reading list: birds, but not birds

I decided a long time ago to homeschool myself further into the writing and publishing world. Class is in session.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott

The fun part is that this book starts off with “When I teach a writing class,” and she refers to her students throughout the whole thing. So this book kind of IS taking a writing class!

SECTION 1: Writing

  • Good writing is about telling the truth.” Even if you want to write fiction, you can find the fiction in your own memories and experiences.
  • Short assignments in a “one-inch picture frame.” When feeling overwhelmed, focus on one memory, one description, one page, one tiny detail.
  • First drafts are supposed to be bad. Brain dumping, rambling, all emotion.
  • Overcome perfectionism.
  • Write your stream of conscious about what you remember of something – a one-inch picture frame about lunch in elementary school was her specific example – and see what you can extract from it for a fiction story. You will be surprised.
  • Polaroid development of a story: first of all, what’s a Polaroid? There used to be a type of camera, well before digital, that eased the actual piece of film out of a slot in the camera as soon as you took a picture. It was watery and murky, and gradually settled into focus over a few minutes. Do that with writing – keep going through the watery, murky phase as things gradually come into focus.
  • Characters: start with the people – who are they, what are they doing, and why?
  • Plot grows out of character.” Let the people do their thing, rather than trying to box them into a predetermined plot.
  • Dialogue: this should also be character driven. Read it aloud for flow and to make sure it makes sense for the character.
  • Settings: do your research, get it right. Don’t write about gardening unless you know about gardening, or ask a lot of questions of someone who does.
  • False starts are common. Start over, keep going.

SECTION 2: The writing frame of mind

  • Make observations. Pay attention to the real world, be a noticer.
  • Care, and write about the things you care about.
  • Use your intuition. When you don’t know what to do, get quiet and listen to your intuition.
  • Figure out how to work around your inner mean dialogue. There will be a voice in the back of your head telling you that you’re a failure. Learn tactics to get around it or to silence it.

SECTION 3: Help along the way

  • Take notes. Carry around something to write on and with, and write ideas down as soon as you think of them. This book was published in 1994, well before smartphones made this considerably easier. But the principle is still the same – type into a Notes app, a voice recorder to talk to yourself, take a photo, whatever … just make some kind of note so you don’t forget the idea.
  • Call people who know. We have Google now, didn’t when the book was published. But again – I think the advice still holds. Calling someone to discuss something you could find out on the internet is about the interaction as much as about the information.
  • Writing groups and writing conferences. In the past two years, we’ve obviously had a substantial increase in online conferences and groups, which is GREAT because it means that networking is even more accessible!
  • Get beta readers you trust. Again, “beta reader” wasn’t even a term when this book was written, but that’s what she recommends – a couple of people who you trust to give you an honest assessment of the status of your work.
  • Write a letter to one of your kids or a friend – an honest to goodness old fashioned letter – and tell them something that you remember.
  • To break writer’s block: write 300 words (or some kind of baseline), then go take a walk.

SECTION 4: Reasons to write

  • Write for an audience of one or two, to give it as a gift. Sure, it can still be published for widespread readers, but write for the one.
  • Write your truth in your own voice.
  • Be a giver, and give your best every day. If you hold back, it won’t work as well.
  • Publication: “If what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy. If you are lucky, you will get a few reviews, some good, some bad, some indifferent.” (p. 214) There is a sense of accomplishment and joy, “but you pay through the nose for this.” (p. 216)

SECTION 5: The last class

“So why does our writing matter, again?” they ask. Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship. (p. 237)

WYS: nature

WRITE YOUR STORY prompt: what is your favorite thing in nature?
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My answer: Waterfalls. I love the noise of the rushing water, the mist coming off the cascade, how the light sparkles and makes rainbows. There’s even a smell to them, with wet plants and rocks. The full sensory experience of sitting at the base of a waterfall seems to be a mental massage, washing away stress and angst, taking it away downstream. And I feel refreshed.
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It’s even better when you can swim under the waterfall, but the waterfalls I like to sit by are much too dangerous for that.
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We hiked to Sabbaday Falls in New Hampshire last week, along the Kancamagus Highway through the White Mountains. A friend told me a fun family history story of her own about that fall: her dad baptized someone in the creek at the falls in the 1970s.

WYS: camp

WRITE YOUR STORY prompt: were you a kid camper? Are you a kid camp leader now?
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My answer: When I was a kid, church day camp was for boys, not girls. I never got to go but had to hear my brothers talk about all of their adventures. I was never okay with that.
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I still remember the year my mom went as a leader with my brothers, so my sisters and I had to go to someone’s house for childcare that was literally a construction zone. I read the entire book – really, the WHOLE thing – of “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott that week, and my favorite book from Alcott has always been “Little Men” because the boys in the story had way more adventures than the girls, like my brothers had more than me.
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By the time my oldest child was 8 and in the usual age bracket for day camp in our church (ages 8-11), I had five daughters and zero sons. There was still day camp for boys and nothing for girls, and I still wasn’t okay with that. So I started it myself.
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It took a couple of years to jump through the hoops but when my oldest was 10 in 2016, we had a three-day day camp for girls in my church region. We went hiking and swimming, did crafts and engineering games, and had an entire day devoted to the upcoming open house of the Hartford Temple (Oct 2016).
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Church day camp for GIRLS is now part of our summer every year. My two oldest have aged up to the youth program, and this year, all three of the younger girls attended – this was the “baby’s” first year.
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Day camp planning and leadership has been passed to other people but I’m still here as a parent guide. I’m grateful that that girls day camp has taken off and is now expected here. ❤️❤️🏕️

WYS: beach

WRITE YOUR STORY prompt: what are your beach memories?
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My answer: I have always lived within 100 miles of the ocean on both the west and east coasts of the US so I could write for a long time about beach memories. Growing up, my honeymoon, and with my kids.
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The two beaches that stand out especially are when I traveled – the white sand of the South Pacific 🤍 at Sydney Harbour in Australia, and the red sand ❤️ of Prince Edward Island.
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My family spent time this summer at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Meigs Point beach, and the Mystic Seaport. We were hoping for a visit to the beluga whales at the Mystic Aquarium, but wow, that was crowded this year! We’ll catch up with them another time!

WYS: vacations

WRITE YOUR STORY prompt:

What are some vacations you remember from when you were a kid?

My answer: I grew up in Oregon, and our vacations were to visit cousins in California and Washington, with some bonus trips to Disneyland. 🎠 One trip that stands out was during my junior year of high school – my parents pulled us all out of class for a week. We went to Los Angeles for my uncle’s wedding – I was the maid of honor. And we paid a visit to the Magic Kingdom that year. My siblings and I carried around a map of the park and checked off the rides we went on.❤️
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My kids have road tripped all over the Eastern seaboard, but they will likely always remember our day at Lake Compounce just last weekend – a small, local amusement park. We learned that we do NOT like wooden rollercoasters. 🎢 The first ride we went on, SM lost her glasses. She had taken them off and put them in her pocket to be safe … Not safe. 😳 She went blind for almost a week while the optometrist ordered new ones.

Listen, Learn & Love book TWO!

Richard Ostler has produced a second Listen, Learn & Love book and it went to the publisher today!

The first one was Listen, Learn & Love: Embracing LGBTQ Latter-day Saints. I was the line editor and proofreader for that manuscript, and it was released in September 2020. The last thing I did on that project was proof the audiobook against the written manuscript.

About two weeks later, Richard emailed me about a second manuscript – Listen, Learn & Love: Improving Latter-day Saint Culture. There are similarities in the style of the two books – his scriptural commentary with submitted personal stories and comments from other contributors. But this one expanded out to cover more topics, such as not judging missionaries if they don’t serve the “traditional” two years away from home, not basing people’s value (including our own) on which leadership positions they do or don’t serve within, not judging people’s clothing or social media posts, and more.

Someone asked what the first book was about, and I said, “In one sentence: don’t be a jerk to gay people.” Now the second book is – “Don’t be a jerk. At all. To Anyone.”

My current church service (yes, in leadership) has focused on BUILDING ZION: developing love and unity within our congregations and communities. Both of these books are how-to manuals on building Zion, and it’s actually kind of sad that they are desperately needed. I personally think that we should be better than these books seem to indicate, but since we’re not, I’m grateful for kind people like Richard to teach us how to do better.

Write Your Story

Women have left fewer accessible records,
and they don’t fit into the frameworks that
male historians have established for understanding history.

– Dr. Julie Roy Jeffrey, Goucher College

To respond to the dirth of women in the historical record, let’s write our own stories. Don’t leave future generations wondering what WE did, and said, and thought; how we reacted to a global pandemic, what we tried to do to enact social justice, and more.

A lot of people don’t like journal writing or scrapbooking. Women especially don’t like even being in photos. But if you don’t do it, your record will be just as lost for your descendants as the records of your ancestors you wish now existed so you could know them better.

This past weekend, I started a new series of posts on Instagram that will appear regularly called WRITE YOUR STORY. There will be a question to answer for your personal history, and I will share some thoughts from my own experience. You can share your answer in the comments or not, but I hope you will think about it and WRITE it down somewhere for your family to learn about your life.

Our FIRST question is:

If you are a parent, how are school breaks different from the rest of the year?
What do you do as a family?

My answer: We are former homeschoolers, so I’ve raised my kids going to children’s museums, science museums, historic sites, zoos and aquariums, nature centers, and any kind of park we can find. Scouting used bookstores is a favorite – they either have absolutely nothing, or it’s a gold mine that we leave with armloads of reading treasure. We are also huge – YUGE! – and frequent users of libraries, even while traveling. So when we’re not in public school, that’s our fallback.

Our kids, sadly, have fully outgrown children’s museums – the ones aimed at preschoolers through about 3rd or 4th grade. This fall, our youngest starts 3rd grade. But even the too-cool-for-words high schooler still loves the aquarium and the zoo!

LDSWP: en espanol

I haven’t done any of these interviews – just guided them through the process as the team of writers has produced them – but we’ve had a run of interviews with women who are native Spanish speakers, involving multiple countries. HOORAY! I love to break the Utah bubble and bring in more women who are outside the United States!

Small But Important Things with Rhina Toledo, by Jenny Willmore. Rhina is from the Philippines, then moved to Spain and started learning Spanish online … from a man in Mexico. She eventually went to Mexico and married him, and they now have three children and she is a teacher.

We all know that we should be followers of Christ. But I think that my personal mission has been to put effort into the small but important things, maybe to overcome the weaknesses that I have, to improve better day by day, and to keep trying even when I make mistakes.”

Turn On Our Light with Alejandra Salas, by Jenny Willmore. Alejandra is in Argentina and started a podcast and website, Refugios Fuertes, to translate LDS faith-based materials (like the LDS Women Project) from English to Spanish. She and her partner have begun translating some of the LDSWP interviews into Spanish with cross-posting on both websites. So we interviewed her AND she’s part of the LDSWP team now!

I see that a lot of women, like me, feel insignificant when thinking of how to help in such a depraved world with our “tiny” talents. We think maybe we can’t change anything and that makes us delay our small but good initiatives. But what if we decide to think differently about our talents? Each one of us could use her talents to do something small and afterward pray, asking Heavenly Father to consecrate that small effort so that it might be magnified and be of benefit to someone. We have to motivate ourselves to turn on our light, because as small as it may be, it is still brighter than the darkness of the world.”

Celebrating Cultural Differences with Maya Yerman Sanchez, by Allie Brown. Maya is a Mexican-American who spent her teen years bouncing between the US and Mexico, attending the LDS boarding school in Mexico City for high school. (The high school was closed a few years ago, and the campus is now the Mexico City Missionary Training Center.) Her husband is also Latino and they now live in Texas.

I just want to be sure I share my appreciation for what our multicultural church has taught me. The Church is the same everywhere, and yet it’s also so different, and that is beautiful. The cultural differences are something that should be celebrated – they really bring different layers to spiritual understanding, and spiritual connection. It has influenced who I am and who I will become.”

The Pretend Investigator with Eileen Velasquez, by Darcey Williams. Eileen is a Latina who grew up in the US, and joined the LDS Church as a young adult when she helped her friend prepare for a mission by letting him practice the lessons with her. She served her own mission in the Dominican Republic, and eventually married another missionary who is Dominican, and they now live in Montreal. Covering a lot of territory!

I think everyone is friendly in the Church wherever you go. It’s really nice when you go to a different country and you can still expect to feel at home. I’ve been lucky because I’ve been able to speak the language everywhere I’ve been, so I’ve never felt out of place. … Here in Canada, it’s really fun because there are people from all over the world. We have members from Nigeria, from Ukraine, from all parts of Latin America, the Philippines, China. Everyone here is friendly and I think it’s exciting because you hear all of these languages spoken at church and it’s really fun.”

reading list: depression

Silent Souls Weeping by Jane Clayson Johnson is about dealing with depression in the context of the LDS faith.

Silent Souls Weeping

It’s a mix of memoir of her own experience with it, and interviews she did with other people, so there is a variety of perspective. Some people deal with the long-term effects of chemical imbalance in their brains. Some people had a short stint with just a year or two and then were fine. She had chapters on postpartum depression, and the depression of being LGBT in a religious environment that believes just being gay is a sin.

My family has a lot of experience with mental health issues and neuro-divergence, so there really wasn’t anything new for me in the book. But I gave it a high rating on Goodreads anyway, so that other people will read it. It has a lot of good information and stories that will help create empathy.

My personal take-away was a reminder to keep an eye on younger women in my circles of influence when they are pregnant, and to let them know clearly that “postpartum depression” can also happen DURING pregnancy. No one seems to know that – and doctors don’t tell you – until you actually go through it, which I did. I went progressively downhill through my pregnancies until the last one when I just wanted to sleep ALL the time, and ended up with an antidepressant medication just to get through the day. As soon as the baby was born, it was like a switch flipped, and I had my brain back.