Wednesday, December 28, 2016

QUIRKY? ME?

post by Lynn 

DID YOU KNOW?

Sir Walter Scott wrote his poem, Marmion, on horseback, preferring to compose in motion.



Flannery O’Connor munched on vanilla wafers as she wrote.

Truman Capote was a self-professed “horizontal author,” writing on a notepad while prone on his couch or bed. He always wrote drafts 1 and 2 in pencil, then propped a typewriter on his knees to type up draft 3, always on yellow paper.

Then he’d set the draft aside, re-read later and decide whether it was worth submitting. If the answer was yes, he would type it again, this time on white paper.

Edgar Allen Poe balanced a feline companion on his shoulder as he wrote. (What, no raven?!)

It seems that writers through the ages have exhibited all sorts of odd behaviors.

Which got me thinking, what are my writerly quirks?

MY QUIRKS

Well, we haven’t got all day, so here’s a sampling:

I go through a lot of Post-it® notes… 



I have always loved colorful sticky notes. During my twenty years as a trainer, I went through piles of them—using them to design sessions, track information, capture ideas, you name it.

So it only makes sense that when I took up creative writing I kept on Post-it®-ing. My writing room is slathered with sticky notes, in odd arrangements on a bulletin board, and stuck to the window casing, directly to the right of my computer.

In view as I write this post: a blue sticky note with, “Let the moment stand and speak for itself” above an orange note that reads, “Good writing is always an unresolved struggle between meaning and music. When in doubt, go with the music. – Richard Hugo (paraphrased).”

Words and ideas dribble in, and I collect the drops and let them gather… 

I journal first thing in the morning, and tag (with sticky notes, of course) sections that could be the start of something, or could be added to an existing story, poem or essay. Then I copy the tagged bits and put them in file folders.

My filing system is incomprehensible to anyone but me. Sample labels include, Amor Fati; Paying My Respects; All Roads Lead to Lusk; In Praise of the Half-assed Effort; and Biomimicry.

Eventually these folders call to me and I open them up and finger through the notes. A poem, essay or story coalesces.

Shhhh… 

No music for me while I’m in my writing room. Too distracting. I’m not strict about silence, and I welcome the bird chirps that filter in from the outside, but I just don’t invite in much sound.

Let me see it…

I’m a visual learner and I’ve discovered that I need to be able to picture places, characters, even emotions as part of writing about them. So, I collect images, snipped from magazines and newspapers. I create collages with stand-ins for my characters, and include landscapes and rooms that I imagine the characters wandering around in.


For the love of a verb… 

I collect verbs. I jot them down on a white notepad. When the page is filled, I rip it off and file it in my Bevy of Verbs folder.

Why do I collect verbs?

Hell if I know. I just love good verbs, and by “good” I mean active, sensual, gritty, precise verbs. I admire writing with strong verbs and dislike writing with passive and repetitive verbs, so I guess I’m trying to give my writing brain plenty of material to work with.

CLAIM YOUR QUIRKS

I believe that our quirks are clues to our creative process, and should be respected.

I believe you can experiment with the methods other writers use, but eventually you stumble on your own quirky way of doing things.

As Celia Blue Johnson points out in the introduction to Odd Type Writers, 

“… the path to great literature is paved with one’s own eccentricities rather than someone else’s.” 

Not feeling particularly quirky? 

You can always give the methods of the masters a try. Maybe something will take.

SCROLLWORK



Write an entire story on a scroll, taping the pages together and rolling them up, the way Jack Kerouac did with On the Road.

TRY THIS IN SUMMER

Copy John Cheever’s writing style (clad only in his underwear) or Victor Hugo (who wore only a shawl while composing Hunchback of Notre Dame). 

Might want to close the curtains though.

INDULGE

Or make like Edith Wharton, who wrote in bed, wearing a silk nightgown and matching bed cap. Her dog was inevitably curled up at her side and she always wrote in blue ink on pale blue stationary.

When your family asks when you are going to get up, tell them you are exploring your creative process.

A NEW YEAR, A NEW OPPORTUNITY

So, let’s all make it a point in 2017 to enjoy and cultivate our quirky side. I’m betting our writing will benefit from it, and our friends and family will look on in amazement or amusement.

And what are we here for if not to provide amazement and amusement to one another?


What quirks do you have? Come on, tell us…



The following resources were used in this post:

Odd Type Writers by Celia Blue Johnson

Stranger-Than-Fiction Writing Habits of 18 Famous Writers by Baihley Grandison


Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Pushing Back Against the Darkness


by Susan

Fell asleep on the couch last night. Woke up and the room was lit only by the quiet, multicolored glow of the Christmas lights on the mantel.

Those close to me know I'm not a big fan of Christmas. If Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch had a love child, I'd be it.

Christmas lights, though – those I love. There is something human and hopeful and solid about them. As the days grow shortest, we light whatever faint lamps we can muster against the night. We refuse to let darkness descend completely. Come Solstice, the night gives up and begins to recede.

I recently discovered the work of Jenny Lawson, author of Let's Pretend this Never Happened and Furiously Happy. She's a woman with a wicked sense of humor, a history of mental health issues, and the bravery to write about the most horrifying and embarrassing moments in her life. The things she might have wished had “never happened.”

