Well, Alrighty Then

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I love teaching, I really do. I should be retired by now, and for the most part I am. I teach two online classes but don’t show up at 8:00 ready to “rock and roll.” Nor do have committee work, an office, or a dress code. The absolute best part is that I still get to interact with students. Sometimes they write something humorous like “for all intensive purposes” when they mean “for all intents and purposes.” Funny, huh? Yeah, it kinda is.

It’s not so funny, though, when you learn, as I did, that one’s own writing can be humorous, too.

I’m not judging, especially since I’ve been reading bits of Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.I introduced the author a couple of blogs back. So far, he’s the only editor/writer I’ve ever read who’s both amusing and instructive.  He adds personal anecdotes and interjects witty comments throughout. He’s taught me a lot, including things I thought I knew.

  • I’ve been overheard saying, “We were chomping at the bit to get out of the house.” You probably have too. The correct phrase is “champing at the bit,” but since champing is an unfamiliar word to many people, they don’t use it. Either is fine with Dreyer; he sees the condemnation of chomping as trifling. Me too.
  • Nonplussed is an interesting word, one that I misused for years without a single soul letting me know. Perhaps they were ignorant too. “Accustomed to waiting in line, she was nonplussed at the length of the queue at the highway department.” Was she cool, calm, and collected? Yes. Was she nonplussed? I don’t know. Not unless she was confused.
  • “Fake it ‘til you make it” is a phrase I often write…or used to. No more. Dreyer calls it a prissyism and takes a look at the words till and until. Till is an older word than until and since they mean the same thing, he encourages his readers to write, “Fake it till you make it.” Learning that bit of information was almost worth the price of the book. Almost. Every time I’ve written ‘til, I wondered why and yet did it anyway.
  • My writing group has put a couple of anthologies together, an engaging project in many ways. The undertaking engaged our time, energy, thoughts, and dreams, and it provided ample opportunities for us to participate (engage) as a group. One of the excellent writers and I did most of the editing, and when we came to a story using alright, I felt uneasy about it. Better look it up in a big thick style guide, I thought.
  • My sources were definitive–no quibbling about it; all right was right, not alright. We presented the information to the writer and let the decision be his. We weren’t Random House, after all, and we wanted to retain the integrity of each writer’s work (or something high-minded like that). He went with the correct term—all right. Dreyer says that although alright is making inroads, he’ll continue to wrinkle his nose at the sight of it.

Question: what about alrighty?

“I want to spell colour with a u whether I live in England or not,” he said.

“But you live in America, and here we spell it color,” she replied.

“I don’t give a fig about how people in Iowa or Colorado spell it, and that’s that,” he said.

“Well, alrighty then,” she said with a sigh.

  • My siblings and I wrote a family history a year ago, and whenever I used the word forebearers, that red zigzag line immediately showed up beneath it. I learned there was no such word; forebear, yes; forebearers, no. My brother did the same thing, and we could have sworn (hackneyed phrase, but it fits) we’d seen it before—often, in fact. But we were wrong. Dreyer doesn’t mention forbearer, but he does caution his readers about confusing forbear (refrain from) with forebear (ancestor).

Why this blog? Why this topic? Writing, editing, and revising aren’t easy, but they’re worth it if you want to produce something decent. I’m willing to learn. What about you?

 

 

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Hard Writing = Easy Reading

 

Writers need to be a bit tough-skinned if they want to improve their poetry and prose.   It’s the only way I know to have a tight, well-developed story or article that’s smooth, correctly punctuated, interesting, and easy reading. Someone* said easy reading meant hard writing. Focus, diligence, and the discipline to stay with it, editing and revising—perhaps several times, are necessary.

Way back when, I published a human relations text—or rather, I wrote it, and Prentice-Hall published it. I was naïve then, even more than I am now, thirty years later. No one told me anything about revisions and edits. I knew in a vague sort of way that other people would look at it before my fifteen chapters were put into book form, but I figured my work was basically done when I mailed the manuscript. Yes, mailed.

It’s an understatement to say things have changed. In 2019, every publication that I’m familiar with solicits electronic manuscripts only. Period. As a disclaimer, my world is a small one compared to writers who compose and submit more regularly and widely than I. I’m sure there are publishers who still accept snail mail. I just don’t know about them.

