The Magic of the Writing Practice

My manuscript has come back from my editor. We’ve talked on the phone about her comments and my vision for the book. An editor moves you toward a goal of incorporating new and better writing. Someone reads your work and offers objective criticism based, hopefully, on their own experience as a professional in the writing business. She wants to see this expanded, that delved into. My editor, although not a writer herself, comes from a solid background of working with Big Five publishers and authors from diverse backgrounds.

A writer, if she’s smart, profits from criticism. After receiving her developmental edit, I began to revise, combine chapters, add new writing to my novel, tentatively titled Ava’s Story: A Woman Alone. One of her criticisms that Ava seemed too focused on her relationships with men, made me smile. As an older widowed woman, Ava had dipped a toe more than once into the dating pool and knew widows and divorcees talking about relationships. But also, because my editor is married, we laughed that sometimes she envies her single friends.  She wants to know more about the life of single mother, of woman alone. She wants more of Ava. “There’s a fine line,” she said, “between a character feeling loneliness, yet her strength admired by the reader.”

Her observation that the spiritual seeking side of Ava needs greater exploration resonated. I look forward to developing this aspect of Ava’s journey as a woman who ponders the “exciting sea change” that comes with reflection and a rich inner life.

An editor needs to offer encouragement. “Overall, I really enjoyed reading this,” she wrote. “You have a wonderful voice and are an extremely talented writer.” Several sections of the novel, dealing with a friend’s Alzheimer’s and Ava’s childhood, she labeled “exquisite writing.” She added: “This story will surely touch many readers grappling with love and loss, aging and the search for meaning in this life.” I breathed a sigh of relief. When it comes to editing, all of us feel a bit like beginners.

Which brings me to our Women’s Writing Circle last weekend, much of which centered on the craft of writing, while offering validation. Difficulties, longing, loss, grief and joy beckon as we row on in what is often a healing journey, and a creative pleasure. Readback lines to the writer, what resonated, yes, this is a form of editing. It’s a commitment to the craft to take the risk … to read our work, or have another read it. Through the magic of the writing practice we develop stories to their fullest potential. As our writers did, a writer moves toward those moments of being that lead to understanding life by putting pen to paper … writing a poem about autumn leaves, a reflection on a September day at the beach with only waves and no swimmers, growing up in Pittsburgh with its empty manufacturing sites and silent smokestacks. Or for me, revising a novel where a woman remembers a rainy day at the library with her father. These moments where life and art come together offer the magic of the writing practice.

How about you? Do you have an editing experience you can share?

When a Writer Languishes

Lately, it seems I’ve been hearing from a lot of writers that they’re languishing—they don’t know what to write, let alone feel the energy to write. Everything from Covid, to health setbacks, to exhaustion with their day jobs, adds to the fatigue. In my case, it has to do with not a whole lot happening. I feel a sense of restlessness some days. Things feel ‘ho hum’ and I ponder making changes, but lack the energy.

Meanwhile, I’m waiting for my novel to come back from the editor, at which point, I think I’ll be motivated to work again. But this thing about writing, as I tell other writers, is often tied up in success … how many books we’ve sold, or how many readers follow us on social media. “Success” is knowing your audience, staying tuned to what’s marketable … breaking through a very competitive market where everyone has a “printing press” at their fingertips. Then there’s “success” that comes with figuring the story out, constructing the narrative arc, deep diving into psychological terrain, especially for memoir writers.

Last night, a friend and I went to an outdoor event where a writer of Western fiction gave a talk and reading. A lovely evening here in the Philadelphia area, we sat at picnic tables and ate barbecue from the local brewery.  I had never heard of the author before, but my friend had and said his books were a favorite of her father and grandfather. “They were easy reads,” she recalled. “Comfort reads … books they read before going to bed at night.”  The author had built a successful career around a sheriff and a cast of characters and his books had been picked up by cable. What struck me was when he said the last book wrote itself six months before his publisher’s deadline and he’s already working on the next story in the series. That happened to me once or twice where the stories wrote themselves, but this latest book, a novel, now out to an editor, which continues the story of my character Ava Stuart, has been a bit of a slog. My momentum, too, is often slowed by considerations of how great a monetary investment I want to make in publishing the book.  As I listened to this author talk about his copy editor and publisher, a partner by his side when he tours, I thought … I have none of that.

I’m not making excuses for my own languishing, but I am aware what I’m up against. Sometimes, the writing flows, other times, not. I’m also my own marketer and publicist. My writing has focused on loss and grief, transformation and renewal. It’s not just story and dialogue, but a narrative reflection and meditation on life.

Maybe I’ve set the bar too high, but I wouldn’t write anything else. And not every writer, even the most successful ones whose books became television series and movies, is imaginative or a great literary genius. I’ll never have my books turned into a cable TV series and I don’t expect to find an agent, but at least I’m getting the work—my voice—out there.  As my friend said after the reading last night, she loves books. She grew up in a house where books found their way into everyone’s life. She has never read a book that hasn’t offered her a lesson of some kind. A lesson she could apply to her own life. I thought how true that was for me, too, and how I’ve worked hard at passing on what little wisdom I have to others through my own writing. So when a writer languishes, maybe it’s time to remember what got us into this crazy business in the first place. You have to write. And nobody else can do it for you.

Remembering You on September 11

The baby wasn’t due for three weeks, but babies don’t arrive on schedule, or at least, not two hours before a 40th birthday bash. Invites gone out to friends and family. Too late to cancel. While the baby and I snuggled in the hospital, you went home and passed out cigars. A son on your birthday! What a gift! And then, worn out from the latest round of chemotherapy, you bid our guests goodnight and fell into a deep sleep.

Fourteen years later. Our son’s birthday … and yours … the day the planes hit the Twin Towers. I got to the newsroom around 9 o’clock. My editor sat at a desk, eyes glued to the TV screen. We watched in disbelief as a plane flew into the North Tower … and then another plane struck the South Tower. Outside, a spectacularly glorious day mocked the horror just 90 miles north of us … bodies falling from the sky, charred, ashen faces riven with tears. I’m sorry but we won’t be able to celebrate your birthday tonight. As a single mother who earned her living as a reporter, I had to work, of course. I felt sadness, the death of innocence for you, our son. No one to take my place that haunting September, 11. Order pizza, I said. Stay inside with your brother. Ok. I love you.

Life, the way I had expected it, had pretty much ended seven years before, although your sons and I had spun a home of strength and abundance, kindred spirits. Maybe because you took me to places no one else did, I loved you almost from the start. Montreal … Quebec, blue-gray skies above the St. Lawrence. Those first crazy weeks of meeting, arguing, making up, making love, driving back from Canada in a pounding rainstorm. You were so intense, but cute in a manly, vulnerable way. Although we met in April, we knew our fate by September, and you slipped a diamond on my finger. I wasn’t interested in anything after that but you, and—happily—you with me. We loved exploring the countryside, paths winding through sun-dappled woods … Flirtation Walk curving above the Hudson River where you remembered long-lost dreams of glory and honor. We spoke of new dreams, a new life to come. The children we would have. Roads to take. Places to see.

Cooler weather is on the way. I feel it in the morning as I sit at my picnic table, reading, writing, listening to the cicada’s fading summer song. Pale yellow leaves drift to earth. What would you say? What does it mean to survive? Life is short, you say. I learned from grief to write of you, of us. It’s a difficult world. It’s a difficult life. But at least for a time, I forget the tragedy and remember September 11 as the gift of new life on your birthday.

A Woman and the Open Road

Remembering is hard. Christmas without a loved one is hard. Not having money is hard, especially when you’re older.  And so freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose, to quote the famous song. And the open road beckons.  

This weekend I rented Nomadland, the Oscar-winning film based on the 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder. In the movie, Fern’s not homeless … just houseless.  She lives in a van with the ghost of her late husband. Time may not be on her side, but despite the grief, the loss, she’s determined to make the most of her circumstances.

I remember when I was fifty-six. My brother Andy sized up my situation. I owned my home and had enough money in the bank. Widowed and with the kids out of college, I never had to work again, he said. It felt like going backwards. I was twenty-one again, traveling to London on a PanAm flight and landing on a muggy July morning a little too late to attend services at Westminster Abbey but embarking on a solo journey of a lifetime.

Now, a career behind me, reinvention on the horizon, the West beckoned. Like Fern, I found community in the desert. No longer tethered to the same place, the same routine, I discovered a new sense of freedom in Arizona. I didn’t want to waste any time. Every day out West felt new.

The specter of falling in love again called … albeit with the fear of being hurt again. I’ve had my chance to trade the solitary nomadic life for another house, another partner. Like Fern, I pondered the tradeoff … loss of freedom for ‘security ‘ … was it worth it?

Yet freedom to smell the morning air, take my time over a cup of coffee with no one to answer to proved a more powerful aphrodisiac, although if you have options, there’s risk. But if you don’t risk anything, maybe you won’t write anymore. A trip to the Himalayas, to the Great Wall, to the Great Barrier Reef in the years that followed after that conversation with my brother were my version of nomadland. The alchemy of transformation morphed into the spiritual, into the return to a small, white-steepled church overlooking farmland near Pennsylvania Dutch country where the ghosts of my husband and my parents some Sundays sit next to me on the wooden pews.

Now life has taken a slower, simpler turn. An August afternoon, walking a wooded path where the footfalls of Revolutionary War soldiers still echo is my ‘open road’. An impromptu lunch with my sons in a small town where a Quaker meetinghouse dates back to the 1830s is my social life. But the path, for me, at least, still leads to this: It’s always interesting what’s out there

As a woman in Nomadland says, “you just have to learn to take care of your own shit.” Like Fern, I remind myself of the joy of being alive. Of reveling in a sunset from my kitchen window. Of opening that iron gate and taking to the open road … again, soon, maybe. I’m reminded of traveling with a community of nomads, women alone I’ve met along the writer’s way. I’m reminded of things coming full circle.

The Life and Death of a Writer

I remember her perky brown eyes and short curly brown hair. She loved to write and had contributed to our anthology, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women’s Writing Circle.  Yesterday I reread her story, a beautifully penned tribute to her mother-in-law, a woman she had known since childhood and admired as mentor and friend, who tragically died of dementia. In a horrible way. Walking lost along the train tracks near her home in Philadelphia. 

Last week I learned that Lynda died and so I found the anthology and reread her story. “She had gotten forgetful,” the writer who informed me of Lynda’s death said, “and I suggested she see a doctor. I don’t think she ever did.” That was months ago … before the Amazon packages piled up against her front door and concerned neighbors called the police. Apparently, they found her lying by the shower. Like many of us, Lynda was a woman living alone. It wasn’t train tracks that killed her, but  …. 

When I mentioned Lynda to a friend from church, she suggested loneliness. “Loneliness is killing people,” she said. Of course, we know loneliness isn’t limited to living alone. You can be in a relationship and be alone. Was it dementia or some other health-related illness that killed Lynda? Or the pandemic? Had she been so fearful of going out, she ordered everything in, which explained the Amazon packages?  Or, had one sip of wine too many, one too many lonely nights, resulted in a slip on the floor? No cell phone nearby. No partner to call to for help, allowing the peace, the surrender? 

A graduate of Girls High in Philadelphia, Lynda wrote with great love of growing up in “one of many Philadelphia neighborhoods”, Frankfort.  It was there she met her future mother-in-law “Mrs. B”, who became her friend and confidante.

“I remember one winter day , when I was twelve, taking leave from the rest of the sledding party to help Mrs. B with the cookies. I loved the smell of the baking sweets and the cocoa on the back burner of the stove, but I had an ulterior motive. I needed to talk about my stepfather.”

After she married her second husband, Lynda moved to Chester County, right around the corner from me in Chester Springs, which is how she ended up coming to the Women’s Writing Circle. But, like so much in life when time and circumstances intervene, we lost contact over the years. I remember the last time I saw her.  We ran into each other at Target. I think the death of an ailing, terminal husband she had coped with for years had left her resigned. Or, maybe relieved? I don’t remember much else of our conversation. 

An “experienced corporate citizen” as she described herself, with a doctorate in educational psychology, Lynda’s “Loving Life at Retired” on LinkedIn made me wonder. Did she miss the path forward? Had retirement failed to live up to its dream? Had the sound of a tinkling windchime in nighttime breeze lost its magic? Had the loss of memory come with sudden shock? I will never know. Like much of life, we selfishly apply a tragedy to ourselves, left only with speculation about our own path forward. Sometimes, I think I should move into a 55-plus community, for the company, the activities. Except that another woman I knew died alone in her 55-plus house. Like Lynda, Eileen was found sprawled on the floor. 

My writing colleague from the anthology had called to say that Lynda’s obit was being written. Could they mention she had been a part of the Women’s Writing Circle and had a story published in Slants of Light? It brought to mind another woman, Darlene, who died alone two years ago and wanted her obituary to reflect her participation in the Women’s Writing Circle. Another life, another death, another writer. Was this a sign? How many women who needed community had nowhere to turn? Although I thought I had closed that chapter, I’m left pondering … should I start the Circle again? Maybe, I need it as much as they. Time, as they say, will tell.

The Journey of Writing Your Story

A writer does many things to present a compelling story, but perhaps the most important is conveying her message, her take on the world. In that regard, almost every writer must dig deep into her spiritual resources, her soul, if you will. Who is she? What is the divine power behind her creative journey?

In The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron writes: “Life is what we make of it. Whether we conceive of an inner god force or another, outer God, doesn’t matter. Relying on that force does.”

