Monday, November 12, 2018

Compassion and Mercy In 'The Year of the Woman'

This past week was a big one for women. More women and women of diversity are headed to Congress—a lot more. It’s an exciting time to be a woman. It’s an exciting time for women sharing their stories, their voices…celebrating our differences and our similarities.

I believe in the power of our stories to create a new conversation, a new legacy of empowerment for women to value, share and trust in their stories. This has become increasingly evident to me over the last decade facilitating writing workshops and circle read arounds for women. Each woman has a unique talent and distinctive voice and, yet (this is very important), we only grow as writers when, in sharing those stories, we offer love and support.

Dialogue and conversation are held in good faith with the understanding that instead of just reflecting back what I believe, it might cause me to move out of my ignorance.

As the holiday season approaches, keeping the conversation—the dialogue—open to compassion, mercy and love moves our stories forward in this, the year of the woman.


We’ve all spent a morning going through our junk drawer...tossing the unnecessary, the things we kept over the years that are collecting dust... and thrown them out. The writer’s job is similar. We cull our "junk drawers" and settle in on themes that draw us to our center. We delete the side trips, the unnecessary details and focus in on What is my story about? 

It's  important to try and discard thought habits locking us in. Instead, there’s often a tendency to go to a lower energy state, to confirm a bias. Why? Because it’s easy. 


I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy. It’s a neat little primer of how mercy offers a pathway to “feeling free and fully alive,” as she puts it, despite all the horrors and evils surrounding us on a daily basis. A devout Christian, Lamott writes: "Mercy is radical kindness.”

This past weekend, I attended two choral concerts, one an all-women’s chorus, the other men and women, singing Broadway tunes and songs written with messages of Carole King's "Up On The Roof." Both concerts were held in churches. As I wrote last week, "when this old world starts getting you down," the writer seeks that place of serenity… steps back, takes a rest, remembering that compassion and mercy move our stories forward in this, the year of the woman. 

How about you? How do you find ways to move out of biases and thoughts that may hobble your writing?

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Writing Life: Finding Space for Serenity and Self-Care

Everyone has a voice, everyone has a truth. All of Them are vying for the space in your head.

What is your passion? What are your priorities? What role do you play as a writer?

In this season of divisiveness, finding a space for serenity and self-care becomes essential to the writer. A sheep herding mentality exists—either you’re on one side or the other—there seems no middle ground, and some demand you stand with their truth or you’re a distraction.

I see writers I greatly admire speaking passionately on Twitter and Facebook, unafraid of stating their opinions and political persuasions. I see others remaining silent, watching from the sidelines. Whatever we do, however we say it, this is not a competition for the truth.

It’s central to creative life to join together in small, collaborative communities where our stories are met with acceptance, in the belief that all voices are welcome, all relevant, all creatively unique and distinct.

All points of view and political persuasions should be welcome, too. You can concede or condone. Accept or reject. Once you come to a conclusion—your truth, your meaning—becomes your voice.

Writing at this stage of my life has focused on people I have known who made a difference—whose memories remain and serve as a doorway to craft into scene...impressions of life.
Yesterday was All Saints Day and I attended a lovely Evensong service at the Church Farm School in Exton, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1918, Church Farm School is an independent boarding and day school for boys in grades 9-12 in the Episcopal tradition.

Since the late middle ages, evensong has been the popular name for vespers (from the Latin vesperis,“evening”). In many Anglican cathedrals and other large churches, especially in England, evensong is sung by clergy and choir as a choral liturgy.
The boys’ voices soared to the rafters. Peace and reflection filled the small chapel—a community of worshippers gathered to commemorate all saints, known and unknown. I had felt it time to seek a place of quiet, or as a friend put it, "a space of serenity for self-care and restoration of spirit." 

As writers, this is our great gift…stories that bring healing and transformation, insight and awareness. And in that act alone, maybe we can find meaning and truth. Remember those who have come before us—those we have loved and lost—all the while never forgetting the importance of loving and caring for ourselves along this harsh and tempestuous sojourn called life.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Desk, A Memoir and a Day in the Writing Life

I want to thank my “mentors in absentia”—Virginia Woolf and May Sarton who wrote so eloquently about the woman alone—the life that writing offers of voice and exploration. 

A possible introduction for a new memoir? A book deadline is welcome, encouraging me to explore 'characters'; a priest who shies away from words like ‘empowered’ and ‘feminism'…a young woman whose burning desire to have a baby prompted a child born out of wedlock.

As autumn wends her way to winter, I write on a chilly October morning with a window view of orange and sepia-toned maple leaves.

My workspace has had its first makeover in twenty years, the old faux mahogany desk carted out for trash. I feel a sense of renewal, as I contemplate thoughts and reflections to celebrate the 10th anniversary of our Women’s Writing Circle. I search for a title. In time it will come. 

One day in a woman’s life. Yesterday, lunch with my sons, a harvest salad of grilled chicken, cranberries and apple slices on arugula with balsamic vinaigrette dressing. Alex and Daniel had put together my new desk and so lunch was on me. L-shaped, black with large glossy surfaces to spread out...books and papers, the watercolor presented to me by our Slants of Light authors. 

I bought the desk from a photo I saw online on the Sears website. I wanted to support Sears, America's last great department store. Several days later, packaging, weighing 720 pounds arrived. So many steps to put it together that by step forty-five, the person who wrote the directions joked, “Rome was not built in a day.” As my sons labored, they were not amused. They toiled over drawers and pull-out keyboard. Patience…following directions...screws and latches and sliders. They had inherited engineering skills from their father, certainly not their mother. I must write more about my sons, my story, not theirs. They have a right to tell their own story.

The old desk

The week before they built my desk, Alex and Daniel installed a new Dell computer for me—it moves so fast, not like the laptop, a poor lagging machine never quite the same after a computer store tech messed with its registry. The screen glows translucent, inviting me to begin writing these words ….

As Virginia Woolf said, a woman must have money and a room of her own and I have had the fortune of both. Woolf also said that a woman needs privacy in order to write. This is the advantage I have, which so many women do not, although it was by design. I could have been married several times over by now but need for privacy and the writing life away from the demands of an ailing or needy man won out. I must write more about this. The keyboard beckons.

How about you? Is your workspace one that inspires you to write?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Confidence and Lessons from 'The Kindergarten Teacher'

The mission and vision of Women’s Writing Circle is to encourage women to acknowledge and share their unique voices, talents and life experiences through writing.

In The Kindergarten Teacher, a movie now streaming on Netflix starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, a teacher discovers five-year-old Jimmy's uncanny gift for writing evocative poetry. A poet, herself, Lisa spends her time away from teaching kindergartners by taking a continuing education poetry class. When she reads her poetry, her work is judged mediocre by teacher and classmates.

This sets her up for believing what the world says about her, not what she believes about herself and it doesn't take long for Lisa to become obsessed with Jimmy. Every time Jimmy says, “I have a poem,” Lisa grabs her notebook and furiously scribbles what he says. As Jimmy composes verse off the top of his head in an almost trance-like state, Lisa's own defeatism about her poetry is intensified.

One night Lisa takes two of Jimmy’s poems to her poetry class and reads them as her own. No one suspects they are the work of a kindergarten child. Immediately, everyone sits up and takes notice of Lisa, praising "her" poems, especially the attractive and snobbish young writing teacher who now wants sex with Lisa. Later, she reads one of her own poems to him. “Well,” he says, “it’s not my favorite of yours.”  In the male-dominated world of poetry, she believes him to be the final judge and critic of her work.

The movie is both disturbing and instructive. The message is that creative writing/genius cannot be taught... and that harsh, judgmental critique can suck the soul out of creativity. Lisa begins to view her mission in life as protecting and mentoring Jimmy from a world where the artist is obliterated by forced indenture...working for a high-tech company, the goal Jimmy’s father has in mind for his son. Poetry, the father declares, is a pipe dream.

In her famous morning pages, Julia Cameron advises us to just let our words flow onto the blank page every morning. Writing, she says, is a spiritual expression—you and God are at one.

Encouraging and nurturing everyone is also the signature of Zen writer Natalie Goldberg. In this article, it is noted: "The magic of her method is the belief that anyone can write, that everyone has a voice and something to say."

Unlike Gyllenhaal’s character in The Kindergarten Teacher, most of us do not feel life hangs in the balance if we are not creative geniuses or mentoring one. Since Lisa finds little meaning in her life—her teenage children are glued to their screens and cellphones, her husband lacking in emotional intimacy—she seeks salvation in little Jimmy's poetry and not from within herself.

For me, I love that writing resides in the moment, offering its own distinct brand of solace and continuing education. As a woman, I find that writing offers a pathway to understanding that life is fabric and everything connected. It offers a chance to keep discovering and exploring all that is around and within me.

I use several strategies to maintain confidence as a writer. Here's a few.
  • Don't compare yourself to another writer. Instead, value and affirm your unique voice and skills.
  • Consider avoiding writing contests or book awards programs; many are merely marketing ploys and/or the judging subjective. 
  • Every time you read your work aloud, say to yourself, 'job well done'. It takes courage to read in front of an audience and many never reach that point.
  • Keep working at your craft, but not to where it feels like a grind. 
  • View obstacles in your writing as challenges not roadblocks.
  • Share your work in a supportive group of writers and be open to feedback, including thoughtful criticism.
  • Be authentic and write from the heart. 
  • Feel the passion and silence the inner critic.
  • Listen to your inner voice.

