A Catch-Up Letter, Long Overdue

What if you had to write a letter, right here and right now, re-introducing yourself to someone you once held dear?


Let’s say you once had a very dear friend, the kind of friend you could talk to about anything. And life intervened, taking you in different directions, and your contact–at first fervid and frequent,–became leaner and more and more intermittent, until finally even the holiday cards dwindled and stopped. You missed that voice, that connection, but oh, your life was busy.

And years went by.

And then one day, you get a friend request, or a Twitter follow, and there’s that wonderful person! Back in your life, if only in a virtual kind of way.

But you decide, the two of you, to reconnect through handwritten letters. And you win the coin flip: you’ll go first.

What would you say?

Maybe you could start by describing the place in which you’re writing. “I’m sitting here in my dining room,” you might write, “and the morning sun is gentling in through the bay window. The house is quiet, and I’m ignoring a basket of laundry that needs to be folded. My crazy little dog is snuggled up next my feet, snoring deep people snores.”

Or you might be on the deck, in the sun, chasing an elusive morning breeze, or at your desk in your office, with the ringer on mute…But you write so that your recipient can picture your setting in the mind’s eye, and you can go on.

On, maybe, to more of the physical–would that dear friend know you today, passing on the street? “You’d recognize my hair,” you might write. “It’s still the same sleek auburn–but these days, I get it updated once a month at the hairdressers.” You might write about how your daily uniform has changed, the jeans and tees given way to khakis and polos or three piece power suits. That you’ve traded in stilettos or designer sneaks for comfortable working shoes. Are you plumper? Leaner? Bespectacled? Contact-lensed?

Now the person on the other end of the letter sees you, too.

And then you can go on to the important stuff–the beliefs you’ve shared, the values you hold, the things that make you happy.  “Remember how we used to say marriage was a bourgeois institution?” you might write. “Well, I’ve come to see its value…” And then you might describe the union that has brought you such unexpected happiness. You might write about what travel has taught you, and how you chose your current job and what you’ve learned from doing it.

You might write about beliefs you still hold dear, and how life has reinforced them.

And in the writing, you’ll share the people you call family, the passion that drives your days, and the things that bring you joy.

Then you might tell your friend what you remember most, what you loved best, about the old times. “Remember when we’d go to the ice cream shop on Sundays?” you might write. “We were usually a bit hung over, but the hot fudge would soothe us, and we would have long conversations, coming up with solutions that would save the world. We’d always end with a sigh, saying, ‘If only they’d ask for our opinions!'”

You add a few words, maybe of hope for reconnection, and you send that missive off, looking forward to a response. And you’re richer for having enjoyed the chance to think about who you are, what you value, how you’ve grown and changed.

What if you wrote a letter today to an old friend, reconnecting—even if that old friend is really younger you? What is it you would say?

#creative writing


Good morning, friends–I hope you…

Good morning, friends–I hope you are well this week. I’m hip-deep in a reno project. Those things never quite go as planned, do they? And we thought we’d save money by pursuing bargains, which hasn’t quite gone as planned, either.

And that inspired my post this week…

Happy blogging!



Writing With My Paintbrush

This week I am painting the carport.

And writing.


We all write differently, or course–we need different spaces and prompts and inspiration; different schedules and routines and tools set our words free. For me, I can say to myself, “Tonight I am going to WRITE from 7 until 9. I’m going to take over the dining room table, kick everyone out, and I’m going to put together a blog post, an essay to submit to that contest, and see if I can’t tease out a structure for another chapter of that long-languishing fantasy novel.”

Then I clear away the distractions and shoo away the family, and pull the IPad up to the side of the table, flex my fingers…and fail. My mind, full of monkeys when I try to meditate, is now a silent chamber, a blank, dull slate.

The next thing I know, I am checking email, texting buddies, and getting a rag to wipe the bookshelf I just noticed is horribly, unbearably dusty.

Writing has not gotten done.



There I am on a ladder in the car port, which we are painting a bright clean white so we can turn it into an outdoor dining room in the pleasant summer months. I am brushing in the edges I missed with the roller, and words are tumbling in my brain. I’m thinking about painting, and how Mark, the son of a sailor, and I, the descendant of generations of cabinet-makers, look at the process so differently. (Mark says, “Slap it on! Get it done!”  I say, “Time and finesse, my friend; time and finesse.” We agree, Mark and I, on many, if not most, things. On the process of painting, however, we will never reach consensus.)

And I’m thinking of the houses we lived in when I was a child, after a catastrophic financial turn caused my parents to sell the family home. After that, we tried out a series of rentals, and in each one, we would get the tarps out and clean the brushes, load the rollers, crack open cans of paint, make the walls fresh and new and OURS. And the rental would go from being impersonal to becoming home…if only for a temporary respite.

And I’m thinking that painting has big meaning for me. It says ‘home’ and ‘transformation.’ This is a topic, I think, for a blog post.

When I take a break, I grab my notebook and jot down all these thoughts.

Painting–hands busy, mind free to roam.


Walking does that for me, too. The other day, on my regular ramble, I started thinking about the book I’m reading: a biography of Shirley Jackson, who wrote “The Lottery,” among many, many other things.  Some of Jackson’s writing, so eerily psychological, scares the horse hockey out of me. Then she has books about her family, fun-loving stories of warm and rambunctious children in a rambling old country home–Life Among the Savages, she called her first book in this style. Such different approaches…but I realize,–and Ruth Franklin, the author of the biography, backs me up,–that much of Jackson’s writing is about the topic of home.

In her scary works, the hero is always searching for home, trying to find home, rebelling because the person who should have provided that refuge hasn’t done so. The chill often comes when the protagonist is lost, at sea, unable to find her way home. In her memoir writing, Jackson celebrates the glorious chaos of home and the funny precocity of kids.

I process all this as I’m walking, swinging my arms, blaring Leonard Cohen on my ancient IPod, and when I get home I grab the notebook again, and I write down thoughts about ‘home.’  That, I think, is the essay topic I’ve been searching for.

And now I have STUFF to work with. When I clear the decks,  and I pull the IPad toward me, my thoughts have been shaken loose, the notebook is a guide and a goad, and I have no trouble dancing the keyboard, pouring out the words.


We all, of course, have to find the writing prompts and places that work for us–we need to discover our styles and the supporting environments and the effective tools. For me, I know now, my best ‘writing’ takes place when my hands are busy, when I’m far away from a keyboard, when my mind, unpressured, can range and organize and uncover thoughts and memories that have been buried in the dredge.

Activity–that’s my tool. And a cheap mottled notebook at hand to write down my thoughts.

Maybe, if you’re sitting at the keyboard and the muse has left the building, it’s time for you to go, too. Tackle a project. Take a walk. Pop the cork that holds the words back, and let them flow…then chase them home and pin them down in your writer’s notebook.


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.