Saturday, April 17, 2010

What I Have Learned About Writing

I have been attending a lot of workshops lately about writing, as well as joining a number of author groups and critique groups. I will be eternally grateful to all of these for what I am learning.

But first, I would like to mention a few books I have recently read about the process (and I have ordered still more.) I taught creative writing for years, and taught English on the college level, but the whole field about writing and publishing is changing. Everyone is writing, and a lot of people are so intent on publishing, that they are self publishing (which gives one a lot more control over the process). so there is a lot to know. Marketing is a changing field as well, and I believe a lot of politics is probably involved as in most arenas. But publishing and marketing will be for another time.

Of course, there are those who say one should write just for the joy of writing, but those people, I think, must be independently wealthy or have a lot of extra time on their hands.

The Old School

For now, about writing....I am of the old school, from the days when a good novel was considered to be something like To Kill A Mockingbird. You know the kind of story; pages are spent on creating the scene, to capture a moment of time, and there is nothing I like better than to see a moment captured in time. Time flies; people and cultures die, and one can't help but look nostalgically to the past and wish those times and the people of those times still existed. When there was no TV, no internet, and reading was the main form of entertainment, I guess people liked it when an author helped create a world for them where he would set his characters.

The New School

But today, things are different. I went to a writers' conference last week and sat with an agent. She thought I had a good story, and that my writing was good, but told me I spent too much time in the opening explaining the setting. She said most people did not have time today or patience to wait for a whole chapter before real action began. They want to know right away what problem a main character has to solve in order to decide if they want to buy the book and spend some time with that character and those set of problems.

She also said there was not enough emotion in my first chapter, and that I needed to begin my story in the middle of the action. Readers, today, she said, want to know what emotion the main character is feeling-fear, or sadness, despair-to know if they want to go on that ride too.

Now I thought I had a lot of emotion in my story; there was sadness, a little fear, but like myself, the main character didn't show a lot of each. She said there was not enough of those emotions to make a reader feel for the character and turn the pages to find out what was going to happen. Of course I was a little disappointed; I had had some grandiose ideas that this agent would be so into the story and the plot, that she would immediately go to a publisher and get me an advance so I could live on an island somewhere and write full time. Wake up time!

Part of the goody bag that went with the conference was a book handed out to all participants entitled No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript That Sells by Alice Orr. Not feeling like the agent was on my wave length, or wanted the same thing out of a book as I did, at first I did not think I'd get anything out of the book. When I finally read it, at first I was even a little repulsed by what I read there. According to Ms. Orr, the author of the book, if one wants to get an agent to really look at a book and to sell it to a publisher, one of the essential elements of a book is that there must be ""blood on the floor "on the first page or second page .

What is that you say? According to the book author, and the agent, most people today look at the back cover, the jacket flap, and the first two pages, or maybe just the first page. If they aren't grabbed or hooked by the writer on those first few pages, a potential reader is not going to buy or read the book, and an author might as well not waste his time writing it.

I thought about this theory, and as the agent suggested, looked at some of the books I was reading. One of them, Sue Monk Kidd's The Mermaid Chair made it to the top of the Best Sellers' List. You remember Ms. Kidd from The Secret Life of Bees. Sure enough, even though her book is about a woman's midlife crisis, there is real blood on the floor on the first or second page . I won't tell you how the blood got there, or what the plot is about, because I don't want to spoil the book for you, but there is definitely blood there.

Now truth be told, I am not a lover of blood. I bought the book because of the title and the fact that part of the story was based on a real mermaid chair in Cornwall England. I would read anything about Cornwall, England, one of my favorite places in the world, even recipes. And, I constantly remind myself, my favorite author, who writes essays about the changing seasons and her reflections on it, has no blood or much excitement in any of her books, which is why I read her books when I need some comfort or to calm down. The only conflict occurred when she was figuring out how to operate her new vacuum cleaner, shovel her way through snow to the mailbox, or how to pay the mortgage. But, after serious consideration, I think that today, that agent just may have her point, and the book as well.

