The Woman on the Mantel: #Artifacts&Memory

Carved in clay but never fired, she raises more questions than her presence might answer.

I know the artist, the name scratched into the base: Betti jo–my mother. I know the studio where the woman came into being: 4101 York Street, the attic space turned art room. I know her approximate year: 1980.

What I don’t know:

Self-portrait or face of a stranger?
Left unfired by intention or by resignation?
A woman content or resolute? Perhaps both.

What I imagine:

A Sunday afternoon, bright and temperate–outside and in. Kids preoccupied in the yard; husband drawn into football downstairs. She’s been to church, served roast at lunch, cleared the dishes. Usually, it is now that she would nap, but today she slips into the art room and unwraps a cool piece of clay.

She throws it against the table once, twice–pauses, listens. A third time quick, then she readies her hands and the water. With her thumbs she massages the forehead into shape, slow and meticulous. As she smoothes out that space just above the eyebrows, the creases between her own release, her thoughts loosen. She breathes in, breathes out, the scent of clay like a balm. She forms the nose and the nostrils and scratches her own. The nose is too big, she is sure, but the way it turns up at the end makes her grin. The lips, she crafts smaller than her own and more relaxed in a way, and here she stops to consider. Laughter from her girls outside lifts like the wind, and their voices slip in under the sash, curl up and around her shoulders, tickle the back of her neck. Happy.


Patty Dann (The Butterfly Hours) says, “All good writing is a blend of memory and imagination,” and as I study the woman on my mantel, I know Dann is right. Artifacts form the base of our memories, but we are often left to fill in the gaps. We do this out of curiosity, out of necessity, out of love. Family Stories from the Attic (Hidden Timber Books, April 1, 2017) is an anthology full of such writing. Co-edited by Lisa Rivero and myself, these stories of exploration by twenty-two authors will inspire you to uncover your own family letters, diaries, photographs, and more, if only to reflect on the real and the imagined and–as always–the loved. Watch for information on pre-ordering and the book launch soon.

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#AmReading Patty Dann’s THE BUTTERFLY HOURS:
transforming memories into memoir

I found THE BUTTERFLY HOURS by chance. I had stopped in at the bookstore one Saturday afternoon for an author event. First thing’s first: I bought the author’s book (KRAZY by Michael Tisserand) and a new pack of stationary. Then, I settled into a plush chair two rows back from the speaker podium. I figured I’d thumb through the book while I waited, but I was twenty minutes early and the author had just arrived and people were still setting things up. So instead, I decided to browse the tables of good reads nearby.

With the store set up for author and audience, furniture had been rearranged. The table of current staff favorites that’s usually parked who knows where sat off to the side but steps in front of me now, with the last copy of Patty Dann’s book directly in my line of sight.

The book’s appearance, meek and thin with a simple cover, drew me in. Its subtitle, transforming memories into memoir, clinched my attention, since I’m in the last stages of editing Family Stories from the Attic with Lisa Rivero and in the midst of my online Flash Nonfiction course. After reading through the first three pages, I didn’t hesitate in my second run at the cashier; having finished the book, I’m eager to recommend it. Dann offers chapter after chapter of advice, encouragement, and examples of how writing prompts work–really, how writing in general works.

You have to do the messy part because even if you write ten pages and you only like one phrase, three weeks later, during lunch or in the middle of the night, you might feel compelled to continue that phrase. If you don’t have that one phrase written down, there will be nowhere to begin.

People sometimes freeze up at prompts, get stuck on the literal meaning of a word or the exact image in a phrase. But Dann suggests that the point of a prompt is to start. Write awkward; write clunky. Prompt or no prompt, just write. Last Sunday I “just wrote” the opening scene to a new story–200 words of awful and 10 words of “this might work” (with those 10 being part of a definition from the dictionary). Still, if nothing was written, I would nothing to revise.

Shut your eyes and listen to the church bell, the train whistle, and the snow falling on the roof. Open your eyes and see how children speak into one another’s mouths rather than their ears. Recall the lilac smell of your grandmother as she bent to kiss your cheek. Touch the dried snakeskin on the ground and imagine the way your throat burned the first time you tried hot peppers.

Paying attention to sensory details like touch, smell, and taste can bring a story to life or a memory back to life, benefitting the writer as well as the reader. For writers, such focus on our surroundings can “open us up,” as Dinty W. Moore says (THE MINDFUL WRITER, another of my favorite reads), “help us to see the story or poem or play or monologue or memoir in everyone and everything.” For readers, intimate specifics make way for greater connections with the work.

There are days, even weeks, or certain months of the year, when you simply cannot write. Don’t bother to feel deflated. Accept the fact that you have time off and fill the well.

Ah, there is my saving grace.

Taste new foods, listen to music from childhood, hike trails you’ve long forgotten, try your hand at watercolors, recite the names of the presidents of the United States, and interview your elders.

Because it’s been several months since I opened the draft of my novel. When anyone asks, How’s the book coming along? I cringe, silently berate myself, dance around my answer, hope they won’t notice the shame in my eyes. I wonder what’s wrong with me, worry about whether or not I will ever finish.

