Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Vintage Kitchen as Writing Prompt

The Air BnB apartment I stayed in over the weekend had a fantastic retro kitchen, including this vintage sink. I posted this photo on Instagram last night, with a note that the sink reminds me of my grandpap, whose house was a 1950s time capsule. And then the first lines of an essay came to mind:

"Earl's wife Elsie died in 1959, when their children were just 9 and 13. After that, nothing was ever the same again, and yet nothing ever changed, either."

I started writing late last night, and as the words and images and memories and questions tumbled out, I realized that I've been incubating a story about this part of my family for years and years. There's so much packed in there that right now I'm just trying to get it all out on paper, without worrying about structure or writing craft or word choice. It's been awhile since I had a story insisting to be born. It feels good. It makes me tingle. It makes me wonder what I'll find.


HippoCamp 2015: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers

Join me at HippoCamp this summer! Spend an August weekend in Lancaster, PA, immersed in all manner of creative nonfiction goodness. This Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers is presented by Hippocampus Magazine.

I'll be teaching a session called "One Moment Memoir: Writing Flash Essays." This workshop is based on my popular teleclass, and I'm thrilled to be leading it in person.
Here's a summary of my workshop: 

In this fast-paced, hands-on session, we’ll explore the art of flash nonfiction and short essays. Through prompts and exercises, participants will create a list of potential essay ideas, identify key details and imagery to help them dig into the heart of those stories, and, if time allows, write the opening for at least one essay.

I'm delighted to be part of a great line-up of speakers. I'm particularly looking forward to hearing from Keynote Speaker Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writers Digest and an expert in digital media strategy. Plus, Lee Gutkind, often called the "Godfather" of Cretive Nonfiction will also be delivering a keynote address and reading. In addition to the two keynotes, there will be more than 20 panels and sessions in three tracks: Share, Create, and Craft. All in all, there will be more than 30 writers, editors, and agents on hand.

There are some pre- and post-conference "add-on" small group workshops that look great, too. [I'm eyeing up one about writing fragmented/collage essays, taught by Sarah Einstein, author of Mot: A Memoir (University of Georgia Press 2015), which was awarded the AWP Series Prize in Creative Nonfiction.]

If you're interested in attending, you can save $30 if you register by tomorrow (Friday, May 15). I'd love to meet there, so please let me know if you're going.


Follow It Down

The weeping cherry tree on the corner of my house hasn't really bloomed for the past two years. I'm sure there's a reason for this, but I don't know what it is. Maybe it's bad soil quality, or the tree's gotten too much or too little water, and I'm pretty sure the poor thing needs some serious pruning. The photo above is from a few years ago when the tree was dripping in pink and white. I want to eat trees when they look like that. But this spring and last, just a few pops of pink showed up and then turned into green leaves. I miss the blooms. Figuring out how to get them back is going to require me to play "homeowner & gardener," which I'm not very good at--or very interested in, truth be told. (I'm the kind of person who wishes I were the kind of person who likes to garden.) But if I want the flowers back next year, I'm going to have to figure it out. The same sad fate has also struck my lilac bush, and it hasn't flowered for at least three years. My laziness and lack of knowledge are robbing me of my favorite spring blossoms. This won't do. I'd better heed Annie Dillard's advice and follow it down. 

I read an interview with poet Charles Simic in The Atlantic today. He says this about following things down and seeing them in their specificity and strangeness so you can write about them: 

"To me, the ideal poem is one a person can read and understand on the first level of meaning after one reading. An accessible quality, I think, is important. Give them something to begin with. Something that seems plain and simple but has something strange—something about it that's not quite ordinary, that will cause them to do repeated readings or to think about it. The ambition is that, each time they read, they will get to another level of the poem."

I like that. Good poetry (and essays and stories and movies and songs) do that, don't they? That's the kind of stuff I like to read, and it's the kind of stuff I try to write. 

Simic's interview ends with this gem: 

"My fantasy goes like this: a reader, in a bookstore, browsing in the poetry section. They pull out a book and read a few poems. Then they put the book back. Two days later they sit up in bed at four o' clock in the morning, thinking—I want to read that poem again! Where's that poem? I've got to get that book."

Isn't that the writer's and the reader's dream? To be so moved by something that you must find it again? 

These days I'm following down a lot of things: essays and stories; gardening tips; piles of laundry; recipes; deep fears and deeper desires; the way my body moves; relationships; dreams; the past and the future; what it means to be a family; how I want to spend my days and how I want to live my life. I'm following pots of tea down to the last drop. I'm following the hours of the days into the wee hours of the night. I'm following my breath in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. I'm following my reflection in the mirror, watching the silver-grey hairs grow in as the rest of my hair grows out. I follow the news or I don't. I try to follow down the thread of heartache that seems to wrap around the world. I follow any hint of joy I find. Follow it down. Where's that poem? I've got to get that book.


One-Moment Memoirs (Next Workshop: May 2)

The next session of One-Moment Memoirs is Saturday, May 2. 

I had such a great response to the first session of OMM back in January that I've decided to run another live class! This is a virtual workshop, so you can join from anywhere in the world via phone (or even Skype). 

What is a one-moment memoir?

It's that moment when you're washing dishes, and you see your own hand holding a little metal bouquet of silverware, and for a second you think it's your mother's hand. 

It's that moment when you hear the loud summer buzz of cicadas, and a line of poetry floats into your mind, begging you to capture it for later.

It's that moment when the watermelon you're washing in the kitchen sink whispers "carpe diem" to you.

One-moment memoirs are those moments big and small, those moments that matter, those moments that you want to live inside of, or make sense of, or share with others. 

Our lives are made of moments.

Even the huge, earth-shattering events are composed of individual moments. And sometimes a seemingly small, quiet moment sticks with us for our whole life because it was infused with something deeper, something more.

Sometimes we understand and can articulate that meaning, and sometimes we can only see its importance in our peripheral vision.

Writing deeply into one moment can help us to find the meaning within it – and to convey that meaning to others. 

This is the kind of writing I love to do. This is why I write essays and blog posts and flash nonfiction. This is why I write the stories of my life, one day at a time, one moment at a time, sometimes one breath at a time.

And this is why I created One-Moment Memoirs, to help you write the stories of your life, moment by moment. 

What stories do you have to tell? 
About the family that you love.
About the places that you've been.
About the things that you've lost.
About the secrets that you keep.
About the things that make you laugh, make you cry, make you say "hmm...."

What are the stories of your life?

You can write them, moment by moment.

And it will be fun and messy and enlightening and good. It's going to be so good. Will you join us? 


I'm gonna write you a letter

This is my "Hi!" face. I took this selfie the other day for no good reason other than I wanted to post something to Instagram.

Last summer I wrote a post called "Lunch and Heartbreak." It started like this: 


Remember when blogging first became a craze and everyone was doing it and everyone was reading everyone else and there was no Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which cheese/shoe/fictional character you were? There was only your "feed reader" with dozens (or hundreds) of blogs that you tried to check every week. And we were all writing (and reading) about each others' lunch and heartbreak.

Basically, what that post boiled down to was this: "Sometimes, you just want to connect. Sometimes, you just want to say: I ate this. I'm worried about this. I'll be okay, and I hope you will be, too.

I'm thinking about that post today as I sit down to write a blog post and really want to start it with: 

Dear Reader...

I think I just want to write you a letter.

Maybe a thank-you letter for stopping by here whenever you do, whether that's regularly or not so much.

Or maybe I'd write you a love letter, all about the way the light hits your face and how your eyes shine when you smile. (What's that? You protest that I can't see your face or your eyes? Pshaw. It's true about the light. I know it is. Everyone looks lovely when the light hits them just so. And the light in anyone's eyes is beautiful when they let it shine. Especially yours.)

Or maybe I'd write you a letter of true confessions: of the unkind things I think (and say) when I'm tired and crabby; of the times I simply top-up the cats' upstair's water bowl instead of getting them a fresh bowl; of the petty jealousies that can keep me awake at night; of my fear of fire; of the way I routinely misspell the word "because" when I type; of my deep sadness about things I used to believe. 

Or I could write you a "here's what's new letter," which would pretty much consist of scenes of me sitting on my couch since Easter Sunday when I came down with some hydra-headed flu/cold monstrosity that has been a tilt-a-whirl of fun. And by "tilt-a-whirl" I mean fever dreams and coughing fits that leave me dizzy. And by "fun" I mean absolutely not fun. But that letter could also tell you about the new herbalist/nutritionist I've started seeing, and how she's also an intuitive healer with apparent psychic abilities, which sounds cool, but it's kind of confusing and annoying because she told me stuff about my emotional health that didn't resonate with me and actually pissed me off, which I realize might be a sign that I have an issue to work on, but whatever. 

Back in 2009 I wrote about the pitfalls of being a writer with a blog, and how that combination comes with some sort of pressure (real or imagined) to make the blog a stellar example of your work. (There are some good reader comments on that post, by the way.) I've been feeling that pressure again. I worry about how to balance self-promotion with platform building with storytelling with having fresh and useful content.

And when I worry, I tend to hide away. I feel paralyzed. I so desperately want to take the "right" action that I end up taking no actions. 

I think maybe I've been trying too hard. Ironically, that has led me to blog less, not more. 

Perhaps I'll start trying less. Maybe that would help me to write more often (both here and in general). (After all, I determined years ago that I don't need to take my writing more seriously.)

Maybe I could top-up this blog with posts the way I top-up the cats' water bowls: Just enough to get us by until I have the time and energy for a fresh clean serving of something sparkling: like that light in your eyes, Sunshine.

Yep, just like that.