Blogging: To Thine Own Self Be True

Happy 2017 to you all!

For my first post in this new year, I want to introduce another form of publishing that is often overlooked: blogging. For those of you who have been considering starting a blog yet have been too intimidated to try, the experience of Karin Schmidt, my good friend and guest post contributor this month and prolific blogger at A Million Little Memoirs: Life Journey Recalled Through Memoir, will inspire and motivate you, and her advice will give you confidence. Blogging is typically viewed as a means to build your platform and writing résumé. But as you will see from Karin’s story, blogging offers many more joys and opportunities.

 

The first thing I did when thinking about blogging was watch the movie Julie and Julia. It’s the true story of how writer Julie Powell blogged while cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The result was a book deal (2005), a movie deal (2009), and being launched as a writer. My goals were less grand, but her experiences helped me in some surprising ways to find my own path.

In the movie, Julie let the whole experience unravel her life. She worried about who was reading her and if she was disappointing her readers. She had self-described meltdowns that wreaked havoc on her life, her work, and her marriage. This insanity was something I knew I wanted no part of.

I was sure of only one thing. If I was going to do this, it had to be for me. I wanted my work out there and thought this might give me a sense of accomplishment. If I were read, that would be icing on the cake. And if I received comments, that would be the sprinkles. Writing friends reminded me that once a piece is on a blog it is considered published. I decided I could live with that.

Lastly, I found help. I found someone with computer skills and her own blog. We met once a month, and she constructed my site. In between sessions, I began to post my writing and became more comfortable with the program. It was money well spent.

There are several different programs for designing and maintaining a blog with comparable options for layout and easy navigation. The programs keep statistics to check such things as number of visitors and an online support network for questions. I chose WordPress because I liked their layout and choices.

But I don’t think of what I do as blogging. To me, blogging is short, off-the-top-of-your-head musings. And that’s much different from what I do. I consider my site a website. My pieces are essays, personal essays and memoir essays. Each piece is a complete story. I pay no attention to word count; I’m just interested in telling the story.

I have over a dozen pages on my website so my stories can be posted into the appropriate category. I have a page for family stories, another for retirement essays, as well as for work, girlfriend, health, poetry, and even a page about writing. I’ve been doing this for two and a half years and have 135 pieces posted. For any piece that was previously published elsewhere, I’ve included the date and place of publication at the beginning of the post. This process has me writing nearly every day and always working on something.

I was curious about Julie Powell’s life after her blog, and her follow-up story has an interesting lesson for all writers. Julia Child’s editor says that Julia didn’t appreciate the expletives and other personal matters Powell included on the blog. Child would not endorse the book or meet her, saying Powell was doing this as a joke and seemed “flimsy.”

Julie Powell is now famous enough to be on Wikipedia. But perhaps she’s more importantly an example of why it’s imperative to know yourself and your goals before putting your material on the Internet in whatever form you choose. I’m energized and motivated to write all my stories. Now I have a place to put them. I keep doing it because it fits my writing goals. But I’m also careful of the impression I’m making.

 

 

Critique Groups

This month’s guest post is by Ed Abell, author of the award-winning My Father’s Keep, a deeply moving memoir of forgiveness, promise-keeping, and the power of love and grace over addiction and its deep effect on others. In this post, Ed shares his experience while he was in the process of writing his book and conveys well the importance of critique groups and their many benefits. To learn more about Ed’s journey and to purchase his book, which I had the honor to edit, please visit him at www.wisconsciousness.org.

 

Just the words “critique group” strike terror in most folks. Someone else will judge my work, in front of EVERYONE. They will all be better than me. Do I even belong in the same room as those other writers?

Yes. I know from experience. I had been an industrial designer. I drew pictures for a living. I’d never written anything in my life, but I found myself with a compelling story to tell. I had a book in me. A comprehensive writing class led to honing my skills in a critique group.

