Sunday, November 4, 2007

Conversations Overheard

A few years ago, a waitress overheard a conversation between two Middle Eastern-looking men and reported to the police she overheard them hatching a terrorist plot. The men were arrested, questioned and eventually released. As it turned out, she had made assumptions on their appearances and perhaps let her imagination get the best of her. A similar Premise was often used for situation comdedies like Three's Company and I Love Lucy. For instance, one character overhears one side of part of a conversation and comes to a conclusion. Ricky is having an affair. Janet is pregnant. By the end of the show, the character who made the assumtpion, realizes the misunderstanding, but not before she caused confusion and alarm. The affair turns out to be a surprise party, and the suspected pregnancy is that of another, married friend.

I like to "people watch." To pass the time in the check-out line, I'll watch people in front of me, look at what's in their shopping baskets, boserve their body language, listen to conversations. I make up stories about them. I imagine what they're going to do when they leave the store and imagine where they live, how their place is furnished. Dp they have roommates or spouses? Pets. Children. I'll layer detail after detail until it's my turn at the check-out, or I'm given a dirty look for staring--whichever comes first.

Place yourself where you'd likely find groups of people and listen (discreetly, of course) to the conversations around you. Write the dialogue from memory. Don't worry about action or description at this point. Concentrate on the subject of the dialogue. Is there a conflict between the speakers? What do you think happened before and after this conversation?

Next, choose a point of view. It could be an outsider narrating his or her impressions of the actions and dialogue (like Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby). Or do it from the point of view of one of the speakers. You can add a third person who overhears the dialogue and comes to an opposite conclusion from what the speakers are discussing, as in my sitcom example. The dialogue you heard will have basic content, but it is your job to relay the subtexts--the underlying meaning--to the reader. The conversation might be pure gossip, a secret, health or family problems, current events, or merely revealing the basic differences between the characters. It's up to you where you take it, what your characters talk about, or how your narrator or point of view character interprets it. Create a scene with action, dialogue, and description. Freewrite first if it helps you warm up. In your finished piece, you can move your conversation to aplace other than where you heard it. Let your imagination go and have fun with it!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Using the Mundane

Millersville University and California State University, Fullerton, co-host a website called The Journal of Mundane Behavior·, a journal devoted to “those aspects of our everyday lives that typically go unnoticed by us.” The articles cover topics like paperclips, cell phones, and bubble wrap. On the surface, these subjects are boring to most people, but even those ordinary things we take for granted each day can be valuable sources of writing ideas.

Many people think they can’t write if they don’t have unusual or exotic lives. They’ve never left their hometown, nor do they have glamorous jobs. Their families are pretty ordinary and without the conflicts that become topics of shows like Dr. Phil and Jerry Springer. You don’t have to live exotic lives to be able to write. Flannery O’Connor said if we’ve survived our childhoods, we have enough material to write about forever. Many published authors like Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver wrote stories about basic human condition. They were set in ordinary places. The characters were ordinary people. Their stories aren’t filled with exotic locales or glamorous people.

Make a list of seemingly mundane events or places. For instance:
taking a bath
brushing teeth
eating a meal
watching television
pumping gas
standing in line
reading mail

Choose one of the events from your list. Use it to create a scene where you make something interesting happen. Provide a twist. Perhaps someone gives in to the temptation to do something funny or outrageous. For instance, while brushing her teeth in her boyfriend’s apartment, Ashley decides to decorate the bathroom with toothpaste. While watching television, a 10-year-old boy calls Cleo the psychic and discovers that his life is about to change. Ask “What if?” Write your scene in any point of view. Feel free to be outrageous.

Once you create the scene, you may have a new story idea. See if you have a conflict that will carry the story. Outline possible conflicts and plot lines. This is your chance to do something you’d never do. Have fun with this. Don’t worry now about whether or not the scene is enough to carry a full story. Like all other exercises, this is practice. Tuck the scene away for another time. Who knows where you might be able to use it?

Here’s a variation of the exercise. Instead of listing mundane situations, make a list of ordinary objects you’d encounter in a typical day. Don’t think too much. List the objects as fast as they come to you. For instance: bubble wrap, instant coffee, door knob, dog biscuit, loose change, etc. Now write five actions associated with each object. For example:
1) A middle-aged man stomps on bubble wrap.
2) A mother wraps an urn with bubble wrap.
3) A child buries her dead hamster in a bubble wrap coffin.
4) A teenager wears a bubble wrap dress to the prom.
5) An interior designer makes bubble wrap ottomans

Choose one of the actions that stands out for your. Write for fifteen minutes without thinking or editing. Don’t worry about plausibility or logic. If you want, flesh it out with details, action, and dialogue. Let yourself go. Give yourself permission to have fun.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Smelling and Tasting Your Memories

Our culture is visually oriented. If it weren’t, magazines wouldn’t have large cover photos to entice the readers to pick them up, and editors wouldn’t spend so much time on layout. Many, if not most, stories rely on visual details. Readers want to see the character or landscape.

Author Rebecca McClanahan wrote in Word Painting, “ . . . ignoring the other senses in your writing is like sitting in a gourmet restaurant, wearing ear plugs, work gloves, and a surgical mask over nose and mouth.” You see the candlelight flickering in your water goblet, the waiters bowing to patrons and balancing trays on their shoulders. If you disregard your other senses, you can’t hear forks clinking against the china or a popping champagne cork. You can’t feel the bubbles tickling your nose, nor smell sautéed garlic and fresh basil. When the dessert tray comes, you’ll be able to see the glazed fruit adorning a cheesecake wedge, but you won’t feel the creamy texture inside your mouth or taste a hint of lemon."

Out of all our senses, our sense of smell has the best memory. It’s probably the most neglected in writing. Using smells in your descriptions will bring another dimension to your writing. Think of the different smells you encounter on a typical day. What smells evoke memories for you? Dove soap reminds me of my grandmother. Chantilly perfume reminds me of my mother and all the women my father dated after her. Magnolias remind me of my high school prom.

I started burning scented candles long before the aromatherapy craze. I like bringing the scent of lilacs and gardenias indoors, or filling the house with vanilla and cinnamon, when I haven’t baked in weeks. Now one can buy candles scented like chocolate cake, coffee, cookies, and even mown grass.

Smells don’t always evoke pleasant or relaxing memories. What about being in a room with two wet dogs? The Polo cologne an old boyfriend wore—the one who cheated on you? Or the container of General Tso’s chicken you left in the refrigerator two weeks ago and now has a green fuzz? Milk a week after the expiration date? A cancer patient’s room? A house filled with sixty cats, and the elderly woman found inside three days after her death? (This recently happened in my home town.)

If you notice, most of the smells I’ve described were in terms of how it makes one react. Writer Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) refers to the sense of smell as “the mute sense, the one without words.” It’s much harder to describe smells, because the connection in our brains between the smell center and the language center isn’t as strong as the connection between our visual and language centers.

Make a list of smells you’d encounter on a typical day. If it helps, go to various rooms and locations and close your eyes. Concentrate on the smells around you. What connections can you make? Freewrite whatever comes to mind.

Without smell, you can’t have taste. Seventy-five percent of taste comes from smell. When we put something in our mouths, molecules that make up specific smells and that trigger our smell receptors, travel to the olfactory receptor cells. These specialized cells are located in your nasal cavity. If it is blocked, so is your ability to smell. That’s why children pinch their noses before taking bad tasting medicine, or things seem to have no taste when we have a cold.

Like smell, taste is another “mute” sense. We usually describe it in terms of how it makes us feel. Sometimes naming the food is enough. Mashed potatoes. Apple pie. Chocolate. Spinach. These food names conjure unique memories. Atmosphere is important in describing food. Ice cream consumed in an old-fashioned ice cream parlor tastes different from ice cream consumed alone in an apartment on a Saturday night while watching “Sex and the City.”

Taste isn’t limited to only food. After being punched in the nose, a man tastes blood. A teenager tries a cigarette for the first time. A woman diagnosed with cancer smokes her last one. The wheat paste our desk mate ate in kindergarten. Crayons. Pencil tips. A kiss.

Spend a few minutes jotting down as many foods you can name. Then make a separate list of non-food words you’ve tasted. When you’ve finished your lists, look over them and see what memories they evoke. Freewrite about them as time allows.

Here’s another variation: Choose one of the items (food or non-food) from your lists. Then list five different atmospheres and situations for each. Refer to the ice cream and cigarette examples to get you started.

The next module of the free course, Creating Memorable Characters, is posted. This one discusses sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. Go to the main CS Writing Workshop page and scroll down to access the link.

In addition to Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses, I recommend reading An Alchemy of the Mind. It's a fascinating look at the brain, its functions, and memory. To see what else I've been reading, check out the Buried Treasures Bookstore.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Your Local History

In his novel, Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner included a map of Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi, a fictional place where fourteen novels and most of his short stories were set. The county is 2400 square miles and bordered by the Tallahatchie River to the north and the Yoknapatawpha River to the south. Before settlers began arriving in the 1800s, Chickasaw Indians inhabited the area. Through his fiction Faulkner readers become intimate with the histories and conflicts of the characters. Yoknapatawpha County developed its own history with landmarks including Sutpen’s Hundred and Frenchman’s Bend. Faulkner drew from his own experiences and history of Lafayette County where he lived.

