Every Writer Needs a Rita – Talking Yourself Down Off the Ledge

Recently I had an out-of-sorts day and could have easily (I mean easily) headed toward the ledge. Writer’s block. Ugh. But rather than going for the ledge-balancing act, I took a walk to sort out my out-of-sorts condition. One could just go to the hardware store and buy sorts if you find yourself out of sorts, but the only sorts they stock are short term ones.

Sorting works better than ledging.

What exactly is sorting, you ask?

Try a little air, a little movement, and asking yourself questions. Is it real or true? What am I feeling? Where am I feeling it? What is my body saying? Where is my body tight, grumpy, in pain? I stretched my mind as I stretched my legs. I made room for the bad/sad feelings and didn’t focus on forcing them to go away or stuff them.

Stuffing: bad.

Sorting: good.
Through the walking/sorting process, I realized I needed some mothering, some support, and realizing that, I knew what to do. I called on Rita.

Rita is a voice in my head. We all have voices in our heads (quit rolling your eyes). You know what I’m talking about. As goofy as it may sound, I give them names: Priscilla Productivity, Garbage Voice, and Sarah Slacker are probably the most prominent. They are, as you can well imagine, not nice voices, but they can be oh so loud in my head: youre not good at this, youre not doing it right, you should be doing ______ (fill in the blank), youre not good enough.

That voice of “you’re not good at this” sits in a chair next to me when I try to work on my manuscript. Writing my blogs? I can do. Working on my manuscript? The voice of “don’t bother” goes for my jugular every time “we” are at the computer.

But last year a new voice showed up, thank God. It was the one and only Rita. She is my loving protector, takes care of me, nurtures me, watches out for me and always has my back. She’s big, buxom, and bold, and when another voice is giving me a hard time, she gets up in his or her face and politely kicks them to the curb, then helps me down off the ledge.

She has appeared twice now in the flesh, as a SuperShuttle driver last September and last week as a Goodwill employee. I stopped by the Goodwill close to home and dropped off some items. Before I could unpack them out of the back of my car, a woman brought a cart around to the car and helped me with my delivery. We had a great conversation and a good laugh about the items.

She gave me the receipt and then said, “Thank you for making a difference in a life today.” I was so taken aback, I said, “Really?” to which she simply responded, “Yes.”

I asked her if I could hug her, and asked her for her name. Ms. Pat, she informed me as she gave me the best motherly hug I’ve had in quite some time. I told her my name and thanked her for making my day and left.

She was a Rita incarnation if ever I’ve seen one, and a reminder to me to call on Rita whenever I feel the need, but especially when I’m in writer mode. She believes in me. She makes a difference in my life. Who is your Rita? If you don’t have one, it’s time to find one. A little good will goes a long way.

Jeanne Guy Gatherings
Explore~Reframe~Restory Your Life
Reimagining Your Life Through Reflective Writing

Reevaluating Our Writing Goals

As part of my yearly evaluation, I am given the opportunity to review my professional and personal goals for the previous year and comment on whether they were met or not. Last year, I included the personal goal of advancing my creative writing endeavors, and today I was able to look back on those goals and assess my progress.

I realized, in this process, that my writing goals may not have been very realistic.

After reading an article on writing-world.com, I have decided to take a different approach to this year’s writing goals. I will focus on making them measurable, attainable, and meaningful.

One of my goals, which was to “get more involved with The Story Circle Network,” was not as measurable as it could be. I have tweaked it this year so that it reflects specific goals that can be assessed more accurately. This year the goals are “to submit a total of four blog posts per month, and to teach one online writing course for SCN.” These are goals that are less vague, and they will be easier to assess on a continual basis.

The second goal I listed was to host a monthly writing workshop at a local coffee shop in Galveston. I was so excited about this goal, but as I think about it now, it really was not attainable. My schedule can be so fickle
with my job supervising a writing center, and it makes it difficult to keep consistent commitments. Someone calling in sick can change my entire week, and I have to have built-in flexibility for when those times occur. A goal that is more attainable for me this year will instead be “to attend at least one creative writing retreat or workshop.” This, I feel certain, I can do.

