Making the Story as we go…

Mama Sally accompanied Sasha in those years so it became a family routine. Corgi Gracie.

Almost every spring for the past 13 years, our grandson, Jaden, and then his little sister Sasha, have come to Whidbey Island for Spring Break. These SoCal kids have trudged into the weather, rain or shine, behind their “Nature Grannies” and whatever corgi romped alongside. We have memories of driftwood forts, seal patrol, local hikes, hours of UNO and board games, planting garden peas, baking cookies, learning chores, being introduced to the Marvel universe, and circles at the dining table.

On campus: Sally, Jaden, Sasha, Ann

This spring, with Jaden studying at Sonoma State University and Sasha in 7th grade, they didn’t come to us: we went to them. When a 19-year-old freshman says he wants his family to meet his peeps and see his campus, we rented an Airbnb in Santa Rosa and happily gathered to honor his request.

That Wednesday afternoon we hiked the campus, seeing Jaden’s favorite haunts, meeting passersby, getting a sense of how he was embedded in his new routines. That evening we had dinner at “the Caf” with us (Jaden’s family) and a row of freshman (Jaden’s friends) sharing a table in the echoing dining hall. Talk swirled around us until I felt immersed in an oral texting machine with kids finishing each other’s sentences, interruptions popping like verbal emojis. Then one of them asked, “Hey Nina, I hear you’re giving a talk down in Marin.  What’s up?”

In the Caf: grandmas and “the peeps.”

Everyone stopped and waited while I shifted from being a perplexed grandmother watching their verbal badminton to being the center of attention. “It’s about the role of story as social influencer and the ways story organizes life experiences.”

I must have done okay in my five-minute condensed version because they judged it, “Way cool” and called out to Jaden, “Hey, you listening to your gram?!”

He laughed, called back, “I been listening to both of them all my life.” It was just a beat—like a rest in a bar of music—but it reverberated in my heart.

 

And since Ann and I were in the area, on Thursday we ventured south to Bolinas and a long-anticipated visit to Commonweal, a retreat and healing center along the cliffs of the Point Reyes National Seashore. I had been invited by founder/emeritus, Michael Lerner, to a conversation about story to be archived in their online interviews called The New School (TNS). To watch/listen to the interview, click here.

A small audience of family, Commonweal staff, board members, and community friends joined Michael and me in a conversation videoed and recorded. (I will post it here as soon as it’s available). The topic: “Writing as Legacy: what do we leave in the earth for the future to find?” His first question:Why have you devoted your life work to storycatching? And what does that mean?”

My reply: “Storycatching is the art of receiving and sharing narratives that promote and sustain connectivity.  Words are how we think, stories are how we link. (I love that line: it says the whole thing.) To be a storycatcher is to volunteer through listening, speaking, and writing to offer out stories that inform, inspire, and activate.

“I’ve spent my life proclaiming the power of story for myself, for students, and for readers. I keep saying: Who you are is important. Your story belongs. Stake your voice into the world. In my lifetime, the voices of millions of nobodies have become a global chorus of somebodies. Our whole cultural understanding of who has a story to tell and whose story is worth our attention has shifted. Journal writing, memoir, blogging, Substack, the Medium, social media, You Tube, Tik-Tok, are all ways people tell stories…  millions and millions of stories.

It took me back to the cafeteria table, multiplied into infinity!

It took me back almost fifty years ago to a nondescript desk-filled classroom with a dozen Minnesota poet-types sitting in rows with blank books and pens. I stood in front, hands gripping a lectern to hide my nervousness, and started talking about journal writing. A few minutes into that initial class I said, “It’s lonely up-front. I’m not an expert. I’m a student too. Let’s explore together how to put life on the page.” We made circle of chairs and I tucked in with everyone else, facilitating from the rim. My life work clicked into place.

We wrote in drugstore notebooks like school children because the industry of beautiful bound journals didn’t yet exist. (In boxes far back in my closet these ancient pages are bleeding through, words commingling into gibberish.) We wrote with ballpoints or cheap Shaefer fountain pens because they were available. (Though I have moved on to Lamy and Waterman pens, I still have my Shaefer: it still writes.) This first group was comprised of nine young writers, two schoolteachers, one antiquarian book dealer. Ten women, two men; a ratio that has remained pretty much true my whole teaching life.

We didn’t know it then, but we were pioneers. Breaking silence is hard work: like plowing a field with only a pen; the horse of necessity pulling us forward line by line. We witnessed each other reveal the stories of ourselves one page at a time. It was therapeutic, revelatory; a pre-device, pre-Internet experiment that seeded the expressive cacophony of today’s storyfield.

From the 1970s to my late-70s: and here I am sitting in a circle of chairs speaking the story journey of my life work. Some of the things I’m still saying today emerged from that first class and our explorations. I don’t know where they are now, if they are still in the story or resting in the field of the past, but they are with me. I remember their names, their faces, and some of the books they went on to write. And as I looked into the faces of those in the room in the spring of 2024, we are one tribe: we are storycatchers.

Home to the Skagit Valley. There are as many stories as there are tulips… as far as the eye can see.

 

Reverie on Writing

A woman reaches out through a friend of a friend. She wants to write her story. She needs to talk to a writer. I am retired. I don’t teach anymore. I’ve got a manuscript in New York, a six-year project I just revised, again. It’s hot there. People wilt in the city and flee to the country. My agent says nobody cares about writing in August. Every day I choose between discouragement and belief in my work. I say yes–to myself, to her. Come to lunch. I’ll make salad. We’ll sit on the patio. I set two chairs… but three are seated: two women, and story.

I say story-building begins in catharsis and chaos, followed by glimmers of coherence and, if we persist, magic and mystery. I say we become writers by writing. She has a long career in social work, distilling other people’s stories, making reports and charting progress. This is different. A certain amount of fear is appropriate to the significance of the task. Too little fear and we are careless with the power of our words; but too much fear is paralyzing. Every writer becomes a chemist mixing risk and responsibility in the beeker of telling.  It’s your turn, I say: seize the impulse and surrender.

Long after lunch, I think about her skill, her courage. Now it is morning of the next day, and I write…. for her, for myself, for anyone beginning—

Breathe deep. Find the words at the bottom of breath. Unfurl them from the silence that has shrouded your truth. You are strong enough now. You have hefted the weight of your life and proven yourself in a million moments of working, raising, contributing, fighting, running, loving. Mostly that: loving life in the ways it has demanded.

Lift silence into your own hands. Make of it an hour a day when you refuse disruptions, notifications, the pings of incoming texts, the whoosh of outgoing mail, tiny headlines announcing your helplessness to change the course of world events. The government is disappointing. The earth is heaving, burning, flooding, winded. Turn it off. Breathe deep. Cradle your silence like a delicate nest in which the egg of an unhatched bird is warming in your hands.

Sit before a window. Choose one thing you see or hear and write. I see tall grass. Notice how it holds utterly still in morning light, how it stretches into the air above the heather. The seed heads are tiny blond ponytails waiting for wind. And isn’t this you? The child you were, hair pulled back, ready to run in play or terror depending on what track the day laid out before your tender soul? This is where the silence came from, plucking what might blurt off the truthful tongue of a child into the safety of not-saying.

Anywhere you start will lead here. The grass, the house next-door, sun coming up and going down, dogs barking, the potato-chip crunch of shoes on gravel. Words are labyrinths, crossword puzzles, tracks in the forest, skid marks on pavement: the only way to get to the true of your story is to whisper, to howl, to cry and laugh—become a holy fool hunched over journal and pen or laptop, seeking the words at the bottom of breath, and finding the hour to write whatever story is pecking out of the egg.

It’s all practice. Practice word choice, practice rambling, discover the secret delight of placing just the right word into a sentence. Practice putting life into words. We are the story-telling creatures and every story changes the world in some way. We don’t have to understand it really: just hang paragraphs on the narrative thread.

Weave meaning. We need story.  The world is falling apart. Perhaps you’ve noticed. I won’t recite the litany of disasters. Instead, I shall watch those tall grasses, stalks as slim as a line on a page, how they stand and wait. And how is it possible that a tiny thread of breeze moves one stalk among the still-life cluster—just one—waving at me across the yard. I exhale into the early morning and here is evidence that story makes its way into the world. Every voice matters. Yours.

The Dog & the Backstory

I don’t remember when I first met the Cooper family, central characters of the novel I just sent to my New York agent, but I remember how: their dog introduced me. The germinating moment for my ten-year novel project occurred when my corgi Glory died in 2010. I missed her constant watchfulness over me and others.

Glory & me: Oct. 2008

Glory was a public dog, often present in the circle trainings, writing classes, and wilderness work we were doing at the time. After she passed away, people wrote condolence notes that began, “You probably didn’t notice this but… Glory came round the circle… Glory slid against my leg… Glory seemed to know I was feeling vulnerable.” Yes, I noticed: she did the same for me, and I had watched her tend the social field in remarkable and intuitive ways.

Her departure raised questions about the nature of witness in our lives. Even if trauma, pain, and grief cannot be stopped, does something/someone come alongside to help us bear it? Is it up to us to notice? Is it possible, with their presence and attention, that “dog is God spelled backwards?”

As part of my grief, I began writing from a dog’s point of view… It was to be the story of a woman whose life is witnessed through all the different dogs who companion her. This woman was born in the 1940s, into a family named Cooper, who had a dog named Preacher Boy.

I took the first 50 pages to a weeklong seminar called “Writing the Breakout Novel,” led by Donald Maas and Lorin Oberweger. Their critique said, “Intriguing idea, but I don’t think the dog can carry the story. Don’t lose the dog but let loose the story.” I began several years of questioning. What is essential? What wants to be said? What am I dedicating myself to? Pages and pages of journal notes, scraps of dialogue, scene, post-it notes on my office wall, and very little creative time.

Amazing Gracie, who was here for the most of it.

Ann Linnea and I were depositing our life work of The Circle Way into a next generation of practitioners and teachers. We traveled. We worked with an emergent board and new identity that took shape and handed off decades of work and resources. I continued teaching memoir and autobiography seminars, and we still offered a wilderness fast, the Cascadia Quest, until 2021. Occasionally the novel surfaced in my priorities. I made character lists, studied novel development, plot design, the eight beats of a screenplay (which ruined the movies for me for a few years!), the hero’s journey, how to outline your story, create conflict, etc.

2016: I turned seventy. I committed to the book. Tagline on my personal email: Writer in her own residence. Writing a novel is a collaboration between what the writer has in mind and what the characters have in mind. They surprise me, these Coopers; they announce their own backstories and tell me things that change the plot. We make our way together. I write.

The 1940s remains the timeframe: but this is about the homefront during World War II, not the battlefront. My father, born in 1920, lived nearby and we began hours of conversation about the realities of life in the years before I was born. I become more and more intrigued about what was going on with ordinary people, far from the drama of battle, at a time when the requirement for change was unavoidable: then, as now.

I borrow my birthplace and family lineage as a stage set: west-central Montana, the valley where I was born, 3rd generation settler on the lands of the Blackfeet Confederacy.

The novel features the Cooper family: Leo, the patriarch, is a widowed Methodist preacher and beekeeper who wishes people would behave as orderly as bees behave. He and the country doctor are a team that tries to hold the valley together. Leo’s son, Franklin, enlists to prove himself in the eye of history. He sends home his pregnant immigrant wife. Leo’s other son, Jesse, who ran away as an angry teen, comes of age on the Blackfeet reservation. Carrying a secret of his origins, Jesse returns to challenge the white farmers to work together with the Indians for the war effort.

There are Native characters, and I am a white woman. I spent three years seeking a Blackfeet Cultural Advisor. Our relationship is a journey of profound learning that goes way beyond the book (see my blog: “What shall I do with my old white skin?” as one indicator). I hope I have learned enough to educate white readers and honor Indigenous experience.

The Beekeeper’s Question is a love story, a war story, a family story in which ordinary people find their moments of triumph and truth amid chaos and sacrifice. Preacher Boy remains, but he doesn’t tell the story: he’s a good dog, like my dogs, who have sat patiently under the desk all these years and insisted on walks and adventures beyond the page.

And there are bees.

To be continued.

Vivi, who approved all the dog scenes in the final manuscript.

 

Writing on

My father died.

Leo Baldwin was good at living, amazing at aging, determined to continue contributing up to his last days. He remained cheerful and present even while suffering the pain, indignities, and procedures of his final trip through the medical system. He was 98 years old and had never had an illness that he didn’t fully recover from with a little Tylenol and determination. It took him (and me, and us, and his community) a month to admit that his body wasn’t going to carry him any farther: he’d come to the end of his road.  And when he let go, he let go fully and was gone in 28 hours.

I am happy he was able to finish as himself. I am swept into waves of missing him. He was a much loved and respected central figure in our island lives. Ann and I move through a community that misses him as well. We pause and tell each other stories of his influence and friendship.

“A man and his butte,” photo by Becky Dougherty.

His local memorial service was teary and celebratory and the hall was packed with his wide range of friends. His descendants and extended family will gather in Montana next summer to bury some of his ashes in the soil that birthed him and to lift some of his ashes to the prevailing winds around those buttes and valleys.

And when my father died, my editor died.

I am writing a novel based on a fictionalized version of the town where my father grew up in west central Montana. The story takes place during the early years of WWII, when the first generation of homesteaders is ready for their sons to take over—but many of those sons are called into the war. The central story revolves around the Cooper family: an older beekeeper/Methodist minister named Leo and his relationship with his sons and their wives and the community at large.

My father, Leo, was the age of the young men in this story, and the lineage of the Baldwin family—the bees, the homespun ethics of Protestantism and citizenship, and the social justice issues that lay on this land—are a blend of family heritage and fiction. My ability to capture this time before I was born has been greatly enhanced by the spidery handwritten commentary my father added to my first drafts, and by the hours and hours of conversation at his dining table as we went through the story page by page. He found the typos, tweaked the dialogue, and dived into exploring the themes that activate the subtext of the story. He drummed into me his knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

This process was the most powerful experience of transmission I have ever received from another person. Novelist Barbara Kingsolver, in speaking of writing and rewriting said, “It is thrilling to take an ending and pull it backward like a shiny thread through the whole fabric of a manuscript.” We were pulling threads. I was writing my way forward, forging the story as the characters worded themselves into being. I was working the loom of the first draft. He was reflecting his way backward, seeing his life transformed and woven through the voices of the Coopers. It was a mystical interaction we each surrendered to in different ways.

All this past year I noticed him wearing down and wrote as fast as I could. He asked me once, “Does Leo Cooper need to die in this story? Does the father need to step aside to make room for the next generation to fully become themselves?” We talked about it as a literary device. We talked about it in terms of the emotional maturation of the story’s characters.

“I don’t want Leo to die,” I told him. “I love him…”

Blue eyes looking deep into brown eyes, he assured me “I know you have the courage to write what needs to be written.” I wept all the way home, the eleven miles between his house and mine. That was July: we had two more months before he would turn his attention to letting himself depart.

In the story, it is June 1943. The fight against fascism is not won. People don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of them. They may be far from the battlefields, but their lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift. A young war bride and her baby are making a place in the valley. Her faraway husband has just been injured in battle. The angry brother is trying to make peace in himself, his family, and the community. Under the hot Montana sun, Leo Cooper has a stroke in his bee-yards.

In my life, it is November 2018. The fight against fascism is not won. We don’t know the outcome; don’t know who will live or die, or what will ultimately be asked of us. The battlefield is everywhere. Our lives are fraught with the tension and chaos of a world in shift.

I rally my writing skills to reach back to then and to them; I reach my imagination into the brokenness and openness of the Coopers to discover the story map that can help me live honorably in our world of dire consequences in which the lives of ordinary people may shine.

Dad and I were on Chapter 42.

I am on Chapter 43.