*Afterthought #70 – Reblog of “It’s Just Nerves” Review


The release of a new book by an author I know is always a delight, and Kelly Davio’s essay collection, It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability, is no exception. Kelly writes clearly, concisely, and at times with wit about chronic conditions (specifically her own experience with myasthenia gravis) and ableism. She says what is rarely spoken about the ignorance, and at times mean-spiritedness, about people with disabilities. I shook my head in disbelief about some of her experiences of discrimination, exclusion, and disregard, yet, sadly, I know she writes truthfully.

As a retired nurse, my stomach knotted as I had to acknowledge my own limited understanding and complicity in systems that too often focus on the diagnosis and lose sight of the person. It’s Just Nerves is a tough, yet necessary, read.

Sonya Huber, an author and teacher whose “body is also awry,” reviewed Davios’ book recently in Brevity Magazine.  Huber’s opening summarizes Davio’s book well:

As many essayists and memoirists know, poets often stroll into nonfiction and bowl a perfect strike, knocking us all over like so many bowling pins. Kelly Davio’s skill as a poet  in full effect in the pages of her new essay collection, It’s Just Nerves: Notes on a Disability. She’s underselling with that word “notes,” as each of the twenty-five essays contained here is a miracle of compression. And as the best poems and essays do, these works pull upward and outward with taut energy, connecting specific experiences and resonant details to overarching themes relevant to any reader who happens to live in a body. 

Huber’s review conveys how Davio’s collection is a fine example of the power of the essay to reflect and make sense of  life. Even better is to read Davio’s own words about her experience of disability. The book is available wherever books are sold.



*Afterthoughts are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, previous posts, maybe even bumper stickers.

Failure is Vital

Failure is the destination that comes to you when you do not  act.  ~ Kim Stafford



The opening sentence in the email echoed many others I’d received: “I’m sorry to decline your submission…” It was the twelfth such note for that particular essay, one in which I’d pushed the boundaries of prose structure. I’d experimented with the “hermit crab essay,” a technique coined by author Brenda Miller that uses tools such as menus, how-to instructions, lists, or any number of forms to help a writer ease into tender material in a shielded way, just as the hermit crab’s soft underbelly is protected by the shell it crawls into.

tfgreen-airport-terminal-infoThe editor suggested that the frame I’d used—an airport arrival and departure board—didn’t support the content of the essay. My shoulders sagged as I typed “rejected” on my submission tracking form and pondered the critique. As much as I appreciated the feedback (it’s rare to receive any explanation for a submission’s turndown), I wasn’t sure I agreed with it. Perhaps it was, as the editor acknowledged, the nature of “… a subjective industry, and what didn’t work for me might well work for another editor, or another lit magazine.” Regardless, I’d tried something new in my writing, and it still hadn’t found an audience. The essay rebuff resurrected fears of “doing it wrong.”

~   ~   ~

Mistakes weren’t welcomed in my family. Missteps at the ballet recital led to embarrassment and disappointment. Straight As were expected—and rewarded. Fully thought-out plans were insurance to ward off the unexpected or dreaded. In a family on a tight budget, experimentation was expensive.

med cupThis ethos served me well when I enrolled in nursing school. The potential for mistakes lurked at every bedside, inside each medicine cup, and within doctors’ orders scrawled in patients’ charts. The stakes were high, and my starched, white, student nurse apron didn’t carry power or protection. I dedicated myself to sidestepping slip-ups.

The first time I made a medication error, my hand trembled as I completed the incident report form explaining I’d given the wrong pill to a patient and how I could have prevented the mix-up. The fact that the patient wasn’t harmed by my wrongdoing did little to ease my shame, embarrassment, and fear about future blunders. Worry about mistakes followed my steps in and out of patient rooms, hovered over my notes in charts, and stood in wait when I talked to physicians and families.

Co-workers and supervisors didn’t value creativity when it came to starting an IV, inserting a urinary catheter, measuring narcotics for injections, or reading an EKG strip. More terrifying, if I veered too far from standard procedures or tried an untested approach, a patient might suffer injury—or death. Even if there weren’t any adverse results, not following the rules might require that I notify the doctor and explain to the family; I also could be reprimanded, sued, or fired. Although there might be more than one right way, the pressure to avoid the wrong way weighed on me.

