Good morning! You know that…

Good morning! You know that ‘old dogs, new tricks’ adage? We find ourselves tottering into our golden years, fueled by suddenly spicy food,–the subject of my weekend post…

Happy blogging, friends!


Good morning! I wanted to…

Good morning! I wanted to invite anyone who is interested to post on the topic of writing! We have wonderful voices and writing wisdom here, and if you’d like to share some of what you’ve learned, we’d all love to read it. I post once a month on the first Friday (LATE this month, I’m afraid) but this used to be a weekly Friday feature. It could be again: I have a feeling that’s much out there to be shared. We can cover anything from grammar tics to dialogue to specific genre-writing…anything about the writing process you learned and would like to share.

What do you think???


Tough Writing Love: Pruning Those Beautiful Branches

Sometimes to make our writing better, we need to make it LESS.


Some weeks I know exactly what my theme is going to be. Some weeks I have just a starting point, and I figure it out from there.

I knew, this week, that I wanted to write about a walk that Mark and I took, on a perfect Sunday evening, when so many wonderful things happened. Many of them, oddly, involved ducks.

So I wrote about Mark asking, just as we pushed off, about my good friend Susan. And what rose immediately to mind was a cute and funny story she’d shared, in which her tiny grandson Will had referred to Susan as a ‘lucky duck.’

And then right after that we walked by a shining green Mustang with a mallard duck bobble head on its dash. I put that in, too.

And just after we noticed that bobble head, along came our pretty, youngish neighbor wheeling a baby stroller. From inside the stroller waved a chubby little arm, fingers splayed, playing the evening breeze. Our neighbor’s kids were young teenagers, so we stopped her, demanding to be introduced to this sweet little wind musician.

She told us an amazing story: she had rescued the winsome eight-month-old from a sad, abusive situation. The baby had gone, in a week, from ‘failure to thrive’ to thriving.

Wow wow wow, I thought, and of course I wrote about that, too.

And I wrote about the deer in the big yard by the old house that new owners are painstakingly brining back to life. I wrote about the plastic flamingoes in their yard; sometimes they are pulling the big wooden wagon that graces the rolling front lawn. Sometimes they are driving it.

Sometimes, the flamingoes are on the porch chairs, with umbrella drinks on side tables next to them.

Of course, I wrote about them too.

And I wrote about being startled, as we walked through a hidden neighborhood, to see one green-headed mallard duck sitting contentedly in the middle of an enormous side lawn. What was he doing THERE? we wondered, and I wrestled my I-Phone out of my jeans pocket and snapped a shot or two. (By then, you know, we were annoying him, and he was waddling rapidly away from us.)

I wrote, too, about seeing our neighbor Sandy out watering her plants, and learning that she was headed in for foot surgery the next day. She was worried about keeping up with her burgeoning garden. We promised we would help.

And here’s a funny thing: the very next night, my son Jim and I took a ride to the department store, which is on a hill in a development. The development  boasts a lovely pond. Ducks live in the pond, and we were stopped, on our way home, by a line of fuzzy little quackers, ignoring their little mama and waddling all over the street. I had to put that in, of course.

And then, thinking about all of this made me remember something–the very first research paper I’d ever done, in second grade. Topic: mallard ducks.

I wrote about that and how I enjoyed the writing process, and about how I believed then that I would making a living doing just that: writing research papers. Maybe research papers exclusively about ducks.

At that point I thought to myself, why not do some research RIGHT NOW on ducks? And that was when I realized ducks were my theme.

And I did research them, and I found fascinating information on three different sites and I wrote it all down–folklore and symbology and fun, fun facts.

And one of the things I wrote made me remember a phrase (“Just ducky!”) my sister-in-law Patty loved to say. Patty died on Mother’s Day this year, the victim of a swift, one-week stealth attack by the cancer she’d beaten back twice over a period of twenty years. She was a sweet, blithe, positive spirit; she lived far away, and so the loss was not woven into my every day life.

But it was very much there. And I realized that all of my duck talk was leading to that: that ducks remind me of how much I miss Patty, of how sad I am that she died.

THAT reminded me of a phenomenon my niece Shayne and I shared after my brother–her dad–died; we saw butterflies everywhere–unusually everywhere. We felt then the butterflies were a reminder, a message, a comfort. I wrote down that story.

And then I sat back and looked at the organic ramble my writing had become.  It was all fascinating to ME, of course, but, as an essay it was–well, frankly, it was kind of a mess.

Frustrated, I powered down my IPad and mixed up a batch of cookies.


It was good to let it rest. When I came back, I realized that I needed to pare things down, support my theme: ducks remind me of Patty. I left the lucky duck story in as an intro, and I kept the mallard bobble head.

And much as I loved the story,–and much as I thought I’d told it well–I took out the bit about our valiant neighbor rescuing the baby. I exited the deer and the flamingoes, and I reluctantly took out the encounter with Sandy in her garden.

