I Came to Dance

Greetings, readers. It is good to be back after a long absence. It appears I’m on my own road to indigo, having moved recently from the Northwest to Southern Louisiana.
“You’re living your novel,” one friend observed. She’s right in many ways.
A couple of weeks ago, I participated in the Louisiana Book Festival. A workshop leader gave us a prompt and I wrote through her whole session, hearing nothing more spoken in the room. My writer self was so starved for expression. Out of my pen came this:

SGS peeling paint.scars
I scrape at the scars on the old Louisiana cypress house, its boards of peeling paint beaten by sun, wind, rain, and decades of neglect. I pound the loose white paint then scrape, chips littering my lashes and dotting the sheared-to-the-ground nandina, sacred bamboo someone long ago put around the porch. I scrape down to the raw wood sometimes unintentionally inflicting new wounds I will need to sand and caulk and prime.
This is my house.
My wrist burns after hours of raking a double blade across the grain of plank-after-plank, ribs that shape my shelter. The job is too big. It’s been two days of scraping and my workers need to move on to other jobs. We reach up into the soffits, swerving blades beyond points of roofer nails poking through boards.

I first saw this house online. It was May, the usual month I came to stay in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, during the past four years. Only this time I decided I wanted to stay. For months, I sat in my Tacoma, Washington, writing room scouring the Internet for real estate sites displaying new listings. I looked out at the grey rain and dreamed of Louisiana, its sunny fields of swaying cane. I saw myself at Café Des Ami, where one could never grow old dancing at the Zydeco breakfast. I even sent my Louisiana friend to look at a couple of promising houses. None, she said, looked like the pictures online. Bad aluminum siding, dangerous neighborhoods, cheap fixtures, she said. And when I came in May to look for myself, I could see she was right. I stopped research on my novel, the original reason I came to Louisiana, and spent hours, days, weeks cruising Southern highways, back roads, and websites, looking at each structure asking, “Are you my home?” like the children’s book protagonist asking things unlike itself, “Are you my mother?” It was exhausting.
Then one day I found it. I found my home on an obscure website, its long-leaf pine floors glistening, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and window seat lining one wall, pillars leading from living room to dining room that looked large enough for a state dinner. There was a huge front porch and stained glass windows growing lotuses. And the front door? Carved oak with an oval beveled-glass window flanked by side panels with smaller oval windows, a rectangular transom window crowning the trio. In the kitchen were original glass-fronted wood cabinets, burnished brass hardware, granite countertops, and a swinging paneled door leading from the kitchen to a light-filled dining room.
SGS.in new house
I shut my laptop and called a realtor recommended by an LA 31 brewery owner I’d met the day before. Miss Katina greeted me on the porch opening the door with a key she’d gotten from Miss Dee, a realtor friend and listing agent representing the bank-owned house. The listing was so new that there wasn’t even a lock box on the door yet. I’d asked my realtor to bring an inspector. We looked around and I made an offer on the spot.
The truth is, the house was a beautiful ruin. Blind to its scars, all I saw was pure beauty. Walking its floors for the first time, I knew it was mine. My offer was accepted and for the next two weeks I fought hard to put the deal together. Faced with repeated rejection due to no fault of my own, I reluctantly let go. And when I did, a door opened. I owned a house in Louisiana.

No longer a beautiful ruin, exactly, now it’s akin to Cinderella at the ball, her promise glistening as she dances something new into being. Under crumbling paint awaits prized cypress. These scars are beautiful. They are mine. Together we heal, this house and me.

Today, a young visitor from France asks me, “Why did you come here? To dance?”
Yes, I came to dance.

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The Road to Indigo, a poem by Margaret Simon

I am sitting on the porch of Bonne Terre Cottage in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, with Margaret Simon sipping mint tea and talking about writing and life. Margaret wrote a poem for me after our visit last year.  It shares my novel’s title.  I share it with you here.  (You can view her original post and listen to her read the poem.)

Reflections on the Teche

Join the Tuesday Slice of Life Join the Tuesday Slice of Life

Me with Sandy Sarr at a local restaurant. Me with Sandy Sarr at a local restaurant.

