Changing It Up

It’s nice to have a writing routine.

I try to write at 3:00 most afternoons, and I usually write in the same place: at my desk, which carves out a little study area for me in the corner of the living room. At 3:00, the house is generally quiet, and my thoughts have been churning energetically, and I usually have an idea forming of what I want to say and how I want to say it. Most days, I’m excited to sit at the keyboard and watch things take shape.

Routine is good. But even good things, done over and over, become stale. Last week I sat at my desk and had an overwhelming feeling of been here; done this: BORING.

And that day, I found this advice in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones:

Write in different places—for example, in a laundromat, and pick up the rhythm of the washing machines. Write at bus stops, in cafes. Write what is going on around you.

I thought I’d give it a shot. In fact, I thought I’d give it five shots. I set myself to write in these places:

  • Outside, on the patio, in the cool of the morning.
  • At a Starbucks coffee shop that is housed inside my supermarket, Kroger.
  • At a Panera bakery and café.
  • At my wonderful local library.
  • And then, just for something fun and different, I thought I’d see what it was like to write at the art museum here in town.

So, over the course of a Wednesday and Thursday, I took my laptop and spent at least 45 minutes, writing, in each of those places.

Here’s what I discovered.

  • Anyplace where people congregate is a great place for inspiration. I saw someone’s retirement party, and I saw elementary teachers trying to slow down their fast-disappearing summer break. I saw employees who clearly liked their jobs, and I saw people coming into one of my places who looked exhausted, worried, or angry. I saw children and teens and young folk; I saw middle agers and senior citizens. I saw all kinds of shades of skin and I heard accents and ways of slinging speech that I want to try to capture on paper.
  • Every place I went jogged memories. I thought about the first time I had a Reese’s cup cookie at a Starbucks; I thought about a young writers’ group my son attended for a year or so at a Panera. I thought about how different places honor their retirees differently, and I thought about straws and their effect on the environment, and the wonder of having summers off when I was a young teacher. I remembered a humiliating tumble I took in another art museum. Each different place churned up different memories and different trains of thoughts. I thought about the places themselves and the ways they serve our community.
  • Going with another person is dicey. I took my son, James, to the coffee shops with me. He promised, solemnly, not to say ONE WORD while I was typing. But he couldn’t stand it; something would inspire a thought, or a person would walk by who reminded him of something, and he’d say, “I just have to say this one thing…” And of course I would stop and listen. I concentrated better in the places I flew solo, although sometimes James gave me a nice unexpected perspective.
  • Some places offer distraction. Surprisingly, the library was the hardest place for me to work. It offered up a wonderful array for people-watching, but it also offered up all those books. I kept itching to stop writing and go browsing. The art museum, which I threw onto the list as a fun and funky fifth alternative, turned out to be a great place to write.
  • The new places freshened my point of view, and threw new colors, sounds, and characters at me.

So. I write this at my usual spot, at a time when the boyos have gone out and the house is quiet. I like this spot, and of course I will be tapping away here almost every day.

But I’m thinking that, every other week, I might go someplace unexpected and write, just for an hour or so. I’ll go back to the art museum, for sure. I might go to the mall. I just joined a gym, and I wonder what it would be like to do my morning workout, and then drag a chair to the corner and sit for 30 minutes, writing what I see. I think about going to the bus station or a college lobby, or to city hall.

Changing it up sweeps the cobwebs for me, and it knocks loose memories that were stuck in high, dark places. I come back to my cozy, safe desk, with new images, new sounds, new thoughts, tumbling in the mill of my mind.

Where do you write? And where might you go to write if you wanted to change things up?

Happy blogging, my friends!


Here’s a link to the blog post that resulted from this adventure. If you change it up, be sure to share your results, too…




A Muscular Comment Beats Begging, Every Time

“I like your blog!” read the comment. “Please come visit mine!”

There was a blog address and nothing else.

Another time, a fellow blogger left comments on my blog post for five days running.

“Visit my blog!”

“Visit my blog!”

“Visit my blog!”

“Visit my blog!”

“Visit my blog!”

I did, finally, visit both blogs, because I know what it is like to be new to the blogosphere, to want to reach lots of people, to look at the number of followers creeping up way too slowly, and to wish for more.

Neither blog, it turned out, talked about things that meshed with my interests, and I didn’t follow either one.

But I have followed other bloggers because they visited my pages and commented on my posts. Their comments made me realize we had something in common, and, unbidden, I went to visit their sites and liked, really liked, what I saw.

And I have discovered other sites and been energized and excited about what they have to say. I have commented on posts and seen the comments grow into discussion. And the discussion has led to me following their blog, and then sometimes, to their following mine.

Commenting can lead to connection, but there’s a more enticing way to do it than the examples I gave, above.

If we didn’t want people to read our stuff, we’d be putting it in a notebook or a private file. But the first thing we have to do is make sure it’s worth reading. Our posts should be planned and thoughtful. They should be complete, illustrated if warranted, and say what we want them to say. And they should align with the purpose of our blogs—what is it, after all, that we are addressing out here in the wilds of the Internet?

So our first job is to plan and organize, to get some posts up that we’re proud of and that really represent us. We need a plan to continue that trajectory, to keep on posting quality essays or photos or poetry or short stories…a continuous feed that represents us with creative integrity.

