Saturday, April 30, 2011

Writers Critiquing Writers

Critique groups work. Writers recognize the missing signposts, the scenes that speak to the reader and those that don't. Don’t try to kid a writer. If it doesn’t work, they know it.

This is the value of critique. Writers are the best evaluators of other writers. Why? They have spent much of their lives reading books, opinion columns, newspapers, magazine pieces. They know the “map” of good writing like the back of their hand.

As our first critique session of the Women’s Writing Circle unfolded, the authors’ comments ranged from: “I am so excited,” to “Thank you. I feel energized to go home and incorporate these suggestions.”

What a gift  to give each other. What a joy revision can be in a supportive environment that encourages voice.

You can read and reread your pages, but it is the objective reader who “sees” gaps, the need for more description or dialogue . . . the author's voice missing from the piece.

Where is it going? What does it say? Does it hold the reader's interest?

Coffee, vanilla-scented candles, a bookshop brimming with bookcases reaching to the ceiling all add to the creative process at Wellington Square, an independent bookstore in Exton, Pennsylvania that hosts the Women's Writing Circle.  Our critique group differs from the monthly read-arounds in that we work on polishing pieces, with an eye toward publication. 

We critiqued a work-in-progress about motherhood, a memoir-based short story and a book review. The willingness and desire for editing meant we were truly present with our work. Sometimes, people shy from editing because their inner critic is creating havoc with confidence. Editing is viewed with trepidation. Trepidation stifles the muse. It is the writer who is secure in herself who relishes constructive and intelligent criticism, especially in a circle of support and acceptance.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Details - A Writing Prompt

The best writers are those who dig deep and give details.  Instead of saying,  my sister, they give her name.  Instead of saying, the car, they give the make and model.  It always amazes me when I read or edit new writing how something as easy and simple as the addition of details can transform the mundane to the riveting.

The writing prompt for May 14 - take something ordinary and describe it.  Explore all the senses: taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.

You might describe the deep red claret of the wine, its smell, the sensation as you drink and it slowly glides down your throat.  Describe the shape of the goblet - how it catches the light.

If you don't drink wine, pick something else. It could be your dog, your favorite pair of shoes, a fish market in Sydney, Australia.

One of my favorites - a first kiss.  The taste of his mouth, the tingling sensation in your stomach, your sweaty palms as he moves closer.

Many times in the Circle we have repeated the refrain: "Show, don't tell."  This exercise allows that.   By describing in detail the ordinary, you bring the reader into the scene.  Be cognizant of the verbs you use, as well as the adjectives.  It is not just a flower, but a deep blue lilac.  Don't drive the car down the street; maneuver the Nissan Sentra down the small alleyway.

I have always believed that most writers are also painters and photographers at heart.  Writers see the colors, the shapes, the sights and sounds of the world.  All of that resonates with them and is why they write.  Let your heightened sensitivity and awareness of your surroundings - your need for expression - take flight on the page.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Say Goodbye to Writer's Block

My writer's block has receded. The writing is coming at me in waves again. What a wonderful feeling to jump out of bed in the morning, brew the coffee and get right to it.

When you are in the vise of writer's block like I was, there isn't much you can do but keep writing. Work on your blog, write letters, journal.

Working on a book is a journey. Like travelers on the old stagecoaches out West who entered the new frontier not knowing what they would find, I am traversing unknown terrain.  The writing leads the way.  Tomorrow I will push it a little further. Say the things I never had the courage to say.  This time I am coming from experience. I am trusting in my own voice.

Yesterday I started work on my second book, a memoir about the Women's Writing Circle. It is also "how you too" can write a memoir, start a Circle in your community, and find an "encore" career and creative intimacy.

What I love about writing is that it opens new doors. It leads to connections with other people. An author isn't just writing and selling books.   As I hope this blog has indicated, authoring a book leads to book signings, radio interviews, writing retreats, talks at the library, facilitating your own writing circle in your community.

The key is keep it small, think about the people you meet today and maybe tomorrow  . . . how the love of writing and storytelling connects you. Then stop there. Wait.  See what happens.  Let your book build momentum.  What's the rush? The bigger something gets, the less intimate it becomes, the less meaningful. It is why these big Internet networking writing groups are so impersonal. They forgot what they were all about in the first place. They need to go back to the beginning.

In the back of my mind dwells the realization that writing is exhausting. It requires discipline to move forward with a project and see it to conclusion. I knew that going into it. Discipline is good. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me from getting lazy.  Like a traveler on a stagecoach, I will get dusty and tired.  But just over the horizon is a new vista, a place I've never seen. It doesn't get much better than that.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Writing Is A Conversation With Life

Writing is a conversation with life. And nowhere is it more evident than in a  group of women gathered together to share life's journey through writing.

"Begin at the end," Ginger suggested yesterday at the Women's Writing Circle read-around.

Trace backwards to what got you there in the first place. As writers we are time travelers, moving freely between our past and present.

Many times women struggle with feeling they have no right to put their deepest and most profound thoughts on paper. Yet isn't that the tipping point - to go beyond and open ourselves to what writing has to teach?

Ginger shares her work as Sharon looks on.
After Trish read a poem she had written about the death of a spouse, she said she struggled, wondering  if she had "the right to write it," since her husband had beaten his cancer, whereas a friend had lost her husband. "But you have experienced it," Maureen responded. Trish experienced the desolation and grief of her husband's illness and then looked beyond to what her life would mean without him.

As I widow, I felt the truth of her poem: "But when I am lonely, Or tired, or scared, I feel you near me . . . Like a breath of fresh air."

Sharon wrote about the townhouse she bought and the memory of standing at the dining room window looking out on a "sweeping front lawn".  From the description of her new home poured the deeper meaning of divorce: loneliness, loss and new found independence. 

Good detail and description boosts our writing and frees us. 

"I am falling in love with my home again," Diane wrote. She wrote about "purging" herself of the clutter of possessions from a past life and the joy of buying an aqua glass coffee table to celebrate the new. She wrote about removing another kind of clutter .. .  "high maintenance friendships." 

As Natalie Goldberg writes in her classic Writing Down the Bones, Freeing the Writer Within, "Push yourself beyond when you think you are done with what you have to say.  Go a little further . . . touch  down into something real.  It is beyond the point when you think you are done that often something strong comes out."

Writing is a conversation with our lives - an ongoing conversation. "Ride the wave," as Goldberg says. Share your story.  Help me share mine.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Again In A Heartbeat - A Therapist's View of the Memoir

I received this letter from a therapist and grief counselor about my memoir.

"I read 'Again in a Heartbeat' with the soul of a romantic and the eyes of a therapist.  Ms. Weidener’s beautifully written work is a memoir of her husband, John, and their life together.

When Susan and John met it was love at first sight...the stuff of fairy tales. As Ms. Weidener describes their feelings for one another, I found myself cheering . . . finding a soulmate still happens to a lucky few.  I was all set for a happy ending until real life intervened.  Most couples face challenges along the way, but few are tested so early and severely. Could their love prevail against the formidable enemy of a life threatening illness?

Ms. Weidener doesn’t hold back on emotional honesty, nor about the rough patches they went through. Despite “loosing it” at times, they trusted each other enough to express their difficulty in coping with this destructive force - cancer - which invaded their lives. In the end, the qualities of love which St. Paul describes, “love is patient, love is kind...” come through.

Most professionals realize there is more than one patient in a life threatening illness...the whole family suffers.  I wish there had been someone there to interpret John’s behavior for Susan.  Many patients want to spare their loved ones the pain of final separation, so they withdraw emotionally toward the end. Unless the process is explained, family members frequently feel confused and rejected.

In 'Again in a Heartbeat' Ms. Weidener has given therapists an excellent tool for opening up dialogue between couples coping with a serious illness.  Perhaps by writing about their experience, Susan and John will spare others pain.  Death may have taken John’s body, but his spirit lives on in Susan.  Together they wrote another chapter in life’s book 'Profiles in Courage'."
Elizabeth A. Madden, MSW

Author's note: I "battled" John's cancer just as he did. For him, the fight was over after seven years. For me, it took another 13 years before I could write what the disease did to him, our family, and my life after his death. By writing Again in a Heartbeat, I put aside much of the anguish plaguing me for years and in the process now hold a book that hopefully helps families and caregivers.  This is the healing power of memoir.   Susan G. Weidener

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Road to Pendle Hill

Like all journeys in life, the road to Pendle Hill had twists and turns.  I had never facilitated a weekend writing retreat before.  I had attended retreats, but running one myself, which meant keeping to a schedule, making sure the writing time was balanced with instruction, insight and accomplishment, was a first. 

We met Friday night in Waysmeet House, having driven to Pendle Hill  in a rainstorm and bumper-to-bumper traffic.  One of the writers had called to say a family emergency meant she would have to cancel; another woman was unable to break away and come to Pendle Hill until Saturday morning.

But once inside my worry disappeared.  Seven of us gathered in a circle, lit the candle in a room with fireplace, paintings and books and began our weekend.  We read excerpts from memoirs we loved and had touched us.  We set our intentions for the weekend, centered on writing from life - the name of our retreat.  We began the work of getting it on paper, shutting out the world, leaving the "to-do" list behind and learning to be in the moment, quiet and still. 

Our read-around Saturday night was more than some  had anticipated.  The solitude and beauty of this Pennsylvania Quaker residential retreat, abloom in lush springtime flowers, had worked its magic. The rain was gone and the sun came out.  Some had tackled the defining moments of their lives and begun writing about it for the first time.  

I believe happiness comes with  a commitment not to let others derail you from what you know you need to do to find meaning and joy.  Healthy self-love that your story is important and unique is crucial.  So is the courage to let the words lead you where they must. 

As we closed out our retreat on Sunday afternoon, we gathered in front of Waysmeet for farewells. "I came to this with the fear of not being accepted," Ellen said.  "I leave with acceptance and listening, heartfelt ears."

Much of life's success comes when you believe  you have skill and talent;  that you are worthy. But without encouragement from others, or just one person who says, "You can do this,"  that confidence can't happen.  I thank Beth who gave me the confidence to facilitate our weekend.

"I leave so much richer . . .," Diane wrote.

I, too, leave richer because of the women who gave of themselves and trusted. I feel I have taken with me the memories of and for a lifetime. In many ways, all roads lead to Pendle Hill. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Celebrating Writing From Life

Life is good when you are preparing to enter a 48-hour window entirely devoted to exploring your creative life and shutting out distractions of the outside world.

As the weekend nears, I look forward to facilitating "Writing From Life," a retreat at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pennsylvania near Swarthmore College. 

I am thankful for the women who will be attending the retreat, dedicated as they are to memoir as a way of healing and sharing their stories in the Circle.  When you write the truth of your story . . . whether it be about your parents, your spouse, friends or lovers, you forgive yourself.  If you can, you  remove the "cellophane" and reveal yourself in the memoir.  

As women we are constantly bombarded with demands. "Coping" is "women's work" . . .  keeping house, making sure our children are on the right track, grocery shopping, ensuring the dog has had her dinner.  We are the glue.  

Which is why we owe it to ourselves to enter the world of writing and try and make sense of it all.  Our strength as women is reinforced by our writing, giving us the fortitude after a time of reflection  to return to what we must do. 

This weekend of gathering is intent on the spiritual; reaffirming and energizing. It is a time to focus on ourselves as women and on our creativity - without apology. I know that the women who are participating in Writing From Life will give me more than I could ever possibly give them. I celebrate writing with them.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Forget The Chocolate And Listen

There are tips galore on what makes a book signing successful - business cards, blow-ups of your book cover, crystal dishes brimming with chocolate.  Good ideas.  But if there is one thing to bring above all else, it is your willingness to listen.

Writing is a solitary endeavor. It's just you and the blank sheet of paper or computer screen. All of that changes 360 degrees when you publish. Then the opportunity to meet new people, forge connections and share stories sparks a whole other experience. The journey comes full circle.

Engage people in conversation, ask them their name before signing the book, write a personal note.  Most of all, listen.

"I always wanted to write a book," a man said at my book signing Saturday night.  "I have an idea for a novel.  It has been rolling around in my head for quite some time," he admitted. 

"Writing your story must have been therapeutic," a woman offered with a wistful tone making it clear she has thought of penning her memoir. 

"I would love to write a book.  We all have stories to tell, don't we?  Maybe when my four-year-old is grown, I will have the time," a young woman told me.

"A friend recently lost her husband," another woman confided as she held my memoir.  "I am excited to be able to tell her about your book.  Can she call you?"

This is the stuff of community, of life.  It is also the fun part of book signings. When you offer a signing, implicit is a personal invitation to connect.

And in every conversation, a tidbit, a morsel of a future story for you as a writer may emerge more satisfying than any piece of chocolate.  For isn't it true that the best writers are also the best listeners?  Almost everyone wants to write.  They know they have a story to tell, a story rooted in their own lives . . .a story crying to be heard.  Or they have a friend who wants to write.  Sometimes, all they need is that tiny ounce of encouragement . . . seeing someone just like them at a book signing willing to listen.