Conversation: Accountability

A picture of a strawberry milkshakeMy seven-year-old grandson, Beckett, knows the name of my book. I don’t remember ever talking about it with him. Maybe he heard a relative asking about my writing pursuits during the holidays. Wherever he heard it, listening to him say it made me feel more accountable than anything else has in months.

We were going through photos on my iPad to distract his five-year-old sister Emerson—who was having what seemed like the worst day of her life—because she found out that Beckett got a milkshake at lunch while she was at preschool. Never mind that we all got frozen yogurt after we picked her up. He had gotten something she hadn’t, and that was just plain wrong.

The photos had a magical effect. The sobs were stifled. She was mesmerized by seeing herself in so many pictures. Backward through time. Watching them shrink. The majority of photos I take are of my grandchildren. Followed by, in order of volume, pictures of Scotland in the summer and photos from other trips. No pictures of food, no selfies.

Once in a while, I grab a photo of something because I’d like to have a copy of it. Sometime in the last few years, someone brought a hand-out to my writing group that they had received at a workshop at San Diego Writers, Ink. It was about query letters. I had taken a picture of it so I could study it later.

Beckett is an advanced reader for his age. I know he was read to from the time he was a baby, but I think the ubiquitous billboards in Los Angeles helped. The world’s largest flash cards.

He saw the headline and asked, “What’s a query letter?”

“It’s a letter you send to someone when you want them to publish your book.”

“Has your book been published? Hair on Fire?”

I felt my face getting red, hearing him say the title of my book.

“No, I haven’t finished it.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t really know why not.”

“Well, you should.” This was ambiguous to me. Should I know why? Or should I finish? You always hear people say you should do things for yourself, not for others. But I want to be who this precious and precocious little boy thinks I am.  

The moment passed, and we kept going on our reverse journey. I have almost 2,000 pictures. There would be more, but I winnow from time to time to avoid having to pay for iCloud storage.

We finally reached the end. The first photo I ever took with my phone was Beckett at about three months, sleeping in a carrier.

“Where am I?” asked Emerson, still sensitive to being left out.

“You weren’t here then.”

“Why not?”

“Because your part of the story hadn’t started yet.”

“Oh.”

They both wandered off after I refused to let them watch YouTube videos on the iPad. I sat there staring at the screen, wondering… when am I going to start to finish my story?

 

headshot of Andrea Moser

Andrea 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, Hair on Fire. 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.

 

Photo Credithttps://pixabay.com/3287788

A Story of Heroes

Book cover for Disturbed in Their NestsI just read a new book that touched my heart, and I’d like to recommend it to you. Disturbed in Their Nests: A Journey From Sudan’s Dinkaland to San Diego’s City Heights by Alphonsion Deng and Judy A. Bernstein (Black Stone Publishing, 2018) is an important and amazing story.

Alphonsion—who goes by the name Alepho—was one of over 3000 Sudan Lost Boys who came to the United States in 2001. Along with thousands of other children, he had literally walked across the African continent. He couldn’t go back home to Sudan because a vicious ethnic war still raged there. Alepho considered himself lucky when he and his brother and cousin were chosen to go to San Diego. They had no idea where San Diego was or what life would be like for them. But anything would be better than life in the refugee camp in Kenya where conditions were worse than harsh with barely enough food to survive.

Judy Bernstein was a writer and homemaker, volunteering with the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. When she was asked to help three young refugees, she thought her task would be to give them a tour of the city—take them to McDonald’s, Sea World and maybe the zoo. She had no idea that for the next twenty years, her life would be tied to theirs, and she would be immersed in helping these young refugees.

Disturbed in Their Nests is, in part, a story about the confrontation between different cultures. Beautifully written in two voices—Alepho’s and Judy’s—the story unfolds from their different perspectives—and their different misunderstandings of the other’s culture. Alepho and his friends had nearly starved on their trek across Africa. But in San Diego, no one had told them what to do with sticks of spaghetti. How were they supposed to eat something like that?

