When I’m drafting new pieces, I prefer to do so in silence, thus preventing any distractions from this fragile and mysterious art. However, once I’ve got a decent draft and worked out the kinks, I like to celebrate (!) and lightly edit while listening to music. And being a child of the 70s, I’m drawn to the mellifluous tunes of my generation, everything from Melissa Manchester to the Bee Gees and The Beach Boys. Recently, while working on a new short story, I delved into the soothing music of Rita Coolidge.
Do you have a musical muse? Do they vary according to your mood or the particular piece you’re writing? This is how it works for me. If you have a muse and you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it. Who knows, you might just inspire me even more.
Editing is never as fun for me as writing. And in some cases, it can be as odious as folding fitted sheets or scrubbing out my waffle iron, so anything to help ease this work would be greatly appreciated.
In celebration of April being National Poetry Month, I’m republishing a recent column I wrote for Women on Writing, my favorite community of fellow writers.
With cherry blossoms, warmer weather and longer days, April brings so many reasons to celebrate. For me, the season has brought yet another new dog into my life. Along with Max, a Siberian Husky, and Finn, a beagle-terrier mix, we now have Tulsa Rose (Tulsi for short), a twelve-week-old corgi. With three dogs on my hands, I’m especially grateful that April is also the official month of poetry. Between the endless barking, nipping, and wiggling, I need all the sanity I can get.
In a previous WOW column, I wrote about why writers of all genres should consider writing poetry. This time we’re going to discuss why you should read poetry. As I write this, I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir. However, as I’m sure that the poets among us would agree, the pleasures—and value—of reading poetry cannot be overstated.
Six Reasons to Read Poetry
1. Sound. Reading poetry magically slows down the frenetic pace of life and forces us to concentrate on the very building blocks of writing—words. In truth, poetry is about more than words. It’s about syllables and sound. There’s a reason childhood rhymes such as Mother Goose’s “Hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock…” are so easy on the ears. As adults, we still appreciate rhyme. Who doesn’t relish every single syllable of Sylvia Plath’s famously manic villanelle: Mad Girl’s Love Song? But non-rhyming poetry has its own delights. Who can’t read Poem by William Carlos Williams and not imagine every single step of the cat walking over the jam closet and into the flower pot? Reading poetry is a great reminder of the importance of paying attention to every single syllable.
2. Capture a Moment. Most writers, whether they consider themselves traditional poets or not, possess a poet’s sensibilities. What I love so much about Williams’ poem is the way he preserved forever the elegant stride of his cat in an otherwise awkward situation. When I’m having difficulties on a scene in my own writing, I remind myself to break it down to a single moment, just as Williams did. For example, as my character frets about her new life after a divorce, if I want to convey despair, I will have her observe and reflect on the naked branches of her favorite maple tree in autumn. Conversely, if I want to express hope, I’ll have her ruminate about the nubile leaves of the same tree in spring.
3. Art of Compression. Reading poetry reminds us of the power of brevity. Yard Sale Chair by Robert Cooperman (Rattle #7) tumbles with delightful metaphors that easily transport the reader into a scene that is all-too-familiar but made fresh again. Reading it makes me work a little harder on my own word pictures. Matthew Sweeney’s Five Yellow Roses, another poem I recently discovered, reminds me that the world abounds with little stories. When stumped for new ideas, I simply stop and observe life around me, and as Sweeney did, re-imagine the possible story behind scenes such as a flower delivery.
4. Builds connections. Who doesn’t have the minute or two that it takes to read a poem? The efficiency and sheer accessibility of poetry crosses generations, economics, education levels and more. For example, you don’t have to be a Gen X’er like me to sway to the music at Adult Night at Skate World. (Rattle, February 11, 2023). This lovely poem by Christina Kallery so perfectly recreates the angst of lost love, old friendships and cheesy music of the roller rink that it resonates with readers of all ages. The writers among us can learn from her concise descriptions, clever enjambments, and that unforgettable last line.
5. Fosters empathy. Connections lead to the ultimate goal of any writing—to build understanding and compassion. I challenge you to read Flute in a Far Room by Ruth Moose (Your Daily Poem) without feeling your own twinge of loneliness along with our homesick narrator. And you don’t have to be a dog lover to be moved by the late Jane Kenyon’s After An Illness, Walking the Dog (Poetry Foundation). Reading Kenyon—who, like Moose, elevates the ordinary into the sublime—reminds us that the simplest acts in life are the universal ones.
Ta-da! And now, drum roll please, it’s time for the final reason that you should read poetry. But I’m sure you saw it coming.
