Big Girl Pants

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Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

It was raining lightly when I got to the Borough Hall Station. I saw the sign on the street; all I needed was to find the entrance. People walked snappily by, like they knew where to go, and I wanted to look that way too.

When I was young, New York City was my dream place to live and work, the apex of my career girl life. In the 1960s, we called grown women girls and didn’t think anything of it. You could count the career girls in my upstate New York mill town on two hands: teachers, nurses, one doctor. Was a “private secretary” a career girl? My parents wanted me to go to Mildred Elley Secretarial School in Schenectady. But like Richard Russo’s mom, who lived in a nearby town, I longed to be Elsewhere.

It took a while. After college, there were business trips to midtown on the train to and from Philly, and whole days in big convention hotels with other librarians. Post-career now, I write and teach. I want to write well, to learn how it’s done, and so I travel to writing conferences in the literary city, sophistication town, like the big girl I want to be.

Sometimes I’m still the scared Catholic schoolgirl inside, remaking herself late in life. After two times crossing the street in drizzle, I found the subway staircase from the street. A young black man held a door for me as I deliberately stepped down. I thanked him, pleased that of all the busy people, he stopped for me, because he saw me looking uncertain. My son who lives in Brooklyn said, take the 2 train uptown, it’s best, to Times Square, then the 1 right across the platform to 50th Street. On the 2, a young Hispanic woman offered me her seat. I smiled no thanks, then saw the sign: Please give seat to the elderly or disabled. Okay, fair enough. I feel slow, unsure, and frazzled by the rain, the confusion, the tangle of people in every direction. My son was right; I got off the 2 and the 1 was right across from me, waiting. It all seemed to work for me that day. It has to, my son’s girlfriend says, in a city this big you have to be civil.

At 50th, I walked upstairs and took out my foldout laminated map, walked to 6th between 53rd and 54th  and laughed as I spotted my conference hotel.

People around me paid no attention. Cars, buses, and taxis clattered by. Storefronts glittered, the rain stopped, and my heart lifted like the red one on the T-shirt I refused to buy because it’s too tourist hokey. I heart NY. I really do.

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Have you done something you were scared to try? Big or small, share it in the comments and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Styx and Stone: an Ellie Stone mystery by James W. Ziskin. Ellie is a career girl in 1960s New Holland, New York, a thinly disguised version of my home town of Amsterdam, who travels to New York City.

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The winner of this month’s drawing is Cheryl. She gets a signed copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s By Invitation Only.  Visit her terrific blog, Mind Kind Mom. Congratulations, Cheryl, and thanks for your comment last month!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The In Between Time

This is the week in the year when I feel most in-between.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are over and a New Year waits in the wings. I feel like the director of a play in which I hold back the actors for just another moment. Not yet, it’s not quite time, we’re not ready, please wait.

This is the week I launder the tablecloths from Christmas dinner, recycle dented gift boxes and toss out leftovers nobody wants to eat. It’s the week to relax and enjoy the pile of new books I received and to binge watch The Crown and A Place to Call Home, an Australian drama my husband and I both love. We’re both retired from our careers and enjoy artistic pursuits and volunteer work, but this week even those things take a back seat to just lounging and reflecting, reading…and eating.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I’m a “reflector” by trade. This in-between time seems made for me. No rush, nowhere I have to go. I’m preparing for a party in the New Year, but even that feels relaxed, checking if we have enough wine, beer, plastic ware and ice.

I journal every day, but this week I read about other people doing the same. The newspapers, internet, and even TV all offer stories about new resolutions and looking back. It’s quite a lot of pressure to do something.

But not right now. I took a year off from teaching to finish my first novel. The second one is outlined, but I just can’t get into it yet. I have a new memoirs class coming up in March, so I need to plan. I’ve published four essays this year, and I’d like to write more. I finished editing A Woman of Worth, a project I’d been working on for a couple of years.  I have an idea for another book-length memoir. But none of these projects is calling me right now.

I could be anxious about that, but I feel lucky I can stay here a while. The kids are grown and living their own lives. Whatever I choose to do or not do is up to me. The weather is freezing cold and we’re in between snow storms here in southeastern PA. I know another one is coming but we’re not sure when.

So, this is the week I ignore the inner urge to “do something productive.” I read over the Christmas cards and newsletters, remember the leisurely conversations shared with family and friends by the fireplace, and allow gratitude for the love, warmth and companionship that graces this time of year.

