Probably Not the Blog You’re Looking For…

When I first started the blog, I had an idea of what I wanted it to be – something quaint, simple, and thoughtful. Something that didn’t rely on lists of Do and Do-Not’s, 10 Best Techniques of whatever. I wanted something personal and friendly, almost like a conversation with someone in your local coffee shop. Or a meet-up with a friend. Something that, at the very least, was consistent.

Well, here we are – halfway through my first real year of blogging – and I would consider this blog neither quaint nor consistent.

Rambling? Yes.
Simple? Probably.
Thoughtful? I like to think so.

The truth is, I had something of a chance of heart at the beginning of August, after celebrating First Harvest. I don’t want my blog to be just another author’s blog out there, giving out tips for writing scenes, or developing characters. There are far better and more qualified writers with blogs out there for that. I’m not that person. I don’t have a four-year degree in English or Creative Writing. I don’t have a dozen published novels or e-books out there for you to check out. And I may never have them and that’s okay.

I write because it makes me happy when I do. I write because I try to connect with people, places, and things that interest me, and writing helps me process and internalize those things.

There was a large gap in my usual posting because my concept of what I wanted this blog to be had changed and I was unsure how to move forward. Now, I have a better idea. It’s my hope that updates will be more consistent (there’s that word again) moving forward. There will be some difference in content, but the style of writing similar to previous posts.

There will be thoughts on seasonal things and nature, something I’m getting increasingly close to and aware of these days. There will be posts of poems and short fiction still, just as before, but there will be more personal non-fiction as well. Less emphasis on writing nuts and bolts, technique, but hopefully more actual writing.

If you’ve followed me this far, I hope you will remain. If you plan to leave after this, that’s fine…I understand.

Here’s to a new start and a better blogging journey…

Looking Forward to the Fall…

In the North Carolina piedmont, the fingers of autumn are starting to creep into the everyday.

Spider webs, both large and small, are draped over every bush, hedge, between tree branches, in little hidden corners of the porch. In the humidity, there’s a suggestion of coolness – a welcome reminder that the heat and stickiness of summer will soon end. Harvest decorations are popping up in the yards and porches of neighborhood houses, along with the macabre decorations of avid Halloween enthusiasts (a cousin of mine is one of them, she decorates as soon as the school starts every year).

Dove season – a tiny little window of recreational hunting that only lasts for two weeks – started on Labor Day. Incidentally, dove season usually coincides with the harvest of corn in our area, which makes for better hunting as the fat, little birds are eager to snatch up any fallen grains in the newly cut fields.

This year, however, the fields are still ripe with corn, the tall stalks beginning to brown. Less corn means less complacent doves, which means a rather disappointed husband for me. Still, there’s still turkey season and deer season to be had, so hope isn’t lost for John – who fancies himself a hunter, but who really uses hunting season as an excuse to cut his phone off and sit around in the woods for hours at a time.

And for me?

I’m enjoying the promises of cool weather in the whispers of wind through the trees. The scurrying of small mammals as they hurry to fatten up and line their nests in preparation for winter makes me smile. I think of setting out pinecone birdfeeders drenched in peanut butter and bird seed; of gathering little piles of acorns and bundles of sticks like I did when I was a child…just because.

I think of the warmth of family gatherings and sharing hearty foodstuffs like roasted vegetables, ham, and attempting to bake fresh bread (a new goal of mine this year).

Like so many people, autumn is my favorite time of the year. And this year I have a feeling I’ll enjoy it even more, because I plan to really be present and celebrate the season.

The craziness of last fall and winter made it difficult to really be present mentally. My focus was definitely more on those things out in the world instead of those in the local, natural environment. This year I plan to change that. I want to celebrate the season more fully, both in my everyday life and in my inner life.

I plan to crochet more. I plan to bake homemade bread for the first time (and then a second, and a third). I plan on sitting out in the autumn sun more, soaking up its energy and breathing in the cool, crisp air.

I plan on acknowledging how, regardless of how technologically-advanced our society has become or how crazy the world still is, I am still a part of nature and that it still has important, timeless things to teach me.

I’m looking forward to the Fall…this descent into reflection and the gathering up of things.

I’m looking forward to sorting through my thoughts, my feelings, reflecting on my place in the world, and what kind of seeds I want to sow, not only in the coming months, but in the days after the darkness of fall and winter have passed.

Return – a poem

This is the first year I decided to celebrate First Harvest, or what is known in some circles (mostly pagan), as Lughnasadh, Lughsana, Lammas, or sometimes simply “First Harvest”. It gave me a sense of peace and connection that I haven’t felt in a little while.

I wrote this a few days later. It’s rough, not remotely polished, but that’s okay. I hope you, my lovely readers, will find it resonates with you as well.

I long for the green,
for the wild and unseen.
I long to stretch my hand forth
to touch the unending sky.

The mountains speak
in low, mumbling tones but my ears,
like so many others,
have grown deaf to its song.

We are perished and dying,
our souls starving,
our spirits bleeding.
“Return,” the land cries.

“Return and you will be fed,
Return and your souls will heal,
Your hearts will once again hear our song,
and you will be free again.”

Copyright © J.S. White

Enough – a poem

I don’t remember your laughter
or the sparkle of your eyes
I don’t remember the strength of your arms
as you picked me up, brushed me off
when I fell and scraped my knee.

I don’t remember your tussled black hair,
tangling in the wind.
Even your voice is a mystery,
I don’t remember the sound.

But I have pictures
nestled in a cardboard box
in the attic, gathering dust
of you, of me, of us.

I remember your presence.
I remember warmth
and I remember love,
the kind of love I like to think
was just for me.

And that was
and is
and must
be enough

Copyright © J.S. White

Drinking from a Literary Wellspring in 2020

“I can tell you, without diversity, creativity is stagnant.” -Edward Enninful

Just before the start of 2020, when I reached a point in my writing journey where I had little inspiration and even less motivation to write, I took a hard look at the influences around me. I looked to my bookshelf, in particular, and realized there was a distinct lack of diversity. The shelves were overwhelmed by authors who looked like me, talked like me, had similar backgrounds. The lack of diversity made me a poorer, less inspired writer.

So I decided to make a change. I gave myself a reading challenge.

As it was 2020, I added those two twenties together, making a nice, even forty – I would read at least forty books by diverse writers. Knowing my weaknesses (and foolishly/arrogantly thinking I may not be able to find enough diverse books to read), I gave myself these minimal criteria to use while picking the books I would read”

  • 20 books written by male authors.
  • 20 books written by female authors.
  • At least 20 books had to be written by BIPOC men and women (diverse nationalities, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc.
  • Up to 20 books could be written by non-BIPOC

I made certain that my challenge was S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. I would read 40 books, where at least half were diverse authors. I would record each book I finished on a word document, where I would include the book’s title, author, author country and ethnic group, and book genre. I would give myself an achievable and realistic monthly goal of 3-4 books, and I had all year to do it.

The year started out slow, but steady. January and February went by, with three and four books read, respectively. March was very slow, with only two books. But beginning in April and May, I began to hit my stride – my interest was really peaked by the books I was reading, and I couldn’t get enough.

June came and I completely outdid my earlier attempts and read twelve books, finishing my original goal of forty books early. I upped my goal to sixty and read the twenty additional books in July and August. I upped by goal to eighty and reached that goal in late September, with twenty books read in one month. Honestly, I believe a madness took over my mind – and I couldn’t stop.

My well of creativity was so terribly dry. I saw through this reading challenge that one of the reasons for this feeling of aridness was because I was starved for stories which made me think, made me feel, made me laugh and cry. The fountains from which I drank inspiration and meaning had become stale, uninteresting, and meaningless.

The books I read from Muslim authors were eye-opening and heart-wrenching. The books I read from African and South American authors were breathtakingly beautiful and epic. The books I read from African American and Indigenous Americans filled me with a sense of conviction and humility.

It was as wonderful as it was painful. I could talk to others of nothing else. I had to share the stories I was reading with friends, family, anyone who would listen. They got quite sick of it, but I was enjoying myself so much that I couldn’t help it.

My final count for the year 2020 was one hundred twelve (112) books. Of those one hundred twelve books, ninety-one different authors are represented, of which forty-seven of those authors are BIPOC – which I’ll admit was less than I had hoped.

I had new favorite authors, however, and a much greater awareness and appreciation for how diversity is a glorious, beautiful state of being. I also learned how far we still have to go in the struggle for equality and the protection of human rights – not only here in the United States, but also all over the world.

“Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Photo of the fountain outside the Cincinnati Public Library, taken by J.F. Schmitz.

Mind Like a Magpie’s Nest

I promised to expound on my newest projects: the short fiction “The Bells of Reine”, and a haiku anthology that is (for now) untitled but will cap out at a respectable one hundred poems.

Suffice it to say, the short fiction is personal and dear to my heart, which means I will agonize over it for quite some time, and the anthology needs more poems and some editing.

Now let us get to the heart of this post – ideas.

Ideas are my bread and butter as a writer and an ongoing goal of mine is to keep my proverbial pantry well stocked.

Sometimes the ideas flow like water. The dam breaks and I get a sudden rush of plot points, characters, backstory, settings, scenes. More often, the ideas trickle in…slow and sticky like molasses. The ideas come into my mind, but don’t move. Won’t develop. Stop and refuse to go any farther. I might get a character one day, a snippet of dialogue another, a string of conversation overheard morphs into a half-baked concept of a scene.

Many are terrible. Some are good. A shining few might earn the badge of originality.

I’m not one for idea notebooks. I buy notebooks with all the good intentions of using them for my project ideas, but inevitably, they end up sitting in some hallowed drawer in my house. Beautiful. Pristine. And very, very empty.

Most of my ideas are kept in my head or on random bits of paper or on the back of receipts hidden in yet another drawer. My mind is like a magpie’s nest and is full of such literary debris.

My favorite time to work is at night when everyone else has gone to bed. From my pile of papers or receipts, from the shadowy nooks and crannies of my mind, I recall a surprising number of those little tidbits and mull them over, or reconstruct them, or add to them. In this way, they are never left alone, but aged and curated.

And sometimes I just savor them, sipping their many flavors like fine wine, before squirreling them away again to enjoy or to work on another day.

Mind Like a Magpie’s Nest

I think that, like a magpie’s nest,
my brain is full of treasure.
Yet, none may see,
except for me,
how full the quiet pleasure
that combing through
those rubbish thoughts
gives my nighttime leisure.

Copyright © J.S. White

Picture was originally posted on an article by Newcastle Herald (11/23/2015) and is the work of Eleanor Lennard.

Where I’m From – a poem

When I graduated from high school, there was a local writers group I joined. I was a member for quite some time, eventually taking over as the group coordinator (which is a fancy way of saying I would schedule meetings, take minutes, and generally keep the meeting organized and moving). One of the poetry exercises we did was called ‘Where I’m From”.

The idea was to take about twenty minutes to list all of the things you could think of about where you were from: your hometown, impressions, favorite moments or places, famous people from there, family or friends, sights, smells, memories, etc. After the twenty minutes were up, we were to take the pieces home and create a poem using some, all, or none of our brainstorming list.

Here is the poem that I created and refined over the years. It’s not award-winning material, but I love it all the same. I really feel this sums up – in a general sort of way – my hometown, my childhood, and the overall feel I get when I think of them both.

Where I’m From

I’m from dirt roads and hill-top churches
from Campbell’s soup and grape Kool-Aid.
I’m from the old house with the wood stove
and the red shag carpet,
from the pear tree and the honeysuckle vine,
blossoming in summer.

I’m from Jonas White and Frankie Silver,
from Jesus Loves Me and the children’s bible stories
my sister would read me before bed.
I’m from long-winded debates
and hour-long lectures,
from front porch swings and songs about
a hole at the bottom of the sea.

I’m from Casar, thank you very much –
where the C is said like a K, and the S like a Z.
I’m from red clay gardens, tenant farmers,
and women working long hours in the mills.
I’m from the graffiti on the laundromat walls
beside Turner’s Grocery on NC 10.

I’m from a time when bravery
was picking out your own hickory switch
and Dad was the one you went to for advice.
I’m from Scot Irish drunks and Independent Baptist,
from fried bologna and pinto beans,
mashed ‘taters and homemade ‘snow cream’.

I’m from the worn albums overflowing
with Polaroid memories,
tear drops and laughter,
creased and yellowed by Time,
and countless viewings
around the kitchen table.

Copyright (C) J.S. White

Forgive Me If My Religion Shows

This post is different than others. Forgive me if my religion shows just a little…

I learned yesterday that a man I admired has been diagnosed with a rare, terminal, and incurable brain disease. I haven’t seen him for almost four years now, but I feel sense of loss and sadness as though I saw him yesterday.

He was the parish priest who confirmed me into the Catholic Church not a year before my son was born in 2016. I came to the RCC from a lifetime of being a very lazy Independent Baptist.

This man – this priest of twenty-seven years – is someone I thought of (and still think of in many ways) as a spiritual mentor.

He was a shining example to me of a strong man of faith, someone who held himself to high moral standards, who cared about others, who did what he could to extol them to virtue. He had a wry, almost sardonic, wit. He was soft-spoken during his homilies despite the fact that the things he pointed out to the congregation were sometimes hard to swallow – classic spiritual conviction without the pain of condemnation, or even condescension. I saw a picture of him taken recently and the degeneration was startling.

His message to the newest seminary students right before he left to be with his family were short, simple.

In times like these, it doesn’t matter what side we find ourselves on – liberal or conservative – faith matters. God has a plan for us all, even if we cannot see it. Whatever happens, we must keep the faith.

To that I would add only:

Whatever faith we profess to have, let us keep it close to our heart in these trying, uncertain times. Let us see it as the bracing strength it can be, instead of the divisive force for which it is so often used. I am thankful that he was the priest that Confirmed me into the Catholic Church, who gave me the Blessed Sacrament for the first time.

He will be sorely missed when he is gone.

Eternal rest grant him, O Lord, that he might dwell in Thy light forever…In nomine patri, et fili, et spiritus sancti. Amen. †

The WHY Behind Writing

Why do we write?

Is it simply to express ourselves and nothing more?

Is it therapeutic? Does it help us work through our problems or relieve our stress?

Do we write to turn a profit or to become a household name like Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling?

Do we write to express our opinions, illuminate the fallacies of the world, or implore the world to change its ways and seek peace and understanding?

Or perhaps we long to usher in a new golden age of literature.

There are as many reasons to write as there are writers, and there are just as many reasons or excuses that we use to dissuade ourselves from writing.

I was browsing through my Instagram feed and I came upon a post by an author and businessman who I’ve come to admire. Simon Sinek is his name. I became aware of him after reading his book Leaders Eat Last for a business class I was attending at the time. He speaks beautifully and simply about how our work and daily life needn’t conflict, that fulfillment at work needn’t be a dream of the few. In another, earlier book he wrote before the one mentioned above, he explains that in our life (whether professional or otherwise), if we can get to root of our WHY – the WHY behind what we do, then it doesn’t matter what it is we choose to do, we will find the enthusiasm and the drive to be successful and fulfilled.

My own reasons behind WHY I write are evolving even as we speak.

When I was a girl, reading books and dreaming all the things a young girl dreams, I wanted to write to bring my dreams to life. I could not live them and so I decided to live vicariously through my characters, to live a thousand lives in a thousand different lands. When I grew older, my girlishness turning into the contradictions of adolescence, my reasons morphed into a desire to give voice to the longings and emotions I suddenly felt so strongly I could burst with them. As I practiced and grew older still, I would write for the sheer joy of creating, for the freedom it gave me. In some ways, I still do.

But now, as I come upon my mid-thirties (I will turn thirty-five in October), I find my reasons are changing yet again. Now I long for connection.

