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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
First Day: Alone in your cozy writing nook, a partridge in a pear tree, youlove 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 youwon’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.