Category Archives: On Writing & the Writing Life

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]
1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold.
origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what?

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day.

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained.

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.


Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane,
at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary.

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown.

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago—the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday—and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now).

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilarating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books.

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe.

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom.

What’s Your Story?

One of the reasons we write stories from our life is to make sense of our journeys.

What have we accomplished that has made a difference? What lessons should we pass on? What wounds need to be healed? What do we celebrate, and who do we forgive? What story are you creating foryourself?

The answers to these questions are revealed in the stories we tell about ourselves.

Periodically we need to pause and assess how our lives are unfolding. Understanding the twists and turns that our lives have taken gives us a choice to move forward on the same path or in a different direction. “They” say that we cannot change our past (and they are right). However, we can start fresh with a new beginning at any time in our lives.

We were created by a loving God who gives us the gift of free will to be authors of our life stories. How is your story unfolding? Are you the hero(ine) or the victim? As children we depended on others to give us a good life, and sometimes they let us down in tragic, even horrific ways. But we are the adults now–the ones in charge–the ones who are responsible for our happiness and peace of mind. The truth is, we can keep doing the same things over and over expecting different results, or we can have the courage to change and embrace the life we were meant to live.

Writing prompt: Write a letter congratulating yourself on a time you stood your ground. How did it make you feel?

Helpful resource: One of the books in my personal library that has helped me dig deeply into myself for understanding is Barry Lane’s Writing as a Road to Self-Discovery (Writer’s Digest Books, 1993).

Joyce Boatright has been writing stories from her life since 1991. She serves on the Board of Story Circle Network.

White Board Magic

by Jude Walsh Whelley

While in Prague for a Deep Writing Workshop with my creativity coach Eric Maisel, he walked us through a demonstration on how to use a white board to focus and track your work. He mapped out a three-month plan to write a non-fiction book. I have found that using the white board to focus my work really helps. I use this technique in different ways; this is the current version.

I note the goals at the top. These are the big ideas, the final products.

Then I list the specific things I am doing that week to advance those goals. Now the nice thing about a white board is the ability to easily erase and revise. So I can set my plans for the week and then adjust them as the week progresses. For example, I may have on the board to read a particular article for research and get that into Evernotes. Then the next step listed might be to incorporate that into the chapter where it belongs, to add some words to that chapter. But if in reading that article, I get leads on two or three additional articles that look good, I can revise my board to include more research time as opposed to writing time.

What is most helpful for me is having the plan in such an easily viewed form. My white board is oversized; many folks work with much smaller ones but bigger is better for me. It is hard to miss this in my smallish workspace. Setting the board up weekly is best for me now because I am working short at the moment, concentrating on personal essays. As I begin to plan a non-fiction book I will move to the three-month plan on the big board with a smaller board for weekly tracking. If I am working on two projects simultaneously, I just use different colored dry erase markers to identify which task goes to which project.

Simple, easy, efficient! Thanks Eric Maisel for a strategy that continues to serve me well.

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

On Writing Women’s Biographical Fiction

Most readers know me as a mystery author, but for the past five or six years, I’ve been indulging my interest in biographical fiction. My first biographical novel, A Wilder Rose, told the story of Rose Wilder Lane, the woman who rewrote the family stories her mother—Laura Ingalls Wilder—had written down. Together, they created the Little House books. When publishers weren’t interested in the book, I published it under my own imprint, Persevero Press. A Wilder Rosehas sold over 60,000 copies and is under option for film.

My second biographical novel, based on letters held in the FDR Presidential Library, tells the story of the friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Titled Loving Eleanor, it too was published by Persevero Press just a few months ago. I’m almost finished with a third, set during WW2 and into the postwar years. The General’s Women is about Kay Summersby, Mamie Eisenhower, and Ike, the man they both loved. It is based on Kay’s memoirs, Eisenhower biographies, and letters I found in the Eisenhower Presidential Library. Another project, now in the research stage: a novel about the five women who loved Franklin Roosevelt: his mother, his wife, his lover, his secretary, and his cousin. I’m tempted to call it Loving Franklin, to pair it with Loving Eleanor.

