Marge Pellegrino on Writing for the Long Haul

Marge Pellegrino combines her inward writing journey with a strong outward commitment to community service. Her most recent novel, Journey of Dreams, is the story of how a family survives the Guatemalan army’s ‘scorched earth’ campaign and was inspired by her work as director of the Hopi Foundation’s Owl and Panther project, an expressive arts program for Tucson refugee families. Today Marge joins the long haul series to talk about how she feeds her restless yearning to reach out and put ideas onto the page.

In “La Maravilla,” Alfredo Véa writes about a man with a sickness no curandera can cure. The only thing that quiets his dis-ease is the sway of a bus under his feet, movement that mimics a ship, answering the yearning of his seafaring blood.

My own yearning isn’t for the sea, but for ideas to commit to the page. If you’re a writer, you and I understand the kind of longing he represents and the need to do something about it. To soothe our unrest, we need to write.

This is how I feed my yearning:

Writing enhances my life, and my life enhances my writing. Through writing I solve problems, reframe what’s happened to me, or lash down in my journal what’s likely to fly by too fast. Whether I’m working on a book review or piece of fiction for publication, I always make sure that I’ll be addressing topics that support my truths, or ideas that I want to better understand. Community and personal resilience are recurring themes, but I’m open to following different threads.

Writing doesn’t usually pay the bills, but some of my writing-related work does. Even with these bread-and-butter jobs, I only choose work that supports things that matter. Workshops in schools, libraries and for The Hopi Foundation’s Owl & Panther Project are projects that build community, foster communication and promote literacy. They encourage creative expression, and engage people in activities that help empower and heal them. Each job offers different challenges and informs my writing.

I continue to push my craft by critiquing and attending workshops and conferences when I’m able. That foundational work fulfills best when I use what I learn. The best way to hang on to new approaches is to integrate it into my writing.

I write best as a hermit.  I need uninterrupted time and quiet in order to go down into the basement of my subconscious where shelves are packed with bins brimming with memories. Or outside where ideas float by or roost in a tangle of branches overhead. I need time to be present with the work to move it forward. Being Too Nice poses the biggest time threat, as I’m often tempted to help someone else with their work rather than spending time on mine. I’ve learned it helps to schedule blocks of writing time.

Everything listed above is doable when I’m healthy. When I’m lacking energy, everything gets harder. Paying attention to well-being is more important now than it was when I was thirty-five.

When the time-vise tightens, journaling helps. It may seem counterintuitive to add yet another activity, but journaling gives me energy and clarity for community work. The community work then sustains my writing, and writing once again, strengthens the work—a positive cycle

I also build stamina by staying curious. I take time to wonder, to nourish myself with reading, travel and artist dates, where I enjoy others’ passions. I play with diverse creative adventures like zentangles and collage, which I see as sisters to essays and short stories. Making altered books or marbleizing tea-bag paper feeds me so I can feed my characters. These experiences inspire different strategies to hone my craft from concept to public, from the slash-and-burn of a horrible first draft to the small delicate moves of the last proof. Art helps me to be open and brave on the page and to challenge myself.

Through work and writing, I have opportunities to spend time with incredible people—educators, mental health professionals, volunteers and activists—who add to the web of community they’ve helped construct and nurture. I get to talk with artists, craftspeople, dancers, actors and writers who open windows and doors and offer fresh perspective. I grow from interactions with all those who ask us to think and live more intentionally.

I always celebrate when work offers crazy synchronicity, like when I found myself editing a book about managing depression just when I hit a rough spot in my own life, or the parenting column I was writing that allowed me to research whatever was happening in my young son’s life. I feel grateful when someone offers to pay me to find out what I need to know anyway.

Demands shift and overlap; sometimes there’s so much, I feel I’m dogpaddling in an ocean unprotected. The what-I-don’t-knows and what-I-need-to-get-done swim around me like sharks. It’s the deadlines that rescue me from the deep and push me through the dense water of procrastination.

And if worry whispers wrong direction, I spend time reassessing. It’s amazing how rest, stepping away, or pivoting to another project for a while refreshes me.

Even when the writing is going well, I need other writers. Someone to ask if that metaphor is too cliché. Someone honest who helps me decide whether the reader will be glad to have spent time with me. Colleagues who invite me to share their success, to stand with them when their own work falters, and tap into the synergy that results from the meeting of our minds and spirits.

I’ve heard people say there are no short cuts, but I believe you can navigate easier passage. Over the last few decades, other writers have shared their writing truths and tools with me. I’ve learned more about structure, syntax, dialog, and re-visioning from others than I would ever have learned in isolation. And lately, it’s been crazy how good it feels to know others also suffer from “imposteritis”—the fear that someone is going to find out I’m not a real writer.

This past year, I’ve been working in collaboration with two other writers on two different nonfiction book projects. I’ve promised myself these small excursions to meet them each week, so even when I can’t carve out the bigger chunks of time for my own writing, I’m still a writer.

Weekly dates with my creative partners and monthly meetings with my Sin Nombres writers’ group, provide time for critiquing and talking craft and process. I’ve found these sessions help me slip more smoothly into my longer solo work.

And then there are moments when I wonder if I’ll ever write anything as brilliant as my favorite writers, the ones I read, read, and sometimes re-read. Maybe I won’t, but maybe I will. Either way, I’m still embracing that innate yearning.

Marge Pellegrino jumped out of the business world and into freelance writing in 1984. Her books include I Don’t Have An Uncle Phil Anymore, My Grandma’s the Mayor, Too Nice, and the Judy Goddard Award-winning Journey of Dreams.

Passionate about sharing the power she’s found in words, she leads writers of all ages to think in new ways and discover their own voices through community workshops and other programs such as the Hopi Foundation’s Owl and Panther Project. Her Word Journeys program at the Pima County Public Library received the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ Coming Up Taller Award for excellence in after-school programming in 2008. Marge was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly in 2006.

Previous Writing for the Long Haul Posts:

Sarah Zettel on embracing ignorance and writing your passions
Uma Krishnaswami on honoring unreasonable exuberance
Jennifer J. Stewart on finding community and support
Sherwood Smith on keeping inspiration alive
Mette Ivie Harrison on defining success
Jeffrey J. Mariotte on why we write
Judith Tarr on reinventing ourselves
Kathi Appelt on the power of story
Cynthia Leitich Smith on balancing business and creativity

About the Writing for the Long Haul series

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