~   ~ ~   ~

Twenty years and a variety of nursing jobs later, I felt competent and less worried about errors, but confined by protocols and standards. Dr. Danielle Ofri, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and editor-in-chief of Bellevue Literary Review, writes of similar restriction. “During the tumultuous years of medical school and residency training, I always felt that something was missing, that a part of my experience remained unfulfilled. During a two-year break after residency, I was drawn back to my original interests in literature and writing, and found that these filled the gaps in meaningful ways.”

Stehekin-Chelan by David Ansley
Stehekin, WA – Photo by David Ansley

It was a two-year sojourn with my husband and two children in a remote, mountain village with eighty year-round residents (and no health care facilities) that helped fill the creativity gaps in my life. With writers, photographers, woodworkers, printmakers, bakers, and fabric artists as my neighbors, I found willing mentors to support me through experimentation with creative work. But two decades of upholding science and fearing the consequences of wrong decisions left me yearning for foolproof formulas for “success.” Instead, I discovered the hours and years of practice—and willingness to make mistakes—necessary to achieve a level of skill and satisfaction with watercolor brushes, linoleum block carving tools, pastry cutters, and the pen. I produced mounds of paper for recycling and sheet pans full of misshapen croissants with my flawed efforts.

It’s taken me another twenty years, dozens of rejection letters, and pounds of manuscripts in the recycle bin to believe what an artist/nurse friend claims, “Failure in art only leads to better art.” Author Naomi Epel echoes with, “Bad writing is part of the creative process.”

photo 1Now, I devote my days to my desk, scrawling “bad writing” on paper or tapping it out on my laptop keyboard. Just as when I work out at the gym, I begin my writing time warming up. First, I follow a journaling practice I learned from poet Kim Stafford, who learned it from his father, poet William Stafford: write the date; follow with a few sentences about the previous day (nothing profound allowed!); next, jot down an “aphorism”— a brief thought, observation, or idea; finish with words “in the form of a poem, or half a poem, or notes that may never become a poem.”

For the next few minutes, I read writing I admire—scenes rich with sensory detail, poems that tackle difficult subjects in lyrical tones, essays that compel me to look at life from a different angle. Then I select one of the several writing projects I usually have going at a time. I set a timer for 25 minutes and, in the silence of my office, try to put aside beliefs about “the right way.” When the timer chimes, I step away from my desk and fold laundry, wash a few dishes, or stroke my dog’s ears for ten minutes or so, my writing focus shifting to the background. What I don’t do during that respite is make phone calls, read email, or check Instagram. When I return to my desk and re-set the timer for another 25 minutes, I often pick up where I left off with clarity or a new idea about how to proceed.

This practice works for me, but not for everyone. It’s my way to open my door to creativity, but it’s not the only way. Yes, I still stew over fellow writers’ critiques of my words and hesitate when I press the “submit” button to send work to a publication. I know that most of the time, editors receive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of submissions from skillful, imaginative writers who have their own ways to express themselves. The probability is high that I’ll “fail” and that another writer’s way will speak to an editor more than mine. But the accumulation of rejections reminds me that the consequences of my experimentation aren’t so fraught with disaster as when I was a nurse. Instead, the trial and error and re-try process delights, rather than terrifies. And the acceptances, though few in number, affirm that my voice—my way—has a place.


The response to the umpteenth revision and the eighteenth submission of my hermit crab essay surprised me; it was awarded an Honorable Mention in a lyric essay contest and would be published in The Lindenwood Review. I smiled, marked “accepted” beside the essay’s title on my submission tracking form, and opened my journal to write the day’s date.


Woodland Force

heidi-barr-cover-250These days, my reading alternates between strategies to resist President Trump’s malevolent policies as well as to promote political change and writing that prompts reflection, grounding, and hope. A title that fits in the latter category is Heidi Barr’s forthcoming Woodland Manitou: To Be On Earth. Scheduled for release by Homebound Publications in September, this collection of essays is rooted in the rhythm of the natural world. Through the turn of the seasons, Heidi demonstrates that the cycles of the earth inform her everyday life. She paints a picture of how remaining close to the earth provides a solid foundation, even as the climate changes and the story of the world shifts.

