My Grandfather, The Writer

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I was eight when my grandfather died. And when you’re eight, there is still magic in the world. My grandfather, like my father, was my hero. I remember wonderful things about him. Things that a child’s memory freezes in time, and paints gold with the magic of a little girl’s love and admiration.   I know he wasn’t a perfect man, but he was my grandfather, my Poppy, and I remember only the golden things, the magical things.

I remember him saddling up the horses in the ranch yard and taking me for a ride down to the airport business center for Mexican food. In the late 1970s in Aspen, Colorado, you could still do that — hitch your horse up outside a restaurant and go inside with your grandfather to eat a taco.

And I remember his Jeep. Mostly because it was gold and I didn’t know anyone else who owned a gold Jeep, but also because it had a huge eagle painted on the hood. It wasn’t a Jeep like you think of, not the Wrangler-type, but an old pickup truck used for ranch work and for running around town. It had scratchy cloth seats that reminded me of horse-blankets, scraps of hay on the floor, and a gear-shift that made loud noises as it was crunched from one gear into another.

I also remember receiving a fly-fishing kit from he and my grandmother for one of my birthdays, and being proud – so very proud – that I could now be like my older male cousins, a real live fly-fisherman. Poppy taught me to fly-fish up Maroon Creek, standing on the rustic wooden bridge just upstream from the family cabin.

But what I didn’t know about my grandfather was that he was a writer. I didn’t find that out until after he died and members of my family published a collection of his work posthumously.

My grandfather wrote short stories and poetry. According to my Aunt Mary, Poppy had a “surge” in writing that lasted the final ten years of his life. But I often wonder what he wrote before that, because as writers, we know that we are writers our whole lives. The “surge” comes, yes, but the writing has been there all along. For some of us, it takes time to let the muse free, to show the words to others, to admit that, yes, this is who we really are. So what did my grandfather write before, I wonder? What did he write as a boy? As a college student at Dartmouth? As a young father in Highland Park, Illinois? What were the pieces that did not make it beyond the first draft and the trash can in his office on Mill Street?

During my grandfather’s writing surge, he took one-on-one writing lessons with a creative writing professor in Boulder. He would sit in his office on Mill Street (his German Shepherd likely lying in the window as I always remember) and share his latest piece with any visitors who walked in. According to my aunt, he loved to have his writing read back to him, loved to hear his own words read aloud. With a particularly close visitor, he might have sipped Scotch and discussed the stories.

What survives of my grandfather’s writings exist in an anthology called Frontiers Past, self-published by my family in 1981. According to my aunt, most of the stories are based on real people and real events. He changed some names, but also left some names as they were.

My grandfather is well remembered in Aspen. There is a Henry Stein Park down by the Roaring Fork River and a statue of him on the mall downtown.   But I want him to also be remembered as a writer, which is, I think, how all writers would like to be remembered.

The final page of Poppy’s book is a poem. It is entitled “To My Family.” I remember reading the poem in high school, and the final line always stuck with me. I think of it often, even now, twenty-eight years after I first read it, because the words describe how I myself am trying to make my way through the world – and how I, too, would like to be remembered:

“He did the best he could with what he had.”

So I will remember the horseback riding and the taco and the Jeep. And I will remember the German Shepherd in the window and the fly-fishing lessons. But I will also remember the writing. I will remember his love of an audience, his willingness to work on his craft, and his eagerness to discuss his words with others over a glass of Scotch.

I will remember you, Poppy, as a writer. For that is what a writer would want.

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My thanks to my mother Pat Spitzmiller and my aunt Mary Dominick Coomer for their contributions to this post.

 

The Submission Process: “But you don’t own a shih-tzu.”

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I had a dream last night in which I was trying to explain the novel submission process to my father. My Dad passed away in 1990, and dreams about him are rare, so it was something of a gift. And, considering the nasty topic, it was a pretty humorous dream.

“You can’t just write ‘Dear Agent,’” I said.

“What do you write?” he said.

“You write whatever their name is. ‘Dear Ms. Huntington’ or whatever.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Well,” I said, “but then you have to personalize the letter.”

“How do you do that?”

“’Dear Ms. Huntington, I read in the recent Annals of the American Kennel Club that you are the breeder of champion shih-tzus, and that your prize bitch, Foxy Fiona, recently won fifth prize in her class at Crufts. I, too, am the owner of a shih-tzu.’”

“But you don’t own a shih-tzu.”

“It’s for the letter, Dad. I’m supposed to make a personal connection with the agent. I’m supposed to show that I’ve done my research, and that I know something about her.”

“Sounds stupid.”

“It is.”

Of course, I know as well as you do that one does not go off on a tangent about an agent’s shih-tzu in a query letter (unless one’s book is about shih-tzus). But the dream was instructive. It was instructive in that I woke up laughing.

There is a game to be played in the submission process, and having been through it once before with my first novel, I dread it again this time with my second.

The submission process has been dangling over my head like an anvil in a Wiley Coyote cartoon — freezing me in place, preventing me from completing my most recent draft. If I finish this draft, my mind tells me, then I’ll have to finish the next draft. And then soon enough, I’ll be submitting.

