It’s All About the Heart

Geez Louise. The more I learn about writing, the more overwhelmed I get. With rules like “Do this” and “Don’t do that,” a gal could get flabbergasted and frustrated before she gets started.

Here are a couple of so-called rules that I’m thinking about this afternoon.

Write something people want to read.

Make it interesting.

Write something people want to read. A few weeks ago I finished Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, and her protagonist wrote books on bryology. That’s right, bryology, the study of mosses. Alma Whittaker, the heroine, was passionate about the variety and growth patterns of the many species of mosses, but she probably didn’t have that big a readership for her books. Did she care? Not really.

Make it interesting. I have no idea how interesting Alma’s bryology books were, but Liz Gilbert’s treatment of the obscure subject was fascinating. Not only do I find myself stopping to examine mosses on my daily walks, but occasionally I snap pictures of them too. Strong, slow-growing, and ever-evolving, mosses can teach us quite a bit. Slow and steady wins the race and all that.

After vacillating between a few ideas, I’ve decided to write a slim volume about teaching. Yesterday a friend asked point blank who would read such a book. Whether anyone reads it or not, I still feel compelled to write some basic guidelines gleaned from experience and interweave some stories, tips from colleagues and advice from students. Including the latter makes perfect sense to me since that’s the audience teachers are trying to reach.

I’m going to write something teachers will want to read, something unlike education textbooks with a lot of dry dogma. While much of what I include might be the “same old/same old,” I hope to infuse it with vivacity and evoke interest. There are plenty of texts that promise to help in identifying opportunities for utilizing instructional technology, elicit peer feedback, and adopt active learning strategies in the classroom, but they need more heart.

I want to write a book that people will want to read, one with a heart.

Earlier today, one of my friends sent me a picture of a heart drawn in the sand. Getting her text with the accompanying photo was the perfect motivator. Plus, her message encompassed what my friends were saying between the lines yesterday. Whether working in recruitment, admissions, academic advisement, retention, or instruction, genuine concern and caring are important elements to success.

Here’s her message. “Thought about you when I saw this heart on the beach. The title of your new book for teachers should be It’s All About the Heart. I saw a presentation yesterday, and they gave out rulers and talked about how we can retain more students if we just show we care more.”

She gets it. I’ve already texted her back asking for the name of the presenter(s) so that I can request some information.

Everyone reading this has had a few teachers. In your opinion, what’s a piece of advice you wish they all knew and practiced? Does caring about students matter? Does knowing that a teacher cares about your success influence your motivation?

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Dancing and Singing

I love my writing group. That is to say, I love learning and growing, and the members of the group continue to help me do just that. Actually, we all help each other. Even the best writers in the group admit that they need fresh eyes on their work to catch grammatical errors, find holes in the story, and recommend a different sentence structure.

We all bring different skills to the table. Mindy can ferret out the to be verbs better than anyone in the group. Martha sometimes questions our word choice. Once I used minx to describe a mischievous little girl, and she gently suggested that I look it up. I’m glad I took her advice because the child in question was impish and playful, not impudent or flirtatious.

Yesterday’s meeting was no different; it too brought out our individual writing and critiquing abilities. Unbeknownst to her, one writer had used “it” twelve times in a two short pages. Another had written of eating some delicious cannoli, but she hadn’t described it or told us what made it so delicious. We wanted to know more.

What does cannoli look like? Taste like? Does it have a filling? What makes it so special? Is it sort of like a cream puff? We unanimously agreed that she needed to prepare some for our next meeting. That way, we can help her with just the right adjectives to describe this sweet confection.

One gifted fiction writer had written two potential chapters for a future book, and although we all admired the dialogue and the “show, don’t tell aspect, no one liked the protagonist. A group member suggested ways to make her more likeable  “Put in a scene with her being nice to a dog or cat,” she said. With a few helpful hints, the writer soon created some ideas to make the chapters less gloomy and the heroine more appealing.

