Remember the Centipede

W. Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” This is pure wisdom.

This quote got me thinking about all of the theories that exist in our midst that claim to know how to teach us to write. If the definition of theory is – ‘a proposed explanation whose status is still conjectural,’ we might want to ask ourselves a question. What is more important, theories about writing or writing itself?

Theories lead to practice and that which can be practiced is always based on theory. Writing is spontaneous. Writing cannot be practiced or theorized. Writing needs no props, no supports and no theories. You cannot prepare for writing; you cannot rehearse for writing; you can only do writing. To be “in writing” is to drop all theories about writing and simply float in it. If we could “fall into writing” like we “fall into love” we would have it. We don’t need to practice love, we just love. We don’t need to practice writing either. We just need to sit down and write. The rest takes care of itself. Writing is fundamental. It is an existential experience that needs no theory to help it along. Nevertheless, in an effort to clarify, explain and show us how to write, numerous theories have been formulated that often confuse, puzzle and prohibit one’s natural ability to write.

There is a famous anecdote about a centipede who was walking down a path one beautiful sunny morning. A philosopher frog was sitting by the side of the road with a puzzled look on his face. He asked the centipede, “Wait. You are doing a miracle. A hundred legs you have. How do you manage? How do you know which leg comes first, then second, third, fourth and so on…all the way up to one hundred? Don’t you get puzzled? It looks impossible to me.” The centipede stopped and answered. “I have never thought about it. Let me contemplate for a while.” After standing there for a few minutes, the centipede started to tremble and fell right down on the ground.

Too many theories can cripple our ability to write in the same way. Writing needs no theory and those who write and have been in the zone know this. When we simply write, without thinking about what we are writing, our stories flow naturally. The magic of writing is unexplainable and it is real.

There is nothing wrong in listening to opinions and suggestions about writing, but in the end it boils down to the relationship we hold with ourselves. Do we trust others more or do we trust ourselves more? It is our poem, our story, our voice. Who can tell it better than us? Once our story is written, there are plenty of talented editors to help us clean it up.

When I teach my writing classes, I tell my students up front that there are no magical workshops, classes or webinars that can teach them how to write. I don’t teach theories about writing in my classes. I present writing challenges, techniques and activities that stimulate, engage and inspire writers to show up at the page and put pen down on paper.  I know that if I teach individuals how to trust in their intrinsic ability to express themselves, those individuals will know how to write naturally. Soon their hearts will be leaping and their stories will be jumping off the page.

So, the next time you’re tempted to follow some writing theory, remember the centipede. Writing is as natural as walking when you leave the theories behind.

For book and review see Amazon

Go To The Heart Of It

I sit outside of Starbucks on a “detail-gathering mission” – something I often do to stretch my writing form. I see a Cheney Bros. truck driver unloading boxes for a nearby restaurant; four green umbrellas flapping in the breeze; casual customers sipping various shades of coffee; young women donning sequined hats, stomach tattoos and blue hair; the BB&T Bank across the street; and tiny birds pecking at crumbs from a leftover pastry at my feet. I hear traffic humming, horns blowing, sirens wailing, birds chirping and casual laughter and conversation all around me. Every time I do this exercise, I am reminded of how details connect us to our world.

I sit with my one year-old grandson and watch his hands grasp a blade of grass, a piece of string or a tiny bead. He scrutinizes each object with a wide-eyed wonder and doesn’t let go until he has gone to the heart of each item. Being a grandparent has improved my ability to notice detail. When I was a mom, I was too busy doing laundry, changing diapers, paying bills and buying cheese to appreciate details. Now, I see my world through the eyes of my grandson. This ‘second chance’ I’ve been given to notice the details in my world has improved my ability to write description.

When I go to a wedding, I don’t just look at the flower arrangements, the bride’s gown and the wedding cake and say, “How Lovely.” Now, I see the blue marbles at the bottom of the clear vase of water; I study the hand-sewn sequins and beads on the bride’s dress in the shape of a heart and I smile when I notice that a small visitor’s finger couldn’t resist the frosting on the first layer of wedding cake.

Details are everywhere. They are the glue that connect us to our world and to each other. Details are the vehicles that take us beyond what we look at and experience in this world. So how do we go to the heart of details?

The answer is found in the approach. When we go to a place we have been to before, when we look at a friend we see every day, or taste the same meal we have tasted many times, we forget what the first time was like. It is always the first time if we make it so. Noticing detail is a conscious decision. With a little awareness, we can make a decision to experience the details in our lives as though they were happening for the first time. When we master the art, we won’t need to worry about Show versus Tell. The Show will be in the details and our readers will see, hear, smell, taste and touch our writing like never before.

