Monday, September 18, 2017

The Role of Forgiveness in Writing Our Stories

Writers know that forgiveness is a theme that comes part and  parcel with the blank page. I will tell you my story if I can just accept that this whole messy topic of forgiveness can be a particularly hazardous undertaking. It’s not easy.

Who doesn’t understand the difficulty of forgiving someone; or, hopefully ... eventually ... how freeing it is? As Louise L. Hays, motivational author and founder of Hay House, said: “Forgiveness is for yourself because it frees you. It lets you out of that prison you put yourself in.”

Writers toil hard to craft a creative work, often due to the quest for forgiveness; the father who abused his daughter, the husband who cheated on his wife, the mother who ignored her children. As Indira Gandhi put it, “Forgiveness is a virtue of the brave.”

Yesterday in church we talked about forgiveness; how a lack of forgiveness keeps you mired in “barnyard stuff”… or to use a less primitive image, acts like a nasty storm cloud over your head. Forgiving someone takes time. And, the converse, it’s important to give the person who has not done the forgiving space for God to work on his or her heart.

And then there is the whole business of forgiving ourselves. For the writer, especially the memoir writer who finds writing as a way of healing, we’re often seeking to forgive ourselves for not being the best wife, the best mother, the best daughter. It’s a painstaking process.

This is why I love writing. It is a constructive pastime … whether you are journaling or drafting a book for publication, this journey moves through the trash-canned-strewn moments of childhood all the way to old age and the sheer exhaustion that leads to the inevitable question, who am I?

A woman celebrating a 70-something birthday said, “My new philosophy; I’m tired of always working to make this or that happen, now I’ve decided let it come to me.”

It took most of her life to stop making a full accounting to a father who told her she “would never amount to anything.”

Somewhere I saw a writer posting that you should forgive yourself for not writing every day. It might have been tongue-in-cheek, but it’s true. Perfectionism leads to ruination of the heart and soul.

More than penning life’s beautiful moments; dusting off nostalgic memories and turning them into a positive homily of lessons learned, writing is what Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth, said: "The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek."

Our bodies react to writing about difficult subjects. It’s why a lot of writers did drugs or drank or smoked themselves to death. Because your mother’s business was your business; your husband’s situation was your situation; your child’s life was your life; the horrors of war were the horrors forever embedded in your soul.

Excavation and entering "the cave you fear to enter" are testimony to the writer’s ability to step back and offer forgiveness  ... her voice and her verse to the world. As Mark Twain put it, “A big heaping of forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

How about you? Has forgiveness played a role in your writing?

Monday, September 11, 2017

Write What You Know―A Memoir Moment of Being

Write what you know. That’s what I always tell new writers. How you weave that knowledge into a story is, of course, up to you. Whether written in first, second or third person … fiction, fantasy, memoir or other creative nonfiction, staying true to write what you know rarely disappoints.

Today my husband, John M. Cavalieri would have been seventy years old and our son Daniel turns thirty. John and I met when he was twenty-nine and I twenty-six. A lifetime ago yet the memory remains, cherished, a central moment of being.

For my sons, I can only imagine the latent sorrow of losing their father at the ages of seven and eleven. All of us were extraordinarily unprepared for his death, although I know how sick he was and I wouldn’t have wanted him to go on living like that. So beneath this story is the unconscious, absorbing of what Virginia Woolf calls “silent grief.”

This weekend we went to Washington DC to celebrate Daniel's birthday and see an Eagles game. I spent four years of my life there―two going to college at American University and another two working jobs on Capitol Hill and at DuPont Circle.

As Daniel, Alex and I wandered the streets around DuPont Circle Saturday night with its vintage brick and stone homes and shops, massage parlors and eateries backlit by the glow of street lights, I decided to stop into a bookstore. Thousands of books on shelves rose as high as the ceilings.

It struck me, at first, that I had missed the boat. If only I had stayed in the city and not moved back to the suburbs outside Philadelphia where I grew up how different my life would be!

As a writer, I still felt the pull of a city consumed by politics, art, excitement and diversity. They say it is dangerous to subscribe to the "grass is always greener" philosophy and so it is because it only leads to bitterness and regret.

We can’t make over who we are. Even our destiny, some say, is written in the stars and mine was meeting a handsome stranger under white dogwood trees and bearing him two sons.

If a writer needs one thing, anything, it is to trust in her instinct that she has something of worth to write. When that happens, the story becomes the universal story, one that is so honest others will identify with your voice, your journey. 

Write your story with heart and soul, believe in yourself, put aside your fears and write about the whole experience. Let your broken wings fly with the knowledge that some things can never be how you imagined they would be or ever be the same again.

And so, I include this excerpt from Again in a Heartbeat about the birth of our son, Daniel, a scene that serves as a summing up―a moment of joy, of sadness, simplicity and innocence … writing what I know.


The birth of our son on John’s fortieth birthday was a remarkable gift. As we gazed at Daniel’s sleeping face, I knew that ours was not to question why.

Unlike Alex’s birth four years earlier, this time John and I were both more relaxed. My doctor called Daniel our “miracle baby” because we had conceived him right under the wire. The cancer, the surgery, the radiation and now the chemotherapy had made John sterile.

Daniel arrived quiet and reserved, due probably to the epidural, unlike Alex who came out kicking and screaming after natural childbirth. John held Daniel in the delivery room and looked into his son’s eyes.

“It’s like he knows me,” John said.

For the first time in months, I think both of us felt full of life’s energy.

John and I are good people I thought as I cradled our baby. Our boys need a father to put together a new toy and carry them on his shoulders.

Waiting at home was the thief that was cancer, trying to rob my family of its heart and soul. It wanted the man who one morning before we headed out to work placed a blue velvet box on my dresser. That night when I opened it, there was an opal ring with pale pink and peach glints of light I had admired in a shop window the weekend before.

“You shouldn’t have!”

“Of course, I should have.” He slipped the ring on my finger. “Not every man is as lucky as I am to have a beautiful wife. I love you, Toots.”

Now we had another son born on his father’s birthday. Would Daniel and John celebrate together for years to come? Or would the thief deny them a future?

John headed home from the hospital for his birthday party. He was greeted with drinks and raucous choruses of “Get that man a drink!” John shook hands and passed around cigars. Denise told me he was so exhausted, he quietly excused himself and went up to bed before the guests left.

The next morning John arrived at the hospital with yellow roses. He looked better―in a tan sports coat and turquoise tinted sunglasses. He had a face like a true Roman. He was my husband.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Literary Fiction, Elizabeth Strout and the Ordinary Life

If you’re like I am, you enjoy a literary talent plumbing the depths of the psychological terrain. Elizabeth Strout has entered that pantheon and been a commercial success. Her novel Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer and was turned into a four-part series on HBO starring Frances McDormand, grossed nearly $25 million with over one million copies sold.

Her book sales are testament to a public clamoring for real stories of the ordinary life. Which is all good, at least to this reader, in an age of pulp fiction, vampires and romance novels.

Literary fiction is a term that applies to a story where the inner lives of the characters are explored ... literary fiction has commonalities with memoir in that the psychological aspects of the characters are examined and the story is not so much plot driven as character driven ....

Richly textured stories abound in Strout's newest novel, Anything Is Possible. The jaded wife married to an unfeeling doctor; the successful businessman who never forgets his poverty and eating out of dumpsters; the Vietnam vet suffering from PTSD, married to a woman he doesn’t love; the dying man who suddenly realizes his daughter is unhappy in her marriage.

Anything Is Possible is hard; an often cynical look at people. The reader at times thinks, good God what would Strout make of me? That's the power of the novelist ... to stand back, observe, direct her characters, turn their petty but all-too-human dramas into the sadly comical ... and the deeply personal.

Anything Is Possible is composed of vignettes, shifting points of view and interwoven relationships in a small Illinois town. Dottie is a divorcee whose ex-husband cheated on her. She runs a bed and breakfast and is kind enough to listen for hours to a woman staying there, Shelley, who angrily drones on about her marriage to a man who ignores her. (Self-absorption is a theme in Strout's stories.)

“To listen to a person is not passive,” Strout writes. “To really listen is active, and Dottie had really listened.”

Later, Dottie hears Shelley mocking her to her husband. “Shelley Small was making fun of Dottie in terms Dottie found outrageous. Dottie’s body parts ostensibly not having been made use of in quite some time … as though Dottie was a clown on stage tripping over shoes too large.”

Dottie hears the couple making love. She realizes Shelley’s unhappiness was “something she could ease by being a sexual woman, unlike Dottie. But she was not a sexual woman, Dottie could tell. Shelley got into the shower promptly after, and to Dottie this was always the sign of a woman who had not enjoyed her man.”

Strout builds on her earlier work with this novel which explores the back stories of characters in her bestselling My Name is Lucy Barton, which I am now reading. Lucy, a memoir writer, makes a cameo appearance in Anything Is Possible. (Is she Strout’s alter ego?)

Strout attended Bates College, did a stint as a cocktail waitress. She grew up in a Protestant household, her parents teachers. One summer I worked a waitressing job at the New Jersey Shore; my father taught English and languages, including Latin and German. We were good Episcopalians.

I identify with the writer who takes a good hard look, not just at others and (even) herself, but the strange journey where “anything is possible.” It’s through the writer’s lens, the unique perspectives offered for consideration that make a story memorable.

As a writer you keep reading, not only to perfect your craft but stay tuned to why you write. Like any passion―dare I say, spiritual pursuit―you empathize and respond to the human condition, record it and share it. Although Lucy Barton moans just how hard writing is Strout almost makes it look effortless.

Elizabeth Strout

How about you? Do you have a novel or nonfiction book you can recommend that transported and inspired you to write?

Monday, August 28, 2017

Writing: Search and Rescue Along a Collective Journey

Yesterday I spoke to someone who had read our anthology The Life Unexpected. The book is a compilation of fiction and memoir by sixteen women. She felt taken aback, she said. “I didn’t realize others were thinking the same things I was. It was wonderful.”

In a world of unease and craziness this is what keeps me going as a writer. When a reader approaches you like that, you sense the impact of your work; feel renewed by the collective journey.

The writer’s journey is search and rescue, so to speak. I think about the folks stranded this week in Houston. We’re all stranded in a way … no matter the catastrophe or how you define catastrophe.

I spent Sunday afternoon with two other single women. One had just had knee replacement surgery. It was her second surgery; she had tripped and fallen on her knee and needed the new surgery to repair the damage. We sat with her in the rehab center near Reading, PA, a former glory town until shipping coal by railroad took a nosedive and poverty pervaded.

Two of us widowed and one divorced. Being capable and self-sufficient had become a way of life, trusting in our own instincts, believing in our choices, we said.

Even when it came to men we dated after the death or divorce, we knew when to cut our loses. Aging puts everything into new focus and reality. How to prepare for what is coming? Will you become a burden on your children ... grandchildren? How will you be supported? Cremation or burial?

No husband in old age. Maybe never falling in love again. Living alone. Then again, people bring baggage. So when it comes to Internet dating, my one friend nixed the idea. Maybe better to be alone. 

One day at a time. Church helps. The three of us go to the same little Episcopal church tucked behind gold and green cornfields as far as the eye can see. We had come to the rehab center to hand-deliver a profusion of black-eyed susans and homemade card signed by everyone in the parish.

The single woman's journey and the writer's parallel each other. We have confronted the difficult, the complex, the unspoken in polite company. A solitary and independent breed, we also identify with the collective journey; the need to give each other assistance.

Last week I wrote a flash fiction piece about a woman who travels to Nepal. I plan to submit it to a nonprofit anthology effort. Writing the story helped me feel less stranded, more grounded. I liked writing about her, her quirks, the sights, a story rich in detail.

A friend, another writer, texted me the other night. She had just ended a long relationship. She wanted me to know she planned to come to our Sept. 9 Women's Writing Circle read aroundWhat to do next? 

Write, I texted her. Writing keeps me sane. See you soon in the Circle. "Yeah!" she texted back in big letters with the sound of bells.

Your comments and thoughts are welcomed.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Great Solar Eclipse: A Humble Writer's Musings

So. The Great American Solar Eclipse is history. For one brief shining moment―or two minutes―people came together in the glare, or rather, the darkness of a celestial phenomenon, at least, if you were lucky enough to obtain special glasses and be in the path of totality.

If I never hear the “path of totality” again it will be too soon. Leave it to some to turn a splendid show of science and the universe into a field day for people gouging others. Trying to get a pair of solar eclipse glasses became like the quest for the Holy Grail ... unless you wanted to pay $299 on Amazon.

Instead, with two pieces of white paper, a pinhole prick and a scrap of tinfoil, this humble little view of the eclipse emerged for me ... and it was pretty cool. My son reported seeing it with the naked eye through the tinted glass of the bank where he works and texted his photo to me.

As the great event began and journeyed to its conclusion, it struck me that while a few interviewed on CNN talked about “a spiritual journey,” no one mentioned that three-letter word. I guess God doesn’t figure into this.

Which got me thinking about transformational journeys.
If we have the guts and the fortitude to write our stories, we’ve left our own little indelible mark on the universe, haven't we? Who knows? If our story touches a chord, and most well-written stories do, it might even change a life or two or three for the better.
This past week I met someone who told me how her friend became hysterical at a funeral. Without going into details, suffice to say that when the person discovered that the loved one was dying of cancer, her anger obscured her grief and she took it out on him. At his funeral, her guilt washed over her with a tidal wave of recrimination and tears. “Here, share this with your friend. I think it might help her realize she’s not alone,” I said handing the person a copy of Again in a Heartbeat.

As the eclipse demonstrates, we’re all pretty insignificant in the greater scheme of things. We need to―and I’m including myself here―stop taking ourselves so seriously. In two hundred years or so when the moon again shadows the sun on its endless and eternal orbit here in America, we’ll be long gone and no one will care what so and so thought of us.

Isn’t that the writer’s purpose? To take the longer view? To step back from the personal and focus on the universal? To shed light in the darkness and move beyond any fear that someone or other might be offended by our story? 

If fear of offending those in your orbit is the overriding factor, write a novel or a feel-good script for the Hallmark Channel, which is apparently enjoying boffo ratings in the era of Trump. That way, at least, you can have fun with the story, change the names, the places, gear conversations the way you want without worrying ... and hop on the sofa with your dog or cat and disappear into the fantasy ether.

Here’s some thoughts:
Write your story now.

Don’t let fear stop you.

No more hesitation; no more equivocation that “what I write isn’t good enough.”

Enjoy the moment of knowing that you’ve had the guts and fortitude to step onto the blank page and share it with the cosmos.

Be happy with your own humble little journey.

Keep comfort in the knowledge that others have come before you and others will come after you with their stories, which may be remarkably similar to yours because we all travel the same human journey.

Remember the Divine and give praise.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Lessons In Writing Short Story and Flash Fiction

We live in a world where attention span is like an endangered species. Bombarded by a 24/7 chaotic news cycle, many of us, assuming we find a moment to read, are ill-equipped to concentrate for any length of time and so we give up. When we do read, it’s often on laptops and tablets.

It’s easy to conclude why shorter works are popular … better suited as they are to reading off a screen. My own memoirs―by design―never exceeded 34,000 words.

As we learned in our Women’s Writing Circle Flash Fiction/Short Story workshop this past weekend, the lack of time and attention to longer works, plus more reading on laptops and tablets, provide insight into the growing popularity of genres where brevity is the operative word.

Led by author and storyteller Jim Breslin, our workshop focused on finding "sparks" that jumpstart a story; how to craft a basic story structure or narrative arc (set up, inciting incident, rising action, main event and conclusion) and developing a piece that packs a punch in 800 words or less. Flash fiction is so concise, it might even be considered prose poetry, Jim said.

So how to get started, put pen to paper and meet the blank page with that “spark” of story? It might happen through a conversation overheard in the coffee shop or waiting in the grocery store line; mediating; a walk in the woods … our dreams.

Flash fiction is a snapshot, a glimpse of a life that stays with you. “The idea is to dig deep,” Jim said. Whatever inspires or jumpstarts your story, when finished, it should leave the reader in “an elevated place.”

Favorite short stories mentioned at the workshop: O’Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi”,  Hemingway’s “Cat in the Rain" … or my own favorite, short story writer, Alice Munro. and this story “Free Radicals" which can be read here.

Writing prompts, I’ve discovered, also lead to vignettes, whether fiction or creative nonfiction. In my memoir, Morning at Wellington Square, several chapters hovered around 1,000 words … including one titled “Friday Nights”  ... two women going to a bar and commiserating about men and the single life

When writing a short story or flash fiction piece, consider a first draft a starting place … let the pen lead you, get something down on paper. Then, take a break, a walk in the woods, or as Jim offered, “hop on the mountain bike, clear your head … empty the dishwasher.”

For me, some of the best writing breaks involve walking Lily.

Writing contests abound, as do literary journals looking for submissions. Anthologies are also an excellent way to see your short story published. The Women's Writing Circle has collaborated on two anthologies comprised of both creative nonfiction and fiction short stories: Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women's Writing Circle and The Life Unexpected: An Anthology of Stories and Poems.

