Writing

Good Writing Material

My writer friends and I have a phrase we often say to each other while in the midst of a consuming experience, be it a positive or negative one. “Good writing material,” a friend will say after I’ve described a challenging interaction with one of my kids (not that I ever have those), or a hike I took where I got lost.  Life is brimming with good writing material, and we need never worry about running out of topics.

As anyone who has been within earshot of me this fall knows, I am involved in a volunteer role that has both been keeping me from writing and is a great source of stories.  I am the Arts & Enrichment Chair for the PTA at Caleb’s school, a job that sounded like it would be fun and fulfilling when it was described to me last Spring, but instead has turned out to be extremely time- and energy-consuming.  Among other duties, I coordinate the after-school activities.  Without going into details (you’re welcome), I’ll just say that some of my interactions with my fellow parents have caused me a lot of stress and frustration.  It has spawned some interesting conversations with Aki, the Japanese Intern we are hosting, about privilege, and probably will eventually help me learn how to set better boundaries.  Someday I will write The PTA Chronicles, which sounds like fun.  Mostly, though, the experience has made me miss Ahmed.

Ahmed was a patron at the Rainier Beach Library in South Seattle, where I worked as a student intern while getting my library science degree.  A recent Somali immigrant, Ahmed was always warm in our interactions.  One afternoon a few months before my internship ended, I taught a class on how to use databases and the internet.  Ahmed worked as a volunteer for me during the class, translating and providing one-on-one assistance to students.

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After the class was over, I handed Ahmed a small box.

“Thanks so much for all of your help,” I said.  He looked down at the box, and back up at me in surprise.

“For me?” he asked.  I nodded, and he opened the box.  Inside was a plain white coffee mug with Seattle Public Library printed on it in black letters.  Ahmed sucked in his breath, stunned, and lifted it out gingerly. “Wow,” he whispered, reverent as he turned it over in his hands.  It was, a co-worker said later, as though I’d handed him the Hope Diamond.  He lifted it above his head with both hands, World Cup trophy-style.

“Thank you Seattle Public Library!” he said.

Thank you, Ahmed, for delighting in such a small thing, and for always appreciating the large and small ways the library staff helped you.  I hope you are well, wherever you are.

I’m about to embark on a journey that should be a great source of writing material – a two-week family trip to New Zealand!  Our dear friends Penny and Dan and their daughters are living on the North Island for the year, so we decided to seize the opportunity to make the trek.

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[Photo by Penny Brandt]. Our lodging for the entire trip will be a campervan, and we are leaving all of our electronic devices at home, including our cell phones.  We are looking forward to spending lots of time outside, spending time with our friends, having new adventures, and detoxing from technology.   We are hoping that sharing a small, undistracted space will not make the 4 of us want to strangle each other, though I’m sure we will have our moments of desire for escape.

Despite an over-busy fall in my non-writing life, I managed to generate a couple of essays, one of which will be published in an upcoming issue of Literary Mama.  This will be my first publication experience with something focused on that endless source of writing material: Parenting.  I also took the time this fall to submit some pieces, something I often claim I don’t have time to do, even though it doesn’t actually take very much time and is a hugely important part of the writing process.  I decided to give an essay I’d written a few years ago (and had rejected everywhere) another round of submissions.  Last week it was accepted by Potomac Review.  I’m very excited to add both of these publications to my author bio, and it’s a nice shot in the arm to have some publication successes after a long dry spell.

Finally, I’m changing the “10 Books that had the most influence on you” list that’s been going around Facebook to “10 great books I’ve read recently that you should go to your local independent bookstore and buy for yourself or your loved ones.”   My list crosses genres and ages and leans mostly (though not entirely) to the left coast.  All are authors I admire, and should be on your radar if they aren’t already:

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter

– My favorite book I read this year

POTLUCK by Ana Maria Spagna

– beautiful essay collection about tiny-town life

THE DIRTY LIFE: a memoir of farming, food & love by Kristin Kimball

– the title says it all

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead

– middle-grade novel set in 1970s NYC.  Suspenseful and awesome

WE LIVE IN WATER by Jess Walter

– a varied & wonderful short story collection

ENCOUNTERS IN AVALANCHE COUNTRY by Diana DiStefano

– fascinating history of avalanches in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest

THE TENDER LAND by Kathleen Finneran

– exquisite memoir that centers around a family tragedy

EVERY DRESS A DECISION by Elizabeth Austen

–       collection by one of Seattle’s finest poets

LOVE, WATER, MEMORY by Jennie Shortridge

– a captivating novel of amnesia and its aftermath

ME, JANE by Patrick McDonnell

– awesome picture book about Jane Goodall

Happy Holidays & Happy Reading!

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4 thoughts on “Good Writing Material

  1. Great post, Janet. Thanks for the shout out. I, for one, am very eager to read The PTA Chronicles … and I agree completely about The Beautiful Ruins. Enjoy your technology detox.

  2. Katie Buttenwieser

    Janet, Have fun in the PTAfree zone of New Zealand! We look forward to reading your
    articles. With love, Your Proud Mama

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