavior.” And certainly the vice of drinking might cause your head to hurt, but that’s no excuse for this mistake.

A crashed drone attached with bags of marijuana and tobacco was found. . . .

No, the drone had bags of marijuana and tobacco attached to it.

All this will help to grow the economy

No: all this will help to improve the economy, or make it better, or increase its profit margin. The economy is not alive; it cannot grow.

campaign to grow their space

This one gets another usage note in my American Heritage, which says this transitive use “applied to business and nonliving things is quite new. It came into full bloom during the 1992 presidential election, when nearly all the candidates were concerned with ‘growing the economy.’ The Usage Panel is decidedly less fond of this development than business leaders and politicians are. Eighty percent of the panel rejects the phrase grow our business.”  Again, I am delighted to be in the majority.

The note continues that “The Panel has no affection for the odd but occasionally heard phrase grow down: 98 percent reject ‘If elected, I shall do my utmost to grow down the deficit.’” Shudder. I will never vote for a politician who uses these phrasings.

The boy dreams of being an iconic figure in baseball. Lady Gaga is known for her iconic outfits.

The first definition of “icon” is simply “an image,” but the second is “a representation or picture of a sacred or sanctified Christian personage.” So the reader of this overused word might surmise that the boy would like to become a Christian figure in baseball, and Lady Gaga is known for dressing like a Christian

A State Department spokesperson walked back his comments about the crisis in Korea

He didn’t walk anywhere, though assigning a good long walk might give him time to reconsider his hasty comments and his grammar. The man changed his mind, or misspoke, or lied, or maybe really wished he hadn’t said that, or was ordered to retract the statement, but he didn’t walk anywhere. He wants us to forget what he said the first time.

He was pouring over the document

If he was “pouring” something over the document, we need to know what liquid he was using. If he was “poring” over it, he was studying it closely

People tell me that they reached out to me when I’ve never met them.

They did not stretch out a body part to touch me, and they did not touch me– the top two dictionary definitions of “reach.” If they want to talk with me, they could email, or telephone (if they can find my unlisted number), or use Facebook. But if they tell me they are “reaching out” to me, I probably won’t answer.

was found inside the burnt home

No, it was found in the burned home, the past tense of burn. Burnt sugar and burnt toast are both more common in published text than burned sugar or burned toast, but both are incorrect. Burnt is also used in color names like burnt umber and burnt sienna, so this common mistake is easier to understand. I, however, do not forgive it.

breaks silence

This term might be appropriate if a monk or a nun who had taken vows not to speak and hadn’t uttered a sound for 65 years decided to address the nation, but for some rock star to use the term to explain the lyrics of his latest song, or a spurned lover to call a news conference to talk about the unreasonable demands made by the ex– no.

I wanted to connect with you

If “connection” is what you have in mind, I consider your suggestion obscene and insulting, though all you really have done so far is to write me a letter. I do not “connect” with folks to whom I do not have a close romantic relationship.

a haunting first novel

When “haunting” is used to describe a first novel, the reviewer is using the dictionary definition of “unforgettable,” but I’ve seen few first novels that weren’t easy to forget. Rather, the overuse of this word suggests to me that the book being reviewed was a ghost of what a novel should be: a pale shadow of good writing, as if the writer had heard of the rules of good English but like some government officials, doesn’t believe in them.

Or perhaps the novel most resembled someone dressed in a sheet and waving their arms, a ghost of a novel composed of poor spelling, terrible grammar, flimsy plots and unbelievable characters who never come to life.

My vacay this year

If you’re too exhausted to say the entire word– “vacation”– you’d better stay home or get to a doctor.

she will graduate high school

I was fascinated to discover an extensive note in The American Heritage Dictionary about this usage. The preferred definition is this: “Graduate: to be granted an academic degree or diploma.”

At the bottom of the page appears the following:  “Usage note: The verb graduate has denoted the action of conferring an academic degree or diploma since at least 1421. Accordingly, the action of receiving a degree should be expressed in the passive, as in She was graduated from Yale in 1998. . . . In general usage, however, it has largely yielded to the much more recent active pattern (first attested in 1807): She graduated from Yale in 1998. Eighty-nine percent of the panel accepts this use. . .The Usage Panel feels quite differently about the use of graduate to mean ‘to receive a degree from,’ as in ‘She graduated Yale in 1998.’ Seventy-seven percent object to this usage.”

You may count me among those conscientious objectors– a clear majority!

An historian from this region wrote that the locals in one of South Dakota’s wilder regions “distain the sight of a tire track.”

What he meant to indicate was that these ranchers viewed a tire track with “disdain: To regard or treat with haughty contempt; despise.” I had picked up this book at my local library; I quickly put it down again and advised the librarian of its error.

body wash

I’ve even seen ads for “anti-cellulite body wash;” does anyone really believe that taking a bath will remove cellulite? Here’s an ad for “foamous” body wash– what in the world does that do? How about “energizing” or “calming” cleanser? “Age defying renewing” body wash? “Nourishing” herbal body wash?

“Virgin coconut oil”: well, we wouldn’t want coconut oil that had been around the block a time or two, now would we? “Shower gel” promises to keep your skin “fresh,” but I suspect that if you sweat when you work out, it won’t be “fresh” long.

When I want to get clean, I’ll still reach for soap. I just wish there was a “mouth wash” to clean these words and phrases off the tongues of the speakers who use them.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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Westies happy about well-written work

Neither the snarling Westie who hates misused phrases, at the beginning of this blog, nor these two Westies who are pleased with well-written prose, are my dogs. These photos were borrowed from the internet with my thanks.

What Are You Willing to Do?

Book promotion -- Facebook

Every now and then, despite my advanced years and practice in ignoring “promotion” and its requirements and details, I happen to notice some new trend in self-advertising, and spend several seconds-or-minutes-that-feel-like-hours with my mouth hanging open that someone could and would do “that” to try to get people to read their books.

Then I hit myself on the head with one of the 17 books I’ve written while mostly ignoring that advice, and get on with whatever I’m doing that I enjoy more than promotion– like mopping the kitchen floor. Cleaning the toilet with a new homemade mixture someone recommended. Making ham fried rice for lunch to use up those leftovers.

If you enjoy doing readings of your work, and hearing applause, answering questions like, “Where do you get your ideas?” do the kind of promotion that leads you into those situations. Such promotion takes huge amounts of energy and patience. Many writers may not realize how completely we arrange our writing world, our home, so that it suits us– until we get out in a world of poor lighting, noise, and intrusive questions. If you hate those things, perhaps there’s another way to find readers.

Readers are what we want. And not all promotion leads to readers. Some leads only to more promotion.

I will not soon forget one of my best-paying jobs when I was escorted to a large auditorium to give my reading and found only two people there: one student, and one elderly woman who had apparently wandered away from a facility for the mentally unstable. I sat on the edge of the stage and talked with the two audience members, giving them as good a talk as I have ever done. But I might have been at home doing my work, which is writing.

And I don’t suppose the fine man who invited me to that school– and arranged for me to be paid well for coming– ever got over the embarrassment of having no one, not even those of his own classes or his teaching colleagues, show up. ​

Book promotion -- speaking to groups

I love to do readings. I speak well, and learned from some fine speech coaches how to project and how to draw an audience into my world for an hour. I know many colleges and universities could afford the price I ask for a talk or reading and I would enjoy doing it.

But in order to accept such an invitation, I may have to drive for hours, ride unreliable public transportation, sleep in a noisy motel and eat bad food. I have to consider all those negatives while considering the positive gain of the money and the recognition.

Book promotion -- book storesToo often, even from prestigious and well-endowed institutions, the invitation is, “Please come and read your work to our freshman students. We’ll allow you to sell your books for compensation.” I have largely given up explaining why such an invitation is an insult, and the institution isn’t listening anyway, because they can get 5 young authors anxious to promote themselves for the price of my honorarium. Once some of those authors bring bedbugs home from a cheap motel, they will be less enthusiastic.

But the world has created Facebook and a number of other media with which I am not familiar– Twitter? LinkedIn? Skype? I recently saw a headline informing me of “60+ social media sites you need to know about in 2019.”  Even checking out all 60 of those sites would take me less time than preparing for a 15-minute talk.

In addition, with help from an excellent assistant, I have a website, a Facebook page, a YouTube channel, and this blog. I can sit in the comfort of my study writing what I want to write and through those venues can reach hundreds more people than I would reach after a nine-hour drive somewhere.

So do the research on what “promotion” venues exist, and consider which ones might suit your temperament. Think of the people you want to read your books. These would be intelligent and thoughtful readers who might write you short notes of appreciation, or even question some of your premises and with whom you could have an enjoyable exchange of ideas.

Who are those people? Where are they? How can you reach them? Then craft the kind of promotion that will allow you to find them and enjoy their company– while continuing to write.

To quote a friend, “Write the F#$%ING thing!” is the best advice I can give you about self-promotion.

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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This blog started as correspondence with a writer friend, who is quoted in the last line. Read her book and very fine blog “Between Urban and Wild.”

