Find the “Write” Tools to Heal!

Last week Johnpaul built a ramp for our beloved Buster, whose legs are too short to jump into the truck on his own. Guided by a treat at his nose—and the cheers of his brother Finn—Buster quickly mastered the “mountain” like a champ.

This little ramp is so much more than a slab of poplar. It symbolizes what it takes to recover from a traumatic experience that might be holding you back. With the buster“write” tools, and the support of loving friends, you too, can easily triumph over the obstacles of life.

Based on research by Dr. James Pennebaker, “Write to Heal” offers 21 different expressive writing tactics (or tools) in an upcoming 8-week class at the Pittsboro campus of Central Carolina Community College beginning Monday, March 5, 2018.  A pen and notebook is all you need for writing in timed sessions on assigned topics.  Most importantly, you do not share what you write, it’s for your eyes only.  Registration begins in December 2017.  Just search for CCCC Creative Writing Program and click on “View the Online Schedule.”

Accomplished writer and workshop leader Mary Barnard, certified in 2016, has led 3 sessions for cancer survivors at Waverly Hematology Oncology in Cary and one session at CCCC in Spring 2017.  You can make a positive difference in your health and well-being by giving “Write to Heal” a try!  One cancer survivor said she used to dread coming to the clinic, but now she smiles when she walks in the door.

As a reminder, on Saturday, March 3, 2018, I’ll be leading a separate, daylong workshop on Flash Fiction at the same location. We’ll also be providing the “write” tools to turn your experience and ideas into memorable short fiction pieces. Every participant will leave with finished writing and a “do-it-yourself” kit of inspiration for future works.

Hope to see you at one of these events, or both!

 

 

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Where Do You Write?

desk

Melville wrote from a bedroom in his Arrowhead home in Pittsfield, MA.

Where do you write? It’s a question that emerges frequently among writers. Next to the imagination, our own personal space is often the most sacred thing we have.

And the answer varies tremendously. Like Herman Melville, Flannery O’Connor wrote from a desk in her bedroom. And although the Mount included a sumptuous library, Edith Wharton wrote from bed, with her little dogs curled up at her feet!

The ultimate introvert, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote standing up from a podium in front of a blank wall, eschewing the distractions of the outside world. And although Carl Sandburg’s family ceded a front room with an expansive window to him at Connemara, he, too, preferred a smaller interior room at a desk turned away from the window.

As for me, I have tried numerous locations, including a little study in the front of the house, surrounded by the books of my favorite authors. As you can see from the picture below, however, Huckleberry Finn quickly appropriated this space for his own watch tower. And in spite of his literary name, he and I have very different job descriptions.

finnatwindowdog/dôɡ/: a domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, and a barking, howling, or whining voice. It is widely kept as a pet or for work or field sports, unless that work includes writing.

writer/rahy-ter: 1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist. 2) Unlike you are Edith Wharton, a writer’s work space rarely includes a dog.

The same barking and whining that makes our dogs so charming does often, regrettably, interfere with the reflection needed to write. In spite of this fact, many a writer owned a dog (Dickinson, Lord Byron, and Wharton, to name just a few) and these canine friends enrich our lives tremendously. But that is the subject of another post, I am sure.

As for me, I prefer to write at our kitchen table overlooking a north window. Being a bit of a literary hoarder, I find it useful to have plenty of space to spread out notes, reference books, index cards, and the like. I write primarily from my laptop, and I appreciate the occasional glance at the natural world, and the little dark-eyed junco skittering across the fall leaves.

From where I’m sitting, I can hear the comforting hum of the dishwasher or clothes dryer, which reminds me that the “other” work of the day is nearly done. And of course, because writing requires much brain power and therefore frequent sustenance, being close to the pantry is always a good thing.

In addition to having a semi-permanent writing space, I also carry a little notebook wherever I go so that I can scribble notes as the spirit moves me. I’m currently consolidating all of these notebooks, cards, etc., into one bigger notebook so that I can more easily draw connections among assorted scribblings.

