Meet Linda K. Schmitmeyer & Rambler

RamblerToday I have the pleasure of hosting my friend and fellow Mindful Writer, Linda Schmitmeyer.

Linda’s newly published memoir, Rambler, is a compelling and touching read about the impact of mental illness on a family. “A family pushes through the fog of mental illness” is a hint of what’s to come in this story of challenge, love, fear, and patience.

Her appearance here is timely–October 7-13 is Mental Illness Awareness Week. Linda’s Q&A below was enlightening to me, and I hope to you as well.

You can purchase Rambler here.

  1. What is the origin of the title, Rambler?

Linda: My husband, Steve, has always been a car guy, but after he was diagnosed with a mental illness, his enthusiasm for these cheap, boxy sedans was excessive. During the acute stage of his illness—before he was properly medicated—he acquired almost a dozen of these 1950s- ‘60-era automobiles. Most didn’t run, but he used them as parts cars to keep a couple other Ramblers running.

There is a more ominous reason for choosing the title Rambler, though. When Steve’s mania flared and his thinking was impaired, he’d slip away in his Rambler for several days without telling anyone he was leaving or where he was going. This was by far the most terrifying aspect of his illness because his leave-taking occurred when his mind was unstable and his judgment most impaired.

  1. You wrote a personal newspaper column for many years. How did that experience affect your approach to writing Rambler?

Linda: I wrote a biweekly column for more than a decade. In it I shared aspects of my everyday life: raising children at a time that didn’t align neatly with my 1950s childhood, the idiosyncratic behaviors of my car-centric husband, and the poignancy of watching aging parents slip slowly from life. I wrote more than two hundred columns, many through the acute stage of Steve’s illness, but I never mentioned his illness. Instead, I referred indirectly to it by writing about his obsessive behaviors. In one I complained light-heartedly about the score of Rambler hubcaps Steve nailed to the perimeter of our garage, in another about all the cheap VO5 shampoo bottles he bought at the Dollar Store. Writing a regular column allowed me to vent my frustrations about the many challenges I faced.

As a writer, though, penning a newspaper column helped me develop the ability to share a personal story to which readers could relate. While no reader may be dealing with a spouse who nails Rambler hubcaps to a garage, there are many who can identify with the excessive nature of their husbands’ hobbies. Although “Rambler” is about living with my husband’s mental illness, my hope is that it will speak to the many who live with life-altering illnesses.

  1. What was the most difficult part of writing it? The easiest?

Linda: It was extremely difficult to depict a fair and honest telling of such an emotionally charged period of our lives. It took many years for me to achieve the perspective necessary to share our family’s story. After the tumultuous decade in which Steve’s mental health problems surfaced and resettled into a manageable routine, I was exhausted and angry. I needed time to process the various aspects of what happened. That includes appreciating Steve’s struggle to regain the life he’d lost; giving voice to the support of friends and family, even those who steadfastly denied he had an illness; realizing the role Steve’s and my upbringing played in dealing with his illness; and understanding how intuitively I learned to respond to Steve’s manic, depressive, and psychotic episodes. I wanted Rambler to show what really happens to a family when a loved one has a mental illness. That, by far, was the most challenging aspect of writing Rambler.

There really wasn’t anything easy about writing my memoir, except the Epilogue. It’s about a bicycle trip Steve and I took from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., more than a dozen years after his mood stabilized. It was in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary. Every chapter in Rambler took months, sometimes even years, to write. But I wrote the Epilogue in a week, and had fun doing it.

  1. What kind of self-care did you practice (and/or wished you had practiced) during the experiences of the book, and while writing about them?

Linda: For me, self-care came in the form of writing. Through the acute stage of Steve’s illness, I frequently turned to late-night journaling, which allowed me let go of the day’s drama. I also learned to walk my angst away—on my lunch hour at work or after the kids went to bed at night. It was a way of dispelling the pent-up anger that built throughout the day.

Mostly, though, I turned to my sister for support. We talked almost daily by phone, and together we worked to understand what was happening and find effective ways to deal with the baffling challenges that stemmed from Steve’s illness. Throughout the years of dealing with the fallout of a mental illness, my sister always reminded me that to be an effective caregiver, I must take care of myself. I wish I better understood that going into this experience, because it’s true.