Other authors have familiar places in their works. Gibbsville, Pennsylvania was the fictional setting for much of John O’Hara’s works. It was based on his hometown, Pottsville. Garrison Keillor actually grew up in Anoka, Minnesota, the inspiration for his Lake Wobegon. Stephen King modeled two of his fictional towns, Derry and Castle Rock, on real towns in Maine. They are Bangor and Durham, respectively. My own novel, Living in the City, is set in fictional towns based on towns where I’ve lived. Kiehlton County is was inspired by Annville, Hershey, and Lebanon—towns in Central Pennsylvania. Kiehlton County has become the setting of most of my short stories and my current novel-in-progress. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapaptawpha County, my fictional town is developing its own history and residents who appear in more than one story.

None of these locales are particularly exotic. Each has some universality, and they’re populated with people you might find in your own neighborhood. You don’t have to wander too far from your own backyard to find interesting stories. Every town has a history; some of it comprised of rumors and legends as well.

Draw a map of your town. This can be your own hometown, a fictional town, or a combination of both. Name the streets, streams, buildings and landmarks. Add whatever details you like. Write a history of the town. Who settled there? Who were the prominent families? Are the streets named after significant figures? How long has the hardware store been there? What was in the building before Starbucks arrived? To gather ideas, visit the library or local historical society. Ask older residents what they remember. Freewrite about whatever comes to mind. You can mix and match details from your research. What you don’t know, you can make up. The town is yours.

The fourth module of the free Creating Memorable Characters workshop is posted. You can find it on the main page of the CS Writing Workshop.

One of my friends at is hosting a writing contest. There is no entry fee. Check out the contest at:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Where Were You When...?

On September 11, 2001 I was walking the last half mile of my morning walk on the cross country course. That morning on my headphones I was listening to a local talk radio station. The host and callers were discussing a freak accident at a nearby amusement park where a teenage boy fell off a rollercoaster to his death. The radio host interrupted his caller saying, “Ohmygod! We just got word that a plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. What a freak accident.”

I shuddered, thinking, “What are the chances of that happening?”

The host broke in again with, “It was not a fluke. Another plane just crashed into the World Trade Center. It is a confirmed terrorist attack.”

I began running, panicked. Nonsensical thoughts flashed through my mind. It hadn’t quite registered, and I had many questions. The questions ranged from wondering about the safety of the people in the towers to wondering about the safety in our own small town hundreds of miles away. Should I pull the kids from school? Where was my husband?

At home I turned on the TV and switched between news stations. I sat frozen and stunned as I watched the World Trade Center collapse. I saw crowds covered with dust running in the streets of New York City. I heard screams. Crying. Sirens. Breathless reporters updating information while plumes of smoke rose in the distance. Years later the images remain fresh in my mind. I doubt I’ll ever erase them.

How many times have you heard people relay their experiences regarding significant and/or tragic historical events? They remember every detail of where they were or what they were doing when Kennedy was shot or Armistice was declared. Some of us may not remember what we ate for dinner two nights ago, but when exposed to a tragic event, our brains seem to record every sensory detail.

It’s your turn. Recall any historical events of your life. Write about the moment you heard the news. Where were you? What were you doing? Record sensory details. Describe the weather. What thoughts and physical sensations did you experience? Don’t worry about fact checking or the correct order of events. Focus on how it related to you. This is your experience.

I've added the next module of the Creating Memorable Characters workshop. You can access it from the main page at CSWriting Workshop.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Goodbye Shadow...

My son was about three years old when he saw the movie, Homeward Bound. After watching it countless times, he announced he wanted a “Shadow Dog.” His dad and I told him how much work a dog would be, and if we got him a dog, he would be taking care of him. He said he was ready, but we kept putting him off, thinking it was a phase, that eventually he’d stop asking. Our determined son did not forget. Two years later we took a beautiful hour and fifteen minute drive to Juniata County to a clean farm/kennel owned by an Amish family. We spent a long time examining and nuzzling the various puppies. When we saw our Shadow, we knew concurrently that he was “the one.” I can’t think of anything else to say except to use the cliché, “love at first site.” We instantly fell in love with his big brown eyes, floppy ears, and gentle nature. We eagerly signed all the adoption papers, and I carried him to the care over my shoulder like a beloved teddy bear. At the time, he was barely ten pounds. Within two years, he grew to be 120 pounds but was oblivious to his size.

That was almost eleven years ago. Today at 5:15 p.m., he was at the vet’s office to be put to sleep. Even though we were doing the right and humane thing—he was riddled with tumors and in pain though he never complained or moaned—it was hard to say goodbye.

Shadow raised his head from the gurney as I nuzzled him and said goodbye. Initially my son said he would be with his dog until the end, the way Shadow had always been there for him. But he couldn’t make it that far. He said his goodbyes at the car. We burst into tears when Shadow lifted his head in response to my son’s voice. He tried to scoot closer, but it was too painful for Shadow to move. In the end, the rest of our family and I only made it as far as the door. In tears, the vet told us it would be quick and painless, and she would be there with him. She choked, “He must have been a great dog.” All of us broke down.

Shadow was a great dog. That’s an understatement. He was gentle and loving. He lived to please us. When one of was sick, he’d lie on the floor beside the bed or sofa. Occasionally, he’d pop up his head as if to say, “How are you doing?” He knew if one of us was sad or hurting. He’d nuzzle us. To say he was a constant companion is almost cliché, but it’s true. We used to complain and laugh how he was always in the way or underfoot, but it was only because he loved our company. If only everyone could have a friend like that. The mere presence of you lit him up, made his tail wag.

It didn’t take much to please him. Freeze pops and slices of bread were treasures for him. He loved his car rides. It got to the point when we had to spell c-a-r-r-i-d-e, and even then, he knew what we meant. He’d begin dancing and talking and his thick fringed tail knocked everything near him. In the car, he’d stick his head out the window and in the mirror I’d laugh and watch his jowls flap in the wind. That teeth-baring smile of his told me he had reached doggie Nirvana.

Shadow loved the snow. He enjoyed taking walks. He loved the attention he attracted. People always stopped to pet him, to tell us he was a beautiful dog. And he played it up. Even more than taking walks, he loved rolling in the snow and catching snowballs. Once he became so rambunctious that he head-butted me and gave me a gash just below the eye that required 8 stitches and a tetanus shot. Everyone loves to the story about how I earned that now almost invisible scar.

One of my favorite memories of Shadow is when the kids were small and still had paper routes. The Sunday papers were back-breaking for the kids. Even though they used a wagon, it was hard for them to pull. Their father made a harness for the dog, so he pulled the wagon for them. It was comical seeing him trotting like a show dog—except that his tongue was always hanging out of the side of his mouth. He stopped traffic. People stopped and hung out their car windows to pet the dog. Shadow hammed it up. The kids got a real treat at the end of the paper routes. They climbed into the wagon, and Shadow cantered all the way home. And of course there was always a doggie biscuit or Freeze pop waiting for him.

Shadow was the perfect dog. He gave us 11 years of joy. He will be missed by everyone who knew him.

If you haven’t tackled the last freewriting exercise, try it now. Freewrite about a family pet. If you’ve ever lost or have had to say good-bye to a pet, freewrite about that. Write a eulogy. Write through the sadness and pain. For more starter ideas, I suggest reading Marley & Me or, if you're a cat lover, A Scattering of Cats. Both are beautifully written memoirs.

My apologies for those who had been following the free character writing workshop. As I mentioned in my last blog entry, my dad had a serious accident which caused a temporal lobe injury. He has been moved out of the hospital and is in a brain injury rehab. I appreciate all the notes and prayers. When things aren’t so hectic, I’ll start posting more notes and exercises for the character workshop. In the meantime, browse the other articles and writing exercises at the sister site: CSWritingWorkshop. Also, if you’re interested in earning some extra money, I’ve added some links to the Earn Money page. Again, I appreciate all the notes and prayers. It means so much.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

No Blog This Week

Thank you for visiting, for your emails, and notes. There will be no blog this week. My father had an accident and is in the trauma unit. I'll be back to post when everything is stable. In the meantime, browse the archives and the sister site, CS Writing Workshop.

Keep writing!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Family Pets

In addition to a dog, we always had cats when I was growing up. Most memorable was our white Persian, Frosty. He was a purebred. Both his parents were show cats but to us, he was Frosty, a member of our family. We didn’t care about his pedigree. My sister and I dressed him up in doll clothes and wheeled him around the neighborhood in a baby carriage. Ah, we loved the reaction of people when we let them take a peek inside. We ignored the strict diet prescribed by the breeder and fed him from our plates. He liked Doritos®, cheese and spaghetti. Whenever we cooked spaghetti, we always made a plate for him. He devoured it, licking his plate clean. When he finished, his beard was stained orange. It always made us laugh. Despite the violation of his dietary restrictions, he lived until he was seventeen.

