Saturday, November 7, 2009


NaNoWriMo started a few days ago. I won't be participating, as I'm rehashing a novel I've been working on, and I'm not ready to start another project from scratch. But I am setting a goal to complete 50,000 words on it by the end of the month.

With NaNoWriMo's booming popularity, several companies have been offering various freebies and incentives. CreateSpace is offering a free proof copy of any winner's book. Instructions can be found at their website. Scrivener offers a free trial of their writing software. The NanoWriMo site has some great resources. If you are participating this year, let me know how you're doing. Keep me posted, and keep writing!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Moments of Agony

This past week I spent 24 hours in the emergency room for a mysterious pain that had me doubled over and rendered non-functional. It made me delirious, and it got to the point where if the doctors couldn’t find and fix the source, I wanted to die. When you have pain like that for 3 days, it chisels away at everything, including your will to live. I eventually got through it (obviously, because I’m writing this blog entry today) as I have gotten through other moments of agony. There’s the agony of childbirth. It’s one of the worst pains, but once you get through it you get to hold your perfect, beautiful baby. There’s the agony associated with illness, like the time I had pulmonary emboli, which caused my right lower lobe of my lungs to collapse. That was worse than the pains I experienced in childbirth, in my opinion. Then there are the agonies not associated with illness but still render you non-functional. Deaths of loved ones. The realization your marriage is over. The loss of a child. There’s the agony of waiting. Waiting for answers. Waiting for something to pass. We handle our agonies in different ways. Sometimes we manage to get through it. Sometimes we get through it, but it’s not something that goes away.

Think about the moments of agony in your life. What situations or problems made you feel so bad that you didn’t think you could get through it? What did you do? When doing your freewrite, avoid adjectives like “overwhelming” and “painful.” Be specific. State what was overwhelming and painful. If it helps, leave your emotions out of it and describe it using only facts. Use who, what, where, why and how. Once you get it all down, you can insert your impressions and feelings. What is your perspective on it now? If you are still dealing with it, describe how. This may be a difficult exercise. You might want to start by setting your timer for 5 minutes. It may take several freewrites to get it all down. The important thing is to get it all down. Push through the pain and keep writing…

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Everyone Has an Opinion

Each week our local talk radio show has a “Gripe Friday.” There is no predetermined topic or format. Listeners call in and gripe about whatever is on their minds. One calls in about tractor trailer trucks clogging the parking lots to shopping centers. Another calls in about the lack of customer service at restaurants. Someone complains about coverage on cable news, the war in Iraq. The calls have a snowball effect. The phone lines become clogged with listeners waiting to add their two cents. The responses range from, “That happened to me, too,” “I agree,” to passionate opposite opinions. The result is always entertaining. Sometimes my own blood pressure goes up.

Everyone has an opinion. It’s just that some of us are noisier than others. Some clam up and keep their opinions to themselves. (I’m not one of them.) Others begin letter writing campaigns or make phone calls. We can shout about those things to whomever will listen. Or at no one. We can write a letter to the editor of the newspaper or dash off an email to the producers of an offending television show. Or we can do nothing. It’s our choice.

How many times have you shouted at the television or at something you’ve read? What has irritated you lately? What are your pet peeves? Make a list of these things. Think about the times you disagreed with someone or spoke passionately about an issue. When I say issue, it doesn’t necessarily mean politically or socially motivated. Interpret it in any way you want. If you want, skip the list and go right to the freewrite. Write about whatever is rubbing you the wrong way, raising your blood pressure, making you swear. Get it all out. When you’re finished, take a deep breath and pat yourself on the back. What you do with your freewrite is your choice.

“Sometimes I am asked, ‘Is it true you should write what you know about?’ I say, ‘No, write what you care about.’ If you don’t know, you’ll find out. But if you don’t care, why should anyone else?”
~ Anne Perry

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What I Didn't Do On My Summer Vacation

It’s Labor Day weekend, and even though summer doesn’t officially end until later this month, people are having their final summer picnics and closing their pools until next season. Around here, the kids have already completed their first week of school. Where did the summer go? While I love autumn and football games, I’m sorry to see the summer end. It seemed to go by in a blink. I didn’t get to do what I had hoped or had planned to do.

I didn’t get to the beach as I had hoped. I heard about others’ beach trips, and I watched my co-workers and neighbors getting tanner. I didn’t plant any flower boxes. I didn’t quit smoking. I didn’t finish my novel. I didn’t read all the books I ordered from the book catalogues that kept coming in the mail. My summer sounds so boring and bleak. But even though I spent most of the summer working, there were some lovely moments. Originally for this week’s exercise I was going to ask you to do a twist on the Natalie Goldberg freewrite “What I did on my summer vacation,” and change it to “What I didn’t do…” But that sounds so negative and full of regret. There’s enough negativity around us. Instead, I want us to continue focusing on the positive, on hope.

