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.

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!

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.

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. 🙂

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. 😊

 

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….

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Your Calendar for the Creative Writing Expo on November 14!

Join us for the First Annual Creative Writing Expo!

Thursday, November 14, 2019, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Central Carolina Community College, Pittsboro
Building 42, Multi-Purpose Room

writingDo you dream of seeing your writing appear in print one day?

Would you like to learn more about the one and only Creative Writing Certificate offered by Central Carolina Community College?

If so, please join us on November 14!

INSPIRATION * FUN * FELLOWSHIP

    • 6:30 – 7:15 p.m. – FREE Workshop on the Flash Essay. Due to the popularity of memoir, the short-form (or flash) essay is popping up everywhere. Instructor Ashley Memory, whose work has appeared in O. Henry, Women on Writing, Romantic Homes, Raleigh News and Observer and more, will share what you need to know to pen your own short essays, including THE ONE TIP no serious writer can afford to miss!
    • 7:15 – 8 p.m. – Meet our champion, CCCC Associate Dean Felicia Crittenden and our instructors, hear success stories of current students, and learn about our Spring 2020 Course Offerings, including how you can earn the Creative Writing Certificate!
    • 8 – 8:30 p.m. – Enjoy refreshments and spend one-on-one time with instructors and students. Door Prizes! 🎁

 

The Expo is free and open to the public. Pre-registration is not required, but we encourage you to RSVP by calling the Continuing Education Office at 919-545-8044.

“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing; it can change your life.” – Tobias Wolff

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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.