Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

The Horses That Inspire Me: Rocket

Hello, readers!

I thought I should maybe do a series of entries on the horses that show up in my work, since they appear so often and so insistently. Maybe you’d like to see them, too. And Lord knows I can find a million things to say about horses. When I was little, my mom once told me, “Honey, people don’t like to hear about horses as much as you like to talk about them.” I tell that story a lot because it shows how little some things change.

cinnamon

Chera and her first pony, Cinnamon

I’ve loved horses since my “adopted” grandpa, Papa Sonny, put me up on his bay mare when I was a year old. I wrote about horses, drew horses, only talked about horses. I didn’t have a lot of friends, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone. Thinking I was going through a phase, my parents promised to buy me a horse when my dad graduated college and got a better paying job. Several years later, the horse phase turned out not to be a phase, and they (bless them) kept their word. My first equine was an opinionated little pony, Cinnamon, who crossed paths with me when I was in fifth grade and she was on the way to auction. She bucked off every kid at the barn but me. She managed to finally get me off her back by holding her breath when I tightened the cinch before riding. As we trotted down the arena fence, suddenly I was looking at everything sideways, and then I was underneath her belly, and then on the ground, watching her run gleefully away, stirrups dragging the ground. The rest is history, as they say. I learned a lot about saddling a horse that day!

The first horse I’ll introduce you to in this series is Rocket.

editIMG_0725

Chera with Rocket after a ride.

He’s a 5 year old registered Tennessee Walking Horse. He’s solid black except for a white star roughly in the shape of Alaska on his forehead. I had been feeling very ill (I didn’t yet know I had Lyme disease) and had started to try to accomplish some of the things on my bucket list because it felt like I was running out of time. I had always wanted to saddle train my own horse, and Rocket was the perfect horse for me to try with. He was well within my very small budget, had been imprinted at birth, and had worked as a therapy horse for his first year of life. He loves people and is dog gentle. I bought him as a yearling, put 20 or 30 fifteen minute rides at a walk on him at age two and a half, then several more at three and a half, and we started gaiting then, too. He had a beautiful, smooth gait. My whole heart was wrapped up in him while we were training. He was the culmination of so many dreams. He symbolized so much I had overcome and wanted to overcome.

And we KNEW each other. When I first got my Haflinger mare, she would run from people, so I spent a lot of time just walking her down in the pasture, putting the halter on, patting her, then taking it off and walking away, rinse and repeat. One session, Rocket looked at her as if to say, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you running? Humans are awesome,” looked at me, looked back at her, then ran to block the arena gate so that the mare couldn’t get out and I could catch her. He drove her right to me. I didn’t particularly want him to do that but I was amazed at what he had done and how he had interpreted the situation, and how clearly I could read the succession of thoughts on his face. I’d never had one horse try to “help” me with another horse like that before and haven’t since. He was special, and he became my entire world.

ride29headset

Chera riding Rocket

But I often couldn’t sleep because I was worrying about him. There was just something that kept nagging at me. A bad feeling.

I noticed he wasn’t growing out of his baby awkwardness. He fell a lot in the pasture. He would trip and then get really upset at whoever was around him when it happened. He started balking under saddle. It was so strange. I had a chiropractor come out to see him. He had no soreness in his back but some in his hips. She said it was probably from learning to carry himself. She also found calcification on one shoulder. She said she’d guess he’d run into a fence or something as a weanling; she marked it as a grade one lameness.

Rocket kept getting worse, not better. Finally we ran some neurological tests, ruled out EPM, and determined on Wobblers, a calcification on the spine which puts pressure on the spinal column, causing neurological symptoms. It made a lot of sense based on Rocket’s build and his carelessness with his own body, which I had seen often when he played. The reason he would get so angry when he tripped was that he would lose feeling in his legs, and then it would suddenly come back, and it frightened him. I couldn’t afford the $15k surgery that would have given him a 50% chance of being rideable again. So, brokenhearted, I retired him at my parents’ house. Their land is flat and grassy and he has much less chance of injuring himself there. Since he has now achieved most of his height, the symptoms have leveled off. It’s hard to tell something is wrong unless you look for it. But if I were to grab his tail and pull, his entire hind end would collapse.

