Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happy Starts

I’ve never been very good at endings.  Most of the friends I’ve made along the way are still in my life.  I still own all of my old journals, pieces of favorite jewelry, college sweatshirts now ragged with holes.  My drawers hold the remnants of undergarments so threadbare they are see-through even though they were never meant to be. My basement is filled with books I refuse to part with.  If I find myself in the neighborhood of a building I once lived in, I will swerve towards it just to get a glimpse, aching with nostalgia.

I married my first love. 

So I struggled with the decision to leave this blog community.  Like my old sweatshirts, this lovely group has brought me a measure of comfort and confidence that I will forever be grateful for. 

But the signs are clear.  It’s time to move on.

Maybe Shel Silverstein said it best when he wrote:

There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start

And so it goes.  Two “Swaggers,” pack up shop and move to a new home at

While our intention is to create something new, we hope to be regularly visited by and often feature the talents of our friends here at Swagger.

In the end, I will take with me Mr. Silverstein’s wisdom that happy endings are a mostly a fiction, but happy starts are always full of joy.

Monday, November 26, 2012


by Kathy Cannon Wiechman

5:44 PM (Pacific Time), 11/12/12—a significant moment for me. But let me go back to the beginning.

When our recent Swagger reunion was proposed, I asked my husband Jim if I should make flight reservations or was this a good excuse for a road trip?

Jim and I love a good road trip, exploring sights across this beautiful country, gathering a collection of memorable moments.

Road trip it was.

We headed out of Cincinnati toward Nashville, where we picked up I-40 and followed it all the way to Barstow, CA.

When we drove through Oklahoma, we shared a high five. Adding Oklahoma to his list means Jim has visited 48 of the 50 states. It was #46 for me.

At a tribal craft shop in Arizona, we bought each other cheap rings—and I lost mine five days later. (We stopped at the same place and replaced it on the return trip, and Jim threatened to Super-Glue it to my finger.)

That return trip also included a walk across the bridge overlooking Hoover Dam. (We toured Hoover Dam a few years ago, before the bridge was completed.) We also visited Meteor Crater in Arizona (Amazing!) and the Route 66 Museum in Oklahoma. (Fascinating for a history buff like me, with music from each decade of the road’s existence. Woody Guthrie, Glenn Miller, Elvis, and the Beatles. What a kick!) And we stopped for a very special graveside visit in Memphis. (No, not Elvis.)

 The trip included spectacular vistas and gorgeous sunsets.

Heading into Memphis on 11/17, we picked up a radio station with Christmas music. I love Christmas music, but it was tough for two Ohioans to match the music with the shirt-sleeve weather.

Every trip has a glitch or two, and an extended detour cost us over an hour’s time and gallons of fuel, nothing compared to the price paid by those in the accident that caused the detour.

We made lots of observations on the trip: A multitude of trucks and trains criss-cross the southwest. (I love the sound of a train). Numerous teams of truckers are female. New Mexico has many beautifully decorated overpasses. Despite signs to be wary, the only wildlife we saw were cows and an occasional horse.
Visiting Meteor Crater in Arizona

It’s a hoot to read signs with names of places and features we pass: Mousetail Landing State Park (Is Disney involved?); Toad Suck Park (I’m sure it’s lovely); Dirty Creek (If you can’t say something nice…); Rattlesnake Wash (Isn’t that where outlaws meet up in old Western movies?)

But this was more than a road trip. Each Swagger was asked to decide on a specific writing goal for the reunion. I needed help on a loose thread in my current novel-in-progress, a novel whose idea first niggled its way into my brain nearly 20 years ago. It percolated in my mind while I worked on other projects over those years. I researched it, visited sites vital to its telling (road trips!), and began it several times.

During its progress, it changed repeatedly, and one of those changes created the loose end that needed to be tied up. In a full morning’s session, my fellow Swaggers listened to me detail the story’s progression, and they brain-stormed until we solved the problem. All I needed to do was write the remaining ten or so chapters, and I worked on them in our private writing time.

On our last day, as Jon drove Kim and Melissa to the airport, I wrote some more. When Jon returned, he joined me at the table, where we sat in silence, each focused on our own project, each finding the right words and building them into sentences.

And I finished the novel! My 11th! It’s just a first draft, and needs more details sprinkled here and there. It has to be smoothed and tweaked and polished. But I finished telling the story. At 5:44 PM (Pacific Time) on 11/12/12. Thanks, Jon, for making note of the time.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading the Whiteness on the Page

           I am distracted this month.  There are tasks that tug and friends I’d like to see and yearnings for time with the kids.  I pick up my pen to write in my journal and am only able to eke out a few paltry sentences.  I open my latest rough draft and stare at the white space around the black letters, a pulsing brightness that feels impossible to interpret.  Over everything, hangs a lingering feeling of worry for my mother-in-law who is battling a second round of lymphoma.
            I am thankful for her but that sounds appallingly unadorned when pawing through the heaps of memories and moments she’s shared with me, with my family.  To say that I am grateful or that we would be worse off without Ethelyn’s presence in our lives isn’t enough either.
            My first memory of her is of a quiet knock on the door of my then boyfriend, now son’s bedroom door.  (We live in the house my husband grew up in. Ethelyn’s house; the one whose buffet she lovingly stripped and stained, whose kitchen walls she chose a lovely buttery shade of yellow for, and the dining room wallpaper she hung herself.) 
We were seventeen-years-old.  “This door needs to stay open,” she warned.  I could hear the discomfort in her voice, disciplining us like this.  We leaped apart from a session of heart-thudding, sweaty-palm groping to nervously giggle and opened the door.  At my house, my mother would have been at work.  Or if she were home, she’d have cared less about closed doors.  She let Kevin sleep over when we were seventeen.   Sleepovers at my house, open doors at Kevin’s; the messages were maddeningly different.
            I tried to be on my best behavior at family gatherings and holiday parties in her home but always felt I’d flubbed somehow.  Maybe I used the wrong fork?  Perhaps I should have asked to help with the dishes?  Or maybe my offering assistance in the kitchen offended her?  I couldn’t tell.
            One night, after I’d made a lasagna and served it to the whole Bond family, I remember my father-in-law smacking his lips and saying, “That was delicious!”  I looked to Ethelyn for her reaction and she smiled, nodded.  Did she hate my cooking?  Was she annoyed that her husband liked it?  Were they both simply being polite?  She was so even-keeled; never effusive and never sad, just steady.  She was the whiteness around the vivid, black words.
My own upbringing was peppered with people less careful with their tone.  If my father didn’t like something, he grumbled out loud.  If my mother was unhappy, she cried or yelled.  This was a world I didn’t have to exert any effort to understand – an ocean of emotions that floated on the surface, not somewhere deep and blue.
After an eight-year stretch of break-ups and reunions, Kevin and I moved to California together and, somewhere along the way, I ended up pregnant with our first child.  When we called her with the news, my mother-in-law dissolved into rare and quiet tears.  Standing behind Kevin, who held the phone, I interpreted her tears.  How would they afford his?  Where would they live?  Or maybe she was simply disappointed in Kevin’s choice of me. 
At my house, my own mother whooped out loud and began suggesting baby names.  Within hours she’d bought us a package of diapers and the first outfit our son would wear.  Neither reaction was wrong or right.  It was just who they were, who they are.  Practical vs. impractical, impetuous vs. thoughtful, open warmth vs. careful affection.
            And though our mothers differ in personality, their common thread is generosity.  From endless babysitting, to paying for our children’s after-school classes, to allowing us to live in their homes, our parents have supported us without boundaries.  Because of their sustenance, we live a privileged middle-class lifestyle with children who want for nothing and a constant stream of loving relatives to take them for a milkshake or drive them to play dates.
My in-laws come to every soccer game and practice, every play and school performance.  They have bought endless boxes of Girl Scout cookies and fundraiser rolls of wrapping paper.  We take vacations with them several times a year to a home they purchased with their savings and the inheritance my husband’s paternal grandfather left them (setting an example of good choices and strong foundations.)  And they allow us the luxury of a parent night out every time we go away with them.  Because of their generosity, we’ve explored the local wineries while holding hands, taken ghost walks and recharged the romance in our busy life over and over again.  

Over the years, my mother-in-law has taught me the value of a recipe as opposed to the haphazard tossing in of ingredients to see what comes out.  She introduced me to activities I love, like stopping at farmer’s markets.  And activities that I’d rather avoid, like long hikes to identify wild birds.
            She runs a soup kitchen at her church and our children have grown into more compassionate people as they count out the plates, and serve up ladles full of food to people’s who weren’t lucky enough to have the kind of family support we benefit from.  She also tirelessly pitches in at every (gigantic) church rummage sale, where my kids have gleefully learned to take customer’s money and count out change.
Of everyone in our family, she is the best listener.  She has an endless patience for the rambling stories our eight-year-old longs to tell and the staying power our older kids need in order to bring a temporary peace to their relentless drama over friends and grades and places they would rather be.  Grandma is the touchstone, a safe and balanced place to rest inside of.
            Outside of our family, I marvel at the way my mother-in-law has cultivated a tightly knit group of girlfriends with whom she takes weekly walks, shares cups of tea, reads endless books and exchanges a love of faith.  They raised their kids together, went on mission trips and fundraised for the church.  Their familiarity is a harmony so perfect in pitch that I can only stand back and listen to its loveliness.
As I sat by her bedside last week, the chemo drugs dripping into her arm, one of her close friends chatted on about church happenings.  When the doctor ushered us out of the room to perform a bone biopsy, my mother-in-law’s friend allowed herself the tears she’d been holding back.  This, of course, unleashed a few of my own. 
But the marvel of it all was the evident strength.  Her friend waited until she was out of the room to cry, and Ethelyn herself smiled as we came back in.  “It wasn’t so bad,” she assured us.  Mind you, most people who have undergone this procedure liken the pain of a bone biopsy to childbirth or the actual breaking of bones.  Not my mother-in-law.  After she was released from the hospital, she went in to work. 
            The first time she was diagnosed with cancer, I took my husband’s lead on where to offer support and when to back off.  But this second diagnosis feels like a harder path to push through.  I am tempted to elbow my way in.  I want to ignore her protests of, “I’m fine,” and “I don’t need you to.”  Instead, I am eager to shower her with casseroles, bring her gifts of hot packs and ginger teas.  I yearn to ignore the hand she’s held out to keep me at a polite distance.  But I am frozen by the old fear that I will be treading on the boundaries she truly means for me to abide by. 
So I am distracted. 
Sometimes, the way to show gratefulness, to give thanks, is muddied up by clashing cultures, long years of careful interactions and a love so bright that the words turn themselves into silly black shapes and it’s the whiteness of the page that one truly wants to read.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Manuscript Resuscitation Specialists

It all started here

by Jon Egan

Writing can be a very lonely endeavor, and it becomes even lonelier when you’re trying to solve plot issues, or character development, or storyline or one of the many other little or not so little issues that creep into a writers psyche to mess with the very kernels of creativity right when they are about to pop. Most times we sit and stare at the blinking cursor, or we scribble imaginative doodlebugs where there ought to be imaginative words, and we obsess over the perfect replacement for that clichĂ© we inadvertently inserted during another period of creative whiteout.
For me at least, these periods typically end in frustration and slivers from my dried out windowsill sticking out of my butt cheek (long story, although one that undoubtedly will find it’s way into a manuscript at some stage.) This past week, however, was very different and very special and very welcomed and very – insert sigh – much needed, because this past week was the Swagger Reunion, and even though half the group couldn’t make it, the half that did really made it worthwhile.

My latest manuscript, which in fact is my oldest, had been as lonely as a donut vendor at a Weight Watchers convention (although, how lonely would that bloke really be?) It had been sitting deep in the recesses of MS Word for more than a few years. It had cobwebs hanging from its comma splices; the characters had aged to the point that they were almost unrecognizable; the run-on sentences weren’t running anymore, they were struggling forward with the aid of a walking stick. (I could go on, but by now I’m sure you’ve figured out your own silly metaphors?) I knew I wasn’t ready to completely abandon it, but I just couldn’t figure out what the story was and why or if it was worth writing.
In the style of moderated workshops, we had sent each other our works-in-progress to read and critique. I sent out a short story rather than my middle grade Moby Dick, but by the time these wonderful people arrived in Lake Arrowhead, I had decided that this would be as good a time as any to see if I should just hold down the delete button on this tired old friend or if I should set the tabs, choose the font and plow ahead in twelve-point thoughts and get it done. I’m extremely thankful to my fellow attending Swaggers for assisting me in my decision. Thanks to that most precious gift of actually sitting as a group and throwing story ideas and narrative arc around like stale popcorn at a film noir festival, we worked through it as a group, and I am thankful now that I hovered my index finger over that delete key. I’m excited about my new WIP, and I’m looking forward to dragging those aging characters with me to sip from the Fountain of Youth.
I do indeed have many things to be thankful for this November, but for now, I’m thankful for my fellow Swaggers. I’m thankful because they let me follow the journey of two civil war soldiers who ultimately end up on the same path. I’m thankful because I was transported twenty-three hundred miles to walk with a muleskinner on the Ohio-Erie Canal. I’m thankful for their ability to open my eyes to the possibility of kick-ass machines with human DNA who thrive in spite of overwhelming odds. I’m thankful that I have an amazing group of people around me I can call on at any time to help me move my story forward, and I’m thankful that those people indeed have the ability, in spite of the overwhelming odds facing us writers, to write with Swag.

