Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (And Work)!

ibm selectricWhen I started teaching 8th grade English, I had the urge to do some writing for myself. Modeling essay structure for my students became fun, not work. I had many papers to write in my graduate courses for certification to teach, and my instructors would tell me I was a good writer. But, teaching full-time while earning my teaching certificate did not allow much free time for creative writing. Once the certification process was complete, I began to tinker around with short stories and an idea for a young adult novel, but my beta readers all told me the same thing: Too much exposition. Takes too long to get started. You don’t write the way you tell your stories. Your stories are so much more exciting. This was also confirmed when I sent a piece off for a professional critique. The one positive comment: Your dialogue is so realistic!

So, I decided to back up and try a different tactic. Since telling stories seemed to be my strong suit, I decided to concentrate on writing creative non-fiction. So, on December 31, 2014, my daughters helped me create a website, this website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt. I set a goal: An Essay a Week for One Year. My hope was that in that one year of disciplined writing, of putting my work out there for all to see (and hopefully read), my writing would improve. I would learn to get to the point. I would learn to dive into the story rather than dilly dally around it. I would strengthen my ability to write something with a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I would hopefully learn to write the way I tell stories, with more imagery and excitement. Practice makes perfect, right?

puccini in the sunMy first essay was about our dog, License to Carry. I pushed the “publish” button and the line was drawn in the sand. I’ve never ever given up on anything in my life, so I had no intention of giving up on this goal either.

However, 2015 proved to stretch me to my limits. For some crazy reason I decided to direct High School Musical Jr. for my former school’s spring musical. Rehearsals began in February, and middle schoolers came out in droves. It was the biggest cast ever, almost fifty 7th and 8th graders involved in the production. Think cheerleading uniforms for 25 girls and basketball uniforms for a bunch of boys, the largest number of boys we’d ever had show up for auditions. Balancing the extra workload of directing this mega-musical with teaching full-time, and squeezing out enough time to write an essay each week before my midnight Sunday deadline, was quite the challenge.

And, then God sent me yet another cross. My father in Louisiana became critically ill and was in and out of the hospital and rehab center. Things really escalated in April just before tech week for the musical. I flew to Louisiana to help my brothers manage my father’s care and make many difficult decisions, leaving the production to the care of the teachers on my team. They did a wonderful job of pulling it all together, and I returned to Maryland just in time to see the closing performance, which was a splendid success.

Sadly, my father died less than two weeks later, sending me back to Louisiana for his funeral, at a very busy time in the life of a middle school teacher: exams, graduation, report cards, permanent records, closing up a classroom for the summer. Somehow, in grief, I managed to keep my deadline each week, with several essays being written on my father’s computer. Those essays are still difficult for me to read, but most importantly I continued to pursue my goal, to write and hone my craft.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve 2015. Hurray, I had reached my goal, 52 essays, one a week for one year, all written and published on my website before midnight each Sunday! Whether out of habit or out of some competitive need to continue on, I continued writing my weekly essays until the end of April of 2016. At this point, a friend said to me, “Stop! You did it, now work on getting published in print!”

But, how? The answer came to me when I happened to pick up a copy of Washington Family Magazine, a regional parenting magazine dropped off at my former school once a month. In the February 2017 issue, I read the article, “Local Mom Profile: Welcome Back to the Table”. It was a great article, but as I was reading it, I thought, “I can do this. I can write an article like this.”

Later that week I queried Washington Family Magazine and asked if they would be interested in a profile of a local mom who had converted her garage into an art studio where she hosts the ever-popular paint night parties and uses her art to promote her social justice causes. After getting the green light to proceed, I signed up for one of her paint parties and subsequently scheduled an interview with her. I submitted the article in March, and then radio silence. In the months that followed, I followed up with the editor periodically while I shopped the article around to some national publications. I received polite rejections, although one did tell me it was well-written and enjoyable to read.

Published Articles Mar-AugThe article, “Local Mom Profile Artist Angie Kilcullen and Barn Again Home” was eventually published in the March 2018 issue of Washington Family Magazine, almost a year later. In the subsequent five months, I am happy to report that I’ve developed an ongoing working relationship with this local magazine:

April 2018: “Finish Strong: End the School Year on a High Note

June 2018: “Squash the Summer Slump” and “Local Dad Profile: Mark Turgeon, Father of Three and Father to Many More

July 2018: “Can’t Travel? Take a Literary Staycation

July 2018 (sister publication): “Book It: Take a Literary Staycation

August 2018: “Armchair Traveler: Books That Let You Travel the World (Without Leaving Home)” and (local kid profile) “Flying To Infinity and Beyond

And, I’ve submitted one for the upcoming September issue.

As with “An Essay a Week for One Year”, I’ve accomplished my goal of getting published in print. Onward to a new goal, to reach outside of this local market and get published in a national publication. I continue to work on my fiction writing as well, having spent some of this summer fine-tuning a short story that takes place at the popular PBS program Antiques Roadshow. I’ve submitted it to a local literary contest. We’ll see. I’ve had good luck locally!

Advertisements

More Questions than Answers

deadline countdownI did it. I really did it. This essay marks the finish line, the accomplishment of a goal, the completion of a commitment I made one year ago on New Year’s Eve, 2014, when I, with the help of my two tech-savvy and very creative daughters, developed a website on Word Press—Cajun Girl in a Kilt—and published my first essay, “License to Carry”, about my dog Puccini. A week later, during one of my planning periods at school, I posted another essay, entitled “What Makes a Writer a Writer?” That second essay was to affirm my commitment to this project I had cooked up—to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and to establish the guidelines for my yearlong project to becoming a writer.

acropolis
Aunt Helen, walking the ruins of the Acropolis, Athens, Greece, 1973

I know myself all too well. Many times in my life I’ve started something with the best of intentions and for various reasons did not follow through, so the accomplishment of this goal is significant for me. A perfect example of this is taking on new hobbies, which I inherited genetically from my dad’s sister, Helen Blanchard Songy. My dear Aunt Helen loved learning new things; she loved the excitement of gathering all of the materials and equipment, the very best of everything, required for her new hobby. She would then bring in an expert, someone accomplished in that area to teach her this new thing. She would invite friends and family members over, including my mom, serve food and drink, and in the confines of a party atmosphere, she would learn her new hobby. Over the years, she tried just about everything, hand-painted porcelain, oil painting, quilting, tatting, smocking, knitting, and many others. She was very talented and had a high degree of artistic skills. She took such an interest in ceramics that she had my Uncle Guy purchase a kiln for her and install it in a vacant rental house he owned. She lined the walls of that little house with molds, ceramic tools, and jugs of slip, the liquid used to create ceramic pieces.

Queen Nefertiti
Nefertiti bust, made by Aunt Helen (undated)

I am lucky enough to have several pieces she made for me, before her interest in ceramics waned and she moved on to the next new thing on the horizon. Some may have seen her lack of completion of some projects as a failure to follow through on a commitment, but I don’t believe that was it at all. For her, the finishing of a project was not the goal; it was the learning of a new skill or the developing of a new talent. She didn’t want to become a ceramic artist; she just wanted to learn how to do it. Martha Stewart has built an entire empire on that very notion; it’s a good thing.

Breakfast in London
Aunt Helen at breakfast on the first day of our European tour, London, 1973

In a previous essay, “Living and Loving Life as a Lifelong Learner”, I talked about what I accomplished over my summer break from teaching. I taught myself how to make jam. I haven’t made any jam since the new school year started but now I have all the necessary equipment and I am confident in my jam-making abilities. There’s a good bit of Aunt Helen in me, and my self-identification as a lifelong learner comes from her. She loved to travel and to see new things, taste new foods, meet new people. She chaperoned both my high school trip to Europe and my senior class trip to the Bahamas.

Aboard the Flavia with the Wine Steward
Aunt Helen aboard The Flavia with the wine steward, sailing to the Bahamas, 1974

Around young people, she knew how to strike the perfect balance, that of a fun and interesting adult who also, when needed, knew how to establish authority at the drop of a hat. As a middle school teacher, I try every day to strike that balance with my students, to give them a love for learning in fun and interesting ways, while also recognizing that as adolescents they need and want, if unknowingly, an authority figure.

My commitment to this writing project has been very fulfilling in many ways. My goal was to become a writer. Am I a writer now, 52 weeks later? I still haven’t sold anything and some people say being paid to write makes a person a writer. Others say just being published makes a person a writer. I’ve published 53 essays on my website, and I’ve written guest posts for three other websites. I’ve had many articles published in a regional newspaper. I had an essay published in a print anthology of ultra-short memoirs. Still, I wonder, am I a writer yet?

Persian Cat
Ceramic Persian cat, made by Aunt Helen (undated)

Another goal of my project was to strengthen my writing skills. I am fortunate to have a family of beta readers, my husband and two grown daughters, all three being intelligent, well-educated, and brilliant writers themselves. They read my essays before I publish them, give me their thoughts, make line edits, and sometimes, push me to worker harder on a particular piece. I know I am a stronger writer for their efforts.

Southern Belle
Southern Belle, made by my mom in Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1987

Two side benefits of this project were both unexpected and gratifying. One is that I’ve received a lot of positive feedback, some on my website and more on Facebook, from friends and family members who have enjoyed my essays. Reading their comments encouraged me to keep writing and to keep sharing my work on my website and on Facebook. As the finish line for my project was coming into sight, several people have asked me, “What next?” and “Don’t stop, keep going!” I’ve also received some good feedback from people outside my circle of family and friends, via Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and my website. Word Press allows website owners to check their stats, to observe the number of visits to the website and number of views of each particular post. The stats are also identified by country of origin of the viewer, and that has been fascinating to watch as well, to see people from many different foreign countries reading my work.

Piano Baby
Piano Baby, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1989

Another benefit has been the creative process itself. At the start of this process, I thought it might be tough to come up with an idea of what to write about. Yes, some weeks have been tougher than others, but if I cleared my mind and sat quietly, often staring at my bookshelves, an idea would come to me. I would sit down at my laptop to write and sometimes the essay would tumble out, much as I had planned in my head. Other weeks, I would come up with an idea, sit down to write it, and find myself a thousand words later with a completely different essay than what I had imagined. It’s also been interesting to find my childhood memories creeping into my work, often when I had not planned on that week’s essay being particularly memoir-driven. One close friend remarked to me that she feels as though she knows me so much better after having read all of my essays. While unintended, this has been a positive result of this project.

So, where to next? Do I continue with my essay a week schedule? Do I switch gears and try something new? One friend has suggested that I publish a different recipe each week, and she also proposed a title for the new project, “Fifty-Two Weeks of Fabulous Food”. My younger daughter says that my writing is much stronger when I write about food like in my essay “Preserving Old Traditions”; she says that is where my voice really comes alive. I’m not sure, though, because one of the great things about this project was the freedom to just write about anything, and not be tied to a theme or be limited to a particular part of my life. As a lifelong learner, I enjoy being able to write about my many different interests.

Originally, I thought that when the year was over, I would close out the project with a final essay and then move on to fiction. I have this story in my head—about a missing suitcase, loosely based upon a real-life event of a friend of mine. black rolling suitcaseMy protagonist from this story has changed and developed over the several years that I have been mulling over this story line, and I like who she has become. Before starting “an essay a week for one year”, I had tried several times to get this story out of my head and onto paper but I felt stuck, as though in quicksand, unable to find my voice for fiction. After a solid year of consistently writing, revising, editing, and publishing creative non-fiction, will I have better luck at fiction now? Will this character and that damn suitcase finally find a place in print?

Popular author, blogger, and public speaker Michael Hyatt wrote an essay on how long it takes to make a habit stick. The popular thought was that three weeks, just 21 days of doing something, was enough to make it a habit. In his essay “How to Make a New Habit Stick: Why It’s Harder than You Thought—and What to Do about It”, he documents studies that say it is much longer than three weeks, that it is more like 66 days, and for some, closer to 250 days. As of New Year’s Eve 2015, I will be at 365 days for this project, an essay a week. I can definitely say that I feel a difference in my own thoughts about writing. The pattern for me has been established. I have a sense for how long it will take me to get an essay written once I have an idea in mind. I know about how long it will take to revise and edit it until it is where I want it, the point where I push “publish” on my website. And, I’ve been able to do this without fail, for a whole year, not just during summer break when I have very few limitations on my time, but also while teaching full time, grading papers, and making lesson plans. I’ve followed through in the darkest of times, writing several essays from my father’s computer while he was in the nursing home or in hospice care at my brother’s home, and writing several over the weeks surrounding his funeral.

santa vase
Ceramic Santa vase, made by my mom in my Aunt Helen’s kiln, 1999

Somehow I think that at the end of next week, I will subconsciously be thinking about an essay topic, and out of habit, will return to that genre, and if that is the case, then this isn’t my final essay. If you would like to offer up your opinion on what I should do next, whether it’s one of the options I’ve presented herein or some ideas of your own, you can share those thoughts in the little survey I put together for this final essay. I look forward to seeing your responses, as well as your comments on my completion of my yearlong project! Stand by; let’s see where Cajun Girl in a Kilt goes from here!

Learning the “Write” Way

On September 12, 2015, my father would have been 85 years old. On September 8, it will be four months since he passed away. I miss him. I think of him all the time, just like I think of my mother all the time and it has been eight long years since I lost her. One of the things I miss the most is not being able to call them to tell them good news. That’s when I feel my grief the most.

Reflections front coverJust a few weeks ago, on August 26th, I received a package in the mail: ten copies of a paperback book called Reflections: Ultra Short Personal Narratives collected by CoCo Harris. The minute I ripped upon that box, I immediately thought of my dad and how much I would have liked to get out my phone and call him to share my good news. An essay I wrote was included in that book. And, that essay is about a lesson my dad taught me many, many years ago.

Last Christmas, when both my daughters were home for the holidays, we talked about my desire to become a writer. I had been writing essays and personal narratives with the hopes of getting them published somewhere. I had sent a few off to contests and magazines but had not been successful in getting my foot in the door anywhere. We talked about different ways I could improve my skills as a writer as well as ways to improve my chances for publication. We decided I needed a platform of my own, so I created my own website, Cajun Girl in a Kilt, purchased my domain name, www.michelleardillo.com, and for my first entry, I selected a short essay I had written about my dog and his off and on difficulties of navigating the stairs in our house, “License to Carry”.

Knowing myself all too well, I knew I needed some sort of plan or goal to motivate me to continue writing and posting essays on my new website. So, I came up with the idea of “an essay a week for one year”. I mean, it worked for Julie Powell. She set out to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she set herself a goal of doing it in one year and blogging about it as she cooked her way through it, one recipe at a time. She accomplished her goal and more. Her blog became a book and her book became a movie. And, she became a writer. I was inspired.

It is now September and I have been at it for eight months. I have posted an essay a week while teaching full-time, directing a middle school musical with a cast of 43 7th and 8th graders, coordinating 8th grade graduation, and, last but certainly not least, having my father become very ill and passing away. Through it all, I have never once considered that I would not post my weekly essay. To say I am goal-oriented is an understatement. I simply can’t quit something when I have truly set my mind to it. This I attribute to my father and his steadfast work ethic.

telling our stories pressSo, when I read about a small publishing company, Telling Our Stories Press, http://tellingourstoriespress.com/telling-our-stories-press-contributing-a, asking for submissions of ultra-short personal narratives where the writer reflects on a lesson learned, I knew mine would be about one of the many lessons I learned from my father. A story from my past popped into my head, a story featuring a legal document donutsand my father’s advice that “honesty is the best policy”. I submitted my essay on May 19th, just days after his funeral. In June, I learned my essay had been selected for publication. And, on August 26th, my package arrived with my copies of the freshly printed book. Oh, how I would have liked to call and tell my mom and dad about it. They weren’t big readers, but I know they would have loved getting a copy of that book in the mail.

Anthologies of personal essays are not the kinds of books that typically fly off the shelves at Amazon’s mega-warehouse or at your local B&N, but I’m still very happy with this stepping stone toward my goal of becoming a writer. This short essay detailing a small fiasco of mine at my former job as a real estate paralegal
marks my first words in print. I’ve been fortunate to be a guest blogger twice on an author’s website, http://www.cindycallaghan.com/the-art-of-the-afternoon-tea-part-1-by-michelle-ardillo/, and then again on a website about reading that has a wide audience, https://nerdybookclub.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/my-kingdom-for-a-lamp-by-michelle-blanchard-ardillo/. And, of course, this essay is #38 in my “essay a week for one year” so I am over half-way there and well on my way to accomplishing my goal. I have no idea where this “essay a week for one year” will lead me but I have enjoyed writing my weekly essays and I know my self-imposed weekly deadline has strengthened my writing skills as well as my discipline for writing.

For those of you out there who have been following me on this journey by reading my weekly essays, let me say thank you. Thank you for your comments, reflections, and encouragement. Thank you for sharing the link on your Facebook page or retweeting it. Thank you for casually mentioning in a conversation something you read in one of my essays and making me feel great. And, if you are so inclined, head over to Amazon and order a copy of “my book”.  Reflections back coverYou’ll find my essay “You Can Handle the Truth” on page 46. Whatever you do, though, keep checking in to see what the Cajun Girl in a Kilt has written and where this journey of becoming a writer will take me. Michelle and PopsIn the meantime, on September 12th I’ll go outside and sit on my porch, raise a glass of red wine, and say, “Happy Birthday, Daddy. Thanks for everything.”