Disturbed in Their Nests is a double adventure story. With flashbacks to their time in Africa, Alepho tells a harrowing tale of their walk and precarious survival. But their adventure in San Diego, with Judy’s mentoring, hard work, and diligent efforts, is also a story of survival—negotiating a new culture, living in a cheap apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, and seeking real jobs for their livelihood.

This book is a follow-up to their award-winning and best-selling earlier book, They Poured Fire On Us: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. Alepho and Judy have given workshops all over the country to educate Americans about the tragedy and travesty of the Sudan war. Their new book is another important contribution to the literature on refugees. Alepho Deng and Judy Bernstein are true heroes.

At a time when America is cruelly turning its back on refugees, their story shows poignantly why that policy is so very wrong.

A photo of author, Lucy Rose Fischer

 

Lucy 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.

Alephonsion Deng is a featured speaker at the San Diego Writers Festival on Saturday, April 13, 2019. For the Festival event schedule, register here.

 

Photos Courtesy of Lucy Rose Fischer

Happy Anniversary to The Feisty Writer

The Feisty Writer logo and the words Feisty Turns TwoIt is the two-year anniversary of The Feisty Writer. Yay, us! I’m prone to forgetting anniversaries (ask my husband, he will sigh and nod), but I will forever remember this one because we launched our wonderful site the day after election day, 2016. Did you just hear a balloon pop and deflate? Yeah, so did we.

Had we known or even hazarded a long-shot guess on the election outcome or the resulting ripple felt across the world, we would have chosen another day to magically appear on the interwebs, but alas, our wordy spacecraft lifted off as scheduled. As our planet stood in shock and disbelief, we scraped our jaws off the ground and stammered, Yay us, I think?

We had less conviction in our commencement celebration than we have today, two years in.

Today, we celebrate our Feisty-versary wholeheartedly, in large part due to what we have witnessed in these past two years. Suffice it to say, our world has changed and continues to change rapidly. Some of this is disheartening and terrifying and feels surreal and unnecessary and why, why, why? Much of what we’ve seen here at The Feisty Writer is good though, great even. But before I go into that, let me remind you of this.

Who We Are

Writers are keen observers; this is why we are the storytellers of our tribes. Without trying, we absorb our surroundings like human-shaped heart sponges. We may sometimes wish we absorbed less as we watch events unfold and notice the reactions that follow suit. As we imagine the causes and effects. As we play out how things could have unfolded differently. As we search for answers and solutions and apply our words and our creativity to make sense of the unfathomable. But no. We were built to mop up life, and writing is how we wring ourselves dry, or at least less wet, again.

Writers are also sensitive. We feel more deeply than the average bear. Being sensitive is not always fun, but imagine if we, our world’s chroniclers, shrugged off our emotions. What if we didn’t care? What if every story could end in some rendition of this: ”Then she yawned and walked away because it wasn’t a big deal. She posted #whatev on Instagram and forgot about the whole mess ten seconds later. THE END.” We care because we have to. As writers, it’s our job to be both keen and sensitive.

What We’ve Seen

Here are a few of the amazing things I have witnessed as a Feisty Writer in the past two years:

  1. We build Community. Writers need community, now more than ever, and we have a vibrant one. Maybe because the world has become less predictable, in the past two years we have shown up more than ever before. Whether it’s for book launches, movie premieres, workshops, classes, stage readings or showcases, our community of writers comes together, supports each other, participates and perseveres. We make time for each other. We create opportunities for others to thrive because we recognize there is enough room for all of us to succeed. We show up.
  2. Our talent grows. Because we show up, the talent in our community continues to strengthen. When we surround ourselves with greatness and become a part of something bigger than ourselves, magical things happen. We perform at higher levels. We exceed expectations.
  3. We embrace a challenge. This is what makes us Feisty Writers. Our world is a tough place to survive and thrive right now, but we persevere. We embrace difficult topics. We unveil our most vulnerable truths through our stories. We still fear the rejection that is part of being a published author. We fear it, yet we submit anyway. We find ways to make ourselves heard.

