Thursday, April 23, 2015

John D'Agata Says This About The Fifth Season

My second book meant my second chance at the Oregon Book Award—but the honor went not to me but to another fine writer, Justin Hocking, for his memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Underworld (congratulations, Justin!). 

I have to be honest here. When Justin's name was announced instead of mine at the awards ceremony, I breathed a sigh of relief and all my nervous anticipation faded before the applause did. From that moment on, I was able to really listen, to relax, to enjoy the remainder of the ceremony. 

And I remembered, even as Justin was giving his speech, that sometime in the next week I would receive an email with the judge's comments on my book. 

John D'Agata was the judge for this year's creative nonfiction award, and here's what he had to say about The Fifth Season: A Daughter-in-Law's Memoir of Caregiving. (Thank you, thank you John.)

As I read Lisa Ohlen Harris’s phenomenally understated and yet exquisitely crafted memoir The Fifth Season, I started thinking that any lesser writer would have leapt upon this genuinely hearbreaking story and wrung it dry for every last drop of transfused misery. And then I started loving The Fifth Season even more.

Because what I have only now started to learn as a writer—embarrassingly late in the game, I’ll admit—is that it takes a lot more skill to hold back as it does to go for low-hanging and lurid details. What we learn in The Fifth Season, therefore, we learn through experience, through quietly developed anecdotes and impeccably pitch-perfect pacing, through watching Harris navigate the complexities of a relationship with her mother-in-law that neither of them seems to have voluntarily signed up for, and yet which intensifies gradually over seven long years until that relationship becomes something that beautifully transforms them both.  Through genuinely heroic compassion, as well as agonizingly petty bickering, through fear and humor and unconditional patience, Harris creates a portrait of a relationship that’s about as real as it can get, and thus as strong as they come. I often caught myself envying even the worst of the moments that these two women shared.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

McMinnville Reading and Open Mic

Join me at the Velvet Monkey tearoom on April 2 for a reading (by me) and open mic for prose writers (that means you)!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jill Kandel, author of So Many Africas

I "met" Jill Kandel in 2006 when she submitted a wonderful essay to Relief Journal, where I was the editor for creative nonfiction. We published that essay, and over the next few years I was not surprised to see Jill publish work in impressive journals, including The Missouri Review, Gettysburg Review, River Teeth, Image, Pinch, and Brevity. The road from writing essays to crafting a memoir is a long one, and last summer Jill learned that her years of writing and compiling and revising and then writing some more had finally resulted in a book contract: her book was selected for the 2014 Autumn House Nonfiction Prize. So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village is lyric and surprising—a gorgeous first book. I asked Jill to tell me a little about her process, and you can read the resulting interview over at  Brevity

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Oregon Book Award Finalist

I'm pleased to share that I'm a 2015 Oregon Book Award finalist for The Fifth Season! Winners in each category will be announced in April 2015. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advanced Memoir & Personal Essay Class

It's not too late to register for my ten-week Advanced Memoir & Personal Essay class, offered online via Creative Nonfiction Foundation. The course begins January 12 and is quickly filling, so don't wait to register!

Saturday, December 13, 2014


You’d think I’d have learned my lesson. The last time it happened, I had “a feeling” a few hours beforehand and backed everything up to a thumb drive—except my photos. I lost four years of my girls’ childhood. Not many months later, I woke early with the same feeling and hopped out of bed to grab a thumb drive and hurry downstairs. Too late, that second time. I lost all the remaining digital photographs of my kids, dating back to when we bought our first digital camera when my youngest was six months old. I have no photos of Kayla from age six months through the time she started school. Two crashed hard drives and years of visual memories are completely gone.

That second time, I wept.

And now it happens to me again, with no warning, no “feeling” to presage digital disaster. I did back everything up—including photos—just a couple of months ago, before taking my laptop in for service, but I haven’t backed up since.

  • Gone: the NaNoWriMo manuscript
  • Gone: All new writing from the past few months (which isn’t saying a lot—but I’ve written more in the last three weeks than I had for six months or more prior)
  • Gone: materials developed for but not yet posted in my online thesis class
  • Gone: my household budget spreadsheets for the next six months

This time, the hard drive crashed near the conclusion of a big editing project. I was in the process of transferring my proofreader’s corrections to my master copy, but I lost only a few hours’ work and not a few weeks’ worth. Though I hadn’t backed up my own stuff, I had backed up my client’s work.

When I learned the drive was a total loss, I texted my sister-in-law, who is also a writer. She replied, “So, are you okay? I would have a good angry. Ty.”

