Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper

Book Review of Word by Word

Word By Word by Kory Stamper

“Language is one of the few common experiences humanity has.”

So begins the Preface to Kory Stamper’s wonderful memoir, Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Hanging on Stamper’s personal narrative about how she came to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and what that work is like is the entertaining history of the English words with which humans have recorded their knowledge, experience, beliefs and discoveries. This discussion of words also includes a discussion of linguistic prejudice, that attitude that self-appointed grammar police cop when someone doesn’t follow their[1]* prescribed rules.

You’d be correct if you imagined that dictionary editors spend eight hours a day in silent study, but you’d be dead wrong if for a moment you thought that reading about it would be boring.

Stamper writes with attitude.

That attitude arises from the little thought any normal person gives to the writing of dictionaries – including most lexicographers before they take the job. Before the internet, high school graduates received a dictionary before going off to college. I still have my red, clothbound Merriam-Webster Collegiate, which Stamper claims “is one of the best-selling books in American history and may be second in sales only to the Bible.” (In a footnote following this claim, she admits that this is more likely for having been “one of the oldest continuously published desk dictionaries around,” not because there’s any hard data.)

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate

I still have the 9th edition I took to college.

The Collegiate is a desk dictionary, not the big fat one that people use as booster seats for visiting grandkids. That one – The Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged – is, as Stamper notes, obsolete the moment it rolls off the press. Because even though most of us who use a dictionary do so to check meaning, spelling and usage, a dictionary is, ultimately, an historical document. It’s a snapshot of the language as it was during the ten or more years during which the lexicographers in a dingy building in Springfield, Massachusetts worked to update it.

As Stamper makes clear with humor and great stories, English is not static. Words can’t be caged on a page. How people use language changes all the time. And the history of those changes offer a glimpse into the history of those who use those words.

Word By Word is not just a terrific book about words, but also an excellently written personal memoir that tells the story about The Secret Life of Dictionaries, proving that any subject can spawn a compelling narrative when well told.

[1] Stamper explains that the singular “their” actually dates back to the fourteenth century.

alternate headshot

Deborah Lee Luskin is not ashamed to say that she owns about half a dozen English dictionaries – and regularly reads them.

Memoir Writing: Interview with Shelley Armitage, Author of Walking the Llano

llano-front-cover1(This is an edited transcript from a live chat with Shelley Armitage at The Writer’s Chatroom on Jan 22, 2017.)

Moderator Lisa Haselton (aka Lisa J Jackson): Welcome to The Writer’s Chatroom. Our mission is to present fun and educational chats for readers and writers.

Let me introduce our guest, Shelley Armitage, author of the memoir, Walking the Llano.

Shelley grew up in the northwest Texas Panhandle in the small ranching and farming community of Vega, Texas, in Oldham County.

She still owns and operates a family farm, 1,200 acres of native grass, wheat and milo farmland bordering Highway Interstate 40 on the south and the Canadian River breaks on the north. Shelley shared this landscape from childhood on, riding with her father and grandfather to check crops and cattle and later jogging and today walking the farm roads.

Shelley’s professional life has offered her a connection with landscape through studies of photography, environmental literature, cultural and place studies. After living and working in diverse places—Portugal, Poland, Finland, and Hungary, teaching in the Southwest and Hawai’i, researching in New York, Washington DC, Oregon, Illinois, Missouri, Connecticut—place has taken on special meanings.

The author of eight books and fifty articles and essays, Shelley has held Fulbright Chairs in Warsaw and Budapest, a Distinguished Senior Professorship in Cincinnati, and the Dorrance Roderick Professorship in El Paso as well as three National Endowment for the Humanities grants, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and a Rockefeller grant.

Shelley resides part of each year in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

LH: Shelley, what is the Llano Estacado and why was it important to you to walk some of its many miles?

shelley1SA: The Llano Estacado is a vast tableland (much of it at 4,000 feet) – an elevated plateau – one of the largest in the U.S. My modest part is in the northwest part of Texas near the New Mexico state line.

I found it important to walk there in order to really sense the place, its prehistory, history, and the various stories, including the land’s own narrative by actually feeling the place. I say in the book that I felt I took the land up in my body and it came out writing.

Also, that area is much maligned, called by some still the Great American Desert, and stereotyped as flat and “unworthy of love.” I found special beauty and surprising revelations by spending many summers walking there.