Me? What do I have to offer? Yesterday I revised a couple of sentences in order to make the phrases more parallel. I also pointed out the perils of using a semicolon when a comma is sufficient. I’m no “Grammar Girl,” but as far as I know, there are only two times to use semicolons: to separate closely related independent clauses and to separate phrases in a series that have commas within them. I don’t know that much about story arcs so my contributions in that area are limited.

Just like everyone else, I also offer positive reinforcement and encouragement. We genuinely respect one another’s (should that be each other’s?) work and are prompt in saying what we like. Yesterday we critiqued the last chapter in a family memoir, and we all admired the way in which the author made the principal players come alive. We could just see the matriarch of the family dancing and singing and laughing while on a trip to Switzerland.

It’s doubtful that anyone in the group will read this post. But if someone did, he or she would point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. And isn’t that what we all need if we are to improve? I might not always like what I hear, but every single time someone has critiqued my work, I’ve learned something.

What about you? Are you part of a writing group? If so, How has it helped you?

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Using Strong Verbs

Does it bother me that no one reads and comments on my blog? Yes and no. Of course, I’d love it if they did. It would make me ecstatically happy if I had some followers who regular left comments, but at the same time, that would put more pressure on me to blog more regularly with some good stuff.

And then there’s that reciprocity thing. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. You comment on my blog, and I’ll comment on yours. That’s time consuming, Folks. It’s easy to get lost in Blogland, reading and pondering and commenting. In the meantime, writing on personal projects takes a back seat.

So why do I make the effort to maintain my blogs?  Blogging gives me practice. It gives me a chance to experiment with words and phrasing and ideas. I keep hoping that if I post often enough, especially if I incorporate something I’ve learned about writing, I’ll eventually improve.

A friend nearing retirement plans to write when he retires. Notice that I said “write” and not “write more.” Although he’s an avid reader, he doesn’t write at all now. He thinks writing is something a person can do—or not—and that instruction and critiquing is not necessary.

While I agree that some people have more of what Howard Gardner refers to as linguistic intelligence, I also think that innate ability of any kind needs development. People with kinesthetic intelligence need to practice tennis, golf, baseball, or any other sport every day in order to stay at the top of their game. I read that the Rockettes practice six hours a day. Six hours a day!

I’ve been a teacher for nearly forty years, but before they let me loose in a classroom, there were certain criteria that I had to meet. Have you ever heard the expression that while there may be some luck in getting a job, there’s no luck in keeping one? To continue teaching, I had to keep learning, sometimes by trial and error, and other times by modeling, instruction, and evaluation by supervisors.

When I retired and began writing more diligently, I quickly realized that I needed to learn and practice and learn and practice some more. One day it occurred to me that the folks who are serious about the craft pursue it just as earnestly as they do their other careers/professions. Why did it take me so long to gain that insight?

 My writing group continues to be extremely helpful in helping me improve my writing. If not for them, I’d be repeating words, overusing passive voice, and going overboard with “to be” verbs. Because of the group members, I’ve learned to show, not tell; kill the darlings (slash all unnecessary words); use strong verbs like glowered instead of looked at; and pay attention to dialogue.

So I hope blogging is helping me improve as a writer. And I hope my friend will read some of the books on writing that I’ve suggested to him and that he finds a writing group. Who knows? Maybe he’ll be blogging soon.

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So Many Rules!

So Many Rules!.

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Seas the Day?

Yesterday, I blogged about Serving Up Memory, the anthology written by the Camden Writers.  Now we’re thinking about exactly what kind of book we want to publish this year. Although there are lots of ideas floating around, so far the only thing we’re certain about is that we’ll have an earlier deadline for submissions.

Today, I’m focusing on personal projects, current and future. A person can’t live as long as I have without having some experience and expertise to share. Stories are meant to be told, and most of us older (er, make that mature) people have the  notion, perhaps erroneous, that someone somewhere might actually benefit from what we have to say.

