Write Now!

Write Now!

Due to complications of my husband’s broken jaw, I have to Write Now!

This afternoon’s writing time was unexpectedly pushed aside to pick up liquid Ibuprofen, a pill crusher, a WaterPik, and energy drinks for my husband, who’s had his broken jaw wired together this morning and will be on a liquid diet for weeks. I rushed home to cook dinner for friends arriving from Great Britain momentarily, and I haven’t written Tuesday’s post yet.

Write now!

I remember days when writing time would be supplanted by a childcare-giver’s day off, a sick child, a grandmother’s broken ankle, chicken pox, strep throat and a child’s broken ankle. Emergencies happen, yet one can still write in the waiting room, in the car, in the sick room, while the kids are playing dress up or make believe or watching a movie.

Write now!

Write now!

You can write anywhere, write now!

Then there are the planned trips to the shop for car maintenance. I’ve come to love those waiting rooms. With earplugs to drown out the TV, I use the hour to write.

I’m driving on the Interstate, headed to or from a gig at a library and the words for a commentary start bubbling up. I pull over, pick up my pen and notebook.

Write now!

The dishes are piled in the sink, the clean laundry needs to be folded, the trash needs to go out. Take care of the trash. Everything else can wait.

Write now!

I’m told my mother-in-law sold her washer and dryer, subscribed to The New Yorker, and read it in the laundromat every week. Have to do laundry? Write now!

The emails are incoming thick and fast. Turn off email – write now!

If social media is no longer a tool but a distraction, turn off your internet connection – write now!

Whatever you’re doing, write now!

www.deborahleeluskin.comEven though I prefer to write in my studio, life happens. I write here, there, and everywhere, at all hours of the day or night. I always have paper and pen with me. I’m always ready – write now!

 

 

September: The End is Where We Start From

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.   ~T.S. Eliot

The end is where we start from

September’s first task was to clean my desk.

September: Summer ends, and we begin the push to the end of the year. Summer ends and work resumes in earnest.

September: the first thing I did was clean my desk.

The very act of sorting books, papers and projects has helped me choose what to place front and center of my attention and which to shelve for the time being. This simple act has given me focus, structure and deadlines.

September is full of promise and hope. So are a clean desk and the deadline of a year’s end just over the horizon. I’m feeling hopeful and focused to be back at my desk after a summer of grief.

This September: I’m adjusting to the memory of loving parents who are not longer alive. I’m peering through the murky fog of mourning and see hope and promise in the slow death of the garden as it gives up its bounty. I hear the crickets singing summer’s end and know the silence of winter is coming. I welcome the gradually shortening days as the earth tilts away from the extended daylight that makes summer so luxurious. And I welcome the shift that allows me to sit at my desk with focus and energy to blog, to teach, and to advance a novel that’s starting to sing in me.

September is like taking a breath: I inhale cool air of intention and exhale the warm air of summer’s ease.

September is a time to focus and write.

What does September mean to you?

www.deborahleeluskin.comDeborah Lee Luskin lives in southern Vermont and blogs at Living in Place. She is a freelance educator, a radio commentator, and an avid hiker. Learn more at www.deborahleeluskin.com.

 

 

Attention to Details

 

Attention to detail

Attention to detail matters.

“What’s wrong with a drawer full of jar lids?” I asked Roz Chast during the Q & A following her recent author talk before a capacity crowd.

I’d hesitated to ask the question because it was so unlike the questions about process and inspiration readers usually ask authors. But I’d loved her graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – except for the one frame about the jar lids, which bothered me both personally and professionally.

You can read my personal reasons at Living In Place; the professional reason are about craft, and are what this post is about.

DETAILS

Attention to Detail

Chast’s graphic memoir about caring for her elderly parents.

Chast’s frame about the drawer full of jar lids struck me as off, not just because I have a drawer full of jar lids, but because Chast didn’t give me enough information about what made this bizarre.

All the other frames in the section – photographs rather than drawings – of the “stuff” she was left to clean out of the apartment in which her parents had lived for forty-eight years made sense: the photos show piles of magazines and papers, dozens of handbags and several defunct electric razors. It’s clear that the things we save – sometimes deliberately for reasons of potential usefulness or sentiment and sometimes from sheer neglect – take on a meaning of their own to she who has to sift through it. I know; I’ve just emptied my dad’s desk of pens that had run out of ink.

As a reader, I simply wanted more information about why Chast chose this particular detail, because it wasn’t clear to me the way it was clear why she chose to photograph her mother’s two-dozen nearly indistinguishable old handbags and electric razors that clearly no longer worked. So I asked.

“Rusty jar tops?” she said, her voice rising as she wrinkled her nose in disgust.

I got it.

And I got more.

Chast went on to tell a story about a man who’d saved the screw tops of toothpaste tubes. He’d always planned to use them as lampshades for his granddaughter’s dollhouse.

This is a detail I’ll never forget because Chast did more than simply answer my question: she told me another story. In the process, she illustrated the kind of details that help a reader get what the writer is trying to convey. She amplified the characterization of the narrator of her memoir’s persona with her intonation and nose wrinkle, “They’re rusty!” And she created an idiosyncratic grandfather who saw the potential for miniature lampshades in every toothpaste tube cap.

THE TAKE AWAY

A single vivid detail can make the difference between the mundane and the memorable. If you make your details accurate and vivid, you will help your reader will see objects and attitudes the way you want them to. That’s authority.

www.deborahleeluskin.com

Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin blogs weekly at Living in Place.

 

 

The Story of the Books that Change Our Lives

A friend recently tagged me on Facebook to participate in one of those modern-age chain letter-type things where you’re tasked with sharing a series of something-or-others within a specific theme. For instance, you might be asked to post seven black-and-white photos or six baby pictures or ten favorite poems.

The mission of this particular challenge was to post—without comment—covers of books that have meant something to me and/or influenced my life. This was exceedingly difficult. Not only did it require me to whittle down my list of influential books to only seven, it also demanded that I refrain from sharing any thoughts or wistful reminisces about my relationship with each book. I’m sure, as fellow bibliophiles, you can see my dilemma.

Still, I was moved to play along, because—you know—BOOKS.

But now, I am breaking the rules by re-sharing my seven selections along with brief commentary that provides a little of the back story for each book—how I discovered it, when I read it, why it matters in the overall scope of my reading life. I hope you enjoy this peek into my love affair with books, and I’d love for you to share something about your favorite reads in the comments.

 

1807 book galapagos

I made my first selection based on instinct and whim. I do love Kurt Vonnegut, and Galápagos is one of my favorites, but I was a little surprised at the way this one jumped to the front of my mind as my initial response to the question about books that have influenced my life. While you can probably tell by the battered nature of this mass media paperback, I’ve had this book in my collection for quite a while. I honestly can’t recall when I first read it, but the copyright on my edition is 1985, with a cover price of only $4.50. You do the math.

This book has stuck with me over the years because its commentary on the human condition and our role on planet Earth is somehow both sublimely ridiculous and deeply tragic. There are passages that are laugh-out-loud funny, but themes that make me worry for the fate of our species (not to mention all the other species with whom we share the planet). And yet, through it all, there is a thread of hope that runs through with a quick smile and a reassuring sense of the absurd. It’s marvelous, really.

1807b book wolves

My second pick took me in a completely different direction. Women Who Run With the Wolves is the seminal work of Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.. As the subtitle explains, this is a book about the myths and stories of the Wild Woman archetype. It is a book full of deep wisdom and revelation, comfort and challenge, mystery and insight.

Like Galápagos, I have had this copy for a pretty long time. Not a lifetime, but long enough. I chose it for my list of seven even though, truth be told, I have never finished reading it all the way through. It is a book that I have returned to at different times throughout my life, visiting its pantheon of wise and wild women as I need them. Many of the pages are heavily underlined and annotated (in pencil, of course), bearing witness to prior visits. I always find it interesting to see which lines and ideas called to me at different times in my life. My attention has shifted over the years.

I know that one day I will have read this book all the way through, probably multiple times; but—for now—I count it among my favorites and most influential despite having not yet discovered all its stories. Sometimes, leaving some of a book’s secrets unopened is a good thing. It’s nice to have something to look forward to, and I have no doubt I will unwrap each remaining story at exactly the right time.

1807 book want to write

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland is the only book on writing craft that I included in my list. As I have shared previously on this blog, this slim tome is aptly and, I think, beautifully sub-titled: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit.

There is hardly a page of my copy that isn’t criss-crossed with pencil underlinings from previous readings. In some places, I’ve actually drawn hearts and stars in the margins. Originally published in 1938, this book is surprisingly relevant. With a gentle, but no-nonsense voice, Ueland quietly transforms the often overwhelming task of writing into a simple magic that feels simultaneously accessible and miraculous.

If you have ever felt daunted by writing or doubtful about your right to write, please read this book. I promise you that it will warm your heart, ease your mind, and stoke your creative fires. It has certainly done so for me over the years. In fact, I think it might be time for yet another re-read of this old favorite.

1807 book fantasy

Here again, the age of this old friend is hinted at by the copyright (1977) and the retail price ($2.25). Given that I was born in 1969 and my vague recollection of having purchased this book while on a cross-country family road trip that took place the summer after I graduated the sixth grade, I would estimate that I was eleven or twelve when I first read this book. The Fantastic Imagination—An Anthology of High Fantasy— is a marvelous collection of “Adventures in Myth and Mystical Enchantment” from writers like George McDonald, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Peter S. Beagle, Ursula Le Guin, Lloyd Alexander, and many others.

I remember buying this book at a small, independent bookstore somewhere on the west coast. It may even have been an old-fashioned newsstand kind of establishment, like the one we used to have in my home town (but which, sadly, burned down and was never rebuilt). I have a vague recollection of the scent of pipe tobacco and of dingy shelves, tourist postcards and maybe a selection of snacks. I don’t really have any other concrete memories of the sights and sounds of that place, but I do remember clearly the feeling of choosing that book for my own. I remember the sense of anticipation for all the magic to come, a tingle of excitement, and the delicious warmth of book ownership. Even today, this book still inspires that feeling. Even after all these years.

1807 book earthsea

When I learned of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing, it was the first time I shed a tear over the loss of a beloved author. I grew up reading her stories of Earthsea. I practiced speaking to dragons and tried to learn her runic languages. In her stories, I felt I could see clearly the contrast of light and shadow and their eternal struggle and dance. I loved the way her stories connected so deeply to the natural world, helping me to see magic and wonder in even the most mundane of settings. She taught patience and loyalty while also kindling the young flames of courage and fierceness in my heart.

I recently reread A Wizard of Earthsea and was impressed by the way Le Guin’s story has stood the test of time. Soon, I will journey to the Tombs of Atuan and the Farthest Shore as well. I’ve been away too long. There are old friends I need to see and old lessons I need to relearn.

1807 book LOTR

My mother has told me that I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy when I was only in the third grade. While I cannot myself pinpoint exactly how old I was when I first picked up J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece works, I do remember checking them out of our public library. They were hard copy editions that were shelved not in the children’s room, but in the grown-up upstairs of the library. In fact, they were kept just to the left of the circulation desk, at a height that caused me to tip toe up to reach them. I remember embossed covers with bits of gold ink and worn bindings secured with librarian’s tape. I know I borrowed them multiple times before eventually acquiring my own copies.

LOTR became a staple for my whole family. We bootlegged the 1981 BBC dramatization, which was broadcast in the U.S. by NPR radio. I listened to those cassettes so many times, I wore them out. Happily, many years later, all twelve episodes were released on CD. And now, I also own digital copies via Audible. I listened to that adaptation so many times that I can recite various passages by heart, which is to say that I can recite passages from the book because the script for the BBC production was very faithful to Tolkien’s original works.

When Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring was released in 2001, my whole family went to the theatre together, and then to dinner where we expressed great relief that Jackson had done such an admirable job of adapting the stories to screen. (We didn’t want to have to hunt him down and give him what for.) To this day, I often turn to LOTR when I need some comfort, or when I need to be reminded of the power each of us has to make a positive change in the world.

1807 book board books

Finally, for my last selection, I cheated again (as I’d done by combining The Hobbit and LOTR into one pick), and included several books as a single selection. In the case of Tolkien’s works, they are all part of one long story. But in the case of this collection of children’s board books, they are each a unique facet of my daughter’s young childhood, linked only by the number of times we read each of them. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon, Snow Bears, Big Red Barn, Let’s Go Visiting, I Love Animals, Carl’s Afternoon in the Park, and Jamberry … oh, how I adore these books!

The original challenge was to share books that had meant something to me and/or influenced my life. These books, though I only discovered them when my daughter was born and I was thirty-four years old, most definitely fit the bill on both counts. These books are a treasure, each one capturing the warmth and joy and wonder and love shared between mother and daughter during some of my daughter’s most formative years. I cannot even count the hours we spent with these books. How many bedtimes and naptimes and every other time between?

Though their cardboard pages are worn and even peeling, their colors are still bright and the stories they tell are still vibrant and full of the exuberance of a child’s heart and mind. I hope that they will serve, forever, as an anchor for my daughter’s heart. I know they will be that for me until the day I die.