Key to the artist’s journey is confronting doubts and naysayers. This comes in many forms and faces. It can be the punishing parent who warns that if you publish this story she will see you in court and thus ends what might have been a glorious book enjoyed by many; the agent/publisher who rejects your work because he or she wants a “marketable” book, the sort of trash you have no intention of writing. It can be the voice within you saying, what I write is no good. I have no talent. This self-sabotage is often the darkest of places because there’s no way out except through sheer force of will.

In my next novel, titled Ava’s Story: A Woman Alone, a woman seeks answers as she travels the road toward aging and transformation … the final chapter, so to speak. For some time, Ava felt the best years of her life ended when Jay died. They seemed the most promising, brimming with excitement and expectation, where anything was possible and the world her proverbial oyster. As Ava observes, female friends saved her in the long years after Jay’s death. So did family and a good dog. A professional writer and single mother, she explores relationships and emotional connections with men and women, learns the value of slowing down, and the transformational power of international travel and spiritual growth.

I worked hard on this book and hope eventually to publish it. I believe that Ava’s journey translates into an important and universal story of a woman’s life. This is where the dedication to the spiritual journey becomes more crucial, having faith that what I write is something of worth, that Ava’s journey is not just about her, but the human condition.

The promise of writing is an exciting creative quest that gives us new life and offers our readers a collaborative journey with us.

Fruits of Summer

Although I don’t live in the country, I live in what used to be country. The vestiges of farms and farm markets, produce stands and open fields abound within an easy drive. You might say I have the best of both worlds. Country at my fingertips and the city of Philadelphia a 40-minute drive away, two separate worlds merge as one.

A couple of miles up the road, a farm offers peaches picked that morning. These sweet, succulent gems are the essence of summer, a season of lazy days, reading by lengthened daylight, flowers abloom in kaleidoscopic color and rivers of white clouds and blue skies.

I was born in July and growing up most of my friends were away on vacation to the mountains or the shore. Birthdays were solitary affairs so I learned the value of a good book. While Dad mowed the lawn, I ran through the sprinkler in bathing suit. There was freedom, but loneliness too. The lesson learned was to look inward, not outward, for happiness.

This summer my sons travel through Spain. Intrepid explorers that they are, I give myself a little credit that this love of travel and experiencing new cultures derives from the summer two decades ago when I took us to Italy. It was there in the morning azure mists over the Mediterranean and the Assisi hillsides abloom with sunshine that Emerson’s credo “life is a journey, not a destination” resonated.

As a single mother, I reveled in summer travels with my sons. Summer felt like the most magical time of the year as we explored the road from Paris to the beaches of Normandy, the vistas overlooking the China Sea. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

It saddens me that international travel was not to be this summer, at least for me. I spend this July babysitting ‘the girls.’ A German Shepherd and a ‘pithuahua’ (pit bull and chihuahua mix), my sons’ dogs Rin and Goose follow me everywhere. My dog Lily the Lab is the alpha dog. When she goes out, they follow. When she rests, so do they. They create their own ‘sisterhood.’

This birthday the friendship of women meant sharing our writing and life stories. They treated me to a lunch and dinner out. They wrote beautiful birthday cards, invited me to swim at their pool and picnic in their backyard, a pastoral haven of bird feeders and hummingbirds within reach. Being alone felt not alone. With them, I found our conversations shedding light on my own hopes and dreams for the future.  

And so, I remain watchful, an eye cast toward the distant horizon for new experiences, knowing that idleness does not mean being idle. My energy resides with the fruits of friendship, the memories of the road less traveled, time alone between country and city, and a succulent peach on a summer morning.

How about you? What summer memories can you share?

The Truth of a Woman’s Story

Last week I wrote about writing as a way of picking up the pieces. This week I spoke to women trying hard to do just that … pick up the pieces of their lives after Covid. Some downsized, some gave up smoking, some joined AA. Some struggle with where do I go from here? and what changes should I make?

I struggle with that, too. Maybe walking through a field with my dog and savoring the intricacy of Queen Anne’s lace along a streambank provides comfort. Like a pair of jeans worn in over time, the daily routine is a writer’s muse. She gets up in the morning, lets the dog out, makes a cup of coffee and puts pen to page. Soon, very soon, she feels, however illogically, that whatever happens,  happens … or, at least, the way it’s supposed to. 

In the silence of solitude, she thinks maybe she’ll lead a Bible study in the fall, volunteer at a children’s summer day camp (probably not), plan a day for herself (go to Bucks County Playhouse to see a writer’s one-woman show).  She always comes back to this business of a woman’s life. She reads a comment on Facebook. A man takes umbrage at a seemingly innocuous suggestion that writing the truth of her story is risker for a woman than for a man. He is outraged by her outspokenness, demands an apology. Aren’t men just as courageous to write their truth?