6. Improves your writing. Reading poetry is not only fun, it inspires you to be a better writer. For all the reasons previously mentioned and then some. It provides a welcome break from our own work, thus enhancing mental health and happiness. In this sense, poetry is the ultimate “self-care” for writers.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the work I’ve shared in this post, and like Tulsi, will soon sink your teeth into your own favorites. As a starting place, take a look at The Ten Best Poems of All Time (compiled by Marie Seeba for The Strand). And if the month of April leads to you to write your own poems, even better.
Wishing you a glorious spring full of writing and inspiration!
Recently, I was honored to pen the introduction for the monthly newsletter for the dynamic and inspiring Women on Writing community. In the hopes that this short article inspires you, my fellow writers, I’m re-publishing it here.
Love Your Writing, Love Yourself
While no one likes to get a rejection email, I recently received one that wasn’t quite as bad as most. It read: “Unfortunately, your submission is not the right fit for what we’re seeking at the moment, but please know that your story is valid and important. We would love to see your work again Ashley!”
I realize that this message was a form letter, and even the name field was auto-populated, but it had a curious effect on me. This note not only softened the blow, it also made me feel better about my writing. It reinforced my belief that all writers instinctually pull from a collective consciousness of love, sadness, grief, joy, and everything in between. This does indeed make my work, and your work, both valid and important.
As we celebrate the quintessential holiday of love, I urge you to take this opportunity to love yourself and your work. As often as writing exhilarates, liberates, and soothes, it equally infuriates, bewilders and exhausts us. That’s why it’s so important to give yourself permission to write and believe in your work.
To help, I’ve provided six quick steps designed to celebrate both the writer you are and the writer you can become.
1) Remember the time when you first knew that you were a writer. This happened for me in the sixth grade, when I wrote a poem on the first Thanksgiving that my teacher Mrs. Robbins posted outside the classroom. My first “masterpiece” was a little corny, and certainly contained predictable rhymes, but it meant so much that a teacher I admired was proud of me. I want to do this for the rest of my life, I remember thinking. This little victory has sustained and lifted me up ever since.
2) Tell people that you’re a writer. This step is so obvious I almost didn’t include it. But in my career, I’ve met so many people (even at writers’ conferences!) who hesitate to call themselves writers. They scribble under the cover of darkness, never share their work, and don’t trust themselves enough to tell the world about their greatest, albeit secret, passion. It’s time to come clean. “Outing” yourself as a writer will bolster your confidence and open a new world of friends and connections.
3) Celebrate your strengths. Marilyn, a dear writing partner, recently asked me to compile a list of her greatest writing strengths, something that I was delighted to do. She plans to use this list as part of her 2023 writing plan, which in my mind is nothing short of brilliant. You should do the same. Ask someone in your life—either a fellow writer or a reader of your work—what they admire most about your writing. Keep this list handy and refer to it often.
4) Love your writing enough to make it better. While it’s important to celebrate our talents and victories, it’s vital that we look beyond those moments and seek to improve. If you’re naturally good at setting a scene, consider pushing yourself to add more conflict. If characterization is your strong suit, tinker with your descriptions a little more. Or get better at finding just the right word to express yourself. One of my Christmas presents was the game “Wordsmithery” and by playing it, I hope my writing will soon be much more incandescent.
5) Post self-affirmations where you can see them.I’m living my best writing life. I move people with words. I will write a new poem every week. I will achieve my writing goals this year. You can post these by your writing desk or on your computer screen, but you can also stick them up throughout your home. Because we writers know that some of our best writing happens in our head—when we’re not actively writing. For example, I like to post my notes over the cook top, on my nightstand, and even in the mirror. Collect your own affirmations, read them out loud, and repeat often.
6) Challenge yourself by submitting to a more competitive market. What is your dream publication? Have you been putting off submitting out of fear? Doubt? Procrastination? Don’t automatically assume that you’ll get a “no.” Just the act of considering ourselves worthy of our most aspirational markets is an elixir to the psyche. Start submitting to more selective markets and I promise that you will begin to see yourself and your work in a new light.
And on this note, why not start NOW? That’s right. The purpose of this monthly newsletter, is to expose you to exciting new markets. To inspire you to step out of your comfort zone and submit your work to an editor who might be waiting just to hear from you. In this and every issue, we list a selection of outlets ranging from the emerging to the most selective, and none of these publications would exist without your submissions. In fact, as writers, it’s our responsibility to keep these markets alive by feeding them our work.