 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
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Poetry – A Hidden Gem for Inspiration and Reflection

 

What do you think of if I say the words iambic pentameter? Did you just wince? It’s okay. I’m not judging. That term tends to bring up unwanted memories of sitting in a stuffy classroom listening to some professor and wondering why anyone needs to know the difference between a sonnet and a villanelle.

We ought to purposely have more poetry in our lives. A poem can be like a tiny island rising up from the ocean of our everyday hustle and bustle. It welcomes us onto its shores as we get out of our wave-tossed boats to rest on the soft sand under a whispering palm tree and just breathe for a moment.

It’s such a shame that reading poetry is something most people do only under duress. I understand how this happens. We’re force fed certain kinds of poetry when we’re in school, and the formality of it tends to turn us off. It’s confusing in its forms, rigid in its rules, and full of archaic language that we can hardly understand. It’s downright intimidating.

Or, is it?

The funny thing about poetry is that it sneaks into our lives every day, without us even noticing. Every song lyric is a poem—from Bob Dylan to Imagine Dragons to Tupac (especially Tupac). When you sing along in the car, you’re singing poetry.

Almost every children’s picture book is a poem. Some rhyme. Some don’t. But each is a sort of poem.

And if you’re on Facebook or Instagram, I bet you’ve come across your share of poems in disguise. Sometimes, it’s an excerpt from an actual poem. Sometimes, it’s a poetic caption written to accompany an image or a quote from someone like Ram Dass. Sometimes it’s a line of poetry that has made its way into our day-to-day conversational language: To err is human; to forgive, divine (Alexander Pope), How do I love thee? Let me count the ways (Elizabeth Barrett Browning), Do not go gentle into that good night (Dylan Thomas), The lady doth protest too much, methinks (Shakespeare), and so on.

The brevity of most poems makes them the perfect form for our busy lives. It’s not easy to make time to read a novel, but a poem can be savored in less time than it takes you to make a cup of coffee.

Don’t let their small size fool you, though. Poetry is a powerfully condensed form of expression. A poem is the boiled down essence of a thought or an experience. It attacks all our senses and sensibilities at once, overwhelming us with an immersion that is made more intense by a lack of logic or a linear flow.

Once a poem catches you, there’s no telling what will happen. You may be flung back in time or feel that time has stopped still around you. You may laugh out loud or weep for no reason you can explain. Poetry is experience and emotion distilled into an elixir of insight and transformation. It is a catalyst for creating epiphanies and new perspectives.

And there is a poem for everyone. From Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein to Tennyson and Maya Angelou, the world of poetry contains every possible style of human expression and touches on every imaginable topic, theme, and story. And despite this wealth of diversity, there are, you may discover, more similarities between Emily Dickinson and today’s slam poets than you might expect. In the end, they are all tapping into the same wellspring.

It’s easy to give yourself the gift of poetry. There are many email subscriptions for daily poems from places like The Poetry Foundation and Poets.org. You can even find poem-a-day playlists on Spotify. Or, you can go analog and pick up a poetry anthology to leave by the coffeemaker. Flip it open to a random page and see where it takes you. You may be surprised at what worlds await.

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: schössling Flickr via Compfight cc

Reading Outside Your Usual Cultural Space

21463816304_ef7e204b0a.jpg

A book can take you anywhere—a different place, time, planet, or reality. A book can transform you into someone else, dropping you into other people’s lives so that you see the world through their eyes, understand what makes them tick, and feel their hurts and their triumphs.

In fact, studies have shown that the neurological activity of readers mirrors the neurological activity of the characters about which they are reading. In addition, reading novels is widely believed to increase empathy, primarily by letting us share someone else’s experience.

We need to encourage this kind of armchair adventure more than ever these days.

1807 caged birdThis is one reason I was glad to see Maya Angelou’s debut novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, on my daughter’s freshman year summer reading list. I have quoted Angelou many times, but I knew next to nothing about her life until I happened to catch the episode “And Still I Rise” on the PBS series, American Masters. I had no idea what this woman went through or the strength and grace she embodied throughout her unspeakably tragic life until then.

I will be reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings this summer along with my daughter, and I have also been making intentional choices about other books on my never-ending and always growing TBR (to be read) list.

1807 hate u giveFor instance, I recently read the debut novel of another woman of color, Angie Thomas. Her breakaway young adult hit, The Hate U Give, was inspired by a real-life shooting in which an unarmed, 22-year-old African American man was shot and killed by a white transit police officer. I listened to this story as an audio book, and it was the first time in a while that I found myself making all kinds of excuses to put down whatever else I was doing and get back to the story.

I was fortunate to be able to later participate in a book group discussion with Action Together North Shore, a local activist group of which I am a member. We had so many more people show up to discuss the book than we expected. The conversation was generously led by a black woman who is a professor of African American studies at Salem State University, but the rest of our group was white. A lot of learning took place.

1807 blood and boneSince then, I have read a very different story by another woman of color, Nigerian-American writer, Tomi Adeyemi. Children of Blood and Bone is a fantasy novel that tells the story of two races—one with magic, one without—who are pitted in a generations-long battle for power. The racial metaphor is clear, but the vehicle for the message could not be more different from Thomas’ super realistic storytelling in The Hate U Give.

1807 freshwaterAnother book I picked up at our local library is a wildly dark novel by another writer who hails from Nigeria. Akwaeke Emezi is an Igbo and Tamil writer whose narrative in Freshwater often feels more like poetry than a linear story. Her themes are difficult and frightening, and her tale is interwoven with the mythology of gods that are so different from the Judeo-Christian one most of us are familiar with; but it’s these challenging aspects of the work that make it so fascinating and so valuable.

1807 born a crimeOn the other end of the spectrum is Trevor Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime. This insightful, touching, and funny look into his life growing up in South Africa during apartheid as the child of a mixed-race couple was eye opening for me. I recommend this one as an audio book, read by the author.

1807 homegoingMy most recent read was Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s an epic story that covers three hundred years in the lives of two Ghana-born half sisters and several generations of their kin. I won’t lie—it was a challenging read in terms of the material, but it was so worth it. I learned a lot. Gyasi succeeds in drawing her reader in so that they not only begin to understand the stories of her characters, they feel them. That’s the power of story. 

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Jamie Lee Wallace I am a freelance content writer, columnist, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. For more from me, check out the archives for the  Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy posts. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookInstagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared as a column in the Ipswich Chronicle, and subsequently on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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Photo Credit: o_teuerle Flickr via Compfight cc

How To Write An Obit

How to Write An Obit

My Dad. 7/23/1925 – 7/19/2018

Even if you don’t think of yourself as a writer and never plan to write for publication, chances are you will someday have to write an obituary for someone you’ve loved and lost.

How to Write An Obit

Mom, circa 1940.

I know this, because last week I wrote an obit for my dad. Six years earlier, I wrote one for my mom.

While I included the usual details of where they each were born, what they did for their livings, and where and when they died, their lives were a great deal richer than a collection of biographical facts.

Collect the Facts

Since it’s entirely possibly that you’ll be a blubbery mess when the time comes, you’ll want to collect all the facts about your subject before you start writing. Professional obit writers keep files on famous people for when the time comes. You might want to start a file now on those for whom you expect to write an obituary. You also might want to create a document with such details about yourself and file it along with your Advance Care Plan, your Last Will and Testament, the key to your Safe Deposit Box, and a list of your passwords, to make it easier for your survivors to tie up lose ends.

Consider Your Audience

Next, just as in writing anything else, you must consider your audience. The obit you write for the local paper may emphasize someone’s community service, whereas the one you send to a professional organization’s publication will narrate the arc of the person’s career. Make it easy on yourself: write a master obit with a paragraph for each section. This makes it easy to cut and paste shorter versions to the different places where an obit is likely to appear.

Make it Meaningful

Then consider what made this person’s life worth living. For most of us, our obituary will appear in the local paper one day and line the litter box the next, but readers will always remember a story. Tell stories about this  person’s one wild and precious life.

Links to Worksheets

Here’s a link to three examples, each for the same fictional person. I wrote these examples for a workshop I taught on obituary writing. The first is just the bare minimum: Who died, where, when and how (optional). The second is Standard Vanilla, with the usual details and not a whole lot more. The third gives you more detail and more flavor of the person who didn’t just die, but who lived – and how.

And here’s a link to a worksheet to help you gather the facts you’ll want to have on hand.

Having the Last Word

How do you want to be remembered? Try writing your own obituary – one draft if you died today and another if you live to be one hundred. Then figure out how to make the second one come true.

Blessings to you all, ~Deborah.

Write an Obit

Family Photo, circa 1962

Write an Obit

Family Photo, August 2005

Write An Obit

Family Photo, June 2018