You’ll be fine, Ann — Carry on and you are a writer.

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The “writing process” — a topic of endless conversation amongst writers and the topic of this post. I hope you non-writers will stick around too. It all began when a wickedly talented poet and dear friend, Jacquelyn Grant Brown, invited me to join in on a blog tour, responding to four questions about the writing process. First, she answered the questions and then she passed the baton onto me. At the end of my post I, too, will pass along the baton.

You can find Jacquelyn’s blog on her writing process here: http://44sense.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/my-writing-process-a-blog-tour/

And now here I go. Welcome to my writer’s world.

#1 What are you working on?

The story that won’t leave me alone is the story about giving my baby up for adoption. I was 19 years old, a college student, single and without the means to keep him. Still, I tried. I quickly realized I just couldn’t do it. This was back in the days when you handed your baby over to the adoption worker who then took him away. All you knew was that at some point in the future she was going to hand him over to some stranger he would grow up calling, “Mommy.” This is a story about love. Loss. Grief. Discovery. Joy. It’s about being a girl who is scared, angry, and confused. It’s also about being a mother who is childless. And it’s about a woman who is trying to make sense of it all. This has been a long-term project and it was the main manuscript I focused on while working on my MFA.

In addition…

I’m always dabbling in poetry, either in my head or on paper. I love the paradox of poetry: there is freedom within form. I find that very comforting. When I’m stuck with my prose I will rewrite what I’ve written as a poem. Invariably I discover new things about what I’m trying to say. I take this new perspective and return to my beloved prose.

I always have a sketch pad close by. (A favorite book is Danny Gregory’s An Illustrated Life: Drawing inspiration from the private sketchbooks of artists, illustrators and designers.) For me, at this point it’s more about having the sketch pad than actually sketching in it. I allow myself to use it to write in when creating visual images intimidates me.

Ekphrasis: I love it. I love writing in response to visual images. One of my writing joys in the last couple of years has been participating in our local art league’s show, Interpretations. Writers submit one piece of less than 100 words. Visual artists submit one piece of work. Writers and visual artists are then paired and given each other’s work to respond to. Last year my task was to respond to a portrait of Hunter S. Thompson. What does one say about Hunter S. Thompson in 100 words or less? That painting lead me to places I never would have dreamed of going if I was just staring at a blank page thinking, “Hhhmmm… let’s write about Hunter today.”

I also write about aging, especially here in this blog. My fascination with aging—both my own and other womens’—is a natural outgrowth of my dissertation. (Okay, now… please don’t start yawning! I promise you this is going to be interesting.) For my dissertation I wanted to study about alternative medicine. That interest evolved into wondering about menopause and hormone replacement therapy (it had just been discovered to cause cancer), which then lead me to a community of kick-ass women in the Ozarks who refuse to let their aging bodies be seen as pathological or deficient simply because their hormone levels are changing and they are no longer ovulating or bleeding. These are some mighty women! They taught me that aging can be an adventure. I try to capture that here.

#2 How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

One thing I’ve learned from reading several birthmother memoirs is that even though we all write adoption stories, each story is different, and each voice is unique. One way in which my memoir differs somewhat from the others I’ve read is that I incorporate other texts—adoption agency case notes, medical records, letters to and from my ex-boyfriend, the prayers I wrote in my journal—in an effort to add layers and texture to the narrative. This also allows for an element of social criticism about the institution of adoption, especially the practice of closed adoptions, and the stigma foisted upon unwed mothers.

I must acknowledge a huge debt of gratitude to those writers who have gone before me and bravely unearthed the landmines left behind by our nation’s past adoption practices. I am especially grateful to two particular authors:

Ann Fessler for her groundbreaking book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade.  http://thegirlswhowentaway.com/

Karen Salyer McElmurray for her courageous and beautifully written memoir, Surrendered Child: A Birthmother’s Journey  http://www.karenmcelmurray.com/

Through their unflinching examination of the deeply personal and often painful birthmother stories, I found the courage and inspiration to tell my own.

