Tuesday, November 29, 2016


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.


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.”


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.


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 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 

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

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. 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.

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 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


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


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