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!

Try Out the “Definition” Essay!

For the past few weeks, I’ve had the great honor of helping the son of a dear friend learn about writing essays. The term “essay” actually comes from the French verb “essayer” which means “to try.” And this is the art and the magic of the essay. It’s a sublime model for not just learning how to write but how to think. When we embark on an essay, it is a true adventure. An adventure into “trying out” how we think about the world, life in general, but primarily ourselves.

This exercise has been an adventure for me, too. I’m learning as much as my young friend! We’ve worked our way through more than 10 classic types, such as the “Description” and “Narration” essays (where my friend truly excels), along with “Compare and Contrast,” “Argument and Persuasion,” and “Cause and Effect” essays.

One of our last forms will be the “Definition” essay, which has always intrigued me. Definition essays can delve into the tangible meaning and etymology of concrete terms, such as the words “raspberry” or “house.” What it means, where it came from, where it appears in literature, and its role in your life, etc. But Definition essays can also explore abstract concepts, such as “love,” “courage,” and “enmity.” The latter was the subject of a brilliant essay, “On Enmity” by Mary Gordon, which I recently discovered in the Best American Essays of 2014. You can read an excerpt from Salmagundi Magazine here.

Short definition essays are the hallmark of The Suns “Readers Write,” which is my very favorite section of the magazine, what I always read first. Every month, The Sun provides a term, sometimes concrete (like “Weekends” or “Accidents”) and sometimes abstract (such as “Kindness” or “Fear”) and invites readers to share their own interpretations (nonfiction only). In June Readers Write, they very kindly published my own micro-essay and experience with “Fear.” My piece is about halfway down the column, included with other very unique and highly personal explorations of the word “Fear.”

The great news is that contributors to “Readers Write” receive a year’s subscription to The Sun perfectly free, a pearl of immeasurable value. If you’re interested in reading more and submitting, there’s a wealth of stimulating and evocative themes coming up: “Distance” (July 1 deadline); Consequences (August 1); and “Mail” (Sept. 1).  For more, see https://www.thesunmagazine.org/submit#readers-write

Essay writing isn’t just for young people or college students. At any age, writing essays is one of the best things we can do to cope with today’s complications and challenges. Writing gives us the means to sort out our feelings and “try” to understand ourselves. And it’s okay not to have the answers. In fact, when it comes to writing, especially when you’re starting out, it’s always better not to have the answers.

“I believe in not quite knowing. A writer needs to be doubtful, questioning,” wrote one of my most favorite writers, William Trevor. “I write out of curiosity and bewilderment.”

Happy Bewilderment!

How Embracing “Rest” Helps Us “Work” Better

Today, as I observed the tender new shoots of grass emerging from red clay, I was reminded of the day I sowed the seed. Two weeks ago, I experienced one of the most productive days of my working life as a full-time writer. Not only did I rewrite the troublesome ending of a long-form essay, I drafted a completely new flash creative nonfiction piece, and I reviewed a short essay by a friend. Knowing the next day would bring rain, I also planted a patch of new grass and later, journeyed to the grocery store for a week’s worth of essentials.

How in the world did I manage to accomplish so much writing while doing so much else? I’ve devoted entire days to writing before and didn’t accomplish even half that much! What I remember most about that day was how I felt as I worked. Never have I felt such brio, such vigor and passion for my writing. It wasn’t until I started reading “Rest” by Alexander Soojung-Kim Pang that I understood why.

Here’s what was different about that day:

1) I got an early start. Rising early in the morning and getting to work first thing was a practice of the most accomplished writers, says Soojung-Kim Pang, from Anthony Trollope to Edna O’Brien.

2) I limited my writing time. I knew I needed to plant grass before the rain, so I had only two hours to write. Therefore, instead of scrolling through email and Twitter, I had to set to work immediately. As Soojung-Kim Pang says, this focused concentration is also something that distinguishes the masters, especially Olympic athletes.

3) I engaged in sustained physical activity. Planting grass and working in the yard for a few hours wasn’t heavy labor, but it gave my active mind a “rest” and let my subconscious mind noodle around the revision questions on my mind. The powerful connection between physical activity and mental exertions is long supported by scientific research, says Soojung-Kim Payne.

4) I returned to my writing later that afternoon excited and motivated. There was no drudgery this time, as my earlier sustained effort rewarded me with something worth coming back to. I accomplished all of the writing tasks on my list!

5) I slept soundly that night. Although this wasn’t one of my goals for the day itself, a side benefit was how I slept that night. Because of the combination of mental concentration AND physical exertions, I slept better than I had in a long time. This rest, in turn, helped me write better the next day.

