Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Monday, March 18, 2019

Writing Brings Contentment in Time of Despair

Most people recognize that depression has become the overwhelming “malady” of our times. Suicides are on the rise; opioid addiction poses an epidemic. What is the root cause?

Notably, the idea that nothing we have is ever enough or ever good enough. This mindset sets us up, not just for depression, despair and a pervasive sense of malcontent, but estrangement with others. We are always comparing ourselves to others, or they to us, in what amounts to a combat of competition. This creates a depressive mood in everyone.

I remember when I joined the staff of the Pulitzer Prize winning Philadelphia Inquirer. I had gotten there because my work as a reporter had been noticed. But once I got there, everyone’s work had been noticed and now, not just one of us, but all of us, were good reporters and writers. 

No matter how much you achieve, you are an underachiever. There is always going to be someone smarter than you, who writes better than you. This provides the recipe for depression and despair.

These aren’t new ideas, in fact, they’re not even my ideas, but the subject of recent talks by theologians and college professors during this Lenten season that I’ve had the privilege of hearing during what they call “this time of polarization.” Churches are focused on this moment in history—this political strife. A good thing, too, because it sets up the perfect segueway to talking about God who leads us to reconciliation and a place of unconditional love.

What does this have to do with writing? Writing allows us to forge intimacy with others—to forge relationships. By sharing our stories and the meaning of those stories, through one life, or many lives, writing puts us in service to others. A universal picture emerges over time. We experience much the same things. Our stories form a collective. We are all in this together.

This is why I’m staring a women’s writing circle at my church this week. Relationships, intimacy, sharing in the collective journey, offer antidotes to despair.


Poets have written about despair...“winters of despair” yet with the hope of spring. In this lovely poem "Snowdrops" by Louise Gluck, which I recently used in a teaching seminar, she writes:

Do you know what I was, how I lived? You know
what despair is; then
winter should have meaning for you

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring–

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.
"Open again in the cold light of earliest spring.” That line, what we call in the circle, a "read back line," resonates with me. It offers such hope.


So, what is the answer to depression—to this pervasive lack of “joy” plaguing our times? (Joy is almost always intangible, at least in my mind. Happiness is probably the better word.) Contentment. Contentment with the ordinary life.

I have enough. My house is enough. My car is enough, I don’t need more possessions, more accolades, I have many wonderful reviews on Amazon and more would be nice, but I don’t need them. I don’t care if I’m traditionally published or self-published. The great thing—I have written a book/books out there for others to read.

I fell in love once and he with me. This is enough for one lifetime. I am content. I long for what I have, to quote Dante.

Writing brings us “home” to the ordinary life, to something in the here and now, not lofty or detached, but intimate and meaningful.

Home is where the windows and the doors are open. Windows let us look outside. Doors let us get out. Doors let us reenter. We have moved on and come back to the relationships, the shared vision that offers contentment. Home is not twenty-five or thirty years ago in some nostalgic mindset that has no bearing on reality. We can go back to that street where we grew up, see children playing and say to ourselves, “This is not home. I don’t feel at home in this place anymore.”

Write about that special moment of coming home. Like the Himalayan blue poppy, its bloom is beautiful, but fleeting.

As poet Mary Oliver concludes in "Such Singing in the Wild Branches":
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then––open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Criticism, Clarity and Voice Along the Writer’s Way

Whenever I hear a writer say she stopped writing because of a mean comment, a lack of encouragement, or, worse, the spiteful jealousy of another who questioned just who she thinks she is to say she is a writer, I feel her pain. It is years before she again picks up the pen, attempts to put thoughts on paper—or takes the courageous step of coming to a writer’s group to read her work aloud.

The inner child has been wounded, but, interestingly, the flame to write is never totally extinguished. It’s like breathing, something she has to do. When she does become a writer, however, there is a powerful freeing, a transformation of spirit and mind. Of saying, ‘I don’t give a damn. Let them judge. Who cares?'

In memoir, too, there is often this disclaimer from new writers. "I’m not writing this to hurt anyone." Or this: "I worry about being too preachy." There is a fine line between being 'preachy' — a fit of rage, let’s say—and clarity of thought. There is a fine line between intentionally hurting someone and writing with honesty and insight. I also remind women to ask themselves when was the last time they heard a man say he was worried about being ‘preachy’—worried about hurting someone?

I admit that even for me, a seasoned writer, I can spend hours, days, coming back to a piece, rewriting and revising, angsting over whether the lesson, the insight is clear and transcends just me and my own little world and offers something to the reader. Almost every week I blog, I submit my work for publication, am working on a new memoir. I am always writing, teaching writing, always working at my craft. Still I must ask myself: Have I avoided the rehashed reflection, the side trips that slow down the narrative, the clich├ęs?


The writer thinks about elevating what she writes to the “literary.” I quote Chekov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

We are painters, appealing to the reader’s sense of poetry and literary prose. I like to think this comes with practice and it does, but sometimes—just like prayer and just like poetry—that perfect metaphor, that turn of sparkling phrase that entices and invites the senses—appear when you least expect it, a gift, otherwise known as divine inspiration.

There are many critics out there. Some have agendas. For centuries, men were loath to cede the literary pantheon to women. Your mother might have been one of them, too, when she told you not to write. It wasn’t about your talent, it was about her not taking the risk herself to write, to seek out her voice. Taking criticism to heart is self-defeating, a sure way to kill the muse, to give up and go back to watching television or dabbling in a useless pastime.

Time spent writing is never time wasted. Sure, it’s hard. Maybe because everything we write is a conscious choice, meaning we chose this word, not that word, this phrase, not that phrase, this truth, not that truth. We write despite those who tell us it is a waste of time, caution us to be more 'circumspect', humiliate by saying it is beyond us to ascend to that lofty perch and write.

Give yourself the freedom to say things in your own way. Welcome the dialogue, the comments, the work others put into answering the writer’s questions. What is missing? Did this resonate? Listen and learn. Store, don't hoard, criticisms—good and bad—to ponder along the writer's way.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Land of Pura Vida...Rainforests, Monkeys and Birds

In Tortuguero, Costa Rica, a howler monkey dangles from a tree, its long hairy arm and fingers outstretched. A boy excitedly runs up to the monkey. He tries petting it, offering it food. Our tour guide barks, “They are not for petting! They are not here for your amusement.” I think he is not as concerned that the monkey might do the boy harm, as much as outraged that a monkey dangling from a tree entices people to treat it like a house pet.

Can you blame the boy, or the monkeys, for that matter? Tourism has cut through the heart of their rainforest home where their eerie howling resembles the soundtrack from Jurassic Park. It begins at 4:30 a.m., when the monkeys wake. It continues until they sleep twelve hours later.

Past the lodges and down by the illuminated pool and straw-thatched bar, reggae music blares from stereo speakers. The incessant hum of cicadas and chorus of bird calls are drowned out by Bob Marley singing, "Don't worry be happy."

Under night skies, the Caribbean surf pounds like the earth's heartbeat. A full moon floats over the river leading to the breakers and beyond. You find yourself thinking about your faith, about your beliefs.


Over in Sarapiqui,
another stop along the rainforest eco-tourism trail, tanagers of all stripes and colors feast on bananas from a pedestal below the hotel balcony where tourists drink coffee and eat pastry. With binoculars we flock to watch the birds, hone in on gold heads and beaks, bright scarlet, orange and turquoise breasts ... 'oohing and aahing' from the balcony of a multi-million-dollar lodge.

White-faced monkey on pool roof cabana

When you travel to the rainforest, interconnectedness transcends everything else. How can it not? There's a sense we're all in this together—man and wildlife, flora and fauna. The basilisk perfectly garbed in camouflage on a fallen tree limb lounges near the red and green poisonous frog silhouetted within a scoop of rock puddle.

You ponder the legacy of the ancient chilamate tree, wide enough at the base to stand inside. The ghosts of Columbus and conquistadors walk these same forests.

A visit to a school in the rainforest is part of the tour. The principal says Costa Rica is committed to educating children about sustainability and stewardship. Families grow everything they need from rice and beans to bananas and pineapple. The children dance and sing. Their teacher sells jewelry, displayed on a table by the schoolyard. I buy colorful earrings in the shape of a lizard.

The small cinderblock dwellings with rusted corrugated tin roofs line roads and highways. Men sit on lawn chairs. They watch the traffic and tour buses pass. Poverty is everywhere.
At one stop, we encounter a road closure. Two hours later we stand in the blistering heat and humidity. Local residents have formed a human blockade to prevent tour buses from passing to the road that leads to the canal boat, leading to the rainforest and the howler monkeys. A mini-uprising. The people protest the huge potholes heavy vehicles have pitted in their road.


As much as coffee and bananas, the economy is driven by tourism. This sets Costa Rica apart from its neighbors, Nicaragua and Guatemala, we are told.

Eco-tourism is big business. This by necessity forces the individual to consider his or her responsibility to the planet, the wildlife.

How long before vistas of cloud forests and volcanoes, hibiscus, morning glories and bougainvillea become but a memory lost to the gods of profit...of selling the magical through $35 binoculars? The size of West Virginia, Costa Rica is inundated with three million tourists a year—one million of them from the United States.

Costa Rica—the Rich Coast, the place where Pura Vida, the pure life—emblazons tee shirts, magnets, shot glasses, opens her embrace to the world, to the traveler seeking something purer, simpler, truer.

The rainforest is fragile. A howler monkey dangles from a tree.

A basilisk/lizard


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. 


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.