Monday, September 17, 2018

Childhood Memories—A Window to the Writer's Story

This weekend I’m offering a writing workshop on childhood memories. What do we remember as a child? Why those memories and not others? Where did we grow up? Who were our parents? Our siblings?

According to psychologists, memories from childhood are predictors of who we are to become. They serve as a window to the writer.

When childhood memories become too painful to write, what to do? I can only speak from my own experience. Writing them—not to mention sharing them—happens when the time is right. For me, writing about verbal abuse and bullying I endured when I was fourteen years old came after the #MeToo movement and other women stepped forward and shared their voices. Then, I felt “safe”—or maybe the better word is validated—that my story mattered, as I wrote in this essay Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Woman Remembers.

Sometimes, remembering our childhood and the people who populated it can be a source of comfort and enlightenment.

One of my most vivid childhood memories took place on an afternoon—I think it was November—in Pennsylvania; a gray day with the smell of burning leaves in the air. There was the juxtaposition of watching my father chop wood and feeling secure with him, but also this sense of loneliness, of isolation in a tight-lipped suburban neighborhood where secrets abounded. Even as a child of eight or nine, I began to become aware of the peculiarities…that the woman across the street, who had two adopted children, including a son who acted out in dramatic and dangerous ways, was an alcoholic; that the family with five children didn’t have much money and most of their toys and clothes were hand-me-downs and the parents never joined the street barbecues or cocktail parties. I suppose what stuck out was this feeling that outside the womb of my safe, little nuclear family, unusual things were happening in a bigger, scarier world.

Sometimes, childhood memories come not in a scene—like my father chopping wood—but a place. In Again in a Heartbeat, I wrote of a memory when I was about six years old in Ocean City, NJ.

When I was a little girl my father held me up in the water above the roaring cauldron of ocean. “Take me out to the hair combers, Daddy!” I shouted, using the name he had for ocean waves. 

I remember the feeling as we rocked up and down in the water, the taste of salt on my lips. I felt safe in my father’s arms, a memory that is acute because I believe it led to a desire as a young woman to be kept safe and warm in a man’s arms. 

Does remembering and writing childhood memories make for better writers? I believe ‘yes’ it does. Self-discovery and self-acceptance of our experiences and our lives and our perspectives gives us confidence of voice, whether writing about ourselves and those we knew, or writing fictional characters from an understanding of human psychology.

I have edited many manuscripts over the years where writers have penned childhood memories. There is this sense, they tell me, that these memories linger, demand to be recalled and written, whether as memoir or fiction, and in doing so the writer finds her story.

That’s where a writing community of supportive listeners comes in. Together, we share our stories, our lives, our memories and travel a journey that begins to feel less lonely, less tethered in the “here and now” and more about something greater than ourselves. Like that tight-lipped suburban really served as a microcosm of life, a classroom, so to speak, of what was to come in life. Through writing, we learn to love ourselves, love each other, and together make each other stronger—as women and as writers.

How about you? Can you share how writing childhood memories evoke a passage to your story and your voice?

Monday, September 10, 2018

Pros and Cons of Writing About Family by Kathleen Pooler

As Maya Angelou once said, "I sustain myself with love of family." This has deep meaning for the writer. The support of family helps move the writer forward with love and self-awareness. With this in mind, I asked Kathy Pooler to write what it has been like to write about her own family, primarily her son's addiction and her role as his mother, the subject of her upcoming memoir, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother's Story of Hope and Healing. What are the pitfalls of writing something so deeply personal? What are the rewards? Does it bring a family closer together? Kathy has been an integral part of our Women's Writing Circle almost since its inception in 2009 and we are grateful for her ongoing support of our writers. Please welcome Kathy to the Women's Writing Circle.~ Susan


Writers who publish memoir face the ethical and legal dilemmas of exposing personal details about family. We all have stories and since we don’t live in a vacuum, these stories involve other people. The main question/dilemma becomes how can I share my version of the truth without jeopardizing family relationships?

Joy Castro’s book, Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, is an anthology of twenty-five memoirists who share their stories of writing about their families. Their responses are as wide and varied as their individual personalities and circumstances.

However, a common question that confronts most memoirists is how will my family react to my truth? The key question I asked myself as I wrote my memoir is can I do justice to my version of the truth while respecting family boundaries?

My Story…I started journaling in high school as a way of understanding myself and how I fit into the world, particularly as I faced challenges. I continued to journal throughout my divorce and life as a single parent into my early thirties. When I walked out on my husband with two small children in tow because at that point his drinking was ruining our lives, I thought I was leaving addiction behind. Sadly, I was wrong when I discovered my fourteen-year-old son Brian started drinking heavily. Addiction had been not an issue in my family of origin. The cycle began when I decided to marry Ed, the father of my children who turned out to be an alcoholic.

The thought of Brian turning into his father immobilized me and I once again turned to my journal to ease the pain and gain some clarity about what was happening. As time went on and Brian continued to drink his way into his twenties and thirties, the need to write became so great that I started taking writing courses and began to write vignettes. I sent him the stories to read.

“I had to put it away Mom while I was on the subway and wait until I got back to my apartment so I could sob uncontrollably,” Brian told me the first time he read my writing.

I was finding my voice in the midst of the chaos and he was hearing me. Somewhere along the way, a seed was planted in my mind and heart to tell our story. But he was in the throes of his active addiction and I was still trying to find my way through it all. I knew nothing about storytelling, narrative arcs, themes, etc. I didn’t even know what my story was at that point but I had a fierce underlying hope that things would get better and I kept taking courses and writing…for years.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the pitfalls and rewards of revealing family over the twenty years of writing my upcoming memoir, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Hope and Healing.

The Pitfalls…I am very clear that I am first a mother then a writer. I would never do anything knowingly to jeopardize my relationship with my children. I had to think long and hard about how exposing painful details about my children might affect them.

And yet, how can I write my truth authentically without sharing the dark and ugly side of addiction?

I didn’t know if I could ever publish the story but I kept writing and sharing it with my children. I had to know that they could handle the exposure. William Faulkner once said, “A writer’s only obligation is to his art”. But I knew my main obligation was to my children and I gave them veto power while hoping,in time, they would accept my version of our story.

“What if Brian relapses because of the exposure?” Leigh Ann asked me one day. She was fine with the story but had major concerns about her brother. Then Brian chimed in with “ Mom, I really don’t want people to know about all the stupid things I did.”

I had a lot of reason to pause and reflect on what impact my story would have on my children. Then I did the only thing that made sense to me. I kept writing and sharing. One day, I made a decision. I would not publish this story unless it felt right. If I did publish it, it would have to be for the right reasons. I began to trust in the process.

It is this intention…to share my hope that recovery is possible …for the parents of addicted children that motivated me to keep writing.

Despite all this care I have taken to involve my children in the process, I fully expect that readers will confront me with questions about why I decided to expose my children and what impact it will have on them.

I can only say that I’ve taken a calculated risk to break the silence and reach out to others who suffer similar pain. And if our story touches someone else in a healing and hopeful way, then the risk will be worth it.

The Rewards…Addiction is shrouded in silence and shame. The guilt I carried around because my son was addicted did nothing to help the situation. Writing about it helped me to step outside myself and see the role I played in enabling my son. It helped me to understand and clarify the insidious nature of the disease and its impact on myself and on my children.

Sharing the vignettes with my children opened up a dialogue that continues to this day and has made way for more love, forgiveness and serenity in our lives. And over time both my children became more comfortable with the story. “The more I talk about it, the easier it gets.” Brian said recently.

The idea that the cycle of addiction started and ended with us gives us a sense of empowerment that we played a part in how the story ends. We broke the cycle and are now all free to live our lives on our terms. Addiction will always be lurking in the corners ready to pounce but together we’ve learned how to gird ourselves against its ominous presence in our lives.

For me, writing about my family has been a rocky road that has leveled off with persistence and purpose. The story that has nagged at me for years is getting ready to find its way in the world.

Involving my children in the process, being open to their suggestions and feedback, communicating my intention in writing this story has helped pave the way to its publication. They have given me permission to use their first names but there are instances that I changed other names and places to protect privacy.

My greatest hope is that the people who need it the most will find it and it will give them hope to find their own way into the light of recovery from addiction.

In a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty called “Why Bother?” he says: “Because right now, there is someone out there with a wound the exact shape of your words.”

How do you feel writing about family? Your thoughts, experiences and reflections are welcomed.


Selected Resources for Writing About Family:

Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, edited by Joy Castro (2013)

“Writing About Family and Friends in Memoir: Nine Key Questions” by Lisa Romeo on Memoir Matters: Lit Chat blog.

“Memoir or Fiction: Should You Hide the Details of Your Story in a Novel?” by Lisa Shulman on Lisa Shulman blog.

“Fear and Writing About My Father: Memoir Lesson by Susan Weidener on The Women’s Writing Circle Blog.

Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse published on July 28, 2014 and work-in-progress sequel, Just the Way He Walked: A Mother’s Story of Hope and Healing are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments: domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories. She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York. She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog:

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Moving Beyond the Treadmill to Writing and Wellness

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s new book Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer. One lesson I took away—so much in life is beyond our control. How does this apply to the writer? It’s a mixed bag, but writing offers a form of wellness, which, as we age, can be even more beneficial than an annual exam or unnecessary medical test.

To put it another way: Nurturing a creative life is always good for health, as much—maybe even better—than a run, or killing ourselves on the treadmill.

When I lost my husband to cancer, I felt tempted to discard hope, become a cynic. What was the use of medical science if it could not save a man, who, at the age of thirty-nine, was cut down in the prime of life? And WHY had this disease struck him and not others, who I saw living unhealthy lifestyles?

As it turns out, Ehrenreich, who has a Ph.D. in cellular immunology, addresses this question with a simplistic, yet compelling message: Our bodies can turn against us without warning—and it is no one’s fault. We can give up wine and butter and, yes—a healthy lifestyle is beneficial—but we have very little control over something as complex as our bodies and our immune systems. Trillions of cells are rioting within us, following their own paths and programs, forming a proverbial crap shoot, the gambler’s roulette wheel. As my husband said before cancer killed him, “This was the hand I was dealt.”

Our bodies and our minds remain in a constant state of flux, of alliances and conflicts, Ehrenreich notes. This makes a case for writing. Perhaps, this is a stretch, but I don’t think so. As we slow down, contemplate and reflect, writing allows us the opportunity to sort through the turmoil of events and people in our lives. It offers “agency” or action to make the unbearable, bearablehealthy changes that include relaxation and peace of mind. As we write, journal, share our stories, we view ourselves with more compassion or empathy—and this is probably more important—view others that way.

Reverence of the self, or the “I”, can be lethal, Ehrenreich contends. This idea that all we have and know and love goes with us when we die is problematic, maybe because it focuses on extinction and not the eternal.
"Depression, for example, or anorexia or any compulsive risk taking, represent patterns of synaptic firing that carve deep channels in the mind (and the brain), not easily controlled by conscious effort, and sometimes lethal for the organism as a whole, both body and mind. So, of course, we die even without help from natural disasters or plagues: We are gnawing away at ourselves all the time, with our overactive immune cells or suicidal patterns of thought.”

Our psychology can turn into a nasty web of our own making. Writers call it monkey mind or the inner critic; medical professionals might call it depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Traveling is a way to tap into something larger than ourselves. I remember when my son and I drove the entire perimeter of the South Island of New Zealand, observing an almost incomprehensibly diverse ecosystem, from glaciers to rainforests plunging to the sea. The simple lesson: these wonders appeared millions of years ago and belong to the eternal.

As a writer, the idea of focusing on the sum total of all the parts—the world around us—rather, than investing solely in ourselves and our own situations, appeals to me. Take the example of observing a young animal nurse from its mother. What does this teach about our own lives as mothers? As we observe the sun setting over the mountaintop, who hasn’t felt solace in knowing this happened long before we came along and will continue long after we are gone?

In essence, as writers, we resolve to understand how all things are related and interrelated in the cycle of living and dying. For the writer, this requires the power of observation, but also a willingness to move beyond magical thinking…that somehow we can forestall the inevitable goodbye to this life, this self, our books, our words—and that death can be cheated.

As Ehrenreich writes: "It is one thing to die into a dead world and, metaphorically speaking, leave one’s bones to bleach on a desert lit only by a dying star. It is another thing to die into the actual world, which seethes with life, with agency other than our own, and at the very least, with endless possibility."

Monday, August 27, 2018

Where a Tree Once Stood—A Memoir Moment

I often urge writers to use the resources within their own lives to find something to write. Even the ordinary reveals an extraordinary moment. This lends itself to a daily writing practice. It also requires the confidence of voice coupled with the intent to let the writing lead to revelation. 

As Natalie Goldberg, author, says, "I don't think everyone wants to create the great American novel, but we all have a dream of telling our stories—of realizing what we think, feel, and see before we die. Writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate."

Here's something I wrote this weekend that lends itself to that.


Seasons passed—one after another—and the tree grew. A foot here, a foot there. Visitations by parents now dead these many years...friends come and gone...strangers, their names elude me, stopping by for whatever. The tree stood sentinel.

“A Colorado blue spruce,” you said. “It's beautiful.” Our little son danced around it. No more than seven feet high, the tree and her blue-green branches shimmered in sunlight.

I see you coming home from work. You pull into the driveway in your new black sports car with the top down. “Hey babe,” you smile. “I’m home.”

When our home turned into ruins, the tree remained, casting dark shadows against a moonlit sky. I returned to the house from wherever...another outing, another lonely night. Seasons passed...from wife, to widow and single parent, to single woman and her dog.

In winter, crystalline snowy boughs gracefully dipped to the ground and winter wind sang its sorrows. In spring, rain pelted the rooftop in unprecedented downpours. The tree morphed into a towering 35-foot behemoth, dropping ridiculous amounts of pine cones and needles onto the lawn and driveway. Slowly, irrevocably, she precariously began leaning her huge girth toward the front lawn.

“It could last another twenty years or go next winter,” the tree guy said. “It’s hard to tell.”

Why risk it?

This week I watched her branches sawed off, one at a time, the amputation permeating the air with the smell of Christmastime...her trunk ground into wood chips and unceremoniously blown into the cylindrical coffin of a tree-trimming truck.

“You did the right thing,” the little boy who is now a man said when he came over later that day. He surveyed the stump where he once danced. “That tree was a mess dropping pine cones and sap."

The things I remember are not what he remembers.

“No more trees,” I say. “I’m done with trees.”


Life is saying goodbye. Seasons come and go, people live and die. Writing stories ensures that we have walked this earth. We chronicle the milestones through journals, memoirs, fiction and poetry, hoping to find sense in it all. We even chronicle the passing of a silly tree as though by remembering, we keep it alive.

No matter how hard we might try, no one lives forever. And nothing in life is guaranteed.

Somehow, this is the story I keep writing. “Hey babe," I hear you say, but when I open the front door and step outside, just open sky where a tree once stood.

How about you? Have you taken an ordinary moment and let the writing lead to discovery?

Monday, August 20, 2018

Books, Libraries and a New Writing Circle

Last week when I was teaching a workshop on publishing I mentioned that my books have served me well. Over the last eight years, unexpected surprises came along after publishing —people joined our Women’s Writing Circle and together we’ve shared countless stories. My writing workshops thrived through word-of-mouth. Publishing two memoirs and a novel is a journey that leads down many paths.

A writer benefits from sharing his or her work in community and camaraderie with other writers. That I would become an author and lead a writing group was the stuff of dreams—at least for me—and as corny as it sounds, it all came true.

A new journey begins September 11. It's called The Writing Circle at Henrietta Hankin.

For those who live in and around Chester County, please join us from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of the month at the Henrietta Hankin Library in Chester Springs. Writers of all experience levels working in all genres are welcome. More information will become available on the Chester County Library System website. When the library approached me about this, I was honored. My guess is we have a lot of aspiring writers in the community.

I’ve worked with libraries before and it's always a pleasure. At the Lower Providence Community Library, I taught memoir two years in a row. Last Christmas, I taught memoir at Downingtown Library. In June I traveled to Amsterdam, New York and with fellow author Kathy Pooler gave a talk on memoir and family myths at her local library.

Gratefully, the Henrietta Hankin Library has hosted numerous author events over the years for me and the Women’s Writing Circle. The library was also setting for the opening scene in my novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, when Ava and Jay first meet at her author talk and book signing.

Floor-to-ceiling windows offered a view of fields and a rust-colored barn in the distance. A blue pottery urn filled with gold chrysanthemums, a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies and pitcher of lemonade graced a table with white linen cloth. Nice touches by the librarian, Ava thought. She loved libraries. What little community remained seemed possible because of the local library and the small bookstore. 

Of course, our Women's Writing Circle continues to meet the second Saturday of the month at the Hilton Garden Inn. Here is information about our September 8 read around.


And the memories return of rain-soaked streets. A tall skinny thirteen-year-old girl in bright green vinyl raincoat dashes out of the car to escape the downpour. She finds refuge in the library.

A book-filled sanctuary. A pathway to learning about herself and her life, which she had yet to live. Browsing books on wood-paneled shelves. Scanning titles, names of authors. Long tables by windows with views of tulip poplar trees. Sitting down to read. Smelling and feeling the pages. Falling in love with words, sentences, scenes, characters.

Those memories remain with me always. Why?  Libraries and all they conjure are the heart—and the home—of the writer. 

