Monday, February 11, 2019

Writing Compelling Characters and Writing About Love



In our recent Women's Writing Circle workshop, Writing Real Characters in Memoir or Fiction, each of us took a stab at writing a portrait of a character. Who are they? What makes them “tick”? Who was I to them? Who were they to me?

We learned that characters can broken down into four crucial elements. 
  • A driving need, a desire, ambition or goal. 
  • A secret. 
  • A contradiction. 
  • A vulnerability. 
With many thanks to David Corbett for this fabulous article in "Writer's Digest", we learned that by focusing on one, or several of these elements, we bring our characters to life. 

As we explore our characters, we also explore our choices and our lives. As Corbett writes: Obviously, plumbing your own life will not provide access to the whole of your characters’ inner lives (unless your characters inhabit the same world you do). Rather, these moments provide touchstones, points of access to begin the exploration into similar moments in your characters’ lives...

When it comes to writing our stories—memoir or fiction—and the characters who populate them, we can either paint people in black or white—as villains or heroes—or we can show their greatest moment of courage; their greatest moment of sorrow…the moment of greatest fear…of joy. In a community, whether writers or otherwise, and depending on the health of that community, we can claim our own experience.
***

In this photograph of my late husband, John M. Cavalieri, as a young man looking off into the distance that is the California countryside, I am reminded how love—the very idea of it and the desire for it—has driven my creative writing. Who was Jay to Ava in A Portrait of Love and Honor? A man of great courage? A man unafraid to show his vulnerability? What drew them to each other? As the book’s synopsis says: Facing one setback after another, their love embraces friendship, crisis, dignity, disillusionment. Their love story reflects a reason for living in the face of life's unexpected events.

***


What is it about love that so compels us to put pen to paper? Is it the memory? The moment we hope to recapture? The mystery? The magic? The longing? The need to find meaning in our existential lives?

***
If you have ever read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I was recently re-introduced to, you might recall a chapter—perhaps the most famous of this writer’s— known as "The Grand Inquisitor", which can be read for free here. I think it offers insight into the writer's quest of seeking answers to difficult questions, both spiritual and the divine.

In this story, Christ walks the streets of 15th century Seville. Once again, he performs miracles—healing a blind man. Resurrecting a child from the dead. But the Grand Inquisitor, a very old man who represents the Church, wants nothing of it and throws Christ in jail. The Grand Inquisitor approaches Christ's cell late at night and demands of Christ answers to all his questions. Why could He have not succumbed to the temptations brought forth by the Devil and shown us His power, politically and economically? Why didn’t He make it easy to follow without question? Why not just be told what to do? Why could He not have saved us from ourselves by freeing us from the burden of choice? It’s too hard, the old man cries!

Christ listens. He remains silent. He leans forward. Then he kisses the old man’s “bloodless, ninety-year-old lips.”  The old man shudders. Something has stirred at the corners of his mouth; he goes to the door, opens it and says to Him: "Go and do not come back ... do not come back at all ... ever ... ever!" And he releases him into "the town's dark streets and squares." The Captive departs.' And the old man?' 'The kiss burns within his heart, but the old man remains with his former idea.'


***

One reason I became an author and a writing teacher and coach
was a desire to make a difference in whatever small way I could. We can succumb to authority, never questioning and follow blindly like sheep, or we can take the freedom that is offered by finding our own voice, our own path. Through dialogue and sharing, we come to learn who we are, how we are the masters of our own destiny...if we choose.

As I look at the photograph of my late husband, I remember…I remember the love, I remember the mystery of that time. I think of the choices, the path forward since then. Writing about him offered a touchstone into writing about myself and others. Life, and the people who populate it, is a fascinating journey to undertake and explore. And writing leads the way.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Update on Commenting on This Blog

When I started this blog back in the "dark ages" of technology—2009—my idea was to create a place where I could share my stories, as well as those of other women. Blogging was an exciting venture for me and it hasn't disappointed. Thanks to social media, it has led to many fantastic connections and friendships...relationships I never could have envisioned back in the day when as a journalist I sat in front of a clunky computer terminal and sent my stories out to a limited universe of local newspaper subscribers.


Hundreds of you have commented on the more than six hundred posts I and others have written here, offering thoughtful and interesting commentary about the topics at hand. From memoir to fiction, to publishing options, to finding our voices as writers, to politics and spirituality, we've touched and delved into it all.

So, it may come as a surprise to see that reader comments prior to last night have been removed here on Women's Writing Circle. This was out of my control and is due to a change at Google, which is phasing out Google+, a social network operated by Google. This does not affect any of the posted content, either on the blog or the website.

