Monday, November 5, 2012

A Lonely Place Apart

“My real writing is the stuff I do that takes my deepest energy, that requires me to slide into that space where everything else falls away.  I picture the space where I do my real writing as a quiet forest glen where there is sound but nothing I need to attend to, nothing that calls forth my intervention. It is serene, secluded, and I am alone there.”  ~ Andrea Cumbo

From what I’m hearing, other writers are struggling to juggle their blogging with their ‘real’ writing. Unknown Jim says his writing has been misplaced and it’s time for things to change.

His aim is to focus on fiction instead of spending so much time on social networking. He says, “It’s time to write what you REALLY want to write about…It might mean blogging less to just blog better…or writing an ebook, poem, or short story…”   

Or memoirs and magazine articles, which I must return to front burners and bring to full steam once again. This is why I’m taking a blogging sabbatical for the next several weeks - although I do hope to drop by and visit my friends on occasion. 

In an earlier post, The Music Within, I quoted Brian Doyle’s reasons for writing. These words bear repeating here, mainly to remind myself of why I write.

“Because like all human beings I have an innate drive to leave something shapely and permanent behind me, some marker or passage through the woods…I’d like to leave several books behind me so that someday my children will open and read them and think maybe the old man had a fastball for awhile there.” 

In Utterances of an Overcrowded Mind, Paul Dorset says that 97% of writers don’t finish their book. I’m in the 3% who have finished one, but little good that did since I placed it in a closet and forgot about it long ago. But that’s not the one demanding my attention right now anyway. It’s the memoirs I want my children to read. 

What about you?  How are you expending your writing energy, and do you also feel the need to redirect your focus? Is blogging your chief venue, or do you have other WIP that need attention like some of us?  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Preaching to the Choir

You’ve heard it said that any writer worth his weight in gold should avoid clichés like the plague. I hope I’m not preaching to the choir here but, if I am, at least we’re on the same page.

If I had a penny for every cliché I’ve read or used I’d be filthy rich. So would William Metz, who once said, “What’s a young writer to do? Perhaps he can’t recognize the clichés because they are so much a part of his daily language. He is, to be sure, between the devil and the deep blue sea… he must learn to nip in the bud the trite phrase, the overused word.”  

The funniest article I’ve read on the subject is Richard Bang’s “Avoid Clichés like the Plague,” where he confesses to being guilty as sin of having committed the worst literary crimes known to man when he authored travel brochures and used such phrases as “come to know the exotic flora, fauna, and people…” He even called the Blue Nile “The Mount Everest of Rivers.”

OMG, that article just cracked me up!  His advice is this: “If you absolutely can’t resist writing ‘lush’ before ‘forest,’ or ‘hearty’ before ‘breakfast,’ or ‘cascading’ before ‘waterfall,’ keep practicing until you can resist.”

On passé sayings… does anybody remember being up the creek without a paddle…that today is the first day of the rest of your life…that it takes one to know one…that if you build the field they’ll come…that spring is God’s way of saying ‘hello’…

Have you ever known someone whose ass was grass...who fell out of the ugly tree and hit all the branches on the way down…whose dog didn’t hunt…who made like a banana and split… who wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (or pencil in the box)? 

On to current lingo… it is what it is…at the end of the day… shoot for the moon; even if you miss you’ll be among the stars…an aha moment…a light bulb moment…too much on my plate… on steroids… my bad…do what you love and the money will follow…the only constant is change…speak of the devil…

Today I’m totally happy to announce a free-for-all cliché day. In the comments leave your favorites, old or new.  While. You. Have. The. Chance. - btw, memes and idioms are fair game too. Whatever. And have more fun than a barrel of monkeys!   

Monday, October 1, 2012


Today my students and I are writing on the word ‘ostracize.’ I’ll go first.

I’ve always had a heart for the outcasts, the underdogs, the ugly ducklings. When I was growing up there was a boy in our church named Harold, a loner who was tall and lanky as Ichabod Crane. His face was so pockmarked that the other kids said it had more holes than a golf course.