He’s still a lovable goofball, gorgeous to look at, tall and dark. And he is perhaps the horse I have loved best, because I raised him and trained him myself.  When I get out of my car at my parents’ house, I call him, and he comes to the fence and puts his huge head against me, and it’s almost like nothing ever happened. But losing all of his potential, when I was just understanding how sick I was and how much of my own I was losing, is something I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over. That said, I am truly grateful that I had the privilege of training him, and that we were able to find a way to keep him in our lives, and that he is comfortable.

rocketwalk

Rocket following Chera

In my poetry, when I talked about “the black horse,” Rocket is who I mean. And the Icelandic horse Keeper, in my novel, is partially based on Rocket. I’ve never met a kinder horse than Rocket is, and I doubt I ever will.

Mom Blurbs

Hello, readers!

I know it’s been a long, long, long time since the last post. I’ve got all the energy of a hibernating bear, and I’ve mainly been working on getting my two books– Maps of Injury and Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom— ready for publication next year. I can’t even explain, really, what all this involves. A lot of reading and proofing, for one thing! And I didn’t have any energy to spare to write interesting blog entries possibly no one would read. But things are winding down a little bit now. So how about something kind of funny to get us going again?

I was telling a couple of my friends about some comments my mom had made about my novel after she read it, and one of them said, “You should put those on the back of the book!” I loved the idea of mom blurbs. I totally used my parents as scapegoats for this blog entry, because I’m pretty sure they’ll forgive me (I do know I’m lucky to have truly supportive parents who are still around, so here’s a shout out to you, Mom and Dad). For the full effect, just picture all of these on the backs of my books as endorsements. Enjoy!

“I stayed up all night reading your book. So today I’m really tired.” – Mom, author of Things You Didn’t Ask Me to Do But That I Did Anyway: Budget Guilt Vacations to Tropical Locales

“Other people won’t get what this means. I only do because you’re my child and I know you so well.” – Mom, author of Remember: I Made You

 “If you can’t find a publisher I’ll just start my own press and publish all of your books. Could you help me find out how to do that?”—Mom, author of Blood Type: A Story of Family Ties in Small Presses

“Why did it end that way?”—Mom, author of New York Times Bestseller Reading Into Endings

“When are you going to write a sequel? Are you going to write a sequel?” – Mom, author of The Nuances of Indirect Messaging

“Okay, okay. I won’t tell people the ending.”—Mom, author of I Probably Won’t Tell People

“You know, people don’t like to hear about horses as much as you like to write about them.” – Mom, author of I Thought That One Weird Hobby Was Only Going to Be a Phase

Announced proudly to the author’s relatives: “I already know what it is because she let me read it.”—Mom, author of Pride and Prejudice and Thanksgiving

“I don’t get to read the poetry before it gets published. But she let me read the novel.”—Mom, author of I Noticed You’re Trying

As told to the writer’s dad: “Read your daughter’s work! Just read this one part!”—Mom, author of Family Glue Sticks

“Has it come out yet? Have you won any awards? I never find out anything about what’s going on in your life unless I read it on Facebook.”—Mom, author of Logging In: A Digital Guide to the Digital Parenting of Adult Children

“Will you sign my copy when I get it? I’m going to ask you to sign it. Will you?” – Mom,  author of Ink Pens and What to Do With One

“I couldn’t put it down! But sometimes, I had to.”—Mom, author of Matter of Fiction or Matter-of-Fact

“Yes, I saw it.”—Dad, author of Sports or It Didn’t Happen

Take care of yourselves, lovely readers! More entries will be posted soon. Really.

Thoughts on Research

Hello, friends! I meant to blog over what was Spring Break for most local folks, but I didn’t have internet for awhile during and after the “land hurricane,” and when I got it back I had to prioritize some other projects on which I’d fallen behind. Friday, my day off, was spent with my husband repairing and strengthening the fences that had been affected by Wednesday’s 64 mph sustained winds (with gusts to 84… It was brutal). We were lucky– things could have been much worse, and were worse for many people.

Anyway, I’m here now, and I’m talking to a colleague’s composition class tomorrow about research. Namely, the importance of specifics, and how I use research in my own creative writing.  This is a guess, as I haven’t technically kept track of it, but I suspect that I spend about 25% of my writing time actually writing; 25% reading new publications, reading submissions, networking, submitting work, and taking care of other, related business; and 50% doing research.

