Monday, January 22, 2007

Chicken Business

Saturday I met with a great group of writers at the North Canton Public Library. I was a guest workshop leader with the Greater Canton Writers’ Guild, where I spoke on the topic of Writing Creative Nonfiction.

Creative Nonfiction is a genre that combines the creativity of fiction and poetry writing with the research and fieldwork of a journalist. The genre has been around for years in the form of essays and magazine articles and is often the style used for memoir. The writer of creative nonfiction usually writes in first person out of their own experience. Their quest for knowledge might lead them on an “adventure.” One source called this “immersion.” Other techniques the writer uses to gather information might be interviews, reading and research. Many creative nonfiction pieces have an element of subjectivity. so in that way they aren’t exactly like journalism.

The best creative nonfiction includes personal experience but goes well beyond the individual and personal to look at a broader topic that impacts many of us. The piece will be reflective since the writer must distill and shape her experiences, memories and things she’s learned in the course of her “adventures.”

In our class we took time to write short personal experience sketches and then talked about how they could be a springboard for a larger creative nonfiction piece. It was interesting to see the potential as we listened to several class members read their pieces. I didn’t read mine to the class but you can see it below.

Here is what I wrote during our class:
I had just finished putting eight large hair rollers which I secured with large bobby pins in my damp shoulder length hair. “Girls, don’t you think it’s about time to get out to the chicken house?” Our mother rarely gave any direct orders but her questions were usually enough to send us on our way. My sister and I grabbed our barn coats. Mine was an oily, gold colored reversible parka. The scent of chicken house lingered in the corner of the garage where it hung. I put a clean nylon scarf over my head and double-wrapped my curlered hair.

Dad was waiting with the egg carts filled with filler flats and a full spray bottle of mineral oil. He and I started on the left side, my sister went by herself to the right. We pushed the cart down the aisle and grabbed handfuls of white eggs from the wire trays where they rolled immediately after the white H&N leghorns had laid them. Some were still warm—a couple were damp. The noise in the place was cheerful with the cackling of several thousand hens. They lived three to a cage and spent their lives doing nothing but eating, drinking, laying eggs and talking to us when we came by. Dad said they were happy and I never doubted that a bit.

Our dogs, Toby and Trixie, who were a mix of golden retriever and cocker spaniel, could wander in the chicken house since the birds were all in cages. They followed us down the aisles snuffling up the soft-shelled eggs that slid through the wire. They had the shiniest coats of any dogs in the neighborhood.

Dad and I worked fast and took pride in our ability to grab up to four or even five eggs in one hand. We dropped them into the filler flats, points down, and when a flat was full we sprayed them with mineral oil. The oil sealed the pores and helped them stay fresh longer. Then we grabbed a new flat, gave it a half turn and placed it on top of the first one. We continued down the row with Dad and me facing one another piling the flats of eggs as we went. When the cart was full, we pushed it into the cooler and grabbed a new one.

The smell in the caged layer house was “intense” to say the least. I always worried that my hair smelled of the chicken house. That’s why I wore two scarves. But gathering eggs was my first job and it provided our family a good livelihood on a 48 acre farm in the 1950s and 1960s. I didn’t know many of the realities of agribusiness and probably none of us thought much about what was happening to small farms—or what would become of them as the years went by and “progress” and “technology” was applied to what my dad liked to call the “chicken business.”

Note to my readers: Here my musings stop for now, but my interest in this topic is building. Will I go out and immerse myself in the issues of egg production, packing and marketing? Why are few of these “caged layer operations” as my dad called ours, no longer in production? Where do supermarket eggs come from today? There is so much I don’t know and the lines above only hint at a beginning. Will I brave the sights, sounds and smells I’m bound to encounter if I set out to find the truth about the scrambled eggs on my breakfast plate? Maybe. Perhaps.
Lofty Thoughts

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Other Arrangements

I do most of my writing in the loft of our house. We have one of those open floor plans with a vaulted ceiling, and an open staircase. There are Palladian windows to the front of the house but my desk sits on the upper level directly in front of an east window. From here, I can look out over the woods. On a winter’s day like this one, I have a view of the fields beyond the woods and the neighboring farmland and buildings. At night, I catch a glimpse of the lighted steeple of the church where I worship.

The condition of my loft suggests to me the condition of my soul. The overall impression is chaos. Last summer the loft became more and more cluttered as I spent time in the garden and preserving food. It was a season of life that didn’t lend itself to reading and writing. The papers, books, notebooks, file folders and odd debris piled up on the floor, tables, desk and even on the chairs in my writing space.

“I should clean up this mess,” I said to myself more than once. And then one time I heard a still small voice say, “I’m here with you. Sit in this mess and listen to Me for once.”

“Huh?” I asked. “You’re okay with this mess?”

“Yup!” The Goddess was grinning at me.

“Okay,” I said. I felt uncomfortable and relieved all at once as I un-piled my meditation chair and sat in it. I sat staring at the mess. Then I closed my eyes. It was hard to sit in that messy room day after day but I disciplined myself to do it. Occasionally I moved a pile from one place to another but I mainly sat there I with my deep breathing, meditation, prayers and holy reading. I said “Yes” to the mess and let it be there.

I got to a place of strange comfort with the messy piles and forgot to judge it most of the time. I watched new books of poetry and inspiration pile up as I returned from conferences and meetings but felt little need to read them. Folders from the latest workshop lay abandoned on top of an unfinished book (I have five!). The closet spilled over and I had to rummage to find instructions for changing the printer cartridge.

But at 55 West & Co. where I work part time, I was learning that I like to arrange things. One day I stacked up a couple dozen small stands into a pleasing, eye-catching display. Next, I tackled the front windows to create an almost storybook tableau. At home, I painted the dining room walls with texture, moved furniture and hung new pictures. I decorated for Christmas and created lovely scenes in our great room. The loft was messier than ever.

In December, a Carolina wren took shelter in the Christmas wreath on our front door. One evening she flew inside and knocked a small object from a shelf in the loft. It hit my computer keyboard and broke the comma key. The next day, I dumped a basket of old magazines and began filling it with odd remainders from my journey--books I no longer wanted, some inspirational bric-a-brac, decorations that don’t inspire me now. I took them to “Gypsy Sue” who will pass them on to people who can use them.

I gathered my overstuffed notebooks onto a shelf and filled a garbage bag with paper and old magazines. I moved some furniture in my loft but stopped short of painting the walls orange. (Orange is the color of creativity; that waits for another time). The desk remains in front of the window.

At work it seems when we move stuff around, it sells. New stuff comes in. Just when I think the place looks great, some furniture sells and other arrangements are required. In the “lofty” place at home, I notice that God is less of a cleaning service than I’d once suspected. The longer I sit here, the more I think getting messy is even part of the whole plan. I might be troubled by a mess but The Holy Homemaker isn’t as bothered as I once imagined. She stretches out her hand and invites me to rest. “Sit here in this mess with me,” She says. “Later—after you and I have spent some quality time together—we’ll make other arrangements. “

Lofty Thoughts