Wednesday, January 31, 2018

On Focus, Fire, and Friends' Advice


view from morning walk November 2017
"I write essays to clear my mind. I write fiction to open my heart." --Taiye Selasi

When I came across this quote, I said yes! I do believe the words describe my experience of writing, too. I have often said that writing is a personal journey of discovery, of exploration, of finding out what we think, not what someone else tells us. It's a gift given to those of us who take up the challenge. And along the way, we learn what is in our  hearts.

Finding this quote came on the heels of a couple of things. First, although I don't often write essays, I do write devotions and recently was notified that one of my writings has been accepted for inclusion in an anthology edited by Susan King, associate editor of Upper Room Magazine, tentatively titled Short and Sweet III. What was exceptional about this submission? The entire piece, except for proper names and some contractions, had to be written with one-syllable words. Talk about a challenge! (More on the book as we get closer to the publication date.)

Secondly, the quote came after a recent meeting with my dear friends and writing critique partners, in which we talked about the upcoming year. "I'm having trouble with focus," I told them. "So many projects, so many thoughts. What do I focus on? Where do I go from here?"

Interestingly, the Dictionary of Word Origins, by John Ayto, says this about focus: "Latin focus meant 'fireplace,' and in post-classical times it came to be used for 'fire' itself--hence French feu, Italian fuoco, Spanish fuego, all meaning 'fire,' and hence too the English derivatives fuel and fusillade. The first writer known to have used it in its modern sense 'point of convergence' was the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, in 1604."

Focus is equated with fire? Wow, that puts a whole new spin on the subject. Ayto continues: "It may have been some metaphorical notion of the 'hearth' symbolizing the 'centre of the home.'"

What does this mean for us in this upcoming year? What might our focus--our fire--be? What will be the center of our writing, and will the kind of writing we choose help clear the mind and/or open the heart?

These are good questions. For me it means revisiting my goals for fiction writing, the possibility of self-publishing a haiku chapbook (any and all advice welcome!), and dipping the toes into more social media. Hmmmm...

Focus. Fire! Friends' advice. As writers, we need them all, and 2018 promises to be a great new year for living them out. How about you? Are you having trouble with focus in your writing? Are you on fire for your work? What kind of writing helps clear your mind and/or opens your heart? And what advice do your writer friends give you that helps you along your way?
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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Knitted Personalities and a Word or Two

December 2017 knitting  projects
"Knitting is very conducive to thought. It is nice to knit a while, put down the needles, 
write a while, then take up the sock again." --Dorothy Day

"...then take up the sock..." or the bear, three colorful mice, a mermaid, lizard or ball depending on the project at hand!

The end of 2017 for us not only saw special holiday opportunities with family and friends but also a couple of grandkid December birthdays. And so the knitting needles were maybe busier than the keyboard, but that was okay. The fun of starting with two pointed sticks and a skein of color and watching a personality unfold brought personal enjoyment coupled with the anticipation of the joy for the receiver. Who has more fun, the knitter or the giftee?

And, just yesterday, almost three weeks into a new year, we learned that two of those personalities finally arrived at their destination. Miss Cranberry Bear and Mr. Stripey Lizard made it all the way to a three-year old and a seven-year old in Spain, after being enroute about ten days. If the toys could talk, what stories might they tell of their adventures crossing the ocean? Just the thought of it--whimsical little companions traveling the world--stirs a storyteller's imagination. "A knitter only appears to be knitting yarn," says Dr. SunWolf. "Also being knitted are winks, mischief, sighs, fragrant possibilities, wild dreams." 

Sounds like a description of a writer, too :-)

Knitting is not for everyone, of course. And thankfully there are multiples of creative activities to choose from. The varieties are endless. What about you? Do you enjoy a craft that encourages possibilities and wild dreams in your writing? Maybe painting or coloring or scrapbooking that helps inspire writing thoughts? Journaling, poetry, or the fun of writing prompts? Anything that loosens the flow of words? Is there something new this year you'd like to try?

