Gratitude Has No Expiration Date

images-3Thanksgiving is coming and we’re spending the day with family, which means plenty of food and plenty of fun. It will be a day when we take a moment from daily routines to simply be together, to enjoy the smallest yet grandest of treasures. A smile, a hug, a quiet talk. And with Thanksgiving on the way, I’m reminded of a gratitude challenge some of us did a while back on Facebook.

I found the file of my posts, written a year ago. Seven days of sharing three things each day for which I was thankful. Maybe you did the challenge, too. Or maybe you keep a Gratitude Journal. The posts are as true today as the day I first wrote them. How grateful I am for

a husband who is loving and kind; whose loyalty, trust, integrity, character, and opinion I value. Who makes me laugh. Who is strong and comforts me when the world is harsh. And makes chocolate turtles.

parents who taught me the love of reading and the value of hard work; who gave me love, structure, and a stable home. Who sacrificed for my sister and me. And taught me to ride a bicycle.

immediate and extended family; the birthdays, holidays, graduations, and weddings we celebrate; the comfort and support we give each other during difficult times; the laughter we have together. And the desserts.

close, close friends who share and listen over coffee or lunch or dinner or in an email; who are always there, no matter what, to support, laugh, lend a hand.

internet friends who broaden my world, make me “lol,” touch my heart, and post those intriguing little quizzes.

a community of fellow writers who inspire, encourage, teach by example, and share their talents.

the women who have come before me – the risk takers, the innovators, the challengers who brought about change – upon whose shoulders I stand, who found their voices so I could find mine, and for the young women who are finding their voices today.

beautiful mornings, as the last remnants of night make way for the sun.

my morning walk and friends I make along the way.

a baby’s smile.

a friend’s hug.

the velvety soft petals of the rose blooming in the courtyard.

the arts – writers, playwrights, screenwriters, artists, poets,  musicians, dancers – who touch us with our own humanity; who depict and reflect our world; who cause us to think about our lives, values, beliefs, joys, and sorrows.

laughter that fills a room or a small giggle with a friend that renews the spirit and makes everything all right.

quiet moments when I listen and hear what I think.

the rule of law; freedom of speech, press, and religion; the right to vote; the beliefs and values that keep us a democracy; our military and their sacrifices.

advances in science, technology, and communications which enhance our lives.

the medical professionals who treat us with care, skill, and compassion.

for those who share their joys and sorrows. I know I’m not alone.

for a body and mind that allows me to feel and think, to know emotion and ideas.

for the mysteries of our universe that fill me with wonder.

Thank you. I’m grateful. And there’s no expiration date.

This is truly a time to be filled with gratitude. And to know we live in a country where all of this is possible. I wish you the Happiest of Thanksgivings. May your cup overflow.

Today, too, is a time for prayer for our world. For Paris.

Posted in Creativity, Inspiration, Looking for Inspiration, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Allergies, Fog, Prose, and Poetry

UnknownI arrived at a recent poetry workshop (which I’d been looking forward to) with an allergy headache from hell and medicated with OTC allergy pills. During the four hour event, I went from foggy to foggier.  My plight was exacerbated by the windowless classroom having recirculated air. Add puffy, watery eyes, scratchy throat, and a tote full of Kleenex to the mix. Lovely.

(Note: where I live has a high concentration of golf courses. In the fall, the courses are scalped, reseeded, and treated.)

Back to the class. I struggled with a real case of brain fog, trying to absorb new ideas, approaches, and words offered by poet Julie Paegle. Each time we read a  poem, I scratched for meaning and connection. Each time we wrote, I couldn’t find the words I wanted or put them in a pleasing order. I mean, I was working to keep afloat. Talk about being uncomfortable. And no way was I gonna read any of my writing aloud.

Several days later I went through my notes and class writings. Despite the headache, despite the scratch outs and restarts, I caught more than I thought.

It was analogous to working on a story or essay for several hours, emerging unhappy, feeling you’d written garbage, and returning the next day to find some of it could work. I found my class writings had a few springboards I could build on. (Okay, some of what I wrote wasn’t so hot.)