#3 Why do you write what you do?

I’m constantly asking myself this question and I imagine it plagues most, if not all, writers. Why do we write what we write?

I just returned from a 5 day writing workshop lead by the wildly talented Cheryl Strayed. Even in the stunning environs of Big Sur where we gathered, this question haunted me. When meeting new writers the question is often asked, “What do you write?” Sometimes I provide the generic, “Oh, creative nonfiction.” But then there are times when I sense that the generic answer won’t do. Either the other person is going to probe, or I sense the potential for a deeper connection if I share a bit more than my genre and take the risk of getting down to the nitty gritty of what I’m writing about. But that is answering the “What?” and not the “Why?” Behind the question, “What are you writing?” always lurks the question, “Why are you writing it?” The first is often much easier to answer than the second. But I’ll try…

Why do I write what I do? Why have I devoted years to writing this story that happened over three decades ago? Why do I, time and time again, return to that moment when I first held my newborn in my arms? And then I push myself to re-experience, re-examine, and re-create the dark heaviness of my empty arms after I give him up? Why do I write what I do?

Well, an answer appeared before me during the writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed. It was a gift—a gift of compassion, understanding, and validation. She said simply, “Write what you must….Tell your truth.”

I’ve never fully told my story of giving my baby up for adoption. Those closest to me have heard snippets over the years. The adoption agency case notes tell one particular version of the story. But my version—the birthmother’s version—like many birthmother stories, went largely untold. Finally, three decades later, I can tell that story, my story.

Even though it’s taken me so many years to get to this point, I have apparently had a long-standing impulse to tell the story. I recently discovered what I think is probably my earliest attempt to capture an element of this story in writing. It was in the Spring of 1984, less than two years after I gave my baby up. I was taking a writing class and we had to keep a journal of assigned writings and self-directed creative pieces. When going through that journal recently I discovered an untitled fictionalized piece about a reunion between an eighteen year old young man who had been given up for adoption and his birth mother. I wrote it in the close third person, from the son’s point of view. It began,

“He sat at the table across from his Mother. He doesn’t really know this woman, he thought. What to say? How to act? What to call her—Mom or Michelle? Eighteen years of having called someone else ‘Mother” makes it extremely difficult to now look your real Mother in the eyes and regard her as such.”

This story went on for just over a page. It ended with these words:

“In her, he saw himself as he never had before. Now the picture was complete. And so was his soul.”

As I revisit this story, my first impulse is to ache for the broken heart of my almost twenty-two year old self that was behind the words. But then, I wonder at my choice to tell the story from the/my son’s point of view. I wonder if that was as close as I could get to the story at that point in time–less than two years after giving my son up.  An imagined, close third person? Where was the birthmother voice in this story? Where was the “I”? Looking back, I can only surmise that I just couldn’t go there yet. It would have been too painful.  There was no “I” yet. (Frankly, I think that is how many birthmothers feel — the “I,” or the birthmother doesn’t exist in the adoption story once the baby is brought into his new family.) Thankfully, now, over thirty years later, I am more than ready to claim the story from the point of view of the “I”. This is the story that I must tell.

An aside: I struggled greatly in this class and it showed in my journal writings. The professor was aware of this and worked with me to help me finish the class. Before handing the journal in to be graded at the end of the semester, I wrote a note of thanks to her for her understanding. She replied, “You’ll be fine, Ann—Carry on and you are a writer.”

#4 How does your writing process work?

I’m in constant search of a routine. Yet, I seem to thrive in an environment of disruptions. However, there do seem to be some constants—coffee, for starters. I also have a favorite mouse pad—a gift from a photographer dog-walking friend who claimed it was a replica of the rug in Freud’s office. I’m also an avid note jotter, outliner, and textual traveler, traveling from the text I create on my laptop to that I handwrite on the blank sheet of 3-hole-punch bright white paper to the current book I’m reading, and back again.