How about you? Can you share a strategy to affirm creative confidence?

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Cynicism of Our Times and Writing As a Gift

I don’t have to tell you that last week was a bad one for women. Yes, I know, it was a bad week for men, too, but we women took it particularly to heart as we watched sexual assault survivors condemned on national television. I feel I have said it all in the past—how living in the white patriarchy forged who I am as a writer. Like my late husband, John M. Cavalieri, who was a rebel in his own right at West Point and in corporate America, I have tackled controversy through my writing for many years.

This was noted in my high school yearbook by the girl who was the editor of our school newspaper. “Thanks for taking on those controversial subjects and writing about them,” she wrote. I don’t remember what they were, but I do know that early on I found my voice, thanks to journalism which offered an avenue to write op-eds about topics that included the need for gun control or a woman’s right to choose.

So, after a half century—the time that has gone by since I left high school—and still seeing women as silenced and oppressed, I felt weary as I attended my 50th high school reunion this past weekend. Who were these people? Why was I bothering to go? High school had been painful for me in some ways, not the least of which it provided fodder for my memoirs as I wrote how I felt somewhat of an outsider. Instead, I found welcome surprises in connecting with folks I didn’t even know well in high school but whose willingness to share their own lives reinforced how essential connections and conversation are to reviving and nurturing the spirit. As writers, we must stay open to the possibility of new encounters viewed with fresh eyes.

A few of us ended up traveling the next day into Philadelphia to visit the Barnes Foundation. As we took in the paintings of Renoir and Picasso and Modigliani, we talked about our lives…two of us widowed, one married, one never married. We shared our hopes and dashed hopes, our travels around the world—one woman had been our exchange student from Japan and had traveled from Tokyo for the reunion—and, finally, our excitement about the years that, God willing, lie ahead.

I think the reunion intensified the importance of living each day. In a class of approximately three hundred, forty-seven had died, including one of my good friends who I had lost touch with over the years. When I saw her picture among those who had passed away, I remembered the sun on her face as she and I stood on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ and her father snapped our photograph with a Polaroid camera …a photo I still have in a dresser drawer in my upstairs bedroom, she in navy sweater, dark upturned hair.

As we continue along this writing journey, we keep practicing and honing our craft. We also stay open to possibility, thanks to good and honorable people. We find inspiration, joy and humor to cast aside the cynicism and the despair of the times in which we live.

Conversations and connections from the past provide more insight into our memories, while increasing our awareness of how important it is to observe and pay attention.

On city streets, as we walked from the train station to the Barnes, I saw a young woman in denim. Headphones glued to her ears, she walked erect like a model, past a homeless woman, dressed in an old gray overcoat, sitting on a bench and incongruously studying the laptop screen she held on her lap. People dressed as Spider-Man posed under the iconic LOVE sculpture across from City Hall as gawkers snapped their photograph, myself included.

The city teems with life in all its wild and strange diversity. It offers rich portraits to be crafted by the writer as she finds her voice and her story, just as great painters evinced their unique style and perceptions in portraiture.

In the end, we are writers, first and always. That, at least in my mind, sets us apart as the chroniclers, the observers of our times. What a gift this writing life is and continues to be.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Our Stories of Trauma Bring Us Back to Each Other

As we read and hear about the lives of others, we can’t help coming back to ourselves. This is the house where I grew up, these were my friends, this was my brother, this is why I wanted to get married…this is the day I experienced the trauma.

The last is especially problematic. It’s tricky. It means stripping away the fa├žade and the secrecy, reliving the pain and fear...taking on entrenched powers. The Government, the Church, the Family...Society.

It is especially problematic for women since writing about trauma is best explored through memoir and memoirs are not literary and are mostly written by females. Or, at least, this has been the mantra of the literary "establishment." When I wrote Again in a Heartbeat, I wrote not about sexual assault trauma, for example, but the trauma of loss and widowhood. Why would you write something so personal, people asked? Why wouldn't I, I responded, although it took me years to get to that point without apology. (Well, you know, it was a healing journey, I would often say to sympathetic nods. After all, isn't memoir little more than therapy?…heaven forbid!)

Can we convince another of our truth? Will they hear me? It seems to me that each of us builds on the other to reach a surprising conclusion. We need each other to expose that it’s not just about us. In the end, famous people get all the attention, but none would be there without the thousands—the millions—who supported and empowered them to make change by sharing their stories

In The House On Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros writes, “When you leave, you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.”

