Mary B. Kurtz on Writing and Publishing Apertures, Findings From a Rural Life
My Path to Publication of Apertures: Findings from a Rural Life from Shanti Arts Publishing, September 2022
My book, Apertures: Findings from a Rural Life, is a memoir-in-essays, following the examples of David Lazar’s Body of Brooklyn and Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s, Descanso for My Father.
In my sixties and facing my own aging, I wrote my memoir from the perspective of what Park Palmer refers to as “this horizon…on the brink of everything.” In the exercise, the agricultural life my husband and I live offered a rich marrow from which to amplify my inner experience at the time. As if I were looking through the aperture of a microscope, with its light-gathering qualities, I used “the small lens” to magnify an evocation of my daily life. It was there I knew firsthand the rhythms of ranch life, the murmurings of a natural world, and explored the mysteries of aging and mortality.
The drawing up of memories occurred at the same time I witnessed the death of my mother and another decade of my own personal aging. As I wrote and revised over a period of ten years, my sense of time as a writer was fluid, shifting from past and present and back again as though traveling along a Mobius ribbon, time moving forward yet turning back on itself. Thus, Apertures has a nonlinear structure. Instead of a chronological narrative line through the memoir, the reader travels along a concurrent sense of time: at times the past and present, and at others, the present and future. As Beth Kephart writes in her essay, “Honoring the Seams: The Memoir-in-Pieces,” “We are what we remember plus the current circumstance.” Martin Heidegger has suggested, too, that time is defined by an awareness of “having been,” giving way for the past to exist in the present. So too, concern for potential possibilities related to one’s purpose – allows for the future to also exist in the present. This concurrent sense of time in my sixties was inherent as I wrote from “…this horizon…on the brink of everything.”
In conversations with other writers, I often self-confess my struggle to read fiction, and, or even entertain the idea of writing an imaginary account of anything. My mind finds a home in my daily living. It’s there I find fertile ground for the scene, narrative, and reflection of creative nonfiction writing.
I worked on many of the essays individually before I applied to Regis University Mile High MFA Low-Residency Program. After I was accepted and had to commit to a thesis proposal, I had two manuscripts in mind: one, this group of essays, and the other, a memoir in very rough-draft form. Marty McGovern, the co-director of the program told me about David Lazar’s memoir-in-essays, which was a newly, recognized form of memoir. I knew I would need to generate a significant amount of new writing if I focused on the other memoir. So, the draft of twenty-five plus essays, with Marty’s encouragement, became the work of my thesis.
The first semester I worked with David Lazar, and his primary critique was to deepen the storytelling, to add depth and discovery to the writing. My faculty mentor and thesis advisor, Kathy Winograd, continued to point to the underlying story. When I had written an acceptable storyline without finding the heart of things, Kathy would ask, “But, what’s this really about? Tell us why this is important.”
So, I worked to achieve greater depth in my writing through layering and verticality. I learned that layering is like water coloring: begin with background and layer light to dark. I layer first by making use of details, free association, and subsequent insight. I add threads of interest to me, including, religion, science, history, and the natural world. This extends into what Kim Barnes refers to as verticality. In the dive down beneath the horizontal line, is the search for what’s yet to be discovered. And it’s there, we come upon the alchemy, the deeper meaning embedded in the stories of our lives.
Braided essays compose the majority of the essays and three are in collage form. I made use of fictional elements of story, the truth of non-fiction, and prose infused with metaphor, distilled language, and the musicality of poetry. I worked toward inference rather than proclamation.
As a writer and reader, I want to remain immersed in a sure narrative line. I want to feel grounded in that personal and emotional experience of the story. So, I made a commitment to keep the manuscript based on a clear linking of narrative threads within each essay and a sense of a narrative arc throughout the collection.
Building the narrative arc was one of the more challenging aspects to completing my thesis. But with Kathy Winograd’s guidance, I searched for threads that would first ground the reader in a physical place: the ranch and daily rhythms and routines, then, expand the writing out into the natural world, its beauty and mystery, and continue to deepen those threads through exploration of aging and mortality. In organizing the manuscript, I placed the essays in groupings that would build the narrative arc horizontally and with verticality. In other words, the depth of experience and discovery in the writing would build throughout the manuscript.
As part of our graduate seminar, I identified potential publishers for my manuscript: university and small press publishers who had an interest in the essay form, memoir, nature writing, and, or western themes. They included Texas Tech, University of Nebraska Press, University of New Mexico Press, Tolsun Books, and Saddle Road Press. I also submitted it to the River Teeth’s 2019 Book Contest and New Rivers Press’s 2020 Many Voices Project. David Hicks, the co-director of the MFA program thought Texas Tech would be a perfect fit. Texas Tech declined. My manuscript didn’t fit their publishing cycle at the time. University of Nebraska Press, University of New Mexico Press, Tolsun Books, and Saddle Road Press all declined. And my efforts to find publishing success through book contests came to no avail.
Over the next two years, I continued to submit some of the book as stand-alone essays to literary journals. In the process, I continued to revise my work, and I believe the manuscript became stronger even though it was a relatively clean and complete manuscript when I submitted it for my MFA. In reflection, this was a very important process for a writer in pursuit of publication. Three essays were eventually published, one by Amsterdam Quarterly, Braided Way Magazine, and BlueHouse Journal, a Canadian publication.
Then, in January of 2020, I submitted a full proposal to Shanti Arts Publishing. I believed Shanti Arts was a very good fit for my work for they featured work focused on “Nature, Art, and Spirit.” In my proposal, I promoted the book’s nonlinear structure and highlighted the lyricism of my work.
I didn’t hear anything until September 2020 when Christine Cote, Shanti Arts editor and publisher, offered me a book contract. I was thrilled. My book was placed in her publishing queue, and in March of 2022, we began editing the book, first with technical edits for documentation and minor manuscript revisions. Then we selected photos for each section of the book and finally created a cover design. I appreciated Christine’s invitation to participate in creating the layout of the book. She had a wonderful sense of effective font, the overall layout of text, and placement of the sectional photos.
It would be almost two years from my submission to Christine before the book was released. The pandemic slowed some of Shanti Arts publishing in 2021, but Christine released thirty-two titles in 2022, one of which was Apertures, released on September 20th.
I have approached the promotion of the book in two ways: one is viewing it as a way to engage with or partner with other entities or groups, and the second is considering it a long-term and ongoing endeavor. On my schedule in the coming months, I have several book readings in different venues including bookstores, Regis University, and our local senior center. I have led a nature writing workshop at a writers’ conference and in partnership with our local library. I have been interviewed for a podcast and a marketing publication for the Mile High MFA program as an alum. In addition, I have submitted Apertures to a number of book award programs and news of its release to Denver University and Regis University alumni magazines.
Apertures is available from Shanti Arts Publishing, your local independent bookstore, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. Visit me at www.marybkurtz.com.
An Excerpt From Apertures: Finding from a Rural Life
Huntin’ Woolly Bears
hunt, v., to make a search or quest
Each September, when summer days draw down, when aspens turn saffron and rust when woods crisp and the air quickens, I love to look for Woolly Bear caterpillars crossing the road, right at the corner where cool cottonwood shade settles early in the afternoon.
Although based in folklore, my search for a predictive message from the Woolly Bear about the coming winter seems to serve a very practical purpose and a need to feel closer to the natural world. For those of us who live in this high mountain valley, if the natural world predicts a heavy winter, cattle will need more feed. I and my neighbors will need winter tires sooner and longer. And perhaps for some, the warning helps with the mental preparations of our landscape closing in. No one wants winter’s chill too soon. Prolonged sub-zero temperatures and heavy snows push on our sense of vulnerability and fragility. We know how harsh the natural world can be.
This ritual is not the only one I follow. I join my neighbors in measuring the height of the skunk cabbage for the belief is the height estimates the depth of the coming winter’s snows. I listen for news of beaver dams, too, on the waning waterways. The higher number of damns, the harder the winter ahead. And then I eagerly hunt down the black and orange-banded Woolly Bear.
Today, I find a woolly bear. They appear on the road in mid-September and early October. The hairy caterpillar is crossing the road in search of a burrow, either under a rock or in a decaying log, where it will spend the winter in its larval state. As I watch, the bitsy larvae looks fluffy, something to take home and care for, but for its protection, it wears a bristly coat. It sustains itself in freezing temperatures by producing its own antifreeze. Come spring, it transforms into the striking black and white Tiger Moth.
I watch its purposeful journey to a safe winter home, away from the hum of commuters. I wonder how it ambles with three sets of legs from its summer ground where clover, grass, and nettles have begun to die out. I wonder how it manages feeling its way with tiny eyes across the gritty resurfaced road. I slow down even more. The corner is blind. So small, I worry about its migration. I hope there won’t be any more cars headed north.
Folklore tradition suggests that the wider the orange band on the Woolly caterpillar, the harsher the winter ahead. When I ask Google, I discover there isn’t any scientific evidence to indicate there’s any correlation between the bandwidth and the severity of the winter ahead. The bandwidth is a record of when the caterpillar was born. The wider the band, the earlier their birth in the spring which would indicate a shorter previous winter. The narrower the band, the later their birth in the spring indicating a longer prior winter.
When I hear the news, I am a child again disappointed at hearing a myth dispelled. I wanted to believe I could depend on Woolly Bears, that they could speak to me about a world we share but they know deep within. Just as the tooth fairy knew when I lost a tooth. Just like Santa Claus knowing the desire of my heart. Woolly Bears, tooth fairy, Santa Claus – myth, belief, surety – the world made intimate.
While I’m an inhabitant of the physical world, I feel a certain intimacy remains unavailable to me. And I keep coming back. I keep searching. Possibility endures in choosing to occupy an imaginative space emanating from the natural world.
When I hunt the Woolly Bears, I believe I’m looking to fill what James Hollis refers to as a personal and societal loss of myth: whether it’s religious icons, indigenous stories, Greek sojourns, or wisdom from the natural world. With the absence of myth, he suggests we lose a sense of meaning for our lives.
Hollis defines myth as: “… an energy-charged image, or idea that has the power to move and direct the soul, hopefully in ways that link us more deeply to the mysteries of the cosmos, of nature, of relationship and of self…” (159)
According to brain research, we humans, as we process sensory experiences, look for patterns and seek to make meaning out of those patterns. We’re naturally wired to be curious and ask questions about the nature of this earthly life. In the attempt to answer, we may look to symbolism, a spirituality, myth, prophecy, a link to the natural world and or other source of wisdom that resonates with the patterns we seek to understand. The drive, the instinct for the hunt, the search, the quest, ingrained in our biological minds.
Though the Woolly Bear’s power to predict the winter season is not absolute, as autumn slips into the arms of winter’s embrace, I continue to hunt Woolly caterpillars anyway. The ritual satisfies a deep need to know the physical place in which I live; and in a deeper way seeking symbol and myth, I sense an enlargement of my experience, a greater personal celebration of all that exists.