Finally, the third goal was “to seek publication opportunities in multiple venues.” This one I’m keeping, because it meets the objective of being meaningful, as well as measurable. I believe that I have stories to tell and
things to say that others would enjoy reading and learn from, yet I’ve always been too fearful to submit my writing for publication. The same fear has made it difficult to even finish writing projects. The past few months, as I have become involved in SCN and seen some of my blog posts published, it has given me great encouragement. I’ve even been motivated to create a website for my freelance writing business. It is a work in progress, but it is sometimes those smaller victories that allow us to have the faith to move on to larger goals.

As writers, we must take time to self-evaluate. Do we know where we are going, and do we know why we want to get there? Perhaps your goals are lofty and grandiose, or maybe they are just tiny little baby steps. Either way,
goals should be spoken out loud, written down, and then evaluated for progress.

When was the last time you reevaluated yours?

Lisa is a community college writing center supervisor, an adjunct writing instructor at a local university, and a freelance writer. She lives in Santa Fe, Texas, and enjoys traveling and crochet. She looks forward to the day when she can live in a little house in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Visit her website.

Photos and Poems and Quotes, Oh My! How Other Creative Works Can Add to Your Writing

One of the first reviewers of my memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, said, “…The poetry and photographs add an extra dimension that is missing from most memoirs like this since as a reader you get much closer to the reality
of what is being described on the page…” (Mark Shelmerdine, CEO, Jeffers Press). Another reviewer said my book is “poetically visceral.” Those statements helped validate any misgivings I had in adding other creative works into my manuscript.

I really hadn’t thought of putting photos in my book until my publisher, suggested it. And of course I was delighted. At first she suggested photos interspersed within the chapters, but my book didn’t lend itself to that. So I picked out photos in groups: of my son Paul–the main subject of the book, of him and his brother, family photos, views of my office, garden, and one of the memorials to Paul–a bench dedicated to him on the greenbelt outside our home. At the time I had no idea what an impact these photos would have on the message of the book. However, I am currently reading Keith Richard’s memoir, Life. It has two photo sections. And I keep going back to these photos as I get to know more about the characters in his book.

Inserting my poems was another story. I never considered leaving them out. They were instrumental in my book’s organization. I had journal entries and other writings to draw from and a poetry manuscript, and I arranged my
book’s chapters according the order of the poems in my poetry manuscript. However, I still worried about what others would think. So many agents state that they don’t look at poetry. A memoir workshop instructor wasn’t keen on the idea. However, one of the people who had read my poems several years ago now says he can relate to them better because of their context in the story. The bottom line is: I was fortunate to find a publisher who not only liked the poems I initially had in the book, but asked for more.

Because I collect quotes–I usually note them down when I read, and I continually post them on my Facebook author page–I decided to insert three quotes in my book–two from books and one from a song. And that turned out to be the biggest problem in finally getting my book to print. Since I felt they were integral to my story I was adamant, but it took months to get the necessary permissions. The main lesson is: if you want to include other authors’ words in your book, start getting permission early.

All in all, I felt it was well worth the extra time it took to include other works in my memoir. My writing is very personal and I feel the photos, poems, and quotes helped deepen the personal message of my words.

For more from Madeline Sharples, visit her blog.

Exploring Creativity: Musings Journal

When I took Sherrie York’s field journal workshop at Rocky Mountain Land Library‘s Buffalo Peaks campus in August, I came home inspired and vowed to make sketching a part of my creative routine. “I’ll do a few sketches every week,” I told myself.

And… I didn’t. Of course I have good excuses: writing and workshop deadlines got crazy. In September, I was on the road most of the month, driving almost 5,000 miles in just over three weeks. And so on.

Still, I could have made the time and I didn’t. Clearly, I needed a nudge.

So when my neighbor, Lisa DeYoung of Mountain Mermaid Studios, mentioned the other day that she had finished the new edition of her Musings Journal, I bought one on the spot.

Today I took time to play with it. (Lisa offers two versions of this hand-designed tool for creative play: a daily one dated with the months of the the year, and an undated one. I bought the latter so I wouldn’t feel guilty about missing a few weeks now and again.)

Pages in the undated journal, just waiting for me to fill those rectangles with something…

I took my journal and my trusty mechanical pencil out to the front steps to think about where to start. A comma butterfly fluttered in and landed on the rabbitbrush near me and began to feed. It sipped nectar from one flower cluster, crawled to the next, and sipped more.

