Monday, July 8, 2019

The Writer's Solitary Life and a Dog Named Lily

The following is an excerpt from A Woman Alone: Lessons From the Writing Life. This piece celebrates the 6th anniversary, today, of when Lily came into my life. The book's publication date will be announced in the fall.

There are many lessons to be learned from a dog. If you want to walk, she is ready. When you step out onto the deck to feel the sun on your face, she is right behind you. As you head to your favorite chair to read, she curls up near you. Her patience, her fortitude, her total commitment and unconditional love offer solace and reflection. The past is not on her mind nor concern as to what the future holds. I sometimes watch her dream, legs moving, listen to her little whimpers…where does her imagination take her? In her dog’s dreamland, she sees herself racing through green fields, the wind at her ears.


“You still looking for a Lab puppy?”

My hand tightens its grip on the phone. Marcia tells me her daughter had been driving past cornfields and farmhouses when she saw a sign, “Lab Puppies” with a number to call. Was I still interested? Did I want her to inquire? Over dinner the week before, as Marcia's black Lab Millie slept at our feet, I tell her how much I miss not having a dog. With a bit of self-deprecating humor, I say, “I’ve always wanted my own Old Yeller.” It is true. Loyalty and unconditional love remedy the life of a woman alone.

A little breathlessly, I say, “Tell them I want a girl.”
Not long after, Marcia calls again. Out of a litter of twelve pups, they have four yellows left…three boys and a girl. Without hesitation I hang up with Marcia and dial the number. A woman on the other end who identifies herself as the wife and mother of the Mennonite family which had bred the pups says, “yes”, one girl.

Serendipity is a strange mistress. She heeds your call on a windswept morning, on a dark night. She is fortune come calling on an ordinary July day.

“But,” the woman says, “we really love her. She is so sweet, so laid back. We’re thinking of keeping her.”

I hold my breath. “I just lost my dog, Lucy, a black Lab.” I wait. Confess. “I’ve wanted a yellow Lab all my life.” 

“Can you come by this evening?” she asks.

I call Alex and Daniel. Will they go with me? It is two days shy of my birthday. “She’s my birthday present to myself,” I say as we get in the car and drive through verdant Pennsylvania farm country. We see the sign: Lab puppies...woods frame a long winding driveway. A streak of black, lithe and free, runs through sun-dappled woods. It is Misty, my puppy's mother.

Alex, Daniel and I arrive at the farmhouse on a hillside looking out toward Lancaster County. She is in a pen enclosure with her brothers. I lean down. Touch her. She nuzzles my hand. The little Mennonite girl stands next to her father. She picks up Lily, holds her close...buries her face in the puppy's tawny coat to hide her tears. Then, gently, carefully, she hands Lily to me. Soulful gold eyes with pale yellow lashes look into mine. She sees my sons and a wag of tail presses against my hand. 


Writing grounds me, gives me a sense of fulfillment about my life, makes being alone an asset, not a detriment. I light a candle in my upstairs den. As I write, I take in its vanilla and butterscotch scent. I write that I have done the things many have only dreamt of, traveling the world. I write of Lily, my companion and Zen-muse-of-sorts, and how much we can learn from a dog.

Walking her twice a day is good for body and spirit. In movement there is a new bounce to the step, energy to appreciate the extraordinary in every ordinary day. I love watching Lily―she finds interest and pleasure in the smallest blade of grass, which she smells intently, her tail arched, one pale yellow paw poised like a ballerina’s above the ground. She is a graceful creature, but she can be overly energetic too. This is her personality, a big dog with a docile heart...a dog who leaps with joy on my sons when they come to visit, then settles down with contentment when surrounded by her family. To appreciate life as she sees it—we should all be so lucky .

How about you? Has the love for a special pet inspired your writing? 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Summertime Sets the Stage For A Woman Alone

Languorous July days are balm to the writer’s edgy soul. July offers her loving touch in morning breezes and sunlit skies. While taking Lily on her morning walk―early morning before anyone is out except for one lone jogger―I feel summer setting the stage to write. The wind whispers and lifts the humidity that has laid her heavy hand on our little corner of the world here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Summer embraces a writing life, if we let her. Organizations and schools take a break or move to a lighter schedule and so this is a time for contemplation and reflection―the heart of writing.

This summer I'm working on A Woman Alone: Lessons from the Writing Life. I ponder whether the title embodies the essence of what I’m trying to say. Does the book offer something to my readers, traumatized by loss, inspired by aging, committed to pursuing their passion?

