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Shore Lines

What Happened to February?

 

Bloggers normally post new material consistently—every week or two, ideally—but there's nothing normal about the past twelve months. I last posted on February 1, just a day before I started to have symptoms that lasted for three weeks: chills, fever, headaches, body aches, cough. I've had three tests for Covid-19 and all came back negative, but my doctor is fairly sure I had it, and judging by how exhausted I've been since Groundhog Day, I tend to believe her.

 

I'm quite lucky that I didn't get nearly as sick as many people have, but even six weeks later I don't have anything close to the energy level I had before I got sick. It's frustrating because this is the time of year when I most want to get outside to prepare the garden for springtime. While all the plants are perennials that come back all by themselves, I need to pull the chickweed before it sets seed, and I may need to transplant some seedlings generously dropped by the grown plants last summer. The process is akin to editing a manuscript.

 

I do have a manuscript in progress, a new novel that I'm only a third of the way through, but the sustained concentration that requires has been impossible over the past weeks. I can write in short spurts, though, so I've written a lot of poetry instead, some of which I may actually revise and send out into the world one of these days. I'm also putting the finishing touches on my presentation for this year's virtual Bay to Ocean Conference, sponsored by the Eastern Shore Writers Association (ESWA). My session for fiction writers explores the many uses of description, with some do's and don'ts and a writing exercise (two if we have time). This is always a fun conference, and great value for writers at all experience levels. Hope to see you there!

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Time to Wake Up, Phil

Today marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Tomorrow, in Punxsutawny, Pennsylvania, a large rodent will be pulled from his den and held up, grumpy and blinking and not ready to get up, to tell us whether winter will continue for another six weeks. Somehow I think it will.

 

Many of us start the new year like Punxsutawney Phil, and those of us who are not morning people tend to get up grumpy. For that reason, I've always found the morning session at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway to be my least favorite. It requires people like me to be sociable enough to read and discuss poetry with a table full of other poets until it's time to receive the day's prompt. This year, because the workshop was online, I didn't have to get up early enough to shower and put on reasonably acceptable clothes, or walk outside in freezing cold to get to the hotel's large ballroom for the session. I could stay in my comfy sweats and bring my coffee to the desk in my office. After we heard the day's inspirational poems read by the poetry faculty, we were sent into Zoom breakout rooms to chat about the poems for a few awkward minutes. Sometimes it took longer than normal to get rolling—it's so much easier to discuss poetry face to face—and always we'd be cut off just as the discussion really got rolling, but it was a decent approximation of the usual process.

 

After getting the day's prompt, I'd leave the computer, settle into a comfy spot with more coffee and some dark chocolate, draft the day's poem, and break for lunch. In the afternoon, I'd spend three hours workshopping with nine or ten other poets. That part worked better than I had hoped. Zoom sessions may be weird, but they're a lifeline for those of us who need the company of other writers. Having four new draft poems, with suggestions for revision, is a great way to start the year, even for those of us who have a hard time with mornings. Tomorrow, Punxsutawny Phil will have all my sympathy.

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Why I Like Critique Groups

Two weeks ago, I bemoaned my lack of writing as the new year began. But on the 6th, I met via Zoom with the members of a poetry critique group I enjoyed attending in 2019. Although meeting online wasn't as much fun as meeting in person, it was a pleasant change to see whole faces, not just eyes, and to hear everyone's voice. I submitted a poem I'd been having trouble with, and the excellent feedback I received helped me revise the poem into something much more substantial.

 

My normal poetry-writing process is to write too much and then cut, usually ineffective first lines, a weak ending, and unclear images in between. This time, I reversed that, because the group helped me realize I was simply describing a scene instead of showing how I felt about it. Adding more sensory details, and expanding beyond the initial scene, have made it a stronger poem that says something now. It probably needs more revising, but now I have much more to work with.

 

Most writers have a hard time seeing our own work objectively. That's why it's so important to find other writers who can help with us with that. Family and friends who love us will rarely want to hurt our feelings by pointing out anything negative, so we need other writers to provide the constructive criticism necessary to guide our revisions.

 

Over the next few days at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, I should come up with four more draft poems. Each will be workshopped by a small group of other poets. These hastily written first drafts will be far from ready for publication, but the comments will help me see what works and what doesn't, and will lead me into the revision process with concrete suggestions in hand. This workshop process works very well for me; I've had about 20 poems published that began with a draft at the Getaway.

 

No ferry ride this year, but at least I have a water view to inspire me!

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Unresolved

It's traditional to make resolutions at the start of each new year, but after a year like 2020, I think we all deserve a break. No one keeps resolutions anyway, so why start the year primed for defeat?

 

It's January 3, and I haven't written anything new yet, except for this blog post. I'm okay with that. I'm an ease-into-warm-water kind of person, not one to dive into a frigid ocean. My usual way to jumpstart my writing in January is the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. It's going to be online this year. I'll miss the ride on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry, the drive up the Garden State Parkway, checking into the beautiful Seaview Inn, and catching up with writer friends. I'll miss the luxury of writing in a hotel room, the fun of an in-person poetry workshop, and socializing in the evening. But I'm looking forward to unusual writing prompts, the challenge of writing a draft poem on the clock, and the feedback that guides my revision process. And I'll be curious to see how the online experience compares with the face-to-face one.

 

I'll let you know in a couple of weeks.

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Happy Solstice!

Happy Solstice

 

Our neighbor's Christmas lights are comforting on this longest night of the year. Tomorrow night will be all of two seconds shorter—not much progress, but we're finally moving in the right direction. I know many people love the fall season, but for me it's a sad spiral into the blahs as the sunset comes earlier every day. If not for the holidays, and our entertaining, winter-resident Bufflehead ducks, this would be a dreadful time of year. I envy the animals who hibernate through it.

 

Like many people, I will be happy to say goodbye to this unusual year. What started with so much anticipation last January—remember that?—descended into anxiety, sorrow, anger, and ennui. The one bright spot for me was the publication of Eve's Daughters, a novel I'd worked on for years and tried to get published for years. I'm grateful to everyone who's buying it, reading it, and reviewing it. But my happiness is offset by the crazy circumstances this holiday season. My husband and I are staying home instead of being with family we don't get to see often enough in a normal year.

 

I hope everyone I know will stay safe and healthy through the holiday season. May we all have renewed energy to write as every day gets longer and the sun grows warmer.

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Why "Shore Lines"?

I'm from New Jersey, so a trip to the beach was always referred to as going "down the shore." When we moved to Maryland, we lived close to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay via the Northeast River. A few years ago we moved further down the Eastern Shore, on the peninsula east of the Bay, specifically the chunk that belongs to Maryland. We're as far south as you can get and still be in-state. Once, there were oyster wars along the watery border between Maryland and Virginia. Descendants of those fighting watermen still dredge or tong for oysters at this time of year.

 

I passed their boats on my way home from the library today. The boats are docked in the Small Boat Harbor, but locals call it "the shacks" because each boat is docked next to a small building. Some of these structures are new and freshly painted; others are weatherworn and run down, true to their name. The horizon beyond them was two versions of grey: steel-grey water, a lighter grey sky. Snow was falling but not sticking. It's winter, but tell that to the aberrant daffodils blooming in the front yard.

 

I had gone to the library to give them copies of my new book, Eve's Daughters. One copy will stay here in town; one will go to the branch in the county seat, Princess Anne; the third will take a ride on the mail boat out to the branch in Ewell, on Smith Island. The mail boat leaves for the island every day, promptly at 12:30, from the depot in town. Calling the city dock a "depot" is a holdover from when a railroad spur led down this neck of land from the main track along US 13 all the way to the dock. That track was built on a bed of oyster shells, the bivalves that put this town on the map in the 19th century. Now we're putting oyster shells back into the water, hoping the baby oysters will land on them, take up residence, and filter the bay water until they're tonged up to become oyster stew.

 

Today would be a good day for oyster stew, just as it's a good day for a trip to the library, and a good day to sit down with a cup of cocoa and a good book.

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Timing Is Everything

It's a cliché moment: a cardboard carton delivered to your front door. You open the box, and there's the reveal: years of work distilled into 6"x9" stacks of bound paper. You and your family are overjoyed! You're George McFly, validated as a novelist at last.

 

The carton came to my house yesterday. My third novel, Eve's Daughters, published by Moonshine Cove. Gorgeous cover, lovely printing. A real book!

 

I can barely remember what it was like the first time I received a carton full of books. I wrote my first novel during MFA studies way back in 1991. The revised manuscript was finally printed six years later. The carton was delivered and I opened the box, but that day our beloved dog was in the University of Pennsylvania animal hospital and we didn't think he'd make it. The moment I'd been waiting for all my life had come, but I couldn't give my precious book its due joy.

 

Since then, I've been lucky enough to have two more novels published, and two poetry books. Each time the carton of new books is delivered, I'm thrilled to see it. A vague idea became tangible, and I can hold it in my hands, feel how smooth the cover is, smell the ink. But there's only one first book for an author, and thanks to a sick dog, I won't ever know what it's like to feel uncomplicated happiness on opening that carton. My happiness was all for our dog, who, thankfully, recovered from a complicated surgery and lived another three years.

 

So if I'm a little excited right now to be holding the new book, please indulge me. Once in a while, a cliché is just right.

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