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.

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.