WRITING, DRAWING, LOOKING, SEEING

Photo from Pexels.com by Steve Johnson

A few years ago, while hiking with a group along the cliffs of Cornwall, England, one woman in our party sat down at the end of every day with her sketchpad to draw the scene before her, a slight smile on her lips. I envied her. I never mastered anything beyond a simple flower, a sun, a little house. I admired her but didn’t take the time to observe her process.

Our local art museum offers drawing classes, and at the beginning of this year, I decided to sign up. The pandemic ended that before it began but I found an online class at another museum. Every week, I follow a different lesson – landscape, perspective, portrait, still life. Guess what else I learned? I can draw! I suspect anyone can learn to draw, just like anyone can learn to write. Sure, the talented ones will do it best, but we can all learn to do something better than we did before.

This week, my country is on fire with anger, sorrow, and despair. Because of the murder of yet another black American by police, systemic racism is once again forcing us to look, to see.

When I started my drawing lessons, I was surprised at how much it was like learning to write. And now, how much it is like confronting racism. They all have these things in common:

You have to look. Really look.

When I write, I look for the details that will paint a picture in my readers’ minds. When I draw, I look at how a pine tree is different from an oak. This week, I don’t have to look far to see the pain black Americans are going through.

It takes time.

When I sat down to draw, I used my eraser a lot. Writers call that revision. We need to erase systemic racism from our society, and revise our perspective on our own place in it.

It takes practice.

We will make mistakes. Sometimes I throw away an essay or a drawing and start over. Can white Americans like me own our mistakes and start over?

It takes humility.

I cringed when I found something I wrote twenty years ago. I thought it was good enough to submit for publication. It wasn’t. My first attempts at drawing are not for public view, but they got me started. This week I joined a group to read and discuss the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

Writing, drawing, looking – and maybe, finally, seeing. May it be so.

Linda W.

Author: LINDA C. WISNIEWSKI  

lindawis

My writing and teaching focus on the connections we make by giving each other the time and space to be heard. I have published dozens of essays and memoirs, including a piece that was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and became the first chapter of my memoir, Off Kilter, which was published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press. My time travel novel about an 18th century ancestor, Where the Stork Flies, is forthcoming from Sand Hill Review Press.

Dreaming a Novel

Last night was one long dream for me. I was telling myself a novel in three parts—three parts because twice I got up to use the restroom, not out of necessity, but because I wanted to leave the world of that dream. But the characters were persistent and kept returning, although they changed considerably from segment to segment.

At first, there were three people, two men and a woman, incarcerated at a prison in a desert, presumably for nonviolent crimes. They escaped disguised as employees (more like cleaning people or someone in scrubs than guards) and spent the night in a nearby empty house. Then they took off in a van.

Sometime during the night they morphed into three women. Think Thelma and Louise or a “Golden Girls Take to the Highway” episode. While they were always on the run and in some perilous circumstances, including snowbound in a cave, they agreed it was the best time of their lives. (Don’t anyone get Freudian on me!). Finally, they ended in a twin city area—two small towns. They grocery shopped in the lesser town figuring they would not know anyone. But they ran into the husband of one; then another met the love of her life, and the third asked for a ride to the bus station. I woke up, and my mind finally went back to my WIP.

I know I’ll never turn the dream into a novel, what with changing characters and a lot of unexplained things like the snowy cave, but the kernel of a story is there if I wanted to pursue it. What I found interesting is the process involved, the way the story flowed in spite of my efforts to stop it. I thought of Elmer Kelton, the late dean of Texas fiction. He once described writing his award-winning novel, The Good Old Boys, saying he was sitting at the bedside of his dying father and listening to stories of the old-time cowboys at the turn of the twentieth century. Suddenly, he began writing, and the words wouldn’t stop. Elmer used to say that it was like a horse with the bit in its teeth, and he was just along for the ride.

Elmer wrote that way. One of his favorite pieces of advice was “Listen to your characters, and they will tell you what’s going to happen.” He did not use Scrivener or Grammerly, a story bible, or any other devices and aids designed to help novelists tell a story. He simply told the story. A graduate of the University of Texas, he was not some unlettered genius but was knowledgeable about structure and the need for a story arc. He just never let those things dominate his storytelling.

For me, the three-part structure of my dream is significant, because I too learned about structure in school. Not so much the arc within an arc and subplots and all the intricacies that guide us today, but the basic Shakespearean pattern of rising action, climax, and denouement. To this day the parts of a novel to me are the beginning, middle, and end.  