Here's to a year of having fun with our writing, no matter the form it takes. Who knows what seas we'll travel!
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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Let the Lyrics Tell the Story


"Silent night, holy night! Shepherds quake at the sight. Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing Alleluia, Christ the Savior is born!"




..second verse of Silent Night (Stille Nacht! Helige Nacht!) written by Fr. Joseph Mohr in 1816; music composed by Franz Gruber, 1818. First played on Christmas Eve, 1818, in St. Nicholas Church, Oberndorf bei Salzburg, Austria. Translated into English in 1863 by John Freeman Young.

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"Joy to the world! The Lord is come, Let earth receive her king!"
...Joy to the World, written as a lyrical adaptation of Psalm 98 by Isaac Watts in1719.

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"O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above the deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in the dark streets shineth the everlasting light, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight."


...O Little Town of Bethlehem, written by Phillips Brooks in 1868 after having spent Christmas in Bethlehem in 1866.

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"O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining, it is the night of our dear Savior's birth...Truly he taught us to love one another, His law is love and his gospel is peace."


...O Holy Night (Cantique de Noel) was written by Placide Cappeau in 1847, music composed by Adolphe Adam. Translated from French to English in 1855 by John Dwight, O Holy Night was the first Christmas song ever played live on the radio when Reginald Fessenden, former lab technician for Thomas Edison, transmitted a broadcast from the Brant Rock radio tower in 1906.

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"Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o'er the plains, and the mountains in reply, echoing their joyous strain. Gloria, in excelsis Deo! Gloria, in excelsis Deo!" 







...Angels We Have Heard on High, translated from the original French carol in 1862 by Bishop James Chadwick, England.

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May the words of the Christmas season be a blessing to all, sowing songs of hope, joy, light, peace, and love in hearts everywhere.

Merry Christmas!
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(photo sources: pixabay, google images)

Friday, December 1, 2017

On Family Stories and Heirlooms

Roseville Pottery , "Freesia Blue," circa 1945
"Family stories make the most valuable heirlooms." --source unknown

I remember my first memory of these vases. The image is fixed in my mind. I'm about three years old and my father is holding me in his arms. I'm looking over his shoulder at the mirror over the mantel (this would have been about 1952) and can see my reflection looking back at me. The vases flank the mirror in their place on that mantel. I later learn that they were wedding gifts to my parents in 1946, given by my mom's friend whom we knew as Aunt Reenie. 

How appropriate was Aunt Reenie's choice. The pair of vases is from the Roseville art pottery line "Freesia Blue," and the freesia flower, they say, symbolizes trust and fidelity. And I wonder, did the beautiful gift given at the beginning of a marriage somehow foreshadow how long and enduring that marriage would be--one of over sixty-six years? 

What a sweet heirloom, only lately handed down to me and now occupying a place in my home. And to think the vases were manufactured at the Roseville Pottery Company in Zanesville, Ohio, a few miles east of where my parents lived most of their years together. Ohio, it turns out, produced abundant pottery art (not only Roseville but Rookwood and Weller, too), especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rich deposits of useful Ohio clay made sure of that.

Oh, the history of heirlooms; the stories they could tell. The writer's imagination begins to shift into overdrive. Will any of our heirlooms find themselves featured in our stories? Will they tweak the imagination of readers like they've stirred our own? Will we tell their stories and thus keep the specialness of them alive?

And just how do we keep their stories alive? Links with ideas that might help include:


Which brings one to maybe a more difficult question: what do we do with these special pieces that come to us when we have little room for them, or maybe even little interest. Those items that tug at our hearts but don't necessarily tug at the hearts of those who follow us. As it turns out, there is quite a discussion about this very thing. A sample of some titles:


What special heirlooms do you treasure? What might be their history? Have any of them found their way into your writing--or hold honored spots in your home? How do you pass along their stories? Have you ever struggled over having to give up or pass on a family heirloom?
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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

On Good Writing, Good Reading, and Gratitude

November sunset 2017
“Oh what marvels fill me with thanksgiving! The deep mahogany of a leaf once green. The feathered fronds of tiny icicles coating every twig and branch in a wintry landscape. The feel of goosebumps thawing after endured frozen temperatures. Both hands clamped around a hot mug of herbal tea. The aromatic whiff of mint under my nose. The stir of emotion from a child's cry for mommy...The milky luster of a single pearl. Rainbows reflecting off iridescence bubbles. Awe-struck silence evoked by any form of beauty..."  --Richelle E. Goodrich, Slaying Dragons (GoodReads)

"Oh, what marvels fill me with thanksgiving..." A recent November sunset (above) was one such marvel for me. And almost always on morning walks some previously unobserved detail will pop, even on the most dreary of days. If only I could train myself to be more observant, I would see more marvelous things!