With my worlds, my words, my writing, I long to connect to the deep well of humanity’s experiences. To find friends where others might only see enemies, hope where there appears to be nothing but despair. To connect with the emotions and dreams that churn deep within our collective souls. And perhaps, in connecting with others, I will connect with even deeper parts of myself.

So, in the spirit of connection, dear readers, I ask you the same question I have been asking myself these days.

What is the WHY behind your writing?

It doesn’t matter what you answer might be. Your reason can be singular, or your reasons might be legion.  So long as you know them when they speak to you, so long as you listen to their promptings, and do not silence them…that’s what matters.

Old-Fashioned Chicken ‘N Dumplings and the Writing Process

As a mother, it’s difficult to find the time or the energy to write. Often, I don’t have one or the other, and so nothing gets accomplished. But that isn’t to say I don’t work on my poetry or my stories every day.

There is more to the writing process that physically sitting in my chair and working (although, without that, there is no writing to speak of). On the contrary, my mind is always working on my stories or my poetry. I’m always considering little things that need revision, reworking, inclusion, or more researching.

The best part? Those things can be done anywhere.

When I do have some free time and a bit of spending money – those days when I can get out of the house on my own without having to run errands – I often like to go to restaurants or coffee shops. Unlike other writers, I don’t always take pen and paper with me. In fact, the majority of the time, I’m lucky if I have a pen in my purse somewhere, much less a pad of paper to write on.

Many may not realize it but going out and eating by yourself can be one of the best opportunities to work on your writing. I like to think of it as a dual-purpose exercise in writing and mindfulness.

When you go out by yourself (and make a point to avoid playing on your phone the whole time) you become very conscious of three things: 1) yourself, 2) the environment around you, and 3) everyone else.

Let me give you an example of my own experience the other day…

A couple of days ago, I had a chance to go to town after dropping my son off at pre-K. He’s a special needs child and so his pre-K starts later than regular classes, so I was free around lunchtime until the early afternoon.

I decided to stop a local bistro-style restaurant and, as I’d had a light breakfast earlier in the day, was hungrier than usual. I’d been thinking about trying the restaurant’s old-fashioned chicken ‘n dumplings – a down-home favorite in my little southeastern corner of the United States. I ordered that, a side of fresh-cut fruit, and a sweet, iced tea (another Southern US favorite).

While I waited, I took in the view. The place was bright and decorated plainly. The tables were simple and there were far more tables in the space than there should’ve been for such a small space. Most of the other patrons were people a bit older than me, many in their forties or fifties. A few were around my age or younger, they seemed to be having lunch with friends or perhaps lovers.

Most restaurants that I enjoy dining at have background music playing, but this one did not. The waitresses were dressed very casually – jeans and t-shirts. They were all women except for the cooks and bus boys. They were different ages. They were also very busy (it was lunchtime after all).

When my meal arrived, my chicken n’ dumplings were served in an individual cast-iron Dutch oven with a lid. When I opened it, a cloud of steam escaped and revealed the delicious, shredded chicken and thick, floury dumplings in thick aromatic gravy.

And instantly, I was reminded of my grandmother and my childhood spent eating home-cooked meals with my family. It made me think of all the elderly women in my life. Memories, sporadic and unconscious, moved through my mind. Tales wove themselves together, emotions surfaced, expectations relived. Disappointments and regrets rehashed…

So why am I telling you this? And what has it to do with the writing process?

I had some free time. I went out for lunch. I ordered chicken n’ dumplings.

My point is this. Even something a simple as going out to lunch rewards you with a rich tapestry of information that, if you can harness it and utilize it, will lend something beautiful and real to your writing. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a memoir, a poem, or an epic fantasy about elves battling demons.

Those elderly women I thought of become characters. Waitresses, bystanders, and bus boys become the background noise of your work. It gives a sense of reality and time to the events of your stories. It breathes life into your poetry and gives substance to your prose.

Whether you are physically seated in front of your manuscript or not, everything you do can be valuable to your process. Use everything. No matter how small. No matter how insignificant it may seem.

Your life is an amazing story. Properly distilled, any experience you have – no matter how mundane it may seem – can and will breed countless other amazing stories and works of art.

All you have to do is pay attention.