She has a handful of letters she keeps from readers who wrote her to say they felt suicidal, but read her words and no longer felt alone. That knowledge gave them strength to keep going. It's only a few, but even one is enough.

When Lawson wrote, she was lighting a lamp in the darkness for someone who needed it. When we write, we may be doing the same. We might never know if or who, but we can have faith that we need to put it out there.

So keep writing. Your stories matter. Your words are a gift to the world.

With that, I wish you happy holidays, whichever ones you celebrate. May the new year bring you blessings.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

GENEROSITIES

post by Lynn

Generosity is the soul of writing. You write to give something. To yourself. To your reader. To God. You give thanks for having been given the words. You pray to be given words another day.
- Erica Jong 


 A cold night, a crowded room, soft light, attentive faces, and one microphone.


These were the components of the Launch Party for Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology, which was held last Wednesday night, December 7th, at the Asher Building in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

So much generosity in one evening, I can hardly tell it:

The generosity of the writers.

These are the kind souls who shared the stories and poems that make up Watch My Rising. Each labored over the words. Each drummed up the courage and honesty and chutzpa it takes to speak up about recovery and addiction. Each received a single copy of the anthology for their efforts. 

The generosity of the readers.

Aaron Holst, of Sheridan, Wyoming, who braved the winter roads to read his poem, “New Songs” and his story, “Shooting Star or Beacon?” to a mesmerized crowd.

Aaron Holst, of Sheridan, Wyoming reads "New Songs"
Darrah Perez, who made the long, snowy-road trek from the Wind River Reservation to Cheyenne—a 5 hour drive—to read her story, “The Answer Is in Loving Ourselves.” She also gave voice to “Homeland Security” by Margaret Smith-Braniff. The audience was awe-struck. You’d have to hear Darrah read/perform to fully understand.

Darrah Perez, of Ethete, Wyoming reads "The Answer Is in Loving Ourselves"
My husband, Mike Carlson, who read “The Pigeons of Lynn” by Paul Hostovsky and “Lost Gospel” by Jim Littwin. I kid you not when I say that he volunteered to be a reader—no arm-twisting on my part.

Judith Schulz, who read “To Give Thanks to Sweaty Palms” by P.F. Witte, “Should We Set a Place for Peggy?” by Kristina Cerise, and “Connoisseur” by Rebecca Taksel. Judy sings, writes and acts and I recruited her because I knew she would give life to the voices in those particular pieces. Several people I talked with after the reading raved about Judy’s delivery—all with one word in common: “Wow!”

Judy Schulz reads "Should We Set a Place for Peggy?" by Kristina Cerise
Leif Swanson, friend, and English professor at Laramie Community College, who lent his deep, calming voice to two poems: “Taking on Life” by Antonio Sanchez-Day and “The Gift I See” by Shane Ronel Crady. He also brought his LCCC composition class to the reading.

James Pringle, intern at Recover Wyoming, who read Pace Lawson’s story, “De-stigmatized.” This is not a short piece, but James did a masterful job at sharing it all without a glitch. He told me he was happy to do it, because Pace’s story was his favorite.

James Pringle reads "De-stigmatized" by Pace Lawso
The generosity of the audience.

First off, they came. Did I mention the cold night? (Windchill factor of 18 degrees Fahrenheit BELOW ZERO.) Icy streets? Mid-week during December? Yet come they did, some eighty people, many of whom had never attended a reading of this sort before. Friends, strangers, people in recovery and people who love writing. Even a woman who just happened to see the flyer at the Y and decided to come out.


They enjoyed the catered food (provided by De-Lish Catering) and gave the readers the gift of their rapt attention.

They bought copies of the anthology too. Many of them gave extra money, saying, “Use it for Recover Wyoming’s programs, or to buy copies of the anthology for treatment centers, prisons, etc.”

Anthology editor, Lynn Carlson, reads "With All Due Respect"
And they were generous with their praise of the anthology, and of the reading. They promised to spread the word about the book, and about the message: recovery is real. They wanted to know when the second edition is coming out.

Conversations around the room during the break and after the reading were full of exactly what this editor had always wished for: insight, concern for those who are still stuck in the cycle of addiction, desire to help, hope.


The generosity of the organizers.

Recover Wyoming staff and board, the Coffee Depot staff (who kept the warm beverages coming), United Way members... lots of folks contributed to pull this event off.


Writing is not a performance but a generosity.
- Brenda Ueland


All of the above: generous, thoughtful, caring folks. 

So a note to myself and all my writer friends in this season of giving:

Let us be generous with our words. We'll never know when the world needs them.







Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Heaven Help Me, I Attempted NaNoWriMo

by Susan


Didn't quite make it to the top...
I'm not sure what possessed me, but I signed up for National Novel Writing Month in November. I thought it might push me to finish the embryonic novel I keep poking at. I tend to be a slow writer, so I thought maybe I'd try to develop a little more speed. Or maybe I needed a project to pull me out of my doldrums. I'm notorious for finding projects instead of dealing with life as it exists.

For those of you not familiar with NaNo, the idea is to start with a blank page on Nov. 1 at 12:01 a.m. with the goal of completing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 30. I chose a slightly different goal: 50,000 words progress on an existing novel.

