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.

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.

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.

New Online Class on the Short Story Starting September 13!

Great news! For several weeks this summer, I’ve been at work with my friends at Charlotte Lit designing an exciting new online class–my first ever. This class is what we call a “Studio,” which means that it offers deeply engaging, content-rich online modules and a combination of pre-recorded and Zoom live course instruction through a really cool platform called Wet Ink. The course runs from Sept. 13 – October 10, which will give students the rare opportunity to draft a full-length short story AND receive detailed feedback from me. It’s unlike any course I have ever taught, so I am really excited!

Most short story workshops throw students into the open sea without a life ring. What makes this course different is that students have the benefit of using a “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 actually 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.

During our time together, we’ll also study model stories by masters such as John Cheever, Shirley Jackson, and Alice Walker, but we’ll also cover excerpts by contemporary authors such as Tessa Hadley and Ralph Hart. I’ll also share how this same technique helped me write “Golden Delicious,” a short story which earned first prize last year in the Starving Writers Competition sponsored by the Franklin County Arts Council. Studying the work of other writers will give students the opportunity to learn how to read a short story like a writer, another exercise that will deliver practical dividends throughout their lives. Even better, the principles we learn can easily be applied to the novel as well!

“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.

Capture the Moment with Poetry

Writing during these strange and scary times is challenging, to say the least. In the current state of the world, it seems a little selfish to be concentrating on writing essays, (and its ultimate goal, my memoir). At the same time, taking a deeper look at my personal experiences as refracted by what’s going on in the world gives my work both perspective and depth. It becomes more meaningful.

The long-form personal essay is rewarding to write, but it’s also exhausting. Fortunately, I’m balancing this work with other projects, such as planning my upcoming Flash Fiction Workshop for the Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out via Zoom on Saturday, July 18, planning an online Humor Writing workshop for Central Carolina Community College, and, one of my favorite activities, writing poetry.

What I love about writing poetry is that it allows you to take a step back and capture a single moment in your life. There’s no pressure to overthink things or write for pages and pages. You simply jot down the words as they come to you — my little “field notes” are all over the house — and later arrange them in poetic form.

For the month of July, O. Henry magazine kindly published Buster Gets a Bath, which represents one of my more recent poems. Please note that if you were expecting a loftier thought, I apologize. 🙂 Sometimes, like Buster, in the post-bath whirl captured above, you just have to give yourself over to the delicious moment. In his case, he’s just grateful to have survived the bath.

As you continue in your own writing journey, I hope you remember to capture those little moments, reflect briefly on them, and write about them. Yes, it’s a quick fix, it’s instant gratification, but you may find that you’ve just seized a piece of eternity. As they say, the days are long, but the years are short.

So go ahead. Revel in the clover!