Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Celebrating My Mother On Her 100th Birthday


My mother was born January 17th, 1918 so today would have been her 100th birthday. She passed away almost twelve years ago. She loved birthday cake so I know she'd have looked forward to having one for this very special birthday--two layers and lots of icing. She often said, "Birthday cakes taste better than any other kind." 

The photos above show her at 19 and 80-something. Her name was Garnet Elizabeth Studham Julien.

She baked many of them for our family of six over the years we all lived together in a Chicago suburb. Having worked in her mother's neighborhood bakery, she was a natural baker. 

Some people have mothers who were highly educated, have done exciting things in the medical or science field, led a company or were a celebrity. My mother was none of these things but she achieved greatness in her own way over the 87 years she was on the earth. 

She grew up in a small coal mining town in southeast Iowa. Her father, grandfather and uncles were all coal miners. Mom told many stories about life in Melcher, often as we sat around the kitchen table. They sent her to first grade at age four. She was the youngest of five children and the only girl. Two older brothers died of diphtheria before she was born. You'd think she would have been the spoiled little princess under those circumstances, but that was not the case. She had a stern mother and a family who survived from pay envelope to pay envelope. She got in more trouble as a child than either of her older brothers. 

In 1929, her family broke up. The older brothers had moved to Chicago to find jobs and her mother took Mom to visit them. As they sat on the train, Mom said, "I'll have lots of things to tell Papa when we get home." Her mother made one reply. "We aren't going home again." No explanation as to why she had left her husband. What a shock it must have been for my eleven-year-old mother. She survived but never forgot the way she'd been informed of the separation of her parents.

The Depression years followed their move to the big city. Her mother started a small bakery in a suburb and Mom had to quit school after her Freshman year to help her mother. It wasn't so unusual during those difficult years but she loved learning and would have enjoyed finishing her education.

She married at twenty, had four children between 1939 and 1955. Until I was four, she helped in the bakery during the mornings, taking me with her. When my first brother was born, she became a stay-at-home mom. She cooked, did laundry, cleaned and took care of her brood but she and Dad had a full social life with friends and family. She read books and learned to love football on television once it became a staple in our home. 

Her storytelling around the table continued as her children married and she became a grandmother, and later, a great-grandmother, known as Gigi. 

She had a great sense of humor, an Irish temper that flared now and then, and a genuine caring for other people. She knew no stranger. Coming from a small town where everyone spoke to everyone, she continued the practice until the end of her life. She spoke to all she encountered, brightened the day of the mailman, the lawn mowing men, the clerks in the bakery and pharmacy. Her smile brought more smiles from whoever she met in daily life. 

She was widowed at 77. Her life changed drastically but she carried on, learned how to do many things in the house she'd never done before. Dad always controlled the remote for the television so one of the first things she had to be taught was how to operate same. One time on a visit, she admitted that it was kind of fun to be in control of that little 'remote thing.' She started taking the local senior bus to do her shopping. She told me there were a bunch of grim-faced looking, silent old people on that bus. It wasn't long before she had everyone talking and laughing and greeting one another. She read books and newspapers every day, kept up with political news on tv. Formal education? No. Instead, she was self-educated. 

She was also a great psychologist. She saw deep into the heart of soul of others and often knew what their problems were. And she kept on telling those family stories around the kitchen or dining room table when we came to visit. Is it any wonder that I urge everyone to write their own family stories? She didn't write any of them, but I have written many of them in her stead. 

She spent the final years of her life in North Carolina with one of my brothers and his wife, and, finally, the last fourteen months in a nursing home. My last visit with her proved to be a happy one, even though I knew it would probably be our final time together. 

Nothing would make me happier today than being able to bake a birthday cake for her, two layers with lots of icing. Birthday cakes taste better than any other kind. I know that because my mother told me so.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Good Writing Is Not Guaranteed With Every Try

If we're honest with ourselves, we know that not everything we write is going to be great. Or publishable. I'd guess that a good many successful writers have stacks of stories/essays that have never seen publication in their files. 

Even the 'good guys' write not-so-hot tales at times and so do we who are still working hard to be one of those often published writers. Why? 
  • an idea comes and we write too fast and carelessly
  • we don't let that first draft sit and simmer for a few days
  • we don't edit carefully
  • we're too hurried to consider major revisions
  • we're tired
  • we're in the I'll never be a great writer mode at the time
  • we write with surface thoughts; we don't take time to dig deeper
The more we write, the better writers we can become if we pay attention to all the little do's instead of the don'ts in the writing world. We also have to have a mindset that not every single piece we write is going to be super. Even if we're good, we're not perfect.

