News from the Infirmary

Wednesday, February 29, 2012
The cabin has been one house of illness lately. A nasty cold has been spreading through the entire community like wildfire, so when Andy came home with the sniffles a week and a half ago, I knew it was only a matter of time before the cabin had taken on a decided "infirmary" feel. Sure enough, Andy's been out with a nasty, yucky sinus cold for going on 11 days now and I've been sniffling (and sneezing) my way through the past six days. It's a doozy, this cold, and we're hardly its only victims.

So there's no real news to report from this neck of the woods, no big outdoor adventures to relate from the last two batches of days off.

But here are some fun stats from the House of Illness!

Work days missed = 0
Boxes of Nyquil depleted = .5
Kleenex Boxes used  = 2 and counting 
Chicken soup consumed = 1 batch
Boxes of tea depleted = 2

In other news, winter's decided to go prove something and be all wintery again. Actually, we're meant to be getting the blizzards of all blizzards right now, but so far, not even a snowflake. Guess it all tracked south. Bummer . . . .  For the time being, I'll just enjoy the fresh 5" that came down on Sunday.

Honestly, it can be spring any day now. ANY DAY. *sigh*

In a moment of feverish inspiration (somewhat aided by a feeling of broke-ity, broke, broke-ness), I sent out a batch of queries on Saturday and within 48 hours I'd  been rewarded for my efforts by not one, but two paying gigs out of the deal. I know, right! I'm excited, but a little stressed out by it all. I'm hoping this cold lets up soon, because phone interviews + being all stuffed up = ridiculousness.

I think I'll spend the rest of my evening once I've finished this super interesting and informative post getting my mileage chart for 2011 all done. I've been putting off making the chart for a good two months now, but I think it would be spiffy to file my taxes in the near future so the chart must be done.

Anyone do anything exciting for Leap Year? I spent my extra day doing laundry, grocery shopping, and finally watching The Help (good, but the book is much better). So yeah, I spent my extra day exactly like any other day. Lame.

And that's the news from the infirmary. I hope everyone else is managing to keep the sniffles at bay!

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The Freelance Writing Trenches: On Writing "Prompt"ly

Tuesday, February 28, 2012
typewriter I've noticed a trend with writing "community" blogs. In general, the blogs supply readers with a writing prompt. A couple days later, the blog invites you to link up the post you wrote based on that prompt.

Now, I'm all about building community with writers, but for all the writer blogs I run across that provide writing prompt link-ups, I'm rarely tempted to spend my time actually follow the prompt. Why? Because unless the prompts fit into something I was already planning to write about, the prompts usually seem like a waste of my writing time.

I know writing prompts have many devotees. And if using a writing prompt is what you need to get your writing engine revved up, go for it. But I have my doubts about how much writing prompts really contribution to the creation of strong, confident writers. I think any writer out there dreaming of becoming a "real" writer needs to carefully examine their relationship with prompts.

As Jeff Goins wrote earlier this year on his blog: "Admittedly, prompts can be very valuable. As an exercise. But eventually, you don’t need another day at the gym. You need to sign up for the marathon and run. You need to go play a real game. You need to do something."

Hope Clark, who's never afraid of saying what she really means (bless her!) about the writing life, took her distaste of writing prompts one step further than Goins in this blog post.

"As you would imagine, prompts are used to teach children how to write stories," Clark wrote. "Children, while imaginative, have to first learn that a story has a theme, a beginning, middle and end. Prompts help them define those terms and create a story that’s molded properly. Adults, however, should be past that.

"As a freelancer, you are trying to earn a living. Ideas should be your meat and potatoes. You should be able to sit in your chair and not get up without an idea. In other words, you should be able to generate your own prompt, only you will use it to get somewhere, not just practice."

Most people have a finite amount of writing time each day. If you want to be a freelance writer, you need to spend that writing time productively. And yes by productively, I mean making money. You should be building your platform. Writing that will remain hidden forever in the depths of a notebook is not productive writing.

It sounds crass, especially since we writers are sensitive souls who love words and often write because it's the only real way we know how to process the world around us. Writing may be our art, but it's also our profession and  there's a point in any writer's life where the artistic statement stops and the paying bills begins. When we've really make it as writers, hopefully we get to create artistic statements and pay the bills.

I think writers are especially prone to thinking that they have to pass over some magical threshold before they declare themselves "writers." UWe forget that it's the act of writing that makes us writers in the first place.

