Wednesday, May 09, 2012

All good things...

Sometimes the better part of a fight is knowing when to walk away. I’ve been in a pitched battle with myself since I started the full-time (forty hours per week) contract job at the end of February. Since that time, I’ve written exactly zilch other than my blog posts. And after last week’s lame effort, I realized I was doing my readers and myself a disservice. I was writing for a deadline, not for a purpose. In the best of cases, those two converge. But not for me, not recently.

I’ve been beating myself up over not writing, which only makes everything worse. What has normally been my life, my escape, has become drudgery and a bludgeon. No more. As of today, I’m giving myself permission not to write. In fact, after this post, I’m not allowing myself to write anything (other than the dreaded paycheck-motivated paper) for at least a week. No WIP edits, no new stories. And no blog posts.

Instead, I’m going to read. Not the screens full of online material I scroll through daily, but books. Real books. I’m going to lose myself in literature. I’m going to read the latest Grafton novel that’s been collecting dust on my shelf for months. I’m going to read whatever rises to the top of my teetering TBR pile, and then I’m going to read some more. I may even give myself a break from social media entirely and devote those mindless hours to still more reading.

What a delicious prospect. I can’t remember the last novel I actually savored, the last non-fiction I read that didn’t require a review or abstract for a class or client.

During that week, I’ll also return to meditation. I’ll find my center, calm the frenzy that fills my brain. When the noise subsides, I’ll consider my lost love for writing, my flickering creative spark. I’ll figure out how to rekindle the flame, or maybe it will spontaneously combust when I stop smothering it with anxiety.

I’ll consider why I love to write, why I must write, and why I haven’t been able to write. I’ll reaffirm my goals, maybe set a few new ones.

I expect I’ll return to my blog eventually, but who knows? I may find my writing veering off in a new direction. Some would say neglecting a small but growing band of loyal readers is career suicide. I say they deserve my best, and I can’t give them that in my current state. After I recharge and refocus, I’ll see where my words take me.

When that happens, I hope you’ll come along for the ride. Thanks for your readership, and for understanding.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012


For the first time in sixteen months, Wednesday is nearly over and I haven’t posted a blog entry. Such is the state of my writing life these days.

My life in general, actually. I’ve lost what little control I usually manage to maintain. I blame it on the fact that I’m on a 40-hour-a-week contract job, but deep down, I know that’s a lame excuse. How did I ever work full-time and raise two kids? I honestly don’t know. Dust coated the furniture long before Hubby started floor tile demolition in the entryway. Laundry sits unfolded in a basket. I scramble to vacuum once a week – not nearly enough with three dogs in residence. We eat out far too often because I’m simply too exhausted to come up with menus, shop for groceries, and actually cook. As a result, our healthy-eating lifestyle, so hard to adopt in the first place, has fallen apart. And my body is rebelling, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Other writers manage to work and raise a family and keep house and produce manuscripts. These days, I can’t even squeeze out a few hundred words for a blog. The worst part is that for every day I don’t write, it’s harder to write the next day. Or the next. The empty pages stack up in my mind like a brick wall, sealing me in behind my own fears and uncertainties. I thought I discarded the notion of writer’s block, absorbed all the little tricks we writers use to keep going, but apparently not.

I’m well and truly stuck.

Well-meaning writer friends parrot my words of advice right back at me, words offered so glibly when they found themselves in similar straits: just write! One word, then another. Doesn’t matter what, just start.

So easily said, so hard to accomplish. I hope I’ll be more compassionate next time.

Until then, I guess this is a beginning of sorts, poured out in a rush of emotion in order to ease my mind, allow me to sleep.

Because Wednesday is winding down. It’s nearly midnight. I’m skipping my self-imposed one hour cooling off period between writing and posting. And with this desperate attempt to find a cause, and a cure, I’ll keep my blogging record intact.


Now to convince myself it was worthwhile. For that, tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It’s not always about me (gasp!)

No, I’m not one of those self-absorbed people who think the world revolves around them and that everyone must conform to my wishes. Rather, I’m one of those self-absorbed people who believe if anything goes wrong, anywhere, anytime, I must either a) be at fault through incompetence or negligence; or b) fix it. Sometimes both.

My misapprehensions come from a dysfunctional history I still fight to overcome. This week’s lesson highlighted those mental errors.

First, when Hubby and our law-school son have a silly misunderstanding, I need to walk away and let them figure it out. They’re adults – far more alike than either care to admit most days, but intelligent adults nonetheless. I don’t need to mediate, fix, soothe, or make excuses. And it’s not my fault technology frustrates at the worst possible moment. That’s the nature of frustration.

Second, my writer’s group friends are adults, too. Creative, sensitive, self-absorbed…and probably much more like me than I care to admit. I don’t need to mediate, fix, soothe, or make excuses.

See a pattern?

Finally, on a more stressful note, I’ve been researching extremely distressing topics for my current temp job, and I struggle to separate myself from the horrors on the page. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Hubby often counsels me to take the emotion out of a situation. It’s so very difficult for me to do, and this week I paid the price. My empathic reaction to the passages I’ve been reading has left me with a borderline migraine for days, and finally erupted in yet another painful cold sore – my body’s second most frequent reaction to stress after the migraines.