There is a certain pressure to make a “to do” list for 2018. I know I work best when I choose one project to put most of my energy behind. This in between week feels a bit uneasy, but I’m going to stick with it. If we hurtle from project to project, we don’t fully appreciate what we’ve accomplished. We don’t allow ourselves to enjoy having written, being published, hosting a dinner party, receiving gifts. I’ll meditate every day and let myself off the hook for productivity for now.

What about you? What do you do when you’re not sure what to do next?

Comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing for my next giveaway: The Promise of Pierson Orchard by Kate Brandes.  Written by an environmental scientist, it’s the story of what happens when fracking comes to a rural community, told through the eyes of a family already breaking apart. Speaking of what to do next! You’re sure to enjoy this balanced look at both sides of the environmental debate.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Nannette Benson-Nicol. She gets an autographed copy of An Uncertain Path by Sandra Carey Cody. Congratulations, Nannette!

Time Enough

 

Seventeen years ago this fall, I collected acorns from my driveway and put them in my pocket as symbols of rebirth. When I entered the hospital for major surgery, I took the acorns with me, as well as these affirmations for the surgeon: “I am very pleased with this operation.” “Linda’s surgery is a big success.” “Linda will heal quickly.”

He was, it was and I did. Life went on, as it does, and I got older. A big birthday last year jolted me into a state of anxious rumination. Had I done enough with my life? Short answer: No. So, what’s an older woman to do? I journaled and pulled my spiritual reading off the shelf. I started a new spiritual practice, lighting a candle and reading something inspirational, then journaling about it for 20 minutes, first thing in the morning.

That year of rumination is almost up, and I’m pleased to say the anxiety is going away, albeit slowly. Somehow, I realized I had done quite a lot. That the years I remembered as preoccupied, worried, angry or scared were my learning time. The twenty years since I began writing about my life have been my practice time. Some of my work was published, much of it not. Some of my time was spent writing, much of it not.

Yesterday, after an outside appointment, I thought of stopping to pick up some birdseed, or to spend that coupon from the clothing store, or maybe pick up a latte. But my writing had taken over part of my mind and so I drove straight home and sat down at my desk.

One reason I’m motivated to write these days is the example of other women like myself. Women like romantic suspense author Alice Orr. Her latest novel, A Time of Fear and Loving, is the fifth in her Riverton Road series. I met Alice through the International Women’s Writing Guild. She is a former book editor and literary agent who suggested I turn my complicated first novel into a trilogy, advice I am happy to say I am following.

Alice is the author of 16 novels, 3 novellas, a memoir and No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript that Sells. She is a mother and grandmother, and she’s not letting the passage of time get in her way.

I hadn’t read romantic suspense since I was in my twenties, but reading Alice’s work reminds me how much I loved this genre. I was pleasantly surprised to find her series is set in the North Country, the beautiful part of upstate New York near the river town where I was born and raised. In this latest book, a young widow investigates the disappearance of her old friend and soon runs into a long ago crush who is now a police officer with his own issues from serving in Afghanistan.

So, here’s the question: how does the passage of time affect you? Do you ignore it? Do you use it to motivate you? Something else? Comment on this post and I’ll put your name in the hat to win a signed copy of A Time of Fear and Loving.

I’d love to read your thoughts.

The winner of last month’s drawing is Susan Schoch.  I’m sending her my copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Pawley’s Island.

 

Mercy, mercy me!

 

20140308_043253Maybe it’s my Polish Catholic upbringing, but the themes of forgiveness and mercy are showing up in the books I choose to read. And a glance at the magazines near the supermarket checkout would lead us to believe we have much to forgive. Whether it’s how to be a better parent or spouse or cook or lover, our culture says we are doing it all wrong. We need to work harder to correct our ways.

I’m all for self-improvement – to a point. The older I get, the closer that point is to where I am today: human, imperfect and perfectly okay. Self-blame is corrosive and saps our energy. I’m encouraged by the recent upsurge in magazines about simple living and authors who advocate getting rid of self-doubt.

All this may explain why I related to Dorothea Benton Frank’s 2005 novel, Pawley’s Island.  When artist Rebecca Simms loses custody of her children to her cheating husband, her self-esteem is already at rock bottom. She judges herself harshly for simple mistakes until a retired female attorney with her own guilty conscience comes to her rescue and learns to forgive herself in the process.

Often, it’s our friends we turn to when our self-image needs a boost. I count on women who have known me for decades or just a year to remind me I’m worthy of love, despite my mistakes. They teach me that mercy is for everyone, including me. They have also, on occasion, come up with some good solutions for knotty problems, but only when I ask. Most of us, most of the time, can figure things out for ourselves. We just want our pals to be there, cheering us on through the sticky parts.

What about you? Have your friends helped you navigate those days when you wanted to pull the covers back over your head? I’d love to hear about it. This time next month, I’ll randomly pick one person who comments to receive my copy of Pawley’s Island.

And speaking of next month, come see me and a bunch of other writers on Sunday,  October 15th at the Prallsville Mill  in Stockton, New Jersey, for River Reads. Lots of fun – wine, crepes, readings, signings and workshops!

 

When Things Were Not So Different

The following is a blog piece I wrote last year and never published. I think it’s time to let it out into the world.

Today I went to a life celebration for one of my memoir students. Lee was 93, a sweet and gentle man who smiled at his own frailties and took seriously all my suggestions to make his writing better. The gathering was small but filled with love and laughter as his family recalled his attention to detail and his endless storytelling.

It’s been a tough week here in the U.S. of A. Another mass shooting, angry ranting in the media, social and public, about the merits of gun control and the true tenets of a religion whose extremist members are suicidal would be killers.

Added to that is the ever present fact that I’m not getting any younger. No moisturizer or beauty sleep will iron out the wrinkles on my face. No amount of zumba or chiropractic will stave off forever the aches in my back and knees. I feel the pressure of time. Enjoy life, now, while you can, I tell myself. Use each moment to live your best life, there may be no tomorrow.

How can I reconcile my desire to accomplish certain things, to savor each moment, and to rewire my brain for happiness with the outside world and its horrors?

Can I stop watching the news? Cut off my social media? I’ll know it’s there anyway.

Hearing about Lee’s long and full life, at the funeral home this morning, at the lunch the family hosted afterward, and in his stories in my memoir class, I understand why this man was so loved. He was kind, he was gentle, he was tender. He lived through another horrific time: the Second World War, and worked as a young scientist on a secret project in the desert, far from home. And went on to establish a family and a network of friends, a home and a lifetime of useful work.

My mother once told me of the sad and lonely wartime Christmas holidays, for three or four years in succession, when she missed her husband and three brothers, all of them in mortal danger, knowing she’d only hear from them weeks after a letter was written, hopefully always by them and even then not knowing for sure they were all right.

We’ve been through tough times before. The world is like that. This is our time, and we can hide from that truth or use our time here to make our patch of earth and sky, the place from which our light shines forth, warm and suffused with love. A comfort. Like Lee.

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One Thing At a Time

 

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photo credit: Wojtek Witkowski at Unsplash.com

Writer Louise DeSalvo has been a favorite of mine ever since I picked up her memoir, Vertigo. Because I love to read, write and teach memoir, I recommend her work and delve back into it for my classes. Writing as a Way of Healing and The Art of Slow Writing are two treasure troves of advice, quotes and tips from famous and successful authors as well as very personal anecdotes and helpful encouragement from DeSalvo herself. For the past ten years, her words have kept me going when I needed a friendly push to keep telling my own story.

Often, I find my mind spinning with ideas. I have a hard time deciding which one to focus on. Which writing project best deserves my attention? Which is a waste of time? I don’t know. I want to know. Ahead of time, before I even write it.

The next novel, a short story, a personal essay? I have files of unfinished pieces. I open one and get bored with it before I finish reading the entire draft. I reach for Slow Writing. I flip to a highlighted page. “In writing, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do; it only matters that you choose to do something.” Yes, but isn’t there a best thing to write today? Apparently not, or at least, there’s no way to know what that ‘best’ thing is. Like meditation, just sitting down and doing the practice is the answer.  I know from experience that the “best” way to meditate is to just do it. Let the crazy thoughts fly in and out and focus on your breath or mantra. In writing, DeSalvo says it works best if she focuses on one decision at a time. Write five hundred words. Develop the characters. Add details. Line edit word by word.And so on. One thing at a time. I can do this.

DeSalvo says it gets easier with practice and I believe her. Because most things do. Meditating. Exercising. Healthy eating. Cooking. Why not writing?

What about you? Do you have a book of writing advice you love? What do you do when you can’t decide what to write?

 

 

Rest When You Are Weary

Today I’m back from a week in the mountains, where I wrote for 2 or 3 hours every day, went on long hikes and read. A retreat I had planned all summer, hoping to finish revising the novel I’ve been working on for years.

What happened with the writing:

I found plot holes and plugged them.
I tied up loose ends in the story.
I found ways to make the main character’s actions believable.

But…

I didn’t finish.
I figured out how to make the story better, which means:
I have about 25% more of the novel to draft, then revise. I have been writing long enough to know that means more than one revision.

The good news:

My story is really fun to write and spending so much time on it makes me eager to keep going.
After months of struggle, it’s all coming together.
I know exactly what to do to “bring everybody home,” which means all major characters reach a satisfying conclusion.

Now I’m back in my regular world where:

Laundry must be washed, dried and put away
Phone calls and email messages need replies
I need to get some exercise today

But I’m tired, physically, mentally, even emotionally. The end of things, even a vacation writing retreat in the beautiful mountains, always makes me a little sad.  And writing, even when it’s fun and good and rewarding, makes me tired.

The weather is gloomy now, which doesn’t help. So I’ll put off the to-do list for later. First, I’ll curl up with a good book I started this week: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro. And maybe I’ll take a nice little nap.

Why not? Do you need a “good reason” to rest besides being just plain tired?


Publish Before I Perish



I’ve been working on my novel for several years now; I have lost count of how many years exactly. At workshops given by experienced novelists, I always learn something that will make my story better. I love the process of adding subtext, developing characters, and using place mini-crises to move the plot forward. But some days, like today, I allow myself to feel discouraged by all I have to do before I am finished.

Because I read writers’ newsletters, blogs and social network posts, I know many authors are churning out thousands of words a day, publishing their exciting novels, meeting with agents…and I wonder if I am too slow. Will I ever be ready to say “it’s done?” Will I live that long?
Although I’ve always loved to write, it was only after my fiftieth birthday I began to take my writing seriously, to send my work out into the world, to make money from it. Feature stories for the local paper, magazine articles and personal essays take me hours, days, weeks to complete. I don’t think it has anything to do with perfection. I just want my work to be the best it can be.
Some Monday mornings, it seems I’ll perish before I publish my first novel, which may well be my only novel. I can’t just throw it out there, unvarnished, not when I know better. The only thing to do, I guess, is to get back to work.
Let me know if you find an easier way. Please.

My Weekend as a Travel Guide

This past weekend, I got to open a window and peek into other people’s lives.

For the memoir workshop I taught at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, attendees submitted pieces a few weeks in advance for critique. And as always, the stories were heartfelt, moving and inspiring.

A little black girl and her family traveled through the 1950s South, searching for a bathroom they could use without being arrested.
A man visited his father’s people in Ireland, people who played the violin after working a long day on the farm.
A woman fought fiercely to preserve land threatened by development.
A young doctor’s growing numbness in her feet led to a diagnosis of MS.
A woman became her father’s caretaker and learned an important lesson about herself.

So many different ways to tell a real life story: the historical context, the ecology of the land, cultural memories, the messages of illness and more.

Memoirist Patricia Hampl said “memoir is travel writing, …notes taken along the way…”

Last weekend, I was honored to be a guide for a small part of that journey. I am still basking in the afterglow.

Simple Days

In my never ending quest to find balance in my Off Kilter life, I discovered a wonderful book. Quite by accident. Or seredipity. Or maybe it was just meant to be.

In February, I traveled to a women lifewriters conference in Austin, TX and entered a silent auction for a book by a writer I had met 9 years earlier in Manhattan. At another women writers conference. She autographed her first book, A Voice of Her Own, about women and journaling.

Mine was the top bid for the auction book, and so I happily took home Simple Days by the remarkable Canadian writer, Marlene Schiwy.

So many parts of the book spoke straight to my heart, I’ve taken it as my guide for this year. “…we end up feeding false hungers,” she writes,” while our genuine yearning for meaning goes unaddressed.”

She writes, walks, sews, bakes muffins and teaches writing workshops.

I write, walk, quilt, teach memoir workshops…and freelance for two papers, substitute at a public library, practice yoga, read a LOT, belong to four writers’ organizations, watch too much TV news, spend too much time on the Internet, and worry about my kids in my spare time.

Do you see why I want to be like her?

A simple life, she writes, demands “constant vigilance against the seductions of productivity and importance.”

My Off Kilter life is seduced by the demand for recognition. But I want to write well, and that takes time. And is not productive for a long time. Until I get it right.

With Simple Days as my guide, I am balanced on the edge of contentment.

Characters

The novel is slowly taking shape, mainly because I am writing it. Who knew? LOL
These things don’t happen by themselves. A friend asked me if my characters are taking over and telling me what they want to do next. I wish they would! My characters are just standing around, doing laundry and shopping…