The positive in writing many pieces is that the writer can go back later and improve on the ones that were not picked up by an editor. That is reason enough to keep the ones you consider 'bad.' 

I have written a few fiction stories that I thought would turn out pretty well. The idea I had for the story was a good one. After reading what I'd written, I thought something like What a bunch of drivel this is! When we read our first draft over, we know if it has potential or if it is one to file and forget for awhile. Some of them should be forgotten for a long while!

All of the above is a good reason to write regularly and produce myriad stories, essays, poems or whatever your specialty happens to be. Make writing a habit, not an occasional pastime.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Say It In A New Way

It's not only new writers who worry about creating something that seems to have done before. There are just so many plots for a novel or only a few perspectives on divorce, marriage, or childbirth. So, it's inevitable that you're going to choose a subject sometime that has been done again and again.

Don't you get sick of reading the same story over and over again in the newspaper when some scandal hits Washington DC or Hollywood? Journalists around the world write about the event and they get published so what's the difference you might wonder. I tend to tune out when it's the same story running like a hamster on his exercise wheel. 

What you can do is write something that has been done before but put a new twist on it. Bring in a viewpoint that no one else has done. There are lots of poems about stars. That's fine but, when you write a poem about stars, consider a new angle. No more "Star light, star bright..." 

Medical magazines have myriad stories about people having a heart attack. I wrote one, too, but mine highlighted what happened when my husband had a heart attack on a chilly February day on the golf course. Few golfers were on the course that day and the group he was in had no carts. They walked for exercise. A bit ironic, I know. One of the men spied a cart on another fairway and he ran faster than he'd ever run in his life to commandeer it for his buddy laying on the 14th green in great pain. He told the man who was driving the cart to run to the clubhouse and call an ambulance. Then he drove faster than any golf cart had a right to be going to pick up my husband. The three men got Ken into the cart and sped to the clubhouse. The man who called the ambulance was a military man who had been a medic so he did all the preliminary things needed until the paramedics arrived. The story was sold to the first magazine I sent it to. Why? Because it was a little different kind of heart attack story. By the way, Ken ended up with a stent and has been fine in the 16 years since that happened.

So, write about a popular topic in a different way and you'll catch an editor's eye. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

No Time or Making Time For Writing

Time, Clock, Head, Woman, Face, View, Outlook, Watches

Time looms over us as the great enemy. How often have you said If I had more time, I would.... and then lamented whatever it was you thought you couldn't get done? 

Yesterday, I was in the library when I overheard one woman say to another "I'd read more but I don't have time." I stopped reading the book in my hands and looked up at the speaker. She was in her mid-eighties. I wondered what kept her so busy that she didn't have time to read. I watched her turn around and leave without a book in her hand.

Many writers claim they don't have time to write. Too many other things are calling them, especially those who don't write as a full time occupation. I don't dispute the claim at all. Writers all have other things in their lives--spouses, children, homes to care for, jobs or part time jobs, social activities, exercise, grocery shopping and more. You have many on that list and so do I. 

If you truly want to write, you will make time. Two small words--make time--but important if you have a real desire to write and be published. 

Consider how many minutes a day you actually waste. The TV or radio distracts you. You spend far longer on the phone with friends than is necessary. We are all guilty of wasting parts of our day. 

So, how do you make time to write? There are different solutions for all of us. What works for a retired person doesn't for a young mother. We each have to figure out what is possible for us. Take a look at the list below and see what suits you best:
  • Get up an hour earlier than usual
  • Stay up an hour later (You can get a lot done in an hour)
  • Make baby's nap time your writing time
  • Keep a notebook with you to write on your lunch hour
  • Say NO to an overabundance of volunteer activities
  • Turn down a social invitation now and then 
  • Ask your spouse to take over the kids for an hour
  • Take a notebook with you to the laundromat
  • Have a notebook with you when waiting in airports, medical offices etc
  • Watch less television
  • Use half of your usual reading time to write
Anyone have other suggestions on how to create writing time? Send us your comments. If time is our enemy, we must learn how to fight and conquer.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Writing With Clarity

One of the big problems writers have is to write with clarity so that their reader is not confused.  

As writers, we know in our mind what is happening in a scene, whether it is fiction or memoir or personal essay. Or even poetry.  Because we see it so clearly, it's all too easy for us to skip over details that help the reader also 'see' what we are writing about. 

If I'm writing a short memoir piece about my childhood years, I have a mental picture of the big apartment buidling where we lived. I know there is a brick street that runs in front with the tires of cars bumping along. I know that across that brick street, two sets of railroad tracks allow both commuter trains and freight trains to rumble by. If I don't add those pertinent pieces of information, the reader can't tell what kind of neighborhood I lived in. 

When I write about my grandmother, I know that she wore her hair in a braid wrapped in a crown atop her head. I know that she wore rimless glasses, orthopedic shoes and an apron when she cooked or baked. I know that her expression was often stern and her words sometimes cut straight to the heart but that she had a soft spot, too. My reader doesn't know it unless I include all that in my story. I don't mean writing a paragrpah 'telling' it either. 'Showing' is going to bring a clearer picture of her. 

Use too many pronouns in your writing and the reader can become confused over who you're referring to. When you edit, watch for that. The same goes for dialogue tags. We don't need to use them in every piece of dialogue but if the conversation goes on too long, the reader can become befuddled so use them enough to make sure the reader is aware of who is speaking. 

The poster at the top left makes an important point in a few words. Many writers have marvelous ideas but transferring from mind to the printed word is not always easy, just like the poster on the top right tells us. 

When you edit a first draft, go through the entire piece with one question in your mind--Is this clear to the reader? Don't consider anything but that question for the first time through. Then check it again to catch other problems like redundancy, poor grammar, typos--the mechanical errors. 

Whenever you write, be conscious about making sure you have written clearly enough so the reader is not scratching his/her head wondering about this or that. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cut and Snip Words From Your Writing


Writers love words. The more the merrier is often our attitude but too many words can ruin what could be a good piece of writing. Don't cover up all that is good.

When we start writing, we want to make full use of all the adjectives we can gather from our busy little brains. Use too many of those adjectives and adverbs and you're liable to cover up the really fine part of your story or essay. The longer we write, the more we understand that less is usually better. 

Consider a woman who puts on a stunning, but simple, dress for a night out. The dress fits her well, is cut to show her figure to advantage. She looks in the mirror and thinks This dress is nice but maybe it's a bit too plain. So, she turns to her jewelry box and pulls out a few necklaces, dangle earrings a couple of pins and three bracelets. She dons them, one by one, and turns to the mirror. She thinks That looks better.  What she's done is bring attention to all the jewelry and covered up the fine dress beneath all of the necklaces, bracelets etc. Too many adjectives and will do the same thing to your writing. 

Does this mean you should dump all adjectives? Not at all. The key is to use one, not three at a time. 

We also tend to use words that are quite unnecessary to the meaning of what you've written.  Words like just, quite, that and really are a few that we add to our sentences even though they add nothing to the meaning. They're extra and unnecessary. 

  A.  I would just like you to answer me.
  B.  I would like you to answer me.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut just.

  A.  I am quite angry at the boys who broke my window.
  B.  I am angry at the boys who broke my window.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut quite.

  A.  This is the house that I bought three years ago.
  B.  This is the house I bought three years ago.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut that.

  A.  I really dislike liver and onions.
  B.  I dislike liver and onions.
Nothing was lost in the meaning of the sentence when you cut really.

When we write with a maximum word count, it is to our benefit to cut all the unnecessary or overdone words we can. When you edit your first draft, look for these two problem areas and snip, snip, snip. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Write More Than Once

When I first started writing, I didn't do much revising and/or editing. I felt pretty sure of my grammar and knew I'd said what I wanted to say, so when the first draft came to an end, I foolishly thought it was finished. Off it would go to some editor and it bounced back just as quickly. 

It took the reading of several books on writing, some conferences and lastly, some common sense to convince me to not be in such a hurry. I hated to admit that once I'd written that first draft, I should do more to it. It's my nature to do things in a hurry. Maybe I should blame my mother. When I was a child, her rule was that I had to do whatever household chores she had lined up for me and then I could out to play or read my books. Of course, I learned to do my chores with lightning speed. I also came to realize that I'd better do a decent job or she'd make me do it over again. 

I did finally understand that my first drafts needed to be set aside for a matter of days, or weeks, and then looked at again. Believe me, the first few times I did that, it shocked me to see all that could or should be done to make a better piece of writing. 

I figured out that revisions and editing are as important as writing that first draft. Maybe more so. 
Revision usually makes for a piece of writing that is more clear for the reader. A point can be made without rambling on for paragraphs. Editing catches all those passive verbs, misspelled words and more. 

So, no, you don't have to get it right the first time. In fact, you won't get it right the first time. Some writers revise and edit multiple times. The trick here is to know when you've done enough and to stop. 

Follow these steps in all your writing:
  • Write the first draft
  • Set it aside for a few days, even weeks
  • Revise
  • Edit
  • Set it aside for a day or two
  • Revise and edit once again