Think about it: in school, did you thrive in English and composition? Have you received compliments on your writing? If  you've been writing for years, chances are you know how to write well enough to put yourself out there. Sure, it's scary and you're bound to face a fair bit rejection. Then again, if you can't take rejection, this writing gig isn't going to suit you very well. 

I don't mean to come down so harshly on writing prompts. What I'm trying to say is that we the writers are the ones who decide whether or not this is our hobby or profession.    

So, before you start in on another writing prompt, ask yourself:
  • How does this help me reach my goals as a writer?
  • Is this the best use of my writing time? 
  • What will I do with this piece of writing once it's completed?
Chances are you have all sorts of ideas rattling around in that writer's brain of yourself. So ditch the prompts and write one of those ideas. 

Trust yourself. Write your own material. Own it. Sell it.

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Snow and the Oscars

Monday, February 27, 2012
Snow and the Oscars will be forever linked in my mind.

In northern Minnesota, a massive dumping of snow over the final weekend of February seems as sure as the Academy Awards Ceremony. Yesterday was no exception to the rule. The entire day passed in that snowstorm half light which holds time in place until darkness falls.

It wasn't a huge dropping of snow - just 5 -8 inches of accumulation predicted. But with the way everyone in the Northland's talking, you'd think we were getting 2 feet of snow, and really, such amount isn't unheard of for the traditional end of February snowstorm. How excitable we are about any measly bit of snow demonstrates just what a wimpy winter it's been.

Oscar Night marks the one snowstorm a year I'll voluntarily venture out into. One year, as a friend and I drove to an Oscar gathering, the several inches of snow on top of her car all slide down onto the windshield as we headed down a hill. The windshield wipers, which had been valiantly working to keep up with the falling snow, were paralyzed under this sudden dumping of snow. We stopped the car, hopped out, and swept off the windshield while fresh snow gathered on our hats and shoulders. It's amazing what hale and hearty Minnesotan girls will do for a dose of glamor.

Another time, I fishtailed my way over to an Oscar party in my Toyota Corolla, then slipped and slid most of the way down an extremely steep hill on my way back home to my college apartment at the party's conclusion. Under normal circumstances, I would curse and berate myself for going out in such weather, but on Oscar night, I go with the flow . . .and the snow.   

Just last year, it took me two attempts to get my car up and over the curving steep hill in our road to get myself over to the neighbors'  where they were streaming Oscars coverage. The snowfall outside interrupted the satellite feed that night and we never did see any of the actual ceremony. Turns out the "Academy Awards Backstage Pass" really does just show you the backstage of the Kodak Theatre and we had to use some careful deductive work to figure out what award had just been presented and who had won.

Don't get me wrong; I don't care much about the Oscars. This year, like most years, I'd watched a total of none of the best picture nominees. But don't mistake not caring about the Oscars for not liking the Oscars. Because I love the frivolity of the whole thing:  pretty dresses, cheesy film montages, pomp and circumstance.

Between the Oscars and the upcoming high school boys hockey tournament, this is about the only two week period of the entire year when I wish we had a television. But last night, I missed the Oscars. Instead, I watched the snow slowly accumulate outside, while I dreamed of Hollywood, red carpets, and glamor.

At least I got half of the deal.

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Gettin' Crafty for St. Paddy's

Friday, February 24, 2012
Maybe it's all this talk of an upcoming trip to Ireland. (And yes, by upcoming, I mean 2013). Maybe I'm just ready for spring. Whatever the reason, I'm feeling it's high time to swap out my felted hearts for some St. Paddy's Day appropriate decorations.

Over the years, I've amassed quite a few St. Paddy's Day decorations, thanks to friends, family and having spent a semester living in Ireland. I have a beautiful tablecloth embroidered with shamrocks, a figurine of Irish snowmen, and a collection of St. Paddy's Day kitsch, which includes a set of super classy plastic shot glasses. But that's not enough for this Irish gal and so I have a few plans for adding to the collection this year.

Despite having an ever growing collection of houseplants, one houseplant I don't have is a shamrock. I know, right! Actually, back in college, a friend gave me a shamrock for my birthday. Cleverly referred to as "Sam the Sham," the poor little shamrock had a lifespan of about four months before dying of neglect. Hey, it was college and I was easily distracted. It's a sad story, but I'm ready to do better by Sam the Sham II. Time for a live shamrock to be a permanent Irish inspired decoration in the cabin. 

