Nothing Ever Happens Around Here

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 if nothing 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.

Meet Baby Copper–just 5 days old and 25 pounds!

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.

Meet Max, my new work-out routine!

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.

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?

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.

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!

Scooting Through the World of Submission

Today I revised and bundled up three short humorous essays, took a deep breath, and submitted them for publication. Who knows what will happen, but it always feels so liberating to take the initiative. Submitting also helps keep hope alive. For this reason, I made a promise to myself long ago that whenever I hear back from a submission, good or bad, I immediately send something else out.

Rejections can sting, and many of you, I’m sure, like me, have had your heart broken before. You may also have A BIG REJECTION THAT STILL CANNOT BE DISCUSSED. But that’s just like life. C’est la vie. The good news is that for every rejection or two, there is bound to be an acceptance just around the corner. And you wouldn’t know it if you didn’t take a chance in the first place.

Wednesday was a nutty day for me, one that found me mired in muck while trying to plant grass, getting a humdinger of a spider bite, and accidentally tossing my smart phone into the burn barrel (thank goodness for Google’s Droid “My Device” locator). I sure needed some good news!

And wasn’t I thrilled to hear from Debra Simon, esteemed publisher and editor of Carolina Woman. She called to tell me that I won “1st Place” in their annual writing contest for my essay, A Tale of Two Tumbles. A prize that came not only with publication but a Razor E Prime premium electric scooter! Can you believe it? A scooter is not something I would have ever thought to ask for, but as serendipity goes, it turns out to be exactly what I needed! It was also thrilling to see (and read work) by my other writer friends, Jane Rockwell, Ruth Moose, Carol Phillips, Alice Osborn, and more who also placed in the contest. And many of these friends, I’m so proud to say, came from my long association with the Central Carolina Community College Creative Writing Program.

Carolina Woman has been connecting women like us for 27 years now–publishing articles of interest and other quality content on food, pets, fashion and more for women in the Triangle and beyond. And their Annual Writing Contest is a “must-enter” for any serious writer for both the prizes and the recognition. I have entered many contests in my life but this is one of the best! NO ENTRY FEE and REAL PRIZES. If you like Carolina Woman as much as I do, please, please “like” them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter. You’ll be glad you did!

As for me, I’ll be “scooting” back into my growing sea of works-in-progress. This little whoosh — like the childhood friend pushing you on the swing to get momentum — is even more incentive to jump back in. And it all starts with the courage it takes to get those words on paper. You can do it!

Wishing you all the best as you write and delight!

Braving the Slush Pile in Pittsboro!

Slush PileOur mission was brutal. The email from Al Manning, the head of Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out went something like this:

Pretend you’re an editor of a prestigious publishing house. It’s Friday afternoon. You’ve had a busy week and you’re still staring at a stack of unsolicited manuscripts–the dreaded Slush Pile. You’re tired and you want to go home. You’ll raise your hand as soon as you hear something that would cause you to reject the manuscript in front of you.

Yesterday I had the honor of serving as a panelist (along with writers Ron Voigts and Judith Stanton) at the 3rd Annual Slush Pile event at the Pittsboro Writers’ Morning Out meeting. As we listened to the 300 words submitted anonymously by the brave ten writers who participated, we agreed, disagreed, and agreed to disagree on the elements that would cause a busy editor to move to the next manuscript in the pile.

And that’s what editors do. What I liked most about a manuscript didn’t necessarily appeal to the other panelists and vice versa. It goes without saying that writing submitted to an editor shouldn’t contain typos or grammatical errors; these are easily caught by a diligent proofreader. We truly didn’t see many of these–the majority of the manuscripts we reviewed were quite polished and free from pesky errors of this nature.

To help, I’ll share what resonated the most with our panel in terms of style. The manuscripts we “rescued” from the slush pile shared four basic elements:

  • Strong opening–and this includes the title!
  • Engaging and unique characters. What’s your character’s point of view?
  • A good blend of exposition and action. And by action, I also mean dialogue.
  • Conflict and tension. What’s at stake for your character? Why should we care?

Above all else, if you’re writing, submitting, and braving a very real slush pile, it’s most important that you NEVER despair. Don’t give up. Editors are, after all, human and have their own peculiarities as far as taste and style. So, if you find yourself drifting in a slush pile, pull out that manuscript days (or weeks!) later, and view it with fresh eyes.

And as you revise your work and prepare to share it with the world, please consider joining me for your choice of two separate workshops in 2020 on the subject of submission. We’ll talk about revisions, cover letters, markets, and much, much more.

Check out my Events page for more information and how to register.

 

Creative Writing Events Near You!

Are you wriwritingting short stories? How about creative nonfiction or true-life essays? And let’s not forget about the third leg of this literary stool — poetry! Are you ready to submit your work?

No matter what you’re writing, revising or preparing to submit, you’re bound to find a local special event that may help you in your creative endeavors, from readings to classes, talks, and more! And some events are free! By attending, you’ll also meet other like-minded writers who can help you in your journey. Writing is by nature a solitary act, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one.

As a special note, in addition to teaching a class at Central Carolina Community College this fall, I’m also honored to be presenting two workshops at Charlotte Center for Literary Arts, Inc. later this fall and in January. I look forward to working with and meeting writers in the Charlotte metro area.

Hope to see you at one of these events. In the meantime, keep writing and delighting!

Click here to view the latest list of Upcoming Events.

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!

 

Seeking Last-Minute Gifts? Give Someone the Gift of Creative Writing!

Wondering what to give that “certain someone”? Perhaps they’ve seen it all or they’re notoriously persnickety and whatever you get them, you just know they’ll be returning it.

Consider giving the gift of creative writing and signing them up for a Spring 2015 class at Chatham Central Community College! And if you happen to be that “certain someone” yourself, sign yourself up.

Why?

1. The college’s unique Creative Writing program on the Chatham County Campus is the only Continuing Education program of its kind in the state. And we have something for everyone—from 10-week classes or one-day workshops in poetry, fiction and non-fiction led by celebrated authors Ruth Moose, Ralph Earle, and Judith Stanton, just to name a few. Considering what you’ll get in return, the price is nothing short of a bargain.

2. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. You’ll make new friends worth knowing! And the wisdom you pick up will be priceless. Warning: these classes are addictive.

3. You’ll have a new hobby worth bragging about. Instead of things like “I learned how to change the oil in my car” or “I learned how to julienne a carrot” (as important as those things are), you’ll get to say things such as “Just finished up a flash fiction piece about my day at work” or “Wrote a poem today about the cardinal in my yard.”

4. You’ll never look at life the same way again. If you already enjoy creative writing, you’ll know what I’m talking about. But if you’re a newbie, the opportunity to share your unique experiences with others will bring you boundless joy. You’ll feel more connected to the world and the people around you.

5. Need inspiration? Okay, here’s Warning #2. Here comes a shameless plug. Sign up for a workshop lead by yours truly!  It’s called “Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination: Stop, Look, and Listen.”  You can find inspiration for poetry everywhere – from reading newspapers and periodicals to mining your daily life and memory. In my workshop, we’ll improvise on sample poems written by other poets and participate in fun and collaborative exercises meant to spark your own imagination.

For more information, check out the Spring 2015 Creative Writing Course List for Chatham Central Community College. Register today by calling 919-545-8044, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F.

Hope to see you there!