Monday, May 2, 2016

Silencing the 'Whispers' That Hobble Women's Writing

I spend quite a bit of time editing women's memoirs. For the last two months I've critiqued and revised many short stories for our upcoming anthology Life Unexpected. In some of the pieces I'm struck by the timidity and tentativeness.

What do I hear 'whispered' between the lines that obscure the true narrative?

Who can I trust? What might I anticipate if someone recognizes themselves in my story? How much of myself should I reveal?

Silencing the whispers of doubt and judgment - whether our own or others - works its magic. I like to think that a positive attitude about myself and my work makes me eager in the morning to sip that first hot cup of coffee and take a risk with my writing.

I enjoy writing about the woman alone without a husband, boyfriend, a voyager of her own obstacles, journey and self-worth. A woman who sets her sights on the bigger picture and isn't dragged down by the footnotes of life.

In a recent article in the New York Times, "Jodie Foster Is Still Afraid of Failure," the two-time Oscar winner for The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs talks about her challenges and insecurities:
“If Mother Teresa is propelled to do good works because she believes in God, I am propelled to do good works because of how bad I feel about myself. It’s the first place I go. ‘Oh, what did I do wrong?'" Foster said.
Foster, whose trademark in the movies has been playing strong women, says she finds herself trapped between the quest for perfection coupled with the fear of failure.

Her mother told her that playing Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs was the "boring" role. Why take it, she asked her daughter?

At one point in her career, Foster had to silence her mother's criticisms. She didn't speak to her mother for over four months in order to honor her own voice. (Clarice, as portrayed by Foster, was ranked the 6th greatest protagonist in film history by the American Film Institute.)

As feminist author Joanna Russ writes in  How to Suppress Women's Writing, women's memoir has always been denigrated as "confessionals" by "literati" of the male establishment. Cultural messages try to obliterate and undermine the female experience.

Women telling the "raw truth" are subjected to the stereotype of the female artist as "personally unlovable, precocious and unbecoming."

"Critics would have us believe that confessional literature is so personal in its content ... it has no value as literature," Russ writes.

As I write this blog post, sipping my first hot cup of coffee on a Monday morning, I am enjoying the process. I wonder how it will be received?  I hope what I write strikes even a small chord of resonance. I know one thing . . . I want to keep writing and expressing myself. I want to keep reading your work, the poems, the memoirs . . . so many interesting and talented women who have a story to share. I want to silence those whispers.
Portions of this blog post excerpted from an earlier blog post titled "The Trust Factor"

How about you? What motivates you to write?

Monday, April 25, 2016

Mother Of an Addict Finds Her Voice

In this beautiful essay Kathy Pooler shares finding her voice as both a woman and mother as she confronts a deeply personal challenge - a son who is addicted to alcohol and drugs. Her journey will be chronicled in a new memoir she has been writing, tentatively titled The Edge of Hope. Please welcome Kathy, a well-known memoir author and expert on the genre, back to the Women's Writing Circle.

“Remember, your child doesn’t need you to take them away from their journey towards discovering their light, they simply need to see your light shining as a reminder of their own along the way.” ~ Changing Lives Foundation

When I looked into his dark brown eyes, I couldn’t believe how blessed I was to have such a beautiful, healthy baby boy. In that moment when I fell in love with him, I envisioned the special part he would play in the world and the pride I would feel as his mom.

I held on to that vision through his childhood. My days were filled with picking caterpillars off his arm before he devoured them, helping him find his Match Box cars under the couch and cheering for him at T-ball, then Little League games. I loved being his mom.

Then when Brian turned fourteen our lives forever changed. I still remember that day I looked into his bloodshot eyes and realized I was looking into his father’s eyes—the eyes of an alcoholic.

My son is an addict. Before that realization I was just a regular mom, going through my days, wiping noses, packing lunches, arranging play dates. The first time I saw him drunk, my bright-eyed boy became a stranger. Before that day, his escalating erratic behavior and sudden outbursts of anger-- punching walls and slamming doors-- were harbingers of problems ahead. In that moment, he took my hopes and dreams for a healthy, successful life with him into his world of marijuana and beer.

Not only did I have to figure out who he was, I had to figure out who I was in the face of this new, horrifying reality. I was still his mom but I knew deep down, even though it was so early on, that I was also the mother of an addict.

I had to find my voice all over again.

