Monday, November 18, 2019

"The Crown" and Shedding Tears for A Woman Alone

There’s a fascinating scene at the conclusion of the third episode of "The Crown", Netflix’s series now in its third season about Queen Elizabeth II.

Elizabeth has just confided to her prime minister, Harold Wilson, that she has “a deficiency”. That deficiency is the inability to cry. The revelation comes after Elizabeth berates herself for her lack of tears or empathy following the mining landslide in Aberfan, South Wales, which has killed hundreds, including 114 schoolchildren. She was unable to cry when her beloved grandmother Mary died, or shed tears of joy at the birth of her first child, she tells Wilson.

Wilson consoles her by saying that not all of us are cut out of the same cloth. We come from various backgrounds that influence our lives, beginning in childhood. Nor can we change who we are, he contends. But, as leaders, they must play the game, pretend they are something they are not, appeal to those who look up to them. Which is what happens when Elizabeth unwittingly “dabs a dry eye” with a tissue after visiting mourners in Aberfan when she finally agrees to go. The action is gratefully interpreted by the villagers as tears for their tragedy.

Here’s a woman who cannot cry, a woman who finds any display of emotion repugnant, yet must put on a show, so to speak, that goes against her very nature. As the episode concludes, Elizabeth, sitting alone in the palace, listens to the music played at the funeral for the victims. As the camera pans in on her, it is masterful acting by Olivia Colman who plays Elizabeth. One teardrop slowly wells up in her eye and rolls down her cheek. We learn in a postscript that waiting so long to visit Aberfan is Elizabeth's greatest regret as sovereign.

It’s hard not to empathize with Elizabeth and her plight, thrust into a role she neither sought nor wanted, but one demanded by destiny. The old ways are going by the boards and the times are changing with showmanship demanded. Like many women with only herself to turn to for inward strength, she shows us the agony and the loneliness that comes with being a woman alone, analyzing herself, second-guessing herself in a room filled with haunting music.

It strikes me that women who cry in public are subjected to a double-edged sword. If they cry, they are hysterical or weak. If they don’t cry, they are "deficient", lacking in empathy.

Elizabeth came from a long lineage of the British “stiff upper lip” mantra.  I was familiar with this in my own home. My father, whose mother was from Manchester, England, was very “British”, rarely, if ever, revealing his emotions. The privacy and lack of inner scrutiny demanded in my home made revealing my emotions, whether in public or private, often feel very dangerous. What would people think? Was I weak? Was I too female? Or, worse, was I too cold? Too callous?

We can’t help but admire Elizabeth as she goes about her business in this third season of  "The Crown." The weight of her situation requires not just decorum but a lack of impulsivity, unlike her younger sister Margaret, who charms LBJ at the White House with her bawdy jokes, her lack of reverence, not only for the Kennedy’s but her own sister to whom she bitterly announces she plays second fiddle, not because she is less talented or intelligent but solely due to birth order.

Instead, we have Elizabeth, the plodding one, the “boring one” as her own husband Philip describes her, but the one upon whom the weight of the Crown rests. She deliberates each decision, is a model of reason and logic. It's hard to shed tears for this numb and heartless queen, whose mask is rarely removed. Or maybe not. Maybe her willingness for self-reflection in the face of tragedy has changed her and, in this, we all identify and empathize.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Ten Years of Celebrating Women’s Voices and Stories

After cancer’s chokehold suffocated our future as I once imagined it―growing old with John—I began a memoir and started the Women’s Writing Circle. One of the reasons I started a writing group was to meet new people, get out of my head and listen to other peoples’ stories. A writer is only as interesting as the life she leads and the people she encounters. We ran our writing group out of an independent bookstore with its own coffee bar and opened it to fiction and creative nonfiction writers, poets, indeed, anyone with the slightest interest in writing.

It was a comforting path back to myself—meeting people through stories and lives shared, and using my writing skills. I began teaching creative writing at libraries, at churches, in bookstores. We emphasized that a writer does many things to present a compelling story to her readers, but the most important is conveying her message, her take on the world. Every writer digs deep into her spiritual resources … believes she has something soulful to say. Her journey is not just about her, but about the human condition―a healing journey to make sense of the senseless. Why did John have to die so young? Why was my best friend stricken with Alzheimer’s?

That’s an excerpt from my new book, A Woman Alone. I wanted to share that after Saturday’s read around which marked the 10th anniversary of when I started the Women’s Writing Circle. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this milestone with cakes or balloons, rather celebrate the way we started—with read around—and testimony from one writer who has been with us since the beginning who said the Circle taught her the craft of writing. What an honor to hear that. Without a doubt, it was one of the best read arounds ever. On a brilliantly beautiful November morning we celebrated our voices and stories. Several of our writers are being published in a variety of publications or querying work after they received feedback in critique. Job well done, talented writers! Your audiences await your voices, your wisdom and your words.

I remember well our first year. Here’s a look back at how this journey would unfold:

The first year, I overcame my fears and took the plunge. I could do this. Along with another writer, I facilitated a memoir writing weekend near Swarthmore College. Several women and I had driven to Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat, in a rainstorm and bumper-to-bumper traffic. Two hours before we left, one writer called to cancel due to a family emergency. Another woman was unable to come until Saturday. Our little group was dwindling.

Yet, once we unpacked our bags, stocked the refrigerator with wine and cheese, dip and diet sodas, my worries eased. We gathered in a room with fireplace, paintings and books. I lit a candle for the read around and we set our intentions, centered on “writing from life”―the name of our retreat―and began our weekend. We committed to the work of getting it on paper, shutting out the world, leaving the “to-do” list behind.

The solitude and beauty of the retreat grounds abloom in lush springtime flowers worked magic. The next morning, the rain disappeared and sun broke through, illuminating white magnolia and pink cherry trees.

Our read round that Saturday night was more than I could have anticipated. Some women had tackled the defining moments of their lives and written about it for the first time. After the reading that night, we gathered in the dark wood-paneled dining room and celebrated.We drank wine and passed around dip and salsa. We knew our little group would never come this way again.

And in so many ways, that night at Pendle Hill sums up our ten years together. Each read around has been special. Each represented the creative spirit taking flight. Each conjured a bit of magic. And each time it ended, we knew we would never come this way again.

Monday, October 28, 2019

With Endings Come New Beginnings and New Stories

It's a bit of a cliche to say that with endings come new beginnings, but I believe it's true. Taking time to renew and reset, especially from an endeavor that requires deep commitment and intensity of purpose, is important since new ideas and opportunities take root in anticipation of the unexpected.

November 9 marks our 10th anniversary when four women first met at Wellington Square Bookshop and started the Women's Writing Circle. We lit the candle and opened the sacred container to nurture our creative lives on a gray, overcast morning. But inside the bookstore, a fantastic and heartfelt journey I never could have anticipated waited. Over the years, the many names, faces ... the  stories and voices, comprised a collage of life's moments―large and small―imbued with the extraordinary, due to the faith and trust you placed in our Circle.

I have been asked about our plans for 2020 so I wanted to bring you up-to-date with my thoughts, which have percolated for some time. I have felt the need to finish and publish my book, A Woman Alone, as well as travel this coming year, so I feel I cannot give our Women's Writing Circle  the attention and devotion I would wish. After our Nov. 9 readaround and our Dec. 14 holiday party/readaround at SpringHill Suites in Exton, the Women's Writing Circle will be on hiatus for 2020. What comes next, I don't know, but as I have written in my memoirs, the road always leads back to writing and the connections that come with face-to-face encounters in a community of kindred spirits. In the Circle we could express our authentic selves, no small feat in a world where artifice and contrivance too often prevail.

What a great year 2019 has been. Our critique session this month was packed with intriguing pieces for our consideration and so many contributed amazing stories throughout the year at our readarounds. Our blogging workshop in August was filled and our writing workshops in the winter and spring on crafting memorable characters and crafting memorable scenes in fiction and memoir were inspiring and educational. We also found the perfect venue in our beautiful conference room with outdoor patio at SpringHill Suites. So, we go out on a high note.

Along with my deepest gratitude for all you have brought to our Women's Writing Circle over the last ten years, is the I hope I have offered tools for our writers to keep writing and meeting in person ... whether lighting the candle and sharing your wisdom, words and voices through readaround ... or meeting in a coffee shop with friends and reading each other's work and creating new stories. I feel Our Women's Writing Circle has already served as the leaping off point for the inception of several writing groups in our Philadelphia area, including those in libraries and in other public venues, so this has been an added gift. In the end, what remains most important is that together, we find kindred spirits and keep writing ... keep writing ... keep writing.

Note: The photo of the changing leaves  was the first photo I used to "advertise" that a new group was starting ... our Women's Writing Circle.

