The Sacred Truth

A self portrait of the son of Guest Blogger, ELizabeth Eshoo as he looks for truthI cracked open. I was sprawled out on the oblong yoga cushion like Jesus on the cross—arms wide and chest towards the heavens—as my yoga instructor’s guided meditation took me back to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. I saw the yolky sunrise break through the ink-black sky, remembering the night I spent so close to the summit. I felt the frigid numbness in my toes, fingers, and eyeballs. I felt the power of that moment, standing on the roof of Africa more than twenty-five years ago like I was back there fully.  

Our instructor, Kimberly Joy, said something like, “Go to your sacred place,” and it took all of a second for me to be there. Whatever she said next, maybe “What’s sacred to you?” broke me wide open.  I was sobbing, convulsing with emotion, my spine still pinned to the yoga cushion, my heart on full display, and raw emotion spilling out into the unfamiliar yoga studio. 

The Truth

My brain had connected the sacred moment atop Kilimanjaro to my most sacred self—being a Mother. The weeks of stress and strain I’d been carrying around with me in the form of impatience with my 17-year-old son, Alex, transformed. Right there, in the little yoga room, I fell into deep belly sobbing that illuminated the reason behind my terrible mood.

Alex is leaving the nest. My nest, our nest, the one I’ve so joyfully built and tended these past seventeen years. My firstborn child is months away from flying the coop, albeit to a wondrous place, no doubt. But my truth spilled out of my heart as I laid it all on the floor of this unfamiliar place.

I tried to stop crying and couldn’t. Kim placed her warm hands on my head, massaging my scalp, pouring her tenderness over me. At the end of the session, when I was finally able to stop bawling and articulate what had happened, I was taken aback. I realized this struggle I’d been having with Alex, with his lack of urgency over college essay writing and looming application deadlines, was really more about the impending, inevitable moment when he leaves for college. Ah-ha. Clarity. Truth. Relief.

The Enlightenment

I surprised myself in this unexpected moment. I thought I’d be having a relaxing hour of stretching and breathing during a restorative yoga session. Instead, I had a life-changing moment of enlightenment that brought much-needed awareness to me. Thankfully, Alex and I are on better soil now, working together on his writing, making progress and, surprisingly, I have been able to empower him to become his own storyteller—to use his authentic voice and to actually enjoy the process. So much so, in fact, that now he is helping his friends find their stories, tossing aside the canned, predictable tales of teenagers for the deeper, more reflective ones that often sprout from solitary moments. Teaching Alex to become a thoughtful storyteller feels like one of the most important lessons I’ve passed along to him.

Storytelling is what makes us human. It seems like it has never been more essential. I feel like all of the sudden, I am submerged in all things story. I’ve been inspired by the courage of others telling their powerful and heart-wrenching stories of the #MeToo Movement, the Parkland stories of terror and survival, and Dr. Ford’s stunning testimony to the Senate about a night she will never forget, and now, we won’t either.

The Empowerment

I find that I am drawn to reading memoir again with a new sense of urgency. I am motivated to finish my own ten years in the making memoir, while my daily dog walks serve as brainstorming sessions for my next book or two. A fellow writer asked me to help her sift through her life stories to pluck the gems out and find the scaffolding to display her valuable life in the most authentic way. Even the support group I’ve attended for years to help me manage my daughter’s epilepsy is now using storytelling as a tool to cope with the unpredictable nature of the disease. I am swimming in words and stories, and I feel Powerful.

As if that wasn’t enough, I had a book signing—a book launch party and a reading from an anthology of stories with 29 other writers. Sharing my story, the “Maasai in the Mirror,” allowed me for one evening to step inside the skin of a published author and feel what it is like to be exposed and adored. Sharing this magical evening with my fellow authors, I had no fear, surprisingly. I felt joyful, delighted, happy, thrilled, energized, surprised, nurtured, welcomed and yes…Empowered. Moments before I stood before the group of incredibly enthusiastic readers, book buyers, friends, family and total strangers who were so happy to be there, the butterflies flitted for a few moments. Then I was up and being introduced by the MC who happened to be my editor. Her kind words boosted my confidence. I took hold of the microphone and began.

Let me back up a moment; I left out a crucial part of the yoga story. Kim, our yoga teacher, told me that when she saw me crying, or rather, before she saw me break down, she felt my guides surrounding me—lots of them—those were her words. It was a powerful presence—nurturing, protecting and swarming around me, providing loving energy to me at that moment. Later, I asked her what they looked like, and she had to think about it. “Definitely beings, but amorphous bundles of energy and light.” Sounds woo-woo, but honestly, I’ve always felt surrounded by something protective, and so I wasn’t surprised, just stunned that someone else saw them, too.

The Wrap-up

Back to the book reading. I stood at the front of the crowded room with the microphone in my hand and the “cluster of beads” the Maasai Warrior had given to me in my pocket for good luck—tangible evidence, even to myself that I had, in fact, come face to face with a warrior on that trip to climb Kilimanjaro. I began to read. The silence became loud as the noisy room settled into a low hum. I was transported back to Joe’s safari camp somewhere in the middle of the East African bush. I could feel the weight of my leather Raichle hiking boots on my feet, the sharp pain in my injured knee. I could smell the smoky scent of the campfire. And I could feel my guides surrounding me as I continued to read, remembering my fellow climbers: Catherine, NN, Dennis, Ribby, Eric, Bill, Mandy, and Laura. They were there with me, always, as is the sacredness of my peak moment on Kilimanjaro.

