Plenty o Tomorrows


I’ve been doing a lot more reading than writing lately–pretty much all nonfiction. Not that I don’t enjoy fiction, but well, as the saying goes, “It is what it is.”

As I sit here pounding out some words, I’m remembering my feelings of fear and uncertainty as I read Silent Dell, the pain and compassion when Reading 12 Years a Slave, and the admiration I felt for the heroine of Scarlet Sister Mary. I enjoyed that book so much that I continue to dip into it again and again just to marvel at the way Julia Peterkin wrote. She’s the only writer I can think of at the moment who successfully used a different dialect, that of “Gullahs with tall straight bodies, and high heads filled with sense.”

I have friends and a husband who have lost children and have learned that there is absolutely nothing I can say to assuage their pain. I can offer a listening ear, a hug, and an occasional word of solace. The deep cut they feel is always there, sore and painful. I have read a couple of things lately that might help them make it through a day, an hour, five minutes.

In Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things: advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, the author responds to a mother who’s waiting to see whether her six-month-old daughter with a brain tumor is going to recover or not. Strayed tells her of situations in which there seemed to be no mercy—not for the mother whose teenaged daughter was killed in an automobile accident or for countless others who “have been devastated for reasons that cannot be explained or justified in spiritual terms.”

Strayed mentions the emails, kind words, and prayers sent to and for the mother and  says they “formed a tiny raft that could just barely hold your weight as you floated through those terrible hours while you awaited your daughter’s fate.” She continues, “In your darkest hour you were held afloat by the human love that was given to you when you most needed it.”

No one can take away your pain, but maybe prayers and kind thoughts can form a raft to get you through the night.

And then there’s this from Sacred Voices, a collection of “women’s wisdom through the ages.” It’s a book I’ve flipped through for several years, always finding something beautiful, refreshing, and worth pondering. Rioberta Menchu of Guatemala writes of the time her parents and one of her brothers were murdered. Genocide, the practice of a scorched-earth policy, and the slaughter of humans and animals took place while wealthy tourists visited nearby pyramids and resorts.

The horror of the situation in Guatemala was publicized in a documentary made for ETV and featuring the singer Sting.  He “invited hundreds of grieving mothers of desaparecidos to appear with him, and over the course of the evening, he danced for a minute or two with each one of them as though he were her missing son given a chance to say goodbye.”

The mothers’ grief didn’t disappear, yet for at least one minute, someone held them and pretended to be their son. That’s a beautiful image. Did the dance help? I don’t know. I see the dance functioning like the raft mentioned above.

For now, I’m closing with a favorite quote from Scarlet Sister Mary. Ben Budda has come come to straighten her out and says, “I come to talk stiff words, gal.” I’ve used that phrase so often that now others have picked it up. Someone you care about is suffering, making a mistake, or choosing a crooked path. What do you say? Do? Stiff words are sometimes needed. Ben Budda tells Mary to hold her head up and wash her face and says, “Plenty o o tomorrows is ahead o you.” He loves her and wants her to face reality: “Yesterday’s sun is set.”

I’m often surprised at the directions my posts take. I intended to include uplifting, encouraging thoughts from three nonfiction books. Instead I mentioned two (one that I hadn’t intended to include), and a novel. I’ll get back to the other recent nonfiction reads in a day or two.

Posted in books, fiction, nonficion, readng, Suffering, Uncategorized, words, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Blue Spiral Notebook


The writers I hang out with don’t write for money. Sure, they’d take it if offered, but that’s not their primary reason for putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. They do it because they must. They have a story to tell or some ideas to share, and they understand the power of words. A few of them likely feel Robertson Davies who said, “There is no use whatsoever in trying to write a book unless you know that you must write that book or go mad, or perhaps die.”

I have dozens of journals, pretty ones and utilitarian ones and cool ones. One has Anais Nin’s words “We write to taste life twice…”on the front. I found an old one, a spiral bound composition notebook that I used for making notes for class, listing grocery items, and jotting down to-do lists. I smiled at some of the entries but found most of them boring. I was about to toss the notebook when I found a few pages that took me back to September, 1989, the month Hugo came raging through South Carolina.

I had arisen early the morning of the 21st and watched an update with the local weather station. Hugo was expected to make landfall somewhere on the coast, possibly South Carolina. No way, I thought gazing from my kitchen window. The sky was blue and cloudless, and from all appearances, it was shaping up to be another scorcher in Myrtle Beach. Yet, I felt fidgety and on edge. What to do? Should we pack up and leave for the Midlands to be with family?

Elizabeth, my eleven-year-old, and I were the only ones up and about. In-the-know about the storm’s progress and what the experts told people to do, she sat at the kitchen table making a list for us to take to the store. I was sort of nonchalant about the situation until I looked over Lib’s shoulder and saw items like water, candles, batteries, and flashlight written in her neatly developing cursive. Caught somewhere between amusement and wonder at her diligence, I began to see the situation as more serious.

A few years later a friend gave me a gratitude journal that accompanied Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance. I faithfully recorded five things each day I was thankful for. Before I knew it, I was seeing journals everywhere, and I was off to the races. Some of my gratitude lists had as many as a dozen things in them—phrases, not paragraphs. I  added some specifics. Instead of writing “Family,” I’d write something like “Meeting Aunt Polly, Sue, Little Polly, Ann, and Lisa at The Pearl for lunch.” That was an entry for Saturday, February 4, 2006. Aunt Polly has gone to heaven, and The Pearl has long since closed up shop.