Monday, October 14, 2019

5 Simple—and Not So Simple—Ways to Improve Writing

As a journalist, creative writer and editor who has run a writing group for a decade, I’m often asked for writing strategies. How can I make my writing clearer? What can I do better? I’m suggesting five simple—and not so simple—ways to improve writing.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to say what you think. In her groundbreaking, The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron suggests that a daily writing practice—what she calls “morning pages”— helps a writer break through. There are “official feelings”—what you're willing to say in public—and “real” feelings—removing artifice and contrivance. If a writer says, she’s feeling “okay”, consider what that means. Get specific. Honesty and authenticity require courage and risk-taking, but the payoff is huge.

2. Eliminate Unnecessary Words. Pesky adverbs. “Dutifully watched” when “watched” is enough. Adverbs and other filler words are every new writer’s downfall. Actually, I thought, when I thought suffices. If there is one extra word that keeps a sentence from standing without it, delete. This doesn’t mean there aren’t times and places for beautiful, sensory-laden descriptions.

3. Don’t write in a vacuum. Find a writing group, a critique group, a writing partner. Never underestimate the value of feedback. Feedback is a tool for learning. Just this weekend, I shared a piece I wrote in Women’s Writing Circle. The input invited me to rethink the structure of several sentences and rewarded me with reader reaction to my narrative. I felt inspired to keep working at my craft.

Two strategies not easily accomplished.

4. What is the objective of my story? We can all tell a good story, but the reason we tell a story is to inspire, inform and engage. Why this story—not another? Too often, writers dance around the issue. They’ll say, I think this is going to be a piece on caregiving, when what they’re trying to write is the mother/daughter relationship ... the husband/ wife relationship. Unless you’re writing a “how to” piece, good writing focuses on human interaction, on relationships, on strong portraits. Insight into your goal for writing the story in the first place invites precision.

5. Reflection. Without reflection, the reader is left wandering. Whether it is the memoirist or the protagonist in a novel—reflection is analytical. It requires an understanding of human psychology and motivation. Paint clear portraits. Backstory, inner monologue and sharp, realistic dialogue are tools in reflective writing. Don't assume readers are mind readers. Give them something to work with. Who is this character—his age, his background, his trauma, his turning point? Delete the superfluous and get to the meat of your story and the heart of your character.

These are my strategies. There are many others. Can you offer a writing strategy that works for you?

Monday, September 30, 2019

Poverty In the Third World―A Writer's Travel Journal

The warm night breeze whips swirls of soot and sand around my feet, my face, into my nostrils. It’s Tuesday night in Cairo―a city of ten million―a cacophony of humanity.

Our little band of travelers is making the journey by foot to the restaurant recommended by our travel guide. We sidestep trash, push our way past jostling human beings. An eerie prayer to Allah echoes from mosque minarets―almost, but not quite―drowning out the ceaseless honking of car horns. We keep walking when we stumble across a body.

She is no more than five or six. She sleeps on the filthy concrete steps leading up to the next level of sidewalk, her head cradled in her arms. I hear a collective gasp from me and the others. Our tour guide quietly speaks to her in Arabic, gently shaking her by the shoulder, but the girl’s slumber is deep and she doesn’t open her eyes. Finally, after sharper words, sharper prods, she opens sleepy eyes. Packages of tissues rest near her and she tells our tour guide she has been trying to sell them, before falling asleep. Her family has put their daughter on the street to make money from tourists, the main source of income here.

I feel the dread that this child is ripe for something horrible―human trafficking.This is the face of poverty in a Third World Country. The desperation that leads to the exploitation of children. If this doesn't change you, nothing will.

Our guide seems satisfied with what the little girl says and tells us to move on. When we question her, she says the girl’s family lives nearby and she knows how to get home. Meanwhile, the crowds walk up and down the steps, no one giving the child notice.

We make our way to the restaurant, sup on a feast of hummus and baba ghanoush, the traditional mashed eggplant dip, salads and roasted chicken and beef. It is more than I can eat. Our guide, a small overweight woman, asks for a doggie bag for her leftovers.

After dinner, we begin the walk back to the hotel, the teeming parade of humanity seems to have intensified, not lessened. The warm breezes offer respite from the 100-degree heat of the day which bakes the city under a merciless sun and cloudless blue sky.

As we retrace our way back to the hotel, we walk down the steps to the lower level of sidewalk. The little girl is still there―sleeping on the steps. Our guide leans down, shakes her awake once again, speaks in Arabic. The words are magic because she sits up, rubs her eyes and offers a wan smile as our guide opens her doggie bag and takes out the plastic container holding the leftover chunks of beef from dinner. The little girl dips her fingers into the gravy and ravenously eats a cube of meat. We leave her there on the steps eating her dinner. Seared indelibly on my mind is a child alone at night. Why them? Why not me, or my children? Existential questions under a dirty night sky, six thousand miles from home.

After Cairo, we take an overnight train to Aswan. The emaciated horses, whipped to trot even faster, carry their precious cargo of tourists, past temples and monuments built to the gods and the ruling class, their faces frozen in death, symbolized by arms crossed over chests. Our tour company has refused to use their services because of the treatment of those animals in blistering heat under inhumane conditions. Like the little girl’s face, the clip-clops of  horses making their endless circular forays around temples and sphinxes, will haunt me, like the sound of a caisson pulled in a funeral march.

After returning from Egypt, I rush around like a madwoman tending to bills, grocery shopping, hosting a visiting author at the Women’s Writing Circle. The next day the exhaustion catches up to me, the heat from Egypt, the 12-hour plane ride home which felt as if I were sitting in a refrigerator the entire time. I come down with a fever, lie in bed and see the little girl…her small brown face, hair sticking up in unruly tufts, the greedy little fingers swiping the gravy. I hear the clip-clops.

After I am well again, I go to church. The lesson is from Luke―Lazarus and the rich man clad in fine, purple linen. Lazarus is so poor he begs for table scraps, his only friends the dogs who lick his sores, but the rich man scorns him, ignores him. Lazarus dies and is held in the lap of Abraham. The rich man dies and forever burns in Hades. There is justice here but if I move beyond the fact that it was written as a polemic against the ruling class over two thousand years ago, I see it as a parable that asks me to consider my priorities. Are they tilted with the mundane, the material, the things of the ego and this world? How can I make a difference? Is it too late? What is my passion? How can I help? The answers elude me―for now. As I write this, I know that despite the desperation, the depravity, the poverty I have witnessed firsthand, I have been on a learning journey, one which as a writer, I can share with you, my readers. For this, I am grateful.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Pharaohs and Gods: A Writer Travels to Ancient Egypt

The heat is overwhelming. Dry heat. Desert heat. You round a bend in the dusty, bleached-white path. A turquoise oasis under blistering sun beckons—Lake Nasser. To the left on the bank above the lake, it must be a mirage...until you realize this is Abu Simbel—the temple of Ramesses II. Hands on knees, the pharaoh's impenetrable gaze is eternally fixed on the lake and the Nile River, his curled beard symbolic that he has passed from this world onto the next.

Pharaohs and gods. Ancient Egyptian temples and tombs hold unimaginable treasures preserved by the dry heat, the sand, the stone. Incense, myrrh, weapons, silver and gold, offered to the cults of the gods. Walls are inscribed with hieroglyphics, paintings of human-headed snakes and helmeted warriors marching in step. Isis, holding an ankh—the key of life—Osiris, the god of the underworld in profile, Hathour, the goddess who took the form of a woman with cow’s head, two horns and solar disc. A strange, majestic tomb built in the desert over three thousand years ago, Abu Simbel is one man’s quest for immortality. His desperate hope never to be forgotten.

Maybe this is why I travel. Not just to learn about other cultures, but accept, embrace, how my own life fits into this inglorious story of existence, of history through the ages. Maybe it is to feel at one with the human experience, to move on to the final chapter. Pharaoh or plebeian, slave or master, I suppose we’re all seeking something beyond ourselves, some meaning under the sun and the moon and the stars.

The ancient Egyptians brought these massive concrete edifices by wooden boat; they carved thrones and statues into sandstone hillsides, an impossibility that some joke must have been the work of aliens. Or maybe God, for how else could something this magnificent exist? A realist knows that slaves performed the backbreaking work, but what—who—made it happen?

Preparation for the afterlife meant removing the stomach, the liver, the intestines and the brain, which wasn’t considered as important as the heart. They kept the heart, wrapped it with amulets and placed it back in the body before the corpse was mummified. Hearts were necessary in the afterlife. Brains, not so much.

A few days later, I visit the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, once known as Thebes. In 1922 Englishman Howard Carter unearthed the world’s great treasure—the tomb of King Tut. I enter Tut’s tomb. There lies the nineteen or twenty-year-old whose cause of death spawned numerous theories from malaria to a chariot accident—his mummified corpse covered in white; shriveled brown toes and face revealed. The young boy king is surrounded by stories, told in engravings and in hieroglyphics on the walls, the ceilings...stories that reflect the life he lived, the search for the meaning of the journey. I feel this way about stories, too. My books are my little legacy, my own simple stab at immortality. I write, therefore I am.

One traveler angles to get a close-up shot with her cellphone of Tut’s face. He’s dead, so what’s the point? There is no beauty in death on display. Only a sort of morbid fascination. This was once a living, breathing person. We see the body, but what of the spirit? Where does it go?

Monuments built to narcissistic grandiosity. To questions impossible to answer. Whatever. I am lucky to have traveled here before I die. To write this. To ponder my own life, my own story, to think about where I go from here, but mostly to be in the moment—in the presence of something strange, something great under a scorching September sun.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Writing and Publishing a Book Along the Author's Way

Finishing a book, or at least finishing it before turning it over to an editor, is always a relief. Writing is an act of faith. You come up with a concept, rewrite, redraft, fine tune and somewhere along the way themes emerge and inspiration takes on a life of its own.

This past week, I finished A Woman Alone: Lessons from the Writing Life. It comes as the final chapter, so to speak, in this  writer’s journey. The journey began in 2010 with the publication of Again in a Heartbeat and then two years later with Morning at Wellington Square. While this is a memoir, I also like to think of it as a "how-to" manual. Moving forward, taking risks, finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and creating meaning as a woman, confronting aging in the final act of her life, that's what this book is about. What are lessons learned? Will this resonate with others who have sought a way to quiet the mind and emerge from the busyness to appreciate and understand what truly matters?

Even as I write this on a sun-filled August morning, I realize that thanks to the Women’s Writing Circle to whom the book is dedicated, the journey basically wrote itself. Since I began the Circle in November, 2009, the last ten years have been something of a totally unexpected gift―an encore career of creativity and community―of stories and inspiration―of the journey of the feminine.

Now comes the hard part―as if writing weren’t hard enough. Seeking a publisher, a "home" for A Woman Alone. In the “old days”―a mere nine years ago―I stumbled across CreateSpace, Amazon’s publishing arm, almost by accident, and found in it the resources to design a cover, receive professional formatting and eventually place my own publishing imprint―Writing Circle Press―on my trade paperbacks and ebooks. I knew I would self-publish because I relish the creative control the process offers. I have taught workshops on traditional and self-publishing. I know many swear by the former, but I am of the latter mindset. I set the price for my books, have the final say over editing and design.

I was an outlier in the days before the fever of self-publishing as an entrepreneurial endeavor took the book world by storm, creating many spin-offs, including partnership or hybrid publishing. I was on my own. I'd been through the proverbial mill...the competition of writing, the barracuda that drives a work, not on its creative or ethical merit, but its potential sales. Self-publishing offered the ultimate freedom. So I'm sticking with the self-publishing game.

CreateSpace is no more so I research options ... one that doesn’t break the bank. (Yes, I have heard of people spending thousands and thousands, upwards of $20,000 to publish a book.) As I began my research this summer, I was intrigued by the myriad publishing packages offered, from simply having the book formatted and designed, to paying a company for a developmental editor and a copy edit... marketing strategies and materials. And what about royalties?  If I sold an ebook for $4.99, I received 70 percent of that … not bad considering that as an independent author sales will be limited, but over time each sale adds up to a nice little sum. Purchasing my trade paperbacks was economical and I could mark them up at a rather nice profit at my signings, at workshops and community events and in the Circle.


So the journey continues, the research, the business savvy, but as always I come back to why all of this matters to me―and, hopefully, to my readers who have stayed with me over the years on this blog and in my memoirs and novel. As I write in A Woman Alone:

Who is the woman alone? What makes her find within herself the strength to carry on when so many have left or died? How many times can she—can I—reinvent myself? Where will it lead? Does metamorphosis have no end date? Now there are so many of us, alone and in our sixties and seventies and beyond, it is a road heavily traveled. There’s a wildness to this, an excitement in this sea change of women alone, all us thinking that depending on anyone other than ourselves would be backtracking....

 I know this—happiness, if there is such a thing—revolves around finding your passion and creating a meaningful life. All the rest falls into place.

Can you share your publishing journey?  What went into your decision? Your comments are welcome.