And then we can go looking for readers.

The exciting thing I learned about the blogosphere is that it’s not a monologue being received; it’s a dialogue being shared. So when I go looking, I look with my eyes toward others.

The first thing I want to do is target my audience. If I’m blogging about books, I’m not going to visit a popular blog about robotics just because they have 10,000 followers…unless, of course, robotics is just something I’m interested in. But other book bloggers might be interested in what I have to say, and so I will seek them out. WordPress provides wonderful search capacities, and I am sure other blogging engines do, too.

When I find a blog that looks promising, I read two or three posts—read them thoroughly, think about what they say and how they say it. If I am drawn to the blog, if I think I’d like to come back and read their stuff again and again, I leave a comment. I try very hard to have my comment show the blogger that I have read, considered, and appreciated what they wrote.

I might…

…copy a quote from their writing that really struck me and tell them why it hit home with me. So, when I have been thinking that I’ve been reading books that are light and fluffy, and that I really need to read things that make me work and think a little harder, a little more deeply, I find a blog that says something like this: Not all our reading should be easy and pleasant and give us a warm, contented feeling. Sometimes, our reading should demand our close attention, push us out of our comfort zones, make us turn off the TV and the phone and concentrate.

I paste that passage into my comment box, and I write, “Thank you for this. I have been feeling lately that I need to ramp it up, to get a little more muscular in my reading. You’ve described exactly where my hazy thoughts were going. And after reading your last post, I think I’m going to start with Cutting for Stone. Your description makes me want to read that book.”

Now the blogger knows I’ve read his work and really thought about it. I might get a response; it might just be, “Thank you!” But it might also be a thoughtful reply, a question, a recommendation, a personal anecdote. That invites a conversation, and that leads to new connections.

…relate the post I’ve just read to something happening right now in my life. “Your description of unread stacks of books really pinged with me! I have two stacks—a library stack, and an acquired book stack—and their looming presence saps away some of the enjoyment of reading for me. I’m going to return all the library books and limit myself to one a visit. I’m not sure what I’ll do about the books I own. Any suggestions?”

Again, I might just get a “Hey—good luck figuring it out!” response, or I might get a lengthier, more thoughtful reply.

…write my comment and then include a link to a post I made on a very similar topic. I might say something like, “I’ve been pondering this, too, and I recently wrote a review of two books on the topic. Here’s a link, if time allows a visit…”

Because the blogger is interested in that topic, and because you have taken the time to comment thoughtfully and demonstrate that you’ve read their blog, they may well pay you a visit.

Of course, making a thoughtful comment doesn’t guarantee anything. You might hear nothing or just get a breezy, one-word reply. Or you may open up a conversation that leads you to a blog you love to follow and leads that blogger to follow you.

If you are a WordPress blogger, there are free courses available to you that provide commenting activities and help you make connections. And you can search out wonderful bloggers who hold salons—places where you can share a link to your post and meet like-minded others. Again, I can’t paste my link and sit back and wait for responses. I need to read and respond to others; I need to share the salon link on my blog.

When I first started blogging, I had the hazy feeling that there were millions of people out there, waiting to read the sparkling bits of genius that only I could share. Ha! For most people, it’s a matter of, “So much to read; so little time.” If I want readers and followers, I need to make it worth their while to visit me. I need to pay them the same respect.

It’s work, meeting and cementing relationships with other bloggers. Reading their blogs demands time and attention and thoughtful, well-written comments. But it’s so worth it. Our followers grow, but the truly satisfying thing is that our relationships grow, too. We meet people from all over the world, and some of them become wonderful friends. And it often happens because we took the first step and left a comment that revealed our understanding.

I look forward to hearing about what you’ve been writing. Happy blogging, my friends!



An Argument for Blogging

How the world comes at another person, the irritations, jubilations, aches and pains, humorous flashes—these are the classic building materials of the personal essay.

Phillip Lopate, The Art of the Personal Essay

 I hate reading blogs. All that personal business—yuck.

My anonymous friend (let’s call her ‘Daisy’)


It kind of hurt when my friend Daisy said she hates reading blogs. “All those people spilling their guts!” she said. “Like anyone’s life is all that interesting.”

I had to think she was sending me a thinly veiled message about my own blog, which is, of course, pretty much all personal essays. I ended the conversation as gracefully and as quickly as I could, but it left me a little grumpy. And it nudged me to ponder the value of blogging and personal essays. It made me think about why I do it.

I started my blog three years ago…started it as a discipline. I was a couple years away from retirement, and I wanted, when I finished working, to approach writing in a more organized and professional way. I thought that committing to a weekly blog would be a very good exercise.

I wasn’t quite sure what I would write about. Maybe just the funny, quirky things that happen. Maybe a little bit about parenting an adult child with autism, and how the stigma attached to developmental disabilities and/or mental illness still lingers. Maybe I’d explore ending a long career and beginning what I fervently hope will be a long and rich retirement; I’d document the changes and discoveries I encounter.

Maybe, I’d write about cookies. Or coffee. Or chocolate.

I set myself a date and time—every Saturday morning at 6 AM—and I plunged in.