Now I have a dog and five cats. Each has a distinctive personality. We have a curmudgeonly cat who is growing more affectionate with age. He snores, has only three teeth, and he has a torn ear because he has escaped death numerous times. Our dog is a beast who loves freeze pops and snowball battles. Then there’s our kitten we call “stupid cat.” My son rescued him one November night from the brink of starvation and frostbite. Stupid Cat became immediately attached to the dog. They’re both gold, so I think the cat thinks the dog is Mommy. Or Daddy. I could fill a volume with stories about these animals. They’ve given me a lot of laughter and few frustrations over the years.

Freewrite about your family pets. Write about the day you brought them home, the things they ate, the toys they played with. Write about leaving them for the first time. Or the time you had to put it to sleep.

If you’ve never owned any pets, write about the neighborhood dog the kids in the neighborhood were afraid of or the cat lady down the street. (There always seems to be one in every neighborhood.) Or maybe it was the chipmunk you fed Cheerios on your windowsill. The rabbit that nibbles your flowers. The class hamster or snake. Write about the pets you wished for. The pugs pressed against the pet store window. The bird you wanted to teach to sing show tunes. Write about the pets you’ll someday have.
I've posted week two's notes and exercises for the free Creating Memorable Characters Workshop. If you haven't been there yet, surf over to the CS Writing Workshop page. I'll be adding new notes and writing exercises each week.
As always...have fun with your writing!

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Family Stories

Every time I get together with my dad, he tells the same story. I’ve heard the story a million times, and even if I say, “Dad, we’ve heard it before,” he tells the story again.
Here’s the story:

When I was two, we had a German shepherd named Winnie. My dad wanted to train her to pull me in a sled, so he began by harnessing the dog to a stroller. To add weight, he put his toolbox on the seat. The rattling tools startled the dog, so she would bolt in effort to escape whatever horrible thing was chasing her. Eventually she became used to the noise and developed a rhythm. When there was snow on the ground, my dad harnessed Winnie to the sled, again weighted by the tool box. Confident that the dog would pull me all right, my dad strapped me to the sled. Winnie pulled the sled smoothly away from the house. She trotted and wagged her tail and stayed alongside my father. However, on the way home, it was a different story. When Winnie saw the ranch house at the end of the street, she raced toward it like a thoroughbred. I screamed and hung on. My dad ran behind us shouting commands at the dog and told me to not let go.

Winnie bolted around the bend and onto the driveway. The sled overturned, dumping me into a pile of recently shoveled snow. I cried, and Dad brushed the snow off me. I don’t remember if my dad ever tried it again.

Whenever he tells the story, my dad laughs until he’s in tears. I’ve heard it so many times that I just roll my eyes. So far my kids haven’t tired of the story and encourage their PopPop to tell it.
Think about your own family stories. Do you have an annoying relative who tells the same stories over and over again? Do you listen politely or leave the room? What stories about your parents and grandparents have you heard? What stories would you like passed down through the generations? Write down these stories. Flesh out the characters. Add dialogue and action. Share them...

I've added a new section the the CS Writing Workshop page called Creating Memorable Characters. It's a course I used to teach, but now I'm offering it on my website for free. Each week I'll add new notes and exercises.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

"Minor" Characters

Minor characters appear in books and films to add flavor to the story and setting. Though they appear only for a few minutes, usually they’re memorable. Zuzu Bailey (played by Karolyn Grimes) had only two spoken lines in It’s a Wonderful Life. Most memorable is the one at the end of the film, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” And who can forget Prissy (played by Butterfly McQueen) and her squeaky voice in Gone With the Wind? “Please Miss Scarlett, I know all about birthin’ babies!” Or Mammy’s frequent looks of consternation and the bright red petticoat, a gift from Rhett Butler, swooshing underneath her dress.

Minor characters offer a laugh or add to the drama and add reality to a scene so the story does not exist in a vacuum.

Recently I had a discussion on MyLot about the minor characters we run into daily. Sometimes we don’t give them much thought. We may not even know their names. On a typical day I’ll banter with the Indian men who run our corner store. At the other end of the counter the same hopeful elderly man buys his daily lottery tickets and promises to share his winnings with us. Walking to work, the man who wears a red bandana and biker shirt always stops to pet my dog and tells me he wishes he could switch places with him. The mail carrier hands me the mail and as I feign anger, he apologizes for giving me a stack of bills or junk mail. After their brief appearances, they vanish from my life for the rest of the day.

Most of the minor characters in my novel, Living in the City, were loosely based or were compilations of my colorful neighbors. For instance, Junior, "the entrepreneur," was based on an annoying and crusty man who lived across the alley from me. He owned a rusted blue ice cream truck and sold cotton candy and carnival toys. When I created Junior, I didn't like him much. But he kept inserting himself into scenes, and the more I spent time with him, the more I laughed, and the more I loved him.

Make a list of the people you meet in a typical day. Include those with whom you’ve never exchanged a single word. Those whom you pass without a second thought. Those who irritate you or make you smile, even for a brief moment. Those you’ve seen only once, those you’ve passed on the street, the one in front of you at the check-out line. Maybe they’ve made an impression on you—either positive or negative. Or maybe you hardly remember them, as they passed in a blur. Really make yourself remember. Hone in on at least one detail.

Now choose one and do a freewrite. Describe his or her appearance in detail by going from top to bottom. Start with the hair, the eyes, his build, what he’s wearing. Describe the way he walks and talks. His smell. What he’s carrying. If you can’t remember these details, make them up.

Give this person a name. Create a back story. Where did this person come from? What did he do, or what is he about to do? What is he thinking? What does he want most in life? Give him a life. Write about a typical “day in the life of…”

For an additional challenge, choose two or more from your list and make them interact. As you come across more “minor” characters in life, add them to your list. Freewrite as time allows.

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Around this time every year, my dad took my sisters and me on our summer camping trip. We had a favorite state park above the coal region of Pennsylvania. One year we reached the campground only to find out there were no sites available. We were told sites would open up in the next couple days. Being too far away to drive home and return, we took the park ranger’s recommendation and went to another campground a few miles away.

I was horrified (and angry with my dad for his lack of planning) when we arrived. This so-called campground was nothing more than a field off the side of the road with tents and Vanagons set up every ten feet. There was no running water. The toilet facilities were stinky outhouses at the end of the campground. We begged our dad to take us home, to forget the camping trip altogether.

“It’s just for one night,” he said and unpacked our gear. “You’ll feel better after you eat something.” As we unpacked, we discovered we had forgotten the kitchen utensils and…toilet paper.

“No biggie,” dad said. He remembered seeing a store down the road. We could get supplies there. As it turned out, it wasn’t a store but a shack selling hot dogs and ice cream. The building was falling in on itself, and I was leery of eating anything that came from that shack. But my stomach was growling, and like my sisters, I succumbed to my hunger. Our bellies full, we drove to the next town to find a real store. He laughed all the way saying we were on an adventure. I was not amused.

Our spirits lifted when my dad built a campfire. We roasted marshmallows and drank hot chocolate. The warmth of the fire surrounded me and made me feel sleepy. I turned in, feeling excited about going the state park the next day. I would not sleep that night. No one in the campground slept.

A couple sites away Foreigner blared from speakers atop a van. As the night went on, the campground grew noisier as other campers became stoned and drunk. I couldn’t bury myself deep enough in my sleeping bag to shut out the noise. Thankfully, my dad had had enough. We helped him pack up, and then we left and spent the rest of the night sleeping in our car at the entrance of the state park. The same time the following night, we were enjoying the quietness of camping, sounds of crackling fires and chirping birds. That year, I appreciated those nature sounds even more.

Freewrite about the vacations you’ve taken. What are your favorite destinations? Write about your most vivid memories. Write about the best and the worst. Don’t forget to include conversations and sensory details. Vacation doesn’t have to be about taking a trip. Write about what the word means to you. Describe your ideal vacation.

As always…have fun with it!
I've updated the Writing Practice page of the sister site, CSWriting Workshop. If you'd like more writing exercises, take a look!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to all my American Readers!

When I was a little girl, every 4th of July, my Dad took my sisters and me to Coleman's Park to watch the fireworks. We'd find a spot under the knotty magnolia trees to spread our tartan blanket. Whilw we waited for dusk to arrive, we picked up magnolia petals and put them in our hair. I remember that the petals were soft and sweet-smelling. We pushed ourselves on the rickety wooden swings, trying to see how high they would go, while at the same time, we prayed they wouldn't break. Sometimes we were allowed to have ice cream. Someone was always roasting hotdogs on the charcoal grills by the pavilion.

For most of the fireworks display, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears. I didn't like how the big booms made my stomach go fluttery. The magnolia smell became obliterated by the gun powder smell. The bruised magnolia petals fell out of my hair. One or two would be found on my pillow later. After the fireworks, we fought traffic all the way home.

I didn't know the meaning of Independence Day then. Fourth of July seemed to be a big pain in the neck. Later, though, I would be striving toward my own independence. Writing played a large part of it. With that came an understanding of why our country celebrates Independence Day.

How do you celebrate your independence? Freewrite for fifteen minutes about independence. What does it mean to you? When did you first feel independent? How did you get there?
More prompts for freewriting:

  • fireworks
  • magnolia trees
  • ice cream
  • swinging
  • hotdogs

I've added a new link in the links list on the right-hand side of the blog. It's not writing related, but it's a way I earn some extra cash between waiting for checks. Check out the EARN MONEY link.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Recipe Box

Food is a powerful source for stories. It’s hard to think of a food without having some sort of memory or reaction—either positive or negative. On Emeril Live on the Food Network, reactions from audience members are both visible and audible with groans and lip licking.

I have a friend who’s writing a memoir using family recipes. She collected many of these recipes from her mother. Each recipe had a family story associated with it. Her mother died many years ago from ovarian cancer, so she collected the recipes as a way to keep her mother’s memory alive. Up until recently, she kept the recipes in boxes. Now she’s compiling them on her computer and writing the memories associated with each one.

Whenever I eat bean soup, I remember a family reunion I attended as a child. It was in a church grove and attended by every arm of the family who lived in Schuylkill County. We had the usual picnic fare like potato salad, hot dogs, and hamburgers. My dad carried a steaming Styrofoam bowl of homemade bean soup. My little sister turned her nose up at it, so my dad had to coax her to try it. Corn on the cob roasted on an open fire. Butter dripped from my chin. My sister and I were most fascinated with the barrels that dispensed homemade root beer and birch beer. We drank cup after cup until our stomachs hurt. My Grammy won a hat during the Pinochle game. It was made of green yarn and Christmas cards. Grammy wore it to church in the winter.

Open your own recipe box. What are your favorite meals? Your family’s? When did you eat it for the first time? Who made it? Also, think about the meals you hated. Why did you hate them?
What happened during certain meals? Which dishes seemed to turn up at every family gathering? Make a list of as many foods as you can think of. Do this quickly. Jot them as they come to mind. To get started, open a cookbook or a recipe file. When you’ve finished the list, choose one or several from the list and freewrite. Go back periodically and add to your list.

If you haven't already, visit the sister site, CS Writing Workshop. I've added a new section called CS Notes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Father's Day

Happy Father's day to all fathers out there. I want to wish a special Happy Father's Day to my nephew Nate and to my niece Sapphira who recently had a baby boy!

Father's Day brings up a flood of various emotions. My Dad wasn't the perfect man expressed in Hallmark cards. It would be difficult for me to find a card for him today. For a long time, all I could remember is a strict and mostly stoic man. He was highly critical of me, and no matter I what I did, I could never please him. He said many cruel things to me, as I did to him.

It wasn't always that way. I do have some good memories of riding the ferryboat each Autumn and eating ice cream along the Susquehanna River. We had camping trips that turned into adventures. We hiked along the Appalachian Trail, and he'd tell me the histories of the towns we saw below us, and he knew all the names of the trees and wildflowers.

But then my mother left, and he became a different man. At 10 years old I was expected to take her place with the chores and the disciplining of my 2 younger sisters. What a rift that caused, a rift that almost didn't mend. My father spent less and less time at home, and we had to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we had no food in the house. I felt worthless and unloved most of the time. And lonely. I couldn't wait to leave home. I ended up dropping out of college to do it.

Things changed recently. I received a midnight visitor telling me had been missing. He had never shown up for his Wednesday night chicken pot pie dinner. At first, I thought my elderly visitor was being a nervous Nellie, blowing things out of proportion. My father was the type of man who disappeared for days and broke promises.

I didn't sleep that night. I didn't know whether to be angry or worried. Arriving at his home the next morning, it was obvious he hadn't been home. I panicked. The local police and fire department broke into the house. My sister and I had no keys. The house was in more disarray than I last remembered. The police were able to find him. My father had been in a near-fatal car crash and was taken to the nearest trauma unit. He had been unconscious and couldn't give any information about next-of-kin.

Upon arriving to his hospital room, I was shocked. He had been taken off the vent and was free of IVs and was cracking jokes with the nurses who doubled over with laughter. This little 78-year-old grey-haired man behaved so child-like. He brightened over an offering of vanilla ice cream. He was not the father I had left behind. Normally a very active, strong man, he winced as he hobbled around the hospital room. How long would it be before he could tend his gardens again? He had planted the most beautiful gardens, so that something was blooming year-round. The azaela bushes were trimmed to perfect spheres. The flowers lining the walk never had a dead head. Oh, and I can't forget the horseshoe pit in the backyard. He brags that that it is regulation sized. He was both intimidating and inspiring.

I had to laugh when during his period of lucidity, he asked about his camera. I've never seen him without a camera. I remember being in the car with him at times, and he'd suddenly pull to the side of the road to capture a rainbow or a beautiful sunset. Once we chased a hot air balloon to its landing, and he took a series of pictures of the landing, the folding of the balloon. He also had an annoying habit of taking pictures of me when I looked my worst. He said he liked things natural, not fake.

We told him that the car was totalled in his accident, that it was unlikely his camera survived the accident as well. The next day, my sister brought him his camera. We took turns taking pictures of him. After we left him, he chased down the nurses and snapped pictures of them.

Later, I learned he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. The symptoms became more apparant the more time I spent with him. Sometimes he did recognize me. I stopped moaning about the picture-taking.

He's been home for months and has gotten back to his normal activities. Photography field trips. Roller skating Tuesday nights. Polka and Square dances with his friend, Minnie. Evening bike rides. Hiking. He now calls me more frequently, but usually, he has forgotten that he had called me yesterday. I listen to the same stories and jokes. I laugh along with him, but inside I am crying. I listen and hold those storiesclose to my heart because one day he'll completely forget me, and all those stories he's fond of repeating will be locked inside him.

I wrote two stories about father/daughter relationships. They were written at different points of my life. "Rose Petals in a Jar" is written by an angry daughter. "The Roaring Bull and Electra" was written years before I'd know my dad would be diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Now for some writing prompts:
*Freewrite using the prompt "These are the facts about my father..."
*Write a good memory about your father. Develop it into a scene. Use dialogue and all your senses.
*Write the opposite. Create a scene with conflict. The worst fight you had, a disagreement, something that caused you misery.
*Write about the things your father has taught you.
*Write about the things you wish you had said or cannot say

These exercises are not supposed to be easy. Take a deep breathe and let go...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Family Albums & Dreaded Yearbook Pictures

During the last days of school, my classmates and I passed around our yearbooks and took our turns signing them. Later, locked up in my room I read the inscriptions. Each was individual in their writing style and handwriting. I remember the Sylvia Plath style narrative a friend wrote on the entire back cover. It was without clichés like “embarking on a new future.” Rather, it was dark and more of a cautionary tale about life. How did this teenager know so much about life and the real world beyond the doors of our high school? I remember how tickled I was to see written, “You’re a beautiful and talented woman,” from one of the jocks who had spent most of high school teasing me about my nerdiness. Others signed with catch phrases that were popular then.

I’ve since thrown out my yearbook. Not to mention the horrible yearbook pictures of me, some of the inscriptions were too embarrassing reread. When I tossed out my yearbook, there was a lot I wanted to forget. Some of the inscriptions revealed things about me I didn’t like. Yearbooks tell a lot of stories. They’re a piece of history.

Dig out your own yearbook. (Assuming, unlike me, you’ve kept yours.) Read the inscriptions. What do you remember about the authors of those inscriptions? What type of relationship did you have with each? Where were they in the hierarchy of students at your school? Spend ten minutes freewriting about them.

Below are more ideas. Freewrite for ten to fifteen minutes on each. Use sensory details. Include dialogue if it applies.
· Your prom. Did you attend your prom? Why or why not? Describe what you and your date wore, what you ate, what music played.
· Who was awarded “Most Likely to Succeed” or “Best Dressed” or “Class Clown?” What do you remember about them? Were there others whom you felt deserved the awards instead? What has happened to those students? If you don’t know, make it up.
· What extracurricular activities were you involved in? Write about specific incidents.
· Who were your favorite teachers? Which ones did you dislike? Describe their physical appearances, speech patterns, habits.
· Were there any class bullies or anyone who intimidated you in one way or another?
· Who was your best friend? Describe the things you did together. Compare your similarities and differences.
* Write about school pranks
· Write about a class reunion. Describe who showed up, who changed, who stayed the same. If you’ve never attended one, write a fictional reunion.

