How to find your voice

And there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own.” — Mary Oliver

In my workshops for new writers, we often discuss the importance of finding or developing a “voice.” As William Zinsser points out, it’s as simple (or as difficult) as this: Your voice is who you are.

Early on, most of us hear a cacophony of inner critics and advisers inside our heads — former teachers, co-workers, neighbors, spiritual directors, family members, and friends. Which makes it hard to distinguish between what others expect of us and what’s in our own hearts.

Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” gives us clues along the way. It’s one of my favorite tributes to the authentic life — and it brings shivers of recognition each time I read it aloud in class. –CL

By Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations;
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

— Reprinted from New and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver (Beacon Press); 1992

— Top photo by Cindy La Ferle; taken at the Grand Rapids Museum during ArtPrize 2011. —

Feeling the fall

There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on, and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne 

Maybe it’s a symptom of middle age, or maybe it’s just my old Celtic soul stirring up a seasonal memory.

Either way, late October always tugs on my sleeve and insists that I slow down to take stock of the passing year. Despite the “worries of the week” — or whatever I’ve chosen to focus on — Mother Nature reminds me that life is all about cycles. Some seasons flow more easily than others, but I have many reasons to be grateful for every one I’m given.

Last week, when I looked down over the ravine that dips toward the river behind our home in St. Joseph, I remembered an excerpt from this poem by Billy Collins:


The best time is late afternoon
when the sun strobes through
the columns of trees as you are hiking up,
and when you find an agreeable rock
to sit on, you will be able to see
the light pouring down into the woods
and breaking into the shapes and tones
of things, and you will hear nothing
but a sprig of birdsong or the leafy
falling of a cone or nut through the trees,
and if this is your day you might even
spot a hare or feel the wing-beats of geese
driving overhead toward some destination.

But it is hard to speak of these things —
how the voices of light enter the body
and begin to recite their stories;
how the earth holds us painfully against
its breast made of humus and brambles;
how we who will soon be gone regard
the entities that continue to return
greener than ever, spring water flowing
through a meadow and the shadows of clouds
passing over the hills and the ground
where we stand in the tremble of thought
taking the vast outside into ourselves.

—Billy Collins, excerpted from The Art of Drowning

Remembering Margo LaGattuta

My eyes like old glass windows, dusted with lost days, are ready to hold the new light.” — Margo LaGattuta, from “Pretending to Be a Barn”

IMG_0051I found the e-mail from another writer-friend early this morning. It wasn’t unexpected, though I’d learned only two days ago that Margo LaGattuta was suddenly terminally ill.

“Margo died peacefully tonight, surrounded by her sons and sisters and friends….It was quite beautiful and I just know she’s writing a poem about it….”

It’s never easy to lose a mentor or a friend, and the best we can hope for is one last chance to say thank you. Which is why I am grateful to writer Carolyn Walker for contacting me this week — just in time to make it to the hospital to see Margo yesterday morning.

Over the years, Margo became a treasured friend. Whenever we were speaking at the same writers’ conferences, or attending literary events around town, I loved spotting her smiling face and wild bohemian outfits in the crowds of more conservatively dressed journalists and writers who were attending the programs. She always looked every inch the poet — the unbridled creative spirit — that she was.

She interviewed me for her radio show (“Art in the Air”/ WPON) after my first book was published in 1994, and in the process, I learned a thing or two from Margo about book promotion. Later on, it meant the world to me when she agreed to be the keynote speaker at the banquet when my second book, Writing Home, was awarded “Book of the Year” by Think Club Publications in 2006. There was also a time when the two of us wrote columns for the same newspaper, so we’d often chat on the phone when we had trouble navigating the ever-changing seas of print journalism.

But our relationship began as teacher and student. It seems that whenever I was going through a dry spell, or felt lost and blocked, Margo happened to be offering a local creative writing workshop that would shake me out of myself and inspire me to start writing again. In particular, I remember a weekend workshop at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, about 18 years ago, which I attended a month after my father died. That same year, the travel magazine I’d been editing for five years suddenly folded — and I had no idea what to do next. I was blocked and sad.

But after that weekend workshop at Cranbrook, I felt as if the fog had magically lifted. Margo helped me find new ways to express my grief, and best of all, I got back on my proverbial horse and rode off to one of the most productive periods of my writing life.

I know I’m only one of hundreds (or thousands) claiming to be moved and changed by Margo’s “Inventing the Invisible” workshops, not to mention all the students she inspired in her college English classes over the years. Her encouragement launched countless writing careers. And, of course, we all deeply admired her poetry, newspaper columns, and essays. Shocked by her sudden passing, many of us are asking: Where will we find another Margo?

I am going through another rough period now, as my widowed mother is slowing drifting through the foggy landscape of dementia, needing more of my time and care. Once again, I’m at a creative impasse. When I arrived at Margo’s bedside at the hospital yesterday, I desperately wanted to say: “Margo, I need your advice again.” Instead, I simply thanked her for everything — for introducing me to some of my favorite poets, including Billy Collins and Mary Oliver and Margo LaGattuta. I told her I was grateful for all the times she helped rescue and refuel my creative soul. I also told her that Billy Collins had just come out with a new book of poems, and that I didn’t think they were as good as his earlier stuff. She was unable to speak, but she smiled.

Tonight I’ll pull down Margo’s books of poetry from my shelves and reread my favorites. Here is one from The Dream Givers (Lake Shore Publishing; 1990). It’s an early poem that, for me, conjures the light and spirit Margo brought to her work, her students, her creative life:

and the journey flashed
through me like a light
year.  Some electric sound
got me moving from
the original place over
mountains and dusty
windows outside of time.

I became a small shadow,
something anyone might have
missed. I began spinning
deep in tomorrow’s orchard.

I came by a river
and the water keeps rising.
I came to begin something wild.

(By Margo LaGattuta; 1990; Lake Shore Press.) 

— Top photo: “Morning in Vinsetta Park” by Cindy La Ferle; 2010 —


Celebrate Margo and her poetry Wednesday, August 31, 7 – 10pm, at the Lido Gallery in Birmingham. Bring ONE of your favorite Margo poems to read aloud to honor her memory. This event is free to the public.


The September 5 issue of Community Lifestyles, where Margo published her popular “Word in Edgewise” columns, will be devoted to her memory. This issue will include a new piece I wrote, detailing Margo’s influence and impact on the metro-Detroit writing community. Watch for the issue online or in your mailbox if you live in the area.

Art and soul

The eye is meant to see things. The soul is here for its own joy.” –Rumi

RumibetterFor collectors of inspirational quotes, the ecstatic poems of the Persian mystic Rumi are pure gold. I find most of my favorites in one of the finest anthologies of Rumi’s work, The Soul of Rumi, translated by the incredible Coleman Barks. “The Soul is here for its own joy” is such a powerful line that I just had to use it in a collage earlier this year.

Click on the images for a detailed view. You’ll note that the dress was assembled from magazine ads and scraps of wrapping paper. The word “ops” appears on the elbow of the figure. This was totally unintentional; I didn’t notice it until after I layered another coat of glaze on the piece. Talk about a message for a recovering perfectionist!

A favorite love poem

Then all the moments of the past began to line up behind that moment.” — Billy Collins

fruitOne of the things I admire most about poet Billy Collins is the way he mines the ordinary for beauty, then renders a moment of art. In “This Much I Do Remember,” he recalls a tender moment that most couples relate to: the leisurely hour at the dinner table after a good meal has been shared.  Given the way he depicts the woman in the poem, I’m guessing she’s his wife of many years.

I can’t help but fight tears every time I read it. It underscores the familiar comfort of a longtime relationship, reminding me of my own marriage.

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, I’m reminded, too, that true love can’t be fully expressed (or measured) in gifts of jewelry or flowers or expensive chocolates. It’s all about the quality of the everyday moments we share. Wishing you all a happy Valentines Day! — CL

This Much I Do Remember

By Billy Collins

It was after dinner.

You were talking to me across the table
about something or other,
a greyhound you had seen that day
or a song you liked,

and I was looking past you
over your bare shoulder
at the three oranges lying
on the kitchen counter
next to the small electric bean grinder,
which was also orange,
and the orange and white cruets for vinegar and oil.

All of which converged
into a random still life,
so fastened together by the hasp of color,
and so fixed behind the animated
foreground of your
talking and smiling,
gesturing and pouring wine,
and the camber of your shoulders

that I could feel it being painted within me,
brushed on the wall of my skull,
while the tone of your voice
lifted and fell in its flight,
and the three oranges
remained fixed on the counter
the way the stars are said
to be fixed in the universe.

Then all the moments of the past
began to line up behind that moment
and all the moments to come
assembled in front of it in a long row,
giving me reason to believe
that this was a moment I had rescued
from the millions that rush out of sight
into a darkness behind the eyes.

Even after I have forgotten what year it is,
my middle name,
and the meaning of money,
I will still carry in my pocket
the small coin of that moment,
minted in the kingdom
that we pace through every day.

–From Picnic, Lightning, by Billy Collins, University of Pittsburgh Press; 1998–