To say that storytelling should be natural is not to jump into the pantser vs. outliner controversy. I’m a pantser who works best from a page of rough notes. But I know everyone has to choose the way that works best for them. Perhaps what I want to suggest about storytelling is that it should be less of a science and more of an art, more instinctive and organic.

If you’ve never read Elmer Kelton, you have a treat waiting for you, whether you think you’re interested in cowboy literature or not. Start with The Good Old Boys, move on to The Wolf and the Buffalo—Elmer set out to tell the story of a particular buffalo soldier, but a Commanche chief kept taking over the story. And then move on to his classic, The Time It Never Rained, described as one of the twenty or so best novels by an American of the twentieth century.

Me? I’m going back to sleep and see what happens next. 

Judy Altar

 

 

Award-winning author Judy Alter writes historical fiction set in the American West and contemporary mysteries set in Texas. She is also the author of several cookbooks and is at work on a culinary mystery. Find more about her at http://www.judyalter.com.

SPEAKING AS YOUR CHARACTER…

Want to get inside your character’s head and body? Don’t be shy. Instead, try this exercise. I first used it in the seventies and eighties when I was working with actors. We’d have half doing it and the other half observing, and because you could always get compliments for concentration, everyone tried. The results were often wonderful. 

NOTE #1: You may want to have a trusted writing partner or your phone read the first part to you. Remember to leave spaces so you can respond. 

NOTE #2: Make sure the sentence starts are up on your computer before you start so you don’t break out of the character to hunt for them.

NOTE #3: Before you begin this exercise, breathe in your character (whatever that means) and exhale any negativity. Breathe her in again, and stand up as your character. Begin walking as your character. How is her walk different from yours? 

Is her posture straighter? 

Are her steps weaker? 

Does she feel more weighted down or lighter than you? 

Observe differences as you walk, and see what feels different about being your character than being yourself (whatever that means). 

When you feel comfortable in your character’s body, sit in front of your computer as she would sit, pick a font and color that she would use, and complete the sentence starts below. Keep going when she (the character) wants to. Go to the next sentence start when she’s ready. The more you can become her physically, the more you will also be her mentally.

There are no wrong answers. You’re just getting inside her head writing what she is thinking. 

My full name is…

I live at…

I live with…

I am happiest when…

I daydream about…

My mind…

If I had my way…

I don’t understand why…

What I could do is…

Being scared makes me…

Sometimes I think that I…

I have a feeling that part of me…

A person’s family…

No one could help so…

If I were in charge…

I get angry when…

People perceive me as…

I hate…

People wouldn’t like it if…

I am afraid I…

I know…

I really am…

A person can’t be happy unless…

LynnGoodwin_tn  Lynn Goodwin owns Writer Advice. She’s written Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62 (memoir), Talent (YA) and You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (self help). Never Too Late and Talent are award winners. Shorter works have appeared in Hip MamaThe SunGood Housekeeping.comPurple Clover.com, and Flashquake. She is a reviewer and teacher at Story Circle Network. Visit her website and her blog.

 

Birth of a Poetry Collection

1_Linda_-475x317

Tending the Marsh by Linda Maria Steele

I first put pen to paper and began to jot down thoughts about going through a divorce and moving into a new house near the great Sippewissett Marsh in Falmouth, MA in 2016.  I started journaling because it helped me sort out the details of what happened and how my life was changing in ways that sometimes felt scary and were often unexpected. 

The writing was primarily therapeutic—a way to get what was swirling around in my head out and down on paper.  

Initially even though I had already published my first book a cookbook with related stories called “Meet Me in My Cape Cod Kitchen: Recipes for Seaside Living”, maintained a blog, taught writing classes and published close to forty articles on topics ranging from food, home care, parenting and family, I was not quite ready to share such a personal story. 

I did not know if I was ever going to publish my deeply personal story about loss and transition or how I could effectively transform daily journal entries into something meaningful that would appeal to readers. 

At the time, all I knew was that by taking daily walks on the marsh and then coming home to jot down my impressions made me feel better. 

Back then I would meet up with a friend for lunch, a fellow writer, who had just published her memoir. Every once and awhile, we would bring recent written works to share with each other.

“Do you think I should turn this into a memoir?” I asked shyly over a burger and fries after Sharon read a selection. 

“You definitely have something here” she’d reply.

“I think other women going through a divorce would relate to your story” she’d add. 

I put what I had in my desk drawer where it stayed for over a year. I had other work to tend to and knew I needed a little more distance from the actual events.

I was laid off from a teaching position in August of 2017 due to low student enrollment and suddenly found myself with extra time on my hands. I pulled out what I wrote the following autumn to revise and organize entries. When my writing friend and I met for lunch again I brought a rough draft along of what I had so far. 