I’m putting the Camden Writers’ 2015 project on the back burner for today and concentrating on some of my own writing goals.

  • Submit to various publications. Writing an article is much less daunting and time consuming that writing a book, and if I come up with a specific plan (time frame, specific magazine or publication, daily routine), my chances are better than doing what I’m doing now. Nothing.
  • Finish a “beach book” that I began toying with four or five years ago. It includes photographs taken from the coast of Maine all the way down to beaches in Georgia. Numerous locations in-between are highlighted too, especially Myrtle Beach and the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. My working title is Seas the Day, and addition to the collection of photographs, it contains essays written by friends and yours truly.
  • Add to, edit, and then re-edit a book about teaching. I hesitate to call it a how-to book because that sounds both boring and presumptuous. I don’t claim to know everything, but I do claim to know what has and has not worked for me and many of the other teachers that I know.
  • Continue to knock out a few blog posts each week. I’ve narrowed them down to three: one about any and everything I want to discuss (Mom’s Musings), Crossing the Bridge (about the book of the same time), and this one about reading and writing. Some colleagues and I started a psychology blog for our students a few years ago, and although it’s still there, it’s dying on the vine for lack of attention. Time to cut it loose?
  • Figure out the best marketing approach. There’s a fine line between inundating people with news about projects and keeping them hidden. I recall being at the SCWW (South Carolina Writers’ Workshop) one year and hearing a presenter ask, “Do you write books to keep them stowed in a box under your bed? If so, then fine. If not, then listen to some ideas on social media.“ She said it much better than I, but you get the message.
  • Read something interesting, useful, entertaining, inspiring, educational, or just plain old fun every day. Right now I’m reading When Crickets Cry at the suggestion of one of my brothers and am learning quite a bit about the miraculous human heart.

No time like the present to get started with something. Hmm. Should I read the novel first, or should I get back to the beach book?

What are some of your writing/reading projects? How do you stay focused? How do you decide what to work on first?

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So Many Rules!

A quiet house with no deadlines, appointments, luncheon dates, or “must-dos” on my agenda today. I’m caught up with discussion posts, and it’s too cold to go on a walk, so I have no excuse not to write something. But what? I have lots of ideas and a few irons in the fire (doncha love clichés?), but I can’t decide where to start.

Our local writing group, a chapter of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop (SCWW), recently published an anthology of stories, poetry, recipes, and photographs, and we all LOVE it. However, one of my students recently said when asked about texting in class, “I ain’t gawn lie” about the process. It was challenging.

It was tedious, difficult, time-consuming, and more than a little daunting to format and edit the book.  But now that it’s behind us, I can truthfully say that holding the book in our hands and leafing though its pages make every minute of working on the project well worthwhile. At one point, I was about ready to chuck my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style in the trash. So many rules!

Fortunately, wisdom prevailed, and we conformed to guidelines about quotation marks, scientific terminology, numbers, and several other items. About numbers, I was under the mistaken impression that numbers one through ten were spelled out and that eleven should be 11. Nope. Chicago says that numbers one through one hundred are spelled out. Numbers beginning with 101 are used as numerals unless they begin a sentence.

Who knew? Not us. We also learned that consistency is paramount, something hard to do when a project includes the work of thirteen individuals. We tried our best, but….

Even then, we occasionally went in another direction. If contributors had strong feelings about something, we deferred in order to preserve the integrity of the individual writer’s work. The editorial process was indeed a balancing act between absolute correctness and respect for the artist’s voice. (from Serving Up Memory, page 231 ).

As of last week, we are satisfied that our communal work is about as good as it’s going to get. Sure, it could use a little more tweaking, and we’re sure that someone will find fault with it no matter what we do. BUT, we’re content enough to convert the work to a Kindle edition.

That said, yesterday, I pushed the proverbial button, and the conversion process has begun. In a few days, readers will have the opportunity to have an electronic version of Serving Up Memory delivered by WhisperNet to their phones, Kindles, iPads, and tablets.

