Monday, September 28, 2015

On Thorns, the Writing Life, and Henryk Sienkiewicz

September 2015
"The profession of the writer has its thorns about which the reader does not dream."
                                                                                               --Henryk Sienkiewicz

Ah, I came across this quote after facing down the above thorn tree (actually a honey locust tree) on a recent walk. What do you suppose were Mr. Sienkiewicz's thorns?

I was not familiar with Henryk Adam Aleksander Pius Sienkiewicz until I came across this quote. I felt an affinity with him right away--what writer wouldn't? We're always grappling with the thorns so common to writing: doubt, insecurity, time management, procrastination, perfectionism, lack of focus, writer's block, rejection. These things prick us, worry us, bring us pain.

But Mr. Sienkiewicz? Turns out he was a well-known Polish writer of the 19th century. A journalist, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, and, later, a philanthropist. His best known work? Quo Vadis, a novel set in Nero's Rome, from which a movie was made in the 1950s.

He met with great success, it would seem. But he also endured his share of life's thorns, including a period of poverty, early death of his wife, political upheaval of the times. Yet today he is celebrated in Poland by statues in his honor, streets named after him, and a legacy of honored writings.

I think I read Quo Vadis as a teen. At least it sounds familiar, or is it only because they made a movie based on it that I might have seen years ago? Otherwise, I knew nothing of Henryk before coming across his quote. But now I feel an affinity with him, and not just because hubby's mother's side of the family came from Poland. But because he expressed a common struggle. The reader often cannot imagine the thorns the writer battles to get those words in print. The reader, it would seem, has the easier part.

And yet, the reader is demanding. The story must ring true. The story must catch and keep the reader's attention. The story must sing and not cause the reader to stumble. How to do this? That is the true challenge. Sticky thorns so often get in the way.

Thank you Mr. Sienkiewicz, for initiating the discussion. Whatever thorns troubled you in your writing career, we can see you didn't let them stop you.

So, what writing thorns challenge you? What thorns poke and prod you so that your reader, unaware of the struggle, will enjoy the reading?

To me, we can interpret the photo in one of two ways. Ouch, don't touch! Or: appreciate the beauty of nature's sculpture. Perceived that way, thorns can be a positive, not a negative. A prod and not a deterrent. An incentive and a reminder of those things we need to be mindful of.

Any thoughts on thorns in your writing life?

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Moving Rocks, and Historical Figures

Ohio creek rock September 2015
"If it weren't for the rocks in its bed, the stream would have no song." --Carl Perkins

How many times have we read about an historical figure, maybe picked up a detail here or there on their life, and moved on--never really engaging much in their story or giving it much thought. They might have been important or interesting in their era, affected the outcome of history in some way, but, well, ho-hum, let's move on to someone else?

And then some little tidbit about their life jumps out from seemingly nowhere, and suddenly we're hooked. Our imagination gets fired up. Is that true? Wow, I want to learn more.

Can you tell? This happened to me earlier in the week.

The story that caught my eye ran in last Sunday's paper (yes, we still get the Sunday paper delivered). It was about a fifteen-year old boy, a youth who stood less than five feet tall and weighed a mere 115 pounds. The year was 1837. The setting was outside the village of Georgetown, located 42 miles east of Cincinnati. The scene unfolded at White Oak Creek, at the bottom of a high gorge west of town. 

The task? Move a rock for the local physician. But not just any rock. The doctor had chosen this particular one to be the doorstep to his office--and had had it cut by area stone cutters out of Ohio limestone in the gorge.

(I have to pause to ask, why go to all this trouble for THAT specific rock? Why not just any old flat rock? The answer to that remains a mystery.)

Anyway, choosing and cutting the rock was only the first obstacle. The second was the fact that it needed to be moved out of the deep creek and up a steep, winding road to town--a full mile away.

Oh, and did I mention the size?

The rock, since this is a true story, has been measured and weighed by the Ohio Historical Society. Are you ready? It comes in at a whopping nine foot long, forty-three inches wide, and seven inches thick--and weighs 2,540 pounds! A ton, and more.