But the fact that my subconscious found enough humor in the process to create a nocturnal comedy sketch about it (with my father included) tells me that maybe I am in fact ready to move forward. Maybe I shouldn’t take it all as seriously as I have in the past – the research, the e-mails, the rejections.

If my subconscious says it’s okay to laugh in my dreams, then it should be okay to laugh in my waking life. Laugh at the “Dear Author” emails, the “Thank you for your query letter, but…” e-mails.

Easier said than done, right?

So that’s one of the reasons I’m writing this post. To remind myself of my dream. To remind myself of the lunacy of shih-tzus and query letters. If my mind can come up with that, it can come up with anything.

And isn’t that what being a writer is all about?

When Friends Don’t Support Your Writing

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I’ve had to make a choice. A friend, or my writing. I chose my writing. Sounds harsh. Narcissistic. But she did not support me. In fact, she undermined me. And I’ve been on this planet long enough to know that there are people out there who are willing to support me – sometimes strangers (like you) who connect only through the ethereal mist of the internet. And I know that staying attached to those in my life who do not support me in my writing is toxic and a waste of my time.

Being a writer is hard enough without someone pulling you down, telling you in words or otherwise that it is a pointless pursuit.

This particular friend had the following statement for me: “Focus on something other than your book!” The words came in a text, complete with exclamation mark.

As writers, we pour ourselves into our work — our souls, our hearts, our entire life experiences. And this friend was dismissing hours and hours and hours of my life’s work with just a few flicks of her finger on her iPhone.

I had given her the completed first draft of my novel to read – 75,000 words. That alone should tell you how close we were. She had her hands on the manuscript for six months and had only read two chapters. She once called me up on a day I had scheduled for writing to see if I wanted to join her shoe shopping at the mall. “No, thanks,” I told her. “Today is a day I have scheduled for writing.” In response, she said, “You can’t sit around all day doing nothing.”

So when she told me to focus on something other than my book, several thoughts ran through my head. What should I focus on, then, I thought. Perhaps the triad of depressiveness that is Donald Trump, climate change, and the Syrian refugee crisis? Should I give up on my writing, the thing that gives my soul life and depth and clarity, and dwell upon the negatives of life? Or should I skirt around the edges of life, like you, dear friend, channeling my energy into my hair and makeup and the latest trendy boots? No. I choose words. I choose to write. I choose characters and soul and the weaving of stories. This is where I find my truth.

Writing is where humans have found their truth for millennia. The act of quill on paper, stylus on clay tablet, chisel on tomb wall. And before writing, we painted our stories on cave walls 15,000 years ago. We humans are storytellers — that is what we do.

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I suppose writing cannot really be explained to the nonwriter. And I am certainly not the one to do the explaining. But when it came time to choose, I chose writing. And I always will. It is, as one of my characters once said, “in my veins.”

So, I wish my friend well with her trendy boots and her newest mascara. I only wish, for one small moment, that she could feel the joy of creation — the spark — that comes from forming a beautiful sentence, an eloquent phrase, or from finding just the right word at just the right time. But she won’t. Because she is not a writer. She is a consumer of things, not a creator of things.

And creation, whether it be the telling of stories or the writing of music or the painting of pictures, is where beauty lies. I will not give up. I will not “focus on something else.” It is not who I am. I must be authentic to myself. And my self, my soul, is a writer.

Dear Roger

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We learn many lessons in our high school years, some academic and intended, many social and unintended, and others life lessons that we carry with us well beyond those years of cliques and clubs and standardized tests.

I’m going to dig deep into the annals of high school for this post, so bear with me.

When I was a senior in high school, I was in an honors English class taught by an amazing man who could – literally – speak Old English. He could read Beowulf aloud in the original text.  Seriously.  But that’s beside the point.

Our class was given an assignment: write the beginning of a frame story introducing five unrelated characters and put them in a unique situation in which they all must come together, alá Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I worked my butt off. I spent every minute of my free time on the assignment. I had written stories my whole life – kept them in secret notebooks tucked away in the bottom drawer of the desk in my bedroom and never shared them with a single soul because I thought creative writing was, well, somehow embarrassing.

So this was just the kind of writing assignment that I lived for.  Had been waiting for.

And damn, was it good.

The night before the assignment was due, I was at a friend’s house, where there was a gathering of students from the English class. Everyone traded papers and read each other’s stories. One student – I’ll call him Roger (although his name was really Jeremy) – read my story and turned to me with a smirk on his face and said, “This isn’t what Dr. Brown wants at all.”

I was crushed. I had worked so hard; had perfected every word, every phrase, every sentence. It was, I thought, the best thing I had ever written. And it was too late to do anything about it. It was nine o’clock the night before the story was due.

I drove home that night in tears.

The next day, I turned in the paper, knowing it was a complete failure, knowing, as Roger had said, that it wasn’t what the teacher wanted at all. Knowing my work — my very finest work — just wasn’t good enough.