I often start with a prompt of some sort, something to respond to, an “assignment” (such as a blog tour), a visual image, an observation, or something I’ve read. I may imagine or outline where I think the piece is going to go, but ultimately the piece woos me into following its lead. If I give myself up to the writing it becomes an organic process of discovery and I learn something new from my own writing.

A mentor once described me as a “meticulous” writer, which I’ve chosen to believe can mean many things: exacting; perfectionistic; and most likely and sorrowfully, slow. Rarely do I dazzle with what I initially produce from a prompt. I’m the tortoise, not the hare. Ann Patchett described herself as the tortoise to Lucy Grealy’s hare. I’m okay with being the tortoise.

Thanks for reading… Would love to hear comments about others’ writing process!

It is with great enthusiasm and respect that I pass the baton along to two more writers:

Kat Fitzpatrick is a long-time journalist earning an MFA in creative writing. One of the few American children to be evacuated out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, her quest now is to capture memories, vignettes, and reflections of that time. Her new blog, StoriesOfVietnam.com, will launch in August 2014. Her reflective essays can be found at www.katadventures.wordpress.com

Christine Kiefer is an attorney by day, writer by night- smack dab in the middle of the woods, in the middle of Missouri, in the middle of the USA. Her completed works include a collection of poetry, “Birch Trees at the Old House,” and the novel, “Light in Darkest Days.” www.beaspokesperson.wordpress.com

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“Seemed like a good thing to do when I turned 50…”

Or in the words of Bruce Springsteen, “I ain’t nothing but tired. I’m just tired and bored with myself.”

I watch her as she tilts her head ever so slightly, scrunches up her face,  and looks at me as if she’s forgotten my name yet is certain she knows me. “So…,” she says to me. “You’re getting another degree?”

Heat rises to my cheeks, and I swoop in to claim imminent domain over the conversational real estate between us. “Yeah… “ (Shrug of the shoulders.) “Seemed like a good thing to do when I turned 50.”

The first time I heard those words roll out of my mouth—Seemed like a good thing to do when I turned 50—they sounded like the utterances of a phantom voice or someone possessed. Admittedly, this isn’t such a foreign feeling for a middle-aged woman going through menopause. Still, this was the first time I’d heard myself explain this later-in-life pursuit of education in this way.

And yet, once the words were out there, I knew it was true. Getting a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing actually did seem like a good thing for a woman approaching her 50th birthday to do. I loved writing. It’s what I had always wanted to do, more than anything else. And it’s who I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. Yes, I wanted to write my way into my fifties. Just made sense.

There are a lot of things that began to make sense to me once on the brink of 50 that didn’t used to. But then there was a lot that used to make sense to me then that didn’t now. Menopause and middle age seem to demand a woman pay attention. (And sometimes, to the consternation of others, the middle-aged woman demands that everyone else pay attention to it too.)

What used to make sense? Wearing turtlenecks and wool sweaters. Staying up really, really late. Sleeping in was delectable. Chaos was okay. A full social schedule? But of course! Time alone? I don’t think so. Cranky? Rarely. Sweaty? Only when working out at the gym. That was life, pre-menopause, early forties.

Then it began. First there were the night sweats. I learned to keep a stack of clean t-shirts and a change of sheets by the bed. Then the erratic periods—more blood and less time in between. Followed by inexplicable tiredness in the middle of the day, coupled with a body that wouldn’t sleep past 6a.m. Crankiness with Everybody. Patience with no one, including myself.

Cue Bruce:

“I ain’t nothing but tired. I’m just tired and bored with myself.”

Bruce may have been singing about a restless, horny young man in search of a little hot sex to relieve his boredom. But that’s not what I think now when I remember that line from the radio days of my youth.

I think: Menopause. Middle-age. Turning fifty.

And I don’t think hot sex is the answer. It might be part of the answer, providing it’s with a partner who enjoys a little K-Y Ultra Gel or Liquid Silk in order to assist what, pre-menopause, used to come so naturally. Still, I know that sex is a temporary fix. And afterwards, I’m alone, with my fifty-something year old self. And I do get tired. And I don’t want to be bored. And I don’t have to be either.