The texts I’m reading cannot remotely be considered my fault, although I’ve managed to find a way to believe I’m being blamed unfairly for society’s crimes. The situations depicted cannot be fixed or soothed or excused. They’re reality.

In searching for a new email tagline, I recovered a quote from my collection that speaks to my week: “Memory can so fix us in the past that we turn to salt - and all we are good for is preserving something that used to be.” ~ Daniel Aleshire

I need to shake those old memories, mine and the intensely negative ones I’m inflicted with from reading ancient history at work.

It’s not all about me. You?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You live and learn. At any rate, you live. ~ Douglas Adams

As I was debating my blog topic for this week, I realized how many of my recent musings have been on “lessons learned.” A running joke between my oldest and dearest friend (next to Hubby, of course) has always been that by middle age we’d have all the answers.

Apparently we were wrong. My much-needed lessons are not diminishing in number or import. It seems I’m confronted with at least one new message every week, if not daily.

Thanks to the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in Hamilton, this week started things off with a master class on Sunday, and the lessons-learned were about more than just writing. I faced misplaced assumptions (my own), diverging opinions on what constitutes good writing (from classmates), and a reminder that we all approach life, and writing, with personal baggage and perspective.

We received email files of each participant’s manuscript a few weeks before the workshop so we could read and critique in advance, and arrive ready to discuss. I started to read early and made a few notes, but because of my too-often overloaded schedule, I stayed up late Saturday to finish class prep in the hotel room. Assumptions made based on the review of a few sheets of typed words are nearly always dangerous; I’m glad I withheld most of my comments until I’d had a chance to meet my classmates. One particularly “ambitious” story I questioned because of its disjointed sentences and overreaching metaphors turned out to have been written by a brave teenager. The discovery cast her story in a new light, and I was able to make what I hope were intelligent contributions to the critique discussion.

When it came to comments on my own manuscript, it took a day or two to absorb the sometimes copious notes (which made my scribbled marginalia on their papers look even more pitiful). The opening was evocative; the opening was too wordy and needed more tension. The characters were intriguing; everyone sounded the same. Too much setting and description; not enough description. Show, don’t tell; don’t show so much. What’s a writer to do?

Listen. And learn.

Our intrepid moderator pointed out how important it is to consider each critique in light of the commenter’s writing style and genre. Do I like what they write, and trust their competency on the page? My novel is a mystery; some of the participants, such as the memoir writer, were of a more literary bent. Without a working familiarity of a genre, it’s difficult to provide an appropriate critique on certain areas. I’m sure I was just as guilty of that misstep as I brought a “just-the-facts” crime mentality to literary works. All of this parsing reminded me of the classes I taught in critical writing last quarter. Consider the author, the perspective, the audience. I must think critically before I can write critically.

The varied personal perspectives of strangers are difficult to gauge in only a few short hours. Obviously, the teenager came with a different world view than us middle-agers. We explained more than one popular culture reference to her, but it was a good reminder to consider how such mentions play in a manuscript. Another participant brought a particularly feminist mindset which found misogyny in places I didn’t feel it existed. And I know from past experience that my history makes me overly sensitive to certain topics.

All things to keep in mind as we traversed the workshop together – seven people who may never meet again, sharing and learning from each other. We exchanged emails and the conventional promise to keep in touch, but again, from past experience, I have my doubts. One or two of us may cross paths at future conferences, and my fellow writer’s group member is an important part of my life so I’ll see her regularly. As for the rest of the participants, I wish them well on the writing journey.

And thank them for the lessons they shared.

What have you learned today?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sticks and stones...?

“Nasty and mean-spirited.”

Me?! The editor’s email set me back, and I’m still processing its impact. I’m fairly confident most people who know me even a little would not use such descriptives. Am I in denial? Maybe she sees something in me I refuse to acknowledge.

Or maybe she’s full of it.

Over the past two years or so, I’ve written book reviews for a respected online journal. I received some excellent volumes, added a number of decent bylines to my writing credits, and enjoyed the experience. But it didn’t provide an income. I found another site, which shall remain nameless, that offered cash for each review in addition to the book. I sent in my clips and was accepted to their roster.

My first assignment was a disappointment. It was a self-published non-fiction book which could have used another good round of edits, and probably another rewrite. Decent enough, I suppose, but if I’d paid money for it, I’d have regretted the expense. Unfortunately, that has been my experience with self-published volumes in general. I know there are exceptions, but I’ve found very few. I danced around the issues and submitted a bland, vague, unsatisfying (to me) review. The editor loved it.

I nearly dropped the site after that first round, but decided it really wasn’t a fair evaluation of their offerings. I should have heeded my instincts.

The second book was an unmitigated disaster. It too was self-published, with a graphic cover and fancy text. Inside – formatting issues galore, random punctuation, disjointed scenes, huge chunks of information-dump narrative and dialogue. I plowed through, missing my deadline for the review, but with every intention of finishing. A politely-worded email from the editor to half-a-dozen reviewers reminded us of the due date. Strike one against me, from the editor’s perspective. I fully admit my responsibility in that regard. I’m usually very good with deadlines; this was too much of a struggle and I didn’t meet my obligation.

