Monday, April 27, 2015

A Love Scene From A Portrait of Love and Honor


“Shall we dance?” Jay smiled, holding out his hand.
She nodded and set her wine glass down.
They stood up. His hand cupped hers against his chest and they began swaying to the romantic music.  He leaned back and looked at her. “So where did you learn to dance?”
“Mrs. Hill’s Dance Academy. My parents made me attend ballroom dancing classes.”
“Ah . . . and what was that like?”
She laughed. “Well, after I mastered the box step, it was still pretty awful. Mrs. Hill, a very sophisticated matronly woman, made all the girls sit in chairs along the side of the dance floor. Then she would instruct the ‘young gentlemen’ to choose a partner. I remember sitting there in this stiff white organza dress my mother bought for me, wearing black patent leather flats, waiting for some boy to ask me to dance. It was dreadful because even then in the sixth grade you were so afraid you’d be a wallflower. How about you? Where did you learn to dance?”
“Ten years of an all-boys Catholic school which included etiquette and dance classes took care of that.”
They danced slowly to the seductive Latin rhythms of Jobim’s music.
“I’d like to hear how you became a writer.”
She smiled. “I was fourteen when I wrote my first short story. I couldn’t sew – I was terrible in home economics, couldn’t even sew a straight seam. I wasn’t athletic. There really wasn’t anything I was good at but writing. Like you wanting to be an officer in the Army, I never thought of being anything but a writer. I was a terrible romantic.”
He nodded. “Poetry, romance, it’s the stuff we live for.”
One solitary lamp lit the living room and the music beckoned one more dance. They swayed to the strains of yet another love song.
Ava jolted herself out of her reverie. “We should go,” she said, hoping she sounded brisk. “I have an early morning appointment.”
Jay pulled back. “Ok.”
She moved across the room to switch off the living room lamp. She turned and looked at him. “Look, I’m sorry. I don’t want to give the wrong impression.”
He smiled. “Better grab a coat. It’s getting cold outside.”
  ~ A Portrait of Love and Honor

Monday, April 20, 2015

A New Home For Our Women's Writing Circle


Change isn't easy. But with endings come new beginnings. As our Women’s Writing Circle celebrates its 6th year, the popularity of our Circle continues to grow. So change is inevitable.

Whether memoir, fiction, poetry or personal essay – we honor women’s writing and voices. As we light the candle, our memories, imaginations and words illuminate the writer and the listener. We devote a morning to ourselves and shut out the distractions of the outside world.

Wellington Square Bookshop has been our home since the Circle's inception in November 2009. Its elegant, literary ambience is something I hoped to capture in my memoir, Morning at Wellington Square. But this is the situation . . . we've outgrown the time and space the bookstore can offer our group on a Saturday morning.

Like ripples in a pond, the word that the Circle is a safe and sacred space for women to share their voices through writing has quietly spread in our community.

Beginning with the May 9 read around, the Women’s Writing Circle gathers in its new home, the reading room in historic St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Glenmoore. 

St. Andrew's comfortably accommodates both a small and a large read around. Our time remains unchanged – 9 to 11:30 a.m. the second Saturday of the month.

The church also offers ample free parking and a convenient location at the corner of Routes 401 and 100 in Ludwig's Corner  . . . about two miles north on Route 100 from the bookstore and less than half a mile from the Henrietta Hankin Library.

As many of you who attend read around in the bookstore will attest, privacy is important. Aqua and tan deep-cushioned sofas, plush chairs and ottomans await in the quiet privacy of the reading room where I have spent many hours. 

We even have our own private entrance.

***
Many times I wondered how long our group could last . . . would women continue to attend read around? By my own informal count based on my email list, over 300 different women here, and, more recently, in Tucson, Arizona, have dipped a toe into the “magic” . . . the support, validation and camaraderie of our Circle.

Directly behind the church is the quaint Ludwig’s Corner Village Market, as well as the historic landmark eatery Ludwig’s Inn and Oyster Bar.  Pick up a croissant or fruit at the market and bring to read around  . . . enjoy lunch at the Inn afterwards. Let's support the local community.

I'll have coffee - regular and decaf - brewed in the church kitchen before read around.

Our writing prompt for May:

When I think of new beginnings, I think of the time . . .  As always, if this prompt does not suit, please bring to read around what your muse inspires.

For more information about read around

Directions to the church are here.


With gratitude for all you do to make the Circle a special place . . . Susan

Please leave your thoughts, comments and questions.





Monday, April 13, 2015

A Personal Note From Susan Weidener


This spring brings hope and renewal after a very long and cold winter. It also brings to fruition my long-held hope to see A Portrait of Love and Honor enjoyed by the reading public.

The book became available on Saturday. I loved working on A Portrait of Love and Honor – not just as a way for my late husband’s story to be told – but because writing fiction allowed me to explore several themes that I hoped might ring true for my readers.

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava Stuart is a woman whose own life is a lot like mine when I was much younger. When Ava meets Jay, extraordinary things begin to unfold.

By writing his memoir in an attempt to understand what is really important in his life - and coming to Ava to help him write it - Jay explores systems that only reward those who have 'played the game'. 


***
Some say that what readers really want is to know the author herself.

In Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, Natalie Goldberg recalls a conversation with a reader who had just read Writing Down the Bones: “Your book should be very successful,” the woman told Goldberg. “When you are done with it, you know the author better. That’s all a reader really wants . . . to know the author better. Even if it’s a novel, they want to know the author.”

Goldberg goes on to say that “human isolation is terrible. We want to connect and figure out what it means to write, How do you live? What do you think?”




***

This past weekend in our writing circle, I read an excerpt from my novel. I knew I was going to read some of it, and had pretty much decided on starting with the Prologue – begin at the beginning, I figured.

Then one of the women read a piece about how her ex-husband bullied and scapegoated her when they were married. I knew then that I would read the chapter from my novel about how Jay is bullied and scapegoated by an upperclassman, a big man, a baseball player, by the name of McClellan.

This is a universality of the writer’s life: writing that which resonates with the human experience . . .


Establishing connections is writing’s greatest gift . . . it is the incentive, as Goldberg puts it, for “keeping my hand moving.”

I hope that I have helped my readers and fellow writers along their own writing paths. Maybe, too, they will also learn a little more about me and the man I once loved.

In closing, I sincerely want to thank all of you for your support of me as a writer.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Tackling My Marketing List With An Eye Toward Fun


Never put all your eggs in one basket. That’s what my father used to say. Being a writer is – and always has been – one of the most difficult and competitive endeavors. Especially now. So you have to go about this with a sense of humor, a healthy grain of salt, a one-day-at-a-time attitude.

I have been reading numerous posts about social media burnout, writers taking “Lenten sabbaticals,” still others saying they have no time for husbands, grandchildren, etc. in the pursuit of book discoverability/marketing/publishing.

I think I understand that. Yet, for me, one of the joys of being an author – is living creatively and meaningfully. Lose that and inevitably writer’s block ensues; no joy, no creativity. So I'll keep traveling, enjoying time with my dog, my family and my friends. Tending the garden, so to speak.

By now you know that I am about ready to release my new book, A Portrait of Love and Honor. This is my 4th book in five years and, as always, there is a sense of adventure, as well as trepidation. Suppose nobody buys it? It’s like that party where none of the invited guests showed. A nightmare if you dwell on the possibility. Forget that. I’m determined - if nothing else – to have fun with this book. 

I will not view what happens with this book – or any future book - as a be all and end all of my creative life, talents and pursuits. Of course I wouldn't complain having a gazillion sales or the book going viral. But I no more accept the notion that everyone can move up in the world – an impossible dream  – as everyone can have a bestseller.

This story was born out of love and it is with love that I release it to the world. As my son, Alex Cavalieri, told me early on in the writing of A Portrait of Love and Honor‘It is a creative expression, Mom.'

So right away that exempts much of the criticism, the expectations, the how to’s and what to do’s drilled into authors every day by the so-called marketing gurus, writing and publishing “experts” and the lot.
In the final analysis, a true and honest creative work is unique and worthy in itself. And a good book is not always recognized as such, no matter how much we’re told that success or failure lies in our own hands. So much in life is out of our control. Creative works are fragile and need to be lovingly tended.

So . . . here is what I plan to do in order to have fun, ease the stress and pressure - call this my own "After Lent Sabbatical" . . . call me crazy.




  1. Replace the 'I do everything perfectly expectation' with 'I’m a pretty good writer and I do the best I can.'
  2. Work on one marketing endeavor a day. For example, one phone call setting up a book signing or talk. After that, back to writing, editing, enjoying a walk with my dog.
  3. Offer a Goodreads Giveaway and have fun seeing who signs up to win a free copy.
  4. Wait three months before I even consider BookBub.
  5. Engage with readers in person about writing and storytelling.
  6. Feel pride in my prior work and enjoy marketing those books alongside this book at my own pace and on my own schedule.
  7. Read no more than one post a day on how to market/sell your book, get more “followers,” boost your email list, pump up your blog stats, hone your Amazon keywords, etc.
  8. Not get hung up on social media, how many Tweets I tweet . . . or posts by other writers I respond to, or photos I pin to my Pinterest boards but, doing this if and when the spirit moves me and it feels right and interesting to do so.
  9. Blog about the new book or write guest blogs as they come up without actively pursuing or scheduling posts. That means no blog tours. (Seems a surefire recipe for burnout.)
  1. Politely ask people to write a review, if – and only if – they tell me they enjoyed the book. After all, what have I got to lose by asking?
  2. Appreciate each person for taking the time to write an honest review; good or bad.
  3. Continue to help and promote other authors as best I can. The temptation is to only promote ourselves, but this is a community, a collaboration of writers who need to offer each other a helping hand . . . especially in this toxic publishing climate.

How about you? Have you taken a stand to tackle marketing with an eye toward having fun and easing the pressure on yourself? Please share your thoughts and comments.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Growing Up 'Military' at VFMA Helped Write Novel


As many of you know from reading my memoir Again in a Heartbeat, I grew up at Valley Forge Military Academy in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Living across the street from an all-boys military academy was not your normal experience. I woke up to the brisk bugle call of Reveille and fell asleep to Taps, mournfully echoing across the academy’s main area to my bedroom window.

Platoons of white trousered cadets passing in review “eyes right” in front of this gawky teenager attending parades are unforgettable images.

Cadets my own age saluting me and nodding "Morning, ma'am" are indelibly imprinted in my memory. While most girls my age headed to high school dances, I donned formal evening gowns and elbow-length white gloves. I attended – Mounted Battalion and Infantry Battalion balls.

Understanding why we’re writing what we are leads to understanding the messages of our books  . . . which helps the writer offer something of value to the reader.

For the last month or so I've been blogging about themes in A Portrait of Love and Honor; that meant going back over old yearbooks and memorabilia from those years at Valley Forge.

The rituals, the mysteries and the myths of West Point. . . a theme in the book, is something I feel I know a little about firsthand. VFMA was patterned after West Point; in fact, some claimed attending high school there a necessary first step to applying to the United States Military Academy.

When I met my husband, John M. Cavalieri, he was chairman of the English Department at Valley Forge, a position my father, Andrew F. Weidener had once held. My husband graduated, USMA Class of 1971. My father felt graduating West Point was a prestigious and distinguished honor, as indeed it is. He and my husband got along famously not just because they both taught literature, but because they had experienced the military life.

Dad never served in World War II, but by the time he left VFMA in the mid-1970s, he had the honorary title "Brigadier General" bestowed on him by the Pennsylvania National Guard.

My father always claimed that his brightest student had been H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr.  . . . aka Stormin’ Norman. 

Schwarzkopf graduated from West Point; later, he went on to lead the forces in the Persian Gulf War. Dad was proud that he had a hand in mentoring Schwarzkopf's ascent to West Point and the Long Gray Line. Like my husband, Schwarzkopf is buried in the West Point cemetery.


I remember, too, when other distinguished graduates of West Point came to VFMA. Among them, General William C. Westmoreland, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Although I was ten or eleven at the time, I vividly recall how thrilled my parents were to have met President Eisenhower; my parents got to talk for a few moments to the "great man,” although what they spoke about, I have no recollection. Eisenhower was at VFMA for the dedication of Eisenhower Hall on campus.

One of the high points of my first reporting job was meeting (and briefly interviewing) Bob Hope at Eisenhower Hall.

Hope was a regular visitor to the academy for the Bob Hope Five-Star Award ceremony; an award to recognize distinguished service. Among the recipients: Walter Cronkite, Alexander Haig and Schwarzkopf.

Hope was an ardent supporter of  VFMA. Like West Point, the school held a certain mystique, not just for war heroes, but for the rich and famous. (Photo of Bob Hope courtesy of mainlinemedia.com)

Working with John’s West Point memoir as I crafted my novel  offered an opportunity to delve into the many facets of the Long Gray Line and the military that had so influenced me growing up.

So maybe those trips down memory lane helped me write this novel. I like to think they do. I 'speak' of things I know and experienced. That helps. So thanks for the memories, VFMA.

A Portrait of Love and Honor: Based on a true story, A Portrait of Love and Honor takes the reader from the halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point during the Vietnam War to a moving love story between two people destined to meet.

It has been described by New York Times bestselling author, West Point graduate, and former Green Beret Bob Mayer as: “A revealing and authentic look into a cadet's life at West Point against the backdrop of America's social upheaval of the late 60s and early 70s . . . and an inspiring love story about two people who help make each other's dreams come true.”

Monday, March 23, 2015

Novel Offers 'A Portrait' of Connection Between Two People


Two weeks ago, I wrote about the role aggression plays in my novel A Portrait of Love and Honor. Another theme in the book - connection between two people.

What makes for "good chemistry"?  Is it "a mystery," or do valid reasons explain why we are attracted to some and not others?

In the novel, Jay and Ava soon realize that the connection between them is undeniable. Perhaps, by the very fact that Jay approaches Ava to edit his memoir – disclosing who he is in an intimate and deeply personal way sets the stage for connection.
As Jay realizes, The joke about being “an open book” certainly applied, at least to him.
Revealing deeply personal information about ourselves to another person fosters connection – assuming the other person reveals, as well.

We have learned this many times over in the Women’s Writing Circle. Life stories sow the seeds of relationship. Feeling understood, empathized with - indeed "recognized" by another – allow connections - whether romantic or platonic - to blossom.

As I wrote the love story between Jay and Ava, I realized how I often lacked understanding of what had drawn me to some people and not others. Writing memoir and fiction allowed me the luxury of examining my life and searching deep within myself to find answers to questions that have long alluded me.

****

Sometimes, chemistry resides in the “mystery” of another person, that longing to know and be part of something different from our own experience. For example, Ava’s background couldn’t have been more different from Jay’s. 
“We grew up in such different settings,” Ava mused.“In my town, the only Jewish person I knew ran the small retail store. There was one African American, a girl, in my high school classes. I was raised in a true Episcopalian, WASP household. That meant no night went by without cocktail hour. Five o-clock on the dot my father started mixing the martinis.” 
“My family, on the other hand, had dinner at five as soon as my father walked in the door,” Jay said. “My mother had come through Ellis Island from a small village in Italy. She was eight years old. Hell. My grandparents still spoke Italian, and my grandmother never learned English.
Jay finds himself drawn to a woman whose family of origin is almost polar opposite from his own. 
"American traditional versus European provincial; mainstream versus subculture; dependable and solid versus argumentative and hard to please."

Yet here are two people both “activists” in their own way – drawn together by the dream and the desire of a richer and more meaningful life for themselves and the world. Both are naïve . . . and reluctant to compromise their ideals and values and “play the game.”
"Perhaps her reluctance to “play the game” stemmed from innocence and impossible expectations. Her father had been naïve, as well as somewhat lofty and cerebral in his approach to life. The real world took a back seat to books and scholarly pursuits. She had never been taught the upside to having a strategy to get ahead."
The more self-knowledge a person possesses, the more confident they often become, not just to empathize, but open themselves up to others.

Tapping into awareness and unlocking the mysteries of our family and self are the subjects of our upcoming memoir workshop, "Writing Family, Understanding Self."

As writers know, writing is the ideal vehicle to explore life - our own and that of others. 

What about you? Can you share thoughts on connections and how writing has helped establish meaningful relationships?



Due out next month: A Portrait of Love and Honor - Based on a true story, A Portrait of Love and Honor takes the reader from the halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point during the Vietnam War to a moving love story between two people destined to meet.



Monday, March 16, 2015

A Writer's Task - Understanding Family

All family tapestries are rich and they're all varied. Sorting through the "chaos" of memories, the writer's understanding of family dynamics leads to awareness and meaning. It also offers hope and joy for the writer, and inspiration to the reader.

On May 2 the Women's Writing Circle hosts: Writing Family, Understanding Self, a day-long writing workshop for men and women being held in Exton, Pennsylvania. 

Bring your own photos, and let’s explore how you can mine your own family to create a rich memoir that only you can write.

****
In this essay, our instructor, Lorraine Ash, shares her own memories of family and how they influenced her.

Look at the picture of the three chefs. The one on the right is my “Zio Mino,” Uncle Primo. (When my mother was a girl, she mispronounced his name, and it stuck.)

 
Those are three happy guys. They’re standing in Asti’s, the Italian Greenwich Village restaurant legendary for its singing waiters, many of whom were professional opera singers. They’d break into song for the guests. When the place closed its doors in 2000, after a seventy-five-year run, the New York Times wrote, “Say goodbye to pasta with Puccini.”

Zio Mino and his friends were chefs there for many years. I’m guessing this picture was taken in the fifties or sixties. 

Among Italians and Italian Americans, there’s a phrase, un lavoro ben fatto, meaning “a job well done,” a practice passed down through my family in just about every aspect of life. Can’t you see it in this picture? Look at how bright their chef's whites are. Look at those toques, the sparkling banister on the upper right, and the carefully set tables. If you think the place looks good, you should have seen the dishes Zio Mino used to produce, even at home. They were works of art and you better believe they did not appear before you, even if you were a kindergartner, unless the colors, the balance, and the aromas were absolutely perfect.

I grew up in such environments everywhere I went. In the Blue Chapel in Union City, New Jersey, where my maternal grandparents lived, I’d go with my grandfather, Taddeo, into the cloistered convent and, in complete silence, watch from below as a picture, wrought in mosaic tiles, took form on the ceiling. My Nonno would go up the ladder, lie on his back, and place tiles, piece by painstaking piece, and then come back down to regard the view from below. Up and down he went, ever patient, ever fascinated.

In the same way, my maternal grandmother, who, as a young woman, worked as a presser in an embroidery factory, would devote as much time to ironing the pleats in the skirts of my Catholic school uniforms as, no doubt, somebody spends on Queen Elizabeth’s dresses today.

In the same way, my father would write his legal briefs, my mother would clean the house, and my aunt, the nurse, would take care of the sick—in body and spirit.

Truth to tell, I picked up the habit in my own work as a writer, an editor, and a publisher, and, frankly, as a home cook and in many other areas of life. It took me until recently, however, to understand the role of un lavoro ben fatto in my own psyche. For a time, I mistook it as the pursuit of excellence and, in a way, it is, though, it seems to me, the old Italian way is filled with joy while the pursuit of excellence, always endless, is fraught with tension and questions like, Am I good enough?

My Italian ancestors were a determined bunch, too. When I look at the picture of the three chefs, I remember that Zio Mino, when very young, was a stowaway on a ship that traveled from Italy to America. He was going to come here, and that was that.  He was a man of high personal virtue, which came into play when Eddie, the only son he and Zia Esther had, died of pneumonia when he was a young father. Zia Esther, devoted to her son, almost lost her mind. I’d heard that over and over again, in the family, but I also witnessed Zio Mino’s devotion to her and his constancy and faith in simply carrying on. She followed him in that direction—forward.

Decades later, I, too, lost my only child and, somewhere in my psyche, accessed that story from long ago, complete with the determination, the elaborate nurturance, the insistence on living. It was such a large gift that it enveloped me. That’s why large gifts are so difficult to see or, sometimes, even bring to mind. We actually live in them.

There you have my early workings with an old photo, pulling out two positive strands from a rich but varied tapestry of my famiglia. Just as the power of family bonds was a force on my mother’s side of the family, the power of broken bonds was a force on my father’s side.

What is the importance of understanding our family of origin? How did it influence your story or memoir? Your comments and thoughts most welcomed.
 
Lorraine Ash, MA, is a long-time New Jersey journalist and writing teacher whose passion for the art of a well-told story also has led her into the realms of memoir, plays, and essays. She is the author of two memoirs—Life Touches Life: A Mother’s Story of Stillbirth and Healing, which is about coming to terms with the stillbirth of her only child, Victoria Helen, and Self and Soul: On Creating a Meaningful Life, a woman’s midlife story about keeping faith in life as it is. Her work has appeared in a variety of anthologies and literary journals. Lorraine also adores editing memoirs and is editorial director of Cape House Books, a boutique collaborative publishing company. She lives with her husband, Bill, in Allendale, New Jersey. For more information, visit www.LorraineAsh.com