Monday, May 20, 2019

Time Is Wasting...It's Now or Never to Write Our Story

Why write our stories? Why not write them? That’s something each of us decides in her own way. In a writing circle this weekend, we shared what it means to write. It is threatening, one woman said, looking at our small gathering after an invitation to twenty or so women had been sent. It is too much exposure. Once it’s out there, it’s out there! And now it’s out there—a finished product—even though you’re still evolving.

But here's the thing: In a world spinning ever faster, we see the end of an era almost every day, splashed across the front pages of the newspaper and on the internet. We see our own lives passing in the rearview mirror of time with alarming speed. It's now or never to write our story before the wrecking ball demolishes it. Time is wasting. 

Writing, or any creative passion or pursuit, means sacrificing something else to make time for this. Finding connection with like-minded human beings is a spiritual and creative pursuit, but no one can make you do it unless you feel called. You can shrug and say why bother, say it is no one’s business but my own, I made my peace with it...whatever it is. If that works, then so be it. I see that a lot.

I would start my own writing group as a way to connect and make this business of writing a little less isolating. In a world that has become increasingly dehumanizing, isolation has intensified. We are prisoners of technology, prisoners of our own lack of focus, lack of commitment to something meaningful...lack of community. We can stand back and watch or we can take an active role in making this world a little better.

In our writing circle we talked about morning pages, journaling, even if five or ten minutes a day and after a week realizing there is something there...something to work with. One woman suggested that maybe if we start slow...think small rather than trying to grapple with the entirety of a story and all the emotions it evokes all at once, we have a path forward. 
  • Give yourself positive messages. 
  • Keep a list of what you want to write. 
  • Express yourself with an uncensored pen for your eyes only.
  • Relish in the joy of exploration.
  • Take a walk and think about writing.
I’ve been doing that with my new memoir: topics range from travel to religion, to sexual assault and aging, to being alone and reinvention. 

Think about the details, the specificity when writing. Narrow it down. Maybe it’s that childhood home—4 Evergreen Ave.—the jelly jars, the rhubarb stew boiling on the stovetop. A mother’s fuzzy slippers with rose applique....

I believe that for women there has been no more defining moment than now to remind ourselves of the power of story.

In the Circle, we rediscover conversation and community. Our stories are varied and rich. We support and encourage each other. We hear a human voice responding to the expression of being human. There have been many circles, many workshops that have melded into one and this truism remains—we long to tell stories before they are lost forever. Together we make a difference.

"Writing isn't about destination—writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else." — Sue Grafton

Monday, May 6, 2019

Exploring Wildlife During Our Africa Writing Retreat

As writers, we empower ourselves with new experiences. Travel opens a door to our journey. I am delighted that we have extended the discounted price for our March 2020 Africa writing retreat and safari until May 31. This retreat is an opportunity to experience so much of this amazing continent through an exclusive tour. Please take a moment to visit Sonia Marsh's website, Women Travel With a Purpose. There you can experience photos and impressions she shares as she travels to many of the destinations we will also visit.

Sonia is leading the trip. I will be conducting our writing sessions: Transformation Through Words, Wisdom and Insight. The group will be exclusive for twelve of us, including Sonia and myself. Friends and family are welcome to join us and make the dream of seeing Africa a reality.

Here's another highlight of our trip that Sonia has shared with us.

For all details, please click on this link. Thank you ~ Susan

“No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal. The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it.”
― Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Now that we’ve experienced the history and culture of Johannesburg and the beauty of the majestic Victoria Falls, it’s time to experience Africa’s Big Five with a full-day of game-viewing in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

After an early breakfast, our ultimate safari experience unfolds on a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana which boasts the world’s largest elephant population. A cruise on the Chobe River brings us close to brilliant bird life, pods of wallowing hippos, primeval crocodiles, and elephants―breath-taking in their sheer number. Lunch will be served at the Chobe Safari Lodge located on the banks of the Chobe River in northern Botswana. This is the best destination for serious game viewers and is situated in the town of Kasane, close to where the borders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia meet. 

In the afternoon, we’ll experience a land-based safari heading deeper into the Park to spot the elusive big cats that make Chobe their home. We return to our lodge in the late afternoon, where we can re-group, and discuss the craft of writing as we become immersed in the beauty of Africa’s wildlife and its amazing people.

Fortunately, we have another opportunity to explore the vast genuine wilderness of the Zambezi National Park. Our game drive sets-off mid-afternoon in an open four-wheel drive vehicle. We’ll discover a spectacular array of wildlife, including buffalo, elephant, lion, and leopard. Smaller animals, yet not less worthy of a sighting, include kudu, impala, sable, eland, warthog, and zebra.

On the riverside, we’ll catch a glimpse of crocodile, waterbuck, and many pods of hippo. All the time, we’ll have qualified guides. The Zambezi National Park is only a five-minute drive from Victoria Falls town, so we’ll be back in time for an evening cocktail and time to discuss over dinner, followed by writing and sharing.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Crafting Memorable Scenes and Writing With Intent

Writing is no easy task, although sometimes it can flow, especially when a woman’s voice and her life experience are encouraged in a supportive group of writers. As one woman said after our workshop, Writing Compelling Scenes in Memoir or Fiction: “The inspiration and support of writing in the company of women encourages me to probe more deeply and express the unvarnished truth of our lives.”

As another of our writers said: “What a rewarding experience to attend a Women’s Writing Circle Workshop! It is an opportunity to learn how to expand our writing skills, surrounded by caring individuals who really want to listen to each of our efforts, and offer kind insights and encouragement."

The theme is apparent: Writing flows when we are offered the opportunity to express ourselves without reservation in the belief and the confidence that our voices and our stories matter.


Writing compelling scenes requires the author focus in on the same question she asks of the entire story. What is this scene about? Why this scene and not another? What is my story about? Engage the reader with a strong voice, either the narrator, if it is memoir, or the protagonist, if fiction.

Scenes emanate from one of several components: action, narrative or landscape.
Action gets right into the meat of the scene; narrative offers some backstory and inner monologue from a main character or narrator’s point of view, while landscape evokes how important the place is to the main character. Here the writer often portrays in a place its beauty or desolation or ruin, for example, Tara in Gone with the Wind, represents Scarlett’s longing for the land and a place called home.

Like beads on a necklace, one scene links to another, each with its own beginning middle and end. Scenes are strung together in a way that make the story and its message clear. In my memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, scenes between myself and John were based on conversations, which I remembered in vivid detail and tried to unsparingly infuse with the honesty and authenticity of that moment. 

By writing dialogue that is real, not contrived, we offer our characters’ lives, their motivations and personalities, and, hopefully, the conflict inherent in either the inner or outer life through what is said.

Action is obvious in the famous scene in Gone with the Wind where Scarlett throws the vase up against the mirror after Ashley rebukes her overtures of love. Margaret Mitchell lets the reader see this woman’s temper, her frustration at not getting her way, her stubborn personality.

Engage the reader with sensory details. There is a mood to evoke with sight, sounds, smells. For example, this from May Sarton: "The first day of spring and we are in the midst of a wild snowstorm! When it began yesterday swarms of birds came to the feeders—first a flock of goldfinches: then I glimpsed the bright pink head of a purple finch." ~ Journal of a Solitude 

In this workshop, we built on our February workshop which is how to write compelling characters. We learned that characters must have a driving need or desire, a secret, grief or longing. For me, the narrator of Again in a Heartbeat, that need or desire was to desperately hold on to the man she loved, her naive dreams of a happily-ever-after, which slowly and irrevocably were being shattered by cancer, which John refers to as “the enemy.”

When we write scenes, they lead to accentuating a change in the character, from young headstrong girl, let’s say, who desperately sought her happiness in a man and marriage, to a woman who finds strength within herself.

When crafted with precision and intent, writing offers a window into life. I learn so much myself from teaching our writing workshops. It is often said that the teacher derives the greatest benefits from teaching her material and in this, I agree. I am blessed to have the opportunity to teach our women writers who bring with them the creativity and courage that inspire and instruct me along the writer’s way.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Highlights of Our Africa Writing Retreat

Travel offers an extraordinary opportunity to transform and renew as we experience the world in all its mystery and beauty. Join other women writers as we travel to Africa, a place rich in history, unrivaled scenery and heart-stopping wildlife adventure.

"Transformation Through Words, Wisdom and Insight", a writers retreat is planned for March 2020. This is a unique opportunity to travel an exclusive, personalized experience in Africa. I'm excited about leading this writing retreat with Sonia Marsh, a writer and Africa travel expert with Holden Safaris.

In this post you can read about more highlights of our time in Africa. And here's the first leg of our trip and the full itinerary.

After two days absorbing the history and culture of Johannesburg, we’re off to Victoria Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest curtain of falling water in the world.

Our scheduled flight leaves Johannesburg at 10:50 a.m., and arrives at 12:15 p.m., where we will be met and transferred to the Ilala hotel, where we can enjoy lunch and relax before our sunset evening cruise on the Zambezi river. There we’ll soak up the last rays of the African sun as we gently drift along the Zambezi River, above the Falls, with a gin and tonic or other beverage of choice and enjoy delicious appetizers and snacks. Look out for elephants, hippo, crocodile, magnificent birds and other wildlife. (Watch the video below.)

The Majestic Victoria Falls

Ilala Lodge
Victoria Falls is one of the most spectacular, awe-inspiring waterfalls on our planet. It is located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, on Zambezi River. Also known as Mosi-oa-Tunya - The Smoke That Thunders. The mist from the waterfall can be seen from far away and sustains nearby rainforest. Victoria Falls is considered the largest waterfall, based on its combined width (1,708 m/5,604 ft) and height (108 m/354 ft), even though it is not the highest or the widest. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After breakfast on March 8th, we gather for a two-hour writer’s workshop. Working off writing prompts from famous authors and poets who have visited Africa, we will write for an hour after breakfast and then share for an hour before lunch. After lunch, we will enjoy a tour of the Rainforest surrounding Victoria Falls accompanied by a qualified guide who will give a brief history of the Falls, as well as detailing the flora, fauna and other points of interest. At the lookout point along the way, we can marvel at one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

Shopping at Elephant Walk is right next to our beautiful Ilala lodge, and you can peruse and explore the local crafts during our spare time. Watch out for next week’s blog post where we share the wildlife excursions, and what you can expect to see in Botswana.

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?