Tag Archives: creative advice

Critique Abundance


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.



By B. Lynn Goodwin

Writing is a lonely business. Sometimes. Other times it’s a joyous celebration with friends or a slog through one’s own unique valley of despair.

Frankly, I’m glad I’m not on a writing team at the moment, though that might be an interesting project if the subject matter was right. Since I work alone, though, it’s up to me to keep myself motivated.

Lately, my husby has helped. He became my accountability partner last night when he asked, “Did you put in two hours on the memoir today?”

“No. Not today.”

I got up and got in the car by 9—okay 9:10—so I could give my journaling workshop for the Family Caregiver Alliance over in Menlo Park at 11. Then I was going to find a Starbuck’s on or near the Stanford Campus, but frankly, I was too exhausted, so I got in my car for the long trek home, and when I got here I was so tired I fell asleep for an hour and a half.  “I didn’t get it done because of the workshop. I don’t mind your asking though.”

I never mind accountability, except when it makes me feel small or irresponsible. I won’t mind if he asks me tonight, but he won’t because I already e-mailed him that I put in two hours. I might not have done that without his asking me about it last night.

If you don’t have an accountability partner right now and you need a little encouragement, here’s my question: “What did you write about today?” If the answer is nothing, think about your reason. You know I’ll understand. Why not post an answer below, and then you will have written today.

If you need a little encouragement, here’s something I shared yesterday in the journaling workshop, where I encouraged caregivers to vent, rant, process, discover, and find peace. I offer them to you, because every time I read them, I remember the value of what we all do.

Why Write?

“It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating.”  — Gustave Flaubert

“For many of us, writing is a form of prayer, and when our lives become too busy and we don’t give ourselves time to write and develop our writing, we feel diminished.”    –Sheila Binder

“We cannot live through a day without impacting the world around us – and we have a choice: What sort of impact do we want to make?” ~ Dr. Jane Goodall 

“Problems are opportunities in work clothes.”  – Thomas Edison

“Words, like eyes, are windows into a person’s soul, and thus each writer, in some small way, helps to enrich the world.”   –Mark Robert Waldman

“Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.Samuel Johnson

“A birddoesn’t sing because it has an answer,

it sings because it has a song. — Maya Angelou, poet

“There are two ways of spreading light – to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”  —– Edith Wharton

BlynnP B. 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 athttp://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 Cover


Permission Slips

by Jude Walsh Whelley


Every Sunday I meet with my tribe of four women writers for a morning of what Eric Maisel calls Deep Writing. It is a lovely, centering time where we sit side-by-side and write. During occasional breaks we share information on craft, submission, and building platform. The shared writing energy keeps us focused and productive. On my drive home, as I process what I wrote and what we shared, I am frequently inspired. At those moments, I use the voice memo function on my phone to record my thoughts. I may listen to that voice memo and tranfer it to written form immediately or, if life grabs me when I get home, the memo may sit for a while.

In a recent burst of decluttering energy, I decided to review those waiting memos. I found this gem and want to share. I was looking for ways to honor my muse and prioritize time for writing. These are the permission slips I wrote for myself. Perhaps you might like to take a few moments and write some permission slips of your own?

I give myself permission to do what I love

I give myself permission and encouragement to pursue my writing dreams

I give myself permission to devote time to my writing first

I give myself permission to buy the things I need to help me accomplish my goals

I give myself permission to say no to favors or meeting someone else’s needs that distract me from my purpose

I give myself permission to do this without guilt

I give myself permission to write my truth without concern for how it makes anyone else feel because it is my truth, my writing, my story, and no one is going to keep me from speaking my truth.

I give myself permission to put myself first

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

Mary Amaryllis

By Susan Schoch

Mary Amaryllis is something of a friend to me, though it’s a one-sided relationship. I have come to know and appreciate her, but she had only the glimmer of a future connection with a reader to help her imagine me.

Mary Amaryllis kept journals from 1861 to 1879, beginning on her thirteenth birthday, and through enormous changes and challenges, and over many miles, preserved those journals into her old age. She went through them with an editorial eye when she was in her 70s, making notes in the margins, clearly envisioning that one day they would be read. There are 1700 transcribed pages waiting, perhaps with some of Mary’s impatience, to give her voice again. A rather distant cousin did the Herculean task of reading the tiny script and carefully reproducing it on the computer. I believe that she and I are the only people who have read every word that Mary Amaryllis saved for us, her unknown audience. It’s become my task, and my honor, to edit those words into a book, without altering the character, tone, or intent of that remarkable young woman.