I picked up my pencil and began a simple gesture drawing, sketching the general form with quick shapes, and then beginning to fill in the details. The comma was so cooperative that I had gotten the ragged outline of the wings and had begun on the somewhat complicated wing pattern when I looked up and…

The butterfly was gone.

Since the rabbitbrush hadn’t flown away, I sketched one of the small, compound flowers, and then took my journal inside. I dug out my favorite colored pencils and added color.

Derwent “inktense” colored pencils, which I love for the tin they come in as well as their great feel and handling.

I even colored in the shapes Lisa had drawn as a playful border for the page, and thought wryly as I did that my kindergarten report card probably said something like, “Very enthusiastic, but cannot stay in the lines.”

Which is quite true about my approach to life as well: show me a line or a wall or a boundary of any kind, and I’ll be the one quietly figuring out how to stray beyond it.

When I finished coloring, I made some notes (ever the scientist, observing and recording those observations), and looked at my first “creative play” page. My butterfly sketch isn’t finished–the comma flew away mid-pattern–but it pleased me, which is important.

The butterfly was actually perched upside down as it fed, so I drew it that way…

I learned something about myself in the doing. I’m not a doodler; doodles are abstractions, and I’ve never been particularly good at the abstract, whether in philosophy or art. I’m rooted in what I can touch, smell, taste; what I can measure and observe, describe and record. (There’s that scientist again!)

Nor am I am artist. I have friends who are wonderfully talented at interpreting life through visual and sculptural forms, who practice art in their daily life. My late love was one such.

I’m an observer of details, one who notices the everyday marvels around me, one who wonders constantly about how it all works: how all of the beings involved in creating this animate world fit together, the why and who and how and where of life. I’m happy practicing sketching as a way to notice and record, to witness life going about its business.

This moment, this now.

This comma butterfly who flitted before I could puzzle out the pattern on those dusky orange wings.

For now, I’m just happy to be able to translate a moment onto a journal page as a way to focus, to learn, and to express my gratitude in being alive on this glorious autumn day.

Thank you Lisa for the nudge, Sherrie for reminding me that I do love to sketch, and comma butterfly for fluttering into my day…

For more from Susan J. Tweit, visit her blog.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 6

This is the sixth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

When my children were small, I took them on short walks in nearby wooded areas. As they got older, I showed them the pleasures of hiking the trails of Yosemite National Park and other places of beauty. No matter where we went as a family or how easy or how hard the path, they loved to dash ahead to seek new adventures. Parental pace was much too slow for them. They ran ahead and then came back quickly. They wore themselves out by covering each distance twice. But that was part of their enthusiasm.

Reflecting on the different paces we manage at different times in our lives, consider this sixth and last Tao of Memoir Writing:

The child in us runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout cautiously leads the way.

In writing, we tell others of delights or dangers, yet we are the same person.

There is more than one storyteller in each of us. We should let each of these voices come to the fore at different times to help others understand the many textures of our lives.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: Writing about a time of passionate youthfulness? Try using short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. You will convey some of the boundless energy of that period. Writing about a period of aging or time spent caring for your elderly parents? See if longer sentences and paragraphs better reflect the slowness of those experiences.

If you think about music, recall that there are fast passages and slow passages. Similarly, words create a tempo for the reader and the memoirist controls this by varying the length of the sentences and paragraphs.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Find a paragraph in a memoir that is particularly vivid for you. Analyze it: Count the number of sentences. Count the number of words in each sentence. Do several long sentences follow each other? Are short sentences used to create impact?

Then rewrite the paragraph. Try making long sentences short. Make short sentences long. You can do this by combining sentences or by cutting some in half. How do the changes alter the rhythm of the story? Which do you like better?

In what ways will you use the craft of writing to show: “The child in us that runs ahead on the path with boundless energy. The seasoned scout that cautiously leads the way.”

by Matilda Butler

Dropped Chops, Salmonella Speculations, and the High School Hypothesis

I love urban myths. Few things get me more excited than fanatically hunting down questionable Facebook memes and skimming the latest Snopes updates for the truth, whether it’s the high price tag of Hillary’s designer jacket or
the impending invasion of sea lice.

There are many questionable claims out there, hitting us from all sides. But there is often little credible evidence to support them. So today, when I came across an article on CNN about scholarly research on the validity of the 5 Second Rule, I had to put down my lemon biscotti. And. Read.