I found these little knit shamrocks on Ravelry last spring. They're made using little bits of sock yarn and I have all sorts of green sock yarn I'm looking to use up. I probably won't "bejewel" my shamrock, but I might knit up enough so that I can make a St. Paddy's Day garland with them.

I found this adorable embroidered Irish gal when I was wasting time on browsing on Pinterest the other day. I think she is just about the sweetest thing I've ever seen and she definitely needs a place in the cabin this St. Paddy's Day. I've been doing a lot of embroidery this winter, finishing up a tablecloth I started last winter, so my embroidery chops are all warmed up this project. I just need some supplies - a hoop, muslin, and transfer pencil - and I'm totally making this sweet little Irish lass. 

By the way, if you're looking for some simple and effortless St. Paddy's Day decorations, Katherine over at Irish Italian Blessings has some super cute (and free!) St. Patrick's Day printables. Remember, everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day. ;)

Are you preparing for the wearing o' the green yet?

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The Rules of Inheritance: a book review

Thursday, February 23, 2012
I never know how I'll feel about memoirs. It's a tricky genre. How much do you tell in order to make your story compelling and real to your readers? What do you hold back for the sake of others included in the memoir? When do you cross the line of being too self-centered to craft effective and accessible prose?

I'll admit, when I sat down with The Rules of Inheritance, a memoir of writer, grief therapist, and blogger Claire Bidwell Smith's experience with losing both of her parents had a young age, I had my doubts about how well Claire and I were going to get along over the course of the nearly 300-page memoir. In a book with a theme of excessive drinking, references to smoking at seemingly ever page turn, and oh so stereotypical "rebellious teen" shoplifting incidences, I wasn't sure Claire and I had anything in common.

Of course, Claire always was a little different from her peers. Her mother was 40 when she born; her father was 57. When Claire's fourteen years old, both of her parents are diagnosed with cancer within weeks of each other. Her mother dies during her first semester of college and her father passes when she is in her early 20s. The Rules of Inheritance is a fractured look at the events leading up to and proceeding the death of her parents -- bad boyfriends, the aforementioned excessive drinking, walking away from a big fancy magazine job, a European trip with her elderly father -- and how all those experiences came to shape her as a wife, mother, writer, and therapist today.

Although my experiences are far removed from Claire's, she has a knack for telling the truth and her capability to convey the cores of her feelings and experiences made her story feel meaningful and relevant to me. By the end, I found myself really caring about Claire; she had become a real, fully-formed person in my mind, not some hazy "real person character" stuck in the pages of a book. The fact that I can read her blog or follow her Twitter feed only reinforces that feeling.

The narrative is laid out in five sections, each section named for a stage in Kubler's famous stages of grief. It's been stated many times in recent years that humans don't move through the stages of grief in linear manner and so the book is not laid out in a linear manner.  In the first chapter, she's a college freshmen; in the next, a high school freshmen; in the next, a 20 something with her first "real" job; and so on. As a reader, that lack of linearity is initially frustrating. We want a clear trajectory from point A and point B. But Claire knows only too well that life is dissonant and unexpected and I think her decision to challenge readers with a nonlinear layout is a good one. Linear or not, that story comes together as clear memoir of living with grief and pain while becoming the person you want to be.

Interested in hearing what others are saying about The Rules of Inheritance? You can join in the conversation over at the BlogHer Book Club

Disclosure: I participated in this review for the BlogHer Book Club. I was compensated for my time and received a complimentary copy of the book, however all opinions expressed in the review are my own.
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Looking Forward: The Garden

Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The seed catalogs have been piling up since the new year. Although I'm already anticipating this summer's garden, I haven't paid the seed catalogs too much attention yet. Really, I have enough seeds leftover from last year to take care of most of my seed starting needs and if I want to garden to save money, there's no reason to go all crazy with seed orders when I don't have to.

But now, as February starts fading into March and the sunset lingers farther and farther past 5:30 each evening, it's time to put some serious thought into what this year's seed order will actually entail since I'll be starting the first of the seeds in just over a month. (Oh sweet Hallelujah!)
I find I can't really plan out the seed order until I've plotted out a rudimentary plan for where everything's getting planted this year. Crops need to get rotated each year to get the most of soil and each year I learn something new that shapes the next year's garden. This year, I want to use the space in the raised bed we put in last year more effectively. Little things, like training the cucumbers up the fencing and planting spinach in the shady corner, will boost efficiency.