I failed boldly. Magnificently. Wrote only a fraction of the goal. And I'm still happy I did it, because I learned a few things along the way:

  • It's easier to rack up a word count than you might think, as long as the butt goes in the chair. 
  • Learning and doing are part of an unending cycle. The more you write, the more you learn about writing. The more you learn, the more your writing changes. 
  • Your own goals don't have to be anyone else's. One writer I know on Facebook set a goal of 500 words per day during NaNoWriMo. My goal was to make progress on an existing novel. 
  • Some of us need more self-care than we want to admit or give to ourselves. I don't do well with inadequate food, water, rest, and exercise, and providing myself with those things takes time. You need to carve out that time.
  • You have to factor in your own energy level when you set goals. I tend to be low-energy, and I forget that sometimes.
  • Energy level includes clearing out enough mental space to think and imagine. 
  • Community matters. Having writer friends -- online or off -- who can be cheerleaders is a great help when discouragement sets in.

Would I do NaNoWriMo again? Maybe, although I seem also to have learned that I'm temperamentally incapable of writing fast and sloppy first drafts. One way or another, though, I know I need to push forward. 

How about you? Did you give NaNoWriMo a go? Tell us what you thought!


-----

P.S. While we have you, we just want to put in quick plugs for two projects we're involved in:

1) If you're in Cheyenne tomorrow, stop by the Recover Wyoming book launch for Watch My Rising, an anthology edited by Lynn G. Carlson. It will be held in the Asher Bldg at 500 W. 15th St. on Wednesday, Dec. 7 from 6-9 p.m. Read more about it in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle article by Ellen Fike.

2) The WyoPoets Eugene V. Shea National Poetry Contest postmark deadline has been extended until December 15, so there's still time to get your entry in. Find guidelines on the WyoPoets website. Questions may be directed to contest chair Susan Mark at wyopoets@gmail.com.



Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A LITTLE RAIN EACH DAY



repost by Lynn

When I was in the Peace Corps, in Mali, West Africa, I used the gathering of proverbs and colloqualisms as a tool to learn Bambara, the local language. Turns out the Malians are big on proverbs, especially the elders who use them as ways to offer advice to the young.

Examples:

Dooni, dooni, kanoni be so dila. 

In English: Little by little, the bird builds his nest.

Meaning: The Malian version of “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

And

Dow be dow don, tow dow don.

In English: Some people know one thing, others know another thing.

Meaning: You can’t know it all and that’s okay.

I always got excited when I discovered a proverb or phrase in Bambara that correlated with one in English. I remember learning that “to put your foot in your mouth” was exactly the same in Bambara and English—meaning that you had said something really stupid.

Cool! I knew that was a phrase I could use often.

The first time I used it (hoping to impress with my Bambara language skills) I got the word for foot (sen) mixed up with the word for breast (siin).

Close, right?

You should have seen the look on that kid’s face.


I’ve been collecting proverbs for a long time. Not surprisingly, they have intertwined with my writing life in a lot of ways.

PROVERBS AS WRITING PROMPTS

When I get stuck during my journaling time, with no idea what to write next, I reach for a proverb. There’s always something there that gooses my muse and gets the words flowing.

I have several books of proverbs that I keep close by:

 - African Proverbs from Peter Pauper Press;

- “When the Road Is Long, Even Slippers Feel Tight” A Collection of Latin American Proverbs, by Roberto Quesada.

 - Japanese Proverbs & Traditional Phrases, from Peter Pauper Press;

The Soul Would Have No Rainbow If the Eyes Had No Tears and Other Native American Proverbs, by Guy A. Zona.

PROVERBS ARE GOOD FOR ARM CHAIR TRAVELING

Proverbs are almost as good as world travel, because through them you can learn about a people and their beliefs. Every culture and religion has embraced the pithy proverb as a way to express values and share advice.

“You can tell a people’s character from that people’s proverbs. Therefore any friend of the Japanese will know already what he will find here: a sentimentality about flowers and a cynicism about people; a confidence in the eternal and a distrust of the immediate…” 
- From the preface to Japanese Proverbs 

Proverbs are time-honored sayings that pack a lot of meaning in a small space. For example:

Proverbs are reminders of the universality of human experience: 

A loose tooth will not rest until it’s pulled out.
- Ethiopian proverb


They can shake a finger at you: 

It’s a fine sermon about fasting when the preacher just had lunch.
- Ecuadorian proverb


Or encourage caution: 

First we drink the wine
Then the wine drinks the wine
Then the wine drinks us.
 - Japanese proverb

Proverbs can be funny:

He on whose head we would break a coconut never stands still. 
- African proverb 

Or offer encouragement:

If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come. 
- Arapaho proverb 

Some proverbs can be really obscure:

There are old men of three: children of a hundred. 
- Japanese proverb 
Huh?!

Sometimes a proverb seems to speak directly to the issue I am currently struggling with in my writing life, like revision:

If you are building a house and a nail breaks, do you stop building or do you change the nail? 
- Rwandan proverb 

To me, proverbs are a poke in the ribs, a slap up side the head and sometimes a stab in the heart.


What about you? Have you ever been affected by a proverb? 

Ever used one to spark your writing?


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

On the Value of Boredom

Delfie visiting her namesake at
Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota
by Susan

My phone is named "Delfie." It was my first smartphone and, not long after I got it, my husband and I took a cross-country trip to Minnesota. He kept referring to it as "The Oracle," as in, "Where's the cheapest gas? Consult The Oracle," or "How many miles to Omaha? Consult The Oracle."

Hence, the Oracle at Delphi. Hence, Delfie.

Life changed when I got Delfie. My emails came in real time, not just when I was at the computer. Facebook was always there... beckoning. A long wait at the doctor's office was a great excuse to catch up on reading blogs and to cruise Pinterest. Mornings found me flat on the couch with Stephen Colbert. (Double entendre intended... a girl can dream, can't she?) Then there were the downloadable audiobooks from the library! I need never walk to work without words in my ears again.

I knew it was not conducive to writing, but I couldn't seem to put Delfie down.

Not long ago, I was pointed to this video of Neil Gaiman discussing the value of boredom for writers. The boredom bit starts just after the one-minute mark.




Apparently, Mr. Gaiman recommends boredom often, and I think he's right. Between Delfie and taking on a faster-spaced job, I'd squeezed all the thinking time out of my life.

I'm not typically a believer in the law of attraction -- I rolled my eyes all the way through The Secret when I slogged my way through it for story research -- but since I began thinking about my need for boredom, I suddenly saw a spate of articles on the topic, which I share with you here.

Take a lesson from cats.
Cats understand the value of doing nothing. 
The Lost Art of Doing Nothing
"I put my phone away. But that’s when the awkwardness set in. If you want to feel out of place in a public setting these days, just start staring off into space or watching people as they walk by. Do it long enough and someone is liable to walk up and ask you if you’re feeling OK."
No Service
"It occurs to me that I’m very much enjoying having no [phone] service. I like this feeling, this middle of nowhere. Out of contact with everyone except those that are in this car with me, the ones that mean the most."
Boredom is Fascinating!
"Ironically, the portal to the greatest wisdom and happiness very often can be where we least expect it, in those times in life where we feel restless, anxious, and bored."

I took Neil's advice. I took a walk -- without an audiobook stuck in my ears. I could hear the wind in the trees. I stopped and molested strangers' dogs (with their permission, of course). I people-watched and began spinning stories in my head about their lives. I came home and wrote my first poem in some time. Definitely just a draft, but you can't edit nothing, and nothing was all I had the day before and the day before that.

Boredom? It's definitely underrated. I highly recommend it.




Tuesday, November 15, 2016

THE ACCIDENTAL COLUMNIST

guest post by Carey Denman

Today's post is a gift from a woman I met at the Storycatcher Writing Workshop last June. Just a few words I would use to describe Carey include... bright, enthusiastic, empathetic, spirited. I tapped her to write a post for our blog and I'm patting myself on the back today for that impulse.  Read on. 
-- Lynn


I am what you might call an “accidental columnist.” Ten years ago, I worked as a writer and editor for a small publishing company specializing in financial literacy education. As part of my work, I wrote a weekly “money tip” that gave readers technical information on everything from private mortgage insurance to buying appliances warranties.

Learning of my weekly money tip, my local newspaper asked me if I would consider expanding them into a full-blown article for publication in their business section. As a thirty-something English major, I hardly qualified as a financial expert, but my company wanted the free press, so I got the job. A few months in, however, the writing felt like a slog. I was quickly running out ideas, and I was running even shorter on enthusiasm.

So one week, I decided to shake things up and turn my usual informative essay into a personal narrative. Instead of extolling the virtues of budgets, I wrote about how I threw an affordable, yet memorable, party for my three kids who share a birthday month. And instead of writing about the dangers of over using credit, I shared how my family used our credit card rewards program to fund a family vacation.

The editorship at the newspaper didn’t seem to mind the change. And my readership grew—as did my once-flagging enthusiasm. I began to see how my weekly column helped me define what mattered most to me. And a deadline became a way of keeping my senses alive; if I had to come up with a new topic every week, then I would need to stay fully awake to my own life.

I wrote what would become “A Money-Smart Life” for several years, until the economic downturn forced company lay-offs at my publishing company. I’d assumed that this would be the end of my career as a columnist, but to my surprise, one of the paper’s editors asked me if I would be interested in writing a personal column in the Life and Style section. I said yes to the invitation and have been writing “Blissful Chaos,” a column celebrating the inherent beauty and mess in family life, ever since.

As a writer, it’s easy to question one’s own validity. We want to know that what we say matters to someone, somewhere. Schlepping through the work is sometimes lonely, too. But with hundreds of columns under my belt, I’ve found some pearls of wisdom about the writing life.

First, I believe that my writing both shapes and reflects my life. To write about interesting things, I must choose to live an interesting life. So I seek adventure and scrounge up wonder, which is good for both the soul and the writing mind.

Second, being a columnist has transformed me into a consummate amateur. The self-professed amateur in any field often gets a bad rap. In most circles, the word amateur connotes a light-hearted dabbler, the opposite of a professional. In truth, however, an amateur is much more than this.

The word amateur comes from Latin, amator, which means “for the love.” An as amateur writer, I get to do this work for the love of the craft, not because I depend on it for a paycheck. And as I practice my craft, I get to play with words, fiddling with cadence and rhythms and experimenting with lively syntax and diction. And I get to do all of this while creating a written record of my family’s history—the sparkling moments and the mundane ones, too.

A wordsmith by nature, I might otherwise be inclined to niggle and procrastinate with my writing, but a weekly deadline ensures I don’t hold onto my work too tightly. I get the writing done with us much grace and authenticity as I can muster each week, and then I let it go. I send it out into the world without worrying about unfavorable reviews. I consider my audience, yes, but I see writing each week as a gift I get to give myself.

Finally, my weekly column is my writing practice, a way to compost my experiences, and shake out the beautiful moments, like a gardener sifting through the soil. I do it because it makes my life better and because like Mary Flannery O’Connor, “I do not know what I think until I read what I say.”

So here’s to happy accidents that open writing doors and to embracing my work as an amateur. Here’s to tamping down perfectionism and putting my butt in the chair, to working hard, but refusing to let fear paralyze me.

Meet Carey...

A naturalist at heart, Carey Denman grew up in South Dakota’s Black Hills, where she learned to nock an arrow, hook a fish, and forage for wood sorrel. Living just miles from the secret and wild places of her childhood, she now shares her passion for the outdoors with her own children.


She’s been candidly writing about her parenting adventures since 2012 as a weekly columnist for the Rapid City Journal. When she isn’t celebrating—or lamenting—the rites of parenthood, she’s writing for the Herbal Academy, an online and in-person school for burgeoning herbalists.

Carey holds an M.A. in Rhetoric and has taught writing and literature courses at a number of universities. In her spare time, she leads wild crafting workshops and tends her sprawling garden. She and her husband live on a small acreage near Hill City, South Dakota with their four children.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

WATCH MY RISING

post by Lynn
You have seen my descent. 
Now watch my rising. 
- Rumi 
Since January, I’ve been immersed in a project: editing an anthology.

It’s done. It’s published. I have copies in hand. The anthology is available on Amazon, even.


So, humor me while I do a happy dance and tell you about this project.

Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology 

This anthology is a collection of 37 stories and poems, all centered on the topic of recovery from addiction.

I decided to take on this project because of a confluence of factors:

  1. I love reading and writing and truly buy into the notion that stories educate better than lectures. 
  2. I volunteer for Recover Wyoming (RW), a nonprofit that my sister, Laura, started over five years ago. RW provides services to people seeking long-term recovery from addiction, and supports their family and friends. I am a Recovery Coach with RW, mentoring family members of people struggling with addiction. My personal experiences, involvement with this organization, and exposure to the societal stigma that people in recovery face has put me on a mission. I want to increase awareness about addiction, and celebrate the fact that around 24 million Americans are in recovery. That’s a lot of people. Still, I too often encounter the mindset of “once a drunk/addict, always a drunk/addict”—or something along those lines. 
  3. I became friends with Jennifer Top, who has a small publishing company called TulipTree Publishing. 
In a relaxed moment (probably while journaling and watching the sun rise), it occurred to me that I could mush these three elements together into one project. I could edit an collection of stories, work with Jennifer to publish them, and raise funds for RW while using the power of stories to educate people about the reality of recovery from addiction. Stories of recovery, because of stigma, haven’t been told nearly enough. I could do one small thing to change that.

A call for submissions in January garnered 93 poems and stories (both fiction and nonfiction). Submissions came from all over the U.S., England, Canada and Africa. Jennifer and I selected 37 stories and poems to include in the anthology. I worked with about 75% of the authors to edit the pieces.

Someday I’ll write a post or two about all I learned during my stint as an editor, (a HUGE learning curve for me) but today I just want to tell you about what you can find inside the cover of Watch My Rising, and share a bit about the writers…

Like poet Paul Hostovsky, 25 years sober, who has won a Pushcart Prize and had his work featured on The Writer’s Almanac. We are fortunate to have three of Paul’s poems in our anthology. His poem, “The Pigeons of Lynn,” takes us to Lynn, Massachusetts to spend time among the recovering heroin addicts on Green Street.

Like Chelsea Lai, a native of Casper, currently in Las Vegas, whose story “Get Your Ass to Al-Anon” chronicles her journey as a family member of someone who struggles with addiction and explains why she is grateful to have had this trauma in her life.

Like Lucas Zulu of Kwa-Guqa, Emalahleni, Mpumalanga province of South Africa, whose work has appeared in The Best “New” African Poets, 2015. His poem, “The Turn I Took” celebrates his turn toward sobriety.

Like Rebecca Taksel of Pittsburgh, whose poem “Connoisseur” reminds us that addiction can take you down no matter how high class your liquor is, and shows that the way out sometimes begins with a single, plaintive cry for help.

Like Pace Lawson, of Amarillo, Texas, whose story, “De-stigmatized” takes the reader on a shot-gun ride through years of drug use, incarceration and a detour-filled recovery. Today he helps people with Substance Use Disorders find the recovery path through Options Recovery, a nonprofit he founded.

Like Antonio Sanchez-Day, a 41-year-old Mexican/Native American male who honors his spiritual mentor in “Taking On Life.”

Like Billi Johnson-Casey, who has been in recovery from a prescription drug addiction for nine years. In “Thanking Anne Lamott,” Billi tells the story of a pilgrimage to thank the woman who helped her believe that she, too, could be “crazy as shit” and still be in recovery.

Wyoming folks are represented in the anthology as well. Aaron Holst, Margaret Smith-Braniff, Patricia McDaniels, Darrah Perez and yours truly are among the authors.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Powerful stuff, my friends. Courageous, too, since there's no "by anonymous" in this book.

If you’d like to get a copy of Watch My Rising, go to Amazon.com. Copies are also available via Recover Wyoming’s website, recoverwyoming.org.

Thanks for letting me celebrate with you!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Teacher, the Plumber, and Writing Heat


Susan chimes in: I took Mary Billiter's non-credit Book Writing Basics class this fall through Laramie County Community College and benefited greatly from her insight. She writes romance, some under the pen name of Pumpkin Spice, and she talked about writing "heat" -- adding a little spark, shall we say. I asked her to share some of her thoughts on that subject.

By Mary Billiter

My girlfriend is an elementary schoolteacher. During the summer she enjoys life again – lunch out with other teachers, catching up on lost reading, and of course, sleeping in. I teach on the college level – long lunches are the norm, reading is a requisite and instructing night courses I always sleep in.

Still when summer hit, we both enjoyed the fact that we no longer had to grade papers, be ruled by an academic calendar, or attend staff meetings. This last break, she invited me to join her elementary brood to raise a glass and toast to the start of summer, but I had to pass.

The only thing that was filled with ice that I was raising was the ice pack that I laid on my swollen abdomen. I was sidelined from an abdominal hysterectomy that made it hurt to laugh, let alone move. Worse still, during my miserable recovery my plumbing decided to back up. There’s a thousand jokes in that last line but I’m not going there.

So as my third grade teacher friend headed toward a beautiful sunny day of iced yummy oblivion, I waited on a plumber to return to fix what he hadn’t the day before. I texted my teacher friend the sad state of my affairs.

She texted back. “Is it Brent's plumbing?”

Before I could reply her next message flashed across my iPhone. “Oh my, his eyes are entrancing. They are as blue as the ocean. You can't focus on his words when you look into his eyes...Slade has a cousin in Idaho with blue eyes like that. And he does amazing plumbing work too 😘”

Slade is her husband, who I’ve never met, but with a name like Slade I have to at some point. But after reading her plumber review I responded.

“My guy's Martinez, didn't notice his eyes, and he hasn't called back, but now I want your plumber guy. What's his number?”

However before relinquishing blue-eyes’ number, she gave fair warning. “I told Terri to call Brent's plumbing cuz she needed a plumber. I warned her about his eyes. She was all geared up and when she opened the door, his helper was standing there instead. Boy did we giggle and giggle.”

I held the ice pack to my stomach as I laughed and laughed. Terri teaches the first grade and isn’t much taller than her students. I imagined her opening her front door, hoping to look into blue eyes and the disappointment that followed. Terri wouldn’t mask it well. I was still laughing when the next stream of text rolled forward.

“Still you need to lay your eyes on this man. His eyes. He’s married – but oh my!!!! Look him up on the Internet. Maybe there's a photo of him... But that wouldn't be safe. His eyes....”

At this point, I wasn’t sure if she was still texting me or having a text conversation with herself. It hurt to laugh, but I couldn’t stop. I finally interjected.

“It’s worth the risk rather than wait for the phone that hasn’t rung.”

Her reply came quickly.

“If only it was Brent...You'd be singing a different tune. Try him next time... His plumbing skills, that is... LOL”

By this time, I was convinced she had already started happy hour. Then her final text reminded me she hadn’t begun drinking, she was simply an overworked educator spending her summer working on her Master’s degree.

“I made myself laugh out loud. Oh my. I need to get my paper done. This class might kill me. I'd rather be waiting for a plumber who has boring eyes to call. 😓 I thought I had his contact number. I looked. Sorry. Look it up. Brent the babe plumbing. And request the owner. LOL. And his eyes. Straight to your heart. They will make you melt. Ahhhh. Off to lunch! Enjoy!”

My ice pack had all but melted by the time our text conversation wrapped up. I found the number and was about to call when the doorbell rang. I slowly made my way to the front door and opened it.

“So I guess I didn’t fix the leak?”

I looked into his eyes, but the sun blocked my view. “What color are your eyes?”

“They’re hazel. Blue, green and gold around the pupil,” he said.

I nodded with a smile, welcomed him back into my home and closed the door.

So…what do two teachers, a hysterectomy and a plumber have to do with writing heat?

Setting. Sure, there’s also characters, conflict and of course - the bait. But at the core we started with setting that created the mood. And with adding heat to a story it's all about the energy of the work that brings it to life.

One of the best ways to bring something to life is through the interplay of language between the characters. To have that interaction work to your advantage, setting becomes integral.

Let's take a look at "My Midnight Cowboy" (featured in the Rough Edges anthology) as an example.

Lucy Baker is in the airport with her bestie, Rachel, waiting to check her bags, get her boarding pass and make the big jump from Orange County, California to a new job that's waiting for her in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Lucy’s nervous, scared, and excited. The pastry chef is leaving the life she knows for something she knows nothing about.

When an impatient, outspoken cowboy in line tries to hurry them along with an off-putting remark, Lucy turns on the heels of her boots and takes the bait. She comes eye-to-eye with two cowboys. But the sparks that ignite immediately between Lucy and Ben can't be ignored. They bicker back and forth in a heated verbal repartee that is laden with sexual tension. Lucy wants nothing to do with Ben but they keep getting thrust in situations with each other that make their desire impossible to deny.

Ben and Lucy’s chemistry naturally fed into a frenzied build-up, which culminated into a release that exploded on a plane, train and back on a plane. Hey, they had a lot of friction to work out.

Developing build-up for our characters is part of the payoff for our readers. It's the foreplay. And the best foreplay takes time. So don't rush the set-up. Place your readers in the scene.

Whether it's two teachers text talking about a plumber or two girls in an airport with two cowboys behind them in line – show your readers what's happening to set the scene and let them be there with you.

Develop the moment. Savor the setting. Deepen the mood. Build the tension. Throw in a little a humor. So when the plumber rings the bell you're as eager to find out what he looks like as the main character.

---

Mary Billiter is a weekly newspaper columnist and fiction author. She also has novels published under the pen name, "Pumpkin Spice." Mary teaches fiction writing courses through the Life Enrichment program at Laramie County Community College. She does her best writing (in her head) on her daily runs in wild, romantic, beautiful Wyoming.

Mary will have a book signing for her latest novel, Do Not Disturb, at the Cheyenne Barnes & Noble on Saturday, Nov. 12 beginning at 11 a.m.

More about Mary and her work: www.marybilliter.com

Follow Mary on Twitter: @MaryBilliter

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

THE POWER OF THE HUDDLE

post by Lynn

Waaay up in Antarctica, where winds can gust up to 100 mph, Emperor penguins have a unique way of staying warm: they huddle.

Hundreds of those guys and gals in their snazzy tuxedos get together in order to survive the 60-degrees-below-(Farenheit) temps. Deep in the huddle, the temperature can get up to a balmy 70 degrees F.

But here’s the great thing, in my opinion: the warm spot in the center is equally shared. 

Every penguin gets a turn in the middle, and each one spends time at the frosty perimeter. There’s no hierarchy, researchers say--no deal where an Alpha penguin sits cozy while his minion penguins freeze their tails off at the edge.

I’ve recently had the unique-to-me experience of being stopped cold in my writing tracks. Unable to write anything.  It happens, I know, or at least I’ve been told. But it’s never happened to me in such a complete way. 

And the heartwarming thing is that my writing buddies, family and friends have made like penguins—they have huddled around me and pushed me to the middle and shielded me from the cold. 

Soon, I’m sure, I’ll warm up enough to move outward and offer the toasty spot to one of them. I’ll take my turn and face the wind.

But for now, I’ll just soak up the heat and be grateful—so grateful—that I have all these warm bodies around me. 

I can only hope that you have a huddle too. Because the wind is going to blow, whether we want it to or not. On occasion the writing will freeze up. 

Thank you, all my penguin people, for being in my huddle. Couldn’t make it without you.



And for some comic relief (who couldn’t use THAT these days?) check out this video in which Benedict Cumberbatch is called to correct his odd pronunciation of the word “penguin.” (Move ahead to 3:28 for the bit about penguins.) 



Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Writing Prompt: Random Maps

by Susan

I like something both physical and random in writing prompts. This one has a little of both.

In the West, place is itself a character: one that appears to suffer from bipolar disorder, weather-wise. But anywhere you set your story, a good sense of place informs both characters and plot and allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story.

 In Writing Fiction Step by Step, Josip Novakovich (gesundheit) writes:

"No setting is to be underestimated ... What may seem to be a boring town, once you begin to analyze its history, its people and its stories, may become an amazing place."

So let's go on a blind date with a place and see what happens, shall we?

Maps place prompt

Start with a stack of road maps from different states. Everyone picks one randomly. Switch out if you get a place familiar to you. Open the maps and quickly pick a place. Go by instinct, not by reason. Don't think about it too much.

Now that you have your place, here are some options. Write about a character or from the perspective of a character:
  • Who lives there, loves it and can't imagine living anywhere else.
  • Who lives there, hates it, and can't imagine why they stay.
  • Whose car broke down there.
  • Who always dreamed of living there and finally moved there.
  • Who grew up there and is coming back to visit friends or family after a long time away.
  • Who is seeing this place for the first time.
Use the map for clues -- how big is it? What places is it near? Often, road maps given out for free will have more information -- are there any festivals listed for that place? Is there a population given?  Now fill in the blanks. What is Main Street like? The neighborhoods? What kind of industry (or lack of) is dominant.

Give it about 15-20 minutes on this one and see what happens!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

CENTIMETERS AWAY

Post by Lynn

A fat, black fly, slowed by cool weather, bangs against the window pane in my writing room. He can see where he wants to go—to the still-green grass outside—but he can’t reach it the way he thinks he ought to be able to reach it. He’s centimeters away from freedom, but he can’t get there.

I can relate.

In my writing, I often see the story, just right there, through the mist of my imagination. And yet I bang against the words on the page, hit delete, bang again and again.

In order to break through to the lushness I envision, I’m finding out I have to redirect. Unlike the unfortunate fly, I can do that. I can make choices, experiment and not just bang away until I die. Phew! 