I stumbled through many years, trying on different roles –-strict disciplinarian, angry, no-nonsense mom, worried mom--searching for the right voice to combat the terror and confusion of watching Brian sink deeper into his addiction. I held this false belief that I, as his mom, could and should control his behavior. I had him sign a contract with consequences –he couldn’t play on the baseball team if he kept drinking--which ended up a mere piece of paper. My lectures, tears and pleas fell on deaf ears. I dragged him to interventions, counseling, spent my savings on his treatment. (I would do it all over again despite his lack of readiness to acknowledge he had a problem.) I’m a mom. We do whatever it takes to help our children.

“Let go” is the cry of Alanon.  

How do you let go of a child? 

A mother’s heart beats for her child.

I had to learn that helping Brian was often more about my need to control his
disease than it was about helping him. I had to let go of the driving need to control his choice to drink and use marijuana and save him from his own consequences by doing for him what he could and should be doing for himself-- like paying his own court fees--so that he could find his own way in life. In letting go of my need to control, I did let go of him as much as any mother can let go of her child, but I never stopped saying those three words “I love you” and assuring him that I believed in his ability to recover.

And something magical happened when I started focusing on myself rather than just on him. We both got better! He had the space to find recovery in his own way. I backed off on asking probing questions every time we talked on the phone and, instead, let him know that I trusted in his ability to make the right decision. It was his choice. I visualized him doing well and sent him positive vibes rather than messages filled with hand-wringing angst; I stopped trying to track him down and let him come to me. In doing so, I released myself from the shackles of expectation and negativity. We were free to meet on new ground and over time we reestablished a healthy mother–son bond.

It’s because of him and the adversity we have both faced that I found my mother’s voice. It was there all along. I just needed to find myself first then claim and honor all I tried to do in good faith to help my son . . . and to honor him for the man he has become through his struggles. As Brian had choices to make, so did I.

What I have discovered as I approach my seventieth birthday and reflect on these years of heartache and worry . . . I never stopped loving Brian. I can hate the disease but I can still love my son. I can hold on to that vision I had all those years ago when I first held him in my arms and looked into his eyes. I saw my son’s future filled with hope and promise . . . my mother’s heart overflowing with the miracle of him.

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published on July 28, 2014 and work-in-progress sequel, The Edge of Hope (working title) are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories. She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York.
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Monday, April 18, 2016

My Dog Boosts My Writing and So Much More

Have you ever fallen in love with a dog? If so, no more needs be said. I know Lily is my best “girlfriend,” my walking buddy, my bedtime snuggle bunny. With that special cock of her head and soulful stare, Lily understands my moods . . .our routines mesh into one.

Having a dog offers this writer a spark to her creative muse. It was because of Lily, I wrote this during my 2016 winter writing retreat in Tucson, Arizona.
As I began my solitary walk heading toward the Rillito riverbank, I saw a woman wearing white peasant blouse and peach pedal pushers. She waved at me.

“Do you want your cards read?” A card table beneath a mesquite tree and a deck of tarot cards beckoned.

“How much?”

“Ten dollars."

A bargain for a divination of sorts.

“I have to get my wallet out of the car. I’ll be right back.”

When I return to her little table, she gestures to a folding canvas chair. “Sit down. Relax.”

"What do you want to know?" she asks. "It helps when reading the cards. I take reading the cards very seriously.” She has huge, light blue eyes.

I think for a moment. “Will I write another book? ”

"Ah, so you’re a writer. I am too. I’ve been working on a screenplay for years,” she confides. “I started out in LA, somehow ended up in Tucson, just me and my cat. Who would have thought?” she smiles.
I nod. Kindred spirits. This feels good. I shuffle the cards as instructed, split the deck into thirds and place each pile back into one. I draw the cards, hand them to her and she turns them face up on the table.

She studies them. “Yes, you are meant to write another book.  It is a very important book. One that has a deeply spiritual connection.”

Her certainty from random cards sets me aback. Seriously?
I tell her that I have already written that book – A Portrait of Love and Honor, a love story based on my late husband’s memoir. Publishing his memoir twenty-one years after his death had been the spiritual book she meant, yes?

She shakes her head. “No. Another book. I sense grief about you. A concern."

It is true. I have been worried about Lily. I left her behind in Pennsylvania where that very weekend a blizzard raged.  
As the warm dry wind off the Santa Catalina mountains blows wisps of mesquite branches across the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I hear myself telling this woman how my winter writing retreat has turned into a nightmare of worry about my dog. My son has not been spending much time with her. Could he get to my house in the snowstorm and make sure Lily wasn't alone?

“Lily offers me great solace and companionship,” I say.

“Animals are often our spirit guides. Perhaps she was sent to you as a way to say, all will be well."

I nod. I know instinctually what she means. “Maybe I need to write about that."