Then my laptop died, and with it, my email archive which contained the site’s guidelines. I still had an email address, and I knew the expected word count, so I figured I could get by. My memory was faulty and I didn’t provide all the pieces they request (title, author, publisher, 25-word quote, all at the beginning of the piece). Strike two.

I tried very hard to abide by the AWW workshop dictum of love notes first, then criticism when reviewing a manuscript. It was tough to find anything good to say about this book, but I did try.

And then I laid it out in plain language. Strike three.

Since my honest effort was summarily rejected, I’ll let you be the judge. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and telling details have been omitted:

While the premise for (title) is mildly intriguing, this misidentified “trilogy of novellas” is a rambling attempt at a novel that never quite lives up to its potential. The characters are flat and largely indistinguishable; the protagonist (John Doe) elicits more scorn than sympathy as he bumbles through an unlikely string of scenarios…(Doe) fumbles through a series of increasingly improbable situations as dead bodies accumulate. The final “novella” is dedicated to long rehashes of the crimes from the first two sections which brought (Doe) to the improbably-convoluted ending.

The writing is uneven, with stilted dialogue and largely information-dump narrative that too often tells a tale that would be better shown. Another good round of editing could have eliminated the many punctuation errors and smoothed out the choppy text. I truly wanted to enjoy this book, but in the end, I had to force myself to finish reading. This is yet another self-published effort that should not have been.

Harsh? Most definitely, but how does a reviewer write an honest critique of a terrible book without harshness? “Nasty and mean-spirited”? That was certainly not my intent. I tried to imagine the author, what he must have felt about putting his work out there, who told him this effort was ready for publication, if anyone did (and the vanity press that took his money). I know how terrifying a prospect that is whenever I submit my pieces and I feel great compassion for his efforts. How is a wake-up call more gently delivered after a book is on the market? Should I simply have declined to write the review?

Doesn’t the very fact that the author put his book out there, expecting people to pay money for it, open the work to more pointed criticism than what might be received from a standard submission to an agent or publisher? If I bought a book because of a glowing review only to find something so thoroughly lacking in polish as this was, I’d be furious with the author and the reviewer.

Needless to say, my days as a book reviewer are over. But I’m still stuck on the “nasty and mean-spirited” comment. The possibility of being perceived that way certainly gives me pause. Maybe when I rushed to get the review in, on an admittedly frustrating day, I let my emotions spill onto the page unfairly. Even as I reread it though, I can’t find anything I disagree with. I always tell Hubby, “It’s in the delivery.” Did I ignore my own advice?

To any other book reviewers out there, how do you handle such situations?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The illusion of control

Reruns of a minor dust-up in the office yesterday buzzed in my brain all last evening. It wasn’t even really enough to be called a dust-up, rather a simple misunderstanding. She said one thing, I heard something else. We tossed words back and forth past each other for a few seconds until we figured out the disconnect. The matter was resolved quickly, I thought; no harm, no foul, so the saying goes. It annoyed me a bit since I felt like I’d been scolded for nothing, but it was over.

Three hours later she raised the matter again, insisting we debate how and why it happened, where the problem started, and who was to blame (in so many words). I reiterated my earlier explanation of what I thought happened, added yet another apology for the confusion, and steered the conversation to a new topic. But now it really bothered me.

I mulled over the discussion on and off all evening, and again this morning on the drive to the office. I tried to look at the whole board, as Hubby always counsels, and realized it wasn’t about the words I’d misheard (or possibly, she misspoke).

It was about control. Not having control is frightening.

In our short month or so together, she has exhibited an inordinate need to control every facet of the work that passes through the office. Every document, every work product, is vetted and redone and revised and edited again. Yes, she’s in charge, but if you can’t hire people you trust, give them a task, and believe they will do the job well, there’s a bigger problem to be addressed.

The illusion of control.

There are very few things in life we can truly control. How people hear and understand our words is not one of them. Once those words leave my lips, or I hand off a printed page, I’m out of the loop. The recipient’s perception of my most carefully constructed thought is entirely up to them. I do my best to craft my words carefully; it’s one of the reasons I prefer writing to oral communication. I can rework those phrases, find just the right nuance to explain what I really mean. In conversation, I lose that luxury. My brain freezes, the words won’t come, and my effort is often thwarted by my insecurities.

As I pondered the recent office situation, I realized why her unacknowledged need to control is so very obvious to me.

I’m the same way.

Not as much as I used to be, thank goodness. I’ll never knowHow Hubby put up with me all those years when I insisted on micromanaging every detail of our life, but I’m eternally grateful that he did. I’ve learned, slowly, painfully, to let go of those things I truly can’t (or shouldn’t) control. There are times I still fight the urge, when I find myself chafing at my inability to be hands-on, in control of something from start to finish so it’s done exactly as it should be, or rather, the way I want it to be. But I am getting better.

And as I return to the office non-dust-up, I realize I was trying to control her response almost (?) as much as she wanted to control mine. I’d let go to a certain extent; now I needed to release that last bit which I insisted on clinging to after it was all over. She will respond to me according to her perceptions. All I can do is be the best that I am, at any given moment and stop trying to control how she reacts.

Control. Release.

One more life lesson the universe knew I needed to be reminded of. What did you learn from life today?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

With apologies to Todd Rundgren...

I don’t want to work, I just want to bang on the keys all day!

I miss writing. Now that I’ve returned to the M-F workaday world (at least temporarily), my writing time is all but nil. Add in the class I just finished teaching, and the book I’m editing (for pay!), and keeping the house running, there’s no more time for me. Hubby and I have wondered repeatedly, how did we ever have time to raise kids?!

Of course any of us who write seriously know it truly is work, just not (for most of us) the paying kind. Which means we have to spend too many precious hours on those pursuits which do bring in the money necessary for little things like food and housing. And I suppose Mr. Rundgren would say the same about his drumming. It reminds me of the memes floating around the Internet lately picturing what the world thinks of this occupation or that and what the job really entails. Serious writing is work, and deadlines, and frustration, but for me, it’s also life. I need to write.

I’m pushing deadline for the book edit. Fifteen-plus pages to finish rewriting by Friday night, since Saturday I’ll be at the Antioch Writers Workshop genre session all day (working, not writing). Class is done; all my narrative evaluations for the students have been submitted. I still want to write a few paragraphs in review of each research paper for personal communication with the students, and I’d like to have that done before spring quarter starts in a few days, but I have a bit of leeway with that self-imposed assignment.

So maybe, just maybe, if I survive this week, I’ll be able to turn my attention to the long-neglected novel which needs more TLC before I pitch it at the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in two weeks. Then of course there’s the short story anthology piece for my Tuesday writers group which I haven’t started yet, and resubmitting several recently-rejected pieces, and all those new ideas that flit through my brain as I’m falling asleep or daydreaming through yet another meeting...

Where’s that drum keyboard...and the hours?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

To teach is to learn twice. ~ Joseph Joubert

Winter quarter has ended. No, I’m not back in my perpetual role as a student, although I often wish I could be. This time I took the leap I fought for so long: I became a real (!) teacher.

I’ve taught short classes before: workshop sessions and conference presentations (maybe an hour or two each), and day-long computer classes in Word, Excel, Publisher, and the like. But this was my first foray into an eleven-week session with students I would see more than once. And after our first meeting, they came back! I was thrilled.

As my nervousness eased (speaking in front of a group has never been a favorite past-time), I found I was enjoying myself. Even though I stumbled around a bit when they asked for examples of concepts, I made it through. They kept coming back.

And I learned. I learned to think on my feet at least marginally better than I did when the term started. I learned to adjust my expectations as the students became individuals, with different needs and abilities. Hubby, consummate teacher that he is, has often told me how much explaining a concept reinforces the lesson in his own mind; by breaking a process down into its simplest parts in order to teach it to a newbie, he solidifies his own understanding. As is so often the case, he was right.

While teaching how to read critically, I found my close reading deepening. While teaching the importance of critical thinking in media consumption, I took greater pains to evaluate and analyze what I was taking in as well. And while teaching organization of thoughts on paper, I began to see ways some of my works-in-progress could be improved by following those same lessons.

I learned less syllabus-oriented things, too. I heard about a church I’d never known existed, even with all my past religious studies. From the class discussions, I realized how much we all had in common in some areas, and how different we are in others. After spending most of the past few years working alone in my office with the dogs, the social interaction was invigorating.

An ice-breaker question during introductions reminded me not everyone is an enamored of writing as I am. Several students consider it a chore, one even labeled writing as punishment! Her response led me to set a personal goal of changing her mind. I’m still not sure I succeeded.

During our time together, I was reminded to “Never judge a book (or a student) by its cover.” Looking at the strangers who faced me expectantly on that first night, I would never have picked out the young woman taking classes at not one but two universities; the grieving parent; the struggling mom juggling far too heavy a workload; and so many other nuances of personality that will remain in my memory.

And as a writer, maybe find their way into my stories. I warned the class upfront: careful, you’ll wind up in my novel. But don’t worry, the names will be changed to protect the innocent.

In some ways, I’m sorry to see this class end. We’ve forged a tenuous bond of sorts. I hope at least some of the class will want to keep in touch by email or Facebook (yes, I’m still out there, complaining all the while). But I’m also ready to move on. I have other demands on my time, new projects on the horizon. And next week after I get through grading ten research papers and recording evaluation narratives, I hope to return to my own writing. It’s been sadly neglected this quarter, albeit for a good cause.

I’ve been learning.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When the mind is ready, the teacher appears. ~ var.

A wise friend shared that expression with me years ago, and it often comes back to remind me to pay attention to the lessons the universe is throwing my way. These past few weeks are yet another example.

I’ve taken a temporary contract job, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is enough of a shake-up of my usual work-at-home routine. I have to be up (and dressed), and at least marginally sociable with someone other than the dogs for forty hours a week. Yes, I admit it; I’ve been spoiled in my writerly life. But I’ve done the work-week thing for over thirty years, so it hasn’t taken long to get back in the rut groove.

The greatest lessons lie beyond the physical demands. I’m working as research assistant to the president of a small, all-black seminary. Those of you who know me, let that all sink in and you’ll understand the challenge for me.

Race isn’t an issue for me; never has been. I’ve long believed if the world would simply stop focusing on skin color and start relying on character, we’d all be better off. But I confess it is odd to be in the minority as one of only a handful of light-skinned employees on staff. Lesson number one: empathizing more fully with those who find themselves at odds with the majority, for whatever reason. I’m often there myself, of course, with my many out-of-the-norm philosophies in a cookie-cutter society, but those internals are more easily hidden than the color of my skin.

More difficult, and apparently the more-needed lesson, is the religious aspect of my surroundings. I wrote my senior undergrad project paper on religion (“Why God?” – send me a comment if you’d like to read it), studied it for years from a variety of angles, including as a ’70s Jesus-freak evangelical, and know more about churches in general than many who attend on a regular basis. But this is different. Here I spend my days in the midst of those for whom religious belief is a daily focus, a way of life I look at in bafflement. As I perform my research duties helping the president – a vibrant, energetic 70-year-old trail-blazing woman – I’m exposed to authors I would never encounter in my world, Christian credos I’ve long since discarded, and cultural norms (religious as much as racial) that keep my brain buzzing.

Lessons indeed. Most telling for me is the realization that I couldn’t have done this job even a few years ago. During my undergrad work in the World Classics curriculum at Antioch McGregor (now Midwest), when we spent a quarter immersed in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I spent much of the class railing against the sins of the church in all its forms. I know now I was working through past issues, but it’s taken a good number of years to reach the point where, instead of reacting from a defensive posture, I can step back and take in the topic more dispassionately. I still have to work at it, but it’s getting easier each day as I continue my assignment here.

Guess my mind was finally ready for the next big lesson.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

If I don't write to empty my mind, I go mad. ~ Lord Byron

Another Super Tuesday is history, thank goodness! The political campaign season in the United States is entirely too long, consumes far too much energy and resources (read: money), and does little to endear any of the narcissistic candidates to an increasingly cynical public.

IMHO, of course. I know there are those who revel in the process.

As I have for every election the four years, yesterday I worked the polls. I’m one of those largely thankless temp workers brought in by the Board of Elections to man the precinct tables, checking IDs, distributing ballots and the lovely “I Voted!” stickers, and generally ensuring the system works.

Most of the voters we meet in the course of our very long (up to 15-hour) day are patient and friendly. A very small handful do take time to thank us for our service. It’s always an interesting day, and since I’m a regular in my assigned precinct, I’m learning names and faces of my fellow townsfolk. It’s a joy watching the senior citizens arrive from Friends Care Center, independent, determined and so very proud to cast their vote in person as they have for untold decades. We have a few homeschooling families who use Election Day as a practical civics lesson; it’s an honor to be a part of their educational process. Equally joyful are the teenagers voting in their first election. Their smiles are often outshone by the proud parents leading them through the maze.

Unfortunately, as with any public encounter, there are one or two individuals who seem to delight in mucking up the works. One gentleman in particular always arrives at our precinct table in a belligerent, confrontational mood and it generally goes downhill from there. He’s pushy, rude, insulting to every one of us who try to figure out his always-shifting demands, and generally an unpleasant person all around. I dread his appearance every Election Day, and am only too happy to hand him off to the presiding judge. I don’t have the patience for his bullying, and as a quasi-public servant for the day, I can’t speak my mind and tell him to take a hike.

As is customary in my musings, I try to connect my posts to my writing life. This week is a bit more challenging. All I took away from Super Tuesday 2012 was a sense of relief that it was over, a borderline migraine, and fodder for this blog. Using writing as my therapy will have to be connection enough.

Does writing help you process difficult situations?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Up on the tightwire…

Several of my past blogs have touched on balance and change, so today’s musing is not a new topic for me. Guess I still haven’t learned my lesson since the universe persists in sending me reminders. I’ve been out of sorts for about two weeks now, fighting a vague malaise that keeps me from not only being as content as I’d like, but from finding that flow I mentioned last week and actually being productive. Various responsibilities have me juggling madly, and I find I’m so focused on keeping everything moving that I fail to appreciate the beauty of the patterns created as everything moves in synch. I’m out of balance.

As so often happens when I’m in the midst of a life lesson, a number of recent blogs and postings combined to remind me where I’m off-base. It started with a sobering TEDtalk by Robyn O’Brien on the fight for real food, moved into the writing venue with a commentary by Jody Hedlund on letting go of perfection, and culminated during an exchange on Google+. O’Brien and Hedlund offered variations of Voltaire’s warning not to make perfect the enemy of the good – something I need to remember every day. But more than that, such a philosophy leads to the elusive equilibrium I crave. Do the best I can, at whatever task is at hand, and move on to the next. Flow. Balance.