I love research because I’m a curious person. I grew up without the internet, and it still seems miraculous to me that I can find the answer to nearly any question, even the most random one, within a few minutes. In the course of writing various projects, I’ve researched many current events / contemporary issues, as well as things like why onions make people cry,  saddle making, laws regarding home burial, the birth rate of mustangs, how sound behaves in space, the timeline of development within a turtle egg, wild animal baiting and its consequences, and courtship etiquette during the Dust Bowl.

I never know where my research might take me, but I know that it is important. It helps my work to be true.

Not to mention the added benefit of knowing all the Jeopardy! answers, because I have filled my brain with such a strange but wide range of facts…!

Brief Update

Hello, readers! Please accept my apologies, as I have been dealing with life and its many consequences. Between being busy, there have been migraines and some sickness, some breakdown of appliances (the dishwasher in particular appears to be cursed), and last week, we lost my grandmother to a long illness.

She wasn’t like other grandmothers– I never saw much softness in her– still, until last Tuesday, I had never known a world without her in it, and I have felt disoriented since. She had severe dementia and hadn’t recognized her family members for awhile, so it was really like she had been slipping away slowly for a couple of years, and her passing was simply the next step. But I don’t know if that made it any easier.

She was raised on a red dirt farm in Oklahoma and was one of the toughest people I knew. She was the last of her siblings, the last of her friends. It comforts me that she believed my mother, who cared for often her in her illness, was her own mother towards the end. I like to think that means she felt safe.

I will feel more normal, I suspect, when I can write something about it, but right now, it’s still too soon, and I have learned it is not helpful to rush how one processes loss. Loss is always complicated.

Please check back soon. I will write a real blog entry (a more cheerful one!) again in the next few days. In the meantime, I wish you good writing and good health!

Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom

Happy Tuesday, friends! I have some great news: I have signed with the wonderful Torrey House Press to publish my suspenseful literary novel Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom. The novel is set in Northeast Kingdom, Vermont, which is the coldest region in the state. The protagonist is an aging woman who is chronically ill. Like me, she has Lyme disease. When she is abruptly left on her own, she must figure out how to protect her land and what she loves from danger. There are horses, dogs, coyotes, bears, poachers, and all sort of surprises. Readers so far have told me they couldn’t put it down. One reader told me she wants a sequel (okay, I have to be honest– that particular reader was my mom! Seriously, though, my parents are super supportive of my writing, and I appreciate them. Thanks, mom!).

My husband Daniel, whose doctoral thesis Animal Ethics and Theology was published by Routledge a few years back, and who currently writes genre ecofiction, first pointed me in the direction of Torrey House, for which I am grateful. I am careful about where I send my manuscripts. My choices largely depend on what I need for the book to accomplish in the world. Everything I read about Torrey House impressed me. Among other things, the press is conscientious, it cares about the same issues I do, it’s run by women (yay!), and the books are all attractively designed. It seemed perfect. So I submitted the book and let time pass, and then I got an email that led to a phone call. I stood at the window and watched the sun set over the canyon while I spoke to an editor about publishing my book.

I am so thrilled this press is willing to give my book a chance. They’ve been amazing to work with and their books are gorgeous and important. Publishing novels has been a lifelong dream of mine. I’ve outlined and begun writing at least twenty novels I’ve never finished over the years; I always got to about 12,000 words and stopped. I’m sometimes too harsh a critic of my own work to write things longer than poems, because I can start to get more and more unhappy with what I’m writing, and then I get discouraged and abandon it. But this time, I told myself I’d finish my novel no matter what. For me, that meant it had to be on point all the way through. And now, miracle of miracles, I will be able to share it with other people. More than that– I hope it will be the first novel of many.

To say I suffer from imposter syndrome would be an understatement. I am one of those unfortunate people who distrusts good news; I always wonder, at first, when I receive some recognition, if it’s a mistake. Right now I have two personally important books coming out at dream presses in 2020 (besides Monarchs at Torrey House, I also have a poetry book– Maps of Injury— forthcoming from Sundress Publications), and I’ve poured so much time, energy, and love into them, I’ve run empty in my daily life a few times. The anxiety is trying to take hold. I keep asking myself, “How can this be?” Right now, 2020 seems like a long way off. Here’s hoping life as we know it (actually, preferably, a better version of it) can continue for at least the next two years or so–

At any rate, I have decided to enjoy the prospect of publications ahead without worrying so much about everything. I decided to write my first novel, and then committed to doing it, so I can decide this, too. I wrote at least 700 words every day when I was writing Monarchs, and those words slowly but surely became a book. Every day that passes now brings it closer to something I can hold in my hand.

To anyone out there, reading this– If you’ve been thinking of writing your own book, but the task seems too daunting– Start small. Set a daily or weekly goal you know you can reach, and don’t quit until you reach it. Start anew every day. You can do this. And guess what? Once you’ve done it once, you’ll know you can do it again.

Revision is Re-vision

Dear readers: I know I missed making an entry (is that what this regular random spewing of thoughts would be called?) last Friday, but I have not forgotten about you! I have been busy revising my literary novel. Enough time has passed since I last looked at it that reading it this past week has been like reading it for the first time.

If you’re a writer, some time away from your drafts is a gift, because time allows you the distance you need from your work to be objective about it. Time allows you to “forget” your own work enough to approach it more in the way a reader would, and you will thereby notice inconsistencies and weaknesses that you didn’t see before.

I used to find revision tedious, but now it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I hope that you will learn to love it, too.

The greatest thing I learned in grad school is that revision = re-vision. In other words, it means seeing your work again. Revision, unlike copy editing, is less about correcting grammar or punctuation and has everything to do with structure and ideas. This is where you see if your work communicates the message you intended. Read your work aloud; is there anything that causes you to stumble? If so, why? Is your meaning clear? Should anything be rearranged? Should there be more detail in one place? Less in another?

For prose, you might ask yourself if there is enough of a reason for an event to occur. Characters should have reasonable motivation for their actions. For poetry, you might ask if there’s a more specific word, a more vivid image or comparison, maybe something that can call back to an earlier point in the poem. For both, revision is where you identify your strongest, most important themes and adjust the rest of a piece to support them.

Revision, in short, is what can take a good piece of writing and make it great. It’s one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. Wield it. Value it. Understand it. Keep it sharp.

So I’m Trying to Write Through Personal Trauma…

Dear readers: I spent a lot of time this week working on writing a personal essay. It took so much time because writing it was a genuine, chewing-fingernails-to-the-quick kind of difficult. You see, the essay concerned a Very Sad Thing that happened in my past. This thing has loomed over me every time I sat down to write for years, but it was too painful to turn and face. So I would end up facing it halfway, and the results often weren’t very good; they didn’t say everything I intended. I usually ended up throwing them out. But this week, I finally decided to try to write through the Very Sad Thing and get it out of the way, once and for all. Because my writing is often how I process experiences, good and bad, and emotion: love, anger, fear, grief, sometimes all of those together. I know myself, and it felt like I couldn’t fully process this event until I really sat down and wrote about it.

If you know what to search for, you can find an article in the Albuquerque Journal detailing a murder at a drive-in restaurant in that city. It says the victim, a man with a family and a reputation for kindness, was found near the restaurant dumpsters by a coworker. There was no known motive for the killing, and the murderer was never caught. The victim still had a weak pulse when found; the article doesn’t mention that. I only know because one of the first people who stumbled upon the scene was my ex-husband, a truck driver, who developed PTSD as a result. That tragic day changed everything– for the victim’s family, who lost a husband and brother, of course. And for the two of us.

So I wrote the essay, I changed the names, I tried not to cry and after I had finished, I had a sort of meltdown and deleted it all, just like I always had before. Because writing about past trauma can put you right back in that trauma, as if no time at all has passed, and the scars revert to open wounds. This is not something to be done lightly. And this is why trained counselors or psychologists should guide groups of people who are writing about their traumatic experiences as therapy. I decided I would never try to write about it again, because I seemed incapable of doing it well.

The next morning, however, the strongest emotions seemed like they had been depleted, so I restored the file from my file history and revised it, trying to view it more as a Writer, someone telling what happened, and less as the person who experienced it. Thinking of it that way gave me just enough distance. This time, I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say. And it finally felt like the dark cloud that had been looming behind me for so long was getting smaller, not because its significance had diminished, but because I was getting farther away from it. I was reorienting myself to the disaster.

Sometimes, when a person experiences trauma, it takes a long time to process it in a way that allows them to translate it into something others could understand. Sometimes a person can’t do it alone. Sometimes it takes a long time to know what they themselves want to say about it; they have to come to understand its many complexities and implications first. Sometimes, a writer has to write something over and over and over, and it will never be right, until one day, it is. In the meantime, we should practice kindness– to others, as well as to ourselves. This world can be hard, but we are in it together.