Monday, February 20, 2017

The Writer As Activist and Hero in Turbulent Times

Once a journalist always a journalist. Those of us who have reported on the front lines―whether in our communities or in distant lands―know that reporting got into our blood early on. It’s a lifelong love affair, we couldn't wait to get up in the morning and read the headlines.

Journalists work hard to offer the public a cogent, hopefully, objective story that makes a difference.

We’re influencers and we don’t take that lightly. Which is why the current assault on a free press by a president who likens it to “an enemy of the people” is particularly disturbing and should frighten all of us.

Newspapers still offer the best vehicle to explore the critical narratives of corruption, greed, and injustice. Honest readers demand and expect this from the news media and the best of the best, in my opinion, provide this in abundance.

As I wrote in my memoir Again in a Heartbeat, I became a journalist because of the Watergate hearings and two reporters named Woodward and Bernstein. I had always wanted to write, had a novel simmering on the backburner, but journalism seemed a way to write and get paid.

I landed my first journalism gig at a daily newspaper called Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania; from there I went on to become a staff writer at the Suburban and Wayne Times, and then the Main Line Times, two local weekly newspapers ... and from there to The Philadelphia Inquirer where I learned the true power of journalism; to immediately reach an audience numbering in the thousands on any given day.

I always credit journalism for teaching me the economy of words,
getting right to the heart of a story, grabbing the reader early on.

After I left The Philadelphia Inquirer, I entered a creative writing phase, but the activist in me never died, as evidenced in my books and empowering women through the Women's Writing Circle. I tackled controversial topics including the terrible impact cancer has on love and marriage; narcissistic and emotionally dysfunctional men; abortion and a woman’s right to choose.

As writers, we are called on―now more than ever―to find our voice for a better world. Preaching is off-putting, so, instead, we enter into a conversation with our readers. Writers can change the world, offering our point of view, who we stand with and why; even our definitions of right and wrong.

We proffer this through prose and poetry; through our healing stories.
There are numerous avenues we can take as writers to help change the world. They include: attending writing workshops, meeting with other writers and brainstorming ideas; developing empathy for others; learning good interviewing skills and techniques; visualizing our audience.

I recently wrote about my trip to Nepal and included my point of view about the Nepalese way of life, void of our Western emphasis on greed and acquisition of material possessions. I did this through a PowerPoint, presented both to my church and a civic group. So many possibilities!

Writing is a great act of courage. We can be heroes and activists.

There are many ways to take up the gauntlet for change as writers. Which ones are yours?

Correction: An earlier version of this post talked about publishing op-eds and other pieces through Writers Resist. The correct name is Write Our Democracy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Turning Online Dating Into the Stuff of Story

I read an article this morning in The Writer Magazine. It was titled, "Love Story: When Journalism and Online Dating Combine." It struck a chord because that's exactly what I've been doing for years; combining my journalism skills with my online dating experiences and turning them into the stuff of story. In the article, the writer states:

Dating in the modern era is terrible: An endless string of high hopes and dashed expectations, countless hours spent browsing profiles on various sites, and recurring nightmares of winding up alone while all your friends, it seems, have paired off and are creating families of their own. So, what is a modern person to do? Well, while I can’t speak to the situation of all modern people, I can speak to the situation of modern writers, whose job it is to literally find out everything they can about a person, place, or thing, and then create a story, hopefully a compelling one, out of what they uncover.

Since I began Internet dating years ago, I have used my dates to produce what I hope is good writing, compelling writing, and a look into the journey of a middle-aged woman who meets all sorts of characters, the good, the bad, the ugly.

In Slants of Light: Stories and Poems From the Women’s Writing Circle, I wrote a short story called "One Last Shot at the Brass Ring." It was about a middle-aged woman seeking love the second time around and focused on an Internet date who tries to convince her he was the Prophet Elijah. Really, you can't make this stuff up. I used my journalism skills to recreate that date, the conversation almost verbatim, along with his body language of the actual date I had with this man.

Earlier in both of my memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Dating Again, and its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, I again wrote about my Internet dates. The guy out in Tucson, Arizona who tended to rageaholism (yes, he got off on raging against me); the older man who was leaving Pennsylvania for New Mexico because at the age of sixty, as he put it, “I feel a need for my boot heels to be wandering.”

I wrote about the laid-off IT worker who lost his job after his wife left him for an ex-con from Kansas she met on the  Internet. He had been fired because of his anguish, reduced to selling used cars.

I wrote about the men whose dismay and disillusionment was palatable after wives of thirty years just up and left them; in one case, she left him for  her high school sweetheart. I can still see him drinking his second scotch and water and pretending all was fine with the world. At the suggestion of an editor, I tried hard to convey their humanity, as well as their desperation.

All of this is how a writer uses her journalism skills and powers of observation
to create real and compelling characters. So as the writer in The Writer Magazine notes, I, too, continue to use real life experiences, coupled with my journalism skills to create new story lines, and compelling characters.

I stayed until the end of these terrible dates, perhaps aware that some of them would appear in future stories and memoirs. After all,  it’s only in “real life” that we can find the strange, the unimaginable, and yes, the absorbing and riveting, so take note of their body language, the tone of voice, the clothes they are wearing, how they lick their fingers of bay seasoning as I wrote about the Prophet Elijah. It’s all good stuff in the end. It's all sad stuff, the funny stuff, it's all the stuff of story.

How about you? Have you had an online dating story that showed up in your memoirs or fiction?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Memoir: 'Not Sprint But Marathon' by Michelle Monet

I met poet and writer Michelle Monet through an online memoir writing group. Here at the Women's Writing Circle, it has been our pleasure to feature authors from around the world with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. In that tradition, please welcome Michelle who candidly confesses how memoir is often a marathon of soul-searching and digging deep, but ultimately leads to hidden treasure.

People always suggested I write my story because I’ve had an interesting life. I have sung on some of the largest stages and for some of the largest audiences in the world.

I impersonated Barbra Streisand from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, New York to Russia to South Africa. I sang for celebrities and earned glowing reviews. I was even offered the prestigious finale role in a multimillion dollar production show at the Palace Hotel Resort in Sun City, South Africa.

Many people thought I had it made, including my friends and parents.

People thought I'd ‘arrived,’ but, honestly, it was far from that. I was always plagued with terrifying and debilitating panic/anxiety attacks, sometimes even on stage in front of thousands. Also, I survived an abusive husband who traveled with me, almost killed me and left me penniless in a foreign country where I was starring in a show. (Think Ike and Tina Turner!)

Much of my unhappiness stemmed from never being content impersonating Barbra Streisand, always longing to sing my own songs and be my authentic self, which is a theme of my upcoming memoir.

About a year ago, at age fifty-four, I discovered in a back closet that I had over fifty full journals piled high, that I kept since age eight. That day was life changing. While sifting through these journals, a floodgate opened. I couldn't stop reading.

There was a wave of deep sadness, though―seeing the anguished words of this scared little girl ...

this angst ridden teenage self

this confused young adult self

this adult ‘abused wife’

All wide open on the pages of these journals.

I read a few entries, but then was overcome with an overwhelming sick feeling and had to put them down. I realized I was still grieving and that I hadn't healed the unresolved pain in my life―twenty years later. That was the saddest realization of all.

I did feel that something life changing was happening by finding and opening my journals
. I instinctively knew that the 'key' to my future happiness and healing somehow lay in the unraveling of my life through these writings.

I had no doubt that if I wrote the memoir I could unlock my past and move on with my life. I felt it was my life mission now to do it. So, last January after my beloved cat of seventeen years died, I was compelled to start writing. I feverishly wrote about 40,000 words. My instincts told me that if I wrote long enough, hard enough and with enough gusto I would/could unravel the yarn of my past. Then I hit a block. A brick wall. Too much pain. I couldn't go on writing. Unexpectedly, though, I uncovered a whole new life passion. A true gift within all this confusion and pain!

I realized how much I truly loved writing. I knew that I wanted to spend my life writing and even if not this memoir, I had to write SOMETHING. A few close friends suggested that since I had compiled a lot of poetry that I start with a poetry book instead of the very daunting memoir.

So, I pulled out some half-written poems, assembled them in my first book Catch a Poem by The Tale, and published them.

It took seven months to write this ‘Poetic Memoir.’ It was a liberating, cathartic process getting that book up and out of me. I felt extremely vulnerable―a bit like I was turning my skin inside out for the whole world to see―but I also knew that bravery would be needed when I eventually went back to my memoir so I welcomed it.

After my first book, I was so inspired by my love for poetry that two more books flew out of me quite fast, and I published those also. Limerick Explosion  and Word Explosion. Funny, but after publishing those three poetry books I had the inspiration to get back to the memoir with a new determination … so I began writing again. It felt different this time. I felt less emotional pain. More detached. I knew I would eventually write this memoir and I felt happy about it.

Now I see that my break from my memoir was like food that has been simmering on the back burner. You know how food tastes better after it simmers for a while? When you finally pull it up to the front burner, it tastes better? Well, that's how I feel about my memoir now.

Subconsciously, maybe I feel it is not the time yet to tackle the BIG memoir (mainly because my parents and sister are still alive and kicking). Ha!

I've learned that memoir writing is not a sprint but a marathon. It is not linear. Maybe I needed the other writing projects to let my memoir simmer. I am honestly not in a hurry to get it done anymore. I felt a sense of urgency before but no longer.

I'll get the memoir finished in the right time but for now I am just enjoying my writing life and trusting the process.

How about you? Did your memoir take a long or short time to write?

Michelle Monet is a multi-faceted creative human being. Her career began as a singer/songwriter guitarist act in lounges around the Denver area. She progressed to performing her original music in cabaret clubs and concert halls around the US. In 1989 she landed the role as a Barbra Streisand impersonator for the hit show Legends in Concert. and traveled throughout the US from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, to Russia, Japan and South Africa.

In 1996, while starring in a production in Sun City, South Africa she had a passion to switch callings. She began studying visual art. Since then she has sold her art in her gallery/studio and at art shows and festivals.

These days you can find Michelle typing away, blogging daily on her blog 365 BLOGS in 365 DAYS! and chilling with her five cats and boyfriend Bob in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.




Monday, February 6, 2017

Dreamland: A Modern Tale of Pain and Addiction

Sometimes a book comes along that is more than just a good read. It’s a revelatory experience about the times in which we live. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by journalist and author Sam Quinones is one of those books. It’s timely because it’s about pain: joblessness, hopelessness, physical pain, mental anguish.

As writers, we chronicle pain in our memoirs and novels, our poetry, our journals. At writing workshops and conferences, pain is the universal fuel that ignites the writer’s journey, her quest to make meaning of her life and those around her.

Talk of addiction and losing loved ones permeates writing groups. Memoirs chronicling the loss of a son or daughter from addiction abound.

In Dreamland, the reader enters a riveting story of pain, corruption, denial and death. It's also a story of the human condition, the struggle to survive, told in true journalistic narrative style.

Pain pervades the town of Portsmouth, Ohio which is where the book opens―and where it ends. Gone are the days when folks were employed at the factories along the Ohio River; abandoned buildings dot the landscape like tombstones, reminders of a time and a way of life gone forever.

The book's counterpoint: portraits of a handful of drug traffickers illegally crossing the border from Mexico’s west coast, selling cheap drugs―black tar heroin―to escape poverty.

Dreamland was a private swimming pool, the size of a football field, where kids and families in Portsmouth listened to transistor radios, sunned themselves, picnicked, played softball and football on playgrounds. Now, a paved over parking lot, the demise of Dreamland serves as metaphor to the 2016 presidential election as desperate voters rallied behind radical candidates who promised to turn it all around, bring back a way of life that offered promise and purpose.
The heroin epidemic was fueled by OxyContin, time-released oxycodone, a derivative of morphine. Purdue Pharma marketed the drug to doctors as a pain panacea ... and wasn't addictive. This corporate criminality, coupled with unscrupulous doctors, along with a surge in prescription drug use, turned much of Ohio and the Rust Belt into a wasteland of junkies; eventually, deaths from opiate and heroin drug overdoses surpassed auto fatalities.

When the pills ran out, addicts resorted to black tar heroin to get their high, shoplifting from Walmart or using the Medicaid system to pay for their habit; delivered "pizza style" by the Mexicans who drove around town with balloons filled with heroin stuffed in their mouths.

Pain is everywhere. I remember when my husband was dying of cancer. The morphine saw him through his final days, so it does have its uses.

I have friends and family who knew those who died from overdoses. In one case, a young father was found dead in his living room chair. In my home, Chester County, Pennsylvania, an affluent Philadelphia suburb, opiates, I am told, can be purchased at the local high school.

Young and old, privileged and poor, wounded soldiers returned from Afghanistan, the sons and daughters of cops and preachers, addiction respects no demographic.

I was talking to a close friend recently about the book and he said he thought people who become addicted to drugs are weak. He’s entitled to his opinion, but I don’t happen to agree. Dreamland lets us into the lives of the high school football hero from Ohio ... the kid of Russian descent in the Pacific Northwest who died of overdoses; the young woman who snorted OxyContin and was dead a full hour before anyone noticed. They were victims of a time and place spinning out of control.

The book ends with Portsmouth helping recovering addicts through programs and safe houses, parents who had lost children to the opiate epidemic becoming activists, and the citizenry rallying around saving a shoelace factory.

Writes Quinones: "So the battered old town had hung on. It was somehow, a beacon embracing shivering and hollow-eyes junkies, letting them know that all was not lost. That at the bottom of the rubble was a place just like them, kicked and buried but surviving. A place that had, like them, shredded and lost so much that was precious but was nurturing it again. Though they were adrift, they, too, could begin to find their way back. Back to that place called Dreamland."

As writers, we hone our craft by reading great books. We search for our voice, for that story no one can tell but us in hopes of creating awareness of the human condition. As a journalist, I realize what went into writing Dreamland; the interviews, the research, pulling it all together into a coherent and riveting narrative. Dreamland opens us to a world many of us would rather not face, but at the same time teaches us to learn and, hopefully, move forward.

How about you? Is there a book you can recommend that is especially relevant in these troubled times?

Monday, January 30, 2017

'The Life Unexpected': An Anthology Journey Opens Doors

This past Saturday something special happened. Women shared their voices, their stories and their lives at a local bookstore by reading their published writing. In a shopping plaza about 40 miles west of Philadelphia, energy and powerful sharing took place.

And the public bought our books and asked us to sign them. Along the writer's way, it doesn't get much better than that.

The anthology journey opens doors; meeting new readers and enriching our lives through conversations and sharing at book signings, library talks, and on blogs; learning and sharing with other writers.

Here are some observations for those considering participating in an anthology, which can be an intensive experience.

Built into the anthology experience is editing.
Although I served as one of the editors on The Life Unexpected, we forged a true collaboration by breaking up our sixteen writers into beta reader groups of four.

The more eyes and input, the richer the product. That said, not every contributor is comfortable with critiquing another writer's work and shouldn't be forced to do so.

I served on a “core” committee for the book charged with final decision-making; some of us on the committee of five had more experience in copy editing and proofreading than developmental editing; some more in publishing and design.

Working with our publisher, Lucky Star Publishing, was an added plus in cover design, interior formatting and sheer legwork dealing with a printer/designer, ISBNs, bookstore distribution.

Here’s more how to develop an anthology in this post about our first anthology, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women’s Writing Circle.

I’ve seen anthologies pop up all over the local writing terrain; sadly, some look amateurish. If you’re asking the public to pay hard-earned money for your book, offer a quality product. A beautiful cover can't be underestimated.

Due to editing, a couple contributors thanked us, but passed. Because we had a clear vision for the book―the writer had to adhere to the ‘life unexpected’ theme and present a piece in creative, storytelling fashion―we accepted only the strongest stories and poems with that in mind.

There are a lot of great things about being part of an anthology, which I’ve written about here and will be featured next week on Memoir Writer’s Journey when I write about the diversity of our collaboration. 

Undoubtedly, one of the most enjoyable is seeing your work published and out there.

Here are photographs of our "Meet the Authors" day, with special thanks to Towne Book Center and Café in Collegeville, Pennsylvania for hosting our two writing groups, Women’s Writing Circle and Just Write.

Brava to our fabulous writers! Job well done. Toast yourself and your creative muse!

Your thoughts and comments about an anthology experience are most welcome.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

High School Cliques and Marches - A Memoir Moment

Last week I wrote a blog post why I wasn’t attending the Women’s March on Washington. The post generated many interesting and thoughtful comments, both here and on Facebook; went viral in its own small way with over 500 views the first day.

Many of the comments on the post had to do with why a majority of white women couldn’t support a woman for president. How could this be? This article in The New York Times about women living in the Rust Belt opens a window into that.

In fact, some of the women in the small town in Michigan quoted in this story weren't even aware of the march.

I know many women who traveled to the Women’s March both in DC and Philadelphia and I have great respect and admiration for them.

This Women’s March emphasized “diversity,” yet march organizers left out trying to appeal to white woman in the Rust Belt, who voted in Trump’s favor. They listed fifty honorees, including Gloria Steinem and Shirley Chisholm, but conspicuously left out one name on their “official” list: Hillary Clinton. (The reasoning: this wasn’t about Hillary.) NOTE: One of the chief organizers was a Sanders' supporter.

And since this is a column on writing, let’s call this another “memoir moment.”

When I was in high school, there were “the cool girls;” the “in” crowd.” I don’t know about your high school, but in mine certain “criteria” applied to be part of the in-crowd clique: fathers played golf at the country club, had vacation homes in Stone Harbor, NJ and― yes―the girls were on the cheerleading squad. They wanted to look like the girls in the Breck hair commercials and came pretty close. They aspired to have boyfriends on the football team. They stuck close together and didn't invite others to join them.

I hung out with two or three girlfriends at Radnor High School, which is located in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Philadelphia. After school, we drank black coffee and smoked cigarettes at Ho Jo’s restaurant (short for Howard Johnson’s, which like many of America’s businesses has largely disappeared or been bought out by corporate conglomerates). We didn’t get asked out on Friday nights. I asked my brother, Andy, to take me to the senior prom and my brother’s fraternity brother accompanied my best friend, Kathy.

My friends and I did our own thing, primarily plotting to get as far away from Radnor High School as we could once we graduated. The other girls? I don't know. They didn’t like us, or rather, we didn’t even exist to them. We avoided them, too.

Which made me think of high school cliques and the Women’s March.
With a few exceptions ―mainly Ashley Judd―you didn’t make mention of HER name; she didn’t exist to the other girl. (Yet they lifted her quote, “Women’s rights are human rights.”)

As the march demonstrated, women are a powerful force; beautiful, magnetic and strong. How to turn that energy into political currency for women's rights now becomes the question.

Meanwhile, Hillary was gracious enough to tweet her support of the march. As I caught up on writing projects that day and tuned in from time to time on the marches, I felt that the boys get all the attention. Trump had galvanized the marchers the way no woman running for president had! (Even the 'nasty woman' mantra came from Trump.)

I remembered Radnor High School. Until women truly unite―moving past issues of society and class they were born into and joining together in the fight for equality―we’re still a bunch of high school girls trapped in our cliques, spending time with each other and not readily inviting others to join us.

On a more positive note, that's what I love about our Women's Writing Circle. We draw talent and voice from women with many various and diverse cultural, social and educational backgrounds. The Circle is a sacred place where we honor the journey of all women through writing. My dream―someday soon we are all united, not divided.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Why I'm Not Attending the Women's March on Washington

Yesterday in church I chatted with a fellow parishioner. She told me she stopped reading the newspaper because she “had lost interest in the news.”

“I just skip to the crossword puzzle and the obituaries,” she said.

I could identify because it's all so horrible and terrifying.

We got to talking about the Women’s March on Washington.

She said she had thought about taking her grandchildren to the march but decided not to bother. “What I really wanted was to attend her inauguration with them. I even researched buying the tickets online that’s how sure I was.”

“Speaking of the march,” I said, “I had opportunities to attend, but decided not. I feel like I’ve done enough marching in my lifetime.”

Another woman who joined us in the church fellowship hall chimed in. “Susan, I can imagine you have done a lot of marching.”

