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.

Fly to Your Writing Colony

Now that we’re at the end of May, we’ve officially entered summer. Hallelujah! The days are longer than ever, which means our yards and gardens are getting a full dose of sunshine. Our honeybees dance for joy this time of year, and it’s so much fun to watch those little workers fly out every day and bring in nectar for the hive from all the flowers in bloom.

Our bee family has at least 10,000 members and every single one performs a crucial role for the colony—from foragers to guards to nurse maids to royal attendants. And then there’s the queen, whose sole job is to lay those precious eggs that keep the colony chugging along. Nonetheless, her work would be useless without the battalion of workers by her side.

As the markets columnist for the esteemed writing community, WOW! Women on Writing, in October, I wrote an article on the value of feedback from other writers. So I ask, do you have a writing group or “colony” that celebrates and encourages you? If not, this post is for you because I’m providing four tips on how to find one. But even if you do already belong to a colony of your own, peradventure my advice may help you meet even more writing partners. You can never have too many.

Take a class! There is where I’ve met nearly all of my writing buddies; in fact, a class led to one of my current groups, one that we call the “Mem-Warriors.” We met during a WOW class on memoir almost two years ago, and I can’t imagine my life without them.

Hang out online. Sign up for NaNoWriMo. There’s a link to “Community” on this supportive and inspirational online community and you can search for writing groups by region. You can also follow fellow writers on Twitter or Instagram. Authors of all genres are known to use these platforms as well to solicit members.

Ask around. Pick your local librarian’s brain for suggestions. My local writing group, Randolph Writers, actually meets at the library and this is how I learned about them. And if you happen to be a member of a national or state writing organization, reach out to them for suggestions.

Create your own! That’s right. Put the word out to friends and family members that you’re founding a writing group. You can also Tweet about it or post a notice at your library. All it takes is finding one other like-minded “worker bee” and presto! You now have a new colony of your own.

Whatever you do, keep reading. The authors you discover in your journey will also become your writing sisters and they will be with you always. In the meantime, I wish you all success with your writing this month.

For even more writing advice and a list of markets seeking submissions, check out the June issue of the WOW markets newsletter.

Adventures in Wild Strawberries with Ava Gardner

For years, my father lauded the wild strawberry preserves made by his mother (and my grandmother) Wilma while growing up in western Virginia.  Mouthwateringly delicious, both tart and sweet. Mumm….. As a strawberry and jam lover, I imagined myself stumbling onto a field of these elusive fruits and making my own version.

We grow many fruits by choice in the Whale Tail Orchard, from apples to plums to cherries, but we’re also blessed with a munificence of wild blackberries. I knew we had wild strawberries, too, but I never saw more than one pop up among the creeping charlie and violets. And this one had already rotted, clearly chewed up by a critter.

This year, however, I found an entire patch! They had grown on the edge of what I call The Abandoned Sculpture Garden, the site where J.P. stores the steel frames he used for making his models. Not much bigger than peas, my loot fit within the palm of my hand. They’re beautiful, a deep red not often seen in nature, with the familiar scalloped leaves of cultivated berries. However, when I bit into one, my taste buds did not exactly tingle. It had virtually no flavor. The biggest one carried a little sweetness, but it tasted more like a melon.

A little research revealed that my pickings, which sprouted from yellow flowers, are known as “mock strawberries.” The real berries, the ones of my dad’s childhood, came from white flowers. This was the difference.

I could make jam, I suppose, but it would take ten times the sugar, and the scant flavor didn’t justify the effort. Then I thought of North Carolina native Ava Gardner, the legendary beauty and actress. In The Secret Conversations, based on discussions between writer Peter Evans and Ava in 1986, the famed diva said of herself: “She made movies, she made out, and she made a ******** mess of her life, but she never made jam.”

Aha! Maybe this was why. Maybe this farm girl encountered only mock strawberries. I can only wonder. For my part, I won’t be making movies, and nobody will ever call me a barefoot contessa, so for now I’ll just enjoy the appearance of our berries, and imagine what Wilma’s famed preserves might have tasted like. Knowing Ava, she wouldn’t have settled for anything bland, so I’ll just savor the cultivated berries from the local produce stands. And these are simply sublime. Ava would definitely approve.

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.