How about you? Can you share memories of your local library?

Monday, August 13, 2018

Traversing the Publishing Landscape In a New Era

Maybe you want an audience to read your memoir, your short stories or poetry—or maybe you don’t. In the Women’s Writing Circle, we honor writers who write for others, and those who write for their eyes only.

If an audience is what you seek, how do you go about traversing the complex byways of today’s ever-changing and dynamic publishing landscape?

A democratization of publishing has opened the world of book publishing to anyone who wants to call himself or herself an author. This has an upside and downside. Competition is keen and you want your work to stand out.

In order to master the publishing terrain, it's necessary to understand the diverse options available in a new era and chose the one aligned with your goals as a writer and author.

Author Helen Hieble
The crux of our Women's Writing Circle workshop, Traditional or Independent Publishing? this past weekend served as an introduction to publishing options. The many permutations of each option were not the focus. I did try to present a comprehensive overview using printed handouts, as well as the internet, projected on a large television screen in our Women's Writing Circle conference room, to map out “the lay of the land.” 

Here are takeaways from our workshop, attended by fourteen writers, some published authors, some not. The publishing landscape is a rocky road, a diverse frontier populated by myriad groups, companies, websites and blogs selling their wares. Sorting through it can be exhausting.

Evaluate your skill set before deciding what and how to publish. How much help do you need? How much can you do on your own?

What does the Big Five consider marketable? Romance, erotica, nonfiction (Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff). Although the dream is an advance and a big company behind you, most authors, especially those writing memoir and literary fiction, will not be fortunate enough to take that route.

What drives you to publish now and in the future? 

What works for you and aligns with your goals might not work for another writer. The point is to stay engaged, be enthusiastic about your work and consider investing in it as you would season tickets to the theater, or whatever your passion.


Authors Marilyn Michalski and Flo Shore
Who knew ALL that goes into self-publishing? For some, it wasn’t just an eye-opener, but, well, yes, an eye-opener. Hiring your own editors, (developmental editors and proof readers and, yes, you need both) designing a cover, hiring a company which offers formatting and marketing “packages” (for example, BookBaby or Mill City Press)…it's all under your control. Going the self-publishing or assisted self-publishing route requires research and comparison shopping. 

DIY (Do It Yourself)—learning to use the free tools on Amazon's CreateSpace to upload and publish your manuscript and cover is another option.  Do you even need a paperback? Digital books often comprise the majority of sales for an author. The time, talent and patience DIY requires works if you have a timeline to quickly get a book online and want or need to save a decent chunk of money.

For those who don’t want the headaches that go with being an independent author and publisher, small presses, a form of traditional publishing,  also produce POD (print on demand) books. Most don’t require a literary agent or query letter and few, if any, offer advances. What they offer is some discernment of who they will publish and who they reject.

Does a small press staff cultivate a long-term relationship? What can they do for you that you can't do alone? Anyone can call themselves a small press or publisher. Do they operate out of their garage and go out of business, leaving your book in limbo? Research who they published, track records in longevity and sales, copyright issues and contracts. If they require money upfront from you (buying a set number of books), they're best to avoid, according to experts in the book business.

The term hybrid or partnership publishing came as a revelation. “I didn’t know that was even a possibility. Makes me feel less alone, like there are people out there to help me with all of this,” one woman said. “I like it!”  However, there can be significant costs associated in hopes of getting into a bookstore or receiving a marketing leg up.

Is a contract necessary to hire an editor?  I admit I don’t have firsthand experience. (For me, the "contract" with my editors was a handshake, an agreed upon sum. I selected editors I knew personally and respected.) If companies offer editorial services, before signing on the dotted line, ask them who is doing the editing, what are their credentials and backgrounds. Writers need business acumen to protect themselves and their investment.

Audiobooks are great while driving to work, stuck in traffic jams, working out at the gym and long-distance driving. They're also a growing market. However, the pleasure in listening boils down to who is reading your book, their interpretation of its story, their voice and overall presentation. Who is going to read your book in a way that captures the essence of your voice and story? We looked at the ACX website for more information on how to create an audiobook.

The bottom line: We can publish the way we want and how we want with or without gatekeepers.

Summertime is often a difficult season to get writing accomplished, so a publishing workshop in August works well, or so I was told. But, as always, it gets back to the writing. This is our first priority—and yet—our writers wanted to know more about launching a book, marketing and networking skills, all fodder for another workshop.