In a nutshell, and this was before I read “Rest,” I had accidentally engaged in all of the activities recommended by the author. I “layered” periods of work and rest, detached myself from distractions and when I did work, whether it was sowing grass seed or writing, I immersed myself fully in my work. Now that I’ve discovered this wonderful book, I’m learning even more about how this “accidental discovery” can improve my writing as well as my life. For one thing, the grass is much greener over here!

“A life that focuses on what matters most,” concludes Soojung-Kim Payne, “makes time for rest, and declines distractions may look simple on the outside but from the inside it is rich and fulfilling….Deliberate rest helps you live a good life.”

Clacking Away in the COVID-19 Quarantine….

Typos? No problem! Just keep writing…..(Pictured: A 1957 Smith-Corona Electric Portable typewriter)

How are you spending your time these days? If you’re like me, you’re alternating between enjoying brief moments in the sun and trying to write your way through this pandemic.

Today, a terrific advocacy group dedicated to redefining narratives around disability, mental health, and chronic illness kindly published “How a Writer with Multiple Sclerosis Finds Unexpected Gratitude with an Antique Typewriter,” which is my story of how I’m using the extra time to find new ways to think, and hopefully improve my writing.

I’ve set a goal of writing two new poems each day on an old typewriter, and I have to say, it’s very refreshing to just clack away and not worry about typos or grammatical lapses. The kind of things best left to my inner critic, who takes an extended coffee break during these times.

In other news, I was recently honored to be asked to write a monthly marketing column for Women on Writing, my favorite writing community. This column is focused on writing inspiration and market listings for writers of all genres, from poetry to fiction to memoir. The newsletter is free, and if you’d like to start receiving it, you can easily subscribe by entering your email address into the box on the right at the top of the website.

Additionally, I’m taking a training course on the technicalities of teaching online classes, something I’d like to try in the future. As much as I adore leading in-person classes at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, these times cry out for a new way for people to learn from the safety of their homes. And I’m all for that. It might be a stretch for me, but as I’ve learned by experimenting with my typewriters, it’s always good to branch out in some way.

Please stay safe (and sane), and of course, keep telling your story!

A Writer’s Guide to Managing COVID-19

At Whale Tail, the dogwoods tremble with nascent blooms on the cusp of unfurling. For me, especially now, in the face of coronavirus news that has gone from sobering to frightening, these trees symbolize hope and faith. Even as the Black Plague devastated Europe in the 14th century, the “whipple-trees” (as dogwoods were known back then) continued to bloom, reminding us that there is a greater power at work in the world.

As we struggle to cope with what this pandemic means for our daily lives and future, it’s more important than ever that we writers dive deep into our souls and pull out insights that can help ourselves and others cope and heal.

1.  Keep writing! We are so fortunate that the nature of our work – which requires its own form of self-isolation – means we can do it without worrying about making others sick. In fact, you could argue that it is nothing less than our job as writers to do our very best to lift each other up. And we don’t need computers. A pen and paper are just fine.

2. Send your words out into the world. There are so many ways to do this. There are countless markets advertised through the N.C. Writer’s Network, Submittable and Freedom with Writing (three of my favorite sources) seeking your work right now. And they need your words more than ever. Even if you don’t formally submit, you can still update your blog, text a poem, or mail a letter to a friend, just as I did today.

3. Read, read, read. I’m currently reading (and re-reading!) my favorite essays from America’s Best Essays series and online essays posted through Memoir Monday). I’m also savoring poetry – Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver and the lighter work of Billy Collins are currently helping me cope. Reading is sustenance, every bit as powerful as food and water.

4. Stay connected with each other. Being solitary by nature, we writers naturally limit social events, but this crisis makes our few gatherings all the more precious. I have a number of traditional workshops listed on my Events page that are on hold right now, out of necessity. But this doesn’t mean we can’t convene through phone, postal mail, email and other online connections such as social media. By the way, I’m investigating the possibility of offering online classes in the future. As a student, I’m a big fan of these classes myself, so it makes sense to explore this option.

5. Try this writing prompt. Having trouble finding something to write about? Choose the smallest thing in your life that brings you joy right now. Is it the ladybug you saw this morning climbing up the deck chair? Is it last summer’s Gerbera daisies that somehow survived the winter and are now emerging from the pot? Maybe it’s the sight of your dog sunning himself on the porch…. in short, write about whatever it is that makes you happy right now! You might have more blessings than you know. 🙂

Are You Ready to Write a Short Story?

We’re counting down the days until Saturday, March 7, the day of my special workshop, “DIY – Write a Short Story in a Day,” at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, and I could not be more excited!

