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Friday, December 15, 2017

How a Detox Cleanse Helped My Writing

My wife and I recently went on a cleanse. It consisted of two weeks of greens, very few carbs, no red meat, a mind-spinning number of salads, plenty of fish, no dairy, tons of water, and no alcohol or caffeine (which we cheated on a bit). We tolerated broccoli for breakfast and endured absolutely no chocolate. But we made it. 

For me, the first few days induced a carb-crash. I was irritable, tired to the point of being weak, and even dizzy. I missed toast with my coffee. I missed my occasional scone. I missed my sandwich with thick bread for lunch. But I got over it. After 4-5 days in,  it was a breeze. Energy was back and even renewed. When I struggled, Leslie shined and was incredibly supportive, making nearly all the meals and preparing my food for away-from-home lunches. Now, a week after the cleanse, we are accepting and embracing a new way of eating. It wasn't as if we were daily burger eaters, fast-food junkies, or Twinkies addicts. But this new approach of eating leaner and simpler foods, and focusing far more on whole foods rather than processed, is a distinctly new discipline for eating, especially for me. 

So what's this have to do with writing?

As I was chewing on another Brussels sprout, (which I love, by the way) I also considered how the choice of what we put in our bodies is much the same as the many choices we make when writing. We all know that certain words are better than others, a major factor in good prose. "Processed" words—that is to say words that are overused, pretentious, or pompous, words with too many junky "carbs"—are bad. Look for lean, simple words, "whole" words that are distinctive and clean. Don't over-garnish your meals or your writing. Too much sugar makes for an over-sentimentalized story. Too much "salt" leads to water retention and bloated prose. As writers, when we overdo "red meat," it can lead to "clogged arteries" and the story (our blood) struggles to flow with any ease through our vessels. Our hearts—and the hearts of our stories—suffer.

Go on a writing cleanse. Rid your writing of excess, waste and empty energy. You'll not only feel better, your writing will be better, too.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Evidence of Flossing: Review

I am not a student of poetry, meaning I am not an academic of verse. But I am a lover of poetry and those who write it well. William Butler Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Mary Oliver, and my modern day favorite, Billy Collins. Poetry is personal; it is visceral. If I feel something when I read it, then it has done its job. If it makes me cry, smile, or laugh out loud, then it has cracked the space between poetry's far-too-often perceived pretentiousness and given me art, art for the heart.

Much of what one finds in Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind by Jennifer A. Payne, does just that. The collection is a mixture of photo art, journalistic photography, and verse that runs from social commentary to wide-eyed and microscopic observations. The poems are mostly about connection, how all of us and everything in the universe, even flossers, those weirdly shaped do-dads we use to clean our teeth, are part of the human condition. One of the themes of the book is linked to photographs of found flossers—in parking lots, on grassy knolls, next to a cigarette butt and to vegetation in a nature preserve. In mostly succinct verse, Payne wonders about the universe, the threads that connect and bind, and how even the most obscure items—like flossers—blend into our being, and at the end of the day, belong here just as all of us. I don't like to compare the works of authors to others, but I could not help feel and read the similarities in the themes to those of Patti Smith's M Train. Smith's wonderful book is not poetry,  but it is about the ephemeral and the everlasting, the threads between modern life, people, art, nature, and the spirit. Payne takes on the same themes and includes, as Smith does, the photography of what one might call "the instant." Photography that is of the moment, unpretentious, real, and utterly of the world.  

And the verse? Payne has a keen eye and a warm, tender heart. This is evident in poems like "The Times They Are a Changin'" and "Grocery Store: November 2016." Payne reveals an almost spiritual connection to the lives of others and proves how observation can unfold someone's story. In "Time Peace," she wonders about our unbearable links to the clock, how the man-made construct is capable of throwing us off the personal timepiece that ticks inside our souls. Payne takes on nature in several poems, but particularly in "Carpe Diem," where she touches on the fleeting nature of the natural world and how inattention to wonder—like the flight of a butterfly—can only diminish our well-being. 

Other poems like "First" and "Sustenance" are less impactful, falling a little flat for their subjects, but none-the-less important to the overall tenor of this otherwise thoughtful collection, a beautiful undertaking that is more than just a book of 'poems, but an artful, multi-layered statement about our very humanness and the universe. 

The French poet and novelist, Victor Hugo, wrote, "The reduction of the universe to the compass of a single being, and the extension of a single being until it reaches God—that is love." Jennifer A. Payne expands on those words with an unflinching account of our unshakeable relationship to the modern world around us, God, nature, and ourselves.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Five Tips for Reading Your Work to a Live Audience

I like doing readings. It's great to be in front of people in a tavern, a bookstore, a lit event at a library, reading your words to a crowd. Even if that crowd is five people. Yes, I've had that happen. Just the other night, in fact. Sometimes reading events just don't work out the way you hope. Still, you knuckle down and do it. You read with the same enthusiasm and with the same love of the words as you would for a hundred people. 