I DID develop a discipline (in three years, I’ve only missed posting once), but I also found something totally unexpected. The value of blogging, I think, is in the sharing of things that have some kind of universal meaning. And it’s in the feedback and response—in the community—that centers around the rich writing in the blogosphere.

“Every man has within himself the entire human condition,” Michel Montaigne said hundreds of years ago. His language was a little gender exclusionary, but his point was right on: the details and the setting may be vastly different, but under the surface, the things we experience are very, very much the same.

The stories we share have common themes—human fallibility, human relationships, human triumphs. It picks me up to read a fellow blogger’s account of the birth of a child, the birth of a book, or the start of an exciting new adventure. I remember—or I can imagine—the feelings of exhilaration.

I can relate to frustration too, when I read a post about feeling stuck, being unable to move forward, and not knowing why. Deep chords chime when I encounter someone’s account of the excitement of their first professional job; they also chime when people write of loss.

And sometimes I have to laugh out loud when I read about the string of disasters, told in a funny, self-deprecating style, that one person’s bad day can bring. “I know!” I think. “I know exactly what you mean!” Suddenly, my own disastrous day doesn’t seem that bad at all.

So reading other people’s personal essays reinforces what I feel and what I know. It makes me realize my reactions are shared. In the dark times, the reading reminds me I am not alone in inhabiting the darkness.

Reading personal blogs stretches me, too. I doubt I’ll ever see a jaguar in the wild, but I can read Josh’s blog and imagine what that’s like. I can understand, too, the value those magnificent cats add to our world, and why it would be disastrous to watch that species disappear. I can gain empathy with a young woman struggling with mental illness and the challenges and joys of parenting a toddler. I can learn what it’s like to be a student in India, a young wife in Paris, a single woman of a certain age in the United Kingdom.

People who struggle with serious illness. People on the autism spectrum. Scientists and mathematicians, expert knitters, clergypeople. People with lives as different from mine as…hmmm: as vinegar is from snowballs. And yet.

And yet their words sing off the pages, teach me, stretch my boundaries, make me realize the vastness and the beauty and the infinite richness of the human spirit.

One of the absolute requisites of a compelling personal essay, Phillip Lopate tells us in the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, is this: honesty. When we read about another’s life, and when they tell their story with transparency and without defenses, we are moved and we connect.

Most certainly, there is always a little bit of self-belief involved. We are pretty sure we have something interesting to say, or that what we’ve just encountered is something others may be interested in. We think we can tell the story in a way that engages. And what’s wrong with that? That is not vanity; it’s confidence and recognition. The writer is telling her own story, sure, but she’s thinking of the reader and reaching out to connect. He’s writing to share, not to boast or to pontificate.

Of course, there’s always the danger we might stumble on a blogger whose motive is just to let us know how supremely wonderful she is, or why he is a gift to the world. I confess to not having found those blogs, but if I did, there’s nothing that would compel me to keep reading them.

Instead, I will continue to read the wonderful blogs I’ve encountered—to watch the snow outside my window and then read about a blogging friend slogging through a tropical rainstorm, to contemplate the church I think I will probably attend while reading about the richness of another religion, the purity of a blogging friend’s belief. I’ll learn about birds and baking and loneliness and the rigors of raising a family of eight. My cultural knowledge will expand. I’ll remember what it was like to be terrified and 18, and I’ll read the book blog of an octogenarian buddy and know I have great things to look forward to. I’ll realize how things have changed, and I’ll appreciate what’s stayed the same, and I’ll contemplate the richness of our tapestried world..

So let Daisy avoid the blogosphere. I’ll keep my Saturday morning dates, and I’ll look forward to exploring the posts our blogging friends share. Maybe I’ll find a new recipe, learn something fascinating, or be moved to tears or shaken into laughter. Maybe I’ll connect with someone who becomes a lifelong blogging friend. Maybe all of those will happen in one reading, and it will be because someone had the courage to write a personal essay and put it out there in the blogosphere.

So let’s keep sharing our essays. Happy blogging, my friends!



Listening to Write

Thursday afternoon, I emailed a dear friend, and in the message, I wailed a bit about the tree in my front yard. It is a sweet gum tree, and it holds on to its leaves FOREVER. Everyone else’s yard is clean and raked, and my tree is lazily drifting old, dry, brown leaves down to stain the pristine snow.

So Thursday, a dry thaw day, I went out and raked up two bags of leaves and sticks and sweet gum pods, and then I complained about my lot in my email to Terri.

She responded back, as is her wont, with a thought-filled, thought-provoking message. One of the things she said is this: Oh, I love sweet gum pods! I collect them, in the fall, and put them in glass containers. I tie rustic ribbons around the necks, and my friends all beg me to give them one.

She also sent me a link to an interesting article about reading and listening (

Those two parts of her message coalesced in my monkey brain. Here’s the story I’ve been telling, I thought: I am a poor, hardworking, persecuted woman who has all this mucky stuff to clean up in my yard.

 Here’s the story through Terri’s eyes: You lucky son-of-a-gun! You’ve got a yardful of wonderful, natural art components.

 I liked listening to Terri’s story better.

I need to listen more, I thought.