I can just see Molly (as she was often called by family and old friends) curling up with a scrap of paper and a pencil under an appealing tree in the southern Ohio countryside. She was a great one for long rambles to visit friends and family, and liked to keep a record of them. Often, she would later rewrite stories and events in pen and ink in her faithful journal, and sometimes published them as she matured. She also wrote lots of letters and notes, and enjoyed the essay assignments at school. From the very first entry, she had me charmed.

 “Home in the Country. Rome Tp., Athens Co., O.

            Sunday, May 12, 1861          

I am quite too young to write a worthy dedication for the record of my life which I propose to keep from this time thence-forth upon the clear pages of this handsome book, so I will leave such things to older and wiser heads, and begin on this, my thirteenth birth-day, a simple jotting down of the small events of my back-woods life, which seem to me, with my rustic training, great ones. My father is by trade, a blacksmith, but at present is “carrying on” a small farm, upon the Marietta and Cincinnati Rail-road two miles from the handsome little village of New England.”

Molly’s parents valued education, and she did well in school. She was a bright light in her small village, a talented singer and dancer, popular and full of fun, happy to be in the spotlight, definitely flirtatious, and a loyal friend. There are countless mentions of Sunday evening singing schools, and spontaneous late nights of dance and music at home, whenever a friend came by with an instrument. She mentions, too, sitting up with dying family and friends, and caring for younger siblings and neighbors.

As a teenager she was typically self-absorbed, even as she was affected by the traumas of the Civil War. The tedium and restrictions of war seemed to be as troubling for her as the losses. Until tragedy struck closer to home. Mary’s mother died when she was just 15. She had to bear much more responsibility at home, where there were still four younger children, one just a baby. Then her father remarried and the stepmother was a nag. By 17, Mary was charmed and pressured into marriage with a dashing young officer. That decision rapidly proved to be a disaster.

Mary Amaryllis did not, however, give up on anything easily, and through the rest of the War, and for some years after it, she was the mainstay of the marriage, running boarding houses and working as a seamstress, growing as much food as she could, and enduring often-miserable living conditions, illness, awful bouts of homesickness, and her husband’s errant ways. She had a baby. Her sister often came to help. The family kept moving, from the post-War rebuilding of Chattanooga to the booming oil fields of West Virginia, from coal-mining towns to rural isolation. At each place, they made a fresh start and her ne’er-do-well but handsome husband brought them down.

Then he was killed in a construction accident. Their little girl was still a toddler. There is a year missing in the journals, and a silence that surrounds this event all through the rest of her writing. Did she journal during that time? Did she later discard the writing of that year, as too private, or too painful? Certainly she was changed. Mary Amaryllis came out of that loss determined to do more than just survive, and intent on transforming herself into the woman she wanted to be.

How she did that is wonderful to discover in her journals. Starting life over as a widowed seamstress in a shirt factory in Chicago, she worked and studied hard, overcame tremendous challenges, and saw history made. Happily, the ending of her saga is a good one. And having traveled those years with her as her editor, she has won my affection and admiration through the strength of her words. I find myself devoted to helping her achieve her real ambition – publication.  This will likely be an unpaid effort, but there will be enduring compensation nonetheless. It feels right to help Mary Amaryllis tell her story. Her struggle to raise herself up in life, to gain independence and to achieve the love and lifestyle that she longed for, her persistence, strength, creativity, political and social concern, and even her vanity, all are still relevant to women 150 years later. By employing some of that same perseverance, her personal yet emblematic life’s work may yet find many readers like me, who see themselves reflected in some way in her experience, and come to feel enthusiastically a friend to Mary Amaryllis.

The task of editing such historical documents carries much responsibility, and I am discovering resources that may be helpful to other writing women. One such is this book: Editing Historical Documents, (http://tinyurl.com/qcv55od), recommended by Giselle Roberts, author of A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson.  Another is The Journal of American History, (http://www.journalofamericanhistory.org). If you have old family records, don’t hesitate. Mary Amaryllis is surely not the only one of our foremothers who is waiting to be heard.

6.5 Multi-talented? Ask the Creative Catalyst.

Saraswati Saraswati

Saraswati: Hindu Goddess of music, knowledge, and the arts.

Notice her four arms–typical of artist-writers-musicians-performers. The doubled images tell the story. Can we be in two places at the same time? Maybe. See the conversation below between “Swamped” and the Creative Catalyst. –Janet Riehl


Dear Creative Catalyst: It’s only the first week of the school year, and I’m feeling swamped already! Is dancing and leading workshops in addition to teaching a dodge from my main work as a poet? Is it a secret wish for failure?

Swamped in Savannah

Dear Swamped: That depends on your motivation and how you manage time and energy. Does fear not being enough lead you toward distraction? More practically, are you over-booked?

