Monday, March 20, 2017

Confidence and the Memoir Writer's Journey

The craft of writing requires contentment with solitude. In solitude, the writer begins to touch base with her spirit, her story.

She nurtures herself with the love and care required to find and trust in her voice. She explores her life and those around her with the interest and detachment required of all great writers. The corollary of solitude: confidence in herself, her craft, her reason and motivation to write her memoir.

I've met women who say they see no point to writing a memoir about that certain time, place or person, even though it all still haunts them. "I've moved on. That part of my life is over," they say.

But is it? I've been involved with enough memoir writers to know some stories can't permanently be shelved no matter how hard we try. It's why I wrote Again in a Heartbeat.  Let's be honest. We write memoir for ourselves, as much as our readers. If it helps those who read our books to sort through their own lives and life stories and traumas, so much the better. While writing Again in a Heartbeat was therapeutic, I never forgot my audience.

A couple of women contacted me this past week, asking about the Women's Writing Circle. They wanted to know more about our group. They didn't want to blunder into a therapy group, they said. Should they attend? One worried that reading in the Circle would be "intimidating." Newly retired, she had just started journaling, dribs and drabs here and there about gardening and such. I wrote back that was a fantastic start and recommended she read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, as well as The Artist's Way. Another woman expressed concerns about being "ready" to read her writing in the Circle.

In her book, The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron talks about the shadow artist. She feels she has little of worth to say, received criticism early on about her desire to write, even thinks it is selfish to devote time to her creative life and is shadowed by doubts and insecurities.

I always remind people there are "no rules" and that a story that resonates with one, may not resonate with others and vice versa. Your voice, your style is unique and your own. Here's a blog post I wrote on the "rules" of writing after reading Francine Prose's book, Reading Like a Writer.

Spring signifies rebirth and renewal. Now that the days are longer and lighter, it helps develop my next memoir about a woman's journey ... alone, but not alone, as she watches the seasons change and finds solace in her companion, a yellow lab named Lily. Instead of worrying that no one will want to read this book, or I'm simply writing another Marley and Me, I'm intent on believing in my own story, my worth as a writer. Will everyone want to read this book? Of course not. Do I have something to say, those "lessons learned"  as we age and find ourselves alone? I hope so.

In the end, I want to tell my story as much for me, as my readers. I'm living this story now so in many ways it is easier than writing about the past. Like all writing, however, it evokes a journey of self-discovery which can only be fueled by confidence.

July, 2016
I have Lily and so I am never alone. She and I walked through the townhouse community today as we do every morning and afternoon. She finds interest and pleasure in the smallest blade of grass, which she smells intently, her tail arched, one pale yellow paw poised like a ballerina’s above the ground. A dog teaches you the value of living in the moment, of patience, of the simplest pleasure. 
Afterwards, she and I return to the house, I give her a biscuit and she falls into a contented sleep next to my writing chair in the living room, especially after I turn on the air conditioning. It is another hot day and the weekend portends a return of the exhausting humidity.

It was wonderful to get away last week with Daniel to Bar Harbor, especially since Alex took care of Lily.

Maine was so much cooler and the endless vistas of sunlight sparkling on the ocean made me feel more alive, as if each day might offer an unexpected gift; a new reader, a new person inquiring about my writing group, a good conversation. I do love seeing new places and Maine offers the most amazing scenery, solitude and utter stillness in the woodsy trails high above the Atlantic. And, of course, traveling with my grown son makes me the envy of many mothers. I know I am fortunate.

They wonder ... how it is that my sons and I travel the world together? I have a secret. I enjoy being with them, they encourage me to express myself and I them. We’re good companions ―Alex, Daniel and I. In a world where the three of us often find it hard to bond with others or make sense of it all, a special alchemy of trust and love brightens our days, made even more precious with Lily at our side. 
We sip cocktails, Daniel and I, in Kennebunkport, sitting on a cushioned wicker couch overlooking the harbor and talk about life, loves, his career aspirations.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Inspiration Leads To Life Story Writing

Each voice is important. A woman who shares a story that is especially difficult and revealing can anchor a writing group and offer a true gift.

We struggle to get past the things that block our writing; that keep us from moving forward with our lives. The list is long: abusive relationships; shame; not realizing we are no longer that person back when the abuse or shame occurred. But we are stuck there, at least for now.

We hope to reach the light and as we watch one do it, so it encourages another.

The quality of our work almost always depends on inspiration. Inspiration serves as the catalyst to all good writing, especially life story writing.