We'll also be moving the garden Andy put in two years ago over to a sunnier spot. While the installation of the garden was by far the sweetest thing anyone has ever done for me, after two years of battling an increasingly shady aspen tree, I am awarding victory to the aspen and we'll be using leftover supplies from last year's raised garden to put in a couple small raised beds where hopefully the onions will, at long last, prosper and thrive. (Longest sentence ever.) 

If I'd been a thinker, I would have actually saved seeds from last year's crop. However, this thought did not dawn on me until my friend Sarah visited last week, bringing with her cone flower and marigold seeds saved from one of her acquaintances' garden. Not that buying seeds is such a major expense, but free trumps cheap any day in my book. I'm glad to have such large reserves of seeds from last year; it helps me feel like I didn't totally miss the boat on the seeding saving thing. 

This year's order from the seed catalog (probably Seeds of Change, but I could be persuaded if anyone has a better suggestion) will be teensy tiny compared with last year's:
  • Tomatoes (Early Girls or . . . .)
  • Jalapenos 
  • Beans (bush)
  • Chard (Bright Lights)
  • Winter Squash (Butternut and Gold Nugget)
  • Seed starting mixture
I might throw in a early ripening melon if I'm feeling optimistic and I've thought about an early ripening eggplant too, although neither Andy or I are terribly crazy about the aubergine and its nutritional value is so low it seems like it wouldn't be worth the space.

My mom grew a bountiful crop of butternut squashes last year so I'm anxious to see how the winter squashes fare up here. The squash will be replacing one of the summer squash plants because as much as we all loved the summer squash (And yes we do still have some shredded zucchini in the freezer. Coincidentally, Andy actually just requested some chocolate zucchini bread, so that frozen zucchini is getting put to good use and I don't regret having spent the time shredding that last ginormous zucchini.) we eat (and enjoy) winter squash far more than we do summer squash.

Although I still stand by my belief that those initial zucchinis at least last summer were the most beautiful zucchinis I'd ever seen. . .

The pumpkins will also be giving up their space this year to make room for the winter squash. The pumpkins were great fun to watch grow last year, but they just didn't produce enough to justify their keep this year. 

Are you looking forward to this year's garden? What will you plant? When will you start your seeds?

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The Freelance Writing Trenches: Write It Down

Monday, February 20, 2012
Clever, right?

Here I am, penning a freelance writing "how-to" article, and my advice to you is "write it down."

"No shit, Sherlock," says you.

But I'm not actually talking about writing articles, essays, short stories, or what have you. (But just to clarify, if you want to earn a living as a writer, you will eventually have to "write it down" at some point. Just saying.) I'm talking about writing down those hazy goals we all have for our writing, for our careers, for our lives.

Let me admit that it has not been a sterling winter at Of Woods and Words. I mean, it hasn't been a disaster. The off season certainly started off strong with plenty of freelance work and I've done my set, "must be done" work diligently and with a surprising amount of consistency. But since about December, I've been stuck in a creative rut. The novel that I worked so hard on editing two winters back and shopped around last winter has been sitting patiently in its three ring binder, wondering if I'll ever give it the rewrite attention it needs. I've spent a lot of time hovering around, scrolling through Pinterest,   waiting for the next move.

I've been frustrated with myself these last few months. I look at some of my peers' writing success and wonder why I can't drum up that much motivation. And with the ever-tight winter budget, I've felt far too much like the stereotypical penniless writer.

So on Saturday evening, I finally pulled out a pad of paper and wrote down simple, concrete goals to get me out of my slump. I wanted to start increasing web traffic, actively return to my fiction work, and increase my monthly take home by $250.00. Then underneath each goal, I wrote down specific ways I was going to achieve each goal. Write 500 words of fiction 5 times a week? That sounded do-able. Actually get three queries out the door each week? Heck, I could probably handle that too. Just by writing down the goals, I felt the stress start to fade and the control return.

I'm all about dreaming the big dream. But if you write down "become a freelance writer" on your goals list, you're going to be overwhelmed. It's too big of a goal. Instead of nibbling away at a piece of pie, you're trying to shove the entire pie, straight out of the oven, down your throat. Ouch!