At that point, I did not feel I had written a memoir just yet and still was not sure I wanted to share it.  

What I began to see were patterns in my journal entries emerge. I walked every day for a year. I wrote as soon as I got home so my memories were fresh and specific.  I saw the herons on my walks often and started to feel a real affinity with the majestic birds. I felt deeply comforted by nature regardless of what I was feeling each day. The marsh remained the same day in and day out and yet it also changed moment to moment. 

Around that same time, one of my poems “Tending a Tender Heart” was accepted to be read on NPR’s Poetry Sundays. Recording that poem and sharing it on NPR sparked the idea that rather then tell every single detail of the year after my divorce into a tell all memoir from all of my journal entries I began to imagine that maybe I could take bits and pieces of the story and draft a narrative timeline around the events. Somehow a collection of poetry felt like a more comfortable way to tell my story then a tell all memoir. With poetry I could ground my story in specific images yet choose to share how much or little of my story as I wanted.

I started to see how I could write poems that offered a tiny slice of the bigger story by using nature imagery and simple language formed from my journal entries. The collection included a reflection of change in seasons that mirrored a change in my attitude.  I experienced moments of profound grief that year, but I also experienced very real joy. I encountered miracles on my journey which led to a poem simply called “Miracles.”  I finally imagined my life beyond this current loss. And I learned more about what mattered most to me and at the top of that list was my three children reflected in the poem “Baby Birds.”

It felt right to put my story together in a series of poems. I decided to look at all of my journal entries and choose key moments, experiences and events then draft poems that followed my year of daily walking.

 There were times that I simply trusted my intuition about how to organize them and move forward. On a walk one day, the title Tending the Marsh popped into my mind because I truly felt the more I walked and wrote the more I felt the marsh was in turn tending to me. Other times, I asked writing friends to read and offer feedback. 

Somewhere along the way, poetry more and more felt like a good fit for my story. It allowed me to make vivid observations about my environment and my experience. But I didn’t have to feel bogged down by all the specifics of a complex timeline even though a story like structure of that year from the loss to new beginnings eventually emerged from one poem to the next. 

 Poetry allowed me, not only a way to create a way to name my experience, but also a way for me to grow and heal. I invite you to read the collection in one sitting and pay attention to the timeline that emerges from loss to eventual hope throughout its pages. 

I made sure to include a poem to reflect each season. One poem is called “That’s How it is in the Summer” another “When Spring Arrives” and, of course, a poem called “Dead of Winter.”

 Recently a friend wrote and said, “Tending the Marsh is beautiful and calming. I have the sense of walking beside you and seeing all the secrets of the marsh through your eyes.” 

Another friend who went through her own divorce a few years before said after reading Tending the Marsh that she wished she’d had it to read the year after her own divorce because of the comfort it provided.

Tending the Marsh was published December 2018 and includes poems like “When Grief Visits,” “Moonbeams,” “New Beginnings,” “Blessed” and Autumn on the Marsh.”

You can read Tending the Marsh available now on Amazon and in local bookstores and please feel free to reach out to share your experience or story if you feel moved to do so. Even better you can sign up to take my class Finding the Writer Within.  I can also be reached through my website at www.lindamariasteele.com. 

Marsh

The Value of a Good Wander When Writing

Lenphoto2017by Len Leatherwood

Any of my personal essay students will tell you that I often say, “It’s important to use  writing as a form of discovery.” I contend that personal essays that set out to prove a point automatically have built-in constraints.  The writer has a plan, an objective, a purpose, which is to convince the reader of something significant by the end of the essay. That’s fine in the editing process, but in the first draft stage, this kind of thinking has the capacity to hog-tie the writer. It also encourages averting one’s eyes from natural connections that might be more entertaining or edifying. In short, I believe that sometimes you have no idea what your essay is really about until you relax and let your mind do some serious wandering.

One might counter my argument with one that goes like this: “That’s all well and good for someone who has the time to fiddle around with this subject or that. However, I have a busy schedule and there are simply not enough hours in the day for me to be doing any casual dawdling during my writing time.”

I certainly do understand the limitations of time since I use that excuse a lot in my own life, particularly when it comes to writing. I too want to know where I’m going in my writing so I can get there as fast as possible and then hurry off to do whatever I have deemed more important, like resting, watching tv, taking a bath, going to bed, or eating something that I really want, like a piece of chocolate cake. However, the truth is that this discovery process is not all that time-consuming. It’s just a chance to allow one’s mind to wander here and there, trust associations and not get bogged down in the direct thinking of a + b = c and now, by golly, let’s go eat that piece of cake.