What inspires us to write? A person? A defining time and place? A crisis? A memory that remains vivid? Why this memory, this person, this subject?

In Saturday’s Women's Writing Circle, I was struck, as always, by voices and stories. Each story contributes to the whole experience ... writers learning from each other. I’m not talking about the craft of writing, but different perspectives, observations and life experiences that spark our creative process.

Confidence is another issue. Sometimes, hearing others read their work is all it takes; that little nudge to gain confidence, to get beyond the inner critic that whispers, "this isn't very good."

As Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, notes. Set small and gentle goals and meet them; show up on the page “to rest, to dream, to try.”

My inspiration is John. It's why I wrote two memoirs and a novel. All, virtually wrote themselves. And I think the writing was for me, as much as for the memory of John.

And from our Saturday writing prompt "and the memory returns ..." I wrote this.
And the memory returns  ... Every year they bloom in riotous profusion, yellow in the sun along the old wood fence separating our yard from the neighbor’s. They have been cut back, trimmed down, because, if not, they would have taken over the whole backyard years ago. Some summers their scraggly branches, choked by vines climbed the fence, caught between the slats ... ugly, unruly. "Get rid of them," the boys said.

But I couldn’t. I didn’t have the heart. It would have been like cutting away―forever― the memory of you. I see you again, hunched over in the heat of a warm spring day, digging holes in the hard, rocky soil to plant the fledgling, tender shoots. I imagine you wore your old brown plaid shirt, a pair of jeans and black sneakers. It's been so long ... I cherry pick bits and pieces of time and place, recreating you from a collage of fading memories and distant dreams.

The forsythia, ready to burst forth after unusually warm weather, weighed down today with heavy snow. The snow arrived suddenly. The weatherman had predicted it, which is, I suppose a good thing, although it takes away the mystery of the unexpected.

And the memory returns. We had seen an ad in the local newspaper, a farmer offering free forsythia. So you drove there, dug them out and placed them, wrapped in damp newspaper, in buckets in the back of our station wagon. You grew up in the city, but your heart belonged to the quiet, restfulness of wooded places ... a house, a big yard. Our children, our nest ... you prepared as if in anticipation that you wouldn’t be with us much longer.

I want to remember you, planting the forsythia, strong, manly, a father to our children and a husband to me, your wife.
What inspires you? Your comments and thoughts about inspiration and writing life story are most welcome. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Writing and the Distractions of the Outside World

Our Women’s Writing Circle was on winter hiatus in February. I missed our group and look forward to this Saturday when we gather around a lighted candle and explore writing. Our Circle offers that sacred space to write a story that lives within you, that only you can tell … to be with other women whose journey encourages yours.

That said, a winter hiatus, of being alone, have an upside; becomes meaningful for the writer. A certain requisite reflection accompanies staying inside on a bitterly cold day. We tend to be loners, solitary creatures, anyway.

I always say when we first open the Women’s Writing Circle and light the candle that this is our time to “shut out the distractions of the outside world.”

Is that even possible anymore?

I met a man this week. As we got to know each other, we talked about changes in reading habits among the public. “Certainly, there are enough distractions to understand why most people can’t get through one book a year,” he said. “Books require a different kind of concentration (from tweeting and posting on Facebook). And there are so many books out there, it becomes difficult to initiate a conversation about any one book that many have read. I suppose that’s why there’s book clubs,” he said.

In another era, everyone read the same books … you know the ones: The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, 1984 (although dystopian novels have enjoyed a resurgence), To Kill a Mockingbird.

He and I also talked about writers posting their politics and political musings on their Facebook pages. Can it alienate potential readers?

“Isn’t controversy good for a writer?” he asked. “Any publicity is better than none, right?”

When it comes to writing, I feel that writers can’t be tied down to good manners and tactfulness if they have something to say that matters to them. After all, we aren't psychologists, we aren't arbiters of civil discourse, we're writers. 

Writers might be convinced in this day of social media and internet that being honest feels right.  At the same time, I feel we should question when it becomes a distraction from the real work at hand, contributes to a lack of focus, tempts us to journey down a dark path.

In the Women’s Writing Circle, we share our reflections, possibly a new sense of activism, an urgency to step out of the shadows. We share fiction, memoir, poetry, discuss literature and the craft of writing.

As we light the candle on Saturday, I look forward to celebrating the renewal that comes with spring. It’s an unblocking of sorts, a way to blossom after winter, of letting our voices be nurtured and heard.