So write down the big goal and write down all the little goals you'll need to meet to reach the big goal. Then write down all the things that can help you accomplish all those little goals. Don't assume your goal is ridiculous or unachievable. With a little focus, you can shake the uninspired blahs in no time. 

Trust me. Write it down. Break it down. Plan it out. It helps.

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The Book of Mormon and Floo Powder

Friday, February 17, 2012
Sometimes, I admit, I'm ready to throw my hands up in the air and give up on modern society.

I mean, the fact that the nation has spent a good portion of the last few weeks bickering over birth control? Unbelievable. What is this, the 1950s?

Speaking of the 1950s, remember how people used to think, come year 2000, we'd all be zooming around in our personal spaceships? Ah yes, yet another bitter disappointment in the modern world is that this has yet to come to fruition:

Honestly, I don't even want my own spaceship to buzz around in. I'd be happy as a clam if we could just figure out teleportation.

If possible, I'd like to avoid teleportation in the stereotypical Star Trek fashion. It kind of looks like I'd have to install something to make that work and there just isn't enough room in cabin for a teleportation device and all the camping gear. How about some floo powder, ala Harry Potter, I mean, we already have the wood stove and all already. . .

How perfect to just take a pinch of floo powder, throw it into the fire, clearly shout out the name of my destination and disappear up the chimney pipe like poof of smoke. Imagine the possibilities.

I can has  floo powder?

Why this sudden obsession with teleportation?  It's hardly the first time I've pondered how much simpler and more convenient life would be if I could get places in a heartbeat. Just dissolving that six hour journey to the Twin Cities would be a great start. Heck, getting rid of the hour long trip into town would be something too.

I've read enough fantasy novels to know something like floo powder isn't without its limitations. I promise I'll use my floo powder sparingly and practice due diligence. I know having the capability to go anywhere (at least anywhere with fireplace) doesn't mean that I get to do some globe trotting whenever I get the travel bug.

Of course, if used sparingly, I think a bit of floo powder is totally called for in certain circumstances, say, when you find out that The Book of Mormon isn't coming to Minneapolis until February 2013. (What is up with that Broadway in America?!)

Wait a whole long year to see The Book of Mormon? Ah, what I wouldn't do to be on Broadway tonight.

Where's the floo powder?

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Never Leave Your Heart Alone

Wednesday, February 15, 2012
And it's open for distraction 
You found all the words you need 
Well, I found nothing 
I just grumble 
'cause I don't know what I feel 

The moral to the story goes 
Never leave your heart 
Never leave your heart... alone 
-Butterfly Boucher 

Last month, my uncle had major heart surgery: a valve replacement, a bypass, and a pacemaker installed. One of his valves had actually never functioned properly and because his heart condition was something he'd been born with, rather than something he'd developed, his physicians recommended anyone else in the family who had something slightly "off" with their ticker look into getting an echocardiogram. As luck would have it, I was born with heart murmur and my mom was adamant that I inquire after my needing an echocardiogram at my next doctor appointment.

After having my annual physical last week, here's the boring good news: my heart murmur appears to have resolved itself sometime between my preteens and now. Although I seem to have a mild tendency towards hypertension, my heart is just fine.

Even if my heart's ceased murmuring (and to be honest, it never made any cool "swishing" sound, it was just really loud) this is no time to stop listening to my heart.

And lately, that heart has been whispering, quietly and persistently, that it's time to shake things up a little bit, that it's time for . . . change.

I've been re-reading some of the Anne of Green Gables books lately. (Okay, not the best example of change since I've been reading these books over and over since I was ten.)  I stumbled upon a little nugget of wisdom in the final chapter of Anne of Avonlea:

"'Changes ain't totally pleasant but they're excellent things,' said Mr. Harrison philosophically. 'Two years is about long enough for things to stay exactly the same. If they stayed put any longer they might grow mossy.'"

Things are growing a bit mossy around here. It's been two years of the same job, same house, same boy . . . and these are good things. This spring will likely mark the second spring without any major travels. And as  someone who spent her first few years out of college in a new house every six months, there's something discomfiting about two whole years of sameness.

As it appears that I'm not destined to become an overnight fiction writing success nor are millions of dollars are going to rain down from the skies to allow me to spend my days canning, gardening, and writing in the comfort of a home I actually own, there's little I can do but keep plugging away. As an acquaintance told me the other day: the only way to keep moving forward is to keep moving forward. The issue with moving forward at this point in my life is that sometimes that forward motion happens so slowly that I begin to suspect I'm just going in circles.    

They say a rolling stone gathers no moss and so when my friend Betsy ask me in all seriousness -not in that dreamy, sighy "oh wouldn't it be lovely" way that we're so prone too - if I'd accompany her on a trip to western Ireland next April (2013), I listened hard to my heart. And in the possibility of returning to Clew Bay and the little hamlet where I spent 14 weeks as a college student, a place not far from my Irish ancestors' hometown, I found that change in the everyday, that something "big" to look forward to that I've been searching for lately.

 Is there money for such a voyage? Not yet. Is it too far out to really, really be scheming about such things when so much could change between now and then? Probably. Is it a good investment? Not from a literal "portfolio" sense. But as investment in myself, in dragging myself out of the "blahs," and keeping the aforementioned hypertension at bay? Yes. Yes it is a good investment.

Hang on Ireland. I'm coming home.

Never, ever leave your heart alone.

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Happy Valentine's Day! And a free knitting pattern

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
It's a late update for me, but I do hope your Valentine's Day has been full of happiness and time with loved ones. Anyone doing anything special or is everyone waiting until the weekend to actually celebrate?

Valentine's Day's always been pretty low-key day around here. Despite my best intentions, I've never managed to get the house decorated for the holiday and it's one of those holidays that's totally devoid of tradition for me. But this year, I finally got my act together and knit up some little heart decorations with some scrap yarn.

I had enough leftover red Brown Sheep Lamb's Pride wool leftover from other projects to make four little hearts. I felted them up, pulled a ribbon through them and now they hang merrily in a row in the living room window. They make me smile every time I catch them bobbing away out of the corner of my eye.

As my Valentine to you, here's the pattern for my felted/knitted Valentine's Day heart decorations:

Any errors in the pattern are my own, so do let me know if you have questions!

This is a great way to use up some scrap yarn and the hearts knit up very quickly, so you can have a stack of fuzzy hearts to scatter around your home in no time.

Ideas for your felted hearts:
  • Embroider the initials of a bride and groom-to-be on the heart and use as a gift tag for a wedding gift. 
  • Knit up in multi-colors and use for Christmas tree decorations
  • Hang in your windows (like I did) for happy little Valentine's Day decorations 
It's been a busy couple weeks around here. We had company this weekend (hooray!) and now with the middle of the month upon us, deadline day is once again neigh. It's nose to the grindstone time around here, but all is well. 

Happy Valentine's Day!
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I See the Moon and the Moon Sees Me

Thursday, February 9, 2012
Just a quick post today. We're off to do something (probably more ice fishing) shortly, but I wanted to share these shots I took of the rising moon last night. If Facebook threads are any indicator, it seems to have been an especially beautiful full moon this month. The Ojibwe gave the February moon many names, but my favorite is "Makoonsag-gaa-nitaawaadi-giizis -When the Bear Cubs are Born Moon." Indeed, over in Ely,  Jewel the Bear, who's observed by the North American Bear Center, recently gave birth to two cubs: a boy and a girl. 

I noticed a couple things when I was out on the deck last night, trying to set up the camera tripod. Venus is twinkling brightly in the west. The constellation of Leo is starting to pop up in the south and Orion is moving to the west. Spring is truly on its way!

Obviously, I need to work on my night photography skills (and maybe invest in something beyond a point and shoot camera) but it was fun experiment and I'm pleased with the first time results.

Happy Stargazing!

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Life in the Woods: Everyday Challenges

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
I always assumed moving home was kind of a cop-out, something you do when you're scared of rush hour and can't wrap your head around the expense of work clothes.

When you return home, you return to a little safety net of familiarity. You'll know the majority of people you bump into while running errands and you'll pick right back up on the small town gossip. Although I live an hour away from my childhood home, I still have the same zip code that I had growing up (it has to be one of the "most area covering" zip codes in the country!) and I shop at the same grocery store as my mother and bank at an institution where my grandmother worked for 39 years. Because I've simply fallen back into "the way things always were," there's not a whole lot of "figuring it out" that has to be done on a daily basis.

Yet despite the familiarity of it all, I find myself doing things every day that I never thought I'd do.

There's the whole "learning to drive a manual transmission" thing that I think I'm finally getting a handle on. Every day, I light a fire in the wood stove, something I never did growing up. Let's not even get started on my everyday fashion. In the end, my daily apparel of wool pants, "moon boots"  and Carhartt vests (Yes, I received not one, but two Carhartt vests for Christmas) isn't really the haute couture I'd imagined for myself.

And if you'd told me that one day I'd be crawling underneath the cabin to swap out propane tanks, I would have laughed in your face.  

But on Saturday afternoon, I went to brown some venison (case in point). But when I turned the knob to light the burner, I was greeted by "tick, tick, tick." As the ticking continued and the burner still refused to ignite, I knew we'd run out of propane. I'd suspected we were near the bottom of the tank, since the stove had smelled slightly gassy the last couple times I'd turned it on, a sure sign that a replacement tank would be in short order.  
Since moving into the cabin, I've always made Andy swap out the tanks because I didn't know how to do it. But the last time we ran out of propane, Andy was at work. So, after some detailed instructions from Andy over the phone, I donned my Carhartt vest, grabbed the crescent wrench and hopped underneath the deck to detach the empty propane cylinder. It took a little doing to get the cylinder detached. Propane tanks are threaded opposite of most things, making "lefty loosey, righty tighty" totally irrelevant and it was harder for me to wrap my brain around that than I would like to admit. Nevertheless, I eventually got it and getting the new cylinder in place was a piece of cake. 

The propane tanks are small, just the standard cylinders that you'd use for your grill. Despite their petite size, the cylinders usually last us close to four months, but as luck would have it, when the tank ran out on Saturday, Andy was again nowhere to be found.

I figured I remembered how to switch out the tanks by myself, so I threw on some shoes and headed to the shed to grab a full propane cylinder. This time of year, the ground beneath the deck is littered with sunflower seed shells and as I knelt beneath the deck I noticed four little squirrel paws pop out on the side of the deck plank right above my head.

"Living the dream," I grumbled as I sent up a silent prayer to whoever was listening that the squirrel would not defecate on my head or make a nest out of my hair while I tried to remember which way to turn the wrench. (Towards the house to loosen and towards yourself to tighten.) 

The gods above must have been listen. The squirrel scampered off, oblivious of my presence and the propane tanks were swapped out in minutes By the time Andy came home, stew burbled away on the stove top.

I will not be defeated by ticking ranges. I am woman: watch me swap out propane tanks.

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The Freelance Writing Trenches: Getting Started

Sunday, February 5, 2012
I spent a lot of time in my advisor’s and other professors’ offices during my college career, never more so than during the close of my senior year. Wedged between their book-lined walls, I chatted up my professors, mulling over my next move. Grad school? An attempt to grasp an elusive and rapidly disappearing 9-5 writing job with benefits?

As obtaining my B.A. (a double major in English and Communication) grew closer and closer, I realized that after four years in the idyllic hallways of Tower Hall (a building nicknamed “Hogwarts” for its striking Gothic architecture), I was as clueless about what came after college as I had been when I hiked up the four flights of stairs to my very first college class.

Well, maybe not quite as clueless.

During my college years, in addition to working towards my degree, I’d spent three years writing for and two years as news editor of the student newspaper. I’d spent four years working for and two year editing the college’s literary and artistic journal. I’d develop my writing skills and knew I wanted a career in writing. Yet, the summer between my junior and senior year, I’d lost an opportunity for an internship with a small city newspaper because the publication became unable to fund the position. 2007 was not a great year to immerge into the world as a young woman with a love of print media and an English degree.

Of course, there was one option that would allow me to write and earn an, albeit, meager living after college. I wouldn’t have benefits, but I also wouldn’t have to go through the heartbreak of having every single writing job I applied for be defunded before they even finished the hiring process.(True story.) But I never discussed that option with my professors. It seemed too ridiculous. Who graduates from college wanting to be a freelance writer?

A friend emailed over the weekend to ask how exactly you get started as a freelance writer. I had to pause for a moment and think about how I began, because honestly, I’ve been kicking around the freelance writing thing since I was in high school.

So how do you approach dipping your toe in freelance writing? If I were to do it in a linear manner, here's what I'd recommend.

1) Get a consistent writing gig where you write for someone else. Don’t worry about getting paid for this gig. Your job here is to learn the joy of deadlines and experience some times eye roll-inducing interactions with editors. If you’ve worked on a school newspaper, helped edit a newsletter or journal, or anything of this nature, you can probably skip this step. I spent several years, both in high school and college, writing and editing for the online teen ezine Yes, kiwibox. It sounds ridiculous, but during that time I wrote literally 100+ articles and edited just as many. It was truly invaluable experience, no matter how silly it sounds now.