I also remembered that when I feel uncomfortable, I’m often learning, in fact, doing some of my best learning. The headache just gave more meaning to the word uncomfortable.

The class began with our reading three short pieces to decide if they were poetry or fiction which lead to a brief discussion of poetry and fiction, their differences and purpose.

Then we read a poem by Wallace Stevens called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and tried our own hand at looking at and writing about a particular classroom object in not thirteen but six different ways.

Next, we each received a poem to read, pick a line or two that talked to us, and write our own poem in response to those lines. The poems came from Poem in Your Pocket, which meant each of the poems we received was different. Mine was “The Shampoo” by Elizabeth Bishop.

Lastly, we did an exercise where we responded to a series of questions to help us reach our sixth sense, our intuition, our deep images. Wonderful.

One discussion proved very helpful. With an emphasis on lyric poetry, Paegle encouraged fiction writers to notice particular moments in a story and stop to attend to that moment. To stop and get the music. This idea coincided with the playing of a video of a flash mob in a train station. Her point? Give the reader a small moment of surprise, music, mystery, and a pause – much as the flash mob stopped the stories of the people in the station and gave them a moment. Translation: dig into some of those special moments in a story for richer meaning and reading, using poetic techniques such as imagery, surprise, metaphor, mood, music, the senses, word choice.

So, what I thought had been four increasingly uncomfortable hours turned out to be rich in discovery and ideas, excavated from allergy fog. Thank you to poet Julie Paegle.

paegle-150x150Julie Paegle is a professor in the English Department at California State University San Bernardino, in San Bernardino, CA. Specifically, she is Poetry Coordinator in the MFA Program.

The workshop was through the Palm Springs Writers Guild.

Posted in fiction writing, Finding Ideas: The Creative Process, Inspiration, Looking for Inspiration, poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

What is it about a literary reading?

What is it about a literary reading? Let’s call it Risk City – not only do you as a writer take a risk when you put words on paper and share them with a reader, but at a reading there’s the added dimension of sharing your words aloud and owning them in a public setting. That’s a reading. That’s a risk. However, it’s also an empowering event and a validation. You’re putting your words, your thoughts, and your stories out there and they matter.

When you walk onto that platform or into that arena, you are very much on your own. The butterflies may be active as you center yourself, feel your voice, feel the room, and sense the audience. But once you begin, adrenalin is your friend, and it’s just you and your words and the audience. It’s both solitary and communal.

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It’s a journey and you invite the audience to come along. And now you must not only address the words on the page, but your voice, your eye contact, your reading pace, your pauses.

Your lighting may be good or bad, there may or may not be a sound system, the acoustics in the room may be great or horrible. You may have a full house, you may have only one or two people, or just your aunt and cousins in the first row. You have to tune into the variables.

You may be in a bookstore or a meeting room or a gallery or a private home or a library. The key is to assess and adjust quickly.


I recently did a reading at the Coachella Valley Art Center, the source of these photos. The room where the reading was held resembled a small black box theater with a raised platform for a stage and good acoustics. Seven authors read from their work compiled in the anthology Coachella Calling. The personal essays were about a moment of time, a piece of life: its joys and sadnesses, its trials and triumphs. The event was coordinated by PENCenterUSA and the Palm Springs Writers Guild.

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The distinction between a personal essay and a memoir? One is short. The other is book length.

If you’re doing a reading, you may want to put your material in a slim black notebook. That way, if there isn’t a podium or music stand, you have an anchor for your sheets of paper. You’ll want to time yourself – 750 words takes about 5 minutes, give or take. When you’re on the bill with other authors, it’s professionally courteous to adhere to pre-established time limits. You’ll want to practice. The audience is giving you their time. Make it worth their while.

What I have found, no matter how you analyze it, the key is to prepare, relax, and have fun. If you do that, your audience is ready to come along and enjoy themselves. (And if the audience seems restless, you may have learned something about your writing or reading persona to improve on.) Hopefully, you’ll hear them laugh at a funny line or grow quiet when the scene is tense, you’ll feel them sense the fun and sense the drama. You’ll know they’re with you.