As is Mark, my loving husband, and my daughter Emily, my heart and soul. As is my incredible son Alex, who, no matter where he goes or however the rest of his story unfolds, will be with me in my heart, deeply embedded forever.

We need our stories. We need our sacred moments. We need our guides surrounding us so that we can feel empowered at this moment in history when the only thing that seems to matter is telling our sacred truths.

Feisty Writer Writes Feisty Characters

Flapper Wears Mile-High Pearl Tiara Inspires CharactersI’m a feisty writer who spent over ten years working on my first novel. After being an inner city educator for twenty years, I turned to writing. I thought I’d create children’s books or a memoir about my classroom experiences, but that’s not what happened at all. I had no idea I had begun to create a dual timeline trilogy!

The books are about Anne, a San Francisco artist, who discovers vintage clothes and imagines through art making the lives and experiences of young women from past eras who originally wore the clothing pieces. Through many years, coaching from wonderful editors, and grit I’ve finally learned how to weave a novel. And who knew my main theme would be about women searching to find their place in the world?

Through attending Judy Reeves weekly Brown Bag, drop-in writing group, I learned how to write intuitively, and my feisty characters began to appear out of nowhere. Sylvia, an early 1960s young heiress, led me down paths where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. And the kernels of The Black Velvet Coat were born. Learning the craft, I spent years writing the first draft. I took it through two read and critique groups. And then hired a line editor to clean it up so I would feel comfortable enough to share it for professional feedback.

Marni Freedman read the manuscript and told me it was good and coached me that it could be so much better. For instance, she said Anne shouldn’t be a waitress to make ends meet, because that had been done before, and also that I was too nice to my characters. It was hard for me to hear. Marni was right though—I do love my characters, and I did make things easy for them. So I returned to the drawing board.

I thought about my early trips to San Francisco and considered what would be the most demeaning, difficult job Anne could have. I remembered driving up and down those hills in a stick shift and how hard it was to find a parking place. So Anne became a parking valet for a large hotel on Union Square. I brainstormed all the plot point problems that can arise for a thirty-year-old single woman trying to make it as an artist and wove those into the story too.

Sylvia, my 1960s character, falls for a scoundrel, does the unimaginable, and escapes to Northern Arizona. She experiences guilt, fear, a flash flood, howling coyotes, etc., but other characters kept saving her right away. On the next draft, I ramped up the peril to make the reader want to keep reading and had Sylvia work through many of the obstacles by herself.

As The Black Velvet Coat was at a final editor, Clair, a 1929 New York debutant, arrived on my pages. She pushes past the constraints of her controlling father to become a flapper but when the stock market crashes she becomes entwined in the world of burlesque. After I was almost finished with Clair’s story, Anne appeared on my pages and told me she wanted to be in this book too. I thought Anne’s story had ended at the conclusion of The Black Velvet Coat but it had shifted again and she had to figure out her life all over again. From the get-go, I focused on obstacles to throw in Clair and Anne’s paths.

After that first draft of my second novel, which became The Silver Shoes, I used Marni’s plot points from her book, 7 Essential Writing Tools, to guide my second draft.

In the third novel that I’m working on now, The Green Lace Corset, I’m instinctively writing in obstacles for Anne and my Midwestern, 1865, Sally Sue who is kidnapped on a train and taken to the Wild West. Both of these women are trying to find their true life’s’ purposes and the meaning of love. Haven’t all of our lives been like that? With stick-to-it-iveness, we find the strength to keep catapulting over our challenges to discover our true purpose in life. I know I have.

Six Tips for Writing Feisty Characters

  1. Develop a daily writing practice.
  2. Write from your heart, not your head.
  3. Find your fellow writing community.
  4. Keep your characters in peril until the very end.
  5. Put yourself in your character’s shoes.
  6. Consider writing play instead of work.

My Three Favorite Writer Books in My Library

A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion and Lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judy Reeves

7 Essential Writing Tools: That Will Absolutely Make Your Writing Better (And Enliven Your Soul) by Marni Freedman

Green-Light Your Book: How Writers Can Succeed in the New Era of Publishing by Brooke Warner

 

Photo of the author with blond hair in an up-do and red shirtJill G. Hall is the author of dual timeline historical novels The Black Velvet Coat, an International Book Award Finalist and the recently released, The Silver Shoes. The Green Lace Corset, the third book of her trilogy, is scheduled for a Fall 2020 release also by She Writes Press. Her poems have appeared in a variety of publications, including A Year in Ink, The Avocet, and Wild Women, Wild Voices. On her blog, Crealivity, she shares personal musings about the art of practicing a creative lifestyle. She is a seasoned presenter at seminars, readings, and community events. In addition to writing, Hall practices yoga, makes mosaics and collages, tap dances, and enjoys spending time in nature. Learn more at jillghall.com.

 

Photos Courtesy of Jill G. Hall

Writing Books

A drawing of a soup pot with pictures of books coming out of itMy husband, Mark, and I are writing books—he’s writing one and I’m writing two. So, our home has become a book-production factory.

By factory, I mean sweat shop.

Mark’s book is called “Serious About Retiring.” It’s a guidebook for people who are close to retiring or have just retired.

I’m juggling two books. One is a whimsical picture book about marriage—”Grow Old with Me.” The other book is a quasi-memoir about my late brother who was a war correspondent in the early years of America’s Vietnam War. I’m writing it in “collaboration” with him—so this book gives the term “ghost written” a whole new meaning.

You might think that writing is all about creativity and inspiration, that beautiful words flow off the pen (or word processor), and that when you reach 200 pages, you send it to the presses and you have a book. I wish it were so. Writing a book is hard labor.

Mark and I have been working on all three books for a very, very long time—I started the book on my brother almost three decades ago! All three books have gone through scores of incarnations.

It’s all about revising…and revising…and revising.

What if you were making a pot of soup the way you write a book? Let’s say you start out making chicken soup. You put in chicken, water, an assortment of vegetables, and various spices. But then you think—no, this isn’t quite right. So you take out the chicken and you lift out some of the vegetables. Instead, you put in potatoes and other vegetables. Then you think—no, this isn’t right, so you move those vegetables out and maybe put in some beef…

Finally you taste the soup and you say—this isn’t chicken soup, this is butternut squash soup. Should I add some chicken?

Of course, when you’re making soup, you can’t really take out and swap ingredients. But when you’re word processing a book, you can take stuff out and add stuff and do this over and over. Forever.

What this means is—when I write one book, I’m really writing 100 books.

The next time you’re reading a book, you might wonder—what happened to the 99 books that dropped out along the way?

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A photo of author, Lucy Rose FischerLucy Rose Fischer is an author and artist living in Minnesota.  Her most recent book is a whimsical picture book, I’m New at Being Old, which received a Midwest Book Award and an Independent Publishers Gold Award.

 

Photos courtesy of Lucy Rose Fischer

How Meditation Can Help When Writing About Emotional Events

a person laying on the ground in sorrowAre you ever apprehensive before writing about a painful emotional scene in your memoir? Taking a deep dive into a difficult memory can often take us right back to that time as if we’re reliving the moment. Although this makes for great descriptive writing, when writing something troubling or traumatic, we can viscerally re-experience our sadness, fear, despair, and rage. Sometimes it leaves us reeling.

It’s important to keep the emotional body safe when diving into a more intense scene. How do we accomplish this task—telling our story, without feeling re-traumatized by the telling?

One of the best ways I’ve found is with meditation. It allows you to center yourself, focus on your breathing and enter a state of calm mind and body. Meditation helps shift the nervous system out of the fight or flight response that gets activated during trauma and stress. By doing a short meditation before and after writing an emotional scene, you create a safe space in which to write.

For an example of a meditation you can use, click the link or read the transcription below.

 

Close your eyes. Bring your attention to your breath, the simple rhythm of in and out, in and out. Feel the air entering and exiting your nose. Sense as each inhale and exhale becomes smoother and longer. Rest deeply in the pauses between your in-breath and out-breath. Notice, as your breath slows, your heart beats slower. As your heart softens, your mind becomes quiet and tranquil, like a calm lake on a windless day.

From this relaxed state of body and mind, envision a warm, golden light above the crown of your head. Imagine that light entering your body through the top of your head, bringing softness to your face. Feel the muscles of your forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose and jaw release and let go. Sense the warmth of the golden light moving down your neck and into your shoulders, rolling down your arms to the tips of your fingers. Become aware of the light filling the space in your chest, caressing your heart and creating a safe space to feel. Let the golden illumination shine down, pooling in your lower belly, then gently flowing down your legs, relaxing the muscles of your thighs, shins, and calves. As it reaches your feet, embrace complete relaxation. Float in a sea of comfort and peace.

Rest in this peaceful stillness with your eyes remaining gently closed. Then draw your inner gaze slightly inward and upward to the space just between and slightly above your eyebrows. Invite an image to form in your mind. An image of a place where you’ve felt entirely serene, safe and protected. Remember its colors, hear the sounds, notice the texture of the surface supporting you. Sense the temperature of the air around you, smell the aromas. Touch and feel your environment with your mind. Allow this place of secure refuge to fill you with a sense of protection and peace, knowing deep in your core that you are safe.

Connect this profound level of safety to a place deep in your heart. Allow this calming sense of protection to anchor you in a space of security as you begin to contemplate the emotional scene you’ll be writing. As memories or intense emotions arise, take special care to keep your body comfortable and relaxed, breathing slowly, in, out, in, out. Let this stable state of Being you’ve cultivated through this meditation be your foundation—a safe harbor to rest amidst any stormy emotions that emerge. When you feel ready to transcribe your memories into powerful words on the page, slowly open your eyes and begin to write.

****

After writing your scene, check back in with your body and mind. Notice any sensations or vibrations that may need soothing. If you feel activated in any way, close your eyes and repeat the body scan and meditation. Or you may simply focus on your breath until your mind, body, and heart feel at peace again.

Using these breathwork and meditation techniques can help you maintain a sense of equanimity and peaceful awareness when writing difficult emotional scenes. Once you’ve tried this meditation, please leave your comments and share your experience.