Back to this fifteen year old boy. When the stone cutters, five of them, told the doctor that the big stone was too heavy to pick up and move onto a wagon, the boy told the doctor, "I'll move it." As the story goes, the doctor laughed at him and said, "No way you can do this."

Well, of course, he did.

I can't explain all the details, but this kid--who, as it turns out, was used to hauling stones since he had had his own hauling business since he was eight years old and also was turning into quite the horseman the way he could handle horses--moved that rock. His method had something to do with chains and ropes, and trenches in the creek, and strapping that rock to the underneath of the wagon bed just enough to clear the ground. The wagon was pulled by a team of two horses. One wagon, two horses, and a scrawny teen. It's too much to grasp. But you can read all about it here at As the Story Goes... by Dennis Borgman of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Fascinating story. The article includes a photo of the real rock. Mine, above, is just a marble in the creek at the back of my house in comparison.

So now the reveal: the boy who surprised the whole village with his monumental feat was Ulysses S. Grant, later the Union general credited for ending the Civil War and the 18th President of the United States. 

Who knew he was this kind of kid?

Anything we might read of Ulysses S. Grant will probably contain some controversy. He was a hero. He was a butcher. He was quiet and reserved. He was difficult and demanding. He was a devoted family man. He was a driven man. He could be depended on. He drank too much. He was a uniter. He was a divider. The list goes on and on. But he was a man who can be credited for helping to free a people and to hold a nation together. How much of the boy who could strategize the move of a rock that weighed more than a ton was in the man who planned battle strategies that ended a war? I don't know all the answers, but I do know I want to learn more. Oh, boy. More books to add to the to-read pile. 

That's what I've been thinking about this week. How about you? Any fascinating historical figures you've come across lately? Any you want to read more about--or even write about?

More Grant trivia:
  • What was Ulysses S. Grant's real name? Hiram Ulysses Grant. When his congressman applied for Grant's application to West Point, on the request of Grant's father, the man incorrectly wrote Ulysses Simpson Grant, Simpson being his mother's family name. Grant tried to correct the mistake when he arrived, but it was too late. Thus, he was Ulysses S. Grant from then on.
  • Grant was devoted to his wife, Julia. They were married 37 years.
  • All three of his southern groomsmen in his wedding, including James Longstreet, would fight against him in the Civil War.
  • At the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, on April 9, 1865, Grant allowed the men to keep their horses and mules.
  • Ulysses Jr., Grant's 2nd son, was known as Buck--short for 'buckeye', Ohio's state tree.

Want to see the rock? Grant's rock was moved to his former boyhood home in 2012. The home has been restored, and the Ulysses S. Grant Homestead Association provides tours. Location: 219 East Grant Street, Georgetown, OH.

Oh, and on another note: Karen Lange graciously invited me in over at her place, Write Now, last week for her "Meet the Blogger" series. She offers writing tips, author interviews, book reviews and more. It was a privilege to be invited in on the discussion--and to meet a few of her blogger friends. You can find the interview here.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Last Days of August: Photos and Latest Favorite Quotes

August was a good month for photos--and for quotes, too, actually. Enjoy!

August 2015 on walk
"Downtime is where we become ourselves, looking into the middle distance, kicking 
at the curb, lying on the grass or sitting on the stoop and staring at the tedious blue of 
the summer sky. I don't believe you can write poetry, or compose music, or become 
an actor without downtime, and plenty of it, a hiatus that passes for boredom but is really 
the quiet moving of the wheels inside that fuel creativity." --Anna Quindlen

August 2015, skyward surprise
"Be prepared as you write to be surprised by your own writing, surprised by what 
you find out about yourself and about your world. Be ready for the happy accident. 
Open yourself to the numinous, to the shapes and shades of language, to that first powerful 
thrust of story, to the character that develops away from the surprise of the exact and perfect ending. You are--after all--the very first reader of what you write." --Jane Yolen

August  2015 and fishing on the Scioto
"Everything we do, even the slightest thing we do, can have a ripple effect 
and repercussions that emanate. If you throw a pebble into the water on one side 
of the ocean, it can create a tidal wave on the other side." --Victor Webster