Writing biographical fiction is—for me—deeply satisfying work. I am far more interested in her stories than I am in histories. I am fascinated by stories of women who have set out to do things, discover things, make their way in a man’s world, even change that world and the people in it. Unfortunately, history—that is, our public memory, the culture’s corporate record of events and ideas—is not only written by the winners but written by the men who have won. The stories of women who counted for something are usually hidden in history, behind his stories, because their achievements often challenge commonly-accepted beliefs about how women are supposed to behave. So I spend a lot of time digging around in unpublished diaries, letters, autobiographical fragments, pieces of memoir—listening for voices that need to be heard. Silenced voices, misunderstood voices, whispers. Not history. Her stories.

It’s a good thing that I enjoy research, because any kind of historical fiction—fiction set in the past—requires quite a lot of it. Biographical fiction, which toes a delicate line between acknowledged fact and imagined truth, creates its own special research demands. And biographical fiction about a well-known, much-admired woman is extraordinarily challenging. For Loving Eleanor, I started in the usual place: by reading everything I could find to read. At the time (2014-2015), there wasn’t much published material about Lorena Hickok, except for brief introductions to her Depression-era investigative reports to Harry Hopkins and an inadequate biography. The Roosevelts, of course, are the subject of dozens of books, so I ended up with a full bookcase and plenty of film and online resources.
herstories_HickokRoosevelt1small
But since I’m interested in the hidden stories, what I’m chiefly after are unpublished documents. It is our great good fortune that Lorena Hickok, who clearly wanted somebody to tell the story of her friendship with the First Lady, donated her collection of letters and other documents to the FDR Presidential Library. Reading them is very much like listening to hundreds of hours of private, intimate conversation. I found myself pulled deeply into the worlds that Hick and Eleanor shared. That’s when the real questions began to arise. Who are these women, behind the personas history has created for them? What do they want, what do they need? What are they afraid of? What is it they have to learn? Where is the real story, the hidden story? These are the questions that take us deep into the imaginative heart of fiction, but keep us within the boundaries established by the biographical and historical facts—the truths—that careful and persistent research can discover.

I heard filmmaker Errol Morris speak recently about making documentary films. “We don’t  judge a documentary film on whether it tells the truth,” he said, “but whether it attempts to seek the truth and asks you to think about the relationship between the film and what the truth might be—if it could be found.”

That’s what I’m trying to do with these biographical fictions about women’s hidden lives. I want to take us toward what the truth of their lives might be—if it can be found.


Susan Wittig Albert is a best-selling novelist, memoirist, and author of both adult and young adult fiction and nonfiction. She lives on a 31-acre Texas Hill Country homestead with her husband and frequent coauthor, Bill Albert. She founded the Story Circle Network in 1997. Her website: susanalbert.com.

Critique Abundance

JudeCritique

by Jude Walsh Whelley

Last Thursday it was my turn for critique with the Plot Sisters, the five amazing women writers who read and respond to my work. I am new to this group, they have been responding to one another’s writing for several years. We respond to only one writer per session and she has the entire two hours devoted to her work. I gave the Sisters one essay that I wrote  more than a year ago and found as I was cleaning out my documents files. I read it over, realized I could do a much better job with it now and revised it to give to the group. And then I trusted them with a newly hatching piece, only partly written, a true first draft.

They responded to the revised piece first. I can see how my craft has improved! These years of writing almost every day, taking craft classes, reading widely, and attending workshops is paying off. I am a better writer. I had a good start on that essay, I liked the content, but could tell it better. I now have the skill set to be able to look at my work and know what to do to improve it, so I made some changes and expanded the work before sending it to them.

The changes I made were only the first step in getting to a polished piece, a piece ready for submission. Having this critique session with people I trust and respect, gave me a more complex level of response, elevating the essay’s potential. The Sisters gave three forms of feedback: their comments during the session, the writing with either hand marked or track change comments, and a few paragraphs of general critique and suggestions. The photo above was the treasure I took home after the session. Talking over the piece, listening to their remarks and criticisms, seeing it through their eyes, made me want to rush home and immediately begin revising.