It’s true. And since this is a blog on writing, call this post a “memoir moment." Here's why my marching days are over.


Last week I read that fifty-three percent of white women did not vote for Hillary Clinton. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, considering the vitriol of this campaign, but still I felt myself cringing reading that―and then rereading it. Fifty-three percent!  (Here's another report on the breakdown.) When I mentioned it to my son over lunch that day, he said, “A woman not voting for a woman. That’s like me not voting for my brother.”

The Women’s March in Washington just seems SO AFTER THE FACT―or to quote a popular cliché these days, “too little too late.” In a world where political opponents are destroyed by unsubstantiated reporting, foreign interference, a public who lacks critical thinking, and misogyny, I’ve said goodbye to my marching days.

All of this has brought back memories of a young student at American University majoring in literature, wearing a knee-length tweed winter coat with fur collar once worn by her grandmother. She chanted, “We don’t want your dirty war!”

Not long after that march against the Vietnam War, she marched on a bitterly cold gray January day in Washington, DC demonstrating against the inauguration of Richard Nixon. As his motorcade passed by, she joined the ranks of protesters. Life held so many possibilities and she had found her voice!

A couple years after she left Washington for good, she landed her first job as a reporter on a suburban newspaper. Her editor offered her the opportunity to write op-eds. So she cogently ―passionately―cited all the reasons why passing the Equal Rights Amendment was a ‘no-brainer’―and watched that go down to defeat. Years later, she volunteered for Hillary, who lost the nomination to “the more charismatic” Obama. In 2016 … by this time she had married, been widowed, raised two sons and traveled the world … she gave more time, more energy and money to Hillary’s campaign. She supported her on Facebook right from the beginning of her grueling nomination, put a bumper sticker on her car that read "Hillary for America" and a big HILLARY sign near her front door as the Pennsylvania primary approached … naively believing this time would be different.


Two nights before the election, I confidently texted a friend my prediction that―notwithstanding the Comey outrage―Hillary would “win in a landslide.” The next day I stood in line for over three and a half hours on the sidewalks of Philadelphia under moonlit autumn skies in hopes of seeing her, Bill, Michelle and Barack share their joy at the imminent election of our first woman president.


This past weekend I attended a very powerful and moving ceremony that brought various stakeholders together in the community for a peace vigil. A tableau of diversity and collaboration between clergy of all faiths; the LGBTQ community; the Hispanic Alliance; organizations devoted to advocating for the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the lonely, I felt right at home … a small, local vigil held on a cold January night, no news media present. Earlier in the day, I had facilitated our Women’s Writing Circle which brought together incredible energy, talent and pathways to healing life’s traumas through the written word.

It was here, in these settings, I felt I could make a difference and even continue to realize my own potential as a woman.

Sure, thousands of women marching this Saturday portends powerful visuals on television and the internet. But after the 24-hour news cycle ends, pundits will analyze the energy and spit it out. Then what? It’s back to the Twitter tirades and the men whose mantras revolve around power and money.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. today, I feel hope, against all odds, in a world teetering on the verge of lunacy. It was eight years ago today I stood on the University of Arizona campus with the citizens of Tucson and my fellow VISTA members in National Service. As we marched in solidarity, we were handed long-stemmed red roses under blazing desert skies where in the distance the Santa Catalina Mountains offered majestic eternity. It was a march to commemorate we can never take freedom for granted; to honor those who fought so hard for civil rights. The tenor of that march was peace, not anger; joy, not anguish; moving forward under a new president―the first African American president―not fear that hate and deplorable conduct have infiltrated every corner of our society and our country.

I have spent the last seven years facilitating this writing group for women to honor and find their voices. I think I’ve learned that my energy is best spent in ways other than marching and politicking; in living my life as an empowered woman … sharing my gifts with the community. I don’t feel I’m standing on the sidelines, but on the front lines.

So, I won’t be marching with my sisters in the streets of DC or Philadelphia. I’m with them in spirit and in heart and I wish them only the best. But here’s the thing. My journey has taken me down a quieter, less noisy path, hopes no less high, yet tempered with age and experience.