I enjoy connecting with new people online. I met Sandy Sarr through a mutual friend. Our friend thought we would like each other because we are both authors. So I friended Sandy on Facebook, and we read each others’ blogs. But meeting someone face to face, the old fashioned way, is so much better.

Sandy has spent the month of May in Louisiana for the last three years. She comes to meet people and to work on her novel, The Road to Indigo ( her working title). We had brunch together on Saturday. Jen was right; we connected easily and immediately. Sandy is about to complete an MFA program and has been writing her novel for 3 years. This project led her to Louisiana to meet many different people. She has some wonderful stories, some of…

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Tria Reed: The Writing Process Blog Tour

Photo: © N. Hope

Photo: © N. Hope

I am posting Tria’s contribution to The Writing Process Blog Tour since her Website is geared for other purposes.  Now, here’s Tria!

My thanks to Sandra Sarr for inviting me to participate in The Writing Process Blog Tour. I met Sandy in a writing critique group years ago and continue to be amazed at the breadth and beauty of her writing. You can read her responses to the questions I answer below elsewhere on her blog.

Sandy has an MFA in creative writing from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and is revising her first novel, THE ROAD TO INDIGO. Her poem, “Sestina for a Young Widow,” was nominated for a 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Intro Journals Project award. Another poem, “Matinal Oceania,” represented Washington State in YARN’s 2012 National Poetry Month’s project, Crossing Country Line by Line. She writes for Arches, the magazine of the University of Puget Sound.

What am I working on?
I’m writing a novel set at the end of the seventeenth century in the region we now call the Columbia River Basin. My stone-age heroine, Umari, travels through a treacherous rain forest inhabited by slave-taking bands to save her people, the Grass Seed Eaters. Only the blessings of the Great Water—an ocean far north and west of her desert homeland—can save her kin from starvation and drought.

This tale offers not only an excursion into an ancient era but also an allegory that portrays a transforming spiritual process. In order to survive the journey, Umari sheds layer upon layer of painful memories and beliefs until, at last, she abides in her sacred essence—the fearless love-power pulsing inside her.

This book continues the spiritual themes I explore in essays and poems on http://www.spontaneousmeditation.org.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
My novel stands in the long tradition of inspirational tales—stories that portray humans grappling with that most basic question: Who am I? The book’s stone-age setting, lyric writing, use of universal metaphors, and portrayal of our true nature as love make it unique.

Why do I write what I write?
Thirty-three years ago, I experienced an awakening—an upwelling of spiritual energy—that has flowed inside me ever since. At the time, I had no teacher or tradition, but I recognized this flowing force as both love and peace.

This force took me into a deep stillness, but my mind was active enough to be curious about the process unfolding within me. Aided by an academic background in comparative religion, I looked for similar experiences recorded in the world’s religions. Eventually, I combined my personal introspections with this research in a brief memoir, a short story and two epic poems. I presented these writings through informal readings and one-woman performances at healing centers, churches, national conferences and in private homes. My desire is always to communicate the closeness, power and beauty of our true nature.

How does my writing process work?
I’m a café writer. I treasure my mornings spent sipping tea while allowing spontaneously arising images or words to carry me into a scene. From this experience of literary “free fall,” come the most surprising results!

Photographs—bold, clear and colorful—also play an important role in my writing. In the 1990s, while I was performing my two epic poems, I illustrated them with dozens of photographic slides. I spend countless hours looking for just the right picture to illustrate my words. These photographs are so important to me, I sometimes rewrite a phrase—even a cherished one—so I can pair it with a breath-taking image.

I’m grateful to the photographers who’ve provided me with the images that support and ignite my writing. I’m also grateful to my husband, my literary buddies and my critique group partners who help me see what I fail to notice in my own writing.


