Book Review: Use Your Words

Because writing has been such a big part of both of our lives, an entire chapter of our co-written  Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink  is devoted to the topic of combining motherhood and writing. My first check for a published piece came in January 1989, a month after my fourth baby was born. I’ve never looked back. I’ve been writing ever since, with brief breaks after each of my next four children were born. I started my blog Mary Potter Kenyon in June 2009 as a “Housewife Writer blog,” and I’ve been teaching writing classes and workshops at community colleges, libraries, and writer’s conferences since 2011.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly during these classes is the question “How do you find the time?” or the comment “I’ll write when the kids are older.”

That’s when I pull out this picture my husband snapped of me at my typewriter in early 1994.

writing-with-baby-on-back

Yes, I wrote my way through much of those years of raising a large family. I wrote my way through caring for my husband during his cancer treatment in 2006, I wrote my way through mourning my mother in 2010, my husband in 2012, and my grandson in 2013. Because I intimately know the saving grace of the writing craft, I want to help other women (and men) discover it too. That’s the impetus behind my current writing project, a grief journal, and an expressive writing workshop I’ve put together.

Because I have a passion for encouraging young mothers to write, I was thrilled to discover this wonderful book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, by Kate Hopper.

useyourwordsjacket-cover

Each chapter focuses on an element of the writing craft and includes published essays or poems from other women writers, along with writing exercises that serve as jumping-off points for the readers’ own writing. Use Your Words is a book for both beginning mother writers and more advanced writers who want to improve their writing ability as they process the gritty, mundane, humorous, and sometimes heartbreaking nature of motherhood.

When Hopper’s daughter was born prematurely, she withdrew from graduate school, where she was pursuing an MFA, to care for her daughter. Her baby was five months old when she escaped to a coffee shop and began writing what would eventually become her first book, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood

“And for the first time since my daughter was born, the world felt a little bigger, and I felt a little less alone. Just getting those memories down on paper made me feel lighter. In the following weeks, I continued to write about Stella’s birth and hospitalization, and with each passing month, I felt healthier and more grounded; I was doing the only thing I knew how to do to make sense of what happened to me, to us- I was writing again.”

Yes. I know just what Hopper means. If you can’t take one of Hopper’s classes, offered online or at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, then the writing exercises after each chapter are sure to jump-start your writing.

You can read more about Kate Hopper HERE.

 

Eccentricities of Writers

Readers of Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink are well aware of the foibles of the two authors. Both drank copious amounts of tea during the writing and editing of the book, though one Mary (Potter Kenyon) also begins every morning with coffee.
Both Marys love paper, though it could be argued that one acts on her obsession more than the other.
When Mary mentions our mutual love of paper and pens, I wonder if she knows the extent of my obsession. Would she be shocked at the contents of the cabinet where I store our school and office supplies? Three of the shelves hold paper; there are reams of white copy paper, stacks of colorful notebooks, bins of cute notepads, and brand-new boxes of stationery. Then there is the seven-drawer plastic storage unit next to my desk. The bottom drawer holds scratch paper for grandchildren to scribble on, but the other six are crammed with vintage stationery, decorated printer sheets, and a wide assortment of note cards. I do have preferences: smaller stationery to the larger printer size, thinner sheets to the thicker ones, and vintage styles to newer ones. Thin air-mail sheets satisfy nearly all my senses. I feel a thrill of satisfaction when I fold the letter in half and hear the crinkling as I insert it in the envelope. Sometimes I take it out to re-read it just to feel and hear the paper again before mailing. A scent of patchouli emanates from the incense sticks and soap bars I store inside the drawers of paper.” -Mary Potter Kenyon, page 171

stationery

And there is definitely a preference when it comes to favorite pens.

My love for the write stuff stems, I’m sure, from my country-school days. I remember shopping trips in late summer to nearby Tipton, a larger town where we’d purchase supplies for the new year. Lined-paper tablets smelled luscious. Pencils stood as sentinels: crisp, smart-looking, and ready for action. Sharpening them provided another delicious scent. Then, there was glue. Erasers. Rulers. Ballpoint pens as I got older. All of it excited me. Is it any wonder I grew up to be a paper, pen, and pencil aficionado? I like gel writers or any pen that has a good grip. Having a multitude of free pens, it seems silly to purchase more. However, once in a while, I do. I can’t help it.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, page 177

My favorite pen changes, but I consistently have detested any fine-tip utensils or colored gel pens. I abhor erasable ink pens. I love the thick pens that are free promotional items from businesses. I wrote much of the first draft of this chapter using a fat ink pen with a comfort grip. “Iowa Prison Industries” is emblazoned on the side.”-Mary Potter Kenyon, page 172

pen
And both writers have a favorite time or place to write.

When? There is no ideal, perfect time when I write Mary. I have dashed off letters at all times of the day, though the wee hours of the night are sacrosanct. Working around active children in the beginning probably aided in my flexibility to write pretty much whenever I want.”-Mary Jedlicka Humston, page 174

So, how do I write? What’s my routine? I’d love to say I’m very organized and have everything filed in its proper place, easily accessible at a moment’s notice. However, I have ideas scribbled on notepad slips, the backs of envelopes, scratch paper, and printed off the computer. I don’t have an office or a private desk, just a computer desk in the front room. Because of that, papers are cluttered into organized (to me, that is) piles by the computer, the counter by our landline telephone, and in drawers. Some are even in the laundry room. Sharp number 2 pencils and old scrap paper for my rough drafts are my go-to pieces of equipment. Composing on the computer occasionally happens, but typically it’s the pencil and paper that gets my brain clicking and ticking.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, page 75
OR
I pen most of my correspondence in the early hours of the morning. It’s my preferred start to the day. I also like to write a letter to ease into work on a book or essay. Since my husband’s death, I have also added Bible reading to my morning ritual, but the bulk of my pre-lunch hours includes writing of some sort.-Mary Potter Kenyon (page 173)
I never minded being asked to sit near a bed while one of my children went to sleep. Most of them learned to fall asleep to the soft sound of pen on paper. Now, I usually sit on the couch, a cup of coffee (or tea if it is afternoon) nearby. When David was alive, I often wrote at breakfast while he sat companionably silent on the other side of the table, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper or a book.”-Mary Potter Kenyon (page 173)

Both Marys admit to some eccentricities in their mode of writing, utilizing paper and pen or pencil for the majority of their rough drafts. Of course, the particular eccentricities of writers can change, and sometimes must. When I (Potter Kenyon) was hired as a reporter for the local newspaper last September, I lost my free mornings of relaxed reading and writing. No more yoga pants clad mornings, curled up on the couch, with a muse fueled by coffee. I’ve traded them for well-dressed mornings sitting in an office chair, though still fueled by coffee. As a newspaper columnist on a deadline, I’ve had to abandon my old habit of hand-writing my rough drafts. For more than 20 years, I’ve conducted the same morning routine of writing in ink on legal pads. Never the yellow legal pad, mind you. Those seemed to stifle my creativity. Instead, I stocked up on white legal pads, buying them in bulk. I’m not fully convinced my new method of using the computer for rough drafts would work for me in another book project, however. I’d have to pull out the white legal pads again.

legal pads
If you read either of the two books I’ve just completed reading, you might find our writing habits quite tame in comparison to other authors.
Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, by Celia Blue Johnson is a fun read peppered with facts like this:
• Virginia Woolf used purple ink for love letters and diary entries, and to pen her novel “Mrs. Dalloway.” While in her twenties, she preferred to write while standing up.
• Eudora Welty evaluated her work with a scissors handy. If anything needed to be moved, she cut it right out of the page. She’d use pins to put the snipped section in its new place.
• Friedrich Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his study. He couldn’t work without their pungent odor.
• Honore De Balzac consumed up to fifty cups of coffee a day and would sometimes chew on raw beans when he needed a quick fix.

odd type writers

Daily Rituals: How Artist Work, by Mason Currey, is a similar read, though it includes painters, poets, playwrights, and musical composers, with an insight into the daily schedules of these creative people, and a few very interesting photos. Let’s just say that I’ll never consider my desk as messy after getting a glimpse into Francis Bacon’s London studio.

franci bacon

What I found most revealing, and somewhat annoying, was how often the writer had someone else serving them food or drinks, and how easily they could leave the house for an afternoon of walking to clear their head. I began to wonder if I’d be a more prolific writer chain-smoking or swigging whiskey to fuel my muse. Could so many of these authors afford to lie in bed all day writing? Literally in bed, that is, as some of the writers wrote lying down.

daily rituals

There’s hope for writers like me, who have to work for a living. Not all of the authors featured in this book were funded by someone else’s money.  Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the evenings after work, writing longhand on a yellow legal pad. Toni Morrison, a single mom, held down a job and raised two sons while finding time to write in the evenings.

For a peek into the creative life, and perhaps some inspiration to jumpstart your own, these two books are entertaining reads.

Now hand me a glass of whiskey and a good cigar~