What Comes Next

Thank you for being a part of The Feisty Writer. We are here for you, and we want to hear from you. Please follow these guidelines and submit your posts to us. Also, save this date: April 13, 2019. This is the date of our first annual San Diego Writers Festival, held in partnership with the San Diego Central Library. This will be where we will finally meet to celebrate every corner of our feisty and fabulous writing community. Yay, us!

 

Photo Courtesy of Marni Freedman

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.

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

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

Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work

Runway models on a fashion show cat walkPart 1 – Project Runway

Warning: I’m going to break the rules.

Instead of preaching that screentime pollutes productivity, I’m going to recommend indulging in its trashiest form: reality TV.

But not just any reality TV. My distaste for the medium allows two exceptions: Shark Tank and Project Runway. Together, these shows comprise a writing process guide.

Project Runway Inspiration

Project Runway gets the creative juices flowing. I draw inspiration from fashion designers’ myriad approaches to conveying a unique “voice” while balancing risk with a traditional aesthetic. As contestants, designers face constraints I relate to: time, materials, genre, purpose, audience. Watching them problem-solve sparks ideas for troubleshooting my writing process free from the angst that accompanies studying writers I admire.

Designers grapple with broader concerns writers recognize, too: competition, insecurity, rejection, fatigue, and creative blocks. Every designer hits a wall at some point during 16-episode seasons; seeing how each pushes through and to what effect serves as a primer from which I pluck ideas.

Finding Your Muse at Mood

The show slingshots contestants past their limits, where they are forced to abandon tried and true creative processes—at least temporarily. Designers who are accustomed to sketching everything from hem to zipper and fabric texture to thread color before laying a finger on a material, suddenly find themselves scurrying through Mood Fabrics, hoping a print or color will anoint itself their Muse. Similarly, designers are accustomed to skipping through Mood empty-handed and -headed, confident a shape will emerge organically, trade free-spirited methods for digital drawing. They all fumble—many leaking tears and ego along the way—but most stumble into a breakthrough as they grasp for a purchase. I benefit from the reminders that experimentation is essential for evolution.

Taking Tim Gunn Advice

Designers’ desire to “wow” the judges drives them to overcomplicate garments. Their mentor, fashion guru Tim Gunn, advises them to “edit constantly and carefully.” As a writer who battles to squeeze everything she wants to say within allotted word limits, I find it helpful to channel Gunn when I revise: “Are you trying to do too much? Is there a simpler way to convey that idea? Do you really need this?”

I mimic Gunn when I teach, too, because of how artfully he delivers brutal truth without brutality. During critiques, he says,

  • “What I’m getting from this garment is X; is that what you intended?”
  • “The judges might see this and think . . .”
  • “What does your gut tell you about this?”
  • “Have you thought about …?”
  • “How would you respond to replacing X with Y?”
  • “My concern is . . .”
  • “Hmm.”

“Make it Work.”

Don’t discount that last phrase. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. Designers fill ensuing silence by identifying and solving problems they hadn’t known existed. Something similar often happens when I utter the phrase to students.

But more than anything, I appreciate Gunn’s signature catchphrase: “Make it work.” The perfect antidote to self-pity, Gunn’s saying applies equally to fashion, fiction, and nonfiction:

  • Dyed your fabric the wrong shade of yellow? Make it work.
  • Your main character wants to live in Florida instead of Minnesota? Make it work.
  • Essay theme change again? Make it work.

After Gunn’s consultation, designers revise and submit their garments for evaluation. Judges’ deliberations help me understand that whether sending a model down the runway or a manuscript through the mail, we creators are assessed according to an elusive mix of objective criteria and subjective appeal. Judges sometimes reject a garment that fulfills criteria because it doesn’t fit their taste and vice versa. While that means I may never know why a publisher rejects my work, I take comfort from knowing that rejection doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of talent.

Project Runway Lessons on Criticism

Finally, the last gem I glean from Project Runway is a mantra for handling criticism: Avoid becoming defensive. Even the best designers elicit disgust if they smirk, whine, argue, or interrupt. They lose viewers’ sympathy, competitors’ respect, judges’ esteem, and potentially a round of competition. Their inability to accept feedback also stalls their growth. Designers who fail to curb defensiveness inevitably hear host Heidi Klum declare, “I’m sorry, that means you’re out.”