I began this blog with the intention of sorting through writing possibilities and ended up focusing on part of the process of writing, formatting, and editing Serving Up Memory. Later today (have just been interrupted!), I’ll get back to current and future projects.

What are you working on? What’s your feeling about sticking to the rules as opposed to doing it your way? 

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Alma and Louie

About forty years ago, I heard a great definition of mental health. It wasn’t scientific or packed with a lot of hifalutin words. It was more like an example, a visual.

Imagine yourself climbing up a mountain and think of that ascent as your progression through life. You’re mentally healthy. Up, up, up, you go, and then BAM, something happens. Your heart is broken. You’ve lost hope. Despair swirls all around you. You decide to sit down and have a good cry, a pity party of one.

But sooner or later, a mentally healthy person is going to get up, brush off her shoulders, and say something like, “That was awful, but I’d be crazy to let it continue to get me down. I am so moving on!”

Someone who isn’t as mentally healthy is more likely to lie down and really wallow in it. “Poor me,” she says. “No one has ever had it as bad as I do. No one has ever hurt like this.”

This long ago visual of mental health has resurfaced in my mind because of a recent book I read and a movie I saw. The book is Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things, and the movie is Unbroken, an incredible story of survival, perseverance, strength, and resilience. Based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken tells the amazing life story of Louis Zamperini, a man who went from juvenile delinquent to Olympic track star to Japanese POW in World War II.

Regardless of what befell Louie, he remained unbroken. The same is true for Alma Whitaker, the protagonist in The Signature of All Things. Though wealthy and intelligent, Alma was unattractive and ungainly. Her own father even said so. The man of her dreams married another, and years later when she met someone else, Ambrose Pike, their marriage was brief and tortuous. After realizing some cold hard facts, Alma banished Ambrose to Tahiti in anger and deep hurt.

Later, Ambrose died there, and Alma literally gave everything away to her adopted sister Prudence and fled to Tahiti. After getting closure to some mysteries about her late husband, Alma decided to leave the tropics. Before her departure, however, a weird (to me) game took place in the sea, and one of the women attempted to drown her.

 “Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature—the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation—and it was the explanation for the entire world.”

Alma gained strength and pushed through to the surface of the water.

I’m not as tough as Louie or Alma, but their stories have impressed and inspired me so much that I’ve been sharing their lessons with anyone who will listen. My children have probably heard more about these two characters than anyone else has, mainly because they’re too polite to say, “Okay, Mom, we get it.”

Here’s the gist of what these books (I read Unbroken before seeing the movie) said to me and I to others:

  • “Life is tough sometimes. People leave your life; sometimes they die. You must remain unbroken.”
  • “You might lose your job, the love of your life, your home. You must remain unbroken.”
  • “You will experience rejection, loss, loneliness, disappointment, and good old despair. You must remain unbroken.”
  • “Regardless of what befalls you, get up, brush yourself off, and start climbing again.”

I may have gone a little overboard with this post. Sorry, but these two people, one fictional and one real, have strengthened and inspired me. Who are some recent characters in movies or books who have influenced you?

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Good Reading and Bad Reading

Consider these words from Anna Quindlen’s How Reading Changed My Life: “There was good reading, and there was bad reading. There was the worthy, and the trivial. This was always couched in terms of taste, but it tasted, smelled, and felt unmistakably like snobbery. None of this was new, except, in its discovering, to me.”

I know what she’s talking about and have seen this (the snobbery) in effect many times. There are those who sniff and sneer at popular books while embracing only “the best.” There’s good stuff and not so good stuff. There’s literary fiction, and then there’s fluff and chick lit and sci-fi. Not that I’m opposed to any of the latter. I think there’s something out there for everyone and that there’s something to be gleaned from every book written (even if it’s a reminder to stay away from that author or genre in the future).

With the above in mind, here are some excerpts from books I’ve recently read followed by a short comment about the value of each (to me).

“Louise Jensen was sitting alone, licking her fingers two at a time and paying serious attention to her greasy chicken-leg-and-thigh platter, when she heard muffled crying from the booth behind her at Chuck’s Chicken ‘n’ Biscuits on U.S. Highway 4. It was early Friday afternoon. It was also New Year’s Eve. “ Jason Wright, The Christmas Jar

 You know something is about to happen, but what? This book reminded me to be more altruistic and less selfish.

“We always ate family style, passing heavy bowls of food, and this evening we carefully watched each other and took measure of the helpings of mashed potatoes plopping onto plates. Second servings were even more closely calculated. There seemed to be more silence than usual as well, the air heavy with expectation. Dad’s untucking of his napkin from his collar and final wipe of his mouth was the signal we eagerly anticipated. Mom stood up and peered into the mashed potato serving dish. Ever so slowly, she studied the remains. Despite our fear that maybe, just maybe, too many enjoyed too much, she proclaimed, as she always did, “Looks like there’ll be donuts tonight.” Paddy Bell, “What’s for Dessert?” from Serving Up Memory

 Ah, the nostalgia this paragraph evokes! This passage conjured up images of families gathered ’round tables sharing food, love, and conviviality. 

“Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. “ Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

Gulp. Deep, meaningful, and in my opinion, accurate. Alma reminded me to be tough, strong, and resilient regardless of what happens.

“The search for belonging— in our own skin, with each other, in the world, and even in the history of life— is probably our most persistent and confusing urge, because belonging is a tangled gift. At the heart of it, all belonging is dependent on the strength and health of our connections. And story is and has always been the connective tissue of humanity. As long as we ache to belong, we will ache for a story. Lingering honestly in any moment will reveal a story. “ Mark Nepo, Seven Thousand Ways to Listen

Personally relevant as a person who’s reflecting on connectedness and stories. This paragraph reaffirms the power of story and the importance of people in shaping our lives. 

This was an easy post to write, mainly because other writers did it for me. Each excerpt above, whether fiction or nonfiction, has given me food for thought, nuggets to turn over and consider. They and the works from which they are borrowed demonstrate the power of words and the value of different types of literature, high brow and low brow.

What books speak to you? What have you been reading lately? Do you see the value of all types of literature, not just the ones deemed excellent by literary critics?

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Morning Zen and Deo

I confess. I’m a bibliophile. Reading has influenced my life in so many ways that I can’t begin to list them all. I’ll just say that if it weren’t for reading, I’d be a lot less interesting, even to myself. I’d be dull, boring, and ignorant of so many, many things.

I think about what I read about. Sure, I think about things like the azure sky, my grandson Ethan’s boundless energy, and what color to repaint the back bedroom, but what if those were the only things I could think about? What if I didn’t know words like azure? Blue is fine, but well, somewhere along the line I picked up azure from a story, and it stuck. I like cerulean, cobalt, and indigo too.

And Ethan? Since I can read, I’ve learned a lot about child development from psychology texts. According to developmental psychologists, a three-year-old is the busiest, most active human on the planet. Plus, although there are exceptions to every rule, observed and documented gender differences show that boys are generally more active in rough and tumble play than girls are.

And that back bedroom? I’m torn between Composed, Hazel, and Fickle. Since I’m been known to select paint based on the names, the sounds and looks of them, then I’ll probably go with Composed. We recently used Morning Zen to paint a small kitchen; it’s a soft, calming color, but the name cast the deciding vote.

The above examples are of everyday ways that reading helps me. Lest I forget, reading also transports me to other places and times and introduces me to people who are interesting, quirky, amazingly resilient, wise, mean, cowardly, enterprising, somber, salt-of-the-earth, funny, and well, you get the picture. They live and die under the same stars, moon, and sky, but they speak different languages, eat different food, and have different customs.

I could go on and on about this. For now, I’ll just mention Deo, an extraordinary man I met in Tracy Kidder’s  Strength in What Remains. From Burundi, he escaped a country torn by genocide and violence and emigrated to America. He’s now a doctor and divides his time between the United States and his native country where he’s established medical clinics.