Back to the hard work and thick skin required of a successful* writer, editing and revising are fundamental. Without the help of my hometown writing group, I’d still be sprinkling “it” all over the page(s), never guessing I needed to be more specific. Same thing with passive voice. My verbs passively showed up in every other sentence until a peer-editor circled each one in a nonfiction piece I’d written and encouraged me to think of something stronger for each one. At first I balked. But then I accepted the challenge and found it fun. Rewarding too.

Not long after I sent the completed (or so I thought) manuscript to Prentice-Hall, I received a large manila envelope containing the edited version. Not expecting any serious issues, I opened the envelope and glared in disbelief. The first page was red, bleeding with editorial recommendations and corrections. It’s been a long time (1989), so I can’t remember whether every page was like that, but I do recall my feelings of astonishment and well, anger.

I liked my sentence structure and word choice. How dare they change things!

I soon calmed down. Reading the editor’s notes and learning the various editorial marks and what they meant took time. Here’s what I learned. He (a male in this case) was correct, and his job was to make my work cleaner and clearer. As well as I can recall, I followed each directive. The text had a “good run” for a couple of years, but there was no second edition.

I don’t need an editor or member of my critique group to let me know I’ve strayed from my original purpose of the importance of editing and revising. Next time, I’ll do a better job of being more specific in dos and don’ts that I’ve recently learned. For example, DO NOT ATTEMPT TO USE AN APOSTROPHE TO PLURALIZE A WORD says the copy chief of Random House Benjamin Dreyer. (Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, page 32).

*Was it Maya Angelou, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hood,Anthony Trollope, Lord Byron, or someone else?

*To some writers, successful means to have a best seller, win the Pulitzer, have name recognition wherever she goes, or make a lot of money. Not me. It’s not because I’m too lazy, uninspired, or unfocused. I’m committed to writing a little something each day and am happy/eager to share it, but my life is too full to devote more time to it. Writing blogs makes me happy, and if you’ve read this far, that makes me feel successful.

 

 

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Exclamation Points & Oxford Commas

Intrigued by a friend’s comments about her personal use of the exclamation point, I clicked the link she had posted a to a New York Times’ article about Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. That title! I mean, it takes a lot of verve, confidence, and chutzpah to claim one’s guide as utterly correct. And I know the author wouldn’t like that exclamation mark.

I knew I had to have that book ASAP and ordered it that very hour. It arrived two days later, and I’ve been enjoying Dreyer’s advice, suggestions, and voice ever since. He’s funny but serious, knowledgeable but not pedantic, experienced but not condescending. I have a dogeared copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, an up-to-date edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, and two Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty) books, my favorite being The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl. Those are my go-to sources, so why did I order the ultimate guide and why am I liking it so much?

I ordered it because I’m about to begin an editing project and need all the help I can get. And I want that help to be delivered by a practicing expert, one who walks the talk, someone like Dreyer who’s the copy chief at Random House. Now that I have the guide, I like it because it’s an invaluable tool, a veritable treasure chest of information, some new and some old. As a person who’s worked thirty years as a copy editor, Dreyer is committed not only to what he does for Random House authors but also to helping anyone who wants to improve their writing. I’m not sure whether the correct pronoun should be his or her, his, her, or their so I stuck with the latter. When I come across his advice, I’ll let you know.

For now, I’m sharing a few things I’ve learned the last couple of days.

I need to use fresh terms. On the first page of Chapter 1, Dreyer challenges his readers to go one week without using very, rather, really, quite, and in fact. I gulped. Those are some of my mostly commonly used words. He goes on to recommend tossing out just, pretty, of course, surely, and that said. And that’s just on the first page. I’m in trouble, I thought. (Incidentally, Dryer doesn’t recommend the use of Italics when expressing a writer’s thoughts, but well, I’m in the learning stage.)

It took only a few seconds to construct a silly sentence using six of those words/phrases. It would really be very hard for me to go just one day without writing these rather common words and quite impossible, in fact, to go a week. Dreyer isn’t asking me or any other readers to eliminate the words forever, just one measly little week. I’ll try.

I can use the Oxford comma if I so desire and ignore the know-it-alls who tell me it’s passé. Dreyer says, “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” Whether you call it series or Oxford, use it. In the first sentence below, I’m visualizing green beans folded into chocolate pudding. In the second, I see them as separate dishes.