What resources help guide you through the process of publishing? The internet is a wide open terrain of information and commercial enterprise. Beware of scams and scam artists. Some claim they'll help you and then disappear or charge exorbitant fees without delivering the services, or don’t have the experience or credentials to stay at the top of the game in this competitive world of publishing. I cited SFWA's Writer Beware and  Jane Friedman as resources to keep alert to this.

How about you? Which publishing routes are you considering, or have chosen, and how has that worked out?

A former staff writer with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Susan G. Weidener has written two bestselling memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat: a memoir of love, loss and dating again, which has been translated into Spanish, and its sequel Morning at Wellington Square. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, is based on a true story. As an independent author, she has taught memoir and fiction to adults from Philadelphia, PA to Tucson, AZ and been instrumental in collaborating on publishing two short story and poetry collections, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women's Writing Circle and The Life Unexpected: An Anthology. Susan facilitates the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia and blogs weekly. Her website is:

Monday, July 30, 2018

Mary Queen of Scots, Women and Wellness

As I wrote last week, the wind whispers, the lakes ripple and history and the past collide to color moor, mist and moss in the English Lake District. Comfort and wellness for the poets and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries resided in solitude and nature's impassive silence and moment of being.

It bears little resemblance to today's "wellness" industries with their magical thinking, mugwort steam, crystals and rose quartz. History teaches that life and death played out on a dramatic and often short-lived stage, minus endless questions centered around Why am I so unhappy?

Sipping coffee on the front porch in the early morning air, I watch the first pink and orange streaks of light rise over the horizon. I feel lucky to be born now, in this time and place. Writers have always echoed and honored refrains of the past—not tearing everything down and starting from scratch, as happening now in our country. Wellness can be found in that sunrise, that writing class, accepting that much of what is to come remains out of our control. It is not easy. It never has been for us women.


I went to Scotland and got somewhat re-acquainted with the story of Mary Queen of Scots.
Imprisoned the last eighteen years of her life by her more powerful cousin and rival, Elizabeth I, Mary’s life was tragic and violent. Even her son, the future King of England (or the barrels of wine she consumed and bathed in), couldn't save the six-foot-tall beauty with the porcelain complexion from her eventual fate. I empathize with Elizabeth who saw Mary—for good reason—as a traitor and threat to her throne and legitimacy. Elizabeth, after all, had her own demons and destiny.


Poor Mary. She rode over bleak moors to rescue the wounded Earl of Bothwell—her third and final husband— in her quest to find a true and lasting relationship. But while she was pursuing this ill-fated venture, risking health and almost dying by the time she reached Hermitage Castle, she must have sensed the existential reality—not even a queen could outsmart life's twists and turns.

In Britain, we find these dramatic stories of women born into power through inheritance. In America, the self-made woman struggles to grab her piece of power, seeks autonomy from male-dominated professions and men who can make or break her career … she attempts victory over a political system riddled with misogyny. We pay big bucks to self-help gurus to help us right our thyroids, improve our sex lives, find instant remedies at the touch of a texted bar code, a podcast.

After I left the desolate ruins of Hermitage Castle, I traveled to Jedburgh and the house where Mary lived—albeit she remained only a month. I thought of her praying for salvation that would never arrive. How would it end for her? I read her final letter, preserved in a glass case. She expressed victimization and being misunderstood. But accept her fate she did.

I walked a steep hill to the jail overlooking the Scottish countryside. A display featured an impoverished woman incarcerated in solitary confinement for a month for stealing a potato, slowly going mad in her isolation. There was no wrangling out of the sentence, no jury of her peers, no "wait, you don't understand, give me a second chance." The anonymous faces of the dead haunt the Anglo-Scottish border.

After I left Jedburgh, I returned to the hotel—a castle in Otterburn, Northumberland, run by a sweet family— pulled out my notebook and made a list of aspirations. I have already outlived Mary Queen of Scots by more than twenty years…not to mention that poor woman jailed for stealing potatoes who probably met her demise in her twenties.

  • Travel (despite how much I hate airports, airplanes and time changes).
  • Teach a workshop on publishing with the intent to encourage everyone to become an author, if they desire.
  • Offer a writing workshop on childhood memories.
  • Keep writing and finish another book.
  • Drive to Salem, Massachusetts to celebrate "witches" burned at the stake.
  • Take an online poetry series.
  • Continue to focus on stress reduction.
  • Don't be so hard on myself.
Hermitage Castle
How about you? Have you made a list of hopes and aspirations? Where does wellness lead for you?