To learn to swim, you must enter the water. To write well, you must first find your voice. Where in this wonderful world do you look for that? Simple, you start banging on the keys or scribbling on the pad, writing what you think you should. You read it to the group and get reactions. Of course I sucked for starters, but I’d been a professional designer sitting in front of clients. Criticism wasn’t personal. Additionally, I had this wonderful chance to experiment and I had a very passionate story to tell.

I was writing a memoir so I read other memoirs that I felt had voice. It wasn’t my voice, and it’s not something you can copy, but I began to see what works. The best of them always seemed to be rendered without wasting a word.

My group averaged eight people a session. I learned straightaway that I could depend on good feedback from the group leader and several others. Many members were there to show off or simply read the same things over and over again. Fair enough. I was learning, and I knew who was there to help me.

We only brought 1,500 to 2,000 words with us to each session. Nobody knew the whole story, not even me at the time. That wasn’t the purpose of the critique. We all brought copies for the entire group. Each individual would pass his or her copies around and read it to the group. Then he or she sat in dreadful silence for ten minutes as each member wrote comments on the copies. The group leader would choose two or three people to comment, saving her own opinion for last. The author’s job was to sit and listen, without debating or defending him- or herself. All the marked-up copies was then returned to the author. I would read all the comments on my copies when I got home. Punctuation was generally ignored. (That’s what editors are for later in the writing process.) Sometimes there were question marks. Parts people liked were underlined. Everyone wrote notes in the margin. Those notes were the tiller, private comments, usually positive, sometimes extremely personal, and always a course correction or a steady as she goes. In a little over a year, I found I had a knack for similes (painting word pictures) and syntax (words arranged to create well-formed sentences).

Then came the day when I shared a scene. When I finished reading, the group leader canvased the members, “Who wants to go first?” One of the ladies, whose opinion I trusted, looked up at me from her copy of my paragraphs and said, “This is music.”

On the way home that night I felt like my mission had been accomplished. I could write. My voice turned out to be me, sitting quietly, brutally honest, and writing from my heart. Dipping into the same well of creativity and inspiration I had used as a designer, only using words rather than magic markers and pencils.

Not every critique group is the same. Some are even genre specific. Ask around and do some research. Also, ask yourself why you are joining a group. What do you expect to get out of the experience: learning, sense of community, networking, or perhaps finding your voice?

Our leader at Red Oak Writing paid me a wonderful compliment when my book, My Father’s Keep, won two international and two national self-publishing awards. She said, “You were successful because you came into the group knowing that you didn’t know. You were a sponge, unafraid to learn. That’s not everyone’s agenda.”

Terrifying yes, but it was worth passing through that portal.

 

 

 

 

Writing Is Doing the Hard Work of Justice

I am honored to have Brian Forschner, author of the compelling Cold Serial: The Jack the Strangler Murders, his wife, Joyce, and his granddaughter as authors of the guest post this month. I met Brian about six years ago through an online writing group, and three years later, Brian began sharing with me his research for his book, which I ultimately had the privilege and honor of editing. As does Cold Serial, this post conveys Brian’s heart and passion for justice and his belief in the power of the written word.

 

Sixty students had tackled their eighth-grade capstone project. The theme was “Justice and the complexity of story.” The words of Malala, a favorite quote of the class, became a battle cry for the students: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” So sixty “pens” and one teacher went to work. The project entailed searching for sixty “voices,” defined as individuals whose stories illustrate the concept of justice. Students interviewed their “voices” and then wrote a summary of their conversation. These stories were then compiled and published in a book entitled Hear My Story: Be My Voice.

The day to unveil the book finally arrived; the audience of parents, grandparents, and other middle school students did not know what to expect. The ceremony began with a moving ritual honoring the “voices.” Each was met by his or her student “pen,” presented with a white rose, symbolic of hope, escorted up the aisle of the one hundred-year-old chapel, and seated near the altar. A priest and a rabbi then offered reflections, which were followed by the son of an Auschwitz survivor whose story had spearheaded the project. Given time constraints, only a few of the “voices” spoke, each briefly telling his or her powerful story, and the audience was awestruck and deeply moved by their words. The speakers were a Western Saharan woman, ousted from her country by invading Moroccans, now a human rights activist; a granddaughter who spoke for her grandfather, a WWII decorated veteran, who was present; and a high school student who spoke of his mother, a beloved teacher at the school. He told of her long battle with depression, culminating in her suicide. Many in the chapel were brought to tears listening to his words. The audience realized they had just witnessed a sacred moment and responded to the stories in the only way they knew how: a standing ovation.

