Quick! Before Thanksgiving arrives, it’s time for the World Literacy Project 2015!
(This is my own private nonprofit initiative, which involves decorating a pumpkin with words from a poem or other literary selection. Raising the world’s literacy levels, one pumpkin at a time. World-changing, isn’t it?)
For some reason, my family has never really carved jack-o-lanterns. We’ve historically painted our pumpkins–probably because my family members have so much rampant artistic talent.
But being a writer isn’t much help when it comes to decorating pumpkins. Or at least, not until 2012, when I decided to forget about keeping up with my family and put words on my pumpkin.
I called it the World Literacy Project: simultaneously embracing writerliness and offering all those cute trick-or-treaters a healthy dose of literary education. Good deal, right?
Well, something a little bit special happened in my life this year. So I found a gold pen and imitated the style of a designer I admire very much. The 2014 World Literacy Project now features an illuminated pumpkin.
Anybody want to guess where they’ve heard these words before? Add a comment if you think you know!
Yesterday my family and I spent an afternoon at the beach. It was the first time I’d been there this summer. This may sound ridiculous, living as close to the ocean as I do, but I protest: I’ve been writing a book.
I love the ocean, even–maybe especially–when it’s overcast and silvery, like yesterday. It’s the perfect place to rest and read in the warm sand. Or to walk and think to the rhythm of the waves. And to write poetry.
Because the whole place is poetry.
So here’s what comes of a walk along the Northern California coast on a foggy August day.
About two years ago, I read the book One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. It inspired me to start keeping a thankfulness journal.
Thankfulness has long been touted as an important spiritual discipline. But recent psychological research shows its connection to a happier mindset as well. Writing down the good things that happen in a day helps bring the positive things to the top of our minds and overcome our natural human “negativity bias.”
Over the long term, I think my thankfulness journal has really improved my mood and, more importantly, begun to discipline my mind into a habit of focusing on the positive things. Every night, look back over the day and write down the moments that brought me happiness. Sometimes they’re things anyone would consider happy–like getting a call from the Los Gatos Library, inviting me to their literary fair next month (see my note in the sidebar!). But more often, I write down the little things that brought me a smile or a heaven-sent moment of relaxation in the midst of a stressful day. A sunny morning walk. Classical music playing over the gas station speakers. A yummy cup of coffee.
This past spring, I decided to take my one-line thankfulness notes to the next level for an extra boost of happiness. First thing in the morning, I would look back over the last night’s thankfulness notes, pick one, and immerse myself in that memory. Then I used it as the subject for a seventeen-syllable haiku poem (5-7-5). Haiku is short, rewarding, and emphasizes life’s details–a perfect form for this exercise.
A haiku a day
Lupin beside the asphalt
Writing a happiness haiku first thing in the morning had two benefits. First, it started off the day with a focus on something good.
Shopping bag of smiles
Rainbow Skittles, photos, frames,
A little goes far.
Morning haiku also had an unexpected perk. It got the words flowing. When I was done with my seventeen syllables (sometimes counting to seventeen before coffee was harder than it should have been), I wanted to write more. Which was perfect for someone working on a second novel.
From among sharp spines
Pale orange petals shimmer.
Fierce, lovely triumph.
It’s been several months since I wrote my last haiku, but now I have a collection of these short, intensely focused memories of happiness, like tracks showing me the road I walked. At the moment all my words are going into The Book, but maybe when it’s done, I’ll pick back up on this habit of capturing the ephemeral blessings in daily life.
Please welcome Erica Goss to our Creative Minds series! Erica is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos and a lovely person who’s as elegant as she is whimsical. I’ve always loved reading and writing poetry, but meeting Erica at California Bookstore Day inspired me to work on my craft (and teach it to my students). Listen in as she talks about incurring traffic tickets, juggling multiple jobs, and finding inspiration in parking lots.
AS: Delighted to have you, Erica! So let’s go back in time: as a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
EG: Lots of things: a dancer, an artist, a scientist, a mother, besides being a writer.
AS: How did you end up in poetry (versus fiction or nonfiction)?
EG: I starting writing poems as a young child. Poetry was always the most attractive literary form to me, the one I most enjoyed writing and reading. I also write non-fiction, as in creative non-fiction or memoir, but poetry was and is the most natural fit.
AS: What are some of your favorite books?
EG: That’s a hard one! The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Beowulf. I’m drawn to 19th century fiction. Virginia Woolf’s essays, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Wanda Coleman’s Mercurochrome – these are books that feed me. A novel that I read about once a year is Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. I think Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the best non-fiction books of the last five years. I read poetry constantly, and a current favorite is Terrence Hayes. As a child I loved Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, and the fairy tale collections edited by Andrew Lang.
AS: Do you have another job (or more than one)? How do you balance it with your creative writing?
EG: In addition to writing, which includes poetry, blogging, magazine articles, etc., I work as a grant writer and as a freelance teacher.
AS: Wow, that’s quite a load to juggle! So when you’re writing, what are some of the most unusual places you’ve gotten ideas for poems?
EG: I have a secret muse: parking lots. For some reason, I find these sad stretches of concrete more inspiring than Yosemite. I think it’s because I like the idea of claiming a neglected space as my own, a place no one has seen the value in yet. I advise my students to find some place like that – an alley, or a dumpster, or the back of a building – and embrace it. Describe its climate and inhabitants. Do research about your place. Visit it often and note the change of seasons. Immortalize it in poetry.
AS: What is one of the funniest things that’s happened to you as you’ve spoken to audiences about poetry and writing?
EG: At Village House of Books’ Author Day, I made exactly enough selling books to pay for the parking ticket I received that day.
AS: Ooh, ouch. So do you have a daily creative routine? What does it look like?
EG: I try to be at my desk every day by 8:00 a.m. I catch my best ideas early in the morning. I write until noon, eat lunch, and then switch gears to more mundane tasks. Often I will have a burst of energy late in the afternoon.
AS: One of my other jobs is tutoring students in writing. So why do you think it’s important for students to learn to write poetry, as opposed to just essays?
EG: Poetry is a lot more fun than essays. Poetry can get students excited about writing. They know that the poem they write is a true expression of their inner life, and for that reason alone writing poetry is valuable.
AS: Anything new coming down the writing pipeline for you?
EG: My first full-length collection of poetry, titled The Museum of Moving Parts, is making the rounds of poetry publishers. I’m working on a series of poems based on the previous year of my life, tentatively called “Time Lapse.”
AS: What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring writers?
Turn off all distractions and read. Read widely. Start with classic fiction, then read great works of non-fiction like In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and Black Boy by Richard Wright. Read a poem every night before you go to sleep. Find an author you enjoy and read all of his or her books. Try more challenging work. Read the poetry of many eras and countries. Read travel writing, food literature, science fiction and fantasy. Read children’s books. You can’t become a writer without reading. Visit your local library and discover its gems.
Here’s a great quote from Ray Bradbury about the importance of libraries: “I spent three days a week for 10 years educating myself in the public library. You can get a complete education for no money. At the end of 10 years, I had read every book in the library and I’d written a thousand stories.”
If you’re interested in learning more about poetry, Erica will be starting monthly poetry readings at the Los Gatos Library on Sunday, September 21. They’ll be called “The Poetry Kitchen,” and each session will open with a poem about food. There will be a featured reader and an open mic.
I know winter in California is nothing to complain about. But it’s still my least favorite season. December brings Christmas, but then the lights and the cookies and the carols are done. January wears on, and sweaters get thin in the elbows. Windshield wipers fray. I start to long for spring.
And then there are daffodils.
My mom brought me a miniature bucket of them for my office the other day. Yellow and sprightly, they brighten the whole room. I remember studying abroad in England and admiring the hardy bulbs, the only things daring to bloom in a stubbornly cold April.
British poet William Wordsworth, whose cottage we visited, admired them too. They filled his quaint garden, where I sat and jotted notes nearly four years ago.
He admired these flowers so much that one of his most famous poems is called “Daffodils.” It starts with these lines:
I wandered lonely as a cloud That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Beside the lake, beneath the trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine And twinkle on the milky way, They stretched in never-ending line Along the margin of a bay: Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
I only really understood what he meant when I saw the fields of daffodils that sprawl over the English countryside while spring is still clinging to winter.
Maybe you need a cheerful sprig of yellow, a bucket of daffodils, in your life today. They’re flowers of hope. May they remind both of us that spring is coming.
I know it’s three Fridays into the New Year. So posting a New Year’s blessing now feels late and a bit silly.
I also know it’s been two weeks since I blogged. I haven’t gotten up early every morning, and I’ve been writing a lot, but not 5 times a week. It’s discouraging to see myself fail to achieve my noble-minded New Year’s resolutions so quickly.
