Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Can You Smell It? Taste It? Hear It?

Susan chimes in: I had the wonderful experience of going on a DIY writing retreat weekend with Myra Peak, and she brought these writing exercises with her. I found them challenging, to put it mildly, but a challenge that helped me bring a few more senses into my writing. Try them with your own writing group sometime to get at those tough-to-describe senses.

By Myra L. Peak

“I know the smell, but I can’t place it. PiƱa coladas. Friday nights when my parents had friends over and a barbecue,” he says.

“Write that down,” I say.

Including the five senses are part and parcel of every writing workshop, every writing book, and all writing advice. Including all five senses in a piece, especially smell and taste, can be a chore. To make them easier to include, I developed some exercises that make smell, taste, and sound associations easier. Although sound is not as difficult, there are elements of writing about sounds that can be tricky.

Taste and Smell
Get about 10 (or more) food flavorings. The more expensive tend be truer odors. Have someone else put a few drops of each in a small bowl (each bowl has its own flavor -- no combining) in various places around your house. Your helper should write a number on a piece of paper next to each bowl and record which number was which flavor. When complete, you can see how close you were to the flavor. Add about 1 or 2 tablespoons of hot water to each. Go to each bowl and try to guess each flavor. No tasting. If you can’t figure out the flavor, write what you associate with the flavor. Anise and mint tend to contaminate the other odors so they need to be far away from the others and each other.

What is the oldest memory you associate with a flavor? What is your most recent memory of it? What are the other senses that this brings to mind? Does a flavor remind you of a person or an animal? Does a flavor remind you of a scary event, an event when you were younger, or one you hope to have when you are older? Start writing memory associations for each flavor. Make up your own questions. It’s best to have questions written before you start. Don’t give yourself so many questions that the flavor is gone by the time you get to all of the flavors.

Although the exercise is easiest (for set up and clean up) with food flavorings, you can use many other items with an odor, both pleasant and not as desirable. For some, the item might have to be in a box so you can’t see it because this demands senses other than sight. You can also buy boxes of jelly beans that have pleasant flavors and disgusting flavors (same colors) so you can expand this exercise to include those.

Another twist of this flavor exercise is to use bowls of hot water and cold water with any or all of the flavorings. Again you need to have the hot and cold versions far enough from each other that the hot odor does not mix with the cold one. The cold flavor and hot flavor may not give you the same memories.

I had one person who said, “Hot orange reminds me of my grandmother’s candy. Cold orange reminds me of the oranges we got for Christmas at church and our whole family walking home in the snow.”

In a written piece, one smell or taste may equal ten visual images. That description of a smell can not only help you remember events of the past, it can also remind you of other sensory memories all at once. A smell or taste goes a long way toward moving us into a story or poem. Since smell and taste are tied together physically, you can evoke a character, a place, or a time period much more effectively.

An exercise with sound may again require the assistance of a friend. Have them record sounds (15 to 20) from the Internet into one computer folder. Be sure that they name each file so you can go back to see what each was. Have them play each sound (generally at least twice), and write down what you think the sound is. Again, write some questions that you can answer for each sound. You can use some or all of the above questions for flavors.

Some sounds don’t record easily, and some sounds from the Internet don’t sound at all like what they should. You can make some conclusions, which include the following:
  1. Some sounds have more rhythm than others.
  2. The sound and the spaces between the sounds make the entire “sound” and have sequences like a train whistle.
  3. Some sounds seem natural, and some seem unnatural.
  4. Some are pleasant.
  5. Some indicate danger.
  6. Some we associate with desire or hunger.
  7. Some sounds belong to different places and times. For example, we rarely hear a match     being struck today. Chopping wood is a sound that many people have never heard. We are limited by our own past.

Some stories and events have sequences of sounds that we expect. Think about a crying baby who is hungry. What is the sequence of sounds when the baby needs to be fed and then is fed? If the sounds happen in the wrong order, it won’t make sense to the reader.

Push Yourself
For a challenging spin on these exercises, spend a day or a week (when you are writing) and try to use just smells, taste, and sounds. Although you might be compelled to use visual images, the effort will result in new habits.

These exercises can be done at home, with a writing group, or at a workshop. These sensory demonstrations can open up discussions that you may never have had otherwise. The exchange of ideas and knowledge, whether it’s just the paper and you, or in a group, can create new pathways for your writing.


Myra L. Peak was the recipient of an Independent Artist Grant from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2010, a WAC poetry fellowship in 2007, and the WAC’s 2004 Frank Nelson Doubleday Award. Her poetry has won awards from Wyoming Writers, Range Writers, WyoPoets, and Western Wyoming College. The Owen Wister Review, High Plains Register, Serendipity Poets, and WyoPoets have published her poetry and fiction.  Myra’s writing reflects everyday life with an emphasis on the High Desert and workplaces of oil, gas, and mining. Myra is the current president of WyoPoets

Tuesday, March 21, 2017


No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
-         Aesop

post by Lynn

Last month, members of Leadership Wyoming launched Random Acts of Kindness Week, and judging from the posts on their Facebook page, schools, businesses, organizations and just plain people participated in droves. They got really creative too.  

Students at Sagewood Elementary in Casper created Kindness Bingo cards. Whenever a kid yelled BINGO! they got some sort of incentive. The result? 950 acts of kindness.

In Campbell County, each resident at the Legacy Living & Rehabilitation Center received flowers and a card (handmade by Sunflower Elementary students) for Valentine’s Day.

Cheyenne’s Triumph High School decided a week wasn’t enough and created the “307 Random Acts of Kindness Challenge.” Students and faculty track kind deeds that they observe and morning announcements include recognition of these kindnesses. What a great way to keep kindness going! Way to go Triumph High School!!

Which got me thinking: 

What would Random Acts of Kindness toward writers consist of?

I begged, borrowed and stole some ideas…


Toys and Tools

Buy your writer his/her favorite writing tool. Sleek pen, chunky pencil—whatever is preferred. My husband (sorry, I mean Santa Claus) always tucks pens and sticky notes inside my Christmas stocking.

Sanity, Time and Space

Another thing the man in my life does is provide tech service. I have this character quirk: I am very patient with people, but not with machines. So, whenever my printer stops talking to my Lenovo for some inexplicable reason, or when drivers mysteriously absent themselves from my hard drive, I yell, “Mike!” and he steps in. Such a kindness, I cannot tell you.

Anne Stebner Steele, writer of fiction and nonfiction, puts forward this suggestion: Offer to take the kids to the park to allow your writer-spouse time to write without being disturbed.

And another bright idea from Anne: if your favorite writer has a birthday coming up, buy her/him an issue of or subscription to their favorite literary journal.

Along these lines, Susan Mark, Writing Wyoming co-blogger extraordinaire, tells spouses/partners to:

Find a hobby or other activity that gets you out of the house. If you have kids, find a way to take them with you. Give your writer some time alone in their own house. (The dog can stay.) And while you’re at it, cook a healthy dinner with actual vegetable matter involved. No, French fries don't count.

Help your writer carve out actual physical space in the house that is theirs and theirs alone. Keep your own possessions and clutter out of it. Let your writer choose what items they'll allow into their space. 


If you’re a fellow writer, you might say to your writing buddy, “Hey, want to attend this class with me?”

Or “Let’s have coffee and do some freewriting.”

Or (Anne suggests), you can offer to proof-read a piece the writer in your life is getting ready to submit for publication.

Or ask, “Where have you submitted to? Have you thought about submitting to X?”

It’s always nice to know somebody is paying attention.

Buddy Sessions

Adair Lara, author of Naked, Drunk, and Writing: Shed Your Inhibitions and Craft a Compelling Memoir or Personal Essay, describes how she and Cynthia, a co-worker and fellow aspiring writer, started a “writing club.” It was a small club—just the two of them—but it was an idea that produced results. And it wasn’t a complicated thing:

“We’d write 500 words every weekday and give them to the other person. We’d mark the parts we liked in the other’s pieces with a yellow highlighter before returning them. … It didn’t matter what the 500 words were—we could copy them from the yellow pages or the back of the Cheeios box if we wanted to.”

The result was that they wrote and shared “any old dashed-off thing—not because it was good, but because it was due.” The yellow highlights sparked enthusiasm and confidence, and more writing.

Eventually Adair and Cynthia began sending out pieces to a section of the San Francisco Chronicle that published first-person pieces. A few got published and that led Adair to a gig as a columnist.

Wow—that’s a buddy system that really paid off!


So suppose your writer friend/spouse has done the work and the writing is published. Time to really let the kindness begin…

Pull Out Your Debit Card

Nothing says I love you like buying the book or magazine—multiple copies, even, so you can share the wealth with friends and family.

Talk It Up

Take the book everywhere with you and when you see that somebody is peeking to see the title, lean in and ask, “Have you read it yet?” Use a tone intimating that absolutely everybody is reading this book and they better get on board but quick.

Get Social

Susan Mark suggests the following: 

Post on your own blog or Tumblr if you have one. 

If you're on Twitter, tweet away about this great book, using hashtags and mentions to maximize reach.

If you're on Pinterest, create a "books I like" board and add it. You should be able to use the Amazon or Barnes & Noble link to get the book cover.

Do an Instagram post of you with your nose in the book. 

As an aside: 

Susan will be presenting a workshop at the Wyoming Writers, Inc. conference in Gillette, June 2 – 4, Blogging and More: Sailing the Social Media Seas. She will share strategies, tools, tips and tricks to help you connect with readers and build your online presence.

I can’t imagine a better person to reduce the seasickness experienced all too frequently by social media novices. I should know—she does it for me on a weekly basis.

Review, Please

Once you’ve read the book and told everybody, including your elderly aunt’s boyfriend in Santa Fe, about it, don’t stop there. Go directly to Amazon, Goodreads (then share it to Facebook), Barnes and Noble and write a review.


One of my favorite writers of fiction and nonfiction, Laura Pritchett, does this often on Facebook. It’s simple. Line up the books on your shelf and snap a photo. Say a few words about what you love about the writing/writers, and post.

Reading, reading and on deck:
I'm currently reading the just-out novel, The Blue Hour by Laura Pritchett. 
(Sensory, sensual, insightful about the beloved insanity of homo sapiens) 
and A Death at Tollgate Creek by Art Elser (a breath of fresh prairie air). 
Soon to read: The Luckiest Scar on Earth by Ana Maria Spagna 
(Young Adult fiction with a snowboarding protagonist named Charlotte). 
Promotion Suggestions

Speaking of Laura Pritchett, she so kindly offered me a suggestion recently—to contact the Podcast Master at Northern Colorado Writers and see if I can line up a podcast on Watch My Rising: A Recovery Anthology, which I edited last year. 

I’m on it, Laura—thanks!

“If you stop to be kind, you must swerve often from your path.

-          Mary Webb

Yes, we’re all busy. Hundreds of things scream for our attention. As writers, we need to guard our time and energies for writing. 

I get that, believe me.

But I also believe that thinking about, and performing, random acts of kindness for the writers in our lives is worth the effort. 

We're all in this together. 

I’m sure I forgot something. Anything kindnesses you would add to the list?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Let's Talk Politics. Or Not.

By Susan

This morning I made the blood-pressure-spiking mistake of watching the Sunday news shows. We seem to be a nation talking in hyperbole at high decibels these days.

But I'm not here to argue politics today.

Instead, I want to talk about how public we should be as writers about our political leanings. The short answer is: it depends. "Should" is not even the right word. "Want to" is more accurate.

I've been collecting advice on social media use lately to prepare for a workshop I'm presenting at the Wyoming Writers Inc. conference in June. Among the advice I've seen is to never, EVER discuss your politics on social media. On the other hand, I've seen some blisteringly funny political rants from authors whose blogs I follow.

I'll 'fess up: I probably wouldn't read their posts if I didn't agree with them. I might also be less inclined to pick up their books. Maybe I'm creating a bubble. Maybe I'm just human.

For many writers, politics shapes their work. Margaret Atwood makes no secret of her views on the role of women in The Handmaid's Tale. There is no doubt of Michael Crichton's global warming skepticism in State of Fear. Dystopian and apocalyptic novels are noted for taking our worst fears and concerns about the current world, and projecting them into the future.

These two authors were quite deliberate about making their point. Many writers view their gift of words as the tool they use to advocate for the world they want. Others might just want to write an entertaining story. There's nothing wrong either way.

All of us as writers face a choice of how much to reveal, particularly in a country that's divided with tempers running high. For the Atwoods and Crichtons of the world, there's little point in hiding their beliefs that are so clearly laid out in their work. Others might see no reason to enter the fray and risk alienating readers.

Still, your views may seep in more than you realize. Our politics and our stories grow from how we view the world and the people in it.

These days, social media adds another layer. Ideally, it's a conversation and an opportunity to connect with your readers. Conversely, you can alienate them.

Do you take a stand on your beliefs, or keep up a neutral public persona? I don't believe there is one right answer, only a balance to be weighed, My only suggestion is to make a conscious choice before you send out that Tweet or blog post.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


Sometimes, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I tell myself to get back to basics.

It was in such a moment recently that I had the inkling that I should work on my ABC’s. It became a writing prompt of sorts.

So, voila -- 

ABC’s for the writing life…

is for Awareness.

I pray for awareness, for the ability to see what I need to learn next—not for solutions, because I can figure that out or ask for help. Blindness to my writing faults is my greatest obstacle.

Just show me what I need to see.

is for Begin.

I push myself off the edge daily. “I begin with the first sentence and trust to Almighty God for the second,” said Irish novelist and Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne.

Amen to that.

is for Change it up.

It is good to turn your mind upside down now and again, like an hourglass, and let the particles run the other way. I do this by reading in many genres (graphic comics, anyone?), going to out-of-the-way places and wondering what it’s like to be lightning or a chair or a pika.

is for Daily.

It’s taken eleven-plus years, but I’ve made writing a part of my days, as regular as tooth brushing, as routine as feeding the dog, as “don’t have to think much about it” as slicing tomatoes.

Note: I consider that all aspects of the writing process count—not only putting words on the page/in the computer, but also researching, ruminating and reading.

is for Emotion.

“Good writing begins where there is a knot,” says author Margaret Atwood.

I spend time locating the knots, through introspection and journaling. I dance around the knot until I finally go ahead and write about it, or from it.

is for Failure.

I fail often. I submit stories and poems and get the old thanks-but-no-thanks response. I apply for a Ucross residency and don’t get in. I start things and fail to finish them.

But I consider my failures part of the game, and I give myself credit for suiting up.

is for Grope.

“How do I work? I grope,” said Albert Einstein.

I grope a lot—for the right word, for the structure of a story, for the heart of an essay, for something to blog about. Nine times out of ten I grab thin air. The tenth time I latch on to something and I’m off and running.

is for Home.
“To find yourself as a writer, you’ll likely look in all the wrong places, then find yourself close to home.”
- Paul Raymond Martin 
Home is where I sleep, eat, love. Home is where I find many of my subjects. Home is my favorite place, so I try to make it as writing-friendly as I can.

is for Inquiry.

Diane Ackerman, author, poet and naturalist, said, “Writing, which is my form of celebration and prayer, is also my form of inquiry.”

Whenever life makes me anxious, I take the questions to my journal. This form of inquiry often blossoms into a poem, essay or story.

is for Je ne sais quoi.

Which is French for “that certain something.”

I notice when a story, essay or poem has that je ne sais quoi—a certain component that makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. I wonder how the writer found it, created it. I try to figure out how to get that elusive quality in my own writing. Sometimes I recognize when it’s there, sometimes I am absolutely sure that it isn’t there and sometimes I just don’t know.

is for Knack.

It’s good to know what you have a knack for. I found out I apparently have a knack for metaphor and dialogue. I found this out by being on the receiving end of critiques from instructors and writing group members.

This is the counterbalance to being aware of my writing faults. Knowing my knacks gives me hope and energy to keep moving forward in my writing life.

is for Later.

One of the most important tools in my writing toolkit is an assertion: I don’t have to figure that out right now. It applies to a hundred things—structure, point of view, grammar, who my target reader is, etc.

I would make myself crazy and never get anything written if I didn’t have this tool. I know that I can usually wait until later to figure it out... until my backburner brain comes up with a solution, until my craft improves, until life rolls an answer at my feet.

is for Music.

I agree with journalist Leonard Ray Teel, who said, “Good writing is like music. It has its distinctive rhythm, its pace, flow, cadence. It can be hummed. The great stylists seem to have an inner music…”

I will endeavor to find a little music in everything I write.

is for Now.

Write right now… the words in your head, the next paragraph in your novel, the image that wants to become a line in your poem. I have this mantra I use when I first arrive in my writing room: “There’s no place I’d rather be, nothing else I’d rather be doing right now.”

is for Orgasm.

"Writing is like making love. Don't worry about the orgasm, just concentrate on the process.
- Isabel Allende

Yeah… what she said :-)

is for Patience.

The Kanuri people of Africa have a proverb that says, “At the bottom of patience is heaven.” As a writer, I want heaven. I want to finish what I start. It will take patience, but it will be so worth it. I’ll inch along, if I have to, and do my best to be patient with the creative process.

is for Query.

As a writer, I have to emerge from my creative fog now and again and deal with the business of writing if I hope to share my work. I have to learn to query agents and publishers, format manuscripts, write a synopsis or logline, and tackle other intimidating projects.

is for Raise some hell.

“Writing is an act of mischief,” said Thoedore Roethke. I’m one of those pathologically polite people who doesn’t raise my voice in public. But on paper? Well, that’s where I can be loud.

is for Senses.

“We live on the leash of our senses,” said Diane Ackerman.

Ah, yes. I will breathe, sniff, run my hand along my skin. I’ll ask sensory questions as I write, pulling from my imagination and memory. How to describe the light coming through the window? What was the background noise at that moment? Was the grass squishy or springy? The air sultry or crisp? By concentrating on these sensory details, I'll transport the reader to that place and time, and make them feel what I felt.

is for Tide.

The ebb and flow of creativity is like the tide. And who sits and bitches about the tide? It comes in and goes out and we work with the rhythm. So, too, I must work with the rhythm of my writing.

is for Universal.

Carl Jung floated the idea that, strange as it seems, the more personal and individual the thoughts, the more they apply to everybody. “That which is most personal,” he said, “is most common.” I come back to this concept whenever I cringe at revealing my personal life in my writing.

is for Value. 

As a writer, I keep in mind that I barter with every reader. He or she gives me attention, and I must deliver some value in exchange. It might be information, an insight, an experience or a chuckle, but it must be something of value.

 is for Words.

Author Ivan Doig called language an “inexhaustible prop shop.” Every day I try to add something new to my supply.

is for Xenophile.

From the Greek, it is a word that describes “an individual who is attracted to foreign peoples, manners, or cultures.” While it’s a great word that would bring in a heck of a Scrabble score, it’s also a good thing for me, as a writer, to be. Writers are students of the human condition, and the more I learn about other, far-distant inhabitants of Planet Earth, the better my writing will be.

is for Yearn.

“What do you love and are willing to give to the page?” asks author, painter and “writing as a practice” instructor Natalie Goldberg. I keep an ear cocked, listening for the whining of my heart. When I hear it, I know I’ve found something to write about.

is for Zinsser.

As in William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well. It’s a classic. Although I wander far and wide in my reading-about-writing travels, I return often to this slim volume. Mr. Zinsser reminds me that clarity and brevity are paramount. Revisiting his fundamental principles of good writing is never a wasted trip.

Whew! I made it. Thanks for hanging in there with me.

I'd be thrilled to hear an alphabet letter or two from YOUR writing life, if you’re feeling generous.