As Jim noted, a fertile marketplace exists for writers to publish flash fiction and short story (an Internet search can lead to websites where work can be submitted). He tends to agree with the philosophy that you shouldn’t have to pay to submit; also, ask yourself: do you care if you’re paid or not? And don’t let rejections pile up and sit in your inbox for more than 24 hours. Keep the work out there.

As always, our Women’s Writing Circle workshops are like the genres we study … elevating, inspiring and a lot of fun. Many thanks to Jim and to our talented writers for a terrific August workshop of sharing and learning.

How about you? Have you written or read flash fiction or flash creative nonfiction? How about a short story? What do you enjoy about the genre?

Monday, August 7, 2017

The House in Germantown and Memories Of a Writing Life

Summertime is ending and with it comes the desire to experience every last sunny and warm glorious day. One way to do that as a writer is to travel into the city for a story swap where you stand up and tell a story, without notes, for six or seven minutes. I did this on Saturday in Mt. Airy where a group called Patchwork Storytelling met at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore on Carpenter Lane.

Mt. Airy, a Philadelphia neighborhood, is near Germantown where my parents grew up, and so offers memories for this writer … the stone mansions; the big three-story twins like my grandparents’ house on Maplewood Ave. I miss my parents and those days when we drove from our home on the prosperous Main Line to Germantown to pick up my mother’s sister, Edna Gutsche, a woman who never married and in her early twenties would be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Behind Mother is my Grandmother Weidener's house
Grandmother Weidener’s house across the street from the Gutsche house had long been demolished to make way for a JC Penney, but my aunt lived alone in the house after the death of Grandpop Gutsche; then she had to be moved to a state mental hospital.

I especially loved the small brick pathway along the side of the Gutsche's house leading to a backyard garden. Every summer the garden bloomed with fist-sized purple and blue hydrangeas and flutelike pink hollyhocks. It was here a little girl's imagination of romance about someday becoming a writer took flight. It was here in this garden that my parents, Andrew and Gertrude Weidener, married in 1940.

So, as we told our stories at the bookstore,
I found my mind wandering to those days gone by, although the story I told from memory had appeared in Slants of Light, an anthology the Women’s Writing Circle had published four years before. My short story is about a woman who meets a man for an Internet date and he informs her that he is the Prophet Elijah. I can only imagine how my staid German grandparents might have viewed this as told by their sixty-something widowed granddaughter ... meeting a total stranger for brunch; one who turned out to be a kook … and then retelling it in public.

But that’s the writer’s life, isn’t it? We share stories in a rapidly changing world that our ancestors might hardly recognize. After the story “swap” ended, I spoke briefly to a woman named Barbara and mentioned my grandparents. She knew Maplewood Ave. well.

My grandmother and Aunt Edna at the Germantown house
She remembered the JC Penney ... and the old Rowell’s Department Store at the corner of Germantown and Chelten Aves., now, apparently, a charter school. My mother had often shopped at Rowell's as a young woman; it was within walking distance from her house. Faded velvet pink roses she bought at Rowell's and pinned to a summer coat lie tucked in tissue paper in an old box in my upstairs closet. 

My mother sold her parents’ house in 1979 for $17,500. I remember because Mother wailed how it felt like giving it away "for a song" ... her childhood home with hardwood floors and solid cherry windowsills, a house constructed out of gray Pennsylvania stone that glimmered as glints from the mica sparkled in sunlight. But the neighborhood had declined and Mother felt she had little choice.

“Oh, that house would now be worth between $200,000 and 300,000,” Barbara said.

As I pondered that, I felt a sense of happiness, almost relief, that a family appreciated and enjoyed the house my grandfather, a civil engineer with the Pennsylvania railroad, built with great love and attention to detail and quality workmanship. The house lives on long after everyone is gone.

My friend Connie and I walked to a nearby café in Mt. Airy for coffee. I felt the vibrancy of a dynamic neighborhood where shop windows displayed signs that read: Hate is not welcome here.

There is a sense of renewal and revitalization and new beginnings in these old Philadelphia neighborhoods. Different, new, changing with changing times.

Like so many things in life, when we least expect it, we stumble upon the unexpected and from the unexpected arises new thoughts. And from our thoughts and our memories, fresh writing, new stories to share emerge on a beautiful August day.

Top Photo: My mother, her sister Edna and my grandparents, Freda and Emil Gutsche