 

A photo of Kimberly JoyKimberly Joy writes to share messages that uplift and inspire. Her pieces encourage and provide new ways of perceiving the world and life’s experiences. Her background as a Physical Therapist, Restorative Yoga Teacher and Guided Meditation Specialist gives her a deep understanding of the mind-body connection. She loves to share this wisdom in hopes of assisting others on their journeys of health, healing, and inner peace. You can find more of her writing at MessagesfromJoy.org

 

Photo Credit: Kimberly Joy and Žygimantas Dukauskas on Unsplash

Words and Phrases I Have Learned

Cricket on a leafDrowning in a Sea of Despair vs. Refusing to Drown in a Sea of Despair

These phrases loom in my thoughts as news of yet another outrageous development in Washington threatens the hard-won rights and freedoms I consider fundamental to life in a democratic country. My country, this one that I left and returned to, twice, because there is no other place on earth I want to live, seems to be under siege from within. The deep physical response of my body shocks me. What can I do to pull myself out of this Miasma of Misery?

I can write, of course. But I know that if I give myself free rein, I will only circle more rapidly down the Drain of Despair. I decided to find an apolitical topic that is at least mildly amusing, perhaps one I’ve discussed recently that made me laugh at myself. Like this one:

Crickets

The other day, while chatting in the car with my daughter Daniela about a recent medical appointment, I mentioned I hadn’t heard back from my doctor at Scripps.

“Crickets?” she said.

Why was she changing the subject? “Where?” I asked.  “On your patio?”

I knew she had a phobia of roaches infesting her downtown patio, but this was the first I’d heard about crickets. Personally, I’ve always liked crickets because I think the Chinese consider them lucky. They keep them in little bamboo cages where their perky chirping enlivens the home.

At the wheel, Daniela was shaking with laughter.

“Why are you laughing? What’s so funny about crickets?”

After my daughter caught her breath, she explained. “It’s the buzzword for when there is no answer to your question, no response. All you hear is the sound of crickets.”

Oh. Eye roll. Who knew? But people do because the very next day I heard it used on a talk show. Now that I am in the know, I’m sure I’ll hear it again soon.

I’m just waiting for a chance to use it.

Squirrel

A week after the crickets incident, I visited the same daughter and her one-year-old son Lucas. My youngest grandson tottered over to the couch where I sat and handed me a toy. A drop of saliva glistened on his protruding lower lip, his limpid eyes focused squarely on mine.

“Thank you, Lucas,” I said. Daniela explained the drool.

“He has a lower tooth coming in. I can see the little bud on his gum.”

I leaned forward and wiped away the droplet while trying to sneak a peek inside his mouth. In typical toddler style, he clamped it shut and pushed his face closer to mine, reaching for my glasses. I pulled away and laughed. “Nope, not the glasses.”

Deterred, he lost interest and darted away.

“Squirrel,” commented his mother with a chuckle.

I looked around the living room for a rogue rodent. All was quiet on the patio behind the screen door. No live squirrel. No stuffed squirrel among the toys in the play yard. No dead squirrel anywhere. Lucas was pulling apart a Lego construction that had not been a squirrel.

“Squirrel?” I wanted to know. “Where?”

And then she was laughing at me again, just like that other day in the car. Gasping for air, she explained:

“It just means his attention span is like a dog that sees a squirrel. Everybody says that.”

“Like crickets?” I asked.

“Yes. Like crickets.”

So, crickets and squirrels: who knew?

G.O.A.T.

In keeping with my renewed desire to stay current with the latest language developments regarding non-human references, I have come upon another one. It happened during the only sporting tournament I ever follow, the World Cup. I became a soccer fan during the twenty years I lived in Peru, where el futból is the only game in town.

Two weeks after the squirrel incident, I switched off the Peru/Australia match, sorting through my mixed emotions about Peru making two goals in this game against nil by the Aussies, but still going home empty-handed, and turned to the news.

In general World Cup coverage, CBS news showed a grinning and mostly clean-shaven Cristiano Ronaldo fingering a tuft of hair on his chin. His chiseled cheekbones and delicate mouth were turned at an angle to the camera; the Russian sun shone on the smooth, tanned skin of his face and neck, blessedly unmarred by tattoo ink, his haircut conservative and neat. Long, lean legs, flat abdomen, sculpted arms, a wicked gleam in his eyes….Full disclosure: In my opinion, this sexy Portuguese player is a perfect male physical specimen, on and off the pitch. Just saying.

With an impish grin, Ronaldo continued messing around with his new goatee for the camera, when the commentator’s words finally penetrated my brain. Something about GOAT as the reason for the goatee.

What? I considered his name: Cristiano means Christian—no goat reference there. Ronaldo is just a sir-name, as far as I know, and not the name of any famous goats, if, indeed, there are some.

As the reporting continued, a somber portrait filled the screen. In a beautiful ad for Adidas, an impeccably groomed Lionel Messi sat, regal and impassive, against a dark background, his burnished hair and short auburn beard neatly trimmed. In front of him loomed the head of a glowing russet-colored goat with delicately curled horns, steady gaze, and a full, flowing beard. And, wow, the beards matched! Same color!

Had Adidas started a hair-coloring line? Is that goat a species endemic to Argentina and the name of a new shoe design in honor of the country’s most famous player?

Not exactly. It soon became clear that I was way off base. Again.

G.O.A.T. stands for Greatest Of All Time in the sports world and is used in lots of sports, not just this one. Messi and Ronaldo are currently the top contenders for this title in soccer.

I’ve added it to my list.

I feel better now. Crickets, squirrels, and goats have given me a reason to laugh at myself this month. I’ll need to dig deeper for the Fourth of July.

a photo of guest blogger Nancy VillalobosNancy has been a member of the San Diego writing community for the past seventeen years, taking multiple courses at UCSD Extension as well as attending Marni Freedman’s Thursday Read and Critique group in Encinitas. She lives in Carlsbad with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Coco. An excerpt from her memoir will be published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman, 2018.

 

Photo Credit: Nancy Villalobos and pixabay.com/796465

Stuck!

Old fashioned image of a woman who is stuckI’m stuck in rhyming couplets! My verses won’t flow free.

Poetic devices, please: won’t you rescue me?

 

Alliteration is elusive.  She shuns my shriek and shout.

Symbolism opens a window, so why can’t I climb out?

 

Consonance couldn’t care less ‘bout my stress.

Yes, I’ve tried Similes.  They’re as good as useless.

 

I manage to catch Assonance as she prances past;

Man, that fancy Assonance can prance away fast!

 

Onomatopaeia bangs the bars, clangs and clatters the lock,

Then skips away, indifferent as the ticking of my clock.

 

I’ve got metaphors by the boatload, so why’s this ship still sinking?

Imagery by the great-garlic-truckload; still, my payload sits here, stinking.

 

Illusion’s no help, clearly—a shy guy, gone at a glance.

Hyperbole to the rescue? Not a one in a trillion chance.

 

Personification?  Please see above.  It’s there, abundantly.

In fact, are these couplets taunting me?  I think you’d call that, “Irony.”

 

My friend Free Verse has heard enough.  She frowns an artful frown,

Lays a cool hand over mine, and urges, “Put. The devices. Down.”

 

“Jettison convention! Ditch cliché! Find a more sophisticated way.

Rhyming couplets? Ridiculous! All rhyming, really, is passé!”

 

A Celtic laugh comes rollicking in. Limerick’s been eavesdroppin’!

Irish eyes roll to the heavens, as he snorts through his grin:

 

“Sophistication! Bah! A tired old rumor!”

“Write how you like, lass! Better yet, write with humor.”

 

Konnichiwa!” chimes a sweet voice anew.

Tell us, Haiku! What is your point of view?

 

“A Poem is a playground. It’s structure, for playing in.

Think of it as a promise, please—not as a prison.”

 

And with a “domo arigato” to graceful Haiku

The doors finally opened, and our caged poet flew!

 

Never again to feel stuck rhyming, or confined to a timing

Free instead to stick with, what for her, will ring out true.

 

Jen Laffler, poetJen Laffler is an author and poet.  Her first children’s book, J is for Jitterbug: A Fanciful Animal Alphabet, was published in 2016 (JALG, Ink).  Her current projects are a children’s board book entitled What Hairdo Does Your Hair Do?, and the children’s poetry collection Poem Seeds & Fine Messes.  Jen lives in Encinitas, California with her husband and three young daughters. She shares her books, poems, and message that there’s genius in each and every one of us, with school groups throughout California.  Jen’s poetic heroes? W. Shakespeare, S. Silverstein, and T. Shakur.  Connect with Jen on Facebook or on her website, Just A Genius, Ink.

 

 

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1721918/ and Jen Laffler

Read and Critique

emoji scale from angry to happyReading my work aloud, followed by a peppering of critiques, sounded like a college hazing to me. Minus the alcohol. However, I had agreed with my writing coach, published author and ridiculously talented playwright (her most recent work—A Jewish Joke—is moving east, Off Broadway), that my work was ripe for fresh ears. Her group convenes at a California seaside cottage belonging to a creative artist named Barbara.

A First Impression

On that first day—my blind date with this scholarly firing squad—I cradled the introduction of my non-fiction self-help book under my arm as I opened the gate to Barbara’s property. Her garden telegraphed Henri Rousseau—towering birds of paradise, pebbled paths, a lush green backdrop.

I opened the cottage door to a cozy living room. Women of all ages greeted me with smiles and welcoming noises. Their chorus of “Hi, come on in!” did nothing to calm my nerves. These writers looked harmless, but I feared the worst. After all, my flimsy introduction made no sense. My writing lacked clarity, relevance, and imagery. The perfect expression of my work had eluded me despite my years of on-again, off-again attempts.

Thanks to the heavy lifting of my writing coach and my years of indentured servitude to my own determination, I held the semblance of a rough draft. Despite my misgivings, in the recesses of my soul, I held onto the faint hope that my writing was pretty darned good. That I was “almost finished.” I imagined the group’s hints about grammar or sequence. But the realistic part of me suspected that I had “miles to go before I would sleep.”

As we mingled, I wandered through Barbara’s home. I admired the colorful mugs on her kitchen counter, the tangerines, and almonds offered as snacks, the bold oil paintings on her dining room walls.

Shaking the hands of my fellow creatives, I warmed to the idea that reading might be fun.

Then we convened. Our leader, my beloved writing coach, began with her hilarious and warm introduction. Personal stories were shared, reports on projects bandied about. Then the invitation, would I like to read? I cleared my throat, and read in my best professional voice.

Having conducted workshops for my counselor peers, having taught for decades, having counseled belligerent parents whose violence required a police presence, NONE of these experiences prepared me for the sharing of my written words. Feeling equal parts faint and nauseated, I read my introduction to the listening audience.

Later That Night

Arriving home after that first dive, I told my husband, “Maybe I’m not ready for this read and critique challenge.” He asked me to elaborate.

“They’re all very encouraging. Lots of ‘this process will help people’ and ‘your message is good,’ but I could feel my words dying as they left my mouth. Each sentence felt like torture. I HATED my own work.”

I explained that the group did offer editing nuggets: structural advice, conceptual criticism, grammar tips. But all this help would force  me back to the page in a way that made my head spin. I had SO hoped to be nearing the finish line. Instead, I was just hearing a starting gun.

Of course, other members had arrived with their hot-off-the-press prose. I’d acted as a beta-reader for one of the authors. The sharing of her hilarious romp through China had us hooting with laughter. Pitch perfect comedy. Her work is destined for the big screen.

Then the amazing memoirists—their ability to lift their personal plights to compelling narrative—brilliance. And a travel writer who had us salivating for our next adventure. Every single writer at the top of her game. Oh, and the witty journalist whose intelligence shines through her every muscular sentence. Not fair!

One of our authors is a playwright. Our collective jaws dropped when she re-enacted one woman’s experience of the Nuremberg trials, props and flawless German accent included. Dazzling talent, destined for greatness.

I reminded myself that I was not competing. It was an honor to be among these creative creatures.

I cried on my husband’s shoulder for a few more moments, but then I HAD to make an attempt. Bitten by the bug of creative compulsion, I locked myself in the study. I cut, tore and soldered words onto the page. Every day for a week, I entered
that study with grim determination. Then a return performance.

Nevertheless, I Persisted

Back to the garden of verses, my revised introduction in my sweaty hands. I began. My words flowed easily. The body and fender work had paid off. They laughed; they applauded; I blushed.

Now, months later, I still feel a frisson of excitement each time I open the gate to Barbara’s garden. I live for Thursday mornings.

I can hardly wait for the unfolding of each writer’s next chapter. And, of course, for their responses to whatever I managed to whittle into a block of writing for my next reading.

 

Phyllis Olins headshotPhyllis Olins holds a master’s degree in counseling and has trained extensively

in conflict mediation. She has had over 20 years of experience in applying conflict-mediation

strategies to dilemmas in all walks of life.

 

Phyllis’ book, The Conflict Crunch, will be released in the spring of 2019.

 

Taking Risks as a Writer

A GIF of a daisy bloomingAre you a raging risk taker? The person who jumps out of planes, eats live crickets, or bets thousands of dollars on a single throw at the craps table? Do you take risks in your writing too? If so, pat on the back for you, carry on.

While I know some fairly bold writers, as a general rule, we tend not to be risky. We like our books and our coffee and our computers and our dogs (or cats).  We hunker down with our words and our small group of humans and pets and live mostly in our minds.

Recently as I sat at my desk, staring at the query letter on my screen and refusing to press send, I thought about the importance of taking risks. I could press send and risk receiving the dreaded rejection letter in return. Or I could stare at the query letter, safe from rejection, with no shot at securing an agent or having my book traditionally published.

The question is, which caused me more pain? The risk of rejection or the risk of not achieving a dream? As I procrastinated, I came across this quote from Robert Schueller: “What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?”

Well, hell, when you put it that way, the list of what I’d do is pretty long. And it starts with sending that query letter.

So in the spirit of taking risks, here are a few more reasons why it’s important to take risks as a writer.

You don’t get anywhere playing safe

If you have dreams of getting your work out into the world, then at some point, you have to let someone else read it. You need to submit it to an anthology, literary magazine, or contest. Maybe start that blog you’ve always thought about. Submit to a magazine.

Start small, with something that only gives you a tiny bit of panic. Maybe it’s a local anthology or contest, or maybe you feel better in the anonymity of a larger competition. Pick one place where you are going to submit your work in the next thirty days, and do it. Once you take that tiny leap, you can grow and become bolder with your work. Challenge yourself. It’s important.

Learning to “embrace the suck” helps you to overcome your fear

I know people who take cold showers solely for the purpose of overcoming discomfort. It’s a way for them to actively condition their mind to stay present and overcome their hesitation to a situation that they know is going to be uncomfortable.  There’s a school of thought that says you should do something that makes you uncomfortable every day.

What makes you uncomfortable in your writing practice? Are you nervous about sharing your work out loud? Get out to an open mic night (like Dime Stories, here in San Diego) and share your newest piece. Always wanted to write poetry but not sure where to start? Take a class. It’s okay, if you’re not good at something to start, you’ll get better. Build your writing muscle, or your reading aloud muscle, or whatever muscle needs work because it causes you fear.

Sometimes you learn more from a belly flop than you do from a swan dive

In the early drafts of my book, I had a prologue that I loved. LOVED. The rhythmic quality of it. The words. The imagery. I protected that preamble like a troll hoards gold. It was my Precious.

A few months later, I brought that prologue and the first few chapters of my book to a writing workshop hosted by one of my writing heroes. And you know what? That prologue got shredded. Not like a delicate tear. Like a hungry bear destroying a campsite. It was a good lesson. My beloved prologue was not the beautiful swan dive I thought it was and as a result of belly flopping in front of fellow writers, it made my work that much stronger.

Expose yourself to new experiences and new people

The workshop you were afraid of? You met some lifelong friends. That poetry reading you didn’t want to attend by yourself? You got at least three ideas that will improve your work. The open mic night that gave you dry mouth and made you shake? You met two new people who introduced you to two other people with whom your formed a read and critique group. New experiences lead to great things.

It’s important for us as writers to take risks so we can grow. As Anaïs Nin said, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk to bloom.”

It’s time to bloom.

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work (Part II of II)

A Great White Shark attacking a lineIn Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part I, I broke the rules by suggesting that we writers can benefit from two reality TV shows: Project Runway and Shark Tank.

While Project Runway inspires creativity and shepherds me through the writing process, Shark Tank teaches me how to pitch my work for publication without becoming prey.

Pitching in Primetime

Shark Tank grants inventors the opportunity to pitch their products to venture capitalists (the sharks), who then decide whether to invest. The pitch room is called “the shark tank” for good reason: Investors are shrewd entrepreneurs who cut their teeth as they battled their way to the top. They don’t suffer fools, and they smell blood in the water a mile away. They extend investment offers only when a great product comes from a well-prepared inventor.

Pitching Basics from the Boardroom to Publishers

The same applies to publishers. Nonprofit presses enlarge the tank we writers dive into, but the feeding frenzies that surround submission are no less intense. Pitching a book is so similar to what Shark Tank portrays that watching TV feels like taking a course. When pitching to agents or editors, writers have three minutes to describe their target market, highlight their book’s unique features, and convince “paper sharks” that investment will lead to profit.

The show provides a second benefit, too. While agents and editors rarely explain why they reject a piece of writing and don’t give feedback unless they sign the writer, Shark Tank investors do both.

Let’s Meet the Sharks!

Like reality shows, however, not all sharks are created equal. Several seasons have helped me identify species that bear striking similarities to people who comment on writers’ work.

WHALE Shark (Robert Herjavec).

He proposes only win-win deals, and he wants investors to succeed whether or not he backs them. Whale Sharks don’t have teeth; their writing-world counterparts have no agenda. They don’t need to show off, have their ego stroked, or hear their own voice, so they speak little but convey a lot. Seek them out in writing groups, conferences, and critiques. Listen carefully. Take what they say to heart. Employ their advice; it will lift your work to the surface like a buoy.

The GREAT WHITE Shark (Kevin O’Leary).

Whether O’Leary or his writing-world counterpart, the Great White lives to get his teeth into writers and tear them to shreds, but only after batting them around for his own amusement. He panders to an audience he imagines is awed by his power and amused by his antics. He’s not above nipping at fellow sharks, swooping in at the last second to grind their offers—and the inventor/writer—to minced meat. He cuts down others to raise his profile, so unless you find value in something he says, ignore it all.

The BULL Shark (Mark Cuban).

Bull Sharks are mercurial: docile enough to hand-feed one second, voracious enough to attack the next. Their gut guides their every move. How their writing-world counterparts react to a text depends on their perception of its author. If intrigued, they offer a win-win deal—but only after they investigate to a degree that unnerves. If provoked (even unintentionally), they strike. If not engaged within the first 20 seconds, they dart out of reach and disappear. Regardless of their reaction, heed whatever feedback they give; they have a killer instinct.

The LEMON Shark (Laurie Greiner, Barbara Corcoran, and guest investors).

Lemon sharks prefer to observe from the periphery before they enter the fray. Smaller and less aggressive than other species, they rely on agility rather intimidation; therefore, they navigate shifting currents with ease. Their writing-world counterparts’ feedback may conflict, but that’s what makes it special. Keen eyesight aids them in glimpsing flashes of insight in murky depths. Consider their comments carefully; some are sinkers, while others’ quiet wisdom makes them rise above.

Finally, Shark Tank reminds me to pursue publication with a sense of humor. The most successful inventors laugh, even as the quake. The more shark teeth they reveal through smiles, the less likely they are to get eaten alive.

 

Photo of author with Kitten on shoulderFeisty Blogger, Lisa Whalen

Lisa Whalen, a.k.a. Irish Firecracker, is a former boy band devotee and current podcast devotee. Though punctual to a fault, she takes a better-late-than-never approach to adult rites of passage, having only recently discovered coffee and cell phones. Her most meaningful midlife discovery is that horses are her greatest teachers. She swears by horse trainer Buck Brannaman’s claim that “The horse is a mirror to your soul. Sometimes you might not like what you see. Sometimes you will.” Horses are so wise she wishes they could be her editors.

A transplant to Minnesota, Whalen teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College but abides by the adage “Omaha is my Home-aha.” She bleeds Nebraska red, cheering on the Cornhuskers, even (especially) against her adopted state’s Golden Gophers. She’s an animal lover and an introvert, which means she volunteers at a shelter and can be found chillin’ with the host’s pet at most social gatherings.

For more about Whalen’s teaching, writing, and riding, please find her on Twitter and Facebook @LisaIrishWhalen or check out her website: https://lisawhalen.wixsite.com/lisawhalen

On the Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland

The High Street in Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival grew up on the “fringe” of the Edinburgh International Festival, which was launched in 1947 to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” in the wake of World War Two. Eight theatre companies, disgruntled that they had not been invited to participate in the inaugural International Festival, came to Edinburgh anyway and performed in smaller venues around town. Both festivals still thrive. Today, the Fringe Festival is larger than the International Festival. In 2017, there were 53,000 performances of 3,300 shows, by companies from 62 countries. The Fringe offers open access to anyone with an idea who can find a venue. Last year it sold 2.5 million tickets.

Day One Fringe

The first day in Edinburgh is a blur. For the newly arrived, the time difference gives the whole city a gauzy filter—like watching a late-night movie through half-closed eyes. To a fuzzy, jet-lagged brain facing a shiny noon on the High Street, the whole place is impossibly attractive in an old world, fairytale kind of way. Also known as the “Royal Mile,” the street runs from Edinburgh Castle down the hill to the Palace of Holyrood House. Along the way, cobblestone passageways with names like Fleshmarket Close and Marlin’s Wynd lead off to courtyards or ancient market squares. During the Fringe, part of the High Street is closed off to vehicles, allowing performers to stage short snippets of shows and spectators to sample the wide range of performances available.

A Fairytale Come Alive

This makes the fairytale seem all the more plausible. That, and some of the people milling around are dressed in 18th-century costumes. You’ll see clowns, zombies, half-naked men holding up other half-naked men on their shoulders, singers, jugglers, and a decent number of metallic-painted people striking dramatic poses.

When someone approaches with an outstretched hand, holding out a colorful piece of paper, you have just been “flyered.”

“Come and see us, it’s great fun. A little bit romance, a little bit mystery. Bring the flyer, and you can get in for half price,” says a young man with a strong Scottish accent and burnished red hair.

An exiled Iranian playwright describes his one-person show in flawless English. He writes about a country to which he will never return in hopes of building understanding about the similarities of “home” in all cultures.

A smiling, silent Korean woman in traditional dress presents a flyer with two hands and a small bow. She is a member of a large dance troupe.

Holding the flyer, looking from picture to person, you might ask “Is that you?” He or she nods and smiles before moving on to the next pedestrian prospect. There are 3,000 shows in search of an audience. That’s a lot of flyers.

Day Two Fringe

“Excuse me, what are you queuing for?” By day two, you feel more comfortable, with both the vernacular and the process. Lines spill from ornate buildings with multiple shows going on at the same time. The answer sends you either to the end of the line or in search of a new one. There are no assigned seats at Fringe shows. Five hundred venues seat anywhere from 10 people to 600 people. The event spaces range from professional theaters that offer performances year-round to grimy bars and tiny cheese shops that host only one show daily during the three weeks in August when the Fringe Festival is on.

Site-specific performances can take you through the Royal Botanic Gardens, led by flaming torches as you watch Macbeth. Or on a bus ride to an ancient ruined abbey on the Scottish border where white-clad dancers enact an eerie tableau.

Day Three Fringe

By day three, you will have laughed and cried and wondered where this incredible event had been all your life. A show created with only shadows produced from an overhead projector leaves you speechless. A comedian from London has you laugh until you cry. A harrowing monologue from a woman soldier in Syria hits you between the eyes and brings the Mideast conflict into sharper focus.

You will fall asleep during at least one show. You will get a little pickier. A pretty flyer and a persuasive thespian are not objective—they are advertising. You learn about reviews and “stars” that are assigned by the many publications that cover the festival every summer. Some reviewers are seasoned experts; some are ambitious interns. You learn the difference the hard way—a rite of passage for any Fringe-goer. You will see a bad show, a show so bad you want to leave but as one of only five people in the audience, you fear the “fourth wall” could be broken by your departure.

This poor experience will soon be forgotten after a pint and a couple more shows. A word of caution: there is a limit to how many shows you can take in and still remember each one separately. Over-stimulation is common, often cured with whiskey and a late-night kebab.

Beware the 24-Hour Clock

The Fringe runs on a 24-hour clock, causing manic numeric hypnosis and the determination to get to that show with the ominous title “Chaucer in the Graveyard” that starts at 23:30—in a graveyard.

Some shows live brightly for three weeks and are seen no more. Others come to the Fringe because it is a marketplace. A chance to be seen and booked to tour Australia, the US, or other parts of the world.

Familiar faces from television, movies, and plays—Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Flight of the Conchords from HBO, Trevor Noah of The Daily Show—have all spent time at the Fringe. Robin Williams was in a Fringe show while he was studying drama in college.

A sunny morning on the High Street may feel like a fantasy but being at the Fringe is a waking dream for a writer. Inspiring stories spring from the tellers—because they must be told. You leave resolved to keep writing the story you have to tell. And to bring it to the Fringe one day.

Final Time from an Inveterate Fringe-goer:

Organizers estimate that the population of Edinburgh doubles—or even triples—in August. Above all, if you are considering a trip, you should plan ahead. Finally, the most important thing is a place to stay; even if you’re only sleeping a few hours each night. Visit Scotland is a wealth of information with a database of accommodations.

Edinburgh is easy to reach from London, with inexpensive flights from multiple London airports. Edinburgh Airport is only eight miles from the city center. A tram runs between the two as well as regular buses and airport shuttles. No need for a car once in the city. You can walk everywhere or take public transportation to more far-flung venues.

You can book tickets to shows in advance. The full program for this year’s Fringe, which runs from August 3 – 27, will be released June 6. Almost 400 shows have already been announced. You can check them out at the Fringe website. The main venues, with reliably good shows, include the Traverse Theatre, Assembly, Pleasance, Gilded Balloon and the Underbelly.

 

headshot of Andrea MoserAndrea Moser spent 35 years writing for other people and organizations, from elected officials and civic leaders to universities and non-profits. These days, she is animating the characters who inhabit her first novel. She is an avid theater-goer, in San Diego and in Edinburgh, Scotland where she has been attending the annual Fringe festival for 20 years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos courtesy of Andrea Moser