And so we come back together in the circle to share our stories as little girls, as daughters, as sisters, as wives and as mothers. We build on the other, offering acknowledgment and remembrance and hope. 


I used to worry about ending up seventy and living alone. Now—although I’m not yet seventy—I relish it. A meaningful life is built on creativity, activism, self-discovery and empowerment.

In the HBO documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts—which I highly recommend—Fonda talks candidly how her whole life was spent trying to please a man…first her famous father, followed by her three famous husbands, Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden and Ted Turner. Now, she notes, “in this, my final act, I am concentrating on me.” Fonda, who wrote a memoir, My Life so Far, makes clear that writers are activists and that the strong woman who speaks out is courageous. In the process, she says, “you are going to make enemies.”

Our stories and our lives intersect in powerful and important ways. We can—and should— write something relevant, dynamic, and yes, political. 

As the nation watched the Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh hearing this week, the chasm between remaining silent or standing up appeared to close for us women, at least a little.

This “train,” Alexandra Petri, opinion writer for The Washington Post wrote in this column, is rushing forward. The train is trying to crush our spirit, our voice, turn us "into a scream on the tracks."

“I want us to be the train and not the thing thrown under it. I want us to be the thing too urgent to be stopped, not the thing that must curl up apologetically to make room for it,” Petri writes.

And so our stories bring us back to each other—and, ultimately, ourselves. That's what I thought about this week: This is the house where I grew up, these were my friends, this was my brother, this is why I wanted to get married…this is the day I experienced the trauma.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Revisiting Our Past and Reflecting On Its Riches

When we talk about memories it is important to honor them, good or bad. Revisiting the past can either lift you up or break your heart (a quote I heard from Anthony Bourdain about travel), and it’s true. Vivid memories encapsulate defining moments of our lives. And that's worth a lot.

We hear about "fake news" these days. Stories are always made up with an agenda in mind. Don’t investigate, since everyone has a story, but who knows what is true and what isn’t? That is anathema to the writer. If we don't ascribe truth to our memories, we have lost significant moments of reflection and self-discovery—ones we can impart to our readers, whether through fiction or memoir.

Remembering and revisiting the past is not about revision, it's about reflection and the riches inherent in that. Reflection is a learning process. It takes time and patience because it involves ascribing meaning to an event or a person.

At our Women's Writing Circle Childhood Memories workshop on Saturday, our group remembered the past and wrote about parents and family. I said I never felt my childhood held much of interest, until now, in later writings I have done for my work-in-progress autofiction. I always saw myself as an ordinary girl growing up in ordinary way.

"I've felt that too," another woman said. But, still she wanted to learn more about writing her memories, using the sensory details of smell and touch and capturing that moment of meaning of growing up in a large Catholic family. "I have special memories about my childhood, but none seem to make an interesting story to anyone outside my family. I came away from the workshop with techniques to create an interesting memory—use of sensory images and characters," she wrote.

During our free write, a writer said she stumbled upon a memory she hadn't thought about in years, or may have thought about but never wrote down. She left with ideas to write more of her childhood memories in more detail.

Remembering isn't just looking at a photograph—although we brought those to the workshop. It is not a static experience, but one that begs richness of detail...what did the person say, what were the aromas in the room, how does the memory offer a doorway into understanding yourself and others?  We offered each other examples of authors who write from childhood memories; for example, Mississippi Sissy by Kevin Sessums.

Honor your memories. Honor your stories. Honor the honesty and the truth of the child still within you. Writing about my childhood, for example, led to understanding why—and how—a little girl became a writer. I was nine years old, alone in my bedroom, lost in my imagination and my solitary life of being virtually an only child with parents who were not interested in children and childish activities. I began keeping a diary, a journal, a companion of thoughts and events.

Maybe one way we can recapture the joy of ourselves is by letting our adult egos go and follow an uncensored pen across the blank page. Write drunk, edit sober, as the saying goes. It means not worrying about how well it is written or whether all the accuracies have been captured, but focusing on reflection—what it all means. Recapturing the child within us allows us to shed light on the adult world with all its ego-limiting expectations.

One of our writers Saturday presented us with this quote by CS Lewis:

“Critics who treat 'adult' as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

And this from Madeleine L’Engle:

“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be... This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide... Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup. When I'm with these people I, like the kids, feel that if this is what it means to be a grown-up, then I don't ever want to be one. Instead of which, if I can retain a child's awareness and joy, and *be* fifty-one, then I will really learn what it means to be grownup."
As always, I am grateful to our writers for helping me find my path and enriching each other. Said one writer, "What I came for today: Techniques, knowledge, ideas. What I take from today: An amazing feeling of belonging to this world of women writers."

Brava and job well done, writers!