Category Archives: Writing

Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves

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My scheduled creative cemetery prompt today was a photo of the monument at Mt.Hope Cemetery, marking the place where several hundred graves of paupers, convicts, and the insane were re-interred after their bodies had been found in Highland Park in 1984, when bulldozers uncovered them while landscaping.

I scheduled the creative prompt photos days ago, and set them to post daily so that I don’t have to think about them. That means that my writing plan today was different than the photo – I was all set to write about a local madam. But this morning I decided I wanted to add something more to today’s photo caption, so I set out to find a quick fact – and ended up writing a draft about the institutions where these people lived.

It was a fascinating rabbit trail – and I’ll work on “Tilly’s” story tomorrow. But I thought you might like to see a bit of what I’ve uncovered today. Continue reading

National Novel Writing Month and creative prompts from the cemetery

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National Novel Writing Month started today, and while I don’t write fiction I am using the month to focus on getting a huge chunk of writing done on my book about cemeteries.

And I’m inviting you to play along at home!

Throughout the month, I’m going to post some creative prompts on my Facebook page, inspired by Mt. Hope Cemetery. As I’m writing about my experiences in the cemetery and the residents who have captured my attention, I’ll share some of my favorite photos of epitaphs, tombstones, scenery, and interment records. Use them to inspire your own creative efforts – and if they do, feel free to share links in the comment section!

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Confessions of an office (and school) supply addict

photo courtesy of pixabay

photo courtesy of pixabay

(Note: This post is cross posted at Patheos.com)

I spent a half hour today sharpening pencils. I enjoy the act of standing at an old-fashioned sharpener and turning the crank, hearing the blade grind the wood and graphite to a fine point and watching the shavings build into a pile at my feet. It helps me clear my head when I’m stressed, on a column deadline, or stumped by the Sunday crossword.

I picked up the yellow No. 2 pencils while I was out running errands. I limited myself to just one box because the truth is that if I didn’t, I would have skipped the milk and bread and spent the grocery money on school supplies.

Never mind that I don’t have kids in school anymore or that I’m not in school myself. It’s “Back to School” time, which means supplies are on sale, and that’s a dangerous time of the year for me.

Because I’m an office supply addict.

I have an abnormal addiction to pens, paper, pencils, notepads, journals—you name it. I rarely walk out of a store without purchasing some sort of stationery item—paper clips, file folders or a snazzy new pen.

I have a notebook in every room in my house, one in my car and one in my purse, so when I have an idea I can write it down quickly, before I forget it. I keep a supply of pocket folders in a range of colors to suit my every mood. I have a panic attack if I can’t find my stapler.

I think my addiction is rooted in my childhood. As a kid, I loved getting ready for the new school year, the smell of autumn and new possibilities in the air, my book bag filled with folders, freshly sharpened pencils and clean, white notebook paper just begging to be filled with stories, notes and essays.

Every fall, I would vow that this would be the year I would stay organized. This year, I would put the science notes in the science folder and the English notes in the English folder. This year, I would save all of the quizzes so I could study for the cumulative final. This year, I would record every homework assignment in my pocket calendar and never again be scrambling at the last minute to complete a project.

But it always ended the same. In less than a month, I had geometry theorems mixed in with grammar notes. I would show up to science class with my Spanish textbook (“Wait,” I’d ask. “Que hora es?”) and had taken to writing homework assignments on my hands (I had the first Palm Pilot). My locker always looked like a tornado had blown through a paper factory.

It’s more than 30 years later and I’m still not organized. I’m continually digging through a towering pile of folders on my kitchen table to hunt for research notes, paper clips and pens. I have three calendars within arm’s reach, but I never know what day it is.

I know what you’re thinking: there’s an app for that. Calendars on your phone, e-books, virtual folders and documents. But I’m not interested.

It’s not just the fact that I can’t keep up with the latest technology on a writer’s budget. The truth is that I like doing things the old-fashioned way. I like putting a real pencil to actual paper and scribbling away, crossing out words, rewriting sentences, and doodling in the margins when I’m mentally blocked. I think better that way.