Speaking of cake, I sometimes think that I really ought to just write a food blog where I post recipes. I love to cook and particularly to bake. There is something so relaxing about puttering around the kitchen making cookies or a pie or a cake that will be satisfying and, hopefully, delicious to eat. Talk about a built-in reward system. This is nothing like writing an essay, which may or may not be satisfying or delectable, though it’s possible it could be both, depending on how much meandering I’ve been willing to do.

So, here we are at what should be the end of my essay and you might be raising an eyebrow and saying to yourself, “Hmmm, this little piece is going absolutely nowhere. So much for her point being illustrated.” And your remark admittedly will cause me to sigh and feel slightly inadequate since surely you are nothing but right about this loosey-goosey essay. However, there is a part of me that will muster up an internal protest and then narrow my eyes as I give you a hard look. Most people feel a bit uncomfortable when I give them that look. You might be the one exception.

My counter-argument to you would be: What have you learned about me here that you wouldn’t have learned if I had stuck with a straight-forward essay on how discovery is an essential part of writing?

Well, I dare say, that dry and boring essay would not for one minute have allowed the inclusion of my favorite ways to get out of writing (bed, bath and beyond) or the foray into the kitchen for a little aside about baking. That piece would also, no doubt, exclude internal dialogue and the description of me getting annoyed with you and giving you a death stare. The truth is that it wouldn’t matter what brilliant points I used to illustrate that boring premise because you would never have read this far. I would have most likely lost you in paragraph one.

So, my point? Play when you write. Entertain yourself. See where your mind takes you and don’t be afraid to stroll around a bit and perhaps even get really lost. Trust me. When you reread your piece and do a bit of adding or taking away here and there, you’ll see that you have something satisfying and maybe even delicious.

And after you’re done, you can still have chocolate cake. Though, by that point, you may not want it.

120421679-wandering-feet-of-a-woman-on-a-street.jpg

 

Len Leatherwood, Program Coordinator for Story Circle Network’s Online Classes, has been teaching writing privately to students for the past 20 years. She has received both state and national teaching awards for the past 10 years from the Scholastic Artists and Writers Awards, the oldest and most prestigious writing contest for youth in the US. She is a blogger at 20 Minutes a Day (http://lenleatherwood.wordpress.com/) as well as published author of flash fiction and nonfiction.

Writing About Your Mom Without Guilt

Writing About Your Mom Without Guilt

by Andrea Simon

In the 1960s, there was a famous television commercial for Anacin pain reliever that featured an aproned female stirring a liquid-filled pot at the stovetop. After a hovering older woman suggested adding a little salt from a shaker (that she happened to have handy), the younger one screamed, “Mother, PLEASE, I’d rather do it myself!”

There were many reasons why this angry response struck a familiar note in the American zeitgeist, no more so than it captured the prevalent theme of mother/daughter resentment and independence sprouting from the nascent feminist movement. I was a member of a consciousness-raising group in the 1970s, and the most recurrent discussion topic was “How I’m like (or Unlike) My Mother.” We were a generation obsessed with our maternal ties, no matter how tightly they were pulled.

My mother, like her mother before her, was often outrageous and provocative. I spent a great deal of my youth either being embarrassed by her frank, outspoken behavior or overcome by her intelligence and beauty. And when I eventually became a writer of fiction and literary nonfiction, my sights were focused on my best subject: my not-always-willing mother. She too longed to be a writer, but financial pressures got in her way. Her pride in my work often conflicted with her own frustrated ambitions.

When I was trying to sell my first novel, she called me and said, “I just read the worst book.” I lay on my bed, preparing for a diatribe. Instead, my mother calmly said, “This book was so bad. I just can’t understand why yours isn’t published.”

It could have been worse. Novelist and critic Daphne Merkin wrote: “When I rushed home to impart the news that a piece of fiction I’d written had been accepted by The New Yorker, she [my mother] said, “Your nose looks big when you smile.”

As a teacher and member of a longtime writing group, I read many stories of familial dysfunction and, yes, function. After conducting an online course on “Writing About Your Family” for the Story Circle Network (SCN), a Texas-based women’s group featuring writing and reading circles, I felt it was time to spotlight the mother/daughter relationship in earnest. When SCN asked me to teach a workshop at their national conference in the summer of 2018, I called it, “My Mother, My Muse — Writing About Your Mom Without Guilt.” I crossed my fingers that the more polite women from the South and Midwest would be as forthcoming as my New York cohorts— and that, frankly, someone would sign up.

