Tuesday, October 30, 2012

When in crisis, I write. When the crisis is real, and when it's in my head.

Yesterday -- just after Hurricane Sandy began blowing through northern New Jersey, and just before a transformer blew up and caught fire down the block, and we lost power and phone service -- I was finishing up a long day of editing, and worrying about and missing my older son, a freshman meteorology student. So, I did what I always do -- wrote about it.

I wrote, in part, about the last time there was a hurricane in New Jersey, and we were on vacation in California, and how this time, he's not here either:

In one way, my son is missing it all again—he’s 220 miles to the west. Then again, he’s in the center of everything, watching events unfold on the 45 monitor wall in the Weather Room of his university’s meteorology department, where everyone from the lowliest freshman to graduate students and the department’s top professors are huddled.

“Stay safe,” I begged him. “Don’t wait too long to get back to your dorm.” 

He reminded me first that. as “someone who has watched the Weather Channel every day since the age of two,” he knew all about storm safety and, more important, the windows of that particular room were constructed to withstand a category F5 tornado.

Besides, they were ordering in pizza and chances were good they’d all spend the night there, storm tracking, making predictions. Classes are cancelled, after all.

Here’s where it gets particularly difficult to be the mother of a college student, something I’m just learning. What advice to pour into our cell phone texts and Facebook chats, what to keep to myself, how to bridge the distance between worried Mom and trusting parent, adviser and cheerleader.

You can read the entire essay here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Guest Blogger Liz Sheffield on Banishing the Inner Editor with NaNoWriMo

Liz Sheffield has been a writing student and editing client of mine over the last few years. She is a blogger and freelance writer focused on the topics of parenting, wellness and leadership.  Her essays, articles and short fiction have been published in national and regional publications, including Brain, Child and Family Fun. Until recently, Liz spent more than 11 years writing, editing and designing training materials for Starbucks. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two young sons.

Please welcome Liz Sheffield

This year, when I asked the young writers in the early weeks of my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) workshop to tell me what their inner editors say, the kids (ages 8 to 11) didn’t hesitate to respond:
“You suck.”
“That’s no good.”
“You can’t spell.”
Ouch! Our inner editors develop at such a young age.
These fifteen students are part of the afterschool NaNoWriMo workshop I’m teaching at my son’s elementary school. A few years ago, the Office of Letters and Light (OLL) – the group that oversees NaNoWriMo for adults – created the Young Writers Program as well as a NaNoWriMo curriculum for kids and youth. It’s the same concept (write a novel in a month) but with a word count goal that is reasonable for each young writer.
September and October are all about training. In our weekly lessons, we discuss topics such as the inner editor, main characters, plot and setting . The goal is that by November 1, these students will be able to write their novels in 30 days. In order to succeed, I know from personal experience, the first step is to get their inner editors out of the way.
“Next, we’re going to draw these inner editors,” I continue after hearing the feedback from my students’ inner editors.
Villains wielding swords, with scowling faces, missing teeth and furrowed brows evolved on the blank pages of the kids’ workbooks.
“Now it’s time for these inner editors to take a hike,” I told my students.
I walked around the room with a shoe box covered in bronze-colored paper. After the last editor was in the box, I closed the lid and wrapped metallic string around and around the box to lock it.
“Is that barbed wire?” a sixth grader asked, incredulous.
“Yes. Star-studded barbed wire.”
The box rattled in my hands. I could hardly contain the energy inside the bronze-covered shoe box.
“These editors are desperate to get out,” I warned, “but if we want to write a novel in thirty days, we can’t let them out until December 1.”
Some of the younger students looked worried. (Okay, so maybe the shaking box was a little bit much.)
“Are we going to let these inner editors out of the box?” I asked.
“No way!” the kids hollered, a few boys adding an air-punch for emphasis.
If keeping their inner editors in the box is the one thing my students learn through this NaNoWriMo experience, I’ll be thrilled.  
And, they’ll be decades ahead of me.
I have a powerful, demanding and often hope-dashing inner editor who has played a leading role in my writing life: You’re going to use that word? Who will want to read this? You can’t write. You don’t have an MFA. You’re not old enough. Wait, you’re too old, it’s too late. You don’t have time.
I’ve heard this voice for years, but it wasn’t until I took the NaNoWriMo challenge myself in November 2010 that I understood the power my inner editor had over my creative process.
My sons were age two and six, I was working full-time in a corporate cube and commuting an hour each way. Since college, I’d been too busy (drinking beer, teaching ESL in Japan, romancing with my future husband) to write. Skeptics, including my inner editor, told me I had no business taking on the challenge of writing a novel, much less attempting to write one in thirty days.
I signed up anyway. And I wrote 50,064 words in 30 days.
“How did you do it?” everyone asked after I came out of the NaNoWriMo fog.
The answer was simple: I told my inner editor to take a hike.
During NaNoWriMo, I gave myself permission to write a less-than-perfect novel. I ignored the thoughts that I had to come up with the “perfect” first sentence, find the “perfect” time to write, or labor late into the night, attempting to format a document so that it was “just right”.
With thirty days of practice, I gained confidence. My inner editor got quiet.
"Don’t look at this early stage for every sentence to be perfect—that will come. Don’t expect every description to be spot-on. That will come too. This is an opportunity to experiment. It’s your giant blotter. An empty slate, ready to be filled."