But maybe three weeks into 2014 is exactly when I need to be reminded that the year is still fresh and young. And maybe especially because those resolutions are already broken, it’s a good time to be reminded of grace. I shoot for the moon and miss on the first try. But thank goodness God isn’t done with this wayward archer.
My mom tied up this poem with ribbon and gave it to me at Christmas. I love that it skirts the victorious sentimentalism of many New Year’s reflections. Rather, it focuses on a living relationship with God: sometimes gained through sorrow rather than joy; through failure rather than success. It’s a narrative of grace and a song of hope.
I hope it blesses you today.
New Year’s Blessing
In the new year I do not wish for you that God will bless you, since God already intends only the deepest blessings for you. I don’t wish that good things will happen to you, since I don’t know what will most beautifully shape your soul— in what losses you will receive grace, in what challenges you will gain wisdom, in what struggles you will become more truly yourself.
Instead I hope for you this blessing: that your heart be at peace, that your mind be open and your will be lovingly present; that you live each day this year with love, courage and beauty, with gentleness, trust and gratitude. That you speak and be the truth, that you find joy and wonder in your life, that you be deeply mindful of God’s indwelling presence, God’s deep delight in accompanying you in every breath.
May your work be fruitful, your hope vibrant, your voice clear, and your friends faithful.
Whether you feel it or not, deep blessing will be yours this year. May you know it, and rejoice, and live in harmony with God’s grace.
But at my house, there being neither babies nor dogs to dress up, we paint real pumpkins. One of the vegetables below was designed by the engineer, one by the artist, and one by the writer in the house. I’ll let you guess whose is whose.
See? They’re Betty Boop, a hot air balloon, and a poem.
Last year, I stopped trying to fight my klutziness and penchant for stick figures and instead repurposed Halloween as the World Literacy Project, decorating my pumpkin with the opening lines of “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.
This year it’s a different famous, slightly spooky poem (which I subjected my family to a reading of as I was writing it out in Sharpie). 10 points if you can guess the title and author!
But though I’m greatly enjoying the World Literacy Project (and I hope the neighborhood kids will, too), there’s nothing wrong with stick figures. In fact, they can even make pretty cute costumes. Get a good laugh out of this one, and enjoy tomorrow!
I love fall. The student in me thinks of September, not January, as the beginning of the year. As the weather gets cooler, I get an almost Pavlovian excitement for office supplies, pumpkin spice lattes, and new beginnings.
But what almost took me by surprise is that this approaching fall season also marks my second blogiversary. I went to write this week’s blog post and realized it’ll be two years on Sunday! Which prompts a bit of reflection.
It’s a little harder to track this year’s progress than it was last year. I do know that I’ve published a total of 95 posts and accumulated nearly 20,000 page views since starting this blog in 2011 (numbers which thrill, startle, and humble me by turns). Sometimes numbers help me step back and get some perspective on the small routines I perform regularly.
Speaking of which, that novel is in its 4th (and hopefully final) draft! Sometimes not losing vision in the last stage is the hardest part. I’m both eager and nervous to set out on the road to publication.
I struck the words “recent college graduate” from my Blogger profile. Now that I’m 2+ years out of academia, I think I’m really beginning to consider myself a working adult.
Which is beginning to make sense, now that my weeks are full with 15 tutoring students, regular freelance editing projects, novel revisions, and some very dear relationships that make my life full and sweet. Sometimes living has been so sweet that I’ve clean forgotten about blogging (that’s why there’s no December under the 2012 tab).
I had a chance to share my life story with some peers a few weeks ago and it gave me a chance to realize what this blog has done for me. Not only has it kept my writing muscles limber in busy times when other writing projects have gone into hibernation, but it’s been cathartic for me as well. Sometimes it’s easier to blurt out the truth in a public forum (especially online) than it is to be honest with your close friends and family.
Here I’ve reached new levels of honesty as I’ve broached subjects like vulnerability, loss, and lament poetry. What’s even better is that some of you have come to me and shared that my halting admissions of hurt, confusion, and failure have made you feel freer to admit your own struggles. And that makes it worth it.
It’s also been joyful to celebrate new beginnings throughout the year, noticing small magic, overflowing like popcorn, and cooing over adorable hedgehogs. It’s wonderful to celebrate fullness and joy. I think honesty about the empty and the hard makes this part even sweeter.
And with that, I commence celebrating blogiversary #2. No pumpkin spice lattes in my local Starbucks yet, but I’m waiting. Oh yes, I’m waiting.