I have set myself the challenge of posting on my blog every Saturday. Sometimes there is a pressing issue to write about; sometimes a story unfolds in my life, and I just have to set it down. Sometimes I scrabble for things to say; my monkey brain natters full charge, and I am lost and dazed and have nothing to write. No matter how hard I try to put words together, summon up rich and profound things to say, my thoughts just burble on and on, senseless and unfocused.

Nyahhh nyahhh, taunts my friendly inner critic. Who are you to think you have a single thing to say?

That’s the one voice I shouldn’t listen to. I need to shut down that chatter and listen to other, better things.

Sometimes a walk will do it. I leash up Greta, the little dog, and set out. Greta has her own way of listening to the world, a way that involves more than just her ears. She snuffles; she leaps. She stops and cocks her head. She paws at leaves and snow, seeking something buried.

Walking with Greta makes me listen, too. I watch her exploring her world, getting messages left in ways I can’t even fathom, and I begin to hear the stories of deer charging through night yards, and bunnies scampering away from hungry, feral kitty cats. I notice the litter left by someone intent on a beer can party. I see new growth, and I crunch the crackly ice of a puddle. I hear the hackle-raising, ululating cawing chorus of late afternoon crows. As we wander the parking lot of the elder care home at the end of the street, I see grim-faced visitors leaving, and I see happy reunions.

Walking with Greta slows me down, and I listen to the world in my neighborhood—to the hard struggles of winter-time wild animals, to the drama of aging people. I hear the silence of dormancy, and I hear the promise that sap will run and spring will come again.

I can listen when I am embarked on my ordinary days, too—when I am in the grocery store and the young man says to a little guy riding in his cart, “How many pies are on the table?” And the he stops as the toddler points and counts, grinning and slow: “One…two…three…” The young man, it seems, has all the time in the world, and when his baby has finished counting, he takes a pie from the display and puts it in the cart.

“How many left when I take away one pie?” he asks.

One…two…three,” the baby delightedly begins again, and I push past them, their unhurried shopping a classroom in life and love of learning. In another aisle, a woman parks her cart cattywampus and barks into a cellphone. “You will NOT!” she says. “I’ve told you twenty F-ing times you are not going to that F-ing party.”

Another kind of parenting taking place, a harder, more bitter kind. Was there a time when she and the disembodied voice curling out of her Galaxy counted pies in the supermarket? What happened between those years and now?

Or were rancor and discord twined in their talk from the beginning?

Two elderly women bump their carts together, nose to nose, and give each other a run-down of Christmas visits from kids and grands. Their voices rise and arc over each other. They are excited to have someone to tell; they are competing for best holiday, and rushing to be heard.

Listening when I’m out and about teaches me about people, a mirror which lets me learn about myself.

Sometimes the Muse hands me an imperative. Here, she says, write about this. And sometimes, she is stubbornly silent. It’s all you, she’s saying. Leave me be for a while.

Stumped and frustrated, I pound my head and batter the keys and I leave a trail of lifeless words. Until I remember: listen. And when I begin to write what I’ve been listening to, the words perk up and begin to dance.





When Life Gives You Prompts: The Address Book

My Christmas card list is alphabetical; it corresponds to my address book, an aging resource, much-amended, and long pre-dating an electronic ability to archive contacts. I start at the ‘A’ section, and I address an envelope to my friend MJ, whose married name is ‘Ackroyd.’ Her address has been the same for the last 35-plus years.

But MJ is in the minority. As I wrote out my cards this December, I marveled at the changes my address book demonstrated. For example: my former student, Jannie, has had six address changes since she’d graduated from college and got her first apartment, away from her parents’ home. After some bumps and unexpected jogs, she married her sweetheart, Cal. They bought their first home together after a year of apartment life.

They added a miracle baby to their family—a miracle because they were told they never would conceive. This year, their little family moved to a house closer to Cal’s work.

I think of all that those various moves represent. There was a heartbroken year when Cal decided that he needed to spread his wings and soar in a completely different direction. There was a new relationship for Jannie, and Cal’s startled realization that she might not be there when his soaring time was over.

There was Jannie’s struggle with anorexia, and her eventual (and on-going) triumph.

There was the reconciliation and the wedding. Three years later, there was little Grayson’s birth.

And every time Jannie moved, I carefully cut the new address label off the letter she’d sent me and pasted it over her last address. Now, in the “Jannie” space in my address book, there is a little lump. And in that little lump, there are stories. Although those stories have their sad components, Jannie’s story, overall, is one of triumph.

But the address book tells tragic stories, too. I have to cross names off this year: bold Kim, who outwitted cancer for seven years beyond the time her doctors estimated. Sweet Patty, whose cancer returned after a thirty-year wait, swift and vicious. Vivacious Rosemary, who could captivate a room with her funny stories—stories always told at her own expense, never at another’s.  Cancer has been especially cruel this year.

My address book tells stories of separation and re-connection. It chronicles moves and marriages, births and divorces, leaps in employment, exciting travels, and heart-wrenching losses.

An old friend who is a freelance writer said something once that stuck with me. “If you have ten people in a room,” she said, “you’ve got at least thirty stories to tell.” As I write out my Christmas cards, I wonder how many stories are represented by the names and changes in my address book.

There are stories of meetings; there are stories of escapades. There are stories of partings, of moves and postings, of reunions and returns. There are stories of welcome, as new friends and family, new babies and significant others, enter own our and others’ lives.

There are end tales, too.

When I’m stuck, when I’m in need of a prompt to stir my writing juices, maybe I could just pick up my address book. I could select a name deliberately. I could flip to a page at random. I could pick a name and pick a story to tell. It might be “How We Met.” It might be “After the Wedding.” It might be, “Patsy Moves to a Foreign Country.” It might even be, “Why I’ll Never Write to Curtis Again.”

I might tell the truth. I might weave a tale, inspired by the real-life events my address book suggests. Whatever the Muse whispers, I am pretty sure my address book has the abundance I need to crash my writer’s block.

Not everyone, I realize, still has an old school, pen-and-paper, address book. Many of us archive our contacts in a phone…but those archives, too, have their stories to tell.

Following this thread, I wound up writing a short story about a woman of a certain age who couldn’t avoid the task of sending holiday cards. Here’s the link to that post:

What prompts has life presented to you? Please share your posts with us! Happy blogging, my friends.




You’re Gonna Love This Book: Writing a Book Review

A friend of mine gave me a book to read.

“You,” she said, “are going to love this book. It was funny! It was sad! And I loved all the characters.”

She told me the premise, and she outlined the plot. She couldn’t wait for me to read it so we could talk.

It seems to me a kind of sacred trust when someone places a book in my hands, so I cleared the decks, and then I read that book.

And I really, really did not like it.

I collected some things to say about that book–striking quotes and quirky things about the characters, and when I returned the book, we had a great conversation. And I realized that some of the things that happened in the book parallel things that are happening in my friend’s life.

It makes sense; I get it. That’s why the spoke spoke to her so strongly—and maybe why it passed me by completely.


All of this made me think about how we can write about books.

There’s a place, I think, for the academic approach–for a discussion of plot, character, theme, and setting. And there’s the challenge of defining style, the way a wordsmith tosses words out on to the page, distinctively, a different sort of tossing than any other writer can attain. There’s the quest to identify symbols and meaning.

All of those are English teacher-y joys, book-geek occupations. Not everyone loves those discussions, and even if they do, the discussions don’t mean the person who reads them will also enjoy the book.

And it’s such a personal thing: we loved a book, it made a difference in our lives. We want our friends and dear ones to love it too.

So I’m thinking we need to write about the things in the book that connected….and write about the things going on in our lives that the book connects to.


I retired in August. Not long after, a new friend from the blogosphere recommended a book by Dorothy Gillman, a mystery writer. The book was called A New Kind of Country, and it was Gillman’s memoir about moving to Nova Scotia when she was just about my age, and when her youngest son stepped out into adult independence. I dug up a copy of the book, which was written in 1978, and I read it.

It resonated because of the similarities between my stage of life right now and Gillman’s when she wrote it.

It fascinated because of the differences.

And it made me think there are some universal themes about this age and stage–nests that empty, parents who are aging, defining ourselves when the formal, official work life is over. Relationships and physical changes. How we decide what it is, in these latter years, what we call home.

So Gillman’s book enthralled me, and I started a quest to find other books by women of a certain age, and to see if the universal themes ring through their work.

Those books call to me because I speak the language, walk the same walk.

What books, right now, call to you?


My son, a young adult with autism, loves the work of Stephen King. He enjoys the thrill of the horribly fantastic. He resonates, too, I think, with a recurring theme of ‘outsiderhood’ in King’s work.

My mother-in-law, widowed two years ago, devours romance novels. The love stories there fill a kind of void in her own life; she replaces her missing hero with a fictional one, and she is drawn in and delighted.

I would not enjoy most of Stephen King’s fiction (although I loved his nonfiction book, On Writing.) I don’t care too much for most romance novels. I do, though, love murder mysteries–me, the biggest pacifist you’ll ever meet. If I were to write about those mysteries, I’d need, I think, to explore why they speak to me so. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of seeing villainous skunks unmasked and brought to justice. Maybe there are other things in those stories that meld with the nerve endings in my mind.

Whatever it is, I could recommend Louise Penny or Anne Cleeves work to you, and you might like her work. Or, you might not.

They say you can’t step in the same river twice. Along those same lines, I don’t think two people ever read the same book.


So in writing about books, I think we also have to write about ourselves. We need to talk about the characters, sure, and the reader needs to know at least a fundamental plot outline. It’s good to say when and where the book takes place, and what we like about the book.

But then we need to explore the why, I think–answer the question of why this book speaks to me right now. Unspool that, and share it, and the person who reads your review may say, “Oh, my gosh; that sounds just like me,” or, “I know someone going through exactly the same thing,” or, “I have no idea what that’s about and no desire to learn.”


The reading of a book is a dynamic thing, a shared kind of creation. The writer organizes and puts down thoughts, brings his or her own gifts and knowledge, imagination or research, and presents that composite in a unique and certain way. The reader brings his or her own lived experiences, beliefs, and interests to the work. They sieve the writer’s words through a fine-grained filter as individual as a snowflake.

The experience of reading is different for every single person, and it’s even different for that person, every single time they read the same work.

And when we write about books, I think, our challenge is to define that difference. What does the work say to me, right here and right now? The writer’s words, my filter: what experience do we create together?

If we can capture that in our reviews, we can, maybe, show our readers one of the infinitesimal facets that can be polished by reading that particular work.


What do you want to know when you read a review? What do you want to share when you write one?

Happy blogging, my friends.

Weather-Wise Writing

A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world and ourselves.
                    —Marcel Proust

A bead of sweat trickles into my eye. I suddenly am keenly aware of my navy blue t-shirt, as hot against my back as if I’d just ironed it. I realize my ankle, stretched out to accommodate my sloping posture on the brick front steps (I am bent low to paint the roughened, rusty spots on the bottom of the metal front door), is turning roasty red. A neighbor walks by and waves his baseball hat. His gray hair is matted to his sweat-sheened forehead.

“Hot enough for you?” he asks, and walks on, not waiting for the obvious answer.

It is 11 a.m. on a late September Saturday in Ohio. Mark is out back, on the ladder, putting a second coat of ‘Serious Gray’ on the high-points of the garage. I am touching up trim out front. We had the house painted in late summer, but committed to doing the finishing touches ourselves.

Who knew that waiting until autumn began would meaning working outside on the hottest days of the year?

It is NOT, learned sources tell me, ‘Indian summer.’ Indian summer only occurs when bright, hot, sunny days come after the first chilling frost. We’ve had a mild, breezy summer; some lovely sleeping nights have had temps plunge into the forties. But nothing cold enough to put frost on the pumpkins.

No, it’s just hot and sunny and entirely summer-like.


I am not complaining. I am aware that many people would love to have this kind of weather, right now, right where they are. There are horrendous storms and their aftermaths. There are forest fires. There are early blizzards and torrential rains, and there is mud sliding down hills, sluicing toward people’s homes. This day–90 degrees, bright sun, with just a little breeze to cool the flush–is a blessing, nothing less.

I think about my niece in Florida, who rode out the hurricane in her home, with her family,–about their lucky, lucky emergence with no harm to house or people. They had, then, over a week with no power, and the challenge of keeping cool—and keeping food–in the tropical heat of their near-Miami home.

I think of another niece in South Carolina, who experienced the storm surge a day after the hurricane hit Florida. Their streets were flooded; their schools were closed; their power was intermittent. People wrote to ask if she was worried about alligators coming up in all that surging water. No, she replied, the big worry is water-bound snakes.

Climate is what we expect, Mark Twain once wrote. Weather is what we get.

I am thinking we ought to think about writing about the weather, too.


Oh, I don’t mean we need to get all meteorological, with barometric readings and wind directions, highs and lows, and weekly predictions. But as we reach out over the blogosphere, connecting with each other, we might want to mention what the weather is like out our way.

It could be hot, humid, and oppressing–the kind of weather that keeps one in the cool indoors, craving shade and iced water and perhaps an afternoon nap. It might be utterly pleasant–mild temps, soft breeze: weather to write outside in. There could be a storm raging, gale-force winds bending trees to sweep the pavement. Rains might pour. Snow might inch up toward the windows.

Whatever the weather, it affects our written voice, our energy, our mood. That’s worth mentioning.

And thinking about it anchors us, brings us those moments of awareness and mindfulness–the moments from which clarity blossoms. From my cramped front porch perch, I see the sun baking the leathery leaves in my neighbor’s front yard, and I try to put the image into words. Across the street, Oscar the dog lies panting in the shade of Anne’s maple tree. And acorns are arhythmically falling—thocka, thocka, thocka, all around me–hitting shingles and rolling down roofs, bouncing off the metallic hoods of cars. Sun: hot and high and baking. Sky: bright blue.

A moment ago, I had been so intent on my work I hadn’t noticed the weather. Now I am in it. I am HERE.


And sharing it broadens us. “It could be worse,” my son will often say, quoting a favorite scene from Young Frankenstein. “It could be raining.” And somewhere–maybe YOUR where–it IS raining, softly in places and driving down in others. Winds are blowing, too. And in some places, my 90-degree ‘hot’ would be a welcome respite from aching, baking, heat.

I need to crawl out of my local perspective. I need to think about the air that people I care about are breathing, across the world, out on the coast, or a mere 200 miles away.

And maybe, to get the whole picture, we need to push away from the news sources that blare and bash, and write to each other. Is this weather, this storm, this weirdly hot autumn, is it different? Is it a new and frightening trend? What is going on in our world?

History, someone once said, is best understood one story at a time. And maybe present is best understood that way, too, and one way of sharing ‘present’ is to weave in a description of the air that floats around us. Every story, carefully told, broadens my horizon, makes me see a deeper, fuller picture. And each bit of knowledge, thus gained, helps me craft a plain for the future.

So I ask you, my friends, is it hot enough for you? And here in the blogosphere, we are not walking away. We are here to listen when you have time to answer.


#skywatch, #suggestion

Who Are the People in YOUR Neighborhood?

Sesame Street asked us that question: Who are the people in your neighborhood, the people that you see each day? When inspiration dries up and the muse refuses to answer your desperate knocks, maybe you could answer that. Maybe you could write about the character-strands that weave together the everyday tapestry of your life.


Who DO you see every day? Is it family, people who, related by blood or tied in some other way, share your home? Is it a person who lives next door, down the street, through the yards to the back?