I was born in July, a lazy, hot month when friends and families disappeared for the shore or the mountains. As a little girl, July meant birthdays alone with Mother and Dad. As a widow, it meant birthdays without John, the crafter of dreams, the wordsmith of loving birthday messages.

Alone, a writing friend said, has many meanings. There is living alone, there can be deep aloneness even when living with someone, there is alone, as in the joy of solace and reflection...there is a woman alone honoring her wisdom and insights.

I drive through countryside, past corn and soy fields and farms with stone silos. My destination―a coffeeshop on a winding street tucked along the French Creek where water rushes over massive boulders from some antediluvian period. These moments are what the writer lives for, making sure the creative pen is not stilled by the distractions, the losses, the grief of a weeping world.

I order a cup of Columbian coffee, pour in a generous amount of cream―a treat since I switched to black decaf months ago. I turn off my cell phone and open a worn copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With the Wolves. The crone. The witch. The Mother of Us All. I read it years ago, just out of college, a time when I toyed with becoming a psychologist. She writes:

“The only trust required is to know that when there is one ending there will be another beginning.” 

A world filled with the heartbroken, the tightrope walker, but also the "leaper of chasms", as Estes says.

At church on Sunday, I walk the labyrinth, made out of white chalk markings on a grassy field next to the cemetery where a small American flag flutters in the breeze. Several of us had the same idea on this sultry, summer morning. A woman stops walking, greets me and gives me a hug. “Thanks for walking the labyrinth with us,” she says.

It’s good being a part of a church community. It’s good being a part of any community with like-minded souls. As I follow the circular pathways of the labyrinth, I breathe deeply―in and out―mindful of the beauty of this summer day. Life isn’t always the way I wanted it to be―so many losses―but dwelling on that depletes my energy. I walk past the gray and white tombstones. The ghosts are everywhere. So is the coo of the mourning dove―the sunlight on day lilies reaching toward the sky.

What is your writing life like in summer? What techniques can you share to make summer a time of creativity and renewal?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Fact vs Fiction: A Novelist Draws From Family

It's with great pleasure I welcome author Madeline Sharples back to our Women's Writing Circle. In this guest post, she talks about using facts and stories unearthed in her own family biographies to form a framework for her just-released novel, Papa's Shoes. A work of historical fiction, the story revolves around a Polish shoemaker and his family settling in small-town America. You can read more about the book here. Madeline's first post for the Women's Writing Circle, "A 20-Year Journey to Memoir" can be read here.


Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction?
By Madeline Sharples
Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction?
By Madeline Sharples
Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction?
By Madeline Sharples
I’ve just completed a work
Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction

Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel, Papa's Shoes, Considered Historical Fiction? by Madeline Sharples

The characters in Papa's Shoes are fictional though they were inspired by real people in my family. However, the period of time when they lived and locations where they lived are derived from real historical data. So, in my mind, there is a very fine line between fact and fiction―it is definitely not one or the other.

With that I think I’ve complied to some rules of historical fiction that I’ve recently read: “Historical fiction is a literary genre that reconstructs past events in fictional stories. Common characteristics of this writing genre are the inclusion of historical events or historical people, invented scenes and dialogue, as well as authentic and believable details, characters made up of real or imaginary individuals, and depictions of fictional characters in documented historical situations”

For example, in my novel one of the characters, Ira Schuman, was inspired by my grandfather, a shoemaker, on my father’s side who emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. He and his wife lost three of their four boys to a simple illness, had another child―girl―to make up for their dead sons, and settled in a small-town downstate Illinois called Danville. The immigration story, where they settled, and the makeup of their family are true. However, their daily life as depicted in the book is totally made up. There was no way for me to know whether or not they had a good marriage, what they talked about, what they ate, how they adjusted to living in America, who their friends were. In the book, I decided that Ira would have a long-time affair that he lied about all the time. My grandfather didn’t do that, at least as far as I know.

The same goes for many other characters in the book. They were inspired by real characters, but their daily comings and goings in Papa’s Shoes are entirely and audaciously fictionalized.

I first became interested in writing Papa’s Shoes, while my husband was writing our family history. He derived that history from personal interviews with older family members and written material by others. I was particularly intrigued with what my aunt―my father’s sister―wrote when she was in her eighties about her life as a young girl. She wrote a whole page describing her friendship―as she called it―with a young gentile teacher named Merrill Faulk. He would pick her up at her family home and take her to school plays and concerts and then out for a bite afterward. She also wrote that her brother (my father) objected so strongly that he got the family to move to Chicago to get her away from this man who was not marriage material for an Orthodox Jewish young woman. And that she still even remembered his name and could describe his looks and the way he dressed after 64 years made me think she must have still carried a torch for him. While in real life she met and married a nice Jewish man, had two children, and lived the rest of her life in Chicago, I decided to write this book and get her together with her true love.

