Monday, April 14, 2014

Some Thoughts on Spring, Change, and Creativity

The past three years have been a time of change for me, and I haven't finished yet. Truth be told, I hope I never finish, because it seems to me that when we stop being open to new experience, in some sense we stop living.

But let's back up a bit.... As you may know, I taught writing, literature, and folklore for almost two decades at universities in the U.S. and in Tunisia and Kuwait (before many Americans had ever heard of either country). I had a sparkly new Ph.D. degree in folklore and cultural anthropology, but there were very few teaching jobs in my field. Luckily, I stumbled into a job teaching professional writing at the University of Maryland. That led to similar positions at American University and Indiana University. I also worked in various positions as an editor, working on everything from scientific monographs to school books for kids to magazine articles. And I started publishing in both scholarly journals and commercial magazines. I can't even begin to list what I learned about writing from teaching and editing. 

Then, with the support of my husband, Roger, I left teaching in the 1990's to write, to garden, to play with animals. The result? I wrote twenty-one nonfiction books about dogs, cats, and animal rescue; four of them never saw the presses because the series were cancelled by the publisher, so my publication list shows seventeen, plus oodles of articles in major and minor periodicals. My books won critical respect, and six "best book" awards from the professional organizations for dog and cat writers (meaning people who write about dogs and cats). 

Sometime in the early part of the new millennium, I wrote a mystery. I didn't think I could write fiction, didn't think I could make up a story. But I was in a writing group with three mystery writers, and one day as I drove home from a dog show, an opening line popped into my head, and I started writing, and I discovered that I could make up a story. Even better, I loved the process. That venture turned into the Animals in Focus mystery series, published by Midnight Ink. Drop Dead on Recall (2012) won the 2013 Maxwell Award for Fiction and was an NBCPetside Dog Book of the Year in 2012. The second book, The Money Bird, hit the shelves in fall 2013, and Catwalk will be out this coming fall. 

But here's the thing.... my literary true love is narrative/lyric nonfiction. Think Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, Barbara Hurd, Loren Eiseley.... I could go on and on. So in 2011, again with Roger's support, I entered the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, intending to focus on creative nonfiction. I did write CNF, but I also wrote fiction, a stage play, and poems. Some of the work I started at Stonecoast has been published; some is still cooking; some inspired my "to write" list. 

I also found that I missed teaching more and more. I do teach occasional workshops and classes, but I would love to go back to the university setting part-time, and to teaching more frequently at workshops and conferences. I'm mobile, so if you hear of something, drop me a note!

People often ask me what I'm working on. Good question! Just as I always have several books open on my night stand (and, to Roger's horror, on the floor, the end tables in the livingroom, the bathroom floor...), I always have several writing projects underway. I'm never short of ideas, and my challenge is to decide which project has priority. I've been working on that over the past few months, and I think I'm there, more or less. Maybe if I put my top three out there for you, dear readers, I'll be less likely to wander. It's worth a shot. So here are my top three projects-of-the-moment. 

  • Riding the Zephyr on the Fourth of July is a collection of lyric essays about traveling on long-distance trains. Two of the essays have been published, if you'd like a taste: "The 'I' States," in The Museum of Americana: A Literary Review, and "Nocturne: Nebraska" in The Wayfarer: A Journal of Contemplative Literarture. I'm planning to hop back on some trains this spring and summer as I write and revise more essays. 
  • familiaris: A Memoir is a lyric exploration of my years breeding, showing, rescuing, training, observing, and loving dogs, liberally laced with reflections from the biological and social sciences, history, and the arts. 
  • Rattlesnake Mountain is a literary eco-thriller set in the high desert of northern Nevada, where we used to live. 
So there you have it, more than you ever wanted to know. All three books are well underway, and I work on each at intervals. I also have a few short stories, essays, and poems in various stages. The process sounds scattered to many people, I'm sure, but it works for me. And yes, there may be more Animals in Focus mysteries in my future, too. And poems. And....well, it's spring. I'll just have to see what pops up, all green and mysterious!


Check out my Writers & Other Animals blog - 
"...for readers who love animals, and animal-lovers who read."

1 comment:

  1. Very impressive writing talents. I've read some of your traveling essays and enjoyed the experience. I love diversity,also,and am trying to complete the first draft of the second novel of my YA series and then begin work on a totally new novel, based on a true story. Not sure I can do both at the same time!!