What about you? Where do you write?

finn at my feet

Despite our different job descriptions, we always manage to end up in the same space, however.

 

 

Poetry Workshop Just Two Weeks Away!

If you could see my dining room table, you’d think I’m a hoarder. The primary function of such a table should be eating but for weeks now, it’s become a planning station for the upcoming workshop I’m leading on Saturday, March 14 at the Pittsboro campus of Central Carolina Community Collegebluebird-2: Jumpstart Your Poetic Imagination. Scraps of paper, dog-eared books, and notebooks cover the surface, and frankly, I’d be ashamed for you to see it. That’s why instead I’ve posted a picture of a male bluebird in flight against the snow, caught by my husband on Thursday.

In spite of the clutter, I certainly feel like a bird in flight. I’ve been having the time of my life! I’ve been selecting poems by others to inspire us, and I’ll be honest, I’ve had to make some tough decisions. But I think I’m done. All poems are contemporary in nature, and go back as far as Emily Dickinson and Ezra Pound but some were published as recently as 2014.

From sad to joyous to humorous, these poems cover the seemingly simple fabric of life–from eating fruit to reading the news to observing backyard birds. But as we’ll see, these experiences are merely the lens through which we experience life’s complexities–love, death, loneliness, and hope, just to name a few.

The exercises are what I’m working on now and it is my hope with these that participants will understand (or deepen) what I’ve come to know–how the act of reading and writing poetry can help you feel more connected to the outer world. We’ll focus on imagery, have fun with random phrases, and stoke our imagination by making up stories about ourselves. Most importantly, and this is my greatest hope, we’ll have FUN!

I’ll close with a quote. While I’m not familiar with the writer, her words are timeless and set the stage beautifully for our workshop:

“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.” ~Catherine Drinker Bowen, Atlantic, December 1957

Looking forward to seeing you on Saturday, March 14.  If you’ve not signed up, whaaat? It’s okay, it’s not too late. You can easily register today online or by calling 919-545-8044, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. M – F.

One True Sentence

Ashley3Yesterday, I had the honor of leading a writing workshop for the mentees and mentors in an exciting employee development program known as “Believe and Achieve” at the N.C. Office of the State Controller. I did so at the request of my own lifelong mentor, Sherri Creech Johnson, who directs communications for that department. It felt like old times when I also reconnected with David McCoy, the State Controller and former Secretary at the Department of Transportation, where I used to work.

David and I are pictured here with Angela Barrett, program participant and winner of the Writer’s Tool Kit, which includes the famous writing and style guide written by William Shrunk and E.B. White, along with other necessary items such as pencils, post-it-notes, and a very big eraser!

100_3968The kit also includes a coffee mug embellished with the names of some of my favorite literary classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and 1984. (And of course, it also included some chocolate!)

Angela won the Writer’s Tool Kit in a random drawing but she was also a star participant at the workshop. As part of our writing exercise, in just 10 minutes, she and her partner somehow managed to compose an elegant first paragraph that stressed the who, what, when, where and why of a hypothetical office renovation! Hats off to Angela and all the outstanding folks who so graciously honored me with their time yesterday. I write for a living but it’s far more than a vocation for me, so it is always a delight to spend time talking with others who share my enthusiasm.

Our workshop was titled One True Sentence: Ten Tips for Writing Fearlessly. It’s based on a quote from Ernest Hemingway, who once wrote: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” So we talked about the idea that if you start with one true sentence, you’d be surprised how quickly the next sentence will come…and then the next…and so forth. We also covered some very common grammar quandaries and the importance of organization and reading.

Not surprisingly, we spent some time discussing the intangibles involved in fearless writing. These included having confidence in yourself, finding a hero, and working with others to collaborate and revise. As I’ve often reflected, writing can be a solitary journey, but it doesn’t have to be! This point was reinforced by my delightful “reunion” with Sherri, David, and Julie Batchelor  (Deputy State Controller and yet another NCDOT alum).