Soon I began to copy quotes from books while in Barnes and Noble or the local library. This was before the internet made finding quotes easy. I began taking notes just about everywhere—in church, in meetings, at stoplights. Increasingly aware of the fleeting nature of time and the inaccuracy of memory, I deliberately took more notice of my environment and recorded goings-on, feelings, and observations.

Gratitude lists still make the cut. It’s just that they’re often interpersed between new words, story ideas, or travel memories. Sometimes my children kid me about it. If ever there’s a doubt about what happened or who did what and where they did it, someone will say, “Ask Mom. It’s probably in one of her journals.”

I’m grateful that I wrote the happenings of that Friday morning when my little girl prompted me to take the coming storm seriously. I’ll always remember that morning in the kitchen and my feelings when I skimmed her list, astonishment and the realization that she was growing up. If I hadn’t taken the time to jot those moments in the blue notebook, the memory would have slid into oblivion.

Did we go to the store for provisions? I don’t know. There’s no record of it. I did record how and where we slept that night: on the floor in the hall of our ranch home that night, windows securely taped against the wind.



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Don’t Mess with Beatrice

This morning I read a supremely superb nonfiction essay titled “Mourning my Grandfather Through the Velveteen Rabbit” in an online publication,  Originally published April 11, 2017 and written by Sarah Gerard, it was undoubtedly the best article I’ve ever read describing the care and connections between generations.

I was lured in by the title, hooked by the first paragraph, and totally “in” by the third paragraph.

The family was Jewish, and I learned about their burial traditions and the way they care for the elderly. “As they lowered him into the ground, we dropped our gloves in after him. In the Jewish tradition, we bury our own dead, so each of us shoveled a mound of earth from a bucket onto the casket.” Towards the end of the grandmother’s life, the  classy lady who had orchestrated fabulous family gatherings, her son (the author’s father) moisturizes her skin and applies sunscreen before putting a baseball cap on her head and taking her for a ride in her wheelchair.

The author writes of dozens of life changes, including moving from one location to another and of growing up and growing old. She was a child going shopping with her grandmother, and in the twinkling of an eye (forgive the cliché), she’s sitting vigil at the bedside of her dying grandfather. The reader sees the grandparents go from meeting  at a dance and smiling on a beach to being bed-bound or pushed in a wheelchair. The description was amazing. I was there in the rooms, all of them, with these people. In one scene, the grandmother is in a room hospital facility watching television beneath a white afghan that was once on her family room sofa.

Can’t you see it all? I can, and I want to be able to write like Gerard. But I can’t and likely never will. That’s okay, though. There are different voices, varied stories to tell, and wide-ranging ways and words with which to share them.

In March of last year, I was done, so done, with a family history that I published through CreateSpace (now Kindle Direct Publishing). It was a time consuming and sometimes torturous process, one I walked away from limping and gasping for air. Who knew it would be so difficult?

But things began to niggle at me. When glancing through the book recently, I spotted “is” when it should have been “his.” I saw doctor’s offices instead of “doctors’ offices.” What could I do? Only one thing—make it right. Once I decided to correct those small but, to me, significant errors, I felt compelled to add a couple of stories and at least one more photograph. The proof copy will arrive later this week.*

One of my grandmothers was always somewhat of an enigma to me. Loving and generous, yes, but a spitfire too. No doubt you’ve heard “Don’t mess with Texas,” and after hearing a certain family story dozens of time, I could add, “Don’t mess with Beatrice.” Whether completely accurate or not, I know there’s a kernel of truth in the story.

Because of my grandfather’s job with the railroad, my grandparents often lived in what I’ve heard referred to as railroad houses. One time they arrived at a new location, and my grandmother found the house totally unacceptable. I don’t know whether the doors were hanging on hinges, the roof had a leak, or there were bats in the attic. I just know that she was beyond upset. Taking matters into her own hands, she approached the “boss man” about it. Nothing happened. At least, nothing happened in the time frame she expected. After further complaints and requests, Beatrice stepped up her game. Armed with a pistol, she walked to the office** where this man was working and again repeated her requests to have the repairs made to their home. According to family lore, the issues  were taken care of the next day.

Some people candy-coat a history, glossing over the weird or over-the top-stuff. In this case, it seemed wrong to exclude my grandmother’s defiant determination. I’m not advocating that any of her posterity go to such lengths to get results. Using a gun is not the preferred method. To me, the story bespeaks an unwavering resolve to take care of business. She had grit.

I’ll never be a Sarah Gerard writer, but I too have stories to tell. So do you, and neither of us should let the anxiety about not being good enough keep us from sharing family stories.

*I accidentally ordered two copies, and if you want to help me proofread….
**Some versions report her as inviting him to dinner and bringing out the pistol after dessert.


Posted in books, families, family histories, nonficion, story telling, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Well, Alrighty Then


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.



Posted in Benjamin Dreyer, books, Camden Writers, critique groups, editing, Uncategorized, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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.”


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 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 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.


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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!




Posted in Camden Writers, critique groups, story telling, Uncategorized, words, writing, writing groups | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment