Thursday, April 30, 2009

You Are Not Allowed To Write About This

For the sake of fairness, I think anyone who moves in with a writer should be given a disclaimer. “Dear Potential Character for Many Things I Will Write,” is how it should begin, if we’re being honest. Since we’re writers, however, it would probably start, “Dear Beloved, Whom I Shall Memorialize in Many Ways.”

At my home, this can become a tricky issue because I primarily write non-fiction. If you’re writing fiction, you can honestly say, “Oh honey, I know this character is a lot like you, but it’s not you. See, he cheats on his wife and has a horrendous mole, and you’re faithful and mole-free.” In my case, I can’t use this defense. My husband has seen his name in my writing for twenty years now, and for the most part he takes it in stride. However, in the past few years, he’s started to become more conscious of the possibility that all sorts of things he says and does wind up in my work, and if it’s embarrassing or funny, the odds are really good.

My son noticed this early on in life. He started saying, “Don’t write about this! You do not have my permission to write about this!” at a rather tender age. Then both of them started asking, “You’re not going to write about this, are you?” from time to time.

“You never know,” I tell them.

About a week ago David and I were talking about a subject which I cannot reveal. He was telling me something that I can only tell you was hilarious, because the moment I said, “Oh, this would be really funny to write about,” he turned serious.

“You are not allowed to write about this!” he said. “I’ve got to draw the line somewhere! And writing about __________ is it!”

Obviously, I’ll be forced to write fiction at some point so I can continue shamelessly exploiting my poor husband and still honor his request.

Do you see why writers should give non-writers a disclaimer? “Dear Beloved, I know that over the years you will grow tired of seeing yourself in print, extra so if I am published. Please know that when you allow me to creatively use you in my work, it only increases my chances of publication, which is a good thing for everyone. You may not understand why it would be good for you if I am published, but you must simply trust me. Besides, why should I be forced to make things up when I have you? When you allow me to share your exploits with the world, it enriches my writing. Let me just apologize now for any future problems this may cause. With all my love, your writing partner.”
Picture courtesy of Armin Hanisch at

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hand Grenades and Horseshoes

When my husband and I decided to learn how to backpack, we started with a big pile of books. The Internet was in its infancy back then, and so we bought a stack of wilderness titles covering everything from how to start a fire to how to use the bathroom when there isn’t one. After months of reading and preparation, David and I crammed our backpacks full of supplies and set off on a trip that would later come to be known as The Trail of Tears. On the way back down the mountain, I cried for a solid five miles because of the blisters on my feet. We didn’t make it to the peak of Mt. Charleston, which was our goal on that trip, but we did learn that the guidebook’s trail rating of “strenuous” didn’t in any way reflect the conditions on the mountain. Honestly, for a couple of weeks afterwards, I couldn’t think of a description of the trail that didn’t include profanity.

Aside from getting a hard lesson in backpacking, I learned another thing from the Trail of Tears: books will only get you so far. A book could not warn me that my hiking partner would decide to virtually run past a church group he thought was moving too slow, thus exhausting both of us before we had even hiked a mile. The books did warn me about overloading my backpack, but until you’ve had shoulder straps cutting into your sunburned shoulders for hours on end, you don’t really grasp how important it is to eliminate every ounce of extra weight. And my books could not capture how very important water becomes—especially when you have to melt snow to get it.

Becoming a writer was a similar experience. Writing hasn’t given me blisters or caused me to scream at my husband (very often, anyway), but it certainly has reduced me to tears on several occasions. I’ve spent an entire lifetime accumulating books about writing, and I’ll tell you the number one thing I’ve learned from those books: you learn to write by writing, not by reading books about writing.

You can read books all day long about the process of revision. You can collect tips and tricks galore, but if you don’t apply that knowledge to your work, it’s useless information. You don’t edit by contemplating editing. You edit by cutting out words that don’t look or sound right—and then sometimes you put them right back in. You edit by taking all that knowledge you’ve accumulated and trying it out on your work, kind of like it was a guinea pig. Sometimes the results will be great, and sometimes you’ll be convinced you’ve edited away the best part of your work. You’ve simply got to take the leap and start tinkering.

You can find hundreds of titles about the process of finding an agent and getting published, but no book can capture that heart-pounding moment when you click the “send” button and watch your work go off to someone you don’t know. No book can prepare you for the sting of criticism and rejection that inevitably accompanies writing.

Writing’s therapeutic value is extolled in many books, not just those directed to writers. But no book can fully tell you how relieved you can feel after emptying your thoughts into a journal or letter. No instructions or directions can describe how it feels to search deeply within our souls and hearts for the words than will help us.

The books can come close. Doing your homework on any subject is a good idea, but it’s no substitute for the actual activity you are researching. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, you know. For writers (and backpackers), "close" may leave a lot of space between the imaginary and reality.

And speaking of backpacking, I must tell you that David and I made a second attempt on the peak of Mt. Charleston two years after the Trail of Tears. My failed first attempt taught me far more about the wilderness than any book. On our second try, we had the practical knowledge to take us to the peak, which is just under 12,000 feet. Standing on that peak, listening to the wind whipping past us, absorbing the panoramic view around us, I felt as though I’d scaled Everest. It's a feeling that words alone can never convey.

Post Script: You can listen to my radio essay about our hike to Mt. Charleston at:
Picture courtesy of Brad Mering at

The Locked Penthouse & Other Writing Prompts

Last week we were in a scrap yard, but today we’ve moved up. Why is Alexandra locked out of the penthouse? Who does she call? Take ten minutes to freewrite—if not on Alex, then on another prompt—without stopping, stalling, or second-guessing yourself. At the end of ten minutes, who knows what you might have? Just write!

--The door to the penthouse was locked, so Alexandra called….
--If you could declare a new holiday, what would it be and what would it celebrate?
--George liked things put away precisely. When he saw the mayonnaise jar was turned with its label facing backwards, he knew….
--When was the last time you were at a home improvement store, like Home Depot? Why were you there?
--Margaret was determined to help Wilbur, even though he’d told her that he didn’t want her help. She decided….
Picture courtesy of Samantha Villagran at

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Scrap Collector & Other Writing Prompts

--Ernie was collecting scrap metal in a vacant lot when he found ….
--Today is Earth Day. What do you know about this new celebration?
--The roads in the ultra-exclusive Casa Grande development were like a maze. Alice was soon lost, and when she pulled over to check her map….
--Do you enjoy baking or cooking?
--Laura was turning over a new leaf. She vowed that from now on, she would….
Photo courtesy of Galeria fotografii , Projekty Logo , Grafika at

The Proofreader’s Story: A Writer’s Fairy Tale

Once upon a time, the Proofreader held an exalted place in the Kingdom of the Writer. She spoke to the Writer every day; her opinion was valued. Then one day, Spell Check and Grammar Check arrived. They didn’t think the Writer needed the Proofreader anymore, so the two of them pushed the Proofreader off the top of the Tower of Thesaurus. “You old-fashioned biddy,” they jeered. “We don’t need your books or your red pens. We’re new technology, and now the Writer doesn’t need you anymore.”

The Proofreader was undaunted. She shouted, “You two wouldn’t know a homonym if it smacked you in the face!” She marched to the castle’s front door and pounded on it. She was so angry that all of her commas fell out of her pockets. The Writer herself answered the door.

“Do you know that Spell Check and Grammar Check just threw me off the roof?” The Proofreader was indignant. “And Grammar Check can’t even conjugate correctly!”

The Writer cleared her throat. “I think that’s a rather personal matter, don’t you?”

“You can’t be serious about exiling me from the castle! You can’t trust your important work to those two jokers!” The Proofreader stomped her foot so hard that all of her paragraph marks spilled onto the ground and got tangled up with the commas.

“Poor, poor proofreader. Go look up Luddite. You can stay in the pantry if you feel you must stick around,” the Writer said. “The Checker Twins are just so much easier, even if I don’t always understand the corrections they make.” And the Writer shut the door, leaving the Proofreader to wander the grounds aimlessly.

But the Checker Twins were rash and impetuous. They changed the Writer’s word processing settings so they were allowed to make automatic corrections. The Writer wrote: The sun rose in a burst of flames, drowning the darkness. The Checker Twins changed it to: The rosy flames burned the night. “Why did you change this?” the Writer demanded. “We’re not sure,” the Checker Twins told her. “We can't really tell you. According to our rule book, it's supposed to read like that, but the truth is that we just liked it better that way.” Soon the Writer was spending all of her time arguing with the Checker Twins.

At the end of the week, the Writer went looking for the Proofreader. The Proofreader was sitting under a tree, taking notes on the colors of the flowers. She asked the Writer, “What do you think? Would you call this red or maroon? Maybe blood red? Perhaps vermillion?”

“I don’t know,” the Writer said. “But I do know it takes an actual human being to contemplate the difference. Will you come back and help me get rid of the Checker Twins?”

“So my extra eyes are better than those automated twits?” the Proofreader asked.

The Writer nodded her head affirmatively. “Nuance isn’t their strong point.”

“New Aunts? New Ants? New Age?” called the voice of the Checker Twins. They were searching for the Writer.

“Follow me,” said the Writer to the Proofreader. “Let’s disable them before they replace anything else.”

Writers: Do you have a flesh-and-blood proofreader, or do you rely on Word’s automated features?
Photo courtesy of Mario Sanchez at

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Strunk & White #1: Place Yourself in the Background

The Elements of Style is a venerable book. Its simple design reflects the principles that the authors espouse within its covers. Coming in at 105 pages, index included, this slim volume travels well. In Section V, the authors tackle “An Approach to Style.” Their first recommendation? “Place yourself in the background.”

When my writing group bandied this point around the table, more than a few faces were perplexed. How does a writer place herself in the background, especially if she’s writing in the first person? When I tried to think of examples of stories in which the writer overwhelmed the material with her own personality or quirks, I came up blank initially.

After I pondered this whole writer-in-the-background question, I did come up with a few answers. For instance, if you’ve studied advertising, you know that a brilliant ad may backfire on your product because consumers may remember a slick or clever ad but not the product being advertised—unless the product is front and center. Think of those commercials that leave you with the memory of the hip song they feature…. and nothing else. In contrast, think of the Geico ads. We love that lizard, but we never forget he’s selling Geico insurance. Likewise, any device we use in our writing should enhance the story or poem, the details supporting the work, not diminishing it.

The question remained, though, on how to place yourself in the background of a first-person memoir. Since this is my favorite genre, and the one in which I most often write, I thought first about memoirs that work. Frank McCourt’s Angela's Ashes, perhaps one of our best-known modern memoirs, is not just about McCourt. It’s about poverty and despair and hope and escape, about the struggles of not just McCourt, but his family and his country. Like any good story, a good memoir is multi-layered. The narrator may be the “I” of the story, but he isn’t only telling his story. He is a part of the story.

In contrast, I read a memoir a couple of years ago by a Miami psychic. Everything good about the book was on its jacket. The premise was exciting: an alleged psychic’s years as a consultant to drug dealers and other Miami characters. And that’s the whole book. Ms. Psychic never had anything insightful to say about her abilities. She didn’t paint a picture of Miami, or drug dealers, or really much of anything other than the narrative of her daily life—I went to my shop, I gave readings all day, I had dangerous customers. It put me in mind of the quote: “There are no boring lives, only boring writers.”

How do you place your story front and center?
Picture courtesy of stockers9 at

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Nervous Man at the Door & Other Writing Prompts

Here are today’s writing prompts. Pick a prompt and take ten minutes to write without stopping, stalling, or second-guessing yourself. At the end of ten minutes, who knows what you might have? Just write, and let the writing be its own reward.

--Allan’s hands started sweating and shaking before he opened the door. He took a deep breath, bracing himself for….
--It was tax season again, Amy realized. She always thought about Chad in April because….
--Would you describe yourself as good-natured? Why or why not?
--The front door stood open, revealing….
--If you were confined to house arrest at your home, what would be the advantages and disadvantages?
Picture courtesy of Kym McLeod at

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Furious Phone Call & Other Writing Prompts

What makes the character in our first prompt loose her cool? I’ll let you decide. Take this prompt for a ten-minute test drive without stopping, stalling, or second-guessing the direction your writing takes. If an angry phone call leaves you cold, take a different prompt for a spin. At the end of ten minutes, you may have a promising start on something. Or not. Just write, and enjoy the ride while it lasts.

--She became furious when she heard the message, and before she calmed down, she called back and said….

--After Albert died, Lois decided to move to….
--Have you ever taken a self-defense class?
--Maybe this positive thinking stuff works after all, Ronald thought. He had just opened his mail….
--Do any of your friends or family have an unusual occupation?
Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Clix at

Friday, April 03, 2009

Attention Las Vegas Writers

Clark County-based writers should check into this weekend's workshops at the Clark County Library at 1401 E. Flamingo Road. As a part of the Reading Las Vegas program, the Library District is hosting three free seminars:

11:00 - 12:00 p.m.
Publishing Basics--How It All Works

12:45 - 1:45 p.m.
Polish Up That Manuscript
Speaker: Maralys Wills

2:00 - 3:00 p.m.
The Mechanics of Editing

If you're busy this weekend, you may want to check out the Las Vegas Writers Conference, April 16-18, at Sam's Town. Registration for the full conference: $400; Single Day Registration: $250; Student Saturday: $125.
Photo courtesy of Sigurd Decroos at

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The White Board

People who work at home must learn to set boundaries, or the “at home” overwhelms the “work.” For years I complained about not having enough time at my desk. I became downright cranky (or worse, if you ask my son and husband) when interrupted, which seemed to be every ten minutes. I tried every way I could think of to set office hours and get my men to cooperate, always with mixed results. When we uncovered a white board in our spare room a few weeks ago, a little light bulb went off over my head. A nite-light sized bulb. “Just put that outside my office door,” I told my hubby.

The white board sat outside my door for a few days. I found its box of accoutrements: markers, eraser, spray cleaner. The light bulb over my head grew larger, perhaps to 25-watt size. I used a brand-new black marker I found to write on the board: “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” –Henry Ford.

Another couple of days passed, and the light bulb had its final growth spurt. The two most common reasons my son and hubby interrupted me were to ask 1) “What are we having for dinner?” or 2) “When are you coming out of your office?” In the top right corner of my white board, I used a purple marker to write the date, then my office hours, and what we were having for dinner. Presto!

Every day, I change the board. The men in my house love my white board. They honor it faithfully, which means I have to honor it faithfully, too. It’s easier to commit to something verbally than on paper, and I found that sticking to my posted schedule accentuated how easy it had been to fudge on my daily commitment of six hours of BIC (butt in chair). Now, I have my white board to answer to.

What about you? How do you enforce your writing time?
Photo courtesy of Mailsparky at

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April Fools & Other Writing Prompts

--After Bob’s April Fools’ Day joke went horribly wrong, his fiancĂ©e decided….

--Maude had always wanted to go to Europe, so when Stan offered to take her with him….
--Are you planting a garden this year?
--Socks and Holstein, Greta’s two obese cats, escaped one morning after breakfast….
--The Folies Bergere just ended a 49-year run at the Tropicana here in Las Vegas. Did you ever see the show?
--Describe a memorable wedding you attended.
Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Clix at