  • “For dinner, we’re having grilled pork chops, rice, green beans and pudding.”
  • “For dinner, we’re having pork chops, rice, green beans, and pudding.”

Dreyer says that certain prose rules are essentially inarguable. For instance, a subject and verb should always agree in number. At the same time, he claims to be an “enthusiastic subscriber” to the concept that rules are made to be broken—once you’ve learned them. He shares a humorous story about a hoity toity person who got her just reward after haughtily correcting someone who ended a sentence with a preposition. And Dreyer says it’s okay to begin a sentence with And or But.

So far, I’m loving this utterly correct guide, even in the places where I could say “guilty as charged.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“Hmmph. That’s Crazy.”

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A thirteen-year-old girl who’s having a spinal tap screams out, “It hurts, I’m hungry.”

When I began my most recent post a couple of days ago, my intention was to write about the above prompt, something I’d scribbled in a journal while reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains. A nonfiction work about Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, Peru, and Russia, the book was a serious eyeopener for me. Tireless in his efforts to combat malaria and TB and general starvation and sanitation, Dr. Farmer was instrumental in starting Partners in Health.

Rereading the child’s cry in my journal sent me to the original source, the book itself. The passage was easy to find. I had folded back page 32, perhaps knowing I’d return to read  it. “Wild cries erupt from the child….Farmer looks up, and for a moment he’s narrating Haiti again. “She’s crying, ‘It hurts, I’m hungry.’ Can you believe it? Only in Haiti would a child cy out that she’s hungry during a spinal tap.”

It’s probably been three or four years since I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, and yet I think of it often, not because I want to feel depressed, guilty, or ashamed but rather because I need reminders of how extremely fortunate we are in America. I never think twice about sanitation or clean water or vaccines. Okay, sometimes I think about the latter when I read about the latest measles epidemic or wonder when a case of polio is going to show up, but for the most part I take abundance for granted.

Five of my grandchildren visited us last weekend, and I made a run to Wally World for provisions. We could have gotten by with the food in the pantry, but because I love them and want everyone to have something he or she likes, I purchased extra bananas, three muffin mixes, apple juice, two kinds of cereal, and milk. Oh yeah, and a pizza found its way into the buggy, too…just in case. I couldn’t leave the frozen foods without snagging a box of Eggo mini mini-pancakes.

I didn’t have Dr. Farmer’s young patient in mind as I waltzed down Walmart’s aisles picking up goodies. I did, however, have a fleeting memory of a question an eye doctor in Myrtle Beach once asked me. It was only the second time I’d met him, and his question caught me off guard.

“How many children do you suppose go to bed hungry in America every night?” he asked.

Part of me wanted to remind him I was there for a contact lens check-up, not a heavy-duty discussion on the causes and consequences of hunger and malnutrition. But he had me. The question was one I had considered many times.

“I don’t know. But I saw a billboard on the way to the beach that said one in five children in South Carolina goes to bed hungry every night.”

“Hmmph. That’s crazy.”

He and I didn’t resolve anything that day. It’s a complicated issue. They’re all complicated issues, complex and interrelated. Until reading Kidder’s book, I’d never thought about the politics of health. To be honest, I still don’t. But I do wonder and fret about hungry children, cold children, sick children, fatherless children, motherless children (although there aren’t as many of those).

I have no answers. I just hope no one, child or adult, whines about not having grape jam when they really want strawberry within my earshot. Equally galling is hearing someone whine and pout about a meal prepared by a parent, grandparent, aunt, older sibling, or spouse. About the health issues, I learned from Kidder’s book that Cuba has meds and plenty of doctors for its people. How does Cuba do that?

The hungry thirteen-year-old getting the spinal tap lived in Haiti, but her plight is not unlike children all over the world. According to Dr. Farmer, “The only real nation is humanity.”

FYI. I didn’t mean to go overboard…just wanted to use the prompt.

 

 

 

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Using Prompts

 

You just never know what you’ll learn as part of a writing group. One morning about ten of us gathered for a morning meeting in a dance studio. Classes wouldn’t begin until after lunch, and we soon relaxed and began to relish the ambience of the studio. After taking care of business—critiquing submitted work—we went around the circle asking questions, sharing news, and chatting about topics nonwriters might find boring. One of the writers brought a book for all to look through, A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life.

