Writing: A Typical Day at WISC

One of the reasons writers crave time away to write is that so much of our daily lives isn’t actually spent writing. We all have family, friends, community work, administration (answering inquiries about writing assignments, talks, workshops; publicity, paying the bills, reminding people to pay us, accounting, etc), and so on.

If you asked the average fulltime writer how much time they actually had to put pen to paper or hands on keyboard, the answer is likely considerably less than 8 hours a day (except in the days or weeks immediately preceding a big deadline, when we panic and make those words fly!).

Two hours of actual hands-on, uninterrupted time is a figure I hear. I’ve been writing a long time, so I have more practice in focusing and ignoring interruptions than many writers, which means on a good day I might get in three or four hours. But that’s a lot. 

So when we have the opportunity to leave our daily routine behind and just focus on our writing, we’re ecstatic. Or terrified, because then we have to actually produce something. Or both ecstatic and terrified. 

Which I think describes how I feel having a whole month here in Santa Fe at the Women’s International Study Center, with few responsibilities besides writing. I’ve gone through the whole gamut from over-the-top excited to what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here? And that was just the first day… 

So what’s a typical day of my writing fellowship like? 

Pretty ordinary. I get up at my usual time, around six a.m.. (Which is easier now that we’re past daylight savings time and those very dark mornings!)

An especially lovely dawn

I take a moment to appreciate the dawn out my windows, and then I do half an hour of yoga (which reminds me to be in my body while I write, not just in my mind), and my morning gratitudes, which include a salute to the four directions, plus earth, sky, and self, in place wherever I am; plus sending out love and good wishes to friends, family, and my far-flung community, human and moreso. 

After yoga I write in my journal for half an hour or so, and then I bathe, dress, and eat my simple hot breakfast cereal of organic whole oats and other grains, plus organic dried fruits, and cinnamon for sweetness and blood pressure/ blood sugar control. I read the news online over breakfast (although some days I wonder why I even want to know), and then head back to work. 

Breakfast (earthenware bowl by Jim Kempes–see below)

I do my best to focus and write until early afternoon, usually about one-thirty or two. Usually that means I write for a while, then have to stop to think, pace around, check my email, resist the obsessive urge to read the news, and then sit back down at the keyboard again. 

When the stream of words dwindles to a trickle and nothing I try restarts it, I break for a late lunch, answer more messages, and then go back to the writing to see if there’s anything else I can say. If not, I need to move, so I head out for a walk. 

Sometimes I have an errand (like walking to the grocery store for food!), but mostly I just ramble at random, letting the writing rest in my subconscious while I look at interesting walls, gates, gardens, sculptures, plants, and other sights, and listen to bird calls or ravens croaking, people talking in different languages, traffic whizzing past, cathedral bells… I smell tortillas frying or chiles or spicy piñon smoke. 

Eye-catching details in a woodbine (Parthenocissus vitacea) vine with blue berries and red stems

When I get tired, I come “home” to this quiet casita on a dirt side street and read a book from my stack, or check the news or answer emails… I usually eat my simple dinner early and then read until bedtime, do a bit of yoga and am asleep by ten. 

Yesterday I played hooky all afternoon and drove out to the Chama River Valley (Georgia O’Keeffe country) near Abiquiu with my agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli. Our mission was to visit Lesley Poling-Kempes and Jim Kempes, she a fine writer (and another of Liz’s clients) and he a ceramic artist. (Lesley and Jim stayed with me last month in Salida and brought me one of Jim’s wonderful ceramic vessels.) 

Jim’s large sculptural ceramic forms issue from the desert along the dirt road leading their house; I could have spent all day finding and sitting with them. (And I so wished Richard could have been there to delight in them and talk art with Jim.)

See it?

As it was, we had just time to admire the beautiful adobe house they built with their own hands (building the studio first, as is proper for any artist, and then the house), and then we followed Lesley to the house of a member of her writing workshop. We had tea with Peggy and another poet and workshop member, Ginger, and talked writing and women’s history and elections, and life. 

And then, all too soon, the sun set to the south of Pedernal Mesa, and it was time to head home to Santa Fe, tired but full from the time with friends and art and beautiful landscapes. 

Sunset from Peggy’s house

Today was an ordinary day, which meant I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, a joy in itself. 

Thank you to my Santa Fe friends for understanding my need to write, and also making sure I get out of my cave from time to time, and to Laurel and Jordan of the Women’s International Study Center for the blessing of this time. It is rare and precious, and I am using it well!

Thank you, Peggy Thompson, for the gorgeous hand-knitted wool scarf as well… 

The Gift of Being Part of this Life

Since turning sixty last month, I’ve been on the road more than I’ve been home. This last trip took me to Santa Fe during a spate of glorious autumn weather, as you can see from the photo above, shot between Ojo Caliente and Española on my way south to the City of Holy Faith (Santa Fe).

I arrived there on Tuesday evening. Wednesday morning, I recorded “Sculpting Your Stories,” a webinar about tools for going from rough draft to a compelling manuscript, for Wordharvest, the parent organization of the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference. “Sculpting Your Stories” will be available in November with a group of other writing webinars. (If you’re not on the Wordharvest mailing list, sign up here.)

After my morning of being videotaped–Wordharvest co-founder Jean Schaumberg and videographer Robert Muller made the experience  almost fun–I had the afternoon off to hang out with my literary agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli of JET Literary Associates.

First thing Thursday morning I dived into the annual conference of Women Writing the West, a professional association of writers and publishers who focus on the voices and stories of women writing about “the Women’s West,” past, present and future.

Touring Ghost Ranch with Lesley Poling-Kempes (far right), author of WILLA-award-winning Ladies of the Canyons.

We’re a varied bunch–some of us write novels, contemporary as well as historical, some of us write mysteries or other genre fiction, some of us write creative nonfiction or scholarly nonfiction about the region; some of us write for kids and young adults. What we share is a love for these wide open landscapes and those who inhabit them, humans and all the other species. 

I’ve been involved with Women Writing the West for more than two decades now, and have been part of the committee involved in planning several of the recent conferences, including this year’s. Now that I’ve survived four days and the usual crises involved with holding a conference full of field trips, workshops, panels, talks, and several different award ceremonies, I can say without a doubt this was the best WWW conference ever.  

From the tour of the famous Ghost Ranch retreat and conference center with award-winning author Lesley Poling-Kempes on Thursday morning, to Saturday night’s gala WILLA Awards Banquet, which I co-MCed with my comadre Dawn Wink, novelist, essayist and teacher, and the sister I never had, the entire weekend was chock-full of mind-expanding information, fun, and inspiration. 

Dawn and me planning our workshop (really!) at Alto Bar in the top floor of the hotel. (Photo by novelist Teddy Jones) 

I got to hear Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way and The Right to Write, among many other books) on creativity and writing.

Me and Julia… (photo by Dawn Wink)

Long-time friend Denise Chávez, American-Book-Award winning author of Face of An Angel among other novels, and also actress and playwright, gave us a rousing, funny, and thought-provoking luncheon talk on being a Latina writer today. 

Dawn, Denise and me after her talk (Denise is trying to look serious and almost succeeding). 

Colorado poet, singer, teacher and TEDx speaker Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer had us singing at the beginning of the WILLA Awards Banquet, and Navajo poet Luci Tapahonso touched our hearts and spirits with her talk and poems. Over the course of the conference, I learned about podcasting–my next venture, I think, about voice in fiction, research techniques, and so many other things.

I hung out with long-time writing friends and made new ones. Dawn and I presented a workshop (Mapping Our Stories) to an enthusiastic group of way more people than we expected, and they plunged right into cluster mapping and pictorial mapping, emerging at the end with a new perspective on their writing. 

I ate great food–oh, those green and red chiles!–laughed a lot, and signed books at the mass signing hosted by Santa Fe’s wonderful bookstore, Collected Works

On my final morning run before leaving Santa Fe yesterday, the full moon–the Hunter’s Moon–rose over the hills. I stopped in my tracks, stunned by its beauty in the gilded dawn sky.

And gave thanks for the blessing of being able to love and laugh and learn, as well as to cry and comfort. To live with my heart open to the world in all its contradictions, its beauty and its pain. To be here, fully part of this life. 

Like a Gift From the Air

In Thornyhold, one of Mary Stewart’s later novels, the heroine says that a message came to her “like a gift from the air.” 

That phrase perfectly describes how I feel about the beautiful ceramic vessel in the photo above, the work of Jim Kempes, husband of my friend Lesley Poling-Kempes. Lesley and Jim stayed with me last night on their way home from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association show in Denver, where Lesley’s newest book, Ladies of the Canyons, won the Reading the West Award

When Lesley and Jim arrived, Lesley handed me a gift bag decorated with a sky-blue ribbon holding a sprig of juniper and chamisa from their place outside Abiquiu, New Mexico. In the bag was a copy of Black River, a novel which also won the Reading the West Award, and, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, Jim’s vessel. 

I took the ceramic piece out and cradled it in my hands, feeling the glassy smooth glaze, the lines of bumps like the knobby layers of sandstone in northern New Mexico cliffs, and the four sides with their rounded corners reminding me of the four directions of the earth. The lid was taped shut, and I didn’t peel back the tape and open it then because I was eager to show Lesley and Jim around Salida. 

We walked down the trail that runs across the creek from my house, explored the Steamplant, the historic steam generating plant that is now our town theatre and convention center. I took them through the Sculpture Park and showed them “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture there. Lesley ran her hands over the chisled rhyolite top stone with its 128 embedded marbles; Jim admired the big steel gate hinges that join the lower two rocks, opened like an opportunity beckoning. 


We walked along the river and I told them about the transformation of the Arkansas from a drainage that periodically ran orange with toxic mining waste to Colorado’s newest and longest stretch of Gold Medal trout water. We strolled F Street and admired the historic brick buildings, and visited Cultureclash, one of my favorite Salida galleries (the other is Gallery 150).  

When we got hungry, we headed to The Fritz, my favorite downtown restaurant. It was hopping and there wasn’t a table, so we sat outside on the patio with our drinks and talked about art and writing and life. Then we went inside into the busy warmth and ate delicious food while talking more. 

By the time we walked the few blocks home, Lesley and Jim were tired from their long day, so I made sure they were comfortable in the studio. And then, back in the house, I remembered I hadn’t opened Jim’s vessel. I carefully peeled away the tape securing the lid, lifted it, and gasped.

The inside is glazed in a deep midnight blue with lighter speckles that shimmer like the stars in the night sky. Carefully holding the ceramic in my hands, I turned it round and round, watching the light illuminate that starry interior.

“It’s like holding the universe in my hands,” I said this morning when Lesley and Jim came over for breakfast. “Thank you.” 

Jim smiled his warm smile, “I call that glaze Milky Way Blue.”  

“That’s exactly right,” I said.

Before they hit the road for Abiquiu, we took a silly selfie of the three of us below. Then they packed up and headed south. 

As I settled on the couch later to finish the slides for the WILLA Awards banquet at the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe this week (where I’ll see Lesley again, since Ladies of the Canyon also won a WILLA), I remembered the phrase from Mary Stewart’s novel. 

“A gift from the air” describes both Lesley and Jim’s visit, and Jim’s beautiful ceramic art. Before they arrived, I had been feeling harassed and overwhelmed by all I have to do before I leave on Tuesday; by the time they left, I just felt good–my spirits refueled by our conversation and their company. 

I also felt a wave of grief that Richard, who left this life too soon, never got to meet Jim and Lesley. They would have enjoyed each other, and Richard would have especially treasured talking art with Jim. Their work is in a similar vein, abstract and rooted in a love for this earth. 

Richard outside his studio with Matriculation suspended by the crane he built for moving sculptures. 

Richard appeared in my life 34 years ago with his then three-year-old daughter Molly. They were another gift from the air. I’m fortunate to still have Molly, I know. But that doesn’t keep me from wishing her daddy–the great love of my life–was with us too.