See my website events page “Where in the World Is Linda M. Hasselstrom?” and scroll down through many years of my own writing promotion, including art exhibits, awards, billboards, classes, entertainment events, interviews, talks, workshops, and my own writing retreats.

Of course nothing beats a testimonial by a famous person!

Book promotion - testimonials by famous people

 

 

Monitoring Your Time

Journal-Writing Workshop for Hermosa Arts and History Association 2019--3-16

I mentioned this exercise in a journal-writing workshop I just taught for the Hermosa Arts and History Association (HAHA) on Saturday, March 16th, 2019.

If you take one week to monitor where you spend your time you will discover what your current priorities are, even if they are unintentional. Once you realize where your time is going, you can choose your priorities and make changes in how you spend your time so that you can accomplish your goals– in this case, writing goals.

Here’s how:

*~*~*~*~*

The Time Monitor

Create a graph of an entire week, breaking days into increments of 15 minutes. To be precise, you will need 48 lines to record what you do each 15-minute segment of a 12-hour day [96 lines for a 24-hour day]. You can shorten the graph by using larger blocks of time for activities that don’t vary, such as sleeping and going to work.

Along the side of each page, use a separate line to record each category of activity on which you spend time: sleeping, eating, work. Add other personal major categories: … cooking, other employment, television, walking. Leave some blank lines to add things you don’t think of at first. I suggest you devote a single page to each day, and staple the pages together to form a handy-sized booklet.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s worth your time.

Time Monitor* Schedule the things you must do first: work, appointments fixed in advance. Then add daily activities like sleeping and eating; be realistic.

* Include errand time. Little things can destroy any schedule if you let them crop up in the middle of other jobs. Once you set aside time to do laundry, get groceries, ONLY do those jobs at that time. DO NOT allow yourself to leap up in the middle of a poem to run to the store. Tell your family, “Sorry we don’t have whipped cream, but we were out (maybe someone used the last of it without writing it on the grocery list?) and I was working, so I couldn’t go get it.”

* Schedule enjoyment, and choose what it will be. Rather than sit blindly in front of the TV, decide you’ll take a walk during that time, refreshing mind and body. Remember, physical activity is necessary for health, and many writers say it helps break writer’s block.

* After you have included everything above, then set goals for your writing time; be realistic; don’t schedule yourself for 8 hours of writing beginning at 9 p.m. Friday.

Carry the chart with you for one week. The time spent filling it out will be worthwhile in helping you create a realistic plan for scheduling writing time along with your other responsibilities.

How to Benefit from the Time Monitor

At the end of the week, add up the time you spent doing each item. These figures will tell you how you really spent your time during that week. This means that, for that week, the categories that took the most time were your REAL priorities– no matter what you might have told yourself or others.

Time Monitor with notesIf you say writing is a priority, but at the end of a week have spent more time baking cookies, then you know you have to work hard to change your priorities by altering your mindset as well as your actions.

Analyze how you might switch your priorities. Keep in mind your own tendencies, and don’t try to change too much too soon. That is, don’t immediately say, “Well, NEXT week I’ll spend 5 hours a day writing.” Work up to it. Figure out a new schedule, changing what you can. Maybe this week you will deduct a half an hour from one activity and add that time to something that has a higher priority. Move step by step. Don’t try to change everything at once. Follow the new schedule for a week or two, until you feel you have made improvements or until you’ve discovered what changes you still need to make.

Then make out a new time monitor, and keep track again for a week, so you can see where you have succeeded, as well as where you have failed. Give yourself rewards for what you have done well. Don’t beat yourself up with guilt. Keep working on it, and maybe once a month or so, do the time monitor again so you can see where you are improving or not.

Suggestions to Consider While Changing Your Priorities

* Try doing the jobs that are most boring first while you’re fresh, so you can get them out of the way efficiently.

* Avoid marathons sessions doing anything. Don’t try to write eight hours a day at first. When you get organized and have worked up to it, you may be able to do that once in awhile. But if you try it and “fail,” you may have a harder time convincing yourself you can, and want to, do it.

* Figure out your best time of day and write then, so you can be more forgiving of interruptions later.

* Carry your journal so you can use time spent waiting for appointments, at traffic lights, for children after school. Some people think “Five minutes isn’t long enough to do anything,” but if you’ve been thinking about or working on a poem or story, it can be time enough to come up with the solution to a problem, to outline an article, to brainstorm new ideas. Write grocery lists while waiting so you don’t have to shop more than once a week. Use waiting time to think of little jobs you can accomplish during waiting time! Often if I’ve been struggling with a particular problem, I find the solution when I leave the computer to do something else that requires little thought–washing the dishes, say, or walking dogs.

* Write regularly in one place. Obviously, one advantage is that your working materials, such as reference books, paper, pens, are together. But also your body knows where you are. When you use the same place to work every day, your body and mind become trained, sensing that it’s time to work when you are in that place, allowing you to focus more quickly and more intensely. For that reason, don’t write where you sleep– where your body and mind are trained to slow down– or vice versa; don’t eat or watch TV in your writing place.

* A ritual may be useful: perhaps looking at a particular quotation, or sharpening your pencils, or prayer might help you focus, to tell you, “OK, it’s time to stop thinking about dinner and start thinking about writing.” Anything that works for you is acceptable.

* Don’t get too comfortable. Especially if writing is new to you and you haven’t created your own disciplines and habits, trying to write while leaning against pillows on the bed can make you associate writing with drowsiness, for example. Learning– as writing is– requires energy.

* Pay attention to your attention span. Breaks in concentration may be caused by internal interruptions, your own thoughts jumping in. These thoughts may be related to what you are doing– your subconscious may be trying to give you information. Stop and examine whatever seems to be causing the gaps in concentration. If it’s not relevant, make a note to deal with it later and go on.

* Avoid noise distractions. I can’t write with the radio on– the ads drive me crazy or distract my thinking. But I do have particular music on tape or CD that seems to help me shut out other noises– traffic, for example– and which I can play while working without interruption. In my case, I don’t play music with song lyrics, because my word-oriented mind follows the lyrics instead of what I’m trying to write.

* Notice how others misuse your time. Be aware of people who call you or enter your writing space even after you’ve asked them not to. If certain friends or relatives constantly interrupt, ask yourself what this means. Are they consciously sabotaging your work? Do they not understand your need for solitude? You may have to send a clear message. Sometimes they really don’t know what kind of concentration is required by thinking. Start with gentle reminders.

In order to relieve yourself of the responsibility for making a decision about every potential interruption, try putting a humorous sign on the door:

Great American Novel Disrupted - sign

A painter in the Rockies hangs this sign on the chain that closes off the road to her house when she is in a painting or thinking mode:

“I am working today and am not receiving visitors. I know you think this doesn’t mean you because you are my banker, agent, or best friend. But it does.”

Another sculptor hangs this sign on her gate:

“Do not disturb unless I’ve won the lottery
or Jesus has been sighted on the Old Taos Highway.”

— from Women Who Run with the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Estés (NY: Ballantine, 1992)

If these gentler messages don’t work, discuss the problem with that person. Rather than being negative– “You are rude, you are ruining my work”– try putting the message more positively: “I am having trouble with what I’m working on and I need your help in order to concentrate. Can you keep me from being interrupted for [insert number of your choice here] hours? ”

Asking for help allows people to show their innate generosity, and they are less liable to resent it than if you lecture. Can you find a way to compliment someone– your mother, for example– while asking her not to interrupt: “Mom, you were such a help to me when I was studying French. I need you to help me now that I’ve created this writing job for myself.” Pat yourself on the back with relatives and friends; they have no idea how hard what you do is, so remark on it to them, not as a boast, but because you know they will be happy to know you finished writing five feature stories and mailed them the same day.

* Remember, writing is a job. As you begin to get organized, keep adding up the hours you spend on it, and if your goal is to be a full-time writer, aim for a 40-hour week. (And DON’T estimate what your wages are until you have prepared yourself for the shock of how far below minimum wage most writing jobs are!)

Grafton rises at 5:58 a.m. to walk on the beach for three miles before repairing to her office at 9 o’clock to begin the day’s writing. “I don’t wear pantyhose and heels, but I treat this as a job and I wear makeup. I don’t work in my pajamas.”

interview with Sue Grafton, mystery writer
Publishers Weekly, 4/20/98, p. 40-41.

* Treat the telephone as just another tool. Remember that you are in control of this machine; you pay for it. It’s hard not to answer if you hear it ring, but try not to be a telephone victim. Consider various alternatives– turning the ringer off and using answering machine or voice messaging. Again, if you have made yourself available to everyone by answering at all hours, you will need to make changes slowly. Two mornings a week, for example, you might replace your regular message with one like this: “I’m working against a deadline, so please leave a message and I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” The deadline might be your own– “I’m going to finish this today”– but use of the word implies someone is paying you, guaranteeing callers will take it more seriously.

* Learn to say “No,” a simple word that is a time saver and skill for managing your life more effectively– not rude behavior. Tell the person making a request that you have other commitments right now, and that you don’t like to take on work you can’t be sure of finishing without jeopardizing other obligations.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Organizing Your Time

* What little task can I finish in five minutes?

Maybe you can brainstorm a bit on that poem idea you had while doing the dishes. Or record the day’s writing expenses in your accounts. Doing small jobs trims a little of your list of jobs, and gives you positive feedback: “I am making progress.”

* Am I beating myself up?

Are you being too hard on yourself? Lighten up– berating yourself only wastes time you could spend on the job. Take a few deep breaths and get on with it.

I copy this combination breathing exercise and prayer into the front of each of my journals and repeat it as needed. I highly recommend going through this once if you are about to get into an argument. Rarely do I get through a day without using it once!

(Breathing in)
I am arriving;
(breathing out)
I am home.
(Breathing in)
I am here;
(breathing out)
this is now.
(Breathing in)
I am rooted;
(breathing out)
I am free.
(Breathing in)
I dwell
(breathing out)
in the ultimate.

–Buddhist gatha, prayer

Little Buddha on the Prairie

* Is this a piano?

Carpenters who build rough framework for buildings have a saying they use when they bend a nail or dent a two-by-four: “Well, this ain’t no piano.” If what you’re doing does not require perfection, don’t ask too much of yourself. On the other hand, being organized encourages you to take enough time to do each job well– doing it poorly may only mean you have to do it over.

Accept lower standards where they are appropriate, reducing your tension, and saving your energy for the times it IS a piano. Your research notes, for example, don’t have to be written in full sentences or be grammatically correct.

* How did I waste time today?

As you build better work habits, ask yourself each evening how you sabotaged yourself during the day. Once you note things you do that kill time, you’re more likely to stop yourself in the act next time. “Well, I’d love to visit some more, but I spent so much time having coffee with you yesterday that I didn’t finish this project.”

* Do you spend large blocks of time doing a single task or leapfrog from job to job?

Each of us must find our own best work method, but if you bounce from one task to another, you may never quite finish anything, growing more frustrated and scattered as you survey the undone jobs sitting around you. Blocking out a specific period of time to accomplish a single task also allows you to notify people who interrupt– that deadline, you know– and at the end of the job to feel a sense of accomplishment.

* How many of the jobs on your time chart are things you really WANT to do? Can you cut any of them out?

Using what you have learned from the time chart and your analysis, set up a schedule reflecting how you WANT to spend your time. Remember, as soon as you get serious about writing, it becomes real work and you will try to weasel out of it.

* How many of the categories on your time chart are really unavoidable? Can anyone else help you? Are all of those jobs really your responsibility? Did you take over doing dishes because your ten-year-old or your husband didn’t do them QUITE to your satisfaction? Maybe you should lower your standards, or train someone else how to do the job well.

The investment of time will pay off– often our companions have no idea how much time we spend in household chores. Your family should support you by helping with work that benefits everyone. Women often do household tasks like cooking, washing dishes, washing, folding and ironing clothes, cleaning, taking out the garbage. Yet everyone in the household eats, creating dirty dishes, wears clothes, and creates dirt and garbage. Spreading these tasks among family members can be viewed as an educational program, helping each member of the family understand the responsibilities of living. This educational program is especially useful to children, who will grow up and have their own homes where they are responsible for all these jobs.

writing and cooking -- does multi-tasking work

* Spend five minutes brainstorming, scribbling ways in which you waste time. Limit yourself to five minutes. Think about the list. Put an X by the two time-wasting habits you use most often. Write down why you think they are so attractive to you– what rewards do they offer you? What is the cost of wasting time in those ways? Review the list. Which two or three time-wasting activities can you give up tomorrow? This week? Repeat this exercise as needed.

* Would I pay myself for what I’m doing right now? A good question during the work day, particularly if you’ve just taken your third popcorn break.

An Exercise That Refreshes and Recharges

The Roaring Lion

Lock the door if you are easily embarrassed. Sit on the floor, cross-legged– with each ankle on the opposite knee if you can manage it. Shoulders back, arms extended, hanging loosely over your knees. Take a deep breath, exhale hard through your mouth. As you exhale, open your eyes wide and stick out your tongue. Spread your fingers apart and stretch your arms down. Hold the pose without inhaling for a few seconds. Close your mouth. Inhale deeply through your nostrils. Breathe out slowly through your nostrils. Relax. Repeat three times.

The work of art which I do not make, none other will ever make it.
–Simone Weil
The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 1951

Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota

© 2019, Linda M. Hasselstrom

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(This blog was originally published on my website’s blog page on April 18, 2012)