LH: Do you remember a moment when you ‘knew’ you’d write the memoir? A day or when you noticed something in particular?

SA: Actually, I had been teaching a memoir course, without having written a memoir! And yes, looking back on notes and photographs I took, I started thinking about what Mary Austin said one time: “it’s the land that wants to be said.” Someone else I had done scholarly work on, a poet, also said she wanted to be a tongue for the wilderness.

I thought that memoir as a form was particularly suited for what I thought about the experiences: it may deal with interiority, but also with the explicit world, thus concrete experience, but also interior thoughts, even dreams, the spiritual, etc.

LH: Shelley, what did you discover about yourself as you walked in relationship to the land where you grew up?

SA: Oh, so many things. The walks were also a respite from the worries I had carrying for a declining mother and later dealing with her death (while this process was going on) and also the death of my brother. I essentially lost all my family while on these walks. I turned to the plains as a kind of family, believe it or not, something that gave me strength and wisdom. I did a lot of research after each walk and thus studied lifeways and beliefs of Native peoples, the care of the land by pastores (New Mexico sheepherders), etc. The stories are what help us along, as Leslie Silko has said, “we are nothing without the stories.” Living these other stories, while making my own, was profound for me.

In one passage, I say I want to be adopted by mother earth and father sky, which sounds very corny out of context, but as an adopted child, it resonated many ways.

LH: What were some of your challenges in writing the memoir?

SA: Well, for one, I had never written this kind of nonfiction. My scholarly works I hope are very readable; I have always thought of myself as a writer (or someone who attempts to be) rather than an academician. So grace and saying through style have always been important. I had never written about myself until this memoir. And it’s amazing how it went through so many stages. I wrote and rewrote it, through a few years. I think each time I got closer to it writing itself, a kind of flow that was natural. A real story. And I learned I could write in segments. That I didn’t have to have a logical sequence. This was the most freeing discovery–this and the realization that memoir allows for fictional devices, so as I say I did not have to make everything logically sequential.

LH: Thank you! Was it challenging to figure out what to include and what to leave out?

SA: Oh, yes. Great question. At one point (and back to the question about the poetic) I clipped and posted up on my garage wall the poetic lines I could not part with. Yet, I didn’t know exactly what to do with them. Then, looking at them on the wall (like Faulkner diagramming As I Lay Dying) I saw they were the subconscious underpinning of what I wanted to say. So I could build on them. That way, I could cull what didn’t fit, didn’t connect as extended metaphor or expanded imagistic theme.

LH: Sounds like quite the process! 🙂

SA: I found it kind of tricky when you already are a critic, a literary professor, and come at literature from that perspective. To critique oneself, yet not gut what is a primal sort of notion, the given line, the lyric voice, was difficult. I found another self, the one I had always wanted as a writer, in this book as in the poetry.

Chatter Janet: A reviewer of your memoir said “She carefully mines the history, character, and geology of the Llano Estacado and combines it with a compelling personal narrative to create an account that flows with lyricism, authenticity, and wisdom.” You have crafted a beautiful story I believe. What period in your life is in the book?

SA: The book, or I should say the experience of the walks, began in my fifties. That was a very transitional time for me; as I say, my mother had all sorts of health problems and I found myself the prime caregiver even though I lived 400 miles away. I think that experience (the combination of adventure and loss) really helped me grow.

Chatter Tricia: You mentioned your mother’s and brother’s deaths. Do you talk about your grieving in the memoir?

SA: Absolutely. I couple those experiences with the hikes, the walking. I don’t know how to explain those chapters, but everything is interwoven, which becomes the heart of the book. I still grieve frankly when I reread passages of the book and am buoyed as well. The walks helped me cope and gave me strength.

LH: Did your approach to the memoir-writing class change after you wrote the memoir?

SA: I think the one thing that most affected me was realizing how narrative is not sequential. I actually wrote almost flash pieces, sections, even some which were aided by prompts (or forced by prompts!!). But somehow there was a thread, a kind of subconscious reality, that, when I looked at the fragments, they could be worked together.

I should give an example. There is the obvious element of water, of the lack of it, in the llano. The Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest in the world, runs underneath, but is rapidly being depleted. So in terms of water I had a natural trope emerging. My mother actually died from water on the brain. At one point, thinking about her condition, I say “water will have its way.” This has been set up in earlier chapters with my observations of the landscape where water has previously sculpted the geography. And there is also an earlier section about my father building a dam which didn’t hold against the periodic rains. Water will have its way.

LH: What tips would you have for someone wanting to write a memoir?

SA: Value your own story (stories). Examine your life and think about the seemingly small and insignificant things about it which are waiting for you to revisit. With memoir, we have a double memory, that of the first experience, trying to remember it, and that of recreating that experience. It’s almost like revising oneself, perhaps we become a better self once written out. And I would say write, write, write then look at that writing as if it is someone else’s. What have you learned from it? What is missing? What do you want to know? And, back to my two suggestions, what can be found there? What is remarkable about the seemingly pedestrian elements of our lives?

And I forgot to say earlier that a major theme in the book is that we ARE the landscape. As Leslie Silko has said (sorry, but she is so right on in her comments), we are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders we stand on. In other words, landscape is not something “out there.” But, maybe we could say, in here.

LH: Shelley has been an entertaining and informative guest with much to share with us. Check out her website after chat: http://shelleyarmitage.com/. Our Chatroom Team and I want to thank Shelley for an interesting and entertaining chat. Thank you!

SA: Thanks! Super experience!!!

lisajjacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys working with businesses of all sizes. She loves researching topics, interviewing experts, and helping companies and individuals tell their stories. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Well who knew? Nanowrimo – here I come


Healing wishes being sent to my friends on a regular basis


I didn’t know I was going to do it until this past weekend. A friend of mine left town and asked me to house-sit until she came back.

I love house-sitting for her for several reasons:

  • She keeps a fantastic stash of cookies (yup, I broke that ketogenic diet right in half this weekend)
  • She’s got great pets that make me laugh
  • I don’t know how to work her TV set (she has about a half dozen remotes that must be used in a highly specific sequence) so I can’t waste time watching shows

This all means that I get to read and write uninterrupted (expect for the occasional cookie run) the entire time I’m there. While munching on a handful of goldfish crackers, I was thinking about some friends of ours who had gotten into a horrific car accident (sending positive prayers to you guys constantly.) Their accident was so random, so out of the blue, so not their fault.

You just never know.

It got me thinking. What are the lessons I’ve learned that I want my kids to know and what if I never get around to telling them because I’m too busy?

I started listing bits of advice this mama hen has gathered throughout her life that she’d want to share with her chicks. When I looked at the list (it currently stands at over 200 items), I realized that I could match pretty much every lesson up with a story from our backyard chicken flock.

Ah-ha! That would make for a great book (if only to give my kids.)

But how on earth was I going to find the time on top of all of my other writing assignments to get this project done?

Enter Nanowrimo which starts when the clock strikes 12:00 a.m. on October 31.

I didn’t do Nanowrimo last year and I certainly didn’t *think* that I was going to do it this year (too occupied with other writing is my  standard excuse), but in this case, Nano is the prefect kick in the butt for what I want to do. I have the stories, they all exist in my head – and because I hate to lose, the incentive is there to find the time to get them out and onto the screen.

Nanowrimo will be the gift of “getting it done no matter how busy I am.”

So while I wasn’t planning on participating in a writing challenge this year, you can count me in. Nanowrimo gives me the perfect opportunity to write all those stories of life lessons for my kids – because you just never know, right?

How about you? Anyone else going to take the Nanowrimo challenge?


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.


Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey by Susan J. Tweit – Book Review

I love me a good book recommendation, so when a fellow writer Facebook friend (hi James) let me know about a memoir that he said was teaching him how to write his memoir by its example, my ears perked up.

walkingnatureBut what really made me pay attention was when the author joined in the conversation and left these remarks about the art of memoir writing.

It’s what you’ve learned from your life, not so much what you’ve done. A well-considered life is often more compelling than a dramatic one….


If I had to define the art of writing a memoir in a few words, I would say it’s in the reflection and storytelling. Memoir translates what you’ve learned from life into a story so compelling that it inspires even those who had no idea they would be interested in what you write about.

Twins daughters from different mothers. That author, Susan J. Tweit managed to say so clearly what it is I have been trying to say for years –

A memoir is not about climbing the mountain. It’s about how you climbed it, the stumbles along the way, and what you learned when you finally reached the top.

I ordered Susan’s book Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey and started reading.

Walking Nature Home is the story of a woman who, diagnosed with a non-specific connective tissue disease, was given 2 to 5 years left to live. The book tells of how she connected (intentional pun) with her body and nature to get the strength to move on with her life. Susan’s story is uplifting and it gives hope to others who might be in similar life-challenging situations.

My Facebook friend was right. Susan does a masterful job of keeping a solid theme running through her book, the red thread of her life that begins in childhood when her father taught her about the constellations and ends with her gazing out a skylight at the stars content with her life can so clearly be followed throughout the book.

Each chapter is centered on a major star constellation which is introduced with the stars’ history and mythology. These stories of the stars are then personified by Susan’s life experiences and insights.

The organization and woven structure of this memoir is a tapestry to behold. It’s one of those stories that becomes a meditation in reading. Never once does Susan veer from her stated theme of nature, in fact, she keeps it as deeply ingrained as her breathing is to her body. Like meditation, Susan constantly comes back to her breathing- her connection with nature, the reason for her being.

If memoir is your genre (and even if it’s not), I highly recommend taking a look at Walking Nature Home, both for the inspiring story, as well as its brilliant memoir structure.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com) She writes about her chickens for GRIT, Backyard Poultry, Chicken Community, and Mother Earth News.


Beginning Memoir Writer

A former client, (I’ll call her Jane) recently contacted me, not for coaching, but for some writing advice. She’s been wanting to write down her story (you’ll agree that’s a great idea when you read it) but wasn’t sure where to start. She’s been writing journal entries for years and she’s ready to take her writing to the next level.

Since she wants to write a memoir, I recommended she start by making a Life List. I got the term from Denis Ledoux, the author of Turning Memories Into Memoirs, but I’ve heard other writing teachers recommend a similar technique.

Briefly, I told Jane to think of all the things that happened to her in her life, and make a list. One way to break it down is to think about each decade of your life and start filling in events. I like to write my life list on the computer so I can easily add events in between other events. It’s something you can do once but come back to over and over, adding events whenever one occurs to you. Sometimes it helps to create a time-line on paper and add dates and events.

I also recommended that my client get and read the book, Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. That’s the book my friend and mentor, Martha Beck, recommended to me when I told her I wanted to be a writer, and it has served me well over the years.

Once Jane has some memories listed in her life list, she can start writing about different memories. There’s no need, at this stage, to follow any kind of order. She can write whatever memory has the most “juice” for her that day. She can follow Ann Lamott’s guideline of adding “Sh**ty First Draft” to the top of each piece to take some of the pressure off or just tell herself that she’s just going to write down what she remembers.

Lastly, I recommended Jane start to see herself as a character when she writes her memoir pieces. Jane told me that all of her writing up until this point has been very emotional outpourings into her journal.

“That’s great,” I said, “now you can do back and write about the same events from the perspective of an older, wiser you.”

Jane has all the raw material to write compelling memoir, now she has to write with a little distance–about the character Jane, who went through these events, not knowing how it would all turn out–but, Jane, the author, does know, and can lead her readers on a satisfying journey through her experiences.

What else would you recommend for a beginning memoir writer?

Diane MacKinnon, MD, Master Certified Life CoachDiane MacKinnon is a writer, blogger, life coach, and mom. I’m working on rewriting a novel and I’m starting to take notes for a nonfiction book that’s been in my head for the last 10 years or so.

Being productive by segmenting your writing

Things are picking up for me as far as writing assignments go. Articles, blog posts, marketing materials, it’s coming fast and furious. As a freelance writer, I’m thrilled. This is, after all,  how I put shoes on my kids’ feet.

As a memoirist, though, I’m not so thrilled.

I’m finding less and less time to do the work I *want* to do, as opposed to the work I *have* to do (until I become independently wealthy, that’s just the way it works, folks.) And with summer quickly approaching (one of my worst times of the year with regard to productivity because all the kids are home) I need to quickly put a writing system in place.

2013-06-10_11-49-47_550In the Spring 2013 issue of Writer’s Digest Yearbook –Writing Basics, Pamela Redmond Satran in her article – Juggle like a Pro – attempts to tackle this very problem.

One of her bits of advice includes:

In the morning I wrote only fiction, and in the afternoon only non-fiction. To make myself switch, I set an alarm clock for noon.

For those of us who have the luxury (and I kid no one, it is a luxury to be able to write all day) this sounds like a fairly good approach.  I’m a big believer is establishing gates that can be closed until opened around writing tasks. At any time, you’ll find at least 2 timers in my office, the 30 minute mark so well worn as to be almost unreadable on all of them.

Although I may not be able to devote the *entire* morning to my personal writing, I can certainly devote a few hours first thing. It’s just that I will need to gate that time off. Nothing else during, except what is allowed.

As far as Satran’s fiction writing (which equates to my non-fiction memoir writing) she also refreshingly suggests that you set writing goals not by word or page count, but by the scene.

…15 weekly pages (two to three scenes) in order to finish a first draft in six months.

This approach, along with segmenting your time based on your types of writing, sounds highly doable to me. While I can’t commit to writing 2000 words a day (something *always* comes up) I can commit to finishing a scene with a beginning, middle, and end – a story unto itself – using the time I’ve set aside in the morning. It might take a day, it might take several, however, I can  envision the goal of a scene with more clarity than the goal of 10,000 words at the end of the week.

This summer it will be start, write and finish, and then on to my other work for me. And hopefully with enough of keeping to the gated-schedule, the gods will be good and will allow me to make progress even with all the kids in the house.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

The Next *Big* Thing

This is actually a repost of a blog post on my chicken blog but I thought that as writers, you might also like to see what is in store for 2013.


It comes down to butt in chair

It comes down to butt in chair

Although many of you know that I write this blog, you may not know that in real life (you know the thing where you have to work for a living?) I am a full time writer and journalist. I write newspaper and magazine articles and marketing material. It’s what I do. It’s what makes me happy.  (If you want to read some of my writers’ advice blog posts go over to Live to Write – Write to Live.)

In my travels I’ve bumped elbows with some very talented authors. One particular author, Hilary Weisman Graham  who knew I was working on a book-length project recently sent me an invitation to be part of a writers’ tour – I accepted and that’s what this post is about.


This post is part of a blog tour where writers share what the “Next Big Thing” is. The writer who tagged me is Hilary Weisman Graham over at http://www.hilarygraham.com/index.html Hilary has written Reunited which is a terrific Young Adult book about teen girls and the value of true friendship.  Hilary is also a screen writer and was on the Mark Burnett/Steven Spielberg-produced reality show ON THE LOT: THE SEARCH FOR AMERICA’S NEXT GREAT DIRECTOR (which aired on FOX primetime, the summer of 2007) – which is pretty cool.

Thanks Hilary for tagging me on this tour.

Other writer friends of mine who are working on projects include:

Gina Rosati – the fabulous writer of the YA book – Auracle and who is working on a new story that revolves around historical fiction.

Lauren Scheuer – the fabulous chicken writer and responsible for – Once Upon a Flock – Life with my soulful chickens. It’s the story of living with her gentle flock of chickens.

Jamie Wallace – the fabulous to-be writer who is working on a project and if we all nudge her just a little might make some significant progress on it this year.

Lisa Jackson – no, not *the * Lisa Jackson, this is another Lisa J who lives in New Hampshire and who also needs a kick in the butt to get her started because she is fabulous.

Chris Bohjalian, Meg Cabot, Jodi Picoult, and Judy Blume – yeah these are the big guys and all of them have been kind enough to be interviewed for this blog (and have chickens named after them.) They are always working on new projects. Go over to their websites and check out what they have in store for us.

Ten Interview Questions for my Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?

The Hope of Feathers (after much going back and forth)

Where did the idea come from for the book?

The idea came as a direct offshoot of this blog. While I have enjoyed our chickens tremendously, I had no idea that they would be so instrumental in teaching me the valuable life lessons I needed to learn in order to care for my flock of 6 children.

Having chicks in the coop is a full time job. Every mama hen has to spend much of her time teaching the life skills needed so that each baby can eventually leave the nest and live on his own.

Basically, us mamas are laying the groundwork for our most prized possessions to leave us.  It’s bittersweet on a good day, and nothing short of heartbreaking on a bad one, especially when chronic illness in one of the chicks enters the picture.

But we understand on a very deep and visceral level that not only is this the way it’s supposed to be, but that no one benefits (you or the chick) if there is no growth. And without independence, there is no growth.

Still you worry.

So, you continue to teach throughout the years, being careful to demonstrate family values, to explain what being a flock member means, and what it means to truly look out for each other. You pray it sinks in. You pray that your chicks will have the knowledge and compassion one day to lift not only their wings but the wings of others’ as well.

And you pray that you will have the strength to watch as they fly away.

What genre does your book fall under?

Memoir and Chick lit :-)

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ha! A movie? Wow, haven’t really thought that far. I’m not sure who would play the members of our family (perhaps Rambo for Trevor?) I only know that if it’s going to be made into a movie then Daniel Craig gets to play the part of my husband. (I can dream can’t I?)


Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m hoping to get it published by an agency. I have the attention of a literary agent, now I just need to finish the damn thing.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

This book has been in progress since 2005. It’s really only in the last year that I’ve begun work on pulling this specific aspect of the story together.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I think the best way to describe my books is to say that it is a “Marley and Me, but with feathers.”

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I’m a writer. I teach by writing. What I have learned with having chronic illness in the house and yet wanting that member of my family to be independent enough to leave the nest someday, is a story that all parents (especially mama hens) can relate to and which needed to be told.

It is the strength of my children and the way they support each other (just like flock members do) that inspired me to capture this story (and let’s face it, some help came from a little chick with orthopedic problems that ended up living in our house for 6 months who showed me I am doing no one a service by thinking I am protecting them from life by keeping them in the nest.)

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There will be Lyme disease, disability, medical emergencies, flock stories, and of course Charlie, our house-chicken, will also play a big role in it.

My plan is to have the draft of this book finished within the next 3 months. There, I said it, now it has to be done.

Manuscript – ngh. Time to face the music

I looked at my to-do list as I sat down in front of my computer this morning. I always write it in the evening as a way to ground me, to let me know what lies ahead for the next day.

The problem with doing this though, is that sometimes the shorthand I use at night is not the same shorthand I use during the day. I read through my list:

Photo credit: Edgar Sousa

Manuscript – ngh

I knew I was making reference to the manuscript I’ve been challenged to finish by the end of the month, “ngh”? “ngh”? What was I trying to say?

And then with a sinking heart I realized that “ngh” was my code for:

“not gonna happen”

Last night as I made my list filled with plans to write articles and blog posts that were due (and go to the bank, and pick up vitamins), I also decided to give up the ghost on my book challenge.

It seemed like a doable challenge when Julie and I made the pact at that writer’s dinner a few weeks back. Finish what both of us had already started by the end of the month, it should be a breeze right? After all, both of us are writers.

But then life got in the way. Cars sprung oil leaks which reduced this family of 8 – 4 of which are working – to one car, requiring our best Excel spread sheet skills to organize. Driving people to where they needed to be became a full time job. Members of our flock got sick enough to land in the hospital for a few days. College kids (some for whom the worry never stops) needed to get ready to go back to college, and a little part time job taken to ensure gymnastic costs are covered each month ended up taking more time than expected as I put my feet sore from not having to stand for hours at a time e;evated on the couch pillows each time I’d come home.

Layer all of this on top of my regular writing (I was assigned 5 newspaper articles for August and am still waiting to hear about 3 ptiches), working on (paying) marketing jobs, and trying to keep up with my blogging and well, what you get is a big, fat, NGH.

I’m not necessarily complaining, it’s more that I’m facing the facts.

Not being able to write happens, but quite frankly it also stinks. I dream of being a full time writer, having an office set away from my family (tiny house anyone) where I can go to compose and not be interrupted with questions like “Where is the peanut butter?”, “Can I hang with my friend?”, and “Mom, I need two more packages of notebook dividers for school. Can we go to the store now?”

Look, I get it. You can’t be a writer until you are a writer (just like you can’t get published until you are published.) No one takes a “wanna-be” writer seriously enough to not interrupt them or to not expect them to run the house, because in the end, what’s more important, writing a story or getting food on the table?

So even though I did make incredible progress, went to the library to write more times than I thought I’d be able to, and have 78 good solid pages, I’m not where I should be and I’m not finished. It’s not gonna happen…

…by the end of this month.

But it will happen, maybe by the end of September, or even October. I’m not giving up, I’ll never give up. I know that my life circumstances are not going to change any time soon, my family is not going away (and neither do I want them to) and the responsibility of maintenance like feeding this crew rests squarely on my shoulders.  It’s a package that I signed up for (although I’m not really sure I signed up for a dog that insists on barking enough to raise the household every morning at 5:30.)  I’m here.

What I’m saying is that I’m not going to sit around and wait for the perfect circumstances so that I can write – if I did that I could be waiting for a very long time (try infinity.)  Instead I’m going to continue to pinch off a few minutes here, steal an evening away there, and as long as I stick with it, *eventually* my book will get done.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

The life of a writer is to write, stumble, brush off the dirt from your bruises, and then continue writing.