A minister closed with a prayer. The students then filed out and went to the school cafeteria for a luncheon in honor of the “voices.”

The “pens” may not have anticipated the impact of their efforts. This is true for us writers. We often do not know the impact of what we say. Perhaps that is why and how stories should be told, innocently, truthfully, vulnerably, and forcefully, placing the words upon the page, allowing the reader to digest, feel, know, critique, admire, and act. Then the writer moves on to tell the next story, and the next and the next. This book, Hear My Story: Be My Voice, is a witness to the nature of doing justice. It is telling story after story, each building on the veracity of the previous one, words woven together into a tapestry illustrating justice.

This was hard work for the students and their teacher. Writing is hard work. Justice is hard work. Writing is doing the hard work of justice. A key learning from this project was that, in every era, words can bring about justice and change.

Malala would be proud.

Process: Where Life Happens

Right after I wrote my last post (January 2016 “Taking Stock”), I got sick. Down-for-the-count sick. No longer do I have the bounce-back I did in my twenties. Or thirties. Okay, or even my forties. Gone are the days of a round of antibiotics and I’m up and at ’em, good as new, back to business as usual.

It didn’t take too much reflection for me to realize that I had gotten so sick because I had, once again, burned it at both ends, leaving me a flamed out pile of ash. Having long been a get-it-done kind of person with an overdeveloped work ethic, I derived way too much satisfaction—one could even say I was addicted—to accomplishment and achievement. Even when I felt like I was at the tail end of crack the whip, I was still compelled to keep all the balls in the air and considered every day that I managed to do just that a good one. But when I found myself bedridden, too sick to move or even care, I knew something had to change—and that something was my thinking about life and myself. Rather than focusing so intently upon the end result of my efforts, or the product, I have learned that I need to focus on how I do things, or the process. Product is important, yes. But the process is where life happens and where the quality of that life lies.

This hard-earned wisdom applies to all of us, especially we driven, ambitious perfectionists. Whether writing a book, story, essay, or article, editing one (or all), building a business or platform, or promoting a business or newly published book, what is the point of achieving our goals if we are too burned out and sick to enjoy the fruits of our labor? I now know that I’ve crossed the line when striving for the goal supersedes taking care of myself and enjoying the trip. Since my bout of illness this past winter, I am now all about quality of life over quantity of achievement. Maybe I’ve finally learned my lesson.

As a result, I have developed a much more reasonable and sane strategy for my work life. No more working late into the evenings, getting to bed late, and sleeping poorly, only to get up feeling hung-over (only I’m really not) and dragging myself back to the computer and doing it all over again. Now I finish work by no later than 5:30 p.m. and work only five days a week, which gives me the downtime I need to actually relax and nurture other important areas of my life. And I can honestly say that I am even more productive.

So what about you? Are you focused strictly on product? Or do you have a healthy process on your way to the goal, all while keeping your eye on the prize?

Writing Funny

Humor writing is a conundrum that baffles even the most prolific writer. A situation in real life that causes people to howl with laughter can and often does fall flat on the page. Why?

Apart from the highly subjective nature of humor, I’ve found writing that is universally perceived as humorous has three qualities: a distinct voice, honesty, and fearlessness.

Distinct Voice 

It makes sense that a person whose writing is humorous is also funny in person. For example, Michael Perry, Anne Lamott, and David Sedaris are hilarious on the page as well as when they speak. The key is they write like they speak, capturing the cadence, timing, language, and sensibility that is uniquely their own. A writer with a distinct voice shows up fully as him- or herself on the page. This is a must in all good writing, but it is vital in humor writing.

Honesty

Writing that causes readers to guffaw is honest. It tells the truth as the writer sees it, and is oftentimes factually true, yet is conveyed without judgment or bias. The fact just is, and this honesty adds vitality and integrity to the story. For example, Michael Perry writes about a cross-eyed butcher, a true fact about a real person. You laughed out loud just thinking about it, right? I do every time!

Fearlessness

Humor writers bravely go where most people fear to tread, saying and admitting to things that most of us reveal only to our therapists who are paid and bound by law to keep our secrets. Yet humor writers bare all for all the world to see. Their vulnerability and integrity make them highly relatable, and their bold fearlessness makes us laugh from shock, recognition, and awe.

If you are one who leaves people in stitches, you can on the page as well. Learn how from the master, Michael Perry, who will be the keynote speaker at the Wisconsin Writers Association Fall Conference and will also participate in a panel discussion called “You Write Funny” on October 3.

The Power of Punctuation

You might want to consider having a copy editor on retainer.

Late last month, a judge of the 12th Ohio District Court of Appeals ruled that a parking ticket be overturned due to—wait for it—a missing comma. The village ordinance refers to the unlawful parking of “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle for a continued period of twenty-four hours …” However, the vehicle that was ticketed was a pickup truck, not a “motor vehicle camper,” which the owner cleverly pointed out in her appeal. And the judge agreed. It would have been a different story if the ordinance had read, “motor vehicle, camper, trailer …” It wouldn’t even be a story if that were the case. This is the power of punctuation in living color.

I’ve long known the power of punctuation. Thirty years ago, as a secretary in the loan department of a bank, I typed real estate descriptions for mortgage loans on every pertinent document, as this was years before word processors and decades before computers with the time-saving cut-and-paste feature. My boss and I then read these descriptions out loud to each other, ensuring that each word, comma, and period matched the original. One mistake could have caused a ripple effect of grief and aggravation down the line. (Hmmm … perhaps this was my training for my current profession.)

I can’t help but wonder if the eagle-eyed Ohio woman was a copy editor. At any rate, let her experience be a lesson to you. The next time you get a parking or speeding ticket, be sure to have your trusty copy editor look it over. She just might find a loophole.

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”

As another Fourth of July approaches, I’m struck by the sad reality that the true meaning of this holiday—our independence, our freedom—has been replaced with thoughts of camping trips, cookouts, and fireworks.

All freedoms listed in the Bill of Rights are precious, but the one near and dear to the heart of every writer is the freedom of speech and the press. Not only is this a constitutional right, it is also a privilege, one we too often take for granted in this country. My blood runs cold whenever I read or hear a news report about the imprisonment and, in many instances, the execution of authors and journalists who dared to write the truth, their truth. These brave writers, along with the tens of thousands of military troops who have sacrificed their lives, not to mention the sacrifice of their families, remind us that freedom is not free. Nor is it a license to abuse or endanger others. With freedom comes responsibility, the responsibility to respect one another and protect our common welfare while maintaining our individual integrity.

As you gaze upon Lady Liberty, remember what she stands for. Remember that you not only have the right to express yourself through your writing, you also have the privilege to do so. And the responsibility—to be true to yourself and to your readers, who need to hear your stories, thoughts, and insights as only you can tell them.

What you have to say matters—and you have the right and privilege to share it with the world. So don’t give up. Keep writing.

Blocked? Don’t Fight It

I struggled with writing this article all month. Ideas came to mind only to fizzle once I began researching them. Then when one finally took root, some unidentifiable force ran interference between the page and me while simultaneously tapping its wrist with its finger and the floor with its toe, saying, “C’mon! You have a deadline!”

Blocked when faced with the blank page yet pressured by the tick-tick-tick that sounded more like a time bomb than a clock filled me with panic and my head with “what ifs” that multiplied like rabbits: What if I don’t make my deadline? What if my article isn’t helpful? What if I sound stupid, or pompous? What if people don’t like it—or me? What if … what if … what if … ?

Sound familiar?

I’ve long ago learned that the creative spirit cannot be forced to perform according to my, or anyone else’s, dictates. Nor does it give a rip about deadlines. Rather, it’s like a stream of water breaking away from the river and carving its own path through dry land—it moves when and where it will and at its own pace. Trying to “push the river,” as I call it, only results in drowning in my own frustration. So, stymied, I did the only thing I could: surrender. And then I did the next best thing: I parked on the couch and lost myself in my current guilty pleasure: episodes of the series Brothers and Sisters, along with a hefty bowl of salted caramel ice cream. Since I couldn’t write, I may as well relax and enjoy myself, I reasoned.

After an hour of blissful escapism, there was a scene where Nora and Kitty were commiserating over a bottle of wine, when Nora said, “You won’t do anyone any good by pretending to be less than what you are.” I bolted upright as if struck by lightning. Grabbing my pen and paper, I began writing, “what ifs” finally in the backseat, where they belong.

I can’t explain how Nora’s well-timed words broke through my block, but I know it had something to do with my surrendering. A power struggle with writer’s block never ends well for the writer, as, like struggling in quicksand, the block will always win. Rather, I’ve learned the only way out is to lay down my will, give up the fight, and let the creative spirit lead me through the chaos of creativity—this time where it wants to go, not where I do.

I no longer view writer’s block as an enemy. Rather, it’s a reminder that once again I’m trying to play it safe and control the uncontrollable. I don’t know about you, but I like guarantees, such as readers’ and editing clients’ positive reactions, and am sometimes leery of veering off the beaten path. But playing it safe requires that I be less than who I am, and as Nora said, then I won’t do anyone any good. And doing others some good, even in a small measure, is why I write and edit in the first place.

The Necessity of Slowing Down

Fast food. Microwaves. Speed dating. Twitter. Life today runs like the scrolling electronic tickers at the bottom of financial television shows. And writing is no exception. Just the other day, I happened across a book online touting how to write, market, and publish a bestseller (of course) in less than three months!

I don’t know about you, but everything in me resists this frenzied and ever-increasing pace. Although I may appear calm and steady, inwardly my default setting is a cross between the Energizer Bunny and that aggravating, cymbal-clanging monkey who does a back flip every five seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned how to achieve and maintain my equilibrium, but the lure to the Land of Busybusybusy is relentless, ever nipping at my heels.

So hearing novelist John Dufresne speak about the necessity of slowing down this past weekend at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute was like chocolate raining from heaven. Referring to his book Is Life Like this? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John said of the subtitle, “It’s a lie. I can’t do it.” (Apparently, his editor insisted on this subtitle over his protestations.) He then went on to say, “Slow down. Take your time,” and described his process for doing so. In the midst of my running from one information- and camaraderie-rich session to another, this successful, prolific author confirmed what my frazzled spirit already knew but needed reminding yet again: Slow. Down.

We’re told that moving at warp speed is a necessity if we are to achieve the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. But it’s a lie. All that brings meaning and beauty to life is not accomplished overnight. As it takes time for a fetus to develop in its mother’s womb before it’s ready to be birthed into the world, it takes time to create a transformative work of art, be it a book, a painting, a sculpture, or a rose garden. Ideas and stories, like babies and flowers, need time to incubate and germinate in the dark before they are thrust into the light of day.

So slow down. Take your time. Nurture your babies, literary and otherwise. Don’t push them into the world before they–and you–are ready. You’ll know it when you both are.

Reflections

As I reflect on this past year, I have had the privilege to bear witness to the achievements of many writers—and, in some cases, I have had the honor as an active participant in them. Some finished writing a book, and some started writing one. Some are days away from publication, and some are researching their options. Some created blogs and author websites, and some submitted to publications and contests. Some branched out and developed their skills in another genre, and some marketed their newly published treasure through readings, speaking engagements, social media, and book signings. And some are now brainstorming, researching, or actively writing their next book, and some are doing the same with their first book.

All of these are admirable achievements, and each one was accomplished through perseverance, commitment, and desire to communicate to the world through the author’s gift of writing. I applaud them all and am blessed to have each one of them in my life.

Wherever you are in your journey, I celebrate you. May you follow your heart in 2015.