Writers have their own ingatherings that spur a sense of thanksgiving. Ann Lamott, for example, writes about her gratitude for good writing: "...for some of us, books are as important as anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don't get in life...wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded. I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean."

A commenter at a past BookRiot post, "10 Literary Quotes for Thanksgiving" (here) gave an interesting list of what he was grateful for as a reader, including:
...finishing a book just as the train pulls into the station
...seeing someone reading a favorite book in public
...a good beginning
...a better ending
...a mysterious, wistful inscription in a used book
...a bustling bookstore in full holiday swing
...acknowledgements that are honest, funny and humble
...picking up a classic you've been avoiding and loving it

Yet, as writers, what about those times when the writing is hard, the words won't come, and we're ready to give it all up? Annie Neugebauer at WriterUnboxed addresses this issue in her article "Getting Back to Grateful" She writes, "If there's one universal truth about all types of writing and all types of writers, it's probably that this is hard. Writing is difficult...It's also wonderful." But when it's not wonderful, when it's more like "heavy sludge" as Ms. Neugebauer describes it, how do we get back to the feeling of wonderful? Her antidote: gratitude.

"You don't have to buy things or fix things or rearrange," she writes. "You don't have to take a hiatus. You don't have to go to switch genres or go back to school. You don't have to change a single thing you're doing; you only have to change the way you look at them. How? Gratitude." She continues by making the point that science supports the idea ("Gratitude changes your mindset, your sense of contentment, your mental and physical health."); that a 'gratitude depository' (she calls hers a Joy Jar) is a nifty tool; and concludes by listing the many things a writer has to be thankful for. It's a great read.

Finally, from A.A. Milne:

"Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude." 

Beauty and marvels abound. Books and good words abound. Blessings around our Thanksgiving tables abound. May we give ourselves space to recognize them and, fashioned a bit like Piglet, enlarge our hearts to gather in more of a thing called gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On Writing Time and Mushrooms, from J.K. Rowling

on October walk 2017

"Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have 'essential' and 'long overdue' meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg." --J. K. Rowling

We are fully aware that books don't pop up like mushrooms, aren't we? But while I have a great support system and those who understand the effort that goes into writing, I fight my own battles for time. Do I really protect my writing days? Do I not cave into distractions and other self-imposed interruptions? Am I lax in guarding my allotted writing time from...myself?

Thank you, Ms. Rowling for giving us food (or mushrooms?) for thought. For these are good questions to ponder as the month comes to a close and another beckons.

How I do sometimes wish, though, that my ideas for books would materialize easier on the page like popping mushrooms. Oh, how much easier that would be!

How about you? Do you struggle with outside pulls on your writing time or with your own habits and proclivities?
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Sunday, October 15, 2017

On the Passion That Drives Our Writing

October 2017
"I do not believe you have to have children or be around children or act like a child to write for children. But I do believe that good children's writers share two characteristics with their readers: curiosity and enthusiasm. These qualities are what make books for young people such a joyful challenge to write and read: the ardent desire to learn more about the world, and the passion which that knowledge is received and shared." --Linda Sue Park, 2002 Newbery Award Acceptance speech for her book, A Single Shard.

Curiosity and enthusiasm. Ardent desire to learn. Passion. What wonderful words to define characteristics of a children's writer. I was inspired to look into advice from award-winning author, Linda Sue Park, when I realized I missed a great opportunity to actually hear her speak earlier this year at the SCBWI Northern Ohio Annual Conference. Oh, dear, maybe another time? But I was able to do the next best thing: check in with my friend, Peggy Harkins, herself author of a great fantasy book, The WindSinger (harkinsbooks.com), who did attend.