During the G+ discussion a friend started as a lament against sponsored Tweets (read: ads), I mourned my inability to find a workable social media balance in my life. Another commenter said, “There's no ‘right balance.’ That's like the whole myth of ‘worklife balance.’ The sooner you let go of this fruitless hope, the better.” As a Libra (if you believe that sort of thing) and one who wears a yin-yang necklace nearly every day, that irked. Balance as a myth? I wanted to respond indignantly, but the limitations of G+, while not as bad as the 140-character Twitter, prevent a reasoned debate. And as Hubby often reminds me, I needed to temper my emotion if I hoped to be persuasive. Pause, think, react according to the new situation, not something remotely similar from the murky past.

Reason and emotion. Balance.

So much easier said than done, but I can’t accept that finding balance is a myth. It takes awareness, and effort, and practice. Anything worthwhile does. Whether it be the hunt for healthy, organic foods, or the perfect (!) descriptive word, or the cost-benefit measure of social media, knowing when to strive and when to let go is key.

Such right effort keeps everything in balance.


A career can coexist with the development of the soul
when we approach each with balance and determination.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How does your writers group measure up?

I'm delighted to be guest blogging at the wonderful Ladies Who Critique website today - come visit!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ides of February

’Tis the season, sort of. The shortest month of the year that always seems the longest is halfway done. Seeds ordered in the frigid January darkness have arrived and planting dates are marked on the calendar. What little snow we’ve had is melting into the three-inch tall green shoots around the pond. Pitchers and catchers report in four days (yay!). And I just registered for my first writer’s conference of the year. I know, I’m behind on scheduling, but I’ve never been good at planning too far ahead. If I try, life steps in to remind me how foolish are my best-laid plans.

As anyone who has ever attended one of these events knows, the wealth of possibilities offered to writers of all experience levels is truly astonishing. The sheer number of options, many of them genre-specific, others more broad – or fan – based. Enticing locations all across the country – the prestigious AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair is in Chicago this year, I could stay with my son and save the hotel bill (honest, he said I could!), but it’s in two weeks. I waited too long for that one. Love is Murder is another Chicago event I’ll get to someday. And overseas: Geneva, San Miguel, Surrey…out of my price range, but so intriguing. With a limited budget, I need to stick closer to home for now.

My first outing this year, as it has been for the past two years, will be the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in Hamilton, Ohio. Not particularly exotic, but sponsoring local non-profit group does a terrific job of packing a great deal of information into two days, starting with a Friday session called Murder & Mayhem. What more could a mystery writer ask for? I registered just under the wire to qualify for the early-bird discount and look forward to their expanded three-day schedule in early April. Mad Anthony’s become a tradition for a trio of us from my weekly writers group, gals’ road trip and all, that I know will be a great time.

The always-spectacular Antioch Writers' Workshop in July right here in my new home town of Yellow Springs is on my calendar as well. It’s a week-long event that never fails to overwhelm with the amount of information offered on everything from the finer points of fiction, to poetry, to snagging that elusive book contract.

Conferences and workshops are about so much more than the formal sessions. I often get as much benefit (dare I say more?) from meeting fellow writers and basking in the non-stop craft conversations that fill hallways, dining rooms and sometimes even a local bar. The spirited interaction is a great reminder that, even in the solitary work of writing, we are not alone.

Do you conference? When and where? I need to start planning ahead…

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


I follow far too many writers’ blogs, spending more time reading sometimes questionable words of wisdom about the craft than actually writing myself. It’s a procrastination tactic I struggle with daily. But every so often, when the synchronicity of the universe presents the same topic from different angles in a variety of my perusals, I’m sensible enough to take heed. This week the universe wants me to focus on flow – starting it, maintaining it, appreciating it.

Most writers will agree that when they’re “in the zone,” everything clicks. The words do indeed flow almost effortlessly from brain to hand to quill/crayon/pen/keyboard. Psychics call it automatic writing, the sensation of another being controlling the instrument. I’d rather think it’s more an unleashing of deep-seated thoughts and emotions too often buried under the busy-ness of life, or the pain of remembering. It’s that possibility of pain that keeps me from tapping those resources, of letting go of fears of what my words may reveal, how they may be received by potential readers.

When I do manage to get past those emotional roadblocks and write from the depths of my being, my words have power. Hubby has told me on many occasions that he can tell when I write from the heart. If my personal in-house non-fiction reading computer geek can see it, so can more discerning readers. I need to tap that source more often, allow the words to flow unimpeded. But how?

Last night I finished my current study of Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers. She ends this slim but powerful volume with another Zen reference, urging writers to cultivate a “fresh mind.” Sher says, “The real work of writing is, day after day, to discover how to maintain freshness.” Even more compelling to me is the idea of “giving over the part of you that knows to the writing.” Giving over. Surrender. Release. Flow.

From a practical standpoint, author Johanna Harness posted a blog recently about her technique for priming the pump. She uses freewriting, figuring twenty minutes of uninterrupted writing, or about one thousand words, gets rid of the detritus and allows her to find that fresh mind. “I don’t know why it took me so long to realize I need to warm up with disposable words.”

Disposable words – there are few more frightening concepts for me in the writing world. I labor so intensely over each word choice that the thought of deliberately tossing any of them aside, of murdering my darlings, has always been heart-wrenching. It’s the main reason why I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo for three years. The month-long exercise encourages me to turn off the internal editor, get the thoughts down on the page, and worry about fine-tuning things later. In the case of freewriting, I may never use those particular words and phrases again, but it’s like opening a spillway, releasing the stale, stagnant water at the top and exposing the unpolluted springs below.

I can embrace the concept of freewriting better than the other technique offered by many writerly blogs, that of journaling. For some reason, journaling triggers memories of self-absorbed teenage angst poured out to Dear Diary. Semantics probably, but if it helps me get past my hesitation, I’ll take it. Freewriting, as Harness points out, is disposable. I don’t keep it in leather-bound volumes for the ages. If the occasional spew seems worthy of further consideration, I can save it; however far too often in my experience, the words have lost their luster by the time I return to them. Disposable indeed, but therapeutic, and useful at the time. I’ve even adapted the practice for my critical writing class, more to teach my students not to fear writing than to encourage narrative flow, but again, useful.

Sher ends her essay with, “What is the best way to write? Each of us has to discover her own way by writing. Writing teaches writing. No one can tell you your own secret.” For me, freewriting teaches writing, and done regularly, may help reveal that secret I can’t or won’t see otherwise.

How do you prime the pump and tap your hidden reserves?

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Echoed in the wells of silence…

~ Simon & Garfunkel

A growing trend in many of the writing blogs I follow seems to be toward compiling soundtracks to write by. I can imagine only a few things more detrimental to my writing than being surrounded by music. For me, silence is truly golden.

It wasn’t always this way. When my kids were young, I could lose myself in a book while they romped and the television blared. Now I’m so easily distracted almost any noise is a frustration. I’d love to join the throngs at the local coffee shops, laptops nestled next to the crumpets and hot beverages, immersed in the act of putting words on the page. But I could spend hours in such surroundings with only a paragraph or two to show for my efforts; it’s too much fun to people-watch and eavesdrop (what? don’t tell me you don’t do listen in – how else do you get story ideas or write great dialogue?)

I’m still reading Gail Sher’s One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers – it’s my bedtime companion, giving me words of contemplation to still the bustle of the day. In one of her brief chapters, she addresses the notion of silence by quoting author Bill McKibben’s forward to an annotated Walden: “Without silence, solitude, darkness, how can we come to any sense of our true size, our actual relationship with the rest of the world?” Sher details a Chinese poet Wang Wei who identified three levels of silence: physical, spiritual, and the silence of mystical meditation. “When thought stops, words halt, and we move through light toward absolute stillness,” Willis and Tony Barnstone wrote when introducing Wei’s poetry. Sher finishes her essay on silence with, “Stillness shrinks us to our own size, empowers us to acknowledge our pain, lends us the air into which this pain can, momentarily, evaporate.”

“Absolute stillness.” “Mystical mediation.” Those are the places from which my best writing springs, evaporating from the depths of my mind only to solidify onto the page. I can’t find the words if my brain is flooded with noise, no matter how beautiful the music may be in other circumstances.

A soundtrack for my writing? The soothing sounds of silence, when my thoughts can take center stage, is enough.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Verbalizing my voices

I don’t like reading aloud, especially my own work. When I write well, the voices in my head speak the words onto the page in soaring language, dulcet tones of surpassing beauty and emotional oration – at least that’s what I like to believe. If I read them aloud, as writers are exhorted to do at every turn, my vocal chords strangle the language and trample on the emotional vibrations. Such desecration pains me every time it happens.

I rarely enjoy listening to anyone read aloud. The first sentence I hear is overwritten in my brain by the second, which is overwritten by the third, until the fourth grasps for tenuous connections to earlier phrases and fails to communicate the author’s meaning. I’m subconsciously distracted by efforts to put the audible into words on a mental page where they can be studied and absorbed. In a book, I can see complete paragraphs at a glance, follow the flow of words from one thought, one phrase, one sentence, to the next, and see the discrete parts as a glorious whole.

Yet the literary world insists on oral presentations. We’ve all been witness to an esteemed author whose written words are a joy, but who when faced with reading to an audience is a less-than-stellar performer. That’s what reading aloud is – a performance. For the solitary author, accustomed to toiling away in relative silence, the experience of speaking in front of a gathering is often as personally painful as it is to the listeners. We are writers, not performers. We stumble and stutter and mangle the precious words we slaved over, the careful sentences crafted in hours of intense labor. This repeated pointless sadomasochism can only destroy a writer’s spirit.

In One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers, author Gail Sher writes eloquently of the argument I’ve only vaguely been able to articulate over the years in classes, workshops, and writers groups:

“The written word also has a ‘look.’ It’s ‘build’ is alchemical, even as a woman’s build. In its timbre (mental ring) as well as its juxtaposition with other words, there is a resonance that can be squelched in speech. Though we may pronounce a word similarly, its silent sound is like ‘a white bird in snow.’ (Poets are sometimes loathe to read their poetry aloud, as if something precious will be lost sharing that version.)” (140)

I heartily agree.