The Writer’s Process Blog Tour continues with paranormal romance author, Jeanette Raleigh. Her series, WHEN WHERE AND HOWL takes readers on a hilarious journey with the antics of a were-mouse who falls in love with a werewolf. The first book in the series, Moon Struck, is currently free on Amazon. Blessed with an amazing imagination and mature writing skills, Jeanette creates fantastic tales filled with reality, warmth and wit.  To learn more about Jeanette’s writing process, please visit her blog: http://jeanetteraleigh.wordpress.com/

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I thank fellow Northwest Institute of Literary Arts alumna, friend, and talented writer Janet Buttenwieser for inviting me to participate in The Writing Process Blog Tour. You can read her responses to the same questions I answer below at http://janetbuttenwieser.com/2014/03/25/the-writing-process-blog-tour/ 

Janet Buttenwieser’s nonfiction work has appeared several places, including Potomac Review, Literary Mama, Bellevue Literary Review, and won honorable mention in The Atlantic 2010 Student Writing contest.  She has an MFA from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.  Find excerpts from her memoir-in-progress, GUTS, and her thoughts on the writing life at janetbuttenwieser.com

What am I working on?

I am revising my first novel, THE ROAD TO INDIGO, a cross between The Secret Life of Bees and To Kill a Mockingbird. It is the story of Maybelle Dupree, a Southern Louisiana traiteur, or healer, and Perry Rebecca Landry, an endangered teen-aged outsider, who discover that they are bonded by blood, secrets, and their innate ability to heal maladies. At Maybelle’s Indigo Plantation, they join forces to preserve the disappearing healing traditions of Cajun-Creoles, and they defy the social order of the Civil Rights-era Deep South at their own peril.

 I completed the novel in 2013. Recently, I mustered the courage to read it straight through for the first time and made notes in the margins. Working in the solitude and natural beauty of a friend’s house on Lake Quinault, I opened my laptop and the document holding my manuscript. I could see what I needed to do to improve the way the novel unfolds and I set about revising. I’m energized by the momentum building as I find the form that best serves the story.

 I also write feature stories and people profiles for the University of Puget Sound magazine, Arches. Occasionally, I’ll write a poem, which I love doing because it’s something I can start and finish in a matter of hours, not years.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

For starters, the novel is very place-specific. It’s set in the Cajun-Creole region of Southern Louisiana, west of New Orleans. Before I determined my setting, I’d already created and come to know my characters. One is Maybelle, a 70-year-old black woman who heals people using spiritual techniques and remedies derived from plants. I wanted an ethnically diverse setting for my 1960s-era story. Sitting in my living room in Tacoma, Washington, one evening looking at maps online I said, “Avery Island, Louisiana.” I’d never been to Louisiana and knew nothing about Avery Island.

Through an ongoing string of providential connections, I learned about traditional healers of the region. They’re called traiteurs, a French word meaning treaters. I decided I had to go to Louisiana to try to talk with a traiteur, that is, if they’d be willing to talk with a stranger about their practices. All I knew is that traiteurs did exactly what my character Maybelle did to heal people. She lived in that region. She had to be a traiteur. So, I travelled to Louisiana for the first time ever in 2011 to learn first hand about the healing practices of Acadiana. Although THE ROAD TO INDIGO is a work of fiction, it’s important to me to represent cultural traditions portrayed through my characters as authentically as possible. I did talk with several traiteurs and natives of the region who enriched the story tremendously. In fact, I threw out several chapters I’d written and started fresh. I’ve also amassed a collection of regional literature and reference materials, including the Dictionary of Louisiana French and Secret Doctors: Ethnomedicine of African Americans by Wonda L. Fontenot.

There are plenty of novels set in Acadiana and even a few novels with characters who are traiteurs, though those are rare and are, to my knowledge, written for young adult audiences. My novel also deals with healing from the standpoint of social justice.

Why do I write what I do?

I love the question even though I wrestle with the answer. I suppose I’ve always been a bit of an outsider with a curiosity about what it means to belong, like my young character Perry. I come from a racially diverse family and have lived in communities where I didn’t speak the language I heard spoken.

I struggled with whether or not THE ROAD TO INDIGO was my story to tell since I’m not of the culture or geographic region. Yet, it is a story that came to me as I sat down to write. With each step I took toward the story, doors opened and so did the story. In speaking with one traiteur who avoided me at first and who most resembles my character Maybelle, she said to me, “You were born with this story in you. Now you just need to sit down and write it.” As life as I knew it crumbled all around me, I sat down and wrote THE ROAD TO INDIGO. I’ll keep writing it until I’m satisfied it is ready to send out into the world.