Billy Collins

There is a trick to reading aloud for an audience. Some authors are not very good at it. I attended a reading for a well-known bestselling author a few years ago (I won't say who—It was NOT Billy Collins) who was an awful reader of his own work. Reading takes a bit of acting, if you will. Now, I'm not suggesting I am the world's greatest live reader. I'm not. But I think I do know how to approach it and mostly my readings have gone pretty well.

Here are a five tips for reading your work to a live audience. 

1. Choose something that is self-contained—a scene, a chapter—something that has a reasonable beginning, middle, and end. A part of a book that needs too much explanation before reading or while reading doesn't work. It slows down your pace and energy. 

2. Read slower than you think you should. Reading aloud takes patience. Don't rush it. 

3. Vary your pace. When the action is cranking, read faster. When that lovely moment in the story is emerging, slow down. 

4. Keep up the volume. Depending on where you read, be sure people can hear you. If there's a microphone, use it if the room is big. If it's a small place, I suggest NOT using the microphone. It destroys the intimacy. 

5. Look at your audience. Try your best to lift your head and look around the room. Smile. Laugh when appropriate. Be present.

Keep these in mind when you do a radio interview, too. Obviously the microphone is necessary and you may not have a "live" audience in studio. But they are out there. That's for certain.

I recently broadcast a recorded reading for a radio station, WNIJ outside Chicago. And although I think I could have been a bit livelier with this read, I think it went pretty well. Take a look and listen to the first chapter of my memoir, October Song. 

Oh, one final thought about reading to an audience. Have fun. It should be fun. And if you have fun, your audience will, too. 


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

NaNoWriMo: How Not to Stop Writing

So, you’re working through NaNoWriMo. How’s it going? No, really, how’s it truly going? Be honest. Stuck? Is the flow being knocked off balance because you are incessantly editing? You’re worried everything you’ve been writing is garbage so you go back and check it, “fix” it, and edit, edit, edit.


If you’ve read my blog before you know I have a love-hate relationship with NaNo. I get the idea; I even applaud it. But really, do we need a special month? Why can’t we just get to it anytime, anywhere? Write, people. Just write. And learning to HOLD OFF ON THE EDITING—in the month of November or any month—is key to shredding your anxiety.

If you're so concerned with your work that you are continually going over it, page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence, while you are writing, then you are wasting valuable time and effort. Stop self-editing, pulling yourself back into the prose you wrote the day before, tweaking and twisting the story...before you create it. Create first.

Here are five tips to help keep you writing and not editing.

1.  Write while listening to music. Make a playlist of songs that fit the theme of your work and time it out roughly to the amount of time you have dedicated to write. Play it loud, through speakers or in your ear buds. Let music be your guide. Write with its rhythm, think of it as a workout, and don’t stop typing until the last chord.

Some music to consider: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue; The Decemberists, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World; Bob Dylan, Blood on the Tracks.

2. So you don’t stop to look something up or do research, write in a placeholder. This was a suggestion I’ve seen in several books and web articles, including the BREVITY’S Nonfiction Blog, and I’ve been doing it in my work for years. Instead of wrecking the flow of your writing to search for information about which way the Chicago River runs, just type: LOOK UP CHICAGO RIVER INFO. This reminds you to do it later and and not while you’re writing. 

3. Consider a hard deadline and a stop sign. Don’t write until you have depleted the well. Leave a little. Write for an hour, or two. Set a timer. (Use that music!) But when the time is up, stop. Even in mid-sentence. This helps when you come back the next time. You can get going right away.

4. Turn off your Internet connection. It takes away the temptation to check your email, Twitter, or roam the web.

5. This is the time to only look forward. Do not look back. You are writing something meaningful, interesting, compelling, beautiful. But to get there, remind yourself that you have to let the flowers grow first before you prune. No pruning now. Let the garden grow, weeds and all. Then, and only then, when it is in full bloom, start the work of trimming, clipping, shaping, and fertilizing. Weeds may choke real flowers if you let them invade the garden, but the weeds in writing will only help you to see the beautiful blooms.

There’s a wonderful scene in the movie Finding Forrester when Sean Connery’s character—a recluse writer who befriends a young city boy who dreams of being a writer—teaches the young man a lesson about the craft of writing. He sits him down and demands that he get on with it. You have work to do. Go write.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

EVERY Month Should be NaNoWriMo

A couple of years ago, I produced a piece for radio on NaNoWriMo. The writing initiative was fairly new back then, so fewer people were taking part. But still, the idea was unique and inspiring for many aspiring writers. It was a chance to buckle down and be held accountable, especially when you publicly announced you were taking part, or joined a NaNoWriMo group, which is what my radio story was about. I like NaNoWriMo. It can be a motivator, a coach. But I think it's run its course and it's time writers in all stages see the difference between a gimmicky way to get writers writing and a lesson on how to be disciplined about your craft.