Photos courtesy of Reg Centeno and Maggie Downs.

Posted in Authors, Books, Creativity, Inspiration, Looking for Inspiration, memoir, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

And you write because?

And you write because? A good question. Have you thought about what compels you to write?

Writing seems to be something I have to do, like eating. I grow unhappy or unsettled if I don’t have the opportunity to write regularly. What is it that lures me? It’s an odd combination: work and excitement. As to where the ideas come from? I don’t know. The seed is just there.

Whenever I’m writing, I seem to do four things:


I explore a thought, an idea, or a feeling whether for an essay, a story, a scene, a situation, or a character. This involves investigating the possible directions an idea could go. Sometimes it’s organic and just arrives. Sometimes it’s work. It’s using the “what if ….” idea as I look at options. It’s brainstorming with yourself and jotting down the ideas in a nonjudgmental way. I do this until I find a path.


Then I hike down that writing path and slip into the caves along the way to discover the secrets. As I explore, I discover layers within an idea or a feeling or a plot or a character. Once the path is open, I follow it, knowing full well a discovery may take place which leads to a new path that veers off to the left or right, a path I didn’t see coming.


Next I experiment with how to arrange the thoughts and ideas. I experiment with the best way to put the piece and the words together to give maximum effect. Long sentences, short sentences. Word choice. I want the reader to see the image, feel the emotion or tension, understand the idea, be touched. I’ll move sentences and sentence parts around because when they are born, they’re a little unruly.


Lastly, I hope I’ve expressed something deeper about life, a universal truth or feeling, that talks to the reader, that talks to me. The final step is to see if I’ve expressed myself with clarity and honesty. I like knowing I’ve worked my way through a puzzle of ideas, sifted and weighed them, discarded and added as needed, and created a whole entity.

The art of expression is defined as “the process of making known one’s thoughts or feelings.” I enjoy entering the maze to see where it leads. I enjoy the writing journey.

Posted in Authors, Creativity, fiction writing, Finding Ideas: The Creative Process, Inspiration, memoir, poetry, Reading, short story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

So how messy is your desk?

My desktop is cluttered. I don’t mean my physical desktop. It’s sort of sane. I mean the computer one. You can see the clutter in the photo. Files and word docs all over. It’s starting to get out of hand. You can barely see part of Edward Hopper’s great painting “Nighthawks.” The best thing I can say about my organizational scheme is that my computer desktop has “regions.”

In the bottom right are photos for bios, Facebook, and WordPress. Above them are files of stories and essays, files of submission letters and bios, and poetry files. There’s an Important Documents file. In the upper right is my husband’s chocolate book. Bottom left are paintings of women’s faces that might be useful. Upper left are pieces I’m working on. I mean, can you imagine if all this stuff sat around in hard copy? This is bad enough.

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So, what am I doing about it? Enter “Operation Clean-up.” File and/or consolidate. The photos in the bottom right are now in a folder called Bio Pix. Easy peasy. I can grab an active photo or add one quickly. All poetry documents are now in two folders. One has my work, plus a subfile for the work of poets I’ve used in readings. The other has some of my poems I’m thinking about for inclusion in a book. Of course, with all of this poetry rearranging, I found myself reading every piece, remembering, feeling, growing quiet, changing a word, a comma, moving on. It took time. I should have been dispassionate and simply dropped the pieces into where they needed to be. But.

It’s much easier and faster to clean up the physical desk top. On my desk to the left of the screen are several small books  – poetry, essays, short stories, a journal – for when I need a time out or motivation. A friend just gave me the journal. It has this quote from Isabel Allende on the cover: Write what should not be forgotten.

Behind these books is a three tier file. In it is a notebook from a recent class that has material I’m using. There’s another notebook called “Record of Submissions” in which I note the date of a submission, the publication title, the title of the story or poem(s) or essay, whether it’s accepted or declined, and the date I felt joy or rejection. On the top tier is a hard copy of an essay I’m editing for a reading and a small calendar done by an artist friend of mine featuring her paintings. Oh, and a Beanie Baby named “Nanook.”

To the right of the screen is another three tier file containing journals, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a little notebook with info about the iMac. I call it the iMac bible. Serial number, etc. Scattered about on the desktop are paper clips in a container, a stapler, and a ceramic piece called “Picasso’s Nose” used for holding pens, pencils, and glasses. Add a lamp and a coaster for the resident bottle of water or occasional root beer. It’s basic desk. Stack, straighten, and dust.

Now back to the computer screen. I have to organize the stories and essays in their respective files. I’m going to try to be dispassionate and simply file. But first, coward that I am, I’m going to drop the paintings of ladies’ faces into a new file. Then I’ll refile miscellaneous documents and pix from my husband’s book that have been pulled for various reasons. Another easy peasy.

I’m afraid I’m going to have to be a nighthawk to accomplish the rest. Baby steps, I always say. Or bird by bird – thanks to Anne Lamott. Or maybe this clutter is just part of my work style? If you have any computer desktop/filing tips, would love to hear them!


Posted in Creativity, fiction writing, Finding Ideas: The Creative Process, Looking for Inspiration, memoir, poetry, Reading, short story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

What a Difference a Line Makes

Are you a poetry reader? I am. And, when I read it, I often find a feeling of peace and calm.  Poetry takes us places –into our feelings, our thoughts, our memories. Into our joys, our sorrows. Into other cultures and ways of life. A piece of poetry talks to each of us differently.

Poetry gives me a physical and mental reaction. A feeling may surge through my body in a rush or  creep in slowly. I may smile or feel sad or cry or be quiet. My mind brings it to my life, to my heart, and extends it into the human experience, the universal.

Some people don’t care for poetry, find it enigmatic. I like what T.S. Eliot said about this: A poem is something that can be appreciated and enjoyed before it is understood.

What do you experience from a piece of poetry? Poets through the years have weighed in on this:

Poet Emily Dickinson said: If I read a piece of poetry, and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

Poet Dylan Thomas said: If you want a definition of poetry, say, ‘Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing,’ and let it go at that.”

The poet can take the reader to an inner physical and mental place within a few lines with carefully chosen words, placed in the right sequence. I enjoyed writing this piece during a poetry workshop a few years ago.







White Paper

blue dollops and green
spread slick on pristine white

fingers slide across the sleekness
swish backward, wiggle forward
ovals, circles, a swirling whirlpool

ocean waves meld to rugged peaks
distort to a monster’s face
evolve to a giant rayed sun

a smile brightens into giggles
finger paint
on a little boy’s hands, cheek

Think about how the poem makes you feel. What it makes you remember or experience. What images it creates. Now let’s take that same poem to a different place by adding just a line or two.








White Paper

blue dollops and green
spread slick on pristine white

fingers slide across the sleekness
swish backward, wiggle forward
ovals, circles, a swirling whirlpool

ocean waves become rugged peaks
distort to a monster’s face
evolve to a giant rayed sun

a smile brightens into giggles
finger paint
on a little boy’s hands, cheek

Oh, you’re making a mess
the mother says

Did your feeling change? What about the image in your mind? Oh, what lines can do.

Anthologist Ruth Gordon says: Poetry is the onion of readers. It can cause tears, be peeled layer by layer, or be replanted to grow into new ideas. And it adds taste, zest, and a sharp but sweet quality that enriches our lives.

Which poem do you like better? If at all. In a collection, should I use the first version or the second version?

Posted in Creativity, Finding Ideas: The Creative Process, Inspiration, Looking for Inspiration, poetry, Reading, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Have you figured out your writing process?

Out of curiosity, I’ve been trying to understand my writing process, particularly for the short story. I seem to do one of two things. Either I jot down a brief outline or list and start writing or I just start writing. Often inspiration comes from a photograph, a painting, a magazine image, an object, or an experience. These motivators tap into a feeling or an emotion or they spark an idea or character.

Other times an idea comes from nowhere. It may evolve slowly or it may hit with a jolt. I’ll jot down notes while sitting with a piece of pizza or waiting for a friend for coffee. How very unscientific this writing, inspiration, creativity thing turns out to be. I’ve learned to keep myself open to all the potential constantly on my radar.

This pre-writing tip from author Joe Bunting is useful no matter your style and helps keep a focus: Before beginning to write, try a screenwriting trick known as a logline. A logline is a one-sentence summary of your short story, its core, its essence. For example, here’s a logline for “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner: A lonely, Southern woman is found dead and decaying in her home after being abandoned by her lover. The formula is your character + a descriptor (e.g., lonely, Southern woman) followed by an event (e.g., found dead) and followed by a conflict (abandoned by her lover).

The idea and the story begin to flow, meeting rapids and dams and whirlpools and quicksand in the thought river, but I keep going, allowing for change and discovery. Writing craft kicks in while putting the words onto the page and keeping “in flow.” If I can, I’ll write through to the story’s end. The result is the epitome of a rough, rough draft.

The rough draft is a skeleton on which to hang muscles that you sculpt, shape, stretch, and massage. The real fun begins. I start checking for and adding more muscle. The use of the senses. The weaving of description, setting, flashbacks (if any), and character description within the story flow rather than dropping these ingredients in as chunks here and there. I rearrange sentences and paragraphs. I look at the realness of the dialogue, the pace of the rising action, the varying of sentence length and rhythm, and word choice. I try to stay close to my main character and be in the character’s head. I look at what the character wants, the obstacles in the way, the tension, the conflict.

As I’m writing, I’ll do nuts and bolts research when necessary, keeping the Google page open next to the developing manuscript, as well as a dictionary/thesaurus open in the lower right hand corner of the screen.

I’ll experiment, writing a few sentences in present tense or past, using first person POV or third, trying sentences on to see how they feel and assess how I can best tell the story. All the while I’m keeping the reader in mind. Will the reader care about the character, will the reader empathize? I’ve discovered the character also has to touch me.

At some point I step away. For me, a story needs time to percolate so I understand it more.

When the story feels good, I’ll bring out the magnifying glass, looking at individual  parts and sentences. Have I strung a bunch of prepositional phrases together? Have I switched tense? Have I written sentences with economy and truth. For example, I had this sentence in a recent story: Henry shifted his gaze to me. Say what? Shifted his gaze? I changed it to read: Henry turned to me. I make sure each sentence reveals character or pushes the story forward.

Finally, there’s all that stuff about punctuation and spelling and final proof reading. A recent teacher of mine, Maggie Downs (UC Riverside Palm Desert), suggested putting the manuscript into a different font. Suddenly, a story you’ve been reading and rereading and can sing in three languages looks different and something you’ve missed will stand out. From a period to a nuance. For example, I had this sentence and didn’t see the error and spell check couldn’t make the distinction: He messaged her hand. Whoops. It should read: He massaged her hand. The font change helped me see the word. Lastly, I check for word repetition. On my Mac, under View, I click Sidebar and then Search Pane. I might do a search for the word as and watch the word pop up highlighted in yellow. Or I’ll type in “ly” to search for adverbs.

At some point, when I feel a cohesiveness, although I know I could keep diddling with the story forever, I call said story d-o-n-e. F-i-n-i-s-h-e-d. Whew!

Then I submit it, and wait – for “Declined” or “Accepted,” always hoping to see this on a submission control panel:

309~1409081599~dcm-logoYou are logged in as Carol Mann.
Welcome to your control panel.
“French Pastry” Status:
Changed From Pending to Accepted.

Feel like sharing any tips about your writing process? Love to hear from you. Thanks for stopping by.

P.S. I like a short story by Thomas E. Kennedy called “The Author of Things” found in his collection Getting Lucky. In the story we enter the head of fictional author Tom Dunne, who then proceeds to take us on his story writing journey. Writers, I think you will relate.

Posted in Creativity, fiction writing, Finding Ideas: The Creative Process, Inspiration, Looking for Inspiration, Reading, short story, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments