Murals fuel & memorialize Irish conflict

Murals as a form of political, social, and cultural expression rose in importance during “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that began in 1968 and divided Northern Ireland. Though The Troubles more or less ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” agreement of 1998, murals continue to be a powerful method of communication. Often called the Belfast Murals, these graphic messages are also prominent in Derry where conflict was also heated.

Here are a few I saw on my recent visit to Northern Ireland.

A Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as "the blanket protest." The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike. Some died before the protest ended.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as “the blanket protest.” The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike, with some dying before the protest ended.

This mural commemorates a a young girl killed during The Troubles. The girl's father continues to visit the mural regularly.

A young girl was one of the thousands of civilians killed during The Troubles. The girl’s father  visits the mural regularly.

Some believe the British Army must be held accountable for the deaths they caused during The Troubles.

The campaign continues to hold the British Army accountable for the predominately Catholic deaths they perpetrated during The Troubles.

The fight for a united Ireland continues.

Arguing for a united Ireland.

Murals take on new causes as well as old.

Artists take on new causes as well as old.

An artist works on a new mural.

New murals are created, as artists take up current events and new causes.

The history of Northern Ireland is complicated. Loyalists – Unionists – Republicans – Nationalists – Catholics – Protestants. Even with repeated explanations by our guides, I am confident I don’t have it all straight.

What these murals did for me was convey the tremendous emotion surrounding all of the issues. More than words, these murals told me the issues remain, even though, thankfully, people aren’t still killing each other.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who fought and died for our country. With these visual reminders, every day is Memorial Day in Northern Ireland.

Readers: Have you seen murals used in a similar way in other parts of the world? If you have, please share.

How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

Courage – Would you have enough?

Harriet Tubman – abolitionist who liberated more than 700 slaves.

Harriet Tubman. Oskar Shindler. Esther. People iconic for their courage and the bold actions they took to save the lives of others, actions that put their own lives at risk.

Every time I hear a story about someone who stands up to society, their peers, their family – someone who goes against the norm – to right an injustice, I wonder if I would be so brave. Fortunately, I have never had to put my own life on the line; fortunately, most of us never have to.

But most of us do encounter events in our daily lives when we see something happening that we know is wrong. Then we face the choice: engage or walk away, speak up or remain silent.

I confess, I have failed the test more often than I like to admit. One time in particular sticks in my mind.

For 30 years I worked in the public relations business, a job that sent me all over the United States interviewing farmers, veterinarians, and scientists who used my clients’ products. One trip to a North Carolina tobacco farm in 1977 opened my eyes to race relations as I’d never experienced it before, while leaving life-long scars on my heart.

As the interview wound down, the farmer and I were standing in the yard, exchanging pleasantries about the weather and local sports teams. Just then a young black boy, maybe eight or nine years old, came out of the barn.

“Hey, Joseph.” The farmer waved him over. “You need to dance for this lady.”

The boy stood, his arms limp at his sides, his bare feet covered in the soft dust of the lane.

I blanched. Dance for the lady? “Oh, no,” I excused myself. “I need to be going.”

“He likes to do it. He’s a real good dancer,” the farmer insisted.

The boy looked at me. I cannot recall if I smiled or even met his eyes.

Dance for the lady? All I could think about was slave owners forcing their slaves to entertain visitors. Sweat poured down my neck. Thunder roared in my ears. My eyes swam. I wanted no part of this. Yet I could see no way out.

The boy danced for me. And I said nothing.

Why? Out of some misguided sense that I would offend the farmer, my client’s customer? Because I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say? Because I was a coward? I really don’t know. What I do know is that I will always wear the shame of not stopping that demeaning act.

Confronted with a blatant injustice today, I hope I would do better, that I would have the courage to act. But who knows for sure? The circumstances are seldom simple, the decisions seldom clearcut.

The question of if, when, and how to engage in the face of injustice is at the heart of the novel I’m writing now. In the course of her work as a consultant, my main character must face her own biases and decide how long she can remain on the ‘it’s not my job’ fence.

The story is autobiographical only in that the issue is one I’ve always thought about. Like me, my main character doesn’t always get it right.

What has your experience been in speaking up – or not – when you saw something that seemed unfair?

You just never know

Fork in the road

The unplanned-for route may be the right road after all.

If you just spent four years in college to become a teacher, would you take a secretarial position instead? I did and found myself on a path loaded with unexpected opportunities.

After graduating in 1972 with a degree in speech & English education, I faced the hard reality that I could not land a full time teaching position. Needing regular income, I did the unexpected – what some probably considered unwise. I took what I could find – a position as editorial assistant at an association magazine, a position that could more accurately have been labeled ‘secretary.’

Recently, I returned to my alma mater, the University of Northern Iowa, to share my career experiences with several classes of creative writing and public relations students. Bright, young people receiving a good education and preparing themselves for jobs in their chosen fields. Just as I did.

After I told the students about my start in a secretarial chair, one young woman asked, “Did you regret taking that secretarial job?”

“I didn’t,” I told her. Not then. Not now. Not at all.

I needed the paycheck, but beyond that, I explained, everything was new to me and an opportunity to learn. I knew nothing about the publishing business and I jumped at the chance. As I took on assignments, I found I had a talent for writing. Then, six months after I started, the man who had been editor for 40 years retired and they gave me his job. Unexpected. Unpredictable. Unbelievable.

New-found skills, industry knowledge and a boatload of connections came with that job. Then my husband pointed me to a Help Wanted Ad for an ‘ag journalist.’ “Sounds like what you do,” he said. I applied.

It turned out to be a position at a small public relations agency. I knew nothing about public relations, but it sounded interesting. I took the job, an entree into another new industry. That position led to one at a larger agency where I worked for 20 years, learning a host of new skills, with emphasis on product marketing, developing messages for clients and teaching them how to deliver those messages, moving up the ladder and finally earning the position of President.

Then I came to Robert Frost’s famous fork in the road  – a time when I could stay on what had become a well known and well respected career path or strike off in the new and unknown direction of creative writing. I took the road less traveled. But I was remarkably well prepared for that road. All those previous experiences ensured I had the skill set not only to write books but also to effectively market them.

In Steve Jobs now-famous commencement speech to Stanford University, he points out that it’s only in retrospect, looking back on life, that we can see the dots and how they all connect. Someone looking at my career path now might think it was all brilliantly planned out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I worked hard, took advantage of opportunities, and built my skills. Just as important, I think, was staying open to possibility.

I hope some of the students I spoke with experience – and embrace – the unexpected along their career paths. I hope they are able to look past the job title. Because you just never know. Maybe the real future starts in a secretary’s chair.

Have you had a you-just-never-know experience? Do share.

How important is the frame?

A few years ago, as I walked the Crystal Bridges Art Museum grounds, I spotted a single picture frame set on posts in the middle of a soccer-sized field. Intrigued, I walked out to look closer, reasoning that this frame must be quite important to command such a space.

Framing nature at Chrystal Bridges Museum

Framing nature at Crystal Bridges Museum

As I circled the nondescript structure, I realized that the frame gave form to whatever you saw through it. The frame and what it held were equally important.

My friend Mary recently enclosed an open air deck with windows. She found that the window frames focused the way she looked at the trees, buildings, and landscape beyond, causing her to appreciate the views from her deck in ways she hadn’t before.

Framed for drama and impact. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Framed for impact. Photo courtesy of Morguefile.com

Frames are, of course, nothing new. They show up everywhere in everyday life – movies, TV, computers, pictures on the walls, windows – each one encouraging us to focus on, to look at, something in a particular way.

As writers we make decisions daily on what story to tell. We choose the frames with purposeful intention.

Memoirists choose what parts of their life to share. In my memoir Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl, I picked stories from those formative years when I was between 8 and 12. Years when the values my parents taught us kids came into focus (and conflict) in my young mind. The very same events depicted in my childhood memoir could have told a much different story if I’d used them to frame a look into the sometimes unhealthy ways I existed in my first marriage.

As I wrote my novel Go Away Home, deciding the time(frame) was one challenge. If the story began in 1900 and the main character Liddie was 10, the story would be entirely different than if the story were set in 1913 and Liddie were 16. The technological, political, and social differences between 1900 and 1913 change what might be included in the frame, not to mention the differences between how a 10-year-old and a 16-year-old would view herself and her actions.

In my work in progress, literary fiction set in Iowa, the main character is forced to face her own prejudices when she sees life through the frame of immigrants working in a meat packing plant.

Recently, I joined several authors at a retreat where I read a paragraph synopsis of my latest work. Because I mentioned one relationship in this synopsis, the listeners jumped to the conclusion the novel is a love story. It is not. Clearly, the frame I had chosen for my story was wrong.

In the wrong frame, a beautiful tree is blah. In the right frame, something mundane comes into compelling focus. Change the frame, change the story.

Cleaning out, letting go, starting fresh

Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

My office bookshelves were nearly this bad. Photo courtesy of: MorgueFile.com

I ended the old year as I often do – by cleaning out my office. This December gave me an even better opportunity to clean out, though, since my husband and I agreed to tackle remodeling my office – the last room in our house to get a new ceiling, new flooring, new paint. Since every surface would be new, every single thing had to come out before we could begin.

Touching every item twice – going out and going back in – as well as the weeks when boxes filled our bedroom and furniture distributed through the rest of the house, gave me ample opportunity to consider what was there and how much of it I really needed.

It also allowed an opportunity to look at my life and how it has changed – or stayed the same – over time. From this exercise I observed:

Letting go takes time. When my mother passed away in 2007, many of her things came into my office. Everything from memory books to hats to estate documents. For the first time, looking at these things, touching them, remembering, did not leave me in tears. I was able, finally, to give away, to throw out, or to consolidate the memories to a couple of small boxes. There may be a time to let even these go. Maybe in another 10 years.

The same could be said for the books and files from my 30-year career in public relations consulting. I finally admitted that if I hadn’t looked in these files for 14 years, it was unlikely I ever would. Out they went.

Themes arise. I found no fewer than 10 sketch pads of various sizes, each with less than a dozen pages used. Since childhood, I have yearned to draw. I hadn’t realized how persistent that yearning has been over the years. It may be time to act on this interest in a more purposeful way. Drawing and writing are not far apart, I think.

I kept all of the sketch pads and all of the drawing materials, consolidating them into one place. I should not have to buy new when I take up drawing again.

Losing pounds. Like many, I often think about losing a few pounds at the end of the year, though I commit to that idea about as well as most and with less vigor each year. In December, I succeeded in spades. I estimate I shed a good 50 pounds, probably more, of books and files. knickknacks and gifts never given. I was stern with myself, and I think I did a pretty good job. Not the pounds I usually think of shedding, but even so, I now walk into my office feeling ‘lighter’ with all the clean, open space. It cheers my mind to realize that I know what I have and where everything is.

I spent almost no time at all writing in December, giving myself over happily to the holidays and family and remodeling the office. Now I start the new year fresh, with a new coat of paint, new clarity, and new purpose. I hope last year ended as well for you and that you, too, look forward to 2016 with optimism.

With a little help from my friends – NaNoWriMo 2015

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) sent hundreds of thousands of writers to their keyboards in November to write the novels they know they have in them. Historically, 17% of those who start succeed.Dream Big Dreams I was one of those writers.

Writing 50,000 words in a month is no easy task, especially for someone with my perfectionist tendencies. The Nano concept is that I must securely lock my perfectionist self in the closet at the beginning of the month and not let her out until I’ve written those words. No re-reading, no re-writing, no editing. Only more words. Everyday, more words.

It makes me anxious just to think about it.

Yet, I did succeed, writing 50,406 words by November 24. (Sound the trumpets!). I was helped along by the wisdom of writers I admire. With a tip of the hat to John Lennon for the blog title, I offer the following:

“Every morning I tell myself: Write recklessly. You can play it safe tomorrow.” – Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd’s prose is beautiful, thoughtful, every word perfectly chosen. Yet she gets there by first writing recklessly. The crafting of each perfect word comes later. November was for reckless.

“I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9 a.m.” – Peter DeVries

I have always taken DeVries’ workman-like words to heart. Some mornings, I had a scene in mind to write; on other days, my mind was a blank. Yet, I committed to write. And I did. My mind always sent something to my fingers.

“I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I’m capable of writing.” – Ann Patchett

The whispers of doubt grew loud throughout the month. What right do I have to write this story? How can it be any good? Will anyone care to read it? Patchett reminded me of the mantra I’ve repeated with my previous books: Write the best story I can, as well as I can. It’s all I can do. That will be enough.

“Shitty first drafts … All good writers write them.” – Anne Lamott

Lamott is never far away during NaNoWriMo. Many of the words I wrote (while individually perfectly good words) came together as such cliched-ridden drivel that I was too embarrassed to let them go. So I highlighted them in yellow or wrote CLICHE!!! after them just so I could move on. Wow, that was some really bad writing. But every word, no matter how bad, moved me toward the goal. I trust Lamott and will fix it in the second and third and fourth drafts.

These writers were my spirit guides. They encouraged me to keep writing no matter what. I arrived at the end of November with characters I understand better, scenes I had not previously envisioned, new plot lines I may (or may not) keep, and holes yet to be filled. I discovered things about myself and the story.

And there was one more spirit guide.

“It’s not our abilities that show what we really are. It’s our choices.” – Albus Dumbledore

Albus Dumbledore wasn’t a writer, but his advice to Harry Potter applies just as well. Writing is a choice, and success requires that I show up. In November, thanks to NaNoWriMo, I showed up.

Whether you’re a writer or not, whose words of wisdom inspire you?

*Photo courtesy of morguefile.com

Writing reckessly – NaNoWriMo 2015

“Every morning I tell myself: Write recklessly today.

You can play it safe tomorrow.” – Sue Monk Kidd

NANOWRIMO CRESTAs I join tens of thousands of other writers to tackle the National Novel Writing Month challenge to write 50,000 words in November, Kidd’s comment is particularly appropriate.

Writing 50,000 words in a month – 1,666 words every single day – is no easy task. Life gets in the way. The muse takes a vacation. I convince myself I deserve a break. However you slice it, 50,000 words in one month is tough. But Kidd has offered me words to live by.

To write 50,000 words or more, I promise to write recklessly:

  • I won’t look back. If I look back, I’ll get mired in re-writing and re-thinking. I will look ahead and just keep writing.
  • I will lock my internal critic in the closet. I won’t listen to any naysayers. Even if what I write is dreck (and I expect much of it will be), I will keep writing.
  • I will let the muse take me where she will. I’ve lived with these characters for a good long while; they know what they want to do. I will get out of their way and keep writing.
  • I will not let the outline I’ve prepared for the month get in my way. It’s a starting point to keep writing, not the designation.
  • I won’t let road trips or remodeling projects or family visits or holiday dinners – all of which are scheduled in November – deter me from the goal. I’ll write no matter what.
  • Finally, I will follow Sue Monk Kidd’s example. Every day in November, I will write recklessly.

NaNoWriMo was the genesis of my novel Go Away Home. I’m hoping for the same inspiration, encouragement, and push for my current novel.

Wish me luck. I will see you again in December.

Shameless Self Promotion Note: While I’m writing, you may want to be reading. A reminder that the paperback version of Go Away Home is 40% off – best price this year – until November 20. Possible gift idea?

Walls – Which side are we on?

The tide of refugees and immigrants and the resulting walls and discussions of walls – in Europe and the U.S. – remind me of a sculpture I saw at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Border Dynamics” is a greater than life-sized metal work created by Guadalupe Serrano and Alberto Morackis of Taller Yonke.

"Border Dynamics"

“Border Dynamics” by Guadalupe Serrano and Alberto Morackis

People on each side of a wall push against it. Yet, who is trying to get by? Who is resisting?

The figure on the left in the foreground appears almost bored, apathetic, in his effort. Is he worn out by the effort? Acting out of obligation rather than belief?

Meanwhile, the figure on the right shows purpose, determination. There may be desperation in his face.

Border Dynamics

“Border Dynamics”

The figures behind these two have different attitudes. One pushes with greater energy, one with less. But neither in the same way as the figures in the foreground.

Maybe the figures on the right are trying to push the wall down, but maybe they are not. Maybe they are trying to hold back the tide of immigrants, those weary travelers barely able to stand against yet one more barrier.

Who has more resolve? People seeking to keep people out? Or people seeking to get in? The range of emotions on both sides of the fence indicate the answer is not clear or united on either side.

My work in progress – a contemporary novel set in Iowa – includes characters on all sides of the immigrant issue. Exploring and presenting these diverse points of view honestly and fairly is a challenge that makes writing this novel particularly interesting. In each scene, I seek to understand the world view of the characters to know how they’ll behave. Often the characters surprise me, acting in ways I don’t expect.

As I write, I run into the wall of my own prejudices and am forced to look back on my life and explore the defining moments that shaped my attitudes and actions. One of the reasons I write what I do is because writing offers an opportunity to understand myself and the world around me. This novel is doing that – in spades. And it’s often uncomfortable.

I circled the “Border Dynamics” sculpture, studying the the figures, trying to imagine each one’s story. I came away with more questions than answers. Like the discussions of immigrants and borders and walls we face today.