Oh, I was sad to let things go that I thought were important in themselves and fascinating. But, I realized, there might be fodder for a whole OTHER essay–maybe one about the unexpected wonders of living in a neighborhood full of lovely, quirky, caring individuals.

I culled the on-line research I’d done, too, just including a reference to the one site that explaining the meaning of seeing ducks waddling to me. That explanation led me right to my realization that ducks reminded me how much Patty is loved and missed.


Now I had a clear thread of thought, with no diversions. One thing led to another and led to another and led to an insight worth writing about.

I had chopped away easily as much writing as I kept intact, but the result was a much, much better structure. Once again, I saved and walked away.


And then, returning, I tweaked words and thought about intros. I decided the story of Shayne and the butterflies–of how we see reminders in nature of things we really should consider–WAS, after all connected. I put that, in italics, as a little opening piece, a doorway into this tree of thought.

All that remained was to obsessively wordsmith the piece eight or ten or twenty times.


When I finally polished the essay, I realized that I hadn’t asked my friend Susan if I could use her name. I made the lucky duck story generic–using ‘my friend’ instead of Susan’s name. It’s just my personal policy–I never put names in unless I’ve checked with the person first. And then I thought the essay was, finally ready to go. (I’ll publish it tomorrow, and share the link. I’d love to hear if you agree that it was, finally, tightly themed.)


In writing classes, we talk about the writing process, as if everyone has the same process and we can codify and channel it. And that of course, is just not true. But however we write, we need to keep the clippers handy. We need to be ready to lop and chop beloved words and let them fall to make the trunk apparent, to let our readers see the singular, skillfully constructed beauty of our thoughts.

What’s lopped may never be used again, and oh, it’s sad to let the beauty and the meaning of well-crafted words sink away. But those lopped branches might take root, too–there might be a whole other essay ready to grow from those green thoughts.

And, trimmed and lean, pared down to essence and meaning, our writing stands–healthy, long-lasting, its tendrils ready to reach other readers.

May your words be ready and your loppers be sharp!

Happy blogging, my friends!



Reading the Work of a Friend

It comes like a bolt from the cloudy gray sky. You’re in a wonderful conversation with a buddy, someone who, like you, is an avid reader and who loves to write. You’re talking about, I don’t know, cauliflowers, maybe, and suddenly she says, “HEY. I just wrote a piece about cauliflowers! I would love to have you read it and give me your honest feedback.”

There is a charged, jolting silence that, if left too long extended, could easily become a bubbling tarpit that slurpily sucks up your friendship.

What,–oh, what,–should you do?


Of course, you’re going to have to read the piece.

We are all different, so I am in no way prescribing the ways in which I think everyone should respond. But I’ve evolved, over a lifetime of mishaps and mis-steps, some ways of responding to the writings of friends and family. I share them here, and I would love to hear your own response methods and techniques, too.

1. When someone asks, “Can you tell me if this is any good?” I have learned to hear, instead, in my mind’s ear, “Can you tell me what’s good about this piece?”

There IS something good about the writing. I read the work through that lens. I know, from a long career of grading compositions, that it’s so much easier to point out flaws than to uncover the strengths. Yet every paper has strength embedded.

I focus on the content, and I ask myself:

–Did I learn something by reading this? If so, I tell my friend what I learned, and why and how that might be valuable to me.
–Did something in the writing evoke an emotion? Did I, once, go through something similar so I understand the feelings discussed? I might start a sentence like this, “You made me remember how I felt when my Uncle Bertie died…” or “I felt the same way when I got my first rejection letter–I could relate to this so clearly!”
–Was I reminded of anything or anybody? Then, I might write, “Your description of Joe reminded me so much of an old friend from college days…” or, “My mother had  a treadle sewing machine, too, and I can still hear the chugga chugga of her pumping that big black pedal…”

I have to remember, I’m a reader, not a teacher. I put my red pen away and read for enjoyment. I am freed from the responsibility to teach this person how to write: she knows that already. My reactions, though, can help her strengthen the good stuff. I focus on that.

2. If the writing brings up questions, I ask them. I ask them in a way that says, I got so interested in this, I just have to know the answers.

I might say,  “So whatever happened to Aunt Tillie’s hairbrush? I’m dyin’ to know!” or “Did Danny ever get to go to college, then?” I try to ask the question in a way that says, “You’ve interested me and I really want to know more,” and NOT in a way that says, “Sorry, Bucko; your explanation is incomplete.”

3. I NEVER edit. The most I will do is say something mild like, “Thank goodness for spell and grammar check! Whatever did we do without them to polish up our final drafts!?”

My buddy isn’t asking for an editor. I put down the red pen and I step away from the grade book.

4. If the buddy asks me to read something really long–more than twenty pages, say,–I’m honest. I say, “Right now, I really can’t read that much, but I’d love to read a couple of pages to get the flavor of the piece.” And then I give those two pages my complete and undivided attention, and I respond in ways that show I really read and understand.

It’s an honor, really, to be asked to read someone’s work; they’re trusting me with something personal and precious. I need to handle it that way–and in the way I’d like someone to respond to my work. I need to look for the gold, and ask the questions that present themselves. It’s possible to be honest and supportive at the same time.

And what a treat to think that I may be the first to read something wonderful, something soon to be published and acclaimed–or just something cherished by the writer or their dear ones. In our wordy world, it’s nice to offer encouragement and validation–to show our friends that someone really does read and listen to what they have to say.

Good morning, Friends! When I…

Good morning, Friends! When I grew up, chores were still divided into ‘boys’ jobs’ and ‘girls’ jobs’—I wonder how true that is today. At any rate, I always longed to be allowed to mow the lawn…and then my wish came true, which is the subject of my blog today.

I write this with thunder rumbling overhead–no mowing today. I hope the sun shines on you, today!


Writing the Bullet

     I post my blogs on Saturday–and whoa, I realized: this Saturday, April first, is April Fool’s Day. So I knew I needed to write something about fools or foolishness or being fooled. And I knew, on Friday morning, it was time to commit some words to the electronic universe.

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She Decided What She Wanted; Then She Got It

Laura Z. Hobson

Image of Laura Z Hobson taken from

I have been an appeaser at times in my life (although some of my closest peeps might right now frown in disbelief): declining to proceed; acceding to the louder, maybe more threatening, voice; trying to keep the ground stable and preserve the party’s peace. But even as I was trying gracefully to forgo my deepest wishes, I fiercely admired those who determined just exactly what they wanted and plunged ahead in pursuit.

That’s one of the things–and that’s in addition to her lyrical writing–that I admire about Laura Z Hobson; that’s why I was so excited to read her memoir, Laura Z.

Imagine: the well-heeled late 1930’s and early 1940’s in the USA—with people so well-behaved, on the surface, anyway. A glamorous woman with a lucrative career in advertising and a couple of failed relationships, Hobson decides she doesn’t want to give up her dream of parenting just because she isn’t married. She does her research, and she finds an adoption agency in the Midwest that looks like it might extend some hope to a single woman wishing to adopt.

She goes there, and she charms them. Her first child, Mike, is adopted.

I suspect that Laura Z’s charm was formidable. She got away with a lot, and she gathered firm supporters along the way.

Her second son, Christopher, was also adopted,–adopted AND biological. When Hobson realized that she was finally, miraculously, pregnant as a result of a brief affair that ran its course, she made fast, firm plans. She spent the last three months of her pregnancy in a tiny apartment, hidden in New York City, leaving for her doctor’s appointments early in the mornings (her doctor’s doorman, even, was in on the secret, and he would guard her car from patrolling police officers should she have to double park to run in for her checkup) before other patients would arrive. She shopped behind dark glasses. She left her son Mike with his devoted nanny, Rose, to celebrate his birthday and Christmas by themselves.

Then she delivered her baby son under an assumed name, gave him into the care of an agency for several weeks, and went to court to adopt him.

“Committing fraud on the legal system???” says my shocked attorney husband, but the judges and the lawyer seemed to know the real skinny and collude in circumventing their society’s rules about birth and wedlock.

What a story; what a plot! Holy cow.

Laura Z went on to write Gentlemen’s Agreement; the conception and creation of the novel, the buried anti-Antisemitism she encountered in its ‘birthing,’ and her ultimate triumph, shape the last part of her autobiography. Before that, she walks us through her unconventional childhood with socialist– but NOT communist, she notes firmly–Russian emigrant parents, a twin sister who was very, very different than she, a house built backwards to save on architect’s fees, and brothers so far ahead in age they almost seemed part of a different family. She lived many of the events I delighted in reading about in First Papers, taking nine Regents in the span of four days to earn a college scholarship, and bucking the family tide, which wanted to put her in a teacher’s ed program. (First Papers, a novel I discovered as a teen and have re-visited many times since, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.)

She DID go to college. She DID become wealthy. She DID achieve a glamorous lifestyle in a surprising, unorthodox way.

Some of that unorthodox behavior shocks my middle class heart. Hobson writes about leaving little Mike, and later, little Mike and little Chris, for long, long stretches. They were in the care of a loving and competent person, but it still hurts my maternal middle class sense of propriety to picture her putting the boys on a train to the East Coast and then spinning around to pursue a Hollywood script-writing career.

She made it all work, though, she reports, as she brings us, in Laura Z, to the surprise triumph of Gentleman’s Agreement–well, she assures us that she made it work, and she is a wonderful teller of tales. I have to research and see if she ever wrote the second half of her history, wrote about the years during which she fictionalized Chris’s secret birth and then wrote also about her realization, as he aged, that her son was a homosexual in a world not too terribly friendly to gay folks.That story became a novel, too.

Laura Z never denied her Jewish, agnostic, Socialist roots; she never let her roots or society’s bias against them–or anything else–deter her from what she pursued: motherhood, a compelling story, a lifestyle that defied convention. Sometimes I’m a little shocked, sometimes a little puzzled, and sometimes I want to cheer along with her, but always, in reading Laura Z, I am compelled and entertained.

(First posted on my book blog: