July 25, 2014

Busting Buttons

We-Feed-Each-OtherIf there’s anything as satisfying as laying eyes and hands on the first print copy of a book I’ve written, it’s having the same experience with a friend’s book. Especially when I know how hard that friend struggled to make the book happen. Thus I whooped with joy last week when Ellen Dehouske handed me a copy of We Feed Each Other: Nourishment through Friendships, her “memoir of sorts.”

Joyful tears filled my heart as I beheld this substantial volume with the strikingly gorgeous cover and lovely layout. I had witnessed many of the labor pains preceding the birth of this book.

I first met Ellen about three years ago when she took an Osher Life Long Learning class I taught at the University of Pittsburgh on writing description. Subsequently she began attending the Life Writers group that meets at the Monroeville Public Library twice a month.

I’ve known for a couple of years that Ellen had resolved to write this book, but I did not fully comprehend what she had in mind. I only knew it was a tribute to the vast network of loyal friends who have stood by her through trials and triumphs. She brought dozens of component stories to the writing group, seeking and receiving input on how to make them better. I’d seen her writing transform from awkward to amazing in the process.

I’d also known that food was a theme and she was asking each friend to contribute a favorite recipe. To my astonished delight, she asked me for a picture and a recipe.

What I didn’t realized was how those isolated snippets would weave together to give such a comprehensive view of Ellen. This volume is a tightly focused memoir with dual threads of food and friendship highlighting her personal transcendence.

Gratitude for friendship shines through bright and clear, framed within roles friends played in her life. She grew up without a typical family. Her father died before her memory kicked in, and when Ellen was three, her mother began a thirteen year stay in a mental hospital. Ellen and her younger sister were raised by a succession of emotionally distant relatives.

Thanks to a scholarship, she graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, later earning a PhD in early childhood development. She retired as Professor Emerita from Carlow University. That was not a smooth path. Ellen was hospitalized four times with mental disorders. With the support of friends, she found legal counsel and retained her job when Carlow laid her off after she was hospitalized.

A combination of talk therapy and psychotropic drugs have kept her stable and productive for decades now, and she shares her story as witness that mental illness is just that – illness, much like heart disease or diabetes. It isn’t contagious or scary, nor is it a reason for avoiding contact with the afflicted. Her story is a beacon of hope to mental health patients and their families. Hopefully Ellen’s testimony will build bridges of understanding.

Her story is not a sermon. It’s a carefully crafted journey beginning with a bleak girlhood that nevertheless had rays of happiness penetrating its pallor. It continues through turbulent seas of four melt-downs, ending with profound professional and personal success.

Ellen did not accomplish the miracle of this book on her own. She honed writing skills in classes and groups. She learned to streamline sentences, substituting precision words for rambling phrasing and rearranging awkward sequencing to make them flow. She streamlined stories and used an ingenious menu content to shape her story arc.

She paid for editing and layout help and commissioned an artist to do that brilliant cover. Not only is it gorgeous and eye-grabbing, it’s powerfully symbolic. The significance of the spoon seems obvious at a glance, next to the title of the book: We Feed Each Other. The overlay of tiny icon photos makes sense: this is a book about a friendships. As soon as you begin reading, in the second paragraph of the preface (which you can find in the Amazon preview), she tells of a Jewish allegory of Heaven and Hell, using spoons as the determining element.

One of the most poignant features is that even with all the editors and feedback, Ellen’s unique voice shines through, ringing loud and authentically true.

Write now: click this link to Amazon and read the allegory in the Preface to Ellen’s book. Then ponder myths, legends and tales that might crystalize the essence of an element of your life in a similar way. Free write or journal to get clear on what that element is. Find a writing group, take a class, do something to firm up your resolve to write YOUR story.

July 18, 2014

Your Friend, the Comma

CommaFriendComma, common. Yes, commas are common, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect.

Strangely enough, this common little punctuation mark intimidates legions of writers. Others treat it in a cavalier fashion. I admit to being one of the latter. In 1984, I flippantly told Kay DuPont, a national speaker and author of a book on grammar and punctuation that “I punctuate intuitively and put commas where I think I need them.” Was that pity I saw in her glance?

When I saw buckets of red ink the Lighthouse Point Press editors sloshed all over my first book, Do’s, Don’ts and Donuts, I realized I needed to get serious about learning proper comma usage. To my surprise and delight, I discovered that commas are quite friendly.

The main thing to remember is that commas cue readers’ eyes to pause for just a whiff of breath to tide them over to the end of a sentence. They sort information inside the sentence, clustering words into meaningful chunks. The guidelines below cover the main areas of confusion:

Use a comma before conjunctions – words that join two sentences into one

The most common of these words are and, but and or. For example,

“I am starting a new story now, but Nancy is still editing hers.”

Only use the comma if the two parts can stand alone as whole sentences, as they can above. Do not use commas to set off compound subjects or predicates:

“The lawn was green and was freshly mown.”

Use a comma before an introductory group of words

Any time you have a phrase or clause preceding the subject, set it off with a comma.

If you want people to read your story, you’d better tell them you wrote one.”

When you fail to use commas well, readers may become confused.”

If your clause is very short, three words or under, and it is clear without the comma, you may omit it. Too many commas create clutter. However, words like “however” should be set off. Good judgment on your part in using commas and selecting proof readers should cover this base.

