Category Archives: Writing Advice

My Teaching Voice

Since leaving Lake Arrowhead three years ago I’ve been having trouble hanging on to my voice. And not just my voice really, but also my words. Sentences and paragraphs and pages of text I should be writing but that I push aside for a good novel or a movie or a great new recipe involving bacon, sweet potatoes, rigatoni, mascarpone cheese and fresh sage (this, a recent distraction—the dishes are still soaking in the sink).

I’m sure it’s not only that I am in mourning.

Some of my writing inertia could be due to a mind busy with other things—new things, like teaching college speech and all that entails… learning innovative technologies, tackling a new curriculum, slugging through online faculty required “teaching”courses, trying to lacquer my wild mane into some semblance of what my imagination believes a professor’s hair should look like…oh so many time consuming diversions.

Still, I know I should also be writing creatively.

I’m sure it’s not only that I am in mourning.

When I left Lake Arrowhead, a pain planted itself firmly behind my breast plate and I can’t shake it. I can’t walk it off, though my dear husband and I take many beautiful nature walks every single week. I can’t read it off, though I take time to immerse myself in many an enjoyable book. I can’t yoga it off, or massage it off, or wine it off. It is sewn in, gorilla glued, bolted; it is chained to my heart.

But that cannot be the only reason I do not write.

I did, in fact, write quite a bit a year and more back. (The book is about Lake Arrowhead.)

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Lake Arrowhead, CA

But I’m sure it’s not only that I am mourning.

I adore Wisconsin, and the weather here suits us perfectly. The vast greenness of the place in summer, the orange-red-yellow-green autumns, the take your breath away white frozen winters. A lake so big it looks Pacific. Lake Arrowhead, amplified.

Mourning comes to some of us for a visit. For me, without my children and my grandchildren, it stays. It has moved in to the quaint little Cape Cop home on the tree-lined avenue where we now live. It’s here to stay.

There, I’ve said it.

Missing Lake Arrowhead means missing a million moments that can never be regained—with my kids, with my grandchildren, with my friends, with all the people I was so fortunate to know. And as much as I love the cardinals and Canadian geese (and I love them a lot!), there is something sad about knowing that I will never happen upon a bear or be awakened in the night by the ungodly howl of a pack of coyotes closing in on its prey.

So, my voice began to falter a while back and has gone somewhat quiet of late.

My husband began to worry, so I finally forced myself to sit and write tonight, but as little as this accomplishment is, and as much as I love him, I cannot give him much of the credit for bringing me to my chair, for opening the blank page, for placing my fingers on the keys and letting them speak for me, expose me, help me… nor can I take any of the credit myself.

It came not from knowing that I should do it, it came instead as a magical gift from a miraculous profession.

Teaching.

Thinking I needed more family photos on my office walls, I drove over to Walgreens this afternoon to pick up some photographs I had ordered. They are beautiful photos of our newest granddaughter, Adaline Lorene, and her big sister, Jasmine, who visited us here in Wisconsin this past June.

As you can see, they are worth the ache. My girls.

     Anyway.

On my way back out to the car I stopped to ask a young man (who was coughing uncontrollably as if he might be choking) if I could help him. Just a simple, “Are you okay? Can I do anything?”

The young woman next to him, obviously his companion, said, “I recognize that voice! Do you remember me?”

The coughing continued, but she ignored it. She walked toward me. “I heard your voice and I said, ‘That’s my speech teacher!””

Of course, I remembered her, a lovely person and a good public speaker, animated and organized. We hugged. Her manfriend, ignored, coughed his way unaided to their car.

“Does he need help?” I asked. “Does he need the Heimlich? Because I’ll do it.”

“He’ll be fine,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see you.”

She recognized my voice. Here, in Kenosha, a town of roughly 100,000 people. She recognized my voice.

It seems silly, perhaps. To place so much value on recognition. But I do. I suddenly felt a little less alone. The sharing of a past. In Lake Arrowhead, a teacher never goes out without encountering a former or present student, which sometimes unnerved me. I never realized how important it was to my self-image, to my belief that I was connected to the community. I knew that I loved my students, but I didn’t perhaps understand how much I needed them.

Today I was given back a small piece of my voice, reflected through a young woman’s memory. I still feel the pain, I still crave the everyday closeness of my grandchildren, and I still miss the bears, but I can write, and that’s a soft and soothing salve for my soul. I’ll take it.

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Filed under Depression, Gratitude, Lake Arrowhead, Nature, Reading, Teacher, Voice, Wisconsin, Writing, Writing Advice

“Reading with Ghosts” Some thoughts on a post by Jenny Lawson, The Bloggess: “Sometimes tattered and worn = loved” August 9, 2016

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Like Jenny, I love used books, books that have a history of relationship with other readers that I can see and hold in my hands. The cover doesn’t need to be in great shape. There should be a name written in long hand somewhere within the first pages. Notes written in the margins. Words, phrases, paragraphs underlined. Exclamation marks, hearts, question marks in the margins. Old shopping lists stuck between the pages. Dedications to lovers, children, grandchildren, friends on the title page. This book reminds me of how very much I love being your mom.

Despite my librarian grandmother, my own library training and teacher training, and my years working in libraries and public schools, I’ve always been much more of a book sharer than a book protector. This doesn’t mean I condone random doodling, especially not of the tasteless variety, or nasty vulgarisms of any sort in any book (and I’ve seen plenty of those, believe me). And I am not advocating writing in any book that you do not own—please, respect all library books, and school texts! But I do appreciate a pithy comment that pertains to the content. I love knowing that I am sharing the experience of reading a particular piece with someone who found something striking enough to comment on right then and there, in the moment.Paris, 2013 154

Jenny Lawson says, “…reading those found books is like reading with ghosts, ones who eagerly point out their favorite passages or share their thoughts or questions in the margins.”

Books that I can remember writing in that are sitting around my house right now include:

Jane Eyre, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Catcher in the Rye (probably my first!), The Diary of Anne Frank, Man’s Search for Meaning, Teacher Man, Rebecca, Atonement, Prodigal Summer, The Glass Castle, Learning to Walk in the Dark, and lots of poems—“The Raven” comes to mind along with some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. And memorably, the teacher edition of a literature anthology I used in my classroom for many years (not sure if this qualifies as defacing a public school text, but it did raise a few eyebrows during department meetings).

Funny story there. I was told, “That’s not your book! You can’t write in that!” back in 1998 by a wonderful teacher I respected and admired. Even so, I continued to write in the book. I planned on outlasting the book adoption cycle, and I wanted to remember what worked, what went flat, what insights, funny or touching, or what “light bulb” moments were expressed by my kids. When I retired in 2014 a young English teacher retrieved the same teacher anthology from the school library that I had written notes in for years. There hadn’t been a new book adoption in all of those years because the budget was just too tight for the district to purchase a new anthology. This new teacher wrote me a letter. “What a treasure!” she said. “Thank you for writing all of that down.”

A reader after my own heart. A teacher after my own heart. I hope she never forgets to write in the margins.Paris, 2013 108

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Unexpected Relief: Canadian Geese, Kayaking, and Life Lessons

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June 2, 2015

Have you ever been gloomy on a perfectly lovely day? Maybe better to ask, have any of us not? Today began that way, sharply beautiful—a kind of begging to just be outside kind of morning, followed by a mildly warm bursting with life afternoon.

Still, I was gloomy.

My body said go outside, but my heart said no, let’s be gloomy.

My muse said, get up and write, but my mind said no, let’s be gloomy.

If it weren’t for my dogs, I might have pulled the covers over my head. But dogs need walking, so I forced my gloomy heart and mind to come along, promising myself I could crawl back in bed when we got back.