Harbingers of an early spring are everywhere and have been for weeks; the lavender crocuses blooming under my neighbor’s elm tree. A dusting of snow on daffodils. Writing continues to consume and renew me. It leads to ever-greater discoveries, new people and new terrain; a refuge, hopefully, from the craziness―the lack of attention―in which we live.

Your comments and thoughts about the distractions that challenge you as a writer are most welcome.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Artist's Way In a Changing Landscape

My son told me about his recent trip to Barnes and Noble. He wanted to support a local bookseller, he said, get one of the Vampire Lestat books by Anne Rice and Faust by Goethe. The vampire book was there, but not Faust, so he shopped online and found it―and the vampire novel cheaper than Barnes and Noble.

Later that day, I drove past empty storefronts in my neighborhood. We’re transitioning from malls and shopping centers to an isolating e-retail world. The death of the brick and mortar retail store seems a foregone conclusion.

I wandered through the small town of Mt. Airy in Philadelphia in 75-degree weather this past Friday. I passed books displayed on a makeshift stand along the side of a store. They were marked $1 ... no one around; there for the taking. One caught my eye, a novel by Margaret Atwood. (I own it.)

I began writing when I was six or seven. Little entries in a pink plastic diary with a girl in saddle shoes and poodle skirt on the front and a tiny gold lock and key to keep my innermost longings secret from the world. By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I filled numerous spiral-bound notebooks with poems and short stories. As I wrote, I started to trust in my own voice, my own intuition, my own take on the world.

It was the changing publishing landscape that spurred me on to independently publish after I left journalism. Now, in some ways, the lack of gatekeepers―ironically―contributes to my lassitude.

Did you know most Americans don’t read even one book a year?
I'm lucky. My parents exposed me to books at an early age. As for bookstores, the one I visited in Mt. Airy was empty except for three women upstairs sitting around a battered coffee table talking about running for local office.

I hear aficionados of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (I bought the 25th anniversary edition this week), groaning. You’re blocking your creativity with negative thinking! Everyone is an artist! As a writer, I always took long walks, those little side trips Cameron recommends; like Mt. Airy―to spur my creativity. It came naturally, instinctively knowing that if I didn't recharge, renew, I opened myself to trouble ... not taking the time to consider what I wanted from life. That day in Mt. Airy, I saw a decorative half moon hanging from a tree branch. I've always been a romantic. What writer isn't?
An author came to a writers’ group meeting I attended last week. She spent over a decade researching and writing her novel, landed an important publisher. After asking us how she could get the word out about her novel, she feverishly scribbled in a little notebook, jotted down suggestions, ideas to get out there and do the selling herself.

Each year it gets harder and harder―marketing a book, social media, another talk. Finding the vanishing bookstore.

I have this blog. Almost 7,000 views a month. Who knows how many are scammers, trolls, 'false' stats? Not many―if any―book sales result from writing these posts. That said, a writer never retires.

She can’t. I can't.

Your thoughts and comments are welcomed.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Writer As Activist and Hero in Turbulent Times

Once a journalist always a journalist. Those of us who have reported on the front lines―whether in our communities or in distant lands―know that reporting got into our blood early on. It’s a lifelong love affair, we couldn't wait to get up in the morning and read the headlines.

Journalists work hard to offer the public a cogent, hopefully, objective story that makes a difference.

We’re influencers and we don’t take that lightly. Which is why the current assault on a free press by a president who likens it to “an enemy of the people” is particularly disturbing and should frighten all of us.

Newspapers still offer the best vehicle to explore the critical narratives of corruption, greed, and injustice. Honest readers demand and expect this from the news media and the best of the best, in my opinion, provide this in abundance.

As I wrote in my memoir Again in a Heartbeat, I became a journalist because of the Watergate hearings and two reporters named Woodward and Bernstein. I had always wanted to write, had a novel simmering on the backburner, but journalism seemed a way to write and get paid.

I landed my first journalism gig at a daily newspaper called Today’s Post in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania; from there I went on to become a staff writer at the Suburban and Wayne Times, and then the Main Line Times, two local weekly newspapers ... and from there to The Philadelphia Inquirer where I learned the true power of journalism; to immediately reach an audience numbering in the thousands on any given day.

I always credit journalism for teaching me the economy of words,
getting right to the heart of a story, grabbing the reader early on.

