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!

Welcome to the 12 Stages of Editing

pencil-1891732_1920Love. You love every word of your new essay. It’s just perfect. Only a fool wouldn’t fall in love with it. Then you realize you’re 1,500 words over the limit for the contest you want to enter.

Hate. You hate your essay now. As you read over it, seeking places to cut, you realize it’s not very good at all. Is there anything worth keeping?

Accept. It’s what you’ve got, and there’s no time to write anything new. Or is there?

Start. Watch the cat scramble up the bank and into the woods. She is on the prowl this morning, looking for adventure. Maybe you should start something new.

Accept. Realize you have no energy to start anew. Go back and re-read your essay. It’s the best you’ve got, so work with it.

Prune. You won’t actually cut anything. You’ll just trim, as gently as you prune a bonsai tree. A few words here and a few words there.

Resolve. You will NOT cut the most precious part of the essay. Yes, even if they say that all writers eventually “murder their darlings.” Well, that’s for other people to do. Their darlings are not as precious as your darlings.

Doubt. Or are they?

Cut. Not just prune. You have no choice. Realize that you have to slay those darlings in cold blood. And you better do it right now before you change your mind. Leave that “undo” key alone!

Hate. Your essay isn’t the same at all. It’s terrible. So you put it away. You can’t bear to read it again without those darlings.

Accept. A few days later, bring back your essay, newly shorn of the darlings. Read it again. Realize, gulp, that it may actually be better without the darlings. Leaner, concise, and to the point. What were you thinking?

Love. The world may not love it, but you do. And that’s all that matters. Lick your paws and move on. New ideas are just around the corner….

 

 

 

 

 

Write What Should Not Be Forgotten…

expoThe words of the great Chilean writer Isabel Allende served as our theme last night at the first-ever Creative Writing Expo at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro. And it was indeed a night to remember!

Even with chilly temperatures and icy rain, nearly 30 brave souls gathered for a mini-class on flash essays. I didn’t have a chance to talk personally with every student, but I spoke with many who actually penned something last night worthy of publication and more, even the makings of a memoir. In fact, at least three students brought something with them! Incredible. I never fail to be delighted and astounded by the courage of writers to find the words to tell their stories.

After the class, our champion, CCCC Associate Dean Felicia Crittenden, took center stage to recognize our additional instructors, including Tom Dow, Judith Stanton, June Guralnick, Dolly Sickles, Mary Barnard, and Steve Underwood, all of whom are also offering classes in Spring 2020. And then we were delighted to hear Kim Overcash, CCCC English Instructor and member of the Committee for the Creative Writing Program unveil a scholarship program, which will allow eligible students to attend a class for free once each semester!

cake

Door prizes followed, and then we spent another half hour enjoying fellowship and this luscious cake baked and decorated by Cakes by Elizabeth.

But it doesn’t stop here! If you caught the fever for creative writing, I do hope you’ll register for a Spring 2020 class AND join us on December 5 for the winter open mic night on Thursday, December 5, 2019 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.  The readings will be held at The Joyful Jewel in lovely downtown Pittsboro, NC. Light refreshments will be served!

See you soon!

 

Wobbling the World at Charlotte Lit

charlotte litIf you felt the world wobble on Saturday, October 12, you may have felt the reverberation of laughter, tears, even the tiny buzz of collective endorphins circling the table at the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, Inc. (or Charlotte Lit).

This was the third time I’ve had the pleasure of leading a workshop on flash essays, (previously at Central Carolina Community College and the Joyful Jewel, both in Pittsboro) and Saturday brought a special delight. The cheerful space at Charlotte Lit (a former school), the hospitality of our hosts, and the enthusiasm of the writers who attended brought a vibrant energy that continues to inspire me in my own work.

But it doesn’t end there! On January 4, 2020, the momentum continues, as we explore the submission of our writing (whether essays, poetry, or fiction) to contests and publications. There are still a few spaces left, so I hope you join us and learn more about how to Share Your Writing With the World.

Nothing makes me happier than being around other writers and encouraging them to find their voices. I’m currently polishing up a busy spring schedule of other events, so please continue to visit my Events page for the very latest.

And I’ll share a secret. Shhh….on March 7, I’m doing a brand new workshop at Central Carolina Community College on the most radical technique I’ve ever shared. (Hint: Ever wanted to write a complete short story in just one day?) You might just feel an earthquake with this one.

 

A Day of True Stories at Central Carolina Community College!