I’m getting a little carried away here. I just have to add that if it weren’t for reading about Deo, I never would have known or cared about Burundi or the plight of its people. Plus, reading about such altruistic people inspires me to try to be a better person. While I’m not planning to go on a mission trip to a foreign country, I’m going to be less self-centered and more giving.

For the moment, however, I’m going to read a few pages of Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. How has reading affected your life? What are you reading today?

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Who Are You Blaming?

Eve’s Sisters, a book of essays published nearly three years ago, points out the application of certain psychological principles in the lives of women (men too) in the Bible. And although I haven’t done a super job of marketing the book, it’s not because I don’t believe in it but rather because I’m busy, distracted, on to other projects, and _________ (fill in the blank).

Preparation for the spring semester psychology courses that begin on Monday and a spirited writing group meeting last night are pushing me to share an excerpt or two from Eve’s Sisters. I didn’t have to look any farther than the first chapter to find one that’s perfect for anyone who blames everyone but herself for her woes, shortcomings, or disappointments. Who’s in charge of YOUR life?

From Eve’s Sisters:

  • “It’s his fault,” she wailed. “If he’d been more appreciative, I wouldn’t have had an affair.”
  • “She started it,” the child said defensively. “He pushed me first!”
  • “If the teacher hadn’t made the test so hard, I wouldn’t have cheated. It’s her fault for forcing me to do it,” said the student caught surreptitiously looking up answers on Google.
  • “If she hadn’t dressed so immodestly, then I wouldn’t have attacked her,” the young man insisted. “She was asking for it!”

The blame game even happens in my household. Our yearly state park pass mysteriously disappeared from the glove compartment of the car, and my husband blamed it on me. If only I had just put it back where it was supposed to be right after taking it off the mirror, then we’d have it. Actually, I DID put it where it belonged, and I did it right away. I think it must have been stuffed in with the information about Hunting Island State Park, brochures that I threw away after getting home. If he hadn’t been so insistent that I take the pass down right away, I might not have crammed it in with the other material.

Can you see a common thread? Just like Adam and Eve, we’re all blaming someone else for our transgressions! “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the Lord said unto the woman , What is this that thou has done? And the woman saith, The serpent beguiled me and I did eat.” (Genesis 3: 13)

The first couple went against God’s instructions and did as they pleased. And just like other humans, they were reluctant to “fess up” and say, “Yes, I did it, and I was wrong.” Instead they both passed the buck; Adam blamed Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent.

Aren’t we all a little like this? Almost daily I hear someone say, “If it weren’t for my children, spouse, parents, or friends, I’d have an education… or a better job. I might even move out of this one-horse town.” We all have choices. We can all be proactive and act of our own initiative. True, there are consequences to all of our choices, consequences that will affect not only us but others as well.

Choosing responsibly takes those consequences into account since the decisions we make today can cast a long shadow on the future, ours and those of the ones we love. Yet blaming another for our mistakes or hard lot in life shifts the responsibility of decision-making onto others rather than putting ourselves in the driver’s seat.

Psychologists differentiate between the terms internal and external locus of control. A person with an internal locus of control, something psychologists define as the extent to which an individual believes that she can control events that affect her, realizes that good or bad, right or wrong, she’s the master of her fate. She knows that events result primarily from her own behavior and actions.

On the other hand, those with an external locus of control are more likely to shift the blame for their failures and disappointments to external causes. Whether it’s the weather, her demanding children, or the teacher’s tricky test, this person never sees herself as being the cause of her woes. The problem with this type of thinking is that the individual is not accepting responsibility for her choices. As a friend half-joking said, “I know what to do to take care of myself. They just (husband and children) won’t let me!”

 Who or what are you blaming for where you are right this moment? Are you accepting responsibility for your choices?

Posted in books, personal choices, psychology, reading, women in the Bible, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments