Monday, January 15, 2018

Forgoing 'What Ifs' and Creating a Safe Writing Space

I try not to live the ‘what if’. What if people don’t like what I say or what I write?

Confidence isn’t always a breeze, even for the most experienced writers. For example, I spent a few weeks away from my church study group. When I returned yesterday, one person said, “We’ve missed your contributions … your input.” Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ I felt a disclaimer coming on. “You mean my outspoken input?”

I have to address this underlying issue―stop “chiding” my voice.

As I wrote last week, I love the silence of snow
, a frozen landscape outside my window. Winter saps my physical, but not my psychic energy. I was challenged to write a story with the theme “a fork in the road.” The challenge: keep it at 350 words or less. The exercise, I suppose, proved fruitful although, like flash fiction, I find it somewhat tedious. One word building on another with concise economy just like my days as a journalist. Cut the extraneous. It's about two women; there's a bite to the story. Nothing feel-good about the takeaway. I wrote it sitting in my favorite living room chair with Lily by my side. If it’s not published, there are other avenues: rework it, put it in a larger framework. 


In the Women’s Writing Circle, we create a safe writing space ... a communion of the written word … a leap of faith. We shut out the distractions of the outside world, the disturbances from those who might undervalue the creative process, or choose to ignore it. (You know who they are.) We light the candle and call in the writing muse.

We talked about:

5 a.m. stolen writing time at the kitchen table.

A five-minute free write to flex our writing muscles.

Think in scenes. Try not to map the whole thing out at once.

"My challenge," one woman said, "is quieting my mind." 

Stay focused … not easy with the rapid-fire (and often meaningless) words we spend time posting on Facebook, Twitter.

Keep the writing space simple … a clean desk and a small window in a private place. That was key for playwright George Bernard Shaw, who once confessed: “People bother me. I came here to hide from them.” 

A room with a view
of English countryside sparked Virginia Woolf's creative muse.

For J.K. Rowling, a coffee shop humming with voices and activity helped bring Harry Potter to life.

Sometimes, a 'nontraditional' creative writing space/time
serves a purpose. Take cooking, for example. Preparing and making dinner offers time to jot down thoughts, stir the pot, jot more thoughts.

When I cook, I keep the laptop on the kitchen table, a candle burning; after dinner, a notepad and pen on the coffee table near the television.

Check out this board on Pinterest for writing space and room ideas.
Twinkle lights in a writing space create ‘hygge’, the Scandinavian word for coziness and well-being. 
Convert an outdoor shed and create an artist’s studio/craft room. Isn't this one adorable? Haha! You'd better be handy.
Find a comfortable chair. Sit down. Take a deep breath. Forgo the 'what ifs' in your safe space.
How about you? Can you share your writing space?

Monday, January 8, 2018

'Bomb Cyclone' and Solitude: The Writing Life

I’m writing this as the sun sets, the sky cast in a wintry peach-red glow, like so many evenings before and in my childhood. It looks like a moonscape out there, delicate ridges of wind-whipped snow, the stillness, no birds, except a brief echoing call of Canada geese.

The May Sarton life ... my own slice of quietude, maybe not the wilds of New Hampshire or Maine, but it will do. I like solitude. I'm happiest when I can go home, shut the front door and think. A couple of years ago I probably would have been too embarrassed to admit this. 
This past week as temperatures dipped into the ridiculous and beyond frigid, I didn’t step outside the house for two days. I’d heard about the so-called “bomb cyclone” and stocked up on wild-caught salmon, rice, arugula. Put some vodka in the freezer. After writing and emailing information about the Women's Writing Circle all morning that first day, I took down the Christmas tree. It's surreal but I even washed the baseboards in the foyer. Then I watched the Japanese figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu on YouTube perform his perfect salchows and triple flips during his short program at the Sochi Winter Olympics. I watched it several times, astonished at the beauty of perfection in motion.

I kept writing and muted the cell phone. I wrote something about sex and a woman in her sixties. I like it. It's going in my new book.

On Day Three of the Deep Freeze, my sons stopped over. We got to talking about the weather. I mentioned that “inertia” won over buying a second home in Arizona, not in a way of regret, as a matter of life and circumstances. My younger son said, “I’m worried about you, Mom. Staying in the house alone like this. Not doing anything with your life.” They asked me to join them later for drinks and football, but the thought of braving the cold kept me indoors.

The 'not doing anything with your life' stung a bit. But unless you’re a writer, you don’t understand. We're working all the time. It's just that the results aren't always immediate. We need time alone; the story or stories we want to write always playing as background music in contemplation.

As women we realize how much we have lost by trying to meet the demands of others and not ourselves.

A dog is easy companionship. Your will and hers are one ... until soulful brown eyes beg a walk. Luckily, I have a fenced-in backyard. Lily runs in ridiculous circles in the snow, dragging small tree branches that have come down in the wind between her teeth. I don’t know how people with large dogs, or even small dogs, manage without a fenced-in backyard. I love watching her run with abandon.

There’s a sense of contentment that temperatures are moving up into the thirties and even into the fifties later this week. It means I won’t be too cold to get into the car and drive to my exercise classes and see people, some of whom are not just work-out participants, but friends. A mid-week conference on women's issues and the Women's Writing Circle read around this weekend are events I look forward to for stimulation and conversation.

Meanwhile, I’m happy here … Lily dozing at my feet. I'm writing and relishing solitude. I'll remember the 'bomb cyclone'. Goodbye to a 'perfect' winter scenario for the writer.

How about you? What do you enjoy about writing in winter?

Monday, January 1, 2018

Crafting Our Story With Inspiration and Creative Vision

There’s a nifty little book by Abigail Thomas called Thinking About Memoir. Plenty of wisdom in a tiny tome. Think about story as “container,” she advises. The shape can be anything at all, a “soup pot,” a “trapeze” a “funnel” ….

“A shape will eventually suggest itself to you.” Free yourself! For example, don’t be tied down by chronology.

As we figure out how to craft our story, we wait, we write, we wait and stew a little.

Over the holidays I met a friend and fellow writer. As we sipped mocha lattes at Starbucks, I told her I was a bit unsure about the “structure” for my new book. The protagonist is trying to make sense of things, a broader understanding of her life and those she meets. First person as memoir? Third person as fiction?

I wrote about the widow's journey in Morning at Wellington Square, my memoir, which concluded thirteen years after the death of my husband and the creation of the Women’s Writing Circle. Much has happened since that story ended, including confronting aging, living alone, moving beyond grief and being widowed. I observe grown sons whose lives open a window into a new age and way of living.

The American author Charles Bukowski comes to mind when thinking about story structure. He didn’t care what people thought and found sport in writing his life story. After all, our job as writers is to entertain and instruct. Who cares what you think, what your trial by fire was, unless you make it interesting? Suffering is interesting as long as it is served with a dollop of compassion and empathy.

Henry Charles "Hank" Chinaski, is Bukowski’s literary alter ego. As Wikipedia notes, “Chinaski appears in five of Bukowski's novels, a number of his short stories and poems, and in the films Barfly and Factotum. Although much of Chinaski's biography is based on Bukowski's own life story, the Chinaski character is still a literary creation, albeit with a pulp fiction veneer.

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava Stuart is a woman with a veneer of cynicism but deeply romantic. You might say she is my alter ego. My friend liked the idea that I write “Ava’s” story … what happens to her, she asked?

In A Portrait of Love and Honor, I excerpted my late husband, John M. Cavalieri’s memoir as the foundation for a novel based on a true story. Ava helps "Jay" write his story. Some in the “memoir community” whose support I had hoped for remained silent about this book, as though I had broken a "golden rule" of memoir. One came right out and emailed me that she “had problems” with taking a memoir and crafting a novel out of it. She refused to endorse my book. Others told me the concept was “brilliant.”

“A lot of writing consists of waiting around for the aquarium to settle so you can see the fish,” Thomas says. Solitude, reflection, a walk in the woods, a heartfelt conversation about your work with a friend over a mocha latte …. Our submerged story finds daylight, inspiration and vision.

In the Women’s Writing Circle
we share the journey. Are you willing to take risks? Are you ready to turn off the monkey mind and trust your instincts to tell a story how you want to tell it?

Do you have an experience of taking a risk with your writing? Please share your thoughts.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Holiday Traditions, Times, Millennials―A Memoir Moment

When I was a little girl, I couldn’t wait until Dad brought in the freshly-cut evergreen tree and set it up in the living room. After he had strung the lights, we opened the boxes filled with glass ornaments from Germany carefully wrapped in tissue paper that Mother had inherited from her parents … the chalet with red shutters, the delicate silver and white chapel.

Ah yes, that sweet memoir moment.

The family decorations, the traditions leading up to Christmas morning colored my childhood memories on this blog post when the anticipation of Christmas went fulfilled, most especially, with a new book. 

But the times are changing. As the mother of two millennials I am receiving a crash course. What is life? What is love? What is reality? What's happening to Christmas traditions?

Neither of my sons is married, nor are many of their friends, although several are in long-term committed relationships. None is decorating their respective single-family homes, apartments, condos or townhomes with Christmas trees or decorations, Good heavens! Heresy!

Some work at home so it would seem that even a small lit tree might add to the festivity and coziness of the house. The New York Times recently ran a story on creating coziness in the home. Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah) is the Danish concept of coziness. "If you’re not familiar, here’s a crash course, and if you want to dive in further (you will, and you should), here are some books to check out."

When I asked my sons and their friends this weekend why no "hygge", no tree, no lights, they simply shrugged and laughed. Not interested, not important, who cares. Sometimes, the girlfriend wants to bring over a small artificial tree. That's tolerated. 

Maybe because none has children? Or maybe the concept of family and family traditions is changing? About twenty years ago when a friend of mine predicted that some day marriage would become “obsolete,” I thought it a bit absurd (and shocking). Poor me. Now, her prediction seems prescient of the times.

Traditions that even I admit caused sweat to break out on Dad's brow as he labored to secure the tree with string and hooks and tighten the stand are going the way of a Sears catalogue.

I think back on my own life (and I’m not that ancient …yet). By the time I was thirty-three, I had been married five years and had a child, our son Alex. Several years in a row, John and I traipsed out into snow-covered fields and cut down our evergreen or spruce tree. John at the time was the age Alex, who owns his own home, is now.

Putting off marriage is another issue and women who pressure for "the ring" often confront a rude awakening. There seems no inclination to rush things, especially from the guy’s perspective. Millennials are working on their careers and paying attention to finances, saving to buy their own places, or already paying a mortgage. Having a baby is out of the question.

Dating apps lead to their pick of people, if inclined. One person doesn’t suit, it’s on to another because many have lived through the shock of divorce and the financial ruin or challenges that accompanied that split. Marriage is serious business and means closure on one chapter in life many are still exploring.

I find myself pondering these changing social dynamics and new story lines, away from the old tried-and-true boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married (or divorced), have 2.5 kids and get remarried and add more kids to an extended family. It’s beginning to sound as anachronistic as the dinosaur.

As for me, the (artificial) Christmas tree is up
, strung with multicolored lights and hung with ornaments, including that glass chalet with red shutters … hung high enough so that Lily can’t reach up and chew my ornaments, which she has done in the past. I enjoy my “hygge”, living alone as I do. And I like that when my sons come over, a family Christmas tree in the living room greets them, just as it did when my parents were alive. In fact, I enjoy looking at it now over a cup of coffee and writing this. But as they say, Vive la difference!

Who knows what the times will bring? I watch and listen, open to seeing and viewing a changing world. For, in the end, the writer must stay open to all that is happening, find in old stories a twist on the new and the surprising. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family. ~ Susan

Monday, December 11, 2017

Women's Writing Circle: Our Year In Review

Women's Writing Circle is a place to share our stories. I can't remember a year, a time, an era, where it was more important for women to find a safe and supportive place to write and share their stories.

Women are under attack in almost every arena ... from the workplace, to politics, to domestic life ... to the literary world where equal acceptance and recognition with men's writing remains an ongoing struggle.

It is exhausting, wearying. It is the journey of the feminine.

We share the experience, interpret an intricate world. How?
We find a place to share our stories ... our voices.

"Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works." ~ Virginia Woolf

In read around we heard the honest, the unconventional, the comic, the ironic, the creative spirit and mind at work.

Witness the women in these photos who made 2017 a special year, together in community. We spent two and a half hours a month to rejuvenate in read around and critique. We took part in a flash fiction workshop, a memoir workshop, a personal essay workshop .... (Here's more information on Women's Writing Circle workshops.) We read in public our work as published authors ... a collaborative anthology of fiction, memoir and poetry aptly titled The Life Unexpected.

Because in many ways, writing opens doors to the life unexpected. Writing fiction, creative nonfiction ... these are merely genre classifications. We write what we have lived, imagine what we might live.

I relish how it feels to wake up in the morning and write. I write about my mother, my husband, my father, the friends I have loved. I write about a woman named Ava, an alter ego, who edited Jay's memoir in A Portrait of Love and Honor and who appeared again as Lydia, a woman alone, in The Life Unexpected.

I look forward to reading my work in the Circle. We know writing can't be in isolation. We seek an audience. Feedback in a supportive writing group helps move us forward and affirms the strength it takes to write and devote ourselves to practicing our craft. Whether we stay or move on, our work together for that time is important.

Writing is therapeuticwe always wanted to write, knew at heart I am a writer. How lucky we are!

Special thanks also goes to the Hilton Garden Inn, Exton, West Chester, PA for its hospitality, its beautiful space for us to meet this year and next!

Brava and job well done!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sharing Story and Bearing Witness: A Writer's Moment

Newspapers and television networks, corporations and small businesses frown on bringing anything into the conversation that “smacks of religion.” We live in a secular world. We’re so religion-phobic, people are numbed.

Take the woman who shared with me this week that her company asked its employees to donate holiday gifts to an organization which made clear “no gifts wrapped in paper with any religious connotation.” So much for the Three Wise Men. My friend felt insulted, but hardly surprised. 

As a Christian, I sometimes feel the need to defend myself and my faith. Allegations from women, some as young as fourteen at the time, against powerful men who deny the allegations as lies pervade the news. As these stories gain more national attention, controversy often centers on the role Christianity plays in society. What do flamboyant radicals professing to be Christians yet defending alleged abusers say about our faith? What does Scripture teach about love and grace, humility and truth?

Are we called to bear witness to evil? Yes. Which brings me to the writer’s life.

Last week on this blog I wrote my own experience with sexual harassment, bullying and assault. I felt support and validation after I wrote that from women who messaged me in private, shared their own stories of wanting to write about abuse, and author Madeline Sharples blogging her story of sexual misconduct at the hands of a former president of the United States!

I also brought up the topic of sexual harassment with my pastor. She quickly agreed this was a topic for women in our parish to discuss. Her concerns, she said, particularly rest with the children who are victimized … much as I was at the age of thirteen and fourteen. The question: How do we bear witness women to women in the church, in the workplace, within our families?
There is so much evil in the world, it's hard to grasp. During this dark period of Advent … “the in-between period”… we wait for "the promise and hope in the midst of suffering."

This reminds me of memoir writing … there is an eager longing, an expectancy … it’s not just words on a page, but an event in a life that resonates with others who may have gone through similar events. The hope that we will eventually be brought out of bondage, which is an Advent theme, is also the writer’s hope. This is not a product to sell, but a moment of grace and humility. “Love moves the universe.”

Whether you practice religion or a religious philosophy or not, our task as writers―writing about war, murder, the parent whose child died at Sandy Hook but who can’t get anyone to listen about gun control―is to “combat evil.” To bring the darkness into the light.

This summer I taught a workshop, Voice Lessons about the personal essay and the idea that writing can change the world. It was based on the wonderful book by Mary Pipher Writing to Change the World.

As I wrote then: The alchemy of creativity hums in a collaborative community of writers. It fosters confidence and clarity that voice is unique to the writer. In a rapidly changing world of turmoil, a writer’s authentic voice becomes ever more invaluable.

We can share our voices through op-ed pieces sent to news outlets; by writing memoirs; organizing forums and other events where we openly discuss evils plaguing our society and the world. That’s my hope this Advent season …. We share our stories and bear witness.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Woman Remembers

It’s been over five decades since a boy named Ed sexually harassed and bullied me on the school bus and in the hallways of our junior high.

Girls of my generation remained silent and it wasn’t until I got to college that I started standing up for myself. Still, it was a long road to believing in Susan and liking who she was. Truth be told, self-esteem is the elixir. Even then, after the 'Eds' and the bullies and the sexual predators of the world, it takes hard work. I know. I experienced this, as have most women. It took yearsnothing short of a lifetimeto become the confident woman I am in this photograph.

Dear Ed, I haven’t forgotten your name or your face; a beaklike nose, black eyebrows in a single straight line. You chose me, the girl you would bully and sexually harass for months on end; the unwanted comments and attention meant to intimidate. You enjoyed having power over me. I didn’t understand. No one talked about this stuff. I was ashamed, embarrassed and scared.

You weren’t the first who thought he could do whatever he wanted just because I was female.

In seventh grade, walking home from school along the leafy sidewalks of sedate Wayne, Pennsylvania on a warm fall day, I saw your car slow down. You rolled down your window: “Hey, little girl. I need directions. Come closer.”  I imagine I wore saddle shoes, a brown and green plaid jumper, my pale blond hair pulled back in a barrette. I still slept with a teddy bear. “Go up this street and make a right ….” I looked at you … a movement caught my eye …your hand moving in your lap. You had unzipped your pants and were playing with yourself. A strange smile came over your face as our eyes met. I said I had to go. Your car slowly moved away, into the recesses of a vivid lifetime memory.

When I got home, I told my mother and she told my father. My father called the police. That night a kindly-looking detective wearing a white shirt and tie, (his badge was tucked in his suit coat pocket) came to our house. He asked if I would go to the police station after school the next day and look at mug shots. You were there, of course; I wasn’t the first girl. You were married with two young children; my positive identification sentenced you to parole after psychiatric counseling.

Back to Ed. I was taller than you, or you sensed how shy I was, inciting, “There she is” with a sneering leer …. Or “god, you’re ugly” ….

Sometimes you got your kicks muttering mean comments under your breath as we passed in the hallways between classes … snickering, pointing me out. You were in my Algebra I class and sat in the row next to mine. Once I took a tissue out of my purse to dab my face … I had oily skin. Apparently, you were watching. This started a whole new round of torture, you making fun of me, dabbing your face with a tissue whenever you saw me.

I told my father. Dad began driving me to school in the morning. I’m grateful to my parents for many things, not the least that they always listened and advocated for their daughter.

When I was in my twenties, I experienced a hostile workplace.
It was another form of bullying, of sexual harassment. A man determined your career. If you didn’t “fit” his idea of a compliant woman, forget it. I challenged the notion of passing students just to “get them through the system” which threatened you, the vice principal. You literally went ballistic. I had attended an Ivy League college and you hadn’t. “You probably think you’re better than me,” you shouted as the two of us sat in your private office and you leaned forward, glaring. My contract wasn't renewed. You saw to that. After you, I never felt the same about teaching in public schools.

Now as I read about all the women identifying their abusers, I understand the power of voice, of energy in numbers. It also takes the support of family and friends, of a loving husband who championed me. I was one of the lucky ones although the damage had been done and the effects continued for years ... the lack of trust in men, the feelings of objectification, the anger and shame. 

I had very few female role models in those early days. Women stayed silent or sided with men when we did speak out. So, I hope this is the powerful “sea change”, as the media likes to call it, that we’re seeing now. I know where the women are coming from and I feel your outrage, the sense of violation. I'm with you.