Use a comma between parts in a series.

Most people are familiar with this rule when simple words are involved. It also applies to phrases and clauses. For example:

“Both the Italian and Mexican flags are comprised of red, green and white stripes.”

“I must clean the kitchen, fold laundry and mow the lawn today.”

“Sally is vacationing in Arizona, Jan is visiting her family in Maine and Ellen is staying home this year.”

You may notice that the final element in each sentence lacks a comma. You may recall learning in English class once upon a time that this is the correct and modern way to punctuate. Yes and no. It is correct, especially for casual usage. More formal usage puts what’s referred to as “the Oxford comma” in that series, as my editors for The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing required me to do. Whichever convention you choose, use it consistently within a manuscript, whether that’s a story or a book.

Use pairs of commas to set off interjections

Any time you have a word, phrase or clause that interrupts the flow of a sentence, set it off with a pair of commas.

“Sarah will, of course, be delighted to hear we are having chocolate cake for dessert.”

“The content of a memoir should always, realizing that memory is sometimes fallible, be true.”

Help is at hand

Should you get jammed up and feel insecure about commas and other grammatical things, always remember Google is your friend. Or Yahoo. Or Bing. The web is brimming with helpful sites to guide you to punctuation perfection.

Another tool that may be more confusing than not is Word’s grammar check function. It is good at comma use, and I advise always working through its recommendations as a final proof-reading step. Just remember that it makes lots of miscalls, so use good sense and check other sources if you have any questions.

One more tool that’s helped thousands is the punctuation overview in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing. Click on that title to order your copy now if you don’t already have one.

Write now: use the guidelines above to check comma usage in a couple of stories. Then check your comma skills with a short quiz at GrammarBook.com. Find a paragraph or two that you’re wondering about and paste them into “The World’s Best Grammar Checker” at Grammarly.com.

July 11, 2014

Make New Friends: Writing Layers of Meaning

Friends, silver and gold

Make new friends, but keep the old,
One is silver and the other gold.

This classic friendship song began endlessly looping on brain radio the other day. Inspired by Kathy Pooler’s blog post, A Tribute to My Girlfriends, I sat down to pen a post about friendship. What emerged is far from what I set out to write.

I began writing about the fact unlike Kathy, who has remained close with numerous friends for decades, my friends are more situational, coming and going as our respective interests change, and … that paragraph was never finished. Something about the thought didn’t quite ring true, and a recent memory displaced it. A memory of a brief encounter I recently had with four friends I’ve been out of contact with for over fifteen years. How do those friendships fit in the silver and gold category, I wondered.

They don’t! As I wrote, I realized those categories don’t work for me. I realized how limiting categories and labels are, how they inherently imply boundaries and barriers. Degrees of closeness? No barriers there. But what about gaps? Nobody can stay constantly connected with every friend.

The longer I wrote, the more confused I became. Finally I had a breakthrough. My thoughts compressed into something manageable that I could get my mind around:

Each of my friends, local, online or far away, is unique. Each brings a warm glow of general pleasure, and each fills a different niche in my heart. As time goes by, our mutual interests may wax and wane, perhaps remaining on hold for years or decades. But that bond remains like an unlit burner, waiting for a mere spark to rekindle its warmth.

Maybe Kathy and I aren’t so different after all. And maybe it’s time to rewrite that song: 

Make new friends, but keep the old,
One will warm you while the other’s cold.

Far or near, good friends will bring cheer,
All that’s needed is a phone to hear.

Skype or text, an email now and then,
Friends will be there, though we don’t know when.

Since writing that essay, I’m seeing friends in new ways. Some are soft and fuzzy, while others have organized edges, maybe with a sharp spots to make allowances for. The state of our relationship may vary from red hot to vacationing violet. Friends light up my life, though we may have spells of darkness between us now and then.

My hour of writing that essay was priceless. It exemplifies William Faulkner’s immortal quote: ''I never know what I think about something until I read what I've written on it.”

Write now: Pick a topic like friendship or love, or God, or something else big and grand. Start writing and see where the topic takes you. Polish the essay, or leave it raw. The purpose is self-discovery. Leave a comment or send me an email about your surprising discovery.

Photo credits: top: Arkansas Shutterbug. bottom: Francesco. Both altered and used under Creative Commons license.

July 03, 2014

Brain Thorns

Thorns“All sentences are not created equal.”

That sentence jams a cactus into my brain, triggering wild buzzing and a whirl of obsessive thoughts.

Even if the story I’m reading is sweet and beautiful as a cactus blossom, when I hear any variation of “All men are not tall”,  my brain revs up like an angry hornet. I know the intention: to contradict the clearly false idea that all men ARE tall. The literal meaning of that sentence is that no men are tall. Obviously that’s as false as the initial statement. The world is full of men of a wide range of heights.

The accurate meaning is “Not all men are tall.” Or, “Men are not all tall.” But hey – I know you could find a better way of stating that within the context of your story.

I saw that opening sentence in a review of  Jenny Davidson’s book, Reading Style: A Life in Sentences. The review quotes that inflammatory sentence from the first chapter of Tankard’s book.

How, you ask, would I edit that sentence?  That’s a fair question. The real message of that sentence is better stated in the second: “Some (sentences) are more interesting, more intricate, more attractive or repellent than others.” I’d omit the first entirely.
But then I’d have to address the fact that neither sentence has anything to do with the rest of the lengthy paragraph. Oh my!

I would not write off a book based on a single sentence, no matter how annoying, but that sentence triggered my "the rest of this better be extraordinary to overcome that transgression” button, and I just showed you that further exploration did not stand the book in good stead. Had that brain thorn not been there, the awkward paragraph probably would have slipped by unseen.

Brain thorns tend to poison a reader’s outlook. Hopefully my rant will prevent you from planting this thorn in your stories, even though I may be the only person on earth vulnerable to its sting. Write what you really mean and your stories will sing.

This is only one example of a multitude of brain thorns. This one is personal and stabs deep. Awkward writing and sloppy checking, like typos, missing commas, or confusing I/me or its/it’s are less distracting to me, but thorns nevertheless.

Are you aware of brain thorns as you read? Join the conversation and tell us about yours in a comment.

Right now: Delight readers by using Grammar Check to remove brain thorns from your writing. Grammar Check is often wrong and can be a distraction if you leave it turned on, but do run it before your final save. Find its location on Word’s Review tab  ribbon and use it to check a few old stories. You may be surprised what you find. Ask trusted friends or your writing group to check for thorns that slip past your eyes and Word’s functions.

June 26, 2014

Daily Life Under a Microscope

image“My life is so ordinary! Nobody would be interested!”
This statement vies with the desire to keep secrets and protect privacy as the top reason people give for not writing their lifestories. Poppycock! I’m pretty sure a centipede’s knee would be fascinating if looked at under a microscope and described with flair. Besides, what we take for granted today will be exotic to our great-grandchildren in fifty years. Wouldn’t you like to know what daily life was like for your ancestors 100 years ago?
In today’s guest post, Pittsburgh resident Bea Carter put her plain vanilla morning routine under a microscope in this delightful essay. With deft strokes of her keyboard, she has transformed the ordinary into a uniquely creative essay that  I think you’ll agree is remarkable.

Flexing my Economic Muscle
RosieRiveter cropRosie the Riveter has nothing over me.
Now a U.S. icon, Rosie represents women who worked in factory jobs vacated by men conscripted to fight in World War II. Saying “We Can Do It!” while flexing her biceps, she became a symbol of feminism and of women’s economic power.
Following Rosie’s example, today I do my part for America—not in a factory manufacturing goods but at home consuming them. In doing so, I am flexing my economic muscle.
Some greet the dawn with a chant or a prayer. Me—I begin my days with rituals and routines that, in the end, are all about consumption—using goods and services for which marketers have created demand. Bombarded by messages to buy-buy-buy, I yield, participating in commerce that makes our nation’s economy go.
I wonder what people would think a hundred years from now if they found this snapshot of products I perfunctorily use just to get from my bed to my breakfast table…

  1. My hi-tech clock radio lulls me awake—its soft, far-away sounds getting louder and louder so I am not blasted into the day.
  2. I throw off my bedcovers—sheet, bedspread and comforter.
  3. I sleep-walk to the double-paned window to close it.
  4. I patter to the thermostat to turn up the heat
  5. …then on to the bathroom (equipped with sink, tub, commode). I let the electric company know I’m awake by turning on the bathroom lights.
  6. Next product: toilet paper
  7. Then water to flush everything away.
  8. I squint into the mirror. (Hel-lo Go-ah-jus.)
  9. I pick up my toothbrush
  10. …and squish some toothpaste onto its bristles.
  11. After brushing my mouth awake, I remove my nightgown
  12. ..hang it on the hook
  13. …on the back of the bathroom door.
  14. I turn on the shower.
  15. The water comes out brisk and hot, heated by our efficient hot water heater.
  16. I grope for the shampoo.
  17. It’s in the caddy that hangs from the shower.
  18. After I lather, rinse, repeat, I grab my bath puff.
  19. I squirt some liquid soap onto it and proceed to scrub.
  20. I eye my pumice stone, which I use to smooth the callouses on the bottoms of my feet. Not now, but next time.
  21. Pushing the shower curtain aside…
  22. I step out onto the bath mat.
  23. I reach for my towel—a nice, thick, thirsty, oversized one.
  24. I run my comb through my now towel-dried hair.
  25. Then I pick up a bottle of special facial serum that promises to defy aging skin, and I apply it even though I can’t see myself in the steamed-up mirror.
  26. Next I grab a tube of cream formulated just for the “delicate” skin around my eyes. I dab it on.
  27. On top of those potions I smear an ample dollop facial moisturizer with Sun Protective Factor.
  28. After that I grab a bottle of body lotion, also loaded with SPF, and apply it all over.
  29. Now I’m ready for the next barrage of goodies. For these I don my chenille bathrobe.
  30. Back in my bedroom, I sit down at my dressing table, a heavy, tall marble-topped Victorian piece that a childless Civil War surgeon left my grandfather. Since I inherited it, I am not counting it as something I purchased. But at one point in its life, someone bought it. And it traveled up and down the eastern seaboard before landing here.
  31. I turn on a tensor lamp that gives out just the right amount of light for applying makeup.
  32. I pick up my hair dryer and turn it on. In 10 seconds, my hair’s done.
  33. Then I peer into my magnifying mirror
  34. …surveying my face in general, but looking for stray whiskers that have begun to colonize on my chin. For them I am armed with surgeon-quality tweezers.
  35. I pick out some eye shadow (somehow I have three shades of nude) and apply it using the little sponge-tipped applicator that comes with it.
  36. Then I give my eyebrows some love with a brow pencil.
  37. I dab clear mascara over my brow hairs to keep them in place.
  38. I pick out eyeliner—brown usually, but sometimes blue-gray—and apply it.
  39. Brown mascara for my eyelashes is next. Got to have it, otherwise I look like Little Orphan Annie.
  40. I skip the blush, which I generally use only at night.
  41. I skip the lipstick, too, although I have at least 4 tubes of it. It’ll just wear off at breakfast.
  42. My hair gets a spritz of hair spray.
  43. Finally, I add a dab of perfume (not the real stuff).
  44. Now I dress—underwear, top, pants, sweater, shoes and socks.
  45. Opening my jewelry box, which I’ve had since high school, I don my watch and earrings. (When you have pierced ears, you have to wear earrings.)
  46. Down in the kitchen, I fill up the teakettle with tap water.
  47. I put it on the stove, which I turn on.
  48. While I’m waiting for the water to boil, I use a juice glass to take my vitamins and medicines using filtered water I keep in a pitcher.
  49. Then I flip on the little TV, conveniently perched on the counter, to hear the morning news show, which we can tune in thanks to our multi-tiered cable TV service.
  50. I open our apartment door and grab the newspaper—I like to read the news while eating breakfast.
  51. Back at the stove, I place a filter in the cone that goes with my drip coffee pot.
  52. I ladle in some coffee using a special measuring spoon. By now the water’s boiling, so I add the water to the grounds in the cone. Ahhh…the aroma of freshly brewed coffee…I fill my favorite coffee cup anticipating that satisfying first sip.
  53. But before that, I open the kitchen cabinet and retrieve a bowl, and open the drawer and pick up a spoon.
  54. Open the fridge
  55. Take out some fruit and put it in the bowl...
  56. …add some yogurt.
  57. Settle down in my chair at the table, food, coffee and paper before me.
  58. After half an hour or so of reading, I load my dishes into the dishwasher.
  59. Then I mop up the counter with the dish cloth.
At last, I am ready to get on with my day. The first item on my To Do list: shopping—for some of the products I used just to arrive at this point.
Write now: zoom in on one of your routines and write it down in this degree of detail. Draw on memory to record a typical day or season in the past. That day will be a composite because one ordinary act blurs with dozens of others into general memory over time. You may be surprised at the complexity of life. Your descendants will be amazed. Include enough detail about equipment and such that they’ll be able to understand what you are talking about.

June 17, 2014

Writing on a Hamster Wheel

HamsterI’m working on a complicated story right now. It’s total fiction, with no basis in my experience, and I’ve fallen into a trap common to writers of any genre, the hamster wheel syndrome. I know better than to do this, but I’ve been editing the heck out of what I’ve already written rather than forging boldly ahead to write the story. I know where it’s going – I’m just having trouble reading the markers along the path.

Yesterday I had a Skype visit with Ian Mathie, a prolific cross-genre author who pops out stories like a cat birthing a litter. Already this year Mosaique Press has released two new titles by him, making a total of six book-length volumes published over the last three years. This year’s first, Sorcerers and Orange Peels, is his fifth book-length memoir covering grippingly arcane experiences in a remote African village while working as a water engineer. The second, Chinese Take-Out, is a fictitious spy thriller based on valid history. 

As we chatted, I learned that he is nearing completion on two more novels and another memoir. When I mentioned my dilemma, he confirmed what I suspected: “... I just write the story and edit later.”

As much as I value Ian’s advice, this particular bit was old news. Who hasn’t heard some version before? For example,

  • Write with your display off to avoid distraction.
  • Write by hand.
  • Set a time limit for cranking out XXXX number of words.

None of this advice addresses my specific version of the challenge. I do a lot of my writing when not at the keyboard. I think about this story constantly. What would I really do if I were in this situation? Or, How can I get them out of the campground at 4:30 a.m. without waking other campers? Or, Should they eat breakfast or fast? What are the forest service regulations about dogs in the national forest? Does El Sabio need to be on a leash?

This type of question is specific to fiction. If this were memoir, I’d know the answers. But even memoir writers have dilemmas about what to include and how to frame it.

A fresh start

This morning I sat down to write, determined to tackle new content, but wrestling with a few changes needed in earlier material that had become clear. Determined to capture them without spending another morning rewriting, I tried a new trick, writing the edit concepts down, like story ideas. I wanted them in the story near the relevant points. I could have used Comments in Word, but I hate the clunky way Word handles comments.

Instead, I inserted virtual sticky notes. These small text boxes have a pale yellow background, no border and a 2 point shadow on the bottom to make them look real – you know how sticky notes tend to bend upward just a smidge as you apply them. Right-clicking on the box border gave me the option of making this first one the text-box default for this document. To make them feel even more “real,” I created a style to make the text look hand-written. As a final touch, I changed the document layout from even 1.25 side margins to .75 and 1.75, making side margin room for these stickies.

After adding a few notes in the margin and using strike-out to indicate which paragraphs need to be deleted or revised, I forged strongly ahead with the story.

Who knew one little confession to a writing buddy could bear such powerful fruit? That rope he tossed lured me off the hamster wheel. Yes, I knew this stuff before, but sometimes we need a helping hand from a friend to use what we already know.

Write now: Seek advice from writing friends for dealing with your particular form of writer’s block. If the advice doesn’t fit, thank them anyway, and keep looking for a solution. Before you know it, words will be gushing again. Post a comment about your experience with writers block of various sorts, or send me an email. We need to pull together to beat this writing dis-ease.

June 05, 2014

Memoir as Training Wheels

Mary-Gottschalk-AuthorMary Gottschalk has proven her versatility as a writer by crafting a highly acclaimed  memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, followed by a novel, A Fitting Place. Both volumes are gutsy stories, and in this guest post Mary explains how writing the memoir prepared her for the challenge of switching to fiction.

Memoir as Training Wheels

Writerly skills are for naught unless you have something you want to write about.

The story behind my memoir—a mid-life coming-of-age experience after I left a successful career to sail around the world at age 40—had steeped in my brain for two decades before I put pen to paper. Not once, in all those years, did the possibility of writing a novel ever occur to me.

But as the memoir evolved and my writing skills improved, I began to see that “the story” was much bigger than “my story.” Sailing across the Pacific Ocean struck me a metaphor for life: you can’t control your environment, the route is not well marked, and you often end up someplace other than where you set out to go. The core lesson of that voyage was that you learn the most when you step outside your comfort zone.

Suddenly I had a story with almost infinite variations. I itched to explore them. Voilà, my first novel about a woman who never leaves home, but is thrust out of her comfort zone when she is betrayed by those she trusts most. It is my first novel, but it will not be my last.

Learning the Writerly Craft

I often think of my memoir as the literary equivalent of training wheels.

With a memoir, the task is far more manageable than with a novel, where every element—story arc, characters, plot points, scenes, point of view—is in flux until “THE END.” With an infinite number of possible events and characters from which to choose, even an experienced writer can have trouble discerning whether a problem lies in the writing, in the story arc and structure, in the pace, in the mix of characters, or some combination of them all. For an inexperienced writer, sorting it out can seem all but impossible.

By contrast, the outer boundaries of my memoir were established long before the first word hit the page. I knew where the story began and ended, who the players were and what role they played. The plot points and scenes were constrained by reality. My job, as author was to connect the dots, not make them up.

Connecting the dots was certainly not enough to guarantee a good memoir. If you believe, as I do, that a well-written memoir should read like fiction, I needed to have much the same set of writerly skills as a novelist. As a neophyte, I was missing many of them when I started out. In retrospect, one of the great advantages of starting out with a memoir was that when things weren’t going right, there were fewer things to be fixed.

As a memoirist, I couldn’t change the trajectory of events, so I had to focus on doing a better job of building tension and establishing cause and effect within the existing storyline. I learned, by trial and error, to recognize which events moved the story forward. I discovered how it felt when my story began to unfold organically. I learned that ruthlessly cutting out events that serve no plot purpose could heighten the emotional truth of the story, with little damage to factual accuracy.

Similarly, I couldn’t create new scenes or new characters out of whole cloth. All I could do was focus on re-writing those that were flat, on learning how to make them come alive, on using them more effectively to carry the plot forward. My focus was on mastering the art of showing vs. telling, on finding the right balance between dialogue and narrative. I learned that what I didn’t say often had as much dramatic potential as what I did say.

Throughout the often painful process of repairing crippled parts of the story, it was easier to push forward, knowing that I had a clear idea of what I wanted the story to look like when it was complete. By the time I began my novel, I had developed solid skills in constructing a story arc, both for the book as a whole and for each chapter along the way. I knew how to use dialogue and develop my characters through judicious use of scenes. I still had a lot to learn, but completing the memoir gave me the confidence to attack one problem at a time, to avoid being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task.

The memoir served as my training wheels. Without it, there never could have been a novel.


Mary has made a career out of changing careers. After finishing graduate school, she spent nearly thirty years in the financial markets, first in New York, then in New Zealand and Australia, eventually returning to the U.S.

Along the way, she dropped out several times. In the mid-80's, at age 40, Mary and her husband Tom embarked on the three-year sailing voyage that is the subject of her memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam. When the voyage ended, she returned to her career in finance, but dropped out again to provide financial and strategic planning services to the nonprofit community. In her latest incarnation, she is a full time writer. Her first novel, A Fitting Place, was released May 1, 2014.

Find A Fitting Place on Amazon and iBooks.

Social Media Links

http://marycgottschalk.com http://twitter.com/marycgottschalk

May 29, 2014

You Can’t Go Home Again

Playing in Columbia RiverFew people talk about the dangers posed to your memory when you return to places you used to live. Depending on how long you’ve been gone, changes are likely to be huge, and the shock of the new may overwrite or change what you recall of the past. At the very least, for better or worse, your past memories will carry the stamp of the new. Sometimes changes may be better than you recall.

That’s how memory works. Each time we replay a memory, we embed a fragment of the present to what we recall from before. This fragment may be comprised of things like feelings evoked by the memory, further evaluation and insight, comparison with current conditions, or all of the above.

Sometimes, particularly if you haven’t been gone long, or you return to a spot in nature, you may find things more or less as you left them and you will feel an exciting sense of reconnection. But you may be disappointed.

I’ve experienced shocking disappointment a few times over the last several years, especially in my hometown of Los Alamos where fire destroyed trees on the mountains forming the backdrop for the town. The business district has been changed almost totally, to the extent of running a street through the middle of the pedestrian area. My high school has been torn down and replaced with a shiny new facility more like a college campus than high school as I remember it. Even the canyon where I spent vast amounts of girlhood time has been pruned, thinned, and otherwise fireproofed. I hardly recognize it.

Right now I’m in Richland, Washington where  my husband and I lived for nineteen years when our children were young. We’re here to visit my father, not revive memories, but still, change is apparent. Yesterday we drove past “our” house, the one we designed and built over forty years ago. That was a  pleasant surprise. It looks even better than it did when we lived there, at least from the outside. I took two granddaughters to play on the bank of the Columbia river their mommy enjoyed. That was sublime.

But the school our kids attended is almost entirely changed. My daughter was shocked, as I was in Los Alamos. The old ferry landing is gone. Egad! That was my place of solace. The river is still there, overflowing with spring run-off. The view is much the same. The basics of the old business district remain intact, though the inhabitants of stores come and go. But it's no longer home.

Part of the difference is people. At 93, although still proudly self-sufficient, my father is really old. My mother is gone. My best friend here died a year ago, and I have not stayed in touch with others. I'm a stranger in town.

When I return to my current Pittsburgh home after a trip like this, my old memories do resurface, only slightly marred by recent developments. But at least for me, physically returning to past locations has never enhanced old memories. I'm better off looking at photos, listening to old music, or talking to people who were there.

However, after all the above, I do journal my thoughts about changes, and may include some of that in a story or two.

Write now: contribute to a conversation on this topic by leaving a comment about your experience in this regard. How has it worked for you to "go home" or return to places from your past? This may include both fondly remembered places and those where you've held traumatic memories.

May 17, 2014

New Funding Options for Authors

KathyPoolerBrighterHave you heard about crowdfunding, the new buzz-word for funding publishing projects? People who lack the personal resources to pay for all the up-front services necessary to self-publish or supplement the services of publishers have new options. You don’t have to mortgage your house, deprive your offspring of college educations or go without meds to share your story with the general public.

Kathleen Pooler, today’s guest-post author, has a contract with Pen & Publish, a small publishing company headed by Paul Burt, to publish her forthcoming memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse. Paul urged Kathy to use Pubslush to generate funds. She tells you below what Pubslush is, why she's using it, and how it works:

SL: Kathy, what is Pubslush and why are you using it?

KP: Pubslush is "a global, crowdsourcing publishing platform for authors to raise funds and gauge the initial audience for new book ideas. For every book sold, Pubslush donates a children’s book to a child in need."

In discussions with my publisher, Paul Burt of Pen & Publish, Inc, we agreed to embark upon a crowdfunding campaign through Pubslush for the primary purposes of reaching new readers and spreading the message of my memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse. We selected a modest funding goal and mutually decided I would use the money to offset costs associated with book promotion.

SL: So what else are you thinking of doing that costs money?

KP: There are many costs related to publishing and promoting a book. The cost of professional editors can be steep. I had already spent money on writing classes, conferences, workshops and editors before I started my campaign. I will use the funds for promotional materials—printed copies [and postage], bookmarks, postcards—and experimenting with a variety of low cost options like pay-per-click ads.

SL: How can a Pubslush campaign help authors with a limited budget get their book in front of readers?

KP: The campaign provides another opportunity to promote before you publish. You have a reason to get the word out, showcase your book and message while increasing the funds you have available for the project. The level of funding is the decision of the author, Successful campaigns are those that reach close to their goal. The highest amount received has been $16,000. The minimum is $1,000. I have set my goal for $2,500. When you reach your goal, your book is added to the Pubslush website to provide continued exposure.

SL: What's involved?

KP: First you have to have a plan and develop your campaign. The author is expected to be active in social media to start and keep the momentum going. Emailing family and friends ahead of time to ensure robust contributions during the first few days and daily acknowledgement of contributors across social media channels. Having an online presence is a prerequisite to spreading the message.

SL: What can you use Pubslush funds for?

KP: The funds are yours to use as you wish, but your campaign specifies how you plan to use them. Some of the funds go toward fulfilling the rewards you are offering. When you sign up, you have the option of donating 10% of the proceeds to a non-profit organization. Otherwise the money raised goes to the author.

SL: What other ways does a campaign benefit authors?

KP: Let me list the ways:

  • Gets you organized and working on promotion before your book is released..
  • Helps gauge interest in the book
  • Finds readers in advance of publication
  • Clarifies target audience
  • Spreads books message
  • Opens dialogue with readers to allow you to fine tune your message and book.

SL: What are your personal goals for your campaign?

KP:I want to expand my readership and spread my message of hope, resilience and courage to women searching to find their inner strength. The rewards are set up to encourage donating copies to nonprofit organizations working with women facing life’s challenges as well as public libraries.

SL: Kathleen, I know you have that strong social media presence and wish you every success with your PubSlush project. I encourage everyone to this link to your PubSlush project page and learn more about your book as well as seeing how PubSlush works, and hopefully donating to your cause.

Kathleen Pooler is a writer and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse and work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

Visit her on the web:

Blog: Memoir Writer’s Journey blog

Facebook: Personal page, Kathy Pooler
Pubslush campaign

Write now: Whether you have a book you need help publishing or not, PubSlush and related services provide a way of helping determine what books will see the light of day. Think of it as an interactive partnership between readers and writers and get involved, if only to look and learn.

May 07, 2014

Writing Lessons from Photography

golden orb spiderLast winter I had the privilege of participating in a Road Scholar nature photography program in Costa Rica. Although I was raised in a family of photographers, I never wanted to make the effort to learn about f-stops, shutter speeds and all that good stuff. That didn’t change with the advent of digital a dozen years ago. I’ve been happy with my point-and-shoot pictures, often augmented by Photoshop enhancement later. So my plan was to tag along, see Costa Rica, meet some new friends, and fly under the radar as far as learning was concerned.

What a surprise when our brilliant photography coach, Mónica Quesada, presented some simple concepts so clearly that she hooked me in. This is easy enough. I might as well try this. Who knows? By the end of the trip, between Monica’s encouragement and supportive group members, I’d made a breakthrough. I was by-passing the auto setting and flipping through various combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO settings like I knew what I was doing (and I sort of did), .

As the week progressed, I realized how many similarities there are between photography and writing. For whatever it may be worth, I share them with you here, and invite you to click through my favorite shots in my Costa Rica Flickr collection for further visual illustration.

Focus on the main topic. Keep background information vague for sharp contrast so the main topic stands out. In the photo above, the golden orb spider and her web are crisply focused. If the background was in focus, that web would be lost in the detail. Give plenty of crisp detail about the main topic and character, minimizing detail about less important elements.

Background serves a purpose. That blurry background plays an important role. Indistinct as it is, the swirls of color set off both spider and web. In a story, background information gives your story context and gives readers a sense of connection. You’ll know you need to add more if early readers ask questions like “Who was he?” or “What was your uncle’s name.” “When did you go there?” And so forth.

Compose the shot carefully. That spider is the central focus, but offset just a bit for interest. The lines of the web draw the eye toward the spider, and the white dots add a bit of sub-theme, also leading to the spider.

Include contrast. That sharply focused, somewhat darker spider contrasts clearly with the background, making it stand out. Shadows in the blurry background add depth and pattern. Stories without a bit of darkness seem flat and dull. 

That early thought about being happy with my point-and-shoot camera also relates to writing. For years my sit down and write a story the way I’d write a letter seemed entirely satisfactory to me. And it is. For most purposes. I still urge people to focus on quantity rather than quality if their purpose is documentary writing. In my case, over time, I began learning new ways to organize stories and tweak them. I’m hooked. I hope I’ll always keep learning new techniques, new ways of looking at story and refining it. The end result may be more pleasing to readers and convey my points more crisply, but for me, the pleasure is in the process and craft. I love the challenge.

Photography isn’t the only way to expand creativity and perspective and learn more about writing. Scads of writers also paint. Natalie Goldberg’s newest book, Living Color: Painting, Writing and the Bones of Seeing is all about the relationship between visual expression and writing. Do yourself a favor and try some alternate modes yourself.

Write now: Read at least the “Look Inside” part of Living Color, then find paper and pen (pencil is too tempting to erase) and use her concepts to make a few sketches. Consider how you look at your surroundings differently when you consider drawing them. How does this relate to the way you look and see when you plan to write.

April 30, 2014

Mini-Memoir – Great Things Come in Small Packages


In a post on the U.S. edition of the British Guardian website, journalist Anna Baddeley cites several mini-memoirs published by celebrity authors. In conclusion she opines that mini-memoir is “An exciting trend in journalism that one hopes will soon take off over here.” I hope so too, as a reader (what's not to like about a book you can finish in three hours or less), as a writer (what's not to like about a book you can finish in two or three months rather than years?), and as a teacher (more of my students can publish!).

So what is a mini-memoir? Basically, mini-memoir is the non-fiction equivalent of a novella. To date, this short form has not received much attention, though you can find a few in Amazon if you search on that term. One of the titles that pops up on this search is Adventures of a Chilehead: A Mini-Memoir with Recipes, by Yours Truly. The term seems to be used in two ways. Some use it to recount memories limited to a tightly focused topic. Some overlap the definition of mini-memoir with flash memoir, the topic of my most recent post.

I couldn't recall hearing the term before when I popped it onto the cover of Adventures of a Chilehead. As far as I knew, I was coining a phrase, one that seemed apt for a concise collection of short stories crafted around a unifying theme.

Here's how the book evolved: A dozen years ago I wrote two stories featuring adventures I’ve had eating hot chile. About four years later I wrote a third, "Great Balls of Fire," within days of the featured event, almost before my mouth quit burning. I considered that story to be my declaration of independence from stomach-scarring scoville levels.  For eight years I referred to these three stories as my "Chilehead Trilogy." I wanted to do more with them, to turn them into what I refer to in The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing as a "story album" (otherwise known as an anthology).

Last year the light dawned. I could publish that trilogy as a Kindle book, just for the heckuvit. Just for fun. When I began working toward that end, I thought of more stories. Three stories evolved into ten chapters, plus the section of recipes. What began as a simple Kindle compilation expanded enough to work as a print version.

Weaving the eight stories into a cohesive whole, ensuring adequate background without repetition was a challenge, Drafting the introduction and concluding chapters even more so. But as typically happens with memoir, while massaging those stories and reflections, my love for this pungent fruit grew even deeper, along with my understanding of the way it grounds and roots me in the land I hold dear after  fifty-some years away.

Aside from the subject matter and recipes, this book differs from full-length memoir in an important respect. It's focused more sharply. It's about chile and me. Nothing more, nothing less. I mention relatives and relationships, but they stay in the background. I mention place, but only in passing. Yet within that strict focus, you can see changes in my thinking. Learning and growth did happen. I wrote as much as I have to say about chile, and let it go at that rather than forcing the issue and straying from truth, chasing elusive word count.

Just as tiny memory fragments power flash memoir, themed memory clusters illuminate mini-memoir, a great hit with busy readers. With Kindle and maybe CreateSpace, you can transform stacks of loose stories into themed mini-memoir for friends and family — and the rest of the world if you wish.

Write now: pull together an assortment of related stories. Look for the common thread linking them together. Find a logical order, reduce repetition and add elements to showcase that thread. Share with friends for feedback, add a cover and the requisite promo material and you're good to go to Amazon.

April 22, 2014

Flash Memoir–A Versatile Tool

LipsMany memories are tiny, so tiny they fit in a short paragraph. So tiny you may not think them stories at all. But don’t brush them away. They have stayed with you for a reason, and a much larger chunk of memory is usually attached to that alluring tag, one with deep richness that can develop into a lengthy tale, perhaps even a full-length memoir. Those fragments are worth exploring.

Journaling and writing practice are traditional ways of digging more deeply into the roots of memory. Flash memoir is yet another. In flash memoir, variously defined as stories under 500, 800 or 1000 words, you are challenged to develop a story concisely, framing it with crisp precision.

Writing flash memoir has more benefits, but first, an example. The following  474 word story grew from a micro-memory of mine:

First Kiss

He wraps his arms around me. I raise my head and his lips brush lightly against mine.
          Does this count as a kiss? My thought lasts longer than the kiss does. I smile bravely up at my tall date, hoping stars dance in my eyes. After all, I’ve been waiting my entire life for this moment, my first kiss from a boyfriend.     
          Is he a boyfriend? I’m not sure.
          His smile seems unsure. His arms fall as he steps back.
          “Uhm, well, goodnight…” He turns and walks down the steps and back to his truck that smells of hay and manure and damp cowboy boots. I open the door and go in.
          I feel empty, disappointed. This is not what I’ve dreamed of. I don’t feel any tingles with him. He’s tall, has a nice smile, but this six-foot-four, baby-faced cowboy seems bland as butter. Does he feel more passion for me than I do for him? We don’t hang around or have classes together. We only know each other from square-dancing. I think he needed a date tonight. So did I.
A month passes and we go square-dancing again. He picks me up early and takes me to his house and introduces me to his parents. His mother slouches on the couch with a book and cigarette. No makeup adorns her craggy face. Does she ever comb her stringy hair? It looks like she cuts it herself in the dark. This hag is married to a division head?
          Said division head sits in another corner of the room with the newspaper. He glances up and nods. Both smile when they hear that I just won second prize in the state Make-It-Yourself-With-Wool contest.
          “That’s nice,” says his mother, her beady eyes peering through wire-frame coke bottle glasses.
          We leave. Mission accomplished, I guess. What was this all about? Is he trying to make points with his parents? Why?
          During intermission, instead of gabbing with kids in our square, we wander outside. He puts his arm around my shoulders, maybe to keep us both warm in the evening chill. He talks about his horse. This is more like it. Will he kiss me for real? There may still be hope.
          He doesn’t.
          When he takes me home his lips brush mine twice. This time I don’t care.
Fifty years pass and we meet at a class reunion. He’s lean, weathered just right, still wearing cowboy boots. His smile lights up the room, twinkles flashing in crinkly eyes. This man evolved from that boy? Wow! He wraps his arms around me, right there in front of his dumpling queen wife, who watches with tiny sad eyes sunk deeply into her face. A lifetime of what-ifs swirls in my heart as our bodies cling together for six sizzling seconds.  
          I do not lift my face.

I worked for hours on these few words and discovered additional benefits from this compressed form:

    • It forced me to focus like a laser on the story topic and message.
    • It forced me to examine every word and prune anything that did not add value.
    • Ditto with details.
    • It forced me to craft precise, imaginative descriptions.

    As I pruned and clipped and crafted, a trove of related memories gushed to the surface, ready to be recorded for use in other stories or an expansion of this one. “Start small, grow big.” As I delved, I got deeply in touch with my insecure young self, realizing how much I didn’t yet know (and he probably didn’t either!). All that angst, that longing, came flooding back.

        This was beyond the usual concern with truth and general memoir considerations

        I urge you to have fun with flash memoir and use it to hone your editing skills. For an ongoing discussion of this sub-genre, tons more tips, and a list of places to post stories, visit Christine Houser’s FlashMemoirs website.

        By the way, I did not do all this editing in a vacuum. I shared the story with a group who pointed out rough spots I had not noticed. Never underestimate the power of a group for fine tuning stories.

        Write now: think of a micro-memory and draft a flash memoir of at least 100 words, but not more than 1000. Practice focus in every respect – content, wording, and description.