Andi Cumbo - Writer, Editor, Online Writing Courses, Classes & Lessons

August 1, 2014
by Andi
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Avebury, Magic, and Circles of Words

The air didn’t vibrate. I didn’t feel anything in the center of my chest shift.  My fingers didn’t even tingle a little the way they do when I’m bordering on excitement.

Nope, when I visited Stonehenge, I didn’t feel anything. In fact, if anything the place felt depleted, used up, hollowed out.

Our coach unloaded in the parking lot next to lots of other buses, and we – a group of American students – walked through the tunnel up to the circle.  I don’t remember much beyond that – a wax-coated yellow rope that herded us around the stones like cattle, two Texans shouting into cellphones across the circle, boredom.  And disappointment.

I had expected magic here, something ancient, vibrant, something that caused the breath at the back of my throat to swell.

Nothing.  We climbed back into the bus and moved on.

I was done for the day, this place – this place that I had read about and dreamed out in some corner of my imagination in every word about England – it was dry. And so was I.

But our director Peter had another stop for us, and I was a good student, so I didn’t complain.  Just stared out the window at the A345 as we whipped through eastern England.

We pulled into Avebury, and without even looking, I felt it – that mystical energy that I had been seeking.  I don’t know quite how to explain it. . . except to say that it’s akin to the way I feel at the end of a night with friends when the conversation has been deep and easy. Or in relaxed prayer.

***

This morning, I read from Emily Rapp’s powerful memoir about the life and death of her infant son Rowan – Still Point of the Turning World – and she spoke of myth, of stories passed down with gaps for others to fill.  I read from Preston Yancey’s Tables in the Wilderness about the lost city of Atlantis and Plato and the way stories are the way we carry life through generations.  I felt something vibrate in me with their words, as if each of their books was a stone set at just the right place to tingle with my own electric magnetic pulse.

It’s not often that this energy comes alive for me anymore.  I’m too busy, too dedicated to my lists, too focused on “doing.”  In college, I was much deeper about my intention, about the ways I gave my time, about the places I filled myself, and there, then, the energy tingled in me constantly.  I was naive, and I was beautiful, and I was alive.

I could skip the naivete now. But the tingling aliveness, I’m always working to get back to there, then.

Now, I work that out in stories, in words on pages, cycles of the tales I tell myself from my life, of the fables and legends and myths that are the lives of others.  All of us winding back into each other again and again. Each of our lifetimes a stone in a ring that vibrates with the power of shared words.

Our stories are mystical, magical, an Avebury of words. The best ones don’t come in the ways we expect, in the places we have laid out with wax-covered yellow rope to mark the way.

Nope, mystery always comes unexpected, unplanned, for that is it’s nature. It’s magic.

***

I don’t know what I felt in Avebury that day.  And I don’t need to know.

I wandered amongst the stones and let my hand flit toward them, not touching but feeling their rough strength nonetheless.  I stood in their midst and let their power wash through me like lightening made into tiny, invisible volts of mystery.

I feel that energy building into me again now – in this slower, more intentional way I am rebuilding my existence – and it feels like it’s vibrating into the very center of myself – the place between my shoulder blades, in the space that hovers between my sternum and my spine.  The place of stories.

I don’t expect magic or miracles. . . but I do expect hope and words. Strung together, they are miracle and magic all their own.

When do you feel the magic of life in yourself?  What places or experiences bring that out?

 

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July 31, 2014
by Andi
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I Want To Be Like Our Rooster

maybe he just tried to sing – Eloise Klein Healy

Our Rooster, Xander

Xander, doing his thing.

We have this chicken.  For this bird’s entire life, s/he has defied definition. As a little chick, we thought s/he was a frizzle, one of those chickens whose feathers stand out.  Then, we decided s/he was not a frizzle but just a Plymouth Rock hen with feathers that liked to mature faster than the rest of our flock.

Then, s/he grew this comb that is this fierce red – of fire engines and morning sailors’ warnings – and s/he kept beefing up (if you’ll ponder the cross-species pun). Her/his sex became a question then.  We had ordered all hens from the breeder, but, well, if it was this hard to tell a chicken’s sex at 3 months old, we didn’t really hold it against the hatchery if they couldn’t do it in the first few hours.

One morning, I heard this raspy call from within the coop as I went out to free them for the day.  It sounded somewhere between a child’s shout and a whinny. . . and I knew instantly – that’s a crow.

And crow this dude does – we’re 99% sure this chick is a rooster.  Every morning, he sings out with either delight or frustration – he’s still an adolescent, so his voice breaks sometimes – at the dawn, and all through the day he bellows out with gusto.