So I decide not to be. And I do what makes sense now. I no longer wear turtlenecks. I shamelessly indulge in a mid-day nap. I relish the quiet early morning time with my hot coffee, my adoring dog, and the awakening birds. I buy my own K-Y Ultra Gel. And I go after what I really want, and what I really want to become. I complete an MFA in Creative Writing; I become a writer. And, yes… that does mean another degree.

Seemed like a good thing to do in my fifties.

 

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My Act of Motherhood: I kiss you good-bye. And then I cry.

Sunday is Mother’s Day. I’ve never celebrated Mother’s Day as a mother. However, this weekend I will take the stage in St. Louis, Missouri, and tell my story of being a mother. I will begin by talking about the yellow outfit I dressed my baby boy in for his trip home from the hospital. I will talk about how the social worker came to the hospital to take him home—to a foster home, with a foster mom. Recalling that day, I say to my son,

“I kiss you good-bye. And then I cry.”

I was 19 years old, a college student, and unmarried. The year was 1982—the era of Reagan’s attack upon the Welfare Queen. This was long before the days of “Murphy Brown” and Miranda of “Sex and the City.” Being a single mother in 1982 was neither a popular option nor a lifestyle choice likely to garner much support.

Still, I loved my son more than I ever thought possible. And more than anything else in life, I wanted to be his mother. After a very heartbreaking struggle to try to keep him, I finally gave him up for adoption. Another woman raised him as her own. As he was growing up, when he celebrated Mother’s Day, it was this woman—faceless and nameless to me—who received his hugs, kisses and cards on this special day.

Thirty-two years have passed. While there is so much more to this story of me and my son, for now I just want to write about this particular Mother’s Day, when I will claim my motherhood to an audience that will span from the auditorium at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri to the global audience of You Tube. I titled my story, “Mothering You, My Son” because I believe that giving him up for adoption was an act of motherhood. And I thank the courageous and creative women of “Listen to Your Mother” for also recognizing it as an act of motherhood, and inviting me to be a part of their show.*

These 32 years have given me the luxury of perspective. It has also allowed the story to unfold. My son is now 31, married and a father. On this Mother’s Day, I will send his wife a card wishing her a day full of hugs and kisses and Mimosas. And my heart will sing with happiness as I think of their little girl, my granddaughter. I will also feel deep gratitude as I think of his adoptive mother—a generous-hearted woman whose own act of motherhood enabled him to become the very fine person he is, and enabled me to continue to mature from the girl I was into the woman I am today: a birthmother who can get up on stage and tell her story of motherhood.

 

*Special thanks to the Co-Directors and Co-Producers of Listen to Your Mother – St. Louis:

Naomi Francis

www.mastereventsplanner.com

Ellie S. Grossman

www.mishegasofmotherhood.com

Laura Edwards Ray

http://www.braindeadlaura.com

 www.listentoyourmother.com/stlouis/

 

 

 

 

 

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“So… I noticed you let your blog go.”

Sadly, yes. I created this space mired in the excitement of turning 50 years old. I envisioned it as a place to narrate the countdown to the big day – August 23, 2012—and the adventure that the first year of claiming “50” promised to be.

What happened? Life happened.

 As promised, I had fabulous celebrations to mark the big day. To the consternation of some, I hosted and paid for them myself. But, hey… I figured a woman of this age should take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and create the celebrations she wants to have to mark her big day. I had an excellent time! And I think my friends did too. The pics speak for themselves. Brews were imbibed, at both 44 Stone and The Broadway Brewery. And we danced to the soundtrack that my music-loving friend, Elizabeth, made for the celebration. Looks like a revival meeting but it’s really just friends celebrating a woman of a certain age!

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Then life happened.

  • The demands of my MFA program swept in like a big wave. (I graduated this past January!)

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  • I became a Grandma. (For this Grandma, it has meant more psychological work than anything else, as I’m still getting used to the idea of being a mother.)

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  • I bought a new house. (Gave up the 1929 Arts and Crafts bungalow for the 1955 walk-out ranch tucked away in the woods at the end of a cul-de-sac.)

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  • I lost a very dear friend to breast cancer.

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Perhaps these are just the usual kinds of things that happen after a woman turns 50. Perhaps this is exactly what turning 50 is all about. So, I let my blog go. Yes—my blog and a few other things, too. But I’m back. Stay tuned!

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Turning 50: How to do it?

Everything becomes a metaphor for turning fifty. Even this blog.

I’m obsessed with it. First I couldn’t stop looking at it, examining it in all its beauty and grandeur. Then it sort of became ordinary looking to me, lost its sparkle. Finally, it wasn’t enough; it needed more. But what? Posts? Pics? Pages? Pizzazz?

I returned to WordPress and studied and studied and studied. I’m determined to do this right.

Well, then I got really wild. I figured out what a widget was. Suddenly it felt like the sky was the limit. The world was my oyster. I created a widget for a category cloud. Never mind that I haven’t figured out how to create any categories yet. (What I really want to create is one of those fancy squares full of words in all different typesets in all different sizes. I just like the way they look and I could think of such cool words.)

But wait, it gets better. I figured out how to upload my Goodreads bookshelf. Now I was really cooking! I even opened up a new Goodreads account just for the purpose of collecting books that focus on the wonders of middle age women (things like books on how to deal with menopause, novels about David Cassidy, picture books about other women’s lives). Oh but wait, Dear Reader… it gets even better. I created a new Page! Oh yes. I was so enamored with my new Goodreads bookshelf that I figured it deserved a whole page of its own. “Books for the Journey” I’m calling it. I love that name. Well, I wish I could say the same about html, but alas, I can’t. And I’m working really hard to be frank and honest as I approach this milestone birthday. If I don’t like something I want to say I don’t like it and not pretend that I do. I don’t like html. I managed, however. I figured out how to upload the code well enough to create a page that displays my books. In one long, lonely column. I love every single book on that page, but they really deserve to be displayed in a more aesthetically pleasing way. And I’m wracking my brain trying to find another format or theme that will give them what they deserve.

I won’t even go into my search for a countdown clock that captures days, hours and seconds. Still, I’ll keep trying to figure this blog thing out.

Just like I’ll keep trying to figure out this fiftieth birthday thing. Some days I’m enamored with the idea that I’ll be 50 in two short months. I’ve become one of those obnoxious women in the grocery store line who insists on telling the clerk who doesn’t card me just how old I’ll be come August 23rd. I study her face for any little sign of shock. (Sometimes I’m satisfied. Sometimes I’m not. Intermittent reinforcement is the most effective kind for encouraging repeat behaviors.) Other days, (like today), I look at photos of myself and wonder when I got these hips and thighs and that slightest suggestion of my father’s jowls. But I digress…

So here I am, a woman on the precipice of her 50th birthday trying to do a blog about it. Dear Readers, please be patient. I’ll keep trying to figure all this out and hopefully make it worth your time to come visit once in awhile. Surely it can’t be too painful and hopefully the final product will be a thing of beauty to behold. One can only hope.

P.S. I’m shamelessly soliciting advice, suggestions and requests—on both the blog and the birthday.

 Ideas? Thoughts? Anecdotes? Antidotes?

 All will be accepted and considered, with deep gratitude.

 ~AnnB.

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The dreams of an almost 50-year-old

From today’s Facebook post:

Last night I had an erotic dream. My ardent suitor won me over with a promise of “the perfect place to take a nap.”

Could this possibly be about turning 50?

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The Birth of a Blog

Scooped! Writer friend, Cindy Zelman, announces the birth of my blog, FIFTY SHADES OF TURNING FIFTY, before I even get a chance to launch it! Stay tuned folks…

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