I don’t have the opportunity to see Sherri as much as I’d like but it’s amazing how quickly we caught up. And even though she didn’t know that I would be mentioning E.B. White (that splendid essayist and the author of Charlotte’s Web), she closed the workshop with a quote from the same man that magically summed up the day. With these words, I’ll close too, hoping that any writing you do connects you with old friends and ends up making the world a better place.

“It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”– E.B. White

More Musings From Flannery on Writing…and Softball!

Lately, due in part to the amazing short story class I’m currently taking led by my friend and teacher Ruth Moose, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the responsibility of the writer. Is the writer supposed to merely entertain? Or is she supposed to teach the reader something as well?

The reason I’m pondering is because I’m in the middle of writing a short story about a middle-aged man who is the self-appointed captain of a city softball team.  Entertaining the reader is easy enough as humor abounds in the circumstances. But the teaching part is a little daunting because if true, it implies that the writer should have a little wisdom of her own to share. Shouldn’t entertaining be enough?

As I mentioned earlier, I’ve embarked on an independent study of Flannery O’Connor, one of my most favorite authors. She died at the too-young age of 39 which makes her musings on the subject of writing all too brief. However, those that exist are all the more poignant because of their paucity. So, when I need a little help, I turn to Mystery and Manners, a collection of prose cobbled from Flannery’s lectures and the like.

The book is chock-full of wisdom but today I’m drawn to this statement in an essay titled The Nature and Aim of Fiction.”If a writer is any good, what he makes will have its source in a realm much larger than that which his conscious mind can encompass and will always be a greater surprise to him than can ever be to his reader.”

What I take from this pithy sentence is that yes, the writer may start with an aim to entertain, but the story that emerges may end up instructing the writer. In the same essay she writes: “It’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb dropped on Hiroshoma affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it.”

As I ponder further, Flannery’s comments strike at the heart of what it is like to be writer. It explains a lot about why we do what we do. Sure, we wish to record our impressions of a softball-obsessed control freak, but we also long to write stories that give meaning to such impressions and in our own way, make sense of the world. This is why, as Flannery also concludes, that writing is so difficult to teach; it’s constantly evolving, even in the best of writers. It’s not easy work but the pay-off is every bit as rewarding as hitting that elusive grand slam!

 

Interview by Creativity Expert Michele Berger

I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by new friend, creativity muse, and fellow writer Michele Berger on her blog, The Practice of Creativity. Her thought-provoking questions inspired me to think more deeply about the journey of writing. And her generous praise (although undeserved!) reinforced yet another joy of the writing life—the wonderful people you meet along the way.

I just hope she takes me up on my offer to make her crepes one day! For more, read For the Love of Crepes and Crime.

This week will be a busy but good one. Tomorrow, I’ll wake up early with a panel discussion on website creation at the N.C. Writers’ Network Fall Conference and on Thursday, I’ll speak to the High Country Writers at their monthly meeting.

Somehow, I hope to sneak in two more indulgences: Mystery and Manners, a book of essays by Flannery and the latest Southern Living, which features one of the best collections of Thanksgiving recipes I’ve ever seen. Food and books, what could be better than that?

Here’s to the weekend; hope yours is a good one!

Life is Just a Bowl of … Tart Cherries

Today I attended a meeting of the Sisters in Crime writers’ club where the speaker was none other than my fellow novelist Rick Bylina. His talk on social media was both informative, and, as always, entertaining. He stressed the importance of blogging, which inspired a great lunch discussion. All writers, myself included, sometimes struggle with this. You’re already a writer, so you have your book(s). So what do you write about in your blog?