It’s my favorite sound here just now.

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to be what everyone else expects me to be. I fall victim to expectations – a blog should do this, a writer needs to do that, a woman IS this – and most times, I want to be like Xander – our rooster – and just crow out who I am so loud that the cows on the farm next door can hear it.  I just want to sing in my own voice as loud as I can, bringing in each day as only I know how to do it.  Not because my way is special or better, but because it is who I was made to be.

I know lots of us feel this way – when we are pushed to build a “tribe” at the cost of what we really want to say, or are told we “should” write with these tools on these days at these hours, or are belittled and abused for being all of who we are in the world.

So today, take your cue from Xander the rooster and even when someone, even when people you love push you to write or speak or live in a way that is not authentic to the amazing, unique, powerful, beautiful person you were created to be, push back with your voice and your life.  Just be you and crow for all you are worth.

Have you ever been told to write a different way? To live a way that feels less than honest or authentic? How did you respond?

 

If you’re interested in reading more about our life here at God’s Whisper Farm, we invite you over to our farm site – http://www.godswhisperfarm.com

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July 29, 2014
by Andi
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Stop. Rest. Watch.

You may have seen it, the Geico commercial where the man says, “Words can hurt you,” and the scene cuts away to a Western, with a cowboy riding off toward the mountains until he rides into the big words “The End” and is knocked off his horse.

This morning, I kind of got knocked off my horse by a few words.  Actually, the first thought that came to my mind was that I had been kicked in the teeth.

Stop doing. Stop striving. Stop.

I read the lines in Preston Yancey’s forthcoming book Tables in the Wilderness.  They were spoken to him by his spiritual director, and it felt like lightening when they hit my eyes.

Brilliant, blinding, knock-you-to-the-ground lightening.

And apparently, the ground is exactly where I need to be.

***

I am living the life I want – hours of words and a kitchen window chock full of tomatoes, goats bleating outside the farmhouse windows and conversations with writers every day, books pouring into me like honey and chickens who compost all our scraps with glee.

Yet, we still struggle – with bills and with time.  Right now, my business is quite slow – blame it on summer, blame it on my lack of business prowess, blame it on a cultural apathy toward the written word.  Whatever the reason, I am struggling to bring in the income we need for our bills, and well, yeah, I’m struggling with that reality.

My response to crisis is almost always to DO.  Find another revenue stream. Try to recruit more clients.  Take out another ad.  Sell my books.  DO. DO. DO.

But the truth is I DO a lot, and I really can’t do anymore and be healthy.  It’s time to stop striving.  To take rest.  To trust.  To as Preston’s book says, “Go have a look around” at where I am now.

Yet, even as I write that, I hear a voice that says, “You must do more. Find a way. Make a way.  Cut back. Earn more.”  And of course, we cut back, and of course, I look for ways to earn more.  But sometimes there is no “way” that I am going to make for myself.  Sometimes, all there is to do is have a good look around and rest. 

I expect you know what I mean.

***

I have before me today hours of beautiful time and tomatoes to turn into the best sauce I’ve ever made.  I have homemade bread to slather with local butter for lunch, and I have yarn – gifted from my mother – to turn into soft, comforting things.  I have comments to share on a friend’s manuscript, and my second Tana French mystery to listen to as the tomatoes simmer.

There is so much goodness to do; I need not manufacture more. 

Plus, just keeping myself from striving is enough work for my psyche today.  Training myself to sink back into a space where contentment buoys me – that will keep me busy.  And that, too, is good work.

The rest – the income and the planning – the next steps in a business or away from it.  Where I place my foot next will have to become clear without my striving because I’m taking to the ground for a rest.  The message has been received.  Stop. Rest. Watch.

What is your response when challenges arise? Do you try to do more? Do you sit back and disengage?  Or do you find a way to wait and rest and just stop right where you are?  If you’ve achieved a balance, can you teach me?

I keep having to learn this lesson over and over – and isn’t that just life, cycle on cycle of learning.  In May of 2009, I wrote this – To Not Strive But To Rest.

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July 28, 2014
by Andi
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Toward The Spark: Going After My Family Stories

Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.– Joseph Campbell

I have a handled sewing basket that sits on top of a green chest my friend Kathy and I found in Vermont.  In the chest are sewing tools – crochet hooks and needles and fabrics.  Below the chest, a hat box holds all the cross-stitch patterns I own, and across the room, balls of yarn are interspersed with antique books.  Cross-stitch and crochets are two of the things in the world that give me great rest and joy. My great-grandparents, Noah Francis and Bertha Mae Cumbo

Almost always, I have at least two projects going – one cross-stitch and one crochet.  (I actually have about 5 cross-stitch projects underway; it’s a bit of a problem I have – liking to start new things). But in my “active” basket, I have only two projects – a ball of green, fawn, and rose yarn with a partially-hooked, cozy cat bed attached and a sampler that I started for Philip as a wedding present and hope to finish – egads! I only have two months – for our first anniversary.  I alternate those two projects based on my mood and the urgency of the need.