August  2015 at a roadside rest
"For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance 
changes at every moment; but the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life--the 
light and the air which vary continually. For me, it is only the surrounding 
atmosphere which gives subjects their true value." --Claude Monet

August  2015 on a roadtrip
"One's destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things."--Henry Miller

August 2015, catching an elusive moment
"All my life I've looked at words as though I were 
seeing them for the first time." --Ernest Hemingway

August 2015 and backyard favorites
"In a meadow full of flowers, you cannot walk through and breathe 
those smells and see all those colors and remain angry. We have 
to support the beauty, the poetry, of life." --Jonas Mekas

August 2015 , a most beautiful day
"These beautiful not exist as mere pictures--maps hung upon the 
walls of memory to brighten at times when touched by association or will...
They saturate themselves into every part of the body and live always." --John Muir

What favorite images or words are you taking with you from August of 2015? What writing goals have you set for September?

Monday, August 24, 2015

18 Slogans for the Motivated Writer

CVG Airport August 2015

"slogan (n.): 1. a phrase expressing the aims or nature of an enterprise, organization, or candidate; a motto; 2. a phrase used repeatedly, as in advertising or promotion; 3. a battle cry of a Scottish clan." -the

I've been thinking about slogans lately, especially following our most recent jaunt out of town, on Frontier Airlines. A quick hop from Cincinnati to Atlanta and parts nearby. Now this isn't an endorsement for Frontier necessarily, but the company does have a unique marketing plan. Their slogan: a different kind of animal. How do they illustrate this? By painting a picture of an animal on the airplane's tail. And, boy, does that catch the little ones' imaginations. Imagine the grandkids' reactions when we told them we flew on a fox. In the gate next to us was a deer.

So how does a slogan befit a writer? Well, I did a bit of research, and found a few slogans of notable companies (list source here). Imagine if we adapted some of these to our writing habits, writing attitudes, writing goals:

 1. Imax: "Think big." Don't limit yourself or talk yourself out of your ideas. Hop on and fly.
 2. Volkswagon: "Think small." Notice detail. Keep your antenna out. Record descriptions.
 3. MacPro: "Beauty outside. Beast inside." Be willing to fight for the ideas you want to express.
 4. Playstation: "Live in your world. Play in ours." Stimulate creativity and imagination.
 5. Sony: "Make believe." Similar to Playstation. May the worlds you create be your playground.
 6. Ajax: "Stronger than dirt." Don't buckle. Foster determination to see the project through.
 7. Yellow Pages: "Let your fingers do the walking." Or the typing. Page after page after page.
 8. Kodak: "Share moments. Share life." Journal. Record life in photos. Share in family and friend time. And then let some of that infiltrate your stories and enhance them.
 9. McDonald's: "I'm lovin it." Do you love what you do? If so you'll go back to it again and again. 
10. Hallmark: "When you care enough to send the vey best." Take pride in your work. Improve your craft. Make your work the best it can be.
11. Clairol: "Does she...or doesn't she?" What makes your character interesting? Compelling? A page-turner? What is her secret?
12. Visa: "It's everywhere you want to be." Immerse yourself in your setting. Know where your character walks, down to the cobblestones in the streets. Travel--if not literally, then in your mind and see what there is to see so you can describe it for others.
13. M & M: "Melts in your mouth, not in your hands." Tap into sensory details--including taste!
14. Nokia: "Connecting people." Isn't that what writing's all about, connecting with readers through words?
15. AT &T: "Reach out and touch someone." Ditto to above.
16. Maxwell House: "Good to the last drop." Does your writing satisfy and deepen experiences for others?
17. L'Oreal: "Because you're worth it." Treat yourself after a hard's days work at the keyboard. Chocolate's always good.
18. Energizer: "Keeps going and going and going." That, I suggest, is the slogan of a true writer!

Do you have a writer's slogan that keeps you focused? Any of the above you think you might adopt? Will you join with the Scottish and make the word 'slogan' your battle cry?

And do you need help in crafting a slogan? Slogan Generator can help.

Finally, there's the guy who spoofs advertising slogans with his comical spinoffs. His name is Clif Dickens, and you can find samples of his work here. I share a few favorites:

Starbucks: "We serve you decaf if you're rude."
Old Spice: "Smell like Grandpa."
Yellow Pages: "Here, you throw this away."
Lego: "The bane of your foot's existence."
MacDonald's: "Because you only have $4."
...and one with particular relevance to our family history:
Monopoly: "A great way to ruin friendships."

Explore slogans. You might just find--or write--the perfect one for you!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

History From A Redwood's POV

photo courtesy

"What a story a redwood stump could tell, with its 2000 rings of annual growth. One of the outermost rings carries us back to the landing of the Pilgrims. Count back from there: 1600, 1500, 1400, 1100--you are still only at the First Crusade. Keep on counting, year by year. Your eyes will be sore and strained before you get back to the year when Alaric was sacking a fallen humbled Rome. And yet this proud, this lusty American tree was already a strong young giant. When it was a sapling the Chinese were inventing paper. When it was a hopeful shoot, Pompeii, the pride of pagan pleasure cities, was buried under the ashes of Vesuvius. As the seed sprouted, Christ was born in Bethlehem." --Donald Culross Peattie, Trees

Not a botanist nor a naturalist, still I'm fascinated by trees. A sycamore plays prominently in my first children's historical novel. Thus I was fascinated by this author's take on the redwood tree. Donald Culross Peattie's way of describing a tree that can live as much as 2000 years and tower to the height of a 35-story skyscraper (source) makes the subject a whole lot more interesting than just posting a list of facts. What a way to capture a reader's imagination and set an inviting stage for more exploration!

One thing leads to another. A quote to an image. A bit of trivia to a person and his history. Turns out Peattie, with whom I was not familiar before coming across this quote, was one of the most influential American nature writers of the 20th century (1898-1964). His love of nature was triggered, they say, from his boyhood growing up in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. He went on to write more than twenty fiction and nonfiction books.

Though privileged to travel to California a number of times, I've never visited the state's famous redwood trees--but thanks to Peattie's writings I can at least "see" them more vividly now in my head. And since two of Peattie's books on trees have been compiled into one volume, A Natural History of North American Trees, I have the promise of more adventures into the world of trees when my copy, which I've ordered, arrives. I can't wait to read more of his work.

(Though I must admit that a real-life, up-close-and-personal visit would get my vote for really seeing the redwoods!)

Writers. Books. Imagination. Taking us places we might not otherwise visit. The words of Donald Culross Peattie, and the promise of his books, captured my imagination this week. What author or book has captured yours lately?

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Part Impressions Play in Writing and Life: 11 Thoughts

July walk 2015
"Impression (n.)--1. an effect produced on a person; 2. an effect produced by any operation or activity; 3. an idea or notion; 4. something made by pressure such as a mark, stamp, or print; 5. the act of impressing; 6. the state of being impressed."

I did not realize there were so many shades to the meaning of the word impression until I consulted a dictionary. I simply thought of impressions as those memories of childhood printed on the brain--like these black-eyed susans I came upon while on my walk. They brought back to mind the field next to my childhood home--how they filled the lot on the north side of the house, hovered over by red-winged blackbirds. Mom's bachelor buttons were there somewhere, too. I remember them as being one of Mom's favorite flowers to plant.

in the park 2015
Other impressions came during a recent visit with Mom, now in a nursing home after suffering a stroke that left her with aphasia. Unable to communicate like before, she works hard at recalling stories. We sat on this park bench where she tried to tell me about an apartment she and Dad lived in when first married, 1946--how they had to share the facilities with other renters and how the kitchen left much to be desired. Though she struggled to express herself, it was obvious the place left quite the impression on her even after almost 70 years.

on the lake 2015
We also visited college friends up in northern Ohio, great hosts, always ready to show us a good time. We roasted marshmallows, visited museums, puttered around the lake in their boat. But what kept the conversation and laughter going were the "remember whens" and "whatever happened to" impressions of those days of our youth. If you could have been a fly on the wall (or maybe one of the mosquitoes around the campfire the first night)...!

an impression of original blue coat
Then there was the email I got a few weeks ago--a message from a childhood playmate I only knew in first and second grade. Somehow he found me. His email said, "Are you the same person in whose blue coat pocket we put what turned out to be a live coal from the campfire, subsequently burning a hole in the pocket?" I responded, "Oh, my, this is too funny. Yes, you have the right person--who else would remember that blue coat, one which, by the way, I hated. Mom bought matching coats for my sister and me, and since I was the younger one, I got her hand-me-down. I wore a version of that coat for years!" Can you believe it--sixty years later and here we are. We are still exchanging memories, one impression triggering another. It's been a lot of fun.

All this led me to ask the question, if impressions play such a huge part in our lives, what role do they play in our writing? What gems of wisdom can help steer us down this road? A sampling of what I found:

1. The Query. "Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It's the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It's that important, so don't mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write." --Nicholas Sparks

2. Story Endings. "How a piece ends is very important to me. It's the last chance to leave an impression with the reader, the last shot at 'nailing' it. I love to write ending lines; usually, I know them first and write toward them, but if I knew how they came to me, I wouldn't tell." --S.E. Hinton

3. Influential Books. "Name the book that made the biggest impression on you. I bet you read it before you hit puberty. In the time I've got left, I intend to write artistic books--for kids--because they're still open to new ideas." --Gary Paulsen

4. Place. "A place makes a deep impression on you when you're young. It's like your childhood. It fertilizes the imagination." --Richard Eyre

5. Language. "I grew up in a house where language was appreciated and cared about. I'm sure that, although I wasn't aware of it at the time, it must have made an impression on me." --Marian Seldes

6. Inspiration. "The moment of inspiration can come from memory, or language, or the imagination, or experience--anything that makes an impression forcibly enough for language to form." -Carol Ann Duffy

7. Names. "A name, of course, is like a piece of clothing, isn't it? It gives you an impression right away." --James Salter

8. Relationships. "I grew up with an incredibly loving and supporting family that gave me the impression there were a lot of options for me out there." --Esperanza Spalding

9. Note-Taking. "I started to write things down, as a very young child, wanting to find a way to remember--to keep close somehow--moments that made an impression on me. --Anne Michaels

10. Grammar. "Your grammar is a reflection of your image. Good or bad, you have made an impression. And like all impressions, you are in total control." --Jeffrey Gitomer

11. Childhood Memories. "Memory in youth is active and easily impressible; in old age it is comparatively callous to new impressions, but still retains vividly those of earlier years."--Charlotte Bronte

Impressions. They play a huge part in our lives which in turn play a part in our writing. What are some of your strongest childhood impressions? And how have they surfaced in your writing?

p.s. What about "first impressions"? Do you remember the story of Susan Boyle's first audition in Britain's Got Talent 2009? Watch it here for a refresher course in being careful not to form opinions based on those first impressions!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Peaches, Pandas, and Stress

Indiana peaches in season 2015
"Stressed spelled backwards is desserts. Coincidence? I think not!" --Author Unknown

Humor helps with stress, too, I say. And that's what we found when we took a short trip to the next state over to check out this year's peach crop at Beiersdorfer Orchard, Guilford IN. Not only were we not disappointed in the peaches, we noted the above sign over the cooler and had a little laugh.

What, do not pester, perturb, provoke, perplex, punch, pick or pounce the peaches??

Don't push, pull, pry, poke, peck, prod, pinch, paw or pop?

Certainly don't pluck, plink, plonk, plunk, plaid, paisley or polka-dot them!

I wish I had come up with this one.

The sales lady saw me take pictures of her sign. "My daughter saw that when out in California when the pandas were there," she said. "At the time, it read 'panda' but we changed it to peaches. We've had a lot of fun with it."

Now I want to research the pandas. I don't remember that story. (Maybe she spoke of Gao Gao, Bai Yun, and Xiao Liwu, the three Chinese pandas seen here on a cam at the San Diego Zoo? I don't know, but they are fun to watch.)

Stress-relievers: dessert, humor, a short road-trip, pandas, word-play. A few ideas for you. Can you think of any others?

Maybe a little ice cream with those peaches? That's where I'm headed next!