Swamped: I think I’m in search of something, but I don’t know what.

Creative Catalyst: Wholeness, as I see it. But there is only so much of you to go around. Your quest leads to fragmentation rather than wholeness.

Swamped: I want to feel that expressing myself as a poet is enough. I want to feel worthy without having to add another layer—say, becoming a nature mystic before I can be a worthy poet.

Creative Catalyst: It’s a bitch to be an artist in our linear world! Be careful not to internalize judgments from family and friends. Sure, it’s okay to be the poet you are without another layer. You don’t have to prove yourself to feel worthy.

Layering springs from a creative impulse and is a quest for richness. Simpler is easier. But now all the richness, wholeness, and layering is a part of you and your poetry. Do not renounce an iota of the richness yet continue to focus. Do what you can without going crazy.

Swamped: How can I know if I’m sidestepping commitment?

Creative Catalyst: Ask yourself if some fear leads toward your seeking distraction.

Swamped: If were truly committed to my writing, wouldn’t I do something like go on a month-long writer’s retreat and dive deep into myself?

Creative Catalyst: Not necessarily. You don’t have to prove yourself by undertaking extraordinary steps. Staying home and doing your work is enough.

However, I love the self-guided writing retreat idea! You could even dance during your retreat! Does dancing, your secondary interest, feed your primary writing interest? If so, you’re on a path that will serve your work.

Swamped: Oh, yes. For me, the rhythms and music of dance embody the rhythms and musicality of language. I know that dance helps reduce my stress. It makes me feel alive and healthy. Plus, it’s fun to be in community with women. Even when we speak different languages, dance unites us.

Creative Catalyst: It’s rejuvenating— your personal Fountain of Youth.

Swamped: How can I tell when studying with a teacher will help me, and when it’s hiding from what I know? This is so not people-speak 🙂

Creative Catalyst: Take stock of what you know now. Do you need to know more in order to go further? Claim your authority, and give it a go. Perhaps later you’ll benefit from taking another class.

Swamped: My new resolution is to focus on my poetry collection in the coming months Instead of spinning off in so many different directions.

Creative Catalyst: Focusing your prodigious talent and energies makes perfect sense. Go easy on yourself, and let your work flow.


Pose questions about practical creativity; give ideas for future cycle themes; and join in the dialog. See the Creative Catalyst archive at http://bit.ly/9z1BQv.  Learn more about our audio book “Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music”at http://bit.ly/aZVd1e. Become a Riehlife Villager http://www.riehlife.com.

Cycle 1.3 Working from Source in Your Creative Practice

Goddess with gifts weblog

Goddess with Gift Basket, photo by Janet Riehl

Column by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

Oh, those romantic notions about creativity. The best writers hang out in coffee houses, smoking foreign cigarettes, and wearing a hat, right?

Hardly! In practical creativity, externals don’t matter. Pretension doesn’t work. What matters is this: What’s inside you, and are you willing to work to pull it out? So cut the shuffle and ditch the beret; there’s no place to hide.

Last month (1.2) we discussed how to create a sustainable practice, dedicating scheduled time and space to your writing. The next step is to tap into your creative source How do you go about it?

Inspire yourself.

As Thomas Alva Edison did, I believe that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. The good news is that we can build inspiration into our practice. Inspiration is something we can and must generate for ourselves. Without it, your writing will be a very occasional happening.

Interview yourself.

To set yourself up for inspiration requires that you do the same thing you did in setting up your writing schedule. Take a look at your personal preferences, your likes and dislikes. You’ll stir up your creative juices by generating satisfying, stimulating activities.

Ask yourself about yourself and think of potential activities. Are you…

  • Visual? Make a collage or do mind-mapping.
  • Movement-oriented? Walking, yoga, or bicycling may be creative openers.
  • Reflective? Try contemplation and meditation.
  • Musical? Play the piano. Or wash the dishes listening to your iPod.
  • Moved by ritual and ceremony? Light candles and say a little prayer.
  • Responsive to the outdoors? Go to the park; bring bits of the outdoors inside.

You can brainstorm other ideas. It’s not any particular activity that’s important. Choose one that takes you to that place where you’re inspired to dig deeper—that 1 percent of inspiration that makes the 99 percent of perspiration worth it.

There’ll be days when you don’t feel inspired at all. It’s not cheating to use a commercial prompt, many of which are available for under $20. For example, for the card deck and kit lovers among us, check out:

  • Observation Deck:A Toolkit for Writers by Naomi Epel.
  • Freaking Magic Playing Cards David Robertson made from his photos and text.
  • Magical Muse Cards by Hal Zina Bennett.

Try adapting cards designed for another purpose like the Mexican lotería cards. A friend wrote an entire poem cycle by drawing a card every morning.

Even better, make your own cards using photos, sayings, phrases, and images. It’s a popular activity I’ve done with writing students. Even though they make the cards themselves, they’re always surprised that the cards take them places they hadn’t anticipated.

Thinking inside the box isn’t always a bad idea. Make containers that act as brainstorming friends.

  • Cut ideas into strips in advance, then draw them from a basket when you’re feeling stuck; or,
  • Pack a suitcase or lunch box with anything that strikes your fancy: old calendars, postcards, or “go-to” books. (One of my favorites is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.). Add inanimate objects to your inspiration box. They’re silent but you’ll bring your own words to the objects. It’s a dialogue; you’re speaking back to silent writing friends.

Remember not to use these ideas as a way to avoid writing. And don’t feel obligated to use any of them. If you’re hot, you’re hot. Sizzle on, girlfriend!

Don’t overlook the creative collaboration of a writing buddy. The relationship is more intimate and flexible than a critique group. It focuses on one person’s needs at a time and can take your writing deeper. Ultimately you have to do it alone, but you don’t have to do it without support.

So what’s the unromantic truth about writing? It’s our job to stimulate thought and then complete it. A mature writer ultimately finds companionship within the work itself.

I’ll be fielding questions about practical creativity—ones that emerge as you get deeper into your writing practice. Pose your questions via comments on this post or directly to me. You’ll find my contact email at www.riehlife.com.




Cycle 1.2: Building a Creative Practice–Not for Wimps

Capricorn heart weblog

Capricorn Heart: The Goat = perseverence, photo by Janet Riehl

Column by Janet Grace Riehl with Stephanie Farrow

Last month we discussed what creativity is and isn’t. [1.1 “What Is Creativity, Anyway?“] It isn’t flirting with whimsical ideas or attending a weekend workshop. It is doing the hard work of tapping into and harvesting our own raw life source. It requires establishing a sustained creative practice. I sometimes write it as an equation: Connection to Source + Sustained Work = Creative Practice.

What does a creative practice look like? How do we go about establishing one? In other words, what are good work habits, and how can we develop them?

A writing practice goes beyond journaling. Julie Cameron made writing morning pages popular, and they’re a creative vehicle for many writers. A sustained creative practice, however, takes it farther. As a Buddhist might put it, morning pages are the finger pointing at the moon, rather than the moon itself. In a regular creative practice, you’re designing, building, and working toward a goal—the moon. You are writing with a purpose, not writing randomly and hoping for the best.

You and your muse. Don’t wait for inspiration to come to you. What if the Muse shows up and you’re not there? She can’t meet up with you
if she doesn’t know where you are. Setting a regular time and place is your

Time and Timing. Decide how much time it’s reasonable for you to write each day. What time of day is best? Factor in your biorhythms and your personal schedule. Maybe you’ll write your “morning” pages at midnight after the kids are in bed. When my father worked as a manual laborer, he wrote in the company locker room on days when they couldn’t work outside. Make choices you’re reasonably sure you can maintain.

A cheap date. Decide on a place to write. Some folks prefer public places with lots happening, like Natalie Goldberg who famously writes in cafes. Others work better in quiet surroundings without much outside stimulation. Don’t feel like you have to take the Muse out anywhere special—inviting her for a cup of tea in the living room is enough. When you’re starting out, keep the place you choose as constant as possible.

Ink it in. Make an appointment. Write the time and place on your calendar—in pen, not pencil. You wouldn’t stand up friend, so don’t stand up your muse. If you can’t make the appointment, don’t beat yourself up; simply reschedule.

Pumping iron. Start slow and work up to longer practice periods. You’ll be able to write longer and more productively the longer you work at it. Focus on developing consistency and perseverance—the power lifting of a creative practice. Relying on inspiration alone is for weaklings.

There’s an apocryphal story of a man who could lift a horse unaided. Asked how he did it, he said that as a boy he picked up a newly born foal every day and continued the exercise as he and the horse grew up. Finally, as a young man, he had the strength to pick up the horse without breaking a sweat. You can do the same in your creative practice.

Our January Creative Catalyst blog (1.3) will be about tapping into our creative source, using an exercise to get started. In the meantime, work on establishing a solid creative practice: Set a time; set a place; and P-U-M-P that creative iron.

I’ll be fielding questions about practical creativity—the one that emerges over time through practice. You can pose your questions via comments on this post, or directly to me, via email. You’ll find my contact email at www.riehlife.com