My favorite tool in this case is to turn another direction and let time pass.

I step away from that particular piece of writing and redirect my energy to something that proves to be more permeable in the moment.

I leave my computer and write by hand, something that research has shown causes you to access different parts of your brain.

If I can’t dredge up enough dialogue to flesh out the scene I’m working on, I pivot and go where the energy is flowing—maybe to a lyric essay, because the Muse has been handing me some imagery in my sleep.

Or sometimes I have to keep studying, reading, responding to writing prompts until my abilities move up to the level of the story and I learn the exact thing I need in order to write the next words.

My redirection is rewarded when the window to the world I was banging away at opens just enough to let me slip through.

“Go with the flow” sounds New Agey, and some would say I’m stalling, but it’s my creative process and I’m sticking to it. I end up less frustrated and more productive in the long run.

What about your writing process? Do you redirect, go straight for it, or something else?


Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Avoiding "Writing by Committee"

by Susan

One of my favorite stories from my old set of The Junior Classics was an Aesop's fable of the man and his son taking a donkey to market.

First, they walk alongside the animal, only to be berated by a passerby for not riding. The son gets on the donkey, only to hear a complaint about lazy, disrespectful youth. They switch, until someone remarks how cruel the father is to his son. They both mount the donkey and are lambasted for overworking the poor beast. In frustration, they fell a tree, cut a pole, tie the donkey's legs to it and carry the trussed animal with the pole over their shoulders. As they are crossing a bridge, the donkey kicks one leg loose making the son drop his end of the pole. In the struggle, the donkey falls off the bridge and drowns.

The moral: Please all and you will please none.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Brown on Flickr, made
available under an Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license
One of the pitfalls of writing critique groups is "writing by committee." A member, eager to do everything "right," eager to please, seems compelled to make every single change recommended by others. They try to please everyone. In the process, they lose their distinct voice and the story loses vibrancy.

Lord Save me from Critique Groups is Duffy Brown's take on it over on Patricia Stoltey's old blog. She believes critiques do nothing but tear down a story, resulting in prose by committee. She prefers brainstorming -- mapping out the basics and asking your compatriots to think of ideas to fill in how the story could go. With a steady supply of cookies, of course.

It's an interesting concept, and I'm glad it works for her, but I can't say the idea appeals to me. The brainstorming she suggests sounds more like story by committee to me than a good critique does. I don't want my writing group to suggest story ideas; I want them to help me fix what could be done better. I need them to point out the things I do not see because I'm too invested in the writing.

I think of critiques as a way to "pull the weeds" and let my story bloom. Maybe, though, I've been in better critique groups. The best ones I've been in have operated on one simple principle:


 Your fellow writers are merely readers.

They are not editors. They are not instructors. They are readers. You will not please every reader. Their suggestions are not commands. They might have more technical knowledge on how things might be improved than the average reader, but they are still readers. They may offer a way to fix it that you hadn't considered. But it is still the writer's job to evaluate when to accept or reject a suggestion. No matter how forcefully the point might be argued, they are STILL only suggestions. The writer owns the story.

As readers, they may catch things that seemed clear to you, but did not come through in the actual words you put on the page. My general rule of thumb is to seriously consider revising if several find a spot that makes them say, "Huh?"

I often came back from critique sessions with a pile of great notes and ideas. My next step is to sift through and evaluate what fits and what does not. I am inspired, not torn down. My group has helped me clear the clutter and let my voice, not theirs, come through more clearly. I am grateful for it.

So which do you like better -- brainstorms or critiques? Please leave your thoughts in the comments!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

CONFESSION TIME


post by Lynn

I confess. I eavesdrop – anywhere and everywhere.

I will catch a voice, a murmur, any sign that an exchange is taking place. I tune in. Then I skulk away and write it all down in a small notebook.




Here’s a sampling of the results:



At a café in Denver –


“I had a cousin who shot himself in the head just minutes before he was going to sign the papers to make him a partner in his father’s business. What does that tell you?” 





At the airport –


“My grandma never got a social security check. She never earned a salary. When she was old, her only money came from two houses she rented out. Can’t tell you how many times some scumbag stiffed her on the rent and left a house trashed. And that being her only income.” 



On a bench –


“My hearing aid doesn’t work worth a damn. You can say it twice if you want, don’t make a difference.” 








Next booth over at the diner –


“Yep, come sheep shearing time, he asked me, ‘You want my best crew, or the one that speaks English?’ Course I told him I wanted his best crew and by God, those Mexicans work hard for the money, ya gotta give ‘em that.” 





In line at the post office –




“How’s your boy doin’, Jim?” followed by “Still in the marines, for now… not checkin’ them doors in Fallujah anymore though, thank God.” 






Shameless, aren’t I?

 I suggest you try out my guilty habit, if you haven’t already. Writers can learn by listening in.

I mean, how do people really talk to each other? What about the silences, the non-answers? Do they answer every question? Do they interrupt, leave sentences half-finished?

All that and more.

Eavesdropping helps you develop an ear for dialogue, and writing it down gives you practice in putting the sounds onto the page as truthfully as possible.

And stories? Try and tell me there are no stories in the snippets of conversation I’ve shared with you.

So go ahead, listen in.

Just let me know if you’re in the booth next to mine, okay?