In the late afternoon, she relaxes in the shade of the umbrella on her deck and reads Women Talking, a novel by Miriam Toews, a Canadian writer reckoning with her Mennonite past. As she reads, she finds reinforcement that this patriarchal thing is ever present. IT always was and will be forevermore. It was there when she was young and it’s still going strong when she’s an old woman. Which gets back to writing and why she writes. Which gets back to answering the questions, where to go from here and what comes next? How can a woman write a woman’s life, the truth of her story? She has a compass and a map from years of living. So, she moves forward without apology, takes the dog for a walk, reads a good book, revels in her life along the writer’s way.

Writing to Pick Up the Pieces

Following Covid, a lot of us felt as if we were languishing. Finding it hard to pick up the pieces. A man I barely know confessed as much to me the other day. “I don’t know where to go from here,” he said. He hoped to restart his business, but time would tell. That’s probably why I write. To figure things out. Digging deep becomes more rewarding the older I get. Understanding yourself is the best compass to know where to go from here.

As we write, we come back to ourselves. Writers and readers revel in shared experiences … the neighborhoods we grew up in, the people who became our friends, the family-held secrets carried from one generation to the next … the trauma.

The last is tricky for writers. Excitement coupled with fear marks the journey as we strip away the façade and the secrecy, relive the unfairness of it all. Stripping away is good for the soul. Of course, as Virginia Woolf said, a woman needs to have a room of her own. It helps to have financial independence when you write. But it’s not necessary.

This past year as I wrote about events, places and people, the exercise became even a greater touchstone to creativity, self-discovery and empowerment than before. After all, writing is a psychological discovery on a secular and spiritual level. It’s a way to connect, yes, even on social media there’s a human heart beating.

When I wrote Again in a Heartbeat, I excavated the trauma of loss and widowhood at a fairly young age. Writing about cancer and its toll on marriage may not seem appetizing. It helped to take a deep breath, quit censoring myself, feel confident that I offered something of value in my relationships and my words. What whetted my appetite as much as anything was the discovery along the way … my desires and dreams, hopes and false expectations emerged with the story. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write to discover what I know.”

Recently, a friend told me she’s not sure what to write anymore. She wants to write, but doesn’t … the energy evaporated. We began talking about her day. So much of it interested me. Surely, it interested her, too. Her story, I knew, would strike a chord with others. She didn’t have to write a book, just a few paragraphs here and there. I told her I was writing because it gave my day meaning, even on those days where I feel I am languishing. So, in a sense, I’m writing to pick up the pieces.

Ireland and The Writer’s Life

In Dublin we followed in the footsteps of James Joyce’s protagonist Leopold Bloom, past townhouses with blue and red doors and window boxes brimming with pink petunias.

Around every corner and turn, Ireland offered lessons in writing and poetry. Whether Irish or not, whether writer or not, Ireland deeply moves you.  From its rugged coastlines to its rolling hillsides flowering with white thistle and yellow gorse bushes … its wild daffodils blooming in profusion on chartreuse meadows … it’s magical.

For the writer, it is pure delight to wander Ireland where Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw produced plays and poetry that changed the world.

James Joyce was a risk taker. Always seeking to challenge the literary conventions of the day and find new expression, Joyce was rebel and outsider. Only by being outside and looking in could the author capture Dublin―indeed, Ireland―although he left in his early twenties for the continent of Europe, never to return. 

Still, as Joyce put it: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

As writers we break barriers, challenge norms and take risks with crafting and presenting our stories. Our voice, our take on the world and our memories are unique and, hopefully, universal. We play with point of view, often merging fiction and memory with imagination as we move from one character’s perspective to the next. The people we have known and loved, detested and admired, take on a life of their own.

Joyce, along with Nobel Prize winner, the Irish poet WB Yeats, combined memoir and fiction … drawing from personal experience, the people they knew and the defining events of their lives and moments in Irish history.

Yeats wrote often about the supernatural, the fairies that came to him in dreams and his quest to understand the nature of life and death. In one of his most famous poems “The Wild Swans at Coole”, he sees them and the Irish countryside again:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

In the footsteps of writers, you pass this way and may never come again. So, if you’re like me, you also take with you a memory, a moment, a realization. You craft this into a story, a poem, a blog post, a way to live and traverse the world and share through the power of words.

This is from a post written prior to the pandemic when I traveled through Ireland in May and June of 2017.

How about you? Can you share a memory of a journey that touched and moved you and helped you craft a story or poem or find a new way of looking at the world?