It's time NaNoWriMo morphed into NaNoWriYEAR.

You want to write? Make it part of your life. Get to it like you do your yoga class. Do it regularly and don't let anyone or anything knock you off your schedule. Five minutes a day? Do it. One hour every other day? Do it. Write on the commuter train? Do it. Write before the kids get up. Write after they go to bed. Find a place and a time and stick to it. And most of all, don't wait until November. Why can't June be the month? February? And better yet, every single day.

Hear NaNoWriMo radio story at my web site. left column, on the home page. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Best Book Titles?

I have been playing around with a newly "completed" manuscript, tinkering really. Actually, I'm not doing much of anything. An editor that I greatly respect has just finished combing it for...issues. She's been doing all the work. At the top of that manuscript is a title, and right below it, a second title, an alternate. The first is more poetic than the other, you might say, but the second is more succinct and clear.

"Which one do you like?" I asked. She chose the first over the second because the subtitle included words she believed were essential to the meaning of the manuscript. The second, she thought, included a word that was probably overused. Several others have read the manuscript and they made the same conclusion. So, was it a visceral response? Was it sheer math? (Too many other books with the same title or combination of words—think: The Girl With the...) Or was it something else, something that's hard to get one's head or heart around? Mysterious? Challenging? Compelling? What is it that makes a great title?

Great books are memorable in their entirety; they're great stories. But many times, books stand out simply because of the title. And there are the few that are great literature and possess wonderful, unforgettable names.

To Kill a Mockingbird

What a fantastic title! Now, put that up against another great piece of literature.

War and Peace

Frankly, too general. I can't imagine a publisher today agreeing with Tolstoy on that one.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 


A Confederacy of Dunes


Everything I Never Told You

How could you not pick up Celeste Ng's book and not read at least the first page?

It reminds me of another intriguing one.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

You also have the absurdly silly or provocative. The novelty acts.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

John Dies at the End

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

Steal This Book 

And the titles lifted from other works of literature.

Of Mice and Men—Steinbeck snatched the phrase from the Robert Burns poem, "The Mouse."

As I Lay Dying—Faulkner took it from Homer's The Odyssey.

A Farewell to Arms—Hemingway lifted this title from a poem by the Elizabethan writer, George Peele.

The worst titles? Far too many to mention. But try these on for size.

I Heart You, You Haunt Me


How to Poo at Work

Yep, a real book. 

Your favorite titles? Or maybe the worst you've ever seen? Let's hear them.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I Hate My Writing

I'm at a five-way intersection. It's midnight. My headlights are not working. There are no street lights. A few street signs point to destinations but the signs are old or have been mangled by minor accidents of the past, they are twisted and no longer point to their designated endpoint. I  know where I'm going, or should I say I know where I want to be, where I want to end up, but the road there is unclear. So, here I sit, inside my vehicle with no map, no wifi, no cell service, mildly paralyzed.

This is exactly how I feel about where I am with my writing. I have two unpublished manuscripts that have been read by several reviewers, being read by several more, edited several times, tweaked and re-tweaked, and are making the rounds of publishers who accept unsolicited works. I feel good about them. I have a third in its infancy. More like the embryo stage. It's memoir, unconventional, and at this point in the process is little more than journals full of notes and computer files of documents. So, the work awaits.

And in the meantime, I hate my writing.

I've recently conducted readings from my published books and I despise what I'm hearing. Those in attendance appear to be pleased enough, but I hate my words. I want to rework everything, change the sentences, rewrite the paragraphs, redo it all.

Why is this?

A few other writers say they have experienced some form of this self-hate, this self-loathing. Is it the final self-realization that you truly are a crappy writer? I've been told it's just a matter of growth. You have grown as a writer and your earlier books don't stand up to what you expect from yourself now. That sounds like a pretty good excuse, doesn't it? Oh, I'm just better now. That's why those books suck! This appears far too convenient of an explanation.

I sulk. I pout. I wallow in frustration. Do I keep writing? Do I keep querying with new work? Do I give it all up completely and toss those earlier books in the trash? My publishers liked them enough, right? Do they still like them? One publisher told me this aversion to your own words is not so unusual. Every writer, at some moment in time, rejects their own writing. Not uncommon for all kinds of artists, he said. His cure? Go read a successful book that is poorly written. There are plenty of them, he insisted.

Kurt Vonnegut was said to have graded his published works, giving Happy Birthday Wanda June and Slapstick Ds. The critics didn't like these much either. And Franz Kafka famously asked a good friend to destroy all of his works after his death. Of course, the friend did not. So, knowing even the greats hated their words is supposed to bring comfort?

Sometimes I feel like I'm practicing and not really writing. So I remain at that dark intersection. My car stalled; my headlights still not working. Not sure where to turn next or how long I'll sit here. Not sure where my writing story is going. I wait for a sign, a flicker of light, the dawn, something to show me and this old jalopy the way to go.

Maybe I should just take the bus.