If yearbook pictures aren’t embarrassing enough, dig out any family albums you can find. Spend some time looking at the pictures. Don’t think about writing yet. Note the feelings you experience as you turn the pages. What sensory details do you remember? Specific events? Choose a few photographs that evoke some type of emotion. Write about what happened the moment the flash bulb went off. Note everyone’s body language and facial expressions. Observe what is in the background. What are the subjects looking at? No go a bit deeper. What was each person thinking? Write from the perspective of each person in the photo. If you don’t know, make it up. Let your imagination take over.

More family album exercises:
· Freewrite about the members of your family. Go beyond their physical descriptions and describe them moving through their world. Describe their beliefs, mannerisms and quirks, favorite figures of speech. Try one of these prompts to get you started:
1) The last time I saw my mother (or father, grandfather, sister, etc.)
2) These are the facts about my father (or mother, etc.)
3) Grandma (or mother, father, etc.) always said

· Draw a floor plan of the house (or houses) you grew up in. Describe each room in detail as well as any memories you’ve associated with them. Describe the wall color, furniture, mementos. Write about what your fantasy bedroom or house was then.
· Write about the smells of your grandmother’s house (or kitchen or wherever else), your parents’ car, the back porch, the garage. List the sounds you heard in the morning and the ones that kept you up as well.
· Write about the changes that occurred within the family (i.e. births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc).
· Write about leaving home, about moving and packing.
· Write about the nicknames of family members and how they earned them.

Use these exercises for the yearbook and vice versa. These should keep you busy for a while.
For more writing exercises please visit the CS Writing Workshop.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Last Days of School

As I write this, my kids’ last day of school is days away. While I begin to worry about how I’m going to find quiet time to write or how to keep them off the computers and Xbox, convince them to clean out the cat box and run the vacuum, I also start thinking about my own last days of school.

In elementary school, the last day meant Popsicle and bubble gum parties, and eating lunch on the lawn. I’d stuff my book bag to overflowing with art projects and workbooks, papers. At home I’d spend hours reading over my old papers. I loved the workbooks, because we never seemed to finish them during the school year. I finished them over the summer. The end of the school year also meant half empty composition books that had to be filled up.

High school was a bit different. I couldn’t wait for the last day to arrive, for all my finals to be finished. Summer vacation meant being carefree. Long walks, going to the library and writing until the wee hours.

What do you remember about your last days of school? Did your summer vacations live up to your expectations? Did it mean you’d not see some friends? Did it mean escaping the class bully, at least until the next term? Did you go away to camp? Start with your earliest memory of your last day of school and freewrite for ten minutes. What sights, sounds, smells, etc. do you remember? Do your freewrite again about high school or college. If you have children, write about their last days. Note the physical sensations you experience as you write. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised about what you remember.

For exercises on the craft of writing, please visit the sister site, CS Writing Workshop. What does the CS stand for? Loosely translated, it means "writing disease." Check it out!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Grammy's Pickle Dish

My mother-in-law has a crocheted bedspread on display in one of her guest bedrooms. It has a story we enjoy telling. A few years ago she was digging through the cedar chest in that room for something she wanted to show me. I don’t think she ever found what it was she was looking for, because she was distracted by something else. In the bottom, wrapped in tissue paper, was a thread crochet project her mother had started about fifty years ago. She died from breast cancer before she was able to finish it. Along with the crochet project was the original spool of crochet thread, still in pristine condition. My mother-in-law is a super talented quilted and knitter, but she admitted crocheting was not her forte. She gave me the crochet project and thread saying I should finish it, maybe for my daughter’s bedroom.

I considered myself a novice crocheter then. After much protesting, I accepted the project. Never one to turn down a challenge, I set immediately to work. I took one of the hexagon motifs, and through trial and error, I figured out the pattern. But I didn’t know what the intended project was supposed to look like in the end. Was it supposed to be a bedspread? A table cloth? I did some research and found that popcorn patterns were popular in the 1950s for both table cloths and bedspreads. But I still didn’t know how the pieces were to be sewn together. I wrote experts, but no one had a pattern that came close. On and off for months, I crocheted the pieces and hoped eventually I’d find the answer. The writing process can work the same way.

I’ve always said that my grand-mother-in-law’s spirit must have been guiding me. I can’t think of any reason I managed to finish the project. I did run into problems that held up its completion. First, I ran out of the original thread. For weeks I tried to find a match. I even had some special ordered, but it wasn’t close. Discouraged, I almost abandoned the project. My sister-in-law said she thought it would be neat to mix the old thread with new, even though the colors weren’t an exact match. Eventually, she did convince me to finish it. I pieced the sections together, framing the old thread with the new. Fittingly, when you held up the bedspread, all the pieces formed a kaleidoscope pattern. I finished it with a lacy border that I made up as I went along, and to this day, I haven’t been able to duplicate. Instead of giving the bedspread to my daughter, I returned it to its rightful owner. I gave it to my mother-in-law as a belated fiftieth wedding anniversary gift.

Think about your family heirlooms, pieces of furniture, or even that dreaded yellow pickle dish that seems to make an appearance at every family reunion. Who owned it originally? How was it obtained? To whom was it passed down? Everything has a story.

Try clustering (or freewriting) for fifteen minutes. Write “heirloom” in the nucleus. Before starting, take a deep breath. Close your eyes and think about the dishes, kitchen utensils, furniture, tapestries, jewelry, or clothes that have significance either to you or to someone in your family. It doesn’t necessarily have to have material value, nor does it have to be very old. It doesn’t even have to be beautiful. When you feel ready, start clustering.

If you write fiction, create heirlooms for your characters. The back story of the heirlooms can reveal more about your character and her motivations. In my novel, Living in the City, Grammy’s pickle dish keeps reappearing. In the beginning of the novel, Cari (the protagonist) tries to throw it out as she is weeding out all the junk before she packs up to move. Her mother has given it more sentimental value than Cari has, so she digs it out of the trash. Later, when Cari doesn’t put out the chipped yellow dish during Christmas dinner, her mother questions its whereabouts. I didn’t intentionally start out that way. The pickle dish kept wanting to make an appearance.

When you create heirlooms for your characters, use items from your own life or make it up. For ideas, ask family members for the story behind an object. Watch an episode of “Antiques Road Show.” Browse E-Bay. Or use pure imagination.

For more writing exercises, please visit my sister site: CS Writing Workshop

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Announcement: CS is Back Online!

Years ago, I had this little site, Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop. Well, life got in the way, and I couldn't devote any time to maintaining the site. I almost abandoned the little writing group I had, but some faithful members urged me to keep it going. It's a small group, and I like it that way.

But I kept getting emails asking me where the site went. Some people actually found it useful. I was flattered and touched. I mean, the site actually mattered to some people. So...last night I dusted off the old articles and writing exercises and uploaded them to a new site. Nothing fancy. Eventually I'll be adding more exercises as I find time to write more.

What is cacoethes scribendi, you ask? Loosely translated it means "the disease of writing." Check out the site: CS Writing Workshop and let me know what you think. I hope you find the exercises useful.

Many, many thanks to those who encouraged me and stuck by me all these years! Mwah!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Soundtrack of Your Life

How many times have you listened to the radio, and you heard a song that hurled you back to a particular event? Note the body sensations—belly flops, increased heart rate, feelings of euphoria or sadness. Whenever I hear “Beds are Burning” by Midnight Oil, I think of the time my sister, some friends, and I danced in a parking lot. It was late at night on a weekend; it was snowing, and we were walking around our small town. We made snow angels and tossed powdery snowballs. Then we broke into song and danced where we were, in the middle of a parking lot. No, we weren’t drunk. And we didn’t get arrested. I doubt that anyone saw us.

Whenever I hear that song, I’m reminded of my almost care-free teenage years. I get the urge to dance, and I want to become that teenager in that moment.

Think of the songs that connect you to events in your life. If you could create a soundtrack of your life, what songs would you include? Begin with the first song you remember hearing. Jot down the song titles as fast as you can. Don’t worry about putting them in order. You can order them later if you want. One by one, cluster or freewrite about each song. Write every detail you can remember. Pay attention to physical sensations. Include sensory details such as lighting and smells. What was the weather? Who was present? Was there any conversation? What things were not said? Write about the actions. Push past any resistance and go deep.

As always...have fun with it! And please tell me about your own memories.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother's Day

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and mothers-to-be!

I grew up without a biological mother. She left me and my two sisters when I was ten years old, and after that, didn’t have much contact with her. For years I hoped that she would turn into my idealized notion of what a mother should be, and she’d come home, bake cookies and shower me with love and kisses. But that was not to be. I went through the stages of grief, and I wondered what horrible things I had done to make a mother leave behind her daughter. For years I felt worthless.

But I feel lucky. Though I didn’t have a mother, I was surrounded by loving, mother figures. Mrs. W, the next-door neighbor who taught me how to pray. The ladies at church who took turns taking me to the mother-daughter dinners. The lady down the street who invited me in for lemonade every Thursday afternoon. My friend Lisa’s mother who cried with me through breakups with my boyfriends and also my triumphs such as being accepted to college. Later, when I became an adult, I moved away from home and lost contact with those women. They may not remember me now, but I remember them, and I’m thankful that I was able to know a mother’s love, even though they were not my real mothers. When I eventually had my own children, there was no question about whether or not I was capable of loving them. Maybe it’s what those surrogate mothers taught me, or maybe it’s because a mother’s love naturally bubbles up and overflows.