They responded differently to the second piece. Recognizing that it was not fully developed, they responded tenderly, simply saying what they liked and what drew them in and what potential they could see. I felt like the egg I had been sitting on, keeping warm so it could grow, was passed from nest to nest and returned to mine a little more developed within its shell. And that now there was some pecking from inside that shell, signaling it was ready to enter the world.

 You can surely see why I titled this post Critique Abundance! I left that session energized, inspired, and easy to revise. Thank you Plot Sisters!

Jude Walsh Whelley writes fiction, memoir, and poetry. She lives in Dayton, Ohio. This post was previously published on her blog, Writing Now.

The Journey from Aerospace Writer to Creative Writer

big sur

by Madeline Sharples

I worked as a writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business for a total of twenty-eight years. I had a reputation for being a good writer so I got some of the plum jobs – working on newsletters, websites, award applications, and even ghostwriting letters for top managers, but the writing style for any of those tasks was nothing near creative.

However, I learned a lot about writing and revision while working on deadline-oriented, and super stressful proposals. We wrote a little, we edited, we reviewed, and then we revised. And we’d repeat that sequence many times throughout a typical three-month proposal effort. I also taught proposal teams how to write their text, emphasizing the importance of keeping their fingers moving until the writing is finished, then stepping away from their prose for a bit before editing it. I think that advice works for all kinds of writers. If you don’t have another person’s eyes to look at it and edit it for you, leave it be for a while, make yourself a hard copy, take out a red pen, and move to another location in your house. It will be like having a fresh pair of eyes looking at your work.

All that is practical advice. But the actual difference in writing to address technical requirements and writing a creative story or poem or essay is harder to address.

I think the main requirement – at least for me – is that I wanted to make the transition. I had wanted to be a writer since I was in grade school. I studied journalism in high school and wrote feature articles for the high school newspaper. Then I took all the course work toward a degree in journalism in college though I ended up with a degree in English because I transferred schools just before my senior year (that’s a story all its own). So, when I got out of college I wanted in the worst way to write for a magazine or newspaper. After a few attempts I turned to the aerospace industry. I got a positive response after one call and asked, “Do you ever hire people with a degree in English?” Easy, right? But hard on my dream to become a “real” writer.

And though I never gave up on that dream, for the next several decades I took creative detours. I learned to draw and paint, I learned to sew, I made needlepoint pillows, I quilted and gardened. And, I co-authored a non-fiction book, Blue Collar Women: – a little less technical than my work in aerospace. Anything to keep my hand in creativity, until finally I could stand it no longer.

I took a workshop called, “Writing about Our Lives” at Esalen in Big Sur, California in the late 1990s. It was there that I wrote about my misgivings about ever being able to make the transition. Here’s what I wrote: “My writing is so factual, so plain, so devoid of descriptors, feelings, and imagination.” Later I learned that was okay. Once I discovered a private instructor in Los Angeles who taught me to “write like you talk,” I knew I was on my way.

Madeline Sharples1During her 30-year professional career, Madeline Sharples worked as a technical writer/editor and proposal manager in the aerospace business and wrote grant proposals in the nonprofit arena. She started to fulfill her dream to work as a creative writer in the last few years. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On: A Mother’s Memoir of Living with Her Son’s Bipolar Disorder and Surviving His Suicide, was released in a hardback edition in 2011 and released in paperback and eBook editions by Dream of Things in 2012. 

She also co-authored Blue-Collar Women: Trailblazing Women Take on Men-Only Jobs (New Horizon Press, 1994), co-edited the poetry anthology, The Great American Poetry Show, Volumes 1,2, and 3, and wrote the poems for two photography books, The Emerging Goddess and Intimacy (Paul Blieden, photographer). Her poems appear online and in print magazines, several appear in the Story Circle Network True Words series. The 2016 Porter Gulch Review and the Yellow Chair Review’s 2016 ITWOW (In the Words of Womyn) anthology will publish two new poems this year.

Madeline’s articles appear regularly at the Naturally Savvy and Aging Bodies websites. She also posts at her blogs, Choices and is currently writing a novel. In addition, she produced a CD of her son’s music called Paul Sharples at the Piano, as a fundraiser to help erase the stigma of mental illness and prevent suicide. It was released on the fifthteenth anniversary of his death in September 2014.

Madeline studied journalism in high school, wrote for the high school newspaper, studied journalism at the University of Wisconsin, and received a B.A. degree in English from the University of California at Los Angeles.

 

Beyond Rain Man Gives Unique Insights: Excerpts from an Interview with Anne K. Ross

By B. Lynn Goodwin

Rainmancover

It takes courage to write a memoir about family. An author exposes herself and her loved ones to observation and criticism as well as appreciation. Anne K. Ross has taken a close look at her family’s unique situation in Beyond Rain Man. She looks at his condition as both a mother and a school psychologist.

An accomplished writer who looks at the diagnosis from a unique perspective, Ross brings a full gamut of emotions to her observations. She compares her own reactions to the parents of students on the spectrum. This is the story of how they cope, survive, and come to terms with a condition that was barely recognized when her son was born.

LG: Tell us a bit about your writing background. When did you become a writer and how do you balance the lives of a school psychologist, a mom, and a writer?

AKR: I’ve always written, starting with a diary in fourth grade and then writing for my school newspapers. Later I got busy with my career as a school psychologist and always wanted to get back to writing creatively (school psychologists write thousands of words a year crafting psycho-educational reports, but it takes a different part of the brain to do that writing).

Then I had my kids and it was even harder to find time to devote to writing. But my eldest son’s behavior was so challenging—tantrums way past typical ages for them and resistance to certain types of clothing—so I started writing again, in a journal. I wrote it all down because I felt like I was a bad mother and I was going crazy. But as I learned more about the autism spectrum through my work, I became a better mom. And as I understood my son more and more, I became a better school psychologist.

LG: What is Beyond Rain Man: What One Psychologist Learned Raising a Son on the Autism Spectrum about and why was it important for you to tell this story?

AKR: It’s about my partner and me raising our two boys, our eldest who finally got the diagnosis of Asperger’s at age eleven, and our youngest, who is neurotypical (doesn’t have an autism spectrum disorder). It’s about all the things we learned along the way, how we did cope, how we raised two boys who have turned out to be wonderful young men.

I wanted to tell our story in order to help other families who are going through this extra challenging parenting journey so they wouldn’t feel so alone and so they could learn how to get the supports and services their children might need at school and in the community. Since I’m a school psychologist, I know the ins and outs of special education and wanted to share that knowledge.

I also wrote Beyond Rain Man in order to help educate professionals in the field—pediatricians, therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists—about the breadth of the autism spectrum and how not everyone on the spectrum fits the type made famous in the movie, Rain Man.

LG: What was the most challenging part about writing this memoir and what was the easiest?

AKR: Probably the easiest part was writing it all down in my journals. The harder part—and it took me about eight years—was to form that writing into a true memoir, with a solid structure, well-developed characters, and a narrator with an appealing voice who has some distance from the events and who could look back with a balanced perspective and be both self critical and forgiving.

AKR: Be ridiculously tenacious. Find a writing community in person or online. Ask for and accept feedback. Write for the pleasure it brings you and not for any dreams of fame or riches.

LG: Where can people learn more about Beyond Rain Man and where can they purchase a copy?

AKR: The Beyond Rain Man website (www.beyondrainman.com) has links to reviews, an excerpt, and ordering links. Beyond Rain Man is available as a print and ebook.

LG: Thank you for sharing and inspiring, Anne.
Read more of this interview at http://www.writeradvice.com.

+++

BlynnPB. Lynn Goodwin is the owner of Writer Advice, http://www.writeradvice.com, and the author of both You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers (Tate Publishing) and TALENT (Eternal Press). Her blog is at http://blynngoodwin.com. Goodwin’s stories and articles have been published in Voices of Caregivers; Hip Mama; Small Press Review; Dramatics Magazine; The Sun; Good Housekeeping.com and many other venues. She is currently working on a memoir about getting married for the first time at age 62.

Talent CoverLynnG2