Tag Archives: writing

Writing, daffodil bulbs and being a catalyst for change

I’ve been having a bit of a frenzied few months, covering Fringe Fest, traveling to Western Massachusetts to visit family, doing improv, taking classes.

What I haven’t been doing is writing.

I’m on deadline for my next book – that feels weird to even say that, “my next book”, as if my last book was some sort of literary milestone. It’s just a collection of previously published columns, with one new piece written after my dog died. It was done more for me than anything else, to put a period at the end of a difficult, depressing, and unfruitful time in my life. It let me say, “Here, I accomplished this in the midst of the turmoil, and now I’m on to bigger and better things.”

It’s a little thing. It’s nothing.

I’ve been doing a lot of research for this next book, which feels like an actual writing project that’s going to be worthy of the effort. A book I authored. But I’m rabbit trailing while searching at Newspapers.com, and reading books and filling the pages with sticky notes to mark trivial bits of info I want to go back to. I’ve got piles of files of stories I want to include but none of the stories actually written yet.

The book is a collection of stories about people buried in Rochester who made contributions to science, society, entertainment…or just have weird and interesting stories.

Mostly the latter, because I love a good weird story, a tale of a totally random action that sets in motion something that changes the world.

Like the story in the video above, about educator Stephen Ritz, who turned his classroom in to a garden and transformed his students’ lives.

Here’s my question: who gave him the daffodil bulbs? Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50 #28: Signs, signs, everywhere signs

EPA award 2015

Not quite two weeks ago, I was on a deadline for my humor column and battling a solid wall known as writer’s block. No amount of thinking, free writing, talking to the dogs or crying got me and farther than a few sentences for the column that was due on April 5th.

Some writers claim that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, preaching that “butt in chair” will get the writing job done. That’s a great start. But when you have to write something coherent, and funny, writer’s block is a real thing.

So there I was, banging my head against the wall trying to finish one of the dozen column ideas I had, when I thought about going on hiatus from the humor column. I’d just signed the contract for my next book – this is a local history book with a focus on Mt. Hope Cemetery – and I was thinking that maybe trying to mix two genres was going to be more difficult than I thought. I can’t just turn on the funny; it’s a lot of work and there’s a lot of mental “funny” that goes on before I sit down to write the column. I’m typically not a great multitasker, creatively speaking. I need to be in research mode full time to get the book done on schedule.

I finally got the column done, sent it to my editor – and that night learned that a humor column I wrote had won a first place Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals Award in the Humorous category. The column? “Insomnia: things that keep me awake at night”, which I wrote during another episode of writer’s block.

EPA award 002

What the judges said about my winning column. The irony was not lost on me that the column that won, while I was battling writer’s block, was a column about writer’s block.

A long time ago, in a religiously focused life, I would have taken that as a sign from God that I should not give up writing the column. And in some ways, it was a validation for me to keep writing the column while working on the book. I love writing humor, and knowing that what I write makes readers happy is important to me.

But the history book makes my publisher happy. I mean, he’s really excited about it, so the fact he gave me a contract when I pitched the book was a sign, too, right? Plus, I’m really excited about it; it feels like the right time for a project I’ve been working on for a couple of years. And I think the people I’m writing about who are dead in the graves would be excited about it, if they were able to have an opinion. (And one of them may have an opinion, given something that happened when I was walking around the grave site, talking out loud.)

But then I go back to the humor sign. What if I have writer’s block next month? And the next? What if I should have signed the contract for a different book idea I’d also pitched (which was more humor-focused)? Uh oh, did I make a mistake?

Back when I was looking for God’s direction in literally everything, I saw almost everything as a sign from God. Do this. Don’t do that. It started to feel like the song by Five Man Electric Band:

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

It led to a condition I call Paralysis By Analysis. All of these signs got confusing, to the point that I was afraid to make any decision. I mean, I want to do what God wants me to do, right? And if I don’t do what God wants me to do, He gets mad, right? But how was I supposed to know what God wants me to do? So I ended up doing nothing, or at the very least not trying new things or exploring things outside my comfort zone.

As I’ve matured, and especially as I hit my 40s and now 50, I’ve learned that you can read anything as a sign, especially if you’re already inclined to second guess your decision.

So Lesson #27? How do you read the signs? Maybe there aren’t really any signs at all, except the ones we erect ourselves.

How do you know what does God want you to do? I think God wants you to honor him by using your talents, by taking advantage of every moment life gives you, by making other people happy and seeing God in you, in whatever way that is. Do people see joy? Kindness? Integrity? Faith? Humor? Those are the signs we need to be looking for.

Theologically sound? Probably not. But as we all know, I’ve never claimed to be a theologian and my spirituality lately is a little outside the box. I am, after all, the person who walks through cemeteries talking to the people buried there. But do consider this: don’t spend so much time looking for signs that you miss the adventure.

And because I know the song is now stuck in your head, here’s the whole thing.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

And the winner is … me?

EPA award 2015

Imagine my surprise this week when, while congratulating writing and publishing friends on their wins at the recent Evangelical Press Association Awards in Denver, I scrolled through the list of Higher Goals winners in the Humorous category and saw who won first place – ME, for my column “Insomnia”.

I had forgotten then the publishers of Refreshed Magazine had entered my columns in this year’s contest. I was surprised at not only the win, but … first place??

Lamar and Theresa Keener, publishers of Refreshed Magazine, took home numerous EPA awards and deserve loads of congratulations for their hard work and dedication to putting out such a high quality magazine. I’m honored that they include in their Refreshed family!

Buckets and buckets and buckets of gratitude are due my editor, Lori Arnold, for her patience, grace and willingness to put up with my quirks and writers block. There’s no greater blessing a writer can have than an excellent editor who laughs at her jokes.

This is my third EPA award, but whose counting? Well, I am, because if I’m being honest I’m still always amazed that people read my scribbling. The biggest thanks, of course, goes out to you, dear reader, for reading my musings and ramblings so that I don’t have to get a real job.

You can read my column every month in Refreshed Magazine, both in print and online.

And the next book is …

Mt. Hope Cemetery, October 2014 (c) Joanne Brokaw

Mt. Hope Cemetery, October 2014 (c) Joanne Brokaw

As regular readers of the blog know, for some time now I’ve been fascinated with Mt. Hope Cemetery – the geography, the peace, the history, walking the dogs there. It’s spurred my own genealogical research but also research into some mysteries and murders, locals ties to national stories, interesting stories about everyday people and just random weirdo stories.

I’ve blogged about my adventures in the cemetery and I’ve always been surprised by the number of people who are as fascinated as I am with the things I uncover.

Well, if that’s you, then you’ll be happy to know that my next book is a go, and it’s going to be about people buried at Mt. Hope! It’ll be published once again by Wordcrafts, whom I adore working with. Continue reading

50 thoughts on turning 50 #27: Writing for free

I'm many things, but a doormat isn't one of them.

I’m many things, but a doormat isn’t one of them.

I was contacted recently by a website looking for someone to write three, 500 word articles a week, for $20 an article.

I considered it. Sixty dollars a week – or $240 a month – would be helpful right now, especially since after taking a long creative break my monthly writing income is smaller than the weekly allowance for most American teenagers.

In the end, I decided that it wasn’t enough money to justify the time I would need to spend writing the articles. And while I would retain the copyrights and could resell the articles, I’m not writing in that genre any more so I wouldn’t have a ready market for reprints.

Too much work, not enough money.

This was on my mind this morning when I read this great piece by Revolva and her offer from the Oprah Winfrey folks to perform at Oprah’s “The Life You Want” tour – for free. (Really, Oprah?)

Back when I was covering entertainment for Christian and community publications, my writing income ran the gamut from several hundred dollars an article to next to nothing. And sometimes nothing.

I hear a lot from people who criticize writers who write for free. It devalues your talents, they tell me, and they’re right. But every once in a while, I’d have a legitimate reason to give away a reprint or pen a new piece for no financial compensation. I considered it a sort of tithe, a sacrificing of my gifts for the benefit of someone else.

The key was that I made the decision to offer my services – often to a local band that needed a press kit bio, and always when it was someone I respected, believed in and wanted to see achieve their goals.

When it came to publications? Almost never. I wrote for cheap – and I mean super cheap – for publications that had almost no budget. And I wrote for lovely compensation from publications that had the budget to pay and me happily did so. But when it came to publications with lots of money who offered me nothing? No way. Continue reading

Recharging my creative batteries at the Irish pub

Sitting at a local Irish pub and writing.

Sitting at Barry’s Old School Irish Pub and writing.

As a writer, the biggest thing I struggle with is staying motivated. Working from home, I’m easily distracted by things that need to be done in the house, by the dogs, by Netflix. If I pack up my stuff and go someplace else to work, I often forget files I need or simply go blank sitting in the coffee shop.

Part of my problem is just not feeling comfortable out among people. Writing is such a personal thing, too intimate an act for a public venue. I’m comfortable at home, but retreat into my shell. I’m out of my shell in public, but my thoughts are often too shy to leave my brain and meet the page. I feel like, if I’m writing in public, I should be creating something worthy of public scrutiny, when really I may simply be musing on my blog about reality TV or cats.

It’s like wearing a mink coat and then having everyone realize that underneath you’re still in your pajamas.

Today, I’m at Barry’s Old School Irish Pub, in the village of Webster, NY. While researching my Irish ancestry, I got involved with the Irish American Cultural Institute (IACI), a group focusing on Irish cultural heritage – movies, literature, history. They’ve been welcoming and kind, and very patient with my endless questions and novice knowledge of my fairly recently discovered ancestry. I’ve been working with Barry’s owner Danny Barry on some social media for the IACI, and immediately fell in love with his little village pub.

While I’ve always been enamored of my Italian heritage, it’s been my Irish genealogy that’s connected with my soul. As I’ve waded through old records and documents, I’ve met my great, great, great grandparents and researched their journey from Ireland to Massachusetts, putting together pieces of the family puzzle, and immersing myself in my blue collar, mill working, large family.

I can feel the Irish blood pulsing through my veins.

So today, I sit at a corner table in this small bar, Irish music playing over the speakers, the owner’s wife and mother among the employees behind the counter, baking and cooking and laughing and singing. When I asked if it was OK for me to hang out and write (Danny had already told me it was, but I hate being in the way), they not only welcomed me but told me to take the cozy corner table, with the padded seats and bright window light. They said it was the best place to work, and assured me that I wouldn’t be in the way of the lunch crowd.

They’ve refilled my coffee, chatted away, and given me updates on the delicious treats as they come out of the oven. And for the first time in a while, I’m able to write. Maybe it’s the mournful bagpipes mingling with the scent of fresh pumpkin bars, the laughter of the family dancing with the fiddle, or just the warmth both physical and spiritual. But I’m eager to fill the blank page with words, to once again open a vein and bleed on a page, to be creatively naked in public.

Where’s your favorite place to recharge your creative batteries?


50 thoughts on turning 50: #22 Flowing with the river of life

life is a river

For most of my life, I’ve been consumed with finding my purpose in life. I believe that I’m here for a reason – that God created me for something and that I’m not here by accident. And yet I’ve never really felt like I could put my finger on what that reason and purpose was.

Then a few years ago, I stumbled on a quote by Cardinal John Henry Newman, which reads in part:

“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons.”

I wrote about it in this post, 50 thoughts on turning 50: #17 Be a link in the chain. But I wanted to take that thought a bit further today, after reading an article last week written by local sportswriter Scott Pitoniak, in which he looks back on forty years spent working at his dream job. Continue reading