The good news:
It should now be easier to post comments on Women's Writing Circle. The "hoops" of posting  through Google+ (which meant belonging to communities known as "circles") are no longer necessary. All you need is a Google account. Comments will be moderated for spam and anonymous posters.

You can also subscribe to Women's Writing Circle blog, or follow us by email.

While some say comments can be time-consuming to read, moderate and respond to, I believe they are worthwhile and enhance the dialogue. So let's keep the conversation alive.

As we press forward in this rapidly changing world of technology, we are both at its mercy and yet grateful for all the possibilities it affords us as writers. 


Susan

Monday, February 4, 2019

Truth: The Dance Between Author and Reader




I’ve been attending an ongoing forum at church where the instructor asks a lot of questions. Is your truth, the truth? Why is your truth more truth than another’s? If it all sounds like a freshman philosophy course, you’re probably right. It can be crazy-making. Is what I see, not what I see? Some might even call it gaslighting.

One Sunday he talks about a “dance” between author and reader. Of course, he is talking about the Bible or the Koran. The "dance" is the interpretation of the imponderable, the words of God. Everyone's interpretation will be different which is why there are five hundred different offshoots of the Protestant church, he says. People stick with their tribes to reinforce their own beliefs.

I think about writing. As a writer, you decide what lesson to share, what symbol carries weight—family, love, forgiveness, charity, hope. The reader will interpret your story, literally or symbolically. It's not the author's responsibility to tell a reader what to think. She writes a book. Then it belongs to the reader.

***
When we ask in the forum about applying critical thinking and life experience to our interpretation of the truth, he pounces. "What's wrong with that?" the instructor demands. A man in the group quickly says, "You can be deceived."

"Exactly!" the instructor gleefully shouts.

This, I suppose, is why one should never talk about God and their religion. It’s too personal. And telling people their life experiences and critical thinking skills can deceive and we all stick to our tribes feels like we might as well just keep walking the labyrinth outside near the church cemetery and forget about ever coming to a conclusion on truth, decency, morality. The instructor is probably twenty-five years younger than I am. He teaches college kids. Still, I listen.

While there are universal “truths” he concedes—for instance, love thy neighbor, honor your parentswhat does that really mean to you? Can I follow the teachings of Christianity and "love my neighbor" but hate the guy next door?

Can I honor my parents, but resent that they didn’t always listen when I needed it most?

Can I have loved my husband dearly but been in angry denial at him for dying?

Of course, we live in a very divisive society. Everything is either black or white, one or the other, which also fuels this dialogue about the truth. Be open, cast aside preconceived notions, question religious beliefs and dogmas, the instructor advises. But what about the lies? The lies we hear every day in the media, from the president and others? Surely, the lies prove there is truth, although even now I'm getting confused. He has no answer to the problem of lies, only offering a concession the next week, "Yes, it is okay if you are your sole agency," he says, suddenly doing a turnaround that if life experiences and critical thinking work for you, go for it.

***

I’ve edited many memoirs and novels—and I've written my own—yet, I always keep in mind that a story is just one person’s story. It is their journey, the way he or she sees life. The author reveals what this incident or that event means to her…and offers the takeaway. The reader may have a different takeaway, a different interpretation. That’s "the dance" between author and reader.

A writer challenges her perceptions, thoughts, truths. It’s exciting, scary, exhilarating, inspiring. A road and a journey not to be missed. Along the way, you’ve found your voice! You have chosen to make a difference in a small, but meaningful way. This is spring unexpectedly arriving in February, like tulips on the table in the church fellowship hall. You feel alive again.

But here’s the thing, the instructor says: "You are at the wheel. Your life is about making choices, which involves responsibility, and responsibility requires making choices. That freedom can be scary." He's right. It’s a risk, taking a leap, coming to a conclusion and putting it out there for the world to see. It's what we writers do.

My feeling: If your "truth" changes next year, write another book. That said, if you keep questioning your truth and your conclusions...keep chewing it over and over and over…you’re lost. And the reader will be too. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

Sharing Women's Stories On the 'Joy' of Aging



I study myself in the mirror. Shoulder-length blond hair—dyed to cover the gray. I work out at the gym three or four times a week, albeit at a senior’s class tagged Silver Seniors. I keep my weight down, have a fair amount of energy. I am a senior.

Which means old. Or, at least, that’s what the term “senior” implies. Just ask anyone.

I recoil at all the magazine articles detailing in excruciating detail how seniors/grandparents are being defrauded by scam artists … appalled at the ubiquitous television ads hawking “finding a place for Mom,” as if being older means you’re an invalid and your kids have to stow you away in a retirement home where playing bingo is considered a useful pastime. And how about all those medical ads? Living with diabetes, chronic migraines, COPD, chemo treatment. Ask your doctor to write a prescription! Try Trulicity!


Some of the brightest, most vibrant people I know or admire are “seniors.” Thanks, Glenn Close for highlighting this at the Golden Globe awards and saying that you don't lose your sexuality and "can have more fun than ever" as a senior. You can—and should—follow your dreams, no matter how old you are. Thank you, Maxine, my parish priest, for thoughtful and inspiring sermons and a hug and kiss every Sunday and your energy as a woman in her mid-seventies keeping our church vibrant.

Yet, aging is for real and not for the faint-hearted. Anxiety and depression are often a by-product. No use pretending otherwise. In a personal essay by clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher in The New York Times entitled The Joy of Being a Woman in Her 70s, I thought this: it reads as a feel-good piece at a women’s writing conference peddling inspiration, which is great since that’s why you attend a writing conference. These are not words, however, for the general public of aging citizens coping with extremely challenging life situations, unless you’ve got a strong support system. Although I’m not yet in my 70s, I’m close enough. While I ponder that “happiness is a skill and a choice,” as the essay claims, it seems this placebo applies not just to seniors, but to all age groups.

So why this emphasis on seniors? I agree with Pipher that ageism probably is a bigger problem for women than men. And don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of Pipher's and even interviewed her once eons ago on her book tour for Reviving Ophelia. But when she starts talking about having decades to develop resilience (and therein lies “joy), I think about my best friend, Paula. At the age of sixty-nine, a confluence of tragic and unfortunate events landed her in a nursing home on the dementia ward. This had nothing to do with resilience, but the plight of many older women without family whose diets and medical and emotional needs go untended.

I think about a woman in her early 70s who emailed me she couldn’t afford to come to the writing circle because her landlord was selling the place and she and her cats had to find a new home, pronto. I know of another woman in her 70s who lent a man over $40,000, although she had never met him, so desperate was she for male companionship—thereby threatening her retirement money. Where's the joy in that?

Ageism in the workplace. That's a whole other topic. These are the stories that long to be told and will be told by writing and sharing them and honoring them. In the Women's Writing Circle we share and honor all stories. In the Women's Writing Circle we emphasize writing without apology for our voice and perspectives. In doing so, the hope and the challenge is to grow our empathy and understanding, not just of ourselves, but of others.

My own story is this: How did I manage all these years alone? Sheer luck. I own my own home thanks to my husband’s Army pension and some intelligent investing. I also had loving parents and a father who boosted my self-esteem. My health is good. 


I remember my mother, always beautifully dressed with heels and earrings and her blond hair in a poofed-up bob. Gertrude was lovely, unlined skin well into her 80s. She tried to stay youthful-looking until dementia and anxiety had its way with her within months after being widowed at the age of seventy-nine.

Life can be a soap opera at any age. The older you get, though, the trickier the “soap opera” becomes. What to do? Yes, I try to take in the smell of a vanilla-scented candle when I write. At the end of the day, I remember that I have done the things many have only dreamed of by traveling the world. I think of Lily, my companion and Zen-muse-of-sorts, and how much we can learn from a dog. I find solace and meaning in attending church, in sharing my words in community in the Circle. I find joy in thinking…today I can go to the orchid extravaganza at Longwood Gardens, if I want. I am one of the lucky ones. We are not all so lucky. And I think of them with empathy and understanding.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Writer's Task: Reimaging Possibility in the Year Ahead


Our writing prompt in the Women’s Writing Circle this month: She knows the task ahead. Ask yourself. What is the task? A minute, five minutes...an hour a day? Just write. Over a month’s time, your voice, your style emerges. Magic. A map to meaning. A reimagining.

We all bring a certain mindset to our work based on past experiences, our upbringing. Our confessions and testimonials take shape on the blank page. We come to conclusions. What is right? What is ethical?  We make choices.

This—for lack of a better word—becomes our truth.

Reimagine possibility, no matter what happens.

I live in the garden. I just sleep in the house.



Writers are great lovers. They love to write, tell stories adding colorful details, read great books. This is how they find their authenticity, their voice. To quote Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones, find joy in your writing; "don't do battle with it."

Make this the year to focus, to commit, to write with intention, openness and expansion; learn to step out of the comfort zone and think about this—the world is not always how we thought it was or were taught to believe it was. Breathe in all that is around you, share stories with friends, test drive your voice, stand up for your own thoughts. Be assertive. Something unexpectedly wonderful might happen.... She knows the task ahead.

Prompts to get started on writing:
  • Write what most irritates you.
  • Write what haunts you.
  • Write what inspires you.
  • Give yourself an “artist's date” (to quote Julia Cameron) and write about what you did and where you went. 
  • Take a risk—travel by yourself, bike a new destination, study a new language—and write about it.
  • Write about an animal that you love.
  • Take a writing workshop and write about what you learned.
  • Do something to help another person and write how that feels.
  • Look at an old photograph of a family member and write about him or her.
  • Write about the day you decided to quit your job and what transition means.
  • Write why you want to focus on and prioritize your writing life.

    How about you? What is the task you have set for yourself this year? What are some of your favorite writing prompts?

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Remembering Darlene: Stories Which Death Cannot Steal


As I write this on a chilly winter morning, my heart is heavy. Last night I learned that a dear member of our Women’s Writing Circle took her own life the week before Christmas.

As the facilitator of the Women’s Writing Circle, I have long understood that my role is one of conveyor for women to come together and share their truths through writing. This passion came to me late in life. I’m not sure why, but this I know—it is a sacred mission and the Circle a spiritual container. When we light the candle, we shut out the distractions of the outside world and for the next two and a half hours concentrate on our writing, our creative lives, sharing and absorbing each other’s pains, triumphs and tragedies. I honor the stories and I know the "caves we enter hold the treasures we seek." In doing so, hopefully, we lift the burdens dragging us down and find in words a release and the solace of our collective journey.

***

When Darlene first came to the Circle five years ago, we still met at the bookstore. She showed up in a pair of light blue jeans, a tee-shirt with sparkles and long brown hair hanging below her shoulders. This gal was different and unique, a self-described “motorcycle Marlboro smoking Mama,” who wrote fiction in third person from the point of view of a woman named Rose. When she came to my house for our writing workshops, she took a seat outside on my deck during writing time and I noticed how the smoking calmed her, as she contemplated her words and put pen to paper in a worn journal. She told me she wrote at night and I don’t believe she ever used a computer.


In our Circle readarounds she usually sat to my left and wanted to read first. Her hands shook and she admitted she “was nervous and wanted to go first to get it over with,” a testament to how hard it was for her to come to the writing group. But her courage prevailed and she stood out, not only as one of our strongest wordsmiths, although to my knowledge she had never studied writing, but as the voice that all of us NEEDED to hear…that voice being pure vulnerability and honesty, no artifice whatsoever. This is why we will miss her so much. Darlene was a touchstone to our hearts.



Darlene (second from right) with our writers.
I remember the last time she came to the Circle; a bright and warm November day and I joined her outside during our break. A bit shy, she rarely, if ever, voiced her thoughts on what the other women had written. She often texted me late at night the morning before the Circle met to say she would be there, as if she knew she needed to gird herself to do this thing called writing. She had a terrific, throaty laugh and that November day spoke how proud she was of her son and daughter. She cherished a child’s story written by her daughter in grade school, the main character a cow named “Cowie”—a humorous tale she wanted to see published and attended our publishing workshop in August to learn more. She had found a new relationship and apologized for not attending our September writing workshop because of a planned camping trip with him. Two years before on the Fourth of July, she sat alone in a chair, reading a paperback book on the field where the fireworks were held. We chatted briefly that July evening, I don’t remember what we said, but I always found her smart, engaging...her beautiful smile radiated warmth, a smile which now I know belied a deep despair over the abuse she wrote of and suffered in her life—the betrayals that even writing could not heal.


Writing together in the Circle.

Darlene went off alone to die in her car, from what I heard. Suicide has become far too common, especially among the creative and tenderhearted. Still, I have a hard time wrapping my head around it and I cannot imagine how terrifying it must have been for Darlene or how terrible this is for her family. Darlene's unexpected death makes me realize how important it is to reach out to others during their times of duress and offer whatever help I can give.


In the end, all I can do is hope that the Women’s Writing Circle provides relief and respite from the world, if only for one morning a month.  When we blow out the candle and close the circle, all of us leave a bit richer than before we came. But then it is back to real life—and what awaits out there can be dangerous, terrifying, monstrous. Like wind whispering through barren tree branches in the dead of winter, life is fragile and fleeting and gone in a heartbeat. Yet our words, our stories, live on in each other’s hearts. So, I am here, writing this, remembering Darlene. I rejoice that our paths crossed, not in some superficial way of the world, but in the most deeply meaningful and profound connection, which is sharing our stories—a gift that even death cannot steal.



Monday, December 17, 2018

In This Town Where I Grew Up and Thoughts on Writing


This week I was talking to an artist friend. She put her heart and soul into her artwork and wasn’t selected for a juried show—“It’s okay and I understand,” she said—but coupled with how much time and effort over the years she spent creating original work and how difficult it was to sell had congealed into “a feeling of rejection and being beaten down that I don't like,” she said.

We weren’t able to finish the conversation, but planned to catch up over lunch. I got to thinking about what she said. All the work, all the planning, yet I’m just a voice like so many others out there brimming with hopes and dreams, a dash of arrogance and self-deprecation thrown in. Am I good enough? I hope so because I've seen what's out there and know my work is as good or better, but finding the acceptance, the place to be heard and seen is often illusive.

I think many of us are facing transitions in our lives. Where do we go from here? It seems the old rules don’t apply. The truth is not the truth. But I like to think there’s a silver lining beyond the doubts and insecurities. There’s the changing publishing landscape, for one, which opened up creative vistas for anyone who wants to share their art. Whoever heard of the internet when I was growing up, let alone Kindle or Amazon?

Not many—maybe most of us who call ourselves writers—ever wanted to work a nine-to-five job; still, as we age, the hours weigh heavy, along with the knowledge that much of the unexpected magic of the blank page has already been written. Time is sweet and short. We can blog it, write it, tweet it, author our atonement for the world to see. The ghosts are along for the ride, their voices stronger than memory, echoing through our work. 

I grew up in a small town of people who belonged to country clubs; some even owned horse stables and three-car garages where antique cars were polished and burnished to a brilliant sheen. My dad was a teacher, an avid reader, a scholar of Latin and English and we weren't wealthy, but we weren't poor, either, and Dad's work was cerebral. He never knew back-breaking labor. Surrounded by books as a child, I intuited early on the power, the magic of the great authors. They influenced me from adolescence and into adulthood. I wanted to join their ranks. I interviewed countless people, wrote the stories, labored over my books and I’ve loved it and I’m willing to keep doing it because no matter how many books I sell or don’t sell, how many people come to my writing circles, it’s who I am...one woman on a quest, keeping the hope and dream alive under a starry December night. 

The thirst for romance and adventure filled me living on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a place where towns along the railroad tracks offer rich complexity, where doctors and lawyers and educators live behind ornate and heavy oak doors of privilege and ancestry dating back to the early days of the city. Heavy drinking and suicide and the way money can pervert all melded into one. It's overwhelming, so you escape into fantasy, into art, into telling stories, yours and theirs, which is a way to make sense of it all. 

Where we grow up, the places we call our hometown set us on a trajectory and so begins our search for an answer to the question Who am I? Who was my father? My mother? My husband? How did becoming a parent change me?

Going back to the beginning, we locate a key to unlocking the secrets. 

Here’s something I wrote, which was published this week in Story Circle Network’s December Journal, about the town where I grew up; Wayne, Pennsylvania, named after that stalwart young Revolutionary War Hero, Mad Anthony Wayne. SCN, like our Women's Writing Circle, is a fine group and offers opportunities for writers to share and be heard. So, with that, I wish you and yours the blessings of a very happy holiday.

In This Town Where I Grew Up

In the town where I grew up I am in a coffee shop, killing time before a writers’ meeting starts at the bookstore up the street. The coffee shop is next to the movie theater. I went to matinees there as a young girl. Some things come full circle—being back here in this town sipping a cappuccino—remembering The Day the Earth Stood Still. 
Fifty years is a long time, although in the scheme of things just a whisper on the wind. I look down at my open notebook and see a short story I’m writing about a woman whose dreams are paradoxically less interesting than her life.

After days of rain, it’s finally sunny. “We should go home so I can clean the pool,” I hear the man at the next table say to his wife. I wonder what it’s like to go home with someone. Someone I want to clean the swimming pool with, someone to make love to, or read to in bed.

This town makes me feel like I’m gazing into a lake, watching the ripples of my life ease from the shoreline toward a vast horizon where the final destination waits. What it is, I don’t know, but I’m sure it has something to do with writing. I left this town with dreams of writing the Great American Novel.

Up the street is the Presbyterian church where on a June day, John and I married. I worked for a small newspaper then; a newspaper long out of business, the building now a brewpub. When we first met, he said to me, “You’re a good writer.” I fell in love with John, not because he said that, but because of who he was…and who I might become with him by my side.

Outside, young women stroll by, the vision of summer in short, colorful dresses and high cork-heeled sandals. I’m here—still writing, fifty years later—still in this town where I grew up. Some things come full circle.