Most of us are familiar with the 5 Second Rule. We triumphantly announce it when we drop a piece of food on the floor, then proceed to eat it. “Still good! Five second rule!” The reasoning is that if the food stays in contact
with the floor for fewer than five seconds, germs have no time to attach themselves. The 5 Second Rule has been a unifying mantra that knew no color or creed, until recently, when CNN ruined it for us all. Apparently, we have
all been wrong. Our claims have been unfounded. And guess who we have to thank for it?

A high school student named Jillian Clarke.

Yes–this urban myth, the origins of which have erroneously been credited to Julia Child, was brought into question by a high school student. After Clarke’s initial research, a study was conducted in 2007 through Clemson
University, which backed up Clarke’s findings, and then was again confirmed by another study last year in the UK. The study outcomes were the same, and I do take some liberties in summary: if it hits the floor, it’s no good.

What is the moral of the story here? There are many possibilities, but what resonated with me is that this urban myth has been debunked because a high school student had the gumption to question something that didn’t sound
right. She questioned it, then set about to prove whether her questions were merited.

Not only should you remember this story when you drop your food on the floor, but you should remember it when you conduct research for your writing. You will likely come across all sorts of articles, texts, and claims that sound similar to this: someone says something is true, and you believe it, even if something deep down inside thinks it’s fishy.

Listen to that little voice. Listen, even if means that you have to go back and do more research. Don’t plug the first thing that sounds intellectual or unique into your writing without vetting it. Be sure you understand
everything you’ve read and that it makes sense. Be Jillian. Be brave enough to say, “Maybe I should do more research…”

Be brave enough to question everything you read, because sometimes the experts haven’t caught up to the common sense-driven writer, and sometimes YOU may be the only one who questions the propaganda.

Be brave, and leave the food on the floor.

Lisa Hacker supervises a community college writing center where she finds immense joy in helping students become better writers. She also teaches writing at a local university. She lives in Texas with her husband, David, and has three adult children. She is also the grandmother to Julia and Graham. Recently she started a new writing business, The Queen’s English. Visit her website.

The Tao of Memoir Writing: Part 5

This is the fifth in a series of six posts by Matilda Butler.

This reflection on the Tao of Memoir Writing begins with an understanding that not all stories are created equal. Some vignettes we write evoke pleasant memories. It is tempting to tell these stories as if we are still experiencing them. Other vignettes evoke quite the opposite memories. When we tell these stories, we want to “keep our distance.” Consider:

Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.

There is a best distance for recalling each event of our lives.

Some stories may be pure delight; they invite us to recount them from an intimate distance. Yet if we stand too close, we may miss their meaning.

Other stories may be too painful to tell without distance, without a narrator’s voice that lets us step outside the situation. Yet if we are too far away, we may lose sight of the emotional and factual truths hidden within.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING TIP: We write memoirs for many reasons. But a common outcome across all the reasons for starting is a better understanding of ourselves at the ending.

A TAO TRY THIS: Take a magazine article. Hold it up so that it almost touches your eye. What do you see? Take that same article and put it on the other side of the room. Now walk back to where you usually sit. What do you see?

If you do this exercise, you’ll understand what we mean in this Tao of Memoir Writing. “Too close or too far away, we cannot see clearly.” When the article was next to your eye, you couldn’t make out a single word, possibly not even a single letter. The parallel in memoir writing is the story when you include many details but forget to bring out why it mattered.

When the article was across the room, you couldn’t read words. In memoir writing, this is the equivalent of crafting a vignette in such a remote way that the reader wonders why you bothered to include it. Again, to “see clearly” our lives, we need to write at the mid-range, neither too close nor too far away.

This is not to say we write about all events in the same way or from the same distance. Be prepared to move in as close as comfort allows. But before you conclude your story, move back. Put the story in context. Consider its impact on your life.

TAO OF MEMOIR WRITING PROMPT: Write a paragraph about an event or person in your life. The first time, lavish details on this vignette. Get as close as you can. The second time, write with coldness and detachment. Reflect on how you feel after each effort. Write a second paragraph for each version. In the second paragraph take the story and put it in context, personal, cultural, or historical. Give the vignette perspective, personal perspective. How did you feel? How did it change you?

As you write your memoir consider the implication for you and your reader of writing at various distances from the story.

by Matilda Butler