There is a wonderful story about Chandragupta, one of India’s most brilliant military leaders in 321 B.C. Chandragupta was on a mission to seize the northwest from the Greeks and attack the kingdom of Magadha. One morning, while planning his strategy over breakfast, Chandragupta witnessed a mother scolding her child for eating from the center of his plate. She told her son that the center was hot and advised him to eat around the edges until the center was cool. Chandragupta thought about her wisdom and recognized it as a powerful battle strategy. He had planned to attack the capital city directly, but upon hearing the woman’s words, he decided to weaken the kingdom of Magadha by nibbling at the borders for a while before seizing the capital city.

Perhaps we can apply some of this wisdom to the way we approach the details in our world. The next time we go somewhere, taste our food, or look at someone or something, we can nibble at the borders for a while. We can enjoy the experience, take in the details and then, we can make a conscious effort to go to the heart of whatever it is we are experiencing. We may be pleasantly surprised.

For book and review see: Amazon

Know Your Place

I stand in line at Starbucks with my husband. He orders his routine grande decaf with room for cream and I order my usual iced soy latte. I see the same faces behind the counter, the same people hunched over their lap tops, the same tempting pastries in the glass case, the same drinks on the overhead menu, and wonder—when do we leave what we know?

This is what I love about writing. We can leave our routine in an instant. We can leave the city and the state we live in. We can explore new continents, new worlds, meet new people and have new adventures while sipping on a latte at Starbucks.

When I wrote my first novel, I didn’t want my story to take place in south Florida where I have lived for many years. It would have been easier, because I know the beaches, I know the sand, I know the traffic, I know the restaurants and I know many of the colorful people who live there. This time I wanted to leave what I know behind and venture out of my comfort zone, so I chose Patra, Greece for the setting of my story.

I gathered as much information as I could about this strange and wonderful city. I researched the weather, the people, the landmarks, the terrain, the flora, the fauna, the local taverns, the culture and the customs. I studied travel brochures and gazed at photographs of Patra deep into the night. It was exhilarating to learn about a place I had never been to before.

Several people who had read my novel were surprised when I told them I had never been to Greece.   They were certain I had been there. This affirmed that I had done my job. “How did you do it?” they asked. My answer was simple. If you know your place, you can go anywhere in the world with your writing.

I wrote about Greece without ever leaving home, but then again, Shakespeare wrote about Julius Caesar without ever going to Rome. Born and raised in England, Shakespeare researched and read about the settings, the fields and the time periods he wrote about. Shakespeare taught us a lot about place. He didn’t burden his readers with rambling descriptions of any one place. He gave the reader just enough description to create the feeling for the place he was writing about and then he moved on. Shakespeare was a writer who focused on his characters and the interaction between them to tell his stories. He didn’t depend on fancy places, high speed car chases, gruesome scenes or bloody explosions to carry his work. Shakespeare knew the places he wrote about and allowed his characters to romp freely in them.

So, whether your story happens in the halls of the Roman Senate in 44 B.C. or in a coffee shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2015, do your research. Know your place well enough to convince your readers that they are there and then get on with your story.

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Monody For A Broken Cat

Sometimes a careful reader cannot make it past your Dedication Page without finding a point to ponder. I dedicated my first novel, Standing On A Whale, to my family, my students, my grandson, and to “Bones—the cat that taught me more in three days than I have managed to learn in a lifetime.”

One of my readers wanted to know what on earth Bones did “to me/with me/for me within a three day span to stir up my education beyond all of my previous decades of life-lessons.” He said, “I simply must unearth this untold mystery. I am like Poirot; my little gray cells are spinning and reeling in contemplation of this hidden nugget.”

For those of you who follow me, this reader was TJ. I loved TJ’s five-page letter. I knew when I read it that I would be using it in my blog. Here was the response I wrote to him.

Bones was a random cat that entered my world one uncommonly cold November evening. The cat appeared in my back yard out of nowhere. That was the most messed up cat I had ever seen. Every rib was exposed, an eye was missing, it had open wounds all over its body and it walked crooked. I didn’t know if it was a ‘he’ cat or a ‘she’ cat because I didn’t dare check, but let’s go with a ‘he’ cat.

My husband and I tried to “shoo” him away because he looked disease-ridden and dangerous and we had a young child in the house with serious allergies. God only knew if he had rabies or scabies. But the cat didn’t go away at our “shoo.” He walked right up to us and nuzzled up against my leg. Out of fear of contagion, I pulled away indifferently and ran into the house.

