ELLEN STIMSON’S VERMONT

I’m honored to have author Ellen Stimson in SunnyRoomStudio this week. And though it may seem early to get into the Christmas spirit, Ellen’s latest release is the perfect way to gently bring the season back into focus. She’ll tell you more about that, however, and she’ll also tell you about turning fifty. Ellen is blessed with a wild pack of children; not-so-wild but completely adorable husband; and a very civilized group of chickens, dogs, and cats. She writes about the whole divine catastrophe from an old farmhouse in Vermont.

Welcome, Ellen!

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Turning Fifty
by ELLEN STIMSON
(author of the bestselling book, Mud Season)

SO I WAS TURNING FIFTY. This was the first birthday that had really gotten my attention.

Well, okay, there was actually one other. Twenty-seven was a game changer, too. I remember standing in my kitchen talking on the phone to an old high school pal. Her sister had just enrolled in medical school. That would not have been so notable only she’d already graduated from law school, so it seemed like overkill. And there I was listening to her tell the story of the med school applications, On. My. Birthday.

  • My eyes happened to wander over to my living room coffee table.

Sitting on top of it was a silly vampire novel, called The Vampire Lestat by Anne Rice. Law school, medical school and Anne Rice. I thought, “Ellen, we really could be doing better here”. (So twenty-seven … but not since then.) Now came fifty. Fifty really isn’t really half of anything. You know as a middle age barometer 37.5 might be closer to the mark, but it just doesn’t have the same ring. We look instead to fifty.

As my birthday approached I started doing the math. My mom, who had recently died, had lived to be eighty-four. I had just read an article, in the Atlantic, about women who were born in the decade of the nineteen sixties (like I was) living an average three years longer than their mothers. So that would get me to eighty-seven.

But those last few years of hers had been a hot mess. So maybe eighty. If everything went all right, I decided I could reasonably expect to live pretty well until about eighty. I mean I don’t smoke. I don’t really drink. Cheese is kind of a hobby of mine but except for that … this gave me thirty years. Then I did some more math. Thirty years equaled fifteen hundred and sixty weeks.

Fifteen hundred sixty.

That surely didn’t sound like very much. It felt like, what the hell?

I was practically dead.

I went to bed kind of depressed. But then in the middle of the night the best thing happened. I woke up realizing that I wasn’t fifty yet! This was only April, and my birthday wasn’t until August. I had a seventeen free weeks, a death row reprieve.

I immediately set about trying to think up something cool to do with all that extra time. I had always wanted to learn the stand up bass, but that could take a lot longer than four months. I wondered how long til’ I could play “My Funny Valentine.” Plus as a girl who had been drunk on book love all my life, I had always meant to write my own book. That had the added benefit of not needing some expensive piece of equipment to get started.

  • Luckily I had a great story.

A few years earlier our family had moved across the country for a romantic country life in the mountains of Vermont. We’d fallen in love with the area one glorious October, cashed in our 401Ks and picked a whole new life at the “lifestore.”

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I’d dreamt about raising chickens and drinking my morning coffee by a waterfall. Only it hadn’t exactly turned out like the commercials. We did get those sweet chickens, but there were a few little … bumps, along the way.

For just one tiny thing, we still had to make a living. I’d sort of forgotten that part. (This is what it is like to be me.)

So when we got here, I bought what may have been the oldest continuously operating country store in America. It was one of those charming places with old candy counters and gorgeous ancient wooden floors. There was even the perfect old-fashioned bell above the door. It didn’t look like the kind of thing that could practically kill you. It had been happily humming along since 1817, and then I managed to run it, BAM! straight into the ground in a little less than three years.

Now that was a story. And I set out to write it. My first memoir was called Mud Season. Published by W.W. Norton in 2013, it set the tone for all that followed. I loved everything about this book project so much that I set out to write the second while I was on tour for the first. A memoirist gets to look at all the big questions through the lens of just a few characters.