But as usual I made some changes. To be politically correct for our times I turned the teacher into a student at a local college who directed her in her senior class play. I also sent her off to Chicago to live on her own in a women’s boarding house with the aim of giving her more freedom from her family.

Besides using some of the material written by my relatives and what I knew about my family history, I did other research. I had two wonderful picture books with photos of the old shtetl life, and I developed scenes from then―for example, I described a photo of children pumping water out of huge old pump situated in the shtetl square, a photo of a crowd of wagons parked at the Farmer’s Market, and a photo of a shoemaker working while hunched over a fairly low table with all his equipment on it. I also used the internet to research the history of World War I, the flapper era and its interesting language, the style of clothing for the time I wrote about, and what the Polish shtetl, Danville Illinois, landing at Ellis Island, and other locations looked like. For one scene I described of the Art Institute in Chicago at length―a place I’ve been to many times.

Another resource was a wonderful book that my mother gave my husband, Bob, when we first got married called, The Joy of Yiddish. It was my guide to the Yiddish words I used in Papa’s Shoes and in the glossary of these words that appears at the end of the book.

Juggling fact and fiction made writing Papa’s Shoes quite a challenge. And as much as I’ve sorted it out for you here, I’m sure you’ll ask yourselves many times as you read, Was that true? Was that true? I hope you’ll let me know.

Madeline Sharples
worked as a technical writer, grant writer, and proposal process manager and began writing poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction when her oldest son, Paul, was diagnosed as manic depressive. She has continued writing as a way to heal since his death by suicide in 1999. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, is about living with her son’s bipolar disorder and surviving his suicide. Madeline also co-edited Volumes 1 and 2 of The Great American Poetry Show, a poetry anthology. She writes regularly for Naturally Savvy, and occasionally for PsychAlive, Open to Hope, and Journeys Through Grief, as well as The Huffington Post. Papa's Shoes is her first novel.

Find Madeline Online:

Monday, June 17, 2019

Revision With An Eye Toward Connecting With Readers

At our June Women’s Writing Circle read around, I read a piece about walking the same path that Virginia Woolf did before she committed suicide. The path in Sussex, England, leads down to the River Ouse where in 1941, Woolf drowned herself. I had blogged about this “Virginia Woolf’s Room of Her Own—a Writer’s Journey” after I returned from England in 2015. Now, I decided to use the piece in my new book about how writing and sharing stories lead to a freedom of being and meaning. So, I was seeking a little input from our writers...what resonates, what needs clarification, what needs revision?

Part of the piece read like this:
I walked the long and winding path from her quiet literary retreat down toward the river.
The wind blew through the may trees, just as she described it, “like the sound of breaking waves”...toward the River Ouse where she filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself in 1941. It is a good 20-minute walk, a long time to ponder one’s own suicide, I thought. How unhappy she must have been! But as the sun shone on the fields that day, I soaked up the source of inspiration that all writers feel when in the ghostly presence of a literary icon

After I finished reading, one woman said, “You’re holding back. I want to know more about that walk...what were you feeling?”

She was right. I had left myself out—call it the journalist in me, always the observer. Or maybe until I got feedback, I wasn't considering that my readers would want the “symbol” of that walk—one that they could apply to their own lives. If I dig deep, I'm not just writing about that path leading to the river, but the path of life

In literature, symbolism can take many forms, including: A figure of speech where an object, person, or situation has another meaning other than its literal meaning. The actions of a character, word, action, or event that have a deeper meaning in the context of the whole story.

I went home after read around and here's the revision.

I walk the long and winding path from her quiet literary studio toward the river. The wind blows through the may trees, just as she described it, “like the sound of breaking waves”...down toward the River Ouse where in 1941 she filled her pockets with stones and yielded herself to the river’s icy depths.

It is a good 20-minute walk, a long time to ponder one’s own suicide, I think. An eternity, even if she planned it. While I have experienced depression and regret, it is never truly lasting. As I walk toward the river, I realize I’m a coward. I don’t want to die. I have, however naively, always hewed to the notion that each day offers a moment of the extraordinary―and so it’s worth it to keep going. The brush of Lily’s soft muzzle against my hand, moonlight on the ocean....

In Wild Mind: Living The Writer’s Life,
Natalie Goldberg writes this about revision.
“There is a quiet place in us below our hip personality that is connected to our breath, our words, and our death. Miriam’s second piece connected to that place, because she slowed down. In her first piece, she was scared, so the piece was glib. We are often funny to cover up fear, but this quiet place exists as we exist, here on the earth. It just is. This is where the best writing comes from and what we must connect with in order to write well.

This quiet place opens writing to heart and soul—to connecting with readers and a basic emotion—wanting to live—not cowardice or fear of dying, as yet another writer pointed out to me at read around.

This is why I am a great fan of reading my work to others, or offering it to them to read. Readers sense something is missing. They want your heart, your soul, the bones of your writing. Symbols which spark their own imagination is one tool to achieve this. Anything less is pabulum. That's what makes revision so exciting. 

What about you? Does input from others and revision help you improve your work?

Monday, June 3, 2019

Writers React to Whether Memoirists Should Tell People They're In the Story

Last week I wrote a blog post whether memoir writers should inform others that we are writing about them. This touched off a debate. It’s not an easy decision whether to be “considerate” and let another know and it often comes down to your own personal ethics. You can read my thoughts on this blog post, as well as the comments here on the Women's Writing Circle.

I also posted the article on the National Association of Memoir Writer’s Facebook page and asked the writers commenting if I could share their thoughts. Here’s a summary, which I think offers an interesting roadmap to answering the question: Should I tell people they're in my memoir and let them read it before it's published?  Thanks to all who took the time to offer their experience and insight and allowing me to publish their comments here.

"I think it’s a question of personal ethics and assessing the potential outcome of informing vs. not—and it connects to our history with that person and each person’s perspective. There are potentials for healing and also misunderstanding and no one rule can apply."

"I’m not. I’m using a pen name and changing everyone’s name."

"I think a lot depends on what the relationships look like in real life. And what the topic is. If neutral or positive and we still have any kind of relationship with the person then I think being considerate is the kind thing to do. If negative, and it’s for depth of the story then changing details is a better option and no need to inform as no one will know it’s them. If it’s the core of the story, eg: abuse, etc, especially if unresolved and no relationship exists anymore, then I think letting them know would do more harm than good for both parties."

"Not necessary. Tell if you like...don't tell otherwise. "

"My story is mine. Behave better and I'll write better about you."

"I received a cease and desist letter from one of the people in my memoir when it was published. I HAD told him ahead of publication he was in it, and that I'd given him a nickname. He's still not speaking to me, but honestly, I wrote nicer things about him than I should have. I have more of an issue with family members who tell me I can't write about deceased relatives, but I just ignore them. I've also had friends tell me I need to get permission before writing about living family members (my own family says just don't use their last name, which is different than mine). I'm careful to make sure I'm writing my own story; it's not that. The thing is, we can write whatever we want and there is something liberating about allowing yourself to write what you want. It can always be revised. It's whether or not we choose to get it published that makes a difference."

"People in your life know that you're a storyteller. My disclaimer says: This is a work of nonfiction. The events, conversations, and experiences detailed herein have been faithfully rendered as the author has remembered them to the best of her ability. Names, identities and some circumstances have been changed or compressed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved."

"If we follow the main rule of memoir—write about our memories—then that comes first. If we are writing about others as our main focus, then it's not really about our memories, and we might want to rethink that. I didn't let people know, exactly, but it's implied, isn't it, that we will be writing about significant others...but since that should always be from our own POV then it will always be different from anyone else's POV or recollection."

"Personally, I would not let them know, but I would be thoughtful, considerate and err on the side of minimalism and caution. And what I genuinely thought to be true at the time."

"I heard from a fiction writer who adapted true events that were positive and life affirming into her novel--that one of the characters felt enormously exposed and vulnerable. As a result she stopped publication of her book in German--as the book would have then been accessible to him and others who know him. She felt she had ticked off all the things we are "supposed" to check and he had even given her permission to write the story, but when he read it, he had other feelings. It's not about how we portray people but the fact that we have drawn upon their lives for our work and our art. It gets very sticky. Someone I know "forgot" to mention her new memoir to her sister and it was at the press already--oops--her sister was not happy with not being informed, though what is said about her is positive. I think figuring out what is the best way to handle these things is hugely stressful and we still might make a decision that later we have to deal with. Thanks for opening up the topic."

Your thoughts and comments are welcome.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Should a Memoir Writer Let Someone Know She is Writing About Them?

There was an interesting story in the news this week about the singer Moby regretting that he did not inform the actress Natalie Portman that he would be writing about her in his memoir. Apparently, his recollection of events was different than hers and after she challenged that recollection, he apologized...not so much for their differing recollections, as he apologized to her and others in his memoir Then It Fell Apart that he had been “inconsiderate" in not telling them in advance he would be writing about them. You can read the story here.

While most of us who pen memoirs are hardly as famous as Moby and Natalie Portman, this is our nightmare scenario...and begs the questions: Should I tell someone I am writing about them in my memoir? Should I let them read what I have written before the book is published?

Questions to ask:
  • Why am I writing about this person in the first place? 
  • Is it from a place of angst? 
  • From love? 
  • From realization that they made a difference in my journey? 
  • What is my motivation and how honestly am I portraying them and our relationship? 
  • Will having them read the memoir result in questioning myself and tampering with the truth of my story?

For me, it became a matter of changing the names of minor characters in my memoir―but not the names of my family. The disclaimer that prefaced my memoir also addressed this. I suppose I would advise: it is up to each writer whether to inform the person she is writing about...up to her to let them read the book prior to publication. Fortunately, or unfortunately, no two people remember the same story in the same way. The variations in memory are usually pretty striking. As an old writing instructor of mine often would say, “Any story told twice is fiction.” 

Without going into all the ins and outs of disclosure and defamation, it is a good rule of thumb to remember that if what you write is neutral, or even favorable, no worries. If it is embarrassing to the person, or could hurt them professionally or otherwise, then it is another matter. Of course, if you change the distinguishing characteristics, let’s say, and no one would recognize them anyway, you have the load lessened in presenting them honestly and authentically, all warts and flaws. For example, this works with friends, ex-lovers, etc. Not so much with ex-husbands, parents or children since memoir writers are bound by the very nature of the genre as nonfiction storytellers.

The decision whether or not to be “considerate” and let another know you plan to write about them may be one of the hardest a memoir writer has to make. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Time Is Wasting...It's Now or Never to Write Our Story

Why write our stories? Why not write them? That’s something each of us decides in her own way. In a writing circle this weekend, we shared what it means to write. It is threatening, one woman said, looking at our small gathering after an invitation to twenty or so women had been sent. It is too much exposure. Once it’s out there, it’s out there! And now it’s out there—a finished product—even though you’re still evolving.

But here's the thing: In a world spinning ever faster, we see the end of an era almost every day, splashed across the front pages of the newspaper and on the internet. We see our own lives passing in the rearview mirror of time with alarming speed. It's now or never to write our story before the wrecking ball demolishes it. Time is wasting. 

Writing, or any creative passion or pursuit, means sacrificing something else to make time for this. Finding connection with like-minded human beings is a spiritual and creative pursuit, but no one can make you do it unless you feel called. You can shrug and say why bother, say it is no one’s business but my own, I made my peace with it...whatever it is. If that works, then so be it. I see that a lot.

I would start my own writing group as a way to connect and make this business of writing a little less isolating. In a world that has become increasingly dehumanizing, isolation has intensified. We are prisoners of technology, prisoners of our own lack of focus, lack of commitment to something meaningful...lack of community. We can stand back and watch or we can take an active role in making this world a little better.

In our writing circle we talked about morning pages, journaling, even if five or ten minutes a day and after a week realizing there is something there...something to work with. One woman suggested that maybe if we start slow...think small rather than trying to grapple with the entirety of a story and all the emotions it evokes all at once, we have a path forward. 
  • Give yourself positive messages. 
  • Keep a list of what you want to write. 
  • Express yourself with an uncensored pen for your eyes only.
  • Relish in the joy of exploration.
  • Take a walk and think about writing.
I’ve been doing that with my new memoir: topics range from travel to religion, to sexual assault and aging, to being alone and reinvention. 

Think about the details, the specificity when writing. Narrow it down. Maybe it’s that childhood home—4 Evergreen Ave.—the jelly jars, the rhubarb stew boiling on the stovetop. A mother’s fuzzy slippers with rose applique....

I believe that for women there has been no more defining moment than now to remind ourselves of the power of story.

In the Circle, we rediscover conversation and community. Our stories are varied and rich. We support and encourage each other. We hear a human voice responding to the expression of being human. There have been many circles, many workshops that have melded into one and this truism remains—we long to tell stories before they are lost forever. Together we make a difference.

"Writing isn't about destination—writing is the journey that transforms the soul and gives meaning to all else." — Sue Grafton