Whether or not you succeed depends on whether or not you can get up and keep writing after each of the inevitable  falls.

Wild – huh?


I just finished reading Wild – the book by Cheryl Strayed about her hiking the Pacific Coast Trail in an effort to find herself after her mother’s death. Trust me, I love a good “finding yourself” story, but this one wasn’t one. I love to hear how some events or an experience changed someone’s life. What lessons they learned and how they adjusted their moral compass as a result.


And while Wild was well written and certainly entertaining (although there were definitely parts I could have lived with out – the insertion of a menstrual cup comes to mind) it left me at the end saying “Huh? What just happened?” It wasn’t the book that was flawed as much as it was the ending.


In literally the last few (3 total) paragraphs of the book she ends her hike and fast forwards to a husband and children and 9 (nine!) years later. All of which left me a little confused.


Where’s the payoff? Where’s the application of what she learned to her life going forward? 


It feels like an editor somewhere said, “Okay, you’re done, you have enough word count. Bring it home, baby.”


Those who read this blog know that I’m a memoir junkie. It’s my most favorite genre. I love to hear how others have overcome, how they have persevered, and become stronger. I love to see how people cope with unbearable situations.


But the key is that you have to include that aspect of lessons learned in your story. If you write about a terrific experience (and let’s kid no one, the adventure that Strayed went on is worthy of a book) then you are obligated to your readers to not only bring it home but to weave those lessons into the story of your life so that we can benefit from your experiences and maybe learn how to cope ourselves if we come across a similar situation. Maybe if we read your book something will resonate in us and we won’t have to go on a multi-week trek to handle the death of our mother, or child, or whomever.


With memoirs, it’s not the journey that matters so much as it is the ability to learn from your mistakes and experiences in order to adjust and verbalize your life going forward. If you leave your readers hanging, or even worse, guessing about those lessons then you have not only lost your credibility as a writer, you have also lost your credibility as a memoirist.




Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.


Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens). (www.simplethrift.wordpress.com)

And yeah, when I write my memoir, you can remind me of this post if I blow it. 


The unbearable reality of writing about your kids

I know that we’ve touched upon this topic before, but as a writer who writes personal memoir type stories, there is always a careful line to walk when writing about your kids.

In a recent blog post on my site, I wrote about one of my daughters having a hard time at school with some “mean girl” bullies (I know, the worst, right?) I wanted to show how it’s tough being a mama hen when one of your chicks is struggling (I write about chickens, remember?) I was careful to keep the focus on my view and not to misplace feelings of mine onto her.

I try at all times to be respectful of my children’s privacy.

In that same post I mentioned how another one of my kids is really suffering right now. And I mean really.

He’s got chronic Lyme and though he’s been on meds for several months, it was undiagnosed for so long (even though we went to 11 Doctors) that he’s having a rough time of it. Walking is difficult, holding a pen is difficult, his skin is breaking down, he’s got severe fatigue. He should be home but instead he is finishing out his freshman year at college.

My son is nothing short of an inspiration.

As a writer, I want to use his experience (through my eyes) to both inspire people who have this disease and also to warn others about the dangers. Lyme disease is not just a flu you get in the summer that goes away with a dose of medication. If left to proliferate, it can devastate your body.

My son is a living testament to that.

It’s tough because he’s very private, as he’s gotten sicker and sicker he wants less and less people to know.

But as his mom, as he gets sicker and sicker, I want to yell louder and louder.




And just as the Whos told Horten –


But instead of yelling about it, I write about the disease and its impact. I’ve managed to place a few articles on Lyme disease (highlighting other families) and I continue to write, I write, I write material that may never see the light of day but I write.

My son finds an outlet in his studies, each class, each assignment, each test, gives him a goal for which to reach.

I find an outlet in my writing and like it or not, my kids’ stories are, like a beautiful tapestry, woven so tightly into mine that if one were to remove their individual threads, there would simply be nothing left to tell.


Wendy Thomas is an award winning journalist, columnist, and blogger who believes that taking challenges in life will always lead to goodness. She is the mother of 6 funny and creative kids and it is her goal to teach them through stories and lessons.

Wendy’s current project involves writing about her family’s experiences with chickens (yes, chickens).

They say that anger fuels passion. Consider me passionate about Lyme.