After I left The Philadelphia Inquirer, I entered a creative writing phase, but the activist in me never died, as evidenced in my books and empowering women through the Women's Writing Circle. I tackled controversial topics including the terrible impact cancer has on love and marriage; narcissistic and emotionally dysfunctional men; abortion and a woman’s right to choose.

As writers, we are called on―now more than ever―to find our voice for a better world. Preaching is off-putting, so, instead, we enter into a conversation with our readers. Writers can change the world, offering our point of view, who we stand with and why; even our definitions of right and wrong.

We proffer this through prose and poetry; through our healing stories.
There are numerous avenues we can take as writers to help change the world. They include: attending writing workshops, meeting with other writers and brainstorming ideas; developing empathy for others; learning good interviewing skills and techniques; visualizing our audience.

I recently wrote about my trip to Nepal and included my point of view about the Nepalese way of life, void of our Western emphasis on greed and acquisition of material possessions. I did this through a PowerPoint, presented both to my church and a civic group. So many possibilities!

Writing is a great act of courage. We can be heroes and activists.

There are many ways to take up the gauntlet for change as writers. Which ones are yours?

Correction: An earlier version of this post talked about publishing op-eds and other pieces through Writers Resist. The correct name is Write Our Democracy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Turning Online Dating Into the Stuff of Story

I read an article this morning in The Writer Magazine. It was titled, "Love Story: When Journalism and Online Dating Combine." It struck a chord because that's exactly what I've been doing for years; combining my journalism skills with my online dating experiences and turning them into the stuff of story. In the article, the writer states:

Dating in the modern era is terrible: An endless string of high hopes and dashed expectations, countless hours spent browsing profiles on various sites, and recurring nightmares of winding up alone while all your friends, it seems, have paired off and are creating families of their own. So, what is a modern person to do? Well, while I can’t speak to the situation of all modern people, I can speak to the situation of modern writers, whose job it is to literally find out everything they can about a person, place, or thing, and then create a story, hopefully a compelling one, out of what they uncover.

Since I began Internet dating years ago, I have used my dates to produce what I hope is good writing, compelling writing, and a look into the journey of a middle-aged woman who meets all sorts of characters, the good, the bad, the ugly.

In Slants of Light: Stories and Poems From the Women’s Writing Circle, I wrote a short story called "One Last Shot at the Brass Ring." It was about a middle-aged woman seeking love the second time around and focused on an Internet date who tries to convince her he was the Prophet Elijah. Really, you can't make this stuff up. I used my journalism skills to recreate that date, the conversation almost verbatim, along with his body language of the actual date I had with this man.

Earlier in both of my memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Dating Again, and its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, I again wrote about my Internet dates. The guy out in Tucson, Arizona who tended to rageaholism (yes, he got off on raging against me); the older man who was leaving Pennsylvania for New Mexico because at the age of sixty, as he put it, “I feel a need for my boot heels to be wandering.”

I wrote about the laid-off IT worker who lost his job after his wife left him for an ex-con from Kansas she met on the  Internet. He had been fired because of his anguish, reduced to selling used cars.

I wrote about the men whose dismay and disillusionment was palatable after wives of thirty years just up and left them; in one case, she left him for  her high school sweetheart. I can still see him drinking his second scotch and water and pretending all was fine with the world. At the suggestion of an editor, I tried hard to convey their humanity, as well as their desperation.

All of this is how a writer uses her journalism skills and powers of observation
to create real and compelling characters. So as the writer in The Writer Magazine notes, I, too, continue to use real life experiences, coupled with my journalism skills to create new story lines, and compelling characters.

I stayed until the end of these terrible dates, perhaps aware that some of them would appear in future stories and memoirs. After all,  it’s only in “real life” that we can find the strange, the unimaginable, and yes, the absorbing and riveting, so take note of their body language, the tone of voice, the clothes they are wearing, how they lick their fingers of bay seasoning as I wrote about the Prophet Elijah. It’s all good stuff in the end. It's all sad stuff, the funny stuff, it's all the stuff of story.

How about you? Have you had an online dating story that showed up in your memoirs or fiction?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Memoir: 'Not Sprint But Marathon' by Michelle Monet

I met poet and writer Michelle Monet through an online memoir writing group. Here at the Women's Writing Circle, it has been our pleasure to feature authors from around the world with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. In that tradition, please welcome Michelle who candidly confesses how memoir is often a marathon of soul-searching and digging deep, but ultimately leads to hidden treasure.

People always suggested I write my story because I’ve had an interesting life. I have sung on some of the largest stages and for some of the largest audiences in the world.

I impersonated Barbra Streisand from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, New York to Russia to South Africa. I sang for celebrities and earned glowing reviews. I was even offered the prestigious finale role in a multimillion dollar production show at the Palace Hotel Resort in Sun City, South Africa.

Many people thought I had it made, including my friends and parents.

People thought I'd ‘arrived,’ but, honestly, it was far from that. I was always plagued with terrifying and debilitating panic/anxiety attacks, sometimes even on stage in front of thousands. Also, I survived an abusive husband who traveled with me, almost killed me and left me penniless in a foreign country where I was starring in a show. (Think Ike and Tina Turner!)

Much of my unhappiness stemmed from never being content impersonating Barbra Streisand, always longing to sing my own songs and be my authentic self, which is a theme of my upcoming memoir.

About a year ago, at age fifty-four, I discovered in a back closet that I had over fifty full journals piled high, that I kept since age eight. That day was life changing. While sifting through these journals, a floodgate opened. I couldn't stop reading.

There was a wave of deep sadness, though―seeing the anguished words of this scared little girl ...

this angst ridden teenage self

this confused young adult self

this adult ‘abused wife’

All wide open on the pages of these journals.

I read a few entries, but then was overcome with an overwhelming sick feeling and had to put them down. I realized I was still grieving and that I hadn't healed the unresolved pain in my life―twenty years later. That was the saddest realization of all.

I did feel that something life changing was happening by finding and opening my journals
. I instinctively knew that the 'key' to my future happiness and healing somehow lay in the unraveling of my life through these writings.

I had no doubt that if I wrote the memoir I could unlock my past and move on with my life. I felt it was my life mission now to do it. So, last January after my beloved cat of seventeen years died, I was compelled to start writing. I feverishly wrote about 40,000 words. My instincts told me that if I wrote long enough, hard enough and with enough gusto I would/could unravel the yarn of my past. Then I hit a block. A brick wall. Too much pain. I couldn't go on writing. Unexpectedly, though, I uncovered a whole new life passion. A true gift within all this confusion and pain!

I realized how much I truly loved writing. I knew that I wanted to spend my life writing and even if not this memoir, I had to write SOMETHING. A few close friends suggested that since I had compiled a lot of poetry that I start with a poetry book instead of the very daunting memoir.

So, I pulled out some half-written poems, assembled them in my first book Catch a Poem by The Tale, and published them.

It took seven months to write this ‘Poetic Memoir.’ It was a liberating, cathartic process getting that book up and out of me. I felt extremely vulnerable―a bit like I was turning my skin inside out for the whole world to see―but I also knew that bravery would be needed when I eventually went back to my memoir so I welcomed it.

After my first book, I was so inspired by my love for poetry that two more books flew out of me quite fast, and I published those also. Limerick Explosion  and Word Explosion. Funny, but after publishing those three poetry books I had the inspiration to get back to the memoir with a new determination … so I began writing again. It felt different this time. I felt less emotional pain. More detached. I knew I would eventually write this memoir and I felt happy about it.

Now I see that my break from my memoir was like food that has been simmering on the back burner. You know how food tastes better after it simmers for a while? When you finally pull it up to the front burner, it tastes better? Well, that's how I feel about my memoir now.

Subconsciously, maybe I feel it is not the time yet to tackle the BIG memoir (mainly because my parents and sister are still alive and kicking). Ha!

I've learned that memoir writing is not a sprint but a marathon. It is not linear. Maybe I needed the other writing projects to let my memoir simmer. I am honestly not in a hurry to get it done anymore. I felt a sense of urgency before but no longer.

I'll get the memoir finished in the right time but for now I am just enjoying my writing life and trusting the process.

How about you? Did your memoir take a long or short time to write?

Michelle Monet is a multi-faceted creative human being. Her career began as a singer/songwriter guitarist act in lounges around the Denver area. She progressed to performing her original music in cabaret clubs and concert halls around the US. In 1989 she landed the role as a Barbra Streisand impersonator for the hit show Legends in Concert. and traveled throughout the US from Las Vegas to Atlantic City, to Russia, Japan and South Africa.

In 1996, while starring in a production in Sun City, South Africa she had a passion to switch callings. She began studying visual art. Since then she has sold her art in her gallery/studio and at art shows and festivals.

These days you can find Michelle typing away, blogging daily on her blog 365 BLOGS in 365 DAYS! and chilling with her five cats and boyfriend Bob in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.