The theme of the conference, which was held this past September, was "Blazing a Trail: Your Creative Journey." Ms. Park, author of (among other titles) A Single Shard, A Long Walk to Water, and Kite Fighters, was the keynote speaker. She spoke on: "It Had to Be You: The Importance of Writing the Story That Only You Can Write."

Passion, it seems, is a big part of the answer to writing the story that only we can write.

Thoughts that Peggy shared from Ms. Park's message:

"A writer's passion must include a love for the written word, both writing and reading."--Linda Sue Park

"It's a big thing that you be passionate about the details of life. Everyone has some things they are passionate about. Those are the details that should go into our stories...(and) we are responsible to write the best stories we can. The formula? Passion + craft = 'magic.'" --Linda Sue Park

"Write about your passion and come back to your passion when you get stuck." --Linda Sue Park

All of this left me with a desire to discover what additional advice I might glean from such a talented author. A bit of research brought me to the following:

On the Fun in Writing: "What I like most: Reading well-written sources that take me to another world for hours at a time--and being able to call that 'work'! Also, of course, finding a gem of information that is either exactly what I was looking for, or else fits perfectly into the story in some way." --Linda Sue Park (Brainy Quote)

On Making Progress in Writing: "When I'm writing, I try not to think things like, 'Gosh, I have to finish writing this book.' Books are very long and it's easy to get discouraged. Instead I think to myself, 'Wow, I have this great story idea, and today I'm going to write two pages of it. That's all--just two pages.'" --Linda Sue Park (Brainy Quote)

On Vision in Writing: "I want all my books to provoke some kind of response in the reader, to make them think something or feel something or both, and for that to become a part of them and work into their own lives." --Linda Sue Park (Brainy Quote)

On Making Connections in the Writing Process: "Making connections has always been the most important element of story to me. Connections to another time and place and to my own ethnic background in historical fiction; connections to a character within the text; connections to people around us because of a text." --Linda Sue Park (2002 Newbery Award Acceptance Speech)

According to Peggy, Ms. Park mentioned some of her passions in her conference speech. They include baseball, gardening, and Korea. Based on my reading, I would suggest that libraries and librarians are a passion of hers as well. Check this out:

On Libraries and Librarians: "What people truly desire is access to the knowledge and information that ultimately lead to a better life--the collected wisdom of the ages found only in one place: a well-stocked library...To the teachers and librarians and everyone on the frontlines of bringing literature to young people: I know you have days when your work seems humdrum, or unappreciated, or embattled, and I hope on those days you will take a few moments to reflect with pride on the importance of the work you do. For it is indeed of enormous importance--the job of safeguarding and sharing the world's wisdom...The ability to read and access information isn't just a power--it's a superpower. Which means that you aren't just heroes--you're superheroes. I  believe that with all my heart." --Linda Sue Park (GoodReads)

And this passion seems to stem from a special link to her childhood. In Ms. Park's Newbery Award acceptance speech, she also said, in part: "Once upon a time there was a young Korean couple. They had been in America for only a few years, and their English was not very good...The young woman cut out...cartoons (ones that taught the alphabet phonetically, published in the city newspaper) and glued them onto the pages of one of her old college textbooks. In this way she made an alphabet book for her four-year old daughter...That was how my life as a reader began--like so many stories, with a mother. Mine continues with a father who took me to the library. He took me to the library. Every two weeks without fail..."

Wonderful, how varied and unique those things that lay the groundwork for our passions in writing.

Thanks to Peggy, I was inspired to look into not only the wisdom of a great author, but into my own space to see where my writing comes from, the passions that fuel the words I want to write. I've also pulled Ms. Park's book, A Single Shard, from its place on my shelf to re-read it and be inspired by her style and her passion. I may not have been able to attend the SCBWI conference this time, but the inspiring seeds sown there are still bearing fruit!

What about you? What words by Ms. Parks resonate with you? What are some of the passions that drive your writing?
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