In other ways I am lucky. As a writer, I could create the ideal (or almost ideal mother as in my novel, Living in the City) mother. Or I channeled my hurts by writing unsent letters to the mother who abandoned me. Without writing, I would not have gotten through the pain.

Try these exercises:
*Freewrite about your idealized image of a mother.
*Freewrite, using this prompt: “These are the facts about my mother…”
*Freewrite about a moment that caused your relationship with your mother to change, for better or for worse.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Happy Birthday

This past week I celebrated my birthday. Thank you for being here and celebrating it with me.

Birthday celebrations have existed since ancient times, some time after the first calendars were created. The pagans believed that people were susceptible to evil spirits when one approached a change in his life. To ward off evil spirits, family members and friends brought well wishes. If someone brought a gift, it was considered especially lucky.

Initially, only so-called important people such as royalty and the wealthy had birthday celebrations. Some historians believe this is how the wearing of birthday crowns originated. Eventually children were included in birthday celebrations. The first ones documented were in Germany and were called Kinderfeste.

In almost every corner of the world, birthday traditions exist in one form or another. In Vietnam, they do not acknowledge the specific day they were born. Instead, everyone celebrated their birthdays on New Year’s Day (Tet). On the morning of Tet, parents gave their children a red envelope containing li xi, or “lucky money.” In Brazil and Italy the birthday child gets his ear pulled for every year of their life. The Irish have a variation called “birthday bumps,” where the child is turned upside down and bumped on the ground for good luck. Thankfully, the tradition morphed into the less painful (depending on who’s giving them) “birthday spanks.”

Cakes of various forms exist in almost every culture. In Germany candles atop a birthday cake were lit at sunrise and burned for an entire day. At sunset, everyone gathered to sing a “happy birthday” song. Then the celebrant blew out all the candles and made a wish. If all the candles were extinguished in one breath, the wish would come true. Incidentally, the American version of “Happy Birthday” was written by a pair of sisters in 1883.

When I was a little girl, my mother made a fuss over birthday parties. She invited the kids from the neighborhood, some with whom I rarely played. We wore foil hats and blew on noisemakers. We played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. My mother always baked a cake from scratch. There’s a picture of me holding up one of the last cakes she made. My name was squiggled in blue frosting. “Happy Birthday” slanted across the top of the cake and the last few letters squeezed together to fit. The birthday parties stopped when she left us. Our birthdays were hardly acknowledged afterward. Every year my father did buy a cake from a local bakery, but we rarely sat together to eat it. I wrote an essay about another memorable birthday, called "Surprise Party," which was published in A Cup of Comfort for Friends.

Those are my birthday memories. Now it’s your turn. Freewrite about the birthday celebrations you remember. Begin with the earliest one. Did you celebrate birthdays at all? With parties? Who was invited? Who came to them? What games did you play? Describe the cake, the food, any special gifts. Write about the birthday celebrations you attended. Note the location, people, the conversations, how everyone dressed. For a variation of this exercise, create the ultimate birthday bash. If there were no limitations, who or what would be at your party? Where would it be? As you write, throw yourself into the celebration. You deserve it.

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Timelines show a summary of specific events. History books break down major events. News stations break down crimes or someone’s career using timelines. Some authors plot novels using timelines.

Try creating a timeline of your life. The format isn’t important. Use whatever method works for you and give yourself room to write. You can draw a line across a blank sheet of paper or use lined paper and skip lines between dates, or use whatever other method works best for you. On one end (or the top of the paper) write your birth date. Mark off five year increments until you reach your current age. In between each five year interval, write a milestone.

For instance at age five, I’d write, “began kindergarten.” At age nine, “mother left,” and so on. Record births, deaths, graduations, marriages, or whatever else you can remember. When you’re finished, you can fill in specifics like names of favorite songs, books, or movies. What did you wear back then? Did you have “big hair” or wear bell bottoms. Did you have a favorite sweater or pair of shoes?

Use this exercise in conjunction with any others. For instance, you might want to fill in the timeline with the soundtrack of your life or historic events. When you’ve run out of things to add to your timeline, step back from it. Take a walk. Do housework. Listen to music, watch TV, or anything else to divert your attention. When you return to the timeline, note what stands out. What memories surfaced? Spend time freewriting. Save your timeline, so you can fill in things as memories surface. Something else might stand out next time.

As always...have fun with it!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The First Time...

As we get older our memories begin to fade, and we forget specific incidents. What does seem to stick with us are memories of our “firsts.” We remember them with sensory details. For instance, I remember my first day of school, the halls smelled like chalk and chicken noodle soup. I remember clutching a chunky pencil as I made letters on green manuscript paper. Now when I smell chicken noodle soup, I think of my first day of school.

Start a collection of “firsts.” Begin by listing as many “firsts” as you can think of. Don’t stop and think too hard. Do this quickly. Here’s a sample list to get you started:
• first day of school
• first friend
• first time you tasted pizza (or ice cream, sushi, or whatever else)
• first birthday party
• first date
• first kiss
• first funeral
• first time you saw blood
• first teacher
• first book you read
• first time you were scared/embarrassed
• first time you disagreed with your parents
• first time you left home
• first job
• first car

Spend ten or fifteen minutes freewriting about each. You may choose to do one or two a day instead of all in one sitting. Take a deep breath and let go. For a variation, make a “last” list. You can reverse the items in your “firsts” list. For instance, “last book I read,” “last job,” etc.
As always...have fun with it!

Friday, April 13, 2007

What's In Your Name?

Growing up, I always hated my name. I hated the sound of it, especially when my deaf mother called me. Her toneless uttering made my name sound like "retard." Classmates mispronounced it—sometimes on purpose. It was misspelled a lot: Pita, Reta, Reba. I asked my dad why he christened me with such a horrible name. He told me that he wanted to name me after one of his favorite starlets, Rita Hayworth. At the time I didn’t know who she was. I was infatuated with Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stevenson, and I was trying to train my hair to feather like Farrah Fawcett’s. Rita Hayworth meant nothing to me. Years later, when I did find out who Rita Hayworth was, I decided I must have been a big disappointment to my dad.

Through the years I tried to establish my own identity. Amongst my friends I tried out different names and nicknames—anything to get away from my horrible sounding real name. I dubbed myself with exotic sounding names. But alas, being glamorous or exotic was not in my future. I was destined to be a nerd, no matter what I called myself.

In my junior year of high school, I started using my middle name. My favorite cousin, Lou, criticized my name change. “Marie” sounded so common, not exotic like “Rita,” he said. My teachers were as resistant to my name change as Lou was, but mainly for the sake of consistency. To new people I introduced myself as “Marie.” Eventually my friends stopped correcting themselves, and my dad came around as well.

I looked up the meaning of “Rita.” It is a derivative of the Greek word, margaritos, which means “pearls.” Hmm. Greeks and pearls are exotic. Pearl has a nicer connotation than my middle name, which is a derivation of “Mary” which means “sea of bitterness.” Maybe it was better to have a name associated with jewels than to have one associated with the ill-fated Marie Antoinette.

Close your eyes for a few minutes and think about your own name. Then freewrite or cluster for fifteen minutes. Before beginning to write, ask questions. How did you get your name? Is there a story behind it? Was it passed through family generations? What does your name mean? Look it up in a baby name book or search it on the internet. Do you think your name is common or unusual? What famous people share your name? Try this exercise when you create story characters.

Here’s another exercise. Write all the letters of your name in a column, giving each letter its own line. Beside each letter, write the first word that pops into your mind beginning with that letter. Don’t linger too long. Don’t worry about the spelling or whether it’s a noun, verb, or adjective. If you get stuck, move on to the next one. Go back to it when you’ve finished the others. When you’ve finished, set aside the exercise for a few minutes. After you’re break, set your timer for ten or fifteen minutes. Now do a freewrite using as many of the words you’ve jotted. Use them in any order. This is a variation of a random prompt generator. Use this with any name or any word.

As always...have fun with it! Please feel free to share your name stories and/or freewrites!

Friday, April 6, 2007

Alternate Identities

In writing workshops I’ve often heard people say if they knew their family and friends never read their writing, it would be easier to write. Part of it comes from the fear of disappointment. Another reason is the fear of inadvertently hurting someone. Or they want to write things they normally wouldn’t write. Experiment with different genres. Or separate their “real life” identities from their writing identities.

French author Romain Gary had written over thirty books and had won numerous literary prizes when he began writing under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. As Emile Ajar he published four best selling novels. In his posthumously published memoir, he stated that the motive for using a pseudonym was he wanted “to be someone else.” Journalist Samuel Clemens wrote fiction as Mark Twain. The Bronte sisters originally published their novels under male pseudonyms. Dean Koontz published five gothic novels as Deanna Dwyer. Literary author Joyce Carol Oates writes mysteries as Rosamond Smith. Ray Bradbury used over ten pseudonyms. I knew a first grade teacher who wrote erotica under a pseudonym.

Suppose you wrote under a different identity. How would your writing change, if at all? Would you write the things you really want to say? Freewrite using the prompt, “What I really want to write about…”

Create a pseudonym. Or several. Use a baby names book, phone book, or whatever sources you need to generate a name. If you could change your name to anything at all, what would it be? Visualize your new name on a book cover, as a byline. For one week, write everything as your new identity. If you want, create a profile or history. You can be anything you want. For instance, if in “real life” you live in a cramped city apartment, your writing persona can live in a spacious farmhouse. You can raise afghan hounds or be an expert gazpacho maker. Be as silly or imaginative as you like. After a week, look back on your writing. How does it compare to your other writing? Has writing under a new identity freed you from censoring? Has your writing voice changed?

It’s up to you whether or not you keep your new writing persona. But if it helps, why not? I'd like to hear how this experience affected you. How did you decide on the name you used for your pseudonym?

Starting next week the articles and exercises will be geared toward mining writing ideas from your personal history.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Murdering Your Internal Censor

In high school I took a creative writing class. I thought it would be an easy class, because I'd been writing for as long as I can remember, and I had always earned high marks for writing...until then. I wrote story after story, but no matter what, my compositions came back scrawled with red marks. No matter how much time I spent pouring out my ideas, getting inside my characters’ heads, I was never given a grade high than a C-minus. This was a giant blow to me. Devastating. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I didn’t have the courage to ask my teacher. She was frightening.I began to doubt my ability as a writer. I did try to drop the class, but it was too late in the year.

So...I dug deeper with every writing assignment. I wrote about the truths in my life—divorce and death. My grades sunk lower. Meanwhile, the girl next to me was writing about puppies and intact families eating apple pie at picnics. The only red mark on her compositions was a symmetrical A at the top of her paper. I worked harder.

I wrote a story about a girl who met her mother years after her mother had abandoned her as a toddler. I wrote the story with ferocity and energy I had never had before. A few days later the teacher handed back the story. She had x’ed out every page. At the top of the page was an F. I was furious. At the end of class, I stopped in front of my teacher’s desk and made confetti pieces out of my story and watched them flutter on her desk. She glared at me.

“What is wrong with you?” she said.

I gulped tears. I was too afraid of her to speak.

As she brushed the confetti into the trash can, she said, “You’ll never be a writer. You don’t know how to write.” She shouted at me the insecurities I had had every time I faced a blank page. This stooped over old woman gave life and power to my internal editor.

Too late to drop the class, I had to stick it out. I began writing about the things I thought would please her. I wrote about kittens and rainbows and children who never got messy. I thought it was awful, but my grades came up. But I still felt miserable. I wasn't writing the truth, what mattered to me. Outside the class, I didn’t do any writing. For a long time afterward, I believed I would never be a writer. Whenever a story idea came to me, I shooed it away saying, “Why bother?”

Fortunately, the following year, I took creative writing in college. At first I was tentative. But my professor was encouraging. He prodded me to dig deep. And soon my passion for writing returned.

Everyone has an internal censor. For some it may be loud and intrusive. For the luckier ones, it may only be a squeak. Our internal censor tells us things like: “You’ll never be a writer.” “You’re not good enough.” “No one would want to read that.” We don’t have to listen to it. We don’t have to write what we think would please others. We can’t allow our internal censor to keep us from writing our truths. Take control of it, squelch it, murder it if you have to.

Give your internal censor a voice. A body. Is your censor a male, female, or a creature? Describe its appearance. How does it smell? Use all your senses. Write everything your internal censor says. Spend about ten minutes freewriting. When the time is up, take a deep breath, walk around, or make soup. When you feel you’re ready, create a murder scene on paper. You are going to take control of your censor. Vanquish it. How you murder it is up to you. Respond to all the things your censor has told you. Tell your censor you are a writer. How you write this doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you’ve vanquished your censor.

Your internal censor may return like the monster that never seems to die in horror movies. Try variations of this exercise. Eventually, you won’t hear that monster any more.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Writing Through Pain

Last week in my writing group, we discussed writing through pain. Since my dad's recent Alzheimer's diagnosis, it was appropos. Each day means facing a some type of loss, sometimes regrets. So far his symptoms are moderate. My 78-year-old dad still goes rollerskating and ice skating, and he still hikes. He is never without a camera. A few days ago when he came to visit, I let him take pictures of me. I didn't worry about not wearing makeup, my hair not being perfect, looking too fat. Someday, he won't remember who I am, who his daughters are, our children. He has always been a great storyteller. I'm trying to remember everything. I'm writing it. I'm blessed to have a terrific writing friend who asks questions, who noodges me to dig deeper. It's painful sometimes, and I want to rush over the details. She's there to prod me, and she's there helping me to face the pain, the losses.

I hope that you are able to find someone you can trust to share your writing, to help you write through the pain.

If you've avoided writing about your pain and losses, I suggest you do it right now. Freewrite about what hurts, what you're afraid of, what are your regrets. Dig deep and push through the pain. You may not be able to do it in one sitting. Begin with a 15 minute freewrite. Set it aside. Take a walk. Let it rest for a day or two. Then go back and circle all generalities, places that need to be developed. If you're as fortunate as I am, share it with a trusted friend who will offer you honest feedback. If you'd like to share it with me, I'm a willing reader.

Before I go, I want to share with you two quotes my friend shared with the writing group.
From Wild Mind, Living the Writer's Life, by Natalie Goldberg. She says,
"Go for the jugular.
If something scary comes up, go for it.
That's where the energy is.
Otherwise, you'll spend all your time writing around
whatever makes you nervous.
It will probably be abstract, bland
writing because you're avoiding the truth."

Hemingway said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts.
Don't avoid it.
It has all the energy.
Don't worry, no one ever died of it.
You might cry or laugh, but not die."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What If? Why? How? What is it?

Like so much of his other works, Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man evolved from asking, “What if?” For instance he wrote: “What if you landed on a far world the day after Christ had just left to go elsewhere? Or what if He were still there, waiting?” That’s how the story, “The Man” came about.

Another: “What if a man could order a marionette robot that was his exact clone? What would happen if he left it with his wife while he went out nights?” From that Bradbury wrote “Marionnetes, Inc.”

Leonardo da Vinci kept notebooks not only of sketches of inventions, but also lists of things he wanted to explore. Human anatomy. How certain things worked. Structures of things. And so on.

In the film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey is shown what the world would be like if he hadn’t been born. The moral of the story was that one person touches so many other lives. We don’t have the privilege of seeing what the world would be like if we weren’t born. But if you’re up for it, write about it.

Children are naturally curious. They bombard us with questions daily. They ask “Why?” or “How?” or “What is it?” As adults, unless it’s work related, we don’t ask those questions so much. Often we were told that it’s annoying to be asked so many questions. We got lazy. Or we don’t care much. How many times have you heard a news story or watched a TV show, and you came across something you didn’t know? Did you gloss over it, or did you look it up? How many times have we been told or have told our children to “Look it up?”

The internet is a limitless resource. No longer do we have to tug encyclopedia volumes from the shelf or trek to the library. We can go to our favorite search engine and type in a subject. Within seconds, we have the information in front of us. (What if the Internet hadn’t been invented?)

Get into the habit of asking: “Why?” “How?” “What is it?” Make a point to do this daily or weekly. Before you do any research, freewrite about your subject. For instance, “What is gazpacho?” Freewrite all you know on the subject. (It doesn’t matter if you know nothing.) Write whatever comes to mind. If you veer off the subject, don’t resist. Allow the creative process to take over. Later, when you have time, look up the subject. Read as much as you want. Then try another freewrite. Note the results.

We should also get into the habit of asking “What if?” For instance, what if you had arrived at a certain place ten minutes later—or earlier? What if you had made a different choice?

Freewrite for fifteen minutes beginning with, “What if?” Don’t worry about finishing your ideas or where they might go. Some ideas might seem pretty wacky. Write them down anyway. Keep asking “What if?” If you get stuck, keep repeating “What if?” until something else pops into your head. It doesn’t have to make sense. When you’re finished, look over this freewrite. Are there any potential story ideas? If not, don’t worry. Tuck it away for awhile. Something might come to you later. You can also use this exercise if you’re stuck with a story or character. Freewrite the possibilities. All the ideas don’t have to be usable. Just write.

And as always...have fun!

Friday, March 16, 2007

Snow Days

Here in Central Pennsylvania it's been snowing all morning with the heaviest of snow yet to come. We're supposed to end up with about a foot of snow. All the schools in the area have dismissed early. AAAARRRRGH! The kids are home, and they're wound up. Snow seems to have that effect on least mine, anyway. Here it's noisy and chaotic, and I can't get any work done.

