Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Mothers & Persistence


Many years ago, my mother travelled with a group from her church to England. On this trip, she visited the birthplace of John Wesley, the founder of the Wesleyan denomination of the Protestant Methodist Church. When she returned, she gave me a few packets of seeds from the shop associated with the site.
Although I was still a student, I had a small garden in my rented suburban house, in which I grew a few flowers, the proverbial and ubiquitous tomatoes as well as a six-foot by ten-foot lawn. I made every effort to plant and grow the seeds but without success. Instead, in an attempt at atonement, I wrote a short story, “John Wesley’s Hollyhocks,” and included it in my Master of Arts Degree thesis in Creative Writing. The opening paragraph begins:
Mrs. Fortinbrough approached the ground, all her weight braced heavily against the brick border of the flowerbed and, stroking the fine, new shoots, raised her face to the window. The girl let the curtain fall back over the window and disappeared. Her daughter was no more interested in this season’s hollyhocks than she was interested in going to church….
This is a story about the relationship between an adolescent daughter and her mother. As we can all imagine and is indicated by the closure of the curtain, the relationship is strained at this stage. Happily, my actual relationship with my mother, though frequently contentious—as is any interpersonal interaction—was healthy and positive. Her passing has not lessened my love for and dependence on her wisdom.
This year, for the first time in nearly thirty years, I have a garden which has eventually proved to be responsive to hollyhock propagation. When I first planted the seeds, directly into the soil in the spring of 2018 with absolutely no response, the letdown was palpable. The soil in these high desert plains is river-bottom clayas hard as rock when it’s dry. This spring, I started hollyhocks and delphinium among other varieties in the proper potting soil in seedling pots.
I then prepared an area of the garden with compost and other organic material. When I transplanted the seedlings, I had to protect the young plants from the wild rabbits with plastic collars. Once the hollyhocks began to grow above where the bunnies could reach the leaves, the plants flourished.
In many ways, I equate gardening with writing. Persistence is the key to success. As Steven Pressfield remarks in his writers’ guide, The War of Art, procrastination is a form of resistance. Persistence and perseverance get results, just as Mrs. Fortinbrough will get results with her daughter:
…Just as the hollyhocks had needed her care and discipline, so did the daughter. It was not too late for her roots to be tapped and the plant to grow straight again….

Sunday, September 22, 2019

LEARNING TO DEAL WITH REJECTION

I went on a food tasting tour in Manhattan’s Little Italy last week.  The guide was an actor.  While we walked and sampled pizza, burrata, prosciutto wrapped figs, blackout cupcakes and other fattening delicacies—which she, by the way, did not eat—she told us a bit about herself, including a course she took to learn to cope with rejection because she has to audition for parts and needs to develop a thicker skin. 
The remedy?  Several times each day, she’s to go up to strangers on the street and ask for something they have like their newspaper or change for the bus or a drink of water.  You get the idea. Ultimately, the goal is that she’ll learn to handle rejection easily and won’t hesitate to put herself out there.
As a writer, who has submitted manuscripts to publishers and agents, rejections are both my reality and my nightmare.  I don’t have trouble pitching—that’s child’s play compared to being in court and explaining a complicated concept when my adversary keeps interrupting with objections.  But the rejections are different.  Each time it happens, I have to regroup, try to learn from the rejection—and then remind myself that it’s only one person’s opinion.  It often takes a while before I gather myself together and submit again. I know, having been in the work force, that it’s the same with applying for a job I really want.  It’s certainly true for an actor who has to audition.
If like me, you’re ambitious and continue to strive for the brass ring, no matter what field you’re in or how successful you are, there will be rejections.  The worst ones may be the “almosts.”  You get positive feedback either because of a second interview or the request for the full manuscript, and you start to think you’ve got it. Then the email appears saying while it or you were great, it just wasn’t right for them. Those are the rejections that really set me back. In fact, a simple and impersonal, printed “this is not for us” is almost kinder. 
I’m not going to stop submitting, at least not this week, and I’m not going to do a rejection exercise—real life is bad enough. I am going to try to remain upbeat.  The alternative, writing, but not submitting, is intolerable.  At least that’s what I tell myself. Anyone else have a thought?

Monday, September 16, 2019

When writers gather

Writing is a lonely vocation. Most of it is done either alone in an office or with a cadre of imaginary friends inside the author’s own head. Occasionally, that cycle is broken and a group of writers gather. That happened for me this past weekend in Gilbert, Arizona, just outside of Phoenix. 

I belong to a few different writers’ organizations, each with its own purpose. The conference this weekend brought together members of the American Night Writers Association or ANWA. Founded in October, 1986 by Marsha Ward and five other women, the group served mommies with young children. These mothers also chose to be authors; some were already published and others saw themselves publishing one day. They wrote at night, after the children were asleep, hence the name.

The group that started 33 years ago in a living room now includes 350 members. About half are published authors; the rest aspire to be. Many members have years of publishing experience, multiple book contracts, and designation as best sellers on some impressive lists. Creative energy abounds. It practically buzzes in the air all around us. 

When we combine large numbers of writers—who, by nature, are introverts—with the opportunity to network, teach, and learn, beautiful things happen. I attended workshops on everything from how to create emotional resonance, to writing inspirational non-fiction, to book marketing and taxes; met some multi-talented people, shopped in a store stocked with members' books, and had the opportunity to share some of my own experience in the publishing industry. The weekend inspired, thrilled, impressed and exhausted us all, but it was a lovely kind of tired.

One highlight came when I sat at a table with Marsha Ward, whose vision created ANWA and whose books—dozens of them—grace a number of different publishing platforms and top-seller lists. (That's Marsha in black.) I’ve been to conferences before and I plan to attend more. Every one sends me away refreshed, invigorated, and eager to sit down and write. I can hardly wait to finish Winter Skye. Any day now. . . .

Susan loves to hear from readers. Write her at susan.aylworth.author@gmail.com, or visit www.susanaylworth.com or her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/Susan.Aylworth.Author. Watch for Amber in Autumn, Book 3 in the "Seasons of Destiny" series, coming near the end of September.  Books 1 and 2, Paris in the Springtime and  Sunny's Summer are available in e-book and paperback formats. Winter Skye will follow soon. Stay in touch! 

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Lake District in England


by Karen McCullough


For years I’ve wanted to visit the Lake Country in England. The historical association with the romantic poets and the cultural connection to Beatrix Potter influenced that but the real decider for me is all the stories I’ve heard about the remarkable beauty of the area.


The region has been a go-to vacation spot for many English families for years, including my son’s in-laws, who are avid mountain-climbers.


I recently got the chance to visit when we arranged to spend a week in Keswick, one of the largest towns in the District. We shared a vacation cottage with our son, daughter-in-law, and their two children. The journey to the place was a fairly easy but rather long car ride from their home in Hythe, Kent.


For us, getting there meant taking planes from our home in Greensboro to Atlanta, from Atlanta to JFK in New York, and from New York to Glasgow. After a couple of days stop-over in Glasgow, we took a train to Penrith and then a bus from Penrith to Keswick.


Was it worth all the travel? From the purely personal perspective, a chance to visit my grandchildren is worth any amount of effort. But the countryside offered a lot of rewards as well.


The Lake District is actually an area of mountains, valleys, and rivers as well as many lakes. The scenery ranges from gorgeous to breathtaking. Mild weather and frequent rain ensure that the place is very green. It’s a playground for lovers of nature and the outdoors.


Although there are other entertainments, including a theater by the lake in Keswick, the place attracts mostly hikers, mountain climbers, bikers, boaters, and other water sports enthusiasts. The entire area is a warren of narrow roads, trails, and walking paths.


We had a beautiful view of a nearby mountain from the large window of our house and the deck overlooked a river. On our first full day we took what was billed as an easy hike to the Castlerigg Stone Circle, an ancient stone circle that lacks the size and grandeur of Stonehenge, but is more accessible and intriguing. The day was unusually sunny and hot, making the mostly uphill hike there more strenuous than expected. Still we managed it and an even longer downhill hike back to town.


Day two featured a boat trip around Derwentwater, one of the many lakes in the area, followed by some time in town, followed by lunch in a pub and poking around the town of Keswick. Day three also featured beautiful weather. While my daughter-in-law and oldest granddaughter climbed Catbells (a “beginner” mountain I wasn’t ready to tackle) the rest of us walked a mostly level trail along a lovely, winding river.


It’s worth noting that the landscape is also dotted with numerous small pubs and cafes. Most walks included breaks for refreshment at a cafĂ© and ended with a meal in a pub.

Unfortunately during the last couple of days of our stay the weather deteriorated sharply. Rain isn’t unusual in the area. Our first few days, which featured sunny warm weather, were more of an anomaly. But the solid deluge and heavy wind of our final days were not the norm. On one of those final rainy days we all visited one of the most interesting non-outdoor activities in the area, the Derwent Pencil Museum. The pencil as we know it had its origin in the area and Derwent still makes some of the best quality pencils around.


The last day we stayed inside and played with the grandchildren. And that was good too. All things considered the trip was well worth all the travel involved.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Writing about children with Down Syndrome in my novel, Hope’s Daughter


It was an unusual choice for me. It’s a sensitive subject and I know it used to be something to hide, or about which to feel shame. In the time period of my book, it was known as Mongoloidism, or Mongolism, or a whole host of various other, often degrading, names.

In my experience people don’t (and shouldn’t) hide it. Children who would have been institutionalized in the past are now reared to contribute to society and lead happy and productive lives.

I realize I am oversimplifying what is a major issue in many families. I do not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. But I wanted to look on the bright side, to the families who made the bold decision to raise their children with Down Syndrome (not commonly called that until the sixties) right in front of everyone.

Maybe it’s a lesson I learned from my daughter, who to our surprise won a friendship award in elementary school because she chose to play with the ‘special’ kids during gym. Or maybe it’s because my mother-in-law used to tell me about the beautiful and well-loved baby with the syndrome born to a neighbor in the fifties.

Many in the public weren’t at all accepting back in the forties, when my book starts, which added unnecessary pain to my characters’ lives. I wanted to explore and write about the additional stress public disapproval would have caused on top of the myriad medical problems that can exist.

My book has sad moments. It also has joy and people with strong convictions and determination. Writing about Down Syndrome is a relatively small part of the narrative, but to me, it had to be done.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

A Trip Outside Your Writing Zone


by Victoria M. Johnson

I just returned from a brief trip to Europe and it was my first time in a really long time I wrote anything away from my desk.  I had forgotten how wonderful it is to write in a completely new place or to revisit a favorite writing spot. 

For me, just stepping into a new writing environment adds a dose of freshness to my thoughts and perspective.  It's kind of exciting.  My sense of observation kicks into high gear and well the other senses do, too.  Whether I'm working on an existing project or something new, I believe the writing benefits. 
  
Photo by Bonnie Kittle

I have vowed to not let so much time go by without giving myself a change of writing scenery.

Have you tried writing outside of your usual writing zone?  Do you have a favorite spot outside of your "office" to write?  If so, please share in the comments below.  If not, give it a try.  The new location doesn't have to be far from home or extravagant, it only needs to be different than your regular place.  It can even be another room of your house—or literally outside, in your backyard or balcony.   Maybe this is the type of change-up you need once in a while, too.

Victoria M. Johnson knew by the time she was ten that she wanted to be a writer.  She loves telling stories and she's happiest when creating new characters and new plots.  Avalon Books and Montlake Romance published Victoria's fiction debut, The Doctor’s Dilemma.  Her other fiction book is a collection of romance short stories titled, The Substitute Bride and a novella, Hot Hawaiian Christmas. She is also the writer and director of four short films and two micro documentaries.   Visit Victoria's website at http://VictoriaMJohnson.com for inspiration and tips and find her Amazon author page or connect with her on Pinterest and Twitter.

The Fine Art of Procrastination


by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson

No one ever said writing was easy. Forming a cogent and interesting story, creating a believable and fascinating cast of characters who are real people instead of cardboard cutouts, choosing the exact right language, the precise words that give just the nuance you want... None of it is especially difficult, but believe me, none of these are the toughest work of writing.

Let's face it, sometimes the writing goes well. Words flow from your fingertips, paragraphs form almost of their own volition, chapters grow like beautiful, perfect weeds. Wonderful when it does, but sadly it doesn't happen often enough. Most of the time writing is work - sometimes easy work, sometimes not, but we have to make the words conform to our vision.

And then there are the days when our work simply shuts down. Getting the right word is comparable to pulling it from glue. Then you must pull out the next one, and the next, but even that is preferable to the 'I don't cares.'

The 'I don't cares' are not writers' block, nothing so simple as that. You know where the story is going, perhaps sentences and paragraphs are taking vague shape in your mind, but you just don't want to write. You sit at the computer, determined that today you will really work and break this strange stasis, but you sit at the computer and suddenly remember that you need to clean out that kitchen cabinet which has sat unmolested for the last decade. Or go visit your next-door neighbor from three houses ago. Or finish the baby blanket you started to make for your nephew, that same nephew who starts high school next week.

Unfortunately, this is more than simple procrastination. The internet has taken a lot of blame for distracting writers away from their self-appointed task as a wordsmith, but I cannot help but wonder how much is cause and how much is symptom. Same with the kitchen cabinet, the long-ago neighbor, the baby blanket, or any other of a hundred million things.

Nora Roberts, one of the most (if not the) most prolific novelists in the world says wisely "Just write the book, even if it's garbage. You can fix garbage. You can't fix a blank page." Very true, and oftentimes such a determined attitude works. During these (hopefully rare) times when it doesn't, though, no matter how much you write down, it's not only garbage, but definitely garbage that can't be fixed.

So what do we do when these black clouds of utter immobility engulf us? That is not a rhetorical question; I would really like to know, but at the moment I must run. It's been way too long since I got a Q-Tip and cleaned under the gasket on my dishwasher...