Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Urban Writing


Ever since I moved a few years ago to downtown Albuquerque I've done my best to fit in as much walking as I possibly can.  At first I tried walking once a week, choosing different routes and scenery for each separate outing. Then came the pandemic restrictions and I began walking much more frequently, solitary journeys spent exploring the exteriors of closed businesses, locked libraries, and empty churches. It was a somewhat melancholy pursuit, but it was also a healthy way to get fresh air and sunshine and, of course, exercise. It was also a good opportunity to think about my manuscripts and other creative projects without distraction or conversation. Yes, it was lonely, but it was also time well-spent, especially as I would often take photos to later use as reference shots for some at-home urban sketching sessions.

In the last year things have changed considerably. Most places such as cafes and shops are fully open, more people are out walking or bicycling, and the general atmosphere is a lot more upbeat, exactly what you'd expect from a busy urban environment. I love the activity--even if it is more crowded and not as easy to take photos of individual businesses without appearing overly intrusive.

However, the change from "empty deserted street" to "watch where you're going" got me thinking about how fun it would be to switch from "urban sketching" to "urban writing." How could I use what I saw on my daily walks as writing prompts rather than solely as potential scenes for drawing?

A big part of urban sketching is what artists refer to as "reportage." More than simply drawing or painting what you see in front of you, reportage asks that we give an impression of what we feel and think about a scene. In other words, what's the story? And what do we personally bring to the sights we are witnessing? What part of us makes the scene our own?

To explore these topics more fully, I wrote up a list of ideas to get my pen moving:

Urban Story Prompts

  • Choose a location and then write a scene that takes place there in the past.
  • Take the same location, but now cast it into the future. What has changed? What is better, or worse? What are the people like?
  • Could the same or a different location be the setting for a fictional crime? What could I add to make it more sinister?
  • Or how about using that setting for a romantic tryst?
  • Is there a particular area I see every day that could be the catalyst for neighborhood dissatisfaction? A place that a group of characters might want to tear down or drastically improve in some way? Why do they want to do this; what's their motivation? What's preventing them accomplishing their goals? Politics? Money?
  • Choose and use a location as the basis of an important fictional memory for one or more of your characters. It could be an entirely new piece, or woven into something you're already working on.
  • Create tension by showing a character's fear of a setting, or their excitement at the prospect of going, or returning, there for some reason.
  • Invent two characters that have just left the place you are looking at. Why were they there? What transpired? What was their mood when they left?
  • Use the setting, even if it is a beautiful, elegant environment as the backdrop to a dystopian, Orwellian nightmare.
  • Or how about as the setting for a whimsical, heart-felt children's picture book?
  • Imagine the setting at midnight. Add some supernatural or paranormal elements.
  • What are the possibilities of using your setting for a nonfiction piece? You might enjoy researching the site or area and then writing about a little-known aspect or history of the place.
  • Could the setting be an essential part or reason to write a memoir of some sort? Is it a place you know well and therefore holds a wide series of associations for you?

Whether or not you are more than familiar with a certain place or are seeing it for the very first time, try to tune into your emotions as you write. As with all the best and most productive freewriting sessions, write about what makes you sad or happy or nostalgic about a certain view or group of buildings. Don't stop to erase, cross out, or censor what comes up for you. Always go with your initial thoughts and instincts.


Lastly, be sure to include as many details of your setting as you can: doors, windows, gardens, the cat under the tree, the way light falls on the pavement. You might not want to use absolutely everything you write when it comes time to edit, but it's handy to have a full account to pick and choose from.

Tip of the day: Keep in mind that you don't always have to go for the photogenic or "postcard perfect" scene. Dilapidated, neglected, and forgotten "out of the way" places can often be the most fun to write about. Enjoy your walk and don't forget your notebook!


Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Grief Scarf

One night during the early weeks following my husband's death, I listened to a radio interview with Michelle Obama promoting her most recent book. Part of the conversation delved into how she had used knitting as a way to fend off depression and anxiety during Covid. Up to that point in the discussion, I had only been half-listening, not really paying attention, but at the word "knitting" I perked up, curious to learn how something as basic as yarn could turn your mood around. I was also intrigued that a First Lady could share such common feelings as anxiety and depression.

Until I discovered--and became more interested in--beading and art, I loved to knit. Over the years I made both my husband and myself countless pullovers, cardigans, vests, and of course, scarves. My main times to pick up yarn and needles were Sunday mornings when we watched motor racing on TV: Formula One, Indy cars, Moto GP, super bikes. Honestly, my husband would have watched lawn mower racing if it had been televised and the mowers went fast enough. Sitting beside him cheering on his favorite drivers I grew to love the sport too, but found I needed something like knitting to feel a little more productive during those endless lap-after-lap battles. After a while, though, we eventually had enough knitted clothing to last several lifetimes and I began to simply enjoy the races without the need for extra activity.

But after the interview with Mrs. Obama, I thought, well, maybe knitting would be fun. I had the needles, and a trip to the craft store was easy enough. The next morning I got in the car and drove to the nearest strip mall, quickly finding a soft, lilac/lavender chenille I thought would be perfect for a winter scarf.

When I got home is where things became more challenging. Of the dozens of needles I had packed away, the only size I didn't have was the one the yarn called for, Number 9. Too bad, I thought, 8.5 will have to do.

I didn't have a pattern. No problem, just cast on some stitches, right? I knew that if I knitted a standard stocking stitch it would result in a curled scarf that could double as a pool noodle, and garter stitch seemed too easy. Moss stitch would be the one for me. Which would also require that I concentrate, be aware of what I was doing at all times, and be willing to unpick any wrong stitches; none of which I was very good at right then and there.

Never mind, I told myself after the first several mismatched rows. Just carry on no matter what happens, exactly how I was living my life at that point. I was becoming familiar with making mistakes and taking countless missteps. Much of the time all I could do was laugh through my tears as I imagined my husband's mock-horror at my inexpert attempts to get by.

But "get by," I did. Last week I finished the final row of the scarf, and people, it is the worst thing I have ever made in my entire life. And you know what? I don't care. Every dropped stitch, gaping hole, wrong pattern twist is a witness to how I'm surviving, and I'm proud of myself. I'm trying. I'm doing my best. I've knitted a scarf that when it's scrunched around my neck not a soul will know what's "wrong with it."


There are so many lessons woven into this strange little piece of handiwork, first and foremost being that even in the depths of despair, when I was certain I couldn't walk across the room or turn on a light to see what I was doing, taking some kind of action, any action, took me to the next step. After that, I took another, and another. I kept going.

I learned that creativity doesn't have to be grand. I might not have the energy or focus to work on my new novel, paint a series of watercolor forests, or submit my last manuscript to sixty different agents, but I can still do something. Knitting is soothing, meditative, a rhythm of knit one, purl one I find calming regardless of the order I follow. Working with my hands helps me to watch movies and news programs more easily. (For some reason I previously couldn't sit through more than ten minutes of any program without feeling restless and scared. I'm glad to say that's well behind me now.) 

More than anything else, the Grief Scarf, as I call it, taught me that mistakes are unavoidable. They happen. I have the choice to fix my stitches if I think they are important enough (I don't), or I can start over and use my new-found strength and knowledge to try a fresh outcome. Which is precisely the path I've chosen, starting all over again with a new project I've named the Happy Scarf:

This time I've got the right size needles and I'm going with easy and fail-proof garter stitch. I chose a bright yellow inspired by the Japanese practice of kintsugi or kintsukuroi: mending broken items, mainly pottery, with gold. In Japan, when an object such as a valued tea cup breaks, molten gold is poured between the cracks, making that object more beautiful because it has a history, including flaws and accidents. It represents, as I read in one online article, "a life well-lived." A worthy goal if I've ever heard one.

Thank you as always for visiting. Keep stitching!

Monday, January 16, 2023

My Year of Letting Go



 My husband died on September 9, 2022. My world has completely fallen apart, and I must learn to build it back again. Piece by piece, just like my husband would have wanted me to.

My husband was the handy one, a self-taught engineering genius with sixteen patents to his name. There wasn't a thing he couldn't fix whether it was a twelve-foot high molding machine or a broken buckle on my shoe. But for all his mechanical skill, a broken heart might have been too great a challenge, even for him. Then again, when I think really hard about it, I know he would have come up with an answer, probably something along the lines of, "Don't just stand there crying, get to work! Come on, dry your eyes and grab that hammer." Yep, he was a man of action.

With the onset of his illness however--stage 4 liver cancer that suddenly appeared the day we came back from a trip to Texas--I found it next to impossible to continue my usual creativity-based schedule. On the good days when my husband was sleeping or watching TV, I managed to do a little drawing or some editing on my WIP, but blogging, and on any kind of regular basis, was an activity that left me cold. How could I blog when all I wanted was to bury myself alive?

In the early years when I started my blog, my initial intention was to help beginning writers. As time passed, it grew to include art-making, beading, travel, a variety of topics to encourage creativity in anyone who stopped by to read, no matter their level of skill. To round out the theme, I always wrote two kinds of annual "bookend" posts: one listing my personal highlights of the old year followed by a related post listing the things I hoped to achieve for the New Year ahead. Included with my list was also a chosen word for the year. 

For the start of 2022, I wrote out a few simple goals (most left unaccomplished) but more importantly, I wrote that I was going to be open to whatever life brought to me. To accompany my new attitude, I chose with no sense of irony whatsoever one of the happiest words I know: optimism. Seriously. Optimism. I'm still reeling from the disconnect, wondering, "what on earth was I thinking??"

And yet. There might have been something profound life was trying to tell me, a message that perhaps wasn't applicable to 2022, but certainly can be considered for 2023. Optimism might be the word telling me that if I can put aside my fear for five minutes, it might be the very thing that will keep me from utter despair. It might be the only word I will ever need to help me stay focused on all that is good and worthwhile.

During the worst of my husband's illness, I would try to help him sit up in bed and drink some water or juice by holding onto the glass for him. My reluctance to hand the glass over without hovering to catch it would drive him nuts. Repeatedly he would say, "Let go!" and I would say, "No, YOU let go." This would go back and forth until one of us gave up and the water spilled everywhere and we were both drenched, when we would start all over again. Eventually it became a sort of game, something--as crazy as this sounds--we would laugh about.

One afternoon though, after changing the blankets for the umpteenth time, I found myself thinking about what "let go" really meant. In my heart I knew, as much as I hated it, that my husband had to let go of life. It was inevitable, a kind of "if not today, then tomorrow" type of knowledge. I knew the longer he remained alive, the longer the suffering would continue, for both of us. I had to let go of wishing this wasn't happening; let go of my expectations of what our life was "supposed to be"; let go of the business we had spent twenty-seven years growing together. I had to let go of, well, everything.

Nearly five months later, I'm beginning to understand that letting go isn't the horror I thought it would be, and that optimism can help in ways I never thought possible. Optimism is helping me let go of the big things along with the small: accepting that we no longer share a creative work space that allowed for car restoration along with novel-writing; that we're not going to order cocktails at the top of Sandia Peak ever again, or share a plate of potato chips while we watch Jeopardy!, or that we won't be moving to Portugal, an idea we toyed with while drinking our cocktails.

In other words, I've started to let go, not of my happy memories or even my grief for that matter, but letting go of hyper-vigilance, fear of the future, constant worry about what will become of the material things I've had to release, the business being number one. As I let go of what were essentially terrible burdens, I am discovering that there is now room to keep the things my husband would never want me to be without: Gratitude for the wonderful life we had together--forty-eight years!; belief and reliance upon the power of creativity to pull me through to wherever it is I'm going; and my strong belief that each one of us has an undying purpose and reason for existing in the first place.

One of the last entries in the journal I kept while I was still actively resisting the idea of letting go turned into a poem of sorts:

Wild Horses

I wish wild horses could take me away,

that I could fade into ink

and never return, just spread out 

fainter and fainter until I was only a

landscape, emerging from a stranger's pen.


Re-reading these lines, I realize the horses have always been by my side, waiting patiently for me to give them free rein. It's time I let them take me into a new chapter, the one I promised my husband I would eventually enter and that I would make the best of. For that promise alone, I will let go and begin to write not with sorrow, but with hope.

Thank you for visiting and thank you to everyone who has continued checking in on my posts even when I wasn't here to write them. I appreciate you all so much. Have a happy and creative New Year. I'll be back.