I didn’t get to do a lot of things I had hoped, but for the most part, I had a great summer. My favorite memory is of the time my daughter and I went to the county fair. We walked through the rows of farm animals. We watched baby chicks hatching. She had her picture taken with a cow. We watched a live elephant show and went to the petting zoo. We fed the baby goats and a llama spit on her. I couldn’t convince her to ride a camel. When a guy in one of the booths approached us, he asked if we were sisters. We told him we were cousins transplanted from Pittsburgh. Daisy and Lola. I told him a story about how Daisy’s mom was an F. Scott Fitzgerald aficionado and named her after the Daisy in The Great Gatsby. You think that would have scared him away, but instead, he asked us for our number. We gave him the number to the Rejection Hotline. We ate traditional fair food and listened to the live bands. The air was filled with the smell of frying funnel cakes and French fries (the vendor called them Freedom fries, and I went into a rant about how French fries have nothing to do with France). From a distance we watched the dust clouds and heard the roaring engines of the tractor pull. We got caught in a downpour and ran through the rain, laughing. Mostly from that day I remember we laughed a lot.

For this week’s freewrite, write about your favorite summer memory. It doesn’t have to be from this most recent summer. Start your freewrite with, “When I think about summer…”Set your timer for 15 minutes and write without stopping, without censoring yourself.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mrs. Beasley

One winter afternoon when I was around 4 or 5, I looked out our picture window. “Gramma’s here! And she brought presents!” After she had shed her coat and scarf, Gramma laid one of the wrapped packages on my lap. Inside was the blue and white rag doll, Mrs. Beasley, made popular by the TV series, “Family Affair.” The doll was the favorite toy of the little girl, Burry. Mrs. Beasley was her security blanket and friend, and she became mine as well.

My mother said she thought the doll was ugly. Mrs. Beasley had yellow hair and had a yellow and white polka dotted skirt and legs. She wore rectangular spectacles. She was a talking doll. When you pulled her string, Mrs. Beasley said, “Want to hear a secret? I know one.” My mother might have thought she was an ugly doll, but I grew attached to Mrs. Beasley immediately.

My sister and I spent hours playing with our dolls. She had a collection of beautiful baby dolls with silky curls and eyes that opened and closed. Sometimes she’d let me put one of the embroidered, crinoline dresses on Mrs. Beasley. I’d also take off her glasses so she looked more like a baby and less “ugly.”

Mrs. Beasley was a source of comfort for me. When I was not playing with her, she had a prominent spot in the center of my bed and propped up by pillows. I took her along on camping trips and on visits to Gramma. She was who I reached for when I felt like crying, or when I couldn’t sleep.

I remember one time before my mother left us, she grabbed Mrs. Beasley off my bed and threatened to cut her to bits with the shears she had taken from my father’s pattern table. I pleaded and screamed and cried until I collapsed on the floor. My mother laughed, dropped Mrs. Beasley on me and left the room.

We had survived my mother’s wrath. If Mrs. Beasley had been capable of real feelings (which I believed for years) she was as relieved as I was. Mrs. Beasley saw me through my parents’ divorce, my teen angst and breakups. Even when I was in college, I still sometimes hugged her and cried. She retained her spot on my bed when I moved into my first apartment. My roommate thought I was odd.

Eventually I got married, and when I moved into my marital abode, Mrs. Beasley got packed into a box for storage. I hoped one day when I had my own daughter, she would enjoy Mrs. Beasley as much as I had. When the kids were small, I recovered her from storage. I had to sew on one of her arms. One of the cats later chewed off one of her hands. My daughter didn’t want to play with Mrs. Beasley. I think she was scared of her. I pulled on the string to hear, “Want to hear a secret? I know one.” What came out was something garbled and creepy, like something you’d hear in a horror movie. Mrs. Beasley got moved from a shelf to the bottom of the toy box along with broken Lego blocks. I don’t know when—maybe I’m blocking it out—I finally let her go and put her in a box with other broken or mismatched toys we put on the curb for Spring cleanup. All these years later I feel guilty and sad about it. Mrs. Beasley was more than just a doll to me.

Think about your favorite childhood toys or something you became attached to. Describe it using all senses. Who gave it to you? Why was it your favorite? Set your timer for fifteen minutes and freewrite without stopping. Feel free to share your memories here…

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Significant Objects

Authors Rob Walker (Buying In) and Joshua Glenn (Taking Things Seriously) started a project and “experiment” called Significant Objects. In their own works they examined how many of us “whether we realize it or not, invest inanimate objects with significance.” They thought it would be “both interesting and fun to set up an experiment in which significance was artificially cooked up under controlled conditions and applied to insignificant objects.”

How the project/experiment works is this: The curators purchase objects found at thrift stores or garage sales. Some objects featured are a Sanka ashtray, a nutcracker with troll hair (or something else), and a chili cat figurine. A writer is paired with the object and the writer creates a fictional story about it. The (now) significant object is listed for sale on eBay along with the story. The winning bidder receives the significant object as well as a printout of the author’s story. The author does receive net proceeds from the sale, and the author does retain all rights.

Last weekend my daughter and I visited some antique shops. We love spending hours picking through jewelry and tchotchkes. I like trying to imagine who once owned a ring or odd figurine. It’s in my nature. We left with a sterling silver ring with two blossoms on the band and a book about gnomes. I wonder if the ring was given to a teenage daughter by her mother. The ring is small, the size a child would wear. The gnome book is a gift for a friend who has an obsession about gnomes.

I wear a ring I found in a thrift shop a year ago. It was an emerald cut greenish-grey stone set on a plain gold band. It reminded me of a ring my grandmother wore when she went to church. The ring was dingy and in need of polishing. It only cost a dollar. I cleaned it up and I wear it almost all the time. I get a lot of compliments on it. Sometimes I’m tempted to make up a family story about it instead of saying that I found it in a thrift shop.

All of us have things we have an attachment to. Maybe it’s an odd-looking figurine someone gave us as a gift, or something we picked up because it made us smile, or could not leave behind because it was so ugly because we couldn’t bear the thought of it sitting on a shelf, unbought, unwanted. Look around your own home. Choose an object. Pick it up. Spend fifteen minutes freewriting about it. What is the story behind it? There’s a reason why you keep it, and there’s a reason why you’ve given its place on a bookshelf, desk, or kitchen counter. If you don’t know, make it up. Feel free to share your stories here.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

What I've Left Behind

It’s been a few months since I’ve moved, and I think I’ve finally settled in, finally feel like it’s home. (The cats seem less traumatized and are settling well, too.) But some days I make myself crazy trying to find things, wondering if it’s something else I’ve left behind. Just this morning, I wanted to look up something in a book, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find it. I tore through piles of books I have scattered throughout my home. No luck. Did I have it at my last residence? Yes. So I know it’s not in storage in my ex’s house. Have I picked up the book since I’ve moved? Yes. So I know it’s not in the boxes of books I have stashed in my closets. When was the last time I read it? I couldn’t remember. Did I take it to work? Is it in my car? Did I throw it in a drawer? I was wasting too much time trying to find it. Time to move on and do something constructive.

Back in 1937, when the original Sloppy Joe’s Bar moved from 268 Greene Street to its current location on Greene and Duval Streets, patrons picked up their glasses and whatever fixtures the could grab and walked down the street to the new location. Business was not disrupted and continued with hardly a blink of an eye. Moving could not be any easier.

Moving is never easy, but the best part is starting with a clean slate, starting over. Finally having a place of my own, to arrange things the way I want to, no one to second guess why I’m doing this or that. I feel like I’ve taken back control I’ve lost over the years. Yes, I like that.

But then I have days I when I discover something I’ve left behind. It’s usually something insignificant like my favorite paring knife, the potato masher, some other kitchen gadget. All that is replaceable. Sometimes I think about the other things I’ve left behind, not replaceable. My childhood home. Before that, being physically a part of my kids’ lives. Leaving was a difficult but necessary decision, and a day doesn’t go by that I don’t feel guilt or heartbreak. We stay in touch via text and phone and email, but I miss the daily closeness and routine. I miss not being able to just reach out and hug my daughter when she’s had a bad day at school, or when she’s sad because the boy she likes dropped her from his MySpace friends list. Or just grabbing and hugging them for no reason at all. I miss the clatter in the kitchen and the clutter and noise that comes with a house full of teenagers. I even miss the nagging about homework, computer time or laundry. I’m missing the arguments about who gets to use the car or whether the things they’re doing to fill their time will enhance their college applications. I hope someday they’ll understand. Meantime I let them know as often as I can that I love them, I have and always will, no matter what.

For your freewrite this week, write about the things or people you’ve left behind. Set your timer for 15 minutes. Don’t stop and don’t censor yourself. Take a deep breath and go deep…

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Time and Balance

I’m discouraged today. After a burst of writing energy over the last couple weeks, I’ve hit a block. It’s not Writer’s Block. I’ve had a flurry of ideas which is evident by all the folders and tablets containing various stages of stories and articles on my desk, on the floor, on my diningroom table. What has discouraged me is time—the lack of it and how to balance the time I have. I’m grateful for this unending flow of writing ideas. A lot of writers I know complain about not having enough. But how to manage it all?