For the rest of the evening my lack of compassion troubled me. Not even Chris Matthews could pull me away from my disgust for myself. I stared at that cat from the kitchen window for long periods of time. I had pets of my own that I loved dearly and wondered what in the hell was wrong with me. The cat was suffering. Why couldn’t I engage?

My husband suggested we get a box out of the garage to shelter the cat from the cold. He put a few old towels and some food in the box; I simply stood there, a witness to his heroic efforts. My biggest contribution was turning the back porch light on so the cat wouldn’t be in the dark.

I couldn’t sleep at all that night. I kept getting up and checking on the cat through the kitchen window. There he stood—in the box, in the light, staring at me with those pathetic soulful eyes. I wondered why he was still standing and then I realized he was probably in too much pain to lie down.

The next morning we tried to feed him but he was too weak to eat. We figured he was going to die any moment, but he didn’t die. He lingered for two long days. By the morning of the second day I was able to touch him with my hand. The feel of his hard body against my hand stabbed at my heart and I started to cry hysterically. I had to go to work that day. By the time I got home the cat had died. A piece of me died that day, too. What had I done to help him—turn on the lights?

To justify my lack of compassion, I gave the cat a name. I called him Bones. We had the neighbor boy bury him in our back yard and I erected a simple flower arrangement over his grave. I cried on and off for the next two weeks. I saw Bones’ face everywhere I went.

It took weeks to get over the ordeal, but as time passed, I realized that Bones had come into my life to crack my shell of indifference to the suffering. Bones taught me that no matter what physical form we arrive in, we have something to teach. I learned a lot about myself from Bones. The experience was illuminating, so when I published my novel I made sure that Bones was added to my Dedication Page. He was, after all, one of my greatest teachers and deserved an Honorable Mention. Little did I know that the Mention would cause such a stir!

For book and review see: Amazon

The Scalpel Of Decision – To Cut Or Not To Cut

I walked into the aging classroom, eager to teach the new group of writers. Before I introduced myself, a woman in the group stood up and took me by surprise: “I recently lost my husband,” she said. “I’ve been writing all about it to help process my pain. I signed up for this class so you would edit my work.” She sat down, I introduced myself and the class began. Through group introductions, I learned that her name was Hazel.

I taught the first night’s lesson and at the end of class, I walked up to Hazel. “I’m not an editor,” I explained, “but I would be willing to look over the first three chapters of your manuscript and make a few comments.” She agreed and handed me her entire manuscript in a folder. When I got home I removed the first three chapters I had offered to edit and placed the rest in a rubber band.

Those first three chapters were very good. Hazel was writing vivid detail about her husband’s last days in his hospital bed and the writing was raw and alive. I noted how good it was in the margin. I also noted that she needed to get me out of that hospital room now and then; I was starting to suffocate. I suggested that she take me to the window and show me something that was happening in the parking lot or perhaps show me the sky and describe the light. I thought it was sound advice and handed the folder back to her at the end of the next class.

Hazel did not come back to class the following week, nor did she come for the rest of the six-week session. One year had passed before Hazel signed up for another one of my classes. She walked up to me and told me that my editing really upset her. I was surprised. She said my comments made sense, but she didn’t want to alter her writing in any way and that she had stopped writing that story altogether. She also said she was in a better place emotionally and was ready to make a fresh start.

Editing is a touchy area and self-editing is tough work. This is why we cannot edit alone. We need feedback, advice and criticism and getting emotional when we get it, especially when we ask for it, isn’t productive. If you want to be a writer, it is essential to accept criticism. Beta readers and critique groups are good, but professional editors are my favorite. Not only do they line edit, they work on developmental editing which involves the shape of the plot, characterization, structural narrative and timeline issues.

In Standing On A Whale, my first novel, I had some major time line issues that I couldn’t see by myself. My editor was invaluable in helping me getting it all straightened out and my story was better for it. By remaining open and listening to sound advice, I learned a lot about editing. I also had a first chapter that I used as Back Story to get me jump started. I was sure my editor was going to ask me to cut it and let my story stand on its own, but she liked it and suggested I use it as the Prologue. I was thrilled that I got to keep it, but had she asked me to cut it, I would have.

We must constantly ask ourselves, “Can my story stand on its own without this line, this paragraph, or this narrative?” If it can, use your scalpel. If revision means to envision again, using your scalpel can be a good thing. Search your writing, scalpel in hand, and hunt for shining thoughts, energized thoughts, alive and present thoughts. Cut the rest. While you are editing, you may just find some extra time to add more layers and create more tension. You owe it to yourself and to your readers to submit well-edited writing. Your future writing career could depend on it.

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Your Title Is Your Hook

Many people ask me about the title of my book, Standing On A Whale. The title is a metaphor and it was not my original title for this novel.  The title changed three times while I was working on it. The first title was The Crystal Mystic and the second was Stage Whisper. As with everything else I have experienced in the writing process, things change frequently and usually when we are not looking.

By accident, if you believe in such a thing, I stumbled upon this quote, “Standing on a Whale, Fishing for Minnows.” I liked the sound of it and researched it further. I found it to be a metaphor for a Polynesian philosophy that captured every element of my novel. I adore metaphors, so I changed my title immediately. My editor agreed. She said it was the perfect title for the book.

According to this philosophy, most people are looking in the wrong direction in their search for truth and wholeness. For the Polynesians, the whale represents the inner ground of our being or the deep unconscious mind. They believe this is where we live and where we need to look to find answers to our deepest questions about life. Most of us are constantly looking in the outer world—for diversions, hobbies, pastimes, relationships and entertainment. These are the distractions or the minnows that we believe will find us happiness, prosperity and fame. According to the Polynesians, it is the inner, the center of our being that makes life worth living and the sooner we find our center and ground ourselves in it, the happier we become. When we fish for the minnows and forget to check out the whale right beneath our feet, we are not at peace. I chose this metaphor because it clearly represents the life and transformation of my protagonist, Lance Stavros.

In this vapid world of fast-food, disposable products and corporate greed, young and old alike are searching for meaning in their lives. It is this audience that I had in mind when I wrote my novel and I hope to reach as many as I can. Anyone who lives with or has experienced emotional pain, destructive tendencies, or addictions will find Standing On A Whale familiar, engaging, and at its heart—inspirational

So, whatever title you choose for your book, remember that it is a hook. Your title needs to snag your readers and make them curious enough to want to fall into your pages. Sometimes you may have to change your title several times before you find the one that fits.

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Stirring Coffee With An Anxious Spoon

Shortly after I published Standing On A Whale, I received a letter from one of my readers. He claimed that the book was a spirited read from which he learned much, but that he was having some trouble with one of my descriptive passages. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call this reader TJ. Here’s what he had to say:

“The descriptive passage that drove me a bit mad was on page 150. It read, “He swirled his coffee with an anxious spoon.”  A spoon cannot be anxious. An anxious hand can swiftly swirl a spoon within a cup, but the spoon itself cannot be anxious. Professor McTaggart taught me in Creative Writing 101 that you cannot humanize an object. Have the rules changed since 1980? Am I a completely outdated writer? Am I a keypunch in a time of iPhones? I was walking about the house for ten minutes mumbling, “An anxious spoon?! This can’t be!” And then I couldn’t get that crazy scene out of my mind from “The Owl and the Pussycat” picture with George Segal and Barbra Streisand wherein she reads the first line of his newly drafted novel, and it reads, “the sun spit morning,” and she exclaims, “the sun spit morning?! What?! You Can’t say that?!The sun spit morning…that makes no sense…” and on and on they go, round for round in the middle of the night over this one line in the book, until they are asked to leave the friend’s house they are overnighting at due to their hilarious loud bickering over this one line. And here I was, walking the house, murmuring, “He stirred his coffee with an anxious spoon.” That can’t be. I mean, it could read, ‘His anxious hand swirled the coffee within the mug with such velocity the coffee spilt from the sides onto the white linen table cloth’ — but an anxious spoon?!”

The following was my partial response to TJ:

Dear TJ

“First of all, I want to thank you for your letter. Your extravagant humor amused me and delighted me at every turn.  Secondarily, anyone who takes the time to write a five page letter about anyone’s book certainly deserves a reply. I am impressed with your attention to detail. Let me address “the anxious spoon.” I am quite certain that the rules of Creative Writing 101 have not changed very much since 1980, but I have changed a lot. No longer am I a rule-follower. In my reality, the “cow can jump over the moon” and “the dish can run away with the spoon.” I can even allow the spoon to feel anxious. It is a freeing world, this world of writing, and once in a while I allow myself to break the rules and indulge in creative wonder. I do not remember planning that line on page 150. It flowed quite naturally out of my subconscious and I never gave it a second thought. Perhaps I am learning to let go of my preconceived ideas of the way things should be. Perhaps I am learning to let go of those artificial boundaries that have enslaved me for so long. We are all one, after all. There are no boundaries.”

Write whatever is in front of you. Write to free yourself. Leave the rules behind and remember, “The dish can run away with the spoon,” even if the spoon is anxious!

For book and review see Amazon.