These encouraging words in Jasper Fforde’s pep talk to participants in the 2010 NaNoWriMo rang true. Having sent my inner editor on a hike, day by day, word by word, I was able to fill the empty slate.
My creative self took over. I added a hospital to the setting. My protagonist befriended a homeless teen. The plot twisted and turned in ways that my inner editor would have avoided (and admonished) but which I welcomed. I finished on November 30 with a novel that wasn’t perfect, but that had a beginning, a middle and an end. A year after I finished NaNoWriMo, I read what I’d written. While there are revisions to be made, I can say that I like what I wrote. (Take that, inner editor!)
As my students prepare for their NaNoWriMo adventures, I hope that locking their inner editors away in that shoe box will bring them the same sense of freedom; that they will embrace the time for creativity.
Most creative folks will agree that keeping the inner editor at bay is difficult. In fact, since I banished mine two years ago during NaNoWriMo, I’ve noticed my inner editor creeping back into my writing world.
But I’ve had enough. I make my way to the garage in search of the box covered in star-studded barbed wire. There’s got to be enough room for one more inner editor in the shoe box in the garage: mine.

Note from Lisa: NaNoWriMo begins on November 1. You needn't write a novel during the 30 days; it's also a great way to generate around 50,000 words towards any manuscript or writing project, keep track of your progress, and commit to a regular writing practice. For the math-challenged, 50K words in a month works out to about 1,670 words per day.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, October 19 2012 Edition

> At his excellent blog, Aaron Hamburger considers whether "Writing is...Depressing?"

> A mentor once told me my work wouldn't really sing until I was uncomfortable with what I was putting on the page. I thought this may only be so for nonfiction writers, but in this interview at Fiction Writers Review, Steve Almond notes: "Literary writers, no matter how refined, are always seeking to express unbearable feelings. At least the ones I’m interested in. And that means exposing those feelings to the world, whether in fictional disguise or not. My work only got interesting when I started exposing myself on the page, dealing in radical truths."

> When is a writer writing? Answer: Always. In this post at The Writers Circle, Jennifer Walkup explains how and why she is writing while not writing.

> So proud! A student in a recent Writing the Personal Essay class, Robin Sloane Seibert, worked on a piece about slowing down in her piano practicing, and it was later published on a lovely site about adult piano passions.

> Sean Bishop on the good, bad and meh about constant, high-volume poetry submissions: "Even a poverty-stricken twenty-something can submit to eighty journals at once when he or she doesn’t have to pay the printing and postage for that submission, or put in the envelope-licking time and endure the requisite oral papercuts. Submissions and rejections can now be almost instantaneous, and if it’s free to submit to eighty journals then why the hell not, right? Right." Read the whole article at the Virginia Quarterly Review blog. (via @ErikaDreifus)

> Friend, mentor, wonderful writer/poet/activist Leslea Newman, describes her 11 year effort to write her just-released book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Sheppard. Be sure to read or scroll to the end to watch the book trailer too.

> Registration is still open for my next Online Creative Nonfiction 4x4, which starts Monday. 

> Finally, just for fun: "Is it Shakespeare or is it...Hip Hop?" Take the quiz at Sporcle. (hat tip: New Guard Review)

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

This one is about speaking, not writing. And living.

If you've been here before, you know that I am a big fan of lists. Not writing in list format here on the blog, but making lists, using lists in my writing life, as a means of organization, record-keeping, perspective -- and inspiration.

This falls into the last category.

As I wrote the other day over on Baristanet, "Do you have a bunch of those books (collecting dust?) in your house – you know the ones that tell us the 1000 or 100 things we must do, eat, see, try, visit or experience before we die? Do you get frustrated that most of them are written with the assumption that everyone also has buckets of money earmarked for such excursions?

Me too.

That’s why I was intrigued to stumble across a different sort of bucket list the other day, on the Forbes website, which anyone can add adopt without breaking the bank. Writer/illustrator Jessica Hagy lists “40 Things to Say Before You Die." They’re short and direct, and combined with the simple intersecting circle diagrams that will remind you of elementary school Venn diagrams, I predict you’ll find yourself scrolling through slowly, thinking and nodding. The best part of course is that nothing on this list will cost you a dime. But you may find yourself a bit richer."

Hope you'll click over to Forbes and read the list.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest Blogger Rosalind Brenner on Finding Inspiration by Dusting Off Your Old Journals (and how an assignment can’t hurt either!)

Rosalind Brenner is a writer, frequently exhibited painter/stained glass artist, and innkeeper.  Her newest book of lyric and narrative poetry is Omega's Garden, just out from Finishing Line Press. Another, All That's Left, combines her art and poetry. She lives on Long Island, where she and her husband, photographer/artist Michael Cardacino, operate Art House Bed and Breakfast, in the historic Springs section of East Hampton.  Recently I had the pleasure to work with Rosalind on some of her wonderful nonfiction pieces, which she's experimenting with for a future book that will mix poetry and prose.
Please welcome Rosalind Brenner.

I’ve been rolling around on the wheels spinning my brain, trying to think of subject matter for this guest blog post. I had just finished another guest post. Easy. Something I know about: the value of sharing poems with friends who are good poets and offer great critique; and the value of prompts. These two subjects went together with no trouble, for I’ve been doing exactly that with four poet friends with whom I graduated in 2009 from the MFA Poetry Program at Sarah Lawrence. We meet once a week on Skype, write from our own sometimes serious, sometimes silly, prompts, and then happily slice and dice, slash and burn and suck in gerbil breaths of admiration in the hours we are together. We end up with well-polished poems, many of which have been published.

But now, asked to write another guest post, I find myself in a slump. Usually, I turn to tried-and-true methods for poetry writing: reading others' poems to inspire myself. A word or phrase triggers the little gem which until that moment has been hiding from me, and voila, I write.

But lately I’ve been having trouble with dry eyes. The medicine is making it hard to read and to stare at a computer screen, not to mention that I’m aggravated as hell by the constant physical irritation. Try as I may, my eyes, about which I’m thinking all the time, have not become an inspiration to write some ‘woundology’ piece for this blog post. Damn, I don’t want to be a whiner and that’s how I’m feeling. So what do we do when dry eyes or other maladies, mental and physical, turn into dry times for us as writers? 

Meanwhile, in my quandary, yesterday I sat in the sun and wondered if my life is worthwhile and what’s the point anyway of all the reams and reams of journals, notes, beginnings and actual finished poems? Why should anyone want to read what I write?

I tried to assuage my lack of motivation and my self-pity by remembering the book, Writing Down the Bones, in which Natalie Goldberg, besides offering ideas for writing and tools for awakening the dormant spirit, gives writers permission—no !—advice, to take three days off and stay in bed and to be alright with that.


I managed one day doing nothing and not feeling too guilty about it, and then today I climbed the stairs to my writing desk to write this post, blurry eyes and all, about the poet’s dilemma. How can I wake myself up? How can I surprise myself? How can I make old information new or find new ways to talk about my own experience? I’ve already written quite a lot about matters of importance to me and hope that perhaps one line or two has struck a universal chord— for those few who read poetry and find their way to my poems.

But we go on, don’t we, because poetry heals, poetry relieves, poetry is the universal language. Even people who insist they don’t understand or like poetry, sway to its truth at weddings, funerals, inaugurations, graduations, demonstrations or in quiet moments of need.

I look around my office. I see the pile of scribbled journals. I think, yes I’ve already written about things that interest me, but not everything I’ve written has become a poem. I open one of my old notebooks at random. Ah, there’s something— I was obviously at play with the idea of making a triolet on a summer day:


Here people color the world with umbrellas
umber sand is passage for a stray balloon
offshore breeze laps at blue and red and yellow
and pinks the ruffled mob of parasols (umbrellas)
here people color the world of bumbershoots (umbrellas)
being human here feels cool sherbet mellow
the way the tide pulls at the constant moon
here people color the world in parapluie (umbrella)
and umber sand is passage for a stray balloon.

Not necessarily a finished work, nor a classic triolet, but maybe something to give me the pearl I need to begin again.

Here’s another journal entry; I was obviously looking at a painting by Redon. I don’t really remember, was I looking at his “Ophelia Among the Flowers?” Hmmm. Where are the Greek keys? No matter. Maybe I can find something here.

Redon’s ghost remains inside his painting.
Rust becomes rose as he dips his large brush into lush paint
Orange flavors the bristles. He slides color into canvas, into being,
into other, in strokes that keep his ground
a mystery of application and vision. Lavender spirits
surround a blue violet vase,
Greek keys appear and disappear on the surface,
flowers push their way out of the picture plane.
Redon still holds the brush, his oils juicy
heart absolutely humming with the moment.

 I think maybe these might have something worth pursuing.

Again, on a dry day, some long forgotten journal entry can take me out of the doldrums. It has today. For not only have I found a fit subject for this post, but I can feel something stirring me to re-visit these unfinished writings.

One day very early in our relationship, I was looking at my husband’s finger, a stump, cut off in a climbing accident when he was nineteen, long before I met him. I scribbled a note about how horrified and almost repulsed I was the first time I saw his cut off finger and how that feeling disappeared.  On second look, the entry made me think how our relationship has molded both of us, aged us, but made us more content and compassionate, and how we are grateful for all we’ve found together.

Here is the first draft poetic result of my new look at those scribblings.


his missing digit a sliced off stub
how would he meander over my quiver
when he couldn’t even hold it     but I was filled
with fishing lust and the river cannot reverse
its downstream flow     on the slow crawl
bus to nowhere men and women
cram on Wednesdays    come to eat
donuts and to get their feet manicured so attraction
can start below its normal course and does not include
the list of usual sights in their front yards

lust drove away and left us wrinkled
waiting for the next stop    but still in love
it’s seniors discount day at the IGA.

This method of random searching through old work could serve you too. Find your  journals. Open at random. Once inside, you will swim through memories. Copy one line. Let your thoughts ramble into a free write. Take a walk to a coffee shop or to the beach. Cradle the old notes, a pen and an empty pad. 

Take off from the memory piece into the scene around you. Maybe the bearded man that looks like Santa Claus drinking coffee in the next booth reminds you of your ex husband. Maybe seeing this stranger can trigger your muse from your re-read of that line in your old journal: “He sat all afternoon squirming and running a dental pick over his teeth in his living room piled high with bird books while I tried to talk to him about our sons. What an idiot I was…” and you find an empty page in your old book and write:

‘this closing air of  new October
reminds me that his voice, cracked
from surgery,  chords removed,
is fixed now
silence, not a bird to watch
in his fledgling nest…’               

If you don’t keep a notebook with you at all times, better start. There are pearls inside that can’t be strung together otherwise. How many times have you thought of a poem or a line, or heard a bit of dialogue and forgotten it?  So mine those journals. Discover. Uncover. The possibilities are waiting to be unearthed.

And certainly it helps to be asked to write a blog post. This one especially has led me out of the desert. 

Notes from Lisa:  We will be sending a complimentary signed copy of Omega's Garden to one blog reader who leaves a comment below (chosen at random). Might be interesting to talk in comments about how old notebooks inspire your writing. For your chance at the free book, please comment by midnight (EST) on Tuesday, Oct. 30.

You can see Rosalind's artwork combined with poetry, in "Shadows” at Ashawagh Hall in East Hampton, Oct. 25 - 28,

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Of Writers, Editors, and Time

In early June, I finished the first-pass editing of a 315 page memoir manuscript for a client halfway across the globe. The way we had arranged things, she was then to take about five months to complete a revision and return it for a second, final round of feedback. 

In reality, most editing clients don't wait the full five months (or however long we've agreed on); for various reasons some choose to turn around the manuscript in just weeks. Often this is a mistake because  for some writers and some manuscripts, weeks are needed just to fully digest and consider the initial feedback, think it all through and make decisions about revisions. 

Other than a "Thanks – be in touch" email when I returned the manuscript in June, I hadn't heard from this client. I generally force myself not to initiate contact during this revision period because I don't want to imply the writer should be moving faster. So I waited.

But last week I began to worry: Did she hate all of my editing suggestions? Had I offended her with some tough-love comments? Was she interpreting my feedback as harsher than intended and felt paralyzed? Had  she tossed her manuscript in the shredder? 

I knew I would eventually have to send a reminder email that the deadline was approaching…and just as I was about to, an email arrived with a cheery note that she had been hard at work finishing the revision – oh, and thanks for helpful feedback/edits. Phew!

Point is – nothing was wrong; everything was taking exactly as long as it was supposed to take, in fact as long as I had advised. This experience made me think again about how every writer, me included, needs to have more perspective about the time that needs to elapse while we are waiting to hear back from editors, agents, publishers, coaches, teachers, mentors, writing buddies offering feedback. 

Maybe things are progressing precisely as they should, taking just the right amount of time. Maybe people are taking time to respond because they are doing what we really want them to do -- carefully reading, then thinking about, considering, re-reading, and pondering our work.

My father always used to say, "No news is good news."  As I keep discovering, he was often right.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Writing Gods: Give me this day my Daily Brief.

In the online Boot Camp I run --  for writers who are a bit stuck or otherwise need a little push (or giant cattle prod) to get writing again -- I send out a Daily Boot Camp Brief, six mornings a week. It may be a writing-related quote, a bit of advice about something I learned (often the hard way), or a re-interpretation of some tried-and-true writing wisdom.

I've run this class a half-dozen times in the past few years, and while it would make things easier for me to re-use the same Daily Briefs each time, except for a few I truly love and can't bear not repeating, I don't. I come up with new ones each day, each time I run the class.

Partly it's because for the six weeks of the course, I like knowing there's an expectation that I must get up on 36 mornings and create a new Brief; each morning I must either write, find, comment on, or research and pass along, something new.

It's a daily discipline for me, and frankly, if I can't do this small creative task each and every day, then how can I ask the writers in the class to be faithful to whatever regular writing routine they are hard at work developing for themselves (which may or may not be a daily routineduring those six weeks? 

Occasionally I see a theme developing in what I have to say each morning and once I see the pattern, it often points me toward something in my own writing life that needs attention but which I didn't notice before. Other times, I am either happy merely to share something that works for me, or to draw attention to what another writer has to say.

Here are a few from the past four weeks of Boot Camp:

Ø  There's nothing worse than writing something you think is good only to read it over the next day and realize it's not so good. Oh yes, there is something worse: NOT writing it at all.  You can do something with not-so-hot writing. The blank page?  Not so much.

Ø  If you're not reading, you're not writing.

Ø  A documentary I saw on PBS titled, "Who Does She Think She Is?", follows three women artists. They talk about how challenging it was to carve out time for art in addition to being mothers and wives, and in the face of the lack of support and recognition. One said, "I stopped feeling guilty and selfish when I saw the work developing."  That really hit me, and I realized it was true for me too. But the thing is, it takes time for the work to develop.

Ø  "Accepting that your first draft will be your worst draft can be extremely liberating. It's all right to sound like a jerk at this state…nobody's looking…Later when you revise, you can agonize over the details and cut out the embarrassments. In the meantime, nothing is too ridiculous for a first draft." – from WordsFail Me, by Patricia T. O'Connor.  

And this one, written after I attended a family wedding:

Ø  Although I extol the benefits of keeping a tiny notebook on hand and sneaking off to make notes and record ideas no matter what, there are times when it's more interesting, and of course, social, to just let it all wash over you and observe, participate, stay in the moment. Sometimes you lose some thoughts and ideas. Oh well. But other times things simmer in your brain and heart, and something new and maybe even richer is waiting when you do get that chance, later, when you are home and in your sweats, on the couch and can scribble. Life first, writing second.
What if you had to write, or find for yourself, a daily writing brief, a few words to get you going if you were stuck or needed a bit of motivation?  What might you say or pass on?