This week I think I’ve set unattainable goals and unrealistic deadlines. I have a growing to-do list and not enough time to accomplish it all. That’s only my writing to-do list. I haven’t even mentioned how I’ve been neglecting the housework, neglecting my loved ones, my friends, my cats. I haven’t turned on my phone yet today. I’ve been doing nothing but writing all day, but I feel like I’ve accomplished nothing, that I’ve been spinning my wheels.

I was working on an article I’ve been excited about getting to all week. It started with writing one article about Ernest Hemingway, one of my favorite authors, and before I knew it, I was outlining one topic after another. The thing with Hemingway just snowballed. The more I researched him, the more I wanted to learn about him, the more I wanted to write about him. It’s almost become an obsession. I want to know about his life, his loves, his cats, how he wrote, so I can learn more from him. It has me sidetracked. I haven’t written a word of fiction for I-don’t-know-how-long. My novel-in-progress has sat in the same spot for weeks. Fiction has been my first love when it comes to writing. Someday I’d like to make a living doing nothing but churn out novel after novel. Today I kidded myself thinking I could spend part of my day working on articles and set aside a block of time to work on my novel. It’s hard for me to shift into fiction writing mode once I’ve been in non-fiction mode. How do you switch off one mode to focus on another? How do you find a balance and make enough time?

Normally I can find some encouragement or some writing advice, but today, I’ve dug deep down and came up with nothing. I don’t have an answer for this. I need to hear what works for you. For now, I’m going to walk away from my desk, breathe and call my daughter.

This week your freewriting exercise is to write about “time.” Set your timer for 15 minutes and write whatever comes to mind…

Sunday, June 21, 2009

What My Fathers Taught Me

It’s been a year since my last blog entry, a year of many life-changing events. Being my first entry for my return to the blogosphere, I didn’t want to write about Father’s Day. But maybe this is a good place to start.

In the past year I’ve lost both my fathers. My own father has been in a nursing home since last year. His dementia has progressed rapidly, so much that he only remembers me sometimes. It has affected his ability to walk as well. Two years ago he was still hiking and dancing. Now he shuffles with a walker and needs assistance to carry out the most basic daily activities like feeding himself and bathing. Occasionally he can draw recognizable figures of cats and airplanes on his sketchpad. Those moments have become fewer and far between, as my visits to him have as well. It’s not that I don’t carry a lot of guilt for it.

This past March I lost my other father. He was my ex-father-in-law but the one I called “Dad.” I was blessed to have him a part of my life for almost twenty years. I’m still trying to look at it as a blessing instead of a loss. He would not have wanted me to dwell on the loss.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the things I’ve learned from both my fathers.

From my own father what comes to mind first is to never say anything you may regret…including “I love you.” I was around sixteen when I first got that lesson. He caught me writing “Love, Marie” on a card I was planning to give to my high school sweetheart. Okay, I was sixteen, and what did I know about love then?

My father never told me he loved me. Well, there was one time, which I’ll get to later. I remember more than once during my childhood before my mother left us, my mother asking in sign language, “You don’t love me.” Sometimes she’d ask, “Do you love me?” He’d sign back, “Of course I do.” I can’t remember if he ever said the words, “I love you,” but at five years old, our perceptions can be flawed. Once when I was cleaning out my desk, I found a stack of birthday cards he had given me over the years. They were signed simply, “Daddy.” When I had my own family and my bitterness and resentment toward him had cooled off, I’d end our visits with a hug and “I love you, Daddy.” He always responded with a pat on my shoulder and, “Yup. Okay.” A few months ago, at the end of one of my last visits at the nursing home he did respond, “I love you, too.”

What I learned from my father-in-law, “Dad,” was that love is unconditional, unwavering. It was evident in his devotion to his wife and family. At first it took me a while to learn and understand this. Sometimes at family gatherings the lot of us would get into heated discussions. We’d be shouting over each other our opinions and disagreements. An outsider might have thought we didn’t like each other, maybe even hate each other. But at the end of the day, we’d take turns hugging each other and say, “I love you.” And as I’d get into my car, I knew it.

At the reception after his memorial service, friends and family took turns sharing memories of him. There was one that has stuck with me. Dad and Mom were yelling at each other in the kitchen. She was trying to finish preparations for one of her elaborate meals. Some such argument ensued over place settings or water pitchers. Both were red in the face and their blood pressures were palpable. Mom stormed out of the kitchen. Dad yelled, “Mary! Mary!” She had thrown up her hands and kept walking without looking back. He followed her into the next room, still shouting, “Mary!” Finally, she turned and stopped. He smiled and said, “Give me a kiss.” And they made up.

So these are the things I’ve learned from both my fathers. Now it’s your turn. Think about your own father or father figures. Start your freewrite with “These are the things my father taught me…” or something along those lines. Set your timer for fifteen minutes and write without stopping or censoring. Let go…breathe…write.

I would love to hear what lessons you’ve learned. Please feel free to post them.