I ordered Judy Reeve’s book on Kindle that day. There are 365 prompts and a plethora of suggestions, advice, and information about well-known writers and the craft itself. The person who shared her book with the group told of how she had used prompts to get her muse mojo going and how just a few prompts had provided the inspiration she needed to complete a couple of short stories.

Since that morning at the dance studio, I’ve added my own prompts to the 365 I copied from Reeves. I’ve also learned that you don’t have to stick exactly to the words of a prompt. For instance, the one for today, February 9, is “Counting his (her) breaths.” I left it alone for a long time, passed right over it until I came across something I could relate to.

But then a friend of mine died after a long illness, and one afternoon I pecked out three pages tracing the chronology of my first awareness of her condition to the afternoon of her funeral in Myrtle Beach. I was amazed at the information resting in my unconscious just waiting for a chance to surface.

A presenter at a writing conference, Dr. Luke Whisnant, taught a session on flash fiction and mentioned a site called 100wordstory.org. I toyed with the idea of submitting something and kept coming back to the February 9 prompt and the three-pages of thoughts and memories. That’s it, I thought. That’s the story I want to share: the essence of the beautiful wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, and friend. After many strikethroughs, I narrowed the piece to 100 words, not counting the title, and sent it to a photo prompt of birds flying aloft found at 100wordstory.org. For one month, the tribute was there, and now I’m putting it here (minus the title with her name).

We tiptoed between the graves, gingerly making our way to the tent, its whiteness a beacon. I felt rather than heard the powerful ocean two blocks away. How would it be to have a final resting place so near the sea? The trees, mainly live oaks, pin oaks, pines, and magnolias, cast an otherworldly charm over the scene. I heard seabirds above the droning of Highway 17, and as friends sang, several gulls flew overhead, their squawking an accompaniment to the hymn. Another appeared, gliding solo. “Look up,” I motioned to Paul. He glanced skyward and, smiling, nodded in recognition.

When I began this post, my intention was to write using a prompt I found in one of my journals yesterday, but my muse had other ideas. Soar high, Coralee.

 

 

 

 

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But I Like Bailiwick

Before joining a writing group, I never read to actually study the craft. I read to understand, to learn, and to be enlightened and entertained. Not once did I consider whether an author used adverbs sparingly, overdid it with to be  verbs, or used dialogue to move the story along.

My local group introduced me to the South Carolina Writers’ Association. From the upstate to the coast and everywhere in-between, the organization has chapters with writers like the ones in my sweet hometown of Camden. Being a part of these groups opened up a whole new world of links to others who are also trying to improve their writing and encourage others to do the same.

At the SCWA annual conference in Pawleys Island this past October, I took copious notes and am still reading through them and finding gems like the three below.

Don’t compare yourself to others. This is a hard one for me. I’ve often been overheard saying, “She (or he) is the best writer in the group. I can never write like her.” That might be true, and yet so what? I can admire and learn from others, but I have my own voice that I can fine tune. I don’t need to change that voice to fit into a mold. For instance, one person in my group has the remarkable ability to “kill the darlings” without qualms while I hesitate mightily on striking through what might be unnecessary words.

Not everyone will love your work. Everyone in our group has different interests, genres, and experience. Religion, science fiction, abuse, family connections, ghosts, history, and memoir are but a few of our recent topics. As members of the group, we all understand the importance to read and critique one another’s work. While I don’t “get” science fiction, I plow through it, and as a consequence, imaginary worlds have materialized. Same with poetry. I have the utmost respect for poets but feel paralyzed and anxious when confronted with a poem to critique. Still, I persist. Do I need to say how much I appreciate the critiques of members who read my work and offer a few words even if it’s not their bailiwick?

Side note: I usually abide by the principle of not using fancified words in speech or writing, but I like bailiwick.

Persistence is more important than talent. One summer, a member of our group went to a Wildacres writing retreat and shared his experiences with us, all hungry for tips, magic formulas, and encouragement. Everyone gained from Douglas’ report, and what I remember most was something he told about a well-known North Carolina writer who once felt discouraged and a tad angry by something a professor had said about his work.

He soon realized that the professor was likely correct in his assessment and that he, the writer, had taken the class to improve the craft. If he got angry and quit every time someone said something he didn’t like, how could he develop? He did what everyone with a true vision does; he brushed off his shoulders and went to work.