In “How to Stay Out of the Slush Pile,” which is sponsored by Charlotte Lit, I’ll share practical pointers on getting your first byline (and your second and your third…) as well as the nuts and bolts of submission, including writing bios, cover letters and more. We’ll also do a little bit of writing that you can submit as soon as class ends.
I hope to see you soon, but for now, I hope you have a “sweetheart” of a writing month.
Later this month, my interview with Sarah Elaine Hawkinson of Sasee magazine will appear in the always erudite and inspirational Women on Writing monthly newsletter. (And if you’re not already subscribing, I hope you’ll consider signing up today!) Among other subjects, we’ll discuss how Sasee publishes writing based on a particular theme, such as October’s “Renew & Revamp,” which I covered in my essay “A New Shade of Me.”
Seeking to build your own writing portfolio? If so, consider writing for the season. Whether it’s Christmas, Valentine’s Day or Memorial Day, for example, the holiday provides that instant timely hook editors just love. This year, I wrote several pieces specifically geared to the season. “Modern Conveniences” (Pinestraw, December 2022) was a humorous piece based on a Thanksgiving dinner saved by the voice of my Grandma Wilma and “How to Host a Holiday Party with Style While Living with M.S.” (Healthline, November 28) was written specifically for Christmas.
I don’t always get something written in time, but because the days seem to pass by so quickly, I don’t sweat a passed deadline. In fact, now I try to plan ahead. For example, I’ve already thought of new ideas for Christmas of 2023, based on events of this year. A piece I pitched to an editor for Valentine’s Day didn’t quite make the cut, but she was kind enough to help me figure out a way to make it work for March. So never give up on those “evergreen” ideas, either.
As I learned in classes taught by best-selling author Susan Shapiro, just keep writing. An editor who Zoomed into one meeting advised us to be prepared by keeping a treasure chest of pieces based on our own areas of expertise. Just wait, she said, your time will come. A special event, such as a new study or a new book, may very well spur the need for your work. In the meantime, it doesn’t hurt to set a Google Alert for words based on your favorite subjects.
Thinking ahead to the New Year, I hope these tips help you meet your writing goals for 2023. In the meantime, please have a Merry Christmas, try to stay warm, and enjoy the rest of the season.
In 2018, my husband J.P. and I bought a used lamp that turned out to have a rather macabre history. It entered our lives at a pivotal time, and for a while, I actually thought it might be haunted. Of course I had to write about it. And I did, using this experience as the subject for an essay I wrote for a Women on Writing class with the extraordinary teacher Naomi Kimbell in January 2021. Writers among you may find the story of my essay as interesting as that of the lamp. It is truly a story of how many a “no” will eventually turn into a “yes.”
Because this work was so unusual, I felt that it might be a contest piece. I like contests because they’re usually open to all themes and for the price of the submission fee you often get valuable feedback. Over the past year and a half, I entered an essay I called “The Perfect Lamp” into a number of contests, and while it didn’t win, it was named a finalist in two places, the Lit/South competition and the Barry Lopez Nonfiction Award. Along the way, I also received a tremendous amount of feedback, from contest judges as well as that of my classmates and my faithful Mem-Warriors, Ang and Marilyn (whom I first met in another WOW class). Additionally, other friends read it and contributed their advice.
And I continued to submit, submit, submit……from pitching it to commercial magazines (yes, even the BIG one) to literary publications. I had never thought about it as a podcast but when I saw a market listing for PenDust Radio, a project of Rivercliff Books and Media, I started to think of my essay in a different way — not just as words on a page, but as an experience in sound. Because of the many nuanced elements in the story, it occurred to me that a podcast might be an interesting approach. Lucky for me, Lisa Duff, Rivercliff’s talented editor and publisher, agreed. She also helped me tweak the title, and just in time for Halloween, “The Perfect Lamp” has been reborn as “My ‘Haunted’ Lamp: Murder, Mystery and Remodeling” and is now live as a podcast.
The lesson for us writers is one we know all too well but still bears repeating. Submit, submit, submit! The practice of thinking about our work in its published form opens the door for continuous tweaks and improvements that might never happen without the inevitable rejections and feedback. And the act of sending our revised work out into the world yet again brings powerful rewards all its own. To do so acknowledges that we writers are capable of growth and development, lessons that will bear fruit in the next (and the next and the next) piece that we write.
With the approach of Halloween, I wish my fellow writers all the best in the metamorphosis of their own work. After all, revising and submitting again is very similar to donning a new costume, isn’t it? As my experience proves, I have no doubt that you, two, will see a “yes,” even it leads you somewhere you never expected. Enjoy the ride!
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.
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 ifnothing 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!