There were startup-594090__480giggles. There were sighs. And there were some tears. But overall, Conference Room 103G in Building 42 at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro quaked with joy yesterday. With 11 students, we were almost at full capacity, which says a lot for the power of creative writing.

 

“Who else do you know,” I asked the students, “who would rather be here than outside on a gorgeous day like today?”

To their credit, those 11 brave souls chose to spend six hours writing, reading, and writing again. Writing from real life takes a special kind of courage, and it’s more than a little cathartic.

We wrote of our upbringing, our love stories, our dearest memories and our scariest moments. We even confessed our most embarrassing episodes. Whatever we wrote, we wrote from the heart. Every single word was true. And we did it all in miniature. In most cases, less than 500 words!

Flash essays are suddenly wildly popular, especially on the heels of the surge in flash fiction. But the truth is that little essays have always been in style. Remember those little gems in Reader’s Digest? Life in These United States….All in Day’s Work, etc? Most major publications now want your littlest stories too, from The New York Times to national magazines like Psychology Today to state magazines such as Carolina Country. In fact, the list of markets (including contests) was so vast it took up two whole pages in our handouts!

Want more flash essays? If so, consider joining me for an abbreviated version of this same workshop in Charlotte on Saturday, October 12 at the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts. There’s just one seat left in that class, so don’t delay! We’ll share writing tips and prompts, and I guarantee that you will end up with more than one draft of a saleable essay.

Also, as you polish your stories, look ahead to January 4, 2020, when we’ll hold a special workshop for all writers on Submissions and Contests, also at the Charlotte Center for Literary Arts. Join us, make some new friends, and prepare to share your writing with the world.

Register for The Fabulous World of Flash Essays on October 12.

Register for Submissions and Contests on January 4.

And top secret! Stay tuned for a special  workshop next spring. I’m very excited because it’s an entirely new topic for me, and we’re taking a very unconventional approach. 🙂

I hope to see you soon. Until I do, keep writing and delighting!

 

 

 

Do You Have a Story to Tell? Join us on September 21 for a Flash Essay Workshop!

writingDo you have a funny story you’ve been itching to put down on paper? What about a poignant memory of a first love? The history of a cherished family recipe that you’d like to share? Or did your dog do something that simply cracked you up?

Of course you have a story! Every human being is simply brimming with fascinating true-life tales, and yours is probably even better than the ones I just described. From “Tiny Love Stories” in The New York Times to the food essays in Saveur magazine to family memories in Carolina Country, there are more markets than ever that would love to publish your stories. And many of them will happily pay you for them. Or you could win a big prize!

From my writing experience, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have published essays in places such as Romantic Homes, The Raleigh News and Observer and most recently, in Women on Writing and Mental Papercuts, I’ve learned that there’s a trick to taking an anecdote and turning it into a marketable short-form (or flash) essay. It’s not enough to simply relate your story as it happened. Readers long for what’s known as a “takeaway” – a little nugget of wisdom or insight that they can apply to their own lives. And it’s not hard to mine your stories for this tiny gem; chances are, it’s been there all along!

If you’d like to learn more about how you can turn your life experiences into memorable and compelling flash essays, I hope you’ll join us at Central Carolina Community College on Saturday, September 21 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. We’ll read some of the best flash essays being published today, draft some of our own, and explore the various markets for publication.  Click here to register online or call 1-800-682-8353 (or 919-545-8044) to register over the phone.

As we always do when we gather at Central Carolina Community College in Pittsboro, home of state’s only community college-centered Creative Writing Program, we’ll have a boatload of fun doing it.

Be a Shape Shifter!

little puss
What do you see in the magical coat of Little Puss? Evil snowman or smiling panda bear? This tricky feline is a shape shifter!

What’s your favorite genre, someone recently asked me. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, plays? My answer: All of them!

The longer I write, the more I’ve learned that the various writing genres are not mutually exclusive. The same solid idea that sparked a short story could easily morph into an essay or a poem. Especially if you still have curiosity about the topic. So why limit yourself to just one form? Be like Little Puss, a shape shifter!

Case in point. Shirley Jackson. This renowned writer didn’t just pen short stories and novels; she also wrote essays and even drew cartoons! Here’s another:  Vladimir Nabokov. He wrote stories, novels, poetry and his nonfiction memoir, Speak Memory, is a model for any writer in terms of craft. Dorothy Parker: poetry, stories, book reviews. And Tennessee Williams wrote much of the above and even took playwriting to another level by tackling screenplays.