Another point made by this book is that every scene included in a book must advance the plot. Now I am the kind of person who likes to dwell on what gives me pleasure, especially in writing., and especially when I am capturing historic or other periods in time. But again, just because I like something, doesn't mean a reader would (which is why I love crit groups, I never see my manuscript as others see it). So one has to be ready to cut out the extraneous.

Speaker Today

Which brings me to where I am today. I just heard Eileen Albrizio, an author, poet, writing teacher, and originally news journalist for National Public Radio, speak at a writer's group today.
When I asked her if she thought writing expectations had changed and mentioned To Kill A Mockingbird, she pointed out to me that Harper Lee's editor did serious editing at the beginning of the book, and almost rewrote the entire part with the vignettes about the townspeople. So even in the days of editors who spent days brushing up an author's work, which they don't do today, there was a lot of cutting.

Ms. Albrizio also had a useful tip for prewriting a novel. She said one should have a detailed sort of topic sentence (elevator speech) of one line saying who the character is and in detail what his inner and outer struggles are that are stopping him/her from achieving his/her goal. And she said the conflict, or problem (blood) should be first, because without that there is no story.

Another Writer on Writing

Of course, different people who write about writing, have different viewpoints on things, or emphasize different aspects. Another writer I have been reading a lot about lately, is Anne LaMott. She wrote Bird by Bird , a very popular writer's handout assigned in many college classes today. According to Ms. LaMott, who has more of a spiritual bent, and less of a commercial one, she believes that a writer shouldn't plan too much but let the unconscious lead where it may. She says she has a small frame on her desk with an inch of space in lieu of a picture, to remind her when she is blocked, that she only has to worry about one paragraph at a time. This tip came from her writer/father, who once told his 13 year old son, who was crying the day before he began a project on birds due the next day, and which he had postponed for three months, that the way to get through the project was just to focus on one thing at a time. Not much planning or prewriting here, unless you consider her technique, freewriting.

Another of Ms. LaMott's ideas I like is that if you do this, and maybe you aren't sure what your theme or motifs are, somehow, like a polaroid picture, those themes you hadn't quite figured out or the direction you want to go, will show through what you have written ,in time. I know that is how my writing works; sometimes I am not sure if an incident is essential to my work, but after I have written it down, I can see that there is a pattern to what keeps coming to mind and where I want the story to go.

But maybe the idea I like best of Ms. LaMott's, is that there are demons surrounding most of us that stop us from doing our writing. They may be the spirits of our parents that say we aren't supposed to tell family secrets or talk about certain subjects, or that we just aren't good enough. or have anything important to say. We all have those demons; she says to just ignore them because they are what stop writers from writing. I have learned to ignore those demons myself, and to just trust myself and the process.

Well, that is what I have learned about writing recently. I would love to hear about other writers' ideas or strategies or what they have recently learned.

Monday, March 1, 2010


I was a leader in the 1970's. Often I was the only woman attorney in the courtroom then, and because of it, people just kept asking me to head organizations. I wound up being the first woman Chair of my local Economic Development Commission, drafting legislation,heading women's groups,helping the first women run for office, creating the first YMCA Latch Key Daycare, lobbying, speaking at colleges, and establishing a number of non-profit groups, among other things.

My family had not been leaders; they were more of the self-effacing, quiet types, and it was hard to figure just how to be. I am not sure I have totally figured things out; as the times change, so do the types of leaders that make it to the top. The people determine leaders, just as leaders influence the people.

But being a Christian, there was one thing I believed...never to ask someone to do something, I myself was not willing to do. I also believed in working side by side as a team...and having integrity.

My favorite leaders have been without a doubt ..Winston Churchill, to whom the whole world is indebted to for preserving democracy ( and who was also a wonderful self-taught artist), and my role model from way back...Abraham Lincoln...whose birthday I share.

A Great Book

I was lucky enough, a couple of months ago, to win a copy of a great book. I had taken a number of workshops on web 2.0 skills, and at a sort of giant workshop featuring the practical applications of wikis, blogs and other web 2.0 applications, there wound up being a kind of Jeopardy contest to see who had learned the most. I was one of the lucky people who walked off with a prize.

Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times by Donald T. Phillips
was the prize. It most clearly sums up what I believe are the essentials of good leaders. It is a book lauded by Governor of New York Mario M. Cuomo, John Sculley, CEO of Apple Compuers, and Stephen R. Covey, author of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

To summarize, the author believes that Lincoln was a man who knew how to influence people, who had tremendous courage, who knew how to be decisive, and who mastered the art of communication.

1. Regarding people skills:
  • Lincoln knew enough to get out of his office and meet with the men who were doing the work for him
  • He build good networks and alliances
  • He was not a bully, but knew how to persuade others.
2. Regarding character:

  • He never acted in a revengeful way
  • He was an honest person and one of integrity
  • He listened to his critics
  • He dared to change his mind
3. Regarding his ability to lead:
  • He had a clear vision
  • He listened to others
  • He mentored those he delegated work to, gave them a chance to succeed, but wasn't afraid to change those he delegated work to if they didn't produce results. General Grant's appointment was an example of this.
  • He was a person who dared to think new things; he was the only President who ever obtained a patent for an invention. He was very interested in protecting men by looking into new weapons of defense, and invented one himself.
4. Concerning communication:
  • He was an excellent public speaker
  • Like Christ, he used storytelling to convey picture words to his audience
  • He didn't try to talk above people to impress them, but at the most basic level everyone could understand with homespun stories- in his case, that the union must remain undivided.
All of this sounds easy to do, but of course it is not. In these troubled time, it is wonderful to have such a clear example of what leadership is supposed to be. People don't change; neither does human nature. What worked in the toughest times of the American experience,when family members were pitted against family members, could also work now.

Everyone should read this book; I could not possible convey how good it is, and nowhere else have I seen a more wonderful rendering of "Honest Abe". This book deserves to be bedside reading and enjoyed.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Taking Care of Yourself

If you don't take care of your body, no one else will. What will you live in when you wear out your body?

A while ago, I spoke about the importance of taking care of yourself when I heard that my young niece, aged 28, and with two kids under the age of five, had been diagnosed with cancer for the second time. The importance of this topic was further emphasized for me about two weeks later. Just after she was operated on, her Dad, in his 50's, was diagnosed with cancer,too.

They are an extremely close and loving family. Her Dad and Mom,who is my sister, in the space of a decade, have put three kids through college, paid for two weddings, had three grandchildren, gone on family trips camping and to short, they have been "super" parents, and have had very little time for themselves.

My young nieces work more than full time, while trying to buy and make over houses, raise happy kids, help the short, do more than was ever expected of people since probably the pioneer or war years. It is impossible, and the growing number of women who are coming down with cancer in their 30's is a positive indication of this.

My experience
I am no authority, but I do know, that in the 1980's, after being one of the first women in law , then working three jobs as a teacher, I developed a tumor in my throat in my late 30's. I was lucky; mine was benign. When my doctor said my growth might recur, and that doctors weren't sure what caused it, I figured alot had to do with stress, and sought out people in the psychology field to find out, including going to a workshop where people from Harvard spoke, and attending a talk presented by Bernie Siegel, after I was lucky enough to hear about and read his books. I later wound up studying and certifying as a "body therapist", after researching, and hearing about another person interested in the psychogical causes of lots of illnesses.

Alexander Lowen, a "brainiac", who was among other things, an attorney, doctor, and therapist, created a form of psychotherapy called"Bioenergetics". He had made the connection between stress, people who felt "trapped" in some way and were not letting out emotions, and resulting illnesses, like cancer and tumors.

Overworked, and feeling that I could neither voice my needs or my complaints, I learned I had let them bottle inside, with the result that I once visited three doctors in one week. I had to I learn how to relax, find time to sleep, (I felt like I didn't even have time to go to the bathroom, and during my best years often had just five hours sleep), and let out my feelings. Twenty years later, my growth has not recurred.

To find the answer, I read like my life depended on it; it did!
I learned to take life slower, and that books often have the answers...or some of them.

These are books and authors I recommend if you are suffering from stress related illnesses...and I personally believe that most illnesses are. One of my favorite sayings is, "One does not die from an illness, but from one's whole life".

  1. Greg Anderson's The Cancer Conqueror
  2. Bernie Siegel's Love Medicine and Miracles
  3. Louise Hay's You Can Fight for Your Life
  4. John -Roger and Peter McWilliams Life 101
  5. Jon Zabat Zinn's Full Catastrophe Living
  6. Alexander Lowen's The Betrayal of the Body
What do these great minds say?

Greg Anderson emphasizes the importance of a positive attitude. If you feel like a victim, and act like a victim, you may become one. Instead think positive, and research to find answers for your illness, both in the area of rest, medicines, exercise, looking for support, and eating the right food. Believe you can conquer your illness.

  • Bernie Siegel says the same thing. Don't worry about being a "good patient"; the ones who live the longest aren't. They can be pains in the necks, but they push until they find answers. One has to be one's own coach and mediator. Sometimes the "cure" means getting away from toxic situations sometimes, like a bad job.
  • Louise Hay, as well as Alexander Lowen, and Bernie Siegel, believe that "disease" or "un-ease" is a message from the body telling us that something is wrong with the way we are living. People inherit genetic predispositions to certain illnesses based on their ethnic or family background, but the people who develop an illness, do so, because the stressful circumstances in the environment wear out a person's immune system and the person is worn out. Louise Hay believes that each part of our body means something; people with heart attacks may really have "broken hearts".
  • John Roger and McWilliams believe that people make a great mistake when they try to do everything at once. As they say, "You can have and do anything you want in life, but not all at the same time." The things you acquire require maintenance; one can't just pile up things and experiences ad infinitum. It was because of their wisdom and my tumor, that I worked just part time while raising my daughter.I know people think they have to work, and maybe do, while trying to do it all...but there is a price! Space it out!
  • Jon Zabat Zinn talks about how to meditate and take time out for oneself....What is that? I can remember when I didn't even have ten minutes to do that. He speaks about a body scan daily. Many people are not in touch with their bodies at all and think they are machines. Take the time to ask yourself every day, "What hurts?" What is my body trying to tell me.

  • Other good people that have written about their illnesses

  • Larry King spoke about learning how not to panic during his heart attack, and Norman Cousins about the importance of finding humor in life, like watching comedies. He credits watching old ones with saving his life.
  • Still other good people have talked about the benefits of having pets. For me, they are a salvation. They make me laugh, force me to exercise, show me how to relax, and make me feel loved and cared for unconditionally.
Again, I am not an authority, like at an AAA meeting, take what you can use and leave the rest.

  • .

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My New Year's Resolutions

This is going around in alot of emails; wish I knew who it was from...but it sure is true...


1. Drink plenty of water.
2. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a beggar.
3. Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants and eat less food that is manufactured in plants..
4. Live with the 3 E's -- Energy, Enthusiasm and Empathy
5. Make time to pray.
6. Play more games
7. Read more books than you did in 2009 .
8. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day
9. Sleep for 7 hours.
10. Take a 10-30 minutes walk daily. And while you walk, smile.


11. Don't compare your life to others. You have no idea what their journey is all about.
12. Don't have negative thoughts or things you cannot control. Focus on what you can control.
13. Don't over do. Keep your limits.
14. Don't take yourself so seriously. No one else does.
15. Don't waste your precious energy on gossip.
16. Dream more while you are awake
17. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need..
18. Forget issues of the past. Don't remind your partner with His/her mistakes of the past. That will ruin your present happiness.
19. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone. Don't hate others.
20. Make peace with your past so it won't spoil the present.
21. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.
22. Realize that life is a school and you are here to learn. Problems are simply part of the curriculum that appear and fade away like algebra class but the lessons you learn will last a lifetime.
23. Smile and laugh more.
24. You don't have to win every argument. Agree to disagree...


25. Call your family often.
26. Each day give something good to others.
27. Forgive everyone for everything.
28. Spend time w/ people over the age of 70 & under the age of 6.
29. Try to make at least three people smile each day.
30. What other people think of you is none of your business.
31. Your job won't take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.


32. Do the right thing!
33. Get rid of anything that isn't useful, beautiful or joyful.
34. GOD heals everything.
35. However good or bad a situation is, it will change..
36. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.
37. The best is yet to come..
38. When you awake alive in the morning, thank GOD for it.
39. Your Inner most is always happy. So, be happy.