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The Cure for Writer’s Block Starts in the Notebook

by Nancy Adair

He lay spread-eagle on the hard mattress and stared at the fan blades, wobbling as if they could fly off at any minute. How would the Washington Post tell this story? He’d survived a brutal dictator … an AK-47, point blank … and a plane crash, only to be hacked to death in his sleep by a renegade ceiling fan.

Ideas like these don’t arrive when you’re ready: when you’ve washed the last dish, dusted the last table, and arced your fingers over the keyboard. Nope. They sneak up when you’re not looking. For me, I’m usually asleep. When our house goes bump in the night, it’s not a ghost. It’s a big idea floating into my head on the wings of darkness, and me scrambling around to capture its essence before it drifts away, unremembered.

TRIAL AND ERROR

Early in my writing life I’d awake from a dead sleep and scrunch my eyes shut to rehearse the big idea, to memorize it. Sometimes the fear of loss had me rehearsing until the morning alarm.

After too many sleepless nights, I started bringing my computer to bed. That lasted until my husband said, “Either it goes, or I do.”

Now my nightstand holds a writer’s notebook and a pen with a lighted ball point, the perfect Christmas gift from my writerly friend, Jes.

No writer should be without a notebook … or two. Mine is small and follows me everywhere. It’s not a journal, mind you. It’s a purse-sized notebook, just right for lists and one-liners from overheard conversation.

PHASE ONE: VERBS

It started with lists of verbs, back when I dreamed of being the next Hemingway. If writer’s block comes, I turn to my list and log on to a “random number generator” website (www.random.org). If my list has, say, 40 verbs, I type in a range of 1-40. And click. The generator picks the number of the verb I will use. Then I type in the number of pages in my novel and let the generator select the page where the verb will land. This is a great little game to jumpstart creativity, especially when the writing won’t otherwise come.

PHASE TWO: NAMES

During trips, I collected town names to use in future settings or characters. My WIP protagonist, Hamilton Lange, got his names during a drive through Canada.

PHASE THREE: FEELINGS

Sometimes at the keyboard, I find myself running out of visceral reactions to describe feelings. How many times can a character’s stomach burn or head throb or heart stop? Well, only once for the last one. I keep my notebook handy when I’m watching TV, listening to the radio, reading, or talking on the phone. I long for people to spill their guts so I can sweep their authentic visceral reactions into my log. “Um, I’m starting to feel your pain. Can you go a little deeper and restate that without clichés?”

PHASE FOUR: DICTATOR THRILLERS

To my surprise, my old notebooks foreshadow my current interest in evil dictators. They describe my shock at how quickly the U.S. switched allegiance from party boy, Ferdinand Marcos, to Corazon Aquino.

They reveal my outrage at Mobutu’s greed and negligence, particularly when it came to health care. When I lived in the Congo, I had doctors appointments and got medicine at the U.S. Embassy. The locals, however, rarely got either. So, as in classical tragedies, most everyone died in the end.

Just rereading this makes me mad all over again. Viscerally speaking, my blood pressure explodes.

THE BENEFITS

The value of a writer’s notebook is immeasurable. Writers always need specific details of events, and it’s great to have authentic personal reactions to them. That’s what readers really want, anyway. Plus, keeping word lists can enliven your writing and facilitate mind games to conquer writer’s block.

Bottom line, a writer’s notebook is priceless. Invest in one today.

Author’s Bio:

facdNancy Adair is novelist, travel blogger, and memoirist, who left the U.S. in the eighties with her diplomat husband, two babies, and an electric typewriter. She now spends her days recounting a life of travel, human rights work, and diplomatic intrigue. Her travel blog appears weekly at nancy adair.com. Her first novel, BEYOND THE SCOPE, recently won Chanticleer Review’s Sommerset Award.

susan sloan

Full Strength Ahead

Ugh . . . marketing! I knew this day would come and I’m not prepared. Well, maybe a little prepared. After all, I have an MA in Communication and took at least one undergraduate course in Public Relations with my all-time favorite professor, Bob Vivian. He was “Professor of the Year” at California State University, Chico and an ex-public relations sports writer extraordinaire. Okay, it was only one PR class and a long time ago and even the best professor for one semester can’t impart the universe.

I did take one class in self-publishing at Whatcom Community College a couple years back. And . . . I did buy “The Complete Guide to SELF-Publishing” by Marilyn Ross & Sue Collier—Fifth Edition, no less! It says on the cover: “EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW to write, publish, promote, and sell your book.” Never mind that I haven’t opened it more than to take a brief overview stroll through the pages. I guess I’d better get off my high hobby horse and start reading. And, I’d better read fast because my book is due out this fall.

Oh, the best I did was a 45-minute phone call with Cami Ostman. From that call I got a crash course in marketing. Thanks Cami, from the bottom of my heart. I at least have a great “to do” list with the essentials and I’m working down my list to get all of my proverbial ducks in a row.

When I set out to write my book I didn’t carefully consider the marketing phase. I probably thought that my book would be so wonderful that one of the big publishing houses would be interested and my only effort would be to get picked up at an airport somewhere for the start of my fabulous book tour. FOFLOL!

Actually, I’m more prepared to write my next two books than to market my soon-to-be-published-by-Village-Books book. It’s likely safe to say that I will never be the Thomas Kincaid of the book marketing world.

My book is a biography of Holocaust survivor Ferdinand J. Fragner. The title, Yishar Koach: Forward with Strength came to me during an interview with Rena Ziegler one of Fred’s good friends. She was talking at the end of the interview about how I had done a great mitzvah—a worthy task—in writing the book. Then, she gave me a blessing and said “Yishar Koach”—literally, “may your strength be firm.”

Well, this was about two plus years into the project and I certainly needed that blessing. As of 2016, I’m in my fifth year of working on the book. But at least now it’s written, edited, with my designer, and out there being reviewed by Chanticleer and Kirkus.

Now, it’s a bit of a waiting game and working with Sam at Village Books to determine a date to do a reading and book signing. I’m also aspiring to do “A book launch and a movie” at the Pickford but I need to first locate a movie that is newly in release and would somehow parallel a theme in Fred’s life.

Oh, by the way, I’ll be doing another blog post on July 31st and will tell you a bit more about my book and marketing progress. In the meantime, I wish to all you aspiring writers “full strength ahead.”

Author’s Bio:

susan sloan

Susan Lynn Sloan is an author and communications specialist who has lived in Maple Falls, Washington since 2004. Susan was born in Chicago and she’s a transplant from northern California. Her interests include family, gardening, snorkeling, books, and film. Her biography of Holocaust survivor, Fred Fragner, is due out this fall. It’s called Yishar Koach: Forward with Strength. Susan is hoping it will inspire readers to understand the importance of persevering even in the midst of the most daunting challenges.

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Searching For The Pulitzer

by Dawn Quyle Landau

I won the Pulitzer Prize for short story in May 1975. It’s been a struggle ever since. Where do you go from there? At barely twelve years of age, I didn’t really appreciate that there were a lot more years ahead, and I couldn’t just rest on the laurels Cushing Elementary School had bestowed on me. From my seat in Mr. Flaherty’s sixth grade class, I figured my career was set; I was going to be a famous author.

No such luck; any good reader could have seen that one coming. That award-winning piece of suspense fiction is long gone now. It involved falling into a dark place and being chased, only to see the main character wake up and realize they were late for school. Yes, highly suspenseful! I still have the book that was my prize, Desiderata (a beautiful prose poem, written in 1927, by Max Erhmann), with the inscription: “Dawn, I look forward to reading more from you, in the future.  All the best in your writing career, Mrs. Nugent.” IMG_1675Also, this quote from Anatole France: “To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe.” Mrs. Nugent was the cool teacher, I wished I had; her encouragement meant everything, at the time. I thought she could see my dreams, and so I believed in them. The book sits on my desk, to remind me of where I was headed, before I lost my way.

I lost my way in the same manner so many people do: I had limited guidance, and I didn’t understand my own worth. Two years before the Pulitzer, my father was killed in a car accident. My mother took us from him, months before that, and my siblings and I were adrift, trying to make sense of the chaos that adults create. We were surrounded by a new place and family we hadn’t known–– away from the father we adored, and the family and friends who we’d grown up with. It’s no wonder that most of what I wrote in those years was filled with longing, scary images, turmoil, and kids who ultimately won. I needed desperately to feel like I could win something.  

Writing and painting were my outlets. With art, I could paint an image the way I wanted it to look. Blues could be bluer, and scenery idealized. I filled sketchpads and excelled in art class. However, it was writing that allowed me to explore my inner world. Fiction provided escape, and I wanted to create that magical outlet. So many of the books that I loved had main characters who faced huge obstacles, went on adventures, and triumphed. The Julie of the Wolves trilogy, by Jean Craighead George, and the Lord of the Ring series, by JRR Tolkien were my favorites. I read and re-read them. They gave me hope that even the hardest things could be tackled and overcome.

Throughout high school and college I learned that I could write my way through almost any assignment–– even if I hadn’t mastered the subject. For the past ten years, I’ve been a tutor to seniors in high school, working on college essays. Now, I cringe at the same cliché writing I handed in, all those years ago: flowery cover-ups and nuanced repetition, that sugar coats equal parts confusion and bravado. I’m firm, but compassionate when I introduce the idea of “killing one’s babies,” hoping to inspire these young writers, not squash their dreams.

I didn’t have writing mentors, after that Pulitzer. My mother moved when I was a junior in high school, and I was busy staying afloat. I was expected to go to college (the first in my family), but no one told me that I could actually be a writer, or what to do. And so, that dream got lost. I got my Masters in Social Work; I worked as a therapist; I had kids, and I spent a lot of years writing on the side–– a hobby.

At 53 I’m breathing new life into my dreams. I’m working to get a memoir and a novel published. The blog that I started as a “platform” for publishing, has become a focused outlet for my writing–– no longer a backseat project. That quote by Anatole France looms large these days. I’m working hard to see my dreams come true, and believe that they will. It’s a challenge for this writer, who still struggles with self-worth, in a business that is daunting at best, but I’m determined. I’m not that lost kid any more, waiting for others to inspire or support me, and that feels really good. Still, maybe one day, (a very elderly) Mrs. Nugent will read my work, and smile.

IMG_7698 - Version 3Bio: Dawn Quyle Landau publishes regularly on her blog Tales From the Motherland. She participates in a weekly flash fiction challenge, and writes whatever inspires her on a given day. She is a featured blogger for Huffington Post, where she is paid millions. She is working hard to get two manuscripts published, and will then run away to Iceland… where there are dragons.

Blog:  https://talesfromthemotherland.me/   

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/DawnQLandau  HuffPo: https://talesfromthemotherland.me/dawn-quyle-landau-huffington-post-articles/

Sky

A Life of Words

When I was in 8th grade, my mother gave me a Christmas present: a blank five year diary. The green vinyl cover was held closed with a lock and key. I wrote every day in that diary, important things like “Betsy missed school again because she has mono” or “I’m going to the World’s Fair.”

This gift from my mother revealed two huge messages. The first: that I can write and it feels good. The second: that a private place to write is a safe place to express my inner thoughts. The written word served as the river on which to float my inner thoughts. I discovered writing letters. I joined the high school newspaper and became co-editor, but I never published anything that I wrote. I discovered Ayn Rand and I decided I was one of the few. My best trotted out high school fantasy was to be invisible, thus freeing myself from my daily embarrassments, such as having curly hair or boys not liking me. I lost interest in the diary. Eventually the key went missing, I cut off the latch, and I tossed it in the garbage.

At the end of my college career, the rise of feminism was encouragement that I needed. I am from the consciousness-raising generation of American women, encouraged to tell each other our stories and share our previously private truths. I took to heart the phrase “The personal is political.” In those years when Walter Cronkite was replaced by “All Things Considered”, I wrote isolated essays and short stories, and then turned to journaling, a habit I continued for thirty years. I filled notebook after notebook with my slanted handwriting, teasing out those inner thoughts that were inconvenient to express aloud. In my fifties, in the midst of a personal crisis, I threw all of my journals out.

I lived in Kentucky for 32 years, an out lesbian making tactical decisions to survive and thrive in a difficult environment. When I ventured into my first writing class, I tried my hand at short pieces while encouraged by the instructor to politely mask my identity. During this class I wrote a piece that I am particularly fond of, entitled “What Is Said, What Isn’t Said.”

Barack Obama’s inauguration spurred the start of my blog. My then-partner-and-now-wife Lynne and I, along with two friends, drove ten icy hours to Washington DC and stood on the Mall in 18 degree weather for eight hours to witness his inauguration. This experience was so rich and so many people wanted to hear about it, that I posted the story online (http://skyandlynne.blogspot.com). I’ve continued sharing stories from my life through that blog since then. Blogging opened up a pipeline of responses from readers, who comment or email me, often with their own stories, inspired by what I wrote. Eight years later, I have accumulated a body of work: stories, nature writing, essays, and poems that I am proud to reflect on. I also have been enriched by connections with readers. (And it’s all free!)

Every word that I am able to write is precious to me because I write with a monkey on my back. The monkey is self-doubt and self-criticism. Joan Leegent calls it an occupational hazard for writers. John Steinbeck wrote about excruciating self doubt. Garth Stein speaks about it. In a workshop at Whatcom Community College, Dawn Groves attributed it to our biological mind wanting to protect us from hazards. It stops my hand, it tangles up my energy and before long, I am playing Freecell!

The advice of many successful writers is to develop a sustainable writer’s work ethic, to keep pen to paper despite the critical voice challenging my every word, to keep at it. I have a standing date with two different friends to write each week, a structure that keeps my fires burning and jump starts my writing throughout the week. I also find inspiration by connecting with other writers, through gatherings (RWW), workshops (Village Books) and conferences (Seattle7) as well as listening to interviews with published authors (Chuckanut Radio Hour).

Shortly after I moved to Bellingham in 2009, I joined a writing group at the Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship. I found myself in the company of people who were wilder than I was (not a high mark since I am more weedy-colorful-garden-wild and not hike-the-Pacific-trail-while-recovering-from-heroin wild.) My only obstacle was my own inner critic. I have learned so much about the craft and power of writing from sitting down face to face with this diverse group. It offers me a venue for my written efforts, and also proves to be a way to deepen connections with other people. Being part of a writer’s group is not only a chance to be heard, but a chance to listen to other writers. Like the diary my mother gave me, this writing group has been a gift that I didn’t know to ask for.

Taking care of my mother as she progressed through dementia is the subject of the memoir I am working on.

I appreciate the writing community in Bellingham, and I extend my thanks to the supportive, stimulating energy of the Red Wheelbarrow Writers.

“You are never too young or too old to write something fantastic.” — Jim Lynch

Author’s bio:

SkySky Hedman’s blog, SkyandLynne.blogspot.com continues to be a venue for her personal essays/stories, and a rewarding connection with readers. She is currently compiling a memoir about being her journey of being a reluctant caregiver for her elderly demented mother. She sends a special shout out to the BUF Writer’s group, which has been a steady source of writerly help and friendship. Her work at the Alaska Ferry supplies her with a good supply of stories each week while leaving her time to enjoy the beautiful northwest with her spouse, Lynne and dog, Winnie. She looks forward to more connections with readers and writers, and thanks the Red Wheelbarrow Writers for their support of the local writing community.

Jean Waight sq

In praise of editors

My first creative non-fiction article tortured me during the middle drafts, as though I was in a river too frothy to comprehend from the seat low in my canoe. I was always scraping into one rock or another. I like a bit of whitewater as much as the next paddler, but my desire in taking up serious writing, the desire to bring readers something rewarding, was in danger of being swamped by struggle and overwork. If I didn’t change something, I might quit.

A few years ago, I didn’t think of myself as a creative writer, nor a storyteller, for that matter. I was an amateur essayist, which I thought was a whole different animal. Yet I knew the power of story and wanted to harness that power in my writing. I thought it would be easy enough to write out two stories of real events, stories that friends had said were good ones.

When I wrote them out, yes, they were good stories, but I was tripping over myself in various ways. And, to me, they had to have a point, which always seemed clearer in my head than when it arrived on the page. And my really big bugaboo was finding an order, a structure, that would engage the reader fully. While my friends may be sincerely fascinated by an animated account over a pitcher of beer, a different thing altogether was telling my story to strangers, clearly not a captive audience. Especially because with the words committed to the page, and my readers at some remove, I can’t see reactions on their faces and adjust what I say accordingly. Doesn’t the chief problem always come down to how to show readers that our stories are going somewhere that they’ll enjoy following us to?

I was going to need help. Help beyond taking a creative writing class here and there. Those were good, and encouraging, as I began to see the science—the methods—in the writing arts. Though I was also skeptical—I didn’t want to tart up a true story, or let filigree weigh it down. And the big question, which structure to use when, baffled me. I needed a river guide to avoid the brushy “sweeper” trees lying across my stream, not to mention the dreaded drop holes.

Then one day, my mother offered to pay me to sell the cemetery plots she’d inherited and didn’t want. My writing fund was born.

So, starting with the first piece that I wanted to see published, and after struggling awhile, I sought out a developmental review from an experienced editor. To me, an editor is a professional reader who has a bead on other readers’ needs, wants, reactions. And knows what to do about these things. With help, the obstacles could be navigated, the chosen eddies could be playful asides, or crucial explication, and I could smoothly return to the main channel with my readers still with me. With each draft I could get much closer to an intimate conversation with my readers that I hoped for.

I found very fine and insightful editors right here in our local writing community. I needn’t have worried about decorative flourishes, because my editors haven’t pushed me in that direction. They have pushed me to work hard, but have guided that work insightfully. I suspect I will always have some blindness about structure. Now I don’t let that bother me. It’s great to get comments back and feel, Yes! That’s right, that’s what I’m trying to say. Editors, thank you!

Author Bio:

Jean Waight sqJean Waight is an essayist and memoirist who formerly worked in communications for Group Health Cooperative. Her first person account of the twists and turns in a snow rescue, “Through the Floor,” appeared in Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim, winter 2015. The Bellingham Herald published her beach clean-up essay. Her blog of life among the trees in Bellingham, full of shady opinions, is at greenteasympathy.blogspot.com.