Take Care of Yourself!

So glad to be inside today, as the pounding rain and high winds from Hurricane Ian invade our peaceful woods. I just looked at the radar, and we expect even more of this to arrive in central Randolph County tonight and tomorrow. Our prayers remain with our friends in Florida and South Carolina, who have also suffered the wrath of this deadly storm.

Today I found out that my most recent Healthline article was just published, and in the spirit of safety and self-preservation, I thought I’d share. Take Time Out for Self-Care with M.S. is written for those of us affected by chronic illness, but these same principles apply to anyone faced with stress and challenging circumstances, and this includes a major hurricane.

Many thanks to editor Laurie Budgar and Christina P. Kantzavelos, LCSW, the author of “Begin Within Healing Journal” for their help with this piece.

To everyone, please take cover and stay safe.

Nothing Ever Happens Around Here

When I first moved from an urban area to the wilds of Randolph County, what I believed was the middle of nowhere, I admit to being a little concerned. Would I make new friends? What about my favorite chain restaurants, not to mention the malls? What about the silence? The scenery? What if the all the green fields just blended together into monotony? And most importantly, what would I write about? What if nothing ever happens around here?

Six years later, I can truly say that none of my worst fears came to pass. I’ve made plenty of friends, many of whom are farmers, and I’ve learned just what these fields can do. One of my friends even raises donkeys, and recently I held my first 5-day old donkey jack! I also keep in touch with cherished friends from far away as New York City through Zoom and other platforms.

Meet Baby Copper–just 5 days old and 25 pounds!

It is not quiet in the country. Oh no. The birdsong here is deafening, from the wood thrush to the pileated woodpecker soaring overhead with his eerie primeval cry. We’re close to the local airport, so there’s always a new whir circling overhead. A special thanks to Mom, who introduced us to the terrific flightradar24 app, so now we know that the Boeing overhead came from Atlanta and is on its way to Liege, Belgium! So much for being in the middle of nowhere. My pilot grandfather would definitely approve.

Meet Max, my new work-out routine!

Boredom remains the least of my worries. In fact, I was more bored in the city! We’ve had at least one fugitive in the woods, two rattlesnakes (this year alone), a stranded racoon, and just recently, a stray Siberian Husky pup came our way.

I don’t miss the malls at all, which is a good thing since the pandemic seriously altered the world of shopping. And nobody here cares about fashion anyway — it’s more about comfort! As for the fancy restaurants, I’d rather live three miles from from my beloved niece, who sends me a text such as “Hey, can I come over and make pumpkin cheesecake cookies with you?”

Cooking is just one of the things I’ve found to write about, and there’s been so many more, from sewing and building to gardening and butterflies. In fact, if there were any more going on around here, I wouldn’t have time to sleep!

For the next few months, I’ll be concentrating on my memoir, a project that I hope will blend together many of my experiences through the years. So for this reason, I hope it slows down here just a little bit.

Repost of a Flash Fiction in Honor of Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022)

Today, we’re re-posting a photo and beloved flash fiction authored by J.P. Harris, a student in one of my classes several years ago. Enjoy this fictional “memory” of a beloved Queen.

The Comet

By J.P. Harris

The year was 1965, and several members of the Royal family, including two corgis, board the new DeHavilland Comet at London’s Heathrow Airport, bound for New York.

Prince Philip remarked about how exciting it was to be flying on the most advanced jet airliner in the world.  Some time after reaching a cruise altitude of 30,000 feet, Captain Caryl Ramsay Gordon asked him if he would like to sit in the left seat.  Captain Gordon had known the Prince for years, having been his flight instructor back in the 50s, and was well aware of his reputation as a cracking stick and rudder man.

After a few minutes of straight and level flight during which he became familiar with the controls and instrument layout,  Prince Philip took the yoke in both hands and expertly put the plane through a 360 degree roll, maintaining positive Gs throughout the maneuver.  The Queen and Princess Anne both complained that they had been quite disturbed to look out and see the sky in the bottom of their window and the earth above. Upon returning to his seat next to the Queen, Prince Philip promptly apologized with a kiss and a promise never to do it again.  But it was several minutes before he stopped grinning.