A novelist, short story writer, and poet, the once discouraged student has written several books, one that’s been made into a movie. He had talent, but what if he’d given up? “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent.” Calvin Coolidge

Sometimes I’m led to exactly what I need to be reminded of, and today I refuse to compare myself to anyone else, to remember that not everyone will like what I have to say, and to be persistent.

 

Posted in Camden Writers, critique groups, Uncategorized, workshops, writing, writing conferences, writing groups, writing tips | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Scurry is the Word

I haven’t thought of John Donne in months, maybe years, but every once in a while, I’ll remember, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” and think of how fortunate I am to be a member of a critique group whose members have an unspoken mission to help fellow writers to create the best poem, story, essay, book, or article they can.

Regardless of your journey on the writing path, you need other people. Not only will you learn something about the craft from them, but you’ll also find your head filled with people, events, situations, and ideas that otherwise might never have crossed your mind. Right now, for instance, I’m wondering about a young man who escaped from an imaginary city named Concordia? Would he be discovered? And I’ve learned a lot about ghosts, too. They don’t eat, but they do talk.

It’s been a week since our last meeting, and I’m still pondering the manuscripts we critiqued that day and the mini-discussions we had about life, people, connections, choices, decisions, bullying, current reading material, submission possibilities, and encouragement to keep on keeping on—to write on. That meeting, like most, adjourned to a local restaurant for lunch and more conversation.

Last week we parted company wondering whether Alex would make it to safety. Would she be recognized after having her hair colored? And what about the boy stealthily climbing the steep staircase? Would he gain admittance to whatever was behind the closed door? And if so, what would await him? We met a curmudgeon bemoaning her lot in life and a pilgrim overcoming odds by faith and trust. All had dilemmas to face. Would they succeed?

As our group got involved in the stories, we

  • Offered advice to the writers: try changing the names.
  • Asked questions: Did Alex make the drive with a wet head?
  • Offered praise: This was wonderful. I can’t wait for the next installment. One critiquer gave the ultimate compliment: “All five of these pieces had such riveting introductory paragraphs that I couldn’t to read them…and I wasn’t disappointed.”

I’m not saying it was a perfect meeting or that we got A+ all around. I’m saying that we’re an interdependent group whose members understand the truth of Donne’s nearly 400-year-old quote. From interacting with this group, I’ve learned to be more specific than it, to use stronger verbs and more specific nouns, and to avoid passive voice. Now I’m more apt to say, “The black miniature Dachshund stood poised with one tiny foot raised and her head cocked as if to ask, ‘What’s next?’”

A few months ago, I submitted a piece that hinted of gender inequalities. According to the group, there was a lot of tension in the story. I loved hearing that. The story generated a lot of conversation, and before I knew it, people were sharing their own recollections of gender differences. One writer told of an ancestor who put his glass down on the table in a certain way, fully expecting someone to jump up and fill it immediately. Then there was a story involving grandchildren hustling to remove Grandpa’s shoes as soon as he sat down in his favorite chair. Someone told a funny story about a magic word used to summon another to fill glasses, prepare plates, or warm biscuits. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember the word.

Last week at lunch, I asked the group if anyone remembered the story about the magic word. Someone said, “You mean scurry? Because that was the magic word in my ________ home.” (Whether uncle or grandfather or cousin, I don’t recall.) When this person asked for more tea, the sweet wife gently asked, “What’s the magic word?” and got this reply: “Scurry.”

To all writers and would-be writers: find a critique group. You’ll learn, laugh, appreciate, and ponder. Scurry!

 

 

 

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Changing Traditions

 

 

Sooner or later the Christmas tinsel gets tangled, and the shiny new gadgets lose their appeal. What remains are the feelings of warmth and peace and conviviality experienced during the season. As I listened to a recent talk on this subject, I recalled many Christmases past, and this evening I’m lifting some lines from something I wrote four years ago for our writing group’s anthology, Serving Up Memory.

“Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, our family of six and my aunt’s family of eight gathered at my paternal grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve for a delightful evening of merry making. As the family grew, spouses and small children began making their appearance, and my grandparent’s small house seemed to be bursting at the seams. I LOVED the yearly event and began looking forward to it around Halloween.