One day I saw him sitting at the end of a pew all by himself and wondered if I should go sit beside him… but I didn’t really want to go that far, I mean, what would people think?

So I came up with another plan to inform him that someone knew he existed. I pulled a stick of Spearmint Gum from my prized pack, marched straight down the aisle to where he sat, and held it out to him. How embarrassing when he shook his head ‘no,’ he didn’t want it.  

Fast forward 10 years to the school pariah at ENCSD where I taught P.E. Cassie was so obese that all the other children made fun of her. She waddled when she walked and was clumsy and inept at sports and most everything else she attempted. 

No one gave her the time of day. Whenever we played competitive games like kick ball or held relay races, none of the team captains chose her. She was left standing alone while all the others stood together on their individual teams, gearing up for the fun.   

And so I made Cassie my official pet and assigned her the role of captain so she’d get to choose team members instead of being automatically swept to the sideline. When we lined up to go back inside the building I placed her in front of the others and said, “Follow Cassie, the leader.”

This psychology actually works. Children are not oblivious to the treatment others receive, and they tend to follow suit when another is well esteemed. When they were with me on the playground the other kids began showing respect for Cassie, and eventually stopped poking fun and ridiculing her altogether.


Then there was the Christian blog group that ostracized me because, apparently, only pontificating was tolerable, and if you didn’t preach to the choir they didn’t want you. Their motto seemed to be, “You tell me what I know and I’ll tell you what you know.”     

When have you encountered ostracism?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Of Hobbit Holes and Cafés

It’s a dangerous business going out your front door.  
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

I wonder if J.K. Rowling read Natalie Goldberg’s advice on writing back in the day. It’s a possibility, given the fact that she wrote the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on napkins in Nicholson’s café – now called Black Medicine Coffee Shop.  Just imagine how renowned the place has become after Rowling put them on the map, gregarious folk flocking there to sip their magic potion while leaning over paper and pen. 

Goldberg urges her readers to sit in a café with handy-dandy notebook and give their hands free reign.  She suggests meeting with a friend for a “writing date” - a concept contrary to the stereotype of the lonely, anguished writer. 

My friend Katie tried her hand at writing in public places for awhile. Every day she’d go to McDonald’s for coffee and her morning pages.  She has enough poems from that stint to publish a collection called Breakfast at McDonald’s. Here’s one. 

Every Morning, Angela

cases the room at McDonald’s,
makes trips to the counter
for a napkin, more coffee, more sugar.

Her eyes check to see if any eyes
will meet hers. If any will allow her
to join them for breakfast,
will succumb to her customary ploy,
“I need a friend.”

Some face that gargoyle face, allow
her to eat with them, then later complain
of their conflict – having their space invaded,
their pity for her, their guilt
at the thought of refusing…

What would Jesus do? they wonder.

One who would not bow to Angela’s craft
said simply, “Even Jesus needed a place apart,”
excusing the stone in her own heart. 

Can you concentrate on writing in a crowded space?  I’ve tried and it doesn’t work for me. I get too distracted by Angelas.  I need a lonely place apart.  Like Bilbo Baggins I’m a creature of habit who doesn’t like to be disturbed. No racket or fuss in solitude.  

What about you? Have you taken Natalie’s advice and ventured out of your hobbit hole to capture adventure? Do you go about with a journalist’s eye, looking for detail outside your imagination?  Me, I’ll take the vicarious adventure any old day.   

Where is your ideal spot to write?  Does your best writing require privacy?
Or do you cheerfully come out of your hobbit hole every now and then? 

Linking with Seedlings in Stone

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

House of Dreams

Some things have to be believed to be seen.   
 ~ Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine’s advice is worthwhile.  “It might be a good idea if, like the White Queen, we practiced believing six impossible things every morning before breakfast, for we are called upon to believe, what to many people, is impossible. Instead of rejoicing in this glorious ‘impossible’ which gives meaning and dignity to our lives, we try to domesticate God, to make his might actions comprehensible to our finite minds."

When I was growing up my parents took a strange child into our home, a boy with round blue eyes of wonder and blond curls soft as lily petals. One whose vocabulary did not contain the word ‘impossible.’

First of all, he’d flown 3,000 miles all by himself from Riverside California to Fremont North Carolina. Had left the city and brown smog to come live with  us on a farm with tall stalks of corn, green pastures stretching toward the horizon, pigs you can pet, wild huckleberries for the grabbing, haystacks to rest upon and, best of all, a red tractor.

And what boy doesn’t dream of riding a big red tractor every day with his “Grandpa.” That was his first dream come true, living on Green Acres. Imagine that reality coming to life for a child.   

When he turned five my parents enrolled him in school. That’s when we discovered that he had a little shadow that went in and out with him. We saw tell-tale signs of a hard-knock life from days gone by. Bed wetting became the norm.

One day the principal called my mother in for a conference. “The boy seems to have emotional problems,” he said. “He has a foul mouth.” News to us.

After delving into the matter at home my parents soon discovered abandonment issues. We learned that his mother had left him in the dark car while she worked in an after-hours nightclub (shade city). Of course he was emotionally disturbed…all those endless evenings left alone. And if someone tried to steal him, well…

Then one day his mother showed up at our home to cart Simeon away. I’ll never forget that scene. The boy clinging to my dad for dear life, sobbing his eyes out. Both my parents weeping, loud wails filling the kitchen. Sim’s mom dragging him away by force, the child who’d lived with us for the past couple of years. 

Months passed. Then one day the mail man, Buck, delivered a letter scribbled in orange pencil – clearly a child’s handwriting – addressed to:

            Fremont NC

That’s it. No first name, no rural route, no zip code, no return address, just, “Grandpa, Fremont, NC.” We sat and wondered how a letter from one side of the country clear to the other could have possibly been delivered without the pertinent information. Miracle?  I’d like to think so.

Ever since then, I’ve taken Madeleine L’Engle’s advice to heart in naming six impossible things before my feel hit the hardwood floor every day. If you haven’t done so, try it. Impossible dreams don’t just have to be personal. I dream on behalf of others as well as myself.

What impossible dreams might you have?  Be bold! 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

After the Storm

At midnight trees grow wild.  Lights flicker and you close our eyes to darkness. By morning your skin is beaded like dew on the lawn; by noon it’s slicker than butter.

Still you crave those magic beans that wake the dead and make the blood flow smoother. These addictions, how hard they die! Funny, but you don’t feel that blessed to be alive.

Imagine making do with cowboy brew all the days of your life. Things could come to that… firing up the grill daily just for a cup of coffee. 

You know you should be counting your blessings. But the flooding, the sweltering heat with no sign of relief, breeding ground for mosquitoes and disease…

Gratitude gives way to post-apocalyptic musings.

Chickadees, oblivious to power outages, flock gleefully around the feeder; these no more territorial than you keeping watch over the priceless stash of ice in the cooler.

A relentless knock at the door. It’s your brother with the heart condition and your failing mother staring back with hopeful eyes. They’ve come to you seeking air and ice…

In the living room – the coolest spot in the house at 85 degrees – the light of day cannot be seen. Folded blinds, opaque drapes see to that. You sit in semidarkness and commiserate.

Think of those less fortunate: your cousin swept away by the storm last night.  And others who didn’t survive.  You just thank the Lord you’re still alive to suffer and agonize together.

After Floyd, we were out of power for a week. Many lost their homes, their farms, their lives, their loved ones.  The everyday comforts they’d known before eastern NC’s Katrina.

A friend named Barbara, who had her lights restored days before us, was thoughtful enough to remember me when she made her morning coffee.

The carafe full she delivered to my front door seemed like a miracle.

Since that time Barbara has moved to New York. I lost my brother to a mysterious death (not a heart attack), my mother to a massive stroke.  Yes, how blessed I was after the storm.       

What does it mean to you to be blessed?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Off the Wall

is what you call someone odd, eccentric, one brick shy. 
Like that woman seen walking all over town
dressed in black, talking to herself or perhaps to God.

Like that man in church on the front row, eyes closed tight, feigning sleep, his heart remaining open as morning glories reaching toward the sun.

The girl who holds an orphaned squirrel in her bra like a newborn in a snugly, appeased by mamma’s heartbeat. She sneaks him an occasional acorn through the neckline of her tee.

A daughter who could have made good like her mother in nuclear physics but doesn’t. Rather than succeed as such, she’ll stay in touch with her inner child (thank you very much.), shaping owls and salamanders out of clay…

Transforming Altoid tins into treasures. She’ll go to sleep and paint
her dreams in the morning, measure truth by their content…

When she sees a hall at school, students herded along by a bell – a bell!
– she thinks of Pavlov’s dogs and how thrilled she feels to be skipping
 down the wall – that’s right, the wall

- beside the girl with the squirrel in her bosom. 


The last four lines reveal an unforgettable dream I had, where I was skipping along the wall with an artist friend.  How paradoxical dreams can be. We weren’t the ones off the wall. It’s the others in the herd.  Isn’t life a paradox though?   

"'Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You too?
Thought I was the only one....'"C. S. Lewis

How much of a rebel are you?  Are you off the wall too?  How so?
What idiosyncrasy would you dare to share below?  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Inch by Inch

The scariest moment is always just before you start.
After that, things can only get better. ~ Stephen King, On Writing

Red narrating in The Shawshank Redemption:

“In 1966 Andy Dufresne escaped from the Shawshank prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock hammer…

“I remember thinking it would take a man six hundred years to tunnel through the wall with it.  Old Andy did it in less than twenty…Turns out Andy’s favorite hobby was totin’ his wall out into the exercise yard, a handful at a time.”

How much this story taught me! I learned what persistence and hope can do for a soul… not just for an innocent prisoner with a will and the genius to set himself free, but for anyone facing a seemingly insurmountable task…

Maureen Boyd Biro, editor and author says, “It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by a big project, but if I only have to concentrate on one inch, well, that I can handle. Eventually those inches will be feet and yards and whatever it takes to make a book.”

One year after seeing The Shawshank redemption, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  It was among the best advice I’ve read on writing – or tackling any job that feels overwhelming. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

That’s how you finish an epic manuscript: one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter at a time.  Taken step by step, the thousand mile journey is doable. Just ask marathon man Stephen King.

What walls are you facing that could be removed a handful at a time?
A novel?  A memoir? A research project? A house than needs decluttering?
Or, what have you already accomplished inch by inch?  Please share below.

Monday, June 18, 2012

La La Land?

If you don’t daydream and kind of plan things out in your imagination
you never get there. So you have to start someplace! ~ Robert Duvall

At the bank drive-through I place my check in the clear canister and wait to watch it rocket up and out of sight… then zip back down with green cash.

 I’m in no hurry. It’s a bright sunny day and I’ve nothing else to do but sit and kill time amongst the near-five-o’clock traffickers. 

My mind wanders off somewhere other than the bank where my Cherokee is parked…

Within minutes I hear a polite voice through a speaker. “Did you want to send this up to me?” I glance past the first row of cars and see the smiling teller leaning my way.

Oops, I’m thinking, facing her and saying, “Oh sorry, I’m in La La Land.”  And I push the magic button and watch my encased check zoom up up and away. Cash in hand, I drive off wondering, where was my mind?

Neil Gaiman says, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice what we’re doing.” Don’t we though?  

The castle-building habit, the day-dreaming habit – how it grows!
What a luxury it becomes; how we fly to its enchantments at every idle moment,
how we revel in them, steep our souls in them, intoxicate ourselves
with their beguiling fantasies – oh yes, and how soon and how easily our dream-life
and our material life become so intermingled and so fused together
that we can’t quite tell which is which anymore.  ~ Mark Twain

Early on you knew about that inner world, in fact you lived there half the time. It was quite possible to be in two places at once. You could transfer in a blink from your small classroom desk back to your mother’s womb. Could return to being alone in a pond with no other fish.  A safe warm place.

Even at six years old you intuited the necessity of solitude and its relevance to your call in life. However, there was no real solitude in the classroom unless you tuned out your actual surroundings - much like the autistic child manages to do.

And now it happens most anywhere, anytime.  Stoplights are good places to drift off while you’re sitting idle… Reading a boring book can send you downstream… walking, jogging…

And movies like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are good launch pads. No pun.

Years ago my brother and I attended a homecoming service at our old church and sat through the most longwinded sermon ever. Stomachs growling, grownups squirming like small children…

My mind sending a mental message, pleading, begging, like Moses to Pharaoh, let my people go.

When finally the preacher set us free my brother said to me, “Every so often I found my mind wandering back to the sermon.”  

What about you?  When are you most likely to drift off to La La Land? 

Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Still Point

Sometime, when you look back, you can point to a time when your world shifts and heads in another direction. In lace reading this is called “the still point.”
~ Brunonia Barry (The Lace Reader)

No matter what all the books and gurus claim, we don’t ever live fully in the present moment. How is this possible when there is such a vast sea of memories within us? We can aim to live each given moment to the full, but we can’t escape the past.

Nor can we ignore what lies ahead. The sum total of our being is comprised of past, present, and future. Our history teaches us what we need to know about ourselves in order to move forward. The present shows us where our feet are standing now. 

Dreams and goals direct us toward the future.
The eternal now is the intersection where all three meet.

Within the still point, past, present, and future exist simultaneously and time, as we know it, disappears completely. ~ The Lace Reader’s Guide

One memory haunted me for the longest time. It wouldn’t let go until I wrote it down and contemplated its meaning. It taught me how empty I was, always on a quest for peace of mind, forever roaming about and knocking on doors, seeking for some outer source to fill my lonely ache. It taught me about the God shaped vacuum.

The Still Point
Beneath a dome of gunmetal sky I push my toddler
son along the bumpy pavement, buckled up
and snug in his umbrella stroller. 

We come upon a ghost campus
at spring break.  The only signs of life today are a
concert of birds in verdant trees, and centerstage,
a fountain cascading into a wishing pool. 
Incandescent fish, like kids at hide and seek,
dart underneath the candock.

The stroller click-clacks onward, over brick pathways
in our pursuit of pleasure.  Here, an octagonal structure
on which a plaque is posted: Peace to all who enter
here.  A locked door.  So much for peace.  Whatever
presence might have dwelt within that place
remains a mystery. 

The meditation center, I’ve been told, has since
been leveled like an old ramshackle privy.
A quarter-century passes. My son grows tall
and travels west, ascends the heights
of Swannanoa where heaven
is more within his reach.

And me?  Even now I stroll toward the still
point in my wandering mind.  And sometimes
I arrive to find the door left open.

Looking back, can you pinpoint a time
when your world shifted and you headed in a different direction? 

The Still Point was first published in Crucible.  

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sitzfleisch and Flash

I asked a friend yesterday if she mainly wrote out of inspiration, or if she’d mastered the discipline of sitzfleisch.  She was quick to say, “I write when I’m inspired.”

Another friend finally finished her manuscript after years of sporadic visits from the muse, claiming that trying to work without the presence of magic was to produce sheer mediocrity.

Sitzfleisch is a German word which means to sit still and get through the task at hand. It’s often the difference between an aspiring writer and bona fide writer.

You sit long enough to prime the pump and get those creative juices flowing. Whatever it takes.  My aids are a burning tea light and quiet, a cup of magic brew (Columbian espresso), and leisure. Oh, and reading a masterfully written book thaws any frozen pump.

Charles Frazier said he set the writing mood with music. In Cold Mountain, it was Appalachian style that inspired that well of words. 

Julia Cameron has sold many on the idea of morning pages, three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing.  Not high art, just releasing random thoughts on paper and skimming off the dross of life to clear the way for the sublime.

Natalie Goldberg compares writing practice to daily exercise. “If you work out regularly, when it’s time to do the heavy lifting, like move a piano or take an essay test, or write something super important, it will be easier because you have developed the muscles.”

Novelist and short story writer Peter S. Beagle says to just show up for work. “My uncle Raphael was a painter, and he used to say, ‘If the muse is late for work, start without her.’ You have to be there. You have to be there and do it, and grind it out, even when it is grinding and you know you’re probably going to rewrite all this tomorrow.” 

My writing student Cyna says, “Why let something as fickle as inspiration hold you back? You’re a writer!  MAKE something exciting happen! And if your inspiration does decide to show up while you’re working, tell it to get in line. You have writing to do.” 

What about you? How do you prime your pump?
When you don’t feel inspired, do you still sit down and write anyway?

Sharing with LL Barkat at Seedlings in Stone.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Those Peculiar People

There was a family of known eccentrics who lived in our town. The father collected old foreign cars of various colors, and each driver in the family cruised around in one car or the other.

The girls’ made a fashion statement every time they stepped foot out the door, styling and profiling, wearing whatever suited their taste. It didn’t have to be chic; it just had to be what they liked. My friend (I’ll call her Angelica) showed up at my 12th birthday party wearing a leopard print tam before anyone had ever seen such a thing, even in Vogue.

They were the talk of the town, especially after the mother spent a whole week up the flagpole at the county fair. That’s right; she spent one solid week living at the top of the flagpole at the Wayne County fair.  These folks were fearless, especially of others’ opinions.

David, one of the grownup sons, attended our church. One day something like a three-ring circus was happening in the sanctuary, some special service for the children. Clowns frolicked up and down the aisles with collection buckets for the special offering.

He sat back all blasé with arms crossed, taking in the spectacle. Finally he spoke ever so bold, “Money changers in my Father’s house.”

One day we heard that the mother had cancer; the prognosis was grim. It appeared that she was on her deathbed when we went to pray for her. She lay there, face and lips pale as moon, body languid and pond-still.

David appreciated all the prayers for her peaceful entry into glory land, but stated in no uncertain terms that he was walking by faith, not sight. His mother would be healed, he did not doubt in his heart

Within weeks, we saw the ill woman whole and riding a bike downtown as though she’d never seen a sickbed a day in her life.

That’s when I decided that being one of those peculiar people might not be so bad after all.

What about you? Are you one of them too?

When you hear the word “faith” what picture comes to your mind? 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Counting Stones

Comparison is the thief of joy.

~ Theodore Roosevelt

The burdens grow heavier as you get older and school gets harder. Feels like a sack of stones weighing you down. You can’t get math right to save your life. You’re not as smart as the others. You’re one fry short of a Happy Meal.  In fact, you’re so dense you might as well die…

So you plan your escape on the bus one afternoon as you pass the same rural route you’ve traveled every day to the week for the past six years. But the countryside now seems as dark and scary as a scene in a gothic horror show. Though it’s sunny on the outside, it’s raining inside of you and blurring your vision.  

You’re coming home with an “E” in math on your report card and you know your parents will soon kill you, so you think of ways to save them the trouble…

 If you had the guts you’d sneak your daddy’s double barrel off the gun rack and try blowing your brains out, but you don’t quite have the nerve for such drastic measures.  So then you think of your mother’s heart pills in the bathroom medicine cabinet…

And we wonder why the youth suicide rate is so high. As Edward B. Fiske said, “When was the last time you saw a tombstone with SAT scores inscribed on it”

“Not everything that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.”
~ Albert Einstein

Most of the things that really matter in life can’t be measured on a test. Can you measure authenticity, imagination, creativity, curiosity, empathy, compassion - all elements of an education that translate into necessary life skills? 

As a child, did you compare yourself with your peers based on your academic performance?

Should students be judged as successes or failures based on test scores? 

Why or why not? 

Joined in "Comparison: Thief of Joy" hosted by Linda and Corinne  
Sharing with LL Barkat at Seedlings in Stone.

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