Mud Season was all about parenting, living intentionally, business failure and place. The second one, Good Grief!, explored the boundaries of family and grieving. Both often get shelved in the humor sections of the bookstores because humor is one of the lenses I use to tell myself my stories.

In my life there is the wonderful and the hideous, (I have a wide emotional range) and the hideous is mostly just waiting to get turned into a funny story. The birthdays kept coming of course. This year I turned fifty-three and took a few flying lessons to celebrate.

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My third book, An Old Fashioned Christmas, was released this week, again from Norton. It is all about tradition, family, and food. The same characters are back, loving and fighting and doing all their regular human stuff. The critters, such a big part of our lives, are all here, too. Naturally I am writing another. Cause, as of this moment, I probably have about fourteen hundred and four weeks to go, and the way I figure it, playing the stand up bass would have been awfully hard on my back. ~

Thanks, Ellen!
You’re right … you have a great story.
Enjoy the season.

Find ELLEN on Facebook and Twitter.
Or via her website.

  • SEE you again on Friday, November 13th, as I continue to focus on memoir — the genre, the path, the point of it all. I will also be keeping you updated on the release of my forthcoming memoir: The Silence of Morning — A Memoir of Time Undone.

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When we value the journey itself, new realities are revealed amidst the old.  –dh

  • Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place is about digging into our surroundings to unearth an organic, timeless wisdom. If you’re looking for inspiration or want to lean more about a landscape, a place, that helped me to unearth my spiritual roots, this may be a book you’ll enjoy. We are much wiser than we imagine; it’s just a matter of tapping into what we already know. ~

OWNING HER VOICE

Those of us who write understand the difficulty, yet, the importance, of finding our own voice. Its authenticity will either resonate with readers, or it won’t, but if it doesn’t ring true to anyone, even to yourself, then writing a memoir could be difficult. So here’s an intriguing studio guest to tell you a bit more about “voice” when it comes to literary matters.

“Write them all down. The mistakes and the blessings and the places you cracked in two. Write the
prayers and the tantrums. The sacred and the profane. The open roads and the closed doors. Nothing is permanent.”
Jeanette LeBlanc

I’m very pleased to welcome author Susan Weidener to SunnyRoomStudio as my 44th Studio Guest. An editor, writing coach and teacher of writing workshops, she founded the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. Also, a former journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan left journalism in 2007 and after attending a women’s writing retreat, wrote and published her memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, about being widowed at a young age. Two years later, she wrote and published its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, a woman’s search for passion and renewal in middle age. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, completes the trilogy, inspired by and dedicated to her late husband, John M. Cavalieri, on whose memoir the novel is based.

“I write so that my handful of pebbles, cast daily into still waters, will produce a ripple. ”
Anne Schroeder, memoirist

Susan Weidener photo

HONOR AND OWN YOUR VOICE
By Susan G. Weidener

The writer’s toughest job is finding her voice. I think it is especially hard for women. We’re taught early on not to be “outspoken,” not to complain or “air dirty laundry.” We worry how friends and family might view us if we write the truth of our story. Fear depletes our creative energy.

Worse . . . if we try and manufacture a certain type of voice . . . literary, or “what sells”, or is “popular”, there’s an inherent deceit, a lack of authenticity. We have lost the ability to connect, not only with ourselves, but with our readers.

When we find our voice, we understand it is unique.

Everyone has an individual voice, based on their backgrounds, personalities, dialects . . . way of viewing the world. And that’s good.

  • Different voices need to be honored, not hamstrung by society’s expectations of what a woman “can and cannot say.” Distinctive voice offers a welcoming diversity of storytelling.

When I wrote my memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat and Morning at Wellington Square, I wanted to convey the voice of a woman who owns up to her own naive expectations and illusions . . . and her bitterness and unwillingness to accept the inevitable. She rails against the fates, so to speak, because her youthful and vibrant husband is dying of cancer. Her anguish is centered as much on his pain, as her own selfish anger at the unfairness of it all and how his illness destroys her dreams.