Six brave women in their 50s and 60s ambled into the conference room and gathered around a circular linen-skirted table, complete with their plastic water bottles, coffee mugs, and legal pads. I stood in front of a long rectangular table, topped by a carboard-backed flip chart, the smallest one I could conceal in a canvas art case. At least, I consoled myself, I didn’t have to worry about the technical failure of a PowerPoint presentation. I could hide behind a photo of my mother and me on the cover of my flip chart, protecting myself from the wrath of feminine criticism.

I introduced the group to my mother with a few crazy anecdotes; the women laughed and nodded. I then handed out sheets, entitled “Fill in the Blank” with ten items, including: “I am most like my mother in __,” “If I could speak to my mother now, I would tell her __,” and “One of the most embarrassing things my mother ever said or did was __.”

I gave the group a ten-minute time limit, and within seconds, I heard groans. One Texan woman, yelled, “Oh, here we go.” The writers didn’t look up until I announced the time. Unfortunately, I didn’t save the worksheets; the women took them to complete at home. But I do recall one woman from Colorado who read her completed response to “I can never understand why my mother ___.” It was, “said she was sorry she had me.”

Wow, that was unexpected. This was not a therapy group, yet the answers were deep and primal. Sure, these women often admired their moms, but their anger and resentments were simmering, desperate to find their way to the page. Now in a safe, nonjudgmental space, they could explore (without guilt) the writerly issues of emotional boundaries and the worth of personal truth.

The time flew by with the women responding to other exercises and recounting their mother/daughter experiences. With 20 minutes remaining, I gave them a sheet with six writing prompts. Afterwards, we only had five minutes to listen to a few paragraphs. One woman fashioned her mother’s story in the first person as an autobiography. It was a life marked by sadness and regret. I was not the only one to hold back tears.

Three of the workshop women kept in touch. One shared her writing blog; another her success on a novel she introduced in our workshop. The third asked me to edit a piece she wrote about her mother that she was submitting to a magazine. Sometimes, only a short time is required to plant the seeds of connection.

The workshop taught me (or confirmed) many lessons. Women have similar desires and frustrations, no matter their age, stage, or geographical location. This is especially true of female writers who struggle with their sense of isolation, rejection, and need for acceptance — all foundational qualities emanating from the first relationship handed down through the female generational divide. As author Erica Jong said: “What use are all the struggles of your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother? Make no mistake, these ancestors are watching you. If you disappoint them, you disappoint yourself.”

This article first appeared in Women Writers, Women[‘s] Books website on January 2, 2020 at http://booksbywomen.org/writing-about-your-mom-without-guilt/

Andrea Simon is a writer and photographer who lives in New York City. She is the author of a memoir/history, Bashert: A Granddaughter’s Holocaust Quest, now in a paperback edition; an award-winning historical novel, Esfir Is Alive; and her new novel-in-stories, Floating in the Neversink. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York where she has taught introductory writing and creative writing.

Pitch Your Book with Ease

elevators-2400853_1280

You’ll attend a writing conference, at some point in your career, with opportunities to “pitch” or describe your book to an editor, publisher or agent. This encounter may seem intimidating, but following a few key tips will give you confidence for a relaxed, successful presentation.

Pitching your book is not one-sided. Both sides of the table stand to gain: the publisher wants to buy a good book, and you have one to sell.

Prior to your actual presentation, research the bios in the conference program of persons you’ll be pitching to. Go further. Learn more about them on the internet or in professional guides such as Writer’s Market or Guide to Literary Agents. Plan your pitch to correspond to those interests.

You already talk about your book to friends, family members, and even to the person sitting beside you on an airplane. Although interested, these folks don’t have time to listen to the entire plot of your book, nor does the publisher.

In the trade, this abbreviated conversation is called an “elevator pitch.” This means that your story should be brief and concise enough to finish by the time you’ve reached an upper level floor of the conference hotel.

A successful pitch should only hit the high points. But which ones? What you say and how you present yourself are both important.

Be conversational; appear easy to work with. State the title, setting (time/place), intended reader, major character/protagonist and what they want, ways the antagonist blocks their way, and how they finally persevere. Show how your background, experiences, education, travel, or passions make you the perfect person to write and market this book.

Save two or three of the usually allotted ten minutes for any questions. Accept advice (priceless) and don’t argue. Be prepared to follow up if you’re requested to send a chapter outline, first ten pages, or synopsis. Restate the requested materials to avoid any misunderstanding. End with a thank you.

_DSC4677 Marilyn H. Collins is known for her practical, hands-on workshops. She is author of local/regional history books, a series of Step-by-Step Writing Guides, and a wide-variety of magazine articles. She owns CHS Publishing and works with writers from answering their concept questions through editing their finished copy. Author, Speaker, Writing/Marketing Coach, Editor. Contact: https://marilynhcollins.com; hswc1@cox.net.