Three days later a commercial Comet with a full load of passengers disappeared from radar over the North Atlantic 800 miles west of England, leaving a long debris field and few bodies to recover.  No distress call was heard.

At that point all Comets were immediately grounded until the problem could be sorted out and the mystery solved.  Fourteen months later, during stress tests on the fuselage, metal fatigue starting at the corners of the square windows was discovered to be the flaw in the design that brought the great plane down.

By the time DeHavilland had re-designed and solved their production problems, Boeing had completed the design and development of their new 707 jet liner.  They went on to dominate commercial aviation for more than half a century with many editions of their seven series airplanes flying from 112 different countries throughout the world.

The next time the Royal family flew, they used an older piston engine DeHavilland, (DH-104 Dove), one that had served them well for many years.  On board in a special compartment were nine tiny parachutes, one for each of their dogs.

Johnpaul Harris
3-3-2018

Editor’s Note: The beauty of this piece is the author’s fascination (if not obsession) with aircraft. The story itself is fiction but the specificity in the technical details drawn from this undated photo lend an air of authenticity. We think Prince Philip would have appreciated it, too, himself having stated, regarding his own service in WWII more than 70 years ago: “As most elderly people have discovered, memories tend to fade.”

Of Lightning and Lightning Bugs

English speakers are so fortunate to claim a language with more words than any other—nearly 200,000—but writers, does it ever feel as if you just can’t find that perfect word? For us, this has to be the ultimate existential crisis. As Mark Twain so aptly said: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

I’m forever seeking that elusive flash of light, but not just for the purposes of scintillating conversation. I primarily aim to bolster my battery of expression while writing. For example, although “cajole” or “coerce” will do just fine, isn’t a fresh verb such as “dragoon” much more fun?

Of course I love those word quiz books that promise to make us smarter. And I keep Roget’s Thesaurus nearby at all times. I’m also a huge fan of daily emails from Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster, although they sometimes offer up tongue-twisters such as “phantasmagoric” (having a fantastic or deceptive appearance) that I’m not likely to ever use, except perhaps in a poem. Now there’s an idea!

What works best for me is to discover a new word conveniently within its own context, such as in a book by a favorite author. Works by newspaper columnists are particularly illuminating. Thanks to Tina Brown, a Cambridge educated editor and writer of books such as The Vanity Fair Diaries and The Palace Papers, words such as “farrago” and “miasma” float up regularly in my word soup. A new set of authors—Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes—has recently led me to discoveries such as “imbroglio,” “mien,” and “shambolic.” I make note of these words and their meanings and keep them handy as I write.

But there’s no inspiration like classic authors. After re-reading a little Henry James, I found myself surrounded by even more choices and unusual pairings. In Portrait of a Lady, James describes Isabel Archer’s ill-fated choice of Gilbert Osmond as a husband in this way: “She tasted of the sweets of this preference, and they made her conscious, almost with awe, of the invidious and remorseless tide of the charmed and possessed condition, great as was the traditional honor and imputed virtue of being in love.”

Invidious! Now this is a new word for me, and it means “likely to arouse or incur anger or resentment in others.” Having both a cat and a dog who can’t help annoying each other gives me plenty of opportunities to practice using both “invidious” and “remorseless.”

I would be remiss without including an example from Vladimir Nabokov, that famous polyglot and one of my most favorite writers. He not only drew from an enviable vocabulary spanning several languages, he was a master of description and metaphor. He opens his short story “Spring in Fialta” with some of the most beautiful prose ever written. (Read it online here). Later, in the same story, when describing an orchestra, Nabokov wrote: “First I noted the ostrich thigh of a harp….” I confess that I will drool over this delicious metaphor all day long.

I hope you’re inspired to assemble your own lexicon of new words. After all, we can’t wait around for lightning to strike. All good word warriors must be prepared to dazzle.

For more writing inspiration, check out my recent Women on Writing interview with my friend and mentor, the inimitable Ruth Moose.

Writing the Nature Essay

This morning, after I learned that we probably wouldn’t get rain until later in the week, I decided I better water the plants on my deck. In doing so, I found my mind wandering as wildly as the spindly stems of a petunia someone gave me. I thought about all the plants I care for — many of which are gifts and not chosen by me — and my growing sense of responsibility for all living things.

Then Finn dashed into the woods after a squirrel and of course, my mind bent in another direction. While I appreciate the presence of these furry creatures, because any form of life is precious, I am grateful that at least right now these “tomatotarians” are thwarted from our garden.

I say all this to say that when we writers find ourselves in a rut, we do our mind and our body good by writing about nature. Just the simple act of observing a soon-to-unfold trumpet flower is a reward unto itself. And watching those long chive stems drift toward another pot to drop their seeds makes me chuckle. As does hearing the “cheerful, cheerful charmer” of our bluebirds. Starting by just observing what we see in our own little worlds can lead to more universal insights that help our jottings bloom into a true essay.

Mary Oliver’s essay titled “Owls” (from her book Owls and Other Fantasies) is a great example of a short essay that threads the poet’s observations on owls (and other elements of nature) with her own interiority. At the same time, she touches on universal themes when she says: “There is only one world.” And as “excessive” as the roses in the dunes may be, at the sight of them “might we all be struck to the heart and saturated with a simple joy.” Statements such as these speak directly to the reader and connect us with Oliver. Her piece is also noteworthy for her brevity, which is a great lesson for us all.

Enjoy your day, and I hope rain comes your way soon!

What I’ve Learned About Writing from Watching Beat Bobby Flay!

My friends know that I love cooking almost as much as writing. I cook when I’m happy, I cook when I’m sad, and I even cook when I’m mad. Naturally, I also write about cooking.

I am also a huge fan of the Food Network show: Beat Bobby Flay! Lately I’ve been musing a little bit on what this show means to me as a writer. And as strange as it sounds, there are actually many lessons we writers can take from this popular cooking competition show, especially from the celebrated chef himself.

Never bore your readers….or the judges. Just as Bobby surprises the judges with little flourishes such as adding pickled shallots, fried okra, or a crispy bottom layer to his rice, we should also delight our readers (and judges) with fresh diction and unusual revelations, about our fictional characters or about ourselves when writing essays.

It’s all about the presentation. One of the many things I adore about Bobby is how he always, always, always, no matter how stressed he may be, thinks about the presentation of his dish to the judges. Somehow he manages to find time to sprinkle a few chopped chives or parsley on top or drip a curly-cue of sauce on the side, and give each plate that Michelin-star appearance. Similarly, we need to be thinking about the presentation of our work. No sloppiness, no typos. Our writing deserves a careful proofread every time, and of course, a snazzy title.

Never let ‘em see you sweat. Bobby is unflappable. No matter how many curve balls are thrown his way – such as the time someone tied an arm behind his back or outlawed peppers – Bobby forges ahead and finishes, even when he’s forced to bake, which he admits is not his strong suit. This ability stems from just one thing—his unending love of cooking. The same goes for writers. If you are not absolutely loving what you’re doing, even in the toughest of times, this may not be the field for you. Loving our work is what makes us want to follow through and enjoy the ride, in the same way as Bobby.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. The celebrity judges have so much fun with Bobby, whether forcing him to play the kazoo, singing in his ear, or just plain trash-talking him, they really try to push his buttons. But he never caves to the pressure. Instead, he just plays along with their antics and laughs, even as he fights to the finish. In his example, we writers shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to chuckle, whether it’s by adding a touch of humor to a poem or by poking fun at ourselves in an essay. This element comes naturally to me because I’m always doing something goofy.

