The Wood Thrush Returns!

I wondered if I’d hear him in April, National Poetry Month, although he sometimes doesn’t return to our woods until May. But he is, after all, a poet himself. And this morning, first thing, while walking the dogs, I heard that familiar soft trill. His winter sojourn in Central America is over, and he’s back! Of course I didn’t see him, he’s too shy for that, but his voice is unmistakable.

I had the honor of being asked to contribute to the “Poetry Out Loud” celebration for Charlotte Lit this month, and I’m so glad I chose to read “Waiting for the Wood Thrush.”

Check out it here, along with the work of even more Charlotte Lit faculty members and poets. Here’s hoping that you’re having a splendid month, and you’re writing a little poetry yourself.

Of Dogwoods and Dandelions

If we needed confirmation beyond Punxsutawney Phil’s shadow that winter wasn’t through with us yet, the fact that I packed away my sweaters last week should have cinched it. It’s almost April, I thought. The sight of all my shorts organized and hanging so neatly in my closet cracked me up this morning. Especially as I grabbed my scarf, long-sleeved sweatshirt, and scrounged around for my jeans. A belated April Fool’s joke on me! Oh well!

Last night’s cold spell may have nipped at our plum blossoms but the delicate dogwood petals would not be deterred. Their edges have curled a bit, but they will bounce, bloom, and bounce again. Then, as I walked around the yard surveying the damage, a cluster of bright yellow dandelion flowers caught my eye. Aha! Another survivor!

I’ve written before about the capriciousness of spring in North Carolina, and for all the drama, at least it’s exciting. What plants will come back, and what plants have already said goodbye? The toughest, like the dandelions, have strong roots, rely on their “friends” for support, and know that if they hang on just a little bit longer, they’ll make it in the end.

The parallels between the hardiest of weeds and writing are obvious, so I won’t restate them here. I’ve hunkered down this winter and spent my time indoors writing, learning from other writers, and whooshing my work out the door. I was thrilled to have two flash essays published in Permafrost, my first article in Wired magazine, and also a service piece in Carolina Woman for Mother’s Day. And because April is National Poetry Month, I collaborated with my friends at Women on Writing to focus on poetry, and pulled together a special 5-Minute Poetry Guide in the monthly newsletter. FYI, it’s also chock full of markets and contests for writers of all genres, so I encourage you to take a look.

Today, however, I am struggling, with an essay that just won’t take off the ground. But I’m going to take a lesson from those dandelions and hang in there.

Write an Abecedarian Poem!

I love abecedarian poems, also known as “ABC” poems, which is a poetic form that dates back to ancient times. They’re so much fun to read and write. And there are so many ways you can write one, such as having every word in the poem follow a sequential alphabetical order, as Robert Pinsky does in his own “ABC”. Or, you can start every line with a sequential letter of the alphabet, as I did in my poem below. I like this latter style very much, because you don’t have to worry about where to break the line — the poem does it for you! So I hope you give the ABC poem a try today.

All We Are

belies what others expect….
can they not see we
don’t care for trifles such as
evening parties with Chardonnay or
foie gras on Melba toast
grumbles about the neighbors
high cost of airfare and foreign travel—
instead we live for the
joy of one last piece of cake
kept in the freezer a little too
long but delicious licked from fingers,
moments with the dogs in the yard
nuthatch on the feeder, look!
oh! now there’s a chickadee
Puss the Minor mews for kibbles
Qu’est-ce que c’est? asks the other cat,
rescue of turtles on the road
stop, there’s another one!
too soon it’s twilight and we
undo the stresses of the day
vanilla breezes, whiff of pine
waft through the window and the
X words in Scrabble fade to
yodels of coyote
Zanzibar can wait.

A Discussion of the Flash Essay

Interested in learning more about writing fast, writing short? According to beloved author Dinty Moore in his preface to The Rose Metal Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, flash nonfiction is “marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voices and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human–and often unanswerable –questions that concern all serious art.”

Join us on Saturday, February 13 at 10 a.m. at a virtual meeting via Zoom of the Burlington Writer’s Club. I’ll lead a brief discussion of the form and a writing prompt so you can pen your own! Register here.

Learn How to Move from the “Slush” Pile to the “Rush” Pile on February 23!

Technology makes submitting for publication easier than ever. At the same time, as more and more writers offer their work, competition for space has never been fiercer. But take heart. In this class, 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 discuss 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.

Interested? Join me on Tuesday, February 23 from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. for a special online 90-minute Zoom workshop hosted by our friends at Charlotte Lit.

Cost: $30 members ($25 early bird rate); $35 non-members

For more and to register, click here.

Bring on the Drama, Mama!

I don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, it lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. Suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back into the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama even more. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her two kids by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank repossesses her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary baking talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, we don’t feel sorry for her. In fact, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer increases admiration for Mary by watching her react to events that might crush the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her react by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the act of adding more tension to our story makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!

Drama is just one of the topics that we’ll cover in my upcoming Charlotte Lit online workshop: Let’s Write a Short Story: Studio. What makes this course different is that every student gets a special “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

New Online Class on the Short Story Starting September 13!

Great news! For several weeks this summer, I’ve been at work with my friends at Charlotte Lit designing an exciting new online class–my first ever. This class is what we call a “Studio,” which means that it offers deeply engaging, content-rich online modules and a combination of pre-recorded and Zoom live course instruction through a really cool platform called Wet Ink. The course runs from Sept. 13 – October 10, which will give students the rare opportunity to draft a full-length short story AND receive detailed feedback from me. It’s unlike any course I have ever taught, so I am really excited!

Most short story workshops throw students into the open sea without a life ring. What makes this course different is that students have the benefit of using a “Story Worksheet” created by me just for this course. As we go along, I’ll be helping students fill out the worksheet step-by-step. This will enable students to thoughtfully construct each of the five essential elements of the short story before writing it. That way, when students actually start writing, which is the next step, they’ll have all the elements in place to captivate their readers, page by page. And they’ll receive help from me every step of the way. These lessons will help students generate even more stories well beyond this course.

During our time together, we’ll also study model stories by masters such as John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Alice Walker, but we’ll also cover excerpts by contemporary authors such as Tessa Hadley and Ralph Hart. I’ll also share how this same technique helped me write “Golden Delicious,” a short story which earned first prize last year in the Starving Writers Competition sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council. Studying the work of other writers will give students the opportunity to learn how to read a short story like a writer, another exercise that will deliver practical dividends throughout their lives. Even better, the principles we learn can easily be applied to the novel as well!

“Let’s Write a Short Story” Studio starts on Sunday, September 13 and runs through Saturday, October 10. Enrollment is limited to just twelve students, so sign up soon to reserve your spot. What are you doing this fall? Raking leaves or fretting about COVID? I hope you’ll be writing along with me.

Learn more and sign up here.

Capture the Moment with Poetry

Writing during these strange and scary times is challenging, to say the least. In the current state of the world, it seems a little selfish to be concentrating on writing essays, (and its ultimate goal, my memoir). At the same time, taking a deeper look at my personal experiences as refracted by what’s going on in the world gives my work both perspective and depth. It becomes more meaningful.

The long-form personal essay is rewarding to write, but it’s also exhausting. Fortunately, I’m balancing this work with other projects, such as planning my upcoming Flash Fiction Workshop for the Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out via Zoom on Saturday, July 18, planning an online Humor Writing workshop for Central Carolina Community College, and, one of my favorite activities, writing poetry.

What I love about writing poetry is that it allows you to take a step back and capture a single moment in your life. There’s no pressure to overthink things or write for pages and pages. You simply jot down the words as they come to you — my little “field notes” are all over the house — and later arrange them in poetic form.

For the month of July, O. Henry magazine kindly published Buster Gets a Bath, which represents one of my more recent poems. Please note that if you were expecting a loftier thought, I apologize. 🙂 Sometimes, like Buster, in the post-bath whirl captured above, you just have to give yourself over to the delicious moment. In his case, he’s just grateful to have survived the bath.

As you continue in your own writing journey, I hope you remember to capture those little moments, reflect briefly on them, and write about them. Yes, it’s a quick fix, it’s instant gratification, but you may find that you’ve just seized a piece of eternity. As they say, the days are long, but the years are short.

So go ahead. Revel in the clover!

Try Out the “Definition” Essay!

For the past few weeks, I’ve had the great honor of helping the son of a dear friend learn about writing essays. The term “essay” actually comes from the French verb “essayer” which means “to try.” And this is the art and the magic of the essay. It’s a sublime model for not just learning how to write but how to think. When we embark on an essay, it is a true adventure. An adventure into “trying out” how we think about the world, life in general, but primarily ourselves.

This exercise has been an adventure for me, too. I’m learning as much as my young friend! We’ve worked our way through more than 10 classic types, such as the “Description” and “Narration” essays (where my friend truly excels), along with “Compare and Contrast,” “Argument and Persuasion,” and “Cause and Effect” essays.

One of our last forms will be the “Definition” essay, which has always intrigued me. Definition essays can delve into the tangible meaning and etymology of concrete terms, such as the words “raspberry” or “house.” What it means, where it came from, where it appears in literature, and its role in your life, etc. But Definition essays can also explore abstract concepts, such as “love,” “courage,” and “enmity.” The latter was the subject of a brilliant essay, “On Enmity” by Mary Gordon, which I recently discovered in the Best American Essays of 2014. You can read an excerpt from Salmagundi Magazine here.

Short definition essays are the hallmark of The Suns “Readers Write,” which is my very favorite section of the magazine, what I always read first. Every month, The Sun provides a term, sometimes concrete (like “Weekends” or “Accidents”) and sometimes abstract (such as “Kindness” or “Fear”) and invites readers to share their own interpretations (nonfiction only). In June Readers Write, they very kindly published my own micro-essay and experience with “Fear.” My piece is about halfway down the column, included with other very unique and highly personal explorations of the word “Fear.”

The great news is that contributors to “Readers Write” receive a year’s subscription to The Sun perfectly free, a pearl of immeasurable value. If you’re interested in reading more and submitting, there’s a wealth of stimulating and evocative themes coming up: “Distance” (July 1 deadline); Consequences (August 1); and “Mail” (Sept. 1).  For more, see https://www.thesunmagazine.org/submit#readers-write

Essay writing isn’t just for young people or college students. At any age, writing essays is one of the best things we can do to cope with today’s complications and challenges. Writing gives us the means to sort out our feelings and “try” to understand ourselves. And it’s okay not to have the answers. In fact, when it comes to writing, especially when you’re starting out, it’s always better not to have the answers.

“I believe in not quite knowing. A writer needs to be doubtful, questioning,” wrote one of my most favorite writers, William Trevor. “I write out of curiosity and bewilderment.”

Happy Bewilderment!