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.

That Fragile Moment

We are always at the beginning of things, in the fragile moment that holds the power of life….we are always at the morning of the world.

I often think of this quotation by the Chinese-born French writer François Cheng, but especially in the morning. This is indeed the most “fragile moment” for me as a writer. I love autumn because it means I can sleep with the windows open and wake up to the sounds of dawn: the cry of a blue jay or the jingle of our wind chimes.

This is the time when I feel most compelled to slip out of bed and into the pages of my journal. It’s paramount that I do so quietly, before waking the dogs and before the rituals of the day intrude, even breakfast.

Here, staring out the window at my desk, I can revel in the day’s first light, that gentle shaft of sunlight through the trees. Sometimes a deer will surprise me and we find ourselves staring at each other, transfixed, wondering who will look away first. When the window is open, I can hear the distant crow of roosters, even the salubrious moo of cows from miles away. This is when the gentle buzz of inspiration floods my senses.

This “fragile moment” is when I am able to conjure up the most creative metaphors for a poem or even finish a paragraph of prose that had troubled me the day before. New structures and themes for my work often reveal themselves now. I also am privy to a special kind of clarity that brings perspective. The work that is most pressing always emerges, and I gain the single-mindedness needed to finish it.

However, if just the tiniest sliver of the rest of the world emerges, say my husband J.P. rises and turns on the television or if a neighbor decides to roar down our common driveway, the spell is suddenly broken. Now I am lured too easily into other rituals, and my “fragile moment” slips away forever.

You may know this already, and you may be even more disciplined than me about seizing these precious nuggets of time, but if not, try it yourself. Climb out of bed early one day and ignore your normal to-do list. Go to your favorite writing perch, grab a notebook or your laptop, and let your imagination wander. You’ll be surprised at how much this “unstructured” time contributes to the larger plan. You may even experience a whisper of serenity, which will seep into the rest of your day, and make that to-do list of other tasks less daunting. Better yet, you may experience a creative rebirth and the power to begin again, every single day.

Consider joining me on October 12 at 6 p.m. for Fueling the Fires: Journal as Inspiration, a special Zoom Workshop hosted by Charlotte Lit. In this session, I’ll lead a discussion on how journaling can help us tap into that fragile moment and transform our scribbles into polished stories, essays, or poems. Hope to see you there!

In Praise of Wild Things

I used to rage against all the weeds in our yard. However, a few years ago I accidentally sprayed pesticide on a snail and I’ve hated myself ever since. So today, when I see a healthy patch of knotweed outside my writing window, I think of the little creatures–crickets, frogs, lizards–who might be thriving inside the oasis of green.

Recently, my embrace of wild things served as the theme for an essay about the intersection of gardening and writing (“Lost in the Weeds”) for the September-October issue of Poets & Writers. In other writing news, earlier this month I was stirred by actress Christina Applegate’s announcement of her M.S., and wrote a guest essay for the The Independent.

Where are your latest obsessions lurking? They may be in a journal entry or other assorted jottings. Let’s find out! Consider joining me on October 12 for Fueling the Fires: Journal as Inspiration, a special Zoom Workshop hosted by Charlotte Lit. In this session, I’ll lead a discussion on the many options available for journaling as well as techniques for transforming these scribbles into polished stories, essays, or poems. Hope to see you there!

Happy Independence Day – Liberate Yourself from Writer’s Block!

All writers suffer from the occasional bout of writer’s block. It’s our common demon, our scourge, and sometimes it even feels like a curse. But I’m here to help! In honor of our nation’s birthday, I challenge you to push through that impasse into the blue sky of freedom. Ahh!

In addition to providing 5 block-busting tips in the July column that I write for Women on Writing, I also interview my writing teacher and New York Times bestselling author Susan Shapiro, about her new memoir, The Forgiveness Tour: How to Find the Perfect Apology. Susan epitomizes talent and persistence, and you’ll be inspired by her humor and words of wisdom.

Liberate yourself from writer’s block by trying one (or more) of these handy tips:

1. Stop! An empty page is where all good stories start. But if you find yourself paralyzed by writer’s block, just stop. Don’t force yourself to write. You won’t like the result, and you may even, ahem, start to hate the work and beat yourself up. Before this happens, walk away. In fact, forbid yourself from writing for the next 12 hours. When I take a forced break, I end up missing it so badly that I often sneak back before my self-imposed suspension is over! The late Toni Morrison offered these wise words: “I tell my students there is such a thing as ‘writer’s block,’ and they should respect it. It’s blocked because it ought to be blocked, because you haven’t got it right now.”

2. Regress. Try to recover that same state of mind that sparked your imagination at the outset. When I struggled with a recent essay, I found myself flipping through a 1859 beekeeping treatise that inspired me in the beginning. The author and his charming prose reminded me of why I wanted to write this essay. If you reach an impasse, think back to the original inspiration for your idea—whether it was written by someone else or words from your journal. Stepping back into the past may actually help you go forward.

3. Read. If you’re working on a novel, pick up a nonfiction book. If you’re working on a nonfiction book, try reading a poem or short story. I actually have a shelf of reference books on everything from sailing to sewing that I’ll thumb through when I reach a concrete wall. It’s very liberating to read Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs when I’m working on something very different. Transporting myself mentally to a lavender field soothes my spirit and rejuvenates my writing mind.

4. Impose a Deadline. This sounds harsh I know, but nothing concentrates your mind like a looming deadline. If you’re floundering on a loose-ended project, get out the calendar and give yourself an official “due date.” Writer Jodi Picoult puts it more bluntly. “I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it – when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands.”

5. Say Adios to the Perfectionist! Quash that inner critic who tells you that every word must be flawless. Let your writing flow without interruption. If necessary, start with the main idea and express it in baby words. This is what I do. There’s plenty of time to come back later and smooth it out. Jennifer Egan says it better. “I haven’t had writer’s block. I think it’s because my process involves writing very badly.”

Another way to conquer writer’s block is to read through the vast list of markets actively seeking your work. In fact, without your contributions, these magazines, websites and other publications would face a “publishing block”! Help them out—and crush your own deadlock—by using one of these dynamic listings as a springboard for your imagination.

Good luck with your writing this month, and here’s hoping that your July simply sparkles, with both inspiration and productivity.