Successful designers, on the other hand, soar through critiques gracefully by:

  • Breathing slowly and deeply.
  • Maintaining a neutral expression and posture.
  • Listening without interrupting.
  • Nodding to acknowledge comments.
  • Answering questions honestly and completely.
  • Explaining without making excuses.
  • Asking questions.
  • Refusing to trash competitors.
  • Thanking judges for their feedback.

I try to emulate these designers. It helps to remind myself that listening to comments doesn’t commit me to acting on them. I stash feedback at the back of my brain (or notebook) for 48-72 hours before I examine it. During that time, my emotions settle; then I can effectively sort comments according to those I’ll apply now, those I’ll ignore, and those I’ll use later.

Critiques are rarely fun, and rejection always stings, but neither has to bite. Tune in next month for “Swim with the Sharks and Make It Work, Part II,” where I’ll share how watching Shark Tank helps me avoid becoming chum.

 

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.

 

Photo Credit: https://pixabay.com/1746615/

Inspiration

the book cover for CHicken Soup for the Empowered WomanI once wrote a short piece about the writer, Harriet Doerr, whom I consider my muse. I think that was about 2008, when I was 63, still teaching but nearing retirement. I was taking creative writing classes and entertaining ideas about a possible memoir about my 20 years living in Peru.

I discovered Ms. Doerr’s beautiful short novel, Stones for Ibarra, on the table in the teacher’s lounge one day after school. Enthralled, I read it three times: once as a reader, once as an American with some experience in Mexico, and once as an aspiring writer. Based on her experiences living with her American husband in northern Mexico as he oversaw the revival of his family’s mining business, this prize-winning first novel was published in 1984, when Ms. Doerr was 73.

 That gives me 10 years to get my first work published, I remember thinking. I may never achieve the natural beauty of her sparse, clear prose or the perfect voice of her Mexican characters, but I may be able to convey my love for my own adopted country and make Peru come alive to readers the way she makes us fall in love with northern Mexico–by the time I am 73. 

When I learned that she published a second novel, Consider This, Señora, also set in Mexico, when she was 83, she became my muse.

With that impetus, I began to call myself a Writer. To non-writers, that doesn’t sound like the big step it is. Taking oneself seriously in a professional sense takes more courage than the uninitiated imagine. I had written for children and pitched my work at writers conferences with no success. At the same time, I had taken two classes in writing personal narrative, but with my self-imposed age deadline looming, I pushed myself to take three consecutive classes on memoir at UCSD Extension and kept writing.

In 2011, when I retired from full-time teaching, I joined a read and critique group with the express purpose of combining my collection of personal essays into a memoir. With only six years to go before my seventy-third birthday, it was time to get serious.

In 2013, with the encouragement of my fellow writers, I submitted two pieces to the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, and kept on writing.

On March 22, 2017, I turned 73, still unpublished. After multiple revisions, my memoir was finished and had gone out to and been rejected by multiple agents. Still without a contract, I acknowledged that I had failed to achieve my goal of matching Harriet Doerr’s inspiring example. I hadn’t given up, and I kept on writing, but the year ended on a note of regret.

Then, a few days ago on Thursday, March 8, the International Day of the Woman, while I was still 73, I was sitting at my writing group when an email showed up in my inbox from…Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman.

Congratulations, it read. Your story, Lighting Fires, has been selected from thousands of submissions to be published in this edition! The book is on its way to the printers and will be in bookstores on May 1, 2018. Your check will be mailed to you about a month later.

 Being published is a goal; getting paid is validation.

So Harriet, it’s not a whole book, and I don’t have an agent, a contract for the memoir, or even a very good title, but this totally counts: I am still 73 and my story will be published this year, I will get paid, and you will remain my muse.

New Goal: Publish two memoirs by the time I’m 83. Only 10 years to go.

a photo of guest blogger Nancy Villalobos Nancy 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 ThursdayRead and Critique group in Encinitas. She lives in Carlsbad with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Coco.