A week later, Dr. Brown had the papers graded and began returning them. I was a bundle of nerves. I was terrified that I had failed. I watched as the students around me received their papers, talking to each other and sharing their grades. But no paper appeared on my desk. Imagine that – everyone has a paper, everyone is chatting about their grades – and I had nothing. Nothing but an empty desk and a desolate feeling in my gut. Kids started asking me, “Where is your paper?” and I realized that my paper was so bad, so supremely awful, that it wasn’t even worth grading; Dr. Brown had kept it to perhaps speak with me after class about its worthlessness.

And then Dr. Brown addressed the class. He stood in front of his desk as he always did, holding a paper in his hands. He said, “Students. Someone in this class will be a professional writer one day.” And then he looked at me over the rim of his tortoiseshell glasses.

“Kate,” he said, “Will you read your story to the class?”

The lesson, of course, is not to listen to the Rogers in life.

It has been twenty-seven years since that moment, but it still holds great meaning for me. It is still a lesson I draw on as I write today. And last summer I was reminded again of the Rogers in the world.

My historical fiction short story “Brigida” won first prize in Spider Road Press’s 2015 Spider’s Web Flash Fiction Contest and the story will be published in their 2016 anthology Approaching Footsteps later this year.

Which is great news. And which may or may not qualify me as a “professional writer” as Dr. Brown said. But it’s not the end of the tale.

When I first learned of the Spider’s Web contest, I stood, hands on my hips, staring at my computer screen – and laughing. “Seven hundred and fifty words?!” I shouted, spooking the cats, who ran off in three different directions.

You see, I consider myself a novelist, and had just completed a 92,000-word project. I never thought I could conquer flash fiction. I thought 750 words was an impossibility. “There’s no way I can create complex characters and a rich plot in 750 words,” I said – loudly — to the computer. Seven hundred and fifty words is half a chapter. A quarter of a chapter.

“It can’t be done,” I thought.

So there are Rogers lurking inside us, too.

And those are the Rogers that must be silenced most of all.

Cartimandua: Queen of the Brigantes

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“Women hold up half the sky.”  – Mao Zedong.

Queen Cartimandua. First-century leader of the Brigante tribe of northern Britain. She ruled for nearly a quarter of a century, from approximately 43 AD to 69 AD, and she was a formidable force for her time. Roman historian and writer Tacitus names her as the only native regina, or queen, in Roman Britannia. Not even the great female Celtic Iceni leader Boudica is given this title in his writings.

Cartimandua ruled the Brigantes by inherited right, rather than through marriage. She did eventually marry, but later divorced her husband and ruled alone. Making a treaty with the occupying Romans during a time of great Brigante tribal upheaval, she was defended by the fabled Ninth Legion Hispana – an honor in and of itself that showed her significant importance to the male-dominated hierarchy of Rome.

Things did not end well for Cartimandua – nor, it must be said, for the Brigantes. In 69 AD, a Brigante revolt during a time of Roman political unrest led to the downfall of the queen and to a long period of Brigante rebellion in the north of Britannia. Cartimandua disappears from the record at this point. The Brigantes themselves were eventually defeated by the Romans, and their culture, like most native British tribes, absorbed by the invading Anglo-Saxons following Rome’s departure from the island in the fifth century.

But she was there for twenty-six years, leading her people in a time of occupation, a time of great social and political upheaval in ancient Britain. At a time when the forces of Rome were transforming her island into yet another defeated province of the empire, Cartimandua remained proudly Brigante while balancing a solid peace with the very Romans who had come to bring a change of politics, language, and social fabric. Indeed, the Romans found her so valuable that they defended her from her enemies with one of their greatest legions.

Cartimandua. Queen of the Brigantes. Regina.

Forgotten now, like her people. But remembered, perhaps, for a moment or two, today.

Her life has been fictionalized in Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine.

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For a more scholarly read, try Cartimandua: Queen of the Brigantes by Nicki Howarth.

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“Remember the Ladies”

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“Remember the ladies.” Abigail Adams wrote these words in a letter to her husband John Adams on March 31st, 1776 as he and the other men of the Continental Congress set out to establish a new nation. “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies,” she wrote, “we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” It took 150 years after Abigail wrote these words for the United States to pass the 19th Amendment allowing women to vote, but we did it, and it all started with her, in a letter to her husband.

Women have long been forgotten in history. And women have long been characterized in the Classics and historical writings as hysterical, weak, and the downfall of men (think Guinevere). As a writer of historical fiction, I seek to represent women as they have always been: strong, tough, integral parts of society — the backbone upon which all of society was built. “Remember the ladies,” for they are the mothers of us all.

Some book recommendations:

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. The life and experiences of Dinah, a minor character in the Old Testament.

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. The Arthurian legend told from the perspective of the women, particularly Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay). A must-read for anyone interested in the tales of King Arthur.

Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund.  Una, a minor character in Melville’s Moby-Dick, is given her own voice and tale in this wonderful novel.  Read a terrific New York Times review here.

May 6th, 2016