#amwriting Update: Finished!

The last few leaves on Ruby's cottonwood.

The last few leaves cling to the branches of Ruby’s cottonwood behind Treehouse. They were still green last time I thought I was finished with this manuscript.

#amwriting update: When I last wrote about my progress on the new memoir, I was close to finishing a major revision. I figured I’d be done by the end of the week.

Wrong. When I got to the last page of the story I call Bless the Birds, I knew I needed to read the whole manuscript one more time before I sent it off.

Only first I needed to prepare for the Women Writing the West Conference.

The sacred datura along the Treehouse retaining wall were just opening when I got home from the conference.

The sacred datura blooming along the retaining wall when I got home.

I got home from the conference Sunday evening just as the datura flowers were opening for the night; Monday morning I woke eager to begin reading.

After yoga and breakfast, I opened the file and began, making small changes here and there, smoothing out rough places so the story would really shine. I got so absorbed that I forgot everything else until my belly politely reminded me that it was past two o’clock and lunch would be welcome….

I made myself a salad with some of the last speckled “troutback” lettuce from my front-deck container kitchen garden, added sun-ripened Stupice tomatoes from the same, plus local cheese and not-local organic avocado.

The troutback lettuce that went into my salad (thanks to Renee's Garden Seeds!).

The troutback lettuce that went into my salad (thanks to Renee’s Garden Seeds!).

And then continued to read as I ate, the laptop open on the kitchen island next to my lunch.

I came up for air after working through six chapters. It was past four o’clock and time to stop before my brain quit reading critically.

I took my daily walk to the Post Office across town; back at home, I changed into my running togs and set off on my twice-weekly run.

Tuesday I got up and did the same thing (without the run), reading my way steadily through the manuscript, changing a word here or there, refining a sentence, subtracting a bit that seemed unnecessary, adding something I had forgotten. I worked until late afternoon again, making it through another six chapters.

Wednesday I read 8 chapters, which took me to Chapter 20. (There are 34 chapters in total.) Thursday I made it through another seven.

While I was immersed in the story, the milkweed seeds began to float away....

While I was immersed in the story, the milkweed seeds began to float away….

Friday I had a morning conference call and a one o’clock meeting, so I wasn’t sure I’d have any reading time. But I dove in after the meeting, and by the time I headed out on my Friday evening run, I only had three chapters left to read.

“I’ll finish those on Saturday morning,” I said to myself. Only somewhere in mile three of my run, when my body was tired enough that my mind quit its chatter, I thought of something I had forgotten to say, a loose thread I needed to weave into the narrative.

When I got home, I opened the file, wove in that thread, and then continued reading, beginning with the end of the chapter I had finished earlier in the day–I find it helps to start a few pages before where I quit reading  to get myself back into the story.

I read through dinner, sitting at the kitchen island with the laptop open, and then washed dishes, made my evening tea, and took my laptop and tea to the couch and continued reading. I read the last page through tears at eight o-three that night.

Indian ricegrass in my front-yard mountain prairie.

Richard’s favorite grass, Indian ricegrass, in my front-yard mountain prairie.

I almost hit the “send” button right then. Only my inner writer said, “No, read the new bits over one last time tomorrow morning. And then see if it feels done.”

I did, and made a few more changes.

I woke this morning thinking I had left something out early in the story. When I opened the file and looked, the bit I thought I had forgotten was already there. I remembered another little detail, looked for it, and lo and behold! It was there too.

That’s when I knew I was done. When I start fussing about things I’ve already included, it’s time to let the manuscript go.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll send off Bless the Birds. May the story I wrote with heart outstretched as if it were my hand at last be on the road to finding a publisher and its audience.

Treehouse at sunset tonight.

Treehouse at sunset tonight, just before I started writing this post.

Writing: Place, Community and Women’s Voices

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

Terrace of the Golden Hotel, the main conference venue, overlooking Clear Creek.

I’ve just returned from four days in Golden, Colorado, at the 20th annual conference of Women Writing the West, an organization of writers and publishing professionals who write about the “Women’s West,” telling the stories of the West through the experiences of women in the past, present and future.

It was a packed event, the largest conference WWW has ever run, spread over four venues, and hosting a sell-out crowd of 150+ writers/editors/agents and publishers from all over the US and at least three Canadian provinces.

Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the "Place As Character" panel.

Moderator Dawn Wink gets excited when someone recognizes a photo of her place in the “Place As Character” panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen

I participated in three panels, organized the Thursday evening quilt reception and reading by finalists and winners from our WILLA Literary Awards and LAURA Short Fiction Awards, reported to the WWW Board Meeting and addressed the Membership meeting as well, signed books, and sponsored the screening of The Cherokee Word for Water, named one of the top five Native American films of the year, and deservedly so–the story, acting and filming are bone-deep authentic and inspiring.

The film traces the early story of Wilma Mankiller, first chief of the Cherokee Nation, as she returned to Cherokee Country with her two young daughters and began organizing poor rural communities. It was followed by a moving panel discussion including Kimberly Guerrero, the award-winning actress who played Wilma; Charlie Soap, Wilma’s husband and a director/producer of the film; and longtime friend of Wilma’s, producer Christina Kiehl.

Another fascinating story to me was that of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder of the Little House series fame, and as keynote speaker Susan Wittig Albert explained, a famous writer who became more than her mother’s co-author, yet kept her role in shaping the stories secret.

Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the "Every Writer Needs a Community" panel. Photo: Stephanie West Allen

Page Lambert, Kayann Short and me on the “Every Writer Needs a Community” panel. (WWW commemorative quilt in the background.) Photo: Stephanie West Allen

The conference background sound was the buzz of excited voices as participants gathered to greet old friends, meet new ones, and share ideas and tips on all aspects of writing.

That excitement and sharing sums up Women Writing the West for me: community, not competition. A core value of the organization is to provide a supportive community to those of us engaged in telling and publishing stories about the West from a woman’s point of view.

Excitement... (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.)

Excitement… (A selfie with Dawn Wink at the Rocky Mountain Quilt Museum.)

To give you a taste of the conference, here are excerpts from my handout for the “Place As Character” panel featuring Dawn Wink, Julene Bair, Page Lambert, and me. The handout opens with a quote:

The birds and I share a natural history. It is a matter of rootedness, of living inside a place for so long that the mind and imagination fuse.

—Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place

When we talk about place as character, we’re talking about writing that shows place as one of the driving and shaping factors in a story/essay/memoir/poem. Place, especially place in the West, where our spaces are so large, our skies so vast and our weather so unpredictable, sculpts the lives of those who live there and the stories we write, whether real or imagined.

How do we write place as believable, authentic character?

“Know the place so well that you “live inside of it.” Spend time there, and if you can’t do that, read voraciously, talk to people who live or have lived there. Soak yourself in the place until it “takes over mind and imagination,” as Terry Tempest Williams says.

Use rich sensory “data.” Go beyond what we see: describe how the wind sounds, what the place smells like, how the sleet feels…. If it’s hard to think of sensory details other than the visual, go outside and spend five minutes sitting with your eyes closed. Note everything you hear, smell, and feel (without opening your eyes. You’ll be able to read it when you’re done). Then prepare to be surprised at how much you notice when your dominant sense (vision) is turned off.

And finally:

Write as if it matters. Because we need your voice.

Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen.

Cottonwoods along Clear Creek through the window screen of my hotel room.