Out walking, we changed course a few times to avoid wildly happy unleashed dogs (Who knows why there were so many loose canines out on this particular day? I pictured them all prying the screens off their open windows with various size paws after their humans left for work, and then jumping out pell-mell to run and roll in the grass. The day was that pretty).

I always change course when I see a loose dog ahead, or one running toward us, not so much because I am afraid of them, but because I fear they may be baited into a fight by my feisty Schnauzer.

Anyway, we found a quiet lane eventually. Diesel and Atticus were taking things slowly, sampling the fresh long grass, sniffing and marking, sniffing and marking. Pandora was playing in my pocket: Coleman Hawkins, “Under a Blanket of Blue.”  Lovely.

And then I noticed.

I wasn’t really all that gloomy anymore.

Nice breakthrough.

I was thinking about the writing I would accomplish today. My important novel writing. Wrestling with my protagonist’s problems. Conjuring up a crucial scene to push the plot forward.

We were almost back home when Barry and Laura, two of my neighbors, waved. “Want to go kayaking with us?” they asked.

An invitation, it turned out, that I could not turn down.

I love being in the water, on the water, with the water. I love the quiet splash. The green banks sliding by. The exercise and the rest.

And this would be my first time out this season.

On a day such as this, these are the moments are sometimes given. Learning to spot them and savor them is the trick.

An hour later we were on the river paddling with just the right amount of effort to know our arms were probably morphing into something sleekly beautiful, something very un-middle-aged-women-and-man-arm-like. There we were, three people, a man and two women, just for a little while living in the moment, alive and in nature.

“The goose family is just ahead,” Laura said. “We’ve been watching them grow.”

We came around a bend and came upon two complete families. Two mothers and two fathers standing tall watching us. Two groups of chicks. One group, still downy fluff, but up and about, and maybe a third as tall as their parents. The other group was younger, but there were a lot of them—they were huddled in a perfect circle around the base of a tall shrub, looking like a living Christmas tree skirt.

There wasn’t a house or a boat or even a power line in sight. Just us and the geese.

“I didn’t know separate families lived so near each other,” Barry said. “And I hear they mate for life.”

They mate for life.

Also, and this is maybe the best part, Barry searched through all the downed branches near the river’s edge for trash. He didn’t find much, but what he found, he took with him. Took it home to recycle.

Laura smiled at me. “Barry cleans the river,” she said.

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Smiling into Spring, and Writing, and Festivals

Spring comes in fits and starts in Wisconsin. We’ve had a few days hovering at 70 degrees (very few—technically, I don’t think two qualifies as a few), but mostly we’re back and forth right now between chill winds, dark clouds, rain, snow flurries, and the occasional embrace of golden warmth and showy display of nature that keeps us right where we need to be: alert and grateful, and ready to hit the Festival circuit. Wisconsonites thrive on festivals, which go on all summer long. The first comes Memorial Day Weekend: Nestle/Burlington’s Chocolate Fest. Happy Days are where you make them, here now, here then, and most definitely…Here Again!

Even the most curmurgeonliest of my river rat neighbors has a smile to share this time of year. The guy with the waist-length beard and the four broken down boats in his driveway, the lady smoker I haven’t seen since October with the two pit bull dogs, the suspicious teenager who usually ignores my friendly wave. Today they stand proud, noses lifted high. Smiling. The seasons will and do change, and nobody and nothin’ can take that away from us.

Writing is kind of that way. For me, anyhow. Sometimes it flows like the Fox River does right now, swelled up with all kinds of life and energy, bringing on something new. Other times it gets sluggish, muddy, stagnant—full of bugs. Right now, things are moving along. Change is good. Accept and embrace that, as we do in Wisconsin, and everything else gets a whole lot brighter. Happy Writing, and Happy Festival Season!bluelawn 001

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Yoga Epiphanies and Full-Time Fiction, February 24, 2015

Owl Bar SundanceThursday or Friday, if you’ve been following me, are usually my Pub Fiction Nights. On these nights I set myself up in a pub and inconspicuously suck in and record the atmosphere. I know. Poor me. Lest you become too jealous, let me give you a bit of background.