2) Amass your resources. I believe every would-be freelance writer should have a subscription to some writing magazine (I got Writer’s Digest), a subscription to Hope Clark’s e-newsletter Funds for Writers, and the latest version of Writer’s Market.

Got those? Good – immediately proceed to step 3. It’s just too tempting to use resources as a diversion from the actual freelance writing work.

3) Start pursuing paid gigs through queries and submissions. I started querying on an extremely fair weather basis during the summer of 2005. I got a couple nibbles, but no bites. I did however learn how to write a decent query letter. I sold my first article in 2008. Then another one in 2009. Then I got a regular writing gig. It's not a fast process, but just like driving home in the fog with one headlight, it'll get you there.

There is no (I repeat, no!) magic process you must follow to become a freelance writer. But there are two things you must do if you’re serious about making money as a writer:
  • Pursue publications for paid writing possibilities.
  • Write. 

We wish!

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The Feast Nearby

Thursday, February 2, 2012
I did it. I bought and read another book about owning chickens. Andy better watch out because a chicken coop is totally going up in the backyard, sooner or later.

I think Amazon recommended The Feat Nearby to me a while back; probably late last summer when I was busy searching It's the memoir of an out of work food editor (and as a pretty loyal reader of Fine Cooking and Cooking Light, I'm all over that) who moves to her small cabin in southwest Michigan to reorganize her life. With her poodle and parrot as her companions, she lives frugally, but focused on eating locally.  

While Mather's essays, which follow a full year of life in her 650 square ft. cabin (where the nearest stoplight is *gasp!* eight miles away. . .  cynical Ada feels the need to point out that she lives 53-ish miles from the nearest stoplight) are written in lovely prose, the essays are just that: essays. This is no how-to book, this is a chance to wax poetic on chickens, raspberry jam, and the single life.

One thing I was disappointed by was the lack of concrete detail about how exactly she got by on a $40 a week food budget. And frankly, $40 a week for food . . . for one person? As someone who capped her weekly food budget at $30 immediately after college, I'm just not that impressed. Despite what we're lead to believe, it is not that hard to both eat cheaply and well, just buy lots of dried goods - lentils, rice, pasta and peanut butter are your friend - and make sure you eat everything (i.e. produce) before it goes bad. Now, if Mather was living on $40 a week, full stop, then we'd truly have a "hold the presses" sort of thing going on. Hrumph! 

What was I saying?

Right, details. . .

While, I fully enjoyed the book for what it was, with a tagline like "how I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally," I wanted some details. I didn't just want to hear in passing that you set up some strawberry preserves for fresh produce swapping system with your neighbor.

She talks a lot about carefully planning her yearly food supply (which included canning 50 pints of diced tomatoes!), but never gives many specifics. Call me crazy, but I want to see an appendix with information about exact amounts you canned, dehydrated, froze, etc. to get yourself through 12 months.

At the end of the essay she includes a set of recipes related to the essay's topics. We've tried out a couple of the recipes and they are yummy.  I made the lamb and apricot tagine to use up the leg of lamb I picked up on sale after Easter last year and just the other night I followed her directions for stuffing a squash. They're both winners and they make me anxious to try out her other recipes. That said, her directions for yogurt proved disappointing, but then I'm just not sure you're supposed to make yogurt when it's -3F outside. So I'm stalking up that failure to me and not her.

If you're looking for a homey, comforting read (the woman knits, how can you not love her?) for long winter evenings, this is a great choice . . . especially if you have a penchant for reading cooking magazines anyway.

Full disclosure: I did not pay for this book because my fabulous brother gave me a B&N gift certificate for Christmas. (Score!) The opinions expressed in this review are my own and I received no compensation for this review. 

P.S. Happy Groundhog's Day! 6 more weeks of winter where you are? We *always* have six more weeks of winter after February 2, so this day's a total cop-out in northern Minnesota. 
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Wordless Wednesday: February Blooms

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Tomorrow, the groundhog will tell us whether or not we'll have six more weeks of winter. Nevermind. There are blossoms to enjoy today.

Remember the mum I left for dead? It's BACK!
Thanks for having more faith in my houseplant ability than I did, guys.
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