Part stories, part wonderings, and part call to act, Heidi’s words invite reflection, encourage awareness, and inspire action. Once I have a hard copy of Woodland Manitou, I expect it will live on my nightstand, like a book of devotions I can pick up when I need wise words, sustenance, and comfort. Heidi’s writing is rich with nature and farming images that serve as metaphors for the seasons of life and big questions that are part of the every day—loss, control, change, transformation, fear, hope. These short essays require only a few minutes to read, but they lead to many more moments of reflection and looking inward.

HBblackwThough we have yet to meet in person, I’m getting to know Heidi through her writing, our association with Homebound (the publisher for my forthcoming memoir Hiking Naked), and this interview. She lives near the St. Croix River Valley in Minnesota with her husband and daughter. They tend a large organic vegetable garden, explore nature, and do their best to live simply. Heidi works as a wellness coach, offers retreats and teaches online courses through Wildfire Wellness, writes books, and strives to give voice to stories that need to be told.

Although Woodland Manitou is available for pre-order through Homebound Publications, you’ll have to wait a few months to hold it in your hands. Until then, enjoy these thoughts from fellow writer, Heidi Barr.

Iris: Woodland Manitou is rich with nature and farming images that serve as metaphors for the seasons of life. When and how did you first recognize the importance of the natural world for you?

Heidi: It’s hard for me to pinpoint a certain time when I realized nature was important in my life, but I think I noticed its absence during my years in graduate school—living in a very urban area was difficult, and I often felt cut off from what was important to me, even if I didn’t always realize it at the time. As a young child, I spent hours outside in the huge vegetable garden my parents kept, and my family’s vacations were to wild places. We’d load up the family van and the camping gear and head out to Acadia National Park, or the Black Hills of South Dakota, or the Colorado Rockies for a week of hiking and exploring. And growing up in a rural area, out of town, everyday playtime meant running through prairie grass, picking vegetables, or finding enchanted groves in the shelterbelt. Nature was just a part of life. Now, as an adult, and especially as the parent of a five year old, I recognize the gift of those opportunities: to know nature as a regular part of life. These days if I’m feeling cross, my husband just says, “Have you been outside yet today?” Being connected to the earth in a fundamental way is what keeps me feeling balanced and in tune with myself.

Iris: What’s something that surprised you as you worked on this essay collection?

Heidi: Before I started collecting these essays into a cohesive work, I don’t know that I realized how much the seasons impact my life! Only in sifting through old blog posts and journal entries and musings did I come to truly acknowledge the importance the changing of the season has in my life and in how I operate in the world. It was fun to see the themes come out as I worked on it, and it felt good to be continually reminded why I have chosen to live as I do.

 Iris: I’m always fascinated by how writers work. You obviously have a full life and juggle many roles. What’s your writing process?

Heidi: I’d love to say I sit down every morning and write for an hour, but I don’t think I’ve ever done that. With a full time job as a health coach, a huge garden, a young child, and plenty of side projects going all the time, I weave writing into the fabric of the days.   I’ll think of an idea while out for my morning jog around the lake, and then later I’ll type out a few sentences while waiting for a meeting to start, or while the casserole is in the oven, or while my daughter is winding down for the day with a book. It can feel like writing happens in the margins of “real life,” but when I really think about it, sometimes it’s almost like writing is the thread that connects the dots. Because after all, a lot of the writing process is experiencing life, being present in the ordinary, reflecting on it, musing over why something impacts you like it does…..the actual act of writing sentences is just the outcome of all of that.

 Iris: Woodland Manitou is your second book. Tell us a bit about your first book, Prairie Grown.

Heidi: Prairie Grown: Stories and Recipes from a South Dakota Hillside is a cookbook that walks through a year of life on my parents’ organic vegetable farm, the homestead where I grew up. It includes seasonal recipes for each month of the year, tips for putting up produce, really lovely photographs taken by a few different people, and stories about life on the farm.