I love snow. It brings out the little kid in me. I love taking long walks as the snow falls. I don't mind shoveling. I'll fall on the ground and make snow angels. Build snowmen. Toss snowballs with the dog.

How do you feel about snow? Has it changed since you were a kid? What emotions, thoughts, do you have when you see falling snow? What happened the first time you saw snow? What are your memories of Snow Days? Have any of you never seen snow? Freewrite using the prompt "Snow Days" (or any variation of). Set your timer for fifteen minutes and go!

Feel free to post your freewrites and/or share your memories.

As always...have fun with it!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Dunging Out and Redding Up

Recently a writing friend and I had a discussion about organizing our writing spaces. She described the things she found while “dunging out” her desk area. What would she do with the Christmas cards and other mementos she found? She had to find a home for these things before she could redd up.

Being a Pennsylvania Dutch gal, I knew what redd up meant. We redd up the house before company came, redd up our rooms before our mothers performed their inspections. I had never heard of “dunging out.” My friend explained that “dunging out” was akin to cleaning out a cattle barn. It was the bulldozer phase of cleaning, getting rid of the things you had accumulated over the years. Redding up was the feather duster phase, the fluffing pillows and straightening bookshelves.

Most of us have a junk drawer or a closet where we deposit things. They’ve become the catch-all of things we don’t know what to do with at the moment, but we want them out of sight. Or maybe we have the best of intentions. We put them there because someday, we’ll empty the drawer (or closet) and figure out what to do with the stack of birthday cards or the pencils that don’t have lead.

Open your closet or junk drawer. You might want to start with your writing space. Take a good look inside. Empty it on the floor beside you. What did you find? Maybe there’s a movie ticket from five years ago. A birthday card from your dog. A pair of shoes with a broken heel. A pair of Nikes still in its box and unlaced. What was I thinking when I bought that Spandex mini skirt?

Make a list of the things you found. Include the mundane things like rubber bands and lint as well as the items that spark a memory or emotional reaction. As time allows, freewrite about the things on your list. Begin with the objects that evoke a reaction. But don’t ignore the lint or rubber bands. Write about those, too. Write your observations. Then push past the obvious. Go deeper and beyond what’s on the surface. Please feel free to post your freewrite.

And as always...have fun!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Thanks for stopping by. Today's post isn't about writing. I heard about this site from another blogger, so I thought I'd check it out. It's sort of an experiment. I usually don't do stuff like this, but I'm asking you to check out this site. It's called They pay you to fill out simple offers, take surveys, signup to receive trial products, etc. It's provided some nice extra spending cash for me, but it is also a lot of fun... it's pretty unique how they have it set up. There's a lot of interaction with the admin & other members and there's also little games & treasure hunts that you can do to earn more money. They also pay you 20% of whatever your referrals make and 5% of what your 2nd-level referrals make. Yup, that's why I'm telling you guys! Honestly, though... it's a cool site. Check it out.

Please pass this information along to anyone who might be interested. If you join, please let me know how you do. Many thanks...

Tomorrow I'll post a new writing exercise. Until then...

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Making Lists

In the last chapter I discussed how most of us think linearly, how we tend to make lists. To-do lists. Grocery lists. Homework. For a moment I’m going to contradict the nonlinear processes of freewriting and clustering and focus on making lists. This is another approach to writing exercises. Use whatever technique works for you.

Just before our high school graduation, one of my friends made a list of things she wanted to accomplish in her lifetime. She included things like “go to Paris,” “ride a hot air balloon,” and “fall in love.” I’ve lost touch with her, so I don’t know how many of these she has accomplished so far—if any. Maybe you’ve written a similar list. If you know where it is, dust if off. If not, that’s all right. You’re going to write a new one.

For this writing exercise, start out with a list. Then freewrite or cluster or (use whatever method is most comfortable for you) about each item on the list. It might be easier to make a list for one topic but on another, it is easier to freewrite. Do whatever works for you. Begin a new page for each topic. Prescribe yourself a reasonable limit. For instance: set a timer for ten minutes; write until you’ve filled half a page; or write until you’ve listed twenty items. Choose one or more topics. Remember to start a new page for each.
· Things I want to accomplish in my lifetime
· I am a …
· My hobbies are …
· Things I’ve done that few others have done
· Things I would like to do
· Things I would never do
· I believe
· I love
· I hate
· I want

Feel free to come up with your own lists. Set your timer. Push yourself. Go deep. As always, have fun with it!

If you do come up with new items for to list, please share them by adding a comment. And let me know how you're doing!

“Creativity is not the finding of a thing, but the making something out of it after it is found.”
~ James Russell Lowell

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Another Prompt: Embarrassing Moments

Yesterday I visited Vicki M Taylor's blog, and she wrote about her most embarrassing moment. It was something she had never written about until now. She relayed so beautifully the agony and embarrassment she experienced. It was truly deep writing, writing from the gut. Ironically, whenever I hear "what's your most embarrassing moment," my moment is similar to hers.
So...I had to post the prompt here.
Here it is:
Freewrite about your most embarrassing moment. No stopping to edit spelling or grammar. Do not censor yourself. Keep your pen moving until you are finished. Set your timer for 10 or 15 minutes...ready...set...go!

Friday, March 2, 2007

This Week's Writing Prompts

Freewrite, cluster, or use whatever method works for you, and use each one in a separate writing session. Set your timer for 15 minutes...

* Fat
* The smell of snow
* Angels
* Write about something you stole (or was stolen from you).
* Write about guilty pleasures.
* Beads
* Write about things that are too loud.

As always...have fun!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Clustering (also called bubbling, mapping, and webbing) is a non-linear method of finding writing ideas. It’s a form of free association, where one word, idea, or image leads to another. Clustering works with the same basic principles as freewriting. There is no stopping to edit spelling or grammar. At first the process might seem random, but as your associations deepen, so does the writing. Gabriele Rico (Writing the Natural Way) wrote that many natural forms such as grapes, lilacs, spider eggs, and cherries come in clusters. When we give our thoughts and images “free rein” they “seem to come in clusters of associations.”

Begin with a blank page. In the center of the page write a word, image, or phrase and circle it. This is the seed or nucleus from which you will start. Write whatever word or phrase that pops into your head. Put each new connection in its own circle. Connect each circle with a line to the circle preceding it. Move outward as one connection leads to another. If your train of thought shifts to something else, return to your nucleus and move outward again. Do this until you’ve exhausted all ideas. Or if you prefer, set a timer for ten or fifteen minutes. As in freewriting, do not stop before the time is up. Push through your resistance. Your cluster may not expand evenly. More likely, it will look lop-sided, with one area more clustered.

You may meet resistance when you begin clustering. We normally think linearly. We make to-do lists and grocery lists. Our day planners have sections for task lists. Clustering is a writing method to force us to break out of that linear thinking that tends to make us view things in an organized, prioritized way. Clustering is more random, less restricting. However, you may be surprised to learn that this random method actually invites more organized meanings and images. You’ve probably heard about having a right and left brain. Gabriele Rico coined the terms “sign” and “design” minds to explain the right and left brain concepts. The left hemisphere or the “sign” mind is the side concerned with rational, logical, and critical thinking. This is the side where our internal censor exists. The right hemisphere is the “design” mind. It’s the area primarily concerned with abstract, creative, and nonlinear thinking. When we write, sometimes our internal censor takes over, and before we even put words on the page, we’re already editing. When we cluster (as in freewriting) we tell our censor to shut up. Only after we’ve allowed ourselves to be playful, and we’ve captured the energy of what we want to say, should we summon our internal editor. Only then should we allow the critical part of our brain concentrate on the mechanics of what we’ve written.

Dorothea Brande (Becoming a Writer) sums up this process much more eloquently than I can. She wrote: “Most of the methods of training the conscious side of the writer—the craftsman and the critic in him—are actually hostile to the good of the artist’s side; and the converse of this proposition is likewise true. But it is possible to train both sides of the character to work in harmony, and the first step in that education is to consider that you must teach yourself not as though you were one person, but two.” So instead of waiting for inspiration, use the clustering exercise to harness your creative energy.

Try this clustering exercise:

First, ask yourself what things evoke a strong emotional reaction for you? Reactions may be either positive or negative. For instance, start with “people” in your nucleus. Begin clustering. Cluster until you’ve exhausted every association, or set your timer for a prescribed limit. When you finish your cluster, note the sections that gathered more associations. Where did the energy seem concentrated? Freewrite for five, ten, or fifteen minutes. Remember the rules for freewriting: No stopping. No editing. Repeat the freewriting process for any other cluster. Here are more prompts to try:
· reasons to avoid writing
· time
· work
· what I’m afraid of
· quiet
· letting go
· surprises

As in freewriting, you can use random prompts. Use the clustering exercise in conjunction with freewriting. Or do it alone. Use whichever method works for you.

“Writing well means believing in your writing and believing in yourself, taking risks, daring to be different, pushing yourself to excel. You will write only as well as you make yourself write.”
~William Zinsser