I write life, including parts of it that can only be intuited and that are often more real than what can be perceived by the five senses. During my lifetime, I’ve been diagnosed with two life-threatening illnesses. I’ve been healthy for seventeen years and counting. I believe that healing takes place in a multitude of ways, including through story itself. That belief has contributed to why I write what I write. I believe that there are stories that want to be told and that they choose the teller.

How does my writing process work?

Process? That’s not a word that flows through my fingers naturally. I’d say “organic” best describes my novel-writing process. I was forced by an adviser to write a chapter-by-chapter outline and synopsis of my novel. Mostly, I let the story itself inform me what’s next. Now that I know the whole shape of it, I have identified certain objectives I want to accomplish. My writing feels more strategic now that I’m revising, making structural shifts, and layering in details. Three novelists have given me feedback on my first draft, which I’m considering as I revise.

If I’m on deadline I go to my upstairs writing room, sit at the fold-down desk, and write on my computer. I wrote early chapters in pencil on large, lined tablets. Somehow using the pencil seemed less serious and let me sneak up on the scenes playing in my head and get them on paper. I wrote this way sitting by a pool in California. I wrote major passages during writing fellowships at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island. For many months I met a writing partner at my dining room table and wrote Thursday mornings for two hours. I’m reading about three novels at any given time and studying how they’re made. I participate in writers’ conferences and classes. Serving as assistant fiction editor of Soundings literary journal helps me discern what works and why in a story.

How do I get the writing done? It gets done when I sit down and write. I don’t talk about it a lot because it dissipates the energy I could use for writing.


The Writing Process Blog Tour continues next week with the wonderful author and teacher MARGARET GIBSON SIMON. She lives on the Bayou Teche in New Iberia, Louisiana. She’s the author of two books, BLESSEN, a young readers novel, and ILLUMINATE, a book of poetry inspired by drawings by her father, John Gibson. Margaret is passionate about teaching, poetry, family, and dancing with her husband of nearly 30 years. Margaret blogs about life on the bayou at http://reflectionsontheteche.wordpress.com In fact, she wrote a poem in May 2013 titled The Road to Indigo, for Sandra Sarr, which you can hear her read on her blog.

Also blog touring this week is the deeply talented and insightful writer and spiritual teacher TRIA REED. In order to create original written materials for spiritual performances and workshops, Tria left behind her academically trained writing voice. She’s offered one-woman shows (“My Name is Love” and “In the Beginning God Danced”) throughout Western Washington and in Northern and Southern California. Her website (www.spontaneousmeditation.org) showcases her non-fiction writing and several short poems. After years of preparatory research, Tria’s novel, THE WAY OF THE RIVER: A SPIRITUAL ALLEGORY, is well underway.

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Live oak in Southern Louisiana

Live oak in Southern Louisiana

Soon I will return to the lush landscape where my novel is set.

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Notes on a Winter Morning

I’m in my writing room writing.  It’s 16 degrees outside and I’ve been nursing my furnace through one more season, please, using notes and a metal tool. 

My life is rich and uncertain.  I live a writing life.  Rich.  I am on my own after a long marriage.  Uncertain.  I have meaningful work as a teaching assistant for a course with my graduate school, as assistant fiction editor of a literary journal, as a freelance writer for a university magazine, as a promoter of friends’ artistic works, as a board member for two non-profits.  Rich.  Only one of these gigs pays.  Uncertain. 

And there’s my novel to revise.  Others, including an agent, are waiting to read the manuscript.

What is certain is that my whole being is recalibrating. I can almost hear the clicking and whirring, like a deck of cards shuffling inside or like the old furnace in the basement blowing, crackling, and blessedly igniting with a roar.

I’m in my writing room this morning thinking, my dog giving up his pleading for play and slipping into a soft snore.  Russell Edson’s The Tunnel is in my lap. I haven’t picked up the book since I took the class as a student four years ago.  I’ve never been willing to sell or recycle my textbooks, though I’m becoming more discerning about what I keep.  Edson is like an edgy old friend I put on a shelf.  Today, I’m reading his “Waiting for the Signal Man” and considering the grad students’ and teacher’s take on the prose poem, its imagery, ideas, and techniques.  A student observes that the poem folds into and out of itself and I offer thoughts about why.  

After a long silence here and elsewhere, inspiration sparks and a few words release.  Awash in grey, I dream of southern Louisiana and what I will bring when I return this spring.  The Road to Indigo calls. 

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I’m Here

I'm here!

I’m here!

Frostproof VetteFrostproof mapWallace Reese in 1995Wallace, me, and Paul with Wallace's T-top Corvette

WR dancing

While in Florida this week, I decided to take a spontaneous side trip to Frostproof to see for the first time the lake-rimmed farm town where my stepfather, Wallace Reese, came of age. I grew up hearing his stories about Frostproof. When I discovered I was only forty minutes away, I had to go.

Wallace (No Middle Initial) Reese was the thirteenth of thirteen children born to Mrs. Ever Reese Troup. By time Wallace was born, I suppose she’d grown tired of naming children and so her youngest got only one. He didn’t mind. He went on to make a name for himself anyway.

Much of Florida’s terrain is flat, but the two-lane road, Scenic Highway 17, that leads into Frostproof rolls gently through sloping orange groves and past natural lakes. Its central business district, a crossroads with a bank, vintage car showroom, gas station-turned-bistro, and feed store at its core, looks much the same as the one Wallace walked in the 1940s and 50s. But looks tell only part of a story. I wonder if much has changed concerning race relations since Wallace’s time there. I wonder if Wallace, a black person, could walk freely into any neighborhood or business in Frostproof and be treated with respect–both then and now.

Apparently, he grew up in segregated conditions. According to a May 2004 article in The Ledger, the local daily newspaper, “The original lawsuit to end segregation in Polk County was filed in fall 1963, almost a decade after the Brown decision. A federal court ordered Polk County to end its “biracial” school system and desegregate in 1965. Integration began during the 1965-1966 school year and mandatory desegregation occurred during the 1969-1970 school year. The district remained under a federal court desegregation order until March 2000, when it was granted “unitary status,” meaning it no longer operates a segregated school system.” Wallace graduated from high school in 1959. Apparently, he attended segregated schools throughout his entire education in Frostproof. I wondered if he attended the large and quite beautiful Spanish Mediterranean school building we drove past.

When he was very young, his mother would take him on the bus with her to work. She was a maid for well-to-do folks, and Wallace grew up seeing and appreciating nice things. He developed exquisite taste in fashion, home décor, and automobiles and he loved literature, travel, and a good debate. And Scotch.

He liked to tell of working in Frostproof’s orange groves as a boy. His boss handed him a tool called a scuffle hoe and said, “Boy, all you got to do is keep this thing moving and make sure you don’t stop ‘til the sun goes down.” Laughing hard, Wallace made a push-pull motion to demonstrate how the hoe worked. He said it didn’t matter how you used it, its triangular blade would scrape weeds from beneath the trees as long as you kept it moving. He laughed at the absurd tedium, but the truth is that central Florida’s blistering heat could sap the life right out of a person. Not Wallace.

In his early teens, Wallace decided to hitch a ride with a friend to Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, where he got a job as a waiter and saved money for college. (I won’t say what he did to a white restaurant customer who treated him poorly. That’s a story for another time.)

After Wallace graduated from high school, he packed a suitcase, boarded a bus, and showed up at Florida A & M University. He walked into a campus administrator’s office and said, “I’m here.” The woman at the desk said, “I’m sorry. Your name doesn’t appear on our roster of admitted students.” No one ever told him he needed to apply to college. The woman looked him over and said, “Come with me.” She took him to the dean of admission’s office and explained the situation. The dean said, “Son, you look ambitious. I’m going to give you a chance.” He handed Wallace a college-entrance exam and a pencil. The dean admitted him that same day. Four years later, Wallace graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Far from the fields of Frostproof, he went on to a successful career with the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and other agencies. He provided a home for our family and an environment for learning, creating, and laughing.

Today, October 25, is Wallace’s birthday. He would’ve been 72. I’m baking a German chocolate cake, his favorite, and singing off-key like he used to while listening to Isaac Hayes, Cannonball Adderly, and Nancy Wilson on his ’60s reel-to-reel.

Wallace’s stories of Frostproof and beyond planted a seed of imagination that, no doubt, helped inform my novel, The Road to Indigo.

I’m glad I was able to stand in Frostproof and say, “I’m here.”

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