Iris: What are you writing now?

Heidi: I’m currently co-writing a book with author Ellie Roscher (her new book, Play Like a Girl, comes out in August). Our book is about tapping into the root “tiny thing” of twelve different areas of life—everything from home to food to sensuality to style—and figuring out how to be intentional about incorporating these small practices into one’s daily practice.   It’s been a really life-giving project, and I’m pretty excited to get it finalized and on to the next step of the publishing process! We have a couple chapters to go before the first draft is complete. I’m also working on another essay collection that may or may not turn into a book. We’ll see what happens there.  

 Iris: What are you reading now?

Heidi: This is a great question, the answer to which changes daily, some weeks. Sometimes I feel like I read WAY too much, but then I think, na….not possible. I just finished Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, Francesca Varela’s Call of the Sun Child, and the latest issues of Orion and The Sun magazines. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer is up next, I think.

Iris: Thank you, Heidi, for our virtual chat about your book, and for posting our conversation about my book on your blog. And Happy Birthday!

In “Waiting for the Sacred,” one of the last essays in Heidi’s book, she advises,

“It might be harder than we thought to stay awake. We can listen and let the ancient become new again, just like the sun that rises and sets. We can step outside the illusions of our time to be in what we know is real. And we can stand in solidarity with those who are experiencing hardship and keep our eyes open to what we are being called to do in the world.”

Woodland Manitou will be a valuable guide in this demanding work.




Writer Island


I live on an island. Not a tropical isle, but one in the Pacific Northwest, with rocky, cold-sand beaches, bald eagles roosting in cedars, and great blue herons squawking as they skim the bay near my house. At least half a dozen times each day, I can see a Washington State ferry, our link to the mainland, coursing its way here.

Most mornings, I retreat to a small writing space that once was my son’s bedroom. My only company is my yellow lab/Shepherd, Buddy. It’s my own writer island. Why, then, would I board a ferry to a neighboring island to write?

The simple answer is evident in this poster:


Leaving the solitude of my home office gave me the chance to study again with my friend and writing mentor, Ana Maria Spagna. This time, she taught at Orcas Artsmith, leading a prose workshop, “Make It Move!” I was hoping for inspiration to make my pen move, and I wasn’t disappointed.

With our group of ten, Ana Maria reviewed how good stories, whether fiction or nonfiction, move—through the growth of characters, unfolding plotlines, shifting scenery, and emerging meanings. Additionally, good stories move readers when they strike a chord, stir emotions, and change us. Ana Maria then posed the question, “Is there something about a way a story moves that moves us?”

After we each read excerpts of writing that touches us, we generated a list of characteristics that move the story—and the reader:

  • Concrete details
  • Repetition of images and sound—like a heartbeat
  • Shifts and surprises
  • Honesty
  • A bit of humor blended with the grief of loss
  • Descriptions of acts of compassion
  • Juxtaposition of big concepts/ideas with the small.

korean-war-veterans-memorial-pThen we turned to our own writing, generating a list of scenes or moments that have moved us. When Ana Maria asked us to choose one, I circled my note about the day I visited the Korean War Veterans Memorial, thinking of my father who had served as a Marine in that war.

For the rest of the morning, Ana Maria led us through a series of exercises using craft techniques that help carry readers from one emotional state to another:

  • Use active verbs (rather than forms of “to be”)
  • Note character gestures – the ways they touch and move
  • Look for a larger cultural context.
Kangaroo House – Orcas Island, WA

In the afternoon, we scattered to our own “writer islands” to work (or walk, nap, read) individually. After dinner, we gathered again at the inn that served as home base to have dessert and to read from our work.

The next morning, I left the workshop with the beginnings of an essay, a list of fourteen other moments that moved me that just might make their ways into my writing, and a few more tools in my writing toolbox. Could I have accomplished as much had I sequestered myself in my writer island office for a day? Perhaps. But I would have missed out on the wisdom of a gifted teacher, inspiration from other writers, and the luxury of a day free of the distractions that swirl around my desk.

And I would have missed the dessert.