All good questions; all good food for though. But as Dann reminds us, nothing to be ashamed of.

digital sketch of woman looking out of window

self portrait: unfinished sketch

Look at the other creative things you’re doing during those quiet weeks or months. There’s much to be said for how a simple sketch or a twist in the recipe of your favorite meal or a day with the camera may feed your creative side. There are plenty of ways to engage in the work, even with your pen tossed aside. And we need that bounty as much as we need to fill the page.

Every essay I read brings me closer to my idea of how I want ( or don’t want) to write. Every story I edit reminds me of structure, what works and what doesn’t. Every book I find by chance re-energizes and renews my affection for the craft and for the power of story. Some might say this is not writing, but others, like Dann, would suggest that respite from one piece of work or another gives way for a writer to “fill the well” once again.

About THE BUTTERFLY HOURS (from Sometimes all it takes is a single word to spark a strong memory. Bicycle. Snowstorm. Washing machine. By presenting one-word prompts and simple phrases, author and writing teacher Patty Dann gives us the keys to unlock our life stories. Organized around her ten rules for writing memoir, Dann’s lyrical vignettes offer glimpses into her own life while, surprisingly, opening us up to our own. This book is a small but powerful guide and companion for anyone wanting to get their own story on the page.

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#CaringForCommunity: Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day

#CaringForCommunity is a new blog series that spotlights the work of writers, artists, or your next-door neighbors who, without being asked and without pay, carry the light in simple but meaningful ways. These are people giving back in order to lift others up. Real life examples of compassion, concern, and inspiration.

Today, Cristina M.R. Norcross shares about Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day, an annual event on February 20th, where the act of giving is in the giving of art.

Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day poster
Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day
February 20th, 2017
Join the Kindness Revolution!


“A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees. The greatest work that kindness does to others is that it makes them kind themselves.”
~Amelia Earhart

heart shapes hangingThere exists within all of us the need to reach out to others with an open heart. When we are offered a kind word, a helping hand, a patient ear, or an unexpected gift, our first reaction is gratitude – there is a softening that occurs. Perhaps our second reaction could be to pay-it-forward?

In 2012, the idea for Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day (RAPA) started with the brainstorm of leaving behind a “feel good” message for someone else to mysteriously find. I was in an Office Max store and decided to test out a roller ball pen by writing a mini poem on the scratch paper provided. With these words, I was hoping to encourage the next pen tester:

“And if your wandering spirit should falter, know that you are constantly being guided on your path. Follow your own star.”

At first, I felt a bit mischievous, but then I felt inspired. I took a photo of my scribblings and sent it to a few artist and writer friends with the question, “Do you think we could do something here, by spreading good vibes?” The response I received was an enthusiastic, YES, even before we knew how to bring people together.

Sonya S. Sinha's NYC maps and bands as giveaways

NYC maps & bands by Sonya S. Sinha

We created a Facebook page, with a simple summary of our RAPA Day movement, some sample photos of gifts, and some encouragement for others to take part.

2017 will mark our 6-year anniversary. We have had public school students participate, local arts councils, and writing groups. We have had artists and poets from across the United States, Canada, and Europe participate. With each year, our numbers grow, and we hope that this continues!

Chapbooks by Gary C. Busha

Chapbooks by Gary C. Busha as giveaways.

For those who are new to RAPA Day, some ideas from past years include: leaving behind free poetry cards at coffee houses, cafés and libraries; giving away mini works of art / handmade jewelry / pottery / knitted scarves or hats; and donating art prints and poetry books to non-profit organizations.

For our first year, my sons had the day off from school, so they helped me cut up strips of paper with quotes by Rumi, Hafiz, and Dr. Seuss. We would leave them on tables, benches, and even inside library books on shelves (shh, don’t tell our local librarian). I think the Dr. Seuss quote was their favorite:

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
~ Dr. SeussThe Lorax

collage of giveaway gifts: earrings, bracelets, beadsI wouldn’t be able to spread the word about Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day without the help of my wonderfully talented team of organizers, which includes visual artists: Sonya S. Sinha (New York) and Jennifer S. J. Peña (New Jersey). Each year, we ring the bell of hope, in celebration of the art of giving. It is our goal to encourage and inspire others to give back through the arts. We have an opportunity to connect people through kindness and generosity. We also have an opportunity to remind people of the essence of being human – to give and receive from the heart.

We hope that you will join us for Random Acts of Poetry and Art day, celebrated every year on February 20th. And, we welcome you to share your photos and personal stories of how you choose to give on the Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day Facebook page.

PS! We are giving away bundles of 10 postcards (pictured below), per request, until we run out. Artists and writers can request a bundle by sending a message to the Random Acts of Poetry and Art group page on Facebook.


Cristina M. R. Norcross is the founding editor of the online poetry journal, Blue Heron Review, and lives in Wisconsin with her husband and their two sons.  She is the author of 7 poetry collections, and her works appear in print and online. Cristina was one of the co-editors of the project, One Vision: a Fusion of Art & Poetry in Lake Country (2009-11).  She is currently one of the co-founders of Random Acts of Poetry and Art Day and is a regular contributor to the Art Ambush Project. Visit her website for more information. 

Do you have a #CaringForCommunity story to share? Contact me. 

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