Crochet is something I do when I need to think of other things, when I just want my hands to flow through something fairly rote, counting and turning, counting and turning.  Cross-stitch is what I take on when I want my mind to be focused, to let thinking slip to the back where my unconscious can untwist the cords of fear and frustration.

The way I decide that evening’s project – I pick up the thread that feels most alive, the sparking one.

***

 I’m in the midst of writing my first Young Adult novel, and I love it. I love Mary, the main character; I love the setting; I love the story. But right now, I’m not much interested in writing it. I’m not abandoning the project. I’m not even bored but it. It’s just that I don’t feel it yet, somehow. Or rather I feel it, but it’s not bubbling and sparking inside me just yet. It will though.

At this place, in this moment, I feel something behind my sternum spark when I think of my family story, the one where my great-great-grandfather left his family and began passing as white – that’s the story I am pulled toward at this moment, and I almost cannot help but move toward it.

I have often said that writers should focus on one thing, and I still hold to that if multiple projects keep someone from finishing any of them (just look at my cross-stich projects)  Maybe that’s what’s happening here – I’m just resisting the novel; call me on that if you think that’s true.  But I also believe that we should live our lives in the directions that give us energy, and I think that’s particularly true for art. 

For me, all writing is health and gift and understanding. All of it helps me live better and more truly. Laying words down on the page helps me be most fully me.  And I need to do it every day.  So no matter which project I take on – the novel or the family history – I’m doing something important, something necessary in a very real way.

Just now, though, the tug of my breastbone is to the family story.  The mysteries there. The people lived wide and hard and beautiful in my genes. The tales of legend and pain and great big gorgeous power in their lives.

Thinking about them makes my heart beat faster, and so I know – I know when I think of Noah Francis as I walk in from giving the chickens cantaloup rinds and almost want to run to my computer – I know that’s where the spark is, where the story whispers, where my life as a writer is calling me in this moment.

I expect you know that calling, too, the way something you have the gift to do quickens your pulse at the very thought, not with anxiety or fear (although those feelings may mean you should press toward them, too) but with a glowing presence I can only describe as joy. Maybe you feel or have felt that way about a person, or maybe you have a hobby that just sets your heart to spinning.  Maybe you are blessed to feel that way – as I do – every morning when you go to work.  Whatever that thing is, I hope you move toward it, every day in whatever way you can. I hope you edge other things – the dull, shadowed ones – out of your life to make more room for the shiny, sparking thing that makes you smile.

What projects or people give you that spark of life? What are you doing to make more room and time for them in your life?

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July 26, 2014
by Andi
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A Cup of Something Hot: A Writers Write Interview with Oona Frawley

Another beautiful Saturday here on the farm, another beautiful interview with a beautiful writer. Today, the Irish noveslist Oona Frawley.

1. Tell me about your latest project.

I’ve just published my first novel, Flight, with Tramp Press. It’s about four travelers whose lives FlightPosterintertwine in Dublin as Ireland is about to vote about citizenship laws: Sandrine, a Zimbabwean teacher, has left behind her family and is secretly pregnant as she works as a carer for an elderly Irish couple with dementia; Tom and Clare, the couple she cares for, have returned to live in Ireland after decades in Vietnam and the United States; and Elizabeth, Tom and Clare’s daughter, is strangely out of place in Ireland after her peripatetic childhood.

Besides a few non-fiction projects (I’m an academic by day), I’m writing a new novel based on my parents’ experience as Irish immigrants living on ranches in New Mexico and Arizona during the 1960s.

2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?

I was an obsessive reader as I suspect many writers-in-the-making are. It helped that my parents were actors who prized language, so the house was filled with books and scripts. I would cue my dad’s lines from a very early age and read parts opposite him. My parents’ friends were regular dinner party guests who recited monologues by everyone from Shakespeare to Beckett, sang bawdy songs and told daft stories; there were inevitably singsongs that sometimes ended in sentimental tears. It seemed natural that I’d read tons as a result of the atmosphere; left to my own devices, I was either making up never-ending stories with dolls or reading in a nook in some room.

3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?

I don’t have a routine – the demands of my days change too much – but I do write every day in some form. That could amount to an hour’s intense writing or a period of editing; the editing would always be a longer period of time than the writing. If I’m editing I always have a cup of something hot so that I can read closely – two hands on the keyboard would mean I’d be more inclined to add words rather than focus on what I had there already. If I am aiming to produce something by a particular date than I am always very focused and will do nothing else; my determination has been to never miss a deadline.

4. Who are you reading now?

I’m reading Suite Francaise by Iréne Némirovsky, which is biting and and quite distressing. I’ve just opened Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, and also have Bill Bryson’s Home on the go. I’m also reading a lot of academic work on ecology and the environment… there are books in every room in the house that I’m in the midst of reading.

??5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?

I tend towards work that is brilliant at evoking place and feeling. Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a book that I re-read often; like all of his work it eschews straightforward time-ordered narration for something far more evocative, and is marked by a lyricism almost unsurpassed in prose. It is one of the perfect books to my mind. Thoreau’s Walden remains a book of inspiration for me through several decades; I loved the power of his revolutionary vision as a teenager, and now find I love different things – the language itself, the passionate denial of consumer capitalism. Marguerite Duras is another favourite author; The Lover is her best known, but I would re-read anything of hers when I spy a title on the shelf – there is a terrifying depth to the work, a philosophical quality matched only by a writer like Beckett, but it is accompanied by something searingly emotive.

6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?

The simple answer is that I’ve never aimed to build a writing platform; I wrote for myself for many years and never considered a platform – I think that could be detrimental to the craft, in truth.

7.What is a typical day like for you?

Every day begins with a run – if it’s a weekday when I have to get the kids up and out to school, the run is on a treadmill in the kitchen; if it’s a weekend it’ll be outside unless I feel like I haven’t managed to see my kids and my husband much during the week, in which case it’s back on the treadmill so that I can talk to them at the same time. The run is essential to clear my head, get my thoughts moving and set up my day. Then it’s getting myself and the kids to school / work. Work consists of meetings and giving lectures / seminars and is very intense, so I’ll usually stop everything at lunchtime and write after I talk with my husband on the phone and go for a walk. I tend to get writing done just before I go home for the day; I’ll get a coffee and sit there quietly for half an hour.

If it’s a day when I’m working at home and have no lectures to give, then as soon as the kids are at school I’ll sit down and write until I have to pick them up, so that would be about 4 hours straight minimum.

There are also a lot of days when I only think-write, and I need those as well; days when nothing goes down on the screen when I’m too busy with my day job but when I daydream about what I want to do while doing other work.

8. Describe your dream writing space?

Since having children I no longer have an ideal writing space; I’ll write anywhere. I love writing in my living room, which is womb-like. The kitchen has windows on three sides and feels like it’s in the garden, so I do a different kind of writing there that is less mood-dependent, more practical. I’m fickle, though; I like writing in cafes, on trains…

9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?

A review of my (first) novel was critical of what was perceived as a lack of plotting and painfully slow pacing. I read it late at night and then was restlessly awake; my husband was already asleep and I didn’t like to wake him to blurt it all out. I fretted over it, in and out of sleep, and by the morning I felt very clearly that I was trying to do something very different to pushing a story along at a clip. I was able to move on much more quickly than I would have thought possible; I felt that the reviewer simply didn’t get my book and I knew that I couldn’t please everyone.

My reaction to a critique of an early draft of my first academic book, which tore it to shreds, was different – I was shocked, but mostly because I recognized that it was a fair assessment. I set to and revised the hell out of the book, rewriting the whole thing in about 6 months. It was accepted for publication then and I knew it was a far better book than it would have been without the initial critique. So I think you have to try to be objective: some critiques will be unfair or reflect a different taste, and some will be bang on. The trick is to realize that neither reflects upon you as a person.

10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?

Read.

 

Born in New York City to Irish actor parents, Oona Frawley spent a lot of her Oona Frawleychildhood backstage, hearing plays through green room speakers, cueing her father for roles and listening to her mother sing. Her parents’ attachment to Ireland meant that the family travelled ‘home’ once a year. Oona eventually settled in Ireland in 1999 full-time, and completed her PhD (City University of NY) in 2001. Prior to becoming a full- time academic Oona worked in a beer factory, and as a lifeguard, a waitress, an ad copywriter, and a freelance editor. Oona has taught at UCD, QUB and TCD, and has lectured English at Maynooth since 2008. She is married, has two children, and runs daily – slowly but compulsively. This is her first novel.  Flight is available from Tramp.ie, or from Kennys.ie with free worldwide shipping. Tramp Press is a new independent Irish fiction publisher. You can find out more at www.tramp.ie. Follow us on twitter @tramppress and @OonaFrawley.

 

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