Lily and I share our days.
When the boyfriend comes over and she gets a little jealous and feisty and wants to play tug-of-war with her ratty old rope – it’s as if to say, “Look at me, you two! Let’s have fun together!”

And when he leaves, I'm delighted with our snuggle bunny time . . . Lily on the bed, me kissing ears, velvety soft snout, creamy white yellow lab paws, She adores me fawning all over her, “See? There’s no way he can compare to me.”

When I start dinner, I look at her. “I’ve gotta take off this bra.” She smiles. Well of course isn’t that our routine every night?

I unhook the damn thing, throw it on a dining room chair. Ah sweet comfort, sweet home. Just Lily and me.

Some might say I’m crazy talking to a dog all day . . . but there’s a lot of us who do the same thing. Pure unadulterated, unconditional love offers a perfect little brew of creativity. My dog boosts my writing, my special "memoir moments" and more.

How about you? Has your dog or cat offered up some writing prompts, a jumpstart to your muse? Do you have a story to share how a pet has gotten you to write a story?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Writing As a Participatory Process Invites the Reader In

Writers like to think of themselves as loners. They often work in isolation, exploring a private and personal journey in the quiet of a favorite room with a view. Some even refer to themselves as “anti-social.” They jokingly admit they’re in their own head too much.

But isn’t writing a participatory process? I believe it is which is why I love sharing work with others through small critique sessions, or beta reader groups, or in the read around that is the Women's Writing Circle. 

As the facilitator of a writing group I’ve gotten an up close and personal look at much of what stymies the writer  . . . that is, until she shares her work.

In our current project, Life Unexpected, an anthology of stories and poems with the title serving as our theme, we’ve broken into small online beta groups with an editor at the helm. The editor is primarily the organizer since the editor's own story for the book is also critiqued by the group. There’s a nice egalitarian aspect to this; communicating realizations, breaking down boundaries, and sharing, not just with friends and family, but fellow writers we've never met.

At our April Women’s Writing Circle critique session, we marveled at what transpires after we read aloud our work and the critiquer takes notes and offers suggestions to the author for improvement and clarity.

Here’s what we learned: Sometimes, we’re so close to our characters, (especially if it’s ourselves, or someone who played an instrumental role in our lives) we forget the simplest details.

  • What does he look like?
  • How old is he or she?
  • What motivates him or her?
  • Is backstory necessary (usually, the answer is a resounding yes!) and how can this be accomplished in a way that doesn’t unduly slow down the action or narrative?

    And while we’re talking about characters . . . It’s amazing how much more we offer the reader if we understand psychology – our own and others. I’ve written a post about this: The Writer As Amateur Psychologist.

This is where the digging deep comes in . . . the soul-searching . . .

It is the part where we realize we have a covenant with the reader. We present life through a “participatory lens” – letting the reader into a world redolent with universal themes and populated by a “cast of characters.”

We all know who they are. 

The man who would rule a woman through force of will or religious dogma; the ungrateful son who always expected his mother to put a meal on the table but does little for her in her old age; the poor and humble man whose way of life forces an entire community to re-examine its ideals and values.

As we share our work in a participatory process, we value the reader.

What makes us love a person? How can we love if we don’t understand ourselves? Why is a character angry? Who makes a difference and why?

At our Saturday Women's Writing Circle critique session, I felt the magic of the participatory process when I read my work. Comments I received . . .“I can identify with this . . . I, too, have felt this way” . . . makes the hard work of writing so very rewarding. A writer has brought the reader into the “circle” of her and her character's own life experience.

So this is a call to step out of the isolation of your head, read and share your work with others . . . even if it is in the fledgling or draft stages. Participating, sharing, breaking down the barriers through the written word is a gift.

What has your experience been when sharing your work?

Monday, March 28, 2016

Critique As a Positive - Not Painful - Experience

Writers and artists tend to have fragile egos. One poorly worded criticism can set the author back, erode her confidence, engender hurt or angry feelings.

So the question becomes - how best to go about the task of critiquing another writer’s work, making it as painless and yet as instructive as possible?

As Benjamin Franklin once said: “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.”

The art of constructive criticism, therefore, is an art of thoughtful and valuable feedback.

As a developmental editor of fiction and nonfiction, I have come to realize critique is a delicate balancing act. Good editing involves patience, a keen eye, attention to detail and most of all – sensitivity to the writer and his or her unique voice and writing style, while keeping in mind that the goal is the best possible work. 

A helpful critique doesn’t attack the writer, it offers insight into how to plug the holes in a story and make it a worthy experience for the only audience that matters – the reader.

