Happy 2014 – And More…

According to WordPress, it’s been 182 days since I last paid attention to this blog. (If you are an agent looking to represent me, and doing your research on my social media skills, please ignore that sentence…)

And, it had been a few more months, before that, when I was last truly active as a regular blogger.

It would be easy to make a new year’s resolution, here, and promise to return to these pages and continue to provide content to this blog which has been in existence since January of 2010. I should feel compelled to keep it up… Over 300 posts and 60,000 views and comments and emails and, and, and…

And, a lot has happened in the four years since I began writing here. And, a lot has happened in the last four months.

I don’t know what 2014 will bring, and the many options are such that I won’t even pretend to promise regular blog posts or anything else. There are enough missed opportunities and broken promises in life, without adding to that with a statement I know will not bear fruit.

I do want to say, though, if you are a subscribed (or otherwise regular) reader of this blog, I have certainly appreciated your comments, input, emails, and contact through other social media. Thanks for sticking around. And please, know you are always welcome to drop me a line, no matter if this blog is active or not.

Issue 30 of Ruminate Magazine is centered around the theme of "The Body" and it features my short story, Dog Years

Issue 30 of Ruminate Magazine is centered around the theme of “The Body” and it features my short story, Dog Years

Also, if you are interested, I have two new fiction pieces out and about in the world.

Dog Years, the short story of Keith Hutcheson, a vet who is compelled to go off into the woods to weep after every pet euthanasia, is featured in the current issue of Ruminate Magazine. I’d be happy if you were able to let the kind folks at Ruminate know you appreciate seeing my story featured there. (There is some great artwork in the issue, and poetry as well.)

And, coming up in late-January or February, my story called, It’s Never Quite What it Seems, will appear in Saw Palm, Volume 8. (The link here is to their homepage, which currently still reflects the content of Volume 7, but hopefully soon that will change!) I thought this story was a perfect fit for Saw Palm, and I was very happy they agreed!

I wish you all a very prosperous new year in which you become a better version of yourself— just a little closer to the person you are meant to become. Happy writing!

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Twelve Weeks to Me, Part One: Scheduling

When I started thinking about how I would make some changes in my personal and creative life, I started with the first necessary component: scheduling. I knew several things, up front, and I began to plan accordingly.

First, making changes in our lives that have measurable, positive effects almost never happen accidentally. Once I came to a point of saying, “Something’s gotta give,” then I needed to be INTENTIONAL about my actions. Further, those actions have to be a part of a PROCESS. Change is rarely a “magic wand” moment. It takes time, effort, and patience. (And, to fuel the commitment to see the process through, I have to believe in both the process and the intended outcomes.) Finally, I knew my intentions, and the resulting practices, had to be HOLISTIC. The plan I was coming up with needed to address the whole me: mind, body, and spirit.

As the public school year came to a close, and as we settled into our new living space, it seemed like a good time to hit the “reset” button and try something new. So, here’s the three-part method I used to come to terms with scheduling (or planning, or facilitating) my program. (Pick whichever word doesn’t ruffle your creative feathers…)

Identifying needs, establishing priorities, and writing it down: these are the steps I use to schedule active change and progress.

Identifying needs, establishing priorities, and writing it down: these are the steps I use to schedule active change and progress.

1. Identification – The first thing I needed to do was identify what I perceived as the deficiencies in my current plan, the ways I could remedy those deficiencies, and decide on some measurable ways to keep track of progress. For me, I knew there were some very specific areas I needed to address: creativity, time on task with writing, spiritual and psychological well-being, and physical health. I made a list of each of these areas (along with a brief description of what the “ideal” would look like) and then, within each area, a sub-list of specific actions I could take to address the identified needs. This was a brainstorm list, not just a list of things I had already decided to do.

2. Set Goals – You can call them “priorities” if the word “goal” makes you nervous. I took things from the list (such as “Daily Journal” or “Regular time for prayer and meditation” or “Go to one new place each week”) and began to quantify the frequency I wanted them to happen. For example, I wanted to finish at least one new book a week, and wanted to have a quiet time of meditation and prayer every day. It was during this phase that I also decided to commit to a twelve week plan: once I set the goals and made up a schedule for meeting the goals, I was going to stick with it for twelve weeks. (Why twelve? It’s divisible into three 4-week phases of implementation…mostly.)

3. I wrote it all down – First, by making a listing of the specific things I wanted to accomplish, and the frequency I wished to accomplish them. I wrote them out, then, I came up with a daily “ideal” calendar which would allow me time on task for each area. (Otherwise, I’m just “hoping” it happens, not making it happen.) And then, I developed tracking sheets to measure my progress.

And, that’s where I will resume this discussion, next time…

Until then, Happy Writing.

photo credit: candrews via photopin cc

Community Is Important for Writers

To be honest, I’ve been pretty down for the last week or so.

As I’ve shared before, I have been teaching Legacy Writing classes via the Lifelong Learning Academy here in Sarasota-Bradenton. It is a great opportunity for me to share some of my knowledge about creative writing and meet some really great people. The most recent academic quarter, I had a class filled with writers who had taken earlier classes with me and were eager to keep their writing momentum moving forward. This was a great group of adult learners who had some really magnificent stories to share.

Near the end of the eight weeks of class, several of the students were fighting various illnesses: a broken knee-cap, vertigo-like symptoms, heart problems, and other medical issues.

And then, I found out one of the students passed away last week, only hours after our last email exchange. He was a student with a long writing background, and his work showed it. The selections he brought to class to share with the group were outstanding. I had been hoping that the two classes he’d taken with me were just the beginning of an ongoing literary friendship. I was looking forward to many years of chatting about writing and sharing work together.

And then, he was gone.

It wasn’t as if we were great friends. And yet, his passing has left me very sad. I wanted to know more about his life; I wanted to read more of his words.

Putting down some literary roots can help encourage and deepen your writing.

Putting down some literary roots can help encourage and deepen your writing.

Just last week, I was telling my writing students about the need for a writing community. We learn and grow best when we are surrounded by those people who can offer us a healthy balance of support and critique. One of the reasons I teach classes like the Legacy of Words class is because I gain more knowledge and experience in creative writing every time I teach. And, I gain new literary friends.

Tonight, I met a new writer friend. She reached out to me, having stumbled upon my website, because she is at one of those points all fledgling writers get to: she’s in need of her own literary community. We talked for an hour and a half, and I walked away feeling re-energized and excited having spent time with someone who has such passion for the written word.

It doesn’t matter if it is a client/student, a writing peer, or someone whose masterful knowledge of the craft I hope to learn from: having other writers to talk to, share with, help, and learn from is a key ingredient in my development as a writer. We don’t have to be in the same classroom, at the same coffee-shop, or even on the same continent, but putting down those literary roots so we can soak up the nutrients around us is a valuable thing.

I hope you are writing, and that the words you write matter.

***

As I finished this post, I was reminded of this line, from the song, I Don’t Want to Waste Your Time, by Over the Rhine. (Link to YouTube video version.)

But I don’t wanna waste the words
That you don’t seem to need
When it comes to wanting what’s real
There’s no such thing as greed
I hope this night puts down deep roots
I hope we plant a seed
‘Cause I don’t wanna waste your time
With music you don’t need

Read the lyrics to the whole song at Over the Rhine’s website.

Other Pursuits

Instagram reawakened my interest in photography.

Instagram reawakened my interest in photography.

I often talk to other writers about having other artistic outlets. For some of us it may be painting, or dance, or theater, or music. Maybe it is wood working, landscape or garden design, or perhaps cooking. For some of us, we have a whole host of creative things we enjoy, even if we aren’t particularly good at them. These other areas of creativity feed into our writing rhythm and help propel our subconscious mind forward with our writing work, even if we don’t quite realize that is what’s happening.

Photography is one of the things I’ve always enjoyed. In recent years, I’ve allowed that interest to wane. It wasn’t that I was no longer interested in photography, but I did allow myself to drift away from it.

That changed last year, when I began posting photos to Instagram. I had been taking photos with my iPhone to document the little moments of beauty and grace that happen in my day-to-day life, but most of those photos were never shared, and rarely seen anywhere besides the small screen of my smart phone. Instagram gave me a way to manipulate the pictures (through filters) and present them to a wider audience. If you are interested in seeing some of my Instagram photos, you can click here.

Now, I share photos quite often via Instagram, and that act of sharing photos and receiving some little positive reinforcement has reawakened my photographic tendencies, even though the photos I share there are taken almost exclusively with my iPhone. Taking those photos started the ball rolling.

I’ve taken my “real” camera (a Nikon 3100 DSLR) out and about more often recently, and not just for snapshot photos. I’ve returned to a place where I can really consider the composition and content of the photos I’m taking. This “slowing down” and drinking in the details is something that serves me well as a fiction writer, and I’m glad I’ve been able to return to my photographic roots.

***

The pursuit of other creative activities can give the writing life a boost.

The pursuit of other creative activities can give the writing life a boost.

I know a few of my regular readers are also interested in photography, so I’m going to post some links below to SnapKnot and a contest they are having to give away either a Cannon 5D Mark III or a Nikon D800. (If I win, I’m picking the Nikon…) SnapKnot is a wedding photographer directory where soon-to-be-wed couples can search for the perfect photographer for their big day. They are taking entries online and will give away the camera later in the year. Whether you are a Cannon fan or a Nikon fan, this would be a great camera to own. Big thanks to the SnapKnot wedding photography directory for offering this great camera giveaway!

Marni Mann Book Release, and Forthcoming Interview

Just a quick note today to tell you that if you head over to my friend and fellow-Floridian Marni Mann’s blog, you’ll see info on how you could win a copy of her just-released book, Scars from a MemoirScars is the follow-up to her first novel, Memoirs Aren’t Fairytales. (In case you missed it, here was a guest blog post Marni authored here on my blog back in March.)

I will be featuring an interview with Marni, right here, on Friday. Stay tuned!!

Friendly Friday: Interview with Belinda Nicoll

Out of Sync, by Belinda Nicoll is available via Amazon.

Belinda Nicoll is the author of the new memoir, Out of Sync.

Here is the text of the brief review of the book I posted to Amazon:

One of the reasons I read is to gain insight into world-views, thought processes, and experiences of others. On the surface of Belinda Nicoll’s book, Out of Sync, we find a South African woman struggling with immigrating to the US in the post-911 world. But this book is more than a “fish out of water” story. Nicoll layers her experience of living (and working) in a new country with the other “out of sync” areas of her life that seem to radiate out from the center-point of expatriation: out of sync marriage, professional life, spiritual life, and, ultimately, feeling out of sync with herself, as well.

This book provided me with interesting examples of what non-Americans see when they come to the US to live and work, but more importantly, it allowed me to share in a struggle we all feel in different ways: the struggle to find some centered, balanced, and helpful approach to life. The answers Nicoll finds may not be my own, but there is much to learn by examining the journey.

Belinda and I studied creative writing together as participants of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program. I asked Belinda to answer a few questions about her book, and about writing. These are her answers:

  • Paraphrasing Toni Morrison: There is the idea that we write the books we want to read but that haven’t been written yet. Or, in a similar vein, we write the book that has to be written, and which only we can write. How does your book, Out of Sync, fit into the mold of a book that you wanted to read or that hadn’t yet been written? What do you have to say, that other writers either can’t say, or haven’t yet said?

I agree that only you can write the story you want to tell, whether it’s memoir or fiction. I understand it this way—every concept has a universal definition; for example, racism: the belief that racial groups are characterized by intrinsic traits that naturally render them superior/inferior to others. But if you had to dig deeper into the psyche of any individual, you’ll find a meaning of racism that’s unique to that person. Both Toni Morrison and I have had our lives defined by this concept, yet we’ve experienced it from different perspectives, having been on opposite sides of the dividing line, continents apart,in countries with different histories driven by different politics. So, two stories about the same concept will always be similar yet different.

The one thing I wanted to explore and express regarding racism and the era of apartheid in South Africa was my ignorance of it during childhood and then my rude awakening to its reality during adolescence. When I read an excerpt of my memoir—the part about the wedding game with Charlot and Evelyn—at a community event hosted by Jentel, the residency program manager, Lynn Reeves, came up to me afterward and hugged me, and with tears in her eyes said that she, too, only discovered the truth of legally sanctioned racism in the U.S. as she transitioned into adolescence. It made me feel good to know that in the telling of my own story I’d managed to capture a generational issue with universal relevance.

(The above-mentioned excerpt – The Serpent Goddess – was published by Eclectic Flash literary journal in September 2011, page 15.)

  • Flannery O’Connor is reported to have said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Was there anything that you wrote during this process that surprised you? Anything that was eye-opening and insightful about yourself?

A part of the story already existed in a collection of e-mails before I started writing the book. As you know, there’s an epistolary quality to the book in that I’ve inserted actual e-mails as a device for progressing the story. I’d written these e-mails to family and friends in South Africa during the early years of my expatriation to counter my acute sense of isolation. My culture shock at the time was partly understandable and partly irrational. But later on, even though my circumstances had changed, my emotional struggle did not diminish.

When I started writing the book, I was still dealing with an immense grief that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Eventually, and thanks to my experience as a life coach, I realized there was much more going on than just my expatriation—I was really dealing with a deep-rooted sense of not belonging that stemmed from childhood. So I guess that was the surprise.

  • In fiction writing, we talk about types of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. God/nature, man vs. society. In Out of Sync, you seem to experience all of these layers of conflict simultaneously. It often feels like you are being picked apart on every level. Even in the introspective passages, the feeling of swirling conflict was there, for me. Was there a conscious effort, while writing or revising these chapters, to have these layers of conflict present on almost every page?

Yes and no. When I started turning the e-mails into a book, I was still angry and scared, so I was trying to write my way out of my distress while hoping to find my true Self in the process of doing so. Conflict, internal or external, can bring about a sense of I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, which is very dis-empowering. At the time of writing the book I was desperate to regain some sense of ‘power’ after the humiliation, real or perceived, of those early years of my expatriation and marriage.

But by its very nature, conflict also implies the presence of good and bad, and the past ten years have delivered amazing adventures, too. So there was a conscious effort throughout the book to capture the fun and loving moments as well as resorting to some tongue-in-cheek descriptions of certain events that were distressing at the time but seemed ridiculous in retrospect. I’d like to believe that I’ve created a book that’s an honest reflection of my experiences, entertaining to readers in general, and helpful to others who might be struggling with similar issues.

  • Belinda Nicoll, in San Francisco, CA, where a portion of her memoir takes place.

    What was your writing process for this project? Is it different or similar to other writing projects you’ve done? Did you learn anything about your creative self while writing this that was new or surprising? (I’m thinking about the writing aspects here, not the decision to self-publish and self-market.)

I’m a slow writer, because I constantly edit my work. In the first three years, I focused on producing a compelling and well-written story. Then I started pitching the manuscript to agents, and within a few months I received two calls for partial submission and three for full submission, including one from Random House in South Africa. But all that interest went nowhere other than delivering thoughtful rejections. The members of my two writing groups were of the opinion that I should keep on pitching but I thought differently and tried to analyze the book’s possible shortcomings. I suspected that the problem had to do with its structure, that it might be too linear.

At that point I was ready to take my writing career to a higher level, so I enrolled for my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in fiction, swapping out one semester for nonfiction with the expectation of revising the memoir. That was a good plan; working on my novel that first year gave me a welcome break from the memoir. Later, once my nonfiction mentor had confirmed my suspicion about the memoir’s structure being too linear, it was an easy fix. But by the time I was ready to pitch it to agents again, the industry was showing signs of imploding. Publishers were solely preoccupied with chasing sales rather than acknowledging talent, and writers were getting fed-up with the senseless vetting process and wanted better control of their art and careers. Self-publishing was on the ascent.

  • You’ve written about the decision you made to become an independent author and take control of this memoir on your own terms. If you had to break that decision down into a couple of sentences of advice for other writers contemplating their publishing strategy, what would you say?

It’s not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Agents are still representing authors. The big-six are still offering great deals. Bookstores are still selling books. But the rules have changed, and it’s no longer uncommon to find Indies attaining the crest of fame and financial success. So the literary establishment’s vetting process is no longer the only game in town—authors now have options. (Sorry, that took six sentences.)

If you do decide to self-publish, my advice is that you don’t rush into it and compromise the quality of your book, because you’ll end up with a bad reputation that will haunt you, sooner or later. If you want to be an author, don’t just do it to stroke your ego and inflate your bank balance—stretch the envelope; make a worthy contribution to the literary heritage of the next generations.

  • The writing life is an interesting contradiction: We need solitude and isolation to do our work, but we also require community for support, feedback, and stimulus. How do you maintain a balance between these contradictory needs? Or have you found it easy to be both a lone-wolf and social-butterfly simultaneously?

Now that I’m an author, solitude has taken on a different meaning—I’m the one seeking it instead of it stalking me. I like being part of the Indie community; they’re constantly exchanging advice and tips and resources via all the social media platforms. There’s a vibrant and sincere energy out there; it’s an innovative and dynamic trend and I’m proud to be a part of it.

  • What books made you want to write? Or, did any specifically inspire your book? (You can substitute “writer” for “book” if you have someone inspirational to you.)

Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight was a real inspiration to write about my childhood in Africa. I love the vivid details, excruciating facts, and naive voice—from a child’s viewpoint—with which she tells her coming of age story that’s set in Rhodesia during the civil war.

Lionel Shriver’s book We Need To Talk About Kevin, a psycho-drama that emulates the Columbine killings, also left a deep impression on me. The writing is raw and provocative; the story centers on cultural values and beliefs, one of my pet subjects.

Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes made me laugh and cry, sometimes evoking both emotions in a single paragraph or sentence—sheer brilliance!

  • What’s next for you?

Right now the marketing of my book is absorbing all my time and energy. And I’m truly enjoying this aspect of the project; it brings back memories of my career in advertising— it’s exciting. But I also want to be writing again; I can hear my novel’s characters calling, and I want to grow my creative coaching business too, as well as write a creative writing guide based on my MFA craft thesis: How to Track Character Development in Relation to Plot Development.

You can connect with Belinda via a number of social media outlets: BlogTwitterFacebookLinkedIn

Here is a .pdf excerpt of her book, Out of Sync.

And, you can purchase a copy (soft cover or eBook) of Out of Sync at Amazon.

This is Amazon’s brief description of the book:

In 2001, when a couple leaves South Africa for a stay abroad, they land at JFK International Airport on September 11th, unprepared for the sight of smoke billowing from the Manhattan skyline or the horror of a second plane exploding into the North Tower. Over the next ten years, as their host country confronts fundamental change of its own, their marriage buckles under the strain of their disparate experiences. With the international economic crisis making it all but impossible for them to return to their country, they relocate from California to the North, the South, and the Midwest searching for a place they can call home. Against the backdrop of uncertainties in post-apartheid South Africa, Belinda Nicoll unfolds a contemporary and thought-provoking account of post-9/11 America’s tantalizing hopes and unexpected disappointments. Out of Sync is an insightful tale about marital endurance that promises to enthrall anyone, expatriate or not, who has ever felt at odds with themselves or the world.

Sleepy Saturday Reads

I realize I’ve had several new followers/readers of this blog, lately. Not only do I appreciate you stopping by, reading, and liking my posts, I am thankful that every month more and more of you come along for the ride.

It’s a sleepy Saturday here. We have this thing in the Sunshine State, called the Rainy Season. It’s nothing compared to, you know, mid-west winters or anything, but when you’ve become semi-addicted to almost-constant sunshine, these gray, drizzly ones tip you into something like seasonal affective disorder.

I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but I thought–with so many new folks looking in–I would share some of my short fiction with you. Maybe you need something to read while you nod off on the couch, or maybe the sun is shining over your beach this afternoon. Either way, here are a few of the stories I’ve written that are available to read online.

(Ordered, most recent to older…)

You can also find links to these stories on my website.

Thanks for reading!!