I suck (and not just atmosphere).

Ok, that’s a little harsh. I don’t always suck. What I mean is, even though I am a writer at heart, since my earliest memories I have both known and simultaneously rejected the dream. Being a writer, right. From my perspective, I might just as well have wanted to be an astronaut or a movie star.

And I needed to earn a living. I always tended to let inconsequential things like paying the rent or buying groceries come in between me and my dream of being a full-time writer. Fine. Didn’t have a trust fund. Not many people do.

But here’s the thing. I am not getting any younger. And even during all of those years of working at not being a full-time writer, guess what? I wrote. I wrote two novels in fact while working full-time, and that doesn’t suck at all—but even so, I never felt like a real writer. I sent each of those novels out a few times, particularly the second one, but mostly I just kept them in a drawer and went on with my “real” life.

And then, and then… after a year coming to grips with my own mortality through cancer and two incredible decades of teaching eighth graders, I reached an age, that certain age, where I had a bit of money invested in retirement, and was able to say, “Time to go.” The plan was, I’d meet up with my husband across the country where he’d started a new job. I would live the literary life. Get those books published. Write more books. Really be a Full Time Writer!

Only I haven’t been writing full-time…more like some-time, between the avoiding-writing-times.

Tuesday is my Yoga night. During Corpse Pose it came to me. Yes, during that time when your mind is supposed to be completely relaxed and clear of all thoughts. That’s when I had my Ah Ha! Moment. My realization is this: My problem is not that I can’t write regularly and with complete commitment because I need to pay for my new partial dentures or that I have to be employed in order to feel valuable. Nor is it because the kitchen and bathroom floors are torn up indefinitely while my husband struggles to correct major and unexpected structural issues that we can’t afford to pay a contractor to fix. All of these things are distractions, true, but they aren’t such big obstacles to writing, not really.

Here’s my problem:  I need someone to report to, to produce for; otherwise, I will dilly-dally around with this new novel for years. That’s what I mean by “I suck.” For the first time in my life I have the time to write, yet I spend more time looking for a new job than I do writing—all kinds of ridiculous jobs—anything to distract me for a day or two or ten until I either get an outright rejection or I just never hear back so my excitement fizzles. Ho-hum, guess I’ll write a sentence or two on the novel then since I didn’t get that mad scientist job…

I am a teacher, and I love lessons! Bingo! I applied for a job recently that required I complete an assigned task. I was thrilled the entire time I was working on that assignment, couldn’t wait to get it turned in. I didn’t get the job, but I learned a valuable lesson about myself. I work best when I work for someone other than me.

When I taught language arts the biggest thrill was in the relationships, and sharing of knowledge. I wasn’t writing lessons in a vacuum, they were written in the classroom, constantly changing, adjusting to the needs and moods of the students and the days—the lessons needed to breathe to be compelling. So it is with my writing.

So I’m going back to the classroom, in a way, investing in my own education once again. There are many courses I want to take through the University of Wisconsin, Madison Continuing Studies Writing Program, but I’ll choose one for now. I hope to begin soon. It will force me to focus. This is not to say that I won’t become gainfully employed one of these days; if the right offer comes along, I’ll take it! But whether I work outside the home again or not, one thing is for certain, I will be writing, full-time. Early Winter 2014 to 15 047

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Fact or Fiction? Writing Tips from Writers Digest

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/6-tips-for-writing-fiction-based-on-true-events?et_mid=712046

One of the great things about online media is that sometimes you find just the advice you need at that moment.  This short piece regarding writing fiction based on true events came at the right time for me. I have been finding myself trapped between two opposing needs: to tell the truth, and to protect others.  Maybe, according to this article, I can do both. I hope you find it useful.

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