This past weekend a group of us who form our anthology core committee gathered to work on Life Unexpected, a compilation of stories and poems we’re planning to publish with about twenty contributors early next year. Our task – ensuring that our contributing authors understand that critique can be a collaborative and collegial experience, as well as a way to better learn and hone the craft of writing.

When it comes to an anthology containing many different voices and writing styles, sharing the work of editing and critiquing through small groups of beta readers as we plan to do also helps lessen the workload that goes into producing a quality book on a limited budget.

One very positive way to offer criticism is provide a suggestion. Instead of saying, "You have to do this or that" . . . pose your criticism as a question “Have you thought of trying this?” It’s incentive for the writer to take a second look and see how a change might enhance the work.

When you critique a piece, you'll probably see many things needing improvement. Our committee decided to put together a list to help beta readers provide thoughtful critique.

Things to keep in mind as you’re reading the story (as they apply):
Does the story flow in a logical fashion that the reader can follow? (Chronology, timeline.)
Is a character’s motivation clear, and, if not, why not? Is some backstory needed to explain why a person acts as he/she does?  
Are details consistent? If a character is fifty years old at the beginning of the story and the flashback takes place twenty-five years ago, make sure she is twenty-five.  
Does the reader know the year in which the action takes place?  
Is the setting clear? (State, town, are just two examples.)  
Are descriptions vivid? For example, a tree is not just a tree, but a red maple tree in October sunlight; a sweater is not just a sweater, but pale blue cashmere.  
Can the reader picture the characters? Age? Physical characteristics? Body language? Idiosyncrasies?  
Be alert to passive verbs like 'was', replacing with strong action verbs.
Is there a takeaway – a lesson learned that the author imparts to her readers by the end of the story?
Our next Women's Writing Circle critique is on April 9. Here's our guidelines with more tips on positive critiquing.

If we approach criticism in a positive light, we’re lessening the “drag” on our creative energy. We’re easing up on ourselves – and accepting, nothing is perfect. There’s always room for improvement. We’re giving ourselves permission to stay relaxed and open to new and, hopefully, better ways to tell a story.

How about you? Have you found critique painful or positive? What helps put a positive spin on criticism?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Searching For the Muse On Writing Retreat

Writing retreats are evocative for the writer, portending magic and alchemy. Diving into new story, honoring the creative muse . . . a retreat offers respite from the distractions and pressures of family and the outside world.

When memoirist Janet Givens invited me to her home on Chincoteague Island, Virginia for a writers' retreat, I couldn’t resist. I felt the allure of spending six days with other writers.

So it began last Wednesday when I rendezvoused in Painters Crossing, Pennsylvania with memoirist Marian Beaman and Merril D. Smith, poet and scholar.

I hadn't met either woman before - nor our hostess. A retreat on an island I had never before visited evoked childhood memories of reading Misty of Chincoteague, about the wild pony who captures the love and imagination of two children.

Beginning in 2010, I published the trilogy of my memoirs – three memoirs in five years. Where to go from here? Perhaps a writing retreat offered a guidepost to exploration, a path back to the creative muse.

So much of my life has been built around deadlines and goals. Inspiration, however, is as intangible as the sea breezes . . . it can’t be conjured or controlled.

As we wandered the woodland trails in search of the ever-elusive ponies of Assateague Island, I felt the sunshine work its magic. Two days into our retreat, we came by chance upon four ponies grazing near the beaches. As is so often the case in life, surprises and the extraordinary find us when we least expect it.

This retreat was open-ended and relaxed, adhering to little or no schedule, a fitting metaphor for many of our discussions about structure in memoir, in narratives and storytelling. We shared our search to find the best framework to tell our stories in an engaging and logical way. Third person or first? Memoir or fiction? Writing in an autobiographical fashion or crafting a memoir to read like a novel?

As our six-day retreat unfolded, I began feeling that maybe a lack of structure might be the best structure to discover new direction.

Although she couldn't be with us in person, friend and memoir author and blogger Kathy Pooler joined us Friday night via Skype in our "circle" in the retreat house living room, warmed by a wood burning stove. We lit the “sangria sunset” scented candle as Kathy read an excerpt from her work-in-progress memoir about her son’s battle with alcoholism.

Waking up in the morning to the aroma of coffee, the peel of laughter and women’s voices in the sunporch, I wandered downstairs determined not to check my cell phone for the news stories of the day.

Janet, Merril and Marian share a similar journey of excitement and curiosity about establishing author platform, building blog subscribers, creating books.

I began blogging in 2008 . . . my journey as an author and writing instructor is marked now by some fatigue. Although we're in different places, kindred spirits can never go unappreciated nor fail to inspire the other.

On Saturday evening, authors Carol Bodensteiner and Mary Gottschalk arrived from Des Moines. I had met Carol before, but not Mary. The easy conversation and sharing reinforced that no path is the right or "best" for the creative spirit and mind – like the breezes of Chincoteague, the creative life is often structureless, amorphous, magical.

So I continue to wait for the muse . . . hold out for the promise of an unfolding writing journey and cherish the moments of my retreat.

How about you? Have you been on a writers' retreat? What are some of your memories?

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Evolution of the Women's Writing Circle

This past weekend the Women’s Writing Circle held its first read around in our new home. Together we shared the spirit of the Circle, which is camaraderie and support of our writing journeys through a unique format known as the read around where we read aloud our work to the group.

This is our third ‘home’ since I started the Circle. The evolution of the Circle began with three women in an independent bookstore, Wellington Square, in November 2009. Over the years we have had as many as seventeen women attend read around, moved from the bookstore when we outgrew that space, to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church reading room. Saturday marked our first gathering, attended by fifteen writers, including myself, in our new location, the conservancy meeting room at the Hilton Garden Inn in Exton, featuring lovely amenities and easy access to the turnpike and surrounding communities.

I have tried to provide a forum for women to find their voices as writers. Over the years that mission often coincided with a healing journey through writing, including my own with my memoirs Again in a Heartbeat and Morning at Wellington Square.

The longer I held read arounds, critique and workshop sessions, the more I learned – and believed – writers needed and wanted a group whose emphasis was on developing and honing the craft of writing in a supportive environment. This marked our evolution into a true writing group.

I am a wordsmith, not a psychotherapist. Separating the psychological dynamics, the cries of anguish and grief from the actual writing was always difficult, if not impossible due to the highly personal nature of many of the stories read in the Circle. The courage it takes for many to share those deeply personal stories in the Circle is both uplifting and inspiring.

Still, I felt my role had to become more focused on the craft of writing and how a listening group of intelligent and discerning people could enhance the writing and help the writer understand the answer to that crucial question “What is my story about?”

At that same time, writers wanted "tips" on characterizations, details, description, narration and point of view, all writerly techniques. We also discussed the challenges inherent in finding the time to write, the nature of fear in writing and of overcoming other obstacles and challenges that led to developing confidence in our voices as writers.

While focusing on the individual writer, I try to make sure the group dynamics remain professional and educational, and not veer into a therapy session. As my own writing has evolved and I have written three books in five years, so has my interest in helping other writers through instruction and editing, and keeping the Circle thriving.

Our upcoming anthology, a joint endeavor with another writing group, Just Write, called Life Unexpected is also a great way to dip a toe into publishing and get out into the community with our stories. We learned a lot from our first anthology, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems From the Women's Writing Circle.

Over the years, I have watched writers come and go from the Circle. Many have left due to moving out of the area, losing interest in – say, writing a memoir, or just couldn’t find the time to devote a Saturday morning to themselves with the pressures of work and family.

Others have left because the group has in some measure disappointed them or no longer fills a need. With some of the writers who I developed a close relationship, their decision to leave the group, often without explanation, was especially sad, but I have to accept that our journeys take different paths.

This is really the evolution of any worthy endeavor or undertaking in life – the mission forms over time and, hopefully, for the better.

This year I began offering memberships to the Women’s Writing Circle. It had gotten tiresome for everyone to pass around the envelope and collect the money to participate; money which goes toward paying for the venue, for the time spent in organizing an undertaking of this complexity, and of giving the writer a sense of having some “skin in the game."

It was good to hear on Saturday how many writers like the concept of the yearly membership fee – they pay in full, can mark their calendars and be done with it. This is another change in the Circle. Payment is to be made in advance. This is clear on the website. Drop-ins are discouraged because I cannot gauge the number of writers if people simply show up on a given Saturday.

Memberships are almost completely sold out for the year. This forms a group of writers with continuity, but also leaves enough slots open in our classes for a couple new writers each session of the Circle. I encourage everyone to read the membership information and contact me if they have questions.

Together we offer what I feel has always made the Women’s Writing Circle special – a place for women who are interested in writing to share in the love of the written word, explore their own writing journeys and meet new friends and network.

It is a space where we can gather and extend respect and caring – as well as develop our writing skills.

 As one writer noted, “Despite the fact that we come with many different personalities, ability levels and emotional experiences, it has always felt to me like the space is big enough for all because of our agreement to support one another.”

It has been an honor and a privilege to have created with you a space like the Women’s Writing Circle, which embodies community in a very isolating world. None of this would be possible without each other and I look forward to our time together this year. ~ Susan