Monday, April 15, 2019

Critique and Going Further With Your Writing

The value of critique, as one of our writers noted on Saturday, is that it offers differing perspectives. While many offer up the same intelligent criticisms of a piece—this needs clarifying, this requires more detail or better writing—some see no need to change this or that. Others in the critique group do.

I suppose this is why creativity is an individual expression. The ultimate decision rests with the writer.

Critique leaves the writer with much to chew on and digest when it comes to revising the piece. It is up to her to pick and choose which comments best serve her purpose.

But, perhaps, the biggest challenge and benefit that comes out of a critique is when writers encourage another writer to dig deep; what Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, calls “going further.”

“Even if you have pushed yourself and feel you’ve broken through, push yourself further…ride that wave as long as you can. Don’t stop in the middle,” Goldberg writes.

So many writers—myself included—can stop short. As Goldberg jokes, we all know the writer who proclaims,” And then I woke up!” as a way to end the story.

Whether you’re writing fiction or memoir, taking it further is both risk and reward.

How do we do go to the next level?

One way is to believe in your voice. Another is to have a strong understanding of what your story is about. Even silly entertaining novels like the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy had a strong theme and the author knew her intention and her audience. It is surprising, especially in memoir, that writers learn along the way that what they are writing is a fiasco. The original idea or intent bears no resemblance to what they learn later along the journey that the real pull of a story, the real reason they are writing, is to bear witness to something. This always comes as a surprise. I was not who I thought I was…It brings them plummeting down to earth. It required breaking out of habitual thinking and tackling a subject or a life event, or a person who deeply affected them, in a new light  and with new eyes.

We live in a weary world, too much is happening. It's easier not to threaten our "status quo" thinking. That's where curiosity kicks in and the writer begins experimenting with expression, voice, a unique way of telling her story and shedding the old preconceived notions of right and wrong, good and bad. 

If that quest, that curiosity, that willingness to break old patterns of thinking doesn't happen, the story meanders, peters out. Going further just became a threatening task, upending the "safety" of the person's habitual thinking.

Seeking out the deeper meaning that goes beyond ourselves and into the universal human journey is the creative writer's ultimate quest.

How else do we tap into our story and go further?

Relax and find a place to write that is perfect for you. Believe in yourself and your willingness to make a difference in the world with your writing. That takes courage, a leap of faith, right there.
As I sit here at the kitchen table, a gray and azure April morning sky frames the yellow and lime green forsythia and lawn. A shaft of brilliant sunshine breaks through the clouds. I feel on the brink of something new… a new story, a reflection, the next chapter in my life. And here I sit, writing away.

Of course, a writing group offers invaluable feedback on your work, as long as the feedback is honest. There is an accountability and intention to meeting with a group, setting a date to discuss your work. This is the work of our Women's Writing Circle.

How about you? How do you go about the task of "taking it one step further'?

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Highlights of the Writers Retreat to Johannesburg, Victoria Falls and Botswana

Dear Writers and Travelers,

As you know our Women's Writing Circle, in coordination with Holden Safaris, is offering the trip of a lifetime—a writers retreat in Africa. 

The magic and allure of Africa have inspired many great writers from Ernest Hemingway to Isak Dinesen. But whether you journal, want to write a book, or just long to see an amazing part of the world with like-minded travelers, this trip is an opportunity to "change it up" and move out of your comfort zone in the safety and security of an expert Africa travel organization.

Our tour leader, Sonia, Marsh, an author in her own right, offers this history and some highlights of our trip.


Upon arrival at Johannesburg airport on March 5th, our friendly staff will escort you to the Peech hotel, a boutique property with rooms spread across lush gardens. There you’ll have time to rest, freshen up, have a massage or, if you prefer, jumpstart your writing. Susan Weidener and Sonia Marsh will toast the start of our adventure together and brief you on the week’s activities, during a sumptuous dinner.

After a night of rest and recovery, we depart after breakfast with our guide for a day of exploration. We start with a tour of Soweto, an urban settlement or 'township' in South Africa, southwest of Johannesburg, with a population of approximately 1.3 million.

Soweto was created in the 1930s when the White government started separating blacks from whites. Blacks were moved away from Johannesburg, to an area separated from the white suburbs. Soweto became the largest Black city in South Africa, but until 1976 its population could have status only as temporary residents, serving as a workforce for Johannesburg. It experienced civil unrest during the Apartheid regime. There were serious riots in 1976, sparked by a ruling that Afrikaans be used in African schools. The riots were violently suppressed with 176 students killed and more than 1,000 injured. Reforms followed, but riots flared up again in 1985 and continued until the first multiracial elections were held in April 1994.

Our guide will take us to the top three sites in Johannesburg starting with the Apartheid Museum. The Apartheid Museum allows visitors to experience the racial segregation that occurred during apartheid by separating them by racial appearance classified by the width of the nose, the kinks in hair, skin pigmentation, and size of lips.

We then visit The Nelson Mandela National Museum, commonly referred to as Mandela House, where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962. Mandela came back to the house after his release from prison in 1990, despite suggestions from government officials that he find a safer home. At a rally welcoming him home to Soweto his opening words were, "I have come home at last." However, after 11 days back at the house he moved out again.

An authentic Soweto lunch will be served at Sakumizi's restaurant located on the same street as Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto. Another famous museum: the Hector Pieterson Museum is located two blocks away from where Hector Pieterson, a South African schoolboy, was shot and killed during the Soweto uprising.

We return to the Peech hotel to freshen up and enjoy sharing our experiences over dinner.

Next week we'll feature another highlight of this trip.

Here are all the details of our Africa retreat:

Monday, March 25, 2019

Spring: Writing Through Life’s Transitions

As many times as I have led a group of women sharing their stories, I am always touched when the writing leads to uncovering the emotions that lie deep within the transitions of a life.

Whether it is the death of a parent, the loss of career, the marriage of a son or daughter, or becoming an “empty nester,” the writing taps into that experience and in doing so, the writer understands where she came from and, hopefully,—eventually—where she is going. The writing offers keys to the “portal”...unlocking the door to the “next chapter” with awareness and confidence.

This, of course, was the theme of my memoir Morning at Wellington Square…a woman searching for passion and renewal after the death of her husband and end of career. It is a memoir about transitions—moving out West, working in the nonprofit sector, finding new friends, until she comes to the conclusion that, ultimately, writing her memoirs and becoming a published author was the "next chapter."

Now, once again, writing leads me through another transition. This time—the woman alone. I write:

I thought of you today when I looked at my hands. The skin wrinkles like wax paper, a reminder since last I saw you of the passing of many years.

I thought of you today when I met Alex for lunch. He is your son in all ways from his gentle and kind disposition, to a man who understands the meaning of honor. If not for you, this wonderful person would not be with me; and in him, you are with me.
I thought of you today when Daniel stood tall in our kitchen. Your son's unsparing eye for what is fair and unfair in life and love brought you home to me.

I thought of you today when the afternoon passed in a haze of sunshine. The forsythia, just last week weighed down with its burden of white, waits patiently. Now, its brown branches are tinged with the first hint of gold.

I thought of you today when spring embraces hope that someday I might see you again. I dreamed of you last night. We were young and made love. I woke up and I thought of you and where the journey ends—with you by my side.

Sometimes when we write, we choke up. Overcome with emotion, we seek, if you’re like me, that quiet space to reflect. We owe it to ourselves to shut out the distractions of the outside world. Let the pen flow, do not censor yourself, don't edit. Save the editing for later.

Sometimes, these moments of awareness that we are on the cusp of transition are read aloud in a writing group. The group’s safety and support promises this: the writer can trust in others. Why? Our journeys are often so similar. We can laugh together, reminisce and remember. Spring, after all, is a time of renewal and rebirth; the perfect season to write through life's transitions.

How about you? Can you share a transition you have written about and how you felt when you wrote it?

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Monday, March 18, 2019

Writing Brings Contentment in Time of Despair

Most people recognize that depression has become the overwhelming “malady” of our times. Suicides are on the rise; opioid addiction poses an epidemic. What is the root cause?

Notably, the idea that nothing we have is ever enough or ever good enough. This mindset sets us up, not just for depression, despair and a pervasive sense of malcontent, but estrangement with others. We are always comparing ourselves to others, or they to us, in what amounts to a combat of competition. This creates a depressive mood in everyone.

I remember when I joined the staff of the Pulitzer Prize winning Philadelphia Inquirer. I had gotten there because my work as a reporter had been noticed. But once I got there, everyone’s work had been noticed and now, not just one of us, but all of us, were good reporters and writers. 

No matter how much you achieve, you are an underachiever. There is always going to be someone smarter than you, who writes better than you. This provides the recipe for depression and despair.

These aren’t new ideas, in fact, they’re not even my ideas, but the subject of recent talks by theologians and college professors during this Lenten season that I’ve had the privilege of hearing during what they call “this time of polarization.” Churches are focused on this moment in history—this political strife. A good thing, too, because it sets up the perfect segueway to talking about God who leads us to reconciliation and a place of unconditional love.

What does this have to do with writing? Writing allows us to forge intimacy with others—to forge relationships. By sharing our stories and the meaning of those stories, through one life, or many lives, writing puts us in service to others. A universal picture emerges over time. We experience much the same things. Our stories form a collective. We are all in this together.

This is why I’m staring a women’s writing circle at my church this week. Relationships, intimacy, sharing in the collective journey, offer antidotes to despair.


Poets have written about despair...“winters of despair” yet with the hope of spring. In this lovely poem "Snowdrops" by Louise Gluck, which I recently used in a teaching seminar, she writes:

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.
"Open again in the cold light of earliest spring.” That line, what we call in the circle, a "read back line," resonates with me. It offers such hope.


So, what is the answer to depression—to this pervasive lack of “joy” plaguing our times? (Joy is almost always intangible, at least in my mind. Happiness is probably the better word.) Contentment. Contentment with the ordinary life.

I have enough. My house is enough. My car is enough, I don’t need more possessions, more accolades, I have many wonderful reviews on Amazon and more would be nice, but I don’t need them. I don’t care if I’m traditionally published or self-published. The great thing—I have written a book/books out there for others to read.

I fell in love once and he with me. This is enough for one lifetime. I am content. I long for what I have, to quote Dante.

Writing brings us “home” to the ordinary life, to something in the here and now, not lofty or detached, but intimate and meaningful.

Home is where the windows and the doors are open. Windows let us look outside. Doors let us get out. Doors let us reenter. We have moved on and come back to the relationships, the shared vision that offers contentment. Home is not twenty-five or thirty years ago in some nostalgic mindset that has no bearing on reality. We can go back to that street where we grew up, see children playing and say to ourselves, “This is not home. I don’t feel at home in this place anymore.”

Write about that special moment of coming home. Like the Himalayan blue poppy, its bloom is beautiful, but fleeting.

As poet Mary Oliver concludes in "Such Singing in the Wild Branches":
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Criticism, Clarity and Voice Along the Writer’s Way

Whenever I hear a writer say she stopped writing because of a mean comment, a lack of encouragement, or, worse, the spiteful jealousy of another who questioned just who she thinks she is to say she is a writer, I feel her pain. It is years before she again picks up the pen, attempts to put thoughts on paper—or takes the courageous step of coming to a writer’s group to read her work aloud.

The inner child has been wounded, but, interestingly, the flame to write is never totally extinguished. It’s like breathing, something she has to do. When she does become a writer, however, there is a powerful freeing, a transformation of spirit and mind. Of saying, ‘I don’t give a damn. Let them judge. Who cares?'

In memoir, too, there is often this disclaimer from new writers. "I’m not writing this to hurt anyone." Or this: "I worry about being too preachy." There is a fine line between being 'preachy' — a fit of rage, let’s say—and clarity of thought. There is a fine line between intentionally hurting someone and writing with honesty and insight. I also remind women to ask themselves when was the last time they heard a man say he was worried about being ‘preachy’—worried about hurting someone?

I admit that even for me, a seasoned writer, I can spend hours, days, coming back to a piece, rewriting and revising, angsting over whether the lesson, the insight is clear and transcends just me and my own little world and offers something to the reader. Almost every week I blog, I submit my work for publication, am working on a new memoir. I am always writing, teaching writing, always working at my craft. Still I must ask myself: Have I avoided the rehashed reflection, the side trips that slow down the narrative, the clich├ęs?


The writer thinks about elevating what she writes to the “literary.” I quote Chekov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

We are painters, appealing to the reader’s sense of poetry and literary prose. I like to think this comes with practice and it does, but sometimes—just like prayer and just like poetry—that perfect metaphor, that turn of sparkling phrase that entices and invites the senses—appear when you least expect it, a gift, otherwise known as divine inspiration.

There are many critics out there. Some have agendas. For centuries, men were loath to cede the literary pantheon to women. Your mother might have been one of them, too, when she told you not to write. It wasn’t about your talent, it was about her not taking the risk herself to write, to seek out her voice. Taking criticism to heart is self-defeating, a sure way to kill the muse, to give up and go back to watching television or dabbling in a useless pastime.

Time spent writing is never time wasted. Sure, it’s hard. Maybe because everything we write is a conscious choice, meaning we chose this word, not that word, this phrase, not that phrase, this truth, not that truth. We write despite those who tell us it is a waste of time, caution us to be more 'circumspect', humiliate by saying it is beyond us to ascend to that lofty perch and write.

Give yourself the freedom to say things in your own way. Welcome the dialogue, the comments, the work others put into answering the writer’s questions. What is missing? Did this resonate? Listen and learn. Store, don't hoard, criticisms—good and bad—to ponder along the writer's way.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Land of Pura Vida...Rainforests, Monkeys and Birds

In Tortuguero, Costa Rica, a howler monkey dangles from a tree, its long hairy arm and fingers outstretched. A boy excitedly runs up to the monkey. He tries petting it, offering it food. Our tour guide barks, “They are not for petting! They are not here for your amusement.” I think he is not as concerned that the monkey might do the boy harm, as much as outraged that a monkey dangling from a tree entices people to treat it like a house pet.

Can you blame the boy, or the monkeys, for that matter? Tourism has cut through the heart of their rainforest home where their eerie howling resembles the soundtrack from Jurassic Park. It begins at 4:30 a.m., when the monkeys wake. It continues until they sleep twelve hours later.

Past the lodges and down by the illuminated pool and straw-thatched bar, reggae music blares from stereo speakers. The incessant hum of cicadas and chorus of bird calls are drowned out by Bob Marley singing, "Don't worry be happy."

Under night skies, the Caribbean surf pounds like the earth's heartbeat. A full moon floats over the river leading to the breakers and beyond. You find yourself thinking about your faith, about your beliefs.


Over in Sarapiqui,
another stop along the rainforest eco-tourism trail, tanagers of all stripes and colors feast on bananas from a pedestal below the hotel balcony where tourists drink coffee and eat pastry. With binoculars we flock to watch the birds, hone in on gold heads and beaks, bright scarlet, orange and turquoise breasts ... 'oohing and aahing' from the balcony of a multi-million-dollar lodge.

White-faced monkey on pool roof cabana

When you travel to the rainforest, interconnectedness transcends everything else. How can it not? There's a sense we're all in this together—man and wildlife, flora and fauna. The basilisk perfectly garbed in camouflage on a fallen tree limb lounges near the red and green poisonous frog silhouetted within a scoop of rock puddle.

You ponder the legacy of the ancient chilamate tree, wide enough at the base to stand inside. The ghosts of Columbus and conquistadors walk these same forests.

A visit to a school in the rainforest is part of the tour. The principal says Costa Rica is committed to educating children about sustainability and stewardship. Families grow everything they need from rice and beans to bananas and pineapple. The children dance and sing. Their teacher sells jewelry, displayed on a table by the schoolyard. I buy colorful earrings in the shape of a lizard.

The small cinderblock dwellings with rusted corrugated tin roofs line roads and highways. Men sit on lawn chairs. They watch the traffic and tour buses pass. Poverty is everywhere.
At one stop, we encounter a road closure. Two hours later we stand in the blistering heat and humidity. Local residents have formed a human blockade to prevent tour buses from passing to the road that leads to the canal boat, leading to the rainforest and the howler monkeys. A mini-uprising. The people protest the huge potholes heavy vehicles have pitted in their road.


As much as coffee and bananas, the economy is driven by tourism. This sets Costa Rica apart from its neighbors, Nicaragua and Guatemala, we are told.

Eco-tourism is big business. This by necessity forces the individual to consider his or her responsibility to the planet, the wildlife.

How long before vistas of cloud forests and volcanoes, hibiscus, morning glories and bougainvillea become but a memory lost to the gods of profit...of selling the magical through $35 binoculars? The size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is inundated with three million tourists a year—one million of them from the United States.

Costa Rica—the Rich Coast, the place where Pura Vida, the pure life—emblazons tee shirts, magnets, shot glasses, opens her embrace to the world, to the traveler seeking something purer, simpler, truer.

The rainforest is fragile. A howler monkey dangles from a tree.

A basilisk/lizard