Shakespeare was also a notorious shape shifter, excelling in every form available at the time. If he lived today, in addition to the plays and poetry, he’d probably dash out a sitcom or two, don’t you think?

Shape shifting is also more efficient. In my case, my essay “Eulogy of a Northern Red Oak” eventually turned into a poem. It’s essentially a condensed form of the same essay but with unusual line breaks and intentional omissions, the sadness of the topic–the loss of our natural habitat–is exacerbated. The poem was named a finalist in the 2019 Poet Laureate Competition and will be published in “Waiting for the Wood Thrush,” my first poetry collection by Finishing Line Press in November.

As I plunder through my old writing projects, I’m continuing to “shift shapes.” Or is it “shape shift” ? Maybe I’ll breathe new life into an old essay and turn it into a short story. And I think I have a poem or two that might work as a short story….humm….let the magic begin!

 

Cat in a Wheelbarrow! Interview on the Muffin

cat in a wheelbarrowToday I’m honored to be interviewed on “The Muffin,” the daily blog of the award-winning Women on Writing site.

Here I discuss the inspiration behind my “onion” essay, my forthcoming poetry collection (“Waiting for the Wood Thrush”) from Finishing Line Press, and my favorite writing tip.

For more and to find out the story behind the picture of the cat in a wheelbarrow, read it here.

Enhance your writing with cherries

cherries.jpgJust today I learned that my flash fiction “Aunt Zelia’s Untested Wild Cherry Love Potion” earned honorable mention in the Fall 2018 Women on Writing Quarterly Flash Fiction Contest!

In this tale of “love gone wrong-maybe gone right-with a little magic”  I tried my best to infuse the language with highly sensuous details. It helps that the story includes cherries, my favorite fruit.

When you want to enhance your own writing with lush details from all five senses, try to include references to things that already inspire you. And when you need to add emotional tension, draw from circumstances that stir up your own angst. It’s easy for me to write about young love because I remember those times so vividly and it’s cathartic (at least now!) to return to that highly charged state of passion and bewilderment.

It’s a little early for fruit, but my fledgling cherry trees are getting ready to unfurl new leaves, which hopefully bodes well for this year’s crop. As they fortify themselves, I’ve been planning an exciting lineup of new workshops this spring and summer. With offerings from poetry to flash essays, I’m hoping you’ll find something to stoke your own imagination. Each workshop is designed to help you cull sensory details from your own lives.

Friday, March 15 from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination at The Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro, N.C. You can find inspiration for poetry everywhere—from the news to artwork to your daily life and memory. We’ll study sample poems and then participate in fun exercises meant to spark your own imagination. Not only will you end up with three new poems of your own, you’ll leave with an inventory of ideas for future works. You may even pen a poem inspired by the stimulating art work on display in The Joyful Jewel and participate in the Visions and Voices Reading on April 14! To register, call The Joyful Jewel, 833-2775, 10:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday or Sunday 12pm-4pm. Cost: $50.

Saturday, April 13 from 9.a.m – 3 p.m. – Flash Fiction Bootcamp II. Think you don’t have time to write? Anybody has time for flash fiction, and by the end of this workshop, you’ll have five finished stories. (This workshop is a continuation of the popular Flash Fiction Bootcamp I) but is open to new as well as returning students and features entirely new prompts and readings. Atten-hut! Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Program in Pittsboro, N.C. Register here. or by calling (919) 545-8044. Cost $50.

Friday, July 12 from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Flash Fiction Bootcamp I. The Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro, N.C. Think you don’t have time to write? Anybody has time for flash fiction, and by the end of this abbreviated workshop, you’ll have at least two finished stories. Bring your favorite writing gear (notebook and pen/pencil or laptop) and get ready for new prompts, new inspiration, and instant feedback. Atten-hut! To register, call The Joyful Jewel, 833-2775, 10:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday or Sunday 12pm-4pm. Cost: $50.

Friday, July 26 from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. – Flash Creative Nonfiction and Essay. The Joyful Jewel in downtown Pittsboro, N.C. Interested in turning your life experiences into flash memoirs or short essays? Explore this exciting  new creative form that brings your experiences to life in a variety of dynamic formats. By the end of this workshop, you’ll have two finished short essays. To register, call The Joyful Jewel, 833-2775, 10:30am-5:30pm Monday through Saturday or Sunday 12pm-4pm. Cost: $50.

Keep checking my events page as I add to this list throughout the season with even more workshops. In the meantime, surround yourself with the things that inspire you the most. Life is short so go ahead and pluck that cherry off the top of your sundae!