And science backs me up on this. Study after study has found that students who take notes longhand actually comprehend and retain information better and longer than students who take notes on a laptop. Researchers think it has to do with the cognitive process necessary to listen to someone speaking, digest the meaning in their words, and then succinctly condense the information into notes. Our brains process that differently then when we’re typing the words verbatim on a laptop.

In other words, a valid rationalization for me to buy more office supplies. Thank you, science! Pencils and notebooks are still on sale! Who needs groceries, anyway?

(A slightly different version of this appears in my book “What The Dog Said,” a collection of humor columns penned over the years. It also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Refreshed Magazine.)

Back from Erma, flu-free

erma workshop logo

I awoke slowly, a tiny ray of light peeking through the curtains as I tied to open my eyes. The dog was breathing in my face, his wet nose crammed into my right eyeball. My eyes hurt, but I don’t think it was from dog slobber. They felt itchy and irritated, and when I finally hauled myself out of bed and looked in the mirror, I could see they were also red. I panicked.

Uh oh. Do I have pink eye again?

I’d recently gotten back from the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop in Dayton, OH, where I spent four days socializing and eating dessert before dinner. The sessions were instructional, the keynote speakers inspirational, and the message one of encouragement and embracing one’s mission. We all left feeling empowered.

And for some, nauseated.

What do you get when 350 women and 9 men check into a hotel for a weekend-long humor writing conference featuring top notch guest speakers, dessert with every meal, and more fun than a barrel of monkeys?

You get the flu, that’s what you get.

Prior to the conference, most of us had joined the Erma Attendees Facebook group, taking time to learn each other’s names, discuss packing lists, and admit fears about attending the premiere workshop for humorists.

After the conference? The talk was all about who caught what from whom and when.

Patient Zero clearly brought the dreaded virus with them to Ohio, because a few attendees were struck down the first night and didn’t recover until it was time to head home. A few others got sick over the weekend; as I left the hotel on Sunday morning, I saw several people who looked like they might not make it out the door.

And then as people returned home to their corners of the country, like a giant domino chain of nausea and fever, one by one others fell. Someone even started a Facebook poll to track who was sick, since so many people were posting “Me, too” in the comment sections of other people’s posts.

Me? I got lucky. My stomach was upset, but that could have been from all the cheesecake; I don’t usually have dessert at every meal. I checked my temperature every hour, just in case I was burning up and didn’t know it. Nope, no flu here. But my eyes were killing me, and I was afraid that in addition to my business cards maybe I’d also passed out pink eye. If the next discussion thread was about who caused the painful temporary blindness, all fingers would point to me.

Not how I want to be remembered. Continue reading

Plucking words from the universe and dancing with my muse

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Click the photo to go to Radiolab.org and listen to the podcast.

I just got back from the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop in Dayton, OH. I attended in 2004, 2006, and 2008, and then last summer, while at St. David’s Writing Conference, I met three women and talked them into going with me this year.

I’ll write more about the actual conference later, when I’ve recovered from four days of cheesecake, teaching, and social interaction. It was, as expected, fabulous. But I wanted to share one thing with you now.

As I drove from Rochester to Dayton, I binged on past podcasts of RadioLab. One in particular stood out: “Me, Myself, and Muse.”

If you read my blog, I often lament about having great ideas that I don’t follow through with, or about book ideas that I don’t write and then see someone else has written them.  I get stuck, and overthink, and talk a lot about things I want to do but don’t, and it’s been going on for while. Too long. Like, if this whining was in a plastic container of leftovers in my fridge it would have not only gone moldy long ago, it would have sprouted a civilization that developed a cure for cancer.

I’m even on deadline, right now, right this minute, for a book I’m contracted to write that is just completely stalled, and I’m spinning my wheels creatively.

One of the reasons I was back at the Erma Bombeck Writing Workshop was to get my creative self back into alignment. Some time ago, I went from a very successful stint as a music blogger, with regular paying freelancing gigs, and lots of paid blogging and writing, to walking the dogs and binging on Netflix and bemoaning the fact that I offer nothing to the world. To be fair, things had changed in the music and publishing industry, and magazines and newspapers I’d been writing for were sold, which meant those paid writing gigs were gone. And I got jaded and lost my passion, for life and writing. (And there was also that stalker, too, who caused me no small amount of aggravation and was the last straw in the camel’s backpack that led to my taking a break from regular, serious writing for a while.)

The last few years have been a process of stopping, starting, reevaluating, doing well, crawling under a rock, taking stock, and emerging with wings that aren’t quite unfurled. Other parts of my creative life have emerged – improv and, most recently, stand up.  But the writing is now in a different climate, from a different perspective on life, and amidst a great deal of disorganization in my creative life. I spend a lot of time sitting at my desk wondering if I have any words left and, if I do, where I’d find them under this pile of folders and books and notes and dog toys.

So the message of this podcast has really stuck in my head and heart, particularly the part where Elizabeth Gilbert says:

“I kind of believe the world is being constantly circled as though by Gulf Stream forces, ideas and creativity, that want to be made manifest. And they’re looking for portals to come through in people. And if you don’t do it, they’ll go find someone else. And so you have to convince it that you’re serious and you have to show it respect and you have to talk to it and let it know you’re there.”

It haunted me the entire drive. And then the first workshop session I went to at Erma was with Alan Zweibel, who among many, many, many things, was an original writer for Saturday Night Live. He told us that the secret to writing is to write, and that we should focus on the process, not the product. There there are words out there, he said, and they just need to be plucked out and put down.

There it is again.

I’d never thought about my ideas or creative inspiration being something outside of myself. I always felt like creative inspiration was supposed to be inside of me, and if I wasn’t feeling it, it was because I didn’t have any.  But what if ideas and creativity are constantly swirling around me, like bits of the universe that I can reach out and catch, if only I open my hand? Well, that’s another story. Because then, what I’m lacking isn’t the creativity. What I’m lacking is the work. And I have total control over that.

So the takeaway, from the podcast and the sessions and the whole conference? It’s all there for the asking. All of it. ALL OF IT. The only thing that’s required of me is the work. The muse will join me in this dance of creativity once she sees me out on the ballroom floor and believes I’m going to stay there for the entire song.

Food for thought I wanted to share with you.

There’s so much to say about the conference, which is still digesting in my soul, and I’ll write about that in a separate post. But right now? I’ve got some work to do.

Writing in Real Life

refreshed magazine mar 2016One of the misconceptions people have about writers is that we loll around all day in our pajamas while brilliant prose magically pours forth from our fingers, usually minutes before deadline. We don’t work, therefore we’re always available for lunch, errands or babysitting. We can do whatever we want, whenever we want, and we make gads of money doing it.

OK, yes, sometimes I work in my pajamas, but most of the time I get dressed. (Yoga pants and sweat shirts count as getting dressed, right?) And yes, I am free during the day to run errands and have lunch with friends, and I used to babysit (we all know how that story ends). I also grocery shop and cook and do laundry and pay bills and answer the phone and let in repairmen. And I would clean, if I was the kind of woman who cleaned.

In between real life, I write. [Click to continue reading at Refreshed Magazine]

What I Read in 2015

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With just a couple of weeks left in 2015, I thought I’d compile my annual list of “books I read”.

I keep the list every year, but I don’t always share it. Lately, though, I’ve found myself recommending a lot of books or just discussing what I’ve read, even if it I didn’t love it. So I thought it worthwhile to share my list with you.

The books are listed in the order that I finished them (vs any kind of ranking order), along with some general thoughts. Don’t be misled by the “finished reading” dates. I’m often reading several books at one time, so it’s not unusual to finish a couple of books within days of each other – although I have definitely been known to stay up for a few days straight reading (“Dead Wake”) or read a book in one day (“Nothing But The Truth”). Also understand that inclusion on the list isn’t necessarily an endorsement; a book is on the list simply because I read it in 2015.

Continue reading