Monday, November 19, 2012

What Five Things?

It all started here

by Melissa Kline

I am thankful for Thankfulness!

Gratitude is something that I try to fit into my daily routine. It helps to keep me in the present, and focused on what's important in my life. Do you ever catch yourself festering over the past (like that conversation you just had where you wished you would have said something else) or worrying about the future (Will that publisher reject or accept me? Will I finally land that contract and become a millionaire?) 

We all have worries, concerns, past hangups, agendas, goals (that blog post to get up!) and very, very busy lives, but it is important to stop - even for two seconds - and be grateful for the moment, wherever you are.

So how can you do this? Especially when you're just so darn busy? Here's how:

Every day, think of five things that you are grateful for. That's it! You can do this while you're grocery shopping, driving to work, brushing your teeth, before falling asleep at night… while writing that query letter. You can even get a friend involved and ask, "What five things are you grateful for today?" It's as simple as that. The practice is fun and keeps you in a mindset of being grateful, which is always a good thing!

So, I have to ask… What five things are you grateful for today?

I am grateful for you! :)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thankful Thoughts

Giving Thanks

 by Regina Gort

My first thankful thought is my three daughters, Gwendolyn, Violet and Eliza. They make me a better person everyday.

I am thankful for my husband, Tim. Without his love and support, I wouldn't have the strength to write.

My next thankful thought is for Lake Superior, a fresh water ocean that has taught me the meaning of patience, resilience and strength. I feel like as long as I am near the shores of Gitche Gumee, the waters of peace will continue to feed my muse.

And my final thankful thought is for my fellow Swaggers. After all it was with this group of amazing writers that I learned to swagger. They built me up, inspired me, and pushed me to be a better writer. And they are my dear friends.
Meet you all next year at the Big Old Barn?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Swagger Reunion Thanks

by Kim Van Sickler, Kathy Wiechman, Melissa Kline, and Jon Egan

This past week, four Swaggers gathered at Lake Arrowhead, to work on our writing craft. We wish more Swaggers could have made the trip to Jon’s writing mecca in California, but those that made it are thankful about what we’ve accomplished in our five days together.

 Kim’s thankful for the gang brainstorming on her chapter synopses of Muleskinner, helping her to strengthen the plot.

 Melissa’s thankful for the gang helping her break through writer block on her sequel to My Beginning, so she sees the potential in her story. She's excited about the new possibilities.

Kathy’s thankful for the gang helping her clear up loose threads on her unfinished civil war saga, Like a River, so she can write the ending.

 And Jon, dear Jon, is thankful that Melissa stopped drinking after two vodka and cranberry juices, that we left all the whiskey for him, and that his fellow Swaggers inspired him to finish and query his memoir, Invisible Stitches.

Photo album
We travel west this year for the Swagger reunion.

Kim and Kathy make friends.
Boat ride on Lake Arrowhead
Melissa tries Vegemite for the first (and last) time.

Jon and Melissa on KP duty.

Ground zero.

Pie break.

Loved these Manzanita trees!

Lake walk.

Our wonderful accommodations.

Lake Arrowhead during boat ride.

Lake Arrowhead during a hike.

One of Lake Arrowhead's stunning homes. Features a 22-car garage with a turntable for the cars. For sale. Only $9.5 million.

Many of our evening sessions took place on the cozy first floor.

Waiting for our boat.

Writing time.

Melissa storyboarding My Beginning Part II

Kim and Jon.


Kim reviewing a first draft of Muleskinner.

Kim and Melissa during a lake hike.

Jon and Melissa.