Of course writing for performance is another matter altogether. Dramatists such as Shakespeare or modern screenwriters such as Aaron Sorkin offer language that can only be appreciated in its oral form. For the rest of us, leave our words on the page where they form the intended neural connection with devoted readers focusing on the work literally in hand, not the tonal vagaries of an uncomfortably positioned pseudo-performer.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


No post this week in support of the effort to stop SOPA

Stop Censorship

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Please punch my validation...

If you don't change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. ~ Douglas Adams

With the inevitable life review ushered in by a new year, I’m reminded all too strongly that I can’t expect my life to change if I don’t change my attitude. The insanity of continuing old patterns of behavior yet looking for new outcomes looms large, and while I talk a good talk about changing my habits, when it comes down to actually performing, I stumble.

Instead of writing or tending to any of the several projects stacked in file folders on my desk, I wasted invested twenty minutes or so this morning taking an online personality test of sorts, this one called PersonalDNA. The results didn’t surprise me: empathetic, introverted, trusting, preferring experiences over things and small groups of close friends over large crowds. My assigned label of “considerate experiencer” is a bit odd, but I suppose the site needs to offer something unique.

The irony of this seemingly benign entertainment hit me only a few minutes later, as I mulled my continuing penchant for procrastination. Why had I spent that time answering ambiguous questions in hopes a computer program could tell me something new about myself? Once again I was looking for outside validation, this time in the nebulous “personality” arena as opposed to my usual anxieties over my writing. I’m always waiting for someone else to tell me I’m on the right track, that I’m worthy of – something, anything. That insidious need for approval is holding me back and I’m tired of it, but I can’t seem to break free.

I fill my desktop with aphorisms like “What other people think about you is none of your business” and “You wouldn't worry so much about what other people thought if you realized how seldom they do,” but I remain mired in self-doubt. Awareness of my crippling dependency on the acceptance of others doesn’t make my escape any easier, although I maintain awareness of any addiction – and that’s what this is, an emotional addiction seeded in the murky past – is half the battle. Unfortunately, the other half, the skirmishes I face every time I send out a short story only to have it rejected, or turn to a friend for counsel only to be brushed aside, don’t seem to diminish even as that awareness grows. Such dismissals only reinforce the niggling voice that says I’m not good enough.

That voice echoed all night and kept me awake more than usual as I replayed an evening spent in another search for validation of my feelings. After a weekly writers group, I’d only half-jokingly demanded Hubby provide answers to a vexing relationship issue I’d faced. He likes to fix things, so he tried, but ultimately we both knew the solution had to come from within me. His validation was accurate, and not unexpected, and offered with love. But I still needed someone to tell me what I already knew. I simply don’t trust my own judgment enough to ignore naysayers with private concerns and personal agendas.

Hubby knows me better than anyone else does, and certainly better than any online quiz. I should listen to him when he tells me to believe in my “considerate experiencer” self as much as he does.

His is the only validation I really need, while I figure out how to accept my own.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

My mistake

As I warned earlier here and here, I’ve now spent the past two weeks reevaluating my online presence and, by extension, my writing life. So much of my time on the ’net has become a myriad of not-so-subtle forms of procrastination, taking me away from actually putting words down on the page. Add to that friend base, build that platform, follow that blog roll, comment/review/submit to contests that often have little or no relation to my writing interests.

I’ve also been reading Gail Sher’s introspective One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers. Her words kept me grounded during the chaotic holidays which arouse such anxiety in me that I can’t write anything of substance. The focus of her slim volume is to guide readers to developing and nurturing a writing habit, something I had, briefly, during November’s NaNo sprint but lost again with the holidays. (digression: As a devoted wordsmith, I flounder searching for a better term for the hysterical upheaval which strikes from Halloween through New Year’s Day. For me at least, the period is certainly not holy or holly-jolly. But that is a musing for another time.)

Sher’s Four Noble Truths are plain enough:
1. Writers write.
2. Writing is a process.
3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.
4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write.

If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is to not write. I need that emblazoned over my desk, looping on a soundtrack, tattooed on my forearm. The only way to fail is to not write.

All the other mileposts, the gauges of a “success” that the writing community imposes on us all, are distractions from who I am. I am a writer. See #1 above: writers write. Not writers publish; writers blog to develop a platform; writers tweet; writers Facebook/G+/review others’ work on Amazon or Goodreads. Writers write. All those other things are distractions with limited usefulness.

Almost two years ago, after yet another of my sessions of despair over ever “making it” as a writer, my grad school faculty advisor asked, (and I paraphrase), “If no one ever saw anything you wrote, would you still write?” At the time, my “Yes” was grudging. Today it is stronger, yet it wavers with the emotions of life. Sher’s book strengthens my response.

I often quote Emerson’s “Life is a journey, not a destination,” coupled with Lao Tzu’s “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I need to learn to see my writing in the same way. It’s a process, not a product. I think that’s why the continuous communal buzz to market/self-publish/sell-sell-sell has always bothered me. Far too much of what is rushed to market is ragged, immature, and worthy only of standing as a step on that journey. That’s not to discount its value; rather, to delineate between exercise and performance recital. Right now I’m on the rehearsal schedule for that future recital. I may never make it in the eyes of the publishing world, but I’ll grow and learn and write every step along the way.

Because I’m a writer, and writers write.