Be humble. Bobby’s humility is what I admire most about him. In his own words, he is not afraid to fail. This means that the three-time James Beard Award winner and repeated Iron Chef, can afford to greet his competitors with respect. “I’m worried,” he’ll admit, when he faces a chef with a reputation for excellence, and I think he means it. And when another chef does beat him, he shakes their hand (or hugs them) and walks off the stage like a true champion, giving the winner their own moment to shine. The power of expression comes with tremendous responsibility, and as writers, we should always remember to be grateful and kind.

What about you? Do you have an idol outside the writing world that you admire? Think about it, and you might find new ways of inspiration.

Abstinence Makes The Writing Heart Grow Fonder

As a busy freelancer, wife, inveterate reader, dog owner, and caretaker of a cherry orchard, I’m frequently asked how I find time for personal writing. Well, I’m about to let you in on a little secret.

I don’t schedule it. That’s right. I used to make appointments with my muse, sit down at my desk, and just prayed she showed up. Sometimes she did, and trust me, I was duly grateful. But these planned events felt a little forced. The muse, after all, depended on me. And I had to be in the moment to make it work.

As a former manager, I built a career around appointed times, calendars, meetings. So scheduling time to write just made sense. But now, since leaving the traditional work place, I’ve taken the liberating step of letting my muse schedule herself.

WHAT?

I can hear the protests, the murmurings around the world. I can even feel the wobble of the Earth at these words. I’m sure you’re wondering how I can possibly make time to write without a formal reservation.

Here’s what I do. Now I’m driven solely by the creative instinct. I write only when I have something to say. And when I do have a new idea, sometimes, brace yourself, I actually refuse to let myself write.

WHAT, WHAT, WHAT?

I know it sounds nuts. Even perverse. But in the words of the great poet Ovid: “What is allowed has no charm; what is not allowed we burn to do.” (Amores, II, xix, 3). The act of abstaining from writing actually fans the flames and lets my idea stew inside my head. When I finally do sit down to write, the words stream onto the page with new vigor. I encourage you to try this approach yourself. Next time you feel as if you “should” be writing, do something else instead, such as pull weeds, walk the dog, or even do the dishes. You might be surprised at the results.

Over the past few months, I’ve been fortunate enough to serve as a regular columnist for Healthline, and my most recent piece, M.S. Can’t Stop Me From Gardening, appeared last month. I also recently learned that my long-form essay, “Private History of Deviled Eggs” earned honorable mention in the 2022 Alex Albright Nonfiction Contest and will appear in The North Carolina Literary Review in 2023. Another long-form essay, “My ‘Haunted’ Lamp” will be released as a podcast on Episode 3 of PenDust Radio in September, so please stay tuned.

Wishing you a happy summer of writing – and abstinence as needed!

Of Momentum and Hope

It would be so easy to say that the life of a writer is made up of many ups and downs. Such as finishing a challenging piece of writing, seeing it rejected, possibly many times, before—if we’re lucky—having it accepted or winning a prize. But the truth is there are so many other little things in between.

Suppose, in the case of a good writing friend, you meet a huge deadline you set for yourself. Or maybe a famous writer that you just followed on Twitter follows you back! And then there’s the moment you finally settle on the perfect word for what you’re trying to say. “For your born writer,” says Catherine Drinker Bowen, “nothing is so healing as the realization that he has come upon the right word.”

Small victories are important but so are the small roadblocks. Suppose you can’t find a book that you just know is in your library, but you stumble on another one you know you need to read. Then there’s having an essay you worked on for months get rejected. It’s crushing at first, but if it compels you to work a little harder on a troublesome paragraph, that decline can turn into a boon.

All of these little steps –good, bad, or serendipitous—are part of the same thing: momentum. And this is the life force of a writer. Momentum is also the energy of being alive. It starts with the decision to get out of bed in the morning. To keep that date with your writing desk. To go on a walk with your husband to see the blooms on the quince tree. And then finding a bird’s nest lodged in the branches.

Momentum is much more than forward movement. It is hope. And this is something we can all use a little more of right now.

What is Success for a Writer?

Last night I watched a movie with Philip Seymour Hoffman, and I couldn’t help but mourn this incredible actor yet again. He had the uncanny ability to breathe life into the smallest of roles as if by magic. The reality, however, is that Hoffman worked very, very hard.

Because actors are artists, too, we writers can learn from our thespian friends. Even though Hoffman died so tragically and far too young, I am forever grateful for his shrewd words. “Success isn’t what makes you happy. It really isn’t. Success is doing what makes you happy and doing good work and hopefully having a fruitful life. If I’ve felt like I’ve done good work, that makes me happy.”

The beloved poet Maya Angelou had similar thoughts. “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”

Let these wise words guide you in your work. While it’s wonderful to be published and even win a prize in a contest, these are ephemeral moments at best. A life devoted to words offers many smaller and more enduring rewards. Such as nudging an exciting new word into your writing vocabulary. Getting over that pesky little hump in your current project. Savoring the words of another writer, you know what I mean, the book waiting for you on your nightstand.

Yesterday a fellow writer, much more talented than me, followed me back on Twitter. Bliss indeed. That didn’t just make my day, it made my year. And 2022 is still young….

The list goes on and on. So let me ask you, writer friends. What made you happy today?

Celebrate the Twelve Days of Editing

Writers, what does your true love say to you?

First Day: Alone in your cozy writing nook, a partridge in a pear tree, you love every word of your new essay. It’s just perfect. Then you realize you’re 500 words over the limit for the contest you want to enter. Yikes!

Second Day: Like those two turtle doves, your initial love for your essay has migrated to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter, maybe forever. You hate your essay now. As you read over it, you realize it’s not very good at all. Is there anything worth keeping?

Third Day: Absolument! Your three French hens remind you of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Give yourself a break. Besides, there’s no time to start anything new.

Fourth Day: Or is there? The four “calling birds” in your backyard clamor for a new tune. Start over, the blackbirds sing. Start over! Start over! START OVER!

Fifth Day. You have no energy to begin something new. Your five golden rings may be just brass, but your essay is the best you’ve got, so you decide to polish it up the best you can.

Sixth Day. Okay, so you won’t actually cut anything. You’ll just trim the hedge a teeny bit, taking care not to disturb the six Canada geese-a-laying. You gently prune a few words here and a few words there. But is it enough?

Seventh Day. It is not. However, you refuse to cut the most precious part of your essay. Even if they say that all writers eventually “murder their swans.” Well, that’s for other people to do. Their swans are not as precious as your swans.

Eighth Day. Your cereal milk has soured, and doubt sets in. Wallow in your pity for a while and then get back to the barn with the other maids. You’ve got serious work to do.

Ninth Day. Cutting is actually easier than you thought. The delete key clicks like Ginger Rogers’ heels, and your heart dances with delight. You don’t miss those swans at all.

Tenth Day. Your essay isn’t the same. Now you fear it’s terrible. Ten lords leap in and take it away. You’re happy to see it go.

Eleventh Day. The pipers bring your essay back, and they’re not playing a dirge. When you read your essay again with fresh eyes, you realize it may be better. Leaner, more concise, and more compelling. Hurray!

Twelfth Day. Take a deep breath and submit your revised essay. The world may not love it, but who cares? You do. In your mind, it’s just perfect. And in the end, that’s all that matters. After all, new ideas drum on and on…..

Wishing you the happiest of holidays and a very productive New Year of writing! As you look ahead to 2022, consider joining me on Tuesday, January 11 from 6 p.m. – 8 p.m. via Zoom for How to Move from the Slush Pile to the Rush Pile. In this special class hosted by Charlotte Lit, we’ll cover the art behind successful submissions and how to move from the “slush” pile to the pile editors rush to accept. We’ll discuss how to find the best fit for your writing, tips on putting your best foot forward, and a little secret to boost the number of marketable pieces in your portfolio. We’ll also talk about the nuts and bolts of submission: cover letters, biographies, tracking and more, such as how to stay motivated as you cast those precious pearls out into the world.

Cost: $45 Charlotte Lit members, $55 non-members. Register here online.