“We listened to stories of Christmases past, caught up on each other’s lives, and filled up on the delicious victuals my grandmother had prepared. My personal favorite was a pound cake chock full of walnuts. And candy. It was sweet coconut covered with the smoothest, tastiest chocolate I’ve ever sampled. How did my grandmother get the chocolate so slick and perfect? Even today with microwaves and easily melted chocolate, my candy creations can’t compare to Beatrice’s.

“My grandparents didn’t have much money, and the only material gifts I recall receiving from them were sweaters that my grandmother had lovingly crocheted throughout the year. In later years, we all received money. It was only a few dollars, but what those dollars represented was priceless: love. Days ahead of time, my grandparents went to the bank and got enough cash to put from three to five dollars in each grandchild and great grandchild’s envelope, the kind with an oval opening in the front.

“While the gifts were appreciated, what we all treasured most was being with family. Whether sitting around the large oak table or having “side” conversations with various family members, we sensed our connection and the bond that brought us back to this same location every year. Somehow it fortified us as we separated for our individual life paths after the holiday.

“For a few years, our family lived next door to my grandparents, and at some point in the evening grown-ups began talking about where Santa was and when he’d likely arrive in Camden. Occasionally, one of them would gaze out of the window and call attention to lights in the sky directly above our house. “Are those the lights of Santa’s sleigh?” one of the adults would wonder aloud. A naïve and trusting child, I fell for the trick and was usually the first to say, “Let’s go home so he can come.”

“Christmas Day brought us back to my grandparents’ house. This time there was a real meal, a feast fit for kings with contributions from my mother and aunt. Not everyone could sit around the dining room table, and the children got relegated to the floor in an adjoining room. Did that bother us? Not one iota. We were delighted to be engaged this unusual dining situation, an indoor picnic for kids only. What are a few green beans, a little sloshed gravy, and biscuit crumbs on the floor in the grand scheme of things? What gaiety! What Christmas cheer!

“On December 24th, 1970, everything changed.

“We learned that my mother had no plans to accompany the family to her in-laws’ home for the festivities. Oblivious to goings-on and their significance, I hadn’t noticed that we had never spent a single holiday with her family. Not one. And beyond the predawn discovery of Santa’s yearly generosity, we had never spent Christmas day in our own home.

“Little did any of us realize the far-reaching ramifications of my mother’s Christmas choice. The next year all six of us made the annual Christmas Eve visit and enjoyed the sugary desserts and warm camaraderie, but the next day marked a break in tradition. My grandparents joined us at our home for Christmas dinner, my grandmother sullen and sulky and my mother happy but anxious. Although I was probably 22, I didn’t have the depth to understand the emotional undercurrents of the day. I just knew something had shifted.

“At first I missed the frenzied good cheer shared with my extended family, but that was soon overshadowed by the pride I felt in my mother for taking a stance and establishing her position as matriarch of her growing family.”

 

 

 

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Write Each Day

 

Thirty-eight days ago I heard a young woman read from her latest book, a memoir entitled Land of Enchantment. Impressed by her work and her honest portrayal of what she referred to as “obsessive love,” I was glad I had signed up for Leigh Stein’s presentation the next morning. In a word: Marvelous. Any doubts I had were erased the moment she distributed a handout with several quotes by Annie Dillard.

For two hours, Ms. Stein held her audience rapt as she talked about the craft and encouraged everyone to think and write and think and write some more. She asked, “What are you obsessed with?” and then asked the writers to write something that might change their lives.

There is no shortage of subjects. As Annie Dillard said, “A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”

Here are a few of Leigh Stein’s recommendations.

  • Write down your wish list, everything you’d like to see in a movie or read on the page.
  • You might down characters you’ve imagined, cool plot twists, or great lines of dialogue.
  • You might write down themes that you care about.
  • Don’t reject any ideas. No judging or censoring yourself with “That’s a stupid idea.”
  • Experiment with your story/essay/book. Ask “what if?” What if some other woman or child were writing it? Someone of a different age or nationality?

My mind was buzzing with possibilities.

Ms. Stein continued the presentation with an overview of Educated, Wild, Boy Erased, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and asked what we would name our memoirs if we had to use just one word. The responses were varied and interesting. She reminded us that the most important memories of our lives are seared into memory.

Toward the end of her presentation, Ms. Stein shared some information about goal setting, and while there was nothing new there, the reminder lit a fire, and I thought YESAs soon as I get home, I’m going to set serious. To encourage the conference attendees (writers) in the room to set and accomplish writing goals, she distributed notecards to all present and asked us to jot down our email addresses and some goals we wanted to accomplish within the following month.

Since we didn’t have to use our names, it was an nonthreatening activity. Why not do it? As she collected the cards, Leigh (Ms. Stein is beginning to sound too formal after experiencing the session), told us we’d get a message from her by the end of November. With the words, “Our greatest responsibility as writers is to let future generations understand what it means to be alive right now,” in my mind, I resolved to follow through with my goals on the card.

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Thirty-seven days have passed since I turned in my notecard with the words in the photo above. Have I achieved the goals?  Not really. No. I polished and shined a story and sent it to two publications. And I’ve written a couple of blogs. Oh, and I’ve done several short Facebook posts.

My writing group meets Thursday morning, and I’m determined to get something ready for them to critique. Depending on what the group says, maybe I’ll have a submission ready this week. What about you? What are your writing goals?

 

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Tell Me A Story

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A couple of years ago, our writing group held a book signing and Q & A session at the local library. Although I jotted down some notes afterwards, I don’t think I posted anything, so tonight I’ve posting a version of that account. This chronicle of events, though somewhat ordinary, is proof that everyone has a story that needs to be told.

“Everybody has a story. Or so I’ve been told. I agree with Pat Conroy who said the four most beautiful words in the English language are, “Tell me a story.” Tonight’s drop-in at the Kershaw County Library verified Conroy’s assertion and my belief.

“I arrived at the library a few minutes before the drop-in was to begin and took in a couple of dozen bottles of water, part of my contribution for tonight’s event. I could hear Douglas Wyatt, chapter president, talking so I knew things were already underway. Good, I thought. I can sneak out undetected to get the rest of the water, the fruit tray, and the bookmarks I had created as mementoes.

“Everything was going reasonably well until I dropped eight bottles of water, some of which rolled into the parking lot and under the car.  Drat.Now what am I supposed to do?

I didn’t have time to get into a full-blown pity party because within five seconds, I heard,“Can I help you carry something?” I looked up to see one of the kindest faces I’d ever seen.

“I hate to ask you to help me. I ‘m sure that’s not what you came to the library.”

“She didn’t reply, just took the water bottles and waited to make sure I could balance the fruit tray and cookie tin containing the bookmarks.

“You’re an angel to come to my rescue like this. Aren’t those bottles heavy?”

“Not at all. When my brother died, I just sort of stepped up and started helping my mother do all kinds of things. My sisters were already out of the house, and it was just me and Mama.”

“I asked her what happened to her brother, and we talked about that a few minutes. Although the cause of death was technically an accident, he lingered in a coma for several months, thus preparing the family for his ultimate “transition.” 

Not wanting to interrupt the Q & A session that had begun, we put the goodies on a table and slipped outside to continue our conversation. My good Samaritan’s father had passed away a few months before her brother was injured in the accident, and losing both males of the family in such a short period of time helped strengthen the strong interdependent bond between mother and daughter.

“Oh yes, we’re close. But my father and I were close too. He’s the one who taught me the importance of family…and of being kind to other people. If there was one thing he couldn’t stand, it was somebody looking down on another person ‘cause they thought they were better.”

“Sounds like a wonderful role model for you and your siblings.”

“Oh, he was. He was,” she added with a sweet smile.

“Someone beckoned me in, and I invited (gently pressured) my new acquaintance into the room. She stayed the whole time, and before leaving, Mary (not her real name) said she was going to start keeping a journal. She drank a bottle of that water she’d brought in, said she’d been inspired by the stories she’d heard, ate a fruitcake cookie, and selected a colorful bookmark.

“That might have seemed like an ordinary event in an ordinary day. It was and it wasn’t. Mary and I think it was serendipitous. I needed help with water bottles, and she needed a nudge to write her story/stories.

That was two years ago, and I’m curious about Mary and the other attendees who vowed to keep journals, begin personal histories, or polish off a short story hidden away in a closet. I wonder if anyone followed through.

And I’m wondering about you. What’s your story?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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