Or is it someone that you work with, our work-lives, in 2017, creating that tapestry of friendship and proximity more than our home addresses?

Does academia fill your daily radar screen? Is there a shop you hit so often the clerk has become a friend?

Describing those who populate our lives can be a way of revealing, by extension, who we are and how we live.


The special things about our everyday people show the way we operate in that everyday situation. If, every time you venture out into the brick patio  of your backyard, a neighbor slips over to say hello, that tells something about your neighborhood. Does the person come with glad tidings? Does he always share ominous news? Is she intent on nudging you to mow your lawn, move the old car, cut the stubbly bushes? Or–are they friendly people who enjoy your company and care about the way your day played out?

At work, does your boss pop in frantically every time HIS boss emails him a new charge? Or are you part of a team that works together in well-oiled fashion, everyone embracing the challenge, moving forward to get ‘er done? Do you have a customer or client who calls you darned near every day, someone you try so hard to serve with all your patience and compassion–and sometimes, during frantic, busy days, falling short of that goal? Whose footsteps coming down the hallway make you smile? Whose tread makes you wish your workplace had a secret exit?

Do you have a third place, someplace that is not home, and not work, but where you feel comfortable and visit often? Who else is there? Is there a thin man in the corner, intense and twitchy, pecking away at a battered laptop? Does the waiter, a young woman with dreads and fearsome tattoos, always smile broadly when she sees you come in? Does the manager make it a point to say hi?

Who ARE the people in your neighborhood–whether that neighborhood is the geographic area around your home, a place of work, a coffee shop, or a virtual environment you love to inhabit? Exploring the answers might just be your next great essay.


Trying to follow my own advice, here’s my blog post for this week:


Happy blogging, my neighbors in the WordPress Neighborhood!




A Tasty Bit of Writing

There’s a scene I love in an old book I love, Pilgrim’s Inn by Elizabeth Goudge. Hillary, the  humble, clumsy old priest, has returned, on a cold, gray day, to his cold, gray home. And there he finds a cold, gray dinner, left for him by his housekeeper, who has the night off.

Hilary’s spirits plummet even further when he sees the plate with its gray, sodden potatoes. There are greasy chunks of sausage, much the same color. The meat and potatoes are held together by thick, damp pie crust.  Hillary, whose arthritis aches in the cold, takes the unappealing meal into his study, where he lights a fire and waits to warm up and prays for the spirit to eat the food and be thankful for it.

And then Jim Maloney pounds at the door. Jim is the very man Hillary’s been out looking for–a gallant little Irishman whose talent extends from acting to engineering to being a dab hand with food. Hillary ushers Jim into his study, where the visitor takes in the situation at a glance. He asks the priest’s permission to take that plate into the kitchen. Hillary, of course, says yes.

And Jim searches cupboards and chops  and heats and improvises, and then he comes out with a meal transformed. He has minced and fried and made the ugly meal into a kind of farmer’s breakfast, an omelet deluxe, with a steaming mug of tea and buttered toast on the side. It smells wonderful, and Hillary’s pains are, now, not so bad. As he tucks into the appetizing dinner, Hillary feels that there IS hope, that things CAN change, and then he is able to help Jim, who is badly in need of spiritual mending.

Goudge could have just told us Hillary was discouraged, deeply and heartily discouraged, and that he suddenly began to recover his native optimism and joy. Instead she revealed the plunge into the depths and the breaking through into the light by writing about Hillary’s meal.

One of my favorite professors once told our British lit class that United States writers don’t write food very well. And writing food well was important, he maintained. A passage with food written well takes the reader there in ways that description of other sorts just can’t do.  I began, after that, to notice food in my reading.

In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith shows us how Francie and Neeley Nolan’s mother makes dinner special at the end of the week:

Saturday supper was a red-letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot catsup. These meatballs had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

Such a humble meal to be so anticipated! Smith wraps a whole world of revelation into that little passage. She shows us that the Nolans are poor, and that the little pleasures are terribly important. She shows us that the mama is tough and resourceful. Taking the things on hand and morphing them into something special. Giving that Saturday night treat a funny, outlandish name to make the eating even more pleasing. Smith reveals that Francie and Neeley are loyal and grateful, hungry children thoroughly satisfied with their treat.

Madeleine L’Engle is a master at writing food. In A Wrinkle in Time, Meg’s mother simmers stews on the Bunsen burner and brings her family together around the old, scarred table, warmed by steaming portions, steeped in the smells of rich gravy and tender vegetables, safe in their homely kitchen–unaware of the dangers outside. When she ventures into those dangers–travels through time and space to rescue her father,–the enemy feeds Meg food that, while it offers a brief illusion of lovely smells and nutritious goodness, is as flat and tasteless as sand.

We know the falseness of Meg’s enemy through the food that he feeds her; we know the love of her family through the meals that they share.

In one of Anne Tyler’s books, she writes about a cautious widower who makes a pot of chili on Sunday, and measures and freezes six tupper-wared portions–dinners to last him through each night of the week. Think of what we know about that careful man from what his meticulous, repetitive meal planning.

(I think my professor, yea, those many years ago, may have been right…then. But since then, the United States has gone from being a nation that embraces Spam to being a nation that embraces flavor and freshness and diversity. That growth, I think, shows in the writing of modern US writers.)

Writing food can help us, as wordsmiths, to show our readers what we need them to see.

Think: the passing of a juicy peach between lovers.

Think: the gluttony of a lonely woman healing her hurts with Twinkies and Hohos.

Think: the unsated hungers of a lonely child denied enough food, and savory food, to eat.

Humble, everyday meals tell one story. Lavish banquets tell another. A breakfast shared by newlyweds lets us see an intimate, budding tale.

Traditional family foods tell a lot about the family that eats them. What a person eats by herself with no one to share the meal tells us a lot about that person.

And the food itself gives writers abundant opportunities to set the scene. The scents of food–oh, a good writer makes those scents lift off the page and tickle our nostrils. There are textures and tastes to explore and explain, and there’s the way the food looks on the plate. There’s the plate itself. There’s the place the food is eaten, and the company it’s eaten in–huddled together over the fire, digging potatoes out of hot coals with a stick, passing them back and forth and then eating them–who could resist?–steaming, tongue-burning, hot. Or sitting stiffly on uncomfortable chairs at a long banquet table where thin people, who complain of sporting an extra pound or two, place tiny spoonsful of food on their plates, then push it, listlessly, around with their forks.

Show, don’t tell, the wise ones warn us. And weaving food into our writing–letting the meal or the snack or the sip of wine open the curtain and reveal the truth–is one great way to do that.Can the food you write show your world to hungry readers?

Happy blogging, friends!



The Revel is in the Details

Write a descriptive essay about the place you do your school work, I would tell my students. They would sigh, and they would labor, and they would hand in papers.

Jared’s essay might look like this:

My desk is four feet long and two feet wide. It is made of wood with metal legs. On top of it is my laptop, and a cup full of pens and pencils. I have a chair that is padded and has wheels.

A vague and sterile picture forms in my mind. So I go back to the writer.

Where is your working space, I ask him. Is it in your room?

No! Jared says, shocked–as if I should know exactly where he works. It’s in a corner of the family room.

Wow, I say. That’s open. Is it noisy?

Oh YEAH, he says. My sister always has the TV on, and she’s talking on the phone at the same time. And my mother comes through and yells at her every fifteen minutes because she hasn’t done her homework.

Now I’m starting to see the edges of this space more clearly. Does it have a window? I ask.

NO, he says; it’s in a corner with no windows, and it’s dark. I only have one of those cheap little lamps from Dollar General, the short kind that shines on your hands and only takes a 40 watt bulb. I have to slide my books under there to read them.

Is it cramped? I ask, the picture getting more and more clear.

Oh my gosh, says Jared. I have to climb over my dad’s lounge chair, practically, to get into my chair. Which is on wheels, but it doesn’t matter, because once I’m in the chair I can’t really move. So usually, what I do is, I wait until everyone goes to bed, and that’s when I do my best work. At midnight, when my sister shuts up, finally, and the house is quiet.

NOW I get it; there’s a clear picture of Jared’s working space. (Poor Jared! I think.)

Write down, I tell him, those things you just told me about the corner and the noise and the cramped space and the light.

He shrugs, like I’m a little but wacky, but he does it. And he writes a clear, rich description. We ditch the details about the size and components of the desk, and what is left creates a vivid picture of a very particular space.

It’s not the number of details; it is the importance of them that we have to consider.

If I’m writing about what the kitchen’s like when I’m baking for Thanksgiving, I want to give an impression of the holiday bustle and feeling. I might talk about the flour drifting off the counter, the marble rolling pin (it was my mama’s) lolling next to the ceramic pie pan, which is waiting for the bottom shell to be rolled out and crimped. I’ll talk about smells–the cinnamon, the nutmeg, the rich roasting smell of pumpkin pie filling. The turkey’s thawing in my big roaster, and the Ohio State game is blaring from the family room. My husband slips in every twenty minutes or so–he is notorious for (yuck!) eating raw pie crust. The holiday baking kitchen is cluttered and warm and fragrant. I don’t have to mention the brand of my oven or the materials my counter-tops are made of to create that feeling in my reader’s mind.

If I’m writing to impress though–well, to start, I’d be writing about someone else’s kitchen. If I wanted to show a kitchen that was high end, I’d talk about marble counter-tops and stainless appliances and travertine tile. I’d mention that the stove-top had eight burners, that the wall-mounted ovens were double, that one could fit eight diners around the marble-topped island. I’d be creating a picture of an entirely different kitchen (and trust me, that IS entirely different from mine). And I’d be writing it with a completely different purpose in mind.

Writing descriptively means picking just the right details. It means closing our eyes and saying, When I think of graduation day, what do I hear? The roar of a crowd, the murmur of a mother, the pounding beat of “Pomp and Circumstance”? Whose face do I see? What do I feel–the scratch of the polyester, the heat of the sun baking the back of my neck?

Often just an image or a scent or a mention of the kind of framed art that hangs on the wall can evoke the picture we want to create. ‘Black leather swivel chair’ suggests one kind of office. ‘Cheap fake panelling’ gives us another office setting entirely.

We should revel in the details, but we don’t have to use too many. We just have to–and sometimes this is the hard part–use the ones that count.

Happy blogging, my friends!

#creative writing