Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Relearning What's Possible (Roller Derby Makes Me Brave #9)

credit: www.photosbytabi.com

It's been nearly a year since I wrote an installment in the Roller Derby Makes Me Brave series. (You can read and comment on the original blog posts here, or you can read the saga straight through here.) Last fall I prepared an onstage story about roller derby to share at the Soulsisters Conference in Portland, Oregon. I wish I had a video of me telling that story, but alas, I didn't think to record it. Instead, I present a written version of it here.

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When I saw my first roller derby bout, I had no idea what was happening.

This was in the spring of 2010, and the movie "Whip It" had come out the year before. I hadn't seen the movie yet, but it had put the concept of roller derby in the periphery of my consciousness. The sport seemed funky and interesting, so when I discovered that there was a derby league in Pittsburgh, about an hour from my house, I decided to check it out.

Derby isn't the easiest sport to follow the first time you see it. Teams play offense and defense at the same time, and things move fast. So I had no idea what was going on during that bout, but I was fascinated. Here were these grown women on old school roller skates, wearing all sorts of protective gear – helmets, mouthguards, knee and elbow pads, wristguards – all skating around in a pack, shouting at each other and knocking each other down. It was crazy. The women had skater names such as Hurricane Heather and S'not Rocket Science. There were women of all shapes and sizes: tall and willowy, short and curvy. Women who were built like brick houses or more like pixies. Women with athletic bodies and others with bellies and booties that resembled my own well-rounded assets. But all of them were so confident, so fierce, so athletic.

I was so quiet while taking all of this that my husband turned to me at one point and asked, "Are you bored?"

"No," I said.

I paused for a moment and then said, very quietly, "I'm going to do this some day."

As soon as I heard those words leave my mouth, they felt equal parts impossible and undeniable. Impossible because I hadn't roller skated in 20 years. I was out of shape, had never played a sport, hated to sweat, and was supremely uncomfortable doing physical activity in front of people. Just the idea of going to the gym had been known to give me panic attacks. I didn't even like to go to the local walking track. But I couldn't deny that I'd said it – and that I'd meant it.

So when I tell you that I had no idea what was going on during that first bout, I mean it in several ways.

Consciously, I was trying to wrap my head around the rules of the game. But on a deeper level, my whole concept of who I was and what was possible was being dismantled and rearranged.

Fast forward two years to the spring of 2012. By this time, I'd seen the movie "Whip It" (which is, in hindsight, not the most accurate depiction of the sport), and had attended just one more bout. I did briefly consider trying to join that league in Pittsburgh, but they practiced and played more than hour from my house, and I wasn't willing to commit to that kind of commute just yet. Besides, I was 36 years old, out of shape, had weak ankles, and, let's face it: Who was I kidding? I wasn't the roller derby type.

But then I saw a flyer at my local coffee shop, announcing that roller derby was coming to my neck of the woods. A new league was forming a few towns over from me, and they were recruiting skaters of all skill levels – including my particular level of no skill whatsoever.

I tore off one of the flyer's little strips with contact info. I emailed for details. And then I waited two more months before getting on skates. All during those two months, I kept telling people that I was going to try roller derby. I kept saying it until I finally realized that I either had to stop saying it or ante up and do it.

First I tried skating on my own in a pair of rental skates and with no protective gear. This landed me a bruised or broken tailbone. After letting that heal for a few weeks, I was finally ready to attend my first official practice. It was the day after April Fool's Day, which struck me as fitting. This whole idea of me playing roller derby seemed like a weird practical joke I was playing on myself. Everyone else had trouble believing it, too. In fact, when I told my own mother, a supportive and kind woman, that I was going to a roller derby practice, she asked, "To watch?"

I said, "No, I'm going to try to play."

And my mother – my sweet, kind, and supportive mother – laughed.

"Oh, okay!" she said. "Right!"

She truly thought I was joking. And here's the thing: I wasn't even offended. I knew how absurd it sounded coming from me. I laughed, too.

But I went to that first practice. And then I went to another and another. I surprised myself and kept going. I went when I was scared (which was most of the time), when I was tired, when I was convinced people would laugh at me behind my back. I learned how to be in my body. I learned how to skate. I learned how to sweat. I learned how to fall down and how to get back up again. The first time I skated in a practice bout I had no idea what was going on. But over the past two years I've learned the rules of the game. I've learned how to pretend that I'm fierce and confident, even when I'm terrified. I've learned the magic of practice. I've learned what's possible.

Fast forward another two years to 2014: I put on my old school roller skates, my helmet, my knee-pads. I put on my team shirt with my derby name on the back (Punchberry Jam) and I skate around in a pack. I shout to my teammates. I use my body (and my booty) to block opposing skaters. I knock people down. I fall, and I get back up again.

Now, when I tell people that I play roller derby, many of them laugh and say that I can't believe it. I just smile and say "Neither can I."


"True Names" Essay Named Finalist for Prime Number Magazine Contest

I am thrilled to have been a finalist for Prime Number Magazine's Creative Nonfiction contest for my essay "True Names." Eight finalists were chosen from 56 entries, with the three winners being chosen by author Ned Stuckey-French. (I'm happy to say that my friend and grad school colleague Laurie Easter won third prize.)

I'm still looking for a home (read: publication) for my essay, so I can't share the whole thing here, but I thought I'd give you glimpse of it. (Such a tease, I know.)

This essay is part of my manuscript-in-progress, a collection of linked essays called For All We Learned, The Sea, which explores landscape, belief, and the longing for home and belonging in all its many forms.

Here's the beginning of "True Names":

Etch-a-Sketch, Baja, Echo. The tour guide on the whale watching boat knows these humpbacks by name. She recognizes them by their tail markings, the designs they were born with and the wounds they've sustained since then. She announces each whale as it levers its broad tail out of the water like the dark wings of an enormous seagull. To my eyes, this display is an anonymous flash of rubbery black and white on the sun-dazzled water, but our guide assures us that unique patterns decorate each one, the whale tail equivalent of human fingerprints.

My husband and I are on a whale watching tour boat off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At 115 feet long, the Hurricane II is billed as “the largest and fastest Massachusetts whale watching vessel north of Boston.” From that description I assume this is a boat of substantial size, but I don't know much about such things. For all of my trips to the seashore and my love of the coast, this is the first time I've left land for open water. Taking this tour was the one thing that James insisted we do on our vacation. His eagerness surprised me, he who cannot swim and generally avoids being in water above his knees. But the idea of whales had caught his fancy, and now they've caught mine.
"Look for a fluorescent green glow in the water," the guide says as the whales come closer. This is the telltale sign that a whale glides near the surface, the white patches of its skin reflecting back the otherwise invisible green of microscopic phytoplankton. I stare into the water alongside the boat, skeptical that I'll be able to differentiate between normal ocean-green and this special whale-green. But then the water looks like a neon lamp has lit it up from below, and sure enough, I spy a pectoral fin beneath the glow. This first sighting fills me with hope; I may not be able to name the whales, but I can spot them.

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I hope you'll be able read the whole essay somewhere in the near future!


Lunch and Heartbreak


Remember when blogging first became a craze and everyone was doing it and everyone was reading everyone else and there was no Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed quizzes to find out which cheese/shoe/fictional character you were? There was only your "feed reader" with dozens (or hundreds) of blogs that you tried to check every week. And we were all writing (and reading) about each others' lunch and heartbreak.

I say "everyone," but blogging was still new enough that it wasn't the pervasive thing it is now, and to be a "blogger" was still an interesting or odd or embarrassing or empowering label. Remember that? 

It's not that I'm not feeling particularly nostalgic about those times, I was just thinking about how blogging used to feel both more intense (higher quantities) and less intense (lower stakes). Nowadays, for me, at least, blogging often feels too cumbersome and heavy. I'm a creative writer, so I want the stories I tell here to be good. I'm a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, so I want the posts to be engaging and useful. There's a lot of pressure to write something interesting and sharable. Showing up just to say "hi" and tell you what I had for lunch or what's breaking my heart these days doesn't seem like enough.

But sometimes, lunch and heartbreak are what's on my mind. Sometimes, I don't want to blog so I can tell you a great story or teach you something. Sometimes I just want to say: "Hi. For lunch today I had last night's leftovers: gluten-free pasta with homemade roasted tomato sauce; grilled chicken topped with basil, prosciutto, and provolone; and sauteed kale, because I do love kale, which has nothing to do with its hipster popularity, I just like it."

And I want to say: "Hi. My heart has been breaking lately from all the usual suspects big and small: war, racism, death, lost friendships, people's lack of clean water, disease, economics, misunderstandings. Sometimes I have to sit outside and stare at the green trees to remember that I'm mostly fine and that I need to stop sweating the small stuff all the damn time because it's draining and pointless to sweat the small stuff when the big stuff is also chipping away at your joy. Does it really matter if my neighbors shake their heads at the weeds-as-tall-as-me that are growing in the front of my house? Should I really be fretting over how much I didn't accomplish today? Does it do me any good to feel anxious most of the time because apparently I've developed a sort of anxious auto-pilot that constantly runs in the background? The answer to all of these questions is 'No.' There's enough true heartbreak to go around without all of these little ones piling up in the corners of our psyches."

I'm not saying that blogging was better before. I'm not even pining for the days of lunch and heartbreak posts. I just wanted to say "hi," and to remind myself that not all online interactions have to be well-crafted essays or meaningful sales pitches or pithy status updates.

Sometimes, you just want to connect. Sometimes, you just want to say: I ate this. I'm worried about this. I'll be okay, and I hope you will be, too.


The "Beautiful Giveaway" Winner (plus a special offer for all)

Thank you to everyone who commented on the last post with a Verbal Snapshot! I loved reading your little moments and snippets as they rolled it.

Congratulations to Dolly of From My Cherry Heart, the winner of the "Beautiful Giveaway"!

Bella Grace is such a beautiful publication that I wish I could send a copy of it to each of you. Since that's not possible, I hope you'll pick up a copy for yourself. (Also, remember that the Bella Grace blog hop goes on for another month.)

A Beautiful Weekend Sale: 

To add a bit of beauty to your weekend, I'm offering 20% off titles in The Word Cellar bookshop through Monday (Aug. 18).

If you had fun writing your Verbal Snapshots and want some inspiration to keep writing, download Alchemy Daily: 30 days of writing prompts, inspiration & magic. (This weekend the price is just $11.20.)

The prompts and inspiration in the Alchemy Daily ebook are bite-sized, like daily doses of tasty creative juju. Think of it as your invitation (and good excuse!) to take time for yourself and your creativity every day.


If you'd like a beautiful book of prose, poetry, and photography to hold in your hands, order a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories. This collection features work by seven women writers and artists, all celebrating the power and beauty of creative community. (This weekend, the price is just $14.40.)

This 50-page book features work by Darlene J Kreutzer, Liz Lamoreux, Jen Lee, Rachelle Mee Chapman, Lisa Ottman, Jena Strong, and me.


Here's wishing you a beautiful weekend!

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Verbal Snapshots: Capturing Beauty, Adventure, & Life (plus a giveaway)

{Update 8/15/14: The giveaway winner announcement -- plus a special "have a beautiful weekend" sale for everyone -- is posted over here.}

I'm delighted to have an essay in the premier issue of Bella Grace, a new magazine from Stampington & Co., and to be giving away a copy of it to one of you.

The tagline of this gorgeous publication reads, "Life's a Beautiful Adventure."

And isn't that what so many of us writers, artists, and dreamers are after: The beauty and adventure of our days?

Of course, not every moment is infused with joy and wonder. There are chores to be done, bills to be paid, troubles to be navigated. But in the midst of it all, we're looking for the sparks, the slivers, the shimmery moments of magic and connectedness. 

Many of us capture these glimpses of life's beauty and adventure in images that we share on social media or tuck away for our own eyes.

She sat on the ferry and ate cherries from the market. That seemed like a good life to her.But sometimes there's no time to snap a picture. Sometimes the scope of what you want to capture is too big, too small, or too fleeting for any camera lens.

This is the time for Verbal Snapshots.

Verbal Snapshots are those tiny moments of time when the day takes you by the hand and whispers in your ear, "Pay attention to this. To this world. To this life. To this moment."

And so you do.

As a writer, language is how I make sense of the world, and so much of what I write blooms from simple moments of beauty, joy, wonder, or oddity. The scribe in my head is always taking notes, jotting down bits and bobs that catch my eye. Through words I strive to capture and convey the glints of beauty and adventure tucked in-between the folds of everyday moments.

I wrote my first Verbal Snapshot on Twitter a few years ago when I spied an elderly man in a suit riding a red and silver bicycle. I didn't get a photo of him, but I wanted to capture the image, so I described it in the verbal equivalent of an Instagram:

"Grey-haired gent in tan sport coat and slacks, riding a shiny red & silver bicycle past the post office on Good Friday."

Since then, I've made an ongoing practice of describing the moments in time that catch my eye, my heart, or my fancy. These little "language-grams" are my reminders to pay attention to the world around me and to look for the stories waiting to be told.

The Beautiful Giveaway:

At the bottom of this post, I share a few of my favorite Verbal Snapshots. But first, I want to invite you to share a snapshot of your own. To celebrate the publication of Bella Grace and the beautiful adventure that is this life, I'm giving away a copy of the magazine. And to sweeten this already sweet pot, I'll also include a copy of Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, a 50-page chapbook of words and images by me and six other amazing women writers and photographers.

To enter for a chance to win a copy of Bella Grace and Lanterns, please leave a comment below with your own Verbal Snapshot -- or simply one word describing how you feel in this moment. (It doesn't have to be poetic or clever or perfect. Any description of a moment or image will do!) I'll leave comments open until 11:59pm (ET) on Thursday, Aug. 14, and I'll announce the winner on Friday the 15th. >>I'll choose a winner using a random number generator, so don't worry about making your snapshot the "best," just have fun with it!<<

A few of my favorite verbal snapshots:

Vintage cherry-red Volkswagen Beetle trundling along with a dark green Christmas tree strapped to the roof.

Two trains on parallel tracks pass each other in opposite directions. For a split second, the engines look ready to kiss.

Tiny parade route: Dozens of flags festoon neighborhood lawns, marking utility lines in red, blue, green, orange, yellow, white.

Candlelight glow through white paper wrapper. Empty mason jar. Broken grey seashell. Small black stone with white stripe.

White petal confetti on wet spring green grass.

For more of my Verbal Snapshots click here, or follow me on Twitter and Facebook to see these snippets as I publish them. You can also play along with the hastag #VerbalSnapshot.

Don't forget to leave your Verbal Snapshot or single word of the moment in the comments below for a chance to win a copy of Bella Grace and Lanterns.

(Other Bella Grace contributors will be hosting giveaways over the next month, so be sure to check out the full Bella Grace Blog Hop schedule here.)

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{Stay in touch: Join The Word Cellar email list for stories, specials, & inspirations.}