Some people say that the best way to write a short story is to take advantage of that first burst of passion and write it all at once. We know that this is how Shirley Jackson conceived and wrote her beloved and intriguing story, “The Lottery,” and I suspect that many other writers use this same approach. We’re going to try this method ourselves, with the help of a one-of-kind short story writing kit I designed just for this class. From story triggers to the five essential elements of a classic short story, our students will have just what they need in one convenient (and cute!) little box. Everything but the typewriter (or pen and paper, if that’s your preference)!

I’m currently assembling all of the kits, and being an amateur “crafter” of sorts, I’m relishing every moment. When it comes to sewing, for example, it’s very important for me to have all of my materials — machine, rotary cutter, thread, fabric, thimble, even my ripper– by my side. Why should writing be any different? My hope is that our students will take these “tools” with them beyond the class and use what they learn to generate and pen an endless array of short stories.

There are only 2 slots left in the class, so if you’re interested, don’t miss out! You can easily sign up by registering online or by calling (919) 545-8044 during regular business hours.

And if you can’t get enough writing inspiration, on April 25, I’m leading a workshop on Share Your Writing with the World – Revision and Submission, also at CCCC, which will be the perfect follow up to our March class. We’ll talk about markets for short stories and more, including flash fiction, creative nonfiction and essays, and poetry.

Hope to see you soon!

You’re Invited to Fall in Love with Poetry on Valentine’s Day!

literature-3060241_1920I love poetry for many reasons, but what I love most is how poetry can elevate the “ordinary” into something quite sublime. In fact, the most profound poems often come from everyday life—hearing the wood thrush, growing apples, or just the act of slipping on your favorite old shoes.

If you agree, and would like to learn more, please join us on Friday, February 14, 2020 at 9:30 a.m. until noon for a special workshop at the Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro. What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day!

We’ll study poems by Ted Kooser, Jane Kenyon, Donald Hall, beloved local favorite Ruth Moose and more. Then, using wild new prompts, including our surroundings in the stimulating atmosphere of the Joyful Jewel, you’ll have a chance to pen at least three new poems of your own. You’re also guaranteed to leave with an inventory of ideas for many more!

So bring your favorite writing gear and get ready to fall in love (again and again!) with poetry.

Where: The Joyful Jewel in Pittsboro, N.C., at 44-A Hillsboro Street, Pittsboro, NC 27312.

Cost: $35. To register, visit The Joyful Jewel in person or call (919) 883-2775.

I hope to see you soon!

Biscuits Help Each Other Rise!

biscuit1On Saturday, I had the pleasure of spending my morning with an enthusiastic and especially curious group of women writers at Charlotte Lit. What a vibrant organization! I can’t say enough about the leadership and students at Charlotte Lit. They have built an enviable powerhouse of writing, and are truly dedicated to helping each other succeed.

The topic of our discussion was how to share your writing with the world. While self-publishing continues to be a vital force in the writing world, no question, I believe it’s still worthwhile to submit your writing for publication by others–whether to contests, commercial or literary magazines.

Why? First, you’ll get to know so many other wonderful people, whether at public readings or just by getting to know them by reading their work. You’ll also meet talented editors, who will happily help your shape your work and promote your writing. And among all your new writing friends (at Charlotte Lit and beyond), you can help each other. As Martha Stewart once said, quoting another baker whose name escapes me, the reason we put biscuits together in a pan is because they help each other rise.

Second, and equally important, is that when you write for publications and contests, you also grow as a writer. Yes, you have to be brave enough to stand the occasional rejection, but you can learn so much about yourself and the wider world of writing, that it’s well worth it. The motivation to improve will invariably result in acceptances, I promise, and by sharing your words and experiences with the world, you’ll expand your community that much more. And, ahem, at the risk of repeating myself too much, we know that biscuits help each other rise, right? 🙂

Have you submitted yet? If you haven’t, give yourself a New Year’s goal of submitting one piece of writing at least once every month in 2020. And remember, in the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe: “Never give up. Because that is just the place and time where the tide will turn.”

In the meantime, I encourage you to lean on each other for help and accountability. Choose a “submission buddy” and check in with that person regularly just to make sure you’re meeting your goals, if nothing else. Share your writing with each other and ask for suggestions on where you might submit your work. Most importantly, celebrate each other’s successes.

And if you missed Saturday’s workshop, no fear, I’ll be offering an extended version of the same one (with even more writing time and new markets for publications!) at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro on April 25.

Remember, I am rooting for you. Because, okay, last time, I promise. Biscuits help each other rise. 😊