Then 30 seconds later: “Cry”

I haven’t had a cry at all, haven’t wanted to, but then I do keep my emotions well buried much of the time. Even as I drove home from the Apple store, I felt I’d dodged a bullet. I lost a manuscript assembled out of drafts and essays still wedged here and there on thumb drives around my bedroom and study. I didn’t lose my power to think and to articulate. I didn’t lose a job or a home or child or parent or my husband. The loss of 5,000 or 8,000 words of new writing is far from a fatal error.

Perhaps I have finally, finally learned my lesson. I’ve installed a router that backs my work up wirelessly every hour and will store 2 terabytes worth of data. (Uh, what the heck is a terabyte?)

The blank hard drive on the barren laptop before me feels kind of good. I’ve chosen as my new desktop wallpaper a blue sky with whisps of white clouds and a white crescent moon visible through the clouds. A small handful of folders and docs are hung on those clouds, and I know the content of each and every one of them.

The file I’m working on today holds this coming week’s guidance for my thesis students, to be posted online tomorrow—essentially, I’ve written a blog post focused on our topic for the week: the writing workshop. I’d drafted the first bits of the thesis guidance last week, but instead of trying to remember and reconstruct, I started from scratch. Wrote something brand new. And it’s good.

Perhaps I’m in denial, but this loss seems small. I still have hundreds of pages of drafts on those thumb drives. I still have the urge to put fingers to keyboard. This coming Wednesday night my best friend of thirty years is coming to see the girls’ Christmas Concert, and on Thursday my eldest flies home for Christmas Break. The tree is up, and the shopping is done. Our furnace works. The fridge is full.

My imagination and memory are wide and deep. I am fifty-one years old. I’ve got more than enough new material—so much left to write and not enough weeks and months and years left to write it all.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Mornings Unplugged

For the long Thanksgiving weekend, my family and I drove to the Oregon Coast and stayed at a cozy beach house with no Internet. The first time I stayed there, about five years ago, I was truly shocked to arrive and find there was no Internet connection, and I was mildly stressed during my entire stay. I now retreat to the beach house at least once a year, prepared to unplug and relax. It’s easier to deal with the shock when you know it’s coming.

This discovery will come as no surprise, I’m sure: Without the distraction of the Internet, I got tons of reading and writing done! Over the course of five early mornings, I drafted notes for two new essays and read two memoirs and nearly half a thick essay anthology.

Duh. When I unplug, I get stuff done.

My usual morning routine is to get up around six so I have an hour of coffee and computer time before my kids get up. If I wake earlier, I get up earlier. I poke around Facebook, read and answer emails, check my online course, and then click back through Facebook and email again until it’s time to shower and get dressed to take the kids to school.

What a waste.

When I got back from the beach, I challenged myself to use that early morning hour (or three, on those mornings when my eyes pop open at 4:00) to read and to write without the distraction of the Internet. I should respect my writing goals enough to give myself those best hours, which for me are in the early morning.

So Todd and I have been leaving the router and modem unplugged before 7:00 a.m. I moved my morning reading and writing space from the living room to the basement to make it harder for me to turn on the Internet just to check this one thing ...

And of course I’ve been getting stuff done. I’ve revised a chapter from my NaNoWriMo manuscript and am coming close to completing one of the new pieces I drafted at the coast, which fits perfectly with the NaNoWriMo material and will become part of that larger manuscript.

I told myself this past week of mornings unplugged was an experiment, but I know I have to make this into a permanent habit. Writing transports me into memory and enables me to explore connections and philosophies and relationships and spiritual convictions. When I don't write, parts of my mind and personality fade away. I don’t experience the world as fully because I’m not exploring my thought life as deeply.

Writing, for me, is a way of living, of experiencing life.

Many years ago I realized that I couldn’t eat sweets for breakfast. If I ate a cinnamon roll or even jelly on toast in the morning, I felt spacey and slow all day. For years now I have avoided sugar in the morning. It’s not even a sacrifice any more.

Last January I stopped drinking Diet Coke or diet anything. I tried cutting processed foods as well, but I backslid on all but the soda pop and fake sweeteners. I haven’t had any soda, diet or otherwise, in 2014. No aspartame or Splenda. I’ve built these small habits of self denial for the sake of my body. Now it’s time to build a new habit into the coming months and years for the sake of my mind and heart. I already know how I will live 2015.

No sweets for breakfast, no Diet Coke, and mornings unplugged.