Rick wisely advised us to just be ourselves. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you have to blog about the dangers of dangling   participles or how the comma is provoking civil unrest in Denmark. It’s perfectly fine to blog about your cat, the dogwoods you’ve just planted, or even just the kind of day you’re having. There is always a connection to your inner world, the most precious domain of the writer. It was to Rick’s credit that we all left the meeting newly inspired about our blogs.

On that note, yesterday I travelled to a cherry orchard just north of the state border. The purpose was cherry-picking, more precisely, to take advantage of the two-week window in early June when you can pluck those delicious garnets of the cherry world: Montmorency cherries. Unlike sweet Bing or black cherries, Montmorencies are tantalizing tangy; small but nearly perfectly round and so glossy that they look as if each one had been polished by the cherry fairies. Imagine a tree filled with marachino cherries and you’re there! Cocktail time. Pie time. Cobbler time.

Having baked with my share of sweet cherries, which are delicious in their own right, I had always wondered what makes tart cherries so coveted for the pie. Well, just a few hours later, after taking two crumb-topped cherry pies out of the oven, I knew. The piquant, mouth-watering flavor of the Montmorency gives your pie an irresistible kick. It’s the conflict in your novel. The menace in your plot. The poignancy in your happy ending.

Such reflections are the benefit of taking a day away from the writing. You’re also rewarded with a host of new sensory experiences and characters galore, from hippies to cherry rustlers to the two men who nearly came to blows in the parking lot about a little bump-up.

Then there was the wise-cracking orchardess (orchardatrix?) who was pushing the weary cherry pickers to the scale and then on to the cash register. When asked if it was okay to eat the cherries without washing them first (even though we’d been sneaking them all day), she said: “Ain’t nothing wrong with them cherries. If there were, I’d be dead by now.”

 

What Are You Wearing to the Comedy Festival?

My son Dashiel is carrying the family creative torch by opening the South’s largest comedy festival  in Chapel Hill on Thursday night. It’s been his dream to make it as a stand-up comedian and his dad and I are so proud of his drive and dedication.

“So Dash,” I said over the phone today, “Can I help you out with your performance on Thursday? You know, buy you some new clothes or something?”

Here is a long pause, followed by the clatter of dishes and other noise. In between pursuing his dream, Dashiel works as a server at a local chain restaurant and he is at work today. But it feels like we’re back in elementary school and I’m trying to talk him into wearing that new little suit that I bought him.

“No Mom. I’m fine. It’s not like I have to dress up or anything. I’m just wearing some basic college clothes.”

“Can I get you some shoes?”

“Mom, it will be FINE. I’m wearing a pressed shirt, okay?”

I won’t ask him who pressed it. I’ll just trust him. And I’ll try not to cheer too loudly at the show.

Eleven years in the running, the N.C. Comedy Arts Festival was created in 2001 to showcase the art of comedic improvisation to Southern improv students and Carolina audiences. The 2012 festival will feature standup, sketch and improv acts from all over North Carolina performing in 7 local venues during the month of February. Hope to see you there. Read more about Dashiel. 

Easy Reading is Damn Hard Writing…

The title of this post came from American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, in what I’m sure was one of a random sequence of quotes from Mother WordPress meant to inspire us bloggers. The timing turned out to be serendipitous because these words magically appeared in the same week that I’m diving into the revision of Born Again, Dead Again.

As you can see from the flagged copy of my most recent version, much work still lies ahead. The good news is that childhood friend and muse Tonya (the orange tags) and fellow writer and colleague Melissa (yellow tags) have generously contributed their time and energy into a careful review of the book to-date. Another thanks goes to a more recent muse who kindly reviewed Julio’s Spanish for me (¡Hay Dios mio!). All of this feedback is balanced with the gentle counsel of my editor and friend, Judy Geary, whose belief in my work and these characters has been my compass throughout.

Back to Nathaniel’s words. It is indeed amazing how hard the writing process can be, even for those of us who adore it. I can’t tell you how many hours have been spent on a single paragraph, and the number of revisions that a single sentence has endured.

I will say that a recent ally has been an old article in Writer’s Digest (above) by James Scott Bell on the subject of revision. There are many gems in “The Geyser Approach to Revision,” but most notably the following: “In shaping your manuscript…embrace the ebb and flow of a revision process that maximizes both creative surges and quiet analysis.” As many of you know, I have always prided myself on the ability to separate my writer self from the critical reader. I insisted that this was necessary. However, I’m beginning to rethink this belief, thanks to Bell. He reminds us that during revision, you don’t have to deprive yourself of the creativity that inspired you to write in the first place.

Bell’s advice has been liberating and frankly, a bit joyous. Don’t be afraid to overwrite, he says, deepen those details, and draw upon the evocative power of music. These words have helped tremendously, especially when sifting through the comments my friends have so generously contributed. And to Tonya, Melissa, Judy and other friends, I will again concur with the words of Hawthorne. As he said of his own friend’s advice: “I care more for your good opinion than for that of a host of critics.”

Cheers!

 

Advice to a Poet…and All the Writers Out There

A friend of mine recently asked that I share some advice with a friend of his, who happens to be an emerging poet seeking publication. It’s always a pleasure to connect with other writers, so I decided to post my response here, in case that my journey might help someone else.

Dear Poet:

As much as I love poetry, I am a novelist so I’m afraid I don’t have the kind of specific advice that an experienced poet might offer, but I can tell you what I might do if I were you. So please take this with more than a grain of salt.

Because of the explosion of the internet (a market of 2-billion+ users) and the need for quality content, short stories and poetry are very much in demand, so yes, you should continue to pursue publication in online publications. And if you haven’t already, I would definitely enter my work into contests. This is a way for your work to attract attention and to develop a following. It also helps you develop early credentials for your work. Naked and Hungry did not win the 2009 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, but it was one of 7 finalists in a field of 653. So I included this note in all query letters and eventually added it to the bio section of my published book. More valuable than a cash prize? You bet!

Next, if you haven’t already, I would purchase a copy of The Writer’s Market. Pronto! There’s a specific edition available just for poets and other genres such as children’s books, for example. This is the best way to get a bead on all the available markets for poetry and contests.  It also provides guidance on the development of a query letter, which is essential for approaching agents and publishers. This book is how I found my publisher, Ingalls Publishing Group, which specializes in regional and N.C. writers.

Also, you should strongly consider joining a writer’s group, in person or online. It’s a great way to get honest feedback on your work and trade ideas on publication opportunities. And again, you will have an instant “fan base” when you are published. Writers have a long tradition of supporting each other, and I am so fortunate that at least a handful will show up at my readings. They will also write reviews for you, an action that is absolutely immeasurable.

And finally, as you probably know, the publishing industry is undergoing radical changes, with the advent of e-books and the tragic closure of so many bookstores. Printing is an expensive business, which is why the big name publishers rarely take on new writers. However, the upside is that there is more opportunity for the little guys, at least those who are willing to work at it and pursue new markets for their work. Self-publishing should be strongly considered, especially for those writers with an entrepreneurial instinct. If you believe in your work, I would probably explore the idea of self publishing a small book of it and offering it for sale on Amazon. It would be an interesting experience and well worth the exploration, especially if you are doing all you can to develop a following.

In conclusion, due in large part to all the changes in the publishing world, there is no clear-cut path to success. Every writer has their own journey and unique story to tell. It’s tempting to stress about how hard it is when you’re not a big name like John Grisham. But look at the flip side. Think about the freedom that comes with NOT being a big name like Grisham. Can you imagine what it would be like if your publisher had the authority to dictate to you what you should write? Or told you where you had to go and what you had to do to promote your work?

When times are tough, I always find comfort in the words of another writer, yes, a poet, the legendary Maya Angelou. She once wrote:

“The world owes you nothing. Accept that and you are truly free.”

Believe in yourself, blaze your own trail, and have fun!

 

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