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“The things that make you a functional citizen in society – manners, discretion, cordiality –
don’t necessarily make you a good writer. Writing needs
raw truth, wants your suffering and darkness on the table,
revels in a cutting mind that takes no prisoners…”
Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

In Morning at Wellington Square, she has arrived at a more comfortable place – despite the major life setbacks of being a widow and single parent of two young sons. She still believes in “magic” – that it can all change in a heartbeat but now she is more hardened, more cynical. Nevertheless, she comes to accept, however grudgingly, that in grief and loss many important lessons are learned. She begins investing in the day-to-day adventure of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

I’ve often been told that my memoirs are unforgettable because I didn’t pull any punches . . . I wrote with clear, hard honesty and objectivity. I wasn’t centered on how the reader – might, or might not, view me. I’ve sold a lot of books – not a ton, but enough that I’m pleased readers cared more about the story and the themes I wanted to express, than whether or not they liked me.

  • In other words, I owned my voice.

Here’s an example of voice in writing from Morning at Wellington Square:

I’m the girl who typed away on a Smith Corona until 2 a.m.

I’m the bookworm who read Gone with the Wind.

I’m the woman with platinum blond hair in a sleek white gown with pearls at her throat, taking the arm of a tall, dark-haired man with Italian good looks. He smiles as we pose in front of a red oak door.

I once dreamed of falling in love with Prince Charming. The funny thing . . . the fairy tale came true. He was always there in my dreams. Then one spring day he walked into my life – just like that. No warning. Young, arrogant, his intense dark eyes locked onto mine.

Loss cannot be remedied, only lived through.

I’m a cynic and a romantic. Complex, creative, never dull. That’s me, or the woman I hope others see, not the person who sometimes wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and feels desolate, wishing I could hold him again, hear his voice. Yet I have said goodbye, realizing I have lived whole lifetimes without him. I am letting go . . .

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“The writer’s business is to find the shape in unruly life and to serve her story.”
Dorothy Gallagher

  • Let your voice resonate from the first page of your book, until the last. Honor and own your voice. ~

Thanks so much, Susan, for sharing your creative voice here in SunnyRoomStudio … a pleasure to have you here! Wishing you all good things as you continue to share your voice with others. – dh

Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. Please feel free to leave her a comment, or look for her on Facebook and Twitter. If you click on her name, you’ll discover her website.

  •  See you again on Friday, October 2nd, as I continue to focus on memoir — the genre, the path, the point of it all.
  • ALSO … I’ll be sharing the book cover and title for my memoir on the 2nd … thank you artist Paul Jackson for your lovely watercolor that helped create such a lovely cover!
  • Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place is a book about digging into our surroundings to unearth an organic, timeless wisdom. If you’re looking for inspiration or want to lean more about a landscape, a place, that helped me unearth my spiritual roots, this may be a book for you. We are ALL much wiser than we think; it’s just a matter of tapping into what we already know. Enjoy!
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When we value the journey itself, new realities are revealed amidst the old.

Ever-Evolving

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio where we are immersed in questions of life purpose and life meaning per our 2015 journal, Exploring Meaning. My Studio Guest, Susun Cooper, shares what is making her life meaningful.

Journal Focus Question:
With personal growth, how has your life path evolved — have steps along
the way helped you to authentically express what has come to pass within you?

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Giving Sorrow Words

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.

It’s wonderful to welcome author Sukey Forbes to this sunny space for kindred spirits. Sukey chose an important topic to write about, one I haven’t seen addressed quite so well before. Authors who tackle daunting subjects like the loss of a young child are often asked if writing the book was cathartic. Many readers assume so, and writers who are in the early stages of writing a book may carry such an expectation. But, for Sukey, that wasn’t the case, and I have a feeling she’s not alone in this regard. Here is what the author of a new memoir called The Angel in My Pocket: Love, Loss and Life After Death has to say on the subject. Welcome, Sukey!

Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
knits
up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.
― William Shakespeare, Macbeth

photo-3-2SUKEY FORBES

Having recently released a memoir and going out to speak about it with other people there’s one question I can count on being asked at almost any venue:

“Was writing this book cathartic?”

The first few times that I was asked this question I had to pause before my response. I wanted the answer to be a solid ‘yes’. Surely digging that deep, pouring my soul onto page after page of what ultimately became a book must be cathartic. Surely in the writing of the book some aching and wounding part of me had been healed or negative thoughts dealt with and then released. Some pressure valve of the soul had blown off some steam and left me quiet, relieved, rejuvenated? A bit lighter?

But here’s the thing. Writing the book was not at all cathartic.

Not. At. All.

Choosing to write a book about my journey into grief, through it, and then out the far side, required going back and re-living every painful experience again from the very beginning: sitting next to my daughter when she took her last breath; telling her siblings that their sister had died; saying goodbye to what had been my daughter and hello to a backpack filled with woe deepening into more woe, and questions begetting questions that would burden me day in and out for years. During the writing I had to revisit those long months where I struggled to find a belief system and a faith in God, or at the very least a sense of providence. It required re-opening the conversation with myself and others about what happens when we die and where do our souls go. Or do they actually go somewhere?

While I was in my early stages of grieving the death of my daughter I wrote privately in my journals about all of these things. At that time I was trying to make sense of my head and my heart. Those writings in the moment lead to insights and glimpses of a comforting future. Those writings along the way most certainly were helpful. Personal writing while I was immersed in my suffering was my safe haven. The journal writing that became the seeds of my memoir was most definitely helpful. It was probative in nature. I raged and I railed and worked through my many issues surrounding love, loss, and life after death. Those writings ultimately guided me to a place of comfort. Those writings at the time left me quiet, relieved, rejuvenated. Yes, even lighter. They led me back to a place of truly embracing life and living and those writings along the way were certainly cathartic.

But going back into grief retroactively to set together a narrative and a story worth sharing? No. That required not just dipping my toe back into those cold shark infested waters but fully immersing myself in the ocean of grief in which for years I had worked to stay afloat and then learn to navigate. That was not cathartic. That was deeply painful and yet a necessary part of the process.

JACKETCOVER

I chose to share my story when I had been successful in working my way from the depths of sorrow back to a state of living and embracing life. Until that point it seemed the writings would not be of interest to anyone other than me (or perhaps my children at some point in the future).

Writing in and of itself can bring us a great sense of understanding ourselves and the world around us. If we write our innermost thoughts we must be honest. We must write as if no one else will see what we write. When and if we are transformed in our journey and brought to deeper levels of awareness then perhaps those words become worthy of sharing. But by the time we sit down to write a book to put out in to the world the work of the soul has been done. Generally that is the cathartic bit.

All that said, writing saved my life. Being fearless with what may come out on to the page in any given moment was an important ingredient to getting to the meat of the matter. The mighty pen pulled me through. When it felt it was time to write for someone other than myself it was me who pulled the pen across the pages. That was difficult. That part hurt. But I would do it all again in a heartbeat because sharing our stories ultimately keeps us connected, growing, living, surviving and thriving. ~

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Sukey splits her time between northern California and Massachusetts with her family. She is an active mother to two even more active teens. One of her best tools in life has been writing to understand the landscape of head and heart and that is where she turned when her 6 year old daughter died suddenly at the age of 6. The words in her journals were the seeds of The Angel in My Pocket. Sukey is a graduate of Roanoke College and is also a non practicing Doctor of Chiropractic. She blogs for the Huffington Post and lectures on resilience, choosing to live, spirituality, and what happens when we die. She is currently working on a lecture series about life after death and modern science. The Angel in My Pocket is her first book (Viking Penguin, July 2014). It is a Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger Bestseller.

  • Visit Sukey’s website to learn more about her and her memoir: The Angel in My Pocket: Love, Loss and Life After Death. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter, and please feel free to leave a comment for Sukey here in SunnyRoomStudio.
  • You can find Sukey’s book at all the usual online places or ask your local bookstore to order a few copies!

Sorrow makes us all children again — destroys all differences of intellect.
The wisest know nothing. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • Thank you, Sukey, for sharing your thoughts here in this sunny space for kindred spirits. My Studio Guests always offer wonderful insights, and you have certainly done that with your guest post. Knowing what to expect when writing, or when reading, is important, and you’ve clarified a question that seems to pop up a bit too often, perhaps. Best of luck with your future endeavors!

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Perspectives of an Author

Welcome back to SunnyRoomStudio.

I’d like you to meet my insightful Studio Guest, author Karen Levy. Her memoir, My Father’s Gardens (Homebound Publications 2013), is nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize. Please feel free to submit questions in the comment section. And thanks for stopping by this sunny space for kindred spirits. Welcome, Karen! KarenLevy

Words. I won’t be telling you anything new when I say that words are powerful and precious, that they can be both inspirational and devastating, evoking heartwarming memories as well as bone chilling nightmares. Whether you’re an aspiring writer, a published author or an avid reader, you know how magical words can be, transporting us to faraway realms, offering respite from our own realities if only for a brief time. In my case however, words have done so much more than provide me with alternate worlds into which I escape (when I’m not reading incredibly bad student essays…). Reveling in language transformed me from shy immigrant to vociferous citizen. From an individual who had to write out entire sentences before making even the simplest phone call, to a published writer asked to give talks at author luncheons. While I always loved to read, and did so voraciously in my native Hebrew as well as in my adopted English, discovering the magic of writing gave me a voice, a foothold in a country in which I needed to feel at home. Initially the desire was to prove myself worthy of this new place that had welcomed me in. And prove myself I had to do, beginning with the UC Davis official who thought my writing for the Subject A exam was too good for an immigrant and accused me of cheating. So I sat under their watchful eyes once more, and wrote a second essay in response to yet another unseen prompt, dipping into the trove of words I had been collecting and honing, earning my entry through their doors.

Levy_Cover_Blurb_TopMany years have passed since that day, and words have served me well in return for my admiration of their beauty. And while I am enjoying the various book related promotional events for My Father’s Gardens, I am most vividly reminded of the power of language when I am creating it for others and preserving moments in time for myself. Without words I would not be able to describe how small my daughter seemed in the driver seat of my car, her license not a week old, her lovely face brimming with pride as she drove off down our street, disappearing from my view. I wouldn’t be able to describe the immense love I feel as I watch my son sleep seconds before I wake him for school, his dark beard incongruous with the bears still lining his bed, remnants of childhood not easily shed. I couldn’t tell you about the hot pressure of tears gathering and threatening to spill as I try not to but can’t help imagining their empty rooms, when in a year from now they will both embark on the next chapter of their lives without me.

This need to transform what I see and feel into written words allows me to make sense of my world as well as connect to others. And how incredible when both happen at the same time, when a piece of writing that had allowed me to unburden myself strikes a chord with a reader who felt the same way but didn’t have the words with which to release the pressure of ideas. Writing down what I think somehow untangles the confusion, gives form to the chaotic, sets free the voice that is forever narrating the life around me, as though it all wants to be set in a story and made immortal.

About Karen: Levy is an Israeli-American writer. Born in Israel, she spent most of her childhood traveling between her native land and the United States. Commuting between these two countries and having a keen eye for detail have afforded Levy the knowledge necessary to recount the immigrant experience in a candid style. Following her military service, Levy pursued her studies in the United States where she earned a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of California at Davis, and an M.A. in English/Creative Writing from Sacramento State University where she teaches composition and interpretation of literature. ~

IMG-20131010-01744 Thanks for visiting, see you next Friday, October 17th.
On October 24th, my studio guest is Sukey Forbes,
author of The Angel in My Pocket.

 Remember: If you haven’t looked within, you haven’t looked.

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