  1. What is the takeaway you hope readers will understand or learn after reading Rambler?

Linda: There are several takeaways from reading Rambler; foremost is that severe mental illness is treatable. With good medical care, the love and support of family and friends, and the grit and determination of the people involved—the afflicted as well as the caregivers—people with severe mental illness can go on to live happy, productive (albeit changed) lives.

Another important point in Rambler, one essential for anyone caring for a loved one with a mental illness, is to remain open to the experience. In the early stages of Steve’s illness, I viewed what was happening as a weakness in his character. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I am an educator and naturally sought opportunities to learn more about what was happening. I attended workshops and support groups sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and went with Steve to many of his psychiatrist appointments. A mental illness diagnosis involves a steep learning curve, one that took years for me to work through and a lifetime to really understand.

Linda Sinda K. Schmitmeyer is a freelance writer and editor and adjunct university instructor. Formerly a high school English teacher, beat reporter, features editor, and public relations professional, she wrote a newspaper column for years about the everyday adventures of parenting with her car-centric husband, Steve. Now she blogs about her experience with caring for a husband with a mental illness when her children were young at www.lindaschmitmeyer.com. She and Steve live Butler County, Pennsylvania; they have three adult children.

Website: https://lindaschmitmeyer.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LindaKSchmitmeyer/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LKSchm

 

 

Mindfulness & a Signing

Into the woods front coverOn Saturday, I’ll have the pleasure of participating in the Hockessin Book Shelf’s Local Author Showcase. I will be signing copies of Into The Woods, the charity anthology compiled by the Mindful Writers Retreat Authors.

I’ll also be happy to chat about mindfulness and how it has benefited me as a writer and as a human being.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the practice of living with awareness. Mindful living means that, rather than channel surfing through your day, you live each day with purpose, even the mundane of days of work or rote activities. Mindfulness means you pay attention to the world around you, whether it’s your home office or a place you have never seen before. Mindfulness means raising your head and looking around at the world and all of its colors, smells, sounds, and sensations as you journey through it.

From a physical perspective, mindfulness encourages familiarity with your body and acceptance of its quirks and wonders. A mindful person learns to breathe one breath at a time and to recognize that each new breath brings fresh energy to the body. A person breathes 12 to 16 times per minute. Shouldn’t you pay attention to something you do so often?

Mindfulness might mean learning the practice and benefits of meditation. There is nothing tricky or hard about meditating. One way to meditate is to listen to a guide’s voice as it takes you on an imaginary journey through a wood or along the ocean, or through the energy points of your own body. Another way to meditate is to sit, be still, and notice the silence around you and in your mind. Silence allows your mind to empty so it can become free and calm. A free mind is open to self-exploration and new external ideas. A calm mind makes it easier to find focus.

Mindfulness might mean learning a mantra—a comforting word or phrase—to repeat over and over during a meditation session or during times of stress. The repetition of a comforting phrase helps re-focus your energies to where they can be relaxing, rewarding, or healing.

How does Mindfulness help writers?

A calm and free mind is open to creativity. A routine of meditating for a few minutes followed by a writing session allows you to write when you are relaxed in body and focused in mind. A daily habit of meditation followed by writing means you will be more productive.

Each fresh breath you take with mindful intent brings new energy to your mind, your body, and your writing. Fresh energy brings clarity that you can apply to investigating new story ideas or tinkering with current ones.

Questions? Stop in at the Hockessin Book Shelf and let’s chat!

Hockessin Author Signing

Their Stories / Our Stories: A Creative Writing Workshop for Parents of Special Needs Kids

Allow me to introduce my friend and fellow Delaware writing tribe member, Shannon Connor Winward, and tell you about a unique and timely workshop she is offering soon–and why.
shannonShannon is a gifted poet and prose writer, and she’s also the dragon mother of a special needs child. Parenting is an experience that can’t be corralled into a rulebook, though many people try. As writers, the parenting experience becomes fodder just like the rest of our lives, but honest writing about parenthood can mean examining the downs more than the ups.  The most painful writing I have ever done has addressed my difficulties as a parent; the most positive feedback I have ever received as a writer has been after publishing pieces about my difficulties as a parent.
Multiply the above when your child has special needs and the world sometimes feels like a wilderness.
Shannon has taken the generous step of putting together a workshop aimed at parents and caregivers of special needs children. Details about Their Stories / Our Stories: A Creative Writing Workshop for Parents of Special Needs Kids and registration can be found here.
If you are, or know, a parent, grandparent, caregiver, or friend of a special needs child, and you or that person wants to learn how to tell your stories, please attend this workshop. It is a project from Shannon’s heart, which is big indeed.
Below is a Q&A with more information about what to expect, and the background for the event. I hope you will attend, and if you are also a member of the Delaware writing tribe, spread the word.
Question 1: Who should attend this workshop and what can they expect to learn from it?

Their Stories / Our Stories is a creative writing workshop specifically for caregivers—so parents, grandparents, family members, and anyone who shares their life with special needs children (of any age).

As a writer, I believe that everyone has a story inside them that wants to be told. But as a special needs mom, I know that we don’t always give ourselves space or permission to tell those stories—we’re busy, we’re tired, we’re focused on others.

My idea with this workshop is to create a safe, supportive space where caregivers can explore writing as a form of self-expression and self-care. It doesn’t matter if you like writing poetry or long letters or just venting on social media… it doesn’t matter if you never tried to write creatively before at all! The focus will be on fun, community, and finding our own unique voices.

Question 2: How do  you balance the writer you with the mom you, in particular in deciding how much to share about your child with all the world?

Aah, the quest for balance. It is the eternal struggle! Especially when your child has a diagnosis. Or three.

For me, it’s about triage: figuring out what’s most important in any given moment. I can put down my pen to go to IEP meetings and doctors’ appointments, that’s fine, but maybe the laundry doesn’t absolutely have to get done today.  Or this week, even. If I don’t write at least some of the time, I start to feel myself shutting down; I can’t be as good of a parent or advocate for my kids if I’m not tending to my own oxygen mask.

The question of how and how much to write about our children is a complicated one. The simplest answer is it depends: it’s a personal equation that should take into account the family, the child, what’s being written, for who and for what purpose, etc.

When we were first navigating my son’s diagnoses, fighting to get him the supports that he needs, I felt very isolated. We faced prejudice and misunderstanding. There weren’t many people I could talk to, and I had to figure out a lot of things on my own. But I was a writer, and I already had a blog, so I blogged about it. It was a kind of therapy for me, for sure—but I also made a conscious decision early on to chronicle our experiences. I wanted to help educate people who have no clue what this life is like, and I wanted to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for other families going through the same struggles. To that end, it’s always been important to me to be as open and honest about our lives as I can. But I aim to do that without thrusting my kid under a spotlight or a microscope, or betraying his own agency. Again, it’s a balancing act.

 Question 3: Why is now an ideal time for Their Stories/Our Stories to be heard?

Today’s sociopolitical climate is one of tension and uncertainty. It  impacts all of us, regardless of whether someone close to us carries a diagnosis.  That said, special needs families endure stressors and challenges that are unique, often misunderstood or even invisible to the larger community. It’s vital that we communicate and  support one another, and it’s vital that we speak our truths. These are things I hope to foster with this workshop. I want to encourage folks to pick up a pen—or a mic, or a soapbox. Whether it leads to changing laws, changing the way society sees us, or just helping someone get through the day, it’s all good. I want people to let their stories out.

Shannon’s bio:
shannon and childShannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook Undoing Winter and winner of a 2018 Delaware Division of the Arts Emerging Artist Fellowship in Fiction. Her stories, poetry, and creative non-fiction have been published widely in places such as Literary Mama, Lunch Ticket, Flash Fiction Online, The Pedestal Magazine, Thank You For Swallowing, Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science, and elsewhere. In between parenting, writing, and other madness, Shannon is also a poetry editor for Devilfish Review and founding editor of Riddled with Arrows, a literary journal dedicated to metafiction, ars poetica, and writing that celebrates the process and product of writing as art. Shannon’s first book-length collection of poetry, The Year of the Witch, was just released by Sycorax Press. website: www.shannonconnorwinward.com

With a Little Help

From time to time, I go on retreat. I’ve found a special place and I invite a few special friends, and we hide in an old farmhouse owned by a convent. I’ve posted several times about my retreats, but today I am posting about that well-loved tradition of using your writing friends as guinea pigs.

st francis

Inspiration comes in many forms.

Writing prompts come in all shapes, colors, sizes, and themes. This weekend, Delaware poet Jane Miller and I are offering a “Fall into Writing” workshop at an historic home–the Judge Morris Estate in Newark, Delaware. We’ve been gathering or creating prompts that focus on the five senses, on how objects can be used as metaphors, on inspiration from images, on our legacies as writers. It will be a full day and I hope a beneficial one for our attendees.

One trick for a successful workshop is to try out the prompts or exercises in advance. When you’re together for a week in an old farmhouse with no TV, iffy Internet, and spotty cell phone service, what’s a better time to try out prompts on your captive audience?

Here are a few ideas for creating and using writing prompts:

  1. Keep instructions simple
  2. Time the writing portions
  3. Know the general make-up of your audience
  4. Use a general theme or idea for cohesiveness
  5. Offer prompts that are specific but broad enough to explore
  6. Provide minimal guidance or leading
  7. Remember there are no wrong answers
  8. Encourage sharing but make it optional

If the audience is a mix of poets, prose writers, screenwriters, etc.

  1. Use prompts that will work with all writing forms
  2. Team up un-like artists for exchange exercises
  3. Use external inspirations like objects or photos or music

For any type of prompt or exercise:

  1. Try it out on a living audience
  2. Pay attention to what works and doesn’t
  3. Be willing to revise, change, or pitch a prompt that might be a dud

At retreat, we tried out three of Saturday’s prompts-to-be: on senses, on the unknown, on places from our memories. Each try-out revealed a necessary tweak that will make the prompt more effective. On the flip side, the prompts were a good break from the long days devoted to WIPs. The brain works best when you poke at it a bit.

We even left with a testimonial!

I want to thank you for sharing a few of the writing exercises with us this week at retreat that you and Jane Miller plan to use at the Fall into Writing workshop next Saturday at the Judge Morris Estate. I’ve been able to clarify writing goals, and now I see how I can incorporate observations from the five senses to make my writing come alive. These exercises have made such a difference to me, and I know they’ll be valuable to workshop participants. – Jean Davis

If you are a Delaware author, I hope to see you Saturday at the Judge Morris Estate for a day to honor the change of seasons—and write about it among friends. If you are interested, there is still time to register.

To Maria, Jean, Kim, and Jane–thanks for playing!

Fall into Writing

Delaware poet Jane Miller and I will tag team exercises to guide poets and prose writers toward an exploration of senses, language, voice, and metaphor. The Judge Morris Estate is an elegant and historical setting, perfect for launching a new season of writing with friends and peers. Please join us!Fall into writing

This workshop is presented through the generosity of the Delaware Division of the Arts and the Delaware Division of State Parks.

 

Read up! A writing prompt

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI never get writer’s block, but from time to time, I do suffer from writer’s mire. That means I get stuck in one of my own stories and grind over the same troublesome scene for days. Writer’s mire is a momentum killer and can easily destroy your enthusiasm for the story.

The sensible cure for getting stuck is moving on, but easier said than done, right?  When my willpower muscles out my inner editor, I can write FIX THIS LATER and power on ahead to the next scene. That being said, even when I can move on, that troublesome scene is like a gnat in the back of my brain. Very distracting.

A case of writer’s mire happened to me last week, only I could not get to the FIX THIS LATER step. Finally, in desperation, I tried a writing prompt to think about another idea for a while.

Do you use writing prompts? They’re easy to find via Google. They are great as morning warm-up work, or to distract yourself when frustrated. Some prompts are very specific and others less so. The one I tried last week was to “write a crazy conversation.” Since part of my writer’s mire scene included characters exchanging flat dialogue, I decided to regard “conversation” in a different way: an online one.

Here’s how it went:

A CRAZY CONVERSATION

Read Up! (Aka every medical conversation on social media.)

JANE: Hi, friends! I’ve been quiet because I had my spleen surgically removed today.

MARY: OMG, really? Why?

JANE:  I have spleenositosis and the only treatment is surgical removal of the spleen.

MARK: Your spleen filters your blood. It’s vital to a healthy immune system.

JANE: I am aware of that.  I researched spleens upside down and sideways because of my disease.

MEGHAN: Wow, surgery! I would never have surgery. I hope you considered carefully.

JANE: Yes, of course I considered all options. You think I had my spleen carved out on a whim?

MARLENE: Watch out for MRSA. People get MRSA after surgery. My brother nearly died of  MRSA.

MISSY: Did you try a homeopathic cure?

JANE: There is no homeopathic cure.

MARTHA: OMG, Jane, what happened?! Why would you get rid of your spleen?

JANE: Read up, Martha.

MORWANA: I had MRSA. You just take antibiotics. Don’t be such a drama queen, Jane.

JANE: Wha? I didn’t say anything about MRSA. That was Marlene.

MORGAN: You should have considered a homeopathic cure.

MELANIE: Have you considered a homeopathic cure?

MAURICE: Dandelion tea is good for the spleen. I run an homeopathic goods mail-order service. Here’s a link.

MAMIE: My cousin had acne. Dandelion tea cured it right up. You should try that, Jane.

MARTHA: Jane, were you in an accident? A car crash?

JANE: Martha, please read up.

MITCHELL: Did you get a second opinion? I’d get a second opinion before removing an organ. You should get a second opinion right away.

JANE: Mitchell, I did get a second option, and it’s too late now anyway, since my spleen is gone. See OP.

MINNIE: My cousin is a surgeon and he accidentally dropped his cell phone into a patient during surgery and it embedded in the person’s liver.

MOLLY: I’m not sure this is a good idea. You need your spleen for your immune system.

MARTHA: Jane, did you fall down the stairs and bruise your spleen or something?

JANE: Martha, Please. Read. Up.

MIGNON: Herbs help keep a spleen healthy. You should eat a lot of herbs.

MIGNON: And you should eat less red meat, since it clogs up your spleen.

MIGNON: Also drink less alcohol because alcohol is not good for the spleen.

JANE: Great info, Mignon, but I don’t actually have a spleen anymore. Read OP.

MICHELE: My book’s on sale at Books for Sale! Buy my book! Here’s a link.

MILLY:  Spleenositosis is a disease of the spleen, which filters your blood.

JANE: I KNOW. THAT’S WHAT I HAVE!

MILLY: You said your spleen was removed. You can’t have spleenositosis without a spleen. ??????

MARTHA: I just don’t understand why you would do something this crazy, Jane.

JANE: For god’s sake, Martha, READ UP! UP! UP!

MARTHA: Jane, why are you yelling at me? I CARE. Why are you being so secretive about this spleen thing?

MITCHELL: Patients get tricked into into unnecessary surgeries all the time. I will PM you 72 links right away so you can see how you got taken in by unscrupulous big pharma and the money-sucking medical establishment.

JANE: OMG!!! All I wanted to do was explain why I had been quiet! How about an “I hope you’re okay, Jane,” or “I’ll make you a casserole.”

MIKE: You seem stressed, Jane. You need to buy some St. John’s Wort. Here’s a link.

The End

I had fun writing this, and it broke me out of the mire! Sometimes something completely different is worth a try.

What would you write as “a crazy conversation” writing prompt? And, if you have another cure for writer’s mire, I’d love to hear it!

In Our Own Words

I have never kept a diary. I’ve written about this before and, though I have made attempts, each diary peters out after a few entries. I do keep a little health journal with dates and procedures and questions for my doctor (How do I balance the need for Vitamin  D with the risk of melanoma?) but at the end of the day, it’s not very exciting reading, even for me, and it’s my body being discussed.

On my desk are a number of writing diaries and my beloved sprint journal. Every time I go away to retreat, I bring my retreat book. I begin on Day 1 with what I want to accomplish overall, record a work plan each day, and end with a summary. It is helpful, but it’s not something I revisit, and I can’t imagine my work plans making it into a panel in the Life of Ramona Museum. (A made-up thing I joke about with my family. Don’t ask about admission. It involves chores.)

But I have come to realize that I live in interesting times. All times are interesting, of course, but this is the only one I’ll be living in, so maybe I have an obligation to record this time in my own words, through my own world view, so the future can have an honest, first person account.

Why me? Is it hubris—conceited—to think that some future generation might learn from and value what I think, what I feel, what I fear, what I hope? I am not famous or extraordinary. I’m just me, just Harry…I mean, just Ramona. There won’t be any Museum of Ramona. Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s hubris to value my time in the world. It is my responsibility as a storyteller.

And yours.

I see and hear my friends lamenting these difficult times and the ones ahead. There are many ways to bring about change, many ways to fight it. This is one. Tell the truth of what’s happening and what it means to you. History is not only recorded by professional  historians, but by everyday people: soldiers, settlers, housewives, orphans, artists, survivors.

Anne Frank kept a diary. Think of the illumination her words have brought to the world. Did she have any idea of her legacy? No.

If today is a day that worries you and tomorrow is one you fear, write about it—to yourself, to a friend, in longhand, on a tablet. Your thoughts and feelings are part of our national consciousness, and our nation’s conscience.

Be heard. Write your story. Be like Anne Frank.

buildings-fall-empires-crumble-people-come-and-go-only-stories-last-forever

Guest Post at Jungle Red Writers

Is there any better friend to crime writers than Hank Phillippi Ryan? Writer, reporter, blogger, her generosity is legendary.

Today, I’m happy to be the guest of Hank and the other wonderful authors at the Jungle Red Writers blog. It’s a place where everyone who is anyone in the crime writing world ends up, as a reader, as a guest, as a commentor. I discuss the many things that frighten me. Please pop over to read about Some of All My Fears.  Some of those fears are about going Into the Woods….

Into the woods front cover

Retreat at the Beach

It is no secret that I love the beach. As a child, I spent weekends at Grand Isle, the barrier island made famous in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Now I live at hour-plus-change from Rehoboth Beach, where I go every spring and fall to remind myself of the cleansing power of water, waves, sand, and fresh air. Those weeks rejuvenate my spirit. Continue reading

Sally Ride Gets a Stamp

Last week, the United States Postal Service unveiled a Forever stamp honoring astronaut Sally Ride.

18-Sally-Ride-stamp

Sally Ride was a physicist and astronaut. When she was a student at Stanford University, she and 8000 other people responded to a NASA ad in the student newspaper. The ad was an open call seeking  applicants for the US space program. Sally answered the call, and the rest is history.

Sally Ride joined NASA in 1978. In 1983, she became the first American woman in space as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger. She was 32, and the youngest American astronaut to travel in space. Although she kept her personal life intensely private, Sally Ride was also a ground-breaker in another area. She was a lesbian and so is the first known LGBT American astronaut.

Sally Ride’s career as a NASA astronaut lasted until the late 1980s. She then worked at a couple of California universities and eventually headed the California Space Institute, but she never left behind her connections to the space program. She led two public-outreach programs for NASA. She wrote, or co-wrote, seven books for children on space exploration and science.

Sally Ride died of cancer in 2012. I remember her communications from the flight deck of the Challenger. She was always smiling, as if she was thrilled to be doing a job she loved. Isn’t that what we all want, to be fulfilled and respected in our life’s work? She left an incredible legacy for women and for the world–Earth and beyond.

To become an astronaut, a person has to be intelligent and physically fit, know how to work with a team, and balance bravery and wonder. Sally Ride was all of those things, as well as a gender ground-breaker. But every ground-breaker has to put up with backlash, disapproval, and resistance. My admiration for  Sally Ride grows exponentially every time I recall a pre-flight interview with the Challenger crew.

First, Sally Ride was asked if her reproductive organs would be affected by the flight. She answered that there was no evidence of that.

Then this question: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?” She said, “How come nobody ever asks Rick those questions?” and refused to answer beyond that.

At the end of the interview, she said, “It may be too bad that our society isn’t further along and that this is such a big deal.”